Saturday, July 6, 2013

Motown Blues

Sometimes Trotskyists commit acts of outstanding journalism.

An article entitled Shock and Awe in Detroit is an excellent example, written by Dianne Feeley, appearing in Against the Current, and published by Solidarity. Ms. Feeley and I were comrades in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the 1970s, though I don't recall meeting her personally. She now identifies herself as a "retired autoworker," which is certainly the best kind of autoworker to be.

So what makes it such good journalism? Two things: 1) she really knows something, and 2) she cares.

I have read much about Detroit's meltdown in a lot of places, written by people who don't live there. Detroit reporter Charlie LeDuff has crossed my radar screen as well, but somehow I can't take him seriously. Ms. Feeley has them all beat--she actually lives in Detroit and knows a lot about her city. I respect people like that.

I don't know how long Ms. Feeley has lived in Detroit, but it is obvious that she cares about her city. Her article contains actual suggestions for how to improve things. More traditional Trotskyist parties (SWP and  Socialist Action (SA)) will accuse her of reformism, i.e., some plan to improve people's lives short of world revolution. But the truth is neither the SWP nor SA give a rat's patoot about people who actually live in Detroit. The SWP closed their Detroit branch ten or fifteen years ago--when the going got tough the vanguard Party left town. SA no longer publishes the locations of their branches(!?), but I doubt they get any closer than the leafy confines of Ann Arbor. By contrast, Ms. Feeley is looking for ideas to make things better right now, not just in the sweet bye-and-bye.

Knowledge and sympathy lead to honesty. Not only does Ms. Feeley's account confirm facts that I have read elsewhere, but she also states facts that don't support her larger, ideological thesis. Like a true journalist, she can put her ideology aside in the cause of truth--very unTrotskyist behavior. It's not often I get to say this in this blog, but read the whole thing.

Ms. Feeley offers four specific suggestions. Despite the fact that I disagree with all of them, they are serious ideas--not just cheap efforts to score rhetorical points. Let's consider them in turn.
Since only 27 working-age Detroiters (16-64) out of every 100 have jobs, developing a jobs program is key.
There are two problems with this, though I confess I have no better ideas. First, many Detroiters are, frankly, unemployable. Working at a fast food place, for example, requires that you be well-spoken, appropriately dressed and groomed, that you know how to run a cash register, and that you show up on time. This is a tough hurdle for a lot of ghetto kids who've never succeeded in school at any level and never really held a job.

Second, make-work, charity jobs are never a good idea. Not only will they cost a whole lot more than just straight welfare benefits, but they'll attract a whole lot of hangers-on needed to manage the welfare employees. You'll never get rid of them, and in the meantime it's a big hole in the wallet.
Stop foreclosures and evictions that are devastating the city. The city currently has more than 45,000 abandoned homes. Most homes are “under water,” with $140,000 mortgages on homes that are valued by assessors at $20,000. We need a program of principle reductions.
Somebody is going to take a loss on Detroit real estate--that's a given. Ms. Feeley thinks it should be the banks and the landlords, rather than "homeowners" or tenants. Unlike most Trotskyists (and to her great credit) she only calls for principal reductions--in other words she understands that not even the banks should take a complete loss. Hers is as good a suggestion as any, and I think it's already happening (however imperfectly).

Landlords who can't collect rent will simply walk away from the property. The last thing Detroit needs is more abandoned property. So letting landlords evict tenants is absolutely essential--Ms. Feeley is wrong on this one.
Stop closing public schools, which anchor neighborhoods. Approximately 100,000 children who live in Detroit attend charters, suburban public schools, or schools that the governor has taken over and operates outside of any legal framework. Without decent public schools, many young families feel forced to leave the city.
This is her most ideological point, and accordingly the least defensible. 100,000 students must be the majority of Detroit's pupils, who are voting with their feet. The public schools are a disgrace--not just in Detroit but across the country. They need to be shut down. The teachers' unions surely deserve a lot of the blame, but corrupt politicians and parasitic hangers-on are right up there.
Yet he [Kevyn Orr] does not call on the state to return to the annual revenue sharing it provided just 15 years ago ($330 million in 1999 versus $173 million in 2012) or ask the governor to pass a law instructing businesses in the city to deduct taxes for those workers who live in the suburbs. This act alone would bring in an annual $155 million more to the city.
The decrease in the state allocation isn't quite as bad as she makes it sound--Detroit has lost about 30% of it's population since 1999. But worse, the Michigan economy has gone through the wringer, and the idea that taxpayers in Flint or Grand Rapids should be sending more money to Detroit is unrealistic. I can't fault Mr. Orr.

Taxing workers who work in Detroit but live in the suburbs is a very unTrotskyist suggestion, and I give Ms. Feeley high props for putting it forward. It's not clear if she just means city employees, in which case it's the same thing as giving them a pay cut. That might be necessary, but then it's probably easier just to cut their pay than raise their taxes. If, alternatively, she means all people who work in Detroit, then this is just a tax on employment. It's hard to see how that will make people richer. I don't support this idea.

One reason Ms. Feeley lives in Detroit is that Solidarity has its national headquarters there. Now this is odd--why choose a declining, impoverished, rust-belt town as your icon? I can think of three possibilities:
  1. To paraphrase Ken Gibson: I don't know where American cities are going, but where ever it is, Detroit will get there first. Rather than being an irrelevant backwater, Detroit, on the verge of bankruptcy, is a national trendsetter. Look here and weep.
  2. Detroiters' circumstances are so desperate that they're ripe for a revolutionary party like Solidarity.
  3. Solidarity's national headquarters is wherever Dianne Feeley happens to live.
These are not mutually exclusive, and I think they're all good reasons. But I vote for #3--I have considerable respect for Dianne Feeley.

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