Profits vs People

Eric Schneiderman, New York’s AG, is bringing a case against some retailers for their questionable employee-related practices. The power of businesses to cut their costs and their pursuit of efficiency has evolved into a grotesque practice of “on call shifts” where the employees don’t know whether or when they will be called to work, therefore making it impossible for them to make any plans or even to know whether or not they will be able to pay bills. I guess the cost-cutting business majors “geniuses” at those companies just made an assumption that if an employee is not called to come to work on Saturday at, say 2pm, he will then turn around and just find another hourly job that’s just sitting and waiting for him to turn to, at a moment’s notice. Or, that while tending a McDonald’s counter, he’s incessantly checking his Blackberry to see if the instructions came in to drop it and be at a Gap location in a half hour. I wonder how much more businesses can squeeze out of their employees, all in the name of efficiency? And when will we stop worship this kind of “entrepreneurship”? So, kudos to Schneiderman here.


I wanted to expand on this. The goal of businesses, which is profit, has reached such a revered and celebrated status, and we’re so captivated with this notion, that we’re unable to put things into perspective. What if a business can’t turn a profit without dehumanizing and shortchanging its workforce? What if it’s built in the very business model? Here we, as a society, tacitly acknowledge that profit is a more virtuous and legitimate pursuit than the welfare of employees and customers, or in other words, citizens. (Welfare in a sense of mutually beneficial outcome, not ‘government dependency’ as this word has evolved to represent over the years). So then what is the function of state in this case? To protect profits or to protect citizens? Let’s leave politics aside and look at it from a purely philosophical perspective. The existence of businesses is only as good as their contribution to the welfare of society, while also turning a profit. But profit should not be a sole defining and absolving factor of a business’ legitimacy: if it can’t turn a profit without shortchanging employees, without tricking its customers, without dumping shit on its neighbors, without undermining political processes then such a business’ moral dominance in the current zeitgeist (which is: businesses are more important than people because businesses give people jobs) should be questioned. “Don’t touch businesses” we’re told, “or they will take their toys and go home, leaving us all unemployed.” I say not necessarily. Because if a businessman’s choice is between earning a 6% margin by screwing his employees and earning 5% by giving them some breathing room, then he will take the latter option rather than closing up shop. (I mean, what he’s gonna do, put his money in a bank and sit on it? Haha!) And if his margins are so thin that giving his employees breathing room will put him in a negative territory then such business model is simply unsustainable and he has to find another line of business.

The Racism In Me.

Every time I see a homeless white bum on the street I think of him as just a bum. Every time I see a homeless black man on the street I think of him as a black man first. In my cognitive mechanism his blackness comes before his homelessness. Why is it so? Is it because I ascribe different qualities to black and white bums? Indeed, a white bum tends to receive a more elaborate justification, in my mind, of his unfortunate station: He’s probably a veteran with mental problems, a victim of circumstances or a terrible scam. A black bum doesn’t receive such leniency from me. He must’ve done something wrong along the way to end up like this, the thinking goes. I give a white man more room for error and more benefit of the doubt than I do to a black man. And yet if someone dared to suggest that the reason I think this way is because I’m a latent racist, I would punch him in the face. But then I thought, maybe I am a latent racist. Some racists might not even realize that they are racists. That was my case until I had time to sit and honestly examine the origin of this racial schizophrenia. Why, I wanted to know, is that in some instances I can be overly polite to a black person, but then I can be rude on the phone to some customer service representative who happens to sound black and who, I thought, did not fully understand my request? Why do I display an overtly civil behavior in one instance and act like a vile entitled bitch in another? Last summer’s events in Ferguson Missouri and the choking death of Eric Garner in New York City were my catalysts for self-reflection. Surely, these were not unique and stand-alone incidents. Shit like this happened before. But it never spiked my interest and, in an unexpected way, outrage, followed by self-examination until now. Unlike with earlier similar incidents, this time I just couldn’t come up with enough appropriate reasoning for these deaths, I did not have enough evidence to convince myself that these are just terrible accidents and move on. There were just too many, all over the country, clearly a pattern. While my FB page lit up with denunciation of victims as “thugs”, I contorted my mind in vain attempts to see that angle but came up with nothing except a “Wait, what?!” astonishment and disbelief. It was time I turned the gaze inward.

