Archive for the 'news' Category

Homeless

112307_0141.jpg

I recently read this article in the ChronicleHerald, about the plight of the homeless in New Orleans. From the sounds of it, the problem of homelessness and abandonment in New Orleans is at least as bad as it is in Detroit.

And once more, I’ve come across an article exploring the propensity of Detroit supporters to lament “ruin porn”. I think it’s actually one of the better, more reasoned articles on why photographers love to photograph ruins, and in particular why they have spent so much time making images of Detroit’s ruins. It’s not that us photographers all hate Detroit, with a singular desire to help bring the city down by pointing out it’s many visible problems, but that we really like to tell stories, and like writers, a tragic story is often compelling. And what story of urban crises is more tragic than Detroit’s? Furthermore, many of the photographers, film makers, and writers that visit the city, really want to help start the discussion of how to rebuild, or at least change Detroit into something better.

The best quote from the article (in my opinion) is the last paragraph, that puts the onus, not only on the photographers (which is so easy to do), but on everyone, where it more rightly belongs.

“Photographs like Moore, Marchand, and Meffre’s succeed, at least, in compelling us to ask the questions necessary to put this story together—Detroit’s story, but also the increasingly-familiar story of urban America in an era of prolonged economic crisis. That they themselves fail to do so testifies not only to the limitations of any still image, but our collective failure to imagine what Detroit’s future—our collective urban future—holds for us all.”

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

03162008_0034.jpg
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein can be credited with that quote. He was a pretty smart guy, and the quote seems pretty obvious, but for some reason so many seem to keep using a bad process in hopes of a good result. It seems like Michigan and Detroit are guilty of this. How long has the auto industry been in decline? How long has manufacturing been in decline? A lot longer than this recession. How long have we known that a good education is a great predictor of economic well being, and how much does an educated workforce contribute to to economic growth? A long time, and a lot, respectively.

By now, I thought that there would be a lot less about Detroit to be found in the news. Instead it seems like articles just keep coming. Since I’ve had a baby, and had three jobs in the last six months, I’ve found I’m a bit behind on consuming Detroit related news, and articles. Here are a few interesting pieces I’ve come across lately:

Michigan has an inflated view of the quality of its schools according to Michigan Radio. In other words Michigan’s schools aren’t doing very well, and neither are it’s students. The inevitable, looming budget cuts should help.

Also, people just keep leaving Michigan. The upside is this has helped the unemployment rate. This can’t be good for the long term. Housing prices won’t be going up in most of metro Detroit if a trend of declining population continues. The same can be said for services, retail, and a host of other business sectors.

It’s amazing that the debate over mass transit continues. If you read the comments it’s apparent that some believe our roads are not only not subsidized, but are actually profitable, and any other form of subsidized transportation is just the tip of the socialism iceberg.

hp_industrial_building_night.jpg

Michigan has 800,000 less people employed people now than it did in 2000, has lost half of it’s manufacturing jobs in ten years, and has a $2 billion shortfall. So what does an MSU economist think? Does it matter?

Apparently, “there is more money to made in tearing Detroit down, around 2011, than building it back up…” That’s according to a New York Times review of Paul Clemen’s new book called, Punching Out, One Year in a Closing Auto Plant. Some interesting quotes that should bolster many people’s stereotypes of auto workers include, ““I drank 32 beers the other night”, and “Hell, I don’t even know what e-mail is.” Oh, and of course he hates, like so many others, French photographers who come to shoot “ruin porn”. I hate the term “ruin porn”.

And yet more hating on photographers of “ruin porn”.  The argument that photographers are contributing to Detroit’s problems is most certainly a red herring. As if Dorthea Lange contributed to the Great Depression. People will say bad things about Detroit, photographers will show bad things about it, and the media will report on bad things that happen in it. The author admits that photography of abandonment may raise awareness, but says, “but raising awareness is only useful if it provokes a next step, a move toward trying to fix a problem”. Using that requirement, all of those photographers who showed us the horrors of the wars, and other atrocities committed around the world, could have done some good, if only they’d come up with some solutions. Is it time for observers of Detroit to move on to new subjects? Perhaps. But it is definitely time for Detroit supporters to move beyond what others have to say about, and show of, Detroit. Photographers will photograph disasters, man made or natural, as long as they exist. Until houses and buildings are no longer abandoned faster than good things happen, the “bad” talk, photos, and reporting will continue.

the_spot.jpg

But, according to the author, at least Johnny Knoxville loves Detroit. There’s not doubt Detroit’s got some pretty cool things going on. It’s not enough for me to move back, nor most people for that matter. But, for those who do move there, and do something special, I’m willing to give credit where credit is due.

