The rise and fall of formerly great civilizations is a favorite subject of historians, but Detroit is going to prove especially hard for them to explain.
Once a great American metropolis and an international icon of capitalist dynamism, the Motor City declared bankruptcy on Thursday and is thus officially bankrupt in every sense of the word, a third world hell-hole that cannot provide its largely illiterate population with basic services or protection from its unusually murderous criminal class and has wound up too far in debt to pay the obligations it has racked up in the futile attempt. The current crop of historians are respectable members of the academic community and will therefore immediately seek to pin the blame on those dastardly conservative Republicans who are behind every other historical catastrophe dating back to the fall of the Roman Empire, but this will be a hard argument to make even academic journals as Detroit’s last Republican mayor left office in back in the heyday of 1962 and the last remotely conservative citizen split town some time shortly after the race riots of ’67. Since then the city has allowed its core industries to be dominated by private sector labor unions that extorted ruinous contracts, its civic institutions to be dominated by public sector unions that left the city more than $16 billion in debt, its political culture to be dominated by racial animosities that drove its non-black citizens away and reduced the population by 61 percent from its peak, and has been rewarded for these decisions with a taxpayer-funded bailout of two of its largest employers that effectively handed total control to the unions.
Detroit has done everything right, in other words, and the consensus of contemporary academic opinion has no explanation for how it all turned out so disastrously. This is embarrassing for the consensus of contemporary academic opinion, as far as more uneducated folks will naturally conclude, but it’s also problematic for an Obama administration that was boasting as recently as the past presidential election that “We refused to let Detroit go bankrupt.” The administration is now reduced to telling the press that it is “monitoring the developments in Detroit closely,” and has yet to announce a position on the public service unions’ attempt to block the bankruptcy filing, but a more robust defense of the city’s policies is surely under consideration.
The most plausible explanation they’ll come up with is that the city failed because all those right-to-work states put the city an unfair economic disadvantage, and if only the rest of the country had agreed to protectionist trade policies that forced American motorists to live with whatever claptrap jalopies Detroit deigned to produce the city could have sustained its pork-laden efficiencies in perpetuity. The argument will no doubt find many sympathizers in the academic and political communities, as well as the more impoverished and illiterate neighborhoods of Detroit, but it’s going to be a hard sell elsewhere. Here in Wichita, where the crucial corporate jet industry is getting rhetorical trashing instead of bail-outs, it won’t even work down at the union halls.
— Bud Norman