Read More

With the foxes watching the henhouse what do you think is on the menu for dinner?

Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

With former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver accused of stealing millions, the corruption in Albany appears to be all-pervasive. It is a genuine crisis; the real deal. It’s also an opportunity to clean up Albany. Let’s not waste it!

The budget is due in April and now is the time when “three men in a room” are beginning negotiations. Those three men are the brand-new-this-week Speaker of the Assembly, the Senate Majority Leader who is under investigation, and Governor Cuomo who last year created the Moreland Commission to investigate Albany ethics, but shut it down abruptly with no explanation.

First on the agenda must be real campaign finance and ethics reform.

A New York Times editorial on January 30, 2015 said, “The charges against Mr. Silver make it scandalously clear how easy it is to buy influence in Albany. The campaign finance system needs a complete overhaul, with lowered limits, more disclosure and public matching funds for campaigns.”

The Silver case shows what happens when foxes guard the henhouse and make their own rules, including allowing outside income to go unreported and clients to go unnamed. Lawyers such as Silver raise the smoke screen that attorney client privilege prevents them from naming their clients. The New York City Bar Association says there is “no basis for excluding lawyers from the public scrutiny to which legislators should be held. Requiring attorney-legislators to make these disclosures will not violate the rules governing attorney conduct and will go a long way toward restoring public confidence.” Washington, California, Alaska and Louisiana have such disclosure requirements.

It would be simpler if our “part-time” legislators worked full-time, earned a full-time salary and had strict limits on outside income the same way Congress members do.

Another problem is the vast amounts of money that candidates need to raise. Sometimes it seems as if the primary qualification for holding elected office is being a self-funder or being able to raise huge amounts of cash. This probably turns off many good potential candidates and it comes as no surprise that legislators are often more concerned with the interests of their large donors than with voters’ needs.

Sometimes it appears as if a legislator is serving the interests of voters when in fact there is another agenda. In a January 27, 2015 Pro Publica article Justin Elliott says, “When New York enacted a major rent regulation law in 2011, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver celebrated the passage of the legislation as a victory over real estate interests … [b]ut the bribery case against Silver … raises questions about whether Silver pulled his punches in negotiations on that 2011 bill, potentially at the expense of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who live in rent stabilized apartments.” A luxury developer named in Silver’s bribery scheme requested changes to the law that were adopted.

This problem has an easy and obvious solution, one that has worked well in New York City elections: public matching funds. Public funding of elections means that legislators are put in office by their voters and are answerable only to them.

We need:

  • Public financing of elections through matching funds;
  • Closure of the LLC loophole;*
  • Lower limits on campaign contributions;
  • Disclosure of outside income;
  • Enforcement penalties with teeth

No one piece of the package is sufficient. We need the whole enchilada, nothing short of fair elections and legislators who work for us, not big donors.

Governor Cuomo is now saying he will not approve a budget that does not contain significant ethics and campaign finance reform. He said the same thing last year but the budget got signed and we didn’t get meaningful reform.

Governor Cuomo, we need to clean up Albany. Now.

Don’t break our hearts again.

*LLC is a Limited Liability Corporation. Anyone can set up a LLC and might do so for a variety of business or personal reasons. It is frequently done to protect personal assets from business related lawsuits. People who have several businesses may have several LLCs, each of which can make the maximum political contribution allowed to an individual.

Demonstrate for Equal Rights on January 21st

Right now, transgender New Yorkers can be denied jobs, housing, and even medical care with no legal recourse. This is an injustice that cries out to be rectified.

The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) would grant equal rights to transgender New Yorkers. Our Governor has said that he supports GENDA but has put no muscle behind passing it. Words without action are meaningless. Governor Cuomo will only move this issue forward if he knows that people care.

I care. Do you?

It’s time for all New Yorkers who believe in equal rights to take action, be visible, and put pressure on our elected state government. No one is free until all are free. Black lives matter. Women’s lives matter. Police lives matter. Transgender lives matter. It’s time for all of us to live under the same set of laws.

While our state government dithers, a number of New York cities and counties have passed local transgender nondiscrimination laws. Why were those laws passed?

Visibility, visibility, visibility.

The sponsors of GENDA have already opined that passage in 2015 will be difficult with the influx of more Republicans in the State Senate.


Let’s refuse to accept that equality under the law is a partisan issue. Transgender civil rights were passed unanimously – that’s every Democrat and every Republican – by the Albany County legislature.

Governor Cuomo is fulfilling his campaign promises with regard to birth certificate corrections and healthcare. These are huge.

But, will the Governor believe he has done enough?

Will he spend enough political capital to push GENDA to passage as 2016 presidential possibilities begin to form?

Serious, continuous, visible advocacy is required to fight for civil rights for transgender individuals – the same rights all other citizens of New York enjoy.

Those of us who believe in equal rights will be demonstrating peacefully at the Governor’s Sate of the State speech on Wednesday, January 21st, 2015 starting at 12 noon. As our elected officials walk through the Mall to get to their seats in the Egg to hear the Governor’s speech, we will let them know that GENDA must be passed in 2015. We believe this may be the first time a GENDA-specific demonstration organized by a transgender led advocacy group will be held at the Capital. Let’s make it a big one.

Let’s take to the street (or in this case the Mall) and create a media event that will start the discussion that can change hearts and minds. Make a sign, grab a friend or three, and meet us at the Mall on Wednesday, January 21st at 12 noon.

Transportation is being arranged from Long Island and Manhattan. Contact Betsy Malcolm at for details.

#BlackLivesMatter – Day Of Resistance 12.13.2014

Emmett Till. Dr. Martin Luther King. Rodney King. Abner Louima. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner.

One hundred and fifty years and counting after the Civil War began, half a century after Brown v. Board, still the national disgrace of institutionalized racism persists, today, here, in America. It is enough.

If you believe as we do, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are a calling and an obligation, that all of our lives matter, and that the murders, the daily humiliations of men and women of color cannot go on in this Land of the Free, then join us and many other Progressive organizations on the streets of New York City on December Thirteenth, 2014.

Silence is not an option. Be Heard.


“The American Spellbound”: A Tale of Human Frailty.

My book, The American Spellbound, was released on Nov 11th. Katya G. Cohen is my penname.

I think it is hard for any author to describe, when asked, what his or her book is about in a few words. I would say that my novella is about human frailty and illusions we build to get us through the day, described through the prism of Wall Street corruption and the financial crisis. Wall Street doesn’t care whether you’re a nice guy: once you entered its realm it has ways to turn you into a loyal, blind and obedient soldier. And there’s no release.

I open with a telling quote from Arthur Miller’s “Death of Salesman.”

BERNARD: But sometimes, Willy, it’s better for a man just to walk away.

WILLY: Walk away?

BERNARD: That’s right.

WILLY: But if you can’t walk away?

BERNARD: I guess that’s when it’s tough.

Below is an excerpt, describing the power of the Wall Street’s spell. How can one resist going down that path?

The biggest secret that traders don’t want the world to know is that anyone with a more or less sane disposition can do what they’re doing. The trick is getting access to the trough, to the P&L, to the “book.” The road toward it is tough, treacherous and crowded. On the way there, you will be misled into believing that in order to be a trader you must have a physics PhD, or know how to write code and build models, or have a top-school MBA, or, when all else fails, just be a young Caucasian male. But in the end, it doesn’t matter who made it to the top. In the end, it all comes down to merely placing a bet. The ideas of those who made it become validated by the platform on which they stand, by the levers they can pull.

Becoming a trader is like reaching a craps table on your twenty-first birthday with your rich uncle’s money in your hand; without that craps table and without that money, you are a nobody. Without a seat and a desk and a Bloomberg terminal, your ideas aren’t worth shit. Whatever you do at home with your 401(k) doesn’t matter; your trades have to be big and visible to everyone or, at the very least, to those who dispense your reward at the end of the year. If you know how to drive but don’t have a fancy car to demonstrate your prowess, no one cares about your prowess. The platform becomes a powerful communication tool: One should have great ideas and only act on them using a big podium.

The “book” is the medium through which you can communicate your entire worldview and let fools know that they’re fools without needing to actually say anything. If you’re right on your trades, you will become rich; you can then fancy yourself to be Bruce Wayne or John Pierpont Morgan or James Bond. You can establish scholarships in your name and start foundations to spread your gospel — conservative, liberal, libertarian, whatever floats your boat. If you’re wrong, well, you won’t get more money from your uncle, but you will gain an invaluable experience. You will earn your bona fides to speak about the irrational players and stupid monetary policies and dysfunctional government, and still insist that your general strategy was correct and would most likely work next year. And you’ll probably be right, too, at some point. You can’t lose! Becoming a trader is the greatest trade of all.

In this newfound realm, Vika had developed a new moral compass. Indecisiveness was an especially grievous offense according to her new standards. One should do the analysis, pick a side and stick with it — not question it afterward, not wring hands and second-guess. But those who overanalyzed and became paralyzed by the weight of their knowledge as a result immediately made it into Vika’s mental black book. Those chin-stroking pointy-heads who can argue both sides just don’t have the stones to take the plunge. They mask their fear and inaction with perpetual pettifoggery.

“If my grandma had balls, she would have been my grandpa,” Vika liked to say, mocking the absurd mental contortions of someone complaining about the way a trade had gone. “Take a loss and move on. What use is it to dwell?” Stepping into the abyss requires a certain skill, a special mental disposition, an ability to let go. This philosophy of letting go, of abandon, fascinated Vika. Once she’d decided on a trade, she would fight off the doubts. And with shaky, sweaty hands, Vika would pick up the phone and make a trade. And then… the weightlessness, the fall.

Why is it that we claim to want certainty? Only fools and cowards seek certainty. Certainty is a dead end; it’s a rich old widow living out the rest of her days on the Upper East Side with a little dog and big memories. Unless you are a senior citizen, you’ll go nuts after a few weeks of knowing what the rest of your life will bring. You’ll die of boredom. But uncertainty is what keeps us alive. It is that flip of a coin, that brief moment when it’s in the air or spinning on its side, that snaps us out of our daily stasis. Some invisible Odds Gods are giving you a chance to become better, smarter, richer. What fun it is to get paid if you earned it by the skin of your teeth, by the close call. And how dreadful it is to shoot fish in a barrel. Exposure to uncertainty earns you membership in a select tribe: You are a Padawan mastering the Force.  Once the trade is on, once the die has been cast, you’re in a parallel, auspicious universe. There’s only one way forward and there are only two ways out: Take it off at a loss or take it off at a profit.

Four Solid Reasons to Vote for Teachout/Wu Next Tuesday

1. Tuesday’s Democratic primary is a rare opportunity to support candidates who articulate a progressive message and the values we espouse. Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu stand for limiting the impact of corporate money on our state government, for protecting our environment from oil and gas interests, for public education and for net neutrality, among other things.

2. Your vote counts! Primary turnout is always low (15% of Democrats voted in the last gubernatorial primary in 2006), so your vote means a lot more than in the general election. A very small number of determined people can win.

3. Andrew Cuomo has not governed as a progressive Democrat. He has consistently broken his promises. He broke his promise to veto gerrymandered districts drawn by Republicans, he handed the richest a big tax break, he undercut New York City Mayor De Blasio’s plans for pre-kindergarten, and he disbanded the Moreland Commission when it came too close to his own administration in its ethics inquiries.

4. Not even the New York Times could bring itself to endorse Cuomo’s re-election. Although it stopped short of endorsing Teachout, it did endorse Tim Wu for lieutenant governor over Cuomo’s new running mate Kathy Hochul. This is a real vote of no confidence in Cuomo’s leadership.

Want to volunteer? Go to Be sure to vote Tuesday, September 9th!

Can Facebook Elect a Governor?

Andrew Cuomo has disappointed progressives again and again. He has refused to ban fracking while accepting big donations from oil interests. He disbanded the Moreland Commission to investigate public corruption when its subpoenas landed too close to home and upset his contributors. He worked to keep the State Senate under Republican control. Property taxes are high and there’s not enough money for education, but Cuomo found the money for huge tax breaks for the wealthy.
In June, Cuomo had no opposition. He was a shoo-in to win overwhelming reelection. Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham Law School professor, stepped into this void with courage, spunk and determination to get the word out that there is an alternative.
Andrew Cuomo is running scared. Facebook is scaring him. He knows that our friends, our friends’ friends, and their friends are all reading about Zephyr Teachout and responding to her message of reform. Cuomo has unsuccessfully used aggressive legal tactics to keep Teachout off the ballot and is refusing to debate her. All of our friends are watching and taking note. And we will vote. For Teachout.
The September 9th Democratic Primary is our time to send a message to Andrew Cuomo: You can’t win a Democratic Primary unless you have Democratic values.
Could there be a shocking upset? My Facebook page says yes!

Why Vote in the Primary? Aren’t All Politicians the Same Anyway?

If we vote in the primary on September 9th we can pick candidates who will win in November and will fight for progressive causes. We can make it so that when Democrats take over the State Senate we will pass:

  • The Womens Equality Act (equal pay, anti sex trafficking, codifying Rove v Wade into NYS law)
  • The Dream Act (giving undocumented NYS high school graduates equal access to college)
  • A raise in the minimum wage indexed to inflation
  • Public funding of NYS elections
  • GENDA (equal rights for transgender New Yorkers)
  • Fracking (a state-wide ban on hydraulic fracturing)

Why Vote in an Unwinnable Race?

You can’t win an election if you don’t vote! Surprises do happen.

Elected officials need to know that progressives care. They can’t take us or their reelections for granted. They need to know we’ll hold their feet to the fire about issues we care about.

Are these good enough reasons to vote? YES!

Two key Democratic Primaries that ACT NOW wants to have an impact on:

Governor: Zephyr Teachout vs. Andrew Cuomo

ACT NOW is supporting Teachout, a Fordham Law School professor who has taken a heroic stand against the corruption of Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo disbanded the Moreland anti-corruption commission before it could finish its job. He has chosen not to use his incredible influence to pass public financing of elections or to ban fracking. He has supported tax cuts for the wealthy and promoted casino gambling.

State Senate: Oliver Koppell vs. Jeff Klein

Oliver Koppell is running against state Senator Jeff Klein in Westchester and the Bronx. ACT NOW is supporting Koppell. By pulling five elected officials out of the Democratic Conference, Klein and his IDC have helped block voting on the Womens Equality Act, a ban on fracking, and public funding of elections among many other things.

Oliver Koppell has been an elected official in the Bronx for more than 30 years. He has written more than 300 laws and has a long list of accomplishments, notably in the areas of environmental protection and social legislation.

What is ACT NOW doing about it?

On Sunday, August 24th we are having a phone bank in Central Park at 4 PM. We will be making calls to support Oliver Koppell. Come on Sunday at 4 PM to Crystal Springs on the North side of Sheep Meadow next to the Pan Quotidien. E-mail to RSVP and get exact directions. It’s great way to spend Sunday afternoon. Betsy will bring snacks!

Central Park Phone Bank for Democratic Candidates

Volunteers at one of our Central Park phone banks

Volunteers at one of our Central Park phone banks

Join ACT NOW as we phone bank to support Democratic State Senate and US House Candidates.  All you need to bring is your activist spirit and a charged cell phone.  We will be making calls on behalf of Oliver Koppell, Dave Denenberg, John Liu, and Domenick Recchia.

The location is Mineral Springs, just north of Sheep Meadow, just east of the Le Pain Quotidien in the Park (@69th Street).  See you there!