No longer in Paris

I’ll admit it: I still have a soft spot for Detroit.

It’s not so much of a love for the American automobile or for Motown music, although both are important parts of the city’s impact on our nation and our culture. But growing up as I did in the Rust Belt, the fortunes of my hometown and its much larger neighbor to the north were intertwined in any number of ways because we, too, were dependent on the auto industry. On a cultural basis, I grew up watching and rooting for their professional sports teams (still do) and was close enough to be within their media footprint. Maybe Mark “The Bird” Fidrych,  the onetime Top 40 blowtorch CKLW,  J.P. McCarthy,  Ted Nugent,  Bob Seger, and hilarious Highland Appliance commercials weren’t household names and cliches in these parts, but we in Toledo knew who and what they were.

Yet Detroit has come to be known now as the very symbol of urban decay, a place where rotting buildings are giving way to urban farmscapes and half the population left in the last half-century. It’s in that vein that I read a piece today by Amanda Melson.

Melson uses the age-old scapegoats of continual Democratic city governance and the rise of Big Labor to paint a picture of a city in decline, and to a certain extent she is correct. But were they the only culprits?

Starting in the middle of the last century, Detroit was among many large cities which saw the expansion of its core area come to a halt as it ran into growing suburbs spread like acorns around the parent tree. The idea of spreading out and getting away from the cramped city center to a place where the kids could play in the yard and go to school in a modern building with all the conveniences was enticing to those very laborers who worked 40 hours a week in the auto plant and saved up their money so their children could have a better life in the suburbs of Oakland or Macomb counties, or even “downriver” toward Monroe, with the hope of them someday being able to attend college up the road in Ann Arbor or East Lansing. The price of a daily commute on I-75, I-94, or I-96 was worth the cost of having a place of their own far from the city center which was already crumbling.

Those who remained became the victims of that so-called “urban renewal” touched upon by Melson; the first of what is now a third or even fourth generation of poverty doomed to a meager existence because of poor schools and a lack of good job opportunities since most of the original Detroit-area auto plants have long since closed up shop. Of course, the same thing was happening in my hometown on a smaller scale – we left our home in the city to live on five rural acres with the intention of having a place where three active boys had room to play. And to some extent the same story can be written for any number of Rust Belt cities; places like Toledo, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Kenosha, Flint, or Gary. But Detroit is most interesting because of the depth to which it’s succumbed from the height it achieved.

It’s also intriguing as a case study of a donut in reverse and a theory gone wrong. Granted, it’s been close to a decade since I set foot in the city, but my recollection is there are small parts of Detroit which are livable and lively. They’re centered around the edifices of a new century: the three casinos in downtown Detroit and two new midtown sports facilities: Comerica Park for the Tigers and Ford Field for the Lions. But all that investment doesn’t seem to have impacted the city as a whole like it was supposed to – if you walk a mile away from these places, not only would you be taking your life into your hands but you would see the squalor of a city abandoned.

So now we introduce the idea of “right-to-work” to the Detroit area. While the unions and Barack Obama whine that it will bring about a race to the bottom for wages, I look at things differently. Consider the skill level of the average would-be Detroit worker who’s never really had the responsibility of going to a job each day and creating a product or performing a service above a menial level. Do they honestly create enough value to be worth union scale? If this encourages a little bit of investment in Detroit I see that as a good thing, even if the Democrats are cut out of a few thousand dollars’ worth of largess through confiscated dues.

But I don’t see that as being much more than a drop in the bucket as long as the general attitude remains that the world owes Detroit a living. It’s a model of governance which has failed its remaining citizens miserably, yet those pool souls don’t understand that they’re the root of the problem because they make the same choices their most recent ancestors did yet believe the results will be better.

That insanity isn’t confined to Detroit, but they make the best poster children for the theory. Follow their path at your peril.

2 thoughts on “No longer in Paris”

  1. A scapegoat is someone or something made to bear the blame for someone or something else. Democrat governance and Big Labor are not scapegoats. They ARE the reason Detroit has crumbled and fallen.

