Thursday, May 12, 2016

Oddly Timed 2008 NY Observer Article Pumps Up “Ambition” For The Books- A Pitch To Those Who Would Like to Be Trustees of Brooklyn Public Library, If Not Actually Trustworthy

Found on the Massey Knakal a real estate firm website.  Text highlighted in yellow calls attention to the involvement of one of their brokers.   It is probably just a bizarre coincidence that there is a large ad for Baccarat given that when the Donnell Library was sold it was replaced, in part, by a luxury hotel using using the name.
I came up with a wonderful it-only-takes-a-little-reading-between-the-lines New York Observer article from 2008 about who should consider for themselves the prospect of becoming a trustee of the Brooklyn Public Library.

The article came out in February of that year, just a few months after Jared Kushner, the owner of the Observer (and Donald Trump’s son-in-law) had locked in a deal that benefitted from the sale of the Donnell Library that trustees of the New York Public Library tossed out munificently to the real estate industry.. . . The public, of course, losing out.

Interestingly, I didn’t come across the article on the Observer’s site; I came across it on the site of Massey Knakal, a real estate firm, where they had posted it, highlighting text in the article to show how one of their brokers, Landon McGaw, was participating.

The article starts out saying that maybe getting onto the exclusive NYPL board with Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone (the world’s largest real estate investment firm plus much more) is out of reach when you are “jockeying for position” in New York,  but “what about Brooklyn” for opportunities?

Answer: “Cue J.P. Morgan, CitiGroup and Goldman, Sachs-and government employees (retired teachers and a Con Ed spokeswoman among them).”  Brooklyn is a borough of “Brooklyn's shiny new condos and brownstone conversions.”

Put into the words on one of the people reported on there is, “a eureka-moment story about . . . .  standing in Grand Army Plaza, the traffic circle outside of Prospect Park . . .  the imposing main branch of the BPL, and thinking, This place is changing. . . . `Why don't I engage the library?'"

Consider this startlingly frank assessment from the article (emphasis supplied):
Buried underneath the earnest and altruistic desire to help the library is, perhaps, a touch of social snobbery, a desire to use the opportunities afforded by the New Brooklyn to further one's station in life.

Then again, that's what nearly all New York-style charity has been about, and it's unrealistic to expect this new group to be any different. And it must be said that the barriers to entry are lower. .
The article spotlights BPL trustee Janet Offensend as being the BPL official leading the charge for the advertised transformation, bringing in a new set of individuals who “love a good party” (one must wonder about whether such phases are code words or dog whistles when buried in with the recitation of a lot of other altruistic claptrap.).  The article tells us about Ms. Offensend:
Janet Offensend, a fixture on the Brooklyn charitable scene for many years whose husband is the chief financial officer of the NYPL, is a library trustee who has helped marshal the Vanguard through its first few months.
What is not noted is that Ms. Offensend’s husband David Offensend, mentioned as the chief financial officer of the NYPL, is the one who arranged the sale of the Donnell Library in a deal benefitting the aforementioned Jared Kushner, owner of the Observer.  If you know that you don’t need dog whistles to figure out much more.

For further documentation about the recomposition of the Brooklyn Public Library Board of Trustees achieved in this era consider the following page of information from Citizens Defending Libraries:
Brooklyn Public Library Trustees- Identified + Biographical and Other Information Supplied
Point of disclosure: I am a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, formed in 2013 in reaction to breaking headlines about library real estate deals benefitting developers, not the public.

The Observer article appears on the Observer’s website:
The Observer: Brooklyn's Bookish Ambition, By Doree Shafrir, February 22, 2008

And, as noted, on the site of real estate firm Massy Knackle.
One additional little secret to share: I also found the article because it mentioned Ethan Hawke.  Click for more information here: x

Ethan Hawke Appointed as a Trustee of New York Public Library- At Eventful Meeting Iris Weinshall (Sen. Schumer’s Wife) Reports NYPL Is In Discussion To Sell “Upper Manhattan” Library

Ethan Hawke, NYPL's newest trustee, at his first trustees meeting.  NYPL president Marx seated on right.
It was a change of pace, with the trustees of the New York Public Library meeting yesterday afternoon in Harlem for their trustees meeting rather than their regular 42nd Street Central Reference Library digs. . .  and it was an eventful meeting.

What will probably grab the headlines is that NYPL just appointed Ethan Hawke, actor (“Boyhood,” “Dead Poets Society, “Gattaca” many more), writer and novelist (“Before Sunset,” “Before Midnight,” “the Hottest State,” “Ash Wednesday”), and director (“Chelsea Walls,” “A Lie of the Mind”).

What is likely to get skipped over as important, is news, delivered by NYPL Chief Operating Officer Iris Weinshall (Senator Schumer’s wife).  For the first time since Donnell and the NYPL’s ultimately derailed Central Library Plan, the NYPL trustees were told that the NYPL is looking at selling another library in another concocted  real estate deal.  Noticing New York previously reported that the NYPL has, since at least 2008, had the idea of doing such real estate deals in “northern Manhattan” (i.e. Harlem?).  Information beyond that oblique fact was not available from the NYPL.

The Brooklyn Public Library president Linda Johnson recently told the City Council that all three city library systems, her BPL, the Queens Library and the NYPL, were looking at the sale of the central destination Brooklyn Heights Library (at a huge public loss) as a model for future transactions.  That would bring things full circle back to the NYPL, because the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library closely replicates the NYPL’s sale of Donnell.

This is what Ms. Weinshall told the NYPL trustees, which is still pretty oblique:
I just want to tell the board about another interesting initiative that has come our way: A major foundation here in the city of New York has approached the library about working with us on one of our libraries in upper Manhattan to create affordable housing on the site, but the plus for the library Is that this foundation along with HPD, which is a city agency, is prepared to provide the library with the total funding for reconstruction of the library on the site. So this would present a great opportunity for us in a facility that, uhm, has, many opportunities like the lower floor of this building, to create a brand-new library in upper Manhattan. And there will be more discussion and Tony [NYPL president Marx] and I are involved with the foundation in discussion. Thank you.
.  . ."one of our libraries in upper Manhattan" . . . "major foundation"?

By the “lower floor of this building” Ms. Weinshall was referring to NYPL’s 115th Street Branch of The New York Public Library where the meeting was being held, built with funds given to the city by Andrew Carnegie and opened in 1908.  It's three above grounds floors plus the “lower floor,” a basement floor a community space languishing in disrepair.


The deal Ms. Weinshall described sounds more like the BPL’s proposed Sunset Park Library sale: The Donnell and Brooklyn Heights library deals involve luxury towers going up on squashed shrunken libraries pushed down into underground space.

