Sunday, January 31, 2010

Upstate NY shafted on rail and electric

So apparently New York, the third most populous state in the country, got a mere $151 million out of the Obama administration's $8 billion allocated for rail improvements. Planet Albany wonders if this is due to New York not being a swing state (Obama beat McCain in the state 62-36 pct) or due to the ineffectiveness of the state's Congressional delegation (29 of its 31 members belong to Obama's Democratic Party).

For its part, the Herkimer County Progressive places the blame on the state itself for not investing enough in rail. Presumably, this was seen by the feds as lack of interest in much needed upgrades to the mass transit system in upstate NY.

Lack of reliable public transit is one thing holding back economic development in upstate. Sky-high electricity costs are another. And it's only going to get worse.

The giant power monopoly National Grid wants to raise its electric rates by 20 percent. National Greed already has among the highest power rates in the nation, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard.

As I've written about several times before, the power monopoly regularly gouges customers with its nebulous "delivery charge." I personally have had several months where the "delivery" for my electricity cost at least twice as much as the actual power itself. Can you imagine if a pizza place charged you an extra $20 to deliver a $10 pizza? But apparently National Greed can get away with it, all with the collaboration of the state's dubiously named Public Service Commission.

At least you can say one thing about National Greed, the monopoly open about their intent. The Post-Standard article said Tom King, president of National Grid in the United States, said the company needs to make higher profits in order to attract money from shareholders.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The purpose of the military

So with the president promising in his State of the Union to end the Don't Ask Don't Tell fraud, the policy is not back in the headlines.

I hate to be blunt but this needs to be said.

The sole purpose of the military is (in theory at least) to defend national security.

Not social engineering. Not religiosity. Not about making people feel comfortable or accepted.

The military is being asked to do a lot of things supposedly to do with national security. If those things are as important as claimed, the military can not arbitrarily exclude able and capable people and still pursue that very complicated task. It does not need gay people. It does not need blacks. It does not need women. It needs human beings who can do a needed job and do it well. The rest doesn't matter.

The military does not exclude blacks and Hispanics and Asian-Americans just because their presence might make bigoted soldiers "uncomfortable."

It does not exclude women because it makes sexist soldiers "uncomfortable."

And it should not exclude gays because it might make homophobic soldiers "uncomfortable."

It may not be politically correct but it's the truth: all soldiers need to get over their personal preferences and biases and realize they are there to serve the greater good. Let's be serious. If a GI cried that he didn't want to go to Iraq because hot weather made him "uncomfortable," do you think the Army would cater to his whining?

If the bigots or anyone else want to let their personal biases preclude them from dealing with people they deem inferior, they should not join the military. Soldiering is a profession where dealing with people different than yourself and taking orders from them is an absolute requirement of the job. You know this going in. If you're too weak to handle it, find another job.

Update: Joint chiefs' chairman Adm. Mike Mullen explained to a Senate committee why he supports Don't Ask Don't Tell's repeal.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

One less truth teller

Noted historian Howard Zinn has died at age 88. Zinn was both celebrated by some and reviled by others for the exact same reason: his accounts of American history took the unusual and politically incorrect path of trying to tell the whole truth, rather than the convenient, sanitized version. Needless to say, his voice will be missed.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Journalist continues to poke holes in questionable Post-Star anti-APA series

Another followup* on the controversial two-part series on the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) written by The Post-Star's Will Doolittle.

(Note: I've offered Doolittle the opportunity of a rebuttal to be published here but he's so far not done so.)

North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann has continued to fill in a lot of the holes that plagued Doolittle's pieces. Mann, a reporter without an open, long-standing contempt for the APA, has provided depth and context that was sorely lacking in the original piece. Mann asked questions where Doolittle accepted answers uncritically from anti-APA interviewees.

Mann's latest piece is definitely worth a read.

Maybe this is why I'm a paid member of NCPR but no longer subscribe to The Post-Star.

**

Update: When I questioned the wisdom of assigning Doolittle (who's well-known for his outspoken and regular criticism of the APA) to do this purportedly objective story about the APA, most people, including Brian Mann himself, dismissed my concerns. These concerns which were less about overt bias (at least at the time... now I'm starting to wonder) but about less conscious decision making based on the assumptions and preconceived notions of someone who's firmly established that he's one on side of the issue. I remember explicitly wondering if Doolittle had failed to ask follow up questions or pursue further, perhaps not consciously but because he assumed that any accusation against the APA was in and of itself credible, because of his own notions about the Agency and what it represents. The excellent follow up reporting done by Mann makes me feel completely vindicated in my concerns. I know self-appointed watchdogs generally bristle at anyone watching them, but I'm glad NCPR's Mann is performing that service to the public. It's just unfortunate that the excellent journalism in NCPR's blog will get only a fraction of the audience as the daily's piece.

Further update: I've refrained from using the phrase 'hit job' to describe the original piece, but some are less circumspect. One anonymous poster at NCPR's blog writes:

While I'd like to commend you on excellent investigative reporting on this post, the sad fact is that this contradiction to Douglas's claim should have been paragraph 2 in the original Post-Star story. And not so hard to dig up, at that.

What disturbed me all along about the series in the P-S was how thoroughly orchestrated it was: first the series, then the story about reaction to the series (with no reaction from the organization the original story had defamed); then the editorial; then the online poll: "Should the APA be disbanned (sic) ?" Even that peculiarly emasculated Don Coyote had something to say. So over-the-top, you half expected Mark Trail to chime in from the funnies page.

This was a crusade, pure and simple. It left me feeling like I'd been bludgeoned by a Pulitzer medallion.

Thanks for exposing the rot at the core.


Anonymous should be reminded that the paper's Pulitizer was not for journalism, but for editorial writing.

**


*-OTHER PIECES ON THIS BLOG ABOUT THE SAME SERIES
-My original critique of the series and the journalistic ethics involved;

-The piece in which the Nature Conservancy refuted accusations of criminal collusion in a letter to
The Post-Star;

-Questioning why the daily's website has exceptionally failed to publish an online version of said letter.

Real sacrifice in "fake America"

You remember during the 2008 campaign when that loathsome Sarah Palin divisively talked about the south and midwest (bastions of GOP support) as the "real America"? It was part of the typical conservative strategy to act like the right alone owned and defined patriotism to manipulate toward its own belligerent ends.

ABC News points out that the greatest burden per capita of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars is borne by the state of Vermont, generally regarded as the most liberal state in the country and one which the arrogant Palin would smugly classify as being the anchor of "fake America."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Factoid of the week

Extrapolating from average figures, since 2002: approximately 328,000 Americans have died in car accidents, 160,000 have died because of the regular flu, 120,000 have been murdered by other Americans (from our "Christian nation") and 0 have been killed on American soil by Islamist terrorists.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Protecting the sanctity of marriage against threats until death (or my serial cheating) do us part

So I noticed that Republican Sen. John McCain's wife and daughter have appeared in photos opposing California's gay marriage ban. While anyone supporting equal rights is obviously a good thing, I've never been one to overly care what the family members of politicians think; I vote for or against the candidate, not his spouse or children. But in response to the story, the legislator's spokesman said, "Sen. McCain believes the sanctity of marriage is only defined as between one man and one woman."

That California's definition of marriage as one man and one woman was most aggressively pushed by Mormons is an irony to discuss another day.

But I suspect that loving, committed gay couples may wonder if a once-divorced man who reneged on his oath to love his first wife until death do them part really knew enough about the "sanctity of marriage" to deny their participation in it. As for the current Mrs. McCain, who's never been divorced, they might give a little more credibility to her views on the topic.

North Country Public Radio's excellent In Box blog had a piece on the topic in which it mentioned that one of the most prominent Republican mayors in the country, San Diego's Jerry Sanders, broadcast his own support for gay marriage, after discovering that his daughter is a lesbian in a committed relationship.

It made me remember how Joe Bruno changed his tune on equal rights for gays when he discovered he had a gay relative (a brother, I think). The then-majority leader helped pass the state's Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act through a GOP-controlled state senate and has come out in favor of in favor of marriage equality. Even someone as normally opposed to human rights as Dick Cheney, who has a lesbian daughter, has never engaged in the sort of populist gay bashing designed to pander to the most, small-minded and hateful of his own party. It seems it's a lot easier to demonize gays when they are just some crude, generic stereotype, when they are The Other... but much harder when they are the kind, honorable son/daughter/brother/sister you've loved all your life.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Things that make you go hmmm....

A few days ago, I wrote about a letter published in The Post-Star written by the Nature Conservancy's Michael T. Carr regarding unsubstantiated allegations of collusion between the group and the Adirondack Park Agency made in an article written by the daily's Will Doolittle.

If you go on the Letters to the Editor page of their website, it lists every letter published in the print edition since Jan. 8... except the two published on Jan. 20 (one of which was Carr's and one of which criticized the paper's crusade against the residents of the Madden Hotel). A site search of 'Michael Carr' does not turn up the letter either.


Update: Carr's letter, published in print on Jan. 20, finally appeared online on Feb. 5, two weeks later. On Jan. 26, a TNC spokesperson told me that they were "working with the Post Star to get it posted online." No indication was given as to why the TNC had to lobby to get the same treatment as every other letter writer.

Friday, January 22, 2010

"We, the corporations, of the United States of America..."

