A whole series of commercials for GE explain, I think, the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump political campaigns. But first, a story from my childhood.
I grew up in Indiana. The neighborhood I lived in as a child was, I now realize, pretty strongly blue collar, and that was reflected at the school I attended. I remember one day, in sixth grade, when our teacher asked a question that would be completely non-PC nowadays; she asked ‘what do your fathers do for a living? Where do they work?’ And around the room, the kids all answered: ‘He works at Westinghouse,’ ‘at Otis Elevator,’ ‘limestone worker,’ ‘at Crane (a naval base).’ In almost every case, the kids’ dads worked at factories or labor-intensive work sites in town. (We were just at the end of the Indiana limestone boom). When I said “my Dad’s an opera singer,” the kids stared at me like I was a Martian. And I knew recess that day would be, uh, trying.
What that odd classroom question reflected, however, was a kind of blue collar paradise that really did exist back then. You graduated from high school, got a job at the local factory, worked there for forty years, retired with a decent pension. Meanwhile, you filled your spare time with good works; coached Little League or volunteered as a Scoutmaster, or were active in your church, or joined the Elks or Moose Lodges or the Rotary Club. It was a good life, an honest life, hard work and sacrifice, but one that enabled you to raise your family and enjoy the fruits of a generally happy marriage.
And it’s almost completely gone nowadays. Gone for good, frankly. The economy’s changed. Those manufacturing jobs have vanished, and they’re not coming back. And it’s not just those jobs that are gone. It’s the whole social contract those jobs–that schoolroom conversation–represented. What we have nowadays is an information-driven economy.
Now, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are highly critical of free trade, and more specifically, the PNTR, the deal by which China got Permanent Normal Trade Relations, which has, as its end result, the reality that your I-phone was almost certainly built in China. Sanders says that one deal probably cost the United States 3 million manufacturing jobs. That’s almost certainly true, if we look at only one side of a very complicated series of calculations.
My point, for now, is not that those sorts of trade agreements have compensating virtues even for the US. Nor is it really that free trade is the single greatest weapon we could possibly wield in the fight against world-wide severe poverty. I mean, that’s true, but it’s a hard argument to make without sounding self-righteous about how much more moral your policy preferences are. (Not that this isn’t also a moral issue. Which is why I support Hillary Clinton’s candidacy).
No, the point is this: the US economy has changed, permanently and for the better, but with consequences that are severe and troubling for blue-collar workers and their families.
Which brings me to these commercials. They’re about a guy named ‘Owen,’ a software developer, who is very excited about his new job at GE. And he can’t explain it to anyone, because they literally don’t understand the ways in which the economy has changed, or because they regard those changes as threatening and foreign.
Here’s my favorite:
See what I mean? He’s telling his parents about this fabulous new job he’s gotten, one that he couldn’t be more excited about. And his father is almost openly contemptuous. He’s not going to be, you know, working. With tools. Like, a hammer.
The Dad’s a Donald Trump supporter. Right?
The next one shows Owen telling his friends about the job. And they are, apparently, all liberal arts weenies (says me, the lib arts weenie), resigned to their own lives working service industry jobs. (All of them, one presumes, feeling the Bern).
Finally this one. This time, his friends really, literally, don’t understand him. It’s like they’re speaking different languages. I love how condescending they are.
These commercials are weird to me, frankly. I mean, the obvious point is that GE is telling us about the way the company is changing. But in a larger sense, these commercials chronicle changes in the US economy that are frankly scary and more than a little damaging to a lot of people, in ways that have so far had all sorts of political ramifications.
What can we do? Work for GE, in development. Job retraining, education, expand the social safety net. But short term, let’s admit it; free trade causes pain, in addition to creating opportunities. And ‘picking up the hammer’ isn’t likely to work very well either.