    The fact that families moved out of Detroit so their families would have room to move or so they wouldn’t be on top of their neighbors isn’t a bad thing and shouldn’t lead to the complete decay of the city from which people leave. But Unions , while increasing pay of the workers also drove up prices of the products those workers produced. When costs go up, fewer people can afford to purchase. Production must be reduced in order to remain afloat, which means fewer people work. It’s really a vicious cycle.

    Add to that the fact that liberal government continued to raise taxes on residents and businesses and add punishing regulation. Eventually, the city was no longer attractive to anyone who could afford to leave. The tax base decreases so tax revenue necessarily does the same. In order to try to raise more money, instead of doing things that would make the city more attractive to businesses and residents, Democrats answer was more programs to fix the problems they caused and more taxes. Another vicious cycle.

    Without these two influences, even if people left the city to seek bigger plots of land, other people would have moved into the houses they left behind as employers continued to create and grow businesses. But that’s not what happened there. Instead, as everyone fled, Democrats became entrenched in city leadership. Democrats controlled what was being taught in the schools. Democrats controlled who could teach and what school policy would be. And they’ve taught their liberal version of truth to the residents of Detroit for over 50 years now. So of course they keep voting in the same people. They haven’t been taught how to think, how to use reason and logic, how to research. They don’t even know how to read!

    That’s the thing about Progressivism. It leads to constant despair, constant misery, constant ignorance, constant hopelessness. There is no escape from it as long as the same policies that brought all those things about remain in place.

    What should frighten everyone about Detroit as the poster child for Liberal policy is the fact that America is headed in the same direction and for the same reasons.

  2. You bring up a number of good points, but there were other factors which led to the city’s decline.

    Originally, building an automobile was a labor-intensive process so Henry Ford gave out a lot of $5 bills every week. But as efficiency grew, the number of people necessary to build a car declined. Certainly the unions held on to those jobs as long as they could, but the market forced them to give in as well. And because of the union’s emphasis on seniority rather than necessarily the skill required to do the job well, there was a period where those who had left for the suburbs had the good jobs but there was no longer a demand on the bottom end of the scale, so the remaining inner-city Detroit residents didn’t have the same opportunities to advance. (Certainly there was a share of nepotism as well – it seems like a lot of UAW members got into the union via sponsorship by a father or uncle.)

    So you peg the beginning of the problem with Big Labor well, although I would argue the decline of the Big Four (Ford, GM, Chrysler, American Motors) truly started with the oil shocks of the 1970s. Because of union rules and a lack of foresight, the automakers saw the imports grab a market share they’ve never let go.

    In addition, it should be pointed out that modernizing plants was difficult in the Detroit area, with the Poletown controversy causing automakers to think twice before expanding in the Motor City. Instead, they found other states were willing to bend over backwards to grab a piece of the market, so much so that it’s rare to find a car actually made in Detroit anymore. This can be traced back to Democratic policies over the last 51 years since Detroit had a Republican mayor but also to an evolving and maturing automotive market. Building vehicles isn’t a skill set exclusive to Detroit, and high-tech firms (if they even come to Michigan) tend to congregate in the suburbs or towards Ann Arbor because the education level is far better.

    I do agree that the fate of Detroit is one path our nation could descend into, particularly when it comes to large cities. But I also encourage you to consider other areas where America is sliding down the prosperity scale, because Detroit’s decline is as much market-driven as it stems from a corrupt system of government which is rotting from the core like the city is. Meanwhile, the place where I now live (rural Maryland) is being driven into its own decline through onerous regulation of rural lifestyle components such as septic systems and wells, efforts to “preserve” farmland which lead to its loss of value, and increasing costs of transportation through higher gasoline taxes and the prospect of mileage-based taxation.

    There’s no question the Detroit model is a failure, but the problem we all face is that people there are either too stubborn, too ignorant, too entitlement-addled, or have their hands in the till too much to wish to make changes. We can sit and bemoan the fate of a once-great city, but until the residents look in the mirror and realize they can do better if they just get off the liberal plantation there is no hope.

Comments are closed.