Posts by hereandsphere

Here and Sphere is an online journal of news, opinion, reviews, advice, & bits n' pieces of everything else - from HERE to SPHERE...... Co-founded by Michael Freedberg, a long-time Boston Phoenix journalist, and Heather Cornell, a South Coast Massachusetts columnist and editor.

THE AGE OF AMERICAN LIBERTY IS DONE

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^^ a doctor in a densely populated city is frightened. She has good reason. But : will this season’s pathogenic fear become a political first premise after this is over ? Will we ever again live the optimism that established American liberty as a foundation principle ? I seriously doubt it. I think our liberty centuries are over

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Sixty years ago my college friend Ken and I were having one of those all-night bull sessions we lived for. W e were talking about the libertine life so abundantly available to us who had grown up in very different circumstances. Ken paused and went silent. And then :

”Michael; we are trading political freedom for the sexual,” he said. “The whole nation is doing it.”

Ken was a little ahead of himself, but he got me thinking then, and he has me thinking even more today.

The events of 9/11 led to a huge curtailment of our liberties, stuff we had taken for granted. An entire new bureaucracy was set up, and staffed, to (a) surveilling us and our private communications (b) search us at airports (c) create no-fly lists that woe betide you if you have a Nam similar to someone on that list. Our even go put you on that list with only burdensome means of obtaining removal fro the list (d) require passport to visit Canada — a crossing that had been easy and neighborly and (f) authorized torture of prisoners taken in the legit,ate fight against ALQ and then ISIS.

More generally, we came to live in fear and paranoia, far afield from the confident optimism that made America so special.

Doubtless most of the so-called “Patriot Act” was served up by well intentioned legislators. Unhappily, good intentions are sometimes secret emissaries of illiberty. In any case, we know what life has been like for air travelers in the nearly two decades since 9/11 : all of it aggravated since the election of Mr Trump, by travel bans; by detentions of people profiles for their skin color, nation of origin, and in a few cases, for their political leanings. Customs agents have been known to demand the contents of travelers’ private social media. Immigration police (ICE) have stopped buses and private cars on American highways and demanded papers. They’ve gone into courtrooms in search of undocumented residents; threatened hospitalized undocumented with removal; forced families into detention centers.

And lots of people applauded them for doing it.

And now we have the corona virus and what its arrival has generated : almost complete control of our lives by a very few. Doubtless much of this broad-brush control is necessary, yet control is not eased by being unavoidable. Control is control. And even if the present corona virus control is eased, or even set aside, does anyone think that some future “very few” won’t bring it back if they deem a situation to be a crisis ? Have we not heard climate-change zealots describe the climate events as a crisis and that “we have no time to lose” The climate crisis folks have tried to import much of their agenda into the 3rd #stimulus Bill now being debated (as of this writing) in Congress. Can anyone doubt that, if the climate crisis interest acquires the kind of power being amassed by Mr. Trump these.days, they will impose all manner of restrictions upon us ?

They will be different controls, yes, but controls none the less, and from what I have read about the crisis agenda, it won’t be pretty. Serious privations of liberty, especially in the arena of personal movement. Gone will be the autonomous vehicle. Goodbye also to the domestic air flight (aircraft pollute us !!) Hello, public trains and buses, a transportation of control, inconvenient and crowded, a throwback to Orwell’s 1984.

But one need not fixate on crisis dictatorship Do you really suppose that any American candidate for President, henceforth, will shy from the sort of sweeping executive claims, immunities, and orders that Mr. Trum0 has shown them how to use ? Congress may pursue legislation to curb Presidential dictatorship — though I doubt it. Because the majority, if of the same faction as the President, will want her to dictate stuff— but the President will contest it in Federal Court, and who can say that she won’t be successful ?

To the Bernie generation, freedom  means sexual freedom, just as my friend Ken surmised so many years ago. I am all for sexual liberty, and am thrilled that LGBT people can now — in many jurisdictions — be fully themselves And marry the person they love.  Yet the college generation, which loves Bernie Sanders so much (or so the pollsters tell us), and which has grown up Taking sexual civil rights almost for granted, evidently sees no such advantage in political freedom. It supports  speech codes; uses social media to bully those who express  opinions it dislikes, opposes opinion with condescension; and seeks government control of the infrastructure, and the economy; and it scapegoats my generation. The drive to eliminate the electoral college, would, if successful, leave us with a majoritarian overrule unfettered by checks, limits and political rights for the minority.

The current college generation  grew up after 9/11. It has ever known federal, Political liberty. What it has not known! It cannot miss. The world is heading in the direction of illiberty — not liberty. As I am of an earlier generation, I object. My objections are laughed at by the censorious, command-and-control, defiant young know it alls.

Good luck to the illiberal politics of libertine tomorrow.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

 

 

 

 

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$ 80 MILLION MORE FOR BOSTON’s SCHOOLS : WILL IT WORK ?

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^ new BPS superintendent Brenda Cassellius may actually get stuff done. Mayor Walsh is counting on it.

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On February 5 the Boston School Department presented its FY 2021 budget proposal. It increases last year’s $ 1.1.7 billion by $ 80 million, to $ 1.258 billion– a raise of about seven percent. That’s the largest percentage increase during the six years that I have tracked the BPS budget, during which time the school population has not grown at all.

Why is more money needed ? Why a seven percent increase, double last year’s increase ? What will $ 1.258 billion do, that last year’s $ 1.17 billion not do, to make the City’s schools enough better that parents will have enough confidence in them to not leave the City in search of school systems that they feel good about ? A very good question.

You can look at the budget proposal’s details here, in Excel format :  https://drive.google.com/file/d/1AP2Msx1JKRHm5TQQf0ZlA1MeBN7SKGBF/view

The new budget does in fact represent significant shift in priorities. Salaries used to take up 85 percent of the Budget. Next year they consume only 66 percent : $ 836,224,362 (an eight percent increase) out of $ 1,258,633,065. “Instructional Supplies” — actual classroom tools — this year budgeted $ 6,080,924; next year it’ll be $ 79,552,656 — a  33 percent bump. “Equipment” cost BPS $ 8,743,883.40 this year; next year $ 12,200,376 will be allotted. “Support” — mainly bilingual teachers, Special Education instructors, and kindergarten teachers — take up $ 66,555,794 this year. Next year, $ 77,501,985 — a 21 percent increase. Aides — bilingual, special education, sign language, security, and more — received $ 73,666,8456 this year; $ 789,522,490 next year.

Given these increases for people and tools that actually support education as a serious matter, its probably less troubling, though hardly okay, that the budget includes $ 107,025,226 for “transportation,” including the cost of student MBTA passes.

More troubling is the 39 percent increase in the “part time” account : clerical, coach, “transportation attendant,” custodial, professional overtime and stipend. From $ 24,028,017 it rises to $ 32,234,639. It’s distressing to see the school system increase its reliance on workers who don’t receive benefits and whose jobs can be eliminated easily.

That said, clearly Mayor Walsh sees that, with re-election coming next year, he absolutely has to have better achievement results in place that parents know they’ve got to live with now and which will be detailed in a State report which Walsh admits “won;t be pretty,” Will that expectation come to pass ? perhaps. I’m not encouraged, however,m by seeing diminishment of the Boston Latin School exam’s rigor as the chief structural reform. We should be making that exam tougher, not easier. The system does need structural reform, however. If only important influencers would start insisting upon : consolidation of under-utilized school buildings; complete overhaul of school buildings’ heating and ventilation systems; home visits by teachers and the re-establishment of parent-teacher associations; elimination of Court-ordered busing, as every neighborhood is now integrated; expanded charter school or innovative curriculum options; advanced, college level classes for high achievers; trade education, everywhere, for the building trades; dress codes, so that students do not use fashion as a device for forming cliques and creating hierarchies of popularity. It would also help that BPS hire an inspector general to oversee its accounting practices.

The above list is probably not complete.

I hear and see not much talk about any of the above. If anything, the talk walks in the opposite direction. That won’t work. Parents know when they’re being conned or appeased. When they feel that that is happening, they up and leave the City. I do hope that the Mayor’s attempt to eliminate the most glaring inadequacies convinces parents that he means business; that the “not pretty” report which is coming — but which is likely nonetheless to be nicer than it really should be — will change the direction in which Boston schools have been moving since the City made the grave mistake of not insisting that John McDonough remain as “interim” superintendent.

The final budget vote takes place on March 28th at the Bolling Building in Nubia n Square.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

CONSEQUENCES OF THE CURRENT OIL PRICE WAR

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Two major oil producers, Russia and Saudi Arabia have decided that instead of co-operating on production amounts, they will fight it out, testing each other’s economic stamina. Mr. Putin may think himself a tough guy, but during the hideous world recession in 2008, when oil prices dropped by almost 60 percent, Russia came close to bankruptcy. Saudi Arabia owns almost 25 percent of the world’s oil reserves. As the demand for oil is usually quite stable, even a five percent increase in production can crater the market price of crude. The effects of a production increase look all the greater with oil demand actually falling thanks to the coronavirus’s impact on world trade, which is slumping as much s fifty percent, at least in the short term.

A detailed overview of the Saudi oil increase and Russia’s objections can be found here : https://www.ft.com/content/59dcba56-61a2-11ea-b3f3-fe4680ea68b5

So much for background. My intention in this column is to parse out some of the effects the Saudis’ oil production increase will likely have on the American economy.

First : prices of gasoline are declining at the pump by about 25 percent. Immediately that means that the gas tax increase passed last week by the Massachusetts House loses, if enacted, 25 percent of its anticipated income. Or, the legislation had a secondary purpose : to discourage people from driving wherever possible, That purpose now looks on hold.

Second : the present price of crude in the market is about $ 27.88 per barrel. At that price most American producers cannot produce. If the price cut lasts, US producers will come under major financial stress. Most are highly leveraged — operating on borrowed money — which they cannot pay back if they can’t sell crude at a price above their cost. (This has happened before. In the mid-1980s the price of crude, jacked way way up during the 1970s because of Saudi production cuts, fell from $ 60 per barrel to as low as $ 5.00; many exploration and extraction firms went belly-up.) Probably the Saudi production spurt won’t last as long as the 1980s production cuts — the Saudis aren’t immune to an oil price recession — but if it goes on for even six months, it will impact many firms that are already experiencing a decline in demand because of COVD-19.

Third : the success of present clean energy programs depends upon being able to compete on price with the cost of fossil fuels. A 25 percent decrease in gasoline, oil and natural gas costs sets back ,the process of conversion to “clean energy” systems.

Oil is not only the major source of energy. Its also one of the world’s most widespread investments.  A sustained 25 percent decline in the price of crude forces investors to hedge their contract commitments, which means borrowing money — money backed ultimately by US Treasury bonds at a time when huge demand for safe investments has driven the interest rate ion “Treasuries” below one percent, almost into negative territory. A negative interest rate is, in effect, a tax. The 2018 tax cut legislation has put enormous sums of corporate and investment money on the sidelines, parked in money market accounts and “Treasuries,” money that, in order to remain parked safely, will, if interest rates go negative, incur an interest penalty in place of a money return.

Fourth : the current US budget deficit is running a TRILLION dollars yearly. That trillion dollars is backed by Treasury bonds and notes which the Treasury buys from investors, whose own trillions of parked money bought these bonds to begin with. But with both investors and the Treasury buying Treasury bonds, the seller vs. buyer equilibrium tilts radically in favor of the seller, who sells for a price, not on the basis of his coupon rate, which he no longer owns. That is why interest rates have fallen almost to zero. And why with the Saudi oil production increase can only fall further, as investors who would ordinarily buy oil forward contracts decide to avoid the market and buy Treasury notes instead.

Fifth : the decline in economic activity due to the virus, linked to the Saudis’ decision to slash oil prices via over-production, threatens to turn our economy downward, into recession, at a time when there is very little flexibility available, in either bond markets or money availability — thanks to huge operating deficits — to stimulate economic activity, which activity is already limited by the inadequacy of wages paid to at lest half of all American workers. American workers have no money to spare, nothing to spend on discretionary products, and in the present coronavirus situation, less inclination to spend it anyway. A recession in these circumstances would be painful, very painful.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

ANALYZING THE BOSTON PRIMARY VOTE

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On Tuesday, Joe Biden won the City of Boston vote — by 56 votes, bringing to mind Julia Mejia’s one-vote win in last November’s at-Large City Council race. This time the close division between Boston  voters extended further : Liz Warren finished third, but within 3,500 votes of second place. The map above shows the distribution of wins among the City’s 255 precincts. It’s an unusual map to say the ;least. Gone from it is the stark gap between “new Boston” voters and the “traditional vote.” In this map we see strips of wins extending across the city as well as wins, for Biden in particular, among all kinds of voters who recently haven’t agreed on much of anything.

In that respect, the map recalls the map of Charlie Baker’s 49.3 % near miss against Jay Gonzalez in the 2018 Governor race. Baker won 90 precincts in very different neighborhoods, again, winning the support of vote groups that had rarely agreed on much. If we superimpose the Baker 2018 map upon the Tuesday primary map, we can see the beginnings of a pattern that proclaims what political Boston has now become : a City of very dissimilar vote groups voting similarly for very dissimiliar reasons. This is the essence of coalition, as opposed to an Us vs. Them division such as dominated Boston voting for 100 years.

And now to my analysis.

Joe Biden won 70 of the 90 precincts won by Charlie Baker in 2018. Sanders won 19 of them. (the other was a tie vote between Biden and Sanders). Liz Warren won none of them.

All of Liz Warren’s wins were in Baker’s worst precincts in the City. In all, she won 39,188 votes in Boston.

Warren won almost only the committed, ideological progressives of Jamaica Plain and Roslindale. Sanders’s wins were much more diverse : he won all the precincts in which students represent a large percentage. He won most of the heavily Hispanic and Cape Verdean precincts. He won precincts in East Boston that aren’t very Hispanic at all, nor populated by students. He won Chinatown’s Ward 3, Precinct 7. He won four of five Mission Hill precincts and the three “back of the Hill, Hyde Square Precincts. He won Fort Hill and Egleston Square. He won the Jewish Senior Home precinct in Brighton — one of Charlie Baker’s best in the City — probably the last instance we will see of Jewish ethnic voting in a City with almost no Jews any more. And he won the most Vietnamese precincts in Dorchester.

It was enough to give Sanders 43,154 votes.

Joe Biden won the rest : All but one precinct in West Roxbury; all of South Boston; all of Hyde Park; one Roslindale Precinct (Ward 18, precinct 11); all of English-speaking, Black Boston; the Haitian-majority precincts; all of Charlestown; all of the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, the North End, Downtown, and the Seaport; Mission Hill Project (Ward 10, Precinct One); and most of “traditional” Dorchester. As I indicated above, Biden’s wins closely trace Charlie Baker’s 2018 successes. Baker did not win any Black-majority precincts, but in the English-speaking Black precincts — and in the Haitian majority ones — he took from 38 to 45 percent. Biden won these precincts that Baker did not  carry because Baker faced only one opponent; Biden dealt with two.

Meanwhile, Liz Warren carried only a single type of constituency. Coalition was out of her reach. That’s what happens when you are primarily an issues candidate. Those who don’t agree with this or that issue go elsewhere if they have options, and on Tuesday they had options. (Note also that Congresswoman Pressley, so seemingly unstoppable in recent Boston elections, could not propel Warren, her candidate, to victory in any English or Haitian Creole-speaking Black majority precinct.)

Joe Biden can be very satisfied with how he won the City, just as Charlie Baker had to be more than pleased with winning 49.3 percent of our vote. Biden’s successes carry less good news for Mayor Walsh, whose re-election campaign has already begun. The Warren vote is almost certainly not his next year. The Sanders vote will most likely not favor him either. Nor is it clear that all of the Biden voters favor him. Walsh has a ton of work to do, to win voters who voted out his Democratic ward committees, who dislike his aggressive development agenda, who are dissatisfied — for very solid reasons — with Boston’s schools, and who want to see a person of color finally. be elected Mayor. It cannot please him to see State Representative Dan Cullinane decide not to seek re-election — Walsh’s own representative — in a district in which “traditional” voters count less and less every week. It can’t please him to see the old-line, Hyde Park crowd pushed entirely out, politically, and, likely, residentially, in one of the most ruthless tribal battles I have seen in Boston since the Jewish community of Blue Hill Avenue was viciously block-busted fifty years ago.

Can Walsh be re-elected ? Yes he can. He has enormous power to effect change and to dole out $$ to this group or that. He may, in fact, have to do what amounts to buying a re-election. He will have to do a ton of it, every day, picking off voters 100 at a time, every day, if he is to turn back a tide that begins to look like a tsunami.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

FOR PRESIDENT : JOE BIDEN, BILL WELD

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Weld

^ our endorsements : Joe Biden, Bill Weld

Massachusetts’s Presidential primary takes place on Tuesday. We have two endorsements to make: Bill Weld for those taking a Republican ballot, Joe Biden for those choosing the Democratic ballot. Here’s why we have thus chosen :

Bill Weld for Republicans : he’s what the Republican party used to be, and still should be : socially inclusive of all, economically prudent. Most voters hold these views : welcoming of differences among people, and respecting hem; careful with taxpayers’ dollars. It works in Massachusetts : Charlie Baker exemplifies it. Why not also in Washington ? There HAS to be better than the bigotry and incompetence of Mr. Trump, the grievances, the weakness and the lies, not to mention the constant corruption and idolization of autocrats. There has to be better than bottomless  negativity, and with Bill Weld, there is, better than that, a genial and restrained optimism on all fronts, domestic, legal, and foreign affairs.

For all of these reasons Bill Weld deserves a Republican vote even if its unlikely that he can prevail. He won 9.1 percent in New Hampshire, but that was 13,700 votes — a significant number. In Massachusetts he could win twice that even if he wins only the same nine percent. 27,400 Weld votes would certainly send a message to those who have Mr. Trump’s ear.