Andrew Moore is a photographer mentioned in the above piece in The New Republic. I like his work, and found this video to be pretty interesting. Another interesting video is Views of Detroit by three Danish students. You can see the full film on Vimeo. Interestingly the film states near the beginning, “The film uses a strongly subjective narrative, with no aim to point out answers to the challenges Detroit is currently facing.” Uh, oh…more artists who point out Detroit’s flaws without trying to fix them.

And just as it seems things couldn’t get any worse, Mayor Bing has announced no Robocop statue…What else does Detroit have without Robocop?

One industry that does seem to be doing well, is the film industry, and of course we can’t have that. At least one politician wants to rain on that parade. Not that I’m against a flat tax, but if we’re talking about removing incentives, we’re going to be affecting a lot more than the film industry. Might want to think through the consequences before making that recommendation…unless you’re a Libertarian of course.

model_t_plant_night.jpg

I don’t understand why this complaint keeps coming up. It’s like some in Michigan just don’t get it. Why is anyone surprised that a company is having trouble finding qualified tech workers in Delta Township, Michigan? First of all Michigan is not a hotbed of tech workers. And secondly, Delta Township is going to be even less of a tech worker haven. If you look at a map of Delta Township, you’ll see that’s it borders Lansing (no metropolis mind you), and just to the west is farmland. If you need tech workers, you’d best be located where tech workers live. Michigan may have a high unemployment rate, but if it’s anything like the rest of the country good tech workers aren’t having a very hard time finding work. Being located in Delta Township won’t make finding good tech workers any easier.

According to a study from MSU, “build it and they will come” doesn’t quite work out. It turns out that the people come first, then the jobs. But why would people come? That’s the question. The study is talking more about business travelers, particularly those traveling by air (strange study), than the creative types Richard Florida often talks about. Interestingly, the article says, “the finding does not contradict more direct job-creation strategies, including the construction of office and retail spaces”. Huh? So build, don’t build…what? Of course business travelers won’t come to metro Detroit without a reason. The article also says that the cities least likely to benefit include Detroit. Not so helpful…

20101227_0053.jpg

I have an idea. I’ve mentioned it before. Not that it is a new idea, or isn’t already happening, but there is a driven, entrepreneurial, and hardworking population that could reinvigorate Detroit. The group of people would be called immigrants. I know I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ve also linked to an article on Model D about Steve Tobocman before as well, but it’s still a really good idea. Model D has another article by Steve regarding the importance of embracing immigration in Detroit. I personally know some who have trouble with this idea, because gosh darn it, they aren’t just like me. Never mind, that their own ancestors were immigrants too. And they weren’t always welcome either. They were different too.

I recently came across a couple of interesting maps. The first shows the best and worst metro areas for jobs. Of course the Detroit metro area was one of the top five worst. The second is the map of “State Superlatives”. The bad superlative for Michigan is “unemployment”. Not surprising. And the good superlative is “best freshwater access”. There’s no denying that one either. Michigan has got freshwater, and lots of it. The third map shows the concentrations of adults with college degrees. While Michigan looks better than, say, Louisiana, it certainly looks worse than states such as Colorado, or areas on either coast.

And finally a couple of arguments for cities. In any discussion about urban vs. suburban vs. rural living, you’ll find many naysayers who have nothing good to say about cities. Say what you will about them, they are central to the economies of pretty much all nations. Not surprisingly, without a strong city, metro Detroit is, and has struggled for a long time. Turns out concentrations of smart, educated people are good for innovation, and innovation is good for the economy. Who’d have thought?

Castle House burns down

I was always amazed that the house in Brush Park, known as the Castle House, had survived pretty much intact all these years. Unfortunately it now joins many other once beautiful houses that have been razed. According to the Detroit Free Press, the house burned down this morning, and was knocked down this evening.

04150404_16.jpg

Fires

07200901_16.jpg

Three devastating fires in three states in the same week…

Near Boulder, Colorado almost 170 homes in a scenic area known as Fourmile Canyon have burned in a fire of unknown origin. In San Bruno, California, near San Francisco, a ruptured gas line caused an explosion that killed at least four people and destroyed nearly 40 homes. In Detroit downed power lines, and illegal electrical hookup, strong winds, and apparently dysfunctional services led to fires that destroyed 71 homes several days.

07200901_13.jpg

Which is the most devastating? A fire possibly caused by nature, an explosion from an approximately 60 year old underground gas pipe, or one caused by a person living in poverty illegally hooking up to the electrical system, combined with power lines that have been down for days? It probably doesn’t matter, though many of the people who lost their houses in Detroit probably don’t have home owners insurance. And while they could by a house in the city for $10,000, some probably can’t afford even that. The only upside is that apparently only 29 of the 71 homes were confirmed as occupied…

More Detroit vs. The Media drama, and What Detroit has, what Detroit’s losing, and what Detroit needs

11240602_10.jpg

This was supposed to have been posted a week, or so, ago. But thanks to my old job, four days out of town, jury duty, and a new job to start, none of what’s here is new. But, since I went to the trouble to write it, I’m posting it anyway.

Detroit vs The Media

The drama never ends for Detroit. NBC hates Detroit, and now ABC as well. ABC’s new crime drama set in Detroit has got some all bent out of shape once again. As always there were some interesting comments including:
“Why must the media prortray Detroit is such a bad light.” - Do we always have to ask this question? Seriously, is there any question as to why the media portrays the city the way that it does? Besides, did anyone complain about Law and Order making New York look bad, or CSI making Vegas look bad? Detroit deserves a break because it really is that bad? If only the media would give Detroit a break, surely things would improve. There were, as always, so interesting comments.

“Perhaps a chat with the directors of ABC would change their mind.” - Doubt it. Why do Detroiters always want to have a chat with the media about the way the city is portrayed? And, anyway how would that conversation go? Detroiter - “Will you to stop portraying Detroit in a negative light?” ABC exec - “No.”

“And I think the promo is wrong in saying that Detroit is the murder capital. I think we are up there, but more like number 3. New Orleans is #1″ - Yeah, take that ABC. They really ought to get their facts straight. Oh wait, according to ABC Detroit was the murder capital in 2008…hmm coincidence or conspiracy to paint Detroit badly?

“Was anything truthful said? Or is it Americas’ loss of integrity personified.” - Huh?

“I’m as sensitive to Detroit’s image as anyone, but I think that viewers will be able to decipher this as fiction.” - One might think so, but judging by reactions, that sentiment is not shared by many others.”

“So i can understand why ABC is doing a crime series set in Detroit.It’s about time. What took so long? I think I’ll send them some story ideas. I have many, too many, & these are all true, nothing make-believe.” - This one makes sense..

05102010_0040.jpg

What Detroit Has

What does Detroit have, beyond high unemployment, high crime rates, and bitter defenders? Well according to POP City, Detroit has a few things Pittsburgh ( and presumably, other Rust Belt cities ) could use. Of course POP City is owned by Issue Media Group, which also just happens to publish Model D and Metromode as well, booth of which ardent Detroit boosters. Nonetheless, perhaps there are some good things that Detroit has, that other places could use. According to POP City, Detroit has:

The Greening of Detroit:

I can imagine that almost no other city in the United States has an organization quite like the Greening of Detroit, of course no other city has the amount of abandoned land that Detroit has. I like the Greening of Detroit and what they do.

Tech Town:

Tech Town is a great idea, and I hope some great things come of it. Bringing smart, creative, and innovative people together is exactly what Detroit needs. Technology may make it possible to work in isolation in Bad Axe, but in reality innovation comes from people pushing the envelope, and building on one another’s successes. This doesn’t often happen in isolation. It’s the reason Silicon Valley, Boston, and NYC keep creating new companies, and why they get so much of the investment dollars.

The M-1 Rail Project:

Detroit doesn’t have this yet. It is hoped that construction will begin before the end of 2010. Unfortunately, it takes several years to complete a section of rail through an urban area, and in an area that continues to lose population, it’ll will be difficult to make it happen.

Art:

Detroit does have this, and some good stuff at that. But projects such as the Heidelberg Project are products of an extreme situation that nobody wants. I really like the Heidelberg Project, but I’d rather not have the massive amounts of blight and abandonment that has to go along with it.

A Food Scene:

I can’t comment on Pittsburgh’s food scene, but Detroit’s food scene is decent, but not incredible. I love Slow’s but, even cities with lower populations, such as Denver and Portland, have better food scenes than Detroit. Five or six places…even a dozen good places aren’t enough for an area the size of Detroit.

Regardless of whether or not I feel this list is a good example of what other areas need or not (I don’t), the metropolitan Detroit area does have somewhere in the neighborhood of 4.5 million residents. That’s a significant amount of people, who could be customers, and employees or employers. Whether or not the area can capitalize on that depends on the decisions the residents, businesses, and politicians make over the next decade or so. If we were to look to the decisions of the past 40 years the outlook would be rather grim. Perhaps though, the next generation of policy makers can make better decisions than the last.

05102010_0050.jpg

What Detroit’s Losing

Unfortunately this is an easy one. Detroit’s losing everything from people to money. What is really bad, is that metro Detroit is losing young college grads. I recently read this article about college education rates in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Scroll down to the section titled, “By the Numbers”. My guess is Detroit doesn’t compare very well, even considering Milwaukee’s meager numbers.

What Detroit Needs

What Detroit needs is pretty much the inverse of what it’s losing, including a young, educated workforce, immigrants, Innovation, and, well…pretty much everything. Recovery seems to be a tricky, chicken/egg situation. Hi tech businesses locate where the talent is. Talent locates where the jobs are. Jobs are found where the hi tech businesses are. With each being a prerequisite for the other, how do you attract either one to Detroit? This is one of the arguments many make against authors such as Richard Florida. Reading what urban theorists such as Florida have to say make many feel that the”in” places, such as Chicago, D.C., and Silicon Valley, have already won. There’s no possible way to beat them if you take Florida’s theories without actually reading far enough. And that’s true to a certain extent. Nobody was able to beat Detroit as the automotive capital for 75 years or so, even with such bad management decisions. However, that didn’t stop Chicago, D.C., or Silicon Valley, and many, many other places, from thriving. Detroit doesn’t have to be Chicago, but it does have to be something other than the same old Detroit we’ve all known for far too long.

Selling a house in metro Detroit and Bob Daddow says, “We’re screwed…”

07180901_04.jpgNot too long ago, I wrote about what I saw as the unlikely chances of us selling our house in metro Detroit. Well, we did. And even though we had to pay the “buyer” to take it, I am happy to have it off my hands. I’ve recently read a few articles that made feel even more fortunate to have sold the house. Talk about depressing the articles paint a picture of doom and gloom (summed up at Time’s Detroit Blog). In The Detroit News, Bob Daddow of Oakland County says Michigan “is screwed.” Let’s hope he’s not holding back. Apparently short sightedness is to blame…ya think? Sadly, it sounds like corporate Michigan is going to have to take charge. At least according to another article in The Detroit News. That’s scary. Not only did politicians use Michigan and Detroit as personal piggy bank, but the were often working with our corporate leaders (see Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, and especially, Poletown).07180901_14.jpgSo, yeah. We’re pretty happy we sold the house. What was the secret? Luck. Our house was recently remodeled (by us), in a very modern style. And in the area we lived, modern was not generally desired. Even though it was urban, I get the impression most of the residents wanted to live in the country. Think ducks, yellow, shaker style furniture, flowery wallpaper trim, and wrought iron. Our house had none of that. Inside it was white on white. Unstained hardwood throughout, with white walls, white cabinets, white toilet, sink, and tub, along with modern fixtures. I thought it had a snowball’s chance in hell of selling. But sell it did. And to the first couple to look at it. I don’t know what else to call it but luck. Sure, we lost money, but in Michigan especially, who isn’t? I guess our house stood out from the rest, and the buyers said they’d looked at dozens of houses before ours. Ours was perfect, they said. Damn, do I feel lucky. To anyone else trying to sell in Michigan, well, I wish you luck too. You’re going to need it.

Job obsolescence and career change

09242007_0014.jpg

There have been plenty of discussions about job obsolescence in recent years. Whether it’s manufacturing, journalism, or the one closest to me, photography, workers in many industries have felt the impact. Of course I don’t think those professions are like the ones in this article on obsolete jobs, but certainly they have been heavily impacted by globalization and/or technological innovations and changes. There have also been plenty of stories of mid-life career changes whether by choice, or otherwise. In Michigan the focus has been on auto workers. And the stories have ranged from workers opening their own businesses, to retraining for the health care industry, to sadly, doing nothing. Fear and anger have been common themes in Michigan for some time now. While I am glad I’m not right out of college, or just trying to hang on until retirement (yeah, like that’ll ever happen for me…), I have experienced both job loss, and mid-life career change. Of course it is frightening to face an unknown future, while figuring out how to make a decent living. But I know it can be done. I’ve been there. I have never worked in the auto industry. No I was payed much, much less, for the majority of my career. But, nonetheless, this is my story of job obsolescence and career transformation.

