John W. Miller is a journalist and the co-director of the PBS film Moundsville. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed him on the film, Moundsville, and social and economic changes across the country.
Why did you decide to make a film about Moundsville?
After the 2016 election, I thought: What could I write or create that would be a narrative all Americans would agree was true and would tell a deeper story about America than the daily journalism I had been doing my whole career? Immediately, Moundsville, WV, came to mind as a place to do this. In 2013, I had written a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal about the town’s ghost tourism industry. Moundsville is one of the few places in industrial America that has so many layers of history. The 69-foot-high Native American mound in the middle of town is a window to the prehistoric pre-Columbian past. Moundsville experienced white settlement in the 18th century. It had a glorious industrial era as a manufacturing center on the Ohio River, including the world’s biggest toy factory. And now, it’s a service economy based on a Walmart, a main street, a hospital, and a prison. What could be more archetypical? I thought about moving there and writing a book. But when I met filmmaker David Bernabo I proposed a film and he said yes. We got a $4,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Arts Council and made the film in 2018. One thing that’s important about the Moundsville project is that we decided not to cover Trump or opioids. I think these are really important topics that deserve attention but they’re not the only topics, and they’re also momentary. I wanted to offer some deeper answers.
The film shows the movement from an industrial economy with a lot of good middle-class jobs to a post-industrial economy, where these types of jobs are often replaced by lower paying jobs in the service sector. How much of that shift do you think is driven by decisions made by national and local public officials versus larger structural forces?
I think it’s really complicated, and there are a lot of different reasons. It’s true that work has been devalued in the last 40 years in the name of profit. The Reagan Revolution in the 1980s gave companies license to pay as little as they could and move factories to countries where they could pay even less. Factory owners in place like Moundsville often took the bait and made a killing selling to private equity and Wall Street investors. They bear a lot of responsibility. But another reason for decline in Moundsville is simply the nature of capitalism, which is a great system for creating new businesses but doesn’t have a lot of answers for when those businesses die. And inevitably many businesses die because, simply, people have moved on to consuming something other than the things they were making. For example, Marx Toys in the Moundsville area made Rock’em Sock’em Robots, Big Wheels and all these other iconic toys. In the 1970s, kids started playing video games and physical toys became less popular. That contributed to the factory closing. I don’t think that was anybody’s fault. It’s true that trade deals in the 1980s and 1990s opened the door for cheaper products from Asia and Mexico that killed a lot of American factories. But American citizens and consumers, I think, endorsed that by endorsing a consumer society. “We the American people did this,” a retired boiler operator named Les Barker says in our film. “We wanted everything cheaper.” I think one of the lessons of Moundsville is we should all learn to live with less and prioritize community instead of consumption.
One person in the film bluntly says that young people with college degrees should leave. Do you agree? And do you think there is anything a place like Moundsville can and should do to attract or keep young people with higher education degrees?
One of the things I love about the movie is that it shows there’s no easy answers. Life is complicated. I think some people probably should leave, but some shouldn’t. Some young people have chosen to make their lives there. Life in Moundsville isn’t hell. As our characters show, there’re still lots of people finding meaning and fulfillment Moundsville. Some depopulation is inevitable. I think the answer in places like this is smaller populations, tourism, and niche business and industries. And maybe some remote work thanks to technology and the work-from-home revolution.
Another theme that came up was the way the loss of industrial jobs seemed to erode a broader sense of community. Do you think the changing economy has undermined community there and increased things like a greater sense of alienation or isolation?
Absolutely. There’s an interesting debate that Tim Carney brings up in his book Alienated America about what comes first: industry or community? My answer is that the jobs have to be there to support a good life for people. It’s a principle of Catholic Social Teaching that for a strong community, you need work that pays a living wage and offers a good standard of life. I think if you don’t have a bunch of decent jobs in a place, you’re going to have isolation and alienation.
In Chris Arnade’s book Dignity, one of the big themes seems to be how people find meaning in a post-industrial economy where middle class work once gave people stability and a sense of purpose. Where do you think people in Moundsville find meaning? Do they still look to their work to provide that meaning, like so many ambitious college grads (imbued with a meritocratic ideology) do when they head to big cities for jobs?
I think people in Moundsville still love their community. It’s incredibly safe. It’s between an iconic river and beautiful mountains. They find meaning in that beauty, and in that closeness to each other. They’re very loyal to each other. They also find meaning in the hope that things might improve in the future. I think one thing the pandemic has taught people is that they can find good lives away from New York and San Francisco. The brain drain to those cities is an undercovered story, and one thing that needs to happen in this country is a rebalancing toward the middle. A lot of people still leave places like Moundsville, and almost always it’s to get a better job.
Do you think people in places like Moundsville have the sense that you can have a stronger local economy or diligently protect the environment—but probably not both?
That’s a good question. I think people in Moundsville are very aware of that tradeoff. In a perfect world, they’d have industrial jobs with some environmental cost (because every industry has some cost) but not a poisonous or dangerous one. In some towns, people miss the smell of stinky air because that was the smell of really good jobs.
Do you think there are policy changes that can be made to strengthen the middle class in Moundsville and similar places all across the country?
I think there are two things that really hold people back in Moundsville and around the country. The first is that wages need to go up. Even in Moundsville, $10 an hour isn’t enough to have a decent life. I don’t love the minimum wage rules because they do limit what businesses can do, but I think they’re probably necessary when companies have so much power and pay so little. I’m glad companies are now hiking wages in response to all these people quitting their jobs. The second is that we need to figure out a way to make health care and college affordable. Their excessive cost is brutally unfair and really punishes people in places where wages are too low. Americans tend to hate this idea but I think we should have a health care system with private insurers but regulations that limit prices. But the truth is that there are no easy policy answers, and if I had them, I’d be running for office. Whatever policies are prescribed, what I wanted to show with Moundsville is that we need to do a better job of listening to the people policies are affecting.