Tonight I had the pleasure of meeting Brian R. Alexander, author of the new book “Glass House.” He’s a brilliant man who has written an extraordinarily important book at the exact moment it is most needed.
“Glass House” chronicles the downfall of Alexander’s hometown, Lancaster, Ohio due to the downfall of Anchor Hocking Glass which, in turn, was due to the machinations of private equity and greed. It’s a story about how one party to the Great American Social Contract — big business and finance — decided that it was more efficient to breach its obligations to the other party — workers and the communities in which they live — than to honor them.
Anchor Hocking was a Fortune 500 company which, along with some smaller yet still important companies, formed the backbone of Lancaster for close to a century. This partnership of business and community led Forbes to dedicate an entire issue to Lancaster in 1947, calling it “the quintessential American town” and the “epitome and apogee of the American free enterprise system.” The city was vibrant, the people were prosperous, the schools were strong and the sense of community forged by the shared goals of its corporate and private citizens provided the stability necessary to allow Lancaster’s civic culture to flourish.
While the decline of industrialized cities like Lancaster in the 1970s and 1980s is now characterized by many as an inevitable fact of history, there was nothing inevitable about what happened to Lancaster. Glass manufacturing is not easily outsourced due to the fragility of the product, so it’s not a simple matter of Anchor Hocking’s business moving to Mexico or China in search of cheap labor.
Rather, Anchor Hocking fell victim to private-equity financiers like Carl Ichan and Cerberus Capital Management swooping in and milking the company for whatever cash they could, while providing nothing of value to the company itself, let alone the people of Lancaster. Ichan greenmailed his way to several million easy dollars. Cerberus leveraged Anchor Hocking to the hilt, bleeding it with fees and percentages via deals that thrust all of the risk on the company and its workers and none on the owners, all of which was encouraged by the deregulation of the financial industry and the perpetuation of “greed is good” culture of the Reagan years. Valuable assets were sold off and leased back at company expense, massive amounts of debt was incurred and pension obligations were not honored, all while the company’s succession of owners raked in millions.
While Anchor Hocking continues to be a going concern, the effect of these machinations has been devastating for Lancaster. Most obviously in terms of the elimination of jobs, the reduction in salaries and benefits for existing workers, factory shutdowns and the elimination of pensions, all necessitated by the company’s massive, unnecessary debt and the bleeding of its revenues by financial speculators and corporate pirates. The result: Lancaster’s unemployment rate has risen and its underemployment rate has skyrocketed in the past 35 years. It’s simply a poorer place than it once was for some very direct and very obvious reasons.
But it’s also worse off for some less-than-immediately-obvious ones.
When new ownership came in, the entire management and executive class of Anchor Hocking was either fired or moved out of Lancaster to far away corporate headquarters, cutting a huge chunk of wealthy and educated citizens out of the civic fabric of the city. As Alexander notes, these people — and their spouses — were the ones who organized public festivals, led philanthropic efforts, served as elders and leaders in churches, took an active role in the PTA and spearheaded a large portion of the cultural initiatives of the city. They likewise formed a class of people who were prosperous enough to be able to participate directly in civic and government leadership out of a sense of duty as opposed to careerism, which has a way of encouraging ethical behavior. A healthy city in a capitalist system needs working people making good wages, but it also needs an executive and political class with a vested interest in the community. When the financiers moved in on Anchor Hocking and relocated the company’s brain trust to places like New York and Chicago, Lancaster lost this practically overnight and its civic and political institutions have suffered tremendously.
The combination of economic suffering and the suffering of civic culture has waylaid Lancaster, Ohio. It has suffered from all of the obvious things associated with increased poverty — crime, drug abuse and corruption — but it has also suffered psychic blows which are harder to capture with statistics.
Alexander, who now lives in California, returned to Lancaster to write this book and embedded himself in his old hometown. He forged real friendships with people he met in local dive bars and in once-proud country clubs which now sell memberships for $100. He was no cultural tourist, treating the people he met as data points of subjects. He befriended them and talked to them and listened to their stories.
They are stories of hopelessness and aimlessness. Of financial struggle and of cultural and existential ennui. For 100 years, a person who grew up in Lancaster had an idea of what they might do with their future that allowed for the possibility of staying there. Now, those who do not abandon Lancaster after graduating high school find themselves wondering how they fit into their community and how their community fits in the world. Maybe they take a series of service industry jobs which require little of them and which do nothing to instill a sense of pride or meaning or commitment. Maybe — after years of hearing politicians, both Democratic and Republican, who claim to care about them but who do nothing to follow up their lip service with action — they simply lose themselves to disillusionment. Maybe they just buy guns and Oxy in order to feel safe or to feel nothing. Maybe, in desperation, they throw in with a charlatan like Donald Trump who promises to make things the way they used to be.
As every review of “Glass House” will no doubt note, Alexander contends with many of the same issues and themes as does J.D. Vance’s bestseller, “Hillbilly Elegy.” It’s a logical comparison. Both are focused on small towns in Ohio which border on Appalachia. Both deal with social decline and decay, drug addiction, poverty and hopelessness. The differences between the books, however, could not be more stark.
Unlike Vance and “Hillbilly Elegy,” which I reviewed a few months ago, Alexander and “Glass House” conclude that, rather than some ill-explained and spontaneous decision of working people to suddenly become shiftless and lazy, there are actual real, straightforward and understandable institutional reasons for Lancaster’s decline. Vance, without any empirical evidence, views an entire swath of the country’s problems to be attributable to a simultaneous moral failure on the part of millions of people. It’s a view that, by shocking coincidence, absolves the sorts of investment banks and private equity firms for which Vance has worked of any responsibility.
Alexander, in contrast, makes a compelling and economical case that some very concrete causes led to real effects which flow logically from them. As a big fan of cause and effect over Vance’s brand of magical thinking — and as a bigger fan of assuming that people are rational actors and not lost souls, easily corrupted — I fall SHARPLY in Alexander’s camp when it comes to all of this. For what it’s worth, he’s also a much better writer who has seen much more of the world than has Vance and he comes off more intelligent and more empathetic than does America’s latest literary and political darling.
Please, read “Glass House.” Read it especially if you read “Hillbilly Elegy.” Read it especially if you’re a coastal liberal who nodded, uncritically, along with J.D. Vance’s pablum as a means of assuaging your guilt about your ignorance of what has befallen middle America in the past few decades and felt that, by doing so, you were paying a proper amount of cultural penance. It’s a better book that it better written and which has the benefit of making a boatload of sense where Vance’s strains credulity every single time it strays from the memoir at its core. “Glass House” is not a simplistic fable like “Hillbilly Elegy.” It’s a smart, sensible, approachable and eye-opening book that treats a complex topic with necessary sophistication while treating the real human beings at its center with the respect they deserve.
“Glass House” does not tell us how to cure the disease which has infected American business and political culture, but it properly diagnoses it, and that’s the essential first step.