Thoughts of October

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Oct 2014


Book Review of "The Origins of the Urban Crisis" Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas J. Sugrue


Overall, I found this book to be monotonous. The author states his thesis, and then completely supports it in the first fifth of the book. The rest of the book is supporting in the exact same way. This was not a fun or enlightening read.

The Thesis

The thesis of this book is that racial discrimination in Detroit lead to both a housing crisis and a jobs crisis. In the case of housing a collusion of federal and state regulators, bankers, real estate agents and white-based community organizations kept blacks housed in small, poor, segregated neighborhoods. In the case of jobs, it was the result of racially-sensitive employers and unions. The result was only a few companies in the Detroit area hired blacks, and when they did they put them in low-paying, dirty service jobs, such as janitorial work. They did not advance them into better paying, higher skilled occupations and few got the benefits of seniority.

This is the thesis, and Sugrue applies this same thesis to the Detroit of the 30's, 40's, 50's and 60's. He applies it to central Detroit and the various outlying areas that were black enclaves.

The Objection I have

What Sugrue says about these areas and decades always sounds the same. In the first four chapters of the book Sugrue gives us no feeling of what was different between the booming Detroit of the 40's and 50's, the city that was peaking in the 60's and 70's, and the city that was then in steady decline from the 80's through the 2010's. The way he describes job opportunities and housing for blacks, they sound pretty much the same through all these decades.

In Chapter 5 Sugrue talks about Detroit's deindustrialization, and this, finally, sounds a bit different. Interestingly, first item on his Rogues Gallery of things that caused the decline is automation. He argues that automation sucked jobs out of Detroit and put them elsewhere, and in the process also sucked power out of the unions. This combination sucked earning power out of Detroit's inhabitants and that was the root of the crisis.

What he doesn't talk about is the harsh reality that, overall, automation made production faster, better and cheaper. He actually implies in some places in the chapter that this was not the case -- instead, he implies, that the biggest benefit company managements saw in automation was union busting.

My opinion: The crisis is not that automation happened, but that the Detroit environment was so toxic to having it happen in Detroit. This is what needs to be examined in detail: why couldn't Detroit's city fathers and the people living in the various neighborhoods accept and wrestle with the challenge of making Detroit automation friendly, and thus keeping jobs in the area?

My opinion: Sugrue and many Detroiters have a blind-spot in their thinking. Their feeling is that business owes them jobs, that when businesses leave they are betraying Detroit. What they don't see is that businesses are "grief sensitive" (my term) -- if you give the owners and managers lots of grief, they will vigorously look for places to set up that are giving them less grief. This is what happened in Detroit and other Midwest inner cities. The city fathers, unions and residential neighbors made conducting business in Detroit a grief-filled process. So... they went elsewhere. This is a race issue only where race affects the grief level.

And this grief level is where technology makes a difference. The technology available for manufacturers to use makes a big difference in what locations are attractive for doing business -- a concept that Sugrue doesn't seem to grasp well. Detroit and the huge River Rouge auto plant boomed when it was difficult and expensive to move raw materials and finished goods over roads or to distant places. (the 1940's and 50's) In such an environment centralization and localized vertical integration paid big benefits. Example: Raw materials coal, steel and fresh water were easily moved to River Rouge using shipping on the Great Lakes, and finished automobiles were easily moved out using railroads. The surrounding localities (Detroit and its neighborhoods) supported the numerous smaller factories and services that supported this flow.

When global transportation got quicker and more reliable, (thanks to better ships, ports and airports) and local trucking got faster and cheaper, (thanks to freeways and interstates) companies had the option of decentralizing and taking advantage of local specialties in distant locations. (and they could effectively search for lower grief levels in these distant locations). In the 50's and 60's this killed the River Rouge advantage, and in so doing threatened all the relatively high paying black jobs that existed there. Detroit could have reinvented itself, as New York City did in the 1970's, but the people and communities of Detroit chose not to. They liked prescription (my term for status quo) and so they stuck with steel and auto making until the factories shut their doors because they couldn't make money. And when that happened Detroiters blamed all sorts of external problems for it happening.

...Those who stayed, that is. The more ambitious people got frustrated, cut bait, voted with their feet, and set up thriving businesses elsewhere. By the 1980's this was a whole lot of Detroiters. It became a flood, and as they left the total population of the city declined steadily.

In sum, this technological and business practice crisis was what killed the Detroit boom, not race or housing. But Sugrue downplays this. The worst part of this oversight is that the book talks about the strong correlation between Detroit's decline and the growing percentage of blacks living there, then doesn't give any reason not to presume causation: as in, the decline was caused by the increase. This leads to another implication: that the blacks couldn't handle the challenge of assimilating into a US city urban environment as well as other ethnic and immigrant groups did. All-in-all, not an encouraging suite of implications. I don't think this was Sugrue's intention, but it is not a great leap to make this inference.