Joe Biden for Democrats : Has there ever, in our long lifetime, been a more obvious potential President than Joe Biden ? He has every political experience needed, domestically and in foreign affairs; he was a very successful vice-President to Barack Obama. He honors the Constitution and its limits placed on the Article 2 office. He isn’t likely to issue a blizzard of “Executive Orders.” He’ll work with Congress — as the President should — to move good reforms, in immigration, labor law, environmental policy, budget deficits. As John McCain — Biden’s great friend of 40 years — famously put it a year before he died, “We’re not getting anything done. We need to return to regular order.”

He is a humble man, a kind man, a man who does not think he walks on water, who knows he doesn’t have all the answers, who listens to criticism, who listens to everybody and greets everybody. The nation right now needs healing more than anything. It needs to be bound together. It needs a time out from the drama and disgusts of the Trump years. Biden’s chief rival promises revolution. Can we please not go there just yet ? A term of Joe Biden’s common sense and basic decency will do more than anybody’s revolution to cleanse America’s spirit of the current nastiness.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg has impressed us, too, with his patriotism, his basic good sense, his moderation, and his youth. He could well be America’s Emmanuel Macron — a man of the attractive middle. Yet the American Presidency isn’t the same hing as France’s Presidency. Here, administration is paramount, and restraint on the President’s part, and long experience with the enormously complex checks and balances system our Constitution’s framers gave us. Mayor Pete should run for Governor of Indiana, and then, in the 20228 or 2032 cycle, run again for the Big Office.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota would be a fine President. She has the experience, the temperament, the moderation to serve us all. But her campaign has never commanded significant numbers, and every political asset that she has, Joe Biden has more of.

Policy activists tout Senator Liz Warren’s proposals, many of which ought be enacted. (And some not.) We get that. We understand why Warren gets support from policy-first voters and from so many electeds. Yet everything that Warren has proposed depends on Congress,. not on a President. Can Warren command bipartisan support for her proposals, or would she not better used in the very Congress that must enact what she proposes ? We think she is far better suited to legislation than administration, and administration is the job set forth in Article 2.

For all of the above reasons, Joe Biden deserves the Presidential vote of Democrats.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

BOSTON’s NEXT 20 YEARS

Charlie Baker

^ if you want to see the future of Boston governance, here it is : the Governor Baker who is promoting the TCI climate intiative — an instututionalist reformer

Alarm and crisis dominate much current discussion about the people happenings to and in Boston these days. I find the majority of such reaction missing the mark. Boston is definitely changing in a way that it hasn’t changed, perhaps, since the 1850s-1890s, when what had been farmland since the 17th century became completely built up with densely-arranged houses and multi-family dwellings. And so ? I suspect that the Boston of 1870-1890 looked pretty radical to those who had grown up amidst the endless farms and open spaces that prevailed everywhere except in Downtown. By 1890 the old Boston, of a city crowded on what had been Shawmut Island, surrounded by pasture and villages in Roxbury, Dorchester, West Roxbury, and East Boston, had all but disappeared ( the final abolition of that farming Boston gave way to homes built, in Roslindale, West Roxbury, and Mattapan after World War Two ), yet we today take that radically built-up Boston for granted. It’s the Boston we want never to go away — forgetting, assuming we even know, that at one time it was the vast change to what had seemed forever.

So here we are, in the midst of this second coming of radical Cityscape change, and of course our reaction to it lacks the “it’s all been done before” perspective that has scant patience for comforts that grow up during periods of stasis. It is stasis that we want, and, sure enough, there are many political voices calling for a halt, or for economic contortions that, in these politicians’ views, will mitigate, or deflect, the effects of the new change.

A significant factor in the new change is the enormous bull market in real estate prices, both sales and rentals. Yet these, too, occurred during the 1850s-1890s build up. In 1850, land in Boston sold for $ 300 an acre, or less, and built homes sold for $ 1000. By the end of the build-up, these prices had risen by at least 500 percent. The bull market in today’s Boston has reached similar levels. In 1850-1890, those who were moved out by the building boom either sold, took their profits — and even at 1870 prices, profits there were — and moved away or they ended up in the City’s labor force, earning a wage. It wasn’t a very good wage, and two generations later labor unions arose to win workers a fairer wage, but for those who had to pay their way in the 1870s-1900s, wages were the only option for most.

The same is true today. Those who must accommodate to the huge bull market, without owning, have to work for their rent, and, as during the 1870s-1900s, what most can earn today is nowhere near enough. In the period 1870s-1900s, families crowded together in lousy tenements; today, no one suggests that kind of desperation, nor should they suggest it; we don’t want to revisit the sorts of unmitigated consequences that befell non-owners during the first building boom, and much of Boston’s next 20 years will take the shape of economic decisions we are going to be making these next two or three years. What will these be ? It’s too soon to tell, but I would like to have you think about the following facts:

( one ) middle-income and working-wage families continue to move OUT of the City entirely because they do not trust the City’s school system to provide their kids the education they want their kids to have. This movement assures that the vast demographic changes that have revolutionized the politics of Mattapan, Roslindale and Hyde Park will continue.

( two ) the City’s residency requirement for most City employees guarantees that some families which would otherwise move out will stay in the City. Most such choose West Roxbury, Fairmount Hill, Orient Heights, eastern Dorchester, and South Boston, thus granting these parts of the City some population stability

( three ) the City’s institutional and technology booms look certain to continue, thus enabling the bull market in house prices in neighborhoods adjacent to Downtown : Roxbury especially but also Roslindale and the Washington Street to Uphams Corner corridors of Dorchester. This buying pressure forecasts that the City’s Black population will decrease — Black Bostonians being clustered along the Blue Hill Avenue and Washington Street corridors, whence previous populations were most likely of any to move to the South Shore, and, like them, are already following prior movement patterns —  even as its Asian and Hispanic populations continue to expand.

( four ) politically, the voters of Downtown and its expansion areas voted overwhelmingly for Governor Baker in 2018. They are not “progressives,” not ideologues of any kind, really, and, in fact, are owned by neither party. They have yet not settled upon any sort of local, municipal politics view and don’t seem on the verge of forming one. Many are single and concentrating entirely on 50 to 70 hour work weeks. Hardly any of them are City employees. What, then, will they say about City politics when eventually they care to say anything about it at all ? I have no idea, nor do you; but certainly theirs will not be a libertarian one. These voters are problem solvers and innovators — but also highly bureaucratic and control freakish. I suspect they will eventually be right at home with the City’ s vast bureaucracy of command and control of planning — but also with economic freedom and skepticism about utopias. They will, indeed, be very much like the Governor they overwhelmingly voted for in 2018 : Charlie Baker — especially the Baker who is now promoting the TCI initiative; and their numbers and geographic presence in the City will grow, eventually to a tipping point — I’ll say the 2023 or 2025 cycles.

Then we’ll see what Boston’s outlook sounds like and what kind of City we have to live in.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

LAMAR ALEXANDER DECIDES

Lamar

Last night, at about 11 pm, Lamar Alexander, senior Senator from Tennessee, and juror of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, President of the United States, spoke his mind. His full statement is worth reading, not once but twice. You can read it here : https://www.alexander.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2020/1/alexander-statement-on-impeachment-witness-vote

That said, let me quote his summation for you :

“I worked with other senators to make sure that we have the right to ask for more documents and witnesses, but there is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven and that does not meet the United States Constitution’s high bar for an impeachable offense. …The Constitution does not give the Senate the power to remove the president from office and ban him from this year’s ballot simply for actions that are inappropriate. 

“The question then is not whether the president did it, but whether the United States Senate or the American people should decide what to do about what he did. I believe that the Constitution provides that the people should make that decision in the presidential election that begins in Iowa on Monday. …Our founding documents provide for duly elected presidents who serve with ‘the consent of the governed,’ not at the pleasure of the United States Congress. Let the people decide.” 

As I posted on my own personal facebook page :

“Senator Lamar Alexander has made his decision, and though I disagree with it, it is not unjust, and it definitely is not exoneration :

1. He says, correctly, that the House managers proved their case overwhelmingly.
2. Because that is so, he argues, further testimony is not needed.
(The suggestion here is that the House managers want more witnesses because they think it will convince more Senators, but that that is not going to happen. Alexander is surely right about that.)
3. He characterizes Trump’s actions versus Ukraine as inappropriate, not once but twice, and he specifies why, at some length and in detail. 45 cannot be pleased.

He says : It was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation. When elected officials inappropriately interfere with such investigations, it undermines the principle of equal justice under the law.4. What then should Trump’s punishment be ?

Not impeachment because “Presidents serve by the consent of the governed,” not by consent of the Senate, is his finding. (My contra : then why is impeachment in the Constitution ?)

But .. Alexander’s judgment sure feels like censure. Censure of 45, with the strong suggestion that the voters should not vote to re elect.

I hope he is right.”

Censure was not asked for by the House managers, nor was it offered as a sanction by any Senator. Yet Alexander’s summation sure feels like a censure to me. His justification for censuring, not removal from office ? Again he says much that we should at least consider : The framers believed that there should never, ever be a partisan impeachment. That is why the Constitution requires a 2/3 vote of the Senate for conviction. Yet not one House Republican voted for these articles. If this shallow, hurried and wholly partisan impeachment were to succeed, it would rip the country apart, pouring gasoline on the fire of cultural divisions that already exist. It would create the weapon of perpetual impeachment to be used against future presidents whenever the House of Representatives is of a different political party.

These are not facile excuses. Impeachment of a President cannot avoid dividing the nation. Alexander is correct to acknowledge that we already have too much such division. He is also on solid ground rejecting an impeachment that runs entirely on partisan grounds. The framers rejected it too, which is why — as he notes — a 2/3 vote is required for removal.

All of these considerations must weigh upon anyone charged with deciding an impeachment of the President.

Because Alexander was the crucial fourth vote needed for adoption of a motion to call additional witnesses and subpoena documents, that motion will now fail, and all expect that there will not be anything like 67 votes to remove Mr. Trump from office. Which means that Alexander’s censure language, as the deciding vote, will be the final word of the impeachment trial.

Those of you who have read this far will assume that I agree with Lamar Alexander’s opinion. I do not. I think that removal from office is fully justified by Mr. Trump’s entire course concerning Ukraine and his utter refusal to cooperate with Congress’s investigations of it. Impeachment is in the Constitution, which means that no, it is not in all cases up to the people to decide; the Senate is fully charged with power to do so in an impeachment case.

I agree with the managers, also, that Mr. Trump presents a grave danger to our rule of law and to his oath of office. He has not only done what Alexander agrees he did, he has indicated that he will do it again, and again, and that, as one of his lawyers so cavalierly asserted, anything he does that he considers to be in the national interest, he can do. In my opinion, that kind of discretion cannot be allowed to any President and is in fact not allowed by the oath of office and the exact words of Article 2’s enabling language. Congress establishes national policy. The President does not. His role is to carry out what Congress enacts. He has reasonable discretion as to his methods for carrying out his charge, but he does not have a free hand.

Unfortunately, over the past 80 years or so, since we entered the Second World War, we have more and more allowed ourselves to be comfortable with a President acting on his own whim about all sorts of questions. We have forgotten that the President only has such powers in a national emergency, such as war is — if indeed he has such powers at all. Because the President is charged with carrying out the nation’s foreign policy, we have come to assume that he decides what that policy is. There is no such authority in the Constitution, which accords to the President only one such power : he is commander in chief of our armed forces in times of war.

But for Senator Alexander, President Trump’s misuse of his foreign policy duties is only to be adjudged by the voters, not by the body that the Constitution gives power to judge. He says that for the Senate to exercise a judgment expressly granted it usurps the people’s authority, on two grounds : one, for the Senate to judge Mr,. Trump removed would aggravate the nation’s division, and two, the President holds office “by the consent of the governed, mot the pleasure of the Senate.” This second view is classic Jacksonian Democrat : the ordinary people rule. A Senator from Tennessee, Andrew Jackson’s state, might well honor such a radical democracy  — except that the Constitution does not do so. It says that the people do not always directly decide.

As for the national division, which Alexander is right to take seriously, yes it exists and yes, it is a grave danger to our civic comity and to our system of government. Yet who created this division ? Who aggravated it ? Is not Mr. Trump the author of the greater part of it ? Has he not intentionally divided the nation to what he thinks is his own electoral benefit ? In my opinion, the current state of national division is daily evidence — irrefutable evidence — that President Trump has violated his oath of office and sought destruction for its own sake because that is the only way in which he can “do what he wants,” as he says he has a right to do as President.

And when the people do decide, this November, and hopefully decide to vote Mr. Trump out — and Alexander’s censure language implies that he too is no fan of voting for him — will that national division back off from its current aggravation ? I doubt that. I doubt that Alexander thinks so either. In that case, why not remove ? Thanks to President Trump, we are going through hell already; it cannot be avoided or appeased away. At least with removal, we end up with President Pence : a much milder man, a calming influence rather than a demagogue. I’m no fan of Mr. Pence’s politics, but his assuming the high office could hardly make matters worse. Too bad we won’t see it.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

“A REPUBLIC, IF YOU CAN KEEP IT”

Adam Schiff

The headline quotes Benjamin Franklin, who, upon being asked by a lady curious to know what sort of government he and his fellow Constitutional Convention delegates had created, responded with those seven words.

“A republic, if you can keep it.”

Franklin might well find that today, we have tossed aside the “if.” The chances are, given what has already happened in the impeachment record, and what is about to happen, that we no longer have a republic. That we no longer have a Constitution, at least not one that means anything. That we now have an anarchy of lawless power in which unrestrained zealots and arrogant oligarchs contend to see which of them can win Thrasymachus’s game (from Plato’s Republic) : that justice is the will of the stronger.

At first it seemed to me that impeachment of Mr Trump would be a serious matter that might well lead to his removal, as it would have done in the case of Richard Nixon 45 years ago. But now there can be no doubt that this impeachment has never had any chance of being taken seriously by anyone except the Congress that filed it; nor can any of the impeachers have any doubt any longer that the accused doesn’t give a damn what they do by the book, because he doesn’t play by the book — by the Constitution — and could care less what consequences his outlawry brings.

It was saddening enough to watch the House’ s impeachment hearings in which the Republican members all, to a man, took Mr. Trump’s side, disregarding the evidence, poo-pooing it, denying it happened, sometimes justifying it and in many cases behaving like rude-bully sandbox kids. I say it was sad enough because at that stage it had not yet become apparent to me — nor to most of us, I dare say — that the Republican plan even then was to sabotage and subvert the Constitution itself, which includes an impeachment provision and sets forth its reasons and its guidelines.

Because I did not then see that the entire Republican plan was to say “f the Constitution,” I was disappointed to hear Congressman Will Hurd describe Mr. Trump’s shakedown of the Ukraine President as merely inappropriate — but not cause for impeachment,. I was disappointed , too, to see Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, who knows better, say the same thing though more aggressively. I was shocked to see Congresswoman Elise Stefanik , who had seemed a sensible Republican until then, suddenly become a female Sean Hannity, a shill for sabotage. And what of Congresssmen Francis Rooney, and Mike Turner, who both at first expressed anger at Mr. Trump’s extortion, in the end both vote not to impeach ? What was that about ? I had no answer. But now I do have one.

The proceedings in the Senate  make it clear. Mr. Trump is to be acquitted, with no witnesses, no documents — because Mr. trump won’;t allow them — and though it may seem to some unprecedented, it is not. This is the consequence — the magnification — of Senator McConnell’s stonewalling President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland. Just as McConnell spat upon the Constitution’s  direction that, upon Presidential nominations, the senate is to give “advice and consent” — if you don’t even allow the nomination to be brought forward, how can advice and consent be given ? — so the Republicans in the Senate are now spitting upon the Constitution’s impeachment clauses, and upon the rule of law itself by locking the impeachment trial up and throwing away the key.

It is possible that Senators Romney, Collins, and Murkowski may vote to allow witnesses into the trial (and maybe Lamar Alexander as well)  but already the McConnell group has poisoned that initiative by insisting that if the Romney group’s witnesses be called, so must Joe Biden and his son, who were the intended victims of Mr. Trump’s shakedown of Ukraine. Of course this demand is not serious, and it removes all doubt that the Republican plan is, and has been since Day one, to say “f you” to the Constitution and its defenders.

It has made me want to cry, to watch Congressman Schiff deliver his impassioned, eloquent, heart-rending embrace of the Constitution and its intentions, knowing, as he must — as I know — that he is speaking to a body of saboteurs who are laughing at his earnestness, dissing — by snoring in their seats or playing with their cell phones — his naivete in thinking there is any interest on their part in a document they only give a damn about if it can advantage their schemes.

What I still do not understand — and to me it is the heart of the matter — is why the Republicans, who know what Mr. Trump is and who, most of them, despise him, are n’t ready, willing and eager to remove him and make Mike Pence President. Pence would support all the issues they care about and without the corruption, the brutality, the vulgarity, the incompetence. Why not have President Pence ? But perhaps there is an answer. Perhaps they prefer Mr. Trump’s criminality, his lawlessness, his bigotry and his sabotage of everything we have held dear but now consider an inconvenience. Perhaps they do not want President Pence because Pence is a decent fellow, a rule of law man, an obeyer of rules who would govern “by the book.” THAT, I am thinking, is what the Republicans no longer want. They want sabotage. They want subversion. They want lawlessness and all that goes with it because they feel that by waging total guerrilla war they can defeat the Democrats, who refrain from total war.

After all, look at who the Republican “base” voters now are : religious zealots who demand to impose their sex and propagation rules upon the entire nation; nativist bigots who hate brown people, especially brown immigrants; racists afraid of the coming to power of women and people of color; dinosaur industrialists who want to poison the earth if they have to, to squeeze extra gelt out of their products. (You don’t have to be angry Greta to detest the I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude of too many in the fossil fuel industry. It’s right there for all to smell.) The “base” doesn’t stop at lobbying for its policy preferences. Oh no, lobbying is too civil. Rather, say the base, let’s unleash shock and awe upon them.

Well ? It is in fact shock and awe to watch Mr. Trump and his clique explode the Constitution as if it were an Army Humvee and they an IED. It Is shock and awe to watch the impeachment trial be, basically. the opening gambit in the 2020 election — for what other good can Adam Schiff’s great speeches, falling on deaf Senate ears, be if not an argument to the people ? The people, who are our republic’s last line of defense ? And the same is true of Mr,. Trump’s lawyers whose speeches begin today. Full of blather and bullshit, fantasy and fakery, are they not the Mr. Trump method of campaigning to his people ? And so we are moving on to the election even as the actors in Washington pretend that they are carrying out the impeachment trial prescribed by the now scoffed Constitution. Will the rule of law ever revive ? Will the Constitution ever again be honored by those who might chafe at its checks and balances ? I doubt it. I very much doubt it.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

A LOT TO LIKE IN AYANNA PRESSLEY’s CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM. BUT…

Ayanna

^ Ayanna presents House 702, a resolution that has a lot in it to like. And a lot more that makes me go “whaaa ?”

—- —- —-

It took me  a full 15 minutes to read the extensive text — 31 pages — of Congresswoman Pressley’s Criminal Justice reform bill, docketed as House Resolution 702. You are now invited to read it just as I did : https://www.congress.gov/116/bills/hres702/BILLS-116hres702ih.pdf.

There’s a lot to like in House 702. There is also a lot that has nothing immediately to do with criminal justice but which seeks, basically, to create an entirely new society than the one we have. Pressley’s press release says that her bill is similar to the infamous “Green New Deal.” She’s right. Her bill is not just a reform but a revolution. You may applaud that; I prefer a more modest tomorrow.

That said, there is indeed a lot to like in House 702. It seeks to reduce incarceration by a lot. This should be everyone’s goal. Why are over 2,000,000 Americans in custody ? Most, as Pressley says, are behind bars because of addictions or because they can’t pay fines, fees, and other costs imposed by criminal courts. Pressley would like to see cash bail eliminated for those who can’t pay or can barely afford it. I support that. People in that degree of poverty aren’t flight risks. If they can’t afford bail, how can they afford travel ? Pressley also wants to see addiction dealt with by treatment, not incarceration. This is hardly a radical proposal. Many states, including our own, have already adopted this procedure. House 702 would apply it to Federal criminal practice.

House 702 also seeks reforms to rules for visiting those who are incarcerated. It would make visits more congenial, especially by family members. Natural light and air would be environed. Phone calls by inmates to family would be free. Similarly, House 702 calls for nutrition standards for foods served to inmates and provides that no item that an inmate purchases at a prison canteen may cost more than in an ordinary store. Next, House 702 directs that prisoners who are required to work must be paid no less than the Federal minimum wage. Lastly, House 702 requires that prison habitation conditions be livable. Prisoners should never be forced to live in filth, 24 hour noise, constant harsh lights, and inadequate bedding and toilet accommodations. Imprisonment is savage enough as is without having conditions that violate of the Eighth Amendment added to it.  All of these provisions are common sense fairness. As House 702 says, most prisoners will return to society, and the goal should be to make their transition from prison to society less difficult than it will be no matter what.

Pressley’s bill also seeks an end to private prisons and to any profit opportunity appurtenant to  imprisonment. I agree. The prison establishment, just for existing, has created a vast vested interest, resistant to reform. The last thing we need is to add a profit incentive to it. Profit should have no place in the criminal justice system, which is about public safety, not moneymaking.

More controversial, but not out of bounds, are House 702’s reforms to sentencing and its consequences. Pressley seeks an end to solitary confinement. She asserts that there are currently 61,000 prisoners living in solitary. Sole confinement is either a disciplinary measure or a protective. For the protected, it’s hard to envision an incarceration that isn’t solitary. As for disciplinary solitary, it too lacks an alternative. A prisoner whose behavior is so dangerous as to threaten other prisoners can’t be let into general population. Yet as Pressley notes, solitary is terrible mentally. Extended solitary can lead to insanity, even suicide. Prison sentences should not be burdened by punishments not included therein, and certainly insanity and suicide violate the Eighth Amendment. Some will say that prison should not be  a vacation and that its harshness is part of “hard time.” well, sure. But is not loss of freedom and constantly being guarded plenty hard enough ? Again I say : most prisoners will return to society. It hardly helps anyone if they return aggrieved, embittered, violated, mentally broken.

House 702 also tries, laudably, to address the matter of 911 calls. As we have seen,. almost every tragic shooting of unarmed people — most of them people of color — began with a 911 call that almost certainly should not have been a 911 call. Pressley’s bill includes the following clause : testing, implementing, and evaluating methods of processing 911 calls that reduce unnecessary contact between law enforcement and community members…

All of these provisions, I can support, and do. They’re being adopted in many States. Why not Federally ?

If House 702 stopped there, it would merit a committee hearing and a vote by the full House, and a favorable outcome likely. But House 702 does not stop there.

The resolution seeks several end of sentence reforms. It would allow most prisoners over age 55 to seek release and those over 60 to have it. It ends sentences of life without the possibility of parole. I doubt that many of us support that. Yes, the costs of maintaining an elderly prisoner are high, even higher once they reach infirmity or terminal illness. But we already have compassionate release provisions that allow for mercy to such prisoners. I don’t see a pressing need for further reform here, certainly not as part of a bill which offers much that most legislators will support.

Still,  one can argue the justice of sentencing clemency. I find the remaining provisions of House 702 mistaken or just plain pie in the sky. It seeks an end to prosecution of “minor” shoplifting. I doubt that merchants whose goods are lifted will like that. Shoplifting increases a merchant’s insurance costs, which she must then pass on to her customers in price increases. Why should we, the public, pay to subsidize shoplifters ? Worse yet, businesses have been known to close down entirely because their theft insurance costs can’t be borne. I don’t think communities are made more desirable by having their major retailers close down. Springfield, for example, is decrying the closing down of a low income neighborhood’s last full service bank. Food retailers have already left. Is this good for that neighborhood ? I don’t know anyone who thinks so.

House 702 also seeks to decriminalize “sex work,” i.e. prostitution. Look — of course the actual sex isn’t the thing, it’s what accompanies so much “sex work” : pimping, sex trafficking, robbery, drugs, and “rolling.” Perhaps in Europe, where “sex workers” are regulated by government as if they were liquor stores, non-criminal “sex work” can be conducted safely without bad stuff (though I doubt it). Here, in America, where such regulation has no political support at all, “sex work” can only be regulated under a criminal law rubric.

There’s more to House 702 as it spins into all kinds of other wish lists : a $ 15/hour minimum wage, immigration reform, family structure integration, a Secure Communities Act, banning the militarization of local police, community review boards for police, limitation of prosecution to crimes of violence and “sexual assault” (which as we see today can be almost anything), a Federal job for everybody, an end to prosecutorial immunity, and much more, all of it more germane to separate legislation for many House committees to think about, and much of it politically impossible, some of it unwise, prejudicial, or much too blanketing.

My headline says ‘a lot to like,” and there IS a lot to like in House 702. Let us hope that a House committee can cut away the merengue and focus on the pie, many slices of which are worth a law enactment lunch.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

AYANNA IS BALD, AND IT’s A BIG DEAL. WHY ?

bald Aaynna

Two Septembers ago, Democratic primary voters of Massachusetts’s Seventh Congress District decided to oust our long-time , Mike Capuano, and send Boston City Councillor Ayanna Pressley to the House in his place. The vote wasn’t close. It seemed that Ayanna was right, that for the voters who cared, change could not wait.

At the time, I questioned why change was even needed, much less that it couldn’t wait. Mike Capuano was a force in Congress, working on basic stuff that wins no glamour prizes but which are vital to the operation of a big city : transportation, utility pipelines, natural gas. He was slated to be a Committee chairman and, with the Democratic takeover that happened in November, would have been a chairman. But no. Instead, we got Congresswoman Pressley.

Yesterday Ayanna revealed to us all that she is bald, a victim of alopecia. She posted a picture of herself in bald mode — the picture I have posted above — quite the surprise to us who have always seen her lavishly and glamorously wigged. I saw her announcement and posted it on my facebook page. As I am 90 percent bald as well, it was a matter for which she and I could walk the same road, a thing which hadn’t yet happened between the two of us since her election. All well and good. Becoming bald does happen to people. You live with it.

And then came yesterday and her posting a picture of herself fully bald. No wig. Just skull. And it went viral. All kinds of people posted that Ayanna post on their social media pages. Why ? Not just because it was a thing but, evidently, because to be bald is to be ashamed, and to let oneself be seen bald is something courageous. I’ll admit to the fact. I don’t like myself bald, which is why I wear a hat in my photos. Yet for me, being bald is also about being old; such little hair as I do have is ice white, and I do not like to appear old, I hate everything about being old. Ayanna. however, is not old, she is young. Plenty of young people, including young women, are bald : has everybody forgotten fiercely bald Grace Jones ?

So why the rush to applaud bald Ayanna ? What is happening here ? Why the talk of pride ?

I have yet to see from Ayanna a legislative accomplishment, yet to read of Federal dollars she has secured for our transportation needs. Fans of public transportation call every day, it seems, for more transit, more rail, more service, and more money : but so far as I can tell, not a peep from Ayanna about any Federal money coming our way to build it or fund it. Mike Capuano would have been on the case with his customary effectiveness.

Yet it is now quite clear that the energy among the Seventh’s Democratic primary voters is not for customary or effective but for something else : personality. Ayanna was the majority’s choice because of who she is : a woman of color. That has been almost her exclusive priority so far : here I am, a woman of color, in the House, a role model for all the young girls of color who can succeed and thus be “Black girl magic” for the thousands of young girls of color who need role models who “look like them.”

Well, I don’t know. I’ve never been a young girl of color, so I can’t say what young girls of color aspire to be, or why. But I can say this : even young girls of color who come to think about Congress think of it as a place to “get stuff done.” Why else do young people (and the rest of us) say “do your job” ? My grand-daughter is a soon to be 18 year old girl of color: and she gussies herself up, just as Ayanna does, in order to look good; but she knows that it won’t be turquoise fingernail polish that gets her into college but her top of the class grades and her two jobs where she gets stuff done. Ayanna playing instagram  princess may infuse her fans with a visual high, but if that’s her primary reason for holding the Seventh’s Congress seat she does us all a disservice. We don’t, or shouldn’t send people to Congress to maximize ego addictions.

I consider Ayanna a friend; we have always enjoyed very cordial relations, she as elected official, I as journalist and centrist political operative. As a City Councillor she worked on actual stuff, good and useful stuff, and got it done. It is understood between us, now, nationally, that we don’t agree on much (though we both oppose 45) : but each of us respects the other’s bona fides. In that vein, I have been puzzled by Ayanna’s performance. I remain puzzled. She may be a freshman in Congress, but she’s of the majority party. Several freshman Democrats have made their mark legislatively : Katie Porter, Lauren Underwood, Abigail Spanberger, Jared Polis, Connor Lamb all come to mind. The voters whom they represent are well served. 

Ayanna has now announced that she is running for re-election. No one is likely to oppose her. Perhaps in her next term she will become bored with imagery and find interest in an actual legislative issue — certainly there are many that the Seventh could benefit by. (Note : Ayanna has proposed  a criminal justice reform bill, whose purposes and provisions you can read here : https://www.congress.gov/116/bills/hres702/BILLS-116hres702ih.pdf  — I shall discuss her bill in a separate article, to be published tomorrow)

Perhaps, too, she will be appointed to a nuts and bolts committee that appropriates Federal dollars. Maybe her criminal justice reform bill will also make it to a full committee hearing. Until these things happen, however, I guess I will have to settle for being a bald person represented by a bald person…..

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere