All Hail the Nanny State

New York City,Reading — Zac Townsend @ October 30, 2012 9:25 am

On Bloomberg's social policy:

There can be no ambiguity about the progressive nature of Bloomberg’s long, unprecedented war on smoking and obesity: It is aimed squarely at the city’s poor. Uncertainty about this exists only because the agenda has passed in a spread-out package of citywide initiatives over a decade, each one just small enough—just un-ambitious enough—to be mocked as silly and then adjusted to by residents, and later imitated around the country, without smelling of “welfare.” The public face of the agenda, in fact, has been about taking away, in the form of bans and restrictions, rather than handing out. See: the two major smoking bans (bars in 2002, parks in 2011); the 2005 phase-out of trans fats; the 2008 requirement of restaurants to display calorie counts. While these “draconian” restrictions drew attention and protest, other city programs—such as expanded food stamps, diet education, quitting-smoking assistance, even coupons for farmers markets—have thrived in complement with their higher-profile cousins.

Today’s Idea: A Social Enterprise YCombinator in New York City

Economics,New York City,Politics — Zac Townsend @ January 26, 2011 11:48 pm

My idea is to use the best elements of YCombinator as a model for funding social enterprises in New York City. I want to create a non-profit which uses a cohort or batch model to fund social enterprises. This NFP would give the fellows start up capital, weekly dinners with relevant experts, and the social support and pressure of other fellows.

Ultimately, the goal is to create many more long-lasting social enterprises addressing the City's problems. In some ways, like YCombinator or Techstars we would serve as a screening mechanism, by which philanthropists and Foundations might feel more comfortable investing if someone went through the program. But, more importantly, we would support founders in their journey toward doing both good and well. By creating an environment where experts and support can be provided to a group at once, where social entrepreneurs in the City know and reenforce each other, we can make the City a more just, equitable and fair place.

To steal Ashoka’s definition of a social entrepreneur, I mean people that “individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.” There are a ton of places to support the next big web applications, but not enough places supporting the next crop of social enterprises, more importantly, by using YC's model of funding in batches, with everyone in New York City, we get economies of scale and support that Echoing Green or Ashoka don't see.

Exemplars to look to in the City might include Geffeory Canada from Harlem Children’s Zone and Elisabeth Mason at SingleStop USA. Although the latter is now a national organization, it began with a New York focus, something we would demand of our companies. This way we can create an experience and support network which is topical, focused and relevant.

So, let’s say twenty start-ups a year. They get 100k over two years, health insurance and a great deal of technical assistance in everything from financial analysis to local politics. The twenty of them are pulled together once a week for dinner where some expert on social entrepreneurship or the City speaks for the first six month. Like others, we invest in passionate people with good ideas. We can provide the access to funders, the critical eye to improve ideas, and a lot of expertise, but we cannot replace the single-minded, driven, crazed founder who wants to make a difference. If you are not incorporated, we will pay your legal fees (or someone will do it pro bono), and for 501(c)3, we would serve as a tax-free pass through. The only requirements are that you have to be in New York City, you have to have a social purpose, and you have to be less than two years old. For companies that are non-profit we expect to be paid back within 10 years (that is, its more a loan than anything else), if they are for-profit we expect 3-5% equity like a seed-stage fund. The ultimate goal is that after some infusion of cash into the social incubator (as an NFP/Foundation), that it would be self-sustaining in the long-term.

We also want to support the people selected for the fellowship in making connections among themselves (ultimately making a alumni base that will support one another), as well as the people and institutions in New York. We want to create a central hub by which institutional and individual relationships are built and maintained on behalf of the Fellowship and its future members, so that fellows have a network of experts in the social entrepreneurship, not-for-profit, political, academic, and economics development communities to draw on.

There is one organization in the City that does work similar to this, the Blue Ridge Foundation, who give cash grants and a high level of direct engagement from Foundation staff. Fundamentally the difference is that they have ten NFPs in their current portfolio and six alumni, where this NFP or Foundation, ideally a public/private partnership, will support twice that many social enterprises each year.

To sum up: I think the most impactful thing we can do is 1) Give the entrepreneurs breathing room to work on their idea 2) Provide them technical assistance and our experts 3) Help them with fundraising, in a sense we are their board until they get one, although we wouldn't necessarily want a spot on their board and we make connections to donors and last 4) We could provide institutional access, that is, ideally we would have relationships in the City, so if they wanted to work on schools we could help them with DOE, they wanted to work with children, we could help them with ACS, etc. That is, social enterprise is more inherently political than other companies.

Jon Stewart Interviews 9/11 First Responders

New York City,Politics — Zac Townsend @ December 17, 2010 1:00 pm

As my friend Jon said to me in an email "Watch this episode. I've never seen anything like it."

In the middle section, Stewart interviews four of the 9/11 first responders:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
9/11 First Responders React to the Senate Filibuster

Earlier in the show he called Senate Republican's blockage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act “an outrageous abdication of our responsibility to those who were most heroic on 9/11.”

Photos From Old New York

New York City — Zac Townsend @ December 16, 2010 5:24 pm

The Museum of the City of New York has a great new site on old photographs of New York (Kottke via Eater via City Room). A photo of the corner I live on from 1922:

$80 Million Fraud Case

New York City — Zac Townsend @ December 16, 2010 4:49 pm

Yesterday six people were charged with a $80 million fraud case around the City's new payroll system called CityTime. I'm annoyed at a professional level, since as a contractor with the City I think I do good work, and now contractors and their fraud/waste will be a target of criticism. But my immediate question was how can you possibly steal $80m from the City, starting in 2005, and have no one notice. I understand if you have trouble accounting for every nickle and dime, but when a few hundred thousand dollars go missing, doesn't someone take notice? The indictment raises questions of the city’s oversight of the CityTime project, and how this could happen. The program is overseen by the Office of Payroll Administration, which is run by both the mayor’s and comptroller’s offices, but it isn't yet clear how one can lose control of a project to such an extent that this much money can go missing and it isn't noticed. The WSJ notes that "The project's costs skyrocketed to more than $738 million from $68 million, and in September the city reached an agreement in which it wouldn't make any more payments related to the project." Things are going poorly when you have someone steal more money than the whole original project costs. Even worse, when you look at the City's organizational chart, the office reports directly to the Mayor and Comptroller. Even if the Director of Payroll Administration is incompetent, you would have hoped that someone on the Mayor's staff would have noticed a missing $13 million a year.

To Attract the Next Google, New York City Seeks to Create an Engineering School

New York City,Politics — Zac Townsend @ December 16, 2010 2:03 pm

On Thursday morning, Robert K. Steel, the deputy mayor for economic development, announced that the city would seek a “top caliber academic institution” as a partner in building a school for applied science and engineering. The city is willing to consider locating it on one or more of its properties, including the old hospital campuses at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and on Roosevelt Island.

I'm not entirely sure what that means. Are they looking for a new school to form a campus in the city, or for an already existing university to expand? Are they willing to give land/money to Columbia's Fu, NYU-Poly or Cooper Union or do they want MIT to have a satellite campus? The NYT article continues:

“New York has had some of the best science in the world for years, and it hasn’t translated into a first-rate center for technology start-ups the way it has elsewhere,” said Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future. “It’s a mistake to think that any other region can become the next Silicon Valley, but New York can and should develop more of a technology presence than it has now.”

How New York's Racial Makeup Has Changed Since 2000

New York City,Visualizations — Zac Townsend @ December 14, 2010 10:28 pm

The Times has visualized the change in the ethnic break down of the City by census tract. Here is the map for Black New Yorkers:

Black New Yorkers MovementMap Key

The map text from the Times:

Canarsie, Brooklyn, had one of the greatest increases in its share of black residents in 2009 (to 81% from 67%), while recently gentrified neighborhoods like Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill and Fort Greene saw double-digit decreases.

See the rest of the maps here.

There is also an accompanying article Region Is Reshaped as Minorities Go to Suburbs:

Metropolitan New York is being rapidly reshaped as blacks, Latinos, Asians and immigrants surge into the suburbs, while gentrification by whites is widening the income gap in neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn, according to new census figures released on Tuesday.

Spitzer On Being A Jouranalist

New York City — Zac Townsend @ December 13, 2010 11:03 am

It seems rare that you get to see the doublespeak so up close:

[Interviewer:] At the beginning of your career as a journalist, you were asked, “How do you like being a journalist?” and your answer was “Come on, I was the fucking governor.”
[Spitzer:] Oh, that was meant to be off the record. You know what, though, being a governor is one thing and being a journalist is something different. Different chapters in life that you figure out how to enjoy a lot. But I never denied that I miss being governor.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Testing Housing Aid

New York City,Social Science,Statistics — Zac Townsend @ December 12, 2010 5:27 pm

New York City is randomizing the people who get a certain Housing Aid program called Homebase:

It has long been the standard practice in medical testing: Give drug treatment to one group while another, the control group, goes without.

Now, New York City is applying the same methodology to assess one of its programs to prevent homelessness. Half of the test subjects — people who are behind on rent and in danger of being evicted — are being denied assistance from the program for two years, with researchers tracking them to see if they end up homeless.

The city’s Department of Homeless Services said the study was necessary to determine whether the $23 million program, called Homebase, helped the people for whom it was intended. Homebase, begun in 2004, offers job training, counseling services and emergency money to help people stay in their homes.

But some public officials and legal aid groups have denounced the study as unethical and cruel, and have called on the city to stop the study and to grant help to all the test subjects who had been denied assistance.

“They should immediately stop this experiment,” said the Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer. “The city shouldn’t be making guinea pigs out of its most vulnerable.”

On a listserv I'm on, there has been a lot of ethical handwringing about this program, but these people weren't randomly assigned to poverty. They were randomly assigned not to receive a program.

If you agree with Stringer that citizens shouldn't be treated like lab rats, than the conclusion should be that they should receive no treatment. We have no idea whether this program is effective or not. We have no idea whether enrolling people in this program, in the long-term, might increase the time they spend homeless. We have no idea if the program leads to more crime or less. We have no idea if the program does anything. So if you're not interested in throwing people in to some unproven, untested, possibly ill-designed program at politicians' whims, the only option is to stop the intervention all-together.

Alternatively, perhaps we can test the program. We can see if the program is effective. We can learn whether the program meets its goals. Not necessarily on a cost-benefit basis, but at all. By any standard. To do that we turn to the randomized experiment.

Now, what is experimentation? In the ideal multiverse we could take the exact same people and give them intervention in one case, and not give them the intervention in the other. Then we could observe the difference and know that it was due to the Homebase program.

Absent that we have only one tool at our disposal that gets at causal inference with almost no exceptions, and that is the well-designed randomized experiment (note all the caveats because basically the randomized experiment is the gold standard, and there are SO many statistical and design tools to turn quasi-experiments and correlation studies into something approaching the ideal that NYC is implementing).

To do this you find two groups as alike as possible and you compare them. You give one of them the intervention, and you don't give it to the other group. You can't just give the program to as many people as apply and then pick some other group of people to test as a comparison. Applying is, itself, a factor you want to be equal across the groups. That's why in random experiments you tend to look for twice as many people as you can enroll, randomly enroll half of them, and then collect data on both them.

A large number of families are denied (1,500) due to lack of funding. Another way to think of the study is that there are 1,700 people rejected, and we found money to serve 200 of them. What is the best way to pick those people? The answer, to me, is the lottery. So 200 of those 1,700 families are assigned the intervention, and we randomly study another 200 of them. These two groups--all people who applied to the program--we can assume are basically similar (have something called "balance") across all observable and unobservable characteristics (we can measure the first and assume the second).

Now I'm masking a bunch of statistics that show that random assignment leads to balance, on average, but whatever. The point is that we're creating a counter-factual group of people who applied to the program but didn't get the intervention and people who did apply to the program who did. The selection was done by lottery--not by some other method such as who you're best friends with, or whether your name sounds right or whatever. Doesn't that seem like a just way to assign spots in a program?

There Should Be A New York State Constitional Convention

Law,New York City,Politics — Zac Townsend @ November 4, 2009 10:18 am

Yesterday I got excited about writing about the need for a New York State Constitutional Convention. I had remembered that there was a lot of discussion about it last summer, but I thought that not enough people were 1) still talking about it or 2) had written much about despite the sentiment.

So this is what I wrote, nothing brilliant but a start:

New York State government is dysfunctional. This summer's state Senate-Lieutenant Governor crisis was a vivid reminder of the disarray; but one that shouldn't divert attention from the fact that the New York State assembly has passed one budget on time in the last 29 years, that the state has a comptroller elected by the legislature from its own membership, or that neither house will consider, let alone pass, a wide range of necessary and popular conflict of interest and good government measures.

We propose a state constitutional convention in a similar manner to those in 1938 and 1967, with one notable exception, no one who has held state or municipal office in that last five years should be eligible for election as a delegate. There are plenty of civic minded, competent individuals in this state who want to see it's government function and who are not as whetted to protecting their own power bases.

[Specific problems with the current constitution]

The Constitutional Convention of 1967, where Anthony Travia, sitting Speaker of the Assembly, served as Convention President, saw its constitution rejected in popular referendum. Two primary objections to that constitution was the gradual transfer of the administration and cost of welfare programs to state government and the repeal of prohibition state aid to church-related schools, both of which were seen as adding to the legislatures budget authority and indebtedness.

That convention saw many worthy proposals including a vast simplification of the Constitution, a more thorough and specific Bill of Rights, a independent committee to handle legislative redistricting, authorization of local economic and community development, and sensible improvements to the funding of judiciary.

We would endorse many of these changes in principle, however, a more thorough and comprehensive review of the state government's structure--including separation of powers and the vast state authority system--is necessary. Such a convention is only possible if the current players in state government are prevented from controlling and shaping the review.

Then I saw this op-ed in the WSJ which basically says almost everything I had intended to say:

New York Needs a Constitutional Convention
It's obvious Albany can't clean up its own mess.


For the past month, the New York State Senate has stopped working entirely. The Senate is not dysfunctional -- it is nonfunctional. The problem is that neither the institution nor its members are accountable to "We, the people." Instead members concern themselves with personal and partisan agendas. More and more New Yorkers are asking: What can we do?

Let's recall a similar question Thomas Jefferson asked in a 1787 letter to William Smith: "[W]hat country can preserve its liberties, if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?" We in New York can act on Jefferson's warning. We can demand a constitutional convention.

There are two ways to amend the New York constitution. First, state legislators may identify problems with the political system and propose changes to the people. Second, if politicians benefit from the system's imperfections (as now) and are unlikely to change it, the constitution provides that every 20 years the people can propose necessary revisions. This is where a convention comes in.

Our next chance to have one will be in 2017. That date is frustratingly far off given the spectacle in Albany. But it is within the legislature's power to gain back an iota of respect. It should admit its failure and give the voters the chance to protect themselves against further governmental breakdown.

Sooner or later the Senate will find a way to organize itself. When that time comes it can, with the Assembly, give the public the chance to vote "yes" on the convention by placing this question on the ballot: "Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend it?" This is exactly what the legislature should do this year.

A constitutional convention is a peoples' meeting to design or redesign the peoples' government. The legislature has traditionally not favored calling such a body to life. It feared that a convention might take steps to diminish the legislature's institutional power or incumbents' chances of re-election.

Others with particular interests to protect have also been skeptical. For example, environmentalists worry -- needlessly, we think -- about a convention altering the present constitution's commitment to keeping our parks in the Adirondacks and Catskills "forever wild."

This is short-sighted. Environmentalists might make gains at a convention by convincing us to constitutionalize positive rights to clean air and clean water.

Those eager to avoid a constitutional convention also point to some issues involving the process. For example, the state constitution provides that if a convention is called, three delegates from each state Senate district and 15 at-large delegates must be elected -- creating multi-member districts. It also says that each delegate must be compensated by the same amount as a member of the state legislature.

Because Senate districts are presently gerrymandered to benefit Republicans, this provision providing for their use is thought to have a partisan bias. Moreover, the federal Voting Rights Act in general makes the use of multi-member districts suspect for historically racial reasons. Also, legislators or others already in state government could be elected to serve as convention delegates and get paid for their work. The second provision has in the past resulted in unfortunate "double dipping."

These concerns are exaggerated. Political change has already addressed one of them: Despite gerrymandering, a Democratic majority was elected in current Senate districts.

The other concerns may be addressed as well. The legislature can pass laws to prevent double dipping and assure that multi-member district elections are found acceptable under the Voting Rights Act. For example, in an alternative voting system, each voter would vote for one candidate in the district, not three. In fact, some of these bills are in the hopper right now.

Constitutional change through a convention would require popular votes on three election days. There needs to be a vote to authorize the convention, then to elect delegates, and finally to accept the convention's work. The process is deliberate and allows for accountability. If the public does not like the result of the convention's work, it can reject it, as it did in 1967.

It all comes back to the state legislature. Albany can show that it is genuinely interested in considering reform by putting the convention question on the ballot. Alternately, it can ignore calls for change. This, of course, would further reinforce the cynicism of New Yorkers and push them further away from public life -- and from democracy. If the legislature wants to avoid this fate, which is of its own doing, then it should take up the calls for reform.

Mr. Benjamin is a professor of political science at State University of New York, New Paltz. Mr. Cuomo is a former governor of New York.

I would, as mentioned above, go a step further than Cuomo and Benjamin and take steps to prevent legislatures from serving as delegates at all. It is clear that if Sheldon Silver chaired the Constitutional Convention than little would change-at least for the better.

I also learned a good bit about the 1967 constitutional convention, which is fascinating. Many people think it failed because the convention put the constitutional to the electorate as an all or nothing proposition, so they had to take the good with the bad, but I'm not sure how else you'd write a new constitution for a state. A good brief on the 1967 convention can be found here (PDF).