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Kevin Williamson: How to Improve the Lot of Those Left Behind

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“And he wrote this very famous novel called Infinite Jest, which he described as a very sad book about the pursuit of happiness. And so, I think in some ways, I’ve written a very sad book about the pursuit of happiness as well.”

On January 7th, Thomas Koenig was joined by Kevin Williamson to discuss his latest book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the “Real America.” Mr. Williamson is an author and journalist, currently the roving correspondent for National Review. He previously served as a managing editor and theater critic for The New Criterion and an adjunct professor at The King’s College. In this interview with Mr. Koenig, Mr. Williamson discusses the suffering many American towns are experiencing, how this affects individuals within the “white underclass,” and possible solutions (both at the policy and individual-levels) to help these Americans. 

A video of the conversation is available on YouTube.

Hi, I’m Tom Koenig, and I’m joined today by the National Review’s roving correspondent, Kevin Williamson. Mr. Williamson, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. Williamson is a funny thing to be called. But, yeah, glad to be here—thanks.

Kevin. So we’re here to discuss your new book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the “Real America.” I didn’t even try to commit the subtitle to memory. So the book is a collection of some of your previously reported pieces for National Review. So I want to begin with a pretty simple question: What’s the book about? And what’s the common thread holding all these pieces together?

Yeah, I have a thing that I like to call “Williamson’s First Law of Politics,” which is that everything is really simple if you don’t know anything at all about it. And I think that is really the theme of my long reported work that I’ve done for National Review, which is to try to dig into particular situations, communities, things that are happening in our country and our world—and, actually, just kind of try to figure out what’s going on with them without trying to make some ideological point or some political argument. I mean, obviously, there are ideological considerations in there, and there are political conclusions to be made from some of this stuff.

So a lot of the book is about “underclass dysfunction,” as we call it. So poverty, addiction, casino gambling, that sort of thing. Partly. it is about just other aspects of life in the United States that, I think, are particularly illuminating. There’s a report from the “porn Oscars” in Las Vegas. I think pornography is actually kind of an interesting subject and one that really says a lot about who we are and who we are becoming as people. The aforementioned gambling stuff is also part of that—but then also just some stories about crime in Philadelphia and Chicago, places like that. I went and visited every bankrupt city in California, which you have to drive a lot to visit every bankrupt city in California, or every nearly bankrupt city in California. I actually was in San Bernardino for a city council meeting when they declared bankruptcy. And so writing about why city governments aren’t working, how that fits into the other themes and topics that I’m writing about.

So it’s a whole bunch of different stuff about a whole bunch of different topics. Mostly not very happy stuff, I’m afraid. As pretty much everyone who knows my work knows, I’m a big fan of David Foster Wallace, sitting right here. And he wrote this very famous novel called Infinite Jest, which he described as a very sad book about the pursuit of happiness. And so I think, in some ways, I’ve written a very sad book about the pursuit of happiness as well.

So speaking of sadness, one of the key points in the book is this argument that you’re having with your National Review colleague, Michael Brendan Doherty, about the town of Garbutt, New York.

Yeah.

So I was hoping to discuss that a bit more in detail: So what is Garbutt, New York? What’s the argument about? And what might be the larger significance about that argument in that town?

Yeah, first of all, to the people of Garbutt, I would like to remind you that Michael is the one who chose your town as the representative of downscale America. That wasn’t me. I hear from people in Garbutt from time to time.

Garbutt’s actually not all that poor a place. I think it has slightly above average income, in fact. But it’s not Greenwich, Connecticut, which is what Michael was comparing it to. So Michael’s question was, for the conservative movement, particularly in the Republican Party, if you’re a rich finance guy in Greenwich, the Republican Party has a lot to offer you. Its interests intersect with your interests in a lot of different ways. But what do we do about people like this imaginary character he dreamt up called Jeffrey in Garbutt? And, you know, who’s getting by on Social Security and disability fraud, and maybe has a prescription drug problem and some other things.

So, Michael takes a very different view of globalization than I do, takes a very different view of free trade than I do. And his question is: What do we do about these communities like Garbutt? So I got kind of interested in the place because I had never heard of it before. And I looked up and read a bit about Garbutt. It’s a place that was originally started because of gypsum mining. It’s close to a gypsum mine. And then the gypsum mining business kind of declined, and then it had a bit of a renaissance when they started using gypsum to make wallboard. And then it just kind of declined again. And there was an essay I read that was really very interesting; it was talking about the sorry state of the town of Garbutt. And the hotels had closed, and most of the churches had closed, and this was gone and that was gone. This is written in 1902, this article was.

