As a work of business reporting with an emphasis on Who's interesting?, What's compelling?, Why isn't that really odd?, Punching Out is fine. Think Richard Preston's American Steel, but instead of the protagonists beating back the imports and the legacy steel companies, the protagonists are plucking the Arsenal of Democracy for the Harpies of Outsourcing. The people who disassemble precision industrial equipment, in the instant book the stamping presses of Budd's Detroit works, are at least as colorful as the people who build a steel works and bring a thin slab caster on stream.
The political economy that occasionally intrudes is less compelling. Mr Clemens takes umbrage at a Steven Landsburg criticism of trade adjustment legislation that includes this:
If you're forced to pay $20 an hour to an American for goods you could have bought from a Mexican for $5 an hour, you're being extorted. When a free trade agreement allows you to buy from the Mexican after all, rejoice in your liberation -- even if Mr. McCain, Mr. Romney and the rest of the presidential candidates don't want you to.
It is difficult to contemplate Detroit without reflection on the concentrated, unionized new industrial state that dominated the world economy immediately after World War II, the rationality of people hiring out at those plants as the best thing to do, even if it involved migrating from the agricultural south, the distortion of middle-class ambition into making sure your kids could replace you at the same job, the incentive those Mexican, Brazilian, and Korean industrialists had to emulate Fordist methods, and the case in equity that Detroiters who made what looked like the best choice at the time present to the rest of the country.
That contemplation probably has no place in a first-hand report on the people who are attempting to adjust to their new circumstances at the same time that other people are making their living stripping the press lines. Mr. Clemens's response -- see page 160 -- is less helpful.
Spoken like a man with tenure -- at a university that extorts parents to the tune of fifty thousand dollars per year. Perhaps parents might send their college-age kids to school in Mexico semester after semester, year after year, allowing them to earn a degree for a fraction of the cost that supports Professor Landsburg's teaching load and research agenda?
Once upon a time, that was the mission of city colleges. Their students might not have the money or the social connections of their counterparts at Rochester, but they, too, could struggle with Paradise Lost or the intricacies of the hyperbolic sine. More recently, though ... I learned my cynicism at Wayne State: "access" is a euphemism for "admit unprepared students"; "non-traditional students" means "lacking life-management skills"; "urban mission" is "enabling mediocrity". Mr Clemens is Associate Director of College Information in Liberal Arts, my old college. Perhaps parents pay those higher rates at Rochester precisely to avoid the intellectual dead zone that accompanies the lower rates and the lofty sentiments.
In an aside elsewhere in the book, he remarks on a job candidate who used "creative destruction" to describe what was happening to Detroit. He expressed relief that the candidate did not hire out at Wayne. Says more about him, and about Detroit, than it does about the candidate.
Detroit, nay, large parts of the Rust Belt, will continue to lose ground as long as the remaining thinking people cling to their old ways.
(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)