Opinion and Taking Issue

KENNEDY: Detroit reflects our moral bankruptcy

August 10, 2013

Sheila Suess KennedyThe city of Detroit has declared bankruptcy. It is the largest city in the United States ever to do so, and the punditry—what the late Molly Ivins called “the chattering classes”—are pointing fingers at those their particular ideologies suggest are to blame. It’s “white flight” or de-industrialization or lack of economic diversification or corrupt government or a combination of these and more.

What is not up for debate is the current, sorry state of affairs in the city. Detroit’s murder rate is now at a 40-year high, unemployment has tripled since 2000, many street lights and ambulances are inoperative, and citizens wait an average of 58 minutes for the police to respond to a call.

Bankruptcy necessitates hard choices. Unfunded pensions are at risk. Precious city assets may be sold off to satisfy creditors. The city that emerges from these proceedings will inevitably be a smaller, very different place than the Detroit of automobile manufacturing supremacy and Motown. Those of us who follow governance and policy can only hope to learn the right lessons from the spectacle.

We might also consider what lessons we can learn from a broader kind of bankruptcy.

There is an argument to be made that America is in the grip of widespread moral bankruptcy. Our broken national government reflects the loss of our most valuable asset: the national covenant that merged disparate constituencies into “We the People.”

It isn’t just the lack of civility. It isn’t even the demonstrable ignorance of our national history and governing philosophy.

It’s a mean-spiritedness and shortsightedness—a re-emergence of social Darwinism, the belief that strongest or fittest should survive and flourish in society, while the weak and unfit should be allowed to die.

The House of Representatives has voted 50 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Those voting are well aware that it is mere theater; what is more reprehensible than the colossal waste of time these votes represents, however, is the utter callousness of the assault.

The Republicans in the House offer no alternative policy, no substitute proposal. The message is clear: leave 50 million Americans without access to health care.

The much-touted budget offered by Paul Ryan achieves cost savings by punishing people for being poor. The ax of the sequester fell heavily on programs benefiting poor women and children—programs like Head Start.

Self-righteous legislators are falling over each other to pass measures designed to degrade people who are already down and out. We’ve seen multiple efforts to drug test welfare recipients, despite the fact that poor people are no more likely to use drugs than, say, the state legislators demanding the tests, and the costs of testing exceed amounts saved.

In a nation of immigrants, the House of Representatives can’t even find compassion for children brought to America by their parents, let alone for the millions of undocumented workers who live their lives in limbo.

There are innumerable other examples of policies that either ignore the needs of poor and middle-class Americans or make their situations worse.

Social Darwinism reflects a crude form of Calvinism: People are poor because they are morally defective, thus undeserving. More privileged folks owe them nothing—to the contrary, a social safety net (unlike, evidently, corporate welfare) simply rewards bad behavior. It does no good to point out that policies reflecting these attitudes hurt the economy and are ultimately bad for everyone.

Perhaps we should consider the possibility that Detroit isn’t the only polity that is bankrupt.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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