Today I’m kicking off what’s probably a three part mini-series on corruption. In my view, whatever the structural problems resulting from suburbanization or globalization or whatnot, an overwhelming and under-examined barrier to success in our cities, and especially to reviving the fortunes of the urban cores of post-industrial cities, is corruption.
When we think of corruption we tend to think of a shady character passing an envelope full of cash under the table to a crooked politician in exchange for a a zoning variance or something. But that’s just one form of corruption, and arguably one of the least important. Much more important is systemic corruption, including many practices that are actually legal.
The book Corrupt Cities, which I’ll look at in depth in a future installment, defines corruption this way:
Corruption means the misuse of office for personal gain…Corruption means charging an illicit price for a service or using the power of office to further illicit aims. Corruption can entail acts of omission or commission. It can involve legal activities or illegal ones. It can be internal to the organization (for example, embezzlement) or external to it (for example, extortion). The effects of various kinds of corruption vary widely. Although corrupt acts may sometimes result in net social benefit, corruption usually leads to inefficiency, injustice, and inequity.
And regarding systemic corruption, the authors say:
Systematic corruption generates economic costs by distorting incentives, political costs by undermining institutions, and social costs by redistributing wealth and power towards the undeserving. When corruption undermines property rights, the rule of law, and incentives to invest, economic and political development are crippled. Corruption exists in all countries. But corruption tends to be more damaging to poor countries.
And, one might add, poor or struggling cities.
America has been experiencing problems with corruption at all levels of government. I want to focus on the local level, however.
Cities have long been known as hotbeds of corruption and political machines. They were certainly much more corrupt in the past than they are now. However, because the scope and control of government was so much less in those days – for example, there was no zoning in Gilded Age America – the impact was arguably less than now where the impact of government is pervasive. The Progressive Era brought reforms that cleaned up government to a certain extent, but we’ve seen in the contemporary era an uptick in government corruption. This is not necessarily in the form of petty corruption, but rather the corruption of the instrumentality and aims of government itself.
Even in my own lifetime I’ve seen a tremendous increase in corrupt activities. Sure, cities were always “growth machines” and had “urban regimes”. Some level of corruption may even be necessary for political life to function. It’s generally necessary to build coalitions to get things done, and the types of horsetrading that enables this is often distasteful. I don’t want to pretend that we can ever have squeaky clean politics. And of course cronies of the party in power have long benefited from patronage.
But there’s a big difference between logrolling, or even some crony getting his beak wet through a somewhat inflated price tag for something that more or less needed to be done anyway, and the types of things we see today, in which the levers of powers are used in ways that are often obviously manifestly contrary to the public interest.
I won’t fully support it in this post, but my belief is that increasingly the urban power structures have exchanged traditional growth machine policies for a system of extraction in which crooks, cronies, and criminals are enriched under the guise of the “revitalization” of a community in decline. The principal vehicles for this are a) publicly subsidized real estate boondoggles, b) corrupt privatization and professional services contracts, and c) public employee union featherbedding.*
This looting of our cities in the name of revitalization has been made possible by a severing of the historic link between the economic fortunes of a community’s elite and broader community prosperity. I’m going to show today how that link got severed, and why that has led to subsidized real estate boondoggles as the preferred form of civic “revitalization”, by revisiting and updating a post I originally ran in 2009.
Ed Morrison once wrote that “Cleveland’s leadership has no apparent theory of change. Overwhelmingly, the strategy is now driven by individual projects. These projects, pushed by the real estate interests that dominate the board of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, confuse real estate development with economic development. This leads to the ‘Big Thing Theory’ of economic development: Prosperity results from building one more big thing.”
Morrison could have been describing any number of other cities here. Why is it that so many cities have turned to large subsidized real estate projects to attempt to restart growth, , turning away from strategies that previously made them successful?
The answer lies in structural economic changes resulting from the nationalization and globalization of industry. Up until the 1990’s, many businesses, such as retailing, utilities, some manufacturing, and especially banking operated on a regional or local basis. The meant that the civic leadership of a community was heavily dominated by businessmen, again, especially bankers, whose success was dependent on the overall macroeconomic health of the particular city or region they were located in.
For example, up until the 1980s or so, most states severely restricted banking such that every city pretty much had its three major locally owned banks whose CEOs were the major power players in town.
