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.

22 April 2007

Politics, Bedfellows, Etc.

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

There have been thousands of articles in the last few weeks about the scandal involving World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz and his romantic partner, Shaha Riza. Most of the focus has been on the cronyism at the heart of this story, revealing yet another ethical misstep by someone with strong ties to President George W. Bush. Interestingly, however, little has been written about the irony of this relationship in the first place.

First, there’s the Jewish – Arab connection. Wolfowitz is an American Jew; Riza is of Lebanese descent, a British citizen who grew up in Saudi Arabia. The Independent notes that Riza’s “strong belief in bringing democracy to the Arab world is said to have only strengthened her partner’s determination to confer that boon on Iraq.” I know nothing of Shaha Riza’s views on Israel, and Wolfowitz’s views are mixed, sometimes staunchly pro-Israel in the typical American neocon fashion, with the occasional recognition of Palestinian “suffering” thrown in. Still, of all the bedfellows for politics to have chosen for Wolfowitz, there is an undeniable irony in this. One cannot but love the idea of this American Jew grandly trying to remake the Arab Middle East while being spurred on – where? in bed? in the halls of the Pentagon? – by his Arab paramour. It's so Lawrence of Arabia-meets-Woody Allen.

Second, there’s the simple moral irony here: it is amusing to ponder the Wolfowitz-Riza relationship while thinking about Wolfowitz as a long-time member of President Bush’s “values”-infused, “sanctity of marriage” administration. Sure, Wolfowitz worked in the Defense Department, not for Health & Human Services or on some bogus “faith-based initiative.” Maybe that’s the difference? I have no issue with two consenting adults having sex sans marriage, and these two lovebirds deserve to be no less happy than the rest of humanity. But the contradictions bother me more than a little, just as they do when I have to listen to “values” crap coming from the mouths of the oft-divorced GOP presidential candidates.

Wolfowitz deserves to be fired because his actions – securing a well-paid job for his lover – have cast an ethical cloud over his presidency and the World Bank itself. This inhibits the Bank’s efficacy, which in turn has an effect not only on its constituents around the world, but on the American taxpayers whose money helps support the Bank’s operations. Just as bad is the sad likelihood that this little episode does nothing whatsoever to dampen the Republican Party’s worst instincts to insist that people should do as the GOP tells them – and not as the GOP’s apparatchiks themselves do.

15 April 2007

Juree Dutee

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Last week, I did a brief stint of jury duty – which is to say, reporting for potential jury service, though I was not, in the end, chosen to serve on a case. The process as I experienced it is crying out for an efficiency expert. Everything, including the method for selecting jurors and moving them around the courthouse building, could be improved in ways that would result in more smoothly run trials, to say nothing of enhancing the experience for everyone involved. Following are highlights of this experience:

Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself

  • Introductory video: the same one I last saw in 2001, narrated by the now-dead Ed Bradley and another TV talking-head. A brief history of the evolution of the jury system and the American judicial process.

  • The video features a History Channel-style recreation of medieval jurisprudence intended to scare us into gratitude for the proverbial Jury of Our Peers. New York State courts seem to have missed the irony with respect to its own autocratic-bureaucratic operations.

  • Overall: 55 minutes of introductions and ad nauseum reiterations of what to do if we thought we deserved an exemption or postponement. Arguably: if it takes someone that long to get the point, they might not be the best candidate for serving on a jury.

  • We were also told several times that people who serve on a jury come away with a better, more informed understanding of our legal system and are (implicitly) more appreciative. Whether this is an understanding of their Kafkaesque absurdity or an appreciation borne of fear, was left unstated.

Twelve Angry Men (and Women)

  • I’m selected in the morning’s first lottery, handed a one page, four-carbon-copy, form to fill out rapidly, all basic questions about me, my family, and our experiences with the law. (“He said, ‘Kid, we only got one question. Have you ever been arrested?’”)

  • This form could easily have been filled out in advance, during the 55 minute waiting period or even online before we arrived! Sure, this approach saves a little paper – but it wastes time, and the quadruplicate forms must have been near-impossible to read.

