It is a few days now after our national presidential election where our country selected Donald Trump as our 45th President. The metaphorical dust is still settling, and likely will be for some time as people react to a new President like none before, a brash businessman with literally zero political experience or national service. In our deeply divided nation, some people are ecstatic right now while others are fearful, depressed, and unhappy.
While we all desire a better future, a stronger, more just and prosperous nation, I’m struck by the inescapable fact that we come upon our voting decisions in a variety of ways, reflecting our upbringing, lifestyle situation, and values. People can and should select the candidate who best represents them; that’s what living in a free country is all about. But oftentimes, those decisions harm them economically.
Three years ago when I was campaigning for the House of Delegates, I spoke with hundreds of voters. Every one of them who called themselves “single issue voters,” was devoted to the same issue: abortion. One woman said, “If you’ll allow a woman to get a legal abortion, I’m not voting for you.” I said, “If I can describe an economic plan that will make your family and your community more successful, would you re-consider?” “No.” All she cared about was abortion. This was her prerogative. She was willing to sacrifice prosperity to ensure that women who had abortions would be punished.
Another man I spoke to was a rigid gun rights adherent. In a similar conversation, he acknowledged, somewhat reluctantly, that preservation of his right, and the rights of other gun owners, to have unfettered and unrestricted access to any level of firepower they desired, was more important than living in an economically prosperous community.
I’ve just released my eighth book, Chasing the Powhatan Arrow. It is what I describe as “a travelogue in economic geography,” following the corridor of the original main line of the Norfolk & Western railway and the iconic passenger train that plied the route from the end of WWII until the late 1960s. In it, I compared the economy then to now in the towns and cities where it stopped: Norfolk, Suffolk, Petersburg, Blackstone, Crewe, Farmville, Lynchburg, Roanoke, Christiansburg and Pearisburg in Virginia, Bluefield, Welch, Williamson, and Kenova in West Virginia, and Ironton, Portsmouth, and Cincinnati in Ohio. Many of these communities are successful economically. Others are spectacular failures.
Here’s what I learned: communities choose to failure or success.
I’m not making a value judgment about this. On a personal level, for example, people can make health decisions to fail. Everybody knows that smoking kills people prematurely. If someone wants to smoke, it’s their call.
Here are a couple of examples of how communities have chosen failure.
West Virginia’s economy has long been undergirded by coal mining, including many of the communities I studied. Employment in mining has been on an unsteady but terminal decline for six decades. Mr. Trump told West Virginians that he’d bring back mining. Coal’s demise is based upon a number of factors, but principally geologic. Succinctly, natural gas and western coal are cheaper per BTU to extract and deliver. Nobody can change that. But West Virginians overwhelmingly voted for Mr. Trump and his empty promises anyway.
President Reagan is a hero to many conservatives, but his policies – the decimation of unions, the deregulation of many industries, his “trickle-down” economics and its tax cuts for the wealthy, weakening of regulations, and the overall denigration of government at all levels – paved the way to middle class stagnation that we’re seeing today. Graphs showing the point where steadily increasing productivity and wages diverged as productivity continued to rise where wages flattened, coincides exactly with Reaganism. Thought to be a great champion of enterprise, Reagan actually advocated policies that destroyed the middle class and seriously hurt all American businesses. Even with this hindsight, I’m convinced if he were alive and eligible, millions would vote for him anyway.
When we look today at the red/blue maps that show how Americans voted this week, we see that the most economically prosperous states with the highest per capita income voted Democratic and the poorest voted Republican. It is a fact that the most successful economic states in America right now (e.g. Maryland, Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, and Connecticut) are the most liberal and the most economically depressed (e.g. Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama, and Tennessee) are the most conservative. This is not coincidental. It is the result of many factors, but decades of voting decisions are a big part of it.
It’s frustrating to me when someone chooses economic failure just as it’s frustrating when someone chooses to smoke. But it’s their decision.