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Blizzardgate: Lessons buried in the Snow

As a New York City resident I looked forward to a quiet, peaceful Christmas holiday this past year. And while I was disappointed to not have a white Christmas, in the days to follow I, along with the rest of the city, experienced a winter deluge that will go down as the 6th largest snowstorm in parts of the city. But what does this have to do with development? Bear with me, it’s coming.

As the snow ceased, and the cleanup efforts began, I was struck by observations:

1. As many know, the overall snow removal effort was criticized. Allegation flew (like new fallen snow) that supervisors at the New York City Department of Sanitation intentionally refused to uphold their snow removal duties in order to protest recent budget cuts. However, this criticism is not totally accurate, as the removal efforts where quite effective throughout much of the downtown Manhattan area. In fact, as a part-time bike courier I was able to ride throughout Manhattan unhindered as early as Tuesday the 28th, two days after the storm, but had to take the subway into the city from my apartment in Brooklyn because the streets there were so choked with snow.  The snow removal efforts were not uniformly insufficient, rather the outer boroughs, including my neighborhood in Brooklyn, suffered disproportionately more from the lack of removal resources.

A bad day to be a bike courier

Why was this? The reasons could be many, including the argument that Manhattan is the economic lifeblood of the entire area and thus it was essential that its roads be cleared with priority in order to prevent huge financial losses for everyone. But, even if that were the case, it was not the popular impression of many living in my neighborhood. People on the streets outside my apartment were talking about issues associated with economic inequality: the roads in Manhattan where cleared first because that is where the wealth is concentrated. The rich got their roads cleared while the poor did not. While this point can be argued for and against, one thing is clear – there is a tension between the haves and have-nots in my little corner of the U.S. As those in the financial sector rebound from the recent recession, many in New York City have yet to feel any sort of economic upswing. The recent disparity in snow removal is being perceived to many as an example of the disparities of wealth and privilege that exist in New York City.

Access-A-Ride bus, still snowbound three days after the storm, blocking a street adjacent to my apartment in Brooklyn.

While economic inequality has been endemic throughout U.S. and world history, it has gained a new poignancy since the latest economic recession. In the eyes of many still suffering through devastatingly hard economic times, the economic success of some within the financial sector is especially painful to see because they believe it was this very financial sector that caused the economic collapse and received the majority of the government (read taxpayer) bailout (funds). Why should those who caused this mess, and got the most support during the mess, suffer the least and be the ones to recover the fastest? And thus, when those on “Wall Street” get their streets plowed before those on “Main Street” (in neighborhoods around Queens and Brooklyn), it is seen to some as one more example of the unfair disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

2. Another, more optimistic, observation struck me during the post-blizzardgate cleanup. Walking through my streets, I heard many acrimonious shouts of injustice concerning the recent snow removal efforts:  “Down with Mike” (as Mayor Michael Bloomberg is congenially referred to) and other more colorful remarks. I witnessed people yelling at the top of their lungs in disdain for the way the city had neglected them and their neighborhood; and people in tears, on the phone trying to figure out how they were going to pay to get to work now that the buses were out of service and their cars were snowbound. But, during all of this time, there were no calls to violence. Instead, over and over I heard people talking about taxes. That’s right, taxes. “I pay my taxes, now why can’t the city clear my streets?”

Why this optimistic response to the reference to taxes? Because it is a wonderfully vivid example of the extent to which our democratic social contract is ingrained in our citizen population. The social contract theory lays down the bedrock of accountability between the government and its citizens (see Brautigam 2008). Citizens agree to help finance the government in exchange for public services (like snow removal) and a greater voice (accountability) in that government. When this social contract is broken or not present, unrest and disagreement can lead to civil conflict and/or violence. But when functioning and ingrained in the psyche of the citizen population, this social contract allows for a healthy release of tension and an effective mechanism to address concerns –through the power of the vote and the purse.

Interestingly, it is the “resource curse” (discussed in my past blogs) that often threatens this social contract, especially in countries already suffering from weak institutional capacity. When government coffers and public spending are dependent on resource revenues (oil for example) and not tax dollars, then the citizens and their concerns are essentially taken out of the equation. Large companies and elite public officials hold the power of the purse and not the people. The country becomes a rentier state, where the government is beholden to an elite section of the economic base and unaccountable to the larger citizen population.

To be clear, I am in no way trying to compare the snow flurries in New York to the floods in Pakistan, nor the governance issues in Manhattan to the challenges facing officials in Port-au-Prince. But, I do enjoy when life provides vivid examples of theory in practice. The recent snowstorm in New York City reminded me of the corrosive effects that a growing economic inequality can have on a society, any society. But it also gave me hope, and evidenced the wonderful power of consolidated democracies in action.

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