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This place has changed for good
Your economic theory said it would
It’s hard for us to understand
We can’t give up our jobs the way we should

“We Work the Black Seam” – Sting

__________

You didn’t see him. He blindsided you. You didn’t catch a glimpse of him out of the corner of your eye. You couldn’t feel his presence every time you traveled past the shadowlands of the Rust Belt, or through those rural counties you had to tolerate while you drove to some place where the sun still shines. You couldn’t hear his heavy breathing, seething at the realities that were descending upon his disintegrating existence.

You didn’t notice that Trump voter, that 50-year-old former tool-and-die maker with 25 years of experience.

That 50-something tool-and-die maker knows how to cut metal to a thousandth of an inch, knows how to set up a job blindfolded. His job was taken over by some kid who is the victim of a dysfunctional education system, willing to take half the salary; little matter his inexperience cut productivity of the position in half.

Or more likely, that tool-and-die maker saw his job shipped overseas, all in the name of free trade and globalization. The tool-and-die makers in Southeast Asia work for a fifth of what that American tool-and-die maker earned. Why should that American keep his job, unless he’s willing to accept a fifth of what he made last year?

You were hoping that tool-and-die maker would simply drop into a deep crevice somewhere, and he was supposed to accept life in that crevice, because that was the way of “free trade,” of “globalization.”

In fact, “free trade” has little to do with the trade of goods, and more to do with American corporations finding overseas sources of the lowest-cost labor. But the tool-and-die maker hears the phrase “free trade,” and his hatred of this misnomer grows, exponentially.

For you see, that tool-and-die maker has watched his life come apart at the seams. He was making a solid $40,000 a year in 1995. He had a house, a family, and even with that he struggled to do something no generation of his family before him managed to do: Send his kids to college. He had to cover most of the costs: Although his kids qualified for a few small scholarships, the tool-and-die maker’s household made “too much” income to qualify for other types of financial assistance, assistance readily available to those in lower-income brackets.

That planted the seed of anger and resentment as new realities unfolded. He saw his daughters’ African-American and Hispanic high-school friends attend colleges more expensive than he could afford for his daughters. All of their GPAs and SAT scores were relatively equal, but those more expensive colleges were following Affirmative Action guidelines. The GPA and SAT scores of a minority applicant represented smaller variables when it came to the decision making process. So his daughters attended “lesser” colleges.

And his racism grows.

But this tool-and-die maker’s income stagnated. His income peaked at $40,000 a year, that is, if he was fortunate enough to somehow dodge the multitude of bullets fired his way and maintained his job. He still makes $40,000 a year, but that $40,000 in 1995 is now worth $25,250 in 2016.

In-state tuition at public universities rose 296% from 1995-2015, the cost of housing has risen 1050% since 1970, food prices have risen 104.5% from 2000-2012, and new automobile prices have risen 722.4% from 1975 to 2015. But that tool-and-die maker’s income? It’s still $40,000 $25,250, thanks to all that inflation.

If this tool-and-die maker didn’t dodge the bullets, if he was shot down in the prime of his career, then his life has been on a steeper downward spiral. Perhaps he found another tool-and-die job… for even less income. Or he was forced to take a job at the local hardware store. His luck didn’t quite last long enough to pay for his kids’ college expenses, so they had to take on an ever-larger student loan burden.

His wife worked as an office assistant before he lost his job. She could easily take time off if the kids were sick, or go to the local bureau of motor vehicles to process the title work on the new pickup. After his income disappeared, she was forced to return to school, attending night classes in accounting so she could find a better-paying job as a controller.

When she graduated, she indeed found work as a controller. But she found work rather easily, too easily for her husband’s comfort. She easily found work as a controller because while she realized a decent rise in her income relative to her last job, in fact she was being paid 70 percent of what the last, male, controller made. But through the eyes of that former tool-and-die maker, he saw her life being elevated, even though her income was simply saving the family.

That was the problem: Her income was saving the family, not his.

And his misogyny grows.

Through his eyes, he felt the sense of pride as a highly-skilled worker withering to a sense of futility as he tried to explain to some rude moron – holding utter contempt for anyone who would work at a hardware store – what plumbing adapters he’ll need to replace a faucet. Through his eyes, he came home in the evening, watched a game on TV, and tried to make sense of it all while staring into a bottle.

Everybody was telling him white males in the U.S. held all the advantages.

He was wondering where in the hell those advantages were hiding.

His wife came home, saw him almost comatose in that recliner, and took pity. She understood, even if he didn’t. She proceeded to make dinner every night, even though her life was busier than ever.

The family made a go of it, for awhile. The kids moved on with their lives after graduation, their parents feeling a sense of guilty relief over the breathing room that allowed in their monthly finances. But the daily expenses of life kept increasing. Auto insurance premiums, homeowner’s insurance premiums, property taxes, groceries, utilities, on and on. One of the daughters struggled to find a decent-paying job after college so that she could cover all the costs just mentioned… plus the her rent and school loans. So mom and dad had to help out with the her loan payments for awhile.

As if the financial death by a thousand cuts – after that tool-and-die maker lost his job – wasn’t enough indignity, his health woes started to mount. As a tool-and-die maker, his health insurance covered most medical costs, save for small co-payments. He had dental and vision insurance as well. That healthcare coverage disappeared after he lost his job.

For awhile, the family had no insurance coverage, save for crossed fingers. Luckily, they escaped. After getting her job as a controller, his wife gained access to healthcare insurance at her place of work. It didn’t cover dental or vision, and the co-payments went up, but it saved the family from financial disaster… for awhile.

But healthcare costs kept climbing, precipitously. And when the Global Financial Crises of 2008 hit, her employer – a small firm – was forced to slash costs to survive. So her fair-to-middlin’ healthcare plan devolved into a major medical plan only, with premiums higher than before.

That was just the beginning. He started to suffer from hypertension, depression, and became overweight. He and his wife were forced to buy cheap groceries, food products laden with sugar, fats, and sodium. His arteries started to clog. He was only one small step away from a healthcare-cost catastrophe. Even the routine health appointment costs started to take their toll, since they had to be covered out-of-pocket.

Eventually, this former tool-and-die maker started to drink, more and more. His wife grew increasingly angry, her tolerant demeanor disappearing. They divorced, selling the house and splitting the proceeds. They both moved into apartments, but since she had the better income, she was able to afford rent on a nicer apartment in a solidly middle-income part of town. He had to settle for a loft on the other side of the railroad tracks.

This former tool-and-die maker came into one small mercy: he was able to transfer to another hardware store closer to where he lived. Transferring was relatively easy, since few employees of this local chain of hardware stores wanted to work there. The store was frequently robbed, at gunpoint. Access to products became a chore, since almost everything had to be kept under lock and key. His ring of keys was massive; it was so heavy, he was forced to wear it on his belt.

Yes, working at this store turned out to be a small mercy, because soon after he moved into his loft, his 15-year-old pickup’s transmission finally gave up the ghost, with over 200,000 miles on the odometer. But only a short bus ride got him to work.

He couldn’t afford another pickup, he couldn’t afford to replace the transmission. The pickup simply sat outside, its rims slowly sinking to the pavement, tires in need of air. The bed filled with leaves in the fall, from the nearby trees. Nevertheless, he kept it, since it still provided him with a delusional sense of mobility. But he was forced to quit paying the premiums for it.

He looked outside the dingy window of his second-floor loft, onto the street below, remembering the day when he purchased that pickup, new, from the dealer.

But this former tool-and-die maker’s health issues kept expanding, in number and severity. When his savings, from selling the house, ran out, he could no longer afford the rent of that lowly loft on the other side of the railroad tracks. He was forced to move into the basement of his daughter’s home.

But she and her husband were also struggling to make ends meet. He was a computer programmer, she a production engineer. They had both dutifully followed the call into the STEM majors, i.e., science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In fact, they met while in college, taking the same discrete math class.

Both made decent incomes, but not anything near what they were led to believe they would make after graduation. Both were under pressure to obtain master’s degrees from their respective employers, just to keep their jobs. A healthy raise was not even a part of that discussion. But their combined student loans already tallied over $100,000. Their mortgage payment was three times what either of their parents paid on their homes. They both drove $30,000+ vehicles, wanting to maintain appearances with their co-workers. Daycare for their young kids mopped up the rest, and they still had auto insurance premiums, homeowner’s insurance premiums, property taxes, groceries, utilities, on and on.

Where was the money for graduate school?

They, too, were facing downward income pressures. While they struggled, the foreign STEM majors, with whom they shared class space, were doing just fine on lesser incomes after graduation. How could that be?

Those foreign students found U.S. state universities and colleges welcoming them with open arms, since they have to pay out-of-state tuition rates, bringing more money into the university’s coffers. The state university didn’t have to concern itself by attracting them with lavish financial aid packages, since foreign students don’t qualify for U.S. student loans. Ergo, these foreign students had to come from wealthier families living overseas. Mom and dad wrote out the checks for the entire year at that U.S. state university, a university that was founded on the premise it would serve the students from that state.

And such foreign students graduate with no student-loan overhang. With an H-1B visa, this makes foreign students a very attractive proposition to American corporations. They don’t require as much income, since they have no student-loan payments to cover. If their annual income seems meager, no matter: Mom and dad, back home, send monthly checks to help out with the expenses. The folks can tolerate this, since they know their son or daughter will only have to work in the U.S. for a few years, then return to their home country and find a well-paying job, relative to that country’s standard of living.

Those H-1B visa holders take to the news and social media outlets, discussing what a great country they find America to be.

The former tool-and-die maker, watching the news, sees that H-1B visa holder discussing what a great country America has been for him or her. But the former tool-and-die maker doesn’t embrace such a discussion warmly; he sees a foreigner rubbing his good fortunes into the face of an underemployed American worker, a worker who lost his sense of dignity a long time ago.

But those American employers of H-1B visa holders? They don’t mind when the foreign employee leaves. It makes room for another foreign graduate of a U.S. state university, a soon-to-be employee, who will agree to work for the going starting salary, which is less than the starting salary five years ago.

Regardless, the former tool-and-die maker’s daughter and son-in-law have to compete against such realities.

And their xenophobia grows. [1]

The former tool-and-die maker’s daughter really didn’t relish the thought of having her dad move in, but there he was. She remembered the time her parents helped out with her student loans, so she didn’t want to seem ungrateful. So her husband now drives the kids to daycare, and she now has to drive him to work – miles out of her way. When her dad, this former tool-and-die maker, comes home in the evening, he quietly retires to the basement, not wanting to insert himself into his daughter’s family life any more than necessary.

That’s where he watches an old analog TV that he trash picked while living at the loft, with a cheap converter plugged into it so he can tune in the local digital TV stations. He certainly doesn’t have the discretionary income for cable.

But through that basement ceiling, through that floor of the first story, he can hear the arguments between his daughter and his son-in-law. The son-in-law frequently asks, angrily, “How long is he going to stay here?” The daughter knows the answer, but cannot bring herself to admit it out loud.

And the former tool-and-die maker continues to drink, graduating to hard liquor since he no longer has to cover the rent.

He also wonders how long he is going to stay.

He doesn’t like the answer that plays back in his head.

That answer creates abject fear and anger, an ever-enlarging sense of desperation, a blockage of what it once felt like to take pride in one’s undertakings.

It’s human nature to view the world at arm’s length. We see an injustice played out in our immediate surroundings, and we generalize it across a nation, a world, and we overlook the fountainhead of our miseries: Globalization. Not trade, as in the actual and equal trading of goods across national boundaries, but globalization.

The main tenet of globalization, of this brutal economic system, is to seek out the lowest-cost labor markets the world over, to deny the middle access to well-paying jobs, since well-paying jobs threaten corporate profits (see this post for a discussion on well-paying jobs, if you haven’t done so already). The corporatists have a self interest in shaking the middle class off this trail, of training our focus elsewhere, of fomenting divisions, of framing the arguments as “cultural wars” within right-leaning audiences, or “identity politics” within left-leaning audiences.

So the working middle misdirect their fear and anger. On the right, men aim this fear and anger towards women, women towards other races, and other races towards immigrants. The left blames it on racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. The existence of these realities cannot be denied, but the realities are effects, not ultimate causes. Keeping this melting pot stirred and confused is the aim of corporatists.

What few seem to understand is that the ultimate cause of this misery is our dysfunctional economy. As long as we fail to understand this, and are at odds with each other over tangential effects rather than the ultimate cause, we will never create a united front against those who seek to deny us our lives, our liberties, and if not happiness, then at least our contentment.

Inside the smoke and mirrors of this synthetic confusion, that former tool-and-die maker can no longer make sense of a world he thought he once understood.

So he wonders how long he is going to stay, then takes a stiff drink to wash the answer away.

—————————

On the morning of Tuesday, November 8th, 2016, the former tool-and-die maker, his ex-wife, his daughter, and his son-in-law all climbed into their respective vehicles, drove to the nearest polling station, walked into the booth, and voted a straight Republican ticket.

All of them were fed up with American politics, with the American president who promised hope and change and eight years later had nothing to show for it, with a do-nothing Congress whose members fatten their bank accounts with the largesse of special interests, and with the 2016 election cycle.

They were too skeptical to bother researching each candidate, too cynical to believe any of the bullshit spewing forth from any of the candidates’ mouths from any point on the political spectrum.

Desperate for anyone promising substantive change, yet doubtful that change will arrive, they flicked the switch once – for Donald Trump and all the Republicans on that local ticket. They simply wanted to get the hell out of that polling station – a polling station with a suffocating, slimy feel – and return to their chaotic and disintegrating lives. [2]

Lives once promised with the American Dream.

And you, you didn’t see that anger, that resentment, that racism and misogyny and xenophobia coming, hidden in plain sight, seeking its revenge?

 

[1] Anti-immigration sentiment does not emerge along racial lines, but rather from economic want.

[2] According to a CNN exit poll, the results of which were released on November 9th, 49% of those who voted for Donald Trump held reservations about him.

 

For more insights on the angry white man, see Michael Kimmel’s 2013 book, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era.

 

 

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