On Detroit’s Bankruptcy
Editor’s note: Politics have been quiet in Sterling Heights as of late. This will undoubtedly change soon as the campaign season heats up and the public safety tax issue come more to the fore, but in the meantime I have been having a quiet, enjoyable summer. However, I can’t resist taking the opportunity to write about Detroit’s recent filing in bankruptcy court.
With the recent filing for bankruptcy by the City of Detroit, a remarkable change has come over the national media: suddenly the town that normally doesn’t even rate a mention in national weather forecasts is having its problems examined under the media microscope. After spending my entire life in the Detroit area, my reaction to the bankruptcy filing itself is that it was inevitable. I suspect most people from this neck of the woods feel the same. What I don’t understand, though, is where have all of these political commentators and media outlets been for the last 40 years?
It is truly shameful that America has ignored the fact that one of her cities in this, the single wealthiest nation in the world, is living in Third World Nation conditions. We can theorize endlessly about why this might be the case; some popular explanations range from the embarrassment of the Democrat party and its media supporters, to covert racism on the part of the media, to Conservative disdain for a union town. Regardless of what the actual reason is, we as a region have had our plight almost completely ignored by the rest of the country. We have not a few hundred or a few thousand desperately poor individuals in our midst, but rather a few hundred thousand. We have a city that can’t keep the streetlights lit, operate a bus service, or get ambulances to the injured or sick. We have a city whose police cannot protect its citizens, where 7 out of 10 murders go unsolved, and where the racial animus is so powerful that many living in the region never dare set foot in the city proper. Detroit is America’s crazy old Aunt in the family, hidden away from public view in the attic. It is an outrage.
With democratically elected officials having had their official powers stripped under a highly contentious state law, a DC-area attorney was brought in and given broad powers to sort things out. He couldn’t get it done. The fact that Kevyn Orr was brought in and pretty much given carte blanche to do whatever he felt necessary to rectify the situation was front page news. But the real story is how he couldn’t salvage the place without taking the scorched-earth approach of filing for bankruptcy. The emergency manager effort was a last-ditch, ‘Hail Mary’ attempt to save Detroit, folks, imposed against the will of the city’s voters by so-called Conservatives in Lansing, and it crashed and burned. So much for the Republican solution.
But as time has gone on, I have come to believe that it didn’t have to come to this.
Sterling Heights is proof that the domestic automobile industry is still alive and perhaps could even be described as vibrant. With the vast expansion of Chrysler’s SHAP, the continued reinvestment in the Ford transmission facility, the bevy of domestic automobile dealers scattered throughout town, and the close proximity to the GM Tech Center, not to mention automotive suppliers, there is still a strong demand by the domestic automobile industry for the labor and engineering talent that can be found in southeastern Michigan.
In short, the contention that Detroit died because GM, Ford and Chrysler fell on hard times is false, and manifestly so.
Of course, it certainly didn’t help that the Federal Government took every opportunity it could to damage domestic automobile production. With the EPA rules, CAFE laws, NAFTA, and the mismanagement of trade with Asia, the car business guys were fighting an uphill battle every day just to keep the doors open, let alone maintain their market share. The lack of a sensible industrial policy, mismanagement of the currency and ruinous taxation were just more nails in Detroit’s coffin.
But they weren’t the sole cause. Not by a long shot. In fact, these things are little more than gripes.
What we’re seeing in Detroit has to be laid at the feet of poor education. We could argue day and night about the reasons behind the sorry state of the Detroit Public Schools, but let’s face it, that’s arguing over who left the barn door open after the horse is gone. The fact is, we have a massive, ill-educated populace in the City of Detroit. That populace has been duped, repeatedly, into voting for local, state, and federal candidates whose agendas have not held the residents of the City of Detroit’s real needs close to heart. That lack of education has prevented those residents who might otherwise have been inclined to improve their own situations from speaking out effectively against the pols who robbed them blind.
Without adequate representation and little or no homegrown talent capable of running the city, it is no wonder why the town eventually collapsed. It all goes back to poor — criminally poor — education.
What’s worse is that this will not be resolved quickly, if at all. There have been at least three generations of native Detroiters lost to its failed education system. And with the population actively resisting gentrification, there is no reason to expect that an infusion of new blood will somehow fix the problem.
With a town that is poor, racially divided, uneducated, dis-invested, and frighteningly dangerous, what we have is a City with an incurable, terminal illness. There is no salvaging this situation, regardless of what happens in that bankruptcy courtroom. The only hope is for a massive infusion of highly inflated cash from the Fed, and that will probably only buy us some time.
What remains now is for the surviving suburbs to find a way to mitigate the damage so that it doesn’t impact their way of life more than it has to.
One of the solutions that is being bandied about is annexation. The idea is that the Detroit as an independent entity is finished, but if we were to consolidate all of the inner-ring suburbs into a larger City of Detroit, we would get economies of scale that we don’t currently enjoy as a region, thus making the task of providing local government services to the 135 square miles of Detroit financially tenable. Instead of rapidly sinking through the ranks of America’s largest cities, Detroit would suddenly pop back up in the top three or four after the consolidation.
This is a terrible idea, and it must be resisted. First, it diminishes suburbanite rights as voters and taxpayers to influence how their city is going to operate. Second, it destroys the individual character of towns like Sterling Heights by melding them into a monolithic urban area with little in the way of redeeming virtues: we would just plain lose. Period.
Another solution is that Detroit just turn off the lights, water, fire and police services to large swaths of the city and concentrate its efforts on maintaining a smaller town, hopefully with a healthier tax base.
This is also a terrible idea. There is an area in Pimal County, Arizona where the state and local government has basically given up; it exists largely without the rule of law due to out-of-control migrations by human smugglers and narcotraficantes. There are signs up along an Interstate south of Phoenix advising U.S. citizens to avoid the area. What little law enforcement Detroit currently has barely keeps the lid on the level of crime the surrounding suburbs experience as a natural consequence of having so many desperately poor people in one place. Throwing in the towel on large areas of the city and wishing those who remain behind the best is akin to what Arizona has been forced to do. This is not even worthy of further consideration.
So if you don’t abandon large parts of town or succumb to regionalization, what choices are you left with? I leave it to you to imagine, but I expect that whatever evolves in this situation will make an excellent case for approving the public safety millage this November.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that we are insulated here in Sterling Heights from what happens in Detroit. We will feel the effects of whatever comes of this bankruptcy, just as we have felt the effects of the slow-motion train wreck we’ve watched unfold over the past forty years. It is hard to imagine our property values taking another turn downward and getting even worse than they were a few short years ago, but I suspect that will be the least of it.
I’ll conclude by saying this: everyone in Sterling Heights needs to be paying close attention to what happens south of 8 Mile. The problem down there is our problem. This is a gathering storm. Either we prepare for it or we get blown away by it.