The Colorado Springs Experiment, Part I

A recent episode of This American Life examined the difficulties and decisions made by the city government of Colorado Springs. Put briefly, the city began to run out of money and had to start shutting down basic services. Then a successful resort owner in town proposed that the city could save money by running more like a business. Voters agreed and the city is now privatizing as much as it can. Two elements of this show jumped out to me, which I’ll tackle in separate posts.


The first thing that caught my attention was a comment about the idea that we’re all supposed to be in this together, that city government should provide for all of us equally. This concept was undercut by the fact that residents could pay a fee to have services (like streetlights) reinstated in their area. And that seemed unfair.

But equal access to city services has historically been a very rare political reality. Segregation and discrimination of all kinds have historically meant that the whole set of taxpayers would actually be contributing to the welfare of only a portion of the community. This was most stark in the Jim Crow South, when there were clear lines between white facilities and black facilities. Though less up-front, similar conditions prevailed throughout the nation as areas with high concentrations of African Americans, ethnic whites, and immigrants received poorer city services and fewer public facilities like parks and pools. Perhaps most despicable was the the unequal condition of schools and education. This was often justified by forcing districts to rely on a local property tax base, ensuring that low income areas would provide poorer opportunities for children to escape the poverty of their parents.

Fortunately, beginning in the 1950s, the United States began to correct the more obvious and odious forms of discrimination. In fits and starts, legislative bodies and the courts began to enforce equal treatment before the law, including equal access to public facilities and services. I suspect most major cities have a way to go still, though at least that direction has become the law.

What I don’t think liberals (and it was liberals who drove these changes) ever quite faced up to is that equalizing treatment at the standard that existed in middle-class white neighborhood would require more money for city services than was previously being spent. And that cost would fall of the middle- and upper-income taxpayers who would simultaneously see a significantly diminished return in their own lives. After all, the increased funds would be subsidizing their fellow citizens who could not afford to fund their equal treatment. A long-term economic upturn from the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s helped mask this basic economic reality.

Just as there has long been unequal access to city services, there have long been those who didn’t believe that being ‘all in this together” was the top priority of government. Providing the government with only enough funds for the services that directly serve us has a long history in America: it’s called conservatism. It says that people should be responsible for their own needs; those less means should do with less and those with more deserve more. These conservatives at the municipal level have long adopted a two-fold strategy in pursuit of their vision: (1) Respond to a good economy by lowering taxes – from the top down – to return wealth to those who have it so they can spend it as they see fit. (2) Respond to bad economic times by cuttin spending on city services, privatizing where possible, so that those with more money will bear a smaller burden of providing for those who don’t. Then the private market will provide services according to each individual’s capacity to afford them.

Colorado Springs is simply following this model, which was developed in the Southwest as early as the late 1940s and has its roots in the Progressive municipal reform movement of the 1920s. What Ira Glass took as a common idea – that the priority of local government was equality – is not a shared truth but rather one that is fundamentally opposed to the conservative world view.

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