Review: Detroit – An American Autopsy

Detroit: An American Autopsy

“And it is awful here, there is no other way to say it. But I believe that Detroit is America’s city. IT was the vanguard of our way up, just as it is the vanguard of our way down. And one hopes, the vanguard of our way up again. Detroit is Pax Americana. The birthplace of mass production, the automobile, the cement road, the refrigerator, frozen peas, high-paid blue-collar jobs, home ownership and credit on a mass scale. America’s way of life was built here.”

I’ve read and written a lot about how America is dying. Regulatory capture, Wall Street, global arbitrage and deviant entrepreneurs collaborated to massacre the middle class.

But I always came at it from the perspective that the country is mid-collapse. That we still have time. That we can still swing the wheel and, for the most part, make it through. Sure, we’ll pay $8 for a gallon of gas, we’ll overpay for armies of contractors we don’t need, but we will make it through. We’re America after all.

Charlie LeDuff convinced me we may be too late. The book is aptly titled, Detroit: An American Autopsy. What if the land of the free, of prosperity, of two cars and a picket fence succumbed to the corrupt, the incompetent, the immoral?

He describes the imbeciles that run Detroit – not just its corrupt, race-baiting politicians, but also the evil puppet masters, the CEOs, that pulled their strings. He takes us on a journey through those we abandoned on the front line, one he describes as a “landscape of fire and human failing.” We watch them live, fight, and die. He talks to the workers in factories, once producing subprime mortgages, now reduced to relabeling screws. He speaks with the mothers of the dead. We walk with him as he tries to make change, failing more often than not. His own life is inexorably tied into that of his failed city, so we feel his guilt, his family’s mourning, the pain of finding work, the toll it takes.

He writes like Naipaul. Blisteringly honest. Solid, real flow.

And it presents the viewpoint that we’re not careening into failure. We’re already there. Ours is a state soon to be hollowed out by failed cities. America was murdered. What we live in is fundamentally different from what we had. We’re in the middle of launching what is new. Its time to approach it that way.

Regardless of whether you believe in American decline or not, this book presents a compelling, unflinching perspective that is worth reading. This should be required reading for anyone who thinks D.C. and its ilk still matter.

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  • @Vog3lfr3i
    Feb 8, 2013

    Review of Detroit: An American Autopsy


  • @ClaudiaGrinnell
    Feb 14, 2013

    Great book review:
    Review – Detroit: An American Autopsy…http://t.co/I5Pai0po

  • Juan de la O
    Jun 22, 2013

    [Something I wrote JULY 5, 2008 and remains applicable [though current – and future – data would not be so ‘good’ as, globally, we remain in The Long Slowing, a Slowing which has accelerated no matter the extreme counter-cyclic policies.
    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2008/07/hoisted-from-comments-has-neo.html ]

    Neo-liberal market fundamentalisms include financial opening and deregulation which, in different forms, were applied on a world scale right along with the theft of public goods through privatizations, et cet — a ‘grand’ global looting had been unleashed in a (partially directed) effort to overcome systemic crisis.

    Here let me repeat something which I wrote elsewhere three months ago:

    Between 1965 and 1973, the U.S. manufacturing sector’s rate of profit fell by 40%, a decline that worsened with the 1974-5 recession, was hit again by the severe early 80?s slump, began recovering in the 1990s but peaked in 1997, falling into 2003 since which there has been some rise but – in all cases over the last decades – never to pre-1965-73 levels.

    Andrew Glyn considered the world to have been “suddenly projected from boom to crisis” with the first phase of above.
    The failure of political Keynesianism, and then monetarist policies to ressurect rate of profit dovetailed with a ‘we don’t know what to do so lets try 19th c laissez-faire on a world scale’ set of policies demanded by the U.S., given voice by Reagan and Thatcher in her famous statement: ‘There Is No Alternative [to a worldwide free market]‘, or TINA.

    Borders to capital flow in all its manifestations had to be everywhere broken; state owned industries had to be privatized; poor fiscal management had to be tightened and almost everywhere on the backs of the working class and poor as needed social services were cut and cut again. Debt payments, no matter how great a percentage of export earnings, had to be made if a government were to expect future access to IMF and World Bank funds.

    Neoclassical economists and their theories provided ideological justification; a sort of ‘we are all neoliberals now’ attitude infected world leaders until, in 1989, John Williamson coined the term ‘Washington Consensus’, which was very much not the consensus of those most subject to the various ‘shock therapies’.
    So, how did the world do under this set of misguided fundamentalisms?

    “Real global GDP growth averaged 4.9%a year in the Golden Age years from 1950 through 1973, but dropped to 3.4% annually in the unstable period between 1974 and1979. Dissatisfied with the instability, inflation, low profits and falling financial asset prices of the 1970s, advanced country elites pushed hard for a switch to a more business friendly political-economic system; global Neoliberalism was the result. World GDP growth averaged 3.3% a year in the early Neoliberal period of the 1980s, then slowed dramatically to 2.3% from 1990-99 as Neoliberalism strengthened, making the 1990s by far the slowest growth decade of the post war era.” (James Crotty)

    As would be expected, the post-1973 annual growth rate of world real gross domestic investment fell substantially through 1996.

    With the exception of parts of Asia, economic development throughout the world failed to gain traction, chronic excess capacity on one hand and credit fueled financial exuberance on the other.

    Given the system’s inability to create employment so rapidly as required, a glut of labor and an expanding informal sectors as well. All the ‘better’ to intensify the international (and domestic) competition among workers, drive and hold wages down so also make consumer credit increasingly important to retention of living standards, no matter that this has been only another transfer to loan capital.

    Average weekly earnings, constant 1982 dollars, for all private nonfarm workers in the U.S. peaked in 1972 at $331.59, falling to $257.95 in 1992 until ‘recovering’ to $277.57 in 2004 and likely having faltered again since then.

    It is at least interesting that conditions of surplus labor, lower wages, deficit funding, tech innovations, etc, have not been able to generate another long wave expansionary phase. One might even suspect that finance has been ‘pumping’ too much from the real and that ‘long-felt unease’ is related to this.’

    The primary contradictions which I’ve seen developing over the last number of decades have been:

    1. the ending of national economies v. what can only be national states, a contradiction between economic mode of organization and national states.
    2. progressive expansion of fictitious capital v. the possibility of satisfying such claims, a ‘satisfying’ which depends upon a) global creation of surplus value and b) substitution of credit for a relative insufficiency of realized surplus value (profit). This has provided much of the ‘advanced’ world with what is no more than a superficial prosperity even as it has also helped undermined its real basis. The spectacle of finance hides too much.

    3. In combination, the above two have generated greater class, ethnic, international and subnational tensions. The social relations of the world capital system have become quite strained, which is not to say that capitalism is ‘doomed’ but that its present form has become increasingly untenable and a ‘change in state’ is almost certainly unavoidable, in fact seems to be underway.
    Detroit is certainly ‘a fit’ – and I can recall cruising Woodward Ave. in my ‘409 Chevy during earlier 1960s – Very different then, booming.

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