Sunday, April 9, 2017

On Main Street, nostalgia, efficiency, and rural America

Louis Hyman of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies has a provocative op-ed in today's New York Times, "The Myth of Main Street."  Hyman argues that nostalgia is getting in the way of reasonable and appropriate expectations for "Main Street" America.  He begins by noting Trump's appeal to an American of yesteryear and explains why that America is inefficient, even a luxury.  
Throughout the Rust Belt and much of rural America, the image of Main Street is one of empty storefronts and abandoned buildings interspersed with fast-food franchises, only a short drive from a Walmart. 
Main Street is a place but it is also an idea. It’s small-town retail. It’s locally owned shops selling products to hardworking townspeople. It’s neighbors with dependable blue-collar jobs in auto plants and coal mines. It’s a feeling of community and of having control over your life. It’s everything, in short, that seems threatened by global capitalism and cosmopolitan elites in big cities and fancy suburbs.
Hyman is an economic historian, and he explains the historic trajectory as one the that has always short-changed rural America:
You can draw a straight line from the Jeffersonians in the late 18th century to the agrarian populists in the late 19th century to Mr. Trump’s voters, all of whom have felt that the city hornswoggled the country.
His whole column is well worth a read for its detailed explanation of how most folks can't afford the luxury of local, small-town merchants.  In fact, the folks who can afford it are usually living in upscale urban locales and tony suburbs.  The rest of us are basically relegated to big box stores and fast food.

While Hyman is mostly talking about the private sector, his op-ed piece reminds me of something Cornell demographer Daniel Lichter said a few years ago at a University of South Dakota symposium on the rural lawyer shortage:  in the face of population loss (itself a consequence of industrialization, mechanization), rural America has to look for efficiencies in regional centers or hubs.  It's no longer feasible for every community or even every county to have a high school--or other sorts of key services, public (a courthouse, a public health office, a public defenders office) or private (a grocery store).  

This discussion of Main Street as a myth--and its pitting against Wall Street--also reminds me of Sarah Palin's posturing in the 2008 Presidential election, which I wrote about in this law review article.  It's interesting (if depressing) to be reminded of the parallels between the 2008 and 2016 presidential elections.


Willie Stein said...

I think this is an insightful take on the mythic "Main Street" deployed by politicians. "Main Street" is a trope about old-fashioned work practices that are simply inefficient. The myth that's being pitched is that there is a version of capitalism that is willing to prioritize these kinds of practices over advancements in economic efficiency. The paradox is that a capitalist economy will always eliminate these kinds of redundancies, leaving rural people with less and less to do. Conservative deployment of this trope is about nostalgia, but you can't "uninvent the cotton gin" and go back to these less efficient, but more robust rural economies. On other side, leftist deployment of this trope is really an anti-capitalist argument about turning away from capital's relentless elimination of redundancies to preserve other values in the community. The fact that both sides of this argument hinge on a disillusionment with the damage caused by efficiencies might explain the fact that many rural and other disenfranchised voters seem receptive to both right and left populism at once.

Jenna said...

I have to admit that even as a suburban woman I have always been a sucker for nostalgic "Main Streets." On an almost weekly basis I drive up to Marysville, California (population 12,072) (,_California). Almost every week as I drive through the small downtown area I remark to whoever is in the car with me that it's a shame that so many of the places and buildings are boarded up. The really beautiful theater, the old brick apartment building, the cute storefronts, all closed and a shadow of what I assume was their former glory. While I have lost many of my more idealized visions of rural America, this idea of a bustling and homey Main Street is apparently one of the hardest ones for me to get rid of, even when I am presented with evidence of the reality of these places.