Bloomberg: More dangerous than the Koch brothers

It's one thing to be a rich, dogmatic media owner. To also be a self-financed politician and movement leader? Scary

Published July 16, 2013 6:51PM (EDT)

  (AP/Patrick Semansky)
(AP/Patrick Semansky)

In the trial following their overthrow that led to the execution of Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceacescu and his wife, Elena, a darkly comic moment occurred when Elena told the prosecutor: “Such impudence! I am a member and chairman of the Academy of Sciences! You cannot talk to me in such a way!” A few lines later in the transcript, her husband pointed out: “She was not a deputy prime minister, but the first deputy prime minister.”

One of the things that distinguishes a democratic republic from a banana republic is the fact that the president or first lady is not also head of the air force, chairman of the public utility commission, owner of the biggest bank in the country, director of the national sports franchise and “chairman of the Academy of Sciences.” Which is why I will be glad to see New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg leave office.

I have nothing against Bloomberg, an honorable, intelligent and public-spirited individual. I agree with him on some issues, though not all. But I think that the citizens of a republic must be troubled when a single individual — no matter how enlightened or benevolent — is simultaneously the mayor of America’s second most important city, after Washington, D.C., the owner of a major media outlet, and an important funder in national politics, financing, among other things, the quasi-third-party “No Labels” movement and the gun control campaign. There is such a thing as “civic tact” in a republic, and that means, among other things, that if you are a rich American, you restrain your personal ambition and don’t try to buy too many prizes and too much attention for yourself.

If the plutocratic drift of American politics needs a poster boy, it is Michael Bloomberg. We have had self-financed billionaire politicians, like Ross Perot and Mitt Romney. We have had rich, opinionated media owners, like Rupert Murdoch. We have had billionaire patrons of political movements, including the Koch brothers on the right and George Soros on the center-left.

Bloomberg is Perot and Romney and Murdoch and the Koch brothers and Soros combined. Such a combination of political, media and economic power in a single individual should be a source of concern, even if the individual happens to be decent and public-spirited.

All societies are run by elites. But meritocratic elitism is one thing and oligarchic elitism is another. In meritocratic elitism, there are plural elites with different career paths. For example, in the 19th century, U.S. presidents appointed their campaign contributors and friends as captains, colonels and generals, but nowadays you have to work your way up in the ranks. And today the most successful politicians, even if they are rich, tend to work their way up through successive political jobs before getting to the top. Being born rich and connected helps, but it is not essential. In other words, in meritocratic elitism there are several elites in separate silos. Lateral mobility among silos is difficult.

In contrast, in oligarchic elitism, lateral mobility among different careers is all too easy. If you are born into the right family (Britain), or attend the right university (France or Japan), you can move with ease from a very young age among political, bureaucratic, academic, journalistic and economic careers. At the same time, there are few or no meritocratic career ladders for the majority of people who lack family connections or elite school ties. Upward mobility is blocked by the heirs and heiresses or the prestigious school grads, who hog most of the top jobs in such a country for themselves.

Plutocratic elitism is a variation of oligarchic elitism. In a plutocratic system, if you have enough money, you can skip education and experience and buy your way directly into a particular vocation at the top. Want to be president or governor or mayor and skip the hassle of a decade or two in public service? Just finance your own campaign. Want to be thought of as a great thinker? Buy a magazine or newspaper and write its editorials, or finance your own professorship at an elite university.  You can not only own the football team, but also be the coach and star quarterback at the same time. Who needs qualifications, when you have money?

For this reason, even if we approve of Bloomberg and his policies, we should be concerned when this kind of money-lubricated lateral mobility appears in our society.

I think there would have been more openly expressed concern about Bloomberg’s synthesis of political, donor, media and financial power, if Bloomberg had not been so attuned with the “liberaltarian” elite consensus on most issues — unlike, say, the populist Ross Perot or the conservative Rupert Murdoch.

What the elite press calls “centrism” is not actually the center of gravity of American public opinion. Rather, it is the median opinion of the richest 1 percent and their journalistic and academic retainers, the shared prejudices of the people who migrate seasonally from Davos to Aspen to the Hamptons, a combination of social liberalism and economic conservatism. I like to think of this kind of elite “centrism” as “One-Per-Centrism.”

Bloomberg is an exemplar of one-per-centrism in his combination of support for paternalistic top-down “nanny-state” reforms, like the crusade against soft drinks. America’s rich generally prefer to focus on the behavioral failings of the poor and working class, rather than on abuses of the political and economic privileges of themselves and their peers.

Bloomberg has also been in tune with elite groupthink in his support for the progressive position on gay rights, the “centrist” policy of charter schools and the business-class conservative policy of flooding the low-wage labor market with more impoverished immigrant workers:

NEW YORK, April 1 (UPI) -- New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg says golf fairways would suffer if illegal immigrants were returned to their native country.

"You and I are beneficiaries of these jobs," Bloomberg told his WABC-AM radio co-host, John Gambling. "You and I both play golf; who takes care of the greens and the fairways in your golf course?"

However, Robert Heaney, general manager of Deepdale Golf Club -- a Long Island course where Bloomberg often plays -- told The New York Daily News that no illegal immigrants work at the club.

The nonpartisan “No Labels” movement that Bloomberg pushed a few years back, evidently as a trial balloon for an independent presidential candidacy, was a classic example of plutocratic one-per-centrism. The No Labels movement attracted members of the school of Pete Peterson, Allan Simpson and Erskine Bowles — affluent and rich people who think the greatest challenge the U.S. faces, in the aftermath of a near-depression, is to cut Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid for America’s middle-class and working-class elderly.

As one progressive pointed out in 2010:

In fact, a No Labels position paper published on its website, Deep Dive: The Federal Deficit, links directly to Peterson's foundation and the numerous projects he has funded to promote his fiscally conservative views. Adhering to Peterson's party line, the No Labels platform asserts that most American voters want "a government that makes the necessary choices to rein in runaway deficits, secure Social Security and Medicare, and put our country on a viable, sound path going forward."

Progressives may like the liberal social views of one-per-centrists like Bloomberg, but one-per-centrism is a threat to the American center-left. The basic shtick of one-per-centrism is the false claim that our political system is paralyzed, not by the exercise of veto power at pressure points by an outnumbered, declining reactionary right, but by “extremes of left and right” that are equally to blame. In this Goldilocks theory of politics — this porridge is too hot, that porridge is too cold, and this porridge is just right — the defenders of Social Security are just as bad as the opponents of higher taxes, and we need benevolent billionaires or billionaire-funded politicians to do the statesman-like thing and exchange major cuts in middle-class Social Security benefits for minor tax increases on the rich.

There could not be anything more antithetical to progressivism in politics than the idea that we should turn for salvation to benevolent, self-financed, nonpartisan tycoons who will save us from messy retail politics, solve our problems in a few epochal “grand bargains” and then retire to one of their half-dozen houses when their noble work is done. Wealthy politicians and rich donors have always played important parts in reform in America, but typically in the context of a political system dominated by popular electoral mobilization and grass-roots movements. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was rich, but he did not pose as a technocratic figure above partisanship and “beyond left and right.”

Let us hope, then, that the temporary concentration of private and public power symbolized by Michael Bloomberg has been a fluke, not a trend. A better model for rich, politically engaged Americans than Bloomberg might be the late William F. Buckley Jr., another wealthy (if much less wealthy) individual who ran for mayor of New York in 1965 to publicize the philosophy of the then-fledgling conservative movement. When asked what would be the first thing he would do on becoming mayor of New York, Buckley replied, “Abdicate.”

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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