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THE VERTEX SHELL GAME

Vertex Headquarters. Photo ©2015 Derek Kouyoumjian

Vertex Headquarters. Photo ©2015 Derek Kouyoumjian

Pharma’s Donation to Boston, Other Cities Converts Public Funds to PR Gold

October 24, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Vertex Pharmaceuticals made a big PR splash last week with an announcement of a significant donation to Boston and other cities where it does business. The Boston-based company, best known for its cystic fibrosis meds, has pledged to “spend $500 million on charitable efforts, including workforce training, over the next 10 years,” according to the Boston Globe, and “much of the money will go toward boosting education in science and math fields as well as the arts.” The company “also wants to set aside money for grants to help young scientists and researchers.”

Well isn’t that nice. Over 10 years, $500 million works out to about $50 million a year. Sounds quite generous, yes? John Barros, Mayor Marty Walsh’s chief of economic development, certainly thinks so: “The establishment of a Vertex foundation is a long-term investment in the people of Boston and the neighborhoods of Boston … That’s ultimately what we hope for when corporations move their headquarters to the city.”

But sharp-eyed locals would disagree. We’ve seen this gambit many times before in the Bay State—most recently when General Electric played it last year: A big business that has gotten bad press for various kinds of questionable behavior and/or outright malfeasance decides it needs to improve its image. And it does so by the simple device of expanding its advertising budget in the form of “charity.”

The important thing to remember with such “donations” is that the corporations in question often get far more money from government at all levels than they ever give back to society. So it’s not really charity at all. It’s just public relations by other means. Aimed at being able to continue to dip from the great public money river largely unnoticed by everyone but the few investigative reporters managing to ply their trade in this age of corporate clickbait.

To that point, let’s look at four ways that Vertex has benefitted from public support. Then reconsider its most excellent announcement in that light.

1) Tax breaks and direct aid

Readers might remember Vertex as the company that got $10 million in state life science tax incentives between 2010 and 2014 and $12 million in tax breaks from the city of Boston—both in exchange for adding 500 local jobs to their existing staff of 1,350 by 2015 and, quixotically, for moving their headquarters from Cambridge to Boston. According to the Globe, the Commonwealth also took out a $50 million loan to pay for “new roads and other improvements” to the new HQ’s Fan Pier site.

Why? As is often the case in the wonderful world of corporate finance, Vertex told then-Gov. Patrick that it might leave the state if it didn’t get the appropriate… um… “incentives.” So that apparently played a role in getting state and local government in gear. The deal was based on the expected performance of Vertex’s blockbuster new hepatitis C drug, Incivek. But things didn’t go as planned. According to MassLive, when the company pulled the plug on Incivek in 2013 after being outgunned by another company’s hep C med, it agreed to pay back $4.4 million of the state money. In 2015, according to the Boston Business Journal, after Vertex failed to meet its job creation target, the city reduced its tax breaks to $9 million—but didn’t ask the company to pay anything back and will keep its deal in place until 2018. Leaving Vertex reaping a windfall of almost $17 million in state and local tax breaks. Oh, and that sweet loan, too.

2) Gouging public health programs

With the release of two major successful cystic fibrosis meds and more new related meds set to breeze through the FDA drug approval process, the company is starting to expand. And how could it not? In July 2017 it raised the price of its newer med, Orkambi, by 5 percent to $273,000 per patient per year, according to the Boston Business Journal. A product that did $980 million in sales in 2016 before the price increase. In 2013, the company had already raised the price of its first major med, Kalydeco, from $294,000 to $307,000 per patient per year. With some patients paying as much as $373,000 per year, according to an October 2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today article. Cystic fibrosis doctors and researchers have strongly protested, but to no avail.

It’s true that most patients don’t pay anywhere near that amount of money for the meds—because public and private insurance eat the lion’s share of the still-outrageous cost. But the final sticker price remains tremendously high. And the company doesn’t say much about who does pay a big chunk of the bill: the government, and therefore the public at large. Stick a pin in that. Vertex, like virtually every other drug company, has a business model based on gouging the public with ridiculously high prices that various government insurance programs are mandated to pay.

Programs like, in this case, federal Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). As an Oct 4 letter from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (whose eminently questionable role in the funding and development of Vertex’s cystic fibrosis meds will likely be the subject of a future column) to the Senate Finance Committee explained, about half of all cystic fibrosis patients—who used to die young before the new treatments came online—are under 18 years old. So they’re generally covered by CHIP. That program, sadly, was defunded on Sept 27 by our psychotic Congress as part of the Republican Party’s crusade against Obamacare. Most states will run out of their 2017 CHIP money early next year, and unless they find money in their own budget to replace it or Congress manages to do the right thing, over 4 million kids—including thousands of cystic fibrosis patients—are in danger of losing their health coverage.

Vertex is not directly to blame for that crisis, but the situation does make its promise that some of its $500 million donation “will be spent helping cystic fibrosis patients get access to Vertex drugs that help them breathe easier and live a more normal life” look even more ridiculous than it otherwise would. Because Vertex and other pharmas certainly have no plans to lower the outrageous prices of their top meds for any reason. They’ll give some destitute patients “access” to their drugs. But everyone else pays—primarily through government insurance, often in tandem with private insurance. After what the pharma industry terms “discounts”… that still result in usurious prices. So even if one takes whatever portion of the donation actually goes to helping patients get cheaper meds as an inadvertent giveback of some of the lucre they’ve leeched off the government, it’s going to be even less helpful than it otherwise would have been if half the patients on those meds lose their insurance next year.

But Vertex isn’t content with just draining funds out of the US federal and state governments. According to Forbesit’s pioneering ways to suck public funds out of countries with national health services. “Vertex seems to have finally cracked a long-festering problem: selling its expensive drugs in European markets, which are tougher at negotiating prices. Ireland recently agreed to give Vertex a flat, undisclosed annual payment; in return, all patients who need the drug will get access … other countries outside the U.S. will make similar deals … new CF drugs, including discounts, will cost $164,000 per patient in the U.S., where a fragmented health care system allows for less tough negotiation, and $133,000 in other countries. With almost all of the 75,000 CF patients in those countries treated, that would be an $8.5 billion market.”

3) Government-backed monopolies

Moving on, there’s another key way that Vertex makes bucketloads of money with government help: gaming the Orphan Drug Act. Passed in 1983, it was meant to create a strong incentive for pharmas to research drugs that treated conditions suffered by less than 200,000 patients. In practice, it’s become a standard way for pharmas to get a seven-year monopoly on many of their meds. And while it’s certainly true that cystic fibrosis afflicts about 30,000 people in the US—well below the 200,000 patient threshold—it’s also true that it’s no accident that Vertex chose to focus on the disease. Because, according to its 2016 10-K annual report filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company has won orphan drug status for both Kalydeco and Orkambi. Guaranteeing it seven years of monopoly production and distribution of both of the desperately needed and wildly overpriced meds. And 10 years in the European Union, under similar laws.

As Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine researchers commented in the American Journal of Clinical Oncology in November 2015, such monopolies make “it’s hardly surprising that the median cost for orphan drugs is more than $98,000 per patient per year, compared with a median cost of just over $5,000 per patient per year for non-orphan status drugs.” The same study demonstrated that “44 percent of drugs approved by the FDA [in 2012] qualified as orphan drugs.” So winning orphan drug status is one structural mechanism that makes it possible for pharmas like Vertex to charge crazy high prices for many meds.

A recent article by Harvard Business Review adds that pharmas enjoy monopolies on many other meds thanks to the 1984 Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act—which allows them to enjoy “patent protection to effectively monopolize the market” for new meds. Once that protection expires, the field is then supposed to be open to other pharmas to produce far cheaper generic versions. Which is doubtless what Vertex CEO Jeffrey Leiden was referring to in a June Globe piece when he defended the company’s sky-high drug prices, saying “‘This is a system that actually works. It rewards innovation and stimulates it. And then after the period of [market] exclusivity is over, it actually makes these innovations free’ for future patients.”

What he doesn’t mention, however, is that pharmas routinely lobby and litigate to extend their monopolies on meds, and actually pay off potential generic producers to not manufacture generics. Delaying the cheaper meds’ arrival on the market and costing public insurance programs like Medicare, Medicaid, the VA system, and CHIP huge amounts of extra money. Which then flows into corporate coffers. All the more so because the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) did not finally give the government the power to negotiate with pharmas to rein in drug prices, according to Morning Consult. The HBR story also notes that generic companies themselves often obtain exclusive monopolies for shorter periods of time and that their products are sometimes substandard—resulting in recalls. All these delays can keep cheaper meds off the market for years.

4) Public science, private profit

Finally, there’s the fact that much of the basic research that allows pharmas to exist is done by the federal government through the National Institutes of Health. In the case of Vertex, a direct connection has already been demonstrated. A May 2013 article by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today explains that the company’s first cystic fibrosis med, Kalydeco, was only possible thanks to “a hefty investment from taxpayers through grants from the National Institutes of Health, which underwrote the cost of early research, which identified the gene that the drug targets.”

If one were to put a price tag on all the basic science Vertex uses to develop its cystic fibrosis meds—and other meds—that comes straight from the NIH, what would it be worth? Tens of millions? Hundreds of millions? It would be a great research project to estimate the total, but suffice to say that it would be a great deal of money. Money that Vertex could never have leveraged on its own back in 1989 when it was a startup.

Conclusion: the racket and the damage done

Add it all up: tax breaks, direct aid, profits from price gouging CHIP and other public insurance programs, profits from orphan drug status, and profits based on research directly attributable to NIH research. How much money will Vertex ultimately get from government at all levels? A hell of a lot more than that $500 million it proposes to give back to communities like Boston—mostly in ways that either benefit the company directly by providing it with a new generation of trained researchers or indirectly by gilding its public image. Assuming that it ever actually gives that much money away. Which the public has no way of knowing at this juncture.

Any more than we can know how much Vertex spends on lobbying annually to guarantee a constant flow of fat stacks of public cash. Since its shareholders at its most recent annual meeting in June thoughtfully shot down an initiative by a small number of religious shareholders to force the company to report its actual lobbying budget going forward, according to the Boston Business Journal. Not long after Vertex successfully colluded with 10 other pharmas to get the SEC to allow them to quash shareholder resolutions from the same religious groups that would have made the company’s drug pricing formula public, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Then, taking all the above into consideration, check out Vertex’s annual advertising and promotions budget for the last three years: $16.2 million in 2014, $24.5 million in 2015, and $31.4 million in 2016, according to its latest annual report. Going up, right? So tack $50 million a year onto that last figure and we get an $80+ million ad budget. Totally doable for a company with cash, cash equivalents, and marketable securities worth $1.67 billion on hand on June 30, 2017. A company that’s now becoming profitable after years of running in debt—all of which has only been possible with massive public support.

Now come back to Vertex’s “donation.” Doesn’t look so generous anymore, does it?

Reforming the twisted wreckage of our drug research and distribution systems in this country will take a massive grassroots effort lasting years. But there’s one way that local advocates can get going on that project fast: demand that municipal and state officials stop giving public money to pharmas like Vertex, or participating in pharma PR stunts like promising to recycle some of that money to educate local kids—more of whom would have a fine education already if our elected officials stopped throwing money at giant corporations that should be going to social goods like public schools.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

AMAZON OCTAGON

Mass pols stand ready to fight each other for the right to bribe a multinational

October 10, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

At least 17 Massachusetts cities and towns are now preparing to do battle with each other—and hundreds more municipalities nationwide—for the dubious “honor” of “winning” the right to throw enough public money and tax breaks at Amazon to become the site of its new Headquarters 2 (HQ2). Despite the fact that such a “victory” will result in a worse regional housing crisis, provide mainly low-paying unstable jobs with subcontractors to working class natives without college degrees while tossing thousands of good jobs to software engineers from out of state, and give the vast corporation far too much power in state politics.

To prevent those unfortunate outcomes, here’s a non-exhaustive list of local, state, and federal public officials that should be contacted by constituents and reminded of their responsibilities to defend the public interest. Like, immediately. The deadline to submit HQ2 bids to Amazon is Oct 19. Careful readers will note that many of these bids are being pushed hardest by private developers and by “economic development” nonprofits and government offices that are basically run on behalf of private developers. Fancy that.

Local Government

BOSTON

Mayor Marty Walsh is all over this one. Fresh off of colluding with Gov. Charlie Baker to cut a secret deal to lavish tens of millions on General Electric to bring its once-and-future headquarters to the Hub, he’s back to his old tricks with Amazon. Four possible HQ2 sites are being considered, according to the Boston Globe: putative front-runner Suffolk Downs (partially in Revere), Widett Circle in South Boston, Beacon Yards in Allston, and an area adjacent to South Station.

REVERE

At a Sept 29 meeting, the Revere City Council Economic Development Sub-Committee reacted positively to the Suffolk Downs proposal presented by developer Thomas O’Brien, managing director of the Boston-based Hym Investment Group that owns the property. According to the Boston Herald, committee chair and council vice president Councilor Patrick M. Keefe Jr. then called Amazon the “1A plan” for the land.

SOMERVILLE

CommonWealth reports that Mayor Joe Curtatone is working on a proposal that would include buildings along the Orange Line from Assembly Row in Somerville to North Station in Boston. Which is, according to a DigBoston investigative series, perfectly in keeping with his track record of making a big stink when developers come to town, then ultimately giving them exactly what they want.

ABINGTON, ROCKLAND, and WEYMOUTH

Kyle Corkum, CEO and managing partner of LStar Communities, the company developing Union Point—the former US Naval Air Station—is pushing a bid for the property. According to Wicked Local, Weymouth Mayor Robert Hedlund is supportive of the bid. Rockland Selectmen Chairman Ed Kimball said, “Rockland will extend open arms to them and Abington will receive indirect benefits as well.”

HAVERHILL, LAWRENCE, METHUEN, AND NORTH ANDOVER

Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini, Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, Methuen Mayor Stephen Zanni, and North Andover Town Manager Andrew Maylor are all preparing a joint proposal featuring the former North Andover Lucent site—which I addressed in detail in my Sept 26 column—likely in tandem with other nearby sites.

BILLERICA, LOWELL, AND TEWKSBURY

According to the Lowell Sun, Lowell Mayor Edward Kennedy has said “we should at least take serious look” at the possibility of bringing Amazon to the area. Also, “City Manager Kevin Murphy said he has already directed his staff to begin working with the Middlesex 3 Coalition, an organization of nearby communities, to explore the possibilities.” Wicked Local reports that Billerica selectmen unanimously support the effort. Billerica Community Development Director Rob Anderson also supports the bid. One possible site is Riverview Technology Park at 495 Woburn St in Tewksbury.

NEW BEDFORD

The entire city council sent a letter to Mayor Jon Mitchell enjoining him to support an Amazon bid, according to the New Bedford Standard-Times, and he’s been in touch with Mass Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash about pursuing a bid. The city has a 100 acres of a municipal golf course that has been slated for business development.

FALL RIVER

According to the Herald News, Fall River Office of Economic Development (FROED) Executive Vice President Ken Fiola—a key figure behind bringing a huge Amazon warehouse to the city—is pushing hard for the Amazon HQ2 contract but apparently doesn’t get along with Mayor Jasiel Correia II. WJAR-TV reports that his challenger in the upcoming election, Councilor Linda Pereira, is attacking Correia for resigning from the FROED board. So it’s not clear if Fall River will manage to field a proposal.

WORCESTER

The city council is unanimously in support of an Amazon deal but was not initially in agreement about whether HQ2 should be sited in Worcester or Boston. Councilor-at-Large Konnie Lukes has been the most vocal supporter of a Worcester site, pushed for council discussion about the deal, and requested that City Manager Ed Augustus Jr. prepare the application. According to MassLive.com, Augustus and some of the council were initially leaning toward supporting a Boston bid, but the city is now planning an independent bid for the contract. According to Worcester Magazine, “Councilor At-Large Kate Toomey said the south side of Worcester, by the intersection of routes 20 and 146, would be an ideal location” for HQ2.

WESTERN MASS

The Republican reports that Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and the entire city council are supporting a bidwith other Connecticut River valley communities (the so-called “Knowledge Corridor”) in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Enfield, Connecticut, is a possible site. The main Bay State booster of the plan is Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts.

State Government

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER

The governor said that the state won’t back a specific site and has urged local governments to “go for it.” Strongly in support of spending public money to bring the Amazon HQ2 to Massachusetts. According to the Boston Herald, Baker has recently stated that the Commonwealth’s request to Suffolk Superior Court to order Amazon to provide records for any third-party vendor who “stores or has stored” products in Massachusetts since 2012 was “routine” and shouldn’t affect an HQ2 deal. The order could result in a flood of similar legal actions around the US to collect back state sales taxes—which will probably tick off the tax-shy multinational.

SECRETARY OF HOUSING AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT JAY ASH (D)

An important public servant, though not an elected one. Totally in support of an Amazon HQ2 deal for Massachusetts. In his role as chairman of the quasi-public agency MassDevelopment, he has already overseen a vote “to increase its contract with consulting firm VHB Inc. by up to $200,000 for a technical analysis” in support of the state’s Amazon bids. His bio brags that he “has played a leadership role in the recruitment and expansion of major employers, including Amazon, General Electric, IBM Watson Health, Kronos, and Siemens.”

SPEAKER ROBERT DELEO (D-WINTHROP)

Flacking for the Suffolk Downs site. Completely on board with dumping public money on Amazon and has “said he’s open to legislation that would include financial incentives to draw Amazon to the state regardless of the location,” according to the Boston Globe.

SEN. JOSEPH BONCORE (D-WINTHROP) AND REP. ADRIAN MADARO (D-EAST BOSTON)

Support the Suffolk Downs bid, according to the East Boston Times-Free Press.

SEN. CINDY FRIEDMAN (D-ARLINGTON) AND REP. MARC LOMBARDO (R-BILLERICA)

Support the Billerica, Lowell, Tewksbury bid, according to Wicked Local.

Federal Government

US REP. STEPHEN LYNCH (D-SOUTH BOSTON)

Supports the Weymouth proposal, according to the Boston Herald.

And a Few Cool Kids

REP. MIKE CONNOLLY (D-CAMBRIDGE), SEN. PAT JEHLEN (D-SOMERVILLE), REP. MARJORIE DECKER (D-CAMBRIDGE), AND SEN. JAMIE ELDRIDGE (D-ACTON)

Among the only politicians in the state to speak against spending public funds to “win” the Amazon HQ2 “contest.”

Rep. Connolly of Cambridge put his opinion succinctly on the matter in a Facebook chat to me Monday: “I was asked about it by some Cambridge residents last week and here’s what I told them: ‘I think it’s reasonable for cities and the state to want to be in the discussion, but at the end of the day, when/if I have to vote on something or support a proposal, I am not going to support a neoliberal approach to economic development, so if a deal is on the table I would be looking to scrutinize it in terms of whether it helps the folks who we represent in our communities and in the neighborhoods I represent right now.’”

Massachusetts needs more pols like these. Fast.

UPDATE 10/12/17: LYNN

A reader just pointed me to an article indicating that there is some interest in bringing Amazon to the “City of Sin.” According to The Daily Item, “Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy said the city is in no position to compete with Boston, Revere, Lawrence and Worcester to bring the world’s largest e-commerce company’s second headquarters to Massachusetts.” However, City Councilor-at Large and Rep. Daniel Cahill (D-Lynn), Senator and mayoral candidate Thomas M. McGee (D-Lynn), and Charles Patsios—the Swampscott developer who plans to transform the 68-acre former General Electric Co. Gear Works property into a $500 million neighborhood—are all supportive of a Lynn bid.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

AN AMAZON NORTH ANDOVER DEAL?

Sketch of the Merrimack Valley Works plant at North Andover while under construction in 1955

Merrimack Valley pols courting the tech behemoth have forgotten recent history

Sept 26, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

A couple of weeks ago, I criticized the possibility of an Amazon Boston deal—on the grounds that most of the jobs it would provide would be for software engineers, not our struggling local working class. And that allowing a single company to build a 50,000-employee operation here overnight would give it way too much political economic power in our region. However, it’s not just Boston politicians who are hot to dump vast amounts of public funds on the huge multinational. Several other Massachusetts cities and towns are following suit.

Perhaps the strongest proposal of that group of entrants is coming from four municipalities in the Merrimack Valley region of the state: Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen, and North Andover. They are offering to broker a deal with the owners of the underutilized 1.8 million-square-foot industrial facility called Osgood Landing in North Andover. This could conceivably fit Amazon’s bill, although the site is not located in the midst of a major city. Which the company has made clear is a priority. Also at issue is that Osgood Landing’s owners have been working to build a giant marijuana farm on the site instead. But the siren call of ready corporate cash will likely be enough to change their minds given that they’ve already signaled their support for the new venture.

Lost in most of the media chatter about the drive to “win” the Amazon deal is the fact that Osgood Landing was once a Lucent plant—and the context of its shutdown is completely absent. Lucent was the successor corporation to Western Electric. Which was better known as the old AT&T’s manufacturing division. And the North Andover plant was once Western Electric’s Merrimack Valley Works. Which built the transmission equipment that kept the nation’s phone system going. The company set up shop in Haverhill and Lawrence during World War II—just as the region’s famed textile and shoe industries began to decline. In 1956, it opened the North Andover plant and consolidated its regional operations there, becoming the new dominant industry in the area.

Video: “AT&T Archives: In the Merrimack Valley” [1959] (hat tip to Ryan W. Owen’s website for the find)

The jobs at the Merrimack Valley Works were mostly unionized, and they raised thousands of local families into the ranks of the middle class. But the chaos following the federally ordered breakup of AT&T’s near-monopoly of the US telephone system in 1984 saw the plant’s workforce fall from over 12,000 at the height of the Western Electric era in the 1970sto 7,000 in 1991, to 5,500 under Lucent in 2001 (well into a quick collapse five years after taking over the Western Electric business)… to zero in 2008, after the French telecom multinational Alcatel bought Lucent in 2006 and ordered the facility’s shutdown. The plant itself had already been sold to current owner Ozzy Properties in 2003. Alcatel-Lucent ended up being absorbed by Nokia in 2016.

Ironically, this sad outcome was predicted by local policy experts. In 1991, according to the “History Corner” of the Lucent Retirees’ website, “the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission investigated what the potential loss of … the Merrimack Valley Works might cost the region. The study found that a worst case decline that eliminated the plant’s then 7,000 jobs would cost 15 Valley communities $880 million. Lost supply orders for smaller companies in the area would eliminate another 7,700 secondary jobs.”

That all came to pass by 2008. Compounding the damage already done by the loss of the other 5,000-plus jobs at the plant between the 1970s and the early 1990s. Lucent’s unions slowed but ultimately could not stop the destruction of thousands more good jobs in the Merrimack Valley.

Which highlights the problem of spending public money to attract giant corporations like Amazon. Big companies can change their plans at the drop of a dime. And, without the kind of government regulation and unionization that major companies like AT&T had to operate under between WWII and the 1970s, the promised 50,000 jobs can become no jobs in the blink of an eye. Because who’s to stop an anti-regulation, anti-union company like Amazon from shutting down an operation as fast as it sets it up in this era? No one. No one at all. And, naturally, regions that fall for this “jobs creation” shell game have no plan B.

One would think that political leaders in Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen, and North Andover, informed by their own regional planners, would remember such history and focus on more sustainable economic development options. After all, the 2013 Merrimack Valley Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy produced by the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission stated, “The region’s best prospects for future economic growth are its local entrepreneurs.” Local entrepreneurs like the Osgood Landing owners, if they choose to start their marijuana farm rather than grab for the brass ring Amazon could offer them. A sustainable “growth” industry if ever there was one that could provide an estimated 2,500 good jobs to the region—two-thirds of which would not require college degrees. But it seems like local residents, perhaps with former Lucent employees in the lead, will now have to remind their elected officials. If not in lobby days and protests prior to an Amazon deal, then definitely at the ballot box come next election should such a disastrous initiative ever actually come to pass.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

STOP THE AMAZON BOSTON DEAL

Stop the Amazon Boston Deal

 

Locals have until Oct 19 to say ‘No Public Bribes to Corporate Scofflaws’

Sept. 12, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Fresh off of throwing tens of millions of dollars at General Electric, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker are now planning to enter the international horse race to convince Amazon to let the city and the commonwealth shovel vast amounts of public money at it in exchange for building a new second headquarters (“HQ2” for short) here.

But this HQ2 won’t be just any corporate headquarters. No no no. None of this GE business — with maybe kinda sorta up to a piddling 800 jobs at a new Boston HQ at some point. Amazon plans to put 50,000 workers in its new digs. Fast.

Thing is, the bulk of those jobs are apparently slated for software developers. Which, true, our colleges produce in some numbers. But most of the students who train for high-tech jobs are from “outta town.” So the new jobs are not going to benefit our shell-shocked Boston-area working class. If the Seattle experience is any guide, the gigs they’re going to get from the deal will be the same unstable jobs as subcontractors — ranging from cafeteria workers to security guards — that they’re already struggling to survive on now. And those jobs do not “raise” any “boats” in anyone’s fantasy scheme of how capitalist economics works.

For both the city and the state, there’s another big red flag: Amazon proposes to spend $5 billion building a campus of around 8 million square feet. Leaving aside the lack of the necessary 100-acre plot in or near downtown Boston, that kind of build-out is going to place a huge burden on both our metro housing and transportation infrastructures. Yet Amazon is coming on to cities like Boston with hand outstretched. Looking for the tax breaks and direct aid (read: bribes) that all big companies expect when they move to a new location these days. And after starving even more social programs to pay for this latest boondoggle, what are working families going to get back from the huge multinational?

Probably not much. According to the New York Times, Amazon only paid an average local, state, federal, and foreign tax rate of 13 percent between 2007 and 2015 — far less than the official federal corporate tax rate of 35 percent alone, and less than even the 15 percent corporate tax rate that the Trump administration is trying to pass. Given that Boston real estate developers have been allowed to build primarily “luxury” condo complexes in the last many years, vacant units will be quickly snatched up by Amazon employees, and then the remaining downmarket properties will be upgraded by landlords looking to cash in. The result will be even more Bostonians without decent housing, legions more homeless people, and little new tax revenue to pay for the mounting social crisis thus created — or for making the desperately needed repairs and upgrades to our crumbling and utterly underfunded public transportation infrastructure.

Back on the labor tip, Amazon has gone out of its way to crush even the most insignificant union drives at its facilities worldwide since its inception. As when a small group of maintenance and repair technicians at its Middletown, Delaware, facility voted 21–6 against joining the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers after an intense management campaign against the workers. Meanwhile, in Germany, where better labor policies and worker militance have forced Amazon to accept some unionization, management was recently shown to be “using peer pressure” to convince workers to not use their government-guaranteed sick days. No surprise, for a company which has made some of its warehouse workers walk 15 miles a day on a typical shift.

So is this the kind of company we should let state and local government bigs lavish public money on?

Hell no. And there’s one big reason, aside from the above, why we shouldn’t. Allowing a company as large as Amazon to suddenly parachute a huge operation into our midst means it will immediately command an inordinate amount of political and economic power in Boston and Massachusetts. Particularly, the ability to threaten a capital strike in the form of leaving the area if any future demands for public lucre aren’t met.

Once Amazon arrives, it is going to distort the metro political economy so severely that we’ll be stuck with it. The ultimate white elephant.

Which is why any potential Amazon Boston deal must be stopped — with even more finality than the Olympics deal was torpedoed. Fortunately, unlike the GE Boston Deal — that got sprung on Boston and Massachusetts residents after months of secret negotiations — there’s still time to organize a very strong “NO” campaign. The deadline for Boston to get a proposal to Amazon is Oct 19.

Readers have a bit over a month to force Walsh, Baker, and other local pols to stand down on this one. I recommend hitting the ground running.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

THAT ‘FREE SPEECH’ THING

Protest photo by Kori Feener

Photo by Kori Feener

Mayor Walsh and various police agencies were no friends of civil liberties at Boston’s monster protests against the ultra right

August 22, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Despite the “mission accomplished” happy talk in most of the news media, Saturday’s 40,000-strong Boston protests against extremism — and the tiny ultra-right rally that sparked them — were only wins for free speech to the degree their organizers and participants made them so. From a civil liberties perspective, they were highly problematic affairs.

First, Mayor Marty Walsh and various department heads in Boston city government slapped the right-wing rally with ridiculous restrictions on what otherwise would have been a very standard rally permit. Although scheduled for a public park that hosts dozens of similar rallies every year, only 100 people were allowed to attend. On the day of the event, the rally site — Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common — was surrounded by fences and a large number of police. The cops kept virtually everyone out of the arbitrarily-imposed cordon sanitaire — including a number of people who said they were supposed to participate in the rally and, as DigBoston reporter Sarah Betancourt criticized in the Columbia Journalism Review, the entire press corps.

Now, city solons certainly had reason to be concerned. But that doesn’t change the fact that, regardless of their extremist politics, the reactionaries had the right to hold a rally on the Common, and that right was severely and probably illegally curtailed.

Second, Boston Police Department Commissioner Bill Evans stated at a press conference last week that Boston would not use riot police at the outset of the protests and that “we plan on handling this on a very soft approach. You won’t see the helmets and sticks out there.” Yet “helmets and sticks” were very much the order of the day.

Platoons of Boston police and Mass State Police in nearly identical black riot gear were deployed all around the protests. Some were used to escort attendees of the right-wing rally off the Common when it ended and into waiting police wagons. But as Chris Faraone and other DigBoston reporters witnessed, those wagons tried to leave on the Boylston Street side of the Common where huge numbers of protesters were essentially trapped in relatively small spaces. When trying to move the wagons out of the park, the riot cops on hand did what riot cops do — they started shoving people, hitting them, and inevitably arresting those who argued they had nowhere to go. They even pepper-sprayed some people later in the afternoon.

That’s a problem right there — and the early stories we’re hearing from several of the 30 people arrested all around the protests are similar — but it’s not clear why the right-wingers were given a police escort at all. Aside from some black bloc-style antifa groups that typically limit themselves to defensive violence, and maybe a few random tough kids looking for a fight, the overwhelming majority of protest attendees were there to demonstrate peacefully. So the right-wingers were in little danger.

Ultimately, the BPD fielded at least 500 officers — including riot police and an unknown number of undercover cops. The MSP had around 200 troopers available and definitely deployed at least some of them, the MBTA Transit Police had a “substantial presence” including undercovers on duty, and security forces from other agencies were doubtless also on the ground. There’s really no way of knowing the total number of cops at this time. But even assuming the rough numbers we have are in the ballpark, that’s a lot of cops to deploy to a right-wing extremist rally that had already been cowed into submission by serious violations of its organizers’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and by the impressive outpouring of nonviolent protesters against it.

All of this is simply unacceptable in a democratic society. It’s perhaps understandable that any city government will have a police presence at such a big political event. But it makes little sense to have hundreds of cops — including militarized “robocops” — from a number of local, state, and, almost certainly, federal agencies on hand. Unless the city, state, and federal governments were more concerned about the protests against the ultra-right extremists than they were about the extremists. Which would absolutely be in keeping with the policies of most levels of American government — in ceaseless and ongoing collusion with the capitalists that own the country — since the founding of the nation. The things this “large-s” State fears most of all have always been democracy and social justice.

Returning to my first point: Why should anyone care about the right-wing extremists having their civil liberties violated Saturday? Because if the government can do that to a motley crew of nazis, fascists, racists, and little weasel shitposters of the type I regularly mock and deride on the interwebs, then they can do it to the broad left wing… and, well, anyone really. Which means that protestors interested in defending democracy won’t succeed by beating back a still-weak ultra-right street sideshow. No. The incipient movement for democracy won’t have won until the rise of what’s looking very much like a corporatist police state is stopped. But it wasn’t even slowed on Saturday. Quite the reverse actually.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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A PROTEST BY ANY OTHER NAME…

1933-AH-TOP

 

The best way to defeat the ultra right is to stop playing their game

August 15, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Street protest is a vital part of any genuinely democratic political system. But how and when people choose to demonstrate (or counterdemonstrate) determines the tactic’s relative success or failure. So in a situation like this week’s, when the ultra right is planning to hold a Boston rally in the wake of a similar event that caused the deaths of one left-winger and two cops in Charlottesville, what is the most effective way for the left — led by those political groups that believe in democracy, equality, human rights, and social justice — to grow their ranks while helping stop the reactionary drive for power in its tracks? At least in this corner of the US.

