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BROKEN MEDIA, BROKEN POLITICS

Charlie Baker

 

If Mass journalists were doing their jobs, Baker would not be so popular

 

It’s always funny to hear that Charlie Baker is a very popular governor… The most popular governor in the country at the moment, according to polls. Because he doesn’t do anything very differently than his predecessor Deval Patrick did. Or than Mass House speaker Robert DeLeo does. Or than most any state Democratic leader when it comes down to core economic issues—with the exception of the leaders with little actual power.

 

Baker, Patrick, DeLeo, and all their ilk in both major parties essentially follow the same game plan. They work to lower taxes for those most able to afford them, cut desperately needed social programs to the bone, and give away as much money as possible to giant corporations.

 

Much of the rest of what they do is posturing for the various constituencies that make up their particular electorates. And that’s the stuff that gets the most media coverage. Which is not to say they’re necessarily insincere about such activity. But they’re elected to represent the wealthy interests that run the Commonwealth, and the work they do for that most important constituency is always their top priority.

 

So when Patrick and Baker, for example, shovel over $1.5 billion in free public money at the biotech industry or arrange millions in tax breaks and direct state aid for huge companies that don’t need them on an ongoing basis—with DeLeo’s blessing in both administrations—to the extent those acts get coverage, they’re presented as done deals that are “good for the economy.” Then it’s on to the next press spectacle of the day. Events where they can “show leadership” and the like. As when there’s a snowstorm. In Massachusetts, a northern state noted for its frequent snowstorms. And the current governor gets on TV and says “stay indoors during the snowstorm.” That is apparently showing leadership.

 

Which explains Baker’s high numbers, I think. Simple public relations. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and all that. With most of the major news outlets gamely playing along. And his numbers are higher than Patrick’s were because he’s a white guy in a super racist state that likes to think it’s super anti-racist.

 

That’s what results in people that don’t pay attention to politics—including the vast majority of white voters—going, “Oh, Baker’s such a nice man” when pollsters ask their opinion of him. More than they did with Patrick. No doubt Baker is a nice man in person or whatever. Lots of people who do bad things when they have power are personally “nice.” Like, I’m sure when some buddy of his from childhood needs money, he’ll give it to him. Or at least loan it to him. But when all the legions of people he doesn’t know personally need good jobs with benefits, need free higher education, need major improvement to infrastructure like the MBTA—because of entrenched structural inequality—that’s a different story.

 

A story whose narrative you can hear if you listen to Baker’s remarks to the 2018 Mass Republican Convention in Worcester last weekend.

 

Stripping away obligatory pleasantries and nods to major supporters, the speech was aimed at the same white middle-class suburbanites who remain the base of the state Republican Party. Baker addressed them directly at one point while enumerating the “successes” of his administration: “We offered early college programs, our Commonwealth Commitment program, which dramatically reduces the cost of a college education. And increases in state scholarships to make the price of college more affordable for moderate- and middle-income families.”

 

See, he thinks they’re so important he mentioned them twice in a row: “moderate- and middle-income families.” No word about low-income families, though. At all. Not even a nod. Sure, working families are discussed. But in Republican-speak, “working families” isn’t code for “working class” as it often is for Democrats. It means “those who work.” As opposed to “those who do not work.” Like all those “lazy shiftless” folks that used to be called working class in more honest times. And those totally nonindustrious [ha!] immigrants. And the “undeserving” poor in general. Everyone who supposedly lives off the bounty of “our”––the good “moderate- and middle-income” people’s, the “taxpayers’”—labor.

 

But no mention of his most important constituency, the one he actually works for, either. “Small business” is mentioned a number of times. But not major corporations and the rich people that own them.

 

Still, they’re there. Lurking behind all of Baker’s remarks. Especially when he said several things that are completely and obviously false to anyone who follows politics reasonably closely. Like taking credit for “dramatically” reducing the cost of a college education. When public higher education is an absolute disaster in Massachusetts. When both the working-class families he seemingly deplores and the middle class he purports to represent—immigrant and nonimmigrant alike—are forced to run up ruinous amounts of debt just to put kids through schools that were once so cheap as to nearly be free. While tuition and fees keep getting raised year after year. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

 

The rich and the corporations are there because public higher ed, like virtually every other beneficial government program, is being starved for operating funds. To fatten that 1 percent’s coffers. Because politicians like Baker make a virtue out of cutting taxes. Slashing budgets. Laying off public workers. Privatizing anything they can get away with. As Baker himself has certainly been doing at the much-beleaguered MBTA. Another public service he addressed in Worcester, saying: “We took on the special interests at the MBTA. Created a Fiscal Management and Control Board. And saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and we’re rebuilding its core infrastructure.” While, in the real world, that same public transportation infrastructure continues to fall apart for lack of the needed direct infusion of state funds.

 

Is everything Baker does bad? No. Is he as dangerous as federal counterparts like President Donald Trump? Or the feral reactionary theocrat Scott Lively that fully 28 percent of Mass Republican delegates just chose to run against Baker in a primary this fall? No. Not yet at least.

 

But that’s not the point.

 

The point is that a polity where a Charlie Baker can be incredibly popular is a broken polity. And a news media that enables him is a broken news media. Baker does not represent even the interest of the white middle class that keeps voting him into office, let alone the working class as a whole. A media that was doing its job would make that patently clear. Every hour of every day. Yet it does the opposite. Because it too is controlled by the same rich and powerful interests that control politics and ensure pols like Baker keep getting elected. Whether those pols call themselves Republicans or Democrats.

 

So to fix politics, we have to fix the media. And I can’t address how that might be done in a single column. But my colleagues and I are trying our damndest to do it in practice at DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. And the fix starts with journalists who are independent and strive to tell the truth about problems in media and the political system. Every hour of every day. Beyond that, there’s much more to say. So, I’ll plan to talk about specific potential fixes in future columns and editorials.

 

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.

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.

GENERAL ELECTRIC FAIL

 

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

 

November 15, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

AN AMAZON NORTH ANDOVER DEAL?

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

Merrimack Valley pols courting the tech behemoth have forgotten recent history

Sept 26, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STOP THE AMAZON BOSTON DEAL

Stop the Amazon Boston Deal

 

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

Sept. 12, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PRESS FAIL: AS GE CEO STEPS DOWN, BOSTON JOURNALISTS MUST DO THEIR JOB

AH-GE-TOP

 

June 14, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

recent column by the Boston Globe‘s Shirley Leung perfectly encapsulates the problem with local media cheerleading for General Electric’s decision to move its headquarters to Boston. The title alone says it all: “Will GE’s new CEO remain committed to Boston?” Because, like so many pieces on the subject by Leung and company, it fails to ask the key question: why did state and local government shovel huge amounts of public money to a private enterprise, and put it in a position to potentially cause grievous harm to a major city’s economy, to begin with? And why did the region’s newspaper of record — and much of the Boston press corps — back the scheme so uncritically?

But now, after all the prattle by fawning journalists about the days of wine and roses to come, it turns out that the various moves GE CEO Jeff Immelt made to reinvent the conglomerate as an “innovation” company came at the expense of a significant drop in profits. And it looks like the GE board balked and forced Immelt out — although the official line is that he “stepped down.” Doubtless after noting a rise in share prices in March after activist investors told Fox News that he might be pushed into retirement. He’s been replaced with a new CEO from within GE’s own ranks, John Flannery. Who hails from Chicago, and may not have the same warm fuzzies for the Hub that Immelt at least pretended to have. If Flannery doesn’t back the Boston deal as strongly as Immelt that could mean disaster for everyone who shilled for it. And if GE’s stock prices continue to tank, fuggedaboutit!

In that spirit, it’s worth recalling that the whole boondoggle was dumped on the public by Mayor Marty Walsh and Gov. Charlie Baker as a done deal in January 2016. There were no public forums on the plan, no deliberation by the state legislature or the Boston City Council, and certainly no referendums. The whole thing was cooked up on the quiet by high level politicians, their aides, and top GE brass. In the end, over $145 million in state and city tax breaks and direct aid was promised to GE — together with another $25 million in state money to fix up the area around the site of the company’s new Fort Point HQ, and up to $100 million in repairs to the Old Northern Ave. bridge. Up to $270 million in public money in total. Although the bridge project is now up in the air; so the final total — as with all final totals in public spending — remains to be seen. Still, a huge amount of money to spend on a vast multinational any way you slice it. Especially when GE is not yet being asked to pay rent for the 20 year lease on the public property its new headquarters is using.

As my own series of columns on the deal showed last year, GE has a decades-long track record of screwing government at all levels, communities it operates in, and its own workers six ways from Sunday. Which is why unearthing corporate crime after corporate crime by way of demonstrating why the people of Massachusetts have absolutely no reason to trust the company did not require much new reporting on my part. It was a relatively simple matter of looking at major investigative stories on GE by several news outlets — including the Globe itself. What I found was disturbing in the extreme. Yet the largest Boston news outlets were virtually silent about the very obvious downsides to championing the payoff of a corporate behemoth to relocate its HQ to our fair city. And now the most prominent of them is clearly getting worried about its violation of the public trust.

To review, General Electric has done a lot of bad stuff over the last forty years — much of it in Massachusetts. It slashed tens of thousands of good unionized jobs here. Destroying the economies of Bay State cities like Lynn, Pittsfield, and Fitchburg in the process. GE played highly illegal games with municipal bond investment funds nationwide — and got away with it. It wreaked havoc with the environment in many of the places it did business. Notably in Pittsfield and the Housatonic River valley south to Long Island Sound. Which it polluted with carcinogenic PCBs. A horrendous mess that it partially cleaned up after a protracted struggle with the EPA and local activists. Yet it continues to try to weasel out of finishing the job to save some small fraction of its annual profits. Like it did in a similar Hudson River cleanup. GE also played a major role in creating the toxic housing debt that led to the 2008 financial crash, and was then bailed out by the federal government with boatloads of practically free public money. In exchange for ruining the lives of thousands of poor mortgage holders. And it did all this while paying hardly any taxes at all relative to its huge size.

Ultimately, far too many area journalists dropped bags of balls with the GE Boston Deal story. If they had been doing their job — instead of engaging in a particularly crass form of unthinking civic boosterism that one would expect of low rent PR consultants for a down-on-the-heels rust belt city — Boston might not be in the position it’s now in. Stuck with a bad deal and light a bunch of money that the city and state desperately need during our ongoing fiscal crisis. Which was created by the very neoliberal playbook that still guides both government policy and kid glove news coverage of same.

But that’s what passes for thinking on economic development in the American press of today. My colleagues in major news media generally don’t push for regional planning controlled by democratically elected politicians and overseen by the public in real ways. They don’t support a grassroots process directly involving local communities that start by asking “what do working families need, and how might those needs be best served?” No, they just figure “let’s encourage the pols to throw public money at big corporations, and then they’ll come to Boston, and we’ll have a great economy.”

Well an economy that’s not great for working people is not a great economy. It’s a bad, unequal economy. And that’s the root of most of our major societal woes in this era.

Whatever happens going forward, I hope that next time top politicians cook up another backroom deal with corporate titans that the rest of the Boston news media will join my teammates and I at DigBoston in calling it what it is: corruption. Those who won’t should just go ahead and get jobs in the sleaziest PR operations they can find. Because they’re not fit to be journalists.

 

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.

PROGRESSIVE CONFUSION

Clinton campaign image

Only multiparty democracy will ensure that left policies are enacted in Mass

May 10, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

There is a persistent myth that Massachusetts is a left-wing state. The basis of this demonstrably false conceit is that the Commonwealth has had a Democratic majority in its legislature for as long as anyone can remember. In that context, a recent State House News Service article, “Mass Progressives See Something Missing on Beacon Hill,” makes sense. It examines the political travails of the left-leaning Democratic Party pressure group Progressive Massachusetts, and questions why a progressive grassroots organization in such an ostensibly progressive state can’t get its bills passed with any regularity.

A state that just 50 years ago could build public housing, significantly expand public transportation, and build public colleges, today can’t pass any forward-thinking social program of any significance. Unless you think cutting taxesslashing public spending, and throwing public money at giant corporations like General Electric is a social program. Yet all along, the state has been run by politicians calling themselves progressive Democrat.

The answer to this quandary lies in the fact that the meaning of key terms in politics is  always shifting, as thought leaders modify them to suit the times. So, “progressive” has  had a variety of definitions over the last three centuries — all of which center around the  idea of modernity. From early “laissez-faire” free market capitalist modernity in the 1700s  and 1800s, to socialist modernity from the mid-1800s to the present, to the capitalist  social reformer modernity of the Progressive Era in the US between the Civil War and  WWI, to welfare state social democratic capitalist modernity from the 1930s to the 1970s,  followed by a full-circle return to free market ideology with neoliberal capitalist modernity  since that time. And its meaning continues to be contested to this day.

Key terms sidebarEspecially since a main feature of neoliberalism has been its ability to seduce once social democratic formations like the Democratic Party and produce so-called “Third Way” political leaders like Bill and Hillary Clinton — who have proved themselves more than willing to do tremendous damage to their core working and middle class constituencies. Via right-wing economic policies barely obscured by an ever-shrinking layer of critical social welfare programs, and a somewhat thicker layer of policies extending human rights guarantees to LGBT folks and other oppressed minorities.

So, in a sense, virtually all the legislators in the Mass State House today can call themselves progressive with a straight face. And many do, including lots of neoliberal Clintonite Democrats who play the role of Republicans in Bay State politics — the actual  Republican Party being quite weak here. Which leaves left-leaning Democrats like the  organizers of Progressive Massachusetts, heirs to the social democratic tradition of  reform-minded Keynesian welfare state policies as they are, in a bit of a pickle.

Because the main version of progressivism in American politics — electoral politics anyway — remains the neoliberal one. The Hillary Clinton wing of the Democrats, which just drove the party off a political cliff, and will continue to speed its descent to earth as long as its corporate paymasters wish them to do so. That wing, backed by multinational corporations, took power from the earlier generations of union-backed social democrats within the Democratic Party by the 1990s. It will not give power up without a major political struggle, and therein lies the heart of the problem facing groups like Progressive  Massachusetts.

In countries with more democratic electoral systems, this would be less of a problem than it is in the US. Or in Mass. We would have a multiparty democracy. The Republicans would be a smaller (but still powerful) right-wing capitalist party with smaller ascendent hard right parties on its flanks. The Democrats would be a smaller (but still powerful) center-right capitalist party. Progressive Massachusetts would be part of a center-left social democratic capitalist party. Socialists like me would have at least one significant left-wing party. And there would be smaller hard-left parties on its flanks.

Both the Democrats and Republicans would have to form coalition governments at the national and state levels. And it would be possible for smaller parties to drive their policies through in exchange for joining such ever-shifting coalitions. Messy perhaps, but far more democratic than our two party American system — where both “big tent” parties are dominated by corporations and the rich.

In that situation, a center-left party built around a group like Progressive Massachusetts could actually get its bills passed and have more influence in state politics. And a democratic socialist party of the type I’d like to see formed would join it in fighting for all of the good reforms it would back: single payer health care, free higher public education, etc. Then seek to influence the center-left party to back its policies … like a state bank and municipal control of utilities, for example.

The term “progressive” might devolve back to its original meaning: “believers in human progress, in modernity.” And be used more sparingly as a yardstick of societal advancement rather than a marker of a particular political camp.

Until then, many people — being creatures of habit we all are — will continue to use “progressive” to refer to the broad left. Or the even more misused term “liberal.” Various kinds of capitalists will continue to refer to themselves as “conservative,” “libertarian,” and, yes, progressive, and liberal. Massachusetts politics will remain to the right on economic matters and to the left on social ones — until new mass movements rise to shatter the status quo.

And we’ll muddle through somehow until then.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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CHECK OUT THE 2017 AGENDA FOR PROGRESSIVE MASS

GE BOSTON DEAL: THE MISSING MANUAL, PART 4

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February 29, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

In May 2012, three former GE executives were imprisoned after being convicted on multiple charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and defraud the United States. Dominick Carollo, Steven Goldberg and Peter Grimm had all worked for GE Capital—the financial division that operated as a semi-legal “shadow bank,” and that accounted for about half of its parent corporation’s profits until the global financial collapse it helped precipitate began in 2007. Between 1999 and 2006, the trio conspired to skim millions from municipal bond investment contracts. With the full approval of their bosses.

According to Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, the scam worked as follows for the company that Marty Walsh, Charlie Baker and cheerleaders like the Boston Globe have welcomed to Boston with open arms: Municipal governments commonly partner with big banks to sell bonds to pay for significant capital costs—like building schools. The banks invite investors to buy the municipal bonds and deposit the resulting funds in tax-exempt accounts from which all necessary project expenses can be paid. However, since all the bond money does not get spent at once, municipal governments typically hire brokers to find major financial institutions to invest it for them through a public auction process. In general, it is legally required that brokers get bids from at least three financial institutions—and the one that offers the highest annual rate of return wins the contract to invest the spare cash from a given bond fund.

But for GE Capital—and a host of other major financial institutions—the process was rigged from top to bottom. In the case of GE’s Carollo et al, the defendants conspired with executives at the brokerage CDR and financial institutions like Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Morgan Stanley to divvy up investment contracts for municipal bond funds. CDR would drum up business with local politicians around the country—often bribing them with various kinds of campaign donations and gifts. The pols would then reward CDR with contracts to invest unspent funds from municipal bond issues, while CDR would work with the GE Capital—in concert with the other major financial institutions—to illegally decide which corporation would win which auction for such investment contracts in advance. The “winner” of each auction would collude with the other bidding financial services companies on the bid rate to ensure that the “winning” bid was as low as possible. The agreed upon rate was usually lower than a fair market rate by just a few tenths of a percent. But that was enough to make a killing.

For example, if a fair bid in an auction might have been that GE Capital would invest a municipal government’s unused bond funds at a 5.04 percent annual rate of return, CDR would coach the company to only offer 5 percent. The other bidders would purposely offer lower rates, losing in exchange for winning future rigged auctions. GE would then pocket the .04 percent windfall. A municipal bond fund that might have $200,000,000 to invest in its first year would return around $80,000 extra to GE in that fashion. Which doesn’t sound like much. But such bond funds would be invested by GE Capital for years until they were spent down fulfilling their original purpose to build schools and the like. And GE Capital and CDR colluded on huge numbers of such illegal arrangements, pouring vast sums into GE’s coffers. While depriving municipal governments of that same money. GE Capital then kicked back some of its take to CDR as “fees.”

Given the complexity and ubiquity of this practice, no one knows exactly how much was stolen. But since fines paid by large corporations to governments at various levels for such crimes tend to be vanishingly small, it’s possible to get an idea of the scale of the crime. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), GE paid a $70 million coordinated settlement in 2011 to the SEC, Department of Justice, Internal Revenue Service, and a coalition of 25 state attorneys general. The SEC alleged that “from August 1999 to October 2004, [GE Capital] illegally generated millions of dollars by fraudulently manipulating at least 328 municipal bond reinvestment transactions in 44 states and Puerto Rico.”

GE committed yet another massive crime against the public interest. And got away with it. In November 2013, Carollo, Goldberg and Grimm were freed on appeal. The reason? The government had taken too long—ten years—to build its case against the former GE executives.

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

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

GE BOSTON DEAL: THE MISSING MANUAL, PART 3

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Image by Kent Buckley

February 15, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Returning to our ongoing look at General Electric’s recent and inconvenient history of violating the public trust, in part 2 of this “missing manual” the corporation got out of the subprime housing loan market just in time to avoid destruction in late 2007. But it could not escape from the consequences of an economy based on selling toxic home loans to poor people who were defaulting in vast numbers by 2008.

That year, everything began to unravel for GE—as it did for all other large interlocked financial services companies that derived a substantial percentage of their profits from predatory loans in the same period.

According to Fortune magazine, after reporting an unprecedented first quarter loss of $700 million, GE’s stock price began spiraling downwards in April 2008. Failing to sell off its light bulb, appliance, and private-label credit card businesses over the summer due to the worsening economic climate stopped the corporation from making typical course corrections to get back on its feet.

In September 2008, GE’s stock price crashed after Lehman Brothers—a financial services titan—collapsed on the heels of Bear Stearns’ disintegration that March. The company became starved for operating funds. But the private credit markets were frozen in terror.

On September 30, GE made two desperate moves. At 7:30 am it sold $3 billion in preferred stock to billionaire investor Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. on very bad terms. At 1:44 pm, GE announced its deal with Buffet and said it would sell $12 billion of common stock the next day at prices far lower than it had paid to buy back $15 billion of its own stock over the preceding year. Meaning it was selling the stock at a huge loss in exchange for ready cash.

The next day, the coup de grace: Word spread throughout the markets that GE would be unable to cover billions in regular payouts to holders of its commercial paper. Basically a kind of I.O.U., commercial paper is a kind of short-term promissory note that big corporations like GE are able to issue on an ongoing basis to raise money to cover things like daily expenses. There is no collateral behind commercial paper. Only the good name—and, ideally, top-flight credit rating—of the company issuing it. In normal times, it’s a far cheaper way to borrow money than a line of credit with a commercial bank. But 2008 was not a normal time. At one point that year, GE had over $100 billion dollars out in commercial paper as it tried to stay afloat.

Executives clearly knew their company was doomed unless the government bailed it out. Already on September 30, a GE spokesperson “e-mailed the media with a message that Congress must act ‘urgently’ on the pending financial bailout package.” But the company didn’t wait for congressional action. Since it was not a traditional bank, GE did not qualify for a significant direct cash infusion under the infamousTroubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). So it spent the next few weeks brokering a backroom deal with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

According to the New York Times, on November 12, 2008 the FDIC announced that it would back GE’s commercial paper for up to $139 billion under the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program (TLGP). A program that the federal government changed overnight to allow GE to qualify—just as TARP was changed to benefit Goldman Sachs et al—according to Pro Publica and the Washington Post. GE had “joined major banks collectively saving billions of dollars by raising money for their operations at lower interest rates.” The company was able to sell $74 billion in government-backed commercial paper and longer-term notes by Spring 2009.

And how did GE survive the period between its early October 2008 financial collapse—when it was still short on funds despite the precipitous sale of $15 billion of its stock—and its November 2008 bailout by the TLGP program? In 2010, Pro Publica reported that Federal Reserve Board documents released that year showed that GE had effectively borrowed $16 billion more dollars at that time by selling commercial paper through the Fed’s Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF).

So General Electric was saved by two government programs that provided it with upwards of $90 billion dollars of cheap credit. According to the corporation’s own September 30, 2009 10-Q filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, GE paid only $2.3 billion in fees for its participation in the TLGP and CPFF programs. Meaning that GE got unbelievably good loan terms—the equivalent of a flat 2.56 percent interest rate. Less than the rates that Americans pay on most any other loans. Including the housing loans that wrecked the economy in 2007-2008. And the student loans that could very well lead to another financial catastrophe before this decade is out.

That is how GE got to survive the recession it helped create. By gaining access to a massive pool of public funds totally unavailable to its tens of thousands of subprime housing loan victims. The same company under the same leadership that Massachusetts officials are paying $270 million to bring to Boston. Excelsior!

Coming soon in part 4: GE’s municipal bond scandal and other amusements.

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

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

GE BOSTON DEAL: THE MISSING MANUAL, PART 2

18.04 AH IMAGE GE

Image by Kent Buckley

February 1, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Two weeks after the first installment of this Missing Manual, we now know that GE will receive up to another $100 million of Boston’s largesse in the form of reopening the Old Northern Avenue Bridge and $25 million in state money for work on roads, pedestrian walkways, and bike lanes near the corporation’s new Seaport District HQ. Pushing the total giveaway to over $270 million in public funds.

