Monday, January 31, 2011

Rae Sterling @ Sidewalk Cafe

Rae Sterling is a singer-songwriter with a big, soul-style voice and catchy tunes. She writes clever lyrics that can be a little bit funny and a little bit sad... You might already know her as the alto from the Bluestockings or as the charming chanteuse who joined The Elements of Style onstage at our last show for "Brown-Eyed Girl"! But Rae is even more radically excellent as a solo artist who writes, plays guitar and sings her own originals! Go see her at New York's legendary anti-folk stomping ground!

Tuesday, February 8th, 10:00pm

Sidewalk Cafe
94 Avenue A
New York, NY

For a sampling of Rae's groovy sound, check out some videos from her prolific YouTube channel:

"Got it Bad"

"Paper Cranes"

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Will Nan Hayworth Vote as a Rockefeller Republican or a Tea Party Extremist?

Now that the 112th Congress has been sworn in, New York’s 19th Congressional District is represented by Mount Kisco ophthalmologist and a freshman Republican Nan Hayworth. Rep. Hayworth’s voting record should be up for exacting scrutiny – perhaps even more so than the rest of the New York delegation on Capitol Hill – because her constituency in northern Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Dutchess and Orange counties has been one of the most fickle swing districts in the United States over the past few election cycles.

Belying New York’s solidly Democratic trends in recent statewide and presidential elections, the GOP has always found a receptive bastion in the New York City suburbs, exurbs and small towns Upstate. NY-19 spans all of those demographic zones. This swing district in the disproportionately upper-income exurbs and working class white towns has historically churned out from the moderate wing of the Republican Party who have demonstrated independence from the partisan leadership in Washington and supported liberal positions on civil rights and the environment. From 1969 through 1994 the 19th district was represented by Hamilton Fish IV – a leader of the liberal Rockefeller Republican wing who voted for two out of three Articles of Impeachment against President Nixon. In 1994 Fish was succeeded by the Katonah denizen Sue Kelly – who positioned herself squarely in the Republican Main Street Partnership, Republicans for Choice and Republicans for Environmental Protection.

Though the 19th Congressional District certainly trends red, it has proved to be not so solidly Republican that GOP Representatives elected here can get away with simply catering to the party’s base and ignoring swing voters. The decidedly independent exurbanites of the 19th District soured on Sue Kelly as she voted for the most divisive excesses of the Republican leadership; a Federal Marriage Amendment to ban same-sex marriage in all states, draconian spending cuts on Medicaid and student loans, and particularly as she doggedly supported what was increasingly perceived as a failing course in Iraq. Moreover, in a year when the House GOP leadership was tarnished by scandal, Representative Kelly came under fire as the Chair of the House Page Board which administered the program amidst the Mark Foley fiasco. In 2006 independent voters bolted.

New York’s 19th Congressional District has been represented so consistently by Republicans for so many decades that the DCCC rarely assembled more than token opposition. Though in 2006, the Republican incumbent was turned out of office by the dark horse Democratic candidate John Hall – a professional rock musician most famous for his guitar and vocals with the band Orleans. Unlike most other 2006 Democratic freshmen, John Hall ran on an unabashedly progressive platform of clean energy, environmental protection, expanding health care coverage and ending the war in Iraq – according to the strategems of the Clintonite New Democrats, he should have lost. But Hall managed to eke out a surprise 51% to 49% victory because he put together the most serious, well-funded Democratic campaign this district had seen in years. John Hall also benefited from a nationwide Democratic wave which proved devastating for most Northeastern Republicans, nowhere more than this quintessential blue state where in 2006 the ballots were headed by the enormously popular Hillary Clinton and Eliot Spitzer. In 2008, an even stronger blue election cycle when Democratic candidates nationwide rode on the long coattails of Barack Obama, Hall won re-election with 59% of the vote.

Though the Democratic candidates performed exceptionally well in 2006 and 2008, even their gains in the Northeast turned out not to be the “national realignment” that some politicos took them for. In the 2010 round of midterm elections, the four-year tenure of John Hall was cut short by GOP challenger Nan Hayworth. Compared to 2006, in 2010 both the DCCC and RCCC regarded NY-19 as a competitive race from the get-go; the latter named Hayworth as one of their “Young Guns”. Even in a in a year when unemployment hovered above 9% and discontented voters were eager to oust incumbents, a red tsunami of a midterm cycle which decimated the ranks of 63 Democratic House members including 5 more from the New York City suburbs and Upstate, Nan Hayworth only won with a modest 52.7% of the vote over Hall’s 47.3%. In other words, even in this election cycle when Republican challengers nationwide had every external factor going in their favor, this was still a very close election. If there is any lesson to be taken home, it is that both parties should now consider NY-19 less like the bastion of moderate Northeastern Republicanism it once was and more like the model swing district that it now is.

Given the competitive nature of the 19th District and the historically persuasion of Hamilton Fish , Sue Kelly and the kind of Republicans which this constituency normally supports, one might expect our new Congresswoman Nan Hayworth to vote well within the moderate faction of the GOP. However, all signs thusfar portend that Hayworth – who enthusiastically received the endorsement of Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, the National Rifle Association and the Tri-State Sons of Liberty – hails not from the Northeastern moderates once known as “Rockefeller Republicans” but as a firebrand from the right wing of the Republican Party. A proponent of Big Tent-ism she is not; Putnam County activist Jay Michaelson labels the election of Hayworth as “The End of Rockefeller Republicanism”; Bush speechwriter David Frum has described the Princeton- and Cornell-educated Hayworth as “New York's Ivy League Tea Partier”.

Nan Hayworth might not exude the cultural pseudo-populism of her fellow class of 2010 Republican freshmen; unlike the heartland districts where the GOP made most of its electoral gains in 2010, it is not very socially acceptable to espouse openly xenophobic positions in Hayworth’s native Mount Kisco – a multiethnic community with large Black, Latino and Jewish populations. Though what makes Hayworth so appealing to the Tea Party groups which backed her campaign is her dogmatic free market ideology. In his post-election piece in the New York Times, Peter Applebome explains the formation of Hayworth’s views on economics:

To hear her tell it, her life changed in high school, when, at her father’s urging, she read Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, a popular explication of laissez-faire economics, whose listing on features endorsements by Ayn Rand and Ron Paul.

Often Ms. Hayworth sounds as if she is quoting from it: “Private enterprise must thrive. It must flourish. And it must do so without the federal government putting a finger on the scale.”

As for the abuses of business, her attitude seems mostly to blame the government (the mortgage market, for example, was warped by government interference) or to figure that stuff happens.
The best way to predict how Hayworth might vote over the course of the next two years might be to analyze who contributed to her campaign; in her own words in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, “Funding finds its way to a cause”. And not surprisingly, the bulk of the funding for Nan Hayworth’s campaign came from banks, insurance companies, HMOs and the local health care industry which have plenty of chits to cash in from their clientele in Congress (compared to Sue Kelly –who fundraised from a greater variety of business interests – it is interesting to note that Hayworth’s campaign contributions came so disproportionately from the financial and health care sectors). Already Hayworth has voted to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – the number one item on the health care industry’s agenda. Over the next few months she can be expected to vote to dismantle the Dodd-Frank legislation on financial regulations, to make permanent the Bush tax cuts for the highest tax brackets, to abolish the Estate Tax, and other measures meant to protect the profits of her financial patrons.

In addition to the boilerplate economic issues that all Republican candidates campaigned upon in 2010, it will be telling to watch how Congresswoman Hayworth is going to vote on any proposed changes to our national gun control and mental health laws in response to the Tucson shootings. So far, it seems that the most pivotal legislation will be that introduced by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D NY-4) that would ban high-capacity magazines like the 33-round clip used in Arizona. According to The Poughkeepsie Journal, the 19th District’s new U.S. Representative is opposed to even the most modest measures of reforming national gun laws.

Freshman Republican Rep. Nan Hayworth of Mount Kisco, Westchester County, said that even if McCarthy's proposal became law, it would be circumvented. "There would be an extensive secondary market," she said. "So these clips would still be available."
Amazingly enough, Hayworth contends that she will respond to this deadly commerce in extended ammo clips with no legitimate civilian use by voting for the United States government to sit on their hands, parroting the press releases of the National Rifle Association - her campaign’s 9th-largest contributor. Even on the matter of mental health policy – which national Republicans are now hoisting as a cudgel with which to address the Tucson massacre and sidestep gun control altogether – Hayworth promulgates the archaic doctrine of federal impotency.

"The relevant law has been established," she said. "It is incumbent on the state of Arizona to determine how better to enforce it. I don't feel this is a matter for the Congress to pursue at this time."
If Nan Hayworth’s response to the first national crisis of the 112th Congress is going to be emblematic of her voting record for the remainder of her term, it might portend that she will vote to maintain the deregulation of business and public sector minimalism to the most absurd limits of Henry Hazlitt’s laissez faire ideology.

From the narrow standpoint of politics, Hayworth’s posturing on the Second Amendment may or may not translate into electoral dividends come November 2012. Granted, New York’s 19th Congressional District includes the small towns of Putnam, Dutchess and Orange County where the endorsement of the NRA carries a lot of weight amongst the large gun-owning electorate. But they also include Rockland and Westchester County which are home to more suburbanites who sit on the other end of the cultural divide and are more likely to hold a politician’s reflexive obedience to the NRA as a fault against them. Even in 2010 Hall won these counties – including Hayworth’s native Mount Kisco. If common sense gun control legislation like Rep. McCarthy’s high-capacity magazine bill is brought to a vote and Hayworth obediently tows the line of her campaign financiers, then suburban independents might very well jump ship come 2012.

The 19th District is certainly more conservative than New York State as a whole, but that doesn’t mean that Republican office-holders here can speak and act like Republicans from Texas or Alabama and coast to re-election (there is a reason Hayworth’s campaign literature almost ignored social issues altogether and focused incessantly on health care and taxes). So the working class whites of Brewster and Carmel are upset by the influx of Mexican immigrants and the swift cultural transitions happening in their communities – but if Nan Hayworth votes for any Arizona-style immigration laws then the rapidly-growing Hispanic electorate in these counties is going to vote en masse for her opponent in 2012. If John Boehner schedules a vote on a bill meant to scuttle the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or if he resurrects the Federal Marriage Amendment as an election year wedge and Hayworth votes reflexively with her party, the Journal News and the Poughkeepsie Journal will almost certainly cast Hayworth as a bigot – and rightly so. New York is simply too cosmopolitan an environment to be conducive to the Kulturkampf which passes for politics elsewhere in the heartland.

Nan Hayworth’s Tea Party posturing might have been largely ignored in an outlier election cycle all-but-defined by a sluggish economy, rampant unemployment and a climate preternaturally hostile to incumbents, but she should be wary of voting as though there were no tomorrow when the Democratic Party is going to put up a spirited opposition in every future election in this swing district. In November 2012 when New York is expected to vote heavily for Obama and Gillibrand’s re-election and straight-line voting should help all Democratic candidates lower on the ballot without any countervailing Republican wind, NY-19 is surely going to serve as a prime pickup opportunity for the DCCC. So if Nan Hayworth wants to serve another term in Congress after this one, she should emulate the example set by moderate Northeastern Republican Senators Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Scott Brown and consider breaking with her party to vote for the occasional Democratic-sponsored bill every now and then. If Hayworth does not demonstrate independence from the national Republican Party, and especially if she votes consistently with the Tea Party Caucus, then she is only going to hand this seat to her Democratic challenger in 2012.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Drinking Bottled or Filtered Water Could Increase the Risk of Tooth Decay

In today's edition of the Washington Post Juliet Eilperin writes that limiting the consumption of tap water could - by cutting yourself off from what is the primary source of fluoride for the vast majority of Americans - result in a greater risk of tooth decay and cavities.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Shortcomings of Microcredit

