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What Helps Us Hurts Us? The Tortured Logic on Denying Aid to New York

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Who needs jobs and public services when you could be shuttering libraries and cutting pay at the Parks Department? That's essentially the question the Manhattan Institute's Nicole Gelinas asked in an absurd recent opinion piece in the New York Post. As the Senate finally moved to introduce its version of the Local Jobs for America Act, investing billions of dollars in local job creation, Gelinas insisted that New York and other cities would be better off without the support.

Her twisted logic? Stimulus legislation hurts American cities because it allows us to maintain public services we depend on but might someday need to raise taxes to continue.

All the "temporary" stimulus did was let the politicians off the hook: No need to make politically tough cuts to get the fisc under control; just keep increasing outlays as if financial bubbles would keep saving us forever.

Given that city budget crises across the country are a product of the nation's deep recession, it would take a few years of strong economic growth - not "financial bubbles" - to set most municipal budgets right. But why help cities through the roughest economy in decades when you could be closing senior centers and health clinics? It's as though these "tough cuts" were valuable in their own right, instead of devastating to our communities.

As if keeping day care centers open weren't enough, Gelinas argues that extending a lifeline to American cities has another "negative" effect. "Obama and Congress took away the leverage City Hall and Albany would have had over intractable labor unions." In other words, suffering is good for our cities because it encourages us to squeeze the sanitation workers and destroy teachers' pensions, another move that's supposed to be intrinsically valuable. In fact, it may be intrinsically valuable, if your goal is to undermine government.

As I argued in an article in the July 5 issue of the Nation:

It's a short step from lambasting public workers to rejecting the very idea of public goods and services--and of government itself. With the nation still reeling from the harm caused by underregulated markets, conservatives are using city and state budget crises to call for across-the-board privatization, entrusting unaccountable private companies with an ever greater share of the public good.

Paul Krugman has deftly debunked the arguments that budget deficits somehow prevent the federal government from supporting local communities and igniting the economic recovery we need. But critical steps to create jobs could be derailed by even less logical arguments that tap into myths of overpaid public workers as part of a right-wing anti-government campaign. This tortured logic needs to be exposed as well.