detroit, empathy, and stories.

Detroit. Mitch Albom is a terrific writer. Think Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You’ll Meet in Heaven. Albom has a great way to make characters real, settings come to life, and emotions feel at home within you. He’s a storyteller in the truest sense. Today, I read his latest in Sports Illustrated called “The Courage of Detroit.” It’s damn fine writing.

I don’t think I need to point out why Detroit is in the news. I mean, it’s literally everywhere. And, Albom, who has lived in Detroit for decades has heard just about enough. There are really some choice bits in here:

“…what all Detroit sees — is a nation that appears ready to flick us away like lint. We see senators voting our death sentence. We see bankers clucking their tongues at our business model (as if we invented the credit default swap!). We see Californians knock our cars for ruining the environment (as if their endless driving has nothing to do with it)…”

“We hear Congress tongue-lash our auto executives for not matching the cheaper wages of foreign car companies. We hear South Carolina senator Jim DeMint tell NPR that “the barnacles of unionism” must be destroyed at GM, Ford and Chrysler. Barnacles? Barnacles are parasites without a conscience. Sounds more like politicians to us.”

“This is why our recent beatdown in Congress was so painfully felt. To watch our Big Three execs humiliated as if they never did a right thing in their lives, to watch U.S. senators from Southern states — where billions in tax breaks were handed out to foreign car companies — tear apart the U.S. auto industry as undeserving of aid, well, that was the last straw.”

“Enough. We’re not gum on the bottom of America’s shoe. We’re not grime to be wiped off with a towel. Detroit and Michigan are part of the backbone of this country, the manufacturing spine, the heart of the middle class — heck, we invented the middle class, we invented the idea that a factory worker can put in 40 hours a week and actually buy a house and send a kid to college. What? You have a problem with that? You think only lawyers and hedge-fund kings deserve to live decently?

“To watch these lawmakers hand out, with barely a whisper, hundreds of billions to the financial firms that helped cause this current disaster, then make the Big Three beg like dogs and slap them with nothing? Honestly. There are times out here we feel like orphans.”

“Do you think if your main industry sails away to foreign countries, if the tax base of your city dries up, you won’t have crumbling houses and men sleeping on church floors too? Do you think if we become a country that makes nothing, that builds nothing, that only services and outsources, that we will hold our place on the economic totem pole? Detroit may be suffering the worst from this semi-Depression, but we sure didn’t invent it. And we can’t stop it from spreading. We can only do what we do. Survive.”

If you managed to read through the quotes, hopefully you’ll be inspired to read the whole article. It paints an amazing picture of a city, it’s people, and what the passing of time can do.

Empathy. I forgot who said to me, once, years ago, that if I was going to count on the world to have empathy I better prepare for some pain. It might have been my friend Rayford, or it might have just been in a passing conversation. Anyway, empathy is why I associate with Detroit. Why I follow the headlines, and why, even in sports this year, I pulled for the Lions nearly every Sunday. Detroit more than any city could be arguably the most representative of what made America great. An American entrepreneur invented the automobile in Detroit. That same man then transformed the manufacturing world both in terms of process and pay, almost in one swoop, fashioning a middle class and ushering in a new era. It was symbolic of the prosperity of America. Today it doesn’t just hurt. It bleeds, aches, and hemorrhages. And by some logic that escapes me, as a nation we feel like it doesn’t reflect us. That Detroit never represented us and that it’s nothing like us. It’s in this that I think the joke is on us. Detroit was America and, I think we’ll see in coming decades, it is America. I feel for Detroit to my core.

Stories. Everyone loves stories. I’m not sure if it’s the years of watching movies, reading books, or studying marketing that’s made me realize that stories matter. They’re everything. It’s how we make decisions. Decide who to love. Who to hate. What job to take. Who we are. What we think. Who to vote for.

Given the historical inauguration about to take place, let’s talk about politics. The story of John Kerry as an aloof, patrician, out-of-touch elitist was an easy story for people to believe. His features made him look like he should be in a painting, the apparent botox didn’t help either. His overall demeanor played perfectly into a story that actually didn’t match that well with his life story. But no matter, the facts in front of us fit a frame, and so we had our story. One would think that given his background as the son of a former President, a legacy at Yale, etc, etc President George W. Bush would have made a far more natural target for the elitist story. But it came down to demeanor again, and President W had this down home, aw shucks manner. Yale, Harvard, President’s son, company CEO by birth — none of that matters when the facts in front of us, the ones that we can digest with very little work and effort, don’t fit the frame. And so no one cared to look any further. We had our story. And our decision.

And so we’re back to Detroit. The problem with Detroit is the story. Since it seems that most of America gave up on American cars years ago, it’s an easy story to understand and tell. Detroit makes crappy cars and so Detroit deserves this. “Make cars people want!” “Make cars that don’t break down!” These are the facts in front of us, and it’s a story that’s easy to understand. That’s what screwed Detroit. Our financial companies and investment bankers betrayed hundreds of millions of American. We’re still unsure how the deep the damage they wrought on the global economy and America (taxpayer, government, and future?) is. Yet, despite taking practically 100X (or more) more money from us, there’s no convenient story here for us. How the hell does one easily and quickly grasp, with zero effort, a story involving characters called tranches, credit default swaps, collateralize securities, non-government entities, and so on. Clearly you can’t. And no one did. We don’t really even try. But Detroit. That’s a story we know. And we’re all poorer for thinking we understand it.

6 thoughts on “detroit, empathy, and stories.

  1. Hi Surya, I can't say I have too much empathy for Detroit. I think sometimes it is as simple as it sounds. I don't say that glibly, i have a little first hand experience growing up in Pittsburgh after the steel melt down. Check out the NYT article comparing the two: http://tinyurl.com/ayqpd5

    I hope all is well.

    1. Hey James,Thanks for the comment. I did read that article and thought it was very good. But it's clear that Pittsburgh is a model that Detroit will have to follow. It's ahead of where Detroit is because it's "meltdown" happened first. Also, it's interesting to note that so much of their economy is health care based. Healthcare is the fastest growing part of our GDP and is wildly unsustainable. I wonder what will happen to areas like Pittsburgh that are heavily dependent on health care (non-research healthcare, anyway) as the system has its inevitable overhaul. Costs are going to have to be restructured so they're brought down immensely. Anyway, I didn't mean for this to be a tangent about Pittsburgh, but anyway, I agree with you as I think your point is that there is always hope and with some direction Detroit can become more Pittsburgh than Detroit. When you're in the city next let me know and we'll grab a beer. surya

  2. I have a lot of empathy for the people of Detroit, but not so for the people responsible for actually running the Auto industry. The argument that the Detroit Auto industry WAS great and WAS the backbone of America means little today. Their mistake was not to look forward and make sure they changed to be competitive and god forbid – forward thinking. Many companies fail because of this. If you are in the Hotel or Casino business – you better find ways to update, look forward and appeal to your customers and be competitive – or you will die. Sorry, but being great at one time and even building a great country does not give anyone the right to sit back and relax. The banks should not have got billions either. The easy ride is over. The forward thinkers and innovators will survive and build a great country again. If GM, Ford or Chrysler were smart, they would have already had that plan in hand when they went to Congress. A Hybrid Escalade is not going to cut it. Why would people want to pay a premium of over $10,000 to get 21mpg highway instead of 19mpg? Oh yes – so they don't feel guilty driving a huge SUV. I think I might start selling Hybrid badges on eBay for $10 each.

    1. Good points all. There is no doubt that complacency is the number one way to kill a business (or city, or country). And I, of course, agree that there can be little doubt that gallons of blame belong at the feet of management. To your points on SUV– yeah, it's crazy. The Volt is coming soon, and it's a step-change from anything else on the market (100MPG– wow). Anyway, the companies are guilty, and we need to expect more from them.

  3. From someone who was born and spent the better part of one's life in Detroit, I've seen the good and the bad of the city. And believe me, Detroit has had more than its share of problems, to put it mildly. Ponder this for an instant: when I was growing up, what moniker did the nation pin on Detroit? Murder City. On top of that, an incredible propensity for governmental corruption, especially in the mayoral office. I could go on, but there is no need, because everyone outside the state has already heard the negative stories. I ask myself though, what about Detroit's legacy? The industrial powerhouse of the nation was this city. During WWII, the "Arsenal of Democracy"; afterwards, the city that put the "World on Wheels." Not Murder City, but Motor City!
    Sadly, that legacy is now forgotten, what vestiges remain are derided and minimized. Perhaps unbelievably, Detroit itself is not without guilt in abandoning its heritage. It seems that the American experience, what befell and transpired in the nation during the trials of the Second World War, and in the years beyond, have been reflected in Detroit, as if it were a mirror to the country. These days, having left Detroit, I choose to remember the greatness of this city. Soot and rust may have taken their toll, but, in my humble opinion, the nation owes a debt of gratitude to Detroit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *