Here we are, in the middle of the summer of 2013, and in the recent news of the past few days, we have a big one. The end of the last week brought the breaking news that the state governor appointed “Emergency Financial Manager” of Detroit had sought and obtained approval from the Governor of Michigan to file papers for Chapter 9 bankruptcy for the city government of Detroit. This was something that should not have been very surprising to any but the most oblivious of humans in America, but it’s still a bit of a shock.
There are many things that can be said about this, and of course, many things are being said, and will be, particularly in what has largely replaced the profession of journalism in America, the TV “news media” (a phenomenon of entertainment and distraction rather than researched and organized relevant true factual information), featuring the endless filling of time by gathering clusters of assorted blowhards each facing their own cameras and microphones in scattered locations and shouting at each other.
Much of it is predictable, and confusion will fly around, thick and furious. What will be heard often, I suspect, is predictable because it’s such an old “common knowledge” meme, going something like “people have been abandoning Detroit steadily for decades because it became so terrible”. What probably won’t be heard much is much more to the actual point of truth, which is basically that Detroit became so decayed and terrible because it was abandoned.
For all the complexity of the story of the city of Detroit, the most basic story is really not complicated. As the United States began the program of outward sprawl into build out of suburbia, Detroit seemed to take the lead. They started covering the city with limited access divided highways out to the suburban zones, which, first, wiped out and split large swaths of the city, of existing living neighborhoods, and separated what was left with large wide no-man’s land bands of highway making barriers that were impassable except by climbing into petroleum burning machines and driving. Then, the trend was out into suburbia, draining the actual city of Detroit of people, activity, and money.
Everything else was a kind of negative feedback loop downward spiral from that. Not so long ago, I mentioned a program on PBS, Blueprint America: Beyond the Motor City. They covered what happened to Detroit pretty well.
The irony is intense. In trying a little too hard to really be “The Motor City”, what came to be was that the place most people generally refer to as “Detroit” became not the city of Detroit itself, but a whole large region, all built out and spread out and completely based around notions of arranging the whole area so that people had to climb in cars and drive substantial distances to go anywhere and do anything. This will be proving more and more seriously problematic as we get further into diminishing returns in petroleum, in an ironic circular loop of being a problem, here in America, that was massively accelerated by this very mindset.
Meanwhile, within the actual city of Detroit, the same large geographical expanse of land area exists, as it became less and less densely populated, and much poorer. Maintaining all the services a city government provides still means covering all that area, for fewer and fewer people, with fewer people, and increasingly impoverished people, people left behind by the spread into suburbia, and less and less business, meaning less and less tax revenue to pay for it.
In short form, Detroit laid out the path for its own destruction by being a little too enthused about really being The Motor City, and managing to move past the idea of the automobile as a nifty machine allowing people to independently cover distances quickly, and creating the insanity of complete car dependency. This is not a problem exclusive to Detroit, as I’ve been trying to make clear to people for some time. Detroit took the lead into this path, though, and in diving headfirst into car dependency, managed to get to a place first where other American cities are headed. That is, unless we wise up and change that course.
A couple of days ago I read the excellent piece Cognitive Dissonance on the Economic Undertow blog, and I hope you will do the same, for a little perspective on this saga of current events. One item that I discovered thanks to that was the absolutely jaw-dropping news that, as somebody’s idea of “improvement”, there is now a plan to do more highway construction through Detroit.
One thing here that’s kind of a side note, but a little bit relevant. Often I hear (or read) people talking about “Detroit”, but from what they’re saying, sometimes it’s not quite so clear whether they’re actually talking about the city of Detroit, or, as people seem to frequently do, treat the name as a kind of general collective reference to the business of motor vehicle manufacturing in America, which, in reality, does not really have the kind of presence in the city of Detroit that most people seem to think. (Dearborn, for a quick example, is not Detroit. It’s Dearborn.)
There is, and certainly will continue to be, no shortage of people blowing hot air and bullshit around about the severe and long running problems of the deterioration and decline of the city of Detroit. Many of them will shout and point about their favorite “causes” of the problems, with no whiff of a sense of realization that much of these things are not causes, they’re consequences, or even incidental side items.
