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 12th, 2010 1 comment
So earlier today Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas decided to rear up on his hind legs and grab some national attention by filing a class action suit “on behalf of the residents of Orange County”.
(image from the District Attorney’s office)
Clearly the worst problems in Orange County California appear to be, it’s not getting enough national press. If this is what occupying their district attorney then truly, Orange County must be a little slice heaven.
Keep in mind, this is the county, one of the most prosperous in California, that managed to go bankrupt in the mid nineties. I suppose by now the embarrassment from that has faded so this issue must loom large in the sights of ace law enforcer Joseph “Tony” Rackauckas. Sure, the Orange County has struggled with plummeting property values, rampant mortgage fraud and home foreclosures, losing jobs but this Toyota thing, well, it has to be addressed.
Here’s a PDF of the complaint. Here’s a bit of it:
3. This case is based on several simple and provable facts: (a) millions of California consumers purchased defective Toyota vehicles; (b) Toyota knew that these defects existed; (c) Toyota failed to disclose these defects, and actually took affirmative steps to hide the defects and mislead the public about them; (d) as a result, none of the California consumers knew about, or reasonably could have known about, the defects; (e) millions of California consumers have been harmed by owning or leasing Toyota vehicles that contain defects which completely undermine the safety and reliability of the vehicles; and (f) the value of every Toyota vehicle owned by California consumers has been reduced because of these defects.
So one has to wonder what evidence Rackauckas has that congress apparently lacks, oh, and the entire news media since we’ve seen no evidence that Toyota has done any of this. What we have seen is a lot of very bad reporting, some folks with claims that are backed no physical evidence and make little sense and a general, “We hate Toyota” sentiment that seems to be driving this in some areas.
Here’s the kicker:
Relief sought by the OCDA
The OCDA is seeking to permanently enjoin Toyota from continued unlawful, unfair, deceptive, and fraudulent business practices as it pertains to both consumers and competitors. The OCDA is seeking civil penalties in the amount of $2,500 for every violation of the Unfair Business Practices Act. The Plaintiff is also seeking recovery of attorneys’ fees, investigation costs, and any other equitable relief as deemed just.
So the “relief” is twenty-five hundred bucks for each Toyota owner plus legal fees? As usual, the attorney’s here bill for millions and the actual people might see as much as $2500. Great deal if you can get it, for the attorneys.
And because everyone deserves a chance to tell their own story I called the DA’s office in Orange County. I spoke with one of their spokespeople there and I asked a few questions to try wrap my mind around this thing.
I asked how many complaints the DA’s office had received regarding Toyota vehicles. The response was that this action on the part of DA Rackauckas is not based on consumer complaints from Orange County residents. Why Orange County first? Why not let the Feds deal with this. The response, from DA Rackauckas’ own speech is as follows:
As these cases continue to pile up, I became increasingly uneasy, knowing that many thousands of California consumers have purchased defective Toyota vehicles. I became increasingly concerned that Orange County consumers may be purchasing many more Toyotas without knowing the full facts.
I feel it is the duty of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office to protect the public and our consumers from unlawful, unfair, and fraudulent business practices. I feel it is our duty to make sure Toyota is not gaining an unfair business advantage over other car companies who are not doing what Toyota is doing.
Nice of OC to step up and offer to fight Toyota on behalf of, well, everyone. A little more history, directly from DA’s speech this morning:
You may remember that in 2002, we joined forces with the Robinson, Calcagnie & Robinson law firm in taking action against giant international oil companies to clean up poison from ground water. As a result, we forced the oil companies to clean up over 300 sites and pay over $25 million in penalties and millions more in unlimited costs for cleanup of contaminated sites.
(editors note: I can only find records of OCDA getting a little less than $10 million in these suits)
It’s no secret that our office has been enduring a severe budget crisis. We have to prosecute the same number of cases with 10 percent less prosecutors and investigators. As important as protecting the public from unfair business practices and this case may be, I could not take prosecutors away from prosecuting murderers, rapists and gang members.
We all know that as soon as we file this suit against the world’s largest, most successful car corporation, they are going to be parachuting in lawyers, with all kinds of legal tactics up their sleeves. We need the assistance of a law firm, with expertise in these types of cases, to help us defend against the barrage of legal attacks we expect from this gigantic international corporation. Believe me, they will spare no expense to hire an army of lawyers from fancy firms.
Brave, I guess, but then fighting paper dragons often sounds much more impressive than it is. So, the mostly broke office of the Orange County District Attorney is going to take on Toyota over what they perceive as some kind of mounting crisis because no one else will? And they’re going to do it armed with what facts? And taxpayer paid outside attorneys? With what evidence? Based on news reports? And let’s be clear here, getting oil companies to pay to “study” and clean up after 143 leaky gas stations is a lot different than somehow proving Toyota has been knowingly selling defective cars and intentionally hurting people. The evidence with the oil companies was measurable. And even that settlement didn’t clean up all the gas stations, it only provided that the oil companies would spend several million dollars studying the sites to determine if a clean up was necessary. And the OCDA got $5 million in legal fees. Funny thing, those same oil companies with the Lake Tahoe water district for a similar issue. The result, Lake Tahoe got $60 million. Not such a great deal for Orange County residents, eh?
What’s more, let’s pretend for a moment that DA Rackauckas has a point and he’s doing god’s work here. Why just Toyota? There are more than handful of other recalls on other vehicles from other companies, some going back years. So why just Toyota?
As I’ve said here before, I’ll lead parade with torches to the Torrance offices if someone can show me proof Toyota has done what many in the media and the DA of Orange County is claiming. Keep in mind, I have a big, fat car loan right now on a 2010. My kid drives a Corolla. I have no desire to prop up a company that would knowingly hurt people to make money least of all, hurt my family and I.
But where’s the evidence?
And without that, people like this asinine DA in Orange County have caused me harm. Armed with a “timeline” they’ve damaged the resale value of my property, this DA and the media, without evidence and without care to actually reporting facts. It’s my opinion that I can prove that. I can point to the hundreds of bad, misleading and inaccurate articles that have damaged what my property is worth. I can point to idiotic grandstanding by the media and now, an officer of the court, namely, the District Attorney of Orange County California all of which have done nothing to “protect the consumer” and a lot of harm millions of Toyota owners all over the United States.
Where’s my lawsuit?
If were an OC resident right now, I’d be pissed my tax dollars trying to chase some Toyota gravy train that is highly unlikely to ever come in. And let’s be honest here, he’s not doing it for people of Orange County, Rackauckas is doing it for himself and for the other attorney’s. This District Attorney has a history of chasing these kind of budget problems. Only last year DA Rackauckas came under fire from a death penalty proponent for prosecuting so many death penalty cases? Why? They’re expensive. And in a time of budgetary problems it seemed pointless to spend the money prosecute these cases and incur the additional cost of asking for the death penalty in a state that has no death penalty.
He’s going to spend Orange County tax dollars paying outside attorneys to prosecute this case and he’s doing it to try and build himself a bigger name. And that’s pathetic because I don’t think that’s what Orange County residents elected him for.