A Plan to Resettle America in New Country Towns


I have often thought that if we lived in a society in which anyone, including those of only average or even below average ability, who works hard and plays by the rules could realistically look forward to a rich and fulfilling life, then much of the cultural and racial conflict that is currently dividing our country would simply disappear.

But, of course, we don’t live in such a society today. Some would say that such a thing is not even imaginable, let alone achievable anytime soon. Against that view, I want to propose a possibility that, however challenging it might be to achieve from a political standpoint, could bring such a society into being in the coming decades. What would it look like? And would it be popular with all classes of people? The easiest way to answer both of those questions is to quote the results of an old Gallup poll. The question asked was the following:

As a new way to live in America, the idea has been suggested of building factories in rural areas—away from cities—and running them on part-time jobs. Under this arrangement the man and the woman would each work 3 days a week 6 hours a day. People would have enough spare time to build their own houses, to cultivate a garden and for hobbies and other outside interests. How interested would you be in this way of life?

Forty percent of those interviewed said they would be either “definitely” or “probably” be interested in living this way, with another quarter of the public leaving the door open to the possibility. What is more, those numbers turned out to be broadly representative of the public as a whole when broken down by gender, age-group, family income, and years of education. Interestingly, the only exception was by race. Non-whites were appreciably more interested in the idea than whites (61% vs 38%).

Here, then, to a first approximation at least, we have a picture of what such a society might look like. The key innovation, clearly, is the idea of factories in the countryside run on part-time jobs. It would be a mistake, however, to imagine such factories being scattered higgledy-piggledy across the rural landscape. Such a haphazard arrangement would not only be inefficient, but could easily devolve into a new kind of industrial feudalism under which working families find themselves overly dependent upon a single source of gainful employment.

To avoid both of these undesirable outcomes, let us think not in terms of single factories but rather in terms of small groups of such factories, focusing our attention on the new kinds of local neighborhood communities and small country towns that might develop around them. Imagine, for example, a collection of small family homesteads grouped around a central village green. Such an old-fashioned arrangement, if properly executed, could foster a rich variety of daily interactions among like-minded families such as we seldom if ever see in urban or suburban neighborhoods today.

Meanwhile, the town itself could be small enough and laid out in such a way that the people living there need no longer rely on highspeed automobiles as their primary means of personal transportation. Instead, they could get around in far less expensive lightweight cars designed to go 30 mph, thereby saving themselves a great deal of time as well as money compared to what is required to traverse large metropolitan areas today. The environmental advantages would just be a bonus.

Or consider two other intractable issues that every modern industrial society is being forced to confront, whether it wants to or not. I refer to the high costs of retirement and of end-of-life care, which, taken together, are threatening the solvency of the way we live now. To deal with this twin challenge, the future inhabitants of these new country towns will have a new option. They could abandon the traditional nuclear family in favor of a new three-generation form of the family under which parents and grandparents would share the same piece of property under two separate roofs at opposites ends of the garden. The advantages of this arrangement are twofold. On the one hand, grandparents will be in a position to help look after their grandchildren, while they are still infants and toddlers especially, on those occasions that invariably arise when both parents have to be away from home at the same time. Then, later on in life when the grandparents themselves have grown old and feeble and are no longer able to live on their own, their children and grandchildren will be close enough by to help look after them. Not only would this obviate the need for assistant living facilities and nursing homes, but it means that elderly retirees would no longer depend on their monthly Social Security benefits alone to meet all their material needs. Thus, those benefits could be substantially reduced without compromising the quality of their lives.

Nor is this the end of the story. Once work and leisure have been fully integrated into the fabric of everyday life, people will no longer feel the same need to retire they do now. They will be able to comfortably continue working for quite a few years beyond today’s customary age of retirement. That fact, combined with the fact that their monthly Social Security benefits can now be much smaller when eventually they do feel compelled to retire, will go a long way towards establishing the financial viability of this new way of life.

These are just some of the ways that factories in the countryside run on part-time jobs would enable ordinary working families to make a much happier and more efficient use of their limited time and resources to satisfy their human needs. I identify several others in the opening chapter of my new book, A Part-time Job in the Country, which I urge readers to read. But for the moment let me simply assert that I have in fact conceived of a society that meets the criterion with which I began, namely, one in which anyone who worked hard and played by the rules could reasonably look forward to a rich and fulfilling life.

Let us turn now to what I think everyone will agree is the most important outstanding question before us, namely, how in the world will we be able to persuade hard-headed businessmen that it will be in their interest to build factories in the countryside and run on part-time jobs? The answer, it turns out, is surprisingly simple.

We shall argue that with the right kind of wage bargain between labor and management—meaning, in this case, an agreement under which workers’ pay will be directly proportional to their output—such factories can be expected to run a good deal faster and more efficiently than conventional factories employing full-time workers, generating a significantly higher rate of return on investment in the process. Why do we say this? For two reasons:

In the first place, because from a physiological point of view part-time workers can work faster and more efficiently than full-time workers—just as in track-and-field the short-distance runners always run faster than the long-distance runners. And secondly, because manufacturers will be free to give their employees somewhat fewer hours on the job each week than they might voluntarily prefer. Putting these two facts together, and given that workers’ wages will be proportional to their output, it follows that these part-time employees will be incentivized to exert themselves to the maximum degree possible. In other words, even though unit labor costs will stay the same, a given manufacturing facility will churn out more product in any given period of time. The result will be not only higher hourly pay for the workers involved, but a higher rate of return on the capital invested in that facility. In today’s lingo, it would be a win-win proposition for labor and capital alike.

The persuasiveness of this easy-to-understand argument notwithstanding, we must acknowledge that factories of this new type will not be able to compete with similar facilities in China and other less-developed parts of the world, where workers are paid a small fraction of what they are in America. No conceivable increase in labor productivity in this country could possibly compensate for such a large differential. This leads to an inescapable conclusion. Only new protective trade legislation in the form of high tariffs on goods manufactured in low-wage countries overseas will cause American manufacturers to voluntarily begin locating their most labor-intensive facilities in the US once again.

This highlights the essentially political nature of the challenge before us. Before we can bring this new society into being it will be necessary to confront and defeat the reigning neoliberal orthodoxy, based as it is on a misbegotten (though highly profitable) notion of “free trade” in a lobsided world. That it is so highly profitable is what makes this task so difficult. For what we are up against here is the power of organized money: the ten or twelve thousand wealthiest families in America who between them bankroll both political parties and control all the major media. No wonder they are able to set the political agenda and steer the national conversation in directions that divide the populace and keep themselves in power.

To successfully challenge this capital-owning class in the electoral arena is going to require a new form of organized labor in America on a scale never before seen in this country. Such an organization will not crystalize out of thin air. To come into existence it needs a catalyst, something new and exciting around which to coalesce. What better for that purpose than the new towns I propose in my book, given that there are likely millions if not tens of millions of ordinary working- and middle-class men and women across the United States today, young people especially, who would like nothing better than to pioneer such a revolutionary new way of living on a new American frontier.

This is why I have devoted the last and longest chapter in my book to setting out in considerable detail just what would be involved in founding a completely new type of national membership organization in America: one that, among other things, can effectively champion the interests all Americans interested in this new way of life either for themselves or for their children and grandchildren, a major goal of which will be to pressure Congress to pass the necessary legislation to make it all possible.

Luke Lea is the author of A Part-time Job in the Country: Notes Toward a New Way of Life in America, from which this article is extracted.