Commentary Magazine


Topic: John Lindsay

Obama and the Lessons of John Lindsay

Since we’re now in the portion of the presidential election campaign in which the parties hold their respective national nominating conventions, the urge to find historical comparisons to analyze the candidates will be even stronger than usual. But there is one comparison when contemplating President Obama’s re-election agenda that seems apt, but goes unmentioned: John Lindsay.

Lindsay, like Obama, was young, charismatic and telegenic when he ran for mayor of New York City in the mid-1960s. Like Obama, Lindsay ran as a moderate (he was actually a liberal Republican, but eventually switched parties to run for president as a Democrat), and like Obama Lindsay ran a campaign of hope and optimism at a time of dreary pessimism. But Lindsay also put in place some of the worst public policy New York saw in the 20th century, and the assumptions and outlook that led him to that legislation mirror those of the current occupant of the White House. If Barack Obama wins re-election, he will take office forty years after Lindsay left his, and the latter’s administration offers us a good case study of the weaknesses of Obama’s political instincts.

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Since we’re now in the portion of the presidential election campaign in which the parties hold their respective national nominating conventions, the urge to find historical comparisons to analyze the candidates will be even stronger than usual. But there is one comparison when contemplating President Obama’s re-election agenda that seems apt, but goes unmentioned: John Lindsay.

Lindsay, like Obama, was young, charismatic and telegenic when he ran for mayor of New York City in the mid-1960s. Like Obama, Lindsay ran as a moderate (he was actually a liberal Republican, but eventually switched parties to run for president as a Democrat), and like Obama Lindsay ran a campaign of hope and optimism at a time of dreary pessimism. But Lindsay also put in place some of the worst public policy New York saw in the 20th century, and the assumptions and outlook that led him to that legislation mirror those of the current occupant of the White House. If Barack Obama wins re-election, he will take office forty years after Lindsay left his, and the latter’s administration offers us a good case study of the weaknesses of Obama’s political instincts.

A great guide through the problems of the Lindsay years is Greg David’s new book on the economics of postwar New York: Modern New York: The Life and Economics of a City. David was editor of Crain’s New York Business for two decades, and the book’s chapters are essential snapshots of each mayoral administration during those years. David’s chapter on Lindsay is particularly relevant.

As David notes, to Lindsay, “Business’s primary role was to provide the revenue for city government to right social imbalances.” So tax hikes were an important first step for Lindsay, and he agreed with the New York Times, which defended the tax plan: “in an assumption fraught with consequences,” David writes, “the Times said that the city’s businesses and residents could afford to pay more.”

Lindsay sold his pro-government tax plan by claiming that the money was for hospitals, schools, fire departments, and so on. But Lindsay used the money in large part to balloon the public payroll and city budget. The hiring spree seemed like a way to offer city residents more job security than in the private sector (and to keep unemployment numbers down, even if artificially) until, thanks in part to Lindsay’s own policies, it became clear the city couldn’t afford those jobs. But no matter: Lindsay and his allies argued that government made it possible for the city’s businesses to succeed, and it was time they gave back (sound familiar?).

The new tax structure brought the results with which we are by now quite familiar: “Within a few years, the business tax became a crushing burden on the manufacturing sector it was supposed to save,” David writes. Indeed, the business income tax (instituted to replace a gross receipts tax), according the Budget Bureau, cost businesses almost 45,000 jobs in its first five years. In its sixth year, the rate was raised again, costing close to 10,000 additional jobs.

All the while, Lindsay thought he was doing just fine, in part because flight from the city kept unemployment lower than it would have been had New Yorkers stayed put (much like Obama’s unemployment numbers benefit from those who drop out of the work force). The country was experiencing a recession, and Lindsay simply blamed the recession he didn’t cause, not his policies (sound familiar?). Yet by 1971 the country’s recession had begun to give way to a national recovery–a recovery that, thanks to Lindsay’s anti-business policies, eluded New York City. “He had exacerbated the worst recession in the city’s history, assured the rise of an enormous public sector through his income tax, and established a system of rent regulation that would pit New Yorkers against each other,” writes David.

The failed rent regulation policies were a perfect example of the folly of government price controls. Residents of wealthy neighborhoods whose rent control was grandfathered in paid meager prices for buildings that were getting increasingly expensive to maintain, leaving the landlords without the money to do so and the city without as much as $500 million in lost property taxes.

