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Winter 2002
 
City Journal Winter 2002.
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A Battery That Keeps Going and Going . . .

To the editor:
Steven Malanga’s “How to Rebuild New York” [Autumn 2001] cautions against the use of public authorities like the Port Authority or Queens West (barely mentioning the Battery Park City Authority) and states emphatically that “no government agency or authority, new or existing, should . . . be put in charge of planning or executing the [rebuilding] project.” A long, hard look across the street from Ground Zero might change his mind.

Several factors have made Battery Park City [BPC] one of the most successful public-sector initiatives of its day. In the late 1960s, New York State had the planning vision and political will to revitalize lower Manhattan by replacing rotting piers along the Hudson, from Battery Park north to Chambers Street, with a planned community built on landfill. In 1968, largely due to the efforts of Governor Rockefeller and his brother David, head of Chase bank and the Downtown Alliance, the state created the Battery Park City Authority [BPCA], a public-benefit corporation, to replace the piers with 92 acres of landfill; master-plan the development; build out civic facilities, roads, and infrastructure; develop the project area’s real estate; and manage its public park system.

In 1972, BPCA issued $200 million in bonds, with New York State paying the debt service. After the fiscal crisis of the seventies, development surged with the building of the World Financial Center. In 1986, BPCA issued more bonds, the proceeds from which repaid the state in full, with interest. BPCA had achieved fiscal independence, generating enough money to pay for its own operations and debt service, without any state or city appropriations.

The return on this public-sector investment has been substantial.  Since repaying the state, BCPA has generated additional excess revenues (after operating costs and debt service), to the tune of $585 million for the city and $10 million for the state. Over the years, BPCA has issued bonds to fund other civic needs, including $143 million for housing and $150 million for the city budget.

Revenues generated by BPC are collected by and funneled through BCPA without any other claims or encumbrances. This allows for continuity, stability, and reliability, without the uncertainty of state or city budget constraints.

BPCA has also built one of the world’s greatest park systems, enjoyed by thousands of city residents and tourists from around the world. Our 30 acres of parks are home to numerous pieces of artwork as well as public-service programs that provide education and entertainment. BPCA also subsidizes museums, cultural programs, public schools, and libraries.

BPCA runs with an entrepreneurial mentality without losing sight of its public purpose.

Robert M. Serpico
President
Battery Park City Parks Conservancy

Steven Malanga responds:
Only by the mediocre standards used to measure public development in New York State—where authorities like Queens West spend years not building anything—can BCPA be considered a success. Otherwise, the authority exhibits many of the same problems described in my article and in Brian C. Anderson’s “The Twin Towers Project: A Cautionary Tale.” The authority has perpetuated itself long past the point where it was necessary, and in the process captured for itself hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues that should have gone directly to New York City.

The state created BPCA in 1968 to finance and build the infrastructure needed to transform rotting piers into a residential and commercial community. Like many government projects, the authority’s first plan—to build low- and middle-income housing on the site—proved financially unfeasible and had to be abandoned in 1979. The authority then shifted gears and—buoyed by the heavy use of government incentives—attracted developers in the early eighties to a new plan that featured commercial development and luxury housing.

At that point, the authority had a choice: it could have sold the land to developers, used the proceeds to pay off its debt from building the infrastructure, and turned over the future of the site’s development to the market and the tax revenues generated by that development to the city.

Instead, the authority decided to perpetuate itself. It leased the land to developers and set up payments from itself to New York City in lieu of property taxes. Those payments, the “excess revenues” to which Mr. Serpico refers, have been far below what the city would collect if the private sector owned the land. At their current values, BPC properties would have paid about $1.2 billion in city property taxes in the 1990s if they were on the tax rolls. Instead, the city received only about $350 million; the authority kept about $700 million in lease revenue for its own uses.

By setting aside so much money for itself, BPCA can spend extravagantly on amenities and on rewarding political allies. It lays out about $143,000 per acre on parkland and public spaces, compared with less than $6,000 per acre for city parks in general, according to a City Project study. As for playing political favorites, in 1990, the authority used its revenues to back a bond offering that raised $150 million to close a Dinkins administration budget gap, a one-shot infusion not available to other mayors.

BCPA shows how state-sponsored entities don’t let go once they embark on development. If New York continues along this path of state capitalism, as it seems to be doing in Queens West and, more ominously, in lower Manhattan, then Gotham will soon be dotted with special enclaves with quasi-governments unaccountable to voters and revenue streams outside the purview of municipal government.

A Clockwork Equal

To the editor:
I agree with some of the conclusions in John Kekes’s “Dangerous Egalitarian Dreams” [Autumn 2001]. The idiotic ramblings of Rawls and Dworkin are misconceived for two reasons. The first, as Kekes points out, is that they don’t apply to human beings. There never was, and never will be, an egalitarian society. Among large groups of people, there will always be an elite, as in the supposedly egalitarian Soviet Union. Social stratification is part of human nature (or our evolutionary inheritance, if you prefer).

The second reason is that egalitarian systems provide no incentive to work. There will be little innovation; everyone will be equally and increasingly poor. Rawls and Dworkin fall into the simplistic error that views the economy as a large pie: if some get more, others get less. But market economies are expandable pies. Rich and poor both can get richer, just at different rates.

That said, Kekes’s moral argument against Rawls and Dworkin falls short. Yes, we should reward the single mother who betters herself, but we cannot neglect the mugger: as a human being, he deserves compassion—no matter how deplorable his actions.

Help may come in the near future. I’ve seen remarkable advances since going to medical school in the sixties. Progress in psychology and neurobiology will likely provide astounding, almost frightening, therapies to control inappropriate, aggressive behavior and the dependence on drugs that is its usual cause. Such treatments will deservedly engender the same anxiety and controversy as does gene therapy, but well managed, they will be a great boon.

Jeffrey D. Postman
New York, NY

To the editor:
I was quite astonished to read in John Kekes’s penultimate paragraph, “Welfare programs eat up roughly 60 percent of the federal and state budget.”

I don’t have state figures handy, but Medicaid and other means-tested entitlements together made up a mere 13 percent of the federal budget for FY 2001. Adding Social Security and Medicare would still only bring the total to 48 percent of the federal budget—and characterizing those as “welfare programs” seems disingenuous at best, particularly in light of the substance of Kekes’s article (especially for Social Security, in which one’s eligibility is tied directly to one’s lifetime contributions). I find it completely implausible that state spending could make up the gap between the 13 percent of the federal budget and the claimed 60 percent.

While by no means an egalitarian in Kekes’s sense of the term, I do believe that there is an obligation to provide assistance to the needy. In my Jewish tradition, such assistance is known as tzedakah; while commonly translated as “charity,” the Hebrew word is derived from the same root as tzedek, “justice.” Since all material success is ultimately derived from God, justice demands that those who succeed share their wealth with those who don’t. A secularized version of this idea might be to acknowledge that, though failure is sometimes earned outright, success always depends in some measure upon chance, and that those favored by chance should share with the less fortunate. This vision of justice does not insist upon leveling, but does suggest that one should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless without presuming to ask whether they are deserving.

A traditional Jewish obligation is to give one-tenth of one’s income to this end. The sum of your after-tax income plus the portion of your taxes that benefit the unfortunate would be the base figure on which to calculate your 10 percent obligation. Thus, if you earned $100, and $5 of your $30 tax bill went to alleviating poverty, then your base income would be $75, and your gross charitable obligation $7.50. Your net charitable obligation in addition to paying your taxes would be $2.50.

Thus, the question of what percentage of one’s taxes goes to alleviating poverty is a rather crucial one. I don’t know how much of the federal budget is legitimately classified as tzedakah, but I am confident it is nowhere near 60 percent.

George S. Schneiderman
Harvard University

To the editor:
I couldn’t disagree more with your analysis of John Rawls. His world would make me much, much happier.

I would like to be a major league baseball player and Lucy Lawless’s boyfriend. In this unequal and therefore unjust world, I am neither. I’m 52 and have basically no athletic ability at all. I’m only moderately well-off, and not terribly attractive—in this unfair world, Ms. Lawless wouldn’t give me the time of day.

I want a Rawlsian world that would require the Detroit Tigers to start me in left field and Lucy Lawless to go out with me.

Thank goodness Rawls understands that my choices about my education, career, and behavior, and my unchosen talents and limitations should have no effect on my income. Your carping about moral responsibility, essential and irreducible inequalities among individuals, and the inescapable vagaries of life is confusing and infuriating.

Alex Bensky
Detroit, MI

John Kekes responds:
My thanks to the many people who responded to my “Dangerous Egalitarian Dreams” with questions, criticism, and approbation.

Mr. Postman agrees with my conclusions, but thinks that criminals deserve not condemnation, but compassion and, ultimately, treatment. But if people are prevented by medical manipulation from making certain choices, they are deprived of their freedom. With freedom comes responsibility. Criminals are responsible for making the wrong choices, and that is why they should be blamed and punished. The denial of freedom and responsibility brings us closer to a world in which some authority, medical or political, makes our choices for us because we cannot be trusted to do so ourselves. It is not a world in which a reasonable person would wish to live.

Mr. Bensky’s inspired lines suggest that lighthearted ridicule may better illustrate the absurdities of egalitarianism than my more serious attempt. It is not easy to remain lighthearted, however, when egalitarian policies are advanced with a moralistic fervor that views opposition as immoral and shameful.

Mr. Schneiderman finds my claim that welfare programs take up 60 percent of the budget “disingenuous at best.” The Desk Reference on the Federal Budget says: “About 62 percent of the budget . . . was allocated to social spending in 1996. Among the programs funded are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, various health programs, education and training, social services, veterans’ programs, unemployment insurance, and welfare.” The Unabridged Random House Dictionary defines welfare as “financial or other assistance to an individual or a family from a city, state, or national government.” I stand by my claim.

Schneiderman’s felt obligation to provide assistance to the needy is laudable. I agree that people should be free to dispose of their money in any legal way they choose. What I object to is the government forcing them to dispose of it in a particular way. It is a fine thing to help people if misfortune makes them needy. But if they are needy as a consequence of their criminal, irrational, or imprudent behavior, then it is not a fine thing.

Family Pollittics

To the editor:
I was quite moved—haunted even—by Sol Stern’s brief and deftly written “Showing the Flag” [Autumn 2001]. I, too, worked with David Horowitz on Ramparts in 1972, taking my distance from the magazine and its politics rather earlier than Horowitz did.

My main reaction to your piece on Katha Pollitt and her daughter was a deeper version of the chagrin I feel whenever I see anyone subordinating personal relationships to political ideas. I think I’ll never forget the image of a mother depriving her child of love and emotional safety in the aftermath of such a horrific event—a kind of Pietà set on its head.

David Landau
Via e-mail

The Real Ivory Tower?

To the editor:
Amen to Kay S. Hymowitz and Harry Stein’s eloquent denunciation of moral obtuseness on campus [“Earth to Ivory Tower: Get Real!” Autumn 2001]. But I’m less enthusiastic about your research and presentation: instead of acknowledging in passing that other voices in the academy view terrorism as evil, you should make that the main point of your article. Unfortunately, the America’s-always-to-blame bozos get all the publicity—and you’re giving them more by implying that their moral blindness characterizes the academy as a whole.

You report 146 antiwar rallies after September 11—that’s about 4 percent of American schools. Where rallies occurred, they were small—attended by 5 percent of students or less. Roughly one student in 500 went to a rally; the figure for professors is similar.

Even at elite institutions, only a small minority spouts the views you highlight. A collection of revolting anecdotes does not make a trend. People in the academy need to hear your moral message, if only to reinforce their own views. Why obscure the message by packaging it with unfair generalizations?

But thank you for a good read.

Alfred Kelly
Hamilton College

Kay S. Hymowitz & Harry Stein respond:
Mr. Kelly presents a wonderfully optimistic vision of U.S. campuses, and it would be terrific to think he’s right. Alas, though we certainly agree on some of the particulars, the evidence suggests otherwise.

The blame-America bozos do indeed tend to get the lion’s share of publicity; the media does focus on “elite” institutions to the exclusion of most others; and, yes—even at those places—only a modest percentage of students are active America-bashers.

This has always been so. It was certainly the case during Vietnam. It is also entirely beside the point we were seeking to make. Our focus was the pernicious effects of the intellectual fad of multiculturalism—long embraced as gospel on virtually every American campus, large and small—and how it has promoted a morally flaccid ethic of nonjudgment.

The September 11 atrocity, precisely because it was so grotesque an assault on civilized and specifically Western values, provided an opportunity to see just how much that idea has taken hold. The astonishing thing was not that the vast majority of students and faculty reacted with both anger and surging patriotism, but that some did not so react. Nor is it meaningless that so high a proportion of the protests occurred at “prestige” institutions. Like it or not—and we certainly don’t—those schools set trends, as they did during Vietnam.

We searched far and wide for college and university administrators who issued forthright statements excoriating the attacks as acts of unequivocal evil. What we found, overwhelmingly, were expressions of concern that September 11 might lead to assaults on “diversity.”

Kelly wants us to celebrate a new campus attitude. To the extent that it has occurred, it comes as gratifying news indeed. But there remains an underlying sickness, and we have yet to see evidence of the patient’s recovery.

Rumors of Wars

To the editor:
In her essay “Keeping New York Safe from Terrorists” [Autumn 2001], Heather Mac Donald asserts in passing that just after the September 11 attacks “celebrations” took place in Paterson, New Jersey, presumably in the city’s Muslim community. This is the first mention I have seen of the “Paterson celebrations” in print, but rumors have circulated in New Jersey for months. People I know (including a New Jersey Muslim) insist they took place; others (including a local news reporter) insist that they did not. Unfortunately, none of them were in Paterson at the time.

One such “celebration” rumor, involving a doughnut shop in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, was demonstrated to be false after local police, following up on a complaint, checked the store’s security video.

Mac Donald speaks of the celebrations as though they were fact. I’d be interested to know what evidence exists for their occurrence. And why has the mainstream media allowed rumors to circulate for months without saying a word?

Irfan Khawaja
Ewing, NJ

Heather Mac Donald responds:
I based my statement on reports circulating at the time I wrote the article. If there has been no substantiation of those reports, I was in error.

Shari‘a for Thee, But Not for Me

To the editor:
I read with pleasure Daniel Pipes’s “Fighting Militant Islam, Without Bias” [Autumn 2001]. In the late seventies and early eighties, a wave of Egyptians emigrated to Saudi Arabia to work in its booming oil-driven economy. I was among them, and worked for a Saudi prince who fully represents the Muslim elite’s double personality. Every first Friday of the Islamic month, I attended the court over which this prince presided, punishing people for crimes like drinking alcohol. He himself was drunk every night. In all my life, I haven’t seen as much Scotch whisky as I saw in this prince’s palace.

George El Masri
Via e-mail

Will Islamists Ever Dare to Know?

To the editor:
Farrukh Dhondy’s otherwise insightful and cautionary article about the dangers of Islamist ideology in Britain is marred by the author’s plea for the emergence of an Islamic Martin Luther.

Enraged by the failure of European Jewry to convert to his new gospel, Luther became a bitter polemicist and advocate of violence, preaching an anti-Semitism of word and deed that rivals that of the most dogmatic jihadist today.

What the Islamic world so desperately needs is not a Luther, but an Enlightenment.

Harold Karabell
St. Louis, MO

Farrukh Dhondy responds:
Enlightenments require historically favorable environments and respected enlighteners. The Muslim world lacks the cultural preconditions—economic, intellectual, and legal—for such a secular transformation to take place.

But your point about Luther is well taken. Perhaps what Islam really needs is an anti-Luther, who will institute the selling of indulgences as purchase for salvation, a far more enlightened fee than the suicidal spilling of innocent blood.

 

 


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