When a Shopping Mall Came to the Hamptons

Articles appearing on the front pages of their weekly papers 50 years ago—Feb. 3, 1972—were a surprise to many who’d begun making the Hamptons a weekend or summer home. Construction was beginning on a shopping center in their idyllic midst. Plaza East would be a first…and remain to this day the only of its kind.

The center’s history—enlarged, it is now the Bridgehampton Commons—encapsulates much of what has happened over those 50 years in the Hamptons. It reflects changes in elected government, land-use planning , commercial patterns and the makeup of the local population. But the mall’s enduring presence also reflects stubborn incongruities in a community consisting of resort, retreat and retirement sectors and of course, full-time working households.

Plaza East’s announcement wouldn’t have surprised those who’d followed the wrestling at Southampton Town Hall the previous few years over a master plan and zoning code for the stirring area, long a largely rural stretch infused by a summer beach crowd. A retail center along the two-lane Montauk Highway that threads the South Fork of Long Island was in the cards, though the town planners wanted design elements that led the developers to court. The upshot: the planners won a pledge to buffer the center from the country road, while the mall got its big parking lot in front and not tucked away in the back.

But, like a lot of town governance then and now, this fight went on greatly outside of public view, especially that of the weekenders. So at word of the looming construction, many of these folks hit the roof. A shopping center was exactly the kind of thing they’d crossed the length of Long Island to escape.* They scrambled, blustering about a lawsuit or threats to boycott W.T. Grant, the “variety” store that was Plaza East’s largest lease, but it was too late. The buildout went ahead to an opening that fall.

The lesson was learned, however.  Plaza East, together with other changes on the South Fork including the conversion of potato farmland to subdivisions, galvanized a resistance movement. One organization in particular—the Group for the South Fork, today Group for the East End—came to spearhead efforts to preserve swaths of the Hamptons from land development. Over time, that struggle, together with shifts in the New York City and larger economy, dictated a different local market from what the shopping center promoters at the outset of the 1970s expected.

Amid those economic tides, Grant & Co before long was in bankruptcy, and as Plaza East struggled in the early ‘70s recession, town officials groused about a sparse tree buffer as well as traffic issues on Montauk Highway. A different chain, Caldor, would take the Grant space. (Eventually the spot would become a Kmart.) The development pressures evolved: Whereas middle-class commuter homes were the prospect as the 1970s dawned and new expressways reached the South Fork, the central Long Island employment draw soon diminished, especially in aerospace, and rezonings limited the population capacity out east. So the wealthier retreat crowd soon became the driving force instead.

That was especially the case as the economy picked up by 1983-84. Enough total purchasing power was coming in that mall owner Kimco Development (as it was then called) was ready for a big expansion, and to upgrade its retail brands into the Eddie Bauer and Gap stratum.  But this time, the Group for the South Fork was prepared to fight the project, in what was called the biggest such local battle of the time.

The hamlet of Bridgehampton (in the town of Southampton) was perhaps the only spot on the South Fork where a retail complex of size could have happened in the first place.** At the time, and apart from a few vintage neighborhoods, it was a dowty crossroads between the historic villages of Southampton, East Hampton and Sag Harbor. *** In years past, it had housed farm laborers and domestic help and was known for street races of souped-up cars (these would get diverted to a formal track in the nearby woods where competitions drew crowds into the 1980s). Although a remarkable series of paternoster ponds cut north-south in Bridgehampton between ocean and bay, they were not yet an environmental priority in the early 1970s.  Beyond a historic few village blocks, Montauk Highway there was clear for commercial hopscotching. The original Plaza East sat next to a drive-in theater, since 1955 a local summer favorite, that finally closed in the early 1980s—its grounds became the center’s expansion turf.

But the surrounding community had gotten airs in the dozen years since Plaza East opened , and Kimco’s wish to better than double the retail footprint with 132,000 new square feet was a major trigger. The developer had something to offer, including a much bigger King Kullen supermarket plus a million-dollar site upgrade with subdued signage and lighting and—finally—the leafy plantings that had been promised initially. “It will be like walking on a college campus,” one lawyer for the mall said. Opponents scoffed.

Over nearly two years, the planners of Southampton town would weigh not only the aesthetics of such a big center but its economics (Was there really sufficient demand? Would it deplete business in the villages?) as well as the environmental effects. This last concern by then had become a political and legal minefield for any sizable project. The mid-1980s were seeing an unprecedented building binge in the Hamptons, encroaching on its bays and ponds as well as the underground (drinking) water supply, so the stress points were nearly everywhere.

Big crowds appeared at official meetings that usually hosted only handfuls, and they might include a celebrity neighbor like Cliff Robertson.  Whereas the 1972 Plaza East opposition had to muster foes off-season, this time the summer residents had plenty of opportunities to join in. If many year-round households were happy to have more stores and eateries at hand–the mall countered the protests with 2,000 names on a petition—the new gentry and its allied old-timers had plenty of punch behind their collective distaste.

Southampton’s planning board and its longtime chair, Roy Wines Jr., were an embattled bunch. They pushed back against many of the development schemes—commercial and residential–that came before them as the 1980s boom proceeded, but were under constant attack from preservationists for accommodating too much. The shopping mall battle fit that pattern. Meanwhile, developers, sensing an increased Reagan-era judicial sympathy for property rights, were prone to sue for “takings.”  In July 1987, the harried board finally opted for a rezoning that would have quashed the center’s expansion.  Kimco promptly went to court.

For more than a year, the project’s fate went from the public hearing room to the legal conference rooms. In March 1989 came word of a settlement: Kimco basically would get the enlargement it sought, with some further concessions for public benefit. Bridgehampton Commons would be born. The Group for the South Fork stewed. A few months later, it would issue a blast demanding “new blood” on the planning board.  (Roy Wines served on but grew ill and died in 1996.)

Robert DeLuca, who joined the Group for the South Fork staff ahead of the expansion battle and has headed the Group for several years, told me in a 2020 interview that Wines was masterful in steering such development decisions. “The cynical view is that the town knew it had to go through the legal process to get to the foreseen end,” he said. DeLuca acknowledged that many Hamptonites are of two minds, wanting both a rural atmosphere and convenient amenities, but criticized the center as unnecessary commercialization that invited only more of it.

In another 2020 interview, Eric Shultz, who served with Wines on the planning board and has stayed active in Southampton affairs, faulted “elite environmentalists with their cocktail parties to raise money” while “we’re here in the trenches” dealing with unavoidable growth issues. “Your job is not to stop development, it’s going to happen,” he said of the town duties, but to see that it’s orderly and ecologically sensitive.

So has the debate gone on for decades since. Kimco in 1993 actually sought an allowance for more retail space with hardly a peep of opposition. The area’s politics have tilted toward the preservationist side, but the influx of additional wealth nevertheless has filled available parcels with “McMansions” and invited heavy trade traffic to service them. Perhaps symbolizing how the two worlds are inseparably tied: Milton Cooper, co-founder and executive chairman of what is now Kimco Realty, for years has had a grand home on a bucolic rise over Bridgehampton, a mile or so from his shopping complex.

In any case, the long line of strip centers that some feared 40 or 50 years ago did not come to the South Fork, and patches of greenbelt or farmland still separate the hamlets. Instead, the town of Riverhead, a good half hour away at the head of the east end’s two forks, sought out the big-box store onrush and got it. That alleviated much of the consumer pressure in tony areas, and online ordering for delivery has taken care of the rest.

Today, Bridgehampton Commons remains a busy if low-key commercial operation. It retains a middle-class vibe—the huge King Kullen, a Staples, PetCo, WilliamsSonoma, Ulta Beauty, Panera Bread and of course the Kmart, which survives as its parent company dries up. A recent build-on modestly enhanced a T.J. Maxx store to allow for its off-price sibling Marshalls as well. Most shops weathered the Covid era even as the owner clearly desired more juice.  But the Marshalls addition took four years and faced resident opposition.  Kimco most recently spent months before that same Southampton planning board getting approval for new color-coordinated signage that, with logos, could boost tenant appeal. 

“The center is a vital everyday shopping destination for many,” Kimco’s regional president, Joshua Weinkranz, responded to my question about who is considered the core clientele in today’s Hamptons. And the mall’s relationship with Southampton officials? “[T]here is always a natural negotiation and, ultimately, partnership that is achieved with properties like this. We believe Kimco has built an increasingly supportive, productive and mutually beneficial relationship with the town government over our years as owner.”  So how about a birthday party later this year? “We do not have anything independently planned for the 50th anniversary at the moment but would welcome the opportunity to do so in concert with the local community if so desired.”

I doubt celebration is quite the mood. If the planning approvals are grudging, that reflects the very mixed emotions of the Hamptons of 2022. Some are sorry the Commons ever got built or enlarged, even if they appreciate fresh produce in February at a reasonable cost or stock their home offices at Staples. Alternatives exist: Boutique fare, to the extent it survives in brick and mortar, is to be found in the villages. The gourmets and the greens patronize the South Fork’s farmstands, in season and at high prices. Nearly everybody can make the drive to Riverhead.

At the same time, there’s lots of angst about super wealth pushing out the South Fork’s stalwart base, and a nearby hub for its necessities or simple pleasures has become over the years part of the Hamptons fabric. As Bob DeLuca put it, “If there’s a Kmart left on the planet, it’s going to be that one.” — 2/03/22

*By 1969, the sizable SmithHaven Mall had opened in rapidly developing parts of Suffolk County to the west, a reasonable drive as new highways were opened. Suburbia was at the doorstep.

**A smaller center, also owned by Kimco and featuring a modest Macy’s, was developed about the same time in Hampton Bays. Although technically on the South Fork, that largely middle-class hamlet is west of the Shinnecock Canal, considered the entry line to the gilded “Hamptons.”

***The Bridgehampton community had also lost its own longtime weekly, the News, by 1971. An adversarial replacement, the Bridgehampton Sun, was started in 1980 but only lasted a couple of years.

Who Will Pay for European-Style Medical Coverage

Even after ObamaCare, a frequent impulse on the left and in mainstream media remains the shoring up of health-care coverage for millions of Americans by further taxing the rich, however defined. This frame for redressing inequality in the U.S. carries over to other areas of policy, but medical services are the most politically acute.

Turns out the problem of lagging diagnostics and treatment in America is not so simply a miserly hogging of resources by the well-off, IRS be damned. That is not the finding of some magnate-funded think tank but scholars at the World Inequality Lab, based in Paris. For flagging this, I am grateful to a short article in the latest issue of City Journal (it is not yet online) that extracts elements of an academic working paper in advanced draft by economists Thomas Blanchet, Lucas Chancel and Amory Gethin.

The burden of their paper is to show that greater inequality in the U.S. is a function not of failure to even the score by redistribution, but of “pre-distribution” imbalances that in recent decades have grown here, much more than in Europe. That surely has many causes but the authors focus on the lagging (until very recently, at least!) compensation to the lower-tier workforce. Thus, more profits have accrued to the owners of capital, especially in the top wealth brackets. America therefore has gained more “rich” and near-rich while others have trailed off.

This is also a familiar political refrain, often linked to the decline of private-sector unions in the U.S. It may be that because of more “labor flexibility,” including a relatively cheaper workforce, more investment capital has gravitated to the U.S., turbocharging  the profitability push and thereby the inequality in pre-tax income. Whether Europe in light of this enjoys a better society is a lively debate.

But Chris Pope in his City Journal parsing of the Lab’s work is interested in how social benefits like medical care get paid for. To put it briefly, what he sees is that high-income taxpayers cover more of their fellow citizens’ (and noncitizens’) health-care costs in the U.S. than in Europe. Moreover, those subsidies are largely directed toward the poor, elderly and disabled, through Medicaid and Medicare. Indeed, in Europe it is the broader middle of the population that carries more of the burden for government programs. If their incomes have better kept pace with the wealthy—as per the overall working paper—then they have also been more saddled with tax than in the U.S., where personal income taxation is in fact quite progressive and payroll and sales taxes are lower.

The important lesson to draw from this, whatever one’s ideology about the unfairness of financial disparities, is that any concerted effort to widen and enhance the provision of medical (or other social) benefits in America must be bought, literally, by the middle and working classes.  Sure, you can tap the rich for a bit more before they squeeze their way around it, or you can try to dismantle the insurance-company middlemen, but ultimately a modern health-and-welfare state means European-style taxation.  Maybe it’d be best to see first about getting those “fairer” European incomes. –02/01/22

Vanguard’s ESG Policy Choice Is to Echo

Morehouse College President David Thomas and Airbnb executive Tara Bunch joined rareified company this past year with appointment to Vanguard Group’s board of directors. They can expect annual pay of about $300,000 to help oversee the money-management giant’s 240-some mutual funds and ETFs.

Beyond that, they will be at the forefront of a battle to reorient investment portfolios toward “ESG”–outcomes desired by environmental, social and governance activists. The financial sector generally is assuming more prominence on ESG—even assuming a front-row position at the recent COP26 climate-change powwow.

As the nation’s second largest funnel of investor assets, Vanguard is in a tricky place. Its historical mantra is that passively held, well-diversified and low-cost funds are in the best interest of those investors.  ESG promotion, to which Vanguard has managed a cautious straddle, is seemingly at odds with a minimal-touch philosophy. Although proponents argue that adherence to ESG standards (whatever they may be at any given time) adds value to investment performance, that is an unsettled question. See, for example, the recent criticism of socially-conscious Unilever’s attempt to “define the purpose” of its best-selling mayonnaise by the founder of Fundsmith Equity of the UK.

