The Daily Yonder's coverage of rural economic issues, including workforce development and the future of work in rural America, is supported in part by Microsoft.
Like the saying about bringing a knife to a gunfight, the Cornices are out-of-step with the times. In small, rural towns across this country, thirty or forty feet above Main Street, proud, silent, and sometimes crumbling, these decorative flourishes along the tops of buildings are clueless against the computer technology, faster than a bullet, that causes the empty storefronts and faded “Space for Rent” signs at street level.
With their mute communication, the Cornices tell of a time when place mattered, when a small town could be the point of intersection for commerce and ideas, hopes, and lives. If their stoic brick and stone could express emotion, they would show bewilderment, sadness, and confusion. The Cornices are from a time when a successful person would construct a beautiful building in their home town not only as an investment but also with the hope of bequeathing something of lasting value to future generations—a commitment to the place they loved and considered theirs and special.
At these thoughts the Spreadsheets scoff, “What are they? Sentimental indulgences, that’s all. Beauty? Ha! Just one person’s arrogant assumption that they know what looks nice to someone else. A building might last 100 years. Compound the extra cost of those cornices for a century and think of the value you could create. Sense of place? You mean xenophobic, provincial, jerkwater.”
The Spreadsheets are an extension of the idea that free trade is always good and money is the measure of value. If it makes sense, by the logic of the Spreadsheets, to move manufacturing overseas or import resources from somewhere else, then little by little that logic prevails. The cost to place does not matter to the Spreadsheets, only the bottom line, a number on a computer screen. Place matters only in reference to shipping routes, low taxes, and efficiency. Theoretically, the value the next generation gets is money, limitless, borderless, fungible, mobile, and unattached.
The Cornices are an extension of place. Someone built something in a particular place, put their name on it and put extra effort into making it beautiful, a cost they were unlikely to receive a monetary return on, because that was their place and they wanted to make it better. People whose parents and grandparents came from countries where they could never hope to own property, made good in this country and then gave back to their communities in a thousand ways, some personal and forgotten but not unimportant and some enduring, like the Cornices. Now, as the ever-increasing gravity of big cities pulls young people away from the small towns and rural areas to jobs that pay a living wage, the Cornices remain, a reminder of a bygone age.
The era of the Cornices wasn’t noble. Jim Crow, racism, eugenics, child labor, segregation, disenfranchisement, vast unmitigated poverty and ignorance were features of their time. And yet when you look at the Cornices you feel the commitment to place that emanates from them and the hopeful sense of a future that will be ever better.
The physical representations of the Spreadsheets, the box stores and enormous distribution centers, are as unattached and standardized as the shipping containers which deliver their wares from someplace far away. No commitment to place. No regionalism, provincialism, nationalism and theoretically no racism, sexism or anti-immigrantism, just individuals, atomized, maximizing their consumer choice and personal freedom to whatever extent their finances allow in a supposedly free market.
For a narrow subset of humanity, the promise of the Spreadsheets seems to be working well. These are the very wealthy and also some whose combination of advanced education and technical skills allow them to live more or less as global citizens, nominally citizens of a state, but actually moving their bodies and money around the world as suits their career or entertainment or investments—the Elites. They are connected to whatever place and acquaintances suit them best at any given time. The one value they stand for is the system of globalization which allows them to continue maximizing their freedom and wealth.
There is another group reaping rewards from the Spreadsheets, the Hapless Beneficiaries. These are the truly destitute around the world, people living on a few dollars a day, the humanity neglected by the rest of humanity. The Spreadsheets, in their voracious appetite for cheaper labor commodity, have discovered that the hands and lungs of this group are just as able to perform hard and repetitive work as more expensive bodies elsewhere. This reality causes rejoicing by the Elites because it is the perfect counterpoint to the destruction wrought by the system that benefits them. “Look, a poor person who used to live on one dollar a day now living on two dollars a day. A 100% increase in wealth. Globalism floats all boats!”
The gains received by the Hapless Beneficiaries and the Elites have come at great cost to the rest of us. Vermont,where I live, has been spared the worst, so far. The rural midwest and Appalachia have been less lucky. Cities of a certain size seem to be able to maintain their center of gravity. But all across the country the suction created by the Spreadsheets is pulling communities and people apart. The republic is divided against itself, red against blue, urban against rural.
In Trump’s opening campaign salvo the Mexican border and the illegal immigrants crossing there were convenient and exploitable symbols for the destruction of the American middle class caused by the borderless and hard-to-picture Spreadsheets. The vulgarity and racism with which Trump imagined the consequences of open borders diverted the mainstream media, always suckers for a sensational story, from comprehending the enormity of the underlying problem. Trump’s language condensed the problem and a solution with compelling imagery—Mexican rapists and a wall. If that seems like an oversimplified explanation, it is, but the savant salesman closed the deal and got elected president.
Whether Trump logically understood the connections he was making or just used his magical salesman powers to intuit the connection, like a jazz musician instinctively improvising on a riff, is an open question. When it comes to selling, he is either an intuitive genius or a calculating one—a question of tactical importance for his political opponents. As for the rest of us, assuming the republic survives his administration, what matters is that the people in power start thinking seriously about the consequences of running the country on the logic of the Spreadsheets for the benefit of the Elites.
The fact that Trump is the messenger who finally got through with this message shows how isolated the Elites are from the reality most citizens live in. A man whose only known value is money, who is the walking embodiment of privilege, whose business tactics involve systematically screwing small tradesmen and ripping off students, this caricature of elitism is what finally got the rest of the elites to recognise that perhaps it is wrong to abandon everything that doesn’t smell like money, that the accuracy of the phrase fly-over-states denotes moral failure rather than wit, that everything can’t be priced in dollars.
However flawed the product being sold, every successful sales pitch has to contain a kernel of truth. Donald Trump recognised the truth that place is defined by borders and that many Americans feel displaced within their own country. What it means to be part of a place or a country is to have a connection beyond the purely practical or monetary. This idea of value is unquantifiable by the Spreadsheets and therefore incomprehensible to them. If the price is the same it’s all the same to the Spreadsheets who stand only for money and its ability to flow unimpeded around the world relentlessly seeking a better return.
Convincing nearly half the country that he, Donald Trump, an elitist who started life making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year as a toddler-landlord, would reverse the destruction caused by the Spreadsheets, this was salesmanship as masterful as the famous quip, “The prettiest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” The devil captures souls by offering them something they desperately want, in this case, fulfilling the longing of many people to believe that someone in power would protect their place instead of selling it to the highest bidder.
To rephrase the rabbi Hillel, If I am not for a place, what place will be for me? But if I am only for a place, what am I? If not now, when?
For all of human history, there seem to be two contradictory actions people will resist until the last drop of their blood has been spilled. The first is any attempt to usurp or relocated them in any way, violently or through persuasion, from the place they view as their homeland, and this applies no matter how harsh or inhospitable the place is.
The second is any attempt to prevent them from leaving their homeland, if they want to, and seeking a better life in some other place, no matter the risks. People will set off on a flimsy raft across a shark-filled ocean, or walk hundreds of miles carrying small children just for the chance of a better life someplace else.
The value of money to the Spreadsheets is in existential conflict with the primal human desire to be connected to a place or to seek a new place.
When the forces of free trade cause a factory to move, the Elites sigh and shrug. “Sad, but the market has spoken.” Then they move along to a bigger city or different country. Perhaps they even have to sell their house for less than they paid for it, a capital loss they can no doubt offset against share price gains in the company that will now have lower labor costs in the new place. The people left behind, who either love their place more than they love money, or don’t have enough money to leave for a new place, they suffer as do the buildings and roads and schools.
When desperate migrants fleeing economic or climate or political disruption flood over a border, the Elites, connected to no place, are perplexed by the stench of racism rising from the people who already live in that place. What did they expect, that communities and voters drowning under decades of stagnant wages and billowing addictions would all smell sweet when they were swamped with immigrants?
The Spreadsheets dismiss connection to place as an outdated notion, an anachronism like the idea that your last name reflects where you are from. They say that place no longer matters, that in a global economy we all live on one place, the earth, and we should move around as market forces demand.
But this idea fails even more dramatically on a global scale than it does on a local one. The future habitability of the earth, the place we all share, is of no concern to the Spreadsheets. The same Spreadsheet logic that inexorably destroys small communities is just as steadily destroying the climate that gave rise to human civilization. Running the world for the interests of people who only value money will have us fighting with each other over who inherits a planet none of us can live on.
Like the rabbi’s aphorism, it’s both at once. We’re going to have to devise a system that respects our individual connection to place and doesn’t destroy the place we all call home. It’s going to have to be a system with borders and trade, a system that allows people to migrate but doesn’t displace people who want to stay in the place they call home. The principles that form the foundation of this new system will not be measured by money alone but will have to value people and their connection to place. If that sounds like a difficult balance to strike, no doubt it is, but as the rabbi points out, the time for this change is always now.