Books Not Cops: On the NYC Budget Slash

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07/07/2010 1:00 AM |

Among the (we’re reminded) hard decisions made in the city’s fiscal year 2011 budget, announced late last month and covering for a decline in finance-sector tax revenue and aid from broken Albany, were cuts to library service—branches will be open five days a week instead of six, avoiding more dire cuts after a passionate advocacy campaign—closings of daycare and senior centers and the elimination of programs for the illiterate and the AIDS-afflicted. Perhaps 1,000 city employees will be laid off, and another 6,000 positions won’t be refilled once vacated. Still, the rolls of the NYPD will hold steady at 35,000 officers, and 20 firehouses originally proposed for closure will stay open after intensive lobbying by some on the City Council. “Our top priority [was] to keep New Yorkers safe… by finding the money to save firehouses,” said Elizabeth Crowley, who represents south-central Queens.

This is fair enough, as it goes: people whose homes have never caught fire understand how a firehouse in their neighborhood makes them safer, just as we understand how we benefit from police, even if we couldn’t name a time when they’ve intervened to protect us personally. But, as in our national politics—where, for the same interesting psychological reasons, the money that keeps our military well-armed is specially excluded from talk of bloated government—we’re a little fuzzier on how we, as a society and as individuals, might also be kept safe and prosperous by the “socialism” of assistance programs and public services.

Not to make a straw man out of you, the reader, but when you heard about the drastic cuts originally proposed to the New York, Brooklyn and Queens public library systems, there’s a good chance your first thought was, “Well, I can’t remember the last time I used a public library.” Well, a lot of people can. The Queens Library is the highest-circulating public library in America. Setting aside for a moment (profound) issues of moral responsibility, the presumption that we don’t benefit from library books we ourselves don’t check out—or from public pools we ourselves don’t swim in, buses we ourselves don’t ride, food stamps we ourselves don’t redeem—is one that strikes the editors of this magazine as limited. The belief that we benefit directly or not at all implies that a community is comprised of entirely discrete self-interests; this position is, to put it bluntly, difficult to cling to while walking home after dark in an impoverished neighborhood. More broadly and, we emphasize, tangibly, there are the economic and social advantages of a better-educated populace, the desirability of life in a culturally enriched neighborhood, the lower insurance premiums when fitness and nutrition are encouraged, the more manageable caseloads of city employees when children and the elderly are well looked-after… We could go on.

The point here is not to argue that the city should have made up its budget gap by closing firehouses and firing cops (although a politically untouchable NYPD perhaps contributes to a sense of entitled exceptionalism that does no favors to the Bay Ridge bar scene, among other things). The point is that your personal well-being is ensured by services far beyond the ones you yourself take advantage of. We ought to consider welfare a general concern, and defense a product of common cause rather than conflict.