THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
Andrew Cuomo, Republican
A visitor from another country could have easily mistaken last week's passage of the New York State budget for a milestone in the history of state government. Only the ignorant or naive could have failed to laugh aloud at the governor's triumphant rhetoric, with its implicit proclamation of his own greatness and, by extension, of the government he is supposed to lead.
Of what, the unknowing observer is compelled to inquire, does this moment of victory consist? What precisely is the extraordinary advancement for mankind to which he has lent his political acumen? What great benefit has been bestowed, what ingenious reform unfurled, what water turned into wine? Just this: a budget passed a day before its statutory deadline, with the largest reductions in spending in many years, and with no taxes levied to mitigate the effects of the shriveling of a vast array of public services, even upon those most able and obliged to pay. A date observed, a campaign promise kept. How far we have fallen that a meager display of mere competence is cause for celebration. As one editorial writer noted, it is like giving the football team a thunderous ovation just for showing up on time for the opening kickoff, no matter the outcome of the game.
Let no one conclude from this that New York does not indeed face enormous fiscal pressures, or that something did not have to be done to avert a potential calamity. But let no one conclude either that the budget just passed by the legislature is remotely capable of relieving these pressures in any appreciable or forward-looking way. It is a desperate measure taken in desperate circumstances, a political dog's dinner rearranged upon the plate so as to appear palatable, at a distance, to the tastes of a voting public that ought to know the difference between self-promotion and progress.
New York's government, like many of its counterparts in other states, presents an array of departments, agencies and public authorities whose size, costs and inner workings are little known and therefore of little concern to the general population. A politician who genuinely wore the mantle of reform, and sincerely sought to eradicate the duplications of effort and inefficiencies of girth that such a system inevitably produces, would be worthy of the public's acclamation. But where, in the budget just approved, can we find evidence of such action? Governor Andrew Cuomo, the self-described evangelist of a new era, would have us believe that he has discovered the great secret to the rejuvenation of government and the reversal of the state's economic fortunes, and that the secret is the elimination of waste, fraud and abuse: a concept so overgrown with the failures of past administrations at every level of government that it is well known to exist in rhetoric only. Perhaps the governor would like to explain how, by ordering every agency and department head to cut his or her budget by a fixed percentage, this will result in the magical transformation of state government? How exactly will the indiscriminate slashing of budgets lead to better results? How will this increase efficiency, rather than merely decrease public services that the electorate already believes to be thoroughly inadequate to the level of taxation required of them? This is not cutting waste, it is just cutting.
When such questions arise, our attention is often directed to the private sector, which, we are constantly reminded, has become "leaner" by necessity during these hard times, even while government and its useless workers have continued to feed greedily from the public trough. We are seldom reminded, however, that leanness in the corporate world, while enhancing the chances of survival of individual companies, is frequently accompanied by a reduction in both the quality and quantity of service, as surely as in the public sector. When higher profits emerge from the human wreckage of layoffs and forced overtime, it is not necessarily because the company has become stronger, but more often than not because those atop the pyramid have the skill to narrow and weaken the foundation without themselves toppling from their high positions, and the wherewithal to lobby government to fix the rules for their personal advantage. A leaner company is very often no longer the same company. Do we wish the increasing indifference and unresponsiveness of banks, telecoms and airlines to be visited upon our schools, public hospitals and police departments? When efficiency means nothing more than smaller budgets, emails will go unanswered and problems will be unresolved, a downward spiral compounded by the demoralization of the employees left behind. Asking people to do more and work longer hours for less compensation is not efficiency, it is exploitation. Everyone in every sphere of human activity knows this, and responds accordingly.
The Lie of Clever Packaging
The majority who opted for Andrew Cuomo last November might well ask themselves whether they have gotten what they voted for. In what way, exactly, is Cuomo a Democrat? If we had wanted a governor to cut spending in a way that disproportionately affects the poor, lower taxes for the wealthy, and make no serious attempt whatsoever to reform the government despite his emphatic assertions to the contrary, we could have instead elected his profoundly unqualified Republican opponent. Cuomo was quick to appoint a commission to find a way to reduce the state's obligation to fund Medicaid for the poor, but a study of how to relieve local governments and schools of the state's crushing burden of unfunded mandates came up with not a single legislative recommendation. A county official on Long Island ridiculed that commission's report as "78 pages of nothing." (That the report is actually 87 pages is immaterial, as nothing times nothing is still nothing.)