It’s a familiar story: the government puts in place policies that drive up prices. Consumers complain, and so the government enacts price controls intended to curb the problem, but ends up aggravating it by distorting the market and forcing producers to make up the lost revenue elsewhere. Have the technocrats learned this lesson? Hardly. The Obama administration enacted its health care reform bill that would cause premiums to rise. Once they figured this out and consumers howled, the Obama administration began making plans to add–you guessed it–price controls into the mix. As it happens, Obamacare is already designed to increase price controls.

Lindsay actually won re-election, but he was forced to base a good part of his campaign on his own likeability and the lackluster charisma of his opponent (again, sound familiar?). That was all fine for Lindsay, but not for the city he served. His second term saw job losses mount—factory job losses tripled what they were in Lindsay’s first term.

The good news is that with more effective governing in subsequent administrations, the city eventually recovered from John Lindsay. It turns out that personal charisma and lofty rhetoric are no match for competent economic management.

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RE: The Real Lindsay

Jason, your post brings to mind one of the most blistering paragraphs of William F. Buckley’s The Unmaking of a Mayor, his account of his failed 1965 mayoral bid against Lindsay (and Abe Beame).

A modern Justine could, in New York City, wake up in the morning in a room she shares with her unemployed husband and two children, crowd into a subway in which she is hardly able to breathe, disembark at Grand Central and take a crosstown bus which takes twenty minutes to go the ten blocks to her textile loft, work a full day and receive her paycheck from which a sizable deduction is withdrawn in taxes and union fees, return via the same ordeal, prepare supper for her family and tune up the radio to full blast to shield the children from the gamy denunciations her nextdoor neighbor is hurling at her husband, walk a few blocks past hideous buildings to the neighborhood park to breathe a little fresh air, and fall into a coughing fit as the sulphur dioxides excite her latent asthma, go home, and on the way, lose her handbag to a purse-snatcher, sit down to oversee her son’s homework only to trip over the fact that he doesn’t really know the alphabet even though he had his fourteenth birthday yesterday, which he spent in the company of a well-known pusher. She hauls off and smacks him, but he dodges and she bangs her head against the table. The ambulance is slow in coming and at the hospital there is no doctor in attendance. An intern finally materializes and sticks her with a shot of morphine, and she dozes off to sleep. And dreams of John Lindsay.

Jason, your post brings to mind one of the most blistering paragraphs of William F. Buckley’s The Unmaking of a Mayor, his account of his failed 1965 mayoral bid against Lindsay (and Abe Beame).

A modern Justine could, in New York City, wake up in the morning in a room she shares with her unemployed husband and two children, crowd into a subway in which she is hardly able to breathe, disembark at Grand Central and take a crosstown bus which takes twenty minutes to go the ten blocks to her textile loft, work a full day and receive her paycheck from which a sizable deduction is withdrawn in taxes and union fees, return via the same ordeal, prepare supper for her family and tune up the radio to full blast to shield the children from the gamy denunciations her nextdoor neighbor is hurling at her husband, walk a few blocks past hideous buildings to the neighborhood park to breathe a little fresh air, and fall into a coughing fit as the sulphur dioxides excite her latent asthma, go home, and on the way, lose her handbag to a purse-snatcher, sit down to oversee her son’s homework only to trip over the fact that he doesn’t really know the alphabet even though he had his fourteenth birthday yesterday, which he spent in the company of a well-known pusher. She hauls off and smacks him, but he dodges and she bangs her head against the table. The ambulance is slow in coming and at the hospital there is no doctor in attendance. An intern finally materializes and sticks her with a shot of morphine, and she dozes off to sleep. And dreams of John Lindsay.

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The Real Lindsay

A new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, a new book, and a new documentary (to air again on PBS May 12) comprise a joint project with the apparent aim of refurbishing the tarnished reputation of John Lindsay, who presided over the rapid decline of New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This attempted revisionism is reminiscent of the obituaries and press tributes that came Lindsay’s way on the occasion of his passing in December 2000, as the very media that created and nurtured Lindsay would, at the time of his death, seek to put the best possible face on a political career that ranged from the mediocre to the disastrous. How deep in the tank for Lindsay were the city’s leading media outlets? Ken Auletta, in The Streets Were Paved with Gold, his study of how New York nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s, wrote:

The paper that thinks of itself as the city’s conscience — The New York Times — abdicated. … The editorial page editors of both [the Times and the then-liberal New York Post] were too close to Lindsay, serving as advisers. They were not only politically but ideologically coopted. They supported the city’s tax and spending policies. Instead of viewing what the city was doing as harshly as they would Defense Department cost overruns, they permitted their liberal ideology to sway their judgment.

In a telling anecdote in Fit to Print, a biography of former Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal, author Joseph Goulden quotes a reporter named Douglas Robinson who witnessed something extraordinary on election night 1965: Rosenthal and deputy metropolitan editor, Arthur Gelb, “were dancing up and down as the returns came in showing a victory for Lindsay. ‘We won! We won!’ they were shouting.”

Of course, there are limits to what even the most accomplished revisionist can do with a record like Lindsay’s, and the Times, straining to find praise in an editorial the week of Lindsay’s death, was forced to acknowledge the realities of life under Lindsay:

There was continuing labor unrest, fiscal problems, rising taxes and crime, a tripling of the welfare rolls. During his tenure … the white middle and working classes felt increasingly alienated, especially when the mayor tried to build housing for poor blacks in the mostly Jewish, middle-class section of Forest Hills. … He even gets much of the legitimate blame for the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. Quite the indictment, all around.

Lindsay was an especially unloved figure in the city’s Jewish community, reviled by outer-borough Jews who blamed him for the city’s skyrocketing crime rate and his administration’s pandering to militants in minority communities.

As noted by sociologist Jonathan Rieder in Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against Liberalism, when Lindsay ran for re-election in 1969, his share of the Jewish vote totaled between 30 and 36 percent in Canarsie’s most liberal areas and considerably less in other parts of what at the time was a quintessentially lower-middle-class neighborhood.

One of Rieder’s interviewees summed up the feelings of his friends and neighbors: “It was under John Lindsay,” he said, “that the Jewish community in New York suffered its greatest decline.”

A new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, a new book, and a new documentary (to air again on PBS May 12) comprise a joint project with the apparent aim of refurbishing the tarnished reputation of John Lindsay, who presided over the rapid decline of New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This attempted revisionism is reminiscent of the obituaries and press tributes that came Lindsay’s way on the occasion of his passing in December 2000, as the very media that created and nurtured Lindsay would, at the time of his death, seek to put the best possible face on a political career that ranged from the mediocre to the disastrous. How deep in the tank for Lindsay were the city’s leading media outlets? Ken Auletta, in The Streets Were Paved with Gold, his study of how New York nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s, wrote:

The paper that thinks of itself as the city’s conscience — The New York Times — abdicated. … The editorial page editors of both [the Times and the then-liberal New York Post] were too close to Lindsay, serving as advisers. They were not only politically but ideologically coopted. They supported the city’s tax and spending policies. Instead of viewing what the city was doing as harshly as they would Defense Department cost overruns, they permitted their liberal ideology to sway their judgment.

In a telling anecdote in Fit to Print, a biography of former Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal, author Joseph Goulden quotes a reporter named Douglas Robinson who witnessed something extraordinary on election night 1965: Rosenthal and deputy metropolitan editor, Arthur Gelb, “were dancing up and down as the returns came in showing a victory for Lindsay. ‘We won! We won!’ they were shouting.”

Of course, there are limits to what even the most accomplished revisionist can do with a record like Lindsay’s, and the Times, straining to find praise in an editorial the week of Lindsay’s death, was forced to acknowledge the realities of life under Lindsay:

There was continuing labor unrest, fiscal problems, rising taxes and crime, a tripling of the welfare rolls. During his tenure … the white middle and working classes felt increasingly alienated, especially when the mayor tried to build housing for poor blacks in the mostly Jewish, middle-class section of Forest Hills. … He even gets much of the legitimate blame for the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. Quite the indictment, all around.

Lindsay was an especially unloved figure in the city’s Jewish community, reviled by outer-borough Jews who blamed him for the city’s skyrocketing crime rate and his administration’s pandering to militants in minority communities.

As noted by sociologist Jonathan Rieder in Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against Liberalism, when Lindsay ran for re-election in 1969, his share of the Jewish vote totaled between 30 and 36 percent in Canarsie’s most liberal areas and considerably less in other parts of what at the time was a quintessentially lower-middle-class neighborhood.

One of Rieder’s interviewees summed up the feelings of his friends and neighbors: “It was under John Lindsay,” he said, “that the Jewish community in New York suffered its greatest decline.”

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