WHO IS KILLING New York? Don't blame greedy municipal unions, bumbling politicians or extravagant social-welfare policies. According to radical economists Roger E. Alcaly and David Mermestein, the real culprit is the capitalist system. As they see it, the imperatives of postwar capitalist agglomeration, bolstered by official taxing and spending policies, have directed investment to the suburbs, the Sunbelt and high-growth industries, while saddling New York and other older cities with destructive commercial redevelopment and soaring debt. When the boom collapsed into the 1975 recession, the financiers precipitated New York's fiscal crisis by shutting off credit - and then dictated the virtual receivership that has staved off formal bankruptcy and creditor's losses by imposing austerity on everyone else in town.

Aspects of that geneal thesis are explored, often to consiberable depth, in most of the 23 essays reprinted here. The perspectives range from moderate (an excerpt from a Brookings Institution report on federal budget priorities) to explicitly Marxist. There is some familiar leftist outrage, especially in Jack Newfield's and Jason Epstein's attacks on New York developers. There is also impressive and dispassionate analysis, including a study of federal and state aid to New York City by Eli B. Silverman of John Jay College and essays on urban economic history by John H. Mollenkopf of Stanford Business School and David Gordon of the New School for Social Research.

This is a substantial collection, not just a glib anticapitalist screed. What matters most to Alcay and Mermelstein "is not morals but the system of production itself." They obviously think the only real hope for urban American is a national economic and political transformation, which Mermelstein advocates in a concluding, and quite tentative, essay on socialist alternatives. But one does not have to accept radical premises or conclusions to find value in this book. As an inquiry into national purposes and urban policies, it should be especially thought-proviking for those who think or hope that a capitalist society can be kind, and that New York and other cities can be revived by modest injections of concern and aid.