Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Collapse of a Colossus

It is tempting to view Detroit's downfall through the lens of Atlas Shrugged. Consider that: 1) Detroit's public sector grew not only big, but monstrous; 2) people who worked in that public sector became not just greedy, but avaricious; 3) most of them failed to understand why it was that the private sector goose was able to produce the golden eggs on which they feasted; and 4) of those who did understand, and therefore knew their sector's ways could kill the goose, many chose to shut their eyes and hope that reality could be postponed until they were no longer alive; but 5) reality eventually came down fast and harsh like the blade of a guillotine -- because as the great economist Herb Stein once said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop."

In those ways, Detroit's actual world is strikingly similar to the fictional one depicted in Ayn Rand's libertarian fantasy -- and the similarities don't end there.

Just like the "producers" in Atlas Shrugged fled their home towns to establish a less restrictive community in the mountains, the job creators of Detroit have long since fled and relocated to places that are more friendly to business and less likely to punish success.

Just like the "looters" and "moochers" in Atlas Shrugged reacted by bitching about the producers rather than vowing to change their own ways and reverse the course of their lives, many of the people left in Detroit blame the exodus of jobs from their city on things like racism and a lack of concern from Washington's mother teat.

Some practitioners of conventional wisdom like to blame the city's descent on a downturn in the auto industry, and while that was certainly a factor at one point, today it is nothing more than a red herring. The 1980's decline of America's auto industry was reversed in the 1990's, yet the largest share of Detroit's population decline has taken place since 2000.

Ford and GM currently employee more people than the entire combined populations of Detroit and the nearby cities of Flint and Pontiac. It's just that they now do a lot of their business elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile, a slew of foreign car companies are manufacturing their vehicles and parts in locations throughout America, but they too have chosen to do their hiring in places other than what was once known as The Motor City.

Those who blame racism for the city's shrinking tax base and atrocious job market often do so by using the softer term "white flight," and it's not as if they don't have a point, for there is no doubt that a significant number of white people left town (if only for the suburbs) following the race riots of 1967. But it is worth noting that no such flight took place after the 1943 race riots, and also worth noting that the post-1967 flight was undertaken by blacks as well as whites. By 1972, Motown Records -- born in Detroit, named after Detroit, and long known as America's largest black-owned business -- had pulled up stakes and moved to California.

Even so, Detroit muddled along and its economic engine continued to run, even if it was doing so with fewer cylinders than it had known in its heyday. Its crime rate climbed in the 1970's and 1980's, but that was the norm for big American cities at that point in history. People continued to move from the city proper, but that too was the American norm at the time.

Our nation saw a blossoming of urban renewal in the 1990's and 2000's, and it was then than Detroit found itself being left in the dust. The idea of professionals moving into trendy lofts in Manhattan and Chicago caught on, but the idea of doing the same in Detroit seems never to have been considered. The most likely reason is not that it had "become" a "black city," but that it lacked any palpable feeling of opportunity. (As a point of contrast, Atlanta is about as "black" as a city can get, and unless something has changed since the last time I checked, it is a world-class economic juggernaut.)

We can return to the Atlas Shrugged analogy to find some of the reasons there was a dearth of opportunity in Detroit when the urban renewal trend began -- and why that dearth has only worsened over the last two decades. Yes, Detroit's bureaucracy had become a rampant parasite, which goes a long way toward explaining things, but it was not the only city with a parasitic bureaucracy.

A big part of the problem is that parasitism and graft had also infiltrated its private sector, to such an extent that it would not have made sense for a business to set up shop there even if taxes, regulations, etc. were not so onerous. This infiltration was triggered by unions, which quickly outgrew their noble beginnings and morphed into corrupt cuttlefish throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

Shortly after World War II, unions forced Packard out of business and actually considered that something to be proud of, even though it resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs. Then their power continued to grow, and when they eventually started representing the city's public employees in addition to its private ones, it was all she wrote. With both sectors given over to a culture of sloth and a mentality of entitlement, who could have expected anything other than implosion?

Alarming figures about Detroit have become much trumpeted in recent weeks. Two out of every three ambulances are not fit to drive. It takes police an hour to respond to an emergency call, compared to an average of eleven minutes in the rest of the country. Two out of every five street lights do not work. 47% of adults are functionally illiterate. As Mark Steyn put it: "Why would any genuine innovator open a business in a Detroit 'innovation hub'? Whom would you employ?"

Most on my side of the aisle -- which is to say, most conservatives -- confidently chalk up Detroit's dire straits to the inevitable result of liberalism reaching its logical conclusion. A small minority scoff at them, accuse them of being squeamish, point to the racial implications (Detroit is 82% black), and flat-out say it is black culture, not liberal culture, that brought a once-great metropolis to its knees.

I refuse to agree with the latter. I said earlier that most of Detroit's population decline has occurred since the year 2000. What I did not say is that the vast majority of that decline came not from whites leaving the city, but from blacks leaving it. It feels awkward for a white person to opine about "black issues," but it seems to me that what ails Detroit is not a black/white division but rather a black family/black ghetto division. While the black middle class in our country has grown extraordinarily over the last two generations, the underclass has spiraled downward into an abyss of nihilism and unfathered children. It is the latter's mentality that has prevailed in Detroit, and until that changes, Detroit will continue to be far, far behind the proverbial eight ball.

My July 27th post said that the citizens of San Bernardino and Stockton, California (cities that filed for bankruptcy protection prior to Detroit) "in the aggregate exhibit better character than those of Detroit." That is not a racial thing so much as it is a class thing, and it is not to say that the citizens of San Bernardino and Stockton are blameless, since they have chosen to elect bizarrely liberal municipal governments and must reap what they have sown. Still, it seems that they live normally in their private lives, which means they are more likely than Detroiters to accept what has to be done to save their cities from the ash heap.

Here's hoping all three municipalities pull through and find a path to resurrection. For America as a whole, it would not be good to see any of them vanish into the wasteland of once-fine places that allow themselves to be frittered away.

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