Saturday, February 17, 2007

Mayor Discovers Empathy-and Common Sense

In a welcome about-face, Mayor Mike reversed course and voided all of the parking tickest that were issued on the two storm days this week. Even he could not ignore the storm of righteous protest that flooded 311 over the course of three days. Still, his initial reaction says more about his demeanor and mind-set than does his prudent change-of-course.

Bloomberg is still a man who does not suffer fools and, given his hauteur, labels almost anyone who disagrees with him as a resident of that lower order of seriousness where those less consequential humans are normally found. To us, governing requires a good deal of managerial expertise but also demands a degree of normal human compassion. This is especially true when the office holder is wealth beyond normal comprehension.

Without this capacity, and the mayor's reactions to the protests of bodegueros, school bus moms and dads, cell phone protesters, and alternate side gripers, is a sure indication of a natural deficiency of compassion, than the tin ear can lead to policy disaster. An elected official needs to be able to really hear the people when they are telling him that the shoes he has made for them are too tight.

We can see this most clearly in the Bloomberg approach to public health. Here we can see that the mayor not only has the inherent inability to empathize with his lessors, but he also believes that his expertise is needed to impose good sense on those who are lacking it. This is a dangerous admixture of qualities.

In the realm of public health it leads the mayor, and his medical acolyte Frieden, to become almost Rousseau-like in his contempt for the abilities of the average New Yorker to make good decisions for themselves. It was, after all, Rousseau who famously said that you sometimes needed to force people to be free. So in the realm of health we have the smoking ban, the confiscatory cigarette taxes, intrusive surveys, condom giveaways, a trans fat ban, and now the absurd menu labeling rule that will transform chain restaurants into bewildering arenas of calorie confusion.

Enough already here. It is time that we simply tell the mayor that endowing a school of public health does not make you into a public health expert. Blomberg's clarion call for "preventative medicine" should be seen as a warning call for New Yorkers, as the article on the cervical cancer vaccine in today's NY Times highlights. The merits of the concept for individual behavioral choice is unquestioned, but as a policy approach it will necessitate an intrusion into people's private lives that is not worth any incremental health gains that the policies might achieve.