May 2007 Archives

Buying "Progress," One Pork Chop at a Time.

L.A. (that would be Lower Alabama) has been pretty much atwitter since the announcement a few days ago that ThyssenKrupp, A.G., a German steel firm, would open a huge facility near Mobile that would employ some 2,700 people. How did Alabama officials secure the affections of this European mega-employer? They paid for them, of course, with an estimated total concessions package ultimately worth a conservatively estimated $811 million. By way of perspective, that’s a shade over $300 grand per job, a figure that makes the $167,000 per job initially given Mercedes for its agreement to open a plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1993 seem almost insulting by comparison.
As escalating interstate competition for new payrolls has steadily upped the antes, the scenario for these job-buying extravaganzas has become nothing short of a ritual. For example, ThyssenKrupp’s representatives will deny that it was the size of the subsidy that turned their heads or that they used their flirtation with another state to wheedle a monster giveaway package out of Alabama. (In other words, they really were seriously thinking about building a plant in that Louisiana swamp.) Meanwhile, Alabama developers and assorted politicos will pat themselves on the back for creating 2,700 new jobs and trot out an economist or two to estimate the incredible economic multiplier effect that is sure to come as a result.. The assumption here always seems to be that everybody who goes to work for the new plant was out of work at the time, when, in fact, a sizable percentage of the new plant’s work force will probably be leaving their old jobs, many of them with small employers who have never seen a subsidy and can’t compete with the heavily underwritten newcomer’s wages and benefits package.
One of these days, I hope somebody will try to calculate how many old jobs are simply lost as established employers simply pack it in when they find they can’t maintain a stable work force after their current employees head out to ThyssenKrupp or other “greener pastures” that have been fertilized heavily by state incentives at taxpayer expense. Aggregate employment figures will doubtless still show net local growth, but claims that landing ThyssenKrupp will offset heavy job losses due to textile and apparel plants shutting down elsewhere in Alabama are a bit misleading. In the perfectly market-driven world, this might be true, but how many of the 200-plus workers who will be laid off by Vanity Fair later this year in Monroeville, Alabama will actually be able to pull up stakes and move 80 miles or so down the road to claim one of the slots at Thyssenkrupp? Things like age, family obligations, and non-existent real estate markets in deindustrializing areas tend to make migration to a new location with better opportunities a little more complicated than a simple dollars and cents calculation for lots of folks.
Alabama officials made it a point to assure everybody that Thyssenkrupp was not exempt from paying school taxes. That’s something, I suppose, but after locals get through footing the bill for all the new infrastructure and such that the new plant will require, I doubt that they’ll be too receptive to any liberal do-gooder’s entreaties for a greater investment in public education anytime soon. As he hailed the ThyssenKrupp announcement, Alabama senator Richard Shelby reportedly observed that it was now up to the state to provide a better educated work force, including scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, necessary to attract even more ThyssenKrupps. Fat chance. Has the good senator taken a gander at the math proficiency scores of Alabama eighth graders, who, according to the most recent stats available, bested only their counterparts in D.C. and Mississippi the last time out?
In the past, Alabama’s leader’s have not proven particularly squeamish about shortchanging education in order to keep their new corporate benefactors happy. Only a threatened law suit by a teacher’s group kept Governor Fob James from raiding the state’s school fund reserve to pay off a $43 million obligation to Mercedes back in 1995. In fairness, there is some evidence of increased support for public education since the state started buying big time industrial plants like Mercedes, Honda, and ThyssenKrupp. Alabama sat at 47 in state rankings of per pupil expenditures in 1993, and the most recent figures available show that by 2003 it had shot all the way up to 44. By the same token, however, the state’s ranking in teacher’s salaries has actually slipped from 41 to 47 since 1993.
There’s no doubt that Alabama’s aggressive subsidy program has resulted in a net increase in jobs and wages in the last decade or so. Yet, like their counterparts throughout not only the South but much of the nation, instead of cashing in on some of these gains in order to make their state something more than the equivalent of an ugly kid who has to wear a pork chop around his neck to get the dog to play with him, Alabama officials are simply resorting to bigger pork chops.

Introducing the “Cobblet”

In an effort to pump a little more life into this site, especially at a time when I am swamped by final exams, seminar papers, and theses and dissertations, I am departing from my familiar extended bloviations on discrete topics to offer an occasional “Cobblet,” briefer but none the less jaundiced and just plain messed up comments on contemporary events. Thus, the inaugural Cobblet:

It has been a busy media week for me. First, I heard from a colleague on a Fulbright in China and later from an old friend teaching in Australia and from a lot of others in between that I was quoted in a NYT piece on recent trends in southern history. Essentially, some very fine young historians are raising eyebrows by actually writing about white southerners in a way that doesn’t necessarily put racism front and center in explaining their behavior. The fact that this trend actually has to be explained and defended says that, while their behavior is not nearly so violent or vociferous, a good many Americans outside the South seem almost as reluctant to change their attitudes about white southerners as white southerners once were to alter their attitudes about black people.

I also had a call this week from a writer for Women’s Wear Daily. I worried at first that my notorious tendency to wear white shoes after Labor Day had offended some fashion Nazi, but it turns out the reporter was just interested in talking about the economic impact of Katrina refugees on places like Atlanta. “Too soon to tell,” I bravely ventured, “numbers ain’t been crunched yet.” The writer also wanted to know about the effects of hurricanes and the threat thereof on outmigration patterns from Florida. “Life among the pink flamingoes in the old trailer park ain’t what it used to be,” I conceded, but not before pointing out that decades of unchecked growth and resource devastation have also turned a lot of the Old Sunshine State in a nasty, thirsty, ugly, and unhealthy mess.

No sooner had I hung up with the Women’s Wear person than I heard from a fellow at the Wall Street Journal wanting to talk about the history of subsidies for industry in the South. Sensing the lad was a bit distracted by the spectre of Rupert Murdoch leering over his shoulder, I tried to calm him down by telling him that his stuffy old paper could probably use a touch of tabloid. This didn’t seem to comfort him much, so thinking I might at least give him a leg up in case old Rupert’s takeover bid succeeded, I handed him a potential career-maker of a story tip by revealing my strong suspicion that my neighbors may have Hitler chained in their basement. Nothing tugs on my heartstrings like a journalist in distress. Until next time . . . .


Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursel's as others see us

Robert Burns

No offense, Bobby B., but your observation hardly comes as a revelation to any teacher who actually reads what his students say about him in their evaluations. I’ve certainly had some doozies over the years. In response to a query about how this instructor “compares to others you have had,” one budding scholar simply wrote “shorter than most.” The vertical challenges I face has been a consistent theme: “He looks like a normal person from the waist up.” Finally, there has been no shortage of criticism of my sartorial style or my sense of humor:
“He wears high-water pants and thinks he’s Johnny Carson,” and more recently, such damnably faint praise as "some of his jokes are funny."

You would think years of such put-downs would have muted my curiosity about how students see me, but last week I succumbed to the temptation to check myself out on, where I found among some fairly positive comments the following observation: “Sweats a lot and manages to pull off a skullet.”

I will admit that in my zeal to inspire in the classroom I have been known to perspire up some good-sized “saddlebags” under my arms. I was perplexed by the “skullet” reference, however, until I finally although I finally surmised that it had something to do with my hairstyle and its relationship to a “mullet,” which for the benefit of the uninitiated, is a decidedly downscale "do" featuring a severely cropped top accentuated by a flowing mane in back. Thanks to the experts at, I now know the skullet is indeed a variation of the mullet in which rather than buzz cut, the top has simply been shaved. Technically, then, what I have is not a skullet but what they call a “forcekullet” or a “bullet” (balding mullet). According to them, the bullet is all about compensation; "A lack of locks on top, shit we'll just make up for it in the back". I’m afraid they’ve pretty much got the goods on me there. According to their illustration of the phases of skullethood (See below), I guess I’m in Stage III, but I refuse to concede that my condition is as advanced as that of the gentleman in the photo. I rest my case on the following shot of me (also below) taken just this morning without any tricks with lighting, airbushing, or Photoshopping, I swear! Let me know if you agree. By the way, just in case you are thinking of going all Robert Burns on me, I have no problem with your telling me precisely what you think I want to hear. After all these years, I've had quite enough ol' Burnsy's "as 'ithers see us" crap. By the way, check out the pic of Burns below mine. He appears to have a pretty good crop up top, but I notice that not one of his portraits even shows his profile, much less a rear view. Hmm...

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