A Conversation with Dr. Chad Broughton

On January 13th, The Gate’s Neal Jochmann interviewed Chad Broughton, Senior Lecturer of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.  Broughton is currently on a book tour to promote his new book Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities, which tells the story of a Maytag refrigerator plant that re-located from Galesburg, Illinois to Reynosa, Mexico.  Broughton discussed this story at International House’s “Global Voices” lecture series. Before his presentation, Broughton sat down with the Gate to answer questions about American manufacturing, ethnography, and the reporting process.


N: So I’d like to start by asking you about Bruce Rauner, who was sworn in Monday as the governor of Illinois. Is there anything the Rauner administration can do to address the rapid loss of manufacturing jobs in places like Galesburg?

C: I don’t know, I haven’t really been following his platform that closely… in the 2000s, we lost 5.8 million manufacturing jobs; Illinois was hit especially hard, with something like 35 or 36 percent of its industrial base just gone, in that one decade. So we’ve been hearing about deindustrialization since the seventies, of course, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that it really hit hard, and I think there are limits to what a state can do about these big trends, but there has been some good progress nationally. Over the last twelve to fifteen months, we’ve had manufacturing growth in each of those months. And so, after this steep decline in the 2000s, we have a little tail pointing up, and that’s positive.

I think what has to happen is to combine federal, state, and local efforts. One example I can point you to is Newton, Iowa, where city government [and] state government, along with a federal production tax credit, were able to kickstart a wind energy industry in Iowa. It’s been very successful. And in fact––this book [Boom, Bust, Exodus] is about Maytag leaving Illinois and the Midwest––that wind tower factory [in Newton, Iowa] is actually an old Maytag laundry plant. It’s such a great example of how you need public policy [and] coordinated efforts to help kickstart something new when the old industries fail. It’s such a great symbol, right? The wind tower factory right in the old laundry plant, in Iowa. And so, I’m not sure what Rauner’s going to do with manufacturing, but at least nationally we’re headed in the right direction.

N: One of my favorite sayings from the prologue of the book was the Mexican saying: “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” In the news, one frequently hears about drug cartel violence, and I was wondering: to what extent is that a distance from God and to what extent is that a closeness to the United States? With regard to the cartels and to the Maquilas,* what role do we play?

* Maquilas, also known as maquiladoras, are Mexican factories that import parts and materials duty-free and ship finished products.

C: Oh, that’s such a good question, and it’s such a complicated one, and once you get to chapter seventeen, I think you’ll see that I hint at an answer, although, you know, this is about North American economic integration. There’s been so much happening in the last twenty years that it’s difficult to say that all the population and industrial growth at the US-Mexico border has [simply] led to more violence. But I think you can say that the growth has been fairly out of control and chaotic, and there hasn’t been enough planning around it, from either the Mexican side or the US side. And so what you have is an area along the stretch that has become conducive to that kind of criminality, and in some ways I think [that growth] incubated it.

I talked to a former governor of Coahuila, which is a border state. He was governor during the initial NAFTA period in the nineties, and he said that the root of the problem is the maquiladora problem, and––this is chapter seventeen [of the book]––and basically he said that all these young women [used to] work in these maquilas, assembling televisions and auto components in the eighties and nineties…when their kids grew up, there was nothing for them. [The governor of Coahuila believed that] “the market solves everything,” he’d been trained at the economics department at Penn, that was what he had learned and, like so many other Mexicans trained at elite economics programs who came back, said “let’s let the market take care of everything, let’s just bring in foreign investment and things will take care of themselves.”

That has not turned out to be a good strategy. You need government to help shape markets and support balanced and more even growth than what we’ve seen at the border. So I think that you can pin some of that [violence] on the lack of thoughtful planning around this really rapid growth. Also, Americans want their drugs. It’s really the demand from Americans that is driving a lot of this. We’ll see what happens with legalization efforts here, if that changes the dynamic somehow.

N: That’s very interesting, This is also early in the book, but there was a quote from [US economist] John Kenneth Galbraith, from a book in the fifties, calling for a heightened investment by America in its people. Do American companies currently invest excessively in material, and insufficiently in the workforce? Would government-subsidized higher education be an effective way of upping that investment and creating more skilled workers?

C: I don’t know, I’m not really an expert on that, but I think companies do invest a lot in their workers, especially in Silicon Valley. [Those companies] invest a ton in their workforce, and keep them happy. I think what we need to concentrate on is the two-thirds of the workforce that doesn’t have a college education. What are the pathways for them? How are they going to contribute usefully in this new economy? Because really, the foundation of any well-functioning society is its jobs. So, how are we going to invest in those people, to make sure that they can move up from low-skill jobs to medium-skill jobs? I was really happy, this week, to hear that President Obama made an announcement about community colleges…

N: He made that announcement in my hometown of Knoxville! So it was on my mind.

C: Oh great! See, I notice that he really does seem to care about that issue: what are we going to do with this group? How do we continue to have avenues for upward mobility in America? A lot of people in this book actually experience the reversal of the American dream: downward mobility. And that is very difficult to deal with psychologically. So it’s a good question, and it sounds like the administration, at least, is moving in the right direction. He [President Obama] always seems to face a brick wall when he tries to do anything, though.

