Send the Children Home

Multi-cultural New York City, through governmental and non-profit immigrant service agencies, is working to find shelter and other needed resources for the tide of unaccompanied children pouring over the southwest border of the U.S. from Central America. Since last October, according to the N.Y. Times, federal officials have sent 3,200 of these minors into New York State alone. One potential source of housing for them is a former convent in Syracuse.

Some attribute the influx of these hapless children to immigration policies that are more lenient to children than to adults. The Obama Administration blames the poor state of the economies of Central America. As for what is to be done now, some say turn the kids back immediately, others say they should be allowed to stay.

For myself, I am going with the opinion of my friend Milly, who has a life history of being pro-immigrant. A U.S. citizen since birth, she has done social work in Mexico, worked with immigrants arriving on these shores, and now teaches English to newcomers from all nations in New York City. She insists that the children must be sent back to their homes immediately. She has seen first-hand the horrors – robbery, rape and murder as well as exposure to the elements – that such children face on their journey from Honduras to the southwest border. Milly insists that any such travel must be blocked and discouraged. Certainly, it should not be rewarded.

I am left with two questions: First, did NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, deliver as promised? It seems not to have engendered the “certain” boost to the Mexican economy that would keep its people thriving at home. In the U.S., even factoring in automation, it deprived U.S. workers without college degrees of needed work, forcing them on social support at taxpayer expense. It was good for shareholders and intellectual property rights. It also dealt a big blow to unions. Learn about other outcomes here and see one of NAFTA’s proponents make a case for her work here.

Second question: How fast can we de-criminalize drug use and regulate and tax the sales of substances from marijuana to heroin? You can bet the drug lords of Mexico and the gangs they sub-contract to don’t want this to happen. Neither do those who live off the tax-funded U.S. prison system, which is supported by drug convictions and is, statistically speaking, the destination of many of today’s scarred and unaccompanied immigrant children.

Let’s Take This Lying Politician Seriously

The only good thing you can say about Gabriela Rosa is that she makes a great case for immigration reform. Without meaningful statues governing immigration, people who lie and cheat their way into the United States, as she did, will continue to feel justified. Worse yet, they will find support. She is surely not a woman who before last Friday would have told her son that playing by the rules and working hard were the way to succeed.

Why last Friday? Because that’s the day that her crimes became known. Rosa came to New York from the Dominican Republic. In 1996 she paid a man $8,000 to marry her so she could become a citizen. She later used that sham marriage to defraud a bankruptcy court. Eventually she divorced the husband she paid and married the man she had been involved with all along. She was so comfortable with her behavior that she ran for office in 2012 and was hailed as the first Dominican-American elected to the state assembly. Along the way she received $1,000 from a foreign government in violation of campaign finance laws.

Happily the truth caught up with her. Now 47, Gabriela Rosa was forced out of office after pleading guilty to two felonies. She is a disgrace to every group to which she belongs. She is a stain on women, immigrants, Hispanics and Dominicans. Her plea deal included her resignation from office, so she no longer belongs on the roster of New York State officials. Lamentably, she seemed to fit in there. That set from this year alone includes a roster of native-born convicted lawbreakers, including Eric A. Stevenson, William F. Boyland, Jr. and possibly Malcolm A. Smith, who was recently granted a mistrial and will be retried in January. All are Democrats like Ms. Rosa.

As part of her plea agreement, the U.S. attorney Preet Bharara will recommend that she serve only 12 to 18 months in prison. Her attorney Matthew Myers, who is under obligation to provide spin, says that her crime was minor. I don’t think so. I hope that judge will give her the maximum of 10 years instead. Please comment below.

Mutant Architecture: Days of Past Oddified

Not that one’s mind could wander while watching the film  X Men Days of Future Past, but it put me in mind of buildings that continue to distract me, such as the Military Museum in Dresden and the Hearst Tower in New York City. Here’s how that happened: The X Men are a species bearing much resemblance to homo sapiens except they have unique super-properties grafted on to them. Wolverine, as you moviegoers know, has noisy extended metal claws that frankly detract from the pleasure of looking at Hugh Jackman who plays him.

Strange eruptions like those from the Marvel Comics superheros made me think of what Daniel Libeskind did to the Dresden museum and how Norman Foster augmented the Hearst Building. They just look odd. Renzo Piano’s addition to the Morgan Museum & Library is so jarring that it makes what is original to the complex feel fake. I have yet to find or take a photo that conveys what it is like to step from the hush and splendor of the library into the trumpeting light and bare wood flooring of Piano’s addition. His work feels odd and violates the place. In contrast, one makeover ennobles. The standout is Foster’s Reichstag in Berlin, which exorcizes the horrors of its past and creates a setting for a soaring and responsible future. From the outside the classic shape of the glass dome harmonizes with the 19th century facade. Inside the environment is transformed. Lacking credentials as an architectural critic, I have hesitated to publish these thoughts.  Now I am emboldened by insightful Witold Rybczynski, who has written an excellent piece in the N.Y. Times that questions the aesthetics of global architecture. Read it here and hope that those who bankroll New York’s cultural institutions hand-in-glove with real estate developers and hedge fund managers will learn something of the public good. Please share your thoughts.

Libeskind in Dresden

Libeskind’s Wing

Hearst Tower, Manhattan

Foster’s Hearst Tower

Reichstag in Berlin

Foster’s Reichstag

Marching to Brooklyn

The de Blasio Administration has entered a bid for Brooklyn – not New York City — to host the 2016 Democratic Party Convention.   I hope this one borough gets bragging rights to the convention and even more. Brooklyn should host all city parades now held on Fifth Avenue in tired and sanitized Manhattan. Let the St. Patrick’s Day Parade of 2015 lead the way from the Grand Army Plaza all along Eastern Parkway. All the other my-group-is-better-than-yours cavalcades could follow – including those that require heightened near-military security.

Equally fine, parades could be shifted to The Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

Please comment.

Monopoly Alert: Amazon.com Makes The Price Too High

The trending topic at BookExpo America in New York City this week is Amazon’s abuse of its near-monopolistic hold on book publishing and how it is discouraging consumers from buying books from the Hachette Book Group, currently the lone publisher standing up for better pricing for authors (and of course better income for itself). Recently when customers have gone to the Amazon website to buy a Hachette title, Amazon has told them that it can’t be shipped for weeks. To be helpful, the company suggests that the customer buy a similar (non-Hachette) book instead. Now that Amazon’s practice has been exposed to the nation, perhaps it will yield. Or not.

Amazon is led by Jeff Bezos who also owns the Washington Post. He must feel some pressure because his company just issued a rare statement about its position. The gist is that Amazon wants to pay book sellers and authors what it wants to pay them. If vendors want a price they think is fair, they can go elsewhere. Take it or leave it. The problem is that there is very little elsewhere to go. Barnes & Noble is just holding on, and of course there are the valiant independent book sellers whose prices are deeply undercut by Amazon. Obviously, once Amazon’s struggling competitors go out of business, and Amazon has a stranglehold on book publishing and the written culture of the nation, Amazon will stand alone able to dictate sales terms.

Will U.S. book buyers will let Amazon get away with this? One of them won’t. A consumer standing up against abusive practices is so rare that David Streitfeld published a piece about her in the N.Y. Times. Ardelle Cowie, who estimates that she spends $5,000 a year buying products, including books, from Amazon, was so appalled she called the company to complain. The Connecticut woman, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, found that Amazon had no mechanism for taking complaints about its policies and so she has switched to another bookseller.

I was on the brink of buying Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite, which I am persuaded is the best device for reading, just as Amazon says, but now I won’t. This will certainly hurt me more than it hurts Amazon, but I will have exercised one of the dwindling ways that an American consumer can stand up for competition in the rigged marketplace.

