Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

The “Failure” of Democracy

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At my most cynical, I’ve been known to declare that the best form of government is an enlightened dictatorship. The only problem, of course, is the enlightenment. I say this having never lived under a dictatorship, nor can I easily point to a dictatorship that may be considered “enlightened.” I can think of a number of despots that had and implemented good ideas – indeed, far faster than the mechanisms of democracy can spin – but none that had truly unqualified benevolent rules.

I think of this as I read David Weigel’s implied repudiation of democracy‘s ability to solve the problems of the Rust Belt. Namely, he lauds Emergency Manager Louis Schimmel for his efforts in balancing the budgets of Pontiac, Michigan and similar formerly industrial towns. Schimmel uses terms like “right-sizing,” – a euphemism of a euphemism of a euphemism – is given carte blanche by the governor to break union contracts, and, well, ends up sounding like the consultant a major corporation hires to do all their layoffs for them.

Yes, laying off civic employees and cutting union contracts would be a very difficult thing for a democratically-elected representative to do, especially in a company town like Pontiac, Michigan. However, there should be no reason to force a mayor to do so, nor should there be a reason to hire a consultant to play axe-man.


Because it is not the job of individual townships – or even their county and state governments – to reverse the woes of the Rust Belt. That’s a national problem. The city of Buffalo and, indeed, all of upstate New York, has been dealing with a shrinking population and a consistently high unemployment rate. A streamlined Pontiac, Michigan, will not generate business investment because firing everybody doesn’t provide reason for businesses to invest there. There is nothing a township, democratic or otherwise, can do to reverse national trends, and the only reason they would cut services and jobs is due to immediate budgetary concerns – a problem far better served by federal subsidies than the execution block. Like jobs training programs, cutting local government doesn’t change the economy; it only changes who’s best placed to survive a bad situation: Each town is pitted against its neighbors; a grudge match for scraps. A zero-sum game.

As such, what happens under this policy is that northern Rust Belt cities are brought down to the same level of southern Right-To-Work cities, and as I’ve argued earlier, that is a net loss for the working man. In essence, as the body has no more fat to burn, it instead burns muscle. We have been forced to eat ourselves to survive, and while we can cut jobs and wages and pensions all we want, but not only is that not new demand, it’s actively working against generating new demand. To force this future on these townships by destroying their democratic institutions seems only to add insult to injury.

City planners in upstate New York have, similarly, been talking about “reducing housing stock” in order to raise the value of housing. This is, in my opinion, another ironic attempt by appointed “experts” at enforcing an “economy of scarcity” above all other considerations. In protecting the welfare of the public, it’s ghoulish. In terms of economic policy, it’s still bad: Will this generate new demand for construction jobs? No, because if the population was there, they probably couldn’t afford new housing. Few people can. So why do it? Who benefits? The top, of course – landowners, remaining business owners – and they were never friends of democracy.

If there’s to be an argument as to the failures of democracy, it should be situated at where the problem actually lies: The federal level. It should be a well-reasoned debate as to the fact that a democratic system set up with multi-layered protections against doing no ill can be hijacked by cynical operatives and held hostage against those wishing to do good, however incrementally. Abusing filibuster rules to hamstring Congress from its appointed task – even in the face of a crisis that threatens the country – is as perfectly legal as it is unethical, unconscionable and immoral.

However, even then, it is a policy debate, and to answer this problem by appointing an executive with sweeping unilateral powers is a perversion of the argument. In short, this Emergency Manager is yet another method used to make sure that the poor burden the most of the economic downturn; the rich are given yet another tool in their toolbox to destroy elements of our government and governance that they find inconvenient. They’ve already gotten municipalities – big and small – to give decades-long, endlessly renewed tax moratoriums of the largest industries at the cost of the public services the industries depend on. Why should we accept this current ploy – this destruction of democracy – with anything but adamant hostility?

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