09242007_0200.jpg

In between our country’s two most recent economic downturns, I managed to fulfill one of my goals; that of being a full time photographer. Like so many others, I had managed to make it all the way through college without any idea of what I’d like to do with my life. When I was younger, I had, at different times, wanted to be everything from a professional hockey player to an artist. All of them were very difficult, if not nearly impossible, to achieve. Unfortunately, I never had the desire to be an engineer, a doctor, or an accountant (though I’ve worked in two of the three fields (though, not the one that requires eight years of post graduate schooling and training). But finally, after jobs in sales, accounting, credit and collections, and working in various retail jobs, I began assisting a commercial photographer. Eventually I became the studio manager. At the same time, I began to build up my own business,  and after several years, I finally managed to get enough work to actually call myself a photographer…just in time for the industry to tank.

manhattan_res_1.jpg

I am no longer a full-time, professional, photographer. I still make money from it, but it no longer makes up the majority of my income. I know photographers who are barely hanging on, refusing to give up. I also know of other photographers, who like myself, didn’t find the struggle worth it, and have moved on. It’s not easy to give up on a dream, and it’s harder still to move on to a new career if you don’t have the skills, confidence, or necessary experience. This is, of course, not limited to photography. It may not have been anyone’s dream to work on an automotive assembly line (or it may have been…who am I to say?), but for many it’s been a difficult transition to move from a $40/hr (or more) job, with great benefits, to one that requires potentially more training, and at the same time pays less, and has, often times, much worse benefits. In my case I wasn’t giving up much in either the pay column, or the in the traditional benefits column. What I had to give up was much more valuable to me: freedom and creativity. I mourn the loss, but I’m not bitter or angry. It is what it is.

4x6 coffee_spill.jpg

You can find plenty of bitterness and resentment (just go to a job site forum)  relating to job obsolescence, but there is no stopping change. It’s not difficult to find anger expressed these days relating to a fear of possible, or pending, obsolescence. I visited photography business forums for years, and constantly saw, and experienced, the anger of more established (older) photographers who, at one point in their career were making really good money. Usually the anger came out during discussions regarding pricing of photographic services. Newer photographers often find themselves in a desperate situation. They often have little to no experience, no work, and if they went to art school, huge amounts of debt. The older photographers would admonish the desperate young photographers for charging too little, thereby dragging pay down for the entire industry. Due to lowered barriers to entry, and various romantic notions of photographers, there was an ever increasing number of photographers looking for work. skyline_pano_4.jpg Meanwhile, the industries that pay photographers, namely advertising, editorial (magazines and newspapers), and publishing, were in increasingly worse shape. The decline of manufacturing in this country not only put a lot of laborers out on the street, but ad execs, editors, and of course, photographers as well. I was fortunate enough to recognize the writing on the wall early. Even before I made a living from photography, I saw the annual revenues of the commercial studio I managed decline dramatically each year beginning in the late 90’s. I managed to make it because I cut overhead to a bare minimum. I owned almost no equipment (except cameras and computers), had no studio (other than my basement), and figured out this internet thing pretty early. I got a site online early, bought some Google AdWords, and soon after had full time work. Of course, eventually everyone else figured it out too. And to make matters worse, as the really good paying gigs dried up, everyone began to compete for the few remaining jobs. It didn’t take long before I was competing against huge studios for small time work.

ajax-sora1a.jpg

I once heard that in business, if you believe the industry in which you operate is growing, you should reinvest profits in your business, and if you believe the industry is contracting you should bank all profits. I did the latter almost from the beginning. I also decided that I needed more transportable, and more importantly, more in demand skills. It’s not that you can’t take photography with you, but photography is a business that takes time to build up. Photography, for all but the really big names, is regional, and building a business in a new location takes time. Since the web seemed to be a growth industry, and I enjoyed design, I decided web design would be my next career. Because of an extremely low overhead, savings, and the new skills I was learning, I felt confident that I would be fine. My new career ended up not being web design, but rather web development in general, and user interface engineering specifically. 09242007_0130.jpg It took years. It wasn’t easy. And it often left me with little to no free time. But it’s been worth it. And of course I still do photography, only now I only do what I want. In fact, I’m probably much more well known for my personal projects than I ever was for my commercial work. It’s much more satisfying, though it doesn’t pay much of the bills anymore. Of course, if the industry ever turns around I’ll be ready. Though, who knows, maybe I’ll be on to something different by then.

