This election has put a spotlight on rural voters. Exit polls have pointed to job loss and job erosion as being a driver behind their vote for change.
The issue is, can campaign promises of renegotiated trade deals and reduced regulation restore rural America's jobs and economy?
How government damaged rural America
There is no question that government policies have damaged job opportunities in rural America. The loss of our textile industry is just one example. This industry was once a backbone of rural America’s economy. Then the Federal government enacted air quality rules to protect workers while also opening the trade door to Asian imports.
The government regulatory actions had good intentions. Air quality was a significant health issue for textile workers called “lint heads” because of the amount of particulate matter in their work place environment. These workers faced a shorten life plus a painful death from lung disease caused by long term particulate inhalation.
What the Federal policy failed to consider in its air quality regulation was the ability of the textile industry to relocate. I watched this happen while living in the South. It was amazing at how quickly America’s textile industry left rural America after the air quality regulations were implemented. The critical regulatory flaw was in not applying these regulations to both domestic and imported textile products.
There are countless other examples of how government policy and regulations have eroded America's manufacturing base.
But the question is, does righting 20th century wrongs in trade and regulation is the 21st century path to restoring the jobs and economy of rural America?
21st century realities that rural America must align with
The 21st century economy is being shaped by two mega trends. They are the Information Age and the Green Economic Revolution. The Information Age is a technology revolution. It is disruptively making our cars, homes, phones, stores, offices, farms and factories smarter, cleaner and interconnected.
The Green Economic Revolution is a consumer revolution. The 20th century consumer sought "super-size-me" prices, convenience and brand affinity. 21st century consumers seek to align value with values. Businesses make money in the Green Economic Revolution by delighting customers with products that cost less, are validated as authentic and are transparent in their representations.
The new economy realities being created by the Information Age and the Green Economic Revolution are:
1. Information age cities are global job creators. America’s Information Age-centric cities like New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles now have population sizes and gross economic production that dwarfs most states. The Information Age has made cities the world’s economic engine. However this is not a battle between rural America and cities. Congestion in our largest Information Age cities is pushing jobs and opportunities out across America, including to rural communities that have the talent pool, clean electricity and interconnectivity to execute Information Age work.
2.Manufacturing robotics costs less. Least cost manufacturing is moving past a pursuit of least cost labor. Rural America is unlikely to win back most of the jobs lost to globalization because manufacturing is shifting to the superior economics of robotics. This is a global phenomenon. Chinese factory laborers are losing their jobs to robotics too. The days of winning manual labor manufacturing jobs with lower cost manual labor now faces the realty that robotics can do it cheaper, cleaner and better. The path for rural America's manufacturing rebirth is to offer robotic manufacturing sites that offer Information Age skilled labor, access to global interconnectivity and clean, affordable and reliable electricity.
3. Internet shopping wins. Sadly, Walmart jobs are too often the best jobs in rural America. This is now at risk. Big box stores are losing market share to lower cost, higher convenience internet shopping. Big box stores will not go away but they will continue to lose market share. That means less opportunity for rural Americans seeking jobs in Big Box stores.
Next steps for rural America
It is highly likely rural America will be disappoint by the job creation and economic growth achieved through redressing old wounds created by the 20th century's government regulations and free trade deals. The path to rural America’s renewal is to align with these 21st century mega trends:
- Solving global warming. Rural America faces real risks to its economy and personal safety if it rejects climate change data and science. The productivity and cost competitiveness of rural America's farms are at risk if global warming continues unabated. Rural America will disproportionately suffer from forest fires, floods and droughts made more intense by global warming. Rural America has very real economic and liability risk mitigation reasons to create the businesses and jobs that make money solving climate change.
- Creating a healthy food supply. We are in a national weigh crisis. Obesity related illness like diabetes and heart disease will increasingly damage our health and our country's finances. Our food supply must be reengineered around affordable, good tasting food that enhances human health. This is a huge opportunity for rural America. Information Age technologies are increasing farm productivity, lowering costs and reducing their environmental impacts. Farms aligning with the Green Economic Revolution are winning customers by selling organic foods. But this is an opportunity that rural America can lose if cities are forced to develop urban agriculture producing affordable, tasty and healthier food because rural America did not.
- Growing clean/smart tech businesses. During the 21st century solar, wind, batteries and smart buildings/cars will win competitive advantage by delivering lower costs and superior performance. How many businesses could be started to install smart/clean building technologies in rural America's farms, factories, stores and homes? Those are jobs that would not be at risk to globalization or government regulation.
Combined, these 21st century mega trends define the path for winning competitive advantage and achieving sustained economic growth. It is the best path for rural America’s achieving sustained economic renewal.
Bill Roth is a cleantech business pioneer having led teams that developed the first hydrogen fueled Prius and a utility scale, non-thermal solar power plant. Using his CEO and senior officer experiences, Roth has coached hundreds of CEOs and business owners on how to develop and implement projects that win customers and cut costs while reducing environmental impacts. As a professional economist, Roth has written numerous books including his best selling The Secret Green Sauce (available on Amazon) that profiles proven sustainable best practices in pricing, marketing and operations. His most recent book, The Boomer Generation Diet (available on Amazon) profiles his humorous personal story on how he used sustainable best practices to lose 40 pounds and still enjoy Happy Hour!