Canton, North Carolina (pop. 4,400) will soon lose its largest employer, a century old paper mill. Layoffs were scheduled to begin on June 9, 2023. Ultimately, 900 mill workers will be out of a job. More than a quarter of the working-age population.
Worse still, if the closure is not prevented, the better part of the region’s remaining workforce will also soon find themselves unemployed. Truck drivers who move materials in and finished products out of the mill will be laid off. Technicians and mechanics who worked on the factory’s various machines will be laid off. Security firms, administrative firms, and other contractors will be let go. Restaurants and bars will go under. Doctors and private practicing professionals will leave. In short order, the skills and specialized knowledge of the mill’s workforce will be lost—making it that much harder to replace the plant in the future. Worst of all, unemployed workers will compete among themselves for what few jobs are left, putting intense downward pressure on wages in the region. Most will never again earn what they once did. The closure will suck all economic activity into its void like a black hole.
There is no more visceral a demonstration of the economic significance of manufacturing than the devastation wrought by its sudden disappearance. Replay this story thousands of times and you can approach where we stand today. Plant closures, off-shoring, and mass layoffs like these have been a staple feature of our economy for the last half-century. The scale of social costs is hard to quantify—though, rates of incarceration, poverty, overdose deaths, and murder offer a statistical approximation.
The collapse of manufacturing also helps explain a great deal of our current political situation. It explains why organized labor has shriveled from a behemoth that represented 1 in 3 workers in the immediate postwar moment, to a fraction of the size, representing only 1 in 10 today. Relatedly, it helps us understand why the Democratic Party has decided to tailor its appeal to urban and suburban professionals and the city-dwelling poor—groups that work on opposite income tails of the service sector in starkly unequal “knowledge cities.” Accommodating themselves to the “New Economy,” liberals see appealing to blue-collar production workers as a lost cause; they are a stubborn economic anachronism, a culturally retrograde relic of a bygone era. Hopefully they’ll soon be extinct.