The Political Economy of Nostalgia: How Rust Belts Drive Commercial Conflict

Robert Gulotty, Political Science

After economic disruption, policymakers face calls to intervene on behalf of the displaced industry. Populist politicians respond to public demand for nationalist revitalization by advancing remunerative policies, such as raising tariffs or subsidizing production, aimed particularly at former centers of industry— “rust belts.” 

Professor Gulotty was awarded a 2018 Seed Grant from the Division’s Social Sciences Research Center. The first phase of the project is focusing on the United States rust belt in the industrial Midwest and Northeast. This part of the study focuses on measuring the extent of the rust belt, using both survey techniques and data from government censuses. These data will be joined with a survey experiment priming respondents with different backdrops to determine how support for regionally targeted subsidies and protection changes with post-industrial imagery. This study will help to determine the electoral value of these policies, and whether these effects complement or substitute for the benefits for subsidizing the post-industrial economy. Results from the first phase will enable an expansion of the project to a comparative study of rust belts in Northeast China, northern France, and the German Rhineland.

This summer the research team, working in the Social Science Research center, has produced three innovative approaches to measure the extent and international consequence of rust belts.  The first approach draws on machine learning: a team of one undergraduate and one MA student from the Council on International Relations MA program worked together to implemented a machine learning algorithm to automatically classify closed auto plants with satellite images.  This approach relies on archival business directories of automotive plant addresses and Department of Labor data on the geolocation of each open and closed plant. These data are then fed to a cloud-based computing system produced by Google for automated satellite image recognition.  The resulting classifier is now in the validation stage, but shows great promise as a means to automatically classify communities.  The second approach to measuring the rust belt is the aforementioned survey.  A second research team of one undergraduate and one graduate worked together to create a novel survey-experiment.  Both the satellite approach and survey instrument are now the basis of a multi-year NSF grant proposal to fund a nationally representative sample.  The third approach expanded the analysis to China, where a team of two undergraduates work with two graduate students worked at the Social Science Research Center to study the ways that the US responds to Chinese subsidies, including subsidies of China’s own rust belt.  This team found thousands of firm locations in China that are sending subsidized exports to the United States.  These projects together measure the extent of rust belts and their impact, both for the United States and for international cooperation.  Each of these projects, the students and the biweekly meetings of each research team were housed at the Social Science Research Center, and all of this was made possible through the 2018 Seed Grant program.

Professor Gulotty was awarded a 2018 Seed Grant from the Division’s Social Sciences Research Center. The first phase of the project, The Political Economy of Nostalgia: How Rust Belts Drive Commercial Conflict, focuses on the United States rust belt in the industrial Midwest and Northeast. Using a survey experiment, Gulotty will prime respondents with different backdrops to determine how support for regionally targeted subsidies and protection changes with post-industrial imagery. This study will help to determine the electoral value of these policies, and whether these effects complement or substitute for the benefits for subsidizing the post-industrial economy. Results from the first phase will enable an expansion of the project to a comparative study of rust belts in Northeast China, northern France, and the German Rhineland.