»  National Review Online

January 7th, 2003

  Traveling Without a Map


What a peculiar thing human intelligence is! I spent the first half of 2002 hobnobbing with professional mathematicians — academic researchers in (I believe) the most intellectually challenging of all scholarly disciplines, people who dwell way out in the skinny furthest right-hand tail of the bell curve. These folk are smart. I had to keep asking them to repeat themselves. Even trying very hard, and with a decent background in their subject, I simply could not follow their thought processes much of the time.

I used to get the same feeling on Wall Street, where I had my last job. (I mean, real job.) There I mingled daily with people who made their living in bond trading — which means, they spent their working hours manipulating extremely sophisticated kinds of I.O.U.s. These folk were really smart, too. I used to dread having to go down to the trading floor to talk to the guys at the sharp end of that business. I could never understand what they were trying to tell me. I'd be sitting there with my notepad trying to look interested while some 25-year-old trader with a telephone on hold in one ear was saying: "See, Derb, the basic deal here is a forward rate agreement covering the asset swap I showed you, with the downside risk hedged by reversing in a bunch of 8½ Fannie Maes on a three per cent haircut …" And I'd be thinking: Is it lunchtime yet?

There are, of course, important differences between mathematicians and bond traders. Most obviously, there is the matter of remuneration. A full professor in a department of mathematics at a U.S. university makes about $80,000 per annum on salary, plus any scraps he can glean from writing textbooks. He is most likely over 40 years old. My 25-year-old bond trader earns ten times that. Some kinds of smarts are just more marketable than others. It's not fair, but that's how the world is.

One thing is the same, though: these kinds of intelligence are both narrowly focused. A mathematician or a bond trader is no more likely to have sensible, interesting, well-thought-out opinions about matters beyond his professional sphere than a plumber, a store-keeper or a movie actor. To attempt to engage a bond trader in talk about anything unrelated to asset swaps and Fannie Maes is to step off a precipice. To inquire of an algebraic topologist what he thinks are the prospects for peace in the Mideast is to meet disillusion face to face. Inhabitants of the far-right tail of the IQ bell curve may actually have stupider opinions than ordinary citizens. As a wise commentator has noted:

It seems to me, in fact, that political stupidity is a special kind of stupidity, not well correlated with other kinds. At the very highest levels of intelligence, the correlation may actually be inverse: the more brilliant you are, the dumber your politics. Albert Einstein seems to have thought well of Stalin; Hitlerism got its first mass following in the highly-selective German universities. And think — without smiling, if you can — of the barmy political programs that issued forth, with such confidence, from Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Norman Mailer and other members of the mid-20th-century preposterentsia, as exposed in withering detail in Paul Johnson's book Intellectuals.

All of which brings us to Michael Bloomberg. The Mayor of New York is undoubtedly a very intelligent man. You don't make the kind of fortune Bloomberg has made without a very well-toned brain, not even on Wall Street. (Though I think it is much easier to do it on Wall Street than elsewhere.) The conviction is growing on me, though, that Mayor Mike is the stupidest politician in America.

Consider, for example, the following news item.

January 4, 2003 — Mayor Bloomberg said yesterday that he favors blanket amnesty for illegal aliens in the United States. "There are things the city has to provide and because they don't have papers and they're here illegally, they don't interact with city government and you do want them to interact with city government," the mayor said on his weekly radio show. "There was a movement just before 9/11. George W. Bush wanted to have a law passed, do an amnesty," Bloomberg added. "Let's tighten the borders. Make everybody that's here already a citizen — whether it's fair or not. Just solve the problem."

"There was a movement just before 9/11 …" Yes, there was. Now, think carefully, Mike. Why did that movement not continue beyond 9/11? Could it be something to do with the fact that the 9/11 horrors were carried out by people who had gamed U.S. immigration laws? With the fact that, as the Center for Immigration Studies says, "Illegal aliens have taken part in almost every major attack on American soil perpetrated by Islamist terrorists"? And with the fact that, when these things became known, the American public went into a mood deeply unreceptive to talk about amnesty for illegal aliens?

"Just solve the problem." What problem? The problem that illegals "don't interact with city government"? What does that mean? That New York City has employees sitting idle because illegal aliens are afraid to call on the services they provide? That the city has welfare funds they are unable to disburse because illegals are afraid to claim them? These are problems?

New York City actually does have problems, very serious problems. The 9/11 attacks wiped out twenty per cent of the city's downtown office space — 16 million square feet. Firms are fleeing the city, with the encouragement of their clients, and of the federal government, which is nervous about so much of the nation's wealth being managed from one small and vulnerable district. The stock market slide has caused a further cratering, with Wall Street jobs down eight per cent since 1999. That 25-year-old bond trader has moved to Houston. His tailor, his restaurateur, his dentist and his real-estate agent are short of a customer, in fact of many customers. The city faces a deficit of $3.5 billion in the fiscal year starting this July. Crime is rising, the city public schools are bedlams of illiteracy and violence, rent control creates a housing market with a top and a bottom but no middle, city hospitals are run by the porters' unions, and the streets are filling up with vagrants. Meanwhile, the city has a civil service work force one-seventh the size of Uncle Sam's. And Bloomberg is worried that wetbacks aren't getting their welfare checks! He thinks this is a problem!

This bizarre sense of proportion about what New York City's problems actually are is entirely characteristic of Bloomberg's mayoral style. His most-publicized initiative to date has been to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. Now, this may be a thing worth doing, considered strictly on its own merits. However, for the Mayor to throw his weight behind it the way Bloomberg did, when his weight was so desperately needed elsewhere, was political stupidity on a breathtaking scale. The banning of smoking in bars, to the microscopic degree that it is relevant at all to the city's towering problems, is a net negative, as it will further discourage visitors from less puritanical regions (i.e. everywhere on earth, except Mecca and California) from spending any time, or money, in Mayor Bloomberg's domain.

The accelerating catastrophe of Mike Bloomberg's mayoralty demonstates an important large truth about politics: to do any good in the public sphere, you need a map, with a small number of key destinations clearly marked, and some definite idea how to get to them. You need, in other words, some goals, and a philosophy to justify them and help you attain them. That's not all you need, of course. You also need other things. Vanity, for example. Politics is one of those activities, like body-building and dancing, that you can only get right if you spend a lot of time watching yourself in the mirror. Bloomberg's bid for the mayoralty was sneered at as a "vanity campaign." That was unfair at the time, since every political campaign needs a fair component of vanity. It doesn't look so unfair in retrospect, though, as it is now all too clear that in Bloomberg's case, the desire to be Mayor was driven by nothing but vanity. He didn't want to be Mayor in order to do this, that, or the other. He just wanted to be Mayor, period.

We know why Ronald Reagan ran for President of the United States: he wished to reduce taxation, shrink the federal government, and defeat the U.S.S.R. We know why Rudy Giuliani ran for Mayor of New York: he wished the city to be clean, safe and prosperous. These were men with strong philosophies and clear goals, along with the other qualities — including, of course, vanity — required for success in politics. Bill Clinton, by contrast, was a politician without goals, other than the satisfaction of his own fleshly appetites. (His wife, who does have goals — she wants to turn the U.S.A. into Denmark — is a much more impressive politician.)

Even Clinton, though, was a heavyweight compared with Mike Bloomberg. There is a desperate need to balance the city's books? All Bloomberg can think of is to raise property taxes 18 per cent, making business and living conditions in the city 18 per cent more impossible. Reduce city spending? "Well, we've reduced the rate of growth of spending." Cut the city workforce? "We have cut as much as I believe we can." (There have been no cuts.) The city has a mountain — a veritable continent — of long-term debt? Oh, well, a few billion more in bond issues won't notice, then.

The Mike Bloomberg mayoralty fiasco shows that political imbecility is by no means restricted to imbeciles, it is surprisingly common at the highest levels of intelligence and worldly attainment. What a Russian would call the Bloombergshchina shows also that success in politics is nothing whatsoever like success in business. "Just solve the problem …" Yes: but first, have some understanding of where the problem resides in the hierarchy of problems, and how relevant it is to the large general goals you had in mind when you campaigned for the job. If you had any.