When Comes The Rain

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I’m a firm believer that anyone can achieve anything. It sounds completely altruistic, but I honestly believe that corny little mantra. Given some opportunity, training, some motivation, I think than anyone can be successful at whatever they put their mind to, God help me.

However, the events of this past weekend made me doubt my personal belief.

On August 15, 2008, the wind and rain in New York City was especially hard. There was some warning about a tornado touching down. While no tornado hit the boroughs, there was plenty of flooding and lots of utility lines and trees down. Mercifully, I was in Connecticut when it happened. When I returned home, I found a large branch suspended in the wires above my house.

For those not familiar with the laws of NYC, trees that are on the sidewalk are the property of the city. They means that they are under the city’s care. Residents are not allowed to trim, cut, or plant trees on city property.

When reporting something to the city that is not an emergency, residents are supposed to call 311. The branch suspended in the wires was quite large. If it falls on a car, it would certainly damage. Falling on a person would cause considerably more damage. Seeing that it was suspended, I did my due diligence and called the city.

I don’t envy people that must screen calls. They have to deal with all sorts of characters. Some people are irate, others irrational, and others might just be hard to understand. I imagine that every call screener, whether for a municipality or a private company, must undergo some sort of training. To save some time, I’ll break down the dialog (not verbatim, of course).

“Hi, I’m calling to report a large branch in the wires in front of my house.”
“Is it an emergency?”
“I don’t think it is an immediate emergency. I wouldn’t want you to pull someone off an accident or something, I know there is a lot of activity because of the storm, but the branch is sizable and could injure someone if it falls.”
“…and it’s caught in the utility lines?”
“Yes.”
“Is is the telephone or power lines?”
“I don’t really know.”
“OK, hold on.”

<pause>

“OK, sir. Is this an emergency?”
“Uh… no, not really.”
“Well, sir, since you don’t know which lines, if it is not really an emergency, there is really no place to transfer this call to.”
“…huh?”
“If it’s not an emergency, there”s not really anything I can do for you. Since you don’t know which lines, there is no one I can call.”

I’m sure there is a rulebook of some kind that operators follow. Sometimes, some calls may be outside the usual parameters of the rulebook. A little ingenuity may be called for, perhaps a little inventiveness. I would think that in this case, a little creative thinking would be called for, but apparently not. I ended up reporting it as an emergency, just so it would receive some attention. Granted, this is not what I wanted to do, but I had little choice. Sadly, no one came out. It is four days later, and nothing has been done. I’ve called the phone company to see if they will attend to the situation. We’ll see what transpires.

Why didn’t I remove the branch myself? First of all, I don’t own a cherry picker. Second, if I injure myself, I can’t really hold anyone liable. Third, if I knock down a power line in the process of removing the branch, I would be liable for any damages. Paranoid? Maybe, but considering the history of the Bloomberg administration

Back to my original point. Most people would believe that an operator is a skill that most people could master. Some training would be required, but a Masters degree is probably not a prerequisite to obtain the job. Is the training insufficient? Are some people just unable to think creatively?

Additional Links:
Tree upkeep in NYC

Predatory Lending

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The $37 million dollar settlement was very big news. The words “predatory lending” have an ominous ring. One imagines people defrauded out of their homes, homes that they have worked their entire life to build. Since land ownership is the basis for inherited wealth, the idea of loosing property is especially odious. However, how many of us are sure we know what predatory lending really is?

The words “unfair agreement” and “fine print” spring to mind. While that is part of the issue, it might be a little harder to nail down. Just skimming this Wikipedia entry on predatory lending sent my head reeling. This article from the New York Times breaks down some individual cases, and is a little easier to follow, but keep your calculators handy.

The form of predatory lending takes many different faces. I’m not going to claim that all the example that I’m going to describe are “predators”, but some facts should cause you to raise an eyebrow.

Background: My neighborhood is mostly Caribbean. While many of the people come from Jamaica, many of my neighbors are from Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, etc… Our collective income levels would be described as lower-middle class. There is enough to own a home, send a child or two to college, and buy a car, but not quite enough to hold a standing reservation for a charter flight. Most everyone has children that were born in this country while they were not.

1. Phone calls
I receive at least four calls a month asking me to refinance my home or take out a loan against my home. This is funny since I have no outstanding debt.

2. Paper
A few times a month, a card or brochure will find its way into my screen door from some sort of real estate agency asking if I want to sell, refinance, borrow against my home, or something to that effect.

3. The Bank
Here’s where it gets a little unnerving. There are about four bank within walking distance of my house. At least once a month, there is a “specialist” standing in the vestibule with information on refinancing, borrowing against my home, or taking out a second mortgage. Pamphlets are brochures are at the ready, along with a friendly smile. Most of the time, I use a bank branch in a different neighborhood, a very affluent neighborhood. Signs about second mortgages, and the aforementioned representatives are curiously absent.

I don’t believe that the issue of predatory lending is a black/white issue, though it may play out along racial lines. The same scenarios may play out in working/middle class white neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the trend is disturbing. The person that leaves a message on my answering machine is assuredly from an island, and the man with the easy handshake at the bank has a tan.

My next door neighbors have been in the neighborhood a little over two years. The old family was Puerto Rican. They moved from this urban area to “the suburbs”. The family had a daughter, son-in-law, and a new grandchild. At the behest of their children, they sold their home. Occasionally, I still see them in the neighborhood, as they come back to shop in the supermarket that caters to Caribbean tastes. The sad part is that they are miserable. They are uncomfortable in the new neighborhood, mortgaged up to the hilt, and the money that they are paying for a neighborhood where they could send their child to a good public school, they could have paid for private schooling five time over. So why did they sell their home?

A home represents a significant investment, as I stated before, it is the basis for inherited wealth. A mark of opulence, or achievement, is home ownership. However, as the adage goes, the most important part of home ownership is location, location, and location. The perception is that if you own a home in a certain neighborhood, you are just getting by, and it may be a rest-stop on the way to a better life. One may own a home, but if you don’t own it in a certain area, you haven’t really made a “real” investment. The notion of “building a neighborhood” seems to be gone. One has to buy into a neighborhood, and that enclave has to be the “right” enclave, or one will be subject to curious looks and the unwanted advances of sharks in tailored suits.

Cut Me Someplace Exotic

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“At least you have your health.”

In the 2008 Presidential election, health care is likely to be a hot-button issue. When evaluating a job, the quality of the health-benefits package is factored into pros and cons. The biggest obstacle to some, myself included, when deciding to become self-employed is the issue of health insurance.

Forbes had a little story about going on a plastic surgery vacation. However, more people are going abroad for surgery that is not cosmetic. This trend likely does not only extend to the uninsured. I’m sure that most people can think of at least one account where a friend or a friend of a friend had a problem with an insurance company because a certain procedure, treatment, technique, hospital, or drug is not covered.

Think people are crazy to go abroad for surgery? Why? Consider how many American born doctors are earning medical degrees outside of the Unites States. Consider that the cost you may have to pay out of pocket for surgery may well exceed getting surgery done abroad twice.

Medicine may be a specialty, but is America on track to outsource health care to the rest of the world?

There are teams of doctors starting practices where insurance is not accepted. Patients must simply pay for their treatments up front. Apparently, these specialists’ skills are at such a caliber where they do not have to worry about turning away the uninsured.

Malpractice may work differently in other parts of the world. Will we begin to see doctors turn to expatriates to avoid dealing with legal hassles. Most cases are settled out of court to avoid hassles and legal fees.

Is socialized medicine the answer?

Will specialized medicine become a uniquely foreign affair?

Should you decide to go abroad for surgery, check Planet Hospital. It provides some nice details about the surgeries available, where, and how much.

To Play The King

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What is the role of the vice-president? If you really want the official definition, you can get it from the US Senate’s website. This might take a little while to sift through, so I’ll paraphrase as best possible from the section entitled Vice-Presidential Duties: The Vice-President acts a tie-breaker when the Senate is equally divided. If the President is unable to serve, the Vice-President takes over.

There’s got to be more. What does the Vice-President do when he goes to work each day? What is his day to day purpose?

In the opening of Frontline: Cheney’s Law, there was a retelling of a little encounter between Dan Qualye (Vice-President under George H.W. Bush) and Dick Cheney. Apparently, Qualye said to Cheney, “You’re going to have to go to a lot of fund-raisers, corporate events, and pressing palm ceremonies, stuff that the President doesn’t want to do.” Cheney just looked at Qualye and laughed, communicating “I don’t think so.” According to Frontline, Cheney believes that the Vice-President’s primary job is to ensure and protect the power of the President.

So what power does the President possess? Britannica online has a nice little summary. There’s a lot of information there, but I’ll boil down the two points that I’ll touch on today.

1. The President is responsible for upholding the laws of the Constitution.
This responsibility alone can be a pretty dicey area, considering how open to interpretation some sections of the Constitution remain. Add in the fact that there are so many amendments to this document, amendments to amendments… that this duty alone is quite a handful.

2. The President is Commander in Chief.
As I understand this, it means that the President has the power to mobilize the military. What he does not possess is the power to declare war. (There’s not going to be a hyperlink for ‘declaration of war’. If you can find a concrete definition of “declaration of war”, especially if it shows the differences between that and “mobilizing the military”, please drop a comment.) Only Congress can declare war.

So, to get back to Cheney, if he believes that his primary job is to ensure and protect the power of the Presidency, he believes that he should help his commander mobilize the military if the need arises, and he should assist in upholding Constitutional law. Right? Sounds reasonable?

Here is where the magic on interpretation comes in: What if the President is at odds with Congress? What if the President interprets a law in one respect, Congress another? What happens if the President mobilizes the military, but Congress does not feel he should and will not sign a formal declaration of war?

A few years ago, I saw a documentary called The Trials of Henry Kissinger. An interesting statement was something along the lines of, “Kissinger is a person that believes that power should be placed in the hands of those smart and strong enough to lead.” Imagine a President with the same mentality (not that running for President doesn’t involve an incredible self-fortitude). If you think about the course of the war in Iraq, the issues about prison detainment and human right violation, I think you can boil down the President’s feelings with the two duties listed above. Ultimately, he believes that he is working within the bounds of the Constitution, for the good of the nation, and as Commander in Chief, he believes he is doing his duly elected duty. Right?

The Frontline piece and a NPR interview with Lou Dubose, author of Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency, both mention the use (and possible overuse) of signing statements by George Bush. The signing statement is a sort of Presidential mulligan. Bush can sign a law, but he also adds a signing statement. This statement, in effect, says “I signed this law, but I don’t really believe it and it doesn’t really need to be followed.” WHAT?!?!? It seems a little crazy, but that’s the gist. Add this power to someone that believes he is working for the greater good, despite what everyone else around him is saying. Sounds like autonomy, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, depending on his interpretation of Duty 1, this is both his right and his duty.

Remember the issue with the definition of torture? What constitutes torture? A famous Bush signing statement was on Congress’s expanded definition of torture. There’s Duty 2. He is the Commander in Chief. He will tell the military what constitutes torture and what does not.

So why is this article about Cheney?

Let’s face it. George Bush has failed at every business venture he has undertaken. If you watch the documentary Journeys with George about the campaign trail with Bush during the 2000 election, he comes across as a bloody annoying human being. According to his Yale transcript, he’s not a dummy, but he’s certainly no genius. He likes to party. He may even be a poor sport. None of this screams LEADER OF MEN.

On the other hand, take a look through Dick Cheny’s political history. Sure, he also liked to have a few drinks and go for a ride, but that might be how he and GB bonded. Keep in mind that it’s Dick Cheney’s personal lawyer, David Addington who found the power of signing statements and brought it to Bush’s attention.

Who do you think is really running the White House?

Additional Links:
Differences between military tribunal and civilian trial

Ruling With A Bloomberg Hand

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Michael Bloomberg may run for President of the United States one day. Even non-New York residents have probably heard his name, or at least from his news channel.

Bloomberg himself may be worth up to $20 billion dollars, and since there is nothing linking him to some form of organized crime or grand heist, I can only assume that he knows how to balance a budget and make a buck. It’s unlikely that many people could ever argue with his ability to run a municipality financially. However, there is another aspect to governing any group of people.

Bloomberg succeeded Rudy Giuliani as New York’s mayor. Giuliani had the unenviable task of being mayor during the September 11 attacks. All eyes were on New York in the days and weeks following the fall of the World Trade Center, and Giuliani was at the forefront. Granted, he did what he was supposed to, as mayor, but it was still excellent to see him meeting with the Fire Department, the Police Department, and altogether serving as a master of ceremonies over a grim cleanup and possible rescue operation. (During the cleanup, when everyone would say, “Isn’t Rudy doing a great job?”, I would respond, “He’s doing what he is supposed to, anyone would do the same thing.” Sadly, I found out post-Hurricane Katrina that I was very wrong, as I watched President Bush’s response. As stated by David Remnick in the September 12, 2005 issue of The New Yorker, “Suntanned and relaxed after a vacation so long that it would have shamed a French playboy, Bush reacted with fogged delinquency, as if he had been so lulled by his summer sojourn that he was not quite ready to acknowledge reality, let alone attempt to master it.”… anyway, back to Rudy…)

