Leftist mayors? We've been there, done that
May 24, 2000
by Irwin Stelzer
SUNDAY TIMES - LONDON
May 14, 2000
WHAT LARKS! As Americans who care about London watched in horror, the voters of London had good fun, electing Red Ken as mayor. Unfortunately, in the process of sticking their thumb in the eye of the prime minister, Londoners have shot themselves in the foot - as any New Yorker can tell you.
New York has had its time under the rule of left-leaning mayors. And it found that mayors matter, even though they share power with other bodies - the city council and the state government in New York's case. They matter for two reasons. First, their specific policies determine the city's ratio of crooks to honest folks, of educated to illiterate children, and of tax-paying workers to welfare recipients.
Equally important, a mayor sets a tone that determines whether big companies will find his city a good place in which to do business, or a place from which to flee; and whether families will face and surmount the difficulties of bringing up children in a crowded urban setting, or flee to the suburbs.
Let's consider the economic consequences of New York City's long period of left-wing rule. The number of Fortune 500 companies making their homes in New York fell from 140 in 1947 to 31 now. As Myron Magnet, editor of the influential City Journal, points out: "With the information revolution, all those companies whose great skyscrapers made them appear eternally rooted in the cities no longer had to be there in order to be near their suppliers, customers or bankers."
So they left, in the case of New York taking with them an estimated one million jobs.
But just as New York discovered that perpetual prosperity was not guaranteed to it, so it later discovered that decline can be reversed. What politicians have wrought, other politicians can fix.
The crime story is too well known to require detailed repetition here. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose value system and priorities are the opposite of Livingstone's, introduced "zero tolerance" policing, and suddenly New York's citizens recaptured their streets from the muggers and crooks and squeegee men. To accomplish this, Giuliani had to face down charges of racism, and back his police to the hilt when they took on rioters protesting against one thing or another. He had no sympathy for window smashers and cop bashers.
Less well known is the role "reinventing government" has played in the revival of many American cities. In place of jobs for the boys, mayors such as Stephen Goldsmith of Indianapolis introduced competitive tendering by private firms for everything from pot-hole filling to bus repairing, with savings estimated at 25% to 40%. And Giuliani took on the public-sector unions to try to wring from them some value for taxpayers' money.
Then there is education. New York's mayor has little direct control over the city's schools, sharing authority with the Board of Education and the state government. But he can influence the selection of the school chancellor, and use "the bully pulpit" of the mayor's office to shame teachers, principals and educrats into making at least some reforms in a system that has spent more money for less education than any in America, with the possible exception of the state schools in the nation's capital.
As for the homeless, Giuliani quickly established that homelessness is not an "alternative lifestyle" available to all who would use the city's parks as bedrooms, its rail stations as living rooms, and its doorways and alleys as toilets.
The renaissance these policies have brought to New York and other cities is obvious to residents and visitors alike. Young, high-tech entrepreneurs are willing to set up firms and raise families in New York; the streets on a summer's evening are alive with shoppers and strollers; the theatre is thriving. So great is the demand for housing right in the centre that property prices are soaring and once-derelict districts are being gentrified, with high-ceilinged former manufacturing space the conversions-of-choice for the city's glitterati.
Londoners take note. You now have a mayor whose natural instincts are to limit the activity of the police, and to sympathise with lawless rioters. You have a mayor and a new layer of government that will have a budget of Pounds 3.5billion a year, with the mayor already searching for new sources of revenue. You have a mayor who likens the taxpaying, job-generating businesses that sustain the city to Hitler's Nazis, and who is more likely to see the homeless as warranting public assistance than as a blight on the cityscape.
In short, you have New York City in the dark days of its decline under a series of mayors whose instincts were similar to Red Ken's, whose compassion for all save the taxpayer was limitless, and who thought their main job was to appease the myriad self-styled "victims" of racism, poverty and assorted forms of discrimination.
Lay that alongside the trends Charles Murray has earlier described in these pages and which he reiterated last week at The Sunday Times seminar, The Growing Threat of the Underclass, and you have the beginning of what could be the end of swinging, prosperous London. The number of unsocialised (no, Ken, that doesn't mean right-wing) children is bound to rise as the illegitimacy rate races to and past 40%. Lacking parental restraint on their behaviour, these youngsters can and will run wild, unless the tone set by the mayor, and communicated to the police and the teachers in the schools to which his constituents send their children, is one of unsympathetic intolerance.
Crime up, the homeless in control of the streets, cost of government rising, indiscriminate compassion. We New Yorkers have been there, done that. It almost made our city uninhabitable. Those of us who love London, and spend a great deal of time here, hope there is a big gap between Livingstone's pre-election rhetoric and his post-election performance.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.