03/19/2012 03:12 pm ET Updated May 19, 2012

Michigan, Detroit and the Fall of the Byzantine Empire

Like Detroit's long, slow slide toward financial insolvency, the demise of the Byzantine Empire -- also known as the Eastern Roman Empire -- didn't happen overnight. It took years of self-delusion and the indifference of potential allies to cause that great society to collapse.

Even after the empire was reduced to little more than a city state, its leaders refused to believe things had to change. The emperor retained his imperial trappings and the schemers in the court continued playing games. The problem of how to defeat the Ottoman Turks and keep the whole society afloat was talked about, but never decisively confronted.

Meanwhile, Western Europe -- which depended on the walls of Constantinople to keep the Ottomans at bay -- seemed more interested in punishing Byzantium for its Eastern Orthodox heresy than facing the shared enemy. Even when Constantinople fell under siege by Mehmed II, the West made reunification with the Roman church a precondition for sending troops and ships. In 1453, Constantinople fell and Christendom lost its eastern flank. Eventually, the Turks expanded deeply into Europe.

The situation in Detroit isn't exactly like that. Nobody expects the Canadians to cross the Detroit River and sack the place. But, like old Constantinople, Detroit faces a crisis it is unable to tackle alone -- a calamity with the potential to drag a lot of others down with it. And like the bunglers of 1453, our leaders seem unwilling to unite against the common threat.

Even as calamity nears for everyone, there is widespread a desire to punish Detroit's fiscal sinfulness. Help for Detroit, a lot of people feel, should be tied to its conversion to the one true faith of privatization and reduced collective bargaining rights for city workers.

In a recent column, radio commentator Frank Beckmann praised the proposed consent agreement presented on March 13 -- in large part because it would give the city and state "a true 'hammer' to finally elicit the radical concessions they need, especially on health care and pensions, to get the city back on the path to financial stability." 

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson acknowledges that a Detroit bankruptcy would be a disaster for his county. But even he seems fixated on teaching Detroit a lesson it won't forget.

In an appearance last December on WDET's The Craig Fahle Show, Patterson said: "I would not expose Oakland County's checkbook to Detroit... If you think that I'm going to write a check to help balance the mismanagement of the City of Detroit over the last 30 to 40 years -- absolutely not."

To his credit, Patterson offered consulting help to Detroit -- help that Detroit should have accepted. But a cash infusion or loan to the city his county shares a border with? No way, no how is that going to happen -- even to protect Oakland County's own, hard-won AAA bond rating.

As easy as it is to criticize non-Detroiters for their myopia, however, it's equally hard to defend the Byzantine court that is the Detroit City Council and Bing administration.

Just before the proposed consent agreement was formally presented, Councilwoman JoAnn Watson complained about the way State Treasurer Andy Dillon delivered the printed copies to council members.

"It's totally disrespectful," Watson told the Michigan Citizen. "Andy Dillon hand-delivering this so-called consent agreement -- which is really a contract -- instead of it going through the correct procedure."

Really? With the city literally weeks away from potential payless paydays, was that the time to gripe about process?

Mayor Dave Bing, for his part, seemed to take the whole thing personally. "I was not voted as mayor of this city to have to report to the governor," he told a gathering at Wayne County Community College's downtown campus. That's true, Mr. Mayor. But this isn't about you.

Folks, it's time to just shut up and focus on what's coming at us across that metaphorical Dardanelles Strait. If the walls are breached, it really won't matter whose fault it is or how it happened. We'll all be in a bad way.

Back in January, the very sane, very wise columnist radio host and educator Jack Lessenberry presented the framework of a solution that more people should listen to. Detroit, he says, should go through a restructuring and "soft bankruptcy" with the help of the state in a deal similar to the one the federal government arranged for Chrysler.

Once that is done, Lessenberry wrote in the Metro Times, "Detroit needs to be guided through a merger -- an arranged marriage if you will -- to help keep her stable."

The merger partner? Wayne County.

Nothing like that is likely to happen without putting some state tax money on the table. It'd be complicated, expensive and controversial. But, the cash and political capital would be well-spent if the new entity was stronger and better able to stand on its own in the future. I have yet to hear a better idea.

The sooner we get working on it, the sooner it can get done. And there is no time to waste. The Ottomans are here and the walls are about to fall.