An NY Roundtable: July 10, 1991
The participants in this issue’s Roundtable all have something in common: Without abandoning liberalism, they have been trying to figure out why many liberal prescriptions seem to have failed, and contributed to the decline of the city. They are searching for a new politics that is both true to the historic goal of urban liberalism—making the city a good place for Americans of modest means—and that also frees liberalism from its recent, dogmatic hostility to bourgeois values. To save the city (and liberalism), they suspect, New York needs to take seriously the bourgeois aspirations of liberalism’s historic constituency—the people whose parents looked upon LaGuardia and Roosevelt as heroes.
In this roundtable, they explore not only liberalism’s mistakes, but also what the liberal tradition has to offer New York in the Nineties.
NATHAN GLAZER: Most of us in this room still consider ourselves liberals. The key question for all once-and-future New York liberals is: To what extent are New York City’s problems and the problems of other American cities owing to liberalism? And to what extent can liberalism’s great fund of compassion for the poor and oppressed be drawn upon for new and more effective policies?
FRED SIEGEL: Nathan, I’d like to start by offering an overview of where we are now. Big-city government and big-city liberalism live on in New York. But both are in trouble.
It was Franklin Roosevelt’s political genius to clamp together a coalition of private-sector unions, public-sector patronage machines, and urban liberal reformers to create modern American liberalism. He built this coalition in part by breaking the mold of American federalism: bypassing the states to give direct federal aid to the cities, fueling the urban activism of men like Fiorello LaGuardia with federal money.
In the Sixties urban liberalism was invigorated by LBJ’s Great Society attempt to complete the American welfare state. This second phase of liberalism was built around the needs and agenda of racial minorities and public-sector unions. The public-employee unions became the organizational core of the new Democratic Party in New York City.
But this second-phase New Deal liberalism was based not only on massive financial aid for the urban poor, and a tremendous growth in the power of city employees, but also on the moral deregulation of personal and social life. This attempt to stitch together a radically individualistic civil libertarianism with a full-blown set of social services didn’t fare nearly as well as its predecessor. Both have imposed huge costs on the city, and both have accelerated the flight of talent and capital to the suburbs.
Middle-class citizens, rightly or wrongly, have become convinced that modern liberal urban government is mostly about letting the poor misbehave at the expense of the middle class, and paying public employees very well to deliver services very poorly.
Today we are at a watershed. The alliance between liberalism and public-sector unions achieved in the 1960s is fraying, not just in New York, but throughout the Northeast. The liberal/public-employee alliance in New York and New Jersey is coming under the fiscal pressures of the “new federalism” that has dramatically restructured federal/city relations by sharply reducing direct federal aid to the cities. The old deal does not seem to be working for anybody: the people who are paying for the services, the people who are supposed to be receiving them, or even, because of reductions in aid, the people who get paid for delivering services.
CHARLES MORRIS: Yes, Fred, but there is one problem with this “breakdown of urban liberalism in the city” paradigm. Most cities are doing really well in this country. The typical city is a city of up to 600,000 people that basically works. Visit Milwaukee; visit Charlotte; visit Columbus, Ohio; visit Pittsburgh; visit San Diego: These cities mirror the population of the country—about 10 to 12 percent black, 5 percent Asian, and 85 percent white; they don’t have a huge underclass; both taxes and services are reasonable.
About a month ago a liberal economist said to me, “People in this country still have a dream that they live in a frame house with a white picket fence and they drive to work.” I said, “Hey, I got news for you: That’s what people in this country do.” People in places like Columbus, Charlotte, and Pittsburgh live in frame houses and drive to work.
But there are five or six cities that are obsolete, ancient, hulking, skeletal wrecks. This city is going to turn into one fairly soon. Places like Philadelphia and Chicago are essentially nineteenth-century organizations—cities that came into their own as a result of what we are calling urban liberalism. These hulking wrecks are in trouble. But we shouldn’t confuse the hulking wrecks with American cities in general, because most cities are doing well.
ELAINE KAMARCK: There is something obsolete about the government structures created by second-stage liberalism. Fred’s “second stage” created a new class of players in the business of liberalism: service providers—huge numbers of service providers, very well organized, and very active in politics, on school boards, in social work, etc.
Service providers have a particular view of the world: If there is a problem, first you make up an agency with the name of the problem to solve it. Then you license service providers to do the agency’s work. Next, you have to trace what happened to the public money paid to these service workers, and then you have to make sure that what the agency says happened actually happened. Before you know it, the government is spending gobs of money on a new bureaucracy and the problem is getting worse. As the problem worsens, the service providers’ response is, “Oh dear, the problem got worse: We need more money.”
Actually this second stage of liberalism came to a screeching halt in Congress in 1990. The seminal moment occurred when Congress rejected the original ABC child care bill and substituted an entirely different approach to day care.
This is what happened: During the campaign of 1988, politicians started noticing that families were worried about day care. So the Democratic response, emblematic of the old school of liberalism, was to create a day-care initiative, the ABC bill. The initial ABC bill would have created an office of day care in the Health and Human Services Department. It would have licensed and regulated day care and established training requirements for day-care workers. It was enormously expensive. It was a service provider’s dream.
I can’t tell you the number of times service providers who knew I opposed the bill asked me in a shocked tone of voice, “You mean you wouldn’t want the same level of training for somebody who cares for your children as somebody who takes care of your dogs?”
I said, “No. The best service provider I ever had came from El Salvador, hadn’t graduated from high school, couldn’t speak English, and she was great. So forget the bureaucratic credentialing business.”
The original ABC bill was the apotheosis of old-style liberalism. It died. A generation of younger Democrats, like Tom Downey, who is certainly liberal, rebelled. These liberals took all the money that would have gone to sustaining a day-care bureaucracy and put it instead into the earned-income tax credit, so families could arrange their own day care if they chose, or make other arrangements.
I tell you this rather long story because I think it was a turning point, certainly in Congress, against a certain instinct of government which is still alive and well in cities like this one but which turns off more and more voters every single year.
JOE KLEIN: Yes, the striking thing is that liberalism has come to be more about institutions than about human beings. It’s more about the preservation of bureaucracies than meeting the needs of individuals.
These five or six old hulking wrecks of cities that Charles Morris mentioned are industrial-age relics in a post-industrial economy. Their bureaucracies are anachronistic as well, built on industrial-age, assembly-line principles: top-down, centralized, devoted to creating efficiencies of scale. In the information age the paradigm isn’t the assembly line, but the decentralized, flexible computer network. As Florida’s new governor, Lawton Chiles, has said: “Government is the last institution in society to enter the information age.”
The irony is that some of the older institutions of the progressive, pre-New Deal era are now more appropriate than bureaucracies for the information age. The settlement house, for example, was a decentralized way of providing customized services for poor immigrants. The future lies in a movement away from centralized bureaucracies and toward more choice, toward more individual attention to customers, or recipients, or whatever you call them.
NATHAN GLAZER: Before we all get too enthusiastic about the prospects of abandoning the bureaucratic model of government, let’s not forget how service-provider cuts are treated in the media: A 80-year-old arthritic black lady will no longer get a hot meal provided every day at noon. I recently spoke to a conference at the New York Academy of Medicine. It was obvious that doctors, nurses, and health experts were trying to cope with inadequately staffed hospitals overflowing with patients. Try to tell those people that the answer is not to add more doctors, nurses, health supervisors, janitors. They’ll tell you you’re crazy. In the abstract, abandoning the bureaucratic model sounds great, but then again there is the overwhelming reality of those pressing social needs.
ELAINE KAMARCK: The answer is not to ignore the need for day care or the need for hospitals but to look for a new model to deal with the problem. Take the vast middle class who are worried about day care. What they really need is more money. That is all they need—money. If they have money they can afford day care.
The service-provider model may be very important for certain distinct segments of the community, those which have a lot of needs and not many resources. What has killed liberalism is that the service providers have sought to impose that model on the rest of the society, which doesn’t need it and rebels against it.
SOL STERN: As the only practicing government bureaucrat at the table, I want to deal specifically with the two areas you raised, Elaine. What do you do for the people who desperately need day care, who need hospital care, but can’t afford it? The way the City of New York tries to help such people is an absolute, unmitigated disaster.
We have a public hospital system with 13 hospitals and various clinics that are run like the Soviet Gosplan. It’s probably the only central command economy left in the world today, and it is impossible to run rationally. Recently the city had to cut several hundred million dollars from the hospitals. They just wiped out entire services because they didn’t know how to do it any other way. New York has a system in which individual hospitals have absolutely no incentive to do a better job, collect more revenues, or provide services more efficiently, because it won’t make one penny difference in their budgets for next year. As a result of this, the Health and Hospitals Corporation is owed something like $600 million, much of which is money owed by patients who are eligible for Medicaid. But instead of collecting, we make up the gap by cutting services from a list, damning with a red pen people we should be helping.
There are similar problems with day care. New York is actually flush in day-care money: Because of welfare reform and several other federal bills, there is at least $70 million available. You would think we would be able to enormously expand our day-care slots for poor kids. But it won’t happen because the city bureaucracy is not even competent enough to get money currently available from federal sources.
So why not think about decentralizing the hospital system, or spinning off some hospitals as not-for-profits? What’s wrong with a voucher system for day care? If you make such proposals, however, many otherwise sophisticated people will react in horror—”Oh no, you can’t do that; that’s conservative”—even though everybody at the table is a fed-up liberal. But they can’t let go. In other words, the real problem with New York is its political culture, which stifles innovative solutions.
WILLIAM STERN: I think we could go on outlining the problems with New York City government: the racketeering that goes on, the power-brokering, the fact that agencies exist for the people who work there and for the vendors, not for the people they are supposed to help. It is like something out of a Kafka novel. But the core of the problem with liberalism is something else. The conclusion I’ve come to is much the same as that of John Paul II and Solzhenitsyn. The problem with liberalism is materialism.
It seems to me what the liberals have always said, and what some conservatives seem to be saying now, is that life’s problems are at base material. Social problems always seem to lend themselves to material solutions. So liberals say to parents, “Want better education? Spend more money,” rather than saying, “Pay more attention to your child and you might get a better-educated child.”
What happened in the 1960s, which Fred Siegel called moral deregulation and I would call a kind of disguised paganism, has led to horrendous social problems that don’t lend themselves to material solutions. Therefore, not only will liberalism fail, but so will the kind of conservatism that says: Give vouchers, give private ownership to people in public housing, and our problems will disappear.
NATHAN GLAZER: You are saying the moral foundation for these market proposals doesn’t exist today?
JONATHAN RIEDER: Our moral foundations have shifted. The Sixties marked a major change in the sensibility of liberalism. Liberalism emerged as a righteous and patrician upper-middle-class endeavor, at odds with both the pragmatic bread-and-butter ethos of the New Deal and the gritty, plebeian spirit of working-class ethnic neighborhoods, which includes the communal sanctions that keep people on the straight and narrow path.
ALAN EHRENHALT: There are lots of American cities doing fairly well economically. But to my knowledge, in most of those cities—even in Cleveland, which has come back economically, even in St. Louis—there are still profound social problems. They are the result of larger changes in American culture over the last twenty years: the triumph of individualism; the decline of authority in communities, families, schools, and law enforcement; the whole egalitarian ethic.
The egalitarian ethic, for example, has created the sense that middle-class solidarity is no longer appropriate, that middle-class people are no longer entitled to separate themselves physically or even morally from those who are unlike them. But cities need middle-class solidarity in order to function. When it is considered illegitimate for people to separate themselves by class in any way—and busing is the great symbol of that—cities are no longer comfortable places for most people who live in them, regardless of what class they belong to.
CHARLES MORRIS: There is a relationship between the adoption of the bureaucratic model and the breakdown of values. It isn’t an accident that liberalism has become saddled with both ossified bureaucracies and fluid morals.
Liberalism reached its canonical form in the 1920s, much of it heavily influenced by John Dewey. The question driving liberalism at that time was, “How does one get the same sort of logic, coherence, and efficiency that we have in U.S. industry into the social sciences?” There was a whole move toward “scientific” social policy. However, as Irving Fisher said in the 1920s, the only possible science of human action is marginalist economics, which necessarily assumes that values are just preferences. So the move towards rationalizing social policy leads to the notion that values are just choices. This was true of both liberals and conservatives: One of the most influential people in this movement was Milton Friedman, who in the 1950s was writing a lot of very influential essays about positivist economics.
In the Sixties and Seventies scientific interventionists, the men who ran the War on Poverty, had their day in the sun, and they failed miserably. All that remains of their faith in scientific social policy today is this one idea: that all values are just somebody’s choice; and its corollary: that all choices are equally valuable. Both left and right are living within the confines of this atomized individualism. The difference between left and right is that to the left individualism means doing whatever you want, while to the right it means getting as much as you can. It is unbridled behavior versus unbridled acquisition.
New York City tried more social intervention than any other American city. It failed. The problem with most of the failed liberal programs is not that they spend too much money intervening, but that they spend so much money cleaning up after behavior that they refuse to stop—be it crime, vagrancy, drug abuse, or even littering on the street. New York City’s current social policy is based on the presumption that you can do whatever you please and it is the city’s job to pick up after you.
ELAINE KAMARCK: Bureaucracy’s top-down structure is in fact linked to its inability to act with any sense of values or morality. We know from social science research that many social problems are value-laden. Unmarried mothers, for example, are far more likely to have low-birth-weight babies. That is just one example; there are a lot of areas where the root of the social problem lies in behavior and moral values. Bureaucratic structures have proved unable to use this new information, and this inability has contributed to mass public loss of confidence in liberalism.
JOE KLEIN: I’m struck by the fact that liberalism has focused exclusively on either institutions or groups: either the bureaucracies of government, or the group rights of minorities. Liberals talk about individuals as having rights, but never responsibilities. The place to begin building a new liberalism, a post-industrial liberalism, is from an ethic of individual responsibility. It is only when people are required to be responsible for the values that govern their own lives and their children’s lives that we can start building communities and start taking communal action to help those who can’t take care of themselves.
FRED SIEGEL: There is a lost tradition to be drawn on in reconstructing urban liberalism: Progressivism. There is much to criticize in Progressivism, but the Progressives were, in many areas, far more successful than we have been. It was the Progressives who began to clean up the filthy and disease-ridden nineteenth-century cities. They took garbage collectors and put them into uniforms to really declare war on the cities’ trash-strewn streets. It was the Progressives who developed the settlement houses that were so successful in integrating new immigrants into American society. Progressivism represented a middle-class liberalism that tried, unlike some contemporary forms of liberalism, to strengthen the connection between character and success.
Prohibition, largely forgotten or dismissed, was an example of Progressive reform gone partially awry. Prohibition collapsed of its own excesses because it tried in an unliberal way to completely eliminate rather than divert and rechannel vice. But Prohibition as a Progressive movement attempted to connect individual questions of character with the quest for a better society. It attacked drunkenness not only as a sin (a dubious proposition), but as a threat to the well-being of the community.
Some of the most prominent Prohibitionist leaders like William Gibbs McAdoo, who was the political heir of William Jennings Bryan, Al Smith’s rival, and a key player in winning the nomination for FDR in 1932, stressed what we think of today as the social-democratic side of liberalism: the need for community and mutuality. “There is no such thing,” wrote one of his supporters, “as an absolute right to do any particular thing . . . if that thing undermines the common good.” That connection between character and community was split apart in the 1920s and, much to the disadvantage of contemporary liberalism, has never been put back together again.
Why can’t New York City government adapt to new conditions as well as the Progressive-era city? Part of the answer is that the old political machines were, for all their corruption, far more responsive to changing needs than our civil service bureaucracies.
Part of the reason bosses could adapt was that there was an implicit bargain in being a city worker. Most of the time you did not work very hard, but you were willing to work cheaply because neither Albany nor Washington would subsidize the city. But when people really needed you in a neighborhood, you had to do the job—or risk losing their votes in the next election. Today the service of forcing city government to act, once provided free by the clubhouse, is paid for at taxpayer expense through the clumsy mechanism of the courts and Neighborhood Legal Services.
Today’s workers are both enormously expensive and almost entirely unaccountable. Like a headless nail, they are in place for life, regardless of the job they do. Here in New York we have had to resort to “shadows”: hiring a second person to do the work of an entrenched employee who can’t or won’t do the job.
New York is paying the price of being a pioneer. We are the England of the social services revolution. We were the first with public housing, for instance; the federal programs were based on our models. We’ve generally, and often rightly, been proud of this past. But that has made us unable to adapt to new conditions. The attitude you get when you talk to some otherwise highly intelligent people in city government is that they would rather “go down with the ship” than acknowledge that real change is needed in the way the city does business. The idea that New York, once in the vanguard, has now been bypassed is simply too much for many to bear.
NATHAN GLAZER: New York is the great holdout on privatization. Even Chicago is way ahead of us. But, remember, privatization is basically replacing expensive workers with cheap workers.
JOE KLEIN: The most tragic part of being the “England of social services” is that the nature of poverty has changed. The public housing projects in New York were created for intact families. The social welfare system was created at a time when the poorest people in the society were the elderly; now the poorest are the children of single mothers. A new kind of poverty has grown up over the last 25 years, and this city is stuck with institutions created for a poverty that hasn’t existed for half a century.
JIM SLEEPER: The social disintegration and extreme poverty we’re talking about did exist to some extent in this city in the nineteenth century, long before anything that we now recognize as liberalism or Progressivism. I’m still nagged by the same question that I feel every time I read one of William Tucker’s articles about rent control. We had no rent control in the nineteenth century, and yet we had the conditions described by Jacob Riis. We had a perfectly free housing market, yet we still had tenement slums. Obviously the conditions we face now are in some ways much worse than in the nineteenth century. That really puzzles me, but I wonder if liberal bureaucracies are at fault.
For instance, we haven’t yet mentioned jobs and economic change. Those service-providers, after all, are providing services in large part to people who came north after World War I to participate in an industrial economy that has disappeared. The five or six hulking wrecks that we’re talking about are the cities which, like New York, attracted hundreds of thousands of people to participate in a vanished industrial economy.
We have industrial-style service bureaucracies ministering to those people, but we still don’t have the industries. The fact that New York lost 600,000 entry-level manufacturing jobs has to explain some of the social problems. I realize I’m wrenching us back to a very material level.
NATHAN GLAZER: Just because the issues are moral and spiritual doesn’t mean there isn’t also a material element.
JONATHAN RIEDER: That’s right. In emphasizing these moral aspects, we have to be careful not to ignore the material aspects, such as the effect on poor blacks of the changing profile of jobs in our most troubled cities. As the social scientist Mercer Sullivan reminds us in his book Getting Paid, Italian kids and Polish kids are out hitting heads just as are their black underclass counterparts, yet as adult men the white ethnic kids manage to stay out of the underclass. The answer, he finds, is that white ethnic working-class teenagers have a network of job recruitment that gets the kids to the job. The blacks are left behind, whereas the whites still get to the job market.
William Julius Wilson’s work also underscores the fact that the underclass is not just the result of moral breakdown. That larger material world affects black underclass kids’ decisions: to commit crimes or to get jobs; to marry or not marry. That does not mean the moral dimension is unimportant. The social science literature is very sketchy on this subject. It’s not so easy to say 22 percent of the variance is explained by the moral dimension, and 14 percent is explained by the job market. The two interact in a complex fashion. Still, I can’t help believing that collective responsibility and moral regulation do matter.
JOE KLEIN: There is one crucial difference between nineteenth-century poverty and today’s poverty: the desire to assimilate. In the nineteenth century the poor wanted middle-class lives. They wanted to become “Americans.” Most still do, but there is one glaring exception. In his introduction to the second edition of Beyond the Melting Pot, Nathan Glazer spotted this shift just as it was happening: Militant black leaders had chosen to define themselves as “internally colonized,” he wrote, rather than as another ethnic group that would assimilate.
This self-definition was understandable, but ultimately disastrous—especially for mainstream liberalism—because it chose to identify with the militants. So the editorials in Newsday took the side of the Black Panthers rather than the police, and liberal elites learned to loathe working-class white neighborhoods. I think that if liberalism is to be resuscitated, it’s going to have to dissociate itself from the notion of group “aggrievement” and pay closer attention to individual rights and responsibilities, and to the obligation to join, or at least not undermine, the community.
RICHARD VIGILANTE: As a teenager growing up in a working-class neighborhood in the 1960s, I remember very well the sense that liberals were almost defined by their loathing for neighborhoods like mine. The justification, of course, was charges of racism and bigotry. But the effect of an unrestrained, unsympathetic assault on those neighborhood vices was to eliminate their virtues as well.
As Myron Magnet might say, liberals forgot that well-ordered, peaceful, and productive communities are rare commodities, hard to build and easy to destroy.
Liberalism, morally empowered by its endeavors to bring justice to black and poor Americans, used that moral authority to license wholesale attacks on the rules and customs of communities that worked, to undermine standards of personal and sexual behavior, to liberate people from notions of self-reliance, to open every human achievement to the charge that it was based on privilege, and to reward every failure with a reimbursable grievance against society.
This may be an exaggerated account, but many people see it that way, and that perception has substantially undermined the moral authority of liberalism. Can that authority be regained? Can liberalism admit that if government is not going to enforce the moral rules, it should at least not undermine them?
ELAINE KAMARCK: The key to that is finding a new way of designing social programs. The two most popular programs of the first New Deal, Social Security and the GI Bill, had something in common: First you did something for society and then the government did something for you. You paid in and then the government gave you your retirement. You went to war, the government gave you your college education.
Nobody complained about black GIs going to college on the GI Bill. The answer for liberalism is to look at social-program recipients and say: Okay, we’re going to give you this benefit, what do we get in return? I call this the Joe Klein question, because Joe went around asking this of candidates for mayor in New York: We know what the government owes the 15-year-old welfare mother; the question is, what does she owe us? If we begin to build programs with reciprocal obligation built into them, we can then rebuild political support for liberalism.
CHARLES MORRIS: Every successful community represses deviance. How now, today, can we repress deviance? There is a whole thirty-year tradition against the idea, a thirty-year “rights revolution” stemming from the belief that moral values are just individual choices and that every conceivable personal choice is an inviolable right. Oddly enough it was that great moral crusade, the civil rights revolution, which led straight to the reigning amoralism. In order to deal with racism, which was clearly a horrible evil, the civil rights revolution created a set of legal tools preventing any repression of deviance, any attempt to enforce moral norms.
But every successful social community enforces moral norms. German Jews started the settlement house movement because Eastern European Jewish immigrants were giving all Jews a bad name. Today, nobody in New York City will repress deviance of any kind.
SOL STERN: The Tompkins Square Park debacle is a perfect illustration of what you are talking about. For two years we had absolute paralysis on the part of the government. It wasn’t even a question of repressing deviance. It was just the simple human duty of coming to the aid of mothers with babies walking in the park who were being defiled, who had lost their park because the city had abdicated use of its police power.
What was the city’s solution? It didn’t really deal with the problem of vagrants taking over the park. Instead, it decided to rebuild the park, spend another million and a half dollars, in order to have a legal excuse to force out the vagrants. Even so, the next day you still had the ACLU representative, Norman Siegel, on television ranting and raving and comparing the closing of the park to the fencing of swimming pools in the south to keep out young blacks.
JOE KLEIN: Isn’t there a middle ground between repressing deviance and celebrating it?
JONATHAN RIEDER: Charles, I think it only fair to point out that the rights revolution was a remarkable triumph, despite its excesses. Liberalism should be very proud about the extension of rights to women, minorities, and homosexuals. We’re a much more humane society now because of liberalism. There’s a distinction between the rights revolution and its excesses: the violation of common sense carried out in the name of rights that made it impossible to discipline kids in school, to remove criminals from the streets, and to stop people who destroy public parks.
Everyone seems to want to shed the excesses, so we should be able to accomplish that without a real counterrevolution. Here’s a graphic cultural indicator: Recently, I was sitting at a table with a half-dozen left-leaning faculty members, some of whom even consider me a mealy-mouthed liberal. But everybody at that table agrees it’s about time they cleared the homeless out of Tompkins Square Park.
JIM SLEEPER: We can’t talk about the excesses in the rights revolution and the free market in morals without saying at least a word about the free market. A lot of people who try and follow moral discipline are bound to feel like chumps before very long if they watch what George Bush and his friends do. The S&L bailouts, which have nothing whatsoever to do with liberalism, set a standard of irresponsibility that most people are aware is available to those at the top. The excesses of the rights revolution are partly a populist response to a perception of unfairness in the way this country is run. The Bush Administration and the Reagan Administration are not strangling the cities in order to impose a wholesome discipline that will help us reorganize these ossified bureaucracies. Wholesome discipline is not on the agenda for Republican national politics.
SOL STERN: The point about Tompkins Square Park is not that finally, even liberals, even a lot of leftists who use city parks, cheer that Tompkins Square was closed. The point is, what lessons are we drawing from this experience? The unanswered question is: When the park reopens, what is going to stop the vagrants from taking over the park all over again? We can’t afford to remodel Tompkins Square every time a homeless individual sets up housekeeping there. I want an antiloitering law, even if it puts me on the wrong side of the ACLU. And I want the cops to be able to go into Tompkins Square the way they did thirty years ago and go over to someone who’s urinating on the bench and say, “Get out of the park.” Liberals cheer when the Guardian Angels do it, but will we let the official cops do it?
JONATHAN RIEDER: The real cutting edge is the cleavage between those with little kids in the city and those without. Those with little kids in the city are going to make sure their kids playing in Riverside Park aren’t sitting on benches on which people have defecated and urinated.
FRED SIEGEL: What about the future? How do we make government in New York work? What can be done in the next five years to prevent New York from becoming Detroit?
WILLIAM STERN: The problem is not dwindling resources. Despite all the greedy excesses that went on in the Eighties on Wall Street and in Manhattan real estate, the worst excesses took place in the city and state governments. When I came into the government in 1983, the state budget was $22 billion and the total city budget $12 billion. Today, the state spends $51 billion and the city spends $29 billion.
The city is ripe for reform. The New York nomenklatura, what I have called the insider commercial party, is getting very unsure of itself. A lot of people are willing to say out loud that the system is about to implode. People are beginning to realize that the city could come down, real estate might be worth nothing, people can move out. As a result, there is an openness to new ideas now that I’ve never seen before in New York.
RICHARD VIGILANTE: Can liberalism become a normative force again? Can it become as annoyingly moralistic as some conservatives, and maybe do some good in the process?
JIM SLEEPER: They used to say it takes the working class to teach decency to their betters. That’s what has to come back.
JOE KLEIN: On the question of what a liberal morality should look like, I think that we’re at the end of another industrial-age experiment, the attempt to institutionalize altruism.
We have to redefine what government is. Right now government is something that we pay other people to do for us. Alan Ehrenhalt has written about the professionalization of the political class. We have to start deprofessionalizing it. An ethic of responsibility doesn’t just apply to 15-year-old mothers on welfare; it has to apply across the board.
There is an interesting cycle here. Michael Barone wrote that the welfare state really began when Boss Murphy sent Robert Wagner and Al Smith up to Albany to get social legislation after the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. That cycle ended, I think, with the Happy Land Social Club fire. Three city agencies were charged with making sure that places like Happy Land didn’t exist. All of them failed, and yet not a single person was reprimanded or fired.
The building inspectors who failed to prevent the Happy Land deaths are typical public servants of our day. They are underpaid; they are also notoriously corrupt.
Instead of hiring lifelong building inspectors, why not have architects and structural engineers serve one year of their four-year apprenticeships as building inspectors? Why not do the same in other areas of government? Why not, in return for scholarship money, have kids serve as cops—as Adam Walinsky has suggested—or as teachers, or as social workers, or in innumerable other ways? Making government something that most people do for a few years of their lives breaks down the barriers between public servants and the public interest, barriers that have been created by liberalism’s commitment to institutions.
JIM SLEEPER: The futility of institutionalized altruism is obvious. But before we go whole hog on the “thousand points of light” response, I think we have to remember that it is not just bureaucracies that cause social disintegration. The disintegration of families and the decline of civic altruism also result from marketing that tells people they need to buy two cars, a big house, expensive clothes, and a speed boat—all on credit. Institutionalized altruism may be futile, but we should not delude ourselves that merely suspending it will somehow curb the soaring rates of child abuse and abandonment and family disintegration.
JOE KLEIN: It is not a question of suspending institutionalized altruism. It’s a question of modifying it and reintroducing an ethic of individual responsibility. We also need to realize that you cannot mandate altruism. People tend to be altruistic for three or four years of their lives. After that, most public servants burn out and spend the next 15 years waiting for their pensions to kick in.
CHARLES MORRIS: One hopeful sign is that the average age is about 38 now. It’s not safe to live in the kind of world that people were willing to create when the average age was 22. I think, whether we do anything or not, many changes are already going to happen. I think it will happen here last—I think that the rest of the country is going to be way ahead of New York. I think that we here are lagging indicators.
ELAINE KAMARCK: You may be right. I have a friend who is a psychologist currently working with a group of first offenders on probation, all for drugs, all young black males from the District of Columbia. They are all fathers, and they talk about how they want to be good fathers. They are very proud of the fact that they buy Pampers for the baby. Look around, you’ll see a lot of these guys with big sneakers carrying big boxes of Pampers. This notion is getting through to them: Fatherless families are bad.
NATHAN GLAZER: We are hitting such a positive note that it worries me.
FRED SIEGEL: Well, then, let me be very pessimistic for a moment. The political culture of the city is such that it will be almost impossible for the relearning process that Elaine Kamarck described to have an impact on public policy. There is no political vehicle, no public voice to make it happen. New York is a one-party town; it is pretty much a one-newspaper town.
It is hard to imagine the transmission belts for new ideas. One reason is the changing nature of the political elite in New York. Forty years ago there was a coherent political elite whose business interests were here. That is mostly gone. The banks that in part rescued the city twenty years ago are still here physically, but they are no longer centrally involved with New York. The manufacturers whose futures were tied to New York have left. We were once home to thirty of the hundred largest corporations, we’re now home to two of the hundred largest corporations. The public sector in New York can elect its own leaders. Vic Gotbaum used to brag that he could elect his own boss. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon, so it is difficult to see how a reform coalition can be built.
ELAINE KAMARCK: I think that the way it will happen here is as follows: Unlike other cities that are evolving into much more entrepreneurial forms of government, what will propel New York into the future is a tax revolt. There won’t be any adjustment, any thoughtful reform; government will just shrink and shrivel, until it gets to the point where the people who remain will begin to engage in what many of them are already doing: self-taxation. New York City is probably the leader in self-taxation. Self-taxation goes on in every single middle-class neighborhood in this town: private schools, contributions to the parks and for the various conservancies, and in many places private police and private transportation systems. People are going to hold the line on taxes because they’re not getting anything for their tax dollars.
FRED SIEGEL: Elaine, people will leave New York first.
ELAINE KAMARCK: No, thanks to the real estate slump, you are wrong: They can’t leave because they can’t sell.
JONATHAN RIEDER: On a more cosmic note, liberalism in American life has always had a certain rhythmic quality: Liberalism flourishes, declines, and undergoes rebirth. The specific forms in which it appears may change, but the basic impulses to which it speaks remain the same—activism, mastery, collective responsibility, and nurturance. These are enduring parts of the American fabric.
Liberalism stood for something in the late Fifties and early Sixties during the civil rights movement because it affirmed a positive vision of the dignity and worth of individuals. It had a moral grounding, whether it drew inspiration from the prophetic black tradition, from Jewish liberalism in its secular or religious incarnations, from Catholic progressivism, from secular humanism. Do not confuse the more enduring spirit that is liberalism with its various, historically specific manifestations.
JOE KLEIN: If there is a source of regeneration for the city, and maybe even for liberalism, it’s that an average of 90,000 immigrants a year came here during the Eighties. An estimated 150,000 will come each year in the Nineties. Thanks to the provisions of the new immigration bill, a lot of these people are going to have skills and money, and they’re not going to put up with a lot of the nonsense that we’ve seen here.
Liberals, who bought into the notion of blacks as an internalized colony, have enabled a small group of militants to hijack the discourse and to divide us into false categories: Whites and “people of color.” It’s a hateful, divisive way to look at the city. The new immigrants won’t have all that much in common with that small group of black leaders who want to see this as a bifurcated racial system. They’ll be too busy assimilating to buy into the racial politics that have been so debilitating. And they will be powerful witnesses for the proposition that the aspiring poor need orderly, safe communities even more than the well-to-do.