Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Life After Motown

Life After Motown: Last month I made the offhand comment that the auto/housing crash is going to accelerate the depopulation of Michigan, especially the urban and suburban areas. This didn't bother me all that much other than it might the likelihood of my taxes being jacked up to cover revenue shortfalls. That was thoughtless of me, though. The other cost is the loss of my friends as their jobs vanish and they move away to more financially friendly locales. This was rammed home recently as the University of Michigan -- the monster employer in Ann Arbor, in case you couldn't guess -- has started RIF-ing people wholesale. (RIF = Reduction In Force. Suddenly everyone around here knows that acronym.)

In some ways this is not surprising. The University is horribly managed and the ranks are loaded down with fat. Stories I have heard from friends about the total disregard of value and the entitled mentality of folks they work are head-shakers. And it's really no surprise. Many, many folks actively sought out University employment over the years because, while the pay was not all that great, the benefits were amazing -- including 200% 401K matches, 6 weeks vacation, etc. -- and as an essentially public institution, the assumption was that you could count on secure employment. Long time employees often referred to it as the Golden Handcuffs -- you might have a strong desire for better pay and sunnier climes, but you just couldn't see giving up the indirect benefits. Productivity was not a goal here.

Naturally, short sighted management eventually catches up to itself and bites its own butt, so now the RIF-ing is in full swing. Equally naturally, the short-sighted management that got them in this is doing equally short-sighted RIF-ing. Favoritism, tribalism, and outright whim are used without shame in wielding the axe. You would think the smart thing to do would be to take the opportunity to trim the fat, but no. The fat percentage will remain; just the overall scale will be reduced.

It's a fair bet that precisely the same dynamic is going on at General Motors. The University will survive of course, and may even come to thrive in a world of Obamacare, due to its tremendous medical research capabilities and the associated grants. They'll also raise tuition while cramming more and more freshmen into gigantic lecture halls with grad student Teaching Assistants. Without such options GM is more questionable, their only fallback option is the taxpayer.

Whatever the case, all that is getting settled is the rate of decline. Michigan's economy is not getting better any time soon. Possibly not in my lifetime. That's not to say it won't be good to live here. It might even be better for those of us can hold on, which is what I was trying to say last month. I just hope my friends can hold on along with me.

The History Channel is currently running a 9-part series called Life After People. The concept is to speculate on what would happen to the world if suddenly all the humans disappeared. It's interesting in a hopelessly depressing sort of way and features some nicely done graphics showing how nature slowly takes over all the previously populated areas.

Here in Michigan, we get to see this process in real time. And, as proof that even in this fecklessly bungled State we can occasionally get a unexpected outbreak of common sense, someone is turning this phenomena into a determined strategy in Detroit's weak sister, the City of Flint. Now that's a smart way to downsize.

"The real question is not whether these cities shrink -- we're all shrinking -- but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way," said Mr Kildee. "Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity."

I find the fact that this guy has not been tarred and feather by sentimental journalists (like Mitch Albom) astounding. Could there actually be some realistic constructive change going on in this State, instead of just another PR campaign?

Other places are going rustic in smaller way:

More than 20 of the state's 83 counties have reverted deteriorating paved roads to gravel in the last few years... Reverting to gravel has happened in a few other states but it is most typical in Michigan.

Could be dirt bike heaven. And even more tellingly, some folks are living off the land:

Beasley, a 69-year-old retired truck driver who modestly refers to himself as the Coon Man, supplements his Social Security check with the sale of raccoon carcasses that go for as much $12 and can serve up to four. The pelts, too, are good for coats and hats and fetch up to $10 a hide.


Hunting is prohibited within Detroit city limits and Beasley insists he does not do so. Still, he says that life in the city has gone so retrograde that he could easily feed himself with the wildlife in his backyard, which abuts an old cement factory.

He procures the coons with the help of the hound dogs who chase the animal up a tree, where Beasley harvests them with a .22 caliber rifle. A true outdoorsman, Beasley refuses to disclose his hunting grounds.

"This city is going back to the wild," he says. "That's bad for people but that's good for me. I can catch wild rabbit and pheasant and coon in my backyard."


A beaver was spotted recently in the Detroit River. Wild fox skulk the 15th hole at the Palmer Park golf course. There is bald eagle, hawk and falcon that roam the city skies. Wild Turkeys roam the grasses. A coyote was snared two years ago roaming the Federal Court House downtown.

I can't help but think of Jed Clampett. As you might expect, the splendid and beautifully written Detroitblog was on top of this theme long ago.

Some blocks have been cleared entirely of housing over the years, one house at a time, until nature runs rampant, untrammeled by human endeavor, leaving nothing but telephone poles that still carry electricity past open fields with no machines to power, no homes to light.

It's the astonishing evidence that an entire neighborhood, and the society that it held, can vanish, with most traces of its presence wiped out in a matter of a few years, returning to the natural state in which it began.

As much as all my wailing on this topic might seem dire and cynical, I am actually optimistic about life here for those of us who can manage to stay. For the rest of you, well, do come by and visit when the weather is warm, but you're probably better off living where you are.