And there are a lot of places that don’t make it. There are places that exist, particularly because they’re geographically tied to some economic activity that ceases to be important. Whether it’s, you know, a port that’s no longer a big part of the trading routes—or any of these old ruined cities you can see along the old Silk Route from China to Pakistan: places that used to be very, very important centers of global commerce that just aren’t anymore. Baghdad has kind of come and gone a couple of times over the course of its history.

Where I grew up in Lubbock, Texas is kind of an interesting story. There were originally two little towns out there. One was called Lubbock, and one was called Caprock, and they were sure that economic growth and migration was going to be enough to sustain both of these towns. And they eventually figured out that it wasn’t. So they voted to combine them. And one of them had a courthouse, and one of them had a hotel. And they figured they could move the hotel, and so they jacked the hotel up and put it on wagons and dragged it to the other town and just incorporated the other one (not that it probably had even been legally incorporated), abandoned the old town. You can even go out there and still see where it was. There are lots of places that don’t make it.

So Michael has this interest in place, you know, kind of a Burkean interest in place. And I think that’s worthwhile, but it’s limited. And I think that our public policies ought to be oriented toward people—not toward places. And the best thing we can tell people in a lot of these declining, moribund, dysfunction, and despair-ridden places—in Appalachia and in the Rust Belt and in parts of the West and parts of New England even—is move. It’s there’s nothing for you where you are, there’s no opportunity, there’s no job, there’s no prospect of getting on, go somewhere else. It’s a very difficult thing for me to take seriously the proposition that Americans, of all people in the world, should just sit still where they are while opportunity comes to them. Because that ain’t how any of us got here. Not one of us, including the Indians.

So when I was reading that part of the book, that part about the argument over Garbutt, I was actually reminded of Yuval Levin’s work about institutions. And a point he makes is institutions are incredibly important, and we have to remember that they serve a purpose. And an institution is going to wither away and weaken if that purpose is no longer being served or isn’t there to be served. And a town is an institution, right? So, if the industry has left, if there’s no economic opportunity there, I guess the point that perhaps you’re making is that, you know, that institution’s going to fade away.

Yeah, and we’ve seen cities and communities make the transition when there’s kind of an economic disruption. You know, Detroit was an important manufacturing city before the automobile industry had ever been thought of. Detroit became an important manufacturing city because of the maritime engine business. Detroit didn’t boom because the automotive industry went there. The automotive industry went there because Detroit had the workers and the expertise in place already. It was easy to make that transition. So, we saw Detroit successfully make the transition from the marine business to the automotive business. In the 1950s and 1960s, you see Detroit not make successfully the transition to changing economic realities of how and where cars are made and sold and imported and distributed and all the rest of that. But Detroit’s problem wasn’t simply that there were changes in the patterns of consumers when it came to automobiles—I mean, Detroit declined rapidly following a series of riots. And which, its population has collapsed. Over the course of about 10-12 years, the entire black middle class of Detroit, just almost as a single body, got up and moved out to the suburbs. The white middle class was a bit ahead of them.

And you see the same pattern in a lot of dysfunctional communities, where you end up getting an intensification of various kinds of social pathologies, simply because they’re more concentrated because the people who have money, jobs, skills, education, and entrepreneurial energy leave. And that’s my observation about Appalachia in the title essay, in Big White Ghetto, where I revisited a place called Owsley County, Kentucky, which is the poorest place in America as the census reckons it, although sometimes it falls down to number two and number three. I forget where it is right now. And I call it the socioeconomic Salton Sea, like the Salton Sea of Southern California. It’s this toxic waste inland sea, and it was created by accident. And as it evaporates and gets smaller, it gets more and more poisonous every year because the toxins become more and more concentrated, whereas it would be diluted under normal circumstances. It’s funny. So it’s kind of a resort for a couple of years, and then it got so poisonous that it killed all the fish and animals and wildlife, and it stopped being that.

So you see this in places like Eastern Kentucky; you saw it in Detroit; you see in my town in West Texas in Lubbock where I’m from, where you get an intensification of certain kinds of undesirable social trends because the human capital has moved on. And one of the things that I really learned growing up is that—and what’s different from my background than, say, what a lot of people in Eastern Kentucky experience—is that I grew up in a quite poor family in a not super wealthy community, but a community where there was a lot of social capital because it was a university town. So my parents didn’t have a lot of education and such, and certainly didn’t have a lot of money. But my friend’s parents were college professors and professionals and things like that. You can kind of glide on that someday. Show you what life can look like, how you go about applying for college, how to conduct your affairs in certain kinds of ways. And growing up the way I grew up is not nearly as hard as being in a place where you’re poor, your parents are poor, your family’s poor, your neighbors are poor, everybody you know is poor. You don’t know anyone who’s gone to college, you don’t know anyone who started a business successfully, you don’t know anyone who has done the things in life that you’re going to need to do to become a self-sufficient, autonomous, and satisfied person.

