Come for the Politics, Stay for the Pathologies

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Saving Detroit: It’s going to require more than just saying nice things


As our president goes busily about reshaping the world,  some of our own cities – much nearer and dearer to some of us than Beirut, Tripoli or Cairo -  have already been reshaped in the image and likeness of his progressive leftist policies.

Take Detroit, for example. In his column today,  A Requiem for Detroit  William McGurn equates the scale of Detroit’s destruction to that of Sendai, in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture by this month’s tsunami, and the devastation visited on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. But he points out that those two tragedies happened in the blink of an eye, inflicted by an “act of God” while Detroit’s was a completely “man-caused disaster.”

"Detroit is a classic example of how a culture that was legendary for enterprise and innovation was slowly eroded by toxic politicization from the 1960s on," says the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Michigan-based Acton Institute. "It's been class warfare on steroids, and the inevitable result is that so many Detroiters who had the means—black and white—have fled the city."

The “toxic politicization” of which Father Sirico speaks was specifically caused by Coleman A Young’s grip on Detroit’s power base which he wielded as the city’s first black Mayor  from 1975 – 1994. He came to power shortly after the 1967 “race riots” and capitalized on the racial antipathy they sparked. Until Obama, no man had done more harm to “liberalism,” race relations or economic health. Young was a smart man; even smarter, I dare say, than Obama, by half. But he was also an aggrieved and embittered man who had been unjustly denied scholarships due to his race, and he was fired from Ford for union organizing. He never forgave and he never forgot

He was allegedly a communist, definitely a racist. And he knew how to wield power like a natural born dictator. He ran the city with an iron hand, intimidated business leaders, installed an  administration of cronies whose corruption is legendary and formed a political machine that ran the city, the courts, the public schools, and extorted tribute from everyone still foolish or unfortunate enough to still be doing business in or with the city. His war chest was legion, and it wasn’t because people loved him. Jesse Jackson appropriated Young’s shakedown scam as his own.

So entrenched was his corrupt administration that it couldn’t even be rooted out by Young’s successor. Dennis Archer was a decent man, but ill prepared or equipped to deal with the deep roots of Coleman’s entrenched corrupto-crats. Archer’s successor, Kwame Kilpatrick was one of them, (he’s now serving time in a federal penitentiary for several felonies committed while in office) and Dave Bing – a great and skilled guy – is likewise discovering just how impossible it is to root out such deeply embedded corruption.

As Young’s pack of leaches grew fat and very, very wealthy, the people and the city coffers grew poorer and poorer. Both businesses and middle class residents – black and white – fled the city to escape crime, crappy schools and high taxes. And the city grew more and more segregated as only poor blacks stayed put: racial politics tends to do that.

Young’s extortion didn’t stop at the city limits. He wielded huge power in the Democratic party on the national level due to his ability to deliver the city of Detroit, and hence the state of Michigan, in national elections. The federal money he commandeered from the Carter and Clinton administration was awesome in every sense of the word other than what he did with it. He used it to create more and more patronage jobs (thus creating a huge city bureaucracy) and to create more and bigger give away programs for city residents.  The end result is a city populated now with multi-generational families that know no other way of life other than living on the public dole. Who do you think they’re going to vote for? The people who promise to cut them off, or the people who promise to give them more? Detroit captures, in microcosm, democracy’s built in downfall.

In their own words, this is what they are voting for:

The entitlement mentality in Detroit is so embedded it might as well be part of people’s DNA. Back in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s many black entrepreneurs had caught the fire of Detroit’s “legendary… enterprise and innovation” and started businesses, many of which were thriving at the time of the 1967 riots. By the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, with the help of more and larger “great society” programs that enterprise and innovation had been replaced to a large extent by the gerbil-wheel existence of welfare – in just 30 years.

This lifestyle, being funded almost entirely by entitlements provided through “transfer payments,” i.e., taxes, established the government as an enabling, co-dependent in this addictive behavior pattern. The liberals’ utopian dream turned out to be a seductive death spiral of handouts, non-productivity, poverty, drugs and crime. Pretty thin gruel for utopia.

Someday sociologists will write of the welfare state that “it was  one of the most racist, demeaning and misguided policies in history. Liberals – both black and white –determined for some reason that perfectly intelligent, capable black men and women would fail to thrive unless they were given special  ‘help,’ therein sowing the seeds of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

How ironic that the first significant step towards Detroit’s destruction was it’s designation as one of Lyndon Johnson’s “Model Cities.”  By providing funding for projects that were neither market driven nor market financed, the city embarked on an inevitable path of economic suicide. Young was the procurer and champion of this cycle of federal financing that allowed him to hand it out to his patrons and supporters for every harebrained (e.g. People Mover) project that came along. Meanwhile, the city raised taxes, income and otherwise, on everything that moved and breathed that wasn’t already government subsidized.

No one in the Mayor’s office or on the equally corrupt City Council took note that this destroyed jobs and drove more businesses and citizens out of the city and off the tax rolls. Fewer jobs in the city as car plants closed and relocated meant fewer jobs, more welfare, fewer intact families, more illegitimate births, more poverty, more welfare… well,  that pretty much describes the entire poverty cycle.

