July 24, 2013
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The final collapse of Detroit should lead to thorough congressional investigations into the pathology that killed a great American city. You might think “killed” is too strong a term, but consider these facts about what was once our fourth largest city with the highest per capita income of any city in America.
The recent bankruptcy in Detroit is a harbinger of the steady decay of government competence in America. To have the city with the highest per capita income in America in 1950 collapse economically, culturally and in the basic aspects of civilization is horrifying. To have a city of 1,400,000 people decline to fewer than 700,000 is astonishing.
With the collapse in population there are 78,000 empty houses. Some can be bought for $1 (yes, it’s true) and no one will buy them.
The number of Detroit manufacturing jobs dropped from 296,000 to 27,000.
No one will create new jobs in the city because it has become a public safety and public services wasteland. In some ways it resembles the post-devastation world of the movie Mad Max.
Imagine a world in which 40% of the traffic lights don’t work. Almost one third of the ambulances don’t work. Of the ambulances that have been repaired some have over 250,000 miles on them. In some dangerous neighborhoods ambulances will not go without police. On average it takes the police nearly an hour to show up when called. Faced with this public safety crisis, the politicians cut the police force by 40% and closed most police stations to the public 16 hours a day.
As the politicians have eliminated public safety personnel and budgets, crime has soared. You are 11 times more likely to be killed in Detroit than in New York. You are 5 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the national average. The police solve fewer than 10% of the crimes committed in Detroit. (You thought the reference to Mad Max was exaggerated?)
Mark Steyn has a devastating analysis of the collapse of Detroit and its wider implications. He writes:
The greatest problem in Detroit isn’t structural. It is the collapse of human capital. Consider Steyn’s further observation: “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…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.”
Detroit is a human tragedy for the unnecessary pain its residents are living through. It is an historic tragedy for the loss of a great American city and a symbol of American industrial power. It is a sobering warning of what can happen in the rest of the country if we continue to tolerate massive, systemic breakdown in government.
Detroit is not unique. It is in fact a warning signal of what can happen to us at every level of government if we continue to tolerate the breakdown in government capabilities and performance.
For two generations we have had a political system dominated by protecting the government class and growing a dependency class. More and more people got unsustainable deals through government employee union power to coerce politicians (for whom they were often the largest and most powerful reelection threat). More and more people were told they didn’t have to learn or work or be productive because someone else would take care of it all for them.
These pathologies need to be exposed and studied. Their lessons should be applied at every level of government across the country.
Detroit’s problems are not new. I outlined the pathology and some possible solutions at the Mackinac Policy Conference in June 2010. I also spoke there in September 2007.
Six months later on March 27, 2008 at the American Enterprise Institute I responded to then Senator Obama’s speech in Philadelphia on race. A significant part of my talk focused on Detroit:
So let’s take Senator Obama seriously about discussing this. His analysis is simply factually false. The collapse of Detroit, from 1950 to 2008, which I think should be the centerpiece of the fall campaign, because it is the case study in bad culture and bad government. Detroit in 1950 had 1,800,000 people. Last year, it dropped below 900,000. Less than half the housing stock is needed. It is the first American city in history to drop below a million.
The numbers are actually worse than that in the last three years: Detroit had three times the out-migration rate of any other city in the United States. Twenty-seven thousand additional people fled Detroit. It dropped from being the number one per capita income city in the United States to ranking number sixty-second.
Now, you could say, well, it’s all the auto industry’s fault. That’s simply not true. First of all, there are large parts of America that have very successful auto industries. They tend to be in right-to-work states with low tax rates and without the United Auto Workers. But they’re quite successful. We’ve had a very large increase in factories that produce cars.
Second, even in Michigan, despite a very destructive governor and a very destructive state legislature, Grand Rapids is in the middle of a building boom. Now why is Grand Rapids, on the western side of Michigan, growing dramatically while Detroit, on the eastern side of Michigan, is continuing to collapse?
The results are even worse. The best estimate of the Gates Foundation was that a freshman entering the Detroit school system had one chance in four of graduating on time. Three out of four children in Detroit are being cheated by one of the most expensive school bureaucracies in America.
But that’s because we measure the wrong metric. The primary metric of the Detroit school bureaucracy has nothing to do with the children. It has to do with whether or not the paychecks are issued every month. And it has been a stunningly effective bureaucracy at issuing paychecks. It just doesn’t do anything for the paychecks. And yet no one wants to talk about this.
So start with the idea that if we’re going to have an honest conversation, we ought to start with Detroit because if we can’t have an honest conversation about how big a disaster Detroit is, we sure can’t have an honest conversation about poverty in America, and we sure can’t have a conversation about what needs to change.
It’s that simple and that direct. And I think virtually no one on the Left is prepared today to talk candidly about Detroit because it is their institutions and their culture which has caused the collapse of one of America’s great cities.
And you may think I’m exaggerating. Consider the following. An entrepreneur offered $200 million to develop charter schools in Detroit and was rejected on the grounds that he was obviously a white racist attempting to overturn the black power structure. “I am disappointed and saddened by the anger and hostility that has greeted our proposal,” explained [Bob] Thompson to the Associated Press.
“Because of these contentious conditions, we are not going to move forward with our planned charter high schools. Our proposal to build a number of new, very small charter high schools in Detroit was intended to increase options for Detroit parents and children. The proposal was meant to be for kids, and not against anyone in any institution.”
Now what does that tell you about pathology, when you can have a system failing, and remember, if you’re an African-American male, and you drop out of high school, you face a 73 percent unemployment rate in your 20s and a 60 percent chance of going to jail.
And you have to ask yourself, by what moral authority did the Detroit school bureaucracy block $200 million from saving young men from going to jail, from giving them an opportunity to go to college, from offering them hope? And why did no one speak out against it?
The disaster in Detroit involves ruined lives, lost futures, tragic deaths, avoidable poverty, and a host of societal, governmental, economic and political pathologies.
The Congress should thoroughly explore the disaster and outline what steps we need to do to avoid repeating this terrible human tragedy in other cities.
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