WHAT A DUMP

Posted in Rants on October 23rd, 2013 by Ed

My current city is essentially a company town. There is a bit more here than simply Caterpillar, but everything else lags far behind one of the fifty largest corporations on Earth with $100 billion in assets and operations in something like 100 countries. It is not an overstatement to say that Cat runs the show around here; all local governing is done with the company's blessing and most of the very small number of things to do here are funded directly or indirectly by the company coffers. As is the case with all company towns, the city has risen and fallen with the fortunes of its great patron.

At least it used to, that is. Now the company continues to rise and the city continues to fall, as it has followed the trend of closing up facilities here in its Midwestern home and shifting them to developing countries or, if they really feel like slumming it, the deep South. In fact, on the day I moved from Athens to Peoria, Cat announced the closure of a Peoria manufacturing facility to be replaced by a new facility in Athens complete with the usual Southern governments' buffet of free money, tax abatements, infrastructure investments, and promises of a docile $10/hr workforce. I can say without exaggeration that I was traded to Peoria for a major industry to be named later.

So while the city lives and dies by the company, there is less of the company here with each passing year. Part of the reason is the quest for cheaper labor and more obsequious state and local governments. Another part of the reason is that Peoria is a world-class dump. Think Flint, MI or Youngstown, OH with the headquarters of a major global corporation plopped in the center. I've said enough about it to fill volumes; suffice it to say here that Caterpillar does not relish bringing leaders in the business world to Peoria. It's pretty embarrassing.

This isn't idle speculation; I know a handful of white-collar Caterpillar folks, and they complain regularly about the condition of the city. They have berated the city government for lacking suitable hotels (now being built or remodeled downtown with plenty of "incentives"), restaurants, entertainment, or airport. The downtown looks neat from a distance but up close is an abandoned Scooby-Doo ghost town. They have legitimate complaints.

However, they also seem ignorant of their own role – arguably the leading role – in the city's decline from the post-War boom years to its present sorry state. Whenever Cat people, be they acquaintances or the top executives on TV and at city council meetings, complain about what a dump they inhabit I have to suppress the urge to say, "That's funny, because it looked a lot less like a dump when you had 30,000 factory workers here compared to the few hundred here now." And by "suppress the urge to say" I mean that is what I say.

This is not new; General Motors has been doing it to Detroit for years, as have General Electric, Kodak, Dow, and other companies that make up the crumbling cities of upstate New York. They openly pine for the neatly manicured office buildings, suburbs, and downtown chain restaurants of a Phoenix, Dallas, or anywhere-in-Florida. And they criticize their cities – cities and people that have bent over backwards to make them the enormous successes that they have been for a century or more – as though some exogenous force (alien invasions, perhaps) have destroyed everything. It never occurs to them that if they would like the city to be full of the kinds of things that sprout up wherever sizable populations with disposable income exist then perhaps they should stop cutting the workforce and perhaps even consider expanding it. Of course, that suggestion inevitably leads into the race to the bottom that is modern competitive federalism – why stay here when Alabama's politicians are willing to write blank checks and its people are willing to work for half as much because Freedom?

For people and institutions who hold the principles of capitalism so dear, they sure do seem to struggle with "You get what you pay for."