Forget that red state-blue state stuff. The real chasm dividing the US is economic, with one economy for industry and one for tech, and the friction between them is getting fierce.
Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast
Today we see a growing conflict between the economy that produces consumable, tangible goods and another economy, now ascendant, that deals largely in the intangible world of media, software, and entertainment. Like the old divide between the agrarian South and the industrial North before the Civil War, this threatens to become what President Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, defined as an “irrepressible conflict.”
Other major economic divides—between capital and labor, Wall Street versus Main Street—defined politics for much of the 20th century. But today’s tangible-intangible divide is particularly tragic because it undermines America’s peculiar advantage in being a powerhouse in both the material and non-material worlds. No other large country can say that, certainly not China, Japan, or Germany, industrial powerhouses short on resources, while our closest cousins, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, remain, for the most part, dependent on commodity trade.
The China syndrome and the shape of the next slowdown
Over the past decade, the United States has enjoyed two parallel booms that combined to propel the economy out of recession. One was centered in places like Houston, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Oklahoma City, and across much of the Great Plains. These areas were all located in the first states to emerge from the recession, and benefited massively from a gusher in energy jobs due largely to fracking.
At the same time, another part of the economy, centered in Silicon Valley as well as Seattle, Austin, and Raleigh/Durham, has also been booming. Though far more restricted than their counterparts in the “tangible” economy in terms of both geography and jobs, the tech/digital economy did not lag when it came to minting fortunes. By 2014, the media-tech sector accounted for six of the nation’swealthiest people. Perhaps more important, 12 of the nation’s 17 billionairesunder 40 also hail from the tech sector.
Until China’s economy hit a wall this fall, these two sectors were humming along, maybe not enough to restore the economy to its ’90s trim robustly enough to improve conditions in many parts of the country. But as China begins to cut back on commodity purchases, many key raw material prices—copper and iron to oil and gas as well as food stuffs—have fallen precipitously, devastating many developing economies in South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.
Plunging prices are also beginning to hurt many local economies in the U.S., particularly in the “oil patch” that spreads from west Texas to North Dakota. This is one reason why overall economic growth has fallen, and is unlikely to revive strongly in the months ahead. Overall, according to the most recent numbers, job growth remains slow and long-term unemployment stubbornly high while labor participation is stuck at historically low levels. Much of this loss is felt by the kind of middle and working class people who tend to work in tangible industries.
But it’s not just the much maligned energy economy that is in danger. The recovery of manufacturing was one of the most heartening “feel good” stories of the recession. Every Great Lakes state except Illinois now enjoys an unemployment rate below the national average, and several, led by the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa, boast unemployment that is among the lowest in the nation. Now a combination of a too-strong dollar, declining demand for heavy equipment, and falling food prices threaten economies throughout the Great Lakes and the Great Plains.
Waging war on the tangible economy
President Obama’s emphasis on battling climate change—aimed largely at the energy and manufacturing sectors—in his last year in office will only exacerbate these conflicts. For one thing, the administration’s directive to all but ban coal could prove problematic for many Midwest states, including several—Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, and Indiana—that rely the most on coal for electricity. Not surprisingly, much of the opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency’s decrees come from heartland states such as Oklahoma, Indiana, and Michigan. The President’s belated rejection of the Keystone Pipeline is also intensely unpopular, including among traditionally Democratic-leaning construction unions.
These policies have also succeeded to pushing the energy industry, in particular, to the right. In 1990 energy firms contributed almost as much to Democrats as to Republicans; last year they gave more than three times as much to the GOP.This underlying economic conflict is redefining our politics less along lines of ideology and more in terms of interests.
In contrast, the tech oligarchs and their media allies largely embrace the campaign against fossil fuels. Environmental icon Bill McKibben, for example, has won strong backing in Silicon Valleyfor his drive to marginalize oil much like the tobacco industry was ostracized earlier. Meanwhile the onetime pragmatic interest in natural gas as a cleaner replacement for coal is fading, as the green lobby demands not just the reduction of fossil fuel but its rapid extermination.
Embracing the green agenda costs Silicon Valley little. High electricity prices may take away blue collar jobs, but they don’t bother the affluent, well-educated, Telsa-driving denizens of the Bay Area, who also pay less for power. But those rates are devastating to the less glamorous people who live in California interior. As one recent study found, the average summer electrical bill in rich, liberal andtemperate Marin County was $250 a month, while in impoverished , hotter Madera, the average bill was twice as high.
Many Silicon Valley and Wall Street supporters also see business opportunities in the assault on fossil fuels. Cash-rich firms like Google and Apple, along with many high-tech financiers and venture capitalist, have invested in subsidized green energy firms. Some of these tech oligarchs, like Elon Musk, exist largely as creatures of subsidies. Neither SolarCity nor Tesla would be so attractive—might not even exist—without generous handouts.