N: So the ideal situation might be investment both in higher education and in industries like wind energy?

C: Yes, we are the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t have an industrial policy. We have reports here and there on manufacturing, but there’s so much still to do in manufacturing. We’ll always need it––it’s the driver of innovation, and so we need to think coherently about industrial policy…We need a plan. Japan had a plan: they protected and developed Toyota. South Korea had a plan: they protected and developed Samsung. Now they can stand on their own, right? I think you need that kind of policy in order to make new areas of the economy grow.

N: What do you think will be the long-term effect on US labor markets of President Obama’s recent executive order on immigration?

C: The labor market between the United States and Mexico has been separate, in a way, because there’s a big wall, well, not entirely across the border, but there’s a symbolic wall. And since IRCA [Immigration Reform and Control Act] in 1986, I believe, we’ve really focused on border security. When NAFTA was implemented in 1994, alongside that freeing of capital and goods to move across the border, you had border crackdowns at the same time. So unlike the European Union, where there is the guaranteed right of persons to move freely, in America you have economic integration except for labor. So I think [Obama’s executive order] is a step toward a more integrated labor market, which would make sense given what we’re doing, what we have been doing for the last twenty years, which is economic integration.

*Immigration Reform and Control Act

N: There was a question I wanted to ask of you, as a writer: one of the most entertaining parts of reading Boom, Bust, Exodus is the novelistic tone, and the Dickensian allusion. Can a nonfiction work be as shocking and galvanizing as a Grapes of Wrath or Tale of Two Cities? What would a current analogue to such politically-charged works address, and what do you think it would galvanize its readers to do, today?

C: Oh, well, it would address inequality, just as Dickens did and just as The Grapes of Wrath did. I think, fundamentally, this [Boom, Bust, Exodus] is a book about inequality. I’m like you, I like creative nonfiction. I tried it myself––with this book I tried to appeal to a general audience, but also hoping to please my colleagues in sociology and the social sciences. But this was a labor of love for me. I think too many of us sociologists write for each other, and prose can become leaden, jargon-filled and not really interesting. I think if we’re going to be relevant we should at least try to write for a broader audience. There’s a debate about this in sociology, a public sociology debate: “should we be more public, [or] should we be more specialized, focus on methods and try to be more rigorous?” I try to toe the line. It’s a fine balance though, and I was always worried about failing both tasks: the general public could think it’s too sociological and sociologists could think it’s too general-public. But we’ll have to see what people think.

N: There are figures in the book like F. L. Maytag who recall the Andrew Carnegie welfare-capitalist mindset. If that’s alive in America, where is it? Is that in Silicon Valley or elsewhere?

C: I think you do see it here and there, actually. There are a lot of employers that really take care of their employees. I’m trying to think of some examples––I mentioned Google earlier, they’re kind of the monster in Silicon Valley. People may have strong feelings either way about them, but it’s a good place to work, right? Free Indian food and ping-pong sounds pretty good. So I think that business leaders in those kinds of cutting-edge industries do think about their employees in a different way than some of the more conservative businesses, like oil, do. A lot of companies have stuck it out. You have Harley-Davidson in Wisconsin making really good products, including workers in decision-making, in how the line’s set up, and so forth. John Deere is another example of a traditional company that kind of grew up on the farm, and has weathered globalization, has moved some of its jobs abroad, but is still based in Moline, Illinois. Then there’s Caterpillar––they’ve also globalized, they’ve taken some of their jobs overseas but still have their headquarters in Peoria, Illinois. But [Boom, Bust, Exodus] is about appliances, and there are a lot of appliance-makers that have stuck it out here as well.

N: I’m wondering about your relationship with the town of Galesburg. Over your time going there, how do you feel toward it, you and your family?

C: I lived there for five years. I moved there in 2001, after I finished up at the department of sociology here and moved to Knox College for five years. I feel a very strong affection toward Galesburg. I still have a lot of friends there, both from Knox College and also former Maytag workers who put up with me for twelve years now. I’ve been digging into their lives and their stories for twelve years, and they’ve been very generous in telling me all they’ve told me. Now I consider a great many of them friends. I’m rooting for them, I’m rooting for Galesburg, and I’m rooting for Knox College, it’s a great place. And I feel like a chunk of it’s right in there [points to book]. It’s a piece of me, really.

N: I’m sure the citizens of Galesburg and towns like it are very grateful for the work you’ve done with the book.

C: I went down there for a book signing in December––I wanted to start it [the tour] there. And it was great, everybody that came was very supportive, a lot of them actually did say thank you for writing this book, but on Facebook the night before some people were like, “I’m not buying that book!” You know, there’s a debate about it! Which is really, really interesting. So some people are saying “I don’t want to revisit that, I don’t want to go back to that time, I’m not going to read that book, count me out.”

N: There’s a thing in the book about people dividing their lives into two halves: before and after the “announcement.”* *The announcement that the plant would be closed

C: Yeah, that’s kind of true! And they don’t often want to revisit that [first half].

N: It’s interesting, in writing the book, in a way you’re having to cull up, maybe, a worse time.

C: People felt that, took it really hard. As I’m going to discuss in the talk, I didn’t really get that at first.