Monday, October 24, 2011

The Era of Managed Decline

Noreen Malone has a cover story in a recent edition of New York magazine about coming of age in post-hope America. It's an interesting look at what it's like to be young in today's economy, but I couldn't help thinking a lot of the concepts also applied to Flint in an era of shrinking cities. Malone writes:
Another phrase I now can’t get out of my head is “managed decline.” It’s been batted around in the context of Europe; George Soros splashily said it about the U.S. dollar a few years ago; and Ken Layne, the Wonkette Cassandra, used it when we spoke. It also strikes me as a fairly good way of describing the process of getting older. That’s what we’re doing when we decide that we can be okay with having more unpredictable careers and more modest lifestyles, if that’s what’s in store: Even as we hold out hope that something will reverse the trajectory, we are managing our decline, we are making do.


  1. This story of about the coming of age in post-hope America is an example of people who do not believe in the greatness of the American way of doing business. We are not like Europe, even though we seem to be heading in that direction. Even the great so-called socialist, Michael Moore has made a great deal of money claiming to like socialist ideals and promoting them in a capitalist fashion. Have you seen his mansion on Torch Lake? Not to mention his very expensive residence in New York. See link below.

    It seems the only ones who have lost hope are the ones who have put all their faith in socialism, communism or anarchy. How sad that Flint is considered hopeless. If only there was a willingness to have a more business friendly attitude, maybe there would be companies willing to hire people.

    This is not brain surgery, it is common sense from a person who had to move from Flint and works for another individual who makes more than he does.

  2. If only the problem in Flint was a lack of business friendliness.

    A dozen years ago give or take, the (non-automotive) manufacturing company for which I work was offered a building and property in a Flint industrial area, cheap. After minimal consideration, the offer was declined. For the kind of business we need to be, an attractive location with essentially no crime and social distress was more important than a cheap building.

    Flint is plenty friendly toward businesses considering locating on the old Buick City property, for instance. The problem is that the cost of property isn't a key factor in very many manufacturing and distribution business models any more, and neither is local taxation...not that Flint could afford to be giving significant deals on taxation right now.

    As far as I can tell, most of the nibbles that Flint has had regarding the Buick City property have been from folks looking for a significant governmental handout, and otherwise not interested.

    Cheap or free property and a good attitude are about all that an old central city can offer on its own that positively differentiate it from the suburbs. Most of the time, that's not enough.

  3. It's frustrating, but there are hundreds of cities basically begging businesses to set up shop. They're giving them just about anything they want. They couldn't be more pro-business. The problem is there are just too many of these desperate cities, all fighting it out, in a sense. If that's the case, Flint's reputation, crime and budget woes make it a very tough sell. This is a much bigger problem than these cities simply making it difficult to open a business with taxes and regulation.

    This is exacerbated in Flint because a shrinking city filled with abandoned houses actually needs more funds to manage its decline, or right-sizing, or whatever you want to call it. It takes money to deal with abandoned houses and high poverty levels. Yet, because Flint's shrinking, and the funding from the state and federal government is declining, the city has less and less money. It's self perpetuating.

    This is not to say the city can't make changes to the way it's run or that local leaders haven't made mistakes over the last 30 years, but this is a big, systemic problem. It's not going to be easy to solve. It may not get solved in a way that's satisfying or even fair to Flint residents.

  4. Just about any status-quo-change that would be "fair to Flint residents" would have to involve either an external government providing a tub of other taxpayers' money, or Flint merging with its suburbs. The former course seems unlikely under the present state constitution and political demographics, which practically assure that conservative rest-of-state voters' voices will be represented in Lansing in such a way that rest-of-state funds won't be (in their view) poured down troubled-city-drains. The latter course obviously would be financially detrimental, at least in the short run, for suburban taxpayers and would make suburban leaders' jobs harder or cause them to lose those jobs, and therefore won't happen.

    From the outstate and suburban perspectives, no change to Flint's status quo is the easiest, cheapest course. It's been a long time since Flint by itself had enough power or friends in high places to significantly influence adoption of either change-approach.

    Perhaps the only change that Flint might be able to bring about, albeit of a quite radical nature, would be to de-incorporate as a city.

    The surrounding cities, and those townships that chose to convert to city government, might be able to absorb contiguous areas if those areas' voters supported such an absorption. The rest of Flint would become a township with however much government its tax base would support.

    Of course, it'd be messy, and tragic for some of us.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at