Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

The Midtown Bustle

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It’s five o’clock. Hot off a full shift, I wait for the opportunity of another full shift. There are twenty five of us, all told, in this dusty basement conference room. They asked for twenty five yesterday, they got twenty five today. There’s a project, the boss says, and it requires computer technicians. It did not take much to get us into the room. A phone call. Somewhere in the city there is another four hundred like us, if not four thousand, if not forty. Yet here we are, all of us in slacks, pointy shoes, ties.

College educated, technically trained and certified, day laborers. Preacher Krugman might have given a sermon on this.

There’s a giant inflatable rat sitting outside the building lobby, brought to bear by painters, ironworkers, something like that. A fairly pathetic rent-a-protest for skilled manual labor lucky enough to still be unionized. Even so, that’s far above us independent contractors, each with a paper identification badge with stamped plastic clip. It occurs to me: We’re not the coal-stokers I imagined for the great engine of commerce. We’re the coal.

This isn’t exactly a revelation. In fact, of my coworkers, I’m the outlier: The lifer, the one who came from New York and wants to stay in New York. The soft-spoken Haitian, who finally received the nickname of Rip Van Winkle, dismisses my observations that he’s burning the candle at both ends. He speaks of returning to his country in ten years for his wife and daughter. He sends them pictures of his morning commute so they know how hard he works. This is effectively indentured servitude for him, spoken of like a prison sentence. Nobody sees New York as anything but a paycheck.

Over the days, I keep gaining nicknames. Ichabod. Hair-oin. Plays on being lanky in the extreme with long hair. Everybody has nicknames. The ex-marine senior technician is good at doling them out. He’s effectively the field boss: Rising as far as he will career-wise, he has taken it upon himself to invest effort daily to make work bearable for everybody. So when Schroeder complains to Donkey about Twinkle Overbite on the fifteenth floor, the drudgery of the day is made just that much lighter.

The day laborers don’t get nicknames, however. There’s a level of fodder that defies even caricature.

The farce is necessary. In the last month, just about every permanent technician has blown up at least once. Leftie Communist growls about not getting a raise in five years, and whiles his time watching Hulu documentaries about Fidel Castro – there will be no guesses as to how he got his name. Schroeder cannot stand being directly supervised and grouses how there’s more bureaucratic protocol surrounding the work than actual work. The field boss is still practically six seconds away at any given moment from being called into the office of Human Resources. Every perceived slight is made hyper-sensitive because of everybody’s incredibly low status. Violence is prone to occur when one’s self-image is frustrated by one’s real status.

Rip Van Winkle and Church Clothes talk about moonlighting gigs; freelance IT support out in the world during brief moments of downtime from structured temporary gigs such as the one we’re on. Rip Van crows about the power he has to remotely shut down the servers of any client who gives him guff when it comes time to pay him. He’s been burned before about such things, though his means of retribution is the sort of action that’s liable to get him stabbed one day by people with even fewer scruples than he has.

All in all, there’s surprisingly little political discussion down in the bowels of this corporate office. Back in the public sector, politics were pretty much on everyone’s lips all day every day, mainly because everybody was either outspokenly socialist or outspokenly (and hypocritically) anti-socialist. Here, politics are supplanted by feelings. One does not speak of injustices. One feels slighted.

The Jamaican ex-teacher starts up one odd moment, as he is often wont to lecture, by admitting straight out that he’s homophobic. I joke that he’s not exactly the sort that’s liable to be hit on, but he relates this resentment to the idea not so much that they’re throwing their genitals in everybody’s face physically, but that they’re throwing their genitals in everybody’s face socially. That they succeeded where immigrants, Black men, and immigrant Black men in particular have struggled for far longer and with deeper consequence. That they dictate the shit on the news without having had to try nearly as hard.

He’s right, but he’s wrong. He’s wrong, but he’s right. It’s a politically perilous point, but it’s a sincere feeling, and not entirely without cause. The field boss and Donkey tend to rock back and forth between complaining about how much less stressful their jobs would be if pay was, say, 25% higher – with open supposition on how that would solve the structural problem concerning the revolving door of unmotivated new trainees – and complaining about how this horde of faceless temps half-ass everything and why the importance of a job well done is independent of the size of the paycheck. Yes, but no, but yes.

