WUOMFM

Mark Zuckerberg leans into Michigan

May 6, 2017

You may have heard that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently chose little ol’ Dearborn to lean into the real world. Good choice, even if the mogul’s posts after his visit proved Detroit isn’t the only patch of America living and working in a bubble. Silicon Valley is, too.

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

He said it was his “first time” in Michigan. He learned that, quote, "working on the line at an assembly plant is physically hard.” That you get “worn down.” And that “working at Ford is a long term thing.”Who knew? 

Lots of people in the real world, that’s who. Historians know and United Auto Workers leaders know. In theory, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders knows and so does President Donald Trump. He’s sitting in the White House now because he’s the first nominee from either party in 25 years to connect with work-a-day folks in the industrial heartland.

But a Silicon Valley mogul? Not so much.

Look, you wanna see middle America in all its hard-working, common-sense, grounded-in-reality glory? You wanna’ touch the people members of Congress and auto bailout opponents were happy to consign to the ash heap of history?

Dearborn is one place to find it.

Median income tracks the national average, unlike, say, Palo Alto. The hottest real estate segment is houses under one hundred thousand dollars. The city once synonymous with the bigotry of the Orville Hubbard years now is a functioning melting pot of religions and colors.

Oh, it’s not perfect. I lived there for a lot of years. But the co-existence embedded in its local political culture symbolizes how the country can work — and often work together — at a time of so much division.

Its hometown company, Ford Motor, is working again. The pickups rolling off the line at Dearborn Assembly are the cash cows. The company milks ‘em to finance its push into mobility and self-driving cars – the very segment Zuckerberg’s valley rivals want to claim for themselves.

What’s so bracing is the implied revelation in Zuckerberg’s posts – that people really do work hard. That designing, engineering and building cars and trucks really is difficult. That this is how vast swaths of America spend each day … and whole lives.

Um, yeah. At least Zuckerberg is man enough to implicitly admit it, to borrow the Toyota mantra to “go and see.” That’s more than can be said for other Masters of the Universe who seldom tire of telling the rest of us what to do.

But did the Facebook boss understand what he was seeing?

Look a little harder. The divide separating his world from industrial America, Silicon Valley from Detroit, mirrors the red-blue political gulf cleaving the nation. It’s between the coasts and the middle of the country. The knowledge economy and the industrial economy. The highly valued tech sector in which he’s king and automakers like Ford are struggling for investor respect and next-generation relevance.

It’s the contours of the central economic battle of our time – and the first step toward winning is understanding the adversary. It’s not as hard as some people make it look.

I’m Daniel Howes of The Detroit News.

Daniel Howes is a columnist with The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.