New York's Mayor on Everything From Campaign Money to Circumcision

More

For the November issue of the magazine, The Atlantic's editor in chief interviewed Michael Bloomberg about some of his boldest views and decisions. Here is the full transcript of their conversation.

bloomberg-photo-top.jpg

Jake Chessum

I'd love to start out with the campaign against the sugar-industrial complex, and then hopefully a little bit about national policy and politics -- some of what you covered in the economy speech -- and get to journalism if there is time.

So starting there, what do you say to the people who respond to this campaign by saying you are infringing on their ability to take responsibility for themselves?

I have two questions to ask -- answer -- first. One, what is the responsibility of government? And then, how do you pick the issues to go fight? I think the responsibility of government is not to keep people from doing things that are --

[A staffer interrupts to inform the mayor that the city's Board of Health has passed the soda ban, with eight "aye"votes and one abstention.]

We staged it to come during there! Sometimes you get lucky. We didn't stage the attack in Libya correctly, given my speech yesterday -- anyway, I think it's government's job not to ban things but to give you information and let you make the decision. So calorie counts would do that. Portion control is a graphical or physical way of giving you information in terms of how much sugar you're consuming, and whatever. Prohibiting you from smoking in places is information -- it also, unlike these other things, is required, if you're going to protect other people from the smoker's action.

Obesity, if you think about it, may cost society money and that sort of thing. But if you're fat, it doesn't hurt Howard. If you smoke in the same place, yes, you do hurt him. I think we all agree that government does have some responsibilities to literally stop things. If there was asbestos in the air, we would pull people out of that building instantly.

But if you believe that government's job is to inform the public as to products, or behavior, or locations that are potentially dangerous, then you go on to the next question. The next question is: Why pull sugary drinks? And the answer there is: you take a look at what are the major public-health issues.

Obesity is the only public-health issue that is growing in importance. It is, for the first time in the history of the world -- This is the first disease that has gone from a rich person's disease to a poor person's disease. Generally, it would go in the other direction. For the first time in the history of the world, this year, more people will die from the effects of too much food than from starvation.

And there's one other answer to the question as to why. And that is -- whether it is in my foundation [Bloomberg Philanthropies] or here [as mayor] -- I like to take on those things that other people either are unwilling to take on for political reasons, or unwilling to take on because it's just too complex, or they just don't care. That would include guns, for example. If you think about it, it is poor minorities that are the victims, and so most elected officials would not get involved -- or foundations -- and I think we should. And obesity is another thing -- it affects a bunch of people that most people don't care about.

My foundation -- we work on obesity, we work on smoking, we work on guns, we work on traffic deaths, we work on malaria -- in all fairness has gotten some other funding, Gates in particular. But [we're] trying to find those things that nobody else is doing. Our foundation doesn't work a lot on AIDS. Why? Because there's a lot of people doing that already, and maybe the argument is sometimes it's too much money in some of these things. If you didn't fund things so well, maybe you'd be more attentive to where you devote your resources.

Specifically on the portion-size question -- there's been interesting, actually, support across the political spectrum, liberals and conservatives --

Wolfson: Smoking ban, you mean.

Smoking ban. It is to some extent the way you ask the question. And I would argue in this case they really didn't ask the question the right way. It's hard to explain when they ask the question. We live in a sound-bite world. You have to have up or down, yes or no, and the more contentious it is, the better the pollster gets his name out there. So there's a little bit of that gamesmanship.

To some extent, it is [that] everybody is resistant to change. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody that was opposed to the smoking ban. And yet, nobody would go back in this day and age. All of western Europe followed New York City. Many of the states around here did. Every major city, including in the tobacco-growing states in the United States, did. Brazil is smoke-free. Mexico City is smoke-free. All of France, Italy, Spain, England -- they're all smoke-free.

It takes a while. Leadership is about doing what you think is right and then building a constituency behind it. It is not doing a poll and following from the back. If you want to criticize the political process -- and it's probably true throughout history, and certainly not just in the United States -- I think it's fair to say, in business or in government, an awful lot of leaders follow the polls.

And that's not the way to win. I happen to think it's not ethical, or right, and not your obligation. But I don't even think it's good business or politics, because people aren't good at describing what is in their own interest. If you say to somebody, "How many times do you turn the page?" and then go and stand on the other side of the room where they don't notice you, and count, you will get a very different number from what they said they did. That's true with everything. And -- the obligation -- what leaders should do is make decisions as to what they think is in the public interest based on the best advice that they can get, and then try and build a constituency and bring it along.

The public, I believe -- and I've always thought this -- is much more likely to follow if the public believes that you are genuine. I've said this before, and yesterday in this economics speech, I gave a kiss to George W. Bush. But that's true. George W. Bush, who I don't agree with on a lot of things -- I think he got elected and reelected because the public thought he was genuine. They think his father was genuine. Jeb -- I know [him] very well; he's on the board of my foundation -- he is genuine, they believe.

And Al Gore and John Kerry tried to be on both sides of every issue. "I voted for the war, but not to fund it." And that's Mitt Romney's problem, I think. He walked away from everything he did. He actually was a pretty good governor of Massachusetts, where I come from. I think that's a losing strategy, to not have values. I think the public wants you to have them and will respect you for them. They may carp a little bit, but in the end, that's the kind of person they want. They want somebody who has real conviction.

You can express that conviction in a very stringent way. Christie -- Christie is very popular in New Jersey. And he is in your face, certainly. He is no shrinking violet. But people -- I don't know if they understand what he stands for, but they like him, because he has values and he's leading.

Let me circle back quickly to the issue you raised just a second ago, which is how you see your role --

I said one time that if I finish my term in office -- at that time, we were talking about eight years, or four years -- and have high approval ratings, then I wasted my last years in office. That high approval rating means you don't upset anybody. High approval rating means you're skiing down the slope and you never fall. Well, you're skiing the baby slope, for goodness' sakes. Go to a steeper slope. You always want to press, and you want to tackle the issues that are unpopular, that nobody else will go after.

Read the paper today: Do you know what metzitzah b'pehis is? You should read the front page of the New York section of The New York Times today. It is a practice that Orthodox Jews --

Yes, of course, of course. [Metzitzah b'peh is the practice during circumcision whereby the mohel sucks the blood from the infant's wound.]

I think it's fair to say that nobody else would take that on. I mean, come on! Forget about the fact that -- "They do what!?" -- Who wants to have 10,000 guys in black hats outside your office screaming?

And yet, I said to the rabbis again yesterday: The science is not perfect, and it is to some extent an art -- medicine -- but there is a reasonable chance that this is dangerous to kids' health. There have been some kids who we believe die or have brain damage from the practice. My obligation is to protect the citizens. I understand freedom of religion. Nobody stood up for it more than me -- go back to the [Ground Zero] mosque, where I got beaten up for doing what was right ...

How do you see -- we've been having this national debate again, for several years now, between more regulation and no regulation. Lots more government, or as little government as possible -- not really the way you do things here. You've cut back a lot of regulations.

I've streamlined, I think -- hopefully not made them less effective, but made them more understandable and less burdensome in terms of following.

But in other areas, you've taken a more assertive role for government, like the ones you were just describing. So what's the overall philosophy that governs that approach?

I come back to the information. I think that is one of the first things. So restaurant grading -- where you've got the sign on the window, you've got an A, B, C, D, "Grade Pending" -- when we put that in, a lot of people screamed, a lot of restaurants screamed. Most restaurants today, if they don't get an A, they yell and scream that our inspectors are being too tough, because the public seems to look before they go in, to see if they have an A.

What was fascinating -- and it shows you that there is a real-world effect of all this stuff -- the cases reported of salmonella in New York City hospitals dropped 15 percent right away. Salmonella is a disease -- an infection you get from bad food in restaurants -- and overnight, it went down. The bottom line is: the restaurants cleaned up their act. Not everyone, but most of them.

I think the first problem with [regulations is that people don't understand them]. If the regulations are too complex to understand, or contradictory, then people don't want to follow them and don't follow them. If the regulations don't make any sense, if they can't understand why, they don't follow them.

