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EDITORIAL: MEDIUM WELL

Facebook middle finger
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.

URBAN MISSION

City College of Boston

 

The solution to UMass Boston’s woes could start with a city-run college

 

There was an interesting conversation recently between two people who I often criticize for being… um… insufficiently public spirited. The Boston Globe’s Shirley Leung asked Boston mayor Marty Walsh a great question: “What if the city took over the University of Massachusetts Boston?” Walsh, to his credit, replied: “Am I looking to take on a potentially new school? No. … Do I think Boston potentially could be positioned well enough to handle it? Absolutely.”

 

UMass Boston has been struggling to make ends meet for many years. According to the Dorchester Reporter, union activists at the school say that student tuition and fees, state appropriations, and grants, are actually sufficient to cover its operating costs. But UMB labors under more than $30 million in structural deficit from the cost of belatedly rebuilding a campus that was thrown together with substandard materials by corrupt contractors on top of a landfill back in the 1970s. And a lot of other debt besides.

 

Successive legislatures and governors have been unwilling to fork over the money to cover the long-needed repairs—sticking a school with an “urban mission” to serve working-class Boston students with a mountain of debt that it can’t clear on its own. Even after controversial longtime chancellor J. Keith Motley was ousted last year and replaced with interim chancellor and state government hatchet man Barry Mills. Who presided over the layoff of dozens of critical faculty and staff in the interest of “balancing the school budget” even though the UMB community is not to blame for its plight.

 

As the state prepares to bring in a new “permanent” chancellor, it is not prepared to do the right thing. So, it’s definitely worth pushing Walsh to at least produce a serious study on whether a city that struggles to properly fund K-12 education could really do a better job running a medium-sized research university that the Commonwealth can.

 

It remains to be seen if UMass Boston is too heavy a fiscal burden for the city of Boston to take on. But there is a way that Mayor Walsh could dip his toe into the murky waters of administering a four-year public college without taking over UMB in its entirety. That would be to consider a plan for a separate city college that I had a hand in developing between 2005 and 2007 while I was a student, and then a graduate teaching assistant, at UMB’s College of Public and Community Service (CPCS). It was originally conceived as a possible response to the university’s destruction of that innovative and popular division.

 

In brief, CPCS was the most diverse college within the most diverse university in the entire Northeast. Not only did it focus on recruiting working-class Boston students from nontraditional backgrounds—like single mothers—it also put a lot of effort into recruiting older working students like me who had never finished college. It was founded in 1972 and 1973 by professors and politicians who believed so strongly in UMB’s urban mission that they developed a college purpose-built to take students from poor city neighborhoods with few opportunities and turn them into stellar university graduates. Which it did with aplomb for over 30 years.

 

The following section of the CPCS Mission Statement shows how seriously the school took its mandate:

 

The college works toward overcoming the attitudes, beliefs, and structures in our society which prevent access to the resources that exist and discourage full participation in economic, civic, cultural and political life. As an alternative educational institution, CPCS endeavors to function as an inclusive, democratic, and participatory learning community which promotes diversity, equality, and social justice.

 

Unfortunately, the administration of a decade ago—led by Motley—decided that the few bucks more it cost per year to educate a CPCS student compared to a “regular” UMB student was too much to spend. And it had deep ideological differences with CPCS pedagogy. Especially the rejection of letter grades as a metric for success. So it killed the college in all but name by 2008. Despite strong protests by its students, staff, and faculty.

 

Given the current crisis at UMass Boston, Mayor Walsh could revive the plan for a new City College of Boston that myself and other campus activists first suggested… as a successor to CPCS. The goal would be to provide a place for a few hundred working-class native Bostonians at a time. Students who can handle a four-year degree program academically, but are being driven out of UMB by its ever-rising sticker price—and its shift to attempting to compete with local private universities for white suburban middle-class students and full-freight paying foreign students by building dorms. Which is being done, in part, to allow its latest cowardly administration to get rid of its debt load without direct state aid.

 

The City College could hold classes in existing municipal facilities and start with a few dozen faculty and staff. It would be run by the city of Boston. And ideally, it would strive to charge students no more than the Hub’s two-year community colleges, Bunker Hill and Roxbury… which it should work with closely.

 

If the new college does decently well for a few years, then maybe the city could take over UMass Boston in its entirety, merge the two, and move on to strengthen its urban mission university-wide. Returning the school to its urban-focused roots… with local sources of funding that are somewhat more receptive to community needs than state funding sources… and a new sense of purpose.

 

Even such a bold move would not absolve the legislature and the governor of their responsibility to properly fund Mass public higher education as completely as the state budget will allow—rather than doing things like dumping $1.5 billion on the biotech industry—and to lobby the federal government ferociously for more funding as well. But it could at least ameliorate an increasingly dire situation for Bostonians seeking to improve their lot by obtaining a bachelor’s degree. And get the city back in the business of expanding public services rather than privatizing them.

 

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.

 

 

Note of Appreciation

Big thanks to Bill Marx of Arts Fuse and Greg Cook of Wonderland (and sometimes DigBoston) for inviting me to participate in a great forum “For the Love of Arts Criticism II: Small Magazines and Bloggers” held on Monday at Rob Chalfen’s fabulous music and arts space, Outpost 186, in Inman Square. Props to fellow speakers Chanel Thervil of Big Red & Shiny; Pat Williams of the Word Boston; Heather Kapplow of, like, everywhere, including DigBoston; Franklin Einspruch of Delicious Line (and DigBoston); Marc Levy of Cambridge Day; Oscar Goff and Chloé DuBois of Boston Hassle; Dave Ortega of the Somerville Media Center; Jameson Johnson of Boston Art Review; Lucas Spivey of Culture Hustlers podcast; Rick Fahey of On Boston Stages; Suzanne Schultz of Canvas Fine Arts; Olivia Deng of several publications, including DigBoston; noted events producer Mary Curtin; Aliza Shapiro of Truth Serum Productions; former Boston Phoenix, Improper Bostonian, and Boston Magazine writer Jacqueline Houton; and a number of other folks. Read Greg Cook’s fine article on the proceedings for all the details at gregcookland.com/wonderland.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

EDITORIAL: STRATEGIC RETREAT

Image by freeGraphicToday. CC0.
Image by freeGraphicToday. CC0.

 

DigBoston to move away from Facebook, help build democratic social media alternatives

 

A decade back it seemed only natural for news publications like DigBoston to stake out turf on Facebook. After all, it provided an easy way for us to reach our audience on a regular basis—via a social media platform that was well on its way to becoming the ubiquitous global behemoth it is today.

 

But now it seems like a particularly good moment to discuss this publication’s evolving thinking on our use of corporate social media. In the wake of the huge and growing Cambridge Analytica scandal that cost Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg $6 billion of his net worth after that story broke last week, according to Fortune.

 

Because Facebook is not working for us anymore—as individuals and as the staff of a metro news weekly.

 

What was once a fun way to keep in touch with friends and co-workers has turned into a huge drag. Every moment of our time on the social network is completely controlled by Zuckerberg’s minions. Who work to make it ever more addictive. To keep users like us on Facebook for more and more of our time—thus spending less and less of our time on any possible competitor’s network.

 

Yet the company also carefully limits users’ access to our own connections. And it continues to make repeated changes to its “algorithm” (the code that governs, among other things, what content users see) and other structural changes that are seriously damaging individuals’—and to our point, news outlets’—ability to reach our own audiences.

 

It is now no more possible for individuals to communicate with even a fraction of their connections on the platform than it is for DigBoston to reach more than a handful of our 24,000 followers. Even if we pay a bunch of money for the privilege, which page managers like us are forced to do. On our two branded pages that Facebook refuses to let us merge… because one page has a blue check mark and one page has a gray check mark, you see. And blue check mark pages may not be merged with gray check mark pages. Facebook “help desk” has spoken. And once Facebook makes a pronouncement, however cryptically and episodically, it cannot be challenged. By conventional means, at least.

 

Not that we’re surprised that Facebook has its own agenda. Like many reasonably technologically savvy journalists, we understand how the company works. Digital marketer Mitch Joel explained it succinctly in a helpful Maclean’s piece on the Cambridge Analytica affair: “Facebook’s business model is not based on content, marketing or advertising. You—the consumer—are the product and the money that Facebook generates is based on how well they can monetize your data and target you to their brand partners.”

 

The problem is that we understand all too well that Facebook does what’s best for Facebook—first, last, and always. And my DigBoston colleagues and I have had enough.

 

Like the staff of tens of thousands of other news organizations around the planet, we know that we have been complicit in Facebook’s rise to power.

 

We have posted all our content to Facebook. Which has provided free high-quality information that helped attract our existing audience and many others besides to Facebook’s “walled garden” social network. The vast conglomerate then monetized that audience as described above. Used the vast array of personal data at their command to steal the entire news industry’s digital advertising base away—including ours. And has the temerity to charge us to reach the audience we helped bring to them.

 

Adding insult to injury, according to the Guardian, companies like Cambridge Analytica have found ways to acquire and weaponize that personal data at the behest of operatives like Steve Bannon. Who then use it to help throw elections like the 2016 presidential contest to the political faction of their choice. To name but one of a myriad number of ways that rich and powerful interests—including Facebook itself—are using this “surveillance capitalism,” as it has come to be called, to attempt to control the behavior of entire populations for their own gain.

 

Given that state of affairs, DigBoston has no choice but to start to move away from Facebook. As our editor-in-chief Chris Faraone so colorfully put it in a related context a couple of months back, “… fuck Facebook. With a big, blue middle finger.”

 

But move away to what? All the major social networks are owned by big companies doing basically the same thing Facebook is doing. Though none have its reach and market share. Some, like Instagram, are even owned by Facebook.

 

In the short term, we’re starting to focus more on Twitter—a social media giant that’s slightly less mercenary and slightly more responsive to public pressure. The Lyft to Facebook’s Uber, if you will.

 

In the longer term, we see no ideal alternative on the horizon.

 

So we’ve resolved to help create that alternative.

 

Think this through with us: DigBoston, like legions of other news outlets, has to find a social media solution that meets our need to control and monetize our own data in a platform that our audience is willing to use on a regular basis. Our audience needs a social network that won’t exploit them.

 

There have been numerous attempts to start standalone “less evil” social media platforms in opposition to Facebook et al—Diaspora, Ello, and Minds to name but three. None of them have succeeded. Why? Because no one knows exactly what causes people to abandon existing social networks for new ones. Sometimes people just bail. Friendster, Orkut, and MySpace were once hot, and now are not. So every prediction of Facebook’s demise at the hands of a new entrant over the last many years has proved to be premature. And every claim to have the magic solution that will cause millions of users to jump ship from Facebook and other major social media has proved to be a pipe dream.

 

It is true that Facebook’s audience growth is slowing. Usage in the key US and Canadian markets is dropping, according to the LA Times. And the current scandal has already caused the company to lose more than 6 percent of its value on Monday—over $35 billion—according to Fortune. Yet it could easily bounce back. It remains an immensely powerful multinational. And if it convinces its shareholders to stay the course, it can weather almost any conceivable political storm.

 

What will it take to essentially pull the rug out from under Facebook and companies like it? Returning to the promise of the early internet to democratize global communication, and giving more control over the means of that communication to individuals and the full array of human institutions alike.

 

There are interesting experiments going on in new grassroots social networks that DigBoston is keeping an eye on. Decentralized federated microblogging systems (think an agglomeration of Twitter-like networks that talk to each other) like Mastodon. Fully decentralized social media projects like IndieWeb—a network of “creators” who have developed tools that allow the owners of independent personal websites to interact with each other. Like a Facebook without the Facebook. Without a central control hub of any kind, really.

 

Projects like these are great ideas. But they rely on volunteers, and sometimes a handful of low-paid staff, to function. Meaning they can achieve an initial burst of success, only to suffer a long decline to irrelevance as their evangelists move on to other ventures. Plus you typically need to be someone in or around the tech scene and affiliated subcultures to know about their existence. And they tend to require a fair amount of technical expertise to use.

 

Which is to say that these carefully thought out super democratic social media experiments are not likely to provide the alternative DigBoston and like-minded folks the world over are seeking to build. Not anytime soon. Mastodon had just over a million users last month, according to Mastodon User Count—largely due its community deploying functioning phone apps like the nifty Amaroq for iOS. But that’s obviously a drop in the bucket compared to the 1.4 billion active daily users that Facebook reported in Q4 of 2017. Even allowing for the fact that a nonzero percentage of those accounts are fake, according to Yahoo Finance. And not including many more inactive accounts.

 

Still, we can but soldier on. For our part, we’re calling a meeting of journalists and techies later this year. Specifically, editors and publishers of Boston area news outlets and high-level coders associated with thoughtful social media projects like Mastodon and IndieWeb. We’re going to compare notes and see if we can start working together to provide better communications solutions for our news organizations and our audiences that will go at least some small fraction of the way to providing a democratic alternative to Facebook and other corporate networks.

