Mike Duggan, Detroit’s top politician, became a jet-setter to a foreign land this week — a business and trade trip to Japan. Not that there’s anything wrong with such trips, provided the agenda has some realistic prospect of benefiting the constituency the mayor serves. But history shows the benefits to Detroiters from these excursions are dubious, at best. The mayor’s time would be better spent addressing issues that require his immediate attention at home.
According to published reports, this will be the mayor’s first international jaunt. He is slated to travel to Tokyo and Toyota City, Detroit’s sister city, and give addresses about “Detroit’s economic recovery and emergence from bankruptcy.” Also on the itinerary is a “reception,” a meeting with a “parliamentary vice-minister for economic affairs” and a visit to the Toyota Motor Corp.
“Detroit has long played a significant role in international trade. There are currently approximately 40,000 people employed by Japanese industries in Michigan,” Duggan’s press released noted. “This trip will build on that history and lay the groundwork for the expansion of jobs for Detroiters.”
First of all, his speech about Detroit’s “recovery” will be short, if not premature.
Secondly, trade missions, designed to eye new investment opportunities, might be marginally helpful when opening more markets for Detroit. But it’s doubtful that the Japanese can give Mayor Duggan any useful advice on how to reduce long-term economic decline, stimulate a no-growth environment, ameliorate extreme poverty, or how to end internecine violence that continues to make Detroit less than hospitable or receptive to businesses.
This mayor, though, is not the first to take questionable trips overseas. Former Mayor Dennis Archer was also part of a similar delegation to Japan to help Detroit and Toyota city celebrate their 35th anniversary as sister cities. The stated purpose was to persuade Japanese automakers and suppliers to consider Detroit as a possible site in the future. However, the highlight of Archer’s trip was to take part in the opening of the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art. There’s little evidence that any economic benefit came from it.
Former Mayor Dave Bing made a celebrated and symbolic five-day excursion to Italy. The mission was pegged as a search for strategies to help deal with Detroit’s problems. Again, there is no visible or financial proof that expedition made Detroit a better place to live or to raise children.
In fact, under Archer and Bing, the business climate showed no improvement; neighborhood decline and depopulation worsened and bankruptcy became the rule of the day.
Duggan’s administration is also quick to say his trip is not at taxpayer expense. The mayor’s airfare tab is being picked up by Delta Air Lines. Other travel expenses are courtesy of The Japan America Society of Michigan and Southwestern Ontario.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the trip doesn’t meet the definition of a junket – typically described as “a trip taken by an official at public expense, or the guest of a business seeking favor or patronage.” In any event, a junket by any other name is still a junket.
The travels of Mayor Duggan appear to contain more political symbolism than substance. Answers to the myriad problems facing Detroit won’t be found on this trip or, for that matter, some distant shore. Removing the economic, social and political obstacles to trade and investment demands the attention of a stay-at-home mayor.