Flatlined Detroit

While legislators bicker over the exact amount of the auto-industry bailout on Capitol Hill, the former Obama campaign is currently sitting on a nice $30 million dollar egg, leftovers from the fund-raising machine shut down after the historic November victory. It seems appropriate that President-elect Obama, the grassroots candidate who utilized impeccable strategy and mobilization to effectively defeat the Clinton and McCain machines, now has the opportunity (read: obligation) to mobilize a new campaign: saving America’s crumbling auto-makers. And while many will argue that at least part of the leftover campaign money should go to repaying Hillary Clinton’s campaign debt, I have a better idea: send it to Detroit, the front-line in the current economic recession. A few million dollars certainly won’t solve the problems in the Motor City, but it will be an appropriate gesture from the new President that might bring the necessary attention to the significant problems they face.

The potential collapse of Ford, GM, and Chrysler spells disaster for not only the American auto-industry, but the entire Detroit metropolitan area as well. With the entire main industry of the city in jeopardy, many of Detroit’s one million denizens now face excessive unemployment and further envelopment into poverty. It is no surprise, therefore, that Detroit public schools are among the worst in the nation, providing a strangely inappropriate yet appropriate analogy of the American economic decline.

The world is flat, proclaimed Thomas Friedman in the eponymous book, referring to the ever-changing global world and the leveled playing field on which we compete. Mercantilism evolved into globalization and foreign markets became connected through technological and transportation advances. The 20th Century is over, the Cold War all but forgotten, and conflict exists today only through non-governmental entities and financial prowess. The flattening, as Friedman explains, occurred because East and South Asian nations embraced and improved the production and incorporation of American goods and services. Henry Ford might have introduced the Model T, but the Japanese perfected the affordable passenger car that families could afford. Televisions were in many American households during the 1950s and 1960s, to the envy of much of the world. Today, the best high-definition televisions come from Korea, indirectly through pitchmen like Dan Marino.

What can account for our decline? America is supposed to be the land of immense resources and opportunity. American ingenuity developed the telephone and the airplane. How is it that now we are witnessing the decline (and perhaps the pitiful end) of the American car industry?

It simple: our decline in economy correlates with our decline in education because they’re inherently related, and success in one heavily depends on the other.

Let’s assess. The power of post-World War II America heavily relied on the GI Bill, where many American soldiers were given a chance at education. Given the already booming industrial complex established during the war, there was a plentiful supply of resources. But most importantly, the emphasis was on education, not as a right, but as a privilege that would empower the otherwise powerless. And through nationally directed competition with a faceless and fearful Soviet enemy, America was able to direct entire generations of students to learn. Kennedy’s plan to land on the moon translated to increased math and science for students in the 1960s, many of whom would later develop the internet technology that has changed our world as we know it. (Editors Note: For a good read on this generation born in the mid-1950’s, read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers).

But then a wall fell and a world flattened. Post-War industries in once ignored nations began to blossom while Americans became complacent with their successes and their position and prioritized their lives around luxury and not competition. And while the rich became richer, the poor and downtrodden were pushed aside. It was the image of prosperous America—and not the structure itself—that Americans became obsessed with. And through it all, education was brushed aside, all but forgotten amidst the thought that success is inherent and eternal. And while Yokohama and Seoul produced fuel-efficient cars, Detroit floundered under its own inability. As Friedman echoed in his column today:

As I think about our bailing out Detroit, I can’t help but reflect on what, in my view, is the most important rule of business in today’s integrated and digitized global market, where knowledge and innovation tools are so widely distributed. It’s this: Whatever can be done, will be done. The only question is will it be done by you or to you. Just don’t think it won’t be done. If you have an idea in Detroit or Tennessee, promise me that you’ll pursue it, because someone in Denmark or Tel Aviv will do so a second later.

Competition was once our forte and now seems to be our undoing. We see this competition even in global classrooms: The top five nations on a global mathematics examination were all East and South Asian nations, while American students fell near the bottom. Asian students attend class over 220 days a year while American students attend for 180. Indian students are taught skills in the classroom while American students strain over antiquated facilities and materials. American students cannot learn about geography—or identify where all the jobs are being outsourced to—with a map that still displays the Soviet Union. The successes of the other nations is not surprising, and it’s certainly not unwarranted. A wise American must have once said, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” I wonder what he would think about all of this now.

It seems that our failure to compete results from our failure to invest in the future minds of this nation. And instead of seeking the long-term reforms we need to jump back into the flattened arena, we are instead discussing temporary relief. The bailout is a political issue rooted in economics, with millions of lives at stake and entire metropolitan areas that risk complete disintegration. Obama and his advisers will have to work with the CEO’s of the Big Three, just as they have with the CEO’s of the failed banks, to come up with a solution. And while they fight over numbers, I cannot help but think about credit recovery programs in our own schools. Is it fair to allow a failing enterprise, just as a failing student, an easy-out? Can you really compensate for years of failed policies, or a semester of classes, with a quick fiscal stimulus or a two week crash-course? While analysts will argue the virtue of both decisions, I insist the answer is no. This is because I’m a teacher, and teachers appreciate the purity of competition and the best—and worst—it brings to the table. Timothy Geithner and Joel Klein might disagree, but are they disagreeing because of principle or politics?

When I said the Obama campaign should send the $30 million dollar surplus to Detroit, I didn’t mean invest it directly into the auto industry. The money would hardly pay for any substantial research development or energy-efficiency tests. It would prove to be a small band-aid, an ad hoc solution, to a much more gargantuan wound. My proposal is more modest and symbolic in nature. I say Obama invests the money in the Detroit school systems, providing after-school programs and updated materials for the children of the autoworkers. The gesture would be highly indicative of Obama’s concern for the degrading infrastructure of the community and it would also embody his belief in the citizenry to revitalize and empower themselves. But more than anything, it would highlight the greatest immediate concern of his presidency: that our economic crisis is beget of our greater educational crisis. I am confident that those donors who sent money to the campaign—even the smaller donors—contributed because they believed in the ideals of Barack Obama, and not simply the candidate himself. If so, then they should not have a problem forwarding their money to Mo Town. After all, donors didn’t contribute their funds so Hillary Clinton can make up for a loss. They donated because they recognize the urgency for change. They see the problem with American schools failing and Chinese schools succeeding, and shudder at the thought of Indian students achieving and American students lagging. And through it all, one greater problem becomes perfectly clear: that this is no longer a national issue, but a national security issue, and it should be dealt with as such.

–Eugene Lee

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One response to “Flatlined Detroit

  1. Pingback: The Economy » Blog Archive » Flatlined Detroit « the Unbearable Lightness of Teaching

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