There’s a thin line between resilience and arrogance. In his response to Hurricane Sandy, one of the nation’s largest natural disasters, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg may have crossed it. Like the city that he leads, and the country for whom New York’s Wall Street serves as financial capital, the billionaire CEO has an Empire State of Mind. And like any system of denial, that state of mind hardens as times get rough.
Astoundingly, the day after the largest storm ever recorded hit, Bloomberg confidently declared that within 24 hours “the financial markets will resume, as will business in all five boroughs.” But the reality hasn’t quite cooperated with the mayor’s bragging that “New York will be open for business.”
Hurricane Sandy has cut power to hundreds of thousands; flooded lower Manhattan; deluged the city’s subway, it’s lifeblood; killed dozens, and left Katrina-like devastation on both sides of Manhattan island. Parts of New York, such as Staten Island and Queens, look as if a tactical nuclear weapon has exploded. In every direction, the city’s suburbs lay shattered, others in complete ruin. Reports of stranded, starving seniors flow in from public housing projects in the Lower East Side. But undeterred, Bloomberg presses ahead with his reopening. On Wednesday, he personally rang the introductory bell for the New York Stock Exchange’s first day of post-Sandy trading.
Responding to our billionaire mayor’s call to return to work, millions of New Yorkers have struggled to make it in. But the ravaging effects of Mother Nature haven’t allowed Bloomberg’s citizens to fully cooperate. For the majority of New Yorkers, his refusal to connect with reality has turned out to be a fiasco. With only 25 percent of the city’s transportation network up and running, roundtrip commutes, which normally take two hours, instead have taken eight.
Employees and patrons arrive at places declared “open for business” only to find them closed, or unable to operate without power or the full complement of people to run them. Many workers can’t make it to the job. They are either fighting to survive, escaping from wrecked homes, or helping those nearest them in need. Despite Bloomberg’s swagger, the de facto capital of the Empire State is flat on its back.
But Wall Street was a different place all together. Electrified by a back up generator—lit like an odd lighthouse—the New York Stock Exchange shined in a sea of darkness. The area within a mile of America’s temple of capitalism was without power, but inside the building’s financial bubble it was business as usual.
On the day of the storm, CNBC business correspondent Kate Kelly said that Wall Street looks at “weather events as a trading opportunity.” CNBC is the cable network of the financial sector. At the end of trading on the first day after the storm, NYSE chief operating officer Larry Leibowitz told Reuters that “the open was a positive relief.” Meanwhile, emergency food and water delivery didn’t begin in the city until Thursday afternoon.
Many financiers wondered why the markets had to close at all, given that the NYSE could trade electronically. “Because there are humans behind [the trades],” an exasperated CNBC reporter said into the camera. He was talking to people who should know better. But so should New York’s mayor.
Close to 300,000 people work in New York’s financial industry, but over 20 million people in the region were impacted by the storm. To put Wall Street’s interests ahead of theirs is just plain wrong. But it’s not new. It’s what our broader society does. Poverty is at a record high, black and brown wealth is at a record low, but the top 1 percent have more than ever. Our economy is balanced on the head of a pyramid.
I’ve written that our economy is just one hurricane away from another recession. The economy remains so weak because our values are out of whack. The United States can’t be strong and prosperous until we build an economic system that works for everybody. But Bloomberg doesn’t it see it that way. Even after this week, his “back to work” misconception is still at work. The mayor is even insisting that the New York City Marathon proceed this Sunday. The marathon is backed by the Dutch bank, ING.
Rather than standing up Wall Street, the mayor’s goal should be to pull up all of New York City. A radical approach would have been for Bloomberg to close Wall Street until the end of the week, call for Washington to give income support to wage laborers and freelancers for that same amount time, and urge everyone to care for themselves and their neighborhoods, to volunteer anywhere in the region that needed it. Pitching in is what resilience looks like, not arrogance.
Yet in the current climate this “un-empire approach” is so radical as to be unthinkable. So much so that not even Hurricane Sandy could get us to embrace it.