Every so often, you hear grotesquely wealthy American chief executives announce in sanctimonious tones the intention to use their accumulated hundreds of millions, or billions, “to lift people out of poverty.” Sometimes they are referring to Africans, but sometimes they are referring to Americans. And here’s the funny thing about that: In most cases, they have made their fortunes by impoverishing whole American communities, having outsourced their manufacturing to China or India, Vietnam or Mexico.
Buried in a long story about corruption in China in The New York Times a couple of months ago was the astonishing fact that the era of “supercharged growth” over the past several decades had the effect of “lifting more than 600 million people out of poverty.” From handouts? From Habitat for Humanity? From the Clinton Global Initiative?
No, oddly enough, China has been enriched by American-supplied jobs, making most of the destined-for-the-dump merchandise you find on store shelves all over America, every piece of plastic you can name, as well as Apple products, Barbie dolls or Nike LeBron basketball shoes retailed in the United States for up to $320 a pair. “The uplifting of impoverished people” was one of the reasons Phil Knight, Nike’s co-founder, gave in 1998 for moving his factories out of the United States.
The Chinese success, helped by American investment, is perhaps not astonishing after all; it has coincided with a large number of Americans’ being put out of work and plunged into poverty.
In a wish to get to grips with local mystagogies and obfuscations I have spent the past three years traveling in the Deep South, usually on back roads, mainly in the smaller towns, in the same spirit of inquiry that vitalized me on journeys in China and Africa and elsewhere. Yes, I saw the magnolia blossoms, the battlefields of the Civil War, the antebellum mansions of superfluous amplitude; the catfish farms and the cotton fields and the blues bars; attended the gun shows and the church services and the football games.
But if there was one experience of the Deep South that stayed with me it was the sight of shutdown factories and towns with their hearts torn out of them, and few jobs. There are outsourcing stories all over America, but the effects are stark in the Deep South.
Take a Delta town such as Hollandale, Miss. Two years ago, the entire tax base of this community of around 3,500 was (so the now-deceased and much-mourned mayor Melvin Willis told me) less than $300,000. What the town had on hand to spend for police officers, firefighters, public works, outreach, welfare and town hall salaries was roughly the amount of a Bill or Hillary one-night-stand lecture fee; what Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, earns in a couple of days.
When Hollandale’s citizens lost their jobs in the cotton fields to mechanization they found work nearby, in Greenville and elsewhere, in factories that made clothes, bikes, tools and much else — for big brands like Fruit of the Loom and Schwinn.
They are gone now. Across the Mississippi River, Monticello, Ark., and other towns made carpets and furniture while Forrest City produced high-quality TV sets. The people I spoke to in the town of Wynne, known for its footwear, said they’d be happy to make Nikes if they were paid a living wage.
I found towns in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas that looked like towns in Zimbabwe, just as overlooked and beleaguered. It’s globalization, people say. Everyone knows that, everyone moans about it. Big companies have always sought cheaper labor, moving from North to South in the United States, looking for the hungriest, the most desperate, the least organized, the most exploitable. It has been an American story. What had begun as domestic relocations went global, with such success that many C.E.O.s became self-conscious about their profits and their stupendous salaries.
To me, globalization is the search for a new plantation, and cheaper labor; globalization means that, by outsourcing, it is possible to impoverish an American community to the point where it is indistinguishable from a hard-up town in the dusty heartland of a third world country.
“I took an assistant Treasury secretary, Cyrus Amir-Mokri, down from Memphis,” William Bynum, the chief executive of the Hope Credit Union, told me in his office in Jackson, Miss. “We passed through Tunica, Mound Bayou and Clarksdale, and ended up in Utica. All through the Delta. He just sat and looked sad. He said he could not believe such conditions existed in the United States.”
Now the Delta is worse off, the bulk of its factories shut, the work sent overseas. Again, this is the same old story, but need it be so?
When Mr. Cook of Apple said he was going to hand over his entire fortune to charity, he was greatly praised by most people, but not by me. It so happened that at that time I was traveling up and down Tim Cook’s home state of Alabama, and all I saw were desolate towns and hollowed-out economies, where jobs had been lost to outsourcing, and education had been defunded by shortsighted politicians.
Selma may have been a political success and a great symbol, but it is an economic failure; Greensboro has some effective well-wishers, but it does not look very different from the town that James Agee wrote about and Walker Evans photographed in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” which was published in 1941; Monroeville earns some revenue from the “Mockingbird” literary pilgrims, but it lost more than 2,000 jobs when Vanity Fair Brands downsized its operations there. The catfish industry is faltering all over the state, thanks in part to fish imported from special-relationship Asia.
Mr. Cook, investor in and benefactor of China, is not only the guiding hand at Apple, but he is also on the board of Nike, which makes virtually all its products outside the United States. Mr. Knight told Michael Moore in his documentary “The Big One” that Americans don’t want to make shoes. But that’s untrue.
The other day, in an attempt at mortification, I looked at the Clinton Foundation website and saw as the leading headline, “Partnership to Save Africa’s Elephants.” Since I had recently been in rural Arkansas, I thought: If you want to help closer to home, how about the black family farmers in the Delta, who — rebuffed by banks, trifled with by the United States Department of Agriculture, squeezed by vast corporate farms — are struggling to survive?
In Brinkley, Ark., in reporting for my book, I had met Calvin King, who in 1980 founded the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation, trying to reverse black land loss, improve housing and build safe communities. Had the Clinton family charity been in touch with him? “No,” Mr. King said solemnly. “We have not received any funding support from the Clinton Foundation or the Global Initiative.”
After driving across the state, I asked the same question of Patricia Atkinson in Russellville. The director of the Universal Housing Development Corporation, she oversees the building and improvement of houses that are mainly lived in by the rural poor in this part of the state. “It really bothers me that Clinton does so little here,” she told me. “I wish he’d help us. He’s in Africa and India, and other people are helping in the third world and those countries. We don’t see that money. Don’t they realize our people need help?”
A bit of work has trickled in. At the edge of some Deep South cities a number of foreign car manufacturers have set up assembly plants — Mercedes-Benz outside Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Kia in West Point, Ga.; Hyundai in Montgomery, Ala.; , BMW outside Spartanburg, S.C.; and so forth. Most of the workers are nonunion, and, owing to robotics, the work force is relatively small. Still, such efforts have re-energized parts of the Deep South. None of those automakers have said that it is their intention to lift people out of poverty, or taken Bill Gates, Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett’s “giving pledge.”
The strategy of getting rich on cheap labor in foreign countries while offering a sop to America’s poor with charity seems to me a wicked form of indirection. If these wealthy chief executives are such visionaries, why don’t they understand the simple fact that what people want is not a handout along with the uplift ditty but a decent job?
Some companies have brought manufacturing jobs back to the United States, a move called “reshoring,” but so far this is little more than a gesture. It seems obvious that executives of American companies should invest in the Deep South as they did in China. If this modest proposal seems an outrageous suggestion, to make products for Nike, Apple, Microsoft and others in the South, it is only because the American workers would have to be paid fairly. Perhaps some chief executives won’t end up multibillionaires as a result, but neither will they have to provide charity to lift Americans out of poverty.
Paul Theroux is an author whose latest book is Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads.