April 23, 2014

You'll hear about NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's op-ed this morning because of his less than friendly remarks on Airbnb.  The AG and Airbnb are squaring off, you see, because Airbnb is one of those Utopian Silicon Valley disruptors, currently valued at ten billion dollars, and the AG contends that is business model is law-breaking.  And the parties have not been cooperating so well to come to some sort of settlement, you see, so the AG took to the NYT to very vocally sabre-rattle.  (For a good examination of opposition to Airbnb, read this interview with NY State Senator Liz Krueger.)

But no, that's not the big news in Schneiderman's piece.  This is:

But Uber may also have run afoul of New York State laws against price gouging, which do serve the public interest. In the last year, in bad weather, Uber charged New Yorkers as much as eight times the company's base price. We are investigating whether this is prohibited by the same laws under which I've sued gas stations that gouged motorists during Hurricane Sandy. Uber makes some persuasive arguments for its pricing model, but the ability to pay truly exorbitant prices shouldn't determine someone's ability to get critical goods and services when they're in short supply in an emergency. I'm hopeful that the company will collaborate with us to address the problem thoughtfully.

Schneiderman just served notice on Uber that its "surge pricing," part and parcel of its Objectivist philsophical underpinnings, may well be against the law.

Now that's some disruption right there.

Posted at 10:16 AM

April 22, 2014

I forget how I became enthralled by the arcane doings of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, but here I am, enthralled.  And I'm not even talking about that whole Chris Christie imbroglio, as fascinating as that is, but rather just the day-to-day operations.  It's a curious little beast, with leadership appointed by the governors of NY and NJ, and oversight of things as disparate as tunnels and air ports and that particular chunk of Manhattan real estate that got a couple planes flown into them a couple years back.

And when Christie isn't using the PANYNJ to bully his enemies, it has a pretty crushing responsibility: the oversight of the six bridges and tunnels between NYC and New Jersey.  The PANYNJ controls the means of egress from this God-forsaken island.

But what catches my eye this time is a vote that's to take place tomorrow, which was highlighted by NYT op-ed columnist Joe Nocera, who picked up on the true importance of the vote:

Whether or not building commercial skyscrapers was the right way to rebuild Ground Zero, what can be said for sure is that the Port Authority has shown, yet again, that it doesn't belong in the real estate business. One World Trade Center is the most expensive high-rise building ever built in America, and it is costing the Port Authority a fortune. Only 55 percent of its 2.6 million square feet has been leased, and most of that is at a significant loss. Meanwhile, 4 World Trade Center, which was developed by [developer Larry] Silverstein, has only 60 percent of its space leased. As The Wall Street Journal pointed out recently, between the two buildings, there is more than 2.5 million square feet of unleased space at Ground Zero.

So why in the world would the Port Authority be willing to back another $1.2 billion in loans to help Silverstein build 3 World Trade Center? Yet on Wednesday, that is exactly what the Port Authority board is supposed to vote on.

Basically, the PANYNJ is considering squandering its considerable resources to prop up a private developer leasing one of its properties instead of improvements on its transportation assets, not one of which can be described without the use of the word, "crumbling."

There is talk of possible reforms of the Port Authority, mostly to take the control of back from the governors, who can, as we saw with Christie, use the PANYNJ at their whim.  But part of the reforms suggested would subject the PANYNJ to public meeting laws and other transparency, which would be a pretty important thing, whether or not the PANYNJ is dead set to prop up private development at the expense of its infrastructure responsibilities.

Posted at 10:54 AM

April 21, 2014

It's only natural that I would recommend this Trip Gabriel feature on poverty in McDowell County, West Virginia.  McDowell County is not only statistically the poorest county in the nation, but it's also the county that so affected the campaigning John F. Kennedy that he swore that he would do something to combat the conditions.  So basically thank McDowell County for your social safety net.

I'm West Virginian by birth, and both sides of my family go back in WV for centuries, so I feel some affection for the state, that proud little Appalachian island of weird — which makes this a pretty hard read.  Things ain't so hot down there, as the only industry years ago was coal mining, and the coal companies have long since picked up and moved out, without ever investing in any of the communities that housed their miners.  (I'm sure that everyone was shocked to get screwed over by a coal company, sure.)

