• Here in Youngstown

    December 12, 2015 // 12 Comments »

    mill overgrown

    Ghosts of Tom Joad is fiction per se, but fiction based on fact. My story of the intentional destruction of an entire class of people through economic disparity is mirrored in so many people’s lives.

    Here is one of those stories, originally submitted to this blog as a comment, but well-worth repeating here (lightly edited):

    From 1955 to 1965, my Dad lived near Youngstown, Ohio. He moved up from the Mississippi Delta and worked at Packard Electric and some steel mills to get through college at Youngstown University.

    I drove through Youngstown last month for the first time after my Uncle’s funeral (submariner for six years, at Pearl Harbor, worked for 40 years at the General Motors Lordstown plant). Youngstown today reminded me of Detroit (as a firefighter, I tend to notice lots of empty lots where houses once stood).

    I graduated from high school in Detroit in 1983. The place has really gone even more downhill since 2008; my old house on the West side has been stripped out (dead dog carcass in the dining room), probably a 25 percent vacant rate.

    I don’t see things getting better anytime soon. I’m doing OK as a firefighter, but I’m making less than I did 13 years ago and the powers-that-be have been going after the public unions (now that less folks are in private unions than before the Great Depression).


    Here’s another from Comments:

    This blog resonates with me as I grew up in Troy, Ohio in the 1960s and ’70s before moving to New Jersey in 1974. I experienced small town America with Soap Box Derby races and Memorial Day parades and watching 4th of July fireworks from the levee on the Miami River. I went to college in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where “The Steel” ran the longest continuous steel mill in the world, something like 11 miles. A few years ago I read that the foundry part downtown had been turned into a casino and I knew that the U.S. was dying of capitalist rot.


    …And another:

    My long dead friend Joe was the son of the owner of a bar in downtown Lorain. My Polish friends had fathers that worked the steel mills. My high school used to play Admiral King, and my trip there was to the other end of the universe. The last several times in Lorain the major bridge was out for repair and it sure took a long time to fix it. I used to drive 6 and 2 driving to BGSU. Joe commented while dying that he remembered us tooling down that road doing 120 mph in my Detroit iron/389 Pontiac.Both of us were immigrant stock and soldiered for this country. Joe is still buried in Lorain with his parents.

    In October 2013 I stayed at Port Clinton and it was depressing. Half the business district was depressed. Tourism is down. A condo in town sold for $20K. Bowling Green town is dull and needs a paint job and new roofs. Cleveland is a slum, as is Euclid where my folks lived.The house I grew up in has been demolished. The inner city is every bit of what you wrote about, but worse. If that’s possible then things are really bad.



    There are so many, too many, such stories out there, good people who believed what they had been told only to find themselves discarded when companies found they could make more money somewhere, somehow else. They all are the ghosts of Tom Joad now.




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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy

    Meet You in Atlantic City: An Economic Fable

    July 21, 2015 // 4 Comments »


    As the New Economy starts to look more and more like the Depression Economy of the 1930’s, the divide between rich and poor clearer as businesses fade and fail, Atlantic City provides a layers of urban archaeology pointing where we’ve been and maybe where we’re going.

    We All Love Lucy

    Driving in on the older roads, there’s Lucy the Elephant. Not a real elephant of course, Lucy is instead a freakish wood and tin six story hollow statue. First built in 1881 to add value to some Jersey swampland, Lucy has been reincarnated several times after fire, neglect and storm damage. Along the way, she was used a tavern, a hotel, and for most of her life, simply an “attraction.” As owning a car, and the family driving vacations that accompanied ownership, became egalitarian rights in the 1950’s and 60’s, all manner of tacky attractions popped up along America’s roads: cement dinosaurs, teepee-shaped motels, museums of freaks, and spectacles such as the world’s largest ball of twine.

    Lucy—and Atlantic City—set the trend well into the early 1970’s. Between 1947 and 1973 actual incomes in the U.S. rose at the same level for everyone, more or less evenly spread across the societal spectrum. In 1932 Detroit produced 1.4 million cars, in 1950 it rose to eight million, then peaked at twelve million in 1973. America was a developing nation, in the best sense of that word. Yet as the U.S. economy changed, money began to flow out of the working class pockets that fed Lucy. From 1973 to 1993 the top one percent of Americans saw income grow eighty percent, and by 1989 the one percent owned forty percent of U.S. wealth. Atlantic City hurt. The famous Boardwalk (remember Monopoly? The street names are all from Atlantic City) became a crime scene, too dangerous for casual tourists, and drugs took over for tourism. It wasn’t different than the rest of America, just more intense.

    Atlantic City Rolls the Dice on Legalized Gambling

    Yet the first time I visited Atlantic City, some thirty years ago, things had again started to change. It was in the midst of a hyper national economy that gambling was legalized, and money poured into the area. The Boardwalk sprouted casinos and restaurants, and local business owners scrambled to find workers even as they considered early retirement based on the soaring value of the land they had held for generations. Everyone and everything felt alive, and billboards boasted of “rebirth.”

    Thirty Years Later, Does the Bet Pay Off?

    Thirty years later, a visit to Atlantic City once again reminds that life there isn’t any different than the rest of America, just more intense. On a twenty-story hotel tower, you can read the words “Hilton” in dirt shadow where the sign was removed as the place slammed shut. Trump Plaza, nothing if not a monument to excess and hubris from someone once admired as a business magician and pathetically now a presidential candidate, even before it closed was much of a caricature of elegance as the man himself. When I stayed there, the pillows smelled of sweat, the corner of doors were chipped, many areas needed paint and most of the bars and restaurants were as lonely as the former Greyhound bus terminal a few blocks away. People who appeared homeless harmlessly wandered in and out of the casino, itself tawdy and too dimly lit to inspire fun. It was like the air had been let out of the place.

