• New York Notes

    June 11, 2022 // 6 Comments »

     

    Coming home to New York City after over a year away is like performing cunnilingus on an electrical socket. You’re shocked, and the socket doesn’t feel a thing.

    I was driven by that same curiosity that makes you slow down passing a wreck on the highway. I’d read the stories of zombie homeless armies in Midtown, the subway system gone feral, the deserted office blocks, and crime stepping in for Darwin to take care of what was left. Like a last visit to a hospital Covid bedside, I didn’t want to but I needed to see it.

    Inevitably someone will say this is all an exaggeration, that they live in NYC and it’s great, or the 1970s were way worse, or they just saw Lion King at Times Square with their grandma. Good for you.

    The overall of feeling one gets is a place used up, a failed place that somehow is still around. It’s the ultimate irony; it was Wall Street dealers who manipulated the economy of the 1970s and 80s to create the Rust Belt out of the once prosperous Midwest and now the brokers are gone, too. Pieces of them all left on the ground, too unimportant to sell off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, left scattered like clues from a lost civilization. Might as well been the bones of the men who worked there. Now the same way in Weirton or Gary you drive past the empty mills and factories left to eventually be reclaimed by the earth they stand on, so to Wall Street. There are no trading houses left, just one last international bank and it will soon be leasing new space uptown.

    The whole “financial district” is empty. On a weekend morning I found myself alone on the old streets off Wall, the ones that went all the way back, Marketfield, Beaver, Pine, Stone, to near-primitive times. There just were no people, nothing open. Most of the old gilded era banks and trading houses are in the process of being converted into condos, though who would want to live there is an unanswered question.

    You do see a fair number of homeless in the shadows; the city commandeered empty hotels in the area for them during the worst of the three Covid winters. Left out of the place it created is the famous Stock Exchange. The building is still there and there are people inside, but near-zero trades are done there anymore, nearly everything is remote/online, a trend started after 9/11 and completed by Covid’s arrival. On my next visit it wouldn’t surprise me to see the space has been converted into a Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Across the street there’s already a TJ Maxx.

    Like some elaborate joke about canaries in the coal mine, the condition of New York’s subway system often points the way the rest of the place is headed. With parts of the system still in use that were built 118 years ago, the thing is a testament to just how far the least amount of maintenance will go. Meh, NY grit. You expect it to be too cold in winter, too hot in summer, with no public toilets, and layers of filth which may be what is actually holding it all together.

    But the purpose of the subway has changed. With fewer people working out of offices, and more and more of those that do now driving private cars in the city (parking is a new thing to complain about, car theft is up double-digit percent from pre-Covid times) it is no longer common ground for New Yorkers. Most of the real passengers are blue collar t-shirted, and most everyone else is homeless. Vast numbers of visibly mentally ill people inhabit the subway system. It is their home, their kitchen, and their toilet.  The person in Union Square Station pushing a shopping cart and yelling racial slurs may not physically hurt anybody but is a symbol of a city that just gave up caring while lying to itself about being compassionate. There is no compassion to allowing thousands of sick people to live like rats inside public infrastructure.

    Not surprisingly, the subway is an angry place. Last year there were more assaults in the subway system than anytime for the last 25 years, including a Covid-era trend of randomly pushing people into the path of an incoming train just to watch them die. I didn’t see that, but I saw the secondary effects: passengers bunched up like herbivores on the African savanna, most with their backs against a wall or post for protection. Fewer people looking down at their phones so as to stay more alert.

    If you need to use the subway, you need to acknowledge that you must share it with the predators, under their rules. Like everywhere in this city, navigating around the mentally ill, the homeless, and the criminal is just another part of life. People treat each other as threats, and just accept that, but to an outsider it seems a helluva way to live. The new mayor says he’s gonna clean it all up. so far, four months in office, not so much.

    My old Upper East Side neighborhood hadn’t changed as much as mid- and downtown. The doorman at my old building said there were many more renters than owners resident now, and the masking and fear of catching Covid had done away with the lobby chatter that served as a palliative when heading in from the street.

    Across the street at the projects the drug dealers were in their usual places; seller, runner, overseer. I knew generally where to look for them so it was an easy spot, but they may have been just a little more obvious than last year. I don’t know where they were during the old “stop and frisk” days but I didn’t see them then. Nearby a good number of the mom and pop restaurants are closed, along with about every other chain drug store outlet (ask a New York friend how many Duane and Reade’s there used to be.)

    A couple of those “only in New York places” are holding on, but the effect is grim not scrappy given the gray around them. Passing the United Nations compound, you’re left with the memory that in the 1950s this was once the most powerful city on the globe. My favorite pizzeria, the original Patsy’s at First and 117th in Harlem, is still open and somehow still staffed by old Italian men in an otherwise all-black neighborhood. Nearby Rao’s, an old-school red sauce joint and still one of the hardest-to-get reservations in Manhattan for those of a certain age, is in much the same state, both places in some sort of time-vortex, the old DNA someone will someday use to genetically re-engineer New York for a museum.

    The good news is that the NYPD seems to have reoccupied Times Square, as the city is betting big tourism will someday save it. The problem is Times Square shares a border with the rest of New York, and a block or two away places like the Port Authority bus terminal are decaying back into their primordial state. No obvious hookers like in the 1970s, but their space in the ecosystem is taken by the homeless and those who provide them services, usually quick, sharp, young black kids selling what the cops told me was fentanyl, NY’s current favorite synthetic opioid.

    Some of the least changed areas were on the Lower East Side. These have always been mean streets, and post-Covidland is far from the first challenge they have faced. It’s not nice but it’s stable, it is what it is and it doesn’t ask for much more. Go tread lightly on the area’s terms and you stay safe.

    Covid did its share to the City but every measure of Covid was made worse by bad decision-making on the part of the city. Lockdowns decimated whole industries while leaving New York still one of the red zones of America. Defunding and defanging the police, coupled with no-bail policies drove crime deeper into the fabric of neighborhoods and decent people out to the suburbs. The tax base crumbled. Pre-Covid the top one percent of NYC taxpayers paid nearly 50 percent of all personal income taxes collected in New York, accounting for 59 percent of all revenues. Property taxes add in more than a billion dollars a year in revenue, about half of that generated by office space. Those folks are bailing out and the tourists are largely staying home.

    Left is the largest homeless population of any American metropolis, to include 114,000 children. The number of New Yorkers living below the poverty line is larger than the population of Philadelphia, and would be the country’s 7th largest city. More than 400,000 New Yorkers reside in public housing. Another 235,000 receive rent assistance. They live in the Third World, like a theme park torn out of the Florida swamps unlike its surroundings. You look at it and you cannot believe this is the same country as where you live. New York does that, puts it all right in your face.

    New York, at least in the guise of its elected leaders, chose this, participated in its own end game decision by decision. Former mayor and once Democratic presidential candidate Bill De Blasio, who presided over the NY apocalypse, still had the moxie to claim not diversifying the city’s elite public schools was one of his only real mistakes. No one seems to know what to do, how to unwind what was created.

    Don’t let anyone tell you New York died. It was murdered. The last time I was this happy to get on a plane and leave somewhere I was in Baghdad.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Economy, Other Ideas

    New York Dies for Your Sins

    July 25, 2020 // 5 Comments »


    With Elderly Caucasian Joe Biden as the Democratic candidate, November 3 will be less about the Rise of Progressive politics than the noise of the last four years would have you believe. But while the media shine of AOC and her kind winds down, progressive thought will find at least a petri dish to fester in in a Biden administration, and perhaps even a second media wind if Trump wins.

    Since it’s not going away, seeing what would happen if progressives escape the lab and go really viral is important. For that case study, welcome to COVID-laced New York, baby.

     

    COVID is supposed to be, finally, Trump’s white whale, the thing that will bring him down after he wriggled out from under the Russians and the Ukrainians and Stormy. Unlike the made-up thousands not killed by the hurricane in Puerto Rico, these were going to be real. Not enough ventilators! Not enough tests! Mass graves in Central Park! And it is all Trump’s fault. (see “Donald Trump is the Most Successful Bio-Terrorist in Human History.”) That set the stage for Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio to craft a response far more political than medical. New York today is a laboratory for what happens when progressive ideology combined with political opportunism displaces reality.

    But first a quick reality check: For every death in this global epidemic, it is critical to remember the virus did not strike masses down in the streets like the Black Plague, and did not create hideous sores like the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s that tore through this city to the point where one hospital was informally called Fort Apache. It is unlikely to infect a third of the world’s population like the Spanish Flu. In fact, it looks like an overwhelming number of those infected never even know they have it, surprised by an antibody test months later. Most infected people do not pass on the virus. The hospitals never overflowed and the military was never needed. As of July 12 New York had zero virus deaths for the first time since the pandemic started even as the lockdown continued. But keeping the emphasis on “cases” and not conclusions keeps the fear alive.

     

    But enough of reality, we’re talking progressivism here. That lockdown has left New York economically devastated, mired in “the worst economic calamity since the 1970s, when it nearly went bankrupt.” The unemployment rate nears 20 percent, a figure not seen since the Great Depression (nationwide unemployment averages 11 percent; in NYC during the 2008 recession it was about 10 percent.) By decree, policy described as a “pause” in March to allow medical facilities to ramp up morphed into a semi-permanent state to keep things bad ahead of the election. While de Blasio authorized nail salons to reopen, he’s kept the city’s core sectors, the stuff that symbolizes New York to the world — Broadway, tourism, conventions, restaurants, hotels, and museums — shut, sacrifices to The Cause. The newly unemployed then strain food banks and soup kitchens. Look what Trump wrought!

    So people are leaving. More than 10,000 Manhattan apartments were listed for rent in June, an 85 percent increase over last year. The super wealthy neighborhoods have seen 40 percent migration out. The biggest outward migration is from the once economically strongest neighbors of midtown and the Upper East Side. Enough rich New Yorkers have left that it is affecting the census. That mirrors the outflow of population in the 1970s which decimated the city’s tax base and lead to landlords torching buildings to collect the insurance because they could not collect rent.

    So in 2020 it matters that 25 percent of New York tenants have not paid their rent since March. These overdue payments have left 39 percent of landlords unable to pay property taxes. A new NY law prohibiting landlords from evicting tenants facing pandemic-related financial hardships will help on the micro level while contributing to the destruction of the greater economy which of course will eventually devastate everyone. Progressive zeal will create an economic tide to sink all boats.

    The mayor, who by decree threw his city out of work, also banned large gatherings through September. He did however say Black Lives Matter protests would be allowed, claiming “the demonstrators’ calls for social justice were too important to stop.” The mayor himself, maskless, took time off to help paint “Black Lives Matter” on Fifth Avenue in front of Trump Tower. The central thoroughfare in Manhattan was then closed to traffic to let the paint dry. De Blasio stated (inaccurately) “black people built Fifth Avenue” so it was all quite appropriate. Some are more equal than others; the mayor criticized Trump for putting politics first in coronavirus response.

    De Blasio is also allowing an “occupation” to continue at City Hall, where several dozens of people, a mix of activists and the homeless (attracted by donated food) live in makeshift tents. It stinks, a throbbing health hazard island of human feces and drugs and food scraps even before you get to the COVID part but the city allows them even as, until recently, it sent goons to chase unwoke citizens in twos and threes from playgrounds. About half the occupying people had no masks. A woman asked my preferred pronouns while behind her a half-naked homeless man screamed. A reporter was assaulted. A few cops stood in front of a graffitied courthouse and laughed, at some part of all of it, I did not ask which. Maybe they just like graffiti; it is back across New York to add color to the chaos.

    So what are cops doing? The former police commissioner criticized city and state leaders for abandoning cops (de Blasio pushed through a $1.5 billion cut to the NYPD on BLM demand) and for helping create a “crime virus” to go along with the coronavirus. Amid defunding elite NYPD units in spite of a 205 percent rise in shootings this year, so many NYPD officers are applying for retirement the department has been forced to slow-walk and otherwise limit applications to get out. One of the most recent shootings was a one-year-old caught in gang crossfire; a 12-year-old was shot separately the same night. Meanwhile, the state legislature is proposing a new law to hold cops personally responsible for any liability occurred on duty. New York City made the use of certain restraints by cops a criminal act. Here’s video of a thug who was not arrested using one of the same illegal restraints on a cop.

