In a society where 2.3 million people are serving time in prison — more than any other country in the world — and many of them are innocent or convicted of harmless drug possession charges, it’s no surprise when you hear the story of Doreen Giuliano’s son, John Giuca, who she claims was wrongly convicted of murder in the notoriously rotten courts of Brooklyn, New York. Doreen, a stay-at-home mom, had an answer to what she perceived as a broken justice system. She went undercover to get the evidence to secure a new trial for her son. I wrote about Doreen’s story at Vanity Fair.
The good news for economy – I use the word in its old, perhaps archaic, sense – keeps on coming, but we are told the current “economic” crisis is a tragedy for the nation’s living standards. Far from it. First of all, let’s define economy. What we are hopefully entering is a period of real economy, which means conserving, scaling down, simplifying, saving, spending prudently and wisely and only for the things that one needs. A decent meal of greens and simple protein (I suggest beans and rice and spinach), good drink (Budweiser works wonders), clothes and shoes that last and can be mended for the long haul (try old military surplus and paratrooper boots), shelter that is modest and affordable but functional and not a credit scam. Having a beautiful wife or girlfriend who doesn’t like to wear clothing also helps.
But everywhere the consensus trance holds that a slow-down of consumption signals the End Time, the shuttering of hope, chance, freedom. Look no further than how the New York Times spins it from the usual gibberishing oracles: “The last few days have devastated the American consumer,” says retail consultant Walter Loeb. Americans, avers Loeb, “all feel poor.” Really? So too we are meant to believe that “when consumers get concerned about…their country, they need entertainment,” per the wisdom of the Entertainment Merchants Association. So too is it “amazing how much even these 10-year-old girls are aware that something is going on,” the chairman and chief executive of Tween Brands tells us, who has been traveling the country to “listen to moms and little girls.” And what does the CEO hear? “Mom is saying, ‘I can’t afford that.’”
Tragic, darkness at noon, a nightmare I tell you. The reporters in the mainstream press, as dimly discerning as dreamers who know nothing but the dream from which they refuse to awake, escort us through the envisaged circles of hell of this “unaffordable” world. The benefits of the descent are manifold but tacitly unrecognized: the malls no longer trap rats with credit cards, the casinos no longer suck blood from the arms of degenerates, the lousy restaurants no longer make you nauseous for $100 a plate (gasp – the Times reports that the ungrateful citizens are eating at home!), the retailers no longer ask you to throw away perfectly good shoes, the jewelers no longer sell to serious adults the silly shiny trinkets meant for the pleasure of cretins, the auto dealerships no longer peddle cars half as efficient as last year’s model, the cellphone hawkers no longer sell the I3869Zed Super-Iphone to burn out the brains and tire the ears, the home builders no longer slap-dab junk homes in exurban fields meant for farms that can sustain something we once called the future.
Nor, according to the New York Times, will the new blah-blah Super-Blah be available, because of the contracting “economy,” and the other new blahs from Blah Inc., and many other new blahs that Blah Investments recommends – because the consumer just won’t make the penny scream, won’t play the game. The game, of course, is predicated on being an infantilized weirdo, a grasping entitled half-fetus on two legs with a college degree crying “awn it awn it” from inside the womb of cash, cycling through the drooled suggestions of the marketeers as if our “freedom” depends on how much money we can waste rather than how much we need to survive.
Like I said, recession is all good news, and not just for our brains and souls, but for the planet and the real chance for Americans to survive in some kind of non-debased, non-infantilized, non-crap-inundated form – a race of fully matured and, dare I say, noble creatures. Every time I hear the New York Times lamenting that the average American refuses to open his billfold for bullshit, I envision less metal in the junkyard, less garbage in the scow, less forest turned into the Times, less pollution in the skies and water, less stupidity in the shape of owning more. I also envision a resurgence of cobblers mending the soles of shoes – cobblers who I can’t seem to find anymore in these fair United States to fix up my boots.
If it’s true that consumer spending now accounts for two-thirds of the American “economy” – god help us – then there’s nothing economic about it, as defined above. In other words, if it doesn’t economize, then the “economy” is not worth maintaining.
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT COUNTERPUNCH.ORG)
An Open Letter to Congress
You in the corporate execugarchy in this country have forgotten the shape and name of fear – and yes I mean you, dear congressmen, whose work has gone hand in hand with big money for too long, running amok in the sea lanes of American society, piratical, parasitic, treasure-troved, flying the black flag and raiding what the rest of us offer up in the tax season or are imbecilic enough to invest on Wall Street. So let us, as citizens intelligent and discerning, now be raised in answer to this latest monumental predation – the treasonous Bailout of ‘08 – visited from you, the criminals in the nice suits.
A suggestion for further action comes to mind in a recent book of fiction called Tyrannicide, by Evan Keliher, which offers the improbable scenario of the Second American Revolution, which opens, sometime in the near future, with the slow, careful, systematic assassination of the members of the US Senate for their complicity in the sell-out of the old republic. In Keliher’s fantasy, “It was big business and corrupt politicians against everybody else in a scenario that grew ever worse for average citizens and ever more prosperous for the rich, and it was now going to change even if it meant shooting every last one of the larcenous pricks.” Right. Down goes one senator after another, popped between porcine eyes with a .22 cal. bullet fired by experts. Soon, select representatives follow to the grave. The federal government freaks out with martial law and the iron fist and the boot on the throat, the citizens respond with full-scale armed revolt – a delightful vision, as sepia-tone and strange as that of a citizen musketeer on Bunker Hill fighting the injuries from a distant king.
