Skip to content

Apparent Horizon


MBTA workers protest privatization. Image courtesy INVEST NOW.
MBTA workers protest privatization. Image courtesy INVEST NOW.


MBTA bus mechanics beat back privatization… at a cost


February 14, 2018



Unionized bus mechanics represented by the International Association of Machinists Local 264 won an important victory last week when they agreed to a four-year contract with the MBTA—effectively ending a two-year effort by the transportation authority’s Fiscal and Management Control Board to privatize three bus garages, eliminate 150 good jobs according to IAM District 15 Assistant Directing Business Representative Mike Vartabedian, and crush the union.


The attack on the bus mechanics, and all unionized MBTA workers, actually began in 2015 when Gov. Charlie Baker (with plenty of help from his pals at his old stomping grounds, the right-wing libertarian Pioneer Institute) pushed a three-year suspension of the landmark anti-privatization Pacheco Law through the Mass legislature as part of the annual budget. The suspension applied only to the T. Shortly thereafter, Baker appointed the five-member FMCB—one of them, Steve Poftak, being a former Pioneer staffer like the governor—to get to work privatizing a public transit system serving much of eastern Massachusetts.


Because, you know, reasons. Most of them involving transferring as much public wealth into private hands as possible. And freedom. For the rich to get richer and the poor to starve.


The 1993 law, officially known as the Taxpayer Protection Act, protects unionized state workers and the people of Massachusetts from outsourcing and related corporate malfeasance in six ways that the Institute for Local Self-Reliance was thoughtful enough to summarize:


  1. Agencies seeking to contract out a service must prove not only that the move would save money, but that it would save money even if state employees were to work in the “most cost-efficient manner.”


  1. Firms cannot win business if they’ll pay less than the lowest amount the state pays its employees for similar services.


  1. Every privatization contract must contain provisions requiring the contractor to offer positions to qualified regular employees of the agency whose state employment is terminated because of the privatization contract.


  1. The contractor must add lost tax revenues to the cost of the bid if any work is to be performed outside Massachusetts.


  1. Private bids must also include estimated costs of monitoring contractor performance.


  1. Public employees have the opportunity to submit bids to keep the work in-house and “the agency shall provide adequate resources for the purpose of encouraging and assisting present agency employees to organize and submit a bid to provide the subject services.”


In suspending the law, the Baker administration meant to allow corporations free reign to eliminate huge numbers of good unionized public transit jobs and replace them with bad underpaid jobs with few or no benefits and little security. All in the service of reigning in costs at a quasi-independent transportation agency that is only having budget trouble because the state government—including the dominant Democratic legislative leadership that absolutely does not put its money where its collective mouth is—refuses to return to fully funding it based on its actual needs (see my 2016 column “Squawk or Walk” for more background). Rather than hobbling the MBTA with insufficient annual support and then dumping a huge amount of Big Dig debt on it for good measure. Because that might involve finally raising taxes on corporations and the rich. And corporations and the rich don’t want that. Just ask Raise Up Massachusetts—the folks pushing for the upcoming referendum fight for the “Millionaires’ Tax” that would devote money to properly funding public transit, among other worthy goals.


The expected script happily got flipped by the Machinists union and the labor-led INVEST NOW coalition, who fought hard for many months to demonstrate that privatizing the MBTA bus garages was a bad move. For everyone but the fat cats that stood to make millions off the misery of T workers and T riders alike. Since the already-overburdened, underfunded T bus system would basically collapse without the skilled union mechanics keeping its bus fleet in good order for short money.


The union coalition and allies like Attorney General Maura Healey scored major points when they demonstrated that only one private transportation company, First Transit, had submitted a bid to run the T bus garages in question. The same company that paid a $7.3 million settlement to the Commonwealth in 2012 after backing out of a contract to run the T’s The Ride, a door-to-door service for disabled commuters.


Advocates and labor-friendly legislators—including the author of the Pacheco Law, Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton), himself—testified to the Fiscal and Management Control Board that First Transit’s action resulted in a $66 million deficit for the state, according to State House News Service.


Ultimately, the union’s grassroots campaign worked, and the FMCB, the governor, conservatives from both parties in the legislature, and the ideologues at the Pioneer Institute were forced to back off this latest privatization push. But all battles exact a cost. So while the T bus mechanics scored a solid win overall, their new contract looks to be a mixed bag. On the upside, it keeps all nine MBTA bus garages plus one support facility in Everett public and includes Taxpayer Protection Act provisions that will help provide Local 264 members legal cover against privatization until the law’s suspension ends later this year.


On the downside, it forces the workers to accept low cost-of-living raises over the contract term and allows the T to bring in new workers for worse money and benefits than they would have started with previously, according to the Patriot Ledger. And, like the Carmen’s Union contract that preceded it, the Machinists’ agreement allows the T to hire private contractors to perform work outside its 955-bus core service. But only if they “maintain the same procedures and quality standards followed by the machinists,” according to Commonwealth magazine.


Since the devil is often in the details of such statements, it’s hard to tell if that will really stop T management from undercutting the union should bus service expand. Which it very well might—since the Boston Globe reported that T capital expenditures have risen under the Baker administration, even while it has done its level best to ram through cuts in operating expenditures on the backs of workers. Like the 406 bus mechanics and fuelers in Local 264’s MBTA bargaining unit, who are essentially having $4.1 million a year in concessions forced on them in the service of a completely avoidable budget deficit.


Still, all in all, the contract demonstrates that fighting for justice in the workplace remains far better than not fighting. If the union had been defeated, many workers would have lost their jobs and their families would have been immediately thrown into poverty. Their replacements would have been un-unionized and unable to easily defend themselves against T management. So, readers observing this fight should think twice before criticizing the bus mechanics, and think carefully about their own work situation. If your bosses decide to outsource your jobs to some fly-by-night company tomorrow, could you and your co-workers defend yourselves? For nearly 90 percent of American workers who aren’t unionized, the answer remains “probably not.”


The only thing that can change that sorry situation is for workers to stand their ground. Those of you interested in doing that should check out the website of the main US labor federation, the AFL-CIO, for more information on how to form a union at your workplace:


It’s not easy to do, no lie. I lost a job for helping lead a union drive not three years back. Fortunately, all the other workers in my former unit at that employer are now unionized. So it’s worth the risk. And it’s necessary. And everyone who lives from paycheck to paycheck should consider 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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.


Apparent Horizon column North Andover MA collage


Moral panic hamstrings promising North Andover cannabis farm deal


February 6, 2018




Last fall, I wrote about the history of Osgood Landing—a large industrial facility in North Andover—as part of a column (“An Andover North Andover Deal?”) slamming a hasty bid to win the Amazon HQ2 contract put together by that town in partnership with nearby Haverhill, Lawrence, and Methuen. For decades, it had been a huge Western Electric manufacturing plant and AT&T research center, the storied Merrimack Valley Works—heavily unionized and employing over 12,000 area residents at its height. After the AT&T breakup in 1984, it began its downward slide. First under Western Electric successor corporation Lucent, then under French multinational Alcatel-Lucent—which killed the facility off completely by 2008. Blowing a hole thousands of jobs wide in the fortunes of a region that had already fallen far from its heyday as an industrial powerhouse between the 19th century and WWII.


A small company called Ozzy Properties bought the complex from Lucent in 2003 for a bargain-basement price at the time of its merger with Alcatel, and over the years has only managed to fill about 40 percent of its 1.8 million square feet with a grab bag of companies that together provide about 1,000 jobs and pay North Andover about a third of the $1 million in taxes a year on average that it used to get when Lucent owned the site, according to a 2017 North Andover Citizen article.


Well before town leaders decided to court Amazon to set up shop in part at Osgood Landing, its owner, Ozzy Properties’ Dr. Jeff Goldstein, had been floating a proposal to turn the unused 1.1 million-square-foot portion of the facility into one of the world’s largest indoor cannabis-growing farms.


After reviewing all the problems I thought that Amazon would be likely to bring to the area should the Merrimack Valley bid for HQ2 have prevailed (which we now know it did not), I closed my “Amazon North Andover” column by reminding the people of Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen, and North Andover to remember the advice recently proffered by their own regional planners:


[T]he 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.


Fast-forward to last week and we find Goldstein trying to get his cannabis farm proposal passed by North Andover Town Meeting for the second time in under a year. Now projecting only 1,500 new jobs for the Merrimack Valley region, but upping the ante with a pledge to pay the town $5 million a year for 20 years—$100 million overall—for the privilege of doing business “around the corner” from where he lives. But the town meeting passed a ban on all recreational marijuana establishments instead. Preempting the planned vote on the bylaw changes needed to zone Osgood Landing for a marijuana business, and placing the future of Goldstein’s grand “Massachusetts Innovation Center” plan (which includes the farm and a medical cannabis “research campus”) in serious doubt.


Seems like an unfortunate outcome from this corner. And not just because of the usual fact-light, emotion-heavy prohibitionist antics on display at the latest town meeting dustup, according to multiple sources. For the kids, don’t you know. Who are busy getting baked as regularly as the parents who are now trying to “protect” them did when they were teenagers. No, I guess such behavior is only to be expected from North Andover’s still-robust contingent of downwardly mobile, middle-class burghers hoping to keep up bourgeois respectability by not becoming known as the “Pot Town” to some imaginary audience of tut-tutting social betters in Georgetown or Boxford or, god forbid, Andover—and which clearly had the effect desired by such retrograde anti-pot crusaders. Far better, apparently, to be known as yet another “Oxy Town” as they continue to fail to replace all the good jobs they’ve lost and turn to opiates to kill the pain of maxing out their last credit cards shortly before becoming homeless, am I right?!


But to my point, even if the planned cannabis facility ended up providing half the 1,500 jobs currently being promised by Goldstein and company—750 jobs—that would at least go most of the way toward replacing the 800 jobs and attendant tax revenue lost earlier in the decade when Converse and Schneider Electric both left North Andover (the former to Boston’s Seaport District, the latter to evil twin Andover). And while I’m not in the habit of suggesting that backing corporations as a municipal economic development strategy is any kind of optimal solution, at least Dr. Goldstein is offering to actually give $100 million to the town, rather than just trying to extract huge bribes from local government like most companies do when they set up shop pretty much anywhere these days.


Which is not to say that he hasn’t at least tried to benefit from government largesse before. He has, as when Osgood Landing was designated the Osgood Smart Growth Overlay District (yes, OSGOD, of all acronyms) in 2006. And there was supposedly a tax increment financing (TIF, aka a significant corporate tax break) plan of the type I often criticize attached to the district. But in a 2015 North Andover Citizen article, Selectman Rosemary Smedile was quoted saying the TIF wasn’t activated.


Regardless, it seems highly unlikely North Andover is going to find a better deal anytime soon. And certainly not with any company that has the kind of built-in market that an industrial cannabis concern would have in a state with a robust recreational market for the “demon weed.” What it will get instead is some version of the bad Amazon deal from large corporations that will demand millions in tribute from local and state governments before ever putting two sticks together anywhere near the town.


And that’s a shame. Now Goldstein will have to find a way to get some version of his proposal passed before his investors abandon him, or his clever idea for a modicum of municipal renewal (and a tidy profit to be sure) will go the way of most clever ideas. Into the dust heap of history.


While the teenagers of North Andover remain as stoned as ever.


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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.


Image via Environmental Defense Fund
Image via Environmental Defense Fund

As Earth approaches several catastrophic global warming “tipping points”


January 24, 2018



Before writing more columns examining Boston city government’s emerging plans to cope with the effects of global warming, I think a quick review of what area residents are likely to face in the coming decades is in order. Because it’s important to disabuse people of the idea that we’re dealing with “just” a handful of significant problems over time—a rise in air temperature, an increase of extreme weather events, and a rise in sea level—that those problems are isolated to just Boston or the United States, that they are going to continue until the end of the century and then stop, and that there are some simple things we can do to prevent those problems from becoming unmanageable.


The reality is far more frightening. According to Mother Jones, “In 2004, John Schellnhuber, distinguished science adviser at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom, identified 12 global-warming tipping points, any one of which, if triggered, will likely initiate sudden, catastrophic changes across the planet.”  


There’s been much research and debate since that time about which systems can be considered tipping points and which ones need more research before we can be sure, but the Environmental Defense Fund has a page on its website with an overview of the latest science. It’s called “Everything you need to know about climate tipping points” and you should read it in full. But here’s a quick summary of the tipping points that the Earth is passing or on its way to passing. Largely due to humans continuing to burn CO2-producing oil, gas, and coal decades after it was known to be suicidal to do so.


1) Disappearance of Arctic Summer Sea Ice

The poles are warming faster than the rest of the planet. In the Arctic, sea ice has been melting much more quickly than it used to for much more of every year as the average global temperatures rise year after year. Scientists are now predicting ice-free Arctic summers by mid-century. The less of the year that ice covers the Arctic, the less sunlight is reflected back to space. Sunlight that is not reflected warms the Arctic Ocean, leading to other problems and more global warming overall.


2) Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet

Of particular concern to Bostonians because of our relative proximity to Greenland, the melting of its ice cap may continue for the next few hundred years until there is none left. Unlike melting sea ice that doesn’t add water to the world’s oceans, melting ice from land does. This will ultimately result in global sea level rise of up to 20 feet, and the process is underway.


3) Disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

This tipping point may already have been passed—with the West Antarctic ice sheet already starting to collapse. Like the Greenland ice sheet, it too is expected to take hundreds of years to finish melting, but when it does it could raise the global sea level up to 16 feet.


4) Collapse of Coral Reefs

With oceans already warming and becoming more acidic, the algae eaten by the coral that make up the world’s often huge and spectacular reefs is being jettisoned, resulting in coral bleaching. This process weakens the coral and hastens its death. Which is accelerating the destruction of marine spawning and feeding grounds globally with dire consequences for many nations whose economies rely on them—and for biodiversity. Scientists now predict that the remaining coral reefs will collapse before there is rise in the global temperature of 2 degrees from the old normal average. Most climate models show the world reaching that threshold before the end of this century.


Beyond these, there are several other expected tipping points being studied: the disruption of ocean circulation patterns from the massive influx of fresh water from melting ice (especially in the North Atlantic, which would play havoc with Boston’s climate), the release of marine methane hydrates (which would accelerate the global warming already being caused by the CO2 emissions considered the main cause of climate change), ocean anoxia (a process creating growing oxygen-deprived “dead zones” in our oceans that can no longer support most life, aka “bye bye seafood”), the dieback of the Amazon rainforest (caused by human activity like cutting down huge numbers of trees with devastating consequences for biodiversity coupled with the loss of a major CO2 sink), the dieback of the boreal forests (still being studied, but means the death of more vast forests in and around our latitude of the planet), the weakening of the marine carbon pump (the Earth’s oceans have been absorbing much of the excess carbon in the atmosphere, but through this process will become less effective at it), the greening of the Sahara (some positive effects would come from this, but many basic ocean life forms rely on nutrients from the desert sand blowing into the ocean and will be negatively affected by losing it), and the increasingly chaotic Indian summer monsoons (could result in extensive drought in one of the Earth’s most populous regions).


Other processes underway may also be potential tipping points, including the collapse of deep Antarctic ocean circulation, the appearance of an Arctic ozone hole (joining the existing Antarctic ozone hole in causing rising UV levels in the Arctic with various negative effects), the aridification of the US Southwest (as moisture moves to the upper Great Plains), the slowdown of the jet stream (which could leave more weather systems stuck in place for weeks at a time, including extreme systems like our recent polar vortex-induced cold wave, among other negative effects), the melting of the Himalayan glaciers (which help provide fresh water for much of South Asia’s population), a more permanent El Niño state (which could result in more drought in Southeast Asia and elsewhere), permafrost melting (which results in more CO2 and methane being released, accelerating global warming further), and tundra transition to boreal forest (with uncertain effects).


Adding the above to the general effects of global warming that we’re already experiencing—areas that got lots of rain getting less and areas that got little rain getting more rain storms for more of the year, hotter temperatures overall leading to an array of bad effects like tropical diseases moving north, and the “sixth extinction” of large numbers of species of animals and plants—and keeping in mind that this is happening everywhere around the planet, readers should understand that we’re not facing a localized crisis.


And remember, all the processes mentioned above are interlinked in complex ways that are absolutely not fully understood by our current science.


So Boston is not just going to “trial balloon and town hall meeting” its way out of this array of existential crises. Surviving even one of the major problems caused by global warming—like the flooding from rising sea levels I wrote about last week—is going to be very difficult… and very expensive. And who’s going to pay for it? Well, going forward, in addition to pointing out that we’ll have to devote an ever-increasing percentage of public budgets to these problems, expect me to call for the corporations that started and continue to profit from global warming—the oil, gas, and coal companies—to pay for cleaning up the mess they created. To the degree possible. Which might not be sufficient to the monumental tasks at hand.


Still, it will be critical for Boston to join municipalities like New York City in suing the carbon multinationals Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips, and others for redress. While divesting the city from all investments in those companies’ stocks. And suing, and ultimately deposing, governments like the Trump administration that are aiding and abetting these corporations’ destruction of the planet.


Failing that, Boston and all of human civilization is literally sunk… burned… and perhaps ultimately suffocated. Dying not with the bang of nuclear war—itself a fate we also need to organize immediately to avoid given the federal government’s return to atomic sabre rattling—but with an extended agonizing whimper.


It’s up to all of us to stop that from happening.


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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.




Unless Boston builds proper defenses against global warming-driven sea level rise


January 17, 2018



So, Boston’s Seaport District flooded early this month during a bad snowstorm in the midst of several days of arctic temperatures. And nobody could be less surprised than me. Because I’ve spent a lot of the last quarter century closely following developments in the science of climate change. And the “bomb cyclone” that caused the flooding, and the polar vortex that caused that, are both likely to have been caused by global warming. Yale University Climate Connections just produced a great video that features several luminary climate scientists explaining why at Definitely check it out.


No question, though, that it’s good to live in a region where local government at least recognizes that global warming is a scientific reality. The city of Boston is certainly ahead of most municipalities in the US in terms of laying plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to become “carbon neutral” and to deal with some of the anticipated effects of climate change. Particularly, flooding from inexorably rising sea levels and increasingly powerful and frequent storms. Which the more reactionary Boston TV newsreaders still insist on calling “wild weather.” But its plans are largely just that… plans. And they are still incomplete and, frankly, woefully inadequate to deal with the magnitude of the crisis facing us all.


Boston city government has initiated an array of climate change initiatives, including Greenovate Boston, a section of the Imagine Boston 2030 process, and—most germane to this discussion—Climate Ready Boston. They are all producing very nice reports grappling with some of the challenges to humanity presented by global warming in the decades to come. But the reports are written by planners and experts who are clearly pulling their punches for reasons that remain somewhat opaque. And in doing so, any good that might come out of the reports and the policy actions that will result from them is essentially undone.


A look at metro planning on global warming-induced flooding is a good way to illuminate the problem in question. The Climate Ready Boston program released a 340-page report in December 2016 that was meant to be a comprehensive assessment of the threats presented to the city by global warming—with plans for possible correctives. It does mention the idea of building giant dikes, storm barriers, and retractable gates (which they call a “harbor-wide flood protection system”) across Boston Harbor as the method with the most potential to save much of the city from major flooding. Which makes sense since Mayor Marty Walsh signed a 2015 agreement with Dutch officials to work together to manage rising sea levels, according to Boston Magazine. And the Dutch are recognized world experts on giant storm barriers and hydroengineering in general, lo, these last few hundred years.


But there’s no firm commitment for harbor-wide defenses in the report. Yet it should be obvious that they are absolutely necessary if Boston is going to continue as a living city for even a few more decades. At least Amos Hostetter of the Barr Foundation—who is a major player in Boston’s climate efforts—put up $360,000 for the UMass Boston Center for the Environment to study their feasibility last year, according to the Boston Globe.


More concerning than its waffling on building big dikes, the big Climate Ready Boston report chooses to focus on the possibility of sea level rise of no more than 3 feet by 2070—although it allows that a rise of 7.4 feet is possible by 2100:



The highest sea level rise considered in this report, 36 inches, is highly probable toward the end of the century if emissions remain at the current level or even if there is a moderate reduction in emissions. … If emissions remain at current levels, there is an approximately 15 percent chance that sea levels will rise at least 7.4 feet by the end of century, a scenario far more dire than those considered here.



Similar caution is on display with an October 2017 Climate Ready Boston report called “Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown”—focusing on tactics to protect two Boston neighborhoods on Boston Harbor at high risk for flooding caused by global warming. Once again, the authors’ assumption is that global warming-related sea level rise in Boston will be no more than 3 feet higher than year 2000 figures by 2070. Even though such estimates—which we have already seen are conservative by Climate Ready Boston’s own admission—also indicate that we could face 7-plus feet of sea level rise or more by 2100. And even higher rises going forward from there. Because sea level rise is slated to continue for generations to come.


What’s weird about such methodological conservatism is that a 2016 paper in the prestigious science journal Nature co-authored by a Bay State geoscientist says the lower figures that all the city’s climate reports are using already look to be wildly optimistic.


According to the Boston Globe:



“Boston is a bull’s-eye for more sea level damage,” said Rob DeConto, a climate scientist at UMass Amherst who helped develop the new Antarctica research and who co-wrote the new Boston report. “We have a lot to fear from Antarctica.” … If high levels of greenhouse gases continue to be released into the atmosphere, the seas around Boston could rise as much as 10.5 feet by 2100 and 37 feet by 2200, according to the report.


What’s even weirder is that the same UMass scientist, Rob DeConto, co-authored a detailed June 2016 report for Climate Ready Boston called “Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Projections for Boston: The Boston Research Advisory Group Report” with 16 other climate scientists that look at an array of possible outcomes for the city—and include a discussion of the higher sea level rise figures mentioned in the Nature paper. The report concludes with an admission that current science doesn’t allow for accurate predictions of climate change in the second half of the century. All the more reason, one would think, that models predicting higher than anticipated sea level rise should not seemingly be dismissed out of hand in other Climate Ready Boston reports.


The Globe also reported that a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says Boston can expect a sea level rise of 8.2 feet by 2100. Both 8.2 foot and 10.5 foot estimates are higher than the 7.4 foot estimate that Climate Ready Boston says is possible by 2100, and well above the 3 feet that it is actually planning for by 2070.


The same team that produced the larger Climate Ready Boston report authored the East Boston and Charlestown report; so they are doubtless quite well-aware of all this. Which is evident in this sentence about the (insufficient) extensibility of their proposed neighborhood-based flood defenses: “If sea levels rise by more than 36 inches, these measures could be elevated at least two feet higher by adding fill, integrating structural furniture that adds height and social capacity, or installing deployable flood walls. With this built-in adaptability, their effectiveness could be extended by an additional 20 years or more.”


The point here is not that the Boston city government is doing nothing about global warming-induced flooding. It’s that the city is potentially proposing to do too little, too late (given that most of the flood defenses it’s proposing will remain in the study phase for years, and many will protect specific neighborhoods but not the whole city when finally built), for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Though it’s probable that those reasons are more political and economic than scientific. Avoiding scaring-off the real estate developers and major corporations that provide much of the current city tax base, for example. The kind of thing that will make life difficult for politicians who then make life difficult for staffers and consultants working on global warming response plans.


Regardless, if experts like the Dutch are basically saying, Boston really needs to build the biggest possible harbor-wide flood protection system to have any hope of surviving at least a few more decades, then we can’t afford to do one of the more half-assed versions of the big cross-harbor storm barrier plan mentioned in the original Climate Ready Boston report—or, worse still, fail to build major harbor-wide defenses at all. If major studies by climate experts are saying that 3 feet of sea level rise by 2070 and 7.4 feet by 2100 are overly optimistic figures, then we need to plan for at least the highest reasonable estimates: currently, the NOAA’s 8.5 feet or, better yet, the Nature paper’s 10.5 feet for the end of the century. It’s true that we could get smart or lucky and avoid those numbers by 2100. But what about 2110? Or 2150? Or 2200? Sea level rise is not just going to stop in 2070 or 2100.


Are city planners and researchers willing to gamble with the city’s fate to avoid sticky political and economic fights? Let’s hope not. For all our sakes. Or the recent Seaport District flood—and numerous other similar recent floods—will be just the start of a fairly short, ugly slide into a watery grave for the Hub.


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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.



Making can be cool, but conscious making is cooler


December 19, 2017



For many of us living in and around Boston in recent years, it has become common to see lots of communications from makerspaces around holiday time. Which is totally understandable. Such creative centers produce neat things year-round, so it’s only natural that their members would turn to producing gifts like busy elves (and holding workshops about how to produce gifts like… um… smart busy elves) as fall turns to winter.


However, if you’re someone who thinks critically about social institutions and their interaction with technology, then you might join me in feeling some concern about the trajectory of these spaces. Which boils down to this: Do makers and the makerspaces they found think about why they make, and for whom they make? Obviously, it varies from maker to maker and space to space, but my observation has been that the maker movement could do much better on that front. So I thought I would run through some of my apprehensions on that theme and make some suggestions for reform. In the spirit of holiday giving and all that.


There’s no question that makerspaces have been a boon to society in many different ways. Described by the Somerville nonprofit makerspace Artisan’s Asylum as “community centers with tools,” these logical outgrowths of the hacker and DIY cultures—and the older crafter culture, amateur radio culture, and cultures around magazines like Popular Electronics and Popular Mechanics—have grown to become a significant social force in the last decade. Particularly in places like the Boston area that have lots of colleges producing lots of engineers, scientists, and artists.


But it’s important to remember that—as with science, technology, and art in general—there is a problem with pushing “making” in the abstract without thinking about its social and political consequences. Because tools and techniques may be inherently neutral, but people and the institutions we create are not.


Including makerspaces. So it’s worth being aware that, according to PandoDaily, in early 2012 O’Reilly Media’s MAKE division —publisher of Make magazine, perhaps the best known popularizer of the maker movement—announced that it had won a grant from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to participate in the agency’s Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (or MENTOR) program. The money was to be used to start 1,000 makerspaces in high schools around the country.


Now DARPA may be most famous as the super clever agency that brought us the Internet. But it worked on that project in part—protestations from its fans and allies taken as given—to help solve the insoluble problem of how to keep America’s military, research, and control centers in communication with each other after an all-out nuclear war. And somehow help our government survive the unsurvivable.


It is also the super clever agency that has brought us an array of very nasty war machines in the last six decades. Notably, according to Air & Space magazine, the Predator drones that have killed hundreds of innocent people around the world—including many children—in recent years at the behest of presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump. Because they’re just not as accurate as our military and political leaders would have us believe. And because those leaders don’t really care about what they call “collateral damage” when they’re prosecuting what human rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights claim are extralegal assassination campaigns.


As it turned out, the DARPA MENTOR high school program never really got off the ground because it lost its budget in President Obama’s big “Sequestration” budget cut of March 2013. And it’s certainly worth mentioning that the program sparked protests from within the maker community.


But DARPA continues to participate in a variety of science and technology events aimed at high school kids—notably the young robotics crowd that overlaps with makerspaces.


And DARPA is also aiming events squarely at makerspaces… and some makerspaces are definitely participating. For example, according to the DARPA website, this November the agency held the DARPA Bay Area Software Defined Radio (SDR) Hackfest at NASA Ames Conference Center in Moffett Field, California. The relevant webpage explains that “Teams from across the country will come together to explore the cyber-physical interplay of SDR and unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, during the Hackfest.”


“Unmanned aerial vehicles” is another term for drones. Two of the eight teams invited to participate along with teams from military contractors like Raytheon were the Fat Cat Flyers from Fat Cat Fab Lab, a volunteer-run makerspace in New York City, and Team Fly-by-SDR from Hacker DoJo, a nonprofit community of hackers and startups in Silicon Valley… which is also a makerspace.


Whatever you in the viewing audience think about the Pentagon in particular and the American military in general, we can all agree that there are moral, ethical, social, and political questions that must be asked in a democratic society about the intersection of maker culture and makerspaces with those institutions.


For that reason, I think it’s critical that makerspaces raise and address such questions on an ongoing basis. That they maintain a scrupulous policy of transparency regarding who they work with and why. And that they hold classes and public forums on the moral, ethical, social and political dimensions of why makers make and for whom they make. Something you really don’t see much of at makerspaces at present. But should.


Anyhow, I’m keen to engage with the maker community on this topic and flesh these ideas out more. Folks interested in discussing the issues I’m raising at more length can drop me a line at


A shorter version of this column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest show—co-produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations.


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.




With a little help from its friends, the “regulators” at the Department of Public Utilities


December 5, 2017



It is perhaps understandable that one of the most important Massachusetts news stories of the year was buried in the avalanche of reports coming out of Washington last week. But Eversource Energy, a large investor-owned utility serving much of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, just got a big rate hike approved by the Commonwealth’s Department of Public Utilities Commission. This despite strong opposition from Mass Attorney General Maura Healey—who believes the company should be forced to cut its rates, rather than being allowed to needlessly accumulate more profits on the backs of consumers.


According to Commonwealth magazine, “Eversource Energy won approval to hike power rates $36.9 million a year for its 1.4 million electricity customers, a slimmed-down boost from the company that initially requested a $96 million increase.” A situation the company had the temerity to complain about when it has already been making solid profits under the rate system that has been in place since 2005. The new rates—which will slam Western Mass especially hard—are slated to go into effect on Jan 1 and last until 2022.


Healey, for her part, said the 10 percent shareholder return the rate increase includes is “one of the highest in the country” for a publicly regulated utility, according to the Boston Herald. And Eversource has some serious rate-related skeletons in its closet, it seems. Even as its rent-seeking drama played out at the DPU, the AG started looking into recent allegations by the Environmental Defense Fund that the Eversource and fellow regional utility Avangrid, Inc. rigged gas pipeline reservations on frigid winter days to artificially drive up electric and gas prices to its customers. Then, according to The Republican, shortly after that charge was leveled several New England residents, represented by Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, filed a related class action suit against Eversource and Avangrid for using the pipeline scheme to cause “electricity consumers to incur overcharges of $3.6 billion in a years-long scheme that impacted six states and affected 14.7 million people.”


There is much that can be said about how problematic it is to have former energy industry lawyers like DPU Commission Chair Angela M. O’Connor and DPU Commissioner Cecile M. Fraser—both appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker (Fraser only in July with the Eversource rate hike vote looming)—playing the role of corporate foxes guarding the chicken coop of the public trust. It’s also worth mentioning that the third commissioner, Robert Hayden, was a longtime DPU staffer—and ran for the Mass 10th Congressional seat as a conservative Republican in 2010 on a “small government” platform, according to the Barnstable Patriot. So don’t expect much consumer protection to come from his corner either. But even if the three-person DPU Commission was all pro-consumer, we’d still have to deal with the structural crisis of energy conglomerates using their money and political clout to continue to make state government dance to whatever tune they care to play.


For example, Eversource and other investor-owned utilities have remained extremely hostile to the new wave of renewable energy options. Especially solar, which they have consistently lobbied heavily and successfully against to prevent it from becoming widespread enough to potentially break their regional monopolies.


Reining in such entrenched corporate utilities will take a long, hard fight by a broad coalition of consumers and local governments. But there is one seemingly small change to state law that would go a long way toward winning such a conflict. A group called the Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice (MAMEC), led by Lexington resident Patrick Mehr, got state legislators to file an important “muni choice” bill with significant support from dozens of cities, towns, and major stakeholder organizations around the state no less than eight times in 16 years between 2000 and 2016. If passed, it would have struck language from state law that gives investor-owned utilities like Eversource veto power over the establishment of new municipal electric utilities in the Commonwealth. It was shot down all eight times by the cheap and oft-used device of sending each attempt into “study.” Basically the same thing as killing the bill without as much PR blowback for state pols in the pocket of major corporations.


Turns out that 41 cities and towns in Massachusetts already have municipal—that is, publicly owned and managed—utilities. And advocates like MAMEC say they provide generally better service and, more to the point, significantly cheaper rates than energy corporations like Eversource. Sadly, the last new muni utility came online in 1926. It will take passage of a muni choice bill to allow more cities and towns to exercise that option.


MAMEC and its allies may have lost many battles against powerful, well-connected foes. But that doesn’t mean the idea of expanding the number of muni utilities is a bad one. Far from it. Because every new muni that comes online is another stake in the heart of the greedy, environmentally destructive, investor-owned utilities that will keep taking Mass consumers for a ride until they are brought to heel. Failing that, consumers can expect to get spanked with regular and ever more painful rate hikes for the foreseeable future.


So, I encourage readers to get active in the fight for a more fair, democratic, and environmentally conscious regional energy system. Working to get more public-spirited DPU commissioners seated is certainly a good interim goal. But creating a larger network of publicly owned and managed municipal energy utilities will go further down the road toward extricating us from the structural mess we’re in thanks to the big investor-owned utilities like Eversource. Though even that won’t solve all the myriad problems with our current byzantine system of electricity generation and distribution.


Regardless, check out MAMEC at Patrick Mehr told me that the group remains active, and it seems like a good starting place for those of you who don’t want to continue to take rate hikes lying down.


Frankly, increased public pressure on Eversource and other investor-owned utilities in our region cannot come soon enough. Turns out the recent rate hikes are only the first part of the DPU order relating to Eversource. The second part is being released on Dec 31, according to a DPU press release, and advocates are warning that even worse rate shenanigans are in the works. So, find a good group working for utility reform and join it, or start your own utility reform group… or continue to be a victim of price gouging by investor-owned utilities. Those are your options. Choose wisely.


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.



Conglomerate’s woes throw Boston HQ deal contradictions into bold relief


November 15, 2017



What a surprise. General Electric is tanking, and the scheme to bring the multinational’s headquarters to Boston is looking worse by the day. And whom shall the public blame if that once-secret deal cut by Gov. Charlie Baker and Mayor Marty Walsh in January 2016 goes south? Potentially tossing away millions in tax breaks and direct aid to a company that has already done massive damage to the Bay State over the past few decades? Readers of the dozen columns I’ve written criticizing the boondoggle will already know the answer to that question. But for those of you who have made the mistake of believing all the massive amounts of PR bullshit that the Boston Globe and other area press have been tossing around about the affair since that time, here’s a bit of a recap.


Where to begin? So, the governments of Boston and Massachusetts agreed to shovel tens of millions of dollars at GE in “exchange” for “800 jobs” in a new corporate headquarters campus in the Fort Point district of the Hub. Many of which would simply be transferred from the old headquarters, and most of which would be executive level jobs that will not help Boston’s struggling, underemployed working class.


Now there’s a problem. GE’s been losing money all year. According to the New York Times, its stock price had already dropped by 35 percent since January. Then, according to CNBC, the company’s share value dropped another 13 percent this week as of this writing after new CEO John Flannery announced a restructuring initiative—including the one thing investors hate most of all: dividend cuts. Only the second for GE since the Great Depression. So the knives are coming out around the beleaguered behemoth, and it remains to be seen whether some internal reorganization (doubtless costing legions of employees their jobs) and some belt-tightening by its execs will be enough to stop investors from moving to carve the conglomerate up like a Thanksgiving turkey. But let’s not assume the worst just yet.


Funny thing about that belt-tightening, though. According to the Boston Herald, cuts are now in store for GE’s still-small local workforce, and construction of the new Fort Point headquarters building was already pushed back two years from 2019 to 2021 in August. The plan is to make do with the two old Necco buildings already being refurbished on the site at first. The PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement signed by the Boston Planning and Development Agency (formerly the Boston Redevelopment Authority) and the city of Boston guarantees up to $25 million in tax breaks to GE if it provides the much-ballyhooed 800 full-time jobs. But by what date?


The discussion around GE moving its HQ to Boston has focused on the corporation creating those jobs by 2024. Herein, then, lies the rub about the PILOT deal: The agreement is framed around GE hiring “approximately 800 employees at the Headquarters Building and the Necco Buildings within eight years of the Occupancy Date.” But that occupancy date is explicitly defined as “the date upon which the Company initially occupies the Headquarters Building.” Which has now been pushed back from 2019 to 2021, according to the Boston Business Journal. So 2024 cannot be the year that GE will need to have 800 employees on its new campus. 2027 would have been the earliest it had to meet that target. And now that’s been pushed back to 2029, given the delay with the headquarters building.


