“Pro-business” Only Counts So Long as it Fits Ideological Preconceptions

A subtitle to this post might be “Or: Why the Theory of Urban Amenities is a Mortal Threat to the GOP’s Economic Agenda.” I’ve been immersed in economics in my first semester of grad school; I’m taking a course on economic development, and another one which is heavy on the economic aspects of urban developments. With economic considerations in my head, a couple of recent stories out of Tennessee, of all places, caught my eye.

The first was the relatively well-publicized battle by the United Auto Workers to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. Though it ended in defeat for the unionization effort (a result which has, rightly, resulted in a lot of self-examination by the campaigners), the Chattanooga fight was remarkable even before that for its unusual dynamics. The automaker, unusually, didn’t oppose, and indeed welcomed the unionization effort. Apparently in VW’s German plants the standard practice is for management to run the plant together with a labor-organized “works’ council,” and labor holds a strong position on the automaker’s board. The opposition to the union came, then, not from the employer but from outside forces–local and state Republican officials and national conservative groups. Ultimately, the scare tactics employed by the anti-union forces (associating the UAW with President Obama, threatening that VW would not bring a new plant to the area if the original one unionized), prevailed.

The second story is out of Nashville. There, the mayor and others have been trying for years to bring Tennessee’s first high-capacity transit line, the Amp bus rapid transit line, to fruition. The battle over the line has been ugly, breaking down largely along racial and class lines. This week, Republican state lawmakers proposed an amendment to a bill that would ban the key aspect of the Amp, the dedication of center lanes to the buses on some streets. The reaction among many in Nashville has been, from what I can gather on Twitter, furious; many are dumbfounded that the state would interfere with Nashville’s attempts at progress in such a petty, mean-spirited way. (Though really, they shouldn’t be; just look at the antagonistic relationship between New York State and New York City on transit issues. State governments rarely look out for the interests of their cities.) Of course, part of the attempt at destroying the Amp project is simple reactionary conservatism; old white men rarely understand transit as anything other than a conveyance for the Great Other, and it’s often perceived as a blue-state luxury. What’s more remarkable to me, though, is that Amp seems to have strong support from Nashville’s business community. Apparently, supporting businesses looking out for the interests of their city isn’t “pro-business.”

And that, I think, gets to the central idea of what I’m trying to tease out here. The common thread between the two Tennessee stories is the economic idea of amenities–that is, that there are certain things government, employers, and others can do to grease the wheels and make work and public life a little more efficient. Volkswagen wanted to allow the UAW into its plant because doing so would allow them to set up a works council, an industry best practice that gives assembly-line workers more input into the way the plant is run. Does doing that concede a little power to the workers, and make production maybe a little less efficient in the short run? Would unionization mean shelling out more in salary and benefits? Sure. But VW understood that in the long-run, providing workers with certain amenities can make production more efficient. In Nashville, business leaders understand that the only realistic way to combat urban transportation congestion is through transit, and that to attract the kind of young, talented workforce the growing area needs the infrastructure needs to exist for a low-car lifestyle to be possible. And they’re willing to put their tax dollars where their mouths are.  Urban amenities matter. You might have to spend more money now, but it’s an investment–it will pay off down the line.

And it’s that idea–of investment in amenities leading to longer-term growth–that the GOP in Tennessee apparently finds so threatening. The idea that investment in amenities can lead to longer-term growth and development flatly contradicts essentially the GOP’s entire economic platform, which can be characterized by the word “cheap”: cheap labor, cheap taxes, cheap goods. The idea that in order to achieve the latter you might occasionally want to invest in the first two is anathema to many Republicans, to the point that they’re willing to throw aside their “pro-business” image in order to prevent it happening. If you hear a faint whiff of desperation there, I don’t think you’re alone. The idea that businesses might be willing to invest in amenities for their workers or for their cities holds the potential to bring the logic of the GOP’s entire economic platform (such as it is) crashing down around them. It must be terrifying. And it’s already started.

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