Goats and Governance in Detroit: Spitznagel Meets a Trend He Can't Trade

Financier Mark Spitznagel thought he had a good idea. A hedge fund administrator by day and goat herder by night, he decided to place his male goats, useless to cheese making at his home base, Idyll Farm in northern Michigan, on overgrown lots in blighted areas of Detroit to graze down that unsightly growth. What a grand gesture this would be: the otherwise useless male goats get to postpone their date with the grim reaper, Detroit will be miraculously saved from marauding dandelions and Mr. Spitznagel's conscience (he wrote the book on cashing in on crashing markets during catastrophic events) will receive much needed deliverance from the guilt of profiting wildly in down markets while the rest of the world crumbles in economic chaos.

In placing his goats on vacant city owned property in an area known as Brightmoor, Mr. hedge fund manager with $6 billion in assets, owned by just 15 clients, made one grave mistake: he forgot to follow the rules. Imagine how his 15 clients, with all that dough on the line, feel about their beloved manager dismissing something so minor as the law? Don't choke on your Pimms just yet ladies and gentlemen, there is more.

There is a time to go rogue and there is a time to stay back, get the lay of the land, figure out the local idiom, methodically, and with sensitivity, build alliances and THEN plot your move. Especially in a place like Detroit. There is exactly zero level of volatility in any global market meltdown that can match that experienced by one navigating the streets of Detroit, on a normal day. Grab your goats and listen up.

Going rogue to survive in Detroit, by that I mean consciously choosing to bypass city ordinances as Mr. Spitznagel chose to do in placing his goats on city owned property without permission, has a long and often times successful history. There was, and still is, a certain level of constructive anarchy in Detroit, not necessarily intentional, but a reality born of survival. In order to live, sometimes you have to take action at base levels, like commandeering shelter in tough weather, holding ones corner with a cup on a Sunday morning with an eye for those fresh from church services or splicing some electricity to power a lightbulb in a squatter flat, or maybe simply clearing some brush, turning some soil and planting tomatoes on the lot next door.

Such action is rarely done with the intent of harming others, taking away the rights of others or making some grand statement. More importantly, those who go rogue in Detroit do so out of necessity. Those forced by circumstance tend to execute action discreetly, with some degree of respect for others because at some point in a place like Detroit, the day is going to come when you need one another. It is an odd interdependence to some, but an interdependence that is ever-present.

However, when going rogue as a strategy is co-opted for reasons other than necessity, it becomes an act of disrespect, a slap in the face to those who have worked hard to follow the rules in attempting to create a social structure that functions fairly for all. When one intentionally, very publicly and with a certain level of entitled audacity, blatantly ignores the civil process of establishing rules for living cooperatively amongst ones neighbors, it is not to be accepted. It is dangerous, divisive and alienating. A lot of people, rule abiding land owners and tax payers, have worked long and hard against tremendous obstacles to build an urban agriculture movement in Detroit, one that is slowly gaining acceptance and respect as a viable tool in re-visioning the city. They need support from within, not sabotage from without.

When a man of means such as Mark Spitznagel intentionally goes rogue in Detroit, it is not about survival. It is about ego, audacity, entitlement and a blatant disregard for the rule of law. And now, what progress had been made toward creating meaningful dialogue between those who want to raise goats and other farm animals for food and profit in Detroit and those in city government who have the power to re-write the ordinance banning them, has been seriously damaged by Mr. Sptiznagel's irresponsible maneuvers. Other goats that had happily resided in Brightmoor on private property have been given notice by animal control that they too must be removed by Monday, June 16th. I wonder if Mr. Spitznagel knows how much the residents of Brightmoor, or all of Detroit for that matter, appreciate him now?

If a press release to all his friends who read the New York Times, Dealbook, and the Wall Street Journal was not enough, Spitzy cashed in a chit with the effervescent Ron Paul, who obediently crafted a little video in which he proceeds to insult and disrespect virtually every one who calls Detroit home. Mr. Spitznagel has shown his hand in the ugliest of ways. Based on everything I know about navigating Detroit, spitting in her face in such a childish way will get you nowhere but out. And that is exactly where you and your goats are, out. And now, so too are everyone else's goats.

You want to save Detroit? Bring your checkbook and buy some land of your own in Detroit. Heck, buy a lot of it, blocks and blocks of it. Maintain that land, pay the taxes on that land. Become a neighbor. Get to know your neighbors. Become interdependent with those neighbors in the effort to create a Detroit that thrives and most importantly, show some respect for the progress that has been made. Acknowledge and try to abide by the processes and protocols in place that exist to facilitate change. With patience, humility and diligence, maybe everyone can grow (grow up?) and prosper in Detroit, including the goats.