Politics

01.02.14

Dear De Blasio, Put Down the Pitchfork and Pick Up a Shovel

New York City’s new mayor wants to end the inequality that blights the city but he doesn’t have the power to affect that kind of change. He should stick to cleaning the streets.

Bill de Blasio, Gotham’s 109th mayor, was sworn in at an event that left pundits of all political stripes aghast at the strident rhetoric of rich versus poor—not to mention one speaker’s headline-grabbing comparison of modern New York City to a slave plantation. The tone and message were familiar to anyone who has frequented New York City Council meetings over the past twelve years, where cringe-worthy grandstanding and wildly inappropriate comparisons to the country’s history of enforced servitude are commonplace. But this sort of talk has rarely gotten a mainstream airing—which is what happens when a time-server from the city’s political establishment finds his way into Gracie Mansion.

In his inaugural speech, de Blasio promised to make good on his campaign promise of solving New York’s “inequality crisis.” Twice he name-checked Fiorello La Guardia, New York’s celebrated 99th mayor, who, though de Blasio didn’t mention it, famously quipped that there’s “no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets.” This often-quoted line encapsulates the sound wisdom that the job of a mayor is to manage the complex workings of urban life: pick up the garbage, fix the potholes, and guard the coffers. In his speech, de Blasio affirmed that his main interest is in re-engineering New York’s social order.

“Daring of de Blasio to appear on stage with the embalmed corpses of Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh at his inauguration,” tweeted Slate economics columnist Matt Yglesias. “Based on these speeches, you might not know that half of New Yorkers think their city is on the right track,” tweeted New York Daily News Opinions Editor Josh Greenman.

Rev. Fred A. Lucas Jr., in a speech that sounded like a rehash of a typical tirade by former New York City Council Member Charles Barron, referred to New York City as a “plantation,” expressing hope that the city will “end the Civil Wars and usher in a new Reconstruction era.” The not-fit-for-primetime 86-year-old performer Harry Belafonte, who drew fire in November for comparing the Koch brothers to the Ku Klux Klan at a de Blasio campaign event, stridently declared, “Today begins a new era, a transformative journey of hope on the road to promise.” One-term former Mayor David Dinkins—Gotham’s least successful chief executive of the last thirty-five years—got loud cheers and special praise, his failed record flushed down the memory hole. Broadway star Patina Miller provided the obligatory rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

It’s hard to admit this, but Mike, we may miss you.

“There are some who think…things will continue pretty much like they always have,” de Blasio said in his speech. “So let me be clear: When I said we would take dead aim at the Tale of Two Cities, I meant it.”

The mayor can aim away. His new job won’t afford him the political power of Lenin or Mao—or anything close to what would be necessary to reshape the city’s demography. His signature plan to raise taxes on the wealthy is all but certain to die in Albany. City Hall is subject to stringent accounting rules that mandate a balanced budget—a positive legacy of Gotham’s 1970s fiscal crisis. The mayor doesn’t have all that much extra cash on hand to reward the city’s labor unions with rich new contracts.

Tellingly, the first policy measure that de Blasio mentioned in his speech was further expanding mandated paid sick leave, which is good news for plaintiff-side labor lawyers, but won’t bridge the gap between rich and poor.

In his speech, de Blasio promised to “require” developers to build affordable housing, as though Gotham’s builders don’t lust after affordable housing deals and the rich subsidies they provide. His scheme to create 200,000 affordable unit over the next four years will only happen if the city gets a miraculous windfall of federal tax credit allocations, which provide most of the equity for such projects. De Blasio’s promise to curtail the controversial policing tactic known as “stop and frisk” ignores that stop and frisk has already been sharply curtailed.

Even though many of his grand plans won’t come to fruition, de Blasio, backed by the rubber stamp of the City Council, will bring the sort of politics that was on display at the inauguration to a larger stage.  Expect more of the sort of rhetoric we heard from de Blasio in 2011, when he participated in a successful political effort to keep Walmart out of New York by unironically comparing the retail giant’s efforts to break into the five boroughs to the sacking of Troy.

For all his faults, Bloomberg wasn’t a product of this culture of far-left theatrics, which was best depicted by Steve Malanga in a 2003 City Journal essay, “The Council’s Confederacy of Dunces.” It’s hard to admit this, but Mike, we may miss you.

De Blasio and his supporters made clear at the inaugural ceremony how profoundly they misunderstand the real implications of income inequality and how to best serve New York’s poorest residents. In a powerful rebuke to de Blasio’s Two Cities message, Harvard Professor Ed Glaeser argued in a recent essay that the close intermingling of rich and poor is “a defining feature of a remarkable city.” From a policy standpoint, what’s most important is that the poor who live in cities (which attract, don’t “make” people poor) have an opportunity to improve their lot. Mayors should champion policies that combat the many forces that undermine the poor, such as effective crime fighting tactics and allowing charters to provide an alternative to failed neighborhood schools.

And memo to de Blasio: shovel the snow and pick up the trash.