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


Lesson 1: The Tyranny of Fine Print

For many years now, I have been intending to get around to reading Robert Caro’s massive tome The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. I have lived my entire adult life in the greater New York City area, living most of that time in Queens, a borough practically created (at least in its modern form) by Moses. With days of scouting ahead of me delivering long stretches of time in a car and walking the streets of New York, I finally decided to check this masterpiece of my list via audiobook and purchased a copy through Audible. The book did not disappoint.

While it is a kind of de facto biography of New York City, The Power Broker is mostly, as the title implies, a book about power. Robert Moses is the case study and he is an incredible one, but the arc of Moses and of The Power Broker, is nothing new. The story is that power corrupts and the greater the power, the greater the consequences of that corruption. But the reduction of a giant book like The Power Broker to its broadest theme is trite. Stories are details and the details of how Robert Moses controlled Triboro, a semi-private, semi-public Empire- replete, as Caro points out several times, with its own castle and moat (Randell’s Island), its own flag, its own police force, its owe treasury and its own Emperor- the Great RM, himself- are fascinating and instructive.

One of the great lessons to be found in those details seems particularly relevant to our current place in time, when not even the simplest, most mundane smartphone app can be downloaded without 10,000 words of legal gobbledygook proceeding it, demanding the user submit to its conditions.  Robert Moses did not build his empire with armies or weapons. He didn’t rise to his greatest level power on the wave any popular movement (though his popularity was important) or through the mechanics of democracy. He took power for himself through the tyranny of fine print.

Caro describes how early in his career, working for New York Governor Al Smith, Robert Moses became the “best bill drafter in Albany.” He was never a lawyer, so like Governor Smith, he learned to draft bills in the heat of actual battles in the capital, rather than in classrooms and Law libraries. And like Smith, he learned to hide the real meat of laws in banalities, to bury what mattered in sub-clauses and addendums which appeared unrelated to the provisions they would alter or invalidate. He gained almost God-like powers of eminent domain on Long Island by slipping the language into a Parks bill pages away from the sections that described those powers in detail. He made himself unassailable as the Emperor of Triboro by first naming the Comptroller the executor of all the Authorities’ income (as expected), but then, in another section, far down from that original outline of that position and authority, made the Commissioner, himself, the only one who could spend that income. He then further isolated himself from political consequences by embedding his position into the bond contracts for all Triboro bond issues, making the terms of those deals (which, per the Constitution, could only be altered by the parties named in the bond- him and the bond holder) the glue that could hold him in power no matter what any elected official might want.

If that paragraph was as dull and arduous to read as it was to write, I have gone a long way to making my point. His power came from fine print and manipulation of dull legal language. Legalese has always existed, in part, at least to create a barrier between those who can (and are willing to) scale that barrier and the rest of the world. Some frustrating complexity cannot be avoided in the creation of laws or contracts and some initially obscure language does, in truth, serve the purpose of simplifying complex concepts into a few well-defined terms. But, there are also great ramparts of complexities created for their own sake, dreamed up and written down to hide and protect true intentions that would never be accepted if they were clearly spelled out. Men like Moses and Smith understood the power of fine print and that power has expanded and not diminished in the decades since The Power Broker.

In one of those Star War prequels, Princess Amidala says, “so this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause.” Maybe it will. But it is more likely, with Laws like the Patriot Act quietly expanding power here and there, that Liberty will be killed off, not with applause or even notice, but somewhere in subsection B, Article 39, defining the appropriations for clone army meal provisions, and reading something like this-

“whereas in addition to providing foodstuffs and hydration to all clones, Jedi, clone-like beings, Gungans, non-humaniod military enlistees, the government (defined now as Emperor Palantine in another section no one bothered to read) shall be able to employ funds, as defined in article 12, Section G, for basic provisions including but not limited to apparel, armaments, battle stations- including but not limited to outposts, shield generators, starships, moon-sized battle stations, AT-AT units and all similar such stations, whether currently known to the universe or to be developed at a future date, throughout perpetuity, vaporizers and vape fluid. Such provisions shall be distributable and employable at the discretion of said authority without restriction.”

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