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Wall Street, Coming to Your Town! (and Destroying It)

Disastrous austerity isn't just a European thing.
 
 
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This article originally appeared in Dissent Magazine.

The European debt crisis, and the ensuing austerity-fueled chaos, can seem to Americans like a distant battle that portends a dark future. Yet a closer look reveals that the future is already here. American austerity has largely taken the form of municipal budget crises precipitated by predatory Wall Street lending practices. The debt financing of U.S. cities and towns, a neoliberal economic model that long precedes the current recession, has inflicted deep and growing suffering on communities across the country.

In July 2012, Mayor Christopher Doherty of Scranton, Pennsylvania, reduced all city employees’ salaries to the minimum wage. With a stroke of his pen, wages for teachers, firefighters, police, and other municipal workers, many of whom had been on the job for decades, dropped to $7.25 per hour. The city, the mayor explained, simply could not pay them more. Ron Allen, who reported the story for NBC Nightly News, repeated this assessment. Cities like Scranton,  he said, “just don’t have the money” to pay city employees more than the minimum wage. Officials blamed the crisis on a declining tax base, on reduced revenue from the state, and on public sector labor contracts that the city could no longer afford.

What does it mean to say that a former steel town in decline “just doesn’t have the money” to pay its bills? It means that it no longer has access to credit markets controlled by the big banks. For years, Scranton officials, like officials across the United States, have been selling municipal bonds to finance everything from basic services to development projects. Scranton’s problems careened out of control when they city’s parking authority threatened to default on its bonds. Wall Street responded aggressively by cutting off its credit line, and city workers paid a steep price. American-style austerity arrived in Scranton under the guise of budget cuts blamed on public employees, whose salaries and pensions had nothing to do with the economic crisis.

Scranton’s problems are hardly unique. Municipalities across the country are grappling with declining local tax revenue and reduced federal funding in an era when growth and development are equated with prosperity. This toxic mix has produced a $3.7 trillion municipal debt market, a revenue juggernaut for Wall Street. Municipal bonds are issued by virtually every city, county, and development agency in the United States. The number of taxpayer-backed bonds in circulation is five times higher than only ten years ago. This means that the world’s largest financial firms now hold the purse strings for everything from essential services like sewage treatment plants to large-scale developments such as sports arenas. Municipal bonds are extremely profitable for investors because they are tax-exempt and, like mortgages, can be packaged into securities.

How Did We Get Here?

Part of the municipal debt story can be traced to New York City’s 1975 fiscal crisis, when the city almost defaulted on its debt. New York was able to avoid bankruptcy at the last moment by issuing guaranteed bonds backed by public pension funds. As a result, the Emergency Financial Control Board, the municipal body that controlled the city’s bank accounts, was in the position of rewriting the social contract, exerting control over labor at every level. Union leadership agreed to the deal because they feared a bankruptcy filing would void labor contracts. Only after the city had disciplined the unions did the federal government move in with rescue loans.

New York City had been debt-financed since the 1960s. But the fiscal crisis of 1975 inaugurated a new funding paradigm for distressed municipalities: taxpayer-backed debt is issued to service the debt already on the books. American municipalities are now increasingly financed not with public money, but with private loans, and the pace of this shift has accelerated since 2008. The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities recently reported that thirty-one states will face unsustainable budget gaps in 2013.

 
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