It’s the Local Economy Stupid!

It’s the Local Economy Stupid!

“The 19th century was a century of empires, the 20th century was a century of nation states. The 21st century will be a century of cities.” – Wellington E. Web, former Denver mayor.

Urbanization, with a measure of devolution by federal government and the increasing global impact of local municipalities, are putting cities in the high position of preserving democracy, holding increasing political power, and for our discussion today, powering the economy.

In the mid-nineties, more than 80% of economic advances were driven by cities and metro economies – including holding more than 80% of employment. It became clear that cities were, after all, going to be the bailiwicks of cash, progress and power for the 21st century.

Even with the Great Recession, growth – where it is happening – is only happening where the policies of cities are daring, sound and backed by inspiring leadership. The leaders of our cities are, quite measurably, on track to leading the world.

There is dissent, to be sure. Debate makes for a solid democracy which also grows the economy. But there’s a lot of petty rivalry and platitude whirling in Cincinnati again.

A spate of recent op-eds, full of attacks and rhetoric, proves this. And the string of authors runs the gamut in party affiliations. We are all guilty.

Our leaders – elected, appointed and de facto – speaking in buzz words like “vision”, “progress”, “more jobs”, “change”,  must start offering solutions in their pieces, energy in their remarks and relationship building in their outreach. The divisiveness creates a stall. Don’t blindly believe me. Measure it. Compare with cities on the move. If you want something new, you have to do something new.

Wailing about poverty, pleading for help with the heroin plague and complaining about housing fails our city. I know. In my work fighting addiction, I realized early on, really, that nobody cares. Until I made it about them. Poverty? Eyes glaze over – unless they are the one in a food line. Calling out the Mayor and other leaders – it can be indulging, and I’ve imbibed, too – but doesn’t it leave us walking away with the ick of dissatisfaction and hopelessness because we haven’t taken any real action? Nothing changed. We only threw an adult, political temper tantrum.

Fine. If we have to kvetch about the Hand Up Initiative, we are also responsible to list real solutions. Seelbach took some action here. We must energize the reader by showing them how poverty and addiction does impact their wallet and quality of life. We must labor for a unity, putting aside how it will affect someone’s upcoming campaign or PR blitz.

Poverty, addiction, housing, disability, the Streetcar, our icons – it is about the economy stupid. The local economy. The budget, ordinances and the Initiative are great. But with Cincinnati ranking high in poverty and the working poor, we need broad, lasting and serious policy changes. That’s me whining. Here are some solutions:

  1. Those in poverty – and the working poor – are not just poor in cash. There is a spirit of hopelessness taking root. “Something’s gotta give. Is it ever gonna get better?” Is the daily refrain among the poor? Leaders must lead. Here, our leaders can be more present and hopeful. They can reach out and a share a real light for the end of the tunnel.
  2. The answer to lack of democracy is always more democracy. Income inequality on the scale that Cincinnati has is just that – a struggle in democracy. The answer is to get those in poverty to be a part of the democratic process. Leaders have to reach out and pull this community in. They are disconnected and dejected. Let the leaders lead people into engagement.
  3. Access to and skills training for jobs is indispensable. But without education on finance, banking and cash management, the poor will remain stuck. I never received any financial training in Cincinnati Public Schools. We need an immediate, mandatory education policy that trains every Cincinnati student on how to manage money, work with banks and understand what credit really is. It needs to be serious and implemented quickly.
  4. Why is the Poverty Task Force under the umbrella of the Human Services Committee? No one wants to admit, but it’s because we look at those in poverty as a liability. Progressive, changing cities look at this segment as an untapped asset. A resource. Wal-Mart did it. They built their entire business model around a low income market. They are the largest retailer on the planet. What would happen if we behaved that way in policy and outreach? Put poverty treatment under the auspices of the Economic Growth committee please. Or at least begin to split it.
  5. Local banks across the country were almost entirely unaffected by the banking crisis. They are stable! Our local government must labor openly with Cincinnati banks. We can work with them to offer financial products – with wisdom – to the poor and working poor that national predatory check cashing and title loan shops offer instead. This further strengthens our hometown banks by growing their market and our city by creating tangible relationships in neighborhoods.

And there is so much more. Yes, bolster the human services. Yes, drug addiction is a large part of homelessness and poverty. So we need a holistic approach.

We need initiatives and leadership that are willing to be bold and work long-term as well as short-term. Policies should still be working hard as a long after this body leaves office.

In a world of increasing distrust of government and scrutiny of non-profits, the emerging global currency is not in the form of paper money at all. It comes based on the foundations laid in cities. And that currency is in authentic relationships and coalition building. As a local leader – in any capacity – you aren’t going to get that accomplished and build wealth in this currency by complaining, attacking and whining.

For the sake of Cincinnati and our metro economy, get out of your own way and offer real solutions… and a hand. Even when it makes you sick.

Let Them Drink Pop: Detroit’s Water Crisis & A Lesson for Cincinnati in Local Governing

Let Them Drink Pop: Detroit’s Water Crisis & A Lesson for Cincinnati in Local Governing

This post originally appeared on virallysuppressed.com as, “Let Them Drink Pop: Detroit’s Water Crisis & The Fight for Basic Human Rights in the Motor City,” and is republished here with permission from author, Drew Gibson, for Speak Up Cincinnati.

Cincinnati, thankfully and warily, is in no financial crisis of Its own. Nor do we have a water crisis. Nor do we have an “Emergency Manager” (Detroit’s Kevyn Orr). So how does this story relate to us here? Aside from the fact that they are our brothers and sisters, the appointment of an Emergency Manager in Detroit’s financial crisis is a lesson for all local governments to study. With the citizens and City Council of Cincinnati, this very moment, reviewing the local City Charter (our local constitution), also considering what powers our Mayor has during emergencies HERE, this article from Drew Gibson is more apropos for us than appears at first glance.

Speak Up Cincinnati is honored to reproduce the article here with our note. Please read it. Take it in. What can a manager of this type, without a vote, do in a city like Cincinnati. It behooves us to take heed. It behooves us to participate in the public meetings concerning the review of the Cincinnati Charter! Let’s hope we take a lesson from our friends in Michigan.

During the Super Bowl earlier this year, Chrysler unveiled the latest iteration of the “Imported From Detroit” advertising campaign that has been such a key part of their rebranding efforts in the wake of their filing for bankruptcy in 2009. The commercial starts off with a montage of your usual idealized American imagery—cowboys riding horses, cheerleaders leading cheers, sweet middle-aged waitresses bringing bacon and eggs to grizzled farmers at a Route 66 diner—accompanied by the sound of Bob Dylan’s raspy Minnesotan drawl asking us rhetorically if, “there’s anything more American than America?” a question which pretty well sets the tone for the rest of the ad considering the implied answer is a 283 horsepower “hell no!” From there the ad touches on the Motor City’s automotive pedigree and its role in making America the country it is today, with Bob telling us that,“making the best…making the finest, takes conviction.” and letting us know that, “you can’t import the heart and soul of every man and woman working on the line.” All of these laudable, yet trite, sentiments are designed to stir up our pride in our country and in the city of Detroit—to make us associate the glory of our collective past and the hard-scrabble can do aspects of our national character with the Chrysler brand—and in this respect the ads are pretty effective. The only problem is that these passionate evocations of Chrysler’s commitment to the working men and women of America and Motown bears little resemblance to reality.

You see, when Chrysler filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy 5 years ago, the laborers that are lionized in their “Imported From Detroit” ads took the overwhelming brunt of the punitive measures that were handed out. In the wake of Chrysler’s restructuring and ultimate sale to Italian automaker Fiat, 4 factories were shut down789 dealerships—and an estimated 37,000 jobs—were lost, cost-of-living wage adjustments were eliminated and a two-tier wage scale was created that allows Chrysler to pay new hires half of what they pay their more experienced workers. Meanwhile, on the backs of these massive cuts and with the aid of $12.5 billion dollars in taxpayer aide—$1.3 billion of which will never be recovered—the now 100% Italian owned Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is making out like a bandit, posting a net profit of $1.6 billion in the fourth quarter of 2013 alone. As was the case with the $700 billion bank bailout in 2008 and the recent corporate thievery involved in the Patriot Coal bankruptcy case which I have covered before in great detail, the auto industry and government officials have used our nation’s legal system to burden ordinary citizens with the collateral damage from financial crises that they had nothing to do with.

One of the most instrumental players in the Chrysler bankruptcy case was Kevyn Orr, a partner at the massive law firm Jones Day who was charged with the task of bringing Chrysler back to life as expeditiously and ruthlessly as possible. Orr carved up Chrysler with surgical precision, completing the reorganization of the company within 42 days and raking in more than $1 million in legal fees during the process. As a reward for his work in the bankruptcy case, Orr was named by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder as the “Emergency Manager” of the City of Detroit in 2013, a title that is about as ominous and Orwellian as anything this side of the Department of Homeland Security. As Emergency Manager, Orr has essentially been given free reign to do with the City of Detroit as he sees fit, without any interference from pesky, democratically elected city council members and officials, who are essentially impotent during the time the city is judged to be in a Financial Emergency.

Detroit Water Rally

Didn’t vote for him? Doesn’t matter. Governor Snyder’s vote is the only one that counts.

According to the Michigan legislature’s ironically titled Local Financial Stability and Choice Act—an act that was passed during a lame duck session of Michigan’s legislature and is little more than a repackaged version of another act that was repealed by Michigan voters in the 2012 elections—an Emergency Manager is essentially a de jure dictator of a local government and/or school district during a fiscal crisis. The Emergency Manager can usurp the power of all government officials, modify union contracts, alter pensions for city workers, sell off public assets and exercise complete authority over local school districts. Oh yeah, and he can also work with the Detroit Water and Sewage Department Board of Water Commissioners to shut off the water supply for residents who are behind on their payments by as little as 60 days or $150, because—according to the Emergency Manager’s stated logic—the best way to stimulate a struggling local economy is by shutting off the water supply to more 17,000 of said economy’s poorest and most vulnerable members.

The City of Detroit’s water policy, which the United Nations has termed, “a violation of the human right to water.”, is just the most recent instance of a disturbing trend in American politics to reframe problems related to globalization, corporate greed and rising income inequality on a growing class of unemployed, underpaid and overworked citizens. Emergency Manager Orr and his stable of bankruptcy lawyers have tried mightily to cast these water shutoffs as a matter of economic necessity and personal responsibility, painting themselves as honest businessmen and the citizens who can’t pay their water bills as “scofflaws” and “people gaming the system.” The only problem is that this neither of these assertions are based in truth.

As a cost saving measure, shutting off the water supply for the city’s poorest residents makes no sense. Due to recent sweeping layoffs within the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, the city was forced to mete out a $5 million contract to a private demolition company to shut off the water to about 17,000 homes which have an average outstanding water bill of only $540. If the city truly wanted to get their money back, they would’ve started hounding Joe Louis Arena, Ford Field, Palmer Park Golf Club and half of the commercial and industrial buildings in the city who owe roughly $30 million in overdue water fees. Likewise, the idea that the failure of Detroit residents to pay their water bills is simply a “choice” that they are making in an effort to avoid payment for basic services collapses under the weight of inquiry. When your city has lost 63% of its population since 1950, sports a poverty rate of 42%, has a per capita income that is less than half the national average, and has had its water rates increased by nearly 120% over the past decade with no accompanying rise in wages, any choice that is left to you is between the Scylla of unpaid utilities and the Charybdis of overdue rent and empty cupboards.

Detroit Water Rally

Water is a human right. Greed is not.

