07/26/2013 02:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Impulses Gone Wild: The Weiner Brand Is Bad for New York


I can't add anything new or interesting to the moral debate about Anthony Weiner's situation; every inch of this absurdist drama -- and indeed, it is a subject inseparable from the double entendre -- from the fraught intersection of personal behavior and public responsibility, to speculation about the motivations and psychological state of Huma Abedin, has been discussed and dissected to the point of scandal fatigue. (And in the case of the New York Post, pun fatigue.)

Whatever your personal opinions about whether Weiner's behavior should eliminate him from the race -- the New York Times thinks he must go -- I believe he should be eliminated from consideration because his brand would be destructive to the New York City brand, the greatest geographical brand asset in the world. In fact, Weiner's lack of discipline is a striking and risky metaphor for the undisciplined, licentious, out-of-control New York City that persisted in the public consciousness through its near-bankruptcy, and the crime-drenched, dysfunctional decades of the '60s and '70s.

New York City -- like any dense urban environment -- is a dangerous playground for impulses and instincts; it's a place where itches are easily scratched and fetishes fondled. Whether one's temptations are money, booze, sex, gambling, cronuts, or mid-century modern furniture, most people have to work at one form of impulse control or another. (Even if your impulses are less overtly destructive, like sleeping with your iPhone.}

Impulse control not in Anthony Weiner's wheelhouse, and a city that elects someone who has trouble with self-discipline is a making a dangerous cultural statement to the world. It took two mayors to reverse the global perception of a city run amok; in Freudian terms, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg restored New York City's superego, and kept its id under wraps. That especially holds for Bloomberg, who believes that government has an operative role in protecting us from our internal demons. He banned smoking in bars, forced restaurants to post calorie counts, tried to ban 16-ounce sugary soft drinks, and is now introducing a package of legislation to encourage New Yorkers to take the steps; the latter encouraged Jenny Xie to write in "Atlantic Cities" that Bloomberg has "finally reached Peak Nanny."

Bloomberg -- animated by the findings of behavioral scientists like Dan Ariely -- believes that people often act against their best interests, that they have cognitive biases that make them poorer and less healthy, and that government has a role in providing both small incentives and nudges to encourage affirmative behavior. (Bloomerg would propose legislation that would prohibit a camera phone being sold to one-time Congressional tweet offenders.)

Between the work of Giuliani the enforcer and Bloomberg the interventionist, the New York City brand is thriving. Violent crime -- which trashed the city's brand in the '70s and '80s -- has dropped to levels no one thought possible. Last year, there were 414 homicides, the lowest number since 1963 -- and maybe earlier -- since that was the year when reliable statistics were first kept.

The reinvention of New York City's brand created a parallel boom in tourism, and the numbers below tell the tale of what happens when a city gets its demons under control. (For 2012, the total number is up to 52 million.)

And yes, I am well aware of the controversies surrounding this turnaround - those who think we've turned into a theme park, and those who point to the racial profiling behind stop-and-frisk - but the extent of the economic resurgence, the sheer number of people from around the world who are moving here and bringing ideas and vitality and entrepreneurship, makes this one of the most remarkable urban reversals in history.


New York is a city of such chaotic energy and seductive temptations that restraint at the top is essential to balance those forces. And the city's brand, at best, represents a healthy tension between those polarities. But Anthony Weiner's brand is straight out of New York in the 1970s; he's a man without brakes, surrendering to the call of the night, racing downhill fast, promising it's the last time, a junkie. Some (even many) may resist and resent Mike Bloomberg's finger wagging, but at least his finger is a digit of discipline. Electing Weiner would be voting for every tabloid headline of the dismal past, putting the addict in charge of the rehab program.