July 22, 2013/ 15 Meanachem-Av, 5773
Detroit Surrenders As If It Had Been Invaded
By Mark Steyn
By the time Detroit declared bankruptcy, Americans were so inured to the throbbing dirge of Motown's Greatest Hits — 40% of its street lamps don't work; 210 of its 317 public parks have been closed; it takes an hour for police to respond to a 911 call; only a third of its ambulances are drivable; one-third of the city has been abandoned; the local realtor offers houses on sale for a buck and still finds no takers — 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 Gov. 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 is now a border between First World and Third World — or, if you prefer, developed world and post-developed world.
To any American time-transported from the mid-20th century, the city's implosion would be 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 series "Hung" 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 workforce, 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.
So, late on Friday, 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 — OK, 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 in 1960, which would have made sense for Detroit, too. The city's Institute of Arts paid $300,000 for the original puppet — about the cost of 300,000 three-bedroom homes.
Instead of selling him off, maybe they should get him moonlighting as a gigolo and sell it to HBO as Hungy Doody. What else is left to sell? Windsor has already offered to buy Detroit's 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 nothing compared with the decay of the city's human capital. Forty-seven percent of adults are functionally illiterate, about the same rate as the Central African Republic, which at least has the excuse that it was ruled in the '70s by a cannibal emperor.
Why would any innovator open a business in a Detroit "innovation hub"? Whom would you employ? The illiterates include a recent school board president, Otis Mathis, which doesn't bode well for the workforce a decade hence.
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 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 a swollen army of welfare dependents has been adopted in California, and in large part by the Obama administration, whose priorities 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, then decline incrementally, then less incrementally, 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 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, says economist Laurence Kotlikoff. Like Detroit, it's cosseting a government class and expanding the dependency class, to the point where bipartisan "immigration reform" actively recruits 50-60 million low-skilled 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.
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.
Beyond that, Detroit needs urgently to make it noninsane for talented people to live in the city, and to cease subjecting its 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 Gen. 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.