An Access Advertising EconBrief:
Was Detroit’s Fall ‘Just One of Those Things That Happens Now and Then’ to ‘An Innocent Victim of Market Forces’?
Last week’s EconBrief analyzed Detroit’s precipitous decline from America’s most prosperous city to Chapter 9 bankruptcy. The most popular explanation ascribes the event to 20th-century liberalism, which reigned unchallenged over the city throughout its financial death spiral. When a city is named the most liberal in America, as Detroit was by the BayAreaCenter for Voting Research, political philosophy becomes the prime suspect at its post-mortem.
Still, there have been prominent dissenters. Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm called Detroit a victim of “free trade.” Presumably, she refers to the international trade in automobiles that increasingly brought foreign models – especially Japanese cars – to prominence in the U.S. Even more significant were the comments of Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, economist and columnist for the New York Times. In his column of 07/27/2013 entitled “When It Comes to Detroit, Greece Is Not the Word” and subtitled “Victims of Creative Destruction,” Krugman lamented the fact that Detroit’s bankruptcy would occasion comparisons to the financial default of Greece.
Greece’s circumstances were unique and not comparable to those of other countries, Krugman contended. Moreover, Greece’s small economy – “about 1 ½ times as big as metropolitan Detroit” – did not affect the rest of the world much. Consequently, it was wrong to use Greece’s problems as an excuse to cry wolf about government deficit spending. Thus, it must be just as wrong to cite Detroit as a model for municipal excess. For example, U.S. state and local government-employee pensions are only underfunded by about one trillion dollars, Krugman contended. He cited a BostonCollege study as his source for this figure, which is only about one-third the size of conventional estimates.
Having established Greece as an isolated case, Krugman appears poised to do likewise for Detroit – but no. “So was Detroit just uniquely irresponsible? Again, no. Detroit does seem to have had [sic] especially bad governance, but for the most part, the city was just an innocent victim of market forces.” Reading Krugman on Detroit’s political leadership suggests that, had Krugman strolled through Hiroshima the day after the atomic bomb was dropped, his reaction would have been that an especially large bomb seemed to have fallen in the middle of the city.
Krugman plays it coy about just which “market forces” victimized Detroit, but he has no scruples about reminding us that they can be brutal. “…Sometimes whole cities…lose their place in the economic ecosystem…,” he lectures sternly. And when that happens? That is when we pull out the big gun in the liberal arsenal: we need to “have a serious discussion about how cities can best manage the transition when their traditional sources of competitive advantage go away. And let’s also have a serious discussion about our obligations, as a nation, to those of our fellow citizens who have the bad luck of finding themselves living and working in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Detroit, according to Krugman, isn’t “fundamentally a tale of fiscal irresponsibility and/or greedy public employees…it’s just one of those things that happen now and then in an ever-changing economy.”
It is deeply ironic that, of the two commentators, it was the politician who referred explicitly to international trade. After all, Paul Krugman won his Nobel Prize for work in the field of international trade theory. Yet he referred to that subject only obliquely in his column. That is the clue to the profound intellectual dishonesty of these two commentaries. The politician lied about a subject on which politicians lie reflexively. The economist avoided a subject in which he is supremely qualified because he had no intention of telling the truth and could not bear to trash his reputation by lying outright.
America’s Unfree International Trade in Automobiles
The effects of international trade in automobiles can be seen daily zooming across the roadways of America. The Toyota is one of the most popular automobiles in America. But this is hardly the outcome of free trade in automobiles. Free trade is defined as the absence of such impediments to international trade as tariffs (taxes) and quotas. No sooner did foreign-car makers such as France’s Renault and Sweden’s Volvo enter the U.S. market in the 1960s than they were besieged with tariffs at the behest of Detroit.
When Japanese automakers like Honda, Toyota and Nissan began to loosen the stranglehold of the Big Three on the U.S. market in the 1970s, Congress erected a tariff wall against foreign-car imports. This was even extended to include a quota of one million Japanese-car imports. Amazingly, tariffs remain in force to this day in the form of a 2.25% tariff on Japanese-car imports and a 25% truck tariff.
Doubtless Ms. Granholm was relying on the notoriously poor memories of Americans when she cited free trade as the cause of Detroit’s woes. But it isn’t necessary to be a student of U.S. commercial policy in order to know she is lying. Today, nearly two-thirds of Toyotas sold in America are not shipped to America from Japan. They are assembled right here in the USA in places like Tennessee and Alabama. Why did Japanese automakers take the time and trouble to build auto plants here in the U.S.? In order to escape our import barriers. Direct foreign investment is a classic ploy to overcome tariffs and quotas. Honda was the first Japanese automaker to build a U.S. plant, followed soon by Toyota in the early 1980s.
Not only do domestic manufactures escape the penalties levied on imported goods, they also escape the criticism often leveled at purchases of foreign goods. The same people who scream and holler about American jobs being exported to Japan by “globalization” (today’s pejorative buzzword for free trade) can hardly complain when the Japanese build a U.S. plant that employs U.S. workers. The same chauvinists who demand that we “buy American” can’t very well complain when we buy American-made Toyotas.
It is true that production tends to migrate to its least-cost locus. But transport costs have been falling, not rising, for decades – that is why containerization has become so popular. Before tariffs, the Japanese made cars in Japan and shipped them here. Only after tariffs were imposed did it become efficient to move production to the U.S., where the Japanese had to strain to acclimate U.S. workers to their legendary production methods.
Sharp-eyed readers noticed the word “assembled” used to describe the process by which automobiles are made. Today, the hundreds of parts that comprise an automobile are manufactured throughout the world. They are shipped to automobile plants for final assembly into the finished product. So-called “American” cars like Fords, Chryslers and GM products may well contain fewer American-made parts than do Toyotas and Hondas. To an economist, what matters is that the final product be produced at least cost and that all trade reflects the comparative or “opportunity” costs of producing the products traded. Free trade reflects those costs while tariffs and quotas distort them.
No, it wasn’t free trade that drove General Motors and Chrysler to virtual bankruptcy. It was a combination of factors, one of which was the ability of competitors to overcome the protectionist barriers thrown up by Detroit’s political influence.
Similar logic defeats the comment made by another left-wing onlooker that “capitalism failed Detroit.” The Big Three benefitted from numerous federal-government bailouts even before 2008. Chrysler enjoyed one of the very first federal-government bailouts in 1980, thanks to the charisma and clout of Lee Iacocca. Of course, this was the antithesis of capitalism (but the epitome of “crony capitalism.”) Really, what Ms. Granholm means by “free trade” is freedom itself; e.g., the absence of government coercion and constraint. As we discover below, this is exactly what Detroit did not experience during its painful decline.
Why Krugman Could Not Say What He Implied
Krugman’s comments about “just one of those things” and “an innocent victim of market forces” conjure up images of Detroit buffeted by random shocks from outside the city involving supply, demand and prices of things like oil, raw materials, labor, machinery and technology. Of all the possible “market forces” involved, what could Krugman possibly mean if not the market for automobile production and sale? Surely Detroit and Battle Creek didn’t wage war over breakfast cereal dominance? The Great Lakes weren’t blockaded by Canada at some point, were they?
Krugman’s vague references are intended to allow his readers to believe that he means that the effects of international trade in automobiles are what did Detroit in. But he is not going to come right out and say that. For that would expose him as incompetent in his Nobel-Prize specialty. The problems experienced by the Big Three automakers couldn’t possible have caused Detroit’s bankruptcy and Krugman knows it. There is no alternative to conceding that the right wing is right – liberalism’s bankruptcy caused Detroit’s bankruptcy. And Krugman knows that, too.
Automobile companies located in Detroit certainly suffered losses of sales and profits from (mostly) Japanese competition. But these losses were not felt by “Detroit,” either by the citizenry at large or by municipal government coffers. Corporate profits and losses accrue to shareholders. In this case, that means a few million people who mostly don’t live in Detroit but rather are dispersed throughout the nation. They include private individuals, households, investment-company fund shareholders and pensioners. Some executives lost jobs and income, but they were comparatively few when mingled among the nation’s fourth-largest city. In principle, workers could suffer job and income losses – but in practice the UAW saw to it that they didn’t. The union’s unwillingness to make wage and benefit concessions to management was proverbial. Its legacy-benefit accumulations to retirees were legendary. To this very day, Japanese auto-plant workers continue to assemble cars more productively than do UAW workers in Big Three auto plants. Consequently, the Big Three were bled dry. This even continued during the Obama Administration’s bankruptcy bailout, when General Motors’s shareholders were stiffed in favor of the UAW, which split the spoils with the federal government.
Not only did municipal government not suffer, it was among the vampires. For years, the automakers paid millions to the city for so-called “riot insurance.”
That is not all. The losses suffered by auto-company shareholders must be counterbalanced by the greater gains in real income. After all, international trade produces gains that more-than-offset losses; that is why international trade is just as beneficial as intranational trade. Once again, those gains are dispersed throughout the nation. But there were surely more foreign-car drivers in Detroit than auto-company shareholders – UAW parking lots were often sprinkled with imports! – and the gains of the former were larger than the losses of the latter.
Upon analysis, the notion that foreign-car competition wrecked Detroit is ludicrous on its face. And Paul Krugman’s curiously oblique column now makes sense. He couldn’t endorse Jennifer Granholm’s ridiculous claim, thereby becoming the first Nobel Prize-winning economist to make himself a laughingstock in his own specialized niche. But his liberal credentials, syndicated-column status and unshakable personal arrogance demanded that he not concede even the clearest victory to the enemy. He cannot acknowledge a truth uttered by the right wing even when validated by the logic of his own profession.
Detroit’s Downfall Was Not Random
Krugman’s description of Detroit’s fate as “just one of those things” triggers memories of a popular song from Detroit’s glory days: “Just one of those things; just one of those crazy things; one of those bells that now and then rings; just one of those things.” In short, it implies randomness rather than the result of purposive acts, incompetence, bad judgment or corruption.
That is exactly the opposite of the truth.
Detroit’s political leadership was not a random variable. Its liberal pedigree was impeccable. The city’s last Republican mayor served from 1957 to 1961. His successor, Jerome Cavanaugh, was a young New Frontier Democrat cast in the mold of John F. Kennedy. Cavanaugh was determined to use government to lift up the poor and impoverished. He accomplished half his objective; he used government. But the poor and impoverished did not decline. Instead, a city that boasted America’s highest per-capita income in 1960 went steadily downhill to a household income of $26,000 in 2010. Unemployment stands today at 16%.
Krugman’s description of Detroit as “an innocent victim of market forces” is classic liberal rhetoric. Whereas liberals usually create “social wholes” or collectives from politically malleable blocs and cast them as victims, Krugman has escalated the use of this technique to encompass an entire city. As noted above, his unnamed market forces must refer to international trade. But as explained above, the widely dispersed losses suffered by the Big Three automakers from Japanese competition cannot begin to explain the highly concentrated losses felt by the fourth-largest and most prosperous city in the world’s wealthiest nation. When the gains from that international trade are factored in, Krugman’s implicit case disintegrates.
International trade does not explain the fact that one-third of Detroit’s acreage is either vacant or horribly blighted. Trade cannot account for the fact that houses sometimes sell for $500 or less. International trade did not cause Detroit’s population of nearly 2 million to shrink to roughly 700,000. These things were caused by the 20-year reign of a black-separatist mayor who declared that only white could people could be racist. When whites reacted by fleeing the city for Detroit’s numerous suburbs, Mayor Coleman Young continued to direct imprecations at the “racists in the suburbs.” The more whites left the city, the more politically potent Young’s black base became. This tactic of deliberately encouraging out-migration through ineffective government has been dubbed the “Curley Effect” (after Boston’s notorious Mayor James Curley) by economists Andrei Shleifer and Edward Glaeser.
International trade did not give Detroit the worst crime rate in the nation and a murder rate eleven times greater than New York’s. It was Mayor Young who polarized the police force by laying off white officers to change the racial composition of the department. It was the mayor who refused to treat black and white criminality alike and called rioting “rebellion” when committed by blacks. International trade did not make 47% of Detroit’s citizens functionally illiterate, nor did it set Detroit’s public education system trudging toward the bottom rungs of the national achievement ladder despite an per-student expenditure of over $14,000.
Random market forces did not create a vast municipal bureaucracy, at one time comprising nearly 10% of the city’s working population. Market forces did not arrange for public-employee retirees to have 80-100% of their medical costs paid by their city retirement benefits. International trade did not cause 75% of municipal revenue to be devoted to salaries, benefits and legacy (retirement) obligations of municipal employees. Japanese competition did not force Detroit to burden its citizens with the highest per-capita tax burden in the state while still borrowing and spending lavishly enough to drive the city into bankruptcy.
International trade did not compel two of Mayor Coleman’s closest aides to separately steal over $1 million dollars, crimes for which they served jail terms. Trade did not seduce the “Hip-Hop Mayor,” Kwame Kilpatrick, into violating 24 federal statutes, including racketeering and mail fraud. The Japanese did not make the municipal bureaucracy virtually impervious to all attempts at reform, streamlining or simple day-to-day functional improvement.
International trade did not compel Detroit city government to smother small businesses with regulations such as the licensing requirements that threaten the existence of over 1,000 small businesses that make up some 10% of businesses and serve over two-thirds of Detroit residents. International trade did not dictate a city-imposed minimum wage exceeding $11 per-hour for public employees and businesses contracting with the city.
Krugman’s call for a “serious discussion…as a nation…about our obligations…to our fellow citizens…who have bad luck” is a thinly-veiled call for a bailout. But that was exactly the road Detroit followed under Coleman Young, whose explicit strategy was to “go to war with the city’s major institutions and demand that the federal government save it with subsidies.” Sure enough, up to one-third of Detroit municipal salaries were paid by federal-government salaries, according to researcher and write Tamar Jacoby. As Steven Malanga pointed out in The Wall Street Journal (7/27-28/2013), this strategy acquired the nickname “tin-cup urbanism.” Today, we are all holding tin cups and the federal government is robbing most of them in order to replenish favored cup holders.
No, there is absolutely nothing random about Detroit’s descent into bankruptcy. The forces causing it had virtually nothing to do with international trade. They were the forces of anti-capitalism, not capitalism. It is easy to see why Paul Krugman could only hint that international trade was involved without actually mentioning the subject, and why he had to distract his readers with the non sequitur of Greece. Detroit’s bankruptcy was caused by everything Paul Krugman believes in and continues to advocate today except for free trade. In other words, the fate of Detroit is Krugmanism in action.