Opinion

The loathsome prospect of a Bloomberg presidency

Ready for government by machine learning?

Michael Bloomberg.

After many years of manful effort to see how it could possibly be otherwise, I have become convinced that Michael Bloomberg is not, in fact, an algorithm. The former mayor of New York City is an all-too-real 76-year-old billionaire moderate Republican who just happens to believe all the things that a computer programed to outrage right-wing anti-nanny staters and well-meaning liberals alike would line up behind.

Equally real, it appears, are Bloomberg's long-rumored presidential ambitions. It looks increasingly likely that he is going to run for president in 2020, presumably as a Democrat. Is it too much to hope for that in a hypothetical contest between two billionaires we could get some kind of gentlemen's agreement to suspend all presidential fundraising? This faint possibility is the only heartening thing about the prospect of Bloomberg's return to politics.

In theory I like the idea of defending Bloomberg against knee-jerk libertarians. He has an agreeably no-nonsense attitude towards state intervention in the economy and other spheres of human activity — indeed, he understands, unlike virtually all of his fellow Republicans, that the state does not randomly irrupt within some kind of prelapsarian economy, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The world in which we live, including the prosperity some of us enjoy, is the result of conditions that would not exist without a long history. "Crony capitalism" is a myth: The "government" is the reason there is such a thing as the "economy."

Unfortunately, in practice what this wisdom means for Bloomberg is the cooperation of the state with capital in order to bring about the flourishing of high finance and real estate interests and to secure the comfort and safety of those enriched by such activity. He would bring the indomitable machinery of the state to bear upon such pressing questions as whether soda may be purchased in a 20 vs. 24 oz. container, but he is otherwise inclined to let Wall Street do whatever it likes. Nothing he has ever said about climate change or gun control, the two issues about which he has been most outspoken in recent years, has convinced me that he actually cares about rising temperatures or the rate of firearm homicides; rather, it is the crushing, tedious weight of expert opinion that is in itself a justification for the rightness of these policies, independent of the ipso facto desirability of living in a world in which it's not really hot all the time, where fewer people kill each other with guns.

When it comes to his own political record his comments point at a refreshingly undisguised nihilism. Asked by The New York Times whether there were "any civil rights problems" with the stop-and-frisk policing of his administration, he responded that "the courts found that there were not. That's the definition." Is it? Only if you think that phrases like "civil rights" are essentially content free and that there is no such thing as an unpunished crime. Imagine applying this standard to the career of Harvey Weinstein, who has not, so far, been convicted of sexual assault.

As it happens, there is every reason to think Bloomberg would make the same determination then. In the interview with the Times he said that he expressed skepticism of the accusations leveled at Charlie Rose, eliding the question of whether he found the charges credible with some Boy Scout rhetoric about the presumption of innocence. Here, as in all of his public pronouncements, Bloomberg gives the impression that he does not believe in the existence of good and evil independent of judicial action. For him all actions are licit insofar as they are determined by law enforcement and the courts to be legal; what should be considered legal is a matter best left up to anonymous but properly credentialed mandarins.

The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper summed up Hobbes' Leviathan with admirable clarity: "The axiom, fear; the method, logic; the conclusion, despotism." In Bloomberg's conception of politics, the method is expertise, which is not quite logic but will do duty for it in an empirical age; and the conclusion is certainly despotism. But what is the axiom? What are the fearful principles undergirding the tyranny of the Bloombergian state? Not the "nation" or the "people" or the "flag" or any of the other epiphenomena of Trumpism. The fact that there do not appear to be any principles is what makes a Bloomberg presidency such a loathsome prospect.

Expert opinion collated, its rational conclusions codified, the formal up-and-down verdict-making power of the law applied with bloodless uniformity to every conceivable action — a perfect engine of lawful tyranny designed not to assuage man's oldest fears nor even to enrich Michael Bloomberg personally but seemingly for its own sake. The prospect of President Bloomberg is an invitation to consider the future as a boot stamping on the face of a Big Gulp sipper forever while the Dow soars into the empyrean and crime statistics dwindle. It would be unfair to Cass Sunstein and other sober scholars of administration to call this technocracy. It is simply capitalism as machine learning.

Perhaps my old algorithm theory should not be dismissed so lightly.

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