Editorials from around New York

March 20, 2019

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York’s newspapers:


Newsday on the future of the Hudson River train tunnels

March 17

Perhaps President Donald Trump has a plan.

Perhaps he knows exactly what he will do when the old, damaged Hudson River train tunnels fail — as experts fear and expect. When train traffic along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger rail line in the country, grinds to a halt, and vehicle traffic backs up for miles. When people can’t move and businesses can’t transport goods up and down the East Coast. When an area responsible for 20 percent of the nation’s economic activity is paralyzed.

Or, perhaps there is no plan. Perhaps there’s only Trump’s troubling budget proposal to slash existing funds and add zero dollars to the Gateway project, the urgent effort to replace the tunnels, build a new Portal Bridge in New Jersey, and increase capacity at Penn Station. Trump also was wrong to stymie his transportation secretary from allowing the part of Gateway that’s already funded to move forward. All this despite a previous deal for the federal government, and New York and New Jersey, to split the estimated $30 billion cost.

Part of this is personal. Trump sees Sen. Chuck Schumer, who supports the project, as a legislative thorn in his side — and doesn’t want to give the minority leader a win. And part of it is a negotiating tactic: Trump is using Gateway to get what he wants on other issues. But Gateway can’t be a bargaining chip or game piece in a personal battle. And it can’t be a project Trump cavalierly ignores under the pretense that the two states are responsible for tunnels owned by Amtrak, a federally funded railroad.

To spur the healthy economy he rallies around, Trump should support and fund Gateway. Without that, Trump must release a backup plan. If there isn’t one, then Reps. Peter King and Josh Gotteheimer are right to introduce legislation that would force federal officials to develop what they call a “doomsday” plan for the tunnels.

And Schumer and others are right to look for alternative ways to get Gateway done.

But local representatives also must fight to restore and expand federal funding. The two states can’t and shouldn’t do this on their own.

Online: https://nwsdy.li/2FqPsWO


The Times Herald-Record on public funding for political campaigns

March 18

Should public money fund political campaigns?

Wrong question. It already does.

The real question facing legislators in Albany is whether they will let challengers in on the deal.

Whenever the question of public funding for campaigns comes up, somebody is bound to bring up the hard-earned dollars of the hard-working taxpayers with the understanding that there are better uses for that money than paying for political campaigns.

So if a majority in Albany is really looking out for all those hard-working folk, let’s see if they will be consistent and make sure that those already in office do not use as much of our hard-earned money as they do now and have done for ages.

The first, most direct example comes in your mailbox during the late summer and fall every other year when legislators are campaigning for re-election.

Some of the flurry of fliers and letters comes from campaign committees, most of them coordinated by the major parties. But you pay for a lot of it and a lot of it comes just at the time when you might be considering who to support on Election Day.

As the Empire Center calculated this month, “state lawmakers spent $7.8 million on postage for campaign-style mailings to constituents in the six-month run-up to last year’s elections. ... Senators spent $4.2 million and Assembly members spent $3.5 million on bulk postage and newsletter mailings between April 1 and Sept. 30, 2018. The figures do not include the added cost of paper, printing equipment or of legislative writers and graphic artists who work on the mailings, which typically feature photographs of lawmakers and flattering language.”

They didn’t spend quite so much the year before with no election in view, but they did spend more than $7 million the same way two years before when they were campaigning.

If they are really opposed to public spending on campaigns, this is a good place to start trimming the budget. And there’s an easy fix. Ban such expenditures when the legislative session ends in June. If they need to communicate, they all have email and websites.

But there is an even more despicable example, one that might finally change if proposed legislation advances.

You know all those young people who knock on doors every fall to support candidates. You’d be surprised, more likely horrified, to find out how many of them work full-time for legislators during the year, pile up uncompensated overtime and decide that instead of being paid time and a half or heading off for a well-earned rest, they will take all that compensatory time off and instead of taking a vacation they will “volunteer” to help the campaign.

This is a practice the late Assemblyman Tom Kirwin from Newburgh despised and tried to make illegal. He got nowhere with his fellow Republicans or with the Democrats who controlled the Assembly now and then.

It would be a tribute to Kirwin if his successors would honor that legacy and make sure that our hard-earned dollars in all forms no longer support the re-election campaigns of New York’s incumbents.

Online: https://bit.ly/2Of65aw


The Adirondack Daily Enterprise on the cost of the Space Force

March 18

President Donald Trump continues to insist the United States needs an entirely new branch of the military, a Space Force. It is worth asking what on earth — or off it — that would accomplish.

Trump seems to have watered his proposal down just a bit. Now he is willing to have the Space Force be linked to the Air Force, much as the Marines formally come under the Navy’s control.

But even that would require a whole new military bureaucracy of about 15,000 men and women, plus an unspecified number of civilians working in support. The Space Force would add at least $2 billion a year to the Pentagon budget.

For what? A new uniform, lots of new generals and more difficulty in coordinating military affairs, both during war and in peacetime?

Two billion dollars is a lot of money, even in Washington.

Many in the military have deep reservations about Trump’s idea. So do some in Congress. Before a dollar is authorized to establish the Space Force, questions such as those listed above need to be answered.

So do two more: If U.S. space programs, both for military and civilian purposes, are not being pursued adequately now, why? And could restructuring within the Air Force and NASA improve the situation without spending $2 billion a year on a new military bureaucracy rather than on getting results?

Online: https://bit.ly/2uhvK9p


The Observer-Dispatch on state school aid

March 19

It’s the same game every year. And it’s getting old.

And tiring.

And sickening.

It’s state aid to public schools.

Arguably the most important thing we do in this state — educate our kids — becomes a battle every budget season because the state doesn’t provide enough funding to do the job we need to do.

And it’s the same old story — inequitable funding for public schools across our state. We defy anyone to figure out the formulas used to do it.

Once again this year, Gov. Cuomo’s budget comes up with chintzy Foundation Aid that doesn’t keep pace with necessary budget increases due to inflation and contractual increases. It’s like trying to fill a gallon jug will three quarts of water.

Paul Berry, superintendent of the Mount Markham Central School District, summed it up this way: “A shortfall in the state’s ability to support local schools always causes school districts to examine at least three options: make cuts to programs, exceed the tax cap passing on additional burden to the local taxpayer or use additional allocated fund balance. Each of these choices is unsustainable.”

Utica knows. It’s entrenched in a lawsuit with seven other small-city school districts that claim they were shorted a combined $1.1 billion during and eight-year period beginning in 2007 because of both the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment and a freeze in foundation aid, which benefits students who are poor or need English-language education. Because of the cuts, the Utica schools laid off hundreds of workers, driving up class sizes, and were forced to cut programs.

Other schools are in similar predicaments due to tight aid and state mandates.

Spending per student is anything but equitable. According to the latest U.S. Census data available, New York spent an average of $22,366 per pupil in 2016. Last year, the Utica District spent $16,109 per student.

It sounds like a broken record, but what’s really broken is the school aid formula. Until it’s fixed, local schools and their taxpayers will suffer, but worst of all, we’ll be denying our children the sound education promised in the state Constitution.

Online: https://bit.ly/2TZNhkS


The New York Times on terrorism going viral

March 18

As authorities rushed to stop a gunman on a mass killing spree in New Zealand, engineers, programmers and content moderators around the globe were scrambling to keep the rampage from going viral.

It didn’t work.

The terrorist in Christchurch killed 50 people at two mosques on Friday, livestreaming part of the attack on Facebook. The original video was taken down within an hour. But copies proliferated across the major platforms.

On Saturday night, Facebook announced that it had removed 1.5 million copies of the video, with 1.2 million blocked at the moment they were uploaded. YouTube declined to give numbers, although its chief product officer told The Washington Post that at times, a copy of the video was being uploaded every second.

After decades of shunning responsibility for user content, Big Tech is slowly making its products safer for society — banning anti-vaccine misinformation, for instance, and cracking down on political disinformation. More moderation comes with heavy risks, of course. Decisions about the limits of free speech would shift to companies whose priorities are driven by shareholders. But the viral spread of the Christchurch shooting video shows the limits of the content moderation machine in the face of technologies that have been designed to be attention traps. Stricter moderation or filtering systems are not the answer. It must be a priority to redesign technology to respect the common good, instead of ignoring it.

There is a special urgency when it comes to mass killings, since media amplification can inspire copycat killings, and only so much can be done in a crisis where every hour counts.

Filtering systems have been relatively successful where time is not of the essence — copyright infringement never kills anyone, even if it stays up for a week. On longer time scales, moderation works reasonably well.

For about a decade or longer, the tech companies have automatically filtered out child pornography in a partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which maintains a database of “fingerprinted” videos. Starting in 2016, major platforms adapted that technology to filter for “terrorist” content.

But this kind of filtering only works when new content matches known banned content through a form of digital fingerprinting. Although the video of the New Zealand attack was fingerprinted immediately, countless thousands of people beat the filter over and over again by recutting, editing, watermarking and modifying the video itself. While harder to find on major social media platforms, copies of the video are still easily found online.

It was once the sole province of the press to think about how to cover such tragedies in a responsible way. As media consumption shifts online, it is now on the tech companies to use their considerable ingenuity to grapple with mitigating the public health crisis of mass killings.

Keeping the internet, or at the very least social media, free from vile content is grueling work. The experience of content moderators for Facebook raises troubling questions about the future of human moderation and the wider danger that online content poses to public health.

Repeated exposure to conspiracy theories — say, that the earth is flat or that the Holocaust didn’t happen — turns out to sway content moderators, an effect that may very well be playing out in the population at large. Repeated exposure to images of violence and sexual exploitation often leaves moderators with post-traumatic stress disorder. Moderators have reported crying on the job or sleeping with guns by their side. Turnover is high, pay is low, and although they have access to on-site counselors, many moderators develop symptoms of PTSD after leaving the job.

We don’t know if moderators are canaries for the social-media-consuming public at large or if their heavy dose of the worst of the web makes them outliers. Is repeated exposure to conspiracy theories — often given boosts by recommendation algorithms — swaying the general public, in some cases leading to public health emergencies like the measles outbreak? Is extremist propaganda fueling a surge in right-wing violence?

The killer in New Zealand sought to hijack the attention of the internet, and the millions of uploads of his video — both attempted and achieved — were a natural consequence of what the platforms are designed to promote in users: the desire to make content go viral.

In the midst of the crisis this weekend, YouTube resorted to temporarily disabling the ability to search recently uploaded videos. It’s not the first time a platform has disabled a function of its product in response to tragedy. In July, WhatsApp limited message forwarding in India in the wake of lynchings fueled by rumors spread by users of the service. The change became global in January in an effort to fight “misinformation and rumors.”

It’s telling that the platforms must make themselves less functional in the interests of public safety. What happened this weekend gives an inkling of how intractable the problem may be. Internet platforms have been designed to monopolize human attention by any means necessary, and the content moderation machine is a flimsy check on a system that strives to overcome all forms of friction. The best outcome for the public now may be that Big Tech limits its own usability and reach, even if that comes at the cost of some profitability. Unfortunately, it’s also the outcome least likely to happen.

Online: https://nyti.ms/2U0wY7m