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Time to Restore “Home Rule”?

During this spring’s budget debate, both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his top officials have repeatedly invoked the ominous specter of the city’s budget being turned over to the State Financial Control Board (SFCB). Bloomberg, in fact, “jokingly” told Newsweek that he actually hoped that he and the City Council reached a budget deadlock, because this would force the SFCB, whose members “understand” how budgets work, to step in. Similarly, in debating the merits of a city Living Wage Bill, Bloomberg’s top economic adviser, Daniel Doctoroff, warned that such a wage increase would backfire on the City Council, because the unfriendly SFCB would ultimately nix it.

Regardless of the merits of the specific measures at hand, the mere presence of such an oversight structure raises questions about the city’s ability to control its own destiny. The SFCB is essentially an institutionalized version of the Emergency Financial Control Board that dictated the outcome of the fiscal crisis of 1975. That outcome saw the imposition of massive cutbacks in city services, a severe reduction in the bargaining strength of the city’s municipal unions, and a dramatic growth in regressive city fees. The SFCB currently consists of Governor George Pataki, State Comptroller Carl McCall, Mayor Bloomberg, City Controller William Thompson, and two members from the private sector, capital asset management specialists John A. Levin and Robert G. Smith (one slot is vacant). That Levin and Smith are both Pataki-appointed, major Wall Street players suggests that Mayor Bloomberg feels confident in having a plurality of Board votes (at least four or six) go in his favor.

An unlikely combination of political figures—including former mayors Ed Koch and Rudolph Giuliani, and current Comptroller McCall—have criticized the Board, seeing it as either unnecessarily nettlesome or simply superfluous. Koch, for example, once called the city an “indentured servant” to the Board. Still an opponent of its powers, Koch also recalls that the Board gave him the upper-hand in labor negotiations, allowing him to warn unions to deal with him, else the “control Board will decide your [wage] increase.” In “sunset” mode since 1986, the Board’s continued existence came under fire amidst the boom of the late ’90s, when both Giuliani and McCall questioned the necessity of its 2.1 million dollar yearly budget.

“It is a reflection of the prosperity of the city that it has become an obscure body,” Felix G. Rohatyn, N.Y.C. bailout architect and original Control Board member told the Times  in 2000. “It is only necessary when things are very, very bad,” he added. Few would dispute that the city’s present financial condition is indeed “very, very bad.” But reviving the powers of a body that is quasi-democratic at best, and by temperament financially quite conservative, is far more “necessary” for some of the interested parties than others. Mere mention of the SFCB’s return should send shivers down the spine of all those who, like Ed Koch, believe in “home rule.”

An Empire of One

In the past two months alone, the United States has withdrawn from the International Criminal Court, the Vienna Convention on reciprocal treaty obligations, an international landmines treaty, and portions of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. These moves follow in the wake of the Bush administration’s flouting of Geneva Convention standards with its treatment of the Al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo, its opposition to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, its refusal to adhere to the international treaties banning the execution of juveniles, and its withdrawal from last summer’s United Nations Conference on Racism. All of these retreats, of course, follow the administration’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol regarding global warming.
In a world increasingly threatened by both terrorism and environmental catastrophe, such a unilateralist approach is quite obviously shortsighted. Since September 11th, the administration’s driving question—“How can we eliminate global terrorism?”—had been a legitimate one. However, its answer—“By doing only what we think is best”—will never be accepted by the rest of the world. Nor should it be. Indeed, precisely as the globe has become integrated economically, the capital of that world is now completely isolating itself politically. In both of these spheres, democracy, which should be the world’s aim, is ultimately the greatest casualty. In its bullying of the rest of the world, the US is behaving like Shaquille O’Neal. It leads with its ass and elbows, and succeeds only on the basis of its size and strength. Its weaponry is sheer force, and grace never enters into the arena. It commits fouls at will, knowing that the referees have no backbone. Still, there is a glimmer of hope: O’Neal says that he will only torment us for two more years. Perhaps, like the Lakers, the American empire will also find a new center, and if so, we can only hope that it is one guided by the fundamentals.

One More Thing

In the spirit of democracy, we invite responses to each and every piece published in the Brooklyn Rail. Write a letter, cook up a longer response, send it by courier pigeon—we’re here to start discussions, not end them. Thank you.


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