From Gin and Tacos:
We’ve all realized by now that the 1987 Paul Verhoeven splatter-fest RoboCop was actually a documentary about how Detroit would look in 25 years; there may not be police-robots but Omni Consumer Products is getting ready to take over. I hadn’t previously made the connection with Total Recall, though. It didn’t seem plausible that some unelected sociopath would be able to turn off public utilities out of spite here in the United States. As a dystopian literary device, sure. But in real life? In the USA?
Well it turns out that last week’s power outage in Detroit was done intentionally by the Rick Snyder-appointed “city manager” or someone in that office. It appears that on one of the hottest days of the year, “We did start calling our customers prior to taking them down and asking them to turn off air conditioners, but they weren’t responding as fast as we would like them to so we had to send them a strong message by turning the power off.” In the video, the speaker laughs a lot while explaining this. The power was down for four hours without warning.
I’ve written about the Detroit bankruptcy in the past, and was primarily concerned with the prospects of pension funds being looted to cover the massive fees Detroit incurred for playing the Wall Street debt swap game during the Kilpatrick era. I hadn’t really considered this facet of emergency management–the ability to cut, withhold, or terminate services for spite and profit. But if you can supplant appointed managers for elected officials, why waste the chance to manufacture an infrastructure and service crisis and privatize more?
By the way, the Detroit Free Press has a good look at Detroit’s financial history. The takeaway? Coleman Young was a fiscal conservative and had the city in relatively good shape financially, considering that every white resident with a pulse was leaving town and white politicians were pocketing the silver on the way out of city hall. While the debate has focused on debt and city worker pensions (and for sure the city dropped the ball on controlling those costs), Detroit’s bankruptcy was driven in the long run by the collapse of the city’s tax base, but leadership has helped too:
Missing chance after chance: Contrary to myth, the city has not been in free fall since the 1960s. There have been periods of economic growth and hope, such as in the 1990s when the population decline slowed, income-tax revenue increased and city leaders balanced the budget. But leaders failed to take advantage of those moments of calm to reform city government, reduce expenses and protect the city and its residents from another downturn.
It’s important for historians to try and flesh this political history out a bit. As influential and important as works like Tom Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis are, they tend to support (against the author’s intentions) a view of white flight as an inexorable and inevitable. The racism embedded in the market behavior and cultural values of whites who fled Detroit is of course relevant to understanding the city’s problems, and it accounts far more than most people in this “post-racial” age would like to admit for the state of Michigan’s harsh treatment of the city. But it’s not wholly determinative of Detroit’s past or its future. History is about recognizing structures of constraint and opportunity and the contingent moments of action and decision within those structures that open some possibilities and close others, not about a fatalistic story of decline.