Hank Paulson and Michael Bloomberg discuss major policy initiatives at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts on March 4.
Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman, philanthropist and New York City Mayor was on campus on March 4 for a talk hosted by former Treasury Secretary and Paulson Institute Chairman Hank Paulson.
Paulson interviewed Bloomberg on stage in front of several hundred University of Chicago students for about an hour, before inviting questions from the audience. The two discussed topics ranging from gun control to the obesity epidemic, to Bloomberg's thoughts on leadership in the public and private sector.
On gun control, a topic to which the Mayor has devoted considerable energy, Bloomberg said there is too much focus on assault weapons and not enough on handguns. He cited the fact that there are about 400 deaths a year from assault weapons and nearly 12,000 from handguns. He also addressed the difficulty of attacking the issue at the state and local level.
"The mobility of guns makes this a national issue," said Bloomberg. "It's easy to buy a gun in a low regulation state and carry it to a high regulation state."
Bloomberg said the first step should be more stringent background checks and closing loopholes: "Forty percent of gun sales today are at gun shows or over the internet."
These are venues that do not require background checks. Still, he touted the success that New York has had on combatting gun violence through strict limits on handguns, noting that the city has one-half the national suicide rate, which is largely because it has one-tenth the gun suicide rate.
Bloomberg and Paulson briefly touched on the controversial "stop and frisk" policies implemented in New York. Under these procedures, police officers in New York may stop people whom they reasonably suspect have committed or are about to commit a crime and search them. Some question whether the practice violates the constitutional prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure and if it unfairly targets minorities. Bloomberg said the NYPD naturally gravitates to high crime areas which also happen to have high minority populations. Bloomberg continued that there is actually strong support for the practices, especially from older minority residents worried about their children, and that the practice has resulted in large volumes of illegal guns being taken off the street.
Paulson then turned to a topic that was one of Bloomberg's more controversial recent moves – his campaign against large format sugary drinks and a ban on sodas over a certain size. Critics said the ban was paternalistic and antithetical to personal freedom. Bloomberg contended the risks of obesity required action: "for the first time in human history, obesity will kill more people this year than starvation." In response to critiques that the law represents government overreach, Bloomberg disagreed.
"We're not banning anything," he said, noting that people are free to purchase multiple smaller beverages. "We're simply educating them on what is good for them. Government gets involved in a lot of things, and there must be a balance, but it's our job to tell people what is good for them."
Paulson then asked Bloomberg, who is the founder of Bloomberg L.P., for the biggest differences between leading in the private sector and leading in government.
Bloomberg said there are more similarities than differences, relating this in a quip that had the audience in laughter: "Government is a dog eat dog world. Business is just the opposite."
Bloomberg said that, at the end of the day, leadership in both sectors hinges on the fact that people want recognition and respect for their work.
"If you want to have people help you throughout your life," he said "you have to give them credit. You have to bring people along." He also cautioned against leaders worrying too much about popular response to their ideas.
"People are afraid of changes," he said.
Leaders in both the public and private sector sometimes need to execute on the ideas that they are passionate about, and then convince people with the results. As an example, he noted the New York City smoking ban, which prohibits smoking in public spaces including parks and beaches, along with restaurants and bars.
"At first it was not popular at all. Now we couldn't roll it back if we wanted to. People love it."
Relatedly, Bloomberg noted the difficulties that social media presents to leaders. The ease of access to information and the speed of that information can make governing difficult. Politicians have less time to let policy changes sink in, lacking the cushion to carry out controversial policies and wait for the results to speak for themselves.
Finally, Paulson asked the Mayor if he thought the country would ultimately resolve its long-running fiscal difficulties, which appear to be intractable at the moment. Bloomberg was optimistic.
"America has had a democracy for over 235 years, I think we'll be ok in the end," he said. However, he did admit that the solution may not be right around the corner, quipping, "You can always count on this country to do the right thing after all other options are exhausted."