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Neoliberalism and New York

books and culture

Neoliberalism and New York

Three books assess the mayoralties of Bill de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg. October 6, 2017
New York
Politics and law

The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York, by Joseph Viteritti (Oxford, 296 pp., $29.95)

Bloomberg: A Billionaire’s Ambition, by Chris McNickle (Skyhorse, 480 pp., $27.99)

Greater than Ever: New York's Big Comeback, by Daniel L. Doctoroff (PublicAffairs, 400 pp., $28.00)

Neoliberalism’s heyday was the 1990s, when men of the left such as Bill Clinton embraced some elements of the conservative pro-growth philosophy. Since then, though, progressives have gained the upper hand in the Democratic Party, especially on social and economic issues. And, in the Trump era, it’s unclear how committed even Republicans are to the policies that they once handed down to the Clinton crowd.

Michael Bloomberg exemplified neoliberalism. Socially liberal and a gun restrictionist, Bloomberg couldn’t win election in a red state but, through his three terms as mayor of New York, he focused relentlessly on economic growth, while maintaining respect for what the public sector can learn from the private sector. Bloomberg may have been too successful for his own good: he left the city in such good shape that his successor, Bill de Blasio, has felt emboldened to drop city government’s concern with creating wealth, instead focusing chiefly on how to redistribute it.

Greater Than Ever is Daniel Doctoroff’s account of serving for six years as Bloomberg’s head of economic policy. Doctoroff was the quintessential Bloomberg lieutenant: though highly accomplished— working in private equity, he had achieved “financial independence” by his thirties—he had no prior experience with city government. Yet he was something of a social entrepreneur. During the 1990s, Doctoroff conceived a passion for bringing the Summer Olympics to New York City. He spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars of my own money” on working up a bid for the 2008 games (the target was later shifted to 2012). His work on the Olympics brought him to Bloomberg’s attention; the mayor barely knew Doctoroff when he appointed him Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Rebuilding. 

Doctoroff had a sweeping portfolio of responsibilities, but his most important legacy—and one of the Bloomberg administration’s—was the physical revival of New York City. The projects that he worked on included Hudson Yards, Governor’s Island, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, and the High Line. Greater Than Ever raises the question of whether there’s a difference, from a public policy standpoint, between working to grow a city’s economy and improving its quality of life. Doctoroff links these two goals through a philosophy he calls “the virtuous cycle of the successful city.” The Bloomberg administration strove mightily to create the impression that New York City’s high cost of living was worth the price tag. Yes, Bloomberg and his lieutenants would say, taxes are higher, but you’re getting a higher-quality product. They pitched this message to wealthy and upper-middle class New Yorkers; half of all city income taxes are paid by the top 1 percent of filers. Doctoroff saw himself as acting in the interests of all New Yorkers, because, he reasoned, more growth and tax revenues benefit everyone.

Chris McNickle’s book Bloomberg: A Billionaire’s Ambition provides an even more thorough defense of the Bloomberg philosophy. McNickle, who also wrote a biography of David Dinkins, canvasses the Bloomberg record in every major policy area, from K-12 reform to fighting poverty to counterterrorism. It’s a level-headed account, deeply researched, and, in the end, is just as bullish on Bloomberg as Greater Than Ever. In the book’s foreword, Kenneth Jackson, a respected scholar of city history, describes Bloomberg as “New York’s greatest municipal executive and probably the most successful mayor the nation has ever known.”

Bill de Blasio, who only got around to visiting the High Line last month, after nearly four years in office, is having none of this—and neither is his admiring biographer, Hunter college professor Joseph Viteritti, a longtime student of New York City history. In The Pragmatist, Viteretti argues that de Blasio has revived the true tradition of New York City politics developed by Mayors La Guardia, Wagner, and Lindsay, but neglected under Koch, Giuliani, and Bloomberg. The agendas of those three more recent mayors betrayed New York’s “soul,” Viteretti suggests, because they benefited only the few. By contrast, La Guardia, Wagner, and Lindsay cared about everyone—as does de Blasio.

Viteritti wants us to see de Blasio as sui generis, because he possesses an unusually serious concern with ends over means. “In trying to blend his philosophical commitment to progressive government with the practical realities of city politics and finance, de Blasio defies conventional labels,” he writes, by way of explaining the book’s title. “He is both insider and outsider, a gadfly and a seasoned operative . . . At times it seems as though he needs his own nomenclature: he’s something of a pragmatist” (emphasis in original). Some see de Blasio’s coziness with the real estate industry and his campaign-finance improprieties as evidence of a lack of principle, but in Viteritti’s view, these habits are just more proof of his devotion to progressive ideals. The mayor knows that the American political system is morally compromised but will risk his reputation by participating in it. That’s how much he cares.

Unsurprisingly, this argument is not convincing, and de Blasio is not nearly as “interesting” as Viterritti says he is. Within a New York context, de Blasio is eminently replaceable by any other progressive city politician, who, were he or she mayor, would pursue the same ends by the same means. De Blasio’s a consummate insider, having spent his entire professional life in politics and government. Yes, he has had to work with the real estate industry to advance his housing plan, but all progressive city politicians do that. During the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary, de Blasio bet big on the theme of income inequality—but, contrary to Viterritti’s suggestion that this strategy was risky, de Blasio had nothing to lose. He’s not complicated—just ambitious.

De Blasio thinks of himself as a “transcendent” leader determined to overcome conventional political divisions to secure the common good. Bloomberg saw himself in this way, too. The two men also share a faith in the benefits of a highly engaged public sector. But they differ in their understanding of what it means for government to pursue the common good. Bloomberg saw city government as a handmaiden to economic growth, without which nothing is possible. De Blasio is more inclined to take economic growth for granted. In his view, city government’s most solemn responsibility is to address the countless socioeconomic problems created by capitalism. De Blasio sees the private sector as the problem, whereas Bloomberg viewed it as the solution—though Bloomberg’s neoliberal philosophy was just as different from small government-conservativism as it is from progressivism, as Doctoroff and McNickle’s books make clear. Bloomberg was no tax cutter and lacked the small-government conservative’s instinctive distrust of the public sector.

From the perspective of many red-state conservatives, the dispute between Bloomberg and de Blasio may seem like a family feud. But, at the city level, the differences loom large, especially since scant evidence of a third option exists. Urban conservatives, though they may not share Bloomberg’s enthusiasm for soda taxes and other social causes, tend to admire him far more than they do Hillary Clinton, though his politics are mostly the same as hers. Whoever succeeds de Blasio might well prove even more liberal than the current mayor. Neoliberalism might be dead at the national level, but God help us if it’s no longer viable in New York City.

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