Almost every business has done it from time to time. Their people take their existing loyal customers for granted — even the big ones. Sometimes it’s because their people have gotten so focused on new customers. Other times, it’s a matter of letting standards slip or of building internal bureaucracies that wallow in internal politics.
Occasionally, a company with a dominant market share will get so arrogant that it asks, “Where else can they go?” The business graveyards are full of those who didn’t think their customers had alternatives, when there were plenty.
This also happens to governments with their “customers,” the taxpayers they are supposed to serve — though governments usually don’t go out of business. They rely on productive individuals and businesses for the taxes that are their very lifeblood, but they usually take them for granted — especially the ones who quietly go about living their lives, doing their jobs, or building their enterprises, paying their assorted levies while generally staying out of the way. These people don’t expect much: reasonable taxes, decent schools, and safety.
But that’s been too much to expect of too many of America’s city governments. Their best customers, the high producers, have been taken for granted and even abused for decades. In many cases, enough of them have left to make a harmful difference. Nowhere has that situation been truer than in my home state of Ohio.
When I attended grade school in the Mesozoic Era (actually the 1960s), we learned that the Buckeye State had eight cities (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown) with populations greater than 100,000, the most in the country. We also knew that Cleveland, at 876,000, was the eighth largest city in the U.S. (Schools were strangely focused on facts in those days, weren’t they?)
Today, Youngstown (down over half) and Canton have populations of less than 80,000. Cleveland will probably be below 400,000 soon. All of the others except Columbus, the state’s capital, have declined severely.
Ohioans have been leaving the state’s large cities for four reasons, only one of which — the natural human desire for open space — is arguably not their fault. The causes the cities have failed to deal with, and which have been within their control, are high crime, lousy schools, and high taxes. For decades, their governments have been asking, “Where else can they go?” Hundreds of thousands have answered with their feet.
Crime? It’s far safer in Iraq as a whole than it is in many neighborhoods in Ohio’s largest cities at night. If Cleveland’s 2007 murder count of 134 (it fell to “only” 102 in 2008) had occurred proportionally in all of Iraq in 2008, Iraq would have had 9,000 violent civilian deaths that year. According to icasualties.org, there were fewer than 6,000. In the past 12 months, that number in Iraq is about 4,000, and about 1,000 this year through April. The situations in many areas within Ohio’s other large cities are sadly similar to Cleveland’s.
Schools? Besides being havens themselves for crime, Ohio’s urban schools are infamous for accomplishing very little while consuming outrageous amounts of money. Cincinnati’s bad and Cleveland Metropolitan’s worse schools spend well over $12,000 per student, about 50% more than the average in the rest of the state. Nonetheless, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland is, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “trying to destroy charter schools” which serve kids who would otherwise be stuck in these schools with no choice.
Taxes? Each of Ohio’s largest cities has a non-reciprocal payroll and business income tax of 2% or more. Youngstown’s rate is a whopping 2.75% (and they wonder why over half the people have left). Hundreds of thousands of non-resident workers throughout the state pay hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the big cities and get nothing in return except a (hopefully) safe commute. Yet it is Ohio’s big cities that are begging for Barack Obama to bail them out, while suburban counties like Warren have rejected their stimulus money.
What was mischaracterized as “white flight” during the 20th century’s last three decades was really crime, school, and tax flight — and even then, it was far from totally white. Now those who flee are even more diverse. Many families, regardless of ethnicity, are concluding that they can’t afford to raise their kids in decaying urban environments and that they owe it to their kids to find a safer area with better schools.
The Buckeye State as a whole is now facing a worsening situation. Though its chief executive was nominally Republican for 16 years until 2007, Ohio has been run economically like a blue state since the mid-1990s, when then-Governor Voinovich sold out to the tax-and-spenders. It took a while, but for the past several years, Ohio’s poor tax and business climate has turned what had been a flight to the suburbs into an exodus to lower-tax states. Even Governor Strickland has mused about the benefits of retiring to sell t-shirts in Florida — which just so happens not to have an income tax.
Yet Strickland, while claiming he is not increasing taxes, wants to impose hundreds of millions in new fees, as his budget structurally commits the Buckeye State to billions of dollars in new unfunded spending after Washington’s stimulus money runs out.
Recent census information tells us that Americans are moving a bit less than they were when the economy was better. That is scant consolation to states like Ohio, whose political establishments — like those in California and Michigan, to name just two others — simply don’t get it. Until they do, they will continue to watch their customer-residents vote with their feet and become former residents.