From oracles to astrology to double predestination, men throughout history have sought hope in a glimpse of their future. As the Greeks well understood, however, foreknowledge is usually at the root of tragedy, and even Saint Augustine warned against consulting astrologers not because astrology is mere superstition but because of the possibility that the astrologers’ forecasts might be right. We cannot properly live our lives day to day when we know how they are destined to end.
The same is true of the lives of cities and of nations. Knowing that our time on earth must someday draw to a close is essential to being human; knowing—or wanting to know—the day and the hour and the circumstances is likely to lead us only to despair.
I have written here before that Rock-ford is dying, and I don’t intend to take back those words. Some clarification, however, might be in order. The city of Rockford may survive as long as the United States does; indeed, it may well exist long after this unwieldy continental empire has crumbled. It won’t, however, be the city that we know today—a solidly middle-class, Middle American, European-derived community built on manufacturing. The growth of Rockford’s population over the past decade was entirely the result of Hispanic immigration; the white population is declining. Today, healthcare and public education “contribute” more to Rockford’s economy than manufacturing does. And as I write this just a week before Christmas, Rockford is set to lose another 1,000 manufacturing jobs before the year ends.
Got laid off down at the factory
And their timing’s not the greatest in the world.
Heaven knows I’ve been working hard.
Wanted Christmas to be right for Daddy’s girl.
I don’t mean to hate December.
It’s meant to be the happy time of year.
But my little girl don’t understand
Why her daddy can’t afford no Christmas cheer.
The narrator of Merle Haggard’s plaintive song has “Got plans to be in a warmer town come summertime,” and on this, the coldest day of winter so far, some of those 1,000 workers are undoubtedly trying to figure out where they should go. Knowing their fate for most of the year, as the 400 workers at Atwood Mobile and the 100 at Amerock and the 300 at Textron have, has helped very little. Few comparable jobs are being created within commuting distance of Rockford, and President Bush’s campaign promises aside, most of these workers will not have the time or resources to be able to take advantage of retraining so that they can get positions in, say, the healthcare industry. They are going to be too busy working two or three part-time jobs just to pay their mortgages and heating bills.
These factory closings and layoffs are coming just days after President Bush’s joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the White House on December 15. Responding to Berlusconi’s concern about the weakness of the dollar (the euro currently hovers around $1.33; the British pound has gone as high as $2.00), the President lectured the assembled reporters on deficits, skipping over the budget deficit with barely a mention, dwelling on the Social Security deficit (“I campaigned on the issue”), and dismissing the trade deficit. You can almost see the smirk on his face as you read the transcript: “There’s a trade deficit. That’s easy to resolve; people can buy more United States products if they’re worried about the trade deficit.”
The President didn’t say whether the people he had in mind were Berlusconi’s fellow Italians or his fellow Americans, but it really doesn’t matter: What he meant was that, while others might be concerned about the trade deficit, he and his administration don’t view it as a problem. That the trade deficit continues to balloon even as the dollar has sunk to historic lows, however, is a serious indication of the hollowness of the American economy. And it portends further trouble for American agriculture and for manufacturing centers such as Rockford.
If the dollar recovers, as President Bush claims he wants it to (“The policy of my government is a strong dollar policy”), the effect will be to make American products more expensive, decreasing American exports. If American manufacturers cannot compete in the “global marketplace” today, how will they survive when exchange rates return to something closer to normal?
The problem that President Bush does not want to acknowledge, but which is obvious to those who have observed the decline in American manufacturing, is that we are rapidly approaching the point where concerned Americans or beneficent Italians simply could not wipe out our trade deficit if they tried. Many small manufacturers in Rockford would gladly buy American-made steel, and they would probably even be willing to pay a small premium for it (despite their ever-falling profits), but the United States doesn’t produce enough steel to meet domestic needs. Some union workers still take “Buy American” campaigns seriously, but in most areas of the country, it is next to impossible to outfit a family entirely in American-made clothes, regardless of the price you’re willing to pay. Forget about locally grown or organic produce; can you even feed your family a balanced diet without purchasing imported goods? (In his final press conference, outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson expressed amazement that terrorists hadn’t taken advantage of our reliance on foreign foodstuffs: “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do.”)
If we make it through December, we’ll be fine. America and Rockford and most of the newly unemployed Rockfordians will make it through December, but, Merle notwithstanding, the coldest time of winter here is usually January. What happens then?