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Solutions FY 2011-2012 and beyond

I spent some time in the runup to the election with Robert Caro's classic tome The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Everyone--everyone--was reading this book when I arrived at Columbia from here in the summer 1975. It's an enormous book, unbelievably well-researched--it deserved its notoriety.

I turned to this book not because I have thought that Los Angeles or even California in the 'teens will be as bad off as New York City was in the mid 1970's--although next year will certainly make it a close contender--but because I thought the rhetoric about how bad things are was getting close to the rhetoric of the politicians at the time I arrived in NYC myself.

Back then, by means of a single book, New York's intelligentsia found their primary scapegoat in Moses, and Caro won his Pulitzer (actually his first of two--he later wrote that incredible LBJ biography). Finding a scapegoat other than the structure of the City itself seemed half the battle towards finding a solution to the fiscal crisis.

But of even more interest to me than the book itself was how NYC escaped financial peril to become the city it is today. The solution was shockingly easy to execute once the stars were in place for either catastrophe or cooperation.

First off, the labor debates NYC had in the 1970s were of very similar tenor to the kind LA and even the nation are facing today. Even worse, perhaps, because public employees were striking. Garbage would go without pickup. Some toll-booth operators could effectively shut down the City.

But the solution for their financial crisis was far different than the ones being pitched today: in short, labor was asked to become a key partner, not a scapegoat. Pension funds, in fact, loaned NYC the bulk of the money it needed to stay solvent.

Everyone had an interest in performing. The labor unions did because the City's failure would become their own pensioner's failure soon enough. The City obviously did--it wanted to keep things running. And civic leaders could relax a little and address other matters--like planning issues, focusing on ways to gentrify some communities without selling their souls.

New York did not heal overnight...by 1980, in fact, it seemed even worse off than it was in 1975. But the City by then had not only made labor perform, it made labor their key partner, in linking the burdens as well as the fates.

Borrowing money from your primary debtor, because your primary debtor knows if you fail, they fail. And then paying the money back over time. Skipping right over all the years of vilification and bickering and much ado about nothing in a City where everyone expects to be listened to but nobody listens very well. Working on other far more fruitful things, like how to make the City a world leader again. What a $350 million concept!