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The Mechanics
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Column Thu Apr 09 2009

The Erosion of Daley and the Coward Defense

I would like to take a moment from my current leave-of-absence to comment on Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke's extraordinary piece from this week's Chicago Reader. Joravsky and Dumke's piece is in fact a perfect case study of much larger issues, namely, the utter failure of neoliberal public policy and the accelerating erosion of Mayor Daley's precarious political order. Both are implicated in an exhaustive piece that demonstrates how and why decisions that affect millions of human begins are made.

And I would like to direct this piece not just to our wonderfully loyal Mechanics readers, but also to the current under-class of political professionals, legislative and district staffers, public policy Masters students, and the rest of the "next generation" of leadership that think leadership means gripping the pant legs of today's elected officials and auctioning the public good off to private interests. And also to elements of the city's so-called "progressive leadership", which are, like Dorian Gray's portrait, at risk of transmogrifying themselves into the shakedown artists the hard-core right always accuses us of being.

And this comes from someone who at one time joked about being a sycophantic supporter of the Mayor himself--I supported the Mayor, elected when I was eight years old, but called him out on these privatizing disasters at every opportunity. Because being a political pragmatist doesn't mean pretending to believe things you don't, or agreeing to things that are baldly travesties.

Joravsky and Dumke take on the issue of the privatized meters and their almost comical--if it wasn't so serious--mismanagement. They pull a thread through the Mayor's privatizing mania over the last decade to show just how frivolous and short-sighted the Mayor's supposedly "model" public-private policies have been. The unspoken conclusion in the piece is that the Mayor is no hard-decision making "city manager" but a coward who is so terrified of losing power that he willfully sells out future Chicagoans to be able to bribe his current constituents with moderate property taxes and demographically-targeted pet projects.

Is there anything more shameful than making decisions that serve you, and condemn your children?

Joravsky and Dumke's piece, while written in even prose and focusing on facts, can do nothing but humiliate the editorial boards of the daily papers that refuse to comment on anything but superficial scandals ("What are you doing to stop those evil Streets and Sanitation workers from taking naps in their trucks!?") while also exposing our aldermen as spineless or, worse, colluders in an on-going enterprise to hold onto power at the expense at anything resembling open government and sound fiscal policy.

I don't like to quote other writers' works at length, because you should read the whole thing, but just in case you weren't considering following that link:

The origins of the meter debacle actually date back to 2005, when Mayor Daley began selling off public property for up-front cash payments without much scrutiny from the City Council or the public. Then last year, when tax revenues plummeted, the mayor increased the pressure, directing his staff to be "creative" in attacking budget problems. But even as city officials celebrated privatization agreements for Midway Airport and the meters, both worth billions of dollars, they refused to release the most basic information about how they'd been reached--such as which firms had bid, how much they'd offered, and short- or long-term cost-benefit analyses. Both plans were hustled through the City Council in less than a week. As one alderman told the Reader, but not for attribution, during a hearing on Midway: "Somewhere in this deal we're getting screwed. I just can't figure out where yet."

We can help with that. First off, a private company gives the city--i.e., the mayor--a big pile of cash that conveniently isn't subject to the same oversight as the rest of the budget. Eventually the private company will make a fortune off the deal--but by then everyone now running the city will be gone. In the meantime, fees are raised and management is moved out of the reach of voters.

With the parking meter deal the mayor has figured out how to get the public to pay more for less control. Daley gets more control over resources--and less responsibility for delivering services in return.

Do you understand what is happening? The Mayor's decisions are not made in a vacuum. These things compound. One bad decision followed by another are not merely two instances but become greater than their parts; they magnify one another. People's anger will not just rise and fall along a linear path. It builds on top of existing frustration and rage.

Just because real radical change does not happen often, or has not happened recently, that does not mean it is not coming.

Joravsky and Dumke:

No one in Chicago has been happy about the recent hike in parking meter rates, but by last week the frustration had become outrage, and the outrage had become a political problem. Since the city's speedy decision in December to lease the meters for 75 years in return for about $1.2 billion in quick cash, what you get for your quarter has declined precipitously. Worse, residents are fed up with the tickets they're receiving thanks to broken meters and outdated labeling. Some are boycotting meters by parking on side streets or not driving at all; others have tagged or vandalized them.

And when radical change happens, do you think you'll be forgiven for ignoring the structural, organized program of theft and dishonesty? Do you honestly believe you'll have a place when the current political and social institutions are destroyed by outraged citizens?

Aldermen, do you really think you'll be forgiven because you were just so scared of losing services? Do you really think your silence or collusion will be shrugged off because everybody else was doing it?

Progressives, do you think your constituencies will forgive you for your silence, cooperation, and collaboration? Do you think your legitimacy will survive what is now growing into more than a decade of utter silence? Do you think making demands on behalf of some corner or slice of the city will make up for refusing to take on the system that forces you to beg in the first place? It won't. Your irrelevancy grows with each day you refuse to dissent in any meaningful way. Spending money to replace one group of aldermen, state legislators, or whoever, with another group that have to work with the same rotten system is not an effort at real change; it is political posturing meant to extract more concessions from a system left untouched.

The excuse we always hear (off the record of course) from Aldermen, community groups, think tanks, and the rest, is that taking on the Mayor is just too darn scary. He's too powerful. But what makes him powerful, like all bullies, is the constant refusal of anybody to stand up to him. And of course, it isn't fear: its convenience. That whole "...but he's our sonofabitch" mentality. We saw how well that worked with Augusto Pinochet and Saddam Hussein.

Without that first voice willing to speak out, of course no sound will be uttered. Somebody has to be first.

Joravsky and Dumke:

October 8, 2008 The full City Council approves the Midway lease deal by a vote of 49-0. One alderman who's been critical of the deal speaks frankly to us on the condition that we not identify him: he says he didn't really think the mayor would withhold services from his ward in retaliation for a nay vote but he voted yes anyway, figuring, "Why take a chance?"

And this isn't about Republicans and Democrats--much of Mayor Daley's most important support comes from private Republicans who understand he's the man to deal with. Brian Doherty, the Council's sole Republican, is just as much a Mayoral lap dog, purring away, as any Democrat in the Council. And the Mayor's biggest failing is his bizarrely increasing obsession with essentially conservative neoliberal policies.

The only voices ever raised are not in opposition, but in high-rhetoric begging. Our "independent" aldermen and some of their supporters on the left think begging for scraps for their constituents constitutes opposition to terrible public policy, but of course it isn't. This is our city. We own it. Begging for ten, twenty, or thirty percent of something you already own isn't bravery, its cowardice of the most humiliating kind. Sure politics is about the art of the possible--that should never mean abandoning principles for public relations purposes.

The neoliberal program of "public-private partnerships" has collapsed; the financial disasters of the last six months have been to Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman's utopianism what the Berlin Wall was to Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin's. It's done. Kaput. Our Mayor, however, still travels the globe shilling for this bankrupt model, the last geocentrist in a world that revolves around the sun.

I don't know when the break will come up, or why--in 1979, it was a blizzard that put a point on a crumbling social order that led to Harold Washington's election in 1983. Washington was the people's mayor, but no saint. His administration had its own troubles, and in some ways replicated, in a mirror way, some of the problems of the earlier machine days.

One thing we do know: that a big break will come; it will be a severe backlash. It will wipe out the existing order, and anybody compromised by association or collusion with it will be irredeemable, left only to torture themselves with memories of their own sycophancy.

 

Joe Lake / April 9, 2009 3:48 PM

So whatcha ' gonna' do about all this?

Wanna' run for Chicago's mayor in 2011?

Go to ChicagoNLA2011 at:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ChicagoNLA2011

Let's git going and quit gapering.

Joe Lake Chicago (Bucktown)

Jeff Smith / April 9, 2009 11:34 PM

Notwithstanding that mass transit needs to be better, what's been done to traffic and parking in Chicago borders on criminal. And the meters have now become a tangible symbol of so much that's wrong, nickel-and-diming average people while the Madoffs, AIG execs, and their governmental accomplices rake it in. You nail that one.

But all the rage in the world against legalized looting doesn't matter if there aren't candidates. As Allard Lowenstein said, "You can't beat somebody with nobody." So who?

MBS / April 10, 2009 12:35 AM

This is so Our Town.

I thought the hysterical goo-goo routine belonged to small-town Republicans and downstate Copperhead hicks.

We all would like to go back to the days when parking meters only cost $.25 an hour, you could ride the streetcar everywhere and the soda jerk at Woolworth's made chocolate Cokes.

yeah / April 10, 2009 12:40 AM

What is there that's backwards looking about this? Was the writing not irony-rich enough? There's nothing "old-timey" about saying the way business has been done for at least a generation needs to be changed.

Dellwood Pickler / April 10, 2009 8:45 AM

"And also to elements of the city's so-called "progressive leadership", which are, like Dorian Gray's portrait, at risk of transmogrifying themselves into the shakedown artists the hard-core right always accuses us of being."

Well gee, when you can get elected president as the most hidebound of machine pols, why should anybody risk going against the grain? I don't think the oxymoronic progressive leadership is at risk, I think it's well inside the belly of the beast, noshing comfortably on scraps. Or what scraps turn into.

mike / April 10, 2009 2:19 PM

MBS

You're missing the point. It's not necessarily the cost of living, which, yes, always goes up. Kudos to you for noticing that.

It's the increased privatization of public-space and public-resource....

I for one do not want to send my kids to Wal-Mart High School or have my sidewalks painted with Best Buy ads...

This is a very real battle....

Steven / April 11, 2009 12:34 AM

Amazon.com. Free shipping. No sales tax. No need to drive. No need to park. No need to interact with anyone. Screw Daley. Screw Stroger. Screw Blagojevich. Screw the general public and their misbehaving brats. Win win win win win.

Hugh / April 11, 2009 12:15 PM

Excellent essay! Thanks!

But to categorize the Daley administration as conservative neoliberal gives conservative neoliberals a bad name. Daley allocates a portion approaching half of all property tax revenue to corporate welfare while he operates our schools, public transportation, and parks perpetually on the brink of insolvency. Daley's policies are more accurately positioned on the spectrum as kleptocratic.

Nick / April 17, 2009 8:22 PM

Raising parking rates is actually a very sound way to control traffic demand--ask any transportation planner or economist. Privatizing the operation is another thing altogether, and I think Daley let a valuable thing slip through his fingers there. Nevertheless, I appreciate the essay's overall theme and confess to finding the idea of a massive shift in the political tectonics of our city exciting. I'm off to go read Ben and Mick's original post.

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