Addicted to Government?


New York Unbound, edited by Peter Salin, Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 218 pages, $19.95

Like most people who live in and around New York City, the authors of New York Unbound are somewhat exasperated with the state of city life but deeply optimistic about its future. E.S. Savas, professor of management at Baruch College, probably says it best:

"New York is a paradox. It is exciting and vibrant, a mecca for immigrants seeking the American dream and an incubator of innovative entrepreneurs. At the same time, the quality of life for most New Yorkers is undeniably mediocre. Schools are failing, crime is commonplace, streets are filthy, transportation is a test of endurance, drug addiction is a curse, teenage pregnancy is rampant, public incivility and foul language are the norm, ugliness assails the senses, housing is in short supply, and derelicts line the streets."

In other words, New York provides both the best and worst of contemporary America. What encourages the contributors to this volume is the faint hope that the success of the Reagan Revolution, so visible beyond the shores of the Hudson, might somehow penetrate that mystical barrier that separates New York from the rest of the country.

The most encouraging and insightful essay is from Nathan Glazer. Like any good, honest fellow, Glazer is willing to admit he was wrong. Twenty years ago, he says, he predicted that blacks and Puerto Ricans would work their way out of poverty and into the middle class, the same way other ethnic groups before them had. Now he realizes he was mistaken. Far too many blacks and Puerto Ricans have become hopelessly enmeshed in the welfare system (Puerto Ricans even more than blacks, although few people realize it). They are not going anywhere—until someone reforms welfare itself.

However, Glazer notes, the corollary that nearly everyone is now drawing in New York—that the new Asian, Caribbean, South American, and Middle Eastern immigrants who are flooding into the city will follow in the footsteps of blacks and Puerto Ricans—is also mistaken. The new immigrants are following the old path, resisting dependence on welfare. They work hard, save money, hold their families together, start their own businesses, put their children through school, stay off welfare. "In the United States, people are poor because they are lazy or want the government to take care of them," Glazer quotes one Dominican woman. "No one needs to be poor in the United States if they work hard." (Every Palestinian, Pakistani, and Liberian cab driver I meet tells me the same thing.)

Thus, blacks and Puerto Ricans will remain a special case. But they are not going to have much influence on those who come after them, according to Glazer. On the contrary, he says, there is likely to be considerable friction between blacks and the newcomers, as black hostility toward Koreans already indicates.

Beyond this, however, the future of New York looks fairly bright. What ails the city is what ailed the country 10 years ago—too much government. New York's addiction to rent control, of course, is legendary. What is remarkable—as Harold M. Hochman points out—is the number of other areas where the city government also practices price fixing. New York now controls the prices of 16 different consumer items, while demanding licenses and permits for 600 to 700 different ways of making a living. Poland hardly does better.

In fact, there is very little wrong with New York that a good dose of privatization wouldn't cure. Jose A. Gomez-Ibañez makes an excellent case for deregulating bus transportation as a way of solving rush-hour traffic problems. Savas makes the familiar case for vouchers in the schools. Even Mark Willis, deputy commissioner for planning at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, is ready to admit that government planning doesn't work—an admission that would probably cost him his job if anyone were willing to take it seriously.

On the other hand, there are some real clinkers in this volume. Paul Goldberger, architectural critic for the New York Times, seems to be here only as an example of what New York is up against. He wants people in New York to stop building all those tall buildings. Frank Macchiarola, former chancellor of the New York Board of Education, also puts on a muddled performance, hoping to solve New York's problems through "a system of care and commitment" and more "efficiency and responsiveness in government."

What you have to realize, though, is that, as far as New York is concerned, even assembling a quorum for a slim volume like this is quite an accomplishment. After all, New York is the place where people talk about "The City," not just as the municipal government, but as some kind of mystical entity capable of providing everything to everybody if only we feed it enough money and find the politicians who will run it right.

Another 20 years of Republican prosperity in the rest of the country may eventually awaken New Yorkers to the realization that something is going on out there. Until then, as Louis Winnick predicts: "New York will muddle through…Though [this] is neither a dazzlingly successful outcome nor a hopelessly failed one, New York is still likely to remain the nation's primary business and cultural center, a proving ground for the creative, and magnetic north on the compass of the world's immigrants."

That in itself is saying something.

William Tucker is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of The Excluded Americans: Homelessness and Housing Policy, published by Regnery Gateway.