Detroit

A city is the creature of its state; the states made the national government, but they were not made by their counties and cities. There is no constitutional right to elect a mayor or a city council: you get to do that if your state government thinks you should.   Michigan’s  shiny 2010 Republican state government is playing out several interesting experiments of which one is direct administration of black-majority cities by prefects. These worthies are appointed by the governor with complete powers to tax, hire, fire, collect the garbage…or not collect it, and the latest of these prefectures is in Detroit, where the 700,000 people who haven’t yet figured out how to leave are knocking around in 143 square miles (San Francisco, with about as many people, is a third this size) of abandoned buildings – including some heartbreaking decaying vacant treasures like the railroad station – empty lots, and misery: 16% unemployment and the worst violent crime incidence in any big US city. Meanwhile, the folks who made it into (or started out in) the surrounding nice leafy-green suburbs cluck about mismanagement and expect the city to keep up a symphony orchestra, two pro sports teams, an art museum, a school system, and all the other stuff you expect in a prosperous industrial city with three times as many people.

So what is this prefect expected to do, and what good will it do the Republicans who put him there?  The problem in Detroit isn’t that the city government is going broke: that’s just a symptom. The problem is that the remaining population is broke and can’t afford a functioning government.  There’s nothing to tax, neither wealth nor property, if the prefect can’t reach across Eight Mile or into Grosse Pointe (and you bet he isn’t going to be allowed to do that). I bet there isn’t even anything left worth looting; if you can’t divert tax money into your pocket because there isn’t any, what’s the angle? The city is trying some desperation tactics like casino hotels and tourism, which might gin up some jobs, but those are mostly low-pay jobs making beds and serving food. Detroit is 80% black; one might speculate that white people in Michigan are just trying to do something nice for all those black folks who only need Republican sound business management principles in their government to prosper; right.  Maybe Detroit will have some sort of renaissance after all, but I cannot imagine what economic engine will drive it. Its new prefect will have a few years applying austerity and service cuts and will discover that the medicine doesn’t go anywhere, as Frank Loesser said, near where the trouble is.  Why Republicans want to hang Detroit’s continued decline around their own necks in this way is a mystery.

The big question raised by this episode of decline and misery is bigger than Detroit and bigger than the rust belt:  what is the right policy for regions that have lost their economic reason to be populated? An endless flow of welfare in one form or another can keep people in them, but that can’t be the right answer: people deserve the chance to create value. One or another such place can reinvent itself as a museum or a high-tech center of some sort, or luck out with an oil boom, but not all of them, or even most: former governor Granholm is proud of the wind power plant she saved one town with, but that’s not going to generalize.  The Northern Great Plains, where we have learned to grow food without people, are depopulating somewhat gracefully, but of course the bus ticket policy loses the whole social capital of the community it drains, and in the case of a city, the infrastructure and physical capital (Detroit is the empty-house-demolition capital of the US).  We sort of know how to manage growth; we can cope adequately with stasis; but shrinkage and the source end of migration are deeply refractory problems.

Comments

  1. Ebenezer Scrooge says

    The Detroit region has not lost its economic reason to be populated. The City of Detroit has imploded: an ugly mix of racism, adverse selection and misgovernance, penned in by arbitrary municipal lines. As Michael pointed out, the prefect can’t reach into Grosse Pointe. And the Detroit metro area isn’t doing all that bad–at least the white parts.

    The question that Michael explicitly asks–what to do with declining regions–is a valid one. It applies to upstate New York, the Great Plains, the Eastern Shore, the Mississippi valley, and Appalachia, at least. I’m sure that others can think of more. But that’s not the problem of Detroit. The funny thing is that the problem of poor cities in rich metro areas isn’t as bad as it used to be. Many of the poor cities have figured out some kind of recovery plan, or stumbled into some kind of recovery. I won’t say that Detroit is unique. But it is idiosyncratic.

    • Brett says

      It might be due to Detroit being so heavily centered on one industry. It’s hard to replace the entire economic rationale for your city even existing as something bigger than a town.