The NYPL trustees got a report on the “replacement” for Donnell, closed in the spring of 2008 with a promise it would be replaced within 3-1/2 years.  It's still not "replaced."  They were told that the “53rd Street Library” (there is apparent embarrassment to call the library replacement by the name of Donnell) is “almost finished," which according to the other reports means may be as soon as the fall of 2016.  It was not reported that the luxury hotel, the luxury condominium building, the luxury restaurants replacing the Donnell Library all opened more than a year ago in March of 2015.  The trustees were told that they would be pleased with the modernity of this largely underground, largely bookless library.. . . Which is interesting because, at least once, it was suggested to the trustees in their meetings that the Donnell scheme was a mistake.

There was also this update about another library sell-off and shrinkage, a modified vestige of the $500+ million derailed Central Library Plan that the NYPL still plans to follow through on: The trustees were told that they will soon see plans showing how an “entire floor” in what is now the Mid-Manhattan Library will be given up as a “replacement” for the 34th Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL).  That shrinking of space that is now devoted to the Mid-Manhattan Library is so that SIBL, a quite valuable facility as it now exists, can be sold.

Discussing library usage SIBL, it was noted how SIBL, a 1996 research library, has become perhaps the most important of the NYPL’s libraries providing a focus on employment pursuit and research.

There was also a discussion of library usage statistics (“metrics”).  One must wonder whether there was hope behind how they were collected and presented that they might support the idea of “the changing nature of what a library is” (NYPL president Tony Marx’s words), and thereby generate acceptance for some of this real estate shuffling and shedding.  The statistics seemed to report a reversal somewhat in line with recent Center For an Urban Future ideas about making libraries less about books and more about . . . whatever.  Previously the reported “metrics” weren’t in line with those ideas.

In 2013 the Center For an Urban Future reported that NYC library usage for the decade was way up, 59% in terms of circulation (most of which was was physical books) and 40% in terms of programs.  In 2015 another report from CUF said that library space should be converted to program space?- The metrics reported to the NYPL trustees were that in the last five years NYPL program use was up 75% while circulation was actually down, mostly because streaming (Netxflix, for instance, if one can afford to subscribe to their current catalogue), is replacing the borrowing of the DVDs the library has available.  Physical books are the vast bulk of the circulation, but the fraction of digital books being borrowed, a very small number, is recently, after having been introduced quite a few years ago, reportedly going up by multiples (14x).

While the trustees asked about causes for the slightly reduced circulation, none of them asked whether any of it could be due to the absence of books in the libraries, the empty shelves, the broken habits of formerly more regular patrons with cutbacks in library hours and upkeep (even if some of that has just recently been somewhat remedied).  Nor was it suggested to the trustees that such things  might be factors to be considered.

There is also the question of whether digital books (the only immediate satisfaction when NYPL shelves are empty- “three clicks” to get them said Marx) are being pushed.  President Marx said that while he personally preferred to read physical books, digital books should be available to library users, “not just those who can afford to” get electronic books “on paid subscription services.”

Marx’s perhaps reflexive reference to getting electronic books through “paid subscription services” rather than buying them outright (at least for your current platform) as most of us do is interesting.  Libraries tend to rent their ebooks through subscription arrangements with the archival function of libraries going by the wayside.  There is no preservation of history this way. They can say that they are driven to that decision by the pricing by the content providers wanting to retain control.  What most people don’t know is that the ebooks that are still much less preferred by the public are actually more expensive.

During the discussion the trustees were told that the NYPL had used a service (Shopper Tracker) to collect data on how many people were coming to the NYPL libraries, the amount of time different individuals were spending there and for what kind of purpose.  One category of people reportedly spending more time at the library is researchers because they come to do what they cannot do elsewhere.

With NYPL president Marx citing the fact the NYPL had a privacy policy it needed to follow, the trustees were assured that when people’s use of the libraries was being monitored during the collection of these metrics face recognition technology was not being used and they were further told that after the data was collected the underlying records were destroyed.

New York State has a statute (Civil Practice Law and Rules §4509) requiring that library usage and related right of free association information “shall be confidential.”  The problem is to what extent this statute has been superseded either legally, or from a just plain practical standpoint, by post-9/11 federal surveillance laws or practices.

All of which is to say that Mr. Hawke has arrived at the NYPL at a very interesting time and is faced with the job of handling a multifaceted set of challenges.  It is hard to resist the very bad and obvious pun to ask whether, to do that job, he will be watching like a hawk.

Point of disclosure: I am a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries formed in 2013 in reaction to breaking headlines about library real estate deals benefitting developers, not the public.  Since that time it has become important to broaden that focus to be alert to other private and government interests leaning in with a desire to change “the nature of what a library is.”

Post Script?:  It's been called to my attention that Ethan Hawke made and directed a documentary, "Seymour," about a beloved 87 year old New York piano teacher, Seymour Bernstein.  One of Mr. Bernstein's piano students is New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman, who in 2013 followed in Ada Louise Huxtable's footsteps influentially savaging the the NYPL's still pending Central Library Plan real estate deal: New York Times: Critic’s Notebook- In Renderings for a Library Landmark, Stacks of Questions, by Michael Kimmelman, January 29, 2013.. .   Interesting?

Friday, April 1, 2016

Councilman Brad Lander Announces Participatory Budgeting 2.0- The Next Phase of Participatory Budgeting- “With Meta-Participatory Budgeting We Demonstrate Democracy Without Training Wheels”

Democracy without training wheels
Councilman Brad Lander, the city’s most joyously fervent exponent of Participatory Budgeting, took the opportunity of this spring season’s focus and rampant advertising for the Participatory Budgeting program to release information about the program’s next phase, which Mr. Lander promised will be bigger and more real than anyone imagined.  It wasn’t until release of the carefully timed announcement that anyone even knew a next phase was in store.  Lander is referring to the program’s second phase as “Participatory Budgeting 2.0” although its more formal name, which refers to the extra layers through which it works is “Meta-Participatory Budgeting.”

“Now that we have demonstrated what we can demonstrate with the original version of the program, and we always referred to it as a `growing program,’ it is time to take the baby into the big time,” said Mr. Lander.  “We are ready to spend some real money and make the kind of commitment that will get real attention.”

The current form of Participatory Budgeting program that is now operating was introduced in New York City for the 2012 budget year cycle and was announced in September of 2011 by Mr. Lander, who had pushed for it as an effort to “increase people's faith” in how the government is spending the people’s money.  The New York Times describing the PB “experiment” that began that year reported that “New Yorkers jumped into the trenches and dirtied their hands with democracy.”

Councilman Stephen T. Levin praises Participatory Budgeting, what it is and what it is to become- It's an "antidote" to being distracted by the malfeasance of elected officials
That Times article premiered a refrain still used to promote the program by elected leaders like Councilman Stephen Levin, assisting Lander, explaining it as an opportunity “to counter people's cynical view of government by inviting them to participate in the very process they mistrust.”   Said Levin in a similar vein more recently, “You know, all too often people see government gone awry, elected officials engaging in malfeasance or dysfunction . . .  . . and you know people get. . . it’s easy to get cynical when you see that.  And this is an antidote to that!
Councilman Brad Lander- He brought us Participatory Budgeting and now brings us Participatory Budgeting 2.0 -“Meta-Participatory Budgeting”

Heretofore, the PB program has been used to allocate capital expenditures, a portion of the available councilmatic discretionary funds that each of the City Council members receive annually.   Council members joining in the program have made available $1 million apiece each year for a process where members of the public could redirect their energy to identify and vote on projects they valued.   Councilman Lander recently made even more than that available, an extra $.5 million in his district for a total of $1.5 million.  In all, the public that engaged was recently allowed to vote on the about $35 million in expenditures across those districts running the program.

Lander has staunchly defended the program against critics who say the funds directed by the program are so paltry as to create little more than a sideshow, given the total city capital budget, the total city budget and even just the amount that is available through elected officials as discretionary capital expenditures.  The city’s capital budget has been averaging about $8 billion a year (of which PB’s $35 million would be about 00.4%) and the separate NYC operating budget for this year is proposed to be over $80 million.  Each of the city’s 51 council members gets $5 million in discretionary funds with total elected officials discretionary funds totaling about $400 million (Borough Presidents also have discretionary funds).

It was noted by Noticing New York that the PB amounts available are so very small that they are not even a fraction of the amount that it has been said would be necessary to address repairs now withheld from some of the public’s libraries, like air conditioning repairs for the central destination Brooklyn Heights Library.  Those needed repairs are being cited as reason to sell off the libraries.  “Have the public vote to repair the libraries we want to sell and turn into real estate deals?” asked Mr. Lander. “That would be counterproductive.  There is a reason we have made the amount for stated necessary repairs to libraries we want to sell such high figures.”

Mr. Lander said that people who complained that the amount of funds heretofore channeled through the program are relatively small don’t understand that the purpose of the program is to “demonstrate that government can be good.”  “Having done that,” he said, “we can now open the program up in new ways to set up the expenditure of more funds.”

Steve Levin said this was exactly the case, that the program was to offer “a positive experience for folks” and that it meant that, “people have faith, through this process they know, at the very least, where that funding [the PB funding] is going.”

Lander said that the purpose of the first phase of the program was this restoration of “faith in government” and also for members of the public to “enhance skills and learn how to be active citizens.”  He said that now that the first phase had succeeded it was time to proceed to phase two: “We are going to take the training wheels off Democracy,” he said, “and it means spending real money as well.”

Asked what kind of financial commitments the real money of “Participatory Budgeting 2.0- Meta-Participatory Budgeting” involved, Mr, Lander explained that the commitment of financial resources was so extensive as to be essentially open-ended.  “We are talking about, as eligible, virtually all of the online scheduled capital budget items for the city, but not just that, because there are also commitments that have substantial value in terms of deployment of resources valuable to the public like zoning policies and real estate variances and regulatory overrides that don’t show up as line items in the city’s official budget.  All of these are up for grabs as part of the Meta-participation program.  The more resources we can direct through it the better.”

The first action to get PB 2.0 rolling will be the appointment of an informal and rotating board of advisors, essentially a panel, to judge, consider or reject proposals that may possibly come from the public interested in “reconnecting with government” and wanting to “take control over their own public resources and steer a path.” 

Administrative costs for the panel will be kept extraordinarily low, next to nonexistent, through the use of a public-private partnership approach where those choosing to be on the panel will bear their own expenses, almost undoubtedly meeting on an ad hoc basis in gatherings at private residences or dinners where discussion of proposed projects can integrate readily with other business and social interactions.  It is expected that panelists will already be of means as they will also be expected to make public-spirited contributions to the essential business of funding NYC elections and the related need of running of campaigns.

According to Mr. Lander, the efficiency of the program structure that is being rolled out is that whatever the panel can be convinced by the public is a good idea has a very high probability of being effected with very significant commitments of public funds backing them.  Not only is the likelihood of effectuation enhanced, the process is much more direct than relying on council members as conduit decision makers.  In addition, whereas government has always been subject to lots of “procurement rules, red tape and regulations that need to be in place,” Mr. Lander said these approvals would provide the sort of “done deal” imprimatur that would help assure they move through to completion.

Council Member Levin said that it was exciting to see the PB program “blossom in this way” furnishing the “ramped up growth” and “innovative ways of expanding the program beyond City Council capital budget expenditures that were promised.”  He said the structures being formalized and now explicitly laid out this way ought to “give people more faith in the transparency of government, in the fairness of government, that there is some responsiveness and accountability.”

The names of those on the informal panel will not be known since it is considered that they will have a freer hand to vote their conscience, making the inevitably hard decisions that will confront them, if their privacy is protected.  Both Lander and Levin agreed that members of the public wishing to steer a path while not knowing who in actuality would be considering their proposals could help surmount their frustration by considering themselves as addressing the same decision makers as have always had ultimate say about the city’s affairs.

Lander said that whatever is lost in terms of transparency by not publicly identifying these decision makers is more than made up for by bequeathing those members of the public engaging through the program “the much more real and actual experience of the way Democracy operates that they ought to be asking for.  Those who engage thereby become a much more educated platform of voters than they would otherwise be.”

Mr. Lander said that one of the main purposes of the Participatory Budgeting program when it was introduced was to “get people to start asking questions about their government” and “with more things left appropriately concealed there are more questions to ask.”

Councilman Lander said that his press release announcing the launch of Participatory Budgeting 2.0 -“Meta-Participatory Budgeting” was timed so that the first year of its actual implementation one year hence could also be the same date: April 1st.
Real Real Money, Real Real Power

Sunday, February 21, 2016

NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman Is Taking Political Donations From Those He Could or Should Be Investigating- Despite a (Playboy) Model Being Involved This Is NOT A Model That Serves The Public Well

WNYC and News News 4 New York have partnered to report on Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office taking contributions from the potential targets of his investigations
You probably don’t come to read stories at Noticing New York for shallow analysis.

