Big Smoke

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

Who Gives a Shit?

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The New York Times is perhaps giving this rehash of the same Weiner scandal more gravity than it’s worth, but then excoriating Democrats is perhaps the low-hanging fruit of political reporting: Having a tiny modicum of self-regard, Dems cave to truthful accusations like it actually mattered. I’m not saying Mark Sanford should be a role model, but for fuck’s sake: Mark Sanford is a role model in how it really does not matter if you simply don’t give a fuck.

In a city where bankers can sink the entire economy, take federal zero-interest bailouts, and still complain about the “mooching class,” where term limits can be sidestepped by the depth of one man’s pockets, where the world’s most expensive luxury condominiums are getting tax breaks, and where Donald Trump exists, do we really think that this sexting scandal is what’s bringing us down?

Not only is this perhaps the tamest sex scandal in the history of politics – for starters, there’s no actual sex – but when it comes to personal foibles, I think narcissism is more or less par for the course in politics – if not a job requirement. Do I think Weiner’s a predator? Hell, this scandal came out just now because the woman wanted a condo out of him and he didn’t oblige. If it was predation, it was mutual. That does make him an idiot, but that never stopped anybody from achieving office before.

It’s almost heartening, in a way, that we’ve flung open the closets and shaken out the skeletons and all we have are ridiculous online flirts. Maybe the Times should do an opinion piece on how the current guy in office is screwing us all, not just teasing to.

This Seems Familiar

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Hot on the heels of the United Federation of Teachers’ annual union rally this past Sunday, Hizzoner Bloomberg’s threatened yet another massive round of cuts to the schools and 2,500 teacher layoffs.

I can’t help but feel I’ve heard this one before, and though I’m no longer on the chopping block like I was the last two times he demanded his pound of flesh from the schools, it’s disheartening to see that no real progress has been made in the interim. It really is, consequently, a two year cycle: I was laid off in 2011 after a round of ultimatums between the NYCDoE and the UFT, and I was laid off in 2009 after a round of ultimatums between the NYCDoE and the UFT. Each time, the school budgets were cut, but the teachers’ jobs were saved, meaning that DC37 – the support staff – had to make up the gap.

I’m not surprised that Bloomberg is continuing to use this plan, as it’s worked for him in the past and, as a lame duck and a long shot for national office, he has no particular reason to concern himself with the blowback of his policies. Of course, it’s not as if anybody’s really paid close attention to the travails and tribulations of our nation’s largest school system and most powerful union anyway. Education reform has always been a snoozer, and until very recently, unions have been nothing but vilified in the national press.

I mention this all, however, because I got to attend the union’s annual rally at the Waldorf Astoria on Sunday (and the irony of a union holding a function in a notable bastion of privilege was not lost on me or the other attendees) where I got to jaw about their principles of solidarity. The points I made were twofold:

  1. Until the UFT figures out how to reattach teacher retention to student success, they will always be working from a position of weakness in their deliberations with the city. When their historic strike in 1967 divorced the two, standards slipped and a succession of poor alternatives have created the dysfunctional system we have today. More importantly, they have opened themselves up to a constant barrage of withering criticism from city administration and a black eye in public image: To the union’s eyes, what’s good for the teacher is good for the student. Not so in many parents’ eyes. Thus, they must be the ones to dictate how they will resolve this issue, and they must be proactive in bringing it to the city before the city comes up with a policy they don’t like, or else they lose the initiative and this will continue to happen. They must bend lest they break, and being the most powerful union in the country, they cannot afford to break.
  2. I cannot believe this has to be emphasized, but until the UFT extends a hand to the far broader, but much weaker, sister union of DC37, unionism itself will continue to weather defeat after defeat. Every UFT victory is soon followed by a DC37 defeat, and where they should be standing together, they are divided and suffering. DC37 would be a powerful ally with the UFT in securing public support and shoring up public image, but the UFT must first defend DC37 from the city. The only reason I can imagine that they are not already doing so is class division: They view themselves as educated professionals whereas DC37 are of largely lower positions, and if this is the case, this cannot and must not continue.

So I made these arguments, and unsurprisingly, their reception was largely based on the rank of the person I was talking to within the union hierarchy. The fact that I was a union member until I was laid off should be illustrative in just how they are hurting themselves with this current course. I would like not only to be working within New York Public Schools, but I would also like to be the member of a responsible and responsive union. That I am not, despite repeated attempts, is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed. Even were I to be hired in this atmosphere, I suspect next time a fight broke out, I’d be the first to be laid off once more. That is no way to run a union.

The Informal Economy

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I’m at a loss as to figure out the point of Robert Neuwirth’s article on Foreign Policy magazine. It describes “Systeme D,” which is a shortening of “l’economie de la debrouillardise,” which is itself “the economy of resourcefulness.” He describes it as the fastest growing sector in the world economy, and as an interesting – if wild – form of entrepreneurialism (if I may use another French loan word) in the face of failing governments and stymied commercial prospects in the formal market.

I studied City Planning in college, and they spoke of the same concept in the same form of awe and wonderment, as if it was an applicable and acceptable patch on the inability for government to properly execute social services. Neuwirth’s example du jour is a Nigerian businessman’s under-the-tables deal with a Chinese manufacturer to import electric generators as a way of solving grid problems. The example given in Planning 102 was garbage picking in Buenos Aires as an alternative to proper sanitation departments.

As pure news – that is to say, as a report on how people deal with otherwise untenable situations – I see the point of reporting on it. However, there’s always an angle, and my class was how we might make use of that lumpenbourgeoisie to effect policy: Namely, to develop a superstructure around that system and formalize it. To accept it. Which is a weird thing to do, because the people who work in the informal economy tend to be poor and miserable and “it’s better than starving” is a very mercenary way to justify a policy decision.

Nevertheless, Neuwirth’s article mostly plays up individual entrepreneuralism amidst high risk, as well as the lack of taxes due to the grey- and black-market nature of the deals, towards his conclusion that such is being comparatively successful compared to the formal economy. Libertarianism aside – no, wait, that’s the point, isn’t it?

“But the level of competition on the street keeps huge numbers of people employed. It liberates their entrepreneurial energy. And it offers them the opportunity to move up in the world.”

Yes. It keeps them employed at barely subsistence levels and is enforced by pure necessity. This is how people have survived throughout history, because the formal economy has never controlled everything, yet perfectly illustrates exactly why a formal economy is preferable. I’m ashamed I have to point this out, but in the informal economy, the highest risk is carried by the people least able to shoulder it. There are no protections from exploitation, fraud or extortion.

If I were writing the article, the conclusion would be that the world economy, by reverting to more base forms of economic activity, is backsliding. That does not appear to be the tone of his message. He appears to be condoning it because it allows him to ignore the social costs. Starvation? Violence? Bah! It’s the grey market: An Ayn Rand utopia!

I’m reminded of Bloomberg’s efforts to formalize gypsy cabs here in New York. New York’s system of yellow cabs has created a grey market of liveries outside of lower Manhattan: Due to the limited number of medallions that allow yellow cabbies to pick up street hails, the frankly ridiculous cost of them have changed the margins such that cabbies stick downtown at almost all costs. For the black cars, dispatch calls are legal and street hails aren’t, but cops generally turn a blind eye due to social necessity in the outer boroughs. Part of the result of this detente has been an extralegal job sector that beats firefighting in terms of workplace danger. The black car is simultaneously an ATM and getaway vehicle, and the driver has no legal recourse because he shouldn’t have picked up the fare in the first place.

Bloomberg’s response has been to license liveries and then talk of formalizing the process of allowing them to pick up street hails outside of lower Manhattan. The Taxi and Limousine Commission reacted in the only rational way possible: “How dare you devalue the medallions after we paid so much for them,” effectively killing any plans to move forward with the situation. Bloomberg was right in recognizing that such was an untenable situation – which puts him one up on Foreign Policy magazine – but formalizing it as is was also impossible (take that, college professors). The situation needs a sea change, because it’s the result of a plethora of issues, and the informal economy is, there as in all places, the result of bad policy that cannot be quick-fixed.

The medallion system was put in place to ease traffic concerns in lower Manhattan – on the assumption that flooding the area with taxis would cause gridlock – and because of which created a monster what with artificial limitation. The thing is, there are other ways to ease traffic concerns in lower Manhattan.

For one, Bloomberg was certainly on the right track when he sought to implement London-style congestion pricing – which sadly got shot down by a consortium of constituencies claiming to represent working-class Queens commuters – which would have allowed him to justify easing restrictions on medallions, which would further have lowered the running costs of yellow cabs and opened up greater parts of the city to them.

For another, we’re somehow hitting record numbers of mass transit riders yet the MTA is forced to cut services thanks to widespread public defunding. Expanding it would not only work in a Keynesian sense, but relieve the need for said under-served Queens commuters to suffer the Midtown tunnel and city parking. Of course, considering the lack of state support and federal funding, and with idiots across the river like Christie making a policy of killing long-term regional prospects (and in doing so succeeded, albeit briefly, in making Corzine look less disastrous), the problem is clearly indicative of an even larger systemic issue.

But in saying so, I see how far I am in frame of mind from folks like Neuwirth. You can’t propose solutions if you refuse to acknowledge there’s a problem, but then, you can’t acknowledge it if you don’t recognize it as one in the first place.

Small Schools

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There’s something to be said about Bloomberg’s small schools initiative, which is that they’re a bright idea completely done in by a backwards implementation.

A small school should make the most of its versatility by shedding the administrative layers that large institutions require. After all, with a limited staff and a small student body, direct action is possible by the head of the school.

Not so in NYCDoE schools: Read the rest of this entry »

Bedbug WTF

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Dear Faculty & Staff,

There have been multiple concerns with regards to bed bugs this school year. As a city made up of over 8 million people, it is almost inevitable that one of us, or many of us will come in contact with these bugs. The [High School] is not immune to bed bugs. We have reported three bed bug discoveries so far; one classroom, the library, and one lunchroom. However, there are some things you can do to aid in the prevention of bringing them home with you:

1. Remember to place your bag on a desk or table (keep it off of the floor)
2. Have up your coat far away from other coats
3. Shake out your coat and clothing in the bath tub when you return home
4. Cover your mattress and box spring in a plastic, zipped covering

These tips should give many of you some peace of mind. If you would like further information, the NVC.gov website:

http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/vector/bed-bug-guide.pdf

has a great user friendly guide!

If you have any other questions or concerns, please feel free to speak with any administrator.

Might as well just write, “If you work here, you will get bed bugs. Courtesy of Michael Bloomberg.”

Trafficking

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A few NYC cabbies are found out to be double-charging for trips, and people go ballistic.* Don’t they know that the only people allowed to gouge the American public are bankers, government contractors and insurance providers? Meanwhile hamburgers still go for $25 in Times Square, so in reality it’s only a crime if they force locals to pay these ridiculous rates.

Consequently, imagine my surprise at just how far Bloomberg’s gotten to documenting everybody (and the NYPD have been doing so a bit more aggressively as well) when, in hailing a gypsy cab up in Washington Heights I found that, to a man, they now had little plastic cards with the NYC logo showing their licenses and a bill of rights for customers, including how very illegal it was to hail them. It didn’t stop ‘em from ferrying me around, but hey: We must keep appearances, no?

Speaking of appearances, a Mercedes ad has cropped up on the pages of Bike Snob and Streetsblog, where some guy in a Mercedes SUV enjoys a leisurely trip while losing time in a race with a frenetic bike messenger. The former scoffs at the ridiculous route the Mercedes driver took, the latter rails against how they make Manhattan bikers look like maniacs. Well, this ain’t Amsterdam, after all (though I do have special enmity against one-speeds). They both forgot the most important part of the whole exercise: Where the hell is that guy gonna park a goddamn SUV in Brooklyn Heights?

*Seriously, get over yourselves, people. An extra $4 a trip average ain’t gonna break the bank if you’re taking cabs in the first place, it’s a scam as easy to catch as watching the meter tick once, 3,000 cabbies outta an estimated 39,000 – what with the high turnover rate – is far from universal, and saying you’re “not going to tip out of spite” or how we should “revoke their green cards” is petty and racist.

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