 

We’ll definitely let you all know how that meeting goes. But those of you who think you need to be there, drop me a line at execeditor@digboston.com and tell me why.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. His sad and lonely Mastodon account is @jasonpramas@mastodon.social. Sign up for a free account at mastodon.social and say hi.

YOUR MOVE, BOSTON

Boston Women's March 2017. Photo by Ryan Dorsey, CC-BY-SA 2.0 Generic.
Boston Women’s March 2017. Photo by Ryan Dorsey, CC-BY-SA 2.0 Generic.

 

Only a massive protest movement can stop government giveaways to megacorps

 

Boston politics—in both its state and local variants—seems to consist largely of backroom deals between government officials and major corporations punctuated by rituals of representative democracy that are increasingly put on just for show. Perhaps it has ever been thus. But that doesn’t mean that Bostonians have to like it.

 

One would be tempted to call this politics incipient fascism were it not all such a desultory affair—unsullied by any ideology other than a very primitive capitalist greed. And in that way, it is reminiscent of current federal politics. The fact that most of the damage is being done by people calling themselves “Democrats” rather than people calling themselves “Republicans” making almost no discernible difference.

 

Which is why it becomes tiresome to write about. One disgusting display of government servility to corporate power replaces another week by week, month by month. The storyline is always the same. Only the brand names change.

 

On the ground—physically close to the halls of actual power in the Financial District, Back Bay, and now the Seaport District, but a million miles away in terms of elite awareness—the situation is dire. People don’t have good jobs. Or affordable housing. Or adequate public schools. Or cheap, safe, frequent, and environmentally friendly public transportation. Or a proper healthcare system. Or pensions. Or sufficient leisure time. Or freedom from several kinds of debt peonage.

 

But city and state political leadership have no plans to fix these problems. Because they can’t do so without discomfiting the ascendant rich and powerful. So they squirrel around the edges. They juggle budget lines, and change program names, and reorganize departments, and send out obfuscatory press releases, and do whatever they can do to cover up the fact that they aren’t taxing giant companies and their owners nearly as much as they should be. And in failing to collect sufficient tax revenue, they lack the needed funds to fix the worst damage done by those companies.

 

Yet they never fail to find millions in ready cash for vast conglomerates like General Electric. And now Amazon. A multibillion dollar trust that did not pay a cent in US income taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—and is expecting a one-time $789 million break from thanks to Pres. Donald Trump’s kinder, more corporate-friendly tax plan.

 

So, sure, I could write another column this week inveighing against Mayor Marty Walsh’s new scheme to dump $5 million in local tax breaks on Amazon in exchange for bringing another 2,000 jobs to the city. Well, not to the actual city, but to job sites within 25 miles of the city, according to the Boston Globe. And not right away, but by 2025. Maybe. And dumping another $5 million if Amazon brings yet another 2,000 jobs to (Greater) Boston. Not the decent working class jobs that most Bostonians need, of course. Jobs that highly educated people from around the world will come to the area to fill. Exacerbating our housing, transportation, and environmental crises in the process.

 

And, yes, the proposed $5-10 million is not as much as Walsh arranged to throw at GE—in a deal swiftly running off the rails as that corporate behemoth crashes and burns thanks to the gentle ministrations of its own “activist” investors. But once Gov. Charlie Baker adds state money to the kitty, the new Amazon deal will start to look very similar to the earlier deal. Which he will almost certainly do. Given that he’s so excited for Boston to “win” the far larger “HQ2” boondoggle that he wants to pass a new law that will allow the Commonwealth to shovel truly epic wads of public lucre at the rapacious anti-worker multinational, according to State House News Service.

 

Yet with such deals becoming so frequent, it really strikes me that writing is never enough to change the politics that allows this kind of backroom deal making by itself—regardless of how boring or exciting it is for me to crank out. After all, providing information to the population at large only goes so far.

 

Political action is inevitably required. And not just by one journalist. Because stopping the public gravy train for corporations that are also among the biggest donors to state and local politicians’ war chests is going to take truly massive and sustained protest on the part of the people of Boston (and the rest of Massachusetts).

 

How massive? Well, remember last year’s Women’s March of over 175,000? Or last year’s 40,000-strong march against a few ultra-right weasels? That’s the scale of the street actions that would be required on a regular basis—in tandem with concerted and well-coordinated lobbying efforts—to not only stop particular giveaways to corporations like GE and Amazon, but to outlaw them. And, for good measure, start criminal proceedings against politicians and corporate leaders that collude to loot the public till.

