Politics in New York is driven by two groups of people. Producers of public services, the public employee unions and contractors, who are always looking to provide less in exchange for more. And wealthy people and interests who do not require public services themselves, and do not want to pay for others to have them. The wealthy dominate the federal government, using it to profit at the expense of the rest of us, but the public employee unions and contractors dominate New York State government, using the power of the state legislature to cheat the less well off and the common future. That’s why we have the highest state and local tax burden in the country, but also have declining public services.
The state’s politicians don’t want to admit, to us or even themselves, that they are cheating less powerful ordinary people to benefit the interests that back them. So they seek to separate in time the sacrifices they impose from the deals they do, postponing the pain to a future they don’t care about, when they can lie and claim that it is “due to circumstances beyond our control.” And they seek with rage and desperation to ensure that the consequences of their deals and favors, for the ordinary people and the future, are kept quiet. That is why the special interests try so hard to keep control of the Office of the Comptroller, city and state. Because it is the purported job of those offices to tell the truth, loudly and passionately, and defend the future in order to force elected officials to admit, or at least consider, the consequences of their actions. Neither of the current candidates for New York City Comptroller is likely to do. Based on what Scott Stringer has done and more importantly has not done, and Eliot Spitzer has done and has not done, I fear the former is just another Albany legislator sent to the Comptroller’s office to cover things up, and the latter is a megalomaniac.
Let’s start with Stringer. He was in the New York State Assembly from 1992 to 2005, a time period that corresponds roughly with the George Pataki, Joe Bruno, Sheldon Silver era. The era when the torch was passed to a new generation, Generation Greed. In deal after deal, and non-decision after non-decision, the State of New York sold off the future during those years.
The state ran up debt, shifting much of its borrowing to the transportation system, both road and transit, to free up money to hand out goodies. Not only was general fund revenue stripped from the infrastructure and never restored, but also purported “dedicated” revenues were repeatedly raided. To defer what would have been the associated infrastructure deterioration, the state and its agencies paid for a decade and a half of infrastructure maintenance money was borrowed for 30 years, and previous debt was re-borrowed rather than paid off.
The state also handed out one public employee pension increase after another, claiming that all of these would “cost nothing” or “save money.” At a time when most workers were having their retirement benefits reduced, the powerful public employee unions – who already had the richest retirement benefits – had theirs drastically increased. Retroactively, so money came out of the pension funds immediately, even though no money had been set aside for the richer benefits. These deals were said to “cost nothing” or “save money,” so in the short run no additional taxes were shifted from services to retirement costs.
All these deals to sacrifice the future were done in the dark, with no public debate and generally no public statement that they had even happened. They passed at 3 am, usually along with the state budget, and no one broke the Vow of Omerta about these deals. No city or state legislator objected to the deals. And generally no one in the state legislature voted no, including Scott Stinger, who also happily voted for budgets that cheated New York City’s school children out of a fair share of state school aid for years and years. It was good for his career to be in on the deal, and that’s what mattered.
As a state assemblymember Stringer was one of the crowd, someone was quiet as ordinary people and the common future were sold out, as those who were already better off took more and more out and lied about the consequences. Like some others, being willing to look the other way and be a team player provided Scott Stinger with a promotion – to a job where he appropriately had no real responsibilities at all. He busied himself releasing policy statements on all the goodies he claimed his constituents should have, despite the budget votes that assured they couldn’t afford them, and handing out the little member item grants he received from the leadership in exchange for voting yes on the deal. This may not represent his values, but it does represent his backbone.
While Stringer was Manhattan Borough President, Stringer continued to be a zero, busying himself will stupid press releases saying that people should have more of this or that or perhaps pay less for this or that, without concerning himself with identifying who should be made worse off to pay for it. Because in reality, except those who had worked the system with Stringers’ silent acquiescence, everyone was becoming worse off because of what had been done during Stinger’s term in the state assembly.
Taxes have risen as a share of the falling income of most city and state residents – state and local, income sales and property. Fares and fees have been increased. Services have been cut. The political/union class of which Stringer is a member has managed to take more and more and put in less and less, all the while stridently blaming others and demanding even more. And the pay and benefits of future public employees has been slashed. Future workers who are nonetheless required to pay union dues, which are passed on to people like Stringer in campaign contributions and signature collections. You don’t think Stringer got 100,000 petition signatures thanks to all he has done for all of us, do you? What are the names of those who collected the signatures, and where do they work (or not work)?
I’d like to ask Scott Stinger why the right thing to do was to retroactively enrich the pensions of those cashing in and moving out, and then a few years later cutting services, raising taxes, and slashing the pay and benefits of future workers to less than Generation Greed was promised to begin with, was the right thing to do.
Why did you do it? Why did you leave us with a diminished future of more and more service cuts, reduce aid for the less well off, and higher taxes, all to benefit the already better off interests attending your fundraiser, without saying a word? Why is it fair to make everyone worse off in the future (now the present), including the worst off, to make some people better off in the present (now the past), those most actively working the system in their own short term self-interest without consideration of conscience? Why is it fair that when the current capital program expires, his generation will have left the MTA mortgaged to the hilt with all the money going to debts and pensions and none available to even maintain the system? Why was he a partner in the Pataki, Silver, Bruno era in Albany without every raising a question or saying a word? Who should be made worse off, and in what ways, today as a result?
If he were honest, he would probably say that he knew nothing about the consequences of his votes in the legislature for the common future. That he voted for the state budgets that sold the future (or had his voted automatically counted as “yes” while elsewhere at a fundraiser), but never read them let alone analyzed them. That being a non-entity gave him the privilege of the higher pay levels and little member item handouts that the legislative leadership doles out to those who keep quiet and don’t pay attention. Being Mr. Nice Guy, or pretending to be, and advancing his own career was the only point. Gee, it was all a big misunderstanding, a big mistake, whoops! Oh well! An interesting assertion for the office he now pursues.
But as City Comptroller, his job will not be to be honest. Not according to those who seek to put him there. It will be to keep the lies and misdirection going, help to support the deception, rationalization, and propaganda so as people become worse and worse off, and become angrier and angrier, they might not understand who is responsible. And to look the other way, or even sign off as no problem, when politicians seek to limit the damage to the present from the past by making things even worse in the future.
Just like past City Comptrollers John Liu and Bill Thompson. Just like all the State Comptrollers, including current deceiver and past state legislature Thomas (Mr. Smooth) DiNapoli. All fully made members of “our thing.” Click on the links to see what those men have done as Comptroller. And ex-Comptroller Carl McCall not only sold out to the political/union class but to the executive/financial class as well, signing off on the unjustified surge in executive pay and retroactive pension deals that he knew would be devastating once the 1990s stock market bubble burst. Former City and State Comptroller Alan Hevesi went to jail for his conduct in the office. The most privileged and greedy among us put all these men in the office of Comptroller, and want Stringer as Comptroller to do more of the same.
Gatemouth and I are very different people, from very different backgrounds, who pay attention to very different things. He is an establishment New York City Democrat, contemptuous of both Republicans throughout the nation and dissident Democrats in the city, who knows more about the people and ways of politics than the consequences of those people’s decisions for the government and thus the broader public. I’m an independent disgusted by all the Democratic and Republican politicians of his generations despite knowing none of them, based on the consequences of what they have done. So when we agree, it is notable.
We agreed that in 2006 Tom Suozzi would have been a better Governor than Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer’s reputation and name recognition had soared due to years of fawning coverage in the New York Times, as he worked in an office that was a can’t-lose politically, as I noted in the ling below. Spitzer used the office to go after and humiliate individuals he accused of wronging, but was not required to allocate losses to broader privileged interests in order to correct inequities. The way Suozzi was required to as Nassau County Executive. The New York Times made Spitzer, the Jewish Paladin.
We also agreed that Republican Harry Wilson should be State Comptroller, not ex-assemblymember and member of the club Thomas DiNapoli. No matter how much of a partisan establishment regular New York Democrat Gatemouth is, he could not stomach the thought of having such a person in a responsible office where integrity, and concern for the future and ordinary people, matter. It is this impulse of disgust that has caused deep blue New York City to elect Republican mayors for 20 years, as I described here.
It is this same impulse that has caused Gatemouth to switch his preference from paid up member of “Our Thing” to Spitzer for the Office of the Comptroller, despite Spitzer’s past scandal. He is attracted to Spitzer by the fact that all the privileged interests are behind Stringer. Citing the New York Times, he finds the case being made against Spitzer often makes the case for him. “From corporate boardrooms to the headquarters of the city’s Democratic political campaigns, phone lines lighted up and strategy sessions were organized on Monday with a single mission in mind: stopping Eliot Spitzer.”
Wall Street and the public employee unions generally take pains to maintain the illusion that there they are at odds, rather than each using power to benefit at the expense of those without it, but with regard to Spitzer their de-facto alliance is out in the open. Noted the Times “it appeared that the muscle for the anti-Spitzer operation might emerge from the city’s labor unions, which view Mr. Stringer as a reliable ally, and are wary of the less predictable Mr. Spitzer, who has not hesitated to confront them in the past. Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said all options — including tapping its own campaign funds for television ads — were under consideration.” Noting this coalition of the self-interested operators as identified by the Times, Gatemouth notes “when all the usual suspects round themselves up spontaneously to protect ‘This Thing of Ours,’ one cannot help but think that they have something to fear. This is supposed to bother us?”
Gatemouth, no loyal friend of wealthy Mike Bloomberg, also see’s Spitzer’s independent wealth as an asset. “Sptizer’s personal largesse to his own campaign and bypassing of the campaign finance system would raise questions in a race for any other job (although many of Spitzer’s detractors never raised those questions about Bloomie), but given where campaign funds are usually raised in a Comptroller’s race—from the foxes who want inside the henhouse– I’m gonna regard this as an advantage as well. Not only a pitbull guarding the henhouse, but a pitbull of independent means.”
It certainly doesn’t bother me, but something else does. Decisions Spitzer made as Governor that he has not apologized for, that he is loath to discuss, and that show he is really the same sort of man deep down as Stringer (and the rest of them). But with a greater sense that his own greater glory is the end that justifies the means. Since this post is already very long, I’ll address Spitzer in the next one.