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    George Will ruminating on Detroit: About like Howdy Doody ruminating on the Moon


    So George Will, highly renowned municipal analyst and wicked good judge of character, has once again set his sights on Detroit. Somehow--don't ask me how--I knew this would happen.  I knew it would happen because the decline of Detroit, our allegedly foremost black and poor city, is in the spotlight, and it's beyond George Will's ability to say no to such delicious news.

    Behold!  An entire city has fallen to such lows there is nothing left but to declare them bankrupt--financially, morally, culturally, and--sigh--intellectually.  The city is beyond hope, reduced now to gasping its last breath.

    As the pack of jackals awaiting nearby begins to close in; begins to circle, no surprise that one George F. Will, tightass extraordinaire, is right up front.  Will is not one to not have an opinion, even when he knows next to nothing about the subject--especially if the subject is one he believes is beneath him.

    Will has a snooty gene that tends to surface whenever les miserables are shown to be more miserable than usual.  It is his duty to explain to the miserables just how culpable they are in their own undoing.  Because if he didn't explain it to them, they might not know to feel both miserable and guilty.  Guilt is the twist of the knife.  There is no redemption without the twist of the knife.   

    You've been bad, Detroit.  And worse, you've been ordinary. You must repent.  You must take your licks.

    In December, 2012, he wrote:

    If you seek a monument to Michigan's unions, look, if you can without wincing, at Detroit, where the amount of vacant land is approaching the size of Paris. And where the United Auto Workers, which once had more than 1 million members and now has about 380,000, won contracts that crippled the local industry — and prompted the growth of the non-unionized auto industry that is thriving elsewhere. Detroit's rapacious and oblivious government employees unions are parasitic off a near-corpse of a city that has lost 25 percent of its population just since 2000. The Wall Street Journal reports that because some government workers with defined-benefit pensions can retire in their 40s, "many retirees living into their 80s are drawing benefits for nearly twice as long as they work." 

    Union contracts didn't cripple Detroit's auto industry, corporate greed did.  They were bad at sharing, even though without the workers in Detroit that industry would never have grown as it did.  Once they figured out that they could outsource or robotize much of the manufacturing, they were off to the races.  Why give living wages when you can get by on giving slave wages somewhere else?

    Will's notion that the city's union employees were "rapacious and oblivious" to the dying Detroit and it was the out-of-control pension funds that dealt the final deathblow is just farcical.  

    This, according to the Free Press last week:

    The battle over the health of the City of Detroit pension funds flared again Friday when the Bond Buyer, a Wall Street publication, reported on a new analysis showing that the pension funds’ optimistic assessments “fall mostly within accepted industry standards.”
    Kevyn Orr, the city’s emergency manager, has estimated the underfunding of the city’s two pension funds at $3.5 billion. The pension fund managers disagree, saying the funds are more than 90% funded, meaning that there are adequate resources to pay almost all future liabilities.

    H/T for the above to Chris Savage over at Eclectablog, who gives further voice to what a lot of us have been thinking:

    Look, I get it that Detroit is in a major crisis. I do. I get that. But there isn’t any reason for Kevyn Orr to jump on the ruin porn train to make things look worse than they are unless he’s afraid that Detroit will be found not to actually be insolvent, which puts his plan to take the city through bankruptcy in peril. There’s also the fact that wealthy, opportunistic vultures waiting in the wings to swoop in and exploit Detroit’s situation for their own financial gain. That means snapping up city assets at bargain basement prices and getting lucrative contracts when anything not nailed down gets privatized to for-profits corporations.

    Nobody questions the fact that Detroit has been in a steady decline for decades.  Corruption was rampant there for longer than any of us want to remember.  Dependence on one significant but fleeting industry for almost a century was pure folly.  There are ghettos and drug wars and crime statistics that place Detroit too often at the top of the list.  But the workers in Detroit are tired of taking the blame.  The city may never rise to its former glory, but it can and will survive only if it can feel worthy again.  The George Wills don't help:

    "Detroit...has suffered not just economic setbacks but also a cultural collapse that precludes a rapid recovery. Despite some people’s facile talk about “rebooting” Detroit, as though it is a balky gadget, this is a place where dangerous packs of feral dogs roam. No city can succeed without a large middle class, and in spite of cheery talk about a downtown sprinkling of “hipsters and artisans,” a significant minority of Detroit’s residents are functionally illiterate and only 12 percent have college degrees (in Seattle, 56 percent do). Families are the primary transmitters of social capital, and 79 percent of children here are born to unmarried women. What middle-class family would send children into a school system where 3 percent of fourth-graders meet national math standards?"

    Will precedes his indictment of an entire city with this cheery shout-out to Rick Snyder, Michigan's Koch-fueled dictator-in-residence (Emphasis mine):

    Snyder is neither surprised nor dismayed by the Obama administration’s prompt refusal to consider bailing out the city: “I had made it clear I wasn’t going to ask them” for a bailout. One example of Washington’s previous costly caring is Detroit’s People Mover, the ghost train that circulates mostly empty. Snyder dismisses this slab of someone else’s pork as “part of the 60 years of failure.” He has largely forsworn attracting businesses to the city by offering tax credits, which he calls “the heroin drip of government.” He speaks not of “fixing” but of “reinventing” Detroit, by which he means a new “culture of how to behave and act.

     Well, isn't that the all-time limit?  Snyder, the nerdy number-cruncher-cum-plantation-boss, now sets his sights on culture and manners.  (Anything else, massa?)  And George Will apparently thinks that's cool. 

    So the next time George wants to talk about Detroit I've got a soapbox I'll set up for him. Right here in Grand Circus Park, where the hipsters and artisans and other clueless undesirables can come and hear what he has to say about their city.  (Fear not, George, it's nowhere near where feral dogs might lurk.)

    Grand Circus Park, Detroit

    Be sure and wear your bow tie, George, and bring your wife.  She might want to talk about her activities in both Rick Perry's and Michele Bachmann's campaigns.  That'll be a real ice-breaker.  A few laughs can't hurt. 

    But remember where you are and nix the happy talk about Snyder.  I mean, really.  Listen to me.  I know what I'm talking about.


    (Crossposted at Ramona's Voices)



    Sheesh, I can't believe that the Teacher's Unions did nothing to help the UAW destroy Detroit!  They must be lazy!  Thanks for the sane take, Mona.

    Shhh.  We're not supposed to say "teacher's unions" out loud.  cheeky

    I think much of this kind of talk, pro and con, is a distraction. White flight is really what killed the city of Detroit, and that includes white union auto workers not wanting to stay within the city and pay their property taxes there to keep it alive. The spiral down started there. It's happening in places like Milwaukee now. It helps, but you don't have to keep well-paying factory jobs in a city to keep a city. You do have to have people with income paying taxes, though. You can even discriminate by class if you want and still keep a city, you just have to have to do the opposite of Detroit, and have the poorer living in the exurbs and the richer living in the city, like Paris or San Francisco or Manhattan. You have to have a tax base to pay public sector workers, period. (And letting those public sector city workers live outside the city and pay their taxes elsewhere is often the coup de grace!) And I don't like either side maligning the hipsters, they have the right idea; the much-unfairly-maligned "gentrification" is the only proven way to revive when things go this bad.

    And I don't like either side maligning the hipsters, they have the right idea; the much-unfairly-maligned "gentrification" is the only proven way to revive when things go this bad.

    I like hipsters, at least the ones I know. They give me hope for the future but I don't see them as a force for gentrification like David Brooks bobos were. That may simply be because they are not yet all that materially inclined.

    I never really bought into Richard Florida's creative class as prime urban renewers. It is true they do often move into and renovate dying areas but without a market of professional and other classes who have enough wealth and/or income to buy their creations, they will just have (hopefully) improved the neighborhood.

    In Detroit's present circumstances that market consists primarily of employees of one man, Dan Gilbert, financier. May he live long and prosper for Detroit's sake.


    It's far more complicated than a simple "white flight" answer.  We went through a severe recession in the 1980s, when we became known as a part of the "rust belt", and Michigan auto workers fled the state by the hundreds of thousands. 

    Much of it was caused by the Big Three's refusal to see Japan as any kind of competition.  Japan was building smaller, cheaper, well-built more fuel-efficient cars and Americans were lapping them up.  It took years before the Detroit automakers would finally concede that the Japanese got it right and they didn't. 

    Detroit, bullied by automakers who saw rapid transit as anathema to a city built on the strength of a car in every driveway, dropped any plans they might have had to make it easy for residents to get from one end of the city to the other.  It's extremely difficult to get around Detroit by public transportation.

    You're right that city taxes sent many people into the suburbs.  Big mistake on Detroit's part.  Good freeways zip people from the suburbs into the city in no time.  Malls grew up all around but not in the city.  There were once beautiful neighborhoods in Detroit that were simply allowed to rot.  Gentrification has never successfully happened, except in small pockets that tend not to grow outward. I don't know why it has come to this and I'm not going to speculate.

    It's no secret that Detroit has made graft and corruption an art form.  A change in administrations never seemed to change that culture.  Everybody's friend or relative had a job if they wanted one, qualifications not required. 

    Detroiters needs a huge dose of pride.  They need to feel good about any efforts to make life better.  Every time someone like George Will writes the city off because nobody there is worthy of the effort, it helps to reinforce that inferiority complex that hobbles everyone there.

    It really doesn't matter any more how Detroit got where it is; what matters now is what they're going to do about it.  There's no question they screwed up and now need an intervention.  But believing that any good will come from Governor Rick Snyder or financial manager Kevyn Orr just serves to set Detroit back another decade or more.  They aren't there to help the people, they're there to help themselves to the leavings.


    Counsel for UAW has no comment, except Mr. Will knows nothing about the UAW.

    Grrr, firewall.  Here's the whole article.  Babette is my partner and my neighbor in the office.  Well-earned kudos to her.



    The main parties squaring off in Detroit's $18 billion bankruptcy case will be led by women, an unusual feat in a legal field typically dominated by men.

    Women hold leadership roles in fewer than one-fifth of the 100 biggest U.S. law firms' bankruptcy practices, according to data compiled by Dow Jones. But in the hotly contested case in Detroit, the names to know are Heather Lennox, Sharon Levine and Babette Ceccotti.

    Ms. Lennox is representing Detroit, which is trying to shed billions of dollars in obligations, including to retired city workers on pensions.

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    What does bankruptcy mean for Detroit? How bad is the situation in terms of city services? How did Motor City get into this position? WSJ's Jason Bellini has TheShortAnswer.

    Ms. Levine and Ms. Ceccotti are on the other side of the table representing two unions that dispute Detroit's eligibility to seek bankruptcy protection: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, or UAW. Both unions represent city workers and retirees.

    The three will be among the attorneys steering a high stakes battle in the country's largest ever Chapter 9 bankruptcy case. It pits the city's need for relief from a staggering debt burden against the wages, benefits and pensions of thousands of workers and retirees. While both sides want to see the city recover, they differ as to how such a recovery should take shape, including whether Detroit should be allowed to use bankruptcy's tools to hammer out a restructuring plan.

    "There weren't a lot of women in the courtroom, but there were a lot of women at the podium," Ms. Levine said about Detroit's bankruptcy court debut on July 24. "I found that to be a nice change."

    After two decades of helping auto, steel and mining companies through restructurings, Ms. Lennox said she has learned to value compromise.

    "You're trying to get a deal done and not to create more litigation," she said. "Most people would rather try to come to some agreement rather than litigate and have a really extreme outcome."

    That isn't how it worked out, however, when Ms. Lennox, a Jones Day restructuring partner, led the team arguing Hostess Brands Inc.'s Chapter 11 case.

    The bakers' union thwarted the company's restructuring efforts by going on strike. Hostess liquidated, laying off thousands of workers and selling its brands, including Twinkies, to investors who have since restarted production.

    "Detroit is facing a number of the same types of issues we faced in Hostess when it comes to the inability to fund legacy liabilities and benefits," said Hostess Chief Executive Greg Rayburn. Ms. Lennox, he said, is "always on top of her game."

    Ms. Levine also comes to Detroit via the Hostess case. She represented the company's unionized mechanics and other workers.

    "I have a lot of respect for Heather," said Ms. Levine, a Lowenstein Sandler LLP restructuring partner. "Unfortunately, we were disappointed with the way [Hostess] came out for the workers and with regard to the pensions. We're hopeful that we're able to get to a better resolution for the workers and retirees in Detroit."

    Ms. Levine had a better outcome in the American Airlines bankruptcy, where she helped the Transport Workers Union protect its pension, wages and benefits from deep cuts. The union is also set to take a stake in the airline upon its exit from bankruptcy and proposed merger with US Airways Group Inc.

    "Sharon wasn't a big public face of that, but I know she was key in giving her clients direction on what they needed to do throughout the process to protect their interests," said Suzanne Kelly, a restructuring consultant.

    A known quantity in bankruptcy cases involving union workers, Babette Ceccotti is representing the UAW in the Detroit case. UAW General Counsel Michael Nicholson said Ms. Ceccotti has been "a big part" of the union's bankruptcy strategy, representing it in the Chapter 11 cases of Chrysler and General Motors as well as those of auto suppliers such as Dana Corp.

    Ms. Ceccotti has spent all of her three decades as a lawyer at Cohen, Weiss & Simon LLP, known for its work representing labor unions both in and out of bankruptcy cases. Her expertise has won her the respect of her colleagues, who have chosen her to serve on a select group studying potential reforms to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, as well as the U.S. Congress, which frequently solicits her views on labor issues in bankruptcy.

    Ms. Ceccotti, whose father was a longtime member of the New Jersey teachers' union, said she finds it fulfilling to represent unions like the UAW in bankruptcy cases because of the "huge consequences" they face, such as the fate of their wages and benefits.


    Bruce, that is so encouraging.  Thanks so much for sharing this.  (I love Babette already.)  They're going to need to nip that whole legacy thing in the bud.  As I noted in my piece, it's not an issue and never was.  The retirement funds are where they're expected to be, according to an unbiased source.  Period.

    I'll be watching this closely and rooting for both of those extremely competent women.  Looks like the workers are in good hands.  Crossing my fingers and toes.

    Thanks Ramona, she's good people.  Happy weekend.


     Despite some people’s facile talk about “rebooting” Detroit, as though it is a balky gadget, this is a place where dangerous packs of feral dogs roam.

    Not to change the subject or make things seem worse than they are but Seattle is like that too - it may be a consequence of bad city planning but I don't think it's something only Detroit experiences.

    You made me laugh so loud, I think my neighbors are scared.

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