Thursday, May 31, 2012

Knapsack 6-14

Notes From My Knapsack 6-14-12

Jeff Gill


Politics and the economy in Ohio



If you're hoping for or wanting a partisan angle on the fall elections, already spattered all over our media windshield, just turn on your wiper blades and drive on to another column or page. No endorsements here.


Nor is there condemnation, at least of the sort beloved by campaign die-hards. I think the last fifty years of political debate and economic maneuvering has been made up of largely decent intentions and well-intended actions, excepting the fellow who "invested" state money in rare coins. And as for gambling, state or otherwise, that's a different topic.


What can't be disputed is that something hasn't worked in Ohio. In the 1950s, we were Detroit's parts supplier par excellence, a steelmaker in our own right, and Etch-a-Sketch wasn't a punch line, but a product made right here in the state.


We had manufacturing, and a range of jobs from newbie puddlers in mills along the Ohio River, and middle management with dreams of Parma working in the Terminal Tower. Pigs, if not turkeys, flew in the Queen City, at least out of packing plants, and Dayton was entering the second half of a century where the Great Miami River carved a sort of Silicon Valley, of innovation and entrepreneurial leadership where technology was a Buckeye hallmark.


Another half-century, and Dayton is a hollowed out shell; auto manufacturing and parts assembly is a niche for various locations around the state, and we make baskets, at least when the economy is good.


One way of responding to that facile summary is to point out how much it misses. Kaiser is still pouring red hot material into giant hammering devices to create a saleable something out of molten nothing, just down the road; Owens is still spinning a pink web; razor wire and bulletproof helmets and the very essence of assembly lines are made down near I-70.


And baskets ain't nothin'.


Yet all the talk of smaller, nimbler, and right-sizing can't quite obscure the general fact, particularly addressed by both parties in this electoral contest, that Ohio has large amounts of empty brick buildings and open concrete pads where only memories are the output. We know, right down to our working class bones, that we missed a turn somewhere back up the road. Yes, Tom Friedman, our youth need to get more education than Uncle Clem did, who dropped out in 9th grade and still retired a senior VP, worked up to middle management with a cabin on a lake and a paid for home. Maybe that was a bubble of sorts, and once popped, can't grow the same way twice.


The most obvious answer is that as the world changed, and the global economy shifted markets, there was a massive failure of managerial foresight. Was it really unforeseeable that labor costs and raw material development would make a compelling case for moving durable goods overseas? Could no one see, even by the 70s or 80s, that technology was about to transform decision-making?


Some did, but corporately, they generally didn't. Why weren't the few visionaries listened to? For one thing, we tend to hold onto the ideas of the visionaries who were proved right, and forget that, say in 1972, there were all sorts of crazy ideas out there about jet packs and food in a tube. To figure out which visionary is leading with a vision: aye, there's the rub.


What seems so dreadfully unproductive, though, is the dichotomy we're stuck in. The right says that it was largely union intransigence that kept companies from being nimble and adaptive, so unions are largely to blame; the left blames greed at the top for draining profit without any interest in the future other than their own in a gated retirement community on a beach somewhere, so the rich and the owners are to blame.


Obviously, I think those narratives are both over-tidy fictions, designed to lull the faithful to a boisterous sleep in their mass gatherings. But it doesn't explain . . . well, the real problem is that these fairy tales don't explain what stopped working for Ohio, and they explain even less what IS working.


Because we do have advanced materials production in Licking County, and our state does have Battelle and NASA and Boeing, and universities aplenty. I'm still interested in figuring out what we *could* have done differently, and I also think we can find a path forward that everyone can travel with security & confidence.


We may have to share lakeside cabins, though.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor; tell him your story of Ohio's lost, and impending glories at, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

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