Jul 1 2007

Disposable People

The ‘upside’ to natural and unnatural disasters

As Hurricane Katrina tore off roofs and exposed the destroyed interiors of homes, it also peeled back the genteel veneer on elite media opinion about New Orleans—revealing that some pundits and reporters viewed the majority of its residents to be essentially irrelevant, if not an outright impediment, to the restructuring of the city’s devastated economy.

Whether urban social devastation results from corporate decisions to relocate jobs or a nature-triggered catastrophe, major U.S. media seem to view cities as first and foremost engines of economic growth and profit, with the local population’s needs and culture viewed as barely worthy of mention or as actively bothersome. While the federal government can play a temporary role in retraining dislocated workers or providing housing for displaced families, media wisdom holds that the fate of poor and working people is ultimately their own responsibility.

This perspective has been borne out repeatedly in commercial coverage of both Katrina and the crushing impact of plant relocations due to globalization in a deindustrializing area like southeastern Wisconsin. The message to victims of shattering disruptions in their lives: Don’t expect government job programs to create opportunities—you are on your own. Don’t expect corporations to reward worker loyalty with a reciprocal commitment to the community, either. We live in a global economy and you had better “get used to it,” as a 1996 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series on the city and corporate globalization (2/6/96) bluntly put it.

An upside to the deluge

Following the horrifying reports of the elderly dying in sweltering heat and scenes of desperate families seeking to escape flood waters—interspersed with footage of George W. Bush strumming a guitar at a fundraiser and praising FEMA director Michael Brown for “a heckuva job”—major media briefly showed a spark of interest in the racial and class fault lines Katrina uncovered (Extra! Update, 10/05; When the Press Fails, W. Lance Bennett et al.).

But when the victims of Katrina were widely dispersed by relief efforts, and were thus too fragmented to press for a rebuilt New Orleans that reflected their needs, stepping forward to take their place at the microphones were a set of experts whose counsel unmistakably paralleled that of the city’s economic elite. One of New Orleans’ most famous white power-brokers, regional transit authority chair James Reiss, expressed his vision of the rebuilt city in undiplomatic terms to the Wall Street Journal (9/8/05): “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically.” Reiss further suggested that he and many of his friends would leave the city unless New Orleans improved its services—and reduced the number of poor people.

Reiss instantly became a lightning rod for African-American residents and their allies, who perceived him as an advocate of ethnic and class cleansing. But his comments about reshaping New Orleans were echoed by New York Times columnist David Brooks in “Katrina’s Silver Lining” (9/8/05), which argued that Katrina provides a chance to “break up zones of concentrated poverty,” and thereby “break the cycle of poverty.” “If we just put up new buildings and allow the same people to move back into their old neighborhoods,” Brooks warned, “then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before.” This view suggests that these “same people”—not bankers and corporate decision-makers withholding investment from poor areas—inevitably recreate the same “rundown” economic and social conditions, and that the only logical solution is to disperse these “dysfunctional” people.

New York Times reporter Adam Nossiter fleshed out Brooks’ “silver lining” narrative in a front-page news story (1/21/07) headlined “As New Orleans Shrinks, Some Perceive an Upside.” The article provided an opportunity for several prominent academics to argue at length that the dispersal of the poorest residents to other cities would allow them to connect with better job opportunities. “Most of those who have not returned . . . are very poor, and can be more easily absorbed in places with vibrant job markets,” the article stated, attributing this view to “some economists.” One retired economist, William Oakland, even chirped, “Maybe the diaspora was a blessing.”

Embedded in these observations is the assumption that people exist to serve the economy, ignoring the possibility that the economy could be restructured to meet human needs. Thus Louisiana State University economist James Richardson told Nossiter, “I don’t think New Orleans needed 450,000 people to support the economy you had at that time.” The lone voice of dissent in this Times article was Tulane geographer Richard Campanella, who objected to the Reiss/Brooks vision by arguing that “culture is people”: “If half the people are dispersed and no longer live cohesively in those social networks, then half of local culture is gone.”

A subsequent Times story (2/16/07) expressed concern that New Orleans’ “best and brightest . . . as if finally acknowledging a lover’s destructive impulses, have made the wrenching decision to leave at a time when the population is supposed to be rebounding.” The article quoted a well-educated woman in her 30s: “the window of opportunity is closing . . . before more people like us give up and say it’s too little, too late.’’

