Of course there was plenty of message in Governor Baker’s visit to Boston’s huge Islamic Center, the largest mosque in the entire Boston area. This was not just a visit of friendship in the ordinary course, though a friendship visit it was. After all, a Governor who sincerely wants to serve all the people of his state, as Baker has proven he does, wants personally to connect with every important state community, faith or otherwise. Governors of Massachusetts have been doing this for 100 years at least, when hundreds of 1000s of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe came to our ports to begin new lives; and though there was plenty of dislike cast upon those immigrants by people who thought them alien, political leaders competed with each other to enlist the newcomers in their followings. Thus it was with Baker. Though many Muslims have lived in Boston for some decades now, it has only been recently that their presence as a community has become a force. If anything, the opposition to Muslim immigrants expressed by the President has enhanced the significance of Massachusetts’s Muslim residents — made it imperative to welcome the community, praise it, incorporate it into the power structure.

Thus the visit by Governor Baker had a larger purpose than the usual political practice. There was more purpose in it for the Islamic Center, and there was more purpose in it for Baker. Partisan Democrats like to chaff Baker for not being a loud voice against Mr. Trump, which they are and he is not: but these partisans either overlook, or choose to not recognize, that Governor Baker by his deeds demonstrates opposition to the ways of Mr. much moire effectively than would any words. Actions really do speak louder; and Baker, in almost all that he does — bipartisan legislative co-operation, open-ended outreach to everyone, embrace of sort of person no matter his or her gender or identity, faith or no faith — acts the opposite of how Mr. Trump acts. Baker is a uniter, not a divider. He never “speaks to a base,” indeed he seems not to acknowledge or identify an ideological or ethnic, gender or faith base. I say “seems” because Baker does in fact speak to a “base” voter : the ordinary voter of all sorts, who does not breathe ideological fire but just wants state government to do its job and electeds to address the challenges that taxpayers pay to see worked upon.

Clearly there’s an awful lot of ordinary voters of the kind I have described, for Baker won 67 percent of the vote in the recent election against a very decent, well versed opponent. Other candidates should take notice. Ordinary voters make up by far the overwhelming majority of all — at least three quarters of the whole number. Why does this huge majority not get more attention than it does, by more than a handful of candidates who see things the Baker way ? In particular, why do most of our candidates for national office act like firebrands ? Why do they sound like no one you ever meet in the regular course of your goings and doings ? When Baker talks to a room of voters — or of managers — he sounds like a normal guy, a manager describing his management problem, occasionally a fun guy telling a joke or a quick anecdote, always easy to listen to: he sounds like people you actually know and work with. Why do our national office holders, in contrast, sound so different, so strange, so hepped up, so humorless ?

To some extent the humorless ways of our national office holders comes with the territory: they’re tribunes of the people, modern-day Gracchi fighting against the powers that be , warriors for this cause or that interest. After all, the Roman Senate was not exactly a forum of buddies. The speeches of Cicero — especially those against Cataline, or Clodius — pulled no punches; people were assassinated (as was Cicero himself, eventually) over the bitter divisions that fought to the death in that first great legislature. Yet one would like to think that we in America have improved the process a bit. The Romans had no Constitution, neither or written, and thus the rules were whatever the powers wanted them to be. We, however, have a written Constitution. It makes very clear what the legislature’s duties are, its priorities, its purposes. We have a Supreme Court to umpire interpretations of it. We have universal suffrage to assure that no office holder is there merely by inheritance or granted privilege. What, then, is the problem ?

Every time I think I have the answer, I find myself mistaken. The problem is not money, because Baker has to solicit donations just as national office seekers do. It isn’t faction, because we have factions in Massachusetts just as they do in Washington. It isn’t even the irresponsibilities and bigotries of Mr. Trump, for we have had such before, albeit not in the same degree. Partisanship certainly aggravates political irresponsibility, because those who live politics 24 hours a day can take over the process from people who live regular lives with little time for or interest in never-ending meetings and schemings. Yet we have partisan zealotry in Massachusetts too, and though it has impacted the edges of our governance, it hasn’t affected the actual decisions and accomplishments at all. Yet the presence of partisan zealotry does point me to an actual problem : party primaries. In Massachusetts, we elect a Governor at the November election, with 60 to 75 percent of voters voting. Most other offices — especially for national office — are decided in the Democratic primary, with 15 percent of voters voting. The Republican primary is even worse. It nominates mostly unelectable candidates, because the party numbers only ten percent of voters, and about half of them do not vote in their primary.

The smaller the party, and its primary, the more ideological the tone, because once we gave up the patronage system, as we did about 30 years , there was no incentive for anyone to be a primary voting stalwart except for ideology’s sake. This happened nationally, and it did so at the exact time that the Republican party was being taken over by cadres with a religion agenda on the one hand and, more recently, by identity politicians in the Democratic primary (which has now become an arena for eco-socialism as well). Yet there’s another factor at work beyond that of ideology or even of partisanship generally. I refer to impatience. It’s a commonplace that Americans want instant gratification. Easy it is to carry that mindset into the political arena. And now we see the REAL difference between Governor Baker and the others : Baker is a man of infinite patience. He doesn’t expect things to be done tomorrow, nor does he expect it. He is not in a hurry. He seems to understand that reforming huge institutions — and the state bureaucracies are all that — is best accomplished by small degrees, small enough as to hardly be noticed one by one but which, seen over time, look very significant indeed. Baker’s patient approach to reform works so well because it is natural : we all age, and learn, but we do so very slowly. Day to day one sees little or no change to who we are or what we look like, but over a stretch of years, the change is enormous, and we accept it.

That is why Governor Baker has had the political success that he profits by. He is as natural as he can be, in his actions and in his patience. That is what our national office seekers so often lack and why they arouse more trouble than benefit. They want it all done NOW : racism must end NOW, if not 35 years ago; sexual customs must be disciplined NOW, if not 34 years back. Transformation of our energy system must happen immediately. Everything is on the hurry, hurry, hurry. Well guess what ? You want to hurry people, expect huge push back. Push back strong enough to defeat you and make things worse than they would have been had you done nothing. No, no, no: if you want reform — truly want reform — in a nation where every voter can — and should be encouraged to — vote, you must change a significant majority of minds. It cannot be forced. You have to respect the voter whose mind you seek to change.

Changing minds — and mindsets — takes time. Takes patience.

That is why Governor Baker visited the Islamic Center of Boston.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


Andrea Campbell, City Council president, has so some news for you. He heard her. She didn’t say, buit will you enormously

Some of Boston’s City Councillors now advocate that the Council term move from 2 years to 4 years. Strongly I oppose this idea.

Look : before 1924, when the wards of Boston were last apportioned by the Suffolk County Apportionment Commission that hadn’t met since — despite the state law requiring it meet every ten years — the Council members were elected by Ward and had one year terms. Wouldn’t be a bad idea to revisit THAT.

Complaint # 1 made by the proponents : elections cost the City money. Less electing saves money.

Sorry, I’m not buying it. Democracy does occasionally cost money. Better that than dictation.

Complaint # 2 : four year terms would free the Council members from having to campaign constantly.

My response : (a) wanna bet ? (B) what’s wrong with the members having to campaign constantly ?

The Council is an advisory body, not a legislature. Its only power of any consequence is to approve the budget. I know that many Council members want to be a kind of Congress member — she-roic tribunes of Social Justice — maybe even of “environmental justice,” whatever that is — but no : the City works better with a strong Mayor, advised by a council whose most useful role is to suggest and negotiate. If that means less public attention on the members, that’s fine, especially in the era of social media, where loud speech by every interest group – the more radical, the louder — intimidates electeds in the direction of loud. (Note : Althea Garrison, who is now an at-large Councillor, opposes the measure.)

I should note that the same proposal would require a special election to fill a Council vacancy. Would that election not cost the money the proponent claims to save by not having elections every two years ? Of course it would.

So much for the four year Council term. That said, I do favor some city charter reforms. I’ve written already — about two months ago — that the Council ought to move from nine Districts to eleven. Boston having added at least 100,000 new people since the last census, if we want to maintain the 70,000 population mean for Council Districts, adding two members has to happen. In support, that 70,000 figure fairly well fits the sizes of Boston’s major neighborhoods, on a combination thereof.

As I noted above, before 1924 the City’s Council was elected from the city’s wards, which until 1934 were apportioned by population, more or less. In 1934, and ever since, the City’s wards have had no election meaning; no office is decided by ward boundaries. My suggestions for reform, then, are these : first, the Districts — ( 1 ) elect 22 Councillors, one from each of the newly boundaried wards ( 2 ) elect eleven, one each from two wards plus or minus ( 3 ) create eleven wards and elect three councillors from each; second, the compensation : instead of paying $ 99,000 salary to thirteen councillors, pay a small stipend to each — say, $ 25,000 — and boost the pay of council staffs : the idea being that the bread and butter work of researching issues and potential City policies is really staff work and that the Councillor should view his or her job as advisory and secondary to his or her earnings; third, the method of election : I strongly favor the current process, whereby the top two finishers face off in a final. I oppose the current fad for ranked-choice voting, a system which invites interest groups to crowd the ballot with six, seven, ten candidates all from more or less the same agenda group, the idea being that ten candidates working more or less together can amass more votes versus a disliked opponent than any one of them could win on her own. We saw a perfect example of this last November in Maine’s Second Congress District, where two similarly “liberal” candidates together won enough votes to defeat the “conservative” incumbent, as either one of them alone would likely not have done.

A friend this morning suggested an additional procedure : that the required number of signatures to nominate be lowered from about 1,800 to 1,000 and that it not take a mere three weeks to certify them.

I also favor an elected school committee, because school issues are a universe of their own and because the Mayor cannot be held to account on school matters alone. Boston’s many school constituencies need to be seen for what they are and do; that’s hard given the current appointed committee, overseeing a $ 1.7 billion budget that includes $ 100 million at least of capital planning. A school committee elected for three year terms, elected from districts conforming to the City’s currents seat-assignment District, with five committee people elected from the large assignment districts, four from the next in size, and three from the smaller zones, would be both representative and diverse in its viewpoints.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


Senator Ed Markey : embracing an unworkable, extreme proposal because — well, you know why

The 2020 presidential election is shaping up to be a flood of hallucinations. The same can be said of the coming City election here in Boston. If what is published, or spoken at rallies, is any example, proposals are being made that range from the merely unworkable to the outlandish. None of the City Council trial balloons, however, surpasses the radicalism and downright insanity of what is being touted by national office holders and seekers.

It’s a given that Mr. Trump offers falsehoods and chimeras, denigrates whole classes of people, and longs to take us back to the era of coal and smog. This, we’re used to hearing. We’ve dismissed it all, as we should. What is new is the equivalent nonsense being proposed by the “socialist” wing (their word, not mine) of the party that we are counting on to defeat Mr. Trump. Anyone who has read through the so-called “Green New Deal” will find there what critics, with much justice, call “enviro-fascism.” Cars are to be taxed out of existence, gasoline as well; trains are to replace everything else, including airplanes (I kid you not). All in the name of “saving the planet from climate disaster (their phrase). Anyone who has lived by bus or train, as I have, knows the frustration of only being able to go where the bus or train takes you, of having to wait for one to come, and of the near impossibility of going to two, three four different destinations on a day. The freedom of being able to take yourself where you want to go, when you want to go there, and the flexibility it provides to your life, well, those are just old fashioned tastes, I guess.

Gimme a break,.

I don’t know about you, but I find the Green folks’ panic just as absurd as any other stampede. If this proposal is what the voters will be offered in 2020, it will surely re-elect Mr. Trump, because as terrible as he is — and he is really really terrible — we have devised the political means to hem him in. There will be no such means if the climate panic crowd gets its way.

This is not a choice any ordinary voter wants : Trump’s cruel bigotry, Russian pandering, and industrial hallucination on the right hand — and government control of every inch of your life on the left hand . (And I do mean control of everything. The same folks who experience climate panic want to dictate what you think about race matters (you really should abandon skin color prejudice, but you have to do it because you want to, not because a thought cop tells you). They also want to impose inquisition justice upon those accused of sexual harassment. They think it crucial to force professors out of jobs, and writers out of publication, because they disapprove what is said or to be published. The rule of law, with all of its safeguards for the accused ? That’s sexist, I guess. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech ? Obsolete.

As yet we have not devised a political mechanism for deflecting these assaults upon individual freedom and the wisdom of the law. As I said at the beginning of this paragraph, no ordinary voter wants this choice.

To return to Boston’s City election for a bit. Here’s what an up and coming Boston political aspirant posted on his facebook page yesterday by way of supporting Councillor Michelle Wu’s call for making the MBTA fare-free (!!)

How to Make the MBTA Free while also helping the environment.

1. Increase the Gas Tax to 30 cents
2. Congestion Pricing for driving in/out of Boston 
3. $10-15 fee per flight at Logan
4. Surcharge for each UberX or Lyft (not shared) taken to/from Logan

Back of napkin: $600-700 Million
*This does not include the savings from not having to do fare inspections, purchase turnstiles (and maintain them), fare vending machines, etc.*

This alone would be more than enough to cover the fare revenue, increase ridership, and generate stakeholder value.

Beyond the specific proposals, each of them political suicide, what does this amount to ? As one respondent said, it simply transfers MBTA payments from one class of person to all others. That’s the purpose behind much of the ideology being submitted to the City Council : since prices of real estate are going up, transfer the price from owners to everybody else. It’s an absurd policy, one that assures failure — it was the theory behind rent control, which Boston tried in the early 1970s and which killed Boston real estate — because you cannot stop a bull market that doesn’t want to be stopped, you can only move its value bits from here to there. And what the blazes is “stakeholder value” in the T ? Enlighten me.

I have written elsewhere about the Council’s responses to our real estate boom. The answer lies not in penalizing landlords or owners of pricey homes but in finding paths to increasing the wages of our workers. I don’t want to rehash what I have already written; just let me say this : ( 1 ) we aren’t going to raise the gas tax by 30 cents ( 2 ) we aren’t going to put surcharges on Uber and Lyft, which are wildly popular transportation choices ( 3 ) we are not going to impose flight fees on millions of travelers, who have the vote just as do the proponents of taxing and ( 4 ) we’re probably not going to penalize drivers who drive during congested hours, because that’s when the work day ends. (This last proposal might have legs if the economy can find a way to institute staggered work hours.)

Why should riders on the MBTA not pay a fare ? The T exists for their convenience. Taxpayers subsidize much of the T budget because many taxpayers also use the T and because the T allows workers to get to their job more efficiently than driving (and paying a $ 20 fee for garage parking). I doubt that T ridership would increase if taxpayers were to be saddled with 100 percent of its cost, because the cost of parking a car downtown is ten times that of a T fare. People use the T already. Moreover, the T is money- limited by the huge costs it faces to bring the entire system to a “state of good repair,” a job that Governor Baker estimates won’t be finished until 2023. Taking away T fares just makes the job that much longer to accomplish. Again, there WILL NOT be a gas tax hike, because so much of Massachusetts lies outside the T service zone and has no interest at all in paying for it.

Drats. Foiled again !

