Commentary: Public reaction to Detroit's fiscal crisis

Mar 27, 2012

Unless you’ve been at the bottom of a salt mine for the last month or so, you know that Detroit is facing the mother of all financial crises. The city is about to run out of cash and options.

Within nine days, the governor either has to reach something called a consent agreement with the city’s elected leaders, or name an all-powerful emergency manager to run Detroit.

Nobody really understands how the consent agreement model would work, or frankly, even if it would work, but essentially, it would mean an emergency manager by committee.

Some panel, probably essentially controlled by the state, would be empowered to make the really harsh decisions needed in a town that’s out of money and has enormous unpayable debts.

Whatever happens has enormous implications for everybody in Michigan, even if you are living five hundred miles away in the western Upper Peninsula. How we deal with what amounts to the total failure of government in our largest city will affect everything from our ability to borrow money to our ability to attract jobs.

Given that, wouldn’t you expect people to be fascinated by the process, waiting breathlessly to see how this all turns out?

Well, they aren’t. Certainly a few are. Last night, Michigan Radio and the non-partisan Center for Michigan held one of our public “Issues and Ale” forums in a community pub in Flint.

Dozens of intellectually and emotionally fired-up people came to listen and express themselves. I have no doubt that they would have been willing to talk past midnight if we’d had the stamina.

But elsewhere, not so much. This morning, I looked at the Detroit newspapers online. Both of them track what their most-read stories are. Though each gave the latest developments extensive coverage, that’s not what people were most eager to read.

In the Detroit News, the most popular story was a press conference football legend Tim Tebow held in New York. In the Free Press, readers were most interested in a headline that read “wife uses porn to turn on hubby.“

The impending collapse of Michigan’s largest city ranked no higher than fifth in interest in one Detroit paper; tenth in another.

I am not sure just why this is, but my suspicion is that people are weary of the whole thing and just want whoever is in charge to get on with it. “Implementation has to happen,“ Governor Snyder said yesterday. And while that’s pretty atrocious English, it is also pretty accurate. For years, I have criticized suburban and out of state Michiganders for ignoring the very real concerns of Detroit.

Now, however, it is Detroiters who seem to be clueless. Sadly, this is too often being framed in terms of race. The reality is that this is about realism. The city is poor, has been terribly mismanaged, and is out of money. Politically, the city, which has barely seven percent of the state’s population, is virtually powerless on its own.

When a prominent Detroiter disrupted the state financial review team yesterday to threaten to burn down the city, he did his city and his people nothing but harm. We’re all in this together, and Detroit and Michigan have a long hard slog ahead.

Irrationality is a luxury none of us can any longer afford.