What is the outlook for American society and, more specifically, how can our society adapt to an economy in distress? It is a vast question that I can only speak to from a rather limited, but nonetheless eye-opening, experience, as chairman of New York’s Municipal Assistance Corporation. But, in brief, I would say that the outlook for American society is highly uncertain and that it cannot, in the long run, adapt itself to an economy in distress.
Austerity and democracy do not walk hand in hand in the United States, except in wartime. The near-bankruptcy of New York City created in 1975 something like a “moral equivalent of war” for city and state politicians, as well as business and labor leaders. Before then the city had, for years, plunged toward disaster. Year-to-year deficits were papered over by accounting gimmicks; pension plans were underfunded; industries were driven away by high taxes and low productivity; borrowing was more and more relied on to finance operating deficits while capital programs were starved; the political leaders refused to face reality: all of these made disaster inevitable.
It was only when this became apparent, when month after month one bankruptcy deadline after another had to be faced, that Governor Carey called on business and labor to join forces with government in order to devise a program that would head off the crisis and bring the city back to life. The programs that accomplished this were initially harshly deflationary, them followed by a gradual shift to moderately relaxed fiscal policy and support of business, which led this year to New York City’s first truly balanced budget in memory.
It is worth analyzing what we were able to do in New York as well as the limits beyond which we could not go, under the severest kind of pressure, since New York is, in certain respects, a mirror of the US. There is after all little difference between New York City’s mounting year-after-year deficits from the mid 1960s to 1975 and the fact that the national budget has been in balance only twice during the last fifteen years; little difference between New York City burying its operating expenditures in its capital budget and the $15 billion annual financing of the US government that is “off-budget” (i.e., the loan guarantees and similar commitments that do not appear in the budget); little difference between New York City having driven business south and west as a result of high taxes and low productivity and the US driving business abroad for the same reasons; little difference between New York City selling short-term notes to finance its deficits and the US financing with the shortest of all notes, namely demand deposits of OPEC oil producers; little difference between New York City’s sky-rocketing pension costs and the requirements that social security be adjusted to the cost of living (COLA). New York City faced actual bankruptcy by its inability to pay off its debts when they came due; the …