Meanwhile, people presumably not “like us”—New Orleans’ uprooted poor and mostly African-American residents—were returning to their familiar hometown and networks in large numbers. “There are indications that low-income New Orleanians—those who will need the most help from a cash-strapped city—are making their way back, despite a lack of affordable housing, piling into relatives’ homes and trailers,” the Times reported with undisguised perplexity. “While many poorer residents have moved back to the city, the ‘brain drain’ of professionals that the city was experiencing before the storm appears to have accelerated.”

To be fair, New York Times editorials have consistently and movingly driven home the fact that “African-Americans were the predominant and poorest members of this city before the storm, they bore the worst of it and have the farthest journey back to stability” (5/15/07). Yet the news stories and columnists like Brooks have often failed to reflect the most rudimentary understanding of how racism and the loss of economic opportunity have stunted the lives of the majority of New Orleans citizens.

Waiting for paradise

Meanwhile, in its coverage of cities subjected to man-made devastation caused by de-industrialization, like the southeastern Wisconsin factory towns of Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee, the New York Times and other major newspapers like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel have reflected much the same perspective witnessed in the coverage of post-Katrina New Orleans: Displaced industrial and low-income workers should passively adjust to a new world where corporations have abandoned loyalty to their workers and their communities. A key part of that adjustment is focusing on individual advancement through education and retraining, rather than engaging in futile collective challenges to purportedly immutable economic laws underlying globalization.

In 1988, when Chrysler broke its promises to workers and public officials by relocating 5,500 jobs from Kenosha, the New York Times (12/22/88) described the closing of auto production as an “occasion for surprising expressions of relief and optimism in this industrial city on Lake Michigan.” (See Extra!, 3-4/89.) To back up this indeed “surprising” claim, the Times quoted exactly one worker who said he hated his job, while neglecting to mention that United Auto Workers Local 72 had staged a protest rally of some 7,000 people (in a town of 85,000) in near-zero temperatures.

Citing a local development official, a Times subhead stated, “After years of boom and bust, ‘the community has taken control.’” The possibility that the loss of 5,500 jobs signaled precisely the opposite conclusion—that the community’s fate was in the hands of a distant corporation increasingly shifting jobs to low-wage Mexico without regard to Kenosha’s plight—was not given voice by any sources the Times chose to interview.

“Plant Razing Hails Rebirth” (2/5/89) was the Milwaukee Journal’s similarly giddy headline, accompanying an article that breathlessly announced, “In Kenosha they’ll pave over a plant and put up paradise.”

After a much-heralded training program, only 60 percent of ex-Chrysler workers in Kenosha found work paying the equivalent of $28,000 a year or more; 20 percent remained unemployed after three years, and the remainder were forced to retire. A dog-racing track that promised to deliver 700 jobs actually provides just 225 and teeters on the verge of collapse without “relief” from state taxpayers (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 5/4/07). “Paradise” has not bloomed quite yet in the city of Kenosha, although Business Week in 1994 (7/11/94) hailed the “rebirth of a Rustbelt relic.”

Most recently, when DaimlerChrysler announced that it was selling off 80 percent of its holdings in Chrysler to a private equity group headed by former Treasury Secretary John Snow, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (5/15/07) quoted University of Wisconsin at Parkside economist Dennis Kaufman as calling the earlier loss of 5,500 Chrysler jobs “a blessing in disguise” because it proved “the markets are really quite resilient.” How resilient area families were in absorbing the well-disguised blessing of sharply reduced incomes was not explored.

From factories to galleries

Ten miles to the north, Racine has lost 12,500 factory jobs since 1980, 39 percent of its manufacturing base. While the factories have been emptied out by relocations to the South, Mexico and China, the prisons have been filling up, with a new $29 million county jail being built to accommodate a quadrupling of the inmate population in the same post-1980 period. Poverty has soared from 13.9 percent to 20.7 percent just between 2000 and 2005. But by blurring inner-city poverty with suburban and rural affluence, the New York Times misleadingly concluded (7/2/06), “Racine, Wis. and its surrounding area have gradually become more prosperous.”

With this kind of statistical wizardry, the Times was able to find validation of its familiar pro-market recipe. “If Racine, Wis., is not yet the Hamptons of the Midwest, it’s not for lack of effort,” Times reporter Robert Sharoff stated (7/24/05):

This formerly gritty industrial city roughly 70 miles north of Chicago and 30 miles south of Milwaukee on the shores of Lake Michigan has been trying for much of the last decade to reinvent itself as an artist’s colony and tourist destination.

The efforts have included the opening of the $11 million Racine Art Museum on Main Street in 2003 and the creation of a gallery district centering on nearby Sixth Street, currently home to about a dozen galleries.

