Gotham Not Goths
by Bruce Fisher
Why we should try to be more like New Yorkers again
It’s a jarring experience to walk into the spacious, sunlit Greek and Roman section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and to see, in the very entrance of the whole classical collection, the Roman bronze called Artemis and the Stag, which for decades was Buffalo’s own. The trustees and members of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery decided in 2007 to sell this treasure at auction. It sold for over $25 million to an anonymous European collector, who promptly donated the piece to the Met. Buffalo’s gallery got the cash. New York City’s gallery got the goods, and is much richer for it. The well intended folks who wanted Buffalo’s premiere cultural institution to become a destination for the world’s fans of brand-new contemporary art have yet to get their wish. But on a sunny day in New York’s Central Park, the crowds of tourists, the hand-holding teenagers, the elegantly dressed women of a certain age and stroller-pushers all get to see a fuller display of human artistic endeavor, from every period and place and style, than we do here in our own Olmsted park.
That’s because the new financial elite acts quite differently than the old financial elite. The sense of community stewardship that gave Buffalo its collections of art, rare books, designed public spaces, and reserves of wild land has shifted radically in recent years, as the old elite has withered away or has been supplanted. The wealthy now are much wealthier than the old generation of industrialists, timber barons, shipping magnates, mining tycoons, and merchants who gave the community buildings and parks and statues. (The Fontana Boathouse and the Burchfield-Penney Gallery are two exceptions, though both were largely funded by taxpayers.)
The plays and novels of the Buffalo author A. R. Gurney dissect the mentality of a class that led the culture here quite differently than does the new class. Strangely, the new elite in New York City may make its money in the new way, from financial speculation rather than from running smoke-belching factories full of class-conscious workers, but they do things the old way there. There is still a financier who will make his social mark by giving $100 million to the New York Public Library, or who will act anonymously, like the donor of Artemis and the Stag, because the old way of cultural stewardship—of making the public space richer—is still the way to gain prestige in one of the world’s most prestigious places.
Luckily, old-style philanthropy lives on in Buffalo, though the ethos of stewardship suffered a blow when a tumbleweed blew into the office of Erie County executive. The premiere public funder of the arts in the Buffalo area is county government, which is today not being run for the purpose of preserving and maintaining the historic legacies of art, knowledge, and nature, but rather as a demonstration project for a new elitist mentality that favors a few private residences designed by Frank Lloyd Wright but not public amenities. Luckily, New York City’s wealth and sophistication—and the structural legal way that New York City’s largesse is redistributed to Upstate New York—continues to help us survive empowered suburban cul-de-sac barbarism.
The most important way that New York City’s money comes to us, so that we can sustain our community, is through the salaries of public employees.
The money transfer
Of the approximately $11 billion in salaries that the State of New York paid to its troopers, judges and court administrators, college professors, prison guards, parks and road and other workers last year, 7.1 percent (about $77.6 million) came to state workers in Erie County. State employment brought hundreds of millions of dollars more in salaries to workers in the rural counties of Western New York. All told, about $455 million in state salaries were paid in the eight counties west of Rochester and the Genesee River. Direct state employment is a big part of the reason why Upstate counties get more back in expenditures than Upstate residents pay in state taxes. The state money we get for our local economies comes from someplace else in New York, namely, Downstate.
There’s another way that money comes to Upstate: It comes through the partial salary subsidies that local governments receive for workers doing so-called “mandated” services. The environmental specialists, road and sewer engineers, social workers, child-protection workers, health aides, senior services aides, probation, and other Erie County employees are paid in part with locally raised taxes, but most of them—especially in the Social Services department—are paid with state funds. So when the Erie County executive pledged last week that he is going to reduce his workforce by 200 Social Services department workers, he will be eliminating jobs that are 75 percent or more paid for with state funds. When he eliminated Home Energy Assistance Program workers, he eliminated jobs that are 100 percent paid for by the federal government. Ask yourself this: If you could pay $25 to have a job done and in return have somebody else pay the rest of the $100 cost, such that you pocketed $75, would you take that deal? Answer: You would only turn down the $75 of somebody else’s money if you had some compelling rationale to do without the service. There is no such compelling rationale—especially when there is a federally funded service, like home-heating assistance, that is actually entirely paid for with money from outside the area.
There’s still another way that New York City funds come to Upstate, both directly and indirectly—and that is by having a statewide standard for public employee wages and benefits. You and your neighbors may gripe about your local school taxes, which mainly go to pay for the salaries and employee benefits of teachers, but that money not only recirculates in local economiesz but also sets a standard for how other people are compensated.
The lowly new class
The other difference between the old elite and the new elite here is that the old elite screwed things up by being dim-witted, while the new elite screws things up by being greedy. As a conservative commentator said at a well attended New York City policy forum last week, Upstate New York’s cities have suffered worse from the solutions than from their problems. In particular, he said, was the 1960s program of urban renewal.
Another panelist at that event was an Upstate mayor, who complained bitterly about New York State’s mandates for the salaries, benefits, and work-rules of her public safety staff. When it was pointed out that much of her city’s budget is funded by a transfer of funds from Albany (source, once again, being Gotham), she responded that such transfers are necessary because half the tax base of her city is off-limits—churches, schools, medical centers, museums, colleges, and the like. Having worked within a city and a county myself, I appreciate the constraints on these municipal enterprises.
But the tried-and-true solution for public administrators from mayors to school superintendents to county executives—namely, consolidation and reorganization—is to grow the pie, not lament it shrinking. Consolidation, amalgamation, and annexation, however, are off-limits because of the self-interested politics of today’s financial elite. I have actually had the conversation with a Wall Street bond lawyer: He and local bankers dislike the idea of a Greater Buffalo, or of one unified county-wide school district, because it would mean less business for them.
Back in the 1960s, which is arguably the last time the old-style leadership in America tried to exert big-minded civic reform, there was a wave of consolidations and mergers that resulted in landlocked, failing Indianapolis becoming Greater Indianapolis, and Nashville becoming Greater Nashville. There was a belief in progress in those places, as there was here, that was rooted in a strong sense of place-based identity. It may be hard for newly-minted bankers and lawyers and business types in Buffalo to comprehend, but there was even a distinctive Buffalo sartorial style that was known throughout the Great Lakes and the old Northeast. The sense of distinctiveness was an aspect of self-assuredness about what peers our institutions were—which was in part a gathering of aspirational expressions, as when German-Ameicans and Polish-Americans and other ethnic communities collaborated in giving their collections of books and objects to our shared public institutions, like our library and our museums, and along the way adopted the philanthropic ethic, too. Continuity of culture used to mean a lot here. So, of course, did cultural innovation. Buffalo became known for both in the 1970s.
Growing a place, adding to a community’s public amenities, contributing recognizable treasures, amplifying an identity—these are the American civic demonstrations of the 20th century and now, still, in places where people like to make their marks. Chicago tycoons compete with one another today to bring more art into more and better public spaces, but in Buffalo, that work is left to the mini-donors, the folks who contribute to campaigns that are waged by necessity because of the failures of our rulers and of our ruling class. If it weren’t for a broad base of public and public-aided employment, our beleaguered middle class wouldn’t be able to afford to dig in and help sustain our public identity. Everyone knows how ardent Buffalo fans are in supporting our treasury-raiding professional sports teams. But where is the Ralph Wilson-funded public garden or public art collection? Where is the Warren Buffett science center? The Golisano medical school? There are other names that have come to Buffalo, taken from taxpayers, but returned but little.
What we could use again, at this point in Buffalo’s history, is a leadership, both public and private, that at least has the sense not to turn New York’s largesse away, and that could do a better job of old-style social-climbing, in the old-style way—by being patrons of the community, instead of pickpockets. The new style—turning away New York and Washington grants, gutting our libraries, sneering at the poor, abandoning stewardship responsibilities, auctioning off our pieces of ancient culture—is getting very, very old.
Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.blog comments powered by Disqus
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