At Vanguard’s even bigger rival BlackRock, there’s a more pointed stance, entailing a “reallocation of capital” within its actively managed funds. CEO Lawrence Fink has become a vocal critic of what he might call “unsustainable” businesses—and with the weight of his firm’s $10 trillion asset portfolio behind him, he’s hard to ignore. Vanguard takes a somewhat different slant: It emphasizes it watches for ESG exposure not as a critic but as a conservative fiduciary. Its concern is the prospective costs to companies from environmental, social or governance developments—including political actions. It will seek to influence those companies internally (sometimes by favoring dissident shareholder proposals).

This can be seen as an “ESG echo” policy—Vanguard isn’t saying it disapproves of contra-ESG business practices (fossil fuel extraction, for example), but that the disapproval by others—such as elected officials, regulators and pressure groups–could hurt investments and therefore the boards of portfolio companies must be mindful of these in some measurable way. Likewise, of course, they should be wary of first-order risks from climate-related weather events, pollution, labor or other civil strife and corporate corruption.

An ESG-echo approach much like Vanguard’s seems to be the way sustainability is commonly being sought. As a major piece from Bloomberg Businessweek acknowledged with implied surprise at year’s end, Wall Street’s main ESG evaluator is weighing how the social and environmental dynamics may affect the companies, rather than vice versa…so your ESG-themed fund may not be wearing quite the halo you think it is. (Bloomberg itself, both as an editorial operation and as the founding billionaire’s overall thrust, is a Fink-like scold on such matters.)

 Indeed, major commercial banks have adopted an echo stance on carbon emissions, and the U.S. Federal Reserve has similarly, in support of them. They are watching loan exposures that could bite them if “net-zero” becomes the order of the day. This creates a double-echo effect: Bank lending is one of red flags that Vanguard says it is watching in order to apply sway as an equity investor. Which comes first, the debt or the stock?

Whether as a proactive ESG scold, or as a reactive ESG echo, the influence is similar. But Vanguard, owing to its root investment philosophy, is clear that it won’t disinvest as a tactic. Rather, while continuing to hold the shares of ESG laggards in most circumstances, it will vote its proxies in line with the ESG echo guidelines. 

This is where directors like the newcomers Thomas and Bunch come in. They are the stewards of the Vanguard investment ship, setting its compass. There’s a further twist, however: Unlike at BlackRock, where Larry Fink and other directors are elected by shareholders in the asset manager, or at private companies like Bloomberg that are not beholden to outsiders, Vanguard is a firm ostensibly owned by the investors in its funds. Thus those investors, who are directly affected by how ESG impacts the assets in their funds, might wish a say in setting the ESG policies. But they actually don’t have that at Vanguard. The group’s directors are chosen, effectively, by the management at Vanguard. (In literal terms, the Vanguard funds—without a vote by fund-holders–choose the Vanguard Group’s directors.) Policymaking is, you might say, circular.

No wonder, then, that whatever their own political views, those who control Vanguard have staked out a cautious—if nevertheless powerful—presence in the ESG push. So far, at least. American institutions are in these times not necessarily anchored.

Milestone: Early Hamptons Farmland Preservation

The great story of land-preservation on the South Fork of Long Island (“the Hamptons”) is losing many of its first-hand witnesses. Another departed this life just before Christmas: John V.N. Klein, who as Suffolk County Executive launched the first major effort to sustain farmland on some of the richest (both in nutrients and dollar value) soil in America.

This obituary in Newsday captures the outline of 90-year-old Klein’s career—a Republican lawyer who became a political lightning rod not so much for his conservation efforts as (ironically) for his support of a rare major sewer project in then-rustic Suffolk County that turned costly and corrupt. After being voted out of office for that linkage, he went on to lobby on various projects on Long Island’s East End.

But the farmland efforts were his primary Hamptons legacy. A surviving participant in that story, Water Mill farming patriarch Tom Halsey, described the scene to me in interviews last year for a history I’m compiling of the period.  Halsey was a new chairman of the Southampton town planning board when Klein approached him—the county executive, also fresh to the job, had been shocked by an aerial survey of the rapid subdividing of parcels near the ocean and southern bays of the county.

The early 1970s were a transitional time on the South Fork. At much the same time as the onetime “Summer Colony” was being sought out by a new wave of affluent New York City weekenders, the area’s historic agricultural base was in full retreat. The potato crop of recent decades was suffering from price competition and pests, and the generation following on early (and greatly Polish) tenders of the soil wanted out. As Halsey (whose own clan was one of the earlier-still English settlers) recalled, Klein, of western Suffolk where development had come sooner, asked why the eastern stretches were then being so suddenly converted.  Estate taxes, Halsey says he replied.

The trick for preservationists was to come up with cash to pay the death duties so that families who wanted to keep growing row crops could cover their bills. The solution was the first iteration of a scheme—taxpayer purchase of development rights to the parcels—that continues in other forms to this day. The public-policy argument, beyond the visual benefits of maintaining a farming heritage and open space, was that forestalling suburban tract homes (more common to the Hamptons before the huge price increases to follow) would save tax dollars in the long run. The towns would not have to provide municipal services to that population.

Many land-use controversies would follow over the years, and Tom Halsey would be in the middle of several of them, as planning board chair and later a Southampton town councilman. (See the photo here of a letter he wrote to questioning local media about the farmland matters in particular.) But Klein, whose predecessor Lee Dennison had begun Suffolk County’s grappling with its growth pains, was at the forefront of a changed local consciousness.  After Klein left office, attention would shift from “south of the highway” parcels to those around the northern woodlands and bays of the South Fork, and he would play a role, if less memorable, in those.

A Burmese House of Mirrors

Burma is such a complex mess of a nation that it calls for the talents of a reporter like Hannah Beech to hold those responsible to account. The best Western journalist in Southeast Asia, Beech dropped a Christmas special in the New York Times that unmasked a seemingly sympathetic business figure’s dealings with the murderous military junta that aims to reassert control of what they prefer to call Myanmar.

Her walk-through with a partly cooperative Jonathan Kyaw Thaung was particularly painful to me because I had met him, at least once, in years past at gatherings of Asian tycoons hosted by my then-employer, Forbes. (I’m foggy on whether all subsequent exchanges were remote.) He came across, as he evidently tried to do with Beech, as an earnest and gracious scion looking to restore what had been lost since the generals first grabbed his nation in 1962 and took it inward from the world and toward overall impoverishment. Like several of his Westernized cohorts among the young wealthy of Asia, Jonathan, now 39, sported trappings of globalized business, including  a turn at Babson College, noted for an entrepreneurial bent. The inference to be drawn was that he was not just another of the crony capitalists who enrich themselves in various dark corners of the region.

His soft-peddled entreaties included an invitation to visit the Pegu Club, the social landmark his family had restored to its former glory in colonial Rangoon. I never made it, or got very far with my curiosity about the publicly charitable Kyaw Thaungs. It takes much local knowledge to sort out the layers and players of Burmese times, past and present.

The military regime, known as the Tatmadaw, began relaxing its grip in 2012 but moved to seize back all reins in early 2021 after a national election threatened its domination of a civilian government under the National League for Democracy. (This was Nobel-winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s group, which still posits itself as the legitimate government, and its legacy is a puzzle in itself.) The Tatmadaw also wars with various ethnic militias for territory in a series of conflicts that have spanned decades. These bloody affairs were overshadowed in recent years by the relatively unified Buddhist campaign against the country’s Rohingya Muslims who were brutally forced out of their ground and into neighboring Bangladesh from 2017.

International sanctions have applied to Burma over much of the last 60 years, and the Tatmadaw’s latest iteration has invited contempt from most outsiders save, of course, for the Chinese Communist Party, which sees gain not only from business ties with the meddlesome military but also relief from insurgencies on the shared border.

In this tangled mix, enterprising capitalists who sought to profit from the last decade’s reopening of Burma to the world have had to find accommodation. Since the latest coup that has been particularly tricky, and this forms the backdrop for Hannah Beech’s lengthy account.

To summarize it, the Kyaw Thaungs, through an opaque ownership structure, have maintained multiple commercial ties with junta-dominated entities and otherwise abetted a war machine with an increasingly brazen disregard for human rights. Jonathan Kyaw Thaung at various interview points sought to distance himself and his family from the links but generally just fibbed, based on Beech’s reporting.

In the current—and violent–tussle for vestiges of institutional wealth and authority in Burma, including a financial spiral aggravated by the Covid crisis, even the best-laid plans of the Kyaw Thaungs seem to have gone awry. In the coda to the New York Times story, Jonathan and family have fled the wreckage of what he still depicts as a patriotic project.

What larger message is to be drawn from this journalistic effort? Over my 20 years of editing and occasionally writing about the magnates of Asia, I realized that the nexus to official power was usually a factor in their plans and success. This didn’t necessarily taint them so much as it gave their rise a different meaning—the same was true for their family or tribal ties. Where the regimes in question are venal—and this has been true in Burma and some other cases—these gray areas get blacker. Sentimental attachments to a homeland can be a cover for graft or worse. The reporter (or investor) must never let suspicions rest.

The Landfill Squeeze Reaches Long Island

If Americans stand accused of precipitating a supply-chain seizure by demanding too many goods in the past year, their purchasing habits also are perpetuating problems at the other end—the landfills. Many if not most population centers of the U.S. have more trash than they know what to do with.

It’s not just the capacity of the dumps, it’s the location. A clamor for environmental justice is objecting to sites that often border on low-income residential areas, which can mean disproportionately brown or black people. This comes on top of the general complaints about smell, noise and groundwater impacts.

Even when municipalities close their landfills—as nearly all of them have done in places like Long Island, N.Y.—they still face many of the same complaints when they try, through “transfer stations,” to shuttle the garbage off to somewhere else.

The issue is coming to a head on Long Island, N.Y., where the last remaining landfill, in the Town of Brookhaven, will be closing after 50 years in operation. Today, on the remaining active part of the 270-acre site, only incinerated municipal waste (ash) and construction and demolition debris are being accepted. When that ends over the next couple of years, the discards of 8 million people are going to have to find a way out.

Geography poses special challenges at Brookhaven, but the nature of the problem is universal. Although sizable, this dump never got even half as big as America’s largest, the now-closed Puente Hills mound east of Los Angeles. (One silver lining of such heaps is gas-to-energy potential, such as is tried at Puente Hills.) The transport option is the obvious fallback—of course raising the question not only of how but to where? Flyover country isn’t usually delighted to receive the stuff, even if land prices there make relative economic sense. Most impoverished foreigners no longer will take it, either.

As to Brookhaven’s “how,” more trucks on a narrow island all but guarantees new highway congestion. Barges have been tried fitfully (the infamous 1987 garbage ship emanated from the neighboring Town of Islip, an early omen of today’s mess). The industry’s preferred option today is rail, with a good five proposals floated for the Long Island landfill hub.  (Depots also could handle incoming freight.) To share commuter tracks, trains likely would run at night (leading to noise objections en route) and require big transfer stations at the origin.

At Brookhaven, that could mean 121 acres. Winters Bros., a major local hauler, has been the most forceful advocate of a transfer plan, with its PR push being met by a counter campaign from local and social pressure groups. The NAACP joined that fight. Another idea would include enhanced ash-recovery at the site, which elicited citizen criticisms. The issue has politicians running for the cover of a new study, which appeals to the cautious editorialists for Newsday, the area’s biggest newspaper.

Long Island for decades has been hyper-sensitive to perceived threats of contamination. (It famously forced a completed nuclear plant at Shoreham to be closed in the 1980s prior to opening, at a huge cost.) With the environmental justice angle added, it’s going to be near politically impossible to hammer out a garbage compromise. No wonder there’s talk of a regional waste authority, insulated from direct electoral control, to effectuate solutions, perhaps entailing big payouts to poorer communities.

A potential alternative to disposal options is recycling or composting (see a 2016 report on Maine’s aggressive recycling mandates)  but economic limitations on most forms of reuse have become ever clearer.  Except for aluminum and some plastics (as well as, especially, the precious metals in discarded electronics), what we toss out isn’t worth anywhere near the cost of salvaging.

Of course, we could always stop consuming so much or building out structures—but that historically has required a depression to realize.  Maybe some kind of accommodation on the trains will be Long Island’s less painful option.

A COP Vs. Calories: How (Less) Sweet It Would Be

In the spirit of Thanksgiving gourmandizing and the recent COP26 climate conference, might I suggest a global summit to de-calorize our environment? For as surely as the planet is warming, prompting calls to de-carbonize, we’re getting fatter and only scientific guesswork can tell us which will doom more of us.

The body mass problem that crescendos in morbid obesity has multiple causes. Lack of regular exercise is a big one. But chronic overeating of the wrong kind of diet is the easiest to identify, and to simplify that further, let’s focus on carbohydrates, especially sugar.  What if, along with the carbon from fossil fuels, the world was on a tear to minimize consumption of what the package labels call added sugars?