    De Blasio and Cuomo found other ways to have both fewer cops and more criminals. New York state recently eliminated bail for many misdemeanors and minor felonies, claiming alongside BLM it was unfair to POC without resources to pay. Adding to the criminal population, Mayor de Blasio supported the release of some 2,500 prisoners from Rikers Island due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus there. At least 250 of those released have been re-arrested 450 times, meaning some have been re-arrested more than once. Since they cannot be held for bail, most of those re-arrested are returned to the street almost immediately under Governor Cuomo’s fairness policy.

    The next battleground will be the schools. With only weeks to go in summer, the mayor announced the nation’s largest public school system will reopen with an unspecified mix of in-person and online classes. Teachers say crucial questions about how schools will stay clean, keep students healthy, and run active shooter drills while maintaining social distancing have not been answered. There have been no directives on how to handle online classes, no published best practices, not much of anything. Quality of education, like quality of life, is not on the agenda.

    One certainty is that New Yorkers will have fewer options — 26 Catholic schools will not reopen due to low enrollment and financial issues. That affects more than religion. Many of those schools represent the only neighborhood alternative to the failing public system. Closures will drive middle class flight.

    And there’s always something more. With indoor restaurant dining prohibited, many places are setting up ad hoc tables and sidewalk tents outside. In addition to adding to the third world Hooverville atmosphere, all that food has brought out the rats, who are attacking patrons.

     

    There is no sense we will ever end this. It’s easy to criticize places that have moved too fast but they had the right underlying idea: we can’t live like this forever. People need to work, not just for money (but they need the money) but to have purpose. So much of what has been done in the name of justice feels more like punishment, suck on this bigots! racial score settling under the guise of social justice.

    A lot of people are just sitting around like the Joad family waiting for something to happen. Thing is, we’re not sure what we are waiting for. The lockdown in March was, we were told, to flatten the virus curve. We did that. COVID hospitalizations and actual deaths in NYC are at their lowest levels since March. But the lockdown is still here and nobody seems to know when to declare victory — is the end point zero new cases before we can re-open Broadway? A vaccine? We just wait, the days hot, thick, and liquid. De Blasio and Cuomo are waiting, too, but for November 3 to free us. No need for a continuing crisis after Biden wins.

    But maybe the New York case study will serve as a different turning point in the election. Imagine enough purple voters who look at New York and become frightened of what the Left will do with unrestricted power in Washington. They want to work. They want their kids in school. They might just hold their nose and vote Trump.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Economy, Other Ideas

    Letter from New York

    June 1, 2020 // 1 Comment »

    New York City remains locked down while America seeks the bloom of spring.

    No wrinkles then around my eyes the first time I saw her, and she wasn’t just a bubble tea shop then. When people could roam the streets of New York City without harassment for failing to tie a talisman of a mask across their face, I used to walk regularly, often without specific purpose, past the old San Remo Cafe in Greenwich Village.

    In the 1950s and 60s the regulars included giants like James Agee, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, William S. Burroughs, Miles Davis, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollock, William Styron, Dylan Thomas, Gore Vidal, and Judith Malina. Imagine the conversations, the dirty jokes, the warm beer.

    If you don’t recognize all the names, Google a couple. James Baldwin. A black, gay man, he wrote about victims without victimizing. Because he was a black gay man he understood the failings of humanity not just towards black gay men, but towards men. Modern writers in his genre always seem to start off their work with “AS a ____” demanding your sympathy on line one. Baldwin was better than that. He saw hope, not profit, in anger.

    Woody Guthrie played in the neighborhood around the San Remo and certainly must have stopped in, as did Bob Dylan.

     

    The cafe closed long ago. The property was most recently a bubble tea shop and its clientele about 99 percent Asian tourists who I do doubt ever read James Agee. Irony is a character in this story. Do history a favor and skip the abomination of the tea; just down Bleecker Street is Fiore’s Pizza, named after a New York firefighter killed on 9/11. It’s hard not to remember those sharp blue September days when we took care of each other, briefly, before we became so afraid. Heat can forge, or it can melt. Men who ran into a fire were NY’s heroes instead of people who, however necessary, stock shelves.

    Bob Dylan lived nearby on West 4th Street, having come to the neighborhood in large part because he wanted to meet Woody Guthrie. Neither man would be newly successful today. Both were in their primes imperfect men, perfect for #MeToo entrapment by those who have likely since graduated into masked tattletales (irony again; they hide themselves with facemasks while judging you.) The poets made you pay attention to the words because they wrote prayers, not songs. The words mattered because words once mattered as more than sounds that just rhymed well to a beat. Dylan wrote “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man” in this neighborhood about some NYC-type who often kept him awake at odd hours wandering around like we once could do. The sleepless Dylan never imagined what we see now when he wrote the lyric “the empty street’s too dead for dreaming.”

    The last war had been fought up the street, at the White Horse Tavern in the 1930s with the reds, and the place would make a comeback in the later gasps of the 1960s. At San Remo were the children of World War II too young to have experienced the bloodshed but damn aware of the price war took on their fathers, awake in the affluence of the 1950s and 60s alienated by the Cold War. Americans never really made peace with all that. It’s quite a neighborhood.

     

    The cafe can’t be there anymore, nor the Asian tourists, and neither can I because a good idea to implement social measures to slow the virus in line with our capacity to deal with it morphed into a fear driven shelter in place mania until we achieve zero-death plan. New York City has a dirty little secret it isn’t talking about. Arbitrary standards have been set for the whole of the place (available hospital beds to reopen the city must be 30 percent; it’s now at 29 percent. Number of hospitalizations misses the market by two-thirds of a person) , some eight million people. But there is little of the virus in Manhattan, including near the cafe. Most of the deaths are clustered in in the Bronx and distant Brooklyn, separated by class and money. The rich areas are held hostage in lockdown now to the poor areas. Yet to go out for milk now I have to look like Billy the Kid about to knock off the 10:15 train.

    I miss New York, the idea of New York, because the real place barely ever existed. The city always goes too far — too many handouts, too much poverty displaced by too much wealth, too much real art pushed aside by garbage, too much multi-generational public housing. Everybody knows the city always goes too far, and periodically it has to be culled back like weeds out of control.

    The 1970s and early 80s saw it turn into Beruit, with hard lines those stuck here learned to navigate. There is OK during the day, up there never, over near the park only if you had a good reason and some street smarts. The Bronx burned, the cops windshield wipered between giving up and turning vigilante. We did it again not too long later, with stop and frisk and broken window policing. Then back down to where a year ago or so the mayor ordered the police to stop arresting people of color for what he defined as minor crimes in the subway and then declared the subways safe (again) while minor crimes enmassed into just crime. Again. Each of those cuts through life here and the city walks around with the scars.

    The deal with New York was that you put up with stuff like that, grad school liberal poli-sci think pieces actually acted out (free methadone to replace cheap heroin, what could go wrong when a “clinic” replaces a grocery store in a neighborhood) in return for the old San Remo Cafe you could not get in South Bend or Allentown in return for putting up with what you did not have to navigate in South Bend or Allentown. The city is like a sunset, you don’t expect it to admire you back.

     

    Then it all went to hell in 2020. Those same political think pieces said they needed to put the city into a medically-induced economic coma to top the virus. The solution hit hardest on the poor. They need to become poorer to save them, that irony thing again.

    The public school system, which in another social experiment gone too far had been largely turned into a massive outbox for free meals, free daycare, free menstrual products, free birth control, and free medical care, just gave up education as a function completely and closed. The one single only solitary thing that has any chance of helping someone do better than their parents, education, was shut down. The city’s “public advocate” even wants penalties waived for skipping online school. So that’s OK. One imagines the immigrants on the Lower East Side a hundred years ago working extra hours on top of a 60 hour regular week to send one of their four kids to school to give the whole family a chance. Thanks, Grandpa.

