Friday, May 15, 2009

Event: In support of Soviet-style Central Planning.

My brother sent me a link to this Kunstlercast. Podcast #64 is about the initiative to shrink Flint city limits, and Jim Kunstler spoke against in general terms against mandated shrinking. He said that he wasn't familiar with the specifics of the situation in Flint, but his overall position seemed to be that city should rely on incentives and zoning to shift population. I largely disagreed with this argument, at least as pertains to Flint, and here is part of my (typically long-winded) reply to my brother:

I most disagreed with Jim on the principle of eminent domain. He seemed reluctant to endorse municipal management beyond offering incentives and long-term fixes such as rezoning marginal neighborhoods. He thought that mandated relocation "smacks of central planning" a la the Soviet Union. He talks about eliminating municipal restrictions and bureaucratic red-tape. This half-engaged approach fails to take two things into consideration.

The first consideration is the extent of demographic realignment. Flint's population has dropped from almost 200,000 fifty years ago to 110,000 today, and Genesee County's has decreased slightly since 1980. Industry and capital investment is shrinking. This means that short-term growth in any part of the area is only going to happen at the expense of somewhere else. In Flint long-term strategy has to proceed from short-term strategy because the city is caught in a vicious cycle of disinvestment. In fact, the city and city employers have long offered a number of incentives to repopulate the inner-city, including restricted-tax Renaissance zones. It's not enough to make the necessary difference. If our goal is a smaller, healthier, and more stable Flint, we are unlikely to achieve this without large-scale governmental intervention.

The second consideration is the extent of economic distress. Jim is worried about the abuse of eminent domain. Ordinarily, this is a fine thing to worry about, but the standard of living in the marginal parts of Flint is really wretched. These neighborhoods sometimes have around a 60%-70% residency rate, meaning that 1 out of 3 houses are vacant (a figure that does not consider the vacant lots left by already-demolished houses). Crime and poverty are rampant, many neighborhoods often do not have a school or a supermarket nearby, and infrastructural degradation is so complete that basic things like safe water access and electricity can be spotty. I remember that when Jess and I lived on the East Side, some areas by the river were virtually undriveable by car. I noticed electrical wires down and in the street for days on end. Not long after we moved, an abandoned house two blocks away from ours blew up because of a gas leak. It is a typically capitalist paradigm that property rights are sacrosanct while things like public health are more negotiable, but what logical reason do we have to prefer the rights of a small group of property owners over the obligation of the city to provide all residents with essential services (water, police and fire protection, etc.)? The money residents pay for those services is just as real as the money someone puts down on a house, and (unlike eminent domain) the money will not be returned just because the services are not delivered.

Finally, one other reason I'm not worried about the effort to shrink Flint. Flint has a political scene long mired in corruption and incompetence, but neighborhood downsizing could be an accurate bellwether of administrative progress. Do you remember Woodrow Stanley's plans to cut down and sell all of the trees on public land, or Don Williamson's city-run factory? Part of the reason these harebrained schemes (thankfully) didn't go any further than they did was the lack of political maturity in those administrations. Neither Stanley or Williamson wanted or cared to compromise with their opponents and government entities. Now shrinking Flint is far-and-away a more feasible and reasonable plan, but there's a slew of logistic hurdles and political liabilities involved. Moving populations, discontinuing service, and wholesale demolition requires the careful coordinated effort of public and private entities, each with their own unions, management, and workforces to answer to. So an incompetent government would not be able to pull this off. Pulling any number of voting homeowners out of the neighborhood, even on favorable terms, is a political liability with risks for officeholders. So a completely corrupt government would have a hard time pulling this off. If Flint is actually able to shrink itself, it's a good sign that residents have put the right people in positions of power; that is likely to make as big a difference as downsizing the city.

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