Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
Week fifty of the occupation
March 18, 2014
Voices critical of Kevyn Orr’s plan are growing. Basic assumptions fostered by Orr, the corporate-foundation elite, and their media are being undermined. The criticisms of community and labor activists are spreading from the streets to the halls of academia as it is becoming clear that the decisions we are facing are not only about Detroit, but also about the kind of country we will become.
First, the deliberate role of the right wing state legislature in encouraging this financial crisis is being publically dissected. The idea that right wing extremists are intentionally protecting the wealthy and looting the city is strongly documented.
The Michigan Municipal League added its voice to the understanding that the state legislature is responsible for much of the financial shortfall in the city. Their study demonstrates that the “state has managed to pinch over $6 billion in revenue sharing from local government over the last several years.” As a result “a record number of local governments” find themselves in the midst of a financial crisis that is the direct result of this “dramatic dis-investment.”
Earlier, the Demos report offered the same conclusion. Detroit’s most significant revenue losses came because of political choices made by state legislators.
Now a new study by Robert Johnson, executive director of the Institute of New Economic Thinking in New York has concluded that beyond the loss of revenue sharing required by population loss in 2012“ the state legislature chopped an additional $43 million in revenue sharing to the city. He summarizes, “Between 2010 and 2013 over 47.8% of the total decline in city revenue was a result of the decline in state transfers to the city of Detroit. When Detroit went over a cliff into bankruptcy the state could rightly be accused of providing a major shove.”
The facts are illuminating. This year Detroit was budgeted to receive $171.8 million in revenue sharing. That is 48.5 percent less than what the city received in 2002, or $333.9 million.
Part of the Snyder Orr Grand Bargain to save Detroit rests with the willingness of the State legislature to spend $350 million in Detroit over 20 years. And for this generosity, Detroiters are to give up a host of rights and public assets. However, if the legislature restored discretionary revenue sharing, we would be well to meeting our budget shortfall.
The second assumption, that outlandish public pensions caused the financial crisis, is also unraveling. Pensioners are not responsible for this crisis.
The mainstream media has become so used to parroting the anti union line fostered by corporations and right wing ideologues, it came as a shock to them that the average pensioner in Detroit gets only $19,000 a year. Moreover, for most, this is their sole source of income. They do not get social security as municipal employees.
The Wall Street Journal, the Demos Report, and now Robert Johnson are making clear that Orr’s proposal to cut pensions is a political choice, not a necessity, and cuts not only hurt elders but erode the health of future generations. “Detroit is the canary in the coal mine of America,” Johnson says. “It’s becoming more and more evident that you can’t count on social institutions, or your fellow citizens, or your money managers, or your healthcare system.”
Johnson’s insights are supported by hundreds of individuals who are filing objections to the proposed pension reductions. Taking direct action to tell their own stories, pensioners are asking us to consider not only what these cuts mean to them personally, but what they mean to the values that define our community.
The choices before us will either foster a culture of greed or a culture of compassion. They will push us further toward the idea that we can protect some people only by sacrificing others, or they will challenge us to develop imaginative, new ways of caring for ourselves, our city, and our responsibilities to one another.