Saturday, September 27, 2008

A pitch-perfect piece of reporting

William Finnegan in the New Yorker tells the tragic story of the suicides of an Iraq veteran with debilitating PTSD and his brother, himself long suffering from mental illness.

It is simply perfect reporting: Finnegan interviews the veteran's widow, the brothers' parents and other loved ones, as well as marine buddies -- all this within 3 months of their deaths. He perfectly captures the veteran's charm and wit, and the depth of love his wife had for him; as well as the clinical experience of PTSD and the men's path towards self-destruction.

There are just some wrenching quotes. A sampling:

He and Kellee planned another family weekend, but Travis didn’t show up. Kellee was furious. When he finally arrived, on Sunday evening, he was drunk. She wouldn’t let him in the house, or allow him to see the girls. Instead, they sat together on the front porch and talked for half an hour. Her regrets from that night are ferocious. “If I had just brought him inside,” she said. “Just taken him upstairs and made love to him, or tried to. Just told him it would be O.K., played that role.” She never saw him again.


Nancy [the mother] recalled a letter Travis had sent from Iraq to be read at his younger sister’s wedding. “It said, ‘You may not be able to see me, but I’m there.’ I thought of that when we saw him so messed up. We could see him, but he wasn’t there. It just wasn’t him.” Douglas said, “None of us had ever seen him like that. It was like he was in a trance. He didn’t sound like himself. He was flatlining, like he had no personality. He had lost all that stuff of his, that love of trying to fool people. He said, ‘Dad, I think I’m very sick.’

Please, read this article. It'll mess you up right.

Another interesting and disturbing detail: the Pink Floyd cd "The Wall," about suicide and trauma, was found in the car in which the men killed themselves. Trauma breeds trauma: I wonder how Roger Waters will cope with this impact of his music?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Only 5 of 17,000 NYC-sponsored affordable housing mortgages in foreclosure

It's a pretty responsible lending program, especially compared to its peers. This seems to add some weight to increasing calls for Bloomberg as the next Secretary of the Treasury - or of the World.

Death By Taser

The NYPD used a taser on a mentally ill man, who subsequently fell to his death. The department's Emergency Services Unit - a modified crisis intervention team, which for reasons not warranting explication I know a hell of a lot about - again failed to do its job: mediate the conflict.

MTA: Bigger Assholes Than You Thought

From a City Room article on a Council hearing on the MTA's customer complaint protocol:
Remember the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member, David S. Mack, who justified the free use of E-ZPasses and MetroCards by authority board members, saying it encourages them to take the subway and call in complaints? He said that complaints from average riders are not heeded. “If you saw something and called it in, it goes right there,” Mr. Mack reportedly told reporters at a committee meeting, kicking a garbage can.

Good, clear pitch for the bailout

From the Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein:
The basic idea is to use special auctions to recreate a market for these securities with many competing sellers and one buyer (the Treasury), so that a credible "market" price can be established. If that price turns out to be below what those securities are now valued at on the banks' balance sheets, then banks will have to take the loss. If the price turns out to be higher, then banks may be able to record gains. The point isn't to bail out institutions that have made bad bets and suffered credit losses, but to provide a buyer of last resort so the market can begin pricing again.
Pearlstein makes clear that the time to act is now:
The financial situation is now downright scary. Don't look at the stock market -- that's not where the problem is. The problem is in the credit markets, which are quickly freezing. I won't bore you with technical indicators like Libor and Treasury swap spreads, but if you talk to people who work these markets every day, as I have, they report that the money markets are in worse shape than they were last August, or even during the currency crises of 1998.

Banks and big corporations and even money-market funds are hoarding cash, refusing to lend it out for a day or a week or a month. Even the best companies are having trouble floating bonds at reasonable rates. And the shadow banking system -- the market in asset-backed securities that ultimately supplies the capital for most home loans, car loans, college loans -- is almost completely shut down.

People are so nervous, and there is so much distrust, that all it would take is one more hit to trigger the modern-day equivalent of a nationwide bank run. Financial institutions would fail, part of your savings would be wiped out, jobs would be lost and a lot of economic activity would grind to a halt. Such a debacle would cost us a lot more than $700 billion.

House Republicans have a very simple decision to make: fix the problem or try to teach Wall Street a lesson. Pearlstein makes an apt point: sometimes you have to let the experts just do their jobs:
The reality is that these guys will be operating in uncharted territory, making things up as they go along. That means there are no assurances that any particular approach will work and no assurances that this will be the final solution. It also means that, just as we entrust generals to fight a war, we are going to have to trust the Treasury to find a way out of this crisis.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Monday, September 22, 2008

Goodwill couture

Thrift shops are the new Manolo Blahnik, according to the Washington Post.

Does this mean that if Carrie Bradshaw were around today she'd be rocking a threadbare t-shirt with a fading silk screen tiger imprint on it? Probably.

A good rundown on the state of Bloomberg's homelessness prevention plan

In short, a failure.

From the Coalition for the Homeless:
Perhaps most importantly, the mayor and administration officials remain mired in the false notion that family homelessness is a behavioral problem, not what it primarily is: a housing affordability problem. Thus, addressing it must involve proven, housing-based solutions.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Mayor wins legal control over family shelters

A two-decade legal standoff between the mayor's office(s) and the Legal Aid Society over access to and conditions in family homeless shelters appears to be resolved. The two sides struck a deal, with LAS ceding the judicial oversight it had established through dozens of court petitions; and the administration making certain baseline guarantees, such as a right to shelter and improved intake.

This seems a major victory for Bloomberg, winning a free hand to run the system as he sees fit.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

AMAZING New Yorker piece on Mayor Mike

While researching a story on a Bloomberg poverty program, I came across a priceless New Yorker piece on Bloomberg written shortly after his election. I particularly howled at the outspoken-yet-diminutive billionaire's attitude towards journalists: in short, extreme and justifiable disdain. Here are some choice excerpts below (sadly New Yorker's archives are atrocious - let me know if you'd like to read the whole article and I can send):
Speaking, as usual, without notes, he continued, "Oscar Wilde once said we are dominated by journalism. And that is both the good news and the bad news. The good news is that journalism is what keeps us a free society. If it wasn't for a free, aggressive, investigatory press, we really would have totalitarianism, and we should never forget that, no matter how many times we get annoyed with the press for intrusiveness, or whatever. And I do think sometimes, and this is my personal experience-you have a right to ask, but the great thing about the First Amendment is I have a right not to answer. You have a right to write it; I have a right not to read it. And that was the way I got through my campaign. I basically said I wasn't going to read any of this stuff anymore, and it's amazing, if you don't read it, life goes on." He concluded, "Anyways, congratulations to all of you."

In general, Bloomberg has a hard time masking his feelings toward the journalists who now trail him. Not long ago, he went record shopping, to demonstrate his support for merchants in lower Manhattan, and flipped through a rack of CDs as the cameras clicked away furiously. I happened to be standing nearby when he muttered, to no one in particular, "The dumbest things in the world, they're taking pictures of." (He bought two CDs by Crosby, Stills and Nash.) On another occasion, he was heading into a routine press conference at a Manhattan middle school when he ran into someone he knew. "You're not joining this gaggle!" he exclaimed.

Doubtless it is aggravating to be covered by the New York press, and while Bloomberg has been widely praised for his budget, his appointments, and his restructuring of City Hall, he has also been taunted. The first time he suddenly dropped out of view for the weekend without letting reporters know his whereabouts, the Post ran a picture of a milk carton with his face on it, asking "HAVE YOU SEEN ME?" The next weekend he disappeared, a Post photographer showed up at the home of the deputy mayor for operations, Marc Shaw, in Queens. The paper ran a picture of a dishevelled-looking Shaw, who appeared at the door in jeans and a T-shirt, above a caption identifying him as "the man in charge when the mayor's gone." The conceit was then picked up by David Letterman, who broadcast Shaw's photograph as the lead-in to a Top Ten list of the "Ways New York City Is Different When This Guy's in Charge." No. 1: "First city official since Koch to take a leak in the Hudson."

Yet Bloomberg's disdain for the press clearly goes beyond the missing-person gags. "If I had a heart attack in the sales department, everyone would come around and immediately give me CPR," he once announced to a group of reporters at Bloomberg L.P. "If I had a heart attack in the newsroom, you assholes would stand around and scribble notes." During the mayoral race, I asked him for his reflections on the campaign, and his response was to reflect on the stupidity of reporters. "I don't know whether it's just that they're not all that smart, or maybe they just don't think it sells," he told me. "But there is a focus on finding something wrong."

An Anarchist Ice Cream Truck

From the City Room:
Inside, the ice cream shared freezer space with emergency gas masks, and the condiment shelves held equipment for protesters at demonstrations to use when confronted by the police. The ice cream inventory is limited, because cabinets are used to store rolls of film for documenting police action, Ibuprofen for billy-club headaches and rain ponchos in case of fire hoses and water cannons. There were pepper spray treatment kits and the counter-weapon of choice: water balloons.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Two old haunts on Atlantic Ave.

For Brooklynites - ever wonder what the deal with the Long Island Restaurant and Montero's is? Why are there these two extremely anachronistic establishments right across the street from each other, and do they have any connection?

Looking into a story along these lines, I realized the NYT covered it about two years ago.

And if you've been wondering why the LI Restaurant is always closed, here's the answer.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Walking that fine line

A city ordinance in a mostly black rural town in Arkansas imposes a curfew and allows police to stop and frisk with neither a warrant nor probable cause.

And this odd detail:
But it wasn't a violent murder that inspired the curfew. It was in response to, as city officials and residents alike describe, a small-time card game and some stray bullets.

The story goes like this: A guy from Third Street lost a bet to a guy on Second Street. When the loser refused to pay, the Second Street man roughed up the one from Third Street. A group from Third Street then went to Second Street, where 10 bullets landed in the side of a house. No one was injured.

MI GOP Foreclosing Foreclosed Voters

In what appears to be a typically cynical swing-state vote-blocking tactic, the Michigan GOP is using lists of people who lost their homes in foreclosures to deny access to polls (since the listed addresses are no longer legal residences). The presumption, it appears, is that those hit by the foreclosure crisis are more likely to vote Democratic. Gross.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

This just happened to me...

I sat down to blog about this strange conversation I just had, and realized it could make a good article. It just so happens that it also fulfills a class assignment, due Friday. Two birds!

Returning from dropping off my laundry this morning, I was harangued, for the first time, as an agent of the gentrification of historically-black Brooklyn.

It just so happened that at that very moment I was thinking about my childhood nanny, an immigrant from Barbados named Rosemary. I had seen her a week earlier, the day of the West Indian parade, which was also the day I moved into my Crown Heights apartment. I've always struggled with the fact of my privilege, most notably through my relationship with Rosemary. That I spent time with her the very first day of my new life—for years, while I wrote about police interactions with the mentally ill for a public policy research firm, I lived on a quiet street in Park Slope; it was perhaps the single-least diverse block in Brooklyn—had a symbolism and poignance which did not escape me.

"Now why you want to live in a black neighborhood?" asked a man, around 40, who was leaning against the brownstone wall in front of the house next door to where I rent a room from an elderly Jamaican family. The man wore a green guerilla cap, slightly askance. His face was matted in short silver stubble, and his eyes, bloodshot, had a manic look. He was drunk. Based on the time of day and where he stood, I guessed he had just been turned out of the shelter in the Atlantic Armory two blocks away.

I paused. I wanted to be thoughtful. But the man didn't wait. "Because if I was me in a white neighborhood, you know I wouldn't be there like that."

I had a response formed, but regrettably I took his bait.

"Now why do you say that?" I asked.

Immediately I felt foolish. I thought about what I was wearing: gray running shorts from my alma mater, Wesleyan University, and a green Teach For America t-shirt. (A friend of mine likes to drunkenly award "Liberal Arts Student of the Year" awards when someone goes on about "institutional racism" or Evo Morales or Talk of the Town pieces. I no doubt would have won an honorable mention for best-dressed.)

"Come on now, you know why." Realizing my mistake, I eagerly nodded ascent. He continued: "You know now, if I was in Bay Ridge or something like that..."

I thought, 'Thank God he didn't mention Park Slope,' but decided to go another direciton.

"I live here because the people here are friendly, and because it's a nice place to live."

If he was caught off-guard, he didn't show it. "Well thank you for saying that," he said. "Now not everyone…" he started, then trailed off. He then mumbled some thoughts about the police, which I didn't understand, and the shelter, which indeed had kicked him out.

Perhaps sensing that he was losing me, he abruptly cut himself off, straightened up, and looked me in the eyes. "Well, you have a nice day," he said, and staggered away.

I turned the other way, smirked, and hurried up stairs to write about it.

Talk about mission creep

The NYC Teaching Fellows program either has a serious problem vetting its applicants, or supporting them once they're selected:

A Harlem teaching fellow who vanished nearly two weeks ago may have gone into hiding because she was afraid to return to the troubled school where she was assigned, sources told The Post.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Berg: Times, Don't Do It!

