Detroit: A Public Rorschach Test

The whole Detroit automaker bailout has my head spinning, and there’s no easy answer in sight. The people I talk with seem as torn about what to do as I am. The current debate raises fundamental questions about how we see critical public issues, what we value most, and the inherent conflicts we’re trying to work out. Detroit, and its ailments, is a public Rorschach test. So, please, pull up a chair, and let’s see what we think. It’s hard to talk about Detroit without mentioning two vital pieces of context. First, the $700 billion bailout of the financial markets, which to date seems to have produced far less benefit than anyone expected. For many of us, this situation undermines our confidence that yet another set of loans will produce any better results.

Second, Katrina, where our government’s response only deepened what was an unforgiving disaster. The nasty taste left from government’s ill-conceived and incompetent response still lingers. Even after all this time, much of New Orleans remains in a state of disrepair, and many people’s lives remain broken.

So what do you see when you look at the Detroit Rorschach? Is it simply a matter of making a decision about government loans to help revitalize three key American companies? Is it about holding auto makers accountable for decades of poor choices? Is it about saving a so-called dying city and region? Is it about propping up these companies because the domino effect from them declaring bankruptcy is too great to risk?

But our Rorschach test doesn’t end with these questions. There’s more. I highlighted the financial bailout and Katrina episodes because they help us to see and confront even larger issues about our intentions and purpose in taking public-spirited action.

  • - Will a government response, no matter how well thought out, reach the people in need?
  • - In what ways is government capable of responding to such systemic, complex issues, and where is it not, and what’s the alternative?
  • - What responsibility do individuals hold for making their lives better and adjusting to changing conditions?
  • - What non-governmental responses are required to rebuild communities and people’s lives, and how do we marshal these resources?

My hope is that when we look at Detroit, we don’t only see an up or down vote on auto-company loans, but a larger question: How will we deal with communities and people in transition? This question requires that we take a larger view of the issues at hand and recognize that any worthwhile response will require multiple actors. There is no magic intervention or timeline or sheer amount of dollars that can be imposed on Detroit to right what’s wrong.

There are technical fixes for some problems, which may even include making sure our financial markets are working, levies get built, and car companies stay afloat. But, if we are truly willing to look at Detroit, we’ll see something much more complex, fragile, and rooted in the daily lives of people. Making loans is the easy part. Repairing breaches is something else.