There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
–“For What It’s Worth” by The Buffalo Springfield
“This isn’t about Michael Brown.”
Those words popped out of my mouth as I watched the Sunday evening news with my dad. It was August 10.
Full-scale rioting hadn’t erupted, but the battle lines were drawn: police on one side, people, mostly young people, on the other.
There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking’ their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
St. Louis County has 91 municipalities. On the other side of the state, Jackson County, similar in area and population to St. Louis County, has 14.
Those 91 municipalities compete with their neighbors for business and residents. And revenue. To compete, these cities promise services and systems to current and potential residents.
Services and systems cost money.
For decades, especially the decades after World War II, cities like Ferguson relied on burgeoning populations and suburban migration to fund municipal services. To attract housing developers, shopping mall developers, and manufacturers, cities built skating rinks, water parks, and recreation centers from the late 1940s to late 1990s–the post-war.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I re-read the paragraph three or four times to make sure I got it right. Then, I put the book down to ponder its meaning.
Thomas Barnett, a Harvard and Pentagon Russian scholar, wrote a book in 2003 about the post-Cold War era. The book is fantastic, but one idea stood out:
World human population would reach its peak around 2050.
Why did that knock me on keester?
For all of human history, human population only grew. Sure, some catastrophes temporarily knocked the people count back a bit: the black plague, the Spanish Flu, WWII. But those were rare, mass disasters. What Barnett predicted is not a disaster, but a part of human evolution: Peak Humanity.
The consequences of falling population are huge, and only a few scholars even to think about what it might mean. Some consequences:
* Aging population * Rising healthcare costs as a percentage of total spending * Housing gluts * Falling aggregate demand for goods and services * Abandoned cities * Shortage of physical laborers * Reduced wealth * Government defaults * Empty pension accounts
To some degree, civilization is a Ponzi scheme. As long as the next generation is bigger than the last, everything’s cool.
We borrowed money in the 1950s and 1960s to build huge high schools. Then, the high school population peaked in 1982, the year I graduated. (Coincidentally, drug use and teen drinking also peaked that year.) Because of that, my alma mater, Bishop DuBourg High School, has a completely unused 4th floor and lots of repurposed classroom space on the other floors. Built in the 1950s to house 3,000 students, the building now hosts fewer than 600–about the size of my graduating class.
The Millennials will be the largest generation in American history. And the first wave of Millennials are in their 30s.
What’s become clear to me since reading Barnett’s book in 2004 is that Peak Humanity is unevenly distributed.
Japan reached its zenith in the 1980s–and its economy stagnated. Europe peaked in the 1990s–and its economy stagnated. The United States, ex-immigration, sits at its peak right now.
Why does it matter? As geopolitical strategist George Friedman points out in his book Then Next 100 Years:
Traditionally, declining population has meant declining power. For Europe, this will indeed be the case. But for other countries, like the United States, maintaining population levels, or finding technological ways to augment a declining population, will be essential if political power is be retained in the next hundred years.
While Friedman and Barnett concerned themselves with national and global issues of population decline, we can scale down the effects of shrinking populations to the municipal or even township level.
Detroit, for example, was the wealthiest city in the world for half of the twentieth century. Not New York or London, but Detroit. The automobile, geography, and prohibition contributed to Detroit’s economic power, but population growth was both a cause and an effect.
Where is Detroit today? Since the 1950s, Detroit has lost more than 60 percent of its population. At first, people moved to the suburbs. More recently, people have fled the region entirely. Detroit is bankrupt, and its political leaders are looking for ways to dismantle much of the city’s buildings and infrastructure.
St. Louis City has lost almost two-thirds of its population over the same period. Like Detroit, the exodus to the suburbs, like Ferguson, kept the region strong. But St. Louis County has been losing population since the late 1990s, and that trend is likely to continue. If St. Louis County re-absorbs St. Louis City in the future, that population decline will accelerate.
