Advocacy Seldom Reaches Chocoholics

local scene A necessary element of writing or speaking – if it is to be enjoyable and sustained – is to believe what one writes or says, and to express those beliefs as one naturally would. (Even more important, of course, is to hold sound ideas, but here I’m writing about the underlying feeling of expression.)

Writing what one believes, in the style one would naturally speak, is different from writing to please. Some may be persuaded, others not. It’s notable, however, that some are probably beyond persuasion. That’s not surprising; it would be surprising if all people were persuadable.

Consider Augustus Gloop, the unfortunate chocoholic from Roald Dahl’s 1964 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the later, excellent 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Gloop stuffed himself with chocolate for much of his young life, and probably had been rebuked for over-eating now and again. Yet, in the film, he just couldn’t stop gorging, at the risk of an accident, even as Frau Gloop recommended moderation in Augustus’s habits (“save some room for later”):

Someone writing to Augustus with words of caution would surely get nowhere: the porcine German boy was willing to eat to the point of calamity. Gloop was gluttonous even as a child. Had he been not a boy, but an adult German chocoholic with many decades of gorging, one could guess he would have, by then, been even more resistant to warnings.

One doesn’t write for Gloop, but of what one believes, and for those who are not yet in the grip of a ravenous craving like the one that held Gloop.

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 14 of 14)

This is the final post in a series considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story.

I can happily recommend Goldstein’s book, both for the tale it tells of a single city’s struggle after an auto plant closes, and for what readers may reasonably infer about a none-too-bright boosterism that has left Janesville (and other cities) divided between actual conditions experienced by many and self-congratulatory optimism from a well-fed few.

When I began this series (and an earlier series on Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment), I did so to search for insights that Goldstein and Cramer might have about our current condition, one in which the greatest republic in all history has found itself under leadership of a mendacious, mediocre autocrat.

(Cramer offers little, and what little she offers both too narrow and too broad: claims of a Wisconsin resentment, but of an indeterminate kind, might be applied anywhere at anytime. Her thesis is, notwithstanding her insistence that it’s a serious political ethnography, is slight, and might have served as a ephemeral conservation piece, nothing more.)

Goldstein’s work tells part – and by her own design only part – of a story that is truly useful for our time – how a dense and dim-witted boosterism in Janesville reveals the way sugary claims are offered in the place of serious, practical policy.

The shallow thinking that has made ‘Two Janesvilles‘ possible has led, I think, to far worse things than sham economic proposals. Once weak, the body becomes susceptible to all sorts of infections, one invading after another.  (Acceptance of myriad lies as facts, yet a contradictory insistence that there are no facts.)

Goldstein’s book is about a place, but that place’s experiences are not isolated. Cities far removed from Janesville, stretching from one end of this continent to another, are now suffering a cumulative and debilitating illness, whose early signs one could identify from events of Janesville’s last decade.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 78, 9, 10 1112, and 13.

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 13 of 14)

This is the thirteenth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover one chapter of Part Six (2013) of Janesville (Chapter 54, A Glass More Than Half Full).

Goldstein’s 54th chapter describes a 2013 dinner of Forward Janesville (a local “business alliance hell-bent on reviving the city’s economy”). Someone at Forward Janesville, it turns out, must have read Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and thought he or she were reading scripture, so sure do they seem to be in their boosterism:

Each table is covered with a heavy sand-colored tablecloth, and at each place setting is prime rib with hollandaise and, as a party favor, a clear tumbler with green printing that says, “We See the Glass More than Half Full.”

While some in town scoffed at the slogan that [banker] Mary [Willmer] came up with early in Janesville’s economic crisis—that everyone needs to become ambassadors of optimism—Forward Janesville embraced it. Exuding optimism has become central to Forward Janesville’s credo and its strategy. The organization now has a cadre of volunteer “good-will ambassadors,” who attend ribbon cuttings and visit every Forward Janesville member at work at least once a year.

John Beckord, leader of Forward Janesville, shows a video during the dinner, so very precious that it’s delightful:

To begin this evening’s program, before Paul [Ryan] speaks, John Beckord, Forward Janesville’s president, takes the stage and introduces a video. The video was made for this occasion, and its purpose is to deride what John calls “um, a pervasive, negative attitude in the community, especially anonymous online commentators.”

“The Crabby Bloggers” is the video’s title. It juxtaposes upbeat statistics about Janesville’s economy with a cartoon that features furious typing and grumbling by blogging nay-sayers. It celebrates “a resurgence in employment opportunities,” showing that 1,924 jobs have been created in Rock County by forty-one companies since the start of 2010.

Goldstein quickly sets the record straight: “neither the video nor John mentions that the county still has 4,500 fewer jobs than when GM announced it was closing the plant. And when the video highlights the opening this month of the Janesville Innovation Center, built with a federal grant and city money to provide office and manufacturing space to nurture start-ups, it gives no hint of the scant interest so far among fledgling companies in renting space in the center.”

Imagine someone so dense that he would think that the video would be persuasive to anyone not already committed; indeed, imagine those already committed who would be so dense to remain committed after seeing the video.

Voltaire is credited with once contending that he prayed to God that his enemies should be ridiculous, and God granted the request. (“I always made one prayer to God, a very short one. Here it is: ‘O Lord, make our enemies quite ridiculous!’ God granted it.”)

(I’d not describe Beckord as the enemy of bloggers or blogging, but one sees the point. Beckord’s just perfect for the role of not-quite-up-to-it adversary. It’s almost as though a blogger in Janesville secretly picked Forward Janesville’s president for the role.)

Goldstein explains:

If John and the “Crabby Bloggers” video and Mary herself attest to certain headway in Janesville since the depths of the Great Recession, they attest to something else, too: an optimism gap that divides these crusaders for economic development with the experiences of many other people in town….

And here is another glimpse at the gap between Mary and her fellow optimists versus the rest of town: a survey has shown that nearly six in ten people think that Rock County will never again be a place in which workers feel secure in their jobs, or in which good jobs at good pay are available for people who want to work. Most of the rest think that returning to such a place will take many years. Just one in fifty believes that Rock County has returned to the job security—or to the good jobs at good pay—that it used to provide.

Overall, just over half say that their household’s financial situation is worse than when the recession began. Yet among people who lost a job—or live with someone who did—nearly three fourths now say that they are worse off.

As it turns out, even the matter-of-fact style Goldstein uses to great effect seems polemical when the truth is so plain:

Tonight, the job losers and the pay losers are not in the banquet room, tucking into tulip glasses of strawberry and chocolate mousse for dessert as Mary is onstage, saying that, since the dark, stunning days right after the plant closed, sales tax receipts have been rising and industrial vacancy rates falling. The progress this community has made, she says, is phenomenal….

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 78, 9, 10 11, and 12.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 14 of 14).

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 12 of 14)

This is the twelfth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover one chapter of Part Six (2013) of Janesville (Chapter 50, Two Janesvilles).

Amy Goldstein is not, by style of writing, a polemicist (something that might be said, for example, of a blogger). Yet, for it all, she knows how, by contrasts within a chapter, to make devastating point.

Goldstein does so in Chapter 50. In 2013, banker Mary Willmer is doing quite nicely, thank you very much:

In one Janesville, Mary Willmer is in a whirlwind. She is in good spirits. The initial work of converting her corner of M&I bank into BMO Harris is starting to ease, even as her responsibilities at the bank are about to expand. Next month, she will become BMO Harris’s manager in charge of developing teams of “premier bankers” and financial advisors through a swath of Wisconsin that stretches nearly two hundred miles from Green Bay down through Madison and Janesville and into Beloit. Premier banking is offered to BMO Harris customers “in the mass affluent sector,” with savings in the range of $250,000 to $1 million.

Goldstein tells us that Mary’s also personally preoccupied:

Mary’s life is evolving. She is falling in love. Her long marriage to a mortgage banker has ended, and she has just met a new guy, an architect in Madison. She recently was asking her Facebook friends to recommend their favorite all-inclusive resorts for a January trip to Mexico, and they are planning a week in California’s Napa Valley later in the year. “Couldn’t be happier,” Mary posts on Facebook the day that she helps her youngest, Connor, celebrate his eighteenth birthday—and that she books the wine country trip.