Gov. Charlie Baker, Mayor Marty Walsh, and boosters like the Boston Globe claim that the investment will be worth it. Yet GE’s record of slashing jobs, despoiling the environment, and evading taxes says otherwise. And their role in the subprime mortgage crisis further repudiates such official optimism.

Back in 1999, the Glass-Steagall Act—a critical piece of Depression-era social legislation that put up a firewall between commercial banks and investment houses—was torpedoed by Congress. One of the excuses for the deregulatory push was the claim that so-called “shadow banks”—institutions that perform banking functions outside of the traditional system of federally-regulated banks—were doing great business with less regulation. The now-diminished GE Capital was then one of the largest shadow banks, since as the finance arm of an industrial concern it was not classified as a bank. Thanks to that fact and the happy coincidence that GE Capital owned a small Utah savings and loan operation, it was allowed to “engage in banking under the lighter hand of the Office of Thrift Supervision.” Rather than the more strict banking regulations overseen by the Federal Reserve—which do not allow banks to engage in commerce—according to a 2009 report by ProPublica and the Washington Post.

Ironically, the deregulation of the banking system proved to be a key factor in the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis and the resulting 2008 financial crisis. And the much-praised practices of shadow banks like GE Capital were precisely the ones that nearly wiped out the US economy. GE had long used GE Capital, equivalent to the seventh largest banking company in the US until 2008, to fatten its bottom line. According to Maureen Farrell of the Wall Street Journal, “GE got into lending decades ago and grew that arm of its business steadily in the years before the crisis, as it was able to leverage its triple-A credit rating for access to cheap capital. Before the credit crisis, GE relied upon lending for around 50 percent of its earnings.”

So in 2004 GE Capital had plenty of ready cash to buy California-based WMC Mortgage Corp.—a company that specialized in foisting subprime housing loans on poor families that couldn’t really afford them, using highly unethical sales tactics—for about half a billion dollars. According to a 2012 report by Michael Hudson of The Center for Public Integrity, even before the purchase, WMC “… was producing $8 billion a year in subprime home loans and boasting profits of $140 million a year.”

Then in 2006, US housing prices declined sharply. Subprime borrowers with no reserve cash were unable to refinance their home loans as their adjustable-rate mortgage payments increased mercilessly. Subprime lenders then began to automatically slap late-paying borrowers with even higher penalty rates. More and more people defaulted on their loans. Lenders like WMC suddenly went from being cash-rich to being cash-poor.

GE Capital was hemorrhaging money by 2007. During the first half of that year WMC lost over $500 million as the mortgage industry “spun into chaos.” By October 2007, the Center for Public Integrity report concludes, “WMC Mortgage was effectively out of business, dead after having pumped out roughly $110 billion in subprime and ‘Alt-A’ loans under GE’s watch.”  

Meanwhile, GE Capital, like many other financial institutions of the period, had rolled packages of subprime mortgage debt into Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBSs)—which it then sold to investors. Including institutional investors like government-sponsored housing lender Freddie Mac. When the WMC subprime mortgages collapsed in 2007, the GE Capital RMBSs based on them followed suit. And the whole house of cards built on bad mortgages to poor people fell down. GE Capital immediately put hundreds of millions of dollars aside to pay off its investors. But not its mortgage holders. WMC-issued mortgages failed at rates of up to 75 percent in some areas. Ruining the lives of tens of thousands of working families in the process.

GE had gotten out of the subprime racket just in time to stay solvent into 2008. The most significant federal blowback from the episode came in 2011 when the Federal Housing Finance Agency that regulates Freddie Mac sued General Electric for selling them $549 million in subprime-based RMBSs. According to American Banker, they “charged GE’s former mortgage lending unit with presenting a false picture of the riskiness of residential mortgages behind securities that were sold to Freddie Mac.”

GE settled the suit in 2013 for just $6.25 million.

Coming soon in part 3: the 2008 financial crisis and federal bailout of General Electric.

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

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