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Amy Traub

Reason Sells Snake Oil to Cleveland

Privatize! Deregulate! Cut taxes! And get rid of the damn unions! Does the free market/small government mantra sound familiar? The only things missing are calls for “free” trade and tight monetary policy, and they’re absent only because we’re not talking about conservative dictates for the federal government here. Instead, this is how the libertarian magazine Reason purports to “save” the city of Cleveland.

In a series of splashy video segments featuring Drew Carey, editor Nick Gillespie walks us through the talking points. To repair Cleveland’s deficient k-12 education system, Reason promotes charter schools. Yet Cleveland already has charter schools, which have a decidedly mixed record. Reason, of course, showcases the most successful. Not discussed is the fact that Cleveland is also the home of a long running experiment with school vouchers -- a policy otherwise lauded by Reason. Why hasn’t that saved Cleveland yet?

Reason’s next suggestion is that Cleveland privatize its public assets. The model here? Unbelievably, it’s Chicago’s disastrous privatization of its parking meters, which the Illinois Inspector General found were leased for $1 billion less than they were worth. Meanwhile, the cost to park in Chicago is on its way to quadrupling. Clevelanders, how would you like to feed 26 quarters into the meter for an hour of parking?

Finally, Reason argues, to create jobs Cleveland ought to cut business and zoning regulations and generally start operating a lot more like the city of Houston, where the local economy is faring better. Cleveland, of course, lacks Houston’s sunny climate, is devoid of oil, and isn’t near the Gulf of Mexico (the Port of Houston, a major job magnet, ranks first in U.S. foreign-waterborne commerce). Nevertheless, Reason suggests, emulating Houston’s libertarian policy choices will produce comparable economic outcomes. Yet there is at least one more Houston advantage that Clevelanders do well to envy: all those federal government jobs (unmentioned in the Reason videos, needless to say).

Johnson Space Center alone employs 3,000 Houston residents and 12,000 contractors in the region. Cleveland’s rapidly downsizing John Glenn Research Center doesn’t come close. All told, 15% of Houston residents were on the public payroll in 2009: when it comes to job creation, employment by the local, state, and federal governments was ahead of every other sector of the Houston economy except one. Meanwhile in Cleveland, three major economic sectors outpaced the government in number of people employed, while the public sector employed a lower percentage of residents overall than in Houston. So much for the showpiece of small government.

There’s no doubt that Cleveland is a city in trouble. But Reason’s facile cures are far from offering a path to renewed growth and vibrancy. Instead, Cleveland is devising innovative solutions of its own, which build on the strengths of its local institutions to create good jobs, invest in communities that sorely need it, and work to improve local and global environmental conditions. It’s not as straightforward as Reason's cookie cutter directives to deregulate, privatize and cut taxes, but if the model catches fire across the country, Cleveland’s homegrown solutions may wind up saving us all.

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Posted at 10:14 AM, Mar 22, 2010 in Economy | public services
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