What is wrong with blue-collar America?
We have known for some time that working-class Americans have been economically suffering, as good-paying jobs that don’t require a college education evaporate in the face of globalization. But, now, for the first time, we see a physical manifestation of that. People in that demographic are dying faster.
A recent study authored by Professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton (he’s a winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize, for different work) shows that the cohort of 45-54 year-old white Americans who do not have a college degree have a higher death rate than they did in 1999. It was a completely unexpected finding. It diverges from decades-long trend of a 2% decline in mortality rates per year, and it’s something that has not appeared in “sister countries” like Canada, Western Europe, New Zealand and Australia. For now, at least, it seems to be a purely American phenomenon. Even stranger, it’s impacting whites while not equally manifesting itself in African-Americans or Latinos in the same age and educational cohort.
While more work is needed to sort through all the causalities, one thing sticks out—a major spike in deaths resulting from suicide and substance abuse. Which should lead one to at least ask the question—why are more of these people engaging in sometimes-fatally self-destructive behavior?
The study’s authors don’t draw conclusions. But I wonder if there isn’t a very good chance that this is the group that is the canary in the coalmine for overall societal reaction to the changes that have occurred to the economy since the 1970s. Globalization and lower tariffs have brought many benefits—lower prices for a broad spectrum of goods, but its burdens have fallen most sharply on that segment of society that went directly into the trades after high school.
That is a group you see described in E.E. LeMasters’s 1976 book Blue Collar Aristocrat: Life-Styles at a Working Class Tavern (Professor LeMasters pickled his liver a bit in the pursuit of information). The men here are all blue-collar, construction workers, plumbers, carpenters, and electricians. They make good livings—good for what they value—a decent house, maybe a hunting cabin, a solid car or truck, time for vacations, work that means something to them. Most have what Harry Frankfurt called a “sufficiency.”
What’s interesting about LeMasters’ book isn’t just the sociology—the way the men feel about white collar workers, about what we would call social issues, sex, marriage, the role of women, guns, race and religion—but also the glimpse into the future that some were beginning to see. A carpenter complains about pre-fab construction and a certain loss of the satisfaction and pride he used to feel when he built something from the ground up. And the pathologies were there—these men often drank heavily, but they tended to do it socially, in a safe environment (the tavern) in the company of others who shared their views and behavior patterns. What was too much drinking? Very simple—as much drinking as to keep you from either showing up for work the following day, or would impair your ability to do your job safely if you could.
The men, and their outlook, have not changed much over the last 40 years, but the opportunities have, and from that loss of opportunity, a loss in a crucial check on self-abuse. If you want to put your finger on a single group that both our economy and our political system have let down, it’s these people. We pay lip service to them, we talk about creating good jobs, but we don’t really have an answer to the fundamental restructuring that has left them with skills that are both less in demand and less highly compensated.
Don’t people have the obligation to make good choices—and aren’t their circumstances often the sum of those choices? One of the organizing principles of American thought is a combination of the frontier and the Protestant work ethic: with enough effort, enough talent, enough pluck, anyone can make it here because merit and risk-taking holds much greater importance than inherited advantages. From that Horatio Alger thesis, we have an entire generation of politicians who have defined socio-economic status purely in terms of virtue—those that have, earned it, and those that don’t, were lazy takers.
Except, you can’t really apply that to this group, who were willing to work hard at dirty jobs. Could they reasonably have foreseen in, say, 1985, when this 45-54 year-old group were making their career choices, that they were picking a path that might lead them to under-employment or no employment 30 years later?
I suspect that many have hit a peculiar form of midlife crisis. It’s not big dreams that are unattainable—because we can all rationalize that maybe we weren’t meant to strike out the last batter in the World Series, or win the Nobel Prize, or make our first billion by 35. It's the smaller, day-to-day expectations of living a good life that seems beyond reach. A proud, self-sufficient group now struggles to make ends meet—and that is profoundly depressing. As Harry Frankfurt pointed out in On Inequality “It is essential to understand that having enough money is far from being equivalent to having just enough to get by, or to having enough to make life marginally tolerable. People are not generally content with living on the brink.”
Can we fix this? Not using conventional tools, I think. The same competitive pressures that bring down the price of manufactured goods, and make them attainable to those of moderate means, also permanently eliminate the domestic jobs that made those goods. People will have to do different things.
But what is clear is that neither party quite seems to grasp this. Let’s start with the Democrats—they have managed to completely lose touch with reality. Economically, the focus on inequality instead of lack of opportunity means all we think about is redistribution rather than growth. I understand the emphasis, and the appeal of Bernie Sanders, because the Republicans are seen as the party of business and Wall Street, and the Democrats the party of labor and labor unions. Except, Democratic party elders missed something essential. Being the party of labor is not exactly the same as being the party of the workingman if the workingman can’t work. Labor unions do not create jobs, they merely negotiate better terms. The working person understands that—the Democrats do not.
And where the Democrats failed, the Republicans were brilliant. They realized that the crumbling manufacturing base was a great political opportunity for them. If Democrats couldn’t offer good paying jobs, then all a Democratic candidate represents to a blue-collar worker is someone who wants to take his guns and send gays and immigrants to invade his community. It’s a strategy that has paid off enormously—and I cannot understand why Democrats have not figured this out. My hunch is that it’s intellectual laziness—they think this is all about reactions to Barack Obama (see, last week’s Kentucky electoral results) and it will all go away when he does. It won’t.
And yet, the Republicans, in their own way, are just as lazy. They are so caught up in the idea that entitlement reform and tax cuts for the wealthy are the universal antidote for every economic disease, that have yet to show the least bit of creativity in offering people a real path to opportunity.
What happens next? Unfortunately, I think the next set of decisions will be more tactical than substantive. Democrats have to choose whether they want to abandon trying to appeal to working class whites, and just be a party of immigrants, minorities, and the coastal elites. That is an approach that is almost certainly a short-term recipe for electoral disaster. Republicans have a different problem. If they can just get their house in order, they are set up for an electoral sweep in 2016. But, once attained, there is every indication they may not be able to curb their worst excesses, and will impose a top-down conservative agenda—including Paul Ryan’s idée fixe, major cutbacks in Social Security and Medicare. That will set up a fascinating conundrum for the aging white working class cohort—do you vote Republican and keep your guns, or Democratic to try to save your butter?
Of course, that’s precisely the wrong question, since not one whit of it relates to "opportunity." And that is why “blue collar” will continue to be “blue.”
Which ought to depress us all.
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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