Spitzer, Suozzi, and Reinhold Niebuhr

New Yorkers who have been paying attention must wonder what to think about the interests that rule the roost in Albany.  On one hand, you local doctor or hospital might do its best to make you well.  On the other hand, despite getting far more taxpayer money here than elsewhere, the Greater New York Hospital Association and Local 1199 put out commercials threatening to kill our babies if there is any limit on their funding.  On one hand, many NYC schoolteachers use their own money to buy school supplies.  On the other hand, the UFT has as its top goal a retirement at age 55, not a better education for New York City’s children.  Many city residents have friends and relatives in the suburbs or upstate who seem nice enough.  But their representatives in Albany have created a reverse Robin Hood school aid system that may be the least just in the nation, all at the expense of New York City’s children.  The members of the TWU rebuilt the transit system after the 1970s.  But they went on strike to get an early retirement at age 50, the cost of which would re-create the 1970s, without ever thinking about their own situation relative to those who pay their salaries, most of whom have no pension at all.  Your grandma seems nice.  The AARP gets more health benefits for the seniors, without giving a damn about the uninsured, or what will be left (besides debt) for future generations when they get old.  Your state legislator seems like a nice guy; the legislature is evil.

In Albany, it seems, already-privileged, the only ones who matter, are insatiable.  Whatever they had last year, they demand more this year, and everyone else be damned.  Or ignored, because these groups, and the legislators they rule, never allow the thought of their own situation and other people’s situation to enter into their heads at the same time.  In so doing, they violate the rule of ethics as old as Kant’s categorical imperative and “do onto others as you would have them do unto you,” or older.  They apply different rules to themselves than to others.

To understand this behavior, I have copied below some excerpts from Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York, 1932).  Niebuhr, best known for the Serenity Prayer, was worried about war and the rise of the Nazis.  But while it may be a stretch to compare the interests mentioned above to Nazi Germany, I think his insights may have some bearing on the goings on in Albany, New York.

“A sharp distinction must be drawn between the moral behavior of individuals and of social groups, national, racial, and economic.”

“Individual men may be moral in the sense that they are able consider interests other than their own in determining the problems of conduct, and are capable, on occasion, of preferring the advantages of others to their own.  They are endowed with a measure of sympathy and consideration for their kind, the breadth of which may be extended by an astute social pedagogy.  Their rational faculty prompts them to a sense of justice which educational discipline may refine and purge egotistic elements until they are able to view a social situation in which their own interests are involved with a fair measure of objectivity.

“But all these achievements are more difficult, if not impossible, for societies and social groups.  In every human group there is less reason to guide and check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egotism than the individuals who compose the group reveal in their personal relationships.”

“Our contemporary culture fails to realize the power, extent and persistence of group egotism in human relations.  Since reason is always to some extent the servant of interest in a social situation, social injustice cannot be resolved by moral and rational suasion alone.  Conflict is inevitable, and in this conflict power must be challenged by power.  An adjustment of social conflict caused by the disproportion of power in society will hardly result in justice as long as the disproportion of power remains.”

“The inferiority of the morality of groups to that of individuals is due in part to the difficulty of establishing a rational social force which is powerful enough to cope with the natural impulses by which society achieves its cohesion.  But in part it is merely the revelation of a collective egotism compounded by the egotistic impulses of individuals, which achieve a more vivid expression and a more cumulative effect when they are united in a common impulse than when they express themselves separately and discretely.”

“The larger the group the more certainly it will express itself selfishly in the total human community.  It will be more powerful and therefore more able to defy social restraints that might be devised.  It will also be less subject to internal moral restraints.  The larger the group the more difficult it is to achieve a common mind and purpose and the more inevitably it will be unified by momentary impulses and immediate and unreflective purposes.”

(Note:  Niebuhr was writing about international relations.  Extrapolating his point to organized interests in state and local government budgeting and management, I would say instead that they are united by the lowest common denominator of the self interest of their most selfish members.)

“Such is the social ignorance of peoples that, far from doing justice to foe or neighbor, they are as yet unable to conserve their own interests wisely.  Since their ultimate interests are always protected best by at least a measure of fairness toward their neighbors, the desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests.”

( Not necessarily, since in New York State almost  everyone organized and pursuing special deals for themselves or their group expects to be living elsewhere eventually, or has their children living elsewhere, as the population turns over.  New York is forever being exploited by “people like us” as “people like them” move in.)

Nations (ie. other self-interest groups) will always find it more difficult than individuals to behold the beam that is within their own eye while they observe the mote that is in their brother’s, and individuals find it difficult enough.  A perennial weakness in the moral life in individuals is simply raised to the nth degree in national (ie. political interest group) life.”


So what has this got to do with Suozzi and Spitzer?

If there ever was an example of group egotism, it is the New York State legislature and the interests that back them, profiting ever more from the policies and priorities enacted there.  Most of these interests have lined up behind Spitzer, mostly because Suozzi has challenged them (or at least some of them) and called them out.  I can tell you by experience, forcing people concerned solely with their own little world and situation to take a look at the effect of their actions on others, as if they and the others were somehow equals and deserved to be thought of at the same time, does not make them happy.

If he was to do anything for the rest of us, however, Spitzer would have to confront these interests, just as Suozzi would, as Governor.  He can’t rely on their good will.  In fact, they are relying on his "obligation" to provide what they “deserve” in exchange from his support.  Nor will beseeching the state legislators to be nicer, and then endorsing all the incumbents, which is what the New York Times does, make things better.  Today, the legislators need only be concerned with the limited interests that can actually threaten them, and unless there is a counterveiling threat from somewhere else, they will do whatever those interests want.

Moreover, neither Spitzer nor Suozzi as Governor should allow groups like the UFT, the Greater New York Hospital Association, etc. to serve as interlocutors for their members.  The Governor must go over their heads, to the individuals and the rest of us, and talk of fairness, rather than negotiate with these greedy groups and the legislators they control.

If need be, a Governor Spitzer or a Governor Suozzi should be prepared to try to blow these groups up.  How?  For the unions, for example, by reaching out to younger members on the wrong side of past multi-tier contracts, and demanding that in future contracts those with more seniority, and those already retired, should have to sacrifice to offset the losses they had imposed on their succesors. 

The lack of what used to be called enlightened self interest in Albany is distressing, but it is what it is.  Suozzi knows it’s a war; I hope Spitzer does too, endorsements or not.  And I hope they don’t get too mad at each other, and can work together afterward.  Whoever is Governor is going to need all the help he can get.