The fundamental problem with Bloomberg is that he believes billionaire nonsense
Michael Bloomberg at the Alfred E. Smith dinner in 2014.
- Michael Bloomberg has a history of believing the kind of nonsense billionaires tell themselves to make their complicated business dealings and powerful impact on society simpler to rationalize.
- The nonsense Bloomberg has believed range from placing blame for the financial crisis on poor people, to insisting Chinese President Xi Jinping is not a dictator.
- As voters, we need to know if Bloomberg is willing to let go of this nonsense to represent his constituency.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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The biggest problem with Michael Bloomberg as a presidential candidate, and possibly as president, is that he believes "billionaire nonsense."
By that I mean he believes the fables that come with being a person in his social position - his position of power. These are the stories wealthy and powerful people tell each other to absolve themselves of culpability for things that have gone horribly wrong in society. At best they simplify things that are in fact complicated. Most of these fables are told for commercial convenience.
We've seen a few examples of Bloomberg's belief in billionaire nonsense come to the forefront of his campaign already, like his stumbling apologies for the stop and frisk policy he ramped up as Mayor of New York City.
But Bloomberg's belief in billionaire nonsense goes far beyond that, and has wide-reaching implications for a presidential hopeful. In the past, he's blamed the financial crisis on the end of redlining, said that Chinese President Xi Jinping is not a dictator, and made comments about Vladimir Putin's regime that sounded eerily like Kremlin talking points.
All of these misconceptions are various kinds of billionaire nonsense, and it is crucial that Bloomberg explain whether or not he still believes any of it because - like it or not - he's a serious contender. His team is made up of some of the savviest operators in the business, he's been pumping millions into the election, and the Democratic nomination is still anyone's game.
And so we need to be realistic about Bloomberg as a candidate - both his strengths and faults.
As mayor he ran a tight ship, a clean city, but one that became more and more inhospitable to the middle class the longer he ran it. As a citizen he's a long time supporter of causes that will improve our democracy, like gun control and expanded voting rights. Plus the man genuinely wants to do something about climate change.
That said, not all billionaires believe their own class' nonsense as Bloomberg has repeatedly. The ones who do are telling you something about themselves. They're telling you that they prefer to believe fictions that make life easier - that make their sense of responsibility lighter - because they can then deny the power that money gives to people in their class. And they can deny how they can cause harm with that power.
Bloomberg has, on several occasions, chosen to take the comfortable way, believing nonsense instead of facing these harder realities. This is not a good quality for a president.
Some billionaire nonsense is racist and classist
The clumsiest and most obvious of the billionaire nonsense that Bloomberg has bought into comes with a helping of racism.
As a billionaire Mayor who eschewed the mayor's typical residence, Gracie Mansion, for his townhouses in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Michael Bloomberg had little interaction with people in neighborhoods targeted by stop and frisk. So he believed the people who told him that harassing young men on the street would lower crime rates.
For that he has apologized, which is a promising sign.
As a billionaire founder of a technology and information company that serves the financial industry, Bloomberg didn't want to acknowledge that his former colleagues or clients caused the financial crisis. Instead of blaming it on them, people with actual power, he took the billionaire nonsense way out. He blamed it on the poor by saying that eliminating the practice of redlining - in which banks discriminated against people of color seeking loans - created the crisis.
It did not. Wall Street caused the financial crisis. On one side the financial industry sold poor quality mortgage loans and on the other side it lied about the quality of those loans-turned-securities. It then traded those loans back and forth around the world causing a gigantic mess of toxic assets. It seems needless to say, poor people can't do things like that.
But Bloomberg has spent his life doing business on Wall Street. And when you do business on Wall Street, and the whole entire world is mad at you for destroying the economy, it's a lot easier to blame someone else. So that's what a lot of Wall Street did. Instead of taking responsibility they blamed the poor, Congress, borrowers, anyone else. Bloomberg did it too, and that's a problem when we're looking for a leader to combat the economic inequalities we face today.
Some billionaire nonsense can threaten national security
Every now and again on Wall Street you hear a billionaire say something fawning about an authoritarian leader. Invariably, it's because they have done, or may do, business in that country. Sometimes they've done business directly with the authoritarian or their associates.
Because of that business relationship, the billionaire will then convince themselves that they have special information about what's "really going on" in this authoritarian's country - that the prevailing narrative about oppression is misconceived. They will then carry that information back to their fellow power brokers in the United States and voila, that authoritarian has a useful spokesperson in America.
We've seen billionaire Ray Dalio, the founder of hedge fund Bridgewater, do this. Last year he rationalized the Chinese Communist Party's encroaching national surveillance and social credit system as a part of Chinese "culture."
We've seen JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon do this. This year at Davos he extolled the virtues of the Communist Party's ability to tell businesses what to make and when.
Bloomberg has also fallen in this trap.
In September, Bloomberg said Chinese President Xi Jinping is not a dictator - despite the fact that Xi has made himself president for life and the fact that the Chinese Communist party has crushed any opposition in the country for the better part of a century. It's worth noting that Bloomberg has worked closely with Chinese officials, and his news organization has come under fire for killing stories that would expose and discomfort the country's elites.
And then we saw it again in comments from 2015 recently resurfaced by the Washington Post in which Bloomberg offered an eyebrow-raising response to Putin's annexation of Crimea, a part of Ukraine, that sounded like they were lifted straight from Kremlin talking points:
"I was talking to somebody the other day about Russia, and nobody thinks that Russia should be in the Ukraine and trying to take land in an independent sovereign country...
Except, if you really think about it, what would America do if we had a contiguous country where a lot of people in that country wanted to be Americans. Texas and California ring a bell? We just went and took it. I'm not suggesting that Putin's doing a good thing or that it should be allowed. But we did this. That was 200 years ago, but we did it."
It is no longer the 1800s. And the idea Russia as an expanding "contiguous" country would probably upset anyone from say Germany, or Finland. Bloomberg is using false equivalences - or "whataboutism," a Kremlin specialty - to justify Russian aggression. It's hard to say where he could've picked up the idea, but it certainly makes you wonder who's been in his ear.
And some billionaire nonsense is about success itself
What we need to know, as voters, is how deeply Bloomberg believes all of the billionaire nonsense he's floated in years past, and how willing he is to let it to influence his policy decisions.
There are some signs Bloomberg is over some of it. On Tuesday his campaign released its plan to reform Wall Street. It doesn't go as far as more aggressive plans from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but Bloomberg's plan does tighten regulation.
It seeks to raise the money banks have to keep on hand in case of emergencies, curb proprietary trading, for example, reinstate reporting on systemic risks, create a corporate crime division of the Justice Department, and reinvigorate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
These are all good things, but there is too much nonsense being floated by Bloomberg's campaign to take the change to heart for now.
On Sunday, one of Bloomberg's surrogates, Tim O'Brien, explained away the 40 lawsuits filed against Bloomberg and/or his organizations, the majority of which deal with discrimination over gender, race, disability status, and pregnancy status, by trying to make them seem normal - by saying they're just something someone with large organizations has to deal with.
This is the explanation we've been hearing from Bloomberg's spokespeople in his defense for some time now. But it's classic billionaire nonsense - success and lawsuits needn't go hand in hand.
The last thing this country needs right now is someone in charge whose inclination is to rationalize ways to keep power in the hands of the already powerful. That's what billionaire nonsense does. If Mike Bloomberg can get over that, great. But let's be real, it's hard for anyone to get over their own nonsense.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).
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