Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Theft of the commons

Michigan has an Emergency Manager law. If a city or school system completely screws up its finances an Emergency Manager is appointed to set things right. The EM replaces the elected officials until the financial crisis is past. In the last couple years Gov. Snyder got a law passed to strengthen the powers of the EM, including revising union contracts.

That last adition prompted a team to collect signatures to put a referendum of the EM law (or maybe the union contract part of the law?) on the November ballot. They say the EM law is a violation of democracy. It also has lots of racial overtones because the cities and school districts that have or had EMs were all black (though there are reports the white suburb of Allen Park might need an EM soon). The effort to overturn the law is currently tied up in court (over -- of all things -- font size).

I hear about the struggles in Detroit and see how an Emergency Manager could be a good thing. For decades the plans of the mayor and city council depended on luring more people back into the city even though they are giving current residents little reason to stay. Many past mayors got and held office because they stirred up racial resentments and accused the white suburbs trying to steal the black city's cultural assets. The city is about to go bankrupt and all we hear is the squabbling between the city and the state. An EM would probably be less politically motivated by that stale vision, more inclined to see the city as it is now, not stuck searching for a past glory. Under an EM the city busses would run and the streetlights would work.

Though I don't know if it is true of Detroit I can also see a city getting its finances into trouble through such things as a patronage system that overloads the payroll with the mayor's cronies, corrupt officials who see the job as a way to line their own pockets, union contracts that are unreasonable (such as a job that pays tens of thousands, yet has a pension that pays in the millions), or have promised voters such low taxes and such expensive and generous services that a balanced budget cannot possibly be achieved.

My friend and debate partner gave me the book Ypsilanti Vampire May Day by Peter Linebaugh and published by Occupy Ypsilanti. For all my international readers, Ypsilanti is a real town just east of Ann Arbor and home to Eastern Michigan University. Yeah, this is the second book review for today.

The major idea of the book's 70 pages is that the 1% is out to steal the community's common areas and suck the blood out of everything and everyone else. Linebaugh traced that idea through a couple centuries of history, including the history of Ypsilanti, where the first grab was of Native American land by Europeans. Part of this history is of Alexander and Demetrios Ypsilantis, who helped fight for the independence of Greece from the Ottoman Empire. Along the way, a lot of the common areas were turned into service of the 1% and everyone else became laborers of their goals.

The solution to this theft? Workers unite! (The latest issue of Newsweek has an article on a novel on the effects of the Great Recession. One character wears a t-shirt with the image of Karl Marx and the words, "I told you so!")

As part of his story Linebaugh talks about the Emergency Manager appointed for Benton Harbor (a black community). This EM sold a public park, in spite of loud public protest, to a developer who turned it into a golf course -- which most of the residents can't afford to use. The EM is a tool of the 1% especially since the only one he answers to is the governor.

This little book prompted me to think about the Emergency Manager law again. There are signs, such as how hard the GOP is fighting to keep the referendum off the ballot. I earlier mentioned Allen Park -- the reason why it might need an EM is because its property tax revenues have dropped due to the housing slump and the state gov't has slashed payments to cities that were instituted when the tax structure was reworked a couple decades ago. Both halves of that equation are because of GOP policies that favor the 1%. The clincher was to think through the implications of the union contract part that was added to the law. Financially starve a city (as is happening in Allen Park), appoint an EM, then gut all union contracts.

Yes, the EM law is the tool of the 1% and is anti-democracy.

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