As a general rule, budget cuts affect only the very rich and the very poor. The rich, used to enjoying tax breaks, have to settle for slightly fewer concessions in hard times. The poor, who depend directly on the public sector for a multitude of services, get whacked. The rest of us read about the $50 million pinch here or the $100 million squeeze there, but it might as well be Monopoly money. Somehow, the trains keep coming; ditto the garbage men – except, of course, in the seventies, when they didn’t.
Is that about to change? The Bloomberg administration is staring at its second straight $5 billion deficit. This year’s budget was finessed through the usual shenanigans, with most of us none the wiser. But now, say the fiscal guardians, the time for paying the piper may actually have arrived.
Images of the seventies fiscal crisis – the arson fires, the shuttered branch libraries, the seedy subways – are called forth. And yet most New Yorkers don’t take very seriously the idea that their city could ever look like that again. Certain tripwires were set in place during the first crisis to ensure that another one of that proportion couldn’t happen. Also, we have a collective sense that if there’s one thing Mike Bloomberg knows, it’s money; if we had to have a crisis, a money one is a good one to have with this mayor in Gracie Mansion (or at least in the neighborhood).
But most of all, it just seems impossibly remote. That was a New York, after all, where porn movies were advertised in the tabloids right next to the real films. Of course that New York collapsed; that New York was a besotted Rome. But this New York – revivified and remade, home of the $13 apple martini and the $600,000 one-bedroom? (Uh, come to think of it, maybe we should be careful with talk of decadent empires.) A generation or two now has been raised in or moved to a city that’s had its miseries, to be sure, but has become, broadly speaking, alive, and even, by New York standards, inviting. People have, incredibly, moved back to retire here. The gamble was that New York was back for good, and after 9/11, the gamble became an article of civic faith: We will get through all this.
Which is surely why the Bloomberg administration was so aggressively raising the specter of seventies dysfunction last week to prime middle-class residents for the alternative – higher taxes. It was clever spin: One thing New Yorkers hate is going backward.