The American City Is Dying

And why the country will inevitable follow.

In an interview with the New Republic, Obama finally admitted that gun control was an urban problem. “The reality of guns in urban areas are very different from the realities of guns in rural areas,” he said. That admission might have been welcome if it had been packaged along with a serious conversation about what is wrong with cities like Chicago. Instead all the big problems are covered over with more claptrap about doing it for the children.

Speaking of the children, Mayor Emanuel and Mayor Bloomberg, Obama’s favorite big city mayors who can be reliably counted on to push his agenda, found themselves kneecapped by education unions who aren’t there for the children, but are there for themselves.

The New York City bus driver strike is underway along with the usual tire slashings and union leaders insisting that they’re only slashing the tires for the children. These tactics usually work, they did in Chicago, as harried parents can be counted on to tell the city to shut up and give the nice teachers what they want so that the behemoth of the educational system can roll on. But what they want is quickly becoming impossible.

Chicago teachers have the highest average salary of any city, $75,000 a year, while administrators make $120,000, even though only 20 percent of their 8th grade students are grade-proficient in math. Chicago schools have an annual budget of $5.11 billion for a student body that is 87% low-income and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

In 1985, the budget for all of Chicago was $2.1 billion or less than half of the current school budget. But that doesn’t work too well now when Chicago teacher pensions alone account for $1 billion a year. Arne Duncan tried and failed to reform the system, and as a reward got kicked upstairs to become Obama’s Secretary of Education. Rahm Emanuel tried to buy off the teachers with a pay hike in exchange for evaluations and had his teeth handed to him.

In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg was too busy pushing big issues like gun control and global warming to be ready to cope with a strike by bus drivers. Transporting students to school now costs over 1 billion dollars a year or $7,000 per student. New York City has 1.1 million students of whom 165,000 are special education students. That percentage is similar to that of Chicago and Los Angeles, which speaks volumes about resident demographics.

Bloomberg came into office as the education mayor and during his time in office the city’s debt doubled to $110 billion. In 1975, New York City almost went bankrupt over $14 billion of debt. The reasons for that crisis were the same bad habits that the city and most cities are still governed by today. Pensions are underfunded, budgets are based on imaginary revenues and accounting tricks are used to hide debt and inflate revenue until the bottom falls out.

In Chicago, in Daley’s last ten years, its debt rose 96.9 percent and almost a quarter of the city budget goes to servicing that debt.  The worst is yet to come with unfunded pensions in Chicago, in New York City and across the country spilling over and eventually consuming as much as 75% of tax revenues. Not that this is likely to happen, because by then most of the tax base will be gone, leaving behind schools full of low-income special education students waiting to be put through a unionized educational bridge to nowhere that no one can afford to pay for anymore.

That’s not some wild post-apocalyptic fantasy; it’s the near future.

The American city is dying. It used to serve as a center of transportation and industry. Today the city holds a few knowledge industries and some secondary industries catering to them, but is mostly full of low-income immigrants whose big dream is to get a government job with good benefits. Until then there are government benefits that don’t require government jobs.

Chicago’s population fell by 150,000 in the last 3 years. New York City lost 200,000 people around the same time. Most American cities have been facing population declines, and while they haven’t entered the population freefall zone of Detroit or New Orleans, which are permanently broken, even those that haven’t gone all the way down the hole have an uncertain future.

The social reformers who used to be the band aids on the city’s growth have become its entire reason for being. Social welfare is the only thing that cities do anymore. Its broken school systems are forever trying to dig their students out of a hole while plunging their economy deeper into it. The alliance between community activists and public sector unions has created a runaway monster that no one from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Rahm Emanuel has been able to stop.

Politicians have usually found it easier to pay off the representatives of human dysfunction and their caretakers than put up a fight. With the coming of the recession even liberal politicians have discovered that they may need to fight, but it’s too late.

It’s easier for cities like New York City and Chicago to shake down their remaining financial industries than to try and win the bloody fight against the unions and their affiliated parasites. Unlike unions, corporations are willing to pay out, but they will also move on. Financial industries are now less tied to cities than ever before. The city is a matter of image and convenience, and a collapsing city is good for neither.

It’s no wonder that the cities voted for Obama and that their vote carried him over the top. Unlike the rest of the country, there is no answer to the problems of the cities except more government money. Their tottering educational systems depend on large infusions of federal cash. So does the rest of it.

When New York City hit the wall in 1975, it needed federal help. But most of the major cities are going to hit the wall sooner or later. Whether or not there will be enough federal money by then to bail them out is an open question, but for the moment federal money can delay the moment of collision. And the worst news is that the federal government is the city on a macroscopic scale run by a representative of the worst in urban politics.

The Obama administration has won a triumphant victory in imposing the irrational social and economic values of the city on the rest of the country. But while the liberal tycoons and college students who made it happen are celebrating, it’s a coup with no future. All that they have done is put the country on the same dead end track as the city.

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