Punching Out

During the Super Bowl Chrysler debuted a commercial for its new Chrysler 200 sedan that closed, stoically, with the phrase “Imported from Detroit,” a reference to the 200’s assembly at the Sterling Heights plant in Michigan and a statement that was especially poignant me. The commercial and the closing sentiment really stuck me, not because of my constant made in the USA flag waving, but more because I was just finishing reading the book Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant. The story – by Detroit native Paul Clemens – documents the shuttering of the Budd Detroit Automotive Plant, Stamping and Framing Division. Budd, a longtime supplier of the Big Three, was founded in 1912 and was probably most famous for stamping the body parts for the Ford Thunderbird in the 1950s.

At its peak Budd Detroit employed 10,000 people, but by the time Clemens arrived there were only a dozen or so people remaining to help strip the place for its metal and machinery. Basically a flock of factory undertakers arrived to strip it for salvage and then leave it for dead. The plant’s massive and valuable presses – which were some of the largest in the world – were sold, systematically dismantled by a highly skilled group of riggers and then shipped to India, Brazil and Mexico to live on making auto parts in other parts of the world. Ironically, the Budd plant in Detroit was sandwiched between a Chrysler assembly plant and a Chrysler engine factory, but that didn’t stop its main press line from being shipped a few thousand miles to central Mexico to stamp body sides for America-bound Dodge Journeys, for who but Chrysler.

This story isn’t about Chrysler and doesn’t blame them, before its closure Budd was actually making the bodies for the Ford Explorer and Ford Expedition, but then the economy shifted, gas hit $4 a gallon, sales of SUVs fell off and Budd was done for. Punching Out is about the quiet decline of America’s industrial power. About the decline of America’s industrial existence, period. And this story is not heartwarming and doesn’t leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. It left me with a lot of unanswered questions. It left me wondering, why? Was it the unions? The mismanagement of the automakers? The cultural changes in America and the evaporation of our work ethic? Or a combination of all of these things.

The way I see it America is fucked. We’ve lost our desire to be middle class. Everywhere you look, every home or apartment is advertised as “luxury,” because god forbid anyone just have a humble hard working home. America is either a gated community or a ghetto, there’s no in-between. Granted, I’m a materialistic motherfucker (or so it seems from this website and my $109 notebook buying ways) and am also someone that does “marketing” for a living, but I grew up witness to the destruction of a blue collar American city in Cleveland, Ohio. When the steel mills and factories were closing at their highest rates, the Cleveland Plain Dealer called it “The Quiet Crisis,” and things just disappeared overnight. The evaporation of Cleveland’s manufacturing industry is something that left a mark on me – something I will always think about.

What Clemens describes in Punching Out is happening all over America. It is happening in Detroit and Cleveland and Flint and Gary, Indiana, in Philadelphia and Newton, Iowa. In Philadelphia they’re tearing down abandoned old factories and putting up a casino. I hope some people from Brazil and Mexico and India come to gamble. We can use the money.

[Punching Out]

Comments on “Punching Out

    James on March 2, 2011 10:17 PM:

    Chrysler was very poorly run for a very long time but our decline in the industrial world is the result of our hands off approach in regards to the market. Businesses have carte blanche to do whatever they feel is necessary to protect the bottom line. Good for business, bad for the worker. We could learn a few things from the Germans; they have one of the healthiest industrial sectors in the world. Here is why:


    sam on March 2, 2011 10:19 PM:

    nice review. agree about the middle class comment in the 4th graph. i am perfectly happy to be middle class. but it’d be hard to stay middle class living in NYC. know what im sayin?

    Ivy on March 2, 2011 10:54 PM:

    “The way I see it America is fucked. We’ve lost our desire to be middle class. Everywhere you look, every home or apartment is advertised as “luxury,” because god forbid anyone just have a humble hard working home.”

    Amen, brother.

    robbie on March 2, 2011 10:54 PM:

    The way I see it America is letting itself get fucked, its laying there letting itself get fucked.

    Philip on March 2, 2011 10:56 PM:

    First time commenting. I’ve actually never felt so compelled to comment on a blog. I agree with Sam about the 4th para—extremely evocative.

    I think I understand your blog now. It’s a eulogy for a dead country.

    kevin f on March 2, 2011 11:01 PM:

    man…i’m in detroit right now on a photo shoot and it really is unbelievable out here. we were out scouting today and the number of abandoned factories/stores/homes is staggering. i was trying to imagine what it was like here in it’s heyday but it’s hard when you’re completely surrounded by crumbling buildings…

    Fred on March 2, 2011 11:03 PM:

    Pretty soon, the only thing we’ll make in America will be pizza’s.

    evencleveland on March 2, 2011 11:05 PM:

    Great post. The middle class – even the idea or aspiration of being middle class – has been eviscerated and warped. I don’t think the work ethic evaporated, but opportunities have, and people have been left dangling. I know it leaves me feeling dislocated. The world I grew up in is gone.

    JFPisa on March 2, 2011 11:08 PM:

    Sounds like a great read.

    I agree with your sentiments 100%

    The decline of American industry combined with the sickening display of pop culture, celebrity hysteria and media hype spells a sad future for our nation.

    John Lugg on March 2, 2011 11:09 PM:

    A global economy tends to do this. Profits are profits (though falling profits were definitely not all to blame on the unions, the Detroit 3 were mismanaged for sometime).

