Len Boselovic’s Heard off the Street: A slow death in an Ohio town
February 13, 2017 12:00 AM
‘Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town’ by Brian Alexander
By Len Boselovic / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For those still trying to fathom why the land of the free and the home of the brave opted for a crass, vituperative huckster with an unwavering fondness for alternative facts instead of the flawed oligarch Democrats served up, Brian Alexander has a story for you.
In “Glass House,” Mr. Alexander chronicles the collapse of the middle class by looking at Anchor Hocking Glass Co., the former economic engine for the town of Lancaster, Ohio. If the company sounds familiar, it’s because Anchor’s saga also played out in the company’s Monaca plant, as well as in Connellsville, home to an Anchor Glass Container plant that made bottles for Rolling Rock beer and jars for Heinz and Gerber baby food.
The plot includes a colorful cast of characters: economist Milton Friedman, the Pied Piper for those who believe companies must put shareholder profits above all other considerations; corporate raider Carl Icahn, who was paid to go away by Anchor’s anxious owners; and private equity operators like Cerberus Capital Management’s Stephen Feinberg.
There’s local color in the form of the drug addicts who surfaced as Lancaster’s way of life deteriorated and the police officer who struggles with the Sisyphean task of fighting a losing war on drugs.
Finally, a story of industrial demise would not be complete without government officials who, desperately seeking the Holy Grail of jobs, shower grants and tax credits on a struggling business owners whose greed and incompetence can’t be mitigated by taxpayer generosity.
Anchor Hocking transforms from the cornerstone of Lancaster’s tax base and the paternalistic employer that inspired Forbes magazine to name Lancaster the All American Town into a rotting carcass plagued by owners who adopt Mr. Friedman’s dogma with a vengeance. Or, as Mr. Alexander writes it: “Lancaster’s social contract had been smashed into mean little shards by the slow-motion terrorism of pirate capitalism.”
There is an underlying irony to Mr. Alexander’s narrative.
One would think that the parade of absentee owners who swooped into Anchor and eliminated jobs, slashed wages and benefits while paying themselves handsomely, ran antiquated equipment into the ground rather than invest, plunged Anchor into bankruptcy, and hired illegal Mexican aliens would have shaken Lancaster’s faith in capitalism triumphant.
Take the case of Mr. Feinberg and Cerberus Capital, which rode Chrysler into bankruptcy only to have the auto maker bailed out by the federal government.
Despite their talents at waging war on costs and workers, Cerberus took Anchor’s parent company into bankruptcy in 2006 after slashing jobs a year earlier at Monaca. Workers at Anchor Glass Container’s Connellsville plant successfully sued Cerberus for violating the federal law requiring 60 days notice for layoffs or plant closings. Mr. Alexander painstakingly documents how Cerberus’ Lancaster work force suffered similar indignities.
Yet despite the ill treatment at the hands of capitalists, President Donald Trump captured nearly twice as many votes in Fairfield County, where Lancaster is located, than Hillary Clinton. Republicans won congressional, Ohio House, and county commissioner races by similar or greater margins.
Mr. Alexander writes that Lancastrians “remained captured by an ultra-conservative, anti-tax philosophy ... even as their pro-business bias blinded them to how Newell [another Anchor owner] and Cerberus picked their pockets.”
Their reward is a president who sneeringly boasts he will put America First. That said, Mr. Trump has surrounded himself with gilded advisers who, true to Mr. Friedman’s credo, have made a healthy living putting themselves and their shareholders first.
They may include Mr. Feinberg, who, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, contributed $1.5 million to the Rebuilding America Now political action committee that supported Mr. Trump. Mr. Feinerg recently told Cerberus investors that he is in talks to join the Trump administration.
The palpable resignation, despair, frustration and anger found in “Glass House” was shared by many voters who abandoned the traditional party of the American worker. As much as you hope they knew what they were doing, resignation, despair, frustration and anger generally are not the basis of sound decisions.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
email@example.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.