  • The court officer instructed us to take the elevator to another floor and wait for him in the lobby; we did. It took 10 minutes to note that we were missing someone, and another 10 minutes to find them.

  • Voir dire: it took more than a half-hour just to excuse the three people who did not speak English fluently enough. Whether they faked a lack of proficiency for that purpose (as seemed likely in one instance) or were, in fact, deficient in their language skills, is almost irrelevant.

  • Surely a process could be devised that effectively tests English fluency prior to voir dire – so that the remaining potential jurors (to say nothing of everyone else) do not have to sit there while several not-so-private sidebars are conducted with evident absurdity. “Where are you from?” the judge asked. Silence. Repeat. “[Names a country.]” “And do you understand what I’m saying?” asked the judge. Silence. “[Partial answer.]” And so on went the discussion, testing different aspects of English fluency. In middle America this may not be a huge problem, but in a city of immigrants like New York, surely someone could create a process that better accommodates the flow of people for whom English is not their native language!

  • As this proceeds, the rest of us simply sit there staring into space. Reading has been explicitly discouraged, lest our attention wander from the (non-)proceedings. Exchanging glances with my bench-sitting fellows, it was clear that everyone sensed the ridiculousness of this process, and perhaps envied our two Chinese and one Dominican comrades for their dismissals from court.

  • 3:30pm. I was dismissed from this case. A bunch of us were told we could go home for the day, to report back at 10am the following morning. I suspect that my honest views on New York State drug laws were not appreciated, although I did acknowledge that they are the laws of the land. Since this particular case did not involve charges of drug usage, possession, or sale, it is particularly amusing that this was the likely trigger for my dismissal.

Day Two: Almost Like the Office, Only With More Waiting

  • The next morning, back there I was at 9:45. I found a seat and booted up the laptop, and I got about 30 minutes of e-mailing done before the general announcement for roll call.

  • Another 15 minutes: a lottery for a pending case. Pack up, get ready. It felt like random selections for military service: glum people waiting around, coats and bags in hand, prepped to ship out.

  • Amazingly, they called and then dismissed a person in a wheelchair; I guess there was a transportation issue for this case. But to my earlier point about language difficulties: this would have been the time to handle those, too.

  • I wasn’t picked. Another 5 minutes later, another lottery. Skipped again. Somewhere around 12:30 we were dismissed for lunch, to be back by 2pm.

  • I stayed put. I got more work done. I moved to the lunch room eventually, where a TV tuned to CNN blared on endlessly about Don Imus – Imus in the Morning had become Imus All Day – and ate my leftovers. I got still more work done.

  • 2:20pm: a case might be pending, we were told. We waited. I got more work done, as much as possible in an environment where everyone is distracted, many conversations are happening around me, and someone’s computer keeps on beeping loudly. Around 3pm came the announcement: we were being dismissed. For good. Many laughs about how painless it was (ha ha), another 10 minutes of lingering for my proof of jury service statement, and I was out the door and on my way.


Compared to many other contributions to our society, it’s true that this was painless. At the end of the process, though, I can’t help but feel like our society’s sense of civic duty and obligation is misaligned. In the midst of an out-of-control war, we still have an all-volunteer (and thus under-volunteered) armed forces. Voting, the very cornerstone of any democratic society, is not mandatory, and a good 50% of eligible citizens don’t vote – the consequences of which are both difficult to fathom and, looking at the close elections of 2000 and 2004, easy to imagine. Sure, jury duty was less painful than paying my federal and state income taxes this year. (I agree with Judith Warner: Ouch!) It was less painful and less dangerous than serving in Iraq. But the degree of pain in civic duty should not be the yardstick by which we evaluate the health of our society.

09 April 2007

Seder Searches

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I go through this every year: a search for meaning in the celebration of Passover. The holiday never seems to lose its power to engage my mind and my emotions – which is as it should be for a holiday about freedom and renewal of both a spiritual and physical kind. Where others find value in following familial traditions, this has never been enough for me. The brilliant thing about Passover is that it has its tradition built in – the defined order of the Seder meal, the liturgical core of the Haggadah – which, in turn, beckons to have additional layers of experience built onto and around that core. From the people involved to the food and organization of the Seder meal, Passover offers a rare religious opportunity: to experiment and to learn experientially by changing the surface-level lenses through which we connect to the real traditions, the (re)telling of the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.


An interesting discussion came up at our first Seder this year, apropos this line from the Haggadah: “In every generation there have been those who have stood against us [Jews] to wipe us out.” The question was brought forward about whether we (Jews) have, in fact, ever known any period in which this hasn’t happened. Several people seemed to be arguing that there has been an intrinsic anti-Semitism in Europe – in France, or in Germany – and that Jews have deluded themselves into a false sense of social connectedness and security. Indeed, someone said, it was this misplaced trust in their own German-ness that lead the Jews of Germany to underestimate Nazi anti-Semitism.

Generally speaking, I find the relentless focus on anti-Semitism within contemporary (American) Jewish culture to be terribly misguided, another manifestation of The Holocaust Industry. This culture of death and fear reinforces the negative aspects of Judaism; it may attract those need such sad emotional attachments, but it also antagonizes and drives away those who might, under a more positive rubric, become more engaged with Jewish life. Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League raise funds quite successfully by playing on fears of anti-Semitism – however, by placing fear in over-drive they also assure the perpetuation of anti-Semitism through an endless series of over-reactions about any perceived slight to the Jewish community they claim to represent.

At Seder, the primary questioner seemed to be suggesting that the only way in which Jews can avoid their fate – the fate that “In every generation there have been those who have stood against us to wipe us out” – is to abandon Judaism. Of course, Jews who have left Judaism have not typically received better treatment or much refuge: for the true anti-Semite, non-observance of Jewish law or custom is somewhat beside the point, as are the blond hair and blue eyes that many Jews also have. (For that matter, the history of anti-Semitism in Europe (or elsewhere) is also no argument for embracing Judaism either: ours is a religion of life, which remembers and commemorates death but does not worship it.)

Expressing frustration, and anger, at the way that Jews have been treated makes sense, as does working to combat anti-Semitism and the broader set of social hatreds that are often connected to it. However, we cannot let these externalities define us, positively or negatively. To be Jewish – or not be Jewish – because someone(s) else thinks it is a good or bad idea, because some society didn’t accept us at one point or, now, because they do, these are not reasons to respond differently to Judaism. Nor is this “blaming the victim.” Rather, it is rejecting a philosophy that glorifies victim-hood, and abuses our victims for what are, ultimately, malicious and mock-rejuvenating purposes.


Another quote from the Haggadah goes like this: “In every generation, each person must view himself or herself as having personally gone out of Egypt.” This is not a command to remember and exult in Jewish suffering, but a command to remember the freedom the Israelites received from slavery, a freedom that is symbolic of the desires of humanity writ large. It is also a reminder of the teaching that rests at the heart of the Seder, and indeed we are commanded to help the next generation understand the holiday and its meaning. More than anything else, a failure to teach, and to learn, will have meant a failure to celebrate.

Perhaps that is why I find myself so restless each holiday. Traditions are wonderful and can be emotionally satisfying, but can also lead to a deadening of the senses needed for constant learning. The Haggadah prompts us to ask four questions, but nowhere does it say that there are only four questions, or four answers to go with them. We must work to keep discovering new questions, new answers, and even new traditions.

01 April 2007

Charitable Feedback

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Towards the end of every year, my household takes a good look at its finances and sits down to write a few checks – small charitable contributions to organizations we want to support. From year to year, many of the organizations are the same, since our interests or commitments remain steady. In the preceding 11 months we will also have received a number of unsolicited letters asking for support.

Mission aside, the most respected organizations in my household are the ones that take great care with us as donors, and a few deserve to be singled out. Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the North Country School – Camp Treetops, and The Piatigorsky Foundation are uniformly the best and most responsive, receiving every contribution gratefully and responding with both the necessary receipt letter and a personal note. In fact, last year one of these three even left a message on our answering machine, apologizing that their annual fundraising letter had crossed in the mail with our contribution, and hoping that we would not be offended. So consistently strong have their responses been that we will likely be rethinking how much money we donate and whether we should re-allocate our contributions in the future.

Similarly, other organizations cannot get their act together – which also has an impact. The New York-based Coalition for the Homeless has responded to our end-of-year contributions by sending multiple letters asking for funds throughout the year. Maybe that explains why Charity Navigator ranks them with one star out of four, showing that they spend 15% of their annual budget on fundraising, another 15% on operating expenses, and have to spend 34 cents to raise every dollar. (Compare that to Mazon, which spends just 12 cents to raise a dollar, and ranks an overall three stars.) WNYC, my local public radio station, is a terrific resource and I remain committed to supporting them; but here, too, the multiple letters throughout the year start to rub the wrong way, and it’s no surprise that Charity Navigator shows that they spend 25 cents for every dollar raised. Another non-profit which hits us up has often failed to spell my name correctly; this might be an offense easily overlooked, were it not for both familial board connections and my own (failed) attempts at having the spelling corrected in their system. Oops.

If these complaints sound petty, consider the failure of reason and management in this situation. As is proclaimed endlessly, we live in the age of technology, of powerful information systems like the one you’re using to read this right now. Non-profit organizations maintain databases of actual or potential supporters – and they should be able to respond to requests to fix a misspelled name. Likewise, after many years of end-of-year contributions, these systems should be able to analyze my giving patterns, and figure out that checks consistently written in December are unlikely to be forthcoming in May. As much as I don’t blame them for trying, well, I do blame them for trying: it not only adds to the volume of (junk) mail and wasted paper, but it means more funds not spent on the organization’s core operations.

And speaking of core operations, I recently received a letter from UNICEF, with a large block of text that said “A nickel may not seem like a lot of money...but it could be enough to save the life of a child!”. Attached to the letter was an actual nickel! Wow! A non-profit so wealthy, it’s sending me money! The cost of postage was probably 15 cents, and let’s guesstimate that the overall cost of the printing was perhaps as low as 5 cents – despite the color printing, the mechanics needed to affix the nickel, and the extra cost of the free return address labels they provided. Therefore, the total cost of the mailing was 25 cents; this was, if nothing else, 5 cents too much: that nickel could have been used to help save the life of a child, as they so insistently told me. Instead, the nickel caught my attention in all the wrong ways, encouraging me to research others who also did not like this approach. To send it back to them, by itself, will take 39 cents. This is not efficiency.

Ironically, Charity Navigator ranks the United States Fund for UNICEF with four stars, showing that it spends only 6 cents to make a dollar. Amazing, since the solicitation they sent me cost them at least 5 cents cash! The site shows they spend 6% of their budget on fundraising, which sounds low relative to the other numbers I have mentioned – but consider that 6% of the US Fund for UNICEF’s annual expenses of $464,665,162 is $27,879,909. The $27 million spent on fundraising each year is more than the entire budget of the Coalition for the Homeless ($9.5 million) and Mazon ($6 million) combined!

Let me write that again: the United States Fund for UNICEF spends more than $27 million just on raising more money. According to the information in the letter they sent me, a gift of $35 can immunize two children – which means that their $27,879,909 could have been used to immunize 1,593,137 children, instead of being applied to sending nickels to people like me.

Of course, not everyone likes Charity Navigator’s methodology (e.g., this item from the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s blog) and perhaps that is because a straightforward analysis of an organization according to its numbers can reveal so much and also so little. One can surely make a good argument in favor of UNICEF, while Charity Navigator’s analysis is unlikely ever to take into account the absurdity of millions of nickels sent to theoretical donors. Granted, too, that one does have to spend money to make money. But in many ways, UNICEF’s approach seems arrogant and extravagant. Neither of those are qualities that make for good non-profit management.