Friday, December 26, 2014

Regional war

At the height of the civil rights movement,the journalist and historian Gary Wills coined the phrase "the Second Civil War" to describe the federal government's assault on segregation in the South.  Fifty  years ago, Washington and the civil rights movement won two huge victories, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but that was only the beginning of the new struggle between the South and the North.  The white South immediately flexed its political muscle in 1968, giving all its electoral votes save those of Texas to Richard Nixon or George Wallace.  After returning to the Democratic fold in 1976 to elect native son Jimmy Carter, it became pretty solidly Republican from then on.  Virginia, North Carolina and Florida are now swing states, but the rest of the region is almost entirely Republican. 

Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Texas have also grown enormously in population relative to the rest of the country.  In 1964 those states had 64 electoral votes among them.  A belt of industrial states from New York through Pennsylvania and the states on the shores of the Great Lakes had 161.  Now those four southern states have 95, while the northern belt has fallen to 134.  The exception to teh nationwide pattern is California, which already had 40 electoral votes in 1964 and now has 55.  Two days ago the New York Times ran a story about population movements to the South in recent decades, pointing out that many northerners and westerners have realized that housing and energy are much cheaper there, and now return north for the holidays.  Today another story pointed out that when Congress convenes, six of the House's standing committees will be chaired by Texans.

The South has been more backward economically than the North for the whole of American history, and it is still much poorer in per capita income and much more subject to various social pathologies such as teen pregnancy, crime, and poverty.  But in the late nineteenth century the South learned to turn this into an advantage by exploiting cheap labor.   In subsequent decades it managed to move much of the textile industry out of the North.  Those gains have not lasted--those jobs have now moved further south, to foreign countries--but the new service economy has proven even more suitable to this strategy, as I am reminded almost any time that I have to make a customer service call.

Whether you are calling your telephone company or your internet provider, the odds are that you will be connected to someone with a strong southern accent, no matter where you live yourself.  Their competence varies widely, but they cost relatively little.   Other kinds of calls--especially relating to computer hardware--take you much further, usually to somewhere in South Asia.  In today's economy here in the US there must be millions of over-qualified people, including recent college graduates, who would be glad to do those jobs--but they would have to be paid much more.  Since business schools have long since stamped out any feeling of national, much less regional,responsibility among corporate leaders, I doubt any of the leadership thinks to question any of this.

I have been most depressed over the years when I have to deal with customer service for the home delivery of my New York Times, or my subscription to The New York Review of Books.  There are obviously two sacred publications of the northeastern liberal elite.  The Times people are very frustrating to deal with, because they will not allow you to contact the local subcontractors who actually deliver your paper.  (No one knows this, but in 2012-13, when I was a visitor at Williams College, I singlehandedly got the town's Times delivered on time, instead of after 9:00, by making about 30 calls to the 800 number and eventually finding the local subcontractor myself.)  But what is really rather striking is that both the Times and the New York Review call centers are located in Mississippi.  Their employees, particularly those of the New York Review, are intelligent and competent--but it has not occurred to the management of either of these publications, apparently,. that they are contributing to the relative decline of their own region and the culture and values it represents by sending their subscribers' money into the Deep South.  Yes, both publications are surely running deficits, but wouldn't it be worth something to them to keep that money closer to home and help the educated but less-well-off members of their own community?

I had  brief moment of hope some months ago when I had to call my financial services firm, one of the nation's largest.  I was connected to a woman with a strong New York accent.  When we had finished our conversation, I remarked that it was nice, for once, to be connected from some one from my own part of the country. But the joke was on me: she was now living in Arizona.  The northeastern elite seems to have lost any feeling of responsibility towards its less well off neighbors, and they are paying a huge price for this in political influence.


Chris VV said...

I am astonished at the tone of this blog post! So you don't like talking to Southerners? Would you mind talking to Shelby Foote? How about Bill Moyers? Harper Lee? Carson McCullers? I for one don't mind speaking to anyone on the phone as long as they are polite and competent. I am a damn Yankee and proud of it. I have lived int he South for over 50 years and currently reside in Chapel Hill, NC. Chapel Hill is known for not only being the home of the oldest land grant university in the country, but also its courtesy and charm and for being part of the Research Triangle. Look it up.

I am just dumfounded that someone who is an historian isn't more openminded about cultures, national and regional. I truly thought that you would have less regional bias than you display here.

David Kaiser said...

You missed the point of the post. I never said I disliked talking to those southerners, and I said many of them are competent. (That was not true of the US Sprint people I had to deal with, though.) I'm simply angry that publications like the Times and the New York Review would rather save some money with cheap southern labor than support the people in their own communities who need those jobs.

Energyflow said...

You still read print news? I bet not many doing that nowadays.

But just for fun I will ask you , rhetorically of course, to look around your room, house, yard, neighbourhood and say how much of your clothings, furniture, appliances was manufactured, assembled locally, in state, nationally. How many students, neighbours, store employees when you shop, cops on street, other drivers, etc. are born and bred americans without foreign parentage or
grandparentage. How many locals have lived there more than a few years or in the neighbourhood. How much of your eating habits are based on what you ate as a kid, as a young adult. Do you buy fresh local veggies or walmart produce from mexico.

Do you remember your first e-mail or online experience, your first online purchase, forum discussion, blog entry.

How long have such phone services been 1)automated, 2)outsourced out of state(cheap telecoms plus computers since 90s?).

Is any or all of this change in terms of personal mobility, telecoms, goods transport an improvement and for whom.

The south and southwest grow because of aircon, cheap transport, supermarkets, standardized culture(suburbia, supermarkets, fast food chains, big box stores). They are vulnerable to gasoline costs, aircon electricity costs. North vulnerable to heating costs. Burbs all dependent on cheap gas nationwide. Do you have aircon, oil heating, remember not having a fridge and going daily to corner grocery by foot. Do you use a bike for any tansport. Is this at all safe in your area.

Do you get on bus and subways. Did you have to weatherize your home as oil prices climed since 2000 or buy a fuel effiient car. Did you notice weird weather patterns locally not seen by you in your lifetime. Do you feel it has to do
with the easy life of universal availability of cheap transport, prepared foods, interntionall travel and commerce, heating, cooling.

Do you have kids or grandkids who you think will be better off in what is developing. Do you think that the texas and california desert burbs
with aircon, autos, air travel to visit are multigenerational, sustainable reality for those kids who might move there. Should all this globalization, 24 hours 365 lifestyle with any food we want, any infotainment we want, anywhere we want to go remain a reality beyond our lifetimes or will a political and economic resource fight to maintain it be too costly in lives lost on the battlefield and in climate change.

Slavery was convenient for some but had dreadful longterm consequences we live with up till now. The btus in use by one usa
citizen is equivalent to having 100 slaves at 24 hour service. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Modern economic and military power is based on these btus, this power. It is declining in both senses, in toto and per capita. This is the source of declining economic prosperity you read about, of growing poverty, military tensions. We could get used to living without all that convenience and have a good localizedlife, seasonal foods, not 24/365 and save the climate and avoid ww3 but the train has left the station. Someone else is driving. They only see power and money and will fight to the last human and animal and plant life and fish to get more. Too bad.

Bozon said...


Very interesting post. Many thanks.

I don't want to get into the telephone squabbles now under way.

I would just say that I had thought that the South, both in colonial days, and until the Civil War, far from being economically backward (by the primarily agrarian economic principes and metrics of those times), had been the most prosperous and profitable sector of the country, albeit based increasingly on disastrous northern banker financing, and on free trade with Europe rather than with the North.

I guess by economically backward, you mean merely less industrialized...but that is not necessarily how it would have been interpreted in the 17th, or even the early 19th, centuries, anywhere but in places like Manchester, or London, etc.

all the best,

sglover said...


When South Carolina seceded, General Sherman described the South's economic backwardness in his famous prediction of its ultimate result:

You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it... Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.

A few months ago I read an excellent comparative survey ("A House Dividing", John Majewski) of economic development in two counties, one in Virginia and the other in Pennsylvania. Well before the Civil War the wealth, and the sources of wealth, were on two very different trajectories in the two counties. In simple terms, with their sparse consumer populations, regions based on planatation economics were totally barren ground for the development of industry and rail networks. Further, this was widely acknowledged at the time.