    Outside along the Boardwalk, the famous rolling chairs are pushed by recent immigrants and not-so-clean older denizens of the City. Lots of people still took rides, but it seemed that paying the workers to push you while you sat felt cheap and sad, just a step aside of pushing dollars into the g-strings of the strippers in clubs just off the Boardwalk. It felt too much like buying and discarding someone’s self respect to be considered fun. The swanky mall built on one of the old amusement piers had more shuttered than open stores. The family restaurant I worked in thirty years ago is now a tiny dollar store run by a man angry that I was just looking for old times’ sake. Plenty of “We Buy Gold” and pawn shops nearby, however. Though touted as a nouveau cuisine destination in ads, the only lines I saw were for people challenging the economics of the $7.98 all-you-can-eat buffet.

    Where to Lucy?

    There are always things that hint at optimism. Atlantic City survived Hurricane Sandy with little damage. The Hard Rock was doing good business with three dollar Miller Lite’s. Caesar’s had set up a glitzy room for Asian gamblers, complete with Chinese-speaking dealers and table games from Macau. Everyone turned from the old guys pushing the rolling chairs to see where the young guy running across the hot sand carrying two ice creams cones was headed.

    The average American worker never earned as much again as in the peak year of 1973. Poverty rates also reached a historic low in 1973 and have risen steadily thereafter. One out of five American kids now lives in a household that cannot feed itself. Aside from it all, Lucy the Elephant still stands her post, unblinking and silent. She looks out over the Boardwalk, maybe America itself, and wonders where we are all headed.







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    Blaming the Workers? Detroit Iron Rusting Out

    September 2, 2013 // 5 Comments »

    Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day, they’re easy to confuse, so let’s talk about Detroit and American manufacturing while we all sober up.

    Today’s fairy tale is about the American Axle company, semi-located in Detroit. It was spun off from General Motors by a former GM executive, Richard Dauch. Dauch set himself up as a modern-day working class hero, who was going to prove that manufacturing was not dead in America, and only needed smart management to revive. He even wrote a book American Drive: How Manufacturing Will Save Our Country, all proud of himself for his can-do spirit and all.

    Back on earth, it seems he didn’t focus in the book about how much of his manufacturing actually takes place abroad, where he has some 10,000 workers. Only 8500 left in the U.S. now, many in white collar running-the-numbers kind of jobs.

    In 2008, following a bitter strike, Dauch forced his workers to accept wage cuts from $28 an hour to $18, some to $10 an hour, with many benefits lost and two job sites closed.

    While blaming his workers and their union for driving up his manufacturing costs, CEO Richard Dauch paid himself a cool as ice $8.3 million in 2011. Better yet, he got his own father appointed chairman of the board for American Axle and paid Pop $11.4 million for 2011. Dad did work for his money– in interviews with Detroit papers, old dad raised the idea of moving jobs to Mexico if American Axle couldn’t lower wages. The father then made a point two weeks into the strike of very publically vacationing in Florida while workers in Detroit and Buffalo picketed in the snow.

    Joke’s on us: all those out there screaming their opposition to wealth redistribution in the United States are actually only complaining about redistribution downward; excessive redistribution up seems not to be a problem. It’s an American success story!


    I’ll have more to say about Detroit and American Axle in my new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent, due out in March 2014.

    Labor Day Bonus: All those jobs being created we keep hearing about? All those people who say if you don’t like the minimum wage, go get a better job? The answer is what jobs are those?

    In order of the number of people employed, the jobs that account for the most workers in the U.S. right now are retail salespeople, cashiers and restaurant workers, along with janitors. All of those pay minimum wage or nearly so. In fact, most of those restaurant workers get less than minimum wage as they’re expected to make up the difference in tips.





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    Dollar Here, a Dollar There…

    May 3, 2011 // Comments Off on Dollar Here, a Dollar There…

    stripper with money We lacked a lot of things in Iraq: flush toilets, the comfort of family members nearby and of course adult supervision, strategic guidance and common sense. The one thing we did not lack was money. There was money everywhere. You couldn’t walk around a corner without stumbling over bales of money; the place was lousy with it.

    Sent to me by a fellow State Department PRT Alumnus:

    The best one or worst project of mine was a fruit processing facility that the Iraqi’s did not want, but members of our econ team and the military were pushing, $644,000 worth. At the PRDC meeting, I leaned over to the Army CERP manager and told him we needed to cancel this project, it was too much money and they did not even want it. His response was, “Its not that much money.”

    Ah, it was good to be rich.

    In my 23 years working for the State Department, we never had enough money. We were always being told to “do more with less.” Now there was literally more money than we could spend. It was weird. We’d be watching the news from home about foreclosures while signing off on tens of thousands of dollars for stuff in Iraq.

    The most my group spent was $2.5 million on a poultry plant. I tell the story in my book in a chapter called “Chicken Shit.” Second place was a million bucks for milk processing. That chapter is called “Milking the US Government” (we couldn’t afford better writers, sorry).

    Some things never changed: I’d watch billions of dollars being spent on failing water and sewer projects with nary any accountability while having $25 cell phone card reimbursements denied by the Embassy cashier for lack of a paper receipt.

    We wondered among ourselves whether we shouldn’t be running a PRT in Detroit or New Orleans instead of Baghdad. Nahhh…



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