Radical Reading: Detroit – I Do Mind Dying

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Roland Dodds

Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular inactive at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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  1. Avatar j r says:

    The book focuses on radical black organizing in Detroit between 1967-1974, mostly around the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a faction of activists working in the city’s industrial core. Unabashedly radical Marxist-Leninist (with a smattering of Maoism, as was popular in its day)…

    Great post. This 60s and 70s are a fascinating period in American history because they shaped so much of the present, but the high level narrative obscures so much.

    Also, the longer that I work in economic policy and development the more I wonder what could have been if so many 20th century revolutionaries had not bought into such dead end economic ideas.Report

    • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to j r says:

      I’ve never considered that question but really is an interesting one.

      I’ve only been thinking about it for a couple of minutes now so I don’t have any bright ideas, but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

        My current job involves economic analysis of African countries, so it is something that I think about a lot. Some of the same set of historical and cultural forces played out in the developing world as did in U.S. cities. Basically, those folks most committed to social justice and equality tend to have explicitly leftist and state-centered ideas about economics. There is a bit of path dependency here as the folks most likely to speak in favor market-based solutions and free enterprise also happened to be some of the people most indifferent, or worst, to social change.

        There are historical reasons why this is the case, but there is no real reason why it has to be. In my mind, if you care about poverty, then you don’t hobble yourself by taking a whole range of possible interventions off the table for ideological reasons. Unfortunately, lots of people care much more about ideological confrontation than they do about poverty alleviation or individual empowerment.

        I once watched a PBS documentary on a housing rights movement in Newark. Basically, slumlords were charging residents of the poorest neighborhoods for sub-standard housing and just refusing to do maintenance and repairs. Activists came in and did the usual sort of thing that you would expect: protests, picket lines, law suits. Makes sense, but I remember thinking that there could have been a natural arbitrage opportunity. To me, a community full of under-employed people and neighborhood full of buildings desperately in need of repair shouts out for creative approaches, but the folks who came in to fight for the residents didn’t think that way. They were lawyers and activists who felt that it was the government’s job to take care of people and that’s how they organized.

        Fortunately, things have changed. People who work in economic development today are much more attuned to looking at a range of possible interventions. And much of community development today is focused on increasing access to finance, so that small and medium sized enterprises can be the catalyst for economic growth and employment.Report

        • Avatar Roland Dodds in reply to j r says:

          Interesting question. Part of the reason for those forces for social change adopting a statist, top-down model was the need to be seen as doing something by the populace. If you have a population of people struggling to survive, they are going to demand the government take action to address those problems (even if those state actions may hurt the state in the long run).Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to j r says:

          My current job involves economic analysis of African countries, so it is something that I think about a lot. Some of the same set of historical and cultural forces played out in the developing world as did in U.S. cities. Basically, those folks most committed to social justice and equality tend to have explicitly leftist and state-centered ideas about economics. There is a bit of path dependency here as the folks most likely to speak in favor market-based solutions and free enterprise also happened to be some of the people most indifferent, or worst, to social change.

          I think that saying that free market advocates are likely to be indifferent or worst to social change is putting it mildly. When usenet was still a thing, I participated in alt history group. When we discussed alternative histories regarding the developing world, the more free market oriented posters always advocated that the Africa should have been under European control longer because of reasons that are best life unmentioned. By the 1960s, this wasn’t going to fly. The populations of the colonies were politically aware and wanted self-rule and most European governments didn’t want to be involved in a perpetual war over their overseas territories besides Portugal.

          Report

        • Avatar Art Deco in reply to j r says:

          I once watched a PBS documentary on a housing rights movement in Newark. Basically, slumlords were charging residents of the poorest neighborhoods for sub-standard housing and just refusing to do maintenance and repairs.

          Landlords aren’t price makers. The ‘standard’ is question is what, set by whom?

          As for the maintenance and repairs, what was their tax bill and how much rent could they actually collect?

          shouts out for creative approaches,

          Why not exhaust your non-creative approaches first?

          1. Rank-order your census block groups according to per capita income or per household income (if that’s the only metric available). Suspend the collection of property taxes in the most impecunious block groups for the decennium; with regard to those block groups occupying a stratum just above that of the most impecunious, collect property taxes, but at a rate of assessment half that you do for those section of the city where taxes are neither suspended nor abated. The lowest stratum should comprehend 15% of the population of the dense metropolitan settlement and the transitional stratum 5%. Assess all properties periodically in the interim. Adjust the remission and abatement zone every 10 years, giving property holders two years advance notice before changing the status of their property.

          2. Barring property in urban remission and abatement zones, assess taxes at the same rate on all property. Arrange for philanthropic agencies to be fully re-imbursed by the state government out of state sales tax revenues (for that reason, the state attorney-general must be permitted to contest assessments on philanthropic agency’s property). Make public agencies liable for taxes to governments in which their property nestles, and have this liability incorporated into their budgets.

          3. Allow municipal governments and school districts to assess simple income taxes up to a capped rate. The cap would depend on how much of the assessed valuation was in an abatement and remission zone. Suburban townships outside such a zone would not have a franchise to collect local income taxes.

          4. Supplement the collections of municipal governments and school districts with general revenue sharing. In lieu of special-purpose grants in aid, distribute state sales tax revenue to local districts according to a formula which combines district pci, district resident population, and district school-age population. Do the same regarding county governments, making use of a formula which combines pci and resident population, and have them do the same regarding their component municipalities. The global distribution would be discretionary, the formula, fixed. An average municipality might receive (say) $400 per capita, an impecunious one $800 per capita, and an affluent one nothing. As for fines at all levels, deposit them in a dedicated fund and then empty the fund at the end of the fiscal year, remitting its contents to direct tax payers on a per capita or per household basis.

          5. Transfer certain functions from municipal government to county government, e.g the mass transit service, the police force, the child protective service; and planning and zoning decisions regarding heavy industry, commercial developments larger than 40 acres, developments along arteries, and downtown development.

          6. Amend zoning and building codes along lines suggested by Mark Hinshaw, in core cities especially. Hinshaw’s quite particular about mixed use, maintaining that heavy industry is really the only thing that needs to be segregated. He also maintains that some health-and-safety regulations fail a cost-benefit assessment when one is considering housing for the impecunious and that one effect of cookie-cutter codes has been to reduce the number of housing types which are effective options for the impecunious. How often do you see boarding houses, flop houses, apartments with shared kitchens, &c?

          7. Send supplementary street sweeping crews into slum neighborhoods to hoover up trash in the streets and vacant lots, identify and cite property owners for graffiti, and (after a decent interval) sandblast graffiti off the sides of buildings and bill the owner. Cite and fine owners for broken windows.

          8. Eschew public housing and housing subsidies (as well as grocery and utility subsidies). If you’re concerned about income levels in the slums, adjust the tax rates and institute and amended EITC.

          9. Eschew rent control. Where it exists already, allow rents to increase pari passu with nominal personal income per capita in the county in question and grant landlords a franchise to purchase the rent-control rights of a tenant with a lump sum, putting a unit on the free-market going forward.

          10. Arrange for an amply funded parastatal legal aid society, but write the landlord-tenant law such that welshing tenants and destructive tenants can be evicted toute de suite. Make analogous adjustments regarding the law of foreclosures. Don’t be New York.

          11. Expand your police presence in slum neighborhoods, and train police in best practices. If you’re complaining about ‘mass incarceration’, adjust your priorities. New York’s experience suggests that a homicide rate of 13 per 100,000 in a slum neighborhood is a realizable goal.

          12. Fix mean compensation per worker among public employees to 110% of that of private sector employees within the geographic ambo within which a local government nestles. Move from defined benefit to defined contribution plans re retirement programs for public employees. Require that any individual compensation package exceeding the 96th percentile in value vis a vis private sector compensation per worker in a given ambo receive the approval each year of a majority of the elected members of the local council in question, with the yeas and nays for each member recorded.Report

          • Avatar j r in reply to Art Deco says:

            Why not exhaust your non-creative approaches first?

            All that stuff sounds great, but what does it look like when you actually try to implement it in real life?

            And that doesn’t have to be a rhetorical question. We can look at how other anti-poverty interventions were implemented as a guide.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to j r says:

      It was probably inevitable that most of the colonial independence movements would adopt different forms of socialism as an economic policy. Most of the people in the colonies associated capitalism with colonial exploitation rather than how the average person in the United States saw it. The citizenry of the new countries had decades experiencing most of the down sides of capitalism and markets with few of the upsides. Even in Europe, there were millions of people that had a more intimate experience with the negatives rather than positives of capitalism compared to the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Its why anti-capitalist sentiment ran stronger. The arguments made by the socialists were more convincing because of this. The tendency of the capitalist and market advocates in the mid-20th century to be blind towards colonialism and racism did not help.

      Another issue is that while adopting market policies would probably have paid off in the medium and long run, very few politicians are going to have the courage to induce nation wide delayed gratification. Expectations were high after the colonies one their independence and people wanted the good life now after decades of colonial domination and exploitation. Market economics would have required deferring this for at least several years while socialism promised instant gratification.

      Finally, socialist economics didn’t look as dunder-headed in the mid-20th century as they do now. Hindsight is twenty/twenty but the USSR made a convincing argument that socialism works at the time. The Bolsheviks were able to turn a very agricultural and hierarchical society with low levels of literacy into a very educated industrial society capable of putting people into space within decades. Many of the most ardent anti-Communists during the mid-20th century actually feared that communism could work and that is why it must be defeated. Only a few passionate capitalists thought that communism was going to fail big.Report

  2. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Though anyone writing in *1999* that an explicitly left-wing and aspirationally revolutionary movement was ‘ahead of its time’ were themselves, ahead of their time.

    the black revolution of the sixties had finally arrived at one of the most vulnerable links of the American economic system-the point of mass production, the assembly line.

    That this is no longer the case is what most Berners and like minded people forget.

    Though on the other hand, the wiser heads know that organizing public sector workers is where the critical node of power lies these days.Report

  3. Avatar aaron david says:

    Great piece Roland.

    My wife was born in Detroit, one of those Polish kids. Her parents left not long after, looking for a better life. Ended up in the hinterlands of northern California, Oroville, Chico, places like that. This helps explain why.Report

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