Thursday, September 11, 2008

If the Sun Sets

I am a paid subscriber to the New York Sun.

According to the New York Times, that makes me one out of about 14,000 New Yorkers. The total circulation of the Sun, paid as well as unpaid, is reported in the Times article to be 96,000 (See: New York Sun May Close if Millions Aren’t Found, By Richard Pérez-Peña, September 3, 2008.)

On September 4, 2008, the New York Sun published on its front page “A Letter From the Editor: The Future of the Sun” in which Seth Lipsky, the Sun’s Editor, told readers that the Sun was “in circumstances that may require us to cease publication at the end of September unless we succeed in our efforts to find additional financial backing.”

The Void

If the Sun sets it will be a sad loss that will leave a significant void.

The Sun’s small, lean-and-mean staff provides some of the city’s best reporting on local New York City matters and often covers stories skipped over by the other dailies or gets to them first. I also value the Sun for its refreshing and lively arts reporting. Without the Sun where will we read such things as the columns by urban historian and appreciator Francis Morrone or real estate industry mavin and enthusiast Michael Stoler?

Sun’s Values

Its other values aside, I fear what I will miss most is the paper’s point of view. Though I more often than not disagree with much of what might be referred to as the Sun’s “conservative” stances the Sun fills what is right now a vacuum in our city of eight million-plus. Seth Lipsky has been quoted as saying that the Sun believes in "limited government, individual liberty, constitutional fundamentals, equality under the law, economic growth ... standards in literature and culture, education.” While I won’t vouchsafe for the quote itself I think that it is an accurate summary of what the paper is about, and the important part to me is "limited government, individual liberty, constitutional fundamentals.” You don’t need to know me too well to know that one of the prime examples I think about in this regard is our duty and obligation to prevent the kind of eminent domain abuse that our government officials are now engaging in so freely.

The New York Times is often referred to as a “liberal” or “liberal establishment” newspaper. I think that is inaccurate. I think the Times is more a quasi-Democrat-establishment paper. To me, true liberals have more in common with libertarians than is often acknowledged. The Democratic establishment and the Times have assimilated predilections to unfairly support big business at the expense of the rights of individuals and local communities that ought to be protected. This doesn’t make them different from Republicans: mostly it makes them more like them.

A Voice on Eminent Domain

The city needs voices to speak out for "limited government, individual liberty, constitutional fundamentals” and those voices should be speaking out against eminent domain abuse as a foremost concern.

The public widely disapproves of eminent domain abuse. Polls show that the public overwhelmingly disapproved of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kelo decision, with disapproval ratings in some polls exceeding 90%. That was because the public perceived that Kelo went so far as to permit what was perceived as abuse. However far Kelo went in permitting abuse, New York government officials have seen fit to take abuse beyond the line that Kelo drew.

The Issue of Eminent Domain Ceded?

Notwithstanding how ardently the public feels about this issue, the Democratic establishment has ceded this issue to others. Those declaring themselves Libertarians are the most reliably opposed to eminent domain abuse, but Republicans have a somewhat better record of taking the right position on this issue and it must be recognized that Republican Supreme Court appointees- essentially the same ones who voted to put Bush in office in Bush v. Gore.- aligned against the use of eminent domain in Kelo.

With the Democratic establishment ceding this popular issue to others, the New York Times likewise cedes proper coverage of the issue to the extent that it aligns itself with the Democratic establishment. It should also be remembered that the Times, in partnership with Forest City Ratner, took advantage of eminent domain to build its new Times Tower. That use of eminent domain in that particular instance was assertedly abusive and Forest City Ratner’s pursuit of it with respect to Atlantic Yards unquestionably is.

The New York Times has been reconstituting itself as a national newspaper. In doing so it has been making its national coverage much more important than its local coverage. Therefore, to the extent that eminent domain abuse is used in New York, the issue has been doubly, or maybe triply times ceded.

Therefore I will miss the Sun.

Dynamic of Public Dialogue

It is interesting to note the kind of dynamic that can occur when a paper like the Sun is on the scene. This involves tooting my own horn, but why not.--

I wrote an op-ed for the Sun last December, Columbia Pulls a Kelo observing the way in which eminent domain abuse has become an abusive industry in the state. I referred in that op-ed to statistics compiled by the Castle Coalition, a project of the Institute for Justice. A month later, the Sun published another op-ed piece, An Unnecessary Abuse, authored by Dick Carpenter, director of Strategic Research for the Institute for Justice, (January 15, 2008) with statistics that showed that eminent domain abuse does not provide economic benefits. Shortly after that, the Wall Street Journal essentially elevated Carpenter’s op-ed piece in the Sun into its own WSJ editorial and opinion in Eminent Reality, January 30, 2008.

The Wall Street Journal editorial began:

Does restricting "eminent domain" -- the power of government to seize private property -- harm economic growth? A new report from the Institute for Justice looks at the evidence and concludes the answer is no.

And concluded:

The backlash against Kelo has had the healthy effect of limiting the hubris of local politicians, which is why they have resorted to these scary economic claims. We're glad to see them debunked on the merits.

In between it observed:

Developers love eminent domain because it's easier to snap up land when government forces owners to sell -- no unpleasant dickering over price, etc. Local politicians likewise believe they are best positioned to pick winners and losers and to shape the future of their cities.

