Baltimore Is Egypt

Newly-elected Maryland State Senator Bill Ferguson was recently named to the Baltimore Business Journal‘s Power 20. This week they asked me, as a friend of Bill’s and member of a previous Power 20 cohort, to comment on Bill’s relationship with and use of power.

“Bill is a curious, humble, and earnest young man, and he represents a true shift in how power is conferred in this town,” I said. “He didn’t work his way up through the ranks and spend a few years as a city council person, or wait his turn. Bill was able to win because of a shift in political power that’s taking place right now. He derives his power from the people, not from the system.”

Political power is now being conferred through the accumulation of weak and strong ties with citizens, and no longer by top-down power structures, power-brokers, and kingmakers. Don’t get me wrong; those folks still have an impact (they did in Bill Ferguson’s race – they got behind him when it was clear he was onto something), but that impact is waning. And things that were previously unthinkable are now possible.

It may seem like hyperbole to compare the situation in Baltimore to what took place over the last three weeks in Egypt. But it’s an apt comparison.

For decades in both places, people have felt marginalized by a top-down, tone-deaf government that was more interested in its own well-being than that of its citizens. In both places, decades of neglect and mismanagement have led to a serious crisis of confidence.

People are fed up. They’re tired of feeling marginalized, the failed programs, the broken promises, the lack of accountability and the inability to implement imaginative solutions. For 60 years, Baltimore’s population has been in decline, and places in decline have not had the benefit of oversight, dollars, or creative leaders. Instead, corruption (explicit or implicit) festers.

The Perfect Storm

Several factors are emerging all at once:

  • Young people want to live near their work and are tired of commuting (and they’ll accept a pay cut to do it)
  • Our roads are full and can no longer be meaningfully expanded due to lack of space and funds
  • Fuel costs are projected to rise as China’s demand grows exponentially
  • Online networks are having a meaningful impact on real-world relationships and politics

These factors, combined, have made Baltimore the most important jurisdiction in Maryland – practically overnight. Yet our leadership has not caught up with this reality.

Baltimore’s recent rise to relevance combined with the power of communications networks will create stark shifts in the power structure.

Two Kinds of Leaders

Today we have a choice between two kinds of leaders. We can choose between the leaders that the system hands us, or we can choose to put our faith in new, emerging leaders with whom citizens have a legitimate connection and a voice.

Legacy Next Generation
Product of the system Newcomers, inspired to serve
Disproportionate influence of money Driven by small donations, connection with people
Ideas come from insiders and developers Ideas come from anywhere and from study of best practices globally
Power comes from the top-down Power comes from legitimate engagement with citizens
“Openness” is skin deep, only ‘fauxpenness’ Transparency at every level; data is a strategic driver
Secrecy and private realities drive decisions One shared view of reality drives all decisions
Treat Symptoms: Problems (poverty, crime) are “mitigated” Address Root Causes: Focus on wealth creation
Social media is a “one way,” Orwellian broadcast tool Social Media is a “two-way” engagement tool
Over-Confident that the system knows best Open to Questioning: People know best
Boomer-centric: top-down, command and control Gen-Y Centered: Collaborative, flat organizations
People are engaged to placate them People are legitimately engaged
Fear of reprisal keeps people in line May the best ideas and people win
Career politician Will serve only as long as effective
Prideful Humble


It is sadly telling that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s much-promoted (Orwellian, broadcast-oriented) Safer City social media campaign follows just one person on Twitter: the Mayor herself. And it has just 78 followers. Why? Because it’s all for show, and no one legitimately cares about a program to mitigate a problem – people actually want to solve it at the root. To hell with a Safer City: give me a city where everyone can earn a living, and I can bet you it’ll be safer.

But our politicians don’t know that, because they have not taken the time to benchmark ourselves against other cities or learn from best practices elsewhere. Baltimore has more cops per capita than any other city. Why is that?

Because we need them. Why do we need them? Because we have a lot of crime. Why do we have a lot of crime? Because we have no middle class. Why do we have no middle class? Because we have not seriously focused on enabling small business formation, which is the number one driver of jobs. Instead we have given tax handouts to fatcat developers so they can build big projects and enrich their cronies.

Yes, clearly the cure is more cops. As the Mayor told the Baltimore Sun’s Justin Fenton, “Maybe we could do without as many officers, but that’s not what the public wants. They want more patrolmen on the street. They want more police in the neighborhood.”

No, Madam Mayor. What the public really wants is for these root cause issues to be addressed. It takes true leadership and understanding to go beyond just treating the symptoms.

Accelerating Change

Some have called the recent events in Egypt “the Twitter and Facebook revolution.” A few have scoffed at the idea that these tools could spark a revolution and cite eons of revolutionary precedent as proof. But it’s a mistake to dismiss their role.

Online networks are accelerants. They create connections passively where none might otherwise exist. Critical mass for change comes when the density of connections between people reaches a threshold level. Ideas spread between networks instantly. What might have taken 10 years before now takes 1 year.

The Soviet regime could never have survived in the age of networks. Iraq would have collapsed under its own weight if given time and these tools.

And the same repressive structures will fall in Baltimore, for the same reasons.

To quote Gandhi: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”


#1 bryanl on 02.12.11 at 1:09 pm

“Why do we have no middle class? Because we have not seriously focused on enabling small business formation, which is the number one driver of jobs.”

This is an interesting observation. I’m sure this might be one of the reasons, but I’m sure if we even look around a little bit, we’ll find some bigger reason why there is no real middle class in Baltimore. We have to take a step back and look at the makeup of the city and real reasons for decline.

I might be simplfying this to the point where I’m factually incorrect, but Baltimore was and is still is a blue collar town. When people realized that countries in Asia could generate the same product for cheaper, the city suffered. This suffering has changed the economic layout of the city, and many of the problems stem from the decline.

We also have another issue with many of the local population. It is very difficult to demonstrate to a person who doesn’t know much and has much less how easy it is to succeed if they would just start creating small business. These people have other real needs: help with general things like paying bills and keeping the lights on. Getting into the mindset of starting a business is difficult when you have to work two jobs just to maintain what you have. We also have real issues with education. Lots of people who move back to the city won’t send their kids to public schools. Why is that? This education that many choose to bypass is all many of the local population have access to. At an early age, they are already set up to fail because they aren’t seeing examples of success as often as they should. They also aren’t getting the right focus on math, science, and technology. The economic, social, and education issues move to keep the cycle of not amounting to much of anything alive.

The good news is that this cycle isn’t unavoidable. People do escape and succeed and I can think of quite of few success stories. I applaud your efforts and emplore everyone to understand that things are the way they are for a reason. The current situation didn’t just appear, and people coming in with new solutions without understanding the causes for the current conditions might be doing more harm than good.

I’m sure I went off-topic here, but we have to understand that there are multiple issues, and the real winners and losers will be the people who can’t just pick up shop and move away.

#2 J J Ploughman on 02.13.11 at 5:27 pm

Are you intimating that the police (I suppose they are the proper analogy to the military at the state level) will use a protest to throw out O’Malley and the State Government and seize power? Because that is what happened in Egypt. And, if ElBaradei does get elected, it will clearly be a case of power being conferred “top-down power structures, power-brokers, and kingmakers.”

It saddens me that people only see the sound and fury of the protests and ignore the outcomes – how the old school, top-down, crony-style political system maintains sway. Egypt is not the first “network revolution”… Take a look at the others to see what kind of political systems have been manifested afterwards… In Georgia, Kyrgystan, Serbia, Ukraine, et. al.

#3 robotchampion on 02.14.11 at 3:08 am

“Some have called the recent events in Egypt “the Twitter and Facebook revolution.” A few have scoffed at the idea that these tools could spark a revolution and cite eons of revolutionary precedent as proof”

great point dave. Eons of past data compared to a few years or days worth of data. I don’t think anyone really understands the network and communication effects of social networking.

#4 tundal45 on 02.15.11 at 2:01 pm

“Getting into the mindset of starting a business is difficult when you have to work two jobs just to maintain what you have”

I am not from Baltimore but being from a developing country (Nepal), I can relate to this point. One of my roommates said it best – “When you have to worry about basic needs like food, water, electircity, etc., there is no room to think big or have a long term outlook.”

#5 David Troy on 02.15.11 at 2:38 pm

Bryan – Sorry it’s taken me a couple of days to reply here.

The bottom line is that you are right, and there is a deep discussion that I would have liked to have had about what I meant by “small business formation,” but it was out of scope for this article.

I’m not suggesting that everyone start their own business, but rather that we need more small businesses and that many of those businesses need to provide manufacturing and blue collar jobs.

I’ve been talking with Mike Galiazzo (chairman of the Regional Manufacturing Institute here) as well as with TED Fellow Dominic Muren about what the future of manufacturing in Baltimore looks like, and I think in many ways it’s brighter than ever. There are many real opportunities emerging.

There are two issues though: manufacturing in the US requires a much more imaginative approach, since we can’t compete on cost. That requires education and real focus. The other issue is that manufacturing in 2020 will not be at the scale that it was in 1920. (However, it will be bigger than it is today.)

Sometime soon I hope to write something that outlines some of what is possible in terms of manufacturing, but rest assured that when I talk about “small business formation” I’m not suggesting that everyone should start their own business. Many can and should, but not all can, and we must be realistic about providing a good quantity of basic middle-class jobs.

#6 David Troy on 02.15.11 at 6:10 pm

This is a fair point, though the underlying situation is obviously somewhat different. I’m referring more to the group dynamics; the fact that the power structures here and there are so different is the subject for a whole separate discussion.

To understand the group dynamics better, read this WSJ analysis of how the Egyptian revolts were carried out.

#7 income tax calculator on 02.27.11 at 7:49 pm

this was really quite interesting