2.4.17

THE ROT HAS BEEN A LONG TIME COMING.

Toward the end of last year, I reacted to a presidential post-mortem that suggested Mrs Clinton, or her staffers, might have seen a lot of the decay of the Rust Belt from a train window.  I suggested, though, that it was as visible from a more deluxe train as well.
The view from the large windows of the Acela are similar, but get off the train and head to the office and you see the fruits of the rent-seeking and hear the stories about the fixer-uppers.  What's different is that once off the Corridor, the surroundings aren't so nice until you get to downtown Chicago, and even then you'd best not stray too far from the Loop.
Maybe Salena Zito is reading my stuff. Maybe not. Somebody with a bigger platform is noticing.
In the Acela Express’ business class, your seat is big and comfortable; you can plug in your iPhone or laptop or use the club cafe to sip on a craft IPA or chardonnay.

Sit in first class, and you get to enjoy hot towels, newspapers and beverages. Meals and drinks? Well, they are served to you at your seat.

The ride is a jarring anthropological experience — that is, if you bother to look up from your digital device.

Not because it is too fast, or the curves are too sharp; the jarring effect comes from the visual decay of our country swooshing right before your eyes.

Outside, a different Acela corridor rolls by — one roiled by isolation, decay and societal changes, a world ghosted by technology, corrupt politicians and bad city planning.

Shuttered machine shops, refineries, steel mills and manufacturing plants near Trenton and Philadelphia slide past the window like a kaleidoscope of sorrow; scores of once-charming century-old houses are now covered in graffiti and dot areas in and around Baltimore, Newark and Wilmington, Del.

It used to be that the people who lived and worked along the Acela corridor were held in at least as much esteem as those in the urban bookends that connect them. They were the people who made the stuff that made this country great, mostly blue-collar, mostly union members, mostly middle-class.

They worked hard, they played hard. On Friday nights, when their shifts ended, they went to the neighborhood bars; on Sundays they prayed for their sins. And, in between, they coached their kids’ softball games or volunteered at the concession stands.

Politically, they mostly have been New Deal Democrats, believing that government was there to hold together the social fabric; they depended on it as much as the government depended on them.
Yes, and in those years after Victory, WHAT CHESTER MAKES MAKES CHESTER and TRENTON MAKES -- THE WORLD TAKES were statements of pride, illuminated so that the overnight trade on the Federal or Bar Harbor could see them as well as the riders of a P70 day coach on the Clocker or a parlor car on The Congressional.  But by the time I started exploring the Corridor, the Chester sign was a memory, and Trenton's, on the highway bridge paralleling the tracks, ironic in view of the abandoned factories and urban blight that were already evident in those early days of Amtrak and multiple Metroliners.

Back then, though, there was the possibility that the employment was migrating to the Sun Belt.  On the cross-country trains, beyond the Alleghenies, you could travel for miles on The Pennsylvania Railroad or Baltimore and Ohio on fast tracks devoid of industrial spurs.  In Dixie, the Southern Railway and Atlantic Coast Line and Seaboard Airline were soliciting industry.

But when that industry is increasingly reliant on robotics, there's trouble.
The hard truth is that no one has any idea what to do with the under-employed, high-school-educated people who once were able to carve out good, middle-class lives with their own hands, as long as they were willing to work.

But somebody had better figure it out soon: With nearly 70 percent of Americans lacking college degrees, this corridor will eventually crack, just like the dislocated voters of the Rust Belt.
It's not so much the technology as the lack of entrepreneurial vision.  A modern steel furnace can produce more steel in an hour than all of Andrew Carnegie's men could make in a day.  That broadly shared prosperity of the late 1940s and early 1950s was a blend of victory dividend and Fordist division of labor.  And the folks who invent the robots have as much incentive as anyone to get it right: what does it pay to have extremely productive machines if there's insufficient demand to achieve the economies of volume?

That's going to have to be a mini-dissertation for another day.

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