Fun with mathematics! Here’s a story problem. It’s not as hard as it sounds.
You can buy a functional family home in Detroit for about $20,000. You could buy an abandoned one for mere hundreds. Go ahead and Google it; there are tons of ‘em on the market right now. In many cases, they’re owned by the City, for which they represent a pure liability. No one lives in those houses. No one’s paying the taxes. They stand uninsured in many cases. The city is bankrupt. Fire and police services are non-existent in many neighborhoods.
Walk down the streets and you see what looks like the aftermath of a neutron bomb. Buildings still stand, but there’s no one there to use them. It’s no mere ghost town, though. Detroit has emerged as a first in American history: a ghost megalopolis.
Pensions for municipal employees have been blamed for the city’s financial crisis, and accordingly defaulted upon. Why worry about the future of employees of a city that no longer functionally exists? Those “rich” pensions, blamed for undermining the finances of Rock City, average about $18,000 per annum for a non-first responder city employee, which is significantly less than the pay of a private soldier in the U.S. Army who eats in the mess hall (no marginal food cost) and sleeps in the barracks (no rent to pay). Police and firefighter pensions average $30,000. That’s substantially less than the base pay of a cherry second lieutenant, aka “the most useless soldier in any platoon.”
Still, in a city where you can buy a house on a standard lot for less than that, maybe $18,000 seems “rich.”
To our federal government, however, it’s less than trivial. Our approximate burn rate for federal public dollars is $114,077 every second. Now, we all understand that Detroit should stand on its own broken feet of clay and solve its own problems, but just for perspective we might remember that we American taxpayers could buy up a block of homes there every second or two.
Let’s take a look at the bailouts of 2008. While the TARP fund was created at around $700 billion, overall commitments to the bankers who sabotaged an entire global economy totaled more than ten times that figure, at $7.7 trillion (source: Bloomberg). That’s better than double our annual federal budget, for those of you keeping score at home. One is tempted to wonder how many of those bankers lie awake at night with an acid stomach, wondering if they’ll lose an $18,000 annual pension that took 20 or more years to vest.
Where else do we like to spend federal dollars? Well, a cruise missile costs better than $1.4 million dollars. Right now, your Congress would like to shoot a few dozen of them at this week’s bad Syrians, in order to punish them for killing this week’s good Syrians with poison gas.
Let’s be clear that nerve gas is terrible stuff. Any agency that uses it is terrible by definition. It’s a horrifying way for a human being to die – sweating, gibbering and convulsing, but with a proud erection – and its use is inexcusable. Syria has crossed a “red line.” There is no reason for any decent government to stockpile the stuff, according to our government.
We know how bad it is because we’ve incorporated it into our own weapons systems, at great cost to taxpayers. Sarin gas, a Nazi-era German invention, was standardized for NATO use in the 1950s. We manufactured hundreds of tons of the stuff. The persistent nerve agent VX was patented by a British paint company in 1952 and the United States had undertaken industrial production of it by 1961. In another nod to inexorable mathematics, we should note that it has cost us more to first store, and then eliminate, our enormous stockpiles of nerve agent than it took to produce, weaponize and consolidate them in the first place.
So nerve agent use is bad. We can all agree on that. What many of us seem to disagree on is whether the United States is uniquely charged with punishing wrongdoers around the world. In our era of budget sequestration, when austerity is our watchword and we can no longer afford luxuries like Head Start for American children or pure research for America’s future, your Congress is coming all out for another optional war that Americans overwhelmingly do not want.
Americans want well-paid jobs. Americans want health care. Americans want safe neighborhoods. Americans want education for our children. Americans, in the words of a failed presidential candidate, “want things.” It’s true, you know. We want the things that characterize an advanced civilization. What we don’t want is to go to war again, but our leaders appear incapable of understanding that national will, much less honoring it.
When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Your Congress and President understand your country – and it’s YOUR country, not the exclusive province of a demographically insignificant wealthy and powerful minority who happen to let you live here – strictly in terms of power, and the exercise thereof.
There is a richer perspective, one that a self-described “community organizer” ought to understand very well. This country is a vast pluralism, composed of overlapping communities that support and enable each other. We work, play, and pay: taxes, dinners out, school clothes, tires for the car. We debate ballot measures, keep storefronts, and take cookies to the cop shop on Christmas. Every once in a while, we send our relatives and friends abroad to kill strangers in the name of freedom, but that had better be of overwhelming importance, distinguished Congressional members and Mr. President, if you intend to spend our money destroying people with whom we’ve never had a straight-up quarrel.
Tonight, Syrian citizens will go to sleep huddled behind the strongest stone wall in their house, keeping a knock-off Chinese Kalashnikov close by their side in case their neighborhood is attacked by government forces – or by rebel forces. Dead is dead, after all.
Detroit citizens will sleep fitfully tonight with their hands wrapped around the friction-taped handle of a fungo bat or a Glock pistol, flashlight ready in case of attack by gang members. In pre-Rust Belt days, Detroit was the pride of America and the world’s automotive capitol. The industry Detroit spawned got its own bailout to the tune of dozens of billions of dollars, but ChryCo and GM declared bankruptcy anyway.
Your Congress won’t spare a thought for Detroit or its citizens tonight. They’ll sleep peacefully in their D.C. beds, even the most dovish among them (are you listening, Sen. Patty Murray?) intent on planning and executing another optional war.
And why not? Each cruise missile flung at the last known whereabouts of Bashar al Assad costs us only 12.7 seconds worth of our national substance. In that 12.7 seconds – less than the elapsed airborne time of a flying bomb headed into sovereign territory to influence the civil war of another nation – we could have bought up an entire Detroit neighborhood. That neighborhood could be repurposed for any number of things: urban food farming, microchip production, the solar manufacturing so beloved of our President… it could even be gifted to the auto industry of which we are so very fond that we’ve bailed it out on multiple occasions. At 20 percent unemployment in town, there is cheap labor to be hired.
But we’re not going to do that. We’re dead set on spending that money to kill a few more uniformed Arabs, thus creating some more elbow room for Arab jihadis. Apparently, the same people who commit their lives to killing American troops and beheading traveling civilians are our allies now. We may as well shorten the loop, save a few bucks on fuel, and just carpet-bomb Detroit.
Math is hard. War is Hell. Nation-building is difficult.
And saving an American industrial icon ain’t even worth the effort.