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Edward Hadas: Detroit, decay and solidarity

By Edward Hadas

LONDON, July 31 (Reuters Breakingviews) - The bankruptcy of the city of Detroit has many causes, including poor management, industrial history and dysfunctional American sociology. I think there is also an ethical problem: too little cross-border solidarity.

I don't want to downplay the other failures. A more competent city government would have addressed, rather than added to, the problems. The U.S. car industry proved a disastrously weak economic anchor. And without widespread racism, there would have been fewer ghettoized African-Americans.

Still, the economic and sociological poison has not been spread equally. On the contrary, it is concentrated inside the legal borders of the city of Detroit. The Detroit of common speech and common sense - the big blob on a national map, the urban area served by a single international airport - has suffered much less.

In the United States, population change is a crude but accurate indicator of economic success. The city is failing; its population declined by almost 60 percent in the half-century from 1960 to 2010, to 714,000. The rest of metro Detroit, as defined by the U.S. government, is doing all right: the headcount increased by about 70 percent, to 3.6 million.

True, metro Detroit as a whole may not be thriving. The unemployment rate of 9 percent is well above the 7.6 percent national average. But the problems are concentrated in the city, which is in an apparently unstoppable economic and social decline. That descent has undoubtedly been accelerated by the legal and financial isolation of the city from suburbs.

Compare Detroit with European cities suffering from similar economic shifts. They have some terrible neighborhoods, but nothing like Detroit's urban wastelands. The main difference is that the European cities have a single regional government and budget.

In a European-style metro Detroit, unified regional planning would favor reconstruction of the old city centre over new buildings and new highways in ever more distant locations. Some of the tax revenue raised in what are today separate affluent suburban jurisdictions would be spent in the centre of the city. With better roads, schools, police and services, Detroit's slums would be less slummy and the culture of crime and despair would probably be less entrenched.

There's actually no need to go to Europe to find better ways to arrange urban jurisdictions. As David Rusk points out in his book "Cities without Suburbs", the American cities that have expanded their city limits along with their populations generally have stronger economies, less racial segregation and more equal income distribution than the mostly older cities with rigid borders.

The ethical issue can be reduced to an old question: who is my neighbor? Everyone, even economists who believe people should be selfish, recognizes that it is helpful to work together as a community. Almost everyone, perhaps excluding a few cold-hearted economists, would agree that the strong in a community have some obligation to help the weak. But how large is the relevant community?

Many residents of such affluent Detroit suburbs as Bloomfield Hills, where the median income is almost six times higher than in Detroit city, might say that legal boundaries provide good dividing lines. For them, justice might require the Bloomfield government to help the Bloomfield poor, but aid that crosses jurisdictions is charity, not duty.

Cross-border solidarity, they could say, is a fine principle but not a realistic practice. If political separations of rich and poor neighbors are always unjust, then everyone is guilty. For example, the United States is hardly about to unite with Mexico, even though the economies and histories of the two neighboring nations are closely entwined, and Mexico could do with some help.

I wouldn't dismiss the suburbanite case out of hand, but I believe that the typical municipal boundary lines of old American cities are unnecessarily numerous and unjustly arbitrary. The city of Detroit, despite its distinct legal and financial history, is not a self-sufficient community.

Rather, the city is a particularly troubled part of an urban area which has a single identity and economy. The car industry is tied to metro Detroit far more than to the city - Ford's headquarters are in suburban Dearborn. And metro is unified by the history of racism. The city suffered and many suburbs gained from generations of forced segregation.

Metro Detroit should look after the distressed city, much as a parent should look after a wayward child. Indeed, Detroit city is a suffering part of a single country. The U.S. government should help out, just as it helped metro Detroit's car companies, and just as any European national government helps its troubled cities.

Suburban resistance may preclude a single metro government for Detroit, but bankruptcy, with its helpful purge of debts and entrenched positions, could be followed by solidarity. I'm willing to make the case in Bloomfield Hills - although I might want a bodyguard.

(Corrects headcount increase in paragraph 4)

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

(Editing by George Hay and Sarah Bailey)

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