If the regulations are none of those things -- if you know why it is being regulated, and you know how to do it, businesses will adjust -- businesses fundamentally don't and people will -- businesses don't care what government does, as long as they understand. "Tell me what I gotta do and get out of my way, I'll do it." That's generally the way that most businesses perform.

We used to have, for example -- to show how irrational it can be -- to open a restaurant, you have to have an inspection from the fire department, the plumbing department, the this department, that department, the health department, whatever. If you fail any one of them, you have to go back to the beginning and you gotta schedule -- it would take a year to open a restaurant. Today, it's under two months. Because we just streamlined it. You still have to have those -- and nobody questioned that you should have to have an inspection for fire, but it was impossible to ever do it, to ever schedule it, to understand what the rules were so you could make sure the door was wide enough and in the right place or something.

So let me ask you then about the national picture. You talked yesterday about paralysis in Washington, D.C., as a consequence of polling and campaign money -- basically the realities of modern politics. Do you think it's the nature of our system, nationally, to produce this kind of gridlock?

Well, I'm willing to cut the presidential candidates a break three months before the election, because the press reduces everything to a sound bite. Now, maybe they could force it more -- I said that on Charlie Rose yesterday, and Charlie said to me, "Well, they won't talk to us. They won't come for a long interview." I talk to the press five days a week, so I don't have a lot of sympathy for them.

The president -- how often does he talk to the press? His press secretary talks to the press every day, okay. But I happen to think the public should demand he should. I think he should; I think that's his job. But regardless, it is in an election year, just before the election, maybe I cut you a break. Where I don't cut you a break is the day after the election. I believe you do the tough stuff first. Why? Number one, you have an obligation to those who voted for you, to do what you promised. Number two, if you believe they're the right things, you need some time to let them work out, adjust them, explain them, maybe cancel and change them -- or whatever -- before the next election.

And remember, I have a four-year term; presidents have a two-year term, because the midterm elections are so important. They really do have to face -- they're always in campaign mode. Even Obama, in a second term, can't walk away. He's still got to do something for the Democratic Congress and that sort of thing. And you do this stuff right away.

We have a scorecard -- we haven't updated it in about a year, but we are starting to do that again -- which we will have done five or six times in my 12 years, where we listed every single campaign promise, and then mark them "Completed," "In Progress," "Still Good Ideas; We Haven't Gotten to Them Yet," or "Ain't Going to Happen" -- ain't going to happen because it was a dumb idea; ain't going to happen because it turned out not to be needed, something else took the place of it; turned out it's not going to happen because we needed Washington or Albany to go along with it. But at least you should know where every single thing stands.

And the thing that I find the most frustrating is that the Fourth Estate never picks up on it. They'll write a story about those things that you said were a dumb idea, or those things that didn't work, and never give you any credit for the other things. And never hold other elected officials to task. Now, there are private groups that do this. They keep track of how you vote in Congress and that sort of thing. But the public doesn't get that information in a form that gets their juices going. You would think that they would demand that you said -- take a look at what Obama ran on, or what Romney did in Massachusetts, with guns. Romney signed a bill, which he lauded, stopping the ability to carry assault weapons. Obama campaigned on passing a bill to ban assault weapons. Neither did anything.

You haven't endorsed yet, famously. Is that because this choice is too awesome, or because the choice is too depressing?

I was asked at a press conference the other day: Would I endorse? And I said, "If we do it, I will let you know." And then somebody asked -- although I think it was in the reverse order -- "Do you know who you're going to vote for?" And I said, "Yes, I do know who I'm going to vote for -- but without giving you the story that you'd like." Stay tuned.

Why keep it a secret, if people want to know?

Well, I have to work with whoever gets elected, keep in mind. And I also think that an elected official has some obligations to represent their constituents' interests, and not to push their own interests. Now, that is pretty impossible if you're in a political party. Everybody expects you to always -- I said to a senator who I have a lot of respect for, a very big Democrat, "Would you pick somebody based on their ethnicity, or their orientation, or their gender?" "Oh, absolutely not, that would be outrageous!" "Well what about their party?" "Oh, of course."

Of all the things I just mentioned, really think about -- the order is so backwards. But you know, there are a lot of people here who have strong views. I came out and said that the next tax bill should get rid of carried interest, which is a joke. And somebody said to me, "Your company, or you, are going to get a lot of complaints." We never got one at the company level, because my friends in the private-equity business think this is such a joke, even they can't keep a straight face. They're not the ones -- businesses go out and lobby all the time for their taxes being reduced, that sort of thing -- but this one --

President Obama hasn't even taken that issue on, yet he's managed to get so crosswise with Wall Street and business. You understand that community probably better than any other officeholder. Where did he go wrong?

He had enormous support three years, or three and a half years, ago. An awful lot of Wall Street -- for sure, more so than the business community, I think, across the country -- is much more liberal than you'd think. They may be wealthy, but you know, the entertainment industry and Wall Street are traditional hotbeds of Democrats as much as Republicans, maybe even more so.

I think a lot of them were frustrated that he didn't give the change that they had expected. I think a lot of them thought he'd be more of a centralist and less of a populist once he got elected. But having said that, people are pragmatic. Elections are between -- typically in our system -- two people, and so you might not like one, but if you like him or her better than the other, that would skew your -- and you say, why do you do that?

Intelligent people don't just bet on one issue and vote on one issue. The NRA forces you to do that, but the rational person -- even, you could be on the wrong side of guns, and I still might agree with you, and maybe you are better than your opponent here -- so even if I don't agree with you, I would still vote for you. The NRA doesn't take any prisoners, so that's why they're so powerful, but I think that a lot of people were disappointed.

And the third -- the last thing is, a lot of people support both sides. I know some people, not well -- there are two brothers -- one's a very big giver to the Democratic Party, one's a very big giver to the Republican Party. This is not an accident. This is deliberate, and they have a business that has a phenomenal protection.

Who are they?

MB: Forget about it, because if I told you what industry, you'd know who they were. They get an enormous protection from the federal government for their company, their industry. And it's just plain and simple. Keep in mind, if you ever want to do a real story some day: different levels of government behave very differently, but in Washington, they do take money -- I know it's open, though it's hard to identify -- they take money from the same people they regulate.

Now, in New York City, you would never get away with that. The argument that it's okay as long as it's disclosed? The disclosure is complex. I don't know who those people are. You'd have to do an enormous amount of research to figure out the real connections. And when the guy says "Yes, I took money, but it didn't influence my vote"? Oh, come on. The company that's giving you the money thinks it is going to influence the vote. Why else would they give you the money?

What do you see as this administration's biggest success?

I suppose, well, you can step back and say: showing that the country has gotten beyond the ethnicity or religion or whatever of an elected official. That was a big deal.

So just getting elected?

Just getting elected. I really do think that that's -- and you can make the argument that JFK did the same thing, getting elected as a Catholic, or Mitt Romney running as a Mormon. I think that issue has come and gone. Nobody does any polling anymore [asking] "Would you vote for a Mormon or not?," I don't think. It's everything else. He's got enough baggage -- he'd be better off if that were the issue, because then he'd have the civil libertarians fighting for him rather than against him.

But I think you've gotta give Arne Duncan credit -- education -- although I cynically say the president could've done a lot more. But he did stand up to a typical Democratic constituency, the teachers union -- somewhat -- and certainly has a secretary that the unions don't like.

He did sign a gay-marriage bill. You could give --

Wolfson: He came out for.

He came out for, sorry. But you could cynically give Biden credit for that. But you said the administration, you didn't say --

Wolfson: How about bin Laden?

That's like giving Harry Truman credit for dropping the bomb: any president would've pushed that button, any president would've dropped the bomb. Harry Truman stood up to Douglas MacArthur. An awful lot of people wouldn't have done that. Harry Truman integrated the Army. A lot of people wouldn't have done that. Harry Truman had the Marshall Plan -- if in World War I we'd done that, we wouldn't have had a World War II. But dropping the bomb, no, and I don't think, in this case, Osama bin Laden -- and incidentally, if you believe any of these stories or books, who knows what he did or didn't do or was forced into. I mean, I don't know. But I think that's not -- I don't know that that's fair. I don't know that you can look -- I mean, Hillary Clinton's very competent -- but there's no Obama Doctrine that I know of. I don't know that anybody has enunciated a worldview the way that Henry Kissinger did in his day, or George Shultz, or even [James] Baker. I have nothing but respect for Hillary, but I think the world today is run out of the White House rather than Foggy Bottom and places like that.

And biggest failure? I mean, have you seen any act of political courage?

Well, his biggest failure is, he has been unable to pull Congress together -- and that's not to say anybody else could've done it either. It may be that it's just too tough. But that is, in the end, the executive's job, to pull both sides together, and I think he would -- he's frustrated -- he would not say that he managed to get that done. And could you or Howard or me or Hillary or McCain or whomever you pick -- could they have done it? I don't know. But I think it is the president's job to deal with politics as well, and the rise -- the rise of the Tea Party: I don't think you can blame him for it, but I don't know that I'd give the Republicans credit. The Tea Party is a manifestation of frustration. The Tea Party is almost like Occupy Wall Street -- they don't want it. What is "it"? They don't know what "it" is, there's just a general feeling that society is not going in the right direction. Now, the people that were in Zuccotti Park versus the people that are parading in conservative America may view what's wrong very differently, but there's just this sense of uneasiness in the country.

Wolfson: We should probably think about wrapping up.

Let me ask you about yourself a little bit. In your memoir, you said while you were at Bloomberg you got asked the question "What were your failures?," and you said that every failure just actually resulted in a different kind of accomplishment. How do you feel about your mayoral terms?

I think we've got an enormous amount done. You always look back -- there's two things: you look back and say "I could've done things faster," and you look forward and say "If I had more time." I'm not going to have more time -- I'm too old, and 12 years is enough -- but you always leave things to be done and you always look back and say, "If the Olympics and the West Side Stadium had come along later, where we were more sophisticated, would you have got it done?" I don't know. Would that be the right thing? I don't know.

We built most of the things that we were going to build during the Olympics, and we've gone through an economic cycle that would've made funding the Olympics with private money very difficult.

We haven't improved the schools as much as we want. We've raised graduation rates from 40 percent to 60 percent, or whatever those numbers are, for minority kids as well as whites and Asians, but we're still, I think, falling behind the needs of industry and the improvement in education elsewhere in the world. And we've done a better job than any other big city, far and away.

But you eat your heart out and say, "If I'd been smarter, could I have done more?" You can't live your life that way. I mean, I've looked forward to coming into work every single day. I looked forward to going to work at Salomon Brothers, even the day I knew I was going to get fired. I've always been an optimist, I always think tomorrow is going to be better, I always think today is going to be fun, challenging.

Yeah, at times you're frustrated and you're overscheduled and you're cranky. But we have attracted -- let me step back. The first year, 2002, in April of 2002 arrived 100 days, and every journalist wanted to write "What did you do in 100 days?" It was one of those things if you couldn't answer, you were never going to be able to serve for the rest of your term. And I said, much to [the chagrin of] my staff then -- and Howard wasn't there to beat me over the head -- "We built a team." And they said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah -- but what'd you do?" And I said, "We attracted all these great people." "I know, I know -- but what'd you do?" And I've gotta run a 24/7 business that has 280,000 employees, a $65 billion budget, 8.4 million customers -- if you will, if you want to compare it -- and my company was worldwide, here we have a worldwide stage. You don't do that unless you get great people, unless you give them authority to go along with responsibility, unless you support them when things don't work or the press goes after them, fair or unfair. You don't do it unless you delegate to them an enormous amount. You can't run a big operation by centralizing everything. And yet that's the way governments invariably work. You see it in Washington, centralized in the White House; you see it in state houses, the governor's floor; you see it in the city council; and you see it in many -- too many -- businesses. Businesses that try to do that don't survive. You just can't be an expert in everything. There's not enough time to do everything yourself.

Why would anybody go to work for a company or an administration that didn't protect them? Janette Sadik-Khan[, the transportation commissioner,] said it pretty well. Somebody told me, somebody said, "Well, you're pushing all the bike lanes and this that and the other thing" -- and she really has changed the city; she is somebody that is worth her weight in gold to other cities. We brought down accidents, we made the city more livable, we increased tourism and all that sort of thing, and she said, "The reason that I am here is that the mayor has my back."

And I have always had a policy: If it's a friend and they get a promotion, I don't bother to call them; I'll see them sometime and make a joke about it. If they get fired, I want to go out to dinner with them that night. And I want to do it in a public place where everybody can see me. Because I remember when I got fired from Salomon Brothers -- I can tell you every single person that called me. That meant something. When I was made a partner? I have no recollection of that whatsoever. I assume I went out and got drunk or something, who knows, it was so long ago -- it was like in '73, so it was a long, long time ago. But the people you read about in the paper? They get in trouble, I take them out to dinner right away -- or at least make the offer.

Can you really imagine yourself at the end of this, as you said earlier, feeling satisfied if you exit with a really low approval rating?

Yeah, but it depends on your definition of "approval rating." If your approval rating is the polls, I don't care. Number one, incidentally, if you go out with low approval ratings, six months later it's like you're dead. Everybody loves you once you're dead. So that'll come back right away. If the approval rating is the most important poll: I get up in the morning, I gotta look in the mirror. Before I go to bed, I've gotta turn off the light. I said this one time and the press made fun of me, but you've gotta like what you see. How would it be to go to bed ashamed of what you did? Or having to lie to yourself?

You know, I come home and I always say -- and my kids don't live with me anymore; they're adults -- but you've gotta be able to come home and explain to your kids what you did that day, without shading it or hiding it. If you find yourself finding a clever way of [talking] to your kids that really doesn't tell the truth but gets you through the answer, what kind of person are you if you want to do that? And there's also the -- what's the word I'm looking for? -- validation of people you respect. In the public-health area, Tom Farley, our public-health commissioner, Tom Frieden of CDC, if Al Sommer, formerly the dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health -- if those people think you did a good job, the fact that the public might not? Okay, come on, who would you rather have in your court?

People, but I think people -- it's an interesting question. When I walk down the street, the sanitation truck always stops, the guy comes over and shakes hands, because I went to the sanitation department's funerals when one of their guys died. Rudy went to only police and fire. My rule is, if you die on the job, I will go. If you don't, I won't -- because with 300,000 employees, you can't. I might make a call, if it's a tragic thing -- call the spouse and say I'm sorry. Every once in a while, if it's really heart-wrenching, you go to the wake.

But when I walk down the street, cabdrivers, bus drivers stop the bus, trucks, people [say] "Good job, good job." And if that doesn't put a smile on your face, I don't know what does. And it's not just on the Upper East Side. When I go to neighborhoods where you'd think, What do they have in common with this 70-year-old white Jewish billionaire?, and yet, the reception -- -now, it's true that if they don't like you, most people would never scream at you and say "Fuck you." On the other hand, a big percentage of people smile and say "Good job." What they're thinking, I don't know. The only time anybody's ever yelled at me on the subway -- a big hulking guy, on the other side of the train -- I got off and as I turned around as the doors closed, he screams at me, "Fix the Knicks!" This was eight, nine years ago. I can do a lot of things, but that ain't one of them, let me tell you.

Wolfson: We should probably wrap it up.

All right, give me one more on journalism, if that's okay. I just wonder: your fortune is built on providing trustworthy information, you've been in public office during this time of turmoil -- I don't know if you think media standards are declining or rising, but I wonder how optimistic you are about the future of reliable journalism.

Well, I'm not sure that you're still going to chop down trees the way we're going in the world. I still think that the broadsheet is the way I want to get my news, but I've always thought we'll have a flexible page, where you squeeze this and it changes newspapers, squeeze this -- and the battery and the stuff -- information is stored in there and the whole thing just goes, and you've gotta come up with that. And there are people working on flexible screens that you can fold up and carry in your pocket.

But it's not the ways it's delivered, it is the way the information is put together and presented. I've never believed this argument: "You should get the news that you care about, and that's the only thing," and all the technology's designed to let you select what news. You don't know what you care about. Because what you care about changes with what's going on in the world, and you need somebody to make those decisions for you. You say, "I don't want anybody to make decisions for me, what's in my interest." Of course you do. That's what the editor does -- the editor and the headline writer, the layout person -- and they tell you the stories in importance by size and how big the headline is, and if you don't like their selection, then you go to a different publication.

I do believe that there is a market for upscale news. Look at The Economist: 750,000-odd subscriptions in the U.S. alone. And The Wall Street Journal is not a low-brow newspaper; they sell 2 million copies, virtually all in America, nothing in Europe -- FT dominates the rest of the world. But there is a market for The Atlantic; there is a market for upscale news.

That's the good news. The bad news is, I think it is fair to say, the quality of journalism has gone down dramatically. It is a function of the economics of the news business. We don't have experienced reporters. We get rid of them and get low-priced novices who have never traveled and have no understanding of what they're writing. They just get one [quote] from you, one from you, and they write it, but they can't put it in context or know how much to believe you versus Howard. We don't have the editors, we don't have the legal beagles, you have the competition of the blogs -- I don't know what the difference between a blog and a newspaper is, for example, and sometimes they have different standards, even under the same logo and the same name.

So I think we've dumbed down, and it's not good for society. It's hard to argue that we aren't going more towards an instant-gratification, sound-bite kind of world. And I think the technology is driving that; the economics of the business, as I just said, is driving that; the political process is driving it.

You want to do a real interesting story -- I've never suggested this to anybody, but why don't you do a real good piece on the effect of social media on how you govern? Before, we were talking about leading from the front versus the back. Today, there is an instant poll on everything. And elected officials say "Oh my God, 1,000 people just twittered me or Facebooked me" -- or whatever the thing. They don't even know the difference. "This is a disaster. I've gotta go out with a statement right away condemning it." Maybe that's what happened to Romney [when he criticized the Obama administration the night news broke of Ambassador Christopher Stevens's death]. Who the hell knows? He probably didn't wait for that, he was so far ahead of his game. But it's hard -- to do things, you've gotta have time to study, and you've gotta be able to gather information. If every time you do that, it's right in the papers right away, I don't know how you do that.

That's one of the hardest things in government. If every time you want to do something, they demand the final results, when you're just sort of feeling your way and trying to evolve, it's hard to govern. When we live in a world -- in medicine, or in science, you go down a path and it turns out to be a dead end, you really made a contribution, because we know we don't have to go down that path again. In the press, they call it failure. And so people are unwilling to innovate, unwilling to take risks in government. And you can say, "Wait a second, it's a thousand things, look at the e-mails -- they're all the same, it's a chain." The whole thousand were sent by the same computer. What are you talking about? But we're going to a different world, and how society adjusts -- you're not going to stop the trend of social media, but how government can function. Innovation is very difficult. The more exposure there is, the more difficult it is. And people say "Why does government not work?" It is partially because the public demands answers before they are available; it's partially because [the public] expects a sound-bite solution to how you're going to cure cancer or bring peace to the Middle East; it's partially that government fuels those things because it makes it easier to avoid answering and taking specific positions and getting blamed for anything.

That's not to say that government worked very well in the old days. The "good old days" were probably never the good old days. You go back, and they were as corrupt and more corrupt than they are today probably, and less knowledgeable, and I don't know. You think about the great orators: Abraham Lincoln stood up and in 24 words, or whatever the Emancipation Proclamation is, said it all. Okay, there are still some people who can give a great speech and write a great thing, but most times that's not it.

I'll give you another thing that's a big problem here in government: transportation. Transportation has changed the way Congress works. It used to be you were there all the time, because you couldn't leave the city and get home. So you built -- your kids went to the same school or the same basketball game, you reached across the aisle -- why? Because you were there, and it would be embarrassing in front of your kids to not talk to your kids' friend's father, and you'd go to dinner with spouses and you'd build relationships and maybe talk some business, and then in any case, if you liked each other and had a relationship, you'd work together. Today they leave Thursday night and come back Tuesday morning. They can go to Hawaii at this point. That's, unfortunately, that's another thing that has, I think, impacted why they're so partisan. Redistricting may be the first reason, but certainly better communications -- better transportation -- has also done something.

But to get back to the press: I still think there's a market for upscale news. I think the average stuff has been dumbed down, and I'm worried about the effect of technology.

Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson: The New York Post endorsed it, and The Times went against it.

It's the politics of it that are really interesting --

But you see McDonald's today -- maybe I didn't answer your whole question -- full-of-sugar drinks because those are what they call "empty" calories. If you have a thousand calories, you are still going to be hungry. If you have a thousand calories of Big Macs, you're full.

So, full-sugar drinks. The correlation between the rise in obesity and the consumption of sugar is just up 100 percent correlated, no matter what the beverage companies think or say. Look, the beverage companies aren't stupid. Coca-Cola is run by a very smart guy; PepsiCo by a very smart woman. They see this train coming down the tracks at them. And that's why they're trying to get people to move over to Coke Zero or Diet Coke or Pepsi -- Diet Pepsi -- because down the road, the public is going to say "No mas. The cost of treating obesity is just out of control."

And in fact, McDonald's has exactly the same problem. It's a logical company for the public-health advocates to go after. So you see this guy, Don Thompson is his name -- actually, an interesting guy -- positioning that they will have to put out calorie counts down the road under a new federal law, which copied what we did in New York. But he's doing it a year early and trying to make it into a positive. Which, incidentally, so is Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. It's just that the public slowly is going to have to be moved over. None of these things happen overnight.

Wolfson: When he did the calorie counts here, McDonald's sued us. Now they are voluntarily putting them up at every place in the country.

The Times poll on the portions ban said 60 percent disapproved --

Okay, but --

The line was "Opposition spanned age, race, gender, political persuasion, and" --

Okay wait, time-out --

Does that give you any pause?

Number one -- number one: We are not banning anything. All we're saying is that restaurants and theaters can't use cups greater than 16 ounces. So if you want to buy 32 ounces, you can buy 32 ounces, you just got to carry it back to your seat, or your table, in two cups. If the question is "Do you think they should be banning?," that's a separate question. That has nothing to do with portion control. We are not banning anything. And when you say "Wait a second -- sure, you are restricting the size of the cups," well, the manufacturer restricts the size of the bottle you get. Everybody does portion control. They do it with different objectives, maybe.

But to say to the public -- the public says "I have a right to have my bottle of soda in any size I want" -- no! You only have the right to buy soda in the size of the bottle that the manufacturer decides it is in his or her interest to sell.

But I wonder how you react when you see a number like that?

Smoking is the same kind of thing.

Jump to comments
Presented by

James Bennet has been the editor in chief of The Atlantic since 2006. Prior to joining The Atlantic, he was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. More

"I wanted a profound and extreme talent who led quietly, was generous to others, and comported himself with collegial respect," remarked Atlantic Media chairman David Bradley when announcing his selection of James Bennet as the magazine's fourteenth editor in chief in early 2006. "On all scores, but surely these, I have conviction on James' appointment." Before joining the Atlantic staff, Bennet was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. During his three years in Israel, his coverage of the Middle East conflict was widely acclaimed for its balance and sensitivity. His much-lauded long-form writing for The New York Times Magazine was responsible for catching the eye of David Bradley during his year-long search for a new editor. Upon accepting the position, Bennet told a Times reporter that he saw the Atlantic job as "a chance to help, encourage and preserve the practice of serious, long-form journalism." Bennet is a graduate of Yale University who began his journalism career at The Washington Monthly. Prior to his work in Jerusalem, he served as the Times' White House correspondent and was preparing to join its Beijing bureau when he was offered the Atlantic editorship.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In