DETAILS MATTER by Bob Ginsburg February 16, 2022
Small Dreams and the Challenge of Governing ‘The devil is in the details’
Welcome to Details Matter a Newsletter about urban development, public finance, Transportation, and politics in Chicago and Illinois. You can subscribe/unsubscribe at (https://robertginsburg.substack.com/welcome). Get previous issues which mostly focus on dealing with the fiscal crisis at (https://robertginsburg.substack.com/archive). PLEASE FORWARD if interested.
Small Dreams and the Challenge of Governing
‘The devil is in the details’
It has been a few months since I last wrote this blog/newsletter due to other projects, holidays, lack of details on newly funded budgets and pilot projects, health and family issues. However, much has happened in the world.
To me, the most striking conclusion from the last three months is that our legislative/government agency structure has not worked very well so far in the 21st Century. You wouldn’t know it from the glowing headlines about “new” investment, credit upgrades, debt payments and pilot projects such as affordable housing in Chicago (though with 90% coming from foundations and the private sector and little to no requirements on schools, transit, health care, local food shopping and jobs, the cynic in me wonders about the hype).
Practical politics requires elevating small achievements to precedent setting. Sometimes small things are precedent setting. Sometimes it is hard to see through the hype.
I held off on writing anything as I did not know what to say, especially given the temporary nature of all the new programs at the local and state level. Nationally and in the states we are getting perfectly good legislation without an organizing principle and model on what the package of proposals is supposed to do in aggregate. Even progressives could only propose a grab bag of long-standing projects without a coherent framework of how they would be part of a longer-term effort to run things better and differently. What is the new, easily comprehended message these projects represent?
One would have thought after four years of Trump and the conservative reconstruction of our judicial system, we would have an alternative vision. Instead the “grab bag” state tax cuts which are proposed, for example, implicitly accept the idea that government has all the money it needs. It reinforces the principle that the government should be as little as possible and do less rather than more.
At least, Janet Yellen at the recent Davos meetings tried to create a new story to bolster the argument for “Build Back Better. She said, “The economy is not growing and serving everyone because there isn’t enough of what it needs – more workers, more roads and bridges and trains, more healthy residents, more educated workers.” Even that level of creativity is absent at the state and local levels.
Unfortunately, the reality in Illinois, Chicago and Cook County (along with many other states and municipalities) is that structurally and programmatically we are pretty much where we were three months ago. That is despite the new opportunities provided by the largest federal investment in fifty years. The pandemic and record-setting federal infrastructure investment and support for working families have so far done little to change the status quo. It has survived (with minor tweaks) in all the recent budgets in Illinois and many states. It may change at some point but not yet.
Oddly enough, what prompted this new post was the obituary of Todd Gitlin. Oddly, his name had not crossed my mind for many years. The New York Times obituary (February 5, 2022) mentioned his criticism of the anti-war movement for its inability to consider the need to govern. While that was both accurate and unfair, governing really is the question today, especially governing at scale. Then came Ezra Klein’s column on February 13 echoing some of the same points in criticizing liberals for not dreaming big enough. So how do we look at the current opportunities and challenges?
First Is To Honestly Look At What Is Being Done And Realize How Limited Our Vision Has Become.
As always, I start with budgets for the state, county and city. They prioritize most new public money (80+%) for paying down debt and tax cuts. Sure there are some new initiatives on decarceration and relative pittances on affordable housing (e.g. tens of millions in long-term public money out of $30-40 billion in total local revenues) and a little bit more for education and public health. It is more a mark of how little we have done that these relatively small projects are hailed as major achievements.
The state touts that it is paying down $4 billion in debt and $1 billion in temporary reductions in regressive taxes (e.g. sales taxes on food, property tax rebates, and slightly lower gas taxes). Of course that is “good” – in and of itself – but I would question if that is the highest and best use of public funds in this time of crisis.
The county maintained its rather austere budget (touting austerity as a hallmark accomplishment of the last ten years) by using $70 million in reserve funds and $20-30 million in federal funds for some community services and housing. It was also notable for leaving the health system (one of the two foci of current county government) on its own to come up with a plan to stave off a financial crisis next year.
The lack of creativity and innovative new structures is disappointing. Opportunities like this do not come around very often. The pandemic has shown how flawed and perhaps bankrupt our agencies and programs for education, health care and housing are. Instead of more global or fundamental alternatives and solutions or new paradigms, we are faced with more discussions, webinars, and forums over small changes. Under the existing neoliberal worldview, everything costs money and eventually most people run out of it. And when that happens, the status quo can’t help but collapse. Tax cuts and debt paybacks only reinforce the neoliberal world view. Forty years after Ronald Reagan, liberals and progressives can only think small.
Rather than have real proposals or an alternative worldview, all we seem to be able to muster is beginnings. All the “new” initiatives only start to look at how to spend transportation and infrastructure funds differently OR how we could structure and fund education and training OR how can smooth the edges of current delivery (or lack thereof) of mental health and public health services. All the new proposals have been on the democratic wish list for ten to twenty years. The Libertarian solutions from the Koch funds and the Trumpistas are that any government programs are bad and all should be cut. To be fair, the Biden administration has pushed for new programs and structures and did work to get massive new funding. However, given the gridlock in Congress, real implementation and creativity will have to occur at the state and local level.
So Where Do We Need To Go?
Our public health system is not the envy of the world. Just one chart below shows how we have failed in that arena. (There are many, many other examples.) Solutions to this problem are multifaceted. Forcing different agencies and programs to work together and leverage their combined budgets would set the stage for bigger improvements.
Transportation agencies are just beginning to question their planning processes – even as they plan to spend billions on projects first proposed ten-plus years ago. However, they are stuck in planning, funding and information silos. If we are serious about addressing climate change, why aren’t we demanding transit agencies rethink their systems? Transportation planning and funding should be one tool of urban planning, not an independent tool. As the chart below shows, increasing public transit will reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) (and thus greenhouse gas emissions), but it must be done in conjunction with housing, workforce development, and urban development.
Finally, the last month has been filled with headlines about infrastructure investing and “Build Back Better” and about redistricting, while Crain’s ran a series on “What can be done to stop Chicago’s Black exodus?” and “How do we both build and rebuild underinvested and underserved communities?” What those series did not discuss is that almost no one believes that redistricting, current infrastructure plans, or current government programs will achieve these lofty goals. Crain’s and some politicians say that the government should let the private sector lead and “stay out of the way.” But the private sector will do little to address the big issues because they do not make ten-year plans, and without government financial support and direction they will do no better than they have done in the last forty years.
Two projects announced in Chicago in the last month or so reveal different approaches. The first was the announced redevelopment of LeClaire Courts with affordable housing, a health center, a full-size grocery store and improved traffic lights and bus service. Given the area already has a lot of commercial businesses, this development could provide enough to keep residents in the area AND revitalize the surrounding residential areas. Other than addressing the need for good schools, the LeClaire Courts project addresses all the components of community development AT THE SAME TIME – even if all will not be completed at the same time. That provides the incentive for private investment. However, this was not part of Invest South/West.
On the other hand, the city held a big, official press conference to announce three new trophy projects as part of the Invest South/West program. For over $150 million in “city” funding (a combination of federal funds, federal subsidies, tax credits and TIF funds) there will be three building complexes with some affordable housing and some commercial. As the city emphasized in its press conference, it “should” catalyze private investment, but there is no plan, no direction, no leveraging of other programs. Transit Oriented Development was emphasized but no transit improvements were specified, nor were there any particular plans on how transit would be incorporated into the projects. CTA service and CTA funding were notably absent from the discussion despite CTA having a new “chief innovation officer,” who publicly has been more focused on a new fare card than ON leveraging federal CTA funding to address transit deserts or expand transit access, frequency and reliability in the south, southwest and west sides. Curiously the CTA published a letter to the editor in the Chicago Sun Times on February 16, 2022 reporting, as an example of their commitment to equity and inclusion, their decision to make permanent four new route improvements on the south and southwest sides despite the failure of each route to reach ridership goals. There was no mention if there was any relation to Invest South/West projects.
The small steps (which include temporary affordable housing and rental support, income support programs, mental health programs, etc.) are useful first steps in achieving real equal opportunity. The question will come up quickly next year as to how long these programs will last. It is easier to announce one-off new programs and projects and tax cuts than to give confidence of future, on-going, programs. Too often, as we have seen (with some exceptions) in the last forty years, programs start off grandly and quickly taper off as funding constraints take hold. Offering some hope or vision would be nice for a change.