The Big Three: A case study on the reluctance to change

09150204_09.jpgNot too long ago, I heard The End Of The Line For GM-Toyota Joint Venture on NPR. I had already heard about the closure of the plant, but knew very little (actually, nothing) about the history of the plant and what it represented for the American automotive industry. This paragraph pretty much sums up the whole piece:

“In the mid-1980s, Toyota took over the Fremont plant, one of GM’s worst, a factory known for sex, drugs and defective vehicles. And as part of an historic joint venture, Toyota turned the plant into one of GM’s best, practically overnight.”

NPR reported on the history of the plant. At one point the assembly line output cars with engines in backwards, missing steering wheels or brakes, and cars with with front ends from other cars. Booze was common on the line, and nobody dared stop the line for anything. Eventually Toyota and GM partnered up to run the plant. But first they sent employees to Japan to learn Toyota’s way of doing things. Of course Toyota’s way was very different. It was pretty much the complete opposite of how GM had been run the plant. Upon reopening, the plant began producing some of the highest quality cars in America. So what did GM do next? Did they take what they had learned and apply it elsewhere? Ahh…no. In fact one of the NUMMI “Commandos” quit in frustration.

09150204_07.jpg

A year later GM did try to apply what they had learned at NUMMI to other plants.  At a plant in Van Nuys nobody wanted to change.  I wasn’t shocked by the resistance to change from rank and file workers.  After all, the initial reaction by most people to criticism is defensiveness. Most do not want to be told they are doing something wrong, or even that they could be doing something better. I wasn’t even shocked to hear how one plant manager asked a NUMMI Cammando to leave the plant after a presentation on doing things the NUMMI way. Even after plants across the country began closing and GM began losing market share quickly, the resistance remained. What did shock me was the fact that upper management at GM allowed management at the plants to not change. “Who was in charge?”, one might be inclined to ask. According to the NPR story, the “plant managers were king.” I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, as this is the kind of dysfunctional leadership I’d experienced for decades in the metro Detroit area, and to be truthful, in my corporate experience elsewhere. The Big Three were just bigger and perhaps more dysfunctional than most. And unfortunately they were this dysfunctional during a profound shift in the world economy. It’s bad enough when the average person refuses to pay attention to the writing on the wall, but downright idiotic and shortsighted when leadership ignores it.

02150205_35.jpg

Unfortunately this seems to be a common theme in American corporate culture. I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked about any of this. The shareholders at public companies frequently reward pathetic leadership. There is rarely any incentive lead a company toward a long term course of profitability. Instead they give big bonuses for short term profitability. Any sports fan knows that teams go through periods of mediocracy as they build toward long term competitiveness, yet in the world of high paid corporate cronyism, no one seems to give any thought to a few years down the road.  In corporate culture almost any cut seems to be rewarded. Even cuts that will harm company for years to come seem to be rewarded. Seemingly, as long as a company beats the next quarterly projection the stock goes up. And if stock goes up, shareholders are happy. And if shareholders are happy, execs get big bonuses.

02150205_31.jpg

Is it any wonder my confidence in our corporate leadership ranks right down near that of our political leadership?  Now that the Big Three have possibly hit rock bottom, do they have the leadership in place, and the will to make the necessary changes? It seems that perhaps the threat of extinction has shaken enough people, in at least two of the three, that perhaps things are headed in the right direction. Too little, too late for so many. Sad that the ship has to begin sinking before the will is there to fix  the problems.

Health care can’t save Michigan, or I told you so part 3…Michigan’s future, and some photos

lowry.jpg

In May of 2008, I read an article regarding the expansion of the area’s hospitals, and the growth of the health care industry in general.  At the same time, I also wrote about how I had viewed this as a potential problem for a long time. The idea, at the time, seemed to be that Michigan’s, and in particular, metro Detroit’s, economy could be saved by health care. And, so the growth of the local hospitals could put more people to work. Former automotive employees could be retrained to work in the health care industry. Best of all, the health care industry was largely immune to the ups and downs of the economy. People always need health care! And with our aging population, we’d have an ever increasing supply of patients.

What wasn’t often mentioned was that Michigan, and again, metro Detroit in particular, was losing population at the same time that the hospitals were expanding. The problem with the health care as savior plan, was no different than the belief that the housing market, or the commercial real estate markets would keep growing despite a declining population. From my conversations with industry “experts” and from reading and watching the local news, it was obvious that many people, whom I had generally assumed knew more than me, couldn’t imagine a Michigan any different from the one they were living in in 2005 or so. The real estate markets were booming, the health care industry was booming, and the Big Three seemed to be doing not to terribly bad (other than maybe Ford). If one only looked at the surface, things may have looked so-so in Michigan, but if you were to have looked a little deeper, things looked like they were going to become downright horrible. The population had been stagnant or declining for a while. Michigan was one of the few states in recent history with this distinction. We were far too heavily dependent on an ailing industry with a broken business model, whose employee’s pay rate was not based off of market forces in any way, and whose management teams couldn’t seem to see past the ends of their noses, or a least past the next quarterly profit report. And we kept on building, and moving further from Detroit, using used tax payer money to help build infrastructure for new developments, while our old infrastructure crumbled. It angered at least a few of us, that no one seemed to be able to (or at least didn’t want to) see that a declining population whose economy was based on one broken and declining industry, and whose current investments were being made on new, and largely unneeded infrastructure, was doomed to failure, and soon.

In my business, when I asked questions about the, seemingly huge, number of new housing developments being built in the middle of nowhere, I was constantly told things like,  “our projections show that we can build like this indefinitely”, and “as fast as we build them, people buy them”. Were are these people coming from, I would ask. The answer was usually something like, “a lot come from Detroit, or from older suburbs”. Apparently, no one thought to follow this logic to the end of the line. If Detroit has been losing population for 40 years, and people move from Detroit to Dexter, who is buying the house in Detroit so that the purchase in Dexter can be made? People were buying houses in Detroit at the time, but obviously less than were leaving Detroit. The problem was simple. You can not expand the number of houses if the number of people is going down, with out driving prices down. But what was such an obvious sign of trouble at the time, is that prices were rising, and people were sure they would keep rising.

502154824_44405dc3cd_o.jpg

So Michigan had a declining population, dependent on a downsizing industry with a broken business model, that had already been laying off large numbers of employees for years, an over saturated residential and commercial real estate market, and of course a largely under educated work force. But, we need not fear because the health care industry was going to save us. We’d all become doctors, nurses, assistants, or administrators, and we could just all be at the hospital all the time, either taking care of someone, or being taken care of by someone else. It’s the logic that seemed to be used by the Big Three for a while. For quite some time, almost all television advertising was directed toward their own employees. Who advertises to themselves? I’ll pay you, and you can then give it back to me in exchange for the thing you just made, that I paid you for. Maybe if we just make a chain letter, and send it to all of our friends, we can all get rich!

Unfortunately, a market based economy requires more than one or two industries to work. And so, it was always obvious, that unless something fundamental changed in Michigan, that we couldn’t depend on the health care industry to save us. As it turns out, the health care industry isn’t immune to downturns in the economy after all. It should have been obvious all along. If you are out of a job, or have no insurance, do you put off medical care and procedures? Of course. And if there are less people in the state, are there less potential patients? Of course. Michigan, like any other state, can’t depend on any one industry to keep the economic engine running. It takes a progressive, and diversified economy to be successful. No one knows for sure what the next big industry will be. Who predicted Google? At the time, most people thought search engines couldn’t possibly make money, and yet online advertising, has been a growth industry for years. Trying to create a plan for the future, based on the past, is unlikely to work. Sure the past holds lessons to learn from, but the future remains unknown. What Michigan needs to do is to put a priority on education, entrepreneurship, and quality of life. Of course Michigan’s broke, so it’ll be very difficult for the government to do what is needed, but the real change needs to come from the citizens who live there. If Michigan becomes a holdout of stodgy, grumpy, and angry citizens, that resists any change at all costs, then the downhill slide will continue for decades more. But if the cheap living can attract a new younger and more progressive generation, then Michigan may have a chance.