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TOWNIE: A WORM’S EYE VIEW OF THE MASS POWER STRUCTURE

Students at rally at Boston City Hall by NewtonCourt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Students at rally at Boston City Hall by NewtonCourt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

From the guy that brings you Apparent Horizon

October 18, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The rich and powerful interests that control Massachusetts politics and the state economy have their fingers in every conceivable pie. So numerous are their projects that it’s difficult for most news outlets to keep track of them, let alone cover them all. Yet it’s critical for our democracy that they be covered. Which is why I’m launching Townie—a regular news column that will provide short takes on all the elite wheeling and dealing that most people never hear about.

 

Business Organizations Sue to Down “Millionaire’s Tax” Referendum

In an era when taxes continue to be slashed for wealthy people and corporations as government social programs are starved for funds, one would think that the Fair Share Amendment (a.k.a. “millionaire’s tax”) proposed by the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition of religious, labor, and community organizations would be a no-brainer. The idea is slated to be put in front of Massachusetts voters as a binding referendum question in November 2018. If passed, it would amend the state constitution to add a 4 percent tax on top of the Bay State’s infamously inadequate 5.1 percent flat income tax for all households earning $1 million or more. The money collected will be mandated to fund public schools, transportation, and road maintenance. All sectors that really need the money. And best of all, only 19,500 families would have to pay in 2019 if the tax goes into effect—0.5 percent of all filers.

Well apparently any tax is a bad tax in the eyes of the Commonwealth’s “business community.” No matter how many people it would help, and how painless it would be for the tiny number of 0.5 percenters. So, according to an Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) press release,  the leaders of five pro-corporate organizations are trying to torpedo the referendum before it can be voted on by filing a lawsuit against it at the Supreme Judicial Court. The plaintiffs are: Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, Inc. (MHTC); Christopher Carlozzi, Massachusetts state director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB); Richard Lord, president and chief executive officer of AIM; Eileen McAnneny, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF); and, Daniel O’Connell, president and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership (MACP).

They claim that the referendum language is “riddled with constitutional flaws,” with the MTHC’s Anderson remarking that “Amending the Constitution to achieve taxing and spending by popular vote is just a terrible idea, and could undo much of the good work that Massachusetts has done in terms of creating a successful economic climate.” But no matter what kinds of arguments they try to make, it seems like what they’re most afraid of is democracy. Let’s see how far they get with the SJC.

 

About That Opioid Epidemic…

More proof that the rising number of deaths from opioid abuse has more to do with corporate greed than any personal failings of individuals suckered into addiction by pliant doctors colluding with pharma sales reps. And also that those few drug companies that pay any penalty at all for their role in destroying communities across the state, get little more than a slap on the wrist. According to a press release by the office of Mass Attorney General Maura Healey, “An opioid manufacturer will pay $500,000 to resolve allegations that it engaged in a widespread scheme to unlawfully market its fentanyl spray and paid kickbacks to providers to persuade them to prescribe the product…  Insys Therapeutics, Inc. misleadingly marketed Subsys, a narcotic fentanyl product that is sprayed under a patient’s tongue.” The money will be used to “help fund the AG’s prevention, education and treatment efforts.”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 30-50 times more powerful than heroin. The company claimed its spray version of the drug was useful for treating “minor” pain in non-cancer patients—despite the fact that the FDC had only approved the drug for use in more severe pain in cancer patients. It then pushed its sales staff to give kickbacks to doctors in the form of “fees paid to speak to other health care providers about the product.”

 

Boondoggle in Progress?

When a public college gets involved in land deals, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on. Especially when that college is UMass—a troubled multi-campus institution whose leadership would rather engage in property speculation than fight the legislature for more money for public higher education.

In 2010, the school’s independent development wing, the UMass Building Authority (UMBA), bought the former Bayside Expo Center property after its owners went into foreclosure. According to the Dorchester Reporter, in August, the UMBA issued “a Request for Information (RFI) as it seeks out ideas for the ‘highest and best use’ of the former Bayside Expo Center site on Columbia Point in Dorchester with an eye toward transforming the 20-acre site into a ‘modern-day Harvard Square.’”

