Everybody loves Martin Niemoller. Wikipedia will tell you he is famous for his “provocative poem about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.” Here’s the original form of that poem, in case it hasn’t come across your Facebook feed lately:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
It’s a lovely piece to quote: it reckons with the past, signals enlightenment and moral clarity, and challenges us all to live up to its ideals. You pretty much can’t help feeling a little more ethical and upright when you read it. Still, before we get too complacent, I’d like to ask you to accompany me, and Niemoller, on a short tour of recent American economic and political history. I want to see if we’ve really learned to speak up for others as well as we think we have. Humor me, you don’t really mind, do you?
First they came for the Socialists — this feels like a quaint anachronism now, but the Socialist party was highly relevant politically in the United States in the early 1900’s. The Socialists had two representatives in Congress and high water marks of 6% of the popular vote in the 1912 presidential election for socialist Eugene Debs and almost 17% in 1924 for socialist-supported progressive Robert LaFollette. (By contrast, Gary Johnson won 3% and Jill Stein won 1% of the popular vote in 2016.) Within 25 years, discredited by American politics and world events, the Socialists were more or less irrelevant in the U.S., winning less than 0.1% of the presidential vote from the 1950’s on. Some people did speak out, but the tide was against them. You and I weren’t around then, in any case.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists — much of this happened in our lifetimes. Labor unions were highly influential in the United States for most of the 20th century, especially during what’s known as the Great Compression, the period following the New Deal reforms when income inequality declined dramatically. From Wikipedia:
This “middle class society” of relatively low level of inequality remained fairly steady for about three decades ending in early 1970s, the product of relatively high wages for the US working class and political support for income leveling government policies.
This is clear in this chart that tracks income inequality over time. This income leveling correlates well to labor union membership, which grew steadily during the New Deal, and eventually reached almost 35% — more than 1 in 3! — of salaried workers in 1954. Union membership gradually declined from that point. The best statistics start in 1983, when around 20% of the work force still belonged to unions, and they show another 50% decline to just 11% of the work force in 2015. For my generation (I am in my mid-40’s), and for the so-called new economy, I think we can say that we’ve played out Niemoller’s script pretty much as written: few of us were unionists, and few of us have paid attention as union influence declined throughout our working lives. (Uber rides are cheap and convenient, so who cares if the drivers have no rights and the company can raise its take from fares at will? I bet a hundred years ago there would have been a strike.)
Then they came for the Industrial Cities. Here I am talking about both big (Detroit, MI, population 1.85M in 1950) and small cities (Youngstown, OH, population almost 170K in 1960). Since then, both cities have shrunk by about 60%! The history of these cities (and many more like them) in the 20th century is a complex mix of economics, sociology, and racism, but here’s the world’s shortest introduction:
U.S. cities and industry in the North and Midwest grew rapidly in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, powered by a huge wave of European immigrants. Then World War I created a labor shortage, and blacks from the South migrated north to fill the gap. This began the Great Migration of blacks to cities in the North and (eventually) the West. Apart from a short break during the Great Depression, the migration continued for the next 40-50 years, transforming the black population from 80% rural-20% urban to the exact opposite — 80% urban-20% rural — in little more than half a century.
As they came to the white-dominated cities, incoming blacks were steered to neighborhoods with lower economic opportunity and investment, away from whites, a morally bankrupt process known as redlining. (For a history of redlining that goes beyond Wikipedia, read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s mighty essay, The Case for Reparations.) Meanwhile, whites tended to concentrate in their own segregated parts of the same cities, and eventually to move away from the cities altogether as road networks improved (white flight). Some of the industrial jobs that brought blacks to the cities went to the suburbs with the white population, some began to go overseas, and some were lost to automation, with the latter trend showing no signs of abating. In just 20 years (1967-1987), Philadelphia, New York City, Detroit, and Chicago all lost over 50% of their manufacturing jobs. Some cities managed to reorient around the technology or financial sectors (Boston, New York), while others lost significant population and income that they’ve never regained. (For more on the relationship between lost industrial jobs and inner city poverty, you can read William Julius Wilson; here is a short summary paper.)
