A review by DAVID LEONHARDT
SEPT. 13, 2017
A Billionaire’s Ambition
By Chris McNickle
444 pp. Skyhorse. $27.99.
Michael Bloomberg ended up running the information technology department at Salomon Brothers partly as a punishment. It was 1979, and he had already had a highly successful 13-year career at the firm, after joining it out of Harvard Business School. But he had also made enemies. The other Salomon partners decided to put him in charge of a department that “was a critical function to be sure,” as Chris McNickle writes in “Bloomberg: A Billionaire’s Ambition,” “but far removed from the glory of the trades and the deals that made the firm money.” Two years later, they eased him out of the company, albeit with a $10 million goodbye.
Information technology was a good fit for Bloomberg. He had always liked data and analysis. As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University in the early 1960s, he first planned to be a physics major before switching to electrical engineering. The experience of running Salomon’s technology department underscored to him how valuable data could be. It also made him think there was a business opportunity: giving people on Wall Street better information than they had. Bloomberg believed more numbers and facts would allow traders to make better decisions. They, in turn, would pay handsomely for the information.
And so he founded a company that made computers designed to fit on a trader’s desk, which wasn’t easy in the bulky computing days of the early 1980s. “The Bloombergs,” as they were known, provided traders with information about the bond market. Eventually, the company grew far beyond the bond market and made Bloomberg a billionaire, the richest man in New York.
His belief in the power of information has remained the closest thing to an unshakable ideology for Bloomberg. As New York’s mayor for 12 years, he tried to use data, facts and analysis to transform an enormous, dynamic city.
He famously got rid of most offices at City Hall, sitting in open cubicles alongside his aides (as he had at his company) largely so that he and they both would be in the midst of an information flow. Upon taking office, he was aghast to discover that no one could tell him how many people worked for the City of New York; his staff soon changed that, creating a registry of city workers. In one area after another — the use of the waterfront, the zoning of buildings, public health, transportation and, most famously, policing and schools — Bloomberg used information as his primary tool of governance. As one poverty expert said, Bloomberg tried to “build a culture of evidence.”
Bloomberg’s mayoralty began less than four months after 9/11 and spanned most of the presidencies of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as the worst financial crisis in 70 years. Bloomberg has been out of office less than a full term, and yet his tenure already seems in some ways to be out of another time.
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