It took only six decades of “progressive” policies to bring a great city to its knees.
By Mark Steyn
One of the thousands of blighted homes in Detroit.
By the time Detroit declared bankruptcy, Americans were so inured to the throbbing dirge of Motown’s Greatest Hits — 40 percent of its streetlamps don’t work; 210 of its 317 public parks have been permanently closed; it takes an hour for police to respond to a 9-1-1 call; only a third of its ambulances are driveable; one-third of the city has been abandoned; the local realtor offers houses on sale for a buck and still finds no takers; etc., etc. — Americans were so inured that the formal confirmation of a great city’s downfall was greeted with little more than a fatalistic shrug.
But it shouldn’t be. To achieve this level of devastation, you usually have to be invaded by a foreign power. In the War of 1812, when Detroit was taken by a remarkably small number of British troops without a shot being fired, Michigan’s Governor Hull was said to have been panicked into surrender after drinking heavily. Two centuries later, after an almighty 50-year bender, the city surrendered to itself. The tunnel from Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit, Michigan, is now a border between the First World and the Third World — or, if you prefer, the developed world and the post-developed world. To any American time-transported from the mid 20th century, the city’s implosion would be literally incredible: Were he to compare photographs of today’s Hiroshima with today’s Detroit, he would assume Japan won the Second World War after nuking Michigan. Detroit was the industrial powerhouse of America, the “arsenal of democracy,” and in 1960 the city with the highest per capita income in the land. Half a century on, Detroit’s population has fallen by two-thirds, and in terms of “per capita income,” many of the shrunken pool of capita have no income at all beyond EBT cards. The recent HBO seriesHung recorded the adventures of a financially struggling Detroit school basketball coach forced to moonlight as a gigolo. It would be heartening to think the rest of the bloated public-sector work force, whose unsustainable pensions and benefits have brought Detroit to its present sorry state (and account for $9 billion of its $11 billion in unsecured loans), could be persuaded to follow its protagonist and branch out into the private sector, but this would probably be more gigolos than the market could bear, even allowing for an uptick in tourism from Windsor.
So, late on Friday, some genius jurist struck down the bankruptcy filing. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina declared Detroit’s bankruptcy “unconstitutional” because, according to the Detroit Free Press, “the Michigan Constitution prohibits actions that will lessen the pension benefits of public employees.” Which means that, in Michigan, reality is unconstitutional.
So a bankrupt ruin unable to declare bankruptcy is now back to selling off its few remaining valuables, as I learned from a Detroit News story headlined “Howdy Doody May Test Limits of Protecting Detroit Assets.” For those of you under 40 — okay, under 80 — Howdy Doody is the beloved American children’s puppet, in western garb with a beaming smile and 48 freckles, one for every state, which gives you some idea of when his heyday was. The Howdy Doody Show ended its run on September 24, 1960, which would have made sense for Detroit, too. The city’s Institute of Arts paid $300,000 for the original Howdy Doody puppet — or about the cost of 300,000 three-bedroom homes. Don’t get too excited — you can’t go to Detroit and see him on display; he’s in storage. He’s in some warehouse lying down doing nothing all day long, like so many other $300,000 city employees. Instead of selling him off, maybe they should get him moonlighting as a gigolo and sell it to HBO as Hungy Doody (“When you’re looking for the real wood”). What else is left to sell? The City of Windsor has already offered to buy the Detroit half of the Detroit/Windsor tunnel, perhaps to wall it up.
With bankruptcy temporarily struck down, we’re told that “innovation hubs” and “enterprise zones” are the answer. Seriously? In my book After America, I observe that the physical decay of Detroit — the vacant and derelict lots for block after block after block — is as nothing compared to the decay of the city’s human capital. Forty-seven percent of adults are functionally illiterate, which is about the same rate as the Central African Republic, which at least has the excuse that it was ruled throughout the Seventies by a cannibal emperor. Why would any genuine innovator open a business in a Detroit “innovation hub”? Whom would you employ? The illiterates include a recent president of the school board, Otis Mathis, which doesn’t bode well for the potential work force a decade hence.
Given their respective starting points, one has to conclude that Detroit’s Democratic party makes a far more comprehensive wrecking crew than Emperor Bokassa ever did. No bombs, no invasions, no civil war, just “liberal” “progressive” politics day in, day out. Americans sigh and say, “Oh, well, Detroit’s an ‘outlier.’” It’s an outlier only in the sense that it happened here first. The same malign alliance between a corrupt political class, rapacious public-sector unions, and an ever more swollen army of welfare dependents has been adopted in the formally Golden State of California, and in large part by the Obama administration, whose priorities — “health” “care” “reform,” “immigration” “reform” — are determined by the same elite/union/dependency axis. As one droll tweeter put it, “If Obama had a city, it would look like Detroit.”
After the Battle of Saratoga, Adam Smith famously told a friend despondent that the revolting colonials were going to be the ruin of Britain, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation” — and in a great city, too. If your inheritance includes the fruits of visionaries like Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler, and the Dodge brothers, you can coast for a long time, and then decline incrementally, and then less incrementally, and then catastrophically, until what’s left is, as the city’s bankruptcy petition puts it, “structurally unsound and in danger of collapse.” There is a great deal of ruin in advanced societies, but even in Detroit it took only six decades.
“Structurally unsound and in danger of collapse”: Hold that thought. Like Detroit, America has unfunded liabilities, to the tune of $220 trillion, according to the economist Laurence Kotlikoff. Like Detroit, it’s cosseting the government class and expanding the dependency class, to the point where its bipartisan “immigration reform” actively recruits 50–60 million low-skilled chain migrants. Like Detroit, America’s governing institutions are increasingly the corrupt enforcers of a one-party state — the IRS and Eric Holder’s amusingly misnamed Department of Justice being only the most obvious examples. Like Detroit, America is bifurcating into the class of “community organizers” and the unfortunate denizens of the communities so organized.
The one good thing that could come out of bankruptcy is if those public-sector pensions are cut and government workers forced to learn what happens when, as National Review’s Kevin Williamson puts it, a parasite outgrows its host. But, pending an appeal, that’s “unconstitutional,” no matter how dead the host is. Beyond that, Detroit needs urgently both to make it non-insane for talented people to live in the city, and to cease subjecting its present population to a public “education” system that’s little more than unionized child abuse. Otherwise, Windsor, Ontario, might as well annex it for a War of 1812 theme park — except if General Brock and the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles had done to Detroit what the Democratic party did they’d be on trial for war crimes at The Hague.
— Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is the author of After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. © 2013 Mark Steyn