 

Who will lead such efforts? Hard to say. But at the end of the day, I think it will be new entrants that will step into the political vacuum I’ve outlined, and directly challenge state and local government deals with major corporations. People like most of my regular audience. Working people, many without college degrees, that will finally decide that enough is enough. I think that the existing oppositional forces—ranging from the left wing of the Democratic Party through formations like Our Revolution to grassroots activist coalitions like Poor People’s Campaign to rising socialist organizations like Democratic Socialists of America to some of the more enlightened elements of organized labor—will play a role in the necessary popular movement that will emerge. But I suspect that the main energy will not come from those forces, but from new ones. As has been the case with the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements in recent years. The trick will be sustaining early momentum long enough to bring some big corporations down to earth. And then moving on to tackling the truly terrifying federal corruption.

 

Until that happens, it’s going to be one sad government giveaway to huge companies after another in Boston. And I’ll do my best to keep you all up to speed on at least the worst of them. But I look forward to the day that I can help chronicle the victory of a powerful movement for social justice. Rather than merely track democracy’s looming demise.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

“WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!”

Apparent Horizon column North Andover MA collage

 

Moral panic hamstrings promising North Andover cannabis farm deal

 

February 6, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

DIGBOSTON JOINS MOVEMENT TO ABOLISH NUCLEAR WEAPONS

nuclear fireball

 

News weekly feels the threat of cataclysmic war is grave enough to warrant direct action

 

January 30, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

DigBoston—and this should be obvious, but it bears stating plainly—is against the US or any nation, organization, or individual having nuclear weapons. Because the longer anyone has them, the more likely it is that they will be used. And if one is used, there is a very significant chance that many or even all of the nukes will be used. Lest we forget that when the US had the first two atomic bombs in existence, and used one, it was very quick to use the second.

 

That’s why last week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a journal founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists who “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work,” moved the hands of its famed “Doomsday Clock” up from “two and a half minutes to midnight” to “two minutes to midnight.” The clock has not been so close to “midnight”—meaning nuclear war—since 1953. Shortly after both the US and the former Soviet Union tested their first outrageously destructive hydrogen bombs at the height of the Cold War.

 

The journal’s reasons for taking this alarming step are many, and can be read on its website, thebulletin.org. But at base, it is dangerous changes to US nuclear policy under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump that threaten to overturn treaties that have led to decades of reductions to the global stockpile of nuclear warheads—from over 65,000 in 1986 to about 15,000 today—coupled with Trump’s escalating war of words with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un that led to the clock being dialed forward.

 

Behind the bluster is the world’s largest military: America’s. Which for the last few months has been positioning conventional and nuclear forces within easy striking distance of North Korea. So when, according to the Wall Street Journal, some of the less sane Trump administration figures like National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster support the idea of giving the growing North Korean nuclear weapons program “a bloody nose” with a military strike using “small,” “tactical” nuclear weapons, the world takes notice. And the Doomsday Clock continues its unnerving march toward midnight.

 

Lest readers think such concern is overstated, Business Insider just reported that the US has deployed B-2 stealth bombers to Guam—joining B-52 bombers already stationed there. Both planes are capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Including the new B61-12 gravity bombs that, while not slated to be deployed until 2019, are supposedly able to take out deep bunkers with a minimum of damage and fallout. Which, together with their adjustable yield setting down to a fraction of the Hiroshima bomb, makes them more likely to be used, according to peace activists and defense officials alike. And a fraction of a bomb that destroyed and irradiated an entire city is still much more dangerous than the largest US conventional weapons. Not to mention the Pandora’s box problem. Since once the US opens that figurative box by using nukes in battle, there’s nothing to stop other countries from doing the same. Least of all North Korea.

 

Russia and China have been frantically trying to get the US to pursue a diplomatic path to peace with North Korea, but to no avail. At a time when the US no longer has any nuclear disarmament negotiations in progress with Russia, a nation with 7,000 nuclear warheads—the most of any nation—and tensions are rising with China, which has 270 warheads, that is most disturbing news indeed.

 

Because the path from the “bloody nose” of a few “smaller” nukes like the B61-12 dropped on North Korean nuclear weapons sites—or sites that Pentagon planners assume are nuclear weapons sites despite having been wrong before due to poor intelligence on North Korea—to a global conflagration is crystal clear. Since the ironically named “Demilitarized Zone” between North and South Korea is the most heavily fortified place in the world. And 35 miles south of the zone is Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

 

If the US nukes North Korea, then Kim Jong Un would have every reason to nuke American targets that North Korean missiles are probably capable of reaching in the Pacific basin—and even Seoul itself in retaliation. Followed by other nuclear strikes, using precisely the same “use ’em or lose ’em” strategy that the US has followed since the dawn of the Atomic Age, according to Daniel Ellsberg—who recently released a book about his decade as a senior American nuclear strategist prior to his leaking the Pentagon Papers and helping end the Vietnam War.

 

Once nukes are flying, therefore, there’s nowhere to go but down. North Korea has somewhere between 10 and 60 warheads—depending on whether you believe the lower estimates by peace groups like the Nobel Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons or the higher estimates by US government sources—and its quest to figure out how to miniaturize nukes to fit on its short-, medium-, and now long-range missiles has been a precipitating factor in the current crisis. The US, for its part, has about 6,800 warheads overall. About 1,800 of which are deployed, according to 2017 data from the Federation of American Scientists.  

 

The American military would be dropping nukes on direct orders from a president with all the powers of his predecessors to use them at will with no check from any other branch of government. The weapons would strike a very small country that shares borders with Russia and China—two rival superpowers with huge armies and thousands more nuclear weapons between them. A couple of miscalculations involving unexpected fallout yield or an errant strike due to a jammed guidance system or any number of other unforeseen occurrences with incredibly dangerous nukes and it’s bye-bye Vladivostok and adieu Yanbian.

 

An unauthorized US flyover of Russia or China or the entry of a US fleet to their territorial waters during attacks on North Korea could also result in a nuclear response from either country—especially should the US lower the bar and start using nukes in combat again. And North Korea, with nuclear weapons that are hardly the most accurate or stable, could easily make mistakes that would draw Russia or China into a shooting war. Even though North Korea has stated that it is “only” targeting the US with nukes, according to Newsweek. The possibilities for error are endless in a conventional war, let alone one involving nuclear exchanges. So it’s easy to see how any use of horrific weapons of mass destruction can quickly put the entire world on the fast track to Armageddon.

 

For these reasons, and many more besides, DigBoston cannot stand on the sidelines and remain silent while the threat of a war that would exterminate the human race rises by the day. To do so would be an abrogation of our moral and ethical responsibilities—not only as journalists, but as human beings.

 

And if the planet is destroyed, journalists like us aren’t going to be able to report the news anymore, now are we? Nor will our audience have any use for it in the hereafter.

 

As such, this publication is joining the swiftly reviving movement to abolish nuclear weapons.

 

We plan to participate in the following ways:

 

  1. Open our pages wide to opinion articles calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, as we continue to editorialize about same.
  2. Produce an ongoing series of columns, features, and investigative reports in the public interest exposing Massachusetts institutions involved in developing, producing, and/or profiting from nuclear weapons.
  3. Work directly on campaigns to abolish nuclear weapons with local, national, and international peace organizations—adding the name of our publication to the growing list of civic, social, religious, professional, and business organizations in tandem with the 56 nations that have already signed the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in saying that the only sane nuclear weapons policy is to mandate a world without such weapons.
  4. Help organize our colleagues in the news industry to join us in the fight to abolish nuclear weapons.

 

We’ll talk about more specifics over the coming months, but anyone with questions about our stance is welcome to email us at editorial@digboston.com.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

DON’T TAKE JOURNALISM LYING DOWN

DON’T TAKE JOURNALISM LYING DOWN

 

If a DigBoston article inspires you, take action to right wrongs

 

January 3, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

As each new year arrives, DigBoston staff—and journalists in general—like to offer some thoughts for the 12 months to come. These missives often take the shape of admonitions, wish lists, or resolutions, and the subjects covered can be literally anything that comes to our minds. So they’re typically fun to write. But now that I help run a metro weekly newspaper, I find myself thinking a lot about the mechanics of how news media works, how it’s used by our audience, and the role it plays in our troubled democracy.

 

And I feel that this year it’s worth saying something that may seem obvious at first glance, but isn’t: Good journalism isn’t meant to be passively consumed. It’s meant to be acted upon.

 

As a journalist, I spend a lot of my time writing articles about social and political ills affecting area communities—as do many of my colleagues at DigBoston in one way or another. We do this not because we expect someone to stick gold stars on our foreheads, but because we sincerely hope to inspire our readers to take notice of the real-life problems Bostonians face day to day… and take action to resolve them. We think that this is precisely the role that journalists must play in a democracy, if we’re serious.

 

What journalists cannot do—as I put it to a critic of one of my recent pieces—is, having led the proverbial horses of our readership to the water of knowledge, shove their heads into the trough and make them drink to the point of wanting to effect social change.

 

So it’s up to the public—you, reading this newspaper or consuming any news media of any type—to either act upon what journalists say, or not.

 

Just remember that without readers getting active on issues journalists raise, nothing much happens in a political economic system that’s spiraling downward toward oligarchy. Especially in this era of information overload.

 

Which is why I’d like to encourage DigBoston readers to do the following three things with our journalism—be it our news features, columns, investigative reporting, or critical arts and entertainment articles—going forward:

 

1) Learn More

After first reading an article that’s trying to redress a societal grievance, process it awhile. Then, if you decide that it’s really speaking to you, return to it again. Note the issues at stake, go online (if you’re not already), find other articles that relate to those issues, and read them for more background. Advanced readers may also look for related academic articles and books for a really deep dive.

 

2) Survey the Field

Once you have a better handle on the issues, look up the people mentioned in Dig articles and/or the organizations they work with, and determine who seems to be trying to right whatever wrongs are under discussion. Find their websites and social media presences. If you go to our digboston.com website, we’ll often provide links; so you can just click and easily find the information you need. But if we don’t, just google the people and institutions that look to be on the side of the angels. After that, don’t forget to take a look at any “bad guys” mentioned too. Maybe you’ll decide that there’s no harm, and therefore no foul. And that will be that. But if you agree there is a problem that needs fixing, and think that you’re just the person who should help fix it, then proceed to the final step.

 

3) Act

If you decide to get involved in a fight we write about in DigBoston, you’ll typically have two options. Either find an advocacy organization (or sometimes a public figure) that is mentioned in the article you’re reading, contact them (any good organizer will make it easy to do so), and ask them how you can plug in. Or, and this is the tougher route, if you’re really inspired to get active on an issue mentioned in one of our articles, and no one seems to be working on it yet, consider starting your own advocacy organization. Even if the group is a simple neighborhood committee consisting of family members and neighbors, that’s a great start. Particularly if the issue of concern affects you directly at the local level. If that seems like more than you can handle, then do whatever you can do out of the gate. Write an outraged email. Call up some big bad you read about, try to get them on the phone, and give them a piece of your mind. Donate to an advocacy group you think is doing good work. Vote for a politician that you think is a champion on your issue, and decent overall.

 

Once you’ve taken that action step, you might find it gives you a sense of accomplishment. If so, take another one. And another. And soon enough, you won’t just be reading the news… you’ll be making it. Which would please all of us at DigBoston to no end. Because then we’ll really know that we’ve done our job by turning a passive spectator into an active participant in the revival of our democracy. And we’ll know that 2018 will be a good year for our brand of community journalism in the public interest.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

 

ANNOUNCING THE DIGBOSTON  ‘UNNAMING’ POLICY

Doing our part to shut down the ultra right

 

November 21, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

As journalists, my DigBoston colleagues and I have a responsibility to do our best to cover news of the day fairly and accurately. And that’s based on our abiding belief in practising ethical journalism. Even though we’re street reporters for an alternative urban news weekly—a bit rough around the edges…  and known for wearing our emotions on our collective sleeve from time to time in our pursuit of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

 

In 2002, Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute—an influential Florida journalism school—condensed journalistic ethics down to three principles that we strongly agree with:

 

  1. Seek truth and report it as fully as possible.
  2. Act independently.
  3. Minimize harm.

 

It’s that third admonition that comes into play when we consider how to approach covering events run by ultra-right wingers. Like last weekend’s rally at Parkman Bandstand on the Boston Common. Which is why this publication has decided to “unname” ultra right-wing individuals and organizations in our pages going forward.

 

The rally itself and the couple of similar small Boston rallies that preceded it are almost comic in their insignificance, but the ideas they represent are not. When put into practice, they do a great deal of harm. By helping spread them, then, we would too—violating our ethical mandate to minimize harm in the process.

 

Those ideas are many, varied, and extremely confused as it turns out. The expressed beliefs of people organizing recent hard-right events have been an ill-conceived mishmash of right-wing libertarian, right-wing nationalist, right-wing populist, and right-wing Christian evangelical thinking plus an assortment of random conspiracy theories.

 

To our point, however, DigBoston cannot ignore the fact that these organizers work with latter-day nazis, fascists, and white supremacists. Neither can we turn a blind eye to the toxic thread of misogynistic, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant views present in their circles.

 

Nor can we go along with many other media outlets in pretending that rally organizers aren’t simply giving one version of their politics in the light of day, and another version in the relative privacy of their normal online forums.

 

As Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center said to the New Republic earlier this year, “The right says the left is violent and they need to be prepared for it, but when they turn their head they’re wishing for nothing but violence, death, and destruction, on anyone and anything that’s not white.”

 

It’s clear to us that the most reprehensible supporters of such rallies, from Boston to grim Charlottesville to San Francisco, do not believe in democracy and are interested in bathing the world in the blood of their perceived enemies. Who include all people of African descent, all Latinos, all Native Americans, all Asians, all Arabs, all Muslims, and all Jews.

 

Yes, we’re back to that insanity.

 

They also lump in all their political enemies for conversion or extirpation depending on their individual ethnic, religious, or racial backgrounds: Democrats (who they consider to be socialists, communists, or whatever), socialists, communists, anarchists, Greens, and other parties and ideologies to the left of President Donald Trump. They further have a deep and abiding hatred for women and LGBTQ folks, and expect the former to submit to male domination—and the latter to at best run and hide, and at worst to go to the death camps they like to “joke” about in dank corners of the Internet.

 

They assign these people subhuman status and deem them unworthy of participation—or indeed existence—in the hateful society they want to create. They also ascribe magic powers to some groups like Jews. They believe said groups control the world with those imagined powers and must be destroyed because of them.

 

In addition, they believe that people of northern European descent—a group in which many of them claim or feign membership—have their own magic powers. And that they have been chosen by History or God or Wotan or Fate to rule the world and have a right to eliminate all opposition to that rule—which will make the planet “pure.”

 

For a long time since World War II, it’s been easy to dismiss such reactionaries as lunatics because the original nazis and fascists were crushed by force of arms at the cost of tens of millions of lives. And driven from public life the world over. But now they have returned in many countries including the US, their ideas being spread over the web along with a lot of much nicer ideas.

 

In working with today’s nazis, fascists, and white supremacists, we believe that the organizers of the recent ultra-right rallies are effectively joining forces with them and are therefore helping build their movements. As such, while we agree that all parties concerned have the right to free speech, we do not think that extends to the right to free publicity for any of them in our pages. Given the clear and present danger that genocidal malcontents in their ranks present.

 

Stopping ultra-right forces from becoming a real threat to humanity requires not playing their game. As journalists, the way we play their game is by drawing attention to their spokespeople and organizations, and helping them spread their toxic ideas to even more of the kind of confused, bitter, angry people they’re already recruiting on social media.

 

So, we’ll report on ultra-right events when we decide they’re newsworthy, but we refuse to give ultra-right leaders and organizations the publicity and media platform that they want most of all. Because more attention gets them more followers and thus more political power. And we think that other news media—network TV first and foremost—are being extremely irresponsible and unethical by continuing to create a press feeding frenzy around every ultra-right action or pronouncement they hear about.

 

We’ll cover the activities of ultra-right individuals and organizations from time to time in carefully considered ways. We’ll even quote them—either anonymously or using pseudonyms we make up for each occasion. But we will not print their names in DigBoston, and we won’t link to their websites or social media presences either. Except when they commit crimes. Or in rare situations where we will do greater harm by not printing their names. That’s our unnaming policy. And we’re sticking to it. We will also apply it to other individuals and organizations that call for —or work with those who call for—crimes against humanity. In the interest of minimizing harm in our reporting. And in the defense of democracy, social justice, and human rights—which is our core mission as a publication of record.

 

We invite fellow journalists and news outlets the world over to join us in adopting this policy.

 


 

The editors and staff of DigBoston encourage readers to share this editorial widely.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston

THE VERTEX SHELL GAME

Vertex Headquarters. Photo ©2015 Derek Kouyoumjian

Vertex Headquarters. Photo ©2015 Derek Kouyoumjian

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

October 24, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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

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

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

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

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

1) Tax breaks and direct aid

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

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

2) Gouging public health programs

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

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

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

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

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

3) Government-backed monopolies

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

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

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

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

4) Public science, private profit

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

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

Conclusion: the racket and the damage done

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.