If this was not what he intended, he should have widened what he talked about, so that, as I have pointed out, this crises could seen in a wider context, and the correlation doesn't look so prominent.

Chapter Seven talks about the feelings of home owners. This has given me an insight. Widespread urban home ownership has been an aspiration for many Americans and American leaders since the turn of the century. The bright side of this is seen as being a way to support the American dream, and the home owners have a deeply vested interest in being American. The dark side, not seen by these enthusiasts, is that home ownership strongly supports status quo and prescriptionism -- if a person owns a home, they become deeply concerned about property values. If they are deeply concerned about property values, they are deeply concerned with what their neighbors are doing. They don't want neighbors doing things which will damage property values. Top of this don't-do-it list is experimenting, as in, doing things differently. This is a surprise dark side to the aspiration for widespread home ownership. It stifles innovation and entrepreneurship, and without them growth is stifled as well. This is the root of the crisis.

The Dan Gilbert Solution

It's not that these cities never try anything to solve this problem. It is that because they aren't understanding the problem well, they are trying to solve these problems the wrong way. The most common wrong way is to build some kind of high-profile edifice to build city pride in hopes that the rising pride will bring business back. The 2010's high-profile person doing this in Detroit (and Cleveland, my home town) is Dan Gilbert, billionaire head of Quicken Loans. He is supporting professional sports teams, buying up inner city distressed real estate, and getting various governments to finance high-profile edifices such as sports arenas, convention centers and casinos. He is also trying to get gentrifying to become more widespread.

This kind of activity makes for producing good news items, but it doesn't solve the underlying main problem: the high grief level experienced by many nameless aspiring business people. To make them more interested in setting up shop in city center, things such as restrictive zoning laws, status quo-loving neighborhood associations, and capricious city officials and union leaders have to be dealt with. All of the above need to have less power over how business is conducted. The business environment needs to become, flexible, transparent, and simple.

The solutions promoted by Dan Gilberts sound good to city fathers, but they don't address the real problems. They are, instead, works of "urban art" constructed by the Gilberts that city fathers can take pride in.

Update: This 31 Oct 14 WSJ Saturday Interview, The Maestro of Midwest Revival The billionaire who brought LeBron James back to Cleveland talks about his business bet on the big cities of the former Rust Belt. by Matthew Kaminski, talks about what Gilbert has accomplished.

From the article, "At 52, Mr. Gilbert has accomplished a few things beyond reeling in LeBron. The son of a Detroit bar owner, Mr. Gilbert started a mortgage business that he turned into Quicken Loans, amassing a fortune of $4 billion. He owns about 100 companies, multiple casinos and hotels, and much of downtown Detroit. Yet here’s what comes up first about him on Google: the 434 splenetic words he wrote four years ago in “The Letter.”


This book is myopic. It looks at Detroit and its problems solely through the prism of race and housing issues. But these issues were symptoms, not causes, of Detroit's problems. This difference in point of view about what is important makes a lot of difference. Many Detroiters think like Sugrue and as a result the people of Detroit can't fix the problem, even today. Not recognizing that race and housing are just symptoms, that the root problem is too much grief in conducting business in Detroit, is what has kept Detroit constantly declining for the last sixty years.


How "What it means to be an American" Has Evolved Over The Decades


Some institutions in our daily lives carry a lot of emotion with them: Think flag, motherhood and apple pie. In addition to feeling like foundations, these institutions also feel like they are unchanging. But that is not true. They change slowly but steadily, decade after decade. Here in the US, marriage, the English language, and what it means to be an American are three examples of these kinds of institutions. I will be discussing the third one -- what it means to be an American -- and using the other two as comparisons.

Feeling unchanging

Language and marriage are institutions we encounter often in our day-to-day living. And we feel they are unchanging. The truth is, both change constantly, but slowly, all the time. Language, for instance, stays constant enough that grandparents can talk to grandchildren, but it changes. Consider how anachronistic Shakespeare's plays sound today. Consider that they were written in the modern English of 400 years ago. A couple of more contemporary examples: who today says "23 Skidoo." or "That's the Bee's knees."? These are phrases that were common in the 1920's. In the other direction, who in the 1920's had heard of "sexting"? Marriage, likewise, changes. What it means to be married constantly changes. A cinematic example is the movie Titanic (1997). In the movie Rose's mother is asking Rose to participate in a pretty standard marriage for the 1900's, while Rose is responding in a very 1990's fashion. In the 2010's we have gay marriage spreading widely.

The moral: these foundational institutions evolve. Likewise, what it means to be an American has evolved steadily over the decades.

Being American

Here are some examples of being American aspirations from different decades that we have discussed in class.

Jefferson style

Thomas Jefferson felt the mainstream American should be a yeoman farmer. He should be a person living on land he owned, and making his living by farming it and improving it. This concept calls for a decentralized community and supports a minimalist governing structure.

Hamilton style

Jefferson's contemporary, Alexander Hamilton, aspired for the typical American to be more industry and commercially-oriented. For this reason he supported a more interventionist government that would promote what we now call the transition to the Industrial Age.

Gilded Age style

In the Gilded Age industrializing was happening fast and spreading widely. The mainstream American was engaged in developing one of many kinds of industries, either as an inventor, owner, manager or worker. The mainstream American also had a lot of immigrant blood in him or her. The population was growing rapidly. The hard question to answer for Gilded Age Americans was how to share the fruits of all this progress.

Roaring 20's style

The Roaring 20's style mainstream American was a more fearful one than any of the above mentioned versions. Defining, and then preserving, the American lifestyle of the day was more important than growing America into something newer and better.

New Deal style

The New Deal style American was even more fearful than the Roaring 20's style, and much more acrimonious. There was a lot of arguing going on about how to fix America's problems and a lot of blaming those problems on both race and class issues that hadn't been solved. As one solution after another was tried and didn't work, the blaming part became the focus.

World War II style

World War II and the Cold War ushered in a new era of cooperation that superseded the 1930's acrimony. This new style of cooperation became part of being an American. The external threats of virulent Fascism, Nazism and Communism allowed the mainstream American to let bygones be bygones and let everyone cooperate in aspiring to the "Four Freedoms" as they are described in chapter 22 of the Give Me Liberty text book.

Swinging between Tolerance and Prescription

In the decades since the founding of the US, Americans have swung back and forth on a pendulum between tolerance and prescription. When the pendulum swung towards the tolerance side, immigration, industrial growth, technological development and prosperity flourished. These were optimistic times on the whole. Overall, prosperity grew, but the equality of how it was distributed did not. This created a lot of "rich get richer"-style complaints among Americans of the day, and many supported many different kinds of social justice movements to fix the inequalities -- unions, immigrant associations, socialist groups, and anarchist groups to name a few. These were times of tolerance so these diverse groups could thrive and wither without much federal government interference. The local governments, on the other hand, would get deeply involved. Examples of legislation supporting tolerance are the 15th and 19th Amendments which prohibit the denial of the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude and prohibit the denial of the right to vote based on sex.

When the pendulum swung towards the prescriptionist side the first thing to change was the immigration flow. It was dramatically reduced, and people already in America wanted those who were still coming in to be just like them (fully assimilated) before they became full-fledged Americans. These were more fearful times -- Americans had big economic and foreign threat worries on their minds. They wanted to face these threats and worries by doing things the right way, as in, doing things the way they were already being done, not by bringing in lots of changes. This seeking to have things stay the same was why immigration and trade polices got restrictive. Two pieces of legislation that reflected this were the Immigration Act of 1924 and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act passed in 1930.

Likewise, in these times what people could say and what groups they could create and join was restricted -- Americans worried more about dangerous groups. An example of a group getting labeled dangerous was the anarchists following the Haymarket incident.

An example of tolerant times was the 1900's before World War I started. In these times there was a lot of prosperity and a huge flood of immigrants coming to the US, mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe.

An example of prescriptive times was the Great Depression. Both immigration and foreign trade were restricted in the name of trying to help Americans prosper. In the same vein the federal government under both Hoover and Roosevelt intervened actively in business affairs -- it was helping businesses and unions prescribe how business should be conducted in hopes of bringing back the good times. The Roosevelt version of this became well known as the New Deal. (It is not documented, but in bars over beers all these various "deals" would sometimes get called the Raw Deal.)


What it means to be an American is a concept that evolves steadily from decade to decade. The definition will evolve to address the concerns of the Americans who are inhabiting the US in any particular decade.

The definition will also swing back and forth between tolerance and prescription. When Americans are feeling optimistic the definition and the actions of Americans will be more tolerant. When Americans are feeling fearful the definition and the actions of Americans will be more prescriptive.


Update: This topic of being an American is part of the topic of being enfranchised, which is something I write a lot about. As robotics take over more manufacturing and service jobs, fewer humans will have "I work for a living." as a source of enfranchisement. Enfranchisement will have to come from non-work-related activities. This is an essay I have written on that.



Book Review of
Dust Bowl
The Southern Plains in the 1930's
by Donald Worster


Donald Worster's book, Dust Bowl, explores the cultural and ecological aspects of the Southern High Plains drought years in the 1930's -- what is popularly called The Dust Bowl. This was a memorable era for an otherwise unmemorable part of the United States. Because of its memorability, helping the people living there became a high profile activity in FDR's New Deal suite of federal programs -- these were federal programs designed to help America recover from the Great Depression. And subsequently The Dust Bowl became an interesting story for Worster and many other historians to write about.

