One clear message from New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address earlier this week is that the Democratic governor wants everyone to consider him a “progressive.” Cuomo used the term 14 times in his address to describe his policies and the political character of the state under his leadership. Never one for understatement, Cuomo proclaimed New York “the progressive capital of the nation” and touted what he called the state’s “remarkable economic and social progress” under his leadership, including increases in the minimum wage, mandatory paid family leave, and efforts to fight climate change. He also sounded an alarm that the state’s progressive agenda is threatened in Washington by the Trump administration, and advised the president to rediscover the nation’s founding ideals, which, to Cuomo’s thinking, apparently revolve around an expansion of government-run economic-development programs.
Throughout Cuomo’s speech, however, the economic and social reality of New York hovered like a ghost at the feast. Though the state has a long history of progressivism dating to governors like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Nelson Rockefeller, and Mario Cuomo, and New York City does, too, with mayors like Fiorello LaGuardia and John Lindsay, New York is also the nation’s most unequal state, with a Gini coefficient (the traditional measure of inequality) of .522, compared with a median among all states of .464. The state’s largest city, led by another notable progressive, is the second-most unequal among the nation’s 100 largest municipalities. While the rich have the resources to negotiate New York’s high costs and highly regulated working and living conditions, the poor struggle to advance in a state that keeps shedding middle-class jobs—and residents, forced to seek opportunity elsewhere.
This disconnection between New York’s long history of progressivism and its grinding inequality is startling only if you ignore basic economics. While Cuomo touts the $15 minimum wage, hundreds of studies published in the United States and around the world have consistently documented that government-driven increases in basic wages destroy low-wage jobs, denying entry-level opportunity to workers looking to begin their ascent up the economic ladder. Meanwhile, New York’s heavy-handed regulatory regimes, distinguished by policies like paid family leave, impose high costs on businesses, especially growing ones, restraining job growth and limiting entrepreneurship. That’s one reason why New York City, the engine of the state’s economy, ranks low on small-business creation—a traditional path into the middle class, especially for immigrants. The ironic result: New York’s heavy-handed and expensive regulations favor big, entrenched firms over enterprising ones, even as politicians like Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio advertise their progressive bona fides.
These policies have contributed to the hollowing out of New York’s economy: high-paying jobs endure, and low-wage workers find employment delivering basic services to the rich, but middle-income jobs flee. In 2014, a New York City Partnership study documented New York’s difficulties in creating middle-class employment, even as its economy recovered from the 2008 recession. For years, New York enjoyed abundant middle-income employment in crucial industries like financial services, but those jobs, typically in technology and support services, have since fled, as companies moved data processing and other back-office functions to Florida, South Dakota, and the Carolinas to escape New York’s high taxes and regulatory burden. Residents have followed—making New York one of the longstanding leaders among states in net domestic outmigration.
As a self-proclaimed progressive, Cuomo is more than willing to sacrifice good jobs in pursuit of political virtue-signaling. The Cuomo administration banned fracking, ensuring that depressed upstate New York communities desperate for decent jobs would miss out on America’s energy boom. Cuomo promised, instead, that he would supply government-led programs to replace the lost economic opportunity. The programs were slow in coming and had little impact on upstate, even as energy production boomed in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Dakota, and Texas. That didn’t stop Cuomo from promising new economic initiatives, bolstered by his belief that New Yorkers have short memories.
All politicians tout their achievements and ignore their failings. Even so, progressivism, with its unerring faith in government, offers a striking disconnect from reality. To progressives, merely announcing new government programs or passing legislation amounts to success, no matter what results these policies produce. As long as Cuomo continues to define his performance in terms of the number of new government initiatives he undertakes, New York will remain the “progressive capital of the nation”—however little its people have to show for it.
Photo by Philip Kamrass/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo