In 1947, Forbes magazine hailed the community of Lancaster, Ohio as the model of the American enterprise system. Home to Anchor Hocking Glassware, the world’s largest glass tableware manufacturer, this small town was bustling with good jobs, new cars, and American flags. Today, this once vibrant community is struggling to survive.
In “Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town,” Brian Alexander, an award-winning magazine writer who grew up in Lancaster, uses his hometown’s story to tell a larger tale about the rise of inequality and the erosion of social cohesion in the United States.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s huge victory in Ohio, this book, due for release in February 2017, is perfectly timed. And Alexander’s story-telling skills make it an engrossing read.
One of the main characters in “Glass House” is Sam Solomon, an African-American who was installed as CEO of Anchor Hocking after it was bought by a New York private equity firm. Over time, tensions erupt between Solomon and the cut-throat investors who hired him as he becomes increasingly determined to rescue the majority-white town’s largest private employer.
Alexander intertwines Solomon’s story with longtime residents of Lancaster. There’s Brian Gosset, a fourth-generation glassworker at Anchor Hocking who wrestles with nostalgia for the past and his fears for the future. There’s Jason Roach, who at one time was Lancaster’s biggest drug dealer and now sells to support his own habit. Eric Brown, a local football hero-turned-cop, comes to realize arresting people for petty drug comes won’t help the larger problems Lancaster faces.
As the stories progress, Solomon’s fight to save Anchor Hocking exposes how runaway corporate greed has helped destroy small businesses and communities while enriching the 1%. The glass company’s problems were not just the result of stiff competition in a free market system. Yes, imports from foreign producers who paid their workers less and ignored environmental regulations gnawed away at their profit margins. But domestic production of glass has advantages. Glass is fragile and heavy, so shipping it across oceans is expensive. And Anchor Hocking was turning a profit.
And yet the workers at Anchor Hocking still faced wage cuts and the loss of their retirement benefits while their plant disintegrated from lack of investment. So, what gives? The company’s New York-based investors were focused on squeezing as much money out of the company as they could. Alexander connects the story of this firm to the broader effects of Reaganomics and free trade policies on the working class. These policies prioritized short-term profit and coincided with the loss of jobs as companies looked to outsource their labor to cheaper, less-regulated markets.
At the core of this ideology was the doctrine of Nobel economist Milton Friedman, which asserts that business leaders have just one responsibility: delivering profits to shareholders. The fates of companies like Anchor Hocking Glass, the people who work for them, and the communities in which they live are irrelevant.
In the presidential election, the residents of Lancaster voted in favor of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 61-34 margin. “Glass House” provides powerful insights into how Trump’s promises of bringing back jobs, as hollow as they may be, were tremendously appealing to communities battered by the loss of manufacturing jobs.
Alexander deftly shows how Lancaster represents the collapse of the American dream in microcosm. The other Ohio. The other America. No New Deal awaits them. Their predicament is not covered on the evening news. But they have Trump.
Christopher Pitt is a participant in the Next Leader program at the Institute for Policy Studies.