Don Reeb Speaks to Save the Pine Bush

by Tom Ellis

ALBANY, NY: After a rousing introduction by Carol Waterman, Don Reeb spoke at the February 19 SPB dinner about “Cities and the Environment.”

Don, now 80 years young, is a retired University at Albany economics professor, was co-leader of the Stop Crossgates mall campaign, and has been President of the McKownville Improvement Association for many years. 

He said he can remember the Depression well. He is one of 11 children; the family lived in a three-room apartment, shared one toilet; three siblings died young and two have polio.

Don began saying, “I think we are killing ourselves with our misuse of the environment.”   He said cities (and surrounding built-up areas) are increasingly the place where people live.  In the western world, 80 percent of the people live in cities; in the rest of the world it is 50 percent with projections of 70 percent in coming decades.

He described efforts going back to the 1790s to provide Manhattan with a safe and adequate water supply, a goal finally reached in 1881.  In Washington, DC, during the Kennedy administration, the south east part of the city still lacked sewers and residents used outhouses.  His point was that it took many cities a long time to get safe water supplies and much of the world today has inadequate, polluted water.

In the ancient city of Rome, only a few houses had running water and wastewater was flushed out into the open sewers on the streets.  Rome and Alexandria had sewers and running water, but not for everyone.  “The idea for a quality environment for all city dwellers,” he said, “is still unmet, unimagined in many places…I think they tell you to wash your hands often for good reasons.”

He said auto exhaust is the second most important air pollution source in the US.  Two public housing projects in Troy were closed due to concerns about auto exhaust coming in through the windows. 

Mr. Reeb proposed a plan to reduce the number of miles being driven.  He said that since the average driver uses 500 gallons of gasoline per year, if each person was given coupons to purchase 250 gallons tax free each year and the tax was doubled on gallons bought above 250, many drivers would find ways to reduce their miles driven to less than 250.  The benefits would go to the drivers and non- drivers, and not the large corporations, as with cap and trade schemes.  He called cap and trade “rationing with a price.”  He said  similar tax plans (to his gasoline proposal) could be established to reduce electricity use.  Summing up this point he said, “We have not implemented a mechanism for people to get the benefits of conservation.”

Regarding city size and quality of life, he said there are about 300,000 cities in the world today, with 23 having more than 20 million residents; two – NYC and LA – are in the US; Europe has none.  He said middle sized cities are seeing the most growth today.  Compared to the rest of the world, US cities are less dense; even NYC is less dense than any other similar population city in the world.  He said Boston and Portland, OR are the least dense cities of their populations in the world.  However, reduced density increases pollution.

One way to reduce the pollution is to make property taxes progressive, as is done in Singapore, but not in the US.  With a progressive property tax, a homeowner might pay 4 percent on the first $100,000 of assessed value, 5 percent on the second $100,000, six percent on the third, etc.  People would buy smaller homes.  He said, “We can affect the size of cities with tax policies.”

A proven method to restore cities, he said, is to invest in people first and then they will construct buildings.  A way for cities to save money is to require municipal bonds be sold by the Federal Reserve System; this would avoid the high costs of using bond attorneys such as Richard Nixon, John Mitchell and George Pataki.

Don then shifted the lecture to discussing cities and people of color.  He said it is difficult for whites to bring the poor and people of color into these discussions, and this limits our ability to force through our proposals.  He said slavery in the US was worse than in Brazil and many other places because in the US, enslaved people had no rights at all.  Don said he is supportive of President Obama, would vote for him a third time if he could, and Obama faces enormous obstacles from his adversaries due to his race.

Hatred of minorities in the US is still enormous.  For example, Albany has few black firefighters, Guilderland has no blacks working in town hall, and considerable segregation remains today.  He insisted, “We must focus more attention to improving the quality of life of for all residents, but especially the minorities.”

When asked about Detroit, he responded saying Detroit is 87 percent black.   “If Detroit were in Yonkers, [Senators] Schumer and Gillibrand would be demonstrating every day in front of the capital, outraged at the injustices.”  He mentioned schools in Philadelphia without cafeterias, no teacher aides, no libraries.

He said that from 1800-1840, by agreement, representatives and senators did not discuss slavery on the floor of Congress because the issue was so divisive.  He said, “We can’t seem to face the horrible treatments [some] populations face, own up to it, and stop it.”  Tim Truscott jumped in saying, “We have gone backwards in the last thirty years.  We are more sophisticated in our segregation.”

Don said in 1901 San Francisco, whites blamed a cholera epidemic on the Chinese, evicted them and burned their buildings; when whites continued dying of cholera, family members hid the bodies to avoid eviction.

Nearing the end of his presentation and responding to occasional questions and comments, he said “China can not continue on its present course.  They must create a middle class but have no intention of doing so.”

Regarding the shrinking middle class here in the US, he said, “I have great faith it can’t last but I do not know how it [the restoration] will occur.  I can’t see how the Tea Party can last but nor how they can be thrown out…I am a terrible optimist.”

He spoke about college student loan debt, saying he believes some colleges use the loan program to hike costs.  He said he retired in 1999.  Today, he said, most undergraduates at U Albany are taught by adjuncts and graduate students.  “This was inconceivable years earlier.”  He mentioned numerous programs the University at Albany discontinued in the 1970s when Lou Ismay lost his job including nursing, political economy, and astronomy.

Lynne Jackson asked him about the struggle to block construction of Crossgates.  He said the campaign lasted seven years, was won locally, but the DEC commissioner overruled and reversed the victory, letting it be built. 



Published in March/April 2014 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter