Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
search  
 
Subscribe   Subscribe   MI on Facebook Find us on Twitter Find us on Instagram      
 
 
   
 
     
 

Wall Street Journal

 

The New Deal's Favorite Mayor

June 28, 2013

By Fred Siegel

La Guardia and FDR shared a faith in redistributive taxation, heavy-handed regulation and public works on a grand scale.

New Yorkers, in the past few years, have felt the pressure of a city government seemingly determined to "fix" the wayward habits of its residents—their smoking, their soda drinking, their consumption of trans-fats, their inclination to walk or take a subway rather than ride a bicycle. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s nanny-state reforms are merely a micro-version of a much grander assumption of governmental involvement in urban life—one that includes Albany and Washington as much as City Hall.

In "City of Ambition," Mason B. Williams describes how the Depression-era relationship between Franklin Roosevelt (first as New York governor, then as president) and Fiorello La Guardia (first as congressman, then as mayor) created what is still the political culture of New York City—a kind of civic religion that was once known as "Fiorellism." If there is a problem in Gotham, the enduring Fiorellist assumption is that there must be a government solution. Mr. Williams’s readable and well-researched history is in many ways a celebration of the La Guardia years, though it is, inadvertently, a cautionary tale as well.

It was an unlikely pairing. Roosevelt was a Protestant, Hudson Valley squire, a Democrat. La Guardia was a half-Italian, half-Jewish, progressive Republican who had lived in Arizona and Trieste before returning to the city of his birth. The two men came to know each other in the prosperous 1920s and became strong allies in the 1930s. (Roosevelt’s presidency ran from 1933 to 1945; La Guardia’s mayoralty from 1934 to 1945.) They shared a disdain for businessmen that manifested itself in a faith in government regulation and redistributive taxation—and in public-works projects on a grand scale.

In the name of clean and efficient government, both Roosevelt and La Guardia expanded on the programs of Tammany Hall, the political machine that had flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries: for example, the workmen’s compensation innovations and park-building programs of Gov. Al Smith and the subway- and school-construction push of "Gentleman" Jimmy Walker, New York’s mayor in the 1920s. While Tammany was nonideological, FDR and La Guardia idealized expertise and brought an ideology of statism to the city.

In the mid- and late 1930s, Mayor La Guardia and Robert Moses, a protégé of Al Smith’s, worked with Harold Ickes of the Roosevelt administration to slice through old New York neighborhoods and build the infrastructure of the modern city: the East River Drive, the Triborough Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel, and a host of other tunnels, bridges and expressways, as well as public schools, public-housing projects, parks, prisons and colleges. It was a stunning set of accomplishments based on a passing mutuality of interests.

During the Depression, Roosevelt needed La Guardia’s New York as a model city for his New Deal public-works programs. La Guardia, for his part, had inherited a nearly bankrupt city and needed the federal government’s imprimatur and largess to carry out his own expansive agenda. The result was a golden age of New York government and wonderful public relations for FDR. New York City, trilled a 1939 article in Harper’s magazine, "happens to be one of the communities in the United States where good government is measured by getting a good deal for your money." The flamboyant "Kingfish," Huey Long of Louisiana, called La Guardia’s New York "the best blankety-blank governed city in the country." Mr. Williams tells this tale of governmental ambition admirably, in all its gritty detail, but he scants both the provisional nature of its triumph and the underside of its aftermath.

In the Depression years, a multitude of young Italians and Jews, locked out of the private sector by prejudice and a weak economy, moved en masse into city government. They were the mayor’s eager and talented acolytes, ready to release the pent-up energy of a new generation hoping to make it in America. To goad city workers who were reluctant to give it their all, the tireless La Guardia would pop in unannounced to city offices to see how things were going. He gave a "prize"—the "Order of the Shankbone"—to the official who had made the biggest mistake since he had last visited. "It would be almost but not quite fair," wrote New Dealer Rexford Tugwell, "to say that he was an instinctive dictator."

Nevertheless, La Guardia was beloved by New Yorkers. As the jurist Felix Frankfurter explained, he "translated the complicated conduct of the City’s vast government into warm significance for every man, woman and child." But La Guardia’s personality and policies made it almost impossible for successors to approach his level of achievement. The Tammany hacks that he displaced could be fired, but the civil servants he put in their place were headless nails. Protected by civil-service rules, they were insulated from the consequences of their own actions, let alone from the actions of future mayors angered by their underperformance.

La Guardia’s close alliance with FDR faded with the approaching war. The city, left to its own devices and burdened by La Guardia’s hostility to business, began flirting with bankruptcy again during his third and final term. City workers, given a stake in their jobs by civil service, organized 15 years later into the public-sector unions that have come to dominate civic life and ensure that, for New York City, bankruptcy is never an altogether unlikely possibility.

Mr. Williams, whose aim is to monumentalize a passing moment as the embodiment of timeless truths, bemoans "the New Deal’s lost legacy." But part of that legacy is still with us, and not only in a budget-busting fleet of municipal workers. La Guardia loved to shout about how we should "soak the rich." How many of today’s mayoral hopefuls, eager to succeed Mr. Bloomberg by proving their populist bona fides, would disagree?

Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324637504578566680978279390.html

 

 
PRINTER FRIENDLY
 
LATEST FROM OUR SCHOLARS

5 Reasons Janet Yellen Shouldn’t Focus On Income Inequality
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, 10-20-14

Why The Comptroller Race Matters
Nicole Gelinas, 10-20-14

Obama Should Have Picked “Ebola Czar” With Public-Health Experience
Paul Howard, 10-18-14

Success Of Parent Trigger Is Unclear­—Just As Foes Want
Ben Boychuk, 10-18-14

On Obamacare's Second Birthday, Whither The HSA?
Paul Howard, 10-16-14

You Can Repeal Obamacare And Keep Kentucky's Insurance Exchange
Avik Roy, 10-15-14

Are Private Exchanges The Future Of Health Insurance?
Yevgeniy Feyman, 10-15-14

This Nobel Prize-Worthy Economist Figured Out How To Destroy Terrorism
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, 10-15-14

 
 
 

The Manhattan Institute, a 501(c)(3), is a think tank whose mission is to develop and disseminate new ideas
that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility.

Copyright © 2014 Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Inc. All rights reserved.

52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017
phone (212) 599-7000 / fax (212) 599-3494