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Detroit could learn from Eastern Europe

I’ve just come back from a couple of weeks in East-Central Europe, countries that were communist satellites of the old Soviet Union until a quarter of a century ago.

This was the first time I had visited since the wall came down and the world changed, and I found all the cities I’d known before essentially unrecognizable – mainly because of their gleaming prosperity. Budapest was known as the “happiest barrack in the Communist camp” when I was there in the late 80s, but life was fairly wretched by our standards.

There was some private enterprise, which meant things like little shops selling bootleg cassette tapes. Infrastructure throughout the East bloc was in an awful state, with concrete falling from gray, dirty buildings which hadn’t been painted in decades.

There were some private cars – little pathetic Trabants and Ladas with plastic bodies powered by what looked like a lawnmower engine. Well, that world has vanished.

Today, downtown streets in Budapest and Prague are clogged with late-model Audis, Skodas and Mercedes, plus a fair number of Fords.

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is especially fascinating. Nobody went there back in the day; its old town by the river, which dates to medieval times, had become a crumbling ruin. Today, it is not only bustling and crowded with tourists from a dozen countries; it has become a huge center of automotive production.

Martin Sloboda, a 40-something native who is sort of a one-man tourist industry, told me accurately that Slovakia, a nation of six million people, has become the largest per capital manufacturer of cars in the world.

There are at least seven major manufacturers and suppliers in the region and within two years, the luxury automaker Bentley plans to make a new SUV in Bratislava. And I couldn’t help being struck by a powerful coincidence.

Physically, the city of Bratislava is virtually identical to the city of Detroit –there’s less than one square mile difference. But Bratislava is booming. Wages are indeed considerably lower than union auto jobs in America, though theirs are rising and ours have been stagnant or falling, especially since the introduction of a two-tier pay system.

But per capita incomes in Bratislava, as well as Budapest, are something like double those in Detroit. And here’s something anyone from Michigan would notice immediately. In ten days of driving hundreds of miles in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and the former East Germany, I did not see a single pothole worthy of the name.

Eastern Europe’s dramatic rebirth is unquestionably due to private enterprise. But these are also societies that recognize that their economies need a thriving public sector. Tax revenues of all kinds make up less than 27 percent of America’s Gross Domestic Product.

In Hungary, which has one of the region’s most right-wing governments, that figure is almost forty percent. While there has been an automotive boom, every city I visited has efficient, affordable and convenient mass transit. Metropolitan Detroit has none.

Eastern Europe is not a perfect society by any means, but they are doing a lot that works. President Obama is sometimes accused of trying to bring “European socialism” to this country. Perhaps we should be sorry he didn’t succeed.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. 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.

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