Water

This post was occasioned by a confluence of two events. I recently finished Carl Smith’s wonderful book City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago, and a 93 year-old water main in west Los Angeles ruptured, sending up to two feet of flood water across Sunset Boulevard and parts of UCLA’s Westwood campus, including the famous Pauley Pavilion basketball arena. Although I’m sure my reading of Smith had no causal effect on the water main rupture (that would be a result of the combination of chemistry, physics, and systemic neglect of public infrastructure), I can’t let such a wonderful coincidence go by without comment (for somewhat more pointed comment, see Charlie Pierce).

Smith’s book is a clever and well-developed synthesis of several strains of urban historiography. He connects the kind of infrastructural history of waterworks and institutional history of public health and sanitary movements associated with Joel Tarr’s pathbreaking work to the analysis of the creation of a public city through infrastructure and governance developed by reform intellectuals like Frederic Howe and later historians like Thomas Bender. Smith further considers the way that ideas, expressed in public through polemic, the rhetoric of water boards’ annual reports, and even art commemorating and monumentalizing the establishment of municipal water service as a kind of secular urban miracle, drove the development of infrastructure and governing authority and helped to make clean and safe water a taken-for-granted part of American urban life.

This is no mere history of waterworks (though it does shed new light on the efforts to establish them in three cities). Smith makes insightful arguments about how the struggle to provide water changed the meaning and experience of urban life, physically, politically, and ideologically. One key way, Smith argues, that it did so was through changing the way that urban dwellers related to time. Specifically, when cities committed resources through bonded debt to build waterworks, they compelled their residents to accept a financial burden on behalf of future generations of residents (as well as on behalf of other members of an urban collective in their own day), and the elites who frequently championed and shepherded the idea of waterworks to fruition developed novel and sophisticated appeals to historical immortality, family morality, and self-interest to encourage residents, and especially those of means, who would bear much of the financial cost, to embrace that burden, and to justify extending it to the future.

 The borrowing demanded by waterworks inspired bold and ingenious invocations of history and time that characterized a debt as a bequest or endowment for which future residents should be grateful, not as a burden they should resent…. The Watering Committee [of Philadelphia, in 1799] pointed out that people living in the city in years to come would be “justly made to pay, in some proportion, for the benefit they would receive.” A water loan should be viewed as a gift to them, not an encumbrance, since it did no less than make a greater Philadelphia possible. (211-12)

Smith’s work takes on a particularly tragic resonance in light of the LA rupture which, to be honest, is receiving attention mostly because it flooded a famous sports arena, rather than for what it says about our collective capacity to connect our own interests to others in our place and time and those whose lives will be shaped in the future by our present actions. In California and across the country, Americans have turned the idea of committing future generations to public infrastructure on its head, deciding now to abandon our water, sewer, road, and communications systems and tell our progeny to decide on their own if they want to fix it. Today, with near-zero interest rates, we could be deciding on behalf of our grandchildren to issue infrastructure bonds that would help guarantee the movement of people, goods, and ideas, and ensure the provision of clean water and the safe evacuation of sewage from our homes. I don’t think they’d resent us for it, even if we used some of the money to make some self-congratulatory statues in our own honor (which the Philadelphian waterworks champions of the late 18th century certainly did). Imagine if Philadelphians in 1799 had watched Fox News….

It’s also worth noting that the development of water works required urban elites and ordinary residents to wrestle with and find pragmatic solutions to allocating costs for water service. While home usage was amenable to a user fee model that continued the idea of private responsibility, building capacity for public uses of water like fire protection defied all efforts to assign costs to individual beneficiaries, becoming a true public good. Further, while many debated how to link payment to usage, the public health promises of clean water in an age of deadly epidemic disease raised an opposite point–that access to clean water could be construed as a right and entitlement of habitation of a city that couldn’t be denied to individuals for humane reasons and that should not be withheld for the benefit of the city as a whole.

