There was a passionate article in last Sunday’s New York Times by Paul Theroux, a prolific writer of books, and in particular travel books, He is noted for spending major times in local areas and writing about the lives people live there. This article was written after he had spent a great deal of time traveling in the U.S. deep south working on his latest book, “Deep South. Four Seasons on Back Roads”.
The article was about poverty resulting from the loss of jobs due to the closing factories, which in turn Theroux blames on outsourcing, which he in turn blames on the greed of companies. This is not a new problem, but Theroux writes with the emotion of having spent time with people (in his words) “towns with their hearts torn out of them” from factory closings. This is not a new message, but to read Theroux at this level of anger is unusual. You should read the article, if you have not. It is here.
Among other charges, he delivers blasts at various foundations and wealthy people in business and government in the U.S. who advertise the help they give to poor people in developing countries, but have not helped poor people in these towns he visits in the U.S. I am a believer, having followed the bankruptcy of San Bernardino California (where I went to high school) from the closing of income producing activities ranging from an air base (Norton) to train maintenance shops (Santa Fe), to a nearby steel mill (Kaiser, which ironically was carefully taken part and moved to China, where it was re-assembled). An article about the collapse of the city is here. Among other San Bernardino statistics, during the 2012-13 school year, 33,274 students (8.1% of the total) experienced homelessness.
A large number of people who lost their jobs in San Bernardino have families, little cash or credit, probably house mortgages, and may not have had the training or education to easily find other jobs. I was discussing this with a colleague earlier today, and we agreed that somebody should help people in such a situation (and the deep south), because it was not their fault that the income base of the city collapsed. But we could not figure out who. Should businesses insure their employees against a collapse? Not much precedence for that, and probably not a lot of support from businesses. Should the government do more in the way of offering training and education? But that would possibly result in more tax on businesses, who are already screaming that taxes are too high, and outrage people who think that government aid is already too profligate.
And this might only be a preview of future problems. Although most of the attention has been paid to blue-collar workers, computers have already taken over many tasks formerly done by white collar workers (CPA’s, lawyers, administrators, medical workers, clericals, etc.). There is a great debate going on as to whether this will cause new work opportunities for white collar workers (“The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies”, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee ) or whether the white collar job loss will eventually be larger and noisier than the blue collar loss. We will find out, and perhaps the white collar workers will be able to more easily slip into new jobs, but once again, many of them may need help, and who will pay if they do not have the resources to learn new skills, or are at a stage of life where it is extremely inconvenient to re-locate? Or do we thoughtful and sensitive U.S, citizens just say "tough luck"?