I have been spending the past few days in Detroit, Michigan. Although I had never been here before, the rise and decline of the auto-industry (and also of the entire city) has gotten national attention for quite some time now, so I did have some limited background knowledge of its history. Still, I can’t help but feel certain emotions arise as I see the empty houses, vacant lots, and the grand but not-anymore-used train station, of what used to be the fastest growing city in the US.
The challenges that Detroit faces are very difficult and complex, and a good reminder and warning of what is to come to other cities in the near future if we keep ignoring the industrial trends and hold on to what we think used to be a “Great America” praying that it will come back. Manufacturing jobs will disappear, period. There are no ways around it. But the solution is not quite as simple as ignoring the past completely and only looking at the future, because there are inevitable growing pains that bridge those periods. Yes it is expected that as technologies quickly advance and competition from international manufactures increase, the industry will change and we will have to adapt. Long-term solutions must involve educating the next-generation of workers to equip themselves with relevant skills for industries of the future. But the difficulty also lies in trying to improve the present situation: how do we maintain a basic level of living standards for the workers who have worked hard all their lives developing particular skills for a particular industry whose floor has suddenly dropped out, and now they can’t feed their kids or send them to school so that they will be able to build a future for themselves? This is why I am sympathetic to Obama’s decision to bail out the American auto companies although the logical person in me knows too well that the math in such a policy just doesn’t add up in the end. At the time, it seemed like saving these workers of their jobs was imminent and of utmost importance. Yet in hindsight, the long-term effect of subsidizing a diminishing industry with tax money is a net negative for society. So while there is no going back through history to possibly make better long-term choices along the way to arrive at a better today, we have to think about how best to be prepared should similar situations arise again, because they will. In the immediate future, Detroit will have to make some difficult choices. The city is completely broke. It cannot afford the services that the people are asking for. I hope that at the very least it will keep the vital infrastructures in place, such as transportation for people to get to their job, even if it is a minimum wage job (as long as that job and the people are there), and funding for public schools so that they can attract good teachers that the students can learn from and be inspired by, even as their family goes through a tough time.
While we may not have perfect answers to all of our difficulties, at the very least, our actions must be rooted in laying the foundations for tomorrow. I have heard it said that when it is cold and the flowers don’t bloom, we need to continue to grow our roots deep down so that we will be alive and ready to seize the day when the warmth comes back. And this isn’t just figurative, because the Detroit winter is very cold. Now I feel like a wimp complaining about a cold day in California. In the words of the journalist Thomas Friedman, we must “build floors not walls,” in response to the outsourcing of jobs. By the way, he said that way before Trump made building walls into a national conversation. To me, so much of this is about education. We owe it to the future generation to prepare them for what is to come. The days are gone when people could learn one skill and use that skill to support their family for the rest of their lifetime. We live in an ever-changing world that requires us to keep learning, and the changes are accelerating even as I speak. Learning, then, is not anymore just a thing you do in school, but ought to be the default mode of everyone’s everyday life. If we can instill that mindset in every kid going through school today, I will be more optimistic about tomorrow.