"My uncle was laid off from that American Standard plant"

A reader's tale of globalization, Ohio, and a shuttered toilet bowl factory

Published February 27, 2008 12:41AM (EST)

A plethora of excellent reader comments on "The Dangerous Protectionism of Barack Obama" today, but one post, by a reader who signs himself "Calcareous," stands out. It's not every day that How the World Works references a toilet manufacturer in Tiffin, Ohio and inspires commentary from a reader whose uncle worked there.

As it happens, I am originally from Ohio, and Tiffin is the hometown of my mother's family. My uncle was laid off from that plant.

A little Ohio history for those who might not know it. Immediately after the Revolutionary War, soldiers were paid with land grants, the hitch being the land was on the other side of the Appalachians and occupied by a relatively coherent native population. No matter, these were battle hardened veterans and not afraid of a fight, and in not too much time the prior inhabitants had been killed or driven out.

Ohio was one of the first states in the midwest to gain statehood (1803) and advantages of geography (level terrain, good farmland, navigable rivers) allowed it to grow more quickly than Kentucky and Tennessee. As westward expansion continued, many small towns sprang up centered around small manufacturing facilities, and these factories produced the goods that fueled the continued growth of the U.S. Localized production was easier and cheaper than shipping them over the mountains from the east. Even while some of the towns grew into large cities, other smaller ones remained, and continued to produce goods in certain local specialized industries where they had the skilled labor to support it. In addition to porcelain for toilets, Tiffin was also well known for its glass production, another industry that since has fallen to distant competition, closing in 1984.

While glad to see mention of this story for personal reasons, I think it is a good example of what seems to be happening in many parts of the country. In Tiffin, skilled laborers of my mother's generation are being forced into early retirement, or are underemployed. The local economy is stagnant, and with the departure of local manufacturing, there really aren't any opportunities to make a decent wage. Most of the young people move away to find better opportunities, and the few that don't end up stuck in low paying service industries. The older people, who have their wealth tied up in their homes, are trapped by a stagnant market. Many of them seem to have hunkered down and are "toughing it out", but I can't see what improvements might be on the horizon. What will the future of this town look like?

Watching Ohio politics from afar, I've been struck by the sad irony that while people seem to have a sense that their way of life is slipping away, they don't seem to have a good grip on the reasons why. Ready to cast the blame on something, the degeneration of moral values has proved a suitable scapegoat, and I've watched Ohio change from a "blue" state to a "red" one as politicians exploit this. But it is the globalization of industry that is bringing an end to their way of life, not gay people who want to marry, or the availability of abortion.

While globalization makes good sense on the macro scale, it produces much pain on the micro scale. If you are Mitt Romney, you can do very well by it, but if you are my uncle, it will take food off your table.

I can't help but wonder as the cost of energy and transport grows as it surely must, if we won't regret outsourcing our production capacity, and letting the skill set of our workforce atrophy. If we end up paying more for the expense of goods shipped from abroad, this won't be to our benefit in the long run. It seems short sighted to me, which on observing the American approach to economics, sounds like about what I'd expect.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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