Continuing our reviews of Business Insiders 6 Best Business Books of 2017, today, I (Dr. Hinson) will share my thoughts on Janesville: An American Story. Catch up on Dr. Donnelly's review of Reset, here!
Amy Goldstein's first book is a doozy. The longtime reporter for The Washington Post delves into the intersecting effects of deindustrialization in small town America in her heart-wrenching and exacting story of the closure of the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. Chronicling the drastic (and sometimes tragic) changes wrought on Janesville from 2008 to 2013 (with an epilogue covering 2013-2016), the book is in effect an ethnography of the town, told through the stories of people directly and indirectly affected by the loss of industry and employment.
The book is an education in many respects. Deindustrialization and globalization have left their mark on industrial towns around the world, but one of the key strength's of Goldstein's research and writing is her bone-deep understanding of what happens to the workers (personally, financially, psychologically) after the plants and factories close. We can all read synopses of quantitative statistics, detailing the high rates of unemployment, homelessness, violence, drug abuse, and suicide, but the power of Goldstein's book is in her ability to humanize all of these issues.
Following the life trajectories of a handful of families, we witness people struggle with not only innumerable hardships, but a new reality, one in which the return to what was normal, what was their way of life, is no longer possible. Through these struggles the larger lesson is surely in the difference between economic theory and practice, what Bruce Springsteen articulated in a 2012 appearance in Janesville, as the "distance between the American Dream and the American reality."
In a speech at the Janesville GM plant in 2008, as presidential candidate, Barack Obama said that "through hard times and good, great challenge and great change, the promise of Janesville has been the promise of America -- that our prosperity can and must be the tide that lifts every boat; that we rise or fall as one nation; that our economy is strongest when our middle-class grows and opportunity is spread as widely as possible." What is unclear through this book, quite realistically so, is what the new promise of America looks like for places like Janesville.
It is clear that we cannot go back to the golden days of industry, but we still have an obligation to help these people forge a new path in the changing economy. The politicization of job creation is a significant factor in Goldstein's book -- Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is from Janesville, as is former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold. But the book is non-partisan in its praises and critiques, arguing that no matter what our affiliation, we have to find practical solutions to failing economies. The starkest lesson from the story of Janesville, is that if we do not find a "tide" to lift all boats, countless people, who all still believe in "the promise of America" will be left behind.