Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Book Review: Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town by Brian Alexander

If you've heard all the hype in the last few months about Hillbilly Elegy, consider this book as a companion to or alternative to that book. It also posits to give some explanation about how America got to where it is now, taking one single town as a concrete example.

Lancaster, Ohio was a once thriving, adorable, Leave-It -to-Beaver type of town. There were great manufacturing jobs at the glass plants, which lead to good schools, and a wonderful community. Of course nothing lasts forever and the glass plants did eventually merge into Anchor Hocking. But things were still fine. Until the 1980s. Until "Greed is Good" and unfettered money  grubbing and deregulation became the name of the game. Carl Icahn set his eyes on Anchor Hocking and from there on, everything went down the toilet. It was bought by one Wall Street firm after another who wrung it out for every last penny, neglected maintenance, sold off assets, took out huge debts in its name, and basically ran the company into the ground. One CEO after another came to town (and a few didn't), said some platitudes, made things worse, and disappeared. Naturally, with the erosion of stable, well-paying jobs, everything around them began to crumble. The town fell into disrepair pretty much across the board. Drugs came in, in large amounts. While townspeople like to think that all the druggies and junkies are out of towners (why on earth would people come to Lancaster, Ohio for that?) they're not. The local cops regularly arrest former high school classmates. There are still a few locals who try to do what they can to support the community, but it's too little too late. And Lancaster, like hundreds if not thousands of medium-sized factory towns across the country, is flailing, and slowly sinking into an abyss.

The most powerful thing in the story is the author. Mr. Alexander is a respected journalist who can write eloquently and yet plainly about complicated buyouts and turnarounds and other financial machinations. But more importantly, he's from Lancaster. He grew up there. He knows some of the subjects of his book personally. He really has an insider's understanding of the history and how it's fallen out over the years, he has the perspective of someone who's moved away, and yet t he fondness that makes him not write off Lancaster entirely. Also you get the feeling that no other writer would have gotten the junkies and drug dealers of Lancaster to let him into their lives as Brian is able to get.

At the end of this book, I'm just sad. I feel I now have a much better understanding of how we've gotten where we are (and I pretty much detest Friedman economics!) but no solutions. Still at least insight and understanding is a big step towards... what? Help? A plan? I'm not sure. But it can't hurt. It's the first step towards a solution, as far away as that answer might be.

I checked this book out of the library

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

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