This, then, gets to larger things.
We can find the same broad obstacles in many subjects, many places. It’s something I’ve been calling a “meta-problem”, for lack of any better term I can think of; cognitive problems that get in the way of dealing with the main actual problem at hand. People are, as I’ve already said, likely to cough up all kinds of reflex “explanations” about the current predicaments of the city of Detroit. I’m guessing, and I have no doubt I’ll probably be right about this, that all kinds of things will go flying out of people’s mouths on the subject (or into assorted media) that involve their own personal Usual Suspect bogeymen, a favorite scapegoat as villain. Explanations will be tossed out that are probably cliches that have grown worn and moldy with age, that never really did get to the core of the matter, but have always seemed easy and convenient to somebody.
It’s looking extremely rare to find anybody really getting at the most basic and fundamental essence of what has happened to the city of Detroit over decades, since the decade of the fifties, or earlier. See above. People abandoned the city of Detroit, then launch into wailing laments and assorted blame about why the city of Detroit didn’t thrive. There are clues to be found, I think, in considering people who say Detroit is their home, or maybe they live elsewhere in the world now, but they say Detroit is their hometown, they’re “from Detroit”, when the obvious first question is probably to ask “Detroit?… or one of the array of ‘bedroom community’ suburban zones all around the city of Detroit?“. Then we might get somewhere.
The Cognitive Dissonance note provides some basic clues. Writer James Kunstler provides clues in his latest blog essay, Requiem for Detroit, what is simply another repetition of clues he’s been telling people for years, including his books The Geography of Nowhere and The City in Mind, and a long parade of personal appearance talks and presentations and written essays on his own website and various periodicals.
This goes way beyond the subject of the problems of the city of Detroit. Look around, and any number of problematic topics that just mystify people are buried in a fog of confusion and sheer bullshit. We have a national epidemic of problems that are obscured by some mob scenes of cognitive dissonance and sheer delusion, any basic essential facts and concepts swamped by the chattering noise of people beating on some favorite scapegoat and cliches and supposed “easy” answers and explanations, because somebody thinks that’s easier.
It’s the same general problem of some kind of mass psyche mental block in a problem area that’s a completely obvious related subject if any thought or discussion about Detroit’s problems arises, which is the subject of our predicament in the realm of petroleum. You can practically be overrun by people chattering furiously about the topic while completely avoiding any actual truth about the matter, because they want to turn their attention to some easy scapegoat to blame, some easy and simple “solution” that will always be somebody else’s problem, somebody else’s fault, nothing that might in any way inconvenience them.
This subject could not be any more fundamentally relevant to the subject of the distress and woe of Detroit, as it is to many subjects about current American problems. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this item before, but some time back, somebody who has been a regular email correspondent, about a range of subjects, a very well educated, well informed, thinking, intelligent man, wrote something to me about this. The comment, as I recall and paraphrase it, was something like “this oil thing… it really seems to be your thing… almost an obsession…”, with something to the effect of “people don’t want to hear it, it’s too negative… where are the positive solutions?”, or something like that.
Even he had trouble getting his head around how fundamentally the matters of the topic affect everything in what we now consider normal ongoing modern life in the United States, and, furthermore, how badly we, and by “we” I mean a nation as a whole, pretty much since the end of World War II, have completely screwed the pooch in this.
To add to the further reading here, I should probably refer to another recent piece on the web from Morris Berman, The Existential Strain, which really gets to the core of quite a few things.
In shortest and most general form, whether it’s the troubles of the city of Detroit, our pressing predicaments involving hydrocarbon resources and consumption, or a vast array of other problems, we have a severe epidemic of profound psychological problems here. Way too many people, for far too long, have willingly gotten themselves so far off into various patterns of avoidance, denial, distraction, diversion, confusion, fantasy and delusion, in so many ways, in so many subject areas, that we have some kind of mass psychosis going, where any basic straightforward rational grasp of reality is just swept away and buried, replaced by endless waves of nonsense.
Until we knock that shit off, nothing is going to work out well.
“A sane person to an insane society must appear insane.” -Kurt Vonnegut, from Welcome to the Monkey House