    Concerning America’s desire to get out of the middle class: this is a bad theme that may not necessary relate to car factories moving abroad. An obvious example of America’s desire to attain ‘wealthy’ status would be real estate flipping before the recession. Another one that we still see today are things like expensive boots being sold on eBay because, “they don’t fit”. Are you serious? You bought a 3 figure boot and got rid of the means to return it? While American style has returned to Ivy roots, American spending philosophy needs some healthy doses of Ivy intelligence. Spend smarter. Your wants are limited by your means. You’re probably not saving enough and you don’t need 3 pairs of brogue boots, sorry.

    james Patrick on March 2, 2011 11:43 PM:

    I find this a very interesting and poignant post. My argument: why would anyone aspire to be middle class? Seems like a short sell to me. Our parents and their parents may have aspired to be so, and that seems to be the crux of their generational accomplishments but if many of us were raised MC why would we aspire to the status quo?

    I agree completely that opportunities in the US are no longer what they used to be, but America was founded om change and perrenially will be under change. Rather than aspire to MC, people who will never be more than that should recognize their importance to our nation, our nation should value their contributions and foster their mediocre but worthwhile middle prosperity. Or they should emigrate elsewhere. Hell, I am trying to.

    Ryan on March 2, 2011 11:44 PM:

    Income disparity is at an all time high. Corporate profits are at an all time high. Unemployment is at an all time high (almost).

    But yeah, let’s cut corporate taxes….

    Justin Steinke on March 2, 2011 11:48 PM:

    Same thing happened to us down here in Dayton. GM doesn’t hardly exist in this town any more. They are talking about tearing down the old delco plant and turning it into a horse track with slots inside. How the fuck can anybody go gamble their money away if all our damn jobs are gone. There was a documentary made about the GM truck and bus plants last year. Its quite heartbreaking. Sounds very similar to that book. I believe it was up for an Oscar last year. I can thankfully say that I work third shift at a thriving forging heat treat mill in Dayton. it has to be one of the only industrial businesses thriving in this town.

    steven threndyle on March 3, 2011 12:03 AM:

    In 1987(!) a former magazine writer wrote a book about 80s excess called “The Hunger for More” (see reviews here on Amazon)
    Materialism is actually a pernicious social disease. It’s as old as ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ As I told someone the other day: what if we ALL worked at jobs where we either helped other people (health care, education) or the environment (could even be working in a local produce market, or locally-owned business). What would our lives look like?

    Hsheean on March 3, 2011 12:27 AM:

    Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper (1992) has the whole story.

    Great post. I grew up in Detroit in the 60’s-70’s. It was a manic and interesting time to be in the MotorCity. Everybody from line workers, barbers, liquor store owners, boat salesmen and automotive ad execs were jacked and living large. Downtown Detroit and the surrounding areas was a vivid Mid Western snapshot of a collective all in on the same sweet secret – “We are making products that the world wants and it aint never gonna end…” The big 3 were all so delusional and full of themselves that everyone continued to believe because the alternative was horrific. I will always be a Michigander at heart and I hope to see it’s evolution/rebirth sometime in the future.

    Josh on March 3, 2011 1:35 AM:

    I completely agree with the decline of the American middle class. I think it’s most evident though in New York and Los Angeles. Other places I’ve lived in the country don’t exclusively advertise “Luxury” living, but LA and NY do.

    What is startling to me is that the unemployment rate compared to the amount of illegal immigrants. 10 percent unemployment compared with 15 million immigrants. The numbers are probably about equal. It’s not like companies hire exclusively illegal immigrants, if Americans wanted their jobs they could have them. It’s just that they don’t, they think that they are beneath them. That’s unfortunate and it highlights a fundamental problem of our society, that the only value a person has is their cash in hand.

    John on March 3, 2011 2:27 AM:

    I grew up in the “Paper Valley” of Wisconsin, where Kimberly Clark and a number of other paper manufacturers were headquartered or had significant operations. I’ve watched jobs slowly leave the area my entire life. The plants that haven’t ceased operations have down-sized considerably, and benefits/pay are not what they once were. It’s really disheartening.

    Three books I cannot recommend enough on this subject are War on the Middle Class by Lou Dobbs, Take This Job and Ship It by former Senator Byron Dorgan (his retirement this past year was a HUGE blow for America in my personal opinion), and SCREWED by Thom Hartmann. Lou Dobbs’s Exporting America is also really quite good, though most of what he goes over in that text is covered in War on the Middle Class–both books were written before he was a one-trick-pony crusading against illegal aliens taking American jobs, though the subject does come up in each.

    Terrapin Stationers on March 3, 2011 5:42 AM:

    Yes. Agreed. We’ve been on the road to fucked for 30 plus years. New England, where I reside is filled with empty mills and factories. Go to any Home Depot or Lowes and ask the 58 year old guy stacking caulk about it. Chances are his job of 25 years was sent somewhere else. There are a few success stories in manufacturing in Connecticut . Mostly small tool and die shops with jobs tied to DOD Contracts. There are some smart motherfuckers out there and no solutions. My expectations are low but I’m not completely hopeless. Yet.

    Elias J on March 3, 2011 7:27 AM:

    Has anyone looked at the facts?

