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The New York Sun


Upward Trajectory

June 12, 2007

By Edward L. Glaeser

Mayor Bloomberg is making a spectacular exit from office, spending his well-earned political capital to give the city a much-needed congestion charge. Mayor Giuliani’s ended his term as gloriously “America’s Mayor” shepherding his city, and his country, through the horrors of 9/11. New York’s mayors didn’t always leave office so well.

Seventy-five years ago, Mayor Walker resigned and fled to Europe to avoid removal and possible criminal investigation because of his penchant for accepting large gifts. In 1950, Mayor O’Dwyer resigned to become Ambassador to Mexico in the midst of a police corruption scandal. In the 1970s, Mayors Lindsay and Beame left office with little glory, as their free spending created financial chaos.

The evolution of New York’s mayors from Walker to Lindsay to Bloomberg represents an upward trajectory, where honesty replaced corruption and competence replaced ideology. Many forces drove New York to elect better mayors, but the most important factor was that the mobility of firms and people made the costs of bad government painfully obvious.

When the city government is incompetent or corrupt or plays Robin Hood, businesses just leave, as they did in droves during the Lindsay era. Employers’s easy exit from the five boroughs imposes discipline on the city that has led us to put competence first. Mr. Bloomberg may lack Jimmy Walker’s sartorial panache and song-writing skills, but he is a much better manager, bent on providing safe, speedy streets and better schools.

In the 19th century, New York’s port gave the city’s economy an immutable anchor that tied down businesses and the rich. In that pre-car era, city government could tax and misspend with economic impunity, so political battles devolved into a fight over who got the loot. On one side of those battles were the ethnic warriors, who fought for the immigrant poor and gleefully took the city’s wealth, by hook or crook. Those colorful politicians competed against more blue-blooded reformers who campaigned on honesty, but whose appeal ultimately came from promising more prosperous New Yorkers some time at the trough.

Between 1850 and 1970, politicians got more honest, or at least became more elegant thieves, but city politics was still about redistribution. Tammany Hall withered away, as a new breed of more capable men, like Mayors LaGuardia and Wagner, turned their backs on machine politics, but these new leaders still embraced patronage, regulation, and spending. The twelve years of Messrs. Lindsay and Beame were the last gasp of taxing the city’s economy to the hilt to pay for high government wages and expensive social programs. Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs melted away, as the city’s erstwhile transportation-based advantages disappeared and firms fled for more business-friendly environments.

In 1977, with Felix Rohatyn in charge of the city’s disorderly finances, voters turned to the first of New York’s “city manager mayors,” Edward Koch. Mr. Koch, like Mr. Bloomberg, was neither right wing nor left wing, just committed to better government. His much mocked pooper-scooper campaign well symbolizes his battle to use management to make the city livable. The victories of Messrs. Koch, Giuliani and Bloomberg, and of city-manager-mayors coast-to-coast, like Chicago’s Richard M. Daley and Washington’s Anthony Williams, reflect a realization that cities aren’t guaranteed success. The vulnerability of cities creates a need for competent leaders who make a fetish out of basic services and eschew ethnic and class warfare.

As competence became more important, the divisions between local parties shrank. Can one really tell that Mr. Bloomberg ran as a Republican and Richard M. Daley as a Democrat? They are both marked more by their passion for urban success than their ideology. A recent paper by Joseph Gyourko, a regular co-author of mine, and Fernando Ferreira documents today’s urban nonpartisanship. Using the latest statistical techniques, they show that city spending doesn’t change when voters elect a Republican or a Democrat.

The results of Messrs. Gyourko and Ferreira contrast with a literature showing how much Democrats and Republicans still differ at the national level. It remains harder for firms to leave America than New York (but for how long), which leaves plenty of scope for national redistribution. The ability to redistribute keeps ideology at the center of our national politics. But the most important job of the federal government is national security, where the country really does have just one interest. Our safety depends on competence, not ideology. Perhaps America’s voters will recognize this fact, and we will someday see an improvement in our presidents as striking as the improvement we have seen in our mayors.

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