Imagine: Appalachia and the Rust Belt

IMAGINE:  The Elephant Party and the Donkey Party have split and broken up.  The new Goat Party has won a landslide victory and I, its standard bearer, am installed in the White House.  Following my speeches on Korea and the Mideast, I turned to domestic policy issues. After announcing a New American Spring, I took up the subject of income taxes.  After a detour outlining an innovation in consumer technology, I now return to the larger economic picture.

My fellow Americans:

The United States of America today  is a backward country.  I say “backward” deliberately to shock people out of the smug belief that we’re the the best, the most modern, the most advanced in the world in everything.  True, we lead the world in some narrow branches of technology.  But in broad areas of economic life, our country needs a lot of work.

Look at Appalachia.  In this beautiful and historic region, we have mountaintops ripped off, valleys filled with rubble, streams running with poison chemicals, and whole communities out of work, hooked on drugs and choosing suicide.

What about our Rust Belt cities?  The name says it all.  Cities and towns that once buzzed with industry now feature avenues of boarded up houses, empty storefronts, more people on Medicaid than on assembly lines.

Check out almost any city and you’ll see homeless people by the thousands.   And the homes where people still live, many of them badly need work.  Roofs, foundations, windows, insulation, plumbing, all the rest, in bad repair.

Not only homes, but the streets and highways that connect them.  Rutted, potholed.  Bridges, too many of them ready to fail.  The drinking water, in too many places not drinkable.  Sewers clogged, broken, missing.  The electrical grid, ancient, fragile, overloaded.  Irrigation systems, dams, levies, reservoirs crumbling.  Train tracks and the rolling stock on them, antiques.  Our digital networks, among the slowest in the world.

Did I mention that our schools, on the average, don’t rank very well internationally?  That we have more people in prison than any other country?  That our infant mortality rate is like a third world country?  That we have children and adults going hungry?

I could go on.  But everybody that’s been paying attention already knows all this, and more.  The point is not to make a list of our problems, but to start on the solutions.

Let’s start with Appalachia.  This morning I signed a bill creating the Appalachian Conservation Authority.  We have bought controlling shares in each of the coal and related mineral companies that have assets in the region.  They were cheap.  We will liquidate each of these companies and transfer their assets to the ACA.  The ACA will determine which coal mining operations need to continue because they involve specialty coal needed by industry.  All other coal mining operations will be retired.  The ACA will immediately begin a major Appalachian conservation project.  It will hire tens of thousands of local men and women to reforest skinned mountaintops, build state parks over landfilled valleys, clean up poisoned streams and ponds, convert selected underground mines into tourist attractions, rebuild damaged infrastructure, and generally clean up the area, restock it with fish and game, and make it beautiful again.  The ACA will do whatever it takes to restore some part of the land to the Cherokee and other Native Americans who were driven out in the Trail of Tears, and who wish to return. This will take a decade or more, a decade when there will be zero unemployment in Appalachia.  Coal miners won’t miss the darkness and the black dust so much once they get a steady taste of well-paid conservation work in the outdoors.  People will have a purpose, a community, and a future.  They’ll lose interest in drugs.  The suicide rate will drop.  The birthrate will rise.  Appalachia will become a thriving, prosperous part of America again — a place that Americans and foreigners will love to visit.

Now the Rust Belt.  The sickness of the Rust Belt cities comes from the profit fever.  One after another, the owners of the mills and factories where millions of workers made a good-enough living for a quarter century after the War saw a way to make more money by transferring the work abroad to countries where factory pay was lower.  The runaway shop is not the fault of Mexico or China or similar countries.  It is the fault of the very rich Americans who shut down their American plants and moved production abroad in order to get even richer.  In this, as our economic metrics have shown over the past forty years, they “richly” succeeded.  That’s going to stop.

How do we fix it?  We need to understand first that merely putting up barriers to imports isn’t going to get us very far.  We should and we will put up a wall against products made with child labor, prison labor, labor in hazardous  conditions, and similar evil practices.  We can and should vigorously promote movements for better working conditions and higher wages in countries that export to us.  But these practices by themselves aren’t going to put a lot of people to work here at home.  They may even hurt the average working person by making necessities like clothing and electronics more expensive.  That’s not a solution.

The solution to the Rust Belt problem is actually staring us in the face.  It’s the rust.   It’s the rusting infrastructure, the decayed housing stock, everything else that’s falling apart.  That’s where the jobs are.  Tomorrow I will sign a bill to create the American Reconstruction Authority.  With an initial budget of $5 trillion, the ARA will have a broad mandate to undo the rust in the American economy.  One part of this will be a set of construction and reconstruction projects for roads, bridges, waterways, sewers, rails, transmission lines, and other big items.  Another part will involve new housing construction, along with a people-driven block-by-block housing rehab and upgrade campaign.  We’ll train, equip, and pay neighbors to help neighbors to bring their homes up to grade.  Some nonprofits now do this successfully as a charity.  We’ll do it on a large scale as a national policy.   To make the ARA project work, we will need hundreds of thousands new construction workers in all the trades.  We are starting ten huge  training campuses to supply the skilled labor force necessary.   Note that ARA jobs are jobs where we work on America in America.  These jobs cannot be exported!

The ARA project will do more than upgrade our physical environment.  It will fabulously invigorate our economic life.  The main drag on progress during the past forty years  has been the lockdown on worker wages.  No improvement for almost half a century!  The sons and daughters no better off — often worse off — than their parents!  That’s intolerable, not only for the people involved, but for the economy.  It means consumer demand, the driving force of economic expansion, is in the doldrums.  That’s going to change now.  With the stimulus that the ARA — and other projects that I’ll introduce later — will pump into the economy, wages and consumer demand will rise in a big way.  That, in turn, will create incentives for the revival of American manufacturing.  Factories will open that make products in America at American wages that American workers can afford to buy.  We’re going to push the Rust Belt era into history.   America will be backward no more.  Our land and its people will shine again.

I’ll have more to say about the economy in another talk.  Meanwhile, my fellow Americans, be of good cheer.  Help is on the way.





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