Monday, September 13, 2010

Dying in the Roots

Errol Louis has an interesting take on the much ballyhooed-at least by certain editorialists at the News-reform effort aimed at changing politics in Albany. He doesn't think much of its top down nature-and he's spot on: "Tuesday's primary elections will test whether New York voters can convert high-minded rhetoric about reform into the gritty, practical business of winning at the polls. The odds don't look good. It's easy to demand that smart, honest, independent people run for office - but much harder to recruit, fund, support and elect them."

And in the absence of any genuine grass roots movement, reform is hard to come by: "The main problem is that civic groups, editorial boards and other pro-reform voices remain too distant from the political clubs and block and tenant associations that do the political heavy-lifting in New York. Well-intentioned public interest groups like the Citizens Union and the Brennan Center have perfected the art of analyzing the shortcomings of Albany - from ethics and disclosure rules that allow conflicts of interest to blossom to the strict hierarchy that concentrates nearly absolute power in the notorious "three men in a room" and makes gridlock and delay inevitable."

But Errol elides a key ideological point-"reform," at least as conjured up by former mayor Ed Koch, is detached from any real ideological passion-and since it is, it has little ability to attract the passions of grass roots people who are concerned about how politics is done in New York, not only because of the unsavory methods, but for the unsavory results as well.

These unsavory results are what has enlivened the tea party activists all around the country-but in NY, not so much. People are fed up about the growing size and scope of government and the out sized role of public employee unions-a role whose synergy with Leviathan is drowning the rest of us in debt; and making private sector success that much harder because of the rising tax liability that forestalls economic growth.

Fred Siegel captures this in his NY Post essay on Sunday: "New York has become what America fears. Crushed by costs imposed from Albany, the state suffers from the highest taxes, the largest budget, the greatest debt and the slowest rate of job creation in the country. The polls show America will fight back against Washington in November. But New York state is by now so thoroughly swayed by Gotham — a city characterized by Latin American levels of inequality and a Soviet level of political participation — that there is little talk of revolt here. Unlike America, New Yorkers have meekly accepted their fate."

So when Louis sees the absence of a grass roots support of reform, he is missing the extent to which these roots have been diseased by the same ideological presumptions that animate the state's ruling class. Here's his delimited view: "But Op-Eds and studies about Albany's problems don't win elections: skilled campaigners do. I'd trade the next five books about government dysfunction for a well-organized, reform-oriented political club that teaches citizens how to run a voter registration drive, raise and spend money legally, collect nominating petitions, recruit volunteers and canvass from door to door. Not enough people interested in reform know how to do these things. The result is a yawning gap between reform dreamers and political doers that will give a lot of mediocre, anti-reform pols a return trip to Albany come Tuesday."

The key retarding factor in all of this is the reality that the political clubs Louis alludes to are part of the same mobilization of bias that has caused dysfunction in the first place-and that's without pointing out that the public employee forces that drive much of the city's politics, amassed in the Working Families Party, are culprit number one in the underlying cause column. All of this, of course, is totally alien to the mindset of traditional superannuated pols such as Koch and Henry Stern.

Siegel is closer to the mark: "This is because the Obama/Pelosi policies of vast, Keynesian public spending is old hat here. New York has been pushing Keynesianism, or what Mario Cuomo called the “New York Idea,” for a half-century of relative decline. For many decades the decline of private industry upstate has been accelerated by the growth of public-sector jobs in health and education, which then have to be paid for with ever higher taxes on manufacturing and agriculture."

NY State is drowning in debt and taxes, and Koch is yakking about redistricting-notice the disconnect? Siegel does: "In much of the country, the energy of the Tea Partiers has forced both parties to deal with runaway spending. Tea Partiers, notes pollster Scott Rasmussen, are not about governing from the left or the right but about the ideal of self-government. Yet in a state run by and for the big battalions, there’s no need for citizens, as evidenced by some of the lowest rates of voter participation in the United States."

Can you imagine any weaker candidates than the three who are running to obtain the Republican nod to run against the hapless Gillibrand? There's been a total collapse of the Republican Party in this state, but the real concern should be the ennui of the electorate. Where everywhere else in the country there is anger and outrage, in NY there is quiet resignation and the lack of any cohesive Tea Party-or any other similar grass roots movement.

Make no mistake about it, with the shutting off of the federal stimulus spigot, New York will be facing the most severe fiscal crisis this side of California-and that side of Greece. The pollos are about to come home to roost-and when they do, the heretofore quiescence of the citizens will become transformed. The blow back could be both immense and salutary for the state. But if it doesn't emerge, prepare for the Empire State's transformation into a failed state.