By Laura Short
It used to be that small towns dotted the American landscape. These towns most often comprised of a Main Street with a couple of churches, a Woolworth’s, a diner or two, and a tavern. There’d be a grocer’s, a Ladies Shoppe, a bank and/or savings and loan. Of course, you’d have local government buildings like the courthouse and police station; and then the headquarters of the largest local employer. There were schools, football and/or baseball fields, gas stations, and maybe, a bus stop or rail depot… depending on the local industry. Most of these towns were self-sufficient. The Big City wasn’t too far off for important needs. And, depending on the size of the local industry, a hospital and a country club as well as parks and recreation, movie theatre, even a place for traveling plays and musical acts, might be available. It helped lure potential employees, these amenities. It also helped get them to stay and to invest in the company as well as the community. Put down roots. This was The American Dream, writ large; a place where commerce and society intersected. The Company invested in the health and wellbeing of The Local Community whilst The Local Community invested in the health and wellbeing of the The Company. In 1947, Forbes Magazine wrote an article about such a place, albeit, from their bias and written against a post-war context. The town was Lancaster, Ohio. The employer was Anchor Hocking Glass. It’s a town I’ve been through once or thrice as I’ve traveled in and around Columbus. It’s not so far from where I live in Dayton… and it could be written about pretty much any small town, anywhere in or out of “flyover”country.
Not any more.
I realize I am painting very broad strokes here, but looking back, I can find two things that have aided and abetted the demise of Lancaster, Ohio as well as other American Small Towns with its attendant employer and civic inter-responsibilities: Greed and, well, Greed.
Currently, I am reading Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town by Brian Alexander. I’ve also read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by JD Vance and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer. Oh, and Factory Man by Beth Macy (sense a theme?). I live in an area of Ohio that has been hit (slammed, trounced, overwhelmed, steam-rolled…) by the opiate/heroin addiction epidemic and I want to understand why. Three of these books concern themselves with Ohio business and community because Ohio is about as rusty as a rust-belt state as they come. I’ve lived here since 1993, and I’ve seen countless legacy-companies move out of Ohio for greener pastures either in other companies (such as my Husband’s company, Standard Register) or other states (such as NCR moving to Georgia) or overseas (such as auto companies moving to Mexico). I’ve seen the after-effects of economic policy as small and not-so-small towns have either stopped or, because of massive job-losses, been forced to stop investing in themselves through much-needed infrastructure: school levies, street improvements, local fire and police, and so on. And as multi-national corporate giants have taken over these small-town employers, and either covertly disdained the small towns or actively discouraged their top-level employees from moving to these small towns, the symbiotic relationship between town and employer has crumbled, leaving behind less wherewithal, less interest, less caring for and about one another. One harbinger I’ve learnt to look for is how much United Way donations do these multi-m/billion dollar companies give to the local charities? Um…yeah.
It’s not just about capital investment, though. To me, the Father of all this demise seems to be Milton Friedman. He never really got it, about the real relationship between employer and employee, did he? His later recognition as “the guru of global economic policy” in the 1970s and following (including becoming a Nobel laureate, but NOT for business economics), pretty much put an end to any corporation caring anything at all about the people they employ.
Anyway. Greed. Friedman, in broad terms, gave America the tools to become corporate raiders. He believed and codified the First and Only Commandment of Business (the “Friedman Doctrine”) as written in a New York Times Magazine article published in September of 1970: …that business has only one social responsibility and that is to deliver profits to shareholders. Period. Full-stop. End of story. Businessmen who cared about anything other than that, such as their employee’s well-being, the environment, the local community in which they were based, were “preaching pure and unadulterated socialism”. This, for Friedman, was more than bad business. This was akin to communism; this was unpatriotic, un-American.
This was the man who was Ronald Reagan’s economic advisor.
So. Along comes the beginning of the corporate raiders, such as Carl Icahn who thought American businesses, such as Anchor Hocking, were flabby; they were not margining themselves to be as profitable as they could be for their shareholders. They weren’t “tough enough” with all their local civic engagement and interconnectivity with their local communities. Icahn would start buying them up, getting on their boards, and showing them how to do it better. And making a lot of money by “flipping” them, so to speak. It wasn’t long before other corporate raiders, lured by cheap money, now available through the new “leveraged-buyout” businesses (aka, “private equity” firms), were buying and selling through hostile takeovers, left, right, and center. And with the Reagan Administration’s “economic reforms” and “business reforms” aiding through the new “trickle down economics”. William Baxter, the head of the anti-trust division of the Department of Justice during the Reagan Administration told a Senate panel convened by the Securities and Exchange Commission that “[takeovers] were a very socially beneficial mechanism” for assuring that corporate assets would serve the highest value. Icahn also addressed the same Senate panel, agreeing “no regulation is good regulation”.
I wonder if they would think that today, seeing places like Lancaster, Ohio… 30-odd years later?
