Michael Bloomberg

I was no great supporter of Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral bid. His cookie-cutter

style of management (all news stories have the same structure, all bureaus

have the same fishtank) might work with people who are self-selected

for the organisation, but couldn’t work in the much more anarchic world

of city politics. Worse, who was this billionaire with no political

experience to waltz in with the chutzpah to think that he could

run New York City? I’m opposed to individuals buying elections, which

is exactly what Bloomberg did, at a cost of about $80 a vote.

Eight months after Bloomberg took office, however, I have to say I’m

pleasantly surprised at the job he’s doing. Here’s a short profile of

him I’ve written.

* * *

Michael Bloomberg has placed himself in charge of coordinating the

memorials and ceremonies on the first anniversary of the attacks on

September 11, despite the fact that he is pretty much the only person

involved who played no significant role on the day itself. He’s

displaying no timidity, either: he says it was “totally my decision”

not to allow any original speeches during the memorial service. There

will only be readings – the governor of New York will read Lincoln’s

Gettysburg Address, while the governor of New Jersey will read excerpts

from the Declaration of Independence.

Bloomberg has yet again demonstrated his ability to take control of

proceedings without getting anybody’s back up. Like his predecessor,

he’s an authority figure; unlike him, Bloomberg is well-liked.

Rudolph Giuliani was a feisty former prosecutor who loved to pick

fights and micromanage everything in his control. Bloomberg, on the

other hand, is a former CEO who prides himself on his ability to find

the best people to run large areas of the municipal government, and

then delegate responsibility to them. He also has no discernible chips

on his shoulder, which certainly helps in negotiations. There was a

long list of politicians Giuliani refused to meet, while Bloomberg will

reach out to anybody. A recent press conference for foreign journalists

was the second such event Bloomberg has had in one year; Giuliani did

none in his eight years as mayor.

Nine months after he took office, Bloomberg is enjoying the longest

honeymoon period in New York mayoral history. New Yorkers, after eight

years of the autocratic Giuliani, don’t seem to mind Bloomberg’s

paternalism, so long as it comes without Giuliani’s abrasiveness.

Bloomberg’s ability to hop back and forth across political lines

no New York politician would dare cross enabled him to take control

of the city’s school system – something every previous mayor

tried, and failed, to do. And he is now moving on from the welfare of

the city’s children to that of its adults: he slapped a $1.50-a-pack

city tax on cigarettes, and wants to ban smoking in all bars and restaurants.

He looks likely to succeed: New Yorkers loved to fight all of Giuliani’s

proposals, but have lost all their appetite for adversarial politics

in the Bloomberg era.

New York’s new mayor, a former Salomon Brothers bond trader,

is comfortable with numbers and statistics. He boasts of the fact that

crime in Times Square is so low that it sometimes becomes hard to measure;

when he wants to make a point, he’ll cite the residential occupancy

rate in Battery Park City (95%) or the number of different nationalities

lost on September 11 (91).

And when asked about the risk of another terrorist attack on New York

City, this time using weapons of mass destruction, Bloomberg gives a

wholly characteristic response, a combination of his disdain for the

incalculable and his determination to make New Yorkers better off, whether

they like it or not. “People die because they don’t wear seatbelts,”

he says, “because they drive while under the influence of drink,

because they smoke.” Better to concentrate on real risks which

we know how to deal with, than to obsess over hypothetical attacks which

by their very nature will be unexpected.

Bloomberg says the next emergency in New York probably won’t

be a terrorist attack, it’s much more likely to be an accident.

“The danger is that we let the terrorists win by letting the press

sensationalise risks that have always been there and will always be

there,”he says.

Bloomberg’s is a hyper-rational view of what happened on September

11. Unpacked, the argument goes something like this: There was always

a chance that New York would be targeted by terrorists, as demonstrated

by the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and its destruction

eight years later. New York had, more or less, a degree of preparation

for such an attack commensurate with its likelihood. The city remains

a potential target, but the fact that a major attack happened quite

recently does not in itself increase the probability that another is

going to happen any time soon. We are now better informed as to the

risk of a terrorist threat, and the police and fire departments in New

York are better coordinated and better prepared. But the best way to

save lives is still to get people to stop smoking, rather than, say,

investing in radiation pills for all 8 million New Yorkers.

This line of argument is not the type of thing you’re likely

to hear from a professional politician any time soon. Most politicians

don’t understand probabilistic reasoning; the general public certainly

doesn’t. But Bloomberg doesn’t care about being understood

so much as he cares about doing the right thing. And weirdly, even when

New Yorkers don’t understand the rationale behind his actions,

they trust him to be doing the right thing in any case. That’s

far from typical for this most loudmouthed and opinionated of cities.

In fact, it could be the one area in which New York really has changed

since September 11.

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