A Matter of Perspective

If you were going to strip away the layered sociocultural histories that surround opinions like “colleges are bad for America” or “bring back coal jobs”, you would have some baseline economic truth that you’d think would reorder those opinions.

a) Coal doesn’t employ that many people and wouldn’t even if it grew by 100% or more. And it only employs them in a narrow geographic range of places, and the product of that labor is only narrowly important to the overall energy infrastructure of the country. And if coal continues to be extracted at roughly the level it is extracted (or more), it’s likely going to be extracted increasingly through highly mechanized strategies that dispense with most human labor.

b) If you were looking for an economic sector that employs a lot of people evenly across most of the country that’s actually in serious and accelerating economic trouble, you’d probably take note of conventional retail jobs, especially in big-box and department stores. It’s not just the jobs here that matter, but the tax revenues to almost all municipalities and the consequences of abandoned or dramatically underutilized retail buildings.

c) If you were looking for one of America’s major remaining economic strengths in a global economy, you’d doubtless focus on higher education. Many families with economic resources in other countries continue to want to send their children here for advanced education, and many American families continue to have a massive range of excellent choices from community colleges to public research universities to expensive private 4-year institutions. A college education of any kind continues to deliver major benefits to graduates in the current economy, even if those have become more precarious and even if social mobility *into* college educations has become more constrained.

d) If you were looking for areas of economic opportunity that might be distributed nationwide rather than constrained to a precious few geographic regions, you’d probably be looking at skilled manufacturing (often requiring a college education), programming and other tech-sector work, health care work, teaching (at all levels), energy sector work besides coal and oil (including fracking but also wind/solar), climate change adaptation manufacturing (everything from flood control to mold removal to new styles of construction).

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But we don’t get to strip away the layered sociocultural histories. So put them back into play. What makes these four points something that are so easily obscured, ignored or skewed by partisan discourses? It’s not just fake news and propaganda that’s responsible.

Fundamentally, coal is a stand-in for a much wider range of jobs, livelihoods, community circumstances, life experiences, worldviews. It’s everywhere that towns were built around a single industry, and everyone who was willing to work hard and suffer in difficult and exploitative labor for a life in return for having roots, feeling solidarity in locality, staying put. In the longer history of things, single industry towns have always been marking time to their inevitable ends, maybe even before the modern capitalist world system took shape. The bitterness of that is that their residents often are attracted to the seeming promise of a kind of simplicity of permanence, a stepping-out from the flowing motion of people and goods and ways of life. So yes, people know that coal’s gone, and as is always the case with moral economy, the vision of what people believed they once had only gets sharper and brighter and more simplistic as it disappears–and more desperately desired. And it gets easier as desire hones to a fine point to find scapegoats to blame: the politicians, the city folks, the young, the eggheads, the blacks and Mexicans.

The jobs that people really are losing? They weren’t good jobs to begin with, they weren’t what defined a community’s sense of self (nobody thinks of themselves as part of that town or small city that has that street with the Best Buy and the Circuit City and the Kohls and the Target on it). So no one feels anything other than the ordinary desperation of joblessness in a jobless world when the Target or the Sears closes up.

The jobs that people really are gaining? Well, in towns where the college or university employs people (as they do, all over the country), at least some of those jobs are complicatedly disdained *within* the college or university even as they provide salary and benefits to their workers–so maybe it’s easy to feel both attachment to the employment and annoyance at the institution all at once. And colleges and universities have hardly been great employers of late for their faculties, for the most part, as adjunctification has intensified. And the costs of educating children in higher ed are high, with the outcomes more tenuous feeling. So loyalty and affection is frayed even before the talk shows get to work.

More to the point, those jobs that are the heart of the economy to come? Most people on the other side, on the economy that was, believe, with some justification, that there is no program of retraining or education that will make that economy to come available to them. Technocrats like to imagine they are standing in a place of invisible neutrality when they look over the facts and lay out the best choices. But those choices look very different depending on where you stand. You can’t tell the story of these four facts about the economy dispassionately without already being someone who is on the right side (for now) of the history they embody.

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5 Responses to A Matter of Perspective

  1. Joshua says:

    > The jobs that people really are losing? They weren’t good jobs to begin with, they weren’t what defined a community’s sense of self (nobody thinks of themselves as part of that town or small city that has that street with the Best Buy and the Circuit City and the Kohls and the Target on it). So no one feels anything other than the ordinary desperation of joblessness in a jobless world when the Target or the Sears closes up.

    A recent Guardian article argues that people feel precisely this loss of community when a Walmart closes: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/09/what-happened-when-walmart-left

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, I can see where that’s possible–WalMart especially–but I don’t think towns feel special by being a retail town unless they’re famed for selling some particular kind of product or unless they’re a “factory outlet” town. The Wal-Mart closing feels like the end of economic possibilities–and maybe a source of distinction between one town and the towns around it that don’t have the Wal-Mart.

  3. Frank the Frakker says:

    The implications of the fracking revolution are only starting to be understood. While conservatives at Swarthmore can stand athwart history and yell stop about changing energy sources in the economy, the rest of the country is just beginning to adjust to the reality that natural gas will have less price volatility than oil, is cleaner, and even at today’s oil prices, still 25% cheaper for most applications.

    We still have an entire sector of our economy to repower from oil to domestic natural gas. Electricity, heating, and transportation have differing levels of penetration of natural gas, but it is a process that will take 40 years, and accrue significant benefits to the US at the expense of oil exporters .

  4. Sporchezza says:

    Frank, what about jobs? I have never seen an estimate of fracking-related jobs higher than 13,000 total for the USA.

  5. Frank the Frakker says:

    Well NBER estimates 725,000:
    http://www.reuters.com/article/usa-fracking-employment-study-idUSL8N13159X20151106

    But, yes, a lot of biased newsources look only at direct employment. There were a lot of headlines about more solar jobs in PA than gas fracking, but only got there by comparing all electric jobs (Peco) to only those directly employed by fracking companies (not ancillary services like pipes, refiners, etc.).

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