For the average American factory and middle-management worker, in a small American town during the post-war period, their income levels were high enough to own their home, pay enough taxes to ensure a good community infrastructure (good schools, good government, good parks and recreation facilities), and to minimize the social caste system between themselves. Especially amongst the company spouses, where volunteerism was important and social activities through Boy and Girl Scouts, church communities, PTAs, and neighbourhood bridge clubs was the very fabric of their lives, the CEO’s wife could be friends with the factory worker’s wife…and no one preally thought much about it. Union bosses and executive types could have a beer, together, at the local on a Friday evening after work. Their kids played ball together; swam at the community pool; graduated high school together. In New York or Chicago, this might not be the case, but in small town America, this was more likely to be so. For a while. But once the corporate raiders bought out these companies, and turned them into profit-whores, all bets were off…and no one played nice anymore. Income gaps grew larger and corporate types lived elsewhere and commuted in, as necessary, using what was now Podunk, Ohio a stepping stone to Management Headquarters.
It became each man for himself. The workers wanted what the TV and the magazines told them they deserved (the greedy 80s: Dynasty? Dallas? Falcon Crest? TV of the rich and famous made everyone want to be rich and famous). Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target, and Sears were there to provide a facsimile of it. Soon, the BigBox Stores were negotiating for cheaper goods directly with manufacturers. Everyone was looking for cheaper labour markets to provide these very workers with the goods they were already manufacturing… but cheaper meant from somewhere else. Branding. It became all about the branding. Anchor Hocking was bought out by Newell… and they owned everybody, or so it seemed: Mirro, Sanford, Kirsch, Parker, Sharpie, PaperMate, Elmer’s Glue, Uniball, Xacto, Waterman, Coleman, Jostens, Rawlings, Stanley Tools, Oster, Sunbeam, Mr Coffee, Crock-Pot, Graco, Baby Jogger, Rubbermaid, Calphalon, Yankee Candle, First Alert, Nuk… the list goes on and on and on. The worker’s own greed to have the goods, and thanks to cheap and easy credit to buy it, the very goods they were manufacturing, caused the corporations to continually look for ways to margin their bottom lines; to make more for less; and pay their stockholders higher dividends. It was about increasing their profits (remember, their only true responsibility is to their shareholders), causing them to look for ways to do this, even if that meant busting their unions, closing their factories and distribution centers, lying cheating stealing from one factory to serve another. There’s this story about Newell and bypassing court injunctions. But I digress…
We’ve plundered ourselves in a giant pyramid scheme until it all fell down in 2007.
Today, these small American towns are dying, if not dead, populated by people with no hope, no prospects, and no jobs. Their job skills are antiquated. They have no value as the new economy has no use for them. Those who’ve inherited farmland have sold it to developers looking to build bedroom communities for those who do not want to live in dying small towns. Again, plundering ourselves in a bid to escape the mess we’ve made of things. Rather than trying to fix what we’ve broken, we’re choosing to walk away and start the cycle all over again: building cheap and spurning that which we built “to last forever”…because it’s too bloody expensive to build well and, gosh! Downtown has sooo many problems.
The perfect storm, indeed, between economic policy intent to enrich the wealthy and the an emerging new economy we only had glimmers of; between changing personal values and corporate ideologies.
Will anyone, anywhere invest in American intangibles again? It’s not just about the jobs, but about education, training, encouragement, and buying into yourself: paying for infrastructure because you care about your community; you care about yourself and the other person.
In 1990, Ohio finally passed a law against corporate raiders coming into Ohio and launching takeovers of our small town corporations. Psst: there’s a reason so many corporations have their incorporations in Delaware. Just sayin’. And Newell sorta got theirs, eventually, with their takeover of Rubbermaid. But, today, Newell Brands is still here, still alive, and still kicking. They didn’t hurt for very long. But Lancaster is hurting plenty. And OxyContin is there to ease their pain; a pain built from a combination of the loss of the mutually beneficial relationship between employer and employee and plain old greed on all sides.
I’ll be thinking about this a lot, the next time I wander into Target and chortle over how cheap it is to buy this, that, or the other thing I don’t really need.
Or drive through Lancaster or some other small American town that dots the Ohio countryside and try not to think about how I’ve helped to plunder myself by wandering into Target and chortle over how cheap it is to buy this, that, or the other thing I don’t really need.
By Sam Burnham
(Note: It has come to my attention that Mr. Kilgore considers Georgia to be his home state and he worked for former Sen. Sam Nunn and three governors of Georgia. I made an edit to reflect that fact. However, my overall feelings pertaining to this article remain unchanged.)
I know y'all will find this hard to believe but there is a guy writing in New York Magazine about how Georgia policies to help farmers are to blame for the crippling effect that a missing stretch of highway, less than a quarter of a mile total, is having on transportation in Atlanta. That's right folks, it's all because of archaic policies to make life easier on the people who work in our state's top industry. What policy could be fueling such a horrible impact on Atlanta?
We have too many counties.
Are you serious, Clark?
So let's talk about this. New York Magzine commentator Ed Kilgore, whose Twitter bio list his home as Monterey, California, is correct that Georgia has 159 counties and that that total is second only to Texas. Although it is unclear if Mr. Kilgore realizes that Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi River, he is correct that Metro Atlanta is also spread out over 29 of those counties. But then he goes on to suggest that because of some backwards and outdated mindset, there has been no attempt to consolidate any of those counties. He also rambles a little about how the number has remained that high because of our county unit system that was outlawed in the 1960s.
Oddly enough, the biggest reason that Metro Atlanta is spread out over 29 counties is because in 1931, after big time bankers and investors from New York City drug Georgia into The Great Depression, Campbell County went bankrupt and was consolidated into Fulton County. Later that same year, Milton County was facing bankruptcy and decided to dissolve and also become part of Fulton County. Otherwise Atlanta would have been spread out over 31 counties. Residents of The Land Formerly Known As Milton County have recently explored the option of reinstating their county to have more say in their own affairs rather than depending on Fulton County which may or may not be interested in that area except for on Tax Day. Feasibility studies have suggested that such a move would be a good one for Milton residents but Georgia's Constituion currently restricts the number of counties to the current 159. So barring an unlikely county consolidation or a constitutional amendment, Milton residents will continue to be less than willing participants in Fulton County government.
Mr. Kilgore likes to credit racism for everything he deems to be lacking in The South. He thinks the reason that MARTA has not expanded past the core of Metro Atlanta is because people in the suburbs are afraid that black people will get in MARTA trains and come out to the suburbs, which is odd considering black people live in Atlanta's suburbs. But, like everything in The South, this issue is not that simple. If it was, it could be solved much easier. As always, let's look at the history that brought us here so we can understand the whole story.
Let's start in the Big Apple. When the Dutch made New Amsterdam the capital of New Netherland in 1625, it was already destined to be a center of trade and commerce. It was the center of exports for the Dutch fur trade enterprises. The British took over and renamed the city New York and the city grew exponentially. Other cities and towns would grow around New York as it drove the regional economy. But there was never a time that New York was not the true identity of that region. New York was there before anything else (other than Native American settlements.)
The city that sprung up on Manhattan was over 200 years old before the railroad marked their zero milestone at a patch of clay covered granite that they called Terminus. A dozen years later the place had a half a dozen buildings and some 30 odd residents and went by the name of Marthasville. Georgia had never had the kinds of cities you found up north at that time but Marthasville was pretty insignificant, even by Georgian standards. Many of the present day suburbs were larger towns with more residents and more businesses. The railroad was really the only reason Marthasville existed. By the time the Free & Rowdy Party was the political power of a city named Atlanta (you can't make this stuff up) the future suburbs were self sustaining entities. Atlanta was just a rambunctious railroad hub with a roundhouse and some rapscallions. Were it not for the railroad, it is doubtful that Sherman would have even stopped there and even less likely the Confederates would have cared that he did.
The industrial push that followed the war was what turned Atlanta into a city. Atlanta became a center of transportation for people and goods.This transportation ability is what convinced the government to move the capital from the much better planned Mlledgeville to its current location.
And then came the sprawl. Development moved across North Georgia like The Blob. The suburbs didn't come to Atlanta. Atlanta came to the suburbs. And still, it was not until the announcement in 1990 that Atlanta would be hosting the Olympic Games that the city really took its place a a major American metropolis. Today a person can drive from Atlanta to Vinings to Smyrna, to Marietta, to Kennesaw to Acworth and never leave the environment of sprawl. You might want to set aside an hour or two to account for traffic along that route.
In the meantime, those cities are trying to be themselves. They want to benefit from the economic development that comes with the proximity to Atlanta (and the transportation ability now provided by the world's busiest airport) but they still want to be their own towns. Some of them have their own transit departments that serve their towns but that don't automatically mesh with MARTA.
Saying that these towns just reject the idea of rail expansion in their area is just half of the story. A proposal that would have added to our local sales taxes was proposed to expand transit into the suburbs and even outlying cities. We rejected the proposal because the cost of the expansion, coupled with the fact that we use our cars regularly in our towns where we live and appreciate the independence they offer us, made the proposal very lucrative for Atlanta while offering relatively little to the outlying areas. That is the current state of Georgia politics. Atlanta never wants a dime to land outside 285 if they can scoop it into Atlanta first.
We must also discuss the perception that MARTA is hardly a reputable organization. On the very day the spotlight was thrown on them, the morning after the I-85 collapse, Atlanta news agencies reported that a high ranking MARTA official was under investigation in a possible theft/embezzlement scandal. We could make a list of similar situations involving MARTA funding over the last few decades. People in the suburbs don't want to raise their own taxes only to see some executive sneaking out the side door with the money. We'd rather drive to Atlanta when we need to, park, do whatever called us there, get in our car, leave at our own leisure, and then laugh to ourselves while watching traffic reports on the Atlanta news.
So no, it isn't all about farmer friendly laws, it isn't all about a law that has been dead for five decades, and it isn't all about racism, no matter how much a California New Yorker wants it to be.
As always, I invite the villain of the day, this time Mr.Kilgore, to come down and see for himself some of the real Georgia and I'll gladly help him understand what is really going on.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire