Category Archive 'Time and Change'

09 Apr 2017

Cornell Prof Has Good News For Us Hicks

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North Main Street, Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, just a bit before my time. It still looked just like this when I was a boy.

Cornell Economic historian Louis Hyman strokes his chin in the New York Times, points out to the rest of us peons the economic realities that everybody already knows, and then assures Red State Trump supporters who prefer small towns to the metropolis that they can do just fine after all.

We need merely get used to doing without buildings, streets, theaters, bars, and churches, and make ourselves comfortable in electronic neighborhoods on Internet social media, while making a good living marketing our quaint custom handicrafts to the international luxury market on-line.

Isn’t it easy to solve these things from your departmental office at Cornell?

Throughout the Rust Belt and much of rural America, the image of Main Street is one of empty storefronts and abandoned buildings interspersed with fast-food franchises, only a short drive from a Walmart.

Main Street is a place but it is also an idea. It’s small-town retail. It’s locally owned shops selling products to hardworking townspeople. It’s neighbors with dependable blue-collar jobs in auto plants and coal mines. It’s a feeling of community and of having control over your life. It’s everything, in short, that seems threatened by global capitalism and cosmopolitan elites in big cities and fancy suburbs.

Mr. Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again,” but it could just as easily have been “Bring Main Street Back.” Since taking office, he has signed an executive order designed to revive the coal industry, promised a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and continued to express support for tariffs and to criticize globalism and international free trade. “The jobs and wealth have been stripped from our country,” he said last month, signing executive orders meant to improve the trade deficit. “We’re bringing manufacturing and jobs back.”

But nostalgia for Main Street is misplaced — and costly. Small stores are inefficient. Local manufacturers, lacking access to economies of scale, usually are inefficient as well. To live in that kind of world is expensive.

This nostalgia, like the frustration that underlies it, has a long and instructive history. Years before deindustrialization, years before Nafta, Americans were yearning for a Main Street that never quite existed. . . . The fight to save Main Street, then as now, was less about the price of goods gained than the cost of autonomy lost. . . .

To save Main Street, state lawmakers in the 1930s passed “fair trade” legislation that set floors for retail prices, protecting small-town manufacturers and retailers from big business’s economies of scale. These laws permitted manufacturers to dictate prices for their products in a state (which is where that now-meaningless phrase “manufacturer’s suggested retail price” comes from); if a manufacturer had a price agreement with even one retailer in a state, other stores in the state could not discount that product. As a result, chain stores could no longer demand a lower price from manufacturers, despite buying in higher volumes.

These laws allowed Main Street shops to somewhat compete with chain stores, and kept prices (and profits) higher than a truly free market would have allowed. At the same time, workers, empowered by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, organized the A. & P. and other chain stores, as well as these buttressed Main Street manufacturers, so that they also got a share of the profits. Main Street — its owners and its workers — was kept afloat, but at a cost to consumers, for whom prices remained high.

But this world was unsustainable. It unraveled in the 1960s and 1970s, as fair trade laws were repealed, manufacturers discovered overseas suppliers and unions came undone. On Main Street, prices came down for shoppers, but at the same time, so did wage growth. Main Street was officially dead.

It’s worth noting that the idealized Main Street is not a myth in some parts of America today. It exists, but only as a luxury consumer experience. Main Streets of small, independent boutiques and nonfranchised restaurants can be found in affluent college towns, in gentrified neighborhoods in Brooklyn and San Francisco, in tony suburbs — in any place where people have ample disposable income. Main Street requires shoppers who don’t really care about low prices. The dream of Main Street may be populist, but the reality is elitist. “Keep it local” campaigns are possible only when people are willing and able to pay to do so.

In hard-pressed rural communities and small towns, that isn’t an option. This is why the nostalgia for Main Street is so harmful: It raises false hopes, which when dashed fuel anger and despair. President Trump’s promises notwithstanding, there is no going back to an economic arrangement whose foundations were so shaky. In the long run, American capitalism cannot remain isolated from the global economy. To do so would be not only stultifying for Americans, but also perilous for the rest of the world’s economic growth, with all the attendant political dangers. …

Many rural Americans, sadly, don’t realize how valuable they already are or what opportunities presently exist for them. It’s true that the digital economy, centered in a few high-tech cities, has left Main Street America behind. But it does not need to be this way. Today, for the first time, thanks to the internet, small-town America can pull back money from Wall Street (and big cities more generally). Through global freelancing platforms like Upwork, for example, rural and small-town Americans can find jobs anywhere in world, using abilities and talents they already have. A receptionist can welcome office visitors in San Francisco from her home in New York’s Finger Lakes. Through an e-commerce website like Etsy, an Appalachian woodworker can create custom pieces and sell them anywhere in the world.

