Posted on March 23rd, 2011 No comments
Straw men are easy to construct and even easier to knock down. That’s really the idea isn’t it? Create a fake issue, then counter it, voila! Your argument is made and won, all in the same breath.
So it goes with Marty Padgett’s piece on carconnection, “Why Detroit Isn’t The “New” New Orleans“.
I was directed to this piece by John Voelcker, an associate of Padgett’s. I’ve read, argued with and agreed with John’s writing for years. Basically, John is a good guy and so, I am sure, is Mr. Padgett. Which leaves me wondering, what was the impetus for carconnection to deliver what’s really a flame at the people of Detroit. Was it really one sentence in some Jalopnik piece? And how many sentient beings out of their teens really take Jalopnik seriously about anything?
Let’s start with the straw man. Padgett writes…
They’re both withered and pretty much defenseless–but does that mean Detroit is the new New Orleans? Does it deserve some kind of federal intervention? Here’s what our colleague, Jalopnik editor @RayWert says:
“Detroit’s New Orleans-like loss of population received no telethons or FEMA assistance. America doesn’t care about Detroit people.”
About what I would expect from Jalopnik. And Padgett deftly explains that no, you don’t get FEMA assistance for the kind of slow burn economic disaster that’s befallen Detroit for the last two decades (or more). That’s obvious. And without reading the Gawker piece (after years of wasting my time, I just don’t bother giving Nick Denton the click) I can’t really further delve into why Wert wrote what he did. Nor do I care to. I’m much more interested in what Padgett wrote for his site.
My argument with Padgett begins here:
And yet Detroit got cash anyway. The city and its suburbs–via automakers and by extensions, suppliers, employees, and dependents–received billions in bailout loans in 2009 that probably prevented the city’s head count from falling twice as far.
We have to parse this one carefully to really see the folly contained inside. On the exterior, it seems to a reasonable, common sense remark but it isn’t and here’s why.
“Detroit” didn’t get the “cash”. GM, Chrysler and Ford have been getting the cash. The difference is enormous. That, for the most part, GM, Chrysler and Ford care really care less about Detroit and the other former locations where they once made cars is self-evident. In the rush to “stay competitive” the big three have off-shored as much production as they possibly can ignoring any tie to the communities left behind in the desolation.
Then Padgett drops the trickle down bomb, “The city and its suburbs–via automakers and by extensions, suppliers, employees, and dependents–received billions” but it’s a weapon of misdirection. Again, the people of Detroit, the city of Detroit didn’t get this money. The automakers who have become pseudonymous with the city they once built cars in got the cash. Some of that federal largesse went to facilities in Detroit, much of it, arguably most of it, did not. None of it went to the people of Detroit or the city of Detroit to help them grapple with the problems they face.
That doesn’t even begin to account for the ongoing subsidies Detroit gets indirectly from federal programs for investing in green-car technology and in sub-federal money that keeps factories alive when they probably weren’t viable on their own account.
Again, the difference between the city receiving monies and the car companies, two thirds of which are now located the suburbs surrounding the city, cashing in is enormous. In many cases the big three have invested that subsidy money, as they have to, domestically. Have that money been spent in Detroit? No, not in its entirety by any means.
As for factories that “weren’t viable on their account” who is to blame for that? The people of Detroit? Are they somehow less productive employees than other places? Or maybe it’s the city of Detroit, maybe the city itself is to blame? I think the blame for the viability of factories rests solidly, but not solely, on the car companies, their managers and executives. Those same executives, by the way, who have been real benefactors of the government bailouts Padgett mentions. Those execs have been collecting their salaries and bonuses while their former factories decayed and their business models were invalidated. Blaming it on the city or on the employees isn’t just wrong, it’s malicious.
Padgett continues to erect straw creations for ceremonial burning…
The second point’s much worse. “America doesn’t care about Detroit people” is political plutonium.
And then he launches into some sideways thing about George Bush. Look, honestly, America doesn’t much care about Detroit any more than it cares about Wilkes-Barre, Cleveland, Gary, Pittsburgh, Rochester, South Bend, Flint or Milwaukee (to name just a few cities). America, passively or otherwise seems to be pretty comfortable allowing the industrial part of our economy to wither and die only to be replaced by the service economy, yes, a nation of fast food and hotel employees. I don’t want to get off track and dig into the politics of all of that but I do think it bear mentioning that if we, as a nation, cared about this sector of the economy and the cities and states that depended on it, we might have talked about building other things or modifying the ways we build things here. Instead, most of us were perfectly content to encourage and subsidize the big three to move as much manufacturing out of this country as possible. If that is “caring” I’ll take apathy.
It’s inflammatory, much like the Jalopnik post that inspired Padgett to write what he did but I do think there is something valid in the comparison. Not a direct one to one comparison, life and reality is seldom that simple. But as a metaphor things like the image below help us see things differently. They force to re-evaluate the so odiously misnamed common wisdom and perhaps, see more truth than we did before. This is one of the first page of Michael Moore‘s 1996 book, “Downsize This!”
The top image is the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that was bombed by Timothy McVeigh. The lower image is a closed factory in Flint. Before you dismiss the comparison, again, not a direct one, consider the following. The Murrah tragedy was the act of one man intentionally trying to destroy federal property and maim and kill. The second image, the Flint factory was the direct result of auto executives making intentional decisions to close a local factory, fire workers there and demolish the building. They’re not the same acts by any means but the point Moore makes in his book is simple and obvious, both acts had much the same results. Lives were ended prematurely. Families were destroyed. Communities were devastated. Was this the fault of those workers? Were they just not good enough? Did they deserve what they got?
In his second to last paragraph Padgett blames Detroit’s ills on, “the unions, and an overbearing, overburdened city government”. Notice what’s missing?
Padgett won’t get an argument from me that some unions have, at times, been out of control. But it’s difficult to blame the big three’s ills on the unions, after all, did the big three also sign onto all those contracts? If those contracts are burdensome or badly negotiated, why did they agree to them?
And Detroit’s civis issues have been well publicized. Their laughable civic government is, well, laughable. And not defend them but allow me to add this. Anyone who has ever run a business can understand this. A growing business is one that is typically much more simple to manage than one that is shrinking. Detroit has been a basket for a long time because of an ever more eroding tax base, and ever increasing burden of costs associated with managing a shrinking economy. For anyone, even the best of civic leaders, Detroit would be a serious challenge.
And ponder this for a moment, what’s been run worse? The city of Detroit, with no federal help and a shrinking economy or the big three car companies with tons of federal assistance and a mandate from the government that they are too big to fail?
Padgett closes with the follow…
New Orleans has levees. Detroit has denial. They’re both Achilles’ heels, but one doesn’t have to be.
Wow, game, set, match. If only Detroit would just pick itself up by its rusty bootstraps and be a real city, it wouldn’t be losing population at a ridiculous rate, turning over entire blocks into improvised gardens and still be host to innumerable empty factories, homes and offices.
I would say that there is some serious denial taking place but it isn’t on Detroit’s part. No, it’s denial from those of us who think that a city devastated by outsourcing, rampant with private enterprise management as malfaisant as the very worst of its civic mishandlers, can just bounce back with a good attitude and the power of positive thinking. Detroit, as a place full of people, is emblematic of the what’s happened to once vibrant middle class this country had. And we ignore that lesson at our own peril.
My note: The title of this piece is, obviously, a line from Pink Floyd’s “Time” which, for some reason I only half understand, was resonating in my head while I wrote this. -russell
Posted on March 27th, 2010 No comments
The Daily Telegraph says a lot of good things and stupid things. This one falls into the latter category:
Look, I love Top Gear but it’s a TV show and all which that implies. It’s sometimes silly and shallow. It’s sometimes quite stupid. It is however, frequently entertaining, something which more TV shows could look into.
And with all that said, Top Gear isn’t the problem. It’s “motorsports” which are the problem. Let’s be realistic. Motorsports are defined as sports with motors in them, and by that I mean, gasoline motors, often, large, loud, polluting, fuel inefficient motors. It’s the way the genre has been defined for generations. Top Gear is hardly to blame for this.
And while I’ll leave the main blame laying to others I’ll tell you who I think is also to blame for this, many of us eco-driving warriors, that’s who.
Look, cars, motorcycles and the lot are fun. They are. You can do all sorts of exciting things with them and people do. They drive them in circles really fast. They drive over exciting and challenging dirt surfaces. They drive them in marathons. They crash them into each other. They do things with vehicles that are exciting, for many people, to watch.
What have we, the alt-car crowd come up?
Seriously. That’s our contribution to motorsports.
Why aren’t having fun with fuel efficient cars? Why aren’t coming up with exciting new ways to compete in vehicles that aren’t necessarily wasting inordinate amounts of fuel and creating enormous clouds of oil tinged pollution? What have we done to change the existing paradigm? Nothing. Well, very little.
It’s partially our fault the public thinks fuel efficient cars (and EVs and electric scooters…) are boring because that’s all we shown them. We can drive them slow, we can compete saving fuel. Chess is exciting in comparison. And don’t get me wrong, MPG Challenges are fun (for some of us). I’ve been to more than a few but frankly, it’s never going to be a widespread phenomena and for good reason.
It is incumbent upon us, the fuel efficient, low pollution devotees to come up with something less environmentally disastrous than the Daytona 500 and slightly more exciting than watching corn grow. I think we can do it if we try.
One of the most fun things I saw at the Tour del Sol in 2006 was the autocross competition amongst the vehicles there (EV’s, biodiesel, hybrids and whatnot). That was fun. It was relatively low impact and it was a chance to use those vehicles in ways most people never consider. Why aren’t we, we being the green car community, doing more things like that? Why aren’t we sponsoring efficiency contests that not only reward MPG but add in a real life element, time. If all you are doing is managing your MPG chances are, you’re a road hazard. However, if you had to do that and stay within a realistic time bracket, suddenly your skills must be a bit more attuned to, dare I suggest, the real world? The world most people live in? I’d like to see more rally style competitions where timing and efficiency are the point. Rewarding only efficiency is too narrow. There’s no reason why we can’t organize fun rallies that aren’t tortoise versus tortoise competitions. Car clubs do it all the time.
And I don’t mean to limit these competitions by other traditional definitions. Why doesn’t a car company who is often proud that so many of their older vehicles are on the road honor that more tangibly? Yes, building a great car is the main point but again, we’re talking about changing paradigms here. For most of my life I was a devoted Volvo owner (until I bought my very first new car, my 2005 Prius). Volvo has a wonderful program whereby they send very nicely done metal plaques to owners of Volvo who have clocked over 100,000 miles. They also do it for 250K and 500K. What a great program, rewarding and recognized longevity. And while this isn’t exactly related to what I am discussing here, it is outside the “norm” when we think about cars. It’s this kind of thinking that we need to engage in.
I’ve always wanted to put one of these logos on my Prius. Why? Well, I love the idea that TRD isn’t just about bigger, louder, faster. I love the idea that anything can be “raced”. A great driver can compete, in any number of ways, in any vehicle. So yes, right now I love the TRD logo that isn’t (but should be) on my Prius because it’s kind of ridiculous. But I also love it for what it could represent, a rebellion against the louder, faster, bigger and towards something else. A whole new definition of performance that isn’t so narrowly defined.
Which brings me to the final bit of finger-pointing, I’m going lay part of the blame one other place. The car companies. All of them. They spend tens of millions of dollars supporting motorsports as they exist now. They have, as much as anyone else, created the paradigm that bigger, louder, faster and gas-hoggier is better. It’s time they diverted a small amount of that money in a different direction. It’s time for, especially the companies for whom fuel efficiency is a major selling point (Yes, my dear friends in Torrance, I’m talking to you) to invest some small part of what they pump into F1, NASCAR and all the rest helping to build a new paradigm. A paradigm which, I would hasten top point out, supports their long term business model much better than NASCAR or Formula One. This won’t be changed overnight. It will take decades but now is the time to help the pioneers reshape the perception of the personal transportation device, help people who are trying to reframe the conversation away from horsepower and torque to one where agility, efficiency and versatility are more important. You can do it. After all, you built the existing motorsports model. Imagine in fifty years people looking back with a whole new view of “motorsports” and seeing what we could do today as groundbreaking. Now that’s exciting. If we do it.