Trains, planes and no automobiles

On my planes and trains just recently I read Charlie LeDuff’s [amazon_link id=”0143124463″ target=”_blank” ]Detroit: An American Autopsy[/amazon_link]. No automobiles in my travels, and, as it happens, not much about the automobile left in Motor City either.

It’s a gripping read, in the same post-crisis-America genre asĀ [amazon_link id=”0571251293″ target=”_blank” ]The Unwinding[/amazon_link] by George – another superb read that paints a depressingly realistic picture of life for so many people in the post-industrial US. [amazon_link id=”0143124463″ target=”_blank” ]Detroit [/amazon_link]is a rather gonzo journalism version – LeDuff used to report from war zones. As it turns out, that perspective seems all to appropriate when he returns to his home city.

[amazon_image id=”0143124463″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Detroit: An American Autopsy[/amazon_image]

One of the most depressing aspects is how quickly and comprehensively the polity and economy crumble when trust or social capital falls below some threshold. Everybody is afraid. Normal contact and transactions become impossible. There are, for example, no high street names left in the city of Detroit, none – the chain stores have all left. Politics had become – this was written before the official bankruptcy – absolutely venal with all the usual manifestations of corruption and incompetence that characterise poor countries with failed institutions.When LeDuff writes: “The entire country was being run into the ground by a generation infected with incompetence and greed,” he surely speaks for many of his fellow citizens. Among the most incompetent, as portrayed here, are the managers of the big auto companies, whose bailout by the Federal Government in 2009 did nothing to stem the tidal wave of job losses.

The book is interesting about the loss of this factory work. It doesn’t romanticise it at all, recognising how dull, dispiriting and disempowering it is. At the same time, LeDuff argues that it taught workers an important perspective on the world and – at least in the past – an understanding of the nobility of the hard grind. “Turning away from our birthright – our grandfather in the white socks – is the thing that ruined us,” he writes of his generations aversion to the discipline of hard graft that – at least – factory work gave earlier generations.

The collapse theme harks back to my last post here, about how essential trust is to a modern (any) economy. Detroit offers an example of the post-trust economy. Read this book and be afraid.