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July 20, 2013
My Uncle Gunshot
By Sandra Lindberg
Detroit is bankrupt and I'm thinking about Uncle Gunshot, Swedish immigrant and a man who loved Detroit.
One Christmas, my Uncle Herbert came to visit. Sweeping in from Detroit, he parked a beautiful Chevy in our driveway, and sailed through our front door laden with presents for everybody.
My uncle earned his name the hard way. But that will become plain later, and he had no regrets about the choices he made that led to his surprising moniker. What you need to know first is that Uncle Herbert loved America. Most of all he loved living in Detroit. "The greatest city in the world," he called it. Given how he got there, I can understand why.
Before Sweden adopted a more humane approach to government, in the 1950's for example, living in small-town Sweden could be a stultifying experience. Now, please keep in mind that I am reporting here. These are the characterizations shared with me by my father who, you may remember from other posts, left Sweden because it was not the greatest place for him to grow up.
Anyway, my Uncle Evert was dad's older brother. And he was a bit at loose ends as he left school. Not the best student, he didn't seem to settle into a job. Instead, he was most famous for running with a pack of boys who very effectively stole apples from other people's apple trees, and performed similar acts of mischief when they felt necessary. To cope with my Uncle Evert, one of the more recidivist pranksters, the little town's leaders met and decided they would take up a collection to send Evert to America. They cast about for a town that would fit his exuberant personality, one where a Swede they knew would be willing to sponsor him, and finally decided to send him to Detroit. They thought of it as a punishment. For Evert it proved to be the exact opposite.
You see, Uncle Evert later told me that he got into so much trouble back in Sweden because the culture there had already written him off. A boy from a poor family with not the best grades in school, Evert just wasn't able to compete for one of the few scarce jobs the city dangled in front of its young men. You see, it's not just America that tolerates a high unemployment rate in order to enable business owners to employ only the most prized workers. So Evert had directed his initiative in ways that pleased him and frustrated the city elders.
Uncle Evert was blessed to arrive in Detroit at the height of its glory. The city was booming.
But it wasn't Detroit's economic prosperity that Evert loved. He was to remain in the city even when times got very tough indeed. No, what Evert loved were the city's people.
As a boy who'd known only Caucasian Swedes, and pretty conservative ones at that, Evert loved all the races and nationalities that flocked to Detroit. He said this rich and complicated culture was what made Detroit so amazing. The crazy quilt that was Detroit kept Evert happily fascinated for the rest of his life. Even after he earned his nickname.
One evening on his way home from work, he saw an elderly woman get her purse snatched. Ignoring the warning shouts of his friends, Evert sprinted after the purse-snatcher and ripped the purse out of his hands. Unfortunately, the young man had a pistol, which he shot at Evert and then ran away. Evert ended up in the hospital, luckily with only a flesh wound, but his nickname stuck forever. Uncle Gunshot just laughed about his adventure. "The city was having a tough time when that happened," he said. Then he added more soberly, "That guy just wanted to eat. But so did that woman. And she didn't have a pistol. I couldn't just leave her there."
Uncle Gunshot passed away over a decade ago. He never left Detroit. He never lost his love for the place, though he experienced its steady decline. I am glad that he didn't read the news this morning.
Today's U.S. newspapers report the city of Detroit has filed for bankruptcy. The metropolis can not handle its $18 billion debt. Approximately 38 cents of every city dollar goes toward loan interest payments. If Detroit hadn't declared bankruptcy, the percentage of its money devoted to interest was expected to rise to 65 cents per dollar in just four years. http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-0719-detroit-bankruptcy-20130719,0,7289375.story?page=2 .
Ever wonder what it would be like to struggle in a failing European country like Greece or Spain? Just move to Detroit. While what some call third-world conditions have existed in pockets of U.S. cities for decades--remember the slums of the 60's and the race riots that swept the nation?--we have ignored these neighborhoods of misery until we now have entire U.S. cities that are being thrown away. Stockton, CA. San Bernardino, CA. And now Detroit.
But wait. It's not the entire city that's being thrown away. Thanks to supply-chain economics, corporations with the means have reduced expenses and increased profits by moving overseas to cheaper labor markets, or have out-sourced significant percentages of their component manufacturing to overseas factories, thereby cutting the cost of their products. So some corporations have escaped Detroit's fate. Got to love those economic concepts. They're so good at masking the reality of suffering that accompanies such business approaches.
And the banks. Let's not forget the banks. Somehow, even when people are losing their homes. Even when people have no work and don't know how they are going to feed their families. Even when entire cities fail, somehow the banks always get the first repayments on debt. Just like cancer that feeds and grows without limit until its host is dead, banks demand their payments even when they know they are destroying the very communities that have made them profitable for generations. And our government and its laws support them in this sickness. That's what happens when profit trumps life.
In 2010 the University of Chicago hosted a seminar called Global Capitalisms Old and New, which my university was kind enough to send me to. http://mfs.uchicago.edu/?/archive/global-warming-copy. Described as a few days that would be devoted to a reexamination of capitalism's pro's and con's, it turned out to be far more of a paean for the largely understandable and laudable path that capitalism has taken over the last few hundred years. Especially hard to swallow was a talk presented by a political science professor, Gary Herrigel, who studies supply chain economics. (For one of his recent articles with Jonathan Zeitlin see "Inter-Firm Relations in Global Manufacturing: Disintegrated Production and Its Globalization" click here)
His presentation made reasonable the decisions of corporations to "out-source" all or part of its manufacturing to overseas locations where low wages were the norm. His argument was that by taking advantage of such markets, a reduced but still profitable corporation could remain viable in the U.S. where its designers, innovators and high-end employees would continue to have jobs. However, Professor Herrigel also admitted that as overseas employees learned to be effective workers, they would demand higher salaries at which time the corporations would have to relocate to a more undeveloped part of the world in order to retain its salary cost advantage. Again, notice how the concepts disguise the misery that follows in the wake of these strategies.
At the end of his talk, I raised my hand to ask this question, "What is going to happen when there are no more undeveloped parts of the world for corporations to exploit?" After attempting to deflect my question, he finally responded, "Well, I plan to be retired by then." And then he gave a little laugh. Yes, I have had a seat in the room with University of Chicago scholars of capitalism and still feel my skin crawl from the experience. This man's laughter suggested he had never known what it was to be poor. And never mind that supply chain economics fails entirely to factor in how dwindling oil supplies will affect this misery-invoking approach to business. By the time this strategy cottons to the reality of peak oil, its participating corporations will have wasted inordinate resources building plant after plant, training and discarding workers in multiple countries like so many plastic Nerf guns, and laying waste to environments around the globe at a time when all our resources should be utilized with an eye to a very different kind of resource future. But again, short-term profits trump long-range planning. Profit and immediate misery are more important than low returns, happier people, and a healthier planet.
At times I wonder if there is indeed a divine evil at work here. Who came up with these ideas and why have the great majority of us agreed to participate in this madness for so long? Only a select few ever profit from this insanity. As Uncle Gunshot said to me, "He just wanted to eat." Isn't that true of us all?
If you want experience for yourself the past glory and present challenges of Detroit, check out Detroitopia, an excellent documentary directed and produced by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. http://www.detropiathefilm.com/credits.html. Uncle Gunshot would have debated endlessly with his friends the questions raised by this documentary. Most of all he would have loved that many in the documentary are still committed to the city. As Washington, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a Detroit resident, has said, "I know deep in my heart that the people of Detroit will face this latest challenge with the same determination that we have always shown." http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-0719-detroit-bankruptcy-20130719,0,7289375.story?page=1.
Business as usual now includes throwing whole U.S. cities away? What the hell. When are we really going to start redesigning the way we do things in this country?
Sandra lives in the midwest where she supports environmental and social justice actions in her community. She also writes a blog called Work the Problem, http://babyclockmeetsglobalwarming.blogspot.com/.