Empire State of Mind

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, said this week that his state could be destroyed by Trump’s tax plan, particularly the phasing out of part of the exemption of state and local property taxes.

Which got me thinking- maybe New York State has already been destroyed?

This past summer, my family and I went through a bunch of Western New York towns, on our way to and from Niagara Falls. Apart from Corning (of Pyrex and Gorilla Glass fame), which was booming, most of the towns seemed like they were a bigger deal in 1900 or even 1850 than they are now. Places like Auburn, New York (where William H. Seward of Seward’s Folly and Team of Rivals was from) look like they had an impressive downtown and lots of huge mansions well before the Civil War, while now not only are the downtowns kinda empty and vacant and the mansions converted to funeral parlors or apartment buildings, but the farmland outside the towns seems almost abandoned.

The decline of water power as an energy source must have been a big deal for Western New York- I’m told that at the beginning of the Civil War, New York State had more industrial capacity than all of the Confederacy, due in part to Western New York’s many little rivers to turn mills. In the American Museum of Natural History’s “Hall of New York State,” (itself pretty dingy and rundown, which might tell you something) an old placard notes next to some dioramas that the population across much of the rural sections of the state had declined between 1850 and 1950.

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The economy for those who remain in most of the state isn’t any great shakes, either- for example,  the area around New York City generates over four times as much more revenue per pupil in the schools than most counties in western New York State, and for all the national hand-wringing about New York City schools, the truth is that they are both better funded and better run than most of the western New York cities.

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Obviously, there are worse things that can happen to a place than a slow slide downward in population and economic importance; these are still pleasant places with a fair amount of natural beauty (I recommend Letchworth State Park near Buffalo, whose nickname “the Grand Canyon of the East” is only partly ridiculous.) But the question still seems real- why did this happen? Why have we transferred so much of our population to places like Phoenix and Orlando and Atlanta, and out of the rural Northeast? Lake effect snow is a pain, but so are hurricanes. Cold winters are hard on elderly people, but so are heat waves and drought. Running schools with a growing population is easier than running them with a shrinking population that requires you to maintain similar services for a dwindling number of kids; worsening public services make even more people want to leave- but is there really no way out of that cycle?

As I said, one exception to this pattern seemed to be Corning, which still is producing things the rest of the world wants to buy. You would think that access to the Great Lakes and plentiful water and land would still be a huge boon to manufacturing in places like New York and Ohio and Michigan, and that a still-reasonably-skilled population and a still-reasonably-effective system of transportation and law would be a help, too.  You’d think.

Andrew Cuomo has his own job to do, which obviously means keeping his eye on state revenue, which would almost undoubtedly be significantly reduced by Trump’s proposed plan. But the number of homeowners in large portions of his state who would even be affected by the $10,000 cap in property tax exemptions is remarkably low.

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The presumption that the permanent shape of our economy will be the skimming of value out of financial transactions and intellectual property, to be partially redistributed through spending within urban centers and government tax-and-transfer, is certainly plausible- it’s how New York State more-or-less functions already.  But it’d be nice to believe- or at least pretend to believe- there were other possibilities on the horizon, a generative economy rather than just a distributive one.

7 thoughts on “Empire State of Mind

  1. I’ve run into more and more rural upstate New Yorkers abandoning the area. I’d never even met one until a few years ago, but they seem to be on the move. We get a number of them in E TN.

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  2. The TVA region is still the most consistantly stable part of the South. There’s a reason why foreign governments still marvel at Roosevelt’s greatest achievement.

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