Dylan Matthews tweeted a while ago:
So naturally, I clicked. It was Paul Theroux writing about the hypocrisy of corporate campaigns for charity when their own outsourcing policies caused the economic decline of the American working class in the first place. A selection:
Take a Delta town such as Hollandale, Miss. Two years ago, the entire tax base of this community of around 3,500 was (so the now-deceased and much-mourned mayor Melvin Willis told me) less than $300,000. What the town had on hand to spend for police officers, firefighters, public works, outreach, welfare and town hall salaries was roughly the amount of a Bill or Hillary one-night-stand lecture fee; what Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, earns in a couple of days.
When Hollandale’s citizens lost their jobs in the cotton fields to mechanization they found work nearby, in Greenville and elsewhere, in factories that made clothes, bikes, tools and much else — for big brands like Fruit of the Loom and Schwinn.
They are gone now. Across the Mississippi River, Monticello, Ark., and other towns made carpets and furniture while Forrest City produced high-quality TV sets. The people I spoke to in the town of Wynne, known for its footwear, said they’d be happy to make Nikes if they were paid a living wage.
I found towns in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas that looked like towns in Zimbabwe, just as overlooked and beleaguered. It’s globalization, people say. Everyone knows that, everyone moans about it. Big companies have always sought cheaper labor, moving from North to South in the United States, looking for the hungriest, the most desperate, the least organized, the most exploitable. It has been an American story. What had begun as domestic relocations went global, with such success that many C.E.O.s became self-conscious about their profits and their stupendous salaries.
To me, globalization is the search for a new plantation, and cheaper labor; globalization means that, by outsourcing, it is possible to impoverish an American community to the point where it is indistinguishable from a hard-up town in the dusty heartland of a third world country.
This is by and large true. Globalization has led to a global race to the bottom that has deeply undermined the American working class, led to the decline of unions (the only collective voice that American workers have ever had in politics) and their replacement in the political realm by untold amounts of corporate cash leading to equally untold influence over policy. It also also allowed for wealthy capitalists to make tremendous amounts of money by exploiting the poorest of the world’s people, dooming them to death on the job, massive pollution exposure, low wages, sexual assault on the job, violence when they try to organize unions, and the constant, never-ending threat of capital mobility if they organize to improve their lives. Globalization has also led to the creation of a global elite and smaller middle-class that has created real economic benefits for those lucky enough to rise into it, whether in India, China, or the United States. The question to whether we can have one without the other is what people who care about issues of global trade and inequality try to hash out. But the impact of capital mobility upon working-class American communities is pretty much not arguable. Whether the Mississippi communities Theroux describes, the Oregon logging communities without jobs, or old factory towns like Schenectady and Johnstown and Pawtucket and Flint, we can see the impact of globalization on the American landscape, or at least we can if we ever leave the Beltway.
So the basic point should be pretty well accepted. In any case, it’s hardly the abomination Matthews describes. Matthews’ objection is that Theroux wants to doom the poor around the world to poverty for nationalist reasons and thus he is a moral monster or something. First, that’s not true and any cursory reading of Theroux’s own work shows that. The chances that Matthews has ever read anything by Theroux, someone who knows far more about the developing world that Matthews sitting at his Vox desk could ever dream of, seems unlikely, although how I am to know. Second, Theroux makes no such claim. He points out that globalization has decimated working class communities and that the Chinese have benefited. Third, Theroux rightfully calls out the business community for being hypocrites, claiming they care about communities while taking all their jobs away. I guess that doesn’t mean you have reject corporate money to improve decimated communities, but it’s obvious that business, ranging from their strong anti-union positions to the Chamber of Commerce’s attack on the ACA, is opposed to any actual policy that would help working people outside of the dribbling of charity from their own beneficence.
But Matthews has the same kind of neoliberal centrist economic position staked out by his own Vox compadre Matt Yglesias when he talked about it being OK for Bangladeshis to have lower workplace standards and allow over 1100 workers to die at the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. This is a wholly abstract notion of the world economy developed in an atmosphere of Washington boardrooms, raw data analyzed without historical or anthropological context that ignores the messiness of what happens on the ground, and the elite confidence in their own rightness developed at Ivy League schools and continued through the networks that keeps these people on top. What it is totally disconnected to is how actual workers live, what they want, the real sufferings they deal with, and their own demands in the system of global capitalism. These are questions that receive indifference from Matthews, Yglesias, and the like, who are far more comfortable taking on the mantle of Official Explainer of Data to the American upper-middle class in ways that justify their readers’ current position on the economic scale than they are in articulating just how they see American communities recovering from globalization or how we should support the desires of Bangladeshi textile workers to live a better life.
As far as I can tell, Dylan Matthews is completely indifferent to the suffering of the American working class so long as he can justify it by data that shows that some other people’s lives are improving because of it. And of course, I want the lives of Bangladeshi workers and American workers to both improve. That’s why I wrote a book connecting the two nations and trying to think through ways that we can tame a global economy that decimates communities in both nations. Matthews, Yglesias, and others of their ilk are happy to support better health care policy and the like, and that’s good. But they really struggle to understand how important it is for people to have work and how much of what they don’t like about where this nation is right now–the fear of immigrants, the post-Citizens United political landscape, stagnating incomes, long-term unemployment, etc.–stems in parts larger or smaller from the decline of unions and the undermining of the American working class turned middle class. Without the jobs that Matthews is more than happy to send overseas if the workers unionize, (and really, have either Matthews or Yglesias ever actively written in support of a single labor struggle, even if they support unions in theory? Not that I have ever seen), none of this gets fixed. It certainly doesn’t happen if we just let all the smart people in DC decide what to do, a long-standing mythology held on to with great aplomb by those who could potentially be part of that conversation.
This doesn’t mean that one can’t criticize Theroux’s arguments. It’s really not the best piece one could write on the impact of globalization. He presents the global economy as more of a zero-sum game than it is. His own discussions of the impact of charity in Africa, while not entirely untrue, are certainly cranky and problematic. He’s been criticized before for his recent writings on Africa that blame foreign aid for a lot of the continent’s current problems. Theroux himself doesn’t seem to get or he doesn’t articulate the importance of worker power and unions in American work, not that one per se must address that in a relatively short op-ed. And if you frame all of this as a zero-sum game, then it does become problematic because you open yourself up to Matthews’ response that by bringing the jobs back to America you want the Chinese to be poor (although that’s not really any more morally problematic than Matthews’ own predilections.)
But in the end, Matthews called an article concerned about the poverty of the American working class the worst thing the New York Times has published in maybe a decade. This is the conclusion to Theroux’s supposed abomination.
Some companies have brought manufacturing jobs back to the United States, a move called “reshoring,” but so far this is little more than a gesture. It seems obvious that executives of American companies should invest in the Deep South as they did in China. If this modest proposal seems an outrageous suggestion, to make products for Nike, Apple, Microsoft and others in the South, it is only because the American workers would have to be paid fairly. Perhaps some chief executives won’t end up multibillionaires as a result, but neither will they have to provide charity to lift Americans out of poverty.
Wow, what a moral monster.
Matthews deserves a good bit of pushback on this. I’ll be curious to see if he writes more on it. But it’s not wrong to be concerned about the lack of good jobs in your homeland, nor to document how global trade policies have driven some people into poverty. If attacking such statements as being morally monstrous is by someone who is identified as a smart center-left commenter, we have real problems.