February 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

Detroit is a progressive's perfect world

Detroit has been led astray by leaders with bigger microphones than business sense, Erik Telford writes. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Detroit, once an engine of economic growth, has been undone by a misguided belief that government and unions can create a better climate for growth and innovation than free-market entrepreneurship. And yet as the crumbling city pays for its decades of mistakes through painful bankruptcy proceedings, into town sweeps Netroots Nation, to promote the same policies and progressive mentality that doomed Detroit.

Netroots Nation is sponsored by eight of the 10 largest unions by membership in America, and much as it masquerades as a gathering of young, tech-oriented digital activists, it is in fact Big Labor’s annual exposition—the mega-unions’ desperate attempt to maintain control of the Democratic base. The conference promotes, among other progressive priorities, expanding labor organizing and beefing up entitlement programs.

Last year, Netroots gathered in Silicon Valley, which perfectly reflected not only its techie image but also the dream of Detroit as it was years ago. A century ago, Detroit was Silicon Valley, a beacon of innovation and job creation that could do no wrong, and a place all the world looked to for technological advancements that changed the way we live. The story of Detroit’s fall needs to be told — as a warning of what can happen to even the strongest of cities when leaders choose the wrong path.

Few have told this story better than, “Bankrupt: How Cronyism and Corruption Brought Down Detroit,” a startling new film by Ben Howe. As the film picks through the rubble of what was once one of the most prosperous and innovative cities in America, a recurring theme is Detroit’s shift from an entrepreneurial mentality to an entitlement society.

With Netroots Nation coming to the Motor City this summer, it’s startling to realize how much devastation the policies promoted by progressives have wrought upon Detroiters.

Howe’s film tells the story of a Detroit that many in my generation have never seen — the capital of American progress and ingenuity, a growing metropolis of well-paying jobs that attracted creative, hard-working people from around the country.

At the root of Detroit’s growth in the first half of the 20th century was capitalism and a “can-do” entrepreneurial spirit that drove the growth of the auto industry.

As the Big Three and the people they employed forged ahead with this attitude, Detroit grew. But sometime after World War II, this spirit waned, and Detroit slipped into a fatal type of complacency where protecting the status quo took precedence over achieving success.

As the United Auto Workers union grew in power, so too did the pensions and benefits afforded to its members. Devoid of foreign or domestic competition, the Big Three stopped innovating — and their workers’ focus gradually shifted from powering America to bargaining for more paid leave, early retirement, a full pension package, and a place up north.

Such is the modern labor union mentality, which is as central to progressive doctrine as it is toxic to economic growth.

As the Big Three began to face overseas competition — in the form of Japanese and German automakers — in the 1970s, they found themselves unable to respond, weighed down by union contracts and decades of stagnation.

Now, Netroots is experiencing a modern-day “Christmas Carol,” with Silicon Valley showing them Progressivism Present and Detroit Progressivism Future.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but Netroots and the unions seem content to dance upon the ruins of the Motor City, touting the same mindset that destroyed it.

Detroit is the end of the road for all cities that submit to the empty hope of progressivism, and today’s centers of innovation need to tune the clamors of Netroots out before it’s too late.

Erik Telford is senior vice president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.