Big Smoke

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

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.

Papers, Please

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A TSA agent lives on my street.

She was walking home from a shift with that gait of the neighborhood’s version of the 99% of us that are working stiffs – the local permutation is that the remaining 1% are Highly Visible Layabouts, aka hoods, for there are no rich people here – in that purposefully unflattering sweater-and-slacks combo that is designed to be dowdy in a way that dehumanizes its wearer, distills them into sewn shoulder patches and cheap epaulets.

Akin to most uniformed public servants, she’s forming the beginning of one of those truly impressive rear ends appropriate to somebody whose job it is to sit down for ten hours a day. That’s not to say her job is easy: She has to exude a form of malevolence while holding just short of actual aggression, a true front-line soldier of our Security Theater – that paramilitary arm of our Political Theater with all pomp and little to show for it besides the cowing of those obedients who long only to be cowed.

It is a fitting juxtaposition that she herself lives in a neighborhood that has only a tenuous grasp of the rule of law; a ‘hood one step removed from the base tribalism that the city aldermen keep tabs on through an occupying police army. They do so, of course, from their offices downtown; “may the lord bless and keep the czar… far away from us!” She is, however, necessarily separate from such an army: When those cops are off-duty, they decamp to their own cop-friendly neighborhoods – the kind with POW/MIA flags and VFW clubs. They drink in cop bars. They don’t cease being cops on a cultural level. She, on the other hand, appears to hang one hat at shift’s end and put on another. It’s just as well: Without the uniform, her skin color would probably mark her for random search anyway.

To think such agencies require working stiffs such as these! It’s clearly just a job, and a much needed one at that, for even the President has realized the inherent rot in our current jobless economic recovery, but it requires a compartmentalization of one’s public life. What goes on in uniform becomes unreal, like manning a phone-sex hotline: Furtive and anonymous and just a little illicit, under the guise of an authority that has it on good, well, authority that such roles are needed, but rather unconvincing in their explanation of just how they are needed.

Her Security Theater is not comforting to the locals, but then it isn’t meant for the locals. It’s meant for the folks downtown and their constituents. Were the political lines drawn up a bit different, it’d be like working as a border guard under the employ of your neighbor. Uptown, that foreign nation, full of malcontents looking to steal good downtown jobs from the correct folks. Why, they should require passports past 96th Street! And who would check them?

The Convenient Other

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The New York Times has, for the past week at least, offered a steady drumbeat of editorial and opinion articles on two on-again-off-again wars: The War on Gaza and the War on Drugs. The Times is ostensibly known for generally taking the liberal point of view, but their coverage on these two topics rather highlights particular liberal hangups. As it stands, for however the Times has become the poster child to conservatives of the liberal bias of the mainstream media, it comes as little surprise that the Times’ opinion on marijuana decriminalization had only been scooped on this point of view by the National Review by only eighteen years.

The common conceit is that Democrats argue only in terms of fairness and not how to make things work, and that Republicans are required to make the cold, hard decisions that governance requires. However, it tends to be the topics that Democrats agree with Republicans on that espouse the most irrational rationales and taboo subjects of the Democrat party. Both Israel and marijuana exist prominently among those subjects, and for similar reasons.

The greatest obstacle in the way of legalization of marijuana is that it eliminates the convenient prodding of ready-made boogeymen: Black people. Indeed, the Times’ latest missive on their ongoing series highlights this aspect of the legislative history on marijuana. The War on Drugs is fought on the image of violent, gang-affiliated minority street dealers. It’s no surprise that the places that have been most successful at decriminalizing pot also happen to be where local citizens are both liberal and overwhelmingly white, for that drug dealer image is not as thoroughly pervasive there.

Similarly, the greatest obstacle to peace in Israel and Palestine is it removes the convenient justifications for Israeli expansion: The Palestinian leadership. The ever-present threat of destruction at the hands of Hamas (or Fatah or Hezbollah or the PLO) is necessary for the continuance of right-wing politics and policies, for it silences the liberals. None of these organizations, however, represent a true existential threat; they simply don’t have the firepower. Nor are they meant to be true threats, just obstacles: Even when democratically elected, they’re represented as little more than Kalashnikov-wielding suicide-bombers.

