This week on High Noon, Inez Stepman does a deep dive with The American Mind’s Seth Barron into the problems most urban Americans are increasingly contending with: rising crime, mentally ill and aggressive homeless people, intermittently closed schools, and more. Barron is a lifelong New Yorker and the author of the book The Last Days of New York: A Reporter’s True Tale.
Seth and Inez also discuss the role of the city in American life, and what it would take to turn the downward spiral most cities are facing around.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. Inviting interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.
Welcome to High Noon, where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people. And my interesting person this week is Seth Barron. He’s a writer and a managing editor over at the Claremont Institute’s publication, The American Mind, which I highly recommend generally. It’s a relatively recent addition to the Claremont roster just a few years, but I think it’s definitely one of my go-to places for interesting commentary and analysis, but he is a managing editor over there. And then he’s also the author of a recently released book, The Last Days of New York: A Reporter’s True Tale. So, welcome Seth to High Noon.
Thanks, Inez. I’m really glad to be here.
So, we’re going to get into a series of discussions I think that’ll sound really familiar to just about every urban-dwelling American, regardless of whether they’re in New York City, or LA, San Francisco, even some of the red state cities, right? Like Austin. A lot of the topics are going to sound like unfortunately really familiar to people, right? Crime, schools, homelessness. But I want to start by asking you about your ties to the city that you wrote about. So, I mean, how long have you lived in New York?
Well, I was born in New York, and then my parents moved away, but I spent a lot of time here growing up. And then I’ve lived full-time in the city about 25 years. And I raised my children here and so forth. So, I’m pretty well-established.
Yeah. I’m always telling people now as a joke that because I moved to New York in the depths of the pandemic, when everyone was moving out, I should get like a couple extra lines on my like New Yorker clock, because I moved here in December 2020.
Okay. Okay. Sure. [crosstalk 00:02:01].
I should get a little extra on my… No, but you’ve definitely seen the city through a whole kind of its ups and downs over the decades. I’m sure you’ve seen it change quite a bit over those years. In your book though, you focus on the tenure of Mayor Bill de Blasio, right? But can we… Because you’ve been in the city so long, maybe let’s start by talking through the fall of New York in the ’70s and ’80s, and then its rebirth, which at that time had seen… Like, it seemed impossible, I think, to a lot of people that New York was ever going to recover from the spiral of homelessness, crime, addiction, drugs, that was making the city quite unlivable into the ’80s. So, how did New York manage to pull itself out of a spiral last time?
It’s a great question, and it’s a really long and sort of complicated story that I try to sum up in a thumbnail like in my book. Yes, it’s true, starting in the ’60s through the ’70s and ’80s, New York went through a kind of major decline. It had made a huge fiscal crisis in the early ’70s, where the very expansive localized welfare state of the ’60s essentially bankrupted the city.
Crime was rising. By the time crack came around in the mid-’80s, murders really spiked up, reaching in 1991, I guess, it had a peak of over 2000 murders. After that, it’s a really interesting phenomenon. When Giuliani came in in 1994, he imposed a… And this happened a little bit under Jenkins too, but essentially the adoption of broken windows policing, which is like a community-focused policing effort based on having cops on the street.
And the idea is that petty crime, the sort of thing that is thought of as like minor crime, like vandalism, public disorderliness, drinking in public, graffiti, things like that, which historically cops had seen as just not worth their while to deal with, that’s the province of social workers. But the idea is that, well, things like that create a criminogenic environment. They create the conditions… they signal that disorder is permitted.
The idea is that a functional neighborhood doesn’t need a lot of police because people keep eyes on the street, in the famous Jane Jacobs’ formulation, that people keep an eye on things. When people are no longer keeping an eye on things, then you need the police to come in and impose a certain degree of order. The thing is, broken-windows policing does not mean zero tolerance, it does not mean going out and arresting everybody in some kind of heavy-handed police state style. What it means is like providing correction where necessary and re-establishing the… Re-signaling that there’s a demand for some order.
