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The truth about Detroit pensioners

Detroiters are voting today in one of the strangest and yet most important primary elections the city’s ever had. Those they send to the November runoff will be fighting for jobs which at first will have no power. That’s because everything is now in the hands of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Rhodes.

But nine months or so after the winners take office on New Year’s Day, the bankruptcy will be over and the emergency manager will depart. And then the hard part starts.

As the Detroit Free Press puts it today, the new leaders will be charged with creating “a new Motor City that is both solvent and attractive to people seeking a place to live, do business, and raise a family.” For most, Detroit is now none of those things.

Ironically, a key figure in today’s vote is a man who isn’t running, isn’t from Detroit and who was unknown here six months ago: Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. He was the subject of a Wall Street Journal profile over the weekend, in which he was quoted as saying, that “for a long time the city was dumb, lazy, happy and rich.”

Orr added that the wealth generated by the auto industry “allowed us to have a covenant (that) if you had an eighth grade education, you’ll get 30 years of a good job and a pension and great health care, but you don’t have to worry about what’s going to come.”

Well, those remarks set off a firestorm. If you heard the mayoral candidates yesterday, you would conclude they were all running against Orr. Which, in a sense, they are. Orr later issued an apology of sorts, saying Detroiters were hard-working and resilient, and adding “focusing on solutions and not dwelling on blame or the past is what is needed and is going to move us forward.”

That much is certainly true. But how much truth was there in Orr’s original infamous remark? Well, I grew up in Detroit and then in some blue-collar suburbs, in the nineteen fifties and sixties, in a virtually all-white world. And I can tell you, many of the blue-collar parents I knew pretty much fit Orr’s allegedly outrageous description. They weren’t exactly rich, though they probably felt that way, compared to their childhoods in the Great Depression. Their ideal was a high school, not an eighth-grade education. But then the idea was exactly what Orr said: Get a job on the assembly line, work 30 years, and retire with a good pension.

Yet that was something in the private sector auto industry that was copied and adopted by the public sector. There were a lot of people in both public and private sector who were complacent. But there are always those people. The bright ones and the strivers got bored quickly with repetitive work, found a way to get higher education, and went on to stimulating careers. 

What Kevyn Orr said wasn’t entirely fair, or politically wise. But there is a fair amount of truth in it.

And we disregard that truth at our peril. The fact is that as a species, we don’t like change. But sometimes, we have to change.

And one of those times is clearly now.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee the University of Michigan.

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