A Savage Economic Tale of Displacement

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Chad Broughton’s Boom, Bust, Exodus  —  The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities, is one of the more depressing books I have read recently, but it is a very insightful, useful book.  Broughten records the sad saga when a Maytag refridgerator plant in Galesburg, Illinois, is shut down and moved to Mexico.  Spoiler alert:  no one you care about  really wins here.  I always like to know what people are thinking as they encounter adversity, and the author does a thoughtful and consistent job of interviewing and sticking with an interesting assortment of players.  He tracks the union workers in Galesburg, Illinois, by showing what they had in their glory days and then the ominous signs and then finally the closing of their Maytag refrigerator factory.  So many of them are completely unprepared to do anything else.  They are used to earning $ 15 plus an hour when their factory is closed in 2004.  They have a lot of notice that isn’t all that helpful when most of them barely have a high school degree and are dismayed and highly insecure about returning to school.  Even with relatively generous unemployment and education benefits, it is a very tough road.  Since Maytag was the biggest show in town, none of these people have easy places to seek other work.  The economic jolt is severe since they had bought their houses and organized their lives around their stable Maytag income and benefits.  Virtually none of the people who are followed recoup their Maytag earning power, but some of them pursue degrees and many of them seem to end up relatively content.  The author notes that the women workers were generally better at returning to school and to reinventing themselves.  While that point isn’t especially developed, it is sadly encouraging to see a male author spend so much time interviewing and following both female and male workers.

Not surprisingly the only person who seems to have truly profited from this mess is the last executive standing.  He is portrayed as driving the company into the ground and then making off with a $ 20 million golden parachute when the company is sold.  He is last seen living in a gated community and actively supporting LIbertarian candidates.  One of his neighbors calls him “a capitalist evangelist.”

What happened to the refrigerator manufacturing after it was transferred to Mexico is terribly depressing.  It is fair to say that the American worker’s loss wasn’t necessarily the Mexican worker’s gain.  The author follows Mexican workers who struggle on very little income as they take on very arduous, yet basically unskilled, manufacturing jobs.  Worker safety concerns are fairly non-existent; the pay is awful; and the jobs are transitory at best.  The supposedly lower cost of living provides no safety net for these workers.  It is still too expensive to live.

For me the most interesting part of the book was to track a rich assortment of individuals through their personal economic and social upheavals.  The author asked the questions that needed to be asked and apparently established a continuing rapport with his subjects.

In its conclusion the book addresses many ideas that would benefit from further development, perhaps in another book.  In this book they served as a way to begin to make sense of all the individual stories that had been told.  In that context, the author’s concluding comments were valuable, particularly as they demanded that the reader ponder large issues, such as what’s going on in Mexico, how might American manufacturing be transformed and made more profitable and, fundamentally, the high cost of inequality.

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