Detroit is solely responsible for its current situation because “the city was dumb, lazy, happy, and rich” for many years, according to emergency manager Kevyn Orr. The unelected lawyer’s explanation for the city’s insolvency ignores the national and regional forces at play over decades.
In reality, the city was battered by large socioeconomic forces it could hardly influence, according to the Urban Institute’s Rolf Pendall and University of Pennsylvania professor Thomas Sugrue. Both experts were adamant in interviews with ThinkProgress that blame for the present situation should not lie primarily with Detroiters or their local officials. Instead, they pointed to the flow of capital and people to the suburbs, massive disinvestment in the city, and state and federal withdrawal from urban policies as the primary drivers of Detroit’s troubles. The sprawling metropolitan area developed into an unwieldy, non-adaptable city over years, preventing it from the sort of rapid reinvention of other “Rust Belt” cities like Pittsburgh.
Even if Orr meant the city’s “body politic” and not its citizenry, as his spokesman has claimed, the next section of the Wall Street Journal profile that includes the “dumb, lazy, happy, and rich” quote hints at why Orr would cast the bankruptcy in these terms. The city had “a covenant,” Orr said: “if you had an eighth grade education, you’ll get 30 years of a good job and a pension and great health care, but you don’t have to worry about what’s going to come.” Today, the pensions portion of that “covenant” is Orr’s primary target in bankruptcy.
Orr says the city’s pension funds are $3.5 billion short. But that figure comes from rough preliminary estimates his office has thus far refused to release for review. Orr’s office has not responded to a week-old ThinkProgress request for comment on the figures, but Reuters municipal bond expert Cate Long calls them “pension voodoo.” The most recent full evaluation found the funding gap was five times smaller than Orr alleges and in better shape than most pensions around the country.
Furthermore, emails released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request show Orr intended to push the city into bankruptcy as quickly as possible once he was appointed, throwing doubt on his claims to have negotiated in good faith with retirees.
By continuing to assert that the city’s problems are of its own making and casting Detroit’s below-average pension benefits as a sort of quid-pro-quo scheme that pushed the city into insolvency, Orr may be able to win in the court of public opinion. But at some point he’ll have to convince a bankruptcy judge that his numbers are correct and that the pre-bankruptcy emails don’t actually indicate bad faith negotiations with workers.