A Telling Comparison

local scenePeople in small towns, nearly everywhere in this country, have access to national programming & news on television and online. As easily as one could subscribe online to something like the Janesville Gazette, one could subscribe to the Chicago Tribune or Washington Post.

Imagine, then, a choice between editorials in the Gazette and the Post on the state of labor in America. Just a few days ago, both papers published on this national topic: the Gazette in a Sunday editorial, the Post in a guest article from Lawrence Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury, and a longtime academic (for president, current professor, of Harvard).

The Gazette offers Economy, not unions, boosts labor, a 500-word editorial that contends that union membership has declined in the Janesville area, yet that the paper’s editorial board “cannot claim that the economy is worse off for membership declines. Indeed, poverty rates statewide have fallen to the lowest level in years, while unemployment rates are also near record lows. The labor market now favors skilled workers employers are competing for and struggling to find.”

I hold no brief for unions, although I think that they should be a robust choice available to workers, at any worksite, should they choose. The problems with the Gazette‘s use of these simple measures are obvious. Poverty is a measure of economic sickness, but its decline is no assurance of overall health. (Cancer rates might be low, for example, but a population still beset by anemia, high-blood pressure, alcoholism, for example.) The absence of the severe does not assure the presence of temperate. A low unemployment rate still begs the question of overall productivity and employee gains. Finally, a labor market that favors skilled workers (under the Gazette‘s implication that that’s Janesville) still doesn’t answer how many workers are skilled, how many are non-skilled, and how both groups are faring.

Look, instead, at the analysis that Summers offers in the Post. (Summers isn’t a libertarian, to be sure, but that’s not significant. What’s significant is how Summers presents a strong argument, even if one disagrees.) Here’s Summers on the state of labor, in It’s time to balance the power between workers and employers:

….Surely related to middle-class anxiety is the slow growth of wages even in the ninth year of economic recovery. The Phillips curve — which postulates that tighter labor markets lead to an acceleration of wage growth — appears to have broken down. Unemployment is at historically low levels, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday that average hourly earnings last month rose by all of 3 cents — little more than a 0.1 percent bump. For the past year, they rose by only 2.5 percent. In contrast, profits of the S&P 500 are rising at a 16 percent annual rate.

What is going on? Economists don’t have complete answers. In part, there are inevitable year-to-year fluctuations (profits have declined in several recent years). And in part, BLS data reflects wages earned in the United States, even though a bit less than half of profits are earned abroad and have become more valuable as the dollar has declined relative to other currencies. And finally, wages have not risen because a strengthening labor market has drawn more workers into the labor force.

But I suspect the most important factor is that employers have gained bargaining power over wages while workers have lost it. Technology has given some employers — depending on the type of work involved — more scope for replacing American workers with foreign workers (think outsourcing) or with automation (think boarding-pass kiosks at airports) or by drawing on the gig economy (think Uber drivers). So their leverage to hold down wages has increased.

On the other hand, other factors have decreased the leverage of workers. For a variety of reasons, including reduced availability of mortgage credit and the loss of equity in existing homes, it is harder than it used to be to move to opportunity. Diminished savings in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis means many families cannot afford even a brief interruption in work. Closely related is the observation that workers as consumers appear more likely than years ago to have to purchase from monopolies — such as a consolidated airline sector or local health-care providers — rather than from firms engaged in fierce price competition. That means their paychecks do not go as far….

These two analyses aren’t the same in depth: the local editorial misses key points, either through ignorance or sophistry, that Summers easily covers in his succinct, general-readership essay.

Those reading Summers – even if in disagreement, and perhaps especially if so – will gain something from his observations. Those reading the Gazette will find only shallow contentions.

In a small town, one could read either. In a school district, one could teach either. At university, one could research either.

Why settle for less, why teach a new generation to accept less, when one could engage and think at a competitive national level, just as easily as any other person in America? Summers and others are as accessible to us as the Gazette, and offer so much more.

Anything less is short-changing onself and one’s community.

How a Campus Masks Local Mistakes

Many small towns, looking for something to attract visitors and newcomers, probably dream about the possibility of a college campus. Whitewater has a public university campus, and the majority of the city’s residents are students at that school. Thousands of students in the city assure a steady stream of retail traffic we would not otherwise have. Some, if not most, merchants in town would wither or shut down without the demand the campus generates.