The stunning premise that the museum and 12 art galleries could significantly fill in the economic Grand Canyon left by the destruction of 12,500 family-supporting factory jobs went unquestioned.

Later, the Times (7/2/06) cheerfully noted that Democrat Gary Becker was elected mayor “with a pro-development message, pledging to trim jobs from the public payroll to free resources to attract new residents and businesses.” The article did not weigh the efficacy of this repurposing of public resources—such as $8 million to subsidize Racine’s marina, aimed largely at attracting out-of-town yacht-owners—in terms of creating living-wage jobs for local residents.

Reinventing Racine

“Reinvention” is a term popping up throughout the Times’ coverage of Racine, referring both to a profound change in the city’s identity to an artists’ colony for the “creative class,” and to a jarring shift in the responsibilities thrust upon workers.

It is no longer realistic, it seems, to believe that corporations can afford to reward loyalty and hard work. As Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican who represents the area, told the Times (7/2/06), “We have to be honest with people, delivering a kind of cold-wake-up call for change in a fast-changing economy.” Workers must abandon what the Times dismissively called their “ritual antagonism to business,” and instead, reinvent themselves through retraining as “cashiers, nurses’ aides, human resource professionals and engineers.”

Local officials given space on the Racine Journal Times opinion pages continually lecture individual workers to get retrained. Conceding that “Racine is experiencing the highest unemployment rates in the state and some of the highest unemployment rates in the country,” one economic development official (5/23/06) noted the obvious: “Some of this is due to the loss of skilled manufacturing jobs.” However, she continued, the more basic problem is one of individual initiative: “But more is due to the lack of skills in our workforce.”

However, the New York Times’ own Louis Uchitelle, in his book The Disposable American, documented the futility of retraining programs, and the skills lost to U.S. society as displaced workers are forced into lower-skill, lower-wage jobs. Summarizing national data, Uchitelle concludes, “Out of a hundred laid-off workers, then, 27 are making their old salary again, or more, and 73 are making less, or not working at all.”

Neglecting the evidence compiled by its own reporter, the Times continues to ardently embrace the retraining strategy in frequent editorials (e.g., 6/13/05, 3/2/07, 3/18/07) and columns by Thomas Friedman (e.g., 10/6/06). Friedman and the editorialists repeatedly call on Democrats and labor to accept “freer trade” deals that result in “hundreds of thousands of workers who lose their jobs to trade-related dislocations each year” (2/2/07 editorial), in exchange for retraining programs that Uchitelle and others have demonstrated to be largely empty promises.

The limits of the retraining strategy have finally begun to dawn on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial writers, who had long relied on it as the solution to massive worker dislocation. A recent editorial (3/22/07) stood out for its explicit recognition that government job-creation programs like infrastructure projects may be necessary to seriously address growing poverty and massive unemployment in Milwaukee’s inner city. The editorial acknowledged the utter failure of training programs for displaced workers, as well as efforts to foster African-American owned businesses, to generate large numbers of jobs. As of 2005, Milwaukee had 88,000 more jobless people than available jobs and nine unemployed people for every opening, with 44 percent of African-American males unemployed.

But the Journal Sentinel editorialists still found themselves in a quandary: “Where’s the money going to come from for public infrastructure projects?” To answer that question, they might choose to reflect on their own consistent editorial stance and highly supportive news coverage of proposed major public subsidies to corporations, which consume considerable funding otherwise available for public projects.

For example, at least nine Journal Sentinel editorials (2/6/05-11/16/05) backed $41 million in public funds for a “Pabst City” entertainment project. The project was (temporarily) defeated because of concerns that it lacked economic viability, its prominent developers did not need any public money and only low-wage jobs would be generated at best. The Journal Sentinel editors retorted (9/16/05) by urging that the City Council’s democratic role be considerably weakened: “It is unreasonable for the council to expect to be able to approve the final development agreement.”

The Journal Sentinel was also ardent in backing $25.3 million in public funds to Manpower (the temporary help agency) to subsidize the shift of its headquarters from a nearby suburb into the city, although 80 percent of employees would remain suburban residents, and despite Manpower’s $14.9 billion in global revenues (Journal Sentinel, 12/23/05). In these cases, a lack of funds was a hurdle easily surmounted—a clear indication of where wealthy corporations and poor citizens compare in terms of news media priorities.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and activist. He edited the weekly Racine Labor in his hometown of Racine from 1979 to 1993.