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New York City's day of reckoning is at hand

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in Brooklyn

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in Brooklyn on Aug. 19, 2020. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

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A large group of New York business leaders, all with pedigrees and some of them well-known, sent up a flare over City Hall recently.

"Despite New York's success in containing the coronavirus, unprecedented numbers of New Yorkers are unemployed, facing homelessness, or otherwise at risk," they noted in a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, D. "There is widespread anxiety over public safety, cleanliness and other quality of life issues that are contributing to deteriorating conditions in commercial districts and neighborhoods across the five boroughs."

"We urge you to take immediate action to restore essential services as a necessary precursor for solving the city's longer term, complex, economic challenges," they added. "We look forward to your response and to partnering with you and others who share a commitment to a vibrant recovery and a great future for our city."

De Blasio, presiding over a city with divergent views among residents about how dire conditions actually are, responded on Twitter: "We're grateful for our business community and are partnering to rebuild a fairer, better city. Let's be clear: To restore city services and save jobs, we need long term borrowing and a federal stimulus — we need these leaders to join the fight to move the City forward."

What's next? It's unclear. And that's dangerous.

If de Blasio is hoping for Washington to ride to his rescue, he may have a very long wait, even if the White House changes hands. Congress has been unable to engineer another round of public funding to fill the void left by the expiration of last spring's CARES Act, which pumped trillions of dollars into the hands of families, workers, businesses and public institutions.

New York's $88.1 billion budget for fiscal 2020, approved in July, is $5 billion lighter than last year's and reflects cuts made to wrestle with a $9 billion revenue shortfall caused by economic fallout from the coronavirus lockdown. If the local economy worsens in coming months, and the downturn drags on well beyond that, the city is going to have escalating challenges keeping its coffers full. A range of services — from public health, sanitation, social services and education to policing, firefighting and public transit — will be hurt.

If the business community's traditional antipathy toward higher taxes and a more forceful government hand leaves it on the sidelines, it won't be able to help forge public-private partnerships that could help New York surmount an epic existential crisis that threatens their bottom lines and their employees' well-being.

The business group that sent the letter to de Blasio, Partnership for New York City, has been at odds with the mayor recently, friction informed by years of mutual distrust.

De Blasio has pushed New York to better serve the needs and interests of its working-class residents, and to deprioritize pro-business policymaking. The Partnership advocates civic engagement and corporate responsibility and focuses on policies affecting education, workforce development, transportation, infrastructure and innovation. (Bloomberg LP is one of dozens of the organization's members.) The group also recognizes the brutality of the pandemic's downdraft in New York: a local unemployment rate expected to average out at about 9.8% for 2020; a million financially distressed households, concentrated in communities of color and low-wage workers; about a third of the city's 230,000 small businesses possibly shuttered permanently; corporate sectors of the local economy, particularly real estate, threatened; and 1.2 million office workers operating remotely until COVID-19 abates.

In a wide-ranging July report attached to its letter to de Blasio, the Partnership outlined its thoughts about how to shore up New York's economy and public services while also addressing rifts in the city caused by income inequality. We'll explore those and other ideas for reviving New York in our next column, but we also know that none of these things will take flight if the city, like the rest of the country, can't embrace the idea of government as a force for growth — and good.

New York has a long and richly deserved reputation as an incubator for innovative approaches to public policy. Franklin Roosevelt was the governor of New York State before he become president, and much of the New Deal was steered by Roosevelt associates who had road-tested their ideas in the city and state before going to Washington. During New York City's fiscal crisis in the 1970s, financiers such as Felix Rohatyn and labor leaders such as Victor Gotbaum put their differences aside to forge a partnership that helped put the city back on track.

But these were people of different eras. The political, social, racial and economic divisions that have accompanied Donald Trump's ascent to the White House, seeded well before his rise, have left federal and local governments suspect and less able to contend with crises. The business community has helped reinforce those suspicions, preferring to emphasize the idea that an unfettered private sector left to its own devices will produce economic gains that lift all boats. As the entrenchment of income inequality demonstrates, that hasn't been the case. As a result, the private sector, despite its myriad strengths and because of some unchecked abuses, has wound up being just as much of a punching bag as the government.

The coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis have laid bare how untenable it will be to continue living in a world unspooled by suspicion and division. Mother Nature has little time for it. Global competitors such as China have little time for it. And America's vast wealth and pride of place in the world are no longer the buffers they once were. The pandemic won't allow the country or New Yorkers to wallow in discord without consequences.

Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Nir Kaissar is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the markets. He is the founder of Unison Advisors, an asset management firm.

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