Because these banks were limited to their own region, often only their home county, they could only increase their profits by seeing their hometown grow with more people and businesses, and thus more depositors and borrowers. If the CEOs of those banks decided to loot the city at the expense of overall civic prosperity – or let anyone else get away with so looting it – it would undermine their own businesses. Hence they had an alignment between corporate (and thus personal interest) and the civic interest. They could only prosper to the extent that the community prospered.
It was the same in many industries. The Public Utility Holding Company Act more or less led to every major city having its own electric utility. That utility could only make more money to the extent that more people and businesses moved to town and thus generated new demand for power. The interests of the company and its CEO were aligned with that of the city as a whole. If the city sickened, the company’s business would sicken with it. Many if not most cities also had their own department stores, drugstores and other retail establishments.
This created what Harvey Molotch called a “land based elite” and underpinned a model he called “The City As a Growth Machine.” He saw the “land” in question as physical land and thus also talked to the primacy of real restate development, but I see “land” as much more representing the constrained operating geography of a wide variety of industries that are not necessarily related to land per se. While growth as a strategy has its problems, you can certainly be stuck with worse.
With banking and utility deregulation, we saw large numbers of hometown banks merged out of existence. Industry after industry has been subjected to national or international level roll-ups as changes in the economy and regulatory environment gave increasing returns to scale. So today we have a handful of major national banks like JP Morgan Chase, major utility conglomerates like Duke Energy, and dominant national retailers like Macy’s, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, and Home Depot, often part of a “two towers” type rollup.
Why is it that “real estate interests” dominate in a local economy like Cleveland? Because, to a great extent, they are among the only ones left. Consider the local industries that have not been as subject to roll-ups. Principal among these are real estate development, construction, and law (though we are starting to see rollups in these industries too).
This means the local leadership of a community is now made up of executives in those industries, and they bring a very different world view versus the previous generation. There are two major differences between these types of firms and the previous types of firms that generated community leaders: the nature of the businesses themselves, and the fact that their profits are not dependent on the success of the community.
Consider the difference between a banker and a lawyer. Banks make money on the spread between what they pay for deposits or wholesale funding, and what they charge for loans. This means the CEO of a bank is making money while he plays golf at 3. He’s got a cash register back at the office that never stops ringing.
By contrast, lawyers get paid by the hour for work on specific matters and transactions. The law partner is only making money on the golf course if he is closing a deal. It’s similar between many other “operational” businesses that were previously prominent in communities, and the “transactional” businesses that are now often dominant.
Not only has the drying up of local and regional operating businesses led to a business leadership community unbalanced in favor of transactionally oriented firms, the loss of those local and regional operating businesses robbed many of the transactional companies such as law and architecture firms of their principal local client base. Large national businesses employ national firms for advertising, law, architecture, etc. If they use local firms, it is in a subsidiary role. (Or, if a smaller firm is fortunate enough to land a contract, it is servicing a client on a national, not local basis).
Richard Florida described this in his Atlantic Monthly article on the financial crash:
As the manufacturing industry has shrunk, the local high-end services–finance, law, consulting–that it once supported have diminished as well, absorbed by bigger regional hubs and globally connected cities. In Chicago, for instance, the country’s 50 biggest law firms grew by 2,130 lawyers from 1984 to 2006, according to William Henderson and Arthur Alderson of Indiana University. Throughout the rest of the Midwest, these firms added a total of just 169 attorneys. Jones Day, founded in 1893 and today one of the country’s largest law firms, no longer considers its Cleveland office ‘headquarters’–that’s in Washington, D.C.–but rather its ‘founding office.’
Where then is the source of transactions these firms can turn to in order to sustain their business? The public sector, of course.
I would hypothesize that many local transactionally oriented services companies have seen the public sector take on a greater share of billings than in the past. With the old school bankers and industrialists mostly out of the picture, the leadership in our communities consists increasingly of the political class and a business community dominated by transactional interests.
When you look at the composition of this group, it should come as no surprise that the publicly subsidized real estate development is the preferred civic strategy. Politicians get to cut ribbons. Cranes always look good on the skyline. Local architects, engineers, developers, and construction companies love it. And there is plenty of legal work to go around.
This is not to say these people are necessarily acting nefariously. And nor were old school bankers and industrialists always acting purely altruistically. But there’s a very different world view between people steeped in operational businesses and those in transactionally oriented one.
On the other hand, that’s not to say that they aren’t acting nefariously, either. Which brings us to the second difference. These newly dominant firms and their leaders no longer have fortunes tied to the overall health of the community. Unlike an old-school banker or utility executive, these transactional companies like law firms can exist on a narrow client base. Thus they can continue to thrive if the community is struggling or even impoverished. If the driving force of the business is government, which can extract significant tax revenues during both good times and bad, this can go on indefinitely, so we see that even in bankrupt Detroit the state stepped in to pump $400 million in subsidies into a new hockey arena for a development backed by a local billionaire.
In fact, what we see is that these firms and their hangers on can even profit from community decline. Why is this? Well, when the community is struggling, that means Something Must Be Done. And it just so happens that this group of people has Something in mind – namely shoving taxpayer cash into their pockets so that they can “invest” in “saving” the city. Somewhat perversely, to the extent that a community is thriving and doing well, the justifications for all those subsidies become harder to make. Thus The Powers That Be actually have a stake in civic failure.
Call this the “City As a Decline Machine” model, as our once-proud urban cores have been strip-mined for subsidies by cronies as population and job levels have collapsed in the greater urban core.
This helps explain why, despite the endless talk about “talent, talent, talent” not many places actually do much that suggests they are serious about attracting it. Why might that be? Because, as I’ve noted before, outsiders are the natural constituency for the new and an inherently disruptive force. That’s the last thing cronies want. Instead what they actually want is to use the pretense of talent as a Christmas tree ornament to decorate arguments in favor of their latest subsidized boondoggle.
But regardless of intent, the personal interest and long term community health of the community elite are no longer strongly linked. Which is why where once local business/civic leaders put money into the community – such as when Melvin and Herb Simon bought the failing and money-losing Indiana Pacers back in the 1983 – today they are more likely to be taking it out via these types of projects.
You might object that some cities kept their banks or have other large companies that are still present. Perhaps. But even where the hometown bank or company did not get bought out, it likely escaped that fate by getting big itself and making large numbers of acquisitions or otherwise expanding. This means those institutions are less dependent on the health of the particular local market they happen to be headquartered in than they are overall macroeconomic conditions. While no doubt they want the headquarters town to be successful, they can afford to take a portfolio view of local markets.
It’s similar for many other companies, such as the tech startups every city seems to be focusing on. These are attractive to a great extent because they can thrive in downtowns of cities where the majority of the urban fabric is struggling because they don’t consume much in the way of services, have a live and let live ethos that has historically been disconnected from and indifferent to government (and so won’t upset the cronies’ apple cart), and sell to a national or global marketplace in most cases.
Interestingly, one place where it seems like the structure of local real estate helps the city is New York City. My understanding is that there are still quite a few local power players whose personal fortunes are deeply tied to the value of Manhattan real estate. Certainly local developers sometimes receive eminent domain assists and such, but the volume of activity necessary to support the real estate industry that is still very key to the city’s viability can only come from genuine market demand. When you combine this with the fact that there aren’t good substitutes for New York, this suggests at least a significant segment of its elite will be highly motivated to see it navigate the formidable fiscal and other challenges it faces.
Most other places aren’t so lucky. Once this type of system gets established it is difficult to uproot, and it acts like kryptonite to outside investors who know they will be operating at a severe disadvantage versus the cronies. That’s why out of town bidders have been taking a pass on bidding on the I-195 land in Providence, for example.
Commercial real-estate developer Richard Miller, of The Pegasus Group, visited Rhode Island in 2011 and again this spring; he liked what he saw enough to pick a potential parcel on the western side of the river near Chestnut Street. But in the end, his team chose not to submit a proposal to the Route 195 Redevelopment District Commission, which controls about 40 acres in the heart of the city, 20 of which are available for development … “I don’t want to get snookered in here where all of a sudden they start hitting you up with fees and you put a bid in and you start meeting with politicians, and the more you invest in the town, the more you’re in the game, and I didn’t get the sense that they want you to make a fair return in the town.” … In other cities, such as New York, he says that there “is a very clear policy about new development. And it’s not subject to a political process in order for you to make a project work. Either you abide by the rules and make a buck or you don’t.”
I’m sure you could tell a similar tale in many cities. As someone once told me, “Political risk is the only risk in real estate development, if you know what you are doing.” Many cities today are nothing but political risk for anybody but cronies, which is one why there’s so little market interest in developing there. But don’t worry. Your friendly local campaign donors and insiders will be there to help “prime the pump” – with a little assist from the taxpayer of course.
Pete Saunders once recounted his family’s prescient observation about Detroit that it “would not rebound until all value was extracted out of it.” This is the process we sadly see unfolding in many post-industrial cities.
* If you require evidence just ask how many urban core real estate projects in your city have been done without subsidies to political donors.