An empty Sparrows Point Road leads to RG Steel LLC's Sparrows… (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore…)
On one side of the Baltimore metropolitan area, the southeastern side, we have 10 corporate executives picking over the bones of a bankrupt steel mill while asking for $20 million in pallbearer bonuses.
Across the map, on the northwestern side of Baltimore County, we have politicians, developers and lawyers planning what continues to pass for economic development: more places for people to spend their diminishing disposable dollars.
And in the middle, we have educators announcing the results of their work with children who will inherit a world transformed.
Here's one of those moments when stories in our community — three from the past week — converge to form a vivid narrative. Within this triptych, there's the seismic economic transformation that took place over the past 30 years, with a dash of grotesque corporatism; the still-dubious economy of consumerism; and the dread and promise of what comes next.
Down the Point, where once thousands of workers were employed in the making of steel, the latest company to seek profit from the mills declared bankruptcy. About 2,000 steelworkers will lose their jobs — again. Men in suits, executives of RG Steel, have begun the process of "liquidating" the mill, and this only a year or so after the company, owned by billionaire Ira Rennert's Renco Group, promised not to flip it.
That the venture didn't succeed is excusable in a tough economy, I suppose. But then comes this bit of choice prose from the corporate bankruptcy filings: Management "is committed to seeing the sale and Chapter 11 process through, but deserves a reasonable and appropriate incentive to continue to perform at the highest levels."
Let me translate that for you: The suits who managed Sparrows Point into loss and failure need bonuses to do an equally fine job managing the company through bankruptcy. The request was for about $20 million for 10 senior managers to be named later.
"The fact that RG Steel executives have requested bonuses worth up to $2 million each while the company is laying off thousands of hard-working men and women at Sparrows Point is absolutely outrageous," Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger blasted away the other day. "RG Steel's plan fails to specify the performance requirements the executives would have to meet to get their bonuses [and] RG Steel is trying to hide who will receive the bonuses, their job descriptions and what they earn already."
It's nice to see a Democrat pulling populist outrage from the attic. Many of the rest of us suffer outrage fatigue about these sorts of things by now.
And a lot of people probably were surprised to learn that Sparrows Point was still in operation when RG Steel announced bankruptcy. Manufacturing in general, and steel production specifically, have been in decline since the 1970s. Manufacturing now amounts to only about 12 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.
Still, experts believe there's hope for steelmaking at Sparrows Point again one day, and until last month American manufacturers had been adding jobs — I said "adding jobs" — for the past three years.
But, really, who trusts that manufacturing will grow on a scale that matters? More importantly, who believes it will provide a path to the middle class, as it once did for millions of Americans?
Over the past 30 years, the financial sector grew and made people like one-time junk bond salesman Ira Rennert immensely wealthy. Meanwhile, wages for the working class remained nearly flat, and people went into debt in order to contribute to the largest part of the U.S. economy, consumerism.
And we keep coming up with opportunities for people to spend their diminishing disposable dollars.
In Owings Mills, they're going to redevelop the mall in the hope of attracting shoppers again. The long-delayed Metro Center project will include more retail. And don't forget the shuttered Solo Cup factory on Reisterstown Road. Where hundreds of people once were paid to make stuff, there soon could be another 400,000 square feet of retail.
Here's where we come up against the big question: If we don't produce things, and employ people at livable wages, where do they get the money to spend on all this retail?
The big answer was reported on the front page of The Baltimore Sun the other day — more progress in reading and math among Maryland students in the state's annual assessments.
All questions about the future lead back to education: building a sustainable economy, making advances in science and technology, embracing "smart and green" as a way of life, saving the planet as population grows, seeding a new age of American prosperity.
Once upon a time, a young man or woman could walk out of high school to Sparrows Point, the middle class and the American Dream. Today, our kids inherit a world transformed, and it's impossible to see them thriving — or even shopping in Owings Mills — unless we succeed in providing them with the finest education in the world.
They need to become our smartest generation yet.