What Should We Do With Detroit?

One of my earliest jobs after graduate school was to join the Koch Administration doing economic development.  It provided a wonderful and exciting opportunity to use the skills I had learned as a student with degKoch Times Squarerees in both psychology and business .  The chance to create employment and business opportunities, especially in distressed areas of the city, appealed to my desire to help others.  It was a challenging time, with the city teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and President Ford’s famous “drop dead” attitude towards bailing the city out.  I spent twelve years working with Ed Koch while he was Mayor, the last four of which as his appointed President of the New York City Public Development Corporation (http://www.nytimes.com/1986/05/24/nyregion/2-are-named-by-koch-as-chiefs-of-agencies.html).

Even after the Koch years, I’ve always felt a strong affinity to work in and with the public sector, serving on: the Municipal Water Finance Authority during the Giuliani Administration; the NYC Design Commission as its President for eight years under Mayor Bloomberg; and, being appointed by former President Bill Clinton and current Republic of Haitian President Michel Martelly as a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on Economic Growth and Investment to help restore Haiti after the 2010 earthquake (http://www.pacihaiti.org/members/).  As the late Mayor Koch said, “Public Service, if done honestly, is the noblest of all professions.”

What few people understand, however, are the complexities involved in running a major metropolitan area.  There are constant conflicts between what programs should be funded: housing or jobs?  Transportation or environmental protection? Parks or sanitation? Highways or subways?  Education or police? And, the list goes on.  Communities compete for limited resources. Some areas believe they are deprived of schools, but others protest if a new high school is proposed nearby.  Some residents want parks that are quiet places to read and meditate, while others seek active playgrounds for their children to run or play ball.  Parents and their college age children seek affordable housing, yet area residents protest new developments of scale.  In many cities, like New York, there is a decreasing amount of vacant land to build on, and most of that land is in industrial and environmentally challenged areas.

In Haiti with President Clinton (photo by Mark Steed)

In Haiti with President Clinton (photo by Mark Steed)

There are also endless constituencies, ranging from homeowners to renters, non-profits to religious organizations, labor unions to business executives, students to retirees, and, of course, the press.  For virtually every area of government there is a constituent or a lobbyist, and they turn out in barrels whenever there is a bill, law or regulation proposed, considered, or debated.  Elected and appointed officials are constantly being hammered by one group or another that focuses like a laser beam on their particular issue, but who rarely consider how that issue fits into a larger picture.

Leaders, however, must look at the big picture.  And, when they don’t, you have Detroit.  Like many other major cities in America, Detroit has been impacted by elected officials who refused, or didn’t have the fortitude, to say “no” to labor unions and special interest groups. They found creative budgeting techniques to dodge a bullet on their watch, while pushing the disaster off to future Mayors and elected officials.  This is no different than New York City under Mayors Lindsey and Beame, who creatively used the city’s capital budget (the money used to pay for bridges, schools, parks, roads, etc.), to fund the city’s expense budget (the money used to pay salaries, benefits, rent, office supplies, etc.).  The problem was, the city pledged tax revenue to repay the capital budget bonds (which is normal and customary), and that same tax revenue was to used to pay for the expense budget items.  It was a New York City Ponzi scheme.  The city at the time had $14 billion in debt, about $6 billion of which was short term.  At the time, it was running what is now known to be a $2.2 billion deficit, and shut out of the credit markets.  The city also underfunded pensions, and raised money using “revenue anticipation notes”; however, many of the anticipated revenues never arrived.

There are lessons here for Detroit and other municipalities similarly facing bankruptcy.  The largest of those lessons is that you can’t spend money you don’t have.  The second is that you have to learn to make tough decisions and say no.  There are countless good men and women in Detroit who worked hard and honestly for decades.  Many of them now face the prospect of losing their pensions and being wiped out.  Tell me, did their labor leaders and elected officials really represent them?  I think not.  Leaders must look at all the consequences of their decisions, intended and unintended, immediate and long term.

Detroit’s elected officials also failed to examine and test new and creative economic development strategies; they did little to educate and prepare their workforce for a changing economy.  Forget that they didn’t see the automotive industry’s decline in America, or the fact that modern factories where replacing people with machines.  They stubbornly succumbed to union pressure, and blindly turned their eyes on the future.  Those union leaders became very wealthy, and now their members may lose it all.  What really was gained?

So the question now is what should we do with Detroit?  Should we give it to Canada? Should the US government bail it out? Wait, didn’t we do that when Obama bailed out the auto industry?  Personally, I think the solution is to study what can be privatized. Throughout the country, states, counties and municipalities are finding ways to work with business to more effectively provide services.  What I did under Mayor Koch was an early experiment when we helped correct the New York City fiscal crisis (http://www.nytimes.com/1987/04/04/business/cities-turn-into-entrepreneurs.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm).  Officials in Texas are publicly bidding the right to build roads to private developers.  The government gets the road, and the the developers keep the tolls for an agreed upon period of time, as well as development rights off some of the road’s proposed exits and entrances.  While in the private sector, I worked with Giuliani administration officials to build a new Family and Supreme Court in downtown Brooklyn; had the city done the project itself, it would have taken 2-3 more years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars more, because of public bidding requirements and antiquated work rules.

What’s clear to me is that Detroit, and government generally, can’t keep doing things the same way.  America, the great experiment, is failing, because we are failing to experiment.

© 2013 James Stuckey

9 thoughts on “What Should We Do With Detroit?

    • Yeah, watch out for those crazy liberals, with their bellegerint acceptance of others and sense of community. What a horrible blight.Also…..north…of canada?Better keep your head down, some real sharp with being dished out in this comment section.Anyways, in response to Kevin, that really is an excellent idea. If everyone saw things that way, there would be no “economic crisis” in this country, just opportunities happening. I would be ready to jump on the bandwagon if I weren’t already working wit a tech start-up in my hometown.House prices like this just boggle the mind. Where I live, this sort of thing is almost much to believe.

  1. As a native Michigander, I have watched Detroit over the decades, continue it’s decent into ruin. Detroiters continue to elect crook after crook. Each administration is greedier than the last. Kwame Kilpatrick did more damage in his short reign than many others did and Dave Bing actually cared about Detroit.

    But as usual, the City Council did all possible to trip up the mayor, along with the unions. Really? Why should anyone care anymore? Until the people of Detroit toss the garbage out, the city will never be great again.

    My wife and I left the state this year and have no plans to return to my native state. The leadership in Lansing, no matter Republican or Democrat continue to make ridiculous decisions, further shredding a once great state which also once had roads that were the envy of many states. Today, they are a joke.

    They never get fixed except throwing some coal patch in the craters. The list of stupidity goes on for miles. Goodbye, Michigan and Detroit. What should we do with Detroit? Leave Michigan.

    • I live in Australia, so I only know about Mayor Koch what I have heard on the news over the years. Not one negative note, it has all been ptiiosve and in some cases inspiring. Mr Koch was not only an unusual man, but also, it seems to me, a role model for what politicians should aspire to but never seem to. Thanks for the photos, I really enjoyed that peek you gave us into his home.

  2. John you make a good point, people deserve the officials they voted in! However, it is hard to find the civil servant mentality in a politician, if not impossible. I already find it extraordinary that James has served under numerous mayors. I would have expected more nepotism.

    As James has been witness to, great things can happen when people choose the common good over their own pockets. Sadly the US is turning into a fascist country, where the interest of the corporation counts more than the individual. Just imagine what could be achieved if lobbying was banned and the billions of dollars spent on it were used to create real jobs and fix things like motorways and bridges for a start!

    As for the unions, well the whole operating model, based on bargaining power and extracting ever more for their members, was doomed for eventual failure in a global economy. In the end their tenacity and inflexibility certainly contributed to the disaster that is Detroit today. Enriching a few but killing the golden goose in the process.

  3. Hey James I am new to the blogging world. I see that you have a good audience on your blog. I am an author and I just published my autobiography. I self published so I need to market it on my own. I want to raise awareness about my book so that it can reach and impact as many people as possible. If you can put this on your blog for your readers I would greatly appreciate it. I see that you have quite the following and it would really help if I had somebody with experience to help me promote my book. Thank you!! If you can even go to my blog and ‘reblog’ my post about my book that would be awesome thank you so much!! Even if you can support me by reading my book that would be awesome!!

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    http://f4ischer.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/top-story-i-have-published-my-autobiography/

  4. Pingback: US:What Should We Do With Detroit?

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