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Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America’s Rust Belt, 1969-1984

Author(s):High, Steven
Reviewer(s):Schwab, Robert M.

Published by EH.NET (September 2003)

Steven High, Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America’s Rust Belt, 1969-1984. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. xi + 306 pp. $55 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8020-3738-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robert M. Schwab, Department of Economics, University of Maryland.

This book addresses central issues in the history and contemporary politics of plant closings during the fifteen years between 1969 and 1984. Some of the issues here are economic (what were the root causes of the decline of the Rust Belt?), some are political (why did the U.S. government do so little to stop, or at least slow, plant closings?), some are sociological (what were the consequences of plant closings for workers and their communities?).

There is no empirical work in the book and High makes only limited use of data. I might have organized the book a little differently. I would have begun by offering some summary data that shows just how devastating this period was for the Canadian and U.S. economies in general and the Rust Belt in particular. Some of the sort of evidence I have in mind is scattered through different parts of the book. So in Chapter 4, for example, we learn that employment in the U.S. steel industry fell from 509,000 workers in 1973 to 240,000 in 1983. Telling the reader at the outset that the number of workers in one of the basic manufacturing industries fell by more than half in just ten years would help to set the stage for what is coming in the rest of the book. I am impressed with the range of sources High draws on (how often do books on economic history appeal to the situation comedy All in the Family and Michael Moore’s Roger and Me?). More than twenty major corporations were asked to provide confidential access to their records; as High notes somewhat tongue in cheek, all politely declined.

From my perspective, the 137 oral history interviews conducted with displaced workers in Canada and the United States are clearly the most interesting part of this work. They put a human face on factory closings that cold numbers never could. They make clear the horrific impact of a plant closing on workers and communities such as Youngstown, Ohio and Flint, Michigan. These interviews should make all economists take a careful look at the way we think about economic change. I will remember this part of the book the next time I teach a principles of economics class and talk all too glibly about moving workers from one sector to another in response to, say, international trade; the costs of moving real workers have a very different meaning to me after having read High’s book. More importantly, these interviews tell us something critical about policy. Many economists would be quick to accept plant closings as part of the inevitable need to reallocate resources. These interviews make a powerful case that we need to soften the blows that often come with economic changes, even if such changes are inevitable. As High argues, taking someone’s job can be tantamount to stripping them of their identity.

I am less impressed with the book’s discussion of the history of factory design. Early American factories were starkly different from their European counterparts. High contrasts the nineteenth-century American ideal of a “machine in the garden” with, for example, the British factory’s reputation for “human depravity and wretchedness.” In the twentieth century this distinctly American factory design gave way to the new “rational” factories of unprecedented size; the book offers Ford’s mammoth River Rouge complex completed in 1927 as an example. Now, High argues, the modern industrial park has taken us full circle. While I find some of this material interesting, it is very difficult to see how it fits into the overall purpose of the book. The book has a great deal to say about an important topic; this material strikes me as a distraction.

Chapter 4 presents a strong case of just how complicated this process of deindustrialization was. A broad range of factors led to the decline of the Rust Belt. High does a nice job of discussing some of the villains in this story. He focuses, for example, on the effects of globalization and international competition, the impact of changing technology (for example, the growing importance of the assembly line made multi-story factories obsolete), the role of right to work laws in firm location decisions, and changing tastes (for example, the growing popularity of radial tires contributed to the decline of Akron, Ohio as the rubber capital of the U.S.). I might have added declining transportation costs and communications to this list.

Chapter 6 in some ways is the heart of the book. Here High shows that the Canadian and U.S. responses to the Rust Belt decline were very different. Unions in Canada took a much stronger stance and were active in rallying support and leading the fight to take over plants that were about to close; Canadian governments at all levels were quite willing to adopt legislation designed to slow or stop plant closings. In sharp contrast, U.S. unions were fairly meek and there were few legislative successes; among the states, for example, only Maine, Wisconsin, and Hawaii passed legislation requiring mandatory advance notice of shutdowns or severance pay to senior workers. High argues persuasively that these differences were due to differences in perceptions of the source of the decline. In Canada, the fall of the Rust Belt was seen as a national issue. In particular, Canada viewed U.S. firms that had no stake in the welfare of Canada or Canadians as the source of their economic problems. In sharp contrast, the Rust Belt’s economic troubles were often seen as local issues in the U.S.; these were Youngstown’s and Flint’s problems, not the nation’s problems. Clearly, if High’s characterization is correct, it should not be surprising that it was far more difficult to muster support for a policy response in the U.S. After all, a key factor in the rise of the Sun Belt was the fall of the Rust Belt. It is hard to see how to test this hypothesis empirically since in essence we have just this single experience. Nonetheless, I find the argument compelling.

In all, this book is a valuable addition to the literature on deindustrialization. It will be of interest to a broad audience that includes policymakers, political scientists, historians, regional scientists, economists, and sociologists.

Robert M. Schwab is a professor of economics at the University of Maryland. His research focuses on regional growth, education, and state and local public finance.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII