Tag Archives: Detroit

Review of “American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company,” by Bryce G. Hoffman

I’ve read some books on disaster tourism and the collapse of Detroit — Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDeuff and Sixty to Zero by Alex Tayler III are examples of the form.

But there is life, hope, and economic success in Detroit too. There are some who are alive. Who fight, and who want money.

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Bryce Hoffman’s American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company is not an objective book. And Hoffman is not an objective author. Icon is clearly written with the cooperation of Alan Mulally and Ford. It is a pean to a genius CEO who notes obvious issues (executives don’t like to say bad things about themselves), implements industry-standard decisions that are de rigeur in many industries (tracking systems that can identify which worker but a specific faulty part in a specific product), and deceives his way to the stop (thru treatment of certain underlines, as well as the entire United Auto Workers).

But my point isn’t to drag Mulally thru the mud. It’s a fact that while Mulally’s American competitors were going bankrupt, Ford was able to ride out the financial storm. Indeed, the only competition that Alan Mullaly’s Ford has for the most innovative, most successful American auto company is certainly Elon Musks’s Tesla. Ford isn’t the leader in hybrids. But it is #2. And like Tesla, it’s building on successes.

It’s unlikely that Mulally will ever be the recipient of a cult like Steve Jobs. But nor is American Icon simply paid publicity, like Who says elephants can’t dance?. Rather, American Icon is like Dean Barrett‘s travel knowledge: proof that the writer is alive, the subject is alive, and all the faults of joys of human struggle are playing out on a healthy subject.

American Icon is a well written book, and Ford seems like a well managed company. In most cities and most industries, this would not be remarkable. But given the collapse of Detroit and the death of General Motors and Chrysler it is a celebration of life.

I read American Icon: Alan Mullaly and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company in the Nook Edition.

Impressions of “Sixty to Zero: An Inside Look at the Collapse of General Motors–and the Detroit Auto Industry,” by Alex Taylor III

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To understand what went wrong in the American auto industry, one book and four videos will get you a long way

Who killed Vincent Chin? is narrowly a story of racism and murder, but broadly its a depiction of the unionized, schlerotic, and dead-end workforce that Detroit had bred even by the early 1980s. Who killed the electric car? veers toward conspiracy at times, but is really a story of the incompetence of the management and workers — of GM and the AW — when it came to adopting new technology.

This theme of incompetence is emphasized by Sixty to Zero. It’s written by what is known as a “friendly” or “captive” journalist, basically an a shill paid in access by the industry and in dollars by a periodical. There are plenty of shills across many industries, and this shill’s (Alex Taylor’s) Zhou Enlai-level debasement before the great and powerful allowed him much greater access to Detroit management than he would have otherwise had.

No individual leader, no specific reform initiative, seems that bad in retrospect. But they all were either defensive (reacting to change instead of making it), treating changing economic-political conditions (the market share popularity of small cars, and the political popularity of efficient cars) as irritants to be managed rather than as opportunities to drive profits in other areas.

The Tesla has a non-unionized workforce, outsells comparably priced BMW and Mercedes models, and has received political largess from both political parties. This more than a decade after GM’s bewildering attempt with the EV1. Instead of building up a business and reaping political benefits, GM’s bad management and political unpopularity led it into bankruptcy and now being shut out of the electric vehicle luxury market.

The importance on internal corporate politics, and the inability to recognize new markets, is not unique to GM or the American auto industry. Even generally lauditory books such as histories of Google, Apple, and IBM reveal these issues below the surface. But in GM, you had a company so captured by these problems that progress required waiting for the company ( and union) to burn down financial and regulatory until bankruptcy, to allow new competitors to be born.

Without the context of the films and videos Sixty to Zero is a list of names, dates, and personalities. But Sixty provides a context for these films and videos, a skeleton for the flesh, a reason for America’s auto industry’s descent into the ashes and (in Silicon Valley) a promise of rebirth.

I read Sixth to Zero in the Nook edition. You can read an excerpt at NPR.

Review of “Detroit: An American Autopsy” by Charlie LeDuff

The first thing I thought about Detroit: An American Autostphy is that the writing is fantastic. A journalist telling a story of the final days of Detroit reads like a non-fiction work by Thomas Ligotti. Some of the deaths described in the book rival My Work Is Not Yet Done — indeed, reading Detroit, it’s obvious that Ligotti is a Detroiter. The city whose motto is “Speramus Meliora — Resurgent Cineribus” (We Hope For Better Things and Will Rise from the Ashes)– whose city seal features a depiction of Detroit burning to the ground – is a store of fire, ice, and waiting. Author Charlie LeDuff writes like a pulp writer, bringing Detroit to vivid life in teh same way that Mike Daisey brought the iPhone factory to life for thousands who have seen his play or heard his work.

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The second thing is I bet part of it’s made up.

Indeed, binging Charlie LeDuff brings up third sentence in his Wikipedia article, “LeDuff has won a number of prestigious journalism awards, but has also faced accusations of plagiarism and distortion throughout his career” (never a good sign!) No wonder he reminded me of Daisey

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So what to make of Detroit?  It’s great writing?  And the great writer, Charlie LeDuff?

The writing is fantastic. There is no doubt about that. In the same way you are missing part of the human experience if you never hear Mike Daisey, you are missing out on life by not reading LeDuff’s writing.

The story of Detroit is fantastic — firefighters, terrorists, corrupt politicians, hookers, even a reality TV show. As I said, this is a non-fiction Ligotti work. Detroit the book is a great read. Detroit the citty seems really, really terrible. Really bad.

The imagery is vivid, and not necessarily false. I’ve never been to Detroit, but just because LeDuff may be a Mike Daiseyish storyteller does not make the message he has false. I’ve been to China numerous times. I’ve been to factory towns. I’ve spoken with people in the factories. The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is fundamentally true, even if it’s not fundamentally journalism.

The worst part of Detroit is the lack of context it gives. It’s an excellent piece of thrill-storytelling about a place, but the reasons it give are superficial and impressionistic. Nature’s Metropolis and Seattle: Past to Present both give a sense of place and time, of the economy and the history and the heroes. Detroit only gives the macarbe.

I read Detroit: An American Autopsy in the Nook edition.

Lessons Learned While Traveling

In Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character gives a monologue about the ins-and-outs of air travel. Here is my, much shorter and more idiosyncratic,  version:

Beijing Airport is pretty good

So is Singapore Airport

Xiamen Airport is the most chaotic place in the world

the Kindle app for iPad makes time go by much quicker when you are standing (or sitting besides, as the case may be) the line

Learning that Thomas Ligotti is from Detroit makes everything make sense

Did Geographic Ignorance Accelerate Detroit’s Decline?

Obviously, geography matters. A recent post on Catholicgauze, and also at gnxp and Strange Maps, shows how the geographic borders of Imperial Russia and Imperial Germany still predict election outcomes in Poland, nearly a century later:

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Yet incredibly, at least one form of geographical analysis actually illegal in the United States. “Redlining,” for instance, is an application of discriminant function analysis or logistic regression (or a pen-and-paper approximation of this) whereby information on geographical location is used to calculate a set of categorical dependent variables, one of which is “Do Not Offer Mortgage.” In a previous career Barack Obama scored political points by suing those who use geographic indicators of credit-worthiness.

The city of Detroit is in terminal decline, and conversation swirls around simply abandoning the city or turning it into a woodland. Certainly Detroit is on track to be Houghton, Michigan of our lifetimes (if you’ve never heard of Houghton, you will understand the reaction of those in a century who are confused when some town is compared to ‘Detroit.’) Yet the tragedy is compounded by the fact that laws designed to prevent the use of geography probably put Detroit in its current death spiral.

The Detroit News special series on the death of a city, block by block sheds some light on how geographic knowledge could have been used to stave off the decline of Detroit. As it is, it is a tragedy for both geographers and the citizens of Detroit that political ignorance of the study of how place matters helped destroy an American city.

The Minimum Winning Coalition

In politics, victories are achieved by “minimum winning coalitions.” To the extent possible, each side does what it can to win, which involves selling the goods of victory to potential allies in exchange for their support. So grand coalitions that obtain 70% or 80% of the vote are unusual. Whatever side is losing will promise everything — up to and including kitchen sink bail-outs — in order to attract friends.

While flying cars are still off the agenda, GM, Ford, and Chrysler are beginning to hear what terms will be needed for them to form their minimum winning agenda.

The farm states sound like they can support a bail-out… in exchange for a massive increase in ethanol consumption. Others are talking about federal Volt fleets… or even a free trade agreement with Colombia.

Time is running on Detroit. The median home/condo price there is $9,250. (That is not a typo.)

The Detroit Push-poll

Courtesy of Gas 2.0 and Hybrid Car Blog, I found the Peter D. Hart Research Associates poll on a bailout for auto-makers.

It is a push-poll.

The poll sensible begins with demographic information, and as expected with a poll of “landlines” is demographically skewed. The modal age group is 30-34 yera olds, with 35-44 year olds being dramatically underrepresented. The poll undercounts both blacks and hispanics, and has a shows more respondents as indicating being black than hispanic.

Question 4 begins the substance of the poll, and asks

How important do you feel the American automobile industry is to the American economy–extremely
important, very important, somewhat important, not important, or not at all important?

Sensible enough. However, consider the next two questions:

If the American automobile industry no longer had the resources to produce vehicles, how much harm would
it cause to [America’s manufacturing job sector / The American economy / America’s standing in the world / Consumer choice for America’s car buyers ] a great deal of harm, quite a bit of harm, just some harm, or very little harm?

And Question 6, which is the first of the serious of “do we bail out Detroit” questions:

Do you believe that the government should or should not provide loans to America’s automakers so they have the money to manufacture vehicles?

Question #5 is what we call a “Prime” It is a stimulus that changes what responses will be elicted. So for instance, if you ask a question emphasize harm to the American economy, and then ask about things that might reduce that harm, you of course get resposnes skewed to “doing something.”

In the same way, if Question #5 had been

If the American government began bailing out industries that were no longer able to pay their bills because they had made unwise business decisions, how much harm would
it cause to [America’s manufacturing job sector / The American economy / America’s standing in the world / Consumer choice ] a great deal of harm, quite a bit of harm, just some harm, or very little harm?

The answers would have been dramatically different.

There is an easy way to correct this problem: randomly vary the order in which questions are asked. Then you can examine what effect, if any, your prime has. If it has an effect, then you can be safe by reporting the unprimed result: if it does not have an effect, so much the better. However, the method section…

The accompanying poll results are from a survey conducted by the polling organization of Peter D. Hart Research Associates for General Motors on November 11 and 12, 2008. The survey was conducted by telephone among a cross section of 804 American adults.
The national sample for this poll was drawn in the following manner: 350 geographic points were randomly selected proportionate to the population of each region and, within each region, by size of place. Individuals were selected in accordance with a probability sample design that gives all landline telephone numbers (both listed and unlisted) an equal chance to be included. One adult, 18 years old or over, from each household was included, selected by a systematic procedure to provide a balance of respondents by sex.
The data’s margin of error is ±3.5 percentage points for 804 adults at the 95% confidence level. Sample tolerances for subgroups are larger.

… provides no indication that this was done.

The poll, titled “Study #8877: Auto Industry Survey” displays results in percentages, but does not appear to indicate how many participants kept answering questions. It people surveyed were against the bailout and recognized the biased nature of the questions, they may have ceased responding, causing the sample to skew to those who are in favor of a bailout anyway.

The Detroit Bailout

Compared to the Bush-Pelosi Wall Street Bailout, which is twenty-eight times more expensive, the Bush-Pelosi Detroit Bailout is downright fiscally prudent!

US Congress passes 25 bln loan guarantees to automakers
The US Senate Saturday approved 25 billion dollars in loan guarantees for the financially strapped US auto industry, intended to spark a wave of automotive innovation.

The loan guarantees were included in a continuing resolution that included funding for the US government and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Detroit Bailout is a companion to McCain’s gas tax holiday, Obama’s energy tax credit, and other such give-aways. Obama is right to say that the price of gas should be high, but it went up too fast. Industries did not have the time to adjust, because we did not implement my plan in time.

The loan guarantees to Detroit will help speed development of high-tech ways to minimize gas consumption. Or at least, they better.