Friday, May 22, 2009

What lies ahead for the Steel Valley

The I Will Shout Youngstown blog has a trailer for a film being released this fall about Youngstown and the Steel Valley.

The trailer moved just a bit too fast, I think -- I'd prefer two or three fewer images and a half-second more to linger on each. Does an outsider register what she's seeing, or do you have to be a native to read each image?

These are dates on which the Steel Valley lost steel company jobs: 8/77: 150 at Sheet & Tube headquarters; 9/77: Sheet & Tube Campbell Works 5,000; 11/79: U.S. Steel Ohio Works and McDonald Works 3,600; 12/79: Sheet & Tube Campbell Works 1,400; 1/82 Republic Steel 2,600; 8/86 300. Bill Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, uses the figure of ten thousand jobs eliminated between 1977 and 1981, with unnumbered tens of thousands in related and dependent industries also being lost.

Between 1977 and 1981 the number of personal bankruptcies in the region more than doubled. Alan Auerbach, reporting for the National Bureau of Economic Research, estimated a loss in regional real estate value during those same years of a billion 1980 dollars. Chamber of Commerce hopes that the laid-off workers would be hired by companies moving into the area found some new employment but at markedly reduced wages. In the same report, Shleifer and Summers [that's our friend Lawrence Summers, by the way] comment that these losses to stakeholders did not represent gains to steel company shareholders. In other words, these numbers represent a net loss of wealth to the national as well as regional community.

Even though the economic blow was devastating, there was another, equal loss. Auerbach reports psychological losses. First, individuals lost a sense that there was any real value to working hard for an employer -- because why trust an employer? Second, there was a loss in community as families and neighborhoods split apart in job searches that moved them thousands of miles, away from Youngstown and away from each other. This was not just the case with shift workers. People in suburban schools tell how their social groups shattered as management families were also moved around the country (and note the passive verb -- top management moved heads of family like so many chess pieces).

I know people who believe that no individual has a right to community. No individual has a right to live in Youngstown, to live near family. No individual has a right to live in that house there. And at the level of "that house there" it's an issue thousands of families face today with the mortgage crisis: if you can't pay for that house there, you shouldn't live in it.

And in a perfect world, that's a reasonable argument (in the sense that you can follow it even if you don't agree with it). But in today's mortgage crisis, a lot of the downside has no upside. New houses are being bulldozed because nobody can afford to live in them at the same time that families are being left homeless. And being told, "You do not have the right to live in the same community as your family" raises the question of "Who has the right to create a situation where I can't?" Looking back at the destruction of community that accompanied the collapse of Youngstown's steel industry -- and knowing from a generation down the road that there was no creation of wealth on a scale to approach that loss -- has made me reassess the underlying worldview here.

The excuse for huge economic dislocations has been that overall the greater community benefits by the creation of greater wealth. There is a rising tide that lifts all boats, and even those who are dislocated benefit, perhaps massively, in the long run. For most of us, time moves only forward. We assess our lives today with the thought (perhaps unspoken) that we are 100% alive today, and back then -- whenever then was -- we had a less than 100% chance of getting this far, so by definition we are ahead. We make countless calculations, without defining them or even noticing their existence, that argue overall today is better than yesterday. So future benefits stack up against today's damages, and future benefits win.

1 comment:

JohnMctossy said...
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