Inheriting the Grid #6

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #6 in June 2008]

Cities are the products of history.

In this issue of AREA Chicago we have attempted to look at Chicago as a policy laboratory in which experimental public policy in the areas of housing, labor and education are tested on the residents of Chicago. These localized experiments, if they are proven to be effective – are then exported or expanded into different scales – maybe the state, the country or the world. During the January 30th GOP debate, then presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee saidthat “states should act like policy labs” and then if the policy works then it spreads to the rest of the country. This is the dynamic promoted by our version of federalism in the USA – where everywhere becomes a place to develop the models or proposals for somewhere else.

Chicago has historically produced two kinds of policy experiments. One kind has occurred with the residents serving as lab rats – real city wide transformation occurring under the auspices of finding a better way of doing things. Examples like this include the Plan for Transformation of the Chicago Housing Authority and Renaissance 2010, the plan for overhauling how public education works in the city. Both of these plans attempt to re-organize huge public institutions that thousands of residents are connected to, and tie them to markets so that for-profit companies can have a say in how they work. This is done in the name of making things more efficient or giving people options. But what it assumes is that we are all rational people who make the best decisions to better ourselves, that we all have equal access to the information and resources that enable us to make those decisions, and that we are all just fine with the fact that we are competing with our neighbors for access to safe housing, decent jobs and good schools.

A different kind of policy experiment has taken place in laboratories in Chicago born in Hyde Park at the University of Chicago. These policy experiments didnt just take place here, but were exported for further experimentation on the residents of the world. Examples of this include both the theDepartment of Economics (Friedrich von Hayek, Arnold Harberger, Milton Friedman, Gary Becker, etc) and the Chicago School of Sociology. Both of these “Chicago Schools” have had profound impact on the politics and economies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The point of this exercise in policy history writing is not to write a guidebook for Chicago activists, but to encourage a vantage point for our work that sees the interrelatedness of our struggles and the history that shapes the city where we live. We say that we want economic justice, and in order to get to that point we need to have a deeper understanding of the specific interests and histories that shape inequality in our city. We must get to know the members of the Commercial Club of Chicago, the Chicago School’s of Economics and Sociology. We must look beyond the caricature of Mayor Daley and his Machine and understand how things work, where the cracks are and howthe remnants of the welfare state became next to nothing – beyond repair.

No single publication can encompass the range of challenges facing the residents of Chicago or represent their diversity. This “Local Reader” attempts to do more than just describe the city as it is changing – it is about why the city changes, at who’s expense and who’s gain, and where it may be going. Because it asks these questions, it is quite different than a typical pamphlet about gentrification or urban struggle. It examines the space and structure of the city, and it looks closely at public policy initiatives that shape how things work here.

This issue was put together somewhat differently than other past issues. The work of editing was divided amongst three co-editors and much of the content is the result of a “Winter Institute on Critical Urbanism” that AREA Chicago hosted last winter. This is a new development in that we are using an event to gather our thoughts (and ourselves) about a given issue before the editorial process develops. At that event we had presentations by Nik Theodore, Michael Pittula, Brian Holmesand Pauline Lipman all talking about different case-studies for how the city might be considered a policy lab. This issue is also different in that we did not use an open-call for submissions. The open-call will be used again in the future, but we simply wanted to see how the process was different if we did not cast our net as wide and simply solicited content on specific topics. This is just one of the many ways in which AREA itself is an experimental lab – we are always refining and changing our approach to attempt to ask the most critical and pressing questions facing Chicagoans.

The articles in this issue attempt to trace a lineage of Chicago’s prominent policy experiments and its policy designers. The issue focuses on several case studies, including the complicated transformation of our local economy and public school system. These case studies focus on how Chicagoans are pushed to the limits and what kind of responses that has elicited from activists.

The contributions to this issue are rich in their diversity. They provide us tools and analysis to challenges facing many of us here in Chicago. They give us insight into the fragility of our institutions and the powerful interests that attempt to shape them. However, the articles are limited in that they offer few proposals for how to integrate these challenges into a strategic plan. We have become skilled at piecemeal interpretations and analysis of the symptoms of the problems that face us. Yet we have few strong ideas for a way out. It is our hope that if the engaged and concerned residents of this city can deepen our understanding of the structural challenges we face, of our specific history and context – that we might be able to work together in a more intelligent and effective manner on our projects of economic justice, redistribution of wealth and public institutions that we control.

A final word on the terms used in this issue. We have framed the entire issue around an idea of “policy” but have not defined this term definitively. In most cases we are considering that policy is an officially (government sanctioned) agreed upon guide for how the government makes decisions. But it is also broader than that, it applied to unwritten policies that represent patterns or logic for how things get done – even if there is no paperwork that makes it “official.” We have chosen to use the term “Neo-liberal” to describe the current historical moment in policy that promotes deregulation and privatization. It also refers to the free-market fundamentalism that is the ideology that justifies those policies.

The same policy experiments that the U of C Department of Economics has taught other countries leaders to do for years – privatization and deregulation – are being implemented on our economy, on our schools. It is time we grasped this history and understand that these home-grown policy experiments have come home to roost and are not just promoted abroad. It hasn’t been acceptable for these Chicago economists to push the world in the direction of free-market fundamentalism and it is not at all acceptable for that logic to be applied here.

We may come to believe that we really are the cold, calculated, competitive people that the Commercial Club of Chicago, the Chicago School economists and sociologists and Mayor Daley want us to be in order to make their visions of the future work. We may also come to believe that there is another way for economic life and social life to be organized. We will have to look back and understand, we will have to assess our current moment and the forces that dominate it, and we have to imagine and enact something better and more livable. ♦

Illustration by Neil Brideau


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