As I see it, there are three possible ways for the left to respond to public actions by right-wing extremists in the current moment. Here’s a quick look at each with my gloss.

1) Lead: Educate and organize for the long haul.

Organizing target: People who already agree with left ideas, and the huge middle ground of fence-sitters who will work with whichever side makes the strongest effort to talk to them.

With this approach, left organizers generally do not respond directly to particular ultra-right actions. Instead, they always seek to set the political agenda in society. To reach out to the vast sea of unorganized folks in a diverse array of communities and engage them in discussion and debate about matters like racism in American society. To build a culture that makes it impossible for the hard right to operate in the open. This option is often misconstrued by more militant left activists as “doing nothing,” but that is far from the case. Winning hearts and minds — especially in suburban communities that the left has failed to pay attention to for decades — is the most important political work of all, because it results in a strong political base and makes better political solutions to societal problems possible. It is also a majoritarian strategy because it seeks to build the largest possible social movement. And it has the added bonus of depriving the ultra right of publicity.

2) React: Hold counterdemonstrations every time the ultra right calls a public action.

Organizing target: The activist left. 
 This approach involves left organizers taking the bait and dropping longer-term organizing work to attempt to blunt ultra-right public initiatives. Which allows the ultra right to dictate both the terms of debate and the terrain of political struggle. Also, in the interest of speed, it forces the left to narrow its outreach to activists that are already pushing for its ideas. If repeated frequently, this option leads away from political solutions to societal crises by leaving power in the hands of the current capitalist duopoly, and it causes the ultra right to be perceived as more powerful than they actually are — since political strength is often judged by the size of a group’s enemies. Thus a rally of a few hundred will be taken much more seriously by many if thousands of people directly respond to it — ironically, assisting the ultra right’s PR and thence helping them to grow rather than shrink.

3) Provoke: Attempt to defeat the ultra right militarily.

Organizing target: The small number of left activists willing to take up arms against the right in this time and place, and the small number of allies who think that it’s a good idea to do so.

This approach involves giving the ultra right what they want most of all: violent street fights. It requires responding to the armed militias organized by the hard right with what amounts to left-wing militias. Which I think is a very bad idea in this place and time. Because it means activist militants must, by default, restrict their organizing to the very small groups of people willing to take up arms against their ultra-right antagonists in any given community. It tends to alienate huge numbers of people who don’t think it’s wise to try to fight fire with fire… and causes people who could have been organized into the left to be disorganized into fence-sitters. It also feeds the fantasy of actually beating the ultra right badly enough that they exit the political stage. Which is a highly unlikely outcome for the simple reason that right-wing militias have a big head start on any left imitators in both armament and training. Plus many militia members have military and police backgrounds, yet very few left-wingers have spent much time in either institution. Giving the ultra right far more allies in the police and military — and therefore in government. With those connections in place, a right-wing government like the Trump administration will certainly use any significant left violence as the excuse for a massive state crackdown on all of the ultra right’s political opponents. And even without such a crackdown, on a practical level, ultra-right recruitment increases every time they get in a street fight. Pursuing this course tends to make them stronger. Because they look badass whether they lose or win. If they lose, that feeds into their claim that “white people are oppressed by ‘Social Justice Warriors.’” If they win, it looks like history is on their side.

And history is definitely not right now. But if the left wants to ensure the victory of the ultra right in this period, pursuing the military option will virtually guarantee it.

That said, my favorite choice is obviously the first one. I hope that local left leaders will take my comments to heart, and that both the right and left will de-escalate their tactics enough to let traditional political activity supplant the looming downward spiral toward violent conflict. Because, if history is any guide, the latter path leads our society to a place we really don’t want to go.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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STRIKE. IRON. HOT.

Ettor_IWW_barbers_strike-1-728

Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) demonstration with Joseph J. Ettor speaking from platform to striking barbers in Union Square, New York. (1913)

You don’t need a union to take action for justice on the job

July 18, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Last week 1,200 Tufts Medical Center nurses unionized with the Mass Nurses Association (MNA) called a rare one day strike for a better deal on their latest contract. This doubtless left many onlookers — especially younger ones — scratching their heads and asking “what’s a strike?” No surprise, given the American corporate media’s ideological aversion to covering all matters labor, past and present. But fortunately a willful omission that is easily remedied by news outlets willing to honestly discuss the political economic struggles of working people.

A strike occurs when any group of workers refuses to work. Usually to demand reforms on the job like better pay, benefits, and working conditions. Although commonly perceived as an action that can only be taken by members of a labor union, that is not the case. Historically, workers struck long before there were formal unions — and more recently, the right of most workers in the private sector to strike was enshrined in section 7 of the New Deal era National Labor Relations Act of 1935. The salient part of which reads:

Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection…

The Supreme Court supported the idea that any group of workers covered by the NLRA had the right to strike and engage in “other concerted activities” — whether unionized or not — in the 1962 decision National Labor Relations Board v. Washington Aluminum Company. Finding that a group of seven ununionized workers had the right to refuse to work in an unheated factory in the dead of winter until its furnace was repaired.

Naturally, most formal strikes are called by organized unions like the MNA, but it’s worth focusing on the right of ununionized workers to strike because we live in an era when labor unions have been beaten down by giant corporations and the rich people who own them. To the point where the vast majority of all working people in the US are not unionized. Over 89 percent of us in fact. Much research indicates that the precipitous decline in living standards for American families since 1979 is directly connected to the decline of union power. Notably a 2016 study by the Economic Policy Institute “Union decline lowers wages of nonunion workers” that demonstrates the important role unions play in increasing wages for all workers when they are strong.

But another way of looking at the situation is that worker militance on the job has been in steep decline over the same period that unions have been smacked down to the proverbial curb. When strikes were common, working people got the goods. As strikes have become more and more infrequent since the 1970s, the fortunes of the working class (which by the way includes all you supposedly “middle class” people out there who wear dressier clothes to work and have fancy degrees) have trended downward.

This state of affairs is certainly the fault of the “one percent” who control the commanding heights of capital, but blame can also be laid at the feet of many American unions — which have become decidedly less willing to fight over the decades since they won concessions like the NLRA from bosses and the government. Its leaders preferring to put their dwindling funds and often woefully limited political aspirations into backing Democrats for office at all levels. Who — on the rare occasions that they get elected now that most Americans understand them to be bought and paid for by the same ruling class that has made the Republicans into a caricature of a political party — continue to backstab working families with depressing regularity.

