On Blaming Black Leadership

This fine piece in In These Times  reminds us how instrumental Federal policies on homeownership and road construction were in killing Detroit, and gives the lie to those who want to blame the city’s bankruptcy on corrupt leadership–specifically, corrupt Black leadership.

Certainly there were, and are, Black leaders whose personal weaknesses interfere with the progress of the entities they seek to lead; but the pattern of blaming Black leaders comes from the same bag of racist tricks as the suggestion that the President isn’t really an American because he has black skin.

Detroit is not struggling because its leaders, or its people, are Black.  Its troubles lie at the door of white legislators who made abandoning cities a winning proposition for white families, and white regulators who contributed to the same flight, and white car company executives who decided they owed nothing back to the city of their birth.

To claim otherwise is simply to blame the victim.

 

 

What Detroit means

The first thing I thought about Detroit is that the state’s appointment of a receiver demonstrated the Republican governor’s profound indifference to the democratic process of a Democratic city, not to mention a white governor’s profound indifference to a black city.   This may be true, but it’s also true that Detroit’s finances are such a catastrophe that, like New York in the 1970s, it seems to need an outsider to get its house in order. It helps that the trustee is African-American, though not very much: even temporary government without the consent of the governed should cause us alarm.

The second thing I thought about Detroit is that selling off the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art, which the trustee estimates would be sufficient to retire all of the city’s debt, is the best of a number of bad options. Museums nationwide are hyperventilating at the prospect, but they also think it’s sensible to keep on hand huge numbers of items that no one ever sees.  I don’t quarrel with the need to have a deep collection for research purposes, but I also don’t see why it’s considered bad form verging on unethical to sell the parts of the collection you’re not using in public to sustain the parts of the collection you ARE using in public, and at the same time not coincidentally making the sold pieces available to the public, albeit in a different location.

If there had been a Great Fire of Detroit, and the whole city destroyed, no one would argue that recreating the city’s art collection should take priority over food and shelter for the city’s people.  The years of financial mismanagement have incinerated Detroit just as surely as a physical fire; why shouldn’t we pay more attention to basic needs than to cultural institutions?

And isn’t the whole function of assets to provide financial security when income doesn’t suffice? Again, I wonder about the racial composition of those who champion the inviolability of the collection as against the racial composition of those who think it might be necessary to dispose of it. The state’s Attorney General has opined that the city may not sell them because they’re held in trust for the citizens.  But “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government,” and I don’t notice anyone’s raising a ruckus about the loss of that part of our patrimony.

The third thing I thought about Detroit is that the bondholders’ interests are being given absolute priority over the interests of current and former employees, whose pensions are at stake. This is the case in Illinois as well, where at least some portion of the pension “crisis” could be solved by refinancing the debt and stretching out repayment but where that solution is not even considered because the bondholders don’t like it. I understand the value of the municipal bond market to cities’ ability to expand infrastructure but municipal bond investors are investors and should be prepared to accept some pain when they toss their dollars into what’s obviously a money pit.

And the fourth thing I thought about Detroit is that it’s Americans’ closest analogue to what’s casually referred to as “the European debt crisis,”  throughout which salvaging the Euro has meant satisfying bondholders at the expense of people who’d like to work or collect their pensions.   Very few commentators seem aware that the real crisis is one of self-government (or its destruction), or that the Germans have managed to do through economics what they couldn’t do through war, that is, run Europe.  When externally-imposed austerity hit Greece, all I could remember was the bumper sticker from the era of the junta: “Greece: Democracy born 508 BC, died 1967 AD.”  Or, this time around, “reborn 1974, killed again 2011 or -12 A.D.”  As the saying goes, same s**t, different day.

Back to Detroit: if I were trustee, I’d sell off DIA’s assets in a heartbeat and use the proceeds to protect employee pensions. If there was anything left for the bondholders, fine; if not, too bad: it’s the pensioners who paid their share and are entitled to what they were promised. Even after years of trashing public employee unions (brought to you by the Heritage Foundation and other fronts for wealthy people who don’t like to pay taxes or see working people make reasonable money), there must be some court somewhere willing to recognize that the obligation of contracts shall not be impaired.

Of course, I would never be chosen trustee, but that’s not the point. The point is, my solution is what would happen if Detroit were still governed by its people. Detroit: Democracy died 2013 A.D.

“If our enemies will stop lying about us we will stop telling the truth about them”*

Though he attracted ridicule from the Right for saying it (and what could he say that wouldn’t attract ridicule from the Right?), the President is correct: the private sector is okay, creating jobs at a respectable clip.  The weakness in job creation comes primarily from the public sector, where states and municipalities are firing teachers and firefighters and police officers for lack of Federal funding to retain them–and where lack of Federal funding is the direct result of Republican policies.

So apparently McConnell was telling the truth in 2009, if at no other time, when he said that his party’s highest priority was to defeat the President.  If the Republicans have to swell the ranks of the unemployed to accomplish this goal, why should they care?  Republicans mostly aren’t unemployed, and vice-versa.

In other words: the fact that Republican deficit-cutting policies increase unemployment is a feature, not a bug.  Their success in concealing this unattractive fact is truly remarkable.

——

*A 19th Century political saw, revived by and therefore often attributed to Adlai Stevenson.  Adlai’s version: “I would make a proposition to my Republican friends… that if they will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.”  This edition of Today’s Pedantic Footnote provided gratis to our readers.

The Public Be Damned: Using the Amtrak Script to Destroy the Post Office

If the conversation about the end of the U.S. Postal Service sounds familiar, it’s not just because we’ve heard variations of it since 1970, when the old Post Office Department became a separate business.  It’s also because the destruction of mail delivery closely parallels the wrecking of American  passenger rail.  Apparently the Congress has it in for quasi-public institutions with work forces composed disproportionately of African-Americans.

Passenger rail has always been a losing proposition; the money is in freight.  But until the late 20th Century, as the price of using public assets—tracks, switches, signals and the rest—freight railroad companies were required to carry passengers at a loss.  Then somehow this social compact broke down.  Both railroads and their regulators started talking as if railroading were an ordinary commercial enterprise instead of a public utility.  Ordinary for-profits aren’t expected to maintain business lines at a loss.  Indeed, to the extent they do so, they’re considered incompetent.  So the people making money from national railroad facilities were able to persuade Congress that they shouldn’t have to bother maintaining passenger service.  In other words, the railroads figured out how to shift their burden—what had been a simple cost of doing business—to the public.  Voila: Amtrak.

Independent passenger rail was bound to be a financial failure, and it was.  So year after year after year Congress has complained about Amtrak’s losses and tried to reduce them by shrinking the system until by now it’s small enough to drown in the proverbial bathtub.  Little-noticed along the way is the fact that many of the jobs being lost belong to black people.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the first black-led union recognized by the AFL, and probably the most powerful union dominated by African-Americans in the United States.   Much of the foundation of the black middle class was laid on the decent wages and benefits and pensions fought for and won by that union.  So whatever hurts Amtrak—and these days, pretty much everything does—also hurts the African-American community.

Now connect the dots to the Postal Service.  Mail, like rail, is a public utility.   (If you doubt that, take a look at the Constitution, where the Post Office rates a specific mention.)  A group of companies—the mailing houses and catalog producers—get to use this public utility to make a private profit, and they’re doing very well by that arrangement.

Once again, though, the price they were supposed to be paying for this benefit was to subsidize service to individuals.  So once again, someone re-conceived this public utility as an independent corporation subject only to the iron law of profit and loss.  Now the profitable commercial service can  continue on its merry way while the money-losing public service is forced to resort to the kind of cuts which predict—if they don’t actually cause—an imminent visit to the scrapheap (or bathtub).

And once again, an outsized group of the fired employees are African-Americans, because the Post Office was an equal opportunity employer before the phrase had even been coined.  So right in the middle of the Great Recession another pillar of the black middle class is knocked down.

There is an alternative to the current flood of crocodile tears over the death of written communication.  We could return to the social compact that regarded mail service—and rail service, for that matter—as something to be paid for by the people who benefit from it most.  That doesn’t mean those of us who receive an occasional Saturday letter, or sometimes take the Metroliner—it means the freight shippers.  In the case of the Post Office, at least, the public has been subsidizing them instead of the other way around.  End that particular piece of corporate welfare and see how many post offices can suddenly re-open.

Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that these two agencies, staffed by black workers, have been asked to do the impossible and then punished for failing to manage it.  But coincidences of this kind—which permit imposition of exceptional harm on one group provided the primary purpose of the harm is making money—are precisely what is meant by the term “institutional racism.”

It isn’t too late to remember that rail and mail are public utilities and to govern them accordingly.  Otherwise, we’re just echoing the words of an earlier Gilded Age, spoken by a railway man as he was cancelling a mail train: “The public be damned!”

Blaming unemployment on “unemployees”

Hit & Run’s Tim Cavanaugh to “unemployees”: if you don’t like being discriminated against in job searches, get a job before you start.

The President’s proposed jobs plan contains a provision that would bar employers from saying no currently unemployed people need apply for their jobs. Hit & Run’s Tim Cavanaugh doesn’t like it.  He objects to creating a “new protected class” and thinks that barring employers from putting a no-jobless proviso in their job ads raises “First Amendment Issues” (the same ones raised, I suppose, by the current prohibition on housing ads that say “no Blacks, please”?).

What struck me more than Cavanaugh’s (predictable) opposition to the proposal is the “exhortation” he applies to those who’ve been without work for ages:

Do any work you can, even if it’s day labor, rather than building a personal brand as an unemployee.

“Personal brand as an unemployee.” Lovely. I’m sure that all the people out there who lack work have made just this mistake. They considered cultivating a reputation for being employed but instead made the boneheaded decision to “build a personal brand” around joblessness instead.  And this is profound advice in general: if you’re unemployed and want employers to stop discriminating against you in job searches, make sure you have a job before you start searching.

It turns out that Cavanaugh has used the term “unemployee” before, at least twice. The first two times he was saying, arguably, that deliberately building a media reputation around your own unemployment is counterproductive (“is ‘unemployee’ a career path?“)—a criticism which, while potentially valid, can logically apply only to about three people who have publicly sought out roles as spokespeople for the unemployed rather than merely being, say, unemployed.  Even in those posts he couldn’t help suggesting that the problem facing unemployed people in general is that they’d rather complain publicly about their lack of work than seek work. In the second of his posts he suggests that the few spokespeople he cites represent a “much larger universe of unemployees: non-workers who have evolved careers as subjects of news stories about long-term unemployment.” One might how large that universe in fact is. Just large enough, it seems (N=at least 3) to make Cavanaugh feel much better about mocking, rather than supporting, government efforts to boost demand.

“Unemployee” is surely one of the ugliest neologisms to appear in some time. It reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which handmaids who can’t bear live children—never mind that it’s often the more powerful men they serve who are infertile—are labeled “unwoman” and sent off to labor, if I recall, mining radioactive materials.

Writes Cavanaugh,

[I]t’s common sense that ending your own unemployment is the first step toward addressing the unemployment problem. 

Unlike Cavanaugh, I think the average long-term unemployed person has, in fact, tried just a few times to take that first step. Perhaps the unemployed are even smart enough to have thought of it themselves. Cavanaugh might in turn pause to think about whether he’s proud of branding the unemployed with a red-hot, vicious label and then blaming them for seeking out the brand.