Tuesday, October 18, 2011

One sharp mayor

Posted By on 10.18.11 at 09:44 AM

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  • Antediluvial
It's hard being super wealthy these days. The really rich are putting off putting on airs. They're driving the third car, trying to pass as two percenters, trying to hang in the safer company of the oppressed 99.

Rahm Emanuel can't keep a low profile. He has a city to run, a job that's gotten tougher with the Occupy Chicago protesters occasionally tying up traffic. And there's no hiding his one percent life.

In an interview with the Tribune editorial board last week, Emanuel said that while he doesn't "agree with the methodology or all the claims" of the Occupy Chicago protesters, he hears their anguish, and realizes that middle-class families are "literally living on a razor's edge."

A person might literally shave with a razor's edge—it's the best part of the razor to shave with. But anyone who's literally living on a razor's edge ought to get to the ER before the blood runs out.

The mayor was careful to say that he hears the anguish rather than feels the pain. He's never lived near the razor's edge, certainly not after making more than $16 million in two-and-a-half years as an investment banker. Though he'd just as soon not talk about that part of his resume right now.

Some commentators have said the Occupy Wall Street movement should be aiming its wrath at the political instead of the financial powers. Emanuel, as well as anyone, exemplifies how the two are intertwined. Money can lead to power, which can lead to more money, which can lead to more power. Emanuel grew up wealthy and with an interest in politics. Early on he showed the essential political talent: fund-raising. He spent his early career squeezing gifts out of one percenters—donations for Democratic congressional candidates, for Richard M. Daley's 1989 campaign for mayor, and for Bill Clinton's 1992 race for president. After working as a senior adviser for Clinton, he put in his hitch as an investment banker. His political work had won him friends on Wall Street who were happy to hire him despite his lack of an MBA or banking experience. He didn't do the banking gig because of personal desires for money, his brother Zeke assured Fortune in 2006: "He knew he needed money so that wouldn't be a problem while he was doing public service." You just can't do public service in this country if you have to worry about the razor's edge. Fortified with the $16 million, he returned to politics, serving in Congress and as President Obama's chief of staff. Then, with the help of many big gifts from one percenters, he cruised to his present public service job.

Given that background, small wonder that Emanuel has his reservations about the "methodology" and claims of the protesters.

The mayor has been linked with another sharp object recently. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's rhapsody about Rahm Sunday ("A Progressive in the Age of Austerity") ran under a drawing of a large hand guiding a scalpel through a downtown skyline. As my colleague Mark Bergen noted yesterday, Friedman extolled Emanuel's "cut and invest" strategy, which the columnist sees as a "microcosm of what the whole country will have to do for the next decade: find smart ways to invest in education and infrastructure to generate growth while cutting overall spending to balance the budget" with limited new taxes.

This boils down to: mayors, governors, and presidents will have to spend wisely. Time will tell whether Emanuel does that, but to hear Friedman, the mayor is halfway home. "The cuts are coming from long-padded city departments," the columnist wrote, "and are going to pay for more cops on the beat, longer school days and modernized subway stations—all designed to create more incentives for companies to create jobs in Chicago." Trimming fat and putting more cops on the beat: what cutting-edge ideas! Emanuel could save even more by taking his scalpel to his communications staff and letting Friedman handle his PR gratis.

"Almost every one of these ideas has been discussed and debated before," Emanuel acknowledged when he introduced his proposed budget last week. "But politics has stood in the way of their adoption. Maybe in the past, we could afford the political path. But we have come to the point where we can’t afford it any longer." Emanuel being against politics is like Jon Stewart being against comedy, but the mayor probably didn't mean it literally.

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