The Need to Pierce Self-Serving Veils of Economic ‘Expertise.’

The Need to Pierce Self-Serving Veils of Economic ‘Expertise.’

Reviewed by Jacob Howland

Vol. 12, No. 3, 1990, pp. 21-23

Communities in Economic Crisis: Appalachia and the South. Edited by John Gaventa, Barbara Ellen Smith, and Alex Willingham (Temple University Press, 1990. xiii, 301 pp.).

Where should economic policy originate? Whom should it serve? What are its proper goals? The needs of any community include food, clothing, shelter, health care, a clean environment, and a good primary and secondary education for everyone as well as reasonable prospects for decent employment and a rewarding career for those who enter the job market. For many people throughout our nation, however, these basic needs are not being met. Why? Communities in Economic Crisis, which brings together sixteen case studies documenting instances of crisis and response in areas across the South, consistently tells a dismal story of negligence and foolishness (and sometimes worse) on the part of local, state, and federal governments. These studies show that in the current national and global economic environment, communities in the South can no longer place their welfare wholly in the hands of federal representatives and agencies, governors, mayors, development boards, and chambers of commerce.

Perhaps the book’s most important message is that ordinary citizens must penetrate the generally self-serving veil of economic “expertise” claimed by these authorities by providing themselves with a basic understanding of the economy and themselves taking a leading role in the formulation of economic policy. Communities in Economic Crisis offers proof that this essentially democratic education is both possible and politically effective. In addition, the book itself constitutes a substantial contribution to this process of education. This collection of essays is a detailed study of our democracy in action, and while it lays bare its past and present failures it also offers us hope for its future success.

The editors (respectively, a sociologist and MacArthur Fellow, a former research coordinator of the Southeast Women’s Employment Coalition, and a political scientist) have assembled contributions from a diverse group of community activists and academicians, many of whom played key roles in the political, economic, or environmental struggles they describe. The book’s Introduction summarizes the general economic crisis confronting the

Page 22

South (particularly the rural South, with the book is especially concerned). Regions dependent on traditional industries like coal, textiles, and tobacco have been hurt by diminishing markets, technological innovations, and competition with cheaper foreign labor.

During the 1970s, northern manufacturers came to the “smokestack-chasing” South in search of cheap, nonunion labor, but many of these firms have since shifted their plants overseas for the same reason.

So-called “service” industries have been unable to take up the slack, since they can provide neither the quantity nor the quality of employment offered by even low-paying manufacturing jobs: in depressed rural areas, service employment means waiting on tables, washing dishes, and the like. The result is a widespread climate of desperation and fear, in which employers regularly use “economic blackmail”–the threat of individual dismissal or plant relocation–to force workers to accept low-paying, hazardous, dead-end jobs.

Communities in Economic Crisis shows that southern states have regularly been prepared to sell themselves short in order to retain existing industries and attract potential employers. Kentucky, for example, did not allow local governments and school districts to tax mineral wealth as property until 1988, and had only a token state property tax on minerals. The mineral owners–mostly absentee corporations–paid little or no property tax, and as a result the impoverished communities of eastern Kentucky have been unable to afford decent schools and roads, and often lack public water systems and libraries.

Similarly, the state of Tennessee, Maury County, and the town of Spring Hill gave General Motors the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks, job training, and the like in order to entice GM to locate its new Saturn plant in Spring Hill. (Thirty-eight states had courted GM for this plant some offering over a billion dollars in inducements.) Tennesseans were shocked when GM announced that most of the 3,000 jobs at the plant would in fact be filled by out-of-state technicians. In attracting Saturn, Tennessee paid a high price for the mere image of economic recovery.

The book is divided into two parts: “Case Studies of Crisis and Struggle” and “Visions for the Future.” The latter includes essays contrasting development by corporate design with alternative, community-based avenues of economic development. The case studies combine generally careful investigation and research with a documentary style that often lets us hear the voices of those afflicted by hardship and involved in the struggle for change.

The book also includes a number of photographs and two poems arranged from interviews with a miner and a mine-workers’ union organizer. A coalminer tells us what it is like to be a safety inspector in a small, non-union mine, a weaver tells us about employer harassment arising from her support of a union, an illiterate pharmaceutical worker tells us how it felt to be terminated without worker’s compensation benefits after injury on the job. We also hear the voices of those who have successfully defended their communities, like the members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, an organization which helped pass laws imposing property taxes on mineral owners, forbidding strip-mining without the surface-owner’s, consent, and

Page 23

allowing local governments to ban toxic waste plants. The editors have included in an appendix an annotated list of community-based organizations like KFTC.

The contributors are especially concerned with the plight of women and minorities. We learn that if present trends continue, almost all families in poverty by the turn of the century will be women and their children. Women earn far less than men, and tend to be excluded from all but dead-end, non-unionized jobs without unemployment compensation. are articles focusing on women’s attempts to break into coal mining and highway construction and maintenance and on organizing women for local economic development. The latter strategy seems especially promising, since it keeps revenues in the community, and since most new jobs across the nation are being created by small businesses, not large corporations. There is for example, a chapter on the Mayhaw Tree, a model business started by women in Miller County, Georgia, which uses the fruit of local trees to produce gourmet jelly.

Southern blacks are especially subject to economic blackmail. Because they lack the political and economic resources of their white neighbors, black communities in the South have been favorite targets for the location of toxic waste dumps, hazardous industries, and municipal waste-disposal facilities. A chapter entitled “Environmentalism, Economic Blackmail, and Civil Rights” documents this trend, as well as “the emergence of a small but growing cadre of blacks who see environmental issues as civil rights issues.”

Another chapter concerns women and blacks who have been injured in unsafe workplaces and terminated before they were able to collect worker’s compensation or unemployment benefits. Many of the case studies give damning evidence of declining standards in occupational safety and environmental protection during the Reagan years.

As one author suggests, the case studies can help teach how not to pursue regional economic development. While many lessons are drawn in the studies themselves, these are organized and extended in the book’s second part. The essays in this section focus on demystifying and redefining traditional notions of economy and development. These are somewhat uneven. One author, for example, wrongly argues that it was only with the advent of capitalist industrialization that “women alone began to take on child rearing and homemaking as their primary roles.” On the other hand, there are strong pieces, such as a beautifully written chapter which allows us to look at ourselves and our land from the fresh perspective of Creole tradition. Inevitably, the essays return to the questions with which this review began. Concrete answers to these questions, summarized in an “economic bill-of rights,” may provide a common set of goals for citizens’ groups across the nation as well as in the South.

Communities in Economic Crisis is an important book of impressive breadth. One especially hopes it will be read by those who claim to represent the welfare of communities that have fallen on hard times. Among its many virtues, it provides ample proof that economics need not be a dismal science, but can, and must, become a democratic and humane one.

Jacob Howland is on the philosophy faculty at the University of Tulsa.