The Trump administration has just devoted much of its first 50 days writing and then re-writing a contentious immigration ban that is supposed to make America safer. Meanwhile, a hurting nation awaits triage that has nothing to do with Muslims or Mexicans. As Trump himself well knows, small towns and rural areas from coast to coast are in dire economic straits, challenged by lost jobs and an opioid epidemic.
Brian Alexander’s devastating new book, Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town, explains how the enemy is already within our borders—and no immigration ban could have protected us. In fact, some of them are advising the Trump administration.
Alexander, a journalist, grew up in Lancaster, Ohio, in the 1960s. The town, home to Anchor Hocking Glass Company, was so prosperous in the 1940s that Forbes magazine devoted a cover story to it as the all-American town, crowning it, as Alexander writes, “the epitome and apogee of the American free enterprise system.” As Forbes saw it, the town and its company worked in perfect harmony.
Life in Lancaster was indeed sweet. When Alexander was growing up, his father worked at the glass factory, which had been pumping out ware since the turn of the century. He recalls a Norman Rockwell-mythic place of happy, healthy children, unlocked doors, prosperous parents and good schools. But starting in the 1980s, financial Darth Vaders came swooping down from Wall Street and started manipulating the company in order to squeeze cash out. Over the next two decades, two of Donald Trump’s advisors, corporate raider Carl Icahn, and then private equity king Steven Feinberg, tore into the company’s books, manipulating its stock, forcing it to take on debt, and slowly chopping it up like a Thanksgiving turkey, picking the bones clean and leaving the town without its core industry.
Alexander opens the book with tears—the tears of a local cop, reminiscing with the author about what Lancaster used to be. “I found myself tearing up too,” Alexander writes. “There we were, two middle-aged men, a cop and a reporter, sitting in a booth inside the Cherry Street Pub, clearing our throats, dabbing the backs of our fingers to our eyes, hoping nobody would notice.”
This begins the heartbreaking tale of an American town’s rise and fall. Alexander weaves details about the slow death of the glass factory and the complex financial tricks that were played to squeeze every last cent from it, with stories of the lives affected, from laid-off union factory workers, to their opioid-addicted children, to the CEOs who took what they could get, and the few men who tried to save it.
Glass House is among the best of the books to hit shelves in the last several years exploring what’s happened to the nation and the role that greed and the collapse of once solid institutions played in the demise of small-town, middle-class America. Among the others are George Packer’s The Unwinding and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
Packer’s book, which took a wide angle lens to the subject, covered several towns and a variety of culprits, from Wall Street, to cynical government officials and the mores of the entertainment industry. Vance’s book is a memoir about growing up poor and white in the heart of America. Alexander’s research aims at one town and one company, and it is by turns heartbreaking and infuriating. He blames the demise on a callous, anti-communitarian trend in American business practice that started with the philosophy of Milton Friedman, was manifested by men like Icahn and Feinberg, and enabled by conservative de-regulation.
Friedman famously compared businessmen interested in the lives of their employees and communities to socialists. He advocated for profits over people, and a completely unregulated market in which businessmen took personal responsibility for everything that government wanted to meddle in, from pollution to financial malfeasance. “Friedman would have disdained Lancaster’s symbiotic relationship with its businesses,” Alexander writes.
The company fended off Icahn’s first raid by repurchasing his shares in 1982 at above the market rate, giving Icahn a $3 million profit (Icahn, worth $16.6 billion today, must look back on that as chump change). Feinberg’s Cerberus Capital later came in and bought it, then shut it down temporarily, forced workers to give up their pensions, and after wrenching tax breaks from the state and local government, let pieces of it go into bankruptcy and finally sold it off. Other wannabe buyout tycoons, sniffing blood, started coming around, and over the next two decades, metaphorically drugged the company with debt, and then while it was down, started dividing it up, with each new owner taking another cut and leaving it a little bit smaller. Today, 39,000 people live in Lancaster, Ohio. One in five live in poverty.
Fairfield County voters—of which Lancaster is the county seat—went for Trump by a margin of nearly two to one.
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