New York Nasty and Los Angeles Nice: A Structural Explanation

Tomorrow, Los Angeles voters go to the polls to elect a new Mayor.  (At least a few of them, anyway: current estimates predict onyl 25% turnout, about which more later).  In September, New Yorkers will do the same.  And depending upon the way things turn out, political and cultural reporters could have a field day.

If Christine Quinn and Wendy Greuel win in their respective cities, we will have female mayors of both cities for the first time.  And the press will have a lot of fun with it, because the two women seem to epitomize their cities’ personalities.  Quinn is famously nasty and vicious, character traits she is now trying to ameliorate at least publicly.  Much less famously, but just as truly, Greuel is quite nice: I’ve known her for nearly 20 years, and you can’t deny that she is personally a very nice person.

And if you think about it, that is true more broadly.  If Anthony Weiner runs for NYC mayor, we’ll get another jerk trying to get to Gracie Mansion.  Greuel’s rival, Eric Garcetti, whom I’ve also known for a long time, is likewise very friendly and nice.  Even the campaign by realistic standards has been pretty tame.

If you think about New York mayors, they are hardly aiming for Mr. Congeniality: Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and even Michael Bloomberg aren’t necessarily the sort of person you’d want to hang out with.  But on the left coast, Tom Bradley almost epitomized mellow moderation; Antonio Villaraigosa is probably too personally charming for his own good; Jim Hahn might not have been the sharpest pencil in the cup but is a genuiunely nice guy; even Richard Riordan is pretty friendly and cordial.  David Dinkins, of course, was notably polite and courtly — and seemed out of his element because of it.

Why is this?  Is it just New York Nasty and Los Angeles Nice?  Maybe, but perhaps this is something bigger going on here.

New York mayors wield vast power.  They control huge departments, manage an enormous budget, and dominate the city politically.  New York City comprises five different county governments and thus contains the counties’ power.  The New York mayor’s problem is keeping control over the whole thing, not to mention corralling a notoriously-fractious urban political party (and sometimes more than that if they have the Liberal or Conservative endorsement).  The Mayor also plays a major role in appointing the Board of Education.  Hizzoner has to knock heads to get anything done.

In Los Angeles, on the other hand, the Mayor is relatively weak.  Los Angeles city government is dominated by civil service personnel, whom the Mayor can’t just order around.  Before 1992, this was even the case with the Police Department: I distinctly remember my east coast friends saying to me, “If Tom Bradley hates Daryl Gates so much, why doesn’t he just fire him?”  Answer: he couldn’t.  And he still can’t: the police chief has a five-year term.  Even with other departments, the Mayor can’t appoint dozens and dozens of officials: instead, he appoints usually five-member volunteer commissioners, who, because they are volunteers, are usually dominated by professional civil service staff.  That is not a recipe for strong executive leadership.

The Los Angeles mayor has no control over the school district or the Board of Education.  The Los Angeles City Council only has 15 members, making each councilmember the monarch of his or her district; in New York, there are so many councilmembers that they comparatively little power, although not negligible.  The City of Los Angeles has no control over the vastly bigger County of Los Angeles.  The Mayor of New York can call up the Brooklyn borough President to berate and threaten him: in Los Angeles, the only way the City get the County to what it wants is through a lawsuit.

Or persuasion.  The Mayor of Los Angeles has to persuade all these other constituencies to do what he or she wants: they can’t bully or force them.  Los Angeles elections are nonpartisan, and so the Mayor doesn’t even have a political organization to use.  The only way a Los Angeles Mayor will be effective will be through the patient and often-maddening business of assembling political coalitions, community groups, public sector unions, developers, etc.  A screamer in Los Angeles City Hall is someone who literally has no chance of success.

No wonder, then, that voters seem so uninterested: it’s not abundantly clear what precisely the Mayor is supposed to do, a condition that the early 20th century Progressives who framed the Los Angeles charter wanted.

The political scientist Kenneth Waltz, who died last week at the age of 88, made a similar point about the personalities of Presidents and Prime Ministers.  A President has to try to use the power of the bully pulpit and his dominance over the executive branch to get things done.  A Prime Minister, on the other hand, has to use persuasion to maintain his party coalition — if he doesn’t, he’ll get kicked out by his own caucus.  I think that that works here.

Whether Garcetti or Greuel wins tomorrow, the next Los Angeles mayor will be a pretty nice person.  Whether Quinn or Weiner or someone else wins in New York, the next New York mayor will probably be something of a jerk.  But the political structure will have as much to do with this as any tired cultural stereotypes.

Reforming the Curia

Eight ideas for reforming the Vatican.

