Politics and Prejudices: Tale of two cities

Budapest, Hungary – The last time I was in Hungary was in 1986, three years before the Berlin Wall came down and European communism collapsed with a thud.

Detroit had plenty of problems back then, and Budapest was possibly the best place to live in the entire Soviet empire. But nobody in his right mind would have argued that Budapest was a better place to live.

While some private enterprise was allowed, it was largely limited to fairly wretched little shops. Knowing I was a journalist, the government assigned me a minder to travel with me everywhere, and he gave me a hard time if he caught me, say, photographing homeless people. There were cars, but largely wretched little plastic Ladas and Trabants with what amounted to lawnmower engines. Per-capita income was just slightly over half of what it was in Detroit — the city, not the area.

What a difference three decades makes. Today, Budapest is bustling. The population, which declined for a number of years, is again growing, and is now over 2 million people.

The area we used to call Eastern Europe is still not nearly as prosperous as Western Europe. Yet as of 2013, the average Budapest resident now has a per-capita income of $22,878, compared to $13,956 for the average Detroiter.

Everything indicates the disparity is wider now. There are a lot of odd similarities between Detroit and Budapest. Michigan and Hungary, a nation about the size of Indiana, have almost identical populations — just under 10 million.

Both are old cities that have seen better days — as well as worse. Both were once capitals of world empires — Austria-Hungary for Budapest; world automobiles for Detroit.

Budapest has gone through far worse than Detroit ever has, or most residents could imagine. There are still buildings riddled with bullet holes from the last two times the place was essentially destroyed, in 1945 and 1956.

Hungarian Nazis were even worse than German Nazis, and what the Stalinists did to people is hard to imagine.

Both regimes used the same building as headquarters for their secret police; today, aptly named the House of Terror, it is the most terrifying museum I've ever seen. Yet Budapest has bounced back in a way few of us can imagine Detroit doing.

That's true of other cities in the former communist Europe as well. The several trillion-dollar question is: Why? Free-market types in America would say the answer is clear.

Freedom and capitalism work; socialism doesn't. Well, there's certainly some truth in that. Slave socialism of the kind practiced by the communists doesn't work very well anywhere.

However, consider this: Hungarians pay far higher taxes than we do. Tax revenue of all kinds amount to a little less than 27 percent of America's gross domestic product. In Hungary, that figure is nearly 40 percent. I did meet one fairly nationalistic Hungarian woman who moaned about taxes.

But guess what. In four days of driving all over Budapest, a city whose streets are now choked with Porsches, VWs, Audis, and the occasional Ford, I did not see one road that looked anything like our disgraceful ones.

Not one major pothole, in fact. Actually, though everyone here now seems to have a car, you can largely get by without one. The city has trams and trolleys; trains and buses that work and are actually reasonably priced. The current government is considered quite right-wing by European standards.

Yet neither they nor anybody else would deny, as do the morons in the Michigan Legislature, that the nation needs a thriving public sector. Yes, the government does need to spend billions on roads and bridges and sewers and sidewalks.

Yes, they need to provide kids with a free, high-quality elementary and high school education, and make college and vocational and technical school affordable for anyone able enough to go and succeed at either one.

That's how intelligent societies support private enterprise. Not by enormous and meaningless tax breaks.

Not by giving businesses huge tax cuts without expecting anything in return. But by maintaining infrastructure and giving its citizens the tools they need to succeed.

Hungary, by the way, is far from a perfect society. Budapest, unlike Detroit, is basically ethnically homogenous.

Discrimination against the small Roma (gypsy) minority still exists, and I saw signs of a lingering mild but smug anti-Semitism. Unemployment is actually a little higher than in Michigan — 7.4 percent versus 5.6 percent.

But Hungary had to completely reinvent its economy starting in 1990, and for a time their jobless rate soared into the double digits. Imagine having been told everything you'd believed for half a century was utterly wrong.

Eastern Europe weathered that. The bottom line is that Budapest is a city that works. Detroit isn't there yet.

The difference may be that nearly everyone in this small landlocked country, a place that speaks a language almost nobody else can understand, knows they're all in this together.

We still haven't figured it out.

Just finish the damn jail

Anyone who has been anywhere near downtown has seen what you might call Ficano's Folly — the immense, half-built jail that Wayne County stopped building more than a year ago because of huge cost overruns.

Today, the county is still paying more than a million dollars a month on debt service and security costs, and the need for a new jail is not going away. During his run for county executive last year, William Wild, Westland's mayor, told me the cheapest and most sensible thing to do was just bite the bullet, find the money, and finish the thing.

Now Warren Evans, the man who won that election, is hinting at much the same thing. They are exactly right. Unfortunately, the need to lock people up is not going away.

Renovating an old prison like Scott doesn't make sense, and may not even be cheaper. The county needs a jail near the courts and the justice system, for obvious reasons.

The county, like the jail project, has lots of financial problems, thanks in large part to the previous corrupt and incompetent regime, and Evans is in the process of trying to sort things out and avoid emergency management.

But this needs to get done, and everything I see indicates putting this off will cost even more.

Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.
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