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Week One of the occupation: Life, liberty and happiness

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

As Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) Kevyn Orr assumes civil powers in Detroit, local corporate media has launched a campaign to tell us all how glad we should be that such a fine person now has charge of everything. They have shared a “glimpse” of his personal life, detailed facts about his career and generously overlooked embarrassing tax questions or potential conflicts of interest. They have assured us that he wants to extend “a sincere olive branch and an opportunity for us to work together.”

They have also taken a curious turn in their arguments for why we should all welcome the loss of our democratic rights. It seems we will now have safe streets, with the street lights back on that Stephen Henderson has so longed for, and wonderful city services.

In one of the most curious guest editorials I have ever read, former City Council woman Shelia Cockrel argued, “Voting is a fundamental right, of course, but isn’t the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of equal importance?” Professor John Patrick Leary offers a critical analysis of this position concluding, “Cockrel’s retail approach to democracy is also a misunderstanding of how rights work: in a truly democratic society, it’s not life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness, best two out of three, but all of them, together, of equal importance. You can’t lose one without degrading the others. To rationalize otherwise means that this sort of liberalism is really as bankrupt as the city is about to be.”

This idea of swapping democracy for city services is revealing both for the shallowness of the understanding of fundamental rights and for what is dropped out of the justification for the EFM. The financial rationale is no longer being advanced. Rather it appears as a given background statement of fact labeled “the budget crisis” or “financial emergency.” This is usually followed by the oft -repeated figures of a $327 million deficit and long-term debt of $14 billion.

The fact that many analysts question the financial justification for the appointment of an EFM is overlooked.

No one disputes that Detroit, like other cities around the globe, faces serious structural challenges. But many of us do dispute that this crisis constitutes an emergency justifying the loss of local, democratic self-determination.

Tom Barrow recently noted, “Detroit has not missed a single bond payment, interest payment or payroll.”

Shifting the argument from finances to city services allows those who support the EFM to obscure the state’s role in creating this financial crisis. It is important to remember that since 1998, Detroit’s annual revenue sharing has plunged 46 percent to $181.6 million projected for the current fiscal year from $333.9 million.

Further, it obscures the role of Wall Street bankers. A recent article in Businessweek reported, “The only winners in the financial crisis that brought Detroit to the brink of state takeover are Wall Street bankers who reaped more than $474 million from a city too poor to keep street lights working.”

It also deflects attention away from the shifting mood in Lansing, where Republican lawmakers are talking about releasing money to Detroit. Republican representatives John Walsh, Jase Bolger and Randy Richardville are reportedly open to financial support for the city.

This new openness in Lansing, as well as the philanthropic and law enforcement collaboratives announced by Mayor Dave Bing, underscore the central element of this takeover.

It is not about improving the quality of life for Detroiters. It is about power and control. The pursuit of life, liberty and happiness will not come from an EFM, whose job is to privatize our city. It depends on what we can create in our own communities.

Contact Shea Howell at howell@oakland.edu

 

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