Wednesday, January 08, 2003
I hate to be an optimist (okay, I don't) but I think John Derbyshire is way, way off base with his latest piece bashing Mayor Mike.
Three disclaimers up front: (1) I think Bloomie's anti-smoking crusade was idiotic; (2) I think the Mayor made a serious mistake by not undertaking some high-profile cost-cutting measures in 2002; (3) I agree with Derb that many smart people are political idiots, including some smart politicians.
But I would give Mayor Mike a grade of B for his first year in office, not the F that Derb implies. And I can easily list GOP pols with less credibility - starting with our Governor.
Bloomberg was elected to do 3 things, and he was elected for 3 reasons entirely unrelated to those 3 things. The three things are: (1) hold the line on crime and related quality-of-life issues; (2) radically reform the city's schools; (3) rebuild downtown and restore the city's economy. The three reasons why he was elected are: (1) Al Sharpton destroyed the Democratic Party in New York by making it impossible to win the black vote and the general election; (2) Mark Green is not only a fool and an idiot but obviously awful - even his supporters hate him; (3) 9/11 made New Yorker's suddenly turn serious, and realize that they could not give the keys to the city to an idiot like Mark Green or a villain like Al Sharpton (or his puppet). Hence the unlikely ascent of Mayor Mike.
How has he performed with respect to the three things he was elected to do?
On crime, so far so good. Bloomberg has not gutted the department, has not abandoned Giuliani's and Bratton's radical improvements in the department's performance, and has not undermined the police financially, rhetorically or regulatorally. The crime stats are going up nationwide, and it is hard to believe that the demographic drivers of crime nationally won't have an impact on New York. But so far we are ahead of the pack, not trailing, and the rest of the country wants to know how we're doing it. Murder hit something like a 40-year low last year. We've had a violent start to the new year, but a good bit of the violence involved police doing their job. And the Mayor has shown no inclination to fault them for that. Mayor Mike is not Mayor Dinkins - or Mayor Lindsey - on this issue. I'm not complacent about this matter. But there's a difference between vigilance and alarmism, and I don't see the basis for the latter.
On education, Mayor Mike gets an incomplete so far. He has accomplished one great feat: he has taken control of the Board of Ed. That is a precondition to any progress in reforming the city's schools, and it is something that both Koch and Giuliani wanted but never got. Kudos to Bloomie. Unfortunately, the state sold him down the river in the process of the negotiations, with the result that to get control he had to agree to a big pay hike for teachers. But I don't really blame Bloomberg for that; I blame Pataki and Silver.
But now comes the hard part. The Mayor has got to cut the school budget and improve performance - and fast. That's a tall order. Chancellor Klein has made the right noises about principal accountability, and is willing to take on the (fairly weak) principals' union to do so. But it's a baby step in the larger scheme of things. The city has got to get serious: about radically reforming special education, ending bi-lingual education, drastically reducing administrative overhead, increasing public-school choice, easing the establishment of charter schools, experimenting with private school vouchers, and structuring incentives for teachers and principals to reward and retain the best and get rid of the worst. That's a very tall order. Some of it cannot be accomplished by the Mayor alone; special ed and bi-lingual ed - both enormous money sinks - operate under consent decrees that can't be changed without the involvement of the courts. Anything that smacks of "incentives" for teachers, or that gives principals more authority over the teachers in their schools, is going to be opposed by the teachers' union. Bloomberg has had excellent relations with the UFT so far, which is not a good indicator. Not that he needs to go to war; if he does, he'll probably lose. But they need to be afraid of him a little, and they aren't yet.
Bloomberg has started to talk about cutting the budget for administration. Good. But his main accomplishment so far is to have achieved the power to do something about the schools crisis. Now let's see what he does.
On rebuilding downtown and reviving the economy, Bloomberg gets a split grade: A for the first, F for the second. The Mayor's plan for rebuilding downtown is, as I have said before, excellent. He rightly understands that downtown is not going to be the city's main business center; that it needs to be a residential neighborhood as well as a business center, and that the city needs to plan for that to make it happen. Bloomberg's priorities are, I think, right-on: build on the success of Battery Park City in the development of new neighborhoods, focus on transportation to make the area competitive as a business location, and on quality of life investments (like parks) to make it attractive to residents. Most of the budget (over 80%) for Bloomberg's rebuilding plan is for transportation improvements that are long overdue. Moreover, Bloomberg is clearly serious about extending the #7 line downtown from 42nd street, as a way to revitalize the Far West Side area around the Javitz Center, currently a wasteland. Combined with Bloomberg's strong backing of the 2012 Olympic bid, this makes for a compelling and cost-effective plan for the development of a whole new business district, one that makes a lot more sense logistically than downtown does. Bloomberg is miles ahead of recent mayors in the seriousness and quality of his development plans. He is our best chance to break the back of the anti-development ethos that has dominated New York politics since the 1970s, because he clearly understands the issues and has learned from the mistakes of the Robert Moses era and is nonetheless strongly pro-development. This is very, very good news for the future of the city.
Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg seems to believe that "if you build it, they will come" - regardless of the prevailing tax rate. Hence the F for economic revival. If the Mayor went to the people with a package of spending cut, tax hikes, and creative financing strategies, I would give him a much higher grade. The fact is that residential property taxes in New York have been too low for a long time. But taxes on businesses, and income taxes on individuals, are way, way too high. Bloomberg cannot continue to assume that as long as he focuses on maintaining the level of city services - and he isn't maintaining them; he's kept the police and the schools largely off the chopping block, but sanitation, for example, is starting to fall apart - that businesses and residents will flock to the city and pay his high taxes. They won't - businesses in particular won't.
To repair this F and raise his overall grade to a quite high level, Mayor Bloomberg needs to present a package of tax and regulatory reforms designed to help businesses at a minimum of revenue loss. Some of these are not under his control, but his rhetorical support would make a big difference. The biggest of these is rent control. The rules are made at the state level, but if Mayor Mike came out in favor of reform - or repeal! - it would have an impact on the politics of the issue, no question. (Pataki gets the big F on this matter for repeatedly selling out rent control reformers at the state level in order to win more votes in NYC.) But others are under his control. Bloomberg has got to find ways to cut the budget that are "smart cuts" that have the potential to enhance services rather than gutting them. He should be bidding out the city's bus services to private competition. He should be selling city property that is not essential or of cultural significance (e.g. office buildings). He should be looking to eliminate redundancies among city departments - merging corrections and probation makes sense, and there are a lot more opportunities to do this. The New York Sun has run an excellent series of editorials outlining ways of closing the budget gap through cuts. Some are symbolic but don't save much money; some have very high potential savings but require substantial changes in the city bureaucracy and, in many cases, State or court approval. But others are well within the Mayor's control, could have substantial savings and would not require huge changes in the structure of the government. Bloomberg should be doing all of these things right now, and deciding which of the tougher nuts are worth trying to crack over the remainder of his term. Not only would this kind of effort reduce the need for tax hikes and structurally improve the city's fiscal condition, it would establish the credibility of Bloomberg's efforts, which would be essential to achieving either outside aid or debt financing as a bridge to get the city through until more fundamental structural changes are made and/or the economy recovers. That Bloomberg is not doing these things is very distressing.
But, as noted, this is only one piece of the picture. Every politician has his own silly crusades that tell us more about his personality than anything else. Giuliani gloried in feuding with the Brooklyn Museum. Did that have any impact on that institution or on the culture at large? No, but it made him feel good and gratified a certain segment of his supporters. Has Bloomberg's anti-smoking crusade benefitted the city? No, but it suited the part of his personality that got a lot of exercise setting dress codes and such back when he ran his company. These are not important factors in assessing a Mayoralty - or a Presidency. Nor is the degree to which the Mayor or President has an "agenda." Eisenhower was an excellent President. Can you tell me what he wanted to "accomplish," what his "agenda" was beyond keeping the country safe and prosperous? Johnson, meanwhile, had the most ambitious agenda as President since FDR. Even if you ignore the way he handled Vietnam, the Johnson era was - apart from the 1964 Civil Rights Act - a disaster, and we are still living with the negative consequences of many of his agenda items.
If Bloomberg does as well as Eisenhower, our city will have been well-served indeed. His agenda does not sound particularly partisan, but he'll need to listen to the more ideological folks at the Manhattan Institute and the New York Sun on taxes, regulation and competition if he is ever to achieve it. We'll see if he does.