Baltimore—Saving a City

Few serious problems have a single explanation or cure. The decay of large parts of Baltimore is no exception. An interesting article in the Washington Post explores the diligent efforts of its former mayor, later the governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley to fix it. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/baltimores-blight-puts-omalley-on-defensive-in-bid-for-presidency/2015/05/29/9dffe1d0-0541-11e5-8bda-c7b4e9a8f7ac_story.html. The Baltimore mayor depicted in the TV series The Wire, Tommy Carcetti, was inspired by O’Malley. (I was surprised after watching five seasons of the Game of Thrones to learn that the actor who played Carcetti in The Wire, Aidan Gillen, is Littlefinger in the Game of Thrones. His O’Malley character in The Wire was much more interesting.)

O’Malley went after the usual suspects, improving transportation and other infrastructure, improving education, etc. – all of the things we look to government to provide in the name of equal opportunity for all. He also instituted tough policing inspired by the “Broken Windows” theory first expounded by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1982. This introduced the intensive use of “stop, question, and frisk” of recent controversy in NYC. In retrospect, the approach alienated the police from the communities they were supposed to protect, and was much in the news when 25 year old African-American Freddie Gray died in April from injuries received while in police custody. His funeral in Baltimore was followed by riots that did much damage to the already impoverished neighborhood in which he lived.

What was almost totally missing from the Post article was the need for jobs. While the over all unemployment rate for metropolitan Baltimore is only slightly above the U.S. average (5.7% compared to 5.6%), black unemployment is dramatically higher. “For young black men between the ages of 20 and 24, the unemployment rate was an astounding 37% in 2013, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s compared with 10% for white men of the same age.” (CNN Money) Much of the city’s heavy industry and the jobs they provided (steel processing, shipping, auto manufacturing, and transportation) left Baltimore decades ago. Many workers moved with those jobs but some stayed. The increase in service economy jobs of recent years employs workers with different and generally higher level skills than did the lost manufacturing jobs. Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital are now Baltimore’s largest employers. Baltimore’s population peaked at around 950,000 in 1950 and dropped to 622,000 in 2013. Improving Baltimore’s infrastructure for those who have stayed is pointless if they can’t find jobs.

It is not that infrastructure and education are not important. They are important both for the quality of life and for attracting enterprises that provide jobs. But they are only part of the package companies consider when deciding where to locate. The cost of providing and maintaining them relative to their quality is important as well, and education needs to be relevant for the jobs potentially attracted. Taxes, both state and local are an important port of the cost of doing business. When companies evaluate where to locate new facilities they will want the best bang for their buck. Maryland is an expensive state (35th from the top in CNBC’s list of the best states for doing business). During his term as governor of Maryland O’Malley:
• Raised the top personal income tax rate from 4.75 to 5.75 percent. With local taxes on top, Maryland’s top rate is 8.95 percent.
• Raised the corporate tax rate from 7.0 to 8.25 percent.
• Raised the sales tax rate from 5 to 6 percent and expanded the sales tax base.
• Raised the sales tax rate on beer, wine, and spirits by 50 percent.
• Raised the gas tax by 20 cents over four years, almost doubling the rate from 23.5 cents.
• Doubled the cigarette tax from $1 to $2 per pack.
• Imposed higher taxes on vehicle registration.
• Imposed a storm water mitigation fee on property owners, or a “rain tax.”
(Chris Edwards: Cato)

The quality of government services in Maryland, however, is also fairly high. Last year I incorporated my consulting business in Maryland as an LLC. It took me 30 minutes on line sitting in my office from start to finish, including the email delivery of the signed and sealed document of incorporation. In addition, the cost of property and labor in Baltimore is low. This is a natural market reaction to the loss of industry and residence. The city’s efforts to revive its poorer neighborhoods also need to focus on improving its competitive advantage as a place for businesses to locate.

About wcoats

Dr. Warren L. Coats specializes in advising central banks on monetary policy, and in the development of their capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy. He is retired from the International Monetary Fund, where, as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department, he led missions to over twenty countries. Before then, he served as Visiting Economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and to the World Bank, and was Assistant Prof of Economics at the Univ. of Virginia from 1970-75. Most recently he was Senior Monetary Policy Advisor to the Central Bank of Iraq; an IMF consultant to the central banks of Afghanistan, Kenya and Zimbabwe; and a Deloitte/USAID advisor to the Government of South Sudan. He is currently a member of the Editorial Board of the Cayman Financial Review and until the end of 2013 was a member of the IMF program team for Afghanistan. His most recent book is entitled "One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina."
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2 Responses to Baltimore—Saving a City

  1. Publius says:

    Warren,

    Lavish public spending targeted to Baltimore by Mayor/Governor O’Malley, and Mayor/Governor William Donald Shaefer before him, did not evidently improve living conditions, health care or educational facilities, or career opportunities for the underclass. From personal experience, I can attest that downtown Baltimore is a “happening” urban environment — clean and well-policed, with lots of “Bobo” pedestrian traffic, good restaurants, and a lively night life. Maybe that’s where the infrastructure spending went, because Baltimore’s minority neighborhoods — “The ‘Hood” — do not seem to have changed much in decades. Granted, my experience of the latter is largely limited to riding through North Baltimore on Amtrak, but it still looks bombed out, with every third house abandoned or burned out, battered parks and playgrounds, barely paved streets, and uncollected trash on every corner. Education spending is another case of “where did all the money go?” According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Baltimore City spent $17,196 per student compared to Fairfax County’s $13,593 in most recent year for which data are available. Who benefited here? Contractors? School administrators? Tenured, unionized teachers? It certainly wasn’t the students. The mantra of modern progressivism is that more public spending will cure what ails us, but all that money did little to help Baltimore.

    Publius

  2. Sergio Pombo says:

    Warren,I have been a fan of Baltimore of many years despite its limitations. It has many great museums, Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters, and many more. A large problem of Baltimore as you mention is the lack of jobs. For instance, its ports, once a thriving engine of the economy, is slowly dying. It needs substantial investment. Worse yet its young people, specifically the male African American citizens’ drop out school ratio is extremely high; then, they fall pray of drugs and dealing, they are arrested, pay jail time, and forever they cannot get a good job. I still go antiquing to Baltimore. I believe that places like Brewers Art and the Owl must be visited. I trust that all is not wasted and that the city will find its resurgence.

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