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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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Few public assets are safe from Wall Street’s profit imperative. Public transportation has long been a cash cow for investors. Since 2008, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has lost over $600 million as a result of interest rate swaps with JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, and other big banks. As a result, thousands of transit workers have lost their jobs and hundreds of bus and subway lines have been cut. That is not enough to satisfy the bond market. In March 2013 New York transit riders can expect a new round of fare hikes. Most subway and bus riders are working-class New Yorkers, immigrants, and people of color. They will soon pay even more for the privilege of lining Jamie Dimon’s pockets.

The MTA is not the only municipal organization in the country that runs on debt. The Refund Transit Coalition, a public transportation advocacy group, has uncovered at least 1,100 of these swaps at more than 100 government agencies costing taxpayers $2.5 billion a year. None is more indebted than Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). The story is a familiar one: in 2000 state legislators ended most public subsidies for the MBTA, which was additionally saddled with almost $2 billion in debt, much of it left over from the infamous Big Dig. Wall Street was happy to provide loans so the MBTA could maintain the system’s aging infrastructure and finance expansions.

Twelve years later, Boston’s transit authority spends 33 cents of every dollar it takes in to service its debt. Lawmakers, who have learned the lessons of Scranton all too well, are unwilling to challenge Wall Street. Instead, they have proposed cutting services and raising fares by as much as 43 percent. No one believes this represents a long-term solution. As  one Occupy Boston activist noted, “the MBTA has never even asked the banks and bondholders who continue to profit from the [transit system’s] enormous debt to take a similar cut, effectively giving the banks a ‘free ride,’ while forcing T riders—working people, the unemployed, students, seniors, and the disabled—to bear more of the burden.”

Increasing debt loads, along with other neoliberal policies demanding that municipalities do more with less, put cities under enormous pressure to promote private economic growth in lieu of spending public funds on public goods. This imperative is one reason that city officials have pursued controversial development strategies such as declaring a parcel of land “blighted” to allow it to be seized by eminent domain and auctioned to the highest bidder. For example, the Barclays Center, the new arena for the Brooklyn Nets, was built partially on land that was condemned before being transferred to a developer. Cities also generate revenue by leasing public assets to the private sector. In Chicago, for example, the Skyway toll road has been leased to a private company for ninety-nine years. Atlanta even privatized the city water supply, only to cancel the contract years later when residents complained about tainted water.

As the privatization of everything from land to transportation makes clear, taxpayers rarely have a direct say in which bonds are issued and which public assets are sold out from under them. But with municipalities guaranteeing loans by promising that bondholders will be repaid with tax dollars or revenue generated by the debt-funded project, taxpayers are often left footing the bill.

Meanwhile, it remains nearly impossible for municipalities to cancel bond deals. By law, most states cannot declare bankruptcy. And, in many cases, federal bankruptcy codes guarantee that creditors will be repaid. In 1994, Orange County, California declared bankruptcy to repair the damage done when its treasurer took out loans on behalf of the city and then lost $1.6 billion in the securities market. Following what was then the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history, the county still paid its bondholders to avoid a tarnished credit rating. Another California city, Stockton, has been implementing severe austerity measures ever since the housing market tanked in 2008 in order to make payments to bondholders. The city cut 25 percent of its police officers, 30 percent of its firefighters, and over 40 percent of all other city employees. The crime rate in Stockton has skyrocketed and unemployment surged, and the city is now considering cutting pension benefits for retirees to pay its debts. The capital of the Golden State, Sacramento, has also cut its police force, by 30 percent, to fill a budget gap, and has seen a similar rise in crime—gun violence, rapes, and robberies have increased dramatically. Communities long ago abandoned by the state are also suffering from austerity. Camden, New Jersey, one of the poorest cities in the United States, recently privatized its police force, laying off officers and canceling union contracts. Today, the Camden police force often does not have the numbers to respond to crimes that don’t involve murder or serious injury.

 
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