No, as is so often the case in this age of corporate hegemony, the Detroit water shutoffs are principally about privatization and the potential to turn a profit on a publicly held utility. For the past few weeks, Emergency Manager Orr and his staff have been considering at least 13 separate bids from private parties who are interested in bidding for the rights to city’s water department and the recent spate of cutoffs is seen by many as an attempt from the Emergency Manager to paint the department as a profitable enterprise, which it may very well be for whatever company it is that ends up controlling it. However, case studies from all across the country and the globe have shown that the benefits of water privatization begin and end with companies doing the privatizing, with private operators proving to be no more efficient or technically sound than their public counterparts while contributing to massive rate hikes for citizens, as is the case in the UK where the price of privately controlled water has increased by 50 percent over the past two decades despite a lack of change in operating costs. Despite what Governor Snyder and Emergency Manager Orr might tell you, privatizing Detroit’s water system is not a magic bullet that will fix the city’s financial woes. In reality, it’s just your average lead and copper bullet being fired at the working class residents of Detroit so they’ll scatter and make way for the city’s gentrification.

As you may have heard, more than 1,000 protestors converged on Detroit’s Cobo Hall this past Friday to let Emergency Manager Orr and the Detroit Water and Sewage Department know what they thought of a policy that denied tens of thousands of Detroiters of their access to clean water. The rally, which was put on by National Nurses United, Robin Hood Tax USA, Moratorium-MI.Org and a host of other great progressive organizations, was a true testament to the resolve of the citizens of Detroit and their allies across the country, and presented the world with a unified face that made it clear that it would not accept a world in which water is a luxury and not a natural human right. Through the actions of these passionate activists, community leaders and citizens, along with brief remarks from actor Mark Ruffalo and Congressman John Conyers (D-MI), the rally gained international media attention and shined a none-too-flattering light on the inhumane behavior of Emergency Manager Orr and his staff. In fact, the portrayal of the Detroit Water and Sewage Department’s behavior was so damaging that, just today, the department has come out to say that they are suspending all water shut offs for the next 15 days. It is a minor victory for water rights advocates and the people of Detroit, but it is a victory nonetheless, and one which they have desperately needed after months and years of having their voices roundly ignored by the city’s corporate and political elite.

However, to appropriate an expression from the realm of drug and alcohol treatment, striving for social justice is like trying to walk up a down escalator. It’s possible to climb your way to the top, but the process is long, it is exhausting and if you stop moving for too long you end up right back at the bottom where you started. This moratorium on shut offs will mean nothing if things go back to business as usual when the 15 days are up. The enthusiasm and awareness that has been drummed up by the rally on Friday will not help the people of Detroit preserve their rights to clean water if in a month all of the major media outlets are ignoring them once again and many of the people who attended the rally—out-of-staters like myself in particular—are putting the struggle on the back burner and focusing their energies solely on other issues. This is a long an arduous process, something that many of world-weary veterans who cut their teeth during the civil rights, women’s rights and LGBT rights movements of the 60s and 70s are well aware of and that young twenty-somethings are just beginning to understand. In order to protect the water rights of Detroiters, as well as their rural brethren in the hills of Appalachia and people struggling all across this nation of ours, we have to care more about each other than the Kevyn Orr’s of the world care about money. It’s a tall order, but given the fire and willpower I saw assembled in Hart Plaza on Friday, I have no doubt that it can—and will—be done, because while Governor Snyder can import as many green-eyed lawyers as he wants to run Detroit, he can’t import the heart and soul of every man and woman marching in the picket line.

Drew Gibson

Drew Gibson is the writer and social media director for “Virally Suppressed”, a blog that covers a multitude of issues related to social justice and inequities in American life, with a particular focus on Appalachia, the Midwest and the Deep South. Drew returned to his hometown of Cincinnati last year after getting his Masters in Social Work from The University of Maryland-Baltimore and working for the Office of Nation Drug Control Policy, where the federal government paid him with 2 M&M’s boxes from the White House Easter Egg Roll. Drew is not at all bitter about this.

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