Magazine May 6, 2013, Issue

Michael Poppins

(AP/Seth Wenig)
When the nanny acquired a police force . . .

A few years ago, after an enjoyable match at the nearby Victoria Cricket Club, I arrived at Rustico, a fine restaurant in the small village of Flatts at the western end of Harrington Sound in Bermuda. The fellow just leaving seemed vaguely familiar, albeit more luridly dressed than usual, and my dining companion informed me that, yes, indeed, it was Michael Bloomberg, the famous Mayor of New York City. “He’s here all the time.”

“All the time?”

“Well, he’s a regular.” Our waiter confirmed that he knows them all by name. Sir John Swan, the former premier of the British colony and the fellow who turned it into a global financial center, is a frequent dining companion. I don’t mean to imply that the Mayor spends all his time in Bermuda: He has homes in Vail, Colorado, and Cadogan Square, London, too. And what with the Internet and so forth an offshore mayor can keep in touch with events back in the Bronx all the more easily than one could in, say, Van Wyck’s day. Thirty years ago, Bloomberg made it big with his eponymous “Bloombergs,” purpose-built computer terminals that provide the global jet-setting debt-betting types with real-time market-data analysis from anywhere you happen to be: They’re installed in offices, homes, and regular haunts like the 21 Club. They could presumably be installed at Rustico, except the locals might object. And, if it works for global finance, why shouldn’t it work for municipal government, too? A modern mayor can toy with his crab cake or crispy stuffed dates and check in electronically to see whether 800 miles away his subjects are following his injunctions on trans fats in their cheeseburgers and maximum Sprite intake. And, if you really need to, you can always fire up the old Falcon 900 and be back at Gracie Mansion in the time it would take you to drive in from the Hamptons on a bad day. Bloomberg was at his Bermuda estate when the big Christmas storm clobbered New York in 2010 but was able to jet in late on Boxing Day (a holiday in Bermuda, and apparently also observed in the five boroughs by snowplow crews) to manage the crisis hands-on as ineptly as if he’d remained in the middle of the Atlantic managing it hands-off.

Speaking as a foreigner who’s spent almost as much of his life overseas as Bloomberg has during his term of office, I’d think the point of New York mayors would be to embody the chaotic pugnacious energy of America’s great iconic city. The ones you remember are the scrappy, feisty, in-your-face, streetwise guys, like La Guardia, Koch, Giuliani — men who say things like “How’m I doin’,” attitudinal catchphrases hewn from the crumbling roadbed at some potholed intersection in a hellish outer borough where you keep waking up in the city that doesn’t sleep because the corner bar is full of chest-puffing toughs saying “Who’s bedduh than you? Nobody!” back and forth to each other till four in the morning. Bloomberg has spent more time in European capitals than any New York mayor since Gentleman Jimmy Walker, who in fairness only fled to Paris with his showgirl to escape criminal prosecution. So, when the Big Apple volunteers to spend a dozen years under a colorless antiseptic zillionaire with whiny, hectoring, faux-patrician Boston vowels who weekends in Bermuda and jets back to his nanny state on Monday morning to declare it illegal to put more than three sugars in your coffee, either the city’s self-mythologizing has always been a total crock or something is shifting in the American psyche.

Mayor Bloomberg would bet on the latter. The other week, the rock was briefly lifted on the city’s traditional political culture when state senator Malcolm Smith, a Democrat, got charged in federal court with trying to buy a spot on the Republican line on the next mayoral ballot. Mr. Bloomberg tutted that we wouldn’t have all this corrupt party politics if we just dispensed with party politics. “All of this comes out of the fact,” he explained, “that we have partisan elections when cities aren’t partisan.” And nor is Bloomberg. A lifetime Democrat who joined the GOP because the mayoral primary was less crowded on the right, Bloomberg the Republican campaigned in 2001 as a self-proclaimed “liberal,” which no Democrat would have been crazy enough to do back then. When the GOP brand headed south after the 2006 midterms, he quit the party and declared himself a principled “independent.” His “independence” is such that on anything you care to name — abortion, immigration, gay marriage, “climate change” — he has the conventional views of everyone in his social circle: Party-wise, he votes the dinner-party line. As for “principled,” since he quit the Republican party and turned “independent” he’s been the biggest single donor to all five GOP borough committees, just to make sure they don’t make trouble for him.

#page# A decade ago, Bloomberg’s defeated charter amendment proposed making the New York mayoralty a non-party office, as it was back in first mayor Thomas Willett’s day (1665), when things seemed to run pretty smoothly around town. But, if cities aren’t partisan, presumably states and nations aren’t, either. The party system, as he sees it, deprived America of a Bloomberg presidency. All the smart people wanted him to run: The now defunct Newsweek ran a cover story on him, headlined with a straight-face “How a Mike Bloomberg Presidential Run Could Remake 2008.” But parties mean primaries, and primaries mean you have to go to New Hampshire and Iowa and South Carolina and pretend to the rubes that you like guns and God more than the 15 other guys on the ticket. So no President Bloomberg.

Nevertheless, he is a portent of the future. To a man like Bloomberg, believing in global warming and gun control is like believing the sun rises in the east and water runs downhill: Why should it be part of a party platform? In that sense, he is testament to the triumph of liberalism — for, if liberal values are so universal among the upper reaches of American society, why should they require the Democratic party? The founder of Bloomberg magazine, Bloomberg News, Bloomberg Television, Bloomberg News Radio,, and Bloomberg Tradebook quite reasonably would rather have a Bloomberg party all his own, unsullied by the grubby little ward-heelers, race-baiters, grievance-mongers, shysters, and perverts who infest career liberal politics. Bloomberg has spent over a quarter-billion dollars selling himself to New Yorkers as a post-partisan can-do technocrat, and, if he can do it, there’s no reason the checkbooks of other, less charmless liberal billionaires shouldn’t be able to pull it off in cities and states across the land.

As the Mayor sees it, the people are pining for the smack of firm paternalism. Responding to the judge who struck down his soda ban, Bloomberg declared, “We have a responsibility as human beings to do something, to save each other, to save the lives of ourselves, our families, our friends, and all of the rest of the people that live on God’s planet.” By “we,” he doesn’t mean you — you’re too feeble and easily seduced. So, since the citizenry are too weak-willed to exercise self-discipline in such matters, why should a wise ruler not take the temptation out of their reach?

Tocqueville, you won’t be surprised to hear, foresaw the age of Bloomberg. Under the pre-Bloombergian despot, “although the entire government of the empire was concentrated in the hands of the emperor alone . . . the details of social life and of individual existence ordinarily escaped his control.” What would happen, Tocqueville wondered, if administrative capability were to evolve to make it possible “to subject all of his subjects to the details of a uniform set of regulations”?

Well, you’d wind up with an emperor who put all the data into a grand Imperial Terminal and then issued decrees like Bloomberg’s. As Jacob Sullum of Reason pointed out, under the Mayor’s “arbitrary and capricious” law (in Justice Tingling’s words) a Starbucks venti white hot chocolate with whole milk and whipped cream (640 calories) would be perfectly legal, but a venti black coffee with four teaspoons of sugar (60 calories) would be criminal. So New Yorkers would still get fat, and get heart disease and diabetes and die, but they would do so under the pitiless gaze of a regulatory bureaucracy whose whimsical and contradictory edicts are adjudicated by unionized bureaucrats who retire at 53 with gold-plated benefits. In other words, not a can-do technocracy but New York politics as usual.

And so it goes. Like his fellow “technocrats” in the European Union, the Mayor prefers attitudes to policies. Six years ago, Time ran a story on “The New Action Heroes,” with Bloomberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger looming on the cover in bespoke monochrome and glowering like a couple of mob enforcers, or a same-sex couple who’ve just been told the reception suite’s been double-booked with a pray-away-the-gay convention. With Governor Schwarzenegger’s return to playing celluloid terminators, the Danny DeVito half of Time magazine’s Twins is now the Last Action Hero. What “action” was he taking back in 2007? Why, he was “opening a climate summit,” and “talking about saving the planet.”

