The beer is excellent, too.
Beth Macy has received too many thumbs-up reviews of her new book “Factory Man” to count. We’re talking not one, not two, but three glowing mentions in The New York Times alone. This book is on fire.
And the attention is so well deserved. This is an important piece of journalism on many levels.
First, Macy tells the story of Bassett, a company town in rural Virginia whose trajectory was inevitably linked to the family who named it — and for a good part of its history owned everything from the bank to the hospital. That family at times rivaled the patriarchs of Dallas for soap opera-worthy drama, and Macy chronicles much of it, in note-perfect prose that preserves respect and dignity for every well-drawn character.
Next, Macy paints a rich, layered portrait of JBIII, the black-sheep son of the family denied his feudal right to the CEO’s chair. John Bassett III is a character whose story needed to be told. When speaking at the “Factory Man” launch at Parkway Brewery Co. in Salem, Bassett seemed to revel in a former employee’s description of him: “He may be an asshole, but when he’s your asshole, that’s a very good thing.” Strong-willed, hard-working and much smarter than even his own family gave him credit for, JBIII didn’t fade away when his brother-in-law took over the company and made it clear that the prodigal son’s role would be as minor as he could make it.
Instead, John Bassett took over another company in nearby Galax, Va. He turned it around and, when the illegal dumping of Chinese exports threatened the entire domestic furniture industry, he fought back at the International Trade Commission. He didn’t stop there, though. He made sure his company and his factories were nimble and smart, and he did everything he could to maximize the advantages of domestic production. The portrait painted by Macy is every bit as complex as the man must be.
What drove him? Resentment over his treatment by his own family? A burning desire to prove himself? Concern for the hundreds of workers he felt responsible for? Or the stubborn, cantankerous inability to back down from a fight? A bit of all, most likely.
Finally, “Factory Man” is the story of free trade’s losers, from factory workers nearing retirement when Bassett shut down most of its domestic production to workers in China who would see themselves priced out to cheaper labor in Vietnam and Indonesia. Macy makes much of the fact that she’s not a business writer. And she talks quite a bit about her own upbringing as the daughter of a factory worker in a town not unlike Bassett. It’s no secret where her sympathy lies, though she is clearly not naive about the stark, painful realities of a global economy.
But where she succeeds beautifully — and where a business writer steeped in years of conventional economic wisdom might have never tread — is her vivid look at those left behind by the “rising tide” of free trade: older workers who can’t afford to leave but can’t find new jobs; younger workers who hired on as call center workers, only to see those jobs also outsourced; parents who must watch their children move away, with nothing to keep them at home.
“Factory Man,” in its depiction of JBIII’s determination and drive, makes clear that not all of this pain was necessary. If other owners had found John Bassett’s faith in and compassion for their workers, and fought both harder and smarter to keep American factories working, the flood of imports might not have washed away so many jobs, and so many lives.
American manufacturing is dying, and, as Macy writes, many economists and other big thinkers believe that’s just fine. But it isn’t. Unthinking devotion to the bottom line has robbed America of a great strength, stolen the economic vitality of a broad swath of the middle class, and made the economy exceedingly vulnerable.
For the most part, this is not the fault of American workers, but of business owners and shareholders who, for all their talk of being job creators, have overseen a decline we may never recover from.
JBIII is far from a perfect man. He and his entire family became enormously wealthy thanks largely to the sweat of others. But no one can doubt his own work ethic, and his drive to keep his business going, not just for his own sake, but for the sake of the hundreds of others whose livelihoods depend on it.
There’s a lesson there, if anyone out there is willing to learn it.
“Factory Man” is an enormously important book. May the accolades keep coming.