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A lesson in free speech, blah, blah, something, something, and some photos of Detroit

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After a week of listening to crazy political, economic, and social theories, beliefs, and comments, I felt the need to vent. Unfortunately I wrote way too much, so I’ll only post a little bit at a time. I hope not to come off as preaching from a soap box, but rather presenting information that seems to be too often misunderstood.

Having a discussion about politics is similar to a discussion about religion. It takes the right combination of individuals to have a civil discussion (as evidenced by our recent national political screaming matches…err, I mean discussions). Unfortunately, bringing reason and facts to a political discussion is about as welcome and useful as it is in most religious ones. That is to say, facts and reasoned arguments are not very welcome at all. It’s too bad, as a debate of political, economic, and social theory is a good thing. Yet it seems to be almost impossible to have. If you are going to disagree, at least get your facts and statistics straight. As Mark Twain said, “Facts, or what a man believes to be facts, are always delightful - Get your facts first, and then you can distort ‘em as much as you please.” That way if you want to make stuff up, at least you’ll be less likely to come off as part of the lunatic fringe.

The first topic in which it was obvious many of the participants of the “discussions” didn’t have much of an understanding is:

Free speech, and the protection of it under the First Amendment of the Constitution

From the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Note, you do not have a protection from corporations, private businesses, or individuals. Therefore if someone in the press criticizes what you have said, or suggests you shouldn’t have said it, your right to free speech has not been violated. If an online forum deletes your idiotic (or thoughtful) comment, your right to free speech has not been violated. If someone tells you to “shut up,” your right to free speech has not been violated. Furthermore, there is a whole host of instances in which, the amendment has been interpreted to allow for the restriction of the individuals right to free speech by the federal government (judicial activism has a long history, knows no political boundaries). Of course this is a very limited presentation on your first amendment protections. It is only meant to explain your right, or lack thereof, as it pertains to the, apparently, very common misconception that you are granted the right to free speech in every domain.

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And here’s the blah, blah, something, something part:

There’s been a claim that the the federal government can’t do anything right (no pun intended). That they’ll obviously bungle anything they do, other than, depending on your point of view, highways, defense, social security, sewers, water, and electricity. In direct opposition of the first statement is a second one. The second statement often used in conjunction with the first says, that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in health care because they’ll drive the private businesses out of business due to a lower operating cost. Well, which is it? It can’t be both. Is the government more efficient…or less?

Don Tapscott provides a good argument in favor of my long held desire to clean house at the Big Three, in a “Crisis of leadership.”

At least we’re not Texas. Does anyone other than a Texan like Texas?

This poor woman decides to leave Detroit after 60 years, and get berated by idiots in the comments. What the hell? Can’t people can’t just say, “good luck.” Or how about, don’t say anything? Really, we’d all appreciate it.

Mind control, welcome to Detroit…sorry we stole your stuff, and other stuff

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More irrational fears appear to be circulating in the metro Detroit area. Apparently, according to the comments, Barack Obama has mastered the (non-existent) ability of mind control. And over the airwaves nonetheless! Supposedly the President will attempt to “indoctrinate” school children while “pretending” to extoll the virtues of hard work, studying, and staying in school. How could he? Everyone knows it’s best for our future if school children skip school, don’t do their homework, and eventually drop out. After all this whole education thing is a liberal conspiracy. In metro Detroit’s defense, apparently the same irrational fear has found it’s way around much of the country. I wonder what he’ll do with his army of school aged, socialist, zombies?

Detroit welcomes all artists and other creative types, though we’re sorry all of your expensive equipment was stolen within hours of your arrival… The truth is though, there is something very engaging about Detroit. I suppose it’s like watching a building demolished by explosives. Maybe you’re sad to see it go, but damn it’s cool to watch. And, perhaps with a lot of hard work, by the few types of individuals willing to live there (artists, immigrants…), something better came replace what once was.

From Metropolis:

“The fact is that there is something about Detroit, something compelling and frightening that draws you there to consider the landscape. On some level you understand that we did this. All of us. Detroit represents the hubris of American industry, an industry once innovative and now atrophied, an industry that created the car-centric culture that is choking not just Detroit but cities everywhere (no Cash for Clunkers for our dying buildings). It is the fall of Rome right before our eyes, an apocalypse of our own making. It is the death of the American city as we know it and we are all at a loss of where to go next.”

