Soundings

Fred Siegel
Botching Bloomberg
The New Yorker gets the mayor’s mixed legacy wrong.
Autumn 2013

Bill de Blasio’s victory in New York’s Democratic mayoral primary is part of a broad shift leftward in Gotham politics that may define the post–Michael Bloomberg era. Come January, thanks to term limits and despite more than $7 million spent by the real-estate industry, the city council will have 20 new members, almost all from the left end of the political spectrum. Twelve are closely tied to the Working Families Party, which has strong links with de Blasio. Veteran journalist Ken Auletta makes little mention of this transformation in his lengthy New Yorker article, “After Bloomberg”—his first piece about city politics for the magazine since the 1970s, when he chronicled the fiscal crisis during the early Koch years. Auletta lays out the fiscal problems facing the next mayor, who will have to negotiate new contracts for 300,000 city workers. Spending under Bloomberg, he observes, “has gone up fifty-six per cent over the rate of inflation the last eleven years.”

Auletta points out that Gotham has recovered from the national recession sooner and more fully than the nation as a whole. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that New York owes its good fortune largely to the near-zero interest rates that Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve have been charging large banks such as Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. The banks make a tidy profit, at least in the short term, by borrowing so cheaply and then lending the money to customers or making investments. But the financial sector hasn’t regained the jobs that it shed in the recession; most of the city’s new jobs tend to be low-wage positions in tourism and hospitality.

Auletta also fails to see through the mayor’s political image. Bloomberg, he writes, “expresses disdain for interest groups, which he can afford to ignore.” He implies that the mayor took a tough line with the teachers’ unions—but teacher salaries rose over 40 percent under Bloomberg. Auletta misses the central paradox of the Bloomberg years: interest groups didn’t try to buy or intimidate the mayor because they didn’t have to. Bloomberg preemptively gave them much of what they wanted. The Wall Street boom allowed him to keep powerful lobbies in clover, though he did so by piling up debt. Paying it off will be harder when interest rates rise, as they must.

Auletta makes a hash of stop-and-frisk policing, which, he alleges, “disproportionately targets minorities.” But he never reveals his basis of comparison. Proportionate to crime committed, minorities have been underrepresented among those stopped. Yet Judge Shira Scheindlin’s August ruling that stop-and-frisk is unconstitutional and city council legislation designating a monitor for the NYPD threaten to return New York to the age of passive policing and rising crime.

Bloomberg’s education policies get a more evenhanded treatment. “Bloomberg boasts that, since 2005, the high-school-graduation rate has risen by thirty-nine per cent and the dropout rate has been cut in half, to eleven per cent,” Auletta writes. “Critics counter that only thirty-four per cent of those who graduated in June of 2012 were considered ready for college or a job.” During his 12 years in office, Bloomberg increased education spending by as much as $40 billion. All the additional money has bought only minimal improvements in student test scores. Using the private-sector standard by which Bloomberg likes to be judged, his education reforms have failed.

Auletta has nothing but praise, though, for Bloomberg’s re-zoning policies—and with some justification. The mayor’s announcement that Cornell-Technion had won a bid to build a new applied sciences and technology campus on Roosevelt Island is rightly seen as a triumph of mayoral leadership. But Bloomberg’s embrace of crony capitalism—whether through his blunt use of eminent domain in the Willets Point and Bronx Terminal Market redevelopments or his emphasis on subsidies for megaprojects such as the Barclays Center—has encouraged interest groups, including public-sector unions, to expect a cut of the action. Under de Blasio—who would be the first Democrat in the mayor’s office since David Dinkins—they’ll likely get it. Supported by an ideologically friendly city council, de Blasio might well perpetuate the worst aspects of Bloomberg’s legacy and abandon the best.

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