Big Smoke

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

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.

Contingency Plans

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The jobs report came out last week. The good news: A quarter million new jobs and the unemployment rate dropped to 6.3%. The bad news: Average wages haven’t increased because during that time 800,000 people dropped out of the workforce altogether. In fact, this has been a trend for the last four years: The number of people leaving the workforce has exceeded the number of jobs the market has created.

President Obama can be credited with keeping the economy from collapsing and slowly but surely keeping things on track with anemic but positive jobs reports, but his net balance thus far since his inauguration is some 7 million jobs. During that same time, the labor force participation rate dropped from 66% to 62.8%, or approximately 7.5 million people. Being that our ‘officially’ unemployed population – those we still count as part of the workforce because they’re collecting unemployment – is 9.7 million, if the people who dropped out were still counted, we’d still be in double-digit unemployment at 10.5%, which would certainly explain why wages aren’t increasing.

Where are all these people going?

Goldman Sachs economist Jan Hatzius states that it’s largely due to worker discouragement and premature retirement – which are basically one and the same – as well as people taking advantage of federal and state programs for education and disability, which is to say they’re hiding from the problem. Joe Weisenthal at the Business Insider interpreted that to mean that this is a cyclical pattern, except labor force participation has been dropping since Clinton left office and is now matching a time when women were just entering the workforce in numbers. Similarly, downward wage pressure has been consistent since the 70s.

Both Hatzius and Weisenthal argue that the trend will reverse, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics states otherwise. While they agree that Baby Boomers are indeed reaching retirement age, they report that the labor force participation rate is dropping for all age groups except ages 55 and above: Gen Xers and Millenials aren’t matching the participation rates set by the Baby Boomers. The Fed cautions against overstating the effects of discouraged workers on the labor force participation rate but also agrees that the trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

Paul Krugman argued last December, however, that the Fed is likely understating the case about discouraged workers by pointing out how the economy looked in 1999: Simply put, it’s been a long downward spiral since then, where cyclical booms and busts have been more bust than boom. While the Great Recession prompted a lot of Boomers to retire early, Boomers have largely been hanging on long after retirement age mainly because of a paucity of retirement savings due to stagnant wages through our perennially depressed labor market. In all, the long-term problems of our consumer economy have carved deep scars in our society.

So how are these people surviving?

It’s arguable that they’re not, but James Surowiecki of the New Yorker argues that a great number of Americans are looking a lot like illegal immigrants in their home country: They exist through freelancing and taking odd jobs off the books. The “grey” or underground economy may yet account for some $2 trillion in activity, but carries with it the problems of informal work: Wages below the federal minimum, no legal recourse and no security. It’s a sad state that the American dream has reversed into something a fair bit more downwardly mobile, but without effective political recourse little can be done. That’s the problem with money dictating politics: The moment you need the government to step in to help you, you’re unable to petition the government to do so.

The Roots of Gentrification

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There is an ongoing online debate as to the nature of gentrification. While the effects of gentrification can be easily defined – namely, the physical replacement of a working-class population with that of a middle-class population – the origin of the phenomenon does not hold quite such a consensus of opinion.

Blogger Jeremiah Moss frames the argument as one of morals: He cites corporate-friendly policies by city aldermen coupled with a complacency from the gentrifiers themselves culminating in what he defines as “hypergentrification,” separate and distinct from the sort that changed SoHo or Park Slope in the 80s. In his debate with professor John Joe Schlichtman of DePaul University, the professor rejected moralist arguments concerning the gentrifiers themselves (and countered that many of the pundits arguing against gentrification are themselves gentrifiers) but rather suggests a general political under-representation of the original populations of affected neighborhoods – due to being their marginal economic status and and a tendency to be renters – leading to an inability for them to secure a space for themselves when the neighborhood shifts gear.

The blogger for Invisible Systems goes one further to say that it is not necessarily the fault of middle-class gentrifiers or rapacious landlords at all, but that of our economic model itself: Capitalism is at fault, for it presents a system in which simple aggregate self-interest will result in the displacement of the poor from any but the worst districts. Libertarians tend to conclude that such is not necessarily a bad thing, for the economic benefits outweigh the human costs. I, on the other hand, believe it to be an indictment of capitalism, for the benefits of urban living depends squarely on heterogenous circumstance occupying the same physical space: It is our daily reminder of otherness – across race and class lines – that allows us to tolerate, accept and ultimately humanize different people. Without it our cities do not have nearly the cultural capital they need.

