Feminist, Fictionista, Foodie, Francophile

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Janesville, a review

A Washington Post reporter’s intimate account of the fallout from the closing of a General Motors’ assembly plant in Janesville, Wisconsin—Paul Ryan’s hometown—and a larger story of the hollowing of the American middle class--Janesville is on a lot of year-end "Best Books" lists. It's easy to see why. The event that grounds the book is the closing of a GM parts plant just before Christmas in 2008, a move that threw the struggling blue-collar town into financial disarray. Even as town leaders looked to their hometown hero Paul Ryan to help them out, citizens scrambled to find other jobs. And as in the Bruce Springsteen song, "These jobs are going boy, and they ain't coming back."

Now, nearly a decade later, Ryan (who comes from a wealthy family) has offered his own Christmas present to his constituents, and to the rest of America. And just like GM, his decision was based purely on profit with no regard at all for the human cost of his actions.  We expect corporations to be soulless. It's still a surprise when humans are completely without compassion. It's worth noting that in the 2012 election, Romney and Ryan did not carry the vote in Janesville.

Here's my review:

This is a story that plays out much like the star-studded adaptation of Randy Shilts’ AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, bringing together related plot strands and characters in a story that does not have a happy ending. The writing is very good, and one of the surprises is the sympathetic portrait of Congressman Paul Ryan, who grew up in the wealthy part of Janesville (his family was part of the “Irish Mafia” who got rich in construction), but who seems to have worked very hard to save the plant for his neighbors and constituents. 


It’s a very different Paul Ryan that we see in the news now—a man who doesn’t believe hungry children should get free school lunches because it offends their dignity and who celebrates like a frat boy on a vote that removes health insurance from millions of people—including those very constituents and neighbors. Amy Goldstein gives us a cross-section of people and follows them for five years as they try to retool their lives in the wake of the catastrophic disruption. Perhaps the most depression “subplot” of them all is the one relating to Ann Forbec, who is the “homeless student’ liaison in Janesville. That such a position even exists is an indictment of a broken system, and she an Bob Borreman seem to be the spear point in the battle to save the town and its townspeople. 

The autoworkers in Janesville have much in common with the poor whites in Appalachia whose stories have been chronicled in books like Hillbilly Elegy and White Trash. A lot of the auto workers lacked higher education or transferable skills that would keep them afloat after being thrown off the assembly line with its $28 an hour wage (and time and a half in overtime), health care, and union benefits. When the author talks about how banker Mary Willner fears that her bank will go under and walks in on her 15-year-old daughter in tears because she can feel the whole fabric of her life ripping apart, we can feel that fear, that sense that the inhabitants are caught in a spiral that’s sucking them down. 

The book ends with several appendices that contain some staggering information, including one graph that covers short-term actions people took to make ends meet after being laid off. The number one belt-tightening measure was cutting back on money spent on transportation. The second one was not spending money on doctors. More than fifty percent of those polled reported that they had trouble paying for food. This at about the same time that the government came up for a new phrase to describe hunger—food insecurity.

Just about the only success story in the book is the tale of a laid-off worker who commutes weekly to a new job but makes $30 an hour. That may not be enough of a victory/payoff for viewers who have sat through the whole saga.

Other takeaways from research include the somewhat obvious “pessimism about the future was widespread.” This is all compelling material but is it something that viewers—who may themselves be hanging on to solvency by their bloody fingernails want to see?

This is a story of a community, but unlike, say, Dewey, the story of a small-town library cat that gave a town fallen on tough times a reason to hope, there’s not much here that’s hopeful. This is a collection of outstanding character studies, and each character we follow has his or her own arc.
The author, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who has worked for the Washington Post for 30 years, did an enormous amount of research in addition to the interviews she conducted. Some of the articles she cites are required reading for anyone interested in what’s going on in the American workplace. (And they are pretty grim, especially “Out of Work and Losing Hope: The Misery and Bleak Expectations of American Workers.”

She also cites numerous studies linking unemployment to depression, early mortality, and a host of other medical issues. It’s sobering stuff and because the book ends in 2015, it’s hard not to extrapolate to the election of 2016 when frustration with the status quo contributed to the election of an outsider who made promises he could not keep with regard to bringing back “good” American jobs.
The author also cites studies that show the wage gap pegged to academic training. It’s stark, with “completers” making double what their high school educated counterparts make. Except there’s one glaring flaw in the data. For laid off workers who completed training at a technical school, wages were higher than for those who did not retrain but they were still SUBSTANTIALLY LOWER than what they’d been making before they were laid off.


 Just about the only success story in the book is the tale of a laid-off worker who commutes weekly to a new job but makes $30 an hour. That may not be enough of a victory/payoff for viewers who have sat through the whole saga.

Other takeaways from research include the somewhat obvious “pessimism about the future was widespread.” This is all compelling material but is it something that viewers—who may themselves be hanging on to solvency by their bloody fingernails want to see?

This is a story of a community, but unlike, say, Dewey, the story of a small-town library cat that gave a town fallen on tough times a reason to hope, there’s not much here that’s hopeful. This is a collection of outstanding character studies, and each character we follow has his or her own arc.

The author, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who has worked for the Washington Post for 30 years, did an enormous amount of research in addition to the interviews she conducted. Some of the articles she cites are required reading for anyone interested in what’s going on in the American workplace. (And they are pretty grim, especially “Out of Work and Losing Hope: The Misery and Bleak Expectations of American Workers.”

She also cites numerous studies linking unemployment to depression, early mortality, and a host of other medical issues. It’s sobering stuff and because the book ends in 2015, it’s hard not to extrapolate to the election of 2016 when frustration with the status quo contributed to the election of an outsider who made promises he could not keep with regard to bringing back “good” American jobs.

The author also cites studies that show the wage gap pegged to academic training. It’s stark, with “completers” making double what their high school educated counterparts make. Except there’s one glaring flaw in the data. For laid off workers who completed training at a technical school, wages were higher than for those who did not retrain but they were still SUBSTANTIALLY LOWER than what they’d been making before they were laid off.

This is bleak stuff and today, of all days, when the chill of the new tax bill is settling in, it's disturbing reading.


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