Why Zephyr Teachout Should Be New York’s Next Governor


New York progressives have recently felt emboldened to challenge centrist Democrats in primary elections. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate Letitia James, and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito all swept into office after handily defeating their more conservative opponents. Their success led, in part, to the rise of Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law professor, Yale graduate, and formidable primary challenger to Andrew Cuomo. Teachout’s running mate, Tim Wu, is a law professor at Columbia and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

Teachout and Wu are not perennial “activist” candidates. They have the expertise and experience to lead New York State into an era of reform. Their chances of victory are not outstanding. Indeed, a primary victory over Andrew Cuomo would perhaps be as unexpected as Eric Cantor’s ouster. But every vote cast for Teachout and Wu serves as a warning to the governor and to the Democratic Party that habitually disappointing Democrats  will no longer be tolerated.

There are many things that Andrew Cuomo has done or failed to do, both as governor and as a gubernatorial candidate, that should discourage New York Democrats from supporting his re-election. Depending on one’s priorities, some of his trespasses may seem more distressing than others. The following is an incomplete (but hopefully sufficient) list of reasons why Cuomo is undeserving of another term as governor.

1. He failed to support a Democratic majority in the state Senate in 2012.

The Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) is a faction of conservative Democrats in the state Senate who are allied with Republicans. In 2012, voters wanted a state Senate controlled by Democrats but instead got one controlled by Republicans and the duplicitous IDC. This alliance has prevented a number of progressive initiatives from becoming law, including the Women’s Equality Act. Not only did Cuomo fail to endorse important Democratic Senate candidates, but he also endorsed two Republicans and failed to prevent a Democrat from caucusing with the Republicans.

2. He needed to be coerced into explicitly supporting a Democratic majority in the state Senate in 2014.

The Working Families Party (WFP), a powerful labor-backed organization that aims to push Democratic candidates leftward by endorsing and campaigning for progressive Democrats, almost denied Cuomo their support this year. But Cuomo and WFP favorite Bill de Blasio were able to broker a last minute deal. The WFP officially endorsed Cuomo and in exchange, he called for the dissolution of the IDC and said he would campaign for a Democratic majority in the Senate. But some of Cuomo’s subsequent actions seem to indicate that he wants to punish the WFP for challenging his authority. A politician supporting his or her own party is something that should occur automatically. It’s absurd that anyone had to force Cuomo to back his own allies.   

3. He created a sham “Women’s Equality” party in an attempt to take away votes from his female primary challenger and from a powerful progressive third party.

Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Act failed to pass in the state Senate because of the Republican-IDC alliance but the governor is so pumped about women’s rights that he created a wholly unnecessary third party that immediately endorsed him. He doesn’t want anyone getting the idea that a female governor might be a better advocate for women’s equality than him and he wants to punish the Working Families Party for failing to instantly bow before him. Cuomo will appear on the Democratic, Working Families, and Women’s Equality party lines this November (assuming he secures the Democratic nomination). The less votes for Cuomo on the Working Families Party line, the weaker the WFP could become.

4. He has refused, thus far, to debate his primary challenger.

A debate with Cuomo would legitimize Teachout’s candidacy, publicize her agenda, and further expose Cuomo’s weaknesses on progressive issues. As a result, Cuomo is understandably uneager to share a stage with her. He clearly perceives her as a threat to the resounding, unchallenged re-election victory he craves. If Cuomo were confident in his chances for re-election (as he should be) and if he genuinely valued the democratic process, he should have no objections to debating Teachout.

5. He twice attempted to get his primary challenger tossed off the ballot.

Cuomo’s legal team alleged that Teachout hadn’t been a New York resident for 5 years, which is a necessary condition for running for governor. Repeated attempts to kick her off the ballot failed. There’s no reason why someone who values the democratic process should be so intent on destroying his only notable primary challenger.

6. He has never taken a firm stance on fracking, despite repeatedly promising to do so.

An official decision on whether or not to allow fracking in New York was supposed to be made in the spring of 2012. That didn’t happen. In February of 2013 a decision was expected. That didn’t happen. In May of 2013, Cuomo said a decision would arrive “in the next several weeks.” That didn’t happen. Then Cuomo said he’d make a decision before this year’s election. That hasn’t happened. Last anyone heard, a decision won’t be made until April of 2015. Fed up with the governor’s dithering, the Sierra Club endorsed Teachout.

7. He interfered with a supposedly “independent” commission tasked with investigating public corruption.

New York Times investigation exposed Cuomo’s inability to complete what he once called “job #1,” cleaning up Albany. The governor who swore to fight corruption wound up seeming dishonest, if not corrupt, himself. The Times recently refused to endorse Cuomo for re-election because of his “failure on ethics reform.”

The list of Cuomo’s faults could continue. His conservative tax policies, his plan to litter upstate New York with casinos, and his unbridled enthusiasm for charter schools are all causes for concern. Teachout and Wu are untested as politicians but Cuomo has been thoroughly tested with disastrous results. A bold change in New York’s political landscape has already occurred in many of its cities. A genuinely progressive governor, coupled with a Democratic majority in the state senate, could usher in a progressive era of reform unseen since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. Such a reality is within grasp, but only if New York’s Democrats boldly select Zephyr Teachout as their next governor.


Libertarian Bashing

A handful of people on Twitter (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and one at The Washington Post were outraged last night that libertarians weren’t criticizing the militarized police forces in Ferguson. Paul Waldman at The Post wrote:

Senator Rand Paul, right now America’s most prominent libertarian (yes, I know, some don’t consider him a real libertarian), hasn’t said anything about the case — no public comments, no news releases, nothing on Twitter, nothing on Facebook. I contacted his office just to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything, and a press staffer told me they have no statement at this time. I also called the office of Rep. Justin Amash, known as the purest libertarian in the House, and got the same answer: he hasn’t said anything about it, and they have no statement to make. How about mustachioed libertarian TV personality John Stossel? Just a couple of weeks ago he was writing about the militarization of the police. He hasn’t said a peep about Ferguson.

OK, except Justin Amash tweeted about Ferguson last night, the libertarian magazine Reason has been writing about Ferguson nonstop (as Waldman briefly acknowledged), The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf has written about the crisis, and The Post’s own Radley Balko, who literally wrote the book on police abuse and militarization, has been tweeting about Ferguson incessantly. Mediaite put together a helpful article about the many libertarians who expressed their outrage last night.

Waldman’s argument, then, rests on the silence of Rand Paul and John Stossel. I agree that Paul should have issued a statement but considering he represents Kentucky and not Missouri, he’s not necessarily obligated to do so. [edit: Time published an editorial by Rand Paul on police militarization this afternoon] As for Stossel: give me a break, nobody cares what he thinks.


How Democrats Try to Hide Their Failures

Recently, Democrats have been propagating the canard that Republicans are eager to impeach President Obama. While it’s true that Sarah Palin called for the President’s impeachment on Fox News earlier this month, it’s helpful to remember than Palin isn’t a politician anymore and that her statements are in no way indicative of the Republican Party’s intentions. The occasional Republican endorsement of impeachment has been milked by Democrats for the purpose of raising money and placing the blame for government inaction entirely on the shoulders of conservatives. 

Nate Silver crunched some numbers related to talk of impeachment and found, unsurprisingly, that liberals raise the topic far more often than conservatives, both in the media and in the halls of Congress.

So far in July, there have been 10 mentions of the term “impeachment” in Congress and four others of the term “impeach.” Eleven of the 14 mentions have been made by Democratic rather than Republican members of Congress, however.

…for every mention of impeachment on Fox News in July, there have been five on liberal-leaning MSNBC.

This data comes from a Lexis-Nexis search of transcripts on each network. It counts each mention of the words “impeach” or “impeachment.” The terms were used 32 times in a single episode of MSNBC’s “The Ed Show” on Monday. … The scoreboard so far in July: Fox News has 95 mentions of impeachment, and MSNBC 448.

David Graham of The Atlantic couldn’t help but notice all the fundraising emails mentioning impeachment that have flooded his inbox recently:

If all you were reading were Democratic email lists…you might imagine it was December 1998 all over again. The set of increasingly hysterical missives from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee presents an alternate political history of the last week.

It’s no secret why Democrats are so eager to talk about impeachment. By their own admission, it’s been a cash cow, drawing in millions of dollars in donations.

Talk of impeachment is an illustrative example of how liberals use the most outrageous utterances of Republicans as a means of drumming up hatred for conservatives, a propaganda war that conveniently serves the purpose of excusing the President’s failures.

Undoubtedly, House Republicans hold many unreasonable views, especially on economic issues. But contrary to what Democrats suggest, there is common ground between progressives and Tea Party conservatives.

Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), for instance, collaborated on the REDEEM Act, which seeks to “cut the cost and stigma of non-violent drug offenses by limiting how long criminal records stick to ex-convicts.” They also proposed an amendment, described by the Drug Policy Alliance as “groundbreaking,” that would prohibit federal agencies from interfering with state medical marijuana laws.

Earlier today, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) proposed a bill that would end NSA bulk collection. Last year, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) participated in Rand Paul’s drone filibuster, protesting executive overreach. Senators Paul and Lee also joined with Democrats Chris Murphy and Tom Udall to oppose the arming of Syrian rebels.

Reforming drug policy and scaling back U.S. military involvement overseas should enjoy Democratic support. The war in Iraq cost trillions, caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and did little to stabilize a country currently in the midst of civil war. The war on drugs has resulted in a mass incarceration crisis that betrays our values and ruins the lives of countless nonviolent offenders. 

While economic issues such as unemployment and low wages are certainly worth addressing, the current ideological divide between liberals and conservatives on all things fiscal makes progress on, for instance, a minimum wage hike, nearly impossible. Thus, it would be sensible for liberals to re-prioritize and focus on bipartisan initiatives that might stand a chance of succeeding. So why haven’t they? 

Because President Obama’s views on drone strikes, military interventions, NSA spying, and drug policy are disappointing at best and shameful at worst. No Republican, no matter how loony, is responsible for Obama’s support of the NSA collecting and storing intimate details about the private lives of innocent civilians, or the supposedly “surgical” drone strikes that wipe out civilians, or the intervention in Libya that has left the country a war-ravaged mess, or the proposed intervention in Syria, or the imprisonment of mostly young black men for the “crime” of selling marijuana. The President supports these disastrous policies of his own accord.

Alexander Hamilton once advised that “if a government appears to be confident of its own powers, it is the surest way to inspire the same confidence in others.” President Obama and his fellow Democrats inspire no confidence whatsoever and their incessant finger-pointing won’t disguise that reality.


In July 2013, No Labels held a rally where lawmakers of both parties crowded a park outside the Capitol, stood on a grandstand and one by one declared themselves “problem solvers.” The government shut down a few months later as Republicans, including some who appeared on that stage, refused to allow a budget to pass unless it defunded the president’s health care law.

Even in its own May document, No Labels claimed only one legislative victory: a bill that passed out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee by voice vote, but which never came up for a vote in the House or became law.


Yahoo! News

Self-described centrist or “problem solving” bipartisan groups like No Labels are utterly useless for myriad reasons.

  1. The political center is an ever-changing place subject to the whims of establishment Democrats and Republicans.
  2. Bipartisanship can produce disastrous results (e.g. the Iraq War) and thus is not always desirable.
  3. It is sometimes best for opposing political factions to squabble with each other. That’s how ideas are debated and communicated to the public.
  4. If a bipartisan compromise does not benefit the public, then who cares that a compromise was reached? 
  5. There has never been and probably never will be a time in America’s history in which opposing political factions routinely set aside their differences for the supposed good of the country. We couldn’t even get Americans to agree on slavery, which must rank as the single most obviously abhorrent policy in our country’s history. (Not to mention, the bipartisan “solution” to slavery up until the Civil War was to avoid addressing the issue.)
  6. One cannot discuss politics without being met with passionate disagreement. We can learn to treat those who disagree with us with respect but if we respect them, we should not ask that they abandon their firmly held beliefs just so we can all reach some arbitrary agreement and then eat cookies and hold hands.
  7. Many radicals were widely derided in their lifetimes but later judged to be forward-thinking and courageous. It’s good to have radicals around. They stir the pot and challenge orthodoxy.
  8. Some people hold views that are totally immoral. They should be met only with fierce, unyielding resistance. 

Dithering on Marijuana Policy

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio borrowed a page from the Clinton playbook tonight when he appeared to embrace two different stances on marijuana policy at once. 

Earlier today, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson announced his intention “to end the prosecution of most low-level marijuana possession cases.” Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who recently referred to marijuana decriminalization as “a major mistake and something I will never support,” responded to Thompson’s announcement by blithely stating that it would ”not result in any changes.” Most would interpret such contradictory statements as clear evidence of a disagreement. Not Mayor de Blasio. In a statement, his spokesperson declared:

"We echo Commissioner Bratton’s belief that as an elected official, it is Mr. Thompson’s prerogative to set policy for his office, and agree with the Commissioner that officers must enforce the law, as it is written, consistently across the city. That said, the mayor continues to believe—as does Commissioner Bratton—that it is important for officers to exercise discretion in their work, and that includes marijuana cases, as excessive arrests for small amounts of marijuana can be unproductive."

In other words, de Blasio theoretically supports the idea of arresting less marijuana offenders but isn’t terribly eager to embrace a policy that would actually result in less marijuana offenders being arrested. His refusal to take marijuana reform seriously explains why “marijuana arrests are not actually decreasing under the de Blasio administration.”

The Mayor’s blasé, non-committal attitude towards marijuana reform is somewhat surprising considering he spent nearly his entire mayoral campaign bemoaning the targeting of young black men in stop-and-frisk arrests. And while stop-and-frisks are now occurring less frequently, plenty of young black men are still being arrested for marijuana possession and dancing on the subway, among other petty offenses.

Ultimately, the Mayor only has so much wiggle room on the marijuana issue. It’s his upstate frenemy Andrew Cuomo who has the power to reform marijuana laws (don’t hold your breath). But when tangible progress can be made, the Mayor seems content to let the opportunity slip away. Progressives should expect and demand more from a man who rightly recognizes racial disparities in stop-and-frisk arrests as an urgent problem yet seems unwilling to tackle the related, nearly identical problem of racial disparities in marijuana arrests.


Thoughts on the Big Soda Ban

The proposed big soda ban in New York is officially dead and opinion polls show that the idea is more or less universally despised. But I still support the damn thing (or I at least think it’s worth a try). Why? Because as it stands, consumer choice is limited by soda companies for their own benefit at the public’s expense. As a result, people consume and pay for a lot more sugar than they need and thus develop all sorts of health problems which ultimately drive up health care costs for everyone.

If I walked into almost any big movie theater in Manhattan right now, I could not purchase a 12 ounce container of soda no matter how much I might want to. As a consumer, I have no choice but to buy the smallest serving size offered, which is probably 16 ounces. Many people wrongly believe that they’ll drink a lot more soda than they actually will and that they are getting a great deal (just a quarter more for a large!), and so they often buy a medium or large, both of which are pretty enormous.

Critics of the big soda ban often complain that their freedom of choice would be restricted because, under the ban’s rules, they could no longer purchase a 32 ounce sugary behemoth. But what about the freedom to buy a 12 ounce cup, which is the much healthier choice? Soda companies have eliminated that option for the sole purpose of making money.

As the graphic below helps to demonstrate, the sizes of soda containers in movie theaters and restaurants have increased dramatically over the years.


The average consumer probably doesn’t realize that a “large” soda at their favorite restaurant might be quadruple the size it once was. This is all done purely for the sake of profits. The Atlantic explains:

[P]rofits increase as people buy bigger portions. The additional cost for the soda companies and restaurants to serve larger sizes may be mere cents for a larger cup and the extra liquid. Consumers are willing to pay much more than these few cents. The companies cash in. Consumers lose.

So soda companies deal a serious blow to the public’s health and reap all the benefits. Is there anything technically wrong with that? No, I suppose not. It’s not illegal and it’s doesn’t violate any sacred principle of American capitalism. But if you’re an elected official who hears daily complaints about skyrocketing health care costs, it might be a good idea to find a way to reduce rising obesity rates considering obesity adds $190 billion to annual national healthcare costs. Banning large soda containers is one of many ways to tackle this problem.

Unfortunately, the guy who decided to propose the large soda ban, Michael Bloomberg, also called for the banning of sparklers and enacted all sorts of meddlesome laws that many people understandably scoffed at. Bloomberg was also perceived as an enemy of the working class, a billionaire who couldn’t possibly relate to the struggles of a low wage worker. Had the ban been advertised by a better salesman as a fight against big soda companies that could make people healthier and reduce health care costs, it might have garnered more support.

But that didn’t happen and the idea is now deader than Ned Stark. It’s not exactly a tragedy but let’s not pretend that consumers are now free to make any choice they desire. In fact, their choices when it comes to sugary beverages are restricted all the time and the lack of healthier alternatives is literally killing them


Andrew Cuomo Just Wiped the Floor with New York’s Progressives

The Working Families Party of New York, a progressive coalition of grassroots activists and labor unions, formally endorsed Governor Andrew Cuomo for re-election last night after a raucous and divisive convention. The WFP nearly nominated its own candidate, Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout, to challenge Cuomo but ultimately decided to support the governor in exchange for his support on several issues important to the party. One of the WFP’s demands was that Cuomo push for a Democratic majority in the state Senate. (One would assume that a Democratic governor would reflexively support his own party in his own state but alas, that was not the case with Cuomo). After securing the nomination, Cuomo recorded a video message for the convention audience in an attempt to win over the crowd but their response wasn’t exactly warm, to put it mildly.


I thought the WFP should have nominated its own candidate because I cannot fathom why a political party whose entire existence is devoted to advancing economic progressivism would endorse an economically conservative governor. But I can certainly appreciate that the WFP was in a tough spot. The Nation reported that if Cuomo failed to secure the WFP’s endorsement, some of its powerful union members could have left the party in protest. Several influential New York politicians, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is practically the patron saint of the WFP, worked behind the scenes to garner support for Cuomo. It would’ve required some real gumption to swat away the hands of the state’s most powerful elected officials in order to run a risky protest campaign that could have jeopardized the party’s future. 

For the WFP to retain its spot on the ballot, it must acquire 50,000 votes in the upcoming gubernatorial election. In 2010, Andrew Cuomo received 154,835 votes on the Working Families Party line. A little-known third party candidate such as Teachout might have struggled to reach the 50,000 mark (although, the Green Party candidate in 2010, Howie Hawkins, received nearly 60,000 votes despite running a campaign that was virtually invisible to most voters). The WFP’s refusal to oppose a governor known for being a tad vindictive might have been a safe move but it was a decision that was met with open rebellion at its own convention.

The WFP’s lack of courage is a stark example of why progressivism often struggles to spread throughout the U.S. While the Tea Party aggressively challenged establishment Republicans and now has one of its golden boys preparing to mount a campaign for President, progressives have comparatively little to show for all their protests and firebrand speeches.

The major policy objectives of progressivism are popular throughout the country: raising the minimum wage, scaling back military interventionism, raising taxes on the wealthy, holding Wall Street accountable for its crimes, etc. The Reagan-era adage that only centrist Democrats can win nationwide office was proved false when Barack Obama ran to the left of Hillary Clinton in 2008 and then went on to easily defeat his Republican challengers. Obama is hardly the embodiment of progressivism, but he pretended he was in the 2008 campaign speeches that helped secure his nomination. 

As Theodore Roosevelt said in 1912, at the first convention of the National Progressive Party:

The old parties are husks, with no real soul within either, divided on artificial lines, boss-ridden and privilege-controlled, each a jumble of incongruous elements, and neither daring to speak out wisely and fearlessly what should be said on the vital issues of the day.

While Roosevelt’s words are obviously still relevant, his solution to a duopoly was far more radical than the WFP’s approach, which attempts to pressure Democrats to gradually move leftward. But that strategy will fail time and again if progressives can be placated with false promises. Less than 24 hours after getting the WFP’s endorsement, Cuomo dismissed his critics, boasting that “At the end of the day, I won the endorsement, and that’s what’s really relevant.” In other words, he said what he needed to say in order to get what he wanted and after that he’ll do exactly what he feels like doing without fear of reprisal. Such is the inevitable consequence of spinelessness.


MMA Fought the Law and the Law Won

New York is the only place in all of North America that prohibits professional mixed martial arts bouts, in part because the sport’s savagery is apparently too much for some state legislators to handle. Most of the debate over whether or not to legalize MMA revolves around the safety of its participants: are the fights exceptionally dangerous (or perhaps even deadly) or do they just appear to be exceptionally dangerous? Studies attempting to answer this question seem to complicate the issue more than resolve it. One editorial in The New York Times notes: 

A 2006 Johns Hopkins study noted “a reduced risk of traumatic brain injury in M.M.A. competitions when compared to other events involving striking.” The reason is simple: Boxing’s “protective” padding, coupled with its 12-round bouts and rest periods, means the boxer is subject to dozens of brain-jostling head blows in each fight. In M.M.A., most bouts end in a wrestling match, with one opponent forcing the other into submission; only 28 percent of all M.M.A. bouts are decided by a blow to the head… 

As a result, M.M.A. fighters have not only a lower risk of cognitive impairment, but of death. There have been only three fatalities in the 17-year history of American M.M.A. But we average almost that many in a single year in boxing: 129 fighters have died in American rings since 1960.

But according to a Canadian study:

A mixed martial arts fighter suffers a traumatic brain injury in almost a third of professional bouts — far more than the rate of such injuries in hockey, football or even boxing…

The researchers suggest banning the growing sport among young people, and instituting rules at the pro level that limit action after a competitor is downed, much like the 10-second count in boxing.

Of course, there are other factors to consider aside from the safety of the fighters. An estimated $135 million per year in revenue could be generated for New York state if professional MMA fights were allowed to occur at major venues. That amount could pay for all state assistance for the homeless (and then some) for, potentially, years to come. Perhaps because of that monetary incentive, popular opinion has been trending towards legalization:

Support for lifting New York’s ban on mixed-martial arts has grown over the past 11 months, according to a new poll. A total of 43 percent of registered voters now want the state to rescind its ban on professional bouts, Siena College found. That’s up from 32 percent in May of last year.

And considering the issue from a broader, more philosophical perspective, why shouldn’t two consenting adults be free to fight each for a living if that’s what they want to do? If the state chooses to intervene at all, why not impose regulations designed to minimize harm rather than prohibit the sport altogether?

Since professional MMA events already occur throughout the country, it’s difficult to understand what politicians in New York hope to achieve by outlawing the sport. Anyone with internet access can watch gruesome highlight reels of fights on YouTube and any MMA aficionados living in New York can simply travel to another state to witness a live event. And professional MMA combatants are unlikely to end their careers simply because one state won’t allow them to compete within its borders. 

It should be asked of all state legislators supportive of the ban: what tangible benefits have occurred as a result of this ban and how are those benefits better than an extra $135 million in state revenue and all the benefits that might arise from spending that additional revenue? My guess is that we wouldn’t hear a convincing explanation and that most New Yorkers would rather their state government find better ways to spend its time than wagging its finger at mixed martial arts. 


New Mayor and Police Commissioner Yield Mixed Results

Under Commissioner Ray Kelly, arrest statistics recorded by the New York Police Department were often hidden or partially hidden from the public. That’s changed with the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the reinstatement of Commissioner Bill Bratton, who previously served under Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The New York Times has analyzed the administration’s newly released arrest data and the results are decidedly mixed.  

The improvements include:

  • Greater transparency of arrest statistics
  • A huge decline in stop-and-frisk
  • A significant reduction in the murder rate

But perhaps the most notable change (or at least the change most noticed by the press) is the spike in arrests of peddlers, panhandlers, and others who have committed minor violations, such as drinking beer in public, riding bicycles on the sidewalk, and, in at least once instance, selling churros on the subway.

This isn’t a surprising development. Bratton has long advocated for the “broken windows" theory of crime prevention, which posits that going after small-time crooks, such as vandals, will ultimately prevent more serious crimes from occurring. It’s a harebrained notion that Mayor de Blasio apparently agrees with. In its most insidious form, the “broken windows” theory can result in the abuse and harassment of artists selling their work on the street or kids spray painting an abandoned building.

One of the major objections to Ray Kelly’s use of stop-and-frisk was that it often targeted young black men and other non-privileged groups. I think it goes without saying that someone selling churros in a subway station all day is not a trust fund baby lounging in a Williamsburg condo at night. de Blasio and Bratton, if they persist with their current policing strategy, will incite significant backlash from the rank-and-file New Yorkers who put them into their respective seats of power. All Mayors have their faults but considering de Blasio’s opposition to stop-and-frisk and the chorus of critics who hated the “broken windows” theory during the Giuliani administration, one would hope that de Blasio and Bratton would avoid repeating past mistakes.


How Politicians “Evolve”

President Obama recently admitted something that has been obvious to many for quite some time. “I don’t think [marijuana] is more dangerous than alcohol,” he told the New Yorker's David Remnick. He went on to bemoan the racially discriminatory effects of marijuana laws and suggested that Washington and Colorado’s legalization efforts should “go forward.” Although the President has not actually endorsed marijuana legalization (in fact, he criticized the idea and speculated that it could result in the decriminalization of harder drugs such as cocaine and meth), his comments are markedly different from his previous public statements on the issue. Why, after 5 years in office, has the President chosen this moment to advance the cause of drug policy reform? Perhaps it’s because of Colorado and Washington. Perhaps it’s because, for the first time ever, a majority of Americans support legalizing weed. Perhaps it’s because, in short, he recognizes that he can criticize marijuana laws without suffering any substantial consequences. Now that popular opinion has shifted on the issue, Obama’s revised stance on marijuana actually places him slightly to the right of most Americans.

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it should. It’s essentially the same game Obama played with gay marriage when he first ran for President. “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman,” Obama said to the evangelical pastor Rick Warren in 2008. It was a few short years before Obama would become the first sitting President to endorse marriage equality. Why the change of tune? Perhaps it’s because in May of 2008, only 40% of Americans supported gay marriage, while in May of 2013, that number had jumped to 54%. As the public has “evolved,” so too has the President. 

Obama is certainly not the only prominent politician guilty of following an important activist-driven movement rather than leading it. Hillary Clinton, when she was a U.S. Senator from New York in 2000, denounced gay marriage, declaring that “marriage has got historic, religious and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman.” In 2013, she suddenly felt differently.

On the topic of marijuana legalization, Clinton said in 2011 that “it is not likely to work. There is just too much money in it, and I don’t think that—you can legalize small amounts for possession, but those who are making so much money selling, they have to be stopped.” Will she change her rhetoric when confronted with a more progressive audience if she runs for the Presidency again in 2016? If her past behavior is any indication, she’ll likely find a way to appease some drug reform advocates (perhaps by emphasizing her support for decriminalizing possession of small amounts or her support for medical marijuana), without alienating the other half of the country who’d rather continue locking up all the nation’s reefer fiends. It would be the same strategy, the same posturing if you will, that she and Obama have used before when presented with contentious issues. Rather than lead, they wait for others to do the hard work of advancing a divisive issue and then, once that difficult work has yielded results, they embrace a policy position that they have actively worked against for years, to the delight and applause of many liberals.

Perhaps it is the case that Obama and Clinton genuinely “evolve” at a nearly identical rate as the majority of voters. But it seems more likely that political opportunism is at play here. How convenient it must be to come out in support of an historically unpopular issue right as so many others are doing the same. Any fool can see that this is smart politics, but it is not emblematic of genuine leadership and it is not at all “progressive.” It is an almost blatant admission that winning elections (in other words, acquiring power) and maintaining power is more important than doing the right thing at the right time.

Voters should demand more of candidates setting their sights on the nation’s highest office. Instead of realpolitik, give us righteousness. Instead of posturing, offer a principled stance. And for the love of God, speak to us honestly so we know who it is we’re voting for.


Marijuana for Me, But Not For Thee

New York Times columnist David Brooks published an editorial yesterday that, remarkably, distinguished itself as among the silliest things he’s ever written (despite some tough competition). In it, he takes us through an unsolicited journey through his teenage experiments with marijuana and concludes that while he doesn’t ”have any problem with somebody who gets high from time to time,” he nonetheless believes that “being stoned is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.” 

OK, fair enough, you might be thinking to yourself. But Brooks keeps going:

We now have a couple states — Colorado and Washington — that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use. By making weed legal, they are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One RAND study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. Colorado and Washington, in other words, are producing more users.


Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

If laws “profoundly mold culture” and have the ability to “nurture” a certain type of “community,” then surely the marijuana laws Brooks is defending are a massive failure, are they not? Laws prohibiting the use and sale of marijuana are not just routinely ignored, they are now ignored more often than ever before. Today, 38% of Americans admit they’ve tried marijuana, compared to 4% in 1969. The prohibition of marijuana has successfully molded a populace that openly disobeys and disrespects federal laws. Why does Brooks expect the continuation of prohibition to suddenly yield radically different results? He doesn’t explain, but then again, he rarely does.

And what of the many behaviors that most would agree are generally undesirable yet do not carry with them the consequence of imprisonment, such as excessive eating, self-harm, or adultery? Should we prohibit these activities in an attempt to foster a healthier community? Much like marijuana use, we could not prevent extramarital affairs or an over-fondness for cupcakes by prohibiting them via federal law, even if we could all agree that society would be better off without obesity and unhappy relationships. It’s one thing to suggest that PR campaigns or mild regulations could help curtail a societal ill but it’s something else entirely to think that rounding up obese people and adulterers would make our country a better place to live.

Brooks’ column reads like it was written by someone who doesn’t live in the real world, but rather sits isolated from society, ruminating on what rules might be applied to everyone else. Indeed, Brooks can’t be bothered to address the most troubling aspects of marijuana prohibition, such as mass incarceration or a racist criminal justice system. Instead, he, a white guy who probably never faced much risk of being arrested for his marijuana use, thinks the rabble should be taught a thing or two about the finer pleasures in life by being tossed into a cage for a few months, or years, or decades. Only someone truly ignorant of the myriad consequences of prohibition could so flippantly argue for its continuation.


The Best of 2013 (Or: Stuff I Wrote This Year That Doesn’t Completely Embarrass Me)

Confederate Sympathizers and Bad History (Jan. 15)

The Fantasy of Moderates (Jan. 30)

The Contemptible Failure of Liberals to Denounce Obama’s Targeted Killings (Feb. 8)

Libertarianism and the Struggle to End Drug Prohibition (Feb. 20)

DOMA and Bill Clinton’s Legacy (Mar. 11)

The Clintons: Wrong on DOMA, Wrong on Iraq, Wrong for America (Mar. 29)

The Party of Lincoln: The Nonsensical Republican Sales Pitch to Black Voters (Apr. 11)

North Korea and the U.S.: Paranoia Abounds (Apr. 13)

It’s Time to End the War on Terror (May 6)

Why Are Liberals Supporting Chris Christie? (Jun. 5)

In Defense of Abraham Lincoln (Jul. 3)

10 Reasons Why U.S. Intervention in Syria is an Awful Idea (Aug. 27)

George Orwell was a Socialist. Deal with it. (Sep. 22)

Be Wary of Those Who Fetishize Compromise (Sep. 30)

Casinos: New York’s Half-Baked Idea of Economic Revitalization (Oct. 31)

Every Party is the Anti-Science Party (Nov. 13)

Election 2016: Nobody Knows Anything But That Won’t Stop Them From Opining (Dec. 2)

We are going to get rid of the horse carriages. Period. It’s over.

Bill de Blasio, emphatically stating his intention to ban horse-drawn carriages in New York City.

This is a pretty interesting issue in terms of balancing the rights/interests of carriages drivers with the rights/interests of motorists and the horses whose lives, it seems safe to say, are pure hell. According to the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages:

The average working life of a carriage horse on NYC streets is under four years compared to a police horse whose working life is about 14 years…these horses are constantly nose-to-tailpipe and often show corresponding respiratory impairment.  Because they are not given adequate farrier care, lameness is often a problem, especially walking on pavement. Horses must work in hot humid temperatures and in the brutal cold – nine hours a day, seven days a week and go back to stuffy stables where they have no opportunity for turnout. …Because of their previous uses on the racetrack or on Amish farms, many of the horses come into this industry with preexisting injuries or arthritis and are forced to pull carriages containing heavy tourists – upwards of 7-800 pounds. When these horses are no longer fit to work the demanding streets of NYC, they are “retired” – many go to auction where their fate is unknown. “Killer Buyers” often buy these horses by the pound for the slaughterhouse.

Mayor-elect de Blasio hopes to hire carriage drivers to instead operate antique electric cars, which would ferry tourists around Central Park like carriages do now.

It also seems worth mentioning that in a highly congested city where cars, bicycles, and pedestrians all compete for precious inches of space, horse-drawn carriages are about the least safe mode of transportation imaginable. They’re certainly a nuisance for motorists and have caused serious accidents in the past. This is anecdotal, but I once witnessed a runaway horse nearly trample a pedestrian after breaking loose from its carriage, which crashed into several cars.

Nobody wants to see carriage drivers out of a job but torturing animals for the temporary pleasure of tourists isn’t necessarily a sound practice. Sadly, I suspect that the debate surrounding this issue is unlikely to evolve beyond the usual “nanny state” tripe.


Election 2016: Nobody Knows Anything But That Won’t Stop Them From Opining

Hillary Clinton is the Democratic frontrunner for President in 2016. Elizabeth Warren should run against her, but probably won’t win. Chris Christie is the only Republican who can attract enough liberal voters to win a general election. But Scott Walker is the only Republican who can woo moderates and the conservative base. And hell, maybe Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders should run for President too, though they obviously have no chance of winning. 

These are but a few of the confusing and completely baseless assertions and predictions being propagated by the media three whole years before the 2016 Presidential election. Pundits cite early polling numbers but then are compelled to admit that polls this early in the game are essentially meaningless. Journalists uncover the growing thirst among grassroots organizations for a true believer, but then concede that such organizations have little influence on electoral outcomes. Everyone seems to know that Hillary is the Democratic frontrunner despite the fact that most Americans have never even heard of her presumed challengers. Poll respondents have magically formed opinions on the foreign policy of governors who have said almost nothing about foreign policy during their handful of years in office. If a rumored candidate ceaselessly appears on national television, they’re said to be a de facto nominee. If a rumored candidate is rarely, if ever, on CNN or the Sunday talk shows, they’re utilizing a “lie low” strategy, and waiting for their party’s field to take shape. Pundits speculate, gossip, theorize, and generally waste the time of any unfortunate person who is paying attention to them.

The giddiness is understandable. Presidential elections are at once both meaningful and pure tabloid fodder. They make for great television. They can inspire an aging movie star to talk to a chair in front of millions of people. But since campaign season officially lasts for more than a year and since the HBO version of the last Presidential election hasn’t even been made yet, let’s give it a rest, shall we, pundits? Spare us at least a few precious months and let the inane speculation commence next year, when people are actually running.


NYC bans tobacco sales to anyone under age 21

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has signed landmark legislation Tuesday banning the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21, making New York the first large city or state in the country to prohibit sales to young adults.

During a bill-signing ceremony, Mr. Bloomberg said the law will help prevent young people from experimenting with tobacco at the age when they are most likely to become addicted.

City health officials hope that raising the legal purchase age from 18 to 21 will lead to a big decline in smoking rates in a critical age group.

Anti-smoking efforts in the U.S. have been wildly successful over the past few decades, as this helpful chart from Gallup demonstrates:

And rates have only decreased in the ensuing years. Via The New York Times:

Eighteen percent of American adults were cigarette smokers in 2012, according to a report released last week by the National Center for Health Statistics, down from 18.9 percent the previous year. From 2009 to 2012, the rate dropped to 18 percent from 20.6 percent, the first statistically significant change over multiple years since the period spanning 1997 to 2005, when the rate fell to 20.9 percent from 24.7 percent.

Recent public health policies, such as prohibiting smoking inside certain restaurants and bars, probably deserve some credit for the continually declining rates, but even if they don’t, they obviously haven’t hindered all of this progress.

Why then would anyone think it wise to introduce a sudden and unprecedented change to our smoking laws? Very few countries have set the legal smoking age at 21. Kuwait and the Cook Islands are the only two countries on this list that have done so and Kuwait’s smoking rates are actually higher than America’s. So there’s hardly a bevy of evidence to support Mayor Bloomberg’s decision.

It’s also likely that illicit cigarette sales to minors will increase, thus turning formerly misbehaving teens, perhaps in need of some parental guidance, into young criminals. Considering few politicians in either major party have recognized the futility of imprisoning people for drug use, it is perhaps unsurprising that criminalizing even more nonviolent drug users would be seen as an effective method for combating the real but conquerable problem of nicotine addiction.

The consequences of raising the smoking age are significant while the benefits are purely theoretical. Mayor Bloomberg has made a mistake in raising the smoking age and, like with so many of his policies, it is primarily the most vulnerable of New Yorkers who will suffer.