The Bloomberg Administration: A Review Part II -- Leadership

This is the second post of my review of the Bloomberg Administration. The first post was on its management of the City of New York as a $60 billion per year multi-function enterprise. This post is on leadership. By leadership, I mean the ability to give direction and inspire community spirit among 8 million New Yorkers, to encourage them to contribute to common objectives, without being in a position to force them (through laws), and without them feeling they would become mere tools of those who extract more from and contribute less to the community. A second aspect is to identify and promote what is unique and desirable about the city, to make existing residents and businesses proud and happy to be here, and those elsewhere interested in coming. To identify and promote a way of life in New York City, in other words.

Since this is a role beyond the functions of local government, one may wonder what business an elected official has being a leader in the first place. I’ll answer that in two ways. First, as our social collapse proceeds, people increasingly look to the advertising for advice as to how to live, and this has resulted in an “I want for me now” culture that is in danger of collapsing under its own weight. We need alternatives. Second, we are paying for leadership. To the extent that we still have real elections, which is the case for Mayor more than most offices in New York, our elected officials are selected and paid to be the leaders. The fact that Mayor Bloomberg only accepts $1.00 per year does not diminish the responsibility.

To put the Bloomberg Administration in context, one may recall previous mayors’ big ideas. In the face of an urban decline trend that turned most older cities into social landfills, places where people with problems could be dumped to keep them out of mainstream, suburban American, Mayor Koch promoted New York City as a place of achievement for the best and the brightest. City residents, he asserted, walked faster, talked faster, and thought faster than suburban or rural residents. These assertions did him no good when he tried to run for Governor. But Koch did imprint the idea of New York as a place for yuppies on the nation’s collective consciousness, allowing the city to attract a relatively well-educated workforce and population, despite a failure to educate its own children.

In the face of a murder wave and drug epidemic, and following a wave of racially charged attacks, Mayor Dinkins promoted the idea of New York City as a “gorgeous mosaic.” Rather than creating a “Bonfire of the Vanities” dysfunction, the ethnic and religious diversity of the city made it more interesting and creative, he said.

Mayor Giuliani tried to establish the idea of a collective right to a functioning and desirable community, rather than just individual rights to do as one pleased, through his crackdowns on “quality of life crimes.” If we didn’t have a culture of civility and mutual respect, he seemed to believe, the police could create one, at least among poorer and less influential people. (Wall Street has remained full of “broken windows,” and Giuliani’s theories are somehow never applied to white-collar crimes).

Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership got off to a slow start. First he asserted that New York was a “luxury city,” where people paid more but got more. This concept ran into opposition from those who don’t live in luxurious Manhattan, and believe the idea is that the city is better than people like themselves can afford. The next idea was New York as the “world’s second home,” with the 2012 Olympics intended to deepen the connection between the city and the rest of the world. This vision was shot down by the rest of the world, and the “what’s in it for me” state legislature.

In any attempt to exert leadership, Mayor Bloomberg is flying in the face of the city’s political culture, and encumbered by his own personal characteristics. The political culture is pandering, helping people and individuals to profit at the expense of common institutions while taking no responsibility for them, running up debts, selling the future, and planning to move away. Mayor Bloomberg, meanwhile, is a nerd and a billionaire, neither a saint nor “one of the people” – not the kind of person to rally people to work together for a common future. Any time he makes a suggestion that people do anything they don’t feel like, he can count on a chorus of trolls jumping up and down, waving their arms over their heads, and cackling “elitist out of touch billionaire!” over and over.

So what has the Bloomberg Administration done right?

First, the Mayor has ducked the “out of touch billionaire” problem through leadership by proxy, keeping out of the limelight and having his deputies and even private citizens exert leadership in his place. During the past eight years, volunteers have counted street trees and homeless people, and produced activities for “summer streets” -- yet Bloomberg is not seen as personally attracting and leading these volunteers. Dan Doctoroff, Joel Klein, and Janet Sadik-Khan have been pushed forward to sell visions of the city while the Mayor stayed in the background. Channel 25, the city’s TV station, has promoted the city as a unique place for the young and hip, among others, but Bloomberg doesn’t appear on it.

The contrast with other politicians, showing up at park events to claim personal credit for tax dollars handed out in member item grants, is telling. I just can’t imagine any of them asking anyone to do anything for anyone else. Tourism ads shown locally, rather than the places tourists would come from, and featuring the Mayor of Governor are another example of what self-promoting political types typically do, and the kind of empty suit leadership they provide.

Second, the Administration has embraced non-coercive means of social control to create social change, with some success. One such means is economic incentives. If demanding that kids attend class and do their homework doesn’t work, how about bribing them? If suggesting that people now smoke has reached its limits, how about pricing tobacco beyond people’s reach? If some people are driving to Manhattan and do not need to, how about charging them for the privilege? A second is the provision of alternate information, working against the “I want for me now” advertizing industry. One example is the calorie counts in restaurants. That opponents fear what they don’t want people to know can be seen in the reaction of the soft drink industry to the city’s ads.

In contrast, the usual New York tendency is fake coercion – passing laws that make anything that anyone objects to illegal, but then not enforcing them, or only enforcing them against powerless people, or not enforcing them against organized interests. The million coercive rules of New York serve primarily to provide opportunities for petty corruption, not to bring about the social good.

Third, the Mayor has embraced the idea of personal leadership outside New York City, promoting ideas to those he has no ability to influence beyond the example of the ideas themselves. Thus, in addition to bringing ideas from other places to New York City, many of the policies of the Bloomberg Administration are being spread by the Mayor to other places, bringing the city goodwill. All of that goodwill, however, comes from outside the boundaries of New York State. (A cynic might say that all this reaching out was a strategy as part of Bloomberg’s aborted campaign for President, not a sincere attempt to change the world or country for the better, but I’ll give him some credit here).

Locally, Mayor Bloomberg stepped up the leadership in the period between his re-election to his second term, assumed to be his last, and his decision to overturn term limits. Adopting the “hard green” perspective, Bloomberg both identified city life as better for the environment, encouraged city residents to do more to limit their impacts, and adopted the politically risky tact of asking New Yorkers for individual short run sacrifice or disruption for common, shared, long-term benefit. Initiatives, such as shifting street space from motor vehicles to pedestrians and bicycles, proposing congestion pricing, rezoning to encourage density in transit-oriented areas while downzoning elsewhere, and proposing parking reform, have attracted the usual chorus from defenders of the status quo. But they have finally permitted the Mayor to be associated with a particular vision of the city – as a place of environmental sustainability that is the proper home of those who care about the future of the planet.

More recently, after the financial crisis exposed the long-term effects of the city’s dependence on the big existing corporations the city has always favored, Mayor Bloomberg has finally started showing some leadership to the one type of people he most resembles – entrepreneurs. In the past year, he has started promoting the city as a good place to start a new business, in the face of discriminatory policies and the power of existing privilege that in fact make it a bad place to start a new business. If he is successful in conning entrepreneurs and the young into coming here and paying taxes while getting little in return, I guess that would be helpful.

All in all, a year ago I would have said that after a slow start the Mayor had compiled an excellent, A- record of leadership, one that I would have taken seriously as he left office but continued to lead. Because leadership of the type being discussed in this post does not, in the end, require that a particular office be held. It is based on moral authority, trust, and personal example.

Then the Mayor decided to go along with the city’s political class and begin the step-by-step repeal of term limits so he could be mayor for a third term, with two consequences.

First, even if he wins re-election as expected, Bloomberg will be unable to assert any kind of leadership in his third term, because he no longer has any trust or moral authority. If you thought the trolls gleefully jumped up and down, waved their arms over their heads, and cackled “out of touch billionaire” in Bloomberg’s first two terms when “King Michael” asked for shared sacrifice during his first two terms, wait until the third. I’ll bet there is anticipation and joy in Albany, as the state legislature thinks of all the money it will be able to divert from the city’s basic needs to special interests, blaming the Mayor for the subsequent consequences and, far more than in the recent past, being believed.

And locally, Bloomberg owes a great deal of his success to a City Council that was willing to refrain from grandstanding irresponsibility and act for the good of the city. Despite the favor he did them in getting rid of term limits and taking the heat for it, doubt the holdovers will be grateful, and many will be outright hostile. A third term Bloomberg will be in no position to assert moral authority and ask for difficult votes for short-term sacrifice to prevent a long term collapse, now that council members have perpetual incumbency to shield them from the consequences of that collapse.

And the attitude of the people? Recycle? Screw you, King Mike, you have servants to take out the trash. Take mass transit? Screw you King Mike, you have a helicopter and three houses, I’m jumping the turnstile. Pay higher taxes to preserve services, or volunteer to make up for cuts? Screw you King Mike, you can afford it. (I have a my own reason to say “screw you” -- an additional sacrifices will be sucked up by even richer pensions, and public services are doomed anyway). We are all in it together? What do you mean by “we?”

Second, the start of term limit repeal has exposed Bloomberg’s major leadership failure – his failure to exert political leadership. He has sold himself, and been sold by the city’s leading newspapers, as the indispensible man in tough economic times. But why, even if this is the case, has he put the city in the position of having him be indispensible?

For a look at the difference between how he looks out for his own money and our future, consider the case of Bloomberg LLC. That firm has been even more successful without Bloomberg that it was with him. Clearly he had a succession plan, and had good people in place to run the show once he was gone. It became clear even before his term limit reversal was announced, in contrast, that there would be no Bloomberg candidate for Mayor in 2009 other than Bloomberg himself.

Perhaps, an apologist might say, that Bloomberg had hoped one of his deputies would run for Mayor, but by having each of them exercise up front leadership and push for change, any of them would go into an election with built-in enemies. At Bloomberg LLC he could just appoint people to run the company. At the City of New York, even those who liked Bloomberg might not vote for Dan Doctoroff, Joel Klein or Ray Kelly, all of whom were mentioned as possible successors back when.

But I’m not an apologist. All this shows is that Bloomberg is a one may show, with hired help rather than followers, and that there is no “Bloomberg movement” dedicated to the advancement of “Bloomberg principles” that could help elect the next mayor. In fact, there are no “Bloomberg principles” that have been explained for people to buy into, and that will outlive the Bloomberg Administration.

What might have been the alternative? Consider that Tom Golisano, when running for Governor in 1994, helped to found a political party with a platform that set out what he was trying to achieve. Now I don’t agree with everything in that platform: like many at the time, Golisano believed that welfare cost much more that the pittance it actually did. Those involved with that party in the early days, moreover, blame Golisano for a failure of leadership. After running for Governor, he went back to running his company, leaving he party he had founded to be captured by not one but more than one faction, devolving into a dysfunctional, low rent political machine that has nothing to do with the principles he had put forth in his platform. A party for rent to, among others, Mayor Bloomberg.

Out of office, without the concern that incumbents could push back against him by harming the city, Bloomberg could have learned from Golisano’s mistakes and formed his own political party, attracting people with a set of principles, becoming a kingmaker. Or he could have tried to reform New York’s Republican Party into something other than the self-serving parasite it has become. Instead he decided to tell the people of the city, with their referendums, to go to hell and run for a third term. It reminds me of a quote from cynical elected prosecutor Raymond Horgan in the book Presumed Innocent. You come into office full of idealism, but you get absorbed into the system, and in the end all you are trying to do is hold onto the damn job.

Now I will admit that if Ron Lauder came to me back in the day and asked what the number of terms for term limits should be, I would have said twelve years, federal, state and local. Is that what Mayor Bloomberg has decided? Does he think he will be able to declare to the city’s political insiders, suddenly claiming to be against Bloomberg’s term limit extension even though none of them are really in favor of term limits, that “I am Emperor Mike, the Napoleon of the new century, and even if you want to run for re-election, I declare that the number of terms shall be three?” Or does he plan on being defeated for a fourth term after a lousy third term, like Koch and Cuomo?

It doesn’t matter, because like the 25/55 teacher pension deal he cut, this is not likely to be reversible. Instead he has sent the city down a path that will reverse all the changes that have led to more contested elections, from an outright term limit repeal (or extension to ten terms), the elimination of campaign finance reform, etc. Until the City Council becomes, once again, the equivalent of the state legislature, a stagnant, self-serving isolated cabal cut off from most people and their concerns. And the Mayor’s action has in fact exerted leadership over the people of the city, convincing him that it isn’t really “their” city after all, but something apart from themselves seeking to rob them that should be robbed and exploited in return. We are, in other words, not all in it together as citizens. We are subjects at worse, or public sector consumers at best, and owe no one anything. Why even vote? The Mayor didn’t just decide to run for a third term, he reversed the course of the city’s history.

While the Independence Party platform is now a joke, since he is the Independence Party candidate (having rented it for the year), perhaps Bloomberg might want to know what is in it. Here are some selected quotes.

“Electoral accountability requires democratic choice. By democratic choice, we mean simply that two or more candidates and parties in an election district have a relatively equal opportunity and resources to communicate with the voters for the purpose of securing their support. By this standard, more than 90 percent of all legislative districts in the United States lack anything approximating democratic choice. The reality is that the incumbents of both parties have such disproportionate resources that reasonable competition is all but impossible.”

“The results of this condition are apparent to any but the most prejudiced observers: Voters simply do not hear a balance of competing views in most districts. Invulnerable incumbents pay less attention to the voters of the district. The incumbents pay attention to the interests of the campaign contributions that guarantee their invulnerability. Voters who have little influence both over the outcome of elections and the policies of their government become alienated, frustrated, and discouraged, and they stop participating as a result.”

“The elimination of the right and opportunity of democratic choice in the United States is simply not tolerable. The Democratic and Republican officeholders are responsible for this condition. They are the beneficiaries of the abuses which they and their predecessors created. They promote the propaganda that would blind the public to the loss of the public's right of democratic choice. They promote the hypocritical concept that while they clearly are part of the legislative process creating the abuse, they are without any personal responsibility for the consequences of this process.”

Among the solutions proposed by this document: term limits and campaign finance reform. The platform also calls for citizen legislators rather than professional career politicians. We have gotten none of these at the state level, but some of them in the City of New York. Mayor Bloomberg now stands in opposition to the very idea of citizenship and democracy promoted by the platform of the party of which he is a candidate.

“The most important reform of the Independence Party, however, is the party's very existence. The Party will contest the seats where one of the other two parties has decided that the incumbent cannot be contested. The Party will seek to finance itself from among its own members, and thereby present the choice of a locally funded candidate against a candidate beholden to special interests and interests outside the district. In this manner, the Independence Party will alter the present stalemate in politics and increase the choices available to the voter.”

Well that never happened, except rarely. Cross endorsement of incumbents is more lucrative after all. And perhaps people don’t want to be citizens, don’t want the responsibility of democracy, don’t want to be part of a community. They can show this by voting for Mayor Bloomberg, and then turning on him when he asks for anyone to do anything to head off the coming institutional collapse. Citizenship is nearly morbid in this country, in this city, to the point that thoughtful people are concerned about what the future holds. With an entire political oligarchy and cadre of special interests and lobbyists working against it, it cannot take another blow. But Mayor Bloomberg delivered such a blow, cashing in all the prestige of his previous leadership to give them cover. And there will be consequences.

Rather than an A-, I’ll give the Mayor a C+ for leadership, a grade that will be reduced when the next step in term limit repeal takes place.

What about Comptroller Thompson? How he would lead the city as mayor is difficult to predict. But one can say is that he failed to show leadership as Comptroller, in the way the city most needed. The temptation, in our culture and political culture, is to sell out the future – fiscal, physical, environmental. The Comptroller could be, should be, the spokesman for and defender of that future, someone always ready to come out against decisions, non-decisions and deals with short-term benefits but long-term harm. There have been plenty of those decisions in the past eight years, most notably the one I described in the post on management, but Comptroller Thompson was silent. He’s published a few politically easy critiques, done a few politically easy audits, and never challenged any privileges of any interests. And while we don’t know what the Comptroller might do as Mayor, we do know about the political class that is backing him, and that is a cause for concern.