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The Bloomberg Mystique


Mayor Bloomberg sure liked to let the press do all the speculating about whether he would run for president. Meantime, his self-funded committee working straight out of City Hall pumped up his national reputation and weighed his November prospects. Like a speculator, Bloomberg waited things out. In the New York Times op-ed in which he formally opted out, the mayor said he’d now use the means at his disposal “to promote a real and honest debate” during the national campaign. If a candidate emerges who “embraces practical solutions that challenge party orthodoxy,” Bloomberg vowed to help that candidate win. Recent developments closer to home may have refocused his attention on elected offices, such as that of the governor of New York. In any event, we are likely to hear more from Bloomberg once he is term-limited out of the mayor’s office. All the more reason, then, to put his political methods in perspective.

The standard media mythology regarding Bloomberg goes something like this: back in 2001, the electorate yearned for continuity after the trauma of 9/11. With the Democrats in self-destruct mode, Bloomberg was able to convince more or less the same demographic that won Giuliani his second term—ethnic whites and Jews from the boroughs, wealthy elites and some liberal whites from Manhattan, and a smattering of Latinos and blacks—that a seasoned businessman like himself could provide stability. Buoyed by impressive gains among blacks and Latinos, he was then re-elected easily in 2005.

In the area of policing and “quality of life,” Bloomberg has provided that continuity. He is said to have a more diplomatic touch than Giuliani in this area. On the other hand, when the situation called for it—for example, during the Republican National Convention of 2004—his police department could clear the streets of nuisances with an efficiency that Giuliani might only envy. What’s more, he’s boldly ambitious, pushing for and oft-times securing new initiatives: a 311 line for basic information and conveyance of complaints; a smoking ban; more accountability in the schools; an innovative anti-poverty program; and an active planning agenda, with thousands of city blocks rezoned, improved and expanded infrastructure, and a whole city cast in an aesthetically pleasing and “green” hue.

Combined with approval ratings that have touched 70 percent, the story presents a plausible tale of progress. Sure, there have been grumbles about the $160 million or so that Bloomberg spent to win two elections, and a modicum of concern, given the surveillance and round up of protesters in ’04, about the mayor’s respect for the constitution. But most accounts of his time as mayor tend to suggest that it is his wealth, along with his business acumen, that makes him the antidote to the politics-as-usual syndrome that has made New York “ungovernable.” Instead of analysis, we get pieties about his competence, his pragmatism, his penchant for getting things done. For example, David Remnick of the New Yorker called Bloomberg’s record “stellar.” And Business Week went so far as to say that “this forthright and prosaic billionaire just may have the right combination of managerial, risk-taking, and political skills to create a new model for public service.”

To construct a more realistic picture, it helps to recall that Bloomberg had a rough start. After he raised real estate taxes during the brief post-9/11 recession, his approval ratings went as low as 24 per cent. Then came the intertwined booms in finance, real estate, and Bloomberg’s poll numbers. More so than Giuliani, he has benefitted from rollicking good times.

Now the party seems to be over, and it may turn out that Bloomberg’s high approvals were as bubbly as the economy. There has always been opposition to Bloomberg’s push for “accountability” in the schools, certainly from the teachers union, but also from parents concerned about the DOE’s emphasis on testing-based “metrics.” A few months back Bloomberg cut school funding, literally overnight, because both the city and Albany’s coffers weren’t looking so flush anymore. On March 20, thousands of teachers and parents turned out not only to fight the cuts, but also to make it clear that they were tired of the spreadsheet mentality emanating from City Hall.

And this might only be the beginning. Since the mortgage blowout, Wall Street has been wavering; now, after the implosion of Bear Stearns, a broader contraction is nigh. Last year, according to the Times, the financial industry generated “nearly a third of all wages in the city, the highest in modern times.” As big firms from Citigroup to Lehman and Goldman Sachs shed jobs, the strain will be felt in the real estate market and then all down the line. In this context, what of Bloomberg’s big development plans?

Many are going down the tubes, piece by piece. Hard on the heels of a fare increase, the M.T.A. just announced that improvements to subway service would be delayed because of declines in real estate tax revenue. All that remains of Atlantic Yards, a scheme touted for its contributions to the stock of affordable housing and open space, is the heavily subsidized Nets arena. The announcement that city officials had made a deal with Tishman Speyer to develop the West Side Railyards was immediately followed by news that, given the reluctance of lenders to finance big projects these days, construction won’t start anytime soon. If and when it does get built, moreover, it probably won’t be as grand as originally envisioned. Dan Doctoroff, Bloomberg’s point man on such projects, may have seen the writing on the wall. He has eased back in to the private sector, taking up the top spot at—where else?—Bloomberg LP.

