Is there a solution to the decline of rural America?

I want to take a step back and recognize that there is a very real economic problem going on in broad swathes of rural and suburban America.  Manufacturing and unions died and it left these areas bereft of jobs and opportunity.  I may have previously blithely dismissed the economic hardship visited upon these areas.  It is very easy to say retrain and relocate but this is a large burden, particularly for older people.  I do think there is a nontrivial amount of entitlement among this population, that the solution to their woes must allow them to maintain their provincial lifestyles.  But as a believer in utilitarianism we cannot just ignore their preferences entirely.

Identifying a problem does not mean we have a solution.  This applies to both parties.  I know Republicans don’t have a solution or at least their proposed solutions are not going to do more good than harm.  Democratic policies are definitely more focused on a macro perspective that is more palliative than cure.  As I said before, these towns were mostly built on the backs of manufacturing.  They were company or industry towns through and through.  This is not coming back.  Any reshoring of manufacturing is unlikely to return to the Rust Belt and more likely to head to the South.  In the medium-long term, robotization is going to eliminate these jobs entirely.  So what is the new engine of economic growth for low skilled labor outside cities?  I don’t think anyone has any idea what that looks like which is why even Democrats focus on treating symptoms rather than causes.

It is important to recognize that this issue is really not fundamentally different than that facing the entire nation and at some level the entire developed world.  That is, income/wealth inequality and the hollowing out of the middle class.  Manufacturing is just the first victim of automation, but it will not be the last.  Self-driving cars are going to replace millions of workers to give a salient example.  We can expect an economy with demand for high skilled labor and the capital of the rich and a smattering of service jobs that cannot be automated or where most people prefer human interaction.  Nobody has a model for how to “fix” this outcome.  I am not even sure we want to fix it.  A “post-labor” economy sounds like the zenith of human civilization.  That is if, and this is a huge if, we shepherd it in responsibly such that nobody is left behind.  Sadly, the bulk of science fiction argues that we will fail, but let us hope that is more fiction than science.  Democratic redistributive policies are a good first attempt at trying to make this happen, so it is quite depressing that they are effectively locked out of power by a party that appears intent on recreating the most dire prediction of science fiction.

Lastly, I want to point out that all of this talk about the economic plight of rural Americans ignores a very relevant fact.  Namely that minorities and women, often concentrated in cities, are in even worse straits.  They are grappling with the same macroeconomic trends while still facing discrimination and the crippling legacy of prejudice.  For instance, the black unemployment rate is always at least several points higher than that of whites AND they are working in lower wage jobs.  Rural whites are neither unique nor the most egregiously hurt by the modern economy.  So lets spend a little less time talking about them and their problems.


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