Acton Institute Powerblog

Detroit: A Collapse of Real Integrity

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Douglas Wilson has an interesting take on Detroit’s bankruptcy: “like a drunk trying to make it to the next lamp post.” Why this analogy? Wilson says we first have to understand that Detroit is inevitably in a defaulting situation; the question now is what kind of default.

The only thing we don’t know is what kind of default it will be. The only thing we don’t know is who the unlucky victim of our defaulting will be.

Government does not make wealth. If government has wealth, then this means it was taken. The only way that the government can acquire the means to pay its obligations and debts is by taking it. The only question left before the house is “who will they take it from?”

He reminds us that the government does not create; it takes.

Here are the basic ways in which such a taking can happen. The government can wage war on other countries, and take from them. The government can raise taxes, and take that way. The government can debase the currency, and take that way. The government can run up a big debt which it finds itself unable to pay, and take that way. And of course, given the realities of the ongoing political circus, the government can stagger between these options, like a drunk trying to make it to the next lamp post.

Wilson also has some thoughts for those in the evangelical realm who have embraced “leftist economics” (Jim Wallis, are you listening?):

You think that businessmen who know how to add and subtract are those who are in the grip of mammon-lust. You don’t like the hard lines of clear thinking, and the blinking sums on their calculators do nothing but harsh your mellow.

Do me a favor, and look at Detroit. Look at the failure of all the compassionate nostrums. Look at the collapse of real integrity. Look at the grasping and demented idiocy of the unions. Look at the abandonment of government’s true functions. Look at the wreckage of human lives. Look at the ruin of a once great city. Look at what aching greedlust does. Behold the handiwork of your compassion.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.


  • Curt Day

    We can scapegoat government if we want. But in so doing, it is important to make some distinctions. The current mess that many cities and even states find themselves in is very much, though not entirely, the result of tax cuts and corporate welfare. This combination accelerated with the presidency of George Bush and especially in the aftermath of 9-11 where George laid the blame for the attacks at our freedoms, such as choosing to root for the Red Sox or the Evil Empire, rather than past policies that heavily relied on violence and brutal proxy rulers. We’ve been in a tailspin since then.

    Government cannot produce wealth? Let’s assume that is true. But government does provide a physical, social, and educational infrastructure without which neither business nor society can function except for under one scenario. That scenario would be if business provide the infrastructure at a price of course. Just think of how we now rely so heavily on private sector water rather than water from works as an example. We are now heading that way in terms of education. Such drives up the costs of what formerly provided for free.

    Whatever government spends is stolen? Let’s assume that is true. Then why do corporations spend so much in lobbying to obtain corporate welfare especially when they work so hard in avoiding paying taxes? If they aren’t paying their fair share, who is footing their bill? The average American taxpayer? How about future taxpayers?

    Scapegoating government would be considered disingenuous today if the American people did not believe in laissez-faire. Only here, laissez-faire refers to how involved Americans want to be in the political system. And considering all of the time Americans pursue pleasure and amusement compared with how much they pay attention to the issues and think independently, Americans’ involvement waivers between minimal and fatalistic. And that is more of the reason why we have our current economic situation and cities like Detroit that what was stated above.

    • JohnE

      “Such drives up the costs of what formerly provided for free.”
      I guess you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to pay taxes. I wish someone else was paying for my education and water so I could have them for free too.

      • Curt Day

        I guess that is the real issue for you. Why have the gov’t provide taxpayer funded shared resources when you can either do without or make a profit off of it?

        Now think about what happens to all of society as we move shared resources from the nonprofit public sector to the maximize profit private sector.

        • JohnE

          The issue for me is the attitude that government-provided services are “free”. If that’s the case, then why not see how many more free services we can get? It’s a lot of fun until those greedy, selfish billpayers vacate the house — like Detroit. Well at least fewer businesses are profiting off of them now. Detroit must be happier now that there are so much fewer of them.

          • Curt Day

            Those greedy selfish bill payers are resorting to blackmail. That is why they haven’t left. They are saying though that if the gov’t doesn’t cut them loose from being responsible for others, they will leave. And since elected officials are supported by the same greedy selfish bill payers, the gov’t listens.

            But hold it. Don’t those greedy selfish bill payers benefit from what they contribute to gov’t. Those who own places of employment benefit from infrastructure, education, and the state of society. And yet these greedy selfish bill payers want to discount the price of these benefits until they get a free lunch.

            And other greedy selfish bill payers benefit from foreign policies and the use of our military. They too want renegotiate their contracts until they are paying nothing.

            That approximately 2/3s of the corporations doing business in the U.S avoid federal taxes. And up to 60% of corporations doing business in the U.S. avoid state taxes. And yet these same greedy selfish bill payers would blackmail our elected officials to keep the status quo.

            In addition, who are the greedy selfish bill payers if so many corporations are going tax free. And isn’t it greedy and selfish to see the great need that neoliberal capitalism has created but yet cry and complain when asked to help relieve that need.

            The description you applied facetiously is more accurate than you ever dreamed.

  • Judyallbrite

    Surely someone else has clear thoughts on Detroit other than Douglas Wilson.

    • Elise Hilton

      Please feel free to share your own clear thoughts.

      • John Baker

        Elise your spot on. Curt’s argument has a lot to do with crony capitalism which we all know is no good for the general welfare but he’s still missing what the effects of powerful unions really are. It’s really easy to spend someone else’s money. Now don’t get me wrong, unions can be a great idea in certain situations like the one with the textile factories in Bangladesh for example, but we have been quite greedy with our own unions for the past 50 years. Regular linemen that work in the UAW for example can make (or at least made before ’08) 65$+/hr in combined wages and benefits. This is what it costs to hire engineers at my company. Look it up for those who don’t believe me. I know what it costs to hire workers and this is a pricy sum. Not to mention getting to comfy in your job because you know its protected by the union also isn’t good for the “general welfare”. This along with crony capitalism isn’t good for the economy.

        Curt, you brought up how businesses would have to provide for our schools and infrastructure if the government didn’t. Yes, that’s what we did way back when and it was much more affordable for the “general welfare of the people”.

        One last thought. Curt, please look at all of the states and cities that are in jeopardy of defaulting or are carrying massive amounts of debt. Please notice the general political nature of these states and cities. They have something in common don’t they? (Cali, Illinois, Detroit, New York). Now look at the successful ones. They too have something politically common. They can attract businesses to move to them, but that’s been the name of the game since day 1 the USA opened up. And many people have benefited as a result of them moving. Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness were the things we were promised. Not an education, free housing, free cell phones and other government programs.

        Now please don’t get me wrong, I do believe in some certain safety net for the truly disadvantaged. But unlike many countries in this world, there is no way not to make it in this country unless you either don’t want to or literally are not able to due to a physical or mental illness.

        If we truly care for the general welfare of the people, we should listen to them. When we listen, some would say they are saying “they want more free programs, more financial assistance”. I would say, “they want dignity, the ability to make themselves into something, to earn it and feel great that they did it”. Let’s give them opportunity and not free handouts.

  • Curt Day

    For businesses to avoid paying taxes is expecting a free lunch for life. Businesses gain many benefits from society and many of those benefits depend on taxes to survive. Cut that portion of a society’s income and you have detroit. But what do the rich care, they have mobility and they leave the rest to suffer the consequences.

  • RogerMcKinney

    Socialism is heaven while the money lasts, hell when it runs out. Detroit is nothing but the latest in a century long failure of socialist economics. Of course, socialists blame capitalism for everything, but where can anyone find capitalism in Detroit? The unions and city hall sucked the life blood out of business for decades to build their socialist utopia. Just like all other socialist utopias of the past, this one ended in ruins. But socialists will never quit trying.

    Read urban planning specialists and they will give you many stories of cities led to ruin by socialism that eventually recovered and are doing well. They recovered by shrinking government, reducing taxes and using what tax revenue that had to improve streets and reduce crime. But that’s boring stuff to socialists.