Can Joshua Harris and the Greens fix Baltimore?

by Jehu

I have been boning up on the Green Party’s 2016 campaign, because it is the largest single radical Left party in the United States. Its fate will be a big influence on the radical Left going forward.

As part of that effort, I have been looking at what is for me the most promising Green Party election campaign this season: Joshua Harris, a former Democrat, who is now running for mayor of Baltimore on the Green Party ticket. Harris’s campaign brings together a number of threads I have been thinking about this year and last in the wake of the SYRIZA disaster in Greece.

The Green Party public banking initiative

The centerpiece of the Harris campaign is his proposal to set up a public bank in Baltimore using the rainy day fund as initial capital. He wants to use these funds to invest beyond the inner harbor. The centerpiece of his proposal for radical change is a public bank, modeled on a bank that has already been established in North Dakota. According to Harris, “[public] banking, essentially, takes the concept of traditional banks and brings it into the government sector.”

“Well, the entire platform is called Banking for Baltimore Undivided. And so–and it’s meant to address issues of race, class, and to build equity and opportunity for people and neighborhoods, and shift the power dynamic. So the banking is really the staple, the Banking for Baltimore Undivided.

And so public banking, essentially, takes the concept of traditional banks and brings it into the government sector. We want to, of course, keep the efficiency and the customer service base and have it run by professionals. But knowing that banks get wealthy off of your money and my money from being there, they take it and they make investments. Our city has a $3 billion operating budget. We currently have $90 million sitting in our rainy day fund that’s in a bank that is using it to make investments. Imagine if Baltimore City owned and controlled that bank, and was reaping the benefits of those investments, the type of wealth you would be able to [improve].”

According to Harris, it is unclear whether the city of Baltimore is even getting interest on those deposits or how much. Harris points out that, although Baltimore has never defaulted, it is now paying as much as 19% interest on its bonds. He offers the idea the city, once controlling its own bank, could, for instance, offer low interest loans to individuals to buy and rehabilitate housing and small business startups.

But wouldn’t this place the city’s meager rainy day funds at risk? Yes, he answer but these risks could be managed as in any normal banking situation.

Harris believes making loans to small businesses can boost economic growth, employment and provide jobs for residents, including many former prisoners returning to the community.

But how does this idea differ from what the city is already doing with investment in the inner harbor? Harris argues the inner harbor project has actually done very little to alleviate poverty and inequality. Public banking would allow the city to redirect resources to its communities where they are needed most:

“It’s time for the neighborhoods to be invested in and for the citizens who live here in Baltimore to really be invested in, not just for tourists.”

Moreover, he points out, millions are being poured into projects that have little or no impact on the social ills of the residents of Baltimore:

“We’re considering giving a billionaire half a billion of our dollars, or our tax dollars, to basically build another downtown on the other side of the water while we have an East Baltimore, West Baltimore that has no access to a mainstream public transit system or commuter rail to get east and west across the city.”

This development is touted as creating jobs, but, says Harris, these jobs will mostly be low waged, part-time jobs, that do not support workers and their families. Many of the best jobs are going to people living outside the city — Under Armour, for instance, has one person of color on its executive team in a city that is 70% African American and brown.

Why would Harris expect us to trust the government to invest any more rationally and efficiently than the private sector? Oddly, his answer is that the investment will be overseen by technocrats, “trained professional community bankers”, “and the citizens, for all intents and purposes, will provide the mission and the vision of the bank.”

This answer begged for a follow up, forcing Harris to explain the actual mechanism he believes will make this happen. However, the interviewer ended the discussion at this point.

Some comments on this interview.

The interviewer clearly tried to conduct an honest interview that forced Harris to answer some very difficult questions. To his credit, Harris did not duck the hard questions, although many of his answers were less than satisfying.

Radical parties looking to build grassroots organizations at the level of municipal government would do well to memorize this interview; these are the sorts of questions they will be forced to address if they want their election victory to mean more than a mere change of face.

The interviewer made an important point very early that Harris really was never able to address adequately:

“[The] issue with a lot of, you know, let’s–a lot of kind of progressive proposals are let’s reform this, let’s reform that, and all of that takes money. But there’s never obvious answers to where’s the money going to come from.”

This is the Achilles Heel of Harris’s program, that he never really had an answer for:  Where is the money coming from for his reforms?

Radicals cannot expect to run a poverty-stricken city like Baltimore based on the idea they will throw money at its problems. It is not going to work and radicals have no right to expect it to work after the catastrophe of the SYRIZA government. Moreover, the federal government and the state of Maryland are not going to simply stand by and let a radical government succeed in Baltimore — they will do everything they can to strangle a radical Harris administration.

Baltimore simply does not have the financial resources to spend its way out of poverty on its own, and in the face of stiff opposition from the two fascist parties, no matter how creative we get.

Unfortunately, the Green Party does not have a think-tank attached to it to think through this problem and come up with a solution. Harris and the Green party will have to figure out ways to employ non-financial measures to reduce poverty and unemployment in Baltimore.

What non-financial resources does the city have access to?

  • In first place, if the average American city is any guide, it is one of the largest employers in the city.
  • Second, it manages a host of lucrative contracts from vendors, contractors and others in the private sector.
  • Third, as Seattle proves, Baltimore can set minimum wages and benefits for firms doing business in the city.
  • Fourth, it can encourage self-employment through worker-owned co-ops, not just privately owned businesses.
  • Fifth, it can turn all of its political influence to organizing the unorganized into a massive city-wide union.
  • Sixth, as the largest owner of property in the city, it can hand abandoned buildings over to communities for co-operative development of housing.
  • Seventh, Baltimore should not just be studying how to reintegrate former prisoners into society, it should aim to stop the flow into prison.

Radicals have given little thought to how a radical local government can leverage its non-financial resources; we have to begin to approach radical change without the crutch of relying on bourgeois categories as SYRIZA did. Many radicals may not support the Green Party — personally, I am non-committal on it — but we should still brainstorm for them, if for no other reason than we will have to address the same issues if we intend to change anything ourselves.

I think the Greens in Baltimore need our ideas. You may not support the Green Party, but if you want radical change you will be forced to face the very same issue they are.