Friday, February 28, 2014

The Not-So-Definitive Guide to the 86th Annual Academy Awards

Oscar and I have something in common. Oscar first came to Hollywood scene in 1928. So did I. We're both a little weather-beaten, but we're still here and plan to be around for a whole lot longer.

--John Wayne, 1979

Lest readers accuse Bay State Brahmin of being all work and no fun, today we’ll indulge in some OSCAR speculation two days before the Academy Awards are presented at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. What follows are my best guesses at who will win awards and what film/individual would have received my vote in each category, with some musings here and there. Note that I am only submitting picks where I’ve seen the films and I am excluding categories that are incomprehensible. So dim the laptop screen and grab the popcorn…

Best Picture

The Pick: 12 Years a Slave
My Vote: 12 Years a Slave

This year’s field is incredibly strong (Her and Dallas Buyers Club would be solid favorites in another year). However, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Gettysburg, America finally has the seminal telling of the nation’s Original Sin—a magnificently executed portrayal of the depravity of slavery and the unimaginable resilience of the human soul. Every American should see 12 Years a Slave and it should be a core part of curricula in American classrooms for generations to come. 

Best Actor

The Pick: Matthew McConaughey
My Vote: Chiwetel Ejiofor

You can’t blame the Academy for going with McConaughey, who was unforgivably snubbed last year after his epic portrayal of a man on the run in rural Arkansas in the underrated Mud. But my vote goes to Chiwetel Ejiofor for a role than spanned the entire range of human emotionality and then some. If you are sensing a pattern with my affection for 12 Years, you’d be right…

Best Actress

The Pick: Cate Blanchett
My Vote: Cate Blanchett

One of the great actresses of her generation, Blanchett, whose tremendous work in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button went unnoticed by the Academy, gets her first OSCAR as an Actress in a lead role in a field full of big names, but no other standout performances.

Best Supporting Actor

The Pick: Jared Leto
My Vote: Michael Fassbender

The most difficult actor category to select from—Leto and Fassbender are both deeply deserving. Leto’s role is OSCAR-bait, but Fassbender’s portrayal of a Southern slave owner deserves the nod.

Best Supporting Actress

The Pick: Lupita Nyong’o
My Vote: Lupita Nyong’o

Jennifer Lawrence is getting lots of chatter for American Hustle, despite the fact that her character was one of the least demanding of her career (certainly when compared to her incredibly round portrayal of a West Virginia teenager in Winter’s Bone). However, once again the artist from 12 Years is more deserving of the golden trophy.

Best Director

The Pick: Alfonso CuarĂ³n, Gravity
My Vote: Alexander Payne, Nebraska

Gravity was a audio-visual sensation and it will be rightly awarded for that feat on Sunday night. But for all its technical brilliance, Gravity lacked the homey, down-to-earth (ZING) realism of Nebraska. Shot in black and white and filled with homages to classic American Westerns, Nebraska gets Alexander Payne back on the OSCAR stage for the first time since Sideways.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Pick: 12 Years a Slave
My Vote: 12 Years a Slave

Please see 12 Years a Slave.

Best Original Screenplay

The Pick: Her
My Vote: Her

With the exception of American Hustle (a fun, if poorly edited action movie), the Academy can’t go wrong in this category. Her takes the prize because it is a phenomenal period piece—one that resists a damning portrayal of the effect of modern technology and embraces the shades of gray that accompany our digital lives.

Best Documentary
The Pick: The Act of Killing
My Vote: The Act of Killing

What’s more amazing—the ability of man to murder and maim his fellow man, or our mind’s ability to rationalize evil in order to survive? After seeing The Act of Killing (streaming on Netflix), I’m not sure…

Best Cinematography

The Pick: Gravity
My Vote: Nebraska

Don’t worry Gravity fans, I’ll vote for your film later. However, Payne’s ability to train a lens on the American heartland is reminiscent of the brilliance of No County for Old Men and Brokeback Mountain.

Best Costume Design

The Pick: American Hustle
My Vote: The Great Gatsby

The 1970s-era costumes of Hustle were worn and worn well by a star-studded cast. Call me old fashioned…I’ll take the Roaring 20s flappers.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The Pick: Dallas Buyers Club
My Vote: Dallas Buyers Club

Yes, this is a vote for Jared Leto, but it is also a recognition of the remarkable physical toll absorbed by McConaughey and accentuated by his team.

Best Original Score

The Pick: Gravity
My Vote: Gravity

Best Original Song

The Pick: “Let it Go,” from Frozen
My Vote: “The Moon Song,” from Her

An underwhelming field this year.

Best Animated Short Film

The Pick: Feral
My Vote: Possessions

A Japanese legend about thanking our tools for their noble service gets my vote. The Academy will be drawn to the darkness of Feral. Bottom line: there is no Paperman in this year’s field.

Film Editing

The Pick: Gravity
My vote: 12 Years a Slave

Best Sound Editing/Best Sound Mixing

The Pick: Gravity
My Vote: Gravity

With all due respect to Inside Llewyn Davis, whose soundtrack made up for what was, in many respects, a disappointing film, Gravity’s audio was historically great and it deserves a couple of statutes.

Visual effects

The Pick: Gravity
My Vote: Gravity

Ditto the above.

Enjoy the show.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Civil Right All Its Own: Same-Sex Divorce in America

“While the laws of divorce provide clear and reasonably predictable guidelines for child support, child custody, and property division on dissolution of a marriage, same-sex couples who dissolve their relationships find themselves and their children in the highly unpredictable terrain of equity jurisdiction.

-- Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, 798 N.E.2d 941 (Mass. 2003)

Over ten years ago, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled, by a 4-3 vote, that “barring an individual from the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution.” It was a historic decision—the first of many over the past decade that has seen marriage equality spread to 17 states and the District of Columbia (see map).

While Goodridge will forever stand as a monument in America’s march toward equal justice, the relationship that spawned the lawsuit was—like many marriages—not as eternal. Two years after the ruling, the Goodridges split, with divorce coming three years later.

Unlike marriage, divorce does not lend itself to the same sweeping statements about American liberty. Indeed, while the SJC and the Supreme Court have long waxed poetic about the right to marry, there has been nary little ink spilled about the right to divorce.

And yet, there is no questioning it’s importance—as the SJC noted in the quotation from Goodridge excerpted above.

Today we’re going to tackle a problem that isn’t often discussed amidst the celebrations of marriage equality: the fact that same-sex couples encounter significant barriers in securing divorces if they move to states that do not recognizes their unions.

Indeed, while the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Windsor v. U.S. requires the federal government to recognize all marriages legally entered in the states, it did not require states to recognize the marriages of sister states. As a result, most of the 33 states that ban same-sex marriage by constitutional amendment or statute also prohibit same-sex couples from divorcing in their courts.

Courts across the country are currently hearing challenges to laws preventing same-sex couples from divorcing (most notably, the Supreme Court of Texas is set to decide In the Matter of the Marriage of J.B. and H.B. this Spring). But while the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution would seemingly prohibit states from discriminating against marriages legally entered into by sister states, that legal fight will take years to fully play out in the courts.

For now, the only option for same-sex couples who live in these states is to return to Massachusetts, New York, or another state that recognizes their marriage and maintain residency in their chosen state for between 3 months and 2 years (varies by state) to secure personal jurisdiction to seek a divorce.

In recognition of this problem, a number of states have passed laws allowing courts to grant jurisdiction, under certain circumstances, over divorce/dissolution proceedings for non-resident same-sex couples who have entered into a marriage, civil union, or registered domestic partnership in that state, including California, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington D.C.

For example, in California, the law generally requires that at least one spouse be a resident of California for at least six months prior to filing a petition for dissolution. However, California makes an exception for nonresident same-sex married spouses to dissolve their marriage if 1) they married in California, and 2) neither spouse now lives in a state that will dissolve their marriage.

Colorado—which still does not permit same-sex marriage—applies similar exceptions for civil unions, as does Oregon for domestic partnerships.

These jurisdiction exceptions are clearly a stopgap measure on the road to a national decree on marriage equality (a ruling that I predict will come in the October 2015 Term at the Supreme Court). Not only that, but the exceptions are limited in their effect since they do not allow orders about other issues like property and debt, partner support, or children.

Nevertheless, despite being a half-measure, it is imperative that states like Massachusetts and New York pass these exceptions this legislative session. It’s a simple fix to a problem that affects thousands of families across the country.

Equal access to divorce may not generate the same excitement as marriage, but it is a civil right all its own and one that must be protected just as vigorously if we are to achieve equal justice under law.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Comcast, General Electric, and The Role of Government in America

“The winners…will be those who…insist on being number one or number two in every business they are in. Don’t play with businesses that can’t win. Businesses that are number three, number five in their market—Christ couldn’t fix those businesses. They’re going to lose anyway.”

-- John “Jack” Welch, CEO, General Electric

Last week, Comcast announced its intention to buy Time Warner Cable in a $45.2 billion deal that will unite the nation’s two largest cable providers. According to the New York Times, the resulting company will operate in 43 of the 50 largest metropolitan markets, and will serve nearly 30 percent of paid television subscribers and about one-third of all broadband Internet subscribers.

Outcry about the anticompetitive effects of the merger has been strong—not only from consumer groups, but from politicians on both sides of the aisle—an unsurprising result given that Americans pay more for worse service than most countries in the developed world.

A 2011 study by Pando Networks found that U.S. Internet speed was 26th in the world and a 2012 study by the New America Foundation found that Tokyo residents enjoy speeds that are eight times faster than New York’s for a lower price. And Hong Kong residents enjoy speeds that are 20 times faster, for the equivalent price.

Many cities—from Lafayette, Louisiana to Chattanooga, Tennessee—have have launched municipal fiber networks in an effort to thwart the monopolistic behavior of the telecommunications industry. 

As Susan Crawford, visiting professor at Harvard Law School [my alma mater] and author of “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age,” wrote in the Boston Globe this week:

The way to do this is to install a new wholesale fiber network controlled by the city…Cities do not have to be in the business of competing with private providers, but their control of the basic infrastructure is essential to make sure that competition emerges.

We’ll talk more about the nation’s connectivity problems in another post, but today, I want to use the struggle to find a solution for sluggish Internet to examine how we should outline the scope of government in the 21st century.

For guidance, let’s go back 30 years to one of the seminal philosophies in American corporate history: Jack Welch’s effort to streamline General Electric into a capitalist juggernaut.

Welch—a native of Peabody, Mass. who grew up in Salem and later graduated from the University of Massachusetts—famously scribbled his philosophy on a napkin during an interview with Forbes Magazine in 1984 (see picture, left).

The picture shows GE’s three “core” businesses, from Welch’s perspective, as well as other non-core businesses that were either number one or number two in their respective fields. For businesses that failed to fall into one of those two buckets, the solution was brutal and short, "Anything outside the circles we will fix, close, or sell," Welch said.

This philosophy was anything but charitable. In his first five years as CEO (1981-1986), Welch slashed 130,000 jobs – 1 of every 4 workers at GE. However, those who remained were the beneficiaries of a more directed, stable, profitable company, which grew shareholder (and worker) value.

Welch’s leadership of one of America’s flagship companies provides meaningful guidance on how we should go about determining the size and scope of government in America, his misguided statements about the growing chasm between executive and worker pay notwithstanding.

Government, unlike private business, does not always have a legion of natural competitors (national defense, for instance). However, government does compete with the private sector in a variety of ways (public universities and the Postal Service just to name a few). I believe that defining the role of government starts by examining what you want government to do and placing it into one of the four boxes of the two by two matrix below:

          I.     Things government does well that private industry also does well
        II.     Things government does well that private industry does poorly
      III.     Things government does poorly that private industry does well
      IV.     Things government does poorly that private industry also does poorly

Like Welch’s three circles, we should examine everything that government does through this matrix to determine where to “fix,” where to “close,” and where to “double down.”

Let’s start with the easy stuff in boxes II and III.

We should be doubling down on government investment in functions falling into box II, not only because government excels, but also because there is no logical alternative. Many of these functions are so-called “natural monopolies” such as water and national defense (though there is admittedly some question as to whether government does well in these categories—more on that later).

We should completely eliminate functions in box III, where government is a woeful failure and private industry does fairly well. Venture capital (“picking winners and losers”) is perhaps the most obvious example of this, though others surely exist.

Now things get tricky. What do we do with box I? I believe that we should neither buy or sell, but “hold” our investments in these areas and take advantage of the private sector mechanism where feasible. For instance, few government investments are as beneficial as higher education and research and development. However, private universities (here’s looking at you, MIT) are incredibly successful at putting these dollars to work. Thus, government should continue to provide public higher education (particularly to provide low-cost alternatives to students of lesser means), while also pumping billions of dollars into R&D at America’s private colleges and universities.

Lastly, we come upon the bane of our existence: box IV. The first question to ask is whether the function need occur at all. Assuming that the answer is yes—and that someone has to do it—government has no choice but to fill the gap. However, given government’s terrible track record, legislators must be even more willing than usual to (a) experiment with innovative approaches to service delivery and (b) exercise unusually probing oversight.

A good example of this is the operation of commuter railroads. In Massachusetts, both the government (MBTA) and private enterprise (MBCR) have proven ineffective at keeping the trains on time and on budget. Thus even though optimism abounds that a new private carrier, Keolis, will succeed where others have failed, legislators should be on the lookout for waste, fraud, and failure.

In the end, like Welch’s circles, the matrix I’ve outlined won’t hold all functions demanded of government or the private sector. However, it is an effort to get at one of the first principles of American democracy: how to determine the shape and scope of our government.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sharing Society’s Burdens: From Appomattox to Westchester

“The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.”

-- John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1971

Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, on January 1, 1863, Congress passed a new conscription law which placed all male citizens aged 20-35 and all unmarried men between 35-45 into a lottery. However, in addition to not including Blacks (who were exempt on account of their lack of citizenship—though many would fight with honor throughout the war, including the famed Massachusetts 54th Regiment), the draft law allowed those who could afford to hire a substitute or pay the government $300 to avoid enlistment.

Less than 24 hours after the first lottery took place, New York City erupted into five days of violence that would later be termed the “New York City Draft Riots.” These riots—fueled by deep-seeded racism of working-class white immigrants toward free blacks—not only targeted black New Yorkers, but also directed their destructive ire on property of the wealthy. Over five days, the riots claimed over 100 lives.

The Draft Riots were about a very simple principle—justice. Recent discoveries in evolutionary biology and psychology have shown that humans are born with an inherent sense of fairness. We feel injustice in our core and rebel against it as an affront to our dignity as equal persons.

In the Draft Riots, the idea that mere wealth could exempt a man from doing his part to combat common scourges—slavery and the dissolution of the Union—was too much to bear in silence. Certainly the working class of 1863 knew, as we know now, that wealth “buys” all sorts of advantages in life. However, when that advantage is made manifest in such a brazen manner (you cut a check and you are free to go), it is a recipe for unrest.

150 years after the Civil War, America continues to struggle with how to share common burdens. Some advocates and legislators, including Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-NY), believe that the draft needs to be reinstated for fairness purposes, since a disproportionate number of low-income Americans choose to enlist in our now all-volunteer armed forces. As Rangel stated, “Reinstating the draft and requiring women to register for the Selective Service would compel the American public to have a stake in the wars we fight as a nation. We must question why and how we go to war, and who decides to send our men and women into harm's way.

The sharing of society’s burdens goes well beyond the battlefield. It includes contentious questions about how we deal with trash pickup, such as the fight over the 91st Street waste transfer station down the street from my apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It includes racially charged disputes about the siting of affordable housing developments, which often are populated by low-income people of color, in wealthier, whiter communities, such as Chappaqua, N.Y. or Wellesley, Mass. And it includes how to ensure that all people can afford quality health care—in part by requiring healthy people to purchase insurance to broaden risk pools and avoid adverse selection problems that would drive up costs for all.

There is immense political pressure at the local level to embrace NIMBY reasoning and foist our fair share of a particular burden onto other neighborhoods/communities. As a result, courts have been forced to step in to establish “fair share” principles. As the New jersey Supreme Court stated in the famed affordable housing case of Mount Laurel, “Almost every [municipality] acts solely in its own selfish and parochial interest and in effect builds a wall around itself to keep out those people or entities not adding favorably to the tax base, despite the location of the municipality or the demand for varied kinds of housing.” Southern Burlington County NAACP v. Township of Mount Laurel, 67 N.J. 151, 171 (1975).

The Court went on to declare, in its second Mount Laurel decision, that “municipalities, at the very least, must remove all municipally created barriers to the construction of their fair share of lower income housing.” Southern Burlington County NAACP v. Township of Mount Laurel 92 N.J. 158, 258 (1983) (emphasis added); see also Berenson v. New Castle, 38 N.Y.2d 102, 110 (1975) (“There must be a balancing of the local desire to maintain the status quo within the community and the greater public interest that regional needs be met”).

Similarly, in Philadelphia v. New Jersey, 437 U.S. 617 (1978), the Supreme Court of the United States struck down a New Jersey law which prohibited the importing of any solid or liquid waste which originated or was collected outside the State. The Court declared that a State may not, “isolate itself from a problem common to many by erecting a barrier against the movement of interstate trade.” Id. at 628.

Ultimately, in order to determine what is right, what is good, what is just, John Rawls’ seminal “veil of ignorance” approach provides ample guidance. Recognizing, as Rawls does, that so much of where we are in life is on account of accident of birth—i.e. luck—we must not only accept that we need to do our part to solve society’s most pressing problems, but we must affirmatively celebrate that effort as a means of building strong social bonds between communities.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Tax Time, Part IV: Retirement Security for the 21st Century

“Properly integrated, they may be looked upon as a three-legged stool affording solid and well-rounded protection for the citizen.”

-- Reinhard A. Hohaus, actuary, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, 1949

Last year, the National Institute for Retirement Savings released a report showing that the average working household has virtually no retirement savings. In fact, as shown in the chart below, NIRS found that the median retirement account balance is $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households.

There are many reasons why this crisis has come to past, but one of them has been the steady erosion of the “third leg” of the American retirement stool: the defined-benefit pension. In 1975, there were 2.4 participants in defined benefit pension plans for every one participant in a defined contribution plan (Department of Labor, 2007). However, by 2011, Treasury Department data showed that out of $11.2 trillion of private pension assets, only 21 percent were maintained in defined benefit plans, with the remainder held in defined contribution plans (36 percent) and IRAs (43 percent).

However, the decline in DB pensions—while of great concern to many on the political Left—is not the only contributor to America’s retirement problem. A major reason for the lack of savings is the fact that many American families do not earn sufficient wages in the first place to set aside money for retirement, particularly with stagnant wage growth over the last 20 years.

Furthermore, our tax code also does working-class Americans few favors. Let’s take a closer look at the code and what can be done to boost security for working class Americans.

Last year, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found that nearly 2/3 of the benefits of the retirement tax incentives went to the top 1/5 of U.S. income earners (see chart, left).

Despite noble and consistent efforts by federal, state, and local governments to boost financial literacy and encourage individuals to open retirement accounts, low-income Americans who have retirement accounts continue to be the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, as of 2010, only 1 in 9 Americans in the bottom 1/5 of income had a retirement account, while nearly 8 in 9 at the top 1/5 had such an account.

While far from a panacea for the retirement security crisis, universal savings plans offer an elegant solution. Legislators on both sides of the political spectrum have long embraced these plans.

In 2006, Senators Rick Santorum (R-PA), Jon Corzine (D-NJ), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Jim DeMint (R-SC) proposed the ASPIRE Act, which would have would have automatically opened a KIDS Account for every child assigned a Social Security number. The account would be funded with a one-time $500 contribution, and children in households earning below national median income would be eligible for up to an additional $500.

In a similar vein, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) proposed PLUS Accounts that would be automatically opened for citizens born after 12/31/07 and funded with a one-time $1,000 contribution. The PLUS program would have later expanded to all U.S. citizens under the age of 65 and included mandatory, pre-tax contributions of 1% of each worker’s income (the worker could choose to contribute up to 10%). Under the Session plan, employers would also be required to contribute at least 1% (and up to 10%) of earnings.

While the Tea Party has made such automatic savings/retirement accounts anathema to many in the GOP, these universal, automatic plans continue to be one of our best hopes for helping boost retirement savings for all Americans—particularly those at the bottom end of the income scale. Indeed, according to the Brookings Institution, these types of automatic savings systems “have proven remarkably effective in raising 401(k) participation rates,” particularly for populations that are traditionally vulnerable to retirement insecurity, including women, Hispanics, and low-income Americans (see chart, below).

In addition, Congress must make the “Saver’s Credit” refundable to encourage additional savings by lower-income families. The credit provides a tax credit of up to $1,000 (up to $2,000 if filing jointly) on eligible contributions to a qualified retirement plan, an eligible deferred compensation plan, or an IRA. However, because it is non-refundable, it provides no incentive for nearly 50 million households that have no income tax liability.

Lastly, we need to change our eligibility rules for public benefits so that low-income Americans should not be needlessly penalized for making smart decisions to plan for retirement. For instance, in New York, the asset cap for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) does not exclude retirement savings.

By creating new carrots to nudge low-income families to save when possible and eliminating needlessly cruel sticks that penalize these families for prudent financial planning, we can work to build new legs of a retirement stool for the 21st century.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Cowing of Congressional Courage: Flood Maps in a Warming World

“Oh, Master, make me chaste and celibate - but not yet!”

--Saint Augustine, Confessions, 398 CE

In 1968, Congress passed the National Flood Insurance Act, which was designed to reduce federal disaster relief by creating a mechanism to insure vulnerable property on our nation’s shoreline. However, as the Heritage Foundation recently noted, while the national flood insurance program (NFIP) was paved with good intentions, it has ended up promoting development in flood zones, thus paradoxically worsening the effects of natural disasters and saddling taxpayers with the bill in the process.

These subsidies have largely benefitted wealthy Americans. As detailed in a report from the Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that over 40 percent of subsidized coastal properties grandfathered into the NFIP program are worth over $500,000, and 12 percent are worth more than $1 million. Nearly a quarter of the subsidized properties in the CBO’s coastal sample were vacation homes.

Furthermore, as Mindy Lubber, the President of Ceres, noted, “Instead of encouraging behavior that reduces risks from extreme weather events, [NFIP is] encouraging behavior that increases these risks.”

After decades of advocacy by environmental groups, budget watchdogs, and consumer organizations, Congress appeared to commit to fundamental reform of America’s national flood insurance program when it passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012

Biggert-Waters sought to stabilize NFIP finances and protect taxpayers by requiring NFIP to raise rates (through a multi-year phase in) to reflect true flood risk. That process involved updating antiquated flood maps created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) (according to the Government Accountability Office, as of 2008, half of NFIP’s maps were more than 15 years old, and another 8 percent were 10–15 years old).

In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, FEMA has launched an ambitious effort to modernize the flood maps, taking into account the threats of climate change on coastal areas. While it is essential that FEMA ensure the accuracy of these new mapsRockport, Mass. successfully challenged FEMA’s methodology, which should affect maps throughout Cape Ann—the ultimate goal of accurately gauging risk and refashioning insurance rates accordingly is critical to taxpayers and our environment.

And yet, despite the fact that the vast majority of Congress—including Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) and the entire Massachusetts delegation—signed on to the 2012 reform, Congress is now doing it’s best Saint Augustine impersonation—expressing outrage at the effects of its own reform and vowing to roll it back.

The reaction of Congress reminds me of a Seinfeld bit about the check at the end of a meal:

Never liked the check at the end of the meal system, because money’s a very different thing before and after you eat. Before you eat, money has no value. And you don’t care about money when you’re hungry…Then the check comes at that moment. People are always upset, you know. They’re mystified by the check. “What is this? How could this be?” They start passing it around the table, “Does this look right to you? We’re not hungry now. Why are we buying all this food?

Indeed, while Congress was more than willing to engage in disciplined, principled changes to NFIP in 2012, now that the bill has come due, the response is one of shock and outrage.

This is Congress at its worst—trying to have its cake (a courageous vote for reform!) and eat it too (rolling back that reform at the first sign of its effect). That’s why I found myself in complete agreement with Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) this week when he called out members of his own party for their similarly guileless effort on the debt ceiling. Cruz, a darling of the Tea Party, said that the his colleagues decision to allow a debt ceiling increase to proceed with 50 votes, only to then turn around and vote against the bill, was a “show vote,” and “trickery to the constituents.”

The lack of courage, the bald-faced bait and switch of legislators heralding reform and then shirking from its effects—this is the type of behavior that leads to pitiful Congressional approval ratings and, more importantly, cynicism about the exercise of American Democracy.

To its credit, the Obama Administration has warned against rolling back NFIP reform. One hopes that Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) takes a similar stand when the bill to gut Biggert-Waters comes before the House this week.

Friday, February 21, 2014

An Olympic Sized Problem: Sewer Overflow in NYC + A Path Forward

As the first great snow melt of winter hits NYC, let's look ahead to the big Spring Thaw and what comes with it: combined sewer overflows (CSO).  CSOs are one of the City's most pressing environmental problems. Every year, 27 billion gallons of untreated sewage (that’s 41,000 Olympic-size swimming pools for those watching Sochi) is diverted into New York City’s waterways—from Flushing Bay and Newtown Creek to the Hudson River and New York Harbor.

CSOs occur when the City’s sewer system is overwhelmed by rainwater/snow melt—which unfortunately, doesn’t take much. Indeed, as little as a tenth of an inch of rain can render most of the waterfront and its beaches unsafe for recreation.

Today, I want to look at what New York City is doing to address the problem, focusing on permeable pavement, and offer an additional policy initiative that should supplement the City’s plans.

Permeable pavement is an evolving technology that allows storm water to soak through the surface and be captured in underground reservoirs that feed back into the soil (see photo at left).

The New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation recently awarded a $1.2 million grant to NYC Department of Transportation for a pilot of permeable pavement in College Point, Queens. The project is set to be installed in April and will include three types of permeable pavement, which will be compared to standard asphalt for their relative benefits.

If the pilot proves successful, the City will move ahead with implementing 80 sites by 2020 and 400-800 by 2030, in accordance with PlaNYC, which also includes the installation of inflatable dams in Red Hook and Williamsburg, bioswales, and other “green” infrastructure.

New York is a clear leader among American cities in addressing CSO’s, but I think New York City needs go beyond what is currently planned as part of the PlaNYC effort to address the significant percentage of non-permeable surfaces that exist on private property. As shown in the chart at right, while one-third of the City’s impervious surface area are publicly-controlled streets and sidewalks, nearly half the area is buildings, most of which are privately owned.

To that end, I want to plug an idea developed by a colleague of mine at the NYC Comptroller’s office, Dr. Stephen Corson. Steve’s idea is for the City to develop a series of incentives to nudge private property owners to install new permeable surfaces on residential or commercial lots. This could have a transformational effect on the City’s CSOs, helping to divert billions of gallons of runoff from our waterways.

Sustainable Yards NYC, with assistance from the City of New York’s Institute for Sustainable Cities, found that NYC has 52,236 acres (304 sq miles) of residential yard space—more than a quarter of New York City’s total land area.  Many of these yard spaces are located between row houses, away from street views. 

Heretofore, there has been no effort undertaken to measure how much of this space (or other surface areas) is paved and how much is permeable. However, a study conducted by Sustainable Yards NYC and CUNY on one UWS residential block provides a preview of what such a survey might find. 

Only 35 percent of the residential yard space measured on the one block (containing 44 rowhouses, 5 apartment buildings and 7 flats) was found to be permeable.  Nevertheless, even that modest amount of permeable space was estimated to have diverted over 50,000 gallons of rainwater from the sewer system in 2009 (in addition to trapping 8822 pounds of carbon dioxide that would have otherwise been released into the atmosphere).

Step one in this effort would be for the City to commission a study that will identify all privately owned non-permeable surfaces areas in the five boroughs. Following that study, the City should work with the State to develop tax-incentive programs to use carrots and sticks to nudge private property owners to do their part to reduce CSOs and make NYC a model for other cities to follow.