Yet it turns out that the PILOT agreement doesn’t actually require 800 jobs to be created. Remember, it starts by stating GE will employ “approximately” 800 people on the Fort Point campus. But further down in the document, in a table explaining the specific tax break the city will actually give the company during each year of the deal, it allows for the creation of as few as 400 jobs in a chart with five tax break tiers between “Job Figure is between 400 and 499” and “Job Figure meets or exceeds 800.” Keeping in mind that the agreement also specifies a “stabilization” period of seven years between 2018 and 2024, during which GE gets $5.5 million in tax breaks no matter what and isn’t required to provide any jobs at all for the first six years. GE is then only required to provide between 400 and 800 jobs from 2024 until the agreement ends in 2037.


Job figure table from the GE Boston PILOT agreement
Job figure table from the GE Boston PILOT agreement


What’s super puzzling is that agreement first requires the company to start providing annual job figures “from and after” the aforementioned occupancy date. But the agreement already established that it only really has to start meeting any job targets as far out as eight years from the date it occupies its headquarters building. Making the job target requirement trigger as late as 2029, according to current plans. Despite the tax break table in the PILOT agreement using job targets to calculate tax breaks beginning in 2025 based on the 2024 job count.


The state, for its part, committed a total of about $120 million to the project. Late last year, GE spent $25.6 million to buy 2.5 acres on the Fort Point Channel that includes the land the existing buildings sit on and the land the new headquarters building will (perhaps) one day occupy from Procter & Gamble. MassDevelopment, part of the Commonwealth’s economic development apparatus, took out a $90 million loan from Citizens Bank—an interesting maneuver worth looking into—using $57.4 million to purchase the two old Necco buildings on the site from P&G, and the rest to refurbish the buildings. The remainder of the state’s “investment” is slated to go to fixing up the area around the site.


So, GE is getting basically free rent on the Necco buildings plus free upgrades on abutting public land courtesy of the state. And a big chunk of the taxes it would normally pay over the next 20 years is coming free from the city. Without any real requirement that it actually provide any jobs in Boston for many years, and then only (maybe) 400 jobs by 2029—assuming the headquarters building is built in 2021.


Which is the problem with all such erstwhile “economic development” deals in the Bay State. From their origin as a way to help encourage investment in areas of the state that were down on their luck precisely because GE and companies like it moved their manufacturing operations away from cities like Pittsfield, Lynn, and Fitchburg to places without the decent labor and environmental regulation that was in place by the 1970s, they have become yet another way for rich and powerful corporations to get richer and more powerful. Worst of all, such corporations hold all the cards in the deals. If they don’t get lavished with free public money, they can refuse to move their operations here or can leave if they’re already operating in the area. Once they get the cash they’re looking for, they can basically pull out at any time. Or as is the case with GE, they can “alter” the deal Darth Vader-style, leaving our local “Lando Calrissians” like Baker and Walsh to “pray” the deal is not altered “any further.”


The Boston Business Journal was correct to point out that GE will get $2.1 million in tax breaks on the Fort Point Complex by 2021—the year that the company now claims it’ll be completing its new 12-story headquarters building on the site. But what if it doesn’t build the new structure at all? It’s not clear. Because the PILOT agreement is pegged to job creation starting as far out as eight years after the headquarters building is built, and then allows for the company providing as few as 400 jobs between 2024 and 2037 rather than the 800 everyone’s been assuming. While not actually demanding any job creation until as late as 2029, making it unclear how the tax break will be calculated between 2025 and 2029 should GE drag its feet for the full eight years. The conditions for the company defaulting on the agreement are also pegged to job creation. Not to the construction of the headquarters building. Oh, and by the way, the PILOT deal only covers the headquarters building and the land the company purchased under and just around it (which the agreement calls the “Headquarters Project”). Not the Necco buildings, now owned by the state. Also, there’s no word about what happens if the company has less than 400 workers in Boston at any point from 2024 to 2037. Do these curious contradictions amount to loopholes for GE to bag the whole deal? It certainly looks that way.


The minimum GE will get in tax breaks from the city of Boston over 20 years is $5.5 million by 2024 plus whatever breaks it qualifies for between 2025 and 2037. However, the amount the company actually puts out in annual PILOT payments after 2024 is calculated by a complicated formula based on the taxes that would have been assessed without the PILOT agreement. And the assessed value of the relevant property could change from current projections. So it’s hard to know what the total value of the PILOT deal will ultimately be to GE, other than that it will be a bunch of money… however many jobs it actually creates.


But why exactly are Boston and Massachusetts giving a huge company that’s still profitable any money at all? And what happens if GE bails on the scheme by hook (simply running and fighting its PILOT default in court with its vast legal department) or by crook (not building the headquarters building at Fort Point and possibly getting away with delaying the job creation target trigger until the deal ends in 2037)? And what happens if worse comes to worst for GE, and the company actually does collapse?


These remain my central questions. And I continue to encourage all of you to ask those and related questions to every Boston and Massachusetts politician you can find. And ask the Globe while you’re at it. They’ve got a loooot of ’splaining to do about their cheap boosterism… which they’ve become awfully quiet about of late. Preferring, it seems, to focus on the next giant company that’s demanding public bribes to come to town, Amazon.


A shorter version of this column appears in this week’s DigBoston print edition.


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.


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



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.


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

October 10, 2017



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


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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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, 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.


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


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.


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.”


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.


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


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

Federal Government


Supports the Weymouth proposal, according to the Boston Herald.

And a Few Cool Kids


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.


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


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.