Such low level discussion is partly because everybody’s nose is so close to the grindstone. Such low level discussion is also partly because everybody’s afraid of looking too deeply into the situation – either in making connections with compatriots who might not be there tomorrow or in simply burning up from the anger. It’s a tenuous position, and most of the day is spent riding that line.

It’s hard to predict the future of this grist for the eternal mill. The City forced restauranteurs to pay tipped workers more – from obscenely below minimum wage to merely offensively below minimum wage – and Walmart staved off strikes and a potential federal investigation by raising wages from starvation level to semi-starvation level. Both are compromises that would end up costing their respective industries less than the actual cost of livable wages, just as investment banks have long since realized that paying penalties for grossly illegal activities costs less than the money earned from their grossly illegal activities. But where is the breaking point, if one still exists?

The Midtown Hustle

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It took nine business days to find a single black employee working above the first floor. Rather, it took me that long to find a single black male working above the first floor: Most people of color coming in, flashing their IDs and taking the elevators are young and female. There is plenty of melanin among the elevator operators, security guards, mailroom clerks, janitors and porters, natch; Some things never change.

The background check took ten days. It involved five years’ tax records, interviews with the last ten years’ worth of employers, calls to all listed higher educational institutions, records in federal and state law enforcement, a credit check and a urinalysis test. It was far more comprehensive and intrusive than that required for government work, but then this is far more important than one’s responsibility to the American public: We’re talking one’s responsibility to rich people’s money.

Practically as illustration, at this financial institution, there is a ban on the stock and commodities trading floors of all cellphones. This isn’t due to distraction or interference with the confluence of sensitive equipment on hand, but to keep the traders honest. The bank knew it had hired thieves – indeed, it’s counting on that; those lawyers aren’t just for show – but it took precautions that they steal for the bank, not from the bank.

Working for a contractor to a contractor to a contractor to said institution – itself a necessary precaution, this time against unionism; 50 hour workweeks are the bare minimum – placed me down in the bowels of the building, among men for whom no love was lost on the folks above, but whose distance from the top was so vast that they might as well be in different countries. Then again, maybe they are; who knows? It is also a respite for all the color: Upstairs gets folks from England, Brazil, Japan; downstairs gets Barbados, Jamaica, Haiti.

A senior tech, ex-marine, big black dude, incongruous loudmouth that defies corporate convention: Coworkers say he’s warming up to me because the first word out of his mouth when he sees me is no longer “douchebag.” He gave nicknames to the temps; mine is “ponytail.” A fellow temp, this poor black kid pegged as somebody who doesn’t know where he should be in life, is known as “church clothes,” because he came in for most of his first week in a manner of dress that was sorely unprofessional, making it up on Friday with the best clothes he owned.

Another temp, a skinny, snappy-dressed Haitian dude, hasn’t got one, however. That’s largely because he works 17 hours a day for two full-time jobs and commutes for a further three. Most of the time he’s quiet and the rest he’s napping in the corner. When he’s regarded at all, there’s a small sense of pity. Not much, though: Nobody in the office has less than two sources of income. Nobody can afford to. Overtime work is jealously hoarded, and rationed out lest the whole department simply work 24/7.

The Jamaican supervisor intimates to me that they’re looking for someone permanent. The ex-marine immediately chimes up that the only reason he likes me is because I’m half-black. The Barbadian tech asks who called me black, to which the ex-marine retorts, “his white half.” Another Jamaican tech points out that, with my knowledge, my accent and my skin color, I could be making a great deal more money creating and plying connections in his home country than working here. I reply that the Chinese have already formalized the process; he grins.

He’s colorstruck and aware of such. I’m colorstruck in reverse. We’re both in it for the money; under the prying eyes of ubiquitous security cameras but away from the prying eyes of true movers and shakers, stoking coal into the great engine that this economy is supposedly based upon. One day it may fail, in which case the ground floor may yet prove to be the best vantage.

Cuomo’s Political Ambitions

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo appears to be working overtime to push a more liberal agenda of late, what with his advocacy of a higher minimum wage and his excoriation of the ‘culture’ of conservatives, seemingly in reaction to the cooling of his relationship with progressives prior to his re-election campaign and the anemic voter turnout for the election itself over his callousness towards fracking, gun control and other issues, but nothing quite came out of left field as Cuomo’s declaration of a proposed LaGuardia Airport AirTrain.

Simply put, the plan sucks.

While it did exist as one of the many shelved plans for connecting our domestic airport by rail, it was perhaps the most unfeasible: Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic points out that it doesn’t actually save New Yorkers any time and Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas asks, if the governor has money for this, why can’t he fund the second phase of the Second Avenue Subway? This is most damning, especially since Cuomo just about laughed in the face of the MTA during their last budget proposal.

Indeed, it provides no benefits over the M60 SBS bus from Harlem and Astoria nor the Q70 LTD bus from Jackson Heights, both which cross many more subway lines, take far less time and cost less. Furthermore, unlike the JFK AirTrain, which connects to the Jamaica hub of the LIRR – ensuring quick and prompt service, as almost every line stops there on the way to termini in Brooklyn and Manhattan – as well as multiple express subway lines, Cuomo’s proposed LaG AirTrain would only connect with the Port Washington LIRR line, a remote spur that only receives quick service on days the Mets play, and the 7 line, which is currently at capacity, meaning airport commuters would be fighting for limited space with Flushing commuters.

Why, then, did he propose it? The most obvious answer is because, of all the routes possible, it is by far the most politically expedient, as nobody actually lives anywhere near the right-of-way and thus nobody would be likely to complain. After all, what killed the 1992 plan to extend the N train to LaGuardia were two blocks’ worth of NIMBYs who ended up galvanizing Queens councilmen across the borough to rally against the project. It may also be the cheapest, representing a mere 1.5 miles of track, though with the albatrosses looming above both the MTA’s and the Port Authority’s current capital projects, cost overruns are practically inevitable.

Cheap and easy, however, don’t make good plans. So what’s the real reason? As with Cuomo’s attempt to thread the needle with de Blasio’s plan to tax the rich to pay for universal pre-kindergarten, where he presented a rather cynical counter-proposal that effectively robbed Peter to pay Paul insofar as it would pay for one city initiative by defunding another, this appears to be a means to generate a paper legacy – however ill-conceived – to secure higher office. Indeed, provided you don’t look at the issue too closely, this sort of project would indeed be a feather in Cuomo’s cap that properly funding existing initiatives wouldn’t, as those would likely be credited elsewhere. Such appears to be the world of political gamesmanship.

Not that it’s particularly difficult to find other headlining but otherwise pointless efforts by Cuomo – his posturing over the Ebola scare foremost among them – nor of similar antics by another man vying for higher office: That of neighboring governor Chris Christie. The two have indeed collaborated together on a number of fruitless endeavors that have made headlines of late, including a similar ill-conceived AirTrain to Newark International Airport and paying lip service to reform the flagging Port Authority but reneging at the last second.

What is most distressing about Cuomo’s bad plan, however, is how much it gets in the way of better projects. Cuomo hinted that funding for his AirTrain would come from recent settlements New York concluded in suits against the malfeasance of foreign banks. If so, why not put that money to more deserving rail projects, like funding the MTA’s overhaul process post-Hurricane Sandy? There are many things that money could be spent on: Funding the next Second Avenue Subway phase, funding a desperately-needed tunnel under the Hudson River to Penn Station before the current ones run past their life expectancy – a problem Cuomo had very pointedly ignored thus far – or simply fixing some of the old decrepit stations left over from our legacy of deferred maintenance.

Moreover, it gets in the way of better plans to reach LaGuardia, such as blogger dZine’s proposal to double-back the N line to the Grand Central Parkway, thus avoiding any NIMBY issues while retaining the one-seat ride from Midtown, or a slight modification to simply create a spur at the Astoria Blvd station to do the same, utilizing the Astoria line’s heretofore unused express track for added capacity.

It would be a great moment in New York history to see a subway train fly over Grand Central Parkway, undoing Robert Moses’ ugly legacy with Long Island right-of-ways, and following the lead of Chicago’s Els as well as our very own JFK AirTrain over the Van Wyck Expressway. It doesn’t matter who gets it done or who gets credit for it, but it needs to be done right, and by no means should we simply settle for right now.

Casual Labor

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Colin Tooze of Uber defended his e-hail system’s price gouging plan today as “beneficial to consumers.” He argued that without a cost incentive, demand would simply flood supply and result in a service quality reduction. It is this reasoning, he surmised, that explained why a single taxi ride costing half the average New York City rent was not only warranted, but necessary.

Leave it to a millionaire to devise a service where money is no object. However, it fails the basic sniff test of supply and demand. The way Uber’s e-hail app works currently can only end in one of two ways; each of which is dependent on how the taxi system of the city is laid out, and neither of which makes sense:

In the first method, anybody with a driver’s license and signed up to Uber can accept e-hails. This then hews to demand by allowing the supply of liveries available at any one point to be completely malleable: When demand goes up, people who would otherwise not be cabbies get in their cars and accept e-hails. When demand goes down, those people apparently do something else to make their daily bread. This is how Uber expects every city except New York City to run.

In the second method, you need a Taxi & Limousine Commission license to run a livery, and Uber then supplements your dispatches and/or street hails with an e-hail system. This then hews to demand by allowing the supply of liveries available at any one point to auction to the highest bidder: When demand goes up, the price of the ride goes up. When demand goes down, the price of the ride goes down.

Either system disrupts existing taxi dispatches heavily without major long-term benefit to anybody but Uber’s shareholders. In the first system, the professional class of cabbies turns into casual day labor. Full-time hacks have complained about the interloper’s lack of regulatory compliance as well as the increased competition from non-professionals driving potential wages below subsistence.

In the second system, consumers lose out as the entire regulatory system is compromised: In New York City, a standardized fare system keeps cabbies from undercutting one another for fares, as well as keep the consumer from losing out due to unethical price gouging. Street hail guidelines explicitly forbid a cabbie from “shopping” for the right customer, and most importantly of all, the chance of successfully hailing a cab is roughly equalized for all customers. This maintains a consistent standard of service.

The humor is, both Uber solutions fail Economics 101. If supply were so malleable as to match demand by flooding the system with non-professional cabbies, then the prices need never rise. If the supply of professional cabbies were relatively non-malleable, then price gouging has little effect and service is by definition not improved overall: Profits are, but only for Uber.

These are, of course, only a few of the unintended consequences of such “disruptors” from Silicon Valley. The latest spat, for instance, between Uber and NYC’s TLC involved their reticence from handing over electronic trip records, which show where cabbies are picking up their charges. The TLC collects these records largely to enforce tax law compliance but also to regulate traffic flow so as not to foster gridlock. Indeed, the entire point of the medallion system was to limit the number of taxis in the city so as to limit the potential for gridlock.

Such was an imperfect system – the eventual cost of yellow cab medallions rose to the point where cruising only the most congested areas were deemed profitable, having the exact opposite of the intended effect – but Bloomberg’s Boro Taxi system was a rather elegant and popular solution to such. Uber’s e-hail app – working as it is as a backdoor street hail medallion – serves to undermine this by potentially allowing a great many more taxis than there are medallions to pick up hails in a very limited space.

They can and have been dismissed by the executives of the company, who by nature would view them as externalities: Issues that, while they adversely affect the cities the company does business in, do not adversely affect the company. The potential damages and injuries to consumers due to nonprofessional drivers is an externality to the company: They have taken pains not to be held responsible for the system they have fostered. This is a common element of the neoliberal politics of said “disruptive” tech firms. Our “sharing” economy is mainly for the benefit of a rich few, and a tragedy of the commons for the rest of us.

Take AirBnB: While it provides a casual market for “bed and breakfast” types who don’t want to go to expensive hotels while offering those who live in central cities a potential revenue stream, every risk is externalized either to the host or the traveler. These include the risk of having one’s place trashed (and being saddled with repair costs or voiding one’s lease) or discovering that a host is dangerous, eventualities for which AirBnB has effectively washed its hands: Its ratings system is the only guide users of the system have to assess risk.

It also circumvents zoning laws (turning residences into ersatz hotels,) taxes (by not paying hotel taxes,) and most damning, can only have a deleterious effect on both the housing supply as well as the housing costs of any urban area: Rooms and apartments that were for rent to long-term residents must now compete with far more lucrative transients, and the landlords who are willing to exploit this fact can thus raise rents on spaces in prime locations to new heights. This has the potential to destroy neighborhoods.

On the ground, it’s a tragedy of the commons: Increased costs for consumers (in terms of higher rents and cab fares) and decreased income for providers (in terms of increased competition from unregulated part-timers) are the name of the game. In the headquarters of the companies that made this system, on the other hand, they’re practically printing money. The first question anybody should ask when it comes to companies like this that undermine existing regulations and working professionals: Is this a 21st century economy or a 19th century economy?

The Road to Hell

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“You Americans are so obsessed about race!” He said, one or three drinks in him, “All you talk about is race. This is why you have such problems with racism.”

I had just met him, sitting at a friend’s birthday party in 2008 or so, held in some tony fried chicken joint in Koreatown. “We in France aren’t racist; it doesn’t dominate our discussion like it does here. We transcend race.”

“What about the riots in Clichy-sous-Bois?”

“Hooligans!”

Here, have some frustrated fulmination with your barbeque. My friend had, to save money in our lovely New York economy and also perhaps meet some of those illustriously cultured foreigners we hear so much about, decided to open up her home to a succession of young, self-important backpackers – prior even to the popularity of AirBnB. Her latest charge was this 20-something French boy.

To his credit, he had, with an incredible command of concision, explained to me everything I needed to know about French liberalism. We are brothers, France and America; recognizably siblings but clearly raised in different households. However, this creature opened my eyes to the incredible gaps that can manifest in an ostensibly liberal worldview. He had remarkably insightful comments about Austrian economic policies and plenty to say about the evils of American interventionism, but there was indeed a hole you could land a Boeing airliner in.

He provoked a strong feeling in me to be better than him, to prove myself better than him, his system, his entire culture. To defend my culture, the first step was to figure out if we had similar blind spots. The answer is holy shit yes. Indeed, while I watch the slow, inexorable death knell of the Republican Party, I expect the future of the newly-inherited country to be dictated as to what manner in which the big tent of the Democratic Party splits. It will split exactly where our liberal blind spot sits.

There is something to be said about good intentions. If I were to put the finger on the issue with American liberalism it is our paternalist interventionism – both abroad and domestically. Just as it is impossible to treat a Muslim with equality if one believes Islam is a religion that is incompatible with liberal society, so too do I see the sin of lowered expectations concerning minority public school children in the eyes of self-avowed New York liberals. Why?

Why do self-avowed New York liberals who eschew the fallacy of our meritocracy still apply its falsehood to the disadvantaged? It’s a problematic within liberalism where one can shroud oneself in the balm of being a good person without examining one’s own biases. Indeed, the idea of “good white people” is that very conceit, the one where we can quote Voltaire against Muslim extremists and put up protections for Jewish communities in response to the attack when Voltaire was virulently anti-Jewish himself.

Does that aspect of his person destroy his works? Not especially, but it’s certainly something that infused his character. Such double standards are similarly infused in our satire, at least as an undercurrent. It is such that I see the Democratic Party splitting into two camps: Those who can see that undercurrent for what it is, and those who can’t. France is our brother, but I would like to prove that we are the older brother.

Yankee Capitalist Pig-Dogs

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Voltaire’s “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” is certainly a prescient quote following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, insofar as the principle of free speech is necessary to run a free society. It is also a liberal conceit, insofar as the main social utility of free speech is critique of the government in service to creating better governance.

The American concept of free speech is conflated from that to everything, as American society is predicated on perhaps the most pure form of pluralism possible: A people united on the principles of ideology rather than race or creed. The grand experiment has largely been on whether such a thing can exist while inculcating so many disparate peoples, and the answer thus far has been a resounding affirmation.

It also means America is a system of strange dualities: A secular but not secularist nation, one that struggles with not only counter-cultures within its dominant society but also many parallel moieties to that society. Du Bois spoke of bridging those parallels, for instance of being both Black and American, and the difficulty of reconciling those realities to the point where society’s warring ideals are played out within each individual. In comparison, France, a unified culture and nation, is having issues coming to terms with its five million Muslim immigrants: It is feeling a cultural crisis much deeper than America, or at the very least is beginning to go through the issues America dealt with over a century ago and is further along in.

It’s this purview that makes the attack on Charlie Hebdo draw questions as to the muddy nature of such a system. To criticize the paper’s cheap and provocative lampoons of a beleaguered minority is to embolden further attacks on liberal society, but to solely criticize the attackers is to elevate such lampoons as trenchant critiques of a truly hostile otherness when it’s the very concept of otherness that’s the problem.

The closest American parallel to Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists would probably be puppeteer Jeff Dunham, whose broad-strokes caricatures (which include Ahmed the Dead Terrorist and Sweet Daddy Dee, a black pimp) have been criticized as being racially insensitive to the point of modern blackface, and who in response to such charges argued that he lampoons “everybody equally.” However, his other characters such a Bubba J, an alcoholic redneck, and Walter, a bigoted grandpa, didn’t address the charges that he is, in effect, “punching down;” choosing easy, acceptable targets marked primarily by the fact that his audiences don’t look like them. Unlike Charlie Hebdo, on the other hand, he largely lost his soapbox, and his TV show was cancelled due to lack of viewership.

His is an “us versus them” humor, and similarly, Charlie Hebdo also fostered something of an “us versus them” attitude, despite also going after such targets as the right-wing political party Front National. Indeed, one of the primary responses to the attacks is a reinvigoration of the criticism of conservative Islam and the rejection that such is racist or bigoted. Le Pen of the FN will, ironically, be quick to benefit from the attack, as well as those of the American right in what they see as something of a clash of civilizations in the vein of Samuel Huntington’s right-wing screed. George Bush’s “crusade” remark echoes in the distance.

It would appear that there is something of an unexplored or at least unspoken undercurrent in the liberal critique of Islam that is separate from the critique of Christianity or other religions, where Islam is bad not because it’s Christianity without the Enlightenment, but that Islam is bad because it’s foreign. Such prejudice rears its ugly head against secularists from Muslim countries as well as the millions of Muslims living without issue in western nations.

By contrast, New York is still likely the best example of “attracting flies with honey” with concern about such societal differences and the question of assimilation, especially when compared with Paris’ aggressive secularist policies. As far as religion goes, New York has effectively achieved the impossible: Muslims, Jews and Christians live in harmony without major issue, and while some racialist police programs have been the point of much criticism, the immigrant experience has largely been one of commonality, which has indeed fostered and promoted a general trend over the generations towards religion moderation.

This may, however, be because America can be argued as before as having a more fundamental pluralism than France’s singular nation/culture. New York is a cultural battleground; a melting pot within which great globules of otherness stew for long periods of time, slowly infusing the rest of the concoction with their unique flavor. While those bits and bobs never fully boil away, it is the boiling that defines the city and through it the country. The point, perhaps, is not full assimilation, for there is no “home culture” to assimilate to – we don’t even have a national language, on principle – and as such the act of being made welcome and lowering one’s guard – to moderate – is much easier and fluid.

There’s a joke by Irish comic Dylan Moran about the uniquely American brand of imperialism, where you have two members of the world’s oppressed underclass sitting in a bombed-out cafe devising means to destroy the Yankee capitalist pig-dogs, when ever so slowly a Starbucks gets built around them, and suddenly they’re Americans!

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