New York is a notoriously difficult city to govern. Tough unions, big egos, high stakes and in the post-Covid era, massive challenges for budgets, real estate, transport, public services and more. Ed, as I expressed in my answer to your last Note, it feels very much like we are at an inflection point in the future of the city. If there were strong leadership and a sense that this is a moment for reinvention, then I think NYC could emerge stronger. But if we get someone who simply isn’t up to the job, I think it’s quite likely we are heading back to the 1970s.
Who should that person be? The only candidate that most people have actually heard of is Andrew Yang, the technology millionaire turned social entrepreneur who ran in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2020 and is now running to be mayor of New York. Yang is a likeable guy, and he has some good ideas, particularly around the need for “human-centred capitalism”, which is about trying to buffer the impact of digital job displacement by using a value added tax to create a stronger social safety-net and possibly even universal basic income.
He’s a self-professed “technocrat” and predictably data driven. He likes UBI, for example, because studies have shown that job training for men without college degrees in the Midwest has largely failed. I can imagine he’d be like Mike Bloomberg in using big data for government (as my colleague Gillian Tett has outlined in her book The Silo Effect, Bloomberg used data collection in incredibly creative ways during his tenure as mayor: for example, tracking data across different departments to discover that fires happened more frequently on blocks with Chinese restaurants (the grease is a risk factor) and thus redeploying fire department resources).
But Yang isn’t Bloomberg. He hasn’t run a company that big, and he doesn’t have the native New York tough guy vibe going for him. He also doesn’t have a lot of stiff competition. Scott Stringer, the most solid alternative, is in the midst of a sex scandal. Most of the other candidates are local political insiders or new progressive types without much name recognition.
Which brings me to the question — in the age of superstar company, and the superstar economy, do you also need superstar politicians? In the past, I’ve argued no, since what we really need in government right now is heads down execution. That’s what Joe Biden is doing beautifully at the moment; the US president just keeps ploughing ahead, doing more and saying less. Ditto his staff, all of whom are swimming in their lanes and not speaking privately much to the press.
But heads-down government isn’t typically what star politicians do. I like Yang’s approach and some of his policies. But he has no experience with governance, and wants to run the country’s biggest and arguably most challenging city. I do worry, given the powerful vested interests he’ll have to fight, that this could end badly . ..
Ed, would you vote for Yang? Who would be your dream candidate for NYC mayor?
Rana, on current evidence I wouldn’t vote for Yang. The only reason he’s a superstar is because he ran for president, which is a brilliant vehicle to get you household name recognition but not a particularly convincing one for being famous. As the New York Times chronicled, the only big thing that Yang has run is Venture for America, a non-profit organisation that promised to create 100,000 jobs for graduates in start-ups across urban America. Only 150 ended up with jobs and the non-profit ended up in the red as Yang embarked on his quixotic bid for the Democratic nomination. So he has a history of making extravagant promises that don’t add up.
To wit, his universal basic income proposal makes very little sense. As Paul Krugman pointed out, Yang’s proposal to give $1,000 a month to every American would have cost $3tn a year — two-thirds of the current federal budget. To pay for it would have required either massive tax increases or closing down literally every other federal benefit from social security to housing support and education programmes. Even then, it would only cover a quarter of the median income and most of it would be wasted on people who don’t need it. It was this pitch that won Yang fame and gained him his army of “Yang gangers”. But the maths didn’t add up.
I’m pretty sceptical of electing people just because they’re famous, though I know it can be very helpful at the ballot box. I would rather it were the other way round. Elect someone experienced in the bruising ways of city politics who knows how to knock heads together. Then watch their reputation build. Finding such a person, of course, is no easy task. But there’s a lot of candidates out there, and several more weeks to go.