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New COVID-19 variants inevitable until pharmas are stopped from privatizing public vaccine research and development
The fix was in.
While the world was gearing up for the global climate strike last week, the years-long fight over the future of the Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge ended in a fast flurry of political maneuvers. Whose outcome surprised no one. Only the manner of the violation of the public trust remained in question until the last moment.
The matter up for debate in the Cambridge city council chamber was not really the matter up for debate. Officially the second of what had become a two-part council session was meeting to decide whether or not developer Leggat McCall Properties was going to get the 420 parking spaces required by the special permit which would allow it to convert the state-owned courthouse into a lucrative commercial office tower—with 24 affordable housing units and enough minor amenities thrown in to get the votes it needed to prevail.
In reality, the session was determining whether Leggat would be able to move forward with its plans or be stopped cold by failing to get the required six council votes for the necessary parking. At which time, anti-Leggat community activists hoped that the Commonwealth’s deal with the developer would collapse and the state would be forced to make a new deal with the city of Cambridge and other parties for a courthouse development that would mainly provide desperately needed affordable housing.
Leggat already had five votes locked down going into the session—councilors Craig Kelley, Alanna Mallon, Tim Toomey, and Denise Simmons plus Mayor Marc McGovern (who is still a councilor under Cambridge’s Plan E form of government). All exactly the kind of corporate-friendly pols whose support was never in doubt.
Facing off with them were three councilors solidly against the idea of a deal with Leggat—Dennis Carlone, Quinton Zondervan, and Vice Mayor Jan Devereux. Leaving one vote still in play. The deciding vote. Which was held by Sumbul Siddiqui, a councilor elected in 2017 with endorsements from several labor unions and, notably, two left-wing organizations that put boots on the ground in electoral contests: Our Revolution Cambridge and Boston Democratic Socialists of America. She had campaigned as a former resident of Cambridge public housing and a strong advocate for expanding affordable housing in the city. Those groups, and the public that elected her, took her at her word.
What happened next was described by Vice Mayor Devereux in the Cambridge Day article “Last-minute deal for courthouse squandered council power—to developer’s financial gain”:
“After months of authentic grassroots advocacy led by state Rep. Mike Connolly with rallies, a door-knocking campaign and a petition that gathered more than 1,250 signatures to reject the parking disposition outright to give the city leverage with the state to negotiate an inclusive, community-driven alternative plan with affordable housing as its centerpiece, councillor Siddiqui went to the brink and then folded our hard-won winning hand too quickly, even depriving the three councillors who had always demanded much more from the courthouse redevelopment of any opportunity to improve her deal’s terms. It was the momentum built through the grassroots campaign to stand up to the expensive, professional public relations campaign waged by Leggat McCall that put councillor Siddiqui in the position to even make these demands. She could have stated them as the opening bid on what she would need to get to ‘yes’ without rushing us to a final vote last night. Seizing her own bird in the hand deprived everyone else of a voice, which sadly is pretty much the opposite of a collaborative and transparent community-driven process.”
Under pressure from city leadership and Leggat, Siddiqui had clearly made a deal for her vote in advance. She announced the deal by laying out what she wanted for that vote toward the end of the hearing—basically doubling the number of affordable housing units from 24 to 48 and throwing another $3.5 million at Cambridge’s Affordable Housing Trust. To which the Leggat lawyer, former mayor and disgraced former State Sen. Anthony Galluccio, agreed shortly after asking Mayor McGovern for “30 seconds to a minute” to discuss the new deal. But not before McGovern literally called his old pal “Gooch” in open session—having also called Galluccio “councilor” at another point. As the ex-con’s mayoral portrait looked down on the highly unusual scene from the wall.
After that the vote was merely a matter of codifying a fait accompli. Which the council then did 6-3 in favor along the expected lines—with the added insult of blocking any future reconsideration of the vote.
Puzzlingly, one of Siddiqui’s asks according to Devereux was “Reducing parking leased in the city garage by 125 spaces (from 420 to 295) and to seek a further reduction of up to 25 spaces in the total parking requirement (from 510 to 360 total for the project).”
The vice mayor explained that “the reduction in the required parking, which it seems possible the Planning Board could approve without even requiring a traffic and parking study to update data that are now six years old, will save Leggat McCall a substantial amount of money. By subtracting 150 spaces from its lease in the First Street Garage, Leggat McCall would save about $17.5 million over 30 years (that’s about half of its reported acquisition cost for the courthouse). The approximately $49 million in guaranteed revenue to the city from the parking lease had been touted as a significant community benefit; councillor Siddiqui’s bargain will reduce the value of that benefit by about 35 percent. And in a little less than six years, the additional $3.5 million payment to the Affordable Housing Trust will have been recouped through these windfall savings on the parking lease.”
So the new deal is essentially undoing one of its own key planks by allowing Leggat to develop the courthouse while using fewer public parking spaces. A move likely aimed at reducing remaining community opposition to the project on grounds that it would have been leasing too many of said spaces to the developer—with the unhappy side effect of reducing the money the city will make by now leasing less spaces. Excelsior.
As I mentioned in my Apparent Horizon column of two weeks ago “The Political Movement to Come: How Cambridge Can Put Public Need Before Private Greed,” Leggat and city government will still likely have to fight at least one lawsuit over the way the disposition of parking spaces in a public garage was handled. But that probably won’t be enough to stop the project.
Not with Siddiqui having failed to remain true to her previous campaign promises to be a champion for affordable housing—by backing 48 units instead of fighting for a better courthouse development with many more affordable apartments. In a city with thousands of people on public housing waiting lists.
As Devereux made clear, if Siddiqui had held firm to her supposed principles and voted against leasing the parking spaces, a much better deal could have been negotiated. If Leggat was willing to suddenly double the number of housing units in its courthouse plan—something its bosses had always refused to offer in previous negotiations—in exchange for her vote, then the company surely would have managed to come up with much bigger givebacks to ensure that it would be allowed to make the huge profits it is undoubtedly expecting from the commercial office space it’ll build out in the (currently) 22-story tower.
But Siddiqui took a dive at the moment the city’s remaining working families needed her most. She didn’t stand with Carlone, Devereaux, and Zondervan for even an extra hour. She buckled under pressure from the developer and its allies on the council when they did not, and she made the kind of deal that my labor movement mentor Tim Costello called “bargaining against yourself.” The worst possible kind of deal.
The question now is what to do with her. And with Kelley, Mallon, Simmons, Toomey, and most especially with the council’s chief corporate quisling—the person primarily responsible for this outcome—Mayor McGovern.
Yet here we arrive at the problem I outlined in my last article. There is no popular movement on the (actual) political left in Cambridge currently large enough to easily “throw the bums out.” Which is definitely the right thing to do in this situation.
Worse still, Cambridge residents—many of them transient students at local universities—turn out in pitifully low numbers for local elections. And most know literally nothing about city politics. Which absolutely works to preserve the neoliberal status quo that I outlined in my earlier column, “Don’t Buy What Mayor McGovern Is Selling.” Explaining that McGovern—and, by default, his allies Kelley, Mallon, Simmons, Toomey, and now Siddiqui—believe “that the way to run a city in 21st-century America is to attract as much big development as possible, get whatever funds collected from the generally small and inoffensive taxes and fees that developers will accept, and then use that money to keep the city attractive enough to hold onto to the developments that are here and entice more developers to build here. While, secondarily, providing public services to residents that are somewhat better than the services cities without big developments have.”
Meaning that I can shout that Cantabrigians should purge the pro-Leggat council until I’m blue in the face, and it won’t make much difference. Certainly not in this year’s swift-approaching elections.
So all I can do is encourage voters to support the seven council candidates backed by Our Revolution Cambridge: incumbents Dennis Carlone and Quinton Zondervan, and newcomers Charles Franklin, Patty Nolan, Ben Simon, Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, and Nicola Williams. Simon and Sobrinho-Wheeler also being endorsed by Boston DSA.
Given the anticipated super-low voter turnout in this midterm election year and the fact of Cambridge’s ranked-choice voting system, I hesitate to even do that. Because the seven candidates are effectively running against each other in a race where each of them (speaking in basic terms about a complex process) needs to pass a specific threshold of #1 votes based on the number of people that ultimately vote—and voters can only assign one #1 vote each.
Since it’s fairly unlikely that a majority of those candidates will be able to win, we’re probably not going to see a significant change in the council’s attitude toward big real estate developers like Leggat. Yet.
I would suggest then that readers take a look at my “Political Movement” column and consider my prescriptions for those seeking to make Cambridge more (“small d”) democratic. Briefly, I’m saying that a city like the so-called “People’s Republic” can only improve if residents build a strong social force capable of freeing city politics of the malign influence of developers and other major corporations. And aim for electoral reform once they’ve built strength in every neighborhood. To succeed, activists may first need to run the major campaign required to change the city from a Plan E government to something else.
But one thing is for sure: If such a movement arises, any push to throw out politicians that real estate interests and other major corporations have in their back pockets will have a much better chance of success.
Recently, two scholars announced their plans to cut ties with the MIT Media Lab over its longstanding relationship with Jeffrey Epstein—the New York financier who had been arrested on federal charges for the alleged sex trafficking of minors in Florida and New York and committed (a suspiciously convenient) suicide in custody on Aug 10. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT (which is “a collaboration between the MIT Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies at MIT,” according to its website) and an associate professor of the practice at the MIT Media Lab, and J. Nathan Matias, a Cornell University professor and visiting scholar at the lab, are certainly to be commended for having the courage of their convictions. Particularly Zuckerman, who is literally leaving his job over the Epstein affair.
The lab’s direct connection to such a highly placed, dangerous, previously convicted sex offender is certainly more than enough reason for staffers, affiliates, and grad students to consider resigning their posts. However, it must be said to those who stay on that there have always been plenty of other reasons to resign from the MIT Media Lab from the moment it opened its doors. Because “capitalism’s advanced R&D lab”—as a colleague of mine close to the current fray calls it—has never been picky about which donors it will accept funding from. And that presents a major dilemma for other people of good conscience who happen to be working there.
So, I decided it would be worth a quick spin through some of the misdeeds of a few of the most well-known Media Lab corporate donors. In hopes that other people connected to the highly problematic institution might also decide to announce an abrupt career change in the name of social justice. Better still, they could organize themselves into a movement to either reform where the lab gets its money—and on whose behalf it works—or simply break it up. And maybe spread its projects around to other, less compromised, institutions.
BP and ExxonMobil. Every energy company engaged in extracting oil, natural gas, and coal, processing it, and/or distributing it to be burned in internal combustion engines or power plants is hastening the extinction of the human race by inducing ever-worsening global warming. With knowledge aforethought. As evinced by the organized campaign of disinformation they have all led against climate science, according to the noted book and documentary Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University and Erik M. Conway of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. There is no way to take this money and still have clean hands. Whether it’s a thousand dollars or a million. MIT Media Lab leadership knows this and does it anyway.
Ford Motor Company. A company as old and as large as Ford has inevitably done a lot of reprehensible things. Two of the worst: a) producing carbon-burning, greenhouse gas-emitting vehicles for over a century (almost 400 million since 1903) and b) working with energy companies like the ones that became ExxonMobil to form the Global Climate Coalition—a key international lobby group that spearheaded the fight by major corporations against climate science to prevent environmental regulation that would negatively affect their bottom line, according to Oreskes and Conway. It is the fifth-largest vehicle manufacturing company in the world.
Hyundai Motor Company. The third-largest vehicle manufacturing company in the world. And therefore another corporate scofflaw even without looking at its miserable record of union busting. Continuing to flood the planet with millions more carbon-spewing, global warming exacerbating machines every year. Oh, and the Korean conglomerate also got caught “overstating” its vehicles’ mileage a few years back, according to US News and World Report.
Honeywell SPS. While the Safety and Productivity Solutions “strategic business unit” of Honeywell International Inc. is the one giving money to the MIT Media Lab, its parent corporation is a major defense contractor. And a particularly dangerous strain of that breed of sociopathic capitalist entity. According to the Don’t Bank on the Bomb website produced by the interfaith Dutch antiwar group PAX, “Honeywell is involved in US nuclear weapon facilities as well as producing key components for the US Minuteman III ICBM and the Trident II (D5) system, currently in use by the US and UK.” Because what could possibly go wrong with continuing to produce more nukes?
Citigroup. One of the main American banks responsible for the 2008 global financial collapse thanks to heavy investment in derivatives based on subprime housing mortgages. Also, the recipient of one of the largest bailout packages from the federal government in US history. That was either as “little” as $45 billion in Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) money (which it paid back), or as much as $500 billion—when all government assistance it received is included (much of which it didn’t have to pay back)… according to a Wall Street Journal op-ed by James Freeman, co-author of the critical Citigroup history Borrowed Time. Most of the tens of thousands of working families whose lives were ruined when their homes were seized for mortgage nonpayment by the banks which set them up to fail did not get a bailout.
GE. A company I have written a baker’s dozen pieces on, between the start of the GE Boston Deal in 2016 and this year (when said deal fell apart). Once a major employer in Massachusetts, GE not only destroyed the economies of several cities around the state by precipitously shutting down major plants—in part to cut costs by eliminating thousands of good unionized jobs—but also polluted the entire Housatonic River valley from northwest Mass to Long Island Sound, as I covered in parts one and seven of my GE Boston Deal: The Missing Manual series. Yet is still trying to avoid having to finish cleaning that toxic mess up. Furthermore, GE was heavily involved in causing the 2008 global financial collapse through its former “shadow bank” division GE Capital and was the recipient of a huge government bailout via $90 billion in cheap credit it definitely did not deserve, as I outlined in parts two and three of my series.
McKinsey & Company. A virtually unaccountable private consulting firm with its fingers in many multinational corporate pies—and a special emphasis on working with authoritarian governments. The New York Times has spent years exposing some of its more sordid activities, including running the $12.3 billion offshore hedge fund MIO Partners, identifying the social media accounts of three prominent online critics of the Saudi government (one of whom was subsequently arrested), and helping Boeing find some needed titanium by getting a Ukrainian oligarch to bribe eight Indian officials. Plus, it reported—close to home and perhaps worst of all—that the “[Commonwealth] of Massachusetts released new documents from 2013 that detailed McKinsey’s recommendations on how Purdue Pharma could ‘turbocharge’ sales of its widely abused opioid OxyContin. The state said McKinsey advised Purdue to sharply increase sales visits to targeted doctors and to consider mail orders as a way to bypass pharmacies that had been tightening oversight of opioid prescriptions.” The thousands of opiate deaths in the Bay State alone since that time are on the criminal consultancy’s head—along with Purdue, and other corrupt pharmaceutical companies.
GlaxoSmithKline, F. Hoffmann-La Roche AG (Roche), Novartis, and Takeda. And speaking of pharmas, here are four that donate to the Media Lab. All of which make huge profits by converting largely publicly funded basic science research into privately owned drug formulas protected by patents and other exclusive rights granted to them by governments. Then repurposing older medications for different uses—for which they receive new patents. According to a Washington Post op-ed by Robin Feldman, the author of Drugs, Money, & Secret Handshakes, “…78 percent of the drugs associated with new patents were not new drugs coming on the market but existing ones. The cycle of innovation, reward, then competition is being distorted into a system of innovation, reward, then more reward.” Ultimately, big pharmas extend their monopolies over the most profitable drugs by using their dominant positions to keep cheaper generic versions produced by smaller pharmas from gaining a foothold for years after they’re finally allowed to enter the market. The amount of unnecessary misery created by such companies in countries like the US that lack a comprehensive national healthcare system able to keep drug prices low is, therefore, immense. On top of the more specific misery caused when Takeda’s diabetes drug Actos was found to cause bladder cancer, according to the New York Times. Or when Roche made serious bank by convincing government to stockpile the influenza drug Tamiflu and was later found to have been withholding vital clinical trial data showing it wasn’t very effective, according to the Guardian. Or when GlaxoSmithKline “agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges and pay $3 billion in fines for promoting its best-selling antidepressants for unapproved uses and failing to report safety data about a top diabetes drug,” according to the New York Times. Or the ongoing scandal resulting from the FDA accusing Novartis of manipulating the “data used to support approval of the drug Zolgensma,” according to Stat. Which is supposed to be a treatment for the rare baby-killing genetic disorder spinal muscular atrophy and is the most expensive drug in the world at $2.1 million for a one-dose treatment, according to NPR.
Deloitte. Just a bunch of harmless accountants, right? Wrong. According to Canada’s National Observer, Deloitte is the largest of the “Big Four” audit firms that have “emerged as central players in the creation and abuse of offshore tax havens.” They also “become champions of the privatization of government services.” Giving a hearty assist to the consolidation of wealth by ever smaller numbers of corporations and individuals. Thus diminishing the governments that were once able to tax the rich and powerful and use the money to provide the very public services that have gradually been privatized—and concentrating more of the remaining public funds in those same private hands.