    A good friend taught public high school in the deranged and ravaged South Bronx for several years under “Teach for America,” another grad school project which theorized anybody in front of a classroom was basically better than nobody, and hoped if you rolled the dice enough and stuck enough privileged kids in front of enough poor kids something decent might come of it. My friend eventually quit, realizing how much time he spent in his classroom on things not related to teaching science. His conclusion — you can’t fix the schools in the South Bronx until you fix the South Bronx — isn’t anyone’s current project. One imagines the minimum wage Amazon frontline worker thinking about the flyover honoring him about the same way he thought about people thanking him for his service after Afghanistan.

    Somehow Bill Gates is now deeply involved. What does he know, but he means well and he is a rich tech prince, about what in New York passes today as civic virtue. It reminds me of my nation-building days in Iraq, when any dumb idea could find a sponsor only the people in NY care even less about the results.

    New York is generally content with the system it has, a bizarre mashup of pseudo-socialism inside the greatest concentration of capitalism ever known enforced by near-fascist decree to enact the social experiments while the cops keep the rich and poor safely apart. Extreme forms of mitigation can have diminishing returns, but only in real life. The virus saw New York in the name of a liberal experiment to save New York from the virus shut down the jobs and the schools. Projections are more comfortable. Charter schools, no grades, more computers, more African history and art, free college for all, lockdowns, quarantines, masks, let’s try it. A virus will crush an already broken society faster and more efficiently than a working one. What’s happening now is a culmination not an event.

     

    We are most certainly not all in this together. Across the rest of the city, people are here without being here, with the richest areas about 40 percent empty. They have other homes to retreat to, suburban panic rooms from which to see how long this time it will take NYC to surface again. You can track their flight by the drop off in garbage collected in certain neighborhoods. Less people, less trash. The real rich toughing it out with the proles have private speakeasies to ease the pain.

    One thing the rich will be watching is where this time the economic (and thus safety) fault lines will settle in. On my side of town, the bad streets had receded above 96th. They’re working their way back to 93rd now. Google up real estate values and statistics for burglaries of old people and street assaults and you’ll know. The rich abandoned the public school system long ago. They also had the comfort of closing their public schools earlier to protect themselves from the early days of the virus (their schools being used primarily for education not as charity distribution centers; a mega-irony was that the schools still being part of the last social experiment meant they had to stay open longer until alternate food distribution could be worked out) and will exercise the option of reopening their private schools sooner, as the virus statistically is far away from them.

    Heat can forge, or it can melt. New York’s mayor is a goofball, a knucklehead, a jaboni who imagines himself a Caucasian blend of Cesar Chavez, Obama, and Dr. King. He wanted to be president even. Nobody really likes him, but the people who vote (by mail, from their second homes) generally endorse his policies even as they wish for someone a bit more elegant. They like the idea of feeling good, and so love the idea of a handful of “lower income” apartments mandated into billion dollar residencial towers. They tolerate a population of several thousand human trolls living homeless in the subway system because it adds “grit” to their city while they take Uber. Quaint shops and bars needed for Instagram are kept alive via GoFundMe and tax breaks, not customers. They mandated a city without public toilets, customers only!, and then seem surprised everything smells like urine. Can’t they eat cake? They act like they discovered the vaccine against irony long ago.

     

    Of course no one talks much about how the good ideas never seem to improve the lives of those they are aimed at. Despite the lockdown, plenty of people keep getting sick and dying in New York. The South Bronx is still poor. Despite the economic coma NYC still has a higher death toll per million in population than any other state in America. New York City also has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country yet we tolerate the death toll which persists. Most of those who die by gunfire are in the same category as the virus deaths, poor and of color and from another part of town walled off by street signs as plain and easy to understand as that wall across the Mexican border.

    The virus takes its victims, but much more of the harm is self-inflicted. It will take researchers years to sort out where the Venn diagram circles overlap among social distancing, natural processes like herd immunity, and just plain exaggeration, but it is clear today the virus is not the most dangerous thing here anymore. This is a dismal city to be in today, ravaged by a virus of bad ideas and self-delusional political experiments that laid in wait for a trigger event, COVID for now, to land some body blows. New York is a place now that misses its younger, happier self. Hard to imagine the poets at the old San Remo Cafe like I am now, wishing away a lovely spring and summer to hurry it up until November.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Economy, Other Ideas