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Public Values

Week 20 of the occupation

By Shea Howell

There is a recurring theme emerging in national news coverage of Detroit. Whatever the writer’s political perspective, all agree that the filing of bankruptcy by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr is an indication of their own future, and the future of other cities and towns.

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote recently in the New York Times: “Detroit’s bankruptcy is a reminder of how divided our society has become and how much has to be done to heal the wounds. And it provides an important warning to those living in today’s boomtowns: It could happen to you.”

At the far right end of the political spectrum, bloggers like Frosty Woolbridge ask: “If what was once the most prosperous manufacturing city in the nation has been brought to its knees, what does that say about our recent past? And if it can’t find a way to get up, what does that say about Americas future?” Woolbridge, of course, blames unions, welfare mothers, immigrants and democrats.

The recognition that something critical is happening in our city is opening up a new national dialogue about the kind of country we are becoming. Much of that conversation echoes ideas that violate long-held beliefs in equality, justice and the capacity of human beings to choose our own future.

On the one hand, there are people like Woolbridge, Gov. Rick Snyder, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, foundations, corporations and commentators who  argue the problems of Detroit have been brought on by incompetent and corrupt leadership. Thus, it is time for the wiser, whiter, wealthier folks to take back control of the city, its finances and its assets.

Central to this argument is the idea that the “dumb,” darker and poorer folks cannot be trusted with decisions about our own lives. This view is not limited to Detroit or Michigan, but is being fostered in state after state, as voter suppression efforts to limit access to the polls intensify. North Carolina is the latest battleground.

On the other hand, there are those, like the majority of people in Detroit, who recognize that financial concerns have become a pretext for this assault on democracy. It has become the means to attack the power of unions, the ties between generations and the promise of full participation in determining the direction of our lives.

This assault is accelerating at the very moment when values justifying inequality and corporate greed are taking hold of the national conscience. Almost everyone now knows we are living in a situation where “American companies are more profitable than ever.”

Last week, the Bureau of Economic Analysis revised the calculations for both corporate profits and worker income. According to the New York Times: “Before the figures were revised, it appeared that wages and salary income in 2012 amounted to 44 percent of G.D.P., the lowest at any time since 1929, which is as far back as the data goes.

“The flip side of that is that corporate profits after taxes amounted to a record 9.7 percent of G.D.P. Each of the last three years has been higher than the earlier record high, of 9.1 percent, which was set in 1929.”

This growing inequality cannot be sustained without an overt use of force, both physical and psychological. Detroit is clearly a “test case” for those who long for the days of yore when a few white, wealthy men held privileges and power, and everyone else knew their place. The great movement in this country for civil rights challenged that America.

This month, as we celebrate the half century that has passed since the March on Washington, we should ask what does Detroit tell us of the promise of America? What is the fierce urgency of now? What are the public values that will shape our future?

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