Public distaste for elected officials and government institutions is often the consequence of political strategies. The Reagan critique of government as inept, scandals Clintonian and more, and the widespread sense that politicians and systems are corrupt are also often ideologically inspired.
But the spike in public disapproval of New York's electeds is born of a much simpler dynamic. In the past ten years there's been a continuing outbreak of awful behavior. Dozens of pols have been indicted or convicted or given the heave-ho for ethical failures.
Statewide officials first. One governor and one comptroller were caught red-handed, and accusations swirled around others. Legislative leaders and rank-and-file members have been caught or accused of pilfering, lying, swindling, bribing and otherwise breaking the law. Local officials similarly.
The response has been the call for new laws, most enhancing public disclosure of campaign and personal finances. Not unreasonable but not likely to fix the problem.
Tough-talking prosecutors have also stepped up investigations and indictments, which is more likely to force behavioral changes.
The conversation about all this has been less than incisive, but the entire political class needs the scrutiny of press, prosecutors and public, and it will continue until the indictments cease.
There's been an unintended consequence of the focus on scandal and it hasn't been healthy. New York is suffering from a series of problems that have little to do with public corruption. Soaring debt, crumbling infrastructure, an impasse over public education, budgets that keep kicking the fiscal can down the road, austerity economics that don't work, huge giveaways of public cash, I could go on.
These are the things that impact the lives of citizens. They will define our social and economic future. And almost none of them are a function of bribery and peccadilloes.
It's been hard to get a civic conversation started about these real problems. The press has marginalized itself with an unyielding focus on corruption, and little coverage of real issues. What to do?
Two of New York's leading lights have taken up the cudgels of institutional reform. They're an interesting pair. Sherry Glied is the new Dean of NYU's prestigious Wagner School of Public Administration. Dick Ravitch is a former Lt. Governor and fiscal expert. Both are no-nonsense types who have opinions on how New York's democracy could improve it's process and it's outcomes.
They're convening a meeting of leading lights on Thursday April 30 at Wagner. Manhattan DA Cy Vance, journalist Ken Auletta, Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, former Controller Bill Thompson and others will try to figure out what's going on legally, ethically, politically and practically.
It's actually possible that they will come up with observations and suggestions that will help. It's equally important that in the midst of scandal and rumor serious people talk about serious issues. And this should happen in other states and cities. And it should happen nationally. Imagine, if you will, a set of national conversations that confront looming financial, social and political dangers, without the clever and disingenuous political and journalistic chattering class.
Let's hope the NYU event is substantive and precedent setting. New York needs it. So does America.