Empire State Cincinnatus
We need more public servants like Richard Ravitch.
2 May 2014
So Much to Do: A Full Life of Business, Politics, and Confronting Fiscal Crises, by Richard Ravitch (PublicAffairs, 280 pp., $26.99)
Richard Ravitch wrote his memoir to make the case for public service. Like Cincinnatus of the early Roman republic, Ravitch is best known for serving temporarily during times of great need. As a serial crisis manager, Ravitch helped New York City avoid insolvency in the 1970s and was chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) during the volatile early eighties. His cause was and remains fiscal reform. Despite deep familiarity with the pathologies of the public sector, Ravitch remains optimistic about the democratic process and the sustainability of liberal political principles.
Ravitch grew up on West 81st Street, near some of the grand Central Park West apartment buildings built by his father, the son of a Russian immigrant who ran a construction business, the HRH Construction Corporation. He characterizes his upbringing as comfortable but not affluent. After graduating from Yale Law School, he worked as a congressional staffer in Washington, a “small southern town with an overlay of government and politics” where he also met his first wife, the education-reform critic Diane Ravitch. (He briefly discusses their courtship but passes over their divorce. This is not a gossipy book.)
Restless in the role of a subordinate and eager to make money, the 27-year-old Ravitch returned to New York in 1960 to join his family’s growing business. The firm’s notable projects included the Whitney Museum and Citigroup Center. Ravitch specialized in residential construction, then a booming field, thanks to the launch of many state and federal affordable-housing programs. Working in real estate taught him valuable political lessons, while also making him wealthy. Two of his major achievements were Waterside, a development just below the United Nations complex that required building into and over the East River, and Manhattan Plaza, which helped spark the West Side’s gentrification. Ravitch’s real estate earnings sustained him for years, even after he sold HRH in the 1970s. His business successes enabled him to serve in government pro bono and on his own terms.
The New York City fiscal crisis of the 1970s was really a series of emergencies, the first involving the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), a powerful state agency created to develop housing. Because it overbuilt and underperformed financially, UDC found itself nearly insolvent less than ten years into its existence. Governor Hugh Carey appointed Ravitch UDC chairman in January 1975, with a mandate to stabilize its finances. He did so, but not before enduring a default, which shook the financial community’s confidence in municipal-credit markets.
The city’s credit was already precarious. Revenues had nosedived as businesses and residents moved out, while expenditures escalated, in large part because of rising welfare spending and union costs. The city covered its deficits through short-term borrowing, a tactic that depended vitally on investor trust in the city’s ability to make good on its obligations. In May 1975, banks refused to underwrite any more notes or bonds for New York, fearing that they would be held liable in the event of a default on debt that they had helped bring to market.
Throughout the ensuing panic and several desperate attempts to reestablish solvency for New York, Ravitch served as a special adviser to Governor Carey. The famous eleventh-hour negotiations during which Albert Shanker, head of the teachers’ union, was persuaded to use teacher pension funds to purchase municipal bonds and help the city avert bankruptcy, took place in Ravitch’s apartment. Shanker and Ravitch were friends; the value of personal connections in effective governance is one of Ravitch’s recurring themes.
In September 1975, Carey asked Ravitch to be the first executive director of the New York State Financial Control Board, the new agency charged with keeping the city’s finances in line, but he declined. (Later, he would turn down offers to be deputy mayor for economic development for New York mayor Ed Koch’s administration and an economic adviser to postwar Bosnia.) Carey did, however, convince Ravitch to serve as chairman of the MTA in 1979, an agency whose reputation then was something like the Port Authority’s today. “Almost everyone who ran for elective office campaigned against the MTA,” Ravitch notes. Ravitch contended with a political struggle over fare and tax increases, strikes by the Transit Workers Union and workers on the Metro North and Long Island Railroad commuter rail lines, congressional attacks on his purchase of foreign-made subway cars, and even an attempt on his life. But Ravitch has no regrets. He sums up his four years as head of the MTA as “the most exhilarating years of my life.”
Though he would continue to play “businessman on loan to government” throughout the next three decades, Ravitch didn’t find another outlet to pursue fiscal reform until 2009, when David Paterson appointed him lieutenant governor following Eliot Spitzer’s resignation as governor. Lieutenant governors usually content themselves with ceremony and perks, but Ravitch used the resources of the office to make a careful study of New York’s budgeting process. He was astounded by the variety of gimmicks budget staffers had developed and how deeply state government had come to rely on them. In his view, lack of honesty is the main enemy of sound fiscal policymaking; corruption troubles him less than gimmickry. Public officials are unwilling to acknowledge the gap between what they and the public want government to do (and pay for). Even during the recessionary years that Ravitch held office, Albany’s budget wizards worked assiduously to conceal costs. Few grasped the reality that New York’s fiscal problems were structural, not temporary. Ravitch’s proposed budget-reform plan didn’t come to fruition.
He continued his advocacy after leaving office. In 2011, he raised $2 million and launched the State Budget Crisis Task Force. He hoped to convey to a national audience that state governments’ fiscal challenges are widespread, and that New Yorkers are not alone in their denial of fiscal reality. A lifelong Democrat, Ravitch has persuaded some other Democrats to get serious on issues they would prefer to ignore, such as pension reform. Recently, Ravitch was appointed a consultant to Judge Steven Rhodes during the Detroit bankruptcy. Despite his advanced age (80) and having no prior experience with Detroit, Ravitch is as restless as ever. “If I can help, it’s better than a dozen more golf games this summer,” he said.
So Much to Do never quite delivers on Ravitch’s argument for public service. It’s easier to attract honest and capable people into government during times of crises than during ordinary times, when they would be more valuable. Many fiscal problems are rooted in the mismanagement of mundane administrative matters, such as tax collection and assessment policy, and public pensions.
Ravitch expresses admiration for the resilience of the democratic process, but his work, and that of, say, Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr, can’t really be called democratic. As Ravitch concedes, great things can be achieved through private negotiations enabled by “finess[ing]” open-meeting laws and personal connections. Sometimes democracy must rely on non-democratic supports. And, as Ravitch’s career shows, even seemingly dire problems can be solved through grit, intelligence, and good faith.next>>