Baltimore—Saving a City

Few serious problems have a single explanation or cure. The decay of large parts of Baltimore is no exception. An interesting article in the Washington Post explores the diligent efforts of its former mayor, later the governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley to fix it. The Baltimore mayor depicted in the TV series The Wire, Tommy Carcetti, was inspired by O’Malley. (I was surprised after watching five seasons of the Game of Thrones to learn that the actor who played Carcetti in The Wire, Aidan Gillen, is Littlefinger in the Game of Thrones. His O’Malley character in The Wire was much more interesting.)

O’Malley went after the usual suspects, improving transportation and other infrastructure, improving education, etc. – all of the things we look to government to provide in the name of equal opportunity for all. He also instituted tough policing inspired by the “Broken Windows” theory first expounded by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1982. This introduced the intensive use of “stop, question, and frisk” of recent controversy in NYC. In retrospect, the approach alienated the police from the communities they were supposed to protect, and was much in the news when 25 year old African-American Freddie Gray died in April from injuries received while in police custody. His funeral in Baltimore was followed by riots that did much damage to the already impoverished neighborhood in which he lived.

What was almost totally missing from the Post article was the need for jobs. While the over all unemployment rate for metropolitan Baltimore is only slightly above the U.S. average (5.7% compared to 5.6%), black unemployment is dramatically higher. “For young black men between the ages of 20 and 24, the unemployment rate was an astounding 37% in 2013, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s compared with 10% for white men of the same age.” (CNN Money) Much of the city’s heavy industry and the jobs they provided (steel processing, shipping, auto manufacturing, and transportation) left Baltimore decades ago. Many workers moved with those jobs but some stayed. The increase in service economy jobs of recent years employs workers with different and generally higher level skills than did the lost manufacturing jobs. Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital are now Baltimore’s largest employers. Baltimore’s population peaked at around 950,000 in 1950 and dropped to 622,000 in 2013. Improving Baltimore’s infrastructure for those who have stayed is pointless if they can’t find jobs.

It is not that infrastructure and education are not important. They are important both for the quality of life and for attracting enterprises that provide jobs. But they are only part of the package companies consider when deciding where to locate. The cost of providing and maintaining them relative to their quality is important as well, and education needs to be relevant for the jobs potentially attracted. Taxes, both state and local are an important port of the cost of doing business. When companies evaluate where to locate new facilities they will want the best bang for their buck. Maryland is an expensive state (35th from the top in CNBC’s list of the best states for doing business). During his term as governor of Maryland O’Malley:
• Raised the top personal income tax rate from 4.75 to 5.75 percent. With local taxes on top, Maryland’s top rate is 8.95 percent.
• Raised the corporate tax rate from 7.0 to 8.25 percent.
• Raised the sales tax rate from 5 to 6 percent and expanded the sales tax base.
• Raised the sales tax rate on beer, wine, and spirits by 50 percent.
• Raised the gas tax by 20 cents over four years, almost doubling the rate from 23.5 cents.
• Doubled the cigarette tax from $1 to $2 per pack.
• Imposed higher taxes on vehicle registration.
• Imposed a storm water mitigation fee on property owners, or a “rain tax.”
(Chris Edwards: Cato)

The quality of government services in Maryland, however, is also fairly high. Last year I incorporated my consulting business in Maryland as an LLC. It took me 30 minutes on line sitting in my office from start to finish, including the email delivery of the signed and sealed document of incorporation. In addition, the cost of property and labor in Baltimore is low. This is a natural market reaction to the loss of industry and residence. The city’s efforts to revive its poorer neighborhoods also need to focus on improving its competitive advantage as a place for businesses to locate.

The Obama’s on race and poverty

Riots in near by Baltimore and elsewhere following killings of unarmed black men by police have reignited a public discussion of approaches to policing, causes and curse for poverty, and race relations in America. Good. We will never have final, definitive answers to these questions and it is good that we continue to discuss them and to search for better ways of addressing them.

Yesterday I posted a Washington Post op-ed by Richard Cohen addressing criticisms of the First Lady’s public statements on race and the “black experience.”

The evolutionary process has predisposed us to bond with and trust most easily our own families and tribes—to be most comfortable with what and who is most familiar to us. Traits that served us well as hunters-gatherers are often less useful or actual impediments to life in larger communities and cities. Civilization is, in part, the process of taming some of these primitive impulses.

At the dedication of a museum in NYC recently, the First Lady stated that: ““I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum,” This surprised many of us, especially here in Washington DC, where the percent of blacks in the population has just recently slipped below 50%, and where it is hard to imagine any building in which blacks would not be welcomed. But though I have many black friends, and don’t give it a second thought, I can remember when I lived in Hyde Park, Chicago as a student at the University of Chicago, I was apprehensive about penetrating more than a block into Woodlawn, across the midway from my classes. This is the South Side Chicago almost all black neighborhood Michelle Obama grew up in. There was something about being the almost only white man in an all black neighborhood that was uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I was shocked a few months ago when the black friend of a houseguest expressed some nervousness at driving into my neighborhood (though a few black families are among our 61 home community).

While some of this is in our genes, some of it is fortified by experience. What can we do to remove baseless apprehensions between ourselves and our fellow man and more importantly what can we do to help left the likes of those living in West Baltimore from destructive cycles of poverty, crime, and other destructive behavior? There are no magic bullets. Many factors are at play and I admire the First Lady’s contributions to improving these lives.

I disagree with much of President Obama’s policy views, especially domestic policies, but I have admired his and his wife’s advise to African Americans. On several occasions the President has told young blacks to avoid thinking of themselves as victims and to focus on what they can and must do themselves to better their lives. Yesterday at Georgetown University he said: “The stereotype is that you’ve got folks on the left who just want to pour more money into social programs, and don’t care anything about culture or parenting or family structures. And then you’ve got cold-hearted, free market, capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and think everybody are moochers. And I think the truth is more complicated.” Indeed it is and I welcome his and the First Lady’s contributions to finding better ways to better lives.