Monday, January 28, 2013

Headlines I Never Thought I'd See

Human Rights Campaign Praises Boy Scouts

I was thinking about where we were as a society on LGBT issues 8 years ago and how far we've come since then. It's incredible, magnificent, and a testament to MLK's famous quote
The arc moral universe is long but it bends towards justice
The arc isn't as long as I thought it would be, but it is certainly bending towards justice.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Battle for the Gavel: Streetsblog Edition

New York City's political landscape is in the process of being upended by the legally mandated end of the Bloomberg era. The City will have a new Mayor, a new Public Advocate, a new Comptroller, a slew of new Council Members, and with Chris Quinn forced to seek higher office by term limits a new Council Speaker to go with it. The two members considered the favorites for the position are a pair of Harlem members, Melissa Mark-Vevirito and Inez Dickens. Mark-Vevirito is regarded as the progressive outsider, a rabble rouser that will work the outside game and likely to maintain a great deal of independence from the new Mayor, regardless of who that might be. Dickens is much more of an establishment player, and would keep conflicts inside the family so to speak. Historically the path to the gavel runs through courting the the bosses of the county parties, especially the powerful bosses in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. That's how Quinn defeated DeBlasio back in 2005 for the gavel.

Activists though still like to make their mark on the process, even if their influence on what is ultimately an insiders game is minimal. Well the transit activists over at Streetsblog have fired a salvo in what is shaping up to be another hotly contested race for the speaker's chair by declaring Mark-Vevirito as elected official of the year, and Dickens as the worst elected official of the year. Its not going to have a huge impact on the speakers race, but what little impact it has will happen via proxy endorsements  I expect Transportation Alternatives, the advocacy group behind Streetsblog, will ask council candidates who they anticipate supporting for speaker, and I doubt they will be endorsing anybody that would put Dickens in the chair. Its the only influence Transportation Alternatives, or advocates of any variety, will have on the speaker's race.

The Mayor's race is (rightfully) going to get the lion's share of public attention, but pay attention to the lower tier races. These little goings on will subtly affect the direction the City will take in the post-Bloomberg era.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Stringer's Out

Its not quite official, but he sees the writing on the wall.
Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, is expected to announce soon that he will not run for mayor next year, but instead vie for city comptroller, according to half a dozen people who have talked to him in recent days.
I'm both pleased and disappointed that Stringer is dropping down to the comptroller's race. I'm pleased because it improves the probability that we'll have a comptroller that actually cares about his job instead of taking cheep potshots at the mayor and the MTA wherever he can find them. I'm disappointed because the mayor's race, the only one that will have any serious profile in the media, has lost the candidate who was far and away the best one on transit issues overall. Stringer uniquely understood the critical need for a fully funded MTA, the importance of complete streets with bike lanes, and was willing to take on the worst rent seekers in the city, the medallion owners.

No other candidate was as complete in their advocacy for progressive transit. DeBlasio has shown himself to be in the pocket of the medallion owners, and has morphed from bike lane supporter to bike lane agnostic at best. Liu has shown himself to be a complete hack who will do nothing more then wait for the federal government to make it rain. Quinn says some the right things when talking to a transit audience, but when talking to a general audience she tailors her message almost exclusively around the needs of car owners instead of the vast majority of New Yorkers who use alternative methods to get around.

So who benefits from Stringer dropping out? Conventional analysis says Quinn since Stringer's Upper West Side and liberal Jew coalition overlaps most strongly with Quinn's Manhattan/LGBT/Democrats for Bloomberg coalition. However I think there is a good possibility that DeBlasio comes out ahead. My view of the race is that its going to come down to a two person race between Quinn and a Not-Quinn. People who supported Stringer were probably supporting him as the best Not-Quinn candidate. With Stringer gone, I imagine his supporters will look for another Not-Quinn to back, and only if they conclude Stringer was the only acceptable Not-Quinn will they reluctantly fall into the Quinn camp. The scandal tarred Liu isn't gonna get any support from Stringer's reform minded backers, while Billy Thompson is a complete non-factor. That leaves DeBlasio as the best positioned to pick up Stringer's supporters. While there might be a Park Slope/UWS rivalry in the city, the issues and demographics of the two neighborhoods are similar. DeBlasio clearly understands the issues facing Park Slope, so it isn't a stretch to see him creating a stroller coalition between the two neighborhoods. Quinn might win more of Stringer's support in the end, but I don't think its as automatic as I've seen other publications portraying it.

Friday, November 9, 2012

An Awesome Occupy Initiative: Buying and Forgiving Debt

Occupy Wall Street has faded as a movement, but it doesn't mean they are totally gone. Their Occupy the SEC branch has been thoroughly awesome and since Sandy they've been helping the victims of the hurricane get back on their feet. Their most recent initiative to purchase distressed debt for cents on the dollar and forgive it is something that caught my eye, and put a very wide smile on my face.

Normally debt forgiveness creates some serious economic incentives problems in the form of moral hazard. Moral hazard is a Very Serious problem that Very Serious People obsess over, however just because it is a Very Serious problem doesn't mean it is a very real one. In the aggregate individuals will price the probability that they will get their debt forgiven into their calculations about how much debt to take out. The higher the chance they will be forgiven, the more likely it is they will take on more debt, or enter strategic default if they are already in debt. We can quibble about the moral obligation that people attach to paying off their debt, but for my purposes I'm making the admittedly strong assumption that people are pure rational actors.

However the Occupy initiative doesn't create this problem due to the small and random nature of the initiative. Occupy isn't going to be liberating hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, they probably won't even crack the ten million dollar mark when all is said and done. This means the marginal increase in the chance that debt will be forgiven is infinitesimally small, so they won't take out more debt then they can handle. Additionally people who are already in debt and are considering going into default won't chance their decision to default or not because the chance their debt will be forgiven is still the same incredibly small amount it was before.

So far I've described a small, seemingly insignificant program, so where is the upside you ask? People who's crushing debt was going to fall into the hands ruthless debt collectors prior the program will instead see their debt wiped clean. They can go forward without a ball and chain of past debt dragging their consumption and investment down. They won't be hounded by collectors at every turn. They can focus on living their lives instead of worrying about their next bill payment. These individuals will have won a lottery, but its a lottery they unknowingly entered because they were forced into extreme circumstances.

This is of course a second best option for debt forgiveness and personal debt reduction. Cramdown on mortgages, caps based on graduate income on student debt repayments, and stronger consumer protection against predatory lending are all better long term options. However in the interim  Occupy is doing something concrete that will help the lives of those deeply in debt, and by extension the communities that these folks live in too.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Literally Worse Then Hitler

Word to the wise: anytime you make Nazi references regarding a local corruption probe, you've lost me. Somehow the slaughter of 6 million Jews doesn't compare to the inconvenience of being under investigation for campaign finance fraud.

One of the things that I truly cannot understand about the conspiracy theory tinged bitching emanating from Liu supporters is the complete lack of a reason why the Feds decided to target Liu unjustly over any other likely candidate for Mayor. For their whining to have any merit, they'd have to prove that the FBI and the US Attorney for the New York Southern District Preet Bharara has a unique ax to grind with Liu over say Quinn, De Blasio or Stringer; that the FBI/Bharara is in the tank for Quinn/De Blasio/Stringer; or that the FBI/Bharara is flat out racist against Asians. None of those arguments carry much water, but the last one in particular seems to be the one Liu supporters are hanging their hats on, and its also the one I find the least compelling. After all, Bharara is himself Indian-American.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bill de Blasio Gets His Transit Black Mark

NYC Public Advocate Bill de Blasio joins Comptroller John Liu in getting a transit issue black mark. De Blasio earns his by demonstrating he is completely in the tank for taxi medallion owners by filling an amicus brief on behalf of the medallion owners in the lawsuit to stop the borough taxi plan. I thought the Public Advocate was supposed to speak up for the people of New York City. Instead, like just about every other major NYC politician, he's thrown his lot in with the powerful and wealthy medallion cartel.

Unlike what de Blasio et all will tell you, the vast majority of medallions are owned by a very small number of individuals. Drivers don't generally own their medallions, and the number of mom and pop medallion owners are a tiny portion of the ownership pie compared with the vast taxi empires of the big owners. So why does the Public Advocate, especially a progressive one like de Blasio, feel the need to advocate for the few that have prospered enormously under the old status quo? Is it because the medallion owners are major campaign contributors in city politics?

Moreover, as followers of the taxi debates should recognize, the medallion owners and drivers really shouldn't care about the borough taxi plan. After all 97% of legal street hails are in Manhattan below 96th street. Despite what they say about fighting to preserve a system that is working, the effective outcome should their lawsuit prove successful would be to keep upper Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and The Bronx deprived of legal street hail taxi service. They never give a satisfactory answer on expanding service to these areas except that if only illegal black car street hails were cracked down on, taxi service would flourish in the far reaches of the city, which is frankly preposterous.

The old status quo created artificial scarcity for medallions, which drove the price of medallions through the roof, and legal street hail service to the 80% of New Yorkers living outside Manhattan. The borough taxi plan alleviates that scarcity. Government should not exist to preserve rent seeking behavior. When the City Council was bought and paid for by the taxi lobby to preserve the wealth of rent seekers on the backs of ordinary New Yorkers and drivers, Mayor Bloomberg rightly went to Albany to get the law changed. Despite bitter opposition from an entrenched special interest, the law was passed, and like opponents of the ACA, they've gone to the least democratic branch of government to get it overturned. De Blasio's hollow accusations of anti-democratic behavior on the part of the Mayor in this case is absurd on face.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Greece's Super Sad True Reality

Is it me or does this remind anybody else of the ending to Super Sad True Love Story?
The situation at the macro level is, if anything, even more transformational. The Chinese have largely taken over Piraeus, Greece’s main port, with an eye to make it a conduit for shipping goods into Europe. Qatar is looking to invest $5 billion in various projects in Greece, including tourism infrastructure. Other, relatively flush Europeans are trying to make “Greece the Florida of Europe,” Theodore Pelagidis, a Greek economist at the University of Piraeus, told me, referring in particular to plans to turn islands into expensive retirement homes for wealthy people from other parts of the continent. Whether or not the country pays its debts, he went on, other nations and foreign companies “now understand the Greek government is powerless, so in the future they will take over viable assets and run parts of the country by themselves.” 
What Pegagdis discribes is sovereign nation being taken over by international interests to be developed into a luxury product for wealthy foreigners to consume. And this is being done with callous disregard for the unfortunate Greeks still living there. They are being shunted aside, forced to endure serious economic misery for the sake of enriching and comforting an inaccessible elite. They are the 5 jiao men, toiling away for nothing. It looks a lot like Greece is being taken through the international chop shop, and ordinary Greeks are only left with the hollow shell of their former country.

Leave it to the Very Serious People to make Shteyngart's dystopia a reality.