WNYC and News 4 New York have partnered to produce a pair of stories about how New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office is often taking political donations from those they are investigating.  Although I don’t know what to think when not-for-profit news organizations increasingly “partner” with for-profit news organizations, these articles ought to grab public attention.  (Note: The more sensationally presented News 4 New York story had to conclude with a disclaimer of ownership relations between NBC and companies mentioned in their investigative story.)
    •    WNYC: Could Some Political Donations to New York's Attorney General Be a Conflict of Interest? Interview by Jami Floyd, February 18, 2016

    •     News 4 New York: I-Team: Why Did Former Playboy Playmate Donate $65K to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman?  By Chris Glorioso and Ann Givens, February 18, 2016
Both stories state that Attorney General Schneiderman isn’t being accused of any wrong doing.  Both stories also note statements from a Schneiderman spokesman that Schneiderman has investigated his own political donors, and in the WNYC report, Chris Glorioso states that the Attorney General’s office says this “evidence that he is unbiased and not swayed by these political contributions.”  According to Glorioso, the spokesman also said that in cases where donors stand to benefit from investigations that “those investigations began from the ground up, they began from New Yorkers who may have been wronged in one way or another, or from whistleblowers who called out wrong doing in the financial sector.”

Is the investigation of an Attorney General of his own donors evidence of a lack of bias, a lack of problems with receipt of the money received?

An uncle of mine was in the public relations business in the 1970s and there is a story I was privy to growing up told as a cautionary tale in my family about a fabled, wealthy publicist of the time.  I found it fascinating.  I won’t use names because I have never been able to find anything anywhere documenting the allegation although I did read that records that might have said something one way or another about the facts were burned after the publicist’s death.

The story was that when clients came to the publicist he told them that it was his job to tell the public everything good about the client, everything the client would want the public to know and everything it was the goal of the client to put out to enhance the client’s name and brand, but that he also needed to know what he would need to steer around. He explained that he needed to know all the client's secrets, the skeletons in the closets.  This man was recognized as being an exceedingly good publicist and did a good job for his clients, but if there ever came a time when a client thought about abandoning the use of his services, or if they began to think his fees verged on being too much, the situation could become uncomfortable. . .

. . . Was there reason for the client’s to be uncomfortable?  Was there ever an instance of private confidences having been breached?   I don’t know that there ever was.  I only know that the feelings of discomfort were part of the story that was told and that everyone knew from his flamboyant life style that the man’s fees were high.

I tell this story because it reminds me of another seeming paradox that might bring people up short when they first think about it.  Campaign finance reform expert and advocate Lawrence Lessig has written about how elected officials across the spectrum, both Democrat and Republican, “have an interest in extending the reach of regulation, because by increasing the range of regulated interest, you increase those who have an interest in trying to influence . .regulation.”  (This quote is from Lessig’s book, “Republic Lost.”)

Why do electeds benefit from regulation?  Is Lessig’s view that they necessarily want to enforce regulation?  No, it is that, as gatekeepers who get to collect political contributions in the money-in-politics “gift economy” that Lessig writes about, it’s good to have lots of “targets for fund-raising.”   Lessig tells us how federal lawmakers seek to be on certain “cash cow” committees which because of their regulatory power “primarily because members of those committees are able to raise large amounts of campaign money with little effort.”

Professor Lawrence Lessig appearing in the documentary, “The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.”  Mr. Lessig's preface to the second edition of "Republic Lost" is a lamentation of our loss of activist Aaron Swartz.
In other words, Lessig quoting the work of Peter Schweizer and his book “Extortion,” describes an “extortion game.”  “What if politics is really largely about fund-rasing and making money,” is one of the quotes Lessig picks up from Schweizer.    

Later in analyzing what causes the campaign contributions, whether it originates with the hopes of the donor, or with the politicians and electeds soliciting contributions, and how much blame to put in the system itself Lessig writes:
Think about a more pedestrian version of this sort of extortion: We wouldn’t look to the failure of a local Mafia to give the victims of its extortion benefits as proof that there is no extortion. The victims are trying to avoid penalties; they’re not seeking special favors.
It’s particularly uncomfortable to apply this analogy to a state attorney general, because as Glorioso stressed in his WNYC interview:
Prosecutors are not just politicians, they are law enforcement officers.  They have subpoena power.  More than a law maker or a governor they can act unilaterally to penalize an entity, or to force an entity to cough up information.  So particularly here in New York where the Attorney general’s Office has been called the “Sherif of Wall Street,” a subpoena or a decision to investigate can have tremendous consequences in the market place.   
While, on one hand, there is a question of how things may turn out when there is competition between various moneyed interests, there is a bigger problem when you are the public with no money to pony up in the game.  Then you lose out entirely, in practical terms dropping off the face of the political earth.

Near the end of the NBC story Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center Democracy Program says: “As a general matter there is political science out there that says that the donor class has more influence over policy than the general public.”
Bill Maher on his Friday, February 13th Real Time showing speaking about how the average American has "only a minuscule, near zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy."
That is essentially what Bill Maher said in far more blunt terms on his last show a week ago:
Bill Maher: I just want to read one thing I read before on the show, it's a study, I am sure you are familiar with it, by two Princeton professors who said this is an oligarchy:
The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.
 . . And they wonder why there's a revolution!
The professors Maher referred to are Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page (from from Princeton University and Northwestern University) and their report, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, uses in some cases some very academic sounding language to say these things; while they speak of “U.S. government policy” you can readily believe that with money in politics the way it is locally and in New York it is also true of New York City politics:
Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.
A summarizing preview was published (Oligarchy, not democracy: Americans have `near-zero' input on policy - report, April 15, 2014) containing these extracted quotes:
"Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts,". . 

While "Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association," the authors say the data implicate "the nearly total failure of 'median voter' and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories [of America]. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy."
If you are involved in a political fight and want something that a considerable portion of the moneyed elite with influence and access also want, you might have a chance of winning it. . .  And there are some good things that the elite might also want to pass.  There are no reasons why the elite shouldn't be almost equally on the same sides of certain social issues such as abortion or gay marriage.  A goodly portion of the moneyed elites might also not want there to be fracking in New York State where the NYC water supply could be poisoned or the environment of vacations homes surrounding the city ruined.

The influence of money has certainly been a problem when it comes to how the fossil fuels industry has frustrated appropriate measures to head off climate change.  That includes all the money spent on climate science denial.  Even so, there must to be a certain portion of the elite, a large one, that don’t want their children and grandchildren to live in world that perishes, ceasing to exist as we know it because of severe climate change.

Notwithstanding, Lessig in his book (where in the updated edition he also writes about the Gilens and Page study) cites issue after issue with documenting polls showing that the policy the government follows is what the elite, the top 1%, want, not what the majority of Americans want.

We normally think in terms of going to our elected officials to get government to do what we want it to.  But maybe that doesn’t make sense at all. Instead of beseeching and lobbying our elected officials, the public probably ought to be at the doorstep of the moneyed elites trying to influence their viewpoints given the documentation (and Lessig includes graphs in his book) that “as the percentage of the elite supporting a proposal goes up, the probability of that proposal raises,” but “as the percentage of average voters show support an idea goes from 0 percent to 100 percent, the probability that idea will be adopted doesn’t change.”
$65,100.00 from 2010 Playboy Playmate of the Year tops Schneiderman's contribution list?
The WNYC and News 4 New York stories pointed out mysteries and lack of public access to information about what was going on with the contributions coming in.  The hook for both the stories was to ask the question why a former Playboy model from Texas, Hope Hope Dworaczyk, now Hope Smith, the 2010 Playboy Playmate of the Year, contributed $65,100.00 to become the largest political donor to Attorney General Schneiderman this January.

Ms. Dworaczyk recently married private equity billionaire Robert Smith who has contributed a lot of money, $150,000.00,  to Schneiderman over the years with much of the cash contributed to Schneiderman after he launched a probe, and then closed that probe, into the fees that private equity firms charge their clients.  The print version of the News 4 report explained that Smith is “the founder of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity fund that has attracted nearly $1 billion in investments from the New York Common Retirement Fund, a public pension, over the last seven years.”

Compounding the problem of mystery and its deepening the appearance of impropriety, News 4 interviewed James Tierney, a former Maine attorney general, now directing Columbia University's National State Attorneys General Program who, News 4 said explained that:
hedge funds and private equity firms are not transparent about their investments. That means the funds can allege some sort of wrongdoing about another company - and it is impossible for prosecutors to know if a resulting investigation could be seen as posing a conflict of interest.
Would you like to consider yet one more layer of complexity?  With all the money and ownership interests affecting the press there is, similar to the situation with elected officials including Attorneys General such as Schneiderman, the question of what gets investigated by the press . . .

Part of the News 4 story related how Schneiderman has investigated and now halted in New York the Fantasy Sports Gambling industry (See the Frontline Report: The Fantasy Sports Gamble,
February 9, 2016).  NBC’s investment in this industry necessitated disclosure in its report, but there is money on both sides of the deal because NBC reported that Schneiderman has also taken money from the local regulated gambling industry which competes with fantasy sports gambling.

As noted, the WNYC and News 4 New York reports both make clear that, when all is said and done, the Attorney General’s office, despite how troubling all of this must necessarily be, is not being accused of any wrong doing.  Indeed, while part of the purpose of this article to deepen the analysis points out that it is simplistically naive to believe the assertion of Attorney General’s office when it says that Scheiderman’s investigation of his own “political donors” is “evidence that he is unbiased and not swayed by these political contributions,” that doesn’t change that fact that nothing written here concludes that Schneiderman doesn’t strive to do the right thing in a troublingly warped and problematic system.

We can note in more detail here the questions about how elected officials including state attorneys general are essentially gatekeepers to benefit that can be politically derived, essentially collecting tolls, but one would expect or hope that, because an attorney general's office is comprised of attorneys with the licenses and personal integrity on the line, it would ensure that the office operates within legal bounds and mostly according to Hoyle.
Tim Wu during the Teachout/Wu campaign for Governor and Lieutenant Governor from this Citizens Defending  Libraries gallery of events page.
Further, it must certainly serve as an inherent check and balance on the office that so many attorneys working there have no doubt gone to work in the office precisely because they hope it is a place where they can do the right thing and accomplish idealistic objectives they likely came equipped with.  A recent case in point is that, this fall, Tim Wu, the Columbia Law Professor and highly influential open internet advocate (and Tweeter par excellence), joined the Eric Schneiderman’s office.  Mr. Wu is also recently famous by virtue of his political foray to become lieutenant governor as running mate of Zephyr Teachout.  It was a campaign that was startlingly effective.  Ms. Teachout is a protégée of Lawrence Lessig and a central tenet of the Teachout/Wu campaign was the overriding need for the kind of campaign finance reform that this article is about.

Still, in the final analysis, how does our warped system serve or not serve the public?  When it comes to moneyed interests being on the scene does Schneiderman stand on the side of the public if all the money is on the side of private moneyed interests?   Or does our state attorney general fulfill predictions of professors Gilens and Page that the actual interest of the public will have “only a minuscule, near zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy”?

Here is a perfect test case with a now escalating profile.  The New York State Attorney General regulates charities and is supposed to "to police fraud and abuse" and, for instance, the office was recently even given additionally clarified  powers “to bring judicial proceedings to unwind interested-party transactions."
A complaint about such fraud and abuse by the Brooklyn Public Library was recently filed by a newly formed group, Love Brooklyn Libraries, representing the public interest.  There is, however, a lot of private industry money on the other side, particularly real estate interest money that would like to see Brooklyn public libraries sold for a pittance, far less than their value to the public.  Part of the problem is that the composition of the board of the Brooklyn Public Library is extremely ill-suited to upholding the public interest with far too many competing agendas at odds to the public’s.  This is exactly what the Scheiderman’s office is supposed to be regulating.  He is supposed to prevent and insulate the public from exactly that kind of harm.
Read about the composition of the board of the Brooklyn Public Library and competing agendas at odds to the public’s.
Point of disclosure: I am a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries which has similarly brought such matters to the attention of the Attorney General’s office, not only with respect to the BPL and its trustees, but also with respect to the NYPL and, for instance, its sale of the Donnell Library.

Now if one were plotting it on one of those professorial graphs we talked about, it is important to know that the public almost universally opposes the sale and shrinkage of our libraries, the elimination of books and librarians and the deliberate underfunding of libraries in a time of plenty being being used as an excuse to do so.
The breaking headline news now escalating the status of this story: The New York Post has just come out with an eviscerating story about the sweetheart details of de Blasio's giveaway of the Brooklyn Heights library.  The developer to whom the de Blasio administration and the BPL trustees regulated by Schneiderman’s office wasn’t the highest bidder; his bid was 20% lower than another of the two bids that surpassed him.  It was an inferior bid in other respects as well.  See:  New York Post: Developer with ties to de Blasio scores job, despite being outbid, By Aaron Short, February 21, 2016.

The new facts in the Post article are further evidence of what Scheiderman needs to be investigating.  But even this needs to be put in context: David Kramer (of the Hudson Companies) was the low bidder for a library that should not even be sold.  Kramer and the other developers were only bidding for the value of the library site as a vacant lot.  There were being asked by the BPL and its trustees to bid only for the “tear-down” value of the library.  These bids were in no way related to the value of the library to the public from the public’s perspective, because de Blasio and the BPL trustees were selling off the library with no appraisal of the value of the library from the public’s perspective.  And it is important to remember that what we are speaking of is a recently enlarged and fully upgraded library that would cost more than $120 million to replace.

So that is the test case that the New York Post has now given an escalating profile: What Schneiderman does in this instance, a matter that the public cares about intensely, will tell us much about exactly how worrisomely warped our system is.
Citizens Defending Libraries on Thursday night outside an event where Mayor de Blasio and economist Paul Krugman were to discuss income inequity in NYC.

Friday, January 29, 2016

So You Are Looking To Make Sense of The World And Want To Get That Same Book From The Library “To Change Your Life” That Aaron Swartz Did? Expect The Sweet Smell Of Success To Elude You.

Aaron Swartz said a book from the library changed his life- Picture of Aaron Swartz from an interview shortly before his suicide- "Three young New York filmmakers sought to document how the internet is largely controlled by profit-seeking corporations, even as it has evolved into the world’s gateway for speech."
“Reading the book, I felt as if my mind was rocked by explosions. At times the ideas were too much that I literally had to lie down.”-   That’s what Aaron Swartz wrote about “Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky,” in a May 15, 2006 post he titled: The Book That Changed My Life.”  It’s a book he says “is completely shocking, at odds with everything you know, turning the way you see things upside-down.”  Swartz tells us he’d read the book two years before, “a thick paperback I picked up at the library.”

Swartz picked up this “thick paperback. .  at the library”?  That was 2004: Heaven help you if you want to stop in and pick up a copy of this book to similarly change your life in 2016. That’s despite the fact that Aaron Swartz provocatively says this book caused him for “weeks afterwards” to see everything “in a different light” and that “Questions that had puzzled me for years suddenly began making sense.”

Aaron Swartz lived in Brooklyn.  The Brooklyn Public Library has zero copies of this book throughout its sixty library system.  That is zero copies of the thick paperback, zero copies of the much harder to obtain hardcover, and zero copes of any digital edition (or audio edition) of the book.

Some very important books, including about books about "power," such as Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” are simply not available digitally, but if the Brooklyn Public Library wanted, Noam Chomsky’s “Understanding Power” is available digitally, albeit digital books have a disadvantage for libraries of being more expensive than physical books (libraries are charged more), plus libraries like the BPL frequently just lease their digital books, making endeavors to frame the public discourse like this one frighteningly ephemeral.

Aaron Swartz was an activist and a major force in the open internet movement, believing fervently in the availability and free flow of information.  While, a focus on the internet was central to what involved him in many of his passions, he saw libraries and librarians as contributing integrally to the ready availability of information and, for example, his “Open Library” project had the goal of letting people find their way to any existing book, including making those books already in the public domain more easily and freely available.
"I love libraries. You know, I'm the kind of person who goes to a new city and immediately seeks out the library": Aaron Swartz speaking, above, explains in the documentary, “The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.”  He goes on to say: "You know Books are the place people go to write things down. And to have all that swallowed up by one corporation is kind of scary."
He cared about protecting fundamental liberties and that caused him to warn about government surveillance and censorship.  And his interest in information availability was accompanied by his efforts to reform and improve our political processes and social justice.  The purpose of Watchdog.net, “The Good Government Site With Teeth,” one of the groups Swartz founded (funded by the Sunlight Network and the Sunlight Foundation), was ”to enable people to become active citizens and create a government that is transparent and accountable.”

The censorship Swartz warned of might come from the government or from private corporations.  It might also come from a conjoining of the two as manifested by SOPA, The “Stop Online Piracy Act,” that Swartz helped lead an uprising to defeat.  By those envisioned changes to law the government would have conferred significant control over the internet and censorship ability to private companies.  As Swartz noted, censorship by private companies can be worse than government censorship because the traditional constitutional protections are not in place.

Worrying about the continued freedom of the internet Swartz asked:
Are private companies going to censor [the] websites I visit, or charge more to visit certain websites? Is the government going to force us to not visit certain websites? And when I visit these websites, are they going to constrain what I can say, to only let me say certain types of things, or steer me to certain types of pages?
Will speech be constrained?  Will the public be steered to certain content?  These concerns about the free flow of information don’t apply just to the internet.
I became aware how important Aaron Swartz thought Chomksy’s “Understanding Power” book was because January 11, 2016 was the third anniversary of Swartz’s death.  Swartz was found at the age of 26 in his Brooklyn apartment, hung, apparently having committed suicide. Recognizing the anniversary WNYC's “On the Media” presented a piece about Swartz, The Wunderkind of the Free Culture Movement (January 15, 2016- Transcript), an interview with Justin Peters, author of a new book about the life and death of Swartz along with background about the internet and the history of copyright in America, “The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet.”

In his On The Media interview Peters said:
    . . . after reading that book, something seems to have switched [for Swartz] and he seems to have realized now that I've seen this, I can't unsee it. Now that I've seen how power works and accumulates, I can't pretend that I don't know how the world works.
In his book, Peters writes something else in his own words about understanding power: “If you are interested in understanding power you have to understand how power perpetuates itself, how it is wielded like a cudgel to bludgeon deviants until they surrender or shatter.”

While speaking generally, Peters no doubt meant this to also apply specifically to Swartz and what most people feel was done to him in the government prosecution that is viewed as leading to his death.  At his funeral Aaron’s father Robert Swartz said what was thematically echoed later by many of the other speakers at Swartz’s later widely attended Cooper Union memorial service that "hounded by the government” . . . Aaron did not commit suicide but was killed by the government,” . . “Someone who made the world a better place was pushed to his death by the government.”

In what most recognize to have been “over-zealous prosecution for a crime with no victims -- by a Justice Department that has yet to prosecute the Wall Street bankers who destroyed our economy and harmed millions of lives.”

Swartz’s misdeed, technically a crime the way our laws have been written, was to download 4.8 million academic journal articles from a database (JSTOR) that, based on his previously published Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto he probably had thoughts of ultimately making more freely available to the public.  A number of years before, no charges were pressed against Swartz when he downloaded and made more freely available to the public 2.7 million federal court documents from a federal database, documents which were technically already public, although not actually very easy to obtain from the Federal PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database the government managed.  Prosecuted for downloading the JSTOR articles Swartz was faced with potential 90 years in prison . .

. . . The government very obviously placed an extremely high priority on protecting private copyright ownership interests and making an example of Swartz.  In doing so they were also making an example of the man who had prevented a very scary expansion of those same private rights when he helped in defeating the proposed SOPA and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act).  The proposed SOPA and PIPA laws were defeated in the beginning of 2012.  Swartz downloaded the public court documents in 2008 and was apparently followed by the FBI after that.  These struggles, unfortunately, continue still and legal provisions highly reminiscent of the dreaded defeated SOPA and PIPA provisions stand to be enacted via treaty if the proposed 6,000 page TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) agreement is passed.

Writing about the Chomsky’s coverage in the book of stories of “an incredibly wide range of topics” Swartz said:
Each story, individually, can be dismissed as some weird oddity, like what I'd learned about the media . . . .  But seeing them all together, you can't help but begin to tease out the larger picture, to ask yourself what's behind all these disparate things, and what that means for the way we see the world. 
Here is one more weird oddity to add to the mix to see the “larger picture”: While the Brooklyn Public Library has no copy of the Chomsky book it has seven copies of a book it has promoted by one of its own trustees: “Success Never Smelled So Sweet: How I Followed My Nose and Found My Passion,” by Lisa Price.  It’s a book that came out in 2004, the same year Swartz discovered Chomsky’s book, that self-promotionally tells of Ms. Price’s success in starting a beauty products company.  In theory, it could be inspiring to minorities about perusing an entrepreneurial path although Ms. Price has had her ups and downs. 
It is perhaps fittingly symbolic that while all seven copies of Ms. Price's book sit unclaimed and unread by library patrons on Brooklyn Public Library shelves the one copy of Mr. Chomsky’s “Understanding Power” that is available from the New York Public Library, BPL’s sister library system, has seven people in line to read it.  The NYPL, more frugally has just one copy of of Ms. Price’s “Success Never Smelled So Sweet”- that one can’t be claimed by borrower since it’s a research copy.

One wonders if Aaron Swartz were alive today what he would have to say about the selling and shrinking of libraries propelled mostly by those interested in transforming them into real estate deals that benefit developers, not the public.  The issue was just gaining significant attention (partly with the assistance of Noticing New York*) as much critical new information surfaced starting in 2013, just when Aaron Swartz was unfortunately no longer with us.  Would Mr. Swartz’s astute instincts also be picking up on the fact that a number of interests converging to besiege libraries are associated with privatizing content and `steering' the public to corporate products in the ways that Mr. Swartz pointed out as worrisome.
(* Disclosure: I am a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries which, with its petition is battling the selling off and underfunding of libraries as well as the removal of books.)
Look at the chart below depicting some of those interests.  Then consider, when you review, whether the trustees of Brooklyn Public Library should be those in charge of its mission and charting its course for the future.
Above From: Why Nonprofit Boards May Stray From Their Core Missions And Obligations To the PublicReal Estate Interests - Content Control - Internet - SurveillanceCensor and dumb-down the public.
To consider further whether we can rely on private sector trustees such as this to faithfully pursue public missions effectively and in a true spirit of charity, read the following where that chart was originally published: Why Nonprofit Boards May Stray From Their Core Missions And Obligations To the Public- Considered Generally And Particularly With Respect To Libraries.
Books disappearing from the libraries?  Empty shelves (obviously no copies of "Understanding Power") at SIBL and the Mid-Manhattan Library recently targeted for sale, and books being shipped out of the Donnell Library that was suddenly and secretively sold.
One of the things well-known about Aaron Swartz is that, although he was not spending the money with personal ostentation and spoke instead of directing it into good works, Swartz made a dot-com fortune from the sale of Reddit, a content aggregation and discussion website, benefitting from having become an equity partner in the company through the merger of start-ups with which he was involved.  Oct. 31, 2006 Reddit was sold to Condé Nast.  Condé Nast is in turn part of a much larger conglomerate of companies owned by the Newhouse family and their Advance Publications, Inc., a conglomerate increasingly focused on digital platforms.   Following the Reddit acquisition, Swartz went to work for a while for Wired, owned by Condé Nast, but soon departed since he didn't fit in.
Reddit, along with some of the other social media platforms, all variously privately owned, are now embroiled in difficult censorship controversies.  Where this will lead is unclear, but with increasing monopolization in the content industry the world becomes very small indeed-  One of the trustees of the Brooklyn Public Library, Cindi Leive, editor in chief of Glamour, works for Condé Nast and David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, another Condé Nast publication, is similarly one of the trustees on the board of the New York Public Library.
Irony in how we are asked to "share" a warning about social media companies?
Whether it’s the internet or libraries, it all bundles up into the same thing.  Some will think of it liberally as the free flow of knowledge.  Others will think of it more restrictively as the information industry.- The “information wants to be free/information wants to be expensive” dialectic.

One other thing about libraries- While Aaron Swartz had his mentors like Lawrence Lessig (working to curtail the corrosive effect of money in politics), Swartz was also an autodidact.  He dropped out schools a number of times, both high school and college in preference for self-education.  Certainly the internet can provide support for such self-directed campaigns, but traditional libraries have also long harbored and provided resources to those who are called to individualistically find their own way. . .  But if the books are not in the libraries, or if the books that are there preferentially steer us in certain corporately decided upon directions then our needed successors to Aaron Swartz will be much fewer and further between. . .

Some good news. . .

. . . As for that other new book just out, Justin Peters “The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet.”- The BPL has thirteen copies, of which six copies are currently claimed by patrons and the NYPL has about 37 copies, of which 23 are claimed and 14 are available.  But if any of the readers of this new Peters book are led by it to want to read the Chomsky book then they are going to have problems finding that book to retrace Aaron’s path through recent history.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Seasonal Reflection: Mayor de Blasio, His Heart Squeezed Grinch-Small, Starts Gifting Stolen Libraries To Developers For The Holidays

Mayor de Blasio becomes the Grinch arriving at Christmas to steal and shrink the public's libraries while disguised not so very credibly in a faux Santa Claus suit.
Noticing New York returns here to its now annual tradition.  It's the cusp of a new year and the winter solstice has arrived so it is once more that time when, we reflect with holiday spirit about . . .

In modern holiday tradition there is a fellow who arrives with stealth on Christmas Eve to surprise everyone as he makes the night the occasion for his mean-spirited takings.  He is that anti-Santa Clause, the Grinch, conceived by Dr. Suess.

This year our Mayor de Blasio has squeezed himself into the Grinch's faux Santa Claus costume to play that role by launching a sell-off and shrinkage of New York City Libraries with the sale and shrinkage (down to just 42%) of the Brooklyn Heights central destination library.  No doubt collapsing his 6'5" frame into such a tiny costume involved de Blasio shrinking his heart (to quote Dr. Susss) to to at least "three sizes too small," probably considerably less than 42% the size of a normal generous library-loving New Yorker's.

Mayor de Blasio's Christmas Eve launch of library sales is 180 degrees opposite to his campaign rhetoric about how we should halt the sale and shrinkage of libraries undertaken by the Bloomberg administration.  See Citizens Defending Libraries*: Sunday, December 20, 2015, PRESS RELEASE: De Blasio, reversing campaign pledge, commences selling NYC libraries delivering, in Grinch mode, huge shrinkage.
 (* Disclosure: I am a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries.)
When de Blasio spoke as a candidate wanting our votes there was no mistake that he was specifically including the Brooklyn Heights Library when calling for a halt to these sales and shrinkage because he mentioned it by name in his list.

