'Everybody Is Resistant to Change'

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg explains why he'll win you over on sodas, and everything else, in the end.

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Jake Chessum

The annual Brave Thinkers issue of the The Atlantic is out today, and the cover is a fantastic interview that editor-in-chief James Bennet did with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg about some of his boldest views and decisions. The full transcript is also available here, but below is our favorite exchange between the two, on the topic of all the public health-related bans, from smoking to soda size, that Bloomberg has pushed through since being elected mayor in 2001.

JB: 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?

MB: 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 --

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.

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.

About the Author

  • Sommer Mathis is editor of CityLab. Previously she spent five years editing and reporting on the D.C. metro area at DCist.com and TBD.com.