Amazing week – how sweet it was

fireworks The July Fourth holiday heightens an appreciation of the remarkable events of last week, events that validate our forebears’ notion “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Who could have imagined that in a little more than a week, we saw the very real hope of confederate battle flags coming down in the Deep South, flags that for many symbolize oppression  and pain. The Supreme Court memorably affirmed the equal right of gay people nationwide to marry and enter into  loving family commitments. The Court upheld the  government’s commitment to provide health insurance for all Americans, health as an essential expression of life and equity.  Nor should we forget the highest Court’s decision allowing independent commissions to draw legislative district lines, an important means to level the playing field by loosening the ability of political parties to gerrymander electoral districts.

Who could forget President Obama’s stirring eulogy at the Charleston services for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, recommitting to equal rights among races.  In his early years, especially gleaned from his book Dream from my Father, the President was still trying to figure out who he was.  When he was elected President, on matters of race he was very careful not to offend, to reassure people he was the President of everyone. Often he disappointed some of his most ardent supporters. In last week’s eulogy, he found his voice.  He was comfortable in himself, part preacher, and, in weaving in policy matters, part politician.  His moving authenticity arose from deep within him, inspiring many, wowing them and  breathing 21st century vitality into the dreams of our country’s founders.

None of the gains made in recent days will be without challenges. We have already seen fires in half a dozen mostly black churches in the Deep South, some possibly by those who want to ennoble the days of slavery.  Opponents of Obamacare are pledged to disable that key social legislation at every step, including cutting funds for Medicaid. Supporters of ACA will have to push for adjustments to make the law work better.  Gay rights battles lie ahead as some individuals and groups raise legitimate objections on religious grounds, though no religious leader will be forced to marry gays if doing so violates religious tenets.  Disputes must also be resolved on whether florists and photographers must provide services at gay weddings if in contravention of their religious beliefs.

On a slightly different note, Wednesday the President announced steps to reopen an embassy in Havana.  Acknowledging continuing ideological differences with Cuba but asserting the failure of a half century’s political policies, he noted, “this is what change looks like.”  Opponents, including Presidential candidate Marco Rubio and Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said they’d work to cut funds for the embassy and vowed that Congress would never agree to compromise with Cuba or even approve any ambassadorial nominee. Virtually every gain achieved over time will have to be cemented with difficulty.

But, my oh my, there has been a lot to be pleased about on this July 4th, 2015. We have seen history in the making, though in the grand sweep of history, there is rarely the final word – or a final victory.

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Is the nation’s “best” casino policy good enough?

slot machinesMassachusetts is officially a casino state. Yesterday at two p.m. a slots parlor opened to the public in Plainville.  Penn National reportedly spent $250 million to build and start up the facility, the first to bring Las Vegas to the Bay State.  It could bring between $86m and $100m a year in state revenues and have some 500 employees. And we are told there will be more bountiful benefits.

Yesterday, Gaming Commission Chair Steve Crosby outlined to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce why this state’s casino policy is the best in the country. It was a tightly controlled presentation .  Outgoing CEO Paul Guzzi took just one question from the audience, one that got lost in the praise the questioner lavished on Guzzi’s tenure at the helm of the GBCC.

In 2018,  MGM’s $800 million dream factory will open in Springfield, “the biggest ever construction project in Western Massachusetts,” Crosby said, noting it’s a mixed use development with housing, retail, a skating rink and many other amenities.   Also in 2018,  Wynn Resort’s $1.7 billion casino is slated to open in Everett (unless, of course, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh wins against Steve Wynn in court).  It will be “the biggest single phase project in the history of Massachusetts,” Crosby said, and this “monster project” is expected to generate between $175 million and $205 million in annual revenue for the Commonwealth. Every month of delay, he said, costs Massachusetts between $15m and $18m. But there’s still the challenge of figuring out the longstanding traffic gridlock in Sullivan Square, no small feat.

