Sunday, August 27, 2017

Bridge Tolls for Thee-Especially Thee in Brooklyn

The latest proposal to combat traffic congestion in Manhattan (Open-Road Tolls Could Pave the Way for Congestion Pricing) is still unfair to outer borough residents, as I wrote in this 2003 column
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has not formally proposed establishing tolls on the four East River bridges — three of which connect Brooklyn to Manhattan — but it’s been a nagging possibility since last fall when the city’s multi-billion-dollar budget deficit was disclosed. 
If state plan is enacted, cash toll plazas will
be familiar at all entry points in Manhattan.
In case the ill-advised plan eventually gets the nod, several Brooklyn Democrats staged a demonstration last week to condemn the idea and clearly let the Republican mayor know they’re not too happy about it. (See story on page 5.)
The mayor floated the idea of the bridge tolls soon after Governor Pataki and leaders of the state legislature flatly rejected the mayor’s request to reinstate a commuter tax for those who pursue their professions in the Big Apple, where they essentially avail themselves of city services at no cost to them, then take their earnings and spend it in the bosom of suburbia.
Opponents, I suspect, hope the scheme keeps floating — out to sea or down the nearest sewer along with the melting snows.
What has long been a joke — selling the Brooklyn Bridge to some sucker — could become gloomy reality if Mayor Bloomberg decides to lease or deal that landmark span and three others — the Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges — to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which would then in-stall unmanned toll plazas and, no doubt, cameras to catch potential toll beaters.
It should be noted that while the city doesn’t need Albany’s permission to impose tolls on the East River crossings, state consent is required to enforce such a move according to state statutes. How’s that for ambiguity?
Nevertheless, I don’t imagine the revenues from East River tolls plugging — or even denting — the city’s pressing budget gap. It’d be like sticking one’s finger in a dam to hold off surging floodwaters.
In another cost-saving effort, Bloomberg this week warned the city’s civil service unions, who have many members residing outside city limits, if they don’t give back some costly benefits, they’ll face thousands of layoffs. The former is certainly wiser, but union representatives are already grumbling.  If they don’t com-ply thousands of workers could wind up paying a toll more damaging than any bridge fee.
Several months ago, in this space, I pointed out that if the mayor didn’t get state or federal help with the budget deficit, New Yorkers should prepare for hard times because there’d be no financial relief in the offing. Those hard times were set in motion late last year when a 12.5 percent property tax hike was approved and parking fines were doubled under the guise of alleviating traffic congestion.
Back then Deputy Mayor Bill Cunningham said, “We’re in a crisis…we have to make everybody part of the solution.”
Nevertheless, the option of East River bridge tolls does not include EVERYBODY. It basically places an unfair burden on Brooklyn residents who venture by motor vehicle into Manhattan for livelihoods or lei-sure, making them bear the brunt of the city’s fiscal solution. And it could mean fewer trips into Brooklyn, resulting in lost revenues, for those who’ll have to traverse no longer free bridges to partake of Coney Island beaches, the borough’s fine museums, the New York Aquarium, the Brooklyn Cyclones, among other noteworthy attractions.
The mayor is confronted with a major dilemma. He’s trying to muster his savvy business acumen to resolve the city’s worst budget problems in nearly 30 years. He should not, no matter how financially shrewd tolling the East River bridges may seem, assess a fee that’s specifically aimed at the citizens of New York’s most populous borough.
One pipe dream that may resolve the city’s fiscal mess would be for the mayor, after promising New York City’s unyielding support in the looming war in Iraq, to request a piece of the same multi-billion dollar aid pie the White House has promised to Turkey for its backing the U.S. in the conflict.
It’s sorta logical since the bridge toll scheme leaves many Brooklynites with the impression we might just as well be foreigners being treated inequitably simply because we’re separated from Manhattan by a body of water.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Silence Ain’t Golden When It Affects Bigotry and Hate

Riot police try to separate demonstrators
at Saturday's rally. (Reuters)
The president’s evasive remarks after Saturday’s violent protests in Virginia were, to say the least, confusing and, at best, halfhearted. He obviously was hesitant to upset loyal supporters who condone racism and hatred. Though the White House tried to clarify the statements, backlash across the political spectrum mushroomed.
