Monday, August 22, 2011

Why Economic Planning and Economic Growth Matters

Crime Statistics for a small part of Oakland Ca (centered from our previous home) for the last month (July 22nd - August 22nd) from Oakland Crime Spotting:

There is a dangerous statistical analysis being propagated around the press based on some obviously fallacious presumptuous numbers which claims to show that crime rates (violent or otherwise) are headed down across the country for some number of years in spite of an unrelenting economic downturn.  Nominally, it could be the case that crime statistics can be shown to be falling. But no matter what those numbers say, the hard truth is they may not be very useful to understand our county or our country's economic future. I will explain.

Oakland, Ca is a city with a history that is really not that much different than Bellingham, WA. Both are "Bay cities" on the interior or 'hinterland' side of their bay.  Both were boom towns at a certain time that prospered by shipping natural resources (redwood and cedar respectively) to San Francisco and other destinations during their early years of development.  Both still maintain very high volume dollar shipping facilities that create a large portion of their counties respective GDP. Oakland has one of the largest containerized ports in world. Its rail connections ship east Asian goods across the country. Bellingham has two very significant refineries and an Aluminum plant.  It may well soon have a very significant coal terminal. Both cities depend upon public spending (Health, Education, Government) for creating opportunities for middle class families and employment. In reality, both host counties (Alameda and Whatcom) have significant minority populations. (Although we hardly notice our Hispanic and Native American populations here in Bellingham.) Both cities have an industrial history of a tough, gritty, abandoned downtown at some time in their past. Why then is it so much easier to raise your children today in Bellingham, WA?  Why would families choose to move here?

The answer is obvious to those of us who live here now. I can walk downtown through a still prosperous set of merchants, through a delightfully cute set of homes in the Cornwall, Columbia, Lettered Streets, CDB neighborhoods with so little fear of being mugged that it has taken me almost ten years of living here to adjust  to living without paranoia and fear that became second nature for me growing up in east Oakland. What  went wrong in Oakland? What did Bellingham do right?

That crime is primarily driven by lack of economic opportunity and poverty was driven home to me time and time again as a youth growing up in east Oakland. The more depressed the economy, the less employment opportunities, the higher the murder rate. The "institutionalization of narcotics trafficking" is the interface the funnels the destructive energy of unemployment, poverty, family disintegration, poor educational facilities in tough cities like Oakland, CA.  But it is not lack of wealth that drives crime.The Port of Oakland is a multi-billion dollar facility.  It is a wealth transfer and wealth creation machine that ships the commerce of the world to the Western United States and beyond.  Major banks and corporations have been and are still located in Oakland, Ca (American President Lines, Clorox, Kaiser Permanente are some notable historical examples.) Like Bellingham, Oakland is and has been a major terminus for BNSF and other rail lines.

Why do so many residents of Oakland live in poverty amidst such wealth driving infrastructure? Why is Oakland's downtown still a (euphemistic)  problematic stroll after dark and Bellingham's downtown an up and coming vibrant place to be? The reason for this is simple. During the last ten years, Whatcom County has managed to spread wealth to it middle classes, largely by importing income from (ex-urban,retiree and otherwise) immigrants, a growing (publicly subsidized) health and education sector and an (environmentally) activist population attentive to the needs of quality of life over excess development.  The answer for our prosperity and success here is not that we have spent per person more money suppressing crime than Oakland. We have paltry law enforcement budgets by comparison. We have a continually over-populated jail and yet we have little gang based activity by comparison. (Although, our SIU at BPD may tell you that there is actually more gang based activity that what appears on the surface...)

I once heard a Police Chief in Oakland deliver a speech to a local Chamber of Commerce.  The speech was forthright. He admitted that no matter how many officers he put on the streets, he could never lower the crime rate in Oakland's downtown as effectively as could economic growth and prosperity. His message was clear: The value of an economic policy that put many people walking and living downtown in clean, well light areas would always trump another few hundred officers on the street. Thus, Oakland rebuilt it's city center, stuffed innovative housing downtown, elected a very talented mayor (Jerry Brown, now the governor of California - again!) whose strategic economic policy was simple - "I want 10,000 people living and working downtown", Jerry told us. And he proceeded to do his best to achieve that.  Unfortunately, Oakland is a very large city and the problem of the "institutionalization of the narcotics trade" resembles that of malignant cancer. Once embedded, it is very, very hard to put into remission.  In some ways, Governor Brown may end up recalling his terms at governor as more successful than his terms at mayor. But as I have said, it is a tough city Oakland. Maybe even too tough for a San Franciscan like Governor Brown too fix. But thanks for helping, governor Brown. Really. We appreciate any one in Oakland who tries hard at urban renewal and job creation. Any success in those areas in Oakland has always required super human efforts.

Why am I recounting these lessons to you Bellinghammers? Because we should think very carefully about our economic future for the next ten or twenty years.  Your present daily life aside, we don't live in Brigadoon. The reality of recession, unemployment, poverty, crime, bankruptcy, and foreclosure is here with us now. It will get worse if we do not structure economic policies for employment and a vibrant downtown, despite whatever taxes and wealth 48 MMT of coal imports may funnel (or not) through  and over the heads of most people in the county.  At all costs, I would advise the citizens of Whatcom County to work hard to preserve the economic integrity of Bellingham's downtown. Crime and poverty once embedded in dense urban neighborhoods would spread like an affliction through the county. We do not have such crime now. It remains to be seen how running 25 miles of coal trains through our town each day would effect that calculus.


Expected Optimism said...

The fact that Oakland has nearly five times as many people as Bellingham, and about twice the population density, probably has something to do with the differing crime rates. It's also relevant that Oakland is just 8 miles from San Francisco, while Bellingham is about 8 miles from Ferndale. Not exactly apples to apples here.

Ryan M. Ferris said...

Thanks for your comment. No doubt Oakland is a big city with big city dynamics that Bellingham doesn't quite have yet. It is worth noting that we are positioned between two much larger metropolian (Seattle and Vancouver) areas in such a way that future expansion of Snohomish County (actually one of the top 100 most populous counties in the United States) and the South Delta area in B.C. (one of the fastest growing areas in Canada) could bring much more complex metropolitan dynamics here. We see some of these dynamics already since border crossings from B.C. are currently at an all time high (which is contributing to retail sales in Whatcom County extensively). Bellingham currently has little visible problem with gang activity. However, B.C. is notorious for "grow houses". "The Coke goes North and the Bud goes South" as Narcotics Agents say. And I have literally seen this exchange happen on my street here in Bellingham. I don't doubt for a minute that should our urban core deteriorate, that metropolitan dynamics typical of increased trafficking and drug use will accelerate.