“Throw out the rules of capitalism. They don’t work anymore.”
That was the first idea tossed into a room full of journalists gathered at Denison University recently as the Your Voice Ohio collaborative and Solutions Journalism Network opened a conference on the state’s ailing economy, the topic Ohioans identified as most important.
Question capitalism? Sound heretical? That’s the way journalists begin major projects. Doubt everything. Trust no one. Develop hypotheses, try to prove them wrong.
After a chaotic launch, journalists generally return to time-tested principles on which to explore an issue.
Only, this time, we didn’t. We tentatively concluded that the traditional economic methods of defining a successful community may indeed be in peril, and Ohioans probably know this better than anyone else.
Consider this about work in Ohio
Jess Mador, managing editor at WYSO public radio near Dayton, recently aired a story on the changing job market. Employers need workers qualified for a technically savvy world. Automation is changing everything we do.
But if you listen carefully to Mador’s story and others like it, managers need people smart enough to automate themselves out of work. Is that sustainable?
For example, a recent story in the Akron Beacon Journal by reporter Doug Livingston raises questions about the new emphasis on vocational school and skilled trades. A builder intends to prefabricate apartment buildings in a plant, reducing the need for construction workers by perhaps 10 percent.
Still, as employers seek to automate, the country and Ohio nonetheless approach full employment. There are help-wanted signs all over. But here’s another abnormality: Wages aren’t going up as labor shortages develop. Economists are stumped by that.
At the journalists’ retreat, former Beacon Journal data reporter David Knox, who analyzed economic trends for the group, offered an opinion column by political analyst Thomas Frank, who wonders if employers do indeed value workers.
Frank says the middle class is in “late-stages disintegration.”
To add emphasis, the Bureau of Labor Statistics this month issued a report showing that wages have not only failed to rise significantly with worker shortages, but they have failed to keep pace with inflation. Workers make less now than a year ago.
Despite Ohio’s economic development incentives, more than half of Ohio’s 88 counties have experienced job losses since at least 2000. In Trumbull County in Northeast Ohio, more than two-thirds of the county has been designated an economic enterprise zone where businesses obtain tax breaks for expansion. Trumbull joined the program in 1989 yet now has a third fewer jobs than when it began.
This is all very dark. The mission of the Your Voice Ohio project is to join people in our communities to identify solutions. So, what if we ask people to consider a theory from Oxford economist Kate Raworth, who likens the economy to an airplane: It took off, and someday it needs to land. How should we do that?
She suggests that a thriving community may need to be redefined as something more than economic growth. She said we are “socially addicted to growth, thanks to a century of consumer propaganda.”
Should communities redefine success?
By midnight of the journalism retreat, nearly 14 hours after we began and as we closed another pub in downtown Granville, Ohio, we were still in lively debate that maybe the old rules of capitalism are indeed in trouble and our definition of vibrant communities may have to change.
Our debate was so loud – and provocative – that pub patrons joined us.
This is your issue. In 2016, the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron conducted polling for the Your Voice Ohio media collaborative – that’s us, the 30 journalists who met at Denison. The poll began with the question: What’s the most important issue to you?
The answers were diverse, representing the 11 million different life experiences of the state’s population. We heard poverty, income disparity, jobs, immigration, racial tension, health care and lots more. After sorting through the answers and categorizing, the economy was the number one issue but for many reasons.
We weren’t surprised. Since 2000, Ohio has suffered one of the worst economic declines in the country. The cataclysmic loss of manufacturing jobs caused our median household income to drop more than every other state but one. Moreover, we have yet to employ as many people as we did in 2000. To not recover from the 2001 recession before the next recession in 2008 was unprecedented in Ohio modern history.
And think about the impact on the giant millennial generation, which came of age during a period when the labor market shrank. How did this affect their vulnerability to the opioid crisis?
How to get involved
Over the next several months, journalists will sit with thousands of Ohioans in community conversations to gain an understanding of what you think is the definition of a vibrant community, what assets we can employ to achieve vibrancy, and think about how to get there.
For one, we’ll convene a three-day conversation to ask a demographically representative group what they need from their local news organization regarding economic vibrancy. We’ll also hold community meetings across the state for the next year, some beginning in September. Local news outlets will let you know when. And, you can visit the Your Voice Ohio website and pose questions you think useful to the conversation.
Want to participate in the three-day session? Here are some details:
o WHAT: A PAID discussion about community vibrancy to shape local reporting on Ohio’s economy. Participants will earn $400.
o WHERE: Columbus, Ohio – Travel to and from Columbus and hotel accommodations will be provided.
o WHEN: Friday, September 14, 2018, 9am-5pm; Saturday, September 15, 2018, 9am-5pm; Sunday, September 16, 2018, 10am-3pm
o WHO: All Ohio residents over the age of 18 are eligible.
o HOW: Apply online at yourvoiceohio.org/apply or call 651-209-7672 by August 22.
o A group representative of Ohio’s diverse population will be selected.
Also, you can join the conversation online. Visit https://yourvoiceohio.org/questions/ to share your stories and ideas around community vibrancy, or ask local reporters a question you want to learn more about. We'll share your stories with candidates, and ask them your questions directly.
Doug Oplinger is the media coordinator and editor for Your Voice Ohio, a statewide media collaborative that seeks to lift the voices of Ohioans on the issues they identify as important. He formerly was managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, where he worked 46 years.