Bankrupt: A Documentary About Cronyism & Corruption in Detroit


In 2014 Director and Executive Producer Ben Howe and Producer Thomas LaDuke released their 41 minute documentary, Bankrupt, on the tragic story of Detroit. This was the official website for the documentary.
Content is from the site's 2014 archived pages.

Director & Executive Producer
Ben Howe

Director of Photography
Michael Deppisch
Thomas LaDuke
Production Manger
Sarah Smith

Detroit was one of America’s great jewels. A center for industry, innovation, ingenuity, and the American can-do spirt. A shining example of the capitalist tide lifting all boats.

Today, Detroit rests in shadow. It is a husk, a decaying testament to what can go wrong when government and bad policy intersect with bad business. What happened? Bankrupt is the new documentary that will lead you through the brambles and reveal what went wrong. What’s more, it answers the question of what there is to learn from the story of the rise and fall of America’s auto empire, and what it says about where we are going as a nation in the era of too big to fail.


Bankrupt: Official Trailer

Detroit U.S.A.: Once the most prosperous city in America. With a booming manufacturing sector and cultural magnetism, the city had bright horizons after World War II. But as the 1960′s rolled in, the marriage of Big Business and Big Government overtook Detroit. The central planners in government needed the powerful corporations, and the powerful corporations came to depend on the bureaucracy, too. The marriage worked well for the politicians and for their corporate cronies, but Detroit itself entered a decades-long decline. America watched as Detroit slowly bled people, jobs and revenue. Politicians tried spending money. They tried raising taxes. The more they taxed and spent, the faster the city declined.
Detroit still had its "Big Three" auto manufacturers, until two of its crown jewels, General Motors and Chrysler, imploded in 2008 under the weight of reckless and subsidized mismanagement.

Instead of allowing market forces to rebuild Detroit and the auto industry, the United States handed billions of dollars to General Motors and Chrysler.

Five years later, the city of Detroit is bankrupt and almost $20 billion dollars in debt. Meanwhile, General Motors has a cash balance of over $20 billion, still owes the taxpayers over $10 billion dollars that outgoing CEO Dan Akerson said will not be paid, and the company continues to benefit from an unprecedented $18 billion tax gift from the bankruptcy.

Why is General Motors walking away with billions while Detroit dies?

How did so much money change hands between the world's most powerful corporate leaders and government officials while delivering on so little of the promise sold to America by central planners? Bankrupt: How Cronyism & Corruption Took Down Detroit answers this question, and many others. Complete with the candid analysis of pundits, journalists, analysts and government officials, sourcing of historical news and government archives, and on-scene interviews with everyday Detroiters, Bankrupt sheds light on what happened to Detroit, and who is to blame.

And most importantly, it asks "What is next for the Motor City?"


"It doesn't surprise me that corruption is rampant in Detroit. Or anywhere for that matter. My neighbors were victims of contractor fraud in NYC, where an unethical contractor named George Binakis, stole over $65,000 from them. When they tried to report this as a crime, a detective at local precinct 24 on the Upper West Side told them it was not a crime, but civil matter and sent them to small claims court! My neighbors had been telling me for weeks that they were concerned that George was a victim of a heart attack or other major medical issue and were desperately trying to reach out to learn his condition, and what hospital he might have been taken to. It was at this point that they realized something fishy was going on. Corruption is everywhere and touches everyone at some point in time. You're lucky if it doesn't harm you too much either directly or indirectly through the loss of services, local support, or employment. Buckle up folks, it's not just Detroit!" William Willis Ward

"I saw this film while visiting my girl friend's mother at her assisted living residence in Bel Air, Maryland 4 summers ago at her insistence. Great to see an elderly person so involved in social justice issues! Her living quarters at Hart Heritage Assisted Living was strewn with flyers and signs regarding a problem w/ the drinking water in a nearby town due to the mismanagement of industrial waste. This is an activist retiree if there ever was one. She told me that her niece had worked on the film's promotion and she was so proud to be able claim that connection. I was amazed at the level of corruption the doc revealed, but after all I've read about Detroit, was not surprised. Hoping these kinds of public exposure will eventually do some good and force the powers that be into making long overdue changes. The citizens should be demanding change." Tomas Reki




Documentary ‘Bankrupt’ Chronicles How Cronyism, Corruption Destroyed Detroit 2.13.2014

2.13.2014 / Bradford Thomas /

onths after President Obama touted on the campaign trail that he had “refused to let Detroit go bankrupt,” Detroit became the largest U.S. city in history to file for bankruptcy.

Filmmaker Ben Howe’s new documentary, Bankrupt – How Cronyism and Corruption Brought Down Detroit, explores the reasons behind the tragic collapse of what was once one of America’s most economically successful and culturally vibrant cities.

Howe’s documentary begins with footage of heroin needles in the streets, abandoned and burned down houses, parking lot wastelands, and crumbling warehouses—the deplorable state of what was once an American boomtown. Having lost nearly two-thirds of its population since its automobile industry-fueled high point in the mid-20th century, the city’s once 2 million person population has now dwindled to just over 700 thousand. With the mass exodus, the city’s once robust tax base has all but vanished.

Bankrupt explores the reasons for this dramatic decline, underscoring the cronyism and political corruption that has devastated Detroit’s former competitive edge. The film features interviews from residents and a handful of economic and historical experts to provide insight into the political and economic changes that have led to Detroit’s current desperate state.

Howe frames his critique with man-on-the-street style interviews with city residents who at once express their passion for the city and their confusion and frustration at seeing their beloved city fail. One interviewee remarks that when he compares Detroit to its sister city Chicago, he can’t help but feel a sense of jealousy and bewilderment about how his city could fall so far behind.

But not all interviewed are confused by the failings of the city. David Littman, retired Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of Comerica Bank, believes the reasons for the city’s demise are clear, as he describes the devastating changes of a city once based on the “substance of the market system: entrepreneurship and incentive,” to a city crippled by anti-competitive, mismanaged pensions and financial and creative disincentives. 

As Howe’s title makes clear, the film is ultimately an exposé on the role that cronyism and political corruption played in the dismantling of a city once characterized by innovation, productivity, and prosperity. The documentary, running just under 42 minutes, is an FTR Media production created by Ben Howe (Director and Executive Producer), Michael Deppisch (Director of Photography), Thomas LaDuke (Producer), and Sarah Smith (Production Manager).




Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

Posted on February 3, 2014 /Ben Howe /

Last year I got a ton of crap for having an opinion. Now it's everyone else's turn.

The Backstory

In April of last year I wrote what I knew would be a somewhat controversial article which ended up being more like a bomb drop on a very specific corner of the conservative new media.

After attending the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and witnessing what I believed was not a particularly well thought out film trailer, I took to Buzzfeed and offered my opinion on why I hoped that the makers took a different route before turning it into a feature film. The creators, Tea Party Patriots, pushed back on my opinion by noting that, in spite of what I'd been told, there was no intention to move from the short film into a longer film. The director of the piece took particular umbrage with what I'd written, going so far as to call in to a radio podcast I was being interviewed on to confront me over my review.

To make matters even more interesting, a friend of mine wrote multiple articles — on, my old stomping grounds — attacking me for critiquing conservative efforts on BuzzFeed, which he deemed an unfriendly venue.

This is not to say I didn't have support for what I'd written. I had loads of it, even from some at Breitbart. But amazingly, this has all come up numerous times in the year since I wrote it. My critique of conservatives has been mentioned on panels at conferences and used as an example of going outside the conservative echo chamber to talk about conservatives.

Let me preemptively concur with any reader who is preparing to speed to the bottom of this article to leave a snarky comment about how this is niche segment of conservative online media talking to themselves. I readily admit that the impact and controversy that came as a result of my article is not exactly at the forefront of the American debate on culture (which was primary point in the article) nor will it have a long term effect on conservative blogosphere.

But I can't help but acknowledge one criticism that came from a friend: He said he knew most of the people upset with me were upset because I'd chosen to critique those who had done something I hadn't. I put myself out there as a filmmaker and criticized the work of others, using my position as owner of a production company to underscore my critique.

However, and I admitted this in the article, I had not actually made a film myself. I offered condemnation of work without fully appreciating what goes into making that which I was condemning.

It's a fair point and one that I am hoping to remedy today.

The Film

Premiered in Washington, DC on Thursday night and released to YouTube for a limited time on Friday, I have released a documentary funded & produced by my production company. The film is called Bankrupt and it is about the fall of Detroit.

As someone who experienced extreme financial crisis coming into the recession, the story of the auto bailouts which were ostensibly offered to "save Detroit," I always had a particular distaste for what I'd seen take place. From my perspective, while I struggled with companies I owned and watched them descend into bankruptcy from 2008-2012, I simultaneously had to endure the auto companies waltzing into Washington, asking for billions of dollars to save themselves and the city that they helped build, and listen to George W. Bush tell the world that they were too big to fail.

As a small business owner, watching this unfold was upsetting and personal. It was the moment that I understood how damaging big business in bed with big government can be.

This, along with TARP, was the moment I became an activist and a blogger. That President Obama continued the practice begun under President Bush was as unsurprising as it was disappointing.

Then, in 2013, I watched as politicians called the bailouts a success while the city they were dispatched to "save" fell further into disrepair and finally, bankruptcy. At that moment, I knew that I had to do more than simply vent my feelings in a blog post or a short video.

And so myself and my crew, Director of Photography Michael Deppisch, Production Manager Sarah H. Smith and Co-Producer Thomas LaDuke, quietly set about making a film to document the state of the city. We talked to experts about how they got here and what's next, to a City Councilman who told us his hopes for the Motor City, and also to people on the street to find out how they felt about it all and what they expect next.

I'm proud of what we created but I thought it was important, in light of the controversy last year, to put this out there for the world, for free, on YouTube, so that anyone and everyone can tell me what they think.

I can take criticism, of course I'll love compliments. But either way, I hope you'll watch.