How My Hometown of Flint Influenced Populace

The stories came fast and quick from children’s mouths “A party. A New Year’s Eve party. A shotgun. Someone lost a foot.” It was hard to say what was true. But then when my mom repeated it, relayed coherently from someone close to the situation, I understood that she had already made the choice to leave. Put simply, a teenager hosted a New Year’s Eve party, where he had shot off the foot of a girl.

This and the graffiti on the buildings, her two youngest (that’s me and my sister) becoming teenagers, and that she had to work multiple jobs to pay the bills created an impetus to leave our neighborhood, leave our hometown, behind.

There’s a lot that has happened since then. Recently, I had the pleasure of being on the Tom Sumner program — a radio show local to Flint, Mich. While the impressive interview skills of the host kept the conversation lively, I couldn’t escape the feeling of accomplishment from the 45 minutes or so we discussed my book Populace. In a way, I was returning to my hometown with a novel so heavily influenced by the city and the politics there.

The changes that I saw to Flint were just a snippet of the changes that took place over the previous 50 years. The city rose with General Motors, which had chosen Flint as its hometown, in part to get away from Ford in Detroit, while still benefiting from the knowledge in the area of how to build a car.

Over the next 20 years (from the 1950s to the 1970s), Flint saw a boomtime that coincided with the rise of General Motors — at one point the largest company in the world.

Roger and Me.jpg

Of course, any fan of Roger and Me, knows how the tale goes next — albeit a somewhat one-sided account. GM moved labor out of the city to reduce labor costs, which had been very generous up to this point. (As a footnote: To the best of my knowledge, no, it did not go to Mexico, but rather to a number of Southern states. And, frankly, if GM were to continue with some of their pay and pension plans for their employees, then the company would have gone bankrupt. Where would Flint have been then?)

What started in the 80s with GM moving manufacturing out became a vicious cycle — suppliers closed shop, leading to more unemployment, further burdening the city, which impacted any number of governmental services, which dampened the capabilities of the workforce, which helped GM make the case to move out of the city, which it did going all through the 90s, and even into the 00s, until it left what was essentially a shell.

This cycle is what political scientists deem “monocrop societies,” and often they happen in third-world countries. Basically if the price of sugar is high, your sugar producing country is booming, if it’s low, well…Welcome to Flint.

The undercurrent to this entire situation, and one that I see playing out across all of the United States, is where politics, economics and businesses meet. It’s a dynamic that first played out in Flint closing up shops because labor costs grew too high, and instead of helping to forge a compromise, the governments took the extreme stance with either labor or business. When the compromise left, probably before the 80s, businesses took steps to adjust for their profits.

The only recourse for the Populace then was to elect leadership that promised ever grander things, often without showing results (I mean, these are politicians we’re talking about), or to leave the city for a place with more economic diversity and opportunity.

Of course, there are a lot of Flints in the world today — hundreds of rust belt cities that underwent a boom-bust monocrop cycle in cars, boats, steel, coal and more. Many of these abandoned their Democratic underpinnings and voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Now some have buyers’ remorse, while others keep the hope to Make America Great Again (whatever the hell that means).

But it’s probably most interesting to look at current monocrop cultures in the U.S. to demonstrate the kinds of extremist politics that destroyed the Rust Belt. Oil-rich towns in Oklahoma and Texas (perhaps even Alaska as well) keep chanting “drill baby drill” without considering what might happen when a large contributor to their economies stops being relevant — and rest assured, we will not pump oil one day (and if some folks are to be believed that could happen in as soon as a decade). In fact, these places were gravely impacted by the price of oil simply dropping.

Is there a solution? Well perhaps, but I’m pessimistic we’ll achieve it. First, the extremism in politics, where choices are binary and you reply “yes/no” to should we pump oil should stop. They’re both insulting to any intelligent person and misplace the question. We should pump oil while working toward renewable solutions, because climate change is real, but we also have to power homes and cars. Both these things can be true.

Next, politicians and government must do more to diversify their economies, rather than simply be a mouthpiece for whatever group is paying them. The best and most organic way to diversify an economy is through education that highlights a partnership with modern technologies, while also focusing on people’s creativity.

Finally, the money in the political situation must be addressed. This is the root cause of so many ills, and has bought businessmen undue influence over the political process for centuries. It’s almost an American tradition to buy an election, but when all of our elections become full of businessmen, we’re losing out on a true representation of the American people, who are many things — doctors, teachers, bankers, bus drivers, truckers, pharmacists and more. Today we have politicians who are sales people who businesses pay through donations to sell whatever they want to the public.

As it is, the political class ignores the needs of the people, and the world I created in Populace becomes all the closer to reality.

Alex Wilson