When I was about four years old, my parents asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. My response? A cashier. Why? They were the ones who got handed all the money.
Today, when people cite crime and education as the two major problems facing America’s cities, the knee-jerk response is to “protect city education budgets” and “put more cops on the street.” This is the same kind of simplistic logic I used as a child, and it’s just as wrong.
If this was how things worked, the safest cities in the world would be populated entirely by police, and the highest levels of education would be attained by those countries who spent the most on teachers and schools. This also is not true. Excluding repressive regimes, the areas with the least crime and most educated populations tend to be places where all citizens have access to the same opportunities.
Access to Opportunity
The new film by Davis Guggenheim, “Waiting for Superman,” chronicles a year or so in the life of a handful of students of different backgrounds as they struggle to get access to the educational resources they need to thrive. The heart-wrenching conclusion shows these kids – all but one – get denied that opportunity by a system that is clearly broken and unfair. 720 applicants, 15 spots. You get the picture.
If America is going to have a public school system, this kind of unfairness should not be tolerated. What happens to the kids that don’t get into the schools that can help them thrive? Should people have equal opportunity? Most people would say “yes.”
How We Got Here
Economic vitality is a kind of spotlight: it shines a light on things that need fixing, and provides the funds and political power to do so. Since our cities were torn apart by race riots and the global consolidation of manufacturing, the resulting precipitous decline in economic health has meant that cities have operated substantially in the dark. Watchdogs have been absent, and grassroots efforts have been underpowered.
American cities have reached a kind of feudal equilibrium. Politicians in power have little incentive to promote the kind of broad-based economic growth that could ultimately result in their ouster, but they can’t let things deteriorate so badly that everyone leaves – also stripping them of their power. And so American cities walk the line: with crime, schools, drug use and taxes locked at levels that are tolerable to just enough people that they are still worth milking, all while politicians hand out favors to power-brokers and childhood friends. Enough.
Ending the Abuse, from the Bottom Up
I wrote in my previous post that cities are now prime locations for idea-based industries. Over time this will mean an influx of wealth into cities as well as an increase in poorer populations in the suburbs.
Economic vitality in our cities borne from idea-based industries will result in a demand for accountable leadership and provide new levels of participation. In short, the feudalism will end when creative people begin to use their economic power to demand real change. The 40 year free ride is over.
Too many people in cities have resigned themselves to the idea that politics is a top-down enterprise — that it’s primarily influenced by the machine, by power-brokers, by community leaders, or by churches. Or that there’s a “turn based system,” where everyone who serves is given an equal shot unless they do something wrong.
That’s just wrong. American city politics from now on will be a bottom-up grassroots affair dictated not by the economics of writing checks to campaigns, but by the interdependent economics of jobs and a shared vision for the future of places that people care about.
To be workable, all power relationships must be a compact founded on shared values. Kids trust teachers that have their best interests at heart. Citizens trust cops who behave consistently and fairly. People trust politicians who put the civic interest ahead of their own.
There is nothing that ails us that cannot be fixed by restoring these trust relationships.
In “Superman,” Guggenheim asserts that bad teachers are kept around out of a “desire to maintain harmony amongst adults.” It’s difficult to stand up and fight to end someone’s teaching career, but it’s what’s required. To fail to do so is immoral.
It’s easier to keep getting a paycheck than to make enemies. And certainly there are dozens of systemic problems that make firing teachers very difficult. But that’s all that’s wrong with our schools, our police and our politicians: a simple failure to defend our core values.
And if we cannot agree on those core values – if a desire for personal gain exceeds a willingness or ability to serve the public – then those people deserve to be called out.
The Game Is Up
To be an old-school politician in a major American city today is to be in the way of a major cultural shift. Idealistic, intelligent, educated millennials armed with 21st century political weapons are coming, and they are going to ask why?
Why is the city so screwed up? Why are these jokers in power? Why are these incompetent teachers shuttled between schools? Why is more money spent on development deals for cronies than on parks? And why the hell can’t we clean up the blight that makes any trust or pride impossible?
Should we spend more money on schools or police? More than likely, all we need to do is let smart young people start asking questions. Crime and education take care of themselves if those that have violated the public trust can be removed from power. And with a little attention and common sense, we can ensure that more kids have a shot at the same opportunities.
Because in the end, crime, education, and blight are really just one problem, and it can be cured at least as quickly as it developed.