Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Power of Money

The Wall Street Journal follows up on its story about the way in which the mayor’s public and private lives intertwine-and how his money buys the twine. And mirabile dictu! Bloomberg has given himself a pass-and in doing so ironically speaks the truth: “Mayor Michael Bloomberg rejected Tuesday strong criticism from government watchdogs that he's inappropriately blurred the lines between his public and private lives by personally paying government employees who moonlight for him."The mayor's life is so intertwined, his personal life, his business life," Mr. Bloomberg said in response to a report about the issue in The Wall Street Journal. "You can't really separate them."

Just as you can’t separate Bloomberg from his fortune-although there’s no limit to the number of sycophants and retainers who will exhaust themselves in the attempt to extract something from the mayor’s unlimited funds. That points directly to the crux of the problem-and the blurring between public and private serves to erase any distinction between the mayor’s self interest and that of the public’s.

The best analysis of the problem is, ironically no doubt, contained in Karl Marx’s essay, “The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society.” As he points out: “That which is for me through the medium of money – that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy) – that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless?”

Read the whole thing. But the larger point is how the mayor’s money tends to corrupt honest judgment-about Bloomberg himself, as well as his policies. Who else but a billionaire mayor could give lockjaw to the loquacious Al Sharpton? Whether its charter schools, term limits, or congestion pricing, the ersatz outpouring of support was an epiphenomenon-bolstered by the cash nexus.

But, after his burst of honesty, the mayor couldn’t help himself when coming to the defense of the city’s conflict of interest board: “Mr. Bloomberg said he saw nothing wrong with his paying government employees for private work. This type of financial relationship is barred by the City Charter, but the mayor sought and obtained a waiver from the Conflicts of Interest Board, a panel he appoints exclusively… The board has declined to comment on the ruling, but advocates at good government groups said they think it's inherently coercive for a boss in government to have a financial relationship with a subordinate. Some critics said the conflicts board would have greater credibility if the mayor yielded sole discretion to appoint its members. Mr. Bloomberg said he has no interest in giving up his appointment power. "That's ridiculous," he said. "The COIB is a group of independent people. And they've certainly...acted that way."

And there are those who say that Mike Bloomberg lacks a sense of humor? Still, we are stuck with this grand fellow for a bit more than three years, and it will only be the Owl of Minerva that will be able to unravel all of the back stories and backroom deals that, once revealed, will underscore just how egregiously Bloomberg blurred the line between public and private-between his own interest and the general welfare.