New York may be an amusement park for the very rich these days, but as this grimly detailed historical account reveals, there was a time….
“Ford to City: Drop Dead.” The New York Daily News headline of Oct. 30, 1975, still resounds. It wouldn’t be long before Ford gave way to Carter and the Summer of Sam, but the president’s shock-doctrine belief that the U.S. had entered “an age of austerity, in which it was no longer possible for the government to pay for many social services to which the American people had grown accustomed,” has also remained constant in the years since. Phillips-Fein (History/NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study; Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan, 2009, etc.) deftly recounts the clash between government entities and vested interests as New York struggled to cope with slashed social service budgets, funding that contributed to what economists call public goods of use to society at large but that was frowned on by the dawning every-man-for-himself conservative movement that has since held sway. Those austerity budgets soon threatened to bring the city to the edge of bankruptcy, which was itself a shock doctrine all its own—for, as Phillips-Fein writes, “the financial collapse of New York would be the ultimate symbol of American economic decline, a demonstration to the whole world that the United States was no longer the preeminent nation it had been over the postwar years.” Given events since, New York’s crisis—and the author’s astute account of it—seems oddly timely, a swirl of “crisis budgets” and union-busting, of collapsing public education systems and declining labor power. In the end, she writes, as New York went in the ’70s and beyond, so went the nation, from a time when government held public goods to be of value to one in which private enterprise is the “sole way to fuel social development”—perfectly consonant, that is to say, with an economy and culture of inequality.
Sobering, smart reading with many pointed lessons for activists.