That said, on the whole I found the book unsatisfying. Worster's style is anecdotal, and the anecdotes are scattered through time and regional geography so it is hard to get a big picture of what was happening. When I was finished I had added some nice dust bowl stories to my memory, but not much feeling for what his thesis was, which meant I couldn't tell whether it was well supported or not.


The 1930's were an unhappy time for many people in the US. There were economic, social and environmental crises spread all over the nation. The South and California, as well as the Great Plains, were suffering from agricultural and environmental problems, the North and Midwest were suffering from manufacturing and labor problems, and everywhere there were lots of people out of work and moving around searching for new jobs. The Dust Bowl in the southern High Plains area was just one of many areas with problems, but it became an enduring icon for the agricultural-style problems.


My theory is that the graphically friendly nature of the problems -- the highly visible, regularly recurring dust storms and their aftermaths -- was what moved the Dust Bowl into icon status. This highly graphic nature of what was happening allowed it to become the icon for all the other agriculturally-related problems the nation was suffering. Consider the photographic equipment available in the 1930's: It was big and bulky. And what was pictured with that equipment was shown in movie theaters, glossy magazines and pulpy newspapers -- that's it, no TV, no smart phones. So having something that was dramatic and recurring, and not going to soak or wash away cameras, was heaven for those who wanted to photograph and film a crisis. Dust storms were a lot easier to deal with than a hurricane, and a lot more visually interesting than water-eroded fields or sharecropper housing sitting in the middle of some woods.

That's some background on the Dust Bowl, now some on the book.

Worster published this book, Dust Bowl, in 1979, which makes it one of the first history books written from a modern environmentalist point of view. It is interesting for that reason. Worster talks a lot about respecting the land, and berates those who didn't, and describes the dust storms as being the result of the environmental insensitivity of exploiting capitalists and absentee owners.

Book details

The book describes what happened to the people and land of the Southern High Plains during the drought years in the 1930's. As I mentioned earlier, it does so mostly by recounting anecdotes pulled from conversations with those who stayed (but the conversations were carried on decades after these events) and from what got published in local newspapers during the 1930's and 40's.

In the second half of the book Worster concentrates on the stories of two counties, Cimarron County at the west end of the Oklahoma Panhandle and Haskell County just north of it in Kansas.

In between the anecdotes he does a good job of explaining what these places were like before the European settlers started coming in, and explaining the differences in farming and living styles and techniques between the various waves that came in between the 1880's and the 1920's. He points out what a big difference mechanized agriculture made -- the speed at which land could be cleared and harvested grew dramatically.

He also points out that during and following World War One winter wheat became the highly profitable crop of the region. But, it wouldn't grow in a drought so the drought years of the 1930's bankrupted a lot of farmers and those who were depending on the cash from their crops to survive and thrive.

In the Epilog he points out that in the 1940's both war and rain returned, and those who had managed to stay the course finally did thrive, and prospered mightily. (These are the people whom Worster talked with as he was writing this book. As he points out in the book, those who left were quickly forgotten about and real hard for Worster, or anyone else, to find in the 1970's.)

What I didn't like

The implication of the book is that it was wrong for the High Plains farmers to be gamblers. Even though they didn't know that the worst drought in a century was on its way, the author seems to feel they should have all practiced diverse farming and cattle raising instead of wheat growing.

The problem with this is that all farming is gambling. Weather is just one uncertainty in a whole family of things that can go wrong, or nicely right. This means that all farmers are gamblers... although some are more so than others, and in retrospect these High Plains wheat farmers of the 1930's were near the top of the risk-taking list.

Another thing I didn't like was the anecdotal style. Anecdotes are good for supporting a thesis a person already believes in. (The ultimate in this style of "preaching to the choir" is contemporary movie documentaries.) But if a person is skeptical, they will remain skeptical -- no foundation is laid and then built upon in this presentation style that will change made-up-against minds.


The most interesting lesson I picked up from this book was how important the visual impact of the Dust Bowl was to its enduring niche in American history. What I also picked up was that these 1930's High Plains farmers were gamblers, and about the third wave of them to claim their stake in this area. It was also interesting to see how much the anecdotal presentation style comfortably meshes with looking at issues from an environmental perspective. From what I saw in this book, this synergy seems to date back to the beginning of the contemporary environmentalist movement.


Update: This 16 Oct 14 Scientific American article, Dust Bowl Conditions Not Rivaled in 1000 Years by Hannah Hoag and Nature Magazine, describes how exceptional the 1930's Dust Bowl was. (Note that I'm not in complete agreement with the authors on how they prove their contention.) I bring this up because the more exceptional the Dust Bowl was, the less "risky gambler"-like and "out of touch with Mother Nature"-like the farmers who stayed and plowed were. If they were encountering a one-in-a-thousand year experience, it makes a lot of pragmatic sense for them to try and try again.



--The End--