Larry Littlefield's blog

How Bill DeBlasio Can Earn My Vote

It won’t be easy. For years – decades – I have generally stuck by a few simple voting rules. Don’t vote for any incumbent New York State legislators of either party, based on what the state has done for the past 20 years. Don’t vote for any Republicans at the federal level, on generational equity grounds among others. And don’t vote for any Democrats at the local level, because they represent the self-interest of producers of public services (the public sector unions and contractors) at the expense of the less well organized, generally less well off consumers of public services and taxpayers, in the city with among the highest tax burdens in the country. While being willing to cut a deal with wealthy business interests from time to time as well. I’ll certainly give Joe Lhota a hearing, though I have some big issues with the generational equity of certain financial policies of the Giuliani Administration, back when he was its budget director. And unlike many I’ll give Adolfo Carrion a hearing. He’s the only candidate I’ve actually had a conversation with, decades ago when we were both junior city planners with the NYC Department of City Planning.

As it happens, the public sector unions generally endorsed Bill DeBlasio’s rivals in the Democratic primary. Same with those in the financial and real estate sectors, and most of those in the private sector who make their living from government contracts. But they’ll rush to endorse DeBlasio now. If he wants to earn my vote, he can start by actively pursuing the support of private sector unions, who seem to be rushing to endorse him, but politely turning down the support of public sector unions, while promising to be fair to city workers. And turning down or even returning contributions from contractor organizations, real estate interests, and the financial sector. To send the message, or at least provide the illusion, that when labor contracts, development deals, and tax breaks are negotiated in the room, the people outside the room will be represented by someone too.

Hey Twentysomethings: My Clueless Daughters Will Not Be Voting in the Mayoral Primary, Will You?

What happens when you cross two carefree college students in their late teens and early 20s with the New York City Board of Elections? The loss of the ability to vote, in something as rare in New York City as the reappearance of as the 17-year cicada – a real election with a real choice. From the time they came from college in May, I pestered my daughters to send in a new absentee ballot form, but like most Americans that age they didn’t want to do something unless and until they had to. And when they finally got around to looking at the absentee ballot form, they decided they didn’t have to do anything at all. The form allows you to put in the dates when you will be away. They filled out the form last year, voted in last year’s election, and put in as the dates that they would be away all four years of college. That’s it, they decided, they were covered and didn’t need to fill out the form again. “That’s what the form says Dad,” followed by my least favorite phrase. “It’s fine.”

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.

How I Got the Pollsters To Leave Me Alone

I found that saying I'm not a Democrat or Republican makes them go away.

Should I Write About the Candidates for Mayor?

It sure has gotten quiet here on Room Eight. Perhaps those who once posted here regularly have spoken their piece after seven years. Perhaps they’ve decided to clam up because they are hoping for a job in the next administration, and don’t want to tick anybody off. Perhaps it’s hard to come home to a hobby that involves typing and calculating when your job is the same.

While waiting for the next spark of inspiration, I’ve been wresting with the question in the title. I don’t know the candidates for Mayor, and they don’t know me. The press coverage has been vacuous, the “policy statements” not much better. Neither get to the core of the question – when push comes to shove, who will be asked to make what sacrifices when, and why, and for what goals? When I’ve written about something publicly, I’ve known what I was talking about. I could be wrong, but it don’t consider it likely. With regard to the candidates for Mayor, what I have is impressions – things that have been said or done that stuck with me as indicative of broader values. Because for me that’s what it’s about – values. Not celebrity or personality or which tribe gets to suck out more or put in less at the expense of the other tribes, and the common future. Does it make sense for me to put forth my limited knowledge for the benefit of those who know even less? Or better to keep my mouth shut?

The Generation Greed Political Class Doesn't Understand Life Among the Serfs

"Speaking of rabbit years, Councilman Lew Fidler thoroughly disapproves of Time Warner Cable’s CBS blackout. “Shame on all of you,” he declared at a recent hearing. “There is something wrong with all of you … Every time I want to watch The Big Bang Theory I have to put 50 cents into the pot? … No one has rabbit ears anymore!”

Actually, I've never been willing to spring for paid TV. Same with quite a few people I know. And Brooklyn has traditionally been the urban county where paid TV had the lowest percentage of the market. But that may have changed, because younger generations, who are poorer, are skipping cable TV (and auto ownership and homeownership) in droves to try to offset the economic and fiscal hand they've been dealt by Generation Greed. I guess you can’t expect those in politics, who are mostly in Generation Greed or insulated from the situation of those coming after, to get that.

Local Government Expenditures in FY 2011

One of the big issues in the current Mayoral race is how high the raises will be for New York City’s unionized public employees. They have not agreed with the Bloomberg Administration on a contract for years, and despite the fact that most city residents have also faced falling wages relative to inflation, the income gains of those at the top had been strong enough that the wages and salaries of New York City’s local government employees fell from 7.1% of the total personal income of all city residents in FY 2004 to 6.6% of that income in FY 2011. In addition to the wage freeze, there are also fewer city workers producing fewer services, and more work contracted out to businesses rather than being done by public employees.

There is, of course, another side to this. Local government taxpayer pension contributions increased from about 0.8% of the personal income of city residents in FY 2004 to 2.0% of city residents’ income in FY 2011. Many city residents are probably now putting aside more for the retirement of public employees, in taxes, than they are putting aside for their own retirements. Taking salaries and wages and pension contributions combined, city residents were already paying more of their incomes for public employees in FY 2011 than they had been in FY 2004, and other benefits such as employer-funded health insurance – generally tabulated separately under “other” in this dataset – presumably shifted from those providing services to those no longer expected to do so as well. As a result, the city’s “direct” spending on most public services, not including pensions and debt service, fell somewhat as a share of NYC residents’ personal incomes from FY 2004 to F2011, despite a higher state and local tax burden. So did aid to the poor. These trends and others are examined in more detail here on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”

Local Government Revenues in FY 2011

The big job in tracking state and local government using data from the U.S. Census Bureau is making adjustments so that the comparisons between places and with the U.S. average are meaningful. One should to adjust, to the extent possible, for the varying structure of local government in different places, the division between state and local responsibilities, the amount of services contracted out, and the differences in the local cost of living and the ability of taxpayers to pay. One should also try to use comparable years, so the effects of booms and busts on the local tax base and social service costs can be excluded from the comparison. For a reasonable comparison with FY 2011, a year when most of the country was struggling to exit a recession but Wall Street and the rich were helped by cheap money and a related stock market –re-bubble, I have chosen the similar year of FY 2004.

Once all these adjustments are made, however, what is surprising is how slowly, and how little, things change. The big change in New York City is higher taxes, and higher taxpayer pension contributions. A spreadsheet with the data, and a discussion of what it shows on the revenue side, is here on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.” A subsequent post will cover expenditures.

The State and Local Tax Burden: FY 2011

I received an e-mail from the Census Bureau, and found that its tabulation of state and local government finance data for FY 2011 has been released sooner than I had expected. This will provide one more look before the Mayoral/City Council election at how New York City’s taxes and other revenues by type, spending by type and function, debts and pensions compare with the rest of New York State, New Jersey, and the national average, and how this has changed since the last pre-Bloomberg budget in FY 2002. All normalized, as best as possible, for the differences between state and local responsibilities in different places, and the relative cost of living and ability of taxpayers to pay. Just to get to the point where I have a spreadsheet, and can begin thinking about what it means and what to say about it, took me seven hours work this weekend. It would be nice of someone actually on the public payroll were to do this sort of work instead.

Before moving on to the main spreadsheet, I’ve done a quick compilation of the state and local government tax burden for the U.S, every state, New York City and the rest of New York State (by subtraction). The tax burden is measured as a share of the total personal income of all the residents of each state/area, which adjusts for both the relative cost of living and relative ability to pay. The spreadsheet and a discussion of what it shows are here on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”

The New War on the Working Poor

Politicians thrive on the combination of hypocrisy and amnesia, but some of us remember what was going on 20 years ago. Back than America’s economic problems, its social problems, its government fiscal problems, were being blamed exclusively on the dependent poor, particularly Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, and other poor people living in America’s older cities. That’s where all the money was going, we were told, in a decade-long propaganda campaign. And in a massive anti-welfare crusade, the programs and benefits for such people were cut across the country, and spending on them fell dramatically.

One of the arguments was fairness. What about the working poor? And sure enough, as many of the welfare dependent found jobs, money was shifted to the other American welfare system, the one for people who work. This includes the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), unemployment when you lose your job, food stamps if it doesn’t pay enough to get by, and disability insurance if your health or other problems mean (given the state of the labor market) no one wants to hire you. At one time this was thought of as a good thing. But now, as the country goes bankrupt as a result of the debts run up by Generation Greed and the promises it has made to itself but was unwilling to pay for, there is a new war on the working poor. An attempt to blame American’s economic, social and fiscal problems on, and find solutions that shift the sacrifices to, the sorts of people that bought into resentment of the dependent poor 20 years ago. Suckers.


I don’t allow myself the indulgence of saying I told you so. And frankly, showing that you were ignored as something you cared about was sold down the river is hardly satisfying, as the damage rolls on and on. But I am concerned that people won’t follow the link in my prior post. And with Eliot Spitzer back in the public’s eye (in our face?) I’m repeating the post from February 17th, 2008 on the decision that defined Eliot Spitzer as a public chief executive. Spitzer, the man who (like the rest of them) screwed the powerless young. This was written just before it happened. Last line: Make a stand here, and it will define you. Join the deal, and it will as well. The post follows.

It is here. For 50 years, powerful organized interests in collusion with New York’s elected officials have, in backroom deals without public discussion, without public disclosure, without any consideration of anyone else, walked off with large chunks of New York’s subsequently diminished future. The cost of these deals has generally been hidden for a year or two, and then described as the inevitable consequence of circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Or “uncontrollable expenses.” For example, at a time when most Americans, and most New Yorkers, have no retirement plan at all other than Social Security, public employee unions, again and again, have cut deals with elected officials for earlier retirement with richer pensions. The result, when the bills come due, has been higher taxes, diminished public services, diminished public benefits, and lower pay and benefits for future public employees. That is one of the reason we pay so much in taxes for police, yet starting police officers get $25,000 per year. The most recent deal would allow New York City’s teachers to work five fewer years, retire, and thus get paid to do nothing for five additional years. It has been sent to Governor Spitzer for his signature, after passing the legislature virtually overnight with virtually no dissent, just as everything like it passes. This, and not Joe Bruno’s helicopter rides, is the real moral issue, and the measure of Governor Eliot Spitzer’s values.

Eliot Spitzer, The Other Special Interest Candidate

Although it is repetitive, let me set the stage again. Two groups of people have been getting richer: the executives who sit on each other’s boards and vote each other a rising share of private sector income, and retired public employees whose unions have cut political deals for retroactive pension increases. Everyone else is getting poorer. There is, in other words, the executive/financial class, the political/union class, and the serfs, with just about everyone in younger generations being left to be serfs as Generation Greed sells off the common future. This is not the result of anything like a free market, but rather is the result of political power and manipulation. The public employee unions and executives negotiate their pay and benefits in secret with their cronies, and then pass the bill on to powerless others who are made worse off, taxpayers/public service recipients and shareholders, with the cost generally deferred to a common future they don’t’ care about. Here in the U.S. they continue to take more and more, and express outrage at anyone who dares to question their entitlement, even in the wake of a Great Recession that made everyone else much worse off.

Might Eliot Spitzer be the man to put the spotlight on this? To ask questions, provide truthful information, call for fairness in allocating the losses in the future based on who has taken the lion’s share of the benefits in the sordid past? To let the serfs, younger generations, and younger and future public employees know exactly what has been done to them, and by (collectively) whom, and to demand fairness for ordinary people? The powerful interests seem to think so. Their passionate backing of Scott Stringer for Comptroller seems to have convinced Gatemouth they are right. Spitzer as the champion of the common person just living their lives, against those inside the room sucking the life out of our common institutions and common future? When you look back at Spitzer’s tenure as Governor, you see a different reality. A man whose primary concern is the greater glory of Eliot Spitzer.

By My Standards, There Are No Qualified Candidates for NYC Comptroller

Politics in New York is driven by two groups of people. Producers of public services, the public employee unions and contractors, who are always looking to provide less in exchange for more. And wealthy people and interests who do not require public services themselves, and do not want to pay for others to have them. The wealthy dominate the federal government, using it to profit at the expense of the rest of us, but the public employee unions and contractors dominate New York State government, using the power of the state legislature to cheat the less well off and the common future. That’s why we have the highest state and local tax burden in the country, but also have declining public services.

The state’s politicians don’t want to admit, to us or even themselves, that they are cheating less powerful ordinary people to benefit the interests that back them. So they seek to separate in time the sacrifices they impose from the deals they do, postponing the pain to a future they don’t care about, when they can lie and claim that it is “due to circumstances beyond our control.” And they seek with rage and desperation to ensure that the consequences of their deals and favors, for the ordinary people and the future, are kept quiet. That is why the special interests try so hard to keep control of the Office of the Comptroller, city and state. Because it is the purported job of those offices to tell the truth, loudly and passionately, and defend the future in order to force elected officials to admit, or at least consider, the consequences of their actions. Neither of the current candidates for New York City Comptroller is likely to do. Based on what Scott Stringer has done and more importantly has not done, and Eliot Spitzer has done and has not done, I fear the former is just another Albany legislator sent to the Comptroller’s office to cover things up, and the latter is a megalomaniac.

Repost: The New York City Budget and the Great Recession -- Health and Welfare

High local spending on health and welfare functions has long differentiated New York City from local governments in the suburbs and elsewhere in the United States. Much of that money is not paid for by city taxpayers, but merely passes through the city’s after being collected by the federal and state governments, which also set the rules. There are huge issues and possibly huge changes in health care finance, but most of these involve the federal and state governments, not the city and not the Mayor.

Even leaving aside required local contributions to New York State’s Medicaid program and the Health and Hospitals Corporation, which I discussed in the initial post in this series, New York City’s health and social services infrastructure is huge. As proposed for FY 2014, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, Department of Homeless Services, Department of Health and Mental Hygene, and Department of Social Services (excluding welfare and Medicaid payments) combined are expected to spend $7.9 billion. Of this amount, less than one-third is to be spent on city personnel, with the rest going to health and social service contractors, generally in the non-profit sectors. Given that we have just been through a national economic calamity, and given that the City of New York is facing an ongoing fiscal crisis, one might expect that spending on programs for the poor would have increased strongly. But did it?

Repost: The New York City Budget and the Great Recession -- Infrastructure

This post previously appeared on "Saying the Unsaid In New York." The data referenced is in a spreadsheet attached to this post.

New York City relies on its infrastructure for its prosperity and quality of life, and the deterioration of that infrastructure in the 1970s is one of the factors in the city’s near-death experience. The city borrowed so much money, in the Lindsay and Beame Administrations and before, for infrastructure and for other things, that by the time the fiscal crisis came around debt service was soaking up all the money, leaving no room for maintenance. It was a terrible legacy for that generation of city leaders to leave to those who followed, and the city has yet to fully recover from it. But this generation of city leaders, including the current Mayor and those running to replace him, may have repeated it. The state legislature, with regard to the MTA, almost certainly has. And while painful sacrifices would be needed to avoid a repeat of New York’s 1970s fate, that is not what any of the candidates running in New York’s rare actual elections (the one for Mayor) is suggesting. They are suggesting lots of goodies will follow if they are elected, almost none of which involve city infrastructure.

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