Everybody Seems to Know Just How to 'Fix' Detroit

An epidemic of experts.

Jan 22, 2014 at 12:00 am
Everybody Seems to Know Just How to 'Fix' Detroit
Courtesy Photo

Over the last several years, the city of Detroit has suffered a plague of experts descending upon it, which is just a notch more pleasant than locusts on the scale of plagues. It seems everybody knows just what it takes to “fix” Detroit, and they’re not shy about offering their pearls of wisdom to us poor, benighted residents. Now, we don’t doubt that many of these authorities are well-meaning.

Of course, some of the worst advice comes from the well-meaning, such as the piece by the BBC’s Tom Geoghegan, who proposed the city pay to knock down abandoned houses and give the land to neighbors for $25. It sounds like a great deal for the homeowner, but it’s poison for the city. Let’s get this straight: Broke-ass Detroit should pay more than $15,000 to knock down a house, regain $25, and repeat this an estimated 70,000 times? Cities live and die by density, and this plan calls for a city, at great cost, making itself less dense? Pardon us, but that is some serious bullshit right there.

Not all of these paratrooping experts, though, are all that well-meaning. It’s clear some outside specialists are just using Detroit as an occasion to go after their old enemies, be they unions, public workers, progressive politics or the left in general.

Take Robert Inman, an economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He was quoted in Crain’s Detroit Business as declaring, “Public employees, you and your wages are going to shrink. We’re going to feel free to contract out. … Unions, if you want jobs at all, you’re going to have to buy into a transition package.”

Pardon us, but if organized labor and greedy public servants are the problem, why is it that the entire metropolitan region has its share of union workers and government functionaries, but the blight often ends right at the city border? Cracking down on working people may save the city a little money, but it doesn’t address the underlying issues at all. At best, we could hope for a city much like that of today, but able to take the savings on labor to service its bondholders. Color us unimpressed.

And yet, reading through a lot of the advice in the business section, with its emphasis on market-friendly dictums, you get the sense that’s their answer for everything.

P.J. O’Rourke, writing for The Wall Street Journal, said that Detroit could be the new Hong Kong if it simply adopted the low-tax policies Hong Kong did after World War II. Of course, he carefully downplays the fact that Hong Kong just happened to receive the boon of 1 million immigrants fleeing Chairman Mao. Any city with 1 million immigrants is going to see dramatic growth in GDP, but O’Rourke, still enthralled by the neoconservative crystal ball he’s stared into for the last 30 years, sees only the tax policies.

Turning Detroit into a candyland of tax shelters and enterprise zones with low rates and relaxed regulations has been proposed as a right-wing panacea for almost 20 years. To tout the idea as “new” or “innovative” is silly, and if they really worked we’d be drowning in the evidence.

Then there are the plans to shrink the city. Never mind that, across the country, central cities are the places seeing enormous growth and rises in land values, we’re going to have to take the central city and carve pieces out of it as if it were a cancer patient. That was the plan writers Daniel Okrent and Steven Gray got behind in a piece a little more than three years ago for Time magazine. Painting a lurid picture of (again) outdated union deals, bloated pension obligations, hopelessly blighted neighborhoods and a city that’s “simply too damn big,” they threw a spotlight on plans to relocate residents from “failed neighborhoods,” as well as rethinking (that is, rewriting) union rules. We had to giggle a little at their rather silly proposal of “allowing forsaken neighborhoods to revert to their natural state.” (As if that isn’t happening right now, geniuses.) If there’s an area that requires enormous resources to service and should be turned into greenbelt, wouldn’t it be those unfinished subdivisions in the exurbs? Why is it always the dense, historic urban fabric that has to get the scissors?

Then there are the Libertarians. Their prescriptions rest upon the rock-solid foundation that government is always bad. One yahoo named Paul Rosenberg blogged on the Freeman’s Perspective website about his plan to cease all federal and state payments to city residents, disband all municipal government and void all taxes, regulations and laws in Detroit for a century. He rosily predicts, “Businesses would begin to relocate the next morning. … The people who still owned and lived in their homes would be offered lots of money for their properties.”

Going for the thermonuclear option, Rosenberg would vaporize all municipal government, turning the city into a kind of privatized no-man’s-land, ostensibly where anarcho-capitalists hire mercenaries to guard their highly profitable lithium-ion battery factories from the marauding hordes outside the gates. How impressive! This is the first time we’ve heard of somebody suggesting that Detroit would be improved by becoming more like The Road Warrior.

One blog piece for The Washington Post even proposed giving Detroit to Canada. Now there’s something we might get on board with. Getting out from under the yoke of Lansing? Free national health care? A federal government that routinely subsidizes central cities? More poutine? Where do we sign?

Because we can’t even browse Twitter without being besieged with expert analysis. For example, @richardpwnsr wrote, “Hey @onetoughnerd [Gov. Rick Snyder], I think I figured out how to fix Detroit while Watching Downton Abbey with my grandma. Holler at me stat.” (OK, that one’s intriguing.)

The truth is, anybody looking for a fix needs to understand what the problem is. The problem was stated elegantly by former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, writing in an editorial last year. Reich opined that the problem in Detroit is the increasing inequality in America and the way it’s distributed geographically. He pointed out that metro Detroit “has enough money to provide all its residents with adequate if not good public services, without falling into bankruptcy. It would come down to a question of whether the more affluent areas of this Detroit were willing to subsidize the poor inner city through their tax dollars and help it rebound. That’s an awkward question that the more affluent areas would probably rather not have to face.”

Bang-on way to state the problem, professor! So the solution, rather than tweaking taxes and regulations, socking it to unions, cutting pensions or knocking down houses, would seem to be a metropolitan Detroit that shares resources to provide for a vibrant central city that is our shared collective treasure. In other words, these prescriptions for advice should be landing on doorsteps in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties, not at the union local or the progressive caucus.

Of course, the argument against this is that you’re just throwing money at a city that’s “broken.” “The system is broken,” people say. The city’s vacant homes, urban prairies and crime rates are evidence of a “broken” city. Michigan politicians regularly warn against propping up a “broken” Detroit.

But what Reich presents us with is a much scarier idea: The system isn’t broken; the system is working. This is what our system produces, a metropolitan region that treats its historic central city much like “a Wall Street bank drawing a boundary around its bad assets” and writing off the loss.

It’s a tough and alarming truth, but until we have the courage to admit it, expect those experts to keep parachuting down.