Monday, July 13, 2009

Shrinking Flint

Heard this story on NPR this morning on my way to work: the city planners of Flint, MI are considering "shrinking" the city in order to improve it.

Great idea. Of course, the city has already shrunk:

At its peak, Flint was home to General Motors, with a growing population of some 200,000 people and 80,000 auto industry jobs. Today, the population is about half what it once was, and only a few thousand auto jobs remain. More than one-third of the homes in Flint have been abandoned.

The people of Flint have voted with their feet. The story is really not about whether to "shrink" Flint but whether to accept what has already happened and tear down the abandoned buildings that have been left behind.

The whole thing is fraught with the sort of problems that come from rampant progressivism.
Given the pain of urban renewal policies of the 1960s, which decimated many inner-city neighborhoods, Mallach says it's understandable that residents would be suspicious of grand government plans like this.

Yes, well, of course. People are broadly conservative in the sense that they favor preserving the status quo. Most people are not in favor of radical change. By putting the government in charge of too many city functions, though, it's harder to adjust to changing times. Decisions that should be economic become political, with their various interest groups and factions. Eventually, the status quo becomes bad enough that radical change really is called for, and you end up with a situation like this. It's the national health care debate writ small.

For his part, County Treasurer Kildee says there is no official plan to shrink Flint yet — it's just an idea that makes sense. But he says that whatever happens, nobody would be forced to move.

"If they choose to live where the population is essentially gone, we need to give them something green and beautiful," Kildee says.

"But give them the choice to relocate into a denser, more high-functioning neighborhood. That's really the point of all this: The people who live in these neighborhoods deserve better. We have to think about what's in their interest."

It's worth taking a moment to translate the political doublespeak into plain English: You can keep living where you want, Kildee says, but we're going to stop providing you with certain government services (what else do you think he means by a "more high-functioning neighborhood"?). Of course, you'll still be paying the same sales and income taxes (yes, Flint has a city income tax of 1%, on top of Michigan's state income tax of 4.35% - I wonder if that might have anything to do with the state's deinvestment problem?). So don't move - suckers. Sure, Kildee says, "we need to to give [people who stay in sparsely-populated areas] something green and beautiful", but isn't it telling that he doesn't mention that they'll have city government services?

And that would be fine. What really needs to be shrunk is the Flint, MI city government. And in a sense, that's what they want to do: the amount of tax revenue per acre is now so low that providing the current level of government is not feasible at the current density. But the response is perverse: rather than reduce the level of government, they want to increase the density. But this won't address the reason Flint is shrinking: high taxes, an anti-business regulatory environment, and an addiction to an automotive industry that (it needs to be admitted) isn't coming back to Flint.

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