Below is an exchange between a member of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes (most recent correspondence is listed first, followed by the original exchange):

May 28, 2015

Judge Rhodes, when I contacted you last week regarding Kate Levy’s film interview, and specifically contextualizing your statement that “The thing about bankruptcy that’s so beautiful is that we don’t ask why”, you responded almost immediately. (The entire exchange, with a link to Kate’s interview, is preserved below.)

Responding directly to my question, you further stated “Bankruptcy courts are neither equipped nor authorized to fix the societal problems that may have caused the need for our help.”  

A few minutes ago, sitting right beside you on the stage at the regional Chamber of Commerce Mackinac conference “Architects of Prosperity” panel, Chief Judge Rosen analogized the Detroit bankruptcy and the “grand bargain” to the famous story about Benjamin Franklin, supposedly stating that the U.S. constitutional convention wrought “a republic, if you can keep it.”  He then stated that in the bankruptcy & “grand bargain” you collectively “wrought a city.” (see video below)

I’m aware that these issues are complex.  That complexity was a significant reason for my original communication to you, seeking to avoid any claim that your statement had been taken out of context or otherwise misconstrued.

But no appeal to complexity, expertise or other qualification can excuse such direct contradictions.  Either the bankruptcy “bargain” wrought significant results for good (or ill) for the city and our People, and your “architects of prosperity” (or austerity) deserve the praise (or blame) for your accomplishments (or misdeeds).  Or else, consistent with your limitation of the role of bankruptcy to not asking “why” (or indeed, much else) and lacking either equipment or authorization “to fix the societal problems”, you performed a much more limited, constrained and technical/legal function, not anything remotely analogous to the historical mythic constitutional origin story just cited by Judge Rosen.  You can’t have it both ways.

In conclusion (for now), the People of Detroit deserve much better.  We deserve leadership and public policy that is honest, transparent and truly dedicated to the public interest.  We deserve, among other things, adequate housing, affordable water and sanitation, and adequate public education.  We’re not getting any of that today.  The destructive, unequal and racially biased patterns of “economic development” and unaccountable power that shaped our city and our region were merely perpetuated, unless they were intensified (time will tell), by the bankruptcy bargain struck by the elites who are currently partying on Mackinac Island.

On the streets, there’s a shorthand saying describing the hypocrisy and self-serving greed at the heart of this dynamic: “It’s all about the Benjamins.”  You and your colleagues have unwittingly demonstrated the truth of this basic populist insight.


An open letter to Judge Steven Rhodes:

May 20, 2015

Dear Judge Rhodes:

Intrepid People’s filmmaker Kate Levy (whose ethical standards apparently exceed even her prodigious creativity as a documentarian) has expressed some concern about the context of your statement in her filmed interview of you, to the effect that “The thing about bankruptcy that’s so beautiful is that we don’t ask why.” ( , @ 48:29 of the video)

In this connection, I recently read the following comments by Prof. Vincent Navarro of Johns Hopkins University on the subject of teaching economics. I wonder if you have any further thoughts on the question of whether or not, and if so how, they can be applied to your assessment of how the bankruptcy and emergency management laws played out in Detroit?

Prof. Navarro states: “One of the major problems we encounter in the production of economic knowledge is its excessive disciplinary approach. Actually, the academic institutions are usually divided by departments based on disciplines, one of them being economics. The reality that surrounds us, however, cannot be understood following the disciplinary approach.

The understanding of our realities, including the economic ones, calls for a multidisciplinary analysis, with the understandings of the historical, political and social forces that shape and determine that reality. In order to understand the current Great Recession, for example, we have to understand how power—class power, race power, gender power, national power—is produced and reproduced through political institutions, as well as social and cultural ones. In other words, we have to comprehend how power relations shape the governance of our societies, including their economies.

The current economics, for the most part, do not do that. They specialize in branches of the tree without understanding, or even less, questioning, the nature of the forest. Moreover, they have given great emphasis to the methods, depoliticizing the realities of the economic phenomenon. Today, modern economics is used as a way of confusing and/or ignoring the political realities that shape the economy. Currently, most of the major economic problems we face are basically political. …

The absence of the study of the political and social context, determined historically, makes current economics an apologetic message for current power relations, mystifying, hiding, and/or confusing the understanding of the economic phenomena.”

Applying this analysis to how the city was treated, in the course of bankruptcy raises several potential questions:

In the Detroit case, is not asking why fair or reasonable, or is it really an apology for and a mystification of class (and race) power relations?

Conversely, if Kate’s film uses your statement about not asking why as representative in some ways of the larger concerns raised by the bankruptcy, restructuring and emergency management process, would you have and other concerns or contextualization of the statement you would like to share?

In other words, and in view of the whole range of social issues involved, is it either fair, truthful or transparent to tell Detroiters that there was no need to “ask why”, or would it be better from the kind of interdisciplinary perspective advocated by Prof. Navarro for us to ask why, as well as who decides? Who benefits? And who pays?

Thank you for your time and attention to this correspondence.

And his response:

Mr. Stephens,
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and concerns about my interview with Katie.
I do, however, stand by my responses to her on the points you raise. In bankruptcy court, our job is to try to fix the financial problems of the individuals, businesses and municipalities who seek our help. Bankruptcy courts are neither equipped nor authorized to fix the societal problems that may have caused the need for our help. And nothing in the laws under which we provide that help makes relevant the question of why help is needed. I think that’s good. We leave it to academics and policymakers to address your questions.
I really have nothing further to add here.
Steve Rhodes

This exchange was originally posted at

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