Getting the Job Done

A friend called the other day with a new area code from a place so far away I had to think twice before returning the call: Did I know anyone named R— from there? I did now.

Only a few months ago my friend was a senior policy adviser at one of the city’s largest government agencies. Why did he leave so suddenly?

Simple, he explained. He was swallowed by the fiscal crisis. No, he hadn’t been laid off, but his job had become pointless. His only reason for being in the government had been that the new administration, in its earliest days, seemed surprisingly open to new ideas. But since the crisis it had become almost impossible to get people to think seriously about anything other than how to do the same old things, but for less money.

As a number of the pieces in this issue make clear, however, money is probably city hall’s least important problem.

Money is unimportant first of all because—as Steven Craig shows, in one of the most important pieces NY has published—this city has a great deal of it. Comparing how much money different cities spend on municipal government is a thorny task because different localities divide up different jobs among different jurisdictions: special districts, county and city governments, etc. But Professor Craig has done the job and shows that New York spends almost twice as much per resident as the average large American city, and 50 percent more than the next highest-spending city, Los Angeles. We are, even in the middle of a fiscal crisis, swimming in money.

It might be more accurate to say that we are drowning in it. As a number of the participants in this issue’s Roundtable—"Liberalism and the City"—suggest, more money sometimes makes government less clever. Fred Siegel notes, for instance, that the decision of the reform Democrats, and subsequently of John Lindsay, to transform the city’s municipal unions into the political force that would replace the old Democratic machine has been enormously costly, replacing cheap workers with expensive tenured ones, and making those workers essentially unaccountable to voters. Only a very rich city could be tempted to make such a poor deal.

Money can be dangerous, as Elaine Kamarck points out, when it tempts us to build huge bureaucracies full of "service providers" who subtly shift the focus of government away from the problems it is supposed to be solving and toward the interests of those it has hired to solve them.

Even our boldest reformers seem unwilling to challenge this tendency. As Stephanie Gutmann points out in "Fernandez’s Quick Fix," Chancellor Fernandez’s supposedly dramatic reform of the schools does little more than shift perks and power around the existing system, with little net effect except making the teachers’ union, already the most powerful player, even more powerful.

When school-based management fails here, as it did in Dade County, where it was also introduced by Mr. Fernandez, the cry will go up for more money. It will be one more distraction: There is no way to make the system work as long as parents and children have no choice but to take whatever the system offers.

People who want government to spend more money generally find themselves called liberals, while people who want the government to spend less money often get called conservatives. Those two words have hardly ever appeared in the pages of this magazine, it being our conviction that the stark ideological divisions that infected American politics over the last several decades are largely irrelevant to municipal government. As several members of our Roundtable note, nearly everyone agrees that municipal government must be activist: Someone has to collect the garbage, patrol the streets, and educate children, whether or not all the people who are receiving these services can, at the moment, afford to pay for them. That means activist government.

There remain, of course, such questions as whether the government should run its own garbage trucks and elementary schools, pay some private company to do it, or even more radically, reimburse citizens for getting it done themselves. In other words, the argument is not over money, but management. Dragging in the old liberal-conservative passion play is just a way of avoiding fundamental reform. That is probably the most interesting lesson to be drawn from our Roundtable, in which most of the participants, all liberals, seem to agree that if liberals have gone wrong somewhere, it is in confusing ends with means and insisting that activist government always means huge government bureaucracies and detailed interventions into the lives of citizens. On the contrary, activist government means getting the job done.

Speaking of which, this is my last issue as editor of NY. Starting a new magazine devoted to helping New York has been an exhilarating experience and an opportunity for which I am deeply grateful to the Manhattan Institute and its president, Bill Hammett. Most of all, however, I am grateful to this city, whose glories have been NY’s constant inspiration, and which I believe cannot fail to inspire her citizens to the great exertions now needed if those glories are not to fade.



City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

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