So workers in Boston and beyond, unionized and ununionized, need to step up and start exercising their NLRA right to “concerted activities” on the job… up to and including strikes. Before we all lose that right. The Trump administration is many things, but it is no friend of working people. And any damage it does to labor will not be undone by corporate Democrats or anyone else without pressure from below. Strikes, aside from their instrumental value, are very much part of the necessary political pressure for a more fair and just America.

It won’t be easy. Many, many laws have been passed by Democratic and Republican administrations alike since the McCarthy Era to reverse pro-labor reforms and stop working people from fighting for their rights on the job. People who do so will definitely lose battles on their way to building a better society. Believe me, I know. I have taken such risks inside and outside of unions, and lost jobs on more than one occasion.

But there will also be many victories. And as Frederick Douglass, a man who did not just help lead the abolitionist movement to victory, but was also elected president of the Colored National Labor Union in 1872, said:

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

If you believe in democracy, on and off the job, then you will stand with union workers like the Tufts nurses when they strike. And you will take the fight to your workplace — whether it’s unionized or not. Reviving existing unions and building new ones along the way. And then onward to vie for control of the halls of power.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

 
 

REAL RIDESHARING

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Evolving the way the world moves … beyond Uber (and Lyft)

July 7, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The following column was written as commentary for the July 2017 episode of the Beyond Boston monthly video news digest — produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations. It’s aimed at suburbanites, but fun for the whole Boston area family.

Over the years, I’ve often written about how to improve public transportation in the Bay State. But this time out, rather than rehash my standing call for the legislature to raise taxes on the rich and corporations to properly fund such a necessary service, I’d like to take a different tack and discuss a topic germane to the future of both transportation in general and public transportation in particular. Specifically, the so-called ridesharing industry pioneered by corporations like Uber and Lyft.

Ridesharing is a transportation system in which riders and drivers interact via software on cell phones, rather than going through human dispatchers. The software allows riders to see which drivers are near them, and to have the closest one assigned to them. It provides price estimates for rides, features seamless automatic payments from rider to driver at the end of each trip — and it incentivizes simple but important things like drivers keeping their vehicles clean.

One would think this ridesharing system would be great for riders and drivers alike, but that’s not the case. The problem with ridesharing … is that it’s not really ridesharing. That is, Uber and Lyft and smaller companies like Fasten completely control their operations from top to bottom. Including the economic structure that determines how much riders will pay in fares — and what cut of those fares go to drivers. This system is non-transparent and largely unregulated.

An actual ridesharing system would be controlled by its riders and drivers. It could, and I would posit should, be publicly managed. In short, rather than allow ridesharing companies to assist in the dismantling of existing public transit systems like the MBTA by gradually privatizing them, those systems — or agencies set up by individual cities — could run municipal ridesharing services at cost.

Fares would be regulated in ways that would ensure riders the best fares — which poor and working class riders would be able to consistently afford. A small percentage of each fare would go to the municipal rideshare service to develop and maintain the necessary software and infrastructure. Then all the extra money that presently flows into the coffers of Uber and Lyft top brass and investors would be paid to drivers in the form of the best possible wages.

Such a service would be an excellent adjunct to public trains and buses, and would make it much easier for everyone to get from point A to point B. Plus it would be far more democratic because it could be organized to ensure that riders and drivers would play a large role in managing the service. It could even be run as a hybrid of a consumer and a worker cooperative. And democratically controlled from top to bottom. Restricting the growth of Uber and Lyft to something like their natural share of the private transportation market by its mere existence.

Going the public route — or at least a similar nonprofit route being experimented with by RideAustin in Austin, TX — would satisfy the needs of the loyal base of Uber and Lyft clients by providing comparable service at a better price point. And it would also satisfy the needs of a whole new layer of riders who will be able to afford access to new municipal ridesharing services on a regular basis — in addition to public buses, trolleys, and trains. All while paying living wages to drivers. Who are, after all, the backbone of the current corporate ridesharing system. But who are also the most exploited by it.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

 
 

GETTING TO BIKE

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Urban multimodal network needed to make bicycles a viable alternative in the ’burbs

June 21, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The following column was written as commentary for the June 2017 episode of the Beyond Boston monthly video news digest — produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations. It’s aimed at suburbanites, but fun for the whole Boston area family.

There are many merits to backing legislation, regulations, and customs that make it easier for people to use bicycles to get around. Improving individual health by getting more people more exercise, improving public health and global warming prospects by reducing carbon emissions, and relieving traffic congestion to name just a few. And over the last four decades, many communities have created bike lanes and bike paths, installed bike racks, and limited certain streets to pedestrians and bikes for those very reasons.

The problem is that the societal benefits that come with an expanding bike culture are unevenly distributed. In the car-centered suburbs — meaning most of the US — using a bike as a primary transportation mode is more difficult and significantly more dangerous than it is in many cities. And the distances people have to pedal to get to jobs or shop are longer — stopping more people from getting out of their cars and onto bikes day to day.

Ameliorating that situation will require better regional planning with an eye toward creating bigger, better public transportation networks that link to bicycle infrastructure in their “last mile.” Then building bike lanes from the network hubs where buses, trains, and trolleys converge. Out to the neighborhoods where people live.

It will also require a change in thinking by millions of people who are used to jumping into their cars anytime they need to go anywhere. Be it 100 miles or, all too often, only a few blocks away. Such a change means that people will need a pretty big incentive to begin to do things differently.

So here’s one important incentive: life is easier when you don’t have to rely on a car to get around. In cities like Boston, more and more people are riding their bikes to subway stops or bus stops in the morning, parking them there, taking the T to work, and reversing those steps in the evening. Many others ride their bikes all the way to work — moving much faster on average than the cars stuck in traffic around them. Still more use our growing rental bike system, Hubway.

From my perspective, living and working in the city spares me the expense of a car. And, more importantly, I don’t need to own one to get around. I live a couple of blocks from four bus lines, and a 10-minute walk from two T stops. With a bike, that 10 minutes plus any wait time becomes two or three minutes. And skipping the T and biking across town takes 20 to 30 minutes. Even in busy traffic.

When it’s time to shop, one can either use a bike equipped with a basket or trailer. Or take a bus or train both ways. Or walk or bike to the nearest market and take a cab back, if buying heavy stuff. Or take a cab both ways. Or use a car sharing service like Zipcar to rent cars and vans by the hour. Myself and fellow urbanites have all these options, and more, because Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline all have dense public transportation networks — augmented by quasi-public and private transit options. And a fast-growing separate bicycle infrastructure. Businesses and public services cluster around transportation hubs; so there’s much more for me to do much closer to home than when I lived in the suburbs.

