Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The old rules are now irrelevant, Detroit thought, but they weren't

With thrift, frugality, prudence cast aside, the bankrupt city sinks into physical ruin

Michigan Central Station, Detroit's most famous icon of decay, was closed in 1988 when Amtrak stopped service.
Michigan Central Station, Detroit's most famous icon of decay, was closed in 1988 when Amtrak stopped service.
Detroit declared itself broke last week, the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Once America’s showplace boom town, the city’s present condition is instructive – population down by 60 per cent (from 1.8 million to 700,000) in 50 years, 78,000 abandoned houses, taxes not paid on half the city’s properties, murder rate highest in 40 years, 30 percent of the city’s ambulances don’t work and 40 percent of the street lights, one third of the city living in poverty, one fifth unemployed, 100,000 creditors owed $18.5 billion the city can’t pay, two billion of it owed city employee pension plans.

Michigan Theater in 1927 and now as a garage.
Michigan Theater in 1927 and now as a garage.
Instructive, that is, because it reminds us that governments really can go broke. There are hard limits to what they can borrow. Some city pensioners have been told to expect 10 percent of what had been promised them. All union contracts are now up for renegotiation. Even essential services may be cut back.

Three causes: one social, one economic, and one spiritual

Historians and economists offer three reasons for this. The first was social unrest. After the booming ’50s came the race riots of the ’60s, which began an exodus from the city. Then followed the deluge of imports from other countries, where workers made much better cars for a lot less money. Finally, and most disastrous, came a change in attitude. Virtues like thrift, frugality and prudence were dismissed as out of date and irrelevant. “We’re living in very different times,” people said. “The values of our grandparents are now obsolete.” So when the money wasn’t there, Detroit borrowed. And where were the churches, the institutions supposedly there to remind us of all the old rules? They were in fact doing the reverse, egging on the spenders. The interests of the poor and oppressed must come first, they said. The money could come from the rich. But the rich were rapidly leaving town and with them the jobs that wealth can create. So the churches, instead of working to solve the problem, made it worse. 

Jesus’ familiar but dangerous advice

There is a familiar and dangerous verse in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “Take no thought for your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor yet for your body, what you shall put on.” (Mat 6:25) His purpose is obviously to prevent pointless fretting over material needs, a common human failing. But it could also be taken, as in Detroit, for an invitation to cast all rational thought aside, lay back, relax and let God provide. Such an attitude is incompatible both with what Jesus said elsewhere and consistently did – for he worked tirelessly. Successive city councils of Detroit thought otherwise; they borrowed. It didn’t work, and that’s what we should notice.

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