Friday, September 25, 2009

ReJoycing In Mike Bloomberg

We certainly had a good idea that Joyce Purnick's authorized biography of Mike Bloomberg wasn't going to resemble any kind of incisive critique of Sir Michael's tenure-certainly nothing like Wayne Barrett's tour de force on Rudy. Nothing against Joyce, but Mike's not gonna authorize anything that he can't insure will be mostly favorable; and Bloomberg has the wherewithal to buy a lot of insurance.

And so it goes-with Fred Siegel confirming our suspicions in his review of, "Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics" in yesterday's Wall Street Journal:

"New York City, hard hit by the collapse of some of Wall Street's most venerable firms, has a mayoral election scheduled for Nov. 3. With the city's fiscal woes certain to deepen in the next few years, there would seem to be a great deal to debate in advance of the vote. But neither the incumbent, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, nor his challenger, Comptroller William Thompson, has had much to say about the tsunami of expenditures—for pensions, programs, salaries and debt—that is poised to break over Gotham. In "Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics," veteran New York Times journalist Joyce Purnick doesn't have much to say about it either.

And little wonder. Ms. Purnick, who had extensive access to the mayor and his staff, thinks that Mr. Bloomberg—a "benign plutocrat"—has been "one of the most effective mayors in the city's history." Her book is mostly an admiring portrait of the man and his mayoralty."

This failure of imagination on Purnick's part is, as the Marxists are wont to say, no accident. It is easily explained by a phenomenon that the sociologists Vidich and Bensman called, the mobilization of bias. This occurs when there is a dominant ideology-a common perceptual lens-that acts as a filter on reality; one that generally favors ruling elites in a governing structure. Clearly, Purnick's own world view doesn't stray far from this mobilized conventional wisdom.

This all becomes manifest most starkly in two ways. In the first place, Purnick believes-a belief that Bloomberg himself repeats ad infinitum-that the mayor's great wealth insulates him from control by the special interests: "He decides matters, she says, "on the merits, yielding little to the customary political lobbyists, interest groups, and . . . campaign contributors, since there was only one—Bloomberg himself."

This is, of course, arrant nonsense-and elides the more difficult, but more useful, evaluation of just how Mike Bloomberg comes to view what is meritorious and what is not. In this, we once again return to the concept of world view-and Purnick apparently can't see how Bloomberg's own narrow class conception and government philosophy can yield policies as deleterious as any special interest driven pol.

Aristotle once famously chided Plato for comparing the ruler to a shoemaker-after all, Plato had pontificated, we wouldn't want the average citizens, lacking in shoe making expertise, to cobble our shoes. To which Aristotle replied that, while the average citizen couldn't cobble shoes, they do know when the shoes pinch. And in fact, it is our view, that the average politician who doesn't possess great wealth, needs to be more attuned to the shoe pinching that his policies cause, than the billionaire who can overwhelm the electoral process with unrestricted expenditures-something that we don't believe Purnick weighs in on, but we could be wrong on this point since we haven't, and won't read anything that Bloomberg has sanitized, oops, authorized.

Which brings us back to Siegel's initial observation of the city's fiscal crisis-and Bloomberg's role in helping to exacerbate it; something that somehow Purnick manages to miss: "It's only near the end of "Mike Bloomberg" that Ms. Purnick briefly focuses on the issue that his mayoralty is likely to be judged by: his second-term fiscal stewardship. Mr. Bloomberg, she says, "followed the pattern established by other mayors." Concerned with his re-election prospects, "he routinely granted all municipal union increases with no strings attached," hoping to ensure "labor peace." Astute reporter that she is, Ms. Purnick thus undercuts her own thesis about Mr. Bloomberg's ability to behave as a consummate manager, not a garden-variety politician, though she doesn't seem to notice the contradiction."

How so? Because if Bloomberg was really this shrewd soothsaying mayor unbeholden to tawdry interests, he wouldn't have been the mayor who-at least for municipal labor-was the gift that keeps on giving. And when seen in a different light, the mayor's term limit grab that Purnick views as an aberration, simply is not. It is of a piece with his pattern of self-aggrandizement. In sum, what is seen as, "the merits," is what advances the narrow self interest of the mayor himself.

But there's something else afoot here. Deciding on the merits shouldn't be a reified concept-as it so often is with the reflexive good government crowd. Is Mike Bloomberg some kind of philosopher king whose erudition and knowledge of government means that merit is truly present when he decides a policy? Who defines,"merit."

Because invariably, the kind of public policies you advance are a product of how you see the world; and in the case of Mike Bloomberg, the world is characterized by a benign and paternalistic government that looks after the less sophisticated for their own good. So when Purnick defines Mike Bloomberg as a, "benign plutocrat," she may be unwittingly on to something.

Bloomberg's kind of government is unavoidably expensive as well as expansive. Which brings us to the hole he has helped dig for the city: "Starting with his first re-election run in 2005 and continuing through his current bid for a third term, Mr. Bloomberg has been in continuous campaign mode, adding to the city government's largess so much that New York had to increase its debt even when Wall Street was still pouring money into the city's coffers. And of course, thanks to the financial crisis, Wall Street's bounty can no longer be counted on. Spending has grown almost 50% on Mr. Bloomberg's watch, while New York's annual pension obligation, based in part on the salary increases that Mr. Bloomberg negotiated, jumped to $6.3 billion from $1.4 billion a year. The mayor's supposed pragmatism has produced the standard-issue outcome: New York is once again in fiscal peril."

Put simply, Blomberg has been profligate; and where Giuliani took on the city's biases to the great benefit of the health of the municipality, Bloomberg smoothly-and without rancor and contention-cuts along the bias with all of the admiring oohs and aahs that such conventionality always generates. But where exactly does New York stand today? As the Tax Foundation points out, second to last when it comes to the over all business climate-and that's for the state, not the city which is, in our view, even worse in this regard.

So Bloomberg coasts along, attended to by sycophants, lackeys and paid retainers-with it becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish among these choice categories. As the city spirals down, with unemployment at record levels and the budget written in bold red ink, will third term Mike live up to Purnick's hortatory rhetoric?

Here are Siegel's final thoughts-and we see no reason to add to them: "If Michael Bloomberg is to achieve the greatness that Ms. Purnick is eager to confer on him already, he will have to do so in his third term, assuming that he is re-elected. The schools will always matter, of course, but the mayor might want to start by extricating the city from the fiscal hole he has dug for it. The "problem solver" created the problem; now he can solve it."