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No, Police Racism Isn’t an Epidemic

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No, Police Racism Isn’t an Epidemic

The Wall Street Journal June 24, 2020
Urban PolicyCrime
RaceOther

The data don’t show racial bias in police use of deadly force. A few viral videos don’t prove otherwise.

So far, we haven’t seen a shred of evidence that George Floyd’s death in police custody last month was racially motivated. But for those looking to exploit the incident, that doesn’t seem to matter.

The violence in the streets, and the liberal commentary that toggles between justification and cheerleading, is fueled by assumptions that racial discrimination in policing is widespread, that low-income minority communities are overpatrolled, and that black men are targeted for their skin color rather than for their behavior. There’s no denying that there was a time—in the living memory of many Americans—when this was true. The question is how true it remains.

Activists and politicians with their own agendas have taken the Floyd episode and similar incidents and shoehorned them into a pre-existing narrative about race and policing, but the reality is more complex. Race relations and violent crime rates among blacks have ebbed and flowed over the decades, and policing has reflected these changes. In the first half of the 20th century, when black poverty was significantly higher than it is today, and it was not uncommon for police officers in the Deep South to belong to the Ku Klux Klan, black crime rates and incarceration rates were significantly lower than what they would become in later decades.

Retail? Big property owners absurdly think they’re going to collect back rent from tenants that, by law, couldn’t open stores over the past three months. Even as Gotham allows shopping, foot traffic in major corridors is going to be down for months, if not years, affecting how much retailers can pay.

These markets were struggling with rising vacancy rates even before COVID-19 hit, as was the high-end housing market. The deepest-pocketed condo buyers were would-be investors (not residents), whose only interest in the property was that someone else would pay a higher price later. Market-rate rentals depend on Manhattan jobs.

None of this is insurmountable, in the long term. History shows that lower prices lead people to use space in unexpected ways. Starting in the 1950s, pioneering artists converted industrial lofts nobody wanted anymore into live-and-work-studios downtown. In the ’70s, as more than 1 million people fled New York, others saw an opportunity, buying and refurbishing brownstones and rebuilding the tax base. In the ’90s, immigrants helped repopulate the South Bronx.

There is a nightmare scenario, though: People and jobs leave the city, but prices don’t adjust to allow new people and businesses to come in.

How could that happen? With the Federal Reserve keeping interest rates at zero percent, and with stock markets still overvalued relative to economic activity, global investors have few places to park money.

They may well refinance the debt owed by half-empty office and apartment buildings, because other opportunities are scarce, and current lenders don’t want to take losses on the buildings’ existing debt.

Counterintuitively, lenders would rather see a building maintain empty space at high theoretical rents than have a property owner lower the rent, thus accepting that the rent has fallen.

New York City and state could correct for national and global distortions, through local policy: enacting a vacancy tax on retail, office and residential property, increasing the longer a property stays empty, with the extra revenue going to lower sales and income taxes, to bring people back to the city.

But the city has the opposite incentive. This year, before the pandemic, it expected to collect $30.9 billion in property taxes, nearly half of the $65 billion tax total.

The property tax is supposed to be the city’s most stable tax, impervious to fluctuations. That’s because increases and decreases in property values are phased in over five years and because property values shouldn’t rise or fall that fast.

But they have. In 2011, the property-tax take was $19.3 billion, adjusted for inflation. In 2001, property-tax revenue was $11.9 billion. This source of tax dollars, then, nearly tripled over two decades, largely thanks to huge inflations in commercial-property values.

It doesn’t always. In the decade leading up to 2001, as the Empire Center’s E.J. McMahon has observed, property-tax revenue didn’t rise at all. Before that, it rose far more gradually.

Could it fall over the next five years? A cash-strapped city government doesn’t want to take that risk. But expensive, empty buildings won’t spur a recovery.

This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal (paywall)

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Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator. Follow him on Twitter here.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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