Now if I was to imagine this kind of thing – and I’m not saying I am – as the proper justice for the most treasonous and scheming and syphilitically whored-out figures in our legislature – shoot the diseased little shits, why not? – I think the plan should certainly extend to their friends and co-conspirators on Wall Street. Now I’m not necessarily suggesting that we organize into citizen bands to kidnap and assassinate on video, in good lighting, our various congressmen in tandem with the former heads of Lehman Bros or Goldman Sachs or Freddie Mac or AIG or any of the other current paragons of grand theft who’ve parachuted home with bags of cash. I’m not suggesting that these same gray-skinned little thieves, elected and not, be taken from their homes by hockey-mask-wearing SEAL-trained operatives, gagged with a roll of twenties, and beaten with a DC phone book. Nor should they be waterboarded in a toilet, split at the knees, sawed off at the arms, or beheaded, or shot in a fetal wad into outer space. Nor am I suggesting a simple machine-gunning in the fields of Connecticut or on K Street or at the docks at Nantucket; nor am I suggesting that, a la Rome in the days of Empire, their families, their children, their cousins, friends, servants, wives, mistresses also be killed, their bodies dumped in the streets, their heads displayed on the spiked fences of their estates to be eaten by crows, lobbyists, tax collectors, real estate agents, and rabid dogs. Nor am I suggesting that the citizens gather enough fertilizer and ammonia to blow up the New York Stock Exchange, along with Congress, and be done with the disease altogether.
Though all that is pretty fucking sickly-sweet to imagine, and totally psychotic, and it would signal the end of the American experiment, a descent into barbarism that would only profit the forces of a far more barbaric reaction and clampdown.
What I would suggest is a kinder, gentler solution, based not on lunatic force – which after all is the purview and privilege of the brutes now running the country – but on the common sense notion that comes with being part of a rational polity: Someone has to pay for government, especially a government that routinely loots its own treasury in support of anti-capitalist, anti-American, corporate-socialist wealth transfers. “Let them march all they want to,” former Secretary of State and known motherfucker Alexander Haig once said, “as long as they continue to pay their taxes.” Or, as Thoreau put it during the Mexican War of 1846 – Thoreau who is among the fathers of American tax resistance – “If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.” The Algonquin Indians, long before there was a Constitution or Bill of Rights or the rallying cry of aggrieved colonists, did it in 1637: They refused to pay a Dutch tax on the refurbishment of the same military fort that was the arbiter and symbol of their lost autonomy. We pay for the blood and mess on the hands of this foul fortressed government, we can, like the Algonquins, stop paying for it too. Let us, chers citoyens, not pay our tax bills this coming year. It was a mass tax revolt that started this country, and by god a tax revolt could end it. Cut off the funding that keeps the bullets pointed, that fills the coffers for Wall Street welfare; watch you, the bastards in Congress, throw a fit like a bitch in heat.
How would this tax revolt work? I have no idea. But short of tyrannicide, the heads on sticks and the dogs chewing innards – and it could happen here, it’s happened pretty much everywhere republics collapse into the darkness of fallen empire – we need an answer to the corruption of our system that is mature enough to form something new and better and more humane. Right now, all we are seeing is organized chaos – most recently and obscenely in the Big Bailout – that sails as the freebooter under the black flag of the US government.
So the tax-payer hand-out will “save” Wall Street from its own predations. Any reasonable man, of course, would wish the pig-fuckers to fry in their own feces. Let the free market carry out their corpses to the gutter. And mine too, perhaps, for as a magazine writer I depend on the thoughtlessness and blind-mole cupidity of credit-card consumerism – the credit system now imploding – to feed the ad-market that feeds the magazines that pay my bills. Without dumb blondes buying Manohlo Blahniks and metrosexuals fawning over prawns in overpriced restaurants, my paycheck turns to dust.
But the fact is that our economic system is a lunatic and suicidal system, and it deserves to go down. Why lunatic and suicidal? It is predicated on the delusion, accepted on every level in every modern society, that unlimited Mahnolo Blahniks are possible on a planet of limited resources. Growth without horizon is simply not possible, but the delusion remains in force, a mass glue-huff and consensus trance hallucination. Endless growth on planet earth is by definition entropic; it implies its own end. Its pursuit is therefore suicidal.
What might replace the current insane system I couldn’t venture to say. Certainly, a lot of people will be hurt if we go down the rat-hole that appears our proper and fitting end. If events trend badly enough, a period of contraction, unemployment, economic depression, homelessness, tent cities, rising crime, boarded up storefronts, abandoned homes will be upon us faster than imaginable – the last five developments are already in our midst in the post-subprime wastelands of suburbia. Perhaps the crisis will bring about the devolution of the American living standard to something like sustainability. Perhaps it will only bring out a lot of pissed-off middle-classers who refuse to accept that the American way of life is sick and crazy and has no future. That kind of infantile resentment historically either leads to reform or fascism.
Gerald Celente, a self-described “trends forecaster” who last year predicted the “Economic 9/11” that hit this week, dropped me an e-mail the other day: “THE PANIC IS ON,” he wrote. “Depression to follow…” Celente, who has famously tended to be right, augurs that the big Wall Street failures will extend far beyond the financial sector. “In the coming weeks, months and years,” writes Celente, “we’ll see a steady stream of banks, giant retailers, consumer product companies, manufacturers, leveraged buyout firms and home builders going under. The next economic shoe to drop,” he avers, “will be in the commercial real estate sector.”
Bring it on. I envision a trickle-down benefit here in Brooklyn, which when I was growing up in the 1980s served fine as a natal ground defined by burglaries, homelessness, murder, empty streets, and the pervasive sense that bad things could happen at any time, which tends to raise consciousness to a fever range, the kind of sharp-sword animal consciousness where the coyote and the rat operate. Empty streets, spartan and lean and dark – that’s what I most remember about old Brooklyn. The place had the feeling of desert. It was replete with open spaces. The “maggot called man,” in Nietzche’s memorable phrase, was not swarming in the foreground.
There was very little that was considered upscale – meaning you could afford the restaurants and bars, what few there were, without making $100,000 a year in the salary prisons of corporate Manhattan. When I was 19, in 1992, I rented an apartment in a neighborhood of old brownstones then known as Park Slope – hallucinating realtors in the New York land rush of the last 20 years have since divided the streets into a Babel of sub-markets. I paid $400 a month for two rooms and a bathroom that leaked shit-water and a fridge that shut off periodically to fill with cockroaches (they ate ham while I slept!). My girlfriend at the time, Carole-Anne, with whom I’d later have a daughter, had just gotten off a plane from Paris. One day I came home to find her crying. “A man – no head! La tete, la tete,” she said. She was hysterical. A man had been shotgunned around the corner and Carole-Anne had walked onto the crime scene minutes after the shoot-out, before the cops could sanitize. That was Brooklyn. And it was okay – well, not okay, but it was part of the facts of life in a city that warded off those who weren’t trained in that high keening consciousness to accept it. One night we borrowed my father’s Honda and took a midnight drive into a cliffy forested park at the northern tip of Manhattan, and a car came up behind us in the lightless road and tried to cut us off. A car-jacking. The men in the car screaming out the window, waving guns. Carole-Anne hysterical (poor girl, from the suburbs of Paris!). High-speed chase along the winding roads. The cars screeching. We escaped down a wrong-way road at 70 miles an hour – god save us we didn’t smash into someone coming the other way – and when we were home in Brooklyn, we were alive. Alive and overjoyed and it was a beautiful moment. That was New York.
This is all romanticized drivel, of course, and to be car-jacked or see a man shotgunned is not to be interpreted as normal or fun or desirable. But at least it was affordable. You didn’t have to work 60 hours a week to watch the cockroaches eat your dinner inside the fridge. You worked enough to pay the rent, and no more (I was a bike messenger, she worked as a secretary at a real estate office that I’m convinced was also trafficking narcotics). I think of the accounts I’ve read of primitive societies, in the sea-girt islands, say, of Micronesia, where perhaps three or four hours a day are lost to the work required for daily survival. The balance of waking is dedicated to nothing at all that could be construed as productive, which means it was for playing with the kids, it was for sex, for sleep, for lazing and going back to sleep. A little work, mostly play makes Jack a happy boy.
Today the same shit-house Carole-Anne and I lived in costs $1900 a month, and it probably still has a cockroach problem, but this is considered “character,” and the main avenues all around are swallowed in the caterwauling of commerce by which the newly-ripped-off resident is bombarded with the temptations of more junk than is affordable or desirable. Whereas on 5th Avenue in Park Slope in 1992 I used to be able to find a hooker and cocaine and run away from a fist-fight and learn Puerto Rican Spanish doing it, whereas I used to be able to find nothing at all on the street, no people, no rushing, nothing to buy or sell, just about every storefront today is taken over by the glad-handing smiley-face of the idiot consumer economy gone to its nth-degree madness. There is growth on all sides, it saturates, it feels like hysteria, and like hysteria it will end in collapse. There are too many amenities, there is too much foolery and surfeit disguised as worthiness and bottom-line necessity. The restaurants where crappy food, the same crappy food you might have gotten for a twentieth of the price ten years ago, is proferred as if it’s Jesus’ bread broken in your mouth – as with religious ritual, the profligate consumption bar/restaurant scene is as ritualized and hyperbolic as a funeral. Money is the password to all social relations. Bubble-economics on all sides: How many of the new jobs offered to the newly-rich in Brooklyn are based on anything more than the usual hallucinated sectors of finance, banking, media, fashion? Fashion, that New York engine of silliness, has for its purpose the slathering of rich people in expensive uselessness made by slave-wagers overseas – it is the industry of children playing at dress up. Once upon a time New Yorkers made their own clothing – right there in Manhattan, in the garment districts, where the art galleries of Soho now peddle emptiness on canvas. But emptiness is today our butter: entertainment, the “news cycle,” the so-called “arts,” the ever-increasing pestilence of a media that informs not at all. Are there any jobs in New York City that actually produce something other than a fart in the wind on a website or in the windows of mannequins at Saks Fifth Avenue or in the ledgers of bankers and brokers, the parasitic middlemen?
Which brings me back to the collapsing markets, the product of fart-in-the-wind economics. I can foresee on 5th Avenue in Park Slope a beautiful resurgence of shuttered shops, rotted storefronts, the end of money’s welcome in its hypocrite hug, the end of surfeit, a return to normalcy. No more strawberries in January at the store on the corner – the strawberries were never meant to be eaten in winter anyway. Perhaps we might even see a return to the city of people who manufacture something other than air. I will be driven out first – because this screed is all air! So be it!
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT COUNTERPUNCH.ORG)
My most recent article in Harper’s — find it here — chronicles the several weeks I spent in May 2007 wandering around with the Yellowstone buffalo herd, the last free-roaming unfenced genetically pure herd in the world. In what amounts to the usual sad and sorry spectacle called “government at its best,” the animals are harassed, chased, shot at, and killed during their spring migrations, courtesy of state and federal “livestock agents” working at the behest of the ranching industry.
Montana cattlemen claim the wild herd threatens to spread disease among their stock, threatens the availability of grass on public lands, threatens the ranching industry itself. This is simply not true. The real reason for the persecution of the buffalo, I argue, derives from psychological factors as old as the colonization of the West by white men. In a land where extremes of drought and flood often play out in the same year, those who extract a tenuous living from the land are adversaries of the land: To survive they exert a violent control, eliminating any and all competition. Free-roaming buffalo aren’t part of that cowboy equation. What’s most interesting in all this mess, though, is that the “rough and independent” rancher is in fact a welfare queen — sucking hard on the tit of your tax dollars and mine. Read more in the Harper’s piece.
Regarding the abortion debate, I tend to think that life starts when a child develops irony.
The hope of the human race is that we will learn to disagree without believing in anything.
Only brothers could hate each other the way Arabs and Jews do.
The frugal man in a time of prosperity is as wise as he is despised.
When I hear someone say “I’ll pray for you,” I know nothing will get done.
The highest purpose of gun ownership is to shoot back at governments.
It’s almost a certainty today that to be anti-United States is to be pro-American.
The Internet and portable phones have made waste efficient.
The ubiquity of the belief in God is proof only that a lot of people can agree to be wrong.
Priests and judges both wear black robes and they’ll both fuck your children in the ass when you’re not looking.
In the United States, echolalia is called debate.
The wildest law-breaking is usually that done in the name of God and country.
When I hear the American justice system pronounces a man guilty, I will wager on his innocence.
I trust governments only when I am certain they are lying.
I will no way endorse any political platform in which people agree with me.
The brain-damaging effects of cellphones explains a lot of conversation today.
Wherever human beings mass, they are ugly.
Finally, a snippet of wisdom from Ed Abbey explaining a little bit of America’s “Texas problem,” from his recently published letters:
“Why pick on Texas? Because it typifies, concentrates and exaggerates most everything that is rotten in America: it’s vulgar — not only cultureless but anti-cultural; it’s rich in a brazen, vulgar, graceless way; it combines the bigotry and sheer animal ignorance of the Old South with the aggressive, ruthless, bustling, dollar-crazy brutality of the Yankee East and then attempts to hide this ugliness under a facade of mock-western play clothes stolen from a way of life that was crushed by Texanism over half a century ago. The trouble with Texas: it’s ugly, noisy, mean-spirited, mediocre and false.”
Money has proved the most dangerous of modern man’s hallucinogens.
Be in nothing so moderate as in love of man.
– Robinson Jeffers, from “Shine, Perishing Republic!”
Pack Creek Ranch, Moab, Utah
Rats, like human beings, need enough space to stretch and relax and breath free. Consider a study that researcher John Calhoun conducted in 1962 by gathering 80 Norway rats in tiny pens, conditions far beyond the tolerance level for the average rattus norvegicus. Rodent society went crazy. Mating rituals, nesting, social organization, and health collapsed, while an oligarchy of the super-fattened few took over the high reaches of the pen, gathering a harem and forcing the rest into tenement living. Among the females miscarriages rose sharply; ditto disorders of the mammary glands, sex organs, ovaries, uterus, Fallopian tubes. The males, for their part, became sociopaths: they bit and fought constantly. Ambush tail-biting, generally impermissible in rat society, became the order of the day. In normal conditions, the rats would have policed themselves and punished such aggression. But now, in the perverted conditions of the “behavioral sink” – which scientists define as the pathologic outcome of any situation in which too many animals are crowded in too little space – it was a war of all against all, each rat for himself on what appeared to be a sinking ship. Some rats simply gave up and went into fugues of passivity. What was most compelling is what happened to the kidneys, liver and adrenal glands in the behavioral sink – all were enlarged and sickened. In particular, the adrenals suffered. The condition in many of the rats was in fact something close to adrenocortical hyperactivity – a constant dosing of adrenalin due to stressor conditions. And the adrenalin was killing them.
I was thinking about Calhoun’s rats and spacing and crowds and the death-espresso of the behavioral sink in New York City as Mayor Mike Bloomberg unveiled his “sustainable New York” plan last spring, at a time when I was leaving town for the lonely old canyons of Utah. It was on a Sunday, in the first warm days, and people were out to enjoy the weather and not listening to the mayor. On Atlantic Avenue and 4th Avenue many of them were stuffed in cars backed up and unmoving, awful constipation. On Court Street, more crowds. At the park at the bottom of Atlantic Avenue where the avenue falls into the bay, the handball courts with too many players; baseball diamonds overrun; too many people everywhere in the behavioral sink. I mention all this because the mayor’s big plan for “sustainability” and a “green” future and the reduction of greenhouse gases etc. is to welcome another million people into New York over the next 23 years. You may ask: How do you reduce greenhouse gases by growing the population? Who knows – who cares! The people will come, we’re told. Is there no way to stop them? Won’t mustard gas work? The people are coming! And it is a good thing. So we are told. We must grow – build more houses, shopping centers, retail strips, malls, towers, and, not least, sports arenas to watch grown men chase after leather balls. The consensus trance that all growth, always, everywhere is good is of course insane and comic at once and has been the bane of civilization since men laid mortar in the agglomerations of cities. Because rationally one must ask: Will New York really be a better place to live with another million people added into it? Of course not.
With this on my mind I went up the canyon not long ago and shotgunned the face of Bruce Ratner, one of the most fearsome developers in New York and certainly the most publicly demeaning face of the growth consensus that I’ve come across. Good feelings all around – Bruce’s laser-printed smugness now shredded wheat; the Remington’s aim true at 70 paces. The occasion for fury, found in my mailbox here in Moab, was a movie called “Brooklyn Matters,” which deconstructs the lies and trickery and vicious bigotry that Ratner has employed in furtherance of his $2.4 billion boondoggle known as Atlantic Yards. Not so foreign material for the deserts of the southwest, where cowboy simulacra of Ratner subdivide the mesas into condos – the same real estate scam everywhere in the fair land.
