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Michael Bloomberg and Me

Photograph Source: Metropolitan Transportation – CC BY 2.0

In 1975, I took a job as a Cobol programmer at Salomon Brothers in New York, mainly on the buzz generated by a N.Y. Times profile of its star block trader Michael Bloomberg. The November 9th article noted that “The single‐minded dedication of Mr. Bloomberg’s pressure‐cooker life goes hand in glove with the aggressive business style which has made Salomon Brothers one of the largest and most profitable firms on Wall Street.”

While at Salomon, I often stopped by Socialist Workers Party national headquarters after work to take part in systems design meetings with two other party members. We were automating The Militant and Pathfinder Press as part of an ambitious expansion program by the Trotskyist movement. The SWP had purchased an IBM System 32 minicomputer to generate mailing labels for The Militant and to keep track of Pathfinder’s financial records. Modernization also included the purchase of a web press located on the ground floor of a five-story building on West Street that we foolishly thought of as our Smolny Institute. (A web press had nothing to do with the Internet. It was just a high-powered technology for printing on continuous rolls of paper.)

In 2003, long after the SWP’s decline into a tiny cult, real estate developers paid $20 million for SWP headquarters. They were tearing it down to make way for a condo with a river view. Right now, a studio apartment in the Charles Street Condominiums goes for $1.5 million. There’s a certain irony in this metamorphosis from the Smolny Institute into a hedge fund playground. In his three terms as New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg sought to gentrify every last square inch of the city. Not far from SWP headquarters, you could have found the Brecht Forum right next to the West Side Highway. Real estate developers demolished the building that housed it and constructed a luxury condominium once again. SWP cult leader Jack Barnes took advantage of this evolving New York real estate boom. In 2007, he sold his condo on West 12th Street that was a five-minute walk from party H.Q. for a cool $1,872,500 to a Sony Music division executive. What Barnes did with the nearly $22 million is anybody’s guess. After he sold his loft for a handsome profit, the N.Y. Observer, (now owned by Donald Trump’s nephew Jared Kushner) coolly observed:

Unlike most people in six-room lofts, Mr. Barnes once met with Kim Il-sung, the late North Korean president. The leader “conversed with the guests in a cordial and friendly atmosphere and arranged a lunch for them,” a report published by the BBC in 1990 said. “US Socialist Workers’ Party, led by its National Secretary Jack Barnes … presented him with a gift.”

This doesn’t sound much different than the social calls now taking place between the Trump clan and the North Korean potentate, does it?

Back in 1975, computer science departments had hardly gotten off the ground in the USA. Most programmers were like me, people who got jobs with nothing more than a college degree and often in the humanities. My project team at Salomon was fairly typical. A guy named Ernie was reading “Finnegan’s Wake” at lunch. An African-American woman named Barrie was tearing her hair out trying to get a massive program to work. She relieved the stress either by playing tennis or chatting with her boyfriend in Cleveland through Salomon’s WATS line. Until digital phone calls became the norm, a WATS line at your workplace was the way to go.

After a year of working at Salomon, my boss called me in for a meeting and told me that I would be on loan to the SBIL project that Michael Bloomberg was managing. SBIL stood for Salomon Brothers’ office in London. My job was to convert it from paper to electronic records, just as I was doing for the Trotskyist back office. This was Bloomberg’s first foray into information technology. In a couple of years, he would leave bloc trading altogether take over as Salomon’s IT director. I was still impressed with the fawning profile of Bloomberg in the N.Y. Times. Now that I basked in his glory, I was anxious to share my good news with the project team.

Barrie’s reaction to my news about SBIL was a frown. What was wrong, I asked her. She recounted what was common knowledge to women at Salomon, namely that Bloomberg was a pig. (Shouldn’t another word be coined for such predatory behavior given the friendliness of this farm animal?) She described a typical incident. He worked on the trading floor at Salomon that was one hundred feet long and two stories tall. When a trader wanted coffee, he phoned a kiosk set up for their needs. When one particularly buxom Latina “gofer” walked across the floor carrying a tray of coffee and cake, you could frequently hear Bloomberg’s voice booming over the din: “Look at the tits on that babe” or something to that effect.

In my second year at Salomon, I was no longer on loan to Bloomberg and had transferred to another project team managed by a total jerk. When he gave me a bad review, I turned in my resignation intending to work for Automated Concepts, Inc., better known as ACI. It was one among many “body shops” in Manhattan at the time that contracted out programmers for mainframe projects.

Fred Harris was the founder and CEO of ACI. Like me, he also belonged to a cult. His salvation was not socialist revolution but Erhard Seminars Training, better known as est. They were guaranteed to make you a success in business, just as Jack Barnes speeches could usher in the proletarian revolution. To Fred’s credit, he never tried to line me up for an est session. Knowing that I was a radical, he wouldn’t waste his time. My idea was not to become successful in the business world but to destroy it.

William Tierney, who was a Salomon Brothers partner who ran the entire floor I worked on, called me in for an exit interview. He was a Vietnam veteran who had a model tank on his desk, the same kind he commanded during the war. Bill, a Jackie Gleason look-alike, told me that he was sorry to see me go and reminded me that I was always welcome back. Probably knowing by then that I was antiwar, if not a Marxist, he said that even though Salomon was about making money, they did not worship Mammon. That phrase has stuck in my mind all these years.

Just four years after I left Salomon, Michael Bloomberg left as well. Over his objection, Salomon sold its business to Phibro, a commodities trading firm. Due to his outspoken resistance to the move, the new company had no alternative except to terminate him with a generous golden parachute: $10 million. To show what a regular guy he is, Bloomberg’s 2020 Presidential Campaign website makes it sound like he was a worker at the Lordstown G.M. plant:

And then, one day in 1981, he was laid off.

