Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Rust Belt Crisis

America's decline is a hot topic these days. I've heard it all before, back in the early 1990s. The End-is-Nigh crowd, it seems, peaks at some point in every decade. Joseph Nye takes issue with the naysayers in Foreign Policy and his last paragraph (if not the entire piece) applies equally well to the Rust Belt:

The greatest danger to America is not debt, political paralysis, or China; it is parochialism, turning away from the openness that is the source of its strength and resting on its laurels. As Zakaria says, in the past, worrying about decline has helped avert it. Let us hope that his intelligent though darkly drawn picture will yet again start that healthy process.

Relative to the entire United States, the Rust Belt is closed. That is the source of its weakness. The concern about decline results in greater withdrawal. Power is more tightly concentrated among fewer people. As Sean Safford observes, the community is strangled by too much social capital:

In Chapter 4 of Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown, I talk about the differences between how immigrant workers were treated in Bethlehem and Youngstown. In both places, local elites saw the arrival of new immigrants as a threat. But they defined the threat differently. In Bethlehem, the threat was seen as the break down of community. And so business and civic leaders took action to create bridges to immigrant groups (largely through religious outreach: that is, through organizations like the Young Men’s Christian Association). This had the effect of forging ties both between the elites and the working classes and among the various ethnic immigrant communities that made up the working class.

Elites in Youngstown interpreted the threat, not in terms of community, but in terms of elite’s interests.

The response of the elites served to make the neighborhoods of Youngstown more parochial, more isolated. The city was Balkanized. I see the same thing happening in the Rust Belt today. The reaction to fiscal and economic crisis is all too familiar. Does that mean another lost decade for the band of shrinking cities?

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