Detroit: Before and After

Tuesday former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of 24 felonies that will keep him in prison for decades.  Today the state of Michigan will likely deny an appeal from members of the city council of Detroit to hold off on appointing an emergency manager to overhaul the finances of Michigan’s largest city.  In and of themselves, neither of these events will change anything on the streets of the city.  Garbage isn’t going to be collected any more efficiently.  Crime won’t go down, and property values certainly won’t change because of this.  But these two events, both symbolically and practically, portend the end of one era, and the beginning of another.  This week, more so than any other in Detroit, with the possible exception of another week in 1967, delineates one epoch from another.

Kilpatrick, to the end, was delusional.  His response to the verdict: ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’  Kilpatrick excelled at this sort of colossal lie, not just to the people of Detroit, but to himself.  This is a man who, to this day, still does not appreciate the fact that he committed dozens of felonies.  I think there’s a sort of cognitive dissonance that Kilpatrick personifies that is manifested in the politics of Detroit.  Even though the handwriting is on the wall, the people who run this city largely feel allowed, but compelled to ignore it.

But no longer.  The man who presided over the old Detroit has been summarily dispatched, and the remnants of the political system that attempted to fill Kilpatrick’s shoes are likely to be dismissed today.  The emergency manager will be appointed, and city council will be given a chance to play ball.  Mayor Dave Bing has resigned himself to the fact that an emergency manager will be easier to work with than the assembly of characters that fill the ranks of the city council.  Council will pretend to play along initially, but eventually they’ll be circumvented with the power of the new emergency manager law that takes effect on March 28th and will lose any remaining authority.

This week closed the books on a very dark, very sad period of the history of Detroit.  It lasted 45 years.  What comes next for government and politics in Detroit is anyone’s guess.  There’s no guarantee that it’s going to be successful, but it sure as hell won’t be boring.

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Hello, Pot? Kettle Here.

I accept that in politics people are just fundamentally going to see some things differently.  The difference could stem from philosophy, experience, interests or a number of other factors.  But, when that blindness is willful, and includes significant revisions to the past, that’s when accepting those differences just turns into bullshit.

For example, the whole hullabaloo about ‘right to work’ legislation that passed through a lame duck session of the Michigan legislature this past winter is a prime example.  The whole reason that it was taken up in the session was that the GOP majority was about to become smaller and that outgoing members would never again be subject to the wrath of the voters at the ballot box.  It was, at its best and worst, a hard-nosed calculus of what they could get away with.  It enraged much of the state, but it worked.  At the time, Michigan Republicans were called anti-democratic (note the lower case D), and that they were trying to subvert the will of the electorate, a charge that was later borne out in a spate of polls.

Now that we find public institutions adapting to the new reality of the law, it’s the turn of Republicans to be outraged.  Why?  Because state universities such as Wayne State and Ferris are attempting an end run around the legislation, which has not yet taken effect.  Those two schools have negotiated new long-term contracts that would take effect before the RTW legislation takes effect.  It is, in effect, an end-run around the law, a perfectly legal tactic, and clearly an effort to subvert the intent of the law.  In short, it’s just politics.

The Republicans are blinded by their own rage that their will is not being adhered to.  According to this report, a faction of legislators made the trek up to Big Rapids to convey the message that should they lock in new contracts (before RTW takes effect) against the will of the GOP, they would lose a portion of their funding.  And Ferris folded, fearful that the educational-industrial complex they’ve constructed for themselves would lose one of their biggest revenue streams with which they use to compensate themselves quite richly.  I doubt that should the same delegation come to visit Detroit, they will probably be chased out with torches and pitchforks, such is the outlook of Wayne State.

Republicans opened up Pandora’s box when they rammed this through in a lame duck session of the legislature.  They have no right to attempt retaliation at institutions who respond to in a completely legal fashion.  What these people are doing is nothing more than outright bullying.