Meanwhile, to help support their family, the high-school-aged Whiteaker girls are taking online high-school classes so that they will have more time to work:

For making car payments or helping out with families’ bills, Virtual Academy has a benefit: Its students are exempt from Wisconsin’s limits on how many hours teenagers are allowed to work. The online courses available seven days a week, day or night, its students are trusted to get their studies done on their own schedule and work as much as they want. This has become the main draw. Alyssa figured that maybe she can bump up the hours at one of her three jobs—the one at the same car dealer as her mom—from fifteen hours a week to twenty-four, if she can go in at 1 p.m. a couple of weekdays.

So, earlier this month, she took a test to assess whether she would be a good fit for Virtual Academy. The results showed that she is self-motivated, efficient at time management, hardworking, optimistic. Quite a good fit. So at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, January 24, mere hours before Mary will introduce Forward Janesville’s 2013 lifetime achievement winner, Alyssa is not at Parker. She is sitting on the living room couch at home, with a black ASUS laptop that she bought herself….

(In Goldstein’s Epilogue, one learns that Mary has literally moved away, if not entirely having moved on: “Mary Willmer continues to work at BMO Harris Bank. She has remarried and moved to a Madison suburb. She remains involved in Rock County 5.0 and other volunteer activities, including the YWCA’s Circle of Women fundraiser…”)

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 78, 9, 10 and 11.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 13 of 14).

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 11 of 14)

This is the eleventh in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover one chapter of Part Five (2012) of Janesville (Chapter 47, First Vote).

Amy Goldstein’s chapter about the November 2012 presidential election is a study in contrasts, between the polling-place experiences of first-time voter and vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Goldstein’s subtle, but makes her point.

Kayzia Whiteaker (and with her sister) casts her first vote:

But before their school day begins, they first meet a mile from their house at Madison Elementary School. This is their neighborhood’s polling place….

When they arrive at 8 a.m., Madison has a line out the door—a big turnout, because of the presidential election. They get in the line. When they finally are handed ballots to fill out with black markers, they vote for the reelection of President Obama and for every other Democrat on the list, none of whom they have ever heard of before, including a Democrat named Rob Zerban from Kenosha who is challenging Paul Ryan for his seat in Congress.

After filling out their paper ballots, Kayzia is nervous about whether they are feeding them into the machine the right way for their votes to be counted. They manage to get the thick paper fed properly. It is a big moment on the day that they come of age. Alyssa remembers that their parents have taught them that people can’t complain about any outcome if they haven’t done their part. They have now done their part. Kayzia updates her Facebook page: “Only took a half-hour to vote today. A great way to start this chapter of my life!”

Paul Ryan arrives at his polling place a bit later:

a caravan of shiny black SUVs pulls up to the curb alongside Hedberg Public Library on Main Street. Secret Service officers emerge and scout the sidewalk. And then, from the third of the SUVs, Paul Ryan hops out in a dark suit and pale silver tie and helps his three kids step down to the ground. Paul, with Janna and the kids and the Secret Service in tow, shakes a few hands and greets reporters and camera crews waiting inside the library entrance.

This little entourage Paul is leading walks past the line of people waiting to vote that snakes through the library’s first floor. The entourage walks right up to the front, and the Secret Service hangs back a few yards, scanning the crowd for anything untoward, in the unlikely event that anything untoward would happen inside the public library in downtown Janesville, while Paul and Janna give their names to poll workers and are handed their ballots.

I’m sure I’ll long remember Goldstein’s contrasting descriptions.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 78, 9, and 10.

[Corrected] Next on Sunday: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 12 of 14).

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 10 of 14)

This is the tenth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover one chapter of Part Five (2012) of Janesville.

Goldstein writes of the broader events of 2012 (the Recall election, Ryan running for vice president) and others that are more intensely individual (a graduate of a retraining program takes her own life following a personal controversy). Of the year, though, Janesville’s desire to attract a high-tech venture stands out for its lingering uncertainty (as it’s still not established): Chapter 37’s SHINE.

SHINE Medical Technologies is a start-up company in Madison that has devised a novel method for producing a medical isotope from uranium. The isotope in question is needed in hospitals for stress tests to detect heart disease, bone scans to detect cancer metastases, and twenty-eight other diagnostic imaging purposes. The global supply of this isotope, molybdenum-99, is running low, and SHINE is one of four companies that have received $25 million, early-phase matching grants from the U.S. Department of Energy to try to develop commercially viable manufacturing methods to keep enough Moly-99 (or Mo-99), as it is known for short…

But there are challenges with SHINE, that the head of the Job Center (whose insight seems doubtful elsewhere) sees:

SHINE would not bring many jobs. [CEO] Piefer has been saying that he’d need 125 employees—a tiny fraction of the jobs that went away. And the soonest those jobs would arrive is three years from now, and it could be later, unless all goes smoothly with investment capital and the federal reviews. And whenever he’s been asked, Piefer has side-stepped the question of how many of those jobs could be filled by people from Janesville, instead of people from elsewhere with greater scientific expertise. “What are the skills he is looking for?” Bob Borremans, over at the Job Center, has been wondering. And if SHINE is going to need to import people with master’s degrees and doctorates in nuclear engineering, Bob wonders, too, what makes Piefer so confident that he can attract those people to what has essentially been a blue-collar town?

Two members of the Janesville City Council speak on opposite sides of funding SHINE (with $9 million at stake from Janesville):

One speech is by Russ Steeber, who, in addition to being the Council’s president, works as a captain in the Janesville Sheriff’s Department. Russ begins with the very words that Mary often uses. A game changer is what SHINE will be. His argument unfolds: “The city of Janesville, for almost 100 years, produced automobiles. . . . Unfortunately, those days are done, and that stream has dried up. Although we can hope that that plant someday opens its doors again, the reality is, we have to redefine what the city of Janesville is. This is one of those opportunities that can really take and define where we are for the next century. . . . And I truly believe that sometimes, when you look at making a decision like this, you have to be bold. I understand that the money the city of Janesville is about to possibly expend can be fairly extensive, but we are looking beyond SHINE. . . . We are looking at other technical type jobs that could come in, other medical research that could come in. We are looking at developing a region for the future.”

…the opposing view comes from Yuri Rashkin. Yuri is the Council’s most colorful member—born in Moscow, emigrated with his parents as a teenager, and arrived in Janesville eight years ago. He is a musician, a Russian interpreter, and a talk radio host….Yuri takes his Council work seriously, and he has concluded that the cost of the SHINE opportunity is too steep, the gamble too big, and the opportunity for public input too slim. The core of Yuri’s soliloquy is a long metaphor: “I feel like we maybe are looking to cross a river that we really need to cross, because we need the economic development, and we have a great company with people I’ve been really impressed with, who are looking to build a bridge, and they got an awesome plan, because we really need to get across the river . . . but this material has never been used, and the bridge has never been built with this stuff.”

Goldstein describes the vote succinctly: “By the time the Council members vote, two hours and twenty-one minutes have passed….But four vote yes, one abstains, and Yuri alone votes against SHINE.”

SHINE won, but (even now) one can’t be sure about Janesville.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 78, 9.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 11 of 14).

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 9 of 14)

This is the ninth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover remaining chapters from Part Four (2011) of Janesville.

Part of this story is well-known to Wisconsinites: Gov. Walker introduces a Budget Repair Bill (since its enactment into law now-universally called Act 10 by Wisconsinites), Democratic senators leave the state to deny a quorum, Republicans pass the bill by changing it so that a smaller quorum (17 senators) is sufficient, Walker signing the legislation that the two chambers deliver to him.

Goldstein returns in this section of the book to the local program of job retraining. Mike Vaughn, having finished twenty-three courses at Blackhawk Technical College, with strong grades throughout, is justifiably proud, but surprised:

Two months ago, Mike began to apply for jobs. Dozens of jobs. He figured that his résumé might get noticed, with his near-perfect grades and his decade on the union side of human resources work, including five years as the shop chairman of an eight-hundred-person factory. He would get noticed, he figured, because of the contracts that he negotiated, the grievances he handled, the employee contract language he interpreted, the Kronos workforce management system that he already knows how to use. Union side or management side, he figured, the work is similar, and companies would surely notice that he had been doing it for years.

Mike is surprised that all he has gotten are rejection letters, when he has heard anything at all.

But Vaughn hears good news, fortunately and after all:

This pride-fear combination will linger inside Mike for precisely two more weeks. Two Wednesdays from now, he will go for an interview at Seneca Foods Corporation, a vegetable processing plant in Janesville that happens to have an entry-level position in its human resources department. That Friday, he will get a call to come in on Monday for a pre-employment physical. On Tuesday, he will be told that he can start work the next day. And so, on June 1, Mike will not be thinking much about the fact that he has to work the overnight shift, or that he will be dealing with workers and interpreting labor contract language from the corporate side and not the union side, or that he and Barb will, between them, be earning just over half the money they had made at Lear.

Mike will be thanking his lucky stars that, after twenty-eight months without a job, he is starting a new career.

Yet Mike’s luckier than many others:

Counterintuitive as it may seem, the out-of-a-job workers who went to Blackhawk are working less than the others. Nearly two thousand laid-off people in and around Janesville have studied at Blackhawk. Only about one in three has a steady job—getting at least some pay every season of the year—compared with about half the laid-off people who did not go back to school.

Besides, the people who went to Blackhawk are not earning as much money. Before the recession, their wages had been about the same as for other local workers. By this summer, the people who have found a new job without retraining are being paid, on average, about 8 percent less than they were paid before. But those who went to Blackhawk are being paid, on average, one third less than before.

At the Job Center, through which so much federal money has flowed in support of the job-training gospel, Bob Borremans has been noticing that not everyone who went to Blackhawk has emerged with a job with good pay. Or with a job. This is not what he expected. He has a mystery on his hands.

A student at Parker High, meanwhile, to her own surprise and relief, discovers the Parker Closet Closet:

When Mrs. Venuti unlocks the door, Kayzia can’t believe what she sees: shelves filled with jeans and shoes and school supplies, and open cabinets stocked with food and body washes and toothpastes. The Parker Closet. What amazes Kayzia is not just that this room exists. What amazes her most is the avalanche of a realization she is having that, if this room exists behind the door that Mrs. Venuti has unlocked for her, that must mean that other kids at Parker are from families whose situations are not the greatest either….

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 9 of 14).

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 8 of 14)

This is the eighth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover one chapter from Part Four (2011) of Janesville (The Ambassador of Optimism). I’ll cover the chapter in detail because it’s so perfect in its account of boosterism, as though Sinclair Lewis’s protagonist George F. Babbitt overtook a Janesville resident and spoke through her.

Goldstein’s account of banker Mary Willmer (co-founder of Rock County 5.0) is utterly devastating. Willmer’s sure that sunny optimism will lift Janesville’s condition from that of a near-depression:

On the first Tuesday of the year, Mary Willmer is in a cheerful mood. This morning, the Gazette has published a guest column she has written in hope of setting the proper tone in Janesville for 2011. The column is featured in the upper right corner of the newspaper’s Opinion page. It reminds people of the efforts Rock County 5.0 has been making to lift the local economy, but the message is less about strategy than about state of mind. “We need to be proud of our community,” Mary has written, “and we need to all be ‘Ambassadors of Optimism.’?” This mantra about being an ambassador of optimism is an idea that Mary came up with during the early weeks of Rock County 5.0’s existence.

Willmer’s also excited about her new-found friend, rightwing billionaire Diane Hendricks:

Seeing her words in print is not the only reason that Mary is pleased. She got home late last night from downtown Madison, where she was because Diane Hendricks snagged her a ticket to the inaugural ball of a governor who is, Mary can see, as determined to set a new tone for Wisconsin as she is for Janesville.

Predictably, those in Janesville who are struggling feel they need more than an ‘ambasssador of optimism’:

The anger that rises against Mary is local. It rises because she has neglected to notice a basic fact: talking up a town to people who can still afford to go out to eat, to travelers checking into the Hampton Inn or the Holiday Inn Express, is not quite the same as telling everyone who reads the Gazette that the only thing they need to do for the economy to recover is to become an optimist. And telling them this near the start of a month during which Rock County’s unemployment rate, even two years after the assembly plant shut down, stands at 11.2 percent. Not the same at all.

(Astonishingly, and cluelessly, Willmer is “slow to sense the anger rising against her.”)

Meanwhile, Mary Willmer’s new pal takes a moment before a meeting to ask recently-inaugurated Gov. Walker a question:

Diane [Hendricks] asks, could they talk for two seconds about some concerns that are best not to raise in front of the group? “Okay, sure,” the governor says. Diane stands close and looks him straight in the eye. “Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state and work on these unions and become a right-to-work? What can we do to help you?” “Oh yeah,” Walker replies. “Well, we’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is, we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.” “You’re right on target,” Diane says, as Mary looks on.”

Goldstein saves the best for the end of the chapter: “Mary types on her BlackBerry a message that she posts on her Facebook page: “Great morning with Gov. Walker. We are so lucky to have him.”

It’s familiar: the insistence on optimism (the myopic role of boosters), the reliance on a local, poorly written but ever-so-obliging publication to carry water for the effort, and the search for a few well-placed pals to reassure that one has arrived….

Goldstein’s accounts in the chapter are, of course, all from 2011. They’re striking. Yesteryear’s mirage of arrival (for one never arrives) seems, from our later date, less arrogant than it is impossibly sad.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 9 of 14).

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 7 of 14)

This is the seventh in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover five chapters from Part Three (2010) of Janesville (Labor Fest 2010, Project 16:49, Figuring It Out, and Bags of Hope).

Goldstein describes the year’s Labor Day parade in Janesville through three politicians’ public personas:

Since this is an election year, political candidates are out marching in full force. In his trademark Kelly green polo shirt, with his wife and blond kids in tow, Paul Ryan is a familiar figure, running for a seventh term as his hometown’s congressman….

If Paul’s conservatism, his distaste for Obama’s ideas, is cloaked back home in Janesville in a genial demeanor, Scott Walker is emerging as a firebrand. His campaign issues a statement today that derides, with stinging rhetoric, what the president is saying in Milwaukee: “Obama’s spend-o-rama stimulus-fueled $810 million boondoggle train . . . It seems like every time the president opens his mouth, he spends another $50 billion of our money to ‘create jobs’ but instead we continue to see spiraling unemployment….

In this gathering political storm, on this sunniest of days along Main Street, another figure marches in the parade, too. He is wearing a white polo shirt and khakis, a baseball cap over his gray hair. And he is being trailed by two guys holding up each side of a large campaign sign whose slogan is devoid of pizzazz: “Tim Cullen. Effective for Us.”

Poverty produces homelessness, and homeless adults mean homeless children. Janesville develops a program to address growing dislocation affecting young people:

some well-meaning people in town and in Beloit formed a Homeless Education Action Team. And the team thought up Project 16:49. The name comes from Beloit, where 16:49 is the number of hours and minutes between the end of one school day and the start of the next. The point is that these hours and minutes can feel like an eternity to kids without a safe, steady place to do homework, eat supper, or go to sleep. Sixteen Forty-Nine is also the name of a documentary that has just been finished by an aspiring local filmmaker. It is a work of art and advocacy. Its purpose is to smash through the community’s denial about the homeless kids in their midst. And on a Thursday evening in mid-September, the documentary is having its premiere….

The school system has more than four hundred homeless kids this year, many more than before GM closed. The hardest cases are the “unaccompanied youth,” the government’s polite term for homeless kids trying to fend somehow for themselves.

(More information about the Project 16:49 documentary may be found online.)

