With Elections Approaching, How Is Progressive New York Doing?

While you are probably focusing on the mid-term elections for the federal House and Senate, here in New York State we also have all the executive offices up (Governor, Comptroller, Attorney General), and the entire state legislature as well. (New York City elections are on a different schedule, next to occur in 2021.) So it’s an appropriate time to ask how our progressive blue-state model of government is doing.

The short answer is, in New York we pay far more for our government than those in other states, for below average results. New York State has been declining economically relative to the rest of the country since at least the 1930s, and there is every reason to believe that that trend will continue. Meanwhile, the voters will overwhelmingly vote for continuation of current policies.

At the City Journal, Nicole Gelinas summarizes the situation over the past 10 years in a September 21 article titled “New York’s Lost Decade.” She could just as easily have made it eight decades, but whatever. The short summary is that tax revenues, particularly from the securities industry in New York City, have increased substantially; and yet the money has been swallowed up by hiring more people and paying them more to do the exact same thing, with no notably changed results. Poof! and it’s gone.

New York City’s budget, excluding federal and state grants, has soared, from $44.9 billion to $65.4 billion last year, or a nearly 46 percent jump, over the decade. The state budget has exploded, too, nearly 42 percent, from $115.6 billion to $164.5 billion. The money has gone, especially in New York City, to higher worker salaries and wages for a rapidly expanding public-sector workforce.

Gelinas in particular laments that with all that extra money coming in, the State and City almost completely abdicated on making significant improvements to infrastructure. She focuses on the subway, which is mostly under state control, and seems only to decline even as more and more money gets spent on it:

Over the winter, the city’s subways, indirectly controlled by the state’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, with some city input, suffered their worst on-time performance in modern history, with just 58.1 percent of trains running on time in January (the figure for June was 68 percent, hardly stellar). In August, the subways had only one day without a subway-signals failure causing cascading delays.

That’s as far as Gelinas takes us in this piece, but let me supplement with information from a few other areas:

  • Start with tax burden. The Tax Foundation publishes ranking by state of state and local tax burden as a percentage of income. Their last report on this subject, from 2012 (come on guys — update this!) put New York in first place, with combined state and local tax burden at 12.7% of income. Not surprisingly, Connecticut and New Jersey followed closely at numbers 2 (12.6%) and 3 (12.2%). The national average was 9.9%, and the lowest state was Alaska at 6.5%.

  • The biggest state and local funded responsibility is K-12 education. In New York we pay far more for K-12 education on a per student basis than any other state, close to double the national norm, for well-below-average results. According to the most recent Census data covering 2016 (reported in May 2018), New York State spent $22,366 per student on K-12 education, versus a national average of $11,762. But don’t worry, New York City spent even more, $24,109, far and away the most of any large school district in the country. Do you think for that kind of extraordinary money we might have achieved at least middling results? Don’t kid yourself. Consider the NAEP (“the nation’s report card”), given to eighth-graders, which gives results as percent of students rated as “proficient.” In New York State in the most recent year, 34% of eighth-graders rated “proficient” in math, 34% in reading, and 30% in science. National norms were 34% for math, 36% for reading, and 34% for science. In New York City, for that $24,109 super-premium price tag, it was 28% proficient for reading and 28% for math. Meanwhile, progressive challenger Democrat gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon (a some-time spokesperson for the teachers’ union) had as a principal plank of her campaign a demand for “full funding” of the school system — current levels, to her, being obviously insufficient; and of course Governor Cuomo fended her off by delivering some incremental money to be wasted.

  • The publicly-owned New York City Housing Authority continues its decline and decay, so far gone at this point that prospects for any recovery are extremely remote. See prior MC coverage, for example here and here. In July NYCHA suddenly announced that it needed some $32 billion immediately for capital repairs. Nothing like that amount of money is anywhere on the horizon. For comparison, total rents for all of the approximately 175,000 apartments in the whole system come to only about $500 million per year.

  • The head count of employees at the City and State has been soaring. What do these people do? Nobody knows! Here’s an article from the New York Times from June 2017 reporting on increasing headcount of New York City workers since Bill de Blasio became mayor, with essentially every agency seeing increases. They start the article by interviewing a new employee of the Sanitation Department. Her duties? “[T]rying to help sell residents of the nation’s largest city on its ambitious composting effort.” Really. On a larger scale, the article reports that the Fire Department has increased its headcount by more than 20% during de Blasio’s tenure. What, is the number of fires soaring? Of course, it’s the opposite. This article from January 2017 reports that the number of deaths from fires in New York City has declined from 310 in 1970 to only 48 in 2016, the lowest in over a century (when the population was much lower). So why the huge increase? It seems that the Fire Department has sold the mayor on the idea that they should hugely increase the staff to handle emergency medical response. That has to be the most expensive possible way to do emergency medical response; but then, de Blasio never saw a government expenditure he wouldn’t support. So the bureaucracy just grows and grows.

    Of course, New York continues its long-term relative economic decline compared to the rest of the country, from an extraordinary number one in the nation with more than double national per capita income in 1930 to number seven among the states and only 14% above the national average per capita income in the most recent data. The funny thing is, you could even get me to support higher-than-average state spending if it delivered results for the underprivileged. But instead we spend extraordinary sums on education for inferior results, and trap people in poverty in deteriorating public housing. Time to try something else! (Don’t worry, we won’t.)