There are many thoughts that fly through the mind when one has lunch with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, but here’s the one that comes up first: New Yorkers still talk at practically the speed of light. Hizzoner is the quintessential fast-talker; it’s a P90X workout for note-taking fingers. But Bloomberg would point out he had a lot of territory to cover in his 45 minutes before the Economic Club of Washington, and much of it had to do with skewering the capital city. The only politician to get some praise, apart from himself, was former President George W. Bush. The audience of local area business leaders paid close attention, occasionally chuckled or huzzahed, and even applauded. Since it was the government he was bashing, no one in the room took it too personally.
“I hope Washington gets its act together,” he said during the luncheon Wednesday afternoon at the Renaissance Hotel. “The USSR collapsed in two years.” Referring to the 2008 economic collapse, he said the nation already has gone over one cliff financially and is at the precipice of another, “and the world is not on our side.” He did say that in 2008, as “panic spread,” it was Bush who prevented financial collapse when, according to Bloomberg, he said to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, “‘Hank, let me worry about politics. You do what’s right.’ And that saved us. A good example of leadership.”
A dire tone prevailed throughout his remarks, which began with a reference to the Libya bombing that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his staff. Bloomberg called it “another tragic reminder” that there are still groups that want to take away American freedoms.
The after-effects and the lingering aura of terrorism were what consumed New York when Bloomberg first took office, only three months after the 9/11 attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, killing thousands. A Republican who became an Independent, he’s been reelected twice. While he’s down on Washington and what he considers its failure to solve the nation’s financial problems, he’s high on the progress he’s made in his own city. The predictions were that it would take decades for the city to recover from 9/11, but it has happened much faster. “For every job we’ve lost, we’ve added two more,” he said, noting that if the White House and Congress followed New York’s model, 12 million jobs would have been added nationwide.
“New York is the epicenter of the national financial recovery,” without help from Washington, Bloomberg said. “Cities have had to tackle their financial problems on their own due to a vacuum in Washington. The political crisis is standing in the way, and the blame goes to both parties at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.” Echoing the campaign theme of GOP candidate Mitt Romney, Bloomberg asked, “Are we better off than four years ago?” but called it the “wrong question.” He said, “The question is, ‘Are we as well off as we should be?’ The answer is no.”
Bloomberg then launched into an outline of four “key ways to align the economy,” following the so-called New York model.
- A comprehensive approach to improving the business environment, especially for entrepreneurs and small businesses. “Most new jobs come from entrepreneurs,” he said. He touted that his administration created a successful new government position: chief business operations officer.
- Infrastructure. He hit AMTRAK for taking profits from the busy Northeast corridor routes and using that money to subsidize poorly performing routes elsewhere, rather than investing in improvements in the overall system. The FAA was also a target. “We have the worst air congestion in the world,” he said. But he also said that funding infrastructure “is not a jobs program.” The jobs, especially for the middle class, had to be in addition to revitalization programs, because they have to last.
- Open new markets to investments and modify zoning requirements. Bloomberg said that in New York these measures resulted in new jobs. He mentioned that New York had opened tourism offices in more than a dozen countries, because tourism creates jobs back home. He relaxed zoning along New York’s waterfront, which created new development in reclaimed areas and thus jobs.
- Retool workers’ skill sets. The future is about training workers to compete in the global marketplace, where, he said, nearly every job requires analytical thinking, technological understanding, and computer skills. He challenged the public school systems—“we have to stop running our public schools for the people they employ rather than for the people they serve”—and lauded the programs of another state. “If you want to see the difference engineers and researchers can do for an economy, just look at North Carolina.” He said a number of Fortune 500 companies have moved there. “Talent attracts talent.”
While most of Bloomberg’s remarks were in the form of a speech, for the last fifteen minutes of his appearance he did a Q&A with the president of the Economic Club, David Rubenstein, cofounder of the Carlyle Group. The subject turned to legacy. How would Bloomberg like to be remembered? “He was a great mayor and was honest,” he said. To that he added a few accomplishments, including economic development, education reform, and, in particular, his aggressive health and nutrition measures that have been called the “nanny state.” Bloomberg is proud of going after fats and sugars and cigarettes. “Life expectancy in New York is now three years longer than in the [rest of the] nation.”
Bloomberg said, “Obesity is taking over as the biggest public health issue. It’s gone from being a rich person’s disease to a poor person’s disease.”
He knows exactly how many days he has left in office—476—and hopes “whoever comes after me will be a better mayor than I’ve been.” The billionaire politician said that when people ask him about public life, he replies, “If you want to go into government, first become a billionaire.” That well-worn crack drew a lot of laughter and applause. The same thing happened when Rubenstein asked Bloomberg whether when his term is up, he would consider moving to Washington and running for mayor of the District. Playing to his audience, Bloomberg replied, “I think all the votes I would get are in this room.”