I’m not from Detroit’s part of the world. My first exposure the notion of “Detroit” that was more concrete than a hazy awareness of “they make cars there” came in the late 1970s when a number of families from there moved to our small town. Some of them had children in my age bracket and that was my introduction to “Detroit.” Most of the transplants (I can’t say for sure, but they may have been the leading edge of the coming reverse migration out of the Rust Belt that has transferred large numbers of people from there to here in the past 40-odd years) blended into the woodwork, as if they’d been here all along. Several of them and their children didn’t. They were cocks of the walk, we were just a bunch of in-bred rednecks, and they were going to Show Us How It Was Done. At the risk of understatement, they didn’t. So the memorable portion (the ones who just blended in of course left no lasting impression; a roofer won’t recall the thousands of nails he drives where he doesn’t smash his finger) of my initial exposure to “Detroit” came in the form of blow-hard, belligerent, ignorant braggarts with neither manners nor any other desirable attribute.
As things ended up, I went to college at the U. of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I’d never been to the place before. In point of fact when I got on the Greyhound bus all I knew for certain was that it was going to stop in some place called Ann Arbor and I was going to get out and go to college there.
[Aside: In thinking about writing this post it occurred to me that everywhere I’ve studied — Ann Arbor, Manhattan, and Germany — I’ve been an outsider, with an outsider’s perspective on the local fauna. I won’t go so far as to claim that’s given me any special insights, but it has enabled me to notice things that my local friends there haven’t always picked up on. Sort of like how you notice things about your in-laws that they don’t.]
In the three years I spent there (the junior year was in Germany, which was a year spent in as close to a paradise-like condition as I’m likely to experience on either side of the grave), among the things that struck me was that the Detroit kids I’d run into back home were not necessarily aberrations in their attitudes about not-Michigan.
Here I hasten to add that the ‘tood was not entirely without foundation. For example, I discovered, much to my dismay, just how poorly prepared I was for college-level work. I’d graduated 11th in a class of 434 from the sole high school in what was not considered to be a bad system. I’d never cracked a book the whole time, pretty much. Oh sure; I’d done the homework assignments and so forth, but in terms of really being put on my mettle (assuming there was any there on which to be put), I’d never been pushed. I knew I wasn’t a fool — I’d managed to learn German during my junior year there (yes: both junior years in Germany), never having any exposure to it before, and to learn it sufficiently well that, without any additional instruction in the language itself I was able to pull my only straight 4.0 semester in Germany, and to graduate summa with a German major (come to think of it, I pulled a 4.0 in all my German courses all four years). But I discovered that the products of their public education systems were operating on an entirely different plane. It took me a full year to ramp up; God knows what would have happened to me if I’d not been in the liberal arts program. Actually, so do I: My country ass would have flunked out by the end of freshman year.
And I noticed what a phenomenal amount of money had gone into making UM the place it was. At that time North Campus was just beginning to get off the ground; most engineering courses were still on the main facility. The hospital was already massive and festooned with cranes, scaffolds, and stacks of building materials. They were clearly willing to lard the money on with a mason’s trowel. And Ann Arbor wasn’t even the biggest school in the state; that was Michigan State. The whole place oozed self-satisfaction (well-earned, if all you’re considering were the STEM fields; as to the liberal arts, it was riding a decades-old reputation that didn’t seem to have been fed much in the interim) and confidence in its future.
The lefty politics were of course noticeable — this would have been right in the middle of the Reagan years, when most of the rest of the country was starting to come out of its Vietnam-Nixon-Carter funk — but after a while it became just background noise.
Finally, and this is the point of all this, what really stood out was the extent to which southeastern Michigan was a one-trick pony, the pony being the automobile industry. Sure, other cities up there are also effectively company towns — a friend of mine was from Midland, and that was Dow Chemical from A to Z. But in the area of Michigan around Detroit it wasn’t even six degrees of separation. If you and your family didn’t work for it directly, you sure as hell did so indirectly. And the money was good. This was back when the Big Three really were the Big Three.
The writing, however, was on the wall. Nissan had already opened its non-union plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, and the other non-American companies were following suit. With their competitors drawing on workforces that did not have as part of their cultural DNA the labor strife of the 1920s and 30s, but rather were just glad to have a job where it was air-conditioned inside, and doing so from inside their tariff walls, for Detroit the tea leaves were starting to coalesce. This isn’t the place, and I don’t have the time or the knowledge, fully to expatiate on What Crippled the U.S. Auto Industry, but at whatever level, for whatever reason, Detroit could not or would not make its business model — top-down decisions, bland you’ll-buy-what-we-choose-to-make products, restrictive union rules, and a laggardly attention to quality improvement — fit into the new reality.
Detroit’s one-trick pony had cast a shoe. And the city failed to change to take that into account. The end of the era when it was awash in money could be seen, and what they did was double down on the ride they’d taken thus far. Books will be written, some day, about when passed the precise moment that Detroit’s decline became a death spiral, so we needn’t dwell on the who-shot-John of it all.
What do New Harmony, Indiana and East Germany have in common? Other than that both exist now only as geographic locations, both were grand experiments in socialism. Everyone had a place, and everyone was to be taken care of in that place. All the complicated stuff, the hard decisions, were to be removed from the shoulders of those incapable of making them and put where such things belong: in the hands of the Initiated. Within their respective settings, both were exercises in Paradise Through Government. New Harmony of course had no coercive mechanism to keep people in line, so when the ambitious or the unorthodox got tired of being buggered around in the cause of their own well-being, they upped sticks and left. East Germany spent untold millions on its border security, all of which was directed inward. And yet when another Warsaw Pact country, Czechoslovakia, opened its border, it took less than a year for the Workers’ and Peasant’s Paradise to come crashing down.
Therein lies the answer to the question of what sank Detroit. You simply cannot continue on courses of action that are decades behind the reality in which the world around you exists without the ability to keep your population from leaving. Once there arose in the balance of the country an automobile industry of sufficient size, what was there to keep people in Detroit? Those who could do so left as and when their individual tolerance levels were breached, and the wizards of city hall kept right on going. Big Government, with its Cheops-like projects (Renaissance Center, anyone?), requires a big population that continues to grow, at least in the right ways. As long as each generation of taxpayers is no smaller than its predecessors, the money will be there. Without exit barriers, though, you have no affirmative steps available to you to assure that continuity, and you open yourself to the disaster that’s due to overtake Social Security — a system founded on the assumption that population trends of the 1930s would hold true forever is going bust. In Detroit, as its taxpayers left, it was left with higher and higher concentrations of non-taxpayers, who nonetheless expected Things to Continue as Before. And still Detroit made no fundamental changes to how it did business.
The result now is that “nothing works here.” Read the article, and so much of the comments are you can stomach. What immediately strikes me about the comments is their overly facile nature, from the ones who Blame It on the Blacks for making a hash of things, to the ones who Blame It on the Whites for not hanging around to be plundered, to the (ostensibly) British commenters who think that if Detroit had just raised taxes that tiny extra bit more all would be well, to the flame wars of the-whole-U.S-is-a-stinking-cesspit-just-like-Detroit on one side and what-price-sharia-and-no-go-zones on the other. I certainly didn’t read all of them (there are several hundred), but I didn’t find a single one which wanted to engage with the question of what does Detroit’s downfall have to say, if anything, about how government conducts itself elsewhere.
And that, friends, is the actual reason that the rest of us should be paying attention to what happens to Detroit. Detroit’s political class did to their city exactly what the Soviet peasants did when collectivization was announced: they slaughtered their livestock and ate the meat. The difference is of course that the peasants’ reaction was logical and reasonable under the circumstances, and Detroit’s was the cynical exploitation of a one-party population. Oh, and there’s one other difference: the peasants knew that, one way or the other, they were likely to pay with their lives; the politicians who climbed Detroit’s greasy pole retired full of honors and benefits, with cushy jobs in academia, or revolving-door gigs as “consultants” or lobbyists. They’ve left the carcass of their city rotting in the sun.