Some thoughts on The Power Broker (Robert Caro)

The Power Broker is a biography of Robert Moses.  Moses had a variety of job titles over the years (parks commissioner, highway commissioner, construction coordinator), but none of them give a really accurate sense of what he did.  The short version is: he is the reason New York City looks the way it does.  Also he built the Niagra Falls damn, but you’d barely know that from reading the book.  For a 1400 page book it leaves out weirdly large parts of his life.

The Power Broker is a libertarian horror story.  Robert Moses decides he wants some land, uses an obscure clause of state law that was only ever intended for remote forests, and claims a bunch of people’s homes.  Their punishment for failing to give him the land when he asked is that they’re banned from even retrieving their belongings from their home, and for state troopers to literally use their house for target practice.  Later in his career he condemns dense city blocks in poor but socially thriving neighborhoods in order to build highways.  And then he manipulates the concept of public authorities so that he has the funding and freedom of a private business but the power of the government.

It’s also a progressive horror story.  There’s the “condemning thriving, often minority, neighborhoods”.  There’s “he kneecapped public transit, schools, and hospitals in order to fund more highways” and “he built bridges over the Island Parkways too low for busses to pass through, explicitly to keep out poor people”.   And then there’s the petty stuff like, in one of the few parks he deigned to build in a black neighborhood (out of hundreds he built), the design motif was monkeys.

Conservatives probably weren’t too happy with him either, given the many billions of dollars he spent on public works.  Say what you want about the guy, he was nonpartisan.

One of the problems with 1st world aid to developing countries is neither the populace nor the government has a ton of control over it.  The people making the decisions lack local knowledge, and the people with local knowledge aren’t given much choice.  They can maybe make a couple of suggestions,and of course they could say no, but mostly the NGO is going to build what they want to build, and if it’s better than nothing you take it.

[Some exceptions:  Tostan spends months finding out what participants want, and of course GiveDirectly gives the most fungible good of all, cash.]

[Originally I was going to cite Tostan for increasing both the amount participants pay in taxes and what they demand from their government, which had been verbally reported to me.  However this turned out to be anecdotal and there are no hard numbers.]

Robert Moses had more or less the same set up in one of the first-worldest of cities, New York City.  He abused the public authority system, intended to allow governments to fund infrastructure with bonds and collect tolls until they were paid off, to establish his own kingdom, collecting the tolls from every major river crossing in NYC.  That’s good money, but not enough to build a highway system.  For that, he needed federal money.  Any city agency could apply for federal money, but he was the one with a source of funding that let him keep engineers and architects on staff designing for speculative projects. The minute federal money became available, he was there with plans.  During the Great Depression 1/7 of New Deal money was spent in NYC, because Moses always had a plan.

This still wasn’t quite enough money for all the penis monuments public works he wanted to build.  The city had to contribute something.  They could say no, but they couldn’t take the Authority and federal money and spend it on a better project instead.  It was that or nothing.  The politicians had construction unions to bribe, so this was an obvious yes for them.  But if you take Robert Moses’s hard-on for highways as a given, saying yes may have been the correct choice for the city as a whole.  Especially during the Great Depression, those jobs were important.  But because Moses was so prepared his projects ate up all the city’s extra money.  He did at one point deign to build public housing, but mostly because he didn’t like the idea of someone else getting to build something.

The correct solution was for someone else to plan ahead and figure out what the city actually needed and pursue it, instead of deciding on each Moses project as he proposed it in nearly-finished form.  One reason this didn’t happen was that Moses deliberately knee capped the attempts.  But this was easy because of the way government is structured.  The best attempt at a comprehensive city plan was very good, but they forgot to ask for funding to print out reports (this was in the 50s when that cost actual money).  Robert Moses stalled request for funding while he launched a counter offensive- with the large, undirected pile of money generated by tolls he could print out glossy brochures without anyone’s approval.  Between that and a friendly media, he torpedoed it.

One of the scariest yet vindicating things to me was how little influence the average voter had over this situation.  Not only was Moses beyond elections, but very few people even knew that there was a problem, much less that he was the cause.  He managed this in part by being on very good terms with the press and picking good enemies.  He could frame problems such that his opponents were Tammany Hall, that money grubbing back room institution.  Moses genuinely appears to not have been in it for the money. Many of his posts were unpaid, a fact he played up endlessly.  He played the graft game, but only to get people to support his penis monuments public works.  His job was a thing he put money into and got construction projects out of.

The press turned on him not when the realized he had an unethical pattern of behavior stretching back decades, but when it became easy to write headlines linking him to the mob (semi-correctly.  He was doing something wrong and the mob was touching the same project, but he was not doing the thing most people assumed when they read the headlines).  They continued because he antagonized them and journalists have easy ways to fight back when a politician yells at them, whether or not he’s actually doing something wrong.

Uber has some fairly sketchy business practices.  I overlook these because I think the core business- getting people to places quickly and cheaply by breaking the taxi monopoly- is a good thing, and given the legal structure at the time, the kind of people that could make it happen were not going to be the truest and most virtuous.

There’s a good argument that Moses was the same.  Yes, he was a son of a bitch who refused to move a highway an inch to save a neighborhood.  But maybe the people who were inclined to compromise or follow legal structures were weeded out of large scale public building because it’s impossible.  If Moses had built subways instead of highways and had properly compensated the victims, I might be describing him as “a good guy whose virtues made him hard to be around” and not implying his main drive was to prove the size of his penis.  Nothing was going to get built in Manhattan without a bunch of lives being overturned, the question should always have been “was it worth it”.

But then he refuses to add 5% to the cost of a project so that dedicated mass transit will some day be feasible, and of course builds bridges to block even buses.  So some of it was just him being evil.

Would I recommend this book?  Eh.  It’s not an efficient way to learn things.  I listened to it out of a combination of needing an audiobook and a major project pulling away the brainpower that would have been necessary to listen to a more thought-dense book.  If you don’t need the knowledge for something specific, like a civil service career or ammo for political beliefs you already hold, I would recommend it only if time is not a limiting factor for you.  But if you need something to fill the time while driving, The Power Broker is an extremely efficient use of an audible credit.

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on The Power Broker (Robert Caro)

  1. I read part of the power broker a bit ago! It was reasonably interesting, but I only made it about 150 pages through before my attention wandered off. The book is extremely long, so that didn’t even really take me to the part where he started to do the really crazy stuff 🙂

  2. I enjoyed _The Power Broker_ — the biographical bits where he explored Moses’ character were particularly interesting — but chaque a son gout. Moses’ story is a cautionary tale for sure, but it’s also the fascinating tale of one driven man’s rise and fall.

    Note that TPB was just a warm-up finger exercise for Caro’s real work — his multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. You know how “Game of Thrones” fans like to whine about how long it takes George R. R. Martin to finish another book? Well, Caro started that bio in 1982, and he’s been writing for 35 years. Over that time he’s written four massive roach-killer volumes and is currently writing Book Five. If he stays alive, healthy and sane, it should be out around the end of this decade. Probably. Maybe.

    Doug M.

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