Robert Kuttner: We Are All Detroit

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Do you think the damage from the pending bankruptcy of the city of Detroit will be limited to Detroit? Think again.

Detroit is partly the victim of economic trends far beyond its control, the downsizing and outsourcing of the auto industry and the collapse of the sub-prime bubble, to name just two. And yes, the city has suffered from corrupt and inept local government. But leaving Detroit to a bankruptcy process that favors investment bankers over local pensioners will neither provide a fair outcome nor contain the damage.

In the past two weeks, other Michigan cities and counties, including Saginaw and Battle Creek, have had to postpone bond issues, as the damage from the Detroit bankruptcy spills over. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who hoped to whack both public employees and the heavily Democratic city of Detroit by promoting bankruptcy, could end up shooting himself and his state in the foot.

Those who hope to use the pain of cities to undermine public employee pensions are playing with fire. One of the striking government failures of the era since the collapse of 2008 is that the federal government has done so little to help municipalities whose revenues were doubly hit by the subprime collapse and the recession itself. In the absence of aid, we can expect a prolonged era of dwindling services and scapegoated public workers and retirees.

It is a travesty that the federal government and the Michigan state government are not sending Detroit a lifeline. Other cities and states stand to lose both public services and pension benefits as this trend spreads. Chicago, which just suffered three levels of bond-downgrading, looks to be next.

Some background: In 1975, New York City very nearly went bankrupt. It faced a financial crisis and was unable to roll over maturing bonds. When Mayor Abe Beame appealed to Washington for help, President Ford initially refused, prompting the famous headline in the New York Daily News, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”

But that was a different era and in the end, Ford did approve $2.3 billion in federal loans. The New York State government, through a hastily legislated Municipal Assistance Corporation, agreed to refinance the city’s debt, subjecting it to a rigorous supervision process. The Big Apple avoided bankruptcy, its economy recovered — and New York is now home to the wildly profitable financial industry that is destroying Detroit in order to protect bankers.

In contrast to President Ford and New York’s then Democratic governor Hugh Carey, Michigan’s Republican governor Rick Snyder was happy to collude with Wall Street by embracing a bankruptcy proceeding rigged in favor of investment banks. And President Obama, who successfully sponsored a recapitalizing of the auto industry, is staying far away from Detroit this time.

These policies are short-sighted as well as cruel. If you think about it, many of Detroit’s citizens are getting screwed both as debtors and as creditors. With the city having lost tax revenues in the housing collapse and property values at rock bottom, most homeowners with mortgages — debtors — can’t qualify for refinancing. But many of the same people are also creditors, they city owes them pensions.

In principle, a bankruptcy proceeding is a system for fairly allocating claims when a debtor can’t service all of its debts. The Michigan state constitution guarantees that Detroit pensioners will be paid what they are owed. Even Michigan’s Republican attorney general, Bill Schuette, agrees that the constitutional protection is binding.

But the most recent changes (2005) in the federal bankruptcy law, lobbied for by Wall Street, put bankers in line ahead of pensioners. As attorney, author and debt expert Ellen Brown explains, this special-interest provision gives credit default swaps held by banks priority over other forms of debt. So banks that speculated in Detroit’s debt stand to get paid ahead of ordinary bondholders and pensioners.

As Brown writes:

Derivative claims are considered “secured” because the players must post collateral to play. They get not just priority but “super-priority” in bankruptcy, meaning they go first before all others, a deal pushed through by Wall Street in the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005. Meanwhile, the municipal workers, whose pensions are theoretically protected under the Michigan Constitution, are classified as “unsecured” claimants who will get the scraps after the secured creditors put in their claims. The banking casino, it seems, trumps even the state constitution. The banks win and the workers lose once again.

The average pension owed to Detroit municipal workers, incidentally, is just $1,900 a month, and only 4 percent of Detroit’s general revenues go to pensions. According to AFSCME President Lee Saunders, Detroit’s non-uniformed public workers have already had pensions cut by 40 percent.

As we saw in the Wisconsin assault on collective bargaining for public employees and most recently in the San Francisco area BART strike, all public workers are losing public sympathy because wages, pension and health benefits have declined even faster in the private sector, leaving regular people to conclude that government employees have it too good. In fact, a study by pension expert Alicia Munnell finds that average state and local employee pensions are well below level needed to maintain living standards in retirement. Wall Street must be chortling, as ordinary workers blame civil servants rather than bankers.

But the assault on public workers and pensioners will continue to spread until citizens generally start appreciating that the culprit is not “over paid” public employees but a banker-dominated system that undermines decent living standards for public and private workers alike.

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