What’s more important than the macro-migration pattern is the micro-migration pattern. The middle class moves the farthest and the fastest. The wealthy follow. The poor stay. As the city declines, rich liberals push government to provide more and more services to the remaining poor. Businesses push government to provide more attractions and distractions to pull in revenue from visitors. But the tax base shrinks.
As the wealthy finally abandon the decaying cities, power shifts to community representatives of the poor–representatives whose only skill is pushing government for more poverty programs, services, and hand-outs. But they demand these services of governments facing shrinking tax bases.
What happens next? At this point, cities turn their police departments into tax collectors. Contemporary Sheriffs of Nottingham who take from the poor and give to the government. “To protect and serve,” comes to mean “to protect the government’s revenue and to serve warrants upon the indigent.”
Growing up in South St. Louis with a father who served on the St. Louis Police Department for a decade, we learned to respect police officers. The Officer Friendly program brought city police into schools to talk to kids about their jobs.
By the time we got our driver’s licenses, we were experts at navigating around St. Louis’s infamous speed traps. Marlborough, a tiny village just outside the city limits along Watson Road and home of the Coral Courts Motel, was the most notorious.
Marlborough rose along Route 66 and prospered during America’s westward migration. Post-war travellers to the Grand Canyon and magical California breathed economic life into towns Marlborough. By 1970, I-70, the nation’s first interstate highway, conspired with air travel to starve Marlborough of its primary source of revenue: transient vacationers.
Wanting to hold onto its power despite its transient population decline, Marlborough’s leaders ironically turned upon the very instrument of its growth: the car and driver. With fewer visitors to its hotels, restaurants, and shops, Marlborough set up multiple speed traps and confusing traffic ordinances to extract money from drivers, resident or not.
As young drivers, often hauling a cooler of Micholob Light in the trunk, we avoided Marlborough like the plague.
Since the early 80s, more speed traps have emerged in St. Louis County. Ballwin, Bel-Ridge, Breckenridge Hills, St. Ann, Bridgeton, Beverly Hills, Glendale, and many more.
The city police still have a reputation for using the traffic ticket for safety. But the city police are dying breed. If St. Louis County is increasingly a modern day Nottinghamshire where police officers use the power of their office to tax residents through tickets for petty ordinance violations.
On top of the onerous ticketing policies, municipal courts serve as backup revenue generators. Florissant recently held traffic court in a school gymnasium because of so many defendants. The courts assess contempt fines for bizarre violations, like clothing, chewing gum, and even talking quietly to a neighbor. A fifty-dollar ticket can quickly turn in to a $800 fine with contempt and failure to appear charges.
One woman told me her grandmother was cited for leaving three trash cans at the curb after 3:00 pm on trash day. The fine was $150 per can, or $450. The woman couldn’t afford to pay and she doesn’t go out after dark, so she missed her court date. A warrant and a $600 fine for failure to appear.
Whatever that woman was taught to think of police officers as a little girl in 1950s, imagine her opinion of the profession today. Imagine her “respect” for the court system? For the rule of law?
I think it’s time we stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look - what’s going down?
“This isn’t about Michael Brown.”
And it never was. The riots of August were about big government. They were about governments that gorged themselves on growing populations, bribed residents with services and distractions that governments should never offer, and politicians who bought loyalty with high-paying, taxpayer-funded jobs. Now, those governments feed off the poor to maintain the government’s bloated lifestyle.
Michael Brown was only a spark. Tax-collection through police was the kindling. Abusive municipal courts were the gasoline.
Now, Ferguson plans to pay for clean-up efforts with … you guessed … increased fines.
I couldn’t believe the opening paragraph of this story from Bloomberg:
Ferguson, Missouri, which is recovering from riots following the August shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman, plans to close a budget gap by boosting revenue from public-safety fines and tapping reserves.
The stupidity of government knows no bounds. It’s time we stop.
And now for my favorite song from the 60s