Joseph Kay, American Renaissance, July 2, 2019
After about a 15-year break, “quality of life” has crept back onto New York City’s public agenda. To be sure, matters are not as bad as they were before Rudy Giuliani was mayor (1994-2001), but there have been clear changes since the end of the Michael Bloomberg administration (2002-2013): bums sleeping in carboard boxes in doorways, beggars in the subway, filthy streets, and people not paying subway and bus fares. Mayor Bill de Blasio has reversed the Giuliani “broken window” policy of cracking down on minor crime to prevent it escalating into serious offenses, so public pot-smokers now get a court summons, the legal equivalent of a parking fine. It may take a few years, but the city is returning to the era of squeegee men and needle parks.
This slow decline in quality of life is indefensible. Scruffy subway panhandlers are unpleasant and, more important, creeping degeneracy will surely kill off the city’s booming tourist business and real estate market, which are vital sources of revenue for Mayor de Blasio’s dubious social engineering schemes. Who in his right mind misses the city’s era of financial insolvency and in-your-face social pathologies?
There may be more people like that than you think. Let’s start by acknowledging that there is no Bureau of Standards definition of “quality of life.” Personal preferences are everything, and who is to say that Lagos, Nigeria doesn’t inherently outshine super-clean, low-crime Helsinki? Some New Yorkers even yearn for the pre-Giuliani Times Square that was famous for its peep shows, X-rated movie houses, and adult bookstores. It was “vibrant” before it was Disneyfied.
More generally, at least for some Americans, a Third-World city where nothing works is better. Water service might be spotty and even unhealthy, but nobody need pay utility bills. The police may be poorly trained and corrupt but this is a bonanza for criminals and customers who appreciate deep discounts. Wouldn’t it be great if shoplifting were tolerated and you could pay with checks likely to bounce? Street vendors need not worry about costly permits, licenses, health inspection, tax collectors, and similar encumbrances common in good-government cities like Helsinki. Occasionally handing over a cash-filled envelope is certainly more convenient than navigating red tape, even though it is regulation that makes Helsinki so civilized.
Acknowledging multiple conceptions of quality of life helps explain why billions (even trillions) of dollars and countless policy initiatives fail to transform Detroit into San Diego. There are lots of Detroiters who don’t want to live in a San Diego-like city or, if forced to live there, would turn San Diego into Detroit-on-the-Pacific. Most people eventually get what they want. Nobody criticizes a gambler who moves to Las Vegas, so why should we demonize those who prefer Detroit over San Diego? It’s just one more lifestyle choice.
The best example of one person’s failure being another’s success is public schools. We are all familiar with the inner-city “failed school:” dreadful test results, high staff turnover, widespread violence, vandalism, missing textbooks etc. etc. But is this “bad school” really a disaster? Not necessarily. Many of the students are far happier cutting up and running through the halls than having to study. And for many adults, “failed schools” offer well-paid jobs requiring minimal effort for people with iffy credentials. They are also a jackpot for well-connected contractors hawking bound-to-fail magic-bullet fixes: computers, multicultural curricula, anti-bias workshops, and the like.
And the worse things get, the greater the pressure to “invest in the children” by hiring locals as teacher assistants, lunchroom monitors, janitors, and security guards. It doesn’t matter if the locals are a big part of the problem because they refuse to discipline junior. And since test scores are unlikely to improve and public education is a right, a rotten school means guaranteed employment. A factory is a risky source of jobs, but who ever heard of a disastrous public school being out-sourced to Mexico? No wonder poor blacks fight gentrification. Soaring test scores courtesy of newly arrived whites and Asians could mean economic disaster: White teachers and administrators might take the jobs at the school.
Put bluntly, many of the government’s uplift, Great Society-like schemes fail not because they are technically deficient, under-funded, or mismanaged (though some are). They fail because the recipients don’t want what the programs offer. It’s like the free market: The typical Burger King customer hates veggie burgers, so Burger King doesn’t sell them. If Burger King were a state monopoly, veggie burgers would stay on the menu regardless of demand. Countless government-funded uplift schemes are the equivalent of veggie burgers.
Failed government-imposed racial engineering is driven not just by the millions who benefit financially; it’s also based on a flawed view of what recipients want from Uncle Sam. It is—at least officially—as if the United States were Switzerland: Everyone is anti-crime, wants to work hard and move up, wants a first-rate education for junior, abhors the dole, and aspires to the Ozzie and Harriet lifestyle. It’s painfully obvious that millions of Americans are unwilling (or unable) to live like a Swiss, but this can’t be admitted publicly. Imagine a mayoral candidate who opposed spending more money on job training for layabouts because “they would rather get welfare than work.”
Thus understood, much of government’s Great Society-like social engineering is, to use a German word, a Kulturkampf, or a battle between two competing cultures. Not all Americans support the crusade to bestow a largely Northern European definition of the good life on all of us.
This Kulturkampf has been going on for decades, but what has changed is that the resistance has finally found a public voice and is mobilizing politically. One example is the anti-“mass incarceration,” campaign—abolishing criminal penalties for culturally defined “lifestyle” choices or for supposedly victimless crimes. This is what Black Lives Matter wants: de-policing black neighborhoods, banning stop and frisk, even curtailing 911 calls to report “suspicious” behavior of blacks.
This is the deliberate opposite of the “broken window” approach. Cities such as Seattle and San Francisco have decriminalized what they call “survival crime,” or what bums have no choice but to do: loitering; public drunkenness, urination and defection; trespassing; fare-beating; and even shop-lifting. In California, stealing anything that costs less than $950 has been downgraded to a misdemeanor, which means that most of the time, police will not write up even habitual shoplifters. California voters actually changed the criminal code as part of a ballot initiative.
Another recent example of voters choosing a decline in quality life was the Democratic primary election for district attorney for Queens, New York. The apparent winner is Soros-backed Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old openly lesbian former public defender, who defeated a rival backed by the Democratic machine. Her platform included decriminalizing turnstile jumping, prostitution, disorderly conduct, loitering, trespassing, drug possession, and welfare fraud; non-prosecution of low-level marijuana offenses; shorter sentences; and ignoring illegal taxi solicitation in New York City’s two major airports. She intends to abolish cash bail and civil asset forfeiture, and to reduce court-imposed fines and fees. She wants to shut Rikers Island (the city’s main jail) but refuses to support building a new jail. Presumably, with her in charge, the city won’t need a jail.
Miss Cabán is hardly a complete screwball among Democrats; both Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as well as the New York Times endorsed her. Democrat voters have spoken. Mayor de Blasio noted that “this is what democracy looks like!”
As America becomes more Third World, Tiffany Cabán is the future. As the police stop enforcing the law against “lifestyle-choice crimes” and serious crime gets worse, sections of Queens will become “no go” zones. Philadelphia got a Soros-backed, former-public-defender DA in 2017—with predictable consequences. When Los Angeles started letting bums pitch huge, filthy camps on the sidewalks, the city got a typhus outbreak that infected city-hall workers.
The upshot of all this will be physical separation. Fans of a Helsinki-like city will flee Queens and other emerging Detroits or, if they have to stay, will live in fortress-like enclaves. Businesses will escape from shoplifters and winos. What is remarkable about all this is that Americans—such as they are—are sometimes deliberately choosing to make their cities more like Detroit and less like Helsinki. Demography is destiny in ways we might never have suspected.