Keller and Krugman

Apparently we’re to be “treated” to Mr. Keller on a weekly basis now.  Today he takes a look at “The Bloomberg Legacy,” and tells of a mayor who was long on vision, though often short on consensus.  In “Hunger Games, U.S.A.” Prof. Krugman says with the farm bill vote in the House, policy turns outright sadistic.  Here’s Keller:

A dozen years ago I wrote a column not exactly endorsing Michael Bloomberg for mayor (columnists don’t endorse) but endorsing the idea of Michael Bloomberg. If a guy who built a wildly successful business wants to offer his services to the city, I argued, we shouldn’t let our prejudice against the rich stand in his way. Since then the idea, the C.E.O. as aspiring public steward, has suffered some setbacks (Mitt Romney, for one), but I feel pretty well vindicated by the mayor. As he would be the first to tell you, he will be a very hard act to follow.

In coming weeks I intend to write occasionally about the race to replace Bloomberg — a field of a dozen candidates so uninspiring that a former congressman caught tweeting photos of himself with an erection to women he’d never met is near the lead in opinion polls. But let’s start by taking stock of the incumbent.

For better and occasionally for worse, the rarefied experience Bloomberg brought to the job defined his tenure. Most obviously that began with his billions, which allowed him to self-finance his campaigns and remain largely unbeholden to the city’s clamoring interest groups. Freed from the obligations of retail politics, he could staff his government with top talent rather than people holding political chits. With a few conspicuous exceptions, he hired people of passion and competence. He invited them to experiment, a rare thing in the risk-averse culture of government, but he held them accountable with obsessive attention to metrics. His City Hall, like his eponymous company, was built on the power of information. The great urban contraption that is New York City government has probably never been so well run.

He was not a model of inclusiveness. Whites are only a third of New York’s population, but nonwhites are scarce in Bloomberg’s bullpen. He has lived much of his life in a bubble of privilege, and he has an above-it-all demeanor that contributes to a sense, especially in minority and working-class precincts, that he lacks empathy. He can tell you, with a PowerPoint slide to back him up, that the aggressive police practice of stopping and frisking young men of color in tense neighborhoods has saved lives by keeping guns off the streets. He seems not to appreciate that systematic humiliation corrodes the trust between police and entire communities, and that there might be ways to take the edge off. Bloomberg can be stubborn and tone-deaf. He is easier to admire than to love.

At least as important as his wealth and managerial acumen, Bloomberg brought to City Hall a largeness of ambition that makes the candidates for his job (and, frankly, many of his predecessors) loom small by comparison. It’s not just a matter of ego; Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani had plenty of that. It’s a mind-set. Before he became associated with Wall Street, Bloomberg studied to be an engineer. Engineering is not just a set of skills. It is an approach to the world, a strategic sensibility different from a politician’s. It favors innovative solutions over incremental fixes, calculation over consensus.

Bloomberg’s initiatives were not always well sold, but they were never small ball. No one since Robert Moses has so dramatically changed the face of the city. Recognizing that traditional manufacturing was not coming back, Bloomberg poured money into rejuvenating the decrepit waterfront. He restored and expanded parks and other public spaces — not just landmarks like Central Park and upscale novelties like the High Line. He persuaded the state to cede the city full control of Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island, and played midwife to their rebirth. He rezoned not just plots but neighborhoods — a quarter of the city! — promoting growth in transit-rich areas, sustaining local character elsewhere, occasionally putting too much faith in developers but generally imposing order on chaos.

Critics complain that Bloomberg gilded Manhattan to the point where nobody but the affluent can afford it, that the service class was pushed to remote neighborhoods with laborious commutes. There is some truth in that. But as Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy at New York University who has been an informal adviser to the mayor, points out, “New York City needs wealthy people, because we tax them.” In turn, the people priced out of Manhattan (including young creative types) have brought new life — and new amenities — to parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Of eight million New Yorkers, Moss said, “1.6 million people live on Manhattan. The rest live elsewhere. And we’ve made elsewhere more attractive.”

Bloomberg recognized early that cities have overtaken national governments as engines of growth and innovation, and that New York competes for talent and investment not just with other American metropolises but with London and Singapore. He has made the city a world leader in sustainability with his devotion to green development and a campaign to get New Yorkers  (and as Matt Flegenheimer reported in Sunday’s Times, the rest of the world, too) out of their cars. His boldest assault on our asphyxiation by auto — a congestion pricing plan — failed in Albany. Instead, he raised the cost of parking, commandeered roadways for high-speed buses, expanded ferry service and made the city more bike-friendly. After last year’s superstorm, he commissioned an impressive blueprint for a more resilient city and has begun by rezoning vulnerable areas. “His response to Sandy at the human level was appalling,” said Joan Byron, an urban planner who is director of policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development. “But the infrastructure stuff is brilliant.”

To bolster New York’s claim on the future, he has invested in our intellectual infrastructure, too. The planned Cornell applied sciences and engineering campus on Roosevelt Island should strengthen New York’s appeal to the tech industry. Shrewdly, he used that project to goad competing universities — Columbia and N.Y.U. — to raise their game.

Bloomberg’s father-knows-best approach has paid off with saved lives in the realm of public health. We take for granted now that our restaurants and bars and parks are smoke-free, but at one time Bloomberg was demonized as the Smoke Nazi who was going to put every saloon out of business.

The city made it through a brutal recession thanks in large part to federal aid after 9/11 and Sandy, the bailout of the financial industries and a surging stock market. But any fair judge would say that Bloomberg played a significant part in the rebound. A believer in the wisdom of balancing revenue sources, he raised property taxes early on; when the recession shrank income-tax revenues, property taxes kept us afloat. He has bequeathed his successor a potential fiscal crisis in the surging cost of public-sector benefits, but he has also left a city better positioned to cope than, say, Los Angeles or Chicago.

“He was a very prudent custodian of the city’s finances,” said John Mollenkopf, director of the CUNY Center for Urban Research. “He didn’t just luck out.”

Bloomberg’s most consequential and controversial unfinished business is the public school system. He set the schools on a hopeful course: stabilizing the system under mayoral control, raising and enforcing standards, giving parents more options, among them charter schools that actually work. There is much more to do. Schools are the work of a generation, not an administration. Bloomberg’s great achievement was taking on the prevailing defeatist view that urban schools were unfixable.

The mayor’s third term, which began with a broken term-limits promise that many New Yorkers have not forgiven, was less successful than his first two, and it felt less successful than it actually was because the city has developed a bit of Bloomberg fatigue. By now, many New Yorkers are ready for a little more consensus, a little less lecturing, a little more attention to those at the bottom. But Bloomberg leaves behind a great 21st-century city, a dauntingly high bar for his successor and a pretty good argument for noblesse oblige.

Geez, he surely loves him some rich folks…  And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Something terrible has happened to the soul of the Republican Party. We’ve gone beyond bad economic doctrine. We’ve even gone beyond selfishness and special interests. At this point we’re talking about a state of mind that takes positive glee in inflicting further suffering on the already miserable.

The occasion for these observations is, as you may have guessed, the monstrous farm bill the House passed last week.

For decades, farm bills have had two major pieces. One piece offers subsidies to farmers; the other offers nutritional aid to Americans in distress, mainly in the form of food stamps (these days officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP).

Long ago, when subsidies helped many poor farmers, you could defend the whole package as a form of support for those in need. Over the years, however, the two pieces diverged. Farm subsidies became a fraud-ridden program that mainly benefits corporations and wealthy individuals. Meanwhile food stamps became a crucial part of the social safety net.

So House Republicans voted to maintain farm subsidies — at a higher level than either the Senate or the White House proposed — while completely eliminating food stamps from the bill.

To fully appreciate what just went down, listen to the rhetoric conservatives often use to justify eliminating safety-net programs. It goes something like this: “You’re personally free to help the poor. But the government has no right to take people’s money” — frequently, at this point, they add the words “at the point of a gun” — “and force them to give it to the poor.”

It is, however, apparently perfectly O.K. to take people’s money at the point of a gun and force them to give it to agribusinesses and the wealthy.

Now, some enemies of food stamps don’t quote libertarian philosophy; they quote the Bible instead. Representative Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, for example, cited the New Testament: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Sure enough, it turns out that Mr. Fincher has personally received millions in farm subsidies.

Given this awesome double standard — I don’t think the word “hypocrisy” does it justice — it seems almost anti-climactic to talk about facts and figures. But I guess we must.

So: Food stamp usage has indeed soared in recent years, with the percentage of the population receiving stamps rising from 8.7 in 2007 to 15.2 in the most recent data. There is, however, no mystery here. SNAP is supposed to help families in distress, and lately a lot of families have been in distress.

In fact, SNAP usage tends to track broad measures of unemployment, like U6, which includes the underemployed and workers who have temporarily given up active job search. And U6 more than doubled in the crisis, from about 8 percent before the Great Recession to 17 percent in early 2010. It’s true that broad unemployment has since declined slightly, while food stamp numbers have continued to rise — but there’s normally some lag in the relationship, and it’s probably also true that some families have been forced to take food stamps by sharp cuts in unemployment benefits.

What about the theory, common on the right, that it’s the other way around — that we have so much unemployment thanks to government programs that, in effect, pay people not to work? (Soup kitchens caused the Great Depression!) The basic answer is, you have to be kidding. Do you really believe that Americans are living lives of leisure on $134 a month, the average SNAP benefit?

Still, let’s pretend to take this seriously. If employment is down because government aid is inducing people to stay home, reducing the labor force, then the law of supply and demand should apply: withdrawing all those workers should be causing labor shortages and rising wages, especially among the low-paid workers most likely to receive aid. In reality, of course, wages are stagnant or declining — and that’s especially true for the groups that benefit most from food stamps.

So what’s going on here? Is it just racism? No doubt the old racist canards — like Ronald Reagan’s image of the “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy a T-bone steak — still have some traction. But these days almost half of food stamp recipients are non-Hispanic whites; in Tennessee, home of the Bible-quoting Mr. Fincher, the number is 63 percent. So it’s not all about race.

What is it about, then? Somehow, one of our nation’s two great parties has become infected by an almost pathological meanspiritedness, a contempt for what CNBC’s Rick Santelli, in the famous rant that launched the Tea Party, called “losers.” If you’re an American, and you’re down on your luck, these people don’t want to help; they want to give you an extra kick. I don’t fully understand it, but it’s a terrible thing to behold.

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One Response to “Keller and Krugman”

  1. Barton U. Parsons Says:

    The United States is nearly 17 trillion dollars in debt, the national unemployment rate is nearly 8%, and one in seven Americans are on food stamps. But fixing those problems is just so hard! So, several courageous politicians have decided to spend their time dictating what we should be allowed to eat. They do this in the name of “keeping us healthy.” How noble of them!

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