Again, I think the best practical thing we can do for a lot of these people is move them, is help them to move. So one of the things I’ve suggested from a policy point of view is repackaging a certain share of unemployment benefits as relocation benefits. And I think we could probably afford to be pretty generous about that. If we’ve got someone who’s going to be on welfare for the next five to 10 years and food stamps and with all the trouble that goes along with that, or we can pay $15,000 to help them move to Western Pennsylvania or West Texas or some other place where the economy’s doing better and help them to get a job that’s going to let them take care of themselves and their families. I think that’s a pretty good trade.

Yeah, and I think your point is kind of borne out by some of the recent research surrounding gentrification. I know the Harvard economist Raj Chetty has been at the forefront of some of these research papers and findings. Like, even if you’re, say, growing up in a single-parent household but the area around you gentrifies (and you’re very low income), just by nature of you being in that spot surrounded by more affluent, successful neighbors, your chances of escaping poverty are going to shoot up.

Yeah, well, one of the things we know from experience is [that] the rich people get better social services. Rich people get better government, even when they’re a block away from people who aren’t like them. Not to be immodest, not that I’m wealthy, but I’m a pretty well-known writer. I know a lot of people in my city who are politicians, heads of agencies, things like that. You know, if I’ve got a problem on my block and I call someone, they’re going to respond. That’s not necessarily the case if you’re someone who is two miles from here in the other direction in a very, very poor community, who doesn’t have those kinds of connections, who can’t bitch about his local police department on the corner at National Review.

Right, so there’s a difference. So, I just wanted to touch on current events. But before doing that, I wanted to talk about this point you make: that there’s a distinction that has to be drawn between what you call the “white working class” and the “white underclass.”

Yeah.

Because in conversations about politics, especially after Donald Trump’s political rise, you hear a lot about the white working class. But you’re trying to draw a distinction there. So what’s that distinction?

Yeah, well, the white working class is fine! By the way, I’m always a little skeptical of the racial qualifier on this stuff, but it is true that poverty in overwhelmingly white rural communities looks different from poverty in largely black or largely Hispanic urban communities. Part of that is culture. Part of it is density of population. Part of it’s just urban versus rural life.

But so, I write a lot about the white underclass and the white working class. People who are working are doing quite well. Unfortunately, we’ve had this Coronavirus epidemic that’s imposed terrible costs on the job market for a lot of people. But I spent some time out in Midland in West Texas. There’s an article about that in the end, a chapter about that in the book. And Midland, of course, is a great place to be looking for a blue-collar job. Because if you got a commercial driver’s license, you can drive a water truck in a gas field, they will pay you a tremendous amount of money. If you have any kind of reasonably skilled expertise—and I’m not talking about college degrees, I’m talking about work experience in the energy business—you got a very valuable employee. You know, I interviewed a guy out there who was making $90,000 a year. He was 20-years-old or 21-years-old. He’d been in the same job for a couple of years at that point. He’s probably going to be okay in life. Now, like every 21-year-old man, he was kind of an idiot, of course. But he’ll get over that, probably.

I’m part of that group.

Yeah, I know—I used to be myself. And I stayed an idiot for far longer in life than I have any excuse for. So, his situation, the situation of people who have good jobs, that they can do things like get married, have kids, make some responsible financial decisions. They’re in a very, very different situation from the guy whose best option is, well, maybe I can get a couple of shifts at 7-Eleven, your overnight shift, which was a job I had once upon a time, by the way, and it’s not the worst job in the world. But it’s not something that’s going to give you a really comfortable standard of living either. So, the underclass, the “non-working class” is what I call them sometimes, is really where you see the despair, the drug addiction, the suicides, things like that.

Particularly for men, I think we really under-appreciate how much difference a good job really makes. I read a study a couple of years ago. There [are] probably others that say different things. I forget the exact number, but it was a comparison between, why do people get divorced? And people got divorced a lot more often following job loss than they did the man having an affair. You know, losing a job can be—and I’ve done it before, I used to work in newspapers. You get fired when you work for newspapers. And I got fired from another job once that a lot of people talked about.

That was a quick stint, right?

Yeah, that was a short one—didn’t even have my name on the desk yet. So, unemployment can really upset your life in a lot of ways, and it’s not just about money. It’s about, what do I do all day? What’s my standing? How do I provide for my family? What’s my role in this family now that I’m not bringing in any income? And I think that’s really difficult for a lot of men, and it’s even more difficult to never be in that position in the first place: to, for the entirety of your life, never really have that kind of path. And the thing that is heartbreaking about this in many ways is that we’ve got a lot of good blue-collar jobs that are going unfilled. We’ve got a lot of people who need them. But we don’t have a really good way of getting those two together. So we’re really, really good at elite education in the United States. As you’re in, of course, a good position now—you know, things like standardized testing and all that stuff. We’re really good at saying, “Oh look, here’s a smart kid in this not so well-off community. Let’s figure out how to cultivate him and get him what he needs to go to Princeton and be happy.” We’re really good at that.

We’re not good at, here’s a pretty average person, but a person who has no interest in going to college, maybe doesn’t have the inclination for it, maybe doesn’t have the ability for it. You know, a liberal arts education isn’t for everybody, including some pretty smart people who just aren’t interested or inclined in that way. And there are lots of things those people could do, but we don’t really do very much to help them understand that and to understand what their lives could look like. Very few people need to really understand the value of something like a commercial driver’s license or being a property certified welder or plumber, or something like that. Not only money—I mean, money is nice, and money is a big part of this—but also the stability, security, the sense of accomplishment, the ability to be in control of one’s own life, that a really good blue-collar job can bring with it.

So this isn’t the sort of thing you can magic into existence by slapping some tariffs on the Chinese. And that’s why we’re so dumb about this. It’s not a consumer demand problem; it’s a problem of our education system. It’s a problem of our labor markets, but it’s also a very deep cultural problem, where we treat people who work for a living with their hands, who don’t have jobs that require a college degree and an iPad like they’re losers, and we do this even when they make a lot of money.

There’s this story I like to tell [about] a guy I know who was a smart guy in high school. But he just didn’t want to go to college, had no interest in the classroom, wasn’t his thing. His family owned an auto body shop. He really liked cars. Went to work for the family business, was really good at it, built it into a great big successful business. Does these fancy car customizations. Makes tons of money. Got married when he was a young man. Had kids when he was young, but he was making money so he could enjoy having them. Bought a house, all that kind of stuff. Tremendously successful and people say of him, “Just imagine what he could have done with his life if he had gone to college.” Just ridiculous. You know, it’s funny, you got these guys who make $70,000 a year pushing around spreadsheets in some office somewhere, and they come home and watch television shows about guys who build motorcycles and make more money than they do. It’s just absurd.

Yeah, and one of the points you were just making there about, you know, it’s not just about the money. It’s about that feeling of responsibility of self-worth, of dignity; all that’s wrapped up. And one of the points, as we just wrap up here, to relate the book and this conversation to current events, is on January 6, with the insurrection and the storming of the Capitol, one of the things that really struck me was that initial video that the President puts out, where he says, “We love you. You’re very special,” to the rioters. And the weirdest part—obviously, there’s a weird part about not just coming out and forcefully condemning the violence—but just the tone of it was as if he’s speaking to children.

Yeah.

“You’re very special.” And that’s just kind of the curious part about the Trump phenomenon, right? [It] used to be the ethos—you would think—[of] self-sufficiency, government off our backs, etc., and now they’re being spoken to like children. And I thought of your book. Like, what does the reporting and some of the themes we’re discussing today, what might that have to say to that, of the President talking to his base like kids?

Yeah. There’s a chapter in the book about this flat earth convention I went to. It was a big convention. It cost like $300 to get in or something. It’s people who believe the earth is flat, and they have these big conventions, and they sell models of what the universe actually looks like. And they deliver papers and give talks, and there’s all sorts of kookery going on. And what I concluded about this is: You really have two very different kinds of people. The people on stage at the convention were entrepreneurs. They were shills; they just found a way to make a living; they found a good grip. The people in the audience were at church, you know; they don’t necessarily believe every word of the doctrine. Maybe they got some questions about this or that. But they’re getting a sense of affirmation and fulfillment and a sense of community, which is really what these kinds of movements peddle. So whether it’s QAnon, or the flat-earthers, the Trump movement, any of the rest of this stuff; they’re all selling the same snake oil. They’re all selling the same product.

And there’s an old kind of cartoon of conservatives. You see some bum on the street, and he’s asking for a donation, and there’s a guy in a pinstripe suit walking by, and the guy in the suit says, “Get a job.” And that’s the cartoon conservative thing, “Get a job.” You know what, “Get a job” is great advice for a lot of people. “Get a job” is exactly the thing we should be telling a whole lot of people. And when I saw these idiots at the Capitol the other day, yeah, “Get a job” is what I thought. People should be busy doing something productive with [their] lives—not out here trying to overthrow the government in some jackass display of buffoonery, and then storm the seat of American government and act surprised when they shoot at you. I am not a social Darwinist, but if I were, I would think of that as a pretty good example of what I’m talking about.

We’ll leave it at that. The book is Big White Ghetto. Kevin Williamson, thanks so much for joining us. 

Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

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