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EDITORIAL: SAVE COMMUNITY MEDIA

Cute kids love community media. Photo courtesy of Somerville Media Center.
Cute kids love community media. Photo courtesy of Somerville Media Center.

Tell the FCC That You Support Your Local Cable Access Station by Dec 14

 

December 12, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

At DigBoston, my colleagues and I put a lot of effort into working with local community media stations around Greater Boston. Because they are the heart and soul of grassroots democratic public broadcasting in the United States. And because we get so much out of hanging out with their staff and members that we just love them to pieces.

 

Somerville Media Center, Cambridge Community Television, Brookline Interactive Group, Malden Access Television, Boston Neighborhood Network, roughly 300 other stations around Massachusetts, and over 1500 nationwide provide a multitude of useful services to the cities and towns they’re based in. Perhaps better known by the older appellations “cable access stations” or “PEG (public, education, and government) access stations,” they broadcast city government meetings, public school events, and neighborhood happenings of all kinds. Something no other media institution does anywhere near as consistently.

 

In addition, many community stations allow literally anyone in their locales to walk in off the street and get trained to make media of their own—on increasingly sophisticated equipment, for cheap or even free—amounting to tens of thousands of homegrown productions of every conceivable description every year. Effectively creating the only US broadcast alternative where free speech, hard won in running legal battles all the way up to the Supreme Court, is taken very seriously. They are generally member-driven and run by small staffs of extremely committed experts. A fair number of whom were originally trained at community media stations when they were kids. As were many staffers at major media outlets to this day.

 

For all that great work, such stations require very little money to run. Federal regulation and laws enacted since the early 1970s have created a system in which cable companies like Comcast have to negotiate franchise fees with cities and towns for the privilege of laying their cables on public streets. The maximum annual franchise fee was codified in the federal Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, 47 U.S. Code § 542 (b): “For any twelve-month period, the franchise fees paid by a cable operator with respect to any cable system shall not exceed 5 percent of such cable operator’s gross revenues derived in such period from the operation of the cable system to provide cable services.”  

 

Some of the resulting funds can then be used to run community media stations. Local governments can also negotiate for other things, too—including what are called “cable-related, in-kind contributions” like capital expenses for studio facilities and broadcasting equipment. Another important concession the cable companies have to provide local governments is the channels that the stations broadcast on. This helps the stations’ bottom line by relieving them of the cost of leasing those channels. Which does mean that cable companies lose whatever profits they might have otherwise made on those channels.

 

Together the franchise fee and the in-kind contributions provide most of each station’s annual operating budget and physical plant—and the free cable channels help keep costs low.   Though many community media stations still have to raise extra money to make ends meet every year by charging dues to members who can afford to pay, crowdfunding, and applying for grants. Like PBS or NPR on a smaller scale.

 

Unfortunately, since the original Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules mandating the establishment of such stations in many municipalities, the cable industry has been trying to eliminate them. In the interest of making even vaster profits than they already gouge from consumers. First by legal challenges culminating in the 1979 Supreme Court decision FCC v. Midwest Video Corp. that struck down the earlier cable access rules and directly resulted in the 1984 cable act as a “compromise” between community media stations and the cable industry. And later by successful lobbying campaigns to give states the sole power to negotiate franchise fees for all their cities and towns in the interest of “efficiency” (read: worse deals than many of those municipalities had been negotiating on their own). Which is how the system currently works in many states—though not, happily, in Massachusetts.

 

Further, as new monopoly telecom companies like Verizon arose (both ironically and predictably) after the government breakup of the old AT&T telephone monopoly in the 1980s, they began expanding well beyond their core telephone businesses. Seeing cable television as a growing market, they successfully lobbied for provisions in the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed them to provide cable service as well. This caused the cable companies to bring even more political pressure to bear to end the franchise fee system as “unfair”—since the telecoms aren’t covered by the 1984 cable act and don’t have to pay the fees that support community media stations.

 

Also, the landmark global communications advance represented by the internet has further eroded the position of community media stations in some respects over that same period by providing other ways for Americans and immigrants alike to create their own media programming and reach audiences all over the world. Though usually not local audiences of the size and quality that community media stations can provide.

 

Meanwhile, the cable industry has continued to do its level best to shrink the number of community media stations with all kinds of crafty business and policy tricks. For example, Comcast’s practice of refusing to list the schedule of community media stations in its program guide—which drastically reduces the local audience for each station—makes it easier for the cable giant to make the case to get rid of the legal mandate to fund those stations through the franchise fee.

 

Now, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai—a former Verizon lobbyist who is the living embodiment of “regulatory capture” (the control of a government regulatory agency by the very industry it’s supposed to regulate) and who, it must be said, is an Obama appointee—is moving in for the kill. Fresh off his successful assault on net neutrality. Another anti-democratic communications move that virtually no one supported… except the cable and telecom industries.

 

On Sept 25, under Pai’s watch, the four FCC commissioners (three of whom are Republicans, with one seat on the five member commission remaining empty thanks to Trump administration politicking) released an official document snappily entitled the “Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in Implementation of Section 621(a)(1) of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 as Amended by the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, MB Docket 05-311.” Also known as the “Second FNPRM.” Or, for the purposes of this editorial, the “FNPRM.”

 

If the FCC enacts the FNPRM, cities, towns, and states (where applicable) will no longer be able to negotiate up to a 5 percent franchise fee plus the aforementioned cable-related, in-kind contributions like studios and other necessary infrastructure for community media stations. Instead those governments will be forced to allow cable companies to assign a “fair market value” to the channels it provides community stations and deduct that amount from the franchise fees that keep them going. The companies will also be allowed to catalog a wide variety of cable-related, in-kind contributions to cities and towns and deduct those from the fees, too. Including some contributions related to the stations, according to analysis by the Community Media Center of Marin in California. And it turns out that typical capital costs for community stations are only a fraction of the total in-kind contributions that cable companies historically agreed to provide to municipalities in exchange for using public rights of way for their cables. Cities and towns often have important civic buildings like schools and fire stations connected with cables and equipment provided by the companies that have been used for a variety of important purposes—including emergency services—for decades. Taking those costs off the top of the franchise fees will be significant indeed.

 

Gaithersburg, Maryland Mayor Jud Ashman gets to the crux of the problem with the possible FCC action in his recent testimony against it:

As proposed, the FNPRM’s broad definition of all “cable-related, in-kind contributions” other than PEG capital costs and build-out requirements could be interpreted as “franchise fees,” which could result in:
• Cable companies no longer paying the typical five percent franchise fees permitted by
federal law.
• Cable companies using local rights-of-way for any purpose, regardless of the terms of the franchise agreement, and avoiding paying their fair compensation to the local government for the use of funded assets in the rights-of-way.
• Significant reductions in cable franchise fees, depending on how the “fair market” value for PEG capacity and transmission is calculated within a given jurisdiction. This proposed change would result in PEG programming being drastically reduced, if not eliminated altogether in most jurisdictions.

 

In practice, community media station advocates are saying that the FNPRM will quickly result in a loss of a significant portion of annual revenue for their entire sector. Which will cause many stations to drastically reduce their services… or cease operations entirely.

 

But local government officials like Mayor Ashman are saying that the effect on cities and towns overall will be even worse than the effect on the stations. Because as my longtime colleague Fred Johnson—noted community media policy maven and documentary filmmaker—said to me in a short interview for this editorial, “This is about seizing power and treasure from the cities.”  If the FNPRM is enacted by the FCC, it will be allowing the cable companies to fundamentally devalue the use of public rights of way that have allowed them to make massive profits—by cutting into franchise fee revenue that is already far lower than it should be.

 

Incidentally, the FNPRM also doubles down on the part of the FCC rule trashing net neutrality that claims lower levels of government can’t reintroduce that reform by “prohibiting [cities, towns, and states] from using their video franchising authority to regulate the provision of most non-cable services, such as broadband Internet access service, offered over a cable system by an incumbent cable operator.” But, brevity being the soul of wit, I’ll have to address that issue another day.

 

In any case, to stop all that bad stuff from happening, DigBoston calls on our loyal audience to contact the FCC by this Friday, Dec 14, and join with thousands of other people around the country in demanding that the powerful agency do what’s best for American democracy and leave cable access franchise fees alone.

Readers can find a letter template and simple instructions for how to file your “reply comments” with the FCC on the Somerville Media Center website: somervillemedia.org/federaassaultonlocalmedia/.

 

It’s going to be an uphill fight in the current political climate. But with all of your help, community media stations can survive and thrive for decades to come. And municipalities will be much better off, too.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

A GOOD SEASON TO BE A GOOD HUMAN BEING

And keep it up through the hard times to come

 

November 21, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

It’s Thanksgiving this week. More correctly the National Day of Mourning. A holiday fraught with contradiction, as I’ve written repeatedly in the past. And what is one to make of it? Originally an opportunity for the descendants of the European colonists who seized Massachusetts—the country it eventually sat within, and the continent that surrounds it—from Native American nations through a combination of deadly diseases, grand theft, and genocidal violence to celebrate their good fortune. Now one of a number of nearly indistinguishable chances throughout the calendar year for (most, not all) people to take a day off from work, eat too much food (often prepared courtesy of women’s unpaid labor), drink too much alcohol, watch sports on TV, and maybe catch up with friends and extended family in the margins somewhere.

 

Once a harvest festival inaugurated by a Christian theocracy, it has morphed into a secular affair. Though its nationalist overtones remain strong. Nevertheless, it kicks off a period of the year—however commercialized—where people are encouraged to think about other people. To talk to each other, and to give each other gifts.

 

So, Turkey Day is as messed up as the warmongering capitalist republic it celebrates. But it does bring out some good behavior in Americans that I believe should be encouraged. An attitude that continues through to another secularized Christian holiday, Christmas, and beyond to a hopeful and libidinous New Year’s Eve.

 

Which is why it’s a fine time of year to make a few suggestions of things readers can do to make the world a better place. Whether you’re religious or not, and regardless of your politics… or lack thereof.

 

Help Someone Less Fortunate Than Yourself

I’m talking on an individual level here. One on one. You’re walking down the street. You see a homeless person. You see a hand being held out in supplication. So, give that person some money. Some food. Some coffee. Whatever they need in the moment. Look that person in the eye. Talk to that person. That fellow human being in need in front of you. A person you may have passed by a dozen times without raising your gaze from the sidewalk. Maybe ask a question or two. Think about the circumstances that resulted in that person ending up on the street. Then reflect upon how you might help build a society that will not allow anyone to lose their home to begin with.

 

Volunteer

Now help a bunch of people. For a couple hours a week or a couple hours a month. Donate your time, labor, and experience. Give a workshop at a local school on something you’re passionate about. Work in a homeless shelter. Build a community garden. Visit with folks in a nursing home. After a fashion, mull over how much can be done outside a system of market transactions. Look for ways to network volunteer efforts together into a front for social betterment.

 

Donate to Charity

Finding a nonprofit organization that really does the good work it says it does can be tricky. So, ask around. Check the news media for background. Go to the website of any organization that looks decent and read some of the group’s materials. Your basic litmus test should be whether the charity in question spends most of the money it raises in the service of its chosen community of interest. Groups that do that are generally worthy of your support. Donate annually… or, and I say this as someone who runs a nonprofit alongside a commercial newspaper, donate monthly. Keep it up as long as you can. And if you can afford it, give to many solid organizations. Set a percentage of your income to devote to good works and give that sum consistently. Note the power of giving, and think about how to expand the gift economy to become the dominant mode of exchange.

 

Day of Service

Too late a plan for this year, but in the years to come try converting your Thanksgiving from just party time into a time to both party and help others. Tell your friends and family that you’re going to spend part of the day helping people in need in your community, and invite them to come along. Over time, this could become a tradition. And the more personal networks that do it, the more the idea will catch on. Not that such a service day is a new notion. But it is something that could stand to be spread nationwide. Perhaps supplanting the current majority view of the holiday at some point. Inspiring many people to make such activities part of daily life—and ultimately baking them into our culture.

 

In closing, I make these suggestions for what I consider to be obvious moral reasons. But also for reasons as political as anything I’ve ever written. Because we’re entering what may well be the most difficult period that the human race has ever faced. And if our species is going to survive and thrive in the decades to come, it will be thanks to simple human solidarity. Based on the kind of actions I suggest above at base.

 

And if humanity is going to stop genocides like the one that was committed against Native Americans—and far too many other groups of people since—from ever happening again, such solidarity is not optional. It is essential.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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.

BOSTON FIDDLES WHILE THE WORLD BURNS

City government continues issuing reports while UN calls for immediate action

 

October 24, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

When writing about human-induced global warming on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to pace oneself. Because it’s such a relentlessly depressing topic that highlighting it too often can backfire. Faced with an existential threat of such magnitude that human civilization—and perhaps the human race itself—may well be doomed, people have a tendency to just tune out. Figuring that “we may indeed be doomed, but not just yet.” Which reflects a serious misunderstanding of how doom works. And more importantly, neglects to factor in how the avoidance of thinking about approaching doom makes its swift arrival all the more certain. By cultivating inaction, when immediate and militant action is called for.

 

Be that as it may, there are times when journalists like myself cannot just let a notable happening pass without comment. And Mayor Marty Walsh’s global warming-related press conference of last week was certainly such a one.

 

In keeping with previous junkets on the same theme, Walsh rehearsed yet another version of the same report he’s been trotting out for the last couple of years. This time entitled “Resilient Boston Harbor.” Where the fashionable foundation buzzword “resilient” stands in for “doing the cheapest, least effective thing possible.” Since like previous versions the report:

1) doesn’t propose binding regulation to force the corporations responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions in Boston to do what is necessary to make the city carbon neutral by its target date of 2050

2) continues to use lower estimates for threats like sea level rise and ever-increasing air temperature rather than higher credible estimates when planning city responses, and

3) doesn’t set hard timetables for actually building the limited defensive measures it does call for… measures that basically assume that efforts to make Boston—and every significant polity on the planet—carbon-neutral will fail.

 

Most everything the city might do to achieve carbon neutrality and adapt to the negative effects of global warming—beyond generating more reports—is conveniently pushed off to a time well after the Walsh administration is likely to be out of office.

 

Worse still, the new Boston paper got released just days after a devastating new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was published by the United Nations—which says if governments worldwide haven’t made their nations carbon-neutral by 2040, then humanity has no hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius. Meaning that we’re on track for the far worse scenarios of 2 degrees celsius of warming and above… that IPCC report authors say will be much more destructive to multiple planetary systems than previously anticipated. Making Boston’s current plans even more inadequate than they already are.

 

In fact, the only mention of completed (or nearly completed) climate remediation efforts in the press release for the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is a brief passage indicating that “a deployable floodwall system has been installed across the East Boston Greenway, and a section of Main Street in Charlestown is being elevated.” And most every proposed initiative in the report itself is still in the planning stages. Lots of nice drawings of all the stuff that hasn’t been built yet, though.

 

However, according to the Boston Herald, there was one bright spot the day of the mayor’s presser when “a group of East Boston residents stormed City Hall Plaza, demanding that he hear their concerns about Eversource’s proposal to put a substation near Chelsea Creek.”

 

It seems that the local environmental justice group GreenRoots has been trying to meet with Walsh for about a year to attempt to stop regional power utility Eversource Energy from building the structure. To no avail.

 

A petition to Walsh being circulated by the group on Change.org on the matter makes it clear why: The high-voltage substation is slated to be built in an area around Chelsea Creek (a.k.a. Chelsea River) that’s flooding more and more frequently because of global warming-induced sea level rise. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, a similar station was flooded—causing it to explode and burn. A bad enough outcome in the best of circumstances.

 

But the Chelsea Creek substation will be located very close to storage tanks holding over eight million gallons of jet fuel for nearby Logan Airport. Should those be ignited by such an explosion, the effect on surrounding neighborhoods would be catastrophic. In both human and environmental terms.

 

The GreenRoots petition concludes: “We find it odd that your office has pushed for many sustainability initiatives concerning the Creek when this project isn’t compatible with this vision.” The initiatives include measures meant to reduce flooding from sea level rise on Chelsea Creek by “connecting high points near Boardman Street and Eagle Street,” according to the city’s 2016 Climate Ready Boston report. Although that is not mentioned in the latest report.

 

The Herald reported that Walsh’s office responded with a brief statement: “‘The substation in East Boston will better support East Boston’s growing population and facilities, including the city’s investments in a new police station, ambulance bay and a public works facility,’ adding that the city worked with Eversource to choose the site.”

 

The mayor has not yet agreed to meet with GreenRoots. Yet he really should. Because how is the public supposed to take any of his administration’s global warming remediation initiatives seriously when he’s still playing politics as usual with a major energy distribution corporation for a project that could have profound negative environmental effects?

 

“The city worked with Eversource to choose the site,” the city statement says. Lovely. But how much did it work with the East Boston community? And the grassroots environmental advocacy group working there and in neighboring Chelsea? Beyond the dog-and-pony shows necessary to put the barest sheen of democracy on the “Climate Ready Boston” process of which the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is part? Not much at all, apparently. Basically Eversource wants the substation at Chelsea Creek. And it’s going to get what it wants in the current corporate-dominated political moment.

 

If Walsh is willing to kowtow to that big company on an issue of such serious environmental import, then why should anyone expect him to put the kind of political pressure necessary on other major Boston-area corporations that will be needed to make the city carbon-neutral and better prepared for global warming-induced disaster by 2050? Let alone 2040.

 

This is the guy who never saw a huge city government giveaway to major companies like General Electric during his tenure in office that he wouldn’t support. What could possibly make him change his modus operandi for conducting business as usual? Which is “give the corporations whatever they ask for—big tax breaks, free services, and public funds—and try to get a few crumbs for working families around the edges of any ‘deals’ thus cut.”

 

The obvious answer is that concerted grassroots political action will be required to pressure Walsh and politicians like him the world over to do the right thing consistently on the global warming front. Which is a herculean task, if attempted in one go.

 

But rather than take on the world’s global warming emergency all at once, Boston-area readers can send a message to Walsh that the old politics will not stand if he wants to remain in the mayor’s office—by signing the GreenRoots petition and getting involved in the fight to stop the Eversource substation from being built in environmentally sensitive Chelsea Creek.

 

Then folks can plug into the growing number of local battles to bring environmentally destructive natural gas utilities like National Grid and Columbia Gas to heel.

 

And along the way, a political movement may coalesce that can force Boston city government to take stronger long-term action to stop all activities that add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—while saving the city from global warming-induced sea level rise and the many other deleterious effects of climate change that have already begun at our current 1 degree celsius average air temperature increase planetwide since the dawn of the industrial era.

 

But human society had best not take too long with such activist baby steps. Because the IPCC report is quite clear: If we have not taken giant leaps toward global carbon neutrality by 2030—only 12 years from now—then there will be no hope of stopping warming at the Paris Climate Agreement’s “aspirational target” of 1.5 degrees celsius by 2040.

 

If we can’t do that, then cities like Boston will have bigger crises to worry about than “just” accelerating sea level rise and ever-higher average air temperature. We will have stepped off the ecological precipice… and our doom will be upon us.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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.

MAINE EVENT: PAGU MAKES A SUPER FINE LOBSTER ROLL

PAGU black lobster roll. Photo by Jason Pramas.
Photo by Jason Pramas

 

October 18, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

People all over the US labor under many misapprehensions about the Boston area—to the extent they think about us at all. One of the worst of these is the idea that lobster rolls are a local delicacy. Or that Bostonians eat them all the time. Or that we have lots of joints that specialize in their production.

 

This is not, of course, the case. It’s certainly true that lobster rolls are a regional speciality, found all over New England. But they’re really a Maine thing. So, it’s not particularly easy to find a really good lobster roll in or around the Hub. Not to say that there aren’t several places that do a nice job with the old standby and a few spots that even specialize in it.

 

So it was with some surprise that I found a great lobster roll at PAGU—a fairly upscale Cambridge establishment at which I recently chose to celebrate a special occasion.

 

Because, heretofore, I’ve been something of a purist when it comes to the crustacean creation in question. The roll has to be a split-top hot dog roll. White bread, naturally. I allow for either of the two traditional condiments: melted butter or mayonnaise. But nothing else. And the lobster itself has to be as fresh as possible. Having had rolls featuring lobster that had literally just come off a boat, I can’t accept frozen product or meat more than a day out of the ocean. It should be lightly boiled or steamed by an expert hand so it has that all-important snap when you bite into it. If it’s chewy at all, it’s not going to make a good roll.

 

I had already heard about PAGU’s version long since. It, and chef owner Tracy Chang, have hardly lacked for write-ups. Which is why I knew it was notable for its black roll. And figured, “What the heck, I might as well try it.” Very glad I did. It was super fine. The roll was made with squid ink and sake, and just tasted like really light savory bread—which it was. Instead of mayo or butter, the lobster was dressed with pear, avocado, and an unusual soy aioli. Giving it a really bright flavor without adding unnecessary and distracting acidity. And the meat had that perfect snap.

 

Some might consider the portion small for the $23 PAGU was charging the day of my visit. But I think of the eatery’s offering as a more traditional-sized roll. Like the ones I very occasionally got to enjoy on trips to the Pine Tree State in my childhood. Before the fad for “overstuffed” sandwiches took hold. With the house-made chips it’s served with, it’s solid light supper for the average person. I certainly didn’t feel ripped off, or that I was in need of more lobster when I was finished. And its price point is comparable to other rolls around town. So check it out some evening soon. Sit at the bar, as I did—obviating the need for a reservation—order a roll, let friendly and knowledgeable mixologists like Andy and Veronica take care of your libations, and reflect that the old ways of doing things are not forever the best ways.

 

PAGU. 310 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. GOPAGU.COM.

THE MERRIMACK VALLEY DISASTER: IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT OLD PIPES

Photo by Derek Kouyoumjian

 

September 18, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The events of last week in the Merrimack Valley were unfortunate by any measure. Something bad happened to the natural gas distribution system in parts of Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover that resulted in dozens of homes being damaged or destroyed by explosions and fire, at least 25 people getting injured, and one person (tragically, an 18-year-old) getting killed. The leading theory for the conflagration is that it was triggered by a pressure spike in area gas pipes. But until the National Transportation and Safety Board concludes its investigation—which could take up to two years—we likely won’t know the cause of that spike. According to ThinkProgress, the Mass Department of Public Utilities will be conducting its own investigation, and Attorney General Maura Healey will oversee that effort to ensure transparency.

 

The company responsible, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts—a division of NiSource Inc. of Indiana—was so slow to respond to the crisis that Gov. Charlie Baker put Eversource Energy in charge of the cleanup effort.

 

But the magnitude of the disaster is just starting to sink in. About 8,500 homes were affected, and its occupants are being told that it will take months to replace the cast iron gas pipes under city streets and restore service. Pipes so old, and so prone to rusting, leaking, and failure, that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration started pushing gas utilities nationwide to replace them over a decade ago, according to USA Today. Yet despite being allowed to recoup such costs—which run about $1 million a mile—from their customers, utilities like Columbia have been slow to complete the needed work. Meanwhile, the thousands of residents that officials have allowed to return to their homes are forced to stay in apartments and houses that use gas for heating and cooking… with the gas shut off for the foreseeable future. As winter approaches.

 

This highlights the danger of using methane, an obviously flammable and explosive gas, as a fuel source for homes and businesses. Notwithstanding being in continuous use at millions of sites in the United States for well over 150 years, “natural” gas is not as safe as many people believe. According to the New York Times, “Since 1998, at least 646 serious gas distribution episodes have occurred across the country, causing 221 deaths and leaving nearly a thousand people injured. …” And the reasons for such episodes are not always found.

 

Perhaps it could not be otherwise, since America has allowed private companies to control the production and distribution of natural gas from the industry’s beginnings. Sure, we call those companies “public utilities” and tell ourselves that federal and state government regulate them. But, like all corporations answering to the siren call of the market, gas companies exist to make profits for their shareholders. To the exclusion of all other considerations—be they health, safety, environmental, or economic. Even though the small local gas companies of the 1800s have long since merged to become large and powerful combines, and even though they are allowed to be monopolies in the areas they control, they continue trying to save money on costs and make as much profit as regulators allow. Often quite a lot, since the phenomenon of “regulatory capture”—where a revolving door sending top staff back and forth between utilities and regulatory agencies generally assures that utilities have fat bottom lines—continues unabated. Including here in the Bay State. Whether utilities provide good service or bad.

 

Which is why National Grid—another one of the seven companies that have gas monopolies in parts of Massachusetts—is getting away with locking out 1,200 union gas workers who are trying to get a better contract for the difficult and dangerous work they do day in and day out. And why Columbia, which has already been dinged for recent safety issues in the regions of the Commonwealth gas infrastructure under its control, according to the Boston Globe, was allowed to continue business as usual until the Merrimack Valley fires brought international attention to the consequences of its malfeasance. Leading WGBH’s Jim Braude to wonder aloud on the Sept 17 episode of Greater Boston what would have happened if the gas network in Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover had been owned by National Grid. A company currently trying to service its infrastructure with ill-trained scab labor—some of them managers with little or no field experience. The better to bust the labor unions that protect the livelihoods of its workers, and permanently replace them with un-unionized workers that will make its stockholders even bigger profits.

 

If all these developments were taking place in a period where there were no demonstrable environmental consequences for burning fossil fuels like natural gas, they would be dire enough. But, unfortunately, that is not the case. True, burning methane as an energy source only produces about half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. However, there are so many methane leaks in the production and distribution of both oil and gas that any relative advantage to the environment that burning it provides is mostly erased, according to a Washington Post article on a key study in the journal Science. Given that methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So even the 2.3 percent of methane estimated to be leaking away into the atmosphere before it can be burned is enough to ruin its oft-hyped potential as a more “green” fossil fuel source that can be leaned on for decades while carbon neutral energy sources like solar are brought online on an industrial scale. Not because we don’t have the technology to do so faster, but because energy multinationals don’t want clean energy systems deployed until they’ve made all the money they can make by burning carbon.

 

Worse still, more than half of the natural gas being used in the Greater Boston area is now coming from fracked gas, according to Boston University earth and environment professor Nathan Phillips in a BU Today article. Fracking (more correctly, hydraulic fracturing) is an incredibly destructive and ecologically disastrous method of squeezing oil and natural gas out of vast underground shelves of shale rock by injecting massive amounts of water and any number of often-toxic liquid chemicals into them. Direct environmental impacts include ground, water, air, and noise pollution in those areas unfortunate enough to have lots of shale. And the technique has even been known to trigger earthquakes. Phillips also explains that fracked methane contains many impurities that may be making consumers sick. But the indirect impacts are far more problematic because fracked gas and oil have flooded the planet’s fossil fuel markets with cheap product at exactly the time we need to move away from burning carbon.

 

In a better world, the Merrimack Valley disaster would be a clarion call to move more decisively toward clean energy alternatives—at least in the affected communities as a useful demonstration project. In advance of doing so swiftly across the country, and in every corner of the globe. But we are not in that world. We’re in a world where energy corporations control the politics of the US and many other countries to their own advantage. And they want to ensure that humanity squeezes every last possible joule of energy out of fossil fuels like natural gas before allowing alternatives to finally become the dominant mode of energy production. Regardless of the fact that doing so will very likely result in a planet that’s unable to sustain advanced human civilization, and perhaps unable to sustain human life at all. If the worst global warming scenarios are allowed to become reality.

 

That’s why I have repeatedly called—most recently in a column about Eversource, the utility called upon to “fix” the Merrimack Valley crisis—for bringing energy companies to heel on both the environmental and economic fronts by winning the huge political struggles necessary to make them all genuinely public utilities. With a mission to provide cheap, clean, green energy like advanced wind, solar, and hydroelectric (ideally not from environmentally destructive mega-dams) power to America, and phase out all fossil fuel production, distribution, and usage as soon as possible. If we could accomplish that sea change in our energy system, other countries would be likely to follow at speed. And we might actually stand a chance of minimizing the damage from global warming, already on display with increasingly alarming frequency in the form of catastrophic storms like Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut.

 

So if you want to help the Merrimack Valley disaster victims, certainly donate to the best local charities you can find. But also join environmental groups like Mass Sierra Club, Resist the Pipeline, and HEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team) that are working to end the ability of privately owned energy utilities to harm communities like Lawrence in particular and our planet’s ecosphere in general going forward. Furthermore, be sure to make your house, condo, or apartment as energy efficient you can and do whatever you can do to convert your dwelling from reliance on burning fossil fuel to using genuinely clean energy sources. Every little improvement helps. Just remember, we won’t really be able to ensure our survival as a species until the fossil fuel megacorps are stopped. Cold.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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.

VOTING AS A SOCIALIST IS STILL HARD (IN THE MASSACHUSETTS OF 2018)

Red Star Over Massachusetts

 

Plus an endorsement for Michael Capuano for Congress (MA 7th District)

 

August 28, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

It’s never easy being a socialist in the United States. And at no time is it more difficult then come election season. Because neither of the two major parties—hard-right ravings to the contrary taken as given—is socialist. Both Republicans and Democrats are capitalist. There have been many attempts to form major left-wing anti-capitalist parties over the last couple hundred years. Some, like two I’ve participated in—the Green Party US and the Labor Party—have been national efforts. The former is still struggling on gamely, though Mass affiliate Green-Rainbow Party currently does not have official party status—having failed to win 3 percent of the vote for any state or national candidate in the last election or to enroll 1 percent of registered voters. The latter petered out over a decade back. There have also been state-level efforts like the Peace and Freedom Party in California—which, for one reason or another, haven’t spread to other states.

 

The received political wisdom is that the major parties have set up so many structural roadblocks over their many decades in power that it’s impossible for any of the smaller so-called third parties to achieve major party status. And from my experience that received wisdom has been correct. So far.

 

Where does that leave a socialist like me? Well, I have a few options. None of them ideal… unless we manage to change our political system to allow for small parties to more easily become big ones. I could go back to the Greens. I could join one of the tiny socialist parties that runs candidates from time to time like Socialist Alternative. I could join the somewhat larger Democratic Socialists of America—which is not a party but a pressure group that throws its weight behind the most left-wing candidates it can find or field, mainly in the Democratic Party. I could help try to revive an effort for a “fusion” ballot in Massachusetts with the Working Families Party (of New York and several other states). Such a move would create a formation that would be allowed to support larger parties’ candidates (i.e., the Democrats for all intents and purposes) without sacrificing independence. But allowing that would require a change in Bay State law… and a 2006 attempt to make the necessary change failed. I could help start a new left-wing party in the Boston area, and try to win some municipal races before moving on to state and national contests. Or I can join the majority of Massachusetts voters and be an independent. Registering as “unenrolled” in our state’s parlance. Currently the simplest and easiest option. And a reasonable one for a journalist like myself since I remain independent of all political parties.

 

So like many other left-wingers, I’ve bitten the proverbial bullet and have been unenrolled for most of my adult life. But it’s a dissatisfying place to situate myself politically. Because functionally it means that I’m voting for whoever comes closest to my beliefs on a case-by-case basis. Not usually for a slate. As minor parties like the Greens rarely have the wherewithal to run candidates for multiple offices in one voting district. Just individual candidates. And should those candidates win, they are basically on their own. Meaning any political gains they make typically won’t outlast their terms of office.

 

Being unenrolled also means that I’m almost never voting for a candidate I fully support. Unless a maverick left-wing candidate happens to run for one office or other in my area—usually in a nonpartisan local race—I’m nearly always forced to compromise. And, sure, voting always involves compromises. Even for dyed-in-the-wool Democrats and Republicans. Yet casting such votes usually requires that I make a big compromise. A fundamental one, as the candidates on offer all share the major flaw of backing a political economic system—capitalism—that I don’t believe in. Even though I’m forced to participate in that system by nature of being born in a capitalist country in this time and place.

 

At this juncture, some readers will naturally ask, “Well, why vote at all?” After all, I’ve got more than a little bit of a libertarian streak in the sense that I’m a big fan of liberty. And many left libertarian traditions—notably anarcho-syndicalism—push for direct democracy at the local level in place of representative democracy at every level. I’ve always had a soft spot for such views. But I have never found them practical for a nation-state of over 300 million souls amid a planetary population of over seven billion and rising.

 

Ultimately, as messed up as capitalist democracy is, I refuse to take my franchise for granted. For much of human history, people like me didn’t get any say at all in how they were governed. Even the US restricted voting to white males with property at its inception. Only after generations of grassroots political struggle did we get universal suffrage for everyone 18 or older. So as long as we remain an even nominally representative democracy, I’m going to keep voting.

 

Great, but how do I go about picking candidates to support? Not easily, and I simply don’t vote in races where none of the candidates are good by my lights. Still, taking next week’s primary as an example, let me shed some light on my internal decision-making process. For sake of space, I’ll think aloud about only the hottest current local political fight—the 7th District Congressional race between incumbent Michael Capuano and challenger Ayanna Pressley—in the manner I normally do when preparing to vote as an independent socialist. Mainly by considering the candidates’ political positives and negatives from my perspective.

 

Capuano’s positive policy points include backing Medicare for All for many years and consistently anti-war foreign policy stands. Strikes against him include taking campaign contributions from the real estate and biotech lobbies. Pressley’s positive points include taking decent positions on issues like housing and immigration—including recent support for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Strikes against her include more hawkish foreign policy views. And a long Intercept piece on the race paints her as the chosen candidate of corporate Democratic leadership. Someone who fakes left, but will likely break right when it matters. A big negative in my book.

 

For me, Capuano is one of the last old line social democrats in Congress. Meaning he’s about as left-wing as he can be without leaving the Dems. He’s also been in office a long time and holds key committee positions that would be lost with the election of a first-term opponent. He’s brought a lot of money to his district that benefits the working class, and he’s taken a lot of stands he didn’t have to take in defense of that class.

 

Pressley has done much less as a politician thus far. According to Politico, her “biggest projects have ranged from supporting pregnant teens and revamping sex education in schools to expanding liquor licenses in minority neighborhoods.” Admittedly while holding a seat in a political body, the Boston City Council, that has very little power. So not an entirely fair comparison, but food for thought nonetheless. However, given Capuano’s predictable and significant lead in the polls and in funding, I can’t shake the feeling that Pressley’s really doing groundwork for her next big race more than expecting to win this one.

 

For these reasons and many more besides, I have to back Michael Capuano in the Democratic primary for the 7th District Congressional seat.

 

But all that said—and there’s much more to say—in backing Capuano, I’m still backing a capitalist. This is not a guy who is pushing for workers to own the means of production. This is a guy who has consciously decided that the best path is to shave the rough edges off of capitalism to make it less harmful to workers. While allowing billionaires to control the commanding heights of our political economic system. He may not like it. But he’s decided that’s the best that can be done under the current circumstances.

 

I respect that decision, even if I disagree with it. Yet whatever I think about individual candidates, I always have to come back to the same problem: What can I do to help ensure that there is a mass socialist (and anti-racist and feminist and environmental and anti-war, etc., etc.) party that can field candidates with the experience and funding to win enough electoral races to change the face of politics in Massachusetts and the United States for the better?

 

And my answer? For the moment, I’m writing for a growing audience about the kind of political changes I’d like to see, and looking for opportunities to help build the kind of political party that could bring those changes to fruition. There are seeds of what I’m searching for in Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative and many other existing socialist and anarchist and green formations besides. But none of them presently fits the bill for me. All I can say is that I’ll know the party I’m looking for when I see it. And jump on board as soon as that happens. But for now, I’ll just muddle through at election time in the fashion I’ve described above. As best I can.

 

Readers interested in engaging in discussion and debate on this and related matters in various public forums can contact me at execeditor@digboston.com.

HERALD READERS RESPOND TO ANTIFA COVERAGE

Antifascist Action symbol circa 1932. designed by Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists members Max Keilson and Max Gebhard.
Antifascist Action (Germany) symbol circa 1932. Designed by Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists members Max Keilson and Max Gebhard.

 

August 21, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Spoiler alert: anti-nazis are somehow nazis

 

On Saturday, a few hundred left-wing activists showed up to protest a tiny ultra-right wing protest held on City Hall Plaza around the anniversary of last year’s tiny ultra-right wing protest on Boston Common. That earlier action being completely dwarfed by the tens of thousands of people that turned out in opposition to the racist and fascist views of its organizers. This year, many counterprotestors hailed from Black Lives Matter, Stand Against Hate-Boston, and the Boston Democratic Socialists of America. And their mobilization was just as successful as the previous one in putting the wannabe master race to flight (to the suitably distant summit of Breed’s Hill where they briefly screamed at the stone monument patriotically named for an adjacent hill… dogged by some of their antagonists).

 

There are certainly times when people need to stand up against the ultra right. This demo was one of them. So the counterprotestors are to be commended. Although I still stand by my column of last year in which I explained why I’d like to see left activists focus more on positive political organizing than reactive street actions.

 

To my point, however, I have long made a habit of reading comments on online articles. From which I often glean a good deal of useful information. And I naturally expect a certain amount of gonzo earthiness from the often anonymous wags who weigh in on issues of the day. But whenever anti-fascist activists are in the news, I note that the insanity ratchets up by an order of magnitude. And responses to such coverage contain more than the usual share of genuinely disturbing views. Nowhere is this more true in the local press than in the comment sections of Boston Herald articles.

 

So I thought it would be… um… let’s call it educational to choose the best of the worst online comments made on the Herald’s quite reasonable piece on the weekend’s protest and counterprotest, and dissect them in the public interest. The authors’ names—real or otherwise—have been changed to initials so as not to further embarrass the clueless.

 

“PC”
Clowns? No..Patriots standing against Leftist Anti-Free Speech… Anti-Constitution… Anti-Life… Anti-Freedom… Anti-Constitutional Republic Useful Idiot Communists.. look at the Soviet Flags in the Photos…..who act like Racist Brown Shirt Nazis crushing free speech… attacking those who disagree with them violently… That is what the Nazi SA (Brown Shirts) did in the 1930s Germany…as they call the oposition Nazis…

 

So, the ultra-right wingers who are happy to exercise their free speech rights against freedom are for freedom? And the left-wingers who exercise their free speech rights to protest people against freedom are anti-freedom? And left-wingers’ willingness to physically defend communities under threat from the ultra-right makes them the violent ones? As opposed to the ultra-right networks that are the only one of the two sides racking up death counts in the US in recent memory? And the left-wingers are the nazis?! Okely dokely…

 

“MF”

Boston: once young Patriots met under a huge pine tree – to plot a course of Freedom from the tyranny of an English King – and his Parliament,…Saturday young fools with no concept of God, History, or world events think they marched to squash and shut down “Hate Speech”… They are Soros’s expendable cannon fodder, acting EXACTLY like Hitler’s Sturmabteilung!

 

First, the Liberty Tree that this post is definitely referencing was an elm. Second… what?!


“RC”
Until we redefine the terms ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’, white people will not have free speech in this country. This is obvious from multiple news articles.

 

Well, it’s obvious from multiple online ravings anyway.

 

“BD”

Awful reporting. Conveniently left out the part where free speech activists averted violence by marching to Bunker Hill Monument where we held a very successsful rally, opposed only by a tiny handful of screechy Black Lives Matter activists.

 

This is apparently a post from one of the ultra-right protest organizers referencing the out-of-the-way location that said protestors scurried off to after being heavily outnumbered by counterprotestors at their original rally site. And trying to make lemonade out of the lemons of abject failure. Pobrecito

 

“SM”

Haha so CLEVER Alexi! Poor thing, you’re one of those that paid to be brainwashed by a “professor-former screw the man 60’s hippie” weren’t you? Trumps free speech group. Haha.

That’s liberalism/socialism today. Just like Kristallnacht In Germany circa the1930’s , scream and yell and intimidate those who don’t agree with you. Same as the Nazis, like I said. Look at that red headed idiot all worked up in the photo. Here’s what the hippy professors and mommy never told you; you CAN lose in life. You did in 2016, will this year and so will the former Boston Herald, which is now a pop up ad space barely readable online and the Globe’s “Fredo Corleone”

 

An attack on the Herald reporter. And on college education in general. Conflates liberalism (which in both its original meaning, and in today’s parlance, generally indicates support for capitalism) with socialism (which indicates support for workers owning the means of production). Compares counterprotestors to nazis (sense a theme?). Concludes with amusing shot at the Herald. C+ for effort.

 

“FC”
The antifa aholes use the same tactics as the pre-war German socialists did. Their brilliant propaganda minister felt they had to “control the streets”. This kind of violence was new then, and effective. Devious manipulation got a certain demented leader in power, but it’s not going to work now. We’ve seen this crappy movie before. Also, next Free Speech Rally, I’m gonna be there.

 

Assuming this poster means pre-WWII here. He seems to think that the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) had a propaganda minister who wanted to control the streets during the two brief periods when it led the Weimar Republic. Sounds a lot more like a certain nazi propaganda chief of the same period—who only became Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in 1933. Which might explain why he’s blaming “socialists” for the rise of the nazis. Perhaps he means “national socialists.” Whatever. Anyhow, while it is true that SPD members controlled a fighting group catchily dubbed the Black, Red, Gold Banner of the Reich with as many as three million members by the 1930s to combat the Nazi Party’s SA on their right (with two million members by 1933) and the Communist Party’s Red Front Fighters’ League on their left (with 130,000 members at the time of their banning in 1929), neither they nor the communists actually mobilized their troops against the ascension of the nazis to power. Therefore, don’t think we’re watching the same “crappy movie” at all. Also doubt the poster will be at the next sad little “rally” for herp and also derp.

 

“DO”
Wonder how much money Soros spent funding these miscreants

 

None. Arch-capitalist George Soros doesn’t typically give money to anti-capitalists, and doesn’t fund every smallish American rally to the left of Trump in either this or alternate dimensions.


“LA”
You forgot “Pravda”, the fake news in this country engages in this Nazi style “reporting” daily.
And they are proud of it. Both sides are allowed by our Constitution to have their say in the public square, one side does so peacefully, the other side wearing masks and weiding weapons taunts them and attacks them. All the violence at these rallies is innitiated by one side and the fake media villifies the peaceful protestors. It’s all “Alice in Wonderland” stuff. Engals would be so proud of them.

 

This poster starts by comparing the American press of today with the Soviet Union’s main state propaganda organ. Not entirely false equivalence considering the frequently submissive behavior of the top echelons of that press—especially the New York Times and the Washington Post—in the service of the billionaires that effectively control the US government. But not true of all journalists or of independent news outlets like this one. The rest of the post infers that the left-wing counterprotestors are the violent side and that local news media is being unfair to the ultra-right wing protestors in not reporting that imaginary. We’re certainly through the looking glass with this one; so the Alice in Wonderland reference is unintentionally apt. Not sure who this “Engals” person is, though. But I’d like to buy them a vowel.

 

“AS”
The lack of press coverage of the Communists is really horrifying. That a regime that murdered many more people in support of an evil ideology than the Nazis did is openly supported on the streets of Boston, and is treated by the press and the left as the good guys, is outrageous & scary.

 

This poster is rehashing the roundly refuted figures promulgated by the anti-communist lead author of The Black Book of Communism a couple decades back. A person so desperate to make the total number of deaths supposedly caused by communism between 1917 and the book’s publication in 1997 reach 100 million people—and outnumber the death toll from capitalism (and, not coincidentally, nazism) in the same period—that he made a bunch of highly questionable editorial decisions. Like including the estimated death tolls of famines in communist nations in his total, but ignoring the much larger estimated death tolls of famines in capitalist nations—notably India, as famed left scholar Noam Chomsky subsequently pointed out using economist Amartya Sen’s numbers as that nation dropped its socialist pretensions. Communist governments certainly killed many innocent people during the period in question, but the thrust of this comment seems to be that nazism isn’t so bad after all. Right? Yikes.

 

POPULAR NOT POPULIST: GOV BAKER CONTINUES TO POLL WELL WITH PEOPLE HE’S SCREWING

 

July 31, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

There is no area of Massachusetts politics where it is more baffling to contemplate Gov. Charlie Baker’s ongoing popularity in the polls than the annual state budget debate. One can only draw two conclusions from such musing: either people don’t get the budget information they need from Bay State press, or a majority of Commonwealth residents simply enjoy watching poor people get kicked to the curb. While corporations are encouraged to line their pockets with public funds in ways that hurt everyone but the wealthy.

 

At no time of year is the contradiction of Baker’s popularity thrown into bold relief more than late July when he issues his line item vetoes and other modifications to the legislature’s final budget.

 

And this year that contradiction is sharper than ever. Because the most visible victims of the governor’s last budget action look to be people on welfare—many of whom are single mothers with children.

 

So last week, Baker refused to agree to a budget policy section that would remove the “family cap” that stops families on welfare from being able to receive extra benefits for children born while they were on welfare. Instead he sent an amended version of the family cap section of the state budget back to the legislature.

 

As reported by MassLive, “That amendment would lift the family cap but also change welfare eligibility laws so that an adult’s Supplemental Security Income is counted when determining if a family is eligible for welfare. SSI is a federal payment given to severely disabled adults.” … “According to state figures as of last year, 5,200 children with a severely disabled parent would lose their welfare benefits entirely under the change, and 2,100 children would lose part of their benefit.”

 

By contrast, MassLive continues, “Lifting the family cap would make approximately 8,700 additional children eligible for welfare assistance.”

 

If the family cap policy section of the budget had simply been vetoed, it could have been overridden by a two-thirds vote of the legislature like any other veto. But since its language was amended and sent back to the legislature for action, they have to vote on it like a new bill. After which, Baker has 10 days to act on it. And since he sent it back to the legislature at the end of its current session, the end of the 10 days after any new bill passes comes after the session is over. So Baker can simply veto it, and supporters will have to wait until next session to go through the entire legislative process again.

 

Advocates from organizations like Mass Law Reform Institute and Greater Boston Legal Services are crying foul, given the heartlessness of the measure and the fact that it has taken years to get the family cap reform through the legislature.

 

As of this writing, the House has reinstated the original family cap language, and the Senate is expected to do the same. But Baker will almost certainly veto it within 10 days of passage as planned. After the legislative session has ended.

 

Which is a total drag, and exemplary of a backwards view of welfare as an “incentive” to “encourage” poor people to work. Language that Baker has used when explaining his position on the family cap debate—a standard conservative view, unfortunately shared by Republicans and many Democrats alike, that poor people are poor because of individual failings like “laziness,” not for any structural reasons beyond their immediate control.

 

But here’s another way to view welfare: People are poor because just as capitalism provides billions of dollars to a vanishingly small number of big winners like Jeff Bezos and the Koch brothers, it creates millions of losers who have to struggle endlessly to make ends meet. Meaning inequality is baked into our economic system. Without strong government regulation, capitalism is incapable of even blunting the brutal impact of such inherent flaws, let alone somehow fixing those flaws.

 

Part of that inequality comes in the form of job provision. Since the drive for people at the commanding heights of the capitalist system is always to maximize profits, their concomitant drive is to do so by slashing labor costs whenever possible. One way they have done this since the 1970s is by changing labor from a fixed cost—as it tended to be under postwar American social democracy when over 30 percent of the workforce was protected by government-backed union contracts and there was a reasonable social safety net (including welfare)—to a variable cost.

 

The result? As was last the case at the turn of the 20th century while a militant labor movement spent decades fighting the “robber baron” billionaires of that era for redress, bosses can hire workers when needed at the worst possible rates and push them out when they don’t need them. Often without even having to officially fire workers—which would allow them to collect unemployment for a few months. And the largely ununionized workforce has almost no say about the conditions of its employment, or job policies in general, outside of insufficient minimum wage laws, easily avoided health and safety laws, and a few increasingly weak civil rights laws that might get a handful of people reinstated on the same bad terms on the rare occasions when open discriminatory practices by employers can be proven.

 

So by converting stable decent-paying union jobs to unstable contingent jobs—like temp, part-time, contract, day labor, and independent contractor jobs—over the last 40 years, capitalism and the capitalists who run it have ensured the creation of a growing impoverished underclass. This vast group of poor people acts as a reserve army of labor that, together with vicious union-busting that is on the verge of killing the American labor movement, accelerates the downward pressure on wages. And ensures that the only jobs that most poor people can get are bad contingent jobs.

 

When poor people can’t put together enough of these precarious non-jobs to make ends meet, they turn to welfare. But the old “outdoor relief” programs that provided poor men with jobs, money, food, and other necessities in many parts of the country were eliminated long ago (as were New Deal-era public jobs programs), and the remaining welfare system that largely benefitted poor women and children was hamstrung by the Democratic Clinton administration in 1996. Not coincidentally, its prescriptions were first tested here in Massachusetts in 1995 by our completely Democrat-dominated legislature—presided over by a Republican governor, Bill Weld. A so-called “libertarian” cut from much the same cloth as Charlie Baker.

 

According to a 2008 report (“Following Through on Welfare Reform”) by the Mass Budget and Policy Center, the one-two state-federal punch to poor women and children in the Commonwealth predictably ended up significantly cutting already meager welfare payments by imposing time limits on assistance and by mandating the most cruelly ironic possible change, “work requirements.”

 

Why cruelly ironic? Because the work requirements forced people who were poor because the only jobs available to them were bad contingent jobs to prove they were “working” before getting the reduced welfare benefits still on offer.

 

The new system was in many cases literally run by the very temp agencies that played a key role in making people poor to begin with. The “jobs” forced on people to qualify for much-denuded benefits were often not jobs at all. Welfare applicants were just “employed” by such temp agencies—now recast as privatized social service agencies—and forced to wait for “assignments” that were low-paying and sporadic. But unless they “worked” a certain amount under this system, no benefits. It was a hardline right-winger’s wet dream made flesh. The same capitalist system that made them poor now kept them poor. And state and federal government were no longer in the “business” of helping offset the worst depredations of capitalist inequality in what we still like to call a democracy.

 

So this is what popular Gov. Charlie Baker is up to when he plays games with reforms like the family cap. He’s screwing people who get a few hundred bucks a month in benefits out of an extra hundred a month for another kid born while they’re jumping through every conceivable time-wasting bureaucratic hoop and working the same shit jobs that made them poor to begin with. Meanwhile, he’s finding new and creative ways to dump more millions in public treasure on the undeserving rich with each passing year.

 

And you like this guy, fellow Massholes?! Just remember, in a “race to the bottom” economy presided over by capitalist hatchet men like Baker, once the poor are completely crushed, the working class is next. Followed by the middle class. Maybe think that over next time a pollster asks your opinion of the man.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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.

STOP BAKER’S ‘MORE SCHOOL COPS AND SURVEILLANCE’ PLAN

school parody image

Why the Mass budget surplus is better spent on infrastructure needs

 

July 7, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Having just been handed an estimated $1 billion budget surplus for the 2018 fiscal year, Gov. Charlie Baker was quick to make a proposal last week to divide up the unexpected spoils.

 

According to MassLive, “Around half of that will be placed in the state’s reserve account to be available in case of emergency. Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday laid out how he is proposing to spend the rest of that money, introducing a $583 million supplemental budget bill.”

 

And where does the surplus come from, readers might well ask? Well, the details are still a bit fuzzy, but the Trump administration’s drastic changes to the federal tax code months back seem to have resulted in what’s likely to be a very temporary state tax revenue increase.

 

Which explains why the Boston Globe paraphrased Noah Berger of the Mass Budget and Policy Center opining that “it would not be prudent for the state to spend the extra money from last fiscal year in the current one.” His preference being that “it should be spent on one-time capital expenses like roads or schools, or put away in the state’s savings account.”

 

But that’s not what Baker is proposing.

 

To be sure, there is money allotted for roads and the like. But only two items seem clearly earmarked for infrastructure expenditures: $50 million for cities and towns to fund local road and bridge maintenance and improvement projects, and $30 million for municipal clean water projects. Both worthy candidates for what is likely to be a one-time windfall.

 

The rest of the proposal is more problematic, however. Especially in its stated focus.

 

According to a July 13 press release from the governor’s office, “The administration is proposing a wide-ranging $72 million package to make school security upgrades in the Commonwealth’s schools and provide resources to students, staff, and first responders to better respond to threats within schools.”

 

Which is probably just red meat for Baker’s right-wing supporters. Massachusetts is definitely in dire need of more funding for K-12 and higher education. But it needs that funding on an ongoing basis.

 

What it doesn’t need is a supplemental budget better dubbed the “More School Cops and Surveillance Plan.”

 

Yet that’s exactly what Commonwealth students will get from the following proposed items that are part of the aforementioned $72 million section of the governor’s larger supplemental budget proposal:

 

  • $20 million in matching grants for security and communications upgrades in K-12 schools and at public colleges and universities

 

  • $4 million to provide training to school resource officers

 

  • $2.4 million to create a tip line to provide public safety and school personnel with timely information on potential risks

 

  • $2 million for a statewide “Say Something” campaign

 

It’s true that the proposed $40 million in additional aid to school districts in that same section to hire more social workers, mental health counselors, and psychologists is a good idea in general terms. But such an effort can’t amount to much if the funding evaporates next year. Something also true of most of the line items outside the ed-targeted package in the supplemental budget proposal that would provide funding for a variety of decent-sounding programs for K-12 and higher education, and “substance use prevention, education, and screening.” Plus a grab bag of other one-offs of varying importance like “$35.4 million for snow and ice removal costs in FY18” or wastefulness like “$8 million for multi-year municipal police training needs” (in a state that already spends vast sums on cops).

 

And, sure, we don’t want students (or school staff and faculty) to be vulnerable to killers with automatic weapons. But then we don’t want them to be vulnerable to asteroid strikes either, and most of what we could conceivably fund in the way of preparedness on that front would be about as useless as what the governor is proposing to fund for “school security.” Worse than useless, since the main result of such measures will inevitably be to increase official harassment of students of color and poor and immigrant students in their own schools. And the concomitant danger of their being shot for no reason. As the militarization of police proceeds apace. And their well-documented trigger-happiness is validated by the likes of Weymouth police Chief Richard Grimes in shockingly opportunist remarks at yesterday’s memorial for Weymouth Officer Michael Chesna—who was felled by a rock before being disarmed and executed by a random criminal over the weekend. Even as the K-12 school districts and the state colleges that serve those populations remain starved for funds with or without the FY18 surplus.

 

Regardless, there’s already a general decades-long trend toward stationing armed police on campuses nationwide, but that hasn’t stopped mass shooters from slaughtering students. There’s a veritable panopticon of surveillance measures from all levels of government on the population in general and on students in particular. Which also hasn’t prevented mass shooters from slaughtering students nationwide.

 

The things that might actually stop mass shooters from appearing in the Commonwealth—like stronger welfare and public jobs programs and more stringent gun control measures—are not in the cards in the current political climate. Even here in a supposedly left-leaning state that is unable to provide the first of those two needed reforms because it’s constitutionally prohibited from having a progressive income tax. The second, naturally, being blocked by a powerful and triumphalist gun lobby in this Age of Trump.

 

Fortunately, the legislature hasn’t weighed in on the FY18 supplemental budget yet—having failed to send the regular FY19 budget to the governor’s desk for his signature as of this writing either. So there’s still time for constituents to weigh in on how the surplus funds get spent.

 

And my suggestion would be to push your state reps and senators to fight for spending whatever part of the supplemental budget is not put into the “rainy day fund” on key capital projects. Like fixing public transportation infrastructure that stubbornly continues to disintegrate no matter how much Gov. Baker’s hand-picked MBTA flacks claim they don’t need any more money—as they had the temerity to do yesterday.

 

Once that’s done, then start agitating for the progressive tax system that would better fund state education, transportation, and social safety net programs for the foreseeable future. Because we badly need such reforms, and because—for those of you worried about a mass shooting at a Bay State school—families that have a stable income are less likely to produce violent misogynists and racists and nazis (oh my!), since they won’t need to find scapegoats for economic instability anymore.

 

Progressive taxation will be a very hard reform to win in the Commonwealth, as I’ve written many times in the past. But then so will better gun control legislation. Yet both are needed if we are going to have a more just, stable, and safer society.

 

We’ve got our work cut out for us. So let’s get cracking.

 

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.