Who spoke out for these cities, for their minority populations and for their financially starved schools? Not those whites who moved to the suburbs to get away from blacks, and not the mainstream Democratic party of the 1980’s and 90’s, which decided it needed to distance itself from inner city concerns in order to win elections. Maybe you did?
Then they came for the Heartland. Or perhaps for the U.S. manufacturing economy, depending on whether you prefer to view things geographically or economically. This has been the subject of much debate since the election, because Trump’s margin of victory came from three “Rust Belt” states (PA, MI, WI) that he had been expected to lose, and because it’s believed that his margin of victory in those states came from dissatisfied white working class voters either seeking change or lashing out either at bullying elites or at bullied minorities or immigrants. (This is probably a lousy explanation of voter dynamics in Pennsylvania.) Frustratingly, these discussions have devolved into arguing over whether these voters are motivated by economic or social-cultural factors (as though it were easy to separate the two) and whether they deserve sympathy (as though we’ve never seen anyone bully others while being bullied at the same time).
No matter how you view the politics here, we should be able to come to some kind of agreement on the economic facts. Here’s a recent article suggesting that the Rust Belt is not a struggling region, because other parts of the country are worse off: the states we are talking about are all in the middle third of U.S. states by median income. Sure, they’re not Connecticut or California, but they’re not Arkansas or Mississippi either. This is true enough as far as it goes, but it fails to consider decline. As a quick back-of-the-envelope exercise, I pulled up the income data and sorted the states top to bottom by median income as of 2015 and as of 1995. Here’s what I found:
- The state with the biggest decline in ranking over the last 20 years (from #5 to #28)? Wisconsin.
- The state with the second biggest decline (from #14 to #31)? Michigan.
- Five of the ten states with the biggest drop in ranking form a contiguous region at the heart of the Rust Belt: Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. (There are no other clusters; the other five states are completely non-contiguous.)
At this point, these Rust Belt jobs are more likely lost to automation than to other states or countries (though there is some of the latter) or incoming immigrants from lower-income countries (virtually none coming into the Midwest). So it’s hardly clear what to do. Still, there’s not much sympathy for these people’s plight on my Facebook feed, where most people (1) have college or graduate degrees and professional occupations, (2) live in desirable areas, and (3) are frustrated and terrified, as I am, to see Trump in power.
Then they came for — OK, who’s next? Are you? What job will you have in twenty years, or what job will your children have, when:
- Economic opportunity appears to be declining, not increasing, across generations.
- The technology sector, which is not very labor intensive, and also finds it easy to move jobs around or offshore, is coming to dominate the (non-service) economy. (Just to give you an idea, Facebook is the 7th most valuable company in the world and employs only 13,000 people, a fraction of the workforce of the industrial behemoths of 50 years ago, whose employees numbered in the hundreds of thousands.)
- Automation is increasing, and potentially applies to more and more jobs, both in and out of the tech sector, as technology itself becomes ever more capable.
- The gig economy is rising, and there doesn’t appear to be an obvious limit on what kind of jobs can be gig-ized. (Gig workers have even less leverage than long-term employees.)
- The financial industry, which has grown rapidly over the last several decades, provides relatively little economic value relative to the human capital invested in it, and might be ripe for contraction. You could speculate that the same might be true of marketing as well (another industry where too many of the well-educated settle), or at least that it could be done more cheaply. If our news stories can be replaced by crap written on the cheap in Eastern Europe, why not the ads?
Shifting into my ominous Rod Serling voice: with the manufacturing economy gone, both in the cities and out, with more and more people shifted into low-wage service jobs, with labor as powerless as it seems it’s ever been, with our economy sliced up into strata, and the humans in each one of those strata cut away in turn — who will be left to speak for you when they come for you? And how will you feel with Niemoller’s warning, turned into prophecy now, running on a loop over and over, not just on your Facebook feed but inside your head?