Review: The Power Broker

I gave up around page 300 of this 1,200 page book by Robert Caro (1974). It’s not that it’s too long but that it’s too detailed. That is the point of an authoritative biography, of course, but I also just didn’t like its subject: Robert Moses.

Moses started off as the poor but smart kid who wanted to do good. Then he got “clever” at getting his way, and power began to corrupt his idea of good — as well as shielding him from (or allowing him to ignore) critical feedback.

The result, which grew and metastasized, was a series of policies and projects that served fewer and fewer of the citizens of the city and state of New York and more and more of the ideology of Moses. It’s just painful to read a book whose “narrative arc” goes from good to bad — and I’m a pessimist!

He was, famously, an iconoclast who had no problem destroying some of the best of New York’s public architecture. He was also a racist who saw no issues with destroying minority neighborhoods to build highways and offramps for suburban white commuters.

His most famous nemesis (he had many detractors, whom he often ignored, belittled and ruined) was Jane Jacobs — the author of a robust defense of the organic, bottom-up qualities of cities that was not just a treatise on urbanism but a direct rebuke to the likes of Moses. (She was busy with the campaign to stop Moses from driving a road through Washington Square in SoHo.)

Jacobs went on to influence many. Moses’s impacts were less benign but just as enduring: The destruction of quality urban living in a quest to model society to his narrow, bigoted vision. The fact that “others did it” in other cities is no excuse.

(Not-fun fact: Mark Rutte — the current, 4-time Dutch Prime Minister — says this is his favorite book. Fucking scary — even if he says “it’s not possible in Netherlands”.)

I give this book 4-stars for existing in its entire, incredibly detailed and insightful form; I just wish there was a 200 page version!

Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Power Broker”

  1. What impressed me about the book
    – I hope you got that far
    was how Moses had accumulated so much power,
    in so many different roles,
    with banks, insurance interests, unions, property developers, etc.
    that no mayor or governor could rein him in
    or remove him.

  2. Two reasons why I would recommend continuing:

    First, to just get a feeling for how long Moses could get away with his antics without losing elite support. For the longest time, newspapers and progressives loved him, because he seemed like an incredibly productive technocrat doing the right thing for the city, seemingly so different from bickering, corrupt politicians. So even if after the fact, Moses’ evil seems obvious to us, at the time “we” (meaning very broadly, the well educated and well off) might have been in his corner! Which I think is an important lesson about elite failure.

    And two, the book in the end has a beautiful arc. It starts with one type of corruption: political bosses using public works and “honest graft” to get rich, giving jobs and housing to poor people but skimming off the top. Moses’ career in municipal government starts with him as a naive reformer counting cement bags on construction sites, trying to get a handle on low level corruption and finding ways to take power away from these politicians abusing office. Then he slowly rises the ranks, and becomes a technocratic alternative to these bosses. Politicians lean on him to overcome corruption. Slowly but surely he amasses enough power to impose his will on New York, until at old age he (and this is almost too good to be true!) is going deaf and literally cannot hear the complaints of the people whose lives he is ruining.

    But then a new generation of reformers start counting. As Moses’ is “clearing slums” and replacing them with social housing projects, he promises to give the people he is displacing new homes in the city. Walking the street, counting trash bins, journalists and reformers start to realize that his promises were empty. That people had not been given a better space to live and instead were simply forced to disappear. That to me contains an important lesson about measurement, and how if we focus too much on easily observable outcomes (beautiful parks, ribbon cutting sessions and reductions in low level corruption) we might confuse “growth” for development. That is a lesson I believe you are sympathetic to 😉

    Finally, last year there was a play about Moses’ life called Straight Line Crazy, with the first half focussing on his rise (with a beautiful role for Al Smith, one of the bosses that was on Moses’ side) and the second on his downfall (including a bigger role for Jane Jacobs than Caro gives her). Ralph Fiennes stars as Robert Moses. Really loved watching it. A recording was made, but I am not sure if its currently available for streaming…

    (Why yes, The Power Broker was one of my lockdown obsessions…)

    1. Hey Joeri — thanks for the really helpful comment. It does make a lot of sense (the elites are often dangerous, e.g., British and American supporters of Hitler before WWII!), but I am going to stick with my original “I can’t take this any more” since it’s so depressing to see absolute power corrupt absolutely.

      Maybe I’ll come back in the future 🙂

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