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What Do We Owe the Folks Who Are the Heart of America?

So I am talking to Raymond Hubbard, 31, a perfectly normal young man here at the local polling place, about to cast his vote in the Badger State’s primary. Nope, nothing out of the ordinary about Ray--if you don’t count the prosthetic leg. He is asked: Does it hurt at all? “Only when I walk,” he answers with a matter-of-fact shrug.

Ray isn’t complaining. Maybe I will complain later on his behalf, and on behalf of Middle Americans here in the Heartland, but first, let’s tell Ray’s story. He was working a production job for HyPro, a precision machined components company near here, when he joined the Wisconsin National Guard in 2003; the Iraq War had begun, so he knew where he was headed.

In the Guard, he rose quickly to the rank of sergeant; then, in Iraq, while at his watch post in Baghdad, he was hit by an enemy rocket blast. That was July 4, 2006. After months of rehab, including the new left leg, now back in Wisconsin, he raises his two sons--“we play a lot of videogames together”--while becoming active in both the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

I am here in the Midwest with Joe Klein of Time magazine, who is driving across the country on a reporting road trip; I’m just tagging along for a couple days.

For his part, Joe is a longtime journalist and author, perhaps best known for writing “Primary Colors,” later turned into a Mike Nichols movie starring John Travolta as a charismatic Southern governor running for president.

But Joe has also been a close student of the military and military strategy--and of veterans, and of the challenges they face back at home; back in the 80s, he wrote “Payback: Five Marines After Vietnam.” Since 9/11, Joe has focused mostly on the War on Terror. He has been to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East dozens of times; although he is now in his 60s, he has eagerly embedded with the troops, to see better what they are going through on the front line.

As a result, he has emerged as the most astute journalistic chronicler of U.S. counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Joe says to Ray, encouragingly, about his leg: “Once the callous forms, it’ll stop hurting.” Without a hint of self-pity, Ray answers, “Yeah,” as he walks over to the voting both, the faintest hint of a grimace on his face as he moves the leg.

Ray asks me where I’m from. I grew up in Chicago, I say, but I’ve lived in Washington, D.C. for a long time. “I like D.C. a lot,” Ray responds. Yes, D.C. is a nice place, I think to myself: lots of monuments, lots of culture--mostly thanks to the steady spigot of tax money from places such as Wisconsin.

So what brought you to D.C., I ask, thinking that his answer might be that he was there on a school field trip, or maybe during some time on liberty from a base nearby. But his answer was different: “I was at Walter Reed.” As in, the famous military hospital, where Ray received a lot more patching up than just a new leg.

After he was hit by the Russian-made 122 mm rocket, doctors put Ray into a medically-induced coma for three weeks, while they repaired, for starters, the ruptured carotid artery in his neck and the torn femoral arteries in both legs. Not so long ago, cuts to any one of those major blood vessels might have been fatal, but the medic in did a great job on the scene in Baghdad, reaching into Ray’s neck to squeeze the carotid wound closed; then doctors did the rest. Only after talking to Ray for a while does one realize that he has scars all over his legs and arms. I asked him about conditions at Walter Reed--which received heavy criticism in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in The Washington Post--but once again, Ray had no complaints. Later, Joe explains that the problems were at outpatient facilities--and at that time, Ray was no outpatient.

Ray has his doubts, now, about the Iraq war, but he is grateful to his friends and neighbors. Back in ‘06, folks held a homecoming party and fundraiser for him, helping him and his wife fix up their house--although he and his wife eventually split. “Another casualty,” Ray says simply. Still, he feels well-treated compared to his late father and his uncle, both of whom fought in Vietnam; they told him they faced a much colder reception when they came home from that war, decades ago.

Meanwhile we all know what we owe men like Ray--everything.

But what do we owe other folks like Ray? The folks who play by the rules, pay the taxes, and fight our wars? After all, who do we think it is that bulks up our armed forces? Who were those men and women riding around in under-armored Humvees during the worst years in Iraq? And who, today, is walking the point on patrol in Afghanistan? It’s John Q. and Jane Q. Public, many of them from little towns in the Midwest, where they gave up their blue-collar livelihoods to go overseas and fight for the rest of us.

Yet it’s exactly those kinds of blue-collar jobs--once known as good jobs at good wages--that have been disappearing over the last 50 years, along with the overall shrinkage of the American manufacturing sector. Manufacturing was more than a quarter of the U.S. economy back in the 50s, and it is now barely more than a tenth. Indeed, just in the last decade, employment in manufacturing has fallen from 17.3 million in August 2000 to 11.7 million August 2010--a decline of 32 percent.

One needn’t get overly romantic about blue-collar work--many production workers would be perfectly happy to let automation and robots do the heavy lifting--but with the decline of the manufacturing sector has come a flattening out of real wages (that is, adjusted for inflation) for working Americans. A headline in Friday’s Wall Street Journal put it bluntly: “Lost Decade for Family Income.”

As the article noted, “The inflation-adjusted income of the median household--smack in the middle of the populace--fell 4.8% between 2000 and 2009, even worse than the 1970s.”

Until recently, living standards in America were still rising; mostly because housing prices were going up rapidly, making people land-rich, even if they were salary-poor. But of course, real estate is now just another popped bubble.

Meanwhile, on the same day I met Ray, more bad news was coming for Badger State blue collars: The front page of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported on a new deal between the management and workers at Harley Davidson, the legendary motorcycle company headquartered in Milwaukee, just 50 or so miles up I-43 from Sharon. The terms of the deal were harsh: Production workers would see their wages frozen for seven years, as well as see increases in their health care costs. 

In addition, a chunk of workers will be laid off, and lower-paid temp workers brought in. And despite all those union concessions, the company made no guarantee about the jobs. As one local union official told the newspaper: “We tried everything we could to get a commitment to keep jobs in Milwaukee throughout the seven-year agreement. We got a verbal commitment, but we could not get it in writing.” In other words, deal notwithstanding, the jobs could all disappear tomorrow.

For its part, the company says that it’s in a squeeze, and that’s the truth. Just four years ago, the motorcycle maker enjoyed profits of $1 billion; in 2009, Harley reported a loss of $55 million. Once upon a time, the owners of the company might have felt close to their workers, keeping them on the payroll through lean times, holding their skilled and loyal workforce together--and maybe even to be nice.

But now it’s different. The owners of Harley are shareholders--the company went public, listing itself on the New York Stock Exchange in 1986--and so the owners today are the shareholders, a diffuse group of individual investors, pension fund managers, and hedge fund speculators scattered all over the world. Those absentee owners have almost certainly never visited the plant, or met a Harley worker; so there’s no chance for worker and owner to bond the way they once might have at, say, a beer-and-bratwurst company softball game.

Today, Harley executives report to financial-mathematics types who monitor company performance stock from computer screens in New York City, or London, or Dubai. Indeed, these “quants”--short for quantitative--increasingly manage their stock portfolios with the aid of computer algorithms; it’s entirely possible that Harley-Davidson’s share price moves up and down with almost no human input. And since the stock price, as determined by quants and computers, is now just a third of what it was just four years ago, the hired managers in Milwaukee know that if they don’t drive a hard bargain with workers, the computer-assisted owners living thousands of miles away will drive an even harder bargain--maybe moving the whole operation to another country.

So that’s the story in Wisconsin. Some say that the de-industrialization of the Heartland is inevitable, because free trade requires that blue-collar jobs go to China, where labor is cheaper. Some even say that de-industrialization is desirable, because, after all, those internal combustion engines generate carbon dioxide--and besides, we should be taking mass transit, not riding hogs.

Back in his little corner of rural Wisconsin, Ray Hubbard, having done his part in the war, keeps up with the news, and votes--but he’s just one guy. No doubt many of those wage-frozen Harley workers are vets, too, and they keep up with the news, and they vote. And yet all of them are still helpless, in the face of powerful players in faraway cities. In the great battle between labor and capital, capital has won this round, that’s for sure.

Maybe that’s the way the global-capitalist system has to work. But here at home, we should remember that there’s another system; we can call it the national-patriotic system, the system that gave us Ray, who fought in Iraq, and his father and his uncle, who fought in Vietnam, and generations of vets before them.

The national-patriotic system means that men--and now women--hear the sound of the trumpet, put down their tools, join up, and fight for our country. And yet if those warriors come back and find that their jobs are downsized and outsourced, well, that’s a threat to the national-patriotic system. Why? Because a wise country, looking ahead to the unfortunately inevitable next war, makes sure that everyone has a strong stake in the system. That’s the way that the social contract, between governors and the governed, needs to operate.

For his part, Ray Hubbard never complains. I have no doubt that if his country needed him, he would join up again--if he were physically able. But if the global-capitalist system keeps grinding down the national-patriotic system, can we really be sure that we will have the Ray Hubbards we need in the future?

James P. Pinkerton is a writer, Fox News contributor and the editor/founder of SeriousMedicineStrategy.

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James P. Pinkerton is a Fox News contributor. He worked in the White House domestic policy offices of Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He is also the editor of CureStrategy.org.