Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What happens when the money goes away

Here's one of the images that haunts me.

I grew up in industrial Michigan, just about the time when the factories were closing. I remember these monstrous buildings, four blocks long and a block wide and four stories tall — surrounded by chain link fencing, with all the windows shot out, and grass growing up through the workers' parking lot.

At one time, the owners and managers and foremen at these factories had enough money to patronize businesses like the one above — the Michigan Theater in Detroit. Now there's not even enough money around to fill it as a parking lot for downtown workers.

My dad was, and my brothers are, working-class guys. It's jobs like theirs that used to support these cities. Now, retired, they complain about how all the jobs have gone to Asia (but love that they can shop at WalMart and buy the bargain barbecue grill that was made for 65 cents an hour in Indonesia). How can we build a better sense of cause-and-effect that allows us to speak of the abandonment of the Michigan Theater in the same sentence as the developer home and the six-dollar plastic resin patio chair?


Eric Randall said...

Sigh. Life was so much easier two weeks ago when I was a simple heartless right wing capitalist who didn't bother to worry myself with such thoughts - and now I am consumed by trying to correct the world. Damn you, Herb.

Let me toss something out and don my Kevlar for the likely onslaught of slings and arrows: but WalMart has, to some degree, played an important role in bolstering the spending power of the lower class. It's a curious Catch-22 in that as Walmart or its ilks move in, Mom and Pop stores - who cannot compete price-wise - are either forced out of business or are forced to adapt their model. The closing of said businesses creates the domino effect with the ultimate culmination of the image Herb posted. On the flip side, WalMart's business model allows consumers to purchase a gallon of milk for $3 rather than $4.50 at the tiny store down the street - which becomes a very important commodity for, say, a single parent of 2 making $9/hr. I may not care for Walmart's business practices, and I'm blessed with enough spending power where I can make a statement with my wallet if I so choose, but that is simply not an option for many people.

In the end I think it becomes an issue of reinterpreting the whole idea of city - particularly downtown - to fit the 21st century model of how we do business and what kinds of businesses we do, rather than bemoan yet another assembly plant relocating to south of the Rio Grande.

Melissa said...

Hmm, I am going to sound heartless and I have taken your class, Herb! I must have no soul.

For those of you who have not read The World Is Flat, do it. Friedman got a lot of slack for writing a book that says we are all going to lose our jobs to India because he is "only" a journalist but I think he makes some terrific points. The fact of the matter is that we are becoming a global nation and it no longer makes sense to think about buying "american" products. Unless we can competitively produce items at the lowest cost for the best quality, we'll be left behind internationally in the manufacturing industry. In fact, that has already begun. Friedman argues that as a nation and as individuals, we need to concentrate on jobs in science and technology where our minds, not our hands do the work. Manufacturing jobs, right or wrong, will continue to be shipped overseas where people will work for less. Boycotting Wal-Mart isn't going to change that. As individuals, businesses and a nation, we need to think smarter and find the industries where we are necessary because the lower paying jobs are quickly disappearing.

I think its time for the reinvention of formerly manufacturing towns into centers of science, medicine, tourism, etc. Something that can't be shipped across the world for a fraction of the price.

Tim Geiger said...

So if you lived up north, back in the day, and didn't own slaves, but bought cotton from down south, where it was picked by slaves...your still the good guy?

I don't think that "right or wrong" is a good arguement for a society with morals. Besides that I think that other countries have shown that they can keep up in the technology and medicine races as well. I could buy tourism though:)

Herb Childress said...

Imagine, if you will, a two-foot rope tied between two posts. There's a steel pipe about 18" long that the rope is threaded through, so that the pipe can slide back and forth between the two posts.

Got the image?

Okay, so let's say that the length of the rope represents the total economic value produced in the creation of some object. The pipe in the middle represents the proportion of that value that goes to the capitalists who own the manufacturing and distribution and sales systems. The length of rope visible on the left end is the amount of value that goes to the worker who produces the thing. And the length of rope visible on the right end is the amount of value that goes to the consumer who buys and uses the thing.

Fifty years ago, the pipe was slid way over toward the right-hand end of the assembly. Workers were highly unionized, one worker in a household could support the two adults and three kids — but cars were washed up after 70,000 miles, and our houses were tiny, and nobody had computers or iPods or multiple phone lines or Air Jordans or cable TV.

Now the pipe is slid way over toward the left end of the assembly. We all own unimaginable amounts of stuff and don't sound self-conscious when we ask for a "four-pump skim mochaccino" (I heard this the other morning), but the workers who make it are fewer and cheaper than almost ever. We've decided that consumption trumps production in our value system.

Wasn't this an architecture class once...? :-)