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Planet Bloomberg

Solutioneering with Michael Bloomberg

On Bloomberg Philanthropies’ website, under “Our Approach,” there is an entry labeled “Focus on Cities to Drive Progress.” From a simple statement of purpose has arisen such sublime complexity. Courtesy of the eponymous billionaire and former mayor of New York City, 941 cities in 173 countries have received enormous sums of cash since 2006, $1.6 billion in 2020 alone. The sheer volume of money put into circulation elevates the Philanthropies above a vehicle for sustained charity. Instead, it should be thought of as a vast philanthropic machine, self-perpetuating and tended to by countless adepts, with dendrites roving across every inch of the earth.

The latest publicly available 990 tax filing does little to illuminate the Philanthropies’ actual workings, instead playing a shaky light over a truly Byzantine internal structure. In 2019, they funneled $15.4 million to other organizations such as Bennett Midland, Freedman Consulting, Delivery Associates Ltd., and the Centre for Public Impact, all of which profess to do things like “focus on impact” to “reimagine government” or “make change happen” as a “strategic partner in the civic sector.” In some respect, the Philanthropies may be thought of as a lender, available to provide strategic infusions of money to like-minded satellites.

At the same time, the Philanthropies earned $524 million from state and local bonds through “pass-through entities,” of which there are dozens, all given a 6-digit number for a name. When considered along with the oft-repeated fact that the Philanthropies exists, along with the preponderance of programs and initiatives, for the charitable dispersion of Bloomberg L.P.’s profits, it’s difficult to confidently state what exactly the remit or the legal existence of the organization is at all. Surely, with this much money moving in so many directions, to pretend that Michael Bloomberg himself solely directs his charitable giving is ludicrous—he may supply capital and command its overall direction, but the actual posture of the organization must be benign, right? After all, it’s actually administered by Willett Advisors LLC, a wealth management firm which shares Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Fish House with the Philanthropies as its headquarters . . .

The far more interesting question, when it comes to Bloomberg’s activities, is not what the Philanthropies are doing, or how they’re doing it, but why.

So, sure, its all connected. Yawn. Another article pointing out the evil, self-enriching narcissism of the big philanthropists like Bloomberg and his ilk. Boring! Useless! As far as modern capitalist charity is concerned, there’s really nothing more to be said that Friedrich Engels didn’t already cover back in 1845, when he accused the British bourgeoisie of “placing yourselves before the world as mighty benefactors of humanity when you give back to the plundered victims the hundredth part of what belongs to them”! If he’s perhaps too radical for you, then go ahead and look to Peter Buffett (son of Warren), who in a 2013 New York Times op-ed decried “Philanthropic Colonialism,” warning that most well-intended fixes may generate unforeseen problems. Of course, you could also justifiably choose a similar track of conspiracist complaints like those leveled against George Soros or the Ford Foundation, in particular illuminating the latter’s historical ties with the State Department. If that’s what you’re interested in, just take a glance at the membership of the Philanthropies’ Board of Directors and its roster of generals, senators, and CEOs and be contented.

The far more interesting question, when it comes to Bloomberg’s activities, is not what the Philanthropies are doing, or how they’re doing it, but why. On some level, as much as it pains me to admit, the creation and sustenance of Bloomberg Philanthropies is probably the most social good someone like Michael can realistically do with their wealth, and he may even actually believe his own rhetoric about his world-historical mission to fix public health, the arts, urban governance, etc. It’s also difficult to take umbrage with, for example, his funding towards the American Talent Initiative or the Initiative to Prevent Drowning. These are, however, incidental to the actual economic service that Bloomberg renders, which appears in many forms and under many guises, but is at all times a rather simple attempt to increase fortunes of nations, cities, and especially their residents just enough to become profitable (for someone else, of course), but not enough to become self-sufficient.

The foremost of these initiatives is the Global Mayors Challenge, a “worldwide innovation competition that supports and spreads cities’ most promising ideas.” The fifteen winners of the fifth iteration of the Challenge, announced this past January, “hail from 13 nations on six continents and collectively represent more than 30 million residents.” These cities, narrowed down from 631 applicants and fifty “Champion City” finalists, were selected on the basis of having the “boldest and most ambitious urban innovations” via their project proposals, which is to say, how well they can sell a scheme to improve municipal economic fortunes or patch gaps in public health for the least cost. There is no unifying object to these proposals—other than their reliance on Bloomberg-esque technocratic pidgin—which are then evaluated by a selection committee chaired by the co-CEO of Ariel Investments (which manages significant global funding programs) and David Miliband, son of the Belgian-British Marxist sociologist Ralph Miliband, doing his best to ensure his father continues spinning furiously in his grave. The winning cities are awarded a $1 million grant and “multi-year technical support” to enact their proposals. These are both tightly controlled; in some cases, a portion of that $1 million arrives earmarked as the salary for Bloomberg-provided technical support teams. But what each city actually wins is access to best practices for urban development.

This sort of “intellectual property” aid has longtime precedent in industrial production (with its particularly modern phase dating back to the actions of the U.S. Economic Cooperation Association in the post-World War II Marshall Plan). Under such agreements, particular technical processes or machinery are patented by one corporation and then leased by another, with the former providing technical advisors to the latter. The technical support teams (which share DNA with “I-Teams,” née Innovation Teams, another Philanthropies initiative) are intended to function similarly, that is, as a managerial, advisory appendage to a local government, designed to function with a minimum of oversight and, if needed, nearly zero interaction with the people living there, despite the democratic rhetoric and citizen power masks firmly affixed to faces of all involved.

Kigali, capital of Rwanda, is one of this year’s fifteen victors of the Challenge. Its winning bid sought assistance in introducing “a smart-waste system that improves sanitation and water quality in the city.” Which is, to be honest, difficult to critique in the abstract, the Philanthropies’ methods notwithstanding. According to the 2019 report “Potential of Rainwater Harvesting in Rwanda” compiled by the Center for Science and Environment, the findings of which underpin the 2021 Global Mayors Challenge bid, Rwanda receives over forty-seven inches of rain a year; coupled with hilly topography (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimates that 90 percent of domestic cropland is on land sloped between 5 and 55 degrees) and rapid urbanization within Kigali itself, this climactic fact regularly dooms subsistence plots as well as urban homes and infrastructure. The majority of households in Kigali depend on public standpipes instead of domestic pipe connections, which are typically only active for thirty-six to seventy-two hours a week. On the storm management end, high levels of rainfall coupled with the exploding amount of non-permeable hardscape within the city results in regular flash flooding during the rainy season, which causes damage particularly in “informal areas.” All told, there are simultaneous problems of too much water and not enough, which the city is desperate to fix with designs for permeable pavings, swales, and other water catchment strategies.

These proposals constitute the “smart-waste system” Kigali pitched to Bloomberg. They are also an essential facet of Mayor Pudence Rubingisa’s Kigali Master Plan 2050 to “reach high-income status” while Rwanda pursues the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. This hope of joining the honor roll of capitalist miracles like South Korea is predicated on an understanding of the historical transit from managerialism to entrepreneurialism as a truism of national development. What Alain Lipitz in 1995 identified as “bloody Taylorism” has modulated into an ostensibly softer and (sigh) “neoliberal” regulatory landscape. There is, of course, not much cause to believe the hype of a level playing field of global economic opportunities, but Rwanda has little choice but to play along in the hopes of attracting Euro-American investment in the wake of a decrease of foreign direct investment flows (that is, classical “foreign aid” between states) globally since 2007. To put it simply, there is less money available globally for a nation, such as Rwanda, to claw its way onto a developmentalist track, and in this dark hour, if you can’t get money, you can’t get recognition. Kigali’s victory in the Mayors Challenge is an increase in stature, and more so, a chance to demonstrate a proactive attitude in maintaining a suitable investment environment for Euro-American capital to get to work.

Master Plan 2050 is a sober recognition of the fall in aid and an audacious plan to set Kigali on a developmental track that, if successful, proposes to effectively detach the city from the country altogether in economic terms, thereby validating Bloomberg’s city-first attitude. Under this plan, Kigali moves into the century as a regional financial player with stable monetary institutions, such as the Development Bank of Rwanda, the Capital Market Authority, and the Bank of Kigali, all of which are more or less directly affiliated with the Rwandan government, and which specialize in long-term development, the expansion of a domestic capital market, and deepening banking ties within the country, respectively. This promising and prosperous investment environment, city and national figures hope, will continue to push GDP growth acceleration while the rest of the country, presumably, is left to labor on much as it has since the colonial occupations of Germany and then Belgium in a shambolic extraction economy of primarily smallhold mines pumping out the “3Ts”—tin, tungsten, and tantalum. The historically low amount of fixed capital formation in the hinterland keeps these mining operations highly lucrative, but they will never become the growth engine that industrialization and especially finance have proven to be.

And here we return to the question of the smart-waste system, which really speaks to an absence of sufficient utilities, like electrical power and sewage, to jump-start massive industrial buildup. No amount of bioswales will be able to handle the water and sewage requirements for, say, a steel-rolling plant. Instead, Kigali is attempting its moonshot off the back of domestic financial capital, hoping to skip past a significant industrial buildup and instead devote existing capacity directly to construction and, thus, urbanization—minimal viable investment for maximum future gain, like hitting a jackpot off the penny slots. For now, the strategy to elevate Kigali to a vital player seems to be working. The country has been storming its way up the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, coming in second on the African continent in 2020. Kigali is then, more or less, the ideal “Bloomberg city”—dedicated to running like a business and desperate for what Julian Brash calls “economic development on the cheap.”

Mayors and governors and presidents and prime ministers have long been adept at weeping for the people out of one side of their face and sending them to slaughter on the other.

Another example: Paterson, New Jersey. Also a winner of the recent Global Mayors Challenge, and more or less antipodal to Kigali, it proposes to innovate in an entirely different way, by increasing the availability of Suboxone with a program (dubbed RealFix) in order to combat opioid deaths in the city. Again, this is a crucial problem in need of solving. But RealFix is a bandaid on a bullet wound, a minimum improvement in lifestyle and public health ratified as a developmental track for the city intended as a tacit rejection of the provision of more comprehensive health care. Bloomberg functions, from the perspective of city government, as a just-in-time mercenary, providing just enough money to bail out a system, such as Paterson’s emergency services or Kigali’s infrastructure, saving them from total catastrophe. When Paterson provides workers and Kigali provides valued minerals (and maybe, someday, a citadel of capital investment in Africa), a disaster for one (capital) is a disaster for all (capitals). If the Philanthropies and its menagerie of programs can be said to have a single lodestar, it may be in this subtle tipping of the scales—steering municipalities further away from even considering comprehensive salves in favor of monomaniacal solutions.

The fetishization of interventions in specific developmental problems may be better understood as rear-guard actions of last resort taken in an environment in which neither the money or the political will to attack root causes exists. Ultimately, the goal is the stabilization of residents to a minimally acceptable level and no further—“to solve problems and improve residents’ lives,” sure, but within limits. If, as I mentioned above, no one wants a disaster, that doesn’t mean the disaster of everyday life for the majority of the world’s population is now somehow no longer acceptable. Put another way, Bloomberg Philanthropies is attempting to play both sides of a long war against labor. In one aspect, the entity is a giver of alms, in another, a wielder of weapons of its own original make—named, variously, technocratic accounting, hollow humanitarianism, efficiency fetishism, and when necessary, outright brutality. These were forged in Bloomberg’s time as the 108th mayor of New York City, but time has not dulled their killing edge.

The cities Michael Bloomberg favors in his role as a personification of a not-insignificant amount of capital are not subjected to the violently coercive dependency upon aid that Kees van der Pijl notes constituted the postwar “Atlantic Consensus.” But the grinning conviviality of Bloomberg’s aid, all handshakes and solutioneering, is no less exacting in its requirements and expectations. The solutions are mere policy points, or at best transfers of money and knowledge. This sacrifice is happily accepted. Mayors and governors and presidents and prime ministers have long been adept at weeping for the people out of one side of their face and sending them to slaughter on the other. The ideal Bloomberg city is a flagellant—one begging for the chance to burn its own flesh as propellant for its ascendency.