The Conversation

THE BLOOMBERG WAY

In November, James Bennet interviewed Michael Bloomberg. They spoke about the role of government, highlighting such topics as the New York City mayor’s regulation of soda sizes and metzitzah b’peh, an ancient Jewish circumcision practice.

I liked Mayor Bloomberg more after reading James Bennet’s interview, but I still find him annoying. “People aren’t good at describing what is in their own interest,” Hizzoner says. Implication: it’s the government’s job to figure it out for them—and induce them to behave correctly.

But should “right behavior” be the aim of government? Or should the aim be, as Aristotle argued, to govern so as to produce a wise citizenry—citizens who are good at identifying their own real interest. Since “the science is not perfect,” why not let Jews figure out for themselves whether the custom of metzitzah b’peh is harmful or not? Maybe parents should decide for themselves how much sweet soda their kids should consume.

Bloomberg seems to think of the citizens of New York as his subjects, over whom he reigns as a kindly philosopher king, guiding them on the right path—a path they are incapable of figuring out for themselves. Let him think more about two things: why people are so incapable, if indeed they are; and whether his own judgment might be fallible.

John Staddon
Durham, N.C.

Maybe “Mike Bloomberg knows what’s good for [me],” but whether I do what is good for me or what brings me pleasure should not be up to him. It should be up to me.

Felicia Nimue Ackerman
Providence, R.I.

Michael Bloomberg is an interesting thinker, but he’s got to be kidding when he says that even a government initiative that hits a dead end makes a contribution, “because we know we don’t have to go down that path again.” In the business world or sports or any other competitive realm, this would be true, but government just isn’t that way. How are those sugar and mohair subsidies doing? When’s the last time any government agency or program was canceled? How about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?

People are risk-averse precisely because they know that enacting government programs is mostly a one-way street and even the losers live on forever.

Jim Hemenway
San Ramon, Calif.

Bloomberg says of his foundation: “We work on obesity, we work on smoking, we work on guns, we work on traffic deaths.” It is one thing to use your own foundation to advance certain causes, but it is quite another to abuse your power as mayor to advance your foundation’s causes through the power of your office. Bloomberg has treated NYC as his personal property and has done nothing to advance the one cause he first ran on, which was turning around the NYC education system. Maybe because that is not in the interest of his foundation.

Hokma
TheAtlantic.com comment

Governmental leaders should lead from the front and not focus on polls, Bloomberg says, because “the people” are not good at describing what is in their best interest. I find that odd, considering he also says that on day one, the president should do what he or she said would be done, just because that’s what people want. I don’t disagree with either of those political assessments (and I generally like Bloomberg), but it is hard to tell what the mayor’s concept of the role of elected officials should be in a democratic republic.

Andrew D
TheAtlantic.com comment

Sodas? Metzitzah b’peh? Really? When that great big elephant of Wall Street is sitting right there in your own living room?

jsheerin
TheAtlantic.com comment

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“I’m so proud of my friend and former classmate Gina Raimondo. She is showing great leadership in tough times—I hope she eventually becomes the Governor of her state.”

GENERAL FAILURE

Thomas E. Ricks’s November article about the culture of mediocrity within the U.S. Army’s leadership rank prompted many readers, including current and former members of the military, to write in. Online, readers debated the merits of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and whom to blame for those missions: generals and other officers, or the Bush White House.

“General Failure” really hit home. I was a company commander in Vietnam and saw inept leadership of higher-ranking officers all the time. I thought that this was just a temporary phase and would pass. Obviously the cover-your-ass culture still exists in the Army.

In my case, I saw one fantastic battalion commander sent home because his 12-month tour ended; he was replaced by an incompetent drunk who was there to get his ticket punched. Who suffered? Every officer, noncommissioned officer, and enlisted man in that battalion. Leadership from the general’s level could have turned around the war in Vietnam, but unfortunately William Westmoreland was inept also. I hope our Army can solve this problem, because our soldiers deserve better, and so do our citizens.

Al Conetto
Walla Walla, Wash.

Thomas Ricks overlooked something important. Sadly, nobody becomes a general (or equivalent) in the military until they have served for many years. Most colonels are 50 by the time they get promoted. Many younger officers have experience and drive; as a group, they adapt well. Older officers are more cautious, members of the “cover your ass and do not make waves” category. They know how to manipulate the good-old-boy game. The service should be, but is not, a strict meritocracy. In effect, it follows union-style rules of seniority and time in grade. From second lieutenant to first lieutenant to captain is automatic. Some lousy officers have made it past captain to become major by being on court-martial or combat duty when they are promoted. The rules are not negotiable.

The Army has an unofficial but long-standing policy: it takes care of its own. Generals are cautious about reprimanding or firing other generals. In Officer Candidate School, we learned—rather, it was drilled into us—to “cooperate and graduate.” Yet at a certain point in the future, that maxim will cost us in lives and damage. That is why we need the ideas promulgated by Thomas E. Ricks: produce or you are history; hire slow but fire fast.

B. J. Khalifah
Grosse Pointe Park, Mich.

No improvement will be made in the quality of military leadership until two changes occur: first, a dramatic reduction in the size of the commissioned-officer corps, and second, a requirement that all commissioned officers be hand-selected from within the preexisting enlisted ranks. The reduction in the size of the officer corps will make an officer position less of a bureaucratic post and more of a position of ultimate responsibility, as it should be. Selecting from within the ranks will take the asinine system of today, which prizes academic perseverance, bureaucratic politicking, and personal ambition (oft extremely misplaced), and transform it into a system of selection that promotes rationality, creativity, and interpersonal skills—the actual skills required of a commissioned officer. Get rid of ROTC. Get rid of West Point. The current obsolete system, based on the aristocratic principle that a college degree equates to leadership ability, is keeping the Army, at least, from being the most effective it could be and needs to be.

Gregory Jacomet
National Guard Captain
Stockport, Ohio

To be fair to the generals in Iraq and Afghanistan, they advanced through the ranks largely in peacetime, with an outlook that did not seriously anticipate counterinsurgency operations. They were therefore never really schooled in them. How do you build operational and strategic excellence into your officer corps in peacetime? Almost no officers were advanced based on an evaluation of tactical or strategic ability—primarily because those evaluating them had no experience themselves to draw on. The problem is somewhat solved for now, but our current crop of seasoned officers will eventually leave the service or retire. In their wake will come a new generation with no real-world frame of reference. They will have only the schooling they are given, and will further their careers according to whatever standards have been established.

Tom @ The Rolltop Manifesto
TheAtlantic.com comment

Military leaders are trained to destroy things and kill people. It’s always been that way. Holding these leaders responsible for nation-building, peace-keeping, prison management, and civilian policing is simply wrong.

Barton H. Boyer III
San Diego, Calif.

I cannot understand why the competence of war fighters is questioned when they are sent to fight by an incompetent president who was aided by a somnolent Congress focused only on retribution for an attack that came from somewhere else.

G. B. Perlstein Jr.
Champaign, Ill.

The point Ricks makes is that a general’s job shouldn’t just be how to clear caves—the question of “What war am I trying to win?” needs to be the prerogative, and the liability, of the generalship as much as of the political class.

mattrss
TheAtlantic.com comment

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