The DeBlasio and Cuomo Administrations:  Leadership

Governments enact rules to force people to do and not do things, or force them to pay taxes and use the money to do things for them.  You have the political power, the monopoly of legitimate violence, and the economic power, using incentives to made it harder to do one thing and easier to do another.  That’s public policy.  But what about all the choices people make in their own lives, with regard to how to live, how to live with each other, and how to act in society?  This can be influenced through leadership.

In a democratic society a politician is not the leader, the way they are in a totalitarian society. But a politician could be aleader, one of many.   At one time, in addition to elected officials, Americans looked to poets, preachers and priests, philoseophers and artists for direction.  At one time even architects and city planners aspired to leadership, creating buildings and communities that facilitated a certain lifestyle and society.  And then there were parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, back when more people spent their lives nestled in a large web of family relationships. Not anymore.  

But that doesn’t mean that people, most of whom don’t really figure things out for themselves, aren’t being led and influenced.  Celebrities and paid influencers have taken the place of the prior sources of leadership.  Who is providing meaning and direction in people’s lives?  Who is deciding what it means to live a good life, or to be a good community?  The advertising industry, which means that a good life ends up costing more and more and more for people who have (in inflation-adjusted dollars) been paid less and less, generation by generation.  Did Governor Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio try provide an alternative?  Not really.


It might seem strange to think that a mayor should speak about why people should, and how people could, live in their city.  And yet New York City Mayors have often done so.  For John Lindsay, New York was “fun city.”  For Ed Koch, it was a city of people who walk faster, talk faster, and think faster.  David Dinkins emphasized the advantage of all the different kinds of people in the city, the “gorgeous mosaic.”  For Rudy Giuliani, the key value was everyone’s ability to enjoy shared public spaces in peace, without being threatened or hassled or having those spaces diminished by vandalism, as part of “one city, one standard.”  For Mike Bloomberg, New York was the “luxury city,” the best place for rich people.

Incoming Mayor DeBlasio, in contrast, focused on what was wrong with New York City.  New York is a racist city where only a few people at the top benefit, and people who work for the government or government contractors are underpaid, he asserted.  Taxes should be increased, he said.

What DeBlasio didn’t talk about is how and why one should live in New York City, or in pre-automobile places like it.  Places where people have less personal space, and rely on shared amenities like parks instead of backyards, and where it is more expensive and difficult to travel around you own motor vehicle, but unlike in most of the United States there are alternatives.   You can walk to things, bike to things, take mass transit to things.  You can find a sense of community, and meet new people.

Perhaps he didn’t feel the need.  Such a large share of the Millennial population was seeking to live in such places that their cost exploded, and their quality of life fell.  Perhaps as a result of teenagers watching TV shows like Friends and videos like this one, which came out in 2004, not long after a time when I couldn’t believe someone from outside the city would live along the J train.  

Here is another one that came out in 2001. This stuff was enough to screw New York’s sex ratio.

The Millennials joined the immigrants among the exploitables.  Given their pursuit of this urban fantasy, Millennials could be paid less, charged more in rent, charged more in taxes, see their subway commute to go hell, and still they kept coming.  For a while.

And perhaps the problem is, like most of New York’s political/union class, he didn’t live that way himself.  After the NYPD bullied him out of his Brooklyn rowhouse, by making life hell for his neighbors (somehow Bloomberg got to stay put), DeBlasio ended up living in a detached house surrounded by a law and traveling everywhere by private motor vehicle – most notably to a private health club – just as most people do everywhere in suburban and Sunbelt America.

Leaders deal in symbols, and the symbolism mattered.  If you want your political party to be in favor of people making individual sacrifices for the common good, with regard to issues like global warming, you have to model that to a T.  Not just be in favor of laws to force others to live in a way you do not live yourself.  Those opposed to making such sacrifices, those seeking political power by telling people they shouldn’t have to make those sacrifices, those opposed to other parts of your agenda and seeking to discredit you, will seize on that hypocrisy.  And that’s what happened.

What is a limousine liberal?  Someone who wants the government to force less well-off others to live in a way they are unwilling to live themselves, and to pay for things they are unwilling to pay for themselves.

If Mayor DeBlasio wanted to try to influence people, he had a good story to tell.  As a product of a broken home, who did not end up creating one himself, he could have spoken about the importance of family.  And as someone in an inter-racial marriage, he could have spoken about getting beyond those divisions and finding family and community with people who are perceived to be different.  In other words, he could have spoken about taking responsibility, living in family, living in community.  But he did not really do so.

I can understand this.  It isn’t just your life, it’s your family’s life, and especially when they have teenagers going through teenage issues, politicians may believe it is their right, and even their obligation, to maintain their privacy.  As a consequence, however, there is no DeBlasio lifestyle, no DeBlasio culture, no DeBlasio idea of what it means to live a good life and be a good person that the rest of us know about.  

Unless it is this.  

Suddenly there has been a big upsurge in anti-social behavior, from driving with defaced and fake/temporary license plates to avoid tickets and tolls, to shootings, to graffiti and litter.  The very opposite of living together in community.  It is like a reversal of Giuliani’s big idea of collective rights to shared spaces.  

