Self-Awareness Was Never Goldsmith’s Strong Suit

Former Indianapolis Mayor and current New York Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith has a letter in the Wall Street Journal, in which he explains why “progressive government” is obsolete. The letter is vintage Goldsmith.

The letter is a far more intellectual and polished version of the complaints we’ve heard from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels: government is broken because of the special interests. Those special interests–unions and civil service employees–have “stifled the creativity of public-sector workers and reduced the ability of public investments to create opportunities for citizens.”

Now, I’ll be the first to concede that many of the work rules that have resulted from collective bargaining agreements are unwieldy, and should be and could be revised and streamlined. But what are we to make of statements like this one: “State law mandates that over 1500 job titles must be filled through competitive written exams, specifically ignoring an employee’s actual performance or qualifications.”? If I were a suspicious sort, I might think that a public manager’s subjective evaluation of an employee’s performance (perhaps the willingness of that employee to support certain policies or even candidates for office) would be less reliable than an employee’s ability to demonstrate knowledge on an objective examination.

And in fact, it was for precisely that reason that the examination requirement was imposed. So it is ironic–and telling–that Goldsmith then says “We are even required to administer a civil service test for the head of our Police Department’s counter-terrorism unit! (We found a way around it.)

Those of us who lived in Indianapolis during the Goldsmith Administration will recall that he “found a way around” a number of rules he didn’t like. (We might also find the letter’s emphasis on transparency somewhat ironic, since transparency was hardly the hallmark of that administration.)

The letter also reinforces the complaints of Governors like Walker and Daniels about worker pensions; Goldsmith complains that New York City will have to pay 8.4 Billion to “fill a hole in its unfunded pension obligations.” Those “greedy” public workers, who chose to take some of their pay in the form of deferred compensation (i.e., pensions) were not the people who decided to divert those funds to other uses, rather than funding their pension obligations at the time. New York, like Indianapolis and many other cities, willfully ignored their pension obligations for years. Why should workers who relied upon those pensions be the ones who take the hit?

What is most striking about the letter is also what is most reminiscent of Goldsmith’s tenure in City Hall: his either-or approach.

Goldsmith is not a stupid man, and the problems he identifies are not all imaginary. But there is no nuance in his worldview. These problems are the result of rules, he tells us, and the rules are not working optimally, so they must go. He doesn’t tell us what, if anything, he would do to insure that public employees would not be subject to arbitrary dismissals, that political insiders wouldn’t be hired in lieu of nonpolitical professionals for jobs requiring expertise, or how he would handle the other evils these rules were intended to address.

Blowing things up was always Goldsmith’s style. But America’s cities need people who can fine-tune systems and fix problems–not bomb throwers.

We need snow removal–not snow jobs.

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