Bloomberg: To solve public problems, spend private money

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Michael Bloomberg (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
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Nicole Levy

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Michael Bloomberg, who spent three terms as mayor of New York City and has also given billions of dollars to charity, thinks philanthropy is the best way of bringing about change in America. 

"Having spent 12 years in government, I can tell you that the public sector traditionally has not innovated very well," said Bloomberg, whose foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, was ranked the most innovative company dedicated to social good by Fast Company in April.

Bloomberg was speaking to an audience of philanthropists gathered at the Hearst Tower for Town & Country's first philanthropy summit.

"Innovation by definition sometimes involves failure and if there's anything that scares elected officials, not to mention their consultants, it is failure," he said. "The press magnifies failure. They harp on it and they sensationalize it, and opponents exploit that, so politicians play it safe.”

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Elected officials are also reluctant to spend public money on untested ideas when budgets are already stretched to capacity, Bloomberg said.

The answer to that problem, in the opinion of the media magnate-turned-mayor, is to raise private-sector money to fund social experiments.

Bloomberg's foundation has, for example, backed an idea competition called the Mayors Challenge, which encourages cities to come up with solutions to their common problems and provides funding to implement the best recommendations.

“If you want to shake up Washington, you just have to stop playing by Washington's rules," Bloomberg told his audience. "You'd be better off playing by the rules that the AARP and the N.R.A. adopted long ago: take no prisoners, focus on one issue, decide what's important and put your money behind it. And I would urge all of you to do that.”

Bloomberg is, for the moment, particularly focused on the issue of gun violence, he said, citing inadequate background checks for gun owners as a significant social quandary.

In April, the New York Times reported that Bloomberg had committed $50 million to building a nationwide grassroots movement to unite voters against gun violence, and the former mayor gave the paper of record a reciprocal pat on the back for the op-ed piece it ran this morning, calling for stricter restrictions for gun ownership.

"There was actually a good editorial in The New York Times—you can write that and tell your editor—today pointing out there was a guy whose son was killed the other day in California and he said [to politicians] ... 'I don't care ... for your sympathy ... it's my kid that's dead. You've got to do something about it.'”

Bloomberg also had some feedback for the publication hosting the event: ”You never once put me on the cover of Town & Country," he told editor in chief Jay Fielden. "I don't see why not. Hugh Jackman got a cover and so did Prince Harry, so I wouldn't be the first ruggedly handsome international heartthrob on the cover of the magazine.”