Trump made a weak attempt, on Monday, to capitulate, using more precise words to condemn the right-wing groups that fostered the violence which resulted in one death and several injuries. He said that hatred “has been going on for a long, long time,” and added, “Racism is evil.” Nonetheless, it took him 48 hours to elucidate, demonstrating his steadfast lack of rational judgment.
But, on Tuesday, he reversed course, adamantly defending his original viewpoint and for a second time and blamed both sides for the violence, which undoubtedly bolstered the racist factions, while undermining his legitimacy for the umpteenth time since he took office.
Trump plainly doesn’t comprehend how contradictory it is to similarly condemn protesters and counter protestors at the Charlottesville rally when intolerant hate-mongers encourage the elimination of Blacks and Jews, and counter-demonstrators protest the bigotry.
Republican chickens have come home to roost. It’s past the time when levelheaded members of the GOP aggressively respond to Trump’s reckless tweets and statements and break their restrained silence towards the man they continue to grudgingly support.
Despite party loyalty, silence, in these times, is not golden.
At the center of the Charlottesville chaos is a larger-than-life statue memorializing Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s top general, on a horse, which has stood for almost a century, when Blacks didn’t have input into local government decisions. Some Southerners object to the removal of any symbols that glorify the Old South, which reawaken racist attitudes and centuries of slavery, while broader campaigns strive to rid public places of flags and monuments associated with the Confederacy.
KKK flyer promoting
Saturday's rally.
Over the past few years, Charlottesville residents, city officials and several organizations, including the NAACP, have called for the statue’s removal. Similar situations, including renaming public streets and the removal of the Confederate flag in public places, have taken place throughout the South for the last decade.
The right-wing factions shouted, “Take our country back,” while barely denouncing the statue’s displacement. Demonstrators, from the South, obviously ignored the outcome of the rebellion in which their “country” was conquered over 150 years ago.
Some Southerners fail to accept that they were defeated in what they refer to as the Northern War of Aggression, as opposed to the historically accurate, Civil War. The Confederate flag is the symbol of a group of rebellious states and still represents centuries of cruel and inhumane treatment of millions. Therefore, it is unworthy of a place on any government building or public space, as are other symbols, such as monuments dedicated to their heroes.
White supremacists, some of whom were armed, were supposedly there to participate in a “Unite the Right” rally to protest the statue’s planned removal, yet mainly fostered their racist message of hate and anti-Semitic agendas. Among the chants heard at the rally were: “Sieg heil,” “White Lives Matter” and “Jews will not replace us.” The event left one dead and 19 injured.
Fifty years ago, I witnessed Southern inhospitality toward Jews and Blacks. Traveling via train to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training, many draftees on board were young, White Jewish men. Mixed in were group of young Black men. When the train made a brief stop in a rural North Carolina, some of us got off to pick up snacks and soft drinks and headed for a store, adjacent to the rail line, within a short walk.
As we approached the store, we stopped short when we saw a sign posted on its door with these stacked words: “No Niggers No Jews No Dogs.”
More shocked than outraged, we turned around and headed back to the train and were soon followed by the group of Blacks behind us.
We were aware of the burgeoning civil rights movement across the South at the time, but coming face to face with the blatant hatred was startling.
Donald Trump did not orchestrate last weekend’s protests, yet his influence throughout his campaign and brief presidency, has noticeably inspired White supremacists and other racist groups.
For two days, the president was pressured into amending his comments that claimed there was “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” as if there was some moral equivalency between the rally demonstrators and those who showed up to protest them. Such protests have gone on for decades, though it’s fairly evident that the surge in alt-right demonstrations is a result of the election of an unfit candidate.
Statue at center of protest.
While Trump has vigorously called for a crackdown on immigrants, who he asserts could be terrorists, he has barely clamped down on homegrown right-wing terrorists who enthusiastically support him. Likely because he tends to concur with their racist, misogynistic, homophobic viewpoints.
Perhaps between endless ranting tweets and an excess of putts, Trump might look closer to home at those who are more of a clear and present danger.
Thanks to First Amendment protection, peaceful protests, regardless of affiliation, will never stop. Nonetheless, the violence incited by them must be condemned especially by an individual serving as the nation’s leader. Likewise, those who defend the rights of White supremacists and neo-Nazis, must be equally attentive to secure the rights of those who oppose them.
In our time, silence is neither acceptable nor golden.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Trump’s Media War Is a Dangerous Mission

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press.” Thomas Jefferson  

Of all the bizarre acts and statements in the first forty days of the Trump Administration, perhaps the most contemptible is the war declared with the media. Well, not all press outlets, just news organizations opposed to presidential proposals, actions, executive orders and the multitude of skewed facts they disseminate. The ones who agree get a free pass and even praise from His Highness uh, I mean President Trump. Those who dissent are subject to exclusion from press briefings and relentless attacks.
 In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, a majority of Americans think the press has been too critical of the president since he was elected. Fifty-one percent said the media has been too critical while 41 percent said the press has been mostly fair and objective. Obviously, the majority polled knows or cares little about the First Amendment.
While frequently criticizing Trump may seem unwarranted to some, it is perfectly acceptable, unless one has a problem with the Constitution’s Freedom of the Press mandate. And, those who have a problem with that have not earned the right to be called a patriot or wear a flag lapel pin or display the Stars and Stripes on their property.
At first it was only a war of words, with Trump and his staff condemning media outlets that continually criticize them. However, it became critical after seven news organizations, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and CNN, were excluded from last Friday’s White House press briefing. This unprecedented, precarious crusade is a doomed mission that can only have detrimental effects on American democracy.
For those who need a reminder, the media, in Nazi Germany, was considered the enemy and referred to as “lügenpresse,” a derogatory word meaning “lying press.” This and other actions, such as immigration raids, are parallels that portend fascism.  
It’s no coincidence that freedom of the press became a vital part of the First Amendment when the Bill of Rights was drafted. Among other freedoms, it plainly states, “Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom…of the press…”
Freedom of the press was incorporated because, after breaking away from British rule, the founding fathers were well aware that if government could block opinions or stories they disliked, then the public would be less informed. One crucial press responsibility — after gathering, checking and reporting the facts — is to function as a government watchdog. In that respect, the media has effectively used its First Amendment rights countless times to hold public officials accountable. That role earned the media the label “Fourth Estate” or “fourth branch of government,” that fits well with the system of checks and balances among our Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches.
The American press cannot remain silent. Now is the time for all media — newspapers, broadcast and cable networks and online news sites — to unite and collectively protest the Trump Administration’s “enemy of the people” policy that excludes any media or journalist from White House press events. Because next time, regardless of their editorial perspective, they might be the ones under attack, denounced and excluded.
It’s perfectly acceptable to criticize any elected representative with whom journalists find fault, but it is unacceptable to exclude journalists when you disagree with what they report. For as long as the press has criticized, governments have retaliated rationally and irrationally. However, in most cases, irrational responses came from authoritarian and dictatorial leaderships. If the Trump Administration can’t deal with it and counter with lucid arguments, then perhaps they need to chuck their righteous indignation and remember what President Harry S. Truman said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Even the most naïve knew HST’s remark was not a culinary reference.
Attacks on the media are tolerable, but when constant bashing and criticism are directed by the president and his staff, it’s alarming and dangerous
The following modified excerpt is taken from a column, which subsequently earned a National Newspaper Association Award, I wrote one month after the Twin Towers fell. Nonetheless, it’s particularly relevant for the current political climate: We may revile and condemn, but we must not silence minority voices  in print or spoken  opposed to majority views. When that’s sanctioned, victory is not only hollow, but adversely affects the fundamental rights our forefathers deemed crucial to this nation’s foundation. 
"Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy." Walter Cronkite 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Fees? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Fees!

I’m no tree hugger, but I like to think I’m environmentally conscious and agree that plastic bags should be steadily phased out. But the process should be undertaken without enforcing a fee on consumers, who could easily avoid the charge by recycling plastic bags or bringing a reusable bag.
Nonetheless, thanks to both branches of the state legislature, who voted for a moratorium this week, New Yorkers won’t have to shell out a nickel when they use disposable — plastic and paper — shopping bags at retail businesses, at least for another year.
My key objection to the proposed legislation is that the proceeds were nothing but a gratuitous price increase to reward the retailer, but it was neither meant to augment the city’s treasury nor was it earmarked for any environmental venture. Some opponents objected to legislation’s vague language, which required stores to charge “at least five cents” per bag, leaving the option to charge more.
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind co-sponsored the moratorium “to find a way to come up with something that may be more acceptable.”
A ten-cent fee for plastic bags was first proposed nine years ago, by then Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but it failed to attract City Council backing. The current bill, introduced in 2014, reduced the per-bag fee to five cents. 
Last weekend, conservation groups and fee proponents on the City Council urged Albany lawmakers not to block the proposal. But, on Monday, the state Senate overwhelmingly voted for a one-year moratorium for implementing the fee with the Assembly passing a similar bill Tuesday.
Following a close City Council vote last year, the fee was almost introduced hoping to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags, but it was delayed.
Supporters assert the fee will save the environment by encouraging shoppers to use reusable bags rather than plastic ones.
Opponents maintain the fee is unfair for lower and middle class consumers. But, Mayor de Blasio said free reusable bags will be distributed citywide to reduce the demand for plastic bags. He also stated that consumers who use food stamps will not be required to pay the extra nickel. But, opponents point out that is tantamount to a penalty for non-food stamp consumers.
Critics of the mayor said the city should expand plastic bag recycling efforts, as well as offer incentives for using reusable bags instead of the fee, noting the impact the fee would have on “those who can least afford it — without providing any meaningful benefit to the environment.” 
Some maintain that plastic bags are neither efficient nor environmentally friendly. The New York League of Conservation Voters estimates that New York City residents discard 10 billion bags annually. The city claims it costs $12.5 million a year to send plastic bags to landfills and even more to remove them from beaches, parks and other public spaces.
A few years ago, the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition maintained that plastic grocery bags are produced from a by-product (ethane) of natural gas refining. By not using ethane in the production it would harm the environment and add to global carbon dioxide emissions. By not extracting the ethane it would be unsafe to transport and use.
Plastic bags are no longer produced from crude oil. They have an unlimited recyclable life compared to the paper bag in which its fibers break down after being recycled five times. Plastic bags are more economical to produce and transport, while paper weighs is a hundred times more when shipping. Plastic grocery bags are also easier to recycle at stores where drop-off bins are located at entrances.
Furthermore, it’s estimated that reusable and paper alternatives cost a lot more money to manufacture and are likely more hazardous to the environment. Plastic bags may have a negative impact when improperly disposed, but, no trees, which are vital to the environment, are necessary to produce them. Plastic bags, therefore, don’t destroy the environment before they are used by the public.
Carelessly discarded plastic bag 
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Perhaps if diligent consumers reused or properly disposed of plastic bags there would be less of a concern about their eco-friendliness.
Rather than charging a fee for plastic bags, stores could issue a nominal credit or discount for each reusable shopping bag the shopper uses. That way, the burden for those with limited budgets would actually become a small incentive.
According to the New York Times, there are currently plastic bag fees in more than 200 municipalities in 18 states across the country. 
Several years ago when the plastic bag debate heated up, I purchased a few reusable shopping bags — for a nominal cost — that I regularly use when I shop for groceries. I also reuse plastic bags that I occasionally store for reuse.
Consumers are always nickled and dimed or unduly penalized in some fashion. Price hikes are often disguised with smaller product packaging (i.e. a standard can of tuna fish has shrunk from 8 ounces to a mere 5). Consequently, innocent consumers don’t readily realize the veiled price increase.
But, fees for disposable bags? We don’t need no stinkin’ fees!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Man Who Wants To Be King

There’s been a distinct benefit since Donald Trump took office less than two weeks ago the mounting resistance to callous, controversial policies that have incited a wave of peaceful protests and sparked mass demonstrations not seen in this country for decades.
Protesters at JFK airport last Saturday.
(Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
In other words, democracy in action. Following nationwide marches in several cities after Trump’s inauguration, protests resurfaced at airports last Saturday not long after the ink dried on a controversial directive aimed at a specific group based solely on their religion and country of origin. The executive order suspending resettlement of refugees and banning the entry of nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries is nothing more than national security rationale wrapped in racism.
Guaranteed that as this apprentice-in-charge issues other overreaching decrees, controlled demonstrations will likely persist to dispute other insensitive policies.
The fundamental hitch with the misguided executive order is that it provisionally targets immigrants from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Syria, who, in all likelihood, are homeless refugees trying to escape their war-torn nation. The order noticeably excludes countries from where the hijackers who plotted and carried out the September 11, 2001 terror attacks came. More significantly, not a single Muslim from the seven countries specified has ever committed an act of terrorism on American soil.
Trump conspicuously omitted immigrants from four Mideast nations Egypt, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that have been refuges for Muslim jihadists and where Donald Trump has lucrative business interests, including hotels and golf courses.
And, let’s not forget that prior to Trump’s edict, immigrants went through a thorough vetting process to determine whether or not they were on any worldwide terrorist watch lists or posed a threat to America.
A number of Democratic lawmakers quickly denounced Trump’s order, but, except for a handful of Republicans, there’s been mostly the sound of silence from president’s party.
GOP Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham criticized the president’s order, noting, “We fear (it) will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism,” adding, “It may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.”
On Sunday, McCain, who supported Trump’s election, also said, “We are particularly concerned that this order went into effect with little to no consultation with the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security.”
Less than a month before the election, several Republicans were reluctant to support Donald Trump’s candidacy, but eventually caved, in order to reclaim control of the White House and subsequently supported his strategy to reshape and nullify portions of the Obama legacy.
Republicans constantly flaunt family and pro-life and should be leading the dissent of a decree that ignores such values as it requires the detention of innocent families seeking refuge. The Washington Post reported on this week that 24 Republican lawmakers have expressed opposition to Trump’s order. With the GOP in control of Congress, it must insure that their president abides by the checks and balances outlined in the Constitution. The longer they keep silent, especially on this unsettling issue, the more they validate Trump’s decision and deepen the national rift.
Michael Morell, a former CIA deputy director, said in an interview on Monday that contrary to making America safer, the Trump executive order “is going to make the threat worse. It is going to make us less safe.” He also pointed out, “The biggest problem we face is homegrown terrorism. Of those indicted by the FBI for ISIS-related crimes over the last three years, 85 percent were American citizens. This (ban) doesn’t get at that at all.”
Morell also reinforced McCain’s warning that the Trump immigration order will make Americans less safe, at home and abroad, by serving as a recruitment tool and an enhancement to ISIS propaganda. 
In addition to domestic opposition, President Trump has incurred resistance abroad from Great Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who offered temporary residence to stranded immigrants.
If he’s bold enough to ban potential international terror threats, President Trump should also impose limitations and restrict weapons sales to extreme fascist white power skinheads, radical groups and right-wing hooligans who pose a domestic threat to national tranquility. For starters there’s the Ku Klux Klan, Army of God, Aryan Nations and their ilk.
Perhaps Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley should repeat a comment he once directed at President Barack Obama from the Senate floor: “The president looks more and more like a king that the Constitution was designed to replace.”
Across the board, many Americans reject the first executive actions taken by Donald Trump. But few are shocked. After all, he’s fulfilling the disgraceful promises he vowed throughout his presidential campaign.
In the wake of an inauspicious start, there’s been swift rebuke and enthusiastic response opposing Donald Trump’s contentious initial policies, demonstrating that though he may be the 45th U.S. president, he lacks a substantial mandate from the people. Now, their resistance will only intensify as he continues to act like a king, instead of a president.