Sunday, November 22, 2009

An American Catastrophe

An American Catastrophe


By Bob Herbert

New York Times

November 21, 2009




In many ways, it's like a ghost town. It's eerily

quiet. Driving around in the middle of the afternoon,

in a city that once was among the most productive on

the planet, you see very little traffic, minimal

commercial activity, hardly any pedestrians.


What you'll see are endless acres of urban ruin, block

after block and mile after mile of empty and rotting

office buildings, storefronts, hotels, apartment

buildings and private homes. It's a scene of

devastation and disintegration that stuns the mind, a

major American city that still is home to 900,0000

people but which looks at times like a cross between

postwar Berlin and the ruin of an ancient civilization.


Detroit was the arsenal of democracy in World War II

and the incubator of the American middle class. It was

the city that taught mass production to the rest of the

world. It was a place that made cars, trucks and other

tangible products, not derivatives. And it was the

architect of the quintessentially American idea of

putting people to work and paying them a decent wage.

It's frightening to think seriously about what we've

allowed to happen to this city and what is now

happening to the middle class and the American economy as a whole.


I was in Detroit with Harley Shaiken, a professor at

the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes

in labor issues. He grew up in Detroit and his love for

the city and its people are palpable, as is his grief

for the horrors the city has endured.


The popular narrative of what happened to Detroit

contains a great deal of truth but its focus is too

narrow to account for the astonishing decline of this

former industrial colossus. Yes, there were the riots

of 1967, and white flight; and political leadership

that was not just shortsighted but at times

embarrassingly incompetent and corrupt. And, yes, the

auto industry was a case study in self-destruction.


But as Mr. Shaiken points out, Detroit was still viable

enough for the Republican Party to hold its convention

here in 1980, when it nominated Ronald Reagan. And it

was not the riots, but the devastating recession of the

early '80s that really knocked the city senseless.

"That's when the place really cracked," said Mr.

Shaiken, "and that was about aggressive globalization

and the lack of an industrial policy, not the riots."


Detroit and its environs are suffering the agonies of

the economic damned because of policies, crafted at the

highest national and corporate levels, that resulted in

the implosion of crucially important components of

America's manufacturing base. Those decisions have had

a profound effect on the fortunes not just of Detroit,

or even Michigan, but the entire U.S. economy.


"We've been living with the illusion that manufacturing

- making things - is so 20th century," said Mr.

Shaiken, "and that we could succeed by concentrating,

for example, on complex financial instruments while

abandoning the industrial base that sustained so many

American families."


The idea that the fallout from the wrongheaded economic

concepts of the past 30 or 40 years could be contained,

with the damage limited to the increasingly troubled

urban areas while sparing prosperous suburbia, has now

proved as phony as Bernie Madoff's fortune. Americans,

whether they live in big cities, suburban towns or

rural areas, need jobs, and when those jobs are

eliminated (for whatever reasons - technological

advances, globalization) without being replaced, the

national economy is guaranteed at some point to hit a wall.


Professor Shaiken and I drove past vast lots filled

with rubble and garbage and weeds, past the old

Michigan Central Terminal, which was once Detroit's

answer to New York's Grand Central Terminal but which

has long since been abandoned; past a onetime Cadillac

manufacturing plant that is now an empty lot.


We stopped at an old Ford plant and stood in a stiff,

cold wind, reading a plaque put up by the Michigan

Historical Commission: "Here at his Highland Park

plant, Henry Ford began the mass production of

automobiles on a moving assembly line. By 1915 Ford

built a million Model T's. In 1925 over 9,000 were

assembled in a single day. Mass production soon moved

from here to all phases of American industry and set

the pattern of abundance for 20th century living."


Professor Shaiken's grandfather, Philip Chapman, took a

job at the Highland Park plant in 1914, earning five

dollars a day, and worked on production at Ford until

his retirement in the mid-1950s.


We're at a period no less significant to the U.S. than

Mr. Chapman's early years at Ford. We need a

revitalized industrial policy, including the creation

of whole new industries, if American families are to

prosper in the coming decades. If there is any sense of

urgency about this in the hearts and minds of our

corporate and government leaders, I've missed it.


Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company



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