In both cases is the opposing point of view marginalized. Direct statements from such are often-times omitted entirely. To depict the side in support of the Gaza incursion, the Times has offered an Israeli Defense Force attache and has quoted Israel’s US ambassador at length. To depict the side coming out against the incursion, the Times has offered a Jewish Israeli author and a Jewish American columnist. Most of the news on the matter comes from Ben Hubbard and Judi Rudoren. Hubbard also writes for the Times of Israel and Rudoren follows a Times tradition of placing a Jewish reporter in charge of the Jerusalem bureau. The dozens of news and opinion articles by such writers overwhelms the sole published statement by a Palestinian journalist and a Turkish professor. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opinions grace the paper on a daily basis, but only speculation on the opinions of either Hamas leader Khaled Mashal or Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas are given, and generally through the lens of Israeli columnists.

The Times’ opinion generally tends to boil down to “Israel has a right to defend itself, but…” and its two editorials on the subject rest on the opinion that the status quo is preferable to open warfare. Its coverage of John Kerry’s attempts at enforcing cease-fires and truces points out that the Hamas leadership views that the status quo is untenable, for it means the continued running of Gaza as an ersatz concentration camp. The Times editorial board generally agrees on this notion, but doesn’t provide a peaceable means to reach a more amenable conclusion except to surrender unconditionally to Israel.

This has direct parallels to the law-and-order coverage that the War on Drugs has long received: Run-down minority ghettos are starved for decent education, health care, jobs and social services, but the media speaks overwhelmingly of drugs and violence, both in straight number of news reports as well as proportional coverage. The Times has offered a retrospective its “evolving” view on marijuana, though not its coverage of minority neighborhoods such as Crown Heights and Brownsville. If the Palestinian question is framed primarily in terms of having terrorists rule the roost – with much ado on the fears of Israelis – so too has ‘hood’ Brooklyn been spoken of primarily in terms of having gangs rule the roost – with much ado on the fears of yuppies – with public outcry and public monies being funneled with that impression in mind.

The New York Times has generally viewed such neighborhoods like empires have viewed their colonies: Entities to be civilized whether their denizens like it or not. The point of view is invariably that of the gentrifiers, not the gentrifiees. They herald low crime and “livable spaces” while simultaneously lamenting the ousting of local populations under gentrification. “Stop and Frisk” was an annoyance, but not as much an annoyance as the perceived threat of crime. If their coverage of the hood continues along the path of their coverage of the strip, we’re likely to expect more lukewarm reservations on the abuses of power while tacitly sanctioning the inevitable crackdowns.

And Damn the Human Cost

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Another career Democrat got in the news for a horrific ethics scandal: Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the New York State Assembly – a position he’s held since I was in elementary school, for a career in the lower state house that rivals Congressman Charlie Rangel’s deep tendrils in the lower national house – stands caught touting a petty lie over his efforts to block the use of a large plot of land in the Lower East Side of Manhattan for affordable housing; instead intending to steer it towards the coffers of private interests of which he was allied and in so doing allowing those lots to stay vacant for almost fifty years.

To put it succinctly, and in Silver’s own words in 1980: “Are you crazy? We’ve got enough low income housing.” Oh, really.

The question that should be asked is how to punish a man who has not lost an election since 1977, due in large part because of the power of his political machine and the ethical, moral and demographic bankruptcy of the opposing party. In short, he’s got the city and the state by the short hairs, which is how scandals like this one originate. It is not terribly dissimilar to Charlie Rangel’s ethics scandal in 2008 – which involved his misappropriation of multiple rent-regulated apartments – for which he escaped voter censure handily.

In a political climate where Chuck Schumer, the “Senator from Wall Street,” could give a pass to investment bankers following the Great Recession due to political kickbacks and not be held accountable due to how secure he is in his position (and the blowback to the Democratic Party were he to be voted out) it’s difficult to see where the line can be drawn. In New York City, one such organization that takes it upon itself to police the liberalism of party Democrats – the Working Families Party – has been caught up in that very question when it comes to governor Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo’s multiple rebukes to mayor de Blasio can be interpreted as a courtship between him and state conservatives for the 2014 gubernatorial election in a bid to be seen as an apolitical centrist and thus a viable bid for higher office on down the line. This interpretation is buttressed by the fact that both parties see him as a “shoo-in” due to a lack of viable contenders, and thus there is little need for him to redefine himself. The Working Families Party would like to punish him for his raids on the MTA capital fund and his lack of support for issues related to housing and jobs in New York City, except they are concerned that if they should refuse to endorse him, they could possibly fail to received the required 50,000 votes to remain on state ballots and with it any possible influence in party politics.

They are, like most community groups, caught between playing politics to remain relevant, or staying true to their message and risking becoming irrelevant. This is, to me, a mark of how corrupting party politics is: From Obama’s continuation of deeply unpopular Bush-era policies in order to be seen as bipartisan on down to de Blasio’s unpopular choices in order to pay off political debts to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, playing politics appears to be the main thrust of governance and policy-making, and actual representation is less and less evident. Why should Democrats act like Democrats? Politically expedient decisions must be made, and damn the human cost.

But then, that is, I suppose, what one should expect from an oligarchy.

Created or Preserved

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Mayor de Blasio has unveiled his plan to get 200,000 units of affordable housing in this city. Like any plan from a Democrat, it’s better than any other plan offered, yet woefully insufficient to the task at hand and hamstrung before it’s even out the gates thanks to politics. It’s not even 200,000 new units of affordable housing, as was his original promise. It contains the magic words when it comes to the housing crisis of New York City, “Created or Preserved.”

What this means in a very basic sense is only 80,000 affordable units of housing are actually slated to be built over the next ten years. That doesn’t necessarily mean the remaining 120,000 is pointless and useless figure, but it does speak to a sort of “damn lies and statistics” disingenuity akin to President Obama’s bailout “creating or preserving” millions of jobs. It’s a way to get an optimistically large number, but as a “preserved job” is not a shovel-ready thing I can apply for, a preserved housing unit doesn’t represent progress on the housing front.

Mayor Bloomberg had the same issue: He “created or preserved” 165,000 units of affordable housing. Most people heard “created” but the actual units created under his signature Inclusionary Zoning program over the last ten years tally at a paltry 3470 affordable housing units. To put that in perspective, the subsidized housing development known as Co-op City has 15,372 units. Starrett City in Brooklyn has 5,881 units. During Bloomberg’s tenure, the city lost almost 400,000 affordable units to deregulation, which is the true story of his legacy.

(A new luxury building where decades of tax abatements are swapped for all of six affordable apartments)

This isn’t to say that those 80,000 units aren’t sorely needed: We still have a quarter million applicants in the housing lottery and an all-time high of 53,000 homeless people (who represent another unintended side effect of Bloomberg’s development plans). We’ll take what we can get, but it’s clear we need a whole lot more: The proposed new units wouldn’t even accommodate current demand, let alone projected demand over the next ten years, to say nothing of backsliding on existing units. The plan, however, is drawn up due to limitations in politics, not ability: As Christopher Robbins of the Gothamist reports,

Only $2.8 billion of the $41 billion is coming from Washington and Albany. Another $8.2 billion will come from the City. Private funding accounts for $30 billion of the plan’s $41 billion. While $1 billion of this will involve investment from the City’s pension funds, there is a telling section headed: “Partner with financial institutions.”

The scope of the city’s plans are limited by the lack of support from state and federal sources, and as governor Cuomo has blocked mayor de Blasio on all measures to raise taxes, the city has had to rely on private investors. The problem with this is that most of the programs suggested – the 421a tax incentive, and Mitchell-Lama – have already been criticized as giveaways to developers on the city’s dime for relatively little return.

This has resulted in a rather lopsided proposal: The Real Affordability for All coalition proposed a 50/50 division between low income tenants and tenants making up to $80,000. Mayor de Blasio’s plan is a modified one where it’s 20/30/50 between low income, moderate income and “middle income” tenants, respectively. Incongruously, according to their metrics, a “middle income” family of four starts at $100,681 and continues to $138,435, which is substantively higher than New York City’s median income of $89,000 for households of four.

New York City’s median household income overall is $51,865. Brooklyn’s is $45,215 and the Bronx brings up the rear at $34,300. The general rule of thumb for apartment affordability is 1/40th one’s annual income, and there are quite literally no available apartments for households of such means in the city, which for some has raised speculation as to how anybody can live in this city at all.

Unsurprisingly, however, the New York Times has presented a more fearful narrative as to the scope of de Blasio’s plans: They worry it’s too ambitious, and are concerned over livability:

What would the city look and feel like if builders built extrahigh and extradense? […] What would public-housing campuses be like if their open spaces were filled in? The city’s Housing Authority has a lot of “underused” land, but any development must preserve quality spaces and tenants’ dignity.

Of course, their own subscribers live in luxury apartments that just barely meet century-old tenement law, so the concern over the dignity of light and air seems a little comedic and likely indicative of ulterior motives – just as the Times’ exposé of de Blasio’s radical origins in the Sandinistas was worded with more than a little bite yet may have backfired as it gave him credence with disaffected liberals.

It remains to be seen if de Blasio can even follow through with what he’s proposed, though if nothing else it’s a start. Let us hope it’s enough of one.

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