For a successful tech school graduate, placed into a job in corrections, there are second thoughts:

Some days during those six weeks, Barb had to tamp down a question in her mind: “Is this really what I want to do?” Still, rough as some of it was, the academy was school. The academy classes were even held at Blackhawk. And Barb knows by now how to be in school. She came out the far side of the criminal justice academy with a state certificate that made her a full-fledged correctional officer….

one day, with Christmas coming soon, she suddenly sees her life in a new way. She sees that she spent fifteen years at Lear playing the game, staying somewhere she wasn’t happy, just because the money was too good to leave. Maybe she is too intelligent, too educated now, to play the same game again. Maybe toughness is recognizing what isn’t working in your life and fixing it. Scared though she is, Barb does something she has never done at any job since her very first job as a teenager. Without any work in sight or a clue what will happen next, she decides to leave. Barb turns in her Sheriff’s Department badge.

Toward the end of 2010, a family that had not previously received charity, but formerly had offered it, finds that necessity alters one’s outlook when the charity program Bags of Hope delivers food to their door:

Tammy doesn’t know who put her family’s name on the school system’s food drive list. But on this December morning, gazing upon her twelve Bags of Hope, she decides that any day when groceries show up at their house is a good day.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 8 of 14).

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 6 of 14)

This is the sixth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover five chapters from Part Three (2010) of Janesville (The Last Days of Parker Pen, Becoming a Gypsy, Family is More Important than GM, Honor Cords, and The Day the White House Comes to Town).

What was left of Parker Pen, by that time a logo-imprinting operation run by Sanford, closed in in 2010. Goldstein recalls however, that decades earlier Parker Pen once made pens in Janesville, and played a key role in the city’s industrial life:

….members of the Parker Pen personnel department chose graduating seniors to hire by coming right into Janesville’s only high school at the time. The Parker personnel people brought along a test of dexterity and speed that it offered to any senior who wanted to try it. Most of the students who took the test were girls, because the understanding in town back then was that young men lucky enough to be offered a General Motors job would go to the assembly plant. And young women lucky enough to be chosen by Parker Pen would go to work at Arrow Park, a clean, friendly factory in which the making and assembling of pen parts required fine motor skills.

If Parker had once meant something to Janesville, then one can be sure that she once many something even to the most prominent in America:

“In May of 1945, the treaty of German surrender that ended World War II in Europe was signed with a pair of Parker 51 fountain pens belonging to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, who held up the two pens for the cameras in a V for victory.”

When GM closes in Janesville, with little prospect of comparable wages nearby, some Janesville workers take GM jobs in faraway cities:

By this winter, hundreds of Janesville GM’ers have morphed into GM’ers working far from Janesville. Their UAW contract gave them these transfer rights. Nearly two hundred are working at a General Motors plant in Kansas City—so many that people in town now joke that Kansas City has become Janesville West. Almost 140 are at a plant in Arlington, Texas—Janesville South—which is still turning out the Tahoe SUVs that Janesville had made. So far, fifty-five have transferred to Janesville East—Fort Wayne, Indiana—to assemble Chevy Silverado trucks, which are so popular that the plant is adding a third shift and is sending job offers to sixty-seven more Janesville GM’ers….

They stick with GM jobs farther away because the re-training classes they’re taking can’t get them jobs in the Janesville area:

one day, Matt and a bunch of the GM’ers learning to climb utility poles with him decide that it is time to stay after class and ask their instructor, Mike, a tough, pointed question: If they stay in school to graduate, will linemen’s jobs be waiting for them or not?

….[the re-training instructor] starts by laying out the benefits of electric power distribution. But the more he talks, the more he feels he needs to be a straight shooter with these guys who already have lost so much. The truth is, he has to admit, not many of his Blackhawk graduates got jobs last year. The outlook still isn’t great. Jobs exist in the utility field but not many of them in southern Wisconsin. He tells them they might end up in the Dakotas or Texas or somewhere in the Southwest.

Blackhawk Tech hires a motivational speaker for a graduating class in 2010, a woman who went from making jelly in a factory to making millions selling cosmetics, before using her singular experience to inspire others:

She gives a lot of motivational speeches. When she takes center stage at the Dream Center, in an elegant cream-colored suit with ruffled lapels, she aims her words straight at this morning’s unlikeliest graduates, including Barb and Kristi, who had never expected that a recession would steal their factory jobs. “There were many reactions, I’m sure, to the dire circumstances facing the economy of this community,” she tells the graduates. “Many people complained, many people cried, many people gave up. Some waited for things to go back to the way they were. . . . But there were a vital few that decided to create a new future for themselves and this area. They decided to use the economic obstacles as an economic opportunity. Those people were all of you.”

Goldstein reminds us, though, that all of you were once many more:

Blunt though she is, there is a piece of the story that the American-Dream-in-a-suit commencement speaker leaves unspoken. Many of the former factory workers who turned to Blackhawk veered off course before today. Of the laid-off workers who arrived at the college in the fall of 2008 with Barb and Kristi, nearly half left without finishing what they’d begun. Of the three hundred or so who, like Barb and Kristi, aimed for an associate’s degree—the highest degree that Blackhawk offers—just over one third will stick around to finish within a few years. And of the thirty-one laid-off workers who began to study criminal justice with Barb and Kristi? Just half are collecting diplomas today or will graduate next year. Such bumpy outcomes are not unusual at two-year colleges in general….

In fact, at Blackhawk, more of this first wave of laid-off workers finished their studies than did their classmates who hadn’t lost a job. Still, the point unspoken in the Dream Center [an auditorium] today is that, even when people desperate for a job try to retrain, as the Job Center has been encouraging, they don’t always succeed.

We hear again, in Chapter 23 (The Day the White House Comes to Town), about a visit from a federal official to Janesville’s Bob Borremans, who runs the Job Center in town, with other locals in attendance. Goldstein describes the aftermath of the meeting, from Bob’s vantage:

And Bob? After working so hard to arrange the visit, he soon feels exasperated. Montgomery [the federal official] had a goal of ensuring that each stop on his listening tour got some help from the government. For Janesville, though, it turns out that the supposed red tape cutters have no scissors. As Montgomery is leaving the government, a young man who works in the Labor Department is instructed to add Rock County to the communities for which he is to serve as a liaison. Bob presents this young man with the eleven grant ideas to which Montgomery listened at the UAW union hall. Bob asks for advice on which federal agency would be the best place to pursue each idea, expecting that the liaison can be an advocate and a conduit, shepherding these ideas to the right places to help open fresh spigots of federal money. Except no advice arrives. No money flows.

Whatever happened, by the way, to that federal official, Edward Montgomery, who left his post in 2010 with an unfulfilled goal of each auto-making community getting help?

He’s still at the job that enticed him away, serving as dean and professor of the McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 7 of 14).

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 5 of 14)

This is the fifth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover four chapters from Part Two (2009) of Janesville (Blackhawk, Ahead of the Class, A Plan and Distress Signals, and The Holiday Food Drive).

Goldstein’s not polemical, and her descriptions are more subtle than they would be for those who are more acerbic. Yet in these chapters, one finds unmistakable signs of how she feels about the (false) promise of many job training programs:

Training people out of unemployment is a big, popular idea. In fact, it may be the only economic idea on which Republicans such as Paul Ryan and Democrats such as President Obama agree, anchored, as it is, in an abiding cultural myth, going back to America’s founding, of this as a land that offers its people a chance at personal reinvention. The evidence is thin that job training in the United States is an effective way to lead laid-off workers back into solid employment. Still, there is a lack of political consensus that the government should invest in creating jobs, and there is very much a consensus that it should help displaced workers go back to school.

Others might have said this more pointedly, but she says it plainly, and plainly enough.

An anecdote about Matt Wopat, a laid off auto worker and son of a retired auto worker, shows how oddly unfocused job-counseling is:

Matt took a test called JobFit that gauged his learning style (visual/verbal, it turned out), his numerical skill (rapid grasp of numerical information), and his sociability (comfortable working with a group or individually). Matt was then issued a “Career Compatibility Passport,” which told him that he would be equally adept as a database developer, a podiatrist, or a registered nurse—his best fits out of a list of fifty occupations for which he was well suited, with horticulturist and software engineer not far behind.

Next to a box indicating that he was being recommended for a training program, a Job Center caseworker handwrote about Matt: “Currently undecided.”

Wopat wants a job, and both he and society would benefit if he had one, yet a program that recommends wildly disparate occupations as equally suitable will hardly be of much help. There’s something both sad, infuriating, and vacuous in the results the Career Compatibility Passport provides.

