'Eminent Domain': We're All Indians Now
by William Norman Grigg
by William Norman Grigg
Recently by William Norman Grigg: Clemency for Wall Street Criminals, Prison for the Powerless
Prior to the closing of the frontier in 1890, "Manifest Destiny" was the incantation used by the government when it gave itself permission to steal property it coveted. Today, the preferred conjuration is "eminent domain."
The phrase "eminent domain" reflects an assumption Karl Marx would find congenial: government is the default owner of everything, and that private ownership, however extensive, is merely a contingent arrangement.
Seizure of property through eminent domain is facilitated by one of several Hamiltonian-mercantilist Easter eggs covertly embedded in the Constitution — specifically, the Fifth Amendment provision specifying that private property can be taken for "public use" when the government offers what it considers "just compensation."
The familiar civics class platitude describes this provision as necessary for the construction of bridges, hospitals, and other amenities that are supposedly "public goods" only government can provide. The inescapable reality is that eminent domain is a particularly vulgar form of plunder used to enrich the political class and their corporate cronies at the expense of the rest of us.
In his recent book Government Pirates (a good book despite its tautological title), former real estate developer Don Corace offers a concise description of eminent domain operated prior to the onset of the current depression:
"Arrogant and corrupt city and county officials — with near limitless legal budgets ... align themselves with well-heeled developers, political cronies, and major corporations to prey on the politically less powerful and disenfranchised, particularly minority communities."
Owing to ongoing economic collapse, municipal and county governments no longer command "limitless" budgets for any purpose. They still wield the power of eminent domain, and still have large constituencies of parasites to tend — and with real estate values bottoming out, the temptation to seize property at a vastly reduced "fair market price" may be irresistible. This is already being done by the government afflicting the State of Illinois, a junta legendary for its corruption.
In recent weeks, the Illinois state government has begun the legal process of seizing a huge amount private property in and around Peotone, a small town in Will County, about forty miles south of Chicago. The land is being taken for the supposed purpose of building a third Chicago-area airport to complement O'Hare and Midway — a project that has been discussed, studied, and debated since 1968.
The proposed "South Suburban Airport" — which would be three times the size of O'Hare International — is impractical, unwanted, and unnecessary. It doesn't enjoy the support of any major airline or the approval of the FAA.
Congestion at O'Hare is often cited as a rationale for a third airport. However, last year, O'Hare's traffic rate was the lowest it had been in 15 years — a trend that will continue, given the ongoing economic contraction and the ongoing expansion of the nearby international airport in Gary, Indiana.
Expanding the small international airport in depressed Rockford would provide additional runway space at a fraction of what would be spent on a third Chicago-area airport. But this would deprive the state's patronage pimps of an opportunity to lavish plundered wealth on their favored constituents.
In the circulatory system of graft that sustains the "pay to play" political system in Illinois, the state department of transportation (IDOT) is the aorta. Last September, IDOT announced that it was filing condemnation suits against the owners of three parcels of land in the proposed Peotone airport site. This was done despite the fact that there is no existing plan to build an airport, and the proposal has not been approved by the FAA.
Referring to the lawsuits, Susan Shea, IDOT's commissarina for aeronautics matters, declared: "It sends a message, a clear message."
"It certainly does send a message," wrote local activist and sometime state legislative candidate George Ochsenfeld: "Our out-of-control government will use intimidation tactics to frighten citizens into giving up their property prior to being able to take it 'legally.'"
Willis and Vivian Bramstaedt received Shea's "message" last April, in the form of a piece of paper disfigured with official graffiti announcing that the state government intended to take the land they have farmed since the 1950s.
"Our schools are failing, our health system is falling apart, the state is out of money, and this is what they're doing?" exclaims 72-year-old Vivian.
"They" — the corporatist interests served by the Illinois political class — are moving as quickly as possible to condemn land around Peotone in order to capitalize on the town's depressed property values.
Commissarina admits as much, commenting to the Chicago Tribune that (as paraphrased by the paper) "the timing couldn't be better for the state" to carry out condemnation efforts, now that "land values [are] in a historic slump."
When IDOT announced its intention to seize the Bramstaedts' land last April, they offered $9,500 an acre for roughly half of the family's 160-acre corn and soybean farm. This was "50 percent less than what the state purchased neighboring land for two years ago and a quarter of the price some land sold for when a private company bought parcels there to build an intermodal site in 2006," notes the Tribune.
Four Peotone-area condemnation cases are already working their way through the court system. Unless the land owners are successful in getting the cases dismissed outright, they will face a lengthy, protracted legal struggle in which their opponent — the criminal junta dominating Springfield and Chicago — will use money extorted from them as taxes to underwrite the effort to drive them from their land.
What distinguishes the Peotone Landgrab from others like it is the fact that the underlying project is a palpable fraud.
"The irony is that the Peotone airport has never been deader," contents George Ochsenfeld. "There is no funding for building the airport or for the massive infrastructure — roads, water, sewer, etc. All major airlines have said that they will not use Peotone."
The most recently coined rationale is that the facility would be a cargo airport, but this would also be gratuitous, Ochsenfeld observes: "O'Hare is adding 750,000 square feet of cargo space and 18 additional parking spaces for freighter aircraft." (That expansion project, predictably, has become bogged down in graft and cost-overruns, prompting Mayor Daley to request a $15 billion federal bailout.) D.C. Velocity, an aviation trade journal, asked Gary Schultheis, vice president of air freight, North America for Deutsche Post DHL if another Chicago-area cargo airport is necessary. "Not really," he replied.
Dan Muscatello, managing director of cargo and logistics for Landrum & Brown — a Cincinnati-based airport development firm — told D.C. Velocity that the proposed Peotone cargo airport would find it very difficult to persuade airlines and freight companies to "pull up stakes and move down the road. He also believes that international airlines with all-cargo operations would be reluctant to divide their passenger and cargo flights between two airports. And it shouldn't be forgotten that both passenger and cargo volume will continue to decline as the economic slump deepens and accelerates.
But it shouldn't be forgotten that the airport is merely a pretext — and that seizing the land at a pittance is the point of the whole exercise.
"Since the late 1980s, Illinois officials and their agents have tried every available means to push a huge public works project to fruition, with a keen eye toward ensuring their own political futures and continuing [the] cycle of self-enrichment," relates Peotone resident Carol Henrichs, former editor of the Peotone Vedette and long-time critic of the airport project.
"Tax dollars have funded a multitude of government lobbyists who make regular trips to Washington, D.C. and Springfield ... to guarantee that despite its inability to gain traction of its own, this is the project that will not die," Henrichs continues. "Airport supporters have left tracks on campaign contribution lists and at political fundraisers for years."
The Peotone project "is the most 'studied' airport project in America," explains Henrichs. "The word 'study' intimates an investigation into factual learning. It is more accurate to say that reports have been written and rewritten — massaged until they at least meet minimal federal requirements."
To keep the process untainted by input from the taxpayers and property owners who would suffer the most, the deliberations leading to creation of the airport development district were confined to a handful of political insiders selected from Will County's tax-consuming class.
Between 1985 and 2002, three successive Republican state administrations in Illinois spent more than $100 million on "studies"; it has been an inexhaustible well of "study money." This liturgical exercise in public graft began as a Republican project, but also attracted the interest of Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Tony Rezko, Barack Obama's imprisoned pay-for-play patron.
In March 2003, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, one of the most adept practitioners of Chicago-style civic Keynesianism, dispatched bulldozers in the middle of the night to tear up a runway at Meigs Field, a 55-year-old commuter airport in the center of Chicago.
Daley insisted that destroying the runway — for which his administration later was hit with an FAA fine and required to pay back $1,000,000 in misappropriated airport funds — was a counter-terrorism measure, since Meigs was a general aviation facility "a second's flight time" from the supposedly imperiled Sears Tower. "We did it for public safety," maintained Daley after bulldozers had gouged out the runway.
This was a risibly transparent pretext. Daley's midnight airport raid was carried out in the interest of a separate landgrab: He and his cronies had targeted the property to build a park, another highly lucrative civil engineering project.
"Yes, I do want a park at Meigs Field," Daley admitted after the runway had been reduced to rubble. This was a dual-purpose demolition: In addition to clearing the way for a park, it was broadly comparable to New Deal—era initiatives intended to create artificial scarcity by plowing under crops — or, in this case, runways. All the better to create a "need" to build the much-discussed third airport — seizing as much land as "necessary" to do so.
Even though the money for pork-laden public works projects may soon evaporate, the Peotone Landgrab will leave the political class in possession of thousands of acres of prime farmland — which, as Jim Rogers points out, may soon be the most valuable commodity on the planet.
There's nothing going on here that would be unfamiliar to a Lakota Indian facing expropriation in the late 1880s. And there's every reason to believe that the Peotone Landgrab — if it's successful — would be a template for similar acts of official larceny wherever fertile tracts can be seized by the political class at depressed "fair market value."
July 9, 2010
Copyright © 2010 William Norman Grigg