Sunday, September 7, 2014

Rowing the boat

Last March* Kevyn Orr, the Emergency Manager charged with cleaning up Detroit’s balance sheet came to speak at the Michigan (University) Union. Being a frequent visitor of the city, an (I like to think) alert and responsible regional denizen, and always looking for an opportunity to blow off lab,** I went.

*Ya, a while ago. I know.
**Just kidding!

For those who aren’t aware, Orr’s task is a pretty imposing one. Qualitatively many parts of Detroit do not feel like an American metropolis. It’s something I’ve become used to, but whenever I bring visitors there, their disbelief reminds me just how extraordinary the situation is. It feels like ghost town where all there is to hear is Randy Newman on the piano or John K. Samson strumming an acoustics guitar.* Quantitatively Detroit is nearly $20 billion in debt with an annual cash flow only about 5 percent of that. By practically any demographic or economic metric it is a shell of its former self.

*I have been wrestling with a larger post about the city’s relationship to the greater metro area almost since the inception of the blog. In case I never get that piece to a point where I am satisfied with it, I wanted to make sure these two songs made it out there. And really, how great is this stuff!? “Late afternoon, another day is nearly done / a darker gray is breaking through a lighter one.” Awesome.

Of course, these are the same ideas Orr started his talk with. Understandably, he wanted his audience to appreciate the magnitude of the task at hand (and hey, it’s better for him to oversell the problem if anything, right?) and relied heavily on statistics to get that point across. I guess you could say it was quality and quantity: blighted housing, worker-to-retiree ratios, school enrollment, population, and unsecured debt were all impressive and awful pelts that Orr unceremoniously dumped at our feet.

Having established the problems, Orr tried to place them in human context. Although he teetered on the edge of hyperbole more than once, he did effectively frame his office with two anecdotes:
We’ve got to provide basic city services.
On his way home from work one day, he noticed a girl waiting at a stop for her school bus. It was winter and the sun was going down – it would be dark soon. Would a responsible, functioning city leave this girl sitting on a corner all by herself so late in the evening? People expect certain things from local government and if Detroit can’t provide things like safety, education, and freakin’ street lights, well, you don’t need a balance sheet to know that this thing is broken.
Sure, but at what expense?
Orr’s mother is an old lady (my words, not his, but trust me that the math checks out). As such, she hangs out with other old ladies and one day ran into a woman who recognized the surname. After asking whether Kevyn was in fact her child, the woman broke into tears saying “your boy’s trying to take my pension away.”

With the stories, Orr accomplished two important things. First, he showed that he was fully aware of the consequences of his actions. He knows that cutting pensions and rewriting contracts and all the other stuff he’s proposed will inflict real pain on real people. But that’s where his second point comes in. That pain isn’t to satisfy some lawyerly need for a balanced budget or to pay off the Wall Street fat cats the city is indebted to. It’s to get that little girl to class on time and make it so that if her mother calls the police she won’t have to wait a full hour for an officer to respond. We can argue about whether Orr’s actions will make that happen, but I think the way he has reframed this issue is the real story. It’s not about protecting worker’s pensions or maintaining some dusty art collection. This is about making Detroit – every single part of it from the government the very idea of the city – viable again.

Orr was candid, animated, and enlightening as he explained his approach to getting the Motor City back on its feet and – at least briefly – made me believe he might be able to do it. I guess at this point that’s about all you can ask.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, funny I read it right after reading this one:

    Interesting one about water, but not quite as much as the steaming manholes....


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