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The Art of Bankruptcy

Maybe it’s our grumpily conservative political views, or perhaps a certain prairie roughness in our manner and speech, but people often seemed surprised to discover what avid culture vultures we are. In warmer weather we frequently stroll a few blocks through our elegantly aging Riverside neighborhood to visit the Wichita Art Museum, even making the trek during a blinding snowstorm this past brutal winter in order to catch the opening of that terrific George Catlin traveling exhibition, and many a snooty easterner has been taken aback by our familiarity with the finer arts. That’s largely due to our early and ongoing exposure to the Wichita Art Museum, which has taken aback many a snooty easterner with a an unexpectedly fine collection that includes John Steuart Curry, Stuart Davis, Richard Diebenkorn, Thomas Eakins, Albert Pynkham Ryder, Winslow Homer, three Edward Hoppers, with two of them major works, and perhaps the most major work by Mary Cassatt.
Such works of art have long exerted a powerful influence on us, ever since Mom first dragged us down to the museum intent on getting her young’un’s some refinement, and remain one of our favorite things about living in Wichita. They can’t help but affect our reaction to an intriguing story in the invaluable Weekly Standard about far-off Detroit, where that beleaguered city has reached a tentative deal to prevent its municipal art museum from selling off its even most significant collection to pay off the debts of decades of mismanagement by a corrupt coalition of Democratic machine politicians and union bosses. The article makes a convincing case that the deal flouts reasonable bankruptcy laws, favors pubic pensioners over other rightful creditors, and reeks of a political cronyism redolent of the Detroit auto industry bail-out, but acknowledges that at least Detroit will get to keep its art. It’s difficult to weigh such competing values, especially for such grumpily conservative culture vultures with a certain prairie roughness such as ourselves, but we’re inclined to go with keeping the art.
The deal would have such well-heeled do-gooder groups as the Ford, Kresge, and Knight Foundations shell out $330 million for the museum’s collection, along with another $350 million from the state of Michigan, and comes with a promise to keep the collection in Detroit and add all the proceedings to the bankruptcy payout to Detroit’s public employee pensioners. We have no sympathy for public employee pensioners, who did so much to drive the city into bankruptcy, and feel sorry for those municipal bondholders who won’t get in on the loot, even if they were suckers to place a bet on Detroit, but otherwise the arrangement does not offend our conservative sensibilities.
We rather like that such long-dead red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists as Ford, Kresge, and Knight are riding to rescue of Detroit’s high-cultural heritage, for one thing, even if the average snooty easterner wouldn’t acknowledge the irony. The same corporate titans that the arty types always disparage have always been the essential patrons of American arts, even if the refined aesthetes won’t notice until their guillotines have finished their dirty work. This requires an amusing amount of denial by the culturati left, especially here in Wichita where the much-vilified Koch family is by far the most generous benefactor of the arts. A punctiliously politically correct friend of ours is affiliated with the Wichita Art Museum, and when we noted that the aforementioned terrific George Catlin exhibition was underwritten by the Fred C. and Mary Koch Foundation she huffily protested that at least there was no money from their evil spawn Charles Koch. We pointed out that the patriarch of the family fortune was an unrepentant John Bircher who earned his anti-communist bona fides by going toe-to-toe with Joe Stalin business negotiation over his pioneering oil-extraction techniques and would probably consider his sons pinko sell-outs she was eager to change the subject. At least her collection’s survival wasn’t dependent on on such a mean old anti-Semite as Henry Ford or the Wal-Mart of his day, the indignity that has befallen the culturati of Detroit. The Knight foundation was named after the co-founder of the newspaper chain that we used to toil for, and the Wichita Art Museum’s inaugural collection was bankrolled by the founder of the local newspaper that it long ago bought out, but somehow our friend won’t be so embarrassed by that.
None of the various strains of conservatism can object to those individuals who have prospered in the capitalist system contributing to the cultural life of their country. Once those contributions have been necessarily bequeathed to the care of the collective, however, the matter does become more complicated. We are sympathetic to the libertarian arguments against public financing of the arts, as most of our satisfying cultural experiences have been with garage bands and Hollywood movies and dime novels and other artists who would never stand a chance with those highfalutin grant-givers, and a certain prairie roughness in us makes us susceptible to the populist argument that the south-siders shouldn’t have to pay even the few pennies they’re being charged to indulge our hoity-toity Riverside tastes. There’s still a strain of conservatism that seeks to conserve the very best of our cultural heritage, however, and ultimately we find it most convincing.
Somewhere in the middle of the liberal-caused fiasco that is Detroit you will still find an extraordinary collection of truth and beauty and the best of Western Civilization, and that is worth conserving. Most Detroiters will prefer the noisome distractions of The Jerry Springer Show and the latest hip-hop releases or the virtual or actual orgies of violence that are staples of the local culture, but those lucky few who happen to wander in might find more worthy aspirations. Rescuing Detroit will require cruel doses of capitalism and a routing of the public sector rackets that have driven the city bankruptcy, but it will also require considerable art.

