Urbanities

Roger Starr
Ten Years of Setting Municipal Priorities
Autumn 1990

Setting Municipal Priorities, Vols. I-IX, edited by Charles Brecher and Raymond D. Horton (Setting Municipal Priorities, 1990 New York University Press, 361 pp., $50 hardcover, $25 paperback)

Nine volumes ago, Raymond Horton and Charles Brecher launched a series of annual investigations of the major problems facing New York City’s government.

Their timing was excellent. By the late 1970s, the acute migraine that was the 1975 fiscal crisis had subsided to a dull ache, yet memories of the pain were still vivid. An impressive list of private philanthropies and government agencies pledged to sustain the Setting Municipal Priorities project for a two-year run. The project was to consist of a book and a conference, gathering together experts in public administration to tackle New York’s problems. Those two years have stretched into 10. Subscribers to the series have had the chance to assemble a Setting Municipal Priorities bookshelf of respectable size: Nine books of the year analyzing the state of the city. The decade mark is a good time to examine them, and reflect on the series’ aims and its accomplishments.

During the precarious years of the early Eighties before the economic revival that is now subsiding made itself obvious, the Setting Municipal Priorities series, like New York City government itself, focused on efficiency. Then, in the 1984 volume, a new note was struck. Horton and Brecher collaborated on an article that suggested a 180-degree turn in local government policy. New York City budget allocations, they argued, should be categorized under three new headings developed by people the authors refer to as “social scientists.” These four- and five-syllable headings are: “developmental, “ “allocative,” and “redistributive.”

“Developmental” expenditures are those that expand the capital plant of the city and enhance its economic growth. “Allocative” expenditures are those, such as education and the criminal justice system, that benefit so wide a spectrum of the population that they cannot be said to favor any one class. “Redistributive” expenditures shift resources from one group of citizens to another.

In this sudden transformation, Horton and Brecher were promoting a shift in both the city and the series’ priorities, from efficiency to social justice. This was a startling deviation from the original focus of the project. The consequences of making social justice a primary goal of municipal policy were not apparent in the early years of the series. However, as time went on, the change in emphasis shifted the entire focus of the project, somewhat to its detriment.

The problem with making “equality” a top municipal priority—as one does by defining a large part of municipal spending as redistributional—is that it is an open-ended, and therefore unachievable goal. Vague and remote goals do not function as goals at all. They do not do what goals are supposed to do: focus energy and attention. Goals give way to dreams, which are beyond the reach of the kind of public administration analysis that is the Setting Municipal Priorities series’ marvelous specialty.

As a political objective, social justice is not only vague, but foolish. It substitutes a controversial quasi-revolutionary slogan for what should be a simple acknowledgement of the common humanity of rich and poor. In the “social justice” view, the evil that city welfare expenditures aim to eliminate is not bad housing or untreated illness, but inequality itself. Instead of appealing to New Yorkers’ desire and duty to heal the sick, and feed the destitute, social justice slogans set class against class, and in the process alienate the vast body of productive citizens on whom any social welfare scheme depends.

Of special interest and value, both for its own sake and for what it reveals about the city’s perennial difficulty in setting priorities, is the 1982 article on local taxes by Dick Netzer, professor at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at N.Y.U., that was republished in the 1984 retrospective compendium. Netzer establishes, as few other series’ contributors have, clear criteria for judging municipal policy. One reason Netzer succeeds in this regard is that there is already wide agreement on the essential purpose of tax policy: raising money for the municipal government.

Netzer’s work is a highpoint throughout, certainly interesting enough to inspire disagreement. At one point in his essay in the 1983 volume, Netzer suggests that the two most important differences between privately owned enterprises and local government are that local government faces no competition and that government does not encourage volunteer effort as private, nonprofit enterprises do. He claims both deficiencies can be corrected by strong government leadership.

I would argue that the major advantage private enterprise, profit or nonprofit, enjoys is clear goals. In private enterprises, all the players have reached substantial agreement on what they want the organization to accomplish. They want it to be fiscally sound and profitable, whether that profit is measured in cash dividends and stock prices, or in the successful achievement of its philanthropic alms.

By contrast, government and local government in particular, is now run by people who have no firm convictions as to what government can accomplish. As a result, they are prepared to burden it with responsibility for accomplishing everything any constituent group demands of them. The responsibilities of city government have evolved from maintaining the peace (hence the police power) and the streets, sewers, and other infrastructure, to providing services, like education, that were once provided by nongovernmental institutions, to rescuing souls from sin, and a host of other social ills.

All of these goals are worthy. That is part of the problem. The paralyzing effect of too many goals can be seen at all levels of government. Many functions of local government, like education, were performed not perfectly, but acceptably when schools and parents agreed that the purpose of school was to educate the young in the general culture of the civilization. Now New York City schools must not only educate, but stop drug abuse, encourage contraception, prevent AIDS, and instill ethnic pride. As their goals multiplied, schools declined.

And so for much the same reason a worthy, valuable ten-year project called Setting Municipal Priorities largely falls to set any. The two latest volumes, one for 1988 and one for 1990, demonstrate this tendency to apply public administration analysis to areas far beyond its useful scope. These volumes take the expansion of the public interest as a given. Thus, in the 1988 volume, Howard Chernick writes about tax policy in a far different vein from the earlier tax essays in the series. He views the goals of local tax policy, not as equalizing the proportion of hardship imposed on each income level, but as distributing the hardship more heavily on the affluent. He acknowledges the danger that, as he puts it, the affluent may “display their resentment” by moving out. But the danger of discouraging economic activity does not deter him. The purpose of the tax code, as he understands it, is to maximize equality of income, rather than to maximize city revenues.

Perhaps it is futile to talk about the priorities of municipal government without first limiting the roles assigned to it. To have a thousand goals, after all, is the same as having no goals at all—and no criteria by which to analyze performance and judge success.

The nine-volume shelf of Setting Municipal Priorities is a technical document of considerable value. Its decision to avoid fundamental political questions may be wise, but it is also ultimately limiting. The kind of public administration analysis that Setting Municipal Priorities sets out to do is possible only when there is a consensus on what city policy is supposed to achieve. Asked to achieve all goods, the city government becomes paralyzed, ineffective, distracted—incapable of its chief task: promoting the common good.

SHARE
respondrespondTEXT SIZE
If you enjoyed
this article,
why not subscribe
to City Journal? subscribe Get the Free App on iTunes Or sign up for free online updates: