What follows is a short, sharp, harsh take on a topic. Only after I wrote all of it, however, did I realize this ramble was fueled by something that a chunk of my deep brain has been pondering for the past five or six years: What is "rural"? And what is "rural America"? (Those are two distinct thinking points.)
So this is a spew, but in hindsight, I'm pretty sure it's a spew connected to a problem my brain's working on.
The economy. Oh, the economy.
Here’s something that drives me nuts: Why in the FUCK is anyone talking about manufacturing and coal mining? Seriously?
All those poor, misunderstood, angry, down-trodden types — they think mining and manufacturing are gonna fix what ails them? Does any politician believe that?
Boy, are they gonna be pissed. (The down-trodden types.) (Well, maybe the politicians, too.)
Here’s the reality, people:
If we Americans want to survive another century, we gotta stop spouting platitudes about coal miners and factory workers. (Trump’s insistence on doing so, I might add, is more evidence of his narrow worldview. In his mind, folks who live Out There in Carnage Land [aka the Flyover Zone] are factory workers and miners.)
We must invest intellectual and “real” capital making sense of, and exploiting, the economy we have. Not the one our nostalgia longs for.
Robotics. Artificial intelligence. How manage and navigate, and yes, profit from, the increasing erosion between the “physical” and the digital. (3-D printers are seriously spooky. But they’re here. Let’s master them before they master us.)
Yes, I understand we are living in a tumultuous age of humanity.
Yes, the United States is experiencing social and economic shifts on a scale we’ve not endured since late 1800s.
Yes, change is painful. But sooner or later, we’ve got to come to grips with it.
And sooner rather than later.
Way back in the 1970s, the old economic order, rooted in “manufacturing,” We failed to come to grips with it, and we’re still paying the price.
Not, mind, you that we should be surprised that we sort of stumbled through it: Just about the time the old order fell, the “computer” age began.
It was so novel, so . . . fresh, so exhilarating, that we coasted through, in blissful ignorance, that other economic collapse/shift and its subsequent fallout.
Since the 1980s, we’ve built a new economic engine, rooted in “digital” rather than hard stuff. Well, we didn’t build it so much as we stumbled into it. We don’t understand it, either. Near as I can tell, many policy makers and politicians and ordinary folks think this new economy is, well, just sort of sitting on top of the old one.
It’s worth noting that during the late nineteenth century, Americans were more intentional about learning to live with their then-new industrial order. That search for understanding prompted, among other things, a significant expansion of federal authority and management between 1890 and 1920.
By comparison, we inhabitants of this new, early-twenty-first century economy are flying by the seats of our digitized pants.
But to my point, such as it is: The future is “digital.” And yet . . . politicians and presidents jabber on about coal mining and manufacturing.
Honey bunches, ain’t gonna be no coal mines in your future. Ain’t gonna be much by way of manufacturing either, at least not in the traditional, automated-assembly-line, punch-cut, machine-tool sense.
Meantime, however, allow me my rant. Few things irk me more than People In Charge jabbering about factories and mining job retraining programs for all those left-over, left-behind residents of Flyover Zone.
Unless it’s listening to the left-behinds whining about how they just don’t know what to do and all those old jobs left twenty years ago and damn it I just don’t know what to do because who’s gonna bring my job back?
Ain’t no one gonna bring back that old job, sweetie. It’s gone.
Yes, yes. I know. I sound harsh. Etc.
What can I say? I’m a historian. And one thing I know is this:
As long as humans are in charge of the planet, change will be our one constant (other than birth and death). Some changes are bigger than others. Some are massive.
Think: the rather abrupt appearance of non-agricultural modes of industry (including banking) that wreaked havoc in Europe in the 1700s.
Think: The not as abrupt but equally tumultuous march by the U. S. to industrial mastery in the 1800s. In the space of about forty years, Americans transformed their society and culture from rural to urban, from agricultural to industrial. It was painful. Down in the real world, where real people live, there was a whole lotta sink/swim going on.
Think: The collapse of that industrial order in the 1970s, in part because huge chunks of the rest of the world finally figured out how to do what the US had done, at less expense. (Not least because, thanks to stuff like foreign aid and antibiotics, populations were surging in other countries).
Think: The wholly unexpected, powerful shift to digital in the 1980s and after.
No society — no individual — endures those major shifts without turmoil. And in that turmoil, yes, there will be winners. There will be losers.
[Geeky history note: Since the 1930s, Americans have committed to programs aimed are minimizing the pain (social security, workers’ compensation, “urban renewal,” federal funding for education) — but it’s impossible to ensure that everyone “wins.” Impossible.]
Having lived through two of those upheavals, and having viewed the world as a historian for thirty-plus years, I gotta say: Forget the fucking coal mines.
Look forward, not back.
You want a “job”? Figure out what you’ve got to offer. Figure out how to enhance your offerings (there’s a lot of money out there for people to use for education).
Use your brain and imagination and ingenuity to exploit what’s here, rather than yearn for what was. Because what was ain’t coming back.