Lamentation for Detroit

The March issue of Atlantic Magazine on-line includes a very thoughtful and comprehensive article titled, “How the Crash Will Reshape America,” by urban theorist, Richard Florida. It is an vital analysis for anyone who cares about American cities and essential reading for those of us in planning, real estate, urban policy and economic development who will be dealing with the enormous changes this economy will bring over the next several years.  Wrenching change will not be limited to the Rust Belt but not surprisingly, one section of the article is subtitled “The Last Crises of the Factory Towns” which begins with this:

Sadly and unjustly, the places likely to suffer most from the crash – especially in the long run- are the ones least associated with high finance. While the crises may have begun in New York, it will likely find its fullest bloom in the interior of the country – in older, manufacturing regions whose heydays are long past . . .

Not surprising to even the casual student of American cities and our industrial economy.  Narrowing in to where the damage is greatest and most apparent, a later paragraph reads:

Perhaps no major city in the U.S. today looks more beleaguered than Detroit, where in October the average home price was $18,513, and some 45,000 properties were in some form of foreclosure. A recent listing of tax foreclosures in Wayne County, which encompasses Detroit, ran to 137 pages in the Detoit Free Press . . . and in December the city’s jobless rate was 21 percent.


Today, I happened to be looking at a new copy of The Bible that I brought home from church yesterday. I happened to open it randomly to the Book of Lamentations, an Old Testament book that I am not very familiar with. With Florida’s article (and likely my own unemployment) on my mind, I turned to the beginning of Lamentations and read the three verses below. I was shaken by how relevant the text is to today. With no intention to imply cause or blame, I have changed only one word in the text to create a sad modern prayer for the people and institutions of this once great American city:

A Lamentation for Detroit.

1 [a]How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.

2 Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears are on her cheeks.
Among all her lovers
there is none to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
they have become her enemies.

3 After affliction and harsh labor,
Detroit has gone into exile.
She dwells among the nations;
she finds no resting place.
All who pursue her have overtaken her
in the midst of her distress.



Big Three Bailout and Foreign Automakers

David Broder, in his Washington Post column last Sunday, implied that the opposition to the bailout of US automakers by southern Senators, led by DeMint (R, SC) and McConnell (R, KY) was influenced by the presence of foreign auto manufacturers in many southern states. The column is about politics and not specifically about economic development but it raises important questions for economic developers:

-Is it reasonable to assume that the bailout of the US auto industry (approved administratively by President Bush after the legislation failed in the Senate) will be bad for foreign automakers?
-Will the bailout create a battle within the auto industry between the southeast and the midwest for future jobs and investment?
-Are Tier I and Tier II suppliers of the Big Three likely to migrate south as Ford, GM and Chrysler contract?
-Are the supply chains of foreign automakers insulated from the troubles of the US auto industry?
-How should the economic development profession react?

What do you think?

This was also posted as a discussion topic at

Better Place & Better Ideas

I watched the press conference announcing the Better Place project in Hawaii, this exciting company will be fascinating to watch over the coming months and years.  As others get serious about electric vehicles, there will need to be standards set and non-proprietary recharging technologies created.  I can envision a chain of battery exchange & recharge stations that will service not just Better Place vehicles but also their competitors’ vehicles as well. Move over BP and Exxon, Big John’s Sun Spot is coming to a corner near you.

Engineers and Bankers, Unite!

This article in the New York Times points out  that among the major mistakes made by GM (and likely at Ford and Chrysler as well) was an over-emphasis on financial outcomes  over product innovation and long-term investment in new products and research.  While the auto industry and Wall Street are very different businesses, what they have in common is that blind focus on profitablity  has led to the economic mess we’re in right now. As a society, we need to recognize the flaw in our elevation of alleged financial acumen as the ultimate professional skill.

Our country began the past 60 years of unprecedented wealth creation with inventors, scientists and engineers as our business heroes. Our individual, national and cultural aspirations were defined by technological achievement, with spaceflight and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon as proof of the point. Somewhere along the way, maybe in the 1980’s, when we realized that we were wealthy (as a nation) beyond all prior civilizations, we changed. The need to manage our money became more important than our passion to tackle technological problems.  An MBA degree from the right B-school replaced an engineering degree as the path to professional success. Articles from Money magazine replaced Popular Mechanics and Car & Driver as the source of discussions among the guys.

I am an engineer, I admit to my biases. But I also admit to my limitations (and those of my profession.)  It would be foolish to suggest that we put engineers and chemists in charge of everything. That would simply result in a different kind of chaos than the one the accountants and  financiers have put us in. What I am suggesting is that we must learn that long-term stable success demands balanced input from all kinds of professional and creative talent. A red light should go off in the minds of leaders when the definition of success gets boiled down to a single  indicator, financial or otherwise. Results often can’t be measured on a quarterly basis.

Television stations are required to offer balanced time to different political viewpoints. Perhaps as a way to change our cultural obsession with finance and investment, we should require stations to run reruns of Mr. Wizard (or Bill Nye, the Science Guy for those more likely to actually be reading a blog) as often as they report the latest Wall Street oscillations. I also suggest that the Big Three would do well by setting a  goal of doubling their positive media hits in Scientific American magazine.

Shame, hypocricy and humility & The Big Three

dogbert-hypocrite-022509I’m no apologist for the US auto industry, I switched to owning Toyota cars years ago for better quality and value.  I’m a loyal customer and it will be very hard for the Big Three to win me back.

However, the idea of shaming the CEOs of GM, Ford and Chrysler into driving to DC instead of flying in corporate planes is the grand height of hypocrisy in my view.  I suspect that every one of politicians and talking heads that are criticizing these CEOs have flown on corporate jets to speeches, conferences and plant tours several times in their careers to advance their own interests. And how many fighter jets get scrambled every time the President takes a helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base no more than 25 miles from the White House. Honestly, that practice is at least as much a demonstration of power as it is about security. Let’s all show some humility for a change.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the mess we’re in. We’re all culpable; government, corporations and consumers (the real Big Three) have all have made stupid decisions over the past decades following the ‘Madness of Crowds’ in our sense of entitlement and greed.  This is no time for rightous grandstanding or political posturing.  It’s time to fix stuff and get our priorities right.

If our so-called ‘leaders’ want my respect, then they need to take my grandfather’s advice before they start pointing out others’ flaws and failures, “When you point your finger at someone, remember that there are three more pointing back at you!”