And there’s more.  Before the commission are two more applications – one from New Bedford and one from Brockton – for a third casino, that in the third sector, expected to yield between $86m and $100m a year.  That’s the region, by the way, that the Wampanoag Indians may try to build a fourth, one which would not yield benefits for the state.  (The Wampanoags are awaiting a land trust decision in Taunton.)  No one knows whether they will get that determination, when it would occur and to what extent it would be tied up in court for years.)

Given that gambling is now part of the Massachusetts economy (yes, yes, with its concomitant restaurants, hotels and other amenities), Crosby sought to reassure his audience that ours is the best designed gambling law in the country.  The Commission is independent.  Local communities get to say no (look how well that worked in East Boston, which said no and now faces a casino neighbor in its own backyard, with the revenues accorded a surrounding community rather than a host community.)  Of course, the surrounding community can negotiate mitigation arrangements (ask Boston Mayor Marty Walsh how well that’s working with Steve Wynn.)  Other businesses  can seek mitigation if there are “unanticipated impacts.” But weren’t adverse impacts always anticipated?

State law makes a commitment to research the social problems that come with gambling, starting with creating a pre-casino data base on issues like problem gambling, traffic and more. And finally, there  will be between $15 million and $20 million a year to deal with problem gambling (an amount Crosby says is 25-35 percent of what is spent nationwide each year. The  Gaming Commission will partner with the Public Health Department to respond to problem gamblers.  This has always struck me as odd, the idea that you’d worsen a serious social problem but it’s okay because there’s money in the kitty to treat it. Plus, one need look no further than the law directing tobacco tax revenues to anti-smoking campaigns to know how, if state funds are tight, those supposedly dedicated funds can and will be diverted elsewhere.

There remains a concern that legalizing casino gambling will cannibalize the state lottery, jeopardizing local aid.  Crosby acknowledges there could be a drop in lottery participation of perhaps as much as four percent, but, given the plan to commit $85m-$120m in casino revenues for local aid annually, he says the net impact on cities and towns will be a positive one.

Crosby is an accomplished public servant. He is definitely committed to transparency and fairness. But he himself noted that casino gambling is one of the most complicated (and controversial) public policy projects in the history of the Commonwealth.  He is certain that, with all the moving parts and significant initiatives, we are a veritable petri dish for figuring things out. This is not necessarily reassuring.  Notwithstanding the anticipated problems and unanticipated consequences, Crosby believes casinos will be a transformational success for Massachusetts.  I wouldn’t bet on it.

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S.C. mass murder prompts forgiveness?

Dylann RoofThirty-six hours after Dylann Storm Roof slaughtered their loved ones in a Charleston, S.C  AME Church, family members of the victims grieved their loss but urged the mass murderer be treated with grace, dignity and forgiveness.  Like Nadine Collier, who lost her mother, they echoed her despair but also her goodness.  “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul,” she said at Roof’s bond hearing.

I doubt I could ever do that. Her words are as unimaginable as if Bill and Denise Richard on April 17, 2013, less than two full days after the Marathon bombing killed their son and maimed their daughter, had forgiven Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.  Even the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. did not call for forgiveness of those who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four little girls. The closest he came was calling on the congregation not to retaliate with violence but to hope that something redemptive would emerge from the tragedies.

Dylann Storm Roof’s act was unforgivable.  Nor should it be dismissed as the act of a mentally ill individual.  To do so defines him as an outlier, even the victim of inadequate social services, and it ignores the underlying current of social hatred that has coursed through our history for far more than a century.  Yes, we have made progress.  We have made strides in virtually every sphere of human activity, up to and including electing our first African-American President. South Carolina’s governor is a woman of Indian descent, and last year that state also sent to the U.S. Senate  the first African-American since Reconstruction.  But we are not post-racial as many wanted to believe in the heady days following the 2008 election.   If anything, Barack Obama’s election tapped a wellspring of hatred and gave rise to ugly calls to “take back our country.”

