Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Paradox inside an Enigma: Engage Mid-Hudson's Puzzling Kickoff

I submitted this piece to The Lincoln Eagle early this morning. 

Newburgh, NY, July 30--Lincoln Eagle exclusive.  About 200 people, mostly town-and-county-level politicians and bureaucrats, descended upon the Newburgh campus of Orange County Community College to participate in Engage Mid-Hudson's kickoff.  Engage Mid-Hudson is one of 10 regional sustainability groups that Governor Andrew Cuomo has funded through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). The mid-Hudson region extends north from Westchester through Rockland, Putnam, and Orange, to Dutchess and Ulster Counties.  Co-chairs David Church, planning commissioner of Orange County, and Thomas Madden, commissioner of community development and sustainability for the Town of Greenburgh, led the meeting. 

Assemblyman Frank Skartados, representing the Newburgh (100th) Assembly District, offered a few opening remarks. He thought that Engage Mid-Hudson is out to streamline government.  A paradox became evident a few minutes later when Mr. Church divulged that Governor Andrew Cuomo had spent $100 million to fund the 10 regional sustainability groups (according to NYSERDA's website the booty was split evenly across the 10 regions).  I asked Mr. Church whether the aim of streamlining government is consistent with eight-digit slush funds.  Mr. Church's answer was that the endowment reflects the voters' will, even though the senior elected official present, Mr. Skartados, had just expressed a preference for streamlining government. Also, since the majority of New York residents in my lifetime have fled the state because of excessive costs and mismanagement, it is difficult to know whose preferences Mr. Cuomo has in mind: waste's victims or its progenitors. 

A second paradox followed.  Engage Mid-Hudson bills itself as open to public opinion, but a number of pro-freedom activists were present, and they called out questions during Mr. Church's talk.  Mr. Church handled the disagreement well, but several members in the audience began to berate the pro-freedom activists.  One, whom one of the freedom activists alleged is the owner of a green development firm that stands to profit from Engage Mid-Hudson, suggested to Mr. Church that the freedom activists be banned from future meetings.  It would seem that owners of businesses that stand to directly profit from Engage Mid-Hudson should be required to identify themselves at the beginning of meetings.  It seems as likely as not that Engage Mid-Hudson is just one more Democratic Party scam, like Maurice Hinchey's green development follies and Barack Obama's bailouts.   
A third paradox became evident when Mr. Church announced six working groups, including one for economic development.  Herb Oringel, an IBM retiree and chair of the economic development consortium, claimed that Engage Mid-Hudson could bring jobs to the region. Activist Glenda Rose McGee asked what kind of jobs could a tax-based bureaucracy like Engage Mid-Hudson create.  The question was a good one.  Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson explains why the broken window fallacy, an economic fallacy that has re-gained currency under the Bush and Obama administrations, is incorrect.  Government cannot make work by breaking windows.  The reason is that to pay for the broken window repair someone must be taxed.  The taxed money reduces private sector demand.  By advocating government spending and higher taxes, groups like Engage Mid-Hudson destroy legitimate jobs, jobs that satisfy legitimate market demand, and replace them with jobs that reflect the needs of politicians and special interests.  

Mr. Oringel's response to Ms. McGee was not reassuring. His chief example of jobs creation was the turning of Sing Sing Correctional Facility into a tourist attraction.  I would feel better if a private developer were to take the project because Mr. Oringel's IBM experience has not prepared him to assess market risk of this kind. For example, might Steve Wynn be willing to take gambling up the river? Engage Mid-Hudson and Governor Cuomo don't know. Since they are not going to invest their own money, they don't care in the same way that Steve Wynn would. There is little difference between Mr. Oringel's project and window breaking. 

In a question-and-answer period Ms. McGee raised a further point: regional sustainability plans are likely a pretext for more intensive intervention and regulation. In particular, the Towns of Woodstock, Olive and Saugerties have seen proposals for the construction of unneeded planned housing projects tightly linked to sustainability plans.   

I raised a question as to Engage Mid-Hudson's identity.  I asked whether it is a government organization or a non-government organization.  Mr. Church said that it is neither. This was a fourth paradox because if Engage Mid-Hudson is neither a government nor a non-government organization, then it does not exist and it cannot cash NYSERDA's $10 million check. Tsk, tsk--a Zen-like conundrum any green business crony can ponder.

Rife with paradox the meeting was unpersuasive.  What is the purpose of Engage Mid-Hudson beyond providing funding for crooked, green businesses?  In Canada and elsewhere NGOs have been used to subvert republican governmental structures and regulatory authority. In the tradition of New York's honest graft, are we to expect just one more deal in the Plunkitt tradition or a more serious incursion on republicanism?