Here are the kinds of people Detroit needs to attract. Entrepreneurial, risk takers…the very people that start businesses, and come up with solutions to problems are the people that can help save metro Detroit. The problem, of course is how to attract them. Don’t let them visit cities like Portland, or Denver, before they commit to Detroit, that’s for sure. The friendly, creative communities, the bike lanes, parks, recreational opportunities, restaurants, coffee shops, safe urban living, and clean, affordable mass transit, available in those cities, will make it a no brainer for them.

And, damn it Michigan! When will you pass a smoking ban? 80% of the population does not smoke. Michigan is one of only 13 states with no ban whatsoever. Like with everything else you refuse to do Michigan, you are falling behind the rest of the country. Please, try not to become the Appalachia of the north.

Nothing to do with Detroit…

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I keep getting emails from people asking me to write my representatives regarding supposed things they are going to do with my money. Fortunately, every time I investigate it turns out the worrying is all for naught. It turns out in almost every case that our politicians, while admittedly self-serving, aren’t stupid enough to do the crazy things they are accused of in said emails.

This isn’t a plea to stop the emails, it’s to bring up a point. And the point is this: Some people are ignorant, due to either a lack of IQ or common sense. This is sad, but not their fault. Others choose ignorance. This is much worse.

Thank you. That is all.

Detroit’s Studebaker Plant

Detroit’s Studebaker automotive plant was built in 1906, and was originally for the Wayne Automobile Company. At one point, after Wayne Automobile Company merged with Everitt, Metzger and Flanders, it was the worlds second largest producer of automobiles. Studebaker acquired Everitt, Metzger and Flanders, and the plant in 1910, and Chrysler took over in 1928 after Studebaker moved to South Bend, Indiana.

Eventually a portion of the plant was abandoned while the eastern end was used for the Piquette Market. The abandoned portion caught fire on June 20, 2005, and eventually spread through out the structure, becoming a five alarm fire. The entire building was destroyed.

Too little, too late?

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U.S. automakers agree to new fuel efficiency standards. U.S. automakers cut costs. U.S. automakers make fuel efficient vehicles. That’s great. The problem isn’t necessarily with what Big Three execs agree to now, or what they say now, it’s what has happened over the last 35, or so, years. GM, and the other American automobile manufacturers have a really bad legacy. Any other companies that were as poorly managed would be out of business. Even with a massive taxpayer bailout, GM is still filing for bankruptcy. That alone speaks volumes.

While Toyota may be hurting, it doesn’t appear they will be filing for bankruptcy. And, Honda, while posting some recent losses appears to be well positioned for the future. It’s as if the American automotive industry is given a pass for failing to plan successfully for the future. And worse yet, for failures which are often admitted, even by Wagoner himself.

It’s sad. I am still paying on a house in metro Detroit, as are others I’m sure, even while having to leave the state to make a living. We are, in effect, paying the price for the short sightedness of our political and corporate leaders. The Big Three execs seem downright excited about new fuel efficiency standards, and electric vehicles. Too bad they didn’t seem remotely interested even ten years ago, and in fact banded together to fight new CAFE standards multiple times.

The argument, by Big Three defenders, is always, “they sold what the public wanted.” Of course the truth is usually not that simple, nor is the past performance proof of future results. Just because people bought Ford Excursions when gas was $1.25/gallon, doesn’t mean they’ll buy them when gas is $3/gallon. But if we are to believe upper management at the Big Three, no one could have seen this coming. Plenty of people did, and smaller companies with less funding, fewer employees, and much less experience in the automotive industry are now leading the way in electric vehicles. While GM has long since canceled the EV1 program, companies such as Tesla, Fisker, and Detroit Electric are now either already selling, or are close to selling everything from high performance sports cars to affordable family sedans.

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You’ll often hear, that it wasn’t short sightedness. That it must be the unions fault, or perhaps it’s just a bad economy. The Big Three have been losing market share and money for much longer than this current economic downturn. Not that I’m not going to defend the UAW. I believe the UAW leadership was self-serving and short sighted, just like management, and our political leaders. I also believe that while much of the union rank and file knew the good times wouldn’t last, most just decided to get it while the getting was good. That’s a pretty short sighted game plan as well. It seems no one could see beyond the end of their nose.