Worse is the local conceit, though, that the work of a banker Mary Willmer and billionaire building-supply magnate Diane Hendricks through Rock County 5.0 will be more than a drop in the bucket. Here’s the Willmer and Hendricks effort:

Just before Halloween, they decide the time is right. Rock County 5.0 has not yet reached the goal of $1 million in private support. But it is $400,000 along the path. Respectable. And the project now has five well-defined, five-year strategies to buttress its 5.0 name: persuading local companies to stay and expand, attracting new businesses, offering special help to small businesses and start-ups, preparing real estate for commercial uses, and forging a workforce that employers will want to hire. This is the hopeful vision of Rock County from a business-centric point of view: moving beyond Janesville’s automotive identity.

Remember, though, that to keep the plant, alone, mostly public entities were willing to offer the “biggest incentive package in Wisconsin history” (“The package adds up to $195 million: $115 million in state tax credits and energy-efficiency grants, the $20 million that Marv Wopat pushed through the county board, $15 million from the strapped Janesville city government, and $2 million from Beloit, plus private industry incentives, including from the businesses willing to buy out the tavern in the assembly plant’s parking lot. And that isn’t counting concessions worth $213 million that UAW Local 95 is willing to sacrifice in exchange for retrieving jobs.”)

The point isn’t that government should have offered so much (after all five times the amount left winning bidder Orion, Michigan with much less than that for which she bargained).

The point is that it is hardly credible that Janesville’s private sector was so poorly capitalized that it could only offer 0.5% of what state and local entities offered. (Indeed, at the time of the Rock County 5.0 innaugural announcement, a partial offer of only $400,000, or 0.2%, of hundreds of millions in public offers.)

Goldstein knows as much, that in 2009 Rock County 5.0 isn’t what it’s touted to be:

“It will change the culture within Rock County, long-term,” Mary is quoted as saying….

This is a victory for Mary. And yet, from her perch at M&I Bank, she can’t escape noticing unmistakable signals that some members of her community are having a hard time keeping their lives glued together.”

A hard time, indeed.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 6 of 14).

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 4 of 14)

This is the fourth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover five chapters from Part Two (2009) of Janesville (Rock County 5.0, The Fourth Last Day, Bidding War, Sonic Speed, and What Does a Union Man Do?).

Goldstein describes the formation of Rock County 5.0 in this section of the book, and it’s generally as favorable as a pro-business conservative could hope or a progressive could scornfully dismiss. But there are parts of the discussion to please no one. Banker Mary Willmer hits upon Rock County 5.0 rather than a Janesville-based effort and it’s a revelation to others in the county:

Then, in a moment of unanticipated clarity, Mary glimpses the answer. The only way this campaign could succeed, she tells John [Beckord of Forward Janesville], “is if we get our arms around this whole county. Not Janesville, not Beloit, but the whole county and really make a bold statement.”

Goldstein’s overly subtle here, but it’s clear: Willmer’s clarity is unanticipated, perhaps for her and for anyone else in the area. The banker hits upon a county-based effort that might not have been so unanticipated elsewhere.

Later readers get a fuller explanation of the organization’s name:

By the time she speaks, the barely born, public-private, Janesville-and-Beloit-together campaign that she and Diane are leading has a name: Rock County 5.0. Five key strategies. A five-year plan to heal the economy. She sketches all this out, placing more emphasis on how critical it is than on how difficult it will be.

We’re well past five years now, and from the our time this plan doesn’t seem so revolutionary, but rather more like far too many other five-year plans, albeit with less state coercion…

Mention of Mike Vaughn, a worker at a GM-dependent Lear plant, says something about the relationship between industrial work and college studies:

At forty-one, Mike is a plainspoken man with close-cropped dark hair and an earnest manner. He had applied to General Motors right out of high school but never got the call, so he went to U-Rock for a year. Feeling unfocused, he left for a cook’s job in the Mercy Hospital kitchen. General Motors still wasn’t hiring, so eventually he followed his brother, DJ, into Lear.

It’s not the first time in the book Goldstein’s observed that UW-Rock County is a place where prospective workers who could not immediately find jobs at GM or Lear attended until something came up at one of those plants. It’s a sign that there’s not a clear divide between the two choices, at least not in the Janesville area. For some students there, the plants were the primary choice; college was a secondary one.

In 2009, in closed session (“[t]his is not a fact that the public will know right away”), Rock County offers millions – twenty million – in a bidding war with other cities (Hill, Tennessee, and Orion Township, Michigan) that have plants for which they’re fighting. GM’s condition, however, is terrible:

It is the first time the [county] supervisors have met in the ten days since General Motors disclosed that Janesville is one of three U.S. assembly plants still in the running to manufacture a next-generation subcompact car, which the company is hoping will help reverse its fortunes. GM’s fortunes have just crashed to a once unimaginable low. At 8 a.m. the day before it disclosed that Janesville is a finalist, and despite $19.4 billion in loans that the U.S. Treasury has ended up pumping into the company, General Motors filed for bankruptcy in a Manhattan court.

GM’s past strength, and 2009 weakness, no doubt makes it worse for bidders: they recall what they once had, and GM will take as much as it can get, without the slightest compunction.

Goldstein recounts that the public package to keep GM is vastly more that one county’s contribution:

When U.S. automakers decide where to manufacture new products, they have come to expect that the states and communities they are considering will present enormous dowries in the form of tax breaks and other financial gifts. So, a few days after the Rock County supervisors quadrupled their offering to General Motors, Wisconsin sends off to the company its final economic incentive package to try to land the new small car for Janesville’s assembly plant. The package adds up to $195 million: $115 million in state tax credits and energy-efficiency grants, the $20 million that Marv Wopat pushed through the county board, $15 million from the strapped Janesville city government, and $2 million from Beloit, plus private industry incentives….

There are also huge labor concessions (“[a]nd that isn’t counting concessions worth $213 million that UAW Local 95 is willing to sacrifice in exchange for retrieving jobs”) adding up to the “The biggest incentive package in Wisconsin history.”

On 6.26.2009, GM chooses to build compacts in Orion, Michigan. Astonishingly, Michigan offered (in total) five times as much as Wisconsin. (Auto workers there, for all the incentives, don’t do as well as they’d hoped: “40 percent of the workers were paid $14 an hour. Many parts were shipped from South Korea. The engines came from Mexico. And in another innovation, some parts suppliers began working right inside the Orion plant. Their average wage: $10 an hour”).

Hard to say which party was the biggest winner in the bidding war, but GM would be among anyone’s top picks.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, and 3.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 5 of 14).

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 3 of 14)

This is the third in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll write about five chapters of Janesville (Change in August, To the Renaissance Center, Mom, What Are You Going to Do?, When One Door of Happiness Closes, Another Opens, and The Parker Closet).

In chapters 5 through 9, Goldstein gives readers slices of life in Janesville from the summer through fall of 2008 (between when the GM plant’s closure was first announced, but before the last Tahoe rolled off the line in December).

Alyssa and Kayzia Whiteacre are trying to explain why their father is home during the day in August:

All of a sudden, even though they can sleep in a little during these lazy August days, their dad is home for breakfast….whatever is happening, it must be touchy, and if he wanted them to know, he’d have told them. So they take turns asking their mom little questions. “We’re trying to figure this out” is the kind of answer she gives. Not much help. So it is from the news and from a couple of friends that they piece together that their dad must have had a bad enough anniversary date that he’s part of the GM shift that’s already been laid off. What they deduce is correct. He was hired on May 29, 1995, handed a referral by his father. Both their dad and mom grew up in the security of GM wages, in the same way that Alyssa and Kayzia and their brother, until this summer, have been doing.”

Meanwhile, a combination of Democrats and Republicans try to keep the plant open:

In this conference room, each team member presents, in a tidy mosaic, the case they have rehearsed for why GM should continue production in Janesville. Paul [Ryan] knows [GM executive Troy] Clarke well, speaks to him on a weekly basis. Paul’s mosaic piece is a reminder to Clarke that he has fought on Capitol Hill for General Motors’ concerns about its pension costs. Tim[ Cullen]’s pitch is the compelling fact that, at Janesville, the cost of producing each vehicle is lower than at a plant making the same SUVs in Arlington, Texas—a newer plant that no one is talking about closing. Finally, the governor sums up the case: Wisconsin stands committed to preserving its relationship with General Motors. And, to fortify the seriousness of that commitment, the state and Rock County and Janesville and the local business community are honing a large package of economic incentives to induce GM to stay. General Motors is, everyone in the room knows, planning an inexpensive subcompact car model as a corporate coping mechanism in this awful recession. Wisconsin will, the governor [Jim Doyle] says, make it worthwhile for the company to trust its oldest assembly plant to manufacture its newest little car.

Most telling in this part of the book (with a chapter on a local banker and another on a community clothes & supply closet), however, is Goldstein’s account of Bob Borremans, who runs the local job center. Goldstein explains Bob’s work, in the face of thousands of impending layoffs, as he creates a resource guide:

Having long prided himself on staring down problems, though, Bob is pleased with a move he already has made: creating a guide to all the resources in town that can help people who have been thrown out of work, or who will be soon. He felt a take-charge satisfaction as he and some of the Job Center’s staff started contacting the leaders of organizations across Rock County to ask permission to include them in the new guide. Organizations that dispense help with job training, consumer credit, housing, health care, literacy, food, bouts of depression, bouts of addiction, bouts of domestic violence—two hundred far-flung, help-offering organizations in all.

Goldstein describes how Bob adds his own special touch, too:

So on page A8 of the guide was a box with the heading, “What to Do After a Layoff.” The box had fourteen bullet points, the first of which contained a crucial antidote to lost-job paralysis. “Don’t Feel Ashamed,” the heading of this first bullet point said. “Being laid off is not your fault.”

And scattered through the guide were words from Americans renowned for the challenges they confronted….from Helen Keller: “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”

Bob may be well-meaning, but Goldstein applies her blade at the end of chapter 8:

Bob believes, catastrophe might prove to be unbidden opportunity to help people find the work paths that would have suited them all along. Sure, people will need to retrain for this new work, but that’s his specialty, and he can help them go back to school while waiting for jobs to emerge on the far side of this recession.

If only it were so easy…

Previously: Parts 1 and 2.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 4 of 14).

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 2 of 14)

This is the second in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll write about the prologue and the first four chapters of Janesville (Prologue, A Ringing Phone, The Carp Swimming on Main Street, Craig, and A Retirement Party).

Janesville, Wisconsin’s manufacturing story reaches back far before General Motors produced its last SUV at the local plant on 12.23.2008 (a Tahoe “LTZ, fully loaded with heated seats, aluminum wheels, a nine-speaker Bose audio system, and a sticker price of $57,745 if it were going to be for sale in this economy in which almost no one anymore wants to buy a fancy General Motors SUV”). Still, it’s the plant’s closure – and really what that closure has meant to Janesville – that surely drew Goldstein. If GM had reopened the plant (or closed it only briefly), then there’d be little here that drew the attention of a national reporter. Janesville is, in this way, a story of loss and attempted recovery.

Goldstein’s Prologue presents Janesville’s two manufacturing titans:

The first was a young telegraphy instructor in town named George S. Parker. In the 1880s, he patented a better fountain pen and formed the Parker Pen Company. Soon, Parker Pen expanded into international markets. Its pens showed up at world leaders’ treaty signings, at World’s Fairs. Parker Pen imbued the city with an outsized reputation and reach. It put Janesville on the map.

The second was another savvy businessman, Joseph A. Craig, who made General Motors pay attention to Janesville’s talent. Near the close of World War I, he maneuvered to bring GM to town, at first to make tractors. Over the years, the assembly plant grew to 4.8 million square feet, the playing area of ten football fields. It had more than seven thousand workers in its heyday and led to thousands of jobs at nearby companies that supplied parts.

Her early chapters describe – in a seemingly supportive way – three contemporary residents as they learn about the plant’s closing. The first is Paul Ryan (in A Ringing Phone), and although Goldstein describes Ryan without express criticism, here description conveys that he didn’t see the closing coming, despite his prominent role (even then, although more so now, of course):

[Ryan] has made a point of nurturing relationships with the company’s top brass. When Rick [Wagoner, GM Chairman & CEO] is in D.C., Paul meets him for breakfast. Nearly every week, he talks with Troy Clarke, president of GM North America. So he certainly is not oblivious to the facts that GM has been faltering since before the recession, gasoline prices just past $4 a gallon are on the brink of an all-time high, and the Janesville Assembly Plant is churning out full-size, gas-guzzling SUVs whose popularity has fallen off a cliff.

Paul is aware of these facts, and yet, lately, as General Motors’ fortunes have been falling and falling, his private conversations with Rick and the rest of the brass have yielded no whiff of concern that the assembly plant’s future is in peril.

So it is hard for him to absorb what Rick is telling him: Tomorrow, General Motors will announce that it is stopping production in Janesville.

For an instant, Paul is stunned.

Subtle, but damning nonetheless: on this reading, despite breakfasts and repeated phone calls with executives, Ryan gleaned nothing about the plant’s closure.

Chapter 2, The Carp Swimming on Main Street, begins with an account of Bob Borremans, and Goldstein describes him in a way that offers a clue to what she thinks of some job-training programs:

Bob has been the Job Center’s director for five years. For almost a quarter century before, he was an administrator at Blackhawk Technical College, the two-year school that provides most of the job training in town. As a young man, he had been a mild, back-of-the-room kind of guy until the president of the college noticed in him a spark of creativity, promoted him to be a vice president, and helped him find his voice, which over the years grew more and more outspoken. Sometimes even now, months past sixty, his trim beard gone white, Bob thinks that people who knew him when he was young wouldn’t recognize the person he has become.

Call it arrogance, call it what you want, Bob sees himself as a fix-it guy—the adult in the room, the one with a doctorate who can take on a project and do it better than anyone else.

One could call it arrogance, and it’s Goldstein who’s doing the calling. (I’d not disagree with her on the point.) It’s a clue she’s left us, about where she might be going…

Chapter 3 looks back to Joseph Albert Craig’s success in persuading GM to build a plant in Janesville, how that plant switched from tractors to automobiles, and other ways in which Janesville kept auto production going. (Creative labor-management relations in the 30s prevented violence that beset other GM plant during the 1936–37 General Motors Sit-Down Strike.)

Chapter 4, A Retirement Party, describes the impending retirement of longtime GM worker Marv Wopat around the time that GM announces the closing:

The morning of the closing announcement, Marv awoke to a call from a friend making sure that he’d heard. As soon as he hung up, Marv phoned his GM’er kids, his son, Matt, and his daughter, Janice, right away. He did not want them to find out from anyone else. He was the one, after all, who had taught them while they were growing up that the assembly plant was the best place for a steady job with good pay. And even though the situation was scary now, no doubt, Marv began in those very first calls to his kids to impart his conviction. Just because the company says it is closing Janesville, no reason to think that the plant won’t end up getting a new product instead. Even if the plant shuts down for a while, he figured, it will reopen. It always has.

Now, under the Schilberg pavilion, Marv wants to believe that everything will work out okay.

So he does not say out loud a thought burning inside him: Matt and Janice may not have the opportunity to work at the plant long enough to retire.

One can be cold about many things, and yet find these words genuinely moving, conveying as they do Wopat’s natural concern in the face of powerful, uncertain forces.

A few words about Goldstein’s second chapter, The Carp Swimming on Main Street. That chapter draws its title from flooding in southern Wisconsin around the time the GM plant closing was announced:

By Wednesday, June 11 [2008], eight days after GM has unleashed the impending economic disaster, the National Weather Service predicts a natural disaster by the weekend: the worst flooding of the Rock River since the government began keeping track. Volunteers and jail inmates fill more than 260,000 sandbags. The sheriff calls in the Wisconsin National Guard. More than seven inches fall in Wisconsin and Iowa onto land still soaked from a harsh, snowy winter….

It exceeds a hundred-year flood. The county estimates the damage at $42 million….

The Rock River rushes so hard and so high that it washes fish off course. Carp are now swimming on Main Street. Near the street’s northern end, in the flooded parking lot of the United Way of North Rock County, the carp find a favorite new spawning ground. Hearing about the misdirected fish, people in town regard it as a spectacle, not a disaster. On the first dry land above the flooded street, despite the damage all around, people of Janesville—and some tourists, too— gather for days, snapping photos and laughing and cheering as the hundreds of yellow carp swim by.

There’s a Whitewater connection to all this, beyond GM. The City of Whitewater (and partner public entities) received a grant in 2009, totalling $4.7 million dollars, due to the loss of automotive jobs and the 2008 flooding:

September 7-September 11, 2009

….$4,740,809 to the Whitewater Community Development Authority, the University of Wisconsin Whitewater, and the City of Whitewater, Wisconsin, to fund construction of the new Innovation Center and infrastructure to serve the technology industrial park, including a road linking the project with the University of Wisconsin’s Whitewater campus. The goal of the project is to create jobs to replace those lost in the floods of 2008 and those lost from recent automotive plant closures. The Innovation Center will serve as both a training center and technology business incubator and will be constructed to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification standards. A portion of the project’s cost will be funded through EDA’s Global Climate Change Mitigation Incentive Fund. This investment is part of an $11,051,728 project which grantees estimate will help create 1,000 jobs and generate $60 million in private investment.

See, Whitewater’s Innovation Center: Grants and Bonds.

What I wrote then (“Every part of this description of the grant’s goals is astonishingly inapplicable to the use and value (such as it is) of the Innovation Center that Whitewater is actually building”) is more true today, as nothing of benefit to afflicted workers has or ever will come from the building. It’s nowhere close to meeting its estimate.

When Janesville’s residents absorbed the loss of their factory, while watching those carp swim by, there cannot have be one rational person among them (or anywhere) who would have foolishly thought that Whitewater’s eventual use of those millions would produce a result near the estimated value.

Goldstein remembers Janesville’s past; it’s the least that I can do to remember Whitewater’s.

Previously: Part 1.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 3 of 14).

Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 1 of 14)

This is the first in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. Bloggers have the luxury of time, so I’ll happily use that abundance to write at length on Goldstein’s book, one for which many have been waiting these last few years.

Before beginning, though, I’ll post an introduction to the book from the Washington Post, where Goldstein is a reporter (she was part of  a “team of Washington Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for the newspaper’s coverage of 9/11 and the government’s response to the attacks. She was also a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist for national reporting for an investigative series she co-wrote with her colleague Dana Priest on the medical treatment of immigrants detained by the federal government.”)

See, at that paper, JANESVILLE: AN AMERICAN STORY: When the nation’s oldest operating General Motors plant closes, residents emerge from the Great Recession into an uncertain future. I think the story is a concise overview to the book, and gives a good sense of Goldstein’s outlook.

I’ll also recommend an interview with Goldstein on the Joy Cardin Show of Wisconsin Public Radio.

See, at the WPR website, Exploring Human Consequences Of GM Plant Closure In Janesville, including a link to the audio of the interview.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 2 of 14).

Considering The Politics of Resentment, Concluding Thoughts (Part 9 of 9)

This is the ninth in a series of posts considering Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

I first thought I’d post, chapter by chapter, on Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment after I read her 11.13.16 article in the Washington Post, “How rural resentment helps explain the surprising victory of Donald Trump.”

That’s quite the title, enticing readers (especially opponents of Trump, as I am) to learn about a purported key to his rise.

Her work offers no insights about Trump’s rise.

In Politics of Resentment, Cramer contends that rural voters were resentful, that they favored small government solutions against their interests, and that voters’ concerns were of economic anxiety and not so much about race.

Trump ran on a platform that advocated (mendaciously but insistently) a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending, healthcare supposedly better than ObamaCare, protectionism to compel jobs back to the Midwest, wall-building to restrict immigration from Mexico (although most immigrants are not Mexican), and insistence on a registry for Muslim Americans.

That’s not a small government agenda.

Cramer’s entire book is premised on the notion that rural residents are so resentful they favor small government over their own supposed economic interests.

Trump’s entire campaign rested firmly on lavish promises of spending, a trillion for public works, and a steady diet of anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Indeed, Trump’s campaign only took off after he insisted on immigrations to keep from America a flow of immigrants he falsely smeared as rapists, murderers, etc.

All the while, Trump relied on a steady diet of lies and ludicrous claims from Putin’s trolls to smear his principal opponent. This undermining of standards of truth and evidence is one of the most significant developments of our time, but Cramer’s book has nothing to say on the matter (and neither does her November WaPo article.)

On its own terms, Cramer’s book disappoints; as an explanation of Trump’s rise, it offers nothing useful.

Previously: Parts 1, 23, 4567, and 8.

Next week: On Monday, I’ll begin a series on Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story.

Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘We Teach These Things to Each Other’ (Part 8 of 9)

This is the eighth in a series of posts considering Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

Cramer claims in Chapter 8 that

Beyond garnering the insight that people use social identities to think about politics, this book also shows how social group divides can operate as the central narrative by which people understand the political landscape and by which they structure their ideas about which candidates to support. In this politics of resentment, when we tell ourselves and others about the reasons behind how events have unfolded, the stories hinge on blaming our fellow citizens. What I am calling the politics of resentment is a political culture in which political divides are rooted in our most basic understandings of ourselves, infuse our everyday relationships, and are used for electoral advantage….

When has this not been true? Evening setting aside her earlier & false claim that small government advocacy stems from resentment against economic in interests (and only as Cramer defines those interests), have not large-scale political movements almost always involved ‘social group divides’ and accusations of blame (including toward the blameworthy)?

There’s nothing new on display here; Cramer esteems her work too highly.

Previously: Parts 1, 23, 456, and 7.

Tomorrow: Considering The Politics of Resentment, Concluding Thoughts (Part 9 of 9).

Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘Reactions to the Ruckus’ (Part 7 of 9)

This is the seventh in a series of posts considering Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

In Chapter 7, Cramer describes the conditions immediately before, during, & immediately after the Great Recession, with consideration of Obama and Walker’s candidacies. With regard to Barack Obama, there’s much here that shifts, if not contradicts, Cramer’s earlier insistence that race isn’t a primary motivation in sentiment among rural voters.

In Chapter 3 Cramer contended on both sides of this issue (that race was and wasn’t important):

So yes, it is highly likely that when people refer to “those people in Milwaukee” they are often referring to racial minorities. But notice how complex this is. The urbanites that rural folks were referring to were not predominantly racial minorities. When white outstaters (i.e., those living outside the major metropolitan areas) complained of the laziness in the cities in these conversations, their comments were almost always directed at white people: government bureaucrats and faculty members at the flagship public university.

In that way, antiurban resentment is not simply resentment against people of color. At the same time, given the way arguments against government redistribution in the United States have historically been made by equating deservingness with whiteness, these conversations are about race even when race is not mentioned.

Cramer frames this so that she can insist race isn’t involved (“antiurban resentment is not simply resentment against people of color”) except that it always is (“these conversations are about race even when race is not mentioned”). She knows this not specifically about the residents with whom she converses, by the way, but because “historically [arguments] been made by equating deservingness with whiteness.” Even if Cramer should be right about this general historical truth, she imputes the generality to particular people and conversations. If others can’t see what she sees, well, it’s because she’s more discerning, and knows “these conversations are about race even when race is not mentioned.”

Now consider in Chapter 7 how Cramer describes reactions to Barack Obama:

In general, white people across all types of communities seemed uncomfortable talking about the fact that Obama is African American….At the same time that people seemed uncomfortable with Obama’s race and race as a concept in general, Obama’s theme of change and unity resonated with people—or at least they believed it resonated with others. The professionals in central Wisconsin might have found it necessary to qualify his appeal as a certain “kind” of African American, but they also nodded as one man said, “He is the one with the best truth out there.” I heard glimmers of hope that he was a different kind of politician, one not entrenched in Washington, and one who, especially compared to Hillary, was closer to the people.

