Who Killed Detroit?

In Fox News latest car crash/GOP Primary Debate, Ted Cruz garnered big applause in claiming that the fall of Detroit (and implicitly, the Rust Belt) was the result of 60 years of failed liberal government, claiming that “destructive tax policies,” and “weak crime policies” drove citizens out. Cruz says that this is a story the media should be telling– the way left-wing policies created the Rust Belt. Watch for yourself:

Ted Cruz is too smart to believe what he is selling here. Yes, I’m saying he is lying.

In answering how he would fix Detroit, Cruz tells us what liberal policies killed the city. Obamacare gets its place in the sun. Of course, Obamacare happened long after the city’s economy crashed, its population fled, and its poverty became overwhelming. He’ll remove the environmental and other “regulators” (which ones, Ted? Given we are talking about manufacturing it is safe to assume he means safety and labor regulations) because they are killing small business. Of course, the fact that the Great Lakes economy was centered on the big businesses of two major industries (steel and auto manufacturing) seems lost on Ted. Hoping another Henry Ford pops up and revolutionizes an industry is a pretty shitty plan for stabilizing the economy here. A business flat tax that discourages corporations from hiding their incomes overseas and a tariff on imported goods that discourages outsourcing manufacturing jobs are his most practical solutions. What Cruz fails to mention is that the current corporate tax rate was adopted by President Reagan in 1986 and that there has been widespread bipartisan support at the top levels of government and industry for free trade over the last 30 years. Put most simply, his solution is to lower taxes, remove government oversight on labor, safety, and the environment, tax non-American made goods, and we will see jobs, prosperity, and safe streets will return to Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, Gary, Lima, Kokomo, et al.

Sounds great. Just one small problem: Ted Cruz is wrong about who killed Detroit.

I would ask my conservative friends and family to look beyond Cruz’s rhetoric about failed left-wing policies (which fits their preconceived worldview) and examine the narrative he is putting forward.  He is claiming that the demise of the city is entirely due to free trade, corporate tax rates, and “government regulations.” Economists would agree with him that the corporate tax rate is not advantageous though few would consider it a causal factor in the region’s decline. Free trade played a major role in the destruction of the steel industry– and Cruz’s tariff plan would not come close to undoing it (not unless you find a way to pay US steelworkers the $330 a month Chinese steelworkers earn). And the idea that making sure companies don’t pollute our air, water, and land the way they do in Delhi or Lanzhou; that workplaces are not physically dangerous to workers or members of the community, or that laborers rights are not abused by their employers are things we should simply submit to is insane. Not to mention the fact that we regulated these things during the golden age of the city, we hardly do anything about them now, and that the onerous contemporary changes Cruz laments and pins on Democrats all happened long after Detroit’s crash.

Let’s step back and examine Cruz’s  story in the context of how conservatives have explained the Rust Belt phenomenon for the last 30 years. Two narratives dominated prior to 2008: 1) The racial unrest of the 1960s caused white flight, destroying the tax base, infrastructure, and workforce in the city; and 2) what Francis Fukuyama called “The Great Disruption,” where from 1960-1990s Rust Belt communities found themselves lost in the process of deindustrialization and the shift to the information age economy. Unemployment and falling wages created rising crime, divorce, illegitimate birth rates, declining fertility, and caused a loss of personal trust and confidence in social institutions– and these social failings were what really killed the Rust Belt. Why has Cruz, and the right in general, abandoned these narratives they promoted for a generation?

Mostly because they were proven false. Fukuyama’s thesis seemed dated even as he wrote it– most of the social problems exasperated by the disruption had already begun reversing nationally (and in most communities) by the mid-1990s. Historians like Thomas Sugrue and Kevin Kruse convincingly proved that deindustrialization and white flight were not “responses” to the urban rebellions and racial discord of the 1960s. In fact, that narrative is a complete inversion of cause and effect. These were the structural problems that fueled the public outrage among black residents that inspired their social demonstrations. In his classic The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Sugrue demonstrates how these twin processes were at work in the 1940s and that by the 1950s they had already inflicted a mortal wound on the economy and social structure of the region through their radical reshaping of the city’s geography and demographics. He demonstrates that plant closings, automation, chronic unemployment, and the movement of industry to suburban, rural and other anti-union areas in the late 1940s and 1950s destroyed the economies of urban centers in the Great Lakes region long before free trade, our corporate tax code, or namby-pamby liberal regulations started moving jobs overseas.

