The Specter of Reality Haunts New York


New York. -- When students at the city university jammed streets around city hall to vent indignation about budget cuts that portend tuition increases, they carried signs denouncing Mayor Giuliani, but misspelling his name, as well as "tiution" and "priorty." Either more money is needed for higher education, or less money should be entrusted to the people responsible for that university. Whichever, the turmoil was just one manifestation of resistance to budgets that Mr. Giuliani calls "reality therapy."

It is an old axiom that in politics if you have no choice, you have no problem. That is the only sense in which Mayor Giuliani has no problem. He has no choice but to cut continuously at the city's government because the alternative is implosion. That occurs when rising taxes and declining quality of life drive more and more of a city's tax base -- people and businesses -- to flee the city, leaving the remainder of the steadily shrinking base to bear a steadily increasing burden.

Last year the city budget was smaller than the year before, and this year the mayor has proposed a still smaller budget achieved by spending cuts of a severity not seen here since the depths of the Depression. He says his aim is to make New York "more like a normal city."

That is the reverse of what New York has, through much of this century, striven to be politically, but it is a worthy aspiration for a city that has more people on welfare (1.2 million -- more than one in seven people) than in public schools and that has three times more admissions to Rikers Island jail each year than to the freshman classes on the city university campuses. Normality would be welcome in a city where in a recent year there were 78,000 calls -- one every seven minutes -- to the 911 emergency line reporting gunshots, which are so common that many go unreported.

New York in its proud abnormality spends twice as much per capita on its residents as Chicago or Boston, twice as much per capita on welfare as Los Angeles. Chicago has approximately 14 city employees for every 1,000 residents. New York has 50. Mayor Giuliani proposes privatizing three of the 16 city-run hospitals. It is a rare city that operates even three hospitals. The city owns a television station and two radio stations. Why? Because for decades the political culture here was not receptive to the question, "Why is government doing this?"

What the city government was trying to do was teach the rest of the nation how to be progressive. The city was proud to be "the capital of the American century" and "the world's destination," and part of this chosen role was to extend the New Deal idea -- largely a product of New York political and intellectual circles -- of government omnipresent and omniprovident. And so today New Yorkers must bob and weave to avoid paying 28 different taxes.

Mr. Giuliani, required to balance the budget, has asked Gov. George Pataki to cut spending on welfare and Medicaid even more than the governor has planned, because the city must match such spending. There is a proposal for earning $10 million by selling advertising in city parks -- on basketball backboards and softball-field fences. And then there is the matter of taxis.

The fleet of yellow cabs numbers 11,787. It has been that size since 1937. As a result of this government restriction of entry into the business, a taxi medallion -- a license to operate a taxi -- now sells for about $175,000. The city could raise more than $60 million by selling 400 new ones, but that would depress the value of existing medallions, so the taxi interests will fight to keep the city forever in 1937.

Want to buy a city-owned golf course? A city-owned hotel? One of those radio stations? Do policemen, who can retire on full pensions after 20 years in uniform, really need a paid day off each year to purchase uniforms? If all the public-school teachers were actually teaching, the pupil teacher ratio could be 16 to 1 instead of 30 to 1. But inch after agonizing inch, Mayor Giuliani is making progress. For example, prompted by the prospect of privatization, garbage collectors now work more than six hours a day.

New York in its political vanity used to be called "the city that longs to belong to another country." Today the municipal government that once fancied itself the nation's moral model is reduced to scrambling for small sums, like an indigent groping for change between the cushions of a sofa in the lobby of a seedy hotel.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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