Monday, July 23, 2007

The Blomberg Enablers

In the entire congestion tax battle, leading up to the creation of a commission to study the mayor's proposal, we have been witness to one of the most fascinating examples of a social psychology phenomenon: the attempted use of emotional symbols to create a suspension of critical faculties in support of an idea that no one has truly examined in any empirical fashion.

The past few months would make an interesting additional chapter in one of Murray Edelman's books on the symbolic uses of politics-an opus that examines how symbols are used to emotionally manipulate large numbers of people; while at the same time allowing a few folks to reap considerable tangible benefits at the expense of the many.

What is just as fascinating, however, is how this attempt has so far been rebuffed-partly by the work of opponents of the tax scheme who have labored long and hard to deconstruct the concept-by elected officials who quite simply refused to drink the Kool-Aid. It is now time to examine what the mayor has presented as an unassailable public benefit.

Let's begin with two of the mayor's main assumptions: congestion is choking the city; and the consequent pollution is making our kids sick. In the first place, we have yet to see the traffic study that supports the first argument. It is our understanding, one that is bolstered by some very knowledgeable folks, that the number of cars coming into Manhattan has not appreciably increased in the past decade. In fact, the levels of congestion that have really increased can be found outside of the CBD-something that the mayor's plan addresses not at all.

Secondly, there is the pollution/asthma nexus advanced by the mayor and some real estate moguls. The reality is that the city's air quality-as unhealthy as it could possibly be at the time of the passage of the Clean Air Act-has shown remarkable improvement over the past thirty years. Carbon monoxide emissions, according to one leading expert, are almost immeasurable they have become so negligible.

In addition, the areas where asthma rates are highest are far from the CBD; and there is nothing in the mayor's plan that looks to ameliorate these outer borough-specific traffic/air quality conditions. Which brings us to the "two levels" of politics. The advance men for the asthma debate are real estate developers, companies and individuals who stand to make hundreds of millions of dollars from their developments, who are single handedly promoting in-asthma-rich neighborhoods-the kinds of traffic congestion that their own ads claim contribute to the exacerbation of the respiratory ailments of our youngsters.

Mayoral Claims

We now come to the most crucial aspect of the mayor's congestion tax plan-his claim that if the tax is enacted there will be 6.3% reduction in congestion. As anyone not on the mayor's pad actually seen the study that determines this? And we don't mean the conclusions-which is a famous tactic of the liars for hire in the consulting community. Figures are thrown out that conclude one thing or another, but the back-up documentation-the data that would allow someone else to replicate the work-is absent.

So what we have with the mayor's 6% solution is a chimera; a ballyhooed number that for all intents and purposes could have been drawn from thin air. What needs to happen here, is for the state and city legislatures to immediately develop a methodology-both political and scientific-that would subject the mayor's assumptions to an independent test (And John Liu's feet should be put to the fire hear for his lap dog approach to the problem).

We need to get a better handle on the actual congestion conditions, their root causes, and some realistic ways to address the real world conditions. All we've gotten so far from the mayor is the old: "How do you say F#U in business?" The answer: "Trust Me."

The operative word is independent, because we have seen time and time again how a small coterie of consultants would-to paraphrase Meatloaf-do anything for money. Of course, all of this may turn out to be moot if the feds don't fork over the dough, if Albany drags its feet because of the politics of pique; or if other cities are successful at our expense.

But if they do send us the money we need to be ready to avoid another Bloomberg social experiment-one that uses the tax payer once again as a guinea pig. In order to be able to do this, we need to have more facts at our disposal-and more critical thinking than the editorialists at the DN seem capable of- than have been forthcoming so far.