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Watch what Mayor de Blasio does and doesn’t do, not what he says. January 11, 2019
New York
Politics and law

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio gave his sixth state-of-the-city address on Thursday, and any capitalist newcomer dropped down into the Upper West Side’s Symphony Space for a few moments to watch would have been horrified. New York, he said, has plenty of money, but it “is in the wrong hands.” Apparently looking for national soundbites, the mayor is conjuring up an image of a revolutionary leader prying money from terrified billionaires to give to the poor after decades of neoliberal oppression. That’s because, on the national stage, in a Democratic primary with candidates tracking increasingly leftward, the truth that may hurt the mayor: in actual governing, de Blasio is more old-school, big-city Democratic pragmatist than new-school, Democratic Socialist of America. The real danger to de Blasio’s national aspirations comes from the Left.

De Blasio used to talk about New York as a tale of two cities. Now, he is trying to write a tale for two audiences. After more than a half-decade of scrutiny, de Blasio seems to grasp that the City Hall press corps, with its nonpartisan stories of his various failures, from public housing to public corruption, will not pave his way to the White House. So as he starts his sixth year in office, he’s looking for new fans. On Tuesday of this week, he used MSNBC’s Morning Joe show to preview his new “universal” health-care plan for New Yorkers. The program isn’t really “universal”—it’s just a tweak to New York’s $8 billion public-health system to direct the uninsured to clinics rather than to emergency rooms, plus some new initiatives to sign people up for health plans. But de Blasio bet—correctly—that Morning Joe’s hosts wouldn’t show skepticism, as the local press has.

A day later, de Blasio used the Washington Post to unveil another major new initiative: he wants the city council to force private-sector employers to offer all full-time workers two weeks’ paid time off. In his remarks on Thursday, de Blasio characterized the proposal as a blow against corporate “exploitation.” At “big box retailers . . . even in corporate offices,” he said, many “New Yorkers can’t so much as [take] a single day off, not one, to be there when their child needs them or to gather with their family for a wedding or a funeral.” Scrolling a list of Western countries that require vacation time—countries, not cities—the mayor said that New York was simply following “every other industrialized country on Earth.”

Vacation, however, is hardly an unheard-of perk for New York’s workers, no matter what their income. From the city’s own numbers, 89 percent of the workforce already receives this benefit, and, however inconvenient for the mayor’s messaging, it is not large corporations that stint on vacation. Two weeks is standard for full-time workers after a year or so. The 11 percent of the city’s workforce targeted by the new mandate work for struggling smaller retailers and restaurants with low profit margins and high turnover. If you’re working full-time for a company that offers no paid vacation, odds are you’re working for a company that’s poorly managed or barely profitable, or both—and odds are, too, that you’re doing so because you don’t have a lot of other options. To the extent that it will drive some such marginal companies out of business and their workers out of jobs, yet another mandate is unwise. But de Blasio has never cared much about the city’s small-scale industries: see his relentless half-decade attack on horse-carriage drivers. His vacation program isn’t geared toward truly exploited workers, many of whom work off the books in the restaurant and personal-services industries, earning less than the legal minimum wage, anyway. Rather, the PR push is geared toward the middle-class and affluent people who already get vacation but think that it would be great if we were more like Sweden. 

What about taxes? For five years, de Blasio has persistently threatened a “millionaire’s tax.” He’s talked about it so much that the national press seems to think that he’s already done it; in its piece on de Blasio’s forced-vacation policy, the Washington Post referred incorrectly to the mayor’s “tax increases.” The mayor is likely happy to let national progressive voters think that he’s already raised taxes, though he hasn’t. With the Democrats having taken over the state senate, 2019 is the first year that he’ll have a credible chance to do so, though he has become rather tepid on the idea. Late in his state of the city speech, he said, half-heartedly, that “I continue to believe a millionaires’ tax is the fairest, most progressive way,” but “other people have floated other ideas.” Now that the mayor has a realistic chance to make good on one of his 2013 campaign promises, he doesn’t seem so interested in pursuing it.

Early in his remarks, the mayor crowed, “New York City is now one of the world’s premiere tech hubs. . . . The major new announcements from Amazon and Google show that the world’s most innovative companies want to be here. . . . Now we have over 4.5 million jobs in this city, for the first time in history: 4.5 million jobs.”

The mayor is right to be proud. But he didn’t mention the $1.3 billion in tax breaks that the city is handing to Amazon to cement the deal. De Blasio may warn that the city’s money is in the “wrong hands,” but he had no compunction about giving a special tax deal to one of the world’s wealthiest companies.

As de Blasio explores the rest of the country, prospective voters should know about his failures. Amid the biggest economic boom that the city has ever seen, the mayor still hasn’t come to grips with the city’s trio of scourges: crumbling public housing, chronic homelessness, and severe mental illness. Just as important, he remains uninterested in the decaying mass-transit system, the city’s biggest existential threat. All the mayor said about the subways on Thursday was that “we will get Albany to fix” them. In day-to-day governance, de Blasio’s sins are of those of omission, not commission—and they are practical failures, not ideological ones.

Photo: NYC Mayor’s Office

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