America’s Most Fragile

Book review: Glass House, by Brian Alexander

Journalist Brian Alexander is a native of Lancaster, Ohio, a city highlighted by Forbes in 1947 with the shining, post-war pride declaration, “This is America.”

Now it’s one of many towns in America’s Rust Belt that’s fallen victim to plagues of misfortune in recent decades – the restructuring and eventual closures of big companies, leading to economic bust and rampant opiate abuse. These towns were once industrial powerhouses, now reduced to low-paying work that barely pay the rent for most, forcing them to wait tables after they finish full-time teaching jobs.

Alexander offers an insider’s look into his hometown, the book focusing solely on what went wrong in one place, but as he points out, “whatever had happened to Lancaster had happened everywhere else, too.” Just one example in a recognizable formula. If it served as a microcosm defining postwar industrial boom America in 1947, then today it’s just as illustrative of where America’s hurting.

Lancaster’s biggest employer was Anchor Hocking, a Fortune 500 glassware company with global reach. We see how this booming company was able to save itself financially through corporate maneuverings, but left the town of its founding utterly broken.

All the usual culprits are here: foreign manufacturing undercutting American prices, Mexicans bussed in to do basic jobs cheaper, cut taxes meaning not enough money left over for public schools, corrupt politicians, corporate private equity raiders running amok, overworked and exhausted native sons and daughters, too many minimum wage or below it jobs, frustration and desperation turning to drugs and drug trafficking, babies born to impoverished parents on drugs and welfare.

As Alexander puts it, “The people of Lancaster, largely in the dark about the goings-on inside Anchor and EveryWare…developed theories about how the situation had become so dire. Some blamed China, Mexico, and cheap imports. Some suggested that Anchor Hocking was just old and tired, ready for the fossil beds. Maybe it was the housing bubble and the recession, or the unions, or Obama. It was complicated, that’s for sure.”

Then, inevitably, come drugs. Unable to connect the dots between economic wreckage and drug use and trafficking, the residents are confused, angry, unwilling to try to understand. It’s not only them; again, this is a familiar narrative in small towns throughout the country, with a disproportionately high concentration of them in this and nearby areas.

“It was always the drugs. The drugs had come into Lancaster from the outside. And the weaknesses and moral failings of the drug takers led to their committing crimes. The story was neat, symmetrical, easily understood. There seemed to be an almost desperate need to preserve it as dogma. Believing in it was as necessary as believing in the rightness of America, because if you didn’t adopt the story, you might be forced to consider the idea that something had gone rotten in the heart of the all-American town – and, just maybe, in America itself.”

There’s an eerie sense of foreshadowing because we know how this all turns out, what the frustrations and anger and resentment and exhaustion are leading to. Donald Trump is mentioned and you just knew it was coming – these were all his pain points that he hit on constantly along the campaign trail, and most of the people in these impoverished regions were downtrodden and desperate enough to buy it hook, line and sinker.

But you see what they’re facing, where they’ve been and what their choices and options look like: not good. There’s an idea that people should just abandon these failing, floundering towns, but that’s not always economically sound or financially feasible. And they just don’t want to. This was their home, their family’s home, the way things always were and what real alternative exists?

“People worked hard, but most believed they’d made a fair deal. You could walk off the high school graduation stage on Saturday and walk into a plant on Monday, where you could stay for the next forty years. The company would make you a mechanic, a millwright, an electrician, a machine operator, a mold maker, a salesman. You’d do bone-wearying work, but there were the perks, too, like the company softball, baseball, golf and bowling teams; the company choir and drama clubs; the insurance and pension.

You’d never get rich, and you’d bitch about management and fat cats, but you could buy a little house on the west side, then maybe over on the east side or out in the country, and maybe a boat to fish from on Buckeye Lake. You could get married. You could pay for your kids to attend decent state universities. Best of all, you could stay in the town where your kid’s fourth-grade teacher had taught you, too. If you bought in, obeyed the rules – spoken and unspoken – paid your taxes, loved your town and your country, that was the bargain on offer.”

Alexander effectively breaks down the clung-to concept of American nostalgia. This was something Trump harped on constantly. There’s this idea that it was always better, simpler, richer in some vague sometime before. He deftly shows that this just isn’t so. We’re certainly facing a wrecked economy thanks to the greed and manipulations of the 1%, which we see here in the progression of Anchor Hocking’s convoluted buying and selling, orchestrated by Cerberus Capital Management, that internationally-reaching corporate goliath.

It makes a great companion read to J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy. Glass House is denser, more business-focused, but Alexander still gives it a great literary spin and has a knack for showing the personality of a place and its characters. To be fair, I’ll admit I was completely lost with eyes glazing over in a few sections that detailed the corporate buyouts, trades, bankruptcies and the general economic nitty gritty. I tried to follow, I really did. The only college class I ever got a D in was Economics 101 (in case you’re wondering, that counted as passing so it was fine.) I’m not proud of that, nor of being unable to follow everything in this book that laid out the business side of things.

But there you have it and I guess it’s worth a warning for casual readers like me who are interested in the political repercussions and what’s going on in small town America that’s gotten us where we are, and what options exist for fixing it, that maybe, try as you might, you still could get a little lost. (It’s okay guys, we have other talents and we might be dumb but we’re still not trying to wreck the country like certain mamalukes currently lurching around the White House.)

This isn’t an uplifting book. There just can’t be a positive message in reportage like this, because it’s even clear to my economic peabrain that these events don’t have any easy fix. As much time and hard work as it took to build up Lancaster and other cities like this, corporate greed and the 1% were able to tear it down much quicker, and coming back from it doesn’t happen in a day.

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town
by Brian Alexander

published February 14, 2017 by St. Martin’s Press

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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6 thoughts on “America’s Most Fragile

  1. I’m always impressed with your reading list….I just put a hold on this book at my local library since the story feels very similar to the one that happened in the Miami Valley where I live. Thanks for pushing these stories and books ‘out there’ because at some point it has to help reverse the over-simplified narrative being disseminated by local, state and national politicians.

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    1. Thank you! I think you’ll enjoy it, especially with your relationship to the area. It’s a very important read at the moment, and it shows how much more complicated the issues are than the over-simplified narrative you mention. In the book, you see even the locals trying to oversimplify in order to understand it, but this shows there are so many forces at work far beyond the average population’s control, and things get irreparably out of hand faster than anyone thought possible. It should be required reading, I think.

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  2. Americans have a very high standard of living. A low income person today has proper heating, air conditioner, car, TV, phones, internet, cable. Are people really falling behind or is that “the rich fancy life” makes them feel like they are falling behind? Anybody here including the poor have way more than people in other countries. And as far as jobs…the jobs are there but they are in large Metros. People should not expect a job to fall on their lap, they need to go out and get it, and if that means moving to where the job is at, then that is what should be done.

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    1. Well, to some extent I agree, we absolutely have to reign in our expectations, adjust standards and control personal spending and debt. And absolutely agreed that compared to what’s standard in other countries, even the lower end of the American income spectrum seems pretty dazzling. I’ve lived this firsthand (I’m still living it) and I’m often surprised at American expectations compared to what passes for a good income elsewhere.

      But I think the issues presented in the book are far more complicated than what you mention, and I say that as someone whose family also originated in an area similar to the one described in the book with most family members ultimately relocating to major metropolitan areas out of necessity. But that’s not a feasible solution for everyone in the long term when factors like family, property values, personal capital, education, health and skills all come into play. And it’s certainly not responsible to leave large swaths of the country to go bust and be abandoned, which is happening a lot now, not to mention that those jobs that seem abundant in the cities will also only go so far.

      Check out the book, he tells it all much better than I can and I’m sure the perspectives and experiences in this one location would be interesting for you.

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