However, I do not necessarily believe capitalism is entirely at fault, or, rather, I should say that the failures of capitalism are so structural that it is hard to even recognize our current system as capitalism, as for there to be capitalism there must be open competition. However, entrepreneurs are, by their very nature, anti-competitive. A prime example would be the current FCC debate on effectively rescinding net neutrality, which is quite clearly an anti-competitive move by internet service providers. The corruption comes in that the current appointed chairman of the FCC – Tom Wheeler – was himself a paid lobbyist for those very same ISPs. Indeed, Professor Martin Gilens of Princeton University has suggested in a recent paper, for instance, that we do not live in a democracy but rather an oligarchy, and that our political apparatus is currently set up specifically to marginalize popular will.

On a somewhat smaller scale, I have argued that landowners in New York have actively and aggressively lobbied the city government to halt development so as to maximize the value of their current properties, exacerbating the housing crisis and further unbalancing the economic equilibrium. This is more or less the argument of activist Nikolai Fedak, who argues that were restrictions to development lifted, the free market would have had a more organic solution to the housing crisis. However, there would have to be a will by developers to do so, and Journalist Steven Wishnia has pointed out several means by which New York City’s various incentives to build more affordable housing – the city’s 421a Program, for instance, or the state’s Mitchell-Lama program – have been corrupted by private companies not only to circumvent their stated mission of providing affordable housing but also to siphon public subsidies and tax abatements for the construction of luxury condominiums. Likewise, Bloomberg’s trickle-down means of attaching affordable housing to new private luxury developments in exchange for developer-friendly zoning relaxation has been ineffective to the point of being a Potemkin policy.

As such, it would appear that the impetus is then laid on government’s feet to unravel the knot of this particular issue, as capitalism cannot function without regulation and popular will cannot function without proportionate representation, and neither is evident. The city, at this juncture, would have to step in and build massive projects with a focus on co-operative housing in order to alleviate the issue, but the city itself can ill afford to build anything near to the demand required and the federal government is loathe to step in because their political power doesn’t really stem from populist will. On the whole, however, this isn’t necessarily an alien circumstance for the urban dispossessed: Anybody who rents knows what it feels like to live on borrowed time.

Much Ado About Untimely Deaths

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One of the more remarkable trends that I have noticed in my generation is that the more time an issue spends in the public eye, the less problematic that issue becomes: Media reports of cases seem to have an inverse relationship to the actual number of cases. For instance, while media reports of violent crime have steadily increased over the last few decades, violent crime itself currently hovers at historic lows. Similarly, According to a study published last week by the Alliance for Biking and Walking, New York City is one of the safest cities in America for bicyclists and pedestrians, despite our oft-reported public debate on the threat of our vehicular traffic.

This is, after all, a city that has caught on to the distressing fact that more New Yorkers die in traffic accidents than by firearms, though the numbers for both have dropped dramatically over the last ten years. For instance, in 2012, NYC saw 237 homicides by firearms, lower than the 274 killed in vehicular collisions, of which 155 were pedestrians or bicyclists. In an American city of 8.3 million, this is quite low. To put that into perspective, that year the city saw 84 deaths due to being hit by subway trains; a relatively rare and unique way to die. Meanwhile, drug overdose, a somewhat less-reported statistic, has triple the death rate of any one type of untimely, violent demise.

Of course, it can be argued that the lower instance of the afore-mentioned methods of dying are due to the widespread coverage and subsequent policy initiatives taken by the city: Gun deaths are down because of a police crackdown that has spanned three mayors; all of whom ran on a law-and-order ticket. Despite current criticisms, the last mayor did a great deal to making the city’s streets safer and encouraging mixed modes of transit – between the miles of bike lanes and the CitiBike deal, the landscape has changed a great deal for not a lot of monetary investment. But increased coverage can also possibly suggest less remunerative solutions.

Indeed, a recurring request is to retrofit city subways with safety gates so as to cut down on people falling onto the tracks. The coverage comes at a steady drumbeat after statistics have been publicized for the previous year, and comparisons are often made with subway systems around the world that do have them. The idea itself tends to grip the public conscience, from the harrowing tales of affected motormen to distressing videos of potential victims.