And so here we are, 50 years hence. The Great Society has reduced a city that was once synonymous with American industrial strength and pride, and the economic engine of the world to a burned out hull that houses very little industry, few businesses and a population lower than at any time since the turn of the century: the 20th century, that is.  The city is all but bankrupt. The school system is bankrupt, both economically and intellectually,  and still the teachers’ union opposes the establishment of charter schools in the city. The Mayor talks seriously about eliminating city services to vast tracts of city blocks and consolidating the remaining population within the best of the worst areas.

Is it any wonder that people here have given up? The city’s infrastructure has deteriorated citywide, and has been reduced to rubble in some areas. The business environment is antithetical to enterprise (which may explain why there is not one large chain grocery store in the entire city. Detroit defines Michelle Obama’s term “food dessert.”)

And this didn’t happen because heartless conservatives “let it.” We know. Both He-Dewey and I were here and  involved for decades with entities designed to revive Detroit’s pulse through joint business/civic efforts: the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Detroit Economic Club, the Leadership Detroit program and, the grand-daddy of them all, Detroit Renaissance.

Detroit Renaissance was founded in 1970 bymid-century titans of industry, Henry Ford II, Max M. Fisher and A. Alfred Taubman, to develop a strategy to re-develop Detroit. We worked with the organization during the 1980’s and 90’s. Suffice it to say that – PR hype aside – not much of any significance was ever accomplished. Strategic plans were written every 5 years or so, and they usually looked pretty similar to the prior plan. I’m not saying that the Mayor’s office was the only reason the plans failed to launch, but  unlike some other “developers” in the city, Renaissance Detroit did not pay bribes, and crony-capitalism only gets you so far.

In 2009, in either a concession to Detroit’s defeat or an acknowledgement of the even larger fire burning on the state level, Detroit Renaissance was rolled into the statewide Michigan Business Roundtable

The moral of this broken record story is this: once liberal policies/entitlements become entrenched, it is neigh on impossible to root them out. Even catastrophic failure, as evidenced by Detroit’s demise, is not sufficient to shut down the self-serving cash register of government incompetency and corruption.

Things have reached a point where nothing short of draconian measures will put  the tread back on Detroit’s tire.

First, at the state level: Michigan’s governor recently signed a bill giving broad powers to any emergency financial managers appointed by the state to deal with bankrupt school districts. Good start. Anything that keeps our emergency managers working on the problem instead of going to court to defend their right to do the job they were hired to do should save taxpayer dollars. Additionally, the governor and legislature needs to end the MEA’s monopoly on schools and make a school voucher program feasible. While a voucher system may be “desirable” outstate, in Detroit, with its 25% graduation rate, it is mandatory.

The state legislature has to take on the rest of the public sector unions too. This is no time for Governor Snyder to be reticent. We don’t need another RINO in the State capital, we need a head-knocker. Contracts must be revised. This is not a problem that goes away when the economy picks up. Unfortunate and irresponsible fiscal management in the past can’t simply be ignored: it continues to bleed and needs triage. Stat.

Contracts going forward have to be modified – these costs aren’t sustainable. (why are liberals only interested in sustainable resources that don’t involve money?)

Furthermore, Michigan needs to become a right to work state, I realize that’s anathema to the home of the UAW. But raise your hand if you really think business as usual will cut it in this state. If  we expect to keep the businesses we have, let alone attract any new ones, we’ve got to revise laws, regulations and tax structures to become competitive with the states that are drawing new business.

And now the city: Detroit needs to clean house, thoroughly, ruthlessly. Whole departments need to be eliminated. Duplicate, superfluous and unnecessary: all gone. Don’t tell me how hard it will be. Figure out how to do it, because the money is gone. And if you get rid of all of the asinine departments that simply regulate the hell out of every breath a citizen or business owner takes, you might be able to lower the city tax rate at the same time you make it easier for people to do business in the city.

Now let’s talk about crime. Don’t tell me it can’t be controlled.  I would authorize a visit to Columbia to find out how they reversed the urban decline in Medellin, until recently one of the most crime and drug infested cities in the world. Apparently it can be done. They were dealing with one of the most notorious drug lords of all time, Pablo Escobar. It can be done if you stop wasting time on midnight basketball, minority set asides and other grievance programs and focus on eliminating real criminal activity.

Saving Detroit is not rocket science, it’s just damn hard, and people aren’t going to like it. It requires legislators who have steel enforced backbones.  You want to win a popularity contests, audition for American Idol. If you want to help, demand that elected officials do what they are paid to do, and throw them out if they don’t.

Emily Gail,  Max Gail’s (Wojo on Barney Miller)  sister, was a Detroit native and the city’s biggest booster back in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. She coined the phrase “Say Nice Things About Detroit” and had a shop in Detroit’s financial district where she sold ice cream and t-shirts.

In 1988 she moved to Kailua Kona, Hawaii and never looked back.