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Put the blame on me

Part 2 of a 2-part series

By Herb Boyd

More distressing news arrived weeks ago when it was reported that the usually secure pension fund was in jeopardy. Suddenly, there was a gaping doughnut hole in the fund, stretching to $3.5 billion. According to a story by Mary Williams Walsh in the New York Times, the city has promised its workers “more than they can reasonably expect to deliver.”

“The problem,” she continued, “has nothing to do with the usual padding and pay-to-play scandals that can plague pension funds. Rather, it is the possibility that a fundamental error has for decades been ingrained into actuarial standards of practice so that certain calculations are always done incorrectly.”

Errors, decades in the making, are endemic to Detroit’s economic collapse. No municipality this large — it has now surpassed Jefferson County as the largest municipality to file bankruptcy — tanks overnight. Clearly, this is an accumulative problem, and it was never a matter if the city would file for Chapter 9, but when.

Well, when has arrived, and some thinkers have proposed the Obama administration ride to the rescue like the Lone Ranger and resuscitate the city in the same way it revived the automobile industry. And the Big Three showed a profit of $4.5 billion last year.

Of course, rescuing a city isn’t the same as rescuing the automobile companies, a point well made by Steven Rattner in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. First of all, the bankruptcies for cities and companies are not the same, as Rattner explained. “Cities must go the slow route (companies had the option of a 3-day rinse), almost certainly a year in Detroit’s case.” This is a costly route, he said, both in fees and uncertainty for local businesses.

Rattner said, “If the state assumes responsibility for the $1.25 billion in reinvestment spending that Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has included in the proposed budget, the city could use those freed-up funds to trim the potential pension reductions of retirees. And the Obama administration should comb through its urban programs to try to allocate more funds to a city that is truly in distress.”

The county where I was born is in distress; the city where my first dreams of hope and possibility occurred is on the brink, and things are not absolutely rosy in Harlem, and there’s little I can do about any of this desperation.

As one of my friends said, “Maybe it’s you!” Okay, I’ll take the blame for some of Detroit’s failures, since I left the city rather than stay there and fight for its survival. I wasn’t in Jefferson County long enough to impact it one way or the other. Here in Harlem, I’m doing all I can to make it a sustainable community, but for whom is the question.

But before I take some of the blame for Detroit’s misery, it may be just the first domino to fall in a number of cities on their way to bankruptcy court.

Robert Reich, a former secretary of labor under President Clinton and currently a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, observed in a recent article in The Nation that it depends on where the boundaries are drawn and who’s included in the social contract.

“If ‘Detroit’ is defined as the larger metropolitan area that includes its suburbs, ‘Detroit’ has enough money to provide all its residents with adequate if not good public services, without falling into bankruptcy.

“Politically,” he added, “it would come down to a question of whether the more affluent areas of this ‘Detroit’ were willing to subsidize the poor inner-city through their tax dollars and help it rebound.” This is obviously an awkward question, Reich wrote, and one the richer sections of his proposed Detroit would rather avoid.

The place I live, where I used to live and where I was born are related — particularly if included in Reich’s notion of an expanded social contract — and they all are at the mercy of an economic system that, with each day, seems to evince fewer rays of light as I set out for another Trayvon rally.

Herb Boyd is an adjunct professor at City College of New York and co-editor with Ilyasah Shabazz of the forthcoming “The Diary of Malcolm X” (Third World Press, 2013).

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