The first post-primary poll is out, and it looks like a safe assumption that Bill DeBlasio will be our next mayor. DeBlasio led Joe Lhota by 65%-22% in the Wall St Journal/NBC Marist poll. That overwhelming margin will surely narrow, but it would take a small miracle for Lhota to turn it around.
I voted for DeBlasio and I’m very happy with the prospect of having City Hall occupied by a committed progressive who genuinely cares about social justice and inequality. Still, optimism needs to be tempered by a realistic appreciation of the obstacles DeBlasio faces in advancing his agenda for change.
The first set of obstacles has to do with the fact that there is just so much a mayor of New York can do. Most obviously, the authority of city government is limited. Even if the mayor could rely on the consistent full support of the City Council, DeBlasio would still need to go to Albany for approval of some of his most important initiatives, for example, his proposed income tax surcharge on the rich. Besides, a lot of New York’s problems are national problems that require action at the national level—New York isn’t the only place in the country where inequality has reached record levels. The most powerful engine of inequality in the city and in the country is Wall Street, and there’s next to nothing the mayor can do about it.
A second set of obstacles faces any political chief executive—mayor, governor, president or prime minister—with an aggressive social justice agenda. Any political chief must to some extent depend on at least the acquiescence, if not the active support, of the very groups—let’s call them broadly the business community–who are likely to feel threatened by social change. The need to maintain the confidence of the business community stems from the fact that the mayor’s political success requires a smoothly running, hopefully growing, economy. Economic stability and growth may be imperiled if the captains of industry and commerce feel inhibited by what they regard as a hostile political environment.
The problem was formulated starkly by my book subject, Noam Chomsky. Speaking before a friendly audience about the obstacles to change at the national level, Chomsky explained,
So suppose all of us here convinced everybody in the country to vote for us for President, we got 98 percent of the vote and both Houses of Congress and then we started to institute very badly needed social reforms that most of the population wants. Simply ask yourself, what would happen?…There would be disinvestment, capital strike, a grinding down of the economy….So long as power remains privately concentrated, everybody, everybody, has to be committed to one overriding goal: and that’s to make sure that the rich folk are happy…because if they’re happy, then they’ll invest, and the economy will work, and things will function and then maybe something will trickle down….But if they’re not happy, everything’s going to grind to a halt and you’re not even going to get anything trickling down.
Chomsky overstates: the limits of reform aren’t as rigid or predictable as he implies. Every capitalist country at one time or another has enacted legislation that shifted the balance of power and privilege away somewhat from the most affluent. So, the progressive’s challenge is to identify the limits of feasibility, do what is possible within them and, hopefully, push them outward in the process. Still, Chomsky points to a real conundrum for any social change-oriented political executive. The challenge is magnified at the subnational level—a mayor needs to consider whether increased taxes or regulations will send businesses scurrying to neighboring suburbs and cities, damaging his city’s economy and depleting its tax base.
Indirect support for Chomsky’s argument came recently from an unlikely source: Mayor Bloomberg. In his exit interview with New York Magazine, Bloomberg declared,
If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend, because that’s where the revenue comes to take care of everybody else….Who’s paying our taxes?…It comes from the wealthy!…All I know is, from the city’s point of view, we want these people, and why criticize them?
So Bloomberg and Chomsky agree: it’s important to keep the rich folk happy.
If DeBlasio is to succeed, he will have to strike a delicate balance. He can’t be too concerned about keeping the rich folk happy, because that would be paralyzing: the simple fact is that some of the things he wants to do will inevitably upset powerful business interests. On the other hand, he can’t be indifferent to the concerns of the business community without some risk to the health of New York’s vibrant capitalist economy.
A strictly pragmatic politician keenly appreciates the limits of the politically possible and works within them. A principled, change-oriented politician explores those limits with a view to pushing them outward. We are all familiar with the first type of politician: two good examples are Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. We can hope that Bill DeBlasio will provide a model for the second type.