THE BLOG
08/19/2010 03:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Seven Questions You Asked

Question: Since one man (person), one vote eliminated a legislative body representing geographic areas like counties, why do we need 2 houses, their cost and their incompetence in NY? - Robert E. Adamski

Answer: Bicameral legislatures are the norm in the United States, the Federal government and 49 states have two houses. The only state with a unicameral legislature is Nebraska, which abolished its House of Representatives in a 1934 referendum at the urging of Senator George W. Norris, a progressive Republican.

Many body parts come in pairs, like eyes, ears, lungs, kidneys, breasts and testicles, not to mention arms and legs. In addition to providing balance, they facilitate survival if one of the pair is injured or destroyed. [In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.]

With regard to legislatures, it is possible for one house to correct the blunders of the other, or to pass bills without fear that they will actually become law. Bicameralism gives every citizen two legislators to elect, so if one is a dope or a crook, a voter can go to the other for assistance or information. It gives young politicians more offices to run for and acquire experience and recognition. The expense is moderate compared with wasteful spending in government agencies.

Two houses are similar to having a doctor or lawyer to give a second opinion on a matter. It makes bribery more difficult and expensive by slowing the wheels of government. It saves the state from some foolish and expensive legislation.

It all goes back to England, motherland of the Founding Fathers and home of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, which were originally quite different, as the names indicate. In the United States, the houses have become increasingly similar, except that Senates are always smaller in membership, with larger districts. The smallest bicameral legislature is Alaska, with 20 senators and 40 representatives; the largest is New Hampshire, whose General Court consists of 24 senators and 400 representatives.

Question: Is there some organization which ranks our Albany Legislators and Agency staff on such categories as effective leadership, intelligence, honesty, civic-mindedness? Obviously, this is subjective and libel lawsuit tricky, but I would love to see them squirm when they get rated this way. - Caroline from Oyster Bay

Answer: Legislators are rated based on their votes on particular issues by advocacy organizations, e.g. Environmental Advocates of New York, League of Humane Voters, The Business Council of New York State. They give the legislators percentage scores.

One man's advocates are another man's lobbyists. Citizens Union publishes some roll-call votes, but does not give out grades. There is little reason to fear libel lawsuits, since elected officials are public figures.

Some ratings reflect genuine differences of opinion on the issues. Intelligence is measurable, but the most intelligent may be the most evil, since they are smart enough to terrify or manipulate their colleagues.

Honesty is hard to measure. Does a legislator keep his word, or is he a chronic liar. Does he stay bought, or does he require fresh incentives? Does he vote his own opinions, follow instructions, or do whatever he believes will help him politically?

Is he independent? Is he literate? Is he numerate? How does he measure up with regard to the seven deadly sins (envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath) or the seven cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, courage or fortitude, restraint or temperance, faith, hope and charity) [source: good old Wikipedia].

In order to squirm, Caroline, one must possess a sense of shame. It is not clear how many legislators have that particular sensibility or sensitivity.

Question: The city has an essentially unfunded liability for the future health care benefits of retired municipal employees of approximately $70 billion, growing at $4b/year. Will the city...

Raise taxes $4b per year plus an extra amount to cover amortization of the unfunded liability?

Cut spending $4b+ (7% of the budget, more of "discretionary" spending)?

Walk away from promises to municipal workers?

Dump the obligation on the Federal government? After all, they can just print the money(?!)

- Anonymous

Answer: None of the above. The city will muddle along as usual until it has fiscal obligations that it is unable to pay. Then it will beg for a lifeline.

Question: Why does the city need so many councilmembers? If we cut the number by a third and then increased the size of the area covered by the remaining councilmembers, the city would save a lot of money. - LG

Answer: The reason why it is sensible to keep all 51 Council seats is that each councilmember represents so many people - roughly 160,000 per member. Many places in the United States with smaller populations than 160,000 have City Councils of their own, such as Sioux Falls, South Dakota (pop. 157,935), Santa Rosa, California (pop. 157,468), and Boulder, Colorado (pop. 100,160). Brooklyn, which has 16 councilmembers to represent over 2.5 million people, would be the fourth largest city in the nation (after only NYC, LA, and Chicago) if it were independent.

