A New Deal for New York

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Mr. Wallace's latest book is A New Deal for New York (Bell & Weiland Publishers/Gotham Center Books).

In the year since September 11th, I've often been asked whether-as a historian-I believe the Twin Towers attack marks the end of an era, and that New York will be utterly transformed in its aftermath. My response is twofold.

No, because a city four hundred years old and eight million strong is a social-historical organism with a fantastic amount of momentum; it cannot so easily be deflected from its path, even by such a horrific event. We ourselves have experienced worse. In 1776, when the city and country rebelled against the English, redcoats invaded New York in history's largest amphibious assault up to that point, which resulted in the fiery destruction of a large part of the town, the flight of almost all its inhabitants, and its occupation for the subsequent seven years. And yet the postwar city rebounded miraculously. Think, too, of other cities around the world-Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo, London, Hiroshima, Leningrad-that survived and transcended unimaginable carnage.

Yes, however, in the sense that so devastating a blow shatters encrusted pieties about what is and is not possible. The opposite side of disaster is opportunity-but we are in danger of squandering it. The plans advanced so far for rebuilding the city do not approach the scale and scope of our prior accomplishments in the face of adversity. We should be tackling a host of civic problems, starting at Ground Zero and radiating outward to embrace the entire city and indeed the whole nation. We should be making common cause with the millions and millions of people all over the country who are hurting-some from fallout from September 11th, most from the arrival of hard times.

Nationwide, virtually every large industry is shrinking. 1.2 million U.S. workers lost jobs since the recession officially began in March 2001-the biggest drop in twenty years-and another million were forced into the ranks of part-timers. The recession is no respecter of sections. Across the country, debt-squeezed states and cities are cutting public services and cancelling capital projects. San Francisco and San Jose are reeling from the collapse of the silicon bubble, as is Boston; Alton, Illinois, is suffering from setbacks to steel. Texas is in trouble, too, particularly Houston, home to Compaq, Continental, and Enron (perhaps it should be left to stew in its own free-market juices, but in the current situation it's a potential ally).

I know the pundits say it will all be over before we know it. I hope they're right. But I fear that this recession might well be a prolonged and nasty affair (up again, down again)-pace the sunny conventional wisdom from the well-paid and, it turns out, occasionally corrupt Wall Street analysts who brought us the dot.com boom. Things might pick up, but they're unlikely to stay up-given palsied producers, listless investors, persistent unemployment, maxed-out consumers, cooked books, a huge inventory overhang, an overbuilt retail sector, a horrific balance of payments deficit, a global slump, an overvalued dollar, a still over-valued stock market (despite drops, in NASDAQ's case, of 70 percent). Plus, our leaky economy has been kept afloat by oceans of domestic credit and waves of foreign investment, now beginning to recede. Such massive structural contradictions can be ignored or papered over in the short term, but won't be denied their impact forever. Especially when any number of global developments-another oil embargo, another terror attack, an invasion of Iraq gone bad, a repatriation of European loans, the collapse of important regional economies-might trigger a new downward slide.

We should, therefore, immediately strike up alliances with other states and localities and together insist that the federal government (that is, us) should deploy its resources (that is, our tax dollars) to alleviate suffering and revitalize the economy. We should launch a massive program to create and enhance the nation's social capital- investing in people and resources in a way we haven't done recently, but used to do brilliantly. I'm talking about something far greater than the anemic "stimulus packages" that were bruited about for awhile. What we need, I think, is a new New Deal.

Let me be clear: not only is the New Deal far from perfect as a model and metaphor, but it's far from being the only template available for progressive reform. The United States-and particularly New York City-has an extensive activist tradition on which to draw, with stellar accomplishments that preceded and postdated the 1930s initiatives. We also have much to learn from the achievements of European social democracy: most of the programs we'd want are actually in operation somewhere as we speak. Nor should we look entirely to national solutions when there is much that has and can be done at local and regional levels. We must remember, too, the many instances of good intentions gone awry, and statist solutions run amok, that litter the historical record, and take care to safeguard democratic liberties agaist the dangers of excessive governmental power.

What's appealing about the New Deal, however, are its deep roots in our own city's history, the range and scope of its ambition, its awareness of the interconnectedness of problems that we nowadays tend to treat as discrete single-issue entities, and the inventiveness and durability of many of its solutions. The New Deal created many of the institutions and practices that Americans now rank as among the country's most decent and humane traditions and most indispensable safeguards. While we should by no means limit ourselves to replicating its successes-hard to do in any event given its contradictory character and its genesis in a specific historical moment-it constitutes an inspirational chapter in our national narrative, one eminently worthy of revisiting as we chart our course in the years ahead.
September 11th has provided us an opening, as a city, to make our own course corrections on the river of history-if we have the desire, if we can find the imagination, and if we can summon the will. It won't be the end of an era unless we decide to make it one. Happily, there are substantial grounds for believing that, under the press of hard blows and hard times, our audacious metropolis will again lead the nation in recalling our history, reimagining our future, and seizing hold of our collective destiny.

This essay is excerpted from Mr. Wallace's new book, A New Deal for New York and is reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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Alec Lloyd - 9/11/2002

Given that the first New Deal didn't work (I know, I know, how dare I question the unquestionable), I fail to see what a huge new bloated federal spending program will do to New York (or the economy) other than swell the national debt and distort the economy.

Japan has been trying to spend itself out of recession for 10 years. It isn't working.

Instead, we should cut back on the red tape, eliminate capital gains (do that and watch stocks soar) and inheritance taxes and free up the untapped potential of the American people.