The President acknowledged the complexity of the situation when he told the U.S. Conference of Mayors that “Every country has violent, hateful or mentally unstable people,” Obama said. “What’s different is not every country is awash with easily accessible guns.”  We all know it’s unlikely that a craven Congress will do anything about that, even to pass a tame background check law. But we do need to face up to the conditions that create a fertile ground for white supremacist and other domestic terrorists to act on their hatreds.

Warning signs must be heeded. Acquaintances of Dylann Roof reportedly acknowledge being aware he had engaged with other disturbingly angry young men on the internet.   Photos of Roof wearing  the insignias of apartheid nations South Africa and Rhodesia and sporting the confederate battle flag plate on his car were but tip-offs. He wanted a race war and talked about killing blacks. Then there was his 2400-word manifesto, apparently prompted by the Trayvon Martin case, in which Roof lamented the absence of skinheads, any “real” KKK, to do what needed to be done. He excoriated those on the internet for being all talk and no action. Shouldn’t he have been on some watch list?

Freedom of speech gives wide latitude for hate speech, but when hate speech spurs violent action it becomes hate crime. And, yes, symbols do matter, from swastikas to apartheid badges to the confederate battle flag, which was flown atop the South Carolina capitol in Columbia in 1962 to protest federally mandated desegregation.

Governor Charlie Baker quickly back-tracked after obtusely saying on WGBH radio that it should be left up to the state to decide whether to display on public property the flag symbolizing defiance and support for Civil War slavery  and continued school segregation      The flag of pain and oppression should be relocated to a nearby Civil War Memorial if it must hang at all.  Under pressure, Governor Nikki Haley today called for the flag to be removed to private property, but it will take a vote of both houses of the South Carolina legislature to remove it.  In the wake of the massacre, the American flag is at half staff; sadly, the rebel flag is not.

President Obama will deliver the eulogy Friday at services for Rev. Clementa Pinckney.   It could be the signature speech on race of his Presidency. As significantly, this is a chance for Presidential candidates to differentiate themselves on a wide variety of issues related to the prevalence of violence and racism in our country.  Who among them will elevate their rhetoric, and, of those who do, which candidates offer the promise of actually getting something done to move us forward.

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My love/hate relationship with Hillary

Hillary 3Take a yellow legal pad. Draw a line down the middle. Put Hillary Clinton’s pluses on one side and minuses on the other. The symmetry is disturbing.

Let’s start with the good stuff. I confess to a sense of pride that a fellow alumna of Wellesley College could become the nation’s first woman President (as she put it in her rally speech on Saturday, she may not be the youngest candidate, but she would be the nation’s youngest female President.) First Lady. Senator. Secretary of State. The pressures of the White House wouldn’t be her first rodeo. She is very smart, experienced and tough as nails, which, of course, a President must be.  And, at this point, she’d probably make better Supreme Court appointments than any of her Republican rivals.

Her commitments early in her career (Children’s Defense Fund activist and prominent education booster from her days as First Lady of Arkansas,) speak to longstanding, authentic values.  So, too, with her prodigious support of women’s empowerment around the world.

The  times I have interacted with her (including her appearance at a Wellesley College 125th anniversary celebration and a 2011 State Department briefing for editorialists) I have been impressed by her sparkle, intellect and charisma.

Then there’s the baggage, everything from the early Whitewater deals and her “misremembering” landing under fire in Bosnia when she was First Lady to the recent, highly questionable financial relationships of the Clinton Foundation to optics-challenging donations by foreign powers even when she was Secretary of State.  Throw in her opacity in conducting State Department business by emails on a personal server based in her Chappaqua home, then deleting tens of thousands of them to avoid public disclosure.

Poll-driven, she’s been slithery on policy as well, most notably on the Trans-Pacific Pact, which she unequivocally boosted as Secretary of State but has dithered on as a candidate. She has also been AWOL on how best to deal with ISIS and related issues. It’s ironic that, despite her Foggy Bottom experience, only three percent of her kickoff speech yesterday was devoted to foreign policy.

Hillary calls herself the champion of  ordinary Americans, those who play by the rules and work hard to get ahead, but the Clintons have made clear by their behavior that the rules were made for other people and not for them.    The first stage of her campaign comprised a series of “listening events,” in which she talked to “ordinary people,” pre-selected and stage-managed.  (There have also been fund-raisers, three in Massachusetts last weekend, and the price to participate was pretty steep.)

Particularly offensive has been her near refusal to answer news media questions.  It’s more than aggravating and seems related to what Nixon biographer Evan Thomas on Meet the Press this morning called her chronic “sense of aggrievement.”  Remember her conviction that she and her husband were the target of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”  She seems to share this attitude with her husband, and, despite his political agility and seductive charm, who really wants him back in the White House?

We are months away from the first primary vote. Right now, the Democrats are talking more about jobs and the economy; the Republicans, national security.  The issues of 2016 are complex, and likely will comprise both foreign and domestic.  In a world of problems not given to easy sound-bite answers, no pundit or so-called expert has the answers – or even perhaps the questions.

Likability may be overrated as a prerequisite for a President.  George W. started out eminently likable, and look where he left us.  When you don’t know what issues may arise, character is paramount, and things may boil down to whom do we trust to do the right thing.  Hillary has to worry that a recent poll showed 52 percent of the people find her untrustworthy.  Still, at this stage, a majority of people would still vote for her, even if they don’t trust her.

As the presumed nominee, she will be a better candidate against whomever the GOP taps if her Democratic challengers make her really work for that nomination. I’d like to see her get a lot better.

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Secrecy tips the case of the Trans-Pacific Partnership

photo NPR

photo NPR

President Obama’s proposed trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has me in a quandary.  I’ve long held that free trade benefits everyone in the long run.  It’s what happens in the short run that can be daunting.  Reduce or eliminate barriers to other nations’ products and we get the benefit of lower prices and greater selection as consumers.  But open our markets to products that are less expensive due to exploitive wages and environmental degradation, well, that’s another question. We enjoy the benefits while closing our minds to the human costs.

Both sides in this debate can be convincing. Senator Elizabeth Warren warns of the dispute resolution mechanism in the closely held proposal, which, she says, “would tilt the playing field in the United States further in favor of big multinational corporations. Worse, it would undermine U.S. sovereignty. ” Similarly, noted economist Joseph E. Stiiglitz warns that TPP provides a “secret corporate takeover.” Of particular concern are provisions allowing multinationals do end runs around U.S. regulations.  Phillip Morris, for example, is suing Uruguay and Australia for requiring warning labels on cigarettes. There are reports of similar provisions getting inserted into the trade bill.

Warren is particularly fired up about the bill’s liberalizing derivatives trading and returning to government bailouts, which, she said, works for “the big guys” but does nothing for those who are not rich and powerful. In other words, TPP will upend a major accomplishment of Dodd-Frank financial reform and thus threaten our economy.   This wouldn’t be the first time that a domestic financial rule was attacked pursuant to a trade treaty.  Canada challenged the Volcker rule under NAFTA.

Former Congressman Barney Frank, like Warren and most Democrats in Congress, thinks that trade may benefit the overall economy but skews it toward the best off and hurts those at the bottom.  He thinks that President Obama’s push for TPP is wrong, but that, if Obama insists on going forward, he should condition his push on whether the proponents are willing to support minimum wage increase, labor unions, and measures to keep companies from sending jobs overseas.

TPP supporters, especially in the business community and on the GOP side of the aisle, say the agreement won’t kill jobs because the United States already has free trade agreements with six of the 11 participant countries and runs surpluses with the remaining ones.  The 11th, Japan, they argue, is already a high-wage country so relative labor costs wouldn’t affect U.S. jobs.

They  concede the problem of currency manipulation (see relevant Washington Post editorial), wherein countries devalue their currency to increase exports but says it’s too complex to be included in a treaty and should be dealt with diplomatically.  They also concede human rights violations by Vietnam, would prefer that country not join the TPP till the issues were address, but note there are unprecedented provisions in the trade promotion bill.  The scope of trade with Vietnam, they observe, is “tiny.”

capuano 2015What tips it for me is the secrecy, which Congressman Michael Capuano detailed Monday to the New England Council. “The President has classified the trade bill,” he said, so members of Congress are forbidden  to go out and talk to people.  “That’s anti-American,” he said. “I can go to a dark room, read it one page at a time and cannot take my notes out of that room. And I cannot talk to anyone about what I read.”

“C’mon, would any of you do that?” he asked his audience.  Members of Congress, he said, are generalists. They form their opinions by reading legislation and asking questions of experts on all sides of the issue.  Accordingly, Capuano read the 2000+ pages of the Affordable Care Act, and then did his own research and questioned many people to enable an informed vote.  Fast track, of course, allows only an up or down vote, which disrupts the balance of power in government. Capuano appears resigned that, “In the final analysis, the President will get what he wants.”  But, he says, that’s not the way the system should work.

It’s impossible to sort out the pros and cons without transparency. In 2001, even  George W. Bush  made his trade pact proposals available to Congress and the public well before a vote would take place. President Obama’s closed-door approach to the Trans-Pacific Pact stifles public debate and lets corporate interests and lobbyists put another one over on us. Put indecorously, the Obama administration wants us to buy a pig in a poke. And I’m not buying.

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Globe struggles to balance Olympics coverage

Olympics logoYesterday the Boston Business Journal revealed some of Boston 2024’s duplicity in misrepresenting to the public what it had included in its bid for bringing the Olympics to the Hub.  Information the BBJ obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request indicates the bid outlined the need for public funding (and a public authority) for land acquisition and infrastructure costs (not just for security) and the dependence on a Convention Center expansion (already scotched by Governor Charlie Baker).  The BBJ says the bid document mentions only the traffic challenges and nothing about the problems of the T, though one hopes that by 2024 those will be remedied, and goes into considerable detail about required land acquisition, including the New Boston Food Market and other parcels.  This material was “redacted” from what the organizers had previously shared, allegedly to protect their competitive advantage vis-a-vis other bidders.

The Governor has rightly called for Boston 2024 to reveal details of its plan by June 30, which it has agreed to do, and one has to assume the contents disclosed are still in flux. But the revelations validate public skepticism and concerns about getting left holding the bag financially.

In contrast to other local media, the Globe’s treatment of the Olympics story in this morning’s paper are downplayed on page 2 of the Metro section. Above the fold was Mark Arsenault’s piece “Boston Olympic team meets with IOC.”  It quotes new 2024 chairman Steve Pagliuca about how flexible the IOC is being about venue sites and about the optimism of the visiting team, including John Fitzgerald of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, representing Mayor Marty Walsh.

Buried below the fold is an even shorter article by the same reporter with the headline “Olympics panel disingenuous, foes say.”   The italics are mine. In fairness, the online version is headlined “Questions raised about new 2024 documents.” I’d like to think that some editor noticed the print headline was unfairly dismissive about critics of the Olympics bid, but the tone does reflect the attitude of 2024 booster and Business section columnist Shirley Leung, whose contempt for 2024 critics was plastered on the front page last week.  She compares skeptics and critics to two-year-olds throwing tantrums and scoffs that they love to hate and complain.

The paper has tried, in occasional substantive editorials, to explore ways the 2024 Olympics bid could align with certain long-term needs, including improvements in Franklin Park, opportunities for Gateway Cities, and tourism generally. But placement of articles and thought pieces has editorial content as well, and given the watering down of the institutional voice on the Globe’s new look, lamentably diluted editorial pages, the thought pieces have yet to make an impact on the public dialogue.

We’d be better served to have the Globe play a stronger thought leader role in some of the Boston 2030 discussions, helping to plan Boston’s future, instead of bootstrapping the Olympics into something it wasn’t designed to be.

Shirley Leung is bright, energetic, engaged and, except for her overweening Olympics boosterism , frequently on target and a welcome addition to the paper.  The history of Olympics cost overruns (with a couple of exceptions) gives legitimate pause to any rational thinker interested in the well-being of the entire community and the need for long-term strategic planning.  The tail should not wag the dog.

We need a Snopes.com for fact-checking what’s being said about the Boston Olympics bid. Independent vetting of competing claims could go far to dialing back the venomous characterizations of pros and cons as self-serving fat cat elites versus two-year-olds having tantrums.

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George Stephanopoulos should know better

George StephanopoulosMany bemoan the revolving door in government/media circles.  For a while you’re a politician; then you get a job as a lobbyist, retaining your politicians’ access; then you’re a candidate again.  One day you’re a journalist; the next you’re a communications director for a candidate or elected official; the next you’re a TV or radio analyst. Full disclosure: I was a journalist for close to 30 years and a consultant for the last 15 years. The door didn’t keep swinging.  Going back and forth blurs the lines and provides the basis for conflict of interest, or, at a minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Most journalists I know wouldn’t dream of contributing to a candidate they were covering or even that candidate’s pet interest.  It just doesn’t look right. And ABC’s George Stephanopoulos knows that.  I interviewed him when he worked on the 1988 Presidential campaign of Mike Dukakis, but years before he had cut his political teeth as chief of staff for Cleveland Congressman Ed Feighan. In 1992, he worked in Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign and became one of the fiercely loyal inner-circle members of the Clinton administration. At the beginning of the second term, he left and wrote a book (“All Too Human“) that was not especially flattering to the President.

While his post-Clinton media career has soared, and he is now chief anchor of ABC News, he apparently has spent the last four years making up to the Clintons and reestablishing his bona fides as a Clinton supporter.  He has donated at least $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation (admittedly a paltry amount compared to the gifts by foreign potentates) and has worked collaboratively with the Clinton Global Initiative, several times being a “featured attendee” and panel moderator at the Clintons’ annual meeting. He is identified on the Clinton Foundation website as a “notable” media member of the organization, a murky mix of good works charity,  cash cow for the Clinton family lifestyle and stalking horse for the Hillary Clinton candidacy. As a discussion on CNN’s Reliable Sources said of the Clinton Foundation, “it is sometimes hard to tell where the good works end and where the politics begin.” That’s putting it mildly.

Given that, it is appalling that so many media stars like Christiane Amanpour, Tom Friedman, Fareed Zakharia, Judy Woodruff, Matt Lauer, Anderson Cooper and even Tom Brokaw (don’t know if he became involved before or after his retirement) are also listed as media members.   All of this has been exposed by investigative journalist and former Bush speech writer Peter Schweizer, whom Stephanopoulos aggressively and one-sidedly interviewed on ABC after Schweizer’s book – Clinton Cash: The Untold Story Of How And Why Foreign Governments And Businesses Helped Make Bill And Hillary Rich – about the Clinton Foundation finances was recently published.

The blame game is two-sided. Schweizer himself is reported by the liberal MediaMatters to have close ties to moneyed interests behind Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, limiting any claim Schweizer could make of objectivity in reporting on the Clintons. MediaMatters.org (sometimes viewed as a shill for the Clintons) also points out more than 20 errors of fact in Schweizer’s reporting, a few of which he says will be addressed in the next edition. The fact remains, however, that Schweizer raised some legitimate concerns, which Stephanopoulos ignored in his interview.

Notwithstanding the flaws in Schweizer’s book,  the criticism of Stephanopoulos’ involvement with the Clintons still holds. And, Brian Williams-like, the anchor, who had apparently never told his bosses, has apologized to them and to the public on yesterday morning’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

Can you imagine anyone who would stand for Stephanopoulos’ moderating a Presidential debate in 2016 as he did in the 2012 election? Or covering either national nominating convention? His integrity is a big question mark.

When Bill  (“I never had sexual relations with that woman”) Clinton on August 17, 1998 finally, after his grand jury testimony, admitted his inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky, he said, ” It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.”  Might not Stephanopoulos  say the same thing?  And might not the networks and other news outlets figure out a better way to set and enforce ethical standards for their employees to salvage whatever shreds of media credibility remain to be saved?

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