Of course, all politicians’ plans are to a degree captive to the mood swings of capitalism. Might Bloomberg, then, be a pretty typical politician after all? Actually, no. He’s worse. As he geared up for re-election in 2005, Chris Smith of New York Magazine pressed Bloomberg about the impact of his money on the political process. “If you really believe that you’re making a difference,” Bloomberg said, “why would you not spend the money?” The point, he added with the bluntness of Robert Moses, was to get things done, “not to have a fair fight.”

Indeed, when talking about the Bloomberg style, the press (and to a degree Bloomberg himself) has often invoked Robert Moses. Like Moses, Bloomberg unabashedly plans big in the name of the public good. And when the public takes issue with his methods, the mayor—just as Moses did—responds as a boss does to an insubordinate underling. Bloomberg definitely shares Moses’ disdain of politics. For such figures, the political system is really only a bureaucratic thicket occupied by careerist elected officials much too fearful about what their constituents think—in short, it is an arena that the true public servant should avoid rather than engage.

Moses learned that the best way to avoid politics and still get public projects done was to self-fund them, as he did through his control of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. For his part, Bloomberg has taken the arts of political insulation to a whole new level. Instead of using toll money from bridges and highways, he uses his own bank account. To provide political cover in Albany, he gives generously to the state Republican Party. By giving to select cultural and community organizations across the city, many in poorer districts, he bought acquiescence if not outright loyalty. As Smith and others have noted, it’s probably no accident that some of these organizations simultaneously felt the effects of Bloomberg’s budget ax.

The mayor also uses his many connections in philanthropic circles to fund pet projects like “Opportunity NYC,” an anti-poverty experiment which gives cash to the working poor in exchange for the doing of good, forward-looking deeds. Many have described it as innovative, another example of Bloomberg’s independence of mind. Others have called the thinking behind “conditional cash transfers” outdated, based on a 19th-century mindset that views poverty as an individual failure requiring behavioral therapy rather than a social failure demanding committed public action. But since there was no public money involved, there was no real public debate about the program’s merits.

Still, the parallels to Moses only go so far, for Bloomberg is the product of a much different time. Moses’ powers were enhanced by a political culture, born out of the New Deal, which believed that public policy could stabilize the economy by seeing to it that the benefits of capitalist growth were distributed more evenly. The private sector was still pivotal. But at the very least, through fiscal and regulatory policy, through spending and institution building of its own, the public sector could provide some measure of balance. And politics, especially the patron-client politics of the Democratic machine, made public sector decision-making accountable, if unevenly and at times sordidly. Moses played up these shortcomings to carve his own fiefdom out of the broader structural arrangement. But overall, that arrangement produced the closest thing to social democracy this country has seen, especially here in NYC.

The culture that gave rise to Bloomberg got its start with the Fiscal Crisis of ’75. Unlike after the Depression, when private economic activity came under scrutiny, this time around it was public activity, namely redistributive spending on welfare, union contracts, CUNY, hospitals, subways, and parks. Since then we have witnessed the planned disintegration of any institutional counterweight to private power. Charter reform has centralized power in the mayor’s office, and party organization, much less party affiliation, is increasingly irrelevant. The once mighty Democratic machine has control over nominations and judgeships at the county level but little else. Municipal labor unions are for the most part on the defensive, and public institutions are half if not fully administered by private bodies. And in the name of the greater good, the older planning relations have been reversed, with public policy being leveraged for the benefit of Tishman Speyer, Bruce Ratner, and Goldman Sachs. Indeed, the Bloomberg style may be the purest expression we have yet seen of the hegemony of this new, neo-liberal order. If corporate development is good for all of us, why not celebrate a mayor who is not only a CEO, but who also makes a public virtue out of a CEO’s unaccountability?

Bloomberg isn’t the first New York City mayor to think the best thing city government can do for its people is to “catalyze” corporate profits, above all in the financial sector. From Koch to Giuliani, such a view has been a guiding light. But his administration sanctifies this principle. Since becoming Mayor, Bloomberg has twice asked McKinsey and Co., the king of corporate consultancies, to issue reports on the city’s “competitive position.” In a recent speech, he congratulated himself for following through on the consultants’ advice. By cutting taxes, taking on the work of environmental reviews, and re-zoning thousands of city blocks, he said, “we are always working to reduce the obstacles that stand in the way of private investment so that New York will continue to grow, continue to change, continue to lead.”

The result is that New York is even more Wall Street-dependent than in 2001, when Mike Wallace argued, in A New Deal for New York, that city leaders should seize opportunity from tragedy and plan for a more diversified and equitable economy. As it turns out, Bloomberg is a follower, not a leader. The false promise of his two terms in office, and of neo-liberal governance in New York, will be laid bare by recession, giving us another chance at a New Deal here in New York. The bad news is that there will be a lot of pain in the meantime.


Richard Wells


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2008

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