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Early in September, more than 160 executives from companies like Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, the white-shoe corporate law firm Skadden Arps, and a host of real estate developers and financial firms sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio. They expressed their fear that “deteriorating conditions” in the city might slow an economic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. “There is widespread anxiety over public safety, cleanliness, and quality-of-life issues,” these CEOs warned. Unless the mayor took immediate action to “restore essential services,” their employees and customers — and presumably, these corporate executives themselves — would be “slow to return” to New York City.
The letter concluded with a pointed reminder to the mayor that its wealthy authors, with their myriad political connections and funds, stood ready to offer him their advice.
This coalition of business people did not, however, offer any hint of how they, and their companies, might offer tangible financial aid to a beleaguered city budget. New York’s annual deficit has ballooned to almost $9 billion, a fiscal calamity that could potentially cause the city to shed 22,000 workers.
This is more than a quality-of-life problem. New York has struggled to open its public schools. The city has cut money for parks at a time when these public spaces are among the few places people can safely gather, and a costly public testing-and-tracing program is desperately needed to help bring back some semblance of social and economic normalcy.
Yet these executives seemed to be saying that New York should get its act together, without offering any sense that they — who have benefited from a business-friendly environment since New York’s last fiscal collapse in the 1970s — might have an obligation to help.
Today, New York is confronting the worst fiscal crisis it has faced since the Daily News printed its famous headline on October 29, 1975, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” This time, the multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall is due not to a sketchy system of funding public debt against fantasy tax dollars, but to the economic impact of the coronavirus and the loss of expected city revenues. Mayor de Blasio is now warning that unless the state legislature grants the city additional powers to borrow to cover its operating costs, his only alternative will be to cut tens of thousands of city workers — at the same time as the city is promising to hire thousands of new teachers to staff the “hybrid” schools, and when social services like public hospitals and the emergency workers who staff them have never been more vital.
All of this has brought back the specter of 1975, when the city almost had to declare bankruptcy and only managed to win federal aid when the political and economic consequences came to seem too dire. But New York changed in that moment. The city was forced to make dramatic budget cuts to avert fiscal collapse, shrinking public-sector employment by 20 percent over five years and shredding its public college system.
Usually, the fiscal crisis is invoked — as Governor Andrew Cuomo has done several times — to warn about the dangers of borrowing to cover operating costs. But this is not the only lesson to take from the 1970s.
For many years, the threat of another fiscal crisis has functioned in New York City politics as a moral warning about the dangers of excessive liberalism: this was exactly the lesson that Democrats’ conservative opponents hoped that taxpayers and politicians alike would learn from the collapse. The city’s generous local welfare state was widely blamed for bringing the crisis on, despite the many ways that New York’s debt was the result of economic changes that had causes well outside of the city’s limits, such as accelerating energy costs, suburban development, and the exodus of its retail and manufacturing base.
In response to the fiscal crisis, New York City — first under Abraham Beame, then Ed Koch — pivoted to make clear that it would do anything to bring business back to the five boroughs, and especially Manhattan. It offered tax cuts to developers willing to build, including Donald Trump, then the young scion of an outer-borough real estate magnate. The city insisted that it would cut services and abandon lofty social goals that required public spending. The city’s government in the late 1970s and early 1980s almost seemed to pride itself on refusing to keep public facilities open, as when Koch closed Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital in the face of intense neighborhood resistance.
Today, we find ourselves living in the city that grew out of those changes. New York is a sharply unequal metropolis, and one that seems all the more so as private schools manage to open while public schools run on a staggered schedule, as wealthy parents hire tutors while even wealthier ones flee to far-flung locales outside the city limits.
There’s no question that further cuts to the public sector in this context would be a disaster. As they did in the 1970s, the budget cuts would take place in a context of extreme social need: poverty and homelessness are rising, jobs are scarce, and a public health crisis that has already battered the city remains unresolved. Dismantling education, libraries, parks, and transit at this moment could make the economic downturn caused by the virus and its fallout much worse, and its effects on working people devastating.
But the real legacy of the fiscal crisis is a political and ideological one. Faced with this nightmare scenario, the governor and mayor — who was elected as a Progressive — seem to be paralyzed trying to advocate for the kinds of revenue-raising devices that might actually help rebuild the budget. Raising income taxes on the city’s wealthiest, finding ways to tax the financial sector, raising taxes on luxury properties, asking the city’s elite to pre-pay taxes or to accept a higher tax burden for some period of time so that the city that supported their phenomenal wealth can educate its children and keep the streets clean — all of this appears to be off the table.
Instead, the city is pressing for borrowing authority more aggressively than it is seeking new taxing powers or federal aid. True, the city seeks to issue long-term debt rather than the short-term obligations that mushroomed in the early 1970s, but it remains the case that this kind of maneuver cannot be repeated indefinitely. Nor does it seem to be engaging in an extensive analysis of its own spending priorities, asking whether its six-billion-dollar police budget is really the best use of public funds or whether there are tax breaks and incentives it currently offers to businesses that might be pared back in these crisis conditions.
New York is not alone, and these decisions do not occur in a vacuum. An inability to set priorities is true at the federal level as well, under a president whose personal wealth and power was established in the city 1975 created. Military spending continues, despite the fact that the pressing danger to public safety today comes from a microbe that knows no national boundaries and cannot be addressed through weapons systems. And federal aid to airline companies and other corporations has been far more generous than funds directed to New York.
Coming out of the fiscal crisis, New York’s leaders sought to find ways to make the city a business-friendly metropolis. But in the decades since 1975, the financial and economic elite that calls New York its home has, if anything, become more detached from its obligations to the city than it was then. The result is that, faced with the worst crisis in a generation, the city finds itself hamstrung, lacking any clear strategies to raise the revenue it needs.
Those for whom the decision is not when and whether to “return” to the city, but how to get by in it regardless, will once again be left to navigate the ruins.
Kim Phillips-Fein is a historian of twentieth-century American politics at NYU/Gallatin.