A thriving campus is an advantage for a city.

There is a way, however, that a campus – with the demand that it alone can generate – masks failings elsewhere in town. Because a campus necessarily draws visitors large numbers, failings of local municipal and other public officials are more easily ignored or overcome. Non-university officials don’t need to work as hard or as skillfully in an environment where a university’s demand compensates (as it by volume necessarily will) for their own mistakes and sloppiness.

Consider a recent story about policing in nearby Clinton, Wisconsin, where some residents are upset that local law enforcement’s supposedly heavy-handed conduct is driving away potential visitors who would otherwise shop in that town. (A story on this matter, behind a paywall, is poorly written and almost deliberately vague, offering little beyond a general claim.)

Whatever’s happening – or not – with local officials in Clinton, Wisconsin, this much is true: like most tiny towns, they’re on their own, with no campus to compensate for local political and administrative failings.

A municipal mistake in a place Clinton echos like a single pea in a tin can – there’s nothing else to muffle the rattling.

Whitewater, Wisconsin’s public campus gives local officials (here I mean some, not all) more leeway for error, shoddy thinking, and low-quality work, secure as they are in the knowledge that demand will remain higher than if their work alone were the city’s principal attraction.

This is one reason that, despite the talent of some, Whitewater’s Major Public Institutions Produce a Net Loss (And Why It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way).  It’s also true that the university, itself, has generated demand even when its some of its leaders – Richard Telfer easily comes to mind – have been mediocre or worse (“There is one exception worth noting: the high-level leadership that former Chancellor Telfer gathered at UW-Whitewater is notably weak or troubled…”).

Whitewater has an advantage that towns like Clinton don’t have, but rather than use that advantage to its fullest – by producing to a higher level – some officials can batten on the demand that a public campus offers without having to provide the unassisted effort that most rural communities must.

Anti-Immigration Measures, Wrong Yet Again

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An anti-immigration position is for economics something like a flat-earth position would be for natural science: one may hold it only through either ignorance or disorder. (The ignorance would have  to be profound, as even the weakest grasp of economics would incline a rational person to acknowledge the benefits of a free, transnational  labor market; the disorder would have to be grave, as only obstinacy or prejudice would long resist a reasoned explanation.)

In this free, commercial republic, there are still some who are merely ignorant on immigration, but one has reason to believe that Trump pushes his line to fill empty vessels not merely with weak economics but with strong prejudices.

There are officials both in and outside the city who would bring Arizona-style ‘show us your papers’ laws to Wisconsin. They are wrong on economics, wrong on liberty, but at least they have this going for them: each and every one of these politicians (or the out-of-area mouthpieces on whom they rely) is an easily-identifiable troll for either ignorance or lumpen prejudices.

A quick note to the local officials of the city, school district, and university who are in the habit of inviting these anti-immigration politicians to public events: you debase the American tradition, and turn away from sound reasoning and thorough study, when you bring these few to your events. No supposed political necessity will justify their presence. One cannot profess a worthy education proudly and honestly while simultaneously offering a platform to the ignorant or biased. 

Just a bit of light reading in this regard —

Heather Long, It’s a ‘grave mistake’ for Trump to cut legal immigration in half:

President Trump endorsed a steep cut in legal immigration on Wednesday. Economists say that’s a “grave mistake.”

A Washington Post survey of 18 economists in July found that 89 percent believe it’s a terrible idea for Trump to curb immigration to the United States. Experts overwhelmingly predict it would slow growth — the exact opposite of what Trump wants to do with “MAGAnomics.”

“Restricting immigration will only condemn us to chronically low rates of economic growth,” said Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group. “It also increases the risk of a recession”….

Jeremy Robbins, Trump says the proposed immigration bill will raise wages for Americans. It won’t.:

But while moving to a merit-based immigration system, Cotton and Perdue also propose reducing the number of legal immigrants admitted into the United States every year by half — from about 1 million to about 500,000. They argue that having fewer immigrants will leave more jobs available for American workers.

But the economy simply doesn’t work that way.

Economists who study immigration overwhelmingly agree that immigration is an economic boon to our country. Indeed, nearly 1,500 Republican, Democratic and independent economists — including six Nobel laureates — recently released a letter stressing the “near universal agreement” among economists of all stripes on “the broad economic benefit that immigrants to this country bring.”

To that consensus, Cotton responds: “Only an intellectual could believe something so stupid.” He instead points to Canada and Australia as models for limited legal immigration. However, while it’s true that Canada and Australia admit far more high-skilled immigrants, they also admit more family-based immigrants. In fact, on a per capita basis, they admit 2.4?and 3.5 times as many immigrants, respectively, as the United States does….

Jennifer Rubin, A crass play to xenophobes will go nowhere:

Because the bill went nowhere in April and will not make it onto the Senate calendar for the rest of the year, it’s an obvious, typical play to Donald Trump’s base, once more using immigrants as scapegoats and distractions. (“Trump’s appearance with the senators came as the White House moved to elevate immigration back to the political forefront after the president suffered a major defeat when the Senate narrowly rejected his push to repeal the Affordable Care Act,” The Post reported. “The president made a speech last Friday on Long Island in which he pushed Congress to devote more resources to fighting illegal immigration, including transnational gangs.”)

When introduced in April the bill was roundly criticized by more than 1,000 economists. There is near-uniformity among respected economists that immigrants do not “steal” jobs from native-born Americans (in part because they have different skill sets and in part because they make the economy bigger), have almost no impact on domestic wages (except for non-high school graduates, where the impact is less than 2 percent) and are essential to keep the economy growing. By reducing the number of immigrants by a half a million, the bill would shrink the U.S. economy and exacerbate the problem of an aging workforce (immigrants statistically are younger than the native-born population).

Nevertheless, for anti-immigrant groups who often insist they oppose only illegal immigration, it’s a revealing moment. They cheer the idea that we should take fewer hard-working, pro-American immigrants through legal avenues. (Trump, by the way, continues to hire substantial numbers of foreign workers at his resort in Florida.) No, the anti-immigrant forces simply want to keep people unlike themselves out of the United States. Their economic arguments are tired, wrong and a pretext for xenophobia.

The notion that immigration restriction raises wages has been disproved by past experience. (Canceling the 1960s Bracero program, akin to the Cotton-Perdue plan for lowering immigrant numbers, had “little measurable effect on wages.”) A slew of conservative think tankers and former officials condemn immigration restrictionism as rotten for the U.S. economy. The plan was swiftly criticized by Democrats, pro-immigration activists and economically literate Republicans.  Trump’s promise of 3 percent annual growth was far-fetched; with a proposed reduction of 500,000 people, it becomes impossible.

This is a confidence game from Trump: the bill is for suckers who think Trump will actually get something passed, and it wouldn’t lift wages as promised even if it should pass.

Whitewater, Cultures & Communications, June 2017 (Part 11: ‘Fiestas and Apple Orchards’)

This is the eleventh post in a series considering related local topics of cultures & communications within the city.

In the Wall Street Journal, Pennsylvanian Crispin Sartwell writes of Fiestas and Apple Orchards: Small-Town Life Before Trump (“My corner of Pennsylvania was thriving again—until immigration agents began carting people away”):

I live in York Springs, a no-stoplight town near Gettysburg, in the middle of what’s known as the South Mountain Fruit Belt. Adams County grows more apples than any other in Pennsylvania and is fourth-highest producer in the nation. The fruit belt is not the Rust Belt, but the biggest employers are canning plants: Knouse, Rice and Mott’s. Down the road in Biglerville, they call the high-school teams the Canners.

York Springs, known locally as “Little Mexico” or “Rednexico,” has a population of 800 or so, 46% Hispanic, according to the 2010 census. This, I daresay, is now inaccurate: If you made the population 1,100 and 70% Hispanic, you’d be nearer the mark. Many people came to Adams County as seasonal apple pickers, and orchards need tending year round, so they stayed. Some became orchard managers, and some started businesses: hair salons and restaurants, grocery stores and landscaping companies.

The mix is a remarkable thing: Oaxaca in a Wyeth painting….

Now, however, York Springs has become a target for immigration enforcement. Statistics by locality are hard to come by, but an attorney speaking at a community forum last month at the Adams County Agricultural Center said there were at least 15 actions in York Springs during February and March, with many more since, including street arrests and traffic stops that have resulted in detentions. People are held at the prison in the city of York, 25 miles down the road, and the phrase “they took her to York” has become the expression for someone who’s been taken into the immigration system….

This stringent enforcement of immigration law is destroying a rich, new rural culture. It’s likely to destroy the economy, too. The orchards generate over $500 million a year, and, one way or another, most of the jobs. But the local growers, many of whom have been operating the family orchards for generations, worry they won’t have enough manpower this fall to harvest the crop.

More than one town in this country, meaning truly many of the people in those towns, will see ruin before this federal administration of the lumpen and the lying meets its end. The injustices inflicted, to be sure, will be worse for those who experience them than for those on the sidelines who merely find them uncomfortable, offensive, or unfair.

In all these things, however, it will be helpful to have a long memory.

Previously: Parts 1 (introductory assumptions), 2 (population), 3 (oasis), 4 (demographics), 5 (working age), 6 (divided), 7 (how it was supposed to be), 8 (nearby), and 9 (small-town harvards), and 10 (mailers).

Tomorrow: Part 12.

Whitewater, Cultures & Communications, June 2017 (Part 9: Small-Town Harvards)

This is the ninth post in a series considering related local topics of cultures & communications within the city.

Alana Semuels asks Could Small-Town Harvards Revive Rural Economies? Her contention, as she succinctly describes it:

 

College campuses and educational institutions can bolster the economies of small towns that otherwise would be struggling like many other rural locations throughout the country. Many of the rural areas that are thriving today are either home to natural features they can capitalize on—like Aspen, Colorado, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, do with skiing—or they’re the home to colleges or universities. The main benefits of educational institutions are twofold: They often produce research and technology that can be parlayed into new businesses, creating jobs nearby. And they bring to the area students, who spend money on restaurants and services, and attract professors and administrators, who do the same and also buy houses and cars.

Pick out any rural college town and it’s likely doing better economically than other nearby rural areas. The unemployment rate in Kearney, Nebraska, home to the University of Nebraska at Kearney, for example, is 2.5 percent, compared to the state’s overall rate of 3.4 percent. In rural Corvallis, Oregon, the home of Oregon State University, the unemployment rate is 3 percent, while surrounding rural counties such as Lincoln have a rate as high as 4.8 percent. According to Jed Kolko, an economic researcher at the job-search website Indeed.com, non-metropolitan counties that are growing in population have 30 percent college graduates or more; those that are shrinking tend to have populations with less than 30 percent college grads.

It goes without saying that Whitewater has not seen the economic gains across the city that some of these communities have seen. There are a few reasons for this, among many:

1.  Limited community support for the university.

2.  Community support that’s not really support. University employees who make excuses for their own institution in order to ingratiate themselves into the part of town culture that has limited support for the university are third-tier advocates. Just about every university-affiliated town notable has this problem. (See, from yesterday, Nearby.)

3.  Ersatz tech development instead of meaningful achievements. The Innovation Center is mostly the CESA 2 building. It’s what one builds when one wants to misapply a big federal grant to claim a successful tech affiliation that, in fact, falls far short of its promise. Boasting about the Innovation Center is boasting for the gullible or ignorant.

4. Self-affirming studies from the university that look more like flimsy press releases (and are, from the very get-go, conceptually flawed).  (See, The Value of Sports.) Studies like that should be embarrassments to accredited, degree-granting institution.)

5. Too much administrative emphasis on sports victories. Winning seasons are hard, and are not the accomplishment of non-athlete administrators. Banking on victories, in any event, is hard when Wisconsin’s D3 environment, overall, is sufficiently balanced that victories will naturally be spread over several schools (each with the ability to do well nationally). Expecting a permanent place at the top is a sign of how little someone knows about the challenges of a competitive environment.

Worse, pressure to stay on top leads to injury to individuals for the sake of an administrator’s pride.