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Another more troubling trend that is beginning to use our universities as political props.  From the fracas at Michigan State last year that mandated students have insurance because aggrieved Michigan Republicans thought it smacked a bit much of Obamacare, to meddling in internal policies when it comes to same-sex partner benefits, the state government is continuing a policy that as amoral as it is stupid.  This applies to both Democrats and Republicans.

Gays and the GOP: Still Where We Always Were

Is the Republican party finally starting to come to its senses on the question of treating the gays with a modicum of dignity?  On the surface of things, it appears that may indeed be the case.  Every few months for the past few years, news is made when a prominent Republican, such as Laura Bush or Meghan McCain, publicly state their support the gay rights movement.  The fact that it’s newsworthy has nothing to do with the fact not that it’s official Republican policy (it’s not), but because it’s so far out of the mainstream of Republican political thought these days that it’s a novelty.

Recent developments in the past month have given some cause to think otherwise.  A laundry list of Republican notables signed onto an amicus brief in support of marriage equality for upcoming litigation in connection with the Defense of Marriage Act and California Proposition 8.  The list includes a bevy of conservatives from the northeast, former members of Congress and governors, party officials and campaign strategists.  Also of note, Jon Huntsman also came out in favor of marriage equality this past week, becoming the only GOP presidential contender from the past electoral cycle to have done so.  And S.E. Cupp, conservative commentator, refused an invitation to CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Committee conference, due to their continued exclusion of GOProud, a gay Republican (shudder) activist group.

This is progress, to be sure.  But the fact of the matter is this: Republican officials, be they members of Congress, legislators or governors, the ones currently in office and holding the reins of power, stand in stark contrast to these newly vocal fellow Republicans on this issue.  Bashing gay rights is still red meat for the base of the GOP, and no matter how many notable party officials, former elected officials and wives and children of former officials come out in favor of gay marriage, when it comes down to the calculus of power on the issue, the Republican party is still the same homophobic organization that they were when dialogue on the issue first started about twenty years ago.

Municipal Fiefdoms

Something odd about driving around metro Detroit is that you find yourself first in one city, two minutes later, another, and in another two minutes, yet another city.  Southeast Michigan, with its dense population, is a patchwork of lots of different municipal entities.  And while at one point, having lots of different municipalities probably made a fair amount of sense, there’s much more pressure now on municipalities to streamline their operations and merge as many functions as possible with neighboring entities.

Wayne County alone, at least according to my calculations, has at least 39 different police forces*.  That’s 39 different chiefs, 39 different payroll departments, 39 different HR departments, and 39 different of everything that a police department has.  If we considered all of the duplicative work that’s being done across agencies, the sum would be staggering.  Finding data on matters like this is somewhat challenging, so the precise scope of the financial savings that could be realized is hard to calculate, though, suffice it to say, instead of making further cuts in personnel, we could realize significant economies of scale by merging many of these departments into countywide organizations.

Municipalities have been having to do more with less for years.  The boom of the 1990s, with all of the accompanying tax revenues is  but a distant memory for a generation that has come of age amongst nothing but layoffs, closures and budget cuts.  Local governments, particularly in Detroit, have gotten to the point where further cuts isn’t cutting into the muscle, but the bone.  Consolidation of municipal services, be it school districts, libraries, police and fire departments, and a number of other services offered by local governments is the best possible method of putting local government on a sustainable fiscal basis.

Another upside of consolidation would be that in addition to saving money in the future, the opportunity could be used to make significant changes to the benefits and pension systems for retirees, which would also make them more fiscally sustainable, and they  needn’t consist solely of cuts or having to claw back benefits from workers and retirees.

But there’s going to be lots of problems with achieving this.  Opposition from the ranks of some public sector unions would inevitably arise.  There’s the racial dynamic at play, with municipalities such as Livonia or any of the Grosse Pointes probably being very, very hesitant to join forces with Detroit in anything.  And there’s the problem that the system we have in place right now, while not as efficient as it could be, isn’t in a crisis (yet) and is working relatively well (for the time being).  This is an issue that could be addressed with relative ease now, as compared to years in the future, waiting until the situation has reached the point of crisis, making the politics of all of it much more difficult.

