Strange days, strange weeks, and strange years ahead.
As New York City lurches toward potential receivership [fittingly paywalled], the time has at last come for me to feature Fear City, the excellent book on New York’s 1970s fiscal crisis by Kim Phillips-Fein.
Neoliberalism is a contested and hazy term, but many histories of it start with the September 11th, 1973 coup that toppled the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile (resulting in Allende’s death), and the “restructuring” of the Chilean economy – under the “guidance” of Milton Friedman and the so-called Chicago Boys – by the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose regime left thousands of Chileans dead, tens of thousands imprisoned, and hundreds of thousands in exile.
But if Chile was the laboratory of neoliberalism, New York City was arguably the site of its first domestic implementation in the United States. Enter Phillips-Fein. With no further ado, all the images that follow are drawn from pages 205 through 215 of Fear City, except the last, which is from page 306.
The City once had “four hundred publicly funded day care centers […] which offered free or subsidized child care to poor and working-class families”; only by realizing what we’ve lost can we make sense of what we stand, through struggle, to gain.
What has played out in many countries around the world since the 1970s – often at the hands of the US and bodies like the IMF (which the US largely controls) – played out first in New York City where austerity during a fiscal crisis was used to attack public goods.
In general, the poor suffer most when austerity is waged on the people.
We should be studying what happened in the 1970s lest those in power – who still include some of the very same individuals – try to pass off the same lies and excuses in destroying public goods while protecting private wealth.
We should be working very hard to avoid any “constant downward spiral” in the coming months and years. Resisting the vicious logic (and practice) of austerity will be central to that fight.
The Emergency Financial Control Board, which still exists under a slightly different name, was essentially an instrument to bypass politics and public oversight/accountability. It looks very much like the the Financial Oversight and Management Board currently in control of Puerto Rico’s finances (which was instituted in 2016 under President Obama through the dishonestly-named PROMESA law, and is, I read, widely referred to in Puerto Rico as “La Junta”). You can see entities like these as legal vehicles to accomplish de facto corporate coups.
Today, we use the phrase “disaster capitalism” to characterize much of what was “accomplished” in the mid-1970s in New York – such as undermining public sector unions – under the guise of fiscal “reform”; any long-time New Yorker knows that our public sector unions can, indeed, be very problematic. The solution to these “problems” though, is not more corporate control over our politics and economy.
As should be quite evident, many of the things we’re fighting for today – in the form of universal health and childcare, free public college, etc. – are akin to programs that existed in New York City in the not-so-distant past.
This excerpt speaks for itself, but I’ll reiterate: “There was little sense on the board of the potential problems that might result from curtailing services or programs aimed at poor people.” Definitely sounds like these individuals were well qualified for the monumental undertaking with which they were tasked, and yet, this is exactly what happens (and should be expected to happen) when totally unaccountable and out-of-touch individuals are given immense power with no oversight.
It might have been nice to have more hospitals about two months ago…
Regular readers will recognize that the dynamics spoken to above reflect almost exactly those which were present at the start of the 20th century in New York’s emerging consolidated private academic medical centers.
Its’ much easier to destroy institutions than to create them. Or, as Joni Mitchell put it: “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.”
“straints by men who are not answerable to an electorate,” concludes Dr. Holloman’s quote. As you can see, the fiscal crisis, as it was handled in NYC, pitted representatives of communities and public goods against corporate interests that had commandeered the City’s government. We live the lasting impacts of those events today.
Not advocating violence, but it is easy to understand the desire to punch certain individuals in the face.
As Phillips-Fein wrote in a passage not excerpted above:
The hospitals were a key line of defense against symptoms stemming from the ongoing health crises in the city’s poor neighborhoods – asthma, lead poisoning, cancer, heart disease, venereal disease, tuberculosis, sickle cell anemia, violence, and mental health problems. A program of “reform” that centered primarily on closing hospitals would mean turning away from the city’s real health needs.
Critics will point out that there was no pronounced spike in mortality in NYC following the fiscal crisis, but I prefer to see that simply as a testament to the massive public health victories won in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even during a time when people’s lives were made more grinding and Hobbesian-ly nasty and brutish, they were not – because even the poor still had, for the most part, access to clean water, functioning plumbing (connected to a modern sewer system), etc. – made particularly short. This is no achievement towards which a rich society ought to aspire (and the mortality trend during the last quarter of the 20th century was no doubt also influenced by improved air quality, driven by hard-won environmental regulations, and secular shifts in habits, for example relative to diet and smoking), but it does bespeak the remarkable power of public health and fundamental infrastructures of hygiene.
Finally, as mentioned above, the ECFB – renamed, with the end of the “Emergency,” simply the New York State Financial Control Board – still exists. It’s board consists of the Governor, the Mayor, State Comptroller DiNapoli (who has resisted, for years, calls to divest the state pension fund from fossil fuels), City Comptroller Stringer, and two private individuals – “who are appointed by the Governor […] and who serve at the Governor’s pleasure”: Billionaire asset manager, Lawrence Golub, and asset manager of unknown net worth, John Levin. A third gubernatorially-appointed seat sits vacant at present.
That’s six old white guys and a notional seventh who could very well very soon have the near-term fate and future of the City in their largely unaccountable hands. Add to that the incompetence on display at City Hall and the autocratic style of governance reigning in Albany – where the Governor seems to increasingly have his way in all matters budgetary – and we have to question: How democratic is our democracy when so few men wield so much power with so little oversight and with so much consequence for us all?
This is not how New York City should be governed, and yet, it is how it is. Apologists for austerity – the same people who, for decades, have been ranting about the national debt and asking Bernie Sanders (and others), “But how you gonna pay for it?” – will roll out their lame, time-worn lies as we continue to resist the calls for deep budget cuts, but after we’ve witnessed the spectacle of Congress and the Fed materializing something like $10 trillion in a matter of weeks, are we going to give credence to these old lies anymore?
The money is there, because the power, resources, and human capacity are there. The question, then, is not: Is there money? But: What is there money for? If we don’t want barbarism, there needs to be money for socialism, or social democracy, or just plain sanity. For ublic health (including pandemic preparedness), a Green New Deal or its equivalent, universal healthcare, childcare, and education. Whatever you want to call it when a society is structured to care for its members, take heed of the future, and live in balance with the non-human world around us upon which we all depend. I say all this, because the old white guys with their meat cleavers are coming for what remains of our social welfare programs, and it’s up to us to beat them back and finally turn the tide on neoliberalism before it spills over into (global) neofascism and all is lost.