Sophisticated as they are, New Yorkers often know a great deal about the workings of the Federal Government. They can go on and on about what Washington should and shouldn’t do. But at the same time they are often surprisingly uninformed about their city government, though its almost $30 billion budget is larger than that of all but three states. Now, however, with Staten Island secession on the horizon and secessionist rumbling in Queens even as the city continues to suffer from a serious recession, the structure and function of city government demand scrutiny.
There is no single cure for our current economic and political problems. But the precondition for any remedy is an awareness of how city government does and doesn’t work. City government is viewed by the vast majority of New Yorkers—and this includes many who work within its labyrinthine chambers—as a mysterious entity, almost a natural phenomenon that has existed in its gargantuan form for so long as to be regarded as a fact of life, failures and all.
The City Journal wants to make city government less mysterious, and hence more open to reasoned debate. By making the mechanisms of government more visible, we hope to help New Yorkers, who face a crucial mayoral election this year, engage the issues as in any healthy democracy.
Many of the articles in this issue, including Charles Morris’s account of why the city’s budget gaps are likely to grow, were written witth the belief that sunlight is the best cure. But perhaps none is more important than Edwin S. Rubenstein’s "A Citizen’s Guide to City Government." The budget, Marx observed, is the skeleton of the state, and Rubenstein’s account of the city’s spending exposes New York’s skeleton to an analytic x-ray. Reading this breakdown of how the city government chooses to spend our money will give citizens a new perspective on city government. I suspect, for example, few are aware that schools, social services, and debt service consume more than half the budget, while the parks receive less than half of one percent.
Kay S. Hymowitz’s "The Futile Crusade: The Rise and Fall of Joe Fernandez" places the problems of our schools in the context of a centralized structure that continues to fail our children even as it has gone through 11 chancellors in the last twenty years. Our "At Issue" roundtable takes a look at the broader movement to decentralize city government , a movement aimed at breaking the city’s vast bureaucracy into smaller and hence more accountable parts. As it now stands, when a resident of the Bronx votes for mayor, she votes on the quality of road repair, the performance of the schools, and a hundred other issues. Borough Presidents Howard Golden of Brooklyn and Ruth Messinger of Manhattan argue in our roundtable that if the boroughs were given direct responsibility for those services that could be delivered better on the local level, voters would be able to hold their borough officials accountable for the quality of those services.
We at the City Journal are well aware of the difficulty of reshaping government and revitalizing the economy in a city that has become deeply conservative, in the literal sense of being resistant to change. Pulling New York out of its downward spiral has been compared with turning a battleship in a bathtub. But we are also aware that a growing number of New Yorkers are willing to reconsider the old orthodoxies. If we and our readers can play a part in raising the level and scope of debate, we can help create a mayoral campaign that goes beyond the traditional game of diversionary charges and countercharges.