Tough love for the city of Detroit

Rory Cooper Comm. Director, The Heritage Foundation
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One of this week’s most popular Super Bowl ads was for the Chrysler 200. The ad features Eminem driving through Detroit to the upbeat imagery and lyrics of restoration and recovery. The voiceover says, “What does a town that’s been to Hell and back know about the finer things in life?”

The ad has been lauded nationally for its composition, as well as for its message of a Detroit rising from the ashes. Sadly, the ad is actually a teasing reminder that the city of Detroit is not close to this fantastical illusion, and it wrongly portrays what will actually rescue the city from the brink. Detroit is not ascending from Hell. Not yet.

Detroit has been slowly declining for decades. It isn’t because of the people that Chrysler aptly describes as hard-working and full of conviction. Detroit’s decline is due to decades of continuous liberal governance.

If there were major urban cities that had been governed for decades by conservative principles and similarly failed in such spectacular fashion, then one could certainly dismiss this conclusion. But that is not the case. The city of Detroit has continuously been governed under a cloud of corruption, irresponsible spending, liberal dogma that perpetuates poverty, and union contempt for free enterprise and entrepreneurship.

Unions have made outsourcing manufacturing jobs more profitable than hiring local workers. Unions have also blocked school choice efforts, depriving future generations of Detroiters of a chance to escape the cycle of despair.

Union workers are part of the backbone of Detroit society, but they are let down by their union bosses year after year. In the last decade, Michigan has lost over 450,000 manufacturing jobs due to the business environment that union bosses have created, contributing to a drastically high unemployment rate. Workers are promised unsustainable wages and pensions and benefits that are impossible to deliver over the long haul. And the lack of performance-based pay actually encourages a race to the bottom, telling hard-working Detroiters that hard work is not rewarded.

The city may need a savior, but it likely won’t be Chrysler. Recently, Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne tried to refinance the company’s generous taxpayer-funded loans. Marchionne referred to the U.S. taxpayers as “shysters” for the supposedly high interest rates Chrysler is paying. Marchionne wants to pay back the loans so Italy-based Fiat can complete its purchase of controlling shares of the company. While Chrysler’s survival will save current jobs in the Detroit area, it is unlikely to create them with a European automaker, suspicious of American shysters, at the helm.

Furthermore, Chrysler’s North American headquarters is not even in Detroit. If you take a 45-minute drive north of the city, you’ll find a sprawling complex in Auburn Hills, Michigan, much more hospitable to an international enterprise. The Chrysler 200 itself is assembled in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Imported from Detroit? No. The Detroit area? Maybe, for now.

Out in the suburbs of Detroit, you’ll also find the ambassadors of the city itself. Eminem doesn’t live downtown, nor does Kid Rock, nor do most of the city’s favorite sports stars and icons. Heck, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing lived in a suburb 30 minutes away until he was elected, and will probably return there when his term is complete.

But really, who can blame them? The suburbs of Detroit are some of the nicest places to live in the country. Oakland County, which has been led by a conservative executive for decades, uses business tax incentives and an efficient government to attract residents and businesses and even improve its environment and quality of life.

In the city of Detroit, no such incentives exist. At the micro-level, there is not one major grocery store in the entire city’s limits. Not one. At the macro-level, what business would want to negotiate with Detroit’s government? The last mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, is serving a long jail term for fraud and corruption. As is Congressman John Conyer’s (D-MI) wife Monica, who was sent to jail for accepting bribes as the former president pro tempore of the Detroit City Council. Shakedowns and ineptitude plague the city.

Detroit taxpayers pay heavily for the honor of seeing their public officials get carted off to jail. The Detroit City Council is the most expensive of any big-city city council in the nation.

Kilpatrick and Conyer’s friend in Lansing, former governor Jennifer Granholm (D-MI), didn’t wait a week before fleeing the state and city she left in near ruins, off to Berkeley, California. Surely her new liberal academic contemporaries will bemoan all of the obstacles that were supposedly placed in the way of liberal progress.

In most cities, brave men and women are battling for police and firefighting jobs. But Detroit is being forced to give away homes to applicants who no longer even need to live in the city to qualify for jobs. Detroit police officer LaDawn Russell told the Free Press she moved to the Oak Park suburb where “around New Year’s Eve, I don’t hear gunshots.”

Even if Detroit improves its business environment and infrastructure, the city will still have to overcome its crime problem. Suburban dwellers won’t move back into the city if it doesn’t become substantially safer and basic social and family order is not restored.

The only native Detroiter actually saving the city is businessman Mike Ilitch. Ilitch owns Little Caesars Pizza, the Detroit Tigers, the perennially great Detroit Red Wings, a casino and the Fox Theater Eminem visits at the end of the Chrysler ad. Outside of the areas in the city that Ilitch has touched, it is hard to find a shining ray of hope. Detroit cannot count on one man any more than it can count on one company.

People who live outside the city limits still proudly call themselves Detroiters, as would most people who live outside New York, Chicago, Boston or L.A. Detroiters take pride in the quality of the city’s people; their unique spirit, their steadfast determination, their long and multi-ethnic history. Sports and culture unite all political factions and even in the city’s darkest moments give hope to a common cause.

But Detroiters cannot continue believing that the decline of Detroit will not have ripple effects on the entire region’s economy. Detroiters cannot pretend that a city that none of them would ever choose to live in, or visit for more than one game at a time, is on the brink of rebound.

Liberalism has failed Detroit. You don’t need to be a student or a conservative to admit that. We may not all agree on the best solutions for the city, but we should agree what has been tried for four decades has failed.

Detroit must create hyper-incentives for growth. At this point, it can’t just compete with other cities; it must be the leader in creating business-friendly incentives. Detroit already has a complex highway system, but it keeps looking towards transportation projects, like light rail, as solutions to its woes. Detroit must avoid spending money to benefit the unions who support such needless “stimulus” and instead focus investments on replacing decaying infrastructure with community-friendly enterprise areas that will support safe and convenient grocery stores, banks, pharmacies and retail.

City leaders must embrace local education reforms that give the parents of students in failing public schools the ability to choose alternative schools that provides a safe environment for their children to actually learn, rather than bide time until they drop out

Detroit must look to experts at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and Robert Woodson, Sr. of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise for assistance in quelling neighborhood violence, restoring integrity to governance and increasing the flow of private capital to investment-friendly entrepreneurs. Faith-based enterprises must be embraced. Certain government financial assistance, or welfare, must incentivize personal responsibility.

Detroit can be great again. Detroit will be great again. But a two-minute Super Bowl ad will not be the impetus for its rise. Recognizing the failures of liberalism and rejecting the unsuccessful strategies and leaders of yesteryear will be the start. And all Americans should root for Detroit to do so, in order to inspire Washington lawmakers determined to repeat many of the city’s mistakes to do better.

Rory Cooper is Director of Communications at The Heritage Foundation and was born and raised outside Detroit, Michigan. You can follow him on Twitter @rorycooper.