Last week, the newspaper reported that 16 developers have responded to the university’s request, including: Accordia Partners; American Campus Communities; Beacon Capital Partners; Bracken Development; Capstone Development Partners LLC & Samuels & Associates; Corcoran Jennison & BTUHWF Building Corp; Core Investment Inc.; Hunt Development Group, LLC & Drew Company Inc.; The HYM Investment Group, LLC; LendLease; Lincoln Property Company; Lupoli Companies; Rhino Capital & Ad Meliora; SKANSKA; University Student Living; and Waterstone Properties Group Inc. The Reporter says the UMass Building Authority “hopes to leverage public-private partnerships toward the massive mixed-use project.” Which usually means big public giveaways to corporations. One way or the other. Stay tuned.

Townie 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.

 
 

HOMELESS FOR THE HOLIDAYS: SAVAGE CUTS AND CRAPPY JOBS ARE WHAT GOT US HERE

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December 6, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

For many people, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the only time of year that their thoughts turn to the plight of the homeless. Money, food, and presents are donated. And time is volunteered at shelters. All to make sure that people without a home of their own have a nice holiday—at least for a few hours. Worthy efforts to be sure.

However, despite this periodic outpouring of compassion, there’s still an unfortunate tendency to individualize homelessness in our society. As with poverty in general, casual observers assume that it’s personal failings that cause people to end up without housing.

And while it’s a truism that every person bears some responsibility for the straits they find themselves in, there are three major structural problems out of the control of impoverished individuals that best explain the rise of homelessness in Massachusetts: savage cuts to our state mental health system, an economy that creates large numbers of bad low-wage jobs, and the destruction of affordable housing.

Taking these issues in turn, the Commonwealth started shutting down most of its oft-criticized inpatient mental hospitals on budget and civil liberties grounds in the 1970s—leading to the first wave of homeless people with few places to turn for help and little ability to escape their fate. Things have only gotten worse since then. According to Mass Live, over the last 20 years the legislature has cut spending on inpatient mental health services by half and outpatient spending has remained stagnant.

Next, National Public Radio recently reported that wages and benefits “essentially flatlined or declined for four of five Americans between 2007 and 2014.” As big business racked up super profits, and crushed labor unions. Continuing a trend that also started in the 1970s where wage growth has slowed dramatically for most working people even as their productivity has increased. People at the bottom of the economic pyramid have been hardest hit, and ever more working people are finding themselves unable to pay mortgages or rent with the money they make working two or even three bad low-wage jobs with no benefits and little opportunity for advancement.

Then there’s the acute problem of skyrocketing housing costs in the Bay State. Especially in the hot Metro Boston real estate market where either buying or renting has become terribly difficult for poor folks.

This situation began when rent control—which limited the ability of landlords to raise rents in a number of cities in Mass—was torpedoed in 1994 with a state referendum backed by the real estate industry. When rent control ended in 1995, landlords immediately started jacking rents far beyond many tenants’ ability to pay, and housing developers started building luxury apartments and condos at a far higher rate than desperately needed affordable housing. Building new public housing, once a saving grace to poor families, has been taken pretty much off the table on ideological grounds since the Reagan era.

Making matters worse, the devastating subprime mortgage scandal that started in 2007 and caused the Great Recession of 2008 led to nearly 22,000 foreclosure filings in one nine-month period in Mass in 2009, according to the Boston Globe. And there have been thousands more in the years since. A trend which is now accelerating again.

The result? As a 2016 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition points out, the Commonwealth is short 166,960 affordable housing units for extremely low income households making 30 percent or less of their area’s median income. And the Mass Coalition for the Homeless states that the approximately 3,000 night shelter beds for individuals statewide are usually full or beyond capacity—and that there were 21,135 people in Massachusetts counted as experiencing homelessness during the January/February 2015 headcount conducted by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Numbers which barely begin to describe the magnitude of the crisis when hundreds of thousands of hard-working Bay State residents are just a couple of paychecks away from penury.

So if you really want to help homeless people—during the holidays and every day—you should consider joining advocates working to end homelessness. It’s not rocket science. Increasing our state mental health budget, passing living wage laws to make more jobs into decent ones, restoring rent control, devoting public funds to build lots of decent affordable housing, and properly taxing the rich and corporations to pay for such needed reforms will go a long way toward stopping the structural poverty forcing people out of their homes. Making us a better and more compassionate society in the bargain.

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.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalismand media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube

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TEMPORARY RADICALS? DISAFFECTED DEMS NEED TO STAY IN THE STREETS AFTER THE GOP MENACE IS BEATEN BACK

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November 27, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

There is little agreement on the broad American left. But the ascension of Donald Trump to the top of the political heap caused a virtual panic from the most conservative corporate Democrats to the hardest core anarchists and communists. Which resulted in a sudden, and probably brief, unity of purpose across the various factions. Then, quickly converting their excess emotional energy into useful activity as is typical in times of crisis, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets in the days after the election to protest the very idea that a controversial billionaire businessman and reality TV personality is now president of the United States. Including many Democrats who have never attended a protest in their lives.

This a welcome development. Many important social movements perennially suffer from a lack of grassroots participation. So the sudden entry of huge numbers of infuriated mainstream Dems to oppositional politics is positive on the balance.

If, that is, these new entrants remain willing to take direct action in defense of democracy and fight for a host of necessary reforms—from serious attempts to curb global warming to winning real national healthcare to putting racist police under community control.

As long as the new Republican administration remains somewhere within the bounds of traditional American politics, and doesn’t attempt to crush protest outright, then there is a lot of room for the full panoply of transformative social movements to maneuver.

Assuming Trump is unable to solve the central contradiction of his campaign—making big promises to both fellow CEOs and working Americans alike—there is a strong chance that the Republicans will lose control of one or both Congressional houses in two years, and the presidency in four.

Aside from conservatives gaining as many as three seats on the Supreme Court in that period, much of any damage that Trump may do can then be undone. It’s likely that the Democrats will be back in power by 2021.

The problem being, which Democrats? Will it be a newly-emboldened grassroots-led social democratic party? Or will it be the same neoliberal center-right party that was just resoundingly defeated after failing to heed the populist feedback it was receiving from significant parts of its base?

I hope that the former possibility wins out. At the moment, however, it’s far more probable that the currently discredited Democratic leadership will use its power and connections to simply reassert its authority, raise a ton more money, and work to win back Congressional majorities and the Oval Office without changing its political line a jot.

Which leaves a question for all the angry Democrats currently in the streets for social justice: Are you just fighting to get corrupt and elitist Democratic Party leaders back in command in DC? Or are you all willing to go further and fight for the establishment of genuine left-wing political alternatives in both electoral politics and in daily life?

If the recent past is any guide, many of you will stop fighting for racial justice, women’s liberation, LGBT rights, a living wage, public jobs programs, national healthcare, clean energy infrastructure, etc., the moment the Democrats win back the presidency. You’ll figure “great, everything is back to normal.”

But the politics of most leading Democrats—activist progressives like Elizabeth Warren excepted—is one that results in never-ending war, insufficient action on global warming, expanding corporate globalization, gradual privatization of successful public programs, widening poverty, and continuing the so-called Drug War, the prison-industrial complex, and racist policing.

So real social change will not occur unless grassroots Dems stay in the streets and fight their own leadership for primacy—until we can build a more fair, just, and humane society.

That strategy will necessitate either taking over the Democratic Party and forcing it left, or starting a major new left party. In addition to winning myriad (and quite necessary) issue-specific campaigns.

If all that can be accomplished, America and the planet have a chance. If not? If the Republicans hold power for many years? Or the corporate Democrats come back to power and continue allowing Wall Street to drive national policy?

Then we’re going to be in a very bad place very fast.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:
iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube

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WHY NATIVISM REMAINS THE POLITICS OF THE SCOUNDREL

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November 17, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

In early November, I wrote the following commentary for the third episode of the Beyond Boston video news digest that my organization produces monthly in collaboration with several Boston area public access TV stations. Given the nature of the political crisis sparked by the victory of President-elect Trump, I think it’s fitting that I run it as my first post-election column.

In contemporary Massachusetts, we don’t typically have as many open attacks on immigrants and refugees as some other states one could name. But we all know that anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and (lately) anti-Muslim sentiments, are always among us. Just a quick glance toward central Mass shows the scale of the problem—lurking beneath the surface of polite discourse like a toxic iceberg. Because in the town of Dudley, a recent effort by the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester to purchase a 55 acre abandoned farm to use as a cemetery for its co-religionists, has been stopped cold by local officials fielding a series of excuses that make it clear that deep-seated prejudice is actually at the heart of their protests.

