It’s not so simple in Detroit

Windows of an abandoned office building in downtown Detroit. The city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, making it the largest city to file for bankruptcy in U.S. history.
(Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

There’s a scene in the movie version of “The Grapes of Wrath” that’s stuck in my head. It’s where a guy in a suit drives out to tell Muley the sharecropper that he and his family have to get off the land they’ve been farming for three generations.

MULEY: You mean get off my own land?


THE MAN: Now don’t go blaming me. It ain’t my fault.

MULEY’S SON: Whose fault is it?

THE MAN: You know who owns the land — the Shawnee Land and Cattle Co.

MULEY: Who’s the Shawnee Land and Cattle Comp’ny?


THE MAN: It ain’t nobody. It’s a company.

SON: They got a pres’dent, ain’t they? They got somebody that knows what a shotgun’s for, ain’t they?


THE MAN: But it ain’t his fault, because the bank tells him what to do.

SON: All right. Where’s the bank?


THE MAN: Tulsa. But what’s the use of picking on him? He ain’t anything but the manager, and half-crazy hisself, trying to keep up with his orders from the East!

MULEY: (bewildered) Then who do we shoot?


Good question. Perfectly understandable. And it’s a perfectly understandable reaction to the Detroit bankruptcy filing too. But while several candidates come to mind, the question just does not have a satisfactory answer.

We could blame the relentlessly moronic City Council or the thuggish and rapacious former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick (currently in custody awaiting sentencing for extortion, bribery, fraud and racketeering). But a council of Mensa members with doctorates wouldn’t have made a difference. And if Detroit could get back every penny Kilpatrick stole, with penalty and interest, it wouldn’t make a dent.


We could blame the generations of politicians who gimmicked the budget and made promises they couldn’t keep. But who wouldn’t have done the same thing in their shoes? Few of us control multimillion-dollar budgets. But it’s fair to look at the budgets we do control to make a prediction about how we would have acted. How many of us have saved adequately for retirement? How many are going to cut down our drinking and start that diet and exercise program just as soon as we get through this one temporary crisis?

We could blame racism and white flight. That’s a popular theme. And there is certainly plenty of racism out there. But it wasn’t just white folks who left Detroit. There are very few people who will stay in a poor neighborhood if they don’t have to. As the city went from a population of nearly 2 million in the 1950s to about 700,000 today, many thousands of black families left, just like the white ones, in a perfectly legitimate effort to find safer neighborhoods and better schools.


We could blame the employees and their unions. Tea party types like to do that. But, contrary to what tea partiers say, public sector employees earn less than comparably educated private-sector employees. The tacit arrangement was always that the public sector made up for its reduced salary with increased job security and improved pension benefits. In Detroit, that job security evaporated long ago, and now the pensions are in play.

We could blame the banks. It’s hard not to hate the banks. But even there things are not so simple. If Detroit walks away from its bonds, it won’t just make it more difficult for Detroit to raise money to build anything in the future, it will make it more difficult for any municipality to raise money to build anything in the future. And though there is a certain appeal to the idea that the bondholders should be the ones who take the biggest hit, that appeal is substantially diminished if we recognize that many of the bondholders we are talking about are pension funds.


A wise old professor once told me that all simple political explanations are fundamentally optimistic. The idea is that there is a madman at the wheel. If we could only knock out the madman and grab the wheel, everything would be OK. The sad truth, he said, is that there is no madman. And there is no wheel.

Barry Goldman, an arbitrator and mediator, served as deputy director of the Human Rights Department in former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young’s administration.