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Tomgram: Steve Fraser, The National Museum of Industrial Homicide

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Cross-posted from Tom Dispatch


A week after the election, I folded myself into the front seat of a small rental car and left Washington, D.C., for the highlands of southwestern Virginia. The destination on my GPS device read Radford University, a small public college located an hour's drive from the West Virginia border. Radford's picturesque campus is nestled into a double bend of the New River, a north-flowing body of water believed to be older than mankind. The Blue Ridge Mountains loom on the smoky horizon to the east, the Allegheny Mountains to the west.

I'd been invited to Radford to talk about the rising cost of college and why storytelling (of the type published here at TomDispatch) matters in the fight to rebuild a quality, affordable higher education system in America. At stake was the abandonment and hollowing out of public colleges by a generation of anti-government politicians, and the burden borne by young people who need that degree, albeit one with shrinking value in an anemic job market. But the students I met on campus -- better-off and poorer, younger and older, some the first in their families to try for a degree -- didn't need to hear my spiel. They lived it every day.

One student told me about enrolling in a private college after high school, then dropping out because he couldn't pay the tuition. So he joined the Marines and did two tours in Iraq to assure himself of government money for college when he got back, if he got back. Another nodded knowingly when I mentioned the "Himalayan-sized mountains of debt" accrued by so many collegians today. He later said he was already resigned to a near-lifetime effort to pay off his student loans. That was just the way it was, he assured me; others agreed. Afterward he shook my hand, thanked me for visiting, then walked out into the night. The folks at Radford had invited me to share what I'd learned as a journalist covering higher education; yet I absorbed at least as much as the students I was supposed to enlighten about what it is like for those struggling in our underfunded, stretched-thin, public education system.

The downsizing of higher education by states facing budget crunches in bad times is no aberration. It's been a long, slow burn, the legacy of a hardline brand of conservatism that champions defunding government and giving private interests, including Wall Street, ever more control over American life. Conservative activist Grover Norquist, a fixture in the ongoing "fiscal cliff" talks in Washington, once infamously said of government that he wanted to "reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." There you have it. That kind of thinking, as historian and TomDispatch regular Steve Fraser, author of Wall Street: America's Dream Palace, points out, has blighted not just public universities but also the blue-collar heart of America, leaving a trail of broken communities struggling to rebuild and reimagine the lives they once had. Andy Kroll

The Archeology of Decline 
Debtpocalypse and the Hollowing Out of America 
By Steve Fraser

"Debtpocalypse" looms. Depending on who wins out in Washington, we're told, we will either free-fall over the fiscal cliff or take a terrifying slide to the pit at the bottom. Grim as these scenarios might seem, there is something confected about the mise-en-scene, like an un-fun Playland. After all, there is no fiscal cliff, or at least there was none -- until the two parties built it.

And yet the pit exists. It goes by the name of "austerity." However, it didn't just appear in time for the last election season or the lame-duck session of Congress to follow. It was dug more than a generation ago, and has been getting wider and deeper ever since. Millions of people have long made it their home.  "Debtpocalypse" is merely the latest installment in a tragic, 40-year-old story of the dispossession of American working people.

Think of it as the archeology of decline, or a tale of two worlds. As a long generation of austerity politics hollowed out the heartland, the quants and traders and financial wizards of Wall Street gobbled up ever more of the nation's resources. It was another Great Migration -- instead of people, though, trillions of dollars were being sucked out of industrial America and turned into "financial instruments" and new, exotic forms of wealth. If blue-collar Americans were the particular victims here, then high finance is what consumed them. Now, it promises to consume the rest of us.

Scenes from the Museum

In the mid-1970s, Hugh Carey, then governor of New York, was already noting the hollowing out of his part of America. New York City, after all, was threatening to go bankrupt. Plenty of other cities and states across what was then known as the "Frost Belt" were in similar shape. Yankeedom, in Carey's words, was turning into "a great national museum" where tourists could visit "the great railroad stations where the trains used to run."  

As it happened, the tourists weren't interested. Abandoned railroad stations might be fetching in an eerie sort of way, but the rest of the museum was filled with artifacts of recent ruination that were too depressing to be entertaining. True, a century earlier, during the first Gilded Age, the upper crust used to amuse itself by taking guided tours of the urban demi-monde, thrilling to sites of exotic depravity or ethnic strangeness. They traipsed around "rag-pickers alley" on New York's Lower East Side or the opium dens of Chinatown, or ghoulishly watched poor children salivate over toys in store window displays they could never hope to touch.

Times have changed. The preference now is to entirely remove the unsightly. Nonetheless, the national museum of industrial homicide has, city by city, decade by decade, grown more grotesque.

Camden, New Jersey, for example, had long been a robust, diversified small industrial city. By the early 1970s, however, its reform mayor Angelo Errichetti was describing it this way: "It looked like the Vietcong had bombed us to get even. The pride of Camden... was now a rat-infested skeleton of yesterday, a visible obscenity of urban decay. The years of neglect, slumlord exploitation, tenant abuse, government bungling, indecisive and short-sighted policy had transformed the city's housing, business, and industrial stock into a ravaged, rat-infested cancer on a sick, old industrial city." 

That was 40 years ago and yet, today, news stories are still being written about Camden's never-ending decline into some bottomless abyss. Consider that a measure of how long it takes to shut down a way of life.

Once upon a time, Youngstown, Ohio, was a typical smokestack city, part of the steel belt running through Pennsylvania and Ohio. As with Camden, things there started turning south in the 1970s. From 1977 to 1987, the city lost 50,000 jobs in steel and related industries. By the late 1980s, the years of Ronald Reagan's presidency when it was "morning again in America," it was midnight in Youngstown: foreclosures, an epidemic of business bankruptcies, and everywhere collapsing community institutions including churches, unions, families, and the municipal government itself. 

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