Flint, MI – The Best City in America

Many of you know this already but for those who don’t…I live in Flint, MI. Yes, pause for gasps of wonderment but wait a second before you do a Google search for the “most dangerous cities in America.” Flint is actually not that bad of a place to live in. Sure we have lead in our water and crime in our streets. Sure we have decaying roads and decaying homes. Sure we have Michael Moore and Charles Guiteau (assassin of President Garfield). But Flint is actually on the up and up. We have a Red Lobster and an Olive Garden. There is a mall that has cute puppies and free samples of Chinese food. And most importantly, Flint has citizens who participate in nonfiction book clubs.

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In all seriousness though, I enjoy living in Flint most of the time, and the city is in the progress of reinventing itself. So, as an ode to the Vehicle City, my feminist- librarian book club decided to read a book about Flint – Tear-Down: Memoir of a Vanishing City by Gordon Young. This is an account of a former Flintoid trying to reunite with his childhood city after living in San Francisco for the past decade. The memoir, for me at least, was a great look at the history of Flint and how its past is just as complicated as its future trajectory. 

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It is believed that Flint was formerly called Pewonigowink, which translated to “place of flints.” The area was originally a trading hub for furs and in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French author of Democracy in America, visited Flint. The fur trade was eventually surpassed by the lumber business which blossomed in the city from 1855 to 1880. At the peak of the lumber industry, there was a significant need for transporting logs – this led to Flint’s next big industry – carriages. By the turn of the century, Flint was producing 150,000 carriages, making it the largest carriage producer in America and most likely the world.

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One of these carriage makers was Billy Durant who ended up investing heavily in a new burgeoning car company called Buick – he would eventually combine Buick with various other automakers and parts companies to form General Motors in 1908; he then went on to create Chevrolet in 1911. The rest is history – the automobile became an American necessity, and Flint provided that dream for millions of people. By 1955, Flint peaked with a population of 200,000 people and had one of the highest per capita incomes in the world at the time. That year the city celebrated its centennial parade that featured GMs 50 millionth car – a gold trimmed 55′ chevy. Flint was the poster child of manufacturing potential and the middle class – the model city of the future.

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Everything seemed to go to crap in 1973 with the OPEC oil embargo that brought higher gas prices, fuel shortages, and lines at service stations. GM, at this time, was at near peak employment in Flint but soon began layoffs after the crisis. This led to an unstoppable pattern which culminated in the 80’s and early 90’s with GM closing factories like Buick City which employed nearly 30,000 people. At its pinnacle, GM employed 80,000 Flintoids, after the closures, less than 10,000 remained. Today, the population of Flint is half of its 1955 zenith – with around 100,000 inhabitants. This dramatic loss of jobs and population led to increases in crime and infrastructure breakdown. In 2016, Flint had the highest vacant home rate in America  (source).

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Flint today is struggling with a tax base which is forcing the city to consolidate police, firefighters, parks, school buildings, and almost every public service imaginable. Funds were even cut on treating the drinking water – causing lead to leach from aging pipes and a multi-billion dollar public health crisis. Yes, there are a lot of things wrong with Flint, but the people that still live here are resilient and make it a better place to live in every day. Here are some recent examples: the city will be replacing all lead service lines (funding is already secured), the crime rate is no longer one of the highest in the country, and abandoned homes are regularly being removed to decrease blight. Is Flint, MI the best city in America? No. But in my opinion, it is far from the worst, and I am proud to call it my home. Flint shaped America, and it is compelling to live in a place with not just a significant history but also a promising future.

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Trump Economics?

Following the election of Trump, I became apolitical. My current view on politics is similar to my current view of the night sky – it is there but I only gaze up in wonder every now and again. I want Trump to do well because we should always root for our leaders to make the right decisions. However, it seems that whenever I do gaze up into the twinkling lights of Washington – I suddenly get a crick in my neck. In the past, I posted about Mike Rowe and his views on voting. Basically, he doesn’t think everyone should vote; only those individuals who are informed and educated enough to respect the privilege. In his article, he references a book that everyone should read to get a sound understanding of economic policy: Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. Hazlitt wrote this book in 1946 and it has sold over 1 million copies in the past 70 years. Suffice it to say, this book’s principles are solid and are still applicable to today’s economy. I say this because economics is many times a political subject.This book is not tainted by left or right wing media and it disproves many fallacies which are commonly used to wrongly steer our decisions. I’ll explain one of the biggest and most encompassing fallacies of all – putting America first at the expense of everyone else.

Imagine a little boy playing baseball and accidentally breaking a window. His friends all crowd around with their jaws gaping and they immediately start a philosophical conversation about the economic implications of the event. The first obvious line of thought is that a new window will have to be purchased. One boy exclaims that this will be beneficial to the window installer and hence stimulate the economy. All the boys agree and use this line of argument when confronted by the angry home owner. The home owner will have to spend 100 dollars to fix the window. The man listens to the boys but then says he was just about to use that 100 dollars to buy a new golf club. The boys learn an important economic lesson. Certain policies that appear to help, actually have a reciprocal effect of hurting others. Humans have a hard time with economics because we focus on the winners and not the losers. It is easy for us to see jobs being created but it is hard for us to imagine jobs or purchasing power being lost.

Let’s imagine that America put itself first in all trade deals. From the example above it is a fallacy to think this will benefit us because there is always another group which suffers. In this example, the domestic America manufactures may have better protection and hence better sales. But what about the American manufactures who export products to other countries? They no longer can profit from the open trade agreements and hence lose out on business. Countries around the world would have less reason to buy from America and thus would take their money elsewhere. Additionally, these policies promote greater inefficiencies which in the end reduce American purchasing power, real wages, and production potential. The negatives are overlooked because it is easy to see new manufacturing jobs, but hard to see the world economy shifting. To put it another way, policies which benefit 12.3 million American manufactures, in the long run, will hurt the other 140 million American workers.

Whats’s the win-win economic policy? The best economic policy in the long run is to have open trade. This will benefit the most efficient American manufacturers and allow Americans to have the greatest purchasing power. It will also allow other countries to buy more American products which will stimulate greater production and job growth. These policies are in fact usually trumpeted by Republicans. Ironically, Trump is pushing for more Democratic protectionist views. These aforementioned economic policies are proven effective and it only takes one to read about the sad history of protectionism to quickly understand their soundness. Hazlitt, in 1946 wrote this quote several times in the book.

“…those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Unfortunately, demagogues go for the policies that appear to be sound but usually only help specific groups in the short term. We are a globalized world and we need economic policies that benefit all sectors. We can do this in a responsible way that facilitates environmental projects, new job training, and stability in developing countries. There is no first place when it comes to economics. There is no benefit of putting America first – our strength comes from the strength of others.

The Upside of Down

What makes America great? Is it the people? The beautiful landscape? The election process? I think a lot of citizens define the greatness of America through her economic and military prowess. Over the past 10 years there has been a lot of news about America’s dominance fading in the world. I hear things like, “China owns half of our country!” “Their is a new Cold War with Russia!””There are going to be taco stands at every corner!” “All of our jobs are being shipped overseas!” I never really looked into these claims before so I wanted to read a book about the true economic status of the developed world compared to the developing. I picked up The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West by Charles Kenny. Kenny was previously a senior economist at the World Bank and is now a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and writes for Bloomberg Businessweek and Foreign Policy magazines. To put it simply, this guy knows his stuff.

First off, China is definitely going to surpass the United States economy very soon – some economists argue that is has already happened. The math is simple: China has 1.3 billion people and the United States has roughly 350 million people. That is a billion more workers and consumers with an ever widening middle class that is ready to spend.

“…by 2030 the world will have four major economic players. China will be the heavyweight, with a share of global GDP around 24 percent (measured at purchasing power parity). Next will be India, the European Union and the United States – each with 10 to 12 percent of the global output. Brazil, Indonesia, and Japan will each control a little more than 3 percent of global GDP.”

Should this fact worry the United States? Not at all. It is great news. For one, the average Chinese or Indian will one day be able to buy more products from the United States. With more money flowing into America, there will be more jobs created and more services needed. Second, countries with large economies love trade agreements – allowing them to easily import and export. This increases alliances and decreases the risks of wars. Thirdly, with greater partnerships with other countries, the United States can reduce military spending and focus more on improving quality of life measures for her citizens (health care, infrastructure, worker benefits, etc.).

Now what about all the worries of immigration and jobs being taken by the “rest” of the world.

“…US offshoring may have been responsible for a 1.6 percent decline in manufacturing jobs over the period 1997 to 2007, but the impact on long-term productivity may actually increase employment (which may also be better paid). The idea is that firms save money by offshoring, which, by allowing them to sell more for less, increases both their own revenues and the revenues of those that purchase the goods they sell. As a result, they can hire more people, or their shareholders have more money to buy goods and services from other Americans.”

Yes, America has lost jobs overseas but the economy as a whole has benefited immensely from affordable goods and greater domestic purchasing power – the result being a net increase in job creation. So what about jobs at home being taken by immigrants? The United States attracts some of the best and brightest students from around the world. Our universities, with the help of foreign students, foster innovation that continues to make America a leader in patents and technology. Immigrants are vital to our growing economy, because as earlier explained, the number of people in a country is one of the biggest factors in economic health. With an aging population and a decreasing birth rate, the United States should be happy to take all the skilled labor she can get. What about the “illegal” immigrants? Shouldn’t we build a wall? It was found that immigrants from Mexico do not take jobs from Americans but rather help create new jobs (click here for clear example). By paying less for labor, businesses have more money for investments, purchases, and new job creation. Furthermore, between 2009-2014 there was net loss of Mexicans leaving the United States. This is due to an improving Mexican economy and better family reunification programs. It was found that increased border control actually increased the number of illegal immigrants in the country; due to the fact that it was harder for Mexicans to reenter their country.

All of this points to the need for more investment and economic teamwork throughout the world. We should not become a isolated country that is afraid of immigrants or the success of other countries. We need to remember that immigrants founded this country and that the rise of the rest is good for the west. If you liked this article please a related post, The World is Flat.

 

Flintoid

I live in Flint, MI-a place that many people would not like to call home. Flint is home to a large amount of violent crimes and it ranked among the top 5 most dangerous cities in America between 2007-2013. In the past couple of years, Flint has seen a drop in crime but the city still has a large amount of blight, infrastructure problems, and petty crimes. Is there anything good about Flint? I would argue that Flint is actually a pretty sweet place to live: there are a ton of walking trails, great restaurants, libraries, colleges, and fun people. Flint is in a revitalization stage and I think in another 10 years it will be a sought after destination for jobs and recreation. To better understand the current dismal state of Flint, I had to look back to its great past and how far it fell from grace. This history was provided in the book Rivethead by Ben Hamper. Hamper worked in the General Motors Truck and Bus Factory for approximately 10 years between the mid seventies and mid eighties. As the title of the book alludes too, he was a riveter on the assembly line, responsible for building suburbans. The book is an excellent look into the life of an assemblymen: lots of alcohol, rock and roll, parties, drugs, and monotonous work. Hamper eventually was sent to a plant in Pontiac, Michigan but his career as a GM man ended due to severe panic attacks and anxiety. I highly recommend reading this book because it allows a glimpse into the life of a very blue-collar man; usually the type of guy who is not inclined to write or express their emotions: Harper is funny, edgy, and most importantly down-to-earth.

In 1977, Harper was making, as a fairly new assemblyman, the equivalent of 50 dollars an hour in today’s money. This amount of money was to be had by all people working at the automotive factories and the middle class was thriving. Flint was the birth place of Buick and had multiple GM, Chevy, AC Spark Plug, Delphi, and Fisher-Body factories. The peak of the automotive industry in Flint began in the late 30’s and continued until the late 60’s. Beginning in the 1970’s the auto industries began slowly closing factories and moving jobs overseas. Today there is one GM factory left and compared to Flint’s population peak of over 200,000 in the 60’s its current population is less than half that amount. With the exodus of people and jobs, the remaining population of Flint was forced to take lower paying jobs and support an infrastructure that was designed to survive on twice the tax revenue. This led to three financial emergencies in the 21st century and the placement of an emergency manager by the governor of Michigan. Flint’s peril mirrors that of other Michigan auto-cities such as Saginaw, Pontiac, and obviously Detroit. Flint is on the long road to recovery but other cities should learn from its mistakes. To be successful is the long run, cities must have diverse economies that depend primarily on highly skilled and highly educated laborers. Flint is getting better but let’s not have anymore Flintoid cities in the future.

Don’t Follow Your Passion

As a young man I was asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I came to the conclusion that I should follow my passion of science and become a doctor. Half way through college I realized that my passion was no longer being a doctor and was actually teaching people nutrition. A crap ton of student debt later, I realize that my passion is not nutrition but rather the pursuit of knowledge. This “passion” journey illustrates a key point in the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work you Love by Cal Newport. Newport makes the point that the conventional wisdom of picking a career based on a preexisting passion is wrong. The passion hypothesis creates the false pretense that there is a perfect job out there-eventually leading to confusion and workplace unhappiness when expectations fall short of reality. 

If passion is a poor benchmark for career choice…what is? To find great work, you must first gain “career capital,” which is the acquisition of skills that increase your value to the world; the passion hypothesis reverses this view with the question “what value does the world give to me?” Developing this career capital is done through the technique of deliberate practice. We plateau in our skills and deliberate practice is the quantitative-uncomfortable means of breaking those plateaus and reaching a higher level of skill (think about the contrasting brain effort between strumming a song that you already know compared to learning a brand new song). Deliberate practice builds rare and valuable skills which then leads to rare and valuable traits that define a great career. The valuable traits of a great job include control, autonomy, and creativity; with enough career capital you can receive this magical trio of job nirvana. In addition to this trio, you must develop a sound mission that gives purpose to your career. This mission can only be understood through mastery and attempts of several small projects that give you feedback. For example, I started with a broad mission of helping people through medicine and through several different trials my mission is slightly changed to helping people through knowledge. 

How can you apply this to your own career journey? Simply put, “Working right trumps finding the right work (pg 228).” Seek out a job that has the potential for all the valuable traits aforementioned. Put your head down, work hard, and realize that mastery will get you closer to job nirvana. Don’t give up on your pursuit and don’t think that jumping to a new job will bring you happiness-more than likely it will erase most of your hard-earned career capital. Eventually, because you broke skill-level plateaus you can cash in your value for a better position. We enjoy doing things we are good at but sadly people change jobs so much they never reach a level in which they feel control, autonomy, and creativity. This advice does not work if you are in a dead end job that will never provide the valuable traits of a great career-quit and find a career that does! In the end, don’t follow your passion; passions’ change and through mastery one can gain new passions that were never once realized. 

The Wealth of Poverty

Have you ever sat outside and taken a deep breath…observing the beauty and subtleties of nature? In our nonstop-technology-filled world this simple practice is rarely performed and given little respect. I love nature and have sat in a quiet meadow listening to the wind sweep across the grasses. I have hiked up mountains where the texture of stone beneath my feet makes me think of the weight of the world. I have seen the stars over the ocean and thought of my place in this big universe. My experiences in nature are some of my most coveted and life shaping moments. My love for the outdoors and what it can teach us led me to read Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I respect Thoreau immensely and think his insights on life are more pertinent today than when he was alive. Thoreau is about simplifying life to its core so that life can be better understood-removing the white noise of the superfluous. The essentials of man include food and heat. Simple food, lodging, and clothing were tenets to Thoreau’s life when he lived at Walden Pond. He is a philosopher and I really like his definition of what that means…”To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.” Living the simplest way possible frees man from the bind of arduous labors in the pursuit money. The pursuit of excess is not the ultimate goal but rather the pursuit of exploring the mind, nature, and the world we live in. A key point of Thoreau is that garnering true wisdom internally is the greatest wealth a person can obtain. No matter how fancy a person dresses or what size house they live in, if you stripped that all away what would you be left with? The result would be a person that has built a foundation of virtue or a person that has a foundation of vice. 

Thoreau released himself from the comforts of society and put himself into nature to better understand his place in the world. I think that in today’s society we put so much effort on being comfortable that we miss the benefits of simplicity and nature. To live like the world is to live with an unending desire for more; that relentless pursuit is the opposite of simplicity and creates the effect of people rarely ever living in the present. Shed all the fat of societal comforts and find what brings true happiness: pursuing knowledge for knowledge sake, understanding your strengths, feeling the raw contrast of pain and pleasure. So how can you apply this thinking to your own life? I think a career is commendable and certain people fit best into that environment of structure and purpose. However, I believe that most people if released from the chains of money would live lives which entailed more time spent on personal/social enrichment and less time at work. Simplifying your life as much as possible decreases your reliance on money exponentially. All you need money for is food, security, heat, and friendship-everything else is just waste. Once you are free from the ideology of “MORE” then you can begin to appreciate the ideology of “less.” It is my goal to spend more time outside through camping and to appreciate the beautiful world that God created. My ultimate goal is to simplify my life to that of Thoreau while making compromises with my wife so she doesn’t leave me :). Go outside, take a breath, and live.

“Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth”

-Henry David Thoreau