Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bloomberg Exposed

Wayne Barret has produced a magnum opus on the "transformation" (public deterioration) of Mayor Mike Bloomberg. We can only hope that it is a prelude of more explication of how, in the articles apt subtitle, "the benevolent billionaire with no political debts ended up owning us all."
We should add, however, that, as brilliant an expose as the Barrett piece is, we take strong issue with its initial premise: "Mike Bloomberg is the best mayor—in fact, the best state or city chief executive—I've covered in 31 years at the Voice. He's also the worst."

We'll get to our disagreements later; Barrett's brief against the mayor is so powerful that our discussion shouldn't be marred by any initial quibbling. What he does so masterfully, is to detail the web of elite special interests that have been harnessed on behalf of the promotion of Mike Bloomberg-and how these interests have been aggrandized in the process. Here's the money quote on the monied elites shilling for a mayoral third term:

"No one is suggesting that these giants didn't actually believe their arguments for a third term, but the large number of Bloomberg fans who are also Bloomberg beneficiaries makes it harder and harder to distinguish enthusiasm from interest. His control over a vast city budget, hundreds of millions in private donations, and billions in undisclosed personal investments cloud the authenticity of every nice thing said about him. And a day-after-Christmas decision last year by the Bloomberg-appointed Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) has made his money trail both more expansive and more elusive. At his request, the board decided that he would no longer be restricted to salting away his money in "large, professionally managed mutual and exchange-traded funds." The COIB now allows Bloomberg's influential investment advisor, Steve Rattner, another big third-term booster, to put Bloomberg's estimated $20 billion fortune to work in a wide variety of investments, so long as he and the rest of us never find out precisely what they are."

Even more devastating is how Barrett details the seduction of the city's publishers-aided and abetted by Public Servant Rubenstein (Howard, for the unenlightened): "We are all used to editorial boards making endorsements determined by their owners, but this was the first time in memory that these three proud institutions had marched in such lockstep on a policy matter after meetings between a political figure and their three owners."

And Barrett dramatizes how all three of the media moguls have had interlocking business interests with the billionaire mayor; so much so that any real journalism has been suborned by the cash nexus-we're way beyond the ward healers of Tammany Hall. The NY Daily News' Mort Zuckerman's front and center here:

"The colossus we know the most about is Zuckerman. When Bloomberg ran for mayor in 2001 and the Daily News was the only paper to endorse him, he held more than a half-million dollars of stock in Boston Properties, the publicly traded real estate company that Zuckerman controls (Bloomberg may have actually owned more, but, by law, he was required only to disclose dollar amounts up to that ceiling). Bloomberg had to give up those holdings when he took office, prompted by an earlier COIB ruling, and the Bloomberg administration ended up doing its share of deals with Zuckerman's company—like air rights and other approvals on the company's 39-story tower at 250 West 55th Street. At an October 8 investors' conference, Boston's senior vice president Robert Selsam boasted of the company's success with City Planning, recounting how the firm had secured three complicated variances across five zoning districts that allowed it to maximize floors and footage. "The key," said Selsam, "is knowing how to effectively navigate the review and approval processes" of the city. He didn't, however, mention that he might have a bit of an edge at that game."

What we're seeing is just how the public interest has been traduced; and how it has been transposed, not only by Mike Bloomberg's own narrow class-oriented world view (something that he was able to effectively camouflage in his first term); but also by his dissemination of millions of so far untraced philanthropic dollars:

"Many New Yorkers have an eerie feeling now that Mike's money is literally everywhere and that a city, said to be for sale in the era of the big-time bosses, has actually been bought by a mayor so much bigger than they ever boasted of being. The richest man in New York is also, for the first time, the mayor of the city and one of its grandest philanthropists, making it almost impossible for the rest of us to talk to him without wondering at some level of consciousness: "Can I get a slice of this guy?" His personal and public outlays have flooded the city's bloodstream for years now, and few are so uninterested in a possible transfusion of their own that they will take him on."

And nothing underscores this tawdry subornation of democracy than the role played by Kathy Wylde, Jerry Speyer, and the NYC partnership in the coronation of the mayor; and a full detailing of how much all of these moguls have personally benefited from Mayor Mike's "public policy" decisions has yet to be catalogued (Barrett doesn't touch on the bennies that the Bobbsey Twins-Steve Roth of Vronado and Steve Ross of Related-have garnered during Bloomberg's tenure): "The fact is that under Wylde and Speyer's leadership, the Partnership is the closest thing we now have in New York to a political club with the clout to make a mayor. Of course, the Partnership sees itself as a civic association acting on behalf of us all, but Bloomberg has not just been good for business in the broadest sense—he's been especially good for particular businesses, like Jerry Speyer's."

And what we've come to expect in all of the shameless shilling for the mayor, is that the editorialists at the NY Times are always first in line when it comes time to check one's principles at the door. Barrett underscores the extent that the paper's publisher-with another of the billionaires, Shiller in Chief Steve Rattner, doing the enabling-dropped all previous objections to term extensions as his paper's finances flagged: "Sulzberger insists that the paper isn't for sale, but with the value of the family's controlling stock plummeting, a generous offer from a white knight like Bloomberg might be too much for some members of the Sulzberger clan to resist, making a third term for Mayor Mike a potential firewall protecting Arthur Sulzberger's ability to continue controlling it."

So the public service that Wayne Barret has done here is to lay out the template of just how clearly the "above politics" Bloomberg has acted like the most tawdry of Tammany pols; while at the same time ruling in the interest of the scions of his own class. All that's left is to begin the reportorial task of tracing the mayor's charitable giving in order to dramatize how his money has corrupted the democratic process,

But as far as Barrett's premise of a Bloomberg transformation, well, we'll have to part company there. The first Bloomberg term wasn't the masterful exercise in good government that Wayne believes it to be. Aside from the theft of the Bronx Terminal Market by Deputy Dan for the Related Company-with no public bidding-there was Bloomberg's complete failure to understand how to make city government more economical and efficient. The NY Post's editorial yesterday on the growth of the mayoral staff is just one case in point.

The simple fact here is that from his very first day, Mike Bloomberg has aided and abetted the growth of the size and scope of city government; and has done little to innovate so that we can do more with less and allow the city's private sector to flourish. Here's the primary misconception Barrett advances: "In his first term, he was able to close a gaping budget chasm without crippling city services by imposing the largest and bravest property-tax hike in history—and it sent his approval ratings plunging. When the city boomed again, this Nixon-to-China boldness by a businessman/mayor had forever refuted the knee-jerk right-wing orthodoxy that higher taxes invariably kill growth."

This theory misrepresents a painful reality that has been unmasked by the current fiscal meltdown. In fact, the city's recovery didn't "forever refute" any theory; it only proved that there can be an exception to any rule. The city's booming recovery came about because it was Wall Street generated-and generated by global forces that were immune to local tax policies. At the same time, however, as New York soared to the 49th worst state in the Small Business Survival Index, local businesses began to reel from higher taxes and regulatory fees. And with Wall Street down for the count, this high tax environment is crippling our economic comeback.

So from our standpoint, the "transformation" of Mike Bloomberg is less a dramatic revelation of a fallen hero, than it is an exposure of the generic limitations of someone whose money, and limited class-based world view, has been-from the very beginning-stymieing any creative policy making and governance reform. In the process, thousands of small businesses and the neighborhoods they serve, have been shorted by a Wall Street operator who believes that the world is defined from within the parameters of high finance; and the people who occupy the highest stratum of our class structure.

Barrett's citation of the original NY Times editorial opposing Bloomberg's first run for the mayoralty, should serve as an appropriate epitaph for this brilliant expose:

"Even within the annals of businessmen-candidates, he is ill-matched to the job he covets. His company has no stockholders and no unions. It is a brand-new business, its corporate culture and decision-making structure devised to suit his character. . . . Many of Mr. Bloomberg's greatest talents would turn out to be utterly beside the point." When the bursting collective bargaining, pension, and debt costs of the recent Bloomberg boom years are considered, the Times of old might have had a point. As it also had as recently as June 9, when it warned against a term-limits gambit and urged Bloomberg to seek another office: "We are wary of changing the rules just to suit the ambition of a particular politician."