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Economies Change

October 26, 2016

My first daily commute was on Tuesday, September 8, 1981. The lead international news report of the day covered efforts by Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat to tamp down the domestic strife that ended his presidency, and his life, a month later. Sports news featured Vitas Gerulaitis’s upset victory over Ivan Lendl at the U.S. Open, setting up quarterfinal matches in which seven of eight men and six of eight women were American. Local news included President Reagan’s visit to Mayor Koch at Gracie Mansion to present a stage-prop check for $85 million as a “down payment” on federal funding for Westway, a multi-billion-dollar highway that was to be built on landfill in the Hudson River along southern Manhattan. (The project was abandoned in 1985.)

My last daily commute was on Thursday, June 30, 2016. The lead story of that day was ISIS’s bombing of the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, in retaliation for a Turkish government crack-down. Sports news was from the early rounds at Wimbledon, where defending men’s singles champion Novak Djokovic won his 30th consecutive major tournament match – at a tournament in which one of eight men’s quarterfinalists and two of eight women would be American. In the local news was Ronald Perelman’s announcement of a $75 million donation to create an arts center at the World Trade Center site. (He did not visit Mayor di Blasio or Gracie Mansion to make the announcement.)

For nearly 35 years, I commuted by New York City subway pretty much every day I went to work. Almost every commuting day, I bought the day’s New York Times from a subway station vendor and read the paper on the way to work, and on the way back again.

In 1981, many subway commuters, maybe most, read newspapers during their trips. A few read books or magazines and some engaged their commute-mates in conversation, but newspapers were subway commuters’ companion of choice. SONY had begun retailing the Walkman in the U.S. in 1980, but they were bulky and expensive. They played cassette tapes – Google it, or ask your parents – because CDs and DVDs, much less iPods, hadn’t been invented.

By 2016, I was often the only newspaper reader in my subway car. Some days there were one or two others, more often than not giving a quick scan to one of the free papers handed out in front of New York City subway stations. As before, there were always a few book-readers and some conversationalists. But by 2016, consistently on every ride, the majority of subway commuters were occupied with their “devices” – mostly smart phones, but also Kindles, tablets, and others.

Print newspaper readership has declined drastically since its peak in the 1990s. Competition from the internet has slashed popular consumption of the print medium. This does not mean an end to our newspaper reading, but it does mean a change in where and how we read newspapers: majorities of readers of most large-circulation papers report that they read their newspapers of choice primarily or exclusively on-line.

The decline in print readership has had a variety of important consequences, including in the job market. Newsprint production, printing, trucking, and newspaper distribution jobs are drastically reduced – gone are the newsboys of old movies, who stood on city street corners yelling “extra, extra, read all about it.” But employment in other areas of newspaper production has expanded – Web design, videography, on-line subscription and advertising sales, and all kinds of new content production. On-line newspapers have engendered a whole new profession: the comment moderator, who screens on-line comments submitted by readers to decide whether they meet the newspaper’s content standards.

Consider the differences between the kinds of jobs that digital news distribution does and doesn’t need. Obsolescent newspaper industry jobs were largely blue collar jobs that did not require college educations. Those jobs were often unionized. The new, digital age jobs tend to be white collar jobs that require college degrees and are significantly less likely to be unionized.

In the 1950s, about three-quarters of the world’s cars were manufactured in the United States – about eight to ten million a year. Today, American automobile manufacture is second to China, but still runs about eight to ten million a year. In terms of production, automotive manufacture that has been moved abroad has been essentially offset by increases in overall automotive manufacture.

Also during the 1950s, General Motors alone was the second-largest employer in the world, following only the Soviet Union’s state industries. Today, fewer than one million Americans hold full-time jobs in motor vehicle and parts manufacturing, with another three million or so employed in maintenance and repair, and wholesale and retail sales.

How can we be producing as many cars as we did in the industry’s heyday while employing so many fewer workers?

In 1969 or 1970, my parents took our family on a two-week driving vacation through the Midwest, a popular vacation motif for middle class suburban families at that time. During our stay in Detroit, we took a guided tour of a Ford Motor Co. plant. We walked the length of the assembly line on an elevated catwalk-type structure. There were machines on the assembly line – in particular, I remember a series of rollers that mashed steel bars into steel sheets. Even with the machines, the assembly line included hordes of employees, putting cars together with hand tools.

Automotive manufacture, like so much else in manufacturing, has shifted heavily toward automation. If you see an automobile manufacturing assembly line today, you see a line of robots, some operated by human employees, but many not. This is the nature of the modern world – when it comes to making things, human labor is still needed, but not nearly as much as it was even just a few decades ago.

Robots have to be designed and manufactured, of course, and they have to be shipped and installed, software has to be written to operate them, and the software has to be installed, maintained and updated. Assuming that the manufacture of robots is as automated as is the manufacture of automobiles, then most of the robot-related jobs are white collar, degree-requisite, non-union jobs, compared to the blue collar, degree-optional, unionized jobs of the bygone world of auto manufacture. Many of the blue collar jobs that still exist have been moved to anti-union states in the American South.

In our time, automatons manufacture automobiles and robots manufacture robots. We can no more undo industrial automation than we can restore print newspapers to their glory days.

To the extent that the white working class in America worked in manufacturing jobs that are gone, it’s fair to say that those workers were misled. They were misled to believe that a blue collar career and a middle class life could be founded on a high school education. You don’t need a college degree to work an assembly line, with or without robots. But you can’t write self-driving car software without a college degree, and a pretty technical degree at that – English literature won’t do the trick.

There’s no individual particularly responsible for misleading the white working class in this respect.

To the extent that the white working class believes that building a border wall and ending illegal immigration will restore manufacturing jobs, or that tearing up NAFTA will bring back labor-intensive hand tool assembly lines, it’s fair again to say that those workers have been misled. But this time, there are individuals particularly responsible for doing the misleading.

It is not just untrue, it is demagogic and dangerous to traffic in the pretext that we can go back to a time when a high school education was sufficient to guarantee the white working class a blue collar career and a middle class life.

When I got out of law school in 1981 and started to work, I moved out of an apartment I had shared with three other students and found my own place. Thirty-five years later, I still live in the same neighborhood.

When I moved here, there were three of the old-style hardware stores within walking distance. Their hallmark was personalized service – you could go into one and tell the sales guy (it was always a guy, usually a middle-aged white guy) what your problem was, and he would tell you how to fix it. The neighborhood hardware stores all went out of business after larger hardware stores like Pergament and Rickel opened, and those in turn went out of business after mega-hardware stores like Home Depot opened.

My neighborhood had two fishmongers, two butcher shops, a shoe repair place, a small carpet store, a TV repair store, a stationery store, an old-school Italian bakery, a used bookstore, and others, I’m sure, that I’ve forgotten. All are long gone, done in by larger, less personal, less artisanal, and more distant houses of commerce with greater selection and lower prices. For what it’s worth, we now have two coffee houses (only one a Starbucks) and a wine shop (that is, not a liquor store) – bringing some of the old intimacy and personal connection to new businesses.

And here’s the thing: every single storefront that once housed a fishmonger or a corner hardware store still houses a small business. A sushi restaurant is where one of the hardware stores was. A mani-pedi shop is where the carpet store was. A 99-cent store replaced the used bookstore.

We can no more restore the corner hardware store and the TV repair shop than we can go back to hand tool manufacturing or print newspapers. And nobody pretends that we can. Instead, new entrepreneurs took the places vacated by the old entrepreneurs.

Adaptation, not resistance and reaction, is the way to restore economic security to the white working class. Throwing Donald Trump at the establishment like a human Molotov cocktail may feel satisfying, but the feeling won’t last. And when it passes, the undereducated white working class will still be underemployed.


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