When our great industrial competitors were digging out from the rubble of World War II, Detroit’s automakers ruled the world. Their imagined sense of inherent superiority bred complacency. Management grew increasingly bureaucratic and inflexible. Unions felt entitled to the extraordinary wages, benefits and work rules they’d bargained for in the fat years. In time, they all found themselves being overtaken by more efficient, more adaptable, more hungry foreign producers.
The market ultimately forced the car companies into reform, restructuring, the occasional bankruptcy and eventual recovery. The city of Detroit, however, lacking market constraints, just kept overspending — $100 million annually since 2008. The city now has about $19 billion in obligations it has no chance of meeting. So much city revenue has had to be diverted to creditors and pensioners that there is practically nothing left to run the city. Forty percent of the streetlights don’t work, two-thirds of the parks are shut down and emergency police response time averages nearly an hour — if it ever comes at all.
Bankruptcy, which will radically cut payments to bondholders and retirees, is the only chance to start over. Yet, if a Detroit bankruptcy succeeds, other cities will be tempted to follow suit. Dozens of other large urban areas have similarly massive pension and debt obligations, with commensurately denuded services and exorbitant taxes — leading to a vicious cycle of depopulation that makes everything worse. Detroit has lost more than 60 percent of its population since 1950.
The moral hazard increases if the federal government steps in to help. The Obama administration is therefore firmly opposed to any “bailout,” recognizing both the political toxicity of the word and the fiscal consequences of a Detroit precedent that invites other cities to line up with a tin cup. Washington cannot afford a nationwide federal bailout of insolvent cities.
However, under pressure from the public-sector unions, whose retirees will necessarily be victimized, the administration will likely offer “assistance” — which implies whatever kind of non-cash payments, indirect funds from other ongoing federal programs and enterprise-zone tax subsidies that it can get away with.