Some harsh truths: Years ago, blue-collar America suffered mightily in the loss of manufacturing jobs. Everyone knows that. Many new, high-paying factory jobs are today going unfilled because workers aren’t being trained for them. Some know that. Donald Trump has done about zero to offer these Americans a better tomorrow. Not nearly enough working white men seem to know that.
Or perhaps they’d rather see their anger applauded than their hard times ended. How else could anyone following Hillary Clinton’s proposals for improving ordinary Americans’ economic security prefer Trump? (We’re making the dangerous assumption that much of the general electorate has even bothered looking at the real-world fixes she’s prescribing.)
Let’s start with the struggling white folk of the Appalachian coal country. Polls indicate that the white men there especially prefer Trump. Because? Because? You tell me why. Politicos explain that they are an ornery population — proud, courageous and patriotic — but also susceptible to the sort of racist appeals that Trump uses to get them on the cheap.
Trump’s vow to “bring back coal” would be one of his easiest promises to break. The problem for coal isn’t just that it’s dirty energy. It’s that natural gas is cheaper. Trashing every environmental law on the books would not change the fact of free market life that consumers are going to buy the less expensive product.
Clinton, by contrast, has a plan to create a new economy for Appalachia. She would spend $30 billion upgrading the region’s roads and sewer lines, installing broadband and improving other communications. That’s good employment for local workers. Money would go toward education to prepare people for the high-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree. And she’d offer tax incentives for the companies that need such skills to move there. Her running mate, Tim Kaine of Virginia, has close family ties to Appalachia. He would, in all likelihood, be heading the project.
Trump’s plan is to favor himself and other 1 percenters with steep tax cuts that would drain the Treasury of money needed to make a Clinton-type plan a reality. (That might not matter much because he doesn’t have such a plan, or any plan.) The tax cuts would also put pressure on social programs — food stamps, Medicaid — that keep struggling workers above water.
Contrary to Trump’s hollering that American manufacturing is dead, U.S. factories are making more stuff than ever. They’re just doing it with robots and computers and fewer people than before.
The so-called Rust Belt state of Indiana is doing rather well in this new manufacturing economy. This is the state with the highest proportion of factory jobs, yet its unemployment is now only 4.4 percent. Meanwhile, personal income rose nearly 4 percent last year.
Most of the people who work in these modern plants don’t need a college education. They just need extra training to fix and operate the machines.
Some years back, European companies building ultramodern factories in South Carolina, Tennessee and elsewhere in the South complained that they couldn’t find people with the proper skills. Some set up their own apprenticeship programs to provide employees the education they need — the kind of vocational training that has nurtured Germany’s famously prosperous blue-collar workforce.
It’s good that some companies take it upon themselves to offer even low levels of training. But it’s our educational system’s duty to impart these basic skills before the workers submit their job applications. Neither Trump’s heart nor his brain is into setting up such a nuts-and-bolts program.
Blue-collar Americans have every right to vote their emotions over their economic self-interest. But let’s just not pretend they’re doing otherwise.