What’s the Matter With Bill de Blasio?

The Progressive-Leaning Democrat has more in common with Donald Trump than you might think.

Willful bungling of the coronavirus crisis cuts across ideologies and political parties. That’s the lesson that we learn from the story of Bill de Blasio. He is very different, across many different dimensions, than Donald Trump. But it turns out that he shares something important with Trump: a tendency to place personality over expertise.

De Blasio’s initial reaction to the coronavirus was a lot more  Donald Trump than Jay Inslee. Washington State Governor Inslee faced an outbreak at around the same time and responded decisively.   De Blasio, like Trump, seemed more concerned about the economic impact of control measures than with the virus itself. At the beginning of March, De Blasio said the virus couldn’t be spread through casual contact in public places. A week later, as the disease was spreading rapidly in the city, he was still telling people to take basic precautions but otherwise go about their business.

As evidence of the threat to the city grew, de Blasio continued to spread false optimism. He told New Yorkers to “go about their lives” if they weren’t sick. On March 10, he did reluctantly close gyms, but he made one final visit to his own gym before the closure. The message to New Yorkers until the middle of March was to take moderate precautions but not to change their everyday lives.  By then, the disease was everywhere in the city.

While Jay Inslee in Washington began to encourage social distancing early on, de Blasio actively discouraged it. He finally did take action, but he waited until the epidemic had already begun to explode. By the time de Blasio responded to the desperate pleading of aides and closed the schools, New York City already had more than 2500 confirmed cases. In contrast, Inslee closed the schools when his state had only a third as many cases.

In the early stages of the outbreak, de Blasio relied heavily on Dr. Mitchell Katz, the head of New York City’s public hospital system. Katz advised de Blasio to do nothing about the outbreak:

“We have to accept that unless a vaccine is rapidly developed, large numbers of people will get infected. The good thing is greater than 99 percent will recover without harm. Once people recover they will have immunity. The immunity will protect the herd.”

That strategy would have resulted in about 5.4 million infected individuals in the city and more than 54,000 deaths.

De Blasio’s faith in the head of the hospital system is apparently undented. Two weeks ago, de Blasio decided to take the job of contact tracing away from the city’s public health department and give it to the hospital system, according to the NY Times

“Epidemiologists, former public health officials and the city comptroller criticized the move, pointing out that the Health Department has for decades expertly performed contact tracing for diseases like tuberculosis and H.I.V., and had been preparing for two weeks to run the expanded tracing operation for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.”

The mayor’s reasons for the shift seem to come down to personality. He likes the head of the hospital system, who gives him crisp, decisive, clear advice and doesn’t trouble him with uncertainties or evidence.

In contrast, according to the Times, de Blasio has never liked the public health department. Apparently, it didn’t jump to implement some of his pet policies, on the annoying grounds that they had no supporting evidence. According to the Times,

“Current and former administration officials said the conflict stemmed from Mr. de Blasio’s apparent distrust of experts and his dissatisfaction with public health recommendations, which are often based on scientific analysis of imperfect and at times incomplete information.

Personality-based decision making? Disdain for experts? Impatience toward evidence? They all sound pretty familiar, don’t they?

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Reader Comments

One Reply to “What’s the Matter With Bill de Blasio?”

  1. Prof. Farber, very interesting that your post requires social sciences expertise, I didn’t know you were an academic with those credentials. Congratulations, that fact is of great importance at a time when we are experiencing the greatest human tragedies in history due to out of control numbers of global warming and pandemic sicknesses and deaths because our political leaders aren’t acting upon science based warnings, resulting in 10s of thousands to millions of lives damaged and lost as a consequence.

    As I am sure you also realize, of paramount importance, lessons of history have documented that if we don’t have political or intellectual leaders that can inform, educate and motivate our citizens to support leaders who can minimize and overcome the warnings then we can lose our civilization as the ultimate consequence.

    With your social sciences expertise, I am sure you also realize that there are many factors that contribute to our existing decline and fall such as the power of money, corruption, inequalities, Us/Them dichotomies and failures to evolve faster than our abilities to destroy ourselves.

    Also, one of the greatest failure modes today is the fact that our information systems give us more information than we can understand the consequences of and act upon with the required sense of urgency without the leadership we need to perpetuate an acceptable quality of life in this century, especially since far too many fail to understand future consequences that must be overcome with the greatest sense of urgency today.

    I look forward to your use of your additional social sciences expertise to lead us to overcome our current failure modes before time runs out for our civilization.

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About Dan

Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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