My father was born in 1948. He’s the same age as Jackson Browne: ’65 I was 17, ’69 I was 21.
His plan was to graduate from his Western Pennsylvania public high school and join the Marine Corps. The local draft board came damn close to saving him the trouble of enlisting. But near the end of his high school career, it was discovered that his girlfriend was “in a family way.” His parents briefly floated the idea of obtaining an illegal abortion. Fortunately, my 17-year-old father, his soon-to-be in-laws, and his Episcopal priest (in those days such men could be depended upon) stood firm.
He and his girlfriend were married. Soon after, my half-brother was born and my father enrolled in an apprenticeship program with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He’d gotten off on the wrong foot, but he was stepping into a world that encouraged young men to take responsibility for those mistakes and gave them the resources to do so. Just over a decade later, he owned his own small business customizing motorcycle suspension. Forty years after that, he was the mayor of his town.
He often laments the passing of the world in which he made his way. I, for one, am inclined to believe that those lamentations are more than mere nostalgia.
In that world, when a man finished high school, he had three options: the military, college, or the mill.
The military was, of course, a nightmare. Poor kids were shipped off to Vietnam and came home (if at all) broken and hardened in all the wrong places. The other two options weren’t nearly as grim.
College was a one-way ticket to the white-collar upper middle class. The value of a bachelor’s degree had not yet been diluted by the misguided push for everyone to go to college, nor had its price been inflated out of all proportion by a glut of highly paid diversicrats and federally subsidized grants. You could put yourself through by working a reasonable number of hours at a minimum wage job.
As for the mill, a single man working a union job could afford to buy a house, drive a nice car, pursue a hobby, and spend several nights a week at the bar trying to scare up tail. If he got married, his wife could stay home with the kids while he supported the family on a single income. If she decided to go to work — and she by no means had to — the couple was virtually guaranteed to be comfortably well off.
Recently, national conservative politicians like Marco Rubio and Blake Masters have suggested that we could resurrect this world by reinvigorating American manufacturing through protectionism. And not only should we do this in order to broaden the working-class appeal of conservatism and create well-paying blue-collar jobs, but we must in the interest of national security.
My Young Voices colleague (and one-time interviewee) Alexander Salter recently argued in National Review that libertarian concerns about the inefficiency of such a policy are irrelevant. “The whole point of industrial policy,” Salter writes, “is that it is conducted without regard to economic efficiency. …National conservatives are forthright in their belief that economic efficiency and the national interest diverge. It’s the latter they’re trying to achieve.”
The obvious question when efficiency comes up is “efficient for whom?” It might be an efficient means of raising GDP if the highest possible number of Americans’ jobs consisted of manipulating information on screens. It might also be efficient to siphon all those upwardly mobile college grads into a few magnet cities. But that kind of “efficiency” probably doesn’t sound so good to the people left behind in post-industrial towns. It doesn’t sound so good to uprooted couples caught in the two-income trap with no family around to help them raise a child. It doesn’t sound so good to the kids who weren’t “college material,” who are cut off from the robust unions that once looked out for their grandparents and find themselves at the mercy of a Walmart or an Amazon.
As for national security, even hardline free-marketeer Henry Hazlitt had to concede, after savaging protectionism in a chapter of Economics in One Lesson, that his argument did not cover “all tariffs, including duties collected…to keep alive industries needed for war.”
The exception Hazlitt carves out is a large one. War requires steel to build ships, oil to fuel tanks and jets, rubber for Humvee and IFV tires, microchips to guide our smart bombs, and a panoply of other goods, both high-tech and low. And that’s just for the troops. We’d also need the capacity to keep everyone on the home front supplied with medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, food, clothing, and all the other necessities of life. You think the supply chain is bad now? Wait until cargo ships are being sunk by Chinese submarines instead of just jammed up outside the Port of Los Angeles.
And make no mistake, we need to be ready for that war. Xi Jinping, unlike Boris Yeltsin, isn’t going to go gaga over the hyperabundance of the American grocery store. We hollowed out our domestic manufacturing sector in the hope that China would liberalize. Instead, they’ve perfected authoritarianism, and now they’re coming for us.
“The era in which the US acted arbitrarily in the world under the pretext of so-called ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ is over. The day will come eventually when the US military, who killed innocent civilians in other countries, will be brought to justice,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said in response to Biden’s recent Democracy Summit.
Of course, resurrecting my father’s world isn’t just a matter of economics. The Marxian idea that culture rests on an economic superstructure is too simple. The two are interdependent. Neither can entirely fix the other.
A 17-year-old finding himself in my father’s position in 2021 might not have been raised with any religion at all. If he and his parents still went to church, it would likely be an evangelical megachurch where the hip pastor in skinny jeans had no time for them. If, by some statistical fluke, he was an Episcopalian, his priest (likely a she or even a they) would probably tell him to butt out of the abortion discussion. Woman’s body, woman’s choice.
There’d be no need to sneak around finding a doctor willing to risk the jail time. There wouldn’t even be any shame if people did find out. #ShoutYourAbortion! Just call the girlfriend an Uber to Planned Parenthood, and our protagonist is free to head off to college, spend four years drinking and screwing, and then move to Austin to make spreadsheets for some startup.
But let’s imagine he does the honorable thing and they keep the baby. They’ll both have to go to work, of course. Let’s say he at Home Depot and she at Burger King. These jobs combined might not provide the purchasing power of a single union job in the old days, but they don’t provide the sense of community either. There’s no union hall, union bowling league, or union Christmas party.
They probably won’t bother getting married either. Nobody expects it of them. They know half a dozen couples in the same situation. He has an easy out anytime he wants it.
Does he have the internal resources to keep from taking that out? Probably not. Video games, weed (or worse), and the overall glorification of youth culture and denigration of masculinity make it unlikely he’ll have what it takes to man up for his baby mama and child.
In the introduction to Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance describes an acquaintance so devoid of virtue that he couldn’t hold down a good job, not even with a pregnant girlfriend to support. He was the product of “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” Even if an economic nationalist agenda were implemented and our 17-year-old had the same sort of options my father had at his age, it might not be enough to save him from himself and from the society that made him.
Re-shoring could bring good jobs back to places like my hometown. Will it convince the people there to get married, go to church, stay sober, and trade their drug rugs and Cookie Monster pajama bottoms for khakis and dresses? I don’t know.