Calls the tune. That’s an old British saying meaning that whoever picks up the check decides what’s going to happen. And that’s what’s happening in Detroit right now. For a long time, people have known that the city of Detroit has spent far more money than they take in. The city has a government and services to cover a city with twice the population than the 714,000 who currently live there, and past administrations of Detroiters have been either unwilling or unable to make the lasting structural changes necessary to have an effective, viable government in place that can adequately respond to the needs of its citizenry. The failure to act has culminated in a looming fiscal crisis.
It’s likely that an emergency financial manager will be appointed in Detroit this coming spring. Despite the concessions that Mayor Bing has won from the city’s unions, it’s unlikely that there will be enough cash on hand to continue operating the city. Many people have started talking about race in conjunction with this issue. I can’t think of a worse time to open that can of worms. Yes, Detroit’s racial history is a very contentious one. More so than most cities. But a perpetual dedication to blame the ills of the city on racism is neither an accurate policy prescription, nor a particularly beneficial one.
The only black and white on balance sheets are on the paper and the ink. Appointing a financial manager is basically bankruptcy under another name. And bankruptcy is never pleasant. Ever. This isn’t a racial problem, this is an economic problem, and taking a racial approach to solving it fundamentally misses the problem. If people can’t propose a solution without reverting to a counterproductive obsession about race, it just makes the problem that much harder to solve over the shouting, while the stakeholders try to come up with a workable solution.
If Detroit could come up with a workable city-wide budget that’s both sustainable and transparent, then we wouldn’t be in this mess. And frankly, Gov. Snyder, for whatever issues I have with him, isn’t much inclined to intervene in any more budgets than he has to. He has another far larger one on which to focus, that of the state. The fact of the matter is that if a city spends far more than it takes in, and continues to do so for long periods of time without being able to correct the problem, then eventually, the laws of economic gravity will take effect. One way that Detroit could avert the appointment of an emergency manager would be to go ahead and take care of the situation itself. But as in years past, this looks unlikely to happen. In this situation, I suppose that the only real color that matters isn’t black or white, it’s green.