Politico’s latest longread is a eulogy for Robert Moses. Moses was one of those figures who embodied the grandiose ambitions of progressivism before being rejected by a new generation of urban activists. And Politico’s argument is essentially that we need more unilateral tyrants like him.
The framework is the destruction of Penn Station and the failure to replace it with the Farley Post Office project dooming commuters to the Madison Square Garden eyesore. The article leaves out the fact that the destruction of Penn Station paved the way for a new generation of urban activism in New York City by the likes of Jackie Kennedy to save Grand Central and push back against the same sort of grand projects.
But the bigger problem is the notion that we need to bypass democratic governance and that the failure to do so is why we don’t get things done.
And thus we have paragraphs like this, “Robert Moses would have found some other way to pressure MSG—perhaps he would have proposed to run an expressway through Dolan’s house on Long Island, or found a way to use regulatory changes to imperil another Dolan-controlled company, like (at the time) Cablevision. Cuomo, by contrast, was hamstrung.”
I’m not cheering for the Dolans, but is this really what anybody wants? Government thuggery?
Reforms designed to chop up Moses’ power and spread it among local, state, public and private interests have given a whole range of parties—Dolan, Amtrak, the Two Steves, members of Congress, property owners, preservationists, environmentalists, neighborhood activists—the ability to gum up the works and obstruct grand civic projects that seemingly everyone wants. And even if few have the explicit ability to kill a project outright, they have the power to delay it, sometimes indefinitely, until its sponsors give up…
New York does not need another Robert Moses. But amid the avalanche of checks created since the 1960s, progressives need to revisit the impulse that spurred figures like Woodrow Wilson and Louis Brandeis to try to make government work. Public authority, in the end, isn’t good or bad—it’s a means to an end. No one should be allowed to bulldoze powerless communities with impunity. But government should be able to build a nice train station in less than three decades. To rebuild faith in the power of government to do good, responsible leaders need the power to pursue the public interest….
Who decides what the public interest is?
But this is just gilding the lily. The reality is we don’t have ambitious projects because we lack that kind of vision. Look at the contrast between the original World Trade Center, the new World Trade Center, and the Empire State Building.
There were plenty of varied interests and squabbles in the past. But the two biggest problems are…
1. Our own incompetence
And while environmentalism is a huge problem, increasingly government has become incapable of performing simple tasks. Its vision is small and its projects are largely opportunities for everyone to steal money without getting anything done. Because if you don’t get anything done, there’s more money to steal. And the types of people who run things now are okay at stealing money, but incompetent at even the simplest tasks.
What are Cuomo or De Blasio’s accomplishments aside from assorted lefty causes? Can they do anything besides wreck the system and move money to their political allies?
The Farley Post Office project was the brainchild of Senator Moynihan, a conservative Democrat technocrat with one foot in the old corrupt party and another in the Kennedy/Nixon progressivism, who understood problems and had a vision. His replace was Hillary Clinton whose only accomplishment was moving money around to further her career. What’s Hillary’s vision? There isn’t one.
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