The City that Works (To Enrich Private Interests)

At this blog, we are personally rooting hard for Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to defeat Rahm Emanuel in Chicago’s mayoral runoff. Garcia’s support from the teachers’ union is a big factor, but as I wrote here and here at the height of the teachers’ strike in 2012, the bigger problem with Rahm’s administration is his enthusiasm for selling off the legacy of decades of public investment in schools, roads, and other infrastructure in deals that aren’t even all that great in the short run, but result on putrid return on investment in the long term.

Rick Perlstein’s piece in In These Times in January hits the nail on the head. He discusses the deep links between Emanuel’s appointed school board and for-profit charter school operators, and the mayor’s deep professional debt to Illinois’s new Republican governor Bruce Rauner, whose efforts to destroy public worker pensions and pass right-to-work laws will adversely affect the majority of Chicagoans. But the big takeaway of the piece is a discussion of the horrid long term leases negotiated for the operation of the Chicago Skyway toll road and the city’s parking meters, deals which will strip the city of public assets for decades while allowing private operators to rip off the public by raising tolls, fees, and fines. The only winners are politicians like Emanuel, who seem to exercise fiscal responsibility by closing short-term budget deficits (without having to raise Bruce Rauner’s taxes).

Why would politicians negotiate 75-and 99-year contracts that systematically shortchange their constituencies the longer they last? Because the concessionaires are able to exploit the simple fact that no politician, even ones named “Daley,” last in office that long. Politicians reap immediate glory for closing deficits without raising taxes and funding popular programs, an irresistible temptation. Voters blame the corporations that operate the roads for the toll increases and revenue shortfalls, not the politicians who wrote or voted for the deals in the first place. Then, when the damage is done, IBDYBD—“I’ll be dead, you’ll be dead,” to repurpose the phrase that became popular among the cynical Masters of the Universe who structured the financial time-bombs like mortgage-backed securities that tanked the global economy in 2008.

They are the people’s schools, the people’s bridges, and the people’s parking meters. They aren’t Rahm Emanuel’s to give away. This is the unfolding of urban history yet to be written.

One thing that’s encouraging from reading this article? This was Perlstein’s closing paragraph on January 21:

What’s next? Now that Emanuel is gliding to likely re-election in February, quite possibly a municipal constitutional apocalypse. The enabling legislation for his infrastructure trust includes the following language: “To the extent that any ordinance, resolution or order of the city is in conflict with the provisions of this ordinance, the provisions of this ordinance shall be controlling.” It sounds like a formula to turn the governing of the City by the Lake over to the bankers on a street called Wall. When Chicago voters go to the polls on February 24 to decide whether to keep Rahm Emanuel as their mayor or replace him with someone else, this is what that race should be all about.

Six weeks later, it looks like Chicago voters have done just that. Voters might be sick of the daily hassles imposed by privatization, or they might be more aware of its long term costs. Or, it might be that visibly sucking up to a union-busting Republican governor when you’re running for mayor in one of the most Democratic cities in America is still colossally arrogant and strategically inept no matter how much campaign money you have.



2 comments on “The City that Works (To Enrich Private Interests)

  1. […] or social outcomes. The metropolitan poor are not victims of historical processes put in motion to serve interests other than their own, but of their own […]

  2. […] without the regime of tax abatements and incentives that have characterized post-industrial urban governance in New York City and […]

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