Inequality — a necessary ingredient of New York’s greatness

At his inauguration, New York’s new mayor Bill DeBlasio denounced the city’s economic inequality. He seemed to argue that to remain truly great, New York must remedy income inequality. I submit, however, that New York is great in part because of income inequality.

The wealth at the top end of the economic spectrum clearly has played a major role in the city’s greatness. For one thing, the very rich have used their money to ensure New York’s preeminent cultural position. In addition, the rewards that await the very successful attract the best and brightest to New York. They, in turn, help keep the city great.

Indeed, this is a theme of the city’s unofficial anthem, “New York, New York.” People want to “be a part. . .New York” because of the burning desire to reach “the top of the list” and become “king of the hill.” This doesn’t mean becoming mayor; it’s all about grabbing the glittering prizes, including great wealth.

The extreme poverty one has always found in New York is also associated with its greatness. That poverty exists not because it’s more difficult to earn money in New York than in other American cities, but because the city has always been a magnet for essentially penniless foreigners seeking a better life.

This theme is captured, of course, in the iconic words on the plaque inside the Statue of Liberty. New York welcomes the “tired” and “poor” — the “huddled masses,” the “wretched refuse,” and the “homeless, tempest tossed.” As long as they keep coming, and they do, vast income inequality will come with them. When they stop coming, New York will no longer be great.

To be sure, income inequality is not a sufficient condition for a city’s greatness. Moreover, a city’s greatness is jeopardized if those at the bottom of the spectrum cannot, through hard work and responsible behavior, move up.

Unfortunately, DeBlasio’s policy prescriptions are likely to thwart upward mobility. This certainly is true in the area of education, where he has vowed to overturn the reforms of Mayor Bloomberg. As the Washington Post editorial board reminds us:

Bloomberg challenged teachers unions and other entrenched interests to expand school choice and accountability. He closed large neighborhood schools that were performing poorly and replaced them with hundreds of smaller schools and public charter schools. When Mr. Bloomberg became mayor in 2001, fewer than half of New York City’s high school students graduated in four years; that figure is now 61 percent, even though standards are tougher. Fourth-grade reading and math scores have risen, albeit slightly.

[Yet] DeBlasio has promised to limit charter schools’ access to publicly owned buildings, impose a moratorium on closing low-performing schools and end Mr. Bloomberg’s A-to-F report cards for schools. And his choice for schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, is a prominent critic of Bloomberg’s approach who quit the former mayor’s administration over “philosophical differences.”

The deBlasio administration poses no meaningful threat to income inequality. However, in the words of the Post, it does threaten to “undermine efforts that would generate more equal opportunity in the long run.” Accordingly, deBlasio threatens New York’s greatness.

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