There are many standard post-industrial/post-apocalyptic narratives regarding Detroit’s rise, fall, and possible reemergence as something new.
But in his newest journal post, David Byrne talks about Detroit and its failure, which was written into it’s DNA: the more successful the car companies became at forcing their will, politically and in terms of the market, the more possible it was to abandon the city they had built. Logical.
He then posits something I’ve never heard before at all that would have – and still could be – the way forward for rebuilding America’s industrial production…
One wonders, if the federal government mandated that the car companies must build planes and tanks and all sorts of other stuff during the war, why these same companies couldn’t have been similarly diverted from building Hummers and SUVs to building trolleys, urban transport, high-speed trains and other bits of infrastructure we all could all use.”
David Byrne from “Don’t Forget The Motor City.”
We could still do it. It would take a lot of bravery from corporations known for their incredible tunnel vision. But now that the model upon which the American automotive industry was built has proven unsustainable, what do they have left? A new generation of SUV’s, with the accompanying wars to keep gas prices low? A new Manifest Destiny – not for territory, but the spoils hidden beneath? The failure of our latest military ambitions have already proven that we’re on serious decline as a superpower: are we just going to keep missing the forest for the trees we’re cutting down to feed the bonfire consuming our influence in the world?
It was surprising and pleasant while in Barcelona to look down as one enters a metro train and see the Bombardier marque on the sill plate. I didn’t know the company until I spent some time as a baggage handler for a large regional airline, which flew exclusively Bombardier regional jets (CRJ). I heard stories of reliability and simplicity – purely anecdotally – from the airline’s mechanics, and they’ve always products with a certain aesthetic pleasantness, so I was quite excited to know that I was on a Bombardier train.
They were not pressed into this by government action – their entry into transportation was a free market decision.
General Electric, who incidentally makes the engines for most if not all of Bombardier’s aircraft, has been in the locomotive industry for a century. In the last couple decades, have repurposed their advanced jet engine turbine knowledge into turbine driven locomotives that are ridiculously efficient.
These are two companies exercising in the free market – so much so that both had financial wings that failed, or all-but, in the credit crunch. LIKE GM HAD.
So the idea of GM following their lead and diversifying their manufactured products is not earth-shattering. They would just be doing similarly to what they did in World War Two and turning car production lines into tank production lines; but only rather than tanks they build commuter rail coaches, and rather than functioning car lines, the one’s that they would be closing instead.
And considering that this is all government work, it would be far more recession proof than the car market. It’s time to consider all options, because the ones we’ve had for the last fifty years are obsolete. And through questioning the nature of policies and industries, we could take our strengths repurpose them in systems and infrastructures that have been sorely neglected.
Maybe the way forward for the whole American “free market” is a new deal with industry, where with systems like this, we make it lucrative to serve the common good.
And speaking as a free market scoundrel, what kind of great business plan would it be for the auto companies to build the newer and better transit systems (public systems, publicly funded) to replace the unsustainable old ones (private transport, privately funded) that they flogged for a hundred years?
They made a mint selling the poison for generations, now they could make another mint selling the antidote.