The Magazine

Citizen Ravitch

The good, the bad, and the future of New York.

Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By FRED SIEGEL
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Richard Ravitch’s last major role in New York came when “Client 9,” the hypocritical and heinous Eliot Spitzer, was forced to resign as governor in 2008 and his successor, David Paterson, also caught up in a series of scandals, was forced (on dubious legal authority) to name Ravitch as his lieutenant governor. Ravitch, who was described as the only adult in Albany, held out the promise of restoring confidence in state government. But despite his best efforts to aid the state, which was hard hit by the national financial crisis of 2008, Lieutenant Governor Ravitch was ignored by Governor Paterson, who limped through the remainder of the term won by Spitzer.

Ravitch’s experience in Albany led him to question the viability of democracy when powerful interest groups, such as the public-sector unions, dominate state government. He was disturbed by the “tone” of public complaints about government, “which are expressed in a resigned, condescending, dismissive, or outraged [voice] that would be more appropriate from the resentful subjects of an authoritarian regime than from citizens of a democracy.” The “amelioration” of these attitudes, he insists, “begins with a respect for the political process.”

For all his strengths, Ravitch is short on introspection. He seems not to have noticed that the informal mechanisms that kept the state on kilter have eroded since the 1975 fiscal crisis. Business and labor were once evenly matched; but costs, crime, and hyper-regulation sent businesses scurrying to sunnier climes so that the state increasingly came to depend on New York City’s financial sector and punishing local taxes to finance the demands of the public-sector unions who dominate the legislature. Almost everyone in the business of government did well; it was the workaday citizenry that was suffering.

Ravitch also seems not to have noticed the deep decline of New York’s upstate economy. Upstate fiscal conservatism had once acted as a check on the city’s unrestrained push for more spending, regardless of results. But here, too, the balance that Ravitch had taken for granted 40 years earlier has collapsed.

And if government seems less and less accountable to the people, that is probably because sitting members of the legislature win elections with the tiny turnout of party primaries and are rarely challenged in general elections. At the same time, New York’s innumerable public authorities have been able to issue debt without public approval. The same authorities that made Ravitch’s Waterside project possible were (like almost all in state government) in business for themselves. The corporatism that might have once seemed benign has left politics to professionals with a personal, full-time interest in an overweening government that barely needs public approval. 

There is no mystery to declining voter turnout and public cynicism: It’s a rational response to the system Richard Ravitch helped shape, in which public/private partnerships, sometimes descending into crony capitalism, call most of the shots, thus sidelining ordinary voters. Why these arrangements deserve “the public’s respect,” as Ravitch suggests, is something that this talented man seems unable to answer.

Fred Siegel, a scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class