“Those who have visited both Detroit and Hiroshima will have trouble guessing which country won that war.” So writes scholar of American politics Michael Barone in the latest issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Barone is a native of Detroit, where he once worked in the office of Mayor Jerome Cavanagh during the 1967 riots in which dozens of people died.
Barone’s review of Charlie LeDuff’s new book Detroit: An American Autopsy is a personal and heartfelt reflection on the city that went from promising heaven to producing hell, as Barone puts it, in the course of a generation.
When it comes to stories about the decline of Detroit much attention is given to the Democrats who have been looting the city over the past few decades, particularly under the administration of corrupt mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. But as Barone notes, the city’s real problems began much earlier, when the city went all-in on blue politics in the mid-20th century:
I blame the ambitious liberalism of the Cavanagh years, which I believed in at the time, and the 20-year rule of Coleman Young, mayor from 1973 to 1993.…
Liberal city government is expensive—Cavanagh instituted a city income tax raised later to 2.5%—and increasingly ineffective. The Detroit News reported that 47% of property owners didn’t pay their 2011 property tax. The public employee unions, just starting up in the Cavanagh years, have long been pushing for salaries, benefits, and pensions that are increasingly unaffordable. So the city has let its physical facilities go to ruin, as LeDuff notes again and again. Dave Bing, the former basketball player and auto parts business owner who was elected mayor in 2009, threatened to close 77 of the city’s parks. Detroit under its 1922 charter is a civil service city, with nonpartisan elections and nine council members elected at large. So, as LeDuff notes, council members and judges are often elected because they have familiar names. They don’t have neighborhood responsibilities like Chicago’s 50 aldermen and 50 Democratic ward committeemen. When I worked for Mayor Cavanagh, I was impressed by the competence and civic responsibility of Detroit’s top civil servants. But since then the culture of civil servants and political appointees seems to have become one of entitlement and, as LeDuff observes, iron indifference to the plight of city residents.
Barone captures this sad and sickening story in his usual levelheaded prose. Via Meadia readers should take the time to read the whole thing here.
[Image of abandoned home courtesy of Shutterstock]