That’s just a sample of the dozens of MIT Media Lab “member companies.” Not all of them are as bad as the ones above. But few are above reproach. Check them out yourself at media.mit.edu/posts/member-companies/. And consider what kind of university would allow one of its major initiatives to run for decades with such little regard for social responsibility.
Full disclosure: Jason Pramas has interacted with Ethan Zuckerman professionally from time to time.
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.
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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.
May 1, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
It’s always funny to hear that Charlie Baker is a very popular governor… The most popular governor in the country at the moment, according to polls. Because he doesn’t do anything very differently than his predecessor Deval Patrick did. Or than Mass House speaker Robert DeLeo does. Or than most any state Democratic leader when it comes down to core economic issues—with the exception of the leaders with little actual power.
Baker, Patrick, DeLeo, and all their ilk in both major parties essentially follow the same game plan. They work to lower taxes for those most able to afford them, cut desperately needed social programs to the bone, and give away as much money as possible to giant corporations.
Much of the rest of what they do is posturing for the various constituencies that make up their particular electorates. And that’s the stuff that gets the most media coverage. Which is not to say they’re necessarily insincere about such activity. But they’re elected to represent the wealthy interests that run the Commonwealth, and the work they do for that most important constituency is always their top priority.
So when Patrick and Baker, for example, shovel over $1.5 billion in free public money at the biotech industry or arrange millions in tax breaks and direct state aid for huge companies that don’t need them on an ongoing basis—with DeLeo’s blessing in both administrations—to the extent those acts get coverage, they’re presented as done deals that are “good for the economy.” Then it’s on to the next press spectacle of the day. Events where they can “show leadership” and the like. As when there’s a snowstorm. In Massachusetts, a northern state noted for its frequent snowstorms. And the current governor gets on TV and says “stay indoors during the snowstorm.” That is apparently showing leadership.
Which explains Baker’s high numbers, I think. Simple public relations. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and all that. With most of the major news outlets gamely playing along. And his numbers are higher than Patrick’s were because he’s a white guy in a super racist state that likes to think it’s super anti-racist.
That’s what results in people that don’t pay attention to politics—including the vast majority of white voters—going, “Oh, Baker’s such a nice man” when pollsters ask their opinion of him. More than they did with Patrick. No doubt Baker is a nice man in person or whatever. Lots of people who do bad things when they have power are personally “nice.” Like, I’m sure when some buddy of his from childhood needs money, he’ll give it to him. Or at least loan it to him. But when all the legions of people he doesn’t know personally need good jobs with benefits, need free higher education, need major improvement to infrastructure like the MBTA—because of entrenched structural inequality—that’s a different story.
A story whose narrative you can hear if you listen to Baker’s remarks to the 2018 Mass Republican Convention in Worcester last weekend.
Stripping away obligatory pleasantries and nods to major supporters, the speech was aimed at the same white middle-class suburbanites who remain the base of the state Republican Party. Baker addressed them directly at one point while enumerating the “successes” of his administration: “We offered early college programs, our Commonwealth Commitment program, which dramatically reduces the cost of a college education. And increases in state scholarships to make the price of college more affordable for moderate- and middle-income families.”
See, he thinks they’re so important he mentioned them twice in a row: “moderate- and middle-income families.” No word about low-income families, though. At all. Not even a nod. Sure, working families are discussed. But in Republican-speak, “working families” isn’t code for “working class” as it often is for Democrats. It means “those who work.” As opposed to “those who do not work.” Like all those “lazy shiftless” folks that used to be called working class in more honest times. And those totally nonindustrious [ha!] immigrants. And the “undeserving” poor in general. Everyone who supposedly lives off the bounty of “our”––the good “moderate- and middle-income” people’s, the “taxpayers’”—labor.
But no mention of his most important constituency, the one he actually works for, either. “Small business” is mentioned a number of times. But not major corporations and the rich people that own them.
Still, they’re there. Lurking behind all of Baker’s remarks. Especially when he said several things that are completely and obviously false to anyone who follows politics reasonably closely. Like taking credit for “dramatically” reducing the cost of a college education. When public higher education is an absolute disaster in Massachusetts. When both the working-class families he seemingly deplores and the middle class he purports to represent—immigrant and nonimmigrant alike—are forced to run up ruinous amounts of debt just to put kids through schools that were once so cheap as to nearly be free. While tuition and fees keep getting raised year after year. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
The rich and the corporations are there because public higher ed, like virtually every other beneficial government program, is being starved for operating funds. To fatten that 1 percent’s coffers. Because politicians like Baker make a virtue out of cutting taxes. Slashing budgets. Laying off public workers. Privatizing anything they can get away with. As Baker himself has certainly been doing at the much-beleaguered MBTA. Another public service he addressed in Worcester, saying: “We took on the special interests at the MBTA. Created a Fiscal Management and Control Board. And saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and we’re rebuilding its core infrastructure.” While, in the real world, that same public transportation infrastructure continues to fall apart for lack of the needed direct infusion of state funds.
Is everything Baker does bad? No. Is he as dangerous as federal counterparts like President Donald Trump? Or the feral reactionary theocrat Scott Lively that fully 28 percent of Mass Republican delegates just chose to run against Baker in a primary this fall? No. Not yet at least.
But that’s not the point.
The point is that a polity where a Charlie Baker can be incredibly popular is a broken polity. And a news media that enables him is a broken news media. Baker does not represent even the interest of the white middle class that keeps voting him into office, let alone the working class as a whole. A media that was doing its job would make that patently clear. Every hour of every day. Yet it does the opposite. Because it too is controlled by the same rich and powerful interests that control politics and ensure pols like Baker keep getting elected. Whether those pols call themselves Republicans or Democrats.
So to fix politics, we have to fix the media. And I can’t address how that might be done in a single column. But my colleagues and I are trying our damndest to do it in practice at DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. And the fix starts with journalists who are independent and strive to tell the truth about problems in media and the political system. Every hour of every day. Beyond that, there’s much more to say. So, I’ll plan to talk about specific potential fixes in future columns and editorials.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
Boston politics—in both its state and local variants—seems to consist largely of backroom deals between government officials and major corporations punctuated by rituals of representative democracy that are increasingly put on just for show. Perhaps it has ever been thus. But that doesn’t mean that Bostonians have to like it.
One would be tempted to call this politics incipient fascism were it not all such a desultory affair—unsullied by any ideology other than a very primitive capitalist greed. And in that way, it is reminiscent of current federal politics. The fact that most of the damage is being done by people calling themselves “Democrats” rather than people calling themselves “Republicans” making almost no discernible difference.
Which is why it becomes tiresome to write about. One disgusting display of government servility to corporate power replaces another week by week, month by month. The storyline is always the same. Only the brand names change.
On the ground—physically close to the halls of actual power in the Financial District, Back Bay, and now the Seaport District, but a million miles away in terms of elite awareness—the situation is dire. People don’t have good jobs. Or affordable housing. Or adequate public schools. Or cheap, safe, frequent, and environmentally friendly public transportation. Or a proper healthcare system. Or pensions. Or sufficient leisure time. Or freedom from several kinds of debt peonage.
But city and state political leadership have no plans to fix these problems. Because they can’t do so without discomfiting the ascendant rich and powerful. So they squirrel around the edges. They juggle budget lines, and change program names, and reorganize departments, and send out obfuscatory press releases, and do whatever they can do to cover up the fact that they aren’t taxing giant companies and their owners nearly as much as they should be. And in failing to collect sufficient tax revenue, they lack the needed funds to fix the worst damage done by those companies.
Yet they never fail to find millions in ready cash for vast conglomerates like General Electric. And now Amazon. A multibillion dollar trust that did not pay a cent in US income taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—and is expecting a one-time $789 million break from thanks to Pres. Donald Trump’s kinder, more corporate-friendly tax plan.
So, sure, I could write another column this week inveighing against Mayor Marty Walsh’s new scheme to dump $5 million in local tax breaks on Amazon in exchange for bringing another 2,000 jobs to the city. Well, not to the actual city, but to job sites within 25 miles of the city, according to the Boston Globe. And not right away, but by 2025. Maybe. And dumping another $5 million if Amazon brings yet another 2,000 jobs to (Greater) Boston. Not the decent working class jobs that most Bostonians need, of course. Jobs that highly educated people from around the world will come to the area to fill. Exacerbating our housing, transportation, and environmental crises in the process.
And, yes, the proposed $5-10 million is not as much as Walsh arranged to throw at GE—in a deal swiftly running off the rails as that corporate behemoth crashes and burns thanks to the gentle ministrations of its own “activist” investors. But once Gov. Charlie Baker adds state money to the kitty, the new Amazon deal will start to look very similar to the earlier deal. Which he will almost certainly do. Given that he’s so excited for Boston to “win” the far larger “HQ2” boondoggle that he wants to pass a new law that will allow the Commonwealth to shovel truly epic wads of public lucre at the rapacious anti-worker multinational, according to State House News Service.
Yet with such deals becoming so frequent, it really strikes me that writing is never enough to change the politics that allows this kind of backroom deal making by itself—regardless of how boring or exciting it is for me to crank out. After all, providing information to the population at large only goes so far.
Political action is inevitably required. And not just by one journalist. Because stopping the public gravy train for corporations that are also among the biggest donors to state and local politicians’ war chests is going to take truly massive and sustained protest on the part of the people of Boston (and the rest of Massachusetts).
How massive? Well, remember last year’s Women’s March of over 175,000? Or last year’s 40,000-strong march against a few ultra-right weasels? That’s the scale of the street actions that would be required on a regular basis—in tandem with concerted and well-coordinated lobbying efforts—to not only stop particular giveaways to corporations like GE and Amazon, but to outlaw them. And, for good measure, start criminal proceedings against politicians and corporate leaders that collude to loot the public till.
Who will lead such efforts? Hard to say. But at the end of the day, I think it will be new entrants that will step into the political vacuum I’ve outlined, and directly challenge state and local government deals with major corporations. People like most of my regular audience. Working people, many without college degrees, that will finally decide that enough is enough. I think that the existing oppositional forces—ranging from the left wing of the Democratic Party through formations like Our Revolution to grassroots activist coalitions like Poor People’s Campaign to rising socialist organizations like Democratic Socialists of America to some of the more enlightened elements of organized labor—will play a role in the necessary popular movement that will emerge. But I suspect that the main energy will not come from those forces, but from new ones. As has been the case with the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements in recent years. The trick will be sustaining early momentum long enough to bring some big corporations down to earth. And then moving on to tackling the truly terrifying federal corruption.
Until that happens, it’s going to be one sad government giveaway to huge companies after another in Boston. And I’ll do my best to keep you all up to speed on at least the worst of them. But I look forward to the day that I can help chronicle the victory of a powerful movement for social justice. Rather than merely track democracy’s looming demise.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
December 12, 2017
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
Big local corps quiet about huge profits to come from Repub tax scheme… except GE
An interesting WBUR article, “Largest Mass. Companies Are Mostly Silent On GOP Tax Plans,” asked the top 12 corporations in the Commonwealth to comment on the recently passed Republican scheme to transfer vast amounts of money from the working and middle classes to the rich and the corporations they control—euphemistically called “tax reform” in most of the major news media. Unsurprisingly, Bay State business leaders didn’t want to take time away from rubbing their hands together and cackling with glee about all the free money they’re going to get—choosing instead to remain mum for the moment.
But WBUR did get a statement out of General Electric after the Senate vote on the tax plan:
GE commends Congress and the White House for their commitment to comprehensive tax reform. GE supports the Senate tax reform plan because it would upgrade the U.S. to a territorial tax system, bring rates in line with other countries, and allow U.S. businesses and workers to compete fairly around the world, so it’s the quality of our products that determine whether we win global deals, and not tax differences.
No surprise GE would say that, since it will benefit tremendously from the drop in federal corporate tax from 35 percent to only 20 percent. But it will also get to repatriate as much of the lucre it’s been offshoring as it would like at a one-time tax rate of merely 12 percent. And now that the feds are “upgrading” to a “territorial tax system,” the company will make even more money. Why? Because a territorial tax system means that all the profits multinationals sock away in offshore tax havens will be taxed at a rate of zero percent. You read that correctly. Nada. No taxes at all on foreign profits.
Currently, companies like GE stash profits in other countries because, although they have been technically taxed on all profits—foreign and domestic—at the base 35 percent rate (basically a total joke since there are so many corporate tax loopholes that big companies like GE actually end up with a negative tax rate some years, but let’s play along for the purpose of this explanation), they are only required to pay those taxes when they “repatriate” the money back to the US. Which has often been never thanks to a complicated system called “transfer pricing” where corporations book profits in low tax countries, and take deductions in the US and other higher tax countries. And then borrow cheap money on the strength of their foreign bank accounts to make more profits.
The result will be even more offshoring of both money and jobs by megacorps. Because why would a company like GE not move more of both away from the US if foreign profits are tax free—without nearly as much of the tricky accounting that’s currently needed to play the transfer pricing game? Just really bad news for Mass workers. And for boosters of the GE Boston deal. And anyone who thinks big companies like Amazon are going to have much incentive to add lots of jobs anywhere in the US going forward.
BPDA “PLAN: Glover’s Corner” protested in Dorchester
As the neoliberal capture of the government and the public sector continues apace, earnest technocrats at the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA, formerly known as the BRA) still find it necessary to play the communitarian “public meeting” game when trying to sell bad deals that advance corporate interests to the working families who are all too often the targets of such deals.
Communitarianism being the decades-old fad where institutions representing the rich and powerful work hard to make sure that “every constituency has a seat at the table” when they want to do something that will harm those constituencies. But, of course, the power relations remain unchanged. The rich and powerful remain rich and powerful. Everyone else does not. And “the table” isn’t the real table—where bankers, CEOs, and top government leaders meet to make policy decisions happen. Usually behind closed doors. It’s basically a kiddie table where regular people can pretend they have some impact on a process that’s over before it begins.
Which is why it’s nice to see that housing activists with the Dorchester Not For Sale coalition decided to crash a recent BPDA transit-oriented public meeting on its “PLAN: Glover’s Corner”—which is slated, among other things, to add hundreds of units of housing that will be mostly unaffordable to current Dot residents.
According to the Bay State Banner and the Dorchester Reporter, the Dorchester activists are taking a page from JP and Roxbury housing activists with the Keep It 100% for Egleston coalition who protested the larger BPDA PLAN: JP/Rox—which might ultimately involve thousands of units of new housing—until the city relented and mandated that 36 percent of the new units (and 40 percent overall, including units currently permitted for construction) must be affordable.
The definition of “affordable” for the JP/Rox plan area is pegged to percentages of the average median income of the Boston region set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). So, for example, according to an August Spare Change News article, some “affordable” units being rented and sold as part of the 3200 Washington complex are being offered to households making 70 percent of the region’s average median income, and some to households making 100 percent.
But JP and Roxbury advocates have continued to protest PLAN: JP/Rox even after it was made official because its definition of “affordable” remains too high.
Spare Change continues, “For the Boston metropolitan region, the average median income is just over $100,000, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average household income for all of Jamaica Plain is $76,968. However, households within the plan’s range have an average income of just over $50,000.”
According to a March Bay State Banner article, activists three goals for the plan are “to deepen the affordability level on designated affordable housing units so that they are attainable by households making less than $35,000 per year; increase goals for the portion of new housing that’s designated as affordable from 36 percent to 55 percent; and require the conversion of 250 market-rate units into affordable units..”
So while their activism raised the amount of “affordable” housing the BPDA planned to offer in the deal from 30 percent to 36 percent, it’s not going to help many people currently living in or near the affected neighborhoods to stay in the area unless the definition of affordable is changed to reflect economic reality. Given that fact, Mayor Marty Walsh’s much-vaunted progress on getting more affordable housing built on his watch is based largely on smoke and mirrors because much of it remains unaffordable to the people who need it most.
The Dorchester activists, meanwhile, are demanding that the BPDA accept a six-month moratorium on PLAN: Glover’s Corner, use the extra time to provide more data to the community on the plan, and do things like provide childcare at public meetings to allow more locals to attend.
Thus far, the BPDA is blowing off such demands and trying to plow forward without significant changes to its plan. Boston City Councilor Frank Baker, who attended the Glover’s Corner meeting, agreed with the BPDA in a recent Spare Change article, saying “As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a valid request.”
Seems the fight for housing justice is far from over in Dorchester.
Townie (a worm’s eye view of the Mass power structure) is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.