For years, these pages have warned of a serious reckoning in California for the decades of irresponsible actions by government officials regarding the accumulation of massive debt, particularly for public-employee pensions and retiree health care. The numbers should be daunting to anyone who bothers to look at them.

But our warnings often have been met with attacks that cast us alternately as public-employee haters or envious of their pensions. We are neither.

Such response is a classic case of "shoot the messenger." We understand it is the only public strategy left when one cannot refute disquieting facts.

After all, the facts are all around us.

Downtown Detroit is seen looking south along Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan July 21, 2013. REUTERS/ Rebecca Cook
Downtown Detroit is seen looking south along Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan July 21, 2013. REUTERS/ Rebecca Cook

The cities of Stockton and Vallejo declared bankruptcy in large part because of massive debt. There are a number of other cities that probably should and some that almost certainly will travel the bankruptcy road.

In fact, top officials at Moody's Investment Rating Service estimated that as many as 10 percent of California's cities could face such a move.

And, until last week, Stockton was the largest city in the country to declare bankruptcy.

But Stockton was deposed Thursday when Detroit filed its formal papers.


Advertisement

There was a time when Detroit was one of America's most bustling cities. To be sure, it was industrial, but it was vibrant. However, a witches' brew of incompetent and corrupt leadership as well as lofty, unsustainable promises has spiraled the Motor City into it current disrepair. Detroit boasted more than 2 million residents in the 1960s, but can barely count 700,000 denizens today with an unemployment rate at roughly 16 percent and a remaining tax base that cannot possibly cover the estimated $17 billion of debts and promises. Yes, billion.

The residents left in Detroit have already felt the pinch of a city in turmoil. Crime there has skyrocketed, with its highest murder rate since the 1970s; police are understaffed and outgunned; response time for 911 calls is nearly an hour; parks are closed; nearly half of the city's streetlights don't work. And all of this was before the city declared bankruptcy.

The pain is just beginning for Detroit, as more service cuts are as close to a sure thing as there is in public policy. So too are cuts to worker benefits and, yes, to the promises made to public retirees. No way, you say? Just watch.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. It is the scenario we have repeatedly foretold for much of California. The state's decision-makers can choose to summon some courage and proactively treat Detroit as an object lesson or continue to tinker on the margins and make it a harbinger of our future. We hope for the former, but fear the latter.