In general, this means that I have more leisure time in the city than many people in the suburbs do because I’m commuting less — and I have more money in my pocket because I don’t have to own a car to get around. I’m also not sitting in traffic for big chunks of my day — so my life is that much less stressful (understanding that every form of transportation has its own problems). Best of all, I can take comfort in the fact that my “carbon footprint” is very small. The amount of carbon that’s burned in the form of oil and natural gas to allow me to be a modern person in an advanced industrial society is much lower than someone who has to own a car. True, housing prices are higher in the city than the ’burbs, but the difference is definitely offset by cheaper transportation costs. And having more free time is invaluable.

My point here is simple. More folks need to get behind policies that make an urban multimodal transportation network possible for the vast majority of US residents — instead of just a minority of Americans in mostly coastal cities. That’s going to require large numbers of people to be more aware that life with bikes and public transit is easier and better in some important respects than life in the current suburban car culture.

And that’s why I’m recounting my daily transportation experience here. So that you all think it over, and consider joining advocacy coalitions like MassBike in backing policies that improve transportation options in your city or town. And then help fight for more money to vastly expand our public transportation system. Two reforms which will, in tandem, transform suburban biking from a recreational activity, sport, or idiosyncratic form of commuting into a commonplace.

 

This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its ongoing Vicious Cycle series. Learn more about the project and how you can contribute at binjonline.org, and share your stories about cycling in Greater Boston at facebook.com/binjnetwork

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

 
 

PRESS FAIL: AS GE CEO STEPS DOWN, BOSTON JOURNALISTS MUST DO THEIR JOB

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June 14, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

recent column by the Boston Globe‘s Shirley Leung perfectly encapsulates the problem with local media cheerleading for General Electric’s decision to move its headquarters to Boston. The title alone says it all: “Will GE’s new CEO remain committed to Boston?” Because, like so many pieces on the subject by Leung and company, it fails to ask the key question: why did state and local government shovel huge amounts of public money to a private enterprise, and put it in a position to potentially cause grievous harm to a major city’s economy, to begin with? And why did the region’s newspaper of record — and much of the Boston press corps — back the scheme so uncritically?

But now, after all the prattle by fawning journalists about the days of wine and roses to come, it turns out that the various moves GE CEO Jeff Immelt made to reinvent the conglomerate as an “innovation” company came at the expense of a significant drop in profits. And it looks like the GE board balked and forced Immelt out — although the official line is that he “stepped down.” Doubtless after noting a rise in share prices in March after activist investors told Fox News that he might be pushed into retirement. He’s been replaced with a new CEO from within GE’s own ranks, John Flannery. Who hails from Chicago, and may not have the same warm fuzzies for the Hub that Immelt at least pretended to have. If Flannery doesn’t back the Boston deal as strongly as Immelt that could mean disaster for everyone who shilled for it. And if GE’s stock prices continue to tank, fuggedaboutit!

In that spirit, it’s worth recalling that the whole boondoggle was dumped on the public by Mayor Marty Walsh and Gov. Charlie Baker as a done deal in January 2016. There were no public forums on the plan, no deliberation by the state legislature or the Boston City Council, and certainly no referendums. The whole thing was cooked up on the quiet by high level politicians, their aides, and top GE brass. In the end, over $145 million in state and city tax breaks and direct aid was promised to GE — together with another $25 million in state money to fix up the area around the site of the company’s new Fort Point HQ, and up to $100 million in repairs to the Old Northern Ave. bridge. Up to $270 million in public money in total. Although the bridge project is now up in the air; so the final total — as with all final totals in public spending — remains to be seen. Still, a huge amount of money to spend on a vast multinational any way you slice it. Especially when GE is not yet being asked to pay rent for the 20 year lease on the public property its new headquarters is using.

As my own series of columns on the deal showed last year, GE has a decades-long track record of screwing government at all levels, communities it operates in, and its own workers six ways from Sunday. Which is why unearthing corporate crime after corporate crime by way of demonstrating why the people of Massachusetts have absolutely no reason to trust the company did not require much new reporting on my part. It was a relatively simple matter of looking at major investigative stories on GE by several news outlets — including the Globe itself. What I found was disturbing in the extreme. Yet the largest Boston news outlets were virtually silent about the very obvious downsides to championing the payoff of a corporate behemoth to relocate its HQ to our fair city. And now the most prominent of them is clearly getting worried about its violation of the public trust.

To review, General Electric has done a lot of bad stuff over the last forty years — much of it in Massachusetts. It slashed tens of thousands of good unionized jobs here. Destroying the economies of Bay State cities like Lynn, Pittsfield, and Fitchburg in the process. GE played highly illegal games with municipal bond investment funds nationwide — and got away with it. It wreaked havoc with the environment in many of the places it did business. Notably in Pittsfield and the Housatonic River valley south to Long Island Sound. Which it polluted with carcinogenic PCBs. A horrendous mess that it partially cleaned up after a protracted struggle with the EPA and local activists. Yet it continues to try to weasel out of finishing the job to save some small fraction of its annual profits. Like it did in a similar Hudson River cleanup. GE also played a major role in creating the toxic housing debt that led to the 2008 financial crash, and was then bailed out by the federal government with boatloads of practically free public money. In exchange for ruining the lives of thousands of poor mortgage holders. And it did all this while paying hardly any taxes at all relative to its huge size.

Ultimately, far too many area journalists dropped bags of balls with the GE Boston Deal story. If they had been doing their job — instead of engaging in a particularly crass form of unthinking civic boosterism that one would expect of low rent PR consultants for a down-on-the-heels rust belt city — Boston might not be in the position it’s now in. Stuck with a bad deal and light a bunch of money that the city and state desperately need during our ongoing fiscal crisis. Which was created by the very neoliberal playbook that still guides both government policy and kid glove news coverage of same.

But that’s what passes for thinking on economic development in the American press of today. My colleagues in major news media generally don’t push for regional planning controlled by democratically elected politicians and overseen by the public in real ways. They don’t support a grassroots process directly involving local communities that start by asking “what do working families need, and how might those needs be best served?” No, they just figure “let’s encourage the pols to throw public money at big corporations, and then they’ll come to Boston, and we’ll have a great economy.”

Well an economy that’s not great for working people is not a great economy. It’s a bad, unequal economy. And that’s the root of most of our major societal woes in this era.

Whatever happens going forward, I hope that next time top politicians cook up another backroom deal with corporate titans that the rest of the Boston news media will join my teammates and I at DigBoston in calling it what it is: corruption. Those who won’t should just go ahead and get jobs in the sleaziest PR operations they can find. Because they’re not fit to be journalists.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.