Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Thoughts on Robert Caro's "Power Broker"

When Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency and ascended into Marine One for the last time, he took a way of doing politics with him.  Americans had grown disgusted with the backroom deals and wire-pulling which characterized the post-war era, and fearful of an Imperial Presidency that had established itself.  The methods of that moment have received – and continue to receive – their richest portrayal in Robert Caro’s multi-volume series, The Years of Lyndon Johnson.  But, the vivid character of the man and the highly-charged partisan and ideological aspects of his career easily overwhelm the work as a focused assessment of pure politics.  Nonetheless, in Caro’s defense, it could be said that he had already written such a book, with his 1974 biography of Robert Moses. 

The story of Robert Moses is the story of the construction of massive public works in a densely populated urban area in the context of a modern liberal democracy.  The story of his career is an account of the political maneuvers undertaken by an unelected official to overcome a thicket of parochial and private interests for the sake of grand public designs. 

Across five decades, Robert Moses oversaw the planning, legislation, funding, and implementation for the construction of a vast array of public works including the entire system of highways, bridges, and tunnels connecting Long Island to the mainland of the United States, the vast majority of the metropolitan region’s parkland, the creation a half-dozen massive new beaches, the reclamation of New York City’s waterfront, the building of several hydro-electric dams, Shea Stadium, Lincoln Center, the United Nations headquarters, hundreds of public playgrounds, and new public housing for thousands of residents.

The case against Moses (where it is not a dispute about the merits of various projects) is the classic case for skepticism of centralized discretionary power, and of the costs incurred in its accumulation.  The argument in his defense is the case for putting public above private interests, and for public improvements against the tyranny of the status quo. 

The Power Broker by Robert Caro is an outstanding and gripping narrative of the career of Robert Moses, a lucid exposition of his methods of accumulating and wielding power, a reasonable picture of mid-twentieth century New York politics, and a melodramatic and often poorly reasoned discussion of urban policy. 

To put the strength of Caro’s political analysis in perspective, it is therefore best to begin with its flaws.  As a (highly successful) attempt to turn arcane bureaucratic wrangling and policy disputes into a bestselling book, dispassionate reasoning regularly takes a back seat to emotive exaggeration.  The brilliance of Moses’ early idealism is given a godly hue as pure as the darkness of his later supposed cynicism.  Characters enter as caricatures, and the routing of every mile of road is a battle of good versus evil.  Long Island landowners are in one chapter put-upon property-holders, and in the next grotesque oligarchic barons – so best to suit the grand morality play.  Nowhere is a policy choice portrayed as a fine judgment-call, and subject to uncertainty or compromise. 

This is a shame, for such bombast renders Caro’s judgments often imprudent and untrustworthy, and his discussion of policy presumptive and lopsided.  Moses is blamed for the insufficient supply and poor quality of housing in New York City and the inability of displaced families to find accommodation at the same price they previously enjoyed – yet 1162 pages pass without the slightest reference to the logic of rent control legislation.  Unpleasant insinuations of racism are made in Moses’ direction, and yet Caro goes on to complain that expressway construction leads to the decline of the Bronx, as Jewish families are replaced by “families from the other side of the park”. 

Moses is portrayed as insatiable in his lust for power, yet reluctant to extend his empire into mass-transit.  Suburban rail lines are described as subject to collapsing demand, yet also the focus of irrationally foregone opportunities.  Implicit in Caro’s jeremiad on the decline of Long Island Railroad, is almost a wish that if only a man of Robert Moses’ brilliance, power, and ruthlessness was a zealot for mass transit, then wonders would truly be possible.

Yet, with this attitude, Caro misses the key to the whole Robert Moses story: the man only accumulated such power because he was the only man who could consistently deliver what the public wanted. 

All other considerations derive from this basic point.  As an unelected official, Moses’ power had to constantly be fought for and justified at the margins, on the merits of each specific project.  Even at the supposed height of his power, Moses was unable to gain assent for the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge or even a small parking facility for Tavern-on-the-Green. 

Moses’ power was to a large extent contingent on policy subsystems being left to operate by themselves by the broader public realm.  He obviously devoted much attention and resources to ensuring that fundamental questions of the desirability of the power that he had accumulated was never a matter of open controversy, but he was also very much aware that discretion was only afforded to him out of an understanding that he had a peerless capacity for Getting Things Done.  While Caro intermittently acknowledges this point, this discipline was ever-present and acknowledged by all – not least by Moses, who imposed a phenomenal workload upon himself and his staff.  Moses’ innumerable threats to resign derived their strength from this popular mandate, and the potency of the threat was to a great degree contingent on the things that were to be Done being of significant value to the public – and to elected officials, who needed achievements (not just intentions) to proclaim. 

Although Caro portrays the decline of Moses’ power as the result of a extraordinary presence of countervailing power in the person of Nelson Rockefeller, it is probably more important to note just how easily and painlessly this fall from grace was achieved, once an elected official set his mind to achieving it.  John Lindsay’s attempt to quash the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which Caro acknowledges involved remarkable ineptness on behalf of the Mayor, is portrayed as a result of Moses marshalling the resources of a hidden oligarchy to subvert the cause of democracy.  A more accurate characterization of the incident would be to suggest that Lindsay and his team were quite clueless as to the true value to the city of existing institutional arrangements, and that the legislature was easily persuaded by the unanimous agreement of the experts who had any knowledge of the situation whatsoever.

Of course, it is true that some of the value of existing institutional arrangements had been deliberately crafted by Moses to sustain a need for himself.  Just as Alexander Hamilton bound states to the new Union with debt, so Moses was able to bind a network of banks, corporations, and labor groups in support of Triborough.  Yet, it is also clear that such designs had been approved by elected authorities at every stage.  Indeed, the long-term autonomy and power of Triborough was of significant value to the public as a whole.  The bankers, who Caro at times portrays as puppets of Moses’ power, had good reason to entrust an independent authority with so much credit for highly profitable public works – and citizens of New York, though guaranteed contracts of an independent agency, were in turn able to (with very low risk, and hence interest rates) credibly commit to turning over some of the value that would be created for them. 

Similarly, while Caro is eager to suggest that Moses’ staying power enabled him to outlast elected officials, it also enabled him to be a reservoir for long-run trust.  Indeed, one of the reasons for his rapid downfall in old age, was the widespread recognition among interested parties that the post-Moses era was not far away, and that planning for this time had to occur sooner rather than later.  With this expectation and public opinion more strongly against him, Moses was not able to do much to forestall his loss of power.  Speaking of the 1964 World’s Fair, Caro suggested that “Moses appears to have seen the Fair as a gigantic gravy train on which he could ride back to power” and that the “World’s Fair gave Robert Moses a billion dollars to spend on power, and he got his money’s worth.”  Yet, while the snide remarks fit the story, they do not fit the facts: when his tenure at the Fair ended, Moses had far less power than when it had begun.

Nonetheless, while Caro’s wildest insinuations of Moses as a subverter of democracy are ill-founded, the more modest charge – that Moses construction plans were fully imbued with political calculations is clearly true.  Indeed, it is the ever-present considerations of democratic politics which makes Moses’ career a remarkably different enterprise to that of the more simply rationalistic, but politically far less involved Parisian urbanist, Baron Haussmann.  If the problem Moses faced was a multitude of stubborn rights-holders with their own private interests standing athwart his public designs, his weapons were democratic instruments – at every stage designed to mobilize the broader public to quash parochial interests.

Since his accountability to voters was indirect, he could not neglect their ultimate sovereignty. Yet, his methods were not conventional electoral devices, but owed much to the institutional situation with which he was located, the resources with which he was endowed, and the environment in which he was constrained. 

Not being constrained by the need to maintain a multi-issue electoral coalition or the need to keep a base enthused for fundraising, Moses had more flexibility, and hence was able to cast a wider net for popular support.  He could inveigh against Long Island barons one day to gain right-of-way for parkways, and wage war on leftists the next to remove obstacles to development on Manhattan – simultaneously reaping the benefits of right and left-of-center populism. 

The strength he gained from the bureaucratic arts, at which he was highly accomplished, also owed much to general popular appeal.  Indeed, his threats to elected officials could be said to depend upon a triangle of bureaucratic resources: the heat of information (the files of damaging facts he kept on associates, and the talking points he held on project proposals), the oxygen of publicity (his carefully cultivated relations with the media, and resources marshaled for public relations), and the fuel of public interest in his projects.  With these, each at his discretion, he was able to light a fire of public concern under the feet of elected officials who were minded to obstruct development.

With his ability to allow, block, or re-assign construction projects, Moses was able to orchestrate compliance from a vast network of political associates in support of his overall plans.  Although Caro does not say so explicitly, it is apparent that Moses’ objection to the “One Mile” diversion of the Cross-Bronx expressway was likely founded in such deals – without which the support of all officials possessing veto-powers would have been altogether impossible.  The assent needed to pass miles of highway through some of the most densely populated real estate in the western world could only be obtained by a man with an extraordinary knowledge of the legal, economic, and electoral sources of power, which motivated thousands of the nation’s savviest and best-connected political operators – and the ability to marshal them in support of his designs.  Moses’ persistent exasperation with critics who “don’t know what they’re talking about” likely stemmed from the highly delicate balance assembled from such an array of accumulated considerations.  His stubborn refusal to revise projects, once devised, seems to derive from the keen awareness that the carefully constructed web of political support for them could easily unravel.  Far from being evidence of his autocratic authority, his obstinacy was as much a product of his tireless coalition-building.

Although Moses’ ability to construct a power apparatus for his own pleasure has been exaggerated, he did possess one significant independent source of power – the revenues, available for use at his discretion, at the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. 

The functions of money in economics are classically defined as being a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value.  In the field of politics, relative to the direct bartering of the commodity of power, money similarly has certain critical advantages.  It is easily aggregable (it does not perish in accumulation), it is fungible (it can be leveraged on targets regardless of pre-existing ties), and its value is clearly recognizable.  Moreover, money also yields certain advantages unique to the realm of politics:  it is non-reciprocal in its effect (control of funds does not produce exposure in the way that an alliance or trading of favors would) and it solves a multiple principal problem (at least where there are no checks on appropriations procedures, as in the case of Moses).   

This advantage was heightened by circumstances.  City and state funds were under assault from all sides and felt the pinch of inflation, whereas Triborough’s funds grew steadily with traffic flows through its toll booths. Possessing control over such a potent weapon of power, Robert Moses was also assisted by the relative scarcity of discretionary resources available to his rivals and associates.  While he could get the most out of his money, legislators, state and city officials were constrained by a web of checks and balances, as well as entitlement obligations.  Instead of going cap-in-hand to elected officials for funds, it was they who would have to bear the burden of begging from him.

Yet, money alone does not yield power in a democracy.  It must be leveraged to move elected officials so that they not obstruct one’s designs.  Moses’ investments were largely of this sort – not campaign contributions aimed at promoting the rise of certain officeholders, but the carefully controlled disbursement of funds so as to direct their attention and efforts in a more amenable direction.  Moses spent money to create incentives for compliance with his designs and political momentum behind his plans.

At the same time, with his post as Construction Coordinator for New York, Moses held a choke-hold on the city’s alimentary canal of federal assistance.  This enabled him to impose take-it-or-leave-it offers upon officials and highly mobilized interest groups, hungry for funds, and to accumulate influence at all levels of government.  Yet, this important power was also highly conditional on the application of Moses’ unique ability to Get Things Done.  Indeed, it derived from the fact that his team at the Park Commission was the only one able to develop plans, on time, and to implement them swiftly.  Unions could be sure to benefit from patronage regardless of the source of funds, but Harry Van Arsdale’s support of Moses’s authority was to a large extent the product of his unique ability to win these supplementary contracts for the region.  Without widespread trust in his ability to deliver, the power for him to do so would not have been so widely supported.

Almost all of Moses’ projects would be categorized by political scientists as “non-incremental policymaking”.  For instance, the essence of bridge-building, from a political standpoint is that half-a-bridge is as useless as no bridge.  Only a fully complete bridge is of any value whatsoever, regardless of how many public funds have been spent up until that point.  This allows those in charge of construction to hold the public hostage to a certain extent, and to derive a significant degree of discretionary power in the process.  Robert Moses did this repeatedly – almost always being sure to lay foundations before full right-of-way (or even full funding) had been obtained. 

It was this and a multitude of other similar bureaucratic tactics that eventually soured much of the city on Moses, when given full exposure in its press.  Although he had traded on his popularity to keep his methods quiet, once his reputation was tarnished in a number of relatively minor incidents, elected officials were less keen to entrust him with authority, and his power gradually ebbed away. 

Yet, while his successors have doubtless avoided his level of controversy, they have also fallen far short in accomplishment.  America struggles to upgrade its crumbling infrastructure to keep up with a growing population, despite hundred-billion-dollar legislative appropriations for surface transportations, as major projects are stymied by interminable legal wrangling and battles with environmentalists, unions, and local communities.  While it may be easy to blame others for gridlock and inertia, a free society rightly affords people multiple opportunities to defend their private rights when there is no demonstrable popular enthusiasm to usurp them for the sake of the public interest.  Hence the indispensible role for leadership – to offer a vision that moves people, brings together those with widely-differing motives, and gives foot-draggers a reason to get on board. 

In the mid 1960s, Nelson Rockefeller decided against giving Robert Moses the responsibility for constructing a Long Island Sound Crossing.  Over forty years later, the project remains on the drawing board.

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