Unlike most great cultures and civilizations, which have defined themselves by their cities—Athens, Rome—the United States has long viewed its cities with suspicion. With the exceptions of Boston, Austin, and Santa Fe, American capitals are seldom located in the most interesting cities in any given state, and the United States may be the only industrialized nation in the world whose capital is not its finest city. (“Well, you have Canberra and Sydney,” says Gelb, trying to be helpful. “But so what?”) Three years ago, New York City residents were made painfully aware of the consequences of this schism. “If 9/11 had happened in Paris,” asks Larian Angelo, director of the finance division of the New York City Council, “do you think the city would have had to cut its budget and raise taxes?”
George Wallace was always decrying New York liberals who wanted to meddle in the affairs of the South. In 1969, when outrage over the Vietnam War was starting to peak, Spiro Agnew gave a famous speech in Des Moines denouncing the liberal bias of the New York and Washington media; Nixon obsessively complained in private of a “terrible liberal Jewish clique” that ran the news. In 1975, when a near-bankrupt New York City limped to Washington, hat in hand, it was bluntly rebuffed, prompting the famous Daily News headline: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. “Back then, there was a debate about whether the U.S. should walk away from its cities,” recalls Judy Chesser, Mayor Bloomberg’s lobbyist in Washington. “No one suggests that today.”
It’s true: They do not. Back in those days, hostility to cities was driven by resentment toward minorities and the poor. Today, with the slow erosion of the welfare state, that anger has been redirected at tastemakers, intellectuals, the cosmopolitan elite—somehow, in the GOP imagination, city dwellers have become pointless self-loathers who eat takeout Thai and watch Lars von Trier films. Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas?, argues that this impression has its roots in the populist movements of the 1890s, when New Yorkers were regarded as twee, good-for-nothing parasites. The difference, though, is that this cultural disdain was merely a by-product of class anger; it wasn’t central to it. “Today,” says Frank, “the people who speak this language the most bluntly don’t have a problem with capitalism. They just have a problem with the culture and intellectuals. It’s gone from being a legitimate protest movement to where the ugly side is all that’s left.”
In many practical ways, secession is nowhere near as crazy as it sounds. New York already buys much of its power from outside the state, and the city can, if necessary, generate 80 percent of its own electricity, because it’s required by law to have the capacity to do so. Since the closing of Fresh Kills, we’ve shipped all of our garbage out anyway, and the city owns the 120,000 acres of land upstate containing our reservoirs, plus the pipelines; the trick would be protecting them (though the city has its own police force up there, about 220 officers) and making agreements with the authorities that control the Delaware River.
But, as any New Yorker can appreciate, space would be an issue. We’d need to build prisons, for instance, and it’s hard enough to find transfer stations for our sanitation. The city would be more reliant on tourism than ever, which might mean subordinating the needs of its resident population to those of its transient guests, as in (ulp) Las Vegas. Because islands depend heavily on the places that supply them with goods, we’d be vulnerable in times of crisis, and as it is, we probably wouldn’t have enough shipping capacity or container space.
Then there are the diplomatic and trade questions to sort out. Would NAFTA apply? Would extradition? Do all Wall Street trades involve a tariff? “You’d need new treaties relating to commerce,” says Jeffrey Leeds, the principal of Leeds Weld & Co., a private-equity firm. “Our Wall Street salesman would no longer automatically just pick up the phone and cold-call Nebraskans. If you think NAFTA was controversial, can you imagine the fights over WAFTA—the Wall Street Free Trade Agreement?”
There is the small matter of writing a constitution (gay marriage would be legal, of course, and shrieking car alarms would command a stiffer penalty than drug possession). We’d also have to establish a more substantial government (headquartered, with snarling defiance, in Libeskind’s new building). And New York would be a Jewish nation, a Jerusalem-on-the-sea, which would doubtless make us extra-vulnerable. But even given the corkscrew politics of New York Jewry, would we really produce a president who outflanked Bush in his support of Ariel Sharon? And who, like Bush, wouldn’t make the slightest effort to broker a new peace?
If New Yorkers didn’t support the rest of the country with their tax dollars, perhaps they’d feel less insulted by outsiders’ contempt. But at the moment, depending on whose figures you choose to believe, the city sends between $6.5 billion (City Council estimate) and $11.4 billion (the mayor’s office) more to the federal government than it receives in services, making the snubs we regularly get from Congress feel uncomfortably reminiscent of taxation without representation, a condition that has had ominous consequences before. (How gratifying it would have been if New York’s senators, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, had taken the opportunity to make this point last week by throwing a few crates of tea into Boston Harbor.)
According to the Government Accountability Office, an agency that tallies all manner of policy-related facts and figures, the federal formula for allocating Medicaid payments is particularly punishing to New York, matching the state’s load with only 50 percent of the money it needs. This may be how a federal system is supposed to work—the rich states give more, the poor states give less—but it’s a harder system to tolerate if you have no faith in the president and congressmen who are redistributing your income, if you believe this money is in fact being spent on the very worst kinds of priorities (most New Yorkers had grave reservations about the Iraq War), and if, worst of all, you realize one day that your home state will never, no matter how dire the circumstance, be on the receiving end of the same largesse it provides the rest of the nation.