• 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.

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    Posted in #99Percent, Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio?

    April 18, 2020 // 11 Comments »


     

    The talk in New York is about when to return to normal. But that misses the point; normal never really left, it just changed clothes. We traded economic disparity expressed through poverty for economic disparity expressed through viral death. The real problem isn’t when we’ll return to normal, it is that we will.
     

    All the energy that made this city more than livable, made it desirable, is gone. It’s just a big, empty place now, all the seams showing. The closed stores still have St Patrick’s Day decorations. Time stopped in March. I am a native New Yorker by birth, seven years now returned. I don’t know how many times we can all stand on the ledge and not jump. From 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, Super Storm Sandy. This feels more like the gray of post-war East Germany than the white hot panic of late WWII Berlin.

    New York state has more corona cases than any other country in the world. About half of all U.S. deaths are here in the broader New York area. Sure, there are other hot pockets but while NYC counts the bodies in the thousands there are some states still in single figures and most others in the hundreds. The stars may soon again hold benefit concerts for us, echoing post-9/11’s “ferocious tenderness of how desperately America loves New York.” When the city talks in its sleep what many remember most is the kindness people showed toward one another that blue September, little courtesies of holding doors and allowing someone to cut the line, half smiles from total strangers in a place where such vulnerability could previously have made you prey.

    Not with the virus. We snap at each other, enemies now, each a potential carrier. This is a not a city which lends itself to personal space without a flash of aggressive eye contact. Walk without a mask and someone will snap at you. Two guys hissing something in Spanish at an Asian woman. Lines to enter the food store with everyone watching like North Korean border guards for sneaks. SNL and late night never mocked Bush in the immediate 9/11 aftermath. If we ever were one we are not now. Because we are for certain not all in this together as Governor Andrew Cuomo said: “Everyone is subject to this virus. I don’t care how smart, how rich, how powerful you think you are.”

    That is not true. The virus is highly concentrated in the poorest Hispanic and black neighborhoods of Queens and the Bronx. The viral death rate for Hispanics is 22 people per 100,000; for blacks 20 per 100,000 while the rate for whites is 10 per 100,000. For whites even that is deceptive, given the hot spots in the isolated Hasidic Jewish enclaves of Brooklyn versus the paucity lack of white deaths in the high-income areas. Poorer people are more likely to die at home than in a hospital, and so the surge in at-home deaths, most never tested, suggests the death rate for the virus is being under-counted. Overall the virus is twice as deadly for Hispanics and blacks than whites in NYC.

    In New York we speak hundreds of languages but not to each other. A map of viral cases neighborhood-by-neighborhood tells the tale. America’s most diverse city, America’s most sanctimonious city about that, is also one of her most segregated on the ground.

    New York City is also the most economically unequal city in the country. It is home to 70 billionaires, more than any other American city. Living among those billionaires (NYC is also home to nearly one million millionaires, more than any other city in the world) the city also has the largest homeless population of any American metropolis. The number of New Yorkers who live below the poverty line is larger than the population of Philadelphia or Phoenix, and would be the country’s 7th largest city. The billionaires fund the social services and the poor clean the homes and scavenge the trash of the billionaires.
     

    The reasons are the same reasons. Poor neighborhoods are served by the city’s miserable public hospitals, not its world-class private ones. A virus patient in the ravaged Bronx is twice as likely to die as one in a “nice” neighborhood. The problem is the quality, not the quantity, of healthcare. “We are watching, in real time, racial disparities and the pandemic of poverty,” one assemblyman said.

    Poor people suffer from comorbidities (86 percent of the dead have one), particularly the ones of bad diets like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Hypertension is 3x more prevalent, and diabetes 5x more, in the South Bronx than in well-to-do lower Manhattan. Influenza, which has already killed about twice as many people this season as COVID-19, follows a similar pattern.

    The Elmhurst neighborhood in Queens is “the epicenter within the epicenter,” according to the mayor. Some 64 percent of its residents are Hispanic, and the median household income is three-quarters of that of the metro area. Nearly 11 percent of households there are multigenerational. The grouping of young (who carry the virus without symptoms) and elderly together helps drive the higher infection rates.

    Park Slope, Brooklyn, has some of the city’s lowest rates of COVID-19, 56 percent below average. Two-thirds of its population is white and the median household income is one and a half times greater than average. Less than two percent of households are multigenerational. But when the Surgeon General specifically admonished people of color to stop drinking and using drugs during the pandemic to power up their immune systems he was called a racist.
     

    This is the normal. The economic disparity driving the viral load in NYC was here long before the virus; COVID-19 was superimposed on that sordid base. What is happening now, the deaths, was always happening, albeit slower. This mocks what pundits are calling the big question, how to balance the city’s health and the city’s economic needs, when to re-open for business. Economic inequality has been killing people all along, and keeping poor people from working by decree only makes them poorer and eventually sicker. It is a slow death as opposed to the quick countable deaths from the virus.. Tom Hanks will thank the food delivery guys for their service on SNL but we still won’t pay them a living wage.

    One of the things blamed in NYC was the late decision to close the public schools. Many wealthy private schools closed on their own in early March. The mayor kept the massive public school system open until the middle of the month not for educational reasons, but because it doubles as a social service center for poor children, including 114,000 who are homeless.

    More than half of all public students get their meals at school, and for the homeless kids it is the only place they can wash clothing and clean themselves. Birth control and STD testing for kids from strict Hispanic Catholic homes mostly happens surreptitiously through the schools. The schools provide daycare so poor people can work, and are the last hope to keep a few children out of gangs and offer them a break from abusive homes. “Given the alternatives, schools are a safer place for many kids,” one teacher said. Closing the schools was a “last resort,” judged a better option than hiding from the virus at one point. The uptick in child violence and domestic violence in general New York is experiencing now was understood to be coming, collateral damage.

    The city made up its mind a long time ago. During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic which killed 30,000 New Yorkers, the Health Commissioner demanded public schools be kept open, believing the risks of gathering kids together were outweighed by the benefits of giving them a break from their crowded and unsanitary tenement apartments. The Commissioner also noted working immigrant parents had no time to care for their kids, better to have them looked after at schools. As he put it, sick people don’t go to the theater when they feel bad but they do go to work.

    Same for the subway system, still running 24/7, a remarkably effective way to spread the virus. As in 1918, poor people can’t work remotely. NYC kept the public schools open, and keeps public transport running, then and now, knowing it would spread the virus, because the alternative hardships seem worse.
     

    I’ve lived in the developing world and you get used to this. You have and they don’t, way it is, beyond one man’s blame and seemingly any man’s fix. The biggest barrier to some sort of “re-opening” in NYC is to figure out how to express that in palatable terms for 2020. Not that we weren’t already already doing it for the last hundred years, but now we need to make rules to govern our apartheid of dollars that sound OK in the Sunday Review section. The rest is just logistics.

     

    BONUS

    New York is not alone. In Chicago, more than 70 percent of the deaths related to the coronavirus were among black residents, though blacks make up only a third of the city’s population. In Michigan, black residents make up just 14 percent of the population, but over 40 percent of the COVID-19 deaths.

    It was always sort of this way, but maybe a slightly better version of it. Up until the 1970s or so, New York had always been about The Deal. You put up with the filth, the crowding, the lack of empathy, and she’ll throw you a bone. If you really make it, the luxuries of the world are available at your fingertips. In the middle, for the plumbers and the clerks, a spring afternoon at the stadium with a hot dog and a beer (or nowadays more commonly, a churro) reached at heaven. For the immigrants, from the 19th century Irish, Germans, Jews, and Italians to today’s Dominicans and Vietnamese, work until you’re running, burned, and near blind, and we’ll educate your kids so they don’t have to.

    We did away with The Deal when we switched to more disposable workers. A janitor I know tells the tale. His father came to New York from Puerto Rico a few Americas ago. Dad worked nights until he bought a house in Queens. Miguel’s brother is out of work with a high fever, but the real worry is dad, diabetic and elderly and living downstairs. Miguel cleans for rich people and “can’t get sick” because he’s now holding the family purse. He’s angry his kids have to “online school,” because he wants them to make the move, third generation, up and out, and online isn’t going to be enough.

     

     

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    Navigating the Homeless and Mentally Ill

    February 24, 2020 // 12 Comments »

     

    New York, America’s richest city and Ground Zero in how economic inequality is reshaping every day of our lives.
     
    NYC is home to 70 billionaires, more than any other American city. One apartment building alone, 740 Park Avenue, is home to the highest concentration of billionaires in the United States. Yet living among those billionaires (NYC is also home to nearly one million millionaires, more than any other city in the world) the city also has the highest homeless population of any American metropolis, close to 80,000 and growing. The homeless numbered 24,000 during Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral administration some twenty years ago. Three years after that the homeless population swelled to almost 38,000 under Michael Bloomberg. The number of homeless single adults today is 142 percent higher than it was ten years ago, the highest level since the Great Depression.
     
    The city shelters about 64,000 on any given night. Another 3,000 people make their full-time home in the subway system. Their belongings and their defecation crowd out morning commuters on the platforms. In the winter many never emerge above ground. A visitor from outer space would be forgiven for thinking they weren’t even human, recognizable as just a head emerging from a urine-soaked bundle of clothing, not living really, just waiting. The ones who prefer to ride the trains 20 hours a day or more are like one-celled amoebas that react to heat or light by moving out of the way, in the specific case a transit employee whose inquiry causes some physical shift but no sign of sentient action.

    Don’t be offended — what did you think runaway economic inequality was gonna end up doing to us? Macroeconomics isn’t a morality play. But for most New Yorkers the issue isn’t confronting the reality of inequality, it is navigating the society it has created.

    Navigating income inequality is not a problem for the rich. Public transportation, once the great melting pot, is less so as Uber plays a bigger role. The new super apartments, with their city-required handful of “affordable” units, have separate entrances based on wealth. A someone goes and gets the coffee, does the shopping, delivers the food. Armored cars for personal use are seeing a boom in sales. NYC’s newest mega-development, Hudson Yards, (Jeff Bezos is a fan) has been dubbed the Forbidden City, a mean snub as it is self-contained, literally walled off from the environment around it (there are “service” entrances for workers, and the stores have their primary doors opening into the gated courtyard, not on to Tenth Avenue.) NYC helps its wealthy pay for all this with a generous 40 percent incentive tax break. The city also built Hudson Yards its own subway line and park network for a total expenditure of six billion (the city spends only half that total on the homeless.) Elsewhere private restaurants, private clubs, private entrances, members only-everythings and VIP sections at public events keep the homeless beyond arm’s reach.
     
    For the rest, stuck between middle class and the abyss, navigating the world of economic inequality is more of a contact sport.

    Public libraries are in various degrees off limits, at best shared, with the well-behaved homeless. They are among the tens of thousands who live in the gulag archipelago of NYC’s vast shelter system. Most of the shelters (there some exceptions for women with small children) are only open at night, leaving the residents to find somewhere to physically exist between 7am and 11pm, after which the city cares about them again. There is no daytime plan for this population, so in bad weather they take over the libraries. Regular patrons are on their own if the staff don’t manage it well; the signature main library with the stone lions has guards to send the homeless across the street to a branch, where the homeless are more or less curated like the oversize books on to one particular floor. At the 96th street branch, the library serves no other purpose than homeless daycare, except for a brief period after school when bodies are moved around for an hour or two to accommodate story time.

    How do the non-homeless navigate this? They buy books on Amazon. They buy quiet workspace and WiFi at coffee shops. They buy their way around the homeless same as others buy their way around via ride sharing services.

    Economic inequality is part of life for many New Yorkers. Not homeless but damn poor, 400,000 reside in taxpayer-paid permanent (permanent as in multi-generational, grandmas passing squatter’s rights to grandkids) public housing. Conditions are literally toxic in these “projects,” as well as crime-ridden and just plain Third World crumbling. And yes, New York’s public housing authority is the world’s largest. There are probably fewer no-go zones than in the dark times of the 1970s, but maybe more “why would you want to go there anyway” places.

    Housing prices for who can pay their own way are such that 40 percent of adult renters live with a roommate. The city even has a program to help elderly renters share their homes. Hanging on to the middle in times of economic inequality means shared or public housing, juggling multiple jobs which often pay less than minimum wage (Taskrabbit, Fiverr, who background check their employees and then send them into anonymous homes), living with life-crippling debt, skating on the edges of no healthcare, and snubbing your nose at people who aren’t living that Big Apple dream.

    In a society constantly creating more poor people and depleting its middle class, spending more money on shelters won’t work. Look to Honolulu. It has been overwhelmed with some 7,000 people who became newly homeless in 2019. That number erased the 616 homeless people per month, on average, who were placed into “permanent housing.” They’ll really not ever stop building until, in theory, shelters house about 99 percent of everyone.

    To lighten things up, New York loves irony. Many of the cheaper apartments for young Millenials are in the same parts of town which once housed new immigrants in the early 20th century, that now golden-hued era of open borders celebrated as a democratic ideal when a more accurate vision would realize it was just a massive labor pool for the wealthy to exploit. That’s also a reminder that modern immigrants, particularly from Central America, form the exploitable, discardable labor pool that undergirds New York’s food service and day labor industries, and staffs car repair shops, butcher and delivery businesses.

    Hey, businesses, too, still have to navigate, especially around the homeless. I used to work at a Barnes and Noble near the bus stop out to the main homeless shelters on Randall’s Island. The B&N was open late and in bad weather the homeless came in to wait for their ride. There was actually a store policy created, and the regulars were trained: don’t interfere with commerce, no bathing in the restrooms, no sleeping, use the electrical outlets in the back to charge phones, don’t panhandle in the coffee shop and you can stay. A kind of Darwinian process kept some warm inside while security moved others out into the weather.

