Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Crisis-T: What's special about rural?

I think 40% of Americans are disabled in the context of the modern work environment because of automation and globalization. That’s why we have “Crisis-T”.

Crisis-T is particularly associated with white non-college voters in the “rural” rust belt of America. I think I can talk to that. I did my residency in Williamsport PA (Appalachia North - and quite beautiful), my medical practice in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and we often traveled across the Northeast to visit family in Montreal.

Eight years ago I wrote about traveling across the northern tier …

Gordon's Notes: History and demographics - notes from a long commute

I've driven from the Great Lakes region to Montreal about twenty times over the past thirty years.

The route has changed.

Two years ago we stopped traveling along the old Erie Canal route. The northern US border, from the Lakes to Vermont, had become too depressing. There were too many signs of dying communities. History moved on eighty years ago, but the post-9/11 collapse of Canadian tourism and the the lousy US economy of the past decade have accelerated the long decline.

This year we're seeing the same changes along the Canadian route. Businesses are vanishing, gas stations are closing, communities are disappearing. In the towns we visited we saw almost no children. I suspect the causes are similar to the American changes, but the demographic decline seems even more marked. Some of these northern communities depended on the lumber trade; they would have had good years before the housing crash, very bad times now.

Fifteen years ago we thought that the net might allow these communities to prosper. I was a small town physician for five years in the 90s, and I liked where I lived.

Maybe that will still happen, but there's a lot of competition from places with better airports and milder climates.

It's a story as old as the ghost towns of the old west. These communities are small enough that a few energetic people will keep a few of them alive, but most will fade away.

Update 8/26/10: Three of the cities on the list of the top 10 dying American Cities were related to the old Erie canal and NE manufacturing route: Cleveland, Buffalo and Albany.

Four years ago I wrote about the sadness of losing mill towns. We just don’t need the paper any more …

Gordon's Notes: When paper dies, what will happen to all the mill towns?

Between Minnesota and Montreal, across Wisconsin and the UP and along the 17, there are hundreds of communities. Most are a few thousand people.

When we drive that route, we always wonder -- how did these people come to live there? Why do they stay?

No, it's not smart-ass urban elite kind of question. We know some of the answers. Emily grew up on a mill town north of nowhere…

We both practiced medicine in an even smaller but less remote mill town.

So we know how people can end up in those towns -- and we know why many stay. It's a bit surprising to many, but mill towns can be very pleasant places to live -- assuming the mill is modern and downwind (though you get used to the smell). There's work for a wide range of people there -- not just for the elite. There are usually forests, and they're not all tree farms. We liked our towns a lot.

Of course not all of the towns we pass through are mill towns. Some are agricultural centers, some are government towns, and a few are former industrial centers turning into college towns.

Many of those towns have their own problems, especially because the live-anywhere-work-on-the-net vision of 1995 didn't work out. Mill towns though, they have bigger problems.

Twenty-five years after it was proclaimed dead, paper is finally going away ...

… Newspapers and magazines are shrinking. … Lexmark has stopped making inkjet printers. China makes its own paper.

The end of paper, or at least it's semi-retirement, has a bright side. We burned a lot of carbon and energy moving that paper around (though the replacement is hardly energy-free). It's not all bright though. A lot of very fine towns are going to be facing some hard transitions ...

The globalization and automation that disabled 40% of working age Americans isn’t unique to rural areas, but those areas have been ailing for a long time. They’ve been impacted by automation ever since the railroad killed the Erie canal, and the harvester eliminated most farm workers. Once we thought the Internet would provide a lifeline to rural communities, but instead it made Dakka as close as Escanaba.

The root causes of crisis-T apply everywhere, rural areas are just a bit ahead of the curve.


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