Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Waste Not, Want Not

Crain's In$ider is reporting today that your truly is going to attempt to use the threatened rise in the city's carting rates as a lever for the push toward the pilot program for food waste disposers. The rate hike, which we believe is inevitable, will hit the city's food stores and restaurants very hard.

It is also true, however, that the recent furor surrounding the Taco Bell rats gives this issue even more salience. The use of food waste disposers, by eliminating the rodent food source, is a major public health measure, and should be supported as such. The two issues: relieving food businesses of higher disposal costs, and enhancing the public health of neighborhoods, should make for a compelling argument for disposers (and another chance for the speaker to stand up for the city's neighborhood businesses.

Choice Remarks

In today's NY Post the always provocative libertarian writer Jacob Sallum takes off on the "anti-choice" policies of the nanny state advocates. In particular he cites the policies of the Bloomberg administration around banning trans fat and requiring calorie posting. As he points out clearly the only restaurants required to post are those who are already providing this information to their customers.

So the posting requirement is not "a way of giving consumers useful information," but "...really a way of nagging people who would rather not be reminded how many calories are in that cheeseburger." All of which was pointed out today at our noon press conference at City Hall, an event that was extremely well-covered by the media.

Major shout-outs go to Joel Rivera, who really stood tall in not only defending the city's franchisees, but in underscoring how the needs of health can be balanced with a concern for the well-being of the city's business. Rivera was joined by his colleagues Annabel Palma, David Yassky and Hiram Monseratte. We are still waiting, however, for the speaker to take her first strong stand in support of the city's small businesses. The menu labeling bill would be a good start.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Times for Truth?

The NY Times continues to reach for new lows; in the first instance it is for new records in declining readership, but in today's paper it manages to scrape the proverbial barrel bottom in its editorial on the Department of Health's menu labeling rule. The editorial, filled with misinformation and dripping with a venomous disdain for the city's fast food restaurants, accuses Councilman Rivera of being a cats paw of the industry for introducing legislation that would "gut" the DOH reg.

One way to get things wrong is to get all of your information from a single source. Which is, of course, exactly what good reporters seek to avoid doing. The same should be said for a good editorial writer, if she is interested in getting a full and balanced picture of an issue (and to avoid the embarrassment of mischaracterizing basic positions of opponents of a policy). Which is exactly what our intrepid Timeswoman failed to do.

For instance, the Times alleges that the industry is claiming that the DOH rule will force restaurants to post calorie information for thousands of meals. This is simply untrue but when you don't talk to folks directly you can avoid the bald face lie charge. This is also the classic straw man argument. Put simply, the attack on the regulation is because it allows the food outlets to post a range, something that will sow confusion and will not lead to healthier dietary choices.

The Times doesn't stop there, however. It insists on attacking the fast food industry with the kind of class hauteur that has come to typify folks who are all for the common man as long as they don't have to associate with him. Here's what our Times writer says about fast food meals: The daily caloric allowance for the average adult is around 2,000 calories. A seemingly unremarkable fast food meal can consume half or more of that allotment. Without nutritional guidance, it's not too hard to polish off a day's worth of calories, with minimal nutritional value, in one setting." (emphasis added)

So the hamburger at Wendy's has "minimal nutritional value," while the $75 burger at the Old Homestead is good for you! Can you feel the contempt of the editorialist? "Without nutritional guidance," is another phrase that drips with paternalistic disdain for the ability of the average New Yorker to understand that a salad at Mickey D's might be healthier every once in a while instead of a Big Mac.

The Times also fails to get the essence of the Rivera bill. Why? The likelihood is because it didn't even bother to read it. When you are imbued with the truth why risk cognitive dissonance. The paper says that fast food restaurants "list calories now, but usually online or on place mats in small print." But the Rivera bill would require that the nutritional information be posted clearly at the point of sale. And the chains are not just posting calorie counts, something of limited dietary utility.

Fast food outlets and chain restaurants employ around 100,000 New Yorkers and are owned and operated by independent, often minority entrepreneurs. They have risen in some of the city's worst neighborhoods, and have contributed to the renaissance of the economies of low income communities. That the Times would exhibit little or no sympathy for these folks is unsurprising.

The small businesses of New York have never had a friend at the paper, and the Times has no real awareness of what kind of business is being done in the neighborhoods. They have made fun of bodegas and slandered Hispanic supermarket owners as exploiters in the big Pathmark controversy of last decade ("Where Supermarkets are Never Super" was one contemptuous headline). This editorial is in that tradition and, to paraphrase Bill Buckley, I'd rather be governed by the first 100 names in the Manhattan phonebook, than by the editorial writers at the NY Times.

Bottle Bil Battle

In a story in yesterday's Times Union Confidential blog it is reported that the Food Industry Alliance is upset that its long time nemesis, Judy Enck, now Governor Spitzer's top environmental assistant, has been meeting in secret with representatives of Tomra, a company that manufactures and distributes reverse vending machines. The beef? Apparently Ms. Enck has excluded any discussions with the industry group.

The thrust of the attack, however, is that Spitzer is somehow violating his pledge of open government by not talking to the industry. I suppose they have a point but the Governor seems committed to the expansion and the industry's arguments are unchanged, and have remained so since around 1981. Our take is that if they want an audience it would help if they had something new to add to the debate.

We've been trying to get the industry folks to look at a different approach since we offered up the third part redemption center concept almost thirty years ago. The theme there was to create a deposit bank that would supervise a third party collection system that would be based on an infrastructure of redemption centers. With increased handling and collection fees it would be feasible to take deposit containers out of the food stores.

The reality is that deposits are an efficient collection and recycling methodology that are much more so than the antiquated and expensive municipal curbside programs. The mistake of the so-called environmentalists is that they want to maintain both systems simultaneously. An expanded deposit system/redemption center infrastructure would make curbside in NYC thankfully obsolete; and relieve the redemption burden for space-constrained stores.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Calorie Showdown at Council

The showdown between restaurants and the Board of Health over the inane calorie posting regulation is about to go to the City Council. The showdown, written about extensively in a balanced piece in this morning's NY Times, is stimulated by the introduction of a modified proposal introduced by Health Chair Joel Rivera. However, because it makes business and public health sense, the measure is being attacked by the non-public interest group that is the rule's real author.

The Rivera bill would allow for greater flexibility because the rigid posting of calories right next to menu items is, as the NRA's Sheila Cohen Weiss has said, "a recipe for confusion." This is graphically illustrated in the Times story when the paper illustrates the difficulty of posting calorie information on Wendy's Mandarin Chicken Salad. A standard salad is 170 calories but, when you add crispy noodles, roasted almonds and sesame dressing the calorie count rises to 550 calories.

Now as we have pointed out, the DOH has permitted the industry to post a range of calorie counts in just this kind of situation but, as Wendy's spokesman Denny Lynch tells the paper, "If that's on the board, 170 to 550 calories, how does that help you?" Indeed it will not, and the DOH has no scientific evidence at all to give any sense that the posting will improve dietary decision-making.

And the compliance costs will be borne by some two thousand local franchisees. Which is no problem to "health advocates" who told the Times that "the chains already have calorie information available and that the main expense would be altering the menu, which is done any way when items are introduced." Maybe we should allow these business savvy advocates to run the stores as well.

The Times story also focuses on the issue of using the Board of Health venue instead of the legislative process. Here we see, in all of it unalloyed disdain for democratic politics, the contempt that the public interest fakers have for the truth. When they lose its not because legislators all over the country think that the regulation is inane and intrusive-no its politics.

As CSPI s director of nutrition Margo Wooten tells us, "When I've worked on menu-labeling bills all over the country, there aren't strong arguments against it based on the merits. The reasons these policies haven't passed is because of politics." Ms. Wooten then goes on to tell the Times, in a clear underscoring of the group's contempt for the people, "New York City found away to bypass politics by having the policy put in place by health experts."

So when it comes to health why not just cede all authority to the health experts? The reasons are two-fold. In the first place public health is now being taken over by ideological zealots who want to impose their visions of how people should be living their lives-whether they like it or not. Secondly, as the NY Sun article this morning indicates, the failure of the Board to even consider the costs of its rule shows, the "health experts" have zero knowledge or expertise about the economic and social impacts of its edicts, while legislators typically do.

Put simply, the DOH doesn't know squat about the food business but this lack of knowledge in no way inhibits it from issuing edicts in the name of health that could very well impair the ability of local firms to do their business. It appears that the Bloombergian concern about "burdensome regulations" is a concern that is limited to the financial sector. Small businesses, as policy after policy in this administration shows, is simply a"minor economic issue."

Columbia Posted and Toasted

In today's NY Post the paper editorializes against Columbia's failure to discipline the protesters who forcefully disrupt a speech last year by the Minutemen. Whatever one feels about the group's philosophy, it is without doubt that it is the duty of a major university to enforce the constitutionally protected free speech rights of all Americans, not just those we happen to agree with.

This is something that the university chose not to do. As the Post observes that the university also has failed to inform the citizens of the city about this latent fascist disruption of the free speech rights of an unpopular group. Yet the university believes that its great mission should prompt the city and state to condemn the property of its neighbors and evict longstanding low income tenants.

As the Post says; "And this same university-which clearly is unwilling to police its own grounds-seeks to extend its reach into surrounding neighborhoods by using the government's power to condemn and seize private homes and businesses. City Hall needs to consider this proposition very closely." Indeed. In the neighborhood I grew up in, not too far from the Columbia that my father graduated from, we use to characterize this attitude as, "They think that their s**t don't stink."

Rights and obligations seem to flow in only one direction when it comes to Columbia; and this haughty attitude is enshrined in its Columbiacentric development plan that shuts the local neighborhood out from any meaningful partnership. The rallying cry here should be that no development application should be certified until the university sits down to negotiate an inclusive plan that adheres closely to the community board's 197-A plan.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Playing Ball With Bruce

Errol Louis, despite all of the derision from those who would feel that going down with the ship is an honorable course of action, once again is a voice for sanity on the Atlantic Yard project. In his column in today's NY Daily News he advises the persistent critics of the development to "accept the reality of the plan and see what can be done to make it better."

He does so, however, firmly convinced that such a course of action is about as palatable as suggesting a detour to a herd of lemmings. The reality here is that if the critics had taken a less rejectionist stance there is a great possibility that even more creative compromises could have been devised. FCRC, unlike the "my way, or the highway" greed merchants at Related (who would brook absolutely no alternative vision for its grand larceny of the BTM), would have done a great deal to avoid the knockdown-drag-out fight that the spirited crew at DDD waged.

As someone who has often been counseled to get off the tracks because the train has left the station (and who just as often ignores the advice) I know how hard it is to give up the fight. It is time to do so, everything from now on is just postscript.

Columbia's Lebensraum

Columbia University, hell bent to expand so that its crack neuroscientists can quickly find the cure for Alzheimer's Disease somewhere in the footprint of its new West Harlem campus, has failed miserably in reaching out and working with the folks caught in the headlights of the waiting bulldozers. This failure is captured by Doug Feiden's in-depth special report in today's NY Daily News.

As Feiden reports, "Faced with the threat of forced evictions, eminent domain and the wrecking ball minority residents and employees in the thinly populated neighborhood are fighting back." As one resident, living in the neighborhood for over thirty years told the News, "'I came from the Dominican Republic to find a place like this. Why should I be forced to leave?"

The key issue here is that the university, unlike the FCRC folks in Brooklyn, has not sought out the community and its business owners to see just how it might be possible to create a larger inclusive vision that doesn't entail the displacement of those who have a stake in the neighborhood. It has one goal and one goal only; the creation of a campus enclave that excludes the existing declasse residents and businesses.

In fact, Columbia praises its ability to negotiate with "professionalism," at least with those who signal that they have thrown in the white flag and are wiling to relocate. This, however, is not engagement, it is disengagement-or to use the more current terminology-it is the deployment of the folks that are in the footprint so that they no longer can "blight" the neighborhood.

The real crux of the problem with the Columbia plan (and why it is put to shame by the Harvard vision), as we have pointed out before, is that it not only dispossesses existing low income tenants, but it has no larger vision for an inclusive neighborhood where the university incorporates the life of the existing community instead of eliminating it entirely. Can't the Columbia planners do any better than sheer self-aggrandizement? As a 66 year-old cardboard box-maker from Ecuador told the News,"Why would Columbia threaten our well-being? Where will we go if they kick us out?"

The Columbia plan is badly in need of modification. The university has the capacity to do this and is working with Bill Lynch as a consultant, someone who knows how to craft a creative compromise. As much as Bruce Ratner was raked over the coals for his Atlantic Yards project, the end result was a huge piece of affordable housing and thousands of permanent jobs for the community. Columbia will evict tenants and build no housing in the neighborhood. As Damon Wayons once said; "Homie don't play that."

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Another Hispanic Marketplace Bites the Dust?

NY1 is reporting today that the city is planning to close "La Marqueta" on Moore Street in Williamsburg. The market, much like the Bronx Terminal Market, "of blessed memory," is considered to be an institution among the city's Hispanic population. As State Senator Martin Dilan told the station, We have to get them to understand that this is a cultural institution and if you have to subsidize that cultural institution then let's do it..."

The Brooklyn market goes all the way back to the LaGuardia administration but the city says that it is losing around $270,000 a year for the past four years which has the local community board manager shaking his head: "'They said that the Marqueta was 100% occupied and flourishing', said Community Board District Manager Gerald Esposito. "'So what has happened between the end of 2006 and now to cause EDC to want to close the facility, is beyond me.'"

What indeed! This is the kind of situation that needs to be seriously looked at because, as we have seen at the BTM, when this administration sets its sights on property than it will stop at nothing to get rid of existing tenants, especially if they are minority retailers.