It is important to understand that neither deindustrialization or white flight were inevitable. Instead, as Sugrue points out in the introduction to the book, they were the result of political and economic choices made (and not made) by institutions, groups, and individuals. The issue of white flight and housing redlining illustrates the process well. Prior to Sugrue’s book, the conventional narrative was that white flight and redlining were a reaction to overreach by the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration– the pendulum swinging back from liberal excesses to the moderate medium. An inevitable and natural part of the political process! People like this story. I hear it all the time. Unfortunately, this is not how history works. As Sugrue clearly outlines, these anti-black, white supremacist policies were the result of local whites, in Detroit and around the country, responding to the Great Migration, competition on the labor market, and carving out social status for themselves and not a political recorrection after half a century of New Deal progressive rule. In fact, the very homes and communities they were protecting had been created by said liberal policies.

Sign protesting the proposed building of a public housing tenement (Sojourner Truth Housing Project) in Detroit, 1942. Don’t worry, it was totally just about home value. Definitely not racist.

White homeowners, then and now, associated the “defense” of their neighborhoods from integration with the defense of their “individual freedom” to make choices about their lives– economically, socially, and culturally. The mere suggestion of integration left white homeowners terrified that their wealth, in the form of their house, would become worthless. When white Detroiters were confronted with black attempts to integrate neighborhoods, these actions were seen as threats to their own economic and social stability.

As such, white homeowners developed political rhetoric to define themselves as an interest group whose struggles were antithetical to the rights of blacks– the hard-working (white) homeowner versus the lazy, government housing occupant (black). They were the residents of Main Street. Their opponents were Cadillac driving welfare queens (of MLK Boulevard).

The redlining practices of the Federal Housing Authority both reinforced and reflected white homeowner’s anxieties. It directed blacks, regardless of income or status, to low-income minority communities, prevented integration in new suburban areas, and in many cases refused to loan money for mortgages or home improvements in black communities. These are not contested ideas– they are documented facts. And they happened in cities around the nation, from Chicago and Detroit in the north to Atlanta and New Orleans in the south. Redlining and white flight were not a result of the federal government shaping the community from afar, but of local prejudice and economic control leveraging government power for the good of white middle-class Americans.

Sugrue connects these trends to politics, showing how conservative politicians swept into the city’s administration in the postwar period by painting racial violence, miscegenation, and integration as the inevitable outcome of liberal policies. In many ways, they have never stopped saying it. This primed the pump for Michigan voters’ overwhelming support for George Wallace’s presidential campaign in 1968 and 1972, along with the emergence of Reagan Democrats in the 1980s. Liberal government indeed.

Ted Cruz should have hired this guy to crack the case.

So who killed Detroit? It doesn’t take Magnum PI to get the bottom of this mystery. Frankly, you could get a pretty good grip on it just by reading two books (I’d suggest reading a bunch more, but asking Americans to even read one book is a pretty big stretch). Taken together, Fukuyama and Sugrue’s arguments show us pretty clearly who is responsible. White flight, as Sugrue shows, weakened the Detroit economy, shifting hundreds of thousands of jobs to rural and suburban communities (a process that would be repeated in each of the outlying communities that benefited from this in the first place). Economic disruption, as Fukuyama lays out, finished off the manufacturing economy and sent the social order into chaos. Rust Belt cities like Pittsburg, that had a flourishing higher education community, survived the disruption, stunted white flight (or began gentrifying– with all its positives and negatives), and are alive and thriving today. Others, like Detroit, Cleveland, and Toledo were overtaken by their wealthy, white suburbs where new information age jobs popped up in industries like finance, software, and information technology that the impoverished, largely minority populations left behind in the city were unprepared for. With no tax base to fund necessary improvements to education, infrastructure (think Flint), law enforcement (when I lived in Toledo in 2012 you couldn’t get a cop on the weekend unless there was an active violent crime/emergency due to funding issues), or other public goods the city is trapped in a death spiral. Detroit wasn’t killed by taxes, liberal regulations, or free trade. It was killed by white flight.

If Ted Cruz’s plan won’t save Detroit, given that it addresses none of the things that killed it, what might? Detroit can’t be brought back to life by simple changes to the tax code, bringing back poor paying manufacturing jobs, or ending free trade. Nor can it be resurrected by a magical influx of federal cash. Detroit will only come back when White Americans, particularly in that area, reinvest in the city. Move back into the city limits. Contribute to the tax base. Be part of the government. Build communities. Fund education. Use the abysmal property values to start new ventures and lure in growing companies from the surrounding area. You made this mess. Now clean it up.

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