To distribute water without charge was never a serious option…. At the same time, however, no humane community could deny an individual access to water even if that person could not afford to pay for it. In short, figuring out fees for water, while it entailed financial considerations that were challenging for technical reasons, also posed more abstract questions of individual and collective obligations and rights. (93)

In our contemporary terms, residents of nineteenth century Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago established, sometimes unwittingly and not without the recurrent expression of contrary opinion, that access to clean water was a human right. Today the United Nations “recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” The appointed emergency management of the city of Detroit, of course, disagrees, and has ordered the termination of water service to 17,000 homes and businesses for delinquency on water bills. John Nichols estimates that there are up to 90,000 low income Detroit families who may face a water shutoff over water bills that have continued to rise under pressure from bond investors and emergency managers to shore up the finances of the city’s water services. This might mean up to 300,000 Detroiters and 40% of water customers.

Smith’s thesis is that an “infrastructure of ideas” as much as an infrastructure of pumps, pipes, and spigots, brought water into the fabric of urban life. It was once unthinkable to deny access to water because of the inability to pay, as it was once unthinkable to make one generation’s investment in infrastructure a casualty of a later generation’s refusal to pay the upkeep.  Read Smith’s book and reflect on the consequences of abandoning the accumulated infrastructure of ideas of two centuries.

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Smith, Carl S. City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
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Wall Street vs. Woodward Avenue? (or, will Detroit’s Emergency Manager address predatory interest rate swaps?)

In a move that’s been anticipated for months and was presaged by last week’s release of a Michigan Treasury Department assessment (link to .pdf) of Detroit’s fiscal health and political willingness to pursue austerity measures, Governor Rick Snyder has used his controversial powers to appoint corporate bankruptcy attorney Kevyn D. Orr to oversee the governance of the state’s largest city.

Two closely intertwined points are in order, the first relating to the racial impacts of emergency management and the second to the kind of austerity measures that such management inevitably takes as the ability to control local affairs is stripped from local electorates. The Detroit decision means that nearly half of all African Americans in Michigan now live in cities where their elected officials have been supplanted by emergency managers appointed by a conservative Republican governor. Half of all black Michigan residents are denied the opportunity to elect the people who make decisions about their communities.

In the majority-black city of Benton Harbor in western Michigan, an emergency manager’s order effectively reduced elected officials in the city to figureheads, with the power to convene and adjourn meetings, but not to conduct any official business. In the Detroit suburb of Pontiac, Steven Yaccino and Monica Davey write in the NYT, a series of emergency managers who have controlled city government since 2009 have imposed similar constraints on elected officials, and undertaken an aggressive program of austerity (cutting the city budget from $57 to $36 million, a 37% reduction, and outsourcing city jobs to private contractors in the course of reducing the public payroll from 600 to 50 workers) and privatization (selling off the city’s fire trucks, parking meters, wastewater treatment facilities, and the Pontiac Silverdome stadium).

The symbolism of black political power in Michigan is, to say the least, conflicted.

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While many whites appear to accept the proposition that black self-government is doomed to failure through its own profligacy (such comments generally ignoring the history of white disinvestment from cities in racial transition), the substitution of managers appointed by a white conservative governor for officials elected by black voters is a serious provocation. As Pontiac councilman Donald Watkins argues,

“An emergency manager is like a man coming into your house…. He takes your checkbook, he takes your credit cards, he lives in your house and he sleeps in your bed with your wife.” Mr. Watkins added, “He tells you it’s still your house, but he doesn’t clean up, sells off everything and then he packs his bag and leaves.”

The appointment of Orr, an African American, to direct Detroit’s financial restructuring, is a concession that is absolutely vital to securing even minimum legitimacy for the manager’s decisions, which are likely to hurt.

The racially disproportionate impact of emergency management is also reflected in the way that the popular media addresses the roots of Detroit’s problems. The conviction of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on corruption charges supports an implicit argument made in the report advocating emergency management: that corrupt and incompetent leadership (particularly by Kilpatrick, the self-styled “hip hop mayor”) took Detroit’s problems from serious to terminal. There’s no doubt that Kilpatrick had a hand in many of the decisions that exacerbated an already bad situation in Detroit. But what has been scarcely acknowledged is that Kilpatrick had some very powerful partners in crime that haven’t been, and won’t be, facing any criminal charges.

As Darrell Preston and Chris Christoff report in Bloomberg, the City of Detroit currently owes at least $474 million in fees to Wall Street banks that it incurred as a result of financial deals it entered into in the early 2000s.

The city started borrowing to plug budget holes in 2005 under former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was convicted this week on corruption charges. That year, it issued $1.4 billion in securities to fund pension payments. Last year, it added $129.5 million in debt, 9.3 percent of its general-fund budget, in part to repay loans taken to service other bonds.

The loans were structured in an increasingly common form called an interest rate swap. As Andy Kroll writes in Mother Jonesthese are contracts in which

[a city and a bank] will “swap” interest rates with each other: the city will pay the bank a fixed rate—3 to 5 percent, say—to borrow money, and the bank will in return pay the city cash based on a floating, variable interest rate. (This is determined by some underlying source, like the LIBOR rate for short-term lending.) The point of a swap deal is that, when the economy was booming, cities could borrow from banks on the cheap, because their fixed payment rate was on par with or better than the bank’s floating rate.

In principle, this arrangement was intended to make borrowing cheaper for the city. What it did in practice, when interest rates fell after the crash, was create a new debt for the city when the floating interest payments it took from the banks fell far short of the fixed interest it owed back. The gap peaked at $439 million last spring, though rising interest rates have lowered it to “only” $350 million. In perspective, per Preston and Christoff, the burden of these swaps on Detroit in the form of

underwriting expenses, bond-insurance premiums and fees for wrong-way bets on swaps…. almost equals the city’s 2013 budget for police and fire protection.

But wait! one might argue. The city borrowed from banks to pay its bills, and thought that a rate swap was a good way to do it on the cheap. It didn’t work out, but them’s the breaks. Matt Taibbi’s report of similar swaps in Jefferson County, Alabama reflects not a good faith deal made between two informed parties, but

a billion-dollar predatory swap deal cooked up at the highest levels of America’s biggest banks, across a vast fruited plain of bribes and felonies — “the price of doing business,” as one JP Morgan banker says on tape — all the way down to Lisa Pack’s sewer bill and the mass layoffs in Birmingham.

Although Taibbi uses a lot of naughty words and colorful metaphors and accuses powerful bankers of fraud and other felonies, he’s still the best reporter covering this issue, and the one most willing to cut through the complex jargon of the financial sector so that the layman can grasp what’s happening in these kinds of complex transactions. Please, read the whole report, and this other one about the rigging of interest rates on municipal bond offerings. Interest rate swaps have been a disaster for cash-strapped municipalities across the United States, a way for Wall Street to pick the bones of local governments already desperate for cash that frequently creates even worse obligations that have pushed local governments to bankruptcy.

As for Detroit? As Preston and Christoff report,

The city makes periodic swap payments from money generated by casinos.

If it weren’t so horrifying it might be poetic.

Detroit’s problems aren’t wholly attributable to interest rate swaps, of course; the city’s finances have been in a conjoined decline with its industrial economy and population for decades. But the amount that Detroit owes its counterparties in these swaps purely as a result of the difference between the interest rates on money flows from the city to the banks and the banks back to the city exceeds the larges annual deficit that Detroit has run in the last 10 years. It’s a theft from a city that needs every dime it can scrape up to fund its other obligations, and the failure to discuss interest rate swaps as a part of Detroit’s problems borders on criminal. When the history of the economic crash and its effects on communities around the United States is written, interest rate swaps are going to rank with the automobile, the Federal Housing Administration, and urban renewal as forces that remade metropolitan America.

In the immediate future, will Orr’s plan of attack include seeking legal authority to extricate Detroit from its predatory swap arrangements? Or will the residents of Detroit be forced again to bear the burden of decisions made by others?