27.7.17

SHIPPING OUT THE INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY.

There's more to the Rust Belt story than the loss of Big Steel and Big Automotive and Big Tires in the big cities such as Akron, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Youngstown.  Get off the interstates, and the tales of loss are everywhere.

One such story takes place in Lancaster, Ohio.  Brian Alexander's Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town, Book Review No. 19,  looks at what happens as Lancaster Glass and Anchor-Hocking (the Pyrex folks) restructure and move headquarters out of town and outsource production to China.  (How can a management mess things up that badly?  Glass is a weight-losing, low-value-to-weight fragile proposition, and the loss and damage from trans-Pacific shipment alone ought to undo any cheap labor advantages.)

Thus, the middle managers who supported local civic activities, from churches to the P.T.A. to the summer music festival move out, and the suits and academicians from Columbus who treat Lancaster as a bedroom suburb don't take much interest in civic life, and the mediating institutions crumble.

Meanwhile, the eighty-six-proof anaesthetic crutches of the senior executives give way to the more potent, if less lawful, painkillers that become the gateway drug for the various opiates.  There has to be something more at work in the emergence of painkillers as initiative killers than simple cultural rot ... possibly that's a topic for future inquiry?  Mr Alexander concludes his book with some reflections on whether downscale middle America is more sinned against or sinning: that being the fashion in the run-up to the general election.

The "1% Economy?"  Not so much.  There is still a strain in punditry that sees Reaganite deregulation or Friedmanian open markets as the Root of All Evil, and the maintained hypothesis of Glass House is that businesses set free to increase shareholder value shattered the glass plants of Lancaster.  I'm not persuaded.  "Shareholder value," particularly in the quarterly report form, is simply another business fad, the same way conglomeration was a half century ago, and Total Quality Management a quarter century ago.  Businesses have to be mugged by reality sometimes, and one of these years the geniuses in suits will figure out that stripping cash out of boring businesses to support the Latest Big Thing doesn't end well.  Just ask Bangor Punta (if you can find them) or LTV (still looking) or whatever that integrated travel firm United Airlines thought itself to be was.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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