Skip to content

democracy

‘DON’T MOURN, ORGANIZE!’

 

The Black Cat. Industrial Workers of the World symbol. Credited to Ralph Chaplin.
The Black Cat. Industrial Workers of the World symbol. Credited to Ralph Chaplin.

 

Why Janus might actually be good for the American labor movement

 

July 3, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The Supreme Court issued a decision last week that will have profound consequences for American working people. In Janus v. AFSCME, the court overturned a 1977 decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, that allowed public sector unions—like the National Education Association, the American Federation of Government Employees, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—to charge government workers who refused to become members a “fair share” fee to defray the expense of representing them.

 

According to the Atlantic, “Until now, 22 states had in place a so-called ‘fair share’ provision, which required people represented by unions who did not choose to be members of these unions to pay fees to cover the cost of the unions’ collective bargaining activities. By contrast, 28 states were so-called ‘right-to-work’ states, and barred employers from including ‘fair share’ requirements in employment contracts.”

 

Private sector unions—although most large unions these days like Service Employees International Union represent both private and public sector workers—are also not allowed to collect “fair share” or “agency” fees in right-to-work states. The thing that makes this ruling so pernicious is that it expands that right-to-work mandate to cover public sector unions nationwide.

 

The understandable view of the majority of labor supporters is that Janus is a disaster for American unionism. Bankrolled by a rogues’ gallery of right-wing donors, its passage virtually guaranteed by the replacement of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with another conservative, Neil Gorsuch, the decision is certainly going to have a negative impact on public sector unions. Which comprise the largest wing of the US labor movement of 2018. Private sector unions having already been beaten back by endless attacks from corporations over the last 50 years.

 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the union membership rate of public sector workers (34.4 percent) continued to be more than five times higher than that of private sector workers (6.5 percent) in 2017. With only 10.7 percent of American jobs unionized overall, and public sector union members outnumbering private sector union members since 2009.

 

This low “union density” rate is no accident, as big business wants to eliminate unions as an impediment to their endless drive for profit. Since unions have the strongest track record of any institution in our society of keeping the pressure on employers and government for higher wages, better benefits, and more spending on government programs that benefit working families. Just the sorts of things that lower corporate profits.

 

But public sector unions have been better protected than private sector unions—organizing jobs that are generally directly funded by government at all levels. This has made them a primary target of the right wing—for whom giving unionized government workers a better deal over decades is tantamount to using public funds to expand the government.

 

Also, public sector unions—like most other unions—provide tens of millions of dollars to the Democrats every election cycle, and most of the ground troops the Dems need to run successful election campaigns in many districts.

 

For those reasons, right-wing strategists have been looking for ways to get rid of public sector unions since they rose to prominence in the mid-20th century. Even more than the private sector unions they’ve had an easier time busting. And Janus moved them a long way toward that goal by cutting into union bottom lines.

 

How? Fair share fees add up. Eliminating them for public sector unions nationwide will cut millions of dollars from their budgets. Effectively slashing the amount of money they can spend on organizing new workers and plumping up Democratic Party coffers. Even though the Aboud decision dictated that fair share fees could only be spent on “collective bargaining” costs—basically, providing nonunion government workers the same services provided to union members—not on political activity.

 

No surprise, then, that many union leaders and boosters think this is the worst anti-labor decision by the court in decades.

 

However, there’s a minority view on the left wing of labor—where I have always situated myself as a longtime union member and activist—that says that the Janus decision may actually save American unions. Why? Two reasons.

 

First, because the more money that American unions have raised from members and nonmembers alike, the more they have tended to bureaucratize. And become top-heavy with high-paid staffers and elected officials that have become culturally distant from those same members.

 

Because union leaders making secure six-figure salaries with generous benefits have very little in common with members making typical union wages. They are also more likely to be college educated than union members are. A phenomenon that’s been growing (ironically) since the radical campus movements of the 1960s produced a generation of student activists who entered union jobs—and staff positions— in an effort to push them to the left politically. After the communists, socialists, and anarchists who actually built many unions through titanic workplaces struggles between the turn of the last century and the 1940s were pushed out of them during the anti-left “witch hunts” of the McCarthy Era.

 

Today’s union leaders therefore are not like the leaders of those earlier struggles. They’re often more comfortable with the college-educated corporate and government leadership sitting across from them at the bargaining table than they are with their own members. And they’ve tended to replace militant grassroots organizing on behalf of the entire working class with narrow bargaining for minor contractual gains for the shrinking number of members they represent. Such leaders make tough-sounding noises when it’s time to get a new contract with an employer or during big election campaigns. Yet they’re actually quite timid compared to their predecessors—who were often on the front lines of literal street battles with police and the National Guard or in jail on trumped-up charges when union activity was deemed illegal by courts stacked with pro-corporate elites.

 

Second, as this timidity in an era of renewed vicious corporate assaults against labor has contributed to declining union membership rolls as a percentage of the growing population, union leaders have turned to spending larger and larger sums of money on the Democratic Party. In a mostly vain attempt to purchase political clout they no longer have in the streets or at the ballot box. Even as the Democrats have moved steadily to the right since the 1970s, and become more and more beholden to corporations. Which still makes the Republican hard right angry enough to fight for court decisions like Janus, since the now slavishly pro-corporate Democrats are insufficiently capitalist by their lights. And, more to the point, since the Republicans have a strong desire to rule—a “will to power,” one might say—and any force that opposes them is an enemy that must be defeated. An attitude that hapless Dem leaders have definitely adopted to anyone to their left, including the social democratic pro-union left of their own party. But have failed to adopt to the Repubs and the outright fascists on their right.

 

So, Janus might be just what’s needed to cause a rebirth of the labor movement. It eliminates a big chunk of the money that union leaders have to spend on the Democrats—who have done little more than take that money and spit on union workers since the neoliberals of the Clinton administration took over party leadership.

 

It also will force the unions to cut staff. Including top staff. Which will definitely dump good leaders as well as bad ones, and that’s a drag. But it might very well help with the other big problem American unions have—a lack of internal democracy. Like other bureaucracies, too many unions have come to vest too much power in their top echelons. And leave their members out in the cold. Which is another factor that has led to union leaders making bad political decisions. Like backing pro-corporate Hillary Clinton over pro-labor Bernie Sanders in 2016.

 

Budget cuts caused by Janus could cause more power to be vested in union memberships’ hands. Leading to more victories like the one won recently by unionized teachers in West Virginia—who organized massive wildcat strikes over the protests of their own leadership. And won big while lighting a fire that has spread to teachers in other “red” states like Oklahoma and Arizona. States that are, among other bad things, right-to-work states.

 

However things play out, moribund American union leadership has been in need of a wakeup call for decades. And if Janus is what it takes to shake them out of their torpor, then so be it.

 

In any case, as storied labor martyr Joe Hill once said, “Don’t mourn, organize!” But don’t expect to win gains in the workplace and at the ballot box without a real fight—and without unions controlled by their members top to bottom.

 

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.

GRAND SCHEME

workers protesting

 

Mass legislature helps, harms workers in “deal” with labor and business lobbies

 

June 26, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

No sooner did the Supreme Judicial Court shoot down the “millionaires’ tax” referendum question last week than the Mass legislature rammed a so-called grand bargain bill (H 4640) through both chambers. A move aimed at shoring up tax revenue threatened by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts referendum question that is virtually certain to lower the state sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5 percent if it should go before voters in November.

 

The house and senate did this by rapidly completing the brokering of a deal that had been in the works between pro-labor and pro-business forces on those issues for months. Giving each side something it wanted in exchange for encouraging the Raise Up Mass coalition to take its remaining two referendum questions—paid family and medical leave, and the $15 an hour minimum wage—off the table, and the retailers association to do the same with its sales tax cut question. Both organizations have not yet made the decision to do so.

 

If passed, the so-called grand bargain bill will give labor watered-down versions of its paid family and medical leave and $15 an hour minimum wage ballot questions, and give business something that’s explicitly anti-labor: the end of time-and-a-half wages for people working Sundays and holidays, and their ability to legally refuse to work Sunday and holiday shifts.

 

While Gov. Charlie Baker still has to sign the bill, as of this writing it’s looking like he will do so. Soon.

 

Which is a pity because it’s not such a great deal for working people as written. True, the grand bargain does ensure that the state minimum wage will raise to $15 an hour for many workers. But it moves up to that rate from the current $11 an hour over five years, instead of the four years it would take with the referendum version. Plus it betrays tipped employees, whose wage floor will only rise from a pathetic $3.75 an hour now to a still pathetic $6.75 an hour by 2023. Keeping all the cards in the bosses’ hands in the biggest tipped sector, the restaurant industry. Although it’s worth mentioning that even the referendum version of the $15 an hour wage plan would have only raised tipped employees to $9 an hour. When what’s needed is a single minimum wage for all workers.

 

It also makes Massachusetts one of the first states in the nation to institute paid family and medical leave for many workers. Which is truly a noteworthy advance. Yet again, the referendum version is better for workers than the grand bargain version.

 

But legislators gave away another noteworthy advance from 20 years ago in the process: time-and-a-half wages for many employees who work on Sundays and holidays. Which will hurt some of the same people who the new minimum wage and paid and family medical leave will help.

 

Thus far, the labor-led Raise Up Massachusetts coalition has had mostly positive things to say about the deal. However, the main union representing supermarket workers—many of whom currently take Sunday and holiday shifts—is already vowing to torpedo the grand bargain. Even though their union contracts also mandate time-and-a-half pay for working Sundays and holidays. And they’ve resolved to take down legislators who backed it over their protest.

 

Jeff Bollen, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445, minced no words on the subject in a recent video message to his members:

 

“I am really pissed off at our state legislature for stabbing retail workers in the back by taking away time and a half on Sundays and holidays for all retail workers in Massachusetts.


“Remember, it was this local union in 1994 with big business and the retail association wanting to get rid of the blue laws; so they could open up their supermarkets, their big box stores, and their liquor stores and make money on Sundays that we fought hard to get a law passed to protect you, the retail worker. And we did.”

 

The supermarket union leader went on to explain that state lawmakers “panicked” when the millionaires’ tax was derailed and pushed through the grand bargain to avoid losing any more revenue from the referendum question to lower the sales tax. He swore the union was “going to remove those individuals that voted against you. We’re going to get them removed and replaced with pro-labor legislators who are going to fight for the rights of working people.” And defiantly concluded: “We’re going to continue to fight. We’re going to continue to try to get this whole thing repealed.”

 

How much support the UFCW can expect to get from the rest of the labor movement remains to be seen. But the fact is that some Bay State working families are going to suffer nearly as much pain as gain from the grand bargain.

 

Worse still, there’s a deeper problem with the bill. It potentially stops the retailers’ referendum drive to lower the sales tax—which they’ve definitely put on the ballot to ensure that big businesses make more profits. But it must not be forgotten that the sales tax is a regressive tax that disproportionately harms working families. And even though the state desperately needs money for many programs that help the 99 percent, it remains a bad way to raise funds compared to a progressive tax system that would force the rich to pay higher tax rates than everyone else. Like the federal government has done for over a hundred years.

 

Yet since the rich and their corporations continue to rule the roost in state politics, and since a state constitutional amendment would be required to allow a progressive tax system in Massachusetts, there is no way that is going to happen anytime soon. As I wrote last week, the millionaires’ tax would have at least increased the amount of progressivity in the tax system had it been allowed on the ballot (where it was projected to win handily). But business lobbies got the SJC to stop that move.

 

Given that, the revenue lost from a sales tax cut would really hurt in a period when many major state social programs are already being starved for funds.

 

Nevertheless, many working families will take a big hit from the grand bargain bill as written: They’ll see the full introduction of the $15 minimum wage delayed by an extra year, they’ll get a worse version of paid family and medical leave, they’ll lose time-and-a-half wages on Sundays and holidays, they’ll see the sales tax remain at 6.25 percent… and if they’re tipped employees, they’ll still be made to accept a lower minimum wage than the relevant ballot question would get them and still have to rely on customers to tip them decently and their bosses to refrain from skimming those tips.

 

So, it would behoove Raise Up Massachusetts and its constituent labor, community, and religious organizations to stay the course with the paid family and medical leave and $15 an hour minimum wage referendum questions that are still slated to appear on the November ballot. And pro-labor forces should also be ready to lobby harder for a better deal should Gov. Baker refuse to sign the grand bargain bill.

 

Of course, it could very well be that the bill will be signed into law before this article hits the stands, and that labor and their allies will throw in the towel on their ballot questions. And that would be a shame.

 

Here’s hoping for a better outcome for Massachusetts workers. Even at this late date.

 

Note: Raise Up Massachusetts announced that it had accepted the “grand bargain” bill shortly before this article went to press on Tuesday evening (6.26), according to the Boston Business Journal.

 

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.

CAPITALIST VETO

Money tips the scales of justice image

 

Popular “millionaires’ tax” referendum question blocked by a pro-business SJC

 

June 19, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The Fair Share Amendment—better known as the “millionaires’ tax”—that would have gone before voters this November as a statewide referendum question was shot down this week by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). So the effort to increase taxes on people making $1 million-plus a year and spend the resulting funds on social needs is over. For the moment.

 

Organized over the last three years by Raise Up Massachusetts, a major coalition of labor, community, and religious organizations, the initiative had the support of two-thirds of Bay State voters in recent polling and had a good shot at passing.

 

The campaign was spearheaded by the Commonwealth’s two largest unions, Service Employees International Union and Mass Teachers Association. And naturally, most Massachusetts rich people had no intention of letting anyone—let alone a bunch of union leaders, social workers, and priests—raise their taxes.

 

Flunkies and front groups were then unleashed. The Massachusetts High Technology Council put together a bloc of capitalist lobby groups—including the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership—and challenged the amendment’s constitutionality.

 

They were aided in this push by the fact that Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, was able to appoint five of seven justices to the SJC since taking office in 2015. Including one that, in fairness, wrote the dissenting opinion on the Fair Share Amendment ruling.

 

Thus, it was no big surprise that the SJC shot the millionaires’ tax down on a legal technicality. Since the wealth lobby had no convincing political argument against the tax beyond “we don’t want to pay it.” But they had high-powered lawyers, plenty of money, and a court stacked in the right direction. Theirs. A capitalist veto in the making.

 

Professor Lawrence Friedman of New England Law | Boston explained the decision succinctly on a special edition of The Horse Race podcast—hosted by Lauren Dezenski of Politico Massachusetts and Steve Koczela of the MassINC Polling Group:

 

“What a majority of the court concluded was that this petition didn’t satisfy the requirements of article 48 [of the Mass constitution] for a valid petition that can go before the voters in November. Because it failed what’s called the ‘relatedness’ requirement—the various parts of the petition didn’t relate to each other sufficiently to pass constitutional muster.

 

“So the three parts of the petition involve the revenue raising measure, the so-called millionaire’s tax, and then two distinct dedications—one to education and one to transportation. And the court essentially said that, except at a very abstract level, those things are not sufficiently related to satisfy the relatedness requirement.”

 

The minority of the court, for their part, had a very different view. According to Justice Kimberly Budd (joined by Gov. Deval Patrick appointee Chief Justice Ralph Gants, and pardon the legalese here):

 

“Disregarding the plain text of art. 48, The Initiative, II, § 3, of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, as amended by art. 74 of the Amendments, which requires that an initiative petition contain ‘only subjects … which are related or which are mutually dependent,’ the court concludes that, in drafting this language the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1917-1918 inserted the words ‘or which are mutually dependent’ as superfluous text. … The court goes on to conclude that the people may not express their opinion on a one section, four-sentence petition because it contains subjects that are not related. … That analysis is flawed.”

 

In plain English, to rather brutally paraphrase further remarks by Friedman on The Horse Race, activists amended the state constitution a hundred years ago to allow the people of Massachusetts to make laws by referendum because even then the legislative process had been captured by corporations and the rich in ways perhaps unforeseen by John Adams when he drafted the document in 1780.

 

To block the Fair Share Amendment referendum from going on the ballot for a vote is therefore not in the spirit of the sentence at the core of the SJC majority’s case. The court’s pro-business majority focused on the “relatedness requirement.” Its pro-worker minority countered that referendum questions that contain “unrelated” items that are “mutually dependent” pass constitutional muster. But with five votes to two, the majority prevailed.

 

The result? The tiny percentage of Mass residents who make more than a cool million a year will not see their state taxes rise from 5.1 to 9.1 percent. And the estimated $2 billion that was expected to be raised from that levy annually will not be applied to the Commonwealth’s education and transportation budgets. Both areas that are ridiculously underfunded given our state’s wealth relative to much of the rest of the nation.

 

Worse still, the spurious myth that the Mass capitalists’ “coalition of the willing” flogged—and continues to flog in the case of the Boston Herald’s ever fact-light columnist Howie Carr—that rich people leave states that increase their taxes will continue to seem like reality to less careful onlookers of the local political scene. Despite the fact that a major study and a book entitled The Myth of Millionaire Tax Flight: How Place Still Matters for the Rich by Stanford University sociology professor Cristobal Young have used big data to dismiss the idea as mere scaremongering, according to Commonwealth magazine.

 

Now Raise Up Massachusetts has two options: 1) start the referendum process all over again with language that will pass muster with the narrowest and most conservative interpretation of the “relatedness’ requirement,” or 2) take the fight to the legislature.

 

With the chances of the legislature passing any kind of tax increase being approximately zero as long as Robert DeLeo is House speaker, starting the referendum process again from scratch is pretty much the only way to go.

 

Unless Raise Up leaders decide to make some kind of “deal” with the legislature. Which I sincerely hope is not the case. Because the whole Fair Share campaign is already a major compromise given that the real goal of any forward-thinking left-wing reformer in this arena has to be the repeal of article 44 of the state constitution that prohibits a graduated income tax system. Followed by the passage of such a system.

 

While I’m well aware that every attempt to do that has been defeated in the past, I’m also aware that if referendum questions aimed at the much broader goal of winning a fair tax system were on the table, then it would be possible to negotiate for something smaller like the “millionaires’ tax” if the effort ran into trouble.

 

As things stand, Raise Up Mass appears to have little room to maneuver. So, better to start preparing for a win in 2022 on an improved referendum strategy—preferably aiming for a graduated income tax to replace our anemic flat tax system—than to make a bad deal merely to be able to declare a false “victory” to its supporters and switch its public focus to the two other drives it still has in play: paid family and medical leave, and the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

 

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: 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

 

May 16, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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

 

May 9, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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

 

March 21, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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

 

March, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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.