I don’t usually take up local New York politics in this blog, partly because they seldom interest me and partly because I don't presume that readers are following Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York any more closely than say Mayor Boris Johnson of London or Mayor Fernando Haddad of Sao Paulo.
This time it's different because New York's new mayor is raising issues of national and global importance: wealth and income inequality and what to do about it on the local level. Im not talking here about the truly local question that consumed New Yorkers last week of whether Mayor De Blasio ordered the Sanitation Department to let the snow pile up in wealthier neighborhoods in Manhattan as retribution for their support of former Mayor Bloomberg or as an opening salvo in class warfare. This was a sideshow and even the new Mayor has now admitted that the clean-up could have been better managed. The more revealing issue last week was the intra-party battle between Mayor De Blasio and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo over the funding of public school pre-kindergarten programs.
During Bill De Blasio's mayoral campaign, the candidate proposed adding such pre-K programs and funding them with an additional tax on New York City's wealthiest residents. Following De Blasio's landslide victory this campaign platform has hardened into an absolute mandate — ostensibly directed in support of early childhood education. The Governor, who is up for re-election later this year and is a fellow Democrat, has vowed to reduce not increase taxes. In presenting his 2014-2015 Budget, the Governor offered a generous solution: New York State would find the money in that State budget and commit to fund the pre-K programs for five years.
Now it gets interesting. Rather than graciously accepting the Governor's offer and grabbing legitimate credit for championing the cause of New York City children, the Mayor has insisted that he wants the unilateral ability to impose his tax on the wealthy. I will not here get into the intricacies of New York fiscal goverance, but the short answer is that the Mayor and City Council cannot raise local taxes without State approval. Nor will I try to address the interesting economic policy question of the point at which the tax burden becomes so oppressive that a tax rate increase actually raises less money by driving job creators away (or at least failing to attract new ones who have the choice of where to base themselves). Here, I only want to address the following political question: Does the Mayor truly believe that raising taxes on the wealthy is the best way to help those less fortunate or is the point just to play populist soundbite politics?
I believe the issue of inequality and the pulling apart of society is serious and presents a moral, political and economic challenge in the United States and elsewhere. However, as much as I believe that Brooklyn deserves its streets to be plowed as competently as Manhattan, I do not believe cities are the right forum in which to tackle the redistribution of income and wealth. We need a national debate on these topics and nation-level solutions through means which include income and estate taxes, but also deregulation, access to education and employment, and other economic growth-oreinted policies. Local city and state governments should promote job growth, provide safe, clean streets and innovate in public education to equip the next generation for the jobs of this century rather than the last.
The much maligned President Francois Hollande of France also came into office proclaiming a mandate to raise taxes on the rich to 75% plus and to reduce the workweek and lower the retirement age. As he learned over his first stormy years in office, these are great populist campaign slogans but actually lousy economic policies by which to govern. President Hollande has now come around to espouse a less popular but more pragmatic set of policies to reduce taxes and promote job creation.
Perhaps Mayor De Blasio will similarly recognize that the campaign is over and it is now time to govern to improve the lives of all New Yorkers, rich and poor. As he no doubt learned in snowy New York this week, failing to plow the streets and direct traffic in Manhattan mostly hurt poor working-class families from Brooklyn and Queens who were trapped in horrendous traffic snarls on their commute home.