Americans, regardless of education or geographical location, have marketable skills in the global economy: They speak English and understand the nuances of communicating with Americans — something that cannot be easily shipped overseas. The United States remains the largest consumer market in the world, and Americans can (and some already do) sell these services abroad.

02 Dec 2016

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Oldest Manufacturing Company in Britain, Closing Its Doors

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whitechappelbellfoundry
Rafe Heydel-Mankoo shared some sad news.

Does any city have a sound more instantly recognisable than the toll of Big Ben? The mighty bell’s unmistakable hourly peal and the familiar Westminster Chime of its sister bells (“All through this hour; Lord, be my guide; And by Thy power; No foot shall slide”) are famous throughout the world, immediately conjuring up evocative images of a foggy day in old London town.

Bells have echoed through London’s soundscape for centuries.

When London was a walled city, church bells rang out the curfew every evening to signal the locking of the city gates. Traditionally, true cockneys are said to be born within earshot of “Bow Bells” (the bells of the church of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside), and generations of children have grown up singing “Oranges and Lemons say the bells of St. Clements”, a nursery rhyme identifying the bells of various City churches.

Since 1570 many of London’s most important bells have been produced by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the oldest manufacturing company in Britain and the most famous bell manufacturer in the world.

In 1752 America’s famous Liberty Bell was struck here and just over a century later, in 1858, the Foundry cast Big Ben, its most famous bell. Visitors to the Whitechapel premises walk through a cross section of Big Ben upon entering the front door.

Over the centuries, the bells of the Whitechapel Foundry have rung out over cities as far afield as imperial St. Petersburg, Chennai, Washington DC and Toronto.

Alas, I am sad to announce that despite this magnificent history, after over two centuries in the same ancient building, this great London institution is to extinguish its Whitechapel furnace and close its doors forever in May 2017. The building is likely to be sold. What will become of the almost 450 year old company remains to be seen.

Read the whole thing.

08 Jul 2016

Yale Names New Residential College “Heads” and Reveals New Heraldry

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NewCollegeCOAs
Somebody-You-Never-Heard-of College (left) and Benjamin Franklin College (right).

Yale News:

The inaugural heads of Yale’s two new residential colleges have been announced by President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway. Charles Bailyn, professor of astronomy and physics, will be the head of Benjamin Franklin College, and Tina Lu, professor of East Asian languages and literatures, will be the head of Pauli Murray College.

The new colleges will be finished by the time the incoming Class of 2021 arrives on campus. …

Bailyn has been a member of the Yale community since his undergraduate years, earning his B.S. in astronomy and physics from Yale College in 1981 [ Calhoun – JDZ ] and later returning to campus in 1990 to join the faculty ranks. In 2010 he was named the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of Astronomy and Physics. From 2011 to 2016 he served as the inaugural dean of the faculty of Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

In his research, Bailyn studies black holes and related sources of celestial X-rays, as well as dense star clusters and the effects of collisions between stars. His work on measuring the masses of black holes was awarded the 2009 Bruno Rossi Prize from the American Astronomical Society, and he has carried out research with a wide variety of ground- and space-based telescopes, including NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. …

As a Yale undergraduate, Bailyn was awarded the George Beckwith Prize in astronomy and was an avid participant in the a cappella singing scene. Salovey and Halloway noted in their letter that Bailyn considers becoming a pitchpipe of the Duke’s Men at the age of 19 one of the highlights of his undergraduate experience. After completing his Yale College degree, he pursued graduate work at the University of Cambridge and at Harvard University, receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1987 and spending three years as a member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows before returning to Yale as an assistant professor of astronomy. He has served both as chair and as director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Astronomy and was a member of the 2001-03 Committee on Yale College Education, which reviewed Yale’s undergraduate curriculum. He twice chaired the Teaching, Learning, and Advising Committee in Yale College. In his five years at Yale-NUS, he led the recruitment of more than 100 faculty members and supervised the development of the college’s common curriculum.

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Tina Lu joined Yale’s Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures (EALL) in 2008, with a secondary appointment in the Department of Comparative Literature. She has served as EALL’s director of graduate studies (from 2009-2010), director of undergraduate studies (2012-2013), and chair (2013-present). In 2009 she was a visiting professor with the Yale-PKU program in Beijing; since 2013 she has been a consulting faculty member to Yale-NUS College, where she taught as a visiting professor in spring 2015.

Specializing in Chinese literature from 1550 to 1750, Professor Lu has written three books — one on personal identity, one on the nature of the human community, and the most recent (still being completed) about materiality. Noted Salovey and Holloway: “In the course of them, she has discussed a portrait that comes to life, optical illusions, and stories about severed heads!” Her current work examines time travel and its pre-modern antecedents. With colleagues at other universities in art history and social history, she is also at work on a collaborative book about Xu Wei, the 16th-century polymath, playwright, and painter.

One of her major ongoing projects is The Ten Thousand Rooms, a web-based platform she is developing with grant support from the Mellon Foundation (and in collaboration with her colleague Mick Hunter) that will allow scholars around the world to work together on the transcription, translation, and commentary of pre-modern Chinese sources. She has been an invited speaker and panelist at dozens of universities and other forums in the United States and internationally. In 2009, she was awarded the Gustav Ranis Prize for Best Book on an International Subject by a Yale Faculty Member, and from 2005 to 2011 she was a Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellow. She has served on numerous Yale advisory groups, from the Humanities Program Executive Committee to the Digital Humanities Executive Committee to the Yale-NUS Advisory Committee and Curriculum Review Committee. Her undergraduate courses include EALL 200, “The Chinese Tradition,” an overview of Chinese culture and history from antiquity to the 20th century.

Lu earned her A.B. (in East Asian languages and civilizations) and Ph.D. (in comparative literature) from Harvard University. Prior to coming to Yale, she was a member of the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania from 1998 to 2008, earning tenure in 2004.

Yale’s residential college “heads” seem to be younger these days, not as distinguished as they used to be, and more commonly chosen on the basis of “diversity” (what some of us would call: favoritism), but Professor Bailyn looks to me like a decent choice. At least he’s a Yalie.

Professor Lu, appropriately for her new college, is diverse. But, at least, she has eccentric areas of academic study, so I suppose they could do worse.

What is up, however, with these new college coats of arms?

College and universities customarily assume the arms of their namesake. Benjamin Franklin had a real coat of arms, complete with dolphins no less. Why on earth aren’t they using it?

Whatever-her-name-was, doubtless, had no coat of arms, so Yale is free, I suppose, to invent one and confer it on her, but Yale ought to be aware that these are referred to coats of arms or armorial achievements, not “shields.” And unmarried ladies’ arms are displayed on a lozenge (a diamond) or an oval, and not upon a shield.

Yale can’t even do heraldry right today. Sigh.

BenjaminFranklinCOA
Benjamin Franklin’s real coat of arms, blazoned: Argent on a bend between two lions’ heads erased gules, a dolphin embowed of the first between two martlets or.

01 Jun 2015

St. Nicholas Breaker Under Demolition

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StNicholasBreaker375
The St. Nicholas Breaker in its operating days.(click on picture for larger image)

The old St. Nicholas Coal Breaker, built 1930-1931, once the largest and most productive coal breaker in the world, is being demolished this year, after sitting idle and abandoned for over 50 years.

WNEP story

UndergroundMiners.com remembers:

The St. Nicholas Breaker, located just out side of Mahanoy City, was constructed in 1931 and began operating in 1932. Half of the village of Suffolk was relocated in order to create room for the largest coal breaker in the world. 20 miles of railroad track were laid, 3,800 tons of steel and more than 10,000 cubic yards of concrete were used. A mile and a half of conveyor lines, 25 miles of conduit, 26,241 square feet of rubber belting, 118 miles of wire and cable and 20 miles of pipe were installed. When they constructed the breaker, they split it into two sides and each side could be operated independently, producing 12,500 tons of coal a day. The coal, once dumped, took just 12 minutes to pass through the entire breaker.

More photos.

st-nicholas-coal-breaker
More recent photo of abandoned breaker.

17 May 2015

Coal Region Ghost Towns

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GhostShenandoah
An elderly woman walks past the ruins of the former high school in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.

WNEP 16 reports that several once-thriving communities in Northeastern Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Region, including my own boyhood hometown, all one-time mining boom towns, are discovering that, after their economic raison d’être has disappeared, the population vanishes as well.

[S]ome communities in our region are fast becoming virtual ghost towns.

The proof comes from the 2010 U.S. Census which found in three area communities more than 25 percent of the homes and businesses sit vacant.

The three communities are in the heart of the coal region. All experienced population and employment losses in recent years that left hundreds of vacant houses and storefronts.

In Mahanoy City, Schuykill County, according to the U.S. Census, 26.3 percent of its homes sit vacant.

Just a block from the main street a home is selling for less than a price of a used car.

Shamokin, Northumberland County also has a vacancy rate of 26.3 percent. Afternoon traffic rarely stops on downtown blocks that increasingly see buildings for rent or for sale.

Shenandoah has the region’s highest vacancy rate at 28.9 percent. …

Empty lots. Empty businesses that closed years ago.

“It’s a great little town, but it has an image problem,” said realtor Erica Ramus. She has a hard time selling property in Shenandoah. “I’ve brought people up here to show them downtown properties as far as commercial, and the comment I’ve heard is, ‘Why would I want to move my business to a dying old coal town?’”

A typical Shenandoah block consists of an empty building, another vacant storefront, a doctor’s office, another vacant storefront, then a bank branch. People downtown said the neighborhoods are even bleaker. …

A drive through Shenandoah’s east side finds abandoned, unlivable homes. Others sit vacant for years, with little hope of finding a buyer.

A rowhome for sale is covered with newspapers from the year 2000.

“They’re not dead, but they’re certainly ill,” said Wilkes University economics professor Tony Liuzzo. He said the communities spiraling downward where jobs and people leave and vacant homes stay vacant.

“There’s an increase in pressure on the individuals who are remaining there and, of course, you don’t want to be the last one left holding the bag, so to speak,” Liuzzo added.

John Dopkin calls his east side Shenandoah block the loneliest place imaginable.

“I have no friends, all my friends are gone. I just lost my wife a year ago, and I’m waiting to go myself,” Dopkin added.

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16 Mar 2013

Plus ça Même Chose

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John Derbyshire

John Derbyshire is getting on in years, which enables him to notice that, over the course of a human lifetime, a lot of things do not actually change at all.

The necktie I wore to a minor local function last night was one my mother gave me for my sixteenth birthday in 1961. True, I am not a fashion plate, but nobody noticed the tie. It’s a plain four-in-hand tie, not a bow tie, puff tie, ascot, kerchief, stock, cravat, or ruff. It took us five centuries to get from the ruff to the necktie, but nothing much was changing for most of those years, and nothing much has changed since the necktie arrived in my grandfather’s time. Karl Marx and Thomas Kuhn got that much right, at least: Most change is sharp, revolutionary, and discontinuous. In between changes, we coast.

In large social and political matters, we have been stuck in a rut since the early 1960s, as Mandela-olatry illustrates. That slight Thatcher-Reagan detour notwithstanding, managerial socialism is still the ruling economic orthodoxy for practical purposes. If Paul Krugman were to be indisposed, we could have the cryogenics lab revivify J. K. Galbraith to write Krugman’s New York Times columns; nobody would notice the difference. One thing that makes geezers such as me weary of politics is that today’s orthodoxies are the same as those of our student days, only now there is no elite opposition.

21 Dec 2008

“Pass and Be Forgotten With the Rest”

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The Whiffenpoofs of 2005 at Mory’s

Old Blues thought it was depressing when the Yankee Doodle closed last January.

Well, things can get worse.

When students return after winter break, Mory’s, beset like General Motors with overly generous union contracts precluding any prospect of profitability, will have shut down, possibly permanently.

Mory’s, a 19th century bar and hangout of Yale undergraduates, upon the retirement of its beloved proprietor Louis Linder in 1912, was purchased by alumni, moved bodily from Temple Street (where it was in the way of development) to a new location on York Street, and transformed into a private club.

Yale undergraduates became eligible to purchase life memberships upon arriving at the dignity of Sophomore year. Membership was restricted in the first half of the last century to the rich, white, and Protestant, but by the 1950s, all Yale undergraduates were admitted.

Mory’s made permanent enemies of a large number of its members in the early 1970s when its board levied an unprecedented assessment intended to pay legal fees for resistance to coeducation. Yale had coeducated its student body in 1970. If you didn’t pay your assessment, Mory’s revoked your membership. A lot of Yale alumni did not support the males-only membership policy, or objected to an assessment they had no opportunity to vote on, and refused to pay.

Back in the 1970s, the union made Mory’s close in the early evening, shortening work hours, but permanently ending late night undergraduate conviviality and reducing business.

The rise of Puritanism and Paternalism more recently restored the 21 year old drinking age, reduced to 18 in the days of the Boomer generation’s youth. National attention was increasingly directed by the media to undergraduate mishaps resulting from alcohol, and the Yale administration and the police responded by stepping up enforcement of underage drinking prohibition.

It’s not easy making a go of it as an alleged undergraduate club, if you don’t let most undergraduates drink. Yale bureaucrats and urban haute bourgeoisie in provincial and decaying New Haven are not adequate as a replacement customer base, and the fatal influence of bien pensant liberal politics gave away the farm to the waiters’ union years ago.

The Yale Daily News talks about “updating,” “modernizing,” and getting into step with the spirit of the age, but the handwriting of doom has been overlaying undergraduate graffiti on the oak panelling in the old Temple Bar for years.

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In memory of the old Mory’s, listen to Rudy Vallee (Y 1927) singing The Whiffenpoof Song 3:13 video


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