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FAIR HOUSING WHACKED: TUFTS STUDENTS FIGHT ADMIN PROPOSAL TO ESTABLISH “CLASSIST” DORM SYSTEM

Tufts students march against tiered housing policy. Photo by Amira Al-Subaey, Tufts class of 2019.
Tufts students march against tiered housing policy. Photo by Amira Al-Subaey, Tufts class of 2019.

 

December 5, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

More than 200 Tufts University students, faculty, and allies from surrounding communities held a march and demonstration last week to protest a new campus housing policy, according to the Boston Herald. Over the summer, the Tufts administration announced that its annual lottery system for on-campus housing during each academic year would be heavily modified to establish “14 different tiers, ranging from $8,220 to $10,219 a year, in contrast to the $7,934 students currently pay.”

 

According to a recent press release from the Tufts Housing League (THL), Tufts Student Action, and several other student groups: “The administration’s tiered housing proposal will effectively segregate dorms by income levels. Students able to afford the $2,000-a-year difference will live in the nicest dorms, while low-income students, middle-income students, and students on financial aid will opt to live in old dorms without kitchens—or be forced to live off-campus and exacerbate the lack of affordable housing in the Somerville and Medford communities. This classist pricing plan reflects the same gentrifying process that the university is imposing on the surrounding communities.…”

 

The student activists are demanding that “Tufts end this policy, commit to building a new dorm, and create a democratic decision-making structure.” They point out that the university has already been accepting more students than it can house and that this move will only force more students off-campus where they will put even more pressure on an overburdened local housing market. Pushing rental, condo, and house prices even further skyward.

 

There is clearly a good deal of student resentment about the move given that the release explains that “less than 24 hours after the initial tiered housing announcement was sent to students on July 23, THL put out a statement signed by 29 student groups and a petition which included 1,582 signatures (over 1,000 garnered in the first 48 hours alone).”

 

Tufts spokesman Patrick Collins told the Herald that “the school is simply following the footsteps of Bay State colleges.” He then “acknowledged some students would see an increase in housing costs” but said that student aid would be adjusted no matter what kind of housing they selected.

 

A quick glance at the “Tufts plans to move to a more expensive tiered housing system, because screw you” discussion on the /r/Tufts subreddit provides a window into informed student opinion on the university position. According to anonymous poster “75812”: “They don’t increase financial aid grants in proportion to cost increases, though they always claim that the ability to pay stays the same. In reality they give you more loans, and in some cases ‘review your need’ and then cut your aid entirely. A lot of my friends, particularly those involved in student organizing (hmmmmmmm) have lost all their aid and had to transfer. But it’s okay because 50k in loans meets 100% of your demonstrated need, even though you’ll be a serf for ten years! Many students on financial aid work two or three campus jobs, while others work nearly full time at off campus shops and restaurants.”

 

The THL’s “Coalition Statement Opposing the Tufts Administration’s Plan to Implement Tiered Housing Prices” echos that sentiment: “Tiered pricing would be a betrayal of low-income students, yet another indication, along with perpetually rising tuition and paltry student resources, that the administration does not care about them. This policy would invariably lead to economic segregation on campus as richer students congregate in the more expensive dorms and lower-income and middle-class students are left with the cheaper, less comfortable housing units. Despite claims to the contrary, students on financial aid may be blocked from higher-cost housing, either by complicated or inadequate reimbursement policy or by self selection.”

 

Unsurprisingly, the lived experience of on-campus financial aid students at an elite school (in terms of its $73,500 sticker price this academic year at least) like Tufts is a far cry from administration public relations speak on matters like housing. So, I think the activists are doing a fine job of researching the policy crisis the school’s action is creating and proposing an eminently reasonable solution: scrap the plan and build at least one new dorm at speed.

 

This is an old problem in Boston and environs given how many institutions of higher learning we have in the area. In fact, Boston University under the leadership of the infamous John Silber was doing pretty much the same thing when I started school there in 1984. Over-accepting students to get the (bloated) tuition and (considerable) federal loan monies that came with them, and then placing literally hundreds of the new arrivals who we called “nomads” into hotel rooms for at least a semester or two. Until the usual forces of attrition did their job, and brought student numbers down to what would fit in the already packed dorms. Which only worked after floor lounges were converted to dorm rooms. The main aspect of that past crisis that differs from the current imbroglio at Tufts was that BU did not have a tiered dorm system at that time.

 

Over the intervening decades, big private schools like BU and Northeastern have gradually built more dorms and mandated that students stay in dorms at least the first year or two—under pressure from abutting neighborhoods and city governments. But they still play an outsized role in causing our region’s ongoing housing crisis.

 

All our wildly expensive major universities—Tufts, MIT, and Harvard first among them—make the situation even worse than it would otherwise be by attracting very wealthy students in significant numbers to move to the Boston area. Who then distort the housing market on their own by offering landlords mountains of cash on demand for properties that would have once rented or sold for far less.

 

So it’s great to see a major coalition of students in the very heart of this system push back against something that will throw gasoline on the fire of bad housing policy at a school like Tufts.

 

However, I will add (as I have many times before) that we’re only going to fix all the problems that our existing university system creates—including housing crises—when we finally admit that the entire American higher education system is already public due to massive government subsidies at every level, and make the governance of all colleges public as well. While mandating university education as a right in a new K-20 system—coupled with expanded lifelong educational opportunities. All funded directly out of taxes like K-12 ed is now. Though preferably through income taxes, not property taxes… to ensure much more equality in educational outcome.

 

That’s way too tall an order for a bunch of student activists at one school to take on given everything they’ll have to do to win their current housing fight. As such, I’m just putting it out there for now.

 

Still, if enough student activists at enough colleges get behind the demand for federal higher ed reform it could happen overnight. And our society would be the better for it, when every student born in this country and every immigrant student besides is able to go all the way to grad school without paying a dime beyond taxes everyone pays anyway. Without, therefore, any of the terrible student debt that is crushing the life out of millions of former college students—young and old.

 

Sure, we’ll have to scrap a few government weapons programs to cover the new costs. And ludicrously large college “endowments”—like Tufts’ $1.8 billion war chest as of June 2017—that exist in no small part because schools get so much public money, would naturally need to be seized by the feds to help provide solid college educations for all who want one. But that’s a (super fun) discussion for another day.

 

For now, best wishes to the Tufts student activists. Hope you all force your administration to build a much-needed new dorm, and move from strength to strength in your campaign to make your school’s housing policy more fair for its campus community and surrounding communities alike.

 

Readers who would like to support the student campaign can check out the Tufts Housing League’s Facebook page at facebook.com/TuftsHousingLeague/.

 

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.

SOME THOUGHTS ON TRANSPORTATION POLICY

Image courtesy of pxhere.com. Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain.
Image courtesy of pxhere.com. Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain.

 

August 16, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Transportation is a subject I address frequently in my columns. But, as is often the case in journalism, it’s usually necessary to write about it piecemeal given various editorial constraints. So I might cover flooding subways one week and a gonzo proposal for sky gondolas over the Seaport the next. But rarely do I have the luxury of looking at such a major policy area in its entirety. Which is nonideal because a good journalist is always interested to spark discussion and debate—and it’s difficult to have a proper conversation with readers if they aren’t aware of my general views on the topic at hand.

 

Such was the case a three weeks ago when I published a piece that took a dim view of Bird Rides dumping its dangerous electric rental scooters all over Cambridge and Somerville without first discussing the move with officials in either city… following a nationwide pattern of flouting relevant laws that is clearly its business model. About a day later, a few wags took to Twitter to slam me for having the temerity to suggest that motorized skateboards with handlebars might not be the ideal vehicles to allow on area streets in numbers. On both political and safety grounds.

 

I didn’t mind the hazing, of course. But it was vexing to watch Bird fans that clearly hadn’t even bothered to read the article in question—let alone my broad and deep back catalog—attack me as some kind of car-loving anti-environmental reactionary in the service of flogging their hipster transportation fetish du jour. Be they paid marketers or merely geeks with an idée fixe.

 

With that in mind, I thought it would be useful to run through my general views on transportation policy in this epistle. To clarify why I don’t think that any electric conveyance thrown at us by sociopathic West Coast frat boy CEOs is automatically the best way to save the planet while safely getting people around town with their groceries and pets. I will, however, leave long-distance intercity travel by land, sea, and air aside for now for the sake of space.

 

Carbon

It’s not possible to hold forth on transportation without first addressing the absolute necessity that humanity stop burning carbon to meet our civilization’s power needs. If we fail to shift from getting power from oil, gas, and coal to clean renewable energy sources like wind, water, and solar, then we are well and truly doomed. Not in centuries, but mere decades from now. Among the largest sources for global warming inducing carbon emissions are cars, trucks, and motorcycles. And with carbon multinationals like ExxonMobil dominating American politics, it’s going to be extremely difficult to institute the major changes that will be required to replace those vehicles—and the “car culture” that has built up around them—with zero carbon alternatives that will be acceptable to a broad array of communities. Yet without such a transition, anything else we might do will merely be tacking colorful bunting onto our species’ collective coffin. That said, any decent transportation network will have to be based on electricity. Unless some of our cleverer scientists and engineers come up with sufficiently powerful and portable renewable power sources (tiny cold fusion reactors, harnessing evil spinning gnomes, etc.) that don’t require plugging vehicles into charging stations for periods of time every day or three.

 

Planning

We’re not going to be able to move millions of people to new green transportation alternatives without redesigning the places where they live and work. One appealing way of doing that over time is to build dense clusters of housing and offices around major multimodal transportation hubs that are connected to each other by mass transit. Which will, among other salutary effects, help solve the “last mile” problem of getting commuters from such hubs to their homes and workplaces in weather conditions that are only going to get more unpredictable and dangerous as climate change accelerates.

 

But while it’s become fashionable and profitable for developers to build such high-density enclaves for rich people, it is generally not being undertaken for everyone else. Until it is, it’s going to be extremely difficult to successfully introduce the transportation alternatives we need. Probably the toughest issue will be converting existing urban neighborhoods and suburban tracts based on square miles of individual atomized domiciles over to sort of more compact and connected urblets without upending people’s carefully constructed lifeways by government fiat. Though, ironically, the global warming-driven imperative of our moving entire cities like Boston away from flooding lowlands onto higher ground—and eventually northward to cooler climes—will provide us an opportunity to start development from scratch in many locales. Since given the choice between staying in aging housing stock with ever worsening service and transportation options, and moving to new clusters of high-rise and low-rise buildings hooked up to a robust grid, people will likely move of their own accord.

 

Alternatives

And what are the cheaper, ubiquitous, and more efficient transportation modalities that will get us to a carbon-free future? I think trains, trolleys, monorails, and similar mass transit options will still play a vital role in moving large numbers of people from neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city. In fact, I believe we need to massively expand rail lines to reach far out into the exurbs. And figure out ways to use such lines for cargo containers as well. Buses—with dedicated lanes—will remain vital in many areas. Especially where it’s too expensive or impractical to build out rail lines. Boats can also be very useful for the same purpose in most weather conditions in areas adjacent to oceans, lakes, and rivers.

 

And cars? Well, that’s a big complicated discussion, but here’s my brief take. Carbon-burning cars need to be relegated to museums and antiquarian societies for collectors and hobbyists. But there’s no getting around fact that despite all their myriad problems, most people currently like being able to jump into a car and go where they want to go. So what can replace that? At first, shifting over to electric cars will be a big help. Then there will be a debate over robot cars. And that’s a tricky one because that technology won’t work well at first, and will displace many driving jobs if not introduced deliberately without corporate malice aforethought. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if you see me attacking “public-private” initiatives to shove such cars down people’s throats.

 

Nevertheless, society will gain much if we can make the new technology work. Because fleets of robot cars can likely replace the individually owned car entirely. Allowing people to get between areas well away from major transportation hubs at will—simply by using the future equivalent of a rideshare app to order a robot car for the trip. Robot trucks will be able to deal with moving cargo point to point. And simple electric golf carts—either robotic or not—will suffice for trips around neighborhoods.

 

We can then gradually reduce or eliminate motor vehicle traffic from many roads over time—allowing bicycles (on ubiquitous dedicated bike lanes) to really come into their own. As for electric scooters? In most locales it will probably be best if they remain an idiosyncratic vehicle choice for young individuals who like to stand out from the crowd, and not accepted as a serious transportation alternative. Because they’re not. Meanwhile, flying cars, jetpacks, and the like will have to be a topic for a future article.

 

Labor

Building out transportation alternatives needs to be seen as an opportunity for new job creation, not just an excuse for job destruction for the purpose of corporate profit extraction. Such jobs should be “good jobs” with living wages, shorter work weeks (something we’ll need worldwide to compensate for the rise of the robots), and generous benefits. People losing jobs in the existing transportation sector should be retrained at government expense and get priority placement in jobs in the new transportation sector. All of said jobs should be unionized.

 

Public

As many of these transportation alternatives as possible should be public. Leaving our transit future to private companies like Uber, Lyft, Lime, Bird Rides, etc. is a prescription for disaster. Because all such corporations look out for their bottom lines first, and the public good second (if at all). And every entrant to that new sector has sought to end-run public planning processes and government regulators in a never-ending quest to make a fast buck—to the point of Uber purposely designing their payment algorithm so that their drivers would keep driving while making as little money as possible, according to Vanity Fair.

 

So if we’re going to ensure that commuters have a voice in a reasonably democratic and rational transportation planning process going forward, then we have to expand public transportation to control the commanding heights of its sector. And regardless, the role of privately owned vehicles must be minimized if we’re going to reduce carbon emissions enough to save ourselves from the worst depredations of human-induced global warming.

 

That’s my basic thinking on at least regional transportation. Happy to participate in civic dialogues on the subject any time.

 

Thanks to Suren Moodliar, co-author of the forthcoming A People’s Guide to Greater Boston [University of California Press], for ongoing ever-illuminating conversations on transportation, housing, and many other policy areas.

 

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.

GREENFIELD BLUES: HOMELESSNESS IS NOT JUST A BIG-CITY PROBLEM IN MASS

Greenfield City Hall by ToddC4176 at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Greenfield City Hall by ToddC4176 at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

August 7, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

We don’t get much news about Western Mass in Boston. And since the population is relatively small in the largely rural western counties of the Commonwealth, it can be easy to miss significant stories. Because the scale of noteworthy happenings is naturally smaller there. Because our diminished metro news outlets have trouble covering the entire state. And because, let’s be honest, Bostonians don’t usually care about what happens west of, like, Brookline.

 

So at first glance, word of a homeless encampment out in Greenfield isn’t something that would get much attention hereabouts at the best of times. But for a city with a population that fell by more than 500 people to 17,456 between the 2000 and 2010 censuses—with a median household income of $33,110, and 14 percent of residents below the poverty line—it’s an important enough development to warrant a series of articles in the local press. And I think it deserves coverage here in the Hub as well.

 

Especially when the encampment is on the Greenfield Common, opposite the Greenfield City Hall (better known as the Town Hall prior to a recent change in nomenclature). Something unusual is definitely afoot.

 

It seems two local homeless people began camping on the common a couple of months ago. A number that quickly grew to 20 regular residents in as many as a dozen tents. According to the Greenfield Recorder, their “de facto spokeswoman” Madelynn Malloy “and others have said previously they are camping on the common because there is no other place that is safe for homeless residents to go and because current city law allows them to stay there day or night. There are no requirements for licenses or permits to be there and the homeless residents’ actions are not considered loitering, but public assembly. The city has an ordinance prohibiting loitering, but it only applies to sidewalks.”

 

A city count of last January pegged the homeless population at 39, but area charities have said the actual number is significantly higher—as they noted during the brutal cold snap at the end of 2017 when their shelters were so overwhelmed that the Salvation Army put up $1,600 to house people at Days Inn. Since that time, the Greenfield Human Rights Commission and homeless advocates have been pushing for the city to do more. Meanwhile, the encampment has put a very human and public face on the crisis, and has sparked meetings and debates in local government about how to find housing for the homeless.

 

Unfortunately, there seems to be at least as much concern from Mayor William Martin to get the city council to pass rules effectively banning camping on Greenfield Common as there is to find ways to house local homeless people. The latter being the obvious policy priority, if for no other reason than to relieve overwhelmed private social service agencies.

 

Most recently, a breakthrough of sorts—also reported in the Greenfield Recorder—happened when the city council voted to put a port-a-potty closer to the common than the one local churches previously made available. “According to the Department of Public Works, the cost of a temporary restroom is $150 a month and includes emptying it. The mayor’s office said the first two months of the portable toilet would be paid for by the Interfaith Council and an unnamed local business. There is no plan currently in place for funding after the two months.” The council also voted, apparently contrary to the mayor’s wishes, to decrease “regulations on churches to set up temporary shelters” and open “the former Wedgewood Gardens property on Kimball Drive as a possible site for an encampment.” The mayor then vowed to “attempt to find temporary housing solutions through a ‘rapid re-housing team’” made up of “city officials and social service and humanitarian agencies.”

 

Baby steps perhaps. But it would not do to underplay the difficult situation Greenfield government finds itself in. It’s going to take officials time to find even a stopgap solution. Large cities like Boston aren’t doing a great job of dealing with a growing homeless crisis either; so it’s obviously more difficult for smaller municipalities with fewer resources to house and provide services for even a few dozen people.

 

Particularly when, as was pointed out in a DigBoston op-ed by Lawrence social services executive Joe D’Amore in January, many communities in Massachusetts ban people from sleeping in public spaces or even “loitering” there. Which merely shifts the burden of dealing with homelessness to more densely populated and tolerant locales with more social services like Lawrence. Or Greenfield.

 

Hopefully people will retain the right to sleep on the Greenfield Common overnight when needed, and the city government will cobble together some longer-term housing options for its homeless population before winter sets in.

 

Yet however things turns out in the largest burg in Franklin County, the situation is interesting not because it is unique… but because it is sadly commonplace. Across Massachusetts and all over America the story is the same. Despite claims of a “strong economy” from Republicans and many Democrats, homelessness is ever more persistent and ever more desperate.

 

To see an actual strong economy in a place like Greenfield, one has to look back to the 1950s—when the city was home to major metal-working concerns, the largest being Greenfield Tap & Die. But that plant was sold off to a larger company in 1958, and most of its jobs disappeared over decades. The city’s last major manufacturing business, Lunt Silversmiths, went under in 2009 during the Great Recession.

 

According to the Republican, Lunt had 800 employees in 2001. And only “12 to 15” by the end. It’s difficult for even larger cities to recover from that kind of blow to their job base, let alone a small city like Greenfield.

 

It will thus shock no one that the rise of the opiate crisis tracks closely to this decline in the city’s fortunes. And it’s therefore ironic in the extreme that the former Lunt plant is now home to two drug treatment facilities, Franklin Recovery Center and Northern Hope.

 

The opiate crisis relates directly to the homeless crisis. And both relate to the ongoing jobs crisis. Increasingly unregulated capitalism, as I often write, is clearly incapable of providing good jobs for our population. As the job base collapses, people in Greenfield, Boston, and around the nation are stuck with lousy part-time, temp, contract, independent contractor, and day labor gigs. Or with no jobs at all.

 

As these downwardly mobile people see their lives collapsing, they turn to opiates. Maybe because they got injured in their precarious pseudo-jobs and got put on addictive pain killers by well-meaning doctors being suckered by criminal conspiracies like oxycontin-maker Purdue Pharma of nearby Stamford, Connecticut. Or maybe because they couldn’t take the humiliation of no longer being able to provide for themselves and their families, and reached for the strongest, most reliable, and readily available chemical solace. And soon enough, more and more of these folks end up on the streets.

 

Without public jobs programs, new public housing, and cradle-to-grave public healthcare, local, state, and federal governments will not be able to fix these related crises. Even if they wanted to. Which they don’t in this era of gangster capitalism. Nor will “private” charities. Many of which already rely on shrinking pools of government money to do what little they can do to stem the tide of rising poverty.

 

So it’s critical that people in big cities like Boston—especially press and policy makers—pay careful attention to small municipalities like Greenfield. They are canaries in the coal mine of a political economic system that can only be called failing, the less it is able to provide for the growing number of people on the bottom of our societal pyramid.

 

As such, we ignore the Greenfields of our nation at our peril. We must act now to stop the rest of our communities, large and small, from continuing their rolling collapse. A task we can best begin by rebuilding government at all levels to focus on the human needs of all of its denizens. And stop privileging the schemes of the rich and powerful few over the livelihoods of the struggling multitude.

 

Townie is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. His Apparent Horizon column is winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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.

FLIPPING US THE BIRD: SCOOTER-SHARING COMPANY LITTERS CAMBERVILLE WITH DANGEROUS VEHICLES NO ONE ASKED FOR

Bird’s model looks to be entirely profit-driven and completely mean-spirited. No matter how much CEO Travis VanderZanden tries to equate the unasked-for and unwanted service to “freedom.”

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.

CAPITALIST VETO

Money tips the scales of justice image

 

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

 

June 19, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

EDITORIAL: MEDIUM WELL

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

 

Democracy requires public control of social media giants

 

May 16, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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


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


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


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

 

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


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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

URBAN MISSION

City College of Boston

 

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

 

May 9, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

This column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest show — co-produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations.

 

 

Note of Appreciation

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


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