I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Skill Vs. Will

Why Detroit Has to Do More Than Just Want a Revival

The only thing more beautiful than Detroit
in the winter will be future Detroit in the
Op-ed contributor Stephan G. Richter did an opinion piece titled "What Really Ails Detroit" for the New York Times recently in which he argued that Detroit's collapse into bankruptcy was caused by other factors than those we are actively discussing at the moment. For Richter, Detroit's financial troubles are indicative of an "overall decline of America's manufacturing centers," caused not by globalization, outsourcing, and recession, but by the lack of a highly skilled labor force. He describes the traditional narrative on the subject as "at best ... a convenient half-truth."

Detroit's problem - and America's, if we're following Richter's logic - did not begin in the last decade. Richter traces it back to 1950s post-war America, a period he refers to as the "heyday" of America's manufacturing strength. Since the two major fronts of World War II were in Europe and Asia, America was able to bounce back much faster than most of the economic power centers on those other continents. As a result, top corporate managers paid their workers higher wages based on market dominance and the enormous revenues that resulted rather than elevating pay as employees became more skilled. Richter blames these managers and their descriptive wage raises (based on results and current dominance) in the place of prescriptive wage raises (based on skills and capability for future dominance) for bringing about the current state of urgency in the American city.

In short, Detroit is failing because America is no longer competitive in terms of manufacturing. What we once saw as causes - globalization, outsourcing, and recession - should have been seen as warning signs that municipal economies would collapse, one by one. Silent, but underlying Richter's opinion piece, is a sense of American arrogance, the idea that radical independence will triumph over communal engagement. Richter's solution to the Detroit problem is a long-term decade-spanning plan for skill development, requiring cooperation between national, regional and local entities such as businesses, government agencies, associations, and schools.

While Richter did not directly reference large public works projects as a means to success in Detroit, this does not preclude public investment in renewal such as the proposed new Red Wings stadium from being part of the solution. However, Richter would likely offer a similar argument to Marvin Surkin, the subject of a previous blog post, namely that the jobs created by construction of the new hockey home will be largely low skill, low pay positions. For a public works project like this to have a positive, lasting effect in terms of public interest, it would have to be the beginning of a larger cooperative effort to train the local labor force, elevating them from grunts to foremen to designers and finally innovators. You should read that previous sentence with an emphasis on "beginning." The ultimate goal would be to continue on, to create a city of the future, for the people and by the people, that employs the smartest, most impressive labor from people who have never been expected to do more than punch the clock.

We have to do more than show that a strong Detroit is what we are seeking. We need to lay the groundwork to make it happen.

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