As Detroit’s state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager Kevin Orr discovered on the “scar-hopping” tour of blighted areas he took with the city’s creditors, it’s hard for outsiders to understand this city. Hell, it’s hard for Detroiters to understand it. Unfortunately, the nation’s largest bankruptcy will do little to ameliorate this and, in fact, will likely impede it.
Guilt has been established, and blame must be affixed. Without an inkling of awareness they are incriminating themselves in the fiasco, the nation’s outmoded ideological jackals will prolong their industrial era tussles deeper into the iPad Age. The right will blame the unions, the unions will blame outsourcers, both will blame each other, and modern minds will find their cacophony as edifying as a debate between slide rule and abacus owners.
Being a conservative, not an economic determinist, I know a city is a living symphony composed by the dynamic interaction of souls. It cannot be reduced to or restructured by ledger entries. I’m also well aware that a proper examination of Detroit requires a book not a blog. However, in light of my fair city’s recent bankruptcy and in the forlorn hope of fostering a more forward-oriented discourse on the subject, I submit the following general observations of Detroit for your consideration.
As our city has gone from “The Arsenal of Democracy” to the “Motor City” to the “The D” to “The Done,” Detroit’s outlook has become one of pessimistic resilience; she expects the worst and works to survive it. Integral to this ability to survive is the capacity to detach herself from the worst as it occurs. To wit, Detroit’s gut reaction to the “news” the city is bankrupt was? “No shit.”
Therefore, though she’s largely transcended the ugly racial antagonisms of the past, Detroit clings so tightly to the present that she can’t reach for the future. In the short run, then, the bankruptcy will only engender political rancor, prick old scars, and build anxiety instead of aspiration. It’s hard to hope for the best when you expect the worst and are proven right time and again.
In the long run – even if Detroit’s fiscal slum is renovated into a budgetary temple – what dreams will Detroit house? Steeped in manufacturing’s practical wisdom, Detroit could eschew simple solutions proffering a more purposeful, prosperous future. Yet, even this manufacturing-instilled practical wisdom was in some sense an accident of birth, namely Henry Ford’s. So the possibility exists that Detroit could adopt a steady, strategic plan for its rebirth yet still have to wait for a silver bullet-slinging savior to implement it. And, as Detroit knows better than most, a city that relies on silver bullets shoots itself in the foot.
Thus, the crux of Detroit’s current bankruptcy conundrum: how to channel pessimistic resilience into optimum results? It’s impossible: you can’t thrive if you just want to survive. The Detroit paradigm must shift to optimistic resilience.
Optimism requires the death of pessimism, which can only exist on a sliding scale to rock bottom. One cannot expect the worst once the absolute worst has occurred. With the bankruptcy, Detroit has nowhere to go but up.
Only when this realization – this practical optimism – is matched to Detroit’s titanic resilience will the redemption commence. If bankruptcy is viewed as a challenge rather than an epitaph, an abandoned property will become an opportunity, a humble hope will become a bustling shop, a neighborhood will become a community, a community will become a family, and a redeemed Detroit will become a reality.
No, it will not happen overnight after a fruitless tsunami of government spending and central planning. These can only conspire to repeat the past and restrain the practical genius of Detroit’s most precious treasure: her people, who can, must, and will individually constitute the “tiny ripples of hope” that drive a new Detroit. (Pun intended: I’m from Detroit. Buy a car.) Consequently, following what will prove a painful restructuring in bankruptcy, Detroit will be better poised to win in an intensely competitive global economy. After all, if there is one thing the communications revolution shown: the future is entrepreneurial decentralization not governmental centralization.
Finally, admittedly: as a longstanding object of national derision, Detroit knows that in some quarters her bankruptcy has been met with gloating. Fine, but know this: if she does not rise from these ashes, Detroit will become an ominous milestone of American decline, from which no quarter will be spared.
Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter, a former congressman, is of Counsel at Ottenwess, Allman and Taweel, L.L.C. in Detroit, Michigan