— Bud Norman

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The Results are In

Some high-profile elections were held Tuesday, and the results provide political junkies with something to talk but nothing for either party to celebrate.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe eked out a win in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, but the margin of victory does not bode well for his party. The former Democratic National Committee chairman and longtime Clinton family bagman had a lavishly-funded and professionally-run campaign machine, his Republican opponent was an unabashed Tea Party type who was thus easily caricatured as a right-wing nutcase by the state’s helpful press, there was also a Libertarian candidate generously funded by an Obama operative to lure some votes from the right, and with the northern half of the state rapidly swelling with grateful employees of the ever-growing federal government the race was supposed to be a rout. All the polls showed that it was going to be lopsided until Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli started reminding people that he had been the first state Attorney General to oppose Obamacare, at which point the polls tightened to a point McAuliffe wound up winning by far less than the share of the vote snookered by the faux-Libertarian. Had the Libertarian’s source of money been known earlier the race would likely have gone to Cuccinelli, and the dirty trick will be difficult to pull off against all the other Republicans lined up to bash Obamacare in next year’s mid-term elections.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie rolled to landslide reelection victory in New Jersey, which is not intended as a fat joke, but even such an impressive margin of victory in such a Democratic state does not justify all the resultant wild talk about his presidential prospects. After an upset victory over the incredibly sleazy incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine and the Democratic machine that had the state on the verge of bankruptcy Christie quickly gained national prominence by taking on the public sector unions to slash an unsustainable budget, and with a colorfully pugnacious style that played well beyond the tough-guy precincts of New Jersey, but conservative enthusiasm waned as it gradually became apparent that on issues ranging from guns to illegal immigration to Islamism he was more a northeasterner than a real Republican, and the straw that broke the conservative camel’s back was Christie’s literal embrace of Obama during the much-hyped phony-baloney Hurricane Sandy recovery effort that reversed the president’s slide in the polls.
Although Christie can claim to have won over blue state voters, much as Mitt Romney did in Massachusetts, and is now every Republican-hating reporter’s favorite Republican, much as John McCain was, these qualifications are unlikely to convince Republican primary voters that he’s a sure-fire winner. He can still boast of having confronted the public sector union beast and set his state’s finances more or less in order, but so can Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker, who survived a bruising recall effort and greater liberal vitriol to do so, and Walker isn’t burdened by Christie’s polite northeastern opinions on other important matters. There’s talk of Christie switching parties to get around these difficult political realities, but it’s hard to imagine anyone whose great claim to fame is an in-your-face hostility toward public sector unions ever winning a Democratic primary anywhere. Christie might take a hard turn to the right now that he’s term-limited from another state race, much as Kathleen Sebelius went crazy left after winning her second term as Kansas’ governor in order to win her currently uncomfortable position in the Obama administration, but it will take some doing to make for him to make sufficient amends with the conservatives here in the gun-loving heartland.
Another Democrat won by a landslide in the New York City mayoral election, and a more-or-less outright commie Democrat at that, but that will ultimately be to the party’s detriment. The victory is a bigger deal than the an inland American’s stereotype of New York would suggest, as it has been a hard-to-believe 20 years since a Democrat won in that overwhelmingly Democratic metropolis, but a mayor bent on waging war against the rich folk who pay for the city’s lavish government will soon remind the city why it went so long without Democrats. In the ‘70s and ‘80s New York City descended into a graffiti-covered and trash-strewn state of lawlessness and insolvency, to the point that such an out-and-out Republican as Rudy Giuliani was given two terms to turn things around with aggressive law enforcement and free-market economics. He was succeeded by Michael Bloomberg, a media magnate and Republican who quickly reverted to an independent status lest he be embarrassed at the town’s tonier cocktail parties, and although he became a national laughingstock with his eat-your-broccoli paternalism he retained enough of the pro-business and anti-crime policies of his predecessor to keep the city successful. The new guy won on promises to stop the police department’s controversial “stop and frisk” rules and to somehow make everyone in the city equally impoverished, and apparently there are enough New Yorkers who can’t recall the ‘70s and ‘80s to make this a winning argument. The results should provide Republicans with plenty of object lessons in coming campaigns.
Things have gotten so bad in Detroit that the city elected a white mayor, its first in 40 years. He’s a Democrat, of course, but it’s still a sign that when things get bad enough people will try anything.

— Bud Norman

A Bankrupt Way of Doing Things in Detroit

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