Jed Morey’s Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Long Island

Building a Rock Wall on Long Island

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I’m building a wall. Not in the figurative or symbolic sense, but an actual, solid masonry wall in my backyard, simply because there isn’t one there. A perfectly logical endeavor in a heat wave. Until this point my hands have been useful for typing, forming a fist to shake madly at the heavens and guiding utensils from plate to mouth in what is commonly referred to as eating. Never have I been accused of being handy, making my latest pursuit slightly quixotic to those who love me.

Upon learning of this latest quest, my friend Johnny Gallo immediately understood the anodyne meaning behind it. It was Johnny whose quiet inspiration prompted me to turn my dream of a backyard vegetable garden into a reality by offering encouragement, with a measured degree of sarcasm, and the necessary tools to get started. I have written before of his stoic, old-school character, which explains why he showed up one day with a tamper, trowel, level and well wishes as I began excavating the area that will someday be framed by this wall.  

Johnny instinctively knew my undertaking was, as he referred to it, therapy. It’s why he demurred when our wives implored him to partake in my madness, lest I mutilate myself in the process. He simply said, “Let the man be.”

Part of the insanity that my profession breeds is an incessant preoccupation with how things work, or more often than not, why they don’t. In this instance, constructing a secure and level foundation has my mind drawing the inevitable comparisons to the global economy, which is collapsing under its own weight.

Even my diminutive contribution to our home landscape requires careful planning and assiduous attention to detail, particularly to the foundation. The foundation itself changes slightly, however, with every layer of dirt that is uncovered. Like anything built to be sustainable, it’s what is below the surface that is most important to the future. You cannot plaster over pieces of our infrastructure without properly incorporating or eliminating them altogether. Consider the living—or dying—case study that is Detroit. Public officials there are contemplating, and in some cases already executing, a plan to raze enormous tracts of blighted development with the realization that a barren landscape is perhaps better than a crumbling one.

There is little doubt our current economy must be rebuilt and history may or may not provide the answers and insight we seek. For better or for worse, the financial markets in the post-bailout period are acting as opiates and somehow shifted from being leading to lagging indicators. Bankers and traders are surrounding the hookah and inhaling the smoke being burned by Congress and the Fed, engaging in what my friend Peter Klein from UBS calls “interest rate euphoria.”

In theory, low interest rates encourage lending and, as a result, growth. But our interest rates are so low the banks have been playing the ultimate arbitrage game by taking cheap money from the government and investing it in securities with a higher yield. And despite the decade-long data from Japan, who handled their enduring recession in precisely the same manner without success, we continue to blithely walk the same path. At some point, interest rates must rise and federal dollars must be put to some use other than filling bankers’ coffers.

Nevertheless, the administration is in a no-win position. We will never know whether or not we avoided a total cataclysm in the months following the banking collapse in late 2008. Perhaps we did. It’s hard to argue with the logic that the combination of stimulus dollars and miniscule interest rates staved off a second Great Depression. Even if this is the case, we are simply extending the pain and laying the groundwork for a deep and long-term recession.

Perhaps the most positive sign to come from the White House recently was President Obama’s decision to make a $2 billion investment into two huge solar manufacturers in the United States. Generating this level of interest in micro-renewable technology will put more than just the manufacturing companies to work; it will have a ripple effect to the building trades and ultimately benefit the residential market.

Everywhere, that is, but here on Long Island.

The one gigantic, jagged rock in our foundation that makes it impossible to build anything sustainable and participate in the renewable energy revolution is the debt load that drowns our local utility. Until our federal and state elected officials come to the realization that forward movement is impossible as long as we are hamstrung by the $6 billion albatross that is Shoreham, we are destined to tread water, or worse.

Biotech, pharmaceuticals, medical research and information technology are all sectors of our local economy poised for explosive growth. For years, business leaders and elected officials have been calling for a renaissance in these areas, but have been stymied by the intractable high cost of living. While school taxes receive the majority of our ire, the fact is our primary export is the talented youth we educate on the Island; the trick is to create a job market and economic climate that encourages them to stay. Working on a plan to reduce the Shoreham debt over the next decade will help level the playing field to attract companies to the region and allow LIPA to encourage and finance residential investments into renewable technologies. Perhaps we can dream so far as to close one of our inefficient, belching gas plants on the Island and even imagine the day LIPA is no longer necessary.

Should we continue to ignore this debt on Long Island, our foundation will remain insecure. And while America may indeed succeed in establishing a new foundation and build a new wall we can be proud of, Long Island may find itself on the other side of it.

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Written by jmorey

July 8, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Why We Live on Long Island

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The Long Island Press "Best of LI" Cover

This is the season when the Island hits its stride. Good weather awakens the senses and reminds us why we live here.  Wait, why exactly do we live here again? The taxes, the traffic, suburban sprawl, the insanity of it all! Why on Earth would anyone choose to stay here, let alone move here?

Because we’re the best. Just ask us. It’s just a matter of perspective.

Last night the Press hosted an evening in honor of the 50 most influential Long Islanders—all of whom were featured in last week’s annual Power List edition. Our “Power Parties” have always been interesting affairs because the individuals who comprise the list are themselves interesting. But last night one star shone more brightly than all the others in the room: Long Island.

One significant reason for this was the setting, yet another reminder of how fortunate we are to live here. The Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn opened its doors to more than 300 attendees, some of whom were amazed at just how incredible the grounds, and the museum itself, truly are. The common thread among the people and the conversation in the room was Long Island and, more importantly, making it better.

One of the modern writers and theorists I admire most is a surly individual named James Howard Kunstler, a resident of Saratoga Springs, NY, and author of doomsday-scenario books on peak oil and the fall of suburbia. I had the opportunity to interview Kunstler a couple of years ago and was the recipient of several golden quotes that fall from his tongue like bombs through the bay doors. But the only one that rendered me shell-shocked was his opinion that Long Island was “essentially screwed.” His theory was that our car culture, suburban sprawl and fossil fuel-based infrastructure would prove both environmentally and economically unsustainable in years to come. While not a wholehearted disciple of his suburbia-is-dead message, I tend to agree with most of the principles he espouses.
But last night, with so many of Long Island’s leaders and educators exchanging ideas, it occurred to me that the concept of failure depends upon ones definition of success. Perhaps we should re-examine the Long Island equation instead of attempting to change the figures.

Traffic is awful on Long Island. Or is it? Contemplating the alternative is devastating. Across the country, store owners sit around and dream of ways to increase traffic into their stores. The American economy is pinned directly to the success of the consumer. Conclusion: Traffic is awesome on Long Island.

Taxes are too high on Long Island. Or are they? Nearly every state in the nation is fighting for federal education funding and every administration in recent memory has made education a top funding and legislative priority. Finding the money for education is a problem nearly everywhere except… wait for it, wait for it…right here! Conclusion: Long Island reinvests heavily in our children by allocating a significant portion of our taxes to education.

Suburban sprawl fractures the community and feeds our dependence on the automobile. OK, you got me there. Having said that, I lived in Manhattan for seven years and spent the vast majority of my time in the same place everyone else in Manhattan spends their time—in a four-block radius around my apartment. Vertical living, horizontal living. It really doesn’t matter. When a friend or neighbor in the city moves more than 10 blocks away they might as well move to Spokane. On the Island, however, once you commit to getting in your car, one’s friendship radius extends from 10 blocks to 10 miles. Conclusion: Long Islanders with cars make better friends.

The lesson gained is, the things we complain about the most are not only of our own creation, they’re not going anywhere. What we are sorely lacking is a proper marketing campaign that encourages more companies to move here to maintain our tax base. That way, more people can live it up with us in terrible traffic, enjoy the exciting educational benefits of high taxes, and stretch out in our sprawling neighborhoods. But first let me leave you with food for thought this wonderful Memorial Day weekend.

The spring edition of Good Magazine features an interview with renowned author and urban theorist Richard Florida who says that beyond the obvious criteria of “a low crime rate and great schools and good jobs” the most important quality of life items to Americans are “a community that treats all of its residents fairly—ethnic minorities, new immigrants, low income people…” and “aesthetic character” such as trees and open space. The latter is something we have. The former needs work. But guess what? Treating people fairly seems a lot easier than easing traffic, lowering taxes and eliminating suburban sprawl. Not that we need to.

Written by jmorey

June 24, 2010 at 2:14 am

The New Long Island Association

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Kevin Law, the outgoing president and chief executive of the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA), has been chosen to lead the Long Island Association (LIA) in the wake of Matt Crosson’s departure. The lackluster performance of the LIA in recent years presents a challenge to the talented Law, but he is uniquely qualified to run the Island’s largest representative organization. Talent alone, however, won’t revive this body.

The LIA lacks a sense of purpose. While its board is comprised of an impressive array of successful business leaders, it has failed to coalesce in a decisive manner and make inroads on any specific issue. The most noticeable handicap in this respect is an unwieldy board size—there are 57 members. The Island’s biggest organization is top-heavy. This has created a problem of perception in that no one really knows what the LIA stands for. It’s time to hunker down and get tight on a handful of specific items instead of attempting to plug every hole in the dam.

Kevin Law, outgoing president and CEO of LIPA, is the new head of the LIA. But will he take the organization in the direction it needs to go?

Evidence of the LIA’s inability to marshal its resources in support of, or opposition to, a particular issue is in its governance structure. There are 16 separate committees ranging from small business to world trade, insurance to homeland defense and everywhere in between. No one organization can adequately micromanage this many priorities. Because Long Island is, by design, a sprawling set of disparate communities—each with its own gravitational center and culture—it’s nearly impossible to manage any one-size-fits-all plan.

Therefore the most immediate and effective declaration Kevin Law can make when officially taking the helm is to plant his flag squarely on the subject of economic development. Workforce housing hard to find? Brain drain getting you down? Tired of high taxes? There’s only one answer to all the issues the LIA has been dancing around: Money. The only way to get more of it into the economy is to attract more high-paying job opportunities into the region and create an environment where companies aren’t punished when they grow.

The art of messaging is critical when running an organization with the breadth and scope of the LIA. If Law can stay on message and focus on spreading the gospel of economic development, he will conquer the first difficult task of establishing a singular perception of the LIA. It’s a lot easier to negotiate with those who control the purse strings when they know why you’re there and what you’re asking for. This raises the next obvious question: What are we asking for?

I’ll keep it simple.

The LIA has been so focused on raising funds by hosting rubber-chicken dinners with generals and ex-presidents to cover for its own financial issues, it can’t focus on ours. Have one gala and a golf tournament if you need to get it out of your system then spread the wealth by getting more companies to pay dues. If you need extra funds, get them from the Regional Planning Commission—they’re not doing anything anyway.

Once the LIA’s bills are paid, Law can develop a comprehensive plan to deal with the two things we cannot escape: taxes and utilities.

Regarding the former: The only way to reduce, or at the very least hold, taxes on the Island is to woo more companies to do business here. This means coordinating the efforts of every agency with the ability to offer economic incentives and developing a press kit for Long Island. The Canon deal provided the blueprint. With Long Island’s press kit in hand, Kevin Law should be on the road six months out of the year visiting every burgeoning technology company in America with an iota of potential. I’m confident he can out-sell the guy from Bergen County, NJ or Lancaster, PA and convince some cool companies to come here. (Kev, call me. I know a great relocation specialist.)

On utilities: It’s payback time. The government rammed Shoreham down our throats then figured out we didn’t want it. Worse yet, they stuck us with the tab. Our utility bills will never go down with a $6 billion debt load we can’t shake. Therefore, I propose that every elected official on the Island sit down with Chuck Schumer and demand that the federal government commit $600 million per year for the next 10 years to principal debt reduction. In turn, we will agree to hold LIPA rates flat for the same period. The resulting positive spread will be reserved for retrofitting commercial and residential properties with renewable technology through LIPA’s existing rebate program. By 2020 the debt will be eradicated, our utility costs will be dramatically lower and then we can fold LIPA and get rid of a couple of power plants.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Now, on to that peace in the Middle East issue. It’s been on my to-do list for ages.

Written by jmorey

June 24, 2010 at 2:10 am

Big Tobacco and US Government Seek to crush Indian Cigarette Trade

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Press Cigarette Cover

Cover Image from the Long Island Press cover story

Tucked away along a waterway in Mastic, Long Island is Poospatuck, the smallest Indian reservation in New York State. It means “Where the water meets” and is home to 400 enrolled members of the Unkechaug tribe of Native Americans. It’s difficult to discern where exactly the reservation begins and ends. There are no visible signs to guide your way, no glow from a towering casino to mark the spot. Once you happen upon Poospatuck, however, there’s no mistaking you have arrived.

Large billboards advertising native-brand cigarettes adorn the façades of several homes converted to tobacco shops and traffic moves briskly in and out of parking areas. People are finding their way here for one reason only: cheap cigarettes.

Harry Wallace is the elected chief of the Unkechaug Nation who has found himself at the center of one of the largest controversies facing Indian nations today. He is also the owner of Poospatuck Smoke Shop, a bustling retail enterprise nestled in a wooded area deep within the reservation. Hanging boldly from the deck of the quaint wood shop on Wallace’s property is a sign that reads “Sovereignty Yes, Taxes No.”

Behind the shop is an office where Wallace conducts the business of his enterprise and the tribe. On the right side of the office is a wall of legal books that remind visitors that Wallace is not just an entrepreneur but a lawyer, a skill that has proven vital to the survival of Poospatuck. As I enter, he is talking to his staff and admits to being slightly irritable due to a strict diet and having recently kicked the caffeine habit.

“I’m trying to take care of my health,” he says.

Poospatuck Smoke Shop

A front view of the Poospatuck Smoke Shop, owned by Unkechaug Chief Harry Wallace.

Wallace was recently diagnosed with diabetes, one of the most common diseases plaguing Native Americans. This affliction makes him a statistic. Harry Wallace hates being a statistic.

Born in Flushing, Queens, Wallace lived there until his grandmother’s house burned down, forcing his family to move to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As a kid he would make frequent trips to Poospatuck and recalls a beautiful place.

“People built their own homes and kept the powwow grounds in good shape,” he remembers. “They had socials and there was this old dock with rowboats and you could actually swim in the river.”

In the early ’70s, Wallace got what was then a rare opportunity for a financially supported college education at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. This chapter in his life would change him forever and connect him with his heritage in a way he never conceived of before.

As it turns out, the Dartmouth years provided as much education as they did turbulence, as Wallace was at times confronted with blatant racism. “I ran into a conflict the first day I got there,” he laughs, recollecting a fight stemming from a racist comment made by a football player.

After college, Wallace moved back to Brooklyn to start a family and received his law degree from New York Law School. He began practicing law in New York City in 1983, which he did for nearly 10 years before returning to Poospatuck.

“My mother asked me to,” shrugs Wallace. “She said, ‘We need your help to take care of our land.’”
Upon his return he describes finding only “desolation.”

Gone were the pristine waters of his youth, sullied, he says, by industry and the refuse from duck farms at the mouth of the canal that Poospatuck lies adjacent to. The shellfish were gone and many of the residents who had existed on a marine economy had fallen into abject poverty; not an unfamiliar condition on reservation land throughout the country. Time and natural resources had run out for the inhabitants of this tiny reservation until the most unlikely of scenarios provided a dubious light at the end of a dark tunnel.

“It’s cigarettes, man.”

Because so many states have driven up the cost of cigarettes due to tax levies, they are cheaper to purchase from retailers on Indian reservations who don’t recognize government taxes on retail tobacco. The disparity has led to an economic boon that is creating newfound wealth and generating badly needed funds in some of the most poverty-stricken areas of the country.

But not everyone is happy about the burgeoning success of Native Americans. Many state and federal elected officials feel as though they are being cheated out of sorely needed tax dollars and anti-cancer advocates claim that tobacco consumption hasn’t decreased as a result of taxes; demand has merely shifted toward the unregulated Indian marketplace. Ironically, the biggest threat to the native cigarette industry may actually be from the cigarette companies themselves.

With the Great Recession as the backdrop to this unfolding drama, the stage is set for a David versus Goliath battle between Indian Country, the US government and Big Tobacco.

The price disparity between cigarettes available from reservations and traditional American-based retailers is at an all-time high. A carton of Marlboro cigarettes, the most popular brand in America, will run the consumer as much as $95 in New York City (NYC), where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has initiated an all-out war on smoking. The same carton costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $43 at a Native American-owned smoke shop on reservation land. This is the result of so-called “sin taxes” applied by state and local governments who use the additional tax to balance budgets and discourage consumption for public health reasons. While retailers and local municipalities have cried foul for several years about the inequity of cigarette pricing, it wasn’t until recently that these cries reached a fever pitch.

But the rise of the Native American tobacco entrepreneur has also contributed positively to the overall economic conditions on some reservation territories. The burgeoning Indian cigarette trade is having the ironic effect of creating tribe-funded public welfare systems that address health issues such as diabetes, drug addiction and heart disease that have crippled Native Americans.

The stunning growth of the Indian tobacco trade has drawn the ire of some powerful people and corporations, and together they are collaborating with remarkable efficiency to wage an epic political and economic war against Native American tribes. The cast of characters involved in the battle is like something out of the movie The Insider. Senators, governors, congressmen and women, local politicians, the U.S. Postal Service, Homeland Security and the mayor of Gotham are all playing key roles in targeting the native Indian tobacco trade. But it is Big Tobacco that is controlling the game and moving these powerful interests around the chess board like a master.

Don’t Tread on Us

New York State (NYS) is ground zero for the attack on the native cigarette trade. On one end of the spectrum, the 55-acre Poospatuck reservation is being called a bootlegger’s paradise and is a defendant in several high-profile lawsuits from neighboring municipalities. At the other end is this highly organized and extremely well-funded Seneca Nation, located on three territories in upstate New York. If Poospatuck is a minor league ball team in this scenario, then the Seneca Nation is the New York Yankees. Both tribes are fighting enormous, yet entirely different, political battles.

Chief Harry Wallace

Unkechaug Chief Harry Wallace is spearheading the fight to save the native cigarette trade on the Poospatuck Reservation

Despite the differences in size and resources, both nations cite the same reason for why the US government, at any level, is forbidden from interceding in their affairs: sovereignty. To understand sovereignty, it is helpful to think of these nations not as territories within US borders, but as geographically and politically independent nations far away. In every instance the theory of sovereignty is invoked by Native Americans, imagine it being invoked by leaders of small nations abroad instead of in your backyard.

The economic extremes that Poospatuck and Seneca Nation represent are as divergent as their take on the nature of sovereignty and the legal rights associated with it. For its part, Poospatuck is not federally recognized as a reservation, but it is recognized by NYS. Chief Wallace of Poospatuck believes that the fact the Unkechaug never sought federal recognition is perhaps an even greater claim of sovereignty than any agreement could possibly provide.

“The BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] cannot confer sovereignty,” scoffs Wallace. “All it was, all it is and continues to be, is an agency that manages funds. This whole notion of sovereignty was created as fiction during the Nixon administration. You cannot confer sovereignty, you can only recognize it.”

Conversely, the Seneca believe their sovereign rights are superior to other tribes who are federally recognized because Seneca territories in western New York are protected by what is known colloquially as the Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1842. The treaty explicitly states that the “lands of the Seneca Indians, within the State of New York” are protected from “all taxes.” For the Seneca people this is impenetrable language and the basis of their claim of total sovereignty and independence.

But as one quickly learns from reporting on Indian issues, nothing is absolute in Indian Country.

Chief Wallace believes that the Seneca stance may have deleterious repercussions on Poospatuck’s assertion of sovereignty. “When we negotiated with the state in the past we had a unified coalition with the League of First Nations,” says Wallace. “Most of the Indian Nations were a part of that coalition. That unified front is not there today.”

Robert Odawi Porter, the senior policy advisor and counsel to the Seneca Nation, offers a slightly different viewpoint. “We’re still united with other nations in the state but our constitutional government is what sets us apart. We’re a stronger and more functional government.” Then he carefully adds, “There are times that our advocacy is common.”

NYS Senate Hearing on Tobacco Taxation

Tribal members from all over New York gather at the State Senate hearing at Manhattan Community College.

Standing together at this time may be more important than ever before, as impending federal laws and mounting legal challenges against these nations have everyone running for cover, leaving the tribes to defend their economic rights on their own. Even a representative from the New York Civil Liberties Union said that Native American issues are “not our area of expertise” and declined to comment on the issue.

As to why no organizations or individuals are likely to come to their defense, it’s simple. As Chief Wallace says, “It’s cigarettes, man.”

The Long and Winding Trail

Because cigarettes have such a deservedly unsympathetic role in modern society, it’s no wonder there is little support for any cigarette retailers. Questions of fairness and free enterprise fly out the window due to the simple fact that cigarettes kill people. Even still, Wallace is incredulous at the attack on the Native American smoke trade for reasons beyond the economic peril it places them in.

“They’re the ones that turned a Native American sacrament into a carcinogen,” he says in disgust.

When America declared itself free, indigenous people were herded like animals onto isolated areas of the burgeoning nation. Stretches of remote desert lands and parcels nestled in the secluded woodland areas became homesteads for Native Americans. Their numbers were decimated and the survivors were humiliated. Yet, in the beginning, there was still food to eat and some freedom to move about. But the influx just kept coming.

Says Porter: “Personally I don’t think it sunk in with our people that the usage of our land was so severely restricted. We weren’t used to lines being drawn on a map.”

Over time, a sea of white faces pushed deeper and deeper into the country—slowly at first, then like a dam bursting, they rushed through the forests and across the plains. Pretty soon they were everywhere. They brought machines and ushered in the Industrial Revolution. Gradually, the skies turned gray, the waters turned brown and the earth lay fallow.

This part of the story took 400 years. The next part took much less time.

Native Americans became like prison inmates adapting to life on the “inside.” By the mid-20th century the Native American population living on reservation land was among the poorest on Earth. The game was long gone and the earth and seas were poisoned. Fast food, low-wage jobs and hustling were part of the daily routine. If you stayed, you hustled. And you probably drank. If you were a woman, there was a one-in-three chance of being raped in your lifetime.

This was life on “the res” and for many tribes, it still is.

JC Seneca

JC Seneca

For the most part, reservations are rural ghettos, forgotten wastelands with few opportunities to get ahead. This concept of “getting ahead” in America usually starts very simply. Find a job. Buy a home. Take out a home equity loan to start your business. As the business grows, you have the option of paying off that loan and securing business financing. But this is precisely where the Indian economic dream ends.

Because reservation land cannot be owned by anyone, the land and any structure on it cannot be leveraged. Put simply, if it cannot be repossessed, you can’t take out a loan on it. Therefore, even the most industrious Indian entrepreneur has been unable to tap into the source of financing that is behind nearly every great American story of growth and industry.

As an attorney, Chief Wallace was able to make a living practicing in New York City and save enough to open a business on the reservation. He credits his business savvy to this experience, saying, “I always worked for myself as a lawyer and not in a firm.” But expanding his business was more challenging. “I have tried many times to get credit. When [lenders] realize they can’t secure my building, the conversation always ends there.”

Then along came the ’80s and, for some tribes, everything changed.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 articulated a one-size-fits-all approach to establishing gambling on Indian lands. For some tribes gambling brought indescribable wealth. For others it was marginally effective. For most it had little impact because their remote locations made it nearly impossible to draw large enough crowds to ensure profitability.

Other tribes, particularly in western states, found economic success by exploiting the natural resources beneath reservation lands. In one of the more ironic twists of fate, the barren lands turned out to be more resource rich than anyone would have anticipated. But just as selling cigarettes and running casinos present moral challenges, blasting apart the earth to retrieve fuel for an increasingly industrial world presents an ethical challenge to a population long considered to be stewards of the environment. But when faced with third-world poverty and few prospects for a better life, you do what you have to do.

Of all the paths that lead out of poverty, selling cigarettes became by far the most consistent and profitable trade for most reservations.

Tobacco Wars: In the Trenches

In January 2009, NYS Assemblyman Michael Benjamin (D-Bronx) floated a bill to remove “the Poospatuck Indian Reservation from being recognized as an Indian Tribe in NYS.” Benjamin introduced the legislation “in response to a New York Times investigation of the Poospatuck Indian tribe, which seems to be nothing more than a criminal enterprise.” When I visited Wallace late last year, he had choice words for Benjamin, calling him “a political hack whose premise is based on newspaper articles. You don’t deserve the seat you hold. No wonder the state is fucked up if you’re indicative of the talent that emanates from that office.”

But people like Benjamin are more of an annoyance than the gathering storm of deadly serious lawsuits that Poospatuck finds itself defending. In 2009, Judge Carol Amon of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York issued a ruling requiring Poospatuck to pay taxes on all cigarettes sold to non-natives from reservation smoke shops. Amon essentially ruled that Poospatuck could not claim protection as a sovereign entity.

With the Amon decision on appeal, the tribe caught a break shortly thereafter when Judge Kiyo Matsumoto, also of the Eastern District, issued a vastly differing opinion on a separate suit brought by Gristedes. Matsumoto found that the Unkechaug people of Poospatuck met the burden of proof of establishing that they are legally recognized as a sovereign tribe by federal standards. Although this is different than federal recognition by the BIA, for Poospatuck it is just as powerful and has provided temporary cover. While Wallace is confident that the judicial system will ultimately clear Poospatuck of the immediate hurdles, the fight is taking its toll.

Through it all, NYC and NYS assert that Poospatuck is little more than a weigh station for cheap, untaxed and unstamped cigarettes that are being sold in massive quantities off the reservation. The state, during the waning days of the Cuomo administration, crafted legislation to establish a couponing system that would track these sales and require reservations to pay taxes on all cigarettes sold to non-native customers. Any cigarettes sold to enrolled members of the tribe would be exempt from the tax. The New York tribes were up in arms, having not been consulted on the matter, and argued that any law passed by a foreign government such as New York that is not recognized and adopted by the tribes themselves is unenforceable.

The Pataki administration attempted to enforce the regulations, known as 471-e, in 1992 and 1997. Both attempts were met with angry throngs of organized and armed Indians who blockaded the NYS Thruway, held up traffic and burned tires in protest, ending in a standoff with state troopers. Wishing to avoid further conflict, the Pataki administration instituted a policy of forbearance, which basically acknowledges that although New York deems the law to be valid, without tribal consent there is no clear and official method of enforcement, and the issue was dropped.

Desperate to close a rapidly expanding budget deficit yet anxious to avoid similar conflict, NYS Gov. David Paterson sent a letter last September to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, inquiring as to the level of support NYS could expect if it decided to pursue visiting a coupon program on Indian reservations.

It was the last line of the letter, which was leaked almost immediately, that provoked strong interest in several channels and brought the debate back to the front lines. In it, Paterson wrote: “I would be grateful if you would please review this matter and provide me with your assessment as to the likelihood of violence and civil unrest should the Tax Department begin the implementation of Tax Law 471-e. Furthermore, I would appreciate your operational commitment to help mitigate any disturbances that might occur in each of your Districts if implementation were to occur.”

Tribes throughout New York saw this as a shot across the bow and all eyes shifted to the Seneca Nation.

Richard Nephew

Richard Nephew, co-chair of the Seneca Nation of Indians Foreign Relations Committee

With the state running out of money, Mayor Bloomberg on the offensive in court and unrest among the tribes, the state legislature turned its focus to the tribes’ booming cigarette trade. In October 2009, the Senate Standing Committee on Investigations chaired by NYS Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Nassau) held a hearing to determine the extent of the loss in tax revenue to New York. In a spirited session before a packed room of Indians from nations across New York, the panel attempted to nail down an answer, which proved to be nearly impossible.

According to the testimony of William J. Comiskey, the deputy commissioner in the Office of Tax Enforcement, the department estimates “that if all cigarette transactions conducted through Native American merchants with non-Indians were properly taxed, New York would collect additional state revenue of approximately $220 million. Because complete compliance is not likely, the actual number achievable would be less.”

Eric Proshansky, from the Corporation Counsel of the City of New York, zeroes in on the Poospatuck Reservation in his testimony claiming that the deliveries to Poospatuck “amounted to a $155 million tax loss in 2007 alone, for the State alone.” He then concluded that “if those cartons replaced sales in the City, as the evidenced proved that many of them did, that amounts to City tax loss of up to another $155 million in 2007 alone.”

Steve Rosenthal, former tobacco retailer and frequent testifier at tobacco hearings, estimated the annual loss of tax revenue to NYS to be approximately $1.6 billion.

For his part, Proshansky is largely critical of the Paterson administration, stating that the “failure of the State of New York to enforce the laws with respect to reservation sales is directly responsible for the loss of many billions of dollars that rightfully should have gone into the public treasury.” He went on to say that, “It hardly seems like good public policy to leave so much lawful tax money in the pockets of bootleggers.”

Richard Nephew of the Seneca Foreign Relations Committee dismisses the city’s claims altogether. “Long before the Indians started selling cigarettes there was a black market of cigarettes heading into New York City,” Nephew tells the Press. “They’re just utilizing us as scapegoats.”

Yet with all of the talk about numbers of cartons and billions of dollars lost to reservations, the city and state are reluctant to talk about how much is lost to bordering states and states as far away as North Carolina due to lower state tax penalties. For all of the attention that focuses on Indian reservations there is no discussion of requiring other states to curb the sale of tobacco to New York residents. Theoretically, if it abided by the same regulation, it is attempting to pass with respect to Indian reservations, then NYS should be sending state troopers into Pennsylvania demanding the records of all tobacco transactions to New Yorkers and payment thereof. This, of course, is never going to happen.

Up In Smoke?

The hearing began to head down a slippery slope when the panel brought JC Seneca, Tribal Councillor for Seneca Nation, up to testify. During the question and answer period, NYS Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn) said it was only fair that the New York tribes share the burden of the financial crisis, sending the crowd and the Seneca members into a frenzy. Sensing the growing anger of the attendees and referencing the conflicts during the Pataki years, Golden tried to strike a conciliatory note with JC Seneca, saying he didn’t seem like the type of person that would resort to violence. Seneca simply replied, “Then you don’t know me very well.”

Not wanting to agitate the situation further during the hearing, the committee members turned their attention to the governor’s representative. But Peter Kiernan, counsel to Governor Paterson, refused to take the bait when pressed aggressively by the committee. Reluctant to engage either the legislature or the tribes present, Kiernan offered testimony that included language like: “A US dollar spent on an Indian reservation in New York is a dollar put into motion in the New York State economy. Every time that dollar is re-spent or invested is good for New York.”

But with Gov. Paterson barely holding onto his office, there is blood in the water. On March 2, NYS Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) called for full compliance and the revocation of the forbearance policy and went as far as to call Gov. Paterson “a willing and active partner in a longstanding travesty that has hurt legitimate businesses and robbed billions from our state.”

In a statement issued exclusively to the Press, Seneca’s Richard Nephew fired back, saying: “It should occur to some that we are heading into an important election year for New York State politicians. I believe this is largely politics being played out for the public. Paterson, Klein, Kruger, Golden and others may be blowing their own brand of smoke, engaging in political theatrics against the backdrop of New York’s economic crisis.”

Perhaps in an effort to show strength during a troubled time, Gov. Paterson reversed his stance in recent weeks, proposing a new set of regulations that would essentially choke the supply to reservations located in New York.

Included in the regulations are exact calculations for how many cigarettes would be allowed to be delivered to reservations from certain state-approved wholesalers. The law calculates Poospatuck, for example, would only be allowed to take delivery of 8,100 packs of cigarettes every quarter. The calculations are based upon the number of enrolled members each tribe reports and the theoretical consumption on Indians who live on the reservation. Sales of any other tobacco in the state that is not through these approved retailers would be strictly prohibited and the manufacturers would then bear the burden and risk losing the ability to do business in New York.

This proposal is currently in the public comment period and will most likely be met with several reservation-based challenges for the courts to untangle once again. But in a state with as many problems as New York right now, these efforts are child’s play compared to what is taking place on the federal level.

