Mike Bloomberg: ‘Make America Great Again? It’s never been greater'

Interview: Former New York mayor on preaching and paying for health and climate action

Mike Bloomberg at Bloomberg on  Harcourt Street in Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Mike Bloomberg at Bloomberg on Harcourt Street in Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The three-time former mayor of New York City, serial flirter with US presidential bids and 11th richest man in the world has got his emerald tie on.

Michael Bloomberg (he likes to be called Mike) is in Dublin to open a new Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland medical education building in his role as World Health Organisation (WHO) global ambassador for non-communicable diseases, or rather the prevention of them, though since 2016 his public appearances veer inexorably to another unpleasant topic.

As New York magnates of a certain vintage, Bloomberg and Donald Trump go back a long way. “He’s not a close friend, but sure, we have cut ribbons together.” And has he, er, changed over that time?

He refers me to the YouTube of his scathing pre-election speech at the Democratic Convention in July 2016, in which he called him a “dangerous demagogue”, and said that as a New Yorker he knew “a con” when he saw one. “Nothing he has done has changed my mind,” he says firmly.

Well, it wouldn’t, would it? In truth, Bloomberg, as well as being 16 times wealthier than the US president (according to Forbes) is 16 times more interesting than him.

Long comfortable enough with power to be discerning with how he uses it, in the era of Trump Bloomberg manifests as the billionaire-of-reason. He’s the businessman-turned-politician who’s been successful at both business and politics, the striving boy scout who reshaped Wall Street and the interventionist mayor whose pro-business world-view stopped (and could afford to stop) some way short of Big Tobacco, Big Food and the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The WHO role is no random alliance: during his time as mayor Bloomberg was a consistent curve-beater on public health, banning smoking in bars and restaurants (2003), smoking in outdoor public places (2011), trans-fats in restaurants (2006), and trying to banish super-sized sugary drinks.

“For the first time in history more people are dying from non-communicable diseases than communicable diseases. You can’t avoid cancer necessarily, but you can cut the risk of cancer, you can cut the risk of heart attacks. There’s obesity, there’s smoking, there’s traffic deaths, there’s guns in America, all of these things are preventable.”

Bad habits

“The most tragic thing is the poorer the country is, the more likely they are to have people suffering from non-communicable diseases. What we are doing is exporting our bad habits from the wealthy to the poor.”

He says for all the reduction in smoking, a billion people will still die from smoking this century, and obesity will kill more people than smoking. There are things that people like him can do – last year his foundation Bloomberg Philanthropies put millions in support of a short-lived Chicago soda tax, for example – but ultimately these problems require “the taxing power of governments”.

He doesn’t see his other major area of philanthropic activity, climate action, in the same light, believing reforms of individual habits and corporate behaviour (he backs a voluntary system of climate-related financial disclosures) are more material than any US federal support.

This past year I gave away $700m in terms of trying to help people

His faith in big business to do the right thing for the world is predicated in the belief that it is the right thing for it too.“I’m a believer that we do things for altruistic reasons, but we also do them for capitalistic reasons.” The biggest polluters in the world, coal-fired power plants, will be defeated “as much by economics” as by environmentalist pressure.

He seems to have taken some satisfaction last month in making a $4.5 million pledge to cover lapsed US commitments to the Paris Climate Accord. The message sent? Where this White House reneges, he steps in. “It wasn’t an awful lot of money, in all fairness,” he says.

Will he be paying the difference in future?

“I would like to see the president change his mind. Listen to some of his other advisers. If there is a chance of a terrible event down the road where the whole planet gets hotter and we can’t stop it, you would think that you would take prophylactic action today.” You would think so.

Independent

Bloomberg, a one-time Democrat who first ran for mayor on a Republican ticket, has been independent since 2007, describing himself as an “outsider” at the Democratic Convention, and his exploration of a potential presidential bid last time out was undone by the knowledge that a third-party candidate couldn’t win and would only muddy the result. Now 76, he has said his chances of running in 2020 are “not very high”. What would it take to increase them?

“I don’t know how to answer that. You wait and see,” he says, which does rather sound like there will be something to see.

After a pause, he clarifies: “I think if there is an opportunity to make a difference you have to think long and hard about it. But, look, I’ve got a pretty good life, and I can enjoy myself and do some good. This past year I gave away $700 million in terms of trying to help people, and that’s probably what I’m going to want to continue to do.”

Helping in his case has often meant donating to organisations fighting the policies of the current Republican regime. Gun control is one long-term cause – he has put $150 million into Everytown for Gun Safety, an alliance of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense and a group he co-founded in 2006 called Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

The gravest of expressions crosses his face when I bring up the subject of escalating gun violence, though he says progress has been made at local level. “It is very hard to make progress at national level in America because the NRA has co-opted the legislature.”

He has “always been a big supporter” of Planned Parenthood, the non-profit provider of reproductive healthcare and sex education that is under attack from the White House. Just as Ireland has voted itself into the pro-choice position – “and not by a squeaker,” as he observes – political conservatism is pushing parts of the US back the other way.

Right to choose

“Well you know where I am,” he says, surprised that I have brought up the topic, though someone had suggested to him earlier in the day that I would. “I’m not in favour of abortion, I don’t think anybody is in favour of abortion. I’m in favour of a woman’s right to choose…There’s a big constituency for a woman’s right to choose in America, and hopefully that will continue to win the day.”

As for the result of another recent referendum, he has already made his views plain, having described Brexit as “the single stupidest thing a country has ever done”, which is certainly unequivocal. “And then I added, ‘then we Trumped it’,” he says.

Does he see the influence of London waning as a financial centre after Brexit?

“Well, I don’t think it helps, but I don’t think it’s going to knock London off. Keep in mind London and New York are two enormous cities that have culture and communications and transportation and scale and excitement and great wealth, and that’s not going to change.”

Even if London “doesn’t get hurt”, however, it won’t grow as fast as if the UK stayed in the EU. “It’s insanity to walk away from 45 per cent of your market.”

Alongside the confused state of affairs in Westminster, Washington has this year brought us high-stakes global trade spats and nuclear threats via Twitter and it’s only June. Does it concern him that there’s more brinkmanship now in politics than we have seen in a while?

“I don’t know if that’s true. Generally, when you go back, you find that the good old days were not the good old days. Make America Great Again? It’s probably never been greater than it is today. It doesn’t mean you’re going to keep it great, it doesn’t mean you’re doing the right things today, but the good old days were not the good old days.”

So if I said my perception was that things feel less rational now, would that be wrong?

“Probably not far from the truth.”

They do feel a little crazier?

“I think a lot of the current administration’s policies are not well thought out. That would be a nice way to phrase it.”

Presidential race

He’s far from the only business figure to have been mentioned in connection with the next presidential race: former Starbucks chief Howard Schultz is the latest in a line that includes Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg (seems unlikely now) and Disney boss Bob Iger (same). Is this good? Do business people make good politicians?

“I don’t know what the question is,” he says. “Anybody has got a right to run. All you have to do is be a citizen, be born in the United States, and be over 35. Those are the requirements.”

But he views himself as a businessman first, not a politician? He is amused by the idea it would ever be otherwise. “Oh, I don’t think there’s any question, that’s what I am.”

Born in Boston on St Valentine’s Day, 1942, Bloomberg and his sister Marjorie were raised by Charlotte and William Bloomberg in a middle-class, suburban, Jewish home in the nearby city of Medford.

He paid his tuition for Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, through loans and by working as a parking attendant, and studied engineering. After Harvard Business School he was compelled to New York, hired for an entry-level job by investment bank Salomon Brothers in 1966. He rose his way up through equity trading and sales to head its information systems division.

After Salomon was sold in 1981, he was among the general partners who were let go – but with a sweet $10 million in cash and convertible bonds in his pocket.

Financial news network

He used $4 million of it to launch a financial information company called Innovative Market Systems, with Merrill Lynch as the first customer and investor. Renamed Bloomberg LP, the company later added a financial news network and other eponymous media enterprises, but it is the business of renting real-time financial data terminals at more than $20,000 each per year to roughly 325,000 bankers, traders and money managers that generates most of the company’s $9 billion in annual revenue. This helped him amass a personal fortune that these days is estimated at $50 billion.

I have had two bad days in my life. The day my father died, and the day my mother died

Once the disrupter, Bloomberg LP is now seen as a target for disruption, with a succession of start-ups awarded the epithet “Bloomberg killer”. So far this is more in recognition of their potential than their performance.

“Maybe someday one of them will be [a Bloomberg killer], I don’t know. All I can worry about is what we do. We just have to keep making the product better, and not let somebody else drive our agenda.”

During his three terms as mayor (the last enabled by the passing of legislation allowing for a third term), he stepped back from the running of Bloomberg LP, before returning to lead his business empire in 2014. Does he see himself holding onto it?

“Probably,” he says.

He owns a majority stake in the company, and gives the profits from it to Bloomberg Philanthropies. “Whether it’s before I die or after I die, the company will become the property of the foundation, but I don’t know if I want to rush that. I’m quite happy with the way it is.”

His day in Dublin has so far taken in a public interview with Pat Kenny at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, what seems to have been an enjoyable trip to the Áras to meet President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina, followed by a visit to the Harcourt Street offices of Bloomberg PolarLake (Bloomberg bought Irish web software firm PolarLake in 2012), where he gives an address to staff and shakes their hands as photographers circle. What’s next on his agenda? “Dinner,” he says. Then it’s a client event at IMMA.

Hard work

He knows luck is a factor in success, though of course he also believes that people make their own luck through hard work, and he doesn’t waste time, being a regular espouser of the benefits of delegation and zipping to the nub of whatever it is he wants to say as our conversation takes some handbrake turns. He doesn’t believe in could’ve-would’ve-should’ve or in dwelling on regrets.

“I have had two bad days in my life. The day my father died, and the day my mother died.”

That pivotal moment in his trajectory – his departure from the now-defunct Salomon Brothers – “turned out just fine”, he drolly notes.

He spent one last summer there, 37 years ago, planning. “I thought about what I was going to do, and I didn’t get upset. What was there to get upset about? What would be the purpose of being upset? It hurts you, and it doesn’t help anybody else.”

Name: Mike Bloomberg

Age: 76

Position: Bloomberg LP chief executive, UN special envoy for climate action, WHO global ambassador for non-communicable diseases. He was mayor of New York City from 2002 until 2013.

Family: His partner is Diana Taylor. He has two daughters, Emma and Georgina, by British ex-wife Susan Brown.

Something that might be expected: He has an extensive property portfolio.

Something that might surprise: His London house on Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk was once owned by novelist George Eliot.