Detroit Files for Bankruptcy

One of my predictions for 2013 was that three major U.S. cities would file for bankruptcy, beginning with Detroit.  Now it’s begun.  As reported in this article, Detroit filed yesterday. 

Detroit was once synonymous with U.S. manufacturing prowess. Its automotive giants switched production to planes, tanks and munitions during World War Two, earning the city the nickname of the “Arsenal of Democracy.”

Now a third of Detroit’s 700,000 residents live in poverty and about a fifth are unemployed.

Truth be told, everyone in Detroit is living in poverty.  If not actually poor themselves, they’re living among the effects – the blight highlighted in the article. 

In its heyday, Detroit had over 2 million residents.  The population has since shrunk by nearly two thirds.  The reason is no secret; in its heyday, the domestic auto manufacturers had nearly 100% of the share of the domestic auto market.  Today they have barely half, without picking up any foreign market share.  The blind application of flawed free trade theory has brought Detroit to its knees and, indeed, has hobbled the economy of the entire country. 

Where has all of this auto manufacturing gone?  To high wage nations like Germany, Japan and South Korea.  The problem isn’t low wages or currency manipulation.  The problem is that these nations come to the trading table with nothing to offer but badly bloated labor forces hungry to manufacture for export.  They are so densely populated that their own per capita consumption of automobiles is emaciated by severe overcrowding.  With a population density seven times that of the U.S., Germany is actually the least densely populated of the three.  South Korea is fifteen times as densely populated as the U.S.  Wherever you live in the U.S., just imagine fifteen times as many people trying to crowd onto the roadways and you begin to understand how a rising population density erodes per capita consumption. 

So we blindly give away free access to our market, never thinking about whether we’re getting access to an equivalent market in return.  Free trade with badly overpopulated nations is nothing more than a poverty-sharing program, with the U.S. taking on the poverty that those nations would otherwise have to endure.  Nowhere is it felt more in the U.S. than in Detroit. 

That’s Detroit.  Amongst all the media hubbub about Detroit, little notice was paid to the fact that Moody’s also slashed the city of Chicago’s credit rating yesterday and gave the city a negative outlook.  Chicago’s problems are much the same as Detroit’s – pension obligations – obligations that, when they were made, seemed reasonable but now can’t be met from a tax base that has had so much manufacturing removed from it. 

Our trade deficit in manufactured goods continues to drain away a half trillion dollars from our economy each year – now a cumulative $12 trillion since our last trade surplus in 1975.  It’s no wonder that pension obligations can’t be met.  If the federal government isn’t willing to acknowledge that backstopping and bailing out such key aspects of our economy is part of the price of pursuing failed trade policy, then more bankruptcies are sure to follow.

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