Commentary Magazine

Setting Municipal Priorities 1986, edited by Charles Brecher and Raymond D. Horton; Political Crisis/Fiscal Crisis, by Martin Sh

Approaching the City

Setting Municipal Priorities 1986.
by Charles Brecher and Raymond D. Horton.
New York University Press. 476 pp. $30.00.

Political Crisis/Fiscal Crisis.
by Martin Shefter.
Basic Books. 270 pp. $21.95.

Beyond Entitlement.
by Lawrence M. Mead.
Free Press. 318 pp. $19.95.

Approaching a City, Edward Hopper's somber-hued painting of 1946, offers a blocked view of an urban landscape as seen by arriving railway passengers. A high stone wall bisects the canvas, obstructing the sight of a row of buildings. In the foreground are the iron rails, but our view of them is also limited, for they disappear into the dark entrance of a tunnel that looms ahead.

Approaching the city with an unfettered eye is a problem even for dogged professional observers, whose lines of inquiry into the “urban crisis,” so glibly named more than two decades ago, tend to be as rigid as Hopper's rails, heading toward the darkness. Yet not so long ago it did seem possible that new ways of thinking about city life might emerge, and that was when the fiscal emergency of the mid-1970's in New York drew the boundary between good intentions and their costs. Those bleak days, which brought Mayor Edward I. Koch into office, also brought the opportunity for a fresh look at the responsibilities and proper scope of local government, and the obligations of citizenship.

This new crop of books devoted to the urban condition shows, however, that it is far more difficult to approach the city with a clear view than to identify, classify, or moralize about its problems. Each of the books acknowledges the economic difficulties of our cities, and each is concerned with the plight of the poor. The intriguing contrasts among them arise from the perspectives brought by their authors to these important issues. Where one is completely preoccupied with the need for “services,” another sees New York's fiscal crisis as a bargaining weapon in the hands of the city's elites, while the third looks beyond both programs and interests to pose a moral theory of the polity.


The approach taken in Setting Municipal Priorities 1986 is that of “policy analysis.” Practitioners of this art, who first came to national attention as “whiz kid” planners in the Defense Department of the early 1960's, specialize in identifying problems and proposing “costed-out” solutions from which decision-makers can make presumably enlightened choices. SMP 1986 is a latter-day specimen of the type, replete with the necessary apparatus of tables, charts, and lists of quantitative data that lend the appearance of laboratory precision.

The seventh in an annual series on New York City, SMP 1986 is divided into three parts, with contributions by specialists in public health, transportation, housing, education, management and human resources, child welfare, and other social services. Following compilations of figures on the city's population (it has continued to decline since the early 1980's), median family income (it is less than 85 percent of the national average), and income distribution (64 percent of Hispanics and 54 percent of blacks are poor or near poor, by national standards), SMP 1986 focuses on the matter of “service delivery.” This phrase, indeed, probably best sums up the conception of government that informs the book. For to most of the contributors to SMP 1986, New York City is mainly a system of “inputs,” “outputs,” and “decision opportunities.” The embattled plain of the nation's major metropolis is reduced here to a finite list of problems, and the complex and subtle forces at work in New York today are packed into simple formats, often with specific program solutions or “policy options” attached. Not surprisingly, in keeping with this clerical approach, New York's colorful mayor is referred to by name only a few times in these pages.

To be sure, from the vantage point of the classroom or the planning table, policy analysis of the kind practiced here has its attractions, for it promises order in a world in flux. But the order is a mirage. (It might be added here that the facts and figures on which the analysis is based are themselves not beyond dispute; they are, at any rate, regularly challenged by the city's budget director and other local officials.) One chilling example is provided by SMP's approach to the phenomenon nowadays signified by the phrase, “child abuse.” SMP offers a woefully mechanistic definition of the problem, concluding (of course) that poverty is its main cause and settling on routine solutions: “intensive services,” “early warning mechanisms,” and “crisis intervention.” Thus, in only a few pages of plodding text, it disposes of an age-old, heartbreaking, and very complicated emotional issue between adults and children of all social classes. Only in the section on housing, written by George Sternlieb and David Listokin, is there an acknowledgment of the profundity of at least one of New York's problems and the political difficulty involved in arriving at even a partial remedy.