(Last week the Wall Street Journal was back in action with an op-ed, Columbia University Has No Right to My Land, by Nick Sprayregen, September 3, 2008)

The progression of this public dialogue was, of course, fueled by many other events and the voices and energies of many others, especially activists and bloggers. It was inadequately covered in the Times and the rest of the regular NYC print media. My point is, would the dialogue have progressed as effectively and as meaningfully without the Sun? I don’t think so.

Wall Street Journal?

The Wall Street Journal will continue to be around, but with its acquisition by Rupert Murdoch, its editorial policy going into the future is uncertain. Will we in the future be able to expect from the Journal the kind of economic clear-thinking invoked in Eminent Reality? Just as I don’t consider the New York Times a liberal paper, I don’t consider Murdoch’s Fox News a Republican or a Conservative outlet. Fox seems more like a marketing strategy plus a strategic alliance with manipulative corporate plutocrats. Fox, specifically, may be slow to change how it markets itself but Murdoch with a far-flung empire seems flexible about allegiances with those ascending to power.

Just as the Times is being turned into a national paper, so too the Wall Street Journal is being worked on as an international brand. It can’t be expected to cover local New York news. (As foreigners are not now rushing to buy into Lehman Bros, will American financial brands still be carrying the same weight?)

A Few Sunspots? What “Pro-development” Really Ought to Mean

The Sun, though it has been an exceedingly valuable voice, hasn’t been perfect on the subject of eminent domain.

I noted at the outset that the Sun considers itself on the side of economic growth. It is palpably pro-development and pro-real estate industry. Noticing New York is also pro-development. But when you are pro-development and against eminent domain abuse there is some sorting out to do. I think the Sun needed to work more on the exercise of this sorting. Developments that get tangled up with the poison of eminent domain may tend to be bigger and in other ways more high profile: That does not mean that they should be equated with positive development.

I note the following hedge on the subject of eminent domain in a New York Sun editorial at the time of the transition from former Governor Spitzer to Governor Paterson in Paterson's Preview: Editorial of The New York Sun, March 14, 2008.

In the past, Mr. Paterson's views on eminent domain — he's been wary of a what he's called a "gold rush" in the use of state takings — didn't matter except to the degree that he was a significant voice in the Senate in Albany or lieutenant to a pro-development governor. Now, as our Peter Kiefer reports on page one, his views, with which we don't necessarily disagree, at least on eminent domain, could impact huge projects affecting New Yorkers.

In another Sun editorial, Kelo and Us: Editorial of The New York Sun, April 3, 2008 run when the question of whether the U.S. Supreme Court would grant certiori to hear Goldstein v. Pataki, the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment case that could have overturned Kelo was pending, the Sun agonized. The Sun opined that, “The stakes don't get higher, for the individuals, for the city, and for the country” and recognized a host of reasons that eminent domain was undesirable as contrary to individuals’ rights but it summed up that “no one will envy the Nine this decision.” The Sun would probably not have been agonizing if they hadn’t strayed into error with their analysis as follows:

There's little doubt that the Atlantic Yards project, which is being developed by Bruce Ratner, would bring a host of benefits to Brooklyn, such as a basketball team, housing, office space, some daring architecture, and commerce. The main legal impediment now are just a few holdouts in the neighborhood. We would like them to move, as would many New Yorkers, and make room for the project. The questions is: can the government force them out?

Atlantic Yards will NOT bring benefits to Brooklyn. People need to thoroughly appreciate that the project will be blighting and a net negative. It will sap public resources that could be properly directed. This comes about precisely because it doesn’t exemplify the kind of "limited government” in which I think the Sun wants to believe; it is an example of government interfering with more natural economic process to drain excessive resources unfairly and without bid into the pocket of a single national developer/subsidy-collector.

The Wall Street Journal in its editorial Eminent Reality had a good sense of how the results of eminent domain turn out to be uneconomic. It mentioned the use of eminent domain for Baltimore’s “much-touted Inner Harbor redevelopment” and noted that the development is an economic drain rather than an asset. I was in Baltimore two weeks ago. I am not an expert on the Inner Harbor redevelopment and I had forgotten that eminent domain was involved but the project shrieked out at us as a sadly obvious mistake. For that reason I got out my camera. We spent little time there because as soon we arrived we were desperate to leave. At the same time we observed so many areas of Baltimore with enormous potential where public resources could far more wisely have been spent. Here are the words of the Wall Street Journal editorial:

The most grandly conceived plans are also often those most likely to fail. If a project cannot proceed without government interference, it is reasonable to ask whether it is worth putting the hamfist of government on the scales at all. As the Institute for Justice's report notes, Baltimore's much-touted Inner Harbor redevelopment remains dependent on government handouts. At the same time, private redevelopments without eminent domain, such as in Anaheim's A-Town, are thriving.

September Mourn?

Recently, the Sun has run an article about the support that has emerged for its continuation, A Surge of Support for the Sun Voiced by Leaders in the City, By Grace Rauh, Staff Reporter of the Sun, September 5, 2008. Today, in another follow-up, the Sun ran 3 Governors Add Support to 'Save Sun' Effort.

September 30th, the last day of September, will be a Tuesday. By my reckoning the end of that particular day will come with Apollo taking his golden orb just below the horizon at just about 6:40 P.M. Let’s hope that when the sun sets that day the New York Sun will still be with us, feistily making us think.

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