The Economy's 'Red Death' Will Come for DC, Too

In Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Masque of the Red Death," a group of nobles wall themselves off from the surrounding country to avoid a devastating plague.  Seemingly secure inside their fortified castle, the "elites" live in a state of luxurious indulgence, indifferent to the people suffering beyond their gates.  While they throw lavish parties, the rest of their countrymen die miserable deaths.  Eventually, however, the "Red Death" finds its way into their "safe space" and eviscerates their fantasy.  And because the aloof aristocrats are trapped inside a fortress of their own making, they soon perish.

This is a story that every D.C. power player should read.  The rift between Beltway conventional wisdom and the day-to-day reality of ordinary Americans is growing into an unbridgeable crevasse.  

While families struggle to afford food, fuel, and essentials for young children, the White House continues to assure Americans that the economy has never been better.  While the Department of Homeland Security insists that America's borders are secure and that illegal immigration is under control, small towns across the country struggle to deal with spiking fentanyl deaths, transnational crime networks, and forced multiculturalism that often drives a wedge within communities.  International trade deals that were negotiated and signed by residents of D.C. have hollowed out once thriving industrial towns and left multiple generations of blue-collar workers poor and adrift.  

The "Rust Belt" has never been more corroded, yet Wall Street and Washington seem to be doing better than ever.  It is as if the wealthiest and most influential Americans have holed themselves up inside a luxurious castle, so that they may ignore the devastation afflicting the rest of the country.

Three decades ago, Americans built things.  Little towns watched most of their working-age men head off to local manufacturing plants early in the morning and come back home covered in dirt and sweat.  American industry was not just a paycheck, but also a way of life that left communities with a sense of camaraderie and pride.  "American muscle" meant something to the families who survived from the efforts of hard work.  For many towns, local manufacturing and industry created a shared identity.  When there were workplace accidents, bad news spread to every downtown diner and high school student immediately.  When seasonal festivals and parades came, the town's blue-collar workforce was always celebrated.

For some families, becoming old enough to join the town's work crews was a rite of passage connecting one generation to the next.  Grandfathers, fathers, and sons remained bonded by common adversity and success.  For other families, blue-collar jobs provided a steady enough salary to save for the opportunity to send a child to college and toward the promises of a different life.  Intergenerational social mobility from lower economic classes to higher ones was achievable because blue-collar jobs were dependable.

Then came the international "free trade" deals such as NAFTA in the '90s and the granting to China of Permanent Normal Trade Relations status in 2000, and the relative prosperity and security found within America's blue-collar towns disappeared almost overnight.  Jobs went straight to Mexico and China.  Manufacturing plants that had provided the financial backbone for generations of families closed down and boarded up.  Men stopped going to work in the morning.  Families disintegrated under hardship and once unthinkable divorce.  The potential for social mobility vanished because despair replaced hope.  If you drive across America today, you will pass one graveyard after another — filled with abandoned factories, decaying homes, and town squares devoid of life.

D.C.'s political class does not want to acknowledge this awful truth.  For three decades, Republicans and Democrats have promised that all of the lost jobs going to Asia, Mexico, and South America would be miraculously replaced with lucrative "service industry" jobs capable of satisfying American families better.  Somehow, the men with dirt under their fingernails and sunburns on their necks were expected to become customer service representatives or computer programmers.  Nobody asked America's labor force whether they would prefer a future wearing khakis and dress shoes to a life in traditional work overalls and boots.  The Potomac nobles just pretended to know what was best.

With the off-shoring of well-paying blue-collar jobs to overseas markets using slave-like labor, America's most profitable companies have become even more profitable multinational behemoths.  Stock market valuations have continued to rise.  Powerful lobbying groups in D.C. have made a fortune brokering new deals between Congress and foreign interests.  Meanwhile, America's forgotten workforce has seen both its savings and opportunities dry up.

If America builds little today and survives mainly from the profits of an investment banking sector centered in Manhattan, then how will it support itself should that sector one day soon go belly-up?  Endless congressional spending and unsustainable national debt do not provide the financial conditions for long-term stability and wealth.  Inevitably, the "Red Death" of economic desolation will reach inside D.C.'s sanctuary, too.  

When that day comes and the American economy crumbles, who will be around with the blue-collar grit and know-how to build this nation back up?

Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr, CC BY 2.0 (cropped).

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