In this last stretch of glorious summer here in Upstate New York, the corn is sweet, the tomatoes are ripe, the peaches luscious, the fairs and festivals cheap and nearby and not at all overcrowded, and the students are moving back into the dorms just in time, in Buffalo, Syracuse, and Binghamton, to be entertained by a traveling celebrity come to celebrate the next season’s start.
In May 2010, when President Barack Obama last visited Buffalo, it was observed that the permanent political campaign that is the White House message team had decided to use the president’s one-hour stay not to celebrate the 60,000 college students here, or our ripening strawberry crop, or the sunniest part of New York, but rather to tout the allegedly forthcoming renaissance in manufacturing. This is a place where 50 years ago, almost a quarter-million humans worked in manufacturing, a place where only a decade ago tens of thousands still bent, punched, drilled, and welded metal, but where out of the workforce of half a million fewer staff factories than staff restaurants.
The White House message operation used Buffalo as a backdrop for its projection of the phantasm or chimera or hoax because that is what the poll-takers said would work, so the successes here, the possibilities aborning in the region, were not part of the story, the post-manufacturing story, like the smart, measurably positive reality of Buffalo’s first-in-the-nation urban wind-turbine farm, sited on a former manufacturing site known best for having for a century housed Bethlehem Steel.
Now the Obama message team is back, but this time, happily, the mission is better-rooted in reality than before, for the president will go to the university in Buffalo’s suburbs, to a school in Syracuse, and then to Binghamton’s university, before heading down to Joe Biden’s birthplace in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Maybe somebody in the research unit of the West Wing reviewed the Bureau of Economic Analysis numbers about manufacturing in Buffalo, Syracuse, Binghamton, and Scranton since 2008. Manufacturing slipped about half a billion dollars in output in Buffalo since Lehman Brothers crashed that year, rose a bit in both Syracuse and Binghamton since then, and slid a mite in Scranton, in metro economies that have recovered ever so slightly since the money-men’s bubble busrt.
It’s not time to talk manufacturing yet in this part of the Rust Belt. It’s not time to talk about Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, either, because while Obama has been positive about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, which has in Pennsylvania boomed and crashed and temporarily enriched some investors and permanently dirtied some watersheds, fracking is not yet legal in Cuomo’s New York, so best leave that one off the list of talking points.
Now it’s time to talk human capital—specifically, about universities as the fuel for economic growth, community recovery, and regional regeneration—while tooling around Upstate on a big black bus, as if the president is a country-and-western act hitting the last three fairs of summer.
Obama is using the bus tour that Bill Clinton used in 1992, which was a version of what the women known as the Two Katies invented for the Paul Simon for Senate campaign of 1984, when, in August of that year, there was not a damned thing going on in Chicago in the lead-up to Labor Day, and not a damned thing to do during the Congressional recess—underway this week, too—but to put the candidate on a boat on the Illinois River to go to all those little places that would never, ever see the candidates after the real campaign season began in the fall. Visiting Peoria, Pekin, Chillicothe, Havana, and the rest, getting eventually to the mouth of the river near St. Louis but avoiding the disaster known as East St. Louis, gave the future senator a chance to shake the hands he would otherwise have missed, hands that pulled the lever for him and delivered victory to a Democrat even in Ronald Reagan’s landslide year.
Clinton and Gore bused through Upstate in 1992, but Obama isn’t running again. This trip is a campaign to media markets that touch a few Congressional districts that might conceivably swing Democratic in the mid-term election—if middle-aged, middle-class voters with college kids struggling with college debt sit up and pay attention to Republican intransigence and anti-middle-class votes on this issue—because here in the left-behind, post-industrial, shrinking or at least not-growing metros of northern Appalachia, there was some glimmer of political self-awareness, however short-lived, in 2008, when the middle class here last voted Democratic.
And now, for the media-consuming world that is preoccupied with whether the latter-day Nasserites in Cairo will hammer the Muslim Brotherhood with all the American war materiel we give them (including LED headlights, various avionics, servos, K-Bar knives, and other gear manufactured right here in the Buffalo media market), the message may be just this: that even where the population isn’t growing, and even where the incomes aren’t growing, life can be sweet if we go to school—but you’re going to have to wake up and vote for it, because there’s no sunshine when we’re gone.
The no-growth future?
In this recess week, during dormitory move-in, will the overwhelmingly suburban and rural electorate of Upstate hear hopefulness in the president’s message about how to get to the next economy?
Our common experience in Buffalo, Syracuse, Binghamton, and Scranton since Obama was elected, and indeed, for the previous two decades before the 2008 financial markets crash, has not been of the Technicolor Oz of Buffalo-born Harold Arlen’s lyric “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but rather of post-hurricane Kansas. The precipitous fall-off of manufacturing in the region occurred over a very long time, such that goods-making—including supplying homes with manufactured goods like Greek-style yogurt and the Department of Defense with killer apps—is now only about 25 percent of the economic output of the Buffalo, Syracuse, Binghamton, and Scranton metros.
Within this zone of Rust, college students abound. Buffalo and its metro have shrunk by 33,000 people or so since 2000. Binghamton and Scranton are unchanged. The City of Syracuse, like the City of Buffalo, shrunk, but Onondaga County grew by over 8,000 people. Overall, though, Upstate New York and the parts of Pennsylvania that are far from Philadelphia look pretty similar: zero population growth, downward population trends, lots of old folks, not too many babies being born.
