The case of the city of Detroit isn’t much of a murder mystery. Various suspects have been fingered in its demise: The global economy. The fall of the auto industry. The decline of manufacturing generally. But it’s simpler than that. Detroit died of its own hand.
The city undertook a controlled experiment in what happens if you are governed by a toxic combination of Great Society big spenders, race hustlers, crooks, public-sector unions, and ineffectual reformers. It spent and misgoverned itself into the ground. It tried to defy the axiom of the late economist Herb Stein that “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Detroit’s bout of self-destruction lasted for a few decades, and now may finally stop only when there is little left to destroy.
The city was at the pioneering edge of urban liberalism and discovered that all the social spending in the world doesn’t deliver order, family stability, education, economic dynamism, or effective governance. In the hands of Detroit’s rotten political class, it proved inimical to all of those things.
The city’s downfall started long before anyone imagined that the Big Three would ever be anything but overwhelmingly dominant. Hardly anyone had heard of Toyota in 1967, when riots ripped the city and a long crime wave began that made it unlivable. According to Henry Payne of the Detroit News, the murder rate climbed from 13 per 100,000 residents in 1966 to 51 per 100,000 by 1976.
It was the city’s dysfunction that made it unappealing to the auto companies rather than the diminished state of the auto companies that made the city dysfunctional. The city’s mayor for 20 years, Coleman Young, was an ethically challenged black nationalist who hated the suburbs. Under Young, journalist Zev Chafets writes, Detroit had “all the trappings of a third-world city — the showcase projects, an external enemy, and the cult of personality.” And this was in the good old days of the 1970s and 1980s.
By this point, Detroit had already reached terminal velocity on its own. GM had nothing to do with the city council promising benefits to retirees that it couldn’t possibly pay. Chrysler didn’t disgracefully mismanage city agencies. Ford didn’t disastrously degrade the city’s human capital.
Detroit is a city that has celebrated and feasted on government for decades and yet is incapable of the most basic function of government. Crimes basically aren’t solved. The clearance rate is 8.7 percent. The report of the city’s emergency manager says this is driven by the police department’s “lack of a case management system, lack of accountability for detectives, unfavorable work rules imposed by collective bargaining agreements, and a high attrition rate in the investigative operations unit.”
This in a city that needs a first-rate police force. Its crime rate is five times the national average. Henry Payne notes that 80 percent of the city’s children grow up fatherless, and that of the 50 percent of black men who are high-school dropouts, more than 70 percent don’t have a job, and 60 percent have done time.
The city rewards anyone who can’t escape its boundaries — more than a million people have since 1950, when it had 1.8 million residents — with stifling taxes in a futile attempt to keep up with spending. It has the highest per capita tax burden in Michigan, despite the low per capita income of its residents. It can’t even collect its taxes well. An Internal Revenue Service audit called its tax system “catastrophic.”
None of this is the product of the “creative destruction” of capitalism; it is the destructive destruction of corrupt statism. Despite globalization, urban America is alive and well outside of Detroit. Pittsburgh experienced similar economic dislocation when the steel industry collapsed, but hasn’t descended into an urban dystopia. Cities in the South like Houston and Raleigh, N.C., are economically vibrant and attractive to new residents.
The way Detroit was once, a very long time ago.