Question: Where did Gracie Mansion gets its name and what is its history? - Ken Stewart

Answer: Gracie Mansion is named for the Scottish-born shipping magnate Archibald Gracie, who was a business partner of Alexander Hamilton and a friend of John Jay. In 1798, Gracie bought a large tract of land on Hoorn's Hook near the East River, and the following year he built the two-story wooden Federalist mansion on the crest of a hill. Gracie primarily used the house as his country residence, entertaining guests there such as future President John Quincy Adams and future French king Louis Phillippe, until he was forced to sell it in 1823 to pay off debts. At one point, the city took the house for back taxes.

Various occupants resided in the house, until 1896, when the City of New York acquired the property and made it part of what is now Carl Schurz Park. As part of the park, the house served in numerous capacities, including an ice-cream stand, classroom space, and even public restrooms. From 1924 until 1936, it served as the Museum of the City of New York, and from 1936 until 1942 it was shown as a historical house.

In 1942, Robert Moses convinced Fiorello La Guardia to turn the house into the official mayoral residence. It is where he lived during his entire third term.

Question: How did the New York Cubans get their name and how did their playing days end? - Charles Millard

Answer: The New York Cubans were a Negro Leagues baseball team that played from 1935 until 1950, except for two seasons (1937-1938). The team was an outgrowth of the All Cubans, a Hispanic All-Star team that began travelling to the United States in 1899 to compete against Negro League ballclubs, and eventually evolved into a full-fledged Negro League team called the Cuban Stars. The Cuban Stars franchise splintered into two teams in 1918, both of which ended up going under by 1930, but one of its owners, Alex Pompez, resurrected the team as the New York Cubans in 1935.

Somewhat misleadingly, the Cubans were not exclusively players of Cuban origin (just as the Cleveland Indians are not Native Americans), though the team, along with the Indianapolis Clowns, had the most Hispanic players of any Negro League team and featured many of the best Latino players of the day. Among the great Cubans were slugger Tetelo Vargas, the "Father of Dominican Baseball," who once hit home runs in seven consecutive at-bats; Puerto Rican shortstop Pedro Anibal "Perucho" Cepeda, father of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda; Minnie Minoso, who would go on to be a nine-time All-Star in the Majors; and "El Maestro" Martin Dihigo, arguably the greatest player in Negro Leagues history. Dihigo, who was actually Cuban, won 256 games as a pitcher (with a .653 winning percentage) while batting .303 lifetime. When Satchel Paige was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971, Paige, who was not known for his modesty, exclaimed, "I'm not the best, Martin Dihigo is!"

In 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues, the Cubans defeated the Cleveland Buckeyes to win their first and only Negro League World Series title. The following year, the Cubans became a farm team for the New York Giants and moved to the Polo Grounds, but by then time was running out on the Negro Leagues. In 1950, the Cubans folded under mounting financial difficulties and the exodus of black and Latino ballplayers to the majors.

Earlier this year, the New York Mets honored the Cubans by wearing their jerseys for a game in Milwaukee against the Brewers.

Question: From where does the phrase "going to hell in a handbasket" come? - KL

Answer: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of this peculiar phrase comes from I. Windslow Ayer's 1865 work The Great North-Western Conspiracy in All Its Startling Details: "Thousands of our best men were prisoners in Camp Douglas, and if once at liberty would 'send abolitionists to hell in a hand basket.'" Variations of the phrase pre-date this reference, such as "head in a handbasket" (Samuel Sewall's Diary, 1714) and "going to heaven in a wheelbarrow" (Gods Bounty on Proverbs, 1618), but "going to hell in a handbasket" does not seem to have entered common parlance until the 1920s. The durability of the phrase, which has no substantive difference in meaning from simply "going to hell," is likely owing to its alliteration.