Joel Berg of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger calls for the New York Times to reconsider its plan to eliminate the stand-alone Metro section.
This is a city with eight million residents, after all. Given that I see fewer and fewer people on subways reading the Times, surely it harms company profits when you lose local circulation wars to far inferior publications, which provide more coverage to the type of local news that city residents crave to read.
Berg mentions the Times' often excellent reporting on the City Room blog - where the paper runs most of its local political and social coverage - but argues that this is little more than relegating the local beat to where fewer people will read it, and abdicating coverage to the tabloids.

Read Berg's letter here.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Stop hating on guvment

Research shows that the economy grows in times of higher tax rates and government expenditures, contrary to popular (mostly Republican) opinion.
Rather than harm the economy, the evidence shows that government spending, when done well, contributes critically to economic growth. Americans rely on the government for the free primary and high schools that educate the workforce. The government subsidizes college education and has built the immense transportation infrastructure that moves goods across the country and gets people to work. Federal, state, and local government have been essential to the nation's health, building clean-water systems and developing vaccines that have eliminated or minimized diseases like diphtheria, tuberculosis, and polio. The government can waste money, too. But the national rhetoric about the economy needs to stop focusing on how to shrink the government, and start focusing on how best to use it.

The story of our times

The proliferation of subprime lending--creditors targeting those with bad or no credit, with the intent (or at least willingness) of having the consumer default--is far broader than the housing market. We see it everywhere: payday loans, cash checking institutions, credit card companies, car dealerships, health care, to name a few. There are dozens of such places within a 5 block radius of where I live in Crown Heights.

Bill Moyers reports on two illustrative cases that capture the times we live in: JR Byrider, a subprime national car dealership (with a heavy credit line from Bank of America), and a billing agency that gets contracts from nonprofit hospitals and charges nearly 6% interest for those without health insurance. It's a great short piece (27 minutes) that summarizes the reporting of a Business Week investigator who broke the story. (The Moyers' piece is also fascinating as a window into good investigative reporting -- e.g., how Business Week got the dirt.)

Key points:
  • The debt of those earning less than $30K a year (25% of the US) increased 250% from 1984 to 2004. This means the "poverty business" has proliferated like never before.
  • Companies are using complex crediting software to develop "opportunity pricing" schemes-- looking at a consumer's credit vulnerabilities to develop optimally exploitive pricing schemes. They're using technology to tighten the screws.
  • The poverty business is franchising and mainstreaming (as we know from the trend towards securitizing subprime mortgages on Wall St.). The product is the loan, not the car or house. In other words, the creditor is not only ok with the consumer's default (money is still made with high interest and resale potential), but designs loans explicitly with this in mind. I'm reminded of the recent Times' cover story on the mechanics of subprime mortgage financing -- a good process piece on how money is made lending to the poor.
  • State regs. are behind the ball on this, and -- surprise surprise-- the poverty business has an organized, cohesive, and powerful lobby.
This is real scary stuff, and we all need to get smart on it.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Punishment over rehabilitation

A good overview of the American prison crisis--high rates of incarceration, bizarre and extreme sentences, and poor re-entry trends (e.g., high recidivism rates)--that ran as the front-piece to Mother Jones's series on crime and punishment in America.

Here's what it boils down to:
We've become a two-tier society in which millions of ostensibly free people are prohibited from enjoying the rights and privileges accorded to everyone else—and we continue to be defined by our desire for punishment and revenge, rather than by our belief in the power of redemption.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Destroying Baltimore to save it

I have a post on commenting on an NYT article on a major urban renewal project in east Baltimore. Spearheaded by Johns Hopkins and Forest City, the project is the single largest instance of urban renewal in the country. Though it's a highly controversial project, the NYT article, run in the real estate section, is unapologetically supportive. The Times essentially ignores the thousands of people who are being bulldozed and who were denied meaningful voice in the planning process.

You can find my article here.

New American City also has an article on the Hopkins project, covering mostly the same ground as my post, with some added revelations on how Hopkins may have induced the dilapidation of the neighborhood in order to facilitate the eminent domain process.
Long before the first phase of demolition occurred to make way for the Biotech Park, Johns Hopkins was already in the market for new property. In the New York Times, Dr. Edward Miller, CEO of Johns Hopkins hospital confesses to purchasing vacant housing in East Baltimore “with an eye to the future.” Some see this practice as having exacerbated the fundamental problem of urban decay, the very problem the institution seeks to address through redevelopment; purchasing vacant rowhouses and letting them rot caused further degradation of property value. Moreover, in the initial planning of the project, there was little or no appeal to the community; when the plan was finally announced to Middle East residents in 2002, it was already a done deal.