Introducing Maximum New York
A civic organization and philosophy for a bigger, better New York City.
I’ve been workin on developing a project called Maximum New York for about two years, although I didn’t know it when I first started. I began just wanting to know the structure of NYC’s government, and I ended up with a civic organization and philosophy for its future.
In the past I’ve written about smaller projects on the way to this one, like my map of the New York City charter, or my NYC onboarding. Well—here’s the endpoint of those endeavors! I hope you find it interesting, and want to join me.
Note: this essay also appears on the Maximum New York website here.
The twenty-first century’s most brilliant future reflects off of New York City’s gleaming vertical majesty, and rises as a passionate appeal from its thronging tens of millions demanding of our present, “let it grow.”
Maximum New York is a new civic organization and philosophy. It recognizes that sustainable growth far beyond New York City's current size is the key to addressing its civic issues and unlocking vast amounts of new wealth and well-being.
Read on and visit the support page to put the ‘M’ in Maximum New York.
The Problem: most people think New York City is beyond help
They might not say it like that, but their actions show that they’ve accepted a middling version of New York. The best and brightest have forsaken the polity, and if this problem is not solved, the vision of Maximum New York cannot be—so that’s where I’ll start.
If you’ve fallen in love with New York City, you’ve wondered about “getting involved.” You want to deploy your talents, intelligence, and resources in service of the common good. Whether this means participating in city government or working with a civic organization, you want to learn how to make the city a better place. After all, the city faces problems—many with obvious and well-known solutions. You can give the system the push it needs!
But, after some investigation, you’re mired in twin demoralizing realities. First: NYC’s civic structure is inscrutable to anyone not already familiar with it, and there is no obvious way for you to learn about it. You’re just sitting in your apartment at 1AM, closing your laptop after a futile attempt to learn basic city politics. You, who have met life’s challenges; you, who sustain yourself in the face of doubt and trial; you, who solve complex problems in your work; you, who are any go-getter with a library card and internet connection—you have been defeated. And by what?
Second: if you manage to touch some part of civic order itself, you see how it frustrates anyone with technical prowess and a can-do attitude. Quite understandably, you think some version of “fuck this, why waste my time,” and you contribute your time and energy to the private sector and your private life. You accept the compounding drag on private efforts that a failing polity produces.
Meanwhile, Leviathan shrugs. The exodus and deterrence of talent from our government and civic structure continues. The negative feedback loop takes another lap.
This cannot continue, of course, or else we’ll meet our doom. Worse yet, we’ll languish in the shadow of what could have been. Seeing the reality of our city, we’ll know that the future could have been ours, in our own time. And if that future does not arrive, citizens, it will be our fault.
OK then, the problem is clear: for understandable (but regrettable) reasons, potentially excellent citizens do not, or cannot, engage with New York City. And by their withholding, we all suffer compounding loss and opportunity cost at a societal level. That concludes the grim portion of this essay.
Now what are you gonna do about it, and why is it Maximum New York?
The Solution: Maximum New York
MNY (Maximum New York) is three things: a civics institution, a game, and a set of ideas. And so it has three corresponding goals: (1) train talent to enter the civic sphere, (2) make it as enjoyable as learning any other worthwhile skill, and (3) deploy that talent in the service of human capacity and well-being.
Let’s look at the first two aspects of MNY, as a training ground and a game.
Entering New York City civics is hard because it’s not an entry-level activity, even though it’s culturally presented like one. Would you try to bench press twice your bodyweight on day one of your strength regimen? Would you try to read Dostoevsky in Russian after one Duolingo lesson? Of course not. You’d be missing too many skills, and you’d only end up frustrated and defeated if you tried. Does that situation sound familiar—perhaps from a few paragraphs ago?
To cultivate almost any skill requires solidifying the basics, sustained effort over a long period of time, and (ideally) guidance from a more advanced practitioner. For muscles, you have a trainer. For languages, you have a tutor. And for NYC civics, you have me and Maximum New York.
Not only do I offer an NYC onboarding, I’ll also be starting the Maximum New York Council in Q1 of 2022.
The MNY Council will be a legislative body of 20-60 individuals from across the city who will consider and pass bills and resolutions. The Council will have a budget supplied by MNY that will grow over time with the institution, as its members gain institutional sophistication and ambition. We’re playing with live ammunition.
But what will the Council do? That’s up for its members to decide, in accordance with the general vision of MNY. The whole point of the Council is to train ambitious, intelligent people to improve New York’s civic structure by first giving them live experience with the mechanics of governance. To be successful they will need to acquire detailed local knowledge, and learn to wield procedural rules. Together with their fellow council members, they will draft and pass legislation allocating the organization’s resources (financial and human) to achieve their ends.
Perhaps they want to sponsor a trash can on a city block. Perhaps they want to commission a statue. Perhaps they want to form a partnership with another organization, or part of the government. And perhaps they want to scale the organization’s ambitions far beyond any of those things. It’s up to them.
If this sounds appealing to you, but you don’t know how to participate in such an organization, you will be taught. For the first year or two (as needed), I will be serving as the organization’s first executive. I will interview, prep, and appoint each member of the Council. All I ask is that potential members arm themselves with curiosity, mental toughness, and a positive attitude. Governance is a learned skill just like anything else. Sophistication will come to those who work.
As the Council reaches milestones, its sophistication will increase. The first major change will be the introduction of a Council Speaker, who will preside over the body. And after the first year or two of the Council’s existence, I will step out of the executive role, leaving it to be filled via majority vote of the Council from among its members. At this point, there’s no telling where things will go. But serving a term on the Maximum New York Council will become a recognized public achievement, and a thorough preparation for further civic engagement.
This is governance as a game. Like the game of life, there are a few hard constraints, but otherwise it’s open-ended. If you think you’d like to try your hand at it, follow me and MNY. Further details, including eligibility and application requirements, will be forthcoming—as will other governance games.
Now let’s turn to the ideology of Maximum New York, which is also the guiding vision of the MNY Council—the cardinal direction of its policy.
The Ideology: Let New York Grow
Everyone has a political ideology (a system of ideas about how to properly arrange the social order). The ideas are either coherent or not, owned or borrowed, intentional or ad hoc. MNY is animated by mine, which I’ll sum up now.
Maximum New York in a nutshell: the idea that large, sustainable growth is vital for the future of New York City and the world that it exists within, and that the absence of this growth causes and will cause massive societal harm.
This is a strong contention that would require a short book for minimum viable justification; rest assured, that book is coming. But for now, the summary review of MNY is:
Maximizing sustainable economic growth is a moral imperative, because it radically increases human wealth and well-being in a compounding fashion over time. A relevant passage from Tyler Cowen’s book Stubborn Attachments: “...redo U.S. history, but assume the country’s economy had grown one percentage point less each year between 1870 and 1990. In that scenario, the United States of 1990 would be no richer than the Mexico of 1990.”1
A principal component of this is maximizing the sustainable economic growth of New York City, because a larger NYC means radically more wealth and well-being for the city, the state, the country, and the world. The city can, and should, grow well past 10 million, and sooner than we think. There is room.2
NYC’s primary growth and well-being inhibitors are city and state laws that illegalize the vast majority of potential new housing. In the best case scenario, they merely raise the price of, reduce, and delay the small amount of potential housing they allow to become actual.3
Therefore: one of the most high-impact and pressing endeavors of our time is striking these laws from the books and legalizing the production of new housing in New York. People should start saying things like "one million new units within a decade."
There are many people who’ve been working on housing in NYC, and they’ve made important progress. But Maximum New York is distinct in its underlying philosophy, strategy, and tactics, and fills a rhetorical and political space that’s been vacant in the city.
New York’s civic culture needs more optimism, more grand visions of the future, and more people who take seriously the idea that their city should be great. We’re kept from the future not just by broken institutions, but by a lack of people rushing in to fix them. This vision is no mere window dressing; it is vital to pulling the future forward.4
The future will not happen on its own. If you are a private citizen of ability and interest, consider what you and your contemporaries withdrawing your talents from the polity means for its future—and whether you endorse that outcome. If you do not, join me and support Maximum New York.
Next year will be the start of a grand experiment in civics, and the template for others like it. If you aren’t convinced of MNY’s potential, I remind you that while people often overestimate what can be done in a year, they radically underestimate what can be done in a decade. But you must start somewhere. That somewhere is right here, right now.
Gotham is calling us, citizens, and we haven’t a second to waste.
I claim that sustainable economic growth is a moral imperative, and that it radically increases wealth and well-being over time. For a summary overview of the arguments behind this contention, see Tyler Cowen’s book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, published in 2018 by Stripe Press. The quote in the text is from page 40 of the book.
For an overview of why growing the city would send positive ripples so broadly, and why housing sits at its heart, see “The Housing Theory of Everything” from Works in Progress.
For an overview of city and state laws that illegalize, delay, and increase the cost of housing in NYC, see this 2020 report from the Citizens Budget Commission, “Strategies to Boost Housing Production in the New York City Metropolitan Area.”
As for the million units of housing and Maximum New York’s view of the future...for now I’ll just say that the time has come to set better goals for New York City—not just governmentally, but culturally. “One million housing units” is out of every politician’s frame of reference, so I’m sure most of them would call it impossible—and it may well be! But there is value in boldness, properly conceived.