Thursday, October 20, 2005

Bloomberg In History

John Avlon had an interesting evaluation ($) in Tuesday’s Sun about Mayor Mike's place in history. He makes a point that touches on a theme we have been hitting on recently: the political impact and potential of the mayor's "above politics" status. It is a theme that is also mentioned in Jim Rutenberg's valedictory on the mayor's first four years in this morning's NY Times.

Here is the money quote in Avlon's column:
No mayor in history will owe his election to fewer individuals. His self-funded status makes him an anomaly in our democracy, a principled figure who can operate with complete independence from special interests.
As Rutenberg highlights this is exactly as Bloomberg sees himself: "Most elected officials are dependent for help and therefore are more willing to be open to pressure."

So the mayor views this as a certain "purity in his pursuits." Pure in what way? And what exactly does purity get you? This is a theme that Avlon begins to explore and the points he makes underscores just how simplistic the "not tainted by special interests" analysis really is.

If not tainted than what? This is the essence of the problem. Purity of heart and motive is one thing. An understanding of policy and, even more importantly (since Plato seems to be the editorialist's role model here), the larger concept of justice is another. The good government groups and their editorial epigones think that the removal of the special interests ushers in an era of public interestedness. The assumption doesn't necessarily stand up.

Some of the larger implications of this point can be gleaned by examining the mayor's policy making and his overall view of governance. We need to begin by pointing out that there is nothing in Mike Bloomberg's past that indicates that he has ever given these questions more than a cursory glance. The past four years, however, gives us some indication of how the mayor does approach politics and government.

In the first place, unlike his predecessor who approached government with a skepticism bordering on abhorrence, Bloomberg has a relatively benign view of government's role. At one point he indicated a view that seemed to portray the citizenry as akin to consumers of Bloomberg LLP. With this perspective it is unlikely that the mayor will ever see the radical restructuring of service delivery and the concomitant easing of the tax and regulatory burden as a desirable public policy goal.

The view itself doesn't preclude a reformist approach but with Bloomberg it is combined (and here Fred Siegel’s term is apt) with a liberal paternalism that sees the government as there to uplift, "help" that is. You're not going to hear Mike mock, like Ahnold did, the phrase, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you." Doing things for people, and not necessarily helping them to become more self-sufficient, is the underlying mindset.

The key issue here is that good governance presupposes not only an understanding of how government works but a perspective that encompasses an evaluation of what is not working and a correlation of this analysis with some notion of where the overall public good lies. Being enmeshed in special interest politics can impede good government as scandal after scandal has underscored. The untangling from these interests is, however, only the beginning of good policy making.

The question here is how does an elected official, freed from special interests, achieve the public good. Here we return to Avlon's good insights. As he points out, "So far, Mr. Bloomberg has not been aggressive when it comes to electoral reform or shrinking the size and cost of government." In addition his instincts on education, if we can call them that, have been unremarkable and dangerously mainstream status quo oriented (the appointment of progressive educator Diana Lam) as Andrew Wolf has eloquently pointed out.

In a previous post we talked about Bloomberg’s lame approach to solid waste. Another insight that can be gleaned from this fiasco is that the mayor, relatively detached from the policy debate, is often too dependent on advisors and commissioners. The ones in the current administration don't stand out for either innovation or bold creativity.

So, while Avlon feels that a second Bloomberg term offers an opportunity for greatness our view of the mayor and the policy making of the last four years gives us the strong feeling that a second term will fall short of the kinds of initiatives that would catapult Bloomberg into the upper echelon of NYC's greatest mayors. It does look though that he will be given ample opportunity to prove us wrong since the voters appear ready to bring him back again for a second term.


Our points above are underscored in an editorial in Tuesday’s New York Post that ironically gives Freddy Ferrer some kudos for his attack on the mayor's propensity to raise taxes and fees. When faced with a major budget shortfall in 2002 the mayor, going back on his campaign promises, raised taxes to extremely high levels. As the Post says, Bloomberg:
socked it to the taxpayers, claiming-arrogantly-that businesses wouldn't mind. Who knows how many businesses- and jobs-vanished as a result?
The key point here is that Bloomberg the businessman would tolerate in government what he couldn't possibly tolerate in his own company: waste and bureaucratic inefficiency. This goes back to his benign view of government. It is unlikely, even though we certainly hope we're wrong, that Mayor Mike will approach a second term with the kind of entrepreneurial energy that he must have brought to his astonishingly successful business career.

Without that mindset and proper policy understanding, the freedom from politics that Bloomberg exults in will not translate into the kind of greatness that Avlon feels he, because unconstrained, should be capable of.