opinion: U.S. should consider Detroit the canary to its coal mine
Detroit might well be the canary in the coal mine for the opening chapter of Edward Luce’s book, “Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent.”
Early coal mines had poor ventilation systems and since canaries are sensitive to gases, they would detect danger long before it became fatal to miners.
Michigan, the Detroit canary is on its last legs. Wake up! There is hope for Detroit and America if drastic action is taken.
While President Barack Obama has been golfing with Tiger Woods and Congress is on yet another vacation, they both tell us the "sky is falling" if "sequestration" goes into effect on March 1. What the heck is sequestration? It's a series of automatic, across-the-board cuts to government agencies, totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years. The cuts would be split 50-50 between defense and domestic discretionary spending. Both political parties say the federal budget needs to be cut -- but across the board cuts will harm or economy and weaken our national defense. So, they "sequester"!
Their collective behavior is reminiscent of Thelma and Louise heading for the cliff.
Luce’s book is a compendium of American problems. Boiled down, it shows we collectively are burying our heads in the sand as we ignore problems at the local, state and national levels and continue to pretend and spend as if nothing has changed.
But everything has changed and keeps on changing.
Luce does not write his book with any sense of satisfaction. On the contrary, he appears to be rooting for us to wake up, innovate, lead and prosper.
As an outsider with Western and U.S. sympathies and a global perspective, Luce seems to see America through the lens of an awe-inspired 21st century Alexis de Tocqueville. Yet he chastises our leaders in the public and private sectors for their failures to come to grips with the real problems facing the country and spell out specific plans to act boldly.
Luce brings a fresh, albeit a center-left-leaning liberal, perspective to America’s ills as a Washington, D.C.-based columnist and commentator for The Financial Times. The British citizen has reported from Asia and also served a brief stint as a speechwriter for Lawrence Summers, a Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. He is the son of the conservative British politician Richard Luce.
He touches on the vexing problems of the loss of the American manufacturing base, the decline of the middle class, the demise of our K-12 education system, our rising inequality and political polarization and paralysis at every level of government.
Luce criss-crossed America, meeting with the average person and American leaders in an attempt to understand what ails the country and determine what actions must be undertaken. His conclusions are as ugly as the problems we have allowed to pile up without being addressed by our leaders.
Reading the book, you get the sense Luce is not unlike a kind uncle who pulls you aside and, out of pure love, whispers that you have a problem and, if it’s not addressed, it will destroy you. Be warned.
Luce reminds us that if you have a hole in your roof, pretending to fix it does not keep the rain out. We have attempted to ignore, deny, patch and hope our problems away.
Soon, Detroit and America must get serious about fixing the multiple holes in their roofs.
Some may argue Luce is preaching American declinism, yet what he observes and shares in his book is visible for all to see. Only the blind or political apologist cannot see we have much work to do to climb back to the perch of greatness. We cannot continue to pretend, borrow and spend our way to the top.
The upward trajectory of other nations, like Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, adds to the struggle to fix our problems.
Having extensively traveled in China for more than two decades, I can assure you it is not slowing down while we get our act together.
Clearly, greatness does not travel in straight lines. Detroit and America have the DNA to self-correct and regain and continue its leadership role on the global stage.
The question remains — will we?
There is no guarantee that we get to remain at the pinnacle of greatness simply because we’ve been there.
Detroit is the canary — does anyone smell gas?
Tom Watkins has held leadership positions in the private and public sectors running two major departments of Michigan State government: education and mental health and serving as the president and CEO of the Economic Council in Palm Beach County, Fl. He is a U.S./China business and educational consultant and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.