Power Failure: New York City Politics and Policy since 1960

Article excerpt

In the field of pure horror, Stephen King generally is acknowledged to be the unsurpassed master. But a new book by the previously unheralded Charles Brecher and Raymond D. Horton could pose the first serious threat to the literary hegemony heretofore enjoyed by the Maine-based master of the macabre. The book is entitled "Power Failure: New York City Politics and Power Since 1960," and its subject is truly the stuff of abject terror, so horrifying that the book should not be left where small children or senior citizens with weak hearts might find it. Needless to say, the book deals with public policy in New York City.

"Power Failure" is the work of two academics. Charles Brecher is a professor at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, while Raymond D. Horton teaches at the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University. (They also got some help from two of their students, Robert A. Cropf and Dean Michael Mead.) Working from the premise that New York City--whatever its vast cultural charms--no longer works, the professors set out to determine why this should be the case, and whether the city's condition is terminal.

Their conclusions are not optimistic. Basically, the authors decide that municipal government has failed New Yorkers at almost every level, to a degree that makes the federal government seem glitch-free. Indeed, one of their most damning criticisms of New York's government is that residents of Gotham were better served in the 1960s, when the federal and state governments were intimately involved in the municipality's management, than in the decades since then, when the city primarily has been governed by local politicians.

One of the principal reasons for this breakdown in government is the fact that there is almost no interparty competition for important political offices, that there is almost no intraparty competition for citywide offices, and that the force of incumbency discourages newcomers at all levels. Making matters worse is the ability of a tiny group of party leaders to determine who will be elected to vital posts such as borough president. The enormous difficulty in breathing new life into a moribund, corrupt political system was illustrated during the last mayoral election, when dithering clubhouse hack David Dinkins rather handily defeated Rudolph Giuliani, one of the most gallant and courageous figures the Republican Party has produced in this century, even though Dinkins was the standard-bearer of the party accused of virtually all the corruption. (It is difficult to find corrupt Republicans in New York City, because it is very difficult to find any Republicans at all.)

In a racially charged atmosphere made worse by the aloofness and incompetence of the doomed incumbent, three-time Mayor Edward Koch, Giuliani never had a chance to win, not in a city where 70 percent of the electorate are Democrats. But the worst thing about the 1989 election was that inept fiscal policy never was an important campaign issue. …