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The Guardian

 

Safe Cities, Successful Conservatives

February 26, 2009

By Heather Mac Donald

How can the Republican party win in cities? By getting back to basics: clean streets, safe neighbourhoods and strong schools.

The most impressive showcase for conservative ideas over the last two decades has been the most liberal big city in the United States: New York. Sadly, former mayor Rudolph Giuliani chose to stake his 2008 presidential bid on the promise of more reckless foreign adventurism, not on his stunning transformation of the city. The story of how conservative principles saved Gotham is therefore largely unknown, but it should provide a blueprint for conservatives looking to regain relevance in America’s big cities.

By the early 1990s, New York City had sunk into lawlessness and despair. There were 2,262 murders in 1990. Packs of feral youth attacked innocents while also killing each other off with abandon. Hand-lettered signs in parked cars announced pathetically that there was no radio left to steal. Trash and graffiti engulfed the city’s architectural jewels. One in seven New Yorkers was on the dole — seemingly for life. Residents and businesses were fleeing the city as fast as they could. A tabloid headline pleaded with the city’s Democratic mayor, David Dinkins: “Dave, do something!"

Dave never did do anything, but his successor, Giuliani, was determined to re-civilise New York. Giuliani understood that restoring public safety was the absolute precondition to an urban revival. That meant bucking the received wisdom that crime was the unavoidable product of racism and poverty. The “root causes” conceit about crime conveniently let both criminals and the police off the hook: Criminals were victims of injustice and thus not responsible for their own actions, and the police could not be expected to dent so vast a social problem. Giuliani and his new police commissioner, William Bratton, were having none of such apologetics. If there was no excuse for crime, there was also no excuse for the police’s failure to lower it.

Bratton started convening semi-weekly crime analysis meetings, known as Compstat. The police department’s top brass demanded that their precinct commanders know the details of every significant crime in their precincts, and that they have credible plans to combat those crimes. Minutely analysed crime data became the lifeblood of the department, and accountability for precinct commanders the vehicle for reform.

Bratton targeted low-level crimes like public drinking and urination for enforcement, on the theory that public disorder creates fear and disrupts neighbourhoods almost as much as violent felonies. It turned out that by going after low-level miscreants, you caught felons as well. A vicious murderer was arrested when he jumped a subway turnstile.

Within months of Compstat’s initiation, crime went into freefall and has never stopped dropping. Business improvement districts were also attacking public disorder, cleaning graffiti and trash from Manhattan’s midtown and Wall Street. Freed from the deadweight of crime and decay, New York’s commercial and residential districts roared back to life. The once squalid, now glittering, Times Square became a must-visit tourist destination, even attracting the family-friendly Disney Corporation as an anchor tenant.

Crime dropped just as sharply in New York’s minority neighbourhoods, triggering a rebirth of commercial and residential life there as well. Mothers no longer put their children in bathtubs to sleep as protection against stray bullets. New York’s crime rate is now at its lowest level in four decades — and violent crime is down 75% since the early 1990s.

Giuliani took his message of personal responsibility and high standards beyond crime. He “Compstated” other city agencies, holding managers accountable for measurable results. Giuliani dismantled the city’s balkanised multicultural community-liaison bureaucracies, insisting that city officials treat every New Yorker with the same professional courtesy — not according to his race, gender or sexual orientation. The mayor raised academic standards at the City University of New York, which had become a holding tank for students who could not read or write. He demanded that welfare recipients look for a job or perform useful work for the city in exchange for their benefits. The welfare rolls plummeted as recipients who had collected monthly checks for years went to work.

By the end of the 1990s, New York was unrecognisable. Dynamic, clean and safe, it drew entrepreneurs and young people hoping to take advantage of its business opportunities and culture. Even the 2001 terrorist strikes did not suppress the city’s vitality for long.

But there were several areas of urban governance that Giuliani did not reform, in large part because he did not apply conservative principles rigorously enough. He failed to improve public education, despite having gestured towards vouchers, which have become the reflexive conservative answer for every urban school pathology.

The market approach to education reform has gone nowhere, and it’s time for a new strategy: Officials should eliminate the disorder in the public-school system directly. A reformist mayor should declare that under his watch, schools will impose discipline no matter how many lawsuits they face from misguided child-advocacy groups. Progressive pedagogy will be replaced by traditional content-based teaching, and the romantic myth that students can teach each other will be junked in favour of rigorous top-down instruction in a core curriculum based on western civilisation.

Unlike market-style competition in education, real competition in the delivery of public services works. In the 1990s, Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith required public-employee unions to compete with private firms for contracts. Whoever could produce results most efficiently won the bid. Waste-water treatment costs dropped 44%, and garbage-collection costs dropped 61%, with no loss in quality. Municipal unions fight fiercely to protect their monopoly on service delivery, and Giuliani did not press city unions to compete with private contractors in New York. But in a time of radically reduced government revenues, the need to wring value out of city taxpayer dollars is now paramount.

The conservative platform for cities, then, is as follows: reducing crime through data-driven, accountable policing; a commitment to public order and cleanliness; safe, rigorous schools; efficient city services; and a welfare system geared toward self-improvement, not dependency. The best thing that city leaders can do for their residents is to provide the public conditions for individual success, then get out of the way. Urban conservatives will realise political success when they embrace the idea that the imagination and drive of individuals — not government — yields the creativity and entrepreneurship that cities at their best can offer.

Original Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/feb/24/republicans-new-york-crime-eucation

 

 
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