Gods and Generals

There is impending doom for the tribes in federal legislation that seeks to curtail the growing Indian cigarette trade, known as Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking Act of 2009 (PACT). It’s an act that has the support of almost every sitting politician in America today. The act itself would prevent retailers from mailing cigarettes purchased by catalog or on the Internet through the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). Private delivery services such as United Parcel Service and Federal Express already have voluntary bans in place to prevent bulk mail order purchases of tobacco, but the USPS operates under no such agreement. Cancer organizations and elected officials are supporting PACT for the obvious reason of protecting public health by cutting off part of the cigarette supply chain, but there is another unlikely supporter of this bill: Big Tobacco.

The growing cigarette trade on tribal lands was never much of a concern to the multi-billion dollar tobacco industry until Native American retailers began manufacturing and promoting native-owned brands. Brands such as King Mountain and Seneca (unrelated to the tribe) have gained a tremendous following and begun encroaching on Philip Morris’ territory by gaining market share. This phenomenon has turned the relationship between Big Tobacco and Indian smoke shops on its ear. As the tobacco industry and US government combine efforts to attack Indian cigarette sales, the dispute between Big Tobacco and Indian Country grows by the day. Wallace has already banned all Philip Morris products and claims to have felt only a minimal impact to his gross sales.

As this relationship erodes, Philip Morris has ratcheted up its lobbying effort to support the government ban on shipping cigarettes through the mail. It’s a stance that on the surface seems confusing, but the tobacco industry is no stranger to the upside of paradox.

One of the most notable examples was the effect of the cigarette advertising ban on television and radio imposed in 1970. Due to the ban on broadcast advertising, the major tobacco companies at the top of the industry were able to protect their positions because a new entrant to the market was unable to effectively advertise its brand to a broad audience. Indeed, the advertising ban has contributed to freezing these positions in a time capsule with companies such as R.J. Reynolds (Camel), Lorillard (Newport) and worldwide leader Philip Morris (Marlboro) maintaining levels of market share domestically.

A more recent example was in 1998 when it appeared as though Big Tobacco might be dealt a significant blow. Under pressure from several states with massive pending lawsuits against them, Big Tobacco entered into a landmark agreement known as the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA). Under the terms of the deal, the tobacco companies would fork over $200 billion over a 20-year period to 46 states that enjoined in an action against the major tobacco companies. The states who received this money were then supposed to put the funds to good use toward health care and anti-smoking initiatives. In return, the tobacco companies would be indemnified from future claims against them.

Instead of Big Tobacco’s wallet being negatively impacted by the MSA, the opposite occurred, with the tobacco manufacturers simply hiking the base price of cigarettes to a level that covered the payments to the states while receiving full indemnification against future claims.

Big Tobacco’s ability to display contrition and a willingness to address public health concerns while reaping huge rewards as a result of this behavior provides a useful context in which to understand its support of the PACT Act. The only businesses affected by the ban on cigarettes in the mail are the native retailers who have exploited the tax disparity issue and reinvested into native-owned brands. By targeting this methodology, Big Tobacco gives the appearance of cooperating with the government, showing a concern for public health and eliminating competition for market share.

Native American entrepreneurs in turn became victims of their own success.

The last remaining step in the process, or nail in the coffin, is to guarantee passage of the PACT Act. So Big Tobacco tied it to an issue that most elected officials would never argue with: Terrorism.

Terrorism and Tobacco

In April 2008, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) issued a report titled “Tobacco and Terror.” The report attempts to draw a straight line between the sale of untaxed cigarettes on Indian reservations to non-Native Americans and terrorist groups such as Hezbollah. In it, King wrote: “It is possible for these Arab networks to rely on suppliers in lower tax states such as Virginia and North Carolina as well as Hezbollah-linked front companies in various free trade zones around Latin America. However, sources told the committee that in NYS the smuggling networks rely primarily on access to the Native American Indian reservations for tax-free cigarettes—for obvious financial reasons.”

King’s primary evidence is “a North Carolina based operation that forwarded a total sum of $100,000 to Hezbollah in 2000.” Before 9/11. Based upon this data, the report arrives at the conclusion that: “In just two months of illicit cigarette trade operations, a motivated terrorist cell could generate sufficient funds to carry out another September 11th-style attack, in which operational costs were estimated to be $500,000.”

That’s a pretty sensational conclusion from the evidence proffered in this report. But it may be all the fuel necessary to provide the impetus to pass the PACT Act. The link to terrorism has many, including Chief Wallace, concerned beyond the impact of this bill. “National Security interests,” he says, “may play a part in taking the rest of our land.”

PACT has seen relatively few bumps along the road to passage—quite a feat given the climate of severe partisanship that currently chokes Washington. The key to this lies in the main body of the bill authored by U.S. Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-WI), which says: “We can no longer continue to let terrorist organizations exploit weaknesses in our tobacco laws to generate significant amounts of money.” With that, Kohl closed the loop begun by King by linking the Altria (Philip Morris)-backed bill to prevent mail- and Internet-order tobacco retailing. Seneca Nation saw this coming.

“When Peter King came out with his report,” sighs Seneca’s Porter, “that was the brush that all Indians were painted with. Those types of propaganda are hard to fight against.”

JC Seneca was, however, not impressed with the new strategy. “We’ve been fighting terrorism since 1492. The issue is sovereignty. To protect what we have today like what our ancestors fought for.”

PACT has already passed the House with unanimous support from all of New York’s Congressmen and women. The U.S. Senate version lists Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats, as co-sponsors. While Schumer recently opened the door to listening to the Seneca Nation, which would be most affected by the bill’s passage, Gillibrand has remained publicly silent on the issue. This has Indian Country enraged and crying foul at Gillibrand’s much-touted ties to Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, who Porter alleges to be the one “banging the drum” for the passage of PACT. According to a New York Times report, while an attorney, Gillibrand represented Philip Morris in a sensitive case and as senator she has taken in tens of thousands of contribution dollars from the tobacco giant.

But another Times article this week indicates that the Senecas have been actively lobbying elected officials with some measure of success. According to the report, “two or three Democratic senators” are trying to stop the bill. But with the PACT Act being shopped as an anti-terrorism bill, time may be running out for New York’s Indians.

The Inevitable Conclusion

The past 20 years have brought a sense of optimism and independence to Native Americans, who have begun to create infrastructure on reservation land and become, in some cases, a vital part of the economic engine in the regions they exist within. In western New York, according to the Seneca Annual Report, the Nation “operates a $1.1 billion economy that employs more than 6,300 people, Seneca and non-Seneca.”

As the Seneca economy grew over the past two decades, it poured funds back into areas like health care and badly needed projects. Seneca’s Richard Nephew takes a shot at the U.S. government, saying: “We’re a government that provides for our people,” moreover, “we’re not emptying people’s pockets.” Porter likewise adds, “We have what Americans are fighting for: top-to-bottom health care.”

JC Seneca cites the problem New York has in losing big business to other regions of the country and wonders why politicians, particularly an upstate official like Gillibrand, wouldn’t want to work together with the Seneca people. “We’re not a company that’s going to pack up and head out of state.”

Though not on the same scale, Chief Wallace also argues that Poospatuck has increasingly contributed to the local economy.

“We approved fuel oil for our seniors from a local company,” he says proudly. “We spent $1.8 million on home improvement with approved contractors through the [Suffolk] county. We spent about $200,000 hooking up water to municipal services. Put drains in, improved powwow grounds and purchased a new building.” Wallace points out that a local contractor was chosen to construct a new community center at the heart of the reservation.

Perhaps most impressively, the leaders of Poospatuck created a fund that last year gave every household $15,500 toward home improvement. The funds had to be made payable to an approved third party home improvement contractor to ensure that they went exclusively toward construction and beautification. Tribal members call it the “fifteen five.”

Wallace Wilson, a 29-year-old member of the tribe who works for Chief Wallace, says: “The impact of the fifteen five was a complete change. Just last year it was a dump.”

In New York, the new regulations proposed by Paterson would restrict the flow of cigarettes to reservations while the PACT Act will block Indian retailers from fulfilling cigarette orders through the mail. If the US government is successful in clamping down on the cigarette trade on reservation lands, then this brief encounter with prosperity will most likely come to an unceremonious end. An economic noose is being gradually slipped over Native Americans, who are being quietly led to the gallows, as they have been so many times before. Under the executioner’s mask is the tobacco industry, preparing to pull the lever and release the floor beneath them.

But the tribes have vowed that they won’t go down without a fight. “There are two paths we can go on,” states JC Seneca. “Diplomacy or controversy and confrontation. They want controversy and confrontation? They’ll get it.”

Should the tribes find themselves on the losing side of the battle, they may be forced back into another prolonged era of poverty and hopelessness. The resulting job losses and increased dependence upon social services and welfare may have the ironic effect of forcing the states to pick up the tab.

The only winner here is Big Tobacco, able to once again manipulate the public and our politicians at will to maintain dominant market share. Their products are addicting to people and their power is intoxicating to politicians, because, as Wallace so aptly puts it: “It’s cigarettes, man.”

Hot For Teacher

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"Hey lady, hold this freakin' apple so I can reach that donut in my bag."

Remember when you were little and you saw one of your teachers somewhere other than school? It was as though a mythical creature had somehow come to life; a great Greek statue breaking free from its marble casing and descending from cloud covered cliffs to walk among us at the local grocery store or deli. We placed them high upon a pedestal as a community and as children we believed them to be divine.

Like everything else in America, the backlash against the teacher has officially begun. More than likely it began right here on Long Island. Unbelievable taxes, bloated school budgets and a recession will do that. It is no longer taboo for parents to speak out at school board meetings and decry the increase in teacher compensation and perks. The arguments against highly compensated teachers are becoming familiar and parents are beating the drum feverishly across Long Island. Summers off, shorter work hours and paid time off are driving a wedge between the people who rear our children and those who educate them.

But the growing anger against the teacher is misplaced. Our ire should be pointed at the teacher unions and at ourselves as parents.

Workers everywhere are beholden to the people they represent and, in the case of unionized workers, they are beholden also to the union that represents them. Teachers have an even higher reporting structure: Our children. Over the past couple of decades the teacher unions have acquired tremendous power; a power that has grown gradually but has finally reached the tipping point.

Teachers used to be financially under-compensated while working, but well taken care of in retirement. Over time the unions have whittled away at this notion and created an environment where teachers have incredible job security, and are well compensated during both their work lives and their retired lives. Today, everything seems to favor the teacher who has become the beneficiary of hard bargaining over many, many years. Like everything in life, this has come at a cost. It has placed parent against teacher, school board against union and left the students in the middle; now it has also cast the educator as the enemy.  

A dear friend of mine, who is an elementary school teacher (and will remain nameless) provided some extremely enlightening context to this debate in a way that only a teacher can. She agreed that some compensatory elements have gone too far and that the unions have unfairly positioned the teachers against the public. The union has also created an atmosphere of fear in which teachers are afraid to speak out. But she noted, with scores of examples from her recent classes, that teaching itself looks nothing like it used to.

Our children are entering school woefully unprepared for life outside of the home. Many lack focus and energy as a result of poor diets and lax routines such as firm bedtimes and family meals. A good deal of incoming elementary students are unruly and challenge the most basic of authority, rebelling at the slightest instruction. Many are slovenly, lack proper hygiene and are devoid of any manners. Our teachers are then subjected to parental tirades asking why our children aren’t performing better, achieving more and accepting discipline.

Every year we send our children to school with more issues than ever before. Our kids are lethargic so we demand more physical education instead of putting the Nintendo in the drawer and sending them outside to play on the weekends. They are obese so we crack down on school lunch programs instead of teaching our children to make healthier choices or, heaven forbid, packing them a lunch. We fill them with prescription drugs and high fructose corn syrup, allow them to sit in front of a TV or computer screen for seven hours a day and demand a teacher’s aide, more time for tests, less home work and special attention in the classroom when they underperform. At the same time we demand higher levels of achievement from our kids and make them take three languages, two instruments, a sport for every season, community service and a resume building internship. We divorce one another, yell in the home and allow them to watch adult programs and play violent video games; then we wonder why bullying exists.

The lack of parental discipline and common sense child rearing sends children to school behind the eight ball. As the publisher of a newspaper that aggressively advocates for children with special needs this may seem like a counterintuitive argument. Yet this phenomenon has placed an undue burden on the special needs resources in our schools and threatens to sap badly needed attention to children who truly suffer from developmental disabilities.  

If we as parents want the right to yell and scream at school board meetings then it’s time we stop vilifying teachers. Have the unions gone too far and added fuel to the fire? Absolutely. Common sense must be restored to negotiations regarding teacher compensation and benefits. But if we continue as a society to abdicate the role of parent and place the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of our teachers then we shall reap what we sow.

Written by jmorey

March 4, 2010 at 1:39 am

Long Island Association

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The Wrong Island Association

The Long Island Association’s (LIA) resident economic guru, Pearl Kamer, announced recently (to great fanfare) that the recession on Long Island is officially over! What a relief, right?

Boy, did that recession suck.

And it couldn’t end quickly enough, but now that it has, we should busy ourselves at once by throwing a tickertape parade down Route 110. 

Of course, if by “over” she means continuing job losses, brain drain, high taxes, mandated MTA bailouts, imploding local and state government budgets, zero growth and development, empty malls, a declining manufacturing base, mounting foreclosures, increasing energy costs and a retail implosion, then I’m all in. Perhaps her exuberance sets the stage for the departure of LIA head Matt Crosson. After all, we wouldn’t want him to leave on a down note. Matt’s from Connecticut and you know how sensitive they can be.

Kamer’s assessment keeps in line with the out-of-touch, do-nothing-and-complain philosophy of the LIA, the largest business organization in the region, which counts some of LI’s key executives as members. The group is supposed to advocate for LI locally and upstate, but the LIA hasn’t inspired one piece of legislation or brought together key interests for the purpose of promoting growth on this island in years. “No Records” is emblazoned in red under the heading of Legislative Action on its own website. Even the letter under the “Innovate Long Island” heading was written in 2006. Because, you know, the world hasn’t changed at all since then.

Instead, the LIA’s largest initiative of the past two years was to fly local business leaders to China. One can only assume that it was to visit the people to whom these captains of industry doled out our jobs.

The LIA’s general inertia and habit of paying outrageous sums to bring former U.S. presidents, retired generals and cable television pundits to speak to throngs of businesspeople too busy thumbing the trackballs on their BlackBerries to care about what is transpiring on the large screens at the Crest Hollow are hardly motivating factors that lend credence to their in-house economist.

The public doesn’t need delusional prognostications blown over it like pixie dust; it needs to be stirred at its core. The few who legislate us into oblivion need to hear us speak loudly and clearly that the taxpayers will no longer subsidize incompetence. While it’s an easy target, the LIA is merely a surface indicator of the largely inefficient mosaic of public authorities that conspire to restrain our economy and prohibit growth and free enterprise. Even if Kamer is correct and the recession is over, or close to it, this is hardly the time to rest on our laurels and breathe a sigh of relief.

The LIA calls itself the “voice of Long Island.” Its stated mission is “to make Long Island an even better place to live, work, raise a family, and do business.” A truly representative organization of businesses and families would be railing against incumbents in Albany. It would organize against the county unions and let them know that raises are not a guaranteed right. It would tell the MTA to keep its damn hands off our money. It would excoriate political leaders for stacking public authorities with patronage jobs. But it doesn’t, hasn’t and won’t.

We are used to the images of protests on the steps of city hall and streets jammed with angry demonstrators in metropolitan settings. Yet, in suburban life our cries are heard but once a year behind the muted curtains of the voting booth. Tom Suozzi prophetically stated that the only way to fix the tax problem on Long Island was through an uprising. Prophetic indeed, as he fell victim to the crushing wave of emotion that swelled in every taxpayer’s home in Nassau County. The residents of Nassau voted with their wallets and condemned the Democratic incumbents who rode a similar wave into office just a few short years ago and squandered the opportunity to make lasting changes in the way the county does business.

This kind of silent revolution cannot begin and end at the polls, however. Nor can we expect a membership organization such as the LIA to advocate for real change. We, as individuals, business owners and civic leaders must be the alchemists of change and transmute the elements of our discontent into the golden solidarity of reform.

In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau writes “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.” The governing bodies that bleed New York and Long Island dry are not tyrannical but they are unendurable in their inefficiency. If we are to believe that civil disobedience is a uniquely human right in a free society, we must, therefore, resoundingly reject any further encroachments on our freedom and ability to prosper. Or as Thoreau suggests, “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

Written by jmorey

November 25, 2009 at 7:27 pm

Unfriend – Word Of The Year

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unfriend – verb – To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook

 This is the New Oxford American Dictionary word of the year.

 William Safire is undoubtedly rolling over in his grave.

 Unfriend beat out stiff competition from “funemployed,” “sexting” and “tramp-stamp” this year to take the crown as the ubiquitous, essential and here-to-stay entry into the American lexicon. Christine Lindberg from the Oxford’s US dictionary program actually describes “unfriend” as having real “lex-appeal.”

Sigh.

The positive trendsetting words of the past couple of years, “hypermiling” and “locavore,” have been taken over by the social networking phenomenon. It seems as though we are resigned as a nation to plug into The Matrix and live through our cyber selves.

This is a trend greater than an attention-grabbing publicity stunt from a resource attempting to maintain relevancy in the new media world. This is indicative of a declining species rapidly losing the ability to communicate in a meaningful way, face to face. The further we travel down the rabbit hole of virtual connectivity the more of a Luddite I turn into. There are dire consequences when we lose the ability to communicate on a deep and profound level. The loss of context in our dialogue and human exchange of information has disastrous effects on our interpersonal skills and ability to relate to one another.

My existence on Facebook lasted a mere six months before I rid myself (again) of all the people I spent the last 20 years ridding myself of. Because I have a bully pulpit with this column, I prefer to let my words express my beliefs and choose to connect with friends and loved ones in person. My friend and colleague Michael Martino, who authors the popular column in the Press “Dry Martino,” wrote a column last week about how he was prepared to do the same. His column sparked a good deal of commentary and dialogue and prompted the most unexpected of responses this past weekend at an event our editorial staff attended.

The Long Island Press received an award from the Long Island Council for Alcohol and Drug Dependence (LICADD) for our outstanding and relentless coverage of the heroin epidemic on Long Island. It was one of the more humbling accolades we have received due to the very nature of the subject matter; a subject we all wish didn’t exist. In the middle of the presentation Jeff Reynolds, the executive director of LICADD, broke with the program to single out Michael and implore him not to give up his profile on Facebook.

It was as funny as it was stunning. Social networking has obviously woven its way into our everyday lives and will continue to play an integral role in our society for years to come. But Jeff wasn’t imploring Michael to stay connected on Facebook so he could send him birthday messages or a virtual hug; he wanted to make sure that a valuable voice in our community stayed connected in every way possible to the youth of Long Island.

Jeff was essentially asking Michael not to “unfriend” Long Island. We forget sometimes that as journalists our words have a deep impact on the community. Sometimes we believe it to be greater and more profound than it probably is but for every piece we write there is a person in need who is touched by it. In the daily battle Jeff and his staff fight against alcohol and drug addiction on behalf of members of our community who suffer from the increasing pressures placed upon us by the economy and our society, no one can afford to be “unfriended.”

This is not meant to pressure my friend Michael and in no way heralds my return to social networking; rather it reminds me of the responsibility we all share in “friending” those in need, particularly during trying times.

Written by jmorey

November 19, 2009 at 2:53 pm