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Posted on Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 11 a.m.

U.S. should consider Detroit the canary to its coal mine

By Tom Watkins

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.

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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


Tom Joad

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 12:28 a.m.

Globalization killed Detroit. Globalization was ONLY made possible by CHEAP oil. The days of cheap oil are drawing to an inexorable close. The first wake-up-call will be the global phenomenon of the OIL CRUNCH. That's where demand for oil exceeds supply. Thanks to China and India's insatiable rising demand the oil crunch is slated for this year. The earth burns a billion barrels of oil every 12 days! When someone says they just discovered 10 billion barrels in the arctic or remote (expensive) location, you can do the math. Detroit can revitalize itself as a post-carbon city because it has the infrastructure, location, and capabilities to become important once again in domestic manufacturing, albeit on a smaller scale. Gigantic container ships bringing goods from China use a stupendous amount of the dirtiest fuel imaginable: bunker fuel, which is nothing more than solid sludge carbon. One super giant container ship pumps out as much emissions as 50 000 000 cars! Yes, that's 50 million. GOOGLE IT, if you don't believe me....Detroit can start to build cottage industries, local intensive fruit and vegetable agriculture and provide affordable housing for many if it can stop its ruinous decline in infrastructure and loss of urban hope.


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 2:20 a.m.

Yes of course, Detroit's downfall was entirely the fault of globalization. Corruption, mismanagement, and plain old incompetence had nothing to do with it whatsoever. But since the economies of Texas and North Dakota are thriving right now, I suppose that must be due to all those fruit and vegetable cottage industries you speak of right?


Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 8:34 p.m.

The canary's dead...


Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 7:13 p.m.

Detroit, consistently rated as the most liberal city in the U.S., should be an example of how not to serve its people. But instead, we elect a president who wants to lead the rest of the country down the same misery hole. Just prior to this last election, "personal income rose 4.6% since the recession began in December 2007, after adjusting for inflation. Income was up just 0.5% in 15 blue states and Washington, D.C., during that time." Detroiters vote overwhelmingly democratic in every election rather than voting for systems that are proving to work far better elsewhere. If Detroiters need someone to blame for their problems, they need only look in the mirror. And if Detroit truly is the canary in the coal mine, then it should serve as a resoundingly clear warning to get the hell out of this mine and try something else.


Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 9:01 p.m.

By the way, if you need clarification as to my claim, you might want to read this report by the Bay Area Center for Voting Research (not exactly a buzzing hive of right wingers) "Detroit, Michigan tops the list of the twenty-five most liberal cities in the United States. Detroit is a large metropolitan center with a population of 951,270. As the center of America's auto industry Detroit is an industrial unionized environment where more than a quarter of the population is below the poverty line. Liberal candidates garnered 93.96% of the vote in Detroit while conservative candidates held onto a mere 6.04% of the vote"

greg, too

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 8:06 p.m.

Detroit is far from liberal. Most liberal cities usually are college areas, Ann Arbor or Chapel Hill or Madison or cities like San Francisco. And usually, the most liberal cities are the ones that are doing pretty well. They aren't a lot of broke liberal cities. Does that make liberalism (whateber that means anymore) better? Not really, but liberal cities usually attract young and wealthy. Detroit is the opposite. They like to take government money, but that does not make them liberal.

Jay Thomas

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 6:43 p.m.

Tom just wants more tax and spend. That's the "boldness" he is looking for. Thelma and Louise heading for the cliff happened a long time ago. After Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid decided to spend another trillion a year more than we take in (calling it "stimulus") ---> we went airborne. Detroit is such an incompetent mess that it couldn't even pick up free money from the federal government and Obama had to send federal bureaucrats to the city to fill out all the required forms a little while back. If you could see dollar for dollar all of the money that flows to Detroit from outside the city, at different levels of government (not to mention big foundation donors and 90% of the areas charitable giving), you would realize what an unproductive money pit it is. The Detroit News correctly pointed out that only half of property owners will even pay their taxes to the city (but they all expect services and their trash picked up!).


Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 5:48 p.m.

Is this some sort of book review? Detroit isn't a canary. Detroit is what happens when you have a sclerotic government that is unresponsive to the needs of the people. Kwame Kilpatric, and the City Council, are the face of that sickness.

Sam S Smith

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 10:24 p.m.

Why the negative vote down? Do you really think that we won't be bailing out Detroit and other cities? Wow!

Sam S Smith

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 6:07 p.m.

We'll still be bailing Detroit out as well as Flint, Saginaw, and...


Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 5:32 p.m.

What an all bun, no meat opinion piece.....

Ricardo Queso

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 5:06 p.m.

Please stop publishing this leftist drivel.

Sam S Smith

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 6:06 p.m.

Greg, too the solution will be to bail everyone out so that America will have to resort to more prostitution of itself.

greg, too

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 5:17 p.m.

As a person who's politics lean left, I agree. And do you notice what is missing in this simplistic book report? A solution. It's easy to tell us the country is broke and we are on a path to becoming Greece or Portugal, but how about offering some solutions outside of Obama should play less golf?

greg, too

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 4:59 p.m.

a.) labor situations in all of the developing nations he described are pretty awful. if we could pay people pennies on the dollar for their work, we'd be booming too. b.) Detroit has been a problem for 50+ years, if not longer, so it is illogical to say that the issues there are a new trend. And it is also odd that this article was written as the city is slowly starting to rebuild itself. Sure, its not a perfect rebuild and the corruption in the city is disgraceful, but it is starting to rebound slowly. c.) Age of descent? none of these issues are new, so I guess that age started in the 70's. Watkins' little book report isn't stating something revelatory, it's been going on for decades just about everywhere. And Luce could have written this article about his home country as well. Or most every other country in Europe. This is not a new phenomena, just a boring rehash of what we have all seen for the past couple of decades.

Homeland Conspiracy

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 4:53 p.m.

Nothing will ever get done (fixed) if we are always pointing fingers at each other. If you are pointing your finger at others then you have 3 fingers pointing back at you...also it leaves you one hand to work with.

Tyrone Shoelaces

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 7:11 p.m.

You must identify the problem before you can create a solution. Those who are uncomfortable with the truth surrounding the problem usually try to sweep it away under a carpet of accusations of "finger-pointing."


Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 6:48 p.m.

If you ignore the source of the problem, it will never get fixed.


Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 6:43 p.m.

I think finger pointing is the way to go. If you cannot fix a problem you blame someone else to take the heat off your own inadequacies. That is the method our current president uses. He is the leader, does he not lead by example?

Dog Guy

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 4:50 p.m.

Although my lifetime of sucking on government teat has biased me toward socialism, I am completely unable to see how government spending can help re-achieve the greatness America attained by private initiative and the freedom to control one's own earnings. Oh, yes, HAPPY 100th Birthday to the 16th Amendment and its brother, the 16th Commandment: By the sweat of your brow shall everyone else have their daily bread and cable tv. It is truly a wonderful system for me.


Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 9:39 p.m.

Dog Guy, I love you. :-) And, isn't it cool the way, in Ann Arbor, it's so easy to call, with 100% certainty, which way the up/down vote will fall out? So quickly, too, as to indicate no time is ever taken to do any stressful thinking?


Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 4:41 p.m.

Detroit is the canary, but 40 years of Democratic party rule is the cause. They vilify businessmen rather than actual villains. They loot, cheat, and steal everything that's not bolted down. How many indictments in the last 2 years alone? How many no-bid contracts, kickbacks, and no-show workers does it take to ruin a city? They've chased away everyone with the means of escaping and now want others to support their mischief. The insane thing to do is continue the same policies for another 40 years.

greg, too

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 8:01 p.m.

Just evening out the scales. If you blame 40 years of Dems, which one would assume makes you a GOP supporter, there's not much in their history during this time that is in any way better.

Tyrone Shoelaces

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 6 p.m.

"Blaming one party is foolish" But blaming Bush, Bush, Reagan and Nixon isn't?

greg, too

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 5:05 p.m.

40 years of Democratic rule in Michigan maybe, but what about the last 40 years on the national stage? Did you miss the 8 years of Bush part deux 4 years of his pops, 8 years of Reagan, and all the fun that Nixon brought? And I think the thesis of this book and op ed piece/book report is that this is not just a Michigan phenomena. Luce/Watkins are using Detroit as a model of what they believe is occurring most everywhere. Blaming one party is foolish and just shows the true problem with this country. It seems like most everyone has picked a side which has led to this gridlock...and very few of them have actually picked the side of the US people as a whole. Our politicians on both sides of the aisle have create a country where everyone wants their side to win so that they can have their pet causes or their religion or whatever be the victor. And they are bringing the country crashing down with it as these guys just try and keep their jobs, state of the country be damned.

Top Cat

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 4:17 p.m.

We send hundred of billions of dollars, and the jobs along with them, overseas every year to buy the manufactured goods and energy we should and can produce here. We waste our time and money trying to micro-manage the affairs of the world rather than focus on defending our own country. We delude ourselves into thinking that we can grow our economy by paying people not to work. We ignore the consequences of our massive generational theft and keep on borrowing to prop up the welfare and warfare state. This does not bode well.

Macabre Sunset

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 4:11 p.m.

Again, when you run these pieces by Tom Watkins, you should mention how high up he is in the Michigan Democratic party (and ask him if he's running for governor). You've failed on this account before. On what planet (other than the Michigan DNC) do you have to be to think Detroit has the ability to get itself out of its current financial mess? It took more than half a century of corruption and incompetence to get into that mess.