Monday, March 07, 2011

Bursting Bloomberg's Bubble

In yesterday' NY Post, Fred Siegel and Sol Stern get to display their Bloomberg deconstruction project that appears in a fuller form in this month's Commentary-and the authors don't disappoint. First, the mythology: "In the narrative crafted by Michael Bloomberg’s public-relations team throughout the first nine years of his mayoralty, he was the fabulously successful businessman who saved New York’s economy after the 9/11 attacks and then went on to master urban governance without breaking a sweat. Along the way, we have been told relentlessly, Bloomberg became the nation’s leading education reformer, responsible for reducing by half the black-white achievement gap, while also launching lifesaving public-health and environmental initiatives."

For those of you who are frequent readers of this blog, the Siegal/Stern takedown is not anything new-we have been inveighing against the Myth of Mike for the past six years. But it's good to see some of what we have been pointing out get a wider dissemination-and we all agree that the snowfu of last Christmas was the turning point: "But all that was before the Christmas 2010 snowstorm, when this protean genius of 21st-century politics somehow forgot the first rule of New York City governance: The mayor must make sure the streets are cleared before he sets upon saving the world. As a powerful blizzard bore down on the city, Bloomberg, as was his weekend custom, was relaxing at his sunny Bermuda hideaway."

The emperor was finally be de-frocked: "The outrage surging up in the city’s neighborhoods was so palpable that even Bloomberg’s most reliable boosters began making fun of the great manager’s performance. The mayor’s approval rating plummeted to 34%, according to a Marist poll. The rumors planted in the media about his running for president finally, and mercifully, ceased."

In the authors' most trenchant analysis, they point out that this Fall from Grace was no Greek tragedy-precisely because, despite all of the myth making, there was no heroic prelude: "It is tempting to depict Michael Bloomberg’s reversal of fortune in his third term in office — a term he secured by muscling through a change in the city’s term-limits law before spending $150 million to win only 50.7% of the vote — with hubris metaphors drawn from classical tragedy. But this assumes there was glory before the fall. In reality, there never was greatness. There have been no lasting fiscal or education reforms. The story of Bloomberg’s mayoralty is this: There is no there there."

The article goes on to point out how Bloomberg initially went back on his no tax pledge to raise the commercial real estate levy in 2002-a point that we have emphasized because it placed a real hardship, an across the board rent increase, on all of the city's neighborhood retailers. Bloomberg, forgetting his faux fiscal integrity campaign promise, added insult to injury with his haughty response to the criticism of his about face: "This was fitting, he believed, for a metropolis that, he said in 2003, “isn’t Wal-Mart. It isn’t trying to be the lowest-priced product in the market. It’s a high-end product, maybe even a luxury product.” You want to live in and around a luxury product? You have to pay more."

Siegel and Stern also underscore Bloomberg's lost opportunity after 9/11 to rein in the cost of government-one of the reasons we have called the mayor, John Vliet Bloomberg: "The aftermath of 9/11 was an extraordinary lost opportunity for the city. It could have been a moment when, in the name of shared responsibility for bringing the city back to life, spiraling labor costs could have been addressed. Public-sector employees working for the city labored but 35 hours a week and contributed nothing to their own health-insurance premiums. Rather than take up the matter, Bloomberg simply retained the status quo when it came to negotiating with the city’s most important voting bloc. A routine was established: Bloomberg would start out by talking tough about how new contracts could be paid for only with increased productivity, and in response unions would reply in a patented and choreographed “anger” mode. This false confrontation would be followed by a renewal of the old contracts and their counterproductive work rules with a few cosmetic improvements. Thus the need for new borrowing."

Of course, where would a Bloomberg deconstruction project be without a discussion of the educational reforms that were built on a solid sand foundation. This is an area that Stern has been most incisive about in his essays in the City Journal-and the focus here on the Bloomberg educational spend-a-thon is most instructive. First, the false rhetoric: "Bloomberg said that the $12 billion the city was then spending on the schools should be enough to provide a decent education for all children because he and Klein were now going to “make sure we get the most value for the school system’s dollar.” Bloomberg also seemed to be rejecting the progressive-education approach to curricular issues and classroom pedagogy and casting his lot with education traditionalists."
Then, the reality: "But soon it became clear that, in this area as in others, it was necessary to pay attention to what this mayor did rather than what he said. Bloomberg began dipping deeper into the city treasury for more and more tax dollars for the schools. From fiscal 2003 to 2011, the education budget grew from $12.7 billion to $23 billion annually — almost a 70% increase in inflation-adjusted dollars. Most of the money was paid out in 43% across-the-board teacher-salary increases in just the first six years of Bloomberg’s tenure."
Gee, and now Mike wants to let go teachers because the city is tapped out? At the time, it was politically expedient to buy off the UFT-much as he had Al Sharpton: "Indeed, the purpose of the extra spending could not have been to improve student performance, since he said very plainly that he didn’t believe there was any connection between the two. Rather it was to shore up his political prospects and help make his reputation as the nation’s “education mayor.” Instead of insisting on changes in teacher-compensation packages that might have reduced the city’s long-term pension and health-care costs, Bloomberg cashed in his chips in the coin of either direct political support from the UFT or its calculated neutrality."

And the UFT delivered for Bloomberg when it didn't stand in the way of the renewal of mayoral control in 2009-but then came the real earthquake level tremors in the form of school test fraud revelations: "And then, in early 2010, the Bloomberg education bubble burst. State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Education Commissioner David Steiner acknowledged that over the past several years, the test scores had been grossly inflated...Bloomberg’s administration tried to put the best face on the news. It was true, Klein conceded, that the extent of student gains in recent years had been much exaggerated, but it was still true that New York had done better than the state’s other big-city districts. After boosting the city’s annual education budget by $11 billion, the Bloomberg administration was effectively saying, “We’re better than Buffalo.” That isn’t much of a legacy for a once-upon-a-time would-be presidential candidate who had put his education accomplishments at the top of his political résumé."

No it isn't, and even the mayor's own payola system-using his billions to buy off opposition and nurture support-couldn't save him when snow started to fall heavily last December. Not when the folks started to realize that the entire Bloomberg achievement edifice was little more than a Potemkin Village of expensive hype: "Bloomberg’s ability to buy off potential critics partially explains why the illusion of his managerial competence and reputation as the “education mayor” lasted for so long. All the mayor’s billions, however, couldn’t protect him from the consequences of last year’s crash of the city’s test scores or his malfeasance during the Christmas weekend snowstorm. Thus the question of the mayor’s legacy is now finally open for serious debate."

In sum, Siegal and Stern give the Post readers a lot to chew on-and our only criticism would be that they did leave out the mayor's disastrous economic development legacy, one that has made him, in our view, the worst mayor for small business in our memory. But, to be fair, there is so much there to critique that one could never do complete justice to the subject in just one article.

We'll give these two mavens the last word-although we're certain that there will be more revisionism to come from a wide range of previously star struck quarters: "When Michael Bloomberg leaves office in 2014 — assuming he leaves office in 2014 — the city will be saddled long into the future with the massive borrowing and school spending he required to maintain his political reputation. Citizen Bloomberg will have a significant role in how Mayor Bloomberg is judged. Already the master of an expanding media empire, he is now setting up his personal charitable foundation, which may rival the Gates Foundation in financial assets. That foundation will no doubt have the resources to place the Bloomberg legacy of debt, boondoggles and bicycle lanes in the best possible light."