Rich Lowry: Baltimore, a Great Society failure

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Sunday, May 3, 2015 5:46pm
  • Opinion

President Barack Obama responded to the Baltimore riots with a heartfelt bout of self-righteous hectoring.

Supposedly, we all know what’s wrong with Baltimore and how to fix it, but don’t care enough. Not only is this attitude highhanded, it rests on a flagrantly erroneous premise.

President Obama doesn’t have the slightest idea how to fix Baltimore. His solutions fall back on liberal bromides going back 50 years. Dating back to the Kerner Commission after the riots of the 1960s, the left’s go-to solution to urban problems has been more social programs. Since then, we’ve gotten more social programs — and just as many urban problems.

Exhibit A is Baltimore itself. The city hasn’t been “neglected.” It has been misgoverned into the ground. It is a Great Society city that bought fully into the big-government vision of the 1960s, and the bitter fruit has been corruption, violence and despair.

We don’t know all the facts surrounding Freddie Gray’s tragic death. But as a general matter, it is easy to believe that the Baltimore police are corrupt, dysfunctional and unaccountable — because most of the Baltimore government is that way.

This is a failure exclusively of Democrats, unless the root causes of Baltimore’s troubles are to be traced to its last Republican mayor, Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, who left office in 1967. And it is an indictment of a failed model of government.

The city has been shedding jobs and people for decades, including in the 1990s when the rest of the country was booming.

Baltimore is a high-tax city, with malice aforethought. “Officials raised property taxes 21 times between 1950 and 1985,” Steve Hanke and Stephen Walters of Johns Hopkins University write in The Wall Street Journal, “channeling the proceeds to favored voting blocs and causing many homeowners and entrepreneurs — disproportionately Republicans — to flee. It was brilliant politics, as Democrats now enjoy an eight-to-one voter registration advantage.”

To counterbalance the taxes, they note, developers need to be lured to the city with subsidies, and the developers, in turn, contribute to politicians to stay in their good graces. This makes for fertile ground for the city’s traditional corruption.

Baltimore’s preferred driver of growth has been government. Urban experts Fred Siegel and Van Smith write in City Journal that Baltimore has “emphasized a state-sponsored capitalism that relies almost entirely on federal and state subsidies, rather than market investments.” The model makes for high-profile development projects, but trickle-down crony capitalism hasn’t worked for everyone else.

At the same time, the city has failed at the basic functions of government.

Mayor Kurt Schmoke, in office for three terms beginning in the late 1980s, was notoriously soft on crime. Siegel and Smith write, “During the nineties, tolerant Baltimore’s crime rate, much of it drug-fueled, rocketed upward (75 percent of the city’s murders were drug-related); tough-on-crime New York’s plummeted.”

Under Mayor Martin O’Malley’s subsequent, more strenuous policing, the crime rate dropped. But it is still a violent city. Baltimore has the fifth-highest murder rate among cities with a population of 100,000 or more.

The schools, predictably, are a disaster, run by and for the teachers unions.

On top of all this, two-thirds of births in the city are out-of-wedlock. Toya Graham is being rightly celebrated for smacking her 16-year-old son and getting him out of the streets during the rioting. You can admire her pluck and still be daunted by the challenges she faces as a single mother of six.

What is Obama offering in response to this deep, decades-long decline? Among other things, more pre-K education and job training, even though these programs have a long history of ineffectiveness.

The imperative in Baltimore should be to think and act anew. But the left’s takeaway will be that there’s an urgent need for more of the same, as Baltimore and places like it continue to rot.

 

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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