In the wake of Detroit's bankruptcy, you may be wondering: How could anyone be surprised that a city so tied to manufacturing faces crippling problems in an era that has seen such an intense public policy assault on domestic American manufacturing? You may also be wondering: How could Michigan officials possibly talk about cutting the average $19,000-a-year pension benefit for municipal workers while reaffirming their pledge of $283 million in taxpayer money to a professional hockey stadium?
These are fair questions -- and the answers to them can be found in the political mythology that distorts America's economic policymaking.
As mythology goes, the specific story being crafted about Detroit's bankruptcy is truly biblical -- more specifically, just like the fact-free mythology around the Greek financial collapse, it is copied right from the chapter in the conservative movement's bible about how to distort crises for maximum political effect.
In the conservative telling of this particular parable, Detroit faces a fiscal emergency because high taxes supposedly drove a mass exodus from the city, and the supposedly unbridled greed of unions forced city leaders to make fiscally irresponsible pension promises to municipal employees. Written out of the tale is any serious analysis of macro-economic shifts, international economic policy failures, the geography of recent recessions and unsustainable corporate welfare spending.
This is classic right-wing dogma -- the kind that employs selective storytelling to use a tragic event as a means to radical ends. In this case, the ends are -- big shocker! -- three of the conservative movement's larger long-term economic priorities: 1) preservation of job-killing trade policies 2) immunity for corporations and 3) justification for budget policies that continue to profligately subsidize the rich.
Pretending Detroit and the NAFTA era are unrelated
The bait-and-switch on the first two objectives is fairly easy to see.
Detroit isn't just any old city -- it happens to be the biggest population center in the state hit the hardest by the right's corporate-written trade agenda. Indeed, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the state lost more jobs than any other from NAFTA (43,600, or 1 percent of its total job base) and lost another 79,500 jobs thanks to the China PNTR deal. And that's just two of many such trade pacts. Add to this the city's disproportionate reliance on American auto companies which made a series of horrific business decisions, and Detroit is a microcosmic cautionary tale about what happens when large corporations are allowed to write macro economic policy and dictate the economic future of an entire city.
If told, this cautionary tale would likely spark a discussion about revising current trade deals, regulations, public investment and industrial policy in general. That is, it would spark precisely the discussion that the conservative movement and the corporations that fund politicians don't want America to have. So the right works to make sure that discussion is short-circuited by a narrative that focuses the Detroit story primarily on taxes and public pensions.
That is, of course, by design. The less Detroit prompts serious questions about trade policies and the auto industry, the less Detroit can be used as a rationale for changing those conservative, corporate-enriching policies and that industry. Likewise, the more taxes and retirement benefits can be blamed for Detroit's downfall, the more Detroit's tragedy can be used as a clarion call by the right to slash both.
Focusing on pensions to protect corporate welfare and tax cuts
That brings us to how this all plays into the right's push to enact ever more regressive tax cuts, protect endless corporate welfare and legislate new reductions in workers' guaranteed pensions.
These latter objectives may seem unrelated, but they all complement each other when presented in the most politically opportunistic way. It's a straightforward conservative formula: the right blames state and municipal budget problems exclusively on public employees' retirement benefits, often underfunding those public pensions for years. The money raided from those pension funds is then used to enact expensive tax cuts and corporate welfare programs. After years of robbing those pension funds to pay for such giveaways, a crisis inevitably hits, and workers' pension benefits are blamed -- and then slashed. Meanwhile, the massive tax cuts and corporate subsidies are preserved, because we are led to believe they had nothing to do with the crisis. Ultimately, the extra monies taken from retirees are then often plowed into even more tax cuts and more corporate subsidies.
We've seen this trick in states all over America lately. In Rhode Island, for instance, the state underfunded its public pensions for years, while giving away $356 million in a year in corporate subsidies (including an epically embarrassing $75 million to Curt Schilling). It then converted the pension system into a Wall Street boondoggle), all while preserving the subsidies.
Similarly, in Kentucky, the state raided its public pension funds to finance $1.4 billion a year in tax subsidies, and then when the crisis hit, lawmakers there slashed pension benefits -- not the corporate subsidies.
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