When Cramer writes that “white people across all types of communities seemed uncomfortable talking about the fact that Obama is African American” she cannot possibly mean all communities in Wisconsin. It’s simply absurd to contend that whites in Dane County, for example, were uncomfortable with Obama. Here, she must mean rural whites (and perhaps suburban ones).

If this should be so, in her estimation, what does it say about her earlier contention that “antiurban resentment is not simply resentment against people of color”? Of course it’s not simply that, as though the supposed resentment were of one kind only. Yet, if her work should be social science, and not mere political commentary, how much of the resentment she sees is racial in motivation?

Cramer is evasive, but assures us (almost like Justice Potter Stewart’s observation about obscenity, ‘I know it when I see it’) that she’ll let us know when she spots something racist.

A more interesting inquiry for Cramer would have been to consider how views on gender affected the Obama-Clinton primary in 2008. Cramer observes that she, herself, met with sexual harassment from rural residents, but leaves aside a more thorough consideration of gender when describing views of Hillary Clinton.

(Cramer also implies that rural harassment was worse than what a woman might have encountered at university; sexual harassment and assault on college campuses is too often downplayed, and federal Clery statistics do not reflect the extent of actual campus harassment & violence.)

Previously: Parts 1, 23, 45, and 6.

Tomorrow: Considering The Politics of Resentment, ”We Teach These Things to Each Other” (Part 8 of 9).

Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘Support for Small Government’ (Part 6 of 9)

This is the sixth in a series of posts considering Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

In Chapter 6, Cramer declares that

In this chapter, I am going to make the bold claim that support for small government is more about identity than principle.

Cramer explains to readers why she calls this claim ‘bold’:

Why is this a bold claim? We can look back on “Obamacare” or the “Affordable Care Act” and note that which side people took is related to partisanship. And we can say that whether people side with Republicans or Democrats in general is related to their attitudes about the appropriate role of government (e.g., Green, Palmquist, and Schickler 2002; Goren 2005; Carsey and Layman 2006). But those correlations do not help us understand why someone without teeth would not support government- funded dental care. Is it really the case that such a person is thinking to himself, “In principle I believe the less government the better; therefore, I am going to vote for the Republican Party and against single-payer health care, even though I need health care myself”? I don’t think so.

There are three components to these assertions: (1) primarily that one’s support for small government is identity-motivated, not principled, (2) that professions of support for small government among rural voters are false, although perhaps unknowingly so, and (3) that the alternative in health care to the market is single-payer.

Her first assertion is profoundly ignorant, so much so that one would think – and from her work might assume – that there had never been principled arguments against government intervention. It’s hard to get a full grasp of how unknowing Cramer must be: it’s as though she’s never read even a small part of classical or neoclassical economic theory, and its philosophical derivatives. Centuries of economic and philosophical literature: just identity politics in disguise, you see.

It’s astounding that Cramer ignores a vast literature – one that has in contemporary times produced over a dozen market-supporting Nobel laureatures in economics & other fields – and reduces this to a Republicans versus Democrats debate. (Most of these laureates where from neither major American political party.)

An omission like this is so great that the entire work begins to look like a political tract masquerading as ethnography. 

Because, you see, all these economists and philosophers weren’t advocating principles, they were either in the grip of identity politics, or committed to ensnaring others in that grip.

Under Cramer’s reading, rural voters – if not urban sophisticates – support small government for irrational reasons, contrary to their economic interests, interests they are too resentful to see clearly.

Finally, and almost as absurdly, Cramer particularly implies that economic interests are a choice between markets and single-payer healthcare (‘I am going to vote for the Republican Party and against single-payer health care’). Single-payer? Senator Sanders might have wanted as much, but neither Pres. Obama nor Sec. Clinton nor most Democrats in Congress pushed for single-payer, the alternative Cramer posits was before rural voters.

Previously: Parts 1, 23, 4, and 5.

Tomorrow: Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘Reactions to the Ruckus’ (Part 7 of 9).

Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘Attitudes toward Public Institutions and Public Employees’ (Part 5 of 9)

This is the fifth in a series of posts considering Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

In Chapter 5, Cramer describes conversations she had with rural residents. In the early part of the chapter, she recounts discussions about the university system. Some rural residents tell her they don’t like Madison (and UW-Madison) because they see it as politically liberal:

Glenn: UW is the only place where you can be a hippie for forty years and not be out of place. [chuckles]
Dan: Sometimes you can’t tell them from the professors, either. [laughs]
Tim: Well that’s true, too.
KJC: Right, right.
Glenn: UW and San Francisco got about the same initials. [chuckles]
KJC: So what do you think the UW–Madison should be doing here in [this town]? And I mean that very broadly, like from students to ordinary folks who live here, you know beyond student age, are there things they should be doing?
Tim: I don’t know what they could do—I guess I’m like Glenn and the rest of ’em as far as the liberal—I’m not a Madison person. There’s a reason that I don’t live in Madison, I like [this town]. I don’t like Madison at all. It’s big, it’s . . . to me, I don’t like to drive in the city—
Glenn: Best part about Madison is the fifty-five miles that it is away.

But that’s not their primary objection, it turns out:

KJC: Why don’t [students from here] go to Madison? I mean I have all kinds of guesses why, but why do you think?
Tim: Cost is the biggest thing.
Dan: Tuition is higher in Madison than it is in La Crosse or Platteville [cities with other UW System schools] for one thing.

In any event, the university is a topic (but of uncertain priority) because Cramer’s made it one:

My presence alone, though, brought the university into the conversations. The first thing I usually said to these groups, especially during my first visits in 2007 and 2008, was, “Hi! I’m Kathy. I’m from the UW–Madison.” So I want to acknowledge up front that it is likely that these groups would not have talked about the university and higher education as much if I hadn’t inserted myself into their conversations. But my focus was not how much they talked about the university or other aspects of government, but how they made sense of it when they did so. Their conversations about UW–Madison provide a window to their attitudes about government and public employees more generally.

Here, Cramer’s claim about negative views of the university is tenuous, because she can’t show what priority the university has in residents’ minds. (In fact, she guesses they “would not have talked about the university and higher education as much if [she] hadn’t inserted [herself] into their conversations.”)

Oh my: Cramer wants to define a rural consciousness, but by her own admission the role of UW-Madison within that consciousness depends not on residents’ priorities but her own questioning. This is simply flimsy. (It’s for lack of a solid prioritization, presumably, that Cramer offers unquantifiably and nebulously that their responses are a “window to their attitudes.” How big and how clear a window neither Cramer nor we know, as she can’t reliably say.)

Cramer exhibits guilt about her role as an academic:

To be honest, I felt sheepish explaining to people during my first year of fieldwork that I wasn’t teaching any classes. In the midst of conversations about the wear and tear of common rural occupations on one’s body, I had a difficult time thinking of my job driving around the state, inviting myself into coffee klatches as hard work.

An honest admission, but nonetheless an admission of a bias (one that could be both more pronounced in focus-group questioning & less susceptible of review than it would be in data-released opinion polling).

Indeed, Cramer acknowledges that scientific opinion polling reveals that suspicion about education’s value extends far beyond a rural demographic:

Let me end this chapter by acknowledging that people of many walks of life feel distant from institutions of higher education and also public employees. First, consider that public opinion surveys suggest that many people feel a sense of disconnection from institutions of higher education. For example, a December 9–13, 2009, Public Agenda poll of 1,031 U.S. adults found that 60 percent of the public perceives that “colleges today are like most businesses and mainly care about the bottom line,” as opposed to “colleges today mainly care about education and making sure students have a good educational experience.”16 Also, that same poll found that 33 percent “agree strongly” and 27 percent “agree somewhat” that “colleges could take a lot more students without lowering quality or raising prices.”

If so many feel this way (however regrettable those views may be), we can be certain that this skepticism is not unique to a supposed rural consciousness. And as it is not unique, and even appears in rural residents’ conversations at Cramer’s admitted instigation, identifying anti-educational views with rural residents seems truly uncompelling to anyone other than those who would expect to find such views primarily in rural communities.

Previously: Parts 1, 23, and 4.

Tomorrow: Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘Support for Small Government’ (Part 6 of 9).