Why rigged? Well, it’s complicated. The Justice Department has actually protected Amazon from having to face real competition. When the Authors Guild, Apple and various book publishers tried to break Amazon’s near stranglehold on the book business, the Justice Department sued that group alleging that publishers were in collusion with Apple and restricting competition. The N.Y. Times editorial board agreed with the Justice Department, but noted that the settlement did nothing to protect consumers from Amazon. Consumers need that protection again Amazon, because clearly we have a preview of Amazon’s monopolistic practices. Ida Tarbell, who wrote the classic exposé of how John D. Rockefeller used illegal tactics to build Standard Oil, said that the most appalling thing about him was that his intelligence, drive and focus would have enabled him to capture the nation’s oil business without using criminal means.

So if Amazon were not discriminating against a vendor standing up for fair prices, I could have bought that Kindle and downloaded a very worthwhile e-book. I want to believe my action is Amazon’s loss, but I don’t think the Fortune 500 company will be as inconvenienced as I am.

Remember the Alamo, Rizzoli Bookstore, and Jim’s Shoe Repair

Jim’s Shoe Repair on Manhattan’s at 50 East 59th Street has been in business for 82 years. Now the adjacent Duane Reade chain wants its space, reportedly so it can sell frozen foods. Duane Reade, which Walgreen purchased in 2010 for $618 million dollars, is forcing the family-owned artisanal service to shut its doors.

Now is the time and here is the place for New Yorkers to take a stand if they are alarmed by seeing productive businesses destroyed by the combination of out-of-control generic big box stores, New York real estate interests, and the complicit Giuliani and Bloomberg Administrations. Maybe Jim’s Shoe Repair Store can be the place where the de Blasio Administration steps in to help small businesses and preserve what is left of commercial diversity in Manhattan. Surely small businesses are as worthy of salvation as carriage horses, even if their supporters are less organized.

Without a public outcry against Duane Reade and Walgreen ($72 billion in sales in fiscal 2013) and landlord SL Green Realty, Jim’s Shoe Repair will join the famed Rizzoli’s Bookstore, and the less iconic Nemati rug and tapestry store on Third Avenue and Vacesi Hardware on East 23rd, along with hundreds of other successful or promising small businesses that have been victims of predatory real estate interests.

Two Duane Reades, two Walgreens and a CVS all operate in a 1.5 block radius of my apartment, and most Manhattanites below 96th Street can say much the same of these interchangeable outlets. We do not need more of them and we do not need them to be bigger than they are. They should not gobble up more space and they should not destroy more productive businesses. Jim’s is trying to get redress through the Landmarks Commission, which ignored it in the past, but here’s a plan for the rest of us:

  1. Patronize Jim’s Shoe Repair at 50 East 59th Street near the Fifth Avenue N,R,Q subway. This support will help it to pay its legal bills to fight these greedy businesses that prey on the spirit of New York. In addition, you will also see what expert shoe repair looks like.

  2. Sign an electronic petition at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/save-jims-shoe-repair   or this site.

  3. Phone Customer Relations at Duane Reade (and why is this office not in New York City where it could hire the city residents who patronize these stores?)
    Here are two numbers – 800-925-4733, which I obtained from a company source, and 866-375-6925, which is on the website. Provide Jim’s address – 50 East 59th Street — and 625 Madison Avenue, the address of the building that houses it and the rapacious Duane Reade that is gobbling up its business.

  4. Phone Walgreen at 800-925-4733

  5. Call SL Green Realty, ask for the leasing agent of 625 Madison Avenue, and tell them that they should renew Jim’s lease. They will give you a polite runaround. Probably SL Green thrives on bad will, but perhaps it would like to generate good publicity by doing something decent.

  6. Contact REBNY – the Real Estate Board of New York. Its website says that questions about the commercial Brokerage Division should be directed to Desiree Jones at (212) 616-5226 or djones@rebny.com

Taking these actions would be constructive use of smartphones. On a personal note, without Jim’s to repair my shoes, I may have to use them less. Certainly if Walgreen and Duane Reade takes Jim’s down, I will never again walk into one of these outfits again. Drugstore.com* is looking good – and it sells cheaper branded contact lens solution too.

*Correction: In a demonstration of the importance of a family business, after this blog was posted my nephew David, a business grad student, informed me that drugstore.com is owned by Walgreen. One of us has made me proud.

Coupon Power! Is The Right To Sue More Important Than Jobs?

Why can the American public not save jobs, stop the sell-off of public property at bargain rates to private interests, protect our private records, halt the sale of Uzies for recreational purposes, or have traffic laws enforced?

We did win one fight. We managed to make General Mills, with its nearly $18 billion in annual sales, back down after it changed its coupon policies, so let’s find a way to use the power of public opinion for greater good. Please use the reply box at the bottom of this blog to provide suggestions – you won’t forego any rights if you do.

A bit of background, if necessary: General Mills established a new requirement that disputes from those using its “benefits,” including coupons, would have to be submitted to binding arbitration rather than the courts, but after four days of backlash, the company behind brands like Cheerios, Wheaties and Pillsbury, was so scared that it will allow us to sue it again, as Stephanie Strom of the N.Y. Times reported.

If the public is able to weigh in with such force to maintain its right to be litigious — a right most of us will never use — how can we use the weight of public opinion to persuade corporations, and even our problematic local, state and federal governments, to take measures more likely to be of greater worth to us, like promoting job growth and a reliable banking system?

Could we use our power to persuade Sallie Mae, the student loan firm, to bring ALL its jobs back to the U.S. and hire the students and parents who are its customers and wealth source? Could consumers target a corporation that announces job layoffs at the same time it increases executive salaries exponentially? Would our politicians and the interests that own them take note that the natives are finally restless?

Surely part of the reason why we do not recognize and claim our public clout for greater good is a lack of focus – unemployment is a more complex issue than the right to sue, and the corporate-government alliance that has decimated U.S. manufacturing is murkier and more diffuse than one corporation, even the mega-sized General Mills. As is the case with General Mills, it would have to be one corporation at a time and we would have to protest layoffs that don’t involve ourselves.

To be fair to processed food companies, they are struggling in the courts. Strom pointed out in her earlier story that General Mills has been plagued by suits – like the one it settled in late 2012 when it had to take the world “strawberry” off the label for its Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups because the product did not contain strawberries.

Even now the Supreme Court is considering arguments over whether Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid brand misled consumers when it put only traces of pomegranate and blueberry in its pomegranate-blueberry blend. Coke’s lawyer said the public was too sophisticated to be misled by its label. After Justice Anthony Kennedy told her that he himself had thought it was pomegranate juice, Justice Antonin Scalia opined that Justice Kennedy “sometimes doesn’t read closely enough.” It sounded like a rare day of fun for the justices.

Would Americans be galvanized to action if what sophisticated writers call “the hallowing out of the middle class” involved saving fifty cents off a box of cereal or provoking some laughs? As it is, thanks to General Mills’ capitulation we should be able to sue processed food companies for some time and the good will generated by Poppin’ Fresh, better known as the Pillsbury Doughboy, has been restored.

NYC Charter Schools Play With Matches: Who’s Getting Burned?

When Bill de Blasio was a candidate for Mayor he created shock waves by saying that he would make charter schools that operate in public school buildings pay rent. Whether or not that helped him get elected last November, a few weeks ago when he refused to allow former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz to co-locate three of her Success Academy charters in crowded public schools with special needs students, he set off a firestorm. She claims, basically, that the Mayor is victimizing low-income students and their parents and she has engaged the help of Gov. Andrew Cuomo to reinforce that message.

Do she and her charter school peers and benefactors not have the ability and connections to find space for their charges? Do they not have money to pay rent? Could they succeed if they did not usurp the space intended for public school students that charters do not enroll? Success Academy pays Moskowitz $485,000 per year. Last year it hired the political consulting firm SKD Knickerbocker for $519,000. For that money, SKD could have lit the match that set off the fireworks, singeing de Blasio with charges of being mean to minority children, and inspiring Cuomo to promise to “save” charter schools. With this posture he seizes the opportunity to appear to defend the poor even as he benefits his hedge fund campaign contributors.

