Can anything pierce bulletproof urban policy?
It is not news that neoliberalism guides urban public policy-making today. Look no further than the headlines of any local newspaper that call for the privatization of public services Baltimore is a great example as the city has recently made plans to privatize its public housing. Calling it an opportunity for Baltimore residents, the mayor and other public officials have tried to convince residents that this approach can enable the cash-strapped city a chance at public dollars to rehabilitate its old buildings. What is left out is who will have access to those buildings once they are privatized. Advocates worry, rightly so, that the same people will no longer be able to afford living in those buildings. Again this is not new, it is in fashion to approach public policy in this way. Don’t believe me? Check to see who runs your city’s schools, public housing, or hospitals.
One way this has been possible is that there is public support for cost-saving projects. And why not? Making public services cheaper may mean lower taxes for residents. The problem with this argument is exactly what makes it so persuasive. Public services cost money. So, they must have a dollar value. The lower the dollar value, the cheaper the service, and cheaper is better for those paying for a service. But by limiting the value of public goods to their economic value, other benefits that public goods might have can easily be ignored. Whether it is a venue for civic participation, a social support, or historic preservation, the public value can be easily dismissed by narrowing the focus on the dollar value. Public schools close down. Public utilities, like water, become private.
Why should we care? Isn’t only poor folks and people of color who suffer from these policies? What is the alternative anyway? Isn’t neoliberalism bulletproof? To date, there have been limited alternatives proposed. One of the most promising has come from the Right to the City which proposes power-building among working people to control the institutions that they access and benefit from. How does this work? Stay tuned for a series of posts on ways folks are organizing for control of the institutions that are supposed to serve them.