Like other politicians with no new ideas and little of substance to say, Cuomo continually rails against "special interests". Judging by the actual budget rather than the trail of words that spews from his mouth, this clearly refers to the poor, sick and elderly, not to mention public workers like teachers and fire fighters who, as we are told, got into their professions for the money. Not counted among the legions of the dreaded special interests are hedge fund managers and corporate executives who happen to support the governor's budget and some of his other plans, such as a cap on local property taxes, another blunt instrument which is guaranteed to wreak even more havoc among hundreds of schools and municipalities that are barely keeping their heads above water already.
Among the governor's new-found friends is a private business group that is sufficiently financed to lavish considerable sums on glossy mailings and advertisements to attack the salaries of school superintendents. Now, that takes real political courage: attacking a small group of highly educated professionals, some of whom are very well paid, with the backing of unnamed business people, most of whom are obscenely well paid. When it came to restraining the salaries and bonuses of executives who nearly bankrupted the world in 2008, and whose companies were saved from extinction with hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, we were told that such measures were antithetical to market principles, that they would prevent the financial sector from attracting the best talent, and that there were binding contracts involved. Even though public entities are continually exhorted to behave more like private enterprises, the compensation of the people who actually run these entities is apparently exempted from the near-religious adherence to market principles.
Some members of the legislature have jumped on the governor's bandwagon and now insist, suddenly, that no superintendent should earn more than the governor. The comparison is absurd on its face, not least because the governor's salary may be worth less than the rest of his compensation, which includes a large house to live in and a detail of state troopers to take him anywhere he wants to go. Moreover, school leaders, like the many thousands of other administrators who run the state's 700 public authorities, dozens of state colleges, and innumerable agencies and departments — many of whom also earn salaries in excess of the governor's — are not elected politicians. These are the people who actually keep the state functioning year after year, while its senators and assembly members, who are paid a full-time salary for a part-time job, make a mockery of our state through their epic incompetence, and who seriously expect us to congratulate them now for passing the budget on time — in others words, for following their own laws and performing their jobs to the bare minimum standard, an elementary task they could not even manage to perform for most of their careers.
Though the Governor's resort to class warfare may be hypocritical and ridiculous in its selective targets, it ought not to be surprising to anyone who has followed his career, or that of his father. Exactly 20 years ago, when Mario Cuomo was governor, the state also faced a fiscal crisis, and took the unprecedented step of cutting aid to local governments and schools in the middle of the year. When the Governor heard that downstate officials were unhappy about the cuts, his response was derisory, reflecting a misbegotten but politically convenient view that everyone in the New York suburbs is rich and therefore has no right to complain.* There are indeed many affluent people in this region, but the overwhelming majority are middle class, working class, or poor, something the elder Cuomo knew perfectly well. The ability to deny to oneself the detrimental effects of one's decisions is a politically useful asset, but it is hardly a recipe for equity and justice, causes for which Mario Cuomo so brilliantly deployed his rhetorical skills. It may come as a surprise to those who once proclaimed him the high prophet of a liberal resurgence that never happened, but Mario Cuomo's three terms as Governor of New York were noteworthy for being free of both corruption and memorable accomplishment.
Is it any wonder where Cuomo the younger gets his self-righteous zeal? Like his father, he is a man of some political ability, though whether he actually has a vision for his state is still anyone's guess. It comes as cold comfort to those on the left that he seems to support gay marriage, or hasn't sought to rob public employees of their rights to collective bargaining, as some of his newly elected colleagues in other states have done this year. Beyond that, it would be hard to find a reason for Democrats to vote for such a man. Anyone in the governor's chair at this time would have had to be seen to address the state's fiscal crisis or lose all credibility. But there isn't an inkling of what Cuomo intends to do with the political capital he has gathered by railroading his budget through the legislature. So what if he gets his tax cap, or his Medicaid reductions? Where is the sense of responsibility for the people whose lives are at stake? Where is the acknowledgement that these measures will hurt? If there is no expression of regret for having to cause pain, then we can only assume that there is no regret, and that no relief is ever coming. If all we ever see from this governor is the chest-thumping of a warrior, then war it will have to be.
April 3, 2011
* Note: An earlier version of this essay quoted Mario Cuomo as saying that suburban dwellers who were unhappy with his budget cuts should "sell some of their polo ponies." Though widely thought to have been said by Cuomo, the quote cannot be attributed to him directly. However, he used a similar metaphor in his speech nominating Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, when he derided the wealthy as people who "retreat to elegant estates behind ivy-covered walls, where, when they detect a callus on their palms, they conclude it's time to put down their polo mallet." Little wonder that people thought it plausible that the first statement was by him, as well.
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