A city is the creature of its state; the states made the national government, but they were not made by their counties and cities. There is no constitutional right to elect a mayor or a city council: you get to do that if your state government thinks you should. Michigan’s shiny 2010 Republican state government is playing out several interesting experiments of which one is direct administration of black-majority cities by prefects. These worthies are appointed by the governor with complete powers to tax, hire, fire, collect the garbage…or not collect it, and the latest of these prefectures is in Detroit, where the 700,000 people who haven’t yet figured out how to leave are knocking around in 143 square miles (San Francisco, with about as many people, is a third this size) of abandoned buildings – including some heartbreaking decaying vacant treasures like the railroad station – empty lots, and misery: 16% unemployment and the worst violent crime incidence in any big US city. Meanwhile, the folks who made it into (or started out in) the surrounding nice leafy-green suburbs cluck about mismanagement and expect the city to keep up a symphony orchestra, two pro sports teams, an art museum, a school system, and all the other stuff you expect in a prosperous industrial city with three times as many people.
So what is this prefect expected to do, and what good will it do the Republicans who put him there? The problem in Detroit isn’t that the city government is going broke: that’s just a symptom. The problem is that the remaining population is broke and can’t afford a functioning government. There’s nothing to tax, neither wealth nor property, if the prefect can’t reach across Eight Mile or into Grosse Pointe (and you bet he isn’t going to be allowed to do that). I bet there isn’t even anything left worth looting; if you can’t divert tax money into your pocket because there isn’t any, what’s the angle? The city is trying some desperation tactics like casino hotels and tourism, which might gin up some jobs, but those are mostly low-pay jobs making beds and serving food. Detroit is 80% black; one might speculate that white people in Michigan are just trying to do something nice for all those black folks who only need Republican sound business management principles in their government to prosper; right. Maybe Detroit will have some sort of renaissance after all, but I cannot imagine what economic engine will drive it. Its new prefect will have a few years applying austerity and service cuts and will discover that the medicine doesn’t go anywhere, as Frank Loesser said, near where the trouble is. Why Republicans want to hang Detroit’s continued decline around their own necks in this way is a mystery.
The big question raised by this episode of decline and misery is bigger than Detroit and bigger than the rust belt: what is the right policy for regions that have lost their economic reason to be populated? An endless flow of welfare in one form or another can keep people in them, but that can’t be the right answer: people deserve the chance to create value. One or another such place can reinvent itself as a museum or a high-tech center of some sort, or luck out with an oil boom, but not all of them, or even most: former governor Granholm is proud of the wind power plant she saved one town with, but that’s not going to generalize. The Northern Great Plains, where we have learned to grow food without people, are depopulating somewhat gracefully, but of course the bus ticket policy loses the whole social capital of the community it drains, and in the case of a city, the infrastructure and physical capital (Detroit is the empty-house-demolition capital of the US). We sort of know how to manage growth; we can cope adequately with stasis; but shrinkage and the source end of migration are deeply refractory problems.