I’ve been thinking a lot about Detroit recently, and it’s probably the first time I have since the 1987 Blue Jays collapse down the stretch, aided by 7 straight losses to end the season including 3 one run games to the Tigers in the final series. Man, those fucking Tigers. A one game lead with only 3 to go! Toronto was 19-5 in September until The Swoon. Fucking Detroit, man.
It’s impossible to wade through the coverage of the city’s financial turmoil to find a straight forward narrative. Obviously, there’s no one reason to explain how this all transpired although both sides of the political spectrum will tell you otherwise. Unfunded public sector pensions and benefits! Corporate tax giveaways!
One of the more compelling and heartfelt discussions I found was over at The Corner Side Yard by Pete Saunders, Detroit – Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? (If you want to get your fill of Detroit on the Verge of Bankruptcy, check in regularly with Urbanophile.) Still, as with any complex situation, there are no easy conclusions to draw, no simple answers.
A couple parallels do jump out at me, though, that elicit passing thoughts along the Toronto, the next Detroit theme song we will inevitably be hearing sung over the next little while. The first is the municipality as a political football. Like Canadian cities, their U.S. counterparts have a surprising lack of autonomy in the bigger picture decisions. They are granted the crumbs of governance, largely in the day-to-day operations and, can do that poorly with negative consequences to residents. But the macro-decisions are often beyond their control.
And if, as appears to be the case of Detroit, a city’s overseers at the state level are not particularly partial to the city in question or, at least, to those in power at City Hall, they can essentially use it as a punching bag. Remember Mike Harris and the amalgamation of Toronto? Well, Mike Harris and anything to do with Toronto really.
A city can attempt to mitigate the damage it inflicts upon itself but is helpless if the blows come from above.
So in Detroit’s case, a city that votes overwhelmingly Democrat is manhandled by a Republican governor who seizes the woeful economic opportunity to experiment with his radical right wing anti-labour, anti-public sector, selling of public assets ideology. And there doesn’t seem to be much the local officials can do about it outside of taking the state to court which it’s done. A judge has ruled the bankruptcy filing to be unconstitutional, a ruling Michigan’s Attorney General has vowed to appeal.
It’s not different levels of government so much as warring levels of government.
(Can you say Scarborough subway?)
Such governance dependency on the part of municipalities breeds the type of local politician averse to responsibility. We’ve all heard it before whenever a city asks for more powers. You really want these jokers with more power? will come the response with a pointed finger legitimately to the one or two walking shitshows that inevitably make up any part of a city council. But it’s a chicken-or-egg argument. Do the conditions produce the politician or does the politician produce the conditions?
It’s easy to see how enabling bad municipal behaviour helps to strengthen the legitimacy of state and provincial governments in a regular game of political one-upmanship.
Detroit also illustrates that once decline starts it sets in motion a toxic civic dynamic that makes the tough choices needed to turn things around nearly impossible. Just as growth begets growth, decline begets decline, and part of the reason is social dynamics.
This comes about because in a city in decline — such as in late imperial Rome — people start thinking only about themselves and no longer come to see themselves as part of a greater enterprise or commonwealth. The city and suburbs, blacks and whites, taxpayers and unions no longer see their fortunes as linked. Rather than rising and falling together, it’s every man for himself.
Toronto’s economic situation is nowhere near as dire as that of Detroit’s. The truth is, it’s in far better shape than almost any other city on the continent. But some – hint, hint, it’s duly elected mayor – would have you believe otherwise. The language of decline will only grow more intense I imagine in the wake of Detroit’s misfortunes.
Pretty much the entirety of the above quoted second paragraph. “people…no longer come to see themselves as part of a greater enterprise or commonwealth. The city and suburbs, blacks and whites, taxpayers and unions no longer see their fortunes as linked. Rather than rising and falling together, it’s every man for himself.” Political opportunism, pure and simple. “Toronto’s financial foundation is crumbling,” Mayor Ford told the Empire Club early on in his term. Divide and conquer using fear as a tool. City versus suburbs. Taxpayers versus unions.
Create a crisis if one doesn’t exist.
Challenges are very different than crisis. Toronto shouldn’t bury its head and hope there aren’t serious challenges we have to face. Do we have massive under-funded liabilities lying in wait for us sometime in the future? I’m not sure but let’s examine that claim closely before rushing off to slash and burn shit to the ground. We are certainly lagging in infrastructure maintenance, and that’s even before we start talking public transit. The question that needs to be answered is, do we have the political will to do something about that, to reach into our pockets and do what needs to be done?
At this juncture, I wouldn’t bet on it. The rot of ‘poisoned civic culture’, to paraphrase Aaron M. Renn, has set in. It’s very much everybody for themselves, taxpayers versus residents. A terrible but not entirely surprising mindset under actual circumstances of duress like Detroit’s but unnecessarily and arbitrarily destructive in our manufactured case.
It’s not our economic model that requires a complete overhaul. It’s our approach to civic engagement. We’ve given up the greater public good long before circumstances might dictate we would.
— warningly submitted by Cityslikr