Bloomberg's power grab.

Scrutinizing culture.
Oct. 9 2008 12:28 PM

The Bloomberg Syndrome

The New York mayor's power grab is a symptom of a national problem.

Michael Bloomberg. Click image to expand.
Michael Bloomberg

Banana republic fever: It's catching! Another word for it might be Bloombergism or the Bloomberg syndrome. Where a figure in public life suddenly decides he's above the law or above ethical considerations just because of his own greatness. Perhaps El Comandante syndrome might capture it.

We saw it first in the cavalier contempt for the Constitution displayed by "Hank" Paulson sending the original bailout bill to Congress with a declaration that there can be no judicial (or other) review of how he spends the near-trillion-dollar check he wanted to write to himself.

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Amazing "I am the law" ploy: zero judicial review. Tear out Article 3 of the Constitution for El Comandante Hank. He didn't get away with it, but the fact that he tried demonstrates a banana republic mentality.

And now Comandante Michael Bloomberg seeks to turn New York City into a banana republic. He wants to ignore two citywide votes for term limits—because (of course!) at the time they were passed, in the '90s, voters had not yet had the chance to contemplate the full grandeur of Michael Bloomberg. So far above the kind of mortal mayor the term limits were designed for that the ordinary rules shouldn't apply. So now, even though he's served the two terms the law allows, he wants to find a way to grant himself the power to run again.

Then ... well, let's take these two and their contempt for democracy first. At the heart of this syndrome, the billionaires' arrogance is an all-encompassing unspoken sense of entitlement. Maybe, though, it's time to make the unspoken explicit: Perhaps we should have a rule (maybe sub it in for Article 3 of the Constitution) that once you earn a billion or close to it, you are so wise that, like the guardians of Plato's Republic, you need no longer be troubled by the inconveniences of democracy.

You get placed in a certain category. Maybe with special parking-zone privileges like they give the handicapped. Instead of the stenciled figure in a wheelchair, a stenciled Monopoly-game millionaire silhouette. An argument can be made that they deserve it more than the mere handicapped, anyway, because, after all, they bear the weight of the world on their shoulders. It takes a lot of heavy lifting to destroy the economy and walk away with $500 million the way the execrable clown Richard Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Bros., did. Ordinary democracies don't understand the hardships of billionairedom, but banana republics do. What's a banana republic good for if it doesn't take care of its plutocrats?

True, Paulson's "no court can touch me" plan was one of the factors that caused the backlash to the original bailout plan, and Bloomberg's power grab will have to undergo court challenges (judicial review!), and even if it survives that, voters may have a chance to reject him at the polls, if they don't share his lofty self-estimation as the only person who can shepherd us through these troubled times. Look how well his fellow billionaires have done destroying the economy: just the kind of people we need to tell us how to put it back together again.

Or so you would think from the shameless way Paulson and his cronies have been acting.

Indeed, there are a couple of aspects of Paulson's involvement in the bailout that should not be lost in the welter of crisis headlines. On Sept. 28, the Times published a front-page story that shows our guy Hank inviting a Goldman crony—one with a huge unacknowledged $20 billion stake in AIG's survival—into a key meeting about whether to ensure said survival. And Goldman's $20 billion.

The Times' Gretchen Morgenson reported that "[o]ne of the Wall Street chief executives participating in the meeting was Lloyd C. Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, Mr. Paulson's former firm." Even worse, as the Times delicately put it, "Mr. Blankfein had particular reason for concern. Although it was not widely known ... a collapse of the insurer threatened to leave a hole of as much as $20 billion in Goldman's side ..." (italics mine). Can anyone say "obscene conflict of interest"? Corrupt cronyism on a disgraceful scandalous scale?

Gee, I wonder what advice Lloyd gave his old pal Hank. And I guess it was just coincidental that Hank suddenly reversed course and, after previously declaring that there would be no more bailouts and letting Goldman competitor Lehman Bros. go bankrupt, decided that a bailout of AIG was essential. Price to taxpayers: $85 billion. Hey, what are friends for in the billionaire buddies club?

(And then five days later we learned, also from the Times, that the key reason banks were able to "pile up new debt and risk" and ultimately precipitate the current crisis was a 2004 SEC rule change that was vigorously lobbied for by the head of Goldman Sachs, who was, at the time—guess who?—our millionaire buddy Hank Paulson. Still later we learned that, to top it all off, Paulson has named a former Goldman exec to oversee his bailout plan.)

Nice the way these people take care of one another. It really refreshes the wisdom of that once-tired refrain: "Some people rob you with a gun, some rob you with a fountain pen."

But it is the blatant use of fear-mongering and power-grabbing in a time of crisis that unites Paulson and Bloomberg's power grab. Anti-globalization writer Naomi Klein called such power grabs "shock doctrine" tactics. The shock doctrine (see this YouTube exchange between Klein and Andrew Sullivan) argues that it is the pattern of the übercapitalist plutocrat class to create—or at least take advantage of—economic crises and crashes by using them as excuses to suspend and violate democratic and constitutional principles, getting a panicked populace to cede power to the plutocrats. Or by simply taking power from weakened democratic institutions.

Still, Klein's examples had mainly come from banana republics like Bolivia or the prostrate polities of post-Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe. These shock-doctrine banana republic tactics can't happen here, can they? Not when it's blatant, I'll admit. I don't think we'll ever emulate the Bolivian government, which in Klein's account kidnapped labor-union heads until they agreed to an ultimately futile attempt to rescue its economy by sacrificing (among other things) workers' union-won rights. But our lack of appropriate outrage at Paulson's despicable gall in sending Congress his "I am above the law" bill, his willingness to manage the AIG crisis in a manner beneficial to Goldman Sachs, and his central role in causing the crisis he was supposedly rescuing us from—our lack of outrage, our failure to demand that he be sacked—suggests that the shock doctrine works here perhaps more subtly, incrementally. Locally.

Take Bloomberg, for instance. Twice the voters of New York City voted in referendums in favor of term limits for mayors and other elected officials. According to the New York Daily News,Bloomberg supported it ardently both times. But now, suddenly, those limits apply to him, and he just doesn't like it. Or, as he disingenuously and utterly unconvincingly says, he's doing it for us—he wants to give us the opportunity to enthrone him once more.

By the way, I'm against term limits; I can see the problem of corrupting incumbency they address, but I don't like the term-limit solution, which arbitrarily limits voters' choice of candidates. On the other hand, my point of view lost—twice!—and I actually believe that in a democracy, those in the majority on a referendum win. And not just until some mediocre self-congratulatory mayor stomps his foot like a petulant child and says he wants more.

But this mayor of mediocrity, enemy of trans fats who lets killer cranes crush people and buildings on a regular basis because of lax enforcement, the mayor who hasn't managed to get a 9/11 memorial off the ground in seven years (yes, I know there are other entities involved, but that basically says he's too weak to knock heads together and make it happen), suddenly this self-inflated suit looks in the mirror and decides: "The city cannot live without me."

The excuse being given is that in this time of crisis we need a steady hand at the helm. And, of course, he was so prescient about the magnitude of the current crisis. You remember all those speeches he made in the past seven years about the potential market instability that subprime mortgages threatened? He was a lone voice crying in the wilderness. What's that, you say? You can't remember those speeches? Well, neither do I, but he must have made them because that might qualify him to say he is a better candidate than the other bungling billionaires who have wrecked our economy to protect our city from the consequences. Of course, Bloomberg had no access to detailed financial information. Oh, wait ...

Anyway, here is the insultingly disingenuous way he turns the fact that the bill he sought to turn his power grab into some kind of virtue: "The mayor maintained he was still a supporter of term limits," according to the Times. "You're not taking away term limits," he said. "You're simply going from two terms to three terms."

And then, if he feels like it, maybe three terms to four terms. Just ignore the law the same way. It's such an insult to the intelligence that it alone should disqualify him.

He will be employing a dodgy, sketchy, barely legal (if that) maneuver to get the city council to pass a bill to nullify the two democratic citywide referendums that established term limits just for Mayor Mike. At least he hasn't attempted the Paulson-ian ploy of placing his power grab beyond judicial review: There are already several entities lining up to sue him to force him to follow the law.

The New York Daily News quoted someone close to the situation saying, "I think people are troubled when it looks like one person is more important than the system. Everyone here is struggling with that."

Struggling with it? Struggling with one-man rule that tosses democratic votes in the trashcan?

The people of our city have voted twice on term limits, first in favor of establishing them, later against scrapping them. If the people want them done away with the way to do it is by popular ballot not through a [City] Council vote by members who will also be extending their jobs.

But nobody seems much to care or connect the dots to the banana republic shock-doctrine mentality. Although an amazingly frank quote in the Times should help. In a story about the reaction of city council members to this, the Times said: "They decried the mayor's strategy as overly exclusive and were especially upset that the mayor had solicited support from newspaper executives and Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetic heir, which suggested to them that the plan had been hatched by a select group of billionaires and power brokers solely with the mayor's interests in mind" (italics mine).

Well, not solely the mayor's interests; the other billionaires weren't secretly "hatching" this plan for their health. Sound familiar—this secret meeting of cronies—to Paulson inviting his Goldman crony into a meeting to save said crony's $20 billion?

It's disgraceful; do you think Bloomberg's billionaire buddies might have some "special extralegal influence" on decisions about the term-extended mayor's policies? It would make them the unofficial plutocrats junta of New York City, more capable of protecting their own empires from feeling the heat—the consequences fiscal and legal—the way Paulson's cronies did with Hank.

You don't think it matters that much? You think we should let it slide? Extraordinary circumstances and all that. But that's the mentality of the shock doctrine. A populace too panicked and a media too cowed to protest.

Because you know when this latitude, this sleazy complicity in shock-doctrine tactics will matter? After the next terrorist attack, when the president will have the freedom to invoke the shadowy (because still partly classified, kept secret even from Congress) and untested executive order known as National Security Presidential Directive 51—issued in May 2007. I warned about this here about a year ago. It's a guaranteed constitutional crisis in the making since it allows the president to declare any "catastrophic emergency" an excuse to turn the entire power of the government over to the "national continuity coordinator" and his handpicked "Continuity Policy Coordination Committee," who will on the face of the document have unlimited "I am the law" power to render all actions by the judiciary and the legislature basically null and void until—if—the president declares the "catastrophic emergency" over.

But Bloombergism isn't limited to national-security matters; it's an attitude that unfortunately seems to be spreading into other aspects of society: the cavalier dismissal of established legal and ethical restraints and considerations.

It extends, this sense of Bloombergian entitlement, to journalists as well. I have to say that, although I'm an Obama supporter, I'm amazed at the cavalier way Gwen Ifill dismissed her flagrant conflict of interest—the clear-cut appearance of impropriety—as potential debate host, failing to even mention to the Presidential Debate Commission when they first asked her to moderate the vice-presidential debate that she was writing a book whose success could well be dependent on an Obama victory.

Even the Columbia Journalism Review called into question the appearance of impropriety it represented.

The point wasn't that she couldn't do the job fairly but that her stake in the outcome of the election of which the debate was a key decision point would be a distraction from the debate itself, with viewers trying to analyze how fair or unfair her questions were based on her conflict of interest. She'd made herself part of the story.

But instead of giving the debate commission the opportunity to decide the question, Ifill issued a statement that totally (and, for someone so intelligent, shockingly) missed the point: "I'm not particularly worried that one-day's blog chatter is going to destroy my reputation. The proof is in the pudding." (Queen Latifah captured the disdainful sense of entitlement on display in that quote on Saturday Night Live.)

With all due respect, Ms. Ifill, it's not your reputation (alone) that is at stake but that of all journalists who will look utterly insensitive to the appearance of impropriety that they are always hounding politicians about if one of their leading avatars doesn't understand such an obvious violation of the principle.

I think that, in fact, she came across as impartial, and more credit to her for that, but again, it was the Bloombergian attitude that was the problem. The attitude was basically, I am the law, I am the standard. How dare you question me? The condescending dismissal of any criticism as merely "blog chatter" just reinforces the public impression of journalists as holier-than-thou hypocrites.

Nor is literature exempt from the entitlement syndrome. Consider last week's New School panel on the The Original of Laura, the unfinished Vladimir Nabokov manuscript which he'd asked his family to destroy. His sole surviving son, Dmitri, has decided to contravene his father's wishes and hired literary agent Andrew Wylie to peddle the rights worldwide for what will surely be a pretty penny.

Dmitri's original rationale was that he could imagine a visitation from his dead father in which Dad said, basically, "Go ahead and cash in." At the panel on Laura, I suggested this was like imagining Hamlet's father's ghost coming to him and saying, "Forget about that whole revenge thing, son."

But Dmitri had another card to play. He now suggested, through an intermediary on the panel, that the visitation from Vladimir was a "joke" and somehow seemed to blame Dmitri's mother for not burning it or blame me for accusing his mother of bad faith in not burning it (I never have).

I don't know: I've always felt conflicted about the difficulty of the choice Dmitri faced, but the more I think about it, the more I think the father's unequivocal request should have precedence over the son's willingness to abrogate it. As I put it at the New School panel, even if it were a pearl of great genius, Nabokov himself, for good reason or bad, didn't think it was ready to be seen and his word should be law.

All Dmitri has left (minus the "visitation") to support his decision to violate his father's pleas is the fact that he can. I can therefore I shall. My father's "vote" doesn't count.

Literary Bloombergism.

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