Basically charters are public schools that are allowed to operate free of the regulation – such as union rules governing teacher salaries and working conditions – that most public schools must abide by. In exchange they must demonstrate better results. Many do. Others don’t. Through the years the New York City Department of Education had to close a few of them for poor performance even before their charters came up for renewal. Others have been outstanding. The same can be said for New York City’s public schools. The two operations are so different that they thwart real comparison. [The charters make their case at http://www.nyccharterschools.org  Public school teachers explain theirs at http://www.uft.gov ] Clear, reliable data on the long-term benefits of charter schools versus public schools is hard to come by, which may mean that ultimately the schools are on par with each other. I have not heard either side declare unqualified victory, which could mean something as well.

Let’s take a brief and truly insufficient look at charter schools: at one extreme was Courtney Sale Ross, socialite widow of billionaire Steve Ross. Granted a charter to create Ross Global Academy, she was given space in Tweed Courthouse, landmarked headquarters of the city’s department of education. In 2010 after five years of poor performance and the development of a middle school that was described as “violent,” it was closed for poor performance. At the other end of the spectrum are the Promise Academy Schools, created in partnership with the Harlem Children’s Zone. Its website reports that at Promise Academy II, 100 percent of third-graders were at or above grade level on the 2008 statewide math test. At Promise Academy I, 97 percent of the third-graders were at or above grade level in math.

The well-funded public relations offensive for three Moskowitz schools makes one wonder if the charter school movement, notably in New York City, seeks not to inspire, but to discredit. Seeks not to augment, but to drain public schools of resources. Well-funded private financial entities, traditionally enamored with the privatization of public goods like schools and libraries, and hostile to unions that preserve jobs and wages, are bringing themselves under scrutiny as well.

Charter schools have refused to open their books and be as fiscally transparent as public schools and their administrators are required to be. Moskowitz successfully filed suit to bar the state comptroller from auditing her 22 schools, all of which are funded by tax-payers but which also receive the above-mentioned private support.

Happily, journalists have pointed out the whopping salaries that charter school administrators earn and the cash-fueled political alliances at the root of many of these schools. In the N.Y. Daily News Rachel Monahan provided a list of more than 16 such schools. At the top was Deborah Kenney, chief executive officer of Harlem Village Academies, which has two schools. She is paid $499,000. Compare this to New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña who earns $212,000 and is responsible for 1.1 million students, including those with special needs who seldom find a place in charters. In the N.Y. Times, Michael Powell discusses Eva Moskowitz who is paid her $485,000 to administer 20 schools.  A separate foundation established by hedge fund manager Joel Greenblatt and his wife pays half her salary. Both are Cuomo’s campaign contributors. Powell’s column is rich with political connections and a word on Moskowitz’s political action committee.

This Sunday Ginia Bellafante of the N.Y. Times observed, among other things, that charter school advocates have a public relations operation that rivals Paramount in the 1940s. She also pointed out that KIPP charter schools, with 141 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, including 11 in New York City, conducted a study in which it found that only a third of students who had completed a KIPP middle school in the previous decade had graduated from a four-year college. This is better than the average for low-income schools around the country, but still far short of KIPP’s mission.

At their best, charter schools could serve as laboratories for new models of education. Maybe a longer school day and an 11-month school year could lead to a better-educated nation. Data may show that some day. Meanwhile, it seems that education is not truly what charter schools, which began to take their present form after state legislatures authorized them in 1990, are really all about. Based on overall results for students so far, I don’t see that they are doing a better job than public schools. Certainly when it comes to their finances, charters and their backers don’t want officials to do the math. They may find that they would have done better to just pay the Department of Education some rent.

Latest Unemployment Figures Are Dire — A Jump of 3 Points

The lead N.Y. Times editorial for Saturday, March 8 takes a detailed and alarming look at what new unemployment figures really mean. If 5.7 million Americans who are waiting for jobs were included in the count, the actual national unemployment rate would have been 10 percent instead of 6.7 percent — more than 3 points higher. The Times calls for “long-run investments. ” More immediately, however, customer service jobs (see  March 6 post) should be brought back to the U.S. Not everyone can work construction. Along with helping a wide range of the jobless, repatriated customer service would bring honor and good will to banks and corporations that have exported the well-being of the U.S. along with the paychecks of one-time tax payers.

The employment population ratio of 58.8 percent was unchanged, according to figures for February announced March 7.