Saturday, May 24, 2008

Why My Neighborhood Is the Coolest

According to the U.S. Census, Queens is probably the most diverse county in the U.S. With nearly half of its population born overseas, it comes a close second to Miami-Dade in the percentage of foreign-born residents, but Miami-Dade is predominantly Latin and Cuban whilst the population in Queens comes from more than 100 nations. Some populations concentrate in certain neighborhoods: Flushing, for instance, is predominantly Asian. Other neighborhoods like Astoria, where I live, and Jackson Heights not far away, have residents from many countries and would probably have a good claim to be the most diverse neighborhoods in the world.

Today I went to my greengrocer. The produce is about half as cheap as the Korean convenience store just a couple of blocks away, and about a third as cheap as Manhattan. The place is owned by a Greek. Central Americans work the produce, and pretty young girls from many different nationalities work at the cashier. The Brazilian girl who flirts with every male between the ages of 12 and 80 wasn't there today, so I got in another line. Pretty soon I was at the head, and there was an elderly man next to me in traditional Arab garb. "Did you get this from inside or outside?" asked the girl at the cashier. He couldn't understand what she was asking. The Greek girl next to her intervened; they tried with sign language to explain what they were asking, but it wasn't getting through. "I do not understand," he said. Finally, they just laughed and charged him the lower price.

Then, the first girl asked: "are you Muslim?" The old man understood this. He answered that he was. This very European-looking girl placed a hand over her heart and said "I am Muslim."

The Arab man smiled. "Yarhamkom allah" he said. "Yarhamkom allah" she replied. For my benefit, he turned and managed to communicate that this was how a muslim greeted a muslim. It meant 'God Bless You'. "That is all the Arabic she knows" laughed the Greek girl. "I know, I know" said the other girl, as if knowing only this much Arabic were a grave personal shortcoming. The Arab man asked where she was from; it turns out that she was from Kosovo. And that is where I left them. I walked away with the makings for an excellent salad and a smile on my face.

We all get along in Astoria. We're all after the same very American goal: to make a little bit better lives for ourselves and our kin. We're new to America, but we are the soul of America. We are the future of America. I will never understand the people that are frightened by otherness. I find it exhilarating.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

McCain: No Holiday From Pandering

John McCain's proposal for a gasoline tax holiday is getting some harsh reviews, including from some conservative economists.

McCain has admitted to a lack expertise about economic matters, but this proposal betrays something different: either a cynical contempt for the electorate, or an abject economic illiteracy.

It comes down to the basic laws of supply and demand. If the tax from gasoline is removed for three months, the price will go down. Yippee! But as any student of Economics 101 will know, demand will spike in response. And what happens when supply is fixed, as gasoline in the summer is, both because of flat crude oil production and limited refinery capacity? The price goes back up until supply and demand are in balance again.

But suppliers will ramp up production to make up for it, right? No. A temporary tax cut, announced with a few weeks of anticipation, is not going to get new refineries online for the summer.

When Obama says the tax cut will on average only save consumers $30 over three months, he's actually being too generous. The best guess is that it will be less than that, if anything at all. And this comes at the cost of our crumbling highway infrastructure, since that is where the revenue from the gas tax is dedicated.

McCain's tax cut will go straight into the pockets of the oil companies, not into the wallets of our strapped consumers.

Is Hillary Clinton's plan to fund the tax cut with a windfall profits tax on oil companies preferable? Let me hand it over to Leonard Burman, director of the Tax Policy Center:
Burman called this "utterly incoherent," saying that a windfall-profits tax would over the long term only exacerbate the supply problems caused by lifting the gas tax, because it would discourage the exploration for and development of new sources of petroleum. "So a policy intended to lower prices, but which won't do that, will be offset with a policy that's likely to raise prices over the long term," he said.

In his campaign we keep on going back to character issues. Rather than fixate on trivia, we should look at what the candidate's policy proposals tell us about them... both as leaders and as people.