15 2010

Is Detroit the Outcome of Liberalism?

Lately Detroit’s terrible situation is given as proof that liberalism inevitably leads to cities lying in ruin with high unemployment, high crime, poor education outcomes, etc. In 2008 Rich Lowry’s offered up The City that Liberalism Ruined, basically claiming Detroit was run into the ground by mayor Coleman Young’s softness-on-crime and scandals. Steven Crowder delivers the latest hit piece, where he claims “the UAW runs the auto industry into the ground and the teacher’s unions run education into the ground, so what happens to Detroit as a whole? Good people leave, poverty rises and so does crime.” And of course there’s the Glenn Beck melodramatic ending:

…a once great city brought to its knees by government bureaucracies and powerful unions … Look at the current administration’s promises to the American people and compare them with the promises made by corrupt Detroit politicians made over the last 50 years. They’re nearly identical. Detroit has been the perfect laboratory for leftist policies at work for nearly half a century. It’s the perfect vision of the left utopia that this administration sees. And when you continue to remove free market principles that have made this country great and you continue to create this state-dependent society…this is very well what America could look like in a very short amount of time.

Certainly members and supporters of the Democratic party share a lot of blame, but the argument that a bogeyman called “liberalism” killed Detroit seems pretty weak to me. 1) By 1961, Detroit’s auto industry, population and tax base was already in decline:

Auto production soared to an alltime peak in 1955—but there were already worrisome signs. In the face of growing foreign and domestic competition, auto companies merged, or quit, or moved out of town to get closer to markets. Automation began replacing workers in the plants that remained. In the past seven years, Chrysler, the city’s biggest employer, has dropped from 130,000 to 50,000 workers. At the depth of the 1958 recession, when Detroit really began reeling. 20% of the city’s work force was unemployed. Even today, the figure is an estimated 10%, and the U.S. Government lists Detroit as an area of “substantial and persistent unemployment.”

…During Detroit’s decay, much of the city’s middle class has packed up and headed for the suburbs. Since 1950, Detroit has had a population drop of 197,568 from 1,849,568 to 1,652,000, while the suburbs, counting arrivals from elsewhere, have jumped by more than 1,000,000.

…Detroit has lost $16 million in taxes in the past four years. [Time]

And that was six years before 2) the horribly destructive—short and long term—race riot. Daniel Orkent’s recent Time article gives a more credible answer to “Who Killed Detroit?” Basically, its own citizens, governance and industry. Racist public policies (including a particularly abusive police outfit) and segregation boiled over to race riots, leading to a major flight to the suburbs; the growing highway system made this easier. Later an embittered mayor would further isolate the city from the suburbs, stir more racial tension, fail to support remaining local businesses and let crime get out of hand. Meanwhile the auto industry clung to self-preservation and let the UAW slowly over-inflate the value of labor across Detroit.

The city seemed to grow up too fast. While the auto boom had lifted all boats, the city sat too long on its racist policies in a time when rapid reform was essential. With declining industry and after such a devastating series of events, the city needed amazing leadership and efforts to ease tensions, which Coleman Young didn’t deliver. Because he wasn’t conservative?

How does any large city deal with a population flight of such magnitude? Detroit has less than half the population it had in the ’50s. Some think it needs to drastically shrink.

Detroit has to change physically because it simply cannot sustain its current form. It was built for two million people, not the 900,000 that live there today. Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston could all fit within Detroit’s 139-square-mile boundary, and there would still be 20 square miles to spare.

Detroit’s story fascinates me and I hope that Dave Bing can start to slowly turn things around. If you’ve got recommendations on Detroit’s history, leave em in the comments.

One Comment on “Is Detroit the Outcome of Liberalism?”

  1. The rush to blame liberalism for Detroit’s very real woes demonstrates very weak logic, and neglects to consider, as you observe, an entire causal series of events.

    Remember: many major American cities were experiencing “White Flight” in the 1960s and ’70s, as urban poverty and social unrest, coupled with easier highway access, prompted many middle-class white families to move out to the suburbs. Detroit was a nightmare, but so was New York City, and almost every other major metropolis. But, unlike NYC, Detroit’s fate was inextricably tied to the American automobile industry, and that was in precipitous decline. So, while New York and other American cities got back on their feet by the mid-1990s, spurred by any number of economic factors, Detroit lacked the catalyst required for rebirth. New York has a million other industries, a millions of people still living within its city limits, which all provides a strong tax base. Detroit has nothing.

    In fact, Michigan as a whole is a mess. Look at how the Pontiac Silverdome sold for less than $600,000 in 2009. Nobody wants to be there.

    But I don’t think it’s liberalism that ruined Detroit any more that it was liberalism that made mining towns in the Old West fail.

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