Now back to the 2020 election and its world of Edward Lear. The manifestos being bruited by some Democrats are about the Democratic party, not about the nation. It’s a battle to wrest control of the party away from the “corporate” Democrats who actually work with business and think that the economy benefits from having businesses prosper. Democrats who oppose that view — who think that the profits of a business belong, as of right, to the line workers, not to the investors who risk their capital — have found a fair measure of support in our big cities, and the surprise success of several urban Democratic candidates in 2018’s Congressional primaries has juiced them to assault the party itself : because control of the party means control of its campaign money and its rules of nomination. These Democrats have seen how the Evangelicals took control of the Republican party and thereby had the track to impose their restrictive agenda — much of it unConstitutional — upon party and nation (not yet completely, thank goodness). They’ve seen it and want to replicate it, and to the same end : to impose government control of your life upon you.

This is why a wise old head like Senator Markey, who is up for re-election next year, has decided to do a Democratic equivalent of Senator Lindsey Graham embracing Mr. Trump. He is afraid of being primaried by a “progressive,” and his fears are well placed, given the shocking defeat — by 18 points — of Congressman Mike Capuano in last year’s Democratic primary. In the Republican party, you have to be totally Trump, or else; symmetrically, in the Democratic party, if you’re not as opposite of Mr. Trump as possible, you’re the enemy of “change can’t wait.” Especially if you’re nearing age 80 and have been in Congress since 1972.

Can we the ordinary voters, who want wise reform but mostly cannot get it from either of the parties, find a way to make our aspirations and common sense the dominant agenda ? Because reform can be done. The Massachusetts legislature and our Governor prove that, every day. Yet nationally, and in the City, I am not sure we can. There, all the current momentum is to the extremes, to proposals each more radical than the last, to government control of everything, including our thoughts. Even the Constitution — our last line of protection — is not safe.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


At least 100 residents in opposition attended the Eversource substation public-comment meeting

For the past three years, at least, Eversource, which provides electricity to most of greater Boston, has proposed to build a transmission-line substation on a part of the city-owned field at the eastern end of Falcon Street in East Boston. The proposal won initial approval last year from the Energy Facilities Siting Board based on need : more power is needed in a city growing rapidly both commercially and with residents. At the time, the company’s argument of need seemed to me pretty convincing. As of this writing, however, I’m thinking that the company’s need is blocked by the inappropriateness of the intended site.

On Tuesday evening Eversource made its public-comment presentation as required by Massachusetts law. Final Siting Board approval cannot be granted without it. Thus at least 100 people came to the public-comment hearing at East Boston High School, and not one resident supported the proposal. Opposition came from people lifelong in East Boston as well as from new arrivals. All three elected representatives — State Senator Joe Boncore, State Representative Adrian Madaro, and City Councillor Lydia Edwards, spoke convincingly in opposition. Madaro insisted that East Boston already bears an excess of the City’s burden of utility infrastructure — he called for “environmental justice,” which, I guess, means that the neighborhood should be the locus of only a representative share of utility infrastructure. He was heavily applauded. Councillor Edwards made a point even more enlightening : that the huge turnout of opponents was an “opportunity,” as she put it, for the company to start working with the community, as it had not so far done.

Edwards has it right. Eversource has not, until now, fully engaged the community its substation would impact. This time it’s different. That the community is now on Eversource like a tackler on a fullback results much from Edwards’s own years of work arousing her neighbors and fellow activists. I hope that the Siting Board understands this and will listen to those who object to the site. In particular, objectors made one point which, in my own mind, seals the argument: the proposed site is in a flood zone.

There are other reasons to dislike the proposed site, and these were advanced at the hearing : its very close to jet fuel storage tanks, it lies adjacent to a ball field where kids play, it is across the street from dense streets of residences, all of them likely to destruction if there’s an explosion: and these do occasionally occur. Eversource has responded somewhat to these objections. It has moved its substation site about 190 feet westward from where originally proposed, a site that was perilously close to Louis Silverio’s fish processing factory. Having done so, Silverio, who had intervened in the case (as provided in the law), has dropped his objections.

Nonetheless, the flood zone objection stands. Chelsea Creek flows hard by the proposed site. It won’t be too long before the Creek will flood regularly; and as all climate change activists know, that flooding will only grow deeper. Bad things happen when electricity is conducted through water; and no matter how rigorously Eversource might build protections into its substation against the water from reaching the power lines, safety cannot be guaranteed.

To sum up : after Tuesday’s hearing I think Eversource has no choice but to rethink its plans. The flood zone objection cannot be willed way, and the universal opposition to project, from all who have any opinion about it at all, makes it bad customer relations for the company to proceed as if all were OK> All is NOT OK as it stands. The community conversation that Councillor Edwards has called Eversource to needs to happen and to be taken seriously. The City of Boston, too, which sold the land to Eversource upon which it intends its substation, needs to step back and rethink its plans. No doubt that the City needs more electric power badly. Brownouts already occur. Proper location of substations, however, is just as important as having them.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


Governor Northam : condemned long after the fact. Was this just ? Was it fair in any way ? And what do we as a society do about customs deriving from skin color prejudice ?

This past week we have seen a Governor of Virginia, by all accounts a man of high repute and great respect among those who know him, almost destroyed because back in 1984 — 35 years ago — when he was a medical student,. his yearbook page featured a picture of two people, one in “blackface,” the other wearing a KKK costume. Mr. Northam happens to be a Democrat, and the yearbook photo was published, so it seems, on a Republican blog page — an attempt to ruin him, so we are told, because he favors legalizing third term abortions in certain cases.

The Governor’s response to this ambush pleased few. That’s another issue not for this column to discuss. The question I ask is, why was a 35-year old student photo — even one as unnerving as this — able to have any effect at all on Mr. Northam’s current standing, much less generate a firestorm against him ? Is the answer purely political, that leaders of his party saw his predicament as an opportunity to demonstrate that in pursuit of the moral righteous it will destroy one of its own (and in the process eliminate a potential rival for future Presidential nominations) ? Maybe. But why was their response so successful ? Why did not one Democratic leader stand up and say, “Governor Northam deserves better than to have his reputation cratered by a photo from 35 years ago” ? Again : one wants to say, “no Democrat did that because after the vicious level of character destruction Democrats wreaked upon Republican nominee Judge Kavanaugh, it would look like partisan favoritism if Democratic leaders now move to defend one of their own.” A reasonable explanation : yet how did we get to this ?

My purpose is not to argue the politics of Northam and his detractors. Plenty of other writers are doing that. Rather, I propose to examine the custom we call “racism.” What is it ? By “race” we mean people of different skin color and, in some cases, other differing physical characteristics; yet this meaning fails, because many peoples who have dark skin are more distantly related to one than either is to people of lighter skin. If geneticists are right, almost no two peoples are more distantly related than the very dark-skinned Bushmen of southern Africa and Aborigines of Australia. It seems that almost everyone alive, of whatever skin color, is more closely related to African peoples than Aborigines, who, it appears, have been separated from all other human strains for at least 50,000 years. If there were a “Black race,” it would either exclude the Aborigines or would be only them.

There is, then, no such thing as “race.” Yet there is skin color prejudice. Why so ? How did it begin ?

The various peoples of the world — all descended from one African female, whom we name “Lucy,” who lived about 200,000 years ago in the upper Nile Valley — separated geographically from one another beginning at least 80,000 years ago. They did so in small groupings — which were the only groups of humans then living; our population 80,000 years ago probably didn’t surpass 50,000 people total — in search of food. Edible animals had to be hunted; non-poisonous plants had to be found. Early food searchers had no plans ahead. When an area’s food sources were used up, they moved on. As the group multiplied, it had to break up, because a given area contained only so much food. The others had to move. By about 10,000 years ago, if not sooner, various human groupings had, through gene mutation, acquired different physical traits, those which we now see in their roughly approximate homelands : Asians in China and eastern Siberia, lighter skinned peoples — of varying eye color, hair type, and facial prominence — in Europe and western Siberia, dark skinned peoples in Africa south of the Mediterranean coast (the Sahara dried up only 6000 years ago. Until then, dark skinned Africans hunted all the way up to the coastal area.) Did these various groupings ever encounter one another ? If so, only rarely. Even among the basic group types there was little inter-tribal contact. Korean, Japanese, Mongol, Mandarin, and Cantonese — all east Asian — are entirely separate languages with no visible common ancestor. In the Middle East, peoples who likely looked very similar — and were probably very closely related — spoke at least five completely unrelated languages (Sumerian, Hamitic, Hurrian, Semitic, Elamite, Caucasian). Language, it is clear, took shape very recently, among peoples completely separated from one another and constantly on the move, away from each other because there wasn’t enough food to allow for much juncture.

One doubts that anything like what we call “racism’ existed among any of these nomad tribes. There simply wasn’t the opportunity. The advent of farming, and soon thereafter, of cities, finally brought people of different food tribes together : there was inventory now (of food stuffs) and there was trade. People different from oneself were encountered: speaking different languages, wearing different fashions, having different physical characteristics. We know from early writings in the Middle East that recorders saw peoples less as individuals than as tribes. One reads of the Hittites, the Canaanites, the Elamites, Akkadians, Urartians, Copts, Chebraius (Hebrews), and such like. Kings were named, but as officials, not as individuals. Despite the branding, in no writing does one find any of these tribes demonized. Their presence is noted, their features, their comings and goings, their wars and their peace treaties. There was fear of some. But of what we today call prejudice, it isn’t found at the official level in which all the writing then was done.

Yet skin color prejudice arose. Why ?

Of all the differences among peoples of the first age of trade, and of subsequent history all the way to Medieval times, one finds rivalries, and feuds, and slave hunts. But the slaves of the ancient and Medieval worlds were not slaves because of what they looked like. Greeks of the Mycenaean age slave-hunted whoever they could conquer. This was the custom all the way through Roman times. In the early Middle Ages, peoples of eastern Europe were slave-hunted. The word “slave’ derives from “Slav,” the language grouping spoke from Czechoslovakia and Poland to Ukraine and Russia. As late as 1450 slavery had no connection with skin color.

Did skin color prejudice already exist ? Some claim that it came to be during Roman times. If so, why ? I shall now attempt an answer.

Of all the differences between peoples, skin color is the most visible. Eye color is seen but requires some concentration. Hair color affects only a small part of the body, and much of that is clothed. Skin color, however, is easy to see, and the less clothing, the more of it is seen.

I have used the verb “see” three times in the above paragraph, the other senses not at all. I don’t think this is accidental. Sight is by far our dominant sense. Hearing is significant, but you have to listen. Smell certainly has its moments, but it is not easy to know whence a smell emanates. Touch has an entire vocabulary of manners attached to its application, but to touch is voluntary. Seeing is not. It cannot be avoided. and if what we see sometimes deceives, that’s a sophisticated epistomelogical concept that humans did not note until classical Greek times — and then only among a few merchants and sailors whose work required not taking things at “face value.” (More on sense perception later.)

For the rest of us, taking things at face value is an a priori habit. Most of us don’t even realize the control that sight exercises over our cognition, our judgments, our values. Thus skin color prejudice had a major advantage not possessed by other social grievances.

Still, in order to raise skin color from being difference to the virulence of a prejudice required a catalyst. One was provided at the discovery of sub-Saharan Africa by Portuguese navigators and, later, of the “new world” by Columbus and his collaborators and, immediately after, of the riches of the Incas by the conquistadors.  Colonization of the “new world” began almost immediately after that, and to help work the land thus conquered, Portuguese and Spanish slavers, en route from the Iberian peninsula to the “new world,” passed directly by the West African coasts where Arab slave-catchers had lots and lots of captives to sell; and bought, they were. As the custom of serfdom had long in Europe been one in which serfs were legally, as a class, bound unless freed of servile obligations, it was easy for Iberian slavers and slave-buyers to classify all dark-skinned slaves as a special class — there being essentially no slaves in West Africa who were not dark-skinned. Thus the powerful influence of sight coupled with the rigidity of feudal law to create a skin color classification from which there was no escape.

I don’t propose to narrate further the history of slavery in America and its historical aftermaths. There’s plenty of writers doing that. Rather, I’m going to explore the epistemology of skin color prejudice, whence I find a partial remedy for the curse of it. Because skin color prejudice has been bequeathed to us by our forbears, and exists commonly in our custom, its habit is reinforced every time we see a person of the pre-judged skin color. (For argument’s sake I am going to discuss prejudice against dark skin. The oprejudice could just as easily go the other way, and sometimes does.) Thus sight and habit combine to elicit a response in us before we even realize it has occurred, much les before actimg to stop it. Nor is sight all. Skin is material. It can be felt. As it takes human shape, it seems alive in and of itself, as skin, skin only. These are potent declarations made to us by our senses and our learned experience of them.

Two responses to the doinance of sense perception have come into oyr culture. The more recent is the scientific analysis that begins, for modern tims, with Bishop Berkeley of Cloyne, who in the earluy 1730s wrote thus :
It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects have an existence natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding. But with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world; yet whoever shall find in his heart to call it in question, may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest contradiction. For what are the forementioned objects but the things we perceive by sense, and what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations; and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these or any combination of them should exist unperceived?

Add the skin of a human being, including its color, to Berkeley’s list, and his asertion was that when we see the objected skin color, e actually see only our own idea OF it, that the color of that skin, indeed, the skin itself, may not exist because what does exist is our imagination ? One needn’t take such a radical idealist position to draw common snense imnstruction from what Berkeley argued. All that needs is his idealism : for skin color prejudice is exactly waht he says, an idea in our minds that overrides and een replaces reality with its own. Is there any doubt that when we disfavor a person because of skin color, we are replacing that person with our idea of her, indeed asserting that our perceptioon of her is the real “her” andnot any posible ‘her’ that exists outside our mind ? Followwers of Berkekley do in fact say that perceoptions are a prejudice. They aren’t wrong.

The second remedy from skin color prejudice is to act with our eyes closed. We pray with our eyes closed. Why do we do that ? Is it not so that we can toss aside the dominance of sight and allow our inner voice to perceuive things that cannot or should not be seen ? Historic Judaism not only forbade graven images of God but also refused him a name. God was to be addressed with as little input from sense perceptions as feasible. Sense was considered a distraction, or worse, a temptation. Only voice was embraced. The voice of God was to be heard and only hard: not felt, not seen, not touched or smelled. It is by voice that we most deeply understand Rabbi Hillel’s great teaching, “whatever is hurtful to you, do not do to your fellow man.”

Yet voice is not perfect. We hear what is said uncleanly. Habit and custom and our lived lives create all kinds of static that clutters voice and distorts it. Thus we are, and it is better that we admit to it. If you have read this far in my argument you probably already do look inside yourself, maybe with your eyes closed. It helps. Its hard to maintain a damnable prejudice, that depends upon sense perception, if you have given perception a time-out. Let me assume, then, that you avoid the traps and errors in perception, and that you pray with your eyes closed. One difficult remains : how c an we — how can I — remedy damnable social prejudices in other people ? My response : you can’t, and I can’t. Perception is entirely personal. No one else sees with your eyes, no one’s brain but yours registers your perceptions. Condemn another person for his or her perceptions, and you’ve violated a basic social rule : a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.

In other words, we have as a society to learn to live with perception errors that beget prejudices all around us. We have to allow each person to challenge her own prejudices, herself; no one else can do that for her. It is enough, I think, that we, ourselves, cleanse our souls of these mistakes. For each of us is responsible ultimately for our own decisions, our own opinions, and the effect these have on our fellow man. In the famous Talmud story, Rabbi Hillel taught his precept not by condemning the student who did not know Jewish law but by stating that law in the simplest terms in which “you” and “fellow man” are equated. Hillel doesn’t blame. He doesn’t charge the student with hurting his fellow; he simply says, here’s what you should do if the case arises.

One should never accuse, never judge. Jesus the Jew was right about this. “Who among you is without sin, let him cast the first stone,” he said to a crowd about to stone an accused prostitute to death. Governor Northam wore blackface, it seems, when he was a student 35 years ago. The time for criticizing him for it was then. Not now, half a lifetime after the fact; not when skin color prejudice and its customs continue to play out and trouble us at least in part because we fear that we ourselves may have already made an equivalent error of perception, or have taken for granted consequences of perception whose procedures we fell into, fall into even now, almost without realizing it, or completely.

Our politics deserves better than to be an arena of accusation, of condemnation, of ostracism and shaming, for the sake of sense mistakes almost none of us can help but make every second of every minute of every hour of every day, year, and lifetime.Think with your eyes closed, and you’ll be a better political citizen.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere



Bill Weld: President in 2020 ?

It seems that Bill Weld, former Governor of my state (Massachusetts), will run for President. He’s going to be 74 this year, which for some is a no-no, but my view is that as long as you are alive and fully functioning, the number of your years cannot be bad. Thus if Weld runs, and I hope he does, the question is, why should any serious voter support him ?

Perhaps I should ask the opposite question : why should any serious voter NOT support him ? Assuming that his agenda isn’t full-tilt Libertarian but something more practical, Weld may well merit support well ahead of the usual party suspects. I now make my case :

( 1 ) can it be that Mr. Trump was elected not for his agenda, which featured only one identifiable position,. that of opposing all immigration, but because he was not a puppet of the partisan zealots who have ruled the center ring of our politics recently ? I know all about the argument that it was racism that field the success of Mr. Trump : but millions of 2012 Obama voters voted for Mr. Trump. Did these Obama voters suddenly become racists ? More likely these voters chose Obama because, he being of color, Obama was seen as an outsider to the partisan marionette show.

We who are not partisan puppeteers despise the show and for very solid reason.l At least 80 percent of us are not partisans. We want our elected leaders to leave us alone, to do their job of administering Federal departments, do that job efficiently and respectfully, and work them co-operatively. We do NOT want Republicans to create a Republican America, nor Democrats create a Democratic America. we simply want a working America. We don’t want revenge politics, we don’t want base agendas, and we don’t want the current fad for hounding people out of office, or out of candidacy, for stuff they did or said decades ago. We are not tired of forgiving or of its power to heal and unite.

Nor do we like the acrid taste of accusation and humiliation which the Brett Kavanaugh hearings modeled. I said at the time that the attempt by Democrats to ruin a fine Judge’s reputation on the rail of ancient accusations and half-baked hallucinations was a very long bridge too far; that it must never happen again. But it Is now happening again, with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who 35 years ago, it seems, wore a racially inflammatory costume at some sort of party. Myself, I’m far more moved by what officials like Governor Northam do by way of public policy today than by what they did at a party 35 years ago. It is, however, a lot easier to condemn a sidebar than to appraise the main event, and condemnation always feel better to the weak mind than open-minded analysis. But Governor Northam was nominated by a party, and his fate now rests with the plotters and interesteds who secured his nomination. It is not likely to be a fate made easier thereby.

We used to complain of how political parties nominated standard bearers in “smoke filled rooms” where the “bosses” dealt out party favors indifferent to the wishes of the voters at large. Are the party nominations of today so different ? Yes, they play in public; but no, they aren’t any more open than the smoke-filled boss rule of 50 years ago. Its still the very small battalions of activists — zealots or big donors or both — who decide. The voters get a vote, yes; but the choices presented are mostly the names sponsored by the new-era bosses. We the 80 percent deserve better. Never again should a Donald Trump, with all of his comprehensive unfitness, be the only choice available to voters who isn’t packaged by those who see America through partisan-hued glasses.

Which is why I am now writing about Bill Weld. The Republicans and Democrats alike want the 2020 election to be their personal monopoly of power. Why should we the voters allow them this ? Must we accept the terms the two parties offer us, take it or leave it ? I say “no.”

MR. Trump is dangerously unfit. He seems clearly a Russian asset. He knows nothing of policy, and such policy as he advocates is anathema to most voters who aren’t political Evangelicals. His presidency immediately threatens the rights and opportunities of immigrants, Muslims, LGBT, and people needing public assistance; and his methods threaten our rule of law. He must be defeated. But we won’t have gained much if, in place of Mr. Trump’s cruelty and mendacity we elect a team of insufferably judgmental, unforgiving speech and behavior police from whose condemnations there is no appeal.

Bill Weld likely advocates the Massachusetts system : socially live-and-let-live, economically prudent, government reluctant to expand its reach. The system works well in this state, where unique political math allows the voters to elect Republican Governors who actually administer in a non-partisan manner that mirrors that 56 percent of our voters ant precisely that. The nation could do worse than to embrace the Massachusetts system. Perhaps the election of Bill Weld as President could dissolve the grip of hardcore partisanship or at least begin the loosening. This must happen. If we allow the pre-occupations of partisans — vigilante busybodying by the Democrats, imposed religion by the Republicans — to poison our politlics, we will lose the democracy we profess to value. We may already have lost it.

All of which gives a potential Bill Weld campaign serious immediacy.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


Plenty of flags, lots of spending : Governor Baker presents his $ 42.7 billion FY 2020 budget

Last week Governor Baker presented his administration’s $ 42.7 Billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year. In it I find several new directions worth attending to. Critics have already complained that these new directions don’t do enough, but they’re there, and if enacted by the legislature, will put down an institutional pathway almost certain to take hold of the future for Baker’s new directions.

I will look at some of these initiatives next, but first you should read the Governor’s entire budget letter :

Most significant of the new directions, I think, is that the Baker budget accepts the recommendations of the Foundation Budget review commission — that state aid to our public schools falls about $ 2 billion short of actual expenditures as mandated by the 1993 state Supreme Court decision guaranteeing students a Constitutional right to state-funded education. The reimbursement formula hasn’t been updated since then, and the review commission was clear that it needed to be. I’m not an expert in these matters and cannot opine whether the review commission’s findings accurately account these costs, but that’s no longer up for debate. The Baker budget funds them all. Indeed, the Baker budget provides for funding, beginning in 2021, some school costs other than those cited by the review commission.

Complaint arises because the state Senate and House differed on how to implement the Foundation funds change. The Senate wanted them funded all at once; the House voted for a five-year phase-in. Baker’s budget adopts the House’s position.

Baker’s 2020 budget also addresses some of the costs of higher education. Some progressives want state college tuition to be free, and while the baker budget doesn’t travel the whole route, it begins to take it :

The House 1 proposal includes a new $100 million trust fund that will enable students entering Massachusetts public and private colleges and universities next year to significantly reduce college costs and have greater opportunities for paid internships and cooperative education. Seeded with revenue from the Administration’s sales tax modernization proposal described in more detail below, the trust fund would set aside $25 million for Commonwealth Commitment, the college affordability program for students transferring from a community college to a public college or university. The trust fund would commit another $25 million to scholarships for students who are participating in proven college success programs at both public and private four-year colleges; $25 million for matching grants to provide work experiences to students attending two and four-year public colleges and universities; and $15 million to expand Early College programs. The trust fund would also set aside $10 million to pilot financial aid strategies that have proven successful in other states to help students complete their degrees.

