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Until I read Frances Martel’s “Hanging by a Thread,” I used to think of Union City as little more than one of those bleak-looking smallish northern New Jersey municipalities the Amtrak trains pass through on their way between New York City and points south.  How wrong I was!  And for such wide-ranging policy and political reasons!  

Not that you can’t simply enjoy her long feature for Breitbart.com for the fascinating descriptions of what makes her hometown special geologically (e.g., it sits on lots of Manhattan bedrock-like granite, good for supporting factories with heavy machines and multistory housing) and demographically (because it developed fairly late in the 19th century, its population was always dominated by immigrants).

Clearly important as well is Martel’s main theme – how manufacturing built solid prosperity for Union City from the get-go, and how its demise, due to developments like (but not restricted to) offshoring-obsessed U.S. trade policies helped bring punishingly hard times. (Full disclosure: Martel interviewed me for the article, and quoted me quite generously.)

But if you’re thinking this is only an article for trade and/or manufacturing mavens, or for New Jersey history aficionadoes, you’re sorely mistaken. For along the way, “Hanging by a Thread” offers important insights into how these closely related subjects profoundly affect many of the nation’s other major issues and challenges.

For example, Martel offers a novel twist on the notion that the United States welcomed so many immigrants so consistently (though not always) from the mid-19th century onwards in particular because of its urgent need for unskilled labor. No doubt most of the newcomers were poorly educated. But as “Hanging” makes clear, industry during this period used lots of complicated machinery, including the embroidery sector that became concentrated in Union City.

As Union City’s official historian told Martel, many of its first immigrants came from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and other parts of Europe with major textile industries, and brought with them extensive experience working with such devices that employers clearly found valuable.

Since skills (of different kinds, of course) remain so crucial to economic success today, Union City’s past raises the question of whether – as Open Borders advocates seem to believe – the United States today should indiscriminately welcome immigrants regardless of skill levels and gainful employability.

Two other messages coming through loud and clear from Martel’s research and analysis are especially important for conservatives to heed. The first has to do with unions. Martel’s parents were hard-line anti-communists who fled Castro’s Cuba, and her mother worked in apparel. The author explains that these arrangements were seen as “a critical part of the factory ecosystem.” The following exchange, with her mother speaking first, makes the point vividly:

I have always had a good union. It works, I think. It works to have a union because without a union, in a private place, you’re screwed,’ she told me.

You don’t feel that there is a conflict between that and being a capitalist?’” I asked…..

No. What? Being a capitalist? No,’ she replied, with confusion. ‘No, that has nothing to do with socialism, it’s just so that the worker has someone to defend them. If you don’t have a job, they can fire you whenever. That’s not fair. To throw you out for no reason, it’s unfair ifyou are working well.’”

Martel’s second message for conservatives actually echoes a point I’ve made before (e.g., here): The more enthusiastically traditional free trade policies are pursued by American leaders, the bigger government’s going to get. But as Martel makes clear, these approaches to the global economy are bound to generate needs that far exceed the kinds of welfare state benefits (ranging from income support to heavily subsidized healthcare) used to keep living standards above third world levels (or at least try to do so).

As the Union City example shows, relentless globalization can also turbocharge government’s role in economic development itself. The author explains that, since 2000, Union City Mayor Bob Stack (a big-city machine politician if ever there was one)

took the reins on the eve of the guillotine falling on embroidery and has taken to meticulously rebuilding the identity of the city. He tore down Roosevelt Stadium, the sports venue at the heart of the city, to build a new Union City High School – with a stadium on the roof. Union City previously boasted two high schools, one for Union Hill and one for West Hoboken, that Stack turned into middle schools. He built parks in honor of the city’s Cuban, Colombian, and Dominican populations, and an ‘International Park.’ Seemingly every other street has a water park open in the summer for children to play in – the biggest, Firefighters’ Memorial Park, boasts an Olympic-sized swimming pool. His administration also refurbished the downtown library into the Musto Cultural Center and built its replacement, the library at José Martí Middle School (which his administration also built), in the shadow of what was once St. Michael’s monastery, an imposing Catholic historic site that now houses a Korean Presbyterian congregation.”

In other words, Union City realistically recognized the choices before it, and rejected “the option much of the Rust Belt took: do nothing, abandon ship, hope the invisible hand swoops in before you hit the concrete.” As a result (and also because of its proximity to New York City), it’s more than avoided the ghost town fates of counterparts like Gary, Indiana, Youngstown, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan.