Detroit’s Bankruptcy Highlights the Cruelty of American Capitalism
Four Van Goghs, one Caravaggio, and enormous Diego Rivera murals celebrating the industrial working class are amongst the estimated $2 billion in Detroit Institute of Art holdings the troubled city’s creditors now hope to loot.
The Michigan attorney general contends the works are “held in trust for the public” and protected from sale by state law. But the emergency manager, who runs the city’s business by fiat on behalf of Republican Governor Rick Snyder, says that no asset has been taken “off the table.” In 2013 Detroit, the public trust trades for cheap. The city is bankrupt, a reality formalized via last week’s Chapter 9 filing in federal court. It is the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. The debt is estimated to total at least $18 billion.
The bankruptcy will ostensibly redirect funds toward long-neglected infrastructure and services which, in a city where 40 percent of residents are profoundly impoverished, are a wreck. The city boasts one of the nation’s highest murder rates but has an average police response time of 58 minutes. That’s 47 minutes longer than the national average, but who’s counting? Public transit has been cut to the bone, forcing the many who don’t own cars to undertake epic commutes across the Motor City’s often barren 139-square-miles. Schools are deeply underfunded and being shuttered. The population has declined from a 1950 high of 1.85 million to 700,000 today. The tax base continues to get smaller and poorer.
Detroit makes for a vivid tableau of urban decline: revived prairie, burnt-out homes, and empty high rises. Detroit, more than a mere metaphor, is a striking and large-scale instance of something that has become pervasively wrong in America. And make no mistake: this is no plan to save Detroit, where financial troubles are the fruit of an economic crisis decades in the making.