THE MUGGLEBEE FILES : The 3D Chess of US-Russia relations

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Assad (L) : a convenient villain ? Putin (R) : a Trumpian hero ? Seems like it

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The recent strike on Syrian targets has raised many questions. The answers to these and other questions are tough, because they require a broad perspective, beyond the simple reported use of chemical weapons on innocent people. The Geneva violation aside, global interests involved may point to a more diabolical play unfolding that is hidden behind the atrocities of the Assad Regime. A play that involves both Russia and the US.

The election of Trump is thought to have been influenced by Russia and led many to believe he has been compromised in the process. Trump’s refusal to say a single bad word about Putin or Russia, ever, has perplexed everyone — until recently he did finally say something: right before the launch of this bizarrely-timed missile attack on another purported chemical weapons factory north of Damascus. Again, Assad is blamed by the US…but Russia denies. This is the play, it seems; one party accuses (in this case the US accuses Assad) while another denies the act even took place (Russia, of course).

Before the play, Trump actually called out Russia and Iran. He told them clearly to “get ready”. Ready for what? The explosion of a chemical factory?

Trump touted his “genius” of never announcing what he’s gonna do before he does it, but this time he did the exact thing he claims he wouldn’t do. Psychologically, that’s a well-known trick- when someone says “I’m not gonna do this” and then they do it, weak-minded people reflexively believe there must be some other brilliant meaning to what he did, other than the simple explanation, which is : he’s just doing what he said he wouldn’t.

Trump is under increasing pressure from the Special Counsel over corruption. His “personal attorney” Michael Cohen was raided, and suddenly… this strike appears.

As soon as Trump announced the US was leaving Syria, Assad purportedly used chemical weapons (again) and quickly the determination was made to strike. Not at Assad himself, mind you, but his chemical weapons. Why not get him AND his weapons, you might ask? Well, to do that would leave a vacuum of power. But to leave him in power, and supported by Russia, only ensures he will do the same, again…and most-likely when Russia needs the US military to do another strike. And perhaps that’s the play.

I encourage anyone interested in this to do an experiment: pull up a map of Europe and the Middle East.  Assess the region. Look at the countries involved. Now consider all their interests. Then imagine its your job to figure it all out — an impossible puzzle inside a nightmare. Regarding Syria and its monster leader, his continuing existence offers a consistent narrative allowing strategic military intervention every time he “attacks his own people”.

This move could very well be a tactic designed to influence the American people. Influence them how? By getting them to support military strikes by their US president, carried out by the US military, on the US tax-payer dime. But if the US is seeking to leave Syria, as Trump stated, how does this benefit the US? The answer is it doesn’t. It benefits whoever is still there with a vested interest in the Syrian landscape. That would be Russia.

Let’s look at how it benefits Russia. It controls the Assad regime and occupies much of Syria militarily. Assad helps Putin fights ISIS, but Russia helps Assad fight the rebel factions seeking to overturn him. (Russia isn’t the only vested interest there, either. That is a key fact not to be overlooked.)

Saudi Arabia and Israel help the US fight ISIS, Iran seeks nuclear power and is opposed by the US and Israel while Russia supports them. The US/Israel/Saudi coalition keeps Russia, Iran, and China from commandeering the Middle East. Many do not even know of China’s presence in Syria. Yet China gets cheap oil from Iraq, now that Exxon has been pushed out and ISIS came to be.

The next Sunday, UN Ambassador Nicky Haley announced sanctions on Russian businesses that do any business with Assad, in conjunction with the strikes. Sounds like something Russia might not like, right? They wouldn’t, if in fact Trump hadn’t turned around and undid the sanctions as soon as Haley announced them. What? Yeah. This makes something remarkably clear: the US president is easing the way for Russia, not punishing them. The unanswered question is why.

But how did the strikes benefit Russia? It’s hard to know specifically, but perhaps helping Russia hedge toward its stated goal to control of Syrian oil and gas markets. Syria’s market is big, the most important strategic region in the Middle East now, but it requires massive reconstruction investment.  It was reported months ago Russia wants to corner the entire gas and oil market in Syria, which is not something the US can allow. Yet, the US President seems to be allowing it- he hasn’t implemented new sanctions abroad and here he actually reversed them.

The infrastructure investment that Russia needs, to accomplish its goal, is roughly a $40bil deal — probably more, as we know from our money spent in Iraq. Syria is a mess. Its warring factions make any real financial and military investment, at this time, tedious and il-advised, as it is too unstable and the civil war too intractable. In a chess sense, getting the US to strike certain sectors under the inflammatory claim of chemical weapons use is odious, because it puts both the responsibility and the costs on the US instead of Russia. It is a classic misdirection move. In this way, the Syrian conflict might be being systematically shaped not toward a US agenda, but a Russian one, instead.

Chess is about making moves that are several steps ahead of your opponent, using positioning and distraction to eventually capture the opponent’s king. In this 3D chess game, let’s look at the other pieces in the region and perhaps gain a broader view of what’s actually happened and is in the process of happening.

ISIS arose in Iraq and funds itself through oil. When we exited Iraq, ISIS overran the region and eventually began moving into Syria. The Syrian landscape is a key strategic region because it links the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf in terms of oil shipping routes. The Med Sea links oil to Europe in the north and the US in the west; the Persian Gulf leads up the South China Sea to China moving north-east. The global routes for oil, looked at broadly, describe the play on the chess board that is Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Because Russia is in the energy biz, almost exclusively, it makes sense their designs surround every avenue it can. It was John McCain who said “Russia is just a gas station.”

Russia supplies Europe and China, Britain, France, Turkey, and North Korea with the vast sources discovered in Siberia…the only barriers to its becoming a serious world supplier are US and UN sanctions. Russia’s efforts to reclaim Ukraine follow this purpose ; its presence in Syria too.

US sanctions have limited much of Russia’s oil export but not stopped it. Exxon has invested a billion dollars in Siberia refinery infrastructure thus far unable to pump due to sanctions restrictions. BP faces a similar problem. Russia’s state run oil, Rosneft, on the other hand, is doing very well. Exxon and BP are two of the biggest companies on the planet, but if Russia succeeds in its strategic plans, Rosneft may end up the biggest and reduce the power of the aforementioned giants. Since war is mostly about oil, Russia may be engaged in a secret war for global dominance of the oil and gas market. This is occurring as many developed nations are moving toward more renewable sources.

Evidence this may be the case can be found in the ways Russia is treating both Exxon and BP lately — a shocking change from 50-50 deals to something much more one-sided. Emboldened Russia is flexing on many countries which in the past it could not, and one reason it may feel emboldened is because the US president does not seem inclined to oppose them in any way, whatsoever.

Countries must hedge their energy demands against the politics of surrounding supply routes and the countries that supply them, in order not to be dependent on any one supplier. In a chess sense, they have to watch the whole board. Turkey is Syria and Iraq’s neighbor, so it hedges the oil that comes from below and the oil above (Russia). Because of this, Turkey must ally with the West (US) while at the same time the East (Russia), and assist in the Middle East in managing Iraq, Iran, and Syria, not to mention Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. The fact that Russia is in Syria, and poised to take that market, means Russia may be angling to control the Middle East corridor to the Mediterranean and the eastern corridor (South China Sea), this cornering not just the Syrian market but the entire geo-political market. That’s 3D chess.

The politics of the Middle East nations are complicated, and in some ways insurmountable: ISIS is partially opposed in Syria by Kurd factions, which are also in Northern Iraq as well as in Turkey. The Kurds in Turkey, however, are active separatists — they want their own piece of Turkey; in Syria and Iraq, they fight the Islamic State. (ISIS, it seems, is everybody’s enemy but has no actual country. It’s identity exists somewhere in the Ottoman Empire and the dustbin of history. The Caliphate’s existence creates a difficult position for Turkey- how do they support Kurds in Syria against the Caliphate but oppose them, their own citizens, in Turkey? Not easily.)

Moving north into Europe, the UK, France, and Germany have ethnic problems from the warring Syria; refugees fleeing Syria go north, because the US president has made their ability to flee to the US impossible, which puts incredible pressure on Europe. Part of that pressure created the Brexit. At the same time, these nations have energy needs and must meet them by working with the oil-producing nations that supply them…which includes Russia. For example, Germany has a major gas line going under the Baltic linking them to Russia; tensions could threaten that. This makes them increasingly hesitant to feud with Russia. (Yet, the recent poisoning of a Russian ex-spy turned British citizen on British soil sparked Theresa May to condemn Russia’s disregard of the UK homeland. The substance was Novichok, a chemical poison created by Russia. What message was that meant to convey? A bold one, it seems.)

At the same time, Trump announced the US would pull out of Syria. What followed, though, was the surprise announcement of another chemical attack by Assad in Syria, which demanded the US and its allies respond. May was immediately on board, as was France, despite the suddenness which seemed to disallow Parliament’s approval. This once again highlighted another complexity: the US opposes the Assad regime but it also opposes ISIS. So the US decided it needed to leave Assad alone because he opposes ISIS. This strategy was countered by Russia, however, by Russia showing up to oppose ISIS but with a twist- they embrace Assad. This move is important because it locks up US control of Assad by giving the regime a powerful ally. One that can protect them like a queen. The problem that Russia supports the Assad regime puts the US in a tough spot. The US needs Russia and Assad to help defeat ISIS, but what seems to be emerging from this…is Russia and Assad are taking control of Syria and leaving the US out. The US president’s actions lately and previously prove this is literally the case.

When the US attacks Assad’s chemical weapons, but not Assad himself, even as it openly states Assad must go…the contradiction makes it possible that chemical weapons are an ongoing excuse to employ US force. There is no other explanation for the continued use of such weapons in defiance of the UN and US redlines. The ability to read between the contradiction is the essence of this chess match- and is beginning to reveal an invisible partnership occurring. A partnership not between the US and Russia, but Russia and the US president.

This partnership is drawing US armed force into the region for specific targetings that Russia benefits from. It is entirely possible the US president is being directed as such, in a visceral way. The use of chemical weapons is easy to sell the American people on- women and children suffering horrible effects of chemical weapons use, outlawed by Geneva. Doing Russia’s bidding is not an easy sell. But if the US president calls out Russia (and Iran)…that might work. This distances the Russian president, when in actuality he may be very close. This is chess, remember.

Such use of weapons should literally draw the condemnation of the world, and it does…but what it doesn’t draw is actual consequences. This means it’s a play, one someone knows they can get away with. Assad remains unpunished, possibly fortified, and free to do it again. Now, every time Assad “uses chemical weapons”…the US must take some action. So far, its been the same action, every time, just different locations and targets that never include the leader responsible.  That should tell us something loud and clear.

Syria’s Assad is a Rook protected, it appears, by Russia’s King. Russia’s Bishops and Knights surround him. And the US president is a pawn that will do anything to be King’d, it seems. He will race to the other side, leaving his most key pieces vulnerable, because Putin is promising he will help him become King’d. What he doesn’t seem to get is America doesn’t have a King, and never will. He thinks he’s got this by check, when it may actually be check-mate…for Russia.

— Christopher Mugglebee / The Mugglebee Files

Christopher Mugglebee is an actor, boxing trainer, and a martial arts expert. He now writes about politics and world affairs.

IS AUTOMATIC VOTER REGISTRATION A REFORM OR A STEP BACK ?

AVR Briefing

^ do you support this ? Not so sure. Read our argument why not.

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On my 21st birthday I registered to vote. The City Clerk personally swore me in, because he and my Dad were friends, and our city was small enough that that personal connection could be honored. Why did I register ? I did it because my Dad insisted. I guess that i also felt a bit of pride, that I was now an adult and confident to do my duty.

That was a long time ago. Much has changed since. Electeds in many states, who call themselves Republicans but in fact violate the Republican party’s founding missions, have engaged in all sorts of skull-duggery. to “depress” the vote. They have taken voters off the list for small administrative quirks; required people to show certain kinds of state ID’s that they may not have, or may not be able to travel long distances to acquire; refused to restore voting rights to convicts who have done their time; moved polling places so that unfavored vo9ters have a hard time getting to them. And many more such moves to deny citizens their most basic civil right, the right to vote.

Misdeeds of this sort disgust most of us, and should. Registering to vote should be straight-0forward and unburdened with detours. Polling places should be centrally located within a precinct. Ballots should be easy to use and probably paper, so that they can’t be hacked by malfeasors or foreign governments. Moves to intimidate voters as they arrive to vote, such as those perpetrated by a right wing group known as “True the Vote,” must be dealt with severely. I think most of us agree with all of these assertions.

What, then, ought we to decide about a new proposal, whose purpose is to assure that every eligible person is registered as a voter ? I refer to ‘automatic voter registration.” It goes thus in Massachusetts : when a person comes to the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) to obtain or renew a license or register a vehicle, he or she can register then and there: but she has to ask. Under Automatic Voter Registration, the person signing in at the RMV window is registered by signing in; she may OPT OUT of registering, but otherwise is registered.

My own view is that registration that requires no act at all by the registrant weakens the vote. I strongly believe that a person must make a positive, conscious decision to register, just as she must make a deliberate decision to go and vote. I see our system as participatory: but it is participatory by effort. Though obstacles should never block a person’s decision to participate, the presence of decision seems to me vital. We can allow voting by mail, or even voting online, and either of these reforms — used by many states already — requires the voter to do stuff — to take action. It certainly isn’t heavy lifting, nothing that the legendary John Henry would have to die with his hammer in hand for, but actions they are. Automatic  voter registration is the absence of action. The person does nothing; it is done To him. To me, that is not participation. It is not a deliberate resolve to get involved. And involvement is what a healthy democracy requires.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

 

CUSTOMERS ARE THE ECONOMY, SO PUT MORE MONEY IN THEIR PAYCHECKS

ABOOK-Aug-2017-PCE-Real-PI-Excl-Xfers-Real-GDP

Are you fed up with hearing about the trouble our nation’s economy is in ? I sure am. Well: if so, the solution is simple: consumers, whose buying represents two-thirds of the entire  economy, just don’t have enough money to support their part of it all. This especially holds true in the big cities, into which almost everything economic is now concentrating : good jobs, lots of them; shopping, night clubs, restaurants; residence, transportation, innovation. In the big cites, everything is booming — except wages, other than for the lucky.

In Boston today, $ 3,000 to $ 4,500 a month rents, for tiny apartments, has become almost the norm. Few are the neighborhoods in which a house can be bought for less than $ 600,000; close to Downtown, the price is more likely to be $ 899,000 or even $ 1,000,000 and up. No one earning less than $ 100, 000 a year can afford these rents; few who earn less than $ 150,000 can afford to buy.

As with real estate, so with everything else. A decent meal now costs at least $ 20 if you add a tip; $ 27 to $ 30 if you add wine or beer. You can’t get to a Downtown restaurant, in any case, without shelling out $ 20 to $ 25 for parking. Nightclub entertainment costs $ 30 to $ 60. Clothing purchases in Downtown malls or single stores will run you $ 100 to $ 2500, more often the higher end than not. Food isn’t cheap: at least $ 700 a month for two. Then there’s utilities : $ 99 (plus taxes) for a cell phone line, $ 172 for any cable TV other than basic $ 200 for electric service, $ 125 for gas heat. Food, home furnishings, haircuts, the MBTA — add these, as well as home repair. Cars ? Some do without, but if you have a car, there’s the monthly finance charge, an insurance bill at least $ 200 a month, and parking, if you can find it.

Assuming you earn enough to pay all of these — the above bills add up to about $ 6200 a month after taxes; add taxes and the paycheck total looks like close to $ 10,000 a month — how are you going to buy anything else ? Granted that your city life funds restaurants, car dealers, car financers, utility companies, night club employees, clothing retailers and manufacturers, is that all there is ? Who will buy house repairs, summer camp for the kids, boats, vacation trips, furniture ? Who will pay for child care ? Doctor and dentist bills ? The kids’ education ? And savings : who will have money to save ? After all, the median family income in Boston is about $ 62,000 a year. Yet the expenses I have listed require double that.

Then there’s those who earn less than the median. The state’s minimum age right now stands at $ 11/hour. A current proposal would raise that to $ 15/hour by 2022. At $ 15/hour, a worker without overtime earns $ 600 a week, $ 31,200 a year. Two minimum wage workers living together barely manage the median income. That sounds OK, but at $ 62,000 a year — $ 5166 a month — said family can afford a rent no higher than $ 1800 a month, which means living in Boston’s barest neighborhoods, in which City services are skimped and few people have stay at home time to care for kids. $ 5166 a month also means a barebones life :

—> taxes, 1200 a month; rent, 1800; cell phones for two, $ 189; cable TV, $ 172; utilities, $ 300; clothing, $ 300; food, $ 700; transportation (MBTA), $ 80. That leaves about $ 400 a month with which to fund repairs, kids’ sports, emergencies, maybe a weekend vacation. It does not allow a car, or health care co-pays, or Christmas, any entertainment at all. Or savings. I also did not allow for purchase of a laptop or for wi-fi hot spots.

Most of all, the $ 15/hour minimum wage doesn’t offer those who earn it much opportunity to buy in the discretionary economy. You go to any mall and marvel at the plenteous goods on offer, not to mention services: but who can buy them very often ? Our economy isn’t fulfilling its potential if all that it supplies to the vast majority of consumers is basic needs. Discretionary spending allows innovative goods and services to prosper. It allows creators’ skills to advance. It allows for savings, investment, development. Our economy needs to find a way to put more money — MUCH more money — into the paychecks of most workers. And not just our money economy. People who earn more — who can enjoy the discretionary economy — feel better about themselves and thus enjoy better health, longer lives, participation in the community, a bit of the tastes of freedom.

One can, it is true, move away from the big cities into small cities with a much cheaper economy. Fall River is a perfect Massachusetts example. Rents there are less than half of the Boston price; buying a house costs almost two-thirds less. Yet there is no way even for a Fall River to buy goods and services in the wider economy. These cost the same wherever they are on offer. If you pay $ 900 rent, as is typical for Fall River, or buy a house for $ 125,000, you definitely can afford to earn less. But you’ll still have to pay the same price for cell phones, cars, utilities, food, clothes, and vacation as you would pay in Boston. And if you choose Fall River’s much cheaper housing costs, while maintaining a Boston job at a Boston paycheck, you have a 55 mile commute in the morning and back at night, which means a car and gasoline and car insurance, not to mention three hours every day wasted on the road.

There has to be a way to up the median Boston income to $ 90,000, and to raise the minimum wage to $ 21/hour, without having landlords, restaurants, and real estate speculators jack up the market accordingly. If City life is not to drive out those who earn modest salaries, we have to achieve this. Extend the earned income tax credit ? Perhaps that. Somehow we must allow the vast majority of residents to afford the innovation economy.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

A PROPOSAL FOR RESOLVING THE AIR BnB ISSUE

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^ an Air BnB hotel room : NOT to be coming to your NEIGHBORHOOD if we can help it

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People in Boston have talked for at least a year about the impact of Air BnB on our City’s housing crunch. It’s not a new matter at all. The question has been, what to do about this loss of housing to the short term rental; market ? We’re not concerned about residents who decide to rent out a room to BnB guests — that’s their fright — but about whole buildings of apartments being bought up by investors — or speculators — solely to rent out for very short terms. THAT is the issue that has activists up in arms.

The Air BnB people want you to think that opposition to this new, short-term rental industry is an attack on the rights of homeowners. This, dear reader, is horse effluent.

The company has thrown this bit of garbage at City Councillor Michelle Wu, who has advocated restrictions on short term renting. It’s all over twitter. This too, is horse effluent.

Air BnB’s push-back has garnered significant support, most of it derived from the misrepresentation of Wu’s position. What Air BnB has claimed against Wu is untrue.

End of story.

Perhaps now we can proceed, as the City is trying to do, to propose regulations that will preserve homeowners’ rights while regulating what amounts to illegal hotels and rooming houses.

The City already has a hotel code and a rooming house code. They’re part of the City Ordinances, available online: you can read them, and you should. Thus my proposal is a simple one:

( 1 ) every owner or purchaser of a real property that contains more than four residential units must secure a permit from the City allowing him or her to rent a residential unit for a term less than month to month. An owner who fails to obtain such permit but rents anyway for shorter terms, is in violation of the zoning code provision that prohibits same and is subject to the filing of a housing-criminal complaint, just as would be the case for an owner who violates the state sanitary code.

( 2 ) every property containing more than six residential units shall be deemed a hotel or rooming house, as the case may be, for the purposes of regulating short-term rentals therein, and said property shall be subject to the City Ordinances regulating such properties.

Bed-and-breakfast apartment buildings exist, and are advertised on travel websites, in almost every big city. They provide a much cheaper alternative to traditional hotels: no room service, no housekeeping, just rental of a space. Perhaps these buildings work in other cities. In Boston, however, where housing for actual residents is scarce and ever more costly — as I write, rents approximate about 40 percent of median family income, and home prices equal about 12 times annual income — we simply cannot allow existing housing to be bought up for hotel-like purposes. If such units are to be available, they should be built as such, and in currently less utilized sections of the City — not at all in areas already experiencing rent price surges. Residents may have to compete with each other for housing, but there is no public policy reason whatsoever why residents must have to compete with hotels.

—– Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

EVALUATING THE FY 2019 BOSTON SCHOOLS BUDGET

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^ Boston Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang : has a budget memorandum for you. Read it and judge the situation accordingly

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Before I delve into the details of the Mayor’s proposed — now final — $ 1.109 billion dollar schools budget for the coming year, it might be helpful to read Superintendent Chang’s memorandum of justification:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/17VTDAj1-7HtyQKaytMmCL2rrURYqAzob/view

The budget itself merits serious study, as always; but there is enough information in Superintendent Chang’s memorandum to conclude much about Boston’s schools (“BPS”) agenda. Let’s itemize and briefly question some of its assertions:

( 1 ) the increased funding, $ 48 million, represents the smallest percentage increase, by far, of any year’s budget since Mayor Walsh became Mayor. The usual increase has amounted to almost double that. Last year, with a smaller budget, the increase was $ 50 million.

( 2 ) Superintendent Chang’s memo chides the Governor for a state budget providing less state aid, pursuant to MGL c,. 70, than in the prior year. But why, I might ask, should the State increase its aid to Boston given the enormous rise in real estate tax assessments occasioned by skyrocketing real estate values in most of the City ? Indeed : given what is happening in Boston, I am puzzled why the Mayor did not allocate an increase much larger than last year’s $ 50 mil;lion, rather than less.

( 3 ) The Superintendent goes out of his way to applaud that BPS teachers are among the highest-salaried in the state and nation. Doubtless he says this in order to head off teacher salary demands at the next Teachers’ Union contract negotiation: yet hasn’t it been a long-standing sore point that almost 86 percent of the Boston schools budget goes to staff salaries, leaving everything else, from classroom supplies to utilities to transportation and travel or research, to fight over a mere 14 percent ?

( 4 ) The Superintendent also praises BPS for its high level of school success, noting how many schools in the District now perform at Levels One and Two, per State Board of Education standards. I cannot tell if he has it right, but assuming that he does have it right, why is more State aid needed, given the Equal Protection limitations placed on c. 70 compensatory funding ?

( 5 ) Mr. Chang’s memorandum also notes “under-utilized schools” as a recipient of state funds. The under-utilization of some school buildings is nothing new. It’s been a discussion point for at least all of Mayor Walsh’s years in office. Why hasn’t the District consolidated the many under-utilized school buildings, closing some entirely and thus saving about $ 50 million in maintenance costs and utilities expenditure ?

( 6 ) The memorandum also notes that 57 BPS schools now practice an extra 40 minute school day and that the extra time costs the District some $ 17 million. Why hasn’t the Superintendent expanded the 40 extra minute reform to every school in the District while utilizing the cost savings from consolidation to pay for it ? Indeed, why is Boston’s school day still one of the shortest in the state ? Most school Districts use a school day more than an hour longer than Boston’s 57 extended day schools.

I have no doubt that all of the above questions will continue to be fruitlessly asked, and that the City’s future budget allocations will continue to lag well behind the increases in tax assessments, and that very little will be done. BPS will continue to fund anomalies and live with them because the will to reform them isn’t there, nor the political alignment. That said, to the extent that Boston schools achieve Level One or Level two performance, I applaud the teachers who under Union President Jessica Tang’s leadership, understand what is expected of them, and I congratulate the students for working so diligently that kudos given them are well founded.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

SOCIAL MEDIA NEED NOT FEED LONELINENESS

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^ lonely ? watching your laptop screen ? No need to be, the ‘net offers you a big, connected world whenever you want it

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David Brooks, writing in today’s New York Times, bewails the impact that use of the internet has had on community connectedness. He may well be right; but there is an opposite side to the story, one that he never mentions : social media has enabled all kinds of connectedness that never existed before or which imposed membership gateways.

I see it every hour that I peruse my facebook page — facebook especially. In Boston alone there’s more community facebook pages and discussion groups than I can count. I belong to at least thirty, and thereby I have connected to hundreds of people I could not otherwise have talked with, from every corner of Boston.

Said facebook groups don’t exist only only online. They meet, often regularly. I can attend, and often I do. In my own Boston neighborhood, East Boston, facebook interaction enables me to reach over 10,000 people. Probably other neighborhoods of Boston approximate a similar number.

On these pages one learns of all kinds of public meetings : campaign forums, City of Boston BPDA hearings, Mayor’s Coffee Hours; neighborhood association meetings; outings and days of action; rallies for this cause and that; dinners and breakfasts in the community. There is absolutely no reason why surfing the internet should bolster loneliness. Join facebook, reach out. It’s all there.

In social media you can also connect to people you knew but have lost touch with. I’ve reconnected with college friends, prep school classmates, kids I hung out with in the summers by the ocean, grammar school friends. Until social media came to be, there was hardly any way of finding them. Thanks to social media, I found my entire family of first cousins, most of them living in California or Europe — people that close to me who without facebook and google I could never have found without hiring  private investigator.

Churches and bowling leagues, scouting and Kiwanis, Rotary and the Elks connected people 30, 40, 50 years ago, yes; but the connections achieve via the internet and social media.

Kids who spend all day looking at their laptop screens may well be lonely; but if so, it’s by their choice, in one way or another. The connected world of social media is available to them whenever they decide to want it — just as it is available to you, and you, and you, and me.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

SIGNING THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM BILL

Baker signs

Yesterday, at 3 pm, Governor Baker signed the big Criminal Justice Reform bills that the legislature has been working on for a year. It was a big win, and a big win for him, too — people I spoke to in my own neighborhood, East Boston, were well pleased by his signing it. Despite which, Baker said that he had some criticisms of them that he hoped to correct. My own view : “it’s a win for the state, and it’s a win for us too,” (I am working on the Governor’s re-election campaign, unpaid, by the way) “so let’s enjoy the win !”

Let us enjoy the win, indeed. The bill H. 4012 won approval by the House, 154 to 5, and S. 2371 by the Senate, 37 to 0. It was not a close call, or controversial.

There has been criticism of the bill, from some Sheriffs and prosecutors. A week ago, when State Representative Sheila Harrington (who was on the committee shepherding the final, amended House bill to the House floor) posted on facebook celebrating the House’s vote, I shared her post; and Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson soon came onto my post — yes, mine; why mine ? — commenting several times upon the bill in dire terms and at length.

What might any objections be, to bills enacted almost unanimously by our legislature ? Of sufficient seriousness that Governor Baker feels the need to say “yes, but” even to bills whose signing ceremony was well attended and which he and others posted, on social media,. in quite celebratory words ?

As is my usual practice, let’s, before we discuss further, read the actual language of the acts, S. 2371 and H. 4012 :

S. 2371 here : https://malegislature.gov/Bills/190/S2371

H. 4012 here : file:///C:/Users/nick%20shaheen/Downloads/H4012.pdf

The Senate bill, which is definitely a long read, includes, inter alia, a great deal of administrative procedure applied to sex crime data acquisition and evaluation; much detail about assessment of the gender and mental needs of youthful offenders; explicit directions to police departments barring any sort of identity profiling and requiring de-escalation tactics when responding to 911 calls.

The House bill details, and extensively re-writes, the State’s incarceration, parole, probation, and good-time credits systems. One can understand the annoyance that some sheriffs may feel about this comprehensive re-write of supervisory rules that they and the their staffs must now master. I fail, however, to understand objections based upon a theory of laxity. The detailed rules set forth in the act are onerous for any prisoner eligible for them (and some prisoners are not eligible at all) to adjust to, much less succeed at.

That said, the bills do change the overall theory of Massachusetts criminal procedure from one of imprisonment to one of treatment. I quote from MassLive’s coverage of the legislation :

Among the many provisions: The new law eliminates a handful of mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealing. It creates a process for records to be expunged for juveniles and young adults and for convictions for offenses that are no longer crimes, like marijuana possession.

The bill raises the minimum age of criminal responsibility from seven to 12 years old and decriminalizes some minor offenses for juveniles. It changes the way bail and fines and fees are levied to take into account someone’s ability to pay. It raises the threshold at which theft is considered a felony. It requires more humane conditions for inmates in solitary confinement.

Baker also signed a separate bill, which was the result of a year-long task force examining recidivism in Massachusetts. That bill enhances the programming available in prison and jails, enhances community supervision and expands behavioral health resources.

Thus the general direction of the legislation is to burden treatment and hospitals while de-emphasizing the corrections system itself. There will now be fewer people incarcerated, and for shorter periods of time. I can understand that some sheriffs find this prospect unhappy. The same can be said for corrections officers, always a politically powerful interest. There may well be layoffs. There definitely WILL be greater restraint on what corrections officers can do to prisoners, and their conduct will be closely monitored. Corrections officers may well object : but the level of control they exercise over imprisoned people is hardly limited by words of laws: the phrase “terrible things happen in prison” didn’t comer about by accident. If even one prisoner is saved from being raped or beaten because of the new laws, that is, in my mind, a positive thing.

Clearly, Baker has heard the complaints made by some sheriffs and some prosecutors and doesn’t want to be seen as dismissive of them. That’s OK. The larger fact is that he signed the bills, and did so in a big ceremony.

As he said at the signing, “The very positive elements of the bill far outweigh some of the concerns we have.”

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

 

INNOVATIONISM

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^ sea rise / climate activists listening to a presentation at a recent Harborkeepers forum in East Boston

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Beyond the familiar opposition of “progressive” and “conservative” politics, I propose a new category : “innovationism.”

What do I mean by innovationism ? Simply this : a political arena in which ad  hoc, on site, unstaged suggestions can be made for resolving some of the challenges that face the city in which I live and which tactic I suspect will apply just as well to other cities.

In Boston I’ve seen it work. An emblematic example was a recent design forum sponsored by The Harborkeepers, an East Boston – South Boston citizens group that has, these past two years,. taken on the challenges posed by sea rise and big storm flooding. At said forum, many designs and principles were proposed for accommodating the water that all but surrounds both neighborhoods.

That forum’s discussion did not sound political at all. No “progressive” economics were advanced, no “conservative” customs argued for. There was a problem — water encroachment — and suggestions for curbing it, even making social utility of it. Much of what was proposed calls to mind what the Dutch have done, in their nation so much of it below sea level, to make high water work for them without destroying their communities. Holland has done it all : seawalls that retract and then close, houses on piles, houses that float, water that gets let in to make great harbors, water that is kept out when sea rise looms.

In Holland the task of taming the North Sea has no party identity. I call what the Dutch have done “innovationism,” I apply the same to what is being debated in East Boston and South Boston, and I suggest innovationism as a welcome remedy to the progressive-conservative trap that has stultified so much of our reform work and rendered it difficult if not impossible, when what is needed is reform of everything.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

THE DEMOCRATIC “BASE” IS NOW IN THE SUBURBS, NOT THE CITIES. HERE’s WHY.

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^ Wisconsin State Senator Patty Schlachter : ten point victor, flipping a legislative seat in what had been extremely “red” territory far from any Democratic city

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A major shift has taken place in the Democratic party’s locus of force. For at least 150 years, since the Civil War, big cites were the Democratic party’s foundation (also the South, a phenomenon that ended about 20 years ago.) Today, however, cities no longer control Democratic energy as they once did. It’s the suburbs’ turn, and a very specific kind of suburb at that. It’s in the suburbs that were until quite recently Republican that one finds the Democratic fires burning hottest.

Why is this so ? Let me explain.

The new Democrats — the “woke” constituency — is a fairly well to do, almost exclusively Caucasian constituency. Lunch bucket issues aren’t its thing. Those are city matters; and city voters have, mostly, been Democrats for 50 to 150 years. The longer a city has been Democratic, the less likely its Democratic voters are to be ‘woke.” To them, the Democratic party is the establishment, personal and ancestral, often paychecked. The Democratic primary works for these voters. In it they elect those who govern cities and represent cities in Congress.  Because the Democratic primary is where every elected office is decided, anyone who cares to pursue a political career or play a part in politics votes in that primary, no matter what his or her ideology might be. “Resist” is only one among many such Democratic options.

It was different for suburban voters. When voters first started moving to suburbs, after World War II, most of them became Republicans, because it was then assumed that the Republican party would hold the line on taxes, which was the primary issue for people now earning more and having larger savings accounts. Recently, however, the Republican party has become known for religious zealotry, anti immigrant bias, and attacks upon the social safety net. As older suburban voters enjoy social security and medicare, and as few suburban voters are wedded to religion or wish to interfere with women deciding what to do about a pregnancy — the suburbs are built upon everyone minding his or her own business, not upon community solidarity, which is the way of cities — the current Republican agenda violates the live and let live, entitlement lives that most suburbanites like.

Many such suburban voters have fled the Republican party, or refused it, and have turning instead to the Democrats. They have the zeal of converts. Like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, they have seen the light and ever since, have zealously gathered or joined a following.

To the suburban converts one adds the world of academia, which, like the suburbs,was almost exclusively Republican right up to the late 1960s. Opposition to the Viet Nam war converted them, too, as it did NOT change the voting allegiance of city voters, many of whom fought in the war, or had family in combat. It is no accident that, in Massachusetts, the most idealistic Democrats are concentrated, not in Boston — maybe the nation’s archetypal Democratic city — but in academia and the suburbs surrounding the academy : Cambridge, Lexington, Arlington, Medford, Somerville, Watertown, Belmont, Carlisle. Lincoln, Concord, Wayland, Melrose, Salem (and even Winchester, not so long ago a moderate Republican heartland): all of which have become the local Democratic party’s “base.”

All of the above is why we have recently seen Democratic candidates do so well in very Republican states — the more Republican the state, the better the Democratic candidates have done; and the more “resist” and suburban those Democrats, the better still. Perhaps the most extreme instance of this voter movement was the 10-point victory won by Democrat Patty Schlachter in a exurban Wisconsin State Senate seat that had been Republican for decades. A similar shift has moved four legislative seats from Republican to Democrat in Oklahoma, which had, during the past three decades,  become maybe the “reddest” state in the nation.

In Alabama’s US Senate race, though won by a centrist Democrat, the greatest voting shift occurred in suburban counties. The same proved true in last week’s 18th Pennsylvania Congress District: although the very centrist Democrat, Conor Lamb, did much better than recent Democrats in some fairly rural parts of his electorate, his biggest plus came in suburban Pittsburgh.

