The six figure explainer

Posted in Culture of Lickspittle, Decline and Fall at 8:05 pm by George Smith

One of the necessary jobs in the Culture of Lickspittle is the swank public explainer. Sometimes they have interesting things to say. And often they just have position in which to write things everyone else has already lived through or now knows implicitly.

Today, the New York Times posted a bit in its blog on inequality in the US by Robert D. Putnam of Harvard. Putnam went back to his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, using it as a personalized framing example for the destruction of the blue collar working class and disappearance of American industry in the last forty years.

What he describes in Port Clinton happened everywhere, nowhere more noticeably than in Bethlehem and Allentown in the Lehigh Valley. The destruction of the steel industry slowly wiped out the vitality of the area. Nothing could replace the middle class jobs that allowed people without college degrees to earn a good living, enough to send their kids on to school, to become home-owners and to, generally, make the place a nice one in which to live.

The disastrous American system wrecked all of it.

During the mid-Eighties the south side of Bethlehem slowly turned into a slum as did the center of Allentown.

Bethlehem recovered slightly by becoming a bedroom community for people commuting into the New Jersey/NYC metroplex.

Allentown never made it back. The good jobs were never replaced. About a decade ago an attempt was made to bring casinos to the site of the old Bethlehem Steel. I wrote about it on the old blog here.

Bethlehem was able to get Sands to open an operation there and then development foundered on the rocks of the Great Recession.

What jobs were created were no good:

Jobs in heavy manufacturing in the US used to pay $20/hour. And in Bethlehem, generations of workers could buy a house and send their kids to college, just by working at the steel mill straight from high school.

Jobs working at a casino pay much less in 2009. In the US, this is expected. It is important that you be screwed.

[A friend] informs a cage cashier’s slot at the Sands casino in Bethlehem pays 9-10 dollars/hour for work at night and on weekend. It’s a good rate if you’re enthusiastic about the economic benefits of 24/7 work in a banana republic.

As it turned out, there’s not really enough cash on hand in the middle class anymore to make a casino in Bethlehem particularly profitable. Bethlehem, obviously, is not Las Vegas. It’s not even Atlantic City.

In reading Putnam’s piece for the Times, just as in the Lehigh Valley, so it was in Port Clinton.


My hometown — Port Clinton, Ohio, population 6,050 — was in the 1950s a passable embodiment of the American dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for the children of bankers and factory workers alike.

But a half-century later, wealthy kids park BMW convertibles in the Port Clinton High School lot next to decrepit “junkers??? in which homeless classmates live. The American dream has morphed into a split-screen American nightmare. And the story of this small town, and the divergent destinies of its children, turns out to be sadly representative of America …

But the story of Port Clinton over the last half-century — like the history of America over these decades — is not simply about the collapse of the working class but also about the birth of a new upper class. In the last two decades, just as the traditional economy of Port Clinton was collapsing, wealthy professionals from major cities in the Midwest have flocked to Port Clinton, building elaborate mansions in gated communities along Lake Erie and filling lagoons with their yachts. By 2011, the child poverty rate along the shore in upscale Catawba was only 1 percent, a fraction of the 51 percent rate only a few hundred yards inland.

It’s not a bad piece. However, Putnam brings the story as a member of the privileged class of “wealthy professionals.” He knows as well as anyone else that the success some of his generation now enjoy came from the very process of enabling the cannibalization of everyone else. Some are not going to get above it, either. The national cauldron of all against all will assuredly take a number.

Maybe Robert Putnam never personally had any hand in where we are today. But he was part of the generation and middle class that put in place the system which has dismantled so many.

“Half a century later, my classmates, now mostly retired, have experienced astonishing upward mobility,” Putnam writes.

Do we need someone, the kindly scholar from Harvard to be the official explainer? You’ve experienced it, you can’t escape it.

One no longer lives in the United States, one survives the United States, and the highest inequality in the advanced nations.

I wrote a song back in ’86 that described it, “Ironwork Blues,” from my second album. There was no Internet, no sharing economy, and you could charge a small amount for it. And you could see the calamity unfolding.

So sing happy songs on the radio and watch as the world crumbles down … And it’s hard for me to stifle a yawn as the American dream hits the ground.


  1. Chuck said,

    August 6, 2013 at 8:49 am

    I figure the best way to survive in today’s America is to become the pet project of one of our wealthy overlords.

    A case in point: Phil Knight, founder of Nike, with profits built on the backs of third-world sweatshops has been pouring his lucre into the University of Oregon’s football program for years. It’s gotten to the point where it’s become obscene:


    All the while, tuition at UofO has been rising at double-digit annual rates, leaving more and more students with the choice of bypassing college or becoming indentured servants because of student loans.

    The UofO, of course, is funded with taxpayer dollars.

  2. George Smith said,

    August 6, 2013 at 10:16 am

    Yes, the NYT had a big spread on the lavish and ridiculous nature of the UO’s new football training center. They should have interviewed some students not in athletics. I bet they would have gotten some funny answers. Eventually something awful will happen that even the NCAA can’t ignore and they’ll wind up with a two or three year suspension from national title contention. You can’t pour all that hot money into something and not have rule breaking and corruption.