As a community matter, though, too few are committed to the university as a university. They advocate for it in timid, compromising, unrealistic, and ineffectual ways. A town grandee or two walking around in a purple jacket isn’t meaningful advocacy – it’s self-congratulatory fashion.

Whitewater’s not close to a university that advocates for itself powerfully. There’s scarcely anyone among the university-affiliated who’s also formidable advocate for the school within town, and not one on the Media Relations team. Good writing is not enough – one must be emotionally resolute. (If Sen. Nass & Chief of Staff Mikalsen can back someone off, one’s not up to the job.)

(Models of strength in advocacy: @JRubinBlogger and @sarahkendzior. They’ll see their views through, come what may. So very admirable.) 

The university won’t be what it can be until a new group of university advocates emerges.

Until then, we’ll not have the small-town Harvard we otherwise might.

Previously: Parts 1 (introductory assumptions), 2 (population), 3 (oasis), 4 (demographics), 5 (working age), 6 (divided), 7 (how it was supposed to be), and 8 (nearby).

Tomorrow: Part 10.

Whitewater, Cultures & Communications, June 2017 (Part 2: Population)

This is the second post in a series considering related local topics of cultures & communications within the city.

U.S. Census data show that Whitewater proper (the city) has stopped growing, and is, in fact, experiencing a population decline.

From 2015-2016, the city lost about 1.1% of her population (168 people). Even over a longer period, from 2010-2016, she barely grew .8% (or 116 people).

Of those residing in Whitewater, in fact, there has been a decline of mean household income: from 47,073 in 2010 to 42,490 in 2015.

That’s longer-term stagnation with short-term decline. There are (of course) economic and municipal fiscal implications of this condition, but there are cultural ones, too.

Previously: Part 1 (introductory assumptions).

Tomorrow: Part 3.

Whitewater, Cultures & Communications, June 2017 (Part 1: Introduction)

This is the first post in a series considering related local topics of cultures & communications within the city.

I’ll start with an introductory series of assumptions, some I’ll flesh out in greater detail in the series, but all of which state plainly my views.

1.  In America’s current political climate, it’s national politics that necessarily predominates. See, The National-Local Mix (“Trump is a fundamentally different candidate from those who have come before him.  Not grasping this would be obtuse.  Writing only about sewing circles or local clubs or a single local meeting while ignoring Trump’s vast power as president – and what it will bring about – would be odd. Someone in Tuscany, circa 1925, had more to write about than the countryside.”)

2.  The near-term outlook for Whitewater’s economy is a mediocre one. See, Local Assumptions and Outlook, Winter 2016 (“I’d say the outlook is for turbulence in the national political-economy, and stagnation in the local one. See, The National-Local Mix and The Local Economic Context of It All.  The way out of several years’ local stagnation is a more decisive break with past, but there’s no evidence whatever that Whitewater’s local government will take this step; nothing else will be adequate.”)

3.  Stagnation is, in a wider economy that’s growing, relative decline.

4.  Stagnation has fiscal, economic, and cultural consequences.

5.  The long-term outlook for Whitewater is favorable, significantly because many existing practices and local notables’ advocacy of them have no long-term future.  See, New Whitewater’s Inevitability.

6. Grand public solutions in this environment will prove ineffectual; they’re what created these mediocre conditions. SeeThe Next Big Thing.

7. A strategy of advancing private over public accomplishments is the best way to weather hard time in a community drenched in public initiatives. SeeAn Oasis Strategy.

8. Whitewater is a multicultural city, no matter how hard some fight to hide or deny that simple truth. SeeThe Meaning of Whitewater’s Not-Always-Mentioned DemographicsA Small But Diverse City, Seldom Described That Way, and Parts and Wholes.

9. A strategy of making private cultural accomplishments, rather than public projects, a priority won’t work if one doesn’t distinguish between the vibrant and the moribund. 

10. Choices among local cultural options will shorten — or lengthen — the duration of local stagnation.

11. Local insider accounts help others understand policymakers’ thinking, but have little or no independent policy value. SeeThe Last Inside Accounts.

12. Particular local leaders are talented; their collective product is often sub-par, as a few hold the talented ones back. SeeWhitewater’s Major Public Institutions Produce a Net Loss (And Why It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way).

Tomorrow: Part 2.

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).