Where was long-term planning from Bloomberg and Cuomo?
Nov. 1, 2012 — In a devastating article about the devastating storm, The New York Times’ David W. Chen and Mireya Navarro leave no doubt that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have been asleep at the wheel when it comes to upgrading New York’s infrastructure to meet the threat of “rising sea levels, more frequent flood and extreme weather patterns.”
They did not act despite the warnings of “certain peril” that scientists have been issuing for “nearly a decade,” warnings that only grew more intense after the impact of Tropical Storm Irene last year.
Cuomo and Bloomberg are not alone, of course, but these two long-time media darlings have always liked to fashion themselves as practical and decisive leaders. Bloomberg, even more than Cuomo, has sought throughout his 10-year tenure to sell the idea that he is the rare politician, gifted with a businessman’s sense of how to get things done, the foresight of a thoughtful leader, and the integrity to “do the right thing” regardless of the political cost.
So where was the long-term planning? As a former official who spoke to Chen and Navarro on condition of anonymity “so as to not jeopardize ties to the administration” put it, “A fair question to ask is, have we been as focused as we need to be for emergency preparations…”
Clearly not. Yet again, it turns out that having once ran a business successfully is neither a predictor of the ability to administer a city nor a valid proxy for actual evidence that one has been managing it well.
Preparing for and implementing the changes needed to bolster the city’s storm defenses could have been on the Mayor’s agenda in the years when he was preoccupied with promoting New York as the site for the Olympics. It could have been on the Mayor’s agenda in the years when he was preoccupied with getting a stadium built on the West Side of Manhattan.
Instead, no serious steps have been taken at all.
Gov. Cuomo, at least, was unusually — and unnervingly — frank in describing his learning curve. As quoted in Jim Dwyer’s “About New York” column in the Times, Cuomo said:
It’s amazing how much of Brooklyn and Queens goes underwater so quickly…We’ve just ignored it. We’ve just been blind to it.
That blindness may help explain why, even after subway flooding in 2007 cost the MTA $34 million, “no additional state money has been forthcoming” to improve the subways’ defenses against floods, not even, according to the reporting from Chen and Navarro, for “modest changes” like the installation of subway “floodgates.”
So what are the chances now for more effective and thoroughgoing action? Mayor Bloomberg said “it was too soon to determine what steps should be taken.” Gov. Cuomo said, “First you have to convince the citizenry, then get the elected officials to move.”
Even the Chen and Navarro article, explaining that the appropriate infrastructure upgrades could cost $10 billion, fell into the trap of framing the story as one where these needs are in apparent tension with “fiscal realities.”
But fiscal realities don’t exist in a vacuum: they are made materially more grim by politicians who — whether out of ideological conviction, class loyalty, or run-of-the-mill political pandering — insist that taxes can’t and shouldn’t go up, even at the cost of a crumbling society. Count Mayor Bloombeg and Gov. Cuomo in this crowd.
Bloomberg has fought tax increases repeatedly, doing so with special vigor in the defense of Wall Street and wealthy individuals. He and Cuomo have also repeatedly claimed — without evidence — that increasing taxes would lead to flight from the city and state. The Governor crowned his first year in office by pushing through a tax cut on the wealthy that was packaged as middle class tax relief (and sold as such by the press).
State and local officials, of course, do not deserve all, or even most, of the considerable blame to go around. We have a national infrastructure crisis and a federal government that has failed (largely but not entirely because of GOP resistance) to plan and pay for the nation to function.
Nevertheless, the Chen and Navarro article draws attention to a vivid example of how political reputation and genuine performance are two very different things. It would be enormously helpful if more of the New York press corps learned to distinguish the two and started documenting the presence or absence of the latter.