#page# He still is. Meanwhile, how about the tiny sliver of the planet for which he’s actually responsible? On February 9, a winter storm walloped the city, including Staten Island residents still living without power, without heat, without light four months after so-called Superstorm Sandy hit them. If Bloomberg were still a nominal Republican, it might have made the papers. But he isn’t, so it didn’t, and somehow we accept that in a supposed First World city it would be unreasonable to expect the power to be restored within a third of a year. This is Big Government Big Apple–style: Come the big snowstorm, the municipal colossus who can regulate the salt out of your cheeseburger is utterly incapable of regulating any of it onto Sixth Avenue. While Bloomberg enacts Coke barriers, other cities build flood barriers. London has one, the Dutch coast has one, and Hamburg, and even St. Petersburg in Russia. A five-mile storm-surge barrier across the mouth of New York’s harbor would cost about $10 billion. If you’re saying, “Whoa, that sounds expensive,” well, Bloomberg is one of a select few individuals who could afford to pay for it himself. He would have called it inevitably “the Bloomberg,” and his mayoral term would be remembered for an actual accomplishment. And, even if he’d spent public funds, it’s about a fifth of the cost of the Sandy Relief Bill, which is all the usual mumbo-jumbo — money for bureaucracy and paperwork.

But, if we’re honest with ourselves, in today’s sclerotic America, you can’t even imagine anyone building a New York flood barrier, can you? The can-do guys can’t do that, can they? Bloomberg is emblematic not only in his benign despotism but as an action hero unable to act. As the Daily Telegraph in London reported: “But with so many prescient warnings, city authorities are struggling to explain why so little was done. Mayor Bloomberg has said it was difficult to translate such warnings into concrete action.”

Young Michael read Johnny Tremain, Esther Forbes’s children’s yarn of revolutionary Massachusetts, and dreamed of greatness. He certainly found success. But, in his rise from the attendant’s booth at a Boston parking lot through Salomon Brothers to his own global empire, Bloomberg has always preferred servicing a small elite to the mass market. Even his private parties felt like corporate hospitality. In Britain, to the amusement of the snootier locals, he ferried friends by helicopter to Royal Ascot and afterwards sent them a customized souvenir album with photographs of themselves sipping his champagne in his box in his company — the sort of thing you do for valued donors at a political event. When the mogul decided he fancied being mayor, connecting with the 99.4 percent of New Yorkers who don’t listen to 1130 Bloomberg Radio looked set to be his biggest challenge. But he never really tried. He has kept his distance, whether literally offshore or merely psychologically. Many American politicians despise their base, but Bloomberg is one of the few who’ve managed to dispense with one.

And in that, too, he seems to prefigure where U.S. politics is headed. He does not live as his subjects do, and doesn’t see why he should fake it. Running in 2001, he was asked that standard New York political question — Mets or Yankees? — and was honest enough to answer “Red Sox.” If you asked him his favorite outer borough, there’s a sporting chance he’d reply “Bermuda.” His disdain for the pseudo-populism, the ersatz common touch, of electoral politics would be admirable were it not for his unshakeable conviction that he knows better than you how you should live. “This is a setback for the people who’re dying,” he said when his drink ban was overturned by the courts. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I watch my diet. This is not for me.” It’s for you, you ingrate. “In case you hadn’t noticed,” for an unprepossessing shrimp, he looks fabulous. He skis at Vail, he golfs at the Mid Ocean Club in Tucker’s Town, he packs a health-conscious hamper for Ascot. You cannot hope to live like that, but, by improving your cheeseburger and shrinking your Mountain Dew, he’s doing what he can for you, even if you’re too dumb to appreciate it.

#page# Same with guns: You don’t need them, you’re better off calling 911. Just like he does when he’s a private citizen in Bermuda. Oh, no, wait: On a small island where most of Her Majesty’s Constabulary are unarmed, Bloomberg’s security detail has been given a special dispensation to pack heat. It’s different for him. Likewise, he’s done such a grand job of reducing private-aircraft access to LaGuardia that Bloomberg Services (his jet fleet) is now the single largest user of the ever fewer slots at the airport. He took his Falcon to the Copenhagen climate-change summit, where he listened to other high-flying global warm-mongers propose a maximum “carbon allowance” for the citizens of freeborn nations to force them to rein in their vacations to Disney World. And then he got in the Falcon and flew back to one of his homes.

In a republic of limited government, the least a citizen-executive could do is feign the lifestyle he prescribes for everyone else. Instead, in a poorer, sicker, more dysfunctional America with less social mobility, the gap between the ruling class and the ruled is likely to widen in the years ahead, and the billionaire who determines his subjects’ maximum calorie intake will not seem such an outlier. Somewhere along the way, Michael Bloomberg forgot the most stirring scene from that favorite boyhood novel, Johnny Tremain. James Otis, the Massachusetts assemblyman who coined the “taxation without representation” line, is in a tavern addressing John Hancock, Paul Revere, John Adams, Sam Adams, and the rest of the gang. “There shall be no more tyranny. A handful of men cannot seize power over thousands,” he roars. “The peasants of France, the serfs of Russia. Hardly more than animals now. But because we fight, they shall see freedom like a new sun rising in the west.”

Bloomberg must have been holding the book upside down. In the Mayor’s world, there’s little talk of freedom. Like the peasants of France and serfs of Russia, we are “hardly more than animals,” creatures of our appetites on whom, sex aside, restraints must be imposed. He takes it as read that a handful of men should exercise power over thousands, millions. “To cave to popular sentiment,” he thundered, “would be to hand a victory to the terrorists.” He was talking about the Ground Zero mosque, but the thought could just as easily apply to anything else: If we don’t ban guns and Coke, the terrorists will have won. None of the people who matter in American life think “popular sentiment” should prevail on these or a multitude of other issues. Some Bloombergians, like Bowdoin professor Sarah Conly, write books with titles like “Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism.” The rest can’t even be bothered justifying it, and are anxious to get on with the coercing. In his business days, disgruntled members of his mostly female sales team alleged that on open display in the Bloomberg offices were blow-up sex dolls and giant rubber breasts with squirting nipples. (I’ve no idea what they were squirting, but presumably it wasn’t more than 16 ounces.) Back then, he had a striking knack for attracting sexual-harassment suits from female employees — three in five years, one of them withdrawn, another dismissed on appeal, the third settled out of court. Since switching to politics, he’s opted for non-sexual harassment: In Bloomberg’s New York, if you can make it there, you can make it with anyone you like and the Mayor will provide your contraception and your abortion and officiate at your same-sex marriage. But in anything other than sex the harassment never ends.

He’s not wrong on the problem. If you fly in from overseas, as often as he does, you can’t help noticing America is extremely obese: It’s the first thing foreigners remark on, and, if they then prod a little deeper and notice the trillions of dollars of debt, there’s a general sense that a population this unhealthy-looking is not what prudent lenders would airily assume to be a good credit risk. The decline of America’s human capital is not pretty. And, indeed, there is something sad about a crusade for individual liberty over the right to waddle down the street slurping sickly sweet children’s drinks out of giant plastic cups with oversized straws, as poignant an image of societal infantilization as anything.

Nevertheless, slurp free or die. No citizenry worth the name would be produced by a state that does not trust them to choose their own beverages — not even French peasants or Russian serfs. But Giuliani was tough on crime, so much so that he made the city safe for a successor who was tough on Coke. In the old days, the scrappy, feisty types like La Guardia and Koch wound up the subjects of rowdy Broadway musicals, Fiorello! and Mayor. In the absence of Hello, Bloomy! or Les Bloomerables, go see Mary Poppins at the New Amsterdam, and ponder that in New York’s nanny state Michael Poppins has ruled that no more than three spoonfuls of sugar are permitted to help the medicine go down.

Maybe it all sounds more heroic over gin slings on the veranda at the Mid Ocean Club . . .

Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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