City Journal Special Issue 2009

New York’s Tomorrow

Special Issue 2009
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In Prospect

Special Issue 2009

Why a special issue of City Journal? Both New York City and New York State need a policy revolution to ensure their future prosperity. “New York’s Tomorrow” offers the ideas that should drive that revolution.

The Wall Street meltdown has made apparent huge problems with New York that were masked by the financial boom of recent years. In 2007, Wall Street wages, salaries, and bonuses accounted for over one-third of the tax revenues generated in New York, with the city taking in over 40 percent more in taxes than it had in 2000. Instead of using the boom years to put the city on a more competitive footing, however, the mayor and city council used the extra money to drive spending through the roof. Since Michael Bloomberg arrived in City Hall, city spending, already extravagant, has increased almost a quarter after inflation. State spending, too, has increased year after year after year, under a succession of governors, as E. J. McMahon shows in “The Budget New York Needs.”

To sustain this level of spending without supersize Wall Street revenues is impossible without job-killing tax increases. But New York is already massively overtaxed. A 2007 Independent Budget Office study found that the city’s tax bite was 90 percent higher than the American big-city average. And businesses pay a big chunk of it: as Steven Malanga points out in “Life in Taxopolis,” commercial property taxes are higher in New York City than in any other city in the country. The state’s tax burden is comparably out of whack—the major reason that, as economist Wendell Cox documents in “Escape from New York,” it is bleeding population.

At the heart of New York’s predicament is a corruption of politics, for the main benefici­aries of a now-unsustainable tax-and-spend regime have been powerful public-sector unions, which exercise ruthless control over most Albany and Gotham lawmakers. As historian Fred Siegel puts it in “Madison’s Nightmare”: “In a paradox insufficiently appreciated, the Wall Street boom funded the government spending boom that funded the public-sector unions, whose ever-mounting imposed costs drove businesses out of New York.”

A special City Journal issue isn’t unprecedented. Back in the early days of the magazine, a special issue was produced that looked at the bleak and seemingly hopeless New York of the Dinkins years. Years later, after the conclusion of a mayoralty that proved that the “ungovernable” city could be governed after all, Rudy Giuliani brandished a marked-up copy of that issue at a Manhattan Institute event, crediting it as the source of many of his reform ideas. Similarly, after September 11, editor Myron Magnet realized the futility of publishing an ordinary issue while the World Trade Center was still smoldering. Many readers considered the special issue of City Journal that resulted one of the most relevant things published in the aftermath of that awful day.

Today’s crisis is very different from 9/11, of course, and the city, at least, is in a far better position than it was during the pre-Giuliani years. (Imagine if today’s financial meltdown were occurring against the backdrop of thousands of murders a year, instead of hundreds, or of welfare rolls of 1.1 million, instead of 343,000.) But the current dilemma is deadly serious.

Indeed, if it were any less serious, it wouldn’t represent so huge an opportunity for constructive change. In “New York’s Tomorrow,” some of the best policy minds in the nation provide a detailed blueprint for making the state and the city prosperous, thriving places of long-term growth. The issue covers not just New York’s fiscal woes—though it shows in clear, achievable steps how to ease those woes—but myriad other areas crying out for reform. These include the state’s absurdly high energy costs, which repel manufacturers from an already-near-death upstate economy (Max Schulz’s “Energize!”); the city’s vulnerability to litigation (John Avlon’s “Sue City”); the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s ridiculous inefficiencies, which deprive it of funds for crucial long-term infrastructure investments (Nicole Gelinas’s “Transit for Tomorrow”); and the city’s antidemocratic politics (Myron Magnet’s “The Obsolete New York Model”).

“New York’s Tomorrow” also offers new ideas for improving Gotham’s schools (Sol Stern) and makes the case that the NYPD is the city’s primary economic-development agency (Heather Mac Donald). It gives us reasons to be optimistic about the city’s future (Edward Glaeser’s “The Reinventive City” and Stefan Kanfer’s “Booms and Busts”), but also reasons to worry about whether it will retain its preeminence as a financial capital (Luigi Zingales’s “Wall Street 2015”). And since this is City Journal, culture isn’t neglected: readers will discover a portfolio of William Meyers’s photographs of New York’s outer boroughs, with accompanying text by essayist Phillip Lopate, as well as a look at how the city’s arts institutions are handling the economic downturn (not well, says James Panero in “The Culture Crash”).

—Brian C. Anderson


Ten Ways to Make New York’s Tomorrow Brighter

In “New York’s Tomorrow,” you’ll find no shortage of bold, visionary ideas, from rezoning New York City to tort reform in New York State to building the power plants that drive the economy to enacting a Taxpayer Bill of Rights. All could help New York stay afloat and even flourish in the wake of the financial meltdown. Here are ten to start:

1. Slash city spending. The only way to avoid job-killing tax hikes is to reduce government expenditures. A one-year wage freeze for city employees would save $1.2 billion; increasing classroom sizes by two to four students would save as much as $380 million.

2. Start phasing out Gotham’s public housing. Selling these buildings could raise billions, free up property for all sorts of constructive uses, and rescue thousands of families from dependency.

3. Contract city services to private companies—starting with buses. Many cities let private companies compete for bus routes, achieving 20 percent to 50 percent savings. In New York, that would mean at least $425 million a year.

4. Maintain NYPD force levels. The NYPD is the city’s Number One economic-development agency. There are better ways to save money in the department than cutting its headcount.

5. Replace public employees’ defined-benefit pensions with defined-contribution pensions. Guaranteed incomes for government workers’ retirements—a benefit increasingly rare in the private sector—constitute unpredictable and unlimited obligations for taxpayers. Workers should get 401(k)s instead, saving taxpayers $40 billion over the next 30 years.

6. Move disabled and elderly Medicaid recipients into managed care. New York State’s Medicaid program consumes one-third of the state budget and is by far the nation’s priciest. If New York removed the most expensive patients from traditional fee-for-service Medicaid and instead paid private managed-care plans to cover them, it could contain costs without abandoning the needy.

7. Scrap “guaranteed issue” and “community rating” for private health insurance. Forcing insurance companies to sell policies to anyone—and to offer the same price to everyone—tempts the healthy not to buy private insurance, driving up its cost and sending people into the arms of Medicaid.

8. Revise MTA track workers’ schedules. We’re currently paying them to do nothing for nearly a quarter of each workday, wasting tens of millions of dollars yearly.

9. Institute school vouchers for special education. Like Florida, Georgia, and Utah, New York should let the parents of disabled children choose the schools they want. That would control the cost of special ed and improve its quality at the same time.

10. Cut taxes—everywhere. The top personal income-tax rate in New York State has climbed to 8.97 percent—and in New York City, it’s now 12.62 percent, far and away the highest state and local income tax in the nation. No wonder New Yorkers have been fleeing in droves (page 70) and imperiling the economy. Enough already!