Now everyone seems to think that shared spaces belong to whoever can seize them and drive everyone else out.  And in response more and more people are seeing the value of the suburban life, without shared public spaces but more private spaces under your control, the control of someone else, the control of someone.  Where those who make things worse than others can be made to leave.

Shopping malls won over a wide range of admirers, from teens to seniors, by providing something they couldn’t find in their public parks or sidewalks: a safe pedestrian experience.  

No public space where you have to deal with others getting their ya-yas out.  Not even sidewalks, in the post-1980 suburbs.

Perhaps the music video of the next generation will be like this song from the 1960s, when everyone moved to the suburbs and the cities went into the tank.

Why is anti-social behavior suddenly much more common, in New York City particularly among Black teens and young adults?  It isn’t because they see Barack and Michelle Obama as their role models, that’s for sure.  It is this a Generation DeBlasio that took the wrong message from his “bullies bill of rights” when they were in school?  

“Everyone is so concerned with the rights of the two or three upstarts in the room, that the other 30 kids — their rights to get an education … to be able to sit in an environment that’s not intimidating, that’s not scary, that’s not filled with noise” don’t matter, said Perez, a reading specialist who won a $125,000 legal settlement from the city after she was hurt by out-of-control teens in class. “No one has ever had an answer to that.”

Olivia Ramos said her son was assaulted five times at Manhattan’s 75 Morton, a West Village middle school which pushed restorative justice.

“There’s no punishment to the kids who misbehave,” she said. “He was calling me from the bathroom, in seventh grade, scared because there were fights in the bathrooms, in the hallways, in the staircases, really bad fights.”

Teachers are complaining, but there is a perfect symmetry to this.  The United Federation of Teachers has ensured that there is no accountability for teachers either, and that they are believed to owe the children nothing, despite a doubling of per student spending to double the national average and more than just about anywhere else.  Something “President” DeBlasio went along with.  And now the children also have no obligations, to their fellow students, teachers or anyone else.  Tough luck for the scab teachers who actually care about the children and their jobs, and the uncool children who actually try to do what they are supposed to do.  (Though trying to force high-energy kids, particularly boys, to sit still and pay attention with no exercise for six hours probably doesn’t make sense in any event).

After all, Bill DeBlasio is on their side.  And their side.  And their side.  In fact, he’s even on my side.  Or so he said, as when he came to my neighborhood as a Councilmember along with then-Assembymember Jim Brennan, back in the early 2000s.  When he repeated my name, which he had almost certainly just heard for the first time (a neat trick to pull off) and said how much he agreed with me.  

Sometimes leaders have to challenge people, tell them they have to do better, for themselves and others.  Always seeking popularity, that’s something Mayor DeBlasio never did, except when he got frustrated and let something slip.  Like teachers having a hyper-complaint culture, Governor Cuomo screwing New York City residents because he knew he knew they would still vote for Democrats like him, and the judges not having trials.  Perhaps true, but from a panderer like him it sounded like an attempt to shift responsibility.

Come to think of it, perhaps the children have absorbed the right lesson from our actual leaders, whoever those are.  In contrast with the way Gen Z is acting out, Gen Y – the Millennials – did everything they were supposed to do, or at least a higher percentage of them did.  Stayed in school, borrowed to go to college, and were less likely to get addicted to drugs, less likely to become teenage parents, more likely to work, didn’t commit as many street crimes – the crimes of youth and young adults.  And what happened?  They were screwed, and screwed, and screwed by the less responsible generations ahead of them.  

So perhaps Gen Z has concluded they don’t want to be like those responsible Millennial losers.  They wanted to let out their adolescent Id, like the cool generations, and just do as they damn well please, and tough luck for the impact on anyone in the way.  Of a stray bullet or a Dodge Charger.  Let’s just smash everything, because we feel like it, and leave the clean-up to the responsible losers!

Lest Mayor DeBlasio think I’m a total cynic, he ought to know that when he said people should eat out in Chinatown, my wife and I went out and ate in Chinatown.

A week into the first confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York City, restaurateurs across the city say they’re already seeing reservation cancellations, while four huge dim sum restaurants in Sunset Park have closed in response to dropping sales as more people limit public outings.

In response to a question about how the city would help curb the economic impact, the mayor mentioned new no-interest loans for small businesses that experience a 25 percent decline or more due to new coronavirus. He also said that they’re “telling people to not avoid restaurants, not avoid normal things that people do.”

Like to cooperating responsible losers we’ve been.  That turned out to be a mistake, but I’m OK with it.  

The mayor emphasized that officials are trying to be careful about cancellations of services such as school or asking that businesses close down, saying that people losing their livelihoods also will have a huge impact. 

Because we are finding that has also been true.  I don’t blame the pols for tough calls in no win situations that weren’t created by their crowd or themselves.

Other stuff? Not so much. 