    • Colin says

      It’s definitely different to the phenomenon of general decline in a region, but I don’t know if Detroit is that idiosyncratic. A lot of US cities exhibit this curious development pattern where parts of the core city become almost uninhabitable while the surrounding suburbs continue to grow and prosper (or at least do OK, in Detroit’s case). Notoriously, even New York City went through a phase of severe urban decay in the 60s and 70s. Some have found a way out, but by no means all. It can’t be all down to where the economic activity is centred, because the distances involved are so small. As you say, administrative boundaries and decisions have to be a big factor in this.

      • Don says

        Omaha, Nebraska has avoided this fate by an unusual means: the city has the power to annex nearby suburbs at will.

  2. James Wimberley says

    Authoritarian town planning can occasionally work: Haussmann’s Paris, Lerner’s Curitiba, Peter’s St. Petersburg. These technocrats did not have to deal with structural economic decline.

    • Maynard Handley says

      Are those really useful comparisons? Paris and St Petersburg had dramatic reasons for existing regardless of what happened to them.

      Compare with say Brasilia or Canberra where authoritarian has not achieved any great miracles — these cities struggle along, kept alive by their political function. (Which is not to say they were bad ideas; I’m sympathetic to the point of both of them, the creation of more cities inside the country, though somewhat less to the details of the actual cities that were created.)
      One suspects (though who knows) that Myanmar’s great experiment along the same lines, Naypyidaw, will evolve in the same way — disappointingly small and kept alive as a political center.

      Point is, I don’t see much evidence that authoritarian town planning is much help in countering the larger issue of “what problem is this city solving”; and I say this on empirical grounds, not on the grounds of “I hate Robert Moses and worship Jane Jacobs”.

  3. Brett Bellmore says

    “direct administration of black-majority cities by prefects.”

    More like direct administration of ultra-corrupt cities which happen to be black-majority. Who can forget when the police chief’s ceiling fell in during a press conference, and bags of money rained down? In a movie you would have thought that over the top, it actually happened in Detroit.

    The problem isn’t that they’re broke, the problem is that for decades they’ve been electing, and reelecting, criminals, who mal-administered the city into being broke. Who’d refuse to repair streetlights even when the funds were available, and cut off police protection, to deliberately run down areas they thought they might want to take as ‘blighted’ for this or that project.

    Detroit would have been taken over far sooner if they hadn’t been black-majority. Please, let’s not pretend this is about race.

    • D.Silver says

      1. Sell as many city assets as can conceivably be offloaded
      2. Legalize private defence providers
      3. Legalize non-court arbitration venues
      4. Spend some time updating property registry
      5. Legalize narcotics
      6. Legalize prostitution
      7. Legalize gaming
      8. Allow free entry into all professions: taxi-driver, surgeon, restaurateur, barber, policy analyst
      9. Abolish minimum wage and other labor laws within the city, replacing them with “at will employment”
      10. End zoning in the parts of the city that have not been homesteaded

      Mane, I could get this city up and running right quick.

      • Zog says

        Gaming is already legal in Detroit. There are multiple largish casinos, and any big gaming company that wants to open another could do so more easily than anywhere else east of the Mississippi.

        Drugs and sex work are de facto legal already. Indeed the city is already the regional hub of the all the favorite vices of libertarians, that and pro sports are two of the city’s very few draws for the four million or so suburban people who live nearby.

        What you call private arbitration venues don’t need to be “legalized,” they are already legal in Detroit, and everywhere else in the United States.

        The city also lets criminal biker gangs, mostly or all white, operate large clubhouses with impunity. In fact I bet they would be reluctant to drive out any business that pays its property tax. Sometimes the Feds come in and shut them down.

        Detroit’s problem is that it is physically dangerous to live in and has the lowest levels of human capital of any other large city. The one thing it does have is amazing physical capital, though every year more and more of it decays beyond economic repair.

        Cutting the minimum wage is not such a bad idea. Many Detroiters rent entire fairly nice houses for $200 to $350 a month, so it really makes no sense to force a minimum wage the same as the rest of the USA, when the cost of housing is 50-95% less than other urban centers. Regardless of the law, many residents work off the books for under $5 an hour, and trying to compete with cheap foreign labor seems a better thing than the current mass unemployment.

  4. Keith Humphreys says

    Some cities have experimented with something I would love to see tried in Detroit (where by the way I have spent a great deal of time). Bulldoze the vacant properties and give away the land away to nearby homeowners. Let them have gardens, massive yards whatever they want — just as they might in the burbs.

    What I find particularly sad about this takeover is the state did nothing when Detroit was run by people like Kwame Kilpatrick, but now that they have an honest guy as Mayor (Dave Bing) they are taking over. Where were they in the prior era when the crooks were running the place?

    p.s. On a closing note to Michael, I am afraid you are wrong that the upper plains are de-populating gracefully. It hasn’t been widely covered because the media tends not to be interested in rural populations but that is where some of worst privation in the country exists.

    • Brett says

      It’s not a bad idea. If you get rid of most of the abandoned property and bad infrastructure, the cheap land itself might be worth something.

      • Keith Humphreys says

        The other useful aspect of this is that you create a big pool of people who care about the property, because it’s theirs. They will therefore take better care of it than will an absentee owner or no owner or an over-stretched city bureaucracy. That in turn makes neighborhoods more pleasant to live in and probably safer as well.

    • wyldrabid says

      Totally agree about the timing of the take over. Kilpatrick’s in federal court. Dave Bing in too late to make a real difference. State comes in after the worst is really over (bottom is under foot) to take credit and reap profits for the ride back up.

      As to your second point the city is already clearing land and allowing residents to purchase connected land for $100′s of dollar per lot. Land grab is well underway.

    • Don says

      Re the depopulation of farming communities, Marty Strange has a well-researched book on the topic, “Family Farming: A New Economic Vision.” He proves that large farms have an undeserved reputation for efficiency, and that small farms are not only more efficient but promote more vibrant communities.

  5. Brett Bellmore says

    “Where were they in the prior era when the crooks were running the place?”

    Taking seriously the threats to reenact the Detroit riots, that’s where they were. For decades, any time the state started talking about doing something about Detroit, the Detroit administration would start talking about riots, and the state would back down. I guess they’ve finally got a mayor who won’t make that threat.

  6. Mike says

    It seems to me that, first and foremost, a city is a bunch people gathered together. The infrastructure, the economic opportunities, the se are undeniably important. But ultimately, as long as people stay in the city, there is still hope of revival. With Detroit’s gradual abandonment by everyody that can afford it and the descent into crime with impunity and no governmental servicres, I fail to see how we save it. Maybe we just need to buy everyone a bus ticket and a job training program and help them have a life somewhere else. Just chalk Detroit up as a failed state, our own little slice of Somalia. Sell off what’s left of Detroit to a junkyard conglomerateand give the remaininh residents that money. Anything has to ve better than living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland

    • Cranky Observer says

      True. However I think it important to note for the record that when you look around Detroit, New York, Chicago, LA, you see infrastructure from the 1880-1930 period that is of unparalleled capability, quality, and thoughtfulness of design. We’ve been consuming that since 1970 and when it is gone it isn’t coming back.

    • Brett says

      Isn’t the suburban ring doing alright, though? Maybe they should just pay people to leave most of the city center and mostly abandoned areas, then demolish them completely for re-wilding purposes.

      • agorabum says

        It’s areas on the fringe that are having the biggest issues; the best solution is to shrink the city boundaries, or, as you noted, re-wilding.
        If areas on the edges of the city are returned to a more ‘rural’ environment, it should actually increase the attractiveness of the neighborhood; no run down homes for vagrants to use, and then it can be redeveloped as rural subdivisions rather than an attempt to create gentrification in an improverished area on the outskirts of town.
        A real problem has been the consolidation of property records for abandoned lots, and also what to do with responsible owners within these areas that have not actually abandoned (and happen to like their homes).

  7. Ohio Mom says

    If only there was some sort of industry associated with Detroit that could build factories and warehouses and other places people could work on all that vacant land.

    That’s always been my little pipe dream for Detroit, anyway.

  8. stig says

    If a big city mayor is willing to funnel contracts to people who know how to keep a majority in a state legislature happy, then all is well in the garden? Just guessing here.

  9. Brett says

    The big question raised by this episode of decline and misery is bigger than Detroit and bigger than the rust belt: what is the right policy for regions that have lost their economic reason to be populated?

    I’ve seen some proposals for including moving assistance in federal welfare aid, so that people get an incentive to move to more economically productive areas. Of course, that’s basically just putting up the white flag and saying that an area is too far gone, so we might as well help people leave it for better areas.

    I’m open for ideas. Maybe they should try that “amnesty zone” idea, so that immigrants legal or otherwise can move there and live without ICS harassment as long as they actually live and own property in the city. Or they could go the “charter city” route, if you could somehow get the city government to play ball.

  10. Brett Bellmore says

    “Of course, that’s basically just putting up the white flag and saying that an area is too far gone, so we might as well help people leave it for better areas.”

    And, what’s wrong with that? Our concern should be for people, not “areas”. Better ghost towns than ghettos.

    • D. Silver says

      Can we at least start by throwing out the rules that kill jobs? If I’m not allowed to simply put a sign on top of my car that says “Taxi,” why not? If I can’t cut ladies’ hair for ladies who are willing to pay me, why not?

      Other than that, I’d love to see a nice infusion of capital into inter-city public transit. You can take my libertarian card away at your leisure. :)

      • Brett says

        The unlicensed Taxi thing can be dangerous. They’re the location for a fairly significant chunk of stranger rape in the UK, IIRC. But if you got some brands that were known for really actively policing their drivers and keeping up a certain level of quality, it might be okay.

    • Brett says

      Oh, I don’t disagree, Other Brett. I was just pointing out how it could be seen. I think the federal government should help people with moving if they’re poor to areas with higher job growth.

      • Brett Bellmore says

        I think there are now enough Bretts here, (An unusual occurance, to be sure!) that we really should be using second names, or subscripts, or some such.

        BTW, that public support be conditioned on moving to someplace with a better job market has long been a position of mine; Why pay somebody to remain where they can’t find a job?

  11. mwilbert says

    I have some issues with the facts listed in this post. The (at the time at least) mostly white enclave of Hamtramck was put under an EFM in 2000. While nothing that happens in the Detroit area (or in America, really) can be completely divorced from race, the issue in Detroit is a combination of the structural issues described in the post (and some that were missed. like an excessive pension burden, debt accumulated mostly by previous mismanagement, and an inability to collect taxes owed) and a colossally incompetent city government. The state (the region, actually) now pays for the art museum. The schools to the extent they still exist are already almost completely paid for by the state and Federal governments. It is entirely possible that freed of legacy costs and run by competent managers, Detroit could be financially solvent. Or maybe not; the city underspends on a lot of things, so it is possible there isn’t enough money to run the city properly even on a day-forward basis.

    But I agree with what I think is the underlying premise, which is that we don’t have a good way to deal with shrinking units of government. If Detroit could be dissolved, the viable parts of the city would quite probably thrive. But under the Michigan constitution, that is basically impossible, and if it did happen, the successor entities still couldn’t shed the legacy costs.

  12. Dave Schutz says

    It seems to me worth trying to tease out three and a half separate issues here:

    1. Why has the Michigan-centered Big Three auto industry, centered in Detroit, lost its ability to consistently produce competitive automobiles which don’t need government intervention? It’s not as though autos are on the rubbish heap, Toyota and Honda are producing cars which people like and for which they pay full price.

    2. How can we keep cities off the glide path to perdition which Detroit (and Vallejo, and Stockton, and Providence, Camden, San Bernardino, Birmingham, East Saint Louis) has/have followed.

    3. What to do for cities which have bottomed out?

    and 3a. Is there something special which should be done about cities which are majority-black, which have bottomed out, and where there are sensitivities about control by a largely-white state government, and in particular a Republican largely-white government.

    On 3 and 3a, I don’t have much in the way of smart ideas about what I would do if Governor Snyder appointed me Satrap Dave I of Detroit – wait, Bing is a Dave, right? Maybe I’d be Satrap Dave II? I think I’d start by looking at the pretty spectacular success of Emmett Rice in DC and try and do whatever he did. I think it would be a problem for a lot of people that I am white. Maybe if I were Snyder I would turn around and appoint Dave Bing as Satrap, after a serious come-to-Jesus talk about expanded powers and stiffing the interests which have made progress difficult and with which he has had to deal as an elected official.

    1 and 2 are hugely important, and I hope other people will chew on them, I don’t have anything smart to say about them this morning.

    • Brett Bellmore says

      “I think I’d start by looking at the pretty spectacular success of Emmett Rice in DC and try and do whatever he did.”

      D.C. is something of a special case, being the nation’s capitol during a huge expansion of central government. Most cities, troubled or not, can’t count on that kind of massive and steady influx of money taken from across the nation. OTHO, most cities have something better approximating home rule. Special case both ways, really.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      The Big 3 automakers are doing well.

      http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20130104/AUTO01/301040342

      What is different though is that the jobs created are not as concentrated in Michigan as they were in prior boom years, so Detroit shares the benefits of the industry’s resurgence with other places.

      On the general issue of places bottoming out, part of it has to do with people not being willing to accept that the future will not be like the past. I can’t count the number of times when I heard people in Michigan say things like “Detroit needs a revival! In the 1960s…(insert description of how great it was then, followed by suggestions that whatever produced that greatness should and could be done again).” But a successful Detroit of 2020 may look nothing like a successful Detroit of prior eras.

      • Maynard Handley says

        The model for what you say, Keith, is surely Pittsburgh?

        Is there anything to be learned from Pittsburgh’s rather more graceful decline, which was not predicated on maintaing steel. Pittsburgh’s story is nowhere near as spectacular as Detroit’s — slow decline the 70s and 80s, followed by slow revival — and as a result I’m not at all familiar with the details. Obviously it helps that they have CMU, but I can’t believe that’s the whole story, especially since CMU hasn’t led to any local Google or MS sized companies.

        • prognostication says

          CMU and Pitt, actually. Plus Duquesne elsewhere within the city limits. The multiple-universities thing helps a lot. But yes, there’s been some other stuff as well that I don’t know the particulars of really.

    • Brett says

      1. Toyota and Honda, along with many other big Japanese companies, do get government assistance when things are difficult. But as Humphreys points out, it’s not really an issue since the Big Three are now doing quite well.

      2. You want cities to diversify, and try to be a place where you have a bunch of start-up businesses growing bigger. Economist Edward Glaeser has mentioned how this played a role in New York City’s revival despite the disappearance of several waves of industry (including textiles, which used to be an enormous industry in NYC). Having a single industry with a small set of massive companies being the predominant economic “center” for your city tends to be dangerous, and both Detroit (automobiles) and Pittsburgh (Steel, although it was more gradual) have suffered for it.

  13. Jim Fenske says

    Look down on Detroit from space. Google Earth shows a patchwork of farms and large subdivisions of planted land on the other side of the Detroit River. Windsor isn’t circling the drain. I want to let the Canadian government build the bridge across the river and begin to help us the way they help themselves. A government failure of this magnitude shows me just how unable we are to help ourselves. Can’t even get off our knees. How do the Canadians do it? It’s not because they’re white and less violent. Our system is rigged to favor Grosse Pointe.