Oh, and one more thing."EDC says that it will help relocate the 15 businesses located at the Marqueta..." The relocation of wholesaler/retailers who are "junto," will lead to their dispersion and eventual death without the synergy that they have built up. Let's hope that something can be done to help these merchants.

John Vliet Bloomberg

It is becoming increasingly clear that Mike Bloomberg's philosophy of government is extremely close to that of the late John Lindsay. His response to the recent report released by the IBO underscores his view that the government that delivers the most "services" is the exemplar for good government. To his credit, the mayor is a much superior manager to JVL and is, of course operating in a political and fiscal climate that is much different from that of the mid-sixties.

The NY Post captures all this in its Bloombergian headline yesterday: "You're Taxed More, 'Cause You Get More." In the story the mayor told the paper that he would "love to reduce taxes more" but the level of services that the public "wants" precludes him from taking this approach. There appears to be no awareness on the mayor's part that the services that he touts is part of a dysfunctional bureaucratic government that is badly in need of reinvention.

The entire reinventing government approach has never really gotten into the mayor's mindset, and he appears to have a philosophical outlook that views government as a paternalistic aid for its less than self-sufficient citizens. Bloomberg adds to this a patrician's desire to aid those who are less fortunate and gifted than he is. All of which comes out clearly in his desire to force people to live healthier lives. It is true of course that those with great wealth are free to live libertarian lives unencumbered by the heavy hand of government, something that the average citizen is unable to do.

The Post captures this misguided paternalism and cavalier attitude to government spending in today's editorial: "On hizzoner's watch, population has grown slightly,yet city-funded spending is up more than 40 percent, to $40 billion a year. Of the ten largest cities, Gotham spends nearly twice as much per capita than the average of the nine runners-up." And this is excluding the city's Medicaid bogeyman.

But in spite of this stark evidence of profligacy the mayor remains resolute in his refusal to cut spending and reduce taxes, touting the need to keep the money in a "rainy day" fund. As the Post points out, however, in the world of most politicians it is always raining.

Rat Epidemic Redux

As we mentioned yesterday, the city has been experiencing a rat epidemic over the past few years and in response a new approach to the problem has been implemented. Instead of extermination through the putting down of poison the city has started to go after the food supply that the rodents feed on. This new method may be showing some success as rat complaints were down about 13% last year from the year before.

Still, it boggles the mind that there is such a wide disconnect between the city's new methodological awareness of how to cope with the rat epidemic, so graphically highlighted by yesterday's "Templeton-like" feast at a local KFC/Taco Bell, and its refusal to allow a pilot program for the testing of food waste disposers at local food outlets. The prime culprit? The extraordinarily inefficient DEP!

Friday, February 23, 2007

Here Come the Rats!

New York 1 is reporting that a local Taco Bell and KFC outlet has been closed because of rat infestation. It certainly doesn't surprise us in the least. Not because we think that this particular chain is a bad actor; but because the city's failure to allow restaurants and other food stores to use food waste disposers prevents the rapid elimination of food waste that attracts the rodent population.

So it appears that the city, despite the fact that it has recognized that the rat control strategy that makes the most sense is elimination of food sources, still feels that controlling the algae growth in the Jamaica Bay (because of alleged nitrogen effluents from waste disposers) is more important than controlling rats in our food supply.

As the rat epidemic continues to plague the city perhaps we should look to bringing the giant rat that is usually used to shame non-union contractors over to 40 West 20Th Street, the home base of the National Resources Defense Council, a supposed environmental group that has worked to block the use of commercial food waste disposers. Let's place the shame where it belongs.


There is a trenchant column in today's NY Daily News by Sheila Cohen-Weiss, the director of nutritional policy for the National Restaurant Association. The editorial highlights the shortcomings of the shortsighted rule, passed last December by the Board of Health, that would require chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus and menu boards. It also underscores just how dangerous it is for the City Council to allow an unelected body to, in effect, act as a legislator in matters of public health.

The danger lies in the fact that the Board of Health, acting as a beard for the Department and the commissioner, is simply stone ignorant about how food businesses are run. and given this lack of basic knowledge, are simply not equipped to make policy that would impact the viability of this vital economic sector.

If only that was all the healthocracy was ignorant of. In the case of menu labeling the folks on the public health beat also are ignorant of the scientific analysis in the area of calorie posting that, in Cohen-Weiss' words finds "no definitive research data to support the public health benefits of posting calorie content on menus..."

Which is why we are delighted that City Council Health Chair, Joel Rivera, will be introducing his modification of the Board's rule at the Stated Council meeting next Wednesday. This Intro will allow for the chains that are currently providing nutritional information to their customers to continue to do so; but in a more reasonable manner that is congruent with their successful business models. There is no reason why the health of New Yorkers and the health of New York's businesses have to be mutually exclusive.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Calorie Craziness

In today's NY Post the paper takes a look at the DOH calorie posting proposal and concludes that the rule, enacted last December and slated to take effect on July 1st, will create "chaos." Given the complexity of most menus and the desire of customers to, well, customize, the National Restaurant Association feels that "the department guidelines don't work"because "it's too complicated to list the calorie count of every item-or combination of items-on the menu itself."

The Post story appears, however, to be severely edited down of some key essential points (We're reminded of the old car commercial that asked a woman, "Where's the rest of your car, Toots?"). The sheer enormity of the compliance task is not really captured in this short piece, nor is the cost of compliance, that will potentially run into tens of millions of dollars for local eateries.

This issue also should be seen as a companion to our discussion of taxation. It is not simply high taxes that make NYC uncompetitive, it is the high cost of regulations. We need to reduce both the regulatory and the tax burdens on local businesses and link this effort to greater government efficiency. This will require, however, a greater sensitivity to entrepreneurism among our political class, something that even our businessman mayor lacks-except when it comes to the financial industry.

Tax Fairness: Part Two

More reaction is coming in on the IBO tax report that we discussed yesterday. In the report it was pointed out that, it's not even close, New York City is far and away the highest taxed urban area in the country. In our comments we asked the Speaker to begin to address this issue, and to her credit, she is.

In today's NY Sun the paper reports that Speaker Quinn feels that "hardworking families and small businesses, burdened with over taxation and rising costs of living expenses, deserve relief." Quinn goes on to point out that her call for renters relief will "protect middle class families on the verge of being pushed out of our City and will allow small businesses to thrive."

Well, ok, but where exactly does her renters proposal give relief to small businesses; and to such an extent that they will be able to "thrive?" Perhaps the intrepid Jill Gardiner can follow up on this by asking the speaker for some specifics so that we can pass it on to the small business community.

It should also be pointed out that the reports on the city's tax situation go out of their way to emphasize the fact that the disparity between New York and other American cities is based in part on the Medicaid burden that NYC uniquely is forced to bear the burden of. This, as EJ McMahon points out in the Post this morning is simply not totally accurate. "Even with Medicaid and public assistance completely removed from the calculation, New York City's state and local tax burden would be 25 percent above the big-city average."

Which means that we need to find away to cut the size of government, and one way to do that is to provide services more efficiently. This is something that the Bloomberg administration has not paid a great deal of attention to, and the current crop of mayoral contenders, if the reports today are on the mark, appear willing to tackle this crucial issue.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Taxing Fairness

In today's Newsday we read that it is now official: New York City is the highest taxed urban area in the country. "No other city comes close, the report says." Given this fact it is important that our elected officials begin to look for ways to reduce the tax burden on the average New Yorker, and on the city's businesses as well.

Which is why we were so perturbed by the failure of the Speaker to deal with this issue in her state of the city address. When we are as over-taxed as we are in New York it is imperative that the situation be recognized as serious. Tax reduction should be first and foremost on every one's policy agenda.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Running on Empty?

In keeping with our special interests theme there is an article in the Post today on the decision by Chris Quinn to not accept any money from third party lobbyists. The decision is an interesting one and raises the question whether the Speaker feels she can raise enough money for a mayoral run as long as she garners the Times endorsement for the race. Or perhaps George Artz is right (although George is rapidly becoming the Mitch Moss of the other side of City Hall): "It will make it a little more difficult {to raise money} but other people will give her money based on her integrity stance."

I guess we'll see. One things for sure, it is unlikely that the Speaker's position will endear her to the other members of the council, one of whom "quietly grumbled that Quinn was going to make it difficult for those who remain after she leaves office..." It is also true, however, that Quinn will continue to take money directly from unions and businesses, so its not as if she is planning to run in 2009 solely on her good looks and charm.

Which leaves us a bit bemused about all of this posturing and what it really means. Is it, in the words of the Citizens Union's Dick Dadey, the unblemished partisan of no money in government; "...the beginning of the end for influence peddling at City Hall." Or is it the age-old political need to appear good rather than actually be good, a cosmetic initiative that will be loopholed into nonexistence as we approach the next election cycle?

One last point for the infection-free Dadey. If we eliminate the influence peddling that you so abhor, on what basis will policy be made? On your group's unblemished conception of the public good? Or perhaps it will be made on the basis of a Bloombergian public policy expertise, an erudition that is built on years of policy analysis done in one's spare time while accumulating a fantastic fortune. We can't wait to find out.

Mayoral Infallibility

In today's NY Post the paper editorializes against the continued arrogance of the mayor when responding to legitimate criticism about the missteps of his administration. The most telling critique in the Post's comments involves the issue of school reform. Observing the obvious miscalculation inherent in the drastic alteration of the school bus routes in the dead of winter, the paper comments; "If Bloomberg and Co. can't get that right, it's fair to wonder, what else are they getting wrong."

The Post's observations continue to point to the fallacious assumptions of all of the good government types who kvell whenever someone comes along we is perceived to not be beholden to the dreaded "special interests." It is the underlying premise of all the various campaigns for so-called campaign finance reform; and is the signatory electoral issue that often governs the endorsement of the NY Times.

It is also a total crock when it comes to any basic understanding of how democratic politics actually works and, in our view, should work. And this comes from someone who is frequently on the side that takes on the more powerful political interests in this town. The simple fact is that it is the interplay of interests, and not some plutocratic philosopher king, that determines the public good. The public good is certainly not determined by self-proclaimed public interest groups who, in their entire existence, never seem to support any measure that might benefit business.

For years whenever we have gone after the building of a large box store or shopping center we have sought to bundle the contributions of a as many small or mid-sized businesses as possible. This has enabled us to be heard politically and have the credibility necessary to fight on behalf of neighborhood stores.

The fact is that when lobbying is denigrated and political contributions attacked it is done so from the vantage point of those who either don't need the money and are consequently immune from influence, or from the point of view that sees the private sector in a hostile and adversarial way.

When it comes to the mayor, however, the fact that he is beyond influence is proving to be not such a good thing. The parents of school children or the residents of Astoria (special interests?) wouldn't see the mayor's insulation from politics as a harbinger of good government. Mayor Mike apparently sees himself as the philosopher king, the man elevated to educate the polis. Marx's admonition to Plato is appropriate here: "Who will educate the educator?"

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Monsey Wal-Mart Fight Gets International Recognition

It has just come to our attention that the struggle against the building of a Wal-Mart supercenter in Monsey has received recognition in Israel. In an article in Haaretz the paper points out that the area's Orthodox community is concerned that the retail giant will disturb the tranquility of this quiet Rockland community; "A Monsey protestor complained that residents would be forced to put bars on their windows if the store is built, in a town where residents don't lock their doors."

Which is exactly the point that we have been making all along, especially in our "Conservative Case Against Wal-Mart." Quiet residential communities have a lot to lose if they are forced to play host to the traffic and transiency that a super center will generate. As a Talmud professor tells Haaretz, "a Wal-Mart store will draw large masses of people, including non-religious Jews ans non-Jews, and that some of these outsiders are likely to damage what he calls the special character of Monsey."

These issues will be underscored in the next few months as the application to build the store begins to wend its way through the Ramapo land-use process. They are, of course, exacerbated by the traffic congestion on the existing roads surrounding the proposed site. This mixture makes the final disposition uncertain at best.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Ralph Penza-Mensch!

It is with great sorrow that we read today of the death of Ralph Penza. Ralph was a rare breed in television news, someone who not only had an investigative nose for the truth, but a personal integrity as well. We can never forget Ralph's story on Indian cigarette smuggling that took him out to Long Island and all over the Metropolitan area in search of the buttleggers.

Of course for us his death has a more personal meaning. Ralph took Matt Lipsky in one summer and mentored him in the news business with a personal concern that belied his iconic media status. There was a real genuineness there that we will always remember and we will miss the man very much.

Mayor Discovers Empathy-and Common Sense

In a welcome about-face, Mayor Mike reversed course and voided all of the parking tickest that were issued on the two storm days this week. Even he could not ignore the storm of righteous protest that flooded 311 over the course of three days. Still, his initial reaction says more about his demeanor and mind-set than does his prudent change-of-course.

Bloomberg is still a man who does not suffer fools and, given his hauteur, labels almost anyone who disagrees with him as a resident of that lower order of seriousness where those less consequential humans are normally found. To us, governing requires a good deal of managerial expertise but also demands a degree of normal human compassion. This is especially true when the office holder is wealth beyond normal comprehension.

Without this capacity, and the mayor's reactions to the protests of bodegueros, school bus moms and dads, cell phone protesters, and alternate side gripers, is a sure indication of a natural deficiency of compassion, than the tin ear can lead to policy disaster. An elected official needs to be able to really hear the people when they are telling him that the shoes he has made for them are too tight.

We can see this most clearly in the Bloomberg approach to public health. Here we can see that the mayor not only has the inherent inability to empathize with his lessors, but he also believes that his expertise is needed to impose good sense on those who are lacking it. This is a dangerous admixture of qualities.

In the realm of public health it leads the mayor, and his medical acolyte Frieden, to become almost Rousseau-like in his contempt for the abilities of the average New Yorker to make good decisions for themselves. It was, after all, Rousseau who famously said that you sometimes needed to force people to be free. So in the realm of health we have the smoking ban, the confiscatory cigarette taxes, intrusive surveys, condom giveaways, a trans fat ban, and now the absurd menu labeling rule that will transform chain restaurants into bewildering arenas of calorie confusion.

Enough already here. It is time that we simply tell the mayor that endowing a school of public health does not make you into a public health expert. Blomberg's clarion call for "preventative medicine" should be seen as a warning call for New Yorkers, as the article on the cervical cancer vaccine in today's NY Times highlights. The merits of the concept for individual behavioral choice is unquestioned, but as a policy approach it will necessitate an intrusion into people's private lives that is not worth any incremental health gains that the policies might achieve.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Not Beholden to Special Interests

We have been commenting for some time now about the tendency of media pundits to sanctify elected officials of great wealth for their insulation from special interests. As we have said, however, insulation cuts both ways; It may allow one to avoid some tawdry conflicts but, at the same time, it can cut the elected official off from the pain and suffering of ordinary New Yorkers.

We have seen this happen time and time again with Mayor Mike-from when he commented that the loss of $250 million a year (because of a confiscatory cigarette tax) from the coffers of the city's grocery stores was a "minor economic issue," to the fiasco over the botched school bus overhaul. The mayor seems incapable, an almost "trained incapacity," to feel the pain of the average citizen-or to admit that those under him might have screwed up.

The latest example is the fiasco around the failure of the city to cancel alternate side parking during Tuesday's snow storm that led to the ticketing of thousands of New Yorkers who couldn't dig their cars out in time. The mayor's response? "It was easy to move your car..." A comment that is breathtaking in its arrogance from a billionaire who has in all likelihood not had to dig a car out from the snow in decades.

What's missing here? As the NY Daily News editorial stresses this morning-the simple acknowledgement that a mistake might have been made, and not the attempt to cloak oneself with the aura of a papal infallibility that clearly this mayor doesn't possess. As the NY Times underscored this morning; "The mayor was at times curt, testy and defensive...even suggesting that New Yorkers stop "griping" about the situation." Hubris and great wealth are obviously not a great political mixture, something that the mayor has been able to effectively camouflage, at least up until now.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Speaker's Lacuna

Missed the Speaker's State of the City Address because we were up in Monsey on the Wal-Mart beat. But we did get a chance, courtesy of the Gotham Gazette, to read the speech and the thing that jumped out at us was the total absence of anything related to the city's economy (except an oblique allusion to a flush city treasury); and certainly there was nothing on the need to make the city a more competitive place to do business in.

This is a serious omission and we hope to be able to help the speaker become more aware of the fact that the "flush" city treasury is precisely the result of the thousands of hard-working entrepreneurs who are producing the wealth that supports all of the worthwhile (and as number of not-so-worthwhile) policies enacted by local government. So hooray for the rebate to renters; but what about a rebate to the local store owners who absorbed a 25% rent increase in 2002 when the city hiked the commercial real estate tax?

The same blind spot can be seen Speaker Quinn's shout out for food stamps at local green markets. Concern for the poor should not override an equal concern for the poor neighborhood store owners who are being overrun by peddlers, paying though the nose for garbage removal, over regulated by the DCA and other city agencies, and certainly overtaxed by our municipal government.

So when the speaker's talk shifted to the need for a rainy day fund we think that she missed the mark. The real rainy day fund is created when the city government returns the people's money to the people. We didn't, however, see any mention of a tax rebate in today's speech and that is a serious omission that reflects the failure to understand the importance of entrepreneurism to the long term health of our city.

If the news accounts of the speech today are correct, that the speech was a blueprint for a mayoral run in 2009, than it is incumbent on the speaker to recognize the wealth generators in the city; and look for ways to make their creative efforts bear more fruit.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Stringer on Columbia's Responsibility

In yesterday's Spectator there is a report on the state of the borough speech that was given by BP Stringer. In the speech Stringer, in commenting on the expansion plans of Columbia university, warned that "...'projects of this magnitude have swept away entire neighborhoods, something that must never again be imposed on any Manhattan community, especially not this one.'"

This is a strong and welcome statement but, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. The lack of specificity here, while understandable because of the nature of the address, was applauded by the representatives of the university who attended the event. Creating a real consensus, however, may mean asking the university to do some things that it is not apparently ready or willing to do today.

Still, Stringer's promise to "be a driving force to bring people together and forge a consensus for this project" is indeed a positive development and we will be looking to see if the BP is willing to step up and forge the kind of consensus that preserves local businesses and adds to the stock of affordable housing for a neighborhood that, if nothing is done, will be pushed aside for the new glittering campus.

Columbia and the Community Benefits of Expansion

The Observer's Matt Schuerman does his usual thorough job in this week's edition of the paper, in discussing the various ramifications of the proposal by Columbia's to expand into West Harlem. In particular, he focuses on the tricky nature of trying to negotiate a community benefits agreement in the middle of a land-use application.

Equally tricky is the attempt to do so while the issue of eminent domain is part of the discussion. At least 12% of the property in the path of the development is privately held. President Bollinger makes an interesting point in this regard when he tells the Observer, "'In my view, it would be irresponsible to take eminent domain off of the table...'I don't know if we wil ask for it-I hope not-but certainly I think that, when there is an economic interest that is standing in the way of a public purpose, like major work on the brain that may cure diseases like Alzheimer's, I think we should be in a position to use it or call for its use."

Well, when Bollinger puts it that way, how could anyone place the interests of a storage company over a cure for Alzheimer's? Of course, one could also say that the Columbia president was being unfairly invidious, particularly since the university's expansion is not a zero-sum game between "an economic interest" and some miracle medical breakthrough. As one of our college professors once told us, "The truth is usually somewhere in between."

The issue of the CBA will definitely be a tricky one; although we were intrigued by the way that the chair of Board #9 derided the AY CBA. Well, we'll see if this collection of folks on the LDC will rise to greater heights than the "set of local sychophants" in Prospect Heights. Given its composition however, and the participation of the local elected officials, we can say that the jury is still out on this.

The real lightening rod in the expansion may not even be over the ED issue. Rather, the question of affordable housing seems more likely to generate controversy here. As Schuerman points out, the university is planning to "displace" (is this like redeployment?) 132 "ethnically diverse" tenants; and promises them equal or superior lodging. All well and good, but the fact remains that the Columbia plan has no housing component, and without one it is hard to be as sanguine as Bollinger that his plan will encompass "what the communities would like to see."

The Need for Balance

In today's NY Daily News the paper's Michael Goodwin writes a prescient column on the importance of the governmental system of checks and balances; and admits that his affection for strongmen in politics might not always make for good government. Goodwin focuses in on the actions of President Bush, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Spitzer to make the larger point.

The Bloomberg focus deals with the bus fiasco that was on the agenda at a city council hearing yesterday. As you might remember, when first confronted by the disaster of giving five year-olds Metro Cards, the mayor arrogantly blasted critics who "had never managed anything in their lives," and in the process managed to stick a big foot into his own mouth.

The point here is that, similar to Aristotle's criticism of Socrates' philosopher king concept, it is clear that, while most folks will leave the shoe making to the shoemaker, they are quite capable of telling a craftsman that the shoe pinches. Which brings us ti the whole issue of checks and balances.

No matter how good a manger any one particular mayor might be, it is essential that she or he be subject to rigorous evaluation. In our city political system there are too forces that should be brought to bear: the city council and the local media. In both instances, however, the appropriate checks have been missing.

For way too long the local press has been overly solicitous of the mayor, and our editorial boards have gone as far as to try to lionize him. His wealth and consequent "above politics" stature has given him greater immunity from serious criticism than some less wealthy executive might have received. It appears to have gone to his head and only underscores our point on this subject that being above the normal political process also means that there is less accountability. In addition, the fact that one is not beholden to the dreaded "special interests" is never a guarantor of statesmanship and political acumen.

Which brings us to the City Council and its role as a mayoral check. Observers have pointed out that Speaker Quinn has been unusually friendly with the mayor (pointedly departing from the mode of her adversarial predecessor) and apparently loath to criticize him, even on some very questionable policy initiatives. Her recent criticism of Bloomberg on the bus fiasco is a positive sign indeed. More is needed, however.

It was a mistake for the council to allow the DOH to promulgate the trans fat and menu labeling rules with no legislative precursor. It is, however, not too late for the legislature to review the menu labelling rule and amend it so that it is not too restrictive. It is time, therefore, for the speaker to strip the mantle of papal infallibility from the mayor and act as a check on the mayor's imperial tendencies.

Clearly, if the school bus mess is any indication than it should be clear to the lawmakers that this just might be the tip of the school iceberg. Remember, the chancellor fiasco with the deputy for instruction, someone named Farina we believe? Remember when the DOE hired all of those wet -behind-the-ears management types to treat the system just like any other business? The mayor staked his political reputation on school reform; it's time that the entire enterprise was examined with a critical eye.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Masyr: Honest Broker?

In today's New York Crain's In$ider the newsletter reports on the role being played by attorney Jesse Masyr. Masyr, a well-respected land-use attorney, has been retained pro bono to represent the interests of the West Harlem LDC in its community benefits negotiation with Columbia.

The problem lies with the fact that Masyr's retainer agreement gives him the right to be paid at a later date by "unnamed" third parties. Jesse has never represented the interests of any community group, at least not to our knowledge, and this leaves open the impression that he may not have the best interests of the local group at heart.

The outstanding issue here is how Masyr was referred to the LDC and, was it aware of his past representations? With this issue unresolved it leaves the board open to criticism that it is not truly representative of the community it has been formed to advocate for.

Strong Preventative Medicine

As the NY Sun is reporting today, Mayor Bloomberg made a strong health care speech yesterday in Washington (with a rousing introduction as New York City's "greatest mayor" ever by the ever ready Dr. Frieden), that called for a much more strenuous approach to the prevention of disease. The mayor also called attention to his anti-smoking policies and trans fat ban as examples of prevention policies.

A word of caution here. There is a level of zeal that underlies this mayoral rhetoric that is far from being benign in its implications. In order to elevate prevention of disease over treatment there is a need to insinuate the government directly into the lives of Americans; a be healthy or else policy. This is necessary,because as one public health expert, Doug Badger of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, told the NY Sun, "The problem with prevention is that so much of it is about individual behavior and individual choices...I just don't know what sort of government programs would encourage people to take better care of themselves."

We do have the feeling, however, that Dr. Frieden has a few ideas on the subject; but we'd venture to speculate that, in this area, the cure is worse than the disease. Our liberties are more important than the healthier lifestyles that certain health advocates are getting ready to force on us.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Harvard Expansion: A Model for Columbia?

We have been contrasting the Harvard expansion initiative with that of our own Columbia Lions, and have raised questions whether the Harvard plan could be used as an informed critique of Columbia's. In a quest to answer this we have taken a cursory look at the elaborate plan that was unveiled by Harvard last month.

We still aren't sure that the Harvard plan can be seen as a model, but it does appear that the Cambridge-based university is at least talking a better game. For instance; "The university has for many years worked in good faith and on an ongoing basis with the neighborhood leaders, and has sought to incorporate community goals within the overall plan." Among the goals cited is "new housing to reduce pressure on the neighborhood."

Here we at least see that the university recognizes that its expansion could act to push longstanding residents out of their own neighborhood. In addition, Harvard is in negotiation with the board at Charlesview apartments, a 213 unit complex that is in the middle of the expansion footprint. According to the Boston Globe, the university has plans to relocate and rebuild the entire complex. What about the similar size housing on 134Th-135Th Streets that will be eliminated by Columbia's plan? Nothing seems to be forthcoming, certainly nothing that will guarantee that the tenants will be made whole.

In addition, as the Harvard Plan points out, "Unlike more traditional collegiate settings that clearly delineate between campus and community zones, Harvard seeks to create an open relationship that integrates academic development with civic, neighborhood and public functions." The details here aren't spelled out but this is not language that we have heard from our friends on Morningside Heights.

It is clear to us that the Harvard process is moving forward with more true cooperation between the university and the Alston community than we have seen so far in West Harlem. The Harvard plan, unlike Columbia's, appears to directly engage the community. The awareness of the impact of gentrification and the emphasis on new housing also seems to differentiate the Harvard planning effort. Hopefully, some of the Boston spirit will find its way into New York.

Garbage Hike on the Horizon

In today's NY Times the paper reports (echoing a Crain's news item from a couple of months ago) on the fact that the city is looking at whether or not the current garbage rate cap deserves to be scrapped. This evaluation, spurred on by the private carting industry, is said to be needed because, not only has the old mob cartel been elimimated and competition been restored but, in addition, disposal costs have escalated considerably.

All of this is what we had predicted months ago when we first got wind of the initiative. What is missing, however, from the Times story is the extent to which the elimination of the cap would seriously hurt local food stores and restaurants. We find it curious that the paper never bothered to check this impact out, because if it did than it would have been discovered that the lifting of restrictions on "wet" waste in 2003 doubled and in some cases tripled the disposal costs for this sector.

What is also newsworthy is the fact that since the cartel was eliminated disposal costs have escalated beyond the so-called mob tax levels of 1996! Spare us from the benefits of all of this new found competition. What kind of impact would the elimination of the cap produce? Well, that is what the city's consultant has been charged with discovering. But, as we have already discussed with EDC, the consultant needs to consult with the retailers as well as carters if the study is to be fair and balanced.

Of further interest in the Times piece was the comments of Councilman Mike McMahon, who chairs the council's solid waste committee. McMahon told the paper that, "'I don't think we've been convinced that there's the need to remove the cap,'...He added that he was concerned about the effect of a sharp rise in carting charges. 'If there's a dramatic increase, it could really hurt small business.'"

Of course, Mike didn't say that a dramatic increase would also focus attention on the fact that the small businesses that he is so concerned about today were sold out by the deal made between the council and the mayor to not initiate a pilot program for food waste disposers. The use of these disposers would obviate the calamitous impact of any rate hike and would create a win-win situation even if the cap were removed.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Burdensome Regulations? Only for the Chosen Few

We have already commented on the mayoral double standards when it comes to the question of burdensome regulations. While the mayor flails away against the onerous regulatory restrictions that are crippling the NYC financial markets, he fails to notice how his own agency for consumer affairs is trying to expand its regulatory reach at the expense of the city's smallest retailers.

On Tuesday the City Council will be holding a hearing on Intro 201, a measure that would expand the current regulatory authority of the DCA. Here we go again! The Bloomberg administration has been attempting- unsuccessfully because of the Alliance's efforts- to increase the DCA's regulatory reach for the past six years. If it wasn't able to do so through law, than it tried to sneak the regulatory expansion through a Charter Revision referendum (overwhelmingly defeated).

As the NY Sun editorialized on these efforts two short years ago (this was the Bloombergistas third attempt), in an editorial appropriately titled, "Undue Process:" "In many ways some might suggest, Introductory Bill 390 can be seen as emblematic of the way that the Bloomberg administration has sought to relate to the city's small businesses: to act as judge, jury and executioner." Now we are once again faced with the recrudescence of the same regulatory impulse, this time in Intro 210.

When is the mayor's minions going to get the message? Neighborhood retailers need, just as do the city's financial markets, less regulation and a reduced tax burden in order to be more productive. When it comes to small business, however, the mayor simply has a tin ear.

Over the past five years his administration has raised the commercial real estate tax by 25%, effectively raising the rent of every neighborhood store by a similar percentage; it has allowed for the doubling and in some cases tripling of commercial garbage rates (while confounding the introduction of garbage disposals that would help to defray these costs); it has raise the cigarette tax a confiscatory 1800% (costing local stores over $250 million a year in lost revenue); and now the city's DOH has proposed a menu labeling rule that will cost local franchisees millions of dollars in compliance costs.

As we have consistently pointed out, the city's entire municipal code needs to be overhauled and the enforcement and adjudication process badly needs to be reformed. If we are truly to become, in the mayor's words, the "Opportunity Society," than enhancing the business climate for the smallest and most vulnerable neighborhood retailers should be the city's primary goal. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Whither Columbia?

It is becoming increasingly clear that Columbia is moving ahead without any real engagement of some of the key stakeholders in the West Harlem community. One in particular, storage company owner Nick Sprayregen, owns over 300,000 square feet of space in the direct footprint of the development. As Crain's In$ider is reporting this morning, Sprayregen has applied to rezone his property for a "mixed use development" that would include affordable housing, retail space, and the preservation of the storage capability of his company.

The Sprayregen proposal, unlike the Columbia plan, is congruent with the community board's 197A plan. What is missing from the entire scenario here is a direct discussion between Sprayregen and other property owners on the one hand, and elected officials and the university on the other. There is room for an inclusionary development plan but what is needed badly is the intervention of the area's representatives as catalysts of a compromise vision.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Harvard Expansion Turns Columbia Crimson

Unlike the opaque folks up at Morningside Heights, it appears that the good burghers in Cambridge are really trying to accommodate the interests of the community into which the university is expanding. According to a report Harvard and the city of Boston "aim to balance the university's academic and residential needs with the surrounding community's..."

A key feature of this accommodation is the provision of affordable housing for local residents. As the Harvard Crimson reports, "Harvard has also provided $20 million in grants and low interest loans for development and purchase of affordable housing." Clearly, as the Spectator reports today the posture of Columbia is much less generous. As LDC head Pat Jones says about the university's letter to the board, "'I think it is rather vague and unspecific'...It makes no direct reference to the creation of affordable housing."

In addition, "The city's plan stresses the need to preserve local jobs and provide transitional help for workers and local businesses affected by Harvard's expansion..." Wow, a city concerned for local business, how refreshing! It appears that Mayor Bloomberg's concern for local business is restricted to the area of lower Manhattan, closer to Wall Street.

Columbia's Spin City

In the current issue of the Columbia Spectator the paper reports about a letter that the university sent to the West Harlem Local Development Corporation that deals with the proposed outline of a potential community benefits agreement.. According to a university spokesman, the letter is an indication that "Columbia University is committed to undertaking its expansion in ways that benefit the surrounding communities..."

But apparently not in ways that benefit the tenants and property owners whose apartments and land will be taken for the university's use. In any event, the Columbia correspondence is vague on details and fails to indicate the level of financial commitment the university will be making to achieve the affordable housing as well as other goals that it says it supports.

When the Spectator takes a careful look at the letter's content it is clear that, "It makes no reference to the direct creation of affordable housing." Columbia proposes creating some kind of housing fund that would help to acquire property (where?) and defray the "soft costs" of construction- "...costs not directly related to construction of new housing, and the preservation of existing housing stock."

All of this is quite a display of legerdemain. Put simply, it appears that Columbia wants no affordable housing anywhere in and around its new expansion footprint. It will create a fund to assist in the removal of existing residents and the (possible) construction of new units somewhere else. Where? Well, as Tom Lehrer said about Wernher von Braun: "Once the rockets go up, who cares vere they come down, that's not my department, says Wernher von Braun."

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

More Calorie Questions

It is becoming increasing obvious that the DOH has been negligent in its decison to require certain restaurants to post calorie information on its menus and menu boards. The clarity is provided by a 2005 study commissioned by the USDA. The study is an "economic assessment" of the impact of menu labeling.

What does the study show? It shows that there is great uncertainty as to whether the labeling would have the beneficial dietary impact that supporters of the measure envision. As the report points out, "Would providing additional nutritional information in a restaurant setting lead to better overall dietary quality and reduced caloric intake? Recent research on this subject suggests a limited impact"(emphasis added).

How, then, is the DOH able to say that the regulation is "supported by leading experts," when clearly, at the very best, the evaluation of the labeling proposal is mixed. If this is so, and the Department basically snuck the labeling rule under the trans fat radar, than by what public policy rationale can it advance a regulation that will cost local businesses millions of compliance dollars?

Council to Challenge Calorie Craziness

In today's NY Daily News and NY Post the papers are reporting on a measure, sponsored by the City Council's Health Chair, Joel Rivera, that would create a reasonable methodology for local restaurants to post nutritional information to their customers. While the DOH rule would force restaurants (but only those that currently post nutritional information to their customers-a real sign of fair play) to post calorie counts on their menus and menu boards, the Council bill would allow local eateries some degree of flexibility.

The DOH rule, enacted with little thought or proper due diligence, comes without any fiscal evaluation, and the Department never even stopped to consider whether the measure would be costly to comply with; a cost that would be borne by local business owners and not the national corporations. In our view, and we are representing the restaurants in this matter, if the cost to comply with the regulation leads to just one high school kid being let go from his after-school job than the cost is too high.

The reason is that the Department, in adopting this measure whole from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, never bothered to examine the public health research in this area that says that there is simply no definitive data that would lead anyone to say that the posting of this kind of calorie information will lead to any changes in customer behavior.

In fact, the Department, in heralding the rule claimed that "leading experts" supported the concept. When we examine the footnotes, however, we find that a single pair of authors is cited five times. Who are these "experts?" Both of the academics in question are from the Sam Walton School of Marketing of the University of Arkansas!

In fact, aside from the tendentious reports that are put out by the CSPI, there is certainly no expert consensus on the efficacy of this social experiment-unlike the trans fat ban that was preceded by solid scientific research. Which is precisely why the spokesman for Chairman Rivera told the Post that the DOH rule would "create an undue burden to the businesses."

The key word here is "undue." Because without the proper review and evaluation there is no justification to pile millions of dollars of compliance costs on local neighborhood businesses, Certainly, when the mayor is doing all that he can to reduce the regulatory burden for the city's financial sector, he should be as sensitive to the local eateries that employ tens of thousands of New Yorkers.

Finally, the entire concept, as it is envisioned by the DOH, simply makes no sense. Councilman Addabbo's comments to the Daily News are on point: "It's important to have calorie information, but not every customer wants to have the information jammed down their throats...This may be too onerous, too burdensome for restaurant owners."

Taco Bell, for instance, has something like 25 different possible combinations of Burrito. The Department, in recognizing the fact that fast food customers customize their orders, has told the industry that a range of calorie info can be posted. So for Taco Bell's burrito menu item there will be the following listing: 500-1500 calories! What to do about Starbucks 84,000 different drink combinations is still unclear. This is a useless, misleading and expensive social experiment that the Council needs to amend.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Bloomberg's "Crusade" Against Burdensome Regulations

In today's NY Sun Jill Gardner writes about the effort, launched by Mayor Bloomberg and Senator Schumer, to stem the tide of the exodus of financial firms out of New York: "In an effort to stop businesses from fleeing New York, Mayor Bloomberg is meeting with international finance regulators about the idea of making the American regulatory system less burdensome."

Talk about your irony! It appears that the mayor is only aware of "burdensome" regulations and taxes if it applies to the area of finance. Let's not forget that he allowed former DCA commissioner Gretchen Dykstra to try to increase her agency's regulatory authority over the city's neighborhood businesses through a charter revision that would have enabled Consumer Affairs to be both judge and jury over local retailers. In addition, when we complained about his confiscatory cigarette tax' impact on local bodegas the mayor described the furor as, "a minor economic issue"(While he, at the same time, opposed the proposed stock transfer tax).

The height of this irony, however, is dramatically underscored by the menu labeling regulations hurriedly imposed last December by the DOH. As we have commented, the regs could very well have a serious negative financial impact on local franchisees but the Department never even bothered to conduct any fiscal impact analysis of the proposal.

Why are certain businesses held to a higher level of concern? We'd hate to think that a class bias was animating this differential treatment and we'd like to point out that these neighborhood retailers are an important cog in the city's economic engine-as well as adding to the city's quality of life. So, let's evaluate the menu labeling regulation for what it is: a unnecessary burden to independent businesses and one that has not demonstrated any efficacy in addressing serious public health issues.

Daily News' Bank Shot

In today's NY Daily News the paper editorializes om all of the faux outrage over the Barclays Bank naming rights furor. And the paper gets it just right in its take on the reality of the bank's "bad history":

"Barclays' accusers fall into two categories. Some belong to the crowd that tried to stop Atlantic Yards. In bad faith they are throwing rhetorical stones at the bulldozers. Other leaders say that they were genuinely troubled by the bank's past as it has been reported. They undercut their moral outrage by pressing Barclays for charitable contributions. And now there seems to be nothing to be morally outraged about-making their outrage outrageous in itself."

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Truth in Menu Labeling

We were forwarded, by the inimitable Matt Lipsky, a notice of a new book, written by Michele Simon, titled Appetite for Profit: How the food industry undermines our health and how to fight back. Ms. Simon was on the campus of Duke University for a seminar at the law school on health and public policy.

Simon heads a group called Center for Informed Food Choices that, in spite of its felicitous title, is an entity that has little good to say about this country's food industry, accusing it of all kinds of perfidy and seeing it as the major cause of the country's obesity epidemic. The CIFC follows in the anti-business tradition of Center for Science in the Public Interest and finds that any attempt by food businesses to defend their interests must, ipso fact, be seen as an attack on the public good.

Nowhere do we see from the likes of Simon or CSPI's Michael Jacobson any awareness that the food industry not only employs millions of Americans, but through its innovations provides access to healthy food at reasonable prices. Their criticisms, particularly of the fast food restaurants, is dripping with venom and class anatgonism. Tofu and arugula or bust is the motto of these elitists.

We can see some of this hostility and absence of reasoned arguments in Simon's discussion of menu labeling. In her view the McDonald's opposition to menu labeling is, quoting a political sponsor of a bill that was defeated in Maine, "Because they're worried that it will work...That people would change their behavior based on the information."

What a Kroc! Food labeling hasn't led to any diminution of profits for food manufacturers who are content to find innovative ways to market new products for changing customer tastes. But this view underscores the innate hostility of the food zealots to the food business. They are simply unwilling to evaluate the merits of their proposal from any unbiased cost benefit standpoint.

This bias is highlighted by Simon's discussion of the policy of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain. The company had initially changed its entire menu to supply its customers with extensive nutritional information. "But just a few short months later, the company rescinded the policy for reasons that are unclear. Depending on who you ask, it was either too expensive to maintain or sales of the company's unhealthy items fell; in other words it worked."

Yes, depending on who you ask. If you ask the company it will tell you that the constantly shifting menu items and changing ingredients made it impossible to continue to provide this nutrition information without constantly altering its menu, a costly procedure that didn't make sense. But to the advocates, without offering any proof whatsoever, this about face came about because of the fact that the menu labeling worked!

To which Simon concludes, in her typically anti-business ranting fashion, "That's why laws are needed to require companies to change their practices." In her mind it is a zero-sum game between business profits and the public health. Missing from her "analysis" is any clearheaded discussion of the efficacy of the menu labeling policy. In her mind the fact that the fast food companies oppose the policy is sufficient enough reason to conclude that it is in the public interest.

And the only reason the measure hasn't passed in any legislature is due to the malevolent opposition of the National Restaurant Association. Which is precisely why the CSPUI had to convince the NYC DOH to introduce the policy by regulation. In the light of day, and after clear-cut evaluation by legislature after legislature, this policy has been found to make no sense. The advocates, however, know best what's good for Americans and if they have to end-run the legislative process, well, its in the public interest, isn't it?