But, like my Remington, the movie also misses the key target, which is not so much beady-eyed developers but the government that lets them loose from the cage in an old-boy game of wink-wink.
The game is called Developers Gone Wild. Non-sustainability, waste, carelessness, the privatization of public resources, and, of course, the packing of too many rats into too little space are its hallmarks. In New York City, a primary playing piece in the game, if not the queen on the board, is the ironically-named “environmental impact statement,” or EIS, which for decades has greased the skids for development by creating the pretense of public environmental oversight. The artfulness and deceit of the EIS process underscores the fact that the most dangerous players in the game are not the private sector’s array of bankers, mortgage lenders, construction companies, unions, big name developers, lawyers, consultants, investors, and speculators and elected officials-qua-boosters (think of the inane yet somehow insidious Marty Markowitz, porcine borough president of Brooklyn) that together comprise what we’ll call the development industrial complex.
The threat, rather, arrives from public agencies that abet the private sector’s predatory ways. The chief offender to sign off on the EIS process is the New York State boosterist agency known as the Empire State Development Corporation. The corrupt collusion of ESDC with developers has had predictable results: During a decade that saw a rush to re-zone or bypass zoning in favor of uncontrolled growth – the boom-time of roughly 1997 to the present – billions of dollars in new development was sausaged through the system without meaningful environmental review, without realistic assessment of impacts, and, by extension, without the public getting a fair understanding of the effect these megaprojects would have on the streets where people live, shop and play. As a political and corporate tool for profiteering, and also as a means of disarming the citizenry, the ESDC is indispensable – and in Brooklyn it has become the key to the kingdom.
Atlantic Yards, a basketball arena and 16 towers on three superblock platforms, is the largest single development in Brooklyn’s history and among the largest in New York history. But it has no roots in any public planning effort. The owners, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, eyed the air-rights as a salable asset to help fill its budget gap. The serendipitous solution was to morph the childhood dream of cheerleading Borough President Marty Markowitz – who wanted to avenge the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers – into the ultimate trophy of development moguls: ownership of a major league team. Ready to respond to the call was a Clevelander who strategically sat on or chaired almost every major board in Brooklyn. Bruce Ratner used urban planning lingo to seduce BP Markowitz – who had campaigned against the “Manhattanization of Brooklyn” – into believing that Manhattan-like towers, originally 18 for both offices and apartments, were necessary to finance the arena. For more panache, Ratner enlisted peacockish architect Frank Gehry, even though Gehry had accomplished nothing of the scale of Atlantic Yards. The governor, the mayor, New York’s senior senator Chuck Schumer and sundry local politicos early on signaled that their united front would allow nothing to stand in the way of an approval schedule dictated by contract terms of Ratner’s purchase of the New Jersey Nets. Even the Markowitz representative on the City Planning Commission was a major investor.
But it was the grease of ESDC that proved most vital to the machine. That the Empire State Development Corporation greenlights growth without mitigation is part of its purpose – the promotion of “progress,” the expansion of commerce, the creation of wealth. The agency website says no less: “NY Loves Business!” Former City Planning commission-member and Yale professor Alexander Garvin writes that when in 1968 the ESDC emerged from the governor’s office as an autarchic answer to urban blight, it was by definition “a superagency with truly amazing powers,” powers like no other in the history of modern New York government (except perhaps those accrued to Robert Moses). The ESDC “could condemn [land], ignore zoning and building regulations, and even issue tax-exempt bonds to finance development. Its most remarkable power was the ability to do all this without obtaining the approval of any other city, county or state agency.”
Its “amazing powers” are superbly on display in the case of Atlantic Yards. Volumes have been blogged online (see, for example, the vociferous Norman Oder) and logged in court documents as to the dishonesty, the deficiencies, the outright idiocies of the Atlantic Yards EIS as vetted by ESDC. The non-profit Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, headed by area resident Daniel Goldstein with the backing of 16 co-plaintiffs, reports the fundamental falsehood in the ESDC’s study: using the blight pretext for the application of eminent domain, the study pretends that an organically developing post-industrial mixed-use stretch of Brooklyn land is in fact a congealing tenement slum circa 1910.
If the EIS itself was corrupt, it was merely the inevitable product of a corrupted process – particularly where the ESDC and the private sector commingled. The corruption was open-air and normalized, and vaguely legal, though far from ethical. What’s clear is that the private developer, Forest City Ratner Corporations, asked ESDC, a public agency funded by taxpayers, to employ individuals and groups preferential to the private interests of Forest City Ratner. ESDC’s reaction? It followed orders. A February 18, 2004 letter from Forest City Ratner to ESDC asked that the agency hire a well-known pro-development lawyer named David Paget, once upon a time a respected figure in the environmental law community. Paget’s hiring was par for the course: he is the go-to hitman for developers working with ESDC who want to insure that their EISs are bulletproof in court. The same Feb. 18 letter also asked that ESDC hire the consulting firm AKRF, a $100 million-a-year company that grinds out EISs for scores of private sector developers in New York City and is known for its skewed pro-development preparation of environmental impact statements. Again, FCR’s orders were followed. AKRF was hired.
ESDC’s hiring of David Paget should have raised eyebrows foremost. Paget had already been retained by Forest City Ratner since probably 2003 for the Atlantic Yards Project. Indeed, for an undisclosed period of time, Paget was working both for the public oversight agency (ESDC) and for the private development firm (Forest City Ratner) that was attempting to avoid oversight – a brazen conflict of interest. It was David Paget who, as counsel to Forest City Ratner, helped write the March 2003 memo of understanding between FCR, ESDC, and New York City assuring that at the Atlantic Yards site there would no longer be requirements for contextual design, or a mix of retail and residential use – i.e., that Forest City Ratner would freely evade city zoning laws. The Paget memo of understanding also gave to ESDC total reign over the target area: ESDC would become the fiat power for the 22 acres where Bruce Ratner hoped to plant his mega-complex, thus removing this controversial project from City government and their more restrictive and participatory Uniform Land-Use Review Process. Removing the project from the ULURP process was in effect a master stroke.
As in most corporate welfare enterprises, the returns to the public are not just questionable; they are negative. First, the developers claimed the project would bring $6 billion in tax revenues for the city and state over a period of 30 years. Now that the project is greenlighted, Forest City Ratner admits the revenue for the same period is likely closer to $1 billion. At the same time that real public oversight is tossed out the window, the public is asked to pay for the project at a cost of up to $2 billion over the next ten years. Not mentioned, of course, are the externality costs of the project’s expected traffic, some 100 million added miles a year producing an estimated $80 million in losses from increased congestion, increased fuel use with contributions to global warming, the addition of more traffic accidents with huge costs not covered by insurance and all the environmental damages from air and water pollution and traffic noise. Opponents have taken to calling the project Ratopolis.
State and federal courts have repeatedly struck down objections to the project by groups such as Develop Don’t Destroy. The courts have also struck down conflict of interest objections in the hiring of Ratner’s cat’s-paw David Paget by ESDC. The mind-set of the courts is that wherever the state intervenes in the marketplace for the benefit of large corporations whose effort can be shown to bring “tax dollars” and “progress” and “productivity” – however chimerical – then the government must stand in support. Corruption normalized? Indeed. State courts refuse to challenge or second guess a city or state agency in their support of a project. When the court decides on behalf of developers and approves an EIS, it is cast in stone – the circle is closed.
Wherever you find the ESDC’s greasy fingers on projects far and wide across the five boroughs and beyond, you’ll find the same modus operandi, the same crew pulling the job. One mile to the west of Atlantic Yards, where Atlantic Avenue drops into New York Bay between Piers 6 and 7, there was once an idea for a park on the old piers, open to all and world class, offering views of the Manhattan skyline and the beacon of the statue in the bay and the lights of the bridges on the river.
Today, the plan for Brooklyn Bridge Park has been hijacked and replaced with Miami Beach-style waterfront condos complete with yachts, private security patrols, “world-class” views open to the few who can pay. The new “park” would enrich politically-connected real estate developers, compliments of New York’s taxpayers. Future real estate taxes have also been hijacked, becoming PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) designated to support the park – instead of police, fire, schools, sanitation and other city services. PILOTS are one more scheme to cheat the rest of us of taxes that would otherwise pay for public needs, like park expenses. Instead, PILOTs are funneled back into the developers’ pockets via the people who are living there. Here, as with Atlantic Yards, the plundered object is not simply the treasury, but space, air, light, streets, sidewalks – all in the name of questionable “economic progress” driven by private interests.
Who wrote and vetted the EIS for the farce that is now Brooklyn Bridge “Park”? ESDC, in collaboration with David Paget and, yes, AKRF. These same three actors also account for the morbidly flawed EIS connected with the renovation of the Upper East Side 7th Regiment Armory theatre and arts venue. Their hands are on similarly flawed EIS’s for the 42nd Street Redevelopment Plan, the Downtown Brooklyn Rezoning Plan, the Javitz Center, the Upper East Side Armory, Metrotech – the smeared prints everywhere. AKRF and Paget are also connected with upstate developer Dean Gitter’s proposal for a Catskill resort in the New York City watershed – threatening the very sustenance of the city.
Which brings me back to the question of sustainability. Look at the case of Phoenix, Ariz., my mega-neighbor 600 miles south of Moab, a poison-sprawl across the low desert where no city should be…or its foul sister, Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in the U.S. and sometime in the next 60 years soon to be the fastest to dry up and blow away. Does New York want to be Phoenix or Las Vegas? We want to be the model of sustainability, a city for the survival of the human race in what assuredly is a coming cataclysm where demand smacks head-on into a failure of resources.
The urbanist and humanist Lewis Mumford described in the 1970s what he called the “pentagon of power” that was driving American civilization into a collective ditch. His analysis of this five-fold aggregation of forces quite accurately describes the sociopathology of the land rush in New York City today. The five points are 1) more power; 2) more profit; 3) more productivity; 4) more paper property (e.g.. abstractions such as stocks, bonds, hedged capital, etc.); and 5) more publicity. “Commitment to the power complex and relentless pursuit of pecuniary gains…define the power system and prescribe its only acceptable goal,” which Mumford identifies as the abstraction known as “progress.” And in the name of progress, “the most striking thing about this power complex,” Mumford writes in his 1970 book The Myth of the Machine, “is its studious indifference to other human needs, norms and goals: it operates best in what is historically speaking an ecological, cultural and personal lunar desert.” The power complex, Mumford notes, recognizes no quantitative limits in the name of “progress.”
He makes the comparison to laboratory monkeys hooked up to electrodes which permit a microcurrent to stimulate the nervous tissue in the pleasure center of the simian brain. The test monkey is given a device to control the current. The resulting behavior is sad, and it approaches suicide. “Apparently the stimulation of this pleasure center is so rewarding that the animal will continue to press the current regulator for an indefinite length of time regardless of every other impulse or physiological need, even that for food and even to the point of starvation. The intensity of this abstract stimulus produces something like a total neurotic insensibility to life needs.” The pentagon of power, writes Mumford, appears to operate on the same principle.
There’s a particularly awful moment illustrative of this insensibility in the film “Brooklyn Matters.” The camera closes on the December 2003 announcement of the Atlantic Yards in its fanfare: Here were Ratner and his assorted camp followers – friends and consultants and lawyers – side by side with the big politicos draped in oversize basketball jerseys, giddy like children, thinking to redeem the borough by the addition of the great stadium and a home team, together on the dais in a kind of hallucinated pep rally: Pataki, Schumer, Bloomberg, Ratner and Markowitz, himself proud as a sow in the wallow, the paradigm of the mindless booster, prattling in the usual language about, yes, progress and profit and productivity, and, needless to say, loving the publicity. In Atlantic Yards was a legacy that would cement a place in the history books for Markowitz, a place in the bank ledgers for Ratner, and, most importantly, much money in lobbying largesse, consultants’ fees to operations like AKRF, continued happy employment in the bureaucracy at ESDC. As for reality – the real human concerns and needs of the borough – this was not the matter of concern.
Notes on a total eclipse of the moon, Aug. 28, 2007
Pack Creek Ranch, Utah
The moon didn’t pay its electric bill
so says Petra on the solemn lights off
Irreverent from sleep as fast as quips the moon pulling
its cheshired up-drawn wings of a white lip
How it fades, curtain drawn, exeunt
natural as nothing I’ve ever seen
foregathers night to its why, even the coyotes ask
They cry longer this night than I’ve heard the summer long packs
usually one loner cramped and curmudgeon
Now singers chirp, gargle, gong
not settling for the moon going away.
But the moon goes – it goes! And the coyotes can’t quite believe it,
the hourglass goes, the curtain goes, the eye goes, the meadow up high goes
and the rock down low goes and the pinyon forest goes
the land goes, our camp ends
Drawn down, a wink and a wink, the pearl goes
and the quicksilver goes
The poured light goes, and the fire goes, and the tin pan goes
and the last match goes
to red milk and umbre and sienna and red fog and Pluto’s ashes
the one precious pearl seething in the south sky goes
towns wink out, the last men go
to their valley and to the river between the cliffs
on boats of patch and clay they go, never to come back.
Only fools sing that the summer is gone and lament the season
of the high light – it’s over
The rains will come and snuff out the fires we built once high
on the mountain
There will be no more waterfalls born in the gold of rainbows
run over by our cars
no more ten million stars falling, no more breasts of women
or girls naked as girls
no more of the lakes and the rivers so warm
we slept in the water
The moon goes, it goes, I want to bang drums
call on my tin pan burn my tent and eyes
but none of this, not one fool extravagance
of the old superstition holds the moon still nor the season from its chance
because it goes, it goes, it is only aureole only shadow
and then, in the sentence at last, it is out
The coyotes have learned the lesson, stopped their song
gone to sleep
I imagine they have found a canyon
in the new darkness to their liking
the men are gone down the river
the towns are abandoned
only the fools wait for the ashes to come back.
Art by Travis Kelly
Good party for the 4th here at Pack Creek Ranch: beer, fried turkey, music, starlight and moonrise and many friends. But little talk about independence, or the U.S., or the Constitution, its crafting under duress. No surprises: I am 34 and for my entire life the 4th of July has been meaningless except as an excuse to drink, gather, eat meat, watch explosions in the sky. Which is fine. The dudgeon and pretense of the holiday should therefore be excised and July 4 renamed “Get Wasted and Blow Shit Up Day” or something more in tune with the American mind.
Better yet, if we wish to commemorate the degeneracy of our historical moment, our peculiar fallen stature as a people and a republic, we might try simply Dependence Day. Here in Moab, Utah, the dependence is utmost: strung out at the far ends of industrial foodism and carbon fuel addiction in the red rock, a desert people piling too many into a place with too few local resources for real sustenance: the trucks on the highways bring us the life of a 2,000-mile supply line, and the long strings of the power plants bring us air conditioning in the 108 degree days (growing hotter every year), the phone line that keeps me jabbering onto the Internet, the fridge that keeps the ice to cool the brain – all of it the function of large-scale, far-flung, giantist systems of dependence whose links, if severed, would render our partying, this writing, intellect, politics, freedom itself moot.
A few facts we know, ought to know, or know and don’t speak of because unacceptable in the current hologram of wellness and self-regard: it comes home to me in the memory of a crack whore among the warehouses at 9th Street and 2nd Avenue in Brooklyn, a toothless creature no more than 30 years old and looking 70 who was starved and told me, “Mistah, I’ll suck yo dick for five dollars – please.” I bought the woman a sandwich and avoided the blowjob…but here she is in the sage and under the moon haunting my imaginings of the U.S. as “independent”: We suck the dick of foreign oil, imports whose slightest shiver in supply would send us into chaos; we suck the dick of foreign lenders, the Chinese and Japanese buying up our bond reserves, propping up our markets with cheap goods that we hoover like apes at the totem of a banana and without which the sand and spit foundation of U.S. home mortgages would collapse like beach to the sea. The perversity in these overseas relationships is that we bow for blowjobs while pointing a gun at the blow-jobbee, crying out By god we will keep sucking dick or shoot you.
Which brings me to the issue of the bald eagle as national symbol: I went hiking a few days ago in Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands park, finding again and always that the flora and fauna of the redrock country serve as a kind of metaphor and lesson plan for a true conservative conduct that so-called conservatives in the U.S. have abandoned. Here heat, sun, lack of rain, the thinness of soil, the vastness of scarcity makes moderation, modesty, self-reliance the norm and the virtue. And the eagle has no place.
The bald eagle with its great strength and noble visage and razor talons is a fraud. He survives not by prowess and creativity but by theft and the strong-arm, by dive-bombing smaller birds to make them drop the rats or rabbits or fish these more enterprising avians catch through lone hard work. The behavior of the bald eagle hence falls under the rubric of kleptoparasitism, which makes the bird a fitting symbol of the U.S. government, especially as regards foreign policy.
But kleptoparasitism is an aberration in the desert, which is why the vicious beady-eyed bald eagle finds a hard row to hoe in zones of self-reliance such as the redrock country. Instead, desert life teaches more admirable lessons, lessons that jibe, for example, with the so-called paleoconservatism – awful usage – of a Barry Goldwater, himself a desert rat who late in life rafted the Green and Colorado Rivers where they confluenced in Utah, toppling down the canyons in whitewater, and who was thus converted from conservatism to conservation in understanding that wild places should be kept wild. Desert flora foremost show that wildness – a sense of distance, keeping an arm’s length, not getting in each other’s way or invading mutual space – is key to a happy co-existence: among the top flora such as the sagebrush and the pinyon pines and the juniper, there is always spacing for each to have enough water and to cull the nutrients from that thin soil.
Hence no ostentation among these plants, no waste, no profligacy. The flowers such as the evening primrose or the four o’clock show-off bloom white and cream or magenta and crimson only when night falls, but come daybreak they close to no one’s notice (the scream of the sun would take their life in an hour’s time). Modesty is their virtue and also their survival. Meanwhile, some of the most beautiful and most damned of the lifeforms are armed to the teeth, showing that the best defense is a good offense: the claret-cup cactus, spiny to the point of impossibility; the scorpion, who hunts little bugs but rarely deploys his terrible piercing stinger against human beings. Above all, there is self-sufficiency in these lifeforms, suffering terrific extremes and the better for it, more economical, tougher, more muscled, more careful, more free than their counterparts in the easy climes of the temperate East.
The notion of a desert conservatism is not new and it haunts the thoughtful newcomer to the desert as much as an idea of Eden: it has its precedence in the mountain men loners who came west before the en masse migrations of the pioneers, before the gold bonanzas and the cattlemen welfare queens (the hardest tit-suckers of the West), before the railroad corporations conjured the first of the big real estate scams. And, in modern times, it finds expression in the throwback orneriness of writers such as Ed Abbey, who in Desert Solitaire of 1968 envisioned the deserts of the Southwest as a safe house of political liberty, the “base for guerrilla warfare against tyranny.” (Goldwater, an Arizonan, also spoke about this).
Abbey wondered aloud in Desert Solitaire as to the necessary steps an American government might take to quash democracy. First, he suggested, encourage overpopulation and “concentrate the populations in megapolitan masses,” where they are easily surveilled and controlled. Second, mechanize agriculture so that food production sits in the hands of the few, eliminating the fundamental source of independence in self-sufficient communities (siege starvation is the ultimate strong-arm, barring the bullet). Then, fight wars against distant, mostly chimerical, threats overseas, “divert[ing] attention from deep conflicts within the society” and rendering “support of these wars a test of loyalty.” Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the wilderness is to be razed, paved over, developed, rigged with roads and cellphone towers and WalMarts and utility corridors, means of access, centralization, control – because it is here that the last of the self-reliant tribes will find their hold-out, a perch unacceptable to forces of dominion. In short: create a system of dependency and thou wilt prevail…not news and surely an algorithm in the books of the sociopaths in the White House. Like his peer of a generation earlier, poet Robinson Jeffers, Abbey saw in the vanishing of desert wilderness the perishing of the republic, the freedom for which it stood.
And here in my hypocrisy of this screed, sitting up late burning the coal of the power plants, I notice that even Google shows an image of the bald eagle, wings spread, descending in hero’s flight…holding perhaps an olive branch…or a stolen sprig from the mouths of children.
“Land grabbing is the oldest con game in the West,” Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt once said. Cartoonist Travis Kelly — check him out here — nails the madness of the latest con-job, which centers on an archaic 1866 public lands law known as Revised Statute 2477. I write about the issue in the July/August issue of Mother Jones (“Off-Road Rules”) and its threat to tens of millions of acres in national parks and unprotected wilderness controlled by the US Forest Service and the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management. RS 2477 provides local government with wide powers of land seizure, for he who controls the roads also controls access for industry and tourism, for off-road vehicles and oil rigs — for use and abuse of the land.
The funny thing is that under the outmoded rubric of the 1866 law, a “road” is just about any kind of track — a cow-path, a foot-trail, a wagon rut. Extractive industries and county governments who wish to pre-empt new wilderness protections on public lands — lands otherwise exploitable for the profit of grazing, mining, energy and off-road vehicle interests — need only cite RS 2477 to get their wish. This is because the Wilderness Act of 1964, which serves as the legal foundation for protecting public lands, is clarion in noting that wilderness, among other criteria, must consist of at least 5,000 contiguous roadless acres.
Which means that any public lands parcel crossed by an officially recognized “road” — be it ever so specious, an overgrown cow-path, an arroyo of boulders and cliffrose — can never be considered for wilderness protection. It is forever lost.
Meanwhile, the newly formed Rangers for Responsible Recreation, a coalition of retired land managers from the BLM and Forest Service, has declared ORVs the single biggest threat to the health and vitality of public lands (arguably cows are more widespread and more damaging, but we’ll leave that for another debate). As a seminal National Science Foundation study found long ago, in the 1970s, “The deleterious effects of ORVs on native plants and animals is undeniable.” Where off-roading is uncontrolled, the study noted, “virtually all existing life is ultimately destroyed.”