Week thirteen of the occupation
By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen
City of Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr chose to reveal the details of his plans for the remaking of Detroit to a secluded collection of bankers and a few union leaders. His plans held no surprises.
He intends to regionalize the water department and increase its profitability. He will cut pensions. He will shift health care benefits to federal plans. He will stop payment on the debt and offer cents on the dollar. He will lease Belle Isle to the state, possibly for 30 years. He will cut pay even further and lay off more people.
He will invest $500 million to fight blight. He promises to overhaul city management, invest in technology, safety and fire equipment, and get those street lights back on at last. He will privatize everything he can so we can all count on garbage pickup again.
In short, he is proposing solutions much like those that have been offered in every city for the past 50 years. There is nothing new here.
What is new is the shift in the power balance. Rather than being advocated by mayors and councils who must consider the political context and complex interconnections of their decisions, the emergency manger can simply pass edicts. The effect of placing decisions outside of a publicly accountable political process is that choices reflect ruthless values that corrupt and erode the values that give community life meaning.
This is vividly clear in how the emergency manager coldly equates the sacrifices being imposed on retirees and pensioners, who can barely get by, with those of Wall Street banking interests, who are making billions in bonuses after bailouts and creating devastation in our communities through foreclosures. Such an equation is as callous and short sighted as it is ludicrous.
The value perspective this kind of equation represents is as destructive as the financial havoc it will bring to the lives of many of our elders. Pensions and retiree benefits are covenants made between the past and the future. They speak to our willingness in the present to say we will sacrifice things today so that we can all look forward to a more secure future when we are less able to care for ourselves.
The essential nature of these covenants is so central to us that we have placed their protection in the State Constitution. To smash these bonds in the name of fiscal responsibility is an assault on our fundamental obligations to each other.
At this moment in our city, we should be developing policies that increase our sense of responsibility for one another. We should be asking ourselves how do we ensure that the elders in our community are cared for with love and respect? How do we increase their connections with young people to pass on their wisdom, their stories, their sense of how life once was, so we can enrich our imaginations of how it can be?
Everyone knows the presence of elders in our neighborhoods, on our streets, in our schools, and out in playgrounds and parks is essential for establishing a sense of safety. The effect of the EM cut to pensions will be to diminish their presence.
Some will lose their homes. Some will have to seek work. Some will forego medications that enable them to participate in public life with vigor. All will struggle with the knowledge that they were lied to by previous generations in whom they placed their trust. And this will be the enduring message sent to our young. You can’t trust anyone. Do whatever you need to do to protect yourself.
In the name of financial responsibility, the EM is promoting social irresponsibility. He is advocating a direction that values selfishness over generosity, private gain over community well-being. That is no way to rebuild a city.