Stephen Gottlieb: Putting People To work In Cities And Towns

Jan 21, 2014

Nationally, Republicans are still fighting unemployment relief and virtually every piece of a public safety net. Their solution to every problem is to blame the victim. Out of work? Must be because people didn't look, or just like poverty. Never mind people spending their days looking for work. It must be their fault, because the only victims worth caring about, of what we politely call the business cycle, are businessmen. Everything would be fine if people would work for pennies a day like much of the world, so the companies they work for could pocket the difference while workers forego food, clothing, shelter and health.

Republicans just don't get that people are looking, trying, wanting to hold jobs, their only prospect of living a decent life. Blaming the victims for the misbehavior of many captains of industry makes them feel better and helps fend off regulating or taxing their contributors. Let everyone else suffer. They turn the pain of unemployment into an argument for giving their contributors yet another tax break, claiming this, finally, will result in jobs – though business has the cash if it wants to invest. Republican economic policy, at least as they describe it to you and me, is all about the power of magical thinking.

There's a better way to provide jobs and use taxpayer money more efficiently – just think about the things we could do that would make our neighborhoods more livable, from safety services to taking care of playgrounds and parks.

During her campaign, I had the pleasure of chatting with new Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan about putting people to work. I mentioned an elderly black gentleman I often saw picking up trash outside a now defunct drug store. I may have misunderstood and never asked, but I assumed someone had the decency to offer him a job in a time of need. He was always a friendly presence.

Sheehan’s response was lack of money. Obviously money still goes to safety net programs but the federal government controls the way it is spent. Communities can't use it to help pay the cost of putting people to work. Under the tax structure we have, cities are all about real estate. Want to put people to work? Build something; tear something down; change the zoning rules.

Of course the biggest development project in Albany was the Empire State Plaza and, though some of you will not remember it, that project left a ghost town in its wake. Department stores and other businesses closed down. Within a short period of time, there was virtually nothing to buy in Albany. State workers drove in and drove out. Except for lunch, they did their business elsewhere. The Plaza had replaced large ethnic communities that had been the lifeblood of downtown business. It was a classic mistake repeated by so-called urban redevelopment projects all over the country.

That’s not a criticism of Mayor Sheehan. She understands the financial territory. But it does mean that cities are cut off from participating in fiscal stimulus and other means of putting people to work, which is precisely what makes cities, and towns, livable – that’s there’s productive work to do.

With the federal government in the grip of the defenders of magical thinking, and local governments constrained by reliance on property taxes, where is there to go for a better future?

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.