    45% of American’s are Middle Class, that is separating the working class which is about 30%. Middle Class is still by far the largest class of American’s. Also, more and more American’s are becoming part of the Corporate class and upper class. Just look at the ACL store, were buying $300 jeans for God sake and $100 note books. Enough with the gloom and doom. In 1944, 44% of American’s were below the poverty line! Today that number is about 18%. A good portion of those people are seniors and inner city minorities who have been poor for generations, thats another topic. Life is not that bad for us American’s, the problem is we all want shit we can’t afford and buy shit we don’t need and we wonder why we feel squeezed???

    art on March 3, 2011 7:33 AM:

    A few years before things really hit the fan, I read an op-ed (in the NY Times of all places) in which the author gleefully pronounced that outsourcing call center jobs to India was a good thing. It was freeing young Americans from doing jobs they don’t want to do anyway.

    The problem with aspiring to be more than middle class is that not all children are above average. And while those average children are holding out for the management positions to which they feel entitled, the opportunity to do otherwise is evaporating.

    Andrew on March 3, 2011 7:55 AM:

    I grew up around Detroit and all my family members worked in the auto industry for a time. I’ve seen the decline first hand, but as an economist I’ve taken a different look at this story:
    A slightly different view on manufacturing in the US-
    “The decline, demise, and death of America’s manufacturing sector has been greatly exaggerated,’’ and “In fact, Americans manufactured more goods in 2009 than the Japanese, Germans, British, and Italians — combined.”
    “A vast amount of “stuff’’ is still made in the USA, albeit not the inexpensive consumer goods that fill the shelves in Target or Walgreens. American factories make fighter jets and air conditioners, automobiles and pharmaceuticals, industrial lathes and semiconductors. Not the sort of things on your weekly shopping list? Maybe not. But that doesn’t change economic reality. They may have “clos[ed] down the textile mill across the railroad tracks.’’ But America’s manufacturing glory is far from a thing of the past.”

    Ray T on March 3, 2011 8:44 AM:

    The disappearance of the middle class is a natural progression. It’s generally understood that a son is supposed to strive to do better than his father. Each person learns from the mistakes of his parents and tries their best to achieve more. My father did better than his father, and I will probably be better off than mine.

    The gap between wealth and poverty will only widen because its easier for children of middle class families to reach the next level. College educations are more easily attainable for the middle class. It is much more difficult and takes much more time for people of lower economical status to attain middle class status. As a result, more people are leaving middle class America than those entering into it.

    Of course, there are many more factors involved in the extinction of the middle class. I tend to think this is one of the contributing factors.

    Paul on March 3, 2011 9:29 AM:

    I’m trying to grow a manufacturing business in suburban NJ. I face hurdles every day. Some of the hurdles were erected when the type of work I do was shipped to overseas. Price is one hurdle. Specifically, my customers often balk when I quote them my wholesale prices. Thankfully, there is a growing group of shops that value what I do and support me at the expense of their own margin.

    One strong point that I want to make is that when we break down factories and ship machines overseas, we lose on several levels: We lose jobs of course. We lose expertise and tooling. We lose the ability to service other domestic industries. As the supply chain is dispersed throughout the world, it becomes harder to run home grown businesses. It is a downward spiral. Case in point: I buy rubber bladders for sports balls. It’s really hard to buy rubber bladders, largely because they are not made in the U.S.. The rubber bladder business was also dismantled and shipped off shore. It’s never coming back, in large part because the people who used to work in this industry aged, lost their knowledge and skills.
    I’d love to be proven wrong here so if anyone is aware of a domestic producer of rubber sports bladders, I’m all ears…

    Ryan Merrill on March 3, 2011 10:08 AM:

    I’m from Lorain, Ohio (about 30 miles west of Cleveland) where we lost a Ford plant and all but lost a U.S. Steel Mill in the matter of a 20-year timespan. Both created tons of jobs for local residents and improved the working and living conditions of the area’s many residents. Both of my grandfathers had jobs at the Ford plant and now it’s nothing more than an empty factor being used as a warehouse.

    I’ve sense left Lorain and moved to Cincinnati, where things are rough but not nearly as bad as Northeast Ohio. The income gap between the richest of the rich and the middle class is growing extremely fast and something needs to be done about it. Robert Reich had a great post about this the other day and how Democrats are failing the very people who elected them: http://robertreich.org/post/3591689800

    See also, wonderful commentary from George Carlin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acLW1vFO-2Q

    Justin on March 3, 2011 10:12 AM:

    People like Ray, Elias, and James don’t seem to really understand what is happening. It’s not just about jobs moving overseas, it’s about resources. We’re consuming so much in the quest to be more than the previous generation that we’re no longer able to extract and refine raw resources quickly enough (oil, coal, etc).

    Even if we were, the quality of easily accessible resources is dropping because we’ve stripped most of the good stuff out. Look at the coal industry in the UK, or the eastern US. Dead an dying, respectively.

    The age of growth is coming to an end. Even if manufacturing jobs come back to North America, even if the middle class stops carrying the tax burden of corporations, it is not going to be the world our parents had.

    mike on March 3, 2011 10:35 AM:

    This has been going on a long time. I worked in a company they made engines used in navy ships in the early eighties. When the battleship New Jersey was sent to the coast of Lebanon and the Wisconsin and Missouri were being re-commissioned there was some concern that we had no spare 16 inch guns and there was no place in the world where replacements could be manufactured.

    Andrew on March 3, 2011 10:38 AM:

    Couple reactions to these posts… First, I think it’s all about attitude, not aspiration. Do I aspire to wear a Rolex and drive a Ferrari, not really. Sure, I’d love that, but I’d much rather do my job better than the next guy and be happy about it. Second, I think we have lost focus as a people. Somebody said to me yesterday that in Hong Kong they have someone standing in the washroom to wipe the urine off the wall or floor when you overshoot, we would ask why we need someone like that. They would say that their urinals are cleaner than ours. Although this may be an analogy I hope you see where I’m going with this. It’s outlook… And lastly, partly in response to Paul’s comment above, I hope we begin to appreciate quality over price as we once did. I welcome the rebirth of the artisan. If it means a given item costs more because it’s lovingly made out of the finest stuff then that will make it that much better! I thought that that’s what this blog was about… so when the big three started making crap, we started buying it, that was then end… Go to Cord, Michigan and check out their museum. Learn or recall what it meant to drive a Duesenberg!

    Tony on March 3, 2011 10:44 AM:

    This country will be ok. Everyone needs a little gut check once in a while. Besides, who would really want to live back in 1955-75 if they were given the chance? You worked all day in a steel mill or lumber yard so you can retire at 55, it doesnt matter anyway because by 50 your back and knees are so f’ed up you cant get out of bed in the morning. And lets not overlook the fact that we can now watch porn on our cell phones. To quote Charlie Sheen, “WINNER!”.

    Andrew on March 3, 2011 10:48 AM:

    The income gap may be wide, but the poor and middle class in this country have more now than the rich had 100-150 years ago.
    Also missing from this conversation- yes, cars and microwaves and refrigerators and jeans are all made in China/Korea/Vietnam/Etc. now, much to the detriment of thousands of jobs in the US. But 50 years ago, that GE microwave made in America was out of reach for most Americans- now, you can get one at WalMart for 30 bucks. You can get a pair of jeans at WalMart for $9.99. I went to schools in Boston and NYC so I know most people out there (and thus most people reading this) turn their noses up at jeans from WalMart, but when you only have to spend $30 bucks on a microwave, you save money to send your kids to college. I work with plenty of people who do all their shopping at WalMart, buying nothing but Chinese made goods, saving up their hourly wages so that their children can go to a good state university.
    Let’s keep things in perspective.

    DSTRYA on March 3, 2011 11:10 AM:

    Paul is right: the Trustees and the Owners shipped everything overseas to folks who will work for cheaper, and the folks who worked for them were tricked into supporting the policies that made it possible through social issue shell-games and family values snake-oil. So we sawed off the branch we were standing on. This continues in Wisconsin, where collective bargaining rights are getting attacked by “small government” proponents who are running the teachers, sanuitation workers, etc up a flagpole — and it’s working: unions are now or very soon will be ancient history (except in Hollywood).

    gosh i mix metaphors.

    Michael misses the mark in his lament for the “middle class,” b/c that category is so vague. if he is talking about the industrial workers, than it seems like what he laments is the disappearance of the working class (the “middle class” would have been their managers, etc). Both are getting ground out by the desire for profits, but especially the folks who used to be able to earn a living wage by working in industrial settings. But i guess that’s OK then, right? i mean, profit is what’s important, right? and we should be making excuses for corporate/industrial entities based on some oversimplified and half-baked notion about “freedom,” and “free markets,” and “big government,” right? After all, the freedom to abandon our neighbors to poverty is what makes this country, uhm, awesome, i guess?

    Jat on March 3, 2011 11:19 AM:

    My father served in WW II and got his trade in tool and die making. He then took on a job at Hudson Motors and then for Chrysler for 40 years. He always told us kids to get a decent education so we wouldn’t have to work in a factory. We did-all went on to college, and I went on to graduate school. But sitting in my office, reading blogs to pass the time, I really look forward to getting home so I can work with my hands on something like making my first harpsichord from scratch. Factory work isn’t for me, nor is office work. There’s no middle it seems.

    Jay on March 3, 2011 11:33 AM:

    The middle class is fine. American manufacturing is thriving in an interconnected global economy.

    Buying American is important, not because it creates jobs, but because it perpetuates craft and tradition.

    Matthew on March 3, 2011 12:07 PM:

    Great post Michael.

    I agree with a majority of the comments. What is happening in this country, a financial sodomy of the working class, is deplorable. Everyone is taking it on the chin and there are few options for a great many people. I feel this nostalgia every day as I see the bricks of former factories here in Philadelphia crumbling, and underneath, their steel skeletons rotting. Even the shadows are ghastly.

    But the truth is that capitalism has always been about the bottom line. Think the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Today that happens in Mexico, China. A hundred years ago it happened in New York because at the time it a factory owner could capitalise on an influx of immigrants who were willing to work for a pittance. We have improved our working conditions and wages, but by doing so we have lost our jobs.

    And so we long for the better days, holding on to memories, as we embrace being global, the internet in our pockets. Perhaps it’s like Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

    My only wish is that this train will change tracks.

    David Phares on March 3, 2011 12:42 PM:

    I’m from central NY and used to be an engineer for Ford, living just outside of Detroit. The issue of the evaporization of the middle class really strikes a chord with me. My hometown is smaller now than when I left 30 yrs. ago. Where are all of the industrial companies that powered us out of WWI and won the space race? Westinghouse, Ingersoll-Rand, Bethlehem Steel, Rockwell. I think that the cause of all of it is the ‘me first’ mentality of politicians, management and the unions. I continue to have a Buy American policy and harass my friends driving Jap-crap, K-crap, and over priced Eurotrash.

    I was unemployed for quite a while and had a part-time job as a telemarketer for a home improvement company. The boss would get annoyed if we didn’t set enough leads, but drove Passat. I told him, “Drive an American car. More American jobs, more people to buy home improvement products”. He never did get it.

    WIsco on March 3, 2011 12:44 PM:

    Lots of thoughtful comments. A erudite readership to be sure. I would echo and extend @Jat that there needs to be a “Third Way”. I do not believe that we can re-grow our economy with a traditional labor-intensive manufacturing approach. Technology has left that one behind and it’s never coming back. At the same time, I am distressed that America’s economy seems so dependent on the defense industry and service. I have a Ph.D. and am manager in a high-tech business. There will be ups and downs, but I know I am not the average American. I don’t mean to say that to be arrogant; It’s a fact given that only about 30% of Americans have a college degree.

    What is the opportunity for the kid who doesn’t want to or can’t go to college, for financial or other reasons? That was what the old school American Dream offered: An opportunity to work hard and improve the life of you and your children. There is no path for this vast swath of Americans today. Trade schools have shriveled as the demand for skilled tradesman evaporated, so does that mean I end-up working in a service industry job…. yup that’s where we are at.

    In the end I am an optimist. This country has faced monumental obstacles in the past and has always found a way to move forward. The question is if we as a people still have the resolve and if our leaders have the balls to lead us. That is where my optimism tempers. The coarseness of our “fuck the public union blood suckers” class warfare will be the death of this nation’s soul if we allow it to become the new normal.

    a x on March 3, 2011 1:18 PM:

    first, nice post.

    second, to anyone who really buys that cockamamie about “the death of american manufacturing being exaggerated,” take a look at this and really chew on it.

    while you’re there, check out some of the other plots – imports, exports, debt, etc.

    yeah, we’re fucked.

    carlo on March 3, 2011 1:30 PM:

    I think the problem is cultural: we are taught an almost insidiously oversimplified concept of the free market that emphasizes unfocused selfishness. I think co-determinant/quasi-mercantile economic policy could resuscitate some industry but again, as you and others have said, many americans turn their nose up at blue collar work.

    iamamoody1 on March 3, 2011 2:05 PM:

    All I can do is echo the comments already made here. I agree this is a cultural problem. Just this week my local school district cut the entire shop/trades program from their budget. However, not a single sports program was cut. It was a majority decision made by the school board…a cross section of ages, races, and genders. I guess we can boast about our recently completed 2 million dollar wrestling facility though. Where are our priorities?!

    Dan on March 3, 2011 2:28 PM:

    Excellent post. I’ve spent a bunch of time in Detroit and have come to be very fond of the city and it’s people. I do agree with your sentiment that this country is fucked, I have the naive hope that American can-do-it-ness will somehow reassert itself but right now it doesn’t seem likely. There are pockets of inventiveness and willingness to do non-knowledge based, screen based work but nothing that could put large numbers of people back in employment.

    robbie on March 3, 2011 3:18 PM:

    My earlier comment could be taken in a myriad of ways, I meant no harm. And am proud of America, and glad to be American.

    A more appropriate response would have been, ” Many of us are too busy riding the carousel to bother ourselves with reaching for the brass ring.”

    doane on March 3, 2011 3:37 PM:

    My dad was an industrial engineer for ARMCO steel a major Kansas City steel mill from the early seventies up until ’86 or ’87. I can still remember a “We’re an ARMCO family” sticker slapped onto the garage beam in our suburban split level. I can also remember the feeling of great unease of trying to go to sleep as a high school sophomore and wondering if I was going to be forced to move because my dad was eventually going to be laid off. After 25 years I still can’t shake that feeling, you’ve gotta pop life in the mouth or life’s gonna pop you in the mouth.

    Matt on March 3, 2011 6:21 PM:

    This blue collar nostalgia bears resemblance to a fetish….maybe you should ask your collective girlfriends to start dressing up like gas station attendants. I doubt most anyone commenting here has held a manufacturing job, and if your Dad did he probably wanted something better for you. At least the author admits he’d rather sip espresso in Soho than stamp metal in Cleveland. This book is a good story however, and hopefully if some of yall read it it will make you think about how to move forward in modern global economy than pine for a lost era that you likely never knew.

    Michael Williams on March 3, 2011 6:22 PM:


    Matt on March 3, 2011 7:37 PM:

    @MW – curious your thoughts on what should or could have been done to prevent this? Put up walls to “protect” the US auto industry? The cycle of destruction and rebirth is big reason why the US economy is so powerful and resilient; entire industries can be created virtually overnight – autos and the internet to name two. Why? Our education level, openness to immigration, availability of financing and limited regulation. And yet, if we followed your line of thought we’d still be trying to save the American horse-and-buggy industry. (By the way, plenty of cars are still made in the US – just not in Detroit.) Instead of Kodak, we have Google. Instead of Studebaker, we have Boeing. We don’t need nostalgia – we need ideas.

    Elias J on March 3, 2011 10:12 PM:

    @Justin on Mar 3rd, 2011@ 10:12 AM: “People like us don’t understand”??? Justin, FYI, you don’t understand what we are talking about. The article/conversation is not about natural resources, it was about the erosion of the middle class and manufacturing base. Your assuming because were talking on point that we don’t know about natural resources??? FYI, America has a lot of natural resources, we even export OIL…. hmm, bet you didn’t know that. Also, there are mineral mines being opened back up since the economics make sense again because of the the higher price of raw materials and certain commodities. As far as your comment about America not being like the America of our fathers… you should try to read a history book. Children never inherit the same world as their fathers did. Things change brother, you’d think people would get used to that by now.

    dpepice on March 4, 2011 2:05 AM:

    Detroit is a lightning rod, and is by all accounts the first 21st century city. I am here at the magic stick bowling alley on Woodward, in Detroit. I drove her from Portland, Maine 2 days ago and the only concern I have is setting up a short term lease for the spring before I get back in my rented suburban that has been utilized as an urban tactical assault vehicle for a group of artists/designers paired with kids remaking the city block by block. The glut of architectural stock is staggering. The raw material is the city and it is in our care, every piece is flexible, changeable, buildable – nothing stands in the way of re-imaging a new urban American environment here in Detroit. The city is plastic and malleable.

    Tomtom on March 4, 2011 5:59 AM:

    Come to the UK, see where you’re headed.

    David on March 4, 2011 9:35 AM:

    Chrysler was run by Germans

    mike on March 4, 2011 10:11 AM:


    The Auburn, Cord Duesenberg Museum is in Auburn, Indiana. And your right that it is well worth a visit.

    mike on March 4, 2011 10:17 AM:

    Perhaps we’re loosing the skilled middle class because all our kids are going to college and majoring in film studies or international relations or sociology (just as examples, not that there’s anything inherently wrong with any of those majors). We have too many engineers that have never built anything but a spreadsheet. When we as a society decided that all our kids had to go to college we lost the ability to actually make things.

    Russ on March 4, 2011 10:50 AM:

    Great post,
    But what can we do to fix this? (maybe someone addressed this, didn’t read all of the post) And is this fixable? We can’t expect Big Government to fix this, and Big Industry doesn’t seem to want to fix this. (might mess with the profits) Maybe we need our own revolution here, but we have for so many years stuck our head in the sand hoping the problems would go away, don’t know if we’re up for it. Thanks ACL for being totally honest about this.

    Justin on March 4, 2011 12:55 PM:

    Elias—you just proved me right.

    My point is that there isn’t going to be a middle class resurgence. The decline of the middle class is a symptom of a larger set of problems. All the talk of reaching for the brass ring…of finding ways to get more…incredibly ignorant and delusional.

    As for exporting oil…um. Wow. Not sure were to go with you on that. America also is a major importer. Anyways, the issue with oil (which is painfully obvious) is rate of consumption vs rate of production. We can’t produce & refine enough for our own demand, let alone when demand from other regions are factored in. Add to that the fact that the high grade stuff is what’s being sucked out of the oil fields that are drying up everywhere (including the Saudi fields). We’re increasingly going after harder-to-reach fields, and fields with lower quality petroleum (this is the same issue with America’s coal deposits). If you can’t see why those are problem multipliers on your own, you aren’t going to understand it when I explain it using single syllable words.

    The one thing you are right about is that things change. You’re just expecting change in the wrong direction.

    Matt’s in the ballpark with mentioning the need for new ideas, but the ideas that are going to salvage a livable life aren’t the ones that involve your thinking. The economy isn’t in a recession (or near-recession) so much as it is normalizing…deflating from generations of artificial, excessive bloat.

    As for reading history books Elias, that’s no use when you refuse to understand the lessons in them.

    Good luck.

    Matt on March 4, 2011 2:57 PM:

    @Justin – not sure where you’re going with the energy argument. We’re obviously vulnerable to short-term oil shocks but that doesn’t portend doom. The US has capacity to refine and use heavy sour oil, as that comprises most of the oil in this hemisphere. You’re also wrong about coal – the US has more high grade met coal than any country on earth. Energy prices are obviously trending up right now but to make long-term proclamations on the health of our country based on a few short-term trendpoints (and political unrest) is misguided.

    Elias J on March 4, 2011 5:36 PM:

    @ Justin, I usually try not to argue on blog posts, this conversation best lends itself over a beer. Good Luck to you as well.

    david himel on March 5, 2011 8:12 AM:

    Wow thats a lot of commentary! I will add some to the fray from the Canadian perspective. Seems to me American’s are in a bit of an economic disaster…and when your looking from the outside (in the north here) I can see why there is despair. That being said we can always blame the victim…I dont think it was 3 lcd tvs in every house that sank the economy …it was 3 tvs that were paid for from the equity from 3 houses that were borrowed from 3 banks. Tighter regulations in Canada saved us from economic disaster and the fact that the good ole USA has an insatiable appetite for Canadian oil and pot. So what strikes me as odd is the bit about the 100 year old factory being exported…it seems to me education and new technologies, developing a skilled working sector and the infrastructure to support it (health, roads, schools, financing) while reigning in or shrinking the drain on money (the goldmans salary drain pipe) would benefit the economy in the long run. Look how quickly the military and banking sectors ate up the billions Obama gave out in bonus and contracts and you can get a real gauge as to where the economy has gone. You got to make money to take money approach is usually a good one.

    david himel on March 5, 2011 8:27 AM:

    Quick note: I studied Film Studies/cultural studies …I drove a forklift, worked in a nursing home, a brewery, the post office, IATSE (film union) and now manufacture leather jackets (if I could only find some more skilled sewers here in Toronto) education is good all round…access to it is the important part…if you have to join the army or pay 15 k a year for it that really is the beginning of the end of your brain drain. People work where there is work…some of the poorest people in the USA work the hardest for the least…ultimately it is not about the will to work hard…it is about the culture to save more, learn more, and good government that looks out for all its participants. The idea that big banks and corporate America are going to look out for the little guy is absurd…American/Canadian consumerism is being leveraged by rich guys in North America manufacturing crap in China. Mike W’s blog is more about teaching people to respect what they buy because part of the puzzle is to consume better longer lasting and more ethical things… not just lots of cheap, poorly made things, imported or not.

    iamamoody1 on March 5, 2011 3:34 PM:

    Well said David…excellent post.

    Kevin on March 6, 2011 9:34 PM:

    What gets me worried, is in WW2, all these factories were up and running 3 shifts for the war effort. I hope there is enough manufacturing left for the next time. History does repeat itself.

    Matt on March 7, 2011 9:41 AM:

    The decline of industrial America has everything to do with class warfare. The upper 2% wants to squeeze the rest of us all out of the picture to ensure there is no chance at wealth. If the shoring up of their bad investments (while the rest of the nation got and continues to get the shaft) is proof enough for me! Here we stand in the same financial spot we stood in back in 1929 wondering what happened. Buy American or buy your own shackles…your choice.

    Matt on March 7, 2011 11:10 AM:

    @David – consumerism is definitely part of the problem. There has been no real growth in GDP (or wealth for the middle class) in over 30 years. Speculators (don’t you dare call them investors, they create no real wealth) knew that if their system of horse shit failed that the government (Obama/Bush/Clinton/Bush/Reagan and all their Goldman Sachs cronies) would back them with OUR tax dollars. So they furiously deregulated, sold bad mortgage after bad mortgage, falsely inflated real estate values, raided pensions & 401K’s, all the while shipping more and more manufacturing jobs out of the country all in the name of corporate greed & profit for the rich. You can try and “blame the victim”, but everyone here was sold a bill of goods. Couple that with the fact that most Americans don’t have the educational level or responsibility to accurately run their own finances. They relied upon the “experts”…in other words, a pack of fucking thieves that have ruined this country like a cancer.

    JonIndiaâ„¢ on March 7, 2011 5:36 PM:

    Since early civilization, society has always been greedy and materialistic, nothing new. Wanting everything undeservingly might have been a piece of the problem, but I think the real problem started a long time ago during World War 2. During that war and beyond, alot of manufacturing jobs saved our economy and created a firestorm of economic growth and employment. That economic growth created a certain apathy that our economy was at the top and would always remain there. Alot of people fell into that expectation, BUT Alot of aware workers pushed their kids thru college into more promising careers and those children had much more expectations of their wealth producing capabilities. As manufacturing jobs became less in demand, the level of college educated individuals compared from past decades increased, but not enough innovations or new inventions came from this group of “educated individuals”. Not enough innovations that could have been the replacement for manufacturing jobs. I think our fall-off occured when we stopped being the idea creators for the planet. I still believe we’re capable and will be to able “innovate” ourselves to a better situation. Wanting, striving, and earning the best doesn’t make us bad, it makes us the strongest. We just need keep building on being the creators and artists for the world, if we make it, they will want it. Maybe i’m being dumb kid, oversimplifying this, but you kind of get the picture.

    david himel on March 7, 2011 6:11 PM:

    Matt I think you basically agreed with what I was suggesting…but I hope I was sharing an outsiders view…Canada and the U.S. are inseparable really and almost indistinguishable so the differences should be noted…we are small comparatively like say New York State with our 33 million, and we have the same greedy morons here that pillage the economy…but and I hate myself for saying it…Canadians are more risk averse typically, and more conservative…when u.s. banks screamed deregulate canadian banks asked the government and the government said no….so even though we sufferred and still do…we just didnt have teh same gigantic meltdown that everybody else did and the economy WITH Blackberry, the oilsands, the slow resurgence of service industries is recovering. I think North American will only become healthy if we progress toward new technologies, new industry and focus on a green revolution..imagine a science fiction like future of stewardship..in that future goldman Sachs and hedgefund traders get shot and replaced with phd’s and professional bureaucrats all the things that seem to strike fear in people now? Just a fantasy…I kinda model my life on star trek.

    Matt Z. on March 8, 2011 8:57 AM:

    “The way I see it America is fucked. We’ve lost our desire to be middle class. Everywhere you look, every home or apartment is advertised as “luxury,” because god forbid anyone just have a humble hard working home. America is either a gated community or a ghetto, there’s no in-between. ”

    I must resist the urge to pile on here, but hear hear, motherfucker. You’re sooo right. And sociology will bear out your point of view over and over and over again. It doesn’t matter how the ideologues spin it, it is the empirical truth.

    Andrew on March 8, 2011 2:41 PM:

    Mike, I knew you’d catch that. Thanks! I have to go back there again soon… to Auburn that is…

    Clark on March 8, 2011 7:21 PM:

    I think you nailed it here – I just wish there was a rainbow forming on the other side of the drizzle…the slow, painful erosion of an economic powerhouse that made the world bend to its will…

    now we are entertainment and nostalgia for the rest of the world, and a new hard lesson in the follies of fake progress. In the race to be upwardly mobile, we forgot (was it the 70s?, the 80s?) how to value hard work and industry…I grew up in the 80s – so I was consumed with that cultural shift – no job with dirt on my hands would have been worth doing, no matter the pay. I wanted sleek, clean, Miami-vice, italian leather, japanese electronics and german mechanics.

    so many fingers to point, more than enough to go around – but things have slipped very far and I think it is telling when the only people investing in American car plants are Koreans, Germans and the Japanese. A Kia has a better chance of having that USA Vin # than a Ford, Chevy or Dodge.

    but, what do we do? clean up the mess and get back to work…if someone would just open a new factory, or two, or three.

    Daniel on March 8, 2011 9:54 PM:

    This was a good commentary on the book. On the subject, the slide of America I don’t think people stopped wanting to be middle class but that the middle class came under attack from the left. It was told that everything it did was wrong from raising their kids to the family unit to praying in church every Sunday. The Luxury is just a Madison Ave tag. Everyone has toys. I’m still middle class. Still turn a wrench for a major airline after nineteens years. I’m still believing in the Lord, the Golden Rule and the Constitution. a Right to Work. Management, the union and government stabbed the middle class in the back.

    John on March 8, 2011 10:17 PM:

    We’re not fucked, we just need to get our heads on straight. Severe recessions have a way of focusing people, and I expect the US to emerge from this stronger than ever. Let’s start buying more stuff made in the US, and stop buying the chinese crap. We still live in the greatest society that has existed in human history – do not forget that and let’s work hard to keep it that way not for us but for our children and their children. BTW, when was the last time you heard of a chinese discovery/breakthrough/invention of anything? They are serial copy cats at present. If we don’t refocus, though, they will catch us in terms of innovation.

    We need to get the entitlements under control – there is no way the present course is sustainable. My middle school econ class made that obvious. If you are in my generation (born in ’75) and you realistically expect to get social security, you should make other plans ASAP.

    Matt Z. on March 9, 2011 8:51 AM:

    @ Daniel: You’re hilarious. I think the flavor of Kool Aid you’re drinking is called “Piss”. Amazing to me that the very people who typically benefit from “lefty policy” or (gasp!) “socialist policies” are manual laborers like yourself. But you’ve eaten the cultural red herrings tossed to you by pundits. They make it sound like unions are bucking for hot tubs in every union hall. They have you believing that people of a humanist bent hate God, hate America, hate you. They have a hard time explaining away people like me – a Quaker – who’ve pretty much been on the opposite side of the conservative point of view from the day the religion was founded. Are we Godless? Guess that depends on who you ask.

    Aw hell – what am I doing wasting time in a flame war? Everyone have a great day.

    clark on March 9, 2011 8:54 AM:


    Don’t blame the left – that is a BS argument. The squeeze is from business owners greed and mis-representation, not from some anti-middle class agenda that you have created in your head.

    I went to school in Flint Michigan for a year and got plenty of comments about my VW Rabbit – none good. Seems the execs at GM had done a pretty good job of convincing their hard-working unions that it was foreign competition that had cost them their jobs – not the reality that it was greedy stock-holders who wanted bigger cuts of the profits and didn’t care if it was a Canadian, a Mexican or an American who built the cars, just that it was done cheaper.

    talk about passing the buck – don’t let people pull the wool over your eyes like that.

    clark on March 9, 2011 8:58 AM:

    maybe the problems in the middle squeeze has more to do with exploding salaries for the upper management than anything else…

    one major problem with a publicly traded company – stockholders are the only ones who vote on corporate initiatives…and stockholders don’t care about jobs – they care about returns and dividends and stock growth. When business is nothing more than accounting, you create an economy of the lowest bidder and of the lowest qualities for the highest profits.

    humanity has no role in accounting…and that is the bigger factor pushing out the middle class.

    Matt on March 9, 2011 10:08 AM:

    @Daniel…greed is part of the equation, but unfair competition is the other part (along with supporting the local economy). You tell me what US automaker has a factory in Japan? What laws protect the US auto industry from unfair competition. I feel less bad about you driving a VW (that’s poorly made) by German union labor, than I do about somebody buying a Toyota or Honda made in the US by people getting paid WalMart wages. It’s a free country, but you only pay yourself and your community when you purchase the products it makes.

    Michael Williams on March 9, 2011 1:17 PM:

    I honestly think it has more to do with Wall Street than the government or Unions. Wall Street has the maximum vision of one quarter which drives corporations to get profits at any cost. At least that’s how it feels to me.

    Ben on March 9, 2011 6:10 PM:

    Someone may have already mentioned it… but Rivethead is an excellent treatment of the decline of automobile manufacturing in the US.

    david himel on March 9, 2011 10:52 PM:

    grrrrr…look all this hangup on made in America not made in America is not the issue. Americans have been part of a local trade network during the hey day of the 40s which through ingestion of European knowhow and immigration as well as other places had a golden age. This fiction of made in America is part of an ideal miss-truth. Develop a system that promotes ethical consumption, global thinking, education, and a healthy middleclass, immigration, well paid workers and innovative thinking. Why do all these things sound impossible. The American auto industry made crap cars…cars themselves are on a limited life span as we head down a road of diminishing oil. Build from the strengths of innovation and creativity. Bring back a sense of balance in media and politics. Remember that American culture was built on diversity of people, not classicism, and fear. Get wall street regulated again and undo the sort of two tiered government that seems to be dominated by completely polarized ideologues. Those are the sorts of goals that all Americans might want to hunt down. You know Chinese make some really good stuff too, so do all sorts of nations, there are lots of tech based industries that Americans could develop that would produce lots of awesome goods at home. As one example did you know many of the jeans made for the denim brands in the U S are manufactured in Winnipeg…not China. How is that possible? I could give other examples but you get the gist….

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