Mayor DeBlasio’s idea seemed to be that we should all be nice, and treat people nicely.   And now lots of people are being nasty, and blaming him for all the nastiness.  It probably isn’t the way he thought it would end up, and it wasn’t the way I thought it would end up either.  But apparently while he wasn’t leading, others were.  I guess this is where freedom without responsibility ends up.

Compared with Mayor DeBlasio, Governor (Andrew) Cuomo was even less of a leader through most of his time in office.  Or at least not one we noticed here in New York City.  Since Pataki, it seems that New York Governors are in reality Governors of the Rest of New York State, who treat New York City as a funding source.  Perhaps he was probably more of a presence elsewhere in the state, as Pataki was.

Moreover, like Charles Barkley Andrew Cuomo didn’t claim to be a role model.

That is just as well in light of later accusations.  

But he had some big shoes to fill.  His father, Mario Cuomo, was a role model, someone who could speak eloquently about what his values were, how he tried to live those values, and who his role models were in developing those values.  The different values of a different generation.

By the values of his own generation, Andrew Cuomo (and his ex-wife) are pretty mainstream people.  Yet he we went from the hero of COVID-19 press conferences (I didn’t watch them) to the villain of sexual harassment (I didn’t follow that or read about it) because those values seem to have suddenly changed, and passing women’s rights bills doesn’t excuse personal conduct.  I would sympathize with Cuomo as a man who found the ground shift under his feet, damned for conduct that in his generation might have been considered acceptable.  Except that I like his father’s generation’s values more than his.

There is this idea that everything that is wrong should be illegal.  For Cuomo’s generation, what goes along with that is the idea that anything that benefits you and it isn’t illegal also isn’t wrong.  Or, in the even more hip version, even if it is illegal, but is very hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s still OK.  And here we are.

The one good thing I can say about Andrew Cuomo’s leadership is that I admired his wardrobe.  The business suit is obsolete, so what is it that a person in authority ought to wear?  Cuomo came up shirts and jackets with the Governor’s seal on them.  I thought that was pretty smart.  Otherwise, I’m only bothering to include this section because I said I would write a review of the leadership of the DeBlasio and Cuomo Administrations.   And I can’t even think of what to say.

After his long run as Governor, what do we think of as the Andrew Cuomo way to live, the Andrew Cuomo set of core beliefs, the Andrew Cuomo culture, the Andrew Cuomo good life?  Live in the suburbs, drive everywhere, don’t use mass transit, and don’t concern yourself very much with those who do?  Nobody’s life changed for the better because of an idea they got from Andrew Cuomo.

Governor Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio were not leaders.   There is no Cuomo or DeBlasio way to live.  No Cuomo or DeBlasio way people should live together.  No Cuomo or DeBlasio way our institutions should be improved.  Just a bunch of deals and shifts with the wind.

Leaders change things, but to change things you have to be willing to challenge people, not just pander to the most entitled among them.  You don’t get love for doing so.  Only, perhaps, respect — if you walk the talk.

Perhaps politicians shouldn’t try to be leaders, because they will just end up having their imperfections exposed.  Perhaps people should learn to accept some imperfections and make their own judgements about people’s advice.

But here is the problem when other politicians are not the kind of people who can lead.  You know who is a leader?  Donald Trump.  There is a Trump way to live, a Trump set of values, a Trump set of business practices, a Trump kind of family, a Trump attitude toward community, a Trump view of the constitution and rule of law, a Trump understanding of the world (even if it’s just a con he doesn’t actually believe himself).  Where THE MAN of his generation has led, others have followed, or perhaps the other way around.  Perhaps it is easier to lead when you are in step with your generation.  Going in the wrong direction.

By the standards of our culture in his generation, did Jeffrey Epstein lead a great life, a life many would aspire to? Think about it.  Enjoying a life of massively high consumption, right down to a luxury Manhattan townhouse, luxury Palm Beach mansion, and private Caribbean island.  Lots of sex with fresh young things, but no family responsibilities whatsoever.  And being in with the in-crowds, all of them, from the political and economic elite to celebrities and even royals.  Isn’t that what matters?  Isn’t that what is worthy of respect and admiration?  What if anything he for anyone did to deserve all of this is unclear.  And in the end, he escaped both accountability for his actions and the infirmaries and challenges of old age.

Who is admired and emulated?  Those boring people who meet their responsibilities, or those fun people who beat the system?  When you have a whole generation that sets out to beat the systems, all of them, you end up in the place the U.S. is going.

We have a cultural problem in this country.  A culture of disrespect not only for authority, something authority might have earned, but also for everyone else.  It manifests itself in different ways among different types of people, and in different situations.  The mass shootings, rising murder rate, and attempts to overthrow the government get the most attention because they are the most dramatic.  But the accumulated social and economic impacts of the culture of freedom from responsibility will have a far greater impact in the long run.

It is a cultural problem that government policy can’t fix.  You don’t fix a cultural problem by passing an ordinance at city hall, or a statue in the state legislature, or a bill in congress.  And you don’t do it by telling the most selfish and entitled among us what they want to hear.  That’s following, not leading, even if it does lead to more campaign contributions and more advertising revenues.

I’m writing a more general follow up to this, and will post it later this week.

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