REPUBLICANS TO CITIES: DROP DEAD is the title stamped above the fold of this past Sunday’s New York Times’s Sunday Review section. In the piece, historical urban novelist Kevin Baker castigates national Republicans for ignoring cities at best and demonizing them at worst. Baker misses a key truth of urban history: throughout the late twentieth century, decades’ worth of interest from both parties in Washington didn’t help cities much. A wealthy metropolis like New York, in particular, would do better today if Washington ignored it even more.
Baker’s headline is a throwback to the infamous 1975 Daily News front page—FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD—trumpeting President Gerald Ford’s initial impulse not to save Gotham’s creditors as the city plunged into financial crisis that year. But Ford never said these words, and the Republican president did eventually rescue New York—or rather its creditors—from bankruptcy. But why was New York in such dire straits in the first place?
New York wasn’t desperate because of Washington’s inattention to urban issues. Cities had enjoyed plenty of interest from Washington in previous decades. In the sixties, LBJ made urban renewal a key plank of his War on Poverty, handing out federal grants to cities from New Haven to New Orleans under his “Model Cities” program. Johnson said the initiative would give “cities, finally, after a long, bitter, difficult struggle, a voice.”
They should have used that voice to say “no thanks.” Instead, local officials around the country used federal funds to build highways and other massive projects through historic but struggling neighborhoods, destroying them. According to Yale University’s archives, New Haven’s sixties-era mayor, Dick Lee, came to regret his efforts, saying that “If New Haven is a ‘model city,’ God help America’s cities.” New Orleans street muralists painted oaks on one highway underpass to replace the live oaks that urban renewal destroyed.
The other part of the War on Poverty was social programs. Washington’s efforts to get more people on welfare and to sign up poor families for Johnson’s new health-care safety net, Medicaid, “benefited” urban areas most, as cities had more poor people. Nobody wondered whether it was a good idea to get a whole generation of people dependent on government. Nor did they worry that the promise of federal funding would get an entire generation of urban politicians hooked on signing voters up for social services, at the expense of doing what’s necessary for cities to thrive: building good public infrastructure and keeping residents of all incomes safe from crime.
The seventies were no better. Ford and, later, Jimmy Carter backed the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), paying for cities to hire hundreds of thousands of workers in an effort to push unemployment down. Cities would train young people for good jobs to end “structural unemployment.” Instead, urban machines often used the federal funds for patronage hiring. Local news stories highlighting the make-work nature of these jobs helped to destroy confidence in government far more effectively than budding anti-government conservatives could—just as decades later, President Obama’s ineffectual stimulus served as a far better advertisement against activist government than any Tea Party demonstration.
Even in the eighties, urban politicians remained powerful enough to snag earmarks for big-city projects from a supposedly more conservative Washington. President Reagan approved funding for Boston’s Big Dig—a worthwhile project, but one that state and local politicians should have sold to their constituents, rather than begging in Washington. The promise of getting something for free lulled Massachusetts politicians into complacency—and state taxpayers ended up paying big when the project’s costs bubbled way over the federal allotment.
Today, thankfully, Washington is less interested in big new ideas. As Baker notes, neither President Obama nor former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney mentioned cities in last week’s debate. (Baker oddly lets Obama off the hook for this omission, saying that Democrats don’t have to talk about “the urban experience” because “they embody it.” That would be news to a city like Camden, New Jersey, which has seen crime soar in recent years without any help from the supposedly sympathetic administration in the White House.) Washington’s existing programs are bad enough, though. Cities like Buffalo, with thousands of abandoned homes, continue to get federal money to build “affordable housing.” Free money still makes cities do stupid things. As Steve Cuozzo wrote in the New York Post last week, New York pols used Obama’s stimulus money to jumpstart the Fulton Street transit center downtown—an overly fancy train station that won’t take riders anywhere new.
For New York, in particular, the problem isn’t just wasting our own money—we pay for everyone else to waste money, too. Consider: between 1981 and 2005, according to the Tax Foundation, New York received an average of only 85 cents back for every dollar it sent to Washington—the city’s own permanent 15-cent deficit. New York has more than its fair share of rich people, and rich people pay higher taxes. In 2009, New York State, with 6.3 percent of the nation’s population, earned 7.7 percent of the nation’s personal income but paid 9.2 percent of the country’s personal-income taxes—$13.1 billion more than our “fair share,” and that’s just in one year. In other words, our Central Park South billionaires pay for Medicaid in Mississippi. And for big projects like the Second Avenue subway, the federal funds we get are bought with our own money and then some.
So from New York’s perspective, who’s the unsung warrior on the campaign trail? Mitt Romney. First, Romney would cut federal income-tax rates, meaning rich New Yorkers could keep more of their money in New York (yes, Romney has been vague and inconsistent about his tax plan, but marginal tax-rate cuts generally help top earners). Second, Romney would cap federal Medicaid spending, making states, not Washington, responsible for most future Medicaid growth. Such a move wouldn’t prevent New York from spending even more on Medicaid. The state and city would be free to hike taxes on the wealthy and keep more of their social-services money within the state and the city.
Romney should go even further and say that states and cities should build more of their own roads, bridges, and subways, rather than look to Washington for funding. As Baker notes, the national GOP platform makes cities the enemy, disparaging “dense housing and government transit.” He’s right: on both urban public transportation and inter-city rail, the platform shows either ignorance about finance or willingness to engage in demagoguery. For example, it calls for the privatization of Amtrak’s northeast corridor and the rest of the inter-city rail system, without acknowledging the core problem: rail outside the northeast isn’t profitable. (And good luck finding a GOP representative who wants to close an unprofitable Amtrak stop in his district.)
But why should New York even have to listen to national-party rubes complain that we’re Communists every time we want to build a subway line or a bike lane rather than a highway? Let us keep more of our money; we’ll use it to build big ourselves. As Mayor Bloomberg said in a radio interview two weeks ago, “we built a new subway line with our money” (the #7 extension from Times Square to the West Side). If you want to build something, he advised other cities, “tax yourself and do it.” We shouldn’t have to build something else thousands of miles away for the privilege of building something of our own. And focusing on the bad guys in Washington lets local and state politicians of both parties off the hook.