The city of Detroit has quite a history. Once it was America’s boomtown, a beacon of opportunity that, for decades, attracted countless job seekers fr...moreThe city of Detroit has quite a history. Once it was America’s boomtown, a beacon of opportunity that, for decades, attracted countless job seekers from less prosperous regions of the country. Now, Detroit is the stereotypical representative of everything that could possibly go wrong in an American city. It may not be the only American city to have taken an economic beating, but no other city has fallen farther than the city of Detroit. Mark Binelli, himself born and raised in the Detroit area, decided to take a look at what was happening there, and what he found is even worse – and, in some few ways, better – than what I expected.
Detroit’s problems, according to Binelli, started (with the decline of the auto industry) at least a decade before the 1967 riot that is generally marked as the pivotal moment during which the city was pushed over an edge from which it has never recovered. But in the minds of most Americans, that 1967 rampage in the black community forever marked Detroit as “a hopelessly failed state, a terrifying place of violent crime and general lawlessness.” And the long-lasting flight from the city began.
Who can blame people for fleeing this place? By 2008 the highly corrupt school system was an utter mess, the city had the highest per capita murder rate in the country (an astounding 40.7 murders per 100,00 residents), and reported twice the number of fires that the eleven-times-more-populous city of New York reported. Forbes magazine made it all official by crowning Detroit “the most dangerous U.S. city” based on its rate of 1,220 violent crimes per 100,000 citizens.
That was Detroit at rock bottom, a bottom so low that those in charge of the city (corrupt as the city administration still was) had little to lose by trying anything suggested by outsiders – many of whom were dreamers who came to the city to test theories in the real world that would otherwise have never seen the light of day. People are even coming from Europe to tour the ruins of Detroit because there is no other non-war-zone urban landscape like it.
Detroit is rather desperately trying to reinvent itself. Factory buildings, long abandoned, are being repurposed by “artists” of all types, whole blocks have been razed and turned into community organic farms, the most dangerous and damaged neighborhoods are purposely being neglected by the city in an attempt to force residents to live closer together in areas that the city can afford to service, and whole swaths of Detroit now resemble “urban prairies.”
I did not come away from Detroit City Is the Place to Be nearly as hopeful about Detroit’s future as I expected to be after reading the book. Much of what Binelli says about his city is touching, some of it even humorous, but what does it all mean for a city in which corruption of all sorts, top to bottom, seems still to be the rule? I hope I am being more a pessimist than a realist, but… (less)
Steve Coll’s massive volume (28 chapters, 684 pages, plus an extensive list of footnotes) on the history of ExxonMobil focuses primarily on the compan...moreSteve Coll’s massive volume (28 chapters, 684 pages, plus an extensive list of footnotes) on the history of ExxonMobil focuses primarily on the company’s last two decades. That the decades are bookended by two the worst oil spill disasters in the history of the oil industry is no accident. Coll is likely trying to make the point that oil companies learned little from the horror that was the 1989 Alaskan spill by the Exxon Valdez tanker. Perhaps inadvertently, he also highlights just how complicated and dangerous is the business of exploring and transporting the energy that world economies will depend upon for several decades to come. The odds are that we have not seen the last of such spills.
John D. Rockerfeller’s Standard Oil Company became so dominant, that dedicated “trust busters” and the U.S. Supreme Court, split it into several individual oil companies in 1911. But as happened when AT&T broke apart several decades later, some of the pieces would decide it was smarter to recombine into mini-versions of the original parent company. ExxonMobil, a combination of two companies split from the original Standard Oil all those years ago, is now the largest oil company in the world.
What makes Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power so intriguing is the author’s focus on the political and economic influence ExxonMobil exerts around the world. The company’s revenues are, in fact, large enough to rank it the twenty-first largest “nation state” on the planet. ExxonMobil’s ability to come into remote areas and create revenue streams to whatever government they find there makes it more powerful and influential in parts of the world than the U.S. government (or any other government, for that matter) can claim to be. Lee Raymond, the man in charge for most of the period detailed in Private Empire, knew that he and his company would be around for the long haul – long after many government leaders, especially American presidents, had come and gone. As Raymond watched the rotation of American presidents – and spent ExxonMobil’s money to help those he favored remain in office as long as possible – he knew he could safely put the interests of ExxonMobil first, and those of the United States a distant second. And there was little anyone could do about it even if they wanted to.
Critics of Big Oil, especially those who criticize the industry because of its unwillingness to embrace fully the concept of global warming, will read much in the book that will anger them. Lee Raymond was a nonbeliever, and he did everything in his power to delay any environmental action that would negatively impact ExxonMobil’s ability to do business as usual (as Coll points out, the company stance has changed since Raymond was succeeded by Rex Tillerson). Raymond, on the other hand, did build, and rigidly enforce, a culture of safety that made oil spills and other environmental accidents as unlikely as they could possibly be. The man understood the power of public opinion and he tried to keep it on his side.
It is impossible even to touch on all the issues contained in Private Empire. There are whole chapters on ExxonMobil’s struggles with security problems around the world and how the efforts to keep employees and company assets secure often required the company’s close cooperation with some of the most brutal dictators in world history. Other chapters look at the ultimate impact of all the cash the company poured into third world countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East – what has become known as the “resource curse.” Strikingly, when poor countries suddenly strike it rich in natural resources they often move backward rather than ahead, something akin to what happens to so many unprepared lottery winners. ExxonMobil has seen this happen, first hand, more than once.
Readers willing to tackle Private Empire will be rewarded for their efforts. As a forty-year veteran of the industry (with some of those years spent in third world countries), I was skeptical that ExxonMobil would get a fair shake in a book like this one. Having now read it, I believe Private Empire to be as evenhanded as one could hope – and worthy of the attention it is getting. (less)