Four Replies to Unnecssariat

Unnecessariat was a post written in 2016, before the election, describing Deaths from Despair in the midwest, and how they could be fueling modern political drift. The author believes that an increasing population see themselves as economically unnecessary and socially unwanted, fighting for under the table jobs and completely outside of any serious planning horizons. By drawing comparisons to past public health crisis and giving the disaster a human face, this presented a level of urgency and seriousness not often covered by mainstream reporters. While not perfect -- the author conflates a number of issues specific to their situation as a student with general problems, and inadequately separates the new proposed class from similar older classes like the Marxist lumpenproletariat -- it's a well-written and resonant piece, the style of callout that Vox wishes its authors could write, which received a sizable amount of modern coverage for a month and then largely forgotten.

(For Scott's take, see here; for contemporaneous SSC subreddit discussion, see here; for my own contemporaneous thoughts, see here


There's been a few discussions that bring it to mind again, if only because they, whether directly or indirectly, are talking about the same riverbank towns.

The more recent was a concept paper from the Richmond Fed, named "Cognitive Hubs and Spatial Redistribution". While hard to summarize and very heavy on math, the most charitable summary from its core conclusion is that :

Our analysis underscores that while CNR (cognitive, non-routine) workers are extremely useful, they are also scarce. Furthermore, their productivity is tremendously enhanced by living with other CNR workers. So attracting them to smaller towns with more mixed populations represents a waste of resources. CNR workers are too valuable for society to be used in this way. A better policy is to reinforce existing trends and let them concentrate in cognitive hubs while incentivizing non-CNR workers to move and help smaller cities grow. Of course, some non CNR workers will always be needed in those hubs because of imperfect substitutability of occupations in production. The result is smaller, more CNR intensive, cognitive hubs in some of today’s largest cities. We show that the resulting migration of non-CNR workers that allows small towns to grow may be implemented with a baseline transfer to non-CNR workers, reminiscent of a universal basic income, and a set of occupation-location specific transfers. Overall, CNR workers transfer resources to non-CNR workers to generate equal welfare gains.

In short, turn the tech cities into big tech or big finance hives, and with your winnings, pay everyone else to get out of the way. To be fair, that might not even be undesirable in some revealed preference sense: the new outmigratees would be of course voluntary, they show significant population and monetary (albeit not necessary economic: cfe UBI) growth for the tristate area of Unnecessariat, and maybe that's what's necessary. The paper lives in purely spherical cow land, so it doesn't really have to get into the gritty details regarding how people might live their lives, but they could be better and (according to its projections) does specifically reverse the population and income trends for the southeastern Ohio region, specifically.

Less charitably, it came to my attention summarized as "Hunger Games gonna happen, isn't it?", in a curiously now-unavailable tweet. But essentially, it's taken the conclusion of Unnecessariat and doubling down. Even in the best-case scenario, this emphasis on GPD uber allies comes across as reckless. The author recognizes that they're skipping over the political and philosophical difficulties of implement a UBI of this scale (>18k USD/non-CNR worker!) when SALT deductions alone have been a huge mess, but the greater fault is that they haven't really considered if it wouldn't work. There's a good many reasons to suspect discontinuities in workforce relocation, and when people are either stuffing themselves ten to a shoebox or living out of a car in SF, it's not clear any remotely plausible monetary incentive would work.

Chris Arnade has a slightly different focus:

Portsmouth, Ohio, once known for making things (steel, shoes, bricks), is now known for drugs, and labeled by some as the “pill mill of America”. The city peaked at 40,000 people in 1940, and as it emptied of factories and jobs – some made obsolete, some moved away – it also emptied of people and hope...

She is retired after 28 years as a cook in the school system. When I ask if there are drugs around, she laughs. “Oh honey, yes, this is Portsmouth. This is the armpit of Ohio.” She points to the neighborhood. “Everything around here is dope-town. Xanies, Oxys, meth, we got it all. Nothing for kids here. When I was young we had dances at the community centers. Now they have nothing. No work around here unless you are a nurse, or a doctor, or lawyer.”...

Portsmouth is overwhelmed, and in danger of becoming far worse. It is in danger of becoming a place so saturated with drugs that the shocking becomes normal. It already is a place where people roll their eyes at ambulance sirens, mouthing “another OD”. It already is a place where some men pester and proposition dope-sick women for sex. It already is a place where some kids’ childhoods are traumas to be navigated.