But yesterday, in the Illinois primary, one saw something quite different. Suburban, “resist” Democrats challenged not in a two party election but in the Democratic primary, which meant taking on Democratic opponents who were not convers but established; and in all three emblem cases, the established, non-convert, non-“resist” candidate won : incumbent, Chicago-based Congressman Dan Lipinski over suburban challenger Marie Newman (Illinois CD 3); Seth Casten, a mainstream executive, over five suburban women rivals, one of whom was backed by EMILY’s list; and in the Governor race, established Jay Pritzker over “resist” favorite Chris Kennedy and an equally left State Senator, Dan Biss. (In Chicago, Biss’s support came almost all from the high income “north Side,” Pritzker’s vote from everywhere else.) Converts are far, far less numerous in Cities like Chicago then are non-ideological, centrist Democrats.

As I see it, the “resistance”‘s converts number about the same in every state and city, but their share of the Democratic vote varies as I have said above : the “redder” the District, the more influential the “resist” vote. My axiom may prove too much, but electeds who stand in the way of convert voters better heed well the arrival of a generation of Saint Paul-style apostles.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

 

COMMUNITY PRESERVATION COMES TO EAST BOSTON

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^ Christine Poff answers activists’ questions at last night’s Community Preservation forum in East Boston

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Last night a substantial cross-section of East Boston activists attended a forum hosted by the City’s Community Preservation Commission and its chief, Christine Poff. As I understood the conversation, there’s about $ 20 million — funds designated by the Community Preservation Act and its one percent city tax surcharge, as adopted by voters in the 2016 election — available for the purpose. Thus the question is, what does East Boston need, by way of “community preservation,’ that can be enabled by suchy funds as get targeted to this neighborhood ?

I will answer that question below. But first, you should read the language of the Community Preservation Act (“CPA”) that governs this entire discussion. The City’s website offers the following shorthand of it : https://www.boston.gov/community-preservation-act … and this is the entire text of the Act, which you might want to read : http://www.communitypreservation.org/content/text-legislation

The Act is part of MGL c. 44B and is thus a state matter. (Which is a specific reason why I, in my capacity as an outreach co-ordinator for the Governor, attended the meeting. The Act makes clear that “community preservation” is a very sweeping mission. It includes creation of affordable and moderate income housing as well as preservation of landmarks and structures of significant historic value. It calls for a real estate tax surcharge of as much as three (3) percent — an amount significant in high-value redale state communities.

The major limitation on how much sweeping can be done pursuant to the CPA is its funds. According to Poff, Boston’s nCPA has about $ 20 million in hand (in a fund expressly escrowed for the CPA mission). That isn’t much to a city whose annual budget tops $ 3 billion and whose real estate values have risen sky-high these past 40 years. Preservation just happens to be a function of that bull market in real estate. If values remained at 1977 levels, there’d be no new construction — there wans’t any then — and thus no threat to existing structures and land uses. There is, however, a daily impact upon existing communities. East Boston has of late found itself especially under the gun of development that has utterly rewritten the neighborhood’s waterfront, its piers and its vistas, its open spaces and peacefulness. Today the East Boston waterfront has succumbed to crappy, hulking residential fronts and overpriced underwater garages that clearly came to pass unaware of rising seas reality. Preservation has no place in what now stands on the Eastie waterfront.

Can there be any kind at all of meaningful preservation, now that Eastie’s waterfront has been so thoroughly defeated ? Maybe.

Eastie very much ants to remain an affordable neighborhood. It has served working class families since the late 19th century (including my Mother’s parents, who arrived in 1896) when the area’s status as a destination port for major passenger ship lines inundated it with immigrants from Ireland — JFK’s great grandfather Thomas Kennedy included — then Jews from all over, then Italians. It is home to working class families now as well, most of them from Latino countries but also the Maghreb in North Africa, Brazil, and Rumania. Somehow, Eastie’s working class families manage to endure enormously risen rents, prices that bar many young professionals who, too, would like to come to a neighborhood that offers less density (and lower rents) tan are available Downtown. I’m not sure how long they can adapt. The next level of price rise will surely be the curtain call as Eastie becomes entierly a neighborhood of technology workers, doctors, lawyers, finance workers, and top-level bureaucrats earning at least 4 150,000 a year.

Maybe that destiny need not happen. Community preservation certainly hopes so. To the CPA Board, which includes Jeffries Point activist Kannan Thiruvengadam, I offer the following suggestions :

( 1 ) very limited funds limit the Act’s effect to small victories : a pocket sized park — a dog park ? — here and there; maintenance money for the Greenway; tree plantings in the Gove Street neighborhood; funds for renovation of aging row houses, all over Jeffries Point, Eagle Hill, and the Maverick Square area.

( 2 ) a more ambitious step might be the purchase of a dilapidated, vacant building for renovation as workforce housing

( 3 ) a traffic study of the dangerous, over busy intersection of Bennington and Saratoga Streets hard b\y the Orient heights T stop. Recently Chris Marchi and I discussed this in a thread on the East Boston Open Discussion facebook page. Maybe it can happen.

( 4 ) creation of a plan for safeguarding local homes now seriously threatened by high tides upon rising seas. If we do n ot figure this out, and begin working on it damn soon, the entire generation will find many such homes unlivable.

Doubtless you have many other suggestions what the City’s scarce CPA dollars can work on. I welcome them all. The money is t.here — taxpayer money — and the oversight to make decisions is in place.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere