Jacobin - May 22, 2021
A candidate for mayor wants New York to be a “fun city” and thinks that by applying “modern management techniques” to municipal government, he can cut costs, improve efficiency, and deliver better services, from policing to garbage pickup and schools, for all New Yorkers. He is distrustful of public-school teachers and looks to private foundations for guidance on how to reform education and reduce racial disparities.
Who is this mayor? The description will fit Andrew Yang if he is elected. But it also describes John Lindsay, mayor of New York City from 1966 through 1973.
Lindsay came out of the now-extinct liberal wing of the Republican Party. He was a strong voice for civil rights and social spending, and against the Vietnam War, positioning himself to the left of almost all mainstream politicians in the city. But he was also an advocate of supposedly technocratic policies that changed municipal government for the worse.
As mayor, Lindsay initiated the practice of hiring consulting firms at enormous cost to advise on how to restructure city government. Most disastrously, Lindsay hired the RAND Corporation to create a computer model of where fire stations could be closed to increase efficiency.
As we now know, such models often include the racist biases of their creators. In this case, RAND recommended closing fire departments in poor communities. The result was a wave of arson which destroyed the homes of 600,000 New Yorkers, mainly in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
In the end, Lindsay’s faith in what he believed was the science of management was misplaced. He didn’t make city government more efficient, instead wasting ever more money on consultants’ fees. He and his management gurus had no response to the structural forces that were transforming New York City in the 1960s and ’70s: deindustrialization and the loss of working-class jobs, which left the city unable to provide employment or social services to the new waves of immigrants who joined the growing number of residents impoverished by capitalist restructuring.
NYC’s collapse during Lindsay’s mayoralty had two dire consequences. First, it degraded life for the city’s most vulnerable. Second, it discredited what in the late 1960s and early ’70s passed for progressive politics and governance. The political consequences were severe. Within the city, Lindsay was followed (after hack Democrat Abe Beame’s single term) by twelve years of race-baiting by neoliberal Ed Koch, and after a brief interlude by liberal David Dinkins, twenty years of deeper cuts in social services and vicious policing under Giuliani and Bloomberg.
New York City in the 1960s and ’70s could have taken a different path than Lindsay’s technocratic liberalism. The city’s government, in response to the demands of a powerful labor movement and energetic socialist and communist organizers, had in the 1930s and ’40s created a range of programs that went well beyond those of the New Deal. New York City offered free college through a growing city university system, free health care in a network of public hospitals and clinics, subsidized public and middle-income housing, publicly funded cultural institutions, and more. These benefits were funded in part through federal New Deal and Great Society programs, but mainly by a progressive city income tax and real estate taxes that fell mainly on commercial properties. ...
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