Perhaps most interesting of Baker’s new directions is his proposal to raise the state’s real estate deed transfer excise tax to help fund communities’ responses to climate change :
…the Administration today is also filing legislation to launch a major new climate change adaptation initiative, funded through a modest increase in the deeds excise paid on real estate transactions. This investment will amount to $75 million in FY20, and $137 million on an annualized basis to support the Commonwealth’s communities in upgrading their infrastructure and planning for the impacts of climate change.  Response to this proposal has not been as welcoming as I had expected; after all, Boston and most other municipalities voted in favor of a one percent real estate tax surcharge for Community Preservation purposes, most of which involve green space and climate response. Many objectors see the Baker proposal as a tax on the middle class, and I suppose it is one. We’ll have to see how the legislature responds to the item, yet I give the Baker proposal an “A” for recognizing that climate change is a real problem for a state with a long, well populated coastline, and that combating its effects is going to cost tons of money. Might as well face the challenge now.

Speaking of infrastructure, one item in the Baker budget is this :
“… an increase of $5.5 million over the Department of Public Utilities’ FY19 budget to support and enhance the pipeline safety division’s critical testing, investigations, and oversight responsibilities to ensure that natural gas distribution companies are in compliance with safety regulations. ” Why is this there ? It’s because it was noted, after the gas explosions last September in South Lawrence and the Andovers, that the state had only two gas inspectors where ten are needed. This budget item accounts for that ten.

Lastly, I’ll mention Baker’s proposal to revise MassHealth eligibility to include moire low-income seniors as well as a commitment to obtaining lower drug prices for those who can’t afford high cost medicines that are especially needed :
“…expanding benefits and eligibility for the Medicare Savings Program to provide assistance to approximately 40,000 low-income seniors in managing their prescription drug costs, delivering potential savings of thousands of dollars per year. A state investment of $7 million annually ($4 million in FY20) will leverage more than $100 million in Medicare prescription drug subsidies accruing directly to older consumers.” “Progressives” are making a big issue — correctly, in my opinion — of the high cost of drugs, especially drugs needed by people with potentially mortal diseases and malfunctions. The Baker budget incorporates the principle and a bit of the substance of the progressive drug price agenda.

There’s much more for me to report from the baker 2020 budget, and i will do so in my next column. Yet none outdo the proposals discussed here for change of direction. Accepting the Foundation Budget review commission’s recommendations in particular puts Baker on the public school path rather than the charter school option. Defeat of the charter school expansion initiative in 2016 offered him no realistic choice, but not every Governor is as reality-minded as Baker, who is n’t one to chase chimeras and lost causes.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


Jim Lyons : Massachusetts Republicans, meet your new party leader.

Last week the Massachusetts Republican State Committee’s members — 77 of the 80 — elected former State Representative Jim Lyons its new party chairman. The vote was Lyons 47, Brent Andersen, 30. (Andersen had been the party treasurer and was expected to win easily.)

It was an outcome shocking to many, and for very good reason. Jim is a gentleman, a genuine nice guy, yet his politics are something else again. Because of them, Lyons lost his House seat (North Andover and parts of Tewksbury and Andover) by ten points to a Democratic newcomer, Tram T. Nguyen, an attorney. He was the only Republican member of the House to be defeated — and in a District that Governor Baker won by more than two to one. Yet the State Committee saw fit to elect him its leader.

Lyons was the lead signature on the ballot initiative that sought to strip away the civil rights that transgender people in our state were assured by the legislature, a bill signed into law by Governor Baker in 2016. The Lyons repeal failed by 68 to 32 statewide and by a similar margin in his District. Lyons was also the most vocal legislative opponent of women’s rights to pregnancy choice and had been just as vocal in opposition to marriage equality. All three positions put Lyons at odds with the overwhelming majority of Massachusetts voters. Yet the Massachusetts Republican State Committee saw fit to elect him as its chairman.

What follows is my assessment of why this happened.

First : the Republican State Committee, like partisan committees of all sorts, acts for its own reasons, not for the public. That Lyons was defeated, the Committee took not as fundamental rejection of his views but as a wake up call to work harder and be more organized. Lyons has promised to boost the activist strength of the party’s town and city committees: indeed, that was his speech message at the election meeting, and it accurately reflects what activist Republicans think is the party’s problem : not that its message is wrong but that its people aren’t organized enough. That 68 percent of our voters reject Lyons’s opposition to transgender people having full civil rights doesn’t bother a State Committee that believes the outcome would have been different if its ten percent of voters — for that is all there is of registered Republicans in Massachusetts today — had worked harder.

Lyons spoke of “unifying” the party. To this I call BS. What he wants to unify are the anti’s — those who oppose marriage equality, women’s reproductive rights, and transgender civil rights, the full palette of social react.ion. These folks ARE NOT the entire Republican party of our state, only a part of them (though a large part). In the recent election, where one Snively won 34 percent of the primary vote against Governor Baker, probably a majority of the ‘anti’s” voted for that Snively. Jim Lyons supported Baker, actively, and maybe crucially; and that support was duly noted. That’s who Lyons wants to unify : the “anti’s” who voted against Baker and those who voted for him. As for Republicans who support the civil rights — including nine Republican members of the House — that the “anti’s” oppose, the hell with them, I guess.

Lyons’s other commitment spoken at the meeting was to have the party confront what he called the “corruption” on Beacon Hill. Here he’s on more realistic ground. The legislature is indeed tightly controlled by Democratic party insiders who don’t always take care to avoid tweaking their influence. These insiders face their own intra-party opposition, an intense dislike by “progressives,” of that tight control. The Democratic opposition wants the members, not the Speaker, to control the House democratic caucus, and it wants a legislative agenda that the Democratic regulars do not necessarily like. In particular, the Democratic insurgents want the House to confront Governor Baker at every turn, not co-operate with him as it does now. Thus Lyons’s confrontation gambit mirrors that of the Democratic left albeit in the opposite direction.

Clearly this confrontation promise by Lyons swayed enough votes away from Brent Andersen to give Jim the win. Just as most State Committee members think that the party’s message is just fine on basic rights issues, so it evidently feels that legislative confrontation, in place of co-operation, is just fine.

I heartily disagree.

Lyons and his supporters clearly hope to create in Massachusetts what exists nationally,. two parties bending to their extremes, with the ultimate winner to be decided on an extremist battlefield in which either side has a fair chance.

The Lyons people want Democratic regulars primaried by progressives, and defeated in the primary, because they believe that most Massachusetts voters will choose a Republican rather than a Democratic progressive, and that the more progressives who defeat Democratic regulars, the more Republicans will get elected to the legislature. I think they’re dead wrong. Heck, Lyons himself was defeated by a progressive.

The case of Mr. Trump sums up this theory. Trump was disfavored, in November exit polls, by 66 percent of Massachusetts voters, favored by only 31 percent. Those numbers may well be worse now because of the Trump shut-down. Confrontation between extremists has actually weakened the Republican vote in our state. Until Trump, Republican presidential and Senatorial candidates could count on 38 percent of the vote. In 2018 that number retreated to 36 percent (Geoff Diehl versus Elizabeth Warren) Who, other than a Jim Lyons voter, doubts that the Massachusetts result in 2020 will be even worse ?

Lastly, the way of absolute confrontation, in search of absolute victory, risks absolute defeat. Look at what happened this week in New York State, where after decades of bi-partisan centrism, a Democratic election sweep in November has enacted every sort of progressive wish list law. That won’t happen here, because ( 1 ) Jim Lyons leads far too small a number of voters to actually shift much balance ( 2 ) the progressives here aren’t that large a number either and ( 3 ) legislative control by Democratic regulars is not in any way threatened. The election of Lyons is therefore of far less import than his supporters imagine.

It’s also, of course, an insult to all Massachusetts supporters of equal civil rights for everybody and a rebuke to Governor Baker, too, for his co-operation on the legislature’s agenda; but it’s an insult with very little power to threaten either Baker or the legislature’s agenda.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


Confident, focused, and future-minded : Mayor Walsh voices his Boston vision at Symphony hall

There’s a beloved Irish saying, “may the road rise up to greet you, may the wind be always at your back.” Mayor Walsh, the son of Irish immigrants, would love the winds of change to be at his back. Who would n’t ? Unfortunately, they’re blowing directly into his face. Boston’s economy is booming so high and so fast that it’s all that City administration can do to keep up, much less guide the boom to a safe arrival. Maybe even keeping up is out of reach.

Is Mayor Walsh deterred by the facts ? Not at all. In his 2019 “state of the City” speech — attended by Governor Baker, as Walsh attended baker’s own Inauguration speech — Mayor Walsh pushed back against the boom wind so hard that, for one night anyway, it’s possible to imagine the City’s road rising up higher than the wind is strong against us.

How confident — how boastful, even — is the Mayor ? Read his speech here – — as I just did, and you’ll be tackled by his confidence, stiff-armed by his boats, driven out of bounds by his plans, many of which he has already put onto the playing field. (Football analogies, because why not, given our Patriots’s record of conquest, not forgetting last Sunday’s 41-point message to the Chargers)

Walsh is right. The City’s economy is soaring. Almost everybody has a job who wants one. We’re well along erasing a history of racism. We defend our immigrants — all immigrants. We value our seniors. We will not tolerate hate against LGBT people. Where the Federal government has no policy — housing and infrastructure — we have both. We’re fighting the curse of opioid addiction as hard as the State is doing. We’re rebuilding our public school buildings. We’ve revived our branch Libraries. We’ve put parks and open space into everyone’s nearby. We’ve redirected our police department, and crime numbers have plummeted.

All of the above is true. Yet despite all, in a kind of sailboat race between money and the City, money, which generates the wind, is gaining ground away from us. We’re losing the race to keep housing prices affordable for most, and neither Mayor Walsh nor the Council — each striving every which way to find answers — has any likely remedy for the bull market in real estate that has no end in sight and which will take the city to where it likes, away from those of us who don’t earn four times the City’s median income. Yes, Mayor Walsh says that he wants Bostonians to obtain even better jobs. So do we. But how ?

Walsh sure did say all the right things when he contrasted what Boston is doing to what Washington is not. We DO have an infrastructure plan and a housing plan. We DO defend the civil rights of all, including immigrants. We defend everyone who lives here, and we welcome more people, of all races and identities. We do not practice the politics of division. These are worthy commitments, and we can be proud of what we stand for and practice, more or less, in our daily lives. And maybe this is the best we can do. There’s no doubt that Walsh’s six years in office have imparted a very different tone and purpose to City administration than was the custom with Tom Menino. Walsh sees the broad picture — the large, assembled crowd — where Menino saw the nits and bolts of getting things done and, in his personal relation to the City was a one on one kind of guy. Walsh, in my experience, seems sort of shy, one on one, as if he sin’t quite sure what to say to a person he doesn’t know that well, yet when addressing a room, or an arena, he speaks the ideals in everyone’s soul. That was something Menino almost never did, although he was gruffly on point whenever prejudice appeared in his City.

Menino, however, could, in his one on one way, bring almost everybody in the City aboard his plans and his methods. Walsh, who speaks to the grand collective, has yet to persuade a great many, diverse, smaller constituencies that he has their interests in his agenda. In my won neighborhood of East Boston, Walsh’s ambitious housing plans come off as unrestrained development. His job hopes somehow miss the strivings of those here who have to work multiple jobs just to keep from being evicted. Politically, too, he seems not to recognize who holds the majority ground, basing his operation on a very few, mostly long-time loyalists. I doubt that how he is perceived in my ward differs much from how other parts of Boston perceive it.

That said, Walsh is evolving his political operation and his alertness to tone. He is bringing people of color into his administration at the middle and street levels, rather than only at the top; and middle level and street are where actual political connection is made. He is bringing neighborhood activists into at least advisory positions with respect to zoning and planning. He holds coffee hour meetings in every neighborhood and brings department heads, and their informational material, with him. His partnership with Governor Baker — which was so evident at the street and door-knock level during the recent election — assures that the full resources of Massport and the State will be there when he needs it, including at the many public hearings and community meetings Walsh is mart to hold all over Boston.

I am thus reasonably optimistic that Walsh will do the best that he can; that he will mobilize a more or less united City to pursue his City goals with reasonable confidence. That’s probably all that we can ask. Mayor Walsh does not make the economy, and he cannot do much to curb the huge building boom — not that he wants to. Middle class housing will be a priority, and then some, and his housing goals will be achieved. Problem is that those goals may not be enough or anywhere near it, as long as the City becomes ever more a destination for really, really big money and those extremely well-paid managers who administer the big money and cholose where to plant it.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


The boom is real, and it isn’t likely to crest any time soon. Is this a good thing, or not ? To many of us, it has become a very bad thing.

This morning, District One Councillor Lydia Edwards posted on facebook that “city officials” are considering two taxes as a means of curbing real estate speculation in Boston. I applaud Councillor Edwards for getting we who live in her District to focus on speculation, which is a real problem aggravating an already major challenge, the huge bull market in Boston’s real estate. That said, I have serious doubts that the Walsh administration has thought thoroughly enough how to relieve the pressure put upon us by speculators.

First, the problem, as I see it, and then my proposals for curbing it, assuming there are any that can work.

Boston real estate has become about as guaranteed a bull market as it gets. The present bull market began in the mid-1980s and has suffered only brief setbacks ever since. The real estate correction of 1990-95 barely touched Downtown Boston real estate. The much larger correction that lasted from 2008 to mid-2012 interrupted Downtown’s bull market. but did not destroy it, as it did the value of real estate in the City’s most vulnerable neighborhoods : prices in much of Blue Hill Avenue’s region, as well as Hyde Park and eastern Roxbury, fell from 40 to 70 percent, and in East Boston by about 20 percent. At the same time, prices in Downtown, slipped barely at all. Commercial construction continued, and by 2013-2014 Downtown residential development resumed its march. Since that time, prices have tripled and in some cases quadrupled. There seems no end to it. At least 100,000 new people have moved into Boston since 2000, or are moving in now, with another 75,000 expected by 2030. (‘m betting it’ll be more than that.)  As long as people want to move into Boston, investors will invest in developing residences for them, which means ever higher prices.

Not only is Boston’s population booming, it’s rising most in the Downtown region. The ground may be limited, but the sky is not, and Downtown is building ever upward. If 200,000 people choose to come here, there will be sky to house them in. In addition, the 100,000 newcomers are bringing incomes with them significantly higher than what has been the Boston average. In 2008 the City’s mean household earning was about $ 59,000. Today the mean for those who have lived here since 2009 isn’t much higher. The income for the techhies, corporate executives, and institutional administrators, however, who are moving into Downtown runs typically from $ 150,000 to $ 350,000 and higher. Compared to the 7,000,000 people who live in Massachusetts this 100,000 to 200,000 isn’t that large a number, but locating them all in Downtown Boston, whose 2000 population had been about 550,000, has enormously overawed the financial facts of our City.

People who earn $ 150,000 to $ 350,000 — not to mention many who earn $ 500,000 and even $ 1 million — have options and want them. It’s not enough to house them; the towers in which developers build million-dollar condominium units offer in-house fitness rooms, cafes, meeting rooms, swimming pools, parking, lobby space, and more. Many towers have a full staff of what we would have once known as servants. Some towers have their own facebook pages. And because those who seek power know that you can acquire it by being physically close to it, people who earn six figure pay and want seven figures can buy in to the neighborhoods created within and between Downtown towers and then schmooze with everyone. Little wonder that Downtown is seeing all manner of boutique businesses open, catering to the high-earner — boites that bring into the City high-earning shoppers as well, not to mention the socializing that takes place in the new Downtown and which itself leads to yet more people wanting to move in.

Nor is it surprising that neighborhoods close to Downtown — the North End, South Boston, Charlestown, the South End , even parts of Roxbury and Mission Hill — have become residential destinations for many others who want the Donwntown life and can afford at least the functional parts of it, the shopping, the restaurants, the night clubs, as well as proximity to all kinds of jobs that either service the new Downtowners or work at lower levels of management alongside them.

Why should this situation end ? What is there to stop it ? Until the economy experiences a turn-around as huge as the one that has made the new Boston, nothing will stop it. Cities can grow almost forever. As long as they’re administered reasonably well, there’s very little reason for anyone with options to seek a life elsewhere. Thus the bull market, and its no end in sight.

If only it were as delightful as what I have described ! Unhappily, even a real estate bull market, which puts a smile on so many faces, also attracts those who abuse the trend. I am talking now about speculation, the problem that Councillor Edwards has spotlighted . No one likes speculation. It adds nothing. An investor at least invests, and her investment builds stuff that people want and can buy. A speculator merely takes. A property that sells for $ 1,300,000 today, and which will bring maybe $ 1,800,000 a year from now, a speculator can buy, not to build, but merely to hold for one year — or less — and then resell, taking a profit earned entirely only by the trend. This is not a thing that bothers only real estate. Speculation in stock markets dislocates the value of stocks and bonds and forces actual investors to pay more, for a trend merely, than they would have to on economic grounds alone.

The nation has a right to disfavor speculative transactions, and the regulators of our stock and bond markets have tools to penalize it. The Federal Reserve Board can raise ‘margin” requirements — the percentage of a purchase price that must be cash as opposed to leverage — and the IRS code includes provisions that incentivize holding a stock or bond for at least five years (I think it is eight years now). These sanctions have worked only in part. Actual investors learned — again — from the 2008 crash that too much leverage is a very dangerous risk, and they have also found that tax rate differences between long term capital gains rates and those of ordinary income — ten percent tax versus 28 percent and more — make it unwise, usually to sell a holding in the “short term.” (I say “usually” because an eighteen percent tax difference doesn’t matter much if prices double, or triple, during the “short term.”) The Tax Code also offers generous amortization deductions which encourage leveraging a purchase to the maximum as well as depreciation tables that negate much or all of any income tax a rented property might generate.

Now we come to the challenge of how to curb speculation in Boston real estate, or to discourage high-price sales. Edwards writes that “City officials” propose two taxes : one, a special tax on “flipping”; the other, a surtax on sales of more than $ 2,000,000. On their face, these two proposals do not work. More is needed:

A “time tax” is feasible, and it is Constitutional, but the City can’t just impose any form of it. The only Constitutional means, I think, is to create a City capital gains tax, with a no-tax rate on long-term holds and a discouraging rate on short-term holds. But how to phrase it ? With stocks and bonds, the time tax is straightforward, because a holding is a holding. But real estate may also be somebody’s home  : and how can we penalize a person for living in a home for less than the tax-approved time ? If I grow up in Boston and buy a home here in 2019, and I am then job-transferred to San Francisco (as happened last year to one of my local friends) after a fourth year, why should I pay a “flip” tax ? Why after even one year ? Or take the case of another friend, whom many of us know : he bought a house on a certain street in 2017, then after four months realized the neighborhood wasn’t where he wanted to be, and bought another home on the exact street he had wanted in the first place, a home he could not buy at first because it wasn’t for sale. Should he have paid a “flip” tax ? Should it matter that in the meantime the market doubled ?

At the very least, a capital gains tax with a hold time basis has to exempt a buyer who actually moves into the property. Yet how will this exemption be policed, and should it be if it can be ? There’s also a very easy dodge to the entire impost: a buyer doesn’t sell the actual property, he sells a purchase and sale agreement for it. This was done during the 1985-90 bull market and again in the 2001-07 bubble. I see no way to tax such a transaction locally. (I will discuss Federal tax strategies later.) The other proposed tax, a surtax on sales of over $ 2,000,000 sounds good at first listen but likely cannot be done. $ 2,000,000 sounds like Big Foot for most neighborhoods, but in the South End, back bay, and Beacon Hill, it’s barely an entry fee. Almost every property therein sells for more than $ 2,000,000. By what reasoning can the City justify penalizing good faith home buyers in these neighborhoods simply because the local price is higher than the trigger figure ? Such a tax also seems to violate the Equal Protection guarantees of our State Constitution. It’s one thing to create separate tax rates for commercial real estate and residential,. quite another to impose unequal consequences upon real estate of the same classification.

Before I discuss options that the City might pursue, I think we need to ask the question, what exactly is the City’s objective here ? Is it trying to blunt the real estate bull market ? Good luck with that. Is it trying to favor long term residence ? We’d all like to see long term residence, but people do have the freedom to move about, and it’s hard to explain, without sounding like a busybody, why they shouldn’t be able to exercise this freedom in their own time. And why the penalty on high sale prices ? Why isn’t the long term homeowner entitled to reap the full benefits of his willingness to invest in the City ? Or perhaps the City is simply trying to divert some of the bull market into its own City coffers. This, the City might have justification to do. After all, the City has to provide the services that taxpayers want, and a busier, more crowded City needs to perform more complicated services.

Asking the question, however, is almost enough to answer it : there is no reason for such taxes that the City can likely convince a majority of voters of. Yet Boston is being radically transformed by the current real estate bull market. We would all like to see long-term residents not pushed out by the bull market, and we would certainly all like not to see any of the price rise go to mere speculators. Can we then do nothing ? I think we can do something.

One : we can triple the residential exemption and raise the tax rate. Doing so might require a Proposition 2 1/2 override, but it wouldn’t require approval by the entire state.

Two : we can give a tax credit to tenants whose rents might be affected by an increased real estate tax rate.

Three : we can recognize that the 2017 Federal Tax Reform capped real estate SALT deductions, thereby disincentive-izing to some extent high real estate prices.

Four : we can require developers to offer a higher percentage of units, than is now required, to the City’s Affordability covenant. We can even ask developers to pay a higher permit fee.

Five : we can give a tax credit to purchasers of residential real estate, but to receive it they would have to take actual title, not just buy a purchase and sale agreement , and the credit would not apply until the tax year following the taking of title.

Frankly, I’m not sure the City can do much else, Constitutionally, by way of taxes, without being foiled by legislative resistance or upended by seeing any such penalties backfire when the bull market ends — and as real estate bull markets are highly leveraged, when they turn, they do so on a dime and are followed by bear markets all the worse for having to navigate penalties as well as foreclosures. Of course right now there is no forseeable market turn, which is why City officials of good will — who see that even building 69,000 units of new housing isn’t close to enough — are trying their darndest to figure out how to tame the bull’s hooves and horns.

One last point : I speak only here of Downtown and its abutting neighborhoods. Population explosion has yet to impact outlying neighborhoods much, some not at all. As a result, voters in those areas — West Roxbury, Hyde Park, Oak Square, Mattapan, Blue Hill Avenue, Codman Square, for example — may wonder what all the fuss is about. Their disconnect from the Downtown vortex has almost created two seaparate cities, and that separation does not augur well for the City;s hope to work its way out of the bull market crush.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere