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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

The latest book I read that I have yet to review is The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro.  This book is not for someone looking for a light read.  It's over 1,300 pages, which made me particularly annoyed that it's not available for Kindle.  It's a highly critical biography of Robert Moses, a man I'd never heard of before reading this book.  He was ostensibly nothing more than a particularly ambitious park builder.  In the author's opinion, he single-handedly fundamentally shaped New York City's infrastructure, pretty much always for the worse, by bulldozing every branch of the municipal and state governments and even occasionally dictated to presidents. 

The Power Broker book cover.jpg

Robert Moses tried for years to get his reforms in place in the traditional way: going to law making bodies and pushing for change.  When he found that didn't work he started to look for different ways to get things done.  Today, independent agencies, like the EEOC and Social Security Administration, are everywhere.  There are well over fifty at the federal level.  But back when Moses was looking for options these independent agencies were really in their infancy.  They generally only existed with limited powers or durations and with significant checks from people who are actually elected.  Moses worked systematically and often deceptively to systematically remove these restraints and make himself the sole individual with power to make decisions.  He even leveraged a little known restraint in the Constitution that prevents states from impairing obligations in contracts to prevent these changes from being rolled back.

There can be no doubt that Moses made some fantastic parks but these clearly came at a cost.  Caro makes a strong argument that the best (and pretty much all) parks were built only where they'd be accessible to upper-class whites who had access to cars.  To make sure that his parks were accessible by cars, Moses acquired ever greater control over transportation: bridges, parkways, and even mass transit.  This happened despite the fact that Moses was openly hostile to mass transportation.  It appears that he even intentionally designed bridges so that they'd never be able to feasibly accommodate buses.  Moreover, he worked to force municipal and state budgets to be so dedicated to parks that New York City basically ignored its fundamental infrastructure for years, costing it massive amounts of money in the long run.  These are the issues one could take with Moses without going into his abuses of the processes designed to allow voters to actually have a say in their democratic processes.

I really enjoyed this book, but I felt like a good editor could have made it 20-30% shorter. While the author generally presents information in an interesting way, he often goes on tangents and into lists of numbers, places, or events that would have better been relegated to foot or end notes. He can also be fairly redundant. It almost seemed like he was adhering to the old maxim that was really only ever applicable to public speaking: "Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them." Alternatively, maybe he just really wanted to drive his point home and kept going long after the horse had stopped moving. All that being said, it is still a very good, if exceedingly long, book that I think would be of particular interest to anyone who cares about public administration, abusive governments, or the press.

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