Come for the Politics, Stay for the Pathologies

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Short History of Detroit

GM leaving Detroit? Yes, everything is on the table. GM’s move from its midtown Albert Kahn designed headquarters to the Renaissance Center nearly 13 years ago launched the latest of many hopes for Detroit’s recovery. Despite the fact that they bought the property in 1993 for one fifth of its original cost two decades earlier, optimists maintained that this shot in the arm was just what the city needed to finally make a turnaround. With the pall of GM’s departure now hanging over the town, people once again have taken to wondering if Detroit can even survive.

I recall with something akin to nostalgia the feeling of optimism many felt for the city when I arrived in 1978. The Renaissance Center had recently opened and its shiny towers were considered a talisman for the city’s future. Coleman Young was the city’s first Black mayor and it was hoped that he could set the city right. Yes, there was great hope for a change that would heal the soul of this riot-scarred city. Yet he taunted suburbanites, alleged that the police were a bigger threat to minorities than crime and managed the city into a quagmire.

Thereafter, every decade or so, some new project sprang up in the financial area downtown to once again trigger the “Detroit Rises from the Ashes” talk. Local boosters even launched a “Say nice things about Detroit” campaign. But the illusion was continuously challenged by the reality of racial politics, cronyism and scandals embedded in the city’s governance starting with Young’s and continuing in all subsequent administrations.

Despite huge infusions of State and Federal funds and crushing Detroit city taxes, the results of decades of liberal Democratic politics lead by a black mayor and a nearly all black city council are dismal. The public schools continue to deteriorate in every conceivable way, resulting in a graduation rate of less than 25%. Yet teachers lobby to maintain the status quo, and even staged a walk-out when a philanthropist offered $200 million to start 15 charter high schools. Basic city services continue to degrade and the citizenry continues it’s flight to the suburbs - the city’s population has dipped well below 1 million from a peak of 2 million - along with retail and other businesses. Once beautiful neighborhoods are decrepit and drug riddled, with block after block of abandoned, run-down or burnt out houses. Crime, drugs and government are the only growth industries in the city.

Coleman Young, who kept business, labor and politics in line with a feared, formidable and corrupt power base, grew too old and sick to run the city. Anyone paying attention was aware that the city was likewise growing older and sicker, but it was considered bad form to mention it publically. Since Young’s retirement in 1993, the succeeding mayors have been appallingly ineffective - to be kind - culminating in Kwame Kilpatrick’s arrogantly corrupt administration and the disgusting spectacle of his trial. (For the record, Kwame was a rising star in the Democratic party, being well connected and speaking at the 2004 Dem Convention. His mother, Congressional Black Caucus leader Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, considered her son the “anointed one,” and most of the media ignored or downplayed the mounting scandals in his administration. Now he’s a convicted felon.) If white leadership had done to this city what 25 years of black leadership has done, there would be rebuke and admonishment that would make the reproach of Bush after Katrina look like child’s play.

Nearly fifty years of liberal Democratic leadership (Detroit has not had a Republican mayor since 1961) has left this once great city a hell-hole of abandoned buildings, populated mostly by the “chronically unemployed” living off the public dole. One liberal administration after another has implemented policy after policy that ensure the only thing alive and well in the city is poverty: thus creating a guaranteed voter base that will continue to vote for whatever Democrat promises to keep the handouts coming. The Democratic regime that has governed Detroit for decades squelches all critics through one of two ploys: leveling the irrefutable charge of racism, or if that’s inappropriate, demanding that additional funding is needed e.g., schools: because god knows, $11,600 per student isn’t enough (private schools charge $6,600, and I doubt many would pay that if their drop out rate was 75%). The death-spiral of liberalism has annihilated Detroit.

So what’s the connection between the city’s demise and GM? It’s one of the corporations headquartered in Detroit that have kept the city afloat for decades. Now many of them, auto related and otherwise, are in distress. Many have been bought, sold, bankrupted or moved to more business friendly areas. The city didn’t cause their failure, but strangling taxes, inflexible labor unions and a culture of pay-to-play politics didn’t make doing business in Detroit any easier or particularly desirable. As long as Detroit could continue to collect taxes and get federal funds, it could afford to replace vision, leadership and private investment with empty advertising slogans and civic cheerleading. Now as they say, the gig is up.

The Autos, too, tried propping up weak vision, leadership (and recently, investment) with advertising. GM and Chrysler’s fatal mistake was taking bailout funds. Now they, like Detroit, are beholden to the Federal government.

What’s the take away? Too obvious: Liberalism is not the answer, it’s the problem. It creates a perpetual underclass that can be manipulated by arrogant politicians. If you add corruption to the mix it guarantees the demise of the society. It will just as certainly ruin any businesses that are subjected to its grasp.

Today, the Big Three are neither big, nor likely to be “three” much longer. Their fate is likely to be momentous in Detroit’s history, but epochal to the country.