Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Swine feeding frenzy

Swine Flu. It's "dreaded", it's "deadly", and it poses a danger to you and your family.

Or is this not even remotely the case?

I put quotes around "dreaded" and "deadly" because that's how swine flu has been described by both local and national TV newscasts, national and tabloid print, and radio. But is what's being reported actually a clear picture the facts of the flu outbreak? A look at mortality figures for this and other diseases proves it may not be, and that the tone of the reporting isn't warranted.

Thousands die in New York City every year from the simple flu strain that comes back, year after year; thousands of New Yorkers in the five boroughs. How many New Yorkers have died from swine flu so far? None.

So far, the numbers we've seen from Mexico don't indicate that swine flu is a deadlier disease that many others - heart disease isn't thought of as a pandemic, but it kills millions more in the U.S. than all strains of flu combined. Somehow, heart disease doesn't inspire the kind of media pile-on that epidemics such as West Nile Virus and Monkey Pox did. Do you remember the coverage from those "deadly" diseases? Do you remember the devastating outbreaks that followed their appearance here in the U.S.? Of course you don't; they never occurred.

I do not mean to downplay any potential danger from swine flu; it may prove a difficult opponent and an intractable disease. However, the coverage has been terribly overblown, and the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz notes the media's tendency to feed upon itself in his column today.

Clearly, there's reason to report this news, but, when an expert is quoted in one piece as saying, "We issue several health emergencies every week; take basic precautions," and the reporter framing the piece uses words and phrases like "deadly", "shocking", "terrible" to describe the disease, and "afraid for their lives" to describe the parents of schoolkids in the same report - then there's clearly an editorial judgment taking place to hype the danger.

Having had my executives at Audubon talk to the media about West Nile Virus during that outbreak several years ago taught me one important lesson in dealing with epidemics. Coverage of disease outbreaks too often depends upon heat, and if expert has light to offer, they will either be ignored, or their information is more likely to be used in context that neither benefit viewers and readers nor your expert.

I feel offering my client who is very knowledgeable on pandemics to the media now would contribute to the bonfire that's feeding on itself. His useful information and sane perspective will just get lost in the flames...

Friday, April 3, 2009

NY Needs a Bailout for Drivers

I’ve worked in New York City for the last 23 years. I’ve held several jobs; some were close enough to my home that I could walk to them, but most were too many blocks or miles away. To get to those jobs, I’ve depended on the MTA’s buses and subways.

MTA, facing a multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall after months of fruitlessly asking Albany to fulfill its responsibility to find funding sources, last week voted on its "doomsday budget" and approved fare hikes ranging from 23 to 50 percent starting in June. Albany still has time to reverse this, but they've yet to display any leadership at all. The clock is ticking, and like a lot of commuters, I’m worried.

Although a commission led by former MTA chief Richard Ravitch came up with a solution in December that spreads responsibility for paying for transit fairly across a broad group of stakeholders, there’s an objection to one item that could scuttle the whole plan: tolling the East River and Harlem River bridges.

The success or failure of the effort to fund transit hinges on the opposition of Senator Carl Krueger and a handful of downstate Democrats. Even though the vast majority of their working constituents get to work via transit, and less than six percent drive to their jobs (most of whom don't use the East River bridges to get there), these senators are putting the interests of a tiny group of drivers above commuters. That killed Ravitch's excellent proposal, and no one else has displayed leadership and proposed an alternate plan.

Their reluctance to vote against tolls is understandable - they want every vote they can get and transit riders are used to being put upon - but it's hardly fair. Millions of New Yorkers who commute use public transit and only a small percentage of us drive to work on a daily basis. It’s clear that the needs of the many transit riders should outweigh the needs of the few drivers. It should be simple math.

Despite these facts, I’d like to suggest a bailout, but not to benefit the MTA or transit riders; despite rising prices and a shaky economy, perhaps we’ve had it easy for far too long. In the spirit of the times, I’d like to propose a bailout for those that least need help: New York’s commuters who get driven to work.

Think of it. A 23 percent transit fare hike is the right start, but it just doesn’t go far enough. Let’s raise the subway and bus fare 500% to $10, so we can make all the bridges in New York City free.

It’s not a big leap for riders to make. Right now, my Metrocard already pays to keep the East River and Harlem River bridges free. I like knowing that I’m doing something to help a small slice of wealthy NYC, Westchester and Long Island commuters who get driven to work in town cars. I hope that my fellow riders will feel the same way and gladly pay $10 per ride.

One huge benefit of raising the transit fares: lower maintenance and lower operating costs. Higher transit fares combined with recently lowered gas prices will encourage bus, commuter rail, and subway riders to drive to work. If less people use the subways, less transit system maintenance will be necessary. The MTA could take scores of buses, subways and trains offline, and no one would notice.

For those who argue that more cars on our city streets will not be easy to accommodate, one great solution is to build more highways through the heart of the city. As a resident of a Greenwich Village that is filled with new residents who own Hummers and luxury sport utility vehicles, I can say with confidence that no one here remembers Jane Jacobs and that Robert Moses perhaps had it right. Maybe it’s finally time for his planned highway across the Village. That road and others like it at 42nd and 34th streets should help solve any congestion problems caused by the $10 fare.

Luxury SUV owners also deserve a break. The price of gas may have fallen, but it still costs these SUV drivers a disproportionate amount of money to operate their gas-guzzling vehicles. By paying a $10 fare, those still forced to take public transit can help SUV owners to fill their tanks. The benefit here is that it will allow Wall Street middle managers to feel just as important as their bosses, whose corporate jets already are being subsidized by American taxpayers via the Wall Street bailout plan. Why shouldn’t lower level Wall Streeters get their fair share of the American dream?

Another great reason for a driver bailout is nostalgia. Tourists and residents like New York, but they really miss the great old days of the 1970’s, the "Fort Apache" days when the transit system didn’t work very well and pollution from the cars, trucks, and buses that choked the roads was at its worst. Who cares about juvenile asthma and pulmonary embolisms when we could have return to air with heft, color and character?

Folks on Staten Island and in parts of the Bronx have long complained that they have to pay big tolls to get to other boroughs, while drivers in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan have been getting a free ride. Rather than charging the costs of maintaining bridges more fairly to the drivers who actually use them, the doomsday budget now requires that transit riders, Staten Islanders, residents of parts of the Bronx, and those that use railroads and tunnels pay even higher tolls and fares to keep the East River crossings free. Unless lawmakers in Albany can actually come up with a legislative alternative, those hikes will stand.

Again, the MTA doomsday plan is a good first step, but it just doesn’t go far enough. My proposal to increase each bus and subway fare to $10 has the advantage of making all bridges and tunnels free. It also puts the costs of the luxury of driving to work right on the backs of those who have always deserved to bear the largest burden: the poorest 90 percent of our citizens.

It’s not only the right thing to do for our drivers. It’s the American way.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Why all the conservative followers?

I just realized today that I picked up three new followers on Twitter that are self-described conservatives. I'm fine with that. If you follow me, I tend to follow you unless you're an obvious spambot or someone whose name is Herb, is following 2,349 people, has 14 followers, has never posted anything, and your avatar is a woman in a bikini who is clearly not you. Even I have limits.

Back to my conservative followers. I actually have dozens of conservative followers, and if you know me, you know I'm not a conservative. But what you may not notice is that I don't describe myself as anything politically. The fact that I'm on a computer at all proves I'm not even remotely a Luddite.

I have such a distrust of the labels people apply to themselves that I feel disbelief as soon as I'm confronted with them. You have to prove to me that all you are is a conservative, or a liberal, or a socialist. We're all a lot more complicated than any easily applied, overly simple ideological label allows. For example, I believe that...
  • ...the free market has the power to do immense good in developing nations worldwide as tool to lift people up from poverty and create healthier and safer conditions for people. I believe this because I've seen it work, and I've seen the failure of the alternative: long terms aid programs. Obviously, I'm pro-business.
  • ...businesses that create products or services that impact people's health and safety need to have good government oversight and strong regulation. Witness the incredible food safety failures of the FDA over the past 8 years, in which an average of 5,000 Americans have perished annually as a direct result of Bush Administration funding cuts to this vital agency. How could I be anything other than pro-government?
  • ...our society needs to take care of our weakest and most vulnerable citizens, not only with relief and welfare funds, but with the creation of jobs and agencies devoted to keeping our poorest working. I'm a Socialist.
  • ...you should be able to own a gun if you want one; they're very useful if you live in wilderness and rural areas. I'm a conservative.
  • ...any municipality or county should be able to limit or ban the use of firearms within city or county limits to prevent gun violence or to stem it. It seems I'm a liberal.
  • ...a woman should always have the right to a safe and legal abortion. I'm a feminist.
  • ...repeat offender rapists, child molesters, and other similar violent criminals should not be rehabilitated, and should be put down. I'm a violent reactionary.
  • ...Homosexuals should be granted equal rights under the law and should have the freedom to marry if they so choose. I'm perahaps a Libertarian.
  • ...the environment should not only be protected, but that working with it instead of against it provides the basis for a new economy. On this issue in the 70's, I was a conservative Republican; now I'm an Obama Democrat, and my views haven't changed *at all* since.
How do you make sense of those contradictions? Where do you even start to try to untangle these few beliefs, which I know some agree with and some don't. Think of all of us out there who similarly hold seemingly contradictory beliefs.

There's nothing to be gained in trying to pigeonhole people into little categories, so why do we even do it to ourselves? Is it so that others who ostensibly believe as we do can gather with us and feel some sense of community?

If that's why you self identify as a liberal or a conservative, I invite you to stop. Go find out about the people you don't agree with. Spend time with them. I'm an atheist and two of my best friends are Christians - we agree on more than we disagree on. In understanding each other on our common turf, we find that we have more to work on together than you could ever imagine when you approach social interaction as only "conservative" or "liberal" who will not be moved off those issues.

I applaud my conservative followers for taking a look at what I have to say and being open to a person who shares some of their beliefs, but not all. These contradictions are healthy and good - and it's plurality of opinion and debate that makes us Americans. If we were all marching in the same direction to the same drumbeat, that would be a fascist nightmare, and we've all seen how that plays out in the end.