The Commons hosts commentary from contributing writers across the political spectrum, advancing American Compass’s mission through discussion that combines intellectual combat and personal civility.
American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears, by Farah Stockman (Random House, 432 pp., $28)
Farah Stockman’s new book, American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears, documents the closure and relocation of an Indianapolis Rexnord bearing plant to Mexico and Texas. Stockman, a New York Times reporter, was assigned to cover the Rexnord plant after then-candidate Trump tweeted about its pending closure and the scheduled relocation of a nearby Carrier plant to Mexico in 2016.
The story of the Rexnord plant is an all-too-familiar one. Link-Belt, the original firm that built the bearing plant, was a byword for quality. The plant’s unionized workers took tremendous pride in the quality of their bearings—even after years of underinvestment meant that they worked with outdated production equipment. The plant was eventually acquired by Rexnord, whose management adopted a strategy of quality reduction, followed by relocation to Mexico and Texas. Stockman describes how machines were packed up and shipped to Mexico and the plant’s workers suffered the indignity of training their replacements from south of the border.
The whole affair rightfully drew Trump’s ire and national attention to Indianapolis. But it merely forms the backdrop to Stockman’s human-centered story about the social costs of offshoring and deindustrialization. Read More
About a year ago I published an American Compass essay on “The Five Deadly Sins of the Left.” In that essay, I addressed the surprising fact that the left has not performed as well as one might expect, given the poor performance of free-market capitalism in the 21st century. Even the financial crisis of 2008–09 did not spur any real realignment of voters toward the left. Nor have—so far—the twin economic and health crises brought on by the COVID pandemic. What has gone wrong?
A year ago, I put forward a simple theory. The public just isn’t interested in buying what the left is selling. No matter how loudly the left hawks its wares or how heroically it organizes, it will not succeed. The left’s internal diagnoses lead it to believe that, in picking up the pieces from this global debacle, it can finally gain the elusive majority support it needs. But, I argued, durable mass support for the left will not emerge unless and until it radically revamps its offering, abandoning the unhealthy and unpopular obsessions that consume its attention and distract from actual solutions. In particular, it must find the strength to overcome its five deadly sins: identity politics; retro-socialism; catastrophism; growthphobia; and technopessimism.
The decision to welcome China into the World Trade Organization two decades ago still has its defenders—the Xinhua News Agency, for instance, and the American Enterprise Institute’s Jim Pethokoukis. “Most obvious are the consumer benefits from China … and how Chinese import competition encouraged many American manufacturing firms to invest and innovate more,” observes Xinhua, while Pethokoukis notes that, “The United States has substantially benefited from China’s WTO entry in multiple areas including consumption, investment and trade.”
In hindsight, it was the happiest of coincidences that global markets integrated during an era of American hegemony. In the moment, though, policymakers took for granted the presence of some indelible linkage: “Globalization” was synonymous with “liberalization.” Countries with McDonald’s didn’t fight each other. And trading freely with a communist, mercantilist dictatorship ruling over more than a billion impoverished peasants would help that nation transition to liberal democracy, enriching everyone along the way.
San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, by Michael Shellenberger (Harper, 416 pp., $28.99)
“I just took [my son] to our local Walgreens to buy him a toy. While there, a man shoved past me so firmly that he sent me into the shelving. Then he proceeded to fill a brown paper bag with Halloween candy and waltzed out of the store. This is one of five Walgreens stores in SF that will be closing in the next two months, in part because of rampant theft. And our city leaders all keep insisting crime is down.”
I didn’t need to read Michael Shellenberger’s new book, San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, to know what has happened to the city on the Bay. The above quotation is taken from an email from a former student, herself a San Francisco native. Earlier she reported that a homeless man had defecated in front of her townhouse.
San Francisco’s mainstream media and political elite have tried to downplay such stories. But the trends are impossible to ignore. California is one of just a handful of states to see dramatic increases in its homeless population. Between 2015 and 2020, San Francisco’s homeless population grew by 32%, despite the city tripling its funds to address homelessness. Public health and safety have been jeopardized. The entire state has witnessed a spike in shoplifting, particularly in San Francisco. Meanwhile, homeless encampments have become breeding grounds for all sorts of diseases, some of them distinctly medieval. Read More
It is a peculiar thing, the terror with which inhabitants of early 21st-century America crawl into bed each night, uncertain if they will awake the next morning to an economy still growing. It is Growth to which they owe their prosperity, they believe, and Growth on which they must pin their hopes for their children. Yet they cannot see this Growth, nor hold it in their hands. They know not from whence it comes, nor how, nor why—only that its spirit surrounds them and shapes the course of their lives. From within ivory towers dotting the landscape, marble temples clustered in the Capital, and the pages of the Wall Street Journal, a powerful priesthood sets forth the precepts by which a pro-Growth society must live, measures the amount of Growth that has occurred, and predicts the amount to come.
COVID-19 sent a shock wave through an already changing U.S. job market, provoking “a great reassessment of work in America.”
This broad rethinking of work and human capital development is occurring while 10.4 million jobs sit unfilled and more than 8.4 million unemployed individuals look for work. There is a clear disconnect, but the ultimate outcome is far from clear.
As Bob Dylan asks in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “…something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?”
But even without this clarity, reassessment has an upside.
In this week’s Compass Point, The Snowflakes Aren’t Melting, Michael Brendan Dougherty offers a sharp, revisionist account of “safetyism.” The term commonly refers to the phenomenon of young people coddled through their childhoods and thus unable to cope with the conflicts and travails of adulthood. But while that surely must be going on, Dougherty argues that it does not explain most of what we observe: the problem is less quivering balls of frailty than aggressive litigators of alleged harm. The college student who demands protection from another’s microaggression is not melting under the oppressive heat of real life, but wielding a politicized claim of injury as a dagger.
Only the Rich Can Play: How Washington Works in the New Gilded Age, by David Wessel (PublicAffairs, 352 pp., $14.99)
The rapper T.I. may never have read Kevin Williamson’s infamous suggestion that struggling communities need “real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul,” but he is clearly familiar with the mindset. As he tells Brookings Institution senior fellow David Wessel, a friend of his once asked “Hey, man, why is it that the answer to the problems in our community is always for us to get rich and move out and never come back?”
The approach typified by Williamson and lamented by T.I.’s friend has long been conventional wisdom among economists and policymakers. Increasing opportunity meant promoting geographic mobility and getting people out of declining areas, rather than throwing good money after bad. Public funds, the thinking went, should be spent on poor people, not poor places. Read More
Paul Krugman famously called the federal government “an insurance company with an army.” In this, unlike most things, he is not entirely wrong. When it comes to domestic policy, the lion’s share of government spending is social insurance payments (Medicare, Social Security, the SSDI disability program, unemployment insurance) and social assistance via the safety net (TANF, food stamps, housing vouchers, the SSI disability program, and so on). Many of our most contentious political debates concern how and why to expand, contract, supplement, or reform these various programs: from welfare reform in the 1990s, Social Security privatization and Obamacare in the 2000s, entitlement reform (mainly Medicare “premium support”) in the 2010s, and now proposals for a child allowance or universal basic income.