You know Detroit’s fiscal crisis has reached the big time when Rev. Jesse Jackson shows up.
His cause is predictable and, in theory, understandable: Michigan Public Act 4, the revised emergency manager law that empowers the governor to appoint municipal overseers with the ability to void union contracts, is allegedly anti-democratic (even if it was passed by a duly elected Legislature and signed by a duly elected governor). It disproportionately tramples the rights of minorities, they say, because the law has so far pretty much targeted only minority-majority cities like Benton Harbor to the west, Flint to the north and Detroit Public Schools.
“There’s an economic crisis in our cities,” Jackson said today, according to a report in The Detroit News. ”Where is the money?”
Good question, reverend. Part of it left is the wallets of some 300,000 Detroiters who fled the city in just the past decade over fears of pathetic schools, persistently high crime, crumbling neighborhoods, a dilapidated bus system, meager job opportunities and a political culture whose over-riding ethos seemed to be self-enrichment. Another chunk of the dough — a big chunk, in fact — flowed into union pension funds, followed by huge promises to provide health care coverage for retired public workers. That nut? Roughly $12 billion altogether.
Should I keep going? Another part of the cash disappeared as property values declined because, well, people left. Lots of people. This supply and demand thing is kinda’ funny, rev, and ruthless: The less people want something and the more plentiful it becomes (that would be residential real estate), the less valuable it is. Which raises an important point: Lots of Detroiters left Detroit because Detroiters in leadership didn’t give regular Detroiters enough reasons to stay. Still more of the cash disappeared because, for a lot of the past 30 years, the city’s anti-business political culture gave CEOs lots of reasons to leave and very few to stay.
Nowhere — at least not yet — in this “Stop P.A. 4″ movement, complete with promises of civil disobedience, is the slightest recognition that responsibility for this mess rests disproportionately on the current and former elected leaders of Detroit. They signed successive union contracts promising rising pension contributions and retiree health care. They supported candidates for the state Legislature who backed binding arbitration for police and fire, what former Mayor Coleman Young called one of the biggest political miscalculations of his career. Their fingers-in-the-wind leadership sustained a city bureaucracy designed to serve a city of nearly 2 million people, not the plus-or-minus 700,000 living across the city’s 139 square miles. They made the prospect of business investment in Detroit an fraught exercise in hope over experience.
The principle voiced by Jackson, Rep. John Conyers and others today — that Detroiters and their predecessors marched, fought and some died for the right to vote and be represented – is absolutely true. What’s also true is that successive waves of leadership failed those same voters, who now find their city at the edge of financial collapse because their elected officials (and self-appointed leaders calling news conferences) can’t offer real solutions to existential problems. As odious as the prospect of an emergency manager may be, a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing could be worse — longer, more contentious, more public and harder to control.