Sunday, April 5, 2009
A City in Demise
When you go to lsj.com, the newspaper that is supposed to represent the capital city of Michigan, go to news, then see the submenu. Across, from left to right, are tabs for news, March mania, business, campus and then something called “capitol.” I’m not a style bully, actually, but the upper case denote the building in Washington D.C. We assume the LSJ is referring to the building at the corner of Capitol and Michigan, which the state refers to as the capital.
This fixation is brought about after a few hours at the state library yesterday, reading about the city. Such research made me realize how far this place has fallen. In 1956, income per family in Lansing was $6,867, 20% over the national average. Those families had 1.3 cars compared to the national average of .7, and 64.4% of Lansing families owned their own homes. The Lansing State Journal had more ad lineage than either the Detroit Free Press or the paper in Grand Rapids and had a daily circulation of 66,350.
Today, a drive down Michigan Avenue finds crucial commercial space occupied by state or non-profit operated enterprises, which generate no tax revenue. The same is true in Flint, one of the most emaciated cities in the U.S.
The median household income in Lansing is now $36,550, almost 25% lower than the rest of the state. The median home value is 28% lower than the rest of the state. And 25% of Lansing residents live in poverty. Home ownership rate in 2000 was 57%, and is no doubt lower now.
What happened can be summarized in grand statements and via accusations, or can be picked at piecemeal. By the former, this is the case: the town lived and died by the auto industry and big labor. This paid professional wages for menial, labor-intensive tasks. When the Japanese began to sell cars in the U.S., their prices undermined those demanded by the monopolistic auto industry. And soon, the quality also destabilized car makers who were cranking out cars that needed service almost monthly. I know because I drove Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Fords; they were a mess. Some of my friends worked in the local factories, and they made jokes about the poor work ethic that pervaded the plants. Workers would punch out for an evening break and head to the bar. And if things were lively, they would have a colleague go back to the shop and punch them in while they stayed to enjoy the night, returning to punch out. This is what happened to Lansing. The high wages and poor return killed an unyielding industry that simply refuses to concede defeat. Bring the labor costs down, please.
But it isn’t just the end of the big labor manufacturing base that has eroded Lansing. Intrusive taxes and fees have hammered residents for years. Small things like a tax to shutter a business or the 1% tax on adjusted gross income simply drive business and homeowners away.
Now, the area’s two largest employers are the state of Michigan and Michigan State University, both funded by tax dollars while costing more than they bring in. And the results are hardly anything the free market could crow about.
I don’t look to blame anyone in particular, here. But sitting in that library – which has had its hours cut as the state has fallen – I look at a path of failure that could have been averted by real leadership and perhaps taking unpopular stances against big foes, like the UAW and tax-crazed politicians.