Can a neoliberal columnist for a billionaire’s newspaper understand that a better MBTA is possible if we tax the rich (and make public transportation truly public)?


It’s hardly a secret that I’m no fan of Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung’s writing on matters political and economic. Which clearly reflects her belief that bringing big corporations to Boston and shovelling public money at them is the best way to improve the city’s fortunes. And she’s none too picky about what corporations she supports either. Despite recently criticizing Wayfair’s $200,000 sale to a government contractor doing business with baby concentration camps near the Mexican border, she has had no difficulty at all shamelessly flacking for companies like General Electric and Amazon. Both of which, as I’ve written on numerous occasions, have done far worse things to the people of the Bay State and the world than Wayfair has done to date.


That said, Leung is certainly right to focus on the growing Massachusetts public transportation crisis in her recent columns. But I disagree with her analysis and prescriptions, as ever. So naturally I take issue with her piece of July 18, “Red Line’s slow service, explained.” Which, though framed around a not-very-illuminating interview with MBTA general manager Steve Poftak, is problematic on two grounds.


First, she continues to include herself among Boston’s legions of long-suffering commuters. Despite having only started regularly taking the T to work from her Milton home in June 2017 (as chronicled in the cringe-worthy column “Is the T ready for me to be a daily commuter?”) after the Globe moved its offices from its old Dorchester building (which offered free parking) to a new office downtown (which does not). And having loudly declared her “defection” from our beleaguered public transportation system but a fortnight back. Choosing to drive, take Uber or “work from home” instead since last month’s Red Line derailment caused serious damage that will likely continue to delay service for at least a few more weeks until it is fully repaired. Options that are simply not available to many T riders who aren’t senior journalists at major news outlets—and struggle to cover ever-rising T fares… forget car payments or Uber rides. And working from home remains a pipe dream for most. 


Second, she tries to compare the regional mobilization that will be required to fix the T to the massive national effort that went into putting astronauts on the moon in the following chestnut of an opening paragraph: “Fifty years ago, American ingenuity landed man on the moon. Here in Boston, we’ll settle for the Red Line running on time.” Which is just silly. But silly in a way that I think is worth unpacking.


My colleague Suren Moodliar, co-author of the forthcoming book A People’s Guide to Greater Boston (University of California Press) and a fellow socialist, criticized the space race frame in a useful way on Facebook: “Leung reveals a huge obstacle to transit justice and a reloaded MBTA: the liberal class’s low expectations. Calling for a ‘moonshot,’ she asks Beacon Hill to aim for ‘a reliable MBTA’ by 2030. Forget a Green New Deal or any visionary upgrades that brings mobility, employment, and transit justice to grossly underserved communities and clean, green mass transit to connect everyone, let’s get the same old lousy MBTA, but just more reliably so.”


When I asked him to expand on that theme, he replied, “The iconic struggle of the Civil Rights Movement was about transportation. In fact, the campaign around Rosa Parks is something the MBTA has co-opted—her image appears in every bus! Twenty-first century transportation justice is about access to safe, affordable, efficient and healthy transportation. It also means that all communities should have a real say in planning transportation and its supply in ways that are meaningful for their everyday lives and employment. For this to be realized in a sustainable way, we really need to re-imagine aspirations that existed more than a century ago when Boston beat NYC in the race underground—to relieve congestion, to get people where they wanted to go, to add to a complementary network of streetcars—all at a time when the city was coming to realize that public goods could be best provided by publicly-owned entities. Weld real 21st-century needs onto that and you have a model for an MBTA reloaded. One that provides good jobs while achieving green goals … more than just carbon mitigation, decongesting our streets and our lungs! This is not rocket science, not a space shot, but common sense.”


So the trouble with Leung’s position on public transportation is not that she’s wrong to be concerned about it… it’s that she’s willing to speak for the working people of Boston and declaim that “we” would be all set if the state comes up with a few billion dollars to get the MBTA “running on time.” Without ever delving into how great the system could be if public transportation was publicly run and completely responsive to community needs—rather than having more and more of its functions outsourced to often comically greedy and inefficient corporations like Keolis by hapless capitalist ideologues like Gov. Charlie Baker. Or asking why the Commonwealth doesn’t have the money required to meet the public’s actual transportation needs. And deal with our related jobs and environmental crises in the bargain.


Also, Leung never mentions the fact that if corporations and the rich were forced to pay taxes at the rates they did in the 1950s, all of the necessary new infrastructure—and much more besides—could be built without pause. Yet these are the same corporations Leung perennially supports dumping public treasure on. Because… reasons? 


I mean like, what? Trickle-down economics? Deregulation? Privatization? We’re supposed to buy the Reagan-era con that bribing big companies to move to a place that gives up the right to tax them properly, enforce labor and environmental standards, and stop them from moving elsewhere at a moment’s notice somehow benefits that place? And the linked myth that letting corporations and their owners get richer will somehow make everyone else richer too? Seriously, why would anyone think that actively encouraging endless economic war between municipalities, states, and nations over which polity can transfer the most public wealth to private interests substitutes for any kind of rational economic policy? Why would anyone believe any of this nonsense? Global elites have pushed this model of disaster capitalism on the world’s peoples—Americans included—for over 40 years now, and it has done nothing but enrich the few, immiserate the many, and accelerate the destruction of the planet.


No one, neoliberal propagandists like Leung least of all, should be surprised when the proverbial chickens that the rich and powerful have foisted on the looted countries of the global south now come home to roost here in the states. One cannot endlessly boost the private sector at the expense of the public sector, slash labor standards, end run democratic processes, and then bemoan that the T is falling apart for lack of funds. 


Readers should mull all that over for now. I’ll return to public transportation and other major policy areas again and again in columns to come. But as for Shirely Leung, I’d say she has to decide which side she’s on before she’s going to be much use as a columnist. She really can’t have it both ways: purporting to speak for the masses while cheerleading for billionaires. 


Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.