It wasn't supposed to be like this -- a National Summit to chart a collaborative course for the future amid what has become the creative destruction of Detroit and its defining auto industry.
But it's where we are. Corporate giants General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group LLC are in or emerging from taxpayer-funded bankruptcy. Unemployment is soaring. Government budgets are near a breaking point, and the sentient population increasingly is open to business and political leaders willing to make a radical break with the past -- if they have the guts to lead.
The National Summit, opening a three-day run today at the Marriott Renaissance Center, is a risk for the sponsoring Detroit Economic Club and its namesake city because they're hosting a conference on the kind of competitiveness the bellwether industry here couldn't deliver despite more than a generation of warnings. With the risks, however, come potential rewards: an opportunity to share hard lessons learned, to alert others to the existential dangers of inaction and, worse, denial.
Detroit with its deep economic troubles "should be the canary in the coal mine," Ford Motor Co.'s executive chairman, Bill Ford Jr., co-chairman of the summit, told me. "It doesn't have to end in disaster. You can take charge of your own destiny."
He's right, much as the example of Detroit -- with a few notable exceptions -- is one of mostly doing anything but. The National Summit, a first-of-its-kind gathering of business and labor leaders, academics and ranking government officials, is as good a place as any to start.
It's a "conversation," as Economic Club President Beth Chappell prefers to call it, that needs to happen because the pre-global-meltdown days of betting the future on ever-rising asset values, ever-expanding markets and an apparently limitless capacity for debt amounted to the Big Three lies of the modern world.
Countries with promising futures make things even as they innovate, design and finance them. Their businesses and governments find ways to balance the needs of environmental protection and energy efficiency with the promise of profits, new technology, the autonomy -- and jobs -- that comes with manufacturing much it at home.
"There's no question there has to be a balance ... and a partnership" between business and government "more than a domination of one or the other," says Chip McClure, chairman and CEO of ArvinMeritor Inc., a global auto supplier based in Troy. "As I look at other parts of the world, they've been doing it for quite some time."
We're not doing so well -- in Detroit or the nation. The past nine months, marked by frozen credit markets, plunging market values and the teetering of whole industries on the brink of collapse, have been harsh reminders that the American economy of a generation ago is more fragile and in many ways less prepared for pitiless global competition than many thought possible.
Don't believe it? Welcome to Detroit. On the drive in from the airport, now considered one of the best in the world after its run in the Third World-status ranks, you may have noticed the burned-out homes, the rotting hulk once known as the Central Depot train station, the wreckage of beloved Tiger Stadium.
You may have read yet another story -- or five -- about the rolling bankruptcies of Detroit's shocked auto industry. First Chrysler. Now GM. Plants gone. Jobs gone. Dealers gone. Community tax revenue -- gone. All of it, and so much more, is evidence of a regional economy hitting bottom, a place that created great wealth but ignored the quickening competition coming from Japan, South Korea, Germany and, yes, our own American South.
We are living the story you're reading, and have been for nearly a decade. We are the cautionary American tale, the people whose managers and union leaders clung to the "manufacturing" piece of the National Summit agenda at the expense of the "technology," "energy" and "environment" pieces until denying them no longer was an option.
We didn't get it. Those who did? Marginalized, retired, pushed out or resigned in frustration. Whole institutions born in the formative years of what became the American Century -- the United Auto Workers, GM, Ford, Chrysler -- couldn't muster courage to change cultures mired in the past and wouldn't embrace the sentiment that is as true as it is cheesy: We're all in this together.
That we understand better, if imperfectly, today than at least since World War II. Labor and management, pressured like never before, worked together to mold a competitive business model. Imagine where we'd be if they'd done so 15 years ago.
Same for the metal coming from auto plants, especially Ford and GM. There's world-class quality, segment-leading fuel economy, a technological story greener and more encouraging than lazy conventional wisdom is willing to acknowledge. But with two of Detroit's Three in or just out of bankruptcy, who can blame them?
This town, for one, but it shouldn't. We are here, living the Great Restructuring brought by a confluence of events, many controllable and some not. We wouldn't have the "conversation" envisioned by the National Summit; when we did, we didn't listen or the others didn't.
Look around over the next few days and you'll see successful heavy hitters from Microsoft, ConocoPhillips and Delta, along with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. You'll also see the likes of McClure, Bill Ford, American Axle's Dick Dauch and Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris, a Summit co-chair -- leaders who've seen the painful costs of ignoring competitive gaps and found ways to bridge them.
They haven't surrendered. This is a conversation that needs to happen, as much for the nation as for the industrial Midwest.
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