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EDITORIAL: MEDIUM WELL

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Image by gfkDSGN. CC0 Creative Commons. Modified with permission by Jason Pramas.

 

Democracy requires public control of social media giants

 

In this edition of DigBoston, our Editor-in-Chief Chris Faraone has already written at some length about how Medium—which is essentially a glorified blog farm with a puzzlingly opaque social media component—screwed our nonprofit, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ), a few days back by precipitously terminating the paid subscriptions of dozens of our monthly supporters on the platform.


After we questioned the company’s action, a low-level flunky claimed we had been given a whole entire week’s advance notice in an email that we subsequently explained we never received. After we very publicly cried bloody murder, and got our plight written up in Nieman Lab and Columbia Journalism Review, Medium leadership offered us, and a number of other small publishers, four months of the income we would have made had they not kicked us to the digital curb.


There are many problems with the way events transpired, but the worst one is the fact that mere mortals such as ourselves do not control our presences on corporate social media bigs in any way, shape, or form. The billionaires that own them—that became rich by creating “walled gardens” under their micromanagement and have stubbornly resisted the creation of public and nonprofit social media alternatives—are the only people that could reasonably be said to control them. Even though many of them have built their fortunes on technology originally created by publicly funded basic scientific research that they were allowed to essentially steal. Not dissimilar from leaders of the former Soviet Union that were allowed to privatize once-public industries and become billionaires themselves. Distorting the politics of various successor states toward oligarchy in the process.


And, under today’s robber baron capitalism, billionaires of any provenance are extremely difficult to bring to heel with any kind of public regulation or taxation. Let alone criminal charges.

 

Medium is hardly the worst, or anywhere near the largest, of the social media scofflaws in question. Its founder, Ev Williams, seems to be a thoughtful and genial enough fellow for someone in his position. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. … Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”


Truer words were never spoken. Especially when it comes to a person who has used his power and privilege to change the business model of Medium—a corporation that’s been valued in the hundreds of millions—on more than one occasion.


So, BINJ and the other affected publishers are the latest victims of the caprices of a billionaire. Who ironically wants to help improve media with the selfsame company that just made life more difficult for a group of struggling media outlets.

 

It is precisely for this reason that both the nonprofit side (BINJ) and for-profit side (DigBoston) of this operation that I half-jokingly call the “Greater BINJ-DigBoston Mediaplex” are working to help build alternatives to corporate social media. As we announced in an editorial a couple months ago.

 

We believe that digital media can only move forward by returning to the most promising visionary thinking of the earliest internet pioneers. Including the idea that only a decentralized communication network can be truly democratic.  And that the ethos of democracy must be baked so deeply into its architecture that it can never be displaced.

 

Our enterprise can only play a small part in this “strategic retreat.” But we are pursuing that initiative with vigor. Both by moves we are making to change how BINJ and DigBoston use the internet and by trying to organize our peers in the news industry to change our collective digital lot for the better.

 

The former effort involves transitioning away from Facebook—which we adjudge to be the worst of the social media giants—and toward first Twitter then other more democratic social media as it emerges. The latter effort—to which we’re dedicating a small conference this weekend—involves helping construct the democratic social media alternatives we hope to ultimately focus on.

 

But even if such voluntarist endeavors succeed in scaling up to control some reasonable percentage of the relevant markets, they will not stop huge social media corporations and the billionaires that control them from continuing to have far more political, economic, and social power than is healthy for a democratic society.

 

So what will stop them? Not breaking them up into smaller companies. As economist Gar Alperovitz points out in his book, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, old-fashioned trust busting always ends up with the smaller companies reforming into new giants. Thanks largely to “regulatory capture”: Big corporations colonizing regulatory agencies with insiders and then doing what they want—as we’ve seen most clearly of late with former telecom exec Ajit Pai getting the top seat at the FCC, then killing net neutrality.

 

Which way forward then? Alperowitz says that even the libertarian economists of the Chicago school—most famously Milton Friedman—identified the futility of breaking up huge companies. Leading Friedman’s mentor Henry C. Simons to quip, “Every industry should be effectively competitive or socialized.” Failing to do so, he and other Chicago economists thought, would lead to an ongoing series of societal crises. Which would certainly include the new kinds of crises that corporate social media has sparked. Notably “surveillance capitalism” where consumers’ every move is being monitored and thought anticipated in the service of maximizing profit in ways never before seen. With all the resulting negative outcomes—like social media addiction and political chaos—externalized to a failing democratic system largely controlled by an ever-shrinking number of multinationals and financial concerns.

 

And how best to socialize corporate social media? Alperowitz suggests turning the companies controlling the commanding heights of any sector of the economy into public utilities. So it must go with major social media companies. They must be converted into a heavily regulated and government-managed utility in such a way as to maximize democratic decentralized digital communication and provide it as cheaply as possible for the good of all. While, I would add, activists on the ground continue to develop a constellation of independent social media projects run by nonprofits, cooperatives, and social benefit corporations around the new government-funded network to allow for maximum information and technological diversity—and keep a future public social media utility honest.

 

Some kind of national security state panopticon is not what we’re aiming for here. Rather, the new utility could be run by elected regional boards with mandated seats for key community constituencies and space for lots of meaningful grassroots input.

 

Doing all that—plus related work to socialize telecoms and cable companies—will take a massive protest movement. Like most everything that involves uprooting entrenched institutions and replacing them with new, more popular institutions. And that movement will have to be international. It’s the only way to go. Because social media corporations are multinational, and most governments—corporate-dominated as they are—won’t do the job on their own. Not without a protracted struggle.

 

Going forward, DigBoston (and BINJ) will be looking to ally with good organizations willing to fight hard on these issues. And we’ll be sure to let readers know which groups we think are doing the best work as they emerge on the political stage.

 

So, stay tuned to these pages. We’ll be doing our damnedest to guide you through what is sure to be a wild ride.

 

Jason Pramas is the executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston, and the network director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

TOWNIE: AIRLINES SUING, UMASS SCREWING

TOWNIE: AIRLINES SUING, UMASS SCREWING

 

Corporate attack on workers rights and a corporate-style attack on UMB by UMA

 

If there’s one thing I think people should do every day, it’s read the business press. Because that’s where you see how the world runs. A world that naturally includes Massachusetts.

 

Airlines sue Mass over sick time law

Case in point, Airlines for America—a coalition that includes JetBlue Airways, United Airlines, American Airlines, and several other carriers, according to the Boston Globe business section—sued Mass Attorney General Maura Healey last week over a 2015 law that guarantees sick leave to many Bay State workers. Including airline employees. “Now surely,” you’re all doubtless thinking, “an industry that wouldn’t exist were it not for decades of massive government subsidies couldn’t possibly consider doing anything that might hurt its workers by attacking a government program that helps them.” But no, the airlines are totally doing that. It’s what big corporations always do to their workers. Along with endless union busting.

 

According to the Mass.gov Earned Sick Time page, the law states that most workers “in Massachusetts have the right to earn and use up to 40 hours of job-protected sick time per year to take care of themselves and certain family members. Workers must earn at least one hour of earned sick leave for every 30 hours worked.” It further states that employers “with 11 or more employees must provide paid sick time. Employers with fewer than 11 employees must provide earned sick time, but it does not need to be paid.” Employers can “ask for a doctor’s note or other documentation only in limited circumstances.”

 

The airlines are basically trying to argue—in the fashion of sadly deceased comic Phil Hartman in the role of Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer—that the Mass sick time law “frightens and confuses” them. And that with all the billions of dollars they either gouge out of travelers or simply have the federal government hand them whenever they cry poverty, they can’t possibly figure out how to sync up all their various state, national, and international sick time laws they’ve already handled for decades with the Commonwealth’s more decent law. Despite, you know, computers.

 

Bottom line, they want an exemption from the law to make slightly bigger profits and escape regulation, and they’re suing Healey to get their way. Claiming it’s unconstitutional and shouldn’t apply to airlines. The same thing they did in Washington State in February, according to the Seattle Times.

 

The AG should have fun with this one. But readers can give her a hand by calling up the airlines and their front group and telling them to stop attacking the Commonwealth’s sick leave program.

 

UMass Boston suffers more cuts while UMass Amherst buys Mount Ida College

A couple of related developments in the UMass system over the last several days. First, UMass Amherst is buying the private Mount Ida College in Newton for $37 million, according to WBUR. It plans to use the campus as a base for Boston-area internships and co-ops for its students. The school will also assume Mount Ida’s debt of up to $70 million.

 

The situation is widely viewed as an unfortunate attack on UMass Boston turf by the more “elite,” better-funded, and melanin-challenged UMass Amherst. With UMB faculty, staff, and students; higher ed experts; and the editorial boards of publications from the Boston Globe to the Lowell Sun asking why it’s necessary for UMA to spend big money on a separate suburban campus to connect its students to Boston. Especially given that there’s already the perfectly good but woefully underfunded UMass Boston campus in the city itself. Which could certainly use an injection of tens of millions of dollars from any source of late.

 

Speaking of which, second, UMass Boston is slashing the budget of 17 of its research centers by $1.5 million, including the famed veteran-focused William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences, as part of its attempt to get out from under the $30 million in mostly new construction-related deficit it’s been saddled with by a state government that insists on running its colleges like individual businesses. Rather than branches of a single statewide public service.

 

It’s worth mentioning, as I do on a regular basis, that we need to move the state and nation to the kind of fully public higher education system that many other countries have. Which spends sufficient tax money to guarantee every US resident a K-20 education. And tells private schools like Harvard that they can only remain private if they stop taking public money.

 

That’s the only way we’re going to stop this kind of spectacle. Where two parts of the same state public university system—one, Amherst, that primarily serves middle-class white suburban students, and one, Boston, that primarily serves working-class urban students of color—work at cross-purposes to one another. Amherst with a larger budget, and Boston with a smaller one. Separate and unequal.

 

For the moment, readers can help out by joining me in signing the petition to save the William Joiner Institute at change.org. And those so inclined can protest the Mount Ida College sale to UMass Amherst at the Board of Higher Education meeting on April 24. But I think critical calls and emails to UMass President Marty Meehan will likely be most effective. You can find his contact page on the massachusetts.edu website.

 

Check out TOWNIE EXTRA: YASER MURTAJA, PRESENTE! here.

 

Townie (a worm’s eye view of the Mass power structure) 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.

EVERSOURCE SCREWS MASS CONSUMERS

EVERSOURCE SCREWS MASS CONSUMERS

 

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

 

December 5, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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 massmunichoice.org. 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.

GENERAL ELECTRIC FAIL

 

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

 

November 15, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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.

AMAZON OCTAGON

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

October 10, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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

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

Local Government

BOSTON

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

REVERE

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

SOMERVILLE

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

ABINGTON, ROCKLAND, and WEYMOUTH

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

HAVERHILL, LAWRENCE, METHUEN, AND NORTH ANDOVER

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

BILLERICA, LOWELL, AND TEWKSBURY

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

NEW BEDFORD

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

FALL RIVER

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

WORCESTER

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

WESTERN MASS

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

State Government

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER

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

SECRETARY OF HOUSING AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT JAY ASH (D)

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

SPEAKER ROBERT DELEO (D-WINTHROP)

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

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

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

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

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

Federal Government

US REP. STEPHEN LYNCH (D-SOUTH BOSTON)

Supports the Weymouth proposal, according to the Boston Herald.

And a Few Cool Kids

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

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

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

Massachusetts needs more pols like these. Fast.

UPDATE 10/12/17: LYNN

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

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

AN AMAZON NORTH ANDOVER DEAL?

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

Merrimack Valley pols courting the tech behemoth have forgotten recent history

Sept 26, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STOP THE AMAZON BOSTON DEAL

Stop the Amazon Boston Deal

 

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

Sept. 12, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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