Apr 20, 2008

On the Rust Belt, Political Accountablity, and Vexing Truths

I entered an existing discussion on a local website about the economic deterioration of Toledo, responding to a widely-held view that local Democratic officials are responsible for regional stagnation and decay. While I am hardly a shill for the Democrats, I believe that people are rather quick to point the finger at their local leaders for socioeconomic trends that are much larger in scope.

I also benefit from the perspective of living for 25 years in another nucleus of Rust Belt atrophication - Detroit - while having also lived for a time in Dallas, a successful Sun Belt city.

I don't find the local Democratic machine being the root of Toledo's problems, though I'll be happy to toss them some blame for the continuation of Toledo's decline. The exodus of manufacturing jobs in the Rust Belt - as well as the flight of wealth from the urban center to the suburbs - are phenomena much larger than the machinations of a few dozen local pols, and these trends are mirrored in many large cities in the region.

The Dems were just the party in power when the giant sucking sound of vanishing Midwestern factories rolled into high gear, and they have held power in most Rust Belt cities during nearly four decades of economic malaise because the Republicans have failed to present a cogent and compelling reason for voters to switch. There has been too much GOP focus on conservative rural voters with trumped-up, fear-mongering issues like gay marriage and flag-burning for urban Democrats to be able to pinch their noses and hope that the GOP is serious about economic growth in the Rust Belt.

Besides, the GOP is more interested in the blue-red dichotomy in state and national elections than it is in local politics. Control the state legislatures and you control the districting process, and larger cities can be written off if they can be outweighed by conservative rural communities. The GOP would rather live with isolated pockets of heavily Democratic districts like that of Rep. Marcy Kaptur if they can match her vote with one or two others elsewhere in Ohio.

The current congressional lead is 11-7 in Ohio for the GOP, and the party has successfully used this urban-rural political dichotomy to achieve its state and national goals for over two decades.

Yet the problem of industrial devolution cannot be legislated away, nor would simplistic notions like radical tax cuts suddenly induce a thriving company in a city like Tempe, AZ to relocate here. Maybe it is time for Toledo to embrace demographic and industrial shrinkage in the way that Youngstown is doing.

Of course, that would mean that a politician would have to stand up and tell the truth that Toledo has been on the decline for decades, and voters prefer to elect candidates who wave the flag or who tell us that prosperity is simply a matter of enough people exhibiting positive thinking. Why, I imagine that a politician who got in front of a microphone and spoke of the declining population, shrinking tax base, and lousy public schools would get pelted with rotten tomatoes and run out of town within minutes of such a political faux pas.

Not that I am endorsing Barack Obama here, but when he drifted away from the feel-good "Change" and "Hope" mantras to tell the truth about bitter people in small town America, pundits from both parties crucified him. The only thing wrong with Obama's statement is that he limited his comments to small towns, and not the many millions of unemployed, underemployed, and downsized workers in metropolitan sinkholes like Toledo.

And see just how quickly Obama scampered away from truth-telling! That kind of behavior is dangerous to the career of a pol, and I am sure that Obama's advisers reminded him afterward of the necessity to avoid reminding voters of unpleasant certainties.

What is even more important here is that the Rust Belt is not simply an aberration in the American economy, but rather a bellwether of the future. Industrial firms that relocated to the Sun Belt in the last few decades in search of such factors as inexpensive power, lower taxes, and reduced labor costs are continuing their rational pursuit of low-cost manufacturing locales around the globe. I suspect that the definition of the Rust Belt will continue to expand in the next five decades, perhaps to the point where low-wage American workers might one day stand in line for call center jobs from firms based in China and India.


microdot said...

"The truth? You couldn't deal with the truth"
Bette Davis in Now Voyager....

...and that pretty much sums up the political reality in America. A politician couldn't be elected for telling the truth, but he would be destroyed.

historymike said...

Thanks for the reference, Microdot. I'll have to order this film from Netflix.

steve said...

I actually think that the local goverment realizes the situation and is making an effort to be out in front when the technology boom of the comming decade ramps up. Energy and Healthcare are the industries of the next 30 or 40 years.