Arnade's written a lot on economic and social misfortunes of what he calls the "back row", and while Dignity avoids making policy recommendations and Arnade's twitter posts are hard to summarize, I don't think it's far from u/Rabitology's post here, mixed with a non-crazy protectionist platform. Arnade thinks of the Unnecessariat as victims, pushed out from the economy by lopsided trade agreements that prioritize cheap imports and Chinese investment over worker or environmental parity, drowned in addictive pills peddled by the connected, and wedged between a rock and a hard place by state assistance and social disenfranchisement, while vast amounts of state- or state-derived funding is used to lure any potential away.

In some ways, this is a tempting and optimistic (if Manichaen) vision. Purdue Pharma is someone you could, theoretically, act against and make never happen again, up to and including salting the earth. Trade deals with China and federal grants are all political questions, not cultural ones.

At the same time, it's incredibly depressing: these are villains that everyone supposedly hates, and haven't beaten or even taken serious moves to strike; it names policies that have been major targets for more than one administration, and haven't been moved to the Senate floor. Arnade's position doesn't require just the back row to win battles in a political war, but also a social or cultural one, and it's not clear if that's possible by his own framework. Worst of all, this would be the second (or sometimes third!) generation plagued by addiction, and that we have no plans to cure. Arnade took a picture of that, which didn't make it to the final draft. 'James' is 39, addicted to painkillers for twenty years, and while Arnade doesn't tell us his life story, it says something that the hope he has is that his kids don't remember being homeless. Even if manufacturing came back, even if The Drugs were swallowed by a pit in the ground, even if there's a well-established social network and safety net around, he's not getting his life back. We don't have the politics for the broad solution to stop new people from being pushed down to that extent, and even if we did, it'd be little salve for the people on the ground Arnade interviews. But that may be why he's talking about 'less awful' choices.

"No Good Choices", like many works, received a response from the community (aka, a politician, in this case, named Jason Kester):

I have had enough. I’ve had enough of reporters, both national and international, spending a few hours in our community, “diagnosing our issues,” leaving, and then writing outlandish stories about how things are in lowly Portsmouth, Scioto County, and Southern Ohio...

The reporters also inevitably use a picture of the Sole Choice (formerly Mitchellace) building as an example of an “abandoned factory.” It’s too bad there are 50 people working in there, they have a national marketing campaign about how it’s a shining example of American manufacturing, it houses what we believe to be the only “industrial incubator” south of I-71 in Ohio, and we just graduated our first company out of that space, a Tier-2 automotive parts supplier. There’s really good stuff going on in that building. Of course, the pictures always somehow leave out the multi-million dollar new buildings and development across the street at Appalachian Wood Floors. Coincidence, I am sure.

Kester's "Please Stop Helping" is complex piece to read. The underlying tension between reporting on Deaths of Despair and as outright misery porn fairly well-documented, and the majority of the field is far worse. (For example, it mentions both "No Good Choices" and another piece that is probably "The Lonely Women of the Rust Belt", and there's a variety of reasons I'm not counting that as a Reply.) Even those writers that don't go full David Brooks still unavoidably get a more limited and circumscribed view of reality when moved so far from their normal stomping grounds. Arnade himself doesn't seem to grasp some of the norms biasing his sampling methods (especially given the demographics of southern Ohio); I don't think telling him would actually help. And while there are plans so technocratic that they don't require boots on the ground, I'm not sure even "Cognitive Hubs and Spatial Redistribution" would be in practice.

At the same time, "Please Stop Helping" is not really trying to seriously grapple with "No Good Choices". Kester's bafflement about injections to the neck in public is particularly puzzling when there's currently a campaign warning heroin addicts against it, and talks about people doing so when driving rather than the actual description in "No Good Choices" of them doing so when parked. There's a long list of powerful local advocates, covering everything from a county commissioner to the organizer of a Healthy Plate Initiative to a family car dealership to a farmer's market organizer; I don't think any are particularly focused on addiction, chronic unemployment, or homelessness. His lauded industrial incubator is the Trinity Business Group, which I'm sure does wonderful things but isn't unique south of i-71 and (perhaps more seriously) is a small two-story building whose industrial equipment is a workstation with a fax machine and whose two linked success stories don't have working webpages. Sole Choice Inc's story looks more like a hardy survivor than a repeatable business development story, so on.

The eclectic nature of that list of success looks to reflect some local politics, but a broader search doesn't bring up a deep network of advocates or social services: it brings up people working for OSU or federal grants. His framing of the problem is (ironically) as economics-focused as the Richmond Fed, but even presuming that's the deep issue, Kester just doesn't have the boots when we're talking a labor force participation rate that dropped 15% (and only 58% of prime-working-age men employed), or a medium income household income not far from the poverty line.

PoiThePoi is somewhere between rat-adjacent and rat-adjacent-adjacent, who escaped Amazon with only minor injuries but also has had family scattered through (Dem-leaning?) Red Tribe midwestern states, and has an unusual focus on economics as a branch of logistics. Like Chris Arnade, they're not writing up a Solution, but there's an underlying thread, sometimes predating Unnecessariat, that has a silver lining

Yeah, it’s called Meth Country for a reason.

It’s not just the South (though the South might be worse, because the winters and summers are survivable in a busted-up trailer), it’s everywhere 20 minutes outside of a major metro area... There are functional places, we’ve just made it illegal (or sufficiently expensive that there’s no difference) to move there...

The South will look at their competitive advantage (Affordable 3BR exurban houses so you can actually have kids), the heat/humidity issues, and double down on air conditioned congestion boxes. The Midwest? That could get interesting.

[RE: why small Midwestern cities aren't growing] Because the Midwest as a whole isn't absorbing population fleeing the failures of SF/NYC/etc like the Sun Belt. It's absorbing bright rural kids from the Midwest, but not much else. And they're running out of those kids. /This could change, of course.

B) 90% of it is completely screwed in the new economy. It’s not even farms, it’s these random warehouses by the side of the road 20 miles out of Lancaster, PA that have no reason to exist in 2018.

At least not in these numbers. ( C) Based on domestic migration stats, we’re actively pushing people off the lifeboats).

But the simple fact of the matter is that moving to SF is worth a 70% payraise and the only way to keep Youngstown, Ohio from evacuating to SF is to keep the rents high enough that a 70% payraise costs you money.

And it’s been terrible for their residents

. Seattle rents went up $3,000 last year (To wit: $75K annual income/40pct rent/income/10pct annual increase). Unless the average resident got a $5,000 wage increase (Boo taxes), the average Seattle resident had a falling standard of living. Until one day, they give up and take a $25,000 paycut to move to Dallas. Or Cleveland. Because I’ve been in Silicon Valley for 4 years and my rent tripled while my commute quadrupled. So I’m trying to GTFO because I’m done June 1st*.

Despite a similar mathematical model as the Richmond Fed framework, Poi comes to a nearly opposite conclusion: while CNR concentration may increase GDP, for goofy policy reasons the as-applied versions is absolutely awful for even the more successful workers in smaller companies, and the extent it hasn't crashed bigger companies yet is simply because they're further down the pipeline


Unless the coasts fix their housing models (hah), this suggests that we'll be seeing increasing outmigration from the coasts to the 'hinterland' cities. While they may not head to Portsmouth, they'll at least not be on the far side of a mountain range and/or desert. Unnecessariat worried about these individuals moving back, but in the understanding that they'd be turning farms into vacation homes or hobby farms, as is currently the focus. But if they're actually living there, integrated (or at least in a normal gated community), this will necessarily involve some number of surrounding service jobs, and some manufacturing that made sense when sitting on the main ports to China might not be worth it for younger startups now that Chinese wages are increasing.

The downside, of course, is that the sudden collapse of the Bay Area startup scene and housing market might make people long for an earthquake instead. There's no guarantee that this reversion might happen in a year, or a decade, or a generation, and even once it does, Poi still expect most of the midwest to end up stagnated or cannibalized by Chicago. And even more than Arnade's approach, the best-case scenario here is unfriendly for the Deaths From Despair generation : not only would tech startups moving in be unlikely to hire James for anything more complicated than sweeping floors, the conflict of social norms and expectations would be rough. Those social norms might favor more spending on government-provided social services, but they haven't worked great for California so far.

Which leaves the broader questions:

  • Which, if any of these, might even be describing the problem correctly? Though not necessarily incompatible, they're highly unlikely to all be right, and some do have tastes of just-so stories.

  • I've brought up 'James' occasionally, as an example of someone on the Despair side without the Deaths, but while he's an extreme version, we're talking more than a full percent of the state population; most estimates put more than 2% of the population as being moved to SSDI full-stop. Is this the sorta thing that just ends up an awkward part of the graveyard no one talks about? Does anyone have a plan for when a significant portion of a generation is raised by their grandparents?

  • What do you do about migration? Even Kester's policies, the most highly localized pieces, are still dependent on labor mobility, but at the same time, the situation for many of these workers ties them down heavily, either by policy or prospect. Even Poi and Arnade's solutions have depopulated areas, where people need to sell to move away, and there's no one that would want to buy.