The Two Phases of the Mayoral Race
The Mayoral race has been a farce. The so-called policy books of the candidates provide all kinds of little giveaways, to you and you and you, with for the most part no idea where the money will come from. Meanwhile the mainstream media and the candidates point to a grave fiscal crisis that will later be used as an excuse. Here is the Times in its endorsement of Quinn. “The biggest challenge has not been talked about much — next year the new mayor will have to confront a budget crisis with no money to spare and all those expired municipal contracts to settle.”
Why? Why was it not talked about? Why is there a budget crisis? Employment is at a record high. Stock prices were at a record high and remain up for the year. The State of New York has raised income taxes on the rich, and MTA payroll taxes on everyone who earns a wage. The federal government has also raised income taxes on the rich, and payroll taxes on everyone else. The city has increased property taxes and fees. Services have been cut. What is going on, who has benefitted? Why is this fair? No one is willing to say. Because those who say will find themselves very unpopular with the limited number of self-interested people who matter.
As I noted when I ran against the state legislature back in 2004, state and local politics in New York State is dominated by two sets of interests. Producers of public services and publicly financed services, the including the public employee unions, contractors, and health care union and contractors, who work the system to be paid more (particularly in tax-free retirement benefits) in exchange for less. And wealthy people who do not require public services themselves, and would rather not pay for others to have them. While the wealthy have come to dominate the federal government, it is the public service producers who dominate New York State, where the tax burden as a percent of income is more than 50 percent above average in New York City, and higher than just about anywhere else.
To these groups one might add the real estate industry, which is regulated by state and local governments. Local planning officials can in effect mint unearned wealth for property owners by upzoning and providing development subsidies, or take it away through other actions, the way the Fed can create and wipe out wealth in the financial sector through monetary policy.
Ordinary people who are not on the inside, and the common future of pepple who expect to still be here when it arrives, matter far less. Only some people vote, only some of those are informed and thus less vulnerable to being deceived, even they are not organized. And in offices such as the state legislature, by the time Election Day rolls around everything has been pretty much decided, as either no one bothers to run against the incumbent, the challenger is kept of the ballot, or the challenger is ignored by the media.
The Mayoral race has gone through two distinct phases.
In phase one, the candidates had private meetings with the public employee unions, the financial and real estate interests, and the contractor interests. They competed to show how little they cared about ordinary New Yorkers and the future of the city, in the pursuit of endorsements, campaign contributions and help collecting signatures. Sure, they promised, you’ll get the benefits of every past deal and some future ones too, and those who are and will end up worse off will never be the wiser. You won’t be challenged to be fair. You’ll be allowed to go on stoking the resentment of your tribes that you aren’t getting even more.
For months, all the candidates for Mayor spent almost all their time telling the interests and generations that had taken more that they deserved more still, that what they had done would not be questioned. Stoking their sense of entitlement. Never making and connections between what they had and what others were losing. Clearly, based on what has likely already been agreed to, when public union labor contracts and other deals are negotiated both sides will be on the same side of the table, with those who will pay left unrepresented. They way shareholders are unrepresented when executive pay is negotiated in the private sector.
And then all the signatures were collected. All the campaign contributions were in. All the endorsements were made.
That’s when the campaign shifted to Phase II.
You have candidates for Mayor living on food stamps for a while. Sleeping over in public housing. Riding the bus. Suddenly there is concern about the poor. Suddenly there is concern about the middle class. Suddenly, they will fight for ordinary New Yorkers.
Against who, and why?
There is one note of consistency. No one has expressed any concern about what the city’s situation (or the state’s situation or the country’s situation) will be like in 10 or 20 years, and what life will be like for those who live there. They are all against the future in the present. As a whole generation has been against the present in the past.
Otherwise, when you see the contrast between the two phases of the campaigns, you know there is a lie in there somewhere. I believe they are lying the second half of the campaign. I believe the truth is what was spoken in private.
Telling people with an outsized sense of entitlement, after decades of rationalizations, that they have taken too much and left others with two little, is hard. It makes them very angry, which is not good for the career. It requires a set of values to form the basis of such statements. None of our politicians have them. They are careerists first and foremost, who primarily value themselves.
“Progressive?” Not according to the way the word was originally used. According to Wikipedia “left-wing describes an outlook or specific position that accepts or supports social equality, often in opposition to social hierarchy and social inequality. It typically involves a concern for those in society who are perceived as disadvantaged relative to others and an assumption that there are unjustified inequalities that need to be reduced or abolished.” Well if that’s the definition, it puts me 50 miles to the left of any political candidate in New York.
But the definition of “progressive” has apparently evolved. Based on what those who identify themselves with the term actually do, today “progressives” are people who believe that instead of having just some people become better off at the expense of everyone else and the common future by manipulating the private sector, additional people should also become better off at the expense everyone else and the common future by manipulating the public sector. After all, it’s only fair. Otherwise, only the rich would be getting ahead.
Of course that’s the opposite of what “progressive” meant 100 years ago. In addition to labor legislation and breaking up public monopolies, back then the progressives opposed monopolistic political machines that sucked money out of common people while providing bad value in return. And progressive legislation included limits on public debts and financial manipulation that have since been overturned or simply ignored.
I would say the achievements of that progressive era of a century ago have been mostly reversed – save for a higher tax burden. In fact, the recent New York politician who has come closest to being a “progressive” based on the original meaning of the term has been Mayor Bloomberg. Although he too sold out the future – just like the rest of them – when he believed it necessary to advance his own political career.
The campaign for Mayor has been dispiriting, if you know what I know. On another blog, I noted that the less a candidate said the more I liked them, and whoever wants my vote in November would be better off shutting up. Because I knew that they were either making promises to make the privileged even more privileged. Or lying about their concern for the rest.
The question is do ordinary people, and younger generations in particular, deserve to be lied to, cheated, robbed and abused, because they are too lazy and self absorbed to find out what is happening and organize against it? Back in the actual progressive era, 100 years ago, there was mass mobilization against unearned privilege. Now the deals have been done, and no one even talks about it. Back then people paid attention to state and local government. Now they don’t bother, although they bother more in campaigns for Mayor than for other offices.
If the candidates were honest, they might say “what do you expect? We have to deal with the limited number of people and the interests who know what is going on and who actually determine if we are elected, even if they are mostly motivated by self interest. I’ll do the best I can for the rest after those in the room grab off the top first. But don’t blame me.” I would have liked to see someone say that. But who knows? If a candidate were to tell those who are getting screwed that they deserve it for being lazy, they might suddenly show up to vote against that candidate after all.
Now that I’m finished complaining, there is some good news in the Mayoral campaign, compared with ten or twenty years ago.
First, to the extent the election is about anything at all, it does seem to be about the actual functions of the City of New York, rather than the state or federal governments. Back in the day candidates for Mayor would be asked about their foreign policy, and people would blame the Mayor rather than the Governor and state legislature for the problems of the MTA.
Second, although we in theory have the Gay candidate, the Black candidate, the Latino candidate, the Hipster Liberal candidate, and outer borough Archie Bunker candidates, there appears to be far less tribalism than there once was. Despite the “stop and frisk” issue, which is the closest to a tribal issue there has been. The current crop of candidates, and most of the voters under age 50, have moved beyond that sort of politics.
This morning a friend complained about the way some of the candidates have felt compelled to parade their families before the camera for public approval, while for others the issue has been their sex life. For this I blame the media and the public more than the politicians. Gossip sells, and if it didn’t, this sort of thing would not go on. I don’t have to tell you what drew the most interest during this campaign. It wasn’t tax policy or pensions. Which is one reason the campaign has been a farce.
So we really can’t judge the candidates by what they have said, particularly in Phase II of the campaign. And none have laid out a complete overview of what their values and priorities are. So what were are left with is impressions. Are mine of any particular value? I’m not sure.