Monday, November 24, 2008

The Royal Shaft

The reign of King Michael I, and the prospect that it might continue, brings to mind a royal screwing of yet another kind-that paean to divorce sung by Jerry Reed: "They split it right down the middle, And then they give her the better half. Well, it all sounds sorta funny, But it hurts too much to laugh. She got the gold mine - I got the sha-a-aft."

Well, Mike Bloomberg brought his own goldmine to the city; yet it's New York's tax payers, ignored by a cavalier and mindless spender, who have gotten the shaft-beginning with the whopping commercial real estate tax in 2002, and continuing with a less than austere response to the demands of a municipal labor force that the mayor has cultivated without regard to the fiscal consequences.

In yesterday's NY Post, Fred Siegel underscores this grim reality, one that has been masked by a less than scrupulous media oversight (which, thankfully, has begun to change). And the term limits power grab initiated the beginning of a more careful evaluation of the mayor's tenure: "When Mayor Bloomberg deployed his vast personal and political power to overturn the term limits law, he began to demystify the public relations image he had purchased at considerable expense. It was only then that New Yorkers began to recognize the danger of making Gotham's wealthiest man its chief executive."

So what does Siegel see in the Bloomberg Error? He sees a mayor, who just last week was refusing-illegally as it turn out-to send out rebate checks to homeowners, who has acted with fiscal irresponsibility in the pursuit of his own ambition: "But the cupboards are bare because Bloomberg has emptied them for his own political ambitions. While the stock market was heading south, Bloomberg, one eye on a potential presidential run, raised his approval numbers by expanding the city payroll. Since 2004, he has hired at least 40,000 new city employees, while bringing his own mayoral staff to record levels."

An item in yesterday's NY Post on the DOT's hiring makes the same point: "JUST weeks before Mayor Bloomberg ordered city agencies to come up with $1.5 billion in savings to help balance the battered city budget, the Transportation Department doled out raises and promotions to four dozen top managers." This isn't something new, but a trend that has characterized the Bloomberg approach to government.

As Siegel reminds us: "Similarly, to help clear the way for a third term, Bloomberg has been shoveling out considerable money in the form of newly negotiated union contracts with the Policeman's Benevolent Association, DC37 and the Corrections Officers that run above the rate of inflation. If it wasn't above an elegant gentleman such as the mayor to stoop to such measures, you might call this what Tammany Hall did: vote buying. Bloomberg is only too happy to raise property taxes on the unorganized middle class if that's what it takes to keep the power of the city's politically well-organized unions in his corner or on the sidelines come election time."

Siegel also deconstructs the mayor's the phony, "Great Manager," appellation:

"As mayor, he's been little interested in management. When the Staten Island Ferry crashed, killing 11 people, the politically well-connected Transportation Commissioner was spared a reprimand, let alone fired. When the mayor was informed that a set of subway switches had burned out and couldn't be replaced for months or even years, guaranteeing massive delays, Bloomberg nonchalantly said fine, that's the way it will have to be. He reversed himself only after howls of public protest. When a blackout produced by Con Ed incompetence left more than 100,000 Queens residents without electricity for a week, Manager Mike declined even to visit the affected areas until the press began to hound him. Even then he declared, "I think [Con Ed CEO] Kevin Burke deserves a thank you from this city. He's worked as hard as he can."

Then there's the mayor's complete failure to negotiate with his Albany equals: "Bloomberg touts himself as a CEO who can negotiate the best deal for the city. But part of running the city includes bargaining with people he can neither give orders to, nor buy like the City Council. That's made Bloomberg a singular failure in Albany, where the mayor tried to steamroll his ill-conceived congestion pricing plan through the Assembly...While arguing over whether to reauthorize Off Track Betting, the Mayor clashed with the normally mild-mannered Governor Paterson, whose support is essential for the city; Paterson came away describing the mayor to the Post's Fred Dicker as "a nasty, untrustworthy, tantrum-prone liar who has little use for average New Yorkers."

Yet when it comes to self promotion, there's no one better than Mayor Mike: "While Bloomberg has been little interested in management, he has been superbly self-promoting. Early on he sold credulous journalists on the idea that he was a post-partisan mayor, a man who rose above conventional party politics. This is in a sense true. He has been only too willing to buy support from either of the major parties to achieve his own ends." Post partisan he is-elevating the Bloomberg banner while transcending those grubby political interests that serve other, less noble, individuals and groups.

And then there's Bloomberg's ironic reversal of the, "controlled by the special interests," charge: "The traditional danger with party candidates is that they can be bought up by special interest groups. Bloomberg reverses the old game; he's won office by buying up the interest groups. When in office, Bloomberg - like most mayors - used public funds to keep the organized interests happy while putting the city at fiscal risk. But Bloomberg adds a twist, by dipping into his own vast treasury to buy support through "anonymous" gifts to non-profit institutions."

And if you want to see how this kind of anonymity produces results, take a look at Greg Canada's treacly paean to the mayor's stewardship of the schools in yesterday's NY Daily News: "The key to the success of the new system has been holding officials truly accountable. It is not about any one mayor, but about having an elected official whose job description includes a clear mandate to improve school performance as much as he or she is responsible for making sure that the streets get swept and that emergency services are operable. New layers of bureaucracy will take us straight back to the bad old days, when corrupt and self-interested bodies answered to no one. We can't have it both ways: either one person is in charge, or no one is."

Any time an Op-Ed like this appears, the author should be required to disclose how much he or she has received from one of the mayor's philanthropic conduits; it certainly was no accident that Canada had an honored place in the front of the line at the term limits hearing down at city hall. Rank has its privileges, and all that.

But Canada's praise is way off base with the school reality. As Siegel points out: "There is no better monument to Bloomberg failures as a CEO - of his arrogant inability to negotiate, of his purchased reputation - than with New York's education system. Bloomberg, who has had whole subway cards plastered with ads and full-page spreads in the newspapers touting his educational "achievements," has done a far better job of promoting himself than improving the schools. He has nearly doubled the education budget. Yet his "reforms" have created considerable chaos in the schools, which have now been re-organized three times to little educational effect. What the changes haven't produced, Bloomberg's vast PR operation notwithstanding, is improvement on the national education tests. His education legacy to date: the debts that will have to borne by a work force ill-prepared for the economy to come."

Many of these themes are well mined by Wayne Barrett, but Siegel goes further to demonstrate the extent to which Bloomberg's philosophy of government (sic) has been destructive from the get-go: "For years, our so-called "business savvy" mayor has only one strategy: Spend. In 2007, the city took in 41% more in taxes than it did in 2000. And yet that wasn't enough to cover Bloomberg's gargantuan vote-buying spree. During Bloomberg's first six years as mayor, notes The Manhattan Institute's Nicole Gelinas, city spending shot up about 50% - from $41 to $62 billion. That meant that even in the midst of an unprecedented boom, Bloomberg's genius required the city to incur record levels of debt."

This is from our great fiscal steward-someone who uses the bad old 1970s in both an ill informed and disingenuous fashion: "It's not clear if this argument is willfully ill-informed or merely self-serving evasion. But it was John Lindsay's tax hikes in the years leading up to the fiscal crisis that sent the city spiraling down into effective bankruptcy. The upshot was that in the 1970s, the city work force faced major layoffs, which only deepened the downturn. We're again headed down that path. Even as Bloomberg hikes the wages of senior workers who are crucial to the leadership of their respective unions, and hence Bloomberg's royal re-election bid, he's threatening sizeable layoffs for the newest hires."

And all the while, the mayor tries to pass this off as tough love-dramatizing the extent to which abuse can be redefined when the abuser has unlimited cash reserves. In yesterday's NY Daily News, Adam Lisberg hits on this mantra: "Bloomberg, however, is not in the dumps - because he thinks he's seen this all before. He made even harsher decisions to balance the budget when he took office; today, he loves to use them as examples of how when politicians make the tough calls instead of ducking, the public appreciates it later. "If any of you want to close firehouses, put a smoking ban in and raise property taxes, and then do a parade on Staten Island, you can join me," he told a Senate panel in June. "Today all of those things are popular, so what do I know?"

This is as good an example of the mayor's arrogance and tone deafness as we've ever come across. The property tax hike is now popular? Well, what do we know? But it does appear that the mayor may be falling into the trap of all those army generals who are always fighting the last war: "The first time Bloomberg tried those cuts, it helped get him reelected - or so he thinks. This time may be tougher. "You like a good fight if there's a good win at the end," Quinn said. "After one round of tough choices, there's going to be another round of tough choices."

Not only will it be tougher, but the Bloomberg will be further off of this rose as we devolve from, and further into, the term limits issue. Here's the money quote on this from Siegel:

"Bloomberg is so committed to his ideal of the "luxury city" run by and for the wealthy and organized interest groups that the Wall Street collapse took him completely by surprise. Like Lindsay's successor, the hapless Abe Beame, Bloomberg seems not to understand what's happening around him. His budget projections are based on the notion that the future economic path will be shaped like a U, but it's more likely to look like an L. New York, which became ever more dependent on Wall Street's high rollers to create each new job a thousand-dollar meal at a time, is going to have to rethink its economic future. Wall Street as we knew it is never coming back. The high taxes and over-regulation Bloomberg prefers pushes out the small- to medium-size businesses that will have to drive much of our economic growth in the future."

The harsh reality is that business man Bloomberg had a great opportunity to build on some of Rudy's hard won reforms-he simply lacked any real understanding of government, and was shackled with a Nelson Rockerfeller world view that made him ill-equipped to govern creatively: "We're likely to look back on the Bloomberg years as a time of lost opportunities to build on the gains of the Giuliani years. Between 2003 and 2007, the vast flow of revenues produced a boom that gave the city a chance to dig out from under its massive debt and restructure its labor contracts. Instead, Bloomberg's agenda added costs that will plague the city long into the future."
In contemplating giving Mike Bloomberg a third term, the cliche about finding oneself in a hole and understanding that it would be useful to stop digging comes immediately to mind. We must never forget that it was the little engine who couldn't that got us into this sinkhole in the first place.