It’s a law of physics that what goes up must come down. But as every New Yorker knows all too well, Isaac Newton, though boffo on physics, had little grasp of municipal book-balancing, where the law is more like what goes up—from taxes to tolls—just keeps going up.
So Judge Louis York’s stunning decision forcing the MTA to roll back the fare increase (pending appeal) represents a moment almost without precedent in our city’s history. Even moderately attentive students of municipal politics since, say, the first fiscal crisis know that nothing like this has ever happened. They have seen hundreds of comptroller’s exposés—before these by Bill Thompson and Alan Hevesi—generate about as much popular excitement as a U.N. report on sub-Saharan irrigation systems, and they have watched every Straphangers’ rally, however spirited, come to naught.
That history is what gives York’s decree its quality of vertiginous surreality. Indeed, it has a time-machine aspect to it: When have we ever turned back time’s inexorable hands in such a fashion?
Which is not to say, of course, that it isn’t a pretty grand idea. One bets, for example, that Times fabulator Jayson Blair—not to mention Howell Raines—would love to see the clock roll back a few weeks, or years, even. Some significant percentage of Americans wouldn’t mind winding back to the day when Palm Beach County designed its ballot for the 2000 election. And on a more serious note, virtually every American would love to be able to travel back to September 10, 2001, and write a different future.
Alas, those are fantasies. But even in the real world, there may be opportunities for those plucky enough to follow York’s lead. Might the iron now be hot enough for bar owners to strike, bringing a lawsuit alleging injury and loss of revenue from the smoking ban? Can disappointed Matrix Reloaded fans demand in a class action that Warner Bros. remake the film?
Pandora was given a box by Prometheus that contained all the world’s woes. She opened it and … well, you know the rest. Bottom-line-conscious politicians love to warn of the dangers of following her example. But we now have a Thompson–Hevesi–Straphangers–Judge York box: You open it, and, unbelievably enough, something good comes out. Here’s hoping it’s not empty.