So Long, Money Knuckles

Former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, before leaving office, sat for an extended exit interview with New York magazine. I read it because I wanted to hear the mayor’s own summation of his elongated tenure, the third part of which, if not other parts too, were arguably made possible by the virtually unlimited billions of dollars he personally commands.

One would not claim that Bloomberg’s personality was even close to the most offensive among the well-heeled in public view, but the plutocratic dyspepsia he displayed, the source of his wincing managerial lances, was tough-going. At no time, either during his interview or while in office, did he ever show that his outlook was not handicapped by the scotoma of privilege. This basic fact about Bloomberg’s conception of public life was on view in his oft-repeated refrain against unappreciative critics, who failed to understand that it was the rich who take care of us all by paying all those taxes.

All that wealth, which one must credit him to a degree for having earned (“I can outwork you,” he says – I believe it), yet the sum of all that occurred to him to do on so many important fronts amounted to reducing the public sector in terms of its scope and prestige. Teachers were remanded to “rubber rooms”, public schools were further compromised by an obsession with standardized tests, whereas real estate developers were untrammeled, their only major setback, no thanks to the mayor, a scuttled sports arena supposed to have been built in Manhattan, thankfully defeated. Justifiably, Bloomberg is widely seen as having purchased a third term against the will of the voters, based on the politician’s pet theory that the city required his continued service for its own good. His manner of evicting Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park, denying protesters a march permit before the Iraq War, and creating a “Guantanamo on the Hudson” during the Republican National Convention in 2004, at which 1,806 people were mostly falsely arrested, were of a piece with his coarse support for the NYPD’s “stop and frisk,” Bloomberg’s statement of position on civil liberties par excellence.

With this record, Bloomberg’s mayoralty is instructive on the issue of money in politics. He provides reason to doubt the idea that if lobbying money were to disappear tomorrow, politicians who now take lobbying money would suddenly change their votes or legislative designs to advance interests that they had previously ignored or that the inflow of such money had previously obscured. Michael Bloomberg was more completely free from any conceivable effect of lobbying money than any elected official in U.S. history, yet on policy questions he was virtually indistinguishable from the contemporary mainstream of the Democratic Party, or “moderate” Republican Party, both lobbied to the hilt. Bloomberg provides an occasion to look at this issue again.

Bloomberg installed bike lanes and despised guns: even the skunk has a white stripe on its back. The skunk, the spirit animal of a chief executive who sprayed a blustery, moralizing ordure whenever his stinking paternalistic visions of efficiency and health were not properly embraced. Yet, no one could have really expected a skunk to lower its tail from its taut, vertical pose when under attack. The blasts and seeping emissions alike still waft, through the ghostly portals of that citrus bed of nails which once covered Central Park, a lavish $21 million private gesture of fellow fantastically privileged confreres, never to be amortized on the public cultural ledger because to some it might have looked comely. Today, the thought of its conch-shell formations of flapping sheets on clotheslines will only serve to divert rumination from the swan song attack of the 13th richest person in the world on the city’s allegedly biggest problem, public pensions, a ludicrous notion which his allegedly populist successor already seems to be embracing. One step closer to the powder keg we go, Money Knuckles, you symptom of the times.

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