Chapter 12: What Happened to Detroit, Again?
It’s been a while, but if you recall, I started my investigation with a vexing question: what happened to Detroit? In isolation, it’s mind-boggling that Detroit could just die. But it’s double-plus super mind-boggling that this could happen while the USA is establishing and strengthening its hegemonic grip over the globe. I feel the need to invent that latter category for the express purpose of trying to get across just how deeply weird this phenomenon is.
After all that theory and history, I think I finally have the tools to explain it. Here goes nothing.
First, we’ll start by pulling out my good friend, the black box thermodynamic model of civilization, for one more go. What do we see when we look at the theocratic era? Well, when applied to the US, we see something like these charts: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_the_United_States).
At the top line (ignoring where the energy comes from or what it’s used for), the trend is pretty clear. Energy capture was increasing at a very healthy clip (3% a year or so) from the beginning of the century until 1973. In the aftermath of the energy crisis, fossil fuel consumption levels off. Fission energy makes up for some of the gap, but doesn’t come close to restoring the trend-line growth. The result is that, post 1973, energy consumption per capita is pretty flat. Starting around the 2007 recession, the top line actually starts going down. This is true in both the overall measure and in the per capita measures, since the US population is growing during this period.
This is not good. Energy consumption is perhaps the key indicator of the economic health of a civilization, and we’re in the red. However, the top line numbers aren’t everything. A civilization could theoretically be better off if it were able to make better use of the same energy, through intrinsic growth, even if it’s not able to increase the rate energy pours into the system. The key measure we want to get at is the bottom line: the surplus energy available for expenditure. Unfortunately, what I mean by that does not appear to be measured and regularly released by anybody I’m aware of. So I’ll have to try to get at it with a couple of proxy measures.
Let’s set the null hypothesis to “there has been no interesting change in the growth rate of the energy surplus since 1973”. Since the top line is flat and then decreasing, that implies that there needs to be some serious improvements in productivity. Fortunately, we have a decent candidate for that: the computerization and software revolution that has been revolutionizing the economy. Is it possible that technological advance has been able to find the massive efficiencies necessary to keep pace?
Well, as I mentioned in an earlier chapter, the total factor productivity measure (which economists try to use to measure this idea of efficiency) doesn’t show any evidence of getting significantly better around 1973. In fact, the measure points in the other direction. But TFP is kind of a statistical kludge; maybe we can do better by sticking to our thermodynamic core. So, if we’re seeing a lot of intrinsic technologically-driven efficiency growth, we’d expect to see signs of this in increasing energy efficiency.
This page (http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/kwes.pdf) has a helpful comparison of the energy efficiency of the OECD countries (the First World, essentially) in 1973 and 2010. If the USA was doing something amazing along these lines, there should be a significant effect in these numbers. And we see that, in 1973, 3,740.55 Mtoe (Milion tons of oil equivalent) were consumed by OECD countries, with 2,815.48 consumed by end users. Or, in other words, 75% of the energy that was harvested actually got to the economies of the OECD nations. In 2010, the values are 5405.87 and 3691.11 Mtoe, respectively, implying a 68% efficiency rate. (Note that the top line numbers here agree pretty closely with the US values we just saw, since total energy consumption went up by about 50% over the period and the US population went from 200 million to 300 million in that same time span. The ratio is the same, so the per-capita value is flat.)
Huh. The raw energy analysis agrees with the result I got from the TFP perspective. Instead of seeing the growth in these measures that would validate the null hypothesis, if anything, I see the intrinsic growth measures going the other way. That’s not good at all. If these numbers are right, this implies that the surplus is shrinking even faster than the top line energy inputs!
Outside of these aggregate numbers, there’s some compelling historical evidence to back this up. In 1960, the USA embarked on the Apollo Project, the goal of which was to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. This was an ambitious and expensive project, consuming significant national resources and many skilled man-years of effort with little hope of return. Other than being awesome, of course. In technical terms, Apollo was a massive monument, constructed at the behest of the Social Democratic priesthood to demonstrate their greatness and justify their rule. Sociologically, it’s exactly analogous to the Great Pyramids.
