History Rochester

What Detroit and Cleveland Owe Rochester?

I’ve just picked up and started reading my anniversary present from my wife: an 1884 book called Rochester: A Story Historical, written by Jenny Marsh Parker. When reading a book this old, the book itself *is* the history, more so even than the tale it tries to impart. Not just its take on the past, but the entire frame of mind of the author tells a revealing story about where we’re from and to whom we owe our history. And at the same time, this book discusses in contemporaneous fashion landmarks of the Rochester landscape that have long-since ceased to be.

Many of us are familiar with at least the name of Tryon Park, for example, without knowing that Tryon was one of the first “cities” of white men in the region. I’m sure the list of five: Tryon City, Castle Town, Carthage, Hanford’s Landing and a little-known hamlet of Pittsford, represent fascinating stories in and of themselves. Note that “Rochester” is not among their numbers, and that “Falls Town” was a hell-hole of a swamp that nobody ever thought would turn into a city. Whoops!

But Tryon being at the mouth of the Irondequoit Bay was a trader’s village established in 1799. And being not just a remote outpost, but the home of an adventurous entrepreneur of the classic American mold, Tryon is in the words of the author owed no small debt of gratitude from the likes of Detroit and Cleveland for their early starts:

It may well be questioned if Cleveland and Detroit are not largely indebted to the city of Tryon? If the great oaks that from little acorns grow are under any obligations whatsoever to said said little acorns, Cleveland and Detroit must own that one of the sources of their early prosperity was in the ambitious trading-post on Irondequoit Bay. Oliver Culver, famous among our best pioneers, superintended that big ashery at Tryon Town for three years. He saved his money, and in 1804 bought up a large share of the goods the Tryon Town merchant was glad to sell at a low figure, and with these he went to Cleveland. There was but one trader before him. Indians brought him their furs, and the Pennsylvania settlers drove their pack-horses to his cabin laden with whiskey and brandy, butter, cheese, and honey. He could sell salt at three dollars a bushel, and his Tryon Town goods brought a quick sale and large profits. The suppressed spirit of the disappointed city seemed to have found an outlet for development. From Cleveland Oliver Culver went to Detroit, where he did well in apples and white fish. He returned to Western New York a few years after to buy his broad farm lands, and settle down for life. Why are not Cleveland and Detroit indebted to Tryon Town, and shall we not establish its just claim for recognition?

I doubt if either metropolis would be nearly as impressed by the trade exploits of a single merchant as the author is. But in a country exploding with new growth and potential every day, the author is clearly attempting to stake out a place in the larger historical narrative of the United States for scrappy little Rochester’s contributions. This is 1884, before George Eastman, before Xerox and Bausch and Lomb. Before the world watched Olympic Games on television, sponsored by and emblazoned with all these names. Little did she know what things – great and small, noble and ignoble – would come later to ensure our place in history.

And I’m three chapters into the book. Wow.


The Marker in Congress Has Been Thrown Down

Congress has told the White House it must find the funds to bail out Detroit out of the TARP money – that $700bn package reserved for the financial industry – or there may be no money forthcoming. Thus far, Hank Paulson at Treasury and the White House have resisted such calls.

And a fine time it is to suddenly think you’ve grown a set: the president is leaving office in a matter of days and it won’t be his problem any longer. Why should he give a shit? It’s not like he’s shown any level of interest in the economy up till now. Not exactly a powerful position from which to throw down an ultimatum. We’ll see what happens, but if I were Harry Reid, I’d start twisting arms in the Senate to get something which provides real oversight in the bailout package that is inevitably going to need to pass through Congress.


2.5 Million

I just thought I’d point out that when you read newspaper articles and watch television news programs which say that we could lose up to “2.5 million jobs,” if the auto industry goes bust, they’re clearly exaggerating. It would be more correct to say that 2.5 million workers can be affected by such a move, but just how those jobs would be affected remains an open question.

Not that I think 2.5 million jobs being affected is a good thing. But all three big Detroit companies are not going to simultaneously explode. And even if they do, not every company in every town in Michigan or Pennsylvania is a subcontractor for Detroit steel. The waitresses will indubitably have people for whom breakfast must be served. The tips are likely to suck, though.

So at the risk of sounding Pollyanna – clearly, auto makers going bye-bye is a bad thing that we should probably avoid if possible – I just thought that if the television yakkers won’t tell you, it might be helpful for someone to put things in at least some perspective.

Oh, and more perspective: GM big shots decide to give up their leased jets they flew to Washington with to tell Congress they were broke.


Bailout du’Jour

I have not yet commented on the impending doom from Detroit and the efforts to bail them out.  It’s been the talk of the Sunday news programs, however, and since I’ve been using today to catch up on the blogging I’ve not been able to do during my busy week, now seems the time to comment.

I have to start out by saying that Meet the Press this morning was, as ever, an exercise in false equivalence.  The guests where Carl Levin of Michigan and Richard Shelby of Alabama.  A guy who is in the tank for automakers and a hard-line Conservative who wouldn’t agree to tax-payer funded water if his hair was on fire.  This is not a useful discussion, since neither man is in a position to compromise, but compromise is exactly what is needed in this case.

Because if ever there was an industry I would be in favour of letting crash and burn – hoping that we could finally then let more innovative minds and more cost-effective business models take the lead – it would be the auto industry.  Nowhere in American business is there a more completely ass-backwards group of companies. . .  and that’s saying quite a lot.  Still, its not an industry we can expect to let drop without having huge and probably unpredictable consequences on the rest of the economy.  There are simply too many people working in the industry and too many subcontracting companies tied to it to think we can let the automakers drown themselves.

What is required is that we yes, do bail out Detroit.  But we do so in a way that guarantees us a better chance of a viable auto industry in the future.  It’s not a simple question of letting them go or handing them a blank check.  Carl Levin said today that the auto industry might have had problems “ten or twenty years ago,” but that they’re making changes.  Bullshit.  They’ve made half-assed efforts at going hybrid – itself not a solution to our energy problems – only in the last two years.  And what have they produced?  Hybrid SUVs.  Hybrids which get a paltry 34 miles a gallon, compared to the 40-50 MPG of Asian counterparts.  This hardly represents a true effort at reform, particularly when there are plenty of minds working on the issue in garages and backyards whose ideas are not being listened to.

So, we need not a bailout package, but an investment plan in our auto industry which considers the future as a primary means of growth.  We should demand that Detroit automakers actually engage small private businnesses working on energy-smart cars and use their industrial might to produce those cars.  Similar things are commonplace in the record industry, where small indie labels like Interscope or Def Jam are distributed by Sony or Warner Brothers, but exclusivity has plagued the auto industry.  Yes, I’m aware that there are downsides for Interscope.  But the point is that Detroit has gone out of its way – Microsoft style – to crush competition in its infancy, and it is precisely those infant companies that are generating the ideas we need.

And of course, we need leadership.  Barack Obama has been trying to stay off the stage and work on his cabinet, since after all, he’s not yet the president.  But the problems we face currently are much beyond the ability – and let’s be honest, the desire – of our current White House resident for him to handle.  As hard as it undoubtably must be, Barack Obama is going to need to find a way to represent a leadership role – even if that leadership is only a Senate-bound leadership – to help steer the ship as best he can in the next few months so we can get things done in something approaching a rational way.


. . . But Don’t You Dare Call it a Bail Out!

The auto industry is seeking $50bn in additional low-cost loans – beyond what was already approved by Congress last year – to help them out of the mess they’ve made, selling SUVs after peak oil and 911.  Did they really think this wasn’t going to come to an end, soon?  But here they come again, to suck on the teet:

Auto industry officials have argued that the loan program would not represent a bailout, but would be similar to aid lawmakers have given to Wall Street investment banks and struggling mortgage firms. They also note that auto companies face tens of billions of dollars in costs from new fuel economy regulations.

I see.  So, since we’ve bailed out the financial markets without calling it a bail out, we should just go right ahead and bail out the auto industry and not call it a bail out.  Because, you know, it’s really not a bail out.  Let’s not forget that the government issues loans in the form of bonds, and that’s a large part of how our currency remains viable.  Giving out low-interest loans means accepting less of a return on those bonds, which isn’t doing our larger society any good.

In other countries, like Japan, there’s no question that the government helps out industry.  It’s how they operate, with industry and government working hand in hand to make their economy strong.  Of course, there are a number of obligations industry must observe in exchange for consistent help in hard economic times.  In this country, we do the same thing, except that we have false ideological bullshit swirling around in Conservative circles that allows industry leaders to demand tax cuts along with their low-interest loans.

We’d be doing our country a world of good if we dropped the pretense.