Even New York’s Mayor Can’t Turn Back The Clock

Earlier this week, New Yorkers elected a new mayor for America’s biggest city. Bill de Blasio, a progressive/populist (delete according to preference) Democrat will be the first center-left mayor of the city in twenty years. One of the most vicious and sustained attacks on de Blasio has been that he is soft on crime. Critics have claimed that his opposition to “stop-and-frisk” in particular will send New York back to the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s.

First, a bit of context. In 2012, the murder rate was the lowest since the city began keeping records in 1963, and New York is the safest of the ten largest cities in the United States. It’s even safer than many smaller cities. The murder rate is less than a fifth of what it was in 1990. I could go on, but the point is clear: New York has gotten safer over the last twenty years.

This is undoubtedly good. New York is a safer place to live, and the city and its citizens are better off as a result. At the same time, falling crime rates are a political problem for Mayor-elect de Blasio. No matter what changes he demands in policing–even in the very unlikely event that he demands none–his reputation will be tied, in part, to crime statistics. Crime was falling before he was elected, if it stops falling or even increases under his leadership, no matter the causes, he will get the blame.

In the same way that Presidents and Prime Ministers are subject to the vicissitudes of financial markets that are mostly beyond their immediate control, local governments get credit and blame for developments that have very little to do with policy changes. The fact that inequality in New York has been rising is not primarily the responsibility of Mayors Bloomberg or Giuliani, it’s a broader national trend from which the city is not exempt. Local officials are more responsible for ameliorating the symptoms of problems and doing their best to create fertile ground for positive developments. In this way, the mayor of New York does have a role: he can require developers to include affordable housing and ensure that city residents can access important social services. Bill de Blasio doesn’t have the power to re-distribute wealth or change the dynamics of earning in New York, but he can make life easier for people most hurt by systematic change.

Another part of the mayor’s role is putting the city in a good position to benefit from broader changes. The idea that New York has been getting safer has attracted wealthier people back into the city as part of the gentrifying process. If politicians are judged by results (which they usually are), the success of American cities and mayors since the 1970s has been in convincing people that things are getting better, which has actually produced some positive changes like reduced crime. Methods of policing have a role, of course, but given the variety of cities that have gotten safer in the last forty years, they are probably not the main factor.

Neither Bill de Blasio nor his erstwhile opponent for the occupancy of Gracie Mansion, Joe Lhota, can single-handedly undo decades of demographic and economic change in New York. Still, as mentioned above, he has to maintain the perception that New York is safe and getting safer. This is vitally important for his political future. While he does not have control over the systemic factors that have reduced crime, he needs to play his PR hand well.

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