In the videos linked to below you can see candidate de Blasio truthfully saying at that time:
“It’s public land and public facilities and public value under threat. . . and once again we see, lurking right behind the curtain, real estate developers who are very anxious to get their hands on these valuable properties”
Videos:
Selling Our Libraries!

Will Steve Levin Save the Brooklyn Heights Library?
What's especially frightening is how this sale and shrinkage is considered to be the first of many more library sales under de Blasio.  So Brooklyn Public Library president Linda Johnson told the City Council at its hearing about the Brooklyn Heights sale the sale is considered to be a "model" for transactions underway with respect to libraries throughout the city, not just for other libraries in her BPL system, but also for Queens and the NYPL.  Then, at the BPL trustee meeting the Tuesday before the City Council vote, the trustees applauding this sell-off and shrinkage were reminded how sale of this library was chosen as a “demonstration” for what was possible.  They were told that this was a “huge turning point for the library system” and “across the city in general” with Johnson `pioneering’ the future of libraries.

Maybe even more frightening is that this isn't actually the first library sale and shrinkage.  Though we certainly should have learned from it, this library essentially replicates, with the same people discernibly behind it, the Donnell sale debacle: Saturday, November 7, 2015, Priorities To Be Replicated?: Private Luxury Now Abounding Where Former Donnell Library Stood, A "Replacement" Library Is Nowhere In Sight.


It's ironic that this taking from the public comes right at Christmas, but not necessarily unintended.  Those pushing for controversial over-development in this city have their own tradition of scheduling advancement of these public encroachments for holidays, for times when they think the public will be least able to respond and pay attention, August vacation time, Thanksgiving and yes. . . . Christmas and New Years.

Pushing this particular library sale through already involved some very slick and not really above-board maneuvers by Brooklyn Community Board 2 the Fourth of July weekend.

Mayor de Balsio's Grinching with his Deputy Mayor for development, Alicia Glen, adopting this Bloomberg library sale and shrinkage as "her own," and by implication all the envisioned future library sales, to "push it across the finish line" falls into our lap to bemoan in what has been a Noticing New York tradition.
Alistair Sim, perhaps the very best ever to play Scrooge.  On left, Scrooge the epitome of a miser at the outset of the film.  On right, the reformed Scrooge, now a model of kindness and generosity.
Since 2009, Noticing New York has annually offered a stocktaking of the decisions we are making in the public sphere that make it appear that we are veering off to a reality where a select few of our population revering money and accumulating “wealth” count for almost everything while the rest of us are treated with increasingly less regard.  I’ve done this in the context of two other traditional Yuletide tales, both taking place in critical part on Christmas Eve, and both essentially the same story in many respects: Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” about the reformation of the miser Scrooge and Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Both these stories frame the importance of free will and choice in terms of alternative possible realities, in order to contrast decisions about the bunching up of wealth and treasure with the benefit and spirit of shared community and giving.
(* You can find out prior annual essays here: Thursday, December 24, 2009, A Christmas Eve Story of Alternative Realities: The Fight Not To Go To Pottersville (Or Ratnerville), Friday, December 24, 2010, Revisiting a Classic Seasonal Tale: Ratnerville, Saturday, December 24, 2011, Traditional Christmas Eve Revisit of a Classic Seasonal Tale: Ratnerville, the Real Life Incarnation of the Abhorred Pottersville, Monday, December 24, 2012, While I Tell of Yuletide Treasure, Tuesday, December 24, 2013, A Seasonal Reflection: Assessing Aspirations Toward Alternate Realities- 'Tis A Tale of Two Alternate Cities?.,Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Seasonal Reflections: No Matter How Fortunate or Not, We Are All Equal, Sharing a Common Journey
In "It's a Wonderful Life": on left Lionel Barrymore (who played Scrooge in annual radio broadcasts) playing the Scrooge-like Henry Potter and on right Jimmy Stewart playing George Bailey, the banker with friends who fends off succumbing to the Potter world
One matter these annual reflections has always tuned to is the way that Forest City Ratner’s takeover of a swath of Brooklyn constitutes a concentration of wealth and control that’s analogous to the way that in “It’s a Wonderful Life” the communally shared town of Bedford Falls became Pottersville in the alternate reality where unchallenged power was allowed to accumulate in the hands of Henry F. Potter, the bad town banker.  The unfortunate news to report this year with respect to Forest City Ratner is that its spreading power and influence in New York is continuing to grow like Potter’s did in that alternate reality. . .
Photobucket
An example of exactly what this transformation of our world means can be seen in the way we de Blasio, and Council Member Steve Levin as his delivery instrument to override the wishes of the community, are gifting the library this Christmas to developer David Kramer and his Hudson Companies.  They are valuing the library not from the perspective of the public, but only from the developer's.
CLICK TO ENLARGE (something you can't do with a library)- A gift to developer David Kramer (in suit) under the Brooklyn Heights Promenade XMass tree this year, the Brooklyn Heights Library, sold for less than the price of a vacant lot, courtesy of Mayor Bill de Blasio, The Brooklyn Heights Association, and Councilman Steve Levin.  Others were involved pushing for this sale, like Saint Ann's.  Kramer here was getting some elf-help from the construction union whom he has never treated well.  The union reversed positions of the public good of the sale when Kramer made some feeble work place safety concessions, sad for them and unwise in that unions wanting to reverse waning support from the public should seek to do so by supporting the public. 
 It is perhaps crass to try to talk about such an important and democratic and cultural institution as a library in purely financial terms but the Brooklyn Heights Library, substantially enlarged and fully upgraded at considerable public expense and sacrifice, would cost more than $120 million to replace.  It represents an accumulated investment of our tax dollars over the years.  Yet, the de Blasio/Levin sale of the library insistently views the library only from the vantage of the developer: The library will be sold to the developer for less than the price of a vacant lot.  The sale, a significant public loss, would net the city perhaps less than $25 million. . . Brooklyn Public Library president Linda Johnson told her board the net is to be some unspecified amount appreciably below $40 million, but we think her math obviously and deliberately overstates even this small as yet unspecified figure.

What is a library such as this worth?  Last year we quoted from Charles Dickens' “A Christmas Carol.”  I I think if fitting to return to a part of the exchange between Scrooge and his nephew again this year:

    Nephew: Oh I think there are many things from which I've derived some good, by which I have not profited financially, I dare say. There is more in life than money, Uncle.

    Scrooge: Humbug to that!  More in life than money!  Humbug!
So, until we teach him better, we'll have to let de Blasio drift, keeping the season in his "Humbug" developer-gifts-come-first fashion.  For the rest of us, let's all be blessed, every one of us, in knowing that what we value is so much more important and meaningful and in our collective commitment and New Year's resolution to fight for a future where those values will once more be respected.