With a rueful eye on the local mayoral election, my colleague Charles C. W. Cooke noted: “I’m moving out of New York City in three weeks. Good timing.” I had had similar thoughts myself, remembering my time commuting in to Buckley Towers in Manhattan from nearby Connecticut. (You know who most misses the much-lamented New York Sun? Train commuters, for whom it was the ideal newspaper.) I suspect that many others had similar thoughts. In fact, I have a half-baked theory that Republican candidate Joe Lhota was derailed by the subconscious trains of thought of all of us potential refugees to the suburbs: “I might be perfectly happy in Connecticut or Westchester County, if only the trains weren’t so awful,” which is exactly what an underdog New York mayoral candidate would want potential voters to be thinking — unless that underdog is, like former mass-transit boss Joe Lhota, associated in the public mind mainly with awful train services. The more we thought about Bill de Blasio, the more we thought about trains, and the more we thought about trains, the more difficult it was to get excited about Joe Lhota. Better he had been head of the sewer department, given the raft of you-know-what that is headed New York’s way under Mayor de Blasio.
Perhaps those of us who were on Wednesday morning wondering if Pennsylvania really is too far a commute are simply the right-wing versions of those crybaby movie stars who promise to move to Zimbabwe if a Republican is elected president. But there is a bit more to it than that.
The other big news on Tuesday, largely overlooked in the Election Day cable-news natterings, was that India launched an unmanned Mars mission, and did so for the shockingly low cost of $73 million, well less than NASA’s $2.5 billion Curiosity mission. That is, as I noted on Tuesday, really something remarkable for a country that within my lifetime saw its public discourse dominated by the issue of famine prevention and as late as the 1940s saw millions die of starvation. Radical economic change is possible; unhappily, it is possible in both directions. India’s economic turnaround was inspired by factors ranging from humanitarian concerns to plain national self-interest, but it was also motivated in part by shame. “There are rich Indians in Germany,” a stridently nationalistic Indian politician once told me, “and in England, and the United States. The only place you find poor Indians is in India.” From the 1970s to the present, Indian leaders have fretted about the “brain drain,” and there was a great sense of pride in the 1990s when that began to turn around — followed by a new round of despair when those homecomers, frustrated, began to re-diaspora-ize themselves. “Disillusionment with India’s political dysfunction and seemingly ineradicable corruption and inefficiency has made many of them want to go back to relatively low-growth but less challenging and more secure economic environments,” Pankaj Mishra noted last month. He might want to start putting together a guest column for the New York Post.
That’s because New York City experienced a similar (if much less dramatic) trend over the past 30 years. In pre-Giuliani New York, the only people much inclined to stay were those so fabulously rich that they were insulated from the effects of the city’s moral collapse and those who were so lamentably poor that they had no hope of escaping. The billionaires and celebrities may have stayed, but the doctors and small-business owners went to Connecticut and New Jersey. There is still a sort of inverse Indian principle in the city: You meet rich New Yorkers from all over the United States and from all over the world; poor New Yorkers come from New York. It took something like an economic miracle to get well-off, highly educated, globetrotting Indians to return to India, and a miracle of a different sort to make New York a widely attractive city once more. From 1950 to 1960, New York saw its first population drop; from 1970 to 1980, it suffered the largest population drop ever experienced by a U.S. city, with nearly 1 million taking flight over the course of the decade. It would be the new millennium before the city recovered from that loss.