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Rust Belt Reflections

MADISON, Wis. — Heading west on the Illinois Tollway last week, I passed a familiar landmark, the Chrysler plant in Belvidere. It occurred to me how much this sprawling complex had touched my life, although I'd never had — or even considered — a job there.

The closest I got to employment at Belvidere was a summer job for a Chrysler supplier in nearby Byron, Ill. But that relationship typifies a vast region. There's hardly a normal soul within 50 miles — probably 100 miles — of the Belvidere plant who has gone untouched by its presence.

Belvidere, along with its big brother a few miles west, Rockford, is one of the westernmost cities strung between Interstates 90 and 70 that compose what we call the Rust Belt. I tend to place the Rust Belt's eastern terminus at Easton, Pa., with Janesville, Wis., as the last stop west.

Rust Belt factories have been an integral part of the  supply chain and the community. But times change.

Rust Belt factories have been an integral part of the
supply chain and the community. But times change.

Heritage and history
Every town along the way has a similar economic heritage, centered around a dominant industry born in the Industrial Revolution: iron, steel, machine tools, railroads, trucks, automobiles, engines, auto parts, tires, refineries, industrial machinery. Every Rust Belt industry has demanded an abundance of strong, silent men (and women) smart enough to balance a ton and a half of loose bar joists chained beneath an overhead crane, but humble enough to survive five decades on the job resigned to never having really clean fingernails.

I come from those people. But I didn't fully appreciate the immense power of the Big Factory in a Rust Belt town until I lived, during college and afterwards, in Rockford and Beloit, Wis. I saw how the presence of the Big Factory was both source and hindrance for community prosperity. I realized how it shaped the dreams of its employees' children, who were expected — if they worked hard in school — to go on to something better than their blue-collar parents.

By the same token, the Belvidere plant still serves, for the working stiffs of Boone County and beyond, as the big fallback. If you screw up in school, or your rock band breaks up, Belvidere is there for you, holding out the chance of a decent living. Once hired, at UAW wages, you can support a family (especially if the wife works), buy a double-wide, put the kids in parochial school, maybe even get a boat.

The long reach
But here's the rub: The Belvidere plant has a dark side, its shadow touching every hamlet within its ambit, every school board, every mom-and-pop tool-and-die outfit, every restaurant and watering hole. When things go sour for Chrysler, they go sour for Boone County, for Rockford, for thousands of paycheck-to-paycheck workers in that 100-mile radius, for everyone who's vulnerable to every little tremor in the fortunes of the Big Plant in Belvidere.

When the Belvidere plant goes on annual hiatus to retool for the next year's models, a swath of America holds its breath, wondering if this “temporary” layoff will be two weeks, or two months, or maybe this is the year we all knew would come eventually, when Detroit (or Washington, or God) decides Belvidere just ain't worth the trouble anymore.

When I lived around there, I had neighbors whose lives hung on the day-to-day, year-to-year, life-or-death sustenance and suspense that emanated from that Big Plant in Belvidere.

When I was driving I-90 last week, I passed towns with similar stories. In Beloit, the Fairbanks Morse empire was once so mighty that its semi-pro football team beat the Green Bay Packers. In Kenosha, American Motors once reigned, until it died. In Racine, J.I. Case and Johnson Wax are still there, fundamental and fearsome. Rockford, one of the pillars of the Rust Belt, had a half-dozen smokestack giants — now, not so much. And in Janesville…

One man's vote
General Motors closed its Janesville plant in 2009. Amazing, really. In 2009, one of Congress's rising stars, Rep. Paul Ryan, was a Janesville guy.

In 2009, Ryan voted against the GM bailout, out of conviction, and out of his own experience as a scion of Janesville's small upper-crust. His principled vote defied a basic political truth: that an honorable Congressman's first job is to keep open, come hell or high water, the Big Factory in his district. He's supposed to fight for his people.

To stand responsibly for a Rust Belt city, a Congressman must understand that the Big Factory is the local economy's lifeblood. It's the cornerstone of the community's middle-class, the glue that holds local society intact, and the mark of aspiration for every kid in every local high school. It is the best hope, and the last resort.

I drove through Janesville, wondering: Why is this man still in office?

5 comments on “Rust Belt Reflections

  1. Brian Fuller
    March 8, 2013

    Benji, an elegiac piece, my friend. There is a unique evolution going on in that part of the country, but at least it's finally occurring.

    The Rust Belt (whether it was steel, automotive or other industrial) ruled the global manufacturing for decades. Their industries matured, and, as this happened, the strong developed blind spots. Next thing you know, the Japanese and Koreans are making great affordable cars and we're buying steel from them. Chinese are getting there as well in some heavy-industrial areas.

    Some pockets of the Rust Belt felt the old ways would win out after the storm passed; others realized they needed to change processes and technologies and work forces and moved to get globally competitive. 

    You paint a beautiful picture of the woof and warp of the Rust Belt economy. It may be that the voters will turn out guys like Ryan; or it may be that they support politicians who believe the old ways of manufacturing may not last forever and that new economies need to be nurtured. 

    Time will tell. 

     

     

  2. FLYINGSCOT
    March 11, 2013

    I saw a TV programme last night about GE building loads of home appliances again in the USA as excessive shipping costs and offshore labor costs are now making it viable to build locally once more.  I am sure popolous pressure also has a lot to do with it.  I hope a similar trend happens in the Rust Belt.  It is part of Americana and should be protected.  Mind you the GE jobs created were all failrly low paid so that might put a dampener on things.

  3. David Benjamin
    March 11, 2013

    My esteemed editor makes an argument that hearkens back to the seminal work on economics, Adam Smith's “The Wealth of Nations.” He suggests that the flow of jobs. manufacturing and capital from the U.S. to low-wage nations is some sort of natural phenomenon, like water flowing downhill. This analysis conforms roughly to Adam Smith's “invisible hand” metaphor, which has become a staple of simplistic economics commentary, especially among conservatives.

    However, as anyone who has read “The Wealth of Nations” knows, Smith's insights extended far beyond the basic notion that an invisible hand somehow directs capital toward each actor's best interests, thus establishing an economic equilibrium. Smith knew that many forces prevented that invisible hand from acting efficiently. Much of “The Wealth of Nations” consists of Smith's cri de coeur against international forces of mercantilism — the use of one government's power to thwart the economic potential of rival nations. As we know from the behavior of countries from France to China, mercantilist policies are alive and well in the world, warping the ability of more laissez faire governments (like the U.S.) to compete both in the global market and in the national and regional markets of these protectionist regimes. Adam Smith would be as frustrated today as he was centuries ago.

    To suggest that the death of the Rust Belt, and the American decline in high-quality manufacturing (in favor of the crappy stuff that tends to emerge from China) has not been actively advanced by the aggressive policy of nations like China, Japan and even Mexico, and the rampant protectionism that afflicts most EU countries, is to resort to a state of intellectual complacency tha predates the wisdom of Adam Smith.

  4. Brian Fuller
    March 11, 2013

    My esteemed contributor and fellow NFL fan suggests a response in my comment that doesn't exist. 

    Certainly global economic forces play a role in the evolution of any region, including the Rust Belt. 

    So too do the actions of company management and ownership within the Rust Belt. Take the automotive industry. Detroit's response to the '70s gas embargo and price spikes was to make what? Big cars that guzzled a lot of gas. 

    Japan made not-so-big cars that had better gas mileage and lasted a lot longer. Consumers voted with their pocketbooks, rewarding not industrial complacency but innovation. (Except for my old man, a Ford man until his death, but even he, in the '80s and '90s, ended up expoxying his relatively new car's falling parts back on himself). 

    You can worry about protectionist policies abroad only so much. A business owner needs to leverage technology to make great products that people will buy. 

    And politicians like Ryan should see that they'd serve their constituents better not so much by the keeping the old Big Factory open but by luring the next new Big Factory and new industry to town. 

     

  5. Brian Fuller
    March 11, 2013

    My esteemed contributor and fellow NFL fan suggests a response in my comment that doesn't exist. 

    Certainly global economic forces play a role in the evolution of any region, including the Rust Belt. 

    So too do the actions of company management and ownership within the Rust Belt. Take the automotive industry. Detroit's response to the '70s gas embargo and price spikes was to make what? Big cars that guzzled a lot of gas. 

    Japan made not-so-big cars that had better gas mileage and lasted a lot longer. Consumers voted with their pocketbooks, rewarding not industrial complacency but innovation. (Except for my old man, a Ford man until his death, but even he, in the '80s and '90s, ended up expoxying his relatively new car's falling parts back on himself). 

    You can worry about protectionist policies abroad only so much. A business owner needs to leverage technology to make great products that people will buy. 

    And politicians like Ryan should see that they'd serve their constituents better not so much by the keeping the old Big Factory open but by luring the next new Big Factory and new industry to town. 

     

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