The billionaire’s dangerous ego

Below, I’ll list 4 political positions. Maybe you can give me the person behind the positions:

  • Pro-choice
  • Believes in man-made climate change
  • Supports gun control
  • Supports path to citizenship for law-abiding illegal immigrants

“Hey,” you’re thinking. “That sounds a lot like Obama. Or Hillary Clinton. Or Bernie Sanders.” You’d be right. It also sounds a lot like former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. But this is admittedly an incomplete list.

Suppose you’re a voter who agrees with those 4 positions. But somehow, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton just aren’t cutting it as candidates on all the issues. In particular, you wish that they’d take it easier on Wall Street banks and that they’d try to cut Social Security benefits.

Oh? Such a voter doesn’t exist? Are you sure? Because I just read that Michael Bloomberg is considering a White House run.

The billionaire former mayor believes that he is the answer to the country’s problems, “sensing an opening.” Despite largely having liberal positions and thus making himself unpalatable to any conservative voter, he believes that he, through his “pragmatic” and “results-oriented” approach (terms to be investigated later), is the right man for the job. The few areas of disagreement with liberals, like the regulation of Wall Street and the future of Social Security, show him as out of touch and beholden to bad ideas endorsed by Washington insiders.

Speaking at a financial industry trade group conference in 2014, Bloomberg claimed that the harsh regulations on Wall Street were detrimental to Main Street. He noted, however, that: “But they keep creating new products and you know the earnings of these big banks…they’re still making a lot of money.” Typical of Bloomberg, he did not actually debate the necessity of Dodd-Frank, but he argued that that it should have been drafted by “experts” rather than allow Congress to write it. He applied the same logic to Obamacare. It seems he is free to live in a world where a president introduces a piece of legislation and gets it passed without any substantial changes, when virtually every Republican was opposed to both Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act. Furthermore, Obamacare and Dodd-Frank did incorporate ideas of experts. For any healthcare legislation to expand insurance without changing the system to single-payer, it requires exactly what Obamacare put into law: a requirement that people purchase insurance, a subsidy so that they may purchase the insurance, and denying insurance companies the right to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions. It was based on another model, which again was designed by experts in healthcare: see Jonathan Gruber and Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

It’s also not clear what Bloomberg would change with Dodd-Frank. There is no doubt that it is an imperfect bill, but like Obamacare, it is a product of realistic constraints: no Republican (save for Scott Brown for Dodd-Frank, helping the bill pass 60-39 after watering it down) would support it, and even many moderate Democrats were intent on watering down the bill.

Bloomberg’s criticisms are short on substance, but implicit in them is the dangerous idea he has fully bought into: I could do it better, because I’m me. There’s ignorance of constraints and a willingness to believe that if he just was able to talk to Congress unlike that dastardly Obama, he would get things done.

This is similar to the “Obama should play golf with Boehner more in order to pass legislation despite serious ideological differences” theory espoused by many “centrists”: in Bloomberg’s mind, there’s no serious disagreement on the big issues of the day, but instead the polarization is just a result of leaders not being “pragmatic” and “results-oriented”. This could not be further from the truth.

Michael Bloomberg’s entire third term is a testament to his belief in himself and no one else. Amidst the financial crisis and the economic downturn, he did not feel the city could be governed by anyone else, and he used the extraordinary circumstances to push the New York City Council to change its term limits without a public referendum.

For whatever reason, some people buy into the “centrist” line of thinking. Krugman writes in his recent blog post, How To Make Donald Trump President:

Step 2: Michael Bloomberg decides to save the country by entering the race as a supposed alternative to the two extremes [. . .] Step 3: Some Democrats defect to Bloomberg, because they actually listen to those centrist pundits. Hardly any Republicans do

In other words, a presidential run would not be enough to get anywhere close to winning, but it would be enough to deprive the Democratic candidate of a victory, thus giving Trump or Cruz (or whoever) the presidency.

The party system may have its flaws, but it does give voters the chance to debate for over a year the merits of individual candidates before nominating them and then voting for them in the general election. The problem with a rich independent candidate is he has none of those constraints: he runs much later than everyone else, because he can afford to. Credit to Trump: he went through the process, whereas Bloomberg seems intent on skipping it.

There are many reasons to dislike Bloomberg and oppose his idea of a White House run based purely on his mayoral record: his response to Occupy Wall Street, his catering to big banks, and his catering to rich foreigners buying up empty properties in NYC as essentially money-laundering schemes (quote: “If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend.”). There’s his company, Bloomberg  L.P., which pulled negative stories on China’s government in order to continue selling profitable terminal subscriptions there (recently, there were rumors that the Financial Times would not be sold to Bloomberg for fear of losing editorial independence).

There’s also the fact that the same guy thinking about running for president in the United States was also thinking about running for mayor of London just last year. And, in floating the idea of a presidential bid, he doesn’t even have the courage to do it himself. He’s letting his aides and insiders test the waters instead. He probably thought the response would be positive.

But more than anything, the reason to dislike Bloomberg and oppose his potential bid is his ego, which is fundamentally similar to Trump’s. Trump is a self-proclaimed dealmaker (synonyms: “results-oriented”, “pragmatic”). Details aren’t so important, but he’ll get it done, whatever “it” is. The issues are almost of a secondary order. Bloomberg doesn’t even realize his run would hand the White House to another billionaire with opposing views on many of the issues he claims to care about, like gun control.

The lack of self-awareness amongst billionaires like Bloomberg is scary. I imagine one begins to think he has a magic touch, and there are few in the inner circle willing to contradict this belief. Hopefully the negative response to Bloomberg’s possible run pierces his bubble.

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