Monday, October 27, 2008

Bloomberg's Economic (Tunnel) Vision

By now every one's familiar with the Bloomberg Savior message. Given the country's fiscal crisis we need the shrewd business sense of the Wall Street mogul to navigate the tough sledding ahead. But, on further examination, does the argument hold up to any independent scrutiny?

Aside from the snide rhetorical flourishes about how it was all of the mayor's pals who got us into this mess in the first place, what is it about the first seven years of the reign of Bloomberg that should encourage us to drink the mayor's Kool Aide? But before we answer that question, let's get back for a second to the metier that we're really comfortable with-snide.

There is something substantive to the point that the mayor's expertise, and his relationships-not to mention his world view, is encapsulated in the Weltanschuung of Wall Street. Just how, one may ask, does that set of experiences make him uniquely qualifies to steer the city out of the difficult straits it will find itself in?

In our view, it creates for the mayor the kind of "trained incapacity" that is ill suited to the coming difficulties. It doesn't, for example, give him unique insights into stabilizing and growing the other aspects of the economy-small business and manufacturing, for instance-that he has neglected in his slavish aggrandizement of big real estate development; a development that has had a pernicious impact on other sectors of the city's economy.

And his dependence on tax hikes and standard liberal bromides concerning governance-hikes that were mitigated by the fact that the city was awash with Wall Street cash that is now sayonara-give us no confidence that he will be the ideal steward for the austerity ahead. Take a look at yesterday's NY Daily News story on falling home values. As the paper points out: "The housing crisis has arrived for middle class New York. The perception that New York largely dodged the housing bust bullet may be true in Manhattan, but in the working-class outer boroughs, house sales are falling faster than the Dow."

How do you think a property tax hike's gonna play in the boros? And, as the News also points out, third terms are often a minefield for even the most nimble of pols. Real creativity and compassion, two attributes that are in short supply in the mayor's personal portfolio, are going to be needed.

Which brings us to the upcoming battle over Willets Point-a fight that is symbolic of some of the issues stated above. Here at the Point we have what can be called a vibrant eyesore-an eyesore that is rich in jobs and productivity. The mayor, using the power of eminent domain, wants to clear this area of all of the less than Triple A uses; and there is a fragrant remembrance in this effort of the old urban renewal impulse that used to be infamously called, "Negro Removal."

It's the kind of slum clearance perspective that Jane Jacobs railed against precisely because it destroyed living, vibrant neighborhoods. But they look "so unsightly," went the old refrain. Perhaps so, but that didn't take away from the loss such so called slum clearance created.

In the case of Willets Point this form of slum clearance is not only the loss of vibrancy for a cleaner sterility, it is a questionable economic development strategy. Nicholas von Hoffman captures this in the Nation as he depicts the world of Willets:

"There were no tourists watching as the metal gates went up on the corrugated-tin auto body shops, muffler repair outfits, and scrap dealers in this part of Queens. Workers took up their posts on the street to spot customers driving by, asking them, "Hey, Papi, what you need?" Massive earth movers growled to life in the bay used by Tully's Construction, and diesel-fired dump trucks plowed through street-width puddles toward Evergreen Recycling. At Feinstein Iron Works, a guy positioned a machine to bore into the end of a steel beam, while over at Bono's, a man in a cloth mask stacked bags of sawdust as they came off a conveyer belt. A driver for United Steel Products tossed his lunch bag into the flatbed he'd steer to a work site.
At the same time the City is destroying the small industrial enterprise that creates employment, it is subsidizing Manhattan real estate. This year it is handing out a
half a billion dollars in subsidies to organizations who do not need them, some of which are as frivolous as Major League Baseball. Gotham has bet big on the service economy, particularly the finance part of it, and as a result there could be a loss of 165,000 jobs in the next couple of years."

So, a process that began with the ethnic cleansing of the wholesalers in the Bronx Terminal Market, threatens the 2,500 workers at the Iron Triangle. They are invisible to this mayor because the Bloomberg world view holds no place for them. As von Hoffman reminds us: "Before using his millions to get himself elected mayor, Bloomberg made billions supplying the banking and finance industries with information indispensable to their machinations by displaying them on his computer terminals, which he rented to stock brokers and hedge fund operators at a price the rest of us cannot afford."

All of which should give us pause before we ascribe to the lionization of Mike Bloomberg. It's time to tell the billionaire toadies who've gotten their toast buttered on both sides by Mayor Mike to butt out of the people's business.

Whatever happens with term limits, and the coming legal challenge-and we're always nervous when the circus ringmaster yells, "Send in the clowns," it past time to tell Mike to take his money, and the overstuffed ego that goes with it, and simply leave as soon as possible. Not only will the city survive, there's a better than decent chance it will do better with someone else at the helm.