    An ecosystem in balance, same as at most Starbucks. People here sometimes refer to the place as a public toilet which also happens to sell coffee because, following charges of discrimination, the chain now claims its space and toilets are open to all, not just customers. Of course in some marginal parts of town those toilets are forever closed to all “under repair,” but in most places the homeless are trained to navigate us, staying out of the way, taking a cup out of the trash to set on the table and pretend they are buying something. Being seen as being nice is important to Starbucks’ customers as they mentally navigate their own place being able to afford expensive coffee alongside those who have less. Awkward!

    As a woke company catering to woke customers who want nice things without guilt, Starbucks has a whole corporate page up about how kind they are to the homeless. Something similar at the new food court at Essex Market (called the “anti-Hudson Yards”), which has full-time staff assigned to monitor the public toilets, allowing the homeless in and nudging them into the boundaries the Market deems acceptable. Essex market, like Starbucks, seems to see faux-humanitarian gestures towards the homeless as part of its marketing plan to Millenials who don’t want to see bag ladies dragged into the street whilst sipping artisanal Tibetan tea. It’s pretty much all just undergrad-level socialist theatre. Different rules and rougher play at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, where the more delicate suburban ladies and fragile tourists still shop pretending like it is 1968. At the end of the day, however, the homeless are still homeless at each place and night comes the same for all.
     
    The urban stories above are only about one part of the homeless population. There are two overlapping populations: those outside capacity of existing systems who depend on businesses and us to navigate, and those so far whacked and gone nothing exists to help them.

    It’s inevitable in a society that is constantly adding to its homeless population while simultaneously lacking any comprehensive way to provide medical treatment, all the while smoothing over the bumps on the street with plentiful supplies of alcohol and opioids (I was in line behind a homeless guy in liquor store paying with sock full of coins. He was 67 cents short for a bottle of no-name gin. What’s the right thing to do? I probably drink as much as he does most nights but it’s OK because I work for my money instead of begging? There are moral hurdles to navigate as well) are the severely mentally ill. These people exist outside the vast shelter system. They live outside, discarded, driven out of the overnights and the daytime Starbucks by violent or paranoid delusions. Even the recent killing of four homeless men by a fifth mentally ill homeless man failed to shock anyone into action.

    Navigating these people requires something more than a benign balancing of company profits and makeshift humanitarian gestures. At the Fulton Center subway station, problems with the mentally ill homeless reached a point where wire rope was installed alongside a made-up “no sitting” law to eliminate places to rest. A team of angry rent-a-cops make the homeless stand, wandering through the space waking up those who tumble, and chase away the worst. The sole working men’s room remains a kind of demilitarized zone, and it is not uncommon to see one man washing his clothes in the sink while another talks to himself as a third vocally struggles with his defecation. Most of the city’s such privately owned public spaces employ guards not against crime per se, but to enforce rules about how much baggage the homeless can bring in, whether they can sit, sleep, or have to pretend to buy something, and act as not gentle referees when a tourist snaps an unwanted photo and angers someone, or a homeless person otherwise becomes too aggressive with himself or another homeless person.

    There are of course other, more profitable, ways to navigate. San Diego created a “toolkit” to help businesses benignly wrangle the homeless without needing to involve the cops. NYC stores are told to invest in barbed grates that homeless can’t lay on comfortably (the hostile architecture of bars, protrusions and spikes that make it impossible to lie down on a park bench or wall are pretty much sculpted into the architecture of the city, markers of the struggle for public space. The idea even has its own Instagram account.) A private security firm offers more comprehensive solutions: advice about restricting access to sidewalk overhangs, alcoves, or other areas protected from inclement weather, remove handles from water spigots, and keep trash dumpsters locked when not being filled or emptied. If things get too bad, the company, for a price, will deploy “remote cameras integrated with military-grade algorithms capable of detecting people in areas they shouldn’t be in.” There are other ways to make money off the homeless, of course. Many of the shelters in NYC are contracted through private companies (fraud criss-crosses the system) , who charge the city about $80 per adult per night for an SRO room without its own indoor plumbing. Food stamps are distributed via Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT (some recipients claim the acronym really means “Eat Better Tonight.”) JPMorgan Chase holds the contracts in half the United States to handle the transactions. In New York that’s worth more than $112 million. But hey, Amazon now accepts EBT online in New York and you don’t even need Prime!

    A concise fable of what economic inequality has done to this city lies in canning, a nice term invented to describe the underground economy of returning aluminum cans for the five cents deposit. What was started in 1982 in hope the deposit would encourage consumer recycling alongside kids picking up cans to supplement their allowances, has become way to make a sort of living for an estimated 8,000 human beings. As the value of a nickel to many faded over the years, the need for a few bucks among the city’s growing homeless population grew. They started picking up cans for the money wealthier people set out as trash. The recycling centers in most food stores, however, hoping for return shoppers, did not want the homeless in their stores. Most set $12 daily redemption limits, often broken up in per can lots that forced the homeless to return two or three times. Streetside automated drop off points devolved into social centers for the homeless, including the infamous Pathway site at 125th Street that was renown as a drug market and dumping spot for the near-dead until it was closed down.
     
    Unable to redeem their cans, the homeless moved on, replaced by highly exploitive canning crews which buy cans in bulk from elderly pickers (many are retired or on disability) for about a $30 nightly haul per person, and who then deal directly with the bulk metal recyclers uptown. A five cent can might be worth only three cents on the street; competition among the people living off my garbage is sharp, where on a late night dog walk just before the bulk trucks arrive can crews run by Chinese organized crime (rumor is those who can’t work off human smuggling fees otherwise work the can routes) tussle with individuals for turf. The cops are uninterested and some local doormen try and intervene but often tire of the guff. It’s not a proud thing to witness.

    We’re a society built around economic inequality. We’ll all just have to learn to navigate our way through.
      

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    Bernie and Reality of Economic Inequality

    February 16, 2020 // 23 Comments »


     
    It is a good thing candidates like Bernie Sanders make economic inequality a campaign issue in 2020. But with apologies to the Bernieverse, he is well-meaning but like everyone else has no practical solutions. Bernie, et al, imagine there exists some means to redistribute wealth, most likely, following the economist Thomas Piketty, via a progressive tax on the wealthy. Just talking about that may be enough to scare the wealthy into putsching a corporate Democrat in place of Bernie once again despite the human shield of green-haired pierced volunteers, but even if he were to win he could not be enough to change America. It’s a reality problem.

    The reality of wealth is the gap between most Americans and those who sit atop our economy continues to grow. This is nothing new. For two decades after 1960, real incomes of the top five percent and the remaining 95 percent increased at almost the same rate, about four percent a year. But incomes diverged between 1980 and 2007, with those at the bottom seeing annual increases only half of that of those at the top. Then it got worse.

    Lower savings and hyper-available credit (remember fraudulent Countrywide mortgages, ARMs, and usurous re-fi’s?) put the middle and bottom portions of society on an unsustainable financial path that increased spending until it crashed into the Great Recession of 2008. Meanwhile, America’s top earners’ wealth grew; the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009 as the markets recovered, while the bottom ninety percent became poorer as their missing homes did not. Their wealth, such as it was, was a Potemkin vision, wealth in the form of their homes which they actually did not own. The recession represented the largest redistribution of money in a century. How did the rich pull this off?

    The reality of possession. They own stock and real estate, not just personal homes to live in. Less than half of Americans do not own any stock while the wealthiest of Americans own over 80 percent of all stock, and 40 percent of America’s land. It is worse on an international scale. Only 85 human beings own half of all the world’s stuff. Markets over time go up and those who own parts of them do well. People who do not own homes have to rent them from those that do own. Owners can raise rents as they think they can get away with. A rising tide lifts all yachts, as historian Morris Berman observed. It can be hard to understand this level of wealth; a few years ago the real estate site Redfin figured out Bill Gates could buy all of the real estate in Boston. Candidate Michael Bloomberg could pick up Anaheim. Google’s Larry Page is able to buy Boca Raton. Never mind yachts, they can buy whole cities.

     

    It is the reality of the system. Walmart associates make minimum wage. Most associates are nowhere near full-time, so their take home pay is well below the poverty threshold. Employer-paid Obamacare, such as it is, only kicks in after one works 20 hours a week or more, so following the implementation of that policy most employees were cut to less than 20 hours, meaning they had to juggle multiple jobs to live and still did not have healthcare. They might be working 60 hours a week at three different places but that did not qualify them for healthcare as the qualifying hours are not cumulative.

    In return for paying below-poverty wages, Walmart enjoys taxpayer subsidies of $5,815 per worker in the form of food stamps paid by the government to keep the workers nearer the poverty line than below it, and tax breaks given to “create jobs.” On their side of the ledger, a few years ago the top four members of the Walmart family made a combined $28.9 billion from their investments. Less than a third of that would have given every U.S. Walmart worker a $3.00 raise, enough to end the public subsidy, though the four Walmart scions would have to make due with only $20 billion a year. Essentially the interests of the 99 percent are in direct conflict with those of the one percent.

    But the real money from economic inequality is made in much bigger bites. Walmart can pay low wages, creating a new status known as working poor, without having to see workers literally starve on the job because their employees receive $2.66 billion in government poverty assistance each year. That works out to about $5,815 per worker, or about $420,000 per store. Food stamps, a generic term for food assistance, are a key part of navigating in and profiting from, income inequality. In one year under study nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts received more than $33 million in food stamp dollars spent at their stores, a fair amount by their own workers. In two years, Walmart received about half of the one billion dollars in food stamp expenditures in Oklahoma. Overall, 18 percent of all food benefits money nationwide is spent at Walmart. That’s about $14 billion.

     

    The reality of the system protects those who make massive amounts of money by owning things, as opposed to working for wages. So let’s Robin Hood those wealthy bastards, Bernie and Elizabeth and others say. Jeff Bezos’ net worth is $109 billion. But that’s everything he has, not just the six percent tax Elizabeth Warren wants him to pay. The net worth of the entire Forbes 400 is under three trillion dollars. That’s everything they all own, as if we killed them and took it. The reforms Elizabeth Warren proposed to address economic inequality will cost some $20 trillion. It does not exist.

    But you have to start somewhere, right?  Given that America’s largest companies already pay little to no tax, it is  unclear how such a system would ever be enforced in the long run before the wealthy offshore their money. Taxes still leave in place other factors driving economic inequality, including a system of higher taxes on wages than capital gains, inheritance laws (Money is immortal. The children of rich people are born rich and unless they get really into hookers and blow, will inevitably get richer. They almost can’t help it), and the ability of the wealthy to control wages and the availability of jobs. Unions are increasingly a thing of the past and automation threaten more jobs daily. The rich decide when to pull the trigger on touch screens in fast food restaurants and deep six cashier jobs, never mind the mass extinction driverless delivery vehicles will bring on, and the one after that when advances in AI crush entry-level coding jobs.

     

    The single most significant factor is that financial growth via capital ownership (what the rich do for money) always outstrips wage growth (what the rest of us do to get money.) Getting richer by owning stuff is always a better deal than trying to get rich by working for wages from the people who own stuff. Even if a magic wand reset society somehow, the nature of capitalism would soon set things back on the path to income inequality. This was French economist Thomas Piketty‘s significant finding. Rich people know about this even if poor people don’t. Rich people get money through capital gains, basically assets they buy cheaply becoming worth more over time (until slavery was replaced with the minimum wage, human beings were also considered as a form of capital asset. Seriously, check with human “resources” where you work.) That’s why a short-term downturn is bad for you, ultimately good for most of them. It’s why stock market trouble uninformed people wish for will not make Trump go away. Math!

    The only hope lies in the reality of politics, right? Over large swaths of the earth, there are no elections. In some of the wealthiest countries in the Middle East and Asia there is not even the pretext of anyone choosing a government. Most governments are controlled by family ascension, not unlike the Middle Ages or in more modern places corruption and manipulation. Power and wealth work together.

    Such is the case now in the United States. According to the once-prescient Lawrence Lessing (who has since lost his mind to Twitter and TDS), with the concentration of wealth, 132 people in the U.S. essentially control elections. They do so by donating, just that handful of people, over 60 percent of the SuperPac money. Those 132 people represent 0.000042 percent of the total number of voters; most other contributions to candidates are small, many below $200. It sounds nice when a candidate talks about it but it diffuses power even as you he owes you something now. It is impossible under such circumstances for government to create laws again the interests of the wealthy; after all, they work for them.

    The reality is there is no answer, no solution. That’s because things are working more or less as they are supposed to. From a certain perspective, income inequality means things are going according to the rigged rules. The system is designed to squeeze wealth up into a smaller and smaller group of hands. A by product is the creation of more and more poor and eventually homeless at the bottom. It is the inevitable end point for a society set up to fund the wealthy via capital appreciation by paying low or stagnant wages to everyone else.

    To say it can’t be is to ignore the last time in history when it sort of was, one king in one castle sustained by tens of thousands of serfs living in sloven conditions. The world has seen this before, for the West, during the Middle Ages, when feudalism was the dominant force. A very, very few owned most everything of value. The 99.999 percent majority — serfs then, valued Target associates now — worked for whatever the feudal lords allowed them to have.

    Of course this is all very wrong. It’s very American to believe there are always answers, that there are not forces stronger than change at work, especially in an election year. If you’re still looking for those answers — solutions — well, you’ve gotten to the end of the article.

      

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    Victim Shaming, Yasmin Seweid, and the Critical Need for Skepticism in a Volatile Time

    December 5, 2016 // 46 Comments »

    yasmin-seweid



    BREAKING: Police now say Yasmin made the whole thing up. Everyone who wrote hate mail to me and posted hateful things on my Twitter and Facebook can apologize now.



    UPDATE: On December 9, Yasmin’s parent’s reported her missing. No additional details of her alleged attackers have been released since the original story, and no details of her missing status have been released.

    UPDATE: Yasmin has been found safe. No details have been released.



    Did you hear? A female Trump supporter was assaulted. They called her a facist b*tch, ripped the strap off her Sarah Palin bag, threatened her — “You saw what we did to the Nazis last war.” Three-on-one against the 18-year-old, they tried but failed to tear the Make America Great Hat off her head. She was on the subway here in New York. She was paralyzed by fear, stating she screamed at her attackers and tried to use her phone, but the battery was dead.


    She stayed on the subway for three full stops worth of this before getting off the train and reporting it. Nobody — not one person — on the train pulled the emergency cord, called 911 or intervened in any way. Even new people who got on the train at each stop did nothing to intervene. The subways cars are long enough that you could easily call 911 or hit the emergency call from one end away from the attack. None of this made it to any surveillance or even cell phone video. Unfortunately, she couldn’t provide a description of her attackers beyond they were Black and drunk. Despite extensive media coverage and anonymous reporting hotlines in NY, not a single witness has come forward to date. The only “witness” was the woman attacked.


    Victim Shamer

    Admit it. You have some reservations. You have some questions. Maybe in some dark place you even think she deserved it, some payback to the racist haters who support Trump.

    You are a victim shamer. Or, if you have no doubt, you have stopped thinking and just accept whatever you read online as the whole truth because it matches your own preconceived notions.

    Yasmin Seweid

    Which brings us to the story of Yasmin Seweid. She has written about her situation on her Facebook page, with her photo and other personal details and left comments open, so I am not “outing” anyone.

    Yasmin claimed while on the subway platform in New York three drunk white men (she provided no other description according to the media) yelled “Donald Trump” and made comments about her being a Muslim terrorist, and then boarded the same subway car. On the car they pulled her bag hard enough to break the strap. They continued the verbal assault, and tried but failed to pull off her headscarf. She did not say how many others were on the train (I use the same 6 line, and at 10pm on weeknight it is typically reasonably peopled with late commuters.)

    Yasmin stated not a single person on the train intervened, pulled the emergency alarm, videoed the incident, tried 911 or otherwise assisted her. “It breaks my heart that so many individuals chose to be bystanders while watching me get harassed verbally and physically by these disgusting pigs,” wrote Yasmin on Facebook.

    Yasmin stayed on the train for three more stops. Those stops were in midtown stations in “safe” areas and generally have a reasonable number of people on the platforms. All stations have employees present and live video monitors. At the third stop she got off the train and reported the incident to the police. They had her review surveillance video of people entering her departure station and she did not identify her attackers. Platforms and some trains in NYC have surveillance cameras. No information on any of those recordings.

    Wrote a commenter on Facebook: “Everyone of you who claims this is fake news is in denial of the hate that has been incited. It is clear that you’re probably a Trump supporter. Perhaps someone will come forward with a video or at least verify her story.”

    So far, no one has.


    You See Where I’m Going

    The Internet and media reacted as you would expect them to react. A hate crime. Society is breaking down. The worst of us are now cut loose to do terrible things. Anyone questioning what happens is either a hate criminal too, or blaming the victim. Claiming this is a hoax is deplorable. Only a man, a white man, would question a victim.

    I was not there and neither were any of the others commenting. So the questions raised are just that, questions, but they are questions currently without answers. I think they need to be answered, because there are hate crimes, and there are hoaxes and exaggerated acts, and in volatile times those need to be sorted out.

    By putting her story on Facebook, and using potentially explosive language herself there about what she calls “Trump’s America,” Yasmin made this a national political statement, and that opens the door to talking about it as a national political issue. The media is certainly treating it as such.

    If everything Yasmin said is 100% accurate, we are in very deep sh*t — no one helped during an egregious assault in plain view in America’s most diverse city, a city that voted 58% Clinton, on a “safe” subway line? The line, as in NYC itself, would have very likely had people riding of color, men and women, perhaps including LGBTQ and Muslim people. Yasmin is 18, barely an adult, a woman riding alone. On the whole, New Yorkers are not shy people. And nobody did anything?

    If her story is not 100% accurate, people will scream hoax (here’s a list of post-election hoaxes) and use it as a dangerous example for every other hate crime that happens. That is very, very bad and can cause direct harm to other women.

    In a world of fake news and exaggerations, believing what we want to believe because it matches our politics, means the media drives the agenda. Skepticism expressed places a burden on them to source, to verify their stories, and perhaps ask themselves how to handle a story responsibly. The media many of us depend on, from the New York Times to progressive blogs, failed us. For the next four years, they must do us better. If they fear hard questions, what they write will often be crap.


    A Different Story

    It is not “evidence,” but an example. I have not been able to find any reports related to hate crimes where random, unconnected, New Yorkers as a group have stood by watching it happen and did nothing.

    I did find a story where NYC subway riders stood up for a pair of Muslim women after they were harassed by a man who called them “terrorist foreigners.”

    The news stated “Everyone on the train ‘erupted in anger.’ …Several people, including a man who said he was a Romanian immigrant, a black man and a gay man, challenged the man’s stances. Eventually, another straphanger got the man to stop his rant by saying, ‘This is New York City. The most diverse place in the world. And in New York, we protect our own and we don’t give a f*ck what anyone looks like or who they love, or any of those things. It’s time for you to leave these women alone, Sir.'”

    The one felony-level crime I have seen on the subway in the last three years was a fight among a handful of young men who, by the things they were shouting at each other, appeared to know each other. Someone pushed the emergency call button and several people had their cameras out to record what happened. Cops were waiting at the next station.

    There are always explanation, plausible and outside the box for why things happen/not happen. But for all of this story about Yasmin to be true it seems like we need a lot of answers to a lot of questions to all add up about the same way. So let’s hear some answers. The media who are blasting the original story around the world should follow-up.


    So What Happened?

    I know and am sympathetic about victim shaming/blaming, but it does us no good to assume the opposite, either, that every accusation must be true. That option faded when this morphed into a political event, by the victim’s choosing. She asked to be viewed as an example of what is happening in America. Asking tough questions are necessary because these are very important issues that sadly extend beyond what happened to an individual.

    As I write this, the story as stated by Yasmin is proliferating across the web. I have not been able to find any follow-up reporting other than a boilerplate NYPD statement that no arrests have been made and an investigation is ongoing.

    So what happened to Yasmin? What is happening in America?



    UPDATE: Since all of the above, as of December 6, two other violent anti-Muslim incidents occurred. A quick arrest was made in one case, a passerby intervened in the other. There have been no updates and no physical descriptions of the alleged attackers in Yasmin’s case, though the media continue to bundle her story into the other two.







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    More Media B.S. — OMG, Trump Company Legally Rented Office Space to Iranian Bank!

    October 3, 2016 // 13 Comments »

    gmbuilding

    Once again a story that Trump did nothing illegal is somehow front page news. His crime this time? Continuing to legally rent out office space to a bank already in a building he bought 18 years ago.

    So the big news is that Donald Trump’s real estate organization rented space to an Iranian bank later linked to Iran’s nuclear program.

    Bank Melli, one of Iran’s largest state-controlled banks, was already a tenant in 1998 when Trump purchased the General Motors Building, above, in Manhattan, but he kept them on for another five years, until 2003.


    Quick summary:

    — There is no evidence and it is highly unlikely that Trump himself knew every one of the hundreds of tenants in a building he bought in 1998. In fact, the building occupies a full city block, with 1,774,000 net leasable square feet (the bank rented 8,000 square feet.)

    — U.S. security authorities allowed Bank Melli to legally operate offices in the U.S., so renting to them is not a story.

    — Bank Melli was prohibited from conducting bank transactions in the U.S., and did not conduct transactions, but kept an office in New York in hopes sanctions might one day be eased.

    — Bank Melli operated fully in the open. The U.S. Department of the Treasury could have shut them down at any time, or sanctioned Trump for dealing with them if it wished. It did not.

    — The bank itself (not Trump) was only sanctioned by Treasury in 2007, four years after it left Trump’s building. However, the Huffington Post helpfully notes (emphasis added) “[Unnamed] Experts told the Center for Public Integrity that the bank likely supported proliferation activity and Iran’s military years before the Treasury Department publicly condemned the bank,” something the owners of the rental building presumably should have been aware of somehow.

    — The Center for Public Integrity reveals on its website that the Bank Melli “as being controlled by the Iranian government” since 1999. Actually in its own publically available history, the Bank notes it served as the nation’s central bank, issuing currency, from 1931.


    While the media is enjoying this story, it ignores the broader picture. Despite sanctions and trade embargoes, over the past decade the United States government allowed American companies to do billions of dollars in business with Iran and other countries blacklisted as state sponsors of terrorism.

    At the request of companies from Kraft Food and Pepsi to some of the nation’s largest banks, the Treasury Department across multiple administrations granted some 10,000 licenses for deals involving sanctioned countries.


    The media is so full of sh*t on these stories their eyes are brown.



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    ‘Killing Jews is Worship’ Posters to Appear on NYC Subways and Buses?

    May 1, 2015 // 13 Comments »

    bus

    A story of our times, with massive First Amendment issues embedded.

    Kill Jews

    A federal judge ruled that a group (more below, who they are makes this case even more complex) may put up posters on New York’s public buses and subways saying “Killing Jews is worship that draws us close to Allah.” The poster features a young man in a checkered headscarf with the additional words “That’s His Jihad. What’s yours?”

    The poster is now at the epicenter between public safety and free speech. On Tuesday, a District judge ruled New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) cannot stop the controversial ad.

    The MTA argued the ad could incite violence against Jews.

    However, MTA officials “underestimate the tolerant quality of New Yorkers and overestimate the potential impact of these fleeting advertisements,” the judge stated in his ruling. “Moreover, there is no evidence that seeing one of these advertisements on the back of a bus would be sufficient to trigger a violent reaction. Therefore, these ads — offensive as they may be — are still entitled to First Amendment protection.”

    The MTA has now fired the next shot in the struggle, banning all “political” advertising on its subways and buses. You can certainly expect that decision to be challenged by a very broad range of actors.



    The Speaker Versus the Speech

    The issues surrounding the “Kill Jews” poster are complicated, in that the sponsor is a pro-Israel, anti-Muslim organization. Pamela Geller, the president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), the group that purchased the ads and sued the MTA to run them, was overjoyed at the court’s decision to allow her to post the, to some, inflammatory ads.

    The Southern Poverty Law Center considers AFDI an “anti-Muslim” hate group. For example, earlier this year AFDI organized a portrait of the Prophet Mohammed contest, despite objections from Muslims who consider images of the Prophet blasphemous.

    The presumed purpose of the “Kill Jews” ads placed by a pro-Israel group is to conflate the murder of innocents of one religion by smearing all members of another religion.

    But can they say that kind of thing? Isn’t it Hate Speech and isn’t that illegal?

    The Limits of Free Speech

    The right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution isn’t there for the easy cases; it is there for the tough ones.

    The Supreme Court has thus been very reluctant in modern times to issue limits on free speech; what is now commonly called “hate speech,” things like the Klu Klux Klan using the N-word, or religious fundamentalists protesting at veteran’s funerals by way of anti-gay slurs, have been ruled repeatedly to be protected acts of free speech. You get the good with the bad, no matter what you personally consider the good parts and the bad parts.

    See how it works?


    Some Bad History

    The broad concept of free speech is somewhat recent in the Supreme Court’s mind.

    One of the most shameful examples of restraint comes from the early 20th century case of U.S. v. Schenck. In that case, the Court decided Charles Schenck, the Secretary of the Socialist Party of America, could be convicted under the Espionage Act for writing and distributing a pamphlet that expressed opposition to the draft during World War I. It was in that case that Justice Holmes made his famous statement in favor of restraint, the one about free speech not allowing someone to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre.

    So hate speech is illegal, like shouting Fire! and panicking a whole theatre full of people, right?



    That Was Then, This is Now

    The Supreme Court then did a 180 degree turn in the 1969 case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, which basically overturned Schenck. The Court held that inflammatory speech, even speech advocating violence, is protected under the First Amendment unless the speech “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

    That is where today’s New York District judge’s specific wording came from. When he said that New Yorker’s would understand the broader political point of the “Kill Jews” poster and not actually be moved to murder, he was confirming the standard set in Brandenburg v. Ohio: you have to do more than just announce an intent toward violence, your statement has to be such that people will be actually willing to follow it.


    Back to the New York Buses

    Of course predicting what people might do in response to any bit of speech is very hard stuff. But the Supreme Court in fact granted that power to predict to the judicial system. In the “Kill Jews” case, the judge clearly decided no one would see the ads and decide, based on that, to actually commit murder.

    And that brings us back to Justice Holmes, the same Supreme Court judge who gave us the “fire in the crowded theatre” lines. Holmes later recanted, and became a firm advocate of nearly unrestrained free speech. Holmes wrote (Abrams v. United States) that the marketplace of ideas offered the best solution for tamping down offensive speech:

    The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.

    In other words, let the ads play out on the New York buses and subways. The people are smart enough to know garbage when they smell it.






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    The Poor Door: Building has Separate Entrances for Rich and Poor

    July 28, 2014 // 10 Comments »



    Not that America has become a divided, classist society or anything. Oh wait, it has.


    Poor Doors

    New York City approved plans for a new 33-story luxury high-rise at 40 Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that will include a separate entrance for tenants in “affordable” housing, what some have called the “poor door.” The high-rise has both super-luxe units worth millions, and some affordable housing units. Rich residents come in the front door. Poor residents enter through the side door. The expensive units overlook the Hudson River waterfront. The affordable units are in a “building segment” that faces the street. “Affordable” folks cannot enter the rich side of the building and are prohibited from using any of the building’s amenities. The way the architecture was specifically designed, the two groups will never mingle.


    Affordable Housing in a Luxury Building?

    Why does such a luxury building have affordable housing units in the first place? Well, so the rich can manipulate New York’s housing laws for their own benefit.

    Including some affordable housing units in your new construction buys you two distinct advantages in New York. The first is that the developer is allowed to build a much taller building (and thus having more apartments to sell), skirting zoning laws and claiming valuable “air rights” for the benefit of the poor, of course. The air rights the developer will claim are worth millions in crowded Manhattan. The benefits even apply if you build your luxury tower in one part of Manhattan and your affordable units “off site,” maybe in a nasty part of town.

    A developer can also qualify for the program by building condos on “areas of Manhattan of underutilized or unused land,” wherever those may be on some of the most densely populated land in the world.

    The biggest advantage of including the affordable units in a luxury building is the massive tax breaks all residents share. New York waives or significantly lowers property taxes, meaning the rich, who need never see or interact with their poor neighbors, make money off their presence. It’s all called the “Inclusionary Housing Program,” or officially, the 421a program.

    Here’s an example of how significant these tax breaks can be drawn from another super-luxury building in midtown Manhattan that included some affordable housing units. On an apartment purchased in 2007 for $1.5 million, the owner paid just $35 a month in property taxes. That creeped up to only $374 a month in 2011. When the exemption expires in 2018, the actual monthly tax bill will be an estimated $1,629. Note also any that real estate taxes paid are tax-deductible from one’s income.


    Developers Getting Rich off the Poor

    Another New York developer, who has built “poor door” buildings, summed things up quite succinctly:

    No one ever said that the goal was full integration of these populations. So now you have politicians talking about that, saying how horrible those back doors are. I think it’s unfair to expect very high-income homeowners who paid a fortune to live in their building to have to be in the same boat as low-income renters, who are very fortunate to live in a new building in a great neighborhood.

    The developers of the poor door building under discussion have done well with tax breaks. Five of the luxury firm’s other apartment towers cost the city $21.8 million in tax revenue in their first year alone. Overall, as of 2012, property tax abatements in New York City totaled $2.9 billion, about 20 percent of actual property tax collections in the city.

    So what’s the problem, some say, with poor folks gettin’ some uptown housing from the swells? History: Separate but equal favors the separate but never the equal part. It did not work as a solution for racial inequality and it won’t work as a solution for economic inequality. Indeed, one wonders if the building caught fire which door the fire department would go through first?

    And there you have it, another tidy example of how taxes and laws are rigged to favor the people who already have the most money. Go ahead, work as hard as you like; this game, friends, has already been decided.



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    I’ll Be at Book Culture in New York City on June 10!

    June 9, 2014 // 10 Comments »





    Yo, New York! I am excited that Book Culture, New York’s coolest independent bookstore, will host me for an evening of conversation in connection with my new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.

    The event is Tuesday, June 10, from 7:00 pm, at 536 West 112th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam, 212-865-1588. Nearest subway is the 1 Train to Cathedral Parkway. The store is across the street from the “Seinfeld Diner” and close to Columbia.


    Everyone is welcome and there is no charge. There will be a Q&A session where we can talk about the new book, the old book (We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People) and/or my experiences being run out of my former career with the Department of State because I wrote about their waste and mismanagement of the Iraq War reconstruction.


    Since this will be my first chance to speak in New York, please come join me at Book Culture!



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    We Were Once the American Dream

    May 9, 2013 // 11 Comments »

    We were once the American Dream, and now we’re just what happened to it. That’s the phrase that informs my research into a new book I’m working on, The People on the Bus: A Story of the #99Percent. I’m trying to trace the decline of the American Middle Class over the last forty years, and the concurrent rise of the Working Poor. The people I am writing about seem illusive here on the East Coast; in crazy New York last week, visiting the South Bronx, there are plenty of poor people. The sense in Midtown was that if they didn’t deserve to be poor, then, well, they were sort of naturally thrust into it as immigrants, as drug users, simply because they lived in a poor part of the city and it always would be. Kind of the natural ecology of the place.

    In talking to people in New York the working class tends to appear as caricatures, like Joe the Plumber in interior America was to politicians, the people of Brigadoon for elections, who then fade after the candidates grab votes promising new jobs and manicured optimism for a working class that somehow still listens to them. It’s inconveniently convenient to walk among them every four years, like having to be nice at your in-laws’ house for a family gathering. OK as long as it doesn’t drag on too long.

    The View from Ground Zero

    The story is different when I talk about what I’m working on in Kansas, Kentucky or Ohio. People there nod their heads, and everyone has a story to add: the family that lost their home to the bank, the factory that closed down and the retail outlets that replaced the factory closed down, one after another piling up like the late spring snow we had that week. People say “But I’ll take any job. I just want to work. I’m not too proud to get my hands dirty. I still know how to sweat, the good kind.”

    I believe them all. But even if they’ll accept minimum wage, how far is a couple of dollars an hour throwing construction debris into a Dumpster going to get you? Better than nothing but not much better. You going to do ten hours of labor for the phone bill? Another ten for the groceries each week? Another twenty or thirty for a car payment? How many hours you going to work? How many can you work? Nobody can make a full living doing those jobs. You can’t raise a family on minimum wage. And you can’t build a nation on the working poor. It is a rough portrait of an American past and a tough vision to push into an American future.

    But my goal isn’t to speak in broad terms; I want to understand what’s happening on an almost documentary level. So what stood out on this trip was the proliferation of a new, New Economy, one designed to prey on the fact that people who don’t deserve to be poor are now poor. There are whole industries that sprang up because poor people became a new market.

    Rent-to-Own

    Pawn shops are an old business, but one that has grown alongside the working poor. In 1911, there were only 1,976 licensed pawnbrokers in the country. By 1988, there were 6,900 pawnshops in the U.S. (one for every two commercial banks) and in 2012 there were almost 14,000 pawnshops in operation throughout the United States.

    Pawn shops are one thing, but there are newer predators on the ground. I ended up buying Kenny’s story for two cups of coffee. Kenny told me that he couldn’t qualify for a credit card, the middle class’ old way of borrowing money. Average people with cards carry monthly balances of almost $16,000 and that’s at twelve to fifteen percent interest, so not a helluva lot different from payday loans. Just looks cleaner. Kenny told me about the trap of the rent-to-own stores, who let people without a credit card rent a TV or a washer and dryer until they paid back a lot more than the appliance is worth. It was more like time payments than rental as most people used to understand the word. By the time you owned the appliance, it was old, and with interest you dropped $450 on a $200 item. You needed something and there wasn’t any other way to get it.

    Rent-to-Own is a big, big business. According to Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business by Gary Rivlin, the largest rent-to-own operation, Rent-A-Center, reported three billion dollars in revenues in 2008. The bottom line has only gotten stronger for them since.

    Cashing In

    Kenny even said he’d tried to cash in on it for himself, working briefly for a collections agency. When folks could not pay, the debt got sold down the line. Some big bank wasn’t going to fuss over small change, so it sold the ownership of the debt to a big agency, who sold it to a smaller one like he worked for, a place that might see profit in getting twenty percent of a two hundred dollar collection. At those rent-to-own joints, customers have to sign tons of papers, all looking like they were written by a Keep Lawyers Employed committee, so that if you miss a payment the store takes back the whole appliance, not just the half they still own.

    This scared the people renting, but actually the last thing that company wanted was to repo a two year old TV, so Kenny’s job was to knock on the door and try to get them to pay something, and at the same time see if they’d refinance at an even higher rate. Loan to pay a loan. That old TV was worth nothing to the rent-to-own store, but it was some kind of magic thing to some old lady. If she was a single mom, the TV was her babysitter—feed your sister after Wheel of Fortune, lights out after Idol– and she wasn’t going to give it up easy. When Kenny talked them into an even uglier refi deal that let them keep the TV, they’d usually thank him for helping them out. Sometimes, he said, moms would offer what he called a couch payment, bed in return for a report to the boss of no one home. His last customer before he quit the job was a former soldier who owed for a bicycle he was renting/buying over time for his daughter’s ninth birthday. Kenny said to hell with it, he wasn’t going to repo a Barbie two-wheeler with pink streamers on the handle bars and reported it as No One Home in that part of America.

    The Ohio town we were in was falling apart economically, but it still had its looks, to a point. This wasn’t the South Bronx. Old habits die hard. When middle class folks fall out of the middle class, they still tend to keep things neat and see that grass gets cut. But what was once maybe quaint was now just old and tired. Pretty soon I worry there’ll be no one home.

    Van Buren wrote about the New Economy and what working for minimum wage means earlier on the Huffington Post.



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    Get Over it New York

    March 30, 2013 // 7 Comments »

    Just to get ahead of things, a few announcements before we begin. If you plan to send hate mail or death threats after this blog post, please include the key word “HATE” in the subject line to assist me in sorting things. Also, I grieve for all those lost on 9/11. It was a terrible tragedy. None of this is intended to dispute that, but…

    Get over it New York.

    I had the pleasure of a few days in New York City, all for the good. People were themselves, food great, subways running smoothly post-Sandy. But it seems that official New York can’t seem to get past 9/11. On Monday the cops in the subways switched from their weekend soft caps and 9mm pistols to helmets, body armor and M-4s with the long clips. Armed National Guard paroled the Port Authority terminal, literally outfitted for war. Both the cops and the Guard carried milpsec gas masks ready to protect against anthrax and a host of other militarized biochem things. C’mon guys, 9/11 was almost twelve years ago. In the subway, with its low ceilings, packed-to-the- edges crowds and hard surfaces, exactly what are you going to do with a machine gun? Can you sketch out a scenario where the NYPD is going to be exchanging a couple of hundred armor piercing rounds underground where they won’t be killing more people than the bad guys?

    The subways are noisy enough without the endless recorded admonitions to “see something, say something” and report suspicious packages to the proper authorities. No one cares. The homeless guys all had bags and bags with them, maybe filled with empty 40 ouncers, maybe terror bombs, but nobody paid them any attention. I am so very sorry about those who lost their lives on 9/11, particularly the brave first responders. But do we really need that many murals on walls, all resplendent with gas station velvet-painting level burning Twin Towers?

    The indifference of the millions of people and the signs of official excessive panic stand in contrast. Most folks seem to have moved on. It has been almost twelve years and yet… and yet… the NYPD and others seem to want to keep everyone on edge, act as if there has been attack after attack, to keep the sore from healing. Of course some one will write in and explain to me that such vigilance is all that stands between us and the darkness, that when it is my child held in the kabob-stained hands of terror under 51st Street I’ll wish there were armed men protecting her and all that. Save your time.

    Maybe, just maybe, it makes sense to a police state to keep reminding everyone why they need to support and maintain a police state. Maybe the image of the NYPD as gruff but lovable neighborhood guys and gals isn’t enough to justify big budgets and a surveillance state.

    Maybe, just maybe, it is time for New York, officially, to get over 9/11.

    BONUS: Anyone enjoying the media these days can see a preview of the Next Enemy. Even the White House seems to be slowly walking back from Terrorism Everywhere as a justification for Everything, and is prepping us with near-daily stories about the super dangers of cyber-terrorism. Stay tuned for the change over as we head first into midterm elections next year and then as we gear up for the 2016 presidentials. The Chinese are sneaking into our Internets to take over our Facebooking!!!!!!!!



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    9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11

    September 10, 2011 // Comments Off on 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11


    I remembered to be frightened and right away I was.
    – James Dickey, Deliverance

    I was planning on a self-induced coma this 9/11 Weekend, hoping to be revived after all the mad coverage. As predictable as the reviews of the Cheney book (torture good, torture bad), a terror alert was issued on Friday, just before 9/11 Weekend, whipping idiots in New York and Washington into a happy, familiar frenzy. Three men may have entered the US; they may be planning a vehicle bomb; it may be in New York, it may be in DC. Be watchful. It was implied– still gotta watch our step– that the three men are “brown,” as they reportedly came from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Security theater was whipped into shape here in our nation’s capital. Even at my dull, suburban Virginia subway station, two local cops wearing body armor, one with a shotgun, stood guard over my commute. Should al Qaeda decide this sleepy stop on the Orange Line is the new Ground Zero, they’ll have a fight on their hands. The point is clear: Keep Fear Alive. Ten Years Means Nothing. We Can Never Be Safe Again.

    My own 9/11 memory is actually something more like a 10/25 memory. I was working at our Embassy in Japan, and charged with administering the Federal fund to the 9/11 victims’ families. To prevent everyone from suing everyone for all eternity and bankrupting the airlines, there was some US Government program whipped together to give money to the families of those who died on 9/11, American and foreign alike. New York City had not then sorted out the whole business of issuing death certificates without bodies and so documentation was lacking. The Japanese families whose husbands were trading bonds in the World Trade Center on the Day had to troop into the Embassy to fill out some forms and apply for their victim’s compensation money. The key item was “What evidence do you have that your loved one was killed in the terror acts of 9/11?”

    I’d have to interview these women about that last question, to guard against fraud I guess. The women were typically in their mid-thirties, and usually brought their one or two infant children in with them. Hubby had gone off to New York to work, and they stayed in Japan. “He called home every day. Then, no calls.” “The man he lived with missed work that day. He mailed me my husband’s neckties.” “My son cries every night because he has no father.” “A co-worker called me to say he last saw my husband on the 77th floor. I don’t feel he lied.” My Japanese is decent enough, but most of the women felt the need to speak slowly and repeat themselves to politely make sure I understood. Some felt the need to assist by using the limited English they knew, so I could not hide behind the niceties of words like “deceased” or “missing” and had to confront words like “dead” in their place. The interviews were brief, and no one seemed happy– relieved perhaps– when I signed the form and gave instructions on how to get the money sent to their bank accounts. Grief was overcome by awkwardness, but only for a moment. It returned like a draft, unwelcome but surely felt. There were strange echoes from the future, when in Iraq I’d hear from widows whose husbands were lost in the American invasion there.

    It will soon enough be Monday, and by then Anderson and Wolf will return us to our regularly scheduled diet of Perry and Obama, now already in progress.



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