I’ve previously endorsed the New York Times podcast “The Daily,” to which I’m happily addicted. I found Wednesday’s episode particularly well done and important. It tells the story of Shannon Mulcahy, a steel worker from an Indiana plant (Rexnord) that recently moved much of its production to Mexico. If you’ve followed the issue of manufacturing job losses, which has of course been going on for decades, nothing in the podcast or article will surprise you. But, along with putting a human face in the story, it underscores many key points in the political economy. (Plus, you can listen to it while you’re exercising!)
First, many economists label anyone who isn’t college educated as “unskilled.” Decades ago, when I was a baby number cruncher, economist Larry Mishel taught me not to do this. I challenge anyone with half-a-brain to continue to do so after listening to Mulcahy’s story.
Second, anyone who’s running for national office needs to listen to this and figure out what you’re going to say to people like Mulcahy, which is anything but easy. Listen to her talk about Obama, for whom she voted and who she still considers a good president. But she voted for Trump, because he, more than other candidates, communicated an understanding of her plight. You can call her naïve for thinking he’d actually help (she’s since seen the light), but that’s not at all how she comes off to me.
Third, the reporter, Farah Stockman, makes a mistake that I’d like to correct. It doesn’t take anything away from her excellent reporting, but it warrants a correction. In a discussion about why white working-class people were more pessimistic than blacks, she suggested it might be because economic trends have been more punishing for the white than the black working class. Not so, at least if we compare real hourly wages of white and black men with at most high-school degrees. For whites since 1973, their real wage is down 8 percent; for blacks, it is down 10 percent. And, as you see, black male wages are always below those of whites, even within the same education categories.
Fourth, in one of the most interesting parts of the podcast, the Mexican workers come to the US plant to be trained by the US workers they’d be replacing. Note how the executives did not tell the Mexican workers that they’d be replacing their trainers. I saw this as a way to preclude any potential solidarity between working class persons on both sides of the border.
Finally, it is not hard to see why people like Mulcahy and her fellow displaced workers are ill-disposed to globalization, and how out-of-touch the full-out cheerleaders for “free trade” must sound to them. Most recently in the NAFTA debate, I was struck by the extent to which purveyors of the status quo seem to have convinced themselves that nothing has changed and that they should be able to continue to essentially ignore the plights of those in the podcast.
Consider also at the current tax debate, with its emphasis on tax cuts for the wealthy, for corporations, for the richest 0.2 percent of estates, and most notably in this context, for multinationals (like the one is the story) whose foreign earnings will be untaxed by the US if this plan comes to fruition, incentivizing more offshoring.
People like Mulcahy must believe nobody in power has her back. The sad part is they they’re right. This may sound harsh, but I mean it: If you’re running for office and you have no help to offer her beyond “get educated” or “here’s the next trade agreement,” go away and don’t come back until you’ve figured out how to help. Not how to falsely promise help, ala Trump, but to actually help.