(Luckily, this man survived with minor injuries)

The only problem is, such a retrofit would cost well over a billion dollars to implement on the subway’s 468 stations – the most of any system in the world, with many double-platforms due to the unique express/local nature of the system – and would have issues lining up with the heterogenous rolling stock. By contrast, the systems that have them are relatively newly constructed, and have the privilege of greater public subsidy and government investment.

The question then boils down to “how much is a New Yorker’s life worth?” The price tag that particular project answers is $12 million; an egregiously costly endeavor. Treatment for drug addicts, by comparison, has a far more amenable cost/benefit ratio. New York is yet still one of the best states in terms of preventing death from drug overdose, yet more focus on that matter will likely provide greater dividends. Admittedly, it’s a morbid calculus to determine how best to spend money to prevent the deaths of the citizenry, but being that there’s a correlation of media attention and policy attention, it may behoove us to steer the discussion to ends which may have the largest impact: After all, it’s worked so well in the past.

Colorstruck and Conservative

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There are some things I pick up practically by cultural osmosis; things that are assumed – or, rather, not assumed but simply known – that to refute or question them becomes less an exercise in free discourse and more a declaration of one’s origins. It’s not a question of understanding the other point of view: That division has long been impossible to be breached.

There is a weird debate on the second tier of periodicals as to the nature and legacy of Obama’s presidency. I say second tier in that neither source is a Paper of Record, although the importance of such in these tumultuous times is becoming less and less pertinent. On one side is Jonathan Chait of New York magazine; on the other, Jamelle Bouie of Salon.com.

Chait argues in the abstract: With Obama’s terms has come a more overt marriage of “racial conservatism” with “ideological conservatism;” this is to say, the unthinking and kneejerk hatred of all of Obama’s policies has turned into a cultural demarcation wherein, while opposition speaks of his agenda (and legitimacy) in terms of policy, color yet remains the common element in their criticism.

He then muses upon the nature of the conceit of a “post-racial” America, as we the people watch an overt backlash and governmental dysfunction not seen since, well, the Civil War. While I am heartened in a sense by the 2012 elections in that, if there is an Cold War of race, the demographic winner is foregone, Chait makes the salient point that fiscal or social conservatives are barred from voting Republican solely because of the racial barrier: He sees a future, therein, in the Republican party, insofar as the liberal Democratic dog-whistle of racism will fail to work just as soon as the GOP bridges that gap.

Obama’s policies, after all, have a neoliberal, if pre-Reagan, vibe to them: He, like most technocratic Democrats of the Clinton era, is nigh indistinguishable from the Republican ethos, except for one major facet which is color. The implications are clear, in that respect, and while that may not be Chait’s ultimate point, that remains at the heart of his argument: Were we to somehow transcend the racial “obsession,” as he puts it, of which Obama is the eye of the storm, politics would not be terribly dissimilar from where we are now.

Bouie argues in the particular: The unprecedented turnout of the Black electorate during the 2008 and 2012 elections speak to a cultural divide that is more than just an odd and unfortunate juxtaposition of “racial” and “ideological” conservatism. The partisan fights of those inside the beltway are tangential to the real issue, and the real issue is that racial and ideological conservatism are fundamentally inextricable.

Evocative of Malcolm X’s quote that “you can’t have capitalism without racism,” Bouie argues that the debate cannot be rendered into the abstract, for it is at heart one of survival. Obama’s focus as eye of the storm then becomes an illustration of just how far we as a multicultural society yet need to progress before people can lower their defenses. He embodies the reason for which that gap simply cannot be bridged, not only because he is the wrong arbiter in the eyes of the opposition, but that he, and vicariously his policies, are categorically the wrong arbiter.

It goes without saying that Chait is white and Bouie is Black.

I am inclined to side with Bouie, for in my own way I have internalized just how impossible it is at this time and age to convince the likes of the opposition as to the means by which they are continuing to oppress people: The popularity of Ron Paul and folks who use the political moniker “independent” as “free-thinker” when they actually mean “libertarian” speaks to the ingrained complacency in maintaining the current inequity. You really don’t need to explain this to people of color. If they know anything in this world it is that.

I have argued before that class and race overlap more often than not, and this is not by chance but by design. Obama’s legacy will, no matter what happens next, be a milestone in American progressivism but, please, let us not oversell our progress.

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