WHEN NEW YORK CITY defaulted on its debts and stood on the brink of bankruptcy not so many months ago, one way or another almost everybody cared. State and local politicians got their heads together, the bankers rallied around, the investment community quivered, the president of the United States and his Cabinet officers got involved. True, there were some who were fiercely against federal help for the Big Apple. But nobody was neutral, and the problem eventually was solved-or, at least, postponed. But when Cleveland faced up to defaulting on its debts last week, nobody seemed to care.The local politicians were fighting, the governor was vacationing in Florida, the bankers were pushing the button labeled default, the investment community yawned, and, so far as we can tell, no one outside Cleveland showed any interest at all in helping solve the problem.
There are many reasons for this. New York City is, after all, an important symbol throughout the world; Cleveland isn't. New York's debts were (and are) so enormous that it owes something to almost everybody; Cleveland's are small by comparison. But the principal reason for the difference in response is that Cleveland's default and its current crisis are far more political than economic in nature. Unlike New York, Cleveland has the resources to solve its own problems-at least in the short-run-if only it has the political will to use them.
We don't mean to make light of the city's financial problems. Like most other big cities, Cleveland has lost part of its economic base. Like New York and some other cities, it has gone through an era of financial mismanagement in which capital was spent to cover operating deficits, and records were so badly kept that the city's leaders didn't know where it stood financially. Nor do we mean to make light of what might happen to those who live in Cleveland if Mayor Dennis J. Kucinich ever goes through with his Draconian plan to lay off police-and fire-department personnel as a way to save money.
But everything that has happened in Cleveland in the last week has had political overtones. The mayor's lay-off plan, the fight over selling the municipal power system, the arguments over increasing the city's small income tax, and even the decision of the bankers to pull the plug on their notes must be considered first as political moves and only second as economic moves. Ever since Mr. Kucinich defeated the city's political establishment two years ago, the local government has been in turmoil. We don't know whose fault it is, although we suspect there is enough blame to go around. But it is clear that Cleveland is caught up in a political war of the worst kind-demagogic, reckless and, as it expanded when default became a reality, bordering on lunacy.
Perhaps the city's political and financial leaders can set aside their feuds and work out a sensible solution to its problems. The mayor's reversal of his position on the municipal power company is, at least, a start in that direction. But other events in Cleveland's recent history caution against too much optimism. There has already been one narrowly defeated attempt to recall the mayor. The school system has run out of money several times. The heavy burdens of the office of director of finance are in the hands of a 25-year-old. The school-board president has been arrested for exposing his buttocks from the rear window of a car on an interstate highway.
Don't go away. There's no end, you might say, to this tale. The mayor's brother has just been arrested on a bank-robbery charge.An uncle with a prison record for possession of burglary tools, and who was later arrested for shoplifting, now holds a job in the city government.
Is it surprising that almost no one outside Cleveland seems to care?