In a landmark decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that corporate money has too LITTLE influence over the formerly democratic process. In again affirming the fraudulent and legally incomprehensible notion* that money equals speech, the Court has illustrated the absolute imperative to change the Constitution. We need to pass an amendment whereby campaign 'contributions' should be restricted exclusively to those who are eligible to vote for the office in question. Or at the absolute bare minimum, federal, state and local legislative bodies should be constitutionally allowed to impose such attempts to guarantee democratic governance if they so choose.

(*-In every other circumstance under the law, money is treated not as speech but as property)

This Constitutional change would necessarily preclude outsiders from meddling in the election of other people's officials.

It would also necessarily preclude corporations, unions, religious organizations and other non-humans from buying their own politician playthings.

As employers of elected officials, we citizens should have the right to place an ethical code of conduct on our employees.

If politicians are going to be in hoc to anyone, it should be to the citizens they are supposed to represent.

This perversion of democracy and good governance is the most basic problem that needs to be resolved before any of the other issues American humans care about can hope to be seriously addressed

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Opposing and governing

There's a great scene in the movie The American President. In the movie, the president character's main opponent always concludes his speeches with, "I'm Bob Rumsen and I want to be president." In one press conference, the president defiantly declares, "I'm Andrew Shepherd and I AM the president." I thought this little snipet illustrates the fundamental difference between opposing and governing, something certainly related to the course of New York state politics today.

Gov. Paterson presented his executive budget on Tuesday. In it, he proposed cuts to all areas, including the inevitable cuts to health and education (which make up a majority of all state spending).

Predictably, special interest groups fell over themselves explaining why they (hold hand over heart) understand the state's tough fiscal situation but that shouldn't stop the governor from exempting their worthy cause from the pain or at worst, from making sure their worthy cause is cut last and least of all. You don't need to be a math major to understand that if everything is exempt from cuts, then nothing will be cut.

Equally predictably, self-described fiscal conservative legislators from northern New York denounced the governor's plan to close three area prisons. They are afraid that it will harm the economy of the region and, shock of shocks, want downstate prisons closed instead. When they called for fiscal restraint, they meant for other regions, not theirs. It gives credence to the complaint of some that the bloated nature of the prison-industrial complex is not about the security of citizens but is a taxpayer-funded rural economic development program.

I don't buy it and neither does Bob at Planet Albany. He accurately describes Paterson's budget as 'necessary.' And he tells the governor's critics to put up or shut up.

The governor's critics, who are many, and potential opponents including Andrew Cuomo, should be required to provide specific alternatives that would actually make the numbers add up, he notes.

And he's right.

It's easy to offer broad platitudes and happy rhetoric from the cheap seats. And it's easy to be popular when your primary job is to sue the bad guys. But those with the ACTUAL RESPONSIBILITY TO GOVERN have to make specific choices. The differing fortunes of Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Governor Eliot Spitzer illustrates that. Governors and legislators don't have lawsuit or subpoena power to pass a responsible budget. It's easy to say "leave my pet cause alone." But in a fiscal crisis like the present one, everyone's pet cause should share the burden. No one should be exempt, least of all those who receive the greatest share of the public largesse.

Special interests groups have to advocate for their membership; it's their job. But legislators and the governor are responsible for representing the interests of ALL the people, not just the most well-funded groups with the most highly-paid lobbyists. They also have the unique responsibility to try to get the state's fiscal house in order, something the special interest groups aren't constitutionally required to consider. Unfortunately, only the governor seems to realize all this.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Nature Conservancy refutes accusation of collusion

Last week, I reported and commented on a two-part investigation of the Adirondack Park Agency by Post-Star projects' editor Will Doolittle.

In the first part, one of the parties who felt aggrieved (probably with some justification) by the APA claimed that there was a secret conspiracy between the APA and the Nature Conservancy to steal his land. Doolittle passed along this accusation without evidence or further investigation. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann DID do further research and reported categorically that he found no evidence of any collusion and plenty of belief (even by anti-APA folks) that the secrecy needed for such collusion was be virtually inconceivable.

What's interesting is a letter appeared in today's Post-Star. In it, the executive director of the Keene Valley chapter of the Nature Conservancy Michael T. Carr claimed that in a phone conversation made shortly before the articles were published, Doolittle told him that he'd "found no evidence of collusion between The Nature Conservancy and the Adirondack Park Agency" (the part in quotes are Doolittle's words according to Carr). As usual, the big story is featured prominently on the front page while the rebuttal is buried in a tiny side column of A5 between a big news article and ads. (Curiously, this appears to be the only day for which letters to the editor are not available on their website.)

Yet, Doolittle did not mention this very relevant piece of information in his story.

If Carr's attribution is correct, it is grotesquely reckless journalism by Doolittle and only reinforces my assertion that he, with his harsh and longstanding anti-APA position, was not the right person to do this particular article. How can you publish an unsubstantiated accusation of criminal wrongdoing by a prominent state agency by someone with an obvious ax to grind, knowing you have no evidence to believe the truth of said accusation and, in order to give sufficient context to the reader, at least not mention the fact that neither you nor the accuser had no evidence of this serious accusation? Doolittle did include the Nature Conservancy's denial but while an observant reader would've noticed that no evidence for the accuser's accusation was presented, the author did not point out this glaring omission explicitly nor is it clear if the journalist even asked for it. Still, if you're going to publish a serious accusation of criminal wrongdoing without evidence, you should at least mention the fact that you found no evidence or that the accuser refused/failed to provide it.

I've offered Doolittle the opportunity to publish a response here to my original piece, but he's so far not done so.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dr. King was about more than legal racial equality

"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday weekend, I always like to bring out the divergence between what Dr. King was all about and how he's generally remembered.

Nowadays, the Rev. Dr. King is typically remembered solely for the milquetoast (by today's standards) idea of legal racial equality. As important a first step as that was, the work of him and his colleagues was about much more than that. Much like Muhammad Ali, he's become a sanitized secular public saint stripped of their more meaningful and uncomfortable opinions.

King was also a vocal activist on behalf of social justice and against poverty and militarism. In fact, that's what he was agitating for when he was assassinated, the idea that workers (sanitation in that case) should be treated as human beings. He also became very controversial for speaking out about the injustices inherent in the US war against the North Vietnamese people.

Two recent pieces explore further the broader legacy of the Nobel Peace Laureate. This one by E. Ethelbert Miller on NPR.org and this one by Matt Funiciello on timesunion.com.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Post-Star series on the APA and NCPR follow ups make waves

"Never attribute to malice what can easily be ascribed to incompetence."


Post-Star projects' editor Will Doolittle recently published a pair of pieces regarding the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) and two cases in the town of Black Brook.

(Part one is here and part two here)

The choice of Black Brook was unusual, as it's in Clinton County, far outside the Post-Star's circulation area. The choice of Doolittle, who has a long history of publishing harsh anti-APA columns, to do a purportedly objective investigation into the APA was also questionable.

The title of part one: 'Under attack by the protectors.'

When I raised this issue, Doolittle defended his ability to be objective despite his point of view. Doolittle is a good journalist, but I maintain that an important, purportedly objective story about the APA should not have been assigned to someone with a open, public contempt for the APA. If the Adirondack Council's John Sheehan had done a purportedly objective report for the same paper on the exact same cases, its appropriateness surely would've been called into question too.

Anyways, Doolittle's first piece uncritically echoed claims by one of the aggrieved parties that the APA and Nature Conservancy were colluding but did not offer a shred of evidence to that effect.

North County Public Radio's highly respected Brian Mann further investigated some of the claims reported in Doolittle's pieces and came to a different conclusions.

Mann's research conclude that 'No, the APA did not conspire illegally with the Nature Conservancy'.

Additionally, Doolittle reported on a four year enforcement case by the APA on a John Maye, a former forest ranger and Clinton County landowner. The case dragged on but was dropped abruptly after a meeting between APA and Black Brook officials in which the latter accused the former of colluding with environmentalists.

The unwritten implication is that the threat of 'exposure' caused the APA to drop its patently unfair case.

Another piece by NCPR's Mann suggested otherwise. During the meeting, town officials shared a key piece of information with the APA rep. The APA claims that it was because they received that key piece of information that they dropped the case.

They claimed that Maye had refused to allow APA officials onto his property and failed to respond to APA inquiries. Both of these are his legal right but it's a bit dubious for him to then claim that the APA was prolonging the case simply to harass him.

I suspect Doolittle was guided, perhaps even subconsciously, to fail to ask the questions and investigate further that Mann did.

Mann wrote, Will Doolittle has expressed a firm opinion about this episode. He thinks the APA mistreated the Mayes and was then suspiciously eager to drop the case.

For my part, I'm just not sure.

The APA had been asking for a chance to look at that foundation for four years and they finally got it. That's a significant fact.


The accounts by Doolittle paint a portrait of a power hungry bureaucracy out of control, opposed only by heroic Clark Kent-like property rights defenders. Mann offers a more nuanced picture; his pieces reflect an agency whose real failings in the case seemed more about understaffing and general bureaucratic inertia.

And this perfectly illustrates the difference between pieces on the APA written by an openly anti-APA journalist and those written by one with no apparent agenda.

There are very real issues with the APA.

The fines it can impose should have a cap or at the very least, should have some kind of explicit structure. The Agency's defense of exorbitant fines ($2.9 million in one of these cases) is that it never actually collects the huge amounts; this is unpersuasive. Perhaps, fines above a certain amount can only be imposed by a court (see below).

There should be some legal obligation of responsiveness by the Agency to inquiries from property owners and municipalities. Perhaps there should be an independent ombudsman to address complaints where such responsiveness was not forthcoming or other unfair treatment alleged.

The APA board should comprise entirely full-time residents of the Park. Localities and counties should have some input into the Agency's staffing and board composition.

Most importantly, there should be some sort of judicial review available of the Agency's decisions, within the context of state constitution's Article XIV ("Forever Wild"). The APA is described by some as the zoning board for the Adirondack Park. But most zoning boards have zoning boards of appeal and this one should too. One of the reasons for the very real resentment of some Park residents is that the APA is viewed as judge, jury and executioner. Judicial review would help alleviate this.

I believe in Forever Wild. And I believe that the APA should play an important role in maintaining this. The Agency has its faults and should be reformed. And Doolittle's pieces really did expose a few disturbing facts that should be a addressed. I believe that in trying to protect the little guy from abuse by a government agency, we shouldn't go too far and expose the little guy to abuse from big developers who can do much more long-lasting damage.

But The Post-Star's inexplicable decision to assign this legitimate story to its most adamant anti-APA reporter to do this investigation was a journalistically indefensible, one clearly illustrated by the omissions that Mann revealed.

I urge you to read Doolittle's and Mann's pieces and judge for yourself.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Godwin's Law, climate corollary

"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


I know efforts to slow the stupidification of society may seem a lost cause but it's still worth pursuing...

Last year, I learned about something called Godwin's Law. It's a phenomenon I'd observed for a while but never knew had a name.

It goes: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches."

A generally accepted follow up is that anyone who invokes Hitler or the Nazis automatically loses the debate.

I think a corollary should be added.

Anyone who claims that an unseasonably cold day/week/month/year "proves" that climate change is bogus or otherwise discredits the widely accepted scientific consensus should automatically be disqualified from any discussion related not only to climate change but science in general.

The ban shall remain in place until the violator learns all of the following:

1) The difference between climate and weather;

2) The difference between an outlier and a trend;

3) The rudiments of statistical analysis and the scientific method.

Otherwise, I have the right to say that my recent $7 win in the scratch off lottery (thus increasing my gross income by about 10% as compared to the previous day) proves that the economy is booming.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Tragedy hits Togolese soccer team

Militants in the Angolan enclave of Cabinda attacked a bus carrying the Togolese national soccer team, killing the bus driver, the team's press officer and an assistant coach. Some reports have indicated that a fourth victim, one of the team's goalkeepers, has also died. The team was on its way from a training camp to the African Nations Cup tournament, which is being hosted in four venues in Angola, including Cabinda city.

Despite unconscionable pressure from PR-conscious Angolan officials and representatives from the African soccer confederation CAF, the Togolese team has withdrawn from the tournament.

Cabinda, which is separated from mainland Angola by DR Congo's territory, is the country's oil heartland and is also the source of a violent separatist movement. Given that Cabinda's instability was no secret, it was criminally irresponsible for the tournament organizers to schedule matches in Cabinda and for CAF to allow it.

Officials have already stated that the Nations' Cup will go on. However for the security of fans, the press and players, matches scheduled for Cabinda must be moved to the other venues in mainland Angola. This includes all matches in Group B (involving two of the continent's most prominent teams, Ivory Coast and Ghana, as well as Burkina Faso) as well as one quarterfinal match.

All yet, there is no indication that this blindingly obvious decision will be made. CAF already has the blood of four deaths on its hands. Does it want more?

The Beckham hypothesis

I was watching Fox Soccer Report when one of the hosts cracked that they would be featuring a new segment this year called "All [David] Beckham, all the time." Then he noted that he was just kidding. Everyone knew he was joking: that segment is not at all new. They're just borrowing the idea from ESPN's soccer coverage.

Hopefully Beckham will stay at AC Milan, where he's on loan, and not come back to the US and suck all the oxygen out of the US soccer community for yet another year.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Rudy Giuliani: 9/11 wasn't a terrorist attack

"Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, not their own facts." -Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

**

"We had no domestic attacks under Bush; we've had one under Obama," -Rudy Giuliani, one of the founders of "Mention September 11 Every 9.11 Seconds or Else You Insult the Dead" movement.

"We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term," Former Press Secretary Dana Perino on Fox News [sic] last November.

source: CNN

If a news organization pointed out that this was factual rubbish (they'd never actually call it what they are: bald-faced lies), it would no doubt be attacked for 'liberal bias.'

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

"A fool and his money are soon parted"

THE CABLE TV RACKET
A few months ago, I canceled my cable television service. I felt like I was paying an arm and a leg to stupidify myself. And the few programs and sports I watched are now mostly available free or much more cheaply online. It looks like I picked a good time to bail on the overpriced tripe.