SMP 1986, then, is for the most part a compartmentalized manual for the well-intentioned technocrat, an almanac of the “service delivery” clichés of our time, laced with the cant of the helping professions and, despite all its charts and tables, and the quotient of useful information to be found in it, narrower in its view of the cityscape than the work of those amateur policy analysts of long ago, Jacob Riis and Charles Dickens.


Approaching the city from another direction is Martin Shefter, who teaches political science at Cornell. In Political Crisis/Fiscal Crisis Shefter does raise and discuss some searching issues, though his argument too is shaped by a wide-eyed faith in services and, as well, a misplaced reliance on categorical explanations.

Shefter recognizes that New York's fiscal crisis was a political, not merely a bookkeeping, event, and he places it in useful historical perspective. Indeed, his may be the only treatment of the subject so far to suggest that revenue and credit emergencies, rather than being aberrations or exceptions, have played a regular part in the politics not only of New York but of other large American cities as well. As Shefter points out, the events of the 1970's were only the most recent in a long series of periodic fiscal crises that have occurred for well over a century in New York. Each time, the city, unable to sell its bonds on the open market, and almost unable to pay its employees and creditors, has had a “brush with bankruptcy.”

Shefter's valiant effort to analyze the pattern he has uncovered hinges on the notion of an ongoing struggle between the advocates of spending, whose beneficiaries (at least sometimes) are the poor, and their more powerful adversaries who are concerned with balancing the budget and restoring the city's credit. Throughout New York's history, he argues, even liberal mayors, sympathetic to “expenditure-demanding” interests, have eventually had to cave in, and accept the “fiscal discipline” imposed either by capital markets or by local businessmen, or both.

Shefter's thesis draws in part on the important work of Harvard's Edward C. Banfield and James Q. Wilson on the “incentives” that drive local politicians and the “imperatives” and “cleavages” that prevail in city politics. But Shefter also introduces a deterministic approach eschewed by his Harvard models when he claims, as he does in the early part of his book, that Tammany Hall, displacing an earlier “regime” based on an alliance between mercantile and artisan “elites,” went on to establish its own “hegemony” at the expense of more “radical contenders” for leadership of the poorer classes. It is this approach, and an attendant bias in favor of social action, particularly when undertaken by self-styled advocates of the poor, that shapes and ultimately tilts Shefter's portrait of the city.

Shefter's one-track view of John V. Lindsay's mayoral career is a case in point. As he tells the story, in his first term Lindsay, a fusion mayor, “sought to promote justice and social harmony” by implementing his “vision of how the good of the city as a whole could be advanced.” Yet these were the years, it will be remembered, which saw rioting in Bedford-Stuyvesant, bitter group conflict in Forest Hills and Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and million-dollar consultant scandals in City Hall. In this same period, moreover, Lindsay vastly increased new program expenditures, including subsidies for “participatory community institutions” that spent their time attacking schools and other bureaucracies in his own administration, and regrouped existing departments into top-heavy superagencies, also at enormous cost. Shefter does comment incisively on the enormous “floating deficit” accumulated by the former mayor, but his own biases elude him when he concludes that in Lindsay's second term it was the need to accommodate “conservative” interests that led to the curtain's coming down on his glorious “reformist thrust.”