So, why is it that we can’t put a man on the moon anymore? Why did we stop? After all, it’s already been done, so the development is mostly paid for. The plans for the Saturn V and the lunar lander still exist somewhere. There might even still be some people around who remember building the thing. And doing it again with modern technology would have to be a lot cheaper than how they had to do it the first time.
Most people, if you ask them, will say that the reason why we don’t do it any more is because the moon wasn’t worth it. Or because the nation, as a collective, just doesn’t want to any more. But I think the real reason is in that surplus number. The USA is no longer capable of putting a man on the moon, because it can no longer marshal the surplus energy to execute that mission. It’s not a coincidence that the last Apollo missions flew in 1972, and the last Saturn V launched in 1973. At this rate, if we ever go back (through the efforts of private space exploration companies, perhaps) it will be because fifty years of technological advance has made it so that the mission costs much less.
By itself, this doesn’t explain the death of a great city like Detroit. But I think I’m on to something here. A civilization which is hemorrhaging surplus energy is one that is failing at the most fundamental level. Failing badly enough to mysteriously lose a major city, perhaps. And since the effect appears to be OECD-wide, and since we know the Soviets completely imploded economically in this time frame, it’s not inconsistent with the observed increasing US superiority on most metrics. In the kingdom of the increasingly blind, the man with the last good eye is king.
OK, so what else changed around 1973? It seems pretty implausible that the Arab oil embargo could have permanently broken civilization. Energy shocks have happened before and since without having such a drastic impact. That’s a good candidate for the spark, in the same way that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the catalyst for the First World War. But the far more interesting part of the story is how the situation got to the point where a spark could burn down the world.
Looking at my brief survey history of the world through my caste lens, a good candidate for the root cause is the religious conversion from the Old Left to the New Left. The timing seems right, as the New Left was entrenching itself atop the social hierarchies of the West during the ’70s. And it was certainly a large enough upheaval to plausibly cause this effect. Let’s give it a go and see what we find.
The rise of the environmentalists jumps out at me right away. They’re an influential faction of the New Left, and they’ve been against increased energy capture since the inception of their movement. They’ve crusaded against nuclear power since the beginning; they’re constantly trying to prevent new oil exploration in places they have influence; they resist economically efficient coal mining; they try to shut down hydroelectric dams to save runs of fish; and they claim that because of the threat of global warming that all fossil fuel use should be capped immediately at levels far below the current outputs. To the degree that New Left theocrats make policy in a way pleasing to environmentalists, almost by definition civilization will suffer.
But environmentalism is something of a boutique cause. It’s not the core of the New Left. No, the truly sacred principle that unites the New Left everywhere is diversity. So, let’s look at that more closely. Under a theocratic regime dedicated to diversity, how does one rise in status? Remember: the usual routes to top-level status in the priest caste are sainthood and clever argumentation. In a regime dedicated to diversity, one acquires the prestige of the saint by publicly suffering for one’s membership in a historically-disadvantaged group. Whoever can best wear the mantle of the victim rises.
Because of this, one bolsters one’s case by coming up with clever arguments as to why they are actually the real victim. The key to this process appears to be to cultivate a very particular form of acute sensitivity to perceived oppression. I find this mode of thinking aesthetically repellent enough that I have a very hard time describing it in a neutral fashion. Maybe just linking to an example of the form will help. There is a website called “Microaggressions” (explained here: http://www.microaggressions.com/about/) where people are invited to write to the site to share seemingly innocuous anecdotes about times when the writer briefly felt like a victim.
I believe this incentive also explains the recent curious trend of “false-flag” incidents, where it turns out that a publicly racist act wasn’t actually perpetrated by a sincere racist (or didn’t happen at all). For example, Oberlin College recently shut down after a person was reported wearing KKK robes and some racist propaganda had been posted. I mean this literally. The college ceased all normal business and replaced it with emergency anti-racist seminars, while ordering campus security to identify the culprits in order to purge the taint. And in the end, it turned out that there wasn’t actually a person in KKK regalia at all, and the propaganda was not posted by sincere racists. The whole thing was a hoax. But the seemingly disproportionate response made the national news.
Another example of this sort of thing is the famous Duke Lacrosse case, where a black female student at the nearby North Carolina Central University falsely accused three white members of the Duke University lacrosse team of rape in 2006. As soon as the accusation was made, the district attorney leaped on the case and persecuted it beyond the fullest extent of the law (eventually being disbarred for his zealous misconduct). Just after the case became public, 88 professors at Duke famously signed an open letter, which was publicized in the student newspaper. It attacked the accused and declared the issue a “social disaster”, which required repentance. Some professors went so far as to declare that the accused could never be exonerated. According to Wikipedia:
“In Lubiano’s mind, the players could never be cleared, no matter what the evidence….The members of the team, she noted, could be considered ‘almost perfect offenders,’ since they are ‘the exemplars of the upper end of the class hierarchy, the politically dominant race and ethnicity, the dominant gender, the dominant sexuality, and the dominant social group on campus.’…Lubiano concluded by promising that the crusade to transform Duke would continue ‘regardless of the “truth” established in whatever period of time about the incident at the house on N. Buchanan Blvd.’ and ‘whatever happens with the court case.’
Just as at Oberlin, this case also made the national news. This pattern of behavior reminds me of nothing more than a severe allergic reaction, where oversensitivity to a potential threat leads to immune overcompensation, eventually resulting in anaphylactic shock.
And from the caste-governance perspective, this looks suspiciously like a classic theocratic failure mode. The content of the New Left diversity religion is undergoing accelerating doctrinal drift. Various priests seeking status try to convince each other that they need to be more diverse in increasingly more expensive ways, and then they compete with each other on how to best be classified a victim, which yields more radical attempts to one-up each other on points of diversity doctrine, and so on and so forth.
This process is made much more potent in combination with modern media. Debates among the priesthood in previous theocracies used to take decades to play out before they spilled out into the broader society as moral imperatives to change policy. But a modern theocratic representative democracy has a really tight feedback loop between the opinions of the priesthood and popular opinion. This significantly reduces the inherent damping that came from both cohering priestly opinion around a proposed change and the transmission delay that came from attempting to implement the new change.
The sheer rapidity of the way the idea of gay marriage took off is instructive. It went from largely unknown and considered absurd in the late ’80s (to my knowledge, no prominent gay activists at the time even thought it was a good idea, let alone advocated for it), to an unpopular fringe opinion in the ’90s, to a matter of fierce moral urgency and banner issue for progress in the 2000s, to what will likely be the universal law of the land in the 2010s. As these things go, that’s really fast.
It’s also expensive. A significant fraction of the influence budget of the Western priesthood (what I sometimes think of as their “mind-control bandwidth”) was redirected from traditional hierarchy maintenance efforts into speeding reforms like this along. The effect of this reprioritization can be seen in the increase in the various measures of what social conservatives tend to refer to as “social breakdown”: divorce and illegitimacy rates are way up; crime rates are historically quite high; the percentage of the population in prison is alarmingly large; and the average education level, skill attained, and general work ethic of people appears to be dropping, especially on the bottom rungs of society. This is exactly the sort of pattern you’d expect if the priests stopped focusing on their core function: to convince people to abstain from doing what’s natural in favor of acting in a way that’s consistent with civilization.
In real resource terms, we can see that the social control budget has gone up a lot since the ’60s. Before that, the US was in a relatively low-crime, low-incarceration equilibrium. During the chaos of the ’60s and ’70s, the crime rate exploded. It was eventually brought under control through a campaign of extensive prison construction and harsher sentencing (e.g. “three strikes” laws), leaving the country in a new moderate-crime, high-incarceration equilibrium. Basically, we’re spending a lot more now to get almost the same results.
A similar pattern can be seen in the education system. Real expenditures on education in the US have exploded since the ’60s, while educational attainment seems to have gone down. Just as with crime control, the country appears to have gotten much less efficient at translating resource expenditure into actual results.
Finally, the extrinsic growth rate is shrinking. Births are down all over the globe since the baby boom petered out in the mid-’60s. The dependency ratio in the US bumped up during the baby boom, implying that some of the surplus was spent on extrinsic growth, and notably returned to the previous norm by 1975. In industrialized nations, virtually every nation is currently at or below replacement level fertility. In thermodynamic terms, this means that energy that would be required to maintain the population is instead being redirected elsewhere.
All of these data points serve as decent evidence, in my mind, for the proposition that the surplus available to civilization is shrinking faster than the raw energy inputs. Zooming out all the way, it sure looks like the exploding maintenance costs under the New Left theocracy have consumed the inherited surplus budget. Instead of reinvesting it into extrinsic or intrinsic growth, it was largely spent to stay in the same place while reforming the society to better please the gods of Diversity.
This also implies that the situation would be glaringly obvious (and, subjectively, a lot worse) if it weren’t for the rapid advance in the computer and electronics sector. Software has made it possible to do almost everything more cheaply and efficiently. It’s deeply disturbing that the surplus energy budget is in a worse state despite a 20-year technological revolution. In order for this math to work out, it means that New Left theocratic governance must be, on net, roughly equal to a negative Apollo program plus a negative Baby Boom plus a negative Moore’s Law revolution!
You think that’s scary? Check this out. We have good reason to believe that the effect of Moore’s Law on society ought to be exponential, in the way of traditional economic growth or compound interest. Each newly automated process yields free resources that can be used to incrementally improve something else, and so on, and so forth. If the net surplus is in decline despite this, the inefficiency burden must have grown at least as fast during the time period. What if, instead of being a constant or linear drag on civilization, the inefficiency burden from the ruling theocracy is best modeled as if it were accelerating rapidly? And if Moore’s Law is slowing down (as it already has in per-processor chip speeds), or if civilization is decaying at a faster rate than technological advance can manage to keep up with, honest-to-goodness apocalypse is not out of the question. The math almost requires it.
For some additional terror, consider this: if the system crashes, it might not ever come back. Remember that when Rome imploded, European civilization never put it back together again. For centuries afterward, millions of people lived and died amongst the ruins. They understood, dimly, that there had once been a golden age before their own. Men quite like themselves had once been capable of feats so far beyond their ken it seemed like fairytale magic. And that’s pretty much what it means to be living in a dark age.
Detroit. Detroit is the horrible future. I think it’s just further ahead of the rest of the country – a more advanced specimen of the decay afflicting the rest of the West – largely due to an accident of timing. Allow me to explain.
In 1967, the waves of race riots that wracked the country hit Detroit particularly hard. The National Guard and the Army were required to restore order. The five day disturbance was the largest and most destructive urban riot since the Civil War. And in the aftermath, the leaders of the city and the State decided to attempt to appease the rioters, offering the most extreme leaders prestige and funding in exchange for what was deemed “riot insurance”.
Racial tensions were extremely high after this event, which meant that the growing Old Left/New Left divide took on a sharp color line. The old-line social democrats that were running the city were almost entirely white, and the rising New Leftists were almost entirely black. This additional tribal element made relations between the two ideological camps much more fraught than it would be in other places throughout the country, where the conversion took place much more peacefully.
Fast forward a few uneasy years to 1973. Strange how that year keeps coming up, isn’t it? Anyhow, Coleman Young, whose political roots are in the Communist-aligned radical black community, is running to be the mayor of Detroit. He’s running against John Nichols, the white police commissioner. To make the choice even more stark, one of the major issues in the campaign is the set of allegations of police brutality against blacks by a special task force of the police force organized by Commissioner Nichols. It’s basically the perfect Old Left/New Left case study.
At the time, the demographics of Detroit are almost exactly 50-50 white vs. black. And the election is almost entirely decided along racial lines. But, despite whites slightly outnumbering blacks, Young narrowly wins the election. He then goes on to win the next four elections in a row in landslide after landslide on the strength of the black vote, retiring 20 years later as a beloved public figure in the city. Notably, the underlying demographics changed significantly in that time, with the white population of the city shrinking by three-quarters (which entirely explains the massive population decline in that period).
At the same time, the energy crisis hits the automobile industry hard. Motor vehicles are an energy-intensive mix of consumption and capital investment, so it makes total sense that when forced to economize on energy expenditure, people would cut back on car purchases first. So, all things being equal, you’d expect that Detroit would suffer more through the mid-’70s and early ’80s than much of the country.
Where the story gets interesting is after this transition period. Unlike most other places, Mayor Young was powerful enough to be able to install his New Left regime without needing to compromise too much, because enough of his opponents left town in the period after his ascension that he never had to worry about losing another election. And, as such, his Wikipedia page is a worthwhile read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coleman_Young. In it, it talks a lot about his legacy being structural reforms of the police force, the community organization that he led against waves of arson, and cooperation with civic leaders to fund the rebuilding of downtown Detroit. It also prominently mentions all of the awards he got from New Left organizations around the country anointing him an excellent public official and a vanguard of the revolution.
What’s only obliquely mentioned are the rise of gangs parceling up the Detroit streets, the corruption scandals plaguing members of his administration, the persistent economic stagnation within the city, and the fact that “arson, murder, and crime, in general, remain serious problems in Detroit.” In his memoirs, Mayor Young blames many of these problems on the white exodus that accelerated after the 1967 riot, because it reduced the economic base (and the associated potential tax revenue).
But I think that the pattern of the decline belies that pat explanation. The broad pattern in the economic story of Detroit is that recessions seem to hit the city twice as hard as they do in the rest of the country, while periods of prosperity only keep the city afloat until the next recession. If the problem were due to the exodus of white people, you’d expect a one-time major hit as the white people leave, which would then level off to a new lower equilibrium at the new black-majority level, which should then continue to grow as normal from there. But this progressive decline is exactly what you’d expect if the real problem were that the inefficiency penalty afflicting Detroit had progressed just a little further along its exponential rise than it had everywhere else.
In this model, under New Left management Detroit’s running a negative energy surplus pretty consistently. The normal state of affairs is to spend down built-up capital (or fail to maintain it) in order to keep the system going, leading to phenomena like abandoned buildings, inoperative streetlights, and broken fire trucks. When overall energy inputs are increasing, the windfall gets spent on trying to stem the rate of decay (e.g. “Now that we can afford it, maybe we should fix a couple of the lights!”). And when the energy input shrinks, as in a recession, it’s a brutal blow to the system. This forces a reduction in the overall standard of living commensurate with the new level of energy input, since there’s no slack left in the system to absorb such a shock.
Note that there’s no feedback mechanism here within the system that can get Detroit back on track. Any failures are blamed on the ideological enemy as a matter of course. It was the banks that did it, by refusing to lend to our people! Or the white businesses that fled! Or the auto companies, for building their new plants outside the city! At the same time, the theocratic leadership has a tight hold on the portion of the electorate which is receptive to its message, and it has driven off the part that isn’t, so the system is politically stable from an internal perspective.
And, barring complete official collapse (like the recent bankruptcy), nobody from outside the city is going to lift a finger to fix the problem. If the State of Michigan or the Federal Government tried to intervene while intervention had a hope of stemming the decline, it would have come off as the white power structure running roughshod over the duly-elected black leadership of a majority-black city. And, for obvious religious reasons, this prospect is almost literally unthinkable. So it goes.