And this coupled with intensive policing when violent crime flared up, this is like the beginning of the CompStat era, like a very data-driven approach to policing, slowly, slowly they managed to drive crime down. And with crime going down and other efforts with like homelessness and safety on the subways, it gradually… New York City, Manhattan became more appealing to businesses. And the story goes from there. It became kind of a virtuous circle and things improved. I mean, that’s a very, very, very brief sketch. And some would say it’s simplistic, but that’s essentially what happened.
Well, it certainly seems like we’re on the opposite kind of cycle now, where, I mean, frankly, compared to other cities, I mean, New York started out so incredibly safe. I mean, it’s hard to communicate if people haven’t spent time in New York City, let’s say, I don’t know, in 2015 or 2013, versus other cities in… Like, I don’t know, I was living in Washington, D.C, which even when it was not in this more recent cycle of decline, was just a substantially more dangerous city. I mean, you always had to keep your head on a swivel walking around in a lot of the neighborhoods in D.C. And that was always just part of the city life.
But it was… For me, anyway, it was like personally just incredible how I could walk across the entire city in New York and not feel like at all threatened or like… Of course, things do happen. I mean, every large city has crime, but New York really was spectacularly safe for a long time. Unfortunately, it seems like we’re going in that opposite spiral direction, like I said, where it seems like crime reports are going up and up.
That element of disorder that you’re hinting at, that’s kind of hard to nail down or describe, but that feeling that perhaps that law and order doesn’t quite exist or isn’t quite as established as it ought to be, that seems to be coming back. I mean, do you think that New York City is in another spiral downwards like the ’80s? And if so, is there any hope of pulling it back out of that spiral?
Those are great questions. Well, I think statistically, yes. I mean, we’re clearly… The crime numbers are not going the right way. Murders are well up over the last two years, just violent street incidents, felony assaults are up, grand theft auto is up, burglaries apparently are down a little bit, but sometimes it’s hard to tell. But generally, yeah, things are not going in the right direction.
And what’s very interesting is that de Blasio and people on the left like to say, “Well, this is all because of COVID. And various… COVID exposed all of the inequities in our society and all the income inequality and presto, crime, dysfunction.” But it predates that. Starting from when de Blasio took over, there was a steady effort to throttle the police to change statutorily how crime is defined to release people from jail. On many fronts, this took effect.
And yeah, things don’t unwind all at once. To paraphrase Adam Smith, “There’s a lot of ruin in a city.” We had this virtuous circle, this positive energy towards prosocial activity. And it takes a while for that to unwind. But from… or for instance, the city council, I guess, it was in 2015, decriminalized a host of what they called minor offenses, smoking marijuana in public, public urination, hanging out in parks when they’re closed, then graffiti.
Now, these are all things… Jumping the turnstile in the subway. Now, there’s a myth in America that people are, particularly black people are, routinely swept up and locked up for incredibly minor violations like littering. And that once they touch the criminal justice system, they wind up spiraling down into total depravity.
Now, in reality, very few people were ever locked up say for jumping the turnstile or littering or smoking marijuana. These were largely… Yes, they were on the books as crimes, minor crimes, but they served as a pretext to allow the police to do policing and create order where there was disorder. So, say someone complains that people are fighting or harassing people, going in and out of a building, well, the police can show up, and if there’s evidence of something going on or if someone has a knife or they’re smoking marijuana, well, then they can, if necessary, arrest people for these types of crimes.
So yes, there’s a pretextual element to it, but once you start eliminating the ability for the police to use these tools, well, then you’ve kind of just allowed the dysfunctional elements of society to step on the gas. There’s no check, there’s no break that one can put on them.
I think this point is just underappreciated generally in all of our criminal justice discussions, because we’re always hearing from the left and even from the right that we need to, for example, release people who… And they give the impression that there are just millions of people in the United States locked up for exclusively, for example, low-level drug possession. Right?
And I think what folks imagine when they hear that kind of rhetoric is somebody was arrested for smoking a joint in an alleyway, right? And then got booked into the system. And as you say, as you referred to, right? Got into this sort of cycle of contact with the criminal justice system and ended up serving long sentences. And as far as I can tell in my own examination of the statistics about who’s in prison, to the extent that that’s true, it’s often because it’s, as you say, pretextual. The police, for example, arrested somebody on… and then he was charged with a whole bunch of charges, but then pled down to drug possession. Right?
And some of those charges might have been more violent or maybe dealing narcotics or assault or brandishing a weapon, some of these things, and then pled down to… So, as you say… And this is something that’s, I think, really difficult for folks to talk about, because it does seem ridiculous, right? Even to somebody like me, I consider myself like a law and order type conservative, I don’t believe in putting people in prison for smoking a joint. That doesn’t seem like proportional to me at all. But what we’re really missing is what that actual work of policing, it inherently requires a bit of judgment. Doesn’t it?
Absolutely. I mean, if you looked at the pre-COVID numbers of people on Rikers Island, the number of people who were jailed on any average day for smoking marijuana or for jumping a subway turnstile was one or two. It’s a very rare thing. And across the country, most people in prison are there for very serious crimes, violent felonies, which is why like honest criminologists on the left who they’re pro-decarceration, they want to see people out of… they want jails to be closed, they will admit this. They’ll say, “Yeah. We’ve already done all the low-hanging fruit. There’s very few people in jail for low-level possession charges or stuff like that. Even for low-level dealing.”
They’ll say, “Well, yeah, that’s why we have to start making the tough decision not to put violent people in prison.” We’re seeing this across the country now with prosecutors who are declining to charge people or to hold them, even if they’ve committed violent crimes. So, there’s really a shift in… or this is like the left is pushing for a major, very radical shift in how we conceive of crime and punishment.
And I think traditionally, people have just assumed, well, if you commit a violent crime, you should go to prison for various reasons. Okay. Rehabilitation, retribution. Another important reason is incapacitation. Like someone who’s in jail, they can’t do any more crime, at least against the public. And that’s not an inconsiderable reason to put people in jail, but there’s really a shift now to thinking like, “Okay, well, just because someone has committed a violent crime, maybe that’s not a good reason to put people away.”
I guess the idea is that being put in prison is worse than… That the cure is worse than the harm. That it’s almost like the worst thing you can do. The worst thing society can do is put people in prison regardless of what they do. That’s the point of view of the radical left, which is not so radical anymore. I mean, it’s almost mainstream.
Yeah. I want to ask you about the mainstreaming of this kind of ideology, even among the prosecutors. Right? You know, famously Chesa Boudin out in San Francisco who… I mean, even he’s backpedaling a little bit because the policies are so unpopular and there is actually a recall out against him, including some of his former lawyers from his office saying like, “You wouldn’t allow us to do our jobs, even in terms of prosecuting very serious violent crime.”
But there does seem to be sort of a generation of DAs in the last, let’s say, three to five years, who have been elected in some of these very blue cities who don’t believe, as you say, in the fundamental prosecution, even of violent crime. And they, as you say, they say that openly. I’m not slandering them or putting words in their mouths; they are quite open about the fact that they just don’t believe in incarceration, almost just about ever, as a solution to any kind of violent crime.
That seems to be the point of view. Somebody came up with this idea that, “Oh, well, why don’t we just elect our people to these district attorney positions?” And I don’t know why they never thought of it before. Like, district attorneys and prosecutors have traditionally been people who ran on law-and-order-type platforms. And now they’ve realized, “Well, these are very left-leaning cities that elect essentially socialists or hard progressives or whatever. So, let’s see if we can elect some of our guys in these seats.” And you’ve seen it around the country like Philadelphia, they elected a top criminal defense attorney, Krasner, to be the district attorney.
Philadelphia is now breaking its historic records for murders. And Krasner was reelected just last year. Chesa Boudin, yeah, he’s facing a recall, but it’s not clear to me, even with what’s going on in San Francisco, that he would be recalled. There’s a strange… I mean, it’s almost like a weird kind of masochism that people in these cities feel that, “Well, yeah, things are bad, but it’s the whole root causes idea. Like, the only way to deal with crime is to address the root causes. And these are social causes.”
But the thing is, it’s very difficult to identify social causes, root cause, root social causes. It’s difficult to address them. And it’s not really clear that violent crime is actually being driven by inequity or income inequality, there’s very little evidence demonstrating that, it’s just an assertion that’s commonly put out there, and it goes unquestioned. So, yeah, no, I agree.
Let’s talk about that for a moment, because there wasn’t always this, what now seems to us to be an obvious nexus between poverty and crime, right? In the 1950s, for example, or in the ’40s, ’30s in cities, you didn’t have that kind of stratification. I’m not saying that poor neighborhoods didn’t have maybe perhaps slightly higher crime than richer neighborhoods, but one, the delineations between the income levels of neighborhoods were more mixed in urban areas. And two, there wasn’t that like obvious nexus that if you were, for example, in a working-class neighborhood that it was going to mean high crime. When did that nexus really come together to the point where today in 2021, we just assume that poverty and crime in terms of neighborhoods, go together?
Well, I mean, look, I don’t know all the data on this and all the history, I suspect that poor neighborhoods have always had more crime. The point though is that, okay, like with murder, for instance…. I mean, New York City during the Depression had 25% unemployment, there was massive privation, there was homelessness, but there weren’t very many murders. Later in the ’60s and ’70s, I mean, the city was pretty bad and there was a lot of crime going, but then there was a lot more murder.
I mean, I suppose the great migration, like the massive movement of millions of African Americans from the south to the northern cities to take jobs that soon kind of went away, the great society, and the building of the welfare state, which paradoxically appears to have immiserated many people and locked them into generational poverty rather than helping to lift them up, there’s a substantial literature on this historical movement and the creation of the black underclass in the cities, which is honestly where no one disputes that that’s the source of like a great deal of the violent crime facing the cities today.
Look, these things obviously have historical… Were in history. I mean, you can’t pretend like there aren’t historical factors, but addressing them by through decriminalization, decarceration, de-policing, does no favors to anybody, least of all, the communities that are afflicted by the criminals, which tend to be the same communities that they come from. So, it’s no secret that, yes, most murders in major cities are committed by African Americans and their victims are primarily African Americans. So, we’re not doing the black community a lot of favors by not prosecuting their sons and brothers when they go out and kill people.
Another thing that seems to come along with this idea that all kinds of social ills, including crime, come from these larger… some stem from the larger social forces and social ills that then have to be reconstructed or completely taken apart and rebuilt. I mean, this is the kind of the rhetoric around crime and policing. It’s also sort of a similar mentality when it comes to homelessness and mental illness, right? That the problem is fundamentally that these folks are either victims of income inequality and they are too poor to house themselves. And that the obvious solution to that is that we should just house them, and that’ll be the end of the story.
But you write in this book and there’s increasing evidence from a lot of cities that are attempting these kinds of policies that just doesn’t work, because it doesn’t actually address the reason that a lot of people are on the streets.
Well, yeah. I mean, homelessness is an interesting question and there’s different… Like, you can’t paint it all with a broad brush. Homelessness on the West Coast and homelessness in New York City are very different. When we talk about homelessness in New York City, like the shelter population, New York City has uniquely a right to shelter. Very few places have this. In fact, I’m not sure if anywhere else in the United States has this.
It dates back to a lawsuit from 1980, 81 called the Callahan decision Callahan Decree. It’s a consent decree. And New York City agreed at the time to provide shelter to, I think, at the time it was about 2000 people. Now, in the 40 years since that’s expanded, and now New York City provides shelter to 60 or 70,000 people.
Now, most of these people are what they call are families, which means single mothers with children. That comprises probably 40 or 50,000 people. And they’re essentially housed in apartment-style housing, in shelters. Sometimes they rent them apartments that’s called cluster housing in different… This is like a major thing. And it eats up $3 billion a year in revenue.
And then, you do have a few thousand men and women who are in shelters, and then you have a few thousand people living on the streets. And those people are typically seriously mentally ill. Not always, but that’s the general… When people think about homelessness in New York City, you think about people roaming around in rags, pushing carts filled with their belongings, muttering, stuff like that. So, it’s really a mental illness problem.
In California, from what I gather, it’s largely a drug problem. You have people living in tents who are addicted to meth or heroin, fentanyl. And that’s like… Apparently, like 90%, 95% of it is a drug issue. Now, obviously, there’s a lot of mental illness there too and there’s a lot of drugs in New York City. So, these things interpenetrate, but yeah, so you can’t take a mentally… a schizophrenic person who’s not on their meds and give them an apartment and assume that everything’s going to go well, you can’t give a meth addict a really nice apartment and just say, “Okay, there you go, and we’re going to pay for everything, and that’s fine.”
I mean, it’s like pouring water into sand for one thing. So, yeah. I mean, look, there are root issues. And also, it is… I mean, you don’t find homelessness in very poor cities. Like Baltimore and Detroit don’t have significant homelessness. Go to Jackson, Mississippi, you’re not going to find a lot of homeless people, because it’s really cheap. So, homeless people, they either like squat somewhere, or they live with a cousin or whatever. So, these are complicated questions.
Yeah. What about… Because this is something that I kick around in my own head and I haven’t really come to a definitive conclusion of what to do, because in California, of course, Reagan as governor, famously loosened the line for when people will be involuntarily committed. And a lot of folks on the left and the right point to that as perhaps the beginning of Californian cities having an enormous homelessness problem. That, exactly, as you say… So, in California, I think, it’s a lot of drugs, but it’s a lot of, I mean, mental illness overlapping with drug use and drug addiction.
And so, the question then becomes, what’s the line to involuntarily commit someone? Because a lot of the folks on the street, actually, they do have families, and a lot of them have families who would happily take them, but they are, as you say, they’re, for example, off their meds and refuse to take medicine for schizophrenia or delusions or various very serious mental illnesses.
I mean, have we come to a point with this experiment? Because I’m very cognizant of the sort of civil liberties’ problem going the other way, right? Where you simply have people who are very eccentric who might appear to others to make crazy decisions. And there is an element of me that’s uncomfortable with the government like sort of drawing a line and saying like, “No, you’re not capable of making your decision, because we’ve decided that this decision you’ve made is crazy.” But there does seem to… We do seem to have drawn the line too far in the other direction, because some of these people are not in touch with… Like very obviously, not in touch with reality on the street. And it’s not compassionate to leave them there, it seems to me.
No, New York City has the most robust, New York State actually, has the most robust law for dealing with this problem. It’s called Kendra’s Law, known as assisted outpatient treatment. And what it does is, is it permits anyone, like a family member, a police officer, a doctor, can recommend an individual to a judge who will have a hearing to determine if this person poses an immediate danger to themselves or others. And they can essentially force someone to comply with a doctor’s orders regarding medication, treatment, et cetera, et cetera, under the threat of confinement.
Now, this sounds pretty harsh, but, in fact, it’s extraordinarily successful in terms of reducing… Getting people to be compliant with their medication or their treatment regimen. And in reducing contact with law enforcement, reducing episodes of violence, reducing suicide attempts, reducing criminal activity, the threat just going before a judge, sort of puts the fear of God in people and they will respond.
So, it’s… Look, you’re right, it does nobody any favors to allow someone to… Like what’s the difference if you’re letting someone lie in their own filth on the street and everybody walks over them, like that’s both the stereotypical behavior of like a silk-hatted capitalist in some kind of like 1930s agitprop. And the same attitude as a woke civil libertarian who has a lot of compassion and doesn’t want to like impose any controls on people. Like, at what point does compassion and just cold brutality like meet? Right? I mean, you’re sort of… Like, I don’t see how that jibes.
So, yeah, Kendra’s Law is very good, it’s a very robust law. Unfortunately, they don’t use it as much as they should. Typically, when a seriously mentally ill person has an interaction with the police, it’s not the first time, right? They’ve been involved, they’re known to the system, they’ve been in the system. And these are often… it’s like a pareto distribution. Like 80% of the contacts are with 20% of the population.
The seriously mentally ill people who wind up committing major crimes, doing damage to people, they’re known, they’ve been out there. So, it’s not something that couldn’t be dealt with. Look, it’s true most people who have serious mental illness aren’t violent. However, they do have a much higher tendency, propensity for violence than the general population. People don’t like to talk about that, they say it’s a question of stigma. But the late D. J. Jaffe, who wrote about this like substantially and was a tireless activist, he would say, “Look, stigma is overstated as a problem in these matters. Someone who’s eating garbage and thinks he’s Napoleon and throwing his feces around isn’t troubled by stigma. Like, he’s not not seeking help because he’s worried about the stigma of mental illness.” That’s just something that’s been pushed in there essentially as an excuse.
We’ve really expanded the focus on “mental illness” but it’s been almost entirely on sort of, I would say, the “diseases of the wealthy and the relatively privileged.” Right? Our focus on mental illness is on minor depression, anxiety, “trauma,” right? And yet at the same time, we are ignoring people who are totally out of touch with reality who have very, very serious and diagnosable mental illnesses, and treating them as though they have the same capacity to make decisions as the rest of us. And honestly, what I think is so bad besides the obvious quality-of-life issues for people who do live in the city, and for example, have to walk their kids past somebody screaming obscenities, or as you say, like throwing feces, or something.
And the violence, that’s obviously one part of it, but it also makes you… it hardens you. That’s the famous idea that part of the country has for people who live in the city, that they just step over somebody who might need help. It really hardens you when you see those kinds of things every day and see your inability to do anything about them, or actually provide any help to people. I do think it makes us like more hardened and less compassionate community, seeing these kinds of things and seeing how intractable some of the problems are and how little you can do by giving somebody a dollar or five bucks or whatever it is, that it makes us all worse people, I guess, as I’m trying to say.
But speaking of kids, you have kids in the city. It would be remiss of us not to touch on not just the topic that you write about in your book about equity and excellence in the school system, and how those two things seem to be at odds. But also, of course, about the COVID closures and how now New York City… I mean, out of the people I know who have left New York, every one of them is a parent. And out of the people who loved the city and wanted to stay, I mean, it really seems like if you’re like me, you’re like a dinky… whatever, dual-income, no kids, couple, like you can kind of… It’s not as bad yet or… The things that I want to do in my daily life, I can go to a restaurant, I can still walk, the crime isn’t so bad that I feel really like in danger anywhere.
But if you have kids, your interaction with all of this like changes so dramatically. And the policies that New York City has put in place, both with regard to getting them a good education in the city and then also the COVID policies, really seems that they are really pushing parents out. It’s making it harder and harder to really provide a good life for your kid in the city. Isn’t it?
Yeah. I would say that’s accurate. I mean, here’s the thing. New York City schools have about 1.1 million kids, maybe a little less now. That’s a lot of kids, a lot of students. There’s thousands of schools. 85% of the New York City school population is non-white. Okay? That means like black, Hispanic, Asian, white. Under de Blasio and the progressive regime, in particular, the obsession with racial, basically the demographics of the classroom and equity and… have become the overriding concern.
So, the new idea is that every school ideally should match the demographics of the entire city, writ small, but that’s kind of impossible to do, because there is residential… what they call segregation. Now, to me, segregation means that there is illegal effort to keep people apart. That’s not the case in New York City. Anyone can live anywhere. And within reason, you can actually go to a lot of schools. It’s not that hard to get your kid into different schools in different parts of the city. I mean, elementary school, less so.
So, taking the idea that the most important thing is to rearrange students on the basis of skin color, in order to address the problems in the schools, seems like a recipe for disaster. It’s just bean counting of like the most mindless sort, and it’s a good way to paper over the fact that the schools are essentially failing black and Latino kids. I don’t have the stats right off the top of my head, but the percentage of black fourth and eighth graders who don’t meet even basic proficiency in math and English is astounding.
Now, are you going to say that that’s the fault of the white kids and that the white kids are eating up all the resources unfairly? Well, in some places you can make that claim, maybe plausibly, by saying that tax money is unfairly distributed, because school funding is based on property taxes. But in New York City that’s not the case. Every school receives the same amount of funding based on very specific formulas.