Back to my old school
But back to college. The economic impact of keeping people in college is very positive. Talking college in Syracuse and Binghamton means talking economics: The Upstate Medical Center is the largest employer in Syracuse. The combination of private and public colleges in the Syracuse metro extends to nearby Oswego, another major regional publicly funded college. Ditto Binghamton, with its 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students in a city of less than 70,000. Education is business in Upstate.
The 60,000 students in the Buffalo metro area who are in post-secondary education are 60,000 fewer under-employed, under-compensated workforce participants, but they remain, with some constraints, consumers. The rationale for public funding for them is the same today as it was when Presidents Truman and Eisenhower created and expanded the G.I. Bill—to provide some small subsidy, offset by tuition and other user fees, to enhance the skill-sets of the workforce so that the overall skill level rises.
The small upticks in high-end manufacturing in Rochester and Binghamton, and even here in the Buffalo metro, reflect the inputs that created the opportunity for a higher value-added workforce. The fact that manufacturing is no longer a mass activity, as of old, does not mean that the region can do without engineers, technologists, desingers, and even just better-skilled wordsmiths, and what Robert Reich called “symbolic analysts” generally. Obama’s central point—that it is in the national interest to reduce the price-tag of upgrading workforce skills—shouldn’t have to be argued.
The other reality that all the world will be seeing, via the national and international media that ever accompany a presidential visit, is that the new economy of a better-educated workforce currently means a slightly growing rather than a fast-expanding economy—and one that withal needs fewer workers. As harvest time approaches, we see that the harvest is smaller, and also that within this smaller apple there is a nasty little worm called income polarization, a pest planted by Washington, that can only be removed by Washington. Whereas the old manufacturing economy created masses of jobs in a tax and regulatory environment that redistributed income from factory-owners to public amenities like public colleges, the new economy rewards the financiers of factories, depresses the wages of the few workers left in the sector, and shifts more of the costs of human-capital formation to individual students. Changes in tax policy, changes in higher-education budgeting, and changes in international trade rules can be enacted only where Congress works. Or refuses to.
Obama is here to point out where the rainbow is, and what’s at its end. Next year, when Governor Cuomo is up for re-election, so too will be those incumbent Republican Members of Congress who vote to load debt onto students rather than force bankers to help carry the cost, and who would cut taxes even further on the capitalists who have already removed manufacturing from most of Upstate to the low-wage markets where no American could ever compete. The congressional districts where this fight will be fought are here in the Buffalo media market, where Chris Collins and Tom Reed vote against Obama on student loans, healthcare, tax policy, and the weather; the Syracuse area’s Democrat Dan Maffei and Republican Richard Hanna, charitably described as a “rank and file Republican” in that he is intransigently ideological. The Binghamton area is represented by Hanna and also by Christopher Gibson, whose district extends all the way to the Hudson River, which has been a mainly Republican stream, until its Manhattan terminus, since Lincoln.
The Upstate economic landscape is about as various as any in this country. In a region with the population of a Scandinavian nation, there are obsolete Yankee towns that are still alive with niche-crop farms, small manufacturers, dairying, resorts, and Gothamites’ second homes, with brand-new organic farms and with very old food processors who continue to surprise, like Goya Foods in the 1,500-person village of Angola, with their global reach.
The enduring achievement of Nelson Rockefeller, and of governors like him, was to build on that other great and enduring achievement of Abraham Lincoln, who, while freeing the enslaved and also handing out so many millions of acres to his former Springfield clients in the railroad business, created the land-grant university. All those Upstate campuses of New York State’s university provide ongoing economic resiliency in Upstate New York. In Pennsylvania, Penn State’s branchesbuffer the collapse of manufacturing outside Philadelphia. In Michigan, what lies beyond Detroit is the continually erupting volcano of innovation in otherwise flat Ann Arbor, and Michigan State and all the other campuses of that system. Ditto the campus-driven economies of Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, and of course California, and in so many other economically resilent states where Democrats still get elected to Congress.
Where there is no visible skills-enhancing infrastructure in the form of the educational workships that Obama is visiting, there is no sense of economic innovation, nor is there cultural or aesthetic modernism, nor is there invention, and no Democrats or anybody else able to speak a politics of community; where there are no campuses, the politics is red of tooth and claw, dim of bulb, small of mind. There is, sadly, what Karl Marx overstated: only the idiocy of rural life where school doors do not open. Turning the national policy away from rewarding only the financiers for the fruits of land, labor, and life will mean amplifying the political messaging that pro-education, pro-child progressives can articulate, and that pro-capital Republicans have lost the vocabulary to address, a vocabulary with which their own long-spurned progenitor endowed them.
So welcome President Obama as the Lincolnesque figure, the president who speaks of recommitting resources to the young so that the middle-aged and the middle-class do not go bust. The manufacture of talent, not the manufacture of products, is what Obama should have been talking about all along. Now at least he arrives in precisely the right place to do so.
Bruce Fisher is a former deputy executive for Erie County and director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at www.sunypress.edu.