What We Can’t Expect

Snowdrops growing along a fence.The other day, I went to a symposium about a controversial development project that has dragged on for years in a neighborhood of east Baltimore known as Middle East. The city of Baltimore has lost a great deal of its population over the last few decades and many neighborhoods are pockmarked by abandoned houses. There are so many of them that even the best efforts give little indication of making much of a dent in the problem. However inhospitable they may appear to outsiders, however, there are people who consider these neighborhoods home and the people who live in them want the same rights to their life and property as those who live in prettier locales.

The people living in the Middle East neighborhood were displaces a number of years ago. A plan was conceived by the wealthy and powerful people in the town to create biotech park. Using the promise of good jobs as a rationale, the power of the state was used to seize land and displace the residents. The houses were razed. Many blocks, a total of eighty-eight acres, were flattened making for a surreal sight, a hole in the middle of the city. A couple of buildings were built. When they could not be leased as rapidly as planned, the developers abandoned the promised biotech park and started talking about shopping malls, hotels, anything that would make them a dime.

Protests by activists, displaced residents and politicians representing those communities have continued. The lives of the former residents of Middle East have already been disrupted but there are people who want to make sure that the wealthy don’t benefit without some benefit also accruing to the ordinary citizens of Baltimore. The symposium was conducted to talk about the development in the former Middle East neighborhood as well as development in general.

The during the introduction, the speaker made what seemed in that context to be a rhetorical statement. He referred to “what developers are willing and able to do.” I would like to take this short phrase and pull it out and look at it.

Too often, I believe we, people who criticize the behavior of corporations, concentrate on the first part without thinking enough about the second part. A while ago, when I was still living in New York, I went to go see a documentary called The Corporation. In the first “chapter” of the film, which can be seen at the previous link, a business professor, Joe Bardaracco, describes a corporation as

a group of individuals working together to serve a variety of objectives the principle one of which is earning large growing sustained legal returns for the people who own the business.

The basic conceit of the film is that, if a corporation is a legal person, then that “person” suffers from a personality disorder. Using a diagnostic checklist from the World Health Organization’s Manual Of Mental Disorders DSM IV, the film “diagnoses” the corporation as being a psychopath, meaning that it is without morality and empathy for others. Unfortunately, the film is too heavy-handed to have convinced anyone who did not already agree with its premise.

However, a book entitled The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea, which I highly recommend, which was written by two individuals with an almost opposite political viewpoint, also leads to a similar idea of a corporation as a legal person whose main purpose is to make money for its stockholders. They detail the history and, whether you agree with their moderately conservative politics or not, they give the reader a good understanding of the pros and cons, the utility and the dangers, of the modern corporation. In an interesting side note, at the time Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations the corporate form of ownership appeared to be in decline.

This brings me back to the question of development in Baltimore and the phrase “what developers are willing and able to do.” To often we view the behavior of developers in terms of the morality that governs the behavior of human beings, but they are not human beings; they are frequently corporations. When we look to them to aid a community we are looking to them to do something they are simply not able to do.

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