Two sections of Political Crisis/ Fiscal Crisis stand out as indicative of Shefter's ideological stance. Under the heading, “The Vanguards of Reform,” he uncritically hails the activities of “the policy-oriented research community in New York,” who turn out to be none other than the analysts of Setting Municipal Priorities, and looks forward to the day when their “conferences and volumes” might constitute the “intellectual leadership” for a “neoreformist” political coalition in the city. Similarly taken at face value are the “advocacy professionals” who ran the publicly funded Mobilization for Youth and other “demonstration projects” of the early 1960's. Shefter paints a portrait of these middle-class tribunes of the poor as “Young Turks” who were “willing to fight” for their ideals in order to root out the “morally indefensible” compromises at the heart of city government. A more realistic assessment would take into account the permanent damage wreaked by these strategists of change on established neighborhood and municipal institutions.

Edward Koch also comes to judgment in Political Crisis/Fiscal Crisis, and to the sound of a drumbeat rather than trumpets. In a lengthy effort to describe his style of leadership, Shefter grants that the mayor who “travels on his tongue” has invigorated the office, lowered the city's political temperature, and played a major part in restoring financial stability. Nevertheless, Koch's mayoralty represents for Shefter the unhappy triumph of business imperatives; the mayor is “the public official through whom the proponents of fiscal discipline” find representation, and thus his term spells trouble for the champions of “reform.”


If Political Crisis/Fiscal Crisis is thus in some sense a political melodrama, with the “fiscal imperative” playing the part of the villain, Lawrence M. Mead in Beyond Entitlement presents a study of federal programs for the disadvantaged and unemployed since 1960 in which there are no heroes and no villains—and no file-folder solutions. Rather than approach New York City exclusively, Mead takes a ruminative look at the nature of community, and his inquiry thus implicitly challenges notions about the role of government, the obligations of citizens, and the overall meaning of social life that are taken for granted or ignored by the other authors.

Like Shefter, Mead is a political scientist trained at Harvard, but his portrait of the city of our time is philosophical rather than ideological. To Mead, the “fiscal imperative” and the hard evidence of declining social trends (measured by such criteria as crime, unemployment, public assistance, and SAT scores), while indeed casting a shadow over the urban scene, also provide an opportunity for a reconsideration of our social aims. His book is studded with literary language and ecclesiastical allusions: he speaks of the “tragedy” of government authority ill-used, the “mystery” of the “primal struggle” over the proper organization of society, and the importance of a world in which “others are bound as I am bound.” Distinguishing himself both from the social mechanics of SMP and from Shefter's rebellious “advocacy professionals,” Mead argues for a “civic stance” in our relation to government and constructs a model of authority as a tool rather than a target of social thinking.

Liberals, writes Mead, with their “government-blaming reflexes,” attribute the problems of the poor mainly to hostile social conditions, and in response call for more government programs—but without government authority. Laissez-faire conservatives, for their part, would counter the growing problem of welfare dependency by simply cutting back on government. “The thread that connects” the two, according to Mead, “is trust in the individual at the expense of authority.” Hence our current predicament. “Welfare is unpopular because it satisfies only half the public mind. To eliminate welfare would satisfy only the other half. The public will remain uncomfortable until a civic version of welfare is realized.”

The theme of this book, then, is the importance of common obligations in upholding “the civilities that undergird everyday society.” Unlike the policy analysts extolled by Shefter and typified by the authors of SMP, Mead argues for a reciprocal relationship between citizens and government. In fact, some of our illusions about the power of programs to alleviate social ills seem to him traceable to the “vogue of policy analysis.” “Agnostic” analysts, he observes, with all their techniques, mainly “staff out” ways for privileged elites to fulfill their responsibilities to the poor through an ever-expansive government. They lack a view of a functioning citizenry; they lack a sense of “administrative statecraft.”

Alongside statements like these, the views of the authors of SMP and Political Crisis/Fiscal Crisis seem altogether limited. For it is Mead, a confessed civic conservative, who would use not simply the distributive capacities of bureaucracy but also the governing capacities of politics to achieve a society in which all Americans participate. Appropriately enough, it is Mead, too, who bases his vision of political possibility not on some utopian idea of what urban life should be but on a Hopper-like appreciation of the darkness and ambiguity that must necessarily attend our view of the city and its problems.

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