So now, with Chrysler and GM going through bankruptcy, the Big Three are suddenly excited about fuel efficiency standards, controlling costs, and alternative fuel vehicles. Is it too little, too late? And opinions range from Detroit’s too excited about green cars, to the Big Three’s not embracing green cars enough, to Rick Wagoner is a scapegoat, to Rick Wagoner is to blame, to GM has too many brands, to GM should hold to brands, to Obama is doing too much, to Obama is doing too little. Nobody knows exactly what will work, or even if anything will work. Writers from many media outlets including writers from both the Washington Post and Business Week are at odds as to the reasons for the fall of the Big Three, and how to save it.

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The only thing that seems certain is that whatever the fix is, it’s at least 20 years too late. Already the stumbles of the Big Three are opening the doors even wider for foreign manufacturers. I suppose it’s human nature to wait until the roof is collapsing to attempt to fix it, but with all of the money paid to almost everyone involved, you’d hope for a better outcome. When CEOs are paid millions, you expect them to fix inefficiencies, broken business models, and foresee possible future challenges. Gas prices may not stay at $1.25/gallon, consumers may not always want really large SUVs, and the economy may not always grow at record rates. It seems that the claims that no one could see these things coming are a bit disingenuous. It seems more likely that our leaders were simply blind or ignorant. Consumers didn’t always like SUVs. In fact Jeeps were at one point just for that off road enthusiast down the street. Pickup trucks were for construction workers and hunters. Gasoline is a limited resource. We have experienced rising fuel prices several times before. Consumers couldn’t really afford $50k automobiles, but an economy that seemed good led consumers to leverage themselves to buy Hummers and Escalades (among other things). Of course the economy would slow down. It had to. Anyone who couldn’t see that, simply didn’t want to.

More of the same, or, why I continue to beat a dead horse…

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I know I say the same things over and over. I guess I just feel I can’t say them enough. One of my favorite topics is the need to make the Metro Detroit area an attractive place to live. The usual xenophobic reaction is to resist any kind of change.  The typical mindset seems to be something like the following: If something worked 75 years ago, it’s got to work now. We didn’t need mass transit, bike lanes, or parks then, so why would we need them now. In fact people only go to cities for jobs, right? So we need to get some big corporation to relocate to our sad, depressed area, and give us jobs.

In reality, highly educated, creative, young people go where they want to go. And guess what? They don’t want to go to Metro Detroit. They want to go to cities they may actually enjoy living in, not just one that provides a job. A good urban area can, and usually does attract educated, creative, and entrepreneurial young professionals, so important to economic growth. And young, creative, educated types start companies, and create jobs. Corporations are also much more likely to locate where they can pick from a large qualified workforce.

The metro area, and Michigan as a whole, has not been very forward thinking. In fact it’s pretty much been in reverse, while the vast majority of the country was in drive. Now, believe it or not, G.M. is planning to cut even more white collar jobs,  we are having to loan G.M. $4B more, GMAC is getting a $7.5B loan, and the automotive industry’s pension funds appear to be on life support.

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And to top it all off, Detroit’s got an image problem, largely due to the darn media. Constantly painting Detroit in a bad light; how could they? If only they new the truth; it’s a safe city, with lots of job opportunities and a bright future… Heck, even I am getting hate messages. Apparently I am a “disgusting human being” for taking photos of abandonment, and I surely “could’ve chosen a different subject matter.” Shoot the messenger. Always a good idea. In fact maybe if we say, “Detroit is good enough. Detroit is smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like Detroit”, maybe the abandonment and corruption will magically vanish, jobs will appear, and the economy and unemployment won’t be the worst in the nation anymore. Maybe I can pretend my house is worth more than my mortgage too.

Detroit does have a future of some kind. Most likely though, it’ll never look like it did 4o years ago. It’ll almost certainly be something very different. Hopefully, at the very least, it’ll look very different than it does today. Some possibilities include urban farming, green spaces, giving away land to entrepreneurs and urban villages. It’s obvious that Detroit can’t provide traditional services to the area it currently encompasses. It is time for a change.

Finally, while I feel very bad for the subject of this story, you just have to ask, “what were you thinking?” or “were you thinking?” It’s not like the Metro Detroit areas outlook suddenly went from promising to bleak overnight.

The truth hurts…

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I wrote this a while ago, so many of the links go to older (well, weeks old anyway) articles, but this one article made me think about actually publishing this post. A quote from the 25 year old report called “Path to Prosperity” that caught my attention: “‘We said we had to either get smart, get out’ of manufacturing ‘or get poor,’ Ross said. ‘We got poor.’” I was considering a new tone at The Motor(less) City, but what the hell; I guess it’ll have to wait.