Don’t get me wrong; I think that microcredit can be a wonderful tool to foster gainful employment and reduce poverty amongst the most financially-marginalized segments of the population. One of the primary financial barriers to poverty-reducing economic development in Second and Third World countries is that credit is only readily available to established business interests and entrenched elites; in countries like Bangladesh where Dr. Muhammad Yunus established the Grameen Bank, microcredit banks have indeed opened up entrepreneurial opportunities to rural peasants, the urban poor and women. And microcredit has not only served as a boon for the poor in Dhaka and Calcutta; microcredit programs have helped financially-marginalized groups to capitalize upon their innate entrepreneurial potential in places as varied as Harlem to rural Arkansas.

However, I’m glad to see that the New York Times is finally reporting that microcredit is something less than the miracle cure for poverty that it’s all too often cracked up to be. Critics of microcredit have long abounded on the ideological antipodes – diehard leftists oppose Dr. Yunus’ movement because it threatens the promise of State Socialism, and paradoxically enough free market purists object to the Grameen Bank’s dependency upon government subsidies. But when such a pillar of mainstream liberalism as The Grey Lady is reporting on the shortfalls of microcredit, now even the material objectivist must acknowledge that - like any other money manager – even some of the most well-meaning bankers to the poor have been been practicing reckless lending policies.

Nevertheless, especially since the popularization of the term microcredit from development circles to lay audiences, most lending institutions throughout the world are keen to at least rhetorically jump on the microcredit bandwagon – and the vast majority of self-described "microcreditors" have significantly less scrupulous lending and management practices than the Grameen Bank.

When most people hear the term microcredit they think of a financial scheme which extends loans to the poor at low, easily-repayable interest rates. However, all that a bank needs to do to call itself a “microcredit institution” in most developing countries is to conduct any banking activity under the broad premise of lending very small amounts of money with the stated intent of reducing poverty. What should separate microcredit from common loan-sharking is that the former species of loans to the poor should be issued at low interest rates. However, what constitutes "low interest rates" is relative. In countries where borrowers tend to pay grossly usurious rates along the lines of 60 percent annual interest, it is not so terribly dishonest for a bank to issue small loans to the poor at only mildly less usurious interest rates – say, 40 percent – and call themselves "microcreditors".

Microcredit can be empowering if a bank extends a loan of $20 to an unemployed Bolivian woman who wants to set up an empanada stand. But microcredit can just as easily refer to a situation in which a bank lends $20 to that same unemployed Bolivian woman to buy a pair of Jimmy Choo knock-offs. Predatory loans come in small sizes too. Particularly in economies where banks do not offer adequate financial products for individuals to save their money for regular consumption, it is fairly common practice for individuals to take out micro-loans for items that have little to no potential to be described as “business investments”.

In Mali, people often take out small loans from the local Kafo Jiginew franchise as Americans pay for our large expenditures on credit cards. One common big-ticket item that rural, property-less farmers will take out loans for is a motorcycle; one would argue that a new gasoline-powered motorbike is necessary to improve the efficiency of his business – he could travel to markets in nearby cities to sell their goats and chickens more quickly. Under such fairly valid-sounding proposals, the loan officer would lend them $600 to $700 for the cheapest bike on the market. But the economic reality is that the real value of a motorcycle in a proto-commercial agricultural economy is not derived from any profit that could be measured in dollars and cents. The total benefit of this microcredit-financed endeavor is more or less the sum of the value of time saved and the sheer prestige of driving around the village in a motorcycle – neither of which is going to help him sell any more chickens. Now, the farmer’s financial standing is even more precarious as he has to pay for gasoline for his bike and interest on his loan with more free time but no additional monetary income to show for it. From capital’s self-interested perspective this loan might have been a pretty shoddy investment decision – yet a bank like Kafo Jiginew has every right to classify such reckless lending as “microcredit”.

Compared to other endeavors for which banks issue micro-loans, a motorcycle is sadly a relatively sound investment. It’s somewhat less common for microfinance institutions to give small loans of a few hundred dollars to people who wish to buy cell phones and computers for their business operations which are used more often for listening to mp3s and downloading porn than they are for any profit-increasing business communications. Other times men would take out small loans of $10 or $20 to bet on the horses in France – consider it micro-leverage for investment on the commodities market. It is even more common for people in countries with underdeveloped financial institutions to take out exorbitant loans for things as frivolous as televisions, alcohol and cigarettes. If you think that subprime lending is a phenomenon exclusive to the U.S. real estate market, then you are sorely mistaken.

Economies predicated upon agriculture are particularly sensitive to predatory lending practices because the brief period after the harvest is typically the only time that peasant farmers ever stand to receive any monetary income. In the least-developed, poorest of the poor agricultural economies like parched Niger and Mauritania, the single millet harvests only come after the year’s brief, single rainy season; in significantly more prosperous and developed agricultural economies like Ghana and Tanzania, there might be enough rainfall for two long growing seasons so farmers’ revenues come in twice a year. When an economy based on rain-irrigated agriculture faces a drought, every single farmer might need to take out a loan in order to feed his family. However, loans taken out to finance pure consumption are not likely to ever be repaid – especially in a subsistence agricultural economy in which food is rarely sold on the market in exchange for currency. With so much demand for credit, interest rates rightfully go way up. The politically incorrect truth is that there is a rational reason why interest rates in these credit markets are generally so high: in developing, stagnant and regressing agrarian economies alike, the rural poor are not very creditworthy.

But the world’s poor still need to be able to obtain capital without resorting to debt slavery if they are ever to improve their lot. The advent of Grameen-style microcredit is without a doubt a step in the right direction as it popularizes and democratizes lending, but it is also no panacea to the ills of the various financial sectors of the developing world. So what then should the doe-eyed idealists of Davos, Wall Street and Cambridge do if they sincerely wish to rid the world of poverty?

The harsh reality is that aside from conducting checkbook activism on Kiva, there are not a whole lot of options available for private good-doers to extend affordable credit to small entrepreneurs in the Hindu Kush. The opportunities to improve the lending practices of the Global South lie for the most part at the feet of the banking and government elite who reside in the gated communities of these countries’ capitols – in so many words, the very individuals who have the most vested interest in the status quo and not a whole lot of desire to expand credit to the masses who live in shantytowns and mud huts. Western development agents and business consultants might have a role to play in reforming the financial sectors of foreign nation, but only insomuch as we can educate and persuade these elites to implement change in their respective institutions.

Bankers in countries like Guinea and the Ivory Coast tend to practice such egregious usury partly because they make a disproportionate amount of loans to their friends and family-members. In many African cultures it is considered the social obligation of anyone with money to share it with anyone and everyone who might ask for a handout; not only for the haves to lend money to the have-nots, but for the haves to simply give it away – people who keep all of their money to themselves are often shunned and isolated from the rest of the village. Judging by the rate at which credit applicants actually get denied, it would be fair to say that such communitarian social mores are expressed in the decisions of loan officers who simply can’t say no to their blood relatives no matter what sort of lavish status symbols they plan on buying on credit. Not surprisingly, a sizeable portion of these terrible loans never get amortized, so banks do have to charge high interest rates on all of their loans – large and small – simply in order to stay in business. In order to stem the worst of the worst lending decisions and make credit more accessible, banks need to crack down on crony capitalism by introducing stricter standards of professional ethics, increasing transparency in their lending practices and holding loan officers accountable when they issue such egregious loans.

Another one of the reasons why interest rates remain so daunting to would-be entrepreneurs in the Global South is that so many of the microloans issued by banks go to finance not just business investments but also consumption goods that cannot lead to direct financial returns. According to free market ideals people should be able to spend and consume as they want to without having to go into debt, but banks have to start offering modern financial products in order for that ideal to become a reality. Microcredit is only part of the equation; what the world’s poor need even more desperately is some form of microsavings. In many of the countries where microcredit is needed there simply are no financial products which reward small account holders for saving; in these markets, people have to pay the bank exorbitant fees simply in order to keep an account open and thus saving money in a bank account is a losing endeavor for all but the super-rich. If the yeoman farmers and proletarians of the world could stow their money away in bank accounts which reward savers with interest instead of vice versa, they would be able to pay for things like emergency health care without having to resort to the crushing debt which crowds out the market and stifles entrepreneurship. Microsavings is even more necessary for the rural peasants and urban poor of the world to accumulate their own capital to start a small business independent of the whims of any bank – a phenomenon which could foster the strengthening of bourgeoisies and middle classes in societies dangerously stratified between the tiny financial elites and the sprawling, starving masses.

In order to obviate the absolute most predatory sort of micro-lending, quasi-modern banks also need to take a step backward in order to go forward by creating new financial services which cater to those borrowers whose means of production remains defined by pre-capitalist subsistence agriculture. In particular, banks which issue microcredit and microsavings accounts to the poor need to establish cereal banking divisions which allow small farmers to deposit their surplus in years of good harvests and to withdraw a few sacks of millet, rice or corn to feed their families in years of drought and blight. Chauvinists of Western capitalism might be inclined to pooh-pooh cereal banking as a philanthropic sideshow, but those who think that the archaic proto-commercial economy has nothing to do with the shortage of affordable credit in the relatively modern money market are profoundly mistaken. When there is a drought which threatens the subsistence farming population with starvation, everybody wants to take out loans from the bank to pay for basic foodstuffs – loans which most likely will never be repaid by people who have no source of monetary income – and so interest rates skyrocket for everyone. The expansion and development of cereal banking can serve to reduce the risk of all participants in the money market and should drive down interest rates for all borrowers – including those who wish to take out a loan to start a new cash business.

The impoverished masses of the underdeveloped world are also shut out from affordable credit largely because in most of these countries where they live the law does not recognize any titles or deeds to the one thing they have: the land they live on. As a result, peasant farmers and urban slum-dwellers have no de jure property they can use as collateral to help them receive a favorable loan. Developing countries should heed the advice of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto and overhaul their property laws to codify the de facto land property of the credit-needy poor so that they can collateralize what little they do have. Champions of traditionalism and leftists opposed to private property in general howl at what they perceive as the injustice of such unabashed Neoliberalism and Western imperialism – but I dare de Soto’s detractors to come up with a better way of addressing the basic causality between land that cannot be collateralized and the paucity of affordable credit. If the humanitarians of the world are so genuinely concerned about predatory lending, they should applaud the efforts of the World Bank, USAID and the like when they push such property-livening legal reforms which could serve to reduce the incentive for banks to charge such usurious interest rates in the first place.

Microcredit has warts just like any other financial product, but the shortcomings of this strategy to foster economic growth and poverty reduction do not mean that it must be discarded to the ash heap of history. Indeed, much of the Global South’s economic ills could be abated if their respective banks were to simply begin genuine microfinance programs which emulate the Grameen Bank’s commitment to issuing loans at low, affordable interest rates strictly for the purpose of business development. Yet the expansion of real microcredit is only a partial reform of economic systems which fail the bottom billion of the world's poor; if these countries are ever going to fix their credit markets in a way that systematically reduces let alone eliminates poverty, their bankers, borrowers and legislators are going to have to comprehensively reform their financial practices.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Elements of Style @ Fat Baby

Put on your drinking boots, because The Elements of Style are gonna rock the Lower East Side!

Pants optional.

Saturday, January 8 at 10:00pm - January 9 at 12:00am

Fat Baby
112 Rivington Street
New York, NY

Fat Baby has 3 levels - we'll be in the lower level, at the dance floor.
$7 cover - not our call, we asked to have it as low as possible.
Transportation - take the F to Delancy St OR the J/M/Z to Essex St.


Thanks to Rae Sterling, Hap Shashy and Spencer Robins, we have 2 new videos on YouTube!!!

"Brown-Eyed Girl"

"Evil Woman"