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Jewish World Review Oct. 24, 2002 / 18 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

George Will

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Will it soon be the '70s in Noo Yawk again? | NEW YORK It was but a brief reference in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's inaugural address 10 months ago. He vowed--less than four months after terrorism crippled lower Manhattan--that "we will bring new life to our waterfront.'' He was referring to, among other places, the crumbling Hudson River piers and other undeveloped space on Manhattan's far West Side, the world's most valuable wasted urban space.

A few decades ago, says former Sen. Pat Moynihan, in this city of builders--of bridges and tunnels and skyscrapers--"civic reputation began to be acquired by people who prevented things from happening.'' The principal excuse for stopping development of the waterfront was that it would disturb the spawning of certain fish. Ed Koch, an anti-nonsense mayor from 1978 through 1989, said that if the fish wanted to spawn, he would build them a motel. To no avail.

Bloomberg, a capitalist buccaneer with an appetite for aphorisms ("Bring a gun to a knife fight''), is interestingly placid in his first year in elective office. He believes the city must display its traditional onward-and-upward brio even while budget constraints--city revenues wax and wane as Wall Street's do--intensify. The city's crackling energy and infectious confidence attract, he says, the sort of people whose productivity can change the long-term budgetary arithmetic. Chatting in the cubicle where he works in a room full of cubicles--a room resembling the bond trading floor where his business career started, before founding a financial information empire--Bloomberg does the arithmetic:

In the city's $42 billion budget, which has a $5 billion deficit, $28 billion is federal and state money for specific programs, and federal, state or court-mandated spending. Of the remaining $14 billion, $9 billion goes to four "untouchables''--education, police, firemen and sanitation. That leaves $5 billion. So one way to balance the budget is to erase the rest of the government.

Which won't happen. But balancing the budget is mandatory. So New Yorkers, already overtaxed, probably will be taxed more, and services, including the "untouchables,'' will be cut, quality of life will suffer, businesses and taxpayers will leave and, suddenly, it could be the 1970s again.

While waiting for Wall Street to again become a geyser of revenues, Bloomberg can at least get government out of the way of private development. And he can release energies suppressed by bureaucracy. Bloomberg thinks the answer to almost every urban problem involves "a better-educated public,'' and he believes that "if you can't measure it you can't manage it,'' so he has centralized control of the public school system that is measurably failing to serve the city's 1.1 million pupils.

New York's 108th mayor was a liberal -- very liberal--Democrat. He wanted to be mayor, but probably would not have survived a crowded Democratic primary. So he declared himself a Republican, won that nomination--which usually is worthless, given the Democrats' 5-1 registration advantage--and spent $72.5 million getting elected. He governs in tandem with a city council in which only four of 51 members are Republicans. A majority of the 51 are government lifers and professional "activists'' from the welfare-social services industry.

With a net worth well north of $4 billion, Bloomberg, 29th on the Forbes list of richest Americans, is the richest person ever to hold elective office--about 10 times wealthier, adjusted for inflation, than Nelson Rockefeller was in 1958. He governs a city that is one-quarter African-American and, after a decade in which 1.2 million immigrants arrived, has a population approaching 40 percent foreign-born. This is a city of subway riders. So is he.

This day he takes a train uptown to 34th Street and 8th Avenue, for a ceremony celebrating Moynihan's success in securing the magnificent post office building to become the next Penn Station, a suitably august gateway to the city for millions of visitors. Thinking spaciously is essential to the city's elan, which in turn is essential to giving the city a critical mass of creativity.

Which is where leadership can matter, as it did in 1934, when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia bought a ticket on a flight from Chicago to New York. When the plane landed in Newark, as New York flights then did, he refused to disembark, insisting that the terms of the ticket required that the plane shuttle him to a New York City landing strip, in Brooklyn. Soon 5,000 men were working three shifts a day, six days a week, to complete-- in two years -- what is now LaGuardia Airport. Today it would take 10 years to complete the environmental impact assessments and find the fish their motel rooms.

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