Whenever I've passed through decomposing Rust Belt cities or haunted former factory towns in the South, I could not help but wonder: Why do people stay? Why not move somewhere where there are jobs and a future? This, I know, is a facile, even smug, judgment: People are bound to hometowns by the powerful gravity exerted by families, friends, and community. Starting over in a strange place is a gamble that takes a lot of courage. In a startling essay in National Review, Kevin Williamson argues that those who don't flee blighted regions have only themselves to blame for their misery, and that the white working class should stop whining and self-medicating, load up the U-Haul, and move to where the new jobs are.
If only it were so simple. In the high-tech global economy, the new jobs go to "knowledge workers" — highly educated people with specialized skills. If your only qualification is a willingness to work hard, you might land a $20,000 gig at the Hardee's or the Walmart, instead of an $80,000 job at the plant. So what does our country do about the folks the free market no longer values? So far, the presidential candidates are offering nothing but Band-Aids and bunkum. Tariffs and trade wars will not bring shuttered factories and industries back from the dead, or reclaim the millions of jobs now performed by machines. Heavily taxing the rich and redistributing the income might cushion the fall a bit, but it will not restore the dignity and self-respect that only work brings. Let's be realistic: Not everyone can go to college and graduate school, or become a programmer or engineer, or pack up the U-Haul and find lucrative work in the big city. We can scorn those who can't, send them government checks indefinitely, or feed their resentments in a bid for votes. But the lost Americans aren't going away.