King Mike 1st of New York City
New York City, Nov. 4, 2009 -- Today Michael Bloomberg will be elected to his third term as Mayor of New York City, even though New York passed a law as recently as the 1990s forbidding any future two-term mayor from running for a third term.
The "people" cannot be accused of flip-flopping: this time, they were not consulted. The City Council voted on the people's behalf to change the people's minds for them – the Council over-rode the two-term limit for mayors.
A plausible interpretation for this legislative reversal, repeated in many newspapers and blogs, was that a billionaire politician had bought enough influence to dictate policy to City Council. It was pointed out, for example, that many Councilpersons could expect in coming years to see some of their favorite causes showered by largess from the immensely well-endowed Bloomberg Foundation.
Now, the question arises: is this not a slap in the face of “democracy”? A group of elected oligarchs gets together to rewrite the law, which had been voted on by the entire people, just to guarantee the continued power of one rich man.
So here are just a few of the many profitable observations and lessons to be derived from this remarkable incident:
1. America is not a democracy – The Founding Father made this abundantly clear in their founding documents, most particularly in the Federalist Papers and in James Madison’s account of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Fathers evaluated and compared democratic and republican forms of government and emphatically rejected the democratic one. The history of our strangely-contradictory current understanding of the word “democracy” – which is now meant to encompass republican forms of government – is further set forth in my book Red Genes Blue Genes.
2. It must be huge fun to be a powerful politician – Michael Bloomberg can do anything he wants with his time. He could spend his days yachting, writing his memoirs, practicing yoga, sleeping with beautiful models, making movies. He can do anything in the world that money permits you to do, and in our global capitalist society, that’s a hell of a lot of things. Of all of the things in the world that he chose to do with his vast wealth, it seems that being the Mayor of New York City was his favorite. Not only that, he became so attached to the position, like Frodo to the Ring, that it became difficult for him to part with it. So he then spent a huge amount of money to re-write the law so he could continue being mayor.
From which I deduce: it must be way, way fun to be mayor. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the world’s No. 1 box office star for years. When he got tired of that he became a politician. New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine was worth a couple of hundred million dollars after retiring from Wall Street. Now he’s addicted to a different kind of heroin, one that costs fifty million dollars a hit: political power.
3. Many voters are attracted to rich politicians -- How is it that we have arrived at elective plutocracy? While the matter is more complex in other nations, it is beyond doubt that in the U.S., social worth is measured purely in monetary terms. In the U.S., a rich person is presumed to have done something. More than that -- the rich person has done something rather hard to do, which everybody else is also trying to do. How dumb can he/she be? – the voters seem to be asking themselves. “He’s earned 5 billion and I can’t even pay this year’s taxes. The dude must be smart.”
This is not to say that you can’t be rich and unpleasant – Ross Perot, John Kerry and Steve Forbes come to mind. Wealth is a huge advantage that can nonetheless be overcome if your personality is awkward enough; e.g., if you come across as “rich douchebag.” However, more often than not, wealth is a powerful enhancer of popularity. In America, being rich is not a political liability. Obviously, it gives you access to campaign funds that other people don’t have – you can just spend your own money, as Bloomberg does. Just as importantly, however, in the wars of popular perception, wealth gives you that extra appearance of cool and competence.
4. Cognitive psychologists have established that we are all biased. Everybody is biased. Our principal bias is to prefer anything that enhances our personal or group self-esteem. We like ourselves and we like the groups we belong to, and we tend to act in ways that promote the interests of our in-groups, even if it means harming the interests of other out-groups.
In other words, we all naturally tend to confer our support on "people like us," and withhold our support from people who are hugely different (or in technical parlance, "weird").
Rich politicians will on average tend to favor legislation that benefits other rich people.
To cover their tracks (they didn't get rich by being stupid), they will ostentatiously do the opposite from time to time – but don’t be fooled. Like murder, bias will out.
Over time, our government becomes a reverse Robin Hood: it robs from the poor to aggrandize the rich.
5. One example: The entire world has recently been bankrupted by the incompetence of financial speculators. The financial speculators have raided the treasuries of their governments to re-establish their wealth. Banks are now paying huge bonuses again. Meanwhile, manufacturers and home owners have absorbed the loss from the financially-induced recession.
What would be worst possible way to effect justice under such a scenario?
That’s right: elect a lot of former financial speculators to positions of power.