It turned out to be a moment that would define the rest of his life.

The next day, Mike decided to start his own company, beginning in a one-room office with a groundbreaking idea far ahead of its time: a desktop computer that connected users to a vast network of information and data.

Who knows? If I had stuck around with Mike, I might have hit the jackpot just like Duncan MacMillan, the database administrator at Salomon, who sat only five desks away from me. He was one of the four principals who formed what would become Bloomberg L.P., a privately held financial, software, data, and media company worth $85 billion. Even the name of the company includes my initials.

I didn’t pay any attention to Bloomberg until he ran for Mayor of New York in 2001 as a Republican. He spent $73 million on his campaign, five times as much as his Democratic Party opponent Mark Green, a liberal who ran Air America and likely would have governed not much differently than Bloomberg or Bill De Blasio for that matter. Anybody who becomes New York Mayor will be in thrall to the real estate industry, as I pointed out when Air America folded.

Despite its ambition to make money, Air America was not very good at it. After its first bankruptcy in 2006, it was reorganized under the ownership of the Green brothers. Stephen L. Green headed a company that controlled 27 million square feet of real estate with a market capitalization of $12 billion.

When Mark Green was serving as Public Advocate, he did virtually nothing to rally against the rent increases that were devastating the very public whose interests he was elected to defend. Since 12 percent of the nearly six million dollars he used in his campaign came from his brother, some raised the question of special interests including the liberal Village Voice that wrote:

Mark now promises “full disclosure” of direct business interactions between his administration and Stephen’s company—which already collects $10 million a year from the city for office space it rents to several agencies. But the candidate had to be forced by The New York Times editorial board to reveal what Stephen raised, after months of hiding behind the facade that he was a “fundraising agent” of the campaign and thus operating beyond the finance laws’ disclosure requirements. Only a Times slap on the wrist could get them to cough up the data.

In other words, just the kind of person who you would expect to own and run Air America.

While Michael Bloomberg is not solely responsible for what New York has become, he certainly has the lion’s share. He intended to bail out the city by unleashing the financial and real estate interests that have made $1.5 million studio apartments the norm. In his third term as Mayor, Bloomberg gave an interview with New York Magazine, an outlet that puts down the red carpet for rich bastards journalistically. When asked whether he governed primarily for the rich, he replied:

I’m fascinated by these comments—and it is just campaign rhetoric—suggesting that we haven’t done enough for the poor. The truth of the matter is we’ve done a lot more than anybody else has ever done. The average compensation—income—for the bottom 20 percent is higher than in almost every other city. Of course, the average compensation for the top 20 percent is 25 percent higher than the next four cities. But that’s our tax base. If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend, because that’s where the revenue comes to take care of everybody else.

What else is this except Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down” economics? This neoliberal con game is not only his philosophy but that of the “radical” Bill De Blasio, who succeeded him. De Blasio campaigned on the basis that New York had become a tale of two cities, “a place where City Hall has too often catered to the interests of the elite rather than the needs of everyday New Yorkers.” Meanwhile, De Blasio has done little to transform the city despite his rhetoric. In a speech to corporate titans in 2013, he said: “We cannot expect prosperity to trickle down from the top. We cannot resign ourselves to the mind-set that says rising inequality is a necessary byproduct of urban success.” Neither the corporate titans nor the N.Y. Times took these words seriously, especially since the newspaper noted that “détente was in the air.” Just that week, the pro-Sandinista Mayor had sat down with leaders in finance, real estate and technology. He told Lloyd Blankfein and Philippe P. Dauman, the chief executives of Goldman Sachs and Viacom, that “his brand of liberalism is unapologetic but pragmatic, and can accommodate the value of business in a global city.”

Unlike Donald Trump, whose knowledge of how to take advantage of bankruptcy laws surpasses anything he knows about hotel construction, Bloomberg is a representative of the big bourgeoisie, ranked sixth richest in the USA and fourteenth in the world. By comparison, he is worth ten times as much as Donald Trump and forty times as much as Tom Steyer. Given his political ambitions, it is worth paying close attention to his machinations. Unlike Howard Schultz, who ran briefly to challenge the left-of-center campaigns of Warren and Sanders, Bloomberg will keep plugging away since he is so bullheaded and self-regarding.

Like George Soros, another rich liberal bastard, Bloomberg recognizes that there is deep discontent in the USA. Go to his website and you will discover that he has met with Mayor Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi to discuss criminal justice reform policy proposals. Lumumba is one of the country’s most respected Black leaders and someone likely not in Joe Biden’s Rolodex.

Bloomberg is also in favor of a Green New Deal, although certainly not one that would cut into corporate profits. He does get a bit touchy when the topic of Warren’s Wealth Tax came up, a much more concrete proposal than a Green New Deal. In a February visit to New Hampshire, Bloomberg stated, “We need a healthy economy, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed about our system. If you want to look at a system that’s noncapitalistic, just take a look at what was perhaps the wealthiest country in the world, and today, people are starving to death — it’s called Venezuela.”

While I am critical of the way that Bernie Sanders uses the word socialism, its current popularity impresses. It goes hand in hand with how ubiquitous the term capitalism has become. When I was young, euphemisms like “the free-enterprise system” were more common. During the Cold War of my youth, socialism was a dirty word. Now, it is capitalism that is obscene. Liberal billionaires like Howard Schultz, Michael Bloomberg, and George Soros have an uphill battle making the word capitalism user-friendly today. Back in the sixties, we used to joke about how the former bourgeoisie would have to raise money for its election campaigns in a socialist America. They would have to have bake sales or dances to finance their candidates. Of course, the hard part wouldn’t be fundraising. It would be making an obscene system look good.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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