Boy, do we have a surprise for America.
St. Louis is about to kick some serious civic butt. We are going to blow by dozens of the nation’s cities as if they were driving a Prius at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Yes sir, we’re bouncing back from oblivion, no more murder-capital reputation, no more Ferguson image, no more stagnant-Midwestern-city nonsense. Nope. We’re on our way back to the top-ten cities in the U.S., with slashed crime rates to boot, just like magic.
And how are we going to do this? Easy. We’ve doing it with new math. Funky new math, admittedly, and we will need a shotgun wedding of the city and county, with Missourians living outside those two entities holding the firearm. Also, we’ll need to do quite a bit of lying.
But the important thing is the math.
Right now, about a million people live in St. Louis County and roughly 300,000 reside in the city. Simple arithmetic: 1 million plus 300,000 equals 1.3 million people. In November 2020, according to a new plan rolled out over the past month by the nonprofit Better Together, Missourians statewide would vote to force their merger — likely over the locals’ screaming objections — into a new 1.3 million-inhabitant juggernaut.
The Post-Dispatch is over the moon:
“St. Louis’ place among U.S. cities has slid steadily over the decades, from fourth in population in 1910 to 62nd in 2017,” the paper reported January 6, in its Sunday lead story. “A merged city, with a combined population of 1.3 million residents, would be the 10th largest city in the country, between Dallas and San Jose, Census figures show.”
The Post’s editorial page doubled down six days later, envisioning “a more powerful city of 1.3 million residents similar in size to Dallas and San Jose.”
Now that’s what I call creativity with numbers.
To those living in the so-called real world, Dallas is masquerading as the fourth largest metro area in America, at 7.4 million people and booming, per Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) data. San Jose isn’t far behind, part of a similarly exploding dual-metro area of 6.7 million. The St. Louis metro area, at 2.8 million and stagnant, isn’t customarily viewed as “similar in size” to those two.
But in the honored tradition of “Simon Says,” that doesn’t say anything about “cities.” We don’t need no stinking MSA information. We’re old school. We’re talking “cities” here. Enter the funky new math, which is actually old math, as in using the way the Census Bureau — the national scorekeeper — measured population in 1910, rather than in 2010. The creative folks at Better Together have a great gimmick: Change the lexicon to create “a powerful new city.”
Aside from the trifling detail that this approach doesn’t even rise to the level of numbing stupidity, consider how smart it is. Who needs to worry about MSA-level metrics when we compare apples and coconuts and make reality go bye-bye?
It’s not as if we have anything to lose: St. Louis just dropped out of the top 20 MSAs in the U.S. for the first time, passed by Baltimore, of all places. Based on current population trends, we’re pretty certain to drop to 25th or lower in the next several years. A city-combo doesn’t add one soul to those MSA numbers.
Quick question: Do you really believe St. Louis is about to become larger than Atlanta and Miami combined? Maybe some will find perverse comfort in knowing that our mega-city of 1.3 million would dwarf lowly Atlanta (population 486,290) and Miami (population 463,347). Me? I just want some of their drugs.
Yes, using your daily newspaper’s fealty to All-American, 1910-style population measurement, the new city of St. Louis would be more populous than these cities, as well as San Francisco, Denver, Washington D.C., Boston, Detroit, Seattle and Minneapolis. All these little burgs have a surprise coming, don’t they? It’s not in the least bit real, but who cares when it sounds so good!
Laughability aside, one part of this is truly troubling: People believe it. We’re witnessing the Orwellian spectacle of elites repeating words that aren’t true often enough that they simply must be true after all.
This is un-democracy in action. And it’s not just some soothing, hot-rock massage of the numbers. It’s part of a pattern of Better Together treating the people of the city and county with contempt.
Obviously, the worst of it is resorting to a statewide vote when it’s so clear that St. Louis County would overwhelmingly reject the forced marriage with the city. But last week, Better Together doubled down with a series of dictates about how — assuming passage in 2020 — they’ll “transition” St. Louis to the powerful mega-city through the careful, watchful guidance of our existing politicians until 2024.
So, we’ll entrust the destruction of the status quo to those who presently preside over the status quo? As opposed, say, to some irresponsible, radical, “democratic” exercise like having the voters of the newly created mega-city simply go to the polls in 2021 and elect a new mayor and city council?
How irresponsible I am to suggest such a chaotic approach. But I must admit: Trusting the ability of St. Louis voters to govern themselves would fly in the face of the Better Together plan. After all, it’s predicated on the opposite.
Here’s where the Better Together math isn’t funky: For every person who lives in the county, there are almost five Missourians (also known as voters) who reside in neither county nor city. Say, for sake of discussion, city voters split 50/50 on the new mega-city. Even if county voters rejected the measure three to one, the backers of the measure probably only need about a ten percent margin among outstate voters to prevail. Yes, a 75/25 “no” vote in the county likely would be negated by just a 55/45 “yes” tally in Missourah.
Do not mistake voters outside the city and county as unaffected by any of this, or likely to defer to our wishes. The messaging to them will be clear: St. Louis is going to drag all of us down if we don’t fix it, because St. Louis is too stupid to fix itself ... in so many words and dog whistles.
Consolidation is not an evil goal. Reasonable people will differ on much of what Better Together seeks to do. I support the notion of a more unified St. Louis; I’ve publicly advocated a city-county merger for three decades. Eliminating the city’s idiotic structure as both a city and county would certainly cut waste.
But reality still matters. So does truth. And both are presently in short supply. Better Together continues to blast away — to an obedient mainstream media — with unsubstantiated claims about costs savings and imaginary regionalism. True, these might lack the hallucinatory extremes of the warped population math, but the central theme is pervasive: Trust us, St. Louis.
And better yet, trust Rex Sinquefield, the quasi-billionaire who has all the answers for fixing all our problems and has pledged to spend tens of millions to have his way. How much of this is actually driven quietly by Sinquefield’s twin passions of airport privatization and eliminating earnings taxes?
We don’t get to know, for now. Ever the master chess player, Rex is content to lurk behind the scene — cowardly — and play his well-compensated pawns, albeit with the help of some fairy dust.
That’s a shame. There’s a real need for St. Louis to change its governance. There’s a good debate to be had here. But not as long as Better Together thinks of itself as the Ministry of Magic.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977 and this week makes his triumphant return as a columnist after a seventeen-year absence. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @rayhartmann.