The Age Of Austerity?

Short piece from July on how the language of austerity (and “shared sacrifice”) is being used in the national debate around debt, stimulus, and taxes. The gist:

The language of austerity has so far benefited the Republican position, which is all cuts and no taxes.

The piece links to Nancy Pelosi’s statement of July 25 that:

“It is clear we must enter an era of austerity; to reduce the deficit through shared sacrifice.”

Read: Whatever The Outcome Of The Debt Vote, The Age Of Austerity Is Here | Talking Points Memo.

 The word austerity has broad power as a framing device. In the news, it appears most frequently to describe national policies outside the U.S.: European politics in general seems centered on political debates about whether and how to implement “austerity measures.” Austerity crops up sometimes in discussions of balancing the federal budget, but I think that it has more politically complicated connotations in the U.S., despite the popularity of cries to “shrink government.” For the same reason that a language of consumption dominated political speeches after the 2000-2001 recession, politicians today have balance any calls for austerity with the perpetual narrative of America’s prosperous destiny. Part of my project is to understand that balance, the evolution of austerity in political debate this year (it’s now December, six months after Pelosi hopped on board the language of shared sacrifice, and it remains politically muddled).


The 30 Brokest Cities in America, from Detroit to Miami – The Daily Beast

From November, a slideshow of the U.S. cities whose residents are the most broke (i.e. those plagued by unemployment, low income, personal debt and poor credit scores). So not about “broke cities” per se, but cities are only as flush as the people who inhabit them. #30: Las Vegas, Nevada. #1: Columbus, Georgia. Most of the cities are in Texas, the Southeast, or Florida. A couple in Michigan, California, and the Pacific Northwest. Missing? Anything in the swatch of land east of Ohio and north of the Carolinas.

The 30 Brokest Cities in America, from Detroit to Miami – The Daily Beast.

Fiscal emergencies in Michigan

In 2010, Governor Snyder of Michigan signed an emergency manager law that has resulted in the takeovers of four Michigan cities and the Detroit Public School District. The state has also taken preliminary steps in the process of declaring fiscal emergency in the city of Detroit. There is an important backstory and politics to the unfolding of emergency takeovers in Michigan, but here’s the latest news:

Emergency manager law being revamped

Detroit Free Press, Dec. 9, 2011

LANSING — Top state officials acknowledged Thursday that they are working on a plan to rewrite the emergency manager law and dodge a union-inspired push to get the law suspended.

The law, Public Act 4 of 2011, is under attack by a group that says it is close to turning in petitions to force a public vote on the law. Once a sufficient number of signatures is certified, the law would be suspended. But passing a replacement law would make the petition drive moot.

And the state’s Treasurer comments on the looming state takeover in Detroit:

LANSING — The state may have waited too long to intervene in Detroit’s financial crisis and will try to expedite a financial review that began this week, Treasurer Andy Dillon said Thursday.

“It wasn’t our goal to do it without an invitation,” Dillon said of the preliminary review he ordered of Detroit’s books.

State officials spent months working with Mayor Dave Bing and the City Council, seeking a cooperative approach, but an invitation for the state to examine the city’s books never came.

“In some ways, maybe we were too patient,” Dillon told the Free Press.

Dillon says he hopes that both Chapter 9 bankruptcy and state takeover can be avoided; the possibility of bankruptcy has not been emphasized in previous articles.

More to come on the groups organizing to repeal the emergency manager law, and the state examination of Detroit’s finances that is already underway.

NYT Editorial on Public Sector Job Loss

What better place to dive into urban austerity than through the question of public employee layoffs? The New York Times editorial today is about the disproportionate impact of such layoffs on Black workers:

There were 20,000 government workers laid off last month, by far the largest drop for any sector of the economy, mostly from states, counties and cities.

That continues a troubling trend that’s been building for years, one that has had a particularly harsh effect on black workers. While the private sector has been adding jobs since the end of 2009, more than half a million government positions have been lost since the recession.

In most cases, states and cities had to lay off workers because of declining tax revenues, or reduced federal aid because of Washington’s inexplicable decision to focus more on the deficit in the near term than on jobs.

The editors also hint at the reconfiguring of urban governance that can follow such severe cuts:

Those layoffs mean a lower quality of life when there are fewer teachers, pothole repair crews and nurses. On Thursday, a deteriorating budget situation prompted what officials in Marion, Ind., called a “radical reorganization” of city services, which will result in the layoffs of 15 police officers (out of 58) and 12 firefighters (out of 50).

Researchers at the UC Labor Center have been working on the particularly harsh effects of the recession on Black workers, and their research on Black public workers is getting some attention. The NYT ran an article on it last week, featuring a report by Steven Pitts (pdf link). Researchers and some politicians have been at pains to emphasize the obvious point that cutting public spending produces job loss, a point that often gets lost in rhetoric about this recession. The evolution of budget cuts from the federal, state, and city governments, and the concussive waves of cuts that beget cuts as reserves are spent, public sector job loss further damages local revenues and taxes city services, belies the notion that a quick round of cuts will produce a quick recovery] The Times points out that not everyone sees public jobs as equal to private sector jobs:

Many Republicans, however, don’t regard government jobs as actual jobs, and are eager to see them disappear. Republican governors around the Midwest have aggressively tried to break the power of public unions while slashing their work forces…

Full article: Pain in the Public Sector –

The hidden toll of privatization

What governments save in salaries and benefits often “ends up on the government books through all sorts of programs,” said Paul C. Light, a professor at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University, referring to unemployment insurance, Medicaid and other public assistance for workers earning low incomes.

Economists and other academics who study outsourcing are divided about whether it usually saves a government money. Recent data from Arizona shows that privately operated prisons often cost more to operate than state-run facilities. A study by the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit Washington group, found that in 33 of 35 occupations, using contractors cost the federal government billions of dollars more than using government employees.

And some municipalities have brought outsourced services back into the public fold after determining they could perform the work as cost-effectively as private companies.

Read: As States Shift to Contract Workers, Savings Are Not Clear-Cut – (Nov. 6 11)

The attack on government

An interesting issue about the conservative attack on government as an idea: by Demos and the American Prospect. Features stories Wisconsin, Connecticut, Florida, New York, and a feature on pensions. These battles at the state level are, of course, echoing in city halls. Even if the debates seem less heated and the stakes not as high, what gets lost in the state house is ultimately felt in the city.

Read: July/August 2011 – The War Within the States.

Privatization – how is it debated?

These New York Times debates are never wholly satisfying, but are an interesting indicator of what kinds of “debates” are coming to the fore of political conversation, and how those debates are framed (what are the central questions? how are the sides staked out?).

Interestingly, just as austerity policies are driving the outsourcing and privatization of many services and goods once provided by governments, the amount of research suggesting that governments are actually more efficient and better providers mounts. This tension is at least partly responsible for the growing debate about privatization (contrasted with the early 2000s and before, when it was generally considered common sense that the private sector did everything more efficiently).

Mildred Warner’s contribution to this debate cites some of the research on effectiveness and prevalence of outsourcing. It’s important for those of us who research and write about neoliberalism, austerity, shrinking governance, etc. recognize that the story of privatization is complex, and has not been linear. But it’s also important to recognize that “privatization” also encompasses the steady reduction in the scale and type of services offered by the public sector. The movement toward charter schools, the shifting of housing and support services to the nonprofit sector as public funding decreases, are also important pieces of the privatization story.




Picturing the Crisis









How does the mortgage and foreclosure crisis compare to the Great Depression in photogeneity? Nice article here, with some great links to jump to.

Read: Picturing the Crisis