Pope Francis has set up a committee of 8 cardinals to advise him how to Canon of St. Peter's 2009reform the Curia. (I get this from a good Huffpo report by Nicole Winfield.) The small size and non-Italian composition of the group indicate he means business:
Maradiaga (Honduras), chair; Errazuriz Ossa (Chile); Gracias (India); Marx (Germany); Monsengwo Pasinya (DR Congo); O’Malley (USA); Pell (Australia), and one Italian Curia incumbent, Bertello. The secretary, Monsignor Semeraro, is also Italian.

The ideas being canvassed by reforming cardinals are quite radical. I cite, but number them for convenience of commenters:
1. “Term limits on Vatican jobs to prevent priests from becoming career bureaucrats.”
2. “Consolidated financial reports to remove the cloak of secrecy from the Vatican’s murky finances.”
3. “Regular Cabinet meetings where department heads actually talk to one another.”
4. “Bringing more laymen and women into the Vatican bureaucracy, ”

A thought experiment for policy wonk commenters. You have been appointed a consultant to the Gang of Eight. What is your advice to make the Vatican more efficient, honest, and responsive in serving the Pope, the bishops and the Catholic Church as a whole? To keep the exercise interestingly difficult, let us rule out changes in theology and basic structure, so no sounding off on reproductive rights, liberation theology, women priests, and Papal fallibility please. (I’m with you really! Trust me!)

To start you off, three more suggestions from me:
5. An FOI bull, throwing the archives systematically open to independent researchers after a short period, with exceptions for privacy (annulments).
6. Adopting English as the main day-to-day working language. With an Italian-Argentine Pope this will not work, but it follows the sensible practice of many non-Anglo multinational companies like ABB and Deutsche Bank.
7. Appointing women and lay cardinals. SFIK priestly orders are not technically required. Women have played leadership roles in the Church for centuries – probably more in the Dark Ages than now, with Hilda of Whitby and Odile of Alsace. Abbesses were usually like them Hilda surplus younger daughters of the nobility, and quite capable of steamrollering mere priests of lowly origins. [Update: Odile’s trajectory was a bit different – she rejected an arranged marriage and took to religion after a row with her (noble) father. It annoys Alsatian Catholics that the Vatican has never recognized her as a proper saint, possibly because of the unsettling example of independence, but that doesn’t stop them from venerating her at a hilltop shrine.]

I don’t have a good suggestion for making the Pope’s pro-poor rhetoric operational. An advisory committee of development economists (idea 8) looks rather feeble, but the Vatican does need a lot more expertise here not to let the pseudo-Marxists and neoliberals have all the best tunes. The Chinese Communists listened to Kenneth Arrow, why shouldn’t the Pope?

Source for photo

What price democracy?

There’s an old joke about a man who asks a woman to sleep with him for $1 million. She agrees, whereupon he asks her to sleep with him for $1. “What kind of a girl do you think I am?” asks the woman indignantly. “We’ve settled that,” replies the man, “We’re just arguing about the price.”

This came to mind in response to this story about the price of the Broad Foundation’s generosity to the schools of New Jersey. A recent Broad Foundation grant stipulates that it will be available only as long as Chris Christie remains governor.
Continue reading “What price democracy?”

Voluntary, as in “You’ve Been Volunteered”

Here’s a new wrinkle in the ever-popular saga “Taxation of the Tax Exempt”:  members of the Scranton City Council threaten to withhold zoning changes from owners of tax-exempt property unless they make “voluntary” PILOTS (Payments In Lieu Of Taxation).   I’m certainly open to the notion that non-charitable tax-exempt organizations should have to pay property taxes, even as I acknowledge that the definition of  “charitable” remains contested.

But let’s settle these issues in open political debate, with nonprofits able to make their case that they are truly charitable, and/or that their contribution to the public good entitles them to property tax exemption whether or not they’re charitable in some strict definition of the word.  Just for the sake of being reality-based, let’s not torture the concept of “voluntary” by suggesting that a payment extorted in return for rezoning is somehow a free-will contribution to the public fisc.

Cross-posted to

(Don’t) Keep Your Head Down

Government needs to have mandatory discipline for high-ranking officials who act like jerks, and a mandatory snitch rule for lower-level employees who pretend they didn’t see it.  If Massachusetts had such a policy, we might not be in the mess we now face about faked test results at the state lab.

Have you ever heard the term “disruptive physician”?  Continue reading “(Don’t) Keep Your Head Down”

State Budgets’ Long Slow Climb Towards Fiscal Health

The Rockefeller Institute has reported some largely encouraging data on states’ fiscal health. Average tax receipts have risen for the tenth straight quarter following the bloodshed of The Great Recession. The picture would have been much brighter if not for the outsized influence of California, which saw 2012 quarter 2 estimated tax receipts fall by 4.9% year on year.

Bullsh*t as a problem in public ethics

Bullsh*tting isn’t quite lying, but it’s depressing to consume and to produce.

I’ve been reading a bunch of official reports about prescription drug abuse, a very serious problem with a great dearth of good ideas for what to do about it. The reports consist of the usual mix of truth, falsehood, and bullsh*t, in the technical sense defined by Harry Frankfurt. Much of the last is of the “that-there-is-a-nail-therefore-this-here-a-hammer” variety: in polite company, you really can’t point to “prevention” as an answer without some indication that there is at least a mildly effective prevention program available, or that one could be developed. But the prevention providers are influential, and would have their feelings hurt if their idol doesn’t get its ration of incense, so in the “prevention” language goes.

Congress insists that policies have numerical goals. But since no one understands the problem, there’s no way to compute the likely consequences of any given set of programs, even if you could specify resource levels. So why not put in a goal of a 15% reduction? Like chicken soup, it can’t do any harm, since no one is accountable for meeting it or not meeting it.

This stuff is enormously depressing to consume, in part because you often can’t tell whether the people who wrote it (1) are dumb enough to believe it (2) think you’re dumb enough to believe it or (3) are just engaging in the b.s. ritual, in which both sides understand that no cognitive content is intended.

But – having been on the other side of the process – I can tell you that it’s infinitely more depressing to produce, especially because the rubric of the production ritual bans calling out the taurine waste product for what it is: call that “second-order b.s.”
Continue reading “Bullsh*t as a problem in public ethics”

Who SHOULD be the Next Treasury Secretary?

Four days ago, Ezra Klein reported that Erskine Bowles is the front-runner for Treasury Secretary in a second Obama Administration.  It’s hard to think of any plausible Democrat who would be a greater disaster.  Bowles has a man-crush on Paul Ryan; his chairman’s mark for his eponymous commission was simply an embarrassment on both political and policy grounds; a managing director of Morgan Stanley, he is Wall Street’s creature.  He has no business running Treasury any more than I do.  Take a look:

But if that is the case, then assuming (in best chickens-counting style) that there even is a second Obama Administration, who should the next Treasury Secretary be?

This isn’t merely idle blog talk (although I am under no illusions about RBC’s awesome policy influence).  One great failing of progressives is that after the 2008 election, we simply celebrated.  Wall Street did not: it got to work making sure that its people were in key positions, and that Barack Obama’s agenda would never challenge the financial industry’s power.  That’s how we got Timothy Geithner at Treasury, Larry Summers at NEC, Ben Bernanke reappointed at the Fed, Bowles himself appointed to an absurd “deficit reduction commission”, Christy Romer sidelined at CEA, and ditto Elizabeth Warren.

So if, as anyone not committed to entrenched plutocracy should hope, President Obama wins a second term, the very next day should be devoted to making sure that President Obama does not make such disastrous picks again.  That means being prepared to push very hard against rancid appointments like Bowles and in favor of someone else.  I would hope that the day after Obama’s re-election, Al Franken and re-elected Senator Sherrod Brown call the White House and make it very clear that if they have anything to say about, Bowles will never be confirmed.

But who should be?  A couple of notes: 1) at this stage, we should not worry about confirmability too much.  The Republicans will seek to block anyone (whether by filibuster or otherwise), and at some point progressives will have to press President Obama to make a recess appointment; and 2) for what it’s worth (and it may not be worth much), there has never been a woman or a minority heading Treasury.

There are a few I can think of offhand: former FDIC chair Sheila Bair, former CFTC chair Brooksley Born, Paul Volcker (too old?), Gary Gensler, Christy Romer, Jared Bernstein.  Hillary?  I would be very wary: the Clintons created the Wall Street Democratic party, all of her advisors will be Rubinites, and if she wants to run for President in 2016, negotiating with Wall Street potential campaign contributors provides dark incentives.  Still, she could be more progressive as a way of attracting primary support. 

 Paul Campos wants The Shrill One: that would be great, but I think that’s a little too far-fetched even at this stage.  Nevertheless, Campos is asking the right question.

By the day after Election Day, progressives should have an answer.  Because Wall Street sure will.


What should we do for Steve St. Bernard?

He saved a child’s life. He’s a public employee. So let’s break his union and lay him off.

As Keith points out below, a bus driver named Steve St. Bernard saved the life of a falling child. Since Mr. St. Bernard is a public employee, I suggest that we (1) break his union (2) lay him off and offer him his job back at half his current wage and (3) welsch on the pension he has earned. The only alternative would be to raise taxes on the very rich almost back to their Reagan-Administration levels, and that would be socialism.

As to catching the next falling child, I’m sure we could find a private equity operator to do it, or at least to contract out the job to Burmese workers willing to do it cheaper.