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NYT reporter finds out free trade economists are full of it.

October 24, 2017

"I had always been told that unskilled jobs moved abroad. Yet Shannon’s job was complicated. It had taken her years to master. Could I do what she did? I honestly wasn’t sure.

[Farah Stockman | October 23, 2017 | New York Times]

I had always been told that automation, not trade, was the reason factory workers like Shannon were losing their jobs. But the two are intimately linked, as U.S. factories trying to compete with cheap labor overseas are forced to automate to stay profitable. Far from seeing herself as a competitor to machines, Shannon viewed herself as a loving caretaker of the machines she’d spent years learning to operate and repair.

I had always been told by economists, diplomats and academics that workers like Shannon were the few who had to be sacrificed so that the rest of us could be better off: They were the martyrs of globalization. But the more I delved into economic theory, the more I began to question whether people like Shannon were really “the few.” Our economy is designed for (and by) people with college degrees — a credential that two-thirds of American adults lack.”

I looked at the clock, worried that the steelworker I was supposed to meet for lunch — a woman named Shannon Mulcahy — wouldn’t show.

I had already interviewed half a dozen steelworkers who were losing their jobs down at the union hall. I learned a lot from them, but they were all men involved with the union who had refused to train their replacements from Mexico. I also wanted to get the perspective of someone who had agreed to train. I wanted to hear what it felt like to teach the person who would replace you.

I had reached out on Facebook to a dozen people who had identified themselves as steelworkers at the plant. Shannon was the only one who wrote me back that same day.

But then she canceled our lunch meeting abruptly. She feared that the Rexnord Corporation, the company that owned the factory, would punish her for talking to a reporter.

I did my best to convince Shannon that I would protect her identity until she’d received her final paycheck from the company. It was a risky promise. Nobody knew when that would be.

“I’m a stranger and you have no reason to trust me,” I wrote her on Facebook. “But I do want to tell the story of Rexnord and I want to tell it all the way through. I want to find out six months from now or even a year from now what happened to everybody. I want to follow certain people to see where they ended up. I’d love for you to be one of them.”

Luckily, Shannon did walk through the door at Cracker Barrel, wearing her signature blue eyeliner. She sat down to lunch and told me the story of her life, which was unlike anything I had ever heard.

It was a tale of overcoming sexual abuse and domestic violence to become the first female “heat treat” operator at the plant‚ responsible for hardening with fire the small rings of steel that would eventually be joined together, one inside the other, to form bearings. Yet Shannon didn’t view herself as a victim or a survivor. She was simply a single mom trying to make it.

I followed Shannon and several of her co-workers until September, making eight trips to Indianapolis over a period of eight months. Many of the workers were at the factory seven days a week. They didn’t have much free time to talk. Sometimes I drove to work with Shannon and hopped out of the car just before she got to the factory. Sometimes I met her at the end of her shift — at 10 p.m. — at a Burger King nearby and drove home with her. A few times, I fell asleep waiting for her to get home after her shift.

The Times in Person: Indianapolis

The reality that Shannon and her co-workers showed me flew in the face of so many assumptions I had about class, free trade and globalization.

I had always been told that unskilled jobs moved abroad. Yet Shannon’s job was complicated. It had taken her years to master. Could I do what she did? I honestly wasn’t sure.

I had always been told that automation, not trade, was the reason factory workers like Shannon were losing their jobs. But the two are intimately linked, as U.S. factories trying to compete with cheap labor overseas are forced to automate to stay profitable. Far from seeing herself as a competitor to machines, Shannon viewed herself as a loving caretaker of the machines she’d spent years learning to operate and repair.

I had always been told by economists, diplomats and academics that workers like Shannon were the few who had to be sacrificed so that the rest of us could be better off: They were the martyrs of globalization. But the more I delved into economic theory, the more I began to question whether people like Shannon were really “the few.” Our economy is designed for (and by) people with college degrees — a credential that two-thirds of American adults lack.

For those of us who are lucky enough to have graduated from good colleges, globalization and unfettered trade have expanded our horizons and boosted our incomes, as the world opened up to our talent and capital. We rarely think about the downsides to our fellow Americans, the most vulnerable among us. Too often, we just repeat the ubiquitous platitude, “The factories are never coming back.”

Getting to know Shannon and her co-workers helped me understand why so many Americans feel let down by both major political parties in this country. But this story has also given me a huge amount of hope that, despite our many differences, Americans still really do care about one another.

After the article ran, people from all walks of life reached out to me, to Shannon and to The New York Times.

“Shannon, Rosie the Riveter has nothing on you,” commented a woman from Vermont. “If ever we are to succeed as a country again, it is because of people like you. Your tenacity, grit, love, humanity, devotion to family and work ethic are what make America thrive.”

A man who identified himself as a former manager in tech manufacturing, from Dallas, wrote: “I have seen this story play out over and over again. It is going to take a new breed of committed, smart and courageous leaders both political and in business to turn around this mess.”

A judge in California sent me a message saying that the story “affirmed for me how we as Americans are all in this together and should behave that way more.”

Amen to that.


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  • There is a big difference between free trade and fair trade. Certainly there are certain things like tropical fruits and other foods that cannot be obtained in sufficient quantities for the people of the U.S. of A. The lower income people in other countries do not benefit either when they are paid poverty wages. Do we really understand who benefits from outsourcing? —the wealthy at the helms of these corporations and the stock holders who demand greater returns on their investments! Second thought, if we truly care about our Mother earth and her environment, we all need to buy as local as possible. There is a huge difference between needs and wants. Just as each of us is limited by time, energy and space, so is our planet earth limited in resources. How many of us are willing to recycle, to carry reusable bags for shopping, buy second hand, buy closest to home or work and do multiple chores in one trip? Even slowing down to 50 miles an hour can save gas. We need to slow down our minds and understand that speed is not the most important activity in our lives! How many households in this country have given up disposals in favor of creating new soil by composting. How many of us have given up dishwashers in favor of washing our own dishes and letting them air dry? We have all been brainwashed into consumerism.
  • It isn’t that hard to figure out. Companies will do what they can to maximize profits. If the rules or laws or tax policy they have to follow encourages them move off shore from a financial point of view they will. Our politicians have been total failures at making the correct laws. Our country’s manufacturing competes with VAT taxes that incentivises exports by other countries and we have no counter policy because our politicial elite are incompetent at leveling the field so we lose manufacturing. It is just math of business of the underlying rules of tax policy, and lowest cost. Instead of taking down the corporate tax rate, why don’t we put the VAT tax back on goods from other countries that enter our country? Instead of allowing companies to play accounting games to go to the world’s lowest tax rates, why don’t we tax the product with a VAT or sales tax instead of allowing the financial manipulation to lower taxes with ghost headquarters?

    Our problems of outsourcing jobs and not collecting taxes really get down to the total incompetence of our ruling elite in policy making. They get paid a pretty penny but they just can not govern worth a darn. They are being outsmarted by the market and they have no ability to react to the real world.