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The DIA Soon DOA?

April 10, 2014

Since no one else seems to be commenting on anything along these lines, I’ll say it.  There is a bankrupt city in Michigan called Detroit.  It was one of the most famous cities in the world for automobile manufacture, Motown music, and later, the murder rate (which it’s still famous for).  Recently, the city was allowed to file for bankruptcy in order to forgo repaying some of its debts.

One of the debts it was not permitted to drop, and rightly so, was its promise of pensions for city workers.  Partly because of this, the city has apparently decided to “monetize” the artwork of the Detroit Institute of the Arts (the DIA).  The value of these pieces of art were judged to be worth between $452 and $866 million.  I have been keeping tabs on this topic, so I heard this estimate was lower than the city hoped for.  This is now considered salable property of Detroit, to be used for settling its debts.  The debt stands around $18 billion, according to one source.  That’s a lot of debt.

There are two points I must make here.  Frankly, I am surprised no one else has been posting things on WordPress with the tags “Detroit,” “art,” “DIA,” or “monetize” involved.

1.  The city of Detroit has no right to take public property and put a price tag on it when it was irresponsible enough to run up a debt so large.  It was already unwise to resist a state offer for leasing of a tourist island, which would have cut costs for the city and helped in tourism.  This was all but forced on the city later, but it could have been done better and prior to being bankrupt.  Now it assumes possession of things the city does not own- that artwork belongs to the citizens.  Rivers and lakes are public property, too, in most places.  Should cities charge for use of these when they run into financial trouble?  Imagine the effect that would have on availability of resources.  But if a city can do this with artwork, why stop there?  And if this is really necessary for the city to settle its debts, why are the citizens denied any effective way to decide how its value is applied to the debt?

The whole thing is wrong.  As it is, municipal, state, and federal governments tend to assume authority where they have none.  Public grounds like courthouses and hunting lands are public possessions.  Whatever value they have, should it be used, the people have the right to decide.  Mandated stipulations regarding them should be decided by the citizens also.  Too often this is done unilaterally by executive branch officers, judicial leaders, or municipal councils without practical recourse or contravention.  It’s perfectly reasonable to have armed guards in courthouses, for instance; but should the costs incurred not be up for public debate and consideration in more than city council meetings where such things are often badly announced or phrased to mask the intent?  Should there not be a quick and effective way to cancel budget matters if the people want it changed, without the red tape of bureaucracy?  I think so.

Incidentally, this applies to religious expression, too.  Everyone made such a fuss about the Ten Commandments in the courthouse, and how it was religious preference- thereby, intolerance to other faiths.  This is wrong in theory and practice.  The right to practice any religion only meant to curtail a state religion, not prohibit its expression through government (“In God We Trust”, remember?  Are Islamic zealots threatened by that?)  Therefore, if a local majority wants the Ten Commandments in the courthouse, the minority has no right to force them out.  The minority still has right for its own representation in addition to this anyway.  By the same reasoning, any electorate can have whatever religious expression it wants in public when not unfairly restricted; there is no reason there can’t be a big, stone Qur’an, either, right alongside a statue of Moses.  Majority rules and loud, easily-offended minorities should learn the spirit of the Constitution as well as the letter of its articles if they choose not to match their rivals in civil expression.  Briefly, that means loud, belligerent minorities should stand up or shut up.

But good luck with expedient countering forces to existing statutes or misinterpreted rights.  Our alleged republican governmental structure has nothing like calls for no confidence in presidents or directors (and impeachment is hardly the same- if it was, the individuals of the Supreme Court could be held accountable for their corruption or incompetence, as the Constitution says they should).  A representative democracy has no means to curtail selfish leadership without being allowed a better selection by corporate interest because legislatures and courts ignore the will of their people.  Legislative cancellations without the legislative approval are unlikely to pass.  Just try to make Congress stop voting raises for itself.

2.  The second point I must make concerning the DIA and its monetizing is this: anyone can be a bidder for its ownership, or use as collateral.  For instance, IBM could buy whatever artwork it wanted and destroy it upon scanning images for later resale.  IBM would then own the image unto the end of the company, or the end of time, whichever came first.  Copyright law would make simply viewing timeless, public images or literature illegal.  Since ideology can be closely tied to such things, this is a deeply dangerous mechanism to preventing free expression and self-determination of individuals.  Companies are already trying to copyright natural chemical compounds.  (Imagine how it would cost if someone copyrighted water.)  Farmers are being punished for raising crops downwind from genetically-modified fields because the pollen interbred with the other crop prior to its sale.  This is a process the farmer can’t anticipate and the company is somehow not expected to prevent.  This is unbelievable.

Anyway, regarding the DIA and its “monetized” public property (I say pilfered), two buyers announced for artwork are Chinese interests.  One wants Chinese artwork for cultural reasons, I am sure.  Fair enough, but if the artwork belongs to Detroit citizens, how could they stop such collections from being removed completely in the transaction?  Public property could be sent away without any means for the people to dispute it.  How is that right?

Worse than simple accessibility to culture, there is no way to know the full ramifications of foreign possession of any public property.  One investor was talking about buying a set of artwork and considering it collateral for a loan to the city of Detroit.  One local news commentator was brash enough to say no one loses in this exchange.  That supposition can only be termed as stupid.

The obvious is money comes into Detroit, possibly without any immediate loss but the promise of a loan to be repaid.  Even assuming such wealthy interests from foreign nationals have no geopolitical risk- that is, a foreign state would never use it for leverage against the United States (and for China, that’s simply too great a risk to take), American possessions cannot be made subject to foreign law without disregarding Constitutional law.

You may argue that can’t happen if this loan and collateral transaction takes place with artwork of the DIA.  It’s simple enough to prove otherwise: imagine, some day in the future, Detroit has not paid off the loan.  The Chinese investor- with or without the provocation of his or her government, for its own aims- calls for the loan to be repaid or else.  The artwork is now subject to be claimed, or a new deal is made.  Is it so hard to see how using public property for debt payment could entangle foreign powers?  What if Detroit of this future opt to extend repayment of the loan by using public land itself as collateral, then fail to repay the loan again?  The land itself would be under the jurisdiction of a foreign national, or worse, a foreign government!  We didn’t allow this for Mumbai when it tried to possess an American port.  This is just a backdoor method to do the same thing, if the precedent is permitted.

Public property is being dealt with without regard for the public.  Very easily, the de facto masters American public property could be foreigners, or foreign governments.  As such, statute and justice would not be according to the Constitution.  It would be pointless to cry “Habeus corpus!” in a Chinese court, or claim religious freedom if the most recent fatwa in your county says the Crucifix is verboten.


These are extreme cases, but it always begins with an innocuous step.  The precedent is what matters here.  When slavery was abolished, the separate but equal proposition was allowed.  It led to revised slavery, in effect, and was only overturned after a century and considerable pain through riots and martyrdom of good people.  Fear of offending minorities leads to the complete atheistic representation of Americans, now effectively denied the right to express their faith in public (although, in some cases, it’s fine if you aren’t Christian).  The Affordable Care Act permits the federal government to enforce laws it has no enumerated right to pass, and its mandate shall certainly lead to curtailing more rights of self-determination.  Now Detroit is opening the side door for private possession of public property, where the authority is completely beyond citizens’ reach.  This is not a good idea, and it is in no way congruent with Constitutional rights.


From → commentary, politics

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