Robert Moses may be the most influential historical figure you’ve never heard of.
Moses was the master builder of New York. If you’ve ever set foot in a major city, he’s affected your life.
He built more infrastructure than any individual in modern history. To name a few of his works, he built Shea Stadium, Lincoln Center, Jones Beach, the United Nations headquarters in New York, the Henry Hudson Parkway, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and the Triborough Bridge.
He also had more public works named after him in his lifetime than any other non-president in American history: Two state parks, Robert Moses State Park (Thousand Islands) and Robert Moses State Park (Long Island); the Robert Moses Causeway on Long Island; the Robert Moses State Parkway in Niagara Falls, New York; and the Robert Moses Hydro-Electric Dam.
By the time he left office, he had built 658 playgrounds in New York City alone, plus 416 miles (669 km) of parkways and 13 bridges.1
There is not a section of New York City he did not touch.
Other builders — architects, engineers, and public officials — from around the world consulted him on many of the major building projects of the 20th century.
New York politics has never been for the faint of heart. In Moses’s era it was filled with names like Rockefeller, Roosevelt, and La Guardia.
Moses was not intimidated.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was governor of New York, Moses once stormed into his office and shouted, “You’re a liar, Mr. Roosevelt.”
He referred to Fiorello H. La Guardia, possibly the most powerful mayor in the history of New York, as “that dago son of a bitch.”
Not only did these remarks not get him removed, Roosevelt and La Guardia actually gave Moses more power.
In his book, The Power Broker, biographer Robert Caro offers us a look at Robert Moses, focused around a single question:
How does one individual amass so much power?
Power = Extreme Competence x Public Opinion
The answer, told in extreme detail over the course of 1,165 pages, boils down to extreme competence for getting things done combined with a vice-like control over public opinion.
Over time, these two turned into a self-reinforcing cycle that made Moses’s power almost dictatorial.
Moses started his career as an idealist. For almost a decade he fought uncompromisingly for reforms in New York city politics and public works.
There was only one problem: he didn’t get anything done.
And so, Moses learned to become more pragmatic. He started to inch his way up the power pyramid of New York politics cutting the deals that needed to be cut and intimidating the people that needed to be intimated to get things done.
His big break, and where he demonstrated his ability to get things done, was during La Guardia’s mayoralty.
When La Guardia was first elected mayor of New York in 1934, he was elected as a Republican Party candidate, who also appealed to the “Fusion” group of Independents. The Democrats, under the auspices of Tammany Hall, had dominated New York politics for decades, but fractured in the lead-up to the election. This created the possibility for another candidate to win.
La Guardia had done it.
But La Guardia knew that the Democrats would not make the same mistake again. If he was to have any chance at re-election, he had to show results — and fast.
One of his key campaign promises had been to modernize the city’s infrastructure, especially transportation and parks. He turned to Robert Moses.
Moses delivered on some of the most impressive civil works projects in the city’s history, despite the fact that the country was in the depths of the Great Depression.
Because the Depression had put many contractors out of work, Moses had his pick of whomever he wanted. He scoured the North East, and brought in dozens of foremen who were known for their ruthlessness and skill.
For the first 100 days of La Guardia’s mayoralty, building crews worked 24 hours a day, with spotlights out at night, during the New York winter.
At midnight, workers left home and trudged for two hours in the snow in order to manicure lawns until the sun rose. These conditions were endured not in the name of battle shelters or military equipment for war time, but… parks.
It is not an overstatement to say that Moses got more done for New York City parks in the first 100 days after La Guardia’s election than anyone else had in the rest of the century preceding it.
When Moses unveiled his progress after those first 100 days, he was hailed by the press for his competence.
This led to more works, which Moses executed with similarly extreme amounts of competence, which led to more favorable press, and consequently La Guardia’s re-election.
In order for La Guardia to get re-elected, he had to show progress and Moses delivered more progress than the rest of La Guardia’s appointees combined.
So La Guardia was forced by political realities to give Moses more power.
This was in spite of the fact that LaGuardia didn’t really like Moses. In fact, basically everyone in New York politics didn’t like Moses. This was 1934 — as early as 1927 Moses had been called “the most hated man in [New York].” He was mean and disrespectful to anyone who had less power than him and seemed to care little for his workers.
However, he was hyper-competent at getting things done. This cycle played out again and again in Moses career. Despite being wildly unpopular by many who knew him, he was able to get things done. The result was that he was given more projects, more money, and more power.
This phenomenon doesn’t just happen in politics, it happens everywhere. If a company has a vice-president that no one like but who generates more sales or new products than anyone else, the VP usually gets more power which leads to more results in an upward spiral.
Controlling public opinion
Moses heavily reinvested his power into buying the court of public opinion.
This was one of Moses’ core tactics for getting his agenda pushed and his projects completed, and it was based on his realization that it’s always a public relations battle at the margins.
Though there might be lots nuance and detail to a particular issue, whoever got their soundbite into the newspaper first was able to set the tone and control the public’s opinion.
When he was building Jones Beach earlier in his career, Moses had confiscated property on Long Island in a way that was almost certainly illegal. It was required by law that he have the funds to pay for any confiscated property immediately, and he did not have it.
He was promptly sued by the property owner.
He used his lawyers to delay the case from going to court for as long as possible, and started building a parkway going to Jones Beach, a new beachfront park, right away.
By the time the case got to the courts, he had already built the parkway and the beach. Hundreds of thousands of New York residents had driven to the beach with their families for sunny summer afternoons.
There were lots of subtle issues at play about under what circumstances the State had the right to seize property and the ruling on the case would set a precedent. From a legal perspective, the case was ‘dark grey’ — probably illegal, but there was some justification if you really stretched the law.
And stretch the law the judge did. The judge knew he would get crushed by the newspapers and voters if he ordered a section of the parkway to the beach be turned back over to the original owners. The beach would be inaccessible for years while the highway was being re-routed.
The headline “Judge Rules You Can’t Go to the Beach with Your Kids Anymore” is a career ender and both Moses and the judge knew it.
At the margins, public opinion wins. And he who controls distribution, controls public opinion.
Weapons of Mass Distribution
The main distribution channel in Moses’ time was newspapers, so he actively courted all the newspaper people. He used state funds to build entertainment facilities and hold private concerts, then gave away tickets to editors and owners of papers.
This led to more favorable press, which made him even more effective. Over a period of decades, he was able to build a public image as a selfless public servant. This meant that anyone who was seen as going against Moses was quickly cast as a profiteer or corrupt politician.
Was some official blocking an expressway he wanted to build? At the height of his power, Moses could dash off a memo in the afternoon that the official was “holding back progress” and have it on the front page of all the major New York newspapers the next morning.
If you crossed him, he could ruin a decades-long career over lunch, and he did.
Control of public opinion is no less important today than in Moses’s era, though the mediums have changed. Obama’s surprise victory in 2008 is in significant part attributable to his use of email and online marketing.2
What Does It Take To Get Things Done?
The interpretation of Moses’ legacy is mixed.
At the time The Power Broker came out in the 1970s, everyone agreed with Caro’s impression that Moses was “a mean son of a bitch” and responsible for the Fall of New York.
He was overtly classist and racist, building bridges unnecessarily low over his parkways to prevent buses, and the less wealthy people who rode them, from using his parkways.
At some points, Moses comes across as an alpha gorilla, taunting his superiority in another gorillas face, just to show he can.
He is responsible for the abysmal state of public transportation in New York. For forty years he blocked every public transportation project, preferring instead the grand parkways and bridges that would serve as monuments to his legacy.
He got away with it because he never took a meaningful salary and never skimmed off of public funds. This made him untouchable legally, and politically helped him maintain the image of a selfless public servant. His currency of choice was power, not money.
Recently, there has been a re-interpretation of Moses.
Moses built many of the parks and green spaces which make the city that is often referred to as “a concrete jungle” livable. The Hamilton Fish Pool and The Lincoln Center, of the Lower East Side and the Upper West Side respectively, both became anchors that helped rejuvenate decaying neighborhoods.
Anytime you are doing major construction in an already densely populated area, there is going to be someone who is unhappy with it, even if it’s a net benefit to the city and the people who live there.
How do we decide when it’s appropriate and when it’s not?
Can we construct a way to get things done that doesn’t require actors like Moses?
Eaten Alive by Power
When Moses was finally removed from power in his 70s, he was unable to step down into life as a private citizen.
Desperate to regain power, he spent years sending out memos and calling old allies trying to get some of his influence back.
In his mid-80s he was having lunch with the Bronx Borough President, and the president called him “Bob” instead of his preferred “Mr Moses.”
His head jerked back. Ten years earlier such familiarity from a man he considered his subordinate would have been met with an icy glare that had withered mayors and their aides for decades.
However, remembering he desperately needed any friends he could get, his head bowed back down and he continued the conversation.
I was reminded of a section of David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech, This is Water:
“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self.
Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.
This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways, every day.”
In the end, his lust for power ate Robert Moses alive.
P.S. For an excellent framework for thinking about the costs to society of centralized power and authority, check out The Dictator’s Handbook.
Acknowledgements: Shane Parrish, Ryan Holiday, and Drew Austin.
- Sutton, Adum. “Email Testing: How the Obama campaign generated approximately $500 million in donations from email marketing.” MarketingSherpa. N.p., 07 May 2013. Web. 30 May 2017. <https://www.marketingsherpa.com/article/case-study/obama-email-campaign-testing>.