Detroit is not Dhalgren

Samuel Delaney’s po-mo science fiction masterpiece Dhalgren has been linked to Detroit since it was published shortly after the urban convulsions of the late 1960s. It’s not hard to see why – the book describes the fictional city of Bellona as a sort of apocalyptic hole in an otherwise normal U.S., and traces the lives of the few people who remain there after social, political and legal institutions have collapsed.

The creative response to Detroit’s misery today is more in tune with the way we take in information – rather than a novel, we have tumblrs, blogs and other media focused on endless photographs of the city’s abandoned architecture and general decline. Nonetheless, the experience of viewing the photos has similarities to reading about Bellona in that both allow us to indulge in the fiction that there is a spectator’s distance between our own lives and those of the people in the frame.

I think that’s far from true for reasons that may not be obvious. First, the financial problems facing Detroit are unique only in their severity and timing – in kind, the problems are similar to what many (if not most) U.S. municipalities will be facing soon, if they’re not already. This means that the solutions used to work out Detroit’s financial problems are likely to set a precedent for the way governments manage the inevitable tradeoffs that will be imposed elsewhere.

Second, Detroit’s fiscal crisis puts pensions and retirement issues at the center of the frame in a way that past municipal crises haven’t. With the country facing a wave of impending retirees with little to no savings, what happens in Detroit (along with the final verdict in San Bernardino) is going to be part of an opening salvo in the looming war over retirement and health care for the elderly after decades of underfunding and fiscal mismanagement. The failure of the retiree benefit systems is also a case study of the profound governance failures that lie behind so many of the problems facing public sector pensions across the country.

However things sort out, there’s no question that the lives of the people in Detroit are likely to get worse in the near future, just as many other retirees’ are.  It’s worth a closer look at the failures that led to this point if the rest of the country is going to have any hope of avoiding a similar fate.

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