James Altucher was savaged for a piece he wrote last year in the New York Post called “New York City is Dead Forever.” New Yorkers hated the implication that the city lacked the necessary fight or resilience to come back from an extremely terrible run. New York has made many dramatic comebacks in the past. It’s almost a staple of the way the city operates: Democratic mayor ruins the city, Republican mayor squelches corruption and fixes the city, creating good times and leading to a new Democratic mayor who ruins the city again, and so on. La vie continue.
But Altucher may have a point. The problem this time around is not a uniquely incompetent mayor or a uniquely terrible health crisis: It’s a shift that threatens to undercut New York’s reason for existing.
The Democrats thought they could shut down the city completely and that people would be content to stay in their homes, perhaps for years on end, like cold cuts kept in Tupperware and stacked in a giant refrigerator. The Democrats could get away with this, they reasoned, because, for a great many people, the city is mandatory: You have to live there because you work there. Taxes can be raised almost arbitrarily high, city services can be almost arbitrarily bad, government can be almost arbitrarily corrupt, and there is still no way out. As long as the jobs are there, the people must remain. Subways and elevators must be ridden, offices must be occupied.
Unfortunately, the idiotic lockdown showed a lot of New Yorkers that these assumptions were wrong. Subways and elevators didn’t have to be ridden after all. Offices didn’t need to be occupied. Work acquired a different flavor. Meeting online is vastly inferior to working in-person, but if you introduce enough inconvenience to working in-person, online is suddenly worth it. Just like anything else in this world, there is a certain price that is higher than people are willing to pay.
The price of working in New York City is too high at the moment. So what happens when Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio are out of office (perhaps in prison) and the price returns to something more reasonable?
Overcoming the New York State-of-Mind
A lot of New York expatriates, myself included, are busy exploring the rest of the country. Some of us have been so brainwashed by the New York state-of-mind that the freedoms enjoyed by our fellow Americans might seem frightening: People in other parts of the country make eye-contact with strangers. They pay lower taxes, they choose their kids’ schools, and they have the right to bear arms. They don’t like wearing masks. They go to church in astonishing numbers.
In the New York view, this is not “stronger together” or “unity” but the opposite—people flouting rules, rejecting benevolent government mandates, preferring God to government as the highest authority. It is infuriating to see a state like Florida refuse to have its fair share of suffering! And even more infuriating to see that, despite an overwhelming rejection of New York-style hashtag government, people down in Florida not only break the rules but are happy about it. What bad behavior!
Great cities don’t always remain great. They don’t always remain cities. They evolve. Paris and Rome are no longer the centers of power they once were: They’ve become great museums, stocked with so much former glory that they can live on the interest. Meanwhile, zombies like Detroit remind us that a city that destroys its own livelihood can cease to exist altogether.
New York was once the symbol of American audacity and enterprise. From 1890 through 1930, there was a serious competition for who would have the tallest building in the world—all in New York. Nine buildings took the world title, one after the other, but there was never any doubt where the new champion would be. Then the city stopped building. There was one last gasp of glory in 1971 with the World Trade Towers. But when the Chicago Sears Tower took the title in ’73, New York didn’t bother to take it back. When the West Side Highway collapsed the same year, New York didn’t bother to rebuild it—and still hasn’t. In the 1980s, Donald Trump tried to bring the title of World’s Tallest Building back to New York, but the city wasn’t interested: The New York Times even suggested a building that tall would be pointless.
Similarly, New York City in 1940 bought from private companies the largest and best subway system in the world. They immediately closed and tore down two complete elevated subway lines, (on 2nd and 9th avenues) promising to replace the stations with new underground routes. The 2nd Avenue El used to have 30 stations; in 2017 New York managed to open three 2nd Avenue stations, running just from 72nd street to 96th. The total number of subway stations in the city has gone down since the city took over the lines, all the public restrooms are closed, and the system is using track switching technology built in the 1930s. I could go on.
What the city has done instead of building new things is pass new restrictions, closing traffic lanes, banning smoking in Central Park, making planning permission ever more complex. The goal seems at once to make the city uninhabitable except as a tourist destination and to prevent any innovation at all from taking place there.
Liberty or Detroit?
So is Altucher right? It depends entirely on what New Yorkers choose to do next. If the city continues to operate as it has for the last decade, it’s Detroit dead. If the city replaces de Blasio with a candidate like Yang, who is well-intentioned and original but who also believes in big government expenditure, the city is also dead. To rescue New York at this point would take a mayor with imagination on an order we frankly have no right to expect.
But the policy prescriptions could be very simple.
Cut the state and city income tax to zero. Cut corporate taxes to zero. Zero fees for incorporating a new company. Get rid of all special licensing requirements (such as for being a barber or a hairdresser—people can tell whether or not someone is competent to cut their hair). Limit building-permit approval times to two months. Get rid of rent control, which is a great deal for the privileged few who enjoy it at the expense of everyone else. And, while you’re at it, sell the subways back to private companies. And let’s have smoking in Central Park as well, as a reminder that we’re free adults and not the government’s children.
That may sound like the Wild West to our New York bureaucrats. To much of the rest of the country, it will simply sound normal. And that’s why businesses and people are leaving New York and moving to the Wild Wests of limited government. The pandemic has simply accelerated a phenomenon that was already underway. But there’s nothing wrong with the city that a whole lot of liberty can’t fix. Whether or not that liberty will be forthcoming is a different question.