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
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
in labor issues. He grew up in
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
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,
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."
the economic damned because of policies, crafted at the
highest national and corporate levels, that resulted in
the implosion of crucially important components of
a profound effect on the fortunes not just of
"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
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
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
Historical Commission: "Here at his
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
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
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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