“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
– Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Sections of American Made by Farah Stockman bring to mind the so-called full employment scene from the 1993 movie Dave where the body-double president waxes poetic about having a good job. As Kevin Kline’s character puts it, it’s about respect and knowing you did something valuable with your day. (Ah, wide-eyed pre-NAFTA naiveté.) Stockman spent most of the Trump presidency following three steelworkers as they circumnavigated the inevitable closing of bearing manufacturer Rexnord’s Indianapolis plant (which, alas, was not rescued via tweet). Shannon, Wally, and John all had good jobs – fair wages, challenging assignments, pensions – and took pride in their work. But they also dangled from a thread under the threat that the “degree club” – the well-educated fancy boys in management with zero experience on the factory floor – were forever on the hunt for cheaper labor. In Hollywood, the music swells and Congress stimulates employment; in the Rust Belt, jobs move South with severance often contingent upon training your replacement.
Stockman, the daughter of tenured professors and of mixed race, speaks on both sides of the widening divide between the privileged and the proletariat. What’s special about her book is how she presents multiple angles on the challenges of the factory labor pool. This is best captured in her description of her hedge funder friend who casually declares the death of blue-collar work, that future employment will be through those services which robots cannot manage. He is blasé in saying a law of nature suggests wages seek the lowest point and that shop workers of today will wind up serving the wealthy Downton Abbey-style, “as if he were merely predicting rain.” Much as it may pain her, Stockman confesses her belief that he isn’t wrong due to free trade’s distributional effects. “Free trade threw American factory workers into economic competition with some of the hungriest workers in the world,” she writes, driving down real wages while enriching corporations. Since the book’s publication in October 2021, we’re left to wonder if Covid and interminable supply chain challenges will have any lasting impact on globalization and whether talk of reshoring will amount to anything more than tossed-off campaign platitudes.
At over 350 pages corralling several years of reporting and research, the book is chockablock with meaningful takeaways. We learn about unions, forced pay cuts, worker entitlement, ineffective government retraining programs, and immigration (the last one a far more complex matter than this reader ever realized). The author manages to stitch together hard facts and empathic opinion at the intersection of race and class from the point of view of a deep blue-stater stationed in Hoosierland, although the shop floor is not quite the build-that-wall MAGA rally one might suspect. But at its core, this is the story of three folks, their fellow steelworkers, families & friends, tormentors & enemies. Politics be damned, we root for these people, “the lucky few who managed to get jobs [at Rexnord]” which for them was “a place of identity, belonging, and redemption.” We also brace for tragedy as Stockman builds upon the tension of one of her main subject’s health crisis. It’s devastating. While easy to write off Indiana as the land that elected the obsequious Mike Pence governor, this book helps us understand its citizenry through the eyes of those who make the things that make things go. It is a lesson well worth undertaking.
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