The local cable monopoly Time Warner (TW) announced that it would jack up its 2010 rates for digital cable by nearly 10 percent. The cheapest digital cable package will now cost $71 a month before taxes and other assorted fees and gouging.

TW and Fox very recently reached an agreement that would have the cable giant pay more for carrying the network and its subsidiaries. Reports suggest that the company that carries HGTV and Food Network is looking for a similar deal from TW. So rates will no doubt increase a comparable amount, if not more, in 2011.

Especially since the cable giant spent some its customers' money campaigning against Rupert Murdoch's corporation.

**

THE POWER COMPANY RACKET
A follow-up to my earlier post on National Greed thieves. My latest bill from the 'regulated' monopoly utility charged me $41.14 for the actual electricity I used but gouged me $84.76 in 'delivery charges' on that electricity.

In other words, less than 1/3 of my electric bill cost was for, you know, ACTUAL ELECTRICITY.

Can you imagine if an Italian place imposed a $30 delivery charge for a $15 pizza? It would out of business faster than you can say 'Mamma mia!'.

That's because, unlike the power racket, the pizza business has actual competition.

But despite rolling in our cash because of this gouging ($1.43 billion in profits last year), National Grid still wants to outsource its central New York jobs somewhere else.

I'm sure my dad would take this opportunity to say "I told you so." In 1996, he (and I) supported a plan that would've created a municipal power corporation in Glens Falls, like many northern New York towns already have. Niagara Mohawk (later bought by National Greed) spent a substantial sum of money to defeat it in a referendum. A good investment on their part as their gouging has more than made up for it.

***

SOME 'FREE' ADVICE FOR NEWSPAPERS
You hear constant doom and gloom about the state of the newspaper business. And you hear establishment types talking about the 'need' to charge Internet users for content. You hear them treating these customers (ad viewers) like freeloaders. You hear how the newspapers 'can't afford' anymore to give content away for free.

And then you check your mailbox.

Many daily newspapers are now putting out FREE weekly newspapers. Granted, these weeklies usually contain minimal news content and are dominated by features. But it still costs money to pay the writers, to pay the printing people, to pay for the newsprint and ink, to pay for the electricity to run the presses, etc. This is no doubt more expensive than running a web server and having a tech person to maintain it. So how can the papers afford to give away one kind of product but not another?

Even more telling, the local daily Post-Star actually spends money to mail their weekly advertising vehicle (I'm not sure what the name of the latest incarnation is) to area households. So they're not only spending lots of money to create the product they're giving away, they're spending money to mail it to tens of thousands of people.

But they 'can't afford' to post a police blotter snippet online?

***

MAYBE THEY MISSED THE MEMO ABOUT THE FISCAL CRISIS
Apparently, Glens Falls Civic Center management wants to spend 'anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million' on video boards for the arena.

The good news is that Mayor Jack Diamond said he wouldn’t support paying for the addition with city property tax revenues, according to The Post-Star.

The bad news is that he said that state and/or federal funding was a good possibility.

With the feds running record deficits and the state so cash poor it's withholding payments from schools and other groups in need, this is a particularly bad time to be talking about spending money on a luxury like this.

But at least they're not talking about building another parking garage, as one PostStar.com commenter demanded.

***

BETTER TO LET PEOPLE THINK YOU'RE A FOOL...
So the latest flap in the punditocracy is that Fox News [sic] anchor Brit Hume told Tiger Woods that if he wanted 'forgiveness and redemption,' he should convert to Christianity.

Woods is Buddhist.

NCPR's Brian Mann explains why this is, to say the very least, a bit bizarre.

That being said, I am not sure if I'm more intensely uninterested in Woods' private life or in Hume's sectarian beliefs.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Spending cutter heal thyself (corrected and updated)

Within the last week, I received two different taxpayer funded mailers from local Congressman Scott Murphy. They were the typical mindless color-by-numbers nonsense, making sure to mouth every bullet point that he thinks might resonate with North Country voters... which they might if the venture capitalist weren't so transparently the archetype of an empty, stick-his-finger-in-the-wind politician.

(passages in bold are his emphases)

"Congressman Murphy is making sure Congress handles money responsibly because he believes the money is yours."

"Congressman Murphy knows that taxes are a heavy burden on Upstate New York families."

"Congressman Murphy co-sponsored legislation to provide property tax relief." (though without saying what a federal legislator can do about property taxes which are almost exclusively beholden to state, county and municipal budgets)

"Protecting your tax dollars is part of my job, because my job is to represent you."

Although the last one is about is empty-headed as you can get, my personal favorite is this one:

"Every month, in our small businesses and around our kitchen tables, we prove that fiscal responsibility works. It's time Washington learned how."

Apparently he's unaware of credit cards, mortgages, car loans, college loans, small business loans and bankruptcy filings used by many of the non-millionaires of society.

Not only did he send an expensive, taxpayer funded glossy mailer to share these pearls of Socratic wisdom and Churchillian leadership, even though he has my email address and could easily have propagandized more cheaply this way, but he sent me two identical expensive, taxpayer funded glossy mailers lecturing me on the need for Congressional spending restraint.

He also sent duplicates of the other mailer, which touted his opposition to decent health care for all Americans*.

(*-see correction below)

When Murphy campaigned on a promise to create jobs, as though this is something a Congressman can have much impact on, I think the people who believed him assumed it would be more than in just the expensive glossy mailer publishing industry.

Update: Bob over at Planet Albany isn't impressed either.

*-Correction: The mailer touting his opposition to decent health care was actually received a few weeks ago. The other taxpayer funded mailer received last week bragged about how he was single-handedly saving us from the tax demon... even though it repeated much of what he said in the other mailer sent almost at the same time.

"No one needs to remind you of the pressure taxes put on Upstate New York's families," he chest-thumped.

So why spend an expensive TAXPAYER FUNDED mailer saying this?

I do apologize for not being able to keep track of all the taxpayer funded mailers sent by the Congressman talking about the need for restraint in public spending.

Monday, January 04, 2010

[Guest essay] The abusive relationship between NYS and small businesses

A Christmas Carol – New York Style
by Matt Funiciello, owner of Rock Hill Bakehouse and Cafe


The Empire state’s web page has a proud banner which reads, “New York *HEARTS* Business!” As a small business owner, I have to wonder who dreamed up this Orwellian nonsense? It should (perhaps, more correctly) read, “New York *HEARTS* Attacking Small Business!”

I have to have a certain amount of respect for Governor Paterson. I buy into the propaganda. He was thrust into the situation he is in and he should be credited with taking a tough and fairly principled stance against the monied interests in our state as we start to feel the full effects of this, seemingly historic, recession. But, when it comes to the agencies and groups that represent us in this state, I am not “feeling the love” at all.

What I am feeling, like my 32 workers, is that we are trapped in an abusive relationship with the state and that keeping it a secret only benefits our abuser. This state that “loves” us so is using us in the much the same way a desperate parent might use the contents of their kids’ piggy banks to buy food for they, themselves, to eat. At a time when it is crucial that we all work together, our state should be helping small employers rather than trying to extinguish our collective flame. At the very least, they shouldn’t be beating us without mercy!

Given the 1.2 billion dollars in corporate welfare being given to Global Foundries/AMD (the Malta chip fab project), the millions that will be spent on make-work projects like the Champlain bridge, the lack of any serious, much-needed, IDA reform and the hundreds of billions that have been bled out to AIG and other banksters and welfare cases by our federal government, you’ll pardon me if I find it impossible to take any of our government’s claims of “love” seriously.

Last year, we had an equipment fire which led to smoke damage and divided responsibilities from several different insurance carriers. In the end, we lost three weeks of production and 2009 became a real struggle for us. It has, simply put, been a very tough year, but to add insult to injury, this past year has also marked some extremely unfair attacks by our government on our financial well-being.

New York Taxation and Finance did not appreciate our lack of ability to pay our final period of sales tax due from the period of the fire. We missed this one payment and I knew that we would be required to pay a penalty and interest (as has been the case at the other times in the past two decades when we could not immediately pay our sales tax bill).

Upon receiving a notice from the state in the early spring, I called the number cited several times and left messages but received no response. Calling other numbers netted me long periods waiting, but no humans picked up at the other end. As spring progressed into summer and cash flow improved, I simply started sending them about 1/5th of the projected bill each month hoping that they would then contact me or at least send me a letter stating their terms for repayment as a response to those payments. I wanted them to know that I would make good on our debt.

I believe it was just after making the second payment that they sent our bank a levy notice for the original amount. Without much adieu, they took it. The only flexibility exhibited during this transaction was that when they realized they had actually taken more money than was due, they reversed the initial levy for a day and put out a new levy for the reduced amount and took that instead.
No conversation. No discussion. No concern for our financial status or well-being at all. Mercenary.

Next, we suffered an attack by the IRS, who had decided way back in 2008 that we should be punished for making our weekly FICA (payroll) with-holdings in person, in a timely fashion, at our bank, each week. Our transgression? We had shown the testicular fortitude to have made these payments (horror of horrors) in person at the bank, rather than electronically, which the IRS had then decided they can force people to do whether they bank electronically or wish to or not. The net result was an $8,000 levy as a fine (and interest) for taxes already paid on time and in full.
Needless to say, having just survived the fire and now entering the surreal weirdness that is this recession, I was dumbfounded. Why attack an employer in a recession?

These attacks on us seem purposeful but, in the end, I have to believe, that they are simply “fishing.” Many businesses are attacked in this manner. We all have to decide whether it is financially reasonable to fight back to defend a principle or is it, in some cases, more responsible to just pay up given that it may cost more to fight than to acquiesce? Well, we are fighting this one and, for the moment, the IRS, to its credit, has backed off.

As with many small businesses in New York state, we often live check to check, just as our workers are forced to. But, on a daily basis, we all have to recognize that attacks of this kind can too often be the proverbial straw that shatters the camel’s spine for small businesses all over the state and the country.

The last attack we’re dealing with is just unconscionable. As a business involved in the manufacture of non-taxable products, we’re exempted from paying sales tax on utilities used in their production. This is certainly not a loophole and many businesses depend on this exemption. If the state cannot collect sales tax on the item produced, then what right should they have to collect tax on the utility used to produce it, right?

So, we do pay sales tax on the utilities consumed at our cafe and we pay sales tax on one of the accounts at our production space because it, arguably, covers about 1/5 of our consumption which is probably about three or four times the actual proportion of utility use that is not production-specific. We do not pay sales tax on the space in which natural gas fires our two hearth ovens and that seems to be the primary focus of this witch hunt. Obviously, that gas is used for production, right?

Well, New York State has decided that we are trying to get one over on them by not paying sales tax on utility use in this space and they decided to conduct an audit to determine if that is the case. By, “conduct an audit”, I mean they have forced us to use our own time and to pay an accountant to provide them with all the information they require to better attack us.

We collected and sent in all the information they asked for and, basically, were told that we can expect to pay sales tax on all the lighting used in our production area as it is merely “a comfort for workers, not, apparently, a “necessity”! Now, we are also being told that much, if not all, of the gas we use in our bake ovens may also be taxable.

Well, I have to say that, having tried hard to bake bread in the dark (during power outages), lighting is most certainly not just “a comfort for workers”. It is a required and direct component of production. Period. Without light, one cannot produce bread (never mind the fact that it is federal and state law that these areas be adequately lit for safety reasons, if nothing else). These lights are used for production and they are used DIRECTLY for it. In fact, if they were not used for production of bread, we would not use them at all.

We come then to gas use. We leave our ovens running all the time, all year round. They are hearth ovens. They retain their heat remarkably well so it is arguably more efficient (and better for them) to keep them running at a relatively constant temperature than to have them suffer major heat loss and then recover it over and over again. We bake almost around the clock. Even so, we run a gas furnace in an adjoining open room which is specifically there to heat our production space and packaging space as the ovens certainly don’t keep us, our bread, or our pipes, warm enough not to freeze.

I would question the state’s maintenance that is now ethical and responsible to retroactively bill us for sales tax on natural gas in my production space at all given that the food requires said heat every bit as much as me and my workers do (and bakers, like lights, are certainly a direct part of production, regardless). But, I also have to wonder, since all of this gas is only used in our production area and is absolutely necessary for the production of bread, it should all be exempt from sales tax, anyway, right?
Well, again, not according to NYS Taxation and Finance.

Our “lovers” presented us with a Christmas present this year and it was an invoice for $6800 in taxes, penalties and interest that arrived a few days before the 25th. Our “lovers” didn’t bother to wrap it. No bow. No tinsel. No card. Nothing.

Now, I have lots of friends and acquaintances and when I tell them these horror stories, they are simply incredulous. While most of them do not love this state or its anti-small business behavior, they are simply incredulous about how much the state seems to single people out, especially targets like me (my only real crime seems to be not knowing when to keep my mouth shut.

I can’t help but wonder if I, and my 32 employees, are in what amounts to an abusive relationship with New York. I also can’t help but wonder if it makes any economic sense to destroy New York’s small business infrastructure just to grab a few bucks? In the process, they are causing many ships to go down and how, in this job market, can that benefit we, the taxpayers? For every small business forced to put with these gestapo tactics, there are countless workers who may face the unemployment line and countless taxpayers who will have to foot the bill when that happens.

As much as I respect your hard line, Governor Paterson, I have to ask if there is any mathematical formula whereby “unemploying” 32 people tomorrow is a winning scenario for us collectively when the return is the meager (and unethical) extraction of a few thousand, ill-gotten, dollars?

In truth, if New York really *HEARTS* small business, it should be finding ways to give us all a break while we are all going through hard times, not focusing on finding better ways to joyously kick us while we’re down.

Where are our bonuses? Where are our make-work projects? Where are our well-timed infusions of cash? Where’s our corporate welfare?
Governor, as Global Foundries (or whatever we’re calling them today) stand poised to finally cash in their $1.2 Billion dollar taxpayer-funded check, perhaps you can explain in your state of the state address how I, and my 32 workers, are supposed to pay for this handout?

It would seem that, regardless of your personal intent, your administration and agencies are eager to see us do it with newly-received unemployment checks!