Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Myth of the "Myth of Main Street"

Louis Hyman's "Myth of Main Street" in today's New York Times is itself a myth that deserves to deconstructed.  First he argues that, for the past hundred years, Main Street has not been what people thought, which is that:
Main Street is a place but it is also an idea. It’s small-town retail. It’s locally owned shops selling products to hardworking townspeople. It’s neighbors with dependable blue-collar jobs in auto plants and coal mines. It’s a feeling of community and of having control over your life. It’s everything, in short, that seems threatened by global capitalism and cosmopolitan elites in big cities and fancy suburbs.
The reality was, he contends, that chain stores arrived in the 1920s, ending local commerce and this myth of Main Street.  Industrial jobs sought cheaper labor overseas and they're not coming back.  Only people in Brooklyn and affluent suburbs who have lots of disposable income can have Main Street.  The rest of the country would do well to accept employment on on-line platforms like Upwork.

What's wrong with this argument, which seems so logical and to fit the facts so perfectly?

I want to point out three fallacies in this common way of thinking: only the rich have (need) Main Street; platforms like Upwork are a satisfactory substitute; and industrial jobs will not come back.

First, it is not true that only those with lots of disposable income have Main Streets.  New Jersey is lucky in our 550 towns and cities which have lots of Main Streets.  Having visited many of them, I can attest to seeing wonderful Main Streets in poor cities.  Orange, NJ, which is one of the core cities in my study, has one of the most active Main Streets.  Nothing fancy about it, as the middle class of Orange will tell you.  But it's kept busy because it's got great bus service, lots of people of live nearby and can walk there, and a range of products and services that those people need.  Furthermore, it's got those other trump cards of Main Street: churches, banks, the library, the post office, and a Rec Center in the former women's Y.  And what people get when they get to Main Street is not just cheap shopping (though it has that).  They get to see their city, strolling by, and they can enjoy its messages and its processes.  Walmart is nearby, ultra-cheap, and very popular, but a dismal experience that cannot nourish the soul as Main Street can.  Herb Way's historic photo of Orange Main Street captures this nourishment and could be replicated today.

Main Street, Orange, NJ by Herb Way
Second, we know about piecework from dire experience.  Jane Addams, founder of Chicago's great settlement, Hull House, wrote about the women and children laboring at home, in poor light and at all hours to finish the pieces of work that had been given to them.  Fighting the horrors of piecework was one of the great battles of unionization in this nation.  That the collapse of industry has driven us back to this primitive form of work is catastrophe for working people, and part of the reason they voted for Trump, to escape this horror.  I do not see Trump actually forwarding the agendas of the aggrieved working class, but working people at least made a statement about their agendas.  The NYT's story on Uber described one man who worked fulltime for Uber and Lyft and made $20,000 before expenses.  This "new sharing economy" is a new form exploitation of working people, another dead-end, and not a solution to what people in the abandoned cities and towns need for recovery.

Third, it is true that Main Street floats on our money, directly as purchases and indirectly as taxes.  When we don't have any money, Main Street flounders.  Pittsburghers describe the absolute collapse of their Main Streets as Big Steel left town and people moved to the Sun Belt in a desperate search for work.  This massive diaspora out of a beloved city is, so they tell me, the reason there are Steelers bars (and Steelers fans) all over the country.  Those industrial jobs, the pundits say, will never come back.  This is an absurb proposition, that a nation of 300 million people will never again make the goods it needs, but will always have to import everything from overseas.  This is an untenable state and it will fall apart.  Indeed, small manufacturing can be found all over and somebody somewhere is plotting the re-industrialization of the nation even as I write this.  It is too logical not to be inevitable.  When that happens, Main Streets will rise again, as they rose in the first place.  This would happen more quickly, were there sound national policy to support this.

In order to understand why industrial jobs can come back to our country, it is essential to have a deeper analysis of why they left than just "cheaper labor."  John Ullmann, Rodrick Wallace and others have pointed out that the crisis of de-industrialization in our nation was precipitated by the Cold War.  This is not obvious to anyone, at first, as the Cold War seems to be about fighting Communism, not ruining our economy.  The link is militarization, the threat of power, that was at the heart of how the Cold War was "fought."  In order to militarize, we took a huge proportion of our scientific and technical person-power out of domestic industry and put them to work on making weapons.  Within a decade of doing this, we had fallen behind Japan and other nations.  Soon our industries, which had not kept up in the constant process of innovation, were assigned to scrapheap and the factories moved overseas.

When it is not "fate" but "policy" that has caused a problem, we can imagine that another -- more sound -- policy can fix the problem.  While the reindustrialization of the United States is a difficult process, the alternative model of most Americans trying to make a living on piecework is so absolutely intolerable it makes the alternative seem like a walk in the park.

Main Street is worth it: the street, our imagination of the street, and the "Main Street" that stands for the 99%, almost all of us, we're worth it.


Lally said...

well argued Mindy, though I believe robotics has more to do with industrial jobs not coming back, at least not in the same numbers, but otherwise agree with your basic points and totally support and cheer your response to the original article's lack of understanding of the problem and possible solutions...

Riccy said...

Thank you, Mindy... having just moved with my wife and daughter to New Jersey from California... You perspective helps somehow my heart... New Jersey is so friendly and diverse, really a great place to live....ric marlink