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Michael Bloomberg: Smirking Id of America’s Elites

He says he's 'fiscally conservative and socially liberal.' What that amounts to is dehumanizing authoritarianism.
Hudson River Park Annual Gala - Arrivals

Thank God for former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Where would we be without him? Probably all smoking in bars, as opposed to the much healthier things we do there now, like stare at our smartphones and not talk to each other. And of course, we all know someone who was subsisting solely on canned soup until Bloomberg blessed us with his public health campaign against salt.

Now Bloomberg is running for president, and his years of behaving like a crossing guard drunk on the power of his reversible stop sign have come back to haunt him. The stupid and demeaning remarks unearthed from the Bloomberg vault in recent days include attacks on African Americans, attacks on the elderly, attacks on gun owners, attacks on civil libertarians, attacks on women, more attacks on women, and attacks on farmers. What these comments have in common is that they’re elitist. And not just elitist, but purest-grade, paternalistically elitist, unchecked by the usual manners and political correctness that are supposed to govern Upper East Side prejudices. Bloomberg just says this stuff, then sets about codifying it through petty rules. He’s the mirror image of Donald Trump, only whereas Trump is our most unfiltered voice of populism, Bloomberg is the smirking id of our imperious elites.

Bloomberg is best known for that aforementioned ban on smoking in bars, and since government can never just stop on square one, New York promptly followed it up with a raise in the smoking age, a ban on smoking in all parks and beaches, and a ban on flavored e-cigarettes. This crusade, Bloomberg assured us back in 2002, would be lightly felt, since 80 percent of New Yorkers didn’t smoke. Still, that leaves the other 20 percent, and a stroll through Manhattan at dusk reveals their demographic: poor, largely immigrant, bartenders and servers and dishwashers, people who have tougher job descriptions than “mumbling, lace curtain-born billionaire.” Bloomberg’s paternalism holds that these people are too stupid to decide for themselves whether to light up. He’s like Alderman Cute in Dickens’ story The Chimes, pompously lecturing the lower orders about the empirical hazards of eating tripe.

Bloomberg holds many trademarks, but his most familiar one is his almost child-like regard for himself. He’s impossible to picture without a Simpsons-style “MAYOR” sash slung across his chest. An ego of that size was never going to be satisfied just dictating to smokers. And so among the endless other things that Bloomberg banned as mayor, according to a list compiled by Gizmodo, were trans-fats, Big Gulps, Styrofoam food packaging, collecting grass clippings at certain times of the year, black roofs, and non-energy-efficient taxis. Naturally he lowered the speed limit in some parts of the city. Naturally, too, his administration contemplated cracking down on bars and liquor stores (having been robbed of smoke breaks, service workers must also be deprived of jobs), only to magnanimously back off that initiative.

All of this was done in the name of “public health,” that gelatinous euphemism under which can fall everything from bans on private rhinoceros ownership to forced labor camps. Yet whose health was being protected exactly? That depends, as always, on the caprices of the man in charge. So while the respiratory health of bartenders was deemed a crisis, the mental health of those living near East 34th Street in Manhattan was less important. That was where Bloomberg was caught violating noise regulations by landing his private helicopter in the middle of the day. Repeatedly. Eight times in one weekend. After he’d already made a point of cracking down on noise pollution. That’s all the proof you need that Bloomberg’s reign was more about class snobbery than the rule of law. The rules apply only to the little people, not the embryo-potentate sniggering while he eases off the throttle.

In order to (inconsistently) enforce this labyrinth of red tape, Bloomberg effectively turned the police into a task force on petty vice, sending them to write up people for harmless offenses (a move their union loudly protested). In a 2004 piece for Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens set out on a crime spree across New York where he tried to break as many of these enforced regulations as possible. This meant not just lighting up in a bar, but sitting on a milk crate ($105 fine for a Bronx man), feeding pigeons (summons for an 86-year-old), and riding a bike without both feet on the pedals. Strangely, though considered crimes against humanity in Bloombergistan, these particular infractions had nothing to do with public health. What they did have to do with was fines, which were then used to fill city coffers, authoritarianism in the service of deficit cutting. This enabled Bloomberg to boast about his fiscal responsibility even as he presided over a hefty expansion of the city’s budget.

And it’s here that we approach the heart of the Bloomberg ethos, as well as a crucial distinction in our politics. Bloomberg is the opposite of a libertarian, yet he defines himself as a “fiscal conservative and social liberal.” Often confused, these two terms are fundamentally different. Libertarianism is concerned with the liberty and dignity of the individual, whereas “fiscal conservative and social liberal” has less philosophical connective tissue. Under its shotgun marriage of terms, “social liberal” can mean, as Bloomberg once told a pregnant subordinate, “kill it,” while “fiscal conservative” can mean reducing people to piggy banks in order to feed finances. What links them is the flowchart. Children are bad for efficiency; so are smokers, drinkers, and fast food diners. This is the ideology of the corporate boardroom. It’s dehumanizing, in that it flattens people into mere budget figures and values of life expectancy.

Bloomberg’s politics, then, aren’t concerned with tradition or liberty or autonomy or community. What matters is that you sit up straight, put down the Big Mac, and get ready to maximize your contribution to the GDP, your own circumstances and desires be damned. The fiscal becomes the moral. Thus does Bloomberg defend Wall Street because it’s “our tax base.” Thus does he support new taxes on the poor precisely because it will change their behavior. Thus does he think we ought to deny urgent medical care to the elderly because it’s too expensive. And we haven’t even gotten to his other infringements on those with less power than he, like the African Americans who were stopped and frisked over a hundred times under his mayorship (worthy of a piece all its own) or the protesters illegally rounded up at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Now another target has fallen into Bloomberg’s sights: coal workers. Here in my home market of Washington, D.C., Bloomberg is running commercials in which he boasts about his plan to shut down every coal plant in the country. A brief snippet from the ad shows Trump at a rally wearing a miner’s helmet and making a goofy face while a crowd cheers him on. The implication is clear: coal is backwards and those who embrace it are suckers and rubes.

Most progressives who rail against fossil fuels at least make some attempt to empathize with the laborers their schemes would displace (think the Obama-era attempt at a “blue-green alliance,” for example). Not Bloomberg. It’s that callous indifference that makes him truly unique. I’d sooner vote for a stalk of celery with googly-eyes attached (not that one would be able to tell the difference). Here’s a question: can those of us who think the national debt is a genuine problem find a way to curtail it without becoming similarly cold-blooded? And another one: are the Democrats really so desperate to beat Trump that they would nominate this little mechanical pencil of a man?