BOOK REVIEW: Janesville – An American Story by Amy Goldstein

Janesville: a small city in the state of Wisconsin, home to the oldest General Motors factory - main Janesville employer - before it closed in 2008, right in the middle of the Great Recession causing large scale unemployment. This is the story of what happens next. Worth reading? Absolutely. Winner of the 2017 FT and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, this book lives up to its hype

BOOK REVIEW: Janesville – An American Story by Amy Goldstein

There’s been a buzz around this book since it came out last year: reviews read like panegyrics, it won the 2017 FT and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, there’s even been hints it might help explain how Trump got in. It’s hard for a book to live up to such hype but for me, it did. What makes this book special is it puts real people in front of cold, abstract figures and policy decisions and shows how they play out in real lives away from the stats and debates.

From the day of closure to 2013, Goldstein covers what happens when Janesville’s main employer shut its doors, thrumming up and down a wide cast of citizens grappling with the situation. We meet the local self made billionaire who’s part of a campaign to revive the economy (“Forward Janesville”), hungry high school kids secretly taking food and toothpaste from a closet set up by a kindly teacher, politicians on the left and right who spout promises and endorse policies that don’t have much impact, and Bob, at the job centre, who finds that retraining laid off workers for new jobs (about the only policy both Republicans and Democrats agree on) isn’t working. There are many more but at the book’s heart are three families which lose their income and, in a folksy, even handed way, Goldstein takes us into their lives.

The ripple effect of the GM closure becomes clearer with time. On $28 an hour with “fancy benefits”, GM employers are among Janesville’s best paid so when they lose their jobs, it spins out to those who depend on their dollars – child carers, plasterers, shops, charities. Then there are those businesses entirely reliant on GM: Lear Seating, a local factory that manufactures seats for GM, its only client, has to close; a warehouse that delivers parts to the GM plant goes and so unemployment rises further and dollar spend falls lower and the squeeze gets tighter. With jobs, go those fancy healthcare benefits in a country with no safety net. People are stuck in negative equity so selling the house doesn’t make sense. The closure of GM, the book shows vividly, leaves people facing a bunch of bad options.

Goldstein chose Janesville because it is both unique and an everyman city. There’s a Janesville way of doing things, the book stresses, which embodies can-do, decency and community. People like living there: they don’t want to move and the GM factory wasn’t just a factory, it was part of Janesville’s history, with generations of families working there before retiring on a decent pension (even if they hate it). On the other hand, when the job crunch came, Janesville matched the US’s national pattern of job losses in the recession: it was hit hard with over 13% unemployed, the largest proportion of job losses were in the manufacturing sector which paid well but did not require much higher education, and more men than women lost jobs.

The story Goldstein tells is both personal to the Janesville folk and universal to America. It’s also a story veined with pathos: pathos in the fact that being ready and willing to work is not enough. Jerad goes from earning $28 to $12 an hour, his family’s grocery spend goes from $200 per week to $200 per month and it’s still not enough to make ends meet. Pathos in the fact that until 2015 the GM plant is initially designated as on standby rather than permanently closed, giving a dribble of hope to many that it will reopen. Pathos in the fact that suicides double.

The ruthlessness of the American Dream comes out of this tale, embodied in a graduation speech by a self-made millionaire who bigs up those who “decided to use the economic obstacles as an economic opportunity” (although it turns out many of those who graduate still can’t get jobs – back to Bob-at-the-job-centre’s discovery). That’s the flip side of the American dream: if anyone can rise to become anything, then being on your downers is also partly a personal failure, a lack of optimism or can-do or whatever it is that you haven’t done to overcome economic obstacles. The business leaders of Janesville don’t like pessimism with one labelling herself “Ambassador of optimism”.

Finally, does the book answer the mighty question of why Trump became President? Nothing so simple. Janesville has become more polarised but voted for Democrats in the 2012 and 2016 elections. Unemployment is now down to around 4% which looks like an improvement but the jobs are low paid and 75% of those who lost jobs are now worse off, grafting as hard, or harder, for less. And anyway, what do such statistics mean if you’re still in the luckless bucket?

Janesville is a fantastic book which shows that when an economic crisis hits, a few fare well, others middling, and some sink.

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