Monday, 28 July 2014

Looting the commons for fun and profit

One more sign of the privatization of the nation’s soul is the impending demise of the U.S. Postal Service, one of the last concrete manifestations of the commons, the remnants of collectively-held property that embodies and cements our nationhood.

The fact that one can wander through the streets of any locality within the sovereign boundaries of the United States and drop a letter into a box addressed to any resident of the country is a reminder that we are an integral part of a united, whole something. We pay a standard rate for that privilege because it is, or was once, important to maintain that link, not because it accurately reflects the cost of making the delivery. If the price of the stamp is insufficient, we shoulder the expense jointly because we are joined together.

Thus I can write to my friend in Hawaii, one in New Hampshire and another in the Aleutians for the same price as I send a letter to the electric utility across the East River.

The new logic, however, is strictly commercial: can UPS or FedEx deliver my messages or bring me my goods more quickly and cheaply? If so, they should muscle the USPS out of the way. It should fade away and die as a relic of an old-fashioned, dying world where political relations outranked commercial ones.

Now the finance system furthers this Triumph of the Bill by empowering mega-corporations to wipe out competition and consolidate their vast powers. Amazon, the business press informs us, has just lost $126 million in the quarter ending in June, en route to new losses five times that figure in the current period, perhaps as much as $810 million. But no matter! Amazon can still wipe out the post office on borrowed cash, now available cheap from the Federal Reserve.

If you don’t have to make a profit, it’s easy to undercut the competition with price slashing and establish a monopoly. Not incidentally, Amazon rebutted the bad profit news with an announcement that it was introducing Sunday delivery to 25 percent of the U.S. population, just as the USPS warns us it must soon cut back to five days a week.
While the postal service is thus hobbled by unfair competition, any cost-cutting measures that could affect a congressman’s district are promptly kaboshed while the government entity is pilloried for mismanagement and waste. As Wolf Richter writes at Wolf Street,

The Postal Service, which had revenues of $16.7 billion in Q2, can’t even sneeze without Congress giving it prior approval. Shutting down unneeded post offices or dropping Saturday delivery? Addressing its huge pension obligations or switching to a pension plan of the kind Amazon has (LOL)? Forget it. In return for its valiant service as Congressional and public punching bag, USPS is allowed to perform financially about the same as Amazon: losses as far as they eye can see.

Nonetheless, Amazon still trades at $300 a share, provided happy lucre for Jeff Bezos, other top management and stock speculators. Its huge recent rally started around the time the Fed threw money at Wall Street to goose asset prices. Unlike Borders, which had to close when it lost money, Amazon is unfettered by the need to be a real business. But it can continue to undermine and wreck those that are. Richter:

Their big competitor [Amazon] has unlimited resources by being able to raise billions at practically no cost. It can always sell more of its inflated shares, a safety blanket if it runs out of money. . . . When Amazon needs additional money beyond that, it sells bonds that cost it, depending on maturity, less than the rate of inflation and are thus free money.

Amazon is Exhibit A of how the Fed’s policy of flooding Wall Street and corporate mastodons with nearly free money is destructive to the rest of the economy.

Consumers eagerly rush after the savings at Amazon, just as they helped Wal-Mart destroy local business. But then you have to live with the consequences: a post-capitalist landscape littered with wreckage, and the lousy service that inevitably comes with companies who have made themselves the only game in town.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Will drones threaten us?

Who fired that rocket?

The debate and accompanying theories, claims, ‘proofs’, accusations and generall, all-around confusion over the shooting down of Malaysian Air flight MH-17 may be a harbinger of things to come when drone technology spreads, as it inevitably will, around the globe.

The fact that the rocket used to down the civilian airliner was made in Russia has been quickly debunked as proof that the Russians did it. Not only do both sides have access to Russian military hardware, the point of manufacture of any weapon means virtually nothing in today’s global arms marketplace.

It’s not hard to foresee a time when drones start circulating through the skies regularly, especially as the manufacturers will be pushing intensively to open up sales for ‘civilian uses’. The parallel with atomic energy is almost too obvious—to soften up the public to the era of nuclear warfare as a permanent feature and the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that we lived through during the Cold War, policymakers quickly hit upon pumping up nukes as a wonderful way to provide cheap electricity.

That didn’t turn out so well, but it worked as a PR strategy despite the fact that one probably shouldn’t be eating fish from the Pacific Ocean these days. But imagine what will happen in coming years as the drone builders—Northrop Grumman, Boeing, General Atomics and Lockheed Martin—start peddling their wares to one and all buyers.

Countries with whom the U.S. could conceivably have a hostile relationship at some point can now be sold as many drones as they want. The Guardian article linked to above says that there is no restriction on selling them. Legally, Kim Jong-un could line up to place an order.

If anyone gets nervous, I’m sure we’ll hear that drones have wonderful civilian uses like delivering your Amazon order direct from a slave laborer in one of their warehouses. Or maybe that will be the final nail in the U.S. Postal Service’s coffin—packages droned in 7 days a week, right to your mailbox.

But what happens when a militarized drone attacks a target, assassinates a citizen, blows up an arms depot, or even downs an airplane? How will anyone know where it came from, who programmed it, or who ordered it?

The United States has enjoyed a remarkable advantage over the centuries due to its placement between two oceans, thousands of miles from potential enemies. As a result, wars have been costly to its soldiers but, 9/11 notwithstanding, infrequently to its civilians—what other country on earth can say the same?

Drone technology, however, has the capacity to change all that and bring the wars home in unpleasant ways. If anyone in power had been thinking ahead, they might have counseled caution in setting some international guidelines or even laws for when and where these weapons can be used.

Obama, however, is expediency made flesh: he needed to get the troops out of harm’s way, so he went to the convenience of computerized assassination from afar. Some day, we may look up to the sky and wish he had deployed a little statesmanship instead of exploiting a short-lived monopoly on death-by-remote-control.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Notes on the Staten Island chokehold

To recap: a gaggle of cops arrest an unthreatening Eric Garner [above], known to sell contraband cigarettes—but not seen doing so on this occasion—who does not resist but complains loudly, is thrown to the ground, choked, strangled and killed. Emergency workers show up, manage not to notice that he isn’t breathing, stand around chatting, and the guys is DOA at the hospital. The whole thing is captured on cellphone video, so the usual fake stories about resisting arrest are not credible.

Notable facts: Bill Bratton, the new police chief, specifically mentioned that he is no longer interested in numbers, as in total arrests for things like marihuana possession, loitering, etc., as a sign that cops are working. This is a radical break from unofficial tradition, denied but proven by things like the Adrian Schoolcraft recordings of a precinct officer insisting that patrolmen get out there and score arrests. If cops are no longer pressured into harassing people to get write-ups, incidents like the chokehold killing may be less frequent.

Mayor De Blasio’s first comment included his confirmation of what any observer can see, that the cop appears to be using an unauthorized chokehold. He then defers to the inevitable ‘investigation’, but the shift from past practice of refusing to suggest any misconduct is significant.

Al Sharpton is asking for federal civil rights intervention given that the NYPD cannot be trusted to institute reforms on its own as evidenced by the chokehold that the NYPD itself has ostensibly forbidden. The Justice Department sounds interested (‘closely monitoring’ the probe). Bratton, though he can’t say so publicly, may well be happy to see them intervene to help him bring the department under control.

Al Sharpton isn’t everyone’s favorite guy, but aside from Jumaane Williams, the Brooklyn councilman [left], the city’s black politicians are pretty shy about standing next to the victims’ families to criticize the police. You don’t see any Charlie Rangel at these demonstrations or news conferences, despite his recent campaign for a 25th term in Congress as the friend of Harlem’s oppressed masses. It would be fair to assume that it’s not the way to get ahead in local politics.

Bratton’s appointment and De Blasio’s accession to the mayor’s job were supposed to usher in a new age of police-community relations. I went to a holds-hand-and-sing affair at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem a few days ago led by Leora Fulani where she put on a workshop-performance of her ‘Cops & Kids’ trainings, endorsed by Bratton who introduced her. It was well-meaning and probably useful and also pretty lame. It’s not likely to extinguish the renewed bitterness about how easy it is for cops to put a non-violent black guy to death.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Kabuki theatre on "corruption" - Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo isn’t like to face any serious electoral fallout from his recent embarrassing display of old-fashioned corruption. His GOP opponent this November is a non-entity in a state where for a Republican to stand a chance they either have to be celebrities or possess bank accounts in 11 figures.

But Cuomo’s plans to shine on the national stage took a serious hit this week with revelations that he systematically interfered with his own ha-ha ‘anti-corruption’ commission named in August, 2013, before finally pulling the plug on it entirely in April. While no one expects sainthood to emerge from Albany over the next, say, 100 years, there was a faint hope that Cuomo’s enormous popularity and mandate would perhaps lead to some bit of housecleaning in that notoriously putrid statehouse.

The litany of micromanagement and bullying reported by the Times this week is pretty appalling when we recall the gov’s own words when he announced with great bombast last year his decision to set up the commission in response to the steady parade of solons marching off to the courthouse and often prison. ‘Anything they want to look at, they can look at,’ said Cuomo at the time, ‘me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman,’ words that may yet disturb his sleep.

Cuomo didn’t clarify that his idea of ‘look at’ meant ‘admire from a distance’, sort of like touring the Statue of Liberty. Commission members mistakenly thought they were supposed to do something about what they saw.

There are vague noises about possible legal implications for Cuomo, and the federal prosecutor here in the city clearly can’t stand the guy. But the cozy system of paying-and-playing isn’t likely to be disturbed, and the governor sits on top of it. Former governor Spitzer, by contrast, might have actually had a chance to wreck it if he hadn’t shot himself in the, um, foot.

The brief rise and precipitously fall of yet one more attempt to rein in gross pocket-lining and opportunism by our elected (and appointed) officials is one more indicator of the pervasive cynicism and plummeting credibility of the entire system, which is reaching unheard-of levels. An anthropologist whose report I just read about (somewhere—sorry, no link), based on a ten-week tour of the U.S., concluded that across the political spectrum Americans believe their government is in the hands of an crass, greedy elite enriching itself, for which they feel profound contempt.

That doesn’t mean the pitchforks are coming out any time soon, but it does reflect a serious weakness of governability that our comfy rulers ought to take seriously but won’t. No one can predict where the increasingly stretched social fabric will rip apart, only that inevitably, eventually, it will.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Perhaps a guillotine would be more humane

Given the steady undermining of the Fourth (search and seizure) and the Fifth (due process of law) Amendments, it is not surprising that we now witness the demise of the Eighth (cruel and unusual punishment) in the hands of, even more fittingly, the State of Arizona—that place where 8-year-old refugees from gang impressment are considered public enemies.

The revolting spectacle of the torture by injection drugs of a convicted murderer is different only insofar as there were witnesses not intimidated into secrecy. One can only imagine the strong stomach required on the part of the Arizona Republic reporter who said he counted the prisoner gasping for breath 660 times. I guess hypnotic counting would be a good way to get through a situation like that without hurling breakfast.

As Albert Guillotin discovered to his dismay, attempts to find a ‘humane’ way to put another human being to death are doomed by the law of unintended consequences. In this case, secrecy reigned as usual because cruelty always has to be performed in the dark even when perpetrators insist they are justified. Attempts by the prisoner’s lawyers even to find out what drugs were going to be used were unsuccessful even though an appeals court had placed a stay on the execution. The Catholic-majority Supreme Court, otherwise eager to defend the sacred principle of fetal life, removed the stay without comment.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Time for a Car-Bike-Pedestrian social contract

I joined other members of the astute and tireless advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives, last Saturday for part one of a citizens’ inspection tour of the Manhattan-Bronx bridges and surrounding neighborhoods to help them develop plans for pedestrian and cyclist safety. There were 40 participants on foot and bike for the two-hour on-site review, a testimony to TA’s organizing skill and capacity.

Their plan is to develop and submit recommendations to the area’s community boards, the appointed bodies with no formal powers but tremendous wallop. When the CBs declare their opposition to a zoning change, a liquor license or a street routing change, it’s pretty much dead. Conversely, CB support has been crucial to the growth of the city’s large network of bike lanes and other traffic control measures.

The context is that the city is witnessing a relentless toll of pedestrian fatalities and injuries, the latest occurring in the Zone of Death around the West 90s in the Upper West Side where someone seems to get wasted by a car or bus every week. Ironically, there was a serious accident involving a teen on 106th Street the day after our TA tour just a few blocks to the north.

As a cyclist who travels to pretty much all the areas in and around New York City, I can attest to the relative caution exercised by lower Manhattan drivers who, unlike their counterparts uptown and in the suburb-like further reaches of Queens, will not try to punch through yellow lights to speed past an intersection. Aggressive pedestrian traffic inhibits them as there are just too many distracted people on the streets risking life and limb.

Distracted being the operative word here—people are just not paying attention, and of course the cellphone phenomenon has made everything ten times worse. When cycling, I come close to ramming someone engrossed in a text at least once per hour, on average, many of whom have not yet realized that bike paths are not sidewalks but actual lanes of traffic with moving vehicles on them. Other bikers, especially but not exclusively delivery guys, ride against traffic on the lanes or one-way streets, dangerously jump red lights, detour to sidewalks and generally make life miserable for everyone. And drivers are hardly blameless though in fairness they tend to be pretty well behaved below 59th Street.

I have come to the conclusion that the entire city will have to relearn the use of our streets if we are to avoid continuing mayhem and permanent mutual annoyance, which is rising to dangerous levels. I see people becoming increasingly exasperated with the blithe disregard for basic street etiquette that has always been rampant here but is now getting out of hand. It won’t take much for a few individuals to be triggered by an incident into a meltdown with violent consequences.

Mayor De Blasio has called for a concerted effort to reduce traffic casualties, which he has named ‘Vision Zero’, meaning zero fatalities, and that’s an admirable start. But part of this vision has to include a recognition that the density of our city, its greatest asset, also means we have to learn and adopt a code of behavior, just as we subway veterans do when we board the MTA. It means putting the damn smartphone down when you’re on the street or stepping to one side when using it, taking seriously the concept behind a curb and a stoplight, and understanding that all kinds of machines can whiz past you whether you hear them coming or not.

New York led the way on getting tobacco use out of our bars and restaurants. Its time for us to get hip to another public health urgency: the need to move around our crowded urban spaces with a little sense and without the need to take the hand of adult.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

De Blasio appointments show he just may be for real

Our new mayor, Bill de Blasio, gets booed in Staten Island and has attracted the scorn of the Daily News for his intention to get rid of horse-drawn carriages in Central Park. His PR operation can be rickety; his statements aren’t always honed to poll-based precision to capture just the right calculated appeal to key constituencies. (Anthony Weiner would have been a genius at it.)

But when it comes to naming the right people for top jobs, de Blasio is looking like a truly progressive guy trying to get some work done rather than suck up to the already powerful. His schools chancellor, Carmen FariƱa, is a former teacher, not a tool of the privateers. His corporation counsel immediately reversed the city’s stubborn resistance to a settlement in the Central Park 5 case. At Human Resources, de Blasio named a public interest lawyer straight from Legal Aid.

One area I know intimately is the health department where de Blasio put my Columbia colleague, Mary Bassett, in the top spot. Bassett knows HIV from years working on the issue in Africa. She has now left many of us dumbfounded by naming Dr. Demetre Daskalakis to be her assistant commissioner for HIV prevention. This appointment is so disorientingly great I momentarily thought I was living in Finland.

Many of us know Demetre from his work in the nocturnal haunts that the city health department used to spend its energy shutting down. For years he has set up shop in the few remaining sex clubs and bath houses to offer HIV and STD testing right on site, a brilliant and winning strategy obvious to anyone but public health sex-proctors.

From the announcement:

After completing his training [Columbia, NYU, Harvard] and moving to New York City in 2005, Dr. Daskalakis established himself as a leader, innovator, and spokesperson for people living with HIV and gay and bisexual men. He pioneered programs that brought HIV testing, vaccination, and other vital medical care into bars, clubs, and bathhouses to reach men at risk of HIV and other infectious diseases. In 2013, he played a vital role in helping stop an outbreak of meningococcal meningitis among men who have sex with men, running community events that vaccinated over 2400 men, an estimated 10% of all men vaccinated in NYC as part of the outbreak response.

It’s breathtaking to think that someone who has spent years doing the patient work on the ground, rather than in any of the comfy desk jobs he could have had, will be in charge of formulating strategy. Deskalakis’s tenure at DoH could and should mean a radical new openness to try prevention approaches that actually work by taking into account the sex people are having rather than them the sex disease specialists think they should be having. We might actually have a chance to drive down new infections from the current figure of 3,000 a year (a goodly chunk of the 50,000 nationwide).

A friend recently predicted to me that De Blasio was heading for a single term, that the knives were out for him from the big power-players. His election may indeed have been a fluke that happened only because no one gave him a chance until the last minute and so couldn’t mobilize against him. But this brilliant appointment suggests that de Blasio and his team are interested in results more than their own careers. It’s refreshing, however long it lasts.