Governor David Paterson has now delivered his “doomsday” budget to the people of New York. This budget is nothing less than an assault on every function of state and local government. Education, transit, healthcare and social services have all been forced to create budgets with double digit cuts in funding as Paterson attempts to plug budget deficits by slashing spending.
The Cruelty of the Cuts
Of course, not all targets are equal – some are simply crueler than others. The budget cuts will adversely affect already vulnerable communities such as the aged and the disabled. Elderly New Yorkers have already felt the sting of cutbacks. The Department of Aging recently eliminated the five days a week delivery of hot food replacing it with twice weekly drop-offs of frozen meals. This cutback decreases the amount of human contact between aid workers and homebound elderly. For many older New Yorkers the food delivery person may be the only human being they interact with all day. Paterson’s budget proposal promises further cuts to essential services for the elderly such as the Medicare program.
Disabled New Yorkers also face dire consequences inside of the doomsday budget. The Metropolitan Transit Authority, working under Paterson’s mandate to slash the budget, is proposing to double the cost of Access-A-Ride trips from $2 to $4. Such an increase threatens to place serious limitations on the finances and mobility of the disabled while providing little in the way of savings.
The above-mentioned proposals are a small portion of the proposed cuts and are meant to highlight the gross inhumanity of Paterson’s proposals. Even larger cuts to our already overburdened transit and education systems are sure to make life worse for all poor and working class New Yorkers.
Such cutbacks will be a hard sell for Paterson and Albany politicians. As a result they have once again dusted off the “shared suffering” argument. “This is nobody’s fault,” Paterson related “and everybody’s responsibility.” A quick glance at how New York finances operated prior to the financial crisis reveals that while politicians firmly wish to share suffering they are quite miserly with prosperity.
The situation of New York City Transit Workers offers the clearest example of how little payoff workers received during the previous period of “prosperity.” While tax revenues from Wall Street boomed in the late 90s and early 21st century, transit workers were offered meager wage increases coupled with workforce reductions. The pressure came to a head during the 2005, 3-day transit strike. Following this, and well before any financial crisis, the TWU leadership signed a contract in which workers were forced to make a 1.5% payment for their healthcare plan. So much for the good old days.
Transit workers now face the possibility of mass layoffs as a result of the MTA budget proposal. Multiple token booths, routes and nighttime stations are scheduled to be closed. This adds both workers and riders to the list of those targeted for suffering in the name of budget cutting.
As Naomi Klein’s widely read book The Shock Doctrine suggests, economic disasters offer elites the chance to implement changes not possible during normal periods. In the case of New York, CEOs at the non-profit healthcare insurers GHI & HIP have used the cover of financial crisis to attempt to privatize the companies. Such a change would place 4 million New Yorkers at risk of higher premiums, denials of care and skyrocketing CEO salaries. Recipients of Medicare and Medicaid also face the prospect of being dropped entirely should the companies become for-profit.
The financial carrot in this deal comes from the fact that the privatization could yield a one-time payment of up to $4 billion for NY State. While quite lucrative in a moment of shortfall, such an infusion of funds would come at the cost of exposing millions of New Yorkers to an already failed for-profit healthcare system. A financial strategy could quickly become a public health crisis. Such are the false choices offered as part of budget cutting.
David Paterson has already made an important choice. He has decided to go down the path of cutting spending instead of increasing revenue. In doing so, he disregarded the advice given to him by Joseph Stiglitz, the 2001 recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. Stiglitz advised Paterson that “it is economically preferable to raise taxes on those with high incomes that to cut state expenditures.” Increasing, rather than decreasing, state and local spending helps to move economies out of recessions by injecting cash directly into local economies.
Stiglitz advocated for a “millionaire’s tax” which would put idle wealth back into circulation. Couple this with a tax on financial transactions conducted in NY State and the budget deficit would be closed. Further savings might also be gained by the implementation of a national health insurance system, which would remove a major cost for state government and provide universal quality care. Each of those proposals also serves to stimulate a now severely recessed economy.
Such suggestions offer concrete ways to move beyond the logic of budget cutting. Paterson, however, disagrees, “I think taxes are addictive,” he told the NY Sun, “What happens is when you start taxing, people start thinking of ways of spending money that you taxed.” This is, of course, precisely the point. The New York economy is desperate for greater spending and taxing the rich will put idle wealth into circulation.
Stopping the cuts and re-directing New York politics down a new human-centered progressive path in which the rich are made to pay for the financial mess they have created will come about through grassroots mobilizations. We must encourage democratically organized political expressions that reflect the growing anger and disillusionment of poor and working class communities. All available forms of non-violent protest — from sit-ins to occupations, from education to mass direct action — must be employed in this struggle. All New Yorkers are invited to participate in such a movement which holds the potential to not only stop the budget cuts but to demonstrate that another, better, world is possible.