The sense on the street, at least the one that I got was that Fernando Ferrer was slated to win the election. However, Ferrer made the most critical and stupidest political move of his life. The twin towers fell right in the middle of the election process. Giuliani asked to continue as mayor for three months, whoever won, just so he could finish the cleanup job he had started. Keep in mind, at this moment, the entire world has been watching Giuliani, now the archetype of a man keeping his head under a difficult position, a leader in crisis, a bulwark in the storm, a nation hero for God’s sake. He was damn near a saint! Bloomberg said, “Yes.” Fernando said, “No.” Moron. I believe that gave Bloomberg the election, because no one wants an idiot as a mayor.

Bloomberg may not be an idiot, and as previously stated, he definitely has business acumen. However, he it completely out of touch with the common man. Sure, he rides the subway every morning to City Hall, but there are plenty of policies and actions that have occurred under his administration that show his lack of care for the average man.

The first clue was his smoking ban. In protest, many bar owners I knew had the lottery machines in their establishments taken out (so the state would not get the revenue), but despite the uproar and anger, the ban still stands. It would be one the first examples of his personal opinions (as he was a former smoker) deciding his public policy. Even if you’re not a smoker, were you really surprised and upset by people smoking in bars? I can respect a smoking ban in a restaurant, but a bar… a damn bar… give me a break.

Next would come a string of tickets that would make headlines in New York, ticketing a man for feeding pigeons, ticketing a pregnant woman for sitting on the steps of a subway station, loitering tickets, unauthorized use of a milk crate. This was very bad. Bloomberg was looked at as a tyrant, a dictator. There was no way that this guy was going to get a second term in office. Right? Wrong.

I took a little trip down to City Hall for Bloomberg’s second inauguration. It was a very telling experience. The event was held at New York’s City Hall which is surrounded by a park. Of course, security was very tight, and there were plenty of police in the area. Traffic was stopped for around 10 blocks of City Hall. That would not be the only thing stopped.

No one without an invitation was allowed within a block of City Hall and the surrounding park. If you walked past, police told you to move across the street. One cop commented, “I wonder why they don’t open the park. It’s such a nice park.” The giant screens that would broadcast the speaker at the podium and the day’s performers, were not turned out to the street, where people that had been moved the minimum city block away would see the image, but into the park, where the ticketed spectators could get the digital view.

I’m not trying to be a class warrior and I’m not rallying against the elite or people of privilege. What does confuse me is the definition of “inauguration”. I thought that an inauguration was supposed to be a public ceremony. I thought an inauguration was where an elected official says, “Thank you,” to the voters as well as his campaign contributors. I thought an inauguration was a public affair where one makes a pledge to live up to campaign promises. I did not think that an inauguration was a “invitation only” affair. I was wrong.

The second term would only showcase more of Mayor Mike’s disconnect with the common man. When the snow fell especially heavy in New York the police department issued tickets to cars that were not moved for alternate side regulations. New Yorkers cried out. Mayor Mike said, “It’s a pain, but you have to do it.” Essentially, he said, “Don’t be lazy, just move it.” It was only when every news report in New York showed that the streets had not been plowed and that there was no where to move the snow that Mayor Mike made a retreat that very evening.

During the MTA strike Bloomberg took a hard stance, calling the head of the Transit Union thuggish. Granted, no one was pleased by the strike, but what choice does someone have if they have a contract they consider unfair? Grin and hope for the best? Count on someone’s good will to give you more money?

Most recent is the NY taxi strike, where Bloomberg has said that “drivers have never had it so good.”

Maybe Bloomberg had a rough time balancing the economy after September 11. Maybe the growing costs of New York and the deficit are getting to him. I’m not sure what ails or drive Mayor Mike, but one thing is for certain: He’s a dick.

His current crusade is for congestion pricing. Though it appear unlikely to happen, taking a bull in a china shop cue, he’s marching.

What would this guy be like as president? A president that is driven by private zeal? I think we’ve all seen where that could lead us.

More Links:
Wikipedia summary of Michael Bloomberg