The Anti-Economist — From the February 2014 issue

Change in the Air

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When Bill de Blasio won the New York City mayoral election with 73 percent of the vote, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was the start of something big. For more than two decades it has been taken as an article of faith that New York City voters prefer social liberals who will nonetheless protect the interests of wealthy Manhattanites. But throughout the campaign, de Blasio focused relentlessly on the city’s problems with economic inequality. He proposed raising taxes on high earners to pay for universal pre-K education. He promised to force luxury real estate developers to build affordable housing. He called for an immediate end to the NYPD’s “stop-and-frisk” policy. And he won in a landslide, with the largest margin of victory of any non-incumbent in the city’s history.*

* Election Day in New York was also a victory for the left-wing Working Families Party, which helped elect many of the twenty new Democrats on the city council.

Voters in New York rejected the supreme pragmatism of Mayor Michael Bloomberg — and his insensitivity to how most people live. Manhattan, much of Brooklyn, and, increasingly, sections of Queens are now places for the relatively rich, and to Bloomberg that is good news. On his way out of office, he made the remarkable statement that the more Russian billionaires moved to New York the better, because they provide the tax base necessary for city services. But property taxes, not income taxes, are the main revenue generator in New York. Sales-tax revenue is also critical. Far better to have more jobs — allowing more people to buy homes and spend on goods and services — than to attract a handful of new billionaires, who spend proportionally less of their income than do the middle-class, and who are less likely to spend it locally.

In the Democratic mayoral primary, voters were presented with a continuation of Bloomberg’s billionaire-friendly policies in the form of city-council speaker and Bloomberg heir apparent Christine Quinn, whose nomination was widely seen as inevitable. Instead they chose de Blasio’s unapologetic progressivism. They were presented with a similar choice in the general election, where de Blasio faced a former Rudy Giuliani deputy, Joseph J. Lhota, with strong ties to Wall Street. This time they chose de Blasio by the record margin mentioned above.

As it happens, the common assumption about the New York City electorate — that it’s allergic to Republican positions on race and gender and sexuality but basically conservative on fiscal matters — has come to be assumed for the United States as a whole. If Bill de Blasio’s success challenges this view of New Yorkers, perhaps it has larger implications for progressives around the country. Election Day seemed to bear this out. In Seattle, an avowed socialist won a city-council seat. There were also liberal victories in Minneapolis and Boston. At the state level, the past year saw significant progressive legislative victories, especially with respect to wages. Five states raised the minimum wage in 2013, with California leading the way. By 2016, California — the eighth-largest economy in the world — will have a minimum wage of $10.00 an hour. In last year’s State of the Union address, President Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00. By the end of the year, he was on board with a congressional proposal to raise it to $10.10.

All of this has been read as a sudden shift in America’s political winds. But it could simply be that candidates for office, including most Democrats, have for decades been ignoring Americans’ real needs and economic fears. And now a few are at last speaking out. The U.S. economy has been failing the American people since the late 1970s. What has taken so long?

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