Monday, December 13, 2010

The Celebrity Center

Small, orange, blisteringly uninterested in that outside his narrow billionaire's ken -- that's my Mayor. In his 19 (or so) years as NYC's chief executive, Mike Bloomberg has indeed proven himself to be one of your more efficient moderate Republicans, where moderate Republican is defined as "unstintingly pro-business in every way, but not a total jerk about women's issues and gay rights." New York is tough to govern, and he has indeed governed it, but he has also been roughly as poor as his demon-weasel predecessor at making the city a less shitty place in which to live if you're poor or non-white or take mass transit or send a kid to public schools or are a civil servant or are not a Manhattanite or are unfortunate enough to be living someplace where a real estate mega-developer wants to drop a Tampa-style luxury condo-turd. But he has also tried somewhat hard on the green building side of things, given boatloads to charity, painted down some bike lanes, and generally done the sort of things that might (have) convince a casual liberal on the Upper East Side that Bloomberg is the good kind of plutocrat.

Anyway, a liked-but-not-well-liked billionaire is nevertheless still a billionaire, which means that -- in addition to his invisible nuclear helicopter and lunchtime diamonds-and-kale salads and low, low taxes -- Mayor Bloomberg receives regular, gentle-but-affectionate HJ's from the political press, and is routinely bruited as a potential presidential candidate. New Yorkers are surely confused by all this, because -- while Bloomberg is indeed rich as hell -- he is about as poor a retail politician as one could imagine. And yet for those whose understanding of politics is based purely on anecdote and unofficial polls of like-minded buddies -- this underwhelming tranche of NYC's politi-thinkers, oddly, include New York Times political chief Matt Bai -- Bloomberg is indeed considered very viable. The reasoning, again, being that while he is indeed another billionaire prone to issuing all kinds of churlish plutocratical ridiculousnesses about the manifest riskiness of "scaring" money with regulation or taxation or punishment for massive systematic fraud or the other vicissitudes of life under the rule of law, Bloomberg is at least the kind of billionaire who is cool with gay people and not a total asshole about a woman's right to choose. Again: basically, Our Type of Rich Guy.

There are a decent number of other people out there like Bloomberg -- very rich men (and women) who are not total assholes, but still have some very self-serving ideas about Terrifying Deficits and corporate taxes -- and many of them live in New York City. The High Moderate Druids of the establishment press love these guys, both because a disappointingly large segment of The Culture At Large currently sports diamond-cutter boners for the super-wealthy and because Our Type of Rich Guy occupies the sort of valorous middle ground -- valorous because it is in the middle, not because it is readily defended in any coherent way -- between the imaginary revolutionary left (these guys, you mean?) and the tricorn-hat buttheads bellowing incoherences at George Washington impersonators in Colonial Williamsburg. If being capital-r Reasonable is the greatest and glibbest of rhetorical luxuries, then both Bloomberg (and, vicariously, his fluffers) get to enjoy the best of both worlds -- the security and influence of unassailable and well-defended mega-wealth, but also the ability to evince a casual-but-nuanced familiarity with sustainable development and charter schools and suchlike.

The term "limousine liberal" is tempting, here, but for the fact that 1) Bloomberg is Hydrogen-Powered Hovercraft Rich, not Limousine-With-Neon-Tubes-On-The-Interior rich and 2) Bloomberg's sort of facile social liberalism is essentially and only a pose when de-coupled from things economic. For instance, "sustainable development" means nothing when the city has essentially ceded zoning decisions to mega-developers, and ceded its own right to demand concessions in re: affordable housing from those developers; do that and go to war with the city's public workers, turn the public schools into laboratories for glib market-forces cynicism, and etc. and it doesn't matter how many trees you plant or where you ban smoking -- you're on your way to a city that does not make sense, is not healthy and which is impossible to live in for all but the very wealthy. But of course economic stuff is tough to report upon and understand, and style and pose is easy to report upon, and most people care more about style than they do about civil servants or public schools or whatever. SEO strategy certainly dictates as much.

And so we got, Monday, something called No Labels, which is a sort of third party dedicated to Non-partisanship and Centrism and Civility and finding a less stridently dickish way to argue for cutting taxes on the rich and loosening regulation across the board in order to free the power of the market and so barfily on. Michael Bloomberg, burnt-umber prince of the city and very wealthy dude, is probably one of the group's anonymous wealthy donors, and definitely high on its masthead -- alongside actual idiot Joe Scarborough and noxiously reasonable animate custard Evan Bayh.

And if Bloomberg is there, then the New York Times' poignantly besotted civility-flogging Bai is also there. Here is what Bai wrote about No Labels on Monday, in a piece that's redolent with a wish for a Bloomberg presidential run in 2012 and rife with what Jonathan Bernstein, who knows a lot about this sort of thing, describes as a boatload of basic misunderstandings and errors on Bai's part. Guh ahead, Bai-bee:

Mr. Bloomberg brought some star power to the inaugural No Labels convention at Columbia University, which also featured speakers like Joe Scarborough, Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida and a smattering of congressmen and senators. No Labels aspires to become a counterweight to ideological groups like and the Tea Party movement — a network of activists devoted to pushing politicians from both parties toward a nonpartisan consensus on vital issues.

...No Labels was created by two Washington consultants, the Democratic fund-raiser Nancy Jacobson and the Republican image-shaper Mark McKinnon, and its slick opening event featured throngs of journalists, free boxed lunches and a song written for the occasion by the pop sensation Akon. The group’s slogan, printed on T-shirts and banners, summarizes its purpose this way: “Not left. Not right. Forward.”

There's more, but honestly that's probably good enough. Not since Jon Stewart's Everyone Chill Out Knowingly Rally (feat. John Legend) has a dimmer message been more successfully narrowcasted at media types and no-fucking-one else, and so it wouldn't be surprising if this -- like Stewart's impassioned urgings that all those unemployed people and war widows just please calm down about Juan Williams for a minute -- sunk into a quick and richly deserved anonymity. But it also wouldn't be surprising if it didn't -- the lure of A Billionaire We Can Believe In is stronger now than ever -- Bai, and others, evidently believe that a shorter, more moderate and notably un-charming version of Obama, albeit one with a better helicopter, would heighten the debate and perhaps save our nation from deficits. You know, because Bloomberg knows business and creates jobs himself and so on.

Ridiculous, I think -- Bloomberg has done fairly well at his government hobby, but there are no lessons for the rest of the nation in Bloomberg's NYC, just a slightly softened micro-scale version of the nation's troubling broader trends and some better-than-average bars. But if a true-blue charlatan like Pete Peterson can see his self-serving lifelong obsession become a real and Serious thing like the Presidential Deficit Commission, Bloomberg and Them might hang around for a few more news cycles. There really is a media elite, although it's not the kind that haunts Glenn Beck's moist night terrors. It's something far scarier -- fatuous celebrity columnists whose hard-ons for prestige and wealth are paired with both a desperate wish to appear reasonable and a sad, suffocating lack of interest in what might actually be reasonable in times like these.

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