Upson’s Trump Delusion

In the wake of Trump’s surprise victory, the Fox5 (WAGA) station in Atlanta went down to an area I’m very familiar with (Upson County, GA) to see why they voted for Trump.

Now, there’s a whole bunch of crazy going on here, and it’s mainly to do with ignorance of what has happened, and why, handwaved away by a desire to blame others instead.

“For our community I think we see a future. We heard the things we wanted to hear again. He knows that we are hurting and he’s going to help us,” said Trump supporter Kayla Thompson.
Thompson, a longtime Thomaston resident, and her friends voted for Trump, encouraged in part by his economic plan which includes creating 25 million jobs over the next decade, and what that might mean for their own families.
“He’s going to create jobs. There’s no jobs where we live. You have to go out of state to work,” said Trump supporter Megan Epps.
Thomaston was hit hard when the old textile and tire cord mills shut down more than a decade ago, putting thousands out of work.

Yes, when the mills shut down, the town lost a lot of jobs. There are still some mills running — Thomaston Mills makes sheets and towels, but it’s scaled down a lot from its heydays of a hundred years ago.

Tencate Protective fabrics is on the edge of the county and makes things like firefighter outfits and kevlar clothing. Of course, it’s recently had a federal clean-water lawsuit filed against it for polluting the Flint river, which is popular for watersports, and recreation areas, like Sprewell Bluff state park, and Camp Thunder [Gerald Lawhorn] Scout Camp (one of the biggest scout campsites in the US, and located literally next door to the plant). Luckily, Trump’s potential EPA head will probably be rolling back on those regulations, so no worries there.

Flint River, taken from a hiking trail on the Lawhorn scout base this past week.

Other major businesses in the area are Quad Graphics (they print magazines like Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, etc. for the south east), and Solo (yes, the red cup people) has a disposable container plant. Both are located next to the airport on the north east of town.

“Many good people around here, especially in this town in this county, they want a good job and I think President-Elect Trump will be the one who can help bring some of this back to America,” said Thomaston Mayor John Stallings.
The Thomaston mayor is an ardent Trump supporter. He believes Trump will make good on his campaign promise to repeal NAFTA and bring jobs back to the United States, back to economically depressed communities.
“We’ve had high unemployment rates here and I think having someone in the presidency that’s a businessman and that’s mentioned doing away with NAFTA bringing these jobs back from overseas putting these people back to work, that’s what people want,” said Stallings.

Everyone wants a good job, John (or as he prefers to be known, “JD”), there’s very few people that want a bad one. However, the rest of the statement is so hilariously funny that if I didn’t know better, I’d say it was Miles Jupp playing a role similar to his Captain Fanshaw one).

NAFTA has almost nothing to do with the decline in mills in Thomaston-Upson. It was a mixture of three things — Technology (automation), cheap asian labor, and capitalism.

Dealing in reverse order, capitalism is actually a problem for places like Upson. Companies want to maximize their return on investment, so they go where things are most profitable for them. That means they need things at the best price possible. Upson has very little to negotiate with though. Sure, land’s pretty cheap, but land is a minor consideration, and is just as cheap elsewhere. Transportation isn’t good — there’s US19 north-south, and two state highways out (GA 74 and GA36), US80 across if you go to the southern edge (and why would anyone do that, there’s nothing there). There’s no interstates, and no real rail any more. Upson has an airport, but its hardly up for large commercial use (runway is too short for anything with any weight or distance, and there’s few hangers). So what’s the economic incentive to go there, when infrastructures aren’t great, and there’s no big local market?

Asian labor is also cheap. Bangladesh, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, all have far lower labor costs than the US. And it’s not the US ‘minimum wage’ that’s doing it, be it $5/hour or $15/hour. In Bangladesh, they’re paying about $70/month to workers. Even making the generous assumption of a 4 week month and only working 40 hours a week (when it’s often 10–12 hours a day 5–7 days a week in reality), that’s a wage rate of 43c/hour. In the Phillipines the average pay for that kind of work is $195/month ($1.21/hour) Are Miss Epps, or Ms Thompson going to go work at those factories for that kind of pay? Is JD? By contrast the minimum wage in the NAFTA countries is $4.25 for Mexico, $7.75 for Canada, and $7.25 for the US. So it’s not NAFTA that’s an issue here either, no matter what’s claimed — it’s just a convenient scapegoat to avoid the real issues and real problems.

Automation has removed more jobs from the workplace than anything else. They don’t get tired, they don’t do sloppy work, they don’t demand a raise, time off, or turn up drunk, or get pregnant (and yes, the President of the Thomaston Chamber of Commerce once freaked out that one of her employees was going on maternity leave, because she hadn’t planned at all for it, but that’s another story), they just do the job, the exact same way, for as long as they’re needed to. Just as weaving used to be done by hand, now it’s done by machine, and one operator can do the job of hundreds. Or how the printing press put engravers out of work and means one person can now print thousands of copies an hour.

Often those new technologies and industries generate new jobs in associated lines. So the introduction of cars eliminated carters, farriers, stable-boys, and saddlers, but produced coachbuilders, mechanics, gas station attendants, and so on. Thomaston used to be one of the great Mule-trading towns (second in the South to St Louis) and when the mule lost its importance, then it moved to textiles, it didn’t moan that they should try and bring the mule jobs back. It moved on to textiles and a new area. So it should now, except there’s a problem.

There’s only really two growth sectors of jobs in the US at present. The first is Service jobs (that’s stores, and suchlike) and the second is Technology jobs.

Service jobs are about played out in Thomaston. There are empty storefronts on the square, facing the courthouse. Other businesses have closed down thanks to the walmart supercenter that was built in 2002. there are as many restaurants as can be supported (because they need customers with disposable income, which means jobs, and that’s a cycle). That just leaves churches, and I think we can all agree, there’s enough churches there (about 70 according to the Yellow Pages). It’s hard to see how any can turn a profit any more (and yes, remember they’re businesses, they need to make money too)

So that leaves technology jobs, and there Upson has a BIG problem. It’s stuck in the past. One of the main ways to get high paying jobs is through highly skilled or educated workers. Upson-Lee High school is not doing that. The principle is more concerned with looks, and with sports than with education that will be of use in the future. In 1992 the city and county combined schools, taking the well regarded RE Lee Institute that served the city, and merging it with the Upson County schools. I don’t personally know the reason why, but I’m told part of the reason was to put the football team into a more desirable category, and knowing and experiencing the school system, I can believe that.

Technology education is woefully lacking. I know science, I know technology, and in my interactions with the High School (and to a lesser level, the Middle school) over the past few years, they’re not interested in technology. The focus is on ‘business’ (which is the ‘outsourcing’ kind of capitalism mentioned above) and ‘Ag’. Now Ag’s funny, since before you get self-driving cars on the roads, you’re going to get self-driving harvesters, and tractors on farms, like a Roomba for your foodstuffs. Mix that in with farm consolidation (economies of scale, again back to capitalism) and Ag’s losing a lot of jobs too, and what’s left is usually considered ‘below’ Americans, and left to migrant farm workers (aka the ‘illegals’ that was another source of Trump’s blame game) to keep the agriculture segment solvent. Even the more traditional subjects are often poorly taught, with one English Language teacher not knowing who Sir Terry Pratchett was (worse, she taught British Lit, and Mythology — Pratchett is one of the best selling British authors of all time, was Knighted for his services to literature, and his extensive use and satire on mythology has led him to be dubbed ‘the Jonathon Swift of our time’ by some. To not know this is just basic ignorance of the subject), luckily that teacher left to become some other district’s issue this school year. That’s why academically the High School is ranked 238th of the 420 GA high schools.

The other focus as mentioned is ‘sports’, where money is constantly thrown as sports teams as some replacement for good education. Just this past Friday, on Veterans day, the football team made the playoffs, and had to play at Westwood Acadamy in College Park (right by Atlanta airport). The football team gets two luxury coaches chartered for the trip, escorted by at least one Upson County deputy. Meanwhile the Marching band does the same trip in 3 school-busses, for their second event of the day, having played the veterans day memorial earlier. The players get to go on and off, after having changed in a locker-room, and play maybe 30 minutes overall (and get their backsides handed to them 42–0) then change back in the locker room (maybe with a shower?) and come back on their luxury coach. The band changes in the parking lot, marches in, plays two quarters, does a competition show, gets a 15 minute break, plays for the last quarter, then gets changed back in the parking lot, loads up their trailer, and takes the school bus back. The previous week was similar except it was a home game, and after the game the band had to go straight home to bed, because they had a regional competition the next day (which they won, beating bands from as far away as Kentucky) putting in a 15 hour Saturday, again with school busses, no charter coaches, and barely a word from the school or the county.

Yet High School educations aren’t exactly in demand any more, it falls to colleges, and yes Upson has a college, “Southern Crescent Technical College”. Advanced programs there are not. There’s nursing, and welding, and truck driving, but their more technically advanced programs are things like ‘graphic design’ are more often than not staffed by ‘good ol boys’ who got the job based more on who they knew, rather than what they knew.

So I’m at a loss as to why any business would want to come to Upson. The infrastructure is poor, the education level of the area is not great, and not likely to get any better absent major changes, and even the leadership seems ignorant and ill-prepared for what should be basic issues.

It all comes back to the basis of responsibility. Ms Epps and Ms Thompson want well paying jobs that don’t need a lot of education. In the recent past, that was mill work. Progress has not ceased its march onward though, and what worked for their parents is no longer an option. Transport and technology mean that the type of work they used to be able to get can be done cheaper elsewhere. The cost of living in the US has become too high to sustain that kind of employment. It doesn’t matter how much it’s promised, basic economics says that the ‘good old days’ are not coming back, you can’t drop out of high school pregnant, have the kid and expect to get any kind of stable sustainable and well paid job any more.

Yet even staying in school is not exactly an answer any more, not in Upson. There needs to be a push towards higher quality education, and with an eye towards future education topics and trends. And the local government and business communities need to stop focusing so much on what their friends and buddies like and want to hear, and more on what the area as a whole wants and needs to be able to sustain itself in the future, and it needs to be done sooner rather than later,because change is coming.

15 years ago, if you’d said the Yamaha piano plant was going to close, no-one would have believed you, it closed in 2007, with less than 2 months notice. 20 years ago, Quad had an imaging department, but thanks to technology moving on that’s all done in New York now, and the ever-declining print sales mean that in 5–10 years, there may not be a need for a South East printing operation, just one plant will have more than enough output. Or Solo, a plastic-ware company, who may find changes in international regulations and agreements relating to disposable items make it too costly to keep going with the product lines made there.

These are the challenges that Upson has to be prepared to meet, and it seems it’s not capable of doing so. Instead the citizens went for vague plaudits and economic promises that are impossible to fulfil, because it gave them an easy answer. It told them that the problem isn’t that they sat on their backsides and did nothing but enjoy the easy times, the problem is that everyone else conspired against them to do them dirty. And in a way, yes they did, they did them dirty by not resting on their laurels, but by constantly pushing onward, and leaving the likes of Upson behind.

The question now is if when this whole plan embraced by Mayor JD and other Trump supporters of ‘blaming others’ backfires, will they accept that the problem is really themselves, or will they again cowardly put the blame elsewhere (and ‘keep Stallings’?)
Or maybe, just maybe, the likes of Mayor JD Stallings, and Chamber of Commerce President Lori Showalter-Smith may wake up to the real and significant problems the area faces, and actually deal with it by addressing the actual problems? Not likely though, because “Make America Great Again” from a New York con-artist who’s never worked a day in his life thanks to daddy, is a far easier sell than “let’s fix the problems we’ve caused by our greed and laziness” is to local voters, friends and businesses. After all, no-one ever gets [re]elected based on a platform of telling the truth and actually fixing issues.

Then again, that takes guts, rational thought, and self-sacrifice, which seems to be in pretty short supply these days. Hubris is all the rage instead. Just such a shame that those clamouring to ‘Make America Great Again’ are, generally speaking, the cause of the problem, and not the solution.