But if you don't have time to give this a read, do take this away with you:

McDowell County is in some ways a place truly left behind, from which the educated few have fled, leaving almost no shreds of prosperity. But in a nation with more than 46 million people living below the poverty line -- 15 percent of the population -- it is also a sobering reminder of how much remains broken, in drearily familiar ways and utterly unexpected ones, 50 years on.

My fellow Americans, we have 46 million people who are so poor that they are below the poverty line, which is a very dubious measure of poverty indeed.  More than one in ten.  And we somehow find it in ourselves to think of ourselves as the Greatest Country In The World.

And good day to you, sir/madam.

Posted at 10:54 AM

April 18, 2014

I endorse this Daily News op-ed by Harry Siegel unreservedly:
The socialite founders of Washington Square Park's new conservancy reportedly planned to replace "unsightly" hot-dog vendors with "new and different" options, including a $5 ice-cream sandwich. Madison Square Park houses a Shake Shack, in a building paid for by its conservancy. The High Line -- the symbol of the business district's spread west and south -- is a place where families casually drop $100 on lunch. The south steps of Union Square are colonized by a tent-housed shopping boutique every Christmas.

Our public spaces are becoming commercial ones, billboards for nearby companies and developers -- and places pitching pricey goods, not unsightly hot dogs.

There are few concepts that I loathe more than "public-private partnership," and few things make me sadder than the face that public-private partnerships are considered the optimal way to finance public spaces.  But here's the thing about public spaces: they are supposed to be public spaces.  They are not supposed to be revenue-generators, they are not supposed to be festooned with advertising, whether in the form of "sponsorship" or not, and they are not supposed to be more accessible by the upper classes by virtue of such upper classes paying a fee to keep all the other people out.

I remember the first time I walked into Central Park, 1985.  Of course I knew about it (I knew all about New York City, who didn't?), but that did not prevent my mind from being blown into a million pieces.  "So basically a parcel of land the size of a small city is roped off, restored to nature and then free for everyone to use?"  It was communism under everyone's noses.  It was the most cosmopolitan and proletarian thing in the world, at the same time.  It was perfect.

Compare and contrast that with the High Line, which is not a block from my office.  It is an entirely curated experience, as all of the flora installed on the once-dilapidated elevated railway is strictly off-limits.  It is a look-don't-touch experience.  It is more museum exhibit that public park.

And yes, it is a widely hailed example of a successful public-private partnership.  But if you want a better metric of success than the thousands of Eurotourists currently on the High Line, check the fifteen or twenty luxury condo towers currently being built in West Chelsea, or the thirty or forty already completed since the planning of the High Line.

The High Line is nothing but a very simple real estate grift: create some modest "public" space as a destination, and watch property values skyrocket.

I also agree with Siegel's simple recommendations:

Some simple standards, the sort I'd share with my daughter:

1) Park concessions shouldn't cost much more than a hot dog. A simple measure: no more than twice the cost of a subway ride.

2) No commercial events. No GoogaMooga (the food, drink and music festival in Prospect Park the past few summers); no beer for sale at SummerStage. Bring your own, or buy a falafel and Coke.

3) Regularly used common spaces, like ice-skating rinks or carousels, should not be available for rent at any price, or time.

4) Spaces that are meant for private events, like the Boathouse at Prospect Park, should be available at cost, and on a strict first-come, first-served basis.

Maybe it's not too late to de-awfulize New York?  I mean, it certainly seems an uphill battle, but we need to remember what made NYC NYC in the first place.

Posted at 10:38 AM

April 16, 2014

A couple of months ago it was fashionable, when discussing the sport of American football, to add, "Enjoy it while it lasts," as the fact that even the small repetitive head injuries players experience kill them young.  An inescapable truth, though of course the NFL, a non-profit entity by an act of Congress, will find some way around it.

Now, prepare yourself for similar calls for the end of college football, but on different grounds entirely: it is a corrupt sham of "amateurism" that profits on the backs of amoral monsters who will on to eventual fame and fortune (and eventual premature death) in the NFL.

Well, maybe not all that.  BUT, aside from the news from a couple of weeks ago that the Northwestern football team can vote to unionize, there are two great, fantastic, long looks into the world of college football from the past seven days, each of which should be read by you.

First, Steven Godfrey for SB Nation pins down a college football bag man, and pulls back the curtain on the ways that the local boosters of large football programs grease the skids for top prospects:

These men are fans who believe they're leveraging football success $500 or $50,000 at a time. I can't show you that money, and neither can anyone else. You might think you see the money -- a flash of $20 bills all over some kid's Instagram or Facebook update -- but that's just money.

This is the arrangement in high-stakes college football, though of course not every player is paid for. Providing cash and benefits to players is not a scandal or a scheme, merely a function. And when you start listening to the stories, you understand the function can never be stopped.

Godfrey gets incredible access, and is witness to many transactions between his source and the high school prospects visiting the program — and how Godfrey got a guy to talk and to let Godfrey follow him around astounds me.

And this morning the NYT ran another two and a half page investigative feature that they pretty up for presentation on the web, a review of the conduct of the authorities in the accusations of rape against FSU quarterback Jameis Winston by reporter Walt Bogdanich.

No pullquote for this one, but, unless Bogdanich's sources are lying, Winston is a rapist, and his behavior is enabled by both the administration of Florida State University and the Tallahassee Police Department, and this event is more the par for the course than the outlier when it comes to big college football programs.

Both are great ways to spend a lunch break, and testaments to the fact that there is still room for dogged reporting that needs more than two hundred words to share.

Posted at 9:48 AM

April 14, 2014

This is Charles Stross writing about those peculiar people we mock and deride as "millennials" and those youngsters that will eventually follow them, Generation Z.  Refreshingly, Stross is not mocking and deriding them, but rather using them as the canary in the coalmine:
There has been a boom market in dystopian young adult fiction over the past decade. There is a reason for this. Play and recreation is an important training mechanism in young mammals by which they practice or rehearse activities that will fit them for later adult life experiences... Could it be that the popularity of YA dystopias reflects the fact that our youngest generation of readers expect to live out their lives in dystopia? (The alternative explanations hold that (a) high school in the age of helicopter parenting, fingerprint readers in the library, and CCTV in the corridors is an authoritarian dystopia anyway, and YA dys-fic helps kids understand their environment; and (b) that worse, their parents (who influence their reading) think this.)

Not that I've been spending time thinking about the slow degradation of all things (okay, I've been spending time thinking about the slow degradation of all things), but it is increasingly seeming (like, give today's NYT a quick glance) that the dystopia that we were all worried about when we were dabbling in the speculative fiction ten or fifteen years ago is actually already here.

Stross is a bit more solution-focused than I am:

What should we be doing about it? And what is it feasible for us to do? (For example: I'd love to see a UK government deflate the housing market by around 80% and renationalize a bunch of infrastructure that should never have been sold off in the first place, but I recognize that it would be political suicide for any party that tried it).

But as he demonstrates, it's really hard to do that without discouraging oneself.

Posted at 10:39 AM

So it may have seemed like I got hit by a bus or finally threw my Spidey suit in the garbage can and walked slowly down the alley, but it is not the case!

This is what happened, I swear: end of March, I tried to log in to my dashboard.  I got a weird error message.  Huh.  I figured maybe it was my cheapo home computer, so I made a note to try to log in from work, on that nice new expensive fast thing I revise agreements on.  Same result.  Huh.  Weird.

So a few days later I email my tech friend who bails me out of these jams.  He pokes around.  "Some of the drivers that manage your database are gone."  "Gone?"  "Gone. Nothing I can do."

And that just startled me.  I've been hacked before, and I've loused thing up by trying to do them myself before, but having stuff just disappear off the server?

So I scratched my head about that for a while.

And when I finally got around to emailing customer support (after digging up the pw, etc.), I pretty quickly get a note back saying, "Fixed it, we're really sorry about that."

So I'm back, but I'm back with the realization that my host actually misplaced a bunch of my shit and then forgot about it.  Huh.

Posted at 10:27 AM

March 27, 2014

Had a pretty strong political flashback this morning.

The story (Morning Edition, natch) was about Sheldon Adelson holding some sort of shindig so that potential Republican presidential candidates can come and kiss his ring.  (Why?  Because Adelson is what they call a money mark.)  And you know how it is, you've heard enough political process stories in your lifetime and they start to blur into that white noise soundtrack like the Weather Channel back before they porned themselves up, but then something caught my ear:

Jeb Bush was cited, placidly, as a leading contender for 2016 race.

Now, I don't follow this shit as close as I used to, but I definitely follow it, and I follow all the psychopathic perpetual campaign process stories specifically, because I am a sucker for that and also I am bad for America.  So what I do know is that the idea of Jeb Bush as a full-time candidate was mostly whispers, sourced mostly from moderate types like (the maybe-someday candidate) Joe Scarborough) who hope for a centrist to ride in and unify the party.

(That of course makes no sense, as the rift in the party is caused by a vocal faction with some hard-right tendencies, which faction is no more likely to rally around a centrist than they are to rally behind Mr. Peanut.)

So then, to hear Jeb's name included with the usual suspects (Christie, Paul, Cruz, et al.) in a mainstream news report means that the imminentization of the candidacy of Jeb Bush has moved from the planning stage to the implementation stage.  And I sincerely don't remember when this tipping point tipped.

And this counts as a flashback because I recall the same thing happening sixteen years ago: there were the usual suspects running around, like McCain and Alexander, and then all of a sudden George Bush's name coalesced out of nowhere and then bam! he's the candidate.

This is not to say that this will be happening like that this time around.  But it is curious how seamlessly the popular opinion shifts — correlation or causation?

Posted at 10:12 AM

March 25, 2014

Agh, I did it again.

This is not the slow inevitable creep to oblivion that has taken away so many of your favorite personal blogs, if that is the correct term.  Absolutely not.  The freedom of having your own publishing platform that is not in the service of a Silicon Valley billionaire is invaluable, and I have no plans for walking away from it, ever.

I've just been thinking, is all.  What is interesting?  Is it more important to care about what is popular to read, or what is compelling to write about?  What is the future of the writing about things for strangers?

If you follow the business pages, you will see that everyone else it thinking about the same things, from the NYT to my old friends at The Awl to everyone in between, including those gussied up content farms that Nick Denton feels so threatened by.

Back soon.

Posted at 9:18 AM

March 18, 2014

I predict that this story will not break through whatever membrane that keeps a news story from becoming widely cited, as there are still Crimeas and Malaysian missing flights, but it is very important to our concerns.

So remember how ever since the Citizens United decision in 2010 we have been discussing the effect of unlimited private money swaying public elections.  And not just affecting the outcome, but doing so in an opaque manner — between Citizens United and the loopholes of the IRS, it is possible to funnel unlimited amounts of money into a campaign without disclosing the source.

Why is this bad?  Well, just to restate so that we stay on the same page after all this time, it is bad because anonymously affecting the outcome of an election is generally something we frown upon, as then the elected official becomes beholden to the source of the money, or, as we say, "bought and paid for."

But because of this opacity, and because many of the sources of this dark money are quite generally "industrialists" and not interested in specific industries, it has been difficult to find a smoking gun.  And to be fair, correlation does not always imply causation is a fair defense.  Unless of course you have a smoking gun.

Like this.

It is the nightmare scenario for those who worry that the modern campaign finance system has opened up new frontiers of political corruption: A candidate colludes with wealthy corporate backers and promises to defend their interests if elected. The companies spend heavily to elect the candidate, but hide the money by funneling it through a nonprofit group. And the main purpose of the nonprofit appears to be getting the candidate elected.

But according to investigators, exactly such a plan is unfolding in an extraordinary case in Utah, a state with a cozy political establishment, where business holds great sway and there are no limits on campaign donations.

At issue is a former Attorney General in Utah, who, as described in this long, good piece by Nicholas Confessore, basically brazenly every single thing that was formerly plausibly deniable in a non-plausibly deniable fashion.  He chose a specific industry (pay-day lending, which, ew), he specifically raised funds from them promising to carry water for them as AG, his campaign coordinated with non-profit front groups, and, worst (best!) of all, he did a lot of this over email.  That is to say, in writing.

You should go read the whole thing, but don't think of it as an outlier, a singular act of audacity.  Think of it as the standard operating procedure as perpetrated by a guy dumb enough (oh, John Swallow, his name is) to get caught.

Posted at 10:14 AM

March 14, 2014

Strange place to see this story break, the New York Post, and it's certainly flown under the radar, but a filing in a local foreclosure case alleges that not only did Wells Fargo falsify foreclosure filings, but they had basically written such falsification into a manual.

Oh it's a bit dry, but this explains the whys and wherefores pretty thoroughly:

Attorneys, forensic accountants and consumer advocates have long suspected that banks were systematically creating improper documents to prove ownership of loans. Foreclosure defense lawyers use the term 'ta-da' endorsement to describe situations in which they say a document appears, as if by magic, in the bank's possession as needed in a foreclosure case--even though the proper endorsement was not included in the original foreclosure filing. It might sound like a technicality, but correct proof of ownership lies at the heart of the foreclosure crisis for securitized loans, which were sold by the lender that originally issued the mortgage. To legally transfer a securitized loan, the endorsements and allonges have to be created in a very specific way and within a specific time frame, usually 90 days after a residential mortgage trust closes. For many loans in foreclosure now, which were originated years ago and then sold, it's way too late to correct incomplete documents, experts said.

If the allegations in Tirelli's court filing are true, this manual represents the first time 'ta-da' endorsements are "being described and admitted to be a procedure" at a major bank, as Tirelli claimed to The Post.

It's increasingly in the rear view mirror, and we have interesting new challenges facing us, but it is becoming clearer that The Banks were not just clueless and reckless, but they were also engaging in criminal activity to prop up their bottom line.

This is how the free market solves everything: by incentivizing short-cuts to the point of breaking the law.

Posted at 10:16 AM

March 13, 2014

I was gonna link up this column by Eduardo Porter, as I found it interesting, but in the process of digging up the link I found this exclusive-to-the-web (sigh) interview with the subject of the column, author Thomas Piketty, whose new book Capital In The Twenty-First Century argues against the tenet of the free market economy that states that the capitalism will tend to equalize the distribution of wealth over time.

Dry stuff, right?  Come on, this is class warfare at its finest — there is an Actual Economist who is not Paul Krugman who has done some detailed research and found that the natural tendency of the growing inequality is to keep on growing.  Actually, this paragraph from Porter's column sums it up best:

This means that the income from wealth usually grows faster than wages. As returns from capital are reinvested, inherited wealth will grow faster than the economy, concentrating more and more into the hands of few. This will go on until capital owners decide to consume most of their income and stop reinvesting as much.

And as far as the interview with Piketty goes, it is definitely above a beginner's level of macroeconomics (and therefore justly over my head), but it's still worth your time to work your way through it:

Q. Might inequality in the United States be less damaging than it is in Europe because the very rich were not born into wealth, but earned their money by creating new products, services and technologies?

A. This is what the winners of the game like to claim. But for the losers this can be the worst of all worlds: They have a diminishing share of income and wealth, and at the same time they are depicted as undeserving.

This may seem like another example of liberal whinging on my part, but inequality will eventually suck for the oligarchy: they may have "captured" the political process for now, but history shows us that if rising inequality is not addressed politically, it will at some point be addressed non-politically.  Which is a polite term for war, unrest, etc.

Plus also I should mention that inequality sucks for the majority of the population at the bottom end of it, stuck without opportunity for advancement in a world that tells them that's it's their own damn fault for not being a billionaire.

Posted at 10:31 AM

March 12, 2014

That I would be opposed to fracking is probably no surprise.  I'm not surprised, at least.  The dangers of fracking are so well documented that I don't even have to hyperlink them: stinking, flammable drinking water being probably the most widely known.  I'm also partial to simple malfeasance on the part of the energy companies doing the fracking, like leaving a well behind with a giant uncovered wastewater pond on the property — "Sorry, nothing in our lease says we have to take it with us."

But a really good reason to be leery of hydraulic fracturing, as it is called in polite company, is earthquakes!

Now I'm sure every wannabe supervillain our there is keenly interested in this, but here's the logic behind it in layman's terms: the crust of the earth is not one contiguous sheet of rock but rather a bunch of pieces of rock all squished up together, and earthquakes are what happens when the pieces of rock slip for some reason.  And if you are forcing water and chemicals way down there, where the pieces of rock meet each other... well let's just say that an earthquake seems to easily clear the bar of unintended consequence.  (And there's scuttlebutt that fracking might have caused this big one, but scuttlebutt is tough to enter into a court of law, let alone the court of public opinion.)

So yesterday the State of Ohio suspended some fracking production near the Pennsylvania border after a couple of small quakes were reported.  And the news story is your standard he said/she said when it comes to whether or not fracking can cause temblors, but there is this paragraph:

There have been only a few instances -- in British Columbia, England and south-central Oklahoma -- in which the fracking itself was thought to have induced quakes large enough to be felt.

Well then I guess the question that serious people are asking when it comes to the proliferation of fracking is, "How many earthquakes is too many earthquakes?"

And the fact that serious people, grown-ups, can have thoughts like that right there is exactly why I gave up comedy.

Posted at 10:10 AM

March 6, 2014

This morning national treasure Gail Collins tackles a pressing issue that I spend way too much time thinking about: is the American Dream really just an oligarch problem?
My question for today is: Do you think it's fair to call these guys [that would be the Koch brothers] oligarchs? We have been thinking about oligarchs lately since our attention has been fixed on the former Soviet Union, which is Oligarch Central. In fact, the new Ukrainian government just responded to the tensions in its eastern region by dispatching two billionaires to serve as provincial governors.

"Oligarch" sounds more interesting than "superrich person with undue political influence." The Koch brothers have a genius for being publicly boring, while plowing vast sums of money into political action groups designed to make it difficult for anybody to make a good estimate of how much they've given to promote their goal of, um, saving the country.

Now, I realize that since it's become a proscribed strategy of the Democrats to demonize the Kochs, it might be a little less interesting to talk about them.  But I find the casual reference to the Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs noteworthy.  Obviously, the Kochs (and the ideologue billionaires more adept at keeping their names out of the press) don't seem to have the over-reaching power of the Russian moguls, but they certainly are spending an awful lot of money, and a lot of the ideas they espouse (the government's too big! taxes are theft! wealth is virtuous!) are calcifying into common sense amongst the angry Caucasian set that is the Koch's target audience, and the Kochs are not exactly being transparent about how they're spending their money.

I guess ultimately "oligarch" is a whole different thing than "billionaire," and I think that the negative connotation is deserved, at least in the case of these people who think that elections can be bought.

Posted at 10:29 AM

March 4, 2014

This is maybe not the best news in the world, but the developers of the Domino Sugar Factory on the Williamsburg waterfront have reached a deal with the de Blasio administration.
The plan had previously been delayed due to City Hall concerns that the 660 affordable housing units set aside from a total of 2,300 were too few. In the new deal, developer Jed Walentas has now agreed to reserve 700 units for low and moderate income residents and to up the configuration of affordable units to two and three-bedroom layouts. In exchange, Walentas' firm Two Trees will be able to receive a zoning exception allowing the project to rise 55 stories -- 20 higher than current regulations.

I mean, the project will continue (and it is terribly ugly), but the Mayor did use his muscle to get concessions.  (The affordable units will not be grand-fathered out, BTW.)  Maybe it's just cosmetic, but de Blasio is not rolling over for developers like the previous two mayors.

Of course, Barclay's Center, the arena that a neighborhood got knocked down for, has long promised 2,000 affordable units, which ain't here yet.  So there might be a bit of keeping the eye on the ball on this, too.

Posted at 5:47 PM