What Does A Million Look Like?

When did a million dollars become unimportant? An amount that remains largely unattainable for all but a few is routinely treated like loose change by members of the public sector and no one seems all that concerned.  In my business we often have a chance to make products in quantities of a million or more. Since these items occasionally resemble a dollar bill in size and shape I often find myself thinking of money; how it’s generated, collected, spent and misused. This also leads to viewing the financial situation in Detroit and the country in general from a different perspective. Consider the sheer number of scandals, prosecutions, instances of fraud, jury awards and blatant examples of mismanagement that have occurred in Detroit over the past twenty years. A short time ago we had the original Kwame Kilpatrick/Christine Beatty adventure which resulted in an over eight million dollar damage award plus attorney and other costs. There was also the prosecution of a council member and her associates in addition to persons in positions of power in the Water Department and Cobo Center. Accusations of bribes being paid to a high ranking library official; who as usual wants a taxpayer funded attorney and charges of missing pension fund money are just the latest chapters in this never ending story. If you went back over the past few decades and totaled up all the amounts, from a few hundred thousand to a few million that have been squandered in various ways, you could begin to quantify this culture of disregard. The pervasive lack of concern for the proper use of taxpayer funds is a national issue and Detroit is merely the largest city to reach the brink first; so anyone adopting a smug attitude toward Detroiters is only fooling themselves.

When dealing with the enormity of the financial challenges facing Detroit, these events, with their smaller price tags, are treated as nothing more than footnotes in the larger drama. Focusing on hundreds of millions in deficits and billions in long-term liabilities makes it too easy for the media and government officials to forget what a million dollars really looks like and where it actually comes from. This was especially true during the negotiations over the running of Belle Isle, where it appeared that the city council considered a six million dollar savings to be inconsequential in their grand interpretation of things. Keep in mind first and foremost that government does not generate income; there is no such thing as government money.  All the money that has vanished or was not exclusively used for benefit of the city’s residents was collected from people and businesses that can’t afford to be so carefree about how it is spent. I can’t help but think of a parent in Detroit, getting up every day, arranging to get their kids off to school or to a safe place while they are at work. You get into a car that you pay an absurd insurance premium on or deal with a public transportation system that often imperils your ability to remain employed with its inconsistency. You do this day in and day out, in sickness and in health and still find it tough to make it all work. The amount of money you pay out in Detroit city income taxes, while not a high percentage, would still be enough to make a difference in your life if you were allowed to keep it.

What if you made $25,000.00 per year and had to kick in about $600.00 to help plug all these leaks in the community bucket. The 8.4 million dollars awarded to the officers in the original Kwame Kilpatrick case would consume your entire year’s tax contribution plus the share of another 14,000 hard working Detroiters. No police or fire protection was provided with that money, no child was educated, public transportation wasn’t improved, street lights were not fixed and no snow was plowed; all because of something that never should have happened.

The real tragedy is that the sacrifices made by these taxpayers to produce this money for the city were squandered by the very people sworn to protect their interests. That’s was a million dollars looks like. It is hard to imagine that there is anything that these thousands of individuals could have done with their share of this total that would have been more blatantly wrong or pointless. This all comes back to a central point; whether it’s the death by a thousand cuts that has ravaged Detroit, Wayne counties three hundred million dollar jail mess or the federal governments never ending parade of waste and cronyism; rarely is anyone held fully accountable. Millions regularly disappear for a multitude of reasons with little collective outrage, while a business as usual attitude prevails. If 14,000 taxpayers who made it to work rain or shine had been sent an invoice for their share of the city’s lawsuit payout instead of their normal tax bill, the outcry would have been immediate and deafening.  Instead, each individuals contribution is combined with others, the collective pot is recast as government money causing a disconnect from the source to take place that magically transforms these expenditures into anonymous rather than personal losses.

Individual taxpayers need to adopt a zero tolerance attitude toward all breaches of trust and demand full prosecution no matter what the amount.  If you wouldn’t allow someone to steal a thousand dollars from you all at once, why would it be any easier to accept it if they achieved the same result by taking it twenty dollars at a time. Where is the outrage, where are the marches, where are the stories of residents who endured hardships because of the services not provided by these lost funds?  For those inclined to protest, this is the cause with real potential for a measurable payoff.  Perhaps Detroit’s two latest and very prolific offenders, Mr. Kilpatrick and Mr. Ferguson, could be engaged in a rehabilitative exercise. It would be fairly easy to have each escorted daily into a private room (no TV, internet, phone or other distractions) where they would be allowed to experience what a million dollars really looks like. A simple table, a comfortable chair, some coin wrappers and a bin with a million pennies in it would do the trick. I have been part of projects to inspect and package a million of something and it is a humbling experience. Hand counting a million pennies might give these gentlemen a sense of the enormity of what they have done and the opportunity to gain some respect for the effort of those who financed their transgressions. If anyone is worried about the safety of the money involved; rest assured that it would be an even bigger learning experience if either tried to misappropriate someone else’s cash a dollar at a time, just like taxpayers actually earn it.