    • valuethinker says

      Windsor is your typical small Canadian city– think Hamilton Ontario or any of the cluster around Niagara Falls-Welland-Thorold.

      There are greater transfers from the Provincial and Federal governments than US cities typically enjoy.

      There is not the degree of racial polarization– blacks are a relatively new arrival in the Canadian mosaic (some of the worst slums in Toronto are predominantly Afro-carribean, but there’s also plenty of upward social mobility and integration amongst many). (worth noting there are black communities in Canada from the days of the British Empire (Halifax, a sea port) and the Underground Railroad, but they’ve never been a big percentage– most blacks in Canada have origins in the postwar diaspora of places like Jamaica).

      The welfare state is more robust– transfers to individuals, notably universal health care. Historically Canadian society has just been less unequal.

      Municipal employees are all part of OMERS, ie one, funded pension scheme. So you cannot bankrupt a single city simply by promising too much on pensions.

      of course law and order is more central. There is nowhere in Canada, not even Hastings and Main (centre of the West Coast drug user community) in Vancouver that is anywhere as bad as Detroit (at a guess more people are murdered in Detroit in a year than in all of Ontario’s 12 millions).

      The Big 3 have found Ontario a profitable place to manufacture: workers generally have higher education levels, and healthcare is a provincial responsibility not an employer one. That’s a huge difference in costs per worker.

      That benefits Windsor but of course Windsor also suffers from the pathologies of declining industrial base. Gambling has partly compensated but (see Australia) brings its own social pathologies of addiction. Safe streets mean they attract American sightseers and shoppers. An age 19 drinking age brings young people from the States side (we used to go down to Buffalo to drink, in the day, because it was cheaper and easier than in Ontario).

      In the end what you can say about Windsor is it is not Detroit. It doesn’t have the ingrained pathologies of crime, corruption, racial hatred, physical decline.

      We *do* need to get that bridge built, though.

  14. Brett Bellmore says

    I think one of the big, glaringly big, lessons of Detroit, is: Don’t riot if you want your city to have a future. People don’t like living where riots might happen. If they can, they move. (As did my family, a couple years after the riots stopped close enough to our house to hear the shouting.) Businesses move. Who needs the risk of your factory being burnt to the ground? No city has advantages enough to justify that risk.

    You can still, almost half a century later, drive through the center of Detroit, and see the ruins visible from major roads. Why would business locate in a place like that?

    • Ack Ack Ack says

      Ugh. Ignorant. White flight as a phenomenon in Detroit started after the much more brutal 1943 race riots. For the next 25 years local campaigns of terrorism were waged as whites fought to keep their neighborhoods and places of work ethnically and racially homogenous, to subvert African American ambition. The 1967 riots were the result of the disenfranchised rising up and, get this – poor whites and poor blacks both participated! Unlike the 1943 riots which was a true race riot.

      • Brett Bellmore says

        Right, ignorant. No, that really is why we moved away: Because the Detroit riots stopped close enough to our home to hear the shouting, we lived at 9 1/2 mile at the time. On that day, my father announced we were house hunting, and we ended up in rural Michigan, and my father endured an hour plus commute each way, (Along with some friends who’d done the same, they did car pool.) specifically to not have his family living close to someplace people rioted.

        You can think riots are no big deal all you want. But nobody really wants to live or do business near people who are liable at any moment to start burning everything around them to the ground.

        • Ack Ack Ack says

          9 1/2 Mile huh. I live between 8 and 9 Mile Road. You were at least 10 miles away, probably more, and already living in the suburbs.

          But yes, I understand lots of people moved away and why they moved away. But that’s obviously not my point, which is whites were ALREADY moving away beginning after the larger more brutal RACE riot in 1943. When the first black family bought a house on a particular all white street (to escape the ghetto) whites would move out en masse to a different area of the city or move to the suburbs. Coupled with a sustained and intentional campaign to shut African Americans out of industry and business for 25 years up to that point, and would have continued, 1967 riots or not, there simply WAS NO FUTURE FOR BLACK DETROIT. The BIG lesson wasn’t learned.

  15. Peter T says

    The US is not alone in this – while Canberra is a great place to live, and doing ok, most of the small towns in country New South Wales are struggling, and many of the really small places have disappeared. Like the Great Plains. The people end up in the suburbs of the big cities, where there is more, but not enough, opportunity. And the process feeds on itself – evry family that moves makes it harder for others to stay. And of course dead steel and textile towns dot Lancashire and Scotland. We seem to be moving slowly towards a state where there’s not enough work to go round, and what there is is concentrated in very few places. The rise of the robots?

    • valuethinker says

      Peter

      There is enough work. It’s just not work that we may choose to do, and at wages too low.

      But there’s helpers in Tesco. There’s home care workers. People to clean bedpans in old age homes, or sterilize hospital wards.

      Recent trip to London hospital:

      - nurses were Irish, Zimbabwean, Kenyan
      - porters were Somali (doubling as translators for the doctors for some of the patients)
      - cleaners were Bulgarian
      - food servers Polish
      - doctors were New Zealand and Australian locums

      Conclusion? Lots of work to be done in London, but it’s not being done by native born Brits from the high unemployment blackspots of the North.

      The problem isn’t the availability of work or non availability (or rather, we could cure that) the problem is the distribution of income underlying.

  16. Jim Fenske says

    I’m sorry. But if you’re entire life is crumbling before you, you have no heath care, you have no job and the powers that be are stymied by a small radical elite as well as big money in congress, then I’m going to riot. If the conditions didn’t exist, I wouldn’t riot. Make those choices and that’s what you get. For myself, yes, I would move away from the danger zone with my children. But how is it going to sink in? Who is listening now? The Dems, the president, A MAJORITY of our congress and our nation says that it should be different and they even have a road map. And yet this is what we get. This is no longer a democracy my academic friends, this is a corporate oligarchy.

    • Anonymous says

      Smaller areas of the country have been failing since the 1800′s. New England textile mill towns, Applachnian coal towns when the coal is gone, Northern timber towns, now the Great Plains. The difference is partly that in those places, at those times, there were literally no jobs and no safety net. In Detroit, there are enough jobs (either in Detroit or in the suburban ring) and enough of a safety net to keep people from moving. This is kind of a way of saying that “where I am now” looks better than “where I might be if I moved.”

  17. paul says

    Perhaps if, among other things, what investment there has been in detroit in the past 30 years hadn’t been about tourists and commuters? Or perhaps if any of the areas leveled by the riots had been rebuilt, or if the CRA hadn’t been a dead letter in Detroit (imagine a bank not being willing to lend the price of a fancy set of kitchen cabinets on a whole three-bedroom house). But really, this has been going on so long it’s hard to see what anything happening during the last few years could have changed.

    Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is definitely different, in significant part because of the geography that didn’t really let the major institutions flee over an easy border. And although there’s nothing Google-sized in terms of new tech there’s a whole lot of high-tech Mittelstand, including pretty much all the major players in the autonomous-vehicle biz before Google came in and bought the sector.

    • valuethinker says

      Paul

      Maybe Akron and Cleveland are better examples? In that Pittsburgh seemed to have some unique strengths– universities (granted Cleveland has Case Western) etc.

      Detroit did seem to have some unique pathologies. Unusually bitter white v. black relations and segregation. Corrupt and ineffective municipal government from way back. That tradition of setting fire to buildings on Halloween, etc.

    • valuethinker says

      Not to be missed is the very high cost of pensions in Detroit’s fiscal demise. Forecasts show over 70% of the City budget will be consumed paying pensions in the not too distant future.

      • Anonymous says

        sThat’s not really so much about the high cost of pension as about the high cost of depopulation. If you slash the size of the current operation, then the sunk costs you incurred back when you were much bigger will grow in proportion. It’s like the old english country estates that still require an army of retainers to keep up even after all the land has been sold off and the owners are reduced to living in a few rooms in one wing.