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*Include also Wayne State University PD, Detroit Medical Center Police.

The Man from Kalkaska

Meet one Republican, you’ve covered much of the spectrum that the GOP occupies.  Meet two dozen Democrats, and you’re only halfway there.  Republicans are a far more unified, ideologically coherent political party.  Democrats barely qualify as a party.  In my mind, I think a much more accurate description would be a coalition.

The Republican party is composed of the affluent, the religious and the rural.  Granted, there are segments of the GOP that fall under none of these categories, but these three groups form both the bulk of the muscle and the rank and file of the party.  With the Democrats, you have the following: labor, gays, Jews, blacks, Latinos, most of the ladies, urban dwellers, environmentalists.  This listing is also incomplete, but as with the characterization of the GOP above, these groups comprise the majority of the left.

So, depending on where you are in the country, Democrats can be very, very different creatures.  Historically in Michigan, the Democratic party has been an extension, by and large, of the labor movement.  Up until this weekend, for the last 18 years, Mark Brewer has led the Democratic party.  He withdrew at the last minute after it became clear that he would lose his tenth bid to be chairman of the Michigan party.

He was unseated by Lon Johnson, a 41 year old Michigan native from Kalkaska who recently narrowly lost (53%-47%) a race in a strongly Republican district in the Michigan House of Representatives.  Johnson has been a midlevel Democratic functionary in various campaigns and organizations for the past decade, and is married to Julianna Smoot, the deputy director of the President’s reelection campaign.

The thinking is that Johnson will bring the same sort of organizational talent to a moribund Michigan party apparatus that has been more concerned with turf wars and pushing a predominantly labor agenda.  Brewer, a creation of former US House whip David Bonior, was essentially the mouthpiece of labor, and conducted party policy as such.  Proposition 2 in the past electoral cycle was widely regarded as a pipe dream.  It would have enshrined collective bargaining as a constitutionally protected right in the state constitution.  It was a massively expensive political operation and failed by a wide margin during an electoral season when Democrats did well across the board.  In theory, the money that underwrote Prop 2 been dedicated to better field operations that could have potentially retaken the legislature for the the Democrats.

Brewer was widely viewed as having become very complacent during his long tenure, and this weekend, after a tactic that would have allotted much of the votes to Brewer supporters failed, he withdrew.  Lon Johnson took the help by unanimous acclamation.  Electoral intrigue and analysis of this sort is always fun.  Now it’s time to move a legislative agenda and extract as much as Democrats are able to out of Snyder by pitting him against the far right flank of his party.  It can be done, but it couldn’t be done by Brewer.  Let’s see how the man from Kalkaska can do it.

Leaving Cash on the Table

When you think about the budget meltdown taking place in Detroit, you would assume that the problem is spending that’s out of control. Particularly measured against how little value that spending delivers (either through incompetence, corruption or inefficiency), there’s a lot that we could do differently.  But a substantial portion of the problem is that Detroit has lost both the willpower and the ability to collect money owed it by citizens.

Last year, the city was owed $131 million dollars in unpaid property taxes. The 36th District Court in Detroit is owed $294 million in judgements.  Together, that totals $425 million.  The city’s annual budget deficit is $324 million.  Pause, for a moment, and consider the colossal stupidity of this.  Detroit, despite having a structural deficit that’s been around for decades, can’t be troubled to make sure that the way that the city takes in revenue is functioning.  Along with police and fire protection (other public services that seem to be in a slow-motion state of implosion) I can’t think of a more basic and fundamental role of what local government should do.

Property taxes are unreasonably high in Detroit.  There are three municipalities in Michigan that have the highest legally acceptable property tax rates in the state.  The first two are Ann Arbor and East Lansing, which have some of the best public schools in the nation and first rate city services.  The other is Detroit, where there is very little, if any, value for the taxes paid.  The schools are a disaster and city services are nearly non-existent (and likely to get worse before they get better).  While I recognize that the rates in Detroit should come down substantially, regardless of where they are, they need to be collected.  It’s not feasible that the city is going to be able to collect the total amount owed it in property taxes at the maximum legally allowable rates, but it can get a lot more of the cash than it’s getting now by switching to lower rates.  This seems counterintuitive, but lower rates spread across a broader tax base would actually yield more revenue.

As with property taxes, so too with the court: while it’s unrealistic to think that the court is going to be able to squeeze the full amount owed it out of the debtors, the court owes it, both to the city and to those who manage to pay their bills to the court, to go after those who owe it money in a far more aggressive manner, including garnishing wages, taking out liens on personal property and obtaining more judgements against those that are able to, but refuse to pay.

I am not one of those delusional Detroiters (like resident lunatic Joann Watson) that claim the state owes us money to the tune of nearly a billion dollars because of a long-ago abrogated revenue sharing agreement.  But to think that we have to solve this crisis through cuts, and cuts alone, is patently absurd. Imagine, an adequately funded city government that can also deliver core services in a cost-efficient manner.  The difference would be staggering, and we owe it to everyone in this city to aim precisely for that.

The Pain of Change

Change is the only constant in life, and yet we’re perpetually surprised that we have to change.  Mostly, we don’t like it, yet if we didn’t change, we would either fail or perish.  We frequently say we realize that we have to change and that it will be hard, yet when we find it so, we’re angry.  Political institutions, from time to time, ossify such to the extent that they’re so far out of step with reality that they lose their grip on power, and are forced out, replaced by people who are more in tune with reality, only to have the newcomers suffer the same fate as their predecessors.  It’s so predictable you could set a clock by it.

When I think about the Democratic party of the late 1970s and 1980s, it’s like looking at the Republican party of today.  You have a collection of warring factions facing off against one another in a contest that’s driven by ideology on one side (purists), and governing on the other (pragmatists).  Democrats dominated the federal government from the Great Depression until just before I was born.  From 1932 to 1994, Democrats held the gavel for 58 years, Republicans four.  Democrats won eight presidential elections.  Republicans won four.

Democrats took their dominance for granted, thinking that it would never slip away from them, such was the power of the coalition.  And beginning in the late 1970s, when the Republican party, hungry from years in the wilderness and energized at the prospect of picking off southern conservatives from the Democratic coalition began their ascent that led first to the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980, and a GOP majority in the House in 1994.

The left had gotten fat and lazy, taking for granted that they would always be in power, and when they were resoundingly rejected by the electorate, gradually at first, and more and more decisively as time passed, the party did nothing.  Democrats doubled down on existing policy, oblivious to the fact that it was precisely those policies that had alienated them from the voters to begin with.  The party went through convulsions throughout the period, losing presidential elections in 1980, 1988 and 2000 that they could have won, but fumbled.  And it wasn’t until a young centrist Bill Clinton, with a center-left outlook, backed with the roaring economy of the 1990s, finally broke the Republican winning streak.

My point is this: the Republicans are in the wilderness, and they’re going to be there for some time.  Purists in the party just think they need to stick to their ‘winning’ conservative agenda.  Pragmatists recognize that they’re facing political oblivion for the near term and are focussing on preventing the purists from further highjacking the party.  The problem is that the reason of the pragmatists is blunted by the fury of the purists.  It doesn’t matter that the base of the party is deeply out of step with nearly every aspect of the rest of the country on policy, and that there’s no chance they’re able to advance their agenda.  What they’re experiencing is mostly an emotional reaction at being out of power, and likely having to stay there until they either moderate (as the Democrats did) or until America comes back around to their way of thinking, which, given the demography of this country, will not happen.

In the meantime, the Republicans are going to continue at an increasingly accelerated rate their soon to be spectacular implosion and the Democrats are going to continue to advance a center left agenda.