Now it’s understandable, if misguided, that some Americans might feel threatened by more people arriving to our shores as immigrants and refugees every year—given ongoing economic instability. And it’s legitimate to express reasoned critiques of Islam, or indeed any religion, in our democratic society. Although it’s more typical to hear illogical and paranoid ones.

But before the anxiety and the critiques, it’s imperative for citizens to remember a couple of important facts. First, unless you’re Native American—and I mean basically full-blood Native American, Hawaiian, or Alaskan (or an African-American whose ancestors were enslaved and dragged here in chains)—then your family crashed a country that used to belong to someone else. The United States was stolen from those original inhabitants by a combination of pandemic disease, broken treaties, forced removal, and outright genocide. So the idea that you have some inviolable moral or legal claim to this land is laughable.

Second, unless you’re a white anglo-saxon protestant—a WASP whose ancestors arrived here prior to the American Revolution—then your family was once a bunch of immigrants or refugees who were considered just as suspect and dangerous as far too many immigrants and refugees, especially Muslims, are considered by far too many Americans today. And since those old line WASPs controlled politics in the US well into the 20th century, guess what some of them did from time to time? They banned or attempted to ban immigration from most nations on the planet, and also led vicious riots against many people that did not fit into their narrow vision for this land of opportunity. Sadly, they were eventually joined in that series of unfortunate crusades by members of other ethnic groups who had gradually managed to establish themselves as American over time.

By way of example, let’s take a look at my family. We’re Greek. Both my mother’s and father’s sides came here over a century ago. Now today, when people think about Greek-Americans, media stars like Maria Menounos and Zach Galifianakis pop to mind. The associations are generally positive, and no one would ever think to question our credentials as good Americans. But in my grandparents’ day, in many parts of the US, Greeks were literally compared to vermin and contagious diseases. Newspapers of the time talked about our strange ways and inherent criminality and said we would never fit in with “Anglo-Saxon civilization.” They called for our expulsion and worse. Greeks were the victims of nativist riots that drove us out of cities like South Omaha, Nebraska on more than one occasion. Yet, despite all that, today I have relatives that would be more than happy to let Donald Trump ban all Muslims from entering the US.

Sound familiar?! If not, then you need to take closer look at your family history. And after you’ve done that, you need to do your level best to stop yourself from tarring entire nationalities and religious groups—especially people fleeing wars and tyranny at least partially caused by American foreign policy—with the broad brush of the bigot. Every society in history has had its share of zealots, criminals, and terrorists. Including ours. So the mere fact of their presence in any group of immigrants or refugees doesn’t negate that group’s humanity. If you don’t want to turn into one of those big bads yourself in defense of an American purity that never existed, then you need to treat everyone seeking shelter on our shores as a human being worthy of basic respect—and afford them a chance to become a part of our messy yet still vital democratic experiment.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube

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DEMOCRATIZE AMERICA: THE FIGHT TO SAVE THE NATION AND THE PLANET DOESN’T STOP ON ELECTION DAY

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November 8, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

This is not a dream. For your whole life, you’ve seen images on screens showing brutal political struggles in faraway places like Ukraine and Yemen. And in the rare moments you’ve paid attention to the suffering you’ve seen, you’ve asked yourself, “How could things get so bad that people started shooting at fellow citizens?” Now you’re worried such madness will happen here.

Fortunately, things have not devolved to that point in American politics since that little dustup we call the Civil War. Yes, this has been the ugliest presidential race in recent memory. Yes, it has gone outside the pale of what has been considered acceptable political behavior in the last few decades. But there is nothing even approaching a violent mass uprising on the horizon of American politics. There have barely been any physical altercations at all in the race that finishes today — and the few that erupted didn’t get far beyond the level of shoving matches. So it’s important to keep things in perspective.

However, the danger of political instability has not passed. It has only just begun — regardless of which candidate wins. Because our already tenuous democratic traditions are under threat, and humanity is on the precipice of extinction. The first problem is intimately tied to the second. So it’s critical we get our political house in order if we’re going to be able to grapple with the linked crises that face us. And that means everyone who believes in democracy is going to have to get involved in the following three key battles in the coming years — no matter who is in the Oval Office in January.

Democratize America. Contrary to the official narrative, the US has never really been a democracy. It’s fair to say that we’ve made great progress toward democratization across the arc of our short history. But this nation has always been an oligarchy with elements of a democracy. We can and must do better than that if we’re going to leave a safer and healthier world for our grandchildren than we have now. For starters, we need to reverse Citizens United to help lessen the influence of money on politics, institute proportional representation and instant runoff voting where possible, and look seriously at moving to a multiparty parliamentary system — allowing us to have a politics that more closely represents the will of the full spectrum of the electorate. Such reforms will go a long way toward normalizing civic discourse. Which will in turn help end the threat of American politics getting any uglier anytime soon. Because when people feel like there’s a place for them in the political system, they’re a lot less likely to follow demagogues, join militias, and commence shooting up fellow citizens. To get involved in the movement for a more democratic America, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution organization looks like the best jumping off point — given its solid position on stopping Citizens United with a constitutional amendment.

Ban nuclear weapons. There are still 15,000 of those deadly devices in the world, and the US has about half of them. Studies suggest that only 50–100 “small” Hiroshima sized weapons would have to be detonated to trigger a nuclear winter which would wipe out a good chunk of humanity through starvation. Far more are likely to be used in a shooting war between the US and Russia or China. Yet the US has maintained its policy of allowing a “first strike” with nuclear weapons, and has been pressuring both fellow nuclear superpowers in hot spots like Syria, Romania, Ukraine, the Baltics, and the South China Sea for a variety of bad geopolitical reasons. With smaller nukes available, it will be tempting for the next administration to use one in any military crisis that might result from such brinksmanship. Once a single weapon is used, automated retaliation protocols on all sides will virtually ensure that more will be used. No matter who wins the presidential contest. So the movement to eliminate American nuclear weapons, and win a global nuclear weapons ban is one that everyone needs to join at speed. Check out the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons to get involved.

Stop global warming. Neither presidential candidate is prepared to do what is necessary to end the terminal crisis presented by the human-caused warming of the planet. And if we don’t make a near total conversion from an energy system based on burning coal, gas, and oil to one based on (genuinely) clean energy by 2030, scientists are saying that we have no hope of holding warming to an average increase of no more than 2 degrees Celsius worldwide. Another four years of federal status quo will make that transition even less likely to happen in time. Dooming us — at minimum — to the inundation of coastal cities like Boston due to rising sea levels, mass starvation as our growing lands turn to desert and our oceans acidify, and general havoc created by ever-worsening storms and ever-warmer weather. The 350.org movement remains the best organized US-based campaign devoted to minimizing this crisis. So drop them a line right away.

Otherwise, stay active. Stay woke. Another world is possible.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:
iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube

UMASS CAMBRIDGE: MAKING HARVARD UNIVERSITY PUBLIC WILL SOLVE ITS WORKERS’ PROBLEMS—AND THE COMMONWEALTH’S HIGHER ED CRISIS

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October 24, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Three weeks into their strike, Harvard University dining hall workers are in a difficult position. Their union’s demands for better wages, benefits, and working conditions are falling on deaf ears in the Harvard administration. They cannot continue picketing indefinitely on $200 weekly strike pay—which itself won’t last for long … and the bosses know it.

That same administration talks about the situation as if the workers are already overpaid since they make wages higher than the industry standard. Even though college food service workers generally get low pay with few benefits by convention. It tries to make the Harvard dining hall workers union, UNITE HERE Local 26, look greedy by asking for more, when all the workers want is a living wage to be able to survive the increasingly insane costs of living in Greater Boston. And a health care package that doesn’t raise their out-of-pocket costs. Which other Harvard unions have already agreed to, sadly.

This despite the fact that Harvard has an unbelievably massive $35 billion endowment. The largest amount held by any institution of higher learning in the world. Larger than the annual budgets of many nations. The school’s endowment page makes it clear that its administration knows that making any pitch for sympathy on labor costs is ludicrous on its face (although that’s precisely what they do when they attack the dining hall workers’ extremely moderate demands as somehow unaffordable). In a section of that page entitled “Why can’t Harvard use more of its endowment in order to cover additional expenses or reduce tuition costs?” the following logic is offered:

Endowment gifts are intended by their donors to benefit both current and future generations of students and scholars. As a result, Harvard is obligated to preserve the purchasing power of these gifts by spending only a small fraction of their value each year. Spending significantly more than that over time, for whatever reason, would privilege the present over the future in a manner inconsistent with an endowment’s fundamental purpose of maintaining intergenerational equity.

A statement worthy of a CEO or banker. Or neoliberal ideologue. Basically saying, We can’t spend more money from the endowment because we don’t want to touch our principal and lower our profits. Funny attitude for a supposed nonprofit. One that’s unfortunately being emulated at colleges around the country as the privatization of higher education continues apace.

Since Harvard is unwilling to spend down its endowment by even a tiny percentage to ensure all its employees receive truly fair wages and benefits, it’s all the more imperative that dining hall workers continue to press their demands. And that more people support them.

Because not only is Harvard screwing its own food service staff while amassing wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, it is also doing grievous damage to the Massachusetts public higher education system. Which raises the stakes considerably. And links the problems of one group of working people to the fortunes of the working families of an entire state. For whom shaking the edifice of Harvard’s endowment must become a central political concern.

Image via Boston's Local 26

Image via Boston’s Local 26

Understanding Harvard’s finances is the key to apprehending why the university’s very existence is problematic in a democracy—and a clear and present danger to the state public higher education system. And to answering the central question: Why is an institution of higher learning allowed to run like a multinational corporation? Socking away funds that it possesses mainly because it educates the children of the one percent—scions of powerful families who steal money from the rest of us in myriad ways and then donate part of that money back to the supposedly nonprofit school in exchange for income tax breaks. A school not required to pay taxes on its vast income by dint of that nonprofit status. Which then also takes huge amounts of public funds despite being a private school.

It’s also worth asking why Harvard is not a public college. Why is it not UMass Cambridge? Harvard was, after all, originally part of Massachusetts state (and colonial) government. Yet over the centuries it was able to reorganize itself as a private nonprofit school, and essentially write the rules it plays by.

But for a “private” school it’s certainly awash in public money. A brief review of how Harvard enthusiastically drains government coffers that it refuses to replenish should make it painfully obvious that it is indeed a public university. And therefore in dire need of democratic reform to better align its mission with the needs of the Mass public higher ed system.

First, all the funds in the Harvard endowment, and all the money it makes from financial investments, is not taxed. Neither is all the property Harvard owns—on which it famously expends small “Payments in Lieu of Taxes” (PiLoTs) instead of much higher property taxes. According to Slate, a report by Nexus Research and Policy Center—a right-wing pro-corporate think tank that I would normally avoid citing—does some sloppy math that nevertheless helps us think more clearly about the magnitude of the problem with giving private schools nonprofit status. The report says that, in 2014, Harvard made the equivalent of $48,000 in tax savings from federal, state, and local governments for each of its students. Many of whom can definitely afford to pay full freight on their education. While predominantly working and middle class Massachusetts public college students are educated in woefully underfunded state institutions. The Nexus report indicates that UMass Amherst—the Commonwealth’s flagship university— made only the equivalent of $9,900 in tax savings for each of its students. While undergraduate tuition and fees amounted to $13,258, and average room and board costs were $10,957, for a total cost of $24,485 that year. Even before thousands in book costs and other fees are considered.

Second, although it may not be obvious to outsiders, many Harvard students use public grants and loans to get through school. According to its website, the annual disbursement from the Harvard endowment covered 35 percent of the university’s $4.5 billion operating budget in 2015—including much of the cost of tuition and fees for undergraduate students who need it. And the Harvard administration makes clear that “Even with endowment support, Harvard must fund nearly two-thirds of its operating expenses … from other sources, such as federal and non-federal research grants, student tuition and fees, and gifts from alumni, parents, and friends.” But a good chunk of the aforementioned tuition and fees is covered with public money.

It’s true that Harvard pays all expenses for the 20 percent of current undergrads who come from families that make less than $65,000 a year. One cheer for that given the provenance of Harvard’s money. However, undergrads whose families make between $65,000 and $150,000 a year are expected to contribute up to 10 percent of the total cost of their education annually. And undergrads whose families make more than $150,000 a year pay concomitantly higher percentages of their education costs. Students whose families can’t cover those costs, and don’t receive enough scholarships, grants, or stipends from private sources can apply for federal and state financial aid like any other college student(though foreign undergrads generally don’t qualify for such aid).

Graduate students lean more heavily on public support. Harvard financial aid is similar to other universities in its expectation that its grad students—especially the cash cow master’s degree students—will apply for federal and state financial aid for any expenses they can’t pay out of pocket. Its PhD students get a supposedly free ride, as elsewhere, but the stipends the school pays for their labor as teaching and research assistants clearly aren’t much better than anywhere else given that they are now trying to emulate their peers at public universities by organizing a labor union. Certainly not enough to live on for many students. So public grants and loans are used to fill gaps in funding.

Harvard made its estimated federal grant and loan totals available online for the 2011-2012 academic year. Its students received $10,257,035 in federal grants, $8,371,891 in Perkins Loans, and $135,249,758 in federal direct loans. A tidy sum to be sure.

Third, and perhaps most damningly, Harvard gets a ton of direct federal appropriations every year. To cite just one significant example, in 2014, Harvard had about 20,000 students and received $572,918,000 in federal research and development money according to the National Science Foundation. About $28,646 per student, although it’s obviously not distributed that way. Critics may respond “no harm, no foul” since Harvard gets lots of public R&D money because they do lots of R&D. But that gets things backwards. Harvard does lots of R&D because it has long gotten lots of public R&D money—which should be used to fund public universities to do the work instead. With more public oversight in the public interest.

That same year, the UMass system had almost 74,000 students and received $362,157,000 in research and development money from the federal government. However, the Massachusetts public higher education system also includes nine state universities and 15 community colleges. Both additional groups of colleges receiving only negligible federal research and development funds as teaching colleges rather than research colleges. So the government money UMass gets for R&D covers all of the 194,371 students in the combined public higher education system in the Bay State in the period in question. Amounting to a mere $1,863 per student. Or about $4,894 per student looking at just the UMass system.

Harvard also gets other money from various branches of American government at every level—overtly or covertly, directly or indirectly. But for anyone who believes in public higher education as a vital democratic institution, every penny of government funding that goes to an elite institution like Harvard is money that should be going to the cash-starved public university system. And Harvard is only one of over a dozen supposedly “private” universities with major endowments in Massachusetts who take public money. Others include: Amherst College, Boston College, Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, Smith College, Tufts University, Wellesley College, and Williams College. Plus dozens of smaller privates and erstwhile “for-profits” that suck up even more public funds. [Ironically, as part of a decades-long trend of public universities emulating the privates, UMass itself has an endowment of over $700 million. Much of which should be released to reverse faculty and staff cuts at schools like UMass Boston, and the remainder could be kept in a reasonable “rainy day” fund.]

Such hoarding must be stopped. More to the point, the private university system has to be dismantled if the dream of free higher education for all is to be guaranteed. An attainable dream other countries with far less wealth than ours have been able to manage for decades. One which could be achieved by simply taxing the rich and corporations fairly on the state and federal level to pay for such social goods. An even taller order than the policies under discussion here.

For now, if you really want to help the Harvard dining hall workers and much of the population of Massachusetts in the bargain, help start political movements to demand structural reform of the state university system—and ultimately the national higher ed system in its entirety.

As an interim measure, such movements can push our state government to seize the endowments of so-called private colleges like Harvard and absorb all of their campuses into the public higher education system. Which will end the Commonwealth’s higher ed crisis by flooding the system with once-hoarded money. Guaranteeing a decent college education to more Mass residents while eliminating bastions of privilege and power in our midst. And naturally, a well-funded public higher ed system would have the means to pay its workforce properly and a tradition of “wall-to-wall” unionization that would leave no campus workers unprotected. Solving the problems of the Harvard dining hall strikers, and all other previously low-paid workers at every campus in the Commonwealth.

The parting shot? In 2015, the entire Massachusetts budget for public higher education was $1,462,827,301. Well below the $1.6 billion disbursement from the Harvard endowment for operating expenses that same year.

Meanwhile, the 2017 Mass higher ed budget is only $1,157,298,156. With worse cuts on the horizon.

UMass Cambridge anyone?

TUES., OCT. 25, 2016 UPDATE: Early this morning, the Harvard Crimson reported that a tentative agreement has been reached by the striking dining hall workers and the Harvard administration. The full membership of the UNITE HERE Local 26 dining hall workers unit is slated to vote on the agreement tomorrow (Wed., Oct. 26, 2016), and could be back to work as early as Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

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FIGHT WHERE YOU STAND: ORGANIZING FOR DEMOCRACY ON THE JOB CAN SPARK A MOVEMENT FOR DEMOCRACY NATIONWIDE

IWW Demonstration. New York (1914)

IWW Demonstration. New York (1914)

October 13, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

In a month featuring a couple of significant labor actions in the Boston area—the Harvard University dining hall workers strike for better pay and benefits, and the Boston Carmen’s Union’s recent civil disobedience action against privatization at the MBTA—it’s worth reflecting on the difference between unionized workers and other workers in the US. Which can be summarized as follows: Union workers fight.

One can criticize them for not fighting hard or effectively enough, and I certainly do from time to time, but when push comes to shove union workers will push back. Collectively. Putting them in a stronger position than the rest of working people in this era. Nearly 90 percent of whom have no representation on the job. Tens of millions of workers who are unprotected “employees at will” that can basically be fired at any time for any reason other than open discrimination. And chances are, you’re one of them.

Yet the reaction by many ununionized workers to their unionized fellows can be puzzling. Egged on by conservative ideologues, the common refrain on social media and in bar rooms from coast to coast is that union workers are “greedy” for wanting more than their bosses give them. Even as billionaires control ever more vast sums year by year. And deploy that wealth to influence politics to make themselves richer by the day.

This leaves union critics caught in a rather obvious contradiction. On the one hand, under capitalism we’re all supposed to applaud people who get rich for constantly demanding more, more, and still more. For themselves alone.

But when union workers demand more as a group, that’s somehow bad. Resulting in the spectacle of anti-union working people arguing that fellow working people in unions need to start acceding to less. Advancing the ludicrous claim that there’s not enough money and stuff to go around in our tremendously wealthy society for anyone but the rich.

Conservative critics—some working people among them—actually think it’s better for such union workers to disband their unions and be satisfied with whatever their bosses feel like giving them. Or, as they typically put it, to accept what “the market” will bear. To join ununionized workers in the war of all against all. Racing each other to the bottom of the economic pyramid, until a new feudalism grips humanity. Where “the multitude,” as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt put it, are dominated completely by “the one percent” named so accurately by the Occupy movement.

To prevent such a dystopia from ever coming to pass, it’s time for ununionized, and therefore unorganized, workers to draw a proverbial line in the sand at every workplace in America—including right here in Boston.

In place of the culture of fear that reigns at most every job—the fear of being fired for promulgating even the slightest appeal for justice—there must be a culture of democratic resistance. Workers must start organizing together wherever they are to demand more. More money, better benefits, better working conditions. And critically, more control over their workplaces.

This organizing can involve joining traditional unions where possible, but that is not a necessary precondition to starting to fight back. It can begin as simply as holding meetings after work, discussing problems with the way things are going day-to-day, looking into how workers in similar situations have dealt with their problems on the job, and deciding how to fight for redress.

Some will say that such conflict is old-fashioned and counterproductive, and that it’s far better to work together with owners and bosses to come to some kind of accord on the job. From a position of permanent weakness. Leaving power in the hands of the monied elites. In your workplace and in the larger political realm. I would counter by quoting the preamble to the constitution of the storied democratic union of the turn of the 20th Century, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.”

As the horrendous presidential race approaches its climax, it’s important to keep this in mind. If you’re wondering why both major party candidates are terrible, and why neither of them are standing up for the interests of working people—for your interests—the old language of radical democracy, plainly expressed by the IWW preamble, provides the beginnings of an answer. The rest of that answer—at your job and in world that surrounds it—is up to you. And all of us in the multitude.

HORIZON LOGO TRIMMED

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

iTunes

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