Big Smoke

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

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?

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!

Are We Charlie?

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On the subway lately, I had crossed paths with folks just recently come from a sympathetic rally in support of France after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo. A mother and her daughter were carrying black placards upon which the phrase “We Are Charlie” was printed in white.

Are we Charlie?

The first comparisons I suspect New Yorkers would make concerning the likes of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo (ie, “Charia Hebdo,” ie “Sharia Law”) would be our most famed satirists such as Jon Stewart, or our editorial cartoonists such as Jeff Danzinger: Indeed, the ability to lampoon those in power through humor is one of the most hallowed traditions of what we consider a free society.

That said, upon further review, the comparison felt a bit off to me. When I open gocomics.com or thedailyshow.com and the like, the targets generally tend to be politicians, members of the mainstream media, corporate flacks and general machers of state and industry. When I watch comedians tear into society they tend to go after fissures laid bare through power dynamics. To me, satire has always been inextricable from speaking truth to power: Jonathan Swift may have flacked for the Tories, but we remember him most for using his words to excoriate the ruling British.

I’m not terribly certain I can use the term “satire” for what the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo did. Their primary target was an entire religion. A comparison may be made to the likes of Bill Maher, who regularly mocks militant religious extremists, but his schtick was ultimately aimed at what he saw as the common problem of all religion, and to that end he directed his ire to their power structures. Jon Stewart satirized the powerful. Charlie Hebdo calumniated an entire people.

It goes without saying that nothing deserves such a craven, vicious attack as what the offices of Charlie Hebdo received, and it also goes without saying that whatever message the terrorists have tried to impart was most certainly lost through their actions, but it’s difficult for me to look at France’s colonial past and their current treatment of Muslim citizens and immigrants and not see a pattern of humiliation and deprivation that exacerbates the social rift that French pundits commonly rail against when they speak of assimilation.

Tastelessness is not illegal, of course, and if anybody can be said to embody the liberal principles of French society, it would be that of officer Ahmed Merabet, who died protecting a paper that regularly trashed his faith. However, tastelessness is tasteless, and while it is a common comedic element to use shocking and tasteless material in service of a greater point, it is another thing entirely to use shocking and tasteless material in service of shocking and tasteless points.

And indeed, while it is one thing to speak for the freedom of speech upon which our liberal societies are based, it is another to use such an attack to lionize such voices to further more calumnies. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for Muslims in France before, and it’s going to get a lot harder for them after – and who exactly is to blame for that, really?

Fiver and Tenned

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Like all New Yorkers, I’m beholden to a number of de facto monopolies that have all, ostensibly, come on hard times and need my money to survive. I’d only be all too happy to oblige except, y’know, for all the profits they’re posting.

First and foremost, of course, comes Time Warner Cable, second only to Cablevision in terms of practices one would expect from a Lex Luthor-style supervillain. They’ve been hurting of late: Those pesky millennials don’t get cable subscriptions – and CBS and HBO have decided to cut out the middle-man – so they have to get their pound of flesh somehow. Say hello to rental fees, subscription fees, and variable rates of service!

It used to be that the broadcast channels were free for anybody with rabbit ears, set-top boxes were included with the service, and internet was equivalent to most international rates: Around $15 a month. Now, broadcast channels cost $10, set-top boxes have their own fee – plus fees for installation and troubleshooting – and the cheapest internet costs more than $50 a month, not including a separate modem rental fee at more than $6 monthly. Furthermore, they’ve been harassing producers on the other end, with ultimatums to MSG, Disney and others leading to blackouts.

Like a toddler in the middle of a tantrum, they demanded their profits remain constant as their business model withered away, reminiscent of the RIAA’s lawsuit-happy way of defending a dying industry. It’s just as well, though; their cabal compatriots – and by that I mean their competitors – have had an even more egregiously deleterious model through the means of “retention specialists.” That title refers to people who are in the employ of the company for the express purpose of making it difficult to quit the company’s service. How dare you, after all? They have quarterly reports to think about!

I was recently given a thick letter by CitiBank, which is never good considering the last thick letter I’ve ever received was my acceptance to university. The letter included a manual of my “new account,” as they were phasing out the EZ Checking Account. Why? Because consumer banking isn’t as profitable as they were hoping – despite posting better than expected profits in April. Of course, they posted massive losses in June thanks to the $7 billion in fines they were made to pay by the US government for their hinky practices with mortgage securities, and they had been found to have been insufficiently buttressed against another 2008 mortgage crisis by the Federal Reserve in July, natch.

Add to that their being trounced in consumer banking by local players in the Korean and Japanese markets, and they had to find a way to shore up their profit margins somehow. Thankfully, they can simply decree that us locals pay more! Now, it costs $25 every month I have a balance under $10,000 and $2.50 every time I use an ATM not in a CitiBank branch – on top of the ATM’s own fees. I’m sure I can switch to Chase – with the most branches per capita in New York City – except Chase had to pay $13 billion in fines for their part in the 2008 financial and economic crisis and soon they will find a way to defray those costs themselves.

If that were not enough, there is still Consolidated Edison, which, true to their namesake, looks for every means to maximize profits. As part of the general deregulation of the energy industry, not a week goes by that a representative of an oil company from Texas or a solar company from New Jersey comes knocking on my door talking of lower initial rates that immediately become variable about three or four months in once I’ve forgotten what I signed up for – complete with fees to make it difficult to switch once the new rates apply, natch – which is just as well, because Con Ed themselves have decided to double my rates since this time last year.

If this all feels like a treadmill that slowly increases the incline, that’s because that’s exactly what it is. The term “nickel and dimed” is now obsolete: The decimal place has to be moved a couple spaces over to be updated properly. Barbara Ehrenreich was prescient in her analysis, but we’re accelerating if nothing else: All this works primarily as a tax on a poverty – if you exist in modern society, these are intractible costs, and the service providers know it. The only question is how much blood one can squeeze from a stone: How much internet can you steal? How long can the electricity bill go unpaid before you’re off the network (and subject to a whole new suite of fees?) And most importantly, can you even house your money without paying money?

To be a working person in this city is to set a foundation in quicksand. As our inequality increases, as it indeed becomes more expensive to be poor, surely something can – must – will be done.

Stuck In the Middle

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If I didn’t know better, I’d think July was Police Brutality Month.

Hot summers tend to make New Yorkers crazy, and while today hasn’t been the hottest, it’s up there, and thanks to the prevalence of smartphones and security cameras, the city gets front row seats to every time some hood pulls a gun on some other hood in the street in broad daylight – and we’ve had our fair share of that thus far this summer. However, those same cameras appear to be pulling the duty of the oft-suggested lapel cameras suggested during de Blasio’s mayoral campaign.

Aside from the choking death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner for the egregious offense of selling untaxed loosies (which, to the unversed, are single cigarettes, ie: not in a pack), instantly reminding all New Yorkers of Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing, there have been close to a dozen taped accounts of police brutality coming to light in the past month. To name a(n un)healthy cross-section, Ronald John was punched in the face and held in an illegal chokehold for jumping a turnstile, Javier Payne was sent through a hookah store window on a stop-and-frisk altercation, Jahmiel Cuffee was stomped on the face while restrained for a stop that began when he was spotted rolling a joint, Denise Stewart was forcibly dragged naked out of her apartment by a cadre of cops for a child abuse claim that Child Protective Services determined was unfounded, Stefon Luckey was arrested on no charges and pepper-sprayed while handcuffed after complying with police orders not to interfere with their traffic summons on his brother, Ehud Halevy was struck more than fifty times by police on a false arrest, and an un-named Black man was beaten on the head with a baton for being belligerent after being cited for sleeping on an empty F train.

In addition, Richard Gonzalez was denied insulin while in custody for a false arrest to the point where he had to go to the hospital and EMTs had to intervene after cops beat a man handcuffed and strapped to a gurney for spitting on them. This regular occurrence of police overreach in the media has fulminated into a strong public interest, for which studies have come out pointing to over a thousand complaints to the Civilian Complaint Review Board about illegal chokeholds over the last five years, on stops that have largely been minor “quality of life” violations. This has prompted Police Commissioner Bratton to give a full-throated defense of the “Broken Windows” theory, which has put former Sandinista and current Mayor de Blasio in a tight spot. Can this ostensibly liberal mayor who is still learning on the job put a stopper on his Law-and-Order appointee?

As if to illustrate this conundrum, and to provide quite a bit  of political theatre, de Blasio found himself literally sitting between Bratton and Al Sharpton, who pointedly remarked that his son Dante would be a primary target for the NYPD were he not related to the mayor. Further raising the stakes are the NYPD’s efforts to arrest Ramsey Orta, the man who taped Eric Garner’s death, on suspicious charges, as well as his wife Chrissie Ortiz, on successive days after Garner’s death was deemed a homicide. Orta and Ortiz claim harassment – that the police were giving them undue scrutiny as punishment for their centrality to the case against their own – and this claim is bolstered by the speed at which the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association spokesman Patrick Lynch sought to use their arrests to exonerate the policemen.

If all this wasn’t enough, the general mistrust of the law enforcement and justice system has extended to the prison system as well, with Riker’s Island due for another riot, and questions as to the treatment of prisoners which are mostly minorities on non-violent drug offenses. The narrative that all this brings is that of a culture of repression against minorities and the poor, which is precisely the issue that de Blasio ran and won his position on. To say the least, de Blasio has his plate full.

That said, he may end up showing just how quickly he has learned: Officials have deemed Garner’s death a homicide, and while a homicide alone does not necessarily mean a murder, the implications are clear: If policemen are to be charged for the strangling death of this man, such an autopsy result would be both a first step and a signal as to political intent. As such, the public announcement was likely made with the knowledge of the next steps involved. An indictment and a jury trial of the offending officers would do much to balance the mayor’s choice of police commissioner with his responsibility to prove to the citizens of New York that, ultimately, he is in charge, not Bratton. This was, indeed, a vaunted issue during de Blasio’s first weeks in office – whether or not he could bring Bratton to heel – and now would be a particularly timely moment for him to prove it.

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