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Funny Thing About Louisville
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Funny Thing About Louisville

Why are Democrats so bad at running cities?

People march for the third day since the release of the grand jury report on the death of Breonna Taylor on September 26, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Frank Rizzo was no surprise. After presiding over a reign of brutality as superintendent of police in Philadelphia in the late 1960s, he was twice elected mayor of that perennially misgoverned city and probably would have been elected to a third term if the city council hadn’t stopped him from running again. Rizzo, who was famously photographed attending a black-tie event with a nightstick tucked into his cummerbund, had promised to “make Attila the Hun look like a f—-t,” and he did his best to make good on that. 

Rizzo was, of course, a Democrat for the entirety of his career in office. He made friends across the aisle in his retirement, but he was a Democrat born in 1920 who joined the police in the 1940s. African Americans already had transferred their political allegiance from the party of Abraham Lincoln to the party of Franklin Roosevelt, but it would still be a few decades before that development would have its full effect on the internal organization of the Democratic Party. This was at the time when Lyndon Johnson, later identified with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was still campaigning in favor of poll taxes and voting against anti-lynching legislation. Contrary to the popular account of the matter, it is not the case that the two major political parties “traded places” on the question of civil rights—but it is the case that the Democratic Party experienced a radical change for the better, which meant that Democratic mayors such as Frank Rizzo were replaced by progressives such as Wilson Goode, who became the first black mayor of Philadelphia. 

Of course, it was the progressive Wilson Goode, and not the atavistic racist Frank Rizzo, who burned down a poor black neighborhood in Philadelphia after firebombing the home of a black radical group he had declared a terrorist organization. MOVE, as the group was known, was a group of neo-primitivist kooks, which, happily, we don’t have in American politics anymore. 

Jacob Chansley. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Jacob Chansley. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Anyway. 

The two bombs Philadelphia police dropped from helicopters on the MOVE house started a fire that killed 11 people, five of them children, destroying two city blocks and leaving hundreds of people homeless. A federal court later determined that the city had used excessive force in the matter and violated the constitutional rights of Philadelphia residents, including the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Which is to say, Wilson Goode did his best to make Frank Rizzo look like … happily, people don’t really talk like that much anymore. 

Big-city Democrats just seem to have the worst luck. 

The unhappy metropolis of Louisville, Kentucky, is getting run through it good and hard just now, and not without good reason. The U.S. Department of Justice has just released a report that it began compiling after the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor, and the findings are pretty ugly: The municipal government and the police department “engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives people of their rights under the Constitution and federal law,” the DOJ finds. The catalog will not surprise you: racial discrimination targeting black residents, excessive force, the violation of the free speech rights of anti-police protesters, and, among the most worrying items from a strictly procedural point of view, conducting searches based on invalid warrants. 

Louisville is a city run by progressive Democrats. Since its legal reorganization as Louisville Metro in a 2003 city-county merger, Louisville has never had a Republican mayor. In the years before that, you won’t find a Republican mayor in the city’s recent history: There were a brace of Republican mayors in the middle-late 1960s, and, before that, you’ll have to go back to William B. Harrison, elected in 1927, to find a Republican in the top spot. The metro council has long been Democrat-dominated, with the current party split being 19 Democrats to seven Republicans. These aren’t fringe, backwater Democrats, either: Democratic mayors of Louisville have gone on to Congress and senior roles in state government. 

There isn’t a lot of Republican power at the state level in Kentucky, either: Since the end of World War II, Kentucky has had only three Republican governors and 14 Democrats. When Republicans won a majority in the statehouse in the 2016 election, it was their first time to achieve control of that chamber in 95 years. The Kentucky Democratic Party surely has had its share of Robert Byrd-type bigots over the years, but they weren’t running things in 2016—or in the 1990s, when Kentucky gave its presidential electoral votes to Bill Clinton twice. The share of African Americans on the metro council is higher than the African American share of the metro population. Louisville had a black police chief from 2003 until 2011, when he got a better offer from Denver. Interim chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel is black. Deputy chief Paul Humphrey is black. They have a diversity boss who boasts of “several certifications from Cornell University in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” 

And Louisville isn’t a city that suffered some kind of economic or social catastrophe, like Detroit. Louisville has a slightly higher median household income than does Houston or Jacksonville, a slightly higher population share with bachelors’ degrees than Miami or Phoenix, a lower murder rate than Columbus or Nashville, a lower unemployment rate than Dallas. Without excusing it, one could understand that police and other municipal agencies would be under more stress in a city such as St. Louis, where the murder rate is four times what it is in Louisville, or Camden, N.J., which has a poverty rate more than twice that of Louisville. Louisville isn’t an especially well-off place on most measures, but on most metrics it is closer to Austin than it is to Detroit. 

It’s just an ordinary, badly governed place—one where the civil rights of residents are systematically abused, according to the DOJ. 

This isn’t a “Ha, ha, look at those dumb Democrats!” point. It’s a real question: What do progressive Democrats think it would take to get it right in a place such as Louisville—a place where Democrats can, as a matter of pure political power, do pretty much whatever they want? 

It isn’t about money or education—San Francisco is rich and highly educated, and it is a mess. This isn’t about a black underclass that is cut off from political and social power: Detroit and Washington both turned into basket-case cities under largely African American political leadership, Detroit under Coleman Young (“Aloha, m———–s!”) and Washington under Marion “The Bitch Set Me Up” Barry, who at least had the excuse of being a genuine crackhead. And there aren’t any very obvious villains in the story: The current mayor of Louisville isn’t the sort of guy I would vote for, but he appears to be a bog-standard progressive Democrat of the familiar kind; his predecessor, the one who was on the job during the Breonna Taylor episode, was cut from very similar cloth, a green-energy-and-infrastructure guy who got rid of the naughty statues. Louisville hasn’t been run by orthodox Hayekians, but it hasn’t been under the heel of Bull Connor, either. 

So why can’t Democrats run the cities that Democrats run? 

Partisans can always tell themselves a nice story about how it’s the other guys’ fault—I’ve heard people blame Ronald Reagan’s presidency for the death of the automotive industry in Detroit, even though the first of the factories started closing back when Reagan wasn’t presiding over anything grander than his trailer back when he was making Bedtime for Bonzo. But it is difficult to take seriously the argument that the schools in Milwaukee are a mess because of Republicans, that Philadelphia can’t police its streets because of Republicans, that San Francisco is an open-air mental ward because of Republicans, that Louisville is a committed violator of civil rights because of Republicans. It’s not that Republicans don’t have their own problems—goodness gracious, yes they do!—but their problems are not Philadelphia’s problems, or Newark’s or San Francisco’s or Portland’s or Louisville’s.

In the long term, the contest for dispositive political power in these United States will be fought in the cities and in the urban inner suburbs—the places where the people are, where the money is, and where the people and the money are going. And—more about this later—Republicans are hardly even on the field when it comes to that fight. Dallas’ current progressive Democrat mayor isn’t the worst of his kind, but he isn’t so great that he should be running for reelection unopposed. Yet he is. You could plausibly draw a line tracing a generally progressive political tendency that held sway in the Democratic Party from roughly the Lyndon Johnson years to the Barack Obama years, with Johnson being probably the leftwardmost figure (not as a matter of cultural affect but as a policy matter, creating Medicare and Medicaid and signing the major civil rights legislation of the time) and with Bill Clinton the rightwardmost figure, notwithstanding the intelligent criticism of such neoconservative-ish Democrats as Daniel Patrick Moynihan. One thing that I think we could safely say about that model of politics is that it has demonstrably failed the cities, and, in particular, that it has failed those on whose behalf and in whose interest urban progressives purport to act, beginning with the poor and the nonwhite, but also immigrants, criminals attempted to reenter society, single mothers, and other vulnerable groups. Conservatives ought to have something to say to those groups, who cannot be entirely satisfied with the way they are governed today. Conservatives have a great deal to offer on the policy front. 

But what do conservatives say for themselves? 

Jacob Chansley. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Jacob Chansley. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Economics for English Majors

As a practical political matter, President Joe Biden’s budget proposal is hardly worth writing about—it is as dead as fried chicken

While the fact that taxing and spending bills are required to originate in the House of Representatives is today treated as something somewhere between trivia and quaint formality, the broad spending power still resides in Congress, even if Congress refuses to engage in the “regular order” process of making a series of appropriations in discrete bills and instead lurches from crisis to crisis (hey, remember that debt-ceiling thing?) in a state of permanent emergency. Even if Republicans were not in control of the House of Representatives, Biden’s budget would have approximately 0.000 percent chance of making it through the legislative process in any kind of recognizable form—but, as it happens, Republicans are in control of the House of Representatives. And you know what that means: Finally, real fiscal reform under calculating and cold-eyed Republican leadership. 

Just kidding. 

Jacob Chansley. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Jacob Chansley. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Republican control of the House is going to be a full-employment program for those happy few lawyers whose names appear between the drug dealers in Hunter Biden’s contacts list—hooray for investigations!—and, even if there’s no real fiscal reform under calculating and cold-eyed Republican leadership, Biden’s priorities are going to be pushing up a whole crop of political daisies post-haste.

But, if only as a drawing-room exercise (did the gentry really draw so much in the past that they needed whole rooms dedicated to drawing?) a few of Biden’s proposals and assumptions are worth having a little look at. 

Biden says his proposals would reduce the deficit substantially over the coming decade. And they would—but not by as much as the policies he already has enacted would increase it. Under the current Congressional Budget Office baseline projection, federal debt held by the public will hit $43.5 trillion a decade hence, at the beginning of 2033. Biden’s deficit-reduction measures (mostly tax increases) would—in theory! in the perfect world in which the plan was perfectly executed!—knock that down to about $40.6 trillion. But, scoot back a couple of years from 2033 to the 2030 projection. Why do that? Because in 2020, just before Joe Biden was elected president, CBO also made some projections. In that project, CBO estimated that debt held by the public would hit $31.8 trillion in 2030, but the current CBO projection has that debt hitting $36.4 trillion in 2030, almost $5 trillion more than in the ten-year projection from 2020. What happened? A whole bunch of spending, largely at the hands of Joe Biden’s Democratic allies in Congress with the blessing of Joe Biden. So, another way of looking at this is that Biden’s proposal would cut the deficit back $2.9 trillion from a baseline his allies already have increased by almost $5 trillion. If you had planned to buy yourself a Lamborghini and decided to settle for a Bentley instead, you didn’t actually save yourself any money. And that matters if—and this part matters!—you really can’t afford the Bentley, much less the Lamborghini. 

(As always, don’t just take my word for it: You can look at the numbers yourselves.)

One of the ways Biden’s hallucinatory budget proposes to reduce the deficit is by taxing the unrealized capital gains of certain wealthy people. I know that in the general-readership newspapers, the words “unrealized capital gains” are where 93.7 percent of people stop reading, but this is The Dispatch, and I am confident we’ll get through this. A capital gain is just the profit you make from an investment. If you buy a share of stock for $4 and you sell it for $5, then you have a $1 capital gain, according to my English-major math. If you held the investment for less than one year and one day, then that’s a short-term gain, and you pay the regular income tax on it; if you held the investment for longer, then that’s a long-term gain, and you get a tax discount, with the highest rate being 20 percent, as opposed to 37 percent for ordinary income. (The population notion that people are getting $100 million investment paydays and then paying essentially no tax is patently false.) In many cases, that investment will have been funded out of money that you’ve already paid individual income taxes on: You make $1, pay 37 cents in federal income tax at the top rate (and a selection of other taxes), save a little of what’s left, and then pay another 20 percent top rate on whatever investing your savings earned you, at which point you wonder why you didn’t just use that money to buy a bass boat, or you join a militia, or something. 

(It used to be that you’d go out and vote Republican, but what’s the point of that?)

The thing about taxing investment profits is, there have to be investment profits for the Man to tax. But not if Joe Biden gets his way—and he is not the only Democrat with this daffy idea. Biden proposes to tax imaginary investment profits. As you may have heard, the stock market goes up and down. And, if you are anything like me, you log into your brokerage account every now and then and say, “Huh, on paper, I made $x today.” And you smile, and leave a bigger tip than usual after your Denver omelet. And, then, a week later, you repeat the exercise and say, “Huh, on paper, I lost $y today.” And then you kick Paul Krugman’s cat. Some of you may even have had the experience of being rich—on paper. (Lookin’ at you, Bitcon Bob.) Sometimes, a stock goes nuts or something like that—and, sometimes, the opposite happens. You know how on those radio ads for dodgy-sounding investments they always say, “Investing in securities entails the risk of loss”? That’s because investing in securities entails the risk of loss. You may think you have made a bundle, but you don’t have jack until you sell the position and put cashy-money in your bank account. What Biden proposes is to tax certain people—the evil, evil rich!—whose investments have gone up, as though it were impossible that these would go down. It is economically stupid, probably unconstitutional, and 10 other critical things you could say about it. 

More to the point, it is also cowardice. We have very good reason to think that the only practical way to fund the Scandinavian-style welfare state Democrats want is with Scandinavian-style taxes, which mean heavier taxes on the middle classes and even on lower-income workers. Biden says he wants to wring money out of the top 0.01 percent of households, but, in truth, those households don’t have enough taxable income or assets to pay for the things Democrats want to do—because we already spend literally $112 million an hour on Medicare—hence the proposal to tax imaginary capital gains.

In Other Economic News … 

Amazingly, Biden’s budget was not the dumbest piece of economic thinking I have seen this week. The dumbest bit comes courtesy of NPR. Give it a read and, if you’re interested, let me know in the comments why you think I think it is such shoddy work.

Words About Words

I noticed a glorious bit of cultural imperialism. In the Merriam Webster discussion of the Yiddish word chutzpah, the usage example comes from William F. Buckley Jr., the most gentile American of the 20th century. 

[block]“The turgidity of Clifford’s presentation makes it sadistic to dwell on the analysis, but one must, one absolutely must, since such chutzpah requires recognition.”— William F. Buckley, Aberdeen American News, 12 June 1973 [end block]

Some additional wordiness … 

An NBC News headline: “‘I’m no mastermind’: George Santos denies any wrongdoing in ATM fraud scheme.”

About that, a few thoughts:

Firstly: Goodness, gracious, George Santos. Enough of you already.

Secondly: “I’m no mastermind.” No, lil homie, you ain’t.

Thirdly and more expansively: Scheme is an interesting word. Strictly speaking, a scheme is just a plan, a detailed course of action or program, as in its fancier cousin, schematic. But in American English, scheme has a disreputable connotation. That isn’t the case in British English, where one may write “Government-backed insurance scheme to give boost to events industry” without the least suggestion of dastardliness. In the United Kingdom, a benefits scheme is a welfare program; in the United States, a benefits scheme is welfare fraud. In British English, a politician might refer to his own plans as a scheme, whereas in the United States, a scheme is the other guy’s plan. 

A similar word is regime. Regime comes from a Latin word that survives in English on its own, regimen, and it means, simply, rule. A regime or regimen is often used to refer to a rule that provides some general guidance for a mode of living, as in an exercise regime or dietary regimen—cf. the Benedictine Rule (Regula Sancti Benedicti) governing the lives and habits of certain monastic communities. A regime may also describe, neutrally, a body of regulation, as in, “From the perspective of institutional reform, the creation of such a unified systemic risk regulator is arguably the most significant change under the Dodd-Frank regime.” We could write, without evil implication, about the current tax regime or the Clean Air Act regime, etc. But regime has taken on a disreputable connotation when applied to a particular government: Certain excitable conservatives speak darkly of the “Biden regime” and thunder about “deep-state servants of the regime,” etc. Others write about the Putin regime or the Chinese Communist Party regime as though the word regime did the word of communication distaste all on its own. Regime in that sense implies a certain level of authoritarian competence and organization; people did write about the “Gaddafi regime,” but that wouldn’t come naturally to me, in that Gaddafi’s government always seemed to me (from the little I know about it) too undisciplined for the word regime to fit.

Incidentally, when I Googled “Biden regime,” I got an untrustworthy-sources warning. When I Googled “Bush regime,” the first thing that came up was the Smithsonian Institution. The next few hits included the University of Miami and an Orange County Register headlined, “Bush is still just a war criminal to me.” But, no, no partisanship in the Google regime!

And Furthermore … 

I’m a big fan of Tucker’s new look. I think it’s the beret. 

Elsewhere

I’m not real big on ambitious business regulations, but I will admit that I have a little bit of admiration for appellation d’origine contrôlée—the rules that ensure that people don’t sell prosecco under the label Champagne and that Roquefort cheese is the real deal. Toblerone, the candymaker, is up against Swiss rules regulating how Swiss a thing has to be to be allowed to market itself as Swiss. Question: Can you spot the bear on the Toblerone label, and can you guess why it is there? More in The Dispatch

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In Closing

If there is a perfect declaration of cowardice for our time, it is: “You don’t piss off the base.” I would write that I am embarrassed to be in the same profession as these Fox “News” clowns, but I don’t think I am in the same profession. That being said, I am embarrassed to be a member of the same species

Kevin D. Williamson's Headshot

Kevin D. Williamson

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.