Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Theme for Great Cities

This is not the time and place to comment on the prospects of GM and Chrysler's proposed "rescue" plans. Instead, I would like to say a short word about Detroit’s workers, who face a fairly bleak future both in the short and medium-term.

One of the most memorable images from Bill Bryson's "A Walk In The Woods" is his descriptions of the long abandoned farms and villages he would stumble on while walking through the New England end of the Appalachian Trail. The crumbling walls and dead chimneys were all that were left of New England's once thriving farms, but which had ceased serving as the breadbasket of the US sometime after the end of the Civil War.

I mentioned this to my step-father (an economist) once. He said that he had written a paper long ago about the death of the New England farm sector. It had once been the thriving center of farm life, stretching back to the early colonial era. But, the settling of the Great Plains, and the construction of the transcontinental railroad had slowly but surely brought that to an end.

No matter what happens to the Big 3, Detroit and Michigan are clearly never going to be the same. The best and brightest left long ago, either through attrition, buy-outs, other opportunities, or the slow turning of the years. There is simply no reason, other than inertia, for American cars to be built in Michigan. Supply chains and sales channels are so decentralized, and so sophisticated, that they no longer need to look to Detroit for direction.

The Treaty of Detroit ultimately proved unsustainable. Management and labor each made decisions that, in hindsight, were disastrous in the long term, even if they worked well in the short term. But, a special word should be said for Detroit's political masters - the thug mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his loudmouth mother, the tattered Brezhnevian Levin brothers, the faded Jennifer Granholm, and their predecessors - Democrats all. What good are the union rules, pensions, and environmental regulations that you champion when they destroy the productive sectors of your state? Their constituents - the guys who voted for them! - were the union members whose jobs and pensions are now not long for this world. What good did their governing class do for them? Not much.

They deserve to be routed from office. Yet, those who would do so have left long ago. All that's left in Detroit are the dead-enders and lumpen middle class who simply can't imagine living anywhere else.

It's hard to believe that the factories that hummed with life, turning out thousands of cars - some of the ultimate symbols of American life in the 20th century - may become overgrown with weeds and return to the earth like New England's farms. But, that moment may be here sooner than we think.

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