This would occupy the nutrition authorities for all their waking days because sugars are, like other taste-bud triggers salt and fats, melded into so many prepared and processed foods. Often, the sweetener is not hiding—dessert treats and many beverages are swimming in it. (Artificial substitutes, which probably do less damage, just don’t cut it with many who crave the taste.) The more diabolical sugar presence is in items that are marketed with the pretense of healthfulness—natural, organic, gluten-free (looking at you, Costco!) Just try to find a cereal, including granola, that doesn’t load you up out of the box.

Not enough of us are ready for morning oatmeal without something to liven it up, and fresh fruit takes some forethought. I wish bakeries at least would offer more reduced-sugar choices. The global summiteers could trumpet cultures that have found other ways to flavor dark breads, and I don’t mean molasses. Why undo the good of whole grains?

The health train-wreck of mass obesity—usually a slow-moving killer–was made acute by the Covid-19 pandemic, where this was the number one co-morbidity across all age groups. Yet the official warnings seemed understated, as if the truth is indelicate to say too loud or too often. This is a point that the comedian Bill Maher, who is generally sound on diet, is unafraid to make. An even more reliable scold is my former Wall Street Journal colleague Matt Rees, whose website and email blasts are full of food factoids. Of course, there are many credentialed specialists making this case, including Prof. Marion Nestle. Last summer, she blogged on the good news that the total U.S. sugar intake actually has been declining for 20 years, attributable to less use of high-fructose corn syrup. But refined varieties have filled some of that gap, and the overall consumption is still way too high.

Big Sugar, like Big Oil, is a mighty counterforce facing any international campaign. Yet the stakes for most of the globe’s people are rising. Just as energy use jumps with affluence, so does body weight. The last I checked, only Vietnam among the significant developing countries had managed to keep average counts down in recent years as GDP rose. (I hope this is not because of a large poor and thin population.) So the issue is waiting for its appealing young tribunes, like those for “climate action,” and for media echoes similarly to reverberate. Shared sacrifice, anyone?

The Hamptons Has a New Favorite Hedge

There’s been a lot more green in the Hamptons stretch of Long Island in recent years, and it’s not just the incoming wealth tide. Hybrid arborvitae trees of the Thuja standishii x plicata cultivar, or Green Giants, have become the default landscaping choice for lot perimeters as the area’s trophy homes get bigger and closer togther.

A senior manager at Marders, a high-end nursery and garden shop in Bridgehampton, dates the upsurge to 15 years back and says Green Giants now account for 90% of his screening-tree plantings. Prices for the bigger ones, say already 10 feet or so, have doubled in five years.

The reasons are mostly human, with a deer clause.  The traditional Hamptons screen has been the privet hedge, and you still find some towering gems in the villages of Southampton and East Hampton. But these are tricky to grow and maintain; they thin out in the winter months especially. For today’s work-from-home East Enders, a 12-month block on the subculture next door has become more vital. Green Giants are sturdy, fast-growing and pest-resistant.

These trees also are unlikely feeding ground for the white-tailed deer that now overpopulate Long Island even more than the Richie Riches do.  A Northeastern native species of arborvitae, the Thuja occidentalis or Emerald, used to be favored but now is more of an indoor choice (for big indoors!) where the Odocoileus virginianus can’t show up hungry.

(Indigenous landscaping matters legally in much of the Hamptons, where town regulations forbid overclearing of formerly wooded parcels. Green Giants do not qualify as revegetation—they are considered simply ornamental. The same is true for another popular fast-grower, the Leyland cypress, but they have proven not so hardy against the elements in any case.)

An incipient monoculture of decorative barriers may be cliché, but is it more ominous than that? I queried specialists at Cornell’s Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. They weren’t yet alarmed over prospects for a pest wipeout (the leaf miner is a low-grade concern) or invasive spread, as Green Giants don’t seed easily or do well in compacted soil.

That said, we tempt fate when we skew the landscape. Says Mina Vescera of the Cornell unit, “It’s unfortunate deer pressure greatly reduces selection for privacy screening in our area. More folks are starting to install fencing that exclude deer, but this effect is not beneficial for habitat.”  Not so great for the neighbors and their shrubs, either.

The greatest risk may be to the growers who overplant for today and not tomorrow.  Matthew H. Gettinger, president of the Long Island Natives division of Country Garden Nursery, writes, “I can tell you as with all farming initiatives, and as a farmer, there will be a glut of Green Giants at some point since most nurseries have increased proportions of these trees to the point where supply will soon exceed demand and prices will fall.”

For now, just like the McMansions that they frequently surround, the Green Giants have come to reflect a popular monoculture, of abundance and sameness. As of 2021, is as important to keep up with the Super-Joneses as it is not to see them.

‘Bad News’ for the Wage Workers–Or No News?

The woke bent of many American newsrooms gives a topical edge to Batya Ungar-Sargon’s new book of reflections on class and race in America. “Bad News” (Encounter Books) is a useful check on the identity politics of the era from an avowed Jewish labor populist who is an opinions editor at the current iteration of Newsweek. (Note that she is being published here by a conservative house.)

Ungar-Sargon depicts the prestige media as uncaring about the U.S. working class even as it rides nearly every left-wing fancy about white supremacy’s benighted reign. She illuminates the hypocritical business interest of institutions such as the New York Times in targeting a progressive (and affluent) audience, but is less convincing about the journalists themselves, whose content these days is in fact full of support for struggling laborers, especially women.

Ungar-Sargon in arguing that Ivy Leaguers in the newsrooms have alienated a blue-collar market draws on a 2019 volume, “No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class,” by Christopher R. Martin, an Iowa communications professor. Martin in turn quotes pioneering media pundit Ben Bagdikian, who says that when the timecard set no longer saw its concerns reflected in reporting, it stopped buying papers. Although it’s true that the “labor beat” took a back seat in the latter half of the 20th century, the dynamic here deserves more scrutiny. The traditional  press of the wage workers—the tabloids, the afternoon papers, the readership that Ungar-Sargon longingly associates with publishers Benjamin Day and Joseph Pulitzer—began dying even before Rosie Riveter was a  World War II heroine. In 1950, 70% of the country’s dailies were “evening” editions, and now those are rare—the “tabs,” even more so. An interesting study for another volume—one not so much keyed to hot-button “anti-racism” as this book is—would ask, where has this demographic gone? Is it still reading, or have literacy and political standards actually fallen? What has taken the place of “the paper” in their hours of cogitation?

Ungar-Sargon suggests at a few points that Fox News Channel has been the working class’s fallback. I don’t think this best describes FNC’s core audience—it is decidedly male, yes, but hardly a lunch-pale set. The widening gamut of sports programming is a better answer, though watching this doesn’t do much for informed citizenship in our democratic republic (it may not even be aiding sportsmanship). Then there are the booming video games for advancing adolescents. But the biggest draw for Joe Sixpack is probably the same as it is for the Twitter mobs—the smartphone, and the social-media newsfeed that pumps info-bits into our civic bloodstream. Depending on which purveyors are popping up, this ironically may mean that the sermonizing snobs of the press who Ungar-Sargon so unsparingly disparages are in fact still being piped into the Other America. My bet is that, just as in Day’s and Pulitzer’s time of the penny papers, the most popular day-to-day news diet is that which costs the least.

Shortage Economy: Will We Go Marching?

Washington pundits generally see the supply-chain hiccups and partially related price inflation as political risks for the Biden White House. Probably that’s so but there’s also opportunity for a left-ward administration.

Check out the essay by reliable old Robert Kuttner in the latest New York Review of Books. After fondly recalling the marching orders given to the U.S. economy during World War II, he points to a report done by the president’s national-security team earlier this year on how to redirect U.S. market practices to better serve politically-determined aims. Supply disruptions, whether from pandemics, foreign machinations or environmental factors, are a key focus. Thus, the current discomfort could be transformed into a Democrat trifecta for planning, trade and investment powers. Some elements of the report already made their way into the Build Back Better legislation being dressed up for passage in Congress.

Kuttner’s article prefigures his next book, due in April, Going Big: FDR’s Legacy and Biden’s New Deal. For scholarly partisans of a certain bent–Kuttner has been a progressive warhorse since the Reagan days–the martial orders on the Home Front of the last World War (or even the first one) carry nostalgic appeal. The nation was drawn together in sacrifice and energetic production to meet national imperatives. It is easy at this point to forget the predations, many unnecessary or even silly, that this imposed on citizens (Britain saw much the same or worse) and the often-scandalous misappropriations that accompanied such commands.

Of course, a relatively open economy will also result in miscues, and certainly inequities and waste, so a time of tumult and worry like the present will offer an opportunity to statists as well as others who distrust international trade. To many, American Greatness seems to call for concerted measures to put the nation on sounder footing. The pleas of classical liberals for instead fostering agility in response can be dismissed by the Kuttners as corporate shilling, the “waning influence of free-market ideology.”

So, to use another wartime standby, this good crisis will not go to waste if only Biden’s party will muscle through the means to reorder what ails our land.  So are progressive Democrats really on the run? We do appear to be at a political pivot point. I’m not counting Bob Kuttner and friends out.