Bush to Cities: Drop Dead -- Please!


September 25, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK. — New York -- President Bush was here Monday. He didn't notice.

The president went to an international enclave, legally not part of this city, and spoke to the foreigners who make up the U.N. on the East River. He knows more about them than he does about the citizens of the U.S. who live here, many of them on the streets, many in worse places.

''When is he going to realize what's happening in this city -- and in other cities around the country?'' said a city commissioner. ''The place is falling apart and we need help.''

There was no belligerence in the commissioner's voice. She is a New York Democrat but admires some of the things that this Republican has accomplished -- particularly overseas. And she accepts the conventional wisdom that begins, ''If only the president knew how bad it is now . . . ''

Mr. Bush knows. He doesn't have to look outside the limousine window and ruin part of his day. Democrats delude themselves. And President Reagan knew before him. It may be hard for municipal officials around the country to accept it, but free-market Republicans believe that places like New York, Philadelphia and Detroit deserve to die. The decline of the old cities is seen as a good thing, not a bad one.

The people running the country since 1981 believe in the concept of capitalism's ''creative destruction'' first articulated by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in the 1940s. That is Darwinian economics, comparable to survival of the fittest in nature.

When an old organism or an organization's job is done, it's time to get out of the way and make space for the new. If it is good when a wounded animal, or a damaged or obsolete corporation, collapses, why would anyone want to save a city whose time has come -- and gone?

Thank you, New York, for helping to assimilate all those immigrants who helped build all those roads and houses. Thank you for serving as an open and lively center of commerce and creativity before those roads and jet planes and electronics made your kind of centralization unnecessary if not obsolete. Now we are moving on.

There will always be a New York in this view, but it will serve less glamorous ends. For instance, much of the city can serve as a sort of reservation for poor people, mostly black. That's as American as apple pie. Thomas Jefferson thought of using the Great Plains -- then called the Great American Desert -- as a place to keep all the Indians out of trouble and out of the way.

Most Democrats here, if not in most places, still have not figured out that most conservatives know what they are doing. The last decade of American public policy was not some kind of aberration -- or ''detour,'' as I once called it -- in ever-liberalizing American history. This is American history, a takeover by people nTC who hold different truths to be self-evident.

The conservatives, and other Republicans, will hold power, and let die what they think deserves to die, until they are opposed by liberals or Democrats who understand that, whatever is happening in the world, there is a new American order.

You can see the workings of that order on the streets or in the newspapers every day -- there is nothing at all odd or unusual about it anymore. People living on the streets are no longer officially deemed to be a problem to anyone but themselves. It is seen as being their own fault. In the papers each day, chief executives of corporations appear each day to excitedly announce new layoffs. They are bragging about it -- to their investors and to the world at large -- because eliminating jobs is now seen as a good thing rather than bad.

So, my fellow New Yorkers, when President Gerald Ford triggered the Daily News headline 15 years ago, ''Ford to City: Drop Dead,'' it was something of a joke, or at least headline hyperbole. No more. Mr. Bush means it. He knows what is happening and, on balance, he thinks it's a pretty good idea.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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