Sometimes I get angry comments and emails about the content I put on my blog. Often times the comments are very defensive about the Metro Detroit area, and hence angry at me. In the past my rantings were really just the online equivalent of screaming into the wind. Now that some people actually read the blog, I’m confronted with the fact that not only do people not agree with me, but some are really mad at me. Not sure if I’m really comfortable with this, but I guess it’s a little late now. Yeah, the truth hurts.

Speaking of the truth hurting, it seems that people from the area, even the defensive ones are going to have to deal with some uncomfortable facts about the state, and city…and the region. Everyone (I hope) knows that Michigan’s unemployment rate is 12.6%, and Detroit’s is 22.8% (and future estimates even worse), but of course that’s not surprising. I think many in the area want to pretend that Metro Detroit is better than it is, and in fact often point out only moderately unique aspects of the area as proof of greatness. “We’re a great sports town”, people often say, or, “we’ve got great architecture.” There are two really good professional sports teams in Metro Detroit (and two pretty bad ones), and there are some very nice buildings in Detroit (the Penobscot, the Guardian, etc), but so what. What major city doesn’t have a couple of good sports teams, and some good architecture? And, really, neither of those things makes the area a good place to live.

I think this is becoming exceedingly obvious as people flee the state at a record pace. As the article clearly points out, the “young and college-educated” demographic that is leaving, is exactly the demographic that is needed to save Metro Detroit. As the population becomes older, the costs that will burden those that actually work will go up. The fight will continue over taxation, investment, and education, but it’ll all be for naught if we can’t figure out a way to attract people who create jobs instead of just those who need jobs. We aren’t going to be able to convince enough companies to come to the area to make up for all of the manufacturing jobs that have been lost, but we can make the environment more inviting to those who are the job creators.

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Some other painful truths:

The Big Three are mostly to blame for their problems. It is not just a symptom of the recent economic crisis, that no one could have seen coming. And the people in charge have not been the right ones either.

The problems in Detroit are very complex and deep rooted. Our past still haunts us. Lowering taxes isn’t a magic bullet.

The entire state is hurting, not just Metro Detroit. A quote from the article: “Michigan’s dependence on low-skill, high-paying manufacturing jobs is driving the state to the poorhouse, a new study shows.” I was a “bad” person for saying this recently.

It’s still one of the most dangerous cities in the country.

The citizens of Detroit constantly elect crooks. This one is not often disagreed with.

Good news? Well, there may be. It depends on your political persuasion.

There are some young entrepreneurial types that are doing their part to keep their own demographic from leaving the state.

The large tax incentives given to film productions in the state appear to be attracting larger and larger productions, bringing some jobs with them.

Immigrants could be the area’s future if we are open and inviting.

Stimulus dollars may help with high speed transit between Detroit and Chicago.

Michigan Central Station

When built in 1913, the Michigan Central Station was the world’s largest train station. The station was built fairly far from the downtown, with the hopes that it would anchor further development in the area. The station was used heavily through World War II, though the Great Depression slowed development in the city. Michigan Central Station saw declining usage shortly after. Unfortunately the station was never even filled to capacity with several upper floors never being used.

The station finally closed for good in 1988. It has stood empty ever since, and after years of neglect and deterioration, the Detroit City Council has voted to demolish the historic building, and bill the owner, Matty Moroun, for the costs.

How will Rick get his mojo back? - Anonymous letter sent to The Motor(less) City

Rumors have surfaced amidst speculation that Rick Wagoner, former General Motors Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive, is said to be “strongly considering” applying for a position as an unpaid intern with mo (www.lessismo.com), a marketing and creative services firm with offices in Oak Park, Michigan – a Detroit suburb.

An unconfirmed source close to Mr. Wagoner acknowledged earlier today: “Rick has admired the creative work of mo for years now, and he’s expressed very sincere interest in learning more about their internship programs - now that he is able to devote himself more fully to his creative and aesthetic impulses, he is anxious to explore the possibilities.”

That same undisclosed source continues: “Aside from their great work, Rick loves the companies’ name, mo – it reminds him of Motown; he fondly recalls the day when automobiles were made - right here - in Detroit! Cars that Americans coveted - bought and drove. He feels a strong connection with the ‘creative types’ as he calls them, and he now deeply regrets not having hired mo years ago. Wagoner believes that GM’s legacy of ill-conceived and poorly executed marketing programs and initiatives could have been avoided if mo had been on the job…” continues that same close source to the former CEO. “In retrospect, he [Rick] now believes that mo was the answer to GM’s prayers all along…and they were regrettably overlooked in lieu of larger institutional firms.”

A representative of mo issued this prepared statement: “We cannot comment on any conversations we may or may not have had to date with Mr. Wagoner about a position with mo. We adhere to a rigorous standard of excellence for all of our interns. Inclusion in our popular program is based solely on the merit of the individual’s application and the enthusiasm of each candidate, as well as any practical experience they may have in our industry. No exceptions will be made based on previous [CEO] status, race, gender, or ethnicity. Any candidate applying for an internship with us who does not meet our high expectations and standards will not be considered for inclusion, and Mr. Wagoner is no exception. We look forward to reviewing his completed application. And if indeed Mr. Wagoner is looking to get his mojo back, he has certainly come to the right place to find it.”

That same mo representative declined comment on the suggestion the small firm might have saved GM from financial ruin, but added:

“We all either drive Toyotas or we ride our bikes to work – everyone deserves reliable transportation.”

When asked about the recent developments with mo, an employee who asked to remain anonymous said that General Motors Corp. was preparing a statement indicating that it was ‘still reviewing’ the specifics of Wagoner’s compensation package with GM, but internal sources had suggested that an unpaid internship “may appear imprudent for Rick at this juncture given the devaluation of [his] severance package…”

Wagoner’s salary was rolled back in 2008 - his compensation was tied to the company’s stock performance, which has declined significantly since he took the helm of the floundering automotive company. He agreed to accept a salary of $1 for 2009 as part of the automaker’s restructuring plan. Wagner is rumored to be found regularly roaming the halls of the GM headquarters, quietly repeating to himself, “I need to learn a trade…some sort of skill. Maybe graphics. Maybe house painting.”

Rick Wagoner has served as CEO for almost nine of the 32-years he has been employed with General Motors.

Mr. Wagoner was not available for comment.

Job opening in Detroit

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Looks like there’s a job opening at G.M. With Rick Wagoner gone General Motors is now leaderless. What will they do? They won’t know how to make cars or,  more importantly, how to make money…oh wait they already don’t know how to make money. In fact since they had industry insiders leading the charge towards irrelevance for decades maybe the could hire someone with no industry experience…like me, for instance. I have no idea how to manage an auto manufacturing company, neither did Rick Wagoner apparently. Rick Wagoner was paid lots of money. Oh sure, by Wall Street standards he was paid practically nothing, but compared to me, he was paid a lot. They could have paid me a lot less, and ended up in the same spot.

All kidding aside (ok, most),  Chrysler and G.M. appear to be in deep doo-doo. I wondered what Cerberus was thinking when they purchased Chrysler from Daimler-Benz. I know what Cerberus’ M.O. is, but I think they were overly optomistic, and I don’t think their plan worked out too well. Now Chrysler has to Merge with Fiat. Wonderful. So, now, two crappy car companies can make crappy cars together. Maybe, at least, the crappy cars will cost less. I know I’m bound to anger some with statements such as the one I just made, but let me make it clear, that I believe management is to blame. The Union played a role in Chrysler’s demise as well, but any time a company is poorly run, and Chrysler has been poorly run, management is to blame. Management’s job is to maker sure all parts of a company function in unison to achieve a goal. If the goal is wrong, or portions of the company are not performing, it’s always managements job to redress such issues. And, most likely what G.M. really needs is a leader who the skeptical public will believe feels as disgusted with the old ways as they do. Someone who isn’t part of the dysfunctional machine, and shows a desire for a complete overhaul.

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With two (here, and here) recent announcements by smaller companies, you have to wonder where the Big Three have had their collective heads lodged lately. Of course those cars aren’t out yet, and Tesla, and Detroit Electric have nothing to lose by making claims they may not be able to follow through on. Meanwhile the Big Three can’t afford to fall short of big claims. But that’s mainly because they’ve become the definition of over promising and under delivering. They’ve already used up their “get out of jail free” cards. Still, why did G.M. wait until the verge of bankruptcy to come up with a plan for a usable electric vehicle?

So the price to pay for such short-sightedness by the Big Three is partial socialization of a huge portion of our manufacturing industry. Anyone who’s angry about the state we are in should have spoken up long ago. It’s now a choice of pay to save the very ones at center of problem, or pay the price of doing nothing, and watching as an entire industry collapses around us. And actually there’s a third scenario as well. We may pay to save the industry, only to have it fail anyway.