New York City’s Sandinista-loving mayor couldn’t decide whether he was ushering in the new or reviving the old during his inauguration speech last week.
“Today, we commit to a new progressive direction in New York,” Bill de Blasio proclaimed grandiloquently. “We need a dramatic new approach — rebuilding our communities from the bottom up, from the neighborhoods up.” Yet this “new” progressive “impulse” is also a longstanding one, according to de Blasio: It has “written our city’s history. It’s in our DNA.”
So is de Blasio’s mission of “fight[ing] injustice and inequality” a novel experiment, turning New York into a “laboratory for populist theories of government,” in the words of the New York Times? Or is de Blasio simply recycling old ideas whose effects are already wholly predictable?
The latter. De Blasio’s “new” inequality agenda borrows heavily from the old War on Poverty, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. And no city has poured more money into government anti-poverty programs — to negligible results — than New York.
Candidate de Blasio constantly vaunted his plan to offer free pre-kindergarten to all, to be funded by yet higher taxes on upper incomes. Such a program, he claimed, would reduce inequality and break the cycle of poverty. He was, however, assiduously silent about the granddaddy of all War on Poverty programs: “Head Start.” And for good reason. De Blasio’s universal pre-K plan is simply an expanded version of that 1965 “culturally competent” classic, which has been repeatedly shown to have no long-term effects on academic performance or social development. A large federal study published in 2012 merely confirmed the obvious: Head Start has been a $150 billion sinkhole of taxpayer resources. De Blasio’s claim last Wednesday that “study after study has shown” the success of pre-K and other such compensatory programs was either a bald-faced lie or a sign of how cocooned “progressive” true-believers are. (Of course, President Obama and the rest of the federal bureaucracy have just as blithely ignored the federal Head Start study and want to expand it by $75 billion over the next decade.) Over the last 50 years, two — count ’em, two – early-education experiments arguably produced some slight lasting benefits, but those boutique programs enrolled a mere handful of students and wrapped them in expensive, high-quality services and personnel that could never be (and never have been) reproduced on a large scale, as Manhattan Institute fellow Kay Hymowitz has explained.
The rest of de Blasio’s platform is similarly familiar. He wants to co-locate social-service agencies in schools (a chestnut dating from the early 1960s Gray Areas program in New Haven), create more “affordable housing” (a perennial favorite of New York’s governing class), and subject the city’s successful public exam schools, which select students by a color-blind entrance test, to heavy-handed “diversity” pressures. He supports “critical thinking” over so-called “rote learning” (i.e., knowledge) and actually views private-sector experience as a disqualifier for a job in his administration. As New York’s public advocate, de Blasio helped eviscerate New York’s welfare-fraud protections; now, he has promised to reverse the city’s policy of asking welfare users to work in exchange for their benefits. The city’s 1.9 million food-stamp recipients — 21 percent of the population — is at least a quarter million recipients too low, per the new mayor.
New York has been down this road before, and it ended in New York becoming the welfare capital of America, supporting one-tenth of all welfare recipients nationally. The contemporary “inequality” agenda differs from the War on Poverty only in a barely perceptible reorientation toward the working poor, as opposed to the non-working underclass. But the best wealth-booster for both groups is the same, and similarly ignored by old- and allegedly new-school progressives: Above all, avoid having children out of wedlock, then apply yourself in high school, work full-time, and stay away from drugs and gangs. The Bloomberg administration outraged the city’s poverty advocates last year by publicizing the social and economic toll of teen pregnancy; don’t expect the de Blasio team to dare anything so honest.
The scariest aspect of de Blasio’s inauguration speech was not its dreary policy prescriptions, however, nor even its megalomaniacal self-regard (“We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities”). Conservatives undoubtedly sound just as repetitive and just as laughably grandiose to liberal ears. The most disturbing part of his address was rather the revelation of just how blinkered he is.
If he has ever engaged seriously with a conservative urban-policy agenda, he kept that fact well-hidden. His understanding of conservative ideas comes straight from Howard Zinn: “Some on the far right,” he intoned righteously, “believe that the way to move forward is to give more to the most fortunate. . . . They sell their approach as the path of ‘rugged individualism.’” As Peggy Noonan caustically points out, that latter phrase has not been heard in New York for 100 years.
De Blasio sees American society as divided between the people and “the elite,” the latter an apparently monolithic entity hell-bent on retaining its ill-begotten privileges. It is not clear, however, whether “the elite” includes such de Blasio backers as George Soros, Alec Baldwin, and Susan Sarandon, or whether a tea-party member who supports “rugged individualism” is also a member, despite a $40,000 a year income. Nor did de Blasio disclose just how he managed to squelch his distaste for “the elite” long enough to go trolling for campaign cash among Wall Street’s hedge-fund managers. Those suckers and sycophants ponied up three times the millions they conferred on his Republican rival Joe Lhota; de Blasio humbly accepted their contributions, only for the sake of “economic justice,” no doubt.
New York awaits an explanation of what constitutes success in the “war on inequality” and how “economic justice” is defined. Should all incomes and assets be equal? If not, why not, and what degree of spread is allowed? In theory, the War on Poverty could be declared over once everyone has a consumption level above a certain level. (In practice, of course, the goal posts kept moving, as “relative poverty” replaced “poverty” as the enemy). But “inequality” is a far more capacious and endlessly manipulable concept.
For the moment, we can operate with a provisional explanation of how the “war on inequality” operates: Everyone making more money than I do is fair game. Millions of Americans earn a fraction of what left-wing professors make, yet every last one of those “progressive” thinkers undoubtedly feels that he is being paid the bare minimum of what he is worth, and not a penny more. De Blasio himself, throughout his stultifyingly unvaried career in government, earned more than most New Yorkers. There is no record of his refusing his public salary or giving it away.
Here is the dirty little secret about the war on inequality: Everyone, rich and poor alike, wants cheap goods and services. We are hard-wired for bargains: If we can pay a lower price for the same item, we will choose the lower-priced version, all else being equal. We are all complicit in the drive for cheaper means of production. The poor are the biggest patrons of outsourced goods and big-box retailing with its allegedly unjust wages. Or look at it another way: The most frequent complaint about health care is that it’s too expensive, not that it’s too cheap. Yet raising the pay of low-skilled health-care workers, for example, will only increase the cost of health care for everyone, including the workers themselves.
Such conundrums are lost on de Blasio. Expect him to operate on “progressive” autopilot: The rich (except those who support me) are takers, the poor their victims; wealth comes at someone else’s expense; government officials are wiser and more compassionate than private actors; inequalities are the product of racism and economic injustice; individual choices have little or nothing to do with poverty.
If New Yorkers were too ignorant or apathetic not to reject these LBJ-era bromides, they deserve what they are going to get.
— Heather Mac Donald is a John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.