June 18, 2024

How to Save Elkhart, Indiana (and Whether We Should)

Barack Obama recently dropped in on Elkhart, Indiana to pitch the virtues of the Democrat’s now-$789B spending plan.  Unemployment there is over 15%, having more than tripled since Obama burst on the scene as an upstart challenger to Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid last fall.  Dick Moore, the town’s mayor, says, ""People are hanging in there, but … I don’t think we’ve hit the bottom yet."

No, probably not.  Elkhart’s economic base is essentially a one-trick pony – manufacturing recreational vehicles, a luxury item whose demand curve is, obviously highly elastic.  Until there’s an overall expansion of income – and income security – Elkhart will be on the ropes.  RobWarrior says the Obama administration needs to come up with a plan to save Elkhart, Indiana

How would the government accomplish this worthy goal?  Perhaps the first step is to ask another question:  Should we even try?

(This is an opportune moment to say that I was born and raised less than an hour from Elkhart.  But I’m not an expert on local dynamics; call me an interested observer instead.  I remember fondly having cross country and wrestling meets there as a teen and many of my childhood friends still live in the area, though our contact is irregular at best.  I’m motivated to follow Rob’s lead on this – but at what cost?  What’s best for a handful of Elkharts across the nation may be sub-optimal or even disastrous for the nation as a whole.)

My thought at seeing where Obama had first chosen to face the people mano-y-mano was, "I wonder what kind of reception he’s going to get there."  The answer was predictable: 

When his unemployment runs out next month, "I don’t know what I’m going to do," [Ed] Neufeldt says. "I’ve been trying to find a job, but there aren’t any jobs out there. I can’t even get a minimum-wage job."

He didn’t vote for Obama, but he’s backing him now. In fact, Neufeldt will introduce the president at Monday’s town-hall-style meeting. "Sometimes you don’t care too much for the coach," he says, "but you’re praying for him to win."

Small-town Indiana, much like all of small-town America, is solidly Republican.  Neufeldt, my own family, and my old friends are exactly the kind of people who Barack Obama snidely dismissed as clinging to their guns and God when times get rough.  Well, times are tough in Elkhart and the surrounding area and even people who are pretty damn sure that Obama’s liberal agenda is bunk are depending on him as their first line of defense before falling back to more "primitive" means to sustain their hope for the short-term future.

When prognosticating or electioneering it is easy to dismiss the intellect and seriousness of people who, for example, work on the assembly line building mobile homes.  That’s what Obama did in front of his snobby set in San Francisco.  Then reality intruded.  While Elkhart and places like it are objectively behind the curve in terms of technology, an educated workforce, and modern employment opportunities, such towns and people are, in fact, America – much more so than the big-city folks who fly over Indiana whilst wheeling and dealing.

The fact that university diplomas are somewhat scarce in these towns does not mean that the people who live and work there are either gullible or stupid, something that is often overlooked by the bi-coastal elite.

This is important when it comes to talking about how to save these towns from the financial disaster that’s emanated from Wall Street and is threatening to inundate Main Street, USA as a consequence.  Identifying with my former friends and neighbors for a moment, I’ll say that frankly we don’t give a damn that Bear Stearns tanked or WaMu had to scuttle itself to avoid bankruptcy.  We know that the big-headed big-shots in D.C. and New York screwed us, themselves, and their cousins during the financial debacle by not telling the truth about their financial situations and re-processing/re-packaging failing loan portfolios in order to pass the losses onto other parties.

We also know that we bear significant blame ourselves, or at least those of us who took out credit card debt or a home or automobile loan that they knew damn well they wouldn’t be able to afford to pay back if anything disrupted their paycheck-to-paycheck, net-zero cash flow existence.

And we also know that this self-flagellation is only partially justified because the Clinton administration’s mandates forced lenders to engage in what must be called inherently unsound lending practices in order to comply with liberal interpretations of non-discrimination.  We know these were bad regulations, as all such requirements that force businesses and individuals to act against their own interests are bad.

Faith is why all of this matters, in the event, dear reader, you were wondering.  Faith in God, self, and yes, on occasion even in guns, is not foreign to middle – and middle-class – America.  But faith in government and its solutions is justifiably at low tide.  No bailout, stimulus, or – let’s be honest with each other, if no one else will – massive spending plan will succeed in its primary objective of restoring consumer confidence unless faith in the man-made market is restored as a precondition.

That’s why it matters that CEOs of floundering banks, borrowers of untold and untraced billions, be held quite near the flames when it comes to paying executive bonuses with money extracted from the government for the purpose of averting imminent bankruptcy – to restore our faith in the failed system.

And that’s why it matters that the average citizen believes in the Democrat’s spending plan, because it will not achieve its purpose without that belief, regardless of how many hundreds of billions of dollars are poured into government make-work programs.  That hasn’t happened yet, with only 16% of American’s polled believing that the Democrat’s plan will help "a lot".  Another 48% say the plan will help "some", however, meaning that we’re taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the problem.

What Americans are waiting for should be obvious – we’re waiting for a stimulus package that, A) will actually stimulate the economy NOW, and B) spends the money on important, core bi-partisan projects.  Average Americans aren’t cheering Congress on because neither the House nor the Senate has given the people what they want and need in order to save Elkhart and other small towns from Depression-like economic conditions.

Should Elkhart be saved?  Speaking specifically about this town and considering its present form, I’d say that it doesn’t deserve special consideration.  The town’s over-dependence on the recreational vehicle and mobile home manufacturing business makes it vulnerable in a down job market.  This is a repeat lesson that we should have learned from watching the effects of the steel industry meltdown that devastated Pennsylvania in the 1970s and the oil bust that sent much of Texas into a funk in the 1980s.  Economic diversity is essential for localities to thrive through the inevitable market booms and busts.  Elkhart put all its eggs in one basket; now the town is watching that basket disappear in a cloud of smoke.

Looking at the situation from the macro level, as Rob has done and Barack Obama and the Democrats must do, small towns across American contribute significantly to both the culture and economy of this country.  It’s essential that government priorities – should a spending bill be passed – recognize that much, if not most, of the living, working, paying taxes, and dying done in America takes place in small and mid-sized towns like Elkhart, Indiana.  Taxpayer funding of government projects should therefore be directed toward rural and small-town America in proportion to the economic contributions these regions make to the nation.

Because virtually all such localities voted for John McCain in the 2008 election there may be the temptation on the part of Democrats to punish these areas financially.  This cannot be allowed to happen.  In the post-partisan world that Barack Obama promised us, such retribution would be unthinkable.  Given Congress’ work on the spending package to-date, I’m not so optimistic.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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