Chicago As Synecdoche

A synecdoche is the rhetorical device by which a part of something is made to represent the whole. Those of you who’ve read this blog for some time and are aware of these things may have noticed that synecdoche is one of my preferred tropes. Keep synecdoche in the back of your mind; I’ll return to it later in the post.

I’d thought of trying to work this into my earlier post today on the unfolding political/police scandal in Chicago but decided to give it its own post. I frequently chafe when someone who doesn’t live here tries to write authoritatively on the goings-on here in Chicago and Walter Russell Mead’s latest post at The American Interest is no exception. After some introductory material Dr. Mead gets to the meat of his post:

First, the Windy City’s economic strength over the last generation was facilitated, in part, by a sharp decline in violent crime. Experts differ as to why crime fell, but aggressive policing probably played a role, just as it did in cities across the United States. Yet that aggressive policing also led to more confrontations between cops and civilians, and contributed to the development of a culture and ethos on the force that made civilian deaths more likely. It’s unclear how far Chicago (or any other American city) can go in dismantling the structure of aggressive law enforcement without seeing a resurgence of the crime levels that once ravaged urban communities across the country and sparked an intense political backlash.

Frankly, I doubt it and I’ll need more quantitative analysis before I’d believe it. Has Chicago’s crime rate gone up or down? I have no idea and neither does anyone else because the city has been cooking the books.

I recall a study that was done some years ago (I think in Kansas City) in which the police department took three different precincts that were similar demographically, in economics, and in crime statistics. They doubled the number of police officers in one, cut them in half in another, and left them the same in the third. It had no effect. Does more aggressive policing or just plain more police officers reduce crime? Nobody knows but there are reasons to doubt it.

I think that crime has demographic, social, and economic causes. Might aggressive policing have an effect? It might but so might lack of economic opportunity, transportation, diversity, the age of the population, family structures, lead paint, and any number of other factors.

Second, the police problem is partly an offshoot of an even wider and more intractable problem: the consequences of public sector unions and life tenure for city employees. There is a harsh conflict of interest between the city’s employees and the city’s voters. The pension crisis, now forcing Chicago (and many other cities and states across the country) to raise pension contributions at the cost of reduced spending on vital city functions, is a big part of the problem. The city’s bloated pension obligations have already forced Emanuel to make severe education cuts. It will continue to force cuts in city services in various cities, making it harder and harder for mayors to govern, and increasing the antagonism among various constituencies.

The late Mayor Daley was a famously skilled labor negotiator. He used a simple strategy. He brought the union representatives into a room, closed the door, and then gave them whatever they wanted. That worked for years.

Rahm Emanuel has a different strategy. He alienated the leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union. Indeed, its president, Karen Lewis, has formed a personal animosity for him. During his first term as mayor the Chicago teachers went out on strike for the first time in more than two decades. Then he gave them whatever they wanted.

Pensions are deferred income. Total compensation is counted by adding present period compensation to benefits which include pensions. From the early Aughts to the start of the Great Recession in Chicago and Illinois more generally public employees’ total compensation rose sharply while Illinois politicians borrowed from public employees’ pension funds to pay for their other spending priorities without raising taxes (and, of course, they didn’t raise taxes because they wanted to keep their jobs).

They were gambling that incomes, retail sales, and property values, the three things on which state and local revenues are primarily based, would continue to increase. They lost.

Public employees were gambling too but they didn’t realize that. They haven’t lost yet but it’s inevitable that they will because neither Chicago nor Illinois can raise taxes fast enough to give them everything they want.

Third, there is a public sector quality problem as well. It is in the interests of public sector unions to shelter employees from oversight and threats to their job security, regardless of how well they perform. Teachers don’t want to be evaluated on the basis of student achievement and they don’t want subpar teachers to lose their jobs. The police feel the same way. So do sanitation workers, firefighters, and clerks in City Hall. While there are plenty of hard-working, committed people across the municipal workforce, the unions in which that workforce is organized have made it progressively more difficult for the city to manage its employees. That naturally leads to a decline in the quality of services rendered and to a corruption of the culture inside the workforce—again, despite the efforts of the many teachers, cops, and other public servants who continue to do their jobs with integrity.

When Chicago police commanders collude in the torturing of suspects, it’s gone way beyond “subpar performance”. The incentives are completely bolluxed up. When the commanders are charged and/or convicted of nothing and the civil penalties are paid primarily by the city, other than ordinary decency what is to stop the police from criminal behavior. The basic problem is the deficit in ordinary decency.

Chicago’s teachers have never presented a plan for improving Chicago’s schools. Wouldn’t you think that professionals have an obligation to do that? Why bother when it’s so much easier just to persuade city officials to fudge the statistics for you?

Fourth, cities today face entrenched cost problems that make economic growth both uneven and fragile. This is partly due to the rising cost of big city governance. It’s harder, for example, to repair the complex infrastructure on which a modern city depends than it is to keep the sewer and road systems running in a small town or a suburb. Those expensive services require high taxes and other costs, driving many kinds of employers away. Partly as a result, cities are losing their middle class populations. In many cities, inequality is rising, the middle class is shrinking, the power of public sector unions over the politics system is growing, and the population is becoming more divided by class antagonisms and ethnic identity politics without a strong middle class to anchor them.

Are there no economies of scale in cities? I think it’s obvious that there are—otherwise there would be no cities. I also think that a) economies of scale probably end at some point, presumably small than 8.5 million (or even 2.7 million) people and b) we’ve been thwarting those economies with subsidies to suburban and exurban development for the last sixty years. Indeed, quite a substantial chunk of our total economy is devoted to exploiting those subsidies.

Dr. Mead concentrates on the equivalent of “white flight”. The opposite is just as likely with gentrification of city centers and poverty being concentrated in a ring of suburbs. That’s what’s happened in Europe.

Fifth, native-born citizens, whatever their race, are moving out of many cities, as immigrants move in. This exacerbates income inequality, as in most cases first-generation immigrants (often without good English language skills or higher educational credentials) earn less than the native-born. It also exacerbates tensions between the unionized city work force that reflects the ethnic make-up of the previous generation and the more diverse incoming population. Immigration creates tension between the dominant ethnic groups in city politics (African-Americans in many cities) and newcomers, whether immigrants or highly-skilled affluent people drawn to the remaining dynamic, high-wage sectors of the local economy and to the richer cultural life that cities provide.

Forty years ago 4.5% of Americans were Hispanics. Now it’s about 17%. Obviously, the percentage who are native speakers of Spanish is much smaller than that. Urban schools are struggling to deal with the increase. And that’s just one language and one that’s fairly closely related to English at that.

Most of our immigration over that period has been from Mexico and much of the rest from Latin America. The demographics of Latin America strongly suggests that immigration won’t continue. Instead much of our immigration in the years ahead will be from Asia and Africa.

Many of those new immigrants won’t speak either English or Spanish. The languages they do speak will be much more different from either of the U. S.’s two major languages than English and Spanish are from each other.

35 years ago my wife’s first classroom in Los Angeles had eleven kids in it. Those kids had six different first languages. That’s the future of urban education in the United States. If you think we have problems now, just wait.

Sixth, cities have long been ruled by political machines, defying the efforts of progressives earlier in the 20th century to tame them. These machines can make good governance difficult, as the cases of Detroit and New Orleans, show. But even in a city like Chicago, where the machine has attempted to govern the city with attention to the promotion of economic development (as opposed to the suicidal emphasis on short-term looting that long characterized cities like Detroit), the ethnic and economic polarization of the city is making it harder for the machine to function “intelligently.” The imperatives of good governance and urban development push in one direction, but the forces that push toward short-termism, ethnic demagoguery, and fiscal irresponsibility are getting stronger.

There’s something that I think that many Americans, particularly libertarians, fail to understand. Corruption isn’t an aberration in our system. It’s the lubricant that makes our system work. It fills up the gaps, the inadequacies that are inevitable in any human creation operated by humans. Without it the gigantic system that is our society would seize up, fail to function at all.

Our problem is now one of scale. There is a limit to just how corrupt our society can be without it failing to function. A few hundred people filling phony jobs is one thing. When it gets to thousands (in Chicago) or millions (nationwide) its something else again.

Let’s return to synecdoche. The title of Dr. Mead’s post is “Why the Rahm Story Matters” but he doesn’t really explain why. The answer is that the story of Chicago and Rahm Emanuel is a synecdoche illustrating many of the problems with American society. It also is an exemplar of many of the things I write about in this blog. Why technocracy is an illusion. The challenges that immigration poses for us. Economics. Politics. What makes for an effective government.

Chicago’s problems are those we’re facing as a country. Synecdoche.

19 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds Link

    That was a particularly well-written post.

    It started me thinking about how much of this problem is a question of lines on a map. Chicago runs from Lake Forest down to the state line and west to about Naperville. There’s your stabilizing middle class, on the far side of an imaginary line.

    Of course that doesn’t address the eventual results of synecdoche.

  • steve Link

    Have to agree with most of this. Just a couple of comments. First, there was a drop in crime, especially violent crime in every other American city. I am inclined to believe it also dropped in Chicago, but the extent may be up for debate. I also doubt that active policing made much of a difference, that it was more likely lead, abortion or economics or something else.

    I suspect you might have seen this, but a number of people think the suburbs are facing even worse problems in the not too far off future.


  • I suspect you might have seen this, but a number of people think the suburbs are facing even worse problems in the not too far off future.

    As I wrote in the body of the post, that’s what I think is likely to happen. There’s already substantial gang activity in the close-in collar suburbs.

  • What were the odds that this week, both you and I would nominate posts with the obscure word “synecdoche” playing a central role?

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