29 April 2007

Reconsidering Bloomberg

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently published PLANYC, a 157-page document addressing “the five key dimensions of the city’s environment – land, air, water, energy, and transportation.” The goal is clearly stated: to “create a greener, greater New York” at a time when both the City, the country, and the planet face a range of environmental and economic challenges. [The quote is from page 4 of the full plan document. All page references correspond to the full-length PDF version of the plan, downloadable here.] PLANYC has some very bold, long-term components, including a section on Climate Change (P. 131) that confronts realities many Americans (including President Bush) still refuse to accept, and it is worthy of being read by every New Yorker.

Since the plan was released, most of the attention has focused on the mayor’s “congestion pricing” component, designed to limit access by cars and trucks to certain areas of Manhattan by imposing a toll. This is unquestionably a good idea, period, and the mayor should push forward rapidly. Although there are legitimate quibbles with aspects of implementation, the idea reflects the undeniable truth about the negative impact of cars and trucks on Manhattan’s “environment,” both in the sense of air and noise pollution, and the physical strain these vehicles put on the City’s streets and others elements.


Perhaps it is a result of his oddly-configured centrist alliances, but Bloomberg seems to be torn in many respects with how and where the government should intervene and interfere in its citizens’ lives. For an Associated Press article about the traffic fees, Bloomberg justified the idea by saying “Tax policy influences you to drill here and mine there, and grow this and live here and do that.” That is true enough; but once such principles are invoked, it is hard to avoid applying them more broadly – which then raises questions about consistency (that devilish hobgoblin); where and why one places such emphases; whether they are focused on individuals or groups of individuals; and the diligence with which these principles distinguish between positive and negative approaches to changing people’s behavior.

The congestion charge penalizes certain actions while (implicitly) promoting others, and is focused on individuals (people in cars) as much as companies (making deliveries by truck). In the area of water conservation, though, the Bloomberg administration has adopted a different approach: tax incentives through rebates, rather than outright penalties. PLANYC acknowledges that the City’s “Comprehensive Water Reuse Program ... offers buildings that install ‘blackwater’ or ‘greywater’ systems a 25% discount off their water and sewer charges” (P. 62), and it declares that “in 2008, we will launch additional rebate programs for toilets, urinals, and high-efficiency washing machines in laundromats and apartment building laundry rooms to lower water usage in the city by 5%.” (P. 68) So while the congestion charge targets both companies and individuals, the water programs target only companies (or clusters of individuals arranged as corporations: tenant-owners of apartments).

That water issues are being addressed is terrific, but this will be slow-moving. Water consumption continues to be a problem here in New York – the arrival of spring again features buildings that perpetually hose off their sidewalks – but the mayor has not proposed charging those buildings an additional fee for this (often unnecessary, usually wasteful) usage. If Bloomberg wants to create dramatic water savings, he should consider incentivizing that change in all directions: an abatement for participating in the program, an assessment for not participating in such water reuse programs by a certain date, and an outright fine for continued wastefulness like sidewalk hosings. While PLANYC contains more than 20 pages on water-related issues, there is very little here that addresses actions to be taken by the citizens of the City of New York. Indeed, issues of consumer-driven water waste are not even mentioned as a part of the “challenge” in the plan’s summary (P. 13).


In other ways, though, Bloomberg has not been shy about expanding government control of areas of life that some people think are (or should be) outside the legitimate purview of governmental oversight. It is one thing for officials to encourage a clear public understanding of the dangers of trans fats, and another entirely to ban them outright in our restaurants. Likewise, second hand smoke is a legitimate health concern, but also one that citizens could effectively handle on their own. Bloomberg, however, has decided we cannot manage this challenge ourselves, and lead the way with an expanded ban on public smoking and an increased tax on cigarettes.

Then there are the incentives that help all the wrong people. Some of the mayor’s prominent failed plans in recent years include a stab at getting the 2012 Olympic Games and a development program for the West Side rail yards that would have “sold” public land at a vastly discounted price while funding – on the taxpayers’ dime – a new stadium for a privately-owned sports team. Nonetheless, Bloomberg has succeeded with a similar project in Brooklyn, where the Atlantic Rail Yards development will be a huge boon to ... Forest City Ratner, the developer. Whether the citizens of New York, and Brooklyn especially, will get as much out of this by comparison truly remains to be seen.

Even if you don’t approve of gun control, it is hard to argue that Mayor Bloomberg has been anything but a strong leader – defiant in the face of Federal intransigence on the issue, as he articulated clearly in a recent Newsweek column following the shootings at Virginia Tech. At the same time, however, Bloomberg has also lead the way in clamping down on New Yorkers’ civil liberties, developing an “intelligence” unit within the City government that tracked – and even videotaped – citizens exercising their Constitutionally-protected rights to free speech and free assembly, whether in the form of protests against the war in Iraq or the Republican National Convention.

One of the most impassioned arguments that gun-rights advocates often use concerns the control citizens have to prevent the re-imposition of tyranny – like the autocratic government described so eloquently in our Declaration of Independence. Without being a gun-loving nut, it is easy to see why politicians such as Bloomberg cause legitimate shivers of worry, as their Big Brother governments simultaneously work to control citizen movement and speech and remove the tools of warfare that – in an admittedly worst-case scenario – a militia of citizens could use to reclaim our rights.

If that last bit sounds alarmist, perhaps it is. There is much to be alarmed about, however, and as PLANYC acknowledges, we New Yorkers are at a propitious moment in our history and must be bold in shaping our City’s future. Mayor Bloomberg has tried to define that vision, and his program contains much to commend it. Indeed, I have not even touched on the components outlined to reclaim polluted waterways and brownfields, make much-needed expansions and improvements in our transportation system, and more. Perhaps it is too much to ask of those hobgoblins of consistency that our mayor evaluate more carefully the kind of city – and citizenry – he hopes to see in the future. There are moments when, listening to Bloomberg introduce some new rule, it seems clear that he aims to save us from ourselves by zeroing in on our bad habits. But just as in medicine, the best approach for helping a community may be to take care to do no harm.


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