A Book Review
People in the nation’s capital don’t read books the way they claim to. Many political tomes are simply statements (long statements) penned to give ghostwriters something to do.
Decades ago, Washington journalist Michael Kinsley noted that many of these sort of “books don’t exist to be read,” Instead, Kinsley wrote, “They exist to be gazed at, browsed through, talked about.”
Such works also exist to allow publishers to hand a bunch of money to politicians who might matter again someday. For example, former and future candidates named Obama and Clinton (Bill and Hillary, in their turn) massively benefitted from putting their names on books few, if any, actually read.
However, if we’re going to draw political conclusions from a book, it’s probably best to begin by reading it. And so, a year after it became the book that everyone in Washington had supposedly read, I finally picked up a copy of Amy Goldstein’s book “Janesville.”
It wasn’t clear to me exactly why the author, a reporter for the Washington Post, happened to be in Janesville, Wisconsin in 2008 when General Motors announced it would close its plant there. But she was.
In fact, on the day GM made its announcement, Goldstein spoke with Rep. Paul Ryan. Before he ran for vice president or became speaker of the House of Representatives, Ryan (always, annoyingly, called “Paul” throghout Goldstein’s book) was a congressman from Janesville and a rising star in the Republican party.
Goldstein does great reporting. She follows several people from the time of the announcement through the fruitless attempts to keep the plant open, and even for years after the plant shut down. But in some ways, she seems to miss the main message of her work, which can be summed up in one sentence: “Job retraining, it turned out, was not a path to more work or better pay in and around Janesville, at least not during this time when jobs were so scarce.”
Yet “job retraining” is what the federal government pushed for. Federal policies encouraged laid off workers to go to Blackhawk Community College, even though many of the plant’s workers hadn’t taken any classes since finishing high school years (or decades) earlier.
Many were not ready for the classroom. Further, the profession many trained for, stringing electric wire, never panned out. The federal government was inept at predicting the sort of jobs workers should move into. Too many of these students washed out with no degree and more debt.
In fact, the workers who did best are those who simply struck out on their own or followed their passions. They tended to find work more quickly and make more in hourly wages.
One thing that jumps out from the book is that there are things the federal government could do to give more help to blue collar workers in places like Janesville. Instead of schooling, the government could offer to guarantee people can keep their healthcare benefits for a period of time, maybe two years. Benefits were a big part of GM’s compensation package. If people could have kept those benefits, they might have been able to take another job right away, even if it didn’t offer benefits immediately.
Likewise, the government could guarantee that that laid-off workers could keep their homes for a similar two-year time period, no questions asked. This would, of course, be difficult to work out in practice. But remember that during this time, the federal government poured billions into bailing out big banks, and all we got were bigger banks. That money could, in theory at least, have gone to actual people and allowed them to keep their homes.
“Janesville” is a good read, well-researched and informative. It should be one of the first books anyone who wants to understand the 2008 financial meltdown reads. It’s not about finance, it’s about people. And people are what’s really important.