Yes, it’s true some schools have a PTA that raises more money for amenities. However, by and large, all the schools get the same amount of money. So, it’s not necessarily a resources question, and plus they spend a huge… I mean, New York City spends more money than any other jurisdiction in the country. It’s not like there’s —
With the exception of Washington, D.C.
With the exception of Washington, D.C. And —
$25,000, for our listeners’ comparison. The average education per year in New York City, public education cost the taxpayer $25,000 per year, per kid. D.C is pushing upwards towards $31,000. But those are… It’s just a lie that some of these like huge cities are even in neighborhoods that don’t have the property tax base, it’s just a lie that America underspends on our schools as a general rule, and it’s particularly untrue in the major cities.
That’s right. It’s just a lie. And outcomes clearly aren’t directly tied to the amount of money that’s poured in. So what’s going on? I guess what we’re seeing is what I call a no-child-gets-ahead policy in New York City, where they want to eliminate gifted and talented programs, they want to eliminate specialized high schools, they want to essentially eliminate magnet schools. They don’t want any kind of tracking of kids. Look, maybe that’s a good idea.
I would say, what is it… Is there something magic that happens when black children have proximity to white children, that somehow test scores rub off? Or is there something going on with the teachers and the school system, that’s a problem? Maybe charter school, school choice, vouchers, that might be a solution.
Look, I don’t want to totally denigrate… There may be like major social or historical problems that are keeping like schools that are 95% black down. In theory, there shouldn’t be a problem. There’s a lot written about this, and I’m not like an expert on educational theory, but it does seem like in a city where only 15% of the student body is white, if what you’re depending on to save the schools is to spread the white kids around equitably, you’re going to run into problems very quickly because there’s not enough of them to go around.
If, in fact, that’s what… If the concentration of white kids is really what’s going on as the main problem in the schools, well then, I don’t know what they’re going to do about it. And yes, they’re also driving people out, because when they start monkeying around with school district boundaries and what’s effectively busing, well then, wealthy parents don’t want to deal with it. So they’ll go somewhere else and get better schools for their money. So, that’s another issue that it’s uncomfortable to talk about.
You’re alluding to yet another issue here, which is we started this conversation talking about downward spirals, right? And how to pull out. And then we talked about how in the ’80s, and then into the ’90s, New York under Giuliani, was able to create an actual positive spiral, right? Where crime was dropping, therefore more people were willing to stay in the city, therefore housing prices went up and property taxes went up and businesses were able… They felt that they were able actually to start a business, and therefore more money went into the city coffer. There’s a kind of positive spiral.
I mean, what you’re alluding to here is this negative spiral, and the big elephant in the room for cities making these kinds of policy decisions about crime and education, homelessness, is at what point people who can separate themselves from the consequences of those policies go ahead and do that and you end up having a shrinking tax base and a kind of downward spiral? I mean, do you think that New York City is hovering around the sort of event horizon of that kind of self-perpetuating cycle, where all that’s left in the city, because like the sort of Saner bands and people of means start moving out, that the voters in the city become more and more concentrated towards people who actually buy into this ideology, because everybody else kind of escapes out?
Yeah. Ed Glaeser, the Harvard urbanist, economist, he coined something called the Flynn effect, which is essentially when politicians elect their own people by driving out the ones who can’t stand their policies anymore. And that’s what happened in Boston in the ’30s and ’40s, when Ed Flynn, who hated the native Protestants, just essentially wouldn’t pave their roads until they all left. And then that gave Boston a hundred years of Catholic mayors. I think we’re seeing something similar happen in New York. Yeah, if you can’t stand it, you leave.
And yes, the tax base… Look, I mean, every hedge fund that leaves, okay, maybe they take a thousand people with them. “Big deal,” de Blasio would say. But as far as the tax base goes, that’s a huge hit. One of the problems with progressive… I mean, I’m not saying it’s a problem, it’s just a feature of progressive taxation is that your revenue is extraordinarily sensitive to small changes at the top of the income spectrum. Right?
So, if you tax the rich like heavily and a few of them leave, well, there goes your tax base. Like, I’m not against that progressive taxation, but you have to keep them vaguely satisfied. I mean, that was always the trade-off in New York that, okay, the rich will pay a lot, but, in exchange, there would be public safety, reasonably good schools, good clean transit. I mean, that was sort of the consensus for the last 45 years or so, that this was the goal.
If you turn your back on that and say, “Well, that’s not the contract anymore,” then you can’t force people to stay. And the rich have the most options. They can leave much more easily than anybody else can, whether it’s to go to the suburbs or Florida. Yeah, we’re seeing that happen. Okay. New York City, there are people moving into the city, like, okay, you moved here, there are young people moving here. Not all of them, not enough to replace… Like, if one billionaire leaves, that’s a big hit, basically. That’s what Bloomberg said, “I want every billionaire to live here.”
Now, the way he went about it wasn’t necessarily how everybody agreed with, but that was the logic. And there is a certain rationality to it. And there’s not that much rationality to driving out all the people who pay for all the amenities.
Do you think that the… I guess, we’ll wrap up on this. Do you think that there is any chance that the incoming mayor, Eric Adams, is going to be better on any of these policies? I mean, just we’re recording on Monday and he just, for example, we’re today kind of declined to say that he would continue the expanded vaccine mandate policy that de Blasio put in place, which makes even children now cannot enter museums or restaurants without showing proof of vaccine.
So Eric Adams declined, he didn’t really say he would repeal it, but he declined to say that he would continue it. I mean, is there a chance? He’s kind of famously said a few things contrary, especially on policing or defunding the police, he’s a little more friendly to charter schools than de Blasio who is like famously like just hysterically anti-charter school. I mean, is there some hope with the incoming mayor that he might be at least a little, if not conservative, a little more like common sense on a couple of these quality-of-life issues?
There’s hope, but let me say… and here’s my kind of cold-water take on this. Part of what the progressives have done over the last eight or 10 years is structure policy and law such that it’s very difficult, will be very difficult for anyone to undo what they’ve wrought, especially with public safety. Okay. For instance, New York City, the NYPD is under federal monitorship regarding stop-and-frisk and other policing tactics. Okay. So, there’s a federal monitor who surveys all of this quarterly and can nix what they say, this is all under a judge’s orders.
They’ve decriminalized a lot of quality-of-life crimes, they have instituted the Bail Reform Law, which is a disaster. It makes a huge number of crimes non-bailable. So, essentially people are released onto the streets almost instantly. They’re trying to close Rikers, which now whether or not you like how Rikers is… and I wrote this like when they were first proposing it, that I think that the real goal is to put a hard cap on the number of people that can be in jail. The new jails have a limit of 3,300 people. Well, that’s absurd. So, there’s a whole bunch of ways in which even if Eric Adams came in with like this tough-on-crime, Giuliani’s-style approach, his hands would be tied. This was all written into city/state law and policy. So, I think it’ll be difficult. I think he has challenges.
Yeah. So, like everything else, it’s institutional, it’s really gotten into, in this case, the institutions of law, and in other cases, just private institutions. But I think that’s kind of one of the themes of what we’ve always discussed here on the High Noon, is the institutionalization of this ideology.
But thank you so much for coming on, Seth Barron. Sometimes I don’t like how the right talks about these kinds of issues, urban issues and cities, because like cities are framed as though they aren’t part of the American fabric, that they are cesspools. And maybe this goes back to our sort of Jeffersonian yeoman farmer kind of idealism, but New York is a flagship city of the United States. American cities are part of who we are as a country, and they represent us to the world. And it’s important, I think, to actually try to fix them rather than to declare them sort of cesspools and permanently dead.
So, Seth, thank you so much for your book. Again, that book is The Last Days of New York: A Reporter’s True Tale. And he has chapters on everything we’ve talked about here, as well as corruption at city hall, all the kinds of things that a reporter’s tale would have about New York City. So, thank you so much for coming on, Seth.
Thanks so much, Inez. I really enjoyed it.
And thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments or questions to [email protected] Please help us out by hitting Subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org. Be brave, and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.