Thursday, March 31, 2011

So long, Breyers

The Milford Daily News runs a sad blurb today:
Breyers has finally stopped churning ice cream here, two years after it gave notice of a shutdown to employees and the community.
Breyers' parent company Unilever has laid off nearly all the 174 employees at the manufacturing plant on Old Connecticut Path. A small number will remain on through May 31, when the facility closes after 47 years.
If you happen to be partial to Breyers, never fear.  You'll still be able to get your fix at the grocery store.  But now it will be made in Tennessee.  You know, a state where a manufacturer can still manage to make both a product and a profit.

This isn't really news.  It rates only passing mention because today's shutdown is merely the culmination of a prolonged wind-down process begun with the announcement of the move nearly two years ago.  It is a sad milestone, though, on multiple levels - beginning with the 174 additions to the Commonwealth's unemployment rolls.  And it is yet another unfortunate example of the inevitable effect of government policies that say to employers, "we don't want you here."

Did they tell him to his face?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Brace yourselves, manly men

 It's a good bet the Massachusetts Legislature is coming for your mojo.

Read the following blurb from the State House News (via the Herald) and try to conclude otherwise:

Public Enemy #1
Ask anyone about men’s health, experts say, and they’ll typically tick off three issues: testicular cancer, prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction. But researchers made a case Wednesday that policymakers should attack a far more fundamental driver of men’s health concerns, a closely held, culturally ingrained phenomenon they said drives down male life expectancy and can disrupt families, communities and workplaces: masculinity itself.

Male behaviors, according to James Mahalik, a Boston College professor of psychology, are driven largely by societal norms that define masculinity, in many cases to the detriment of their health.

“Everything from seatbelt use to alcohol use, smoking, sunscreen use, cardiovascular exercise. Men were worse than women in every category of health behavior except weightlifting,” Mahalik told an audience at the Massachusetts State House. “Men may view health risk behaviors as masculine. The very way in which society may present masculinity may, in and of its definition, include taking health risks. We can think of the Marlboro man as a very stoic, masculine kind of guy.”
Exhale, Vladimir, if you want to visit MA
 That's right, all you knuckle-dragging, testosterone-soaked meat heads out there: "masculinity itself" has been identified as a public health risk.  One that "policymakers" on Beacon Hill are  being advised to "attack."  The Commonwealth's Busybody Caucus has been spurred to action by far less.

Seriously, can there be any doubt that a Legislature that regularly seeks to codify such trivialities as 'pet trusts' and restroom etiquette will waste no time in answering the call (which comes from "researchers," after all) to legislate the feminization of society?

Heck, they've already started!  Just look at Professor Mahalik's list, above.  Seatbelt use - check.  Smoking? Triple-check.  Expect legislation mandating sunscreen use while exercising before the end of the session.  SPF 50 at minimum if weightlifting.

If the cigs and booze don't get Don, the masculinity will
Such measures might be considered the low hanging fruit of the masculimination effort.  The real trick will be getting at the "masculinity norms" referenced in the SHNS headline (you can bet that term came out of the presentation).  And where better to influence societal norms than in the schools?

Goodbye, Mike Mulligan, hello Teletubbies.  So long Huck and Tom (like they haven't been gunning for you for years anyhow), up with Little Women.  Forget George Washington crossing the Delaware (how alpha!); look at what Betsy Ross went through to sew that flag.  And let's not even get started on phys ed.  The only open question about capture the flag or dodge-ball is whether the sanction will be criminal or civil for a teacher who sanctions their play.

So long, Hairy Man.  Your day is done.
Am I exaggerating?  I hope so.  But kidding aside, I'd put the over/under on filing of the first bill "attacking" those "masculinity norms" at one month.

If I were a betting man, that is.  Which I'm not.  Gambling is unhealthy, destructive... and kind of masculine.

Atlas Shrugged (In Nervous Anticipation)

Like many a natural-born fiscal conservative, I have claimed Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged as my favorite book since long before I understood that doing so constitutes an overt political statement.  I first read it in junior high, and will now admit to the likelihood that I skimmed over significant parts of the infamously long John Galt soliloquy that constitutes the heart of the book.  I read it again in high school, this time under happy compulsion, and then again in college - by which time I was fully aware of the aforementioned political statement and may have been known to brandish the book in situations where it was sure to provoke comment.

The last time I plowed through Rand's lengthy tome was two years ago, prompted by renewed rumors of an effort to bring the epic tale to the silver screen  As is so often the case when we try to re-capture youthful fascinations (try to watch an episode of the Dukes of Hazzard, for example; or scamper to the top of that "huge" rock in your childhood best friend's back yard), the reality of the book differs somewhat from my memory of it.  For one thing, I remembered the characters - the noble, incorruptible Hank Reardon; the equally noble and preternaturally determined and competent Dagny Taggart; her brother and primary antagonist, the simpering, execrable James Taggart; John Galt, the mysterious savior of capitalism - as people.  It turns out they are archetypes - grossly exaggerated ones at that.

As a result, the characters do not talk to each other like real people talk to each other.  Every statement is a declaration, every observation an insight. Every character, in short, is a raging drama queen.  This realization did not lessen my fondness for or appreciation of the book; it did, however, cause me to reevaluate the previously-dismissed opinions of Rand critics who have long held that she was a brilliant political philosopher, and a pretty mediocre writer (or at least a pretty mediocre writer of characters).

Fast forward to present day, and that aforementioned effort to bring Atlas Shrugged to the movie-going masses has come to fruition.  Two years ago I was excited at that prospect.  Now... I am still excited, but nervously so.  As much as I still love the book for the message it conveys on every page, and as much as I want to love the movie just as much, I fear I am going to hate it. 

Ponder these quotes, highlighted in my dog-eared personal copy by a much younger version of myself.  First, Dagny Taggart:
I cannot bring myself to abandon to destruction all the greatness of the world, all that which was mine and yours, which was made by us and is still ours by right – because I cannot believe that men can refuse to see....So long as men desire to live, I cannot lose my battle.
 Now Hank Reardon:
When one acts on pity against justice, it is the good whom one punishes for the sake of the evil; when one saves the guilty from suffering, it is the innocent whom one forces to suffer. There is no escape from justice, nothing can be unearned and unpaid for in the universe, neither in matter nor in spirit - and if the guilty do not pay, then the innocent have to pay it.
 And finally, John Galt:
I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.
 Now try to picture an actor reciting those lines without overacting.  Egregiously.  I can't do it.

For a time I have contented myself with the assumption that the movie makers - who surely are at least as dedicated as I would be to preserving Rand's message without making a mockery of it - would compensate for the necessarily inauthentic grandeur of the dialogue by exaggerating all aspects of the production.  I pictured a capitalist's comic book turned movie - something in the style of 300 or Sin City

But now a few early clips are out, and that is not where the filmmakers went.  They appear to be playing it straight.

I watch that clip, and I think, "okay... better than I feared."  But then I ponder a whole movie (three of them, in fact) packed with this - what's the word? - self-conscious acting.

And then I recall the book's love scenes.  Ach, God, the love scenes.  If there exists dialogue anywhere in the English lexicon more cringe-inducing than that which peppers the multiple love/sex scenes in Atlas Shrugged, I have yet to come across it.  It is painful.  'George Costanza coming out of the bathroom with his shirt off in the middle of a wake' painful.

Maybe the films will just skip those scenes (like I skipped a few of them during my last read)?

Ah, but now the first trailer is out, and all of my misgivings are relieved at least temporarily.  I will be in a theater  on or about April 15, probably in the company of a decent-sized group of fellow enthusiasts, many of whom will have arrived together in a van that may or may not sport a banner reading - what else? - "Who is John Galt?" on its side.

And I'll just keep hoping they skipped those love scenes.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tuesday Morning Miscellany

Who nuked Chicken Little?

Does "journalism" get any more ridiculous than the ongoing coverage of the infinitesimally small amounts of "Japanese" radiation detected this week in the Commonwealth's rain water?  A casual reader, glancing only at the headlines, could be forgiven for stocking up on bottled water, gathering the kids and heading for the nearest fallout shelter.  With headlines like yesterday's - Radioactive Rain in Mass!! - and the indisputable fact that a certain percentage of the population is paranoid and more than a little crazy, Poland Spring is probably a good investment just now.

One must read to the penultimate paragraph of the Herald article linked above  for a full measure of perspective on the "threat" posed by our nuclear rain:
Radiation from natural sources including rocks, bricks and the sun is about 100,000 times higher than the radioactive trace material determined to have come from Japan, health officials said.
Ah. So if that is the case - if our rain is currently one-one hundred thousandth so threatening as our, um, rocks and bricks, one might legitimately ask why public health officials felt compelled to make any announcement at all.  Governor Patrick explains (from the SHNS):
Patrick on Monday also reassured the public that the drinking water is "safe" after a report from his administration over the weekend that low levels of radiation likely emanating from Japanese nuclear reactors had been detected in rainwater.

He said his administration released the information because the public is "interested in and entitled to as much information as we have," and pledged to continue to monitor the issue closely.

The public is entitled to "as much information as we have." Commendable in theory.  Pretty ironic coming from the Patrick/Murray Administration, particularly this month.

But wait!  The Administration is not stopping there.  Not satisfied with its generation of an utterly unnecessary and wholly predictable media scare, the Governor is also planning to talk with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this week - and the Legislature is going to hold a hearing - all purportedly to find out if what is currently happening in Japan could happen at the Pilgrim or Vermont Yankee nuclear facilities here in New England.

All of this is an example of a common affliction in politics and government, known in medical circles as "Igottagetinonthis-itis."  Pols see a particular item appearing repeatedly in the news, such as the Japanese reactor crisis or, in past years, any number of animal-based influenza scares, and they immediately start thinking up ways to get in the story.  It does not matter how attenuated the nexus may be between the crisis du jour and their own official duties.  It does not matter how many real, pressing issues are piled up and awaiting their attention (like, I don't know, the budget?).  What matters is getting in the story.  And hearings are an excellent vehicle for self insertion into the news cycle.

In this case, no fewer than three joint House and Senate committees will participate in the hearing slated for April 6, to extend the story insertion opportunity to as many legislators as possible.  Coordinating the effort will be Senate President Murray, in whose district the Pilgrim plant hums safely away.  SHNS again:
Murray, who has raised concerns about the safety of disposing spent fuel rods in pools of water on-site at the Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee plants, said the safety measures in place here are slightly different than those in Japan where engineers are struggling to contain radiation leaks after an earthquake and tsunami knocked out power to reactors' cooling mechanisms.

"It's not quite the same," Murray said. "We have a redundancy within the system here that they did not have in Japan."
She may also have added, "And we don't have cataclysmic earthquakes and biblical tsunamis."  But then what would be the point of the hearing?

Let's remember our manners.

Headline (State House News): "High Tech Group Urges Look at Causes of "Job Exodus.'"

That's all well and good, High Tech Group.  But remember - nobody likes to be stared at.

Trite, I know.  But not unfair.  These are the guys who have proposed at least one tax hike on businesses in each and every budget they have filed.  The guys who in 2008 pushed through a $400M corporate tax hike and had the temerity to call it a reduction.  The guys who keep supporting measures - like RGGI and Cape Wind - that further increase our already sky-high energy costs.  The guys who currently serve as co-Scolds in Chief, reacting with petulance and pique to yet another employer's decision to move jobs out of the state. 

So if a 'high tech group' (the Mass High Tech Council, by the way) is looking to find the causes of the Commonwealth's 'job exodus,' they could do worse than to start in the corner office.

Wanna Get Away?
Apparently bored with doing most of their work behind closed doors at the State House House Democratic leaders will this week do some work at an undisclosed location in Western Mass. Hey, who can blame them?  That caucus room gets stuffy with the door shut.
Budget cuts, health care costs and gaming will be on the agenda at an unusual two-day retreat for Democratic House leaders in Amherst this week. But House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo also wants to reinforce expectations that lawmakers avoid ethical breaches and respect the public trust.
Right.  Because nothing says "respect the public trust" like a leadership-only confab on the most important - and most contentious - issues of the day, held in secret and excluding press and public alike.

I suppose we should count ourselves lucky, though.  At least our Ds aren't fleeing the state.  And on the upside, if any of the folks from that "High Tech Group" mentioned above are located west of 495, they won't have to travel so far in their search for the causes for our "job exodus."

Racking up accomplishments the easy way

Here's a fun item from the State House News (via the Herald):
As Gov. Deval Patrick pushes legislation to force municipalities to enroll eligible retirees in Medicare, a new survey shows most cities and towns in the Greater Boston area have already done that.

A compilation of surveys gathered by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council shows that over the past five years, the vast majority of communities in metropolitan Boston from Newburyport to Duxbury have adopted policies to ensure that retirees receive health insurance through Medicare instead of municipal plans.
 Now that's what I call getting results!  Of course, back in January the Governor claimed cities and towns could save "between $15 and $30 million" annually by making the switch.  And those dollars probably figured into the billion dollars of projected "efficiencies" the Governor used to achieve "balance" in his 2011 budget proposal, released that same month.  

No matter.  Look for this item to appear on a list of Patrick/Murray "accomplishments" some time soon.

A plug

Every now and again the beleaguered Boston Globe hits a real home run, usually as a result of long-term work by a team of investigative reporters provided the time and resources necessary to really delve into a topic.  The paper's probation scandal coverage comes to mind, as does its series on compensation abuses in state government.

The latest example is the current series on Boston's school assignment system, titled "Getting In."  If you have missed it, catching up is well worth your time.  It is a worthy addition to the growing body of quality analysis of the nation's dysfunctional urban school systems, joining The Lottery and Waiting for "Superman" (both of which are must-sees, by the way).

Friday, March 25, 2011

Top 10 Reads of the Week (March 25, 2011)

Why the Unions Fight - Daniel DiSalvo [Weekly Standard]
Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s new governor, has brought on a showdown with public sector unions and their Democratic allies in his state. He seeks to get most state workers to pay for their pension and health benefits, to narrow collective bargaining to wages, to stop the state from collecting union dues, and to require annual union certification elections. In response, the unions have launched two weeks of angry protests in Madison, the state’s capital. Walker (in office barely a month) has been compared to Hitler, Mubarak, and Mussolini, while Democratic state senators have spurned democratic norms and fled to Illinois to prevent a vote on Walker’s bill. Nonetheless, the Republican-controlled state assembly has forged ahead and voted in favor of the measure.

But does the “assault” (President Obama’s term) on public employee unions in Wisconsin really require, as one former union leader wrote in the Nation, “labor’s last stand”? To answer this question one must separate the wheat from the chaff. Much attention has misleadingly focused on benefit contributions and collective bargaining restrictions, which are not the main reasons labor and its allies are up in arms. If they were all that was at stake, labor would be overreacting. But they aren’t. The real issues are union dues and certification elections, both of which would reach into unions’ wallets and take away money they would otherwise use, in most cases, to fund the Democratic party...
Read More
 Uncivil Disobedience - Glenn Reynolds [New York Post]
Just a couple of months ago, in the wake of Jared Loughner's shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, simple talk of "targeting" a political opponent for defeat was treated as beyond the pale. But let's look at some more recent language -- and conduct -- that our bien-pensant punditry can't be bothered to notice, let alone condemn.

In Michigan, protesters opposed to Gov. Rick Snyder's austerity budget broke a window to get into the capitol building. One faces felony charges after assaulting police with an edged weapon; 14 were arrested..
Read More.
Dodging the Pension Disaster - Josh Barro [National Affairs]
When Dan Liljenquist began his first term as a Utah state senator in January 2009, his financial acumen quickly earned him serious legislative responsibilities. A former management consultant for Bain & Company, Liljenquist was appointed by the Utah senate president, Michael Waddoups, to three budget-related committees; he was also made chairman of the Retirement and Independent Entities Committee. As Liljenquist remembers it, Waddoups pre-empted any concerns the freshman might have had about his new responsibilities: "Don't worry," Waddoups said, "nothing ever happens on the retirement committee."

But then, in the early months of 2009, the stock market went into free fall. Worried about the effects the market crash would have on Utah's public-employee pension plan — which, like most states', is invested heavily in equities — Liljenquist asked the plan's actuaries to project how much taxpayers would have to pay into the pension fund in order to compensate for the stock-market losses. The figures that came back were alarming: Utah was about to drown in red ink. Without reform, the state would see its contributions to government workers' pensions rise by about $420 million a year — an amount equivalent to roughly 10% of Utah's spending from its general and education funds. Moreover, those astronomical pension expenses would continue to grow at 4% a year for the next 25 years, just to pay off the losses the fund had incurred in the stock market...
Read More
Now it's time to defund NPR - Juan Williams [The Hill]
Even after they fired me, called me a bigot and publicly advised me to only share my thoughts with a psychiatrist, I did not call for defunding NPR. I am a journalist, and NPR is an important platform for journalism.

But last week my line of defense for NPR ran into harsh political realities. Rep. Steve Israel (D- N.Y.) chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a fundraising letter with the following argument for maintaining public funding of NPR:“They [Republicans] know NPR plays a vital role in providing quality news programming — from rural radio stations to in-depth coverage of foreign affairs. If the Republicans had their way, we’d only be left with the likes of Glenn Beck, Limbaugh and Sarah Palin to dominate the airwaves.”

With that statement, Congressman Israel made the case better than any Republican critic that NPR is radio by and for liberal Democrats. He is openly asking liberal Democrats to give money to liberal Democrats in Congress so they can funnel federal dollars into news radio programs designed to counter and defeat conservative Republican voices...
Read More
Our Libyan March Madness - Victor Davis Hanson [National Review Online]
The Obama administration’s Libyan strategy is a paradox — resulting from the president’s belatedly announcing that Moammar Qaddafi must go, using military force against him, and then denying that our objective is to see him leave. The president seems more knowledgeable about the tournament chances of two dozen college basketball teams than he does about the Libyan labyrinth. So let us review what follows from a campaign that has not been approved by Congress and is not supported by the American people — but which we must now hope works, given the commitment of American troops.... Read More
Is this the Fourth Wave of democracy? - Will Dobson [Washington Post]
It began in the least likely of places. At around 12:30 in the morning, on April 25, 1974, a Lisbon radio station played the song “Grandola, Vila Morena.” If anyone was listening that early, it would have sounded like any other song being played by a disc jockey working the late shift. But it wasn’t any other tune. It was a secret signal to the Portuguese military to begin to move against Portugal’s dictator, Marcello Caetano. By the next day, Caetano was gone. But the significance of this day was only beginning to be felt. According to the late political scientist Samuel Huntington, the political forces unleashed on April 25, 1974, marked the beginning of the Third Wave — a global democratic wave that, in the following 15 years, would lead to roughly 30 authoritarian regimes in Europe, Asia, and Latin America giving way to democracy.

This, too, began in the least likely of places. On December 17, 2010, local officials harassed Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. Ashamed, angry, and pushed beyond what he could accept, Bouazizi took his own life in a public act of self-immolation. Since Bouazizi died from his burns in early January, we have all watched as one uprising begat another. First, the authoritarian duchy of Tunisia fell. Then, came the revolution in Egypt, the epicenter of the Middle East. Massive protests sprang up in Bahrain and Yemen, just as Libya descended into carnage, followed by outright civil war. The tremors have been felt in Algeria, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Yesterday, protesters began a fourth day of demonstrations in Syria, one of the region’s most repressive states. Major elements of the Yemeni military are defecting from the regime and joining the demonstrators. A fruit vendor takes his own life—and a region is turned upside down. Is this the beginning of the Fourth Wave?...
Read More
A Very Bad Year - Pete DuPont [Wall Street Journal]
A year ago today President Obama signed into law the broadest, most expensive, most intrusive health-care bill in our history.

So we the people are subject to a 2,700-page law that will cost us nearly $1 trillion over 10 years and will put the federal government, in charge of everyone's medical care. The bill appropriates in advance some $100 billion from now until 2020, making it more difficult for future Congresses or Presidents to defund it. The bill creates some 159 new government agencies to administer health care. As of Jan. 1, 2014, unless it is repealed, health care will be run, controlled, and totally supervised by Washington...
Read More
Sex Ed Wrong Rite of Spring - Jennifer Braceras [Boston Herald]
Pay attention parents! It’s spring. And before you know it, Massachusetts public schools will begin their yearly sex-ed lessons for kids as young as 5.

Of course, they won’t call it “sex ed.” They’ll call it “health.” But a rose by any other name is still a rose.

Several years ago, my first-born came home from kindergarten with a notice about an upcoming anatomy lesson and a list of words that included not only penis and vagina, but also scrotum and vulva! She presented me with the list and a parental consent form, which I was tempted not to sign.

Friends with older children assured me, however, that the lessons would go right over the kids’ heads and that it would be more damaging to my daughter to pull her out of the lesson. OK, I thought, maybe I am overreacting. So I let it go...
Read More
 Down the Rabbit Hole - Adam Garfinkle [The American Interest]
To all appearances, U.S. foreign policy in the Obama Administration has now definitively gone down the rabbit hole. It is intoxicated with an advanced form of Wilsonian madness, one shorn of all sensitivity to the consequences of the U.S. government’s behavior. Like Alice with her pills, some things are getting or will soon get bigger—risks, mission definition and casualty figures on the ground in Libya—while others are getting smaller—our reservoir of good options, our stock of common sense and our peace of mind.

I do not invoke Lewis Carroll lightly. I do so in this case for a special reason: words we thought we all understood have now become encrusted with bizarre new meanings, or no meanings at all, as if our vocabulary has been hexed by Humpty Dumpty himself. Let me ask President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes and the rest of the crew (not to exclude accomplices like Nicholas Sarkozy, David Cameron, Ban Ki-Moon and the execrable Amr Moussa) that has steered us into this gratuitous mess, to define “civilian” for me. What does it mean, folks? Does it include fairly well organized groups of Libyans attacking in formation with machine guns mounted on flatbed pick-up trucks? Apparently so, to some spellbound souls. This turns the Clinton Administration’s amusing little tiff over what “is” is into truly small change as America’s language follies go...
Read More
The Speech Obama Hasn't Given - Peggy Noonan [Wall Street Journal]
It all seems rather mad, doesn't it? The decision to become involved militarily in the Libyan civil war couldn't take place within a less hospitable context. The U.S. is reeling from spending and deficits, we're already in two wars, our military has been stretched to the limit, we're restive at home, and no one, really, sees President Obama as the kind of leader you'd follow over the top. "This way, men!" "No, I think I'll stay in my trench." People didn't hire him to start battles but to end them. They didn't expect him to open new fronts. Did he not know this?... Read More
And... the funniest thing I saw this week:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Patrick/Murray: redefining "dysfunctional"

The latest edition of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary just came out.  What unfortunate timing!  No doubt at this very moment the dictionary's editorial board is behind closed doors, debating whether to recall the new edition in light of the Patrick/Murray Administration's re-definition of the word 'dysfunctional.'

I thought they'd set the bar pretty high for themselves last week with the whole 'Gov out of the loop on the Big Dig lights' thing (it would be so much easier to just call it "lightsgate," but I refuse.  Nor will I ask "what did the Governor know, and when did he know it?", despite the obvious salience of that question).

But it turns out that whole mess was even uglier than previously known. 

Last week we were told that Transpo Secretary Jeff Mullan waited five weeks post-lightvalanche to inform his boss, the Governor, of the incident.  This was true, we knew, because we got it direct from the Secretary's own mouth.

Turns out that wasn't exactly true. Or, more precisely, that was exactly not true.  Here's today's Globe:
The state’s top transportation official now admits that his agency withheld information from the public about potentially hazardous light fixtures over drivers’ heads in the Big Dig tunnel system because his own staff did not tell him about the problem for a month.

Transportation Secretary Jeffrey B. Mullan said he did not learn about a Feb. 8 incident in which a corroded 110-pound light crashed onto the roadway in the Thomas P. “Tip’’ O’Neill Jr. Tunnel until March 9. He told Governor Deval Patrick about the problem March 15, the night before informing the general public.
 The Globe correctly points out that this is the third version of these events to issue from the Secretary. And there is no question of a 'misstatement' or a 'misinterpretation' of Mullan's previous statements.  He was pretty clear in attributing the withholding of information to a deliberate, conscious decision on his part (Globe last week):

Mullan said he prides himself on transparency and wanted to avoid creating unnecessary panic, not conceal a problem. But he now recognizes that, with the Big Dig in particular, the public should know about problems immediately, given a troubled history that includes a fatality in 2006 when a section of the tunnel ceiling collapsed.
Perhaps it was his pride in "transparency" that prompted the Secretary to come clean today.  Or perhaps somebody dimed him out to the Globe.  No matter - it is now clear that there were multiple layers of dysfunction piled atop those fallen lights, stretching from the road crews all the way up to the Governor's office.

How's that?  How can an incident about which (we're told) nobody above the level of a roadway maintenance crew knew be used to brand an entire Administration with the Scarlet D?  As is so often the case, the response was far worse than the incident - from start to finish.

I'll skip past the obvious.  Secretary Mullan's decision to peddle a falsehood to the press last week is inexcusable.  Now let's look at the Governor.  Last week, when the Administration's story was that Secretary knew about the incident all along but chose not to inform Patrick, the Governor was entirely supportive of his appointee.  Mullan had "taken the right steps," Patrick told reporters.  The Governor had "full confidence" in his Secretary.

Flash forward to this week, and the headline tells a different story: "From Patrick, no words of support for his transportation secretary."  Rut-ro.  If Mullan has any un-hung wall decorations sitting around his office, he can probably leave them in the bubble wrap...

But wait.  When the Governor thought that his transportation secretary had merely chosen to keep him out of the loop on a major public safety issue with neon political overtones, that was just hunky dory.  But upon learning that Mullan was himself kept out of that same loop the Governor goes stony?  How does that make sense?

Here's what the Governor had to say today: 
Patrick said the most important issue was that the light fixtures are now secured. But asked about Mullan, he said, “What he has to sort out is why there is such a breakdown in communication within the transportation organization.”
But that "breakdown in communication" was certainly no worse than the "breakdown in communication" at the highest levels of his Administration that Patrick thought had occurred last week, after which the gov claimed to maintain "full confidence" in Mullan.

And let's not forget that in either version of the story, Governor-in-waiting Tim Murray waited a full four days before briefing the junketing Governor Patrick on the incident.

And so we come back to the initial proposition: three months into their second term, fifty-one months after taking office, the Patrick/Murray Administration is still acting like a bunch of rookies, re-defining 'dysfunctional' in the process.

All of which suggests a possible bumper sticker for Murray's 2014 campaign:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Patrick to union bosses: "We stand behind you! (while you fight for us)"

In a closed-door speech to the Commonwealth's predominant labor groups this week, Governor Patrick took umbrage at recent events in Wisconsin.  From the State House News [by way of the Eagle Trib]:
In a speech that at times took on an overtly political tone, Patrick said the national debate over collective bargaining rights was more about politics than cost-cutting.

"That environment has become precarious for the labor movement in America. In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, over the unprecedented protest of his own legislature, has brought the fight against working people to new heights. Republican counterparts in Ohio and Indiana are playing the same game. The assault on your rights has been carried out in the name of emergency budget cutting. But you know that's a sham," Patrick said.
 Not to quibble, but only a minority of Governor Walker's "own legislature" protested the move - and the only thing "unprecedented" about that protest was that minority's willingness literally to flee the state to avoid a vote.  But why get bogged down in details?

What really gets me about the Governor's comments is the ludicrous underlying proposition that "politics" ought properly to be separated from government policy concerning public sector unions, at least when Republicans are in charge.  In truth, Governor Walker's efforts in Wisconsin are about both cost-cutting and politics.  And there is nothing wrong with that.

After all, much of what public sector union bosses do on a day-to-day basis is all about politics - 99.99999% of it politics of the most partisan variety.  Each cycle, the unions spend hundreds of millions of dollars on political efforts, almost all of it on behalf of Democrats.  Last time around the largest public sector union (AFSCME) was the cycle's most significant outside spender, with $87M in expenditures on behalf of Democrats.  "We're the big dog," in the words of that union's political chief.  In Wisconsin, the public sector unions spent heavily against then-candidate Walker.

In fact, as pointed out in this excellent piece by Daniel diSalvo in a recent edition of the Weekly Standard,  the fight in Wisconsin has much more to do with preservation of the unions' ability to be "the big dog" in election campaigns than with collective bargaining.  Bargaining "rights" play better in the press than "coerced political spending." 

Here's the key part of the DiSalvo piece (but you should read it all):
So we come to where the rubber meets the road: the money unions spend on politicking. This money originates with taxpayers, who pay public employees’ salaries, a portion of which is deducted in the form of union dues and then used by the unions to support, almost exclusively, the Democratic party. The public, in effect, subsidizes a powerful demand for bigger government and higher taxes.

From the unions’ point of view, therefore, Walker’s proposals regarding the mode of dues collection poses the biggest threat. Under the current arrangement in Wisconsin—called a “closed shop”—public employees automatically pay the full amount of union dues ($1,100 per year for teachers), and the state deducts those dollars directly from their paychecks. Any employee who disagrees with the union’s political activity must decide to opt out of paying dues (beyond the portion that covers the administrative costs of collective bargaining). This arrangement means that few workers opt out, and the unions receive a large, steady stream of revenue, while saving on administrative overhead. Under Walker’s plan, workers wouldn’t pay union dues unless they signed a union card. This is called an “open shop” and exists in nearly half the states. It would, as Walker correctly told a David Koch impersonator on the phone, “hurt” the unions by cutting deeply into their revenue and reducing membership.

In addition, Walker wants to require unions to hold an annual election to see if a majority in a bargaining unit chooses to retain the union. Elections are expensive and time consuming. Therefore, even when the unions win, elections take away from their political operations. When they lose, they go out of business.

If passed, Walker’s proposals will diminish the amount of money his state’s public employee unions can spend on political activity, and they will reduce the percentage of government workers belonging to unions. At a time when the majority of union members in the country are government employees, “the public sector unions are the heart and pulse of the American labor movement,” as AFSCME president Gerald McEntee recently said. Therefore, reducing the money flowing from public -employees to the Democratic party means jackhammering one of the foundations of contemporary liberalism.
When Democrats are in charge, as they are here in the Commonwealth, all of that campaign spending buys a government dominated by union boss allies and, a little further down the chain, union-friendly policy like the unaffordable benefit packages currently crippling state and local governments.  From beginning to end, it is all about politics.  Still unconvinced?  Check out this video (hat tip: Rob Eno):

This charming lady certainly seems the argument over union policy is about politics.  Even more to the point, it is often about particularly aggressive, even nasty politics - politics of the type that hopey/changey candidates in particular prefer to avoid engaging in themselves.  For the last two election cycles here, candidate Patrick has been able to cast himself as the cool, mild-mannered gentleman of the race in large part because his union allies were willing to do the gutter fighting on his behalf.  In 2006 we saw ads funded by the MTA that not-so-subtly suggested Kerry Healey wanted to harm our children.  In 2010, the unions paid the tab to cast Charlie Baker as a corporate fat cat, with personal culpability for high health care costs.  All of this while Patrick smiled serenely, displayed his clean hands to the press, and together-we-can'ed / mended and moved his way right into office. 

So it is amusing to see those same, hyper-political and quintessentially partisan unions (and their allies, like our Governor) crying "politics" when Republicans who manage to overcome their influence at the ballot box feel no great sympathy for their concerns when it comes to enactment of public policy.  They are like the skinny, now infamous little bully in Australia, repeatedly punching the chubby kid in the face until the chubby kid decides he's had enough.  We might wince at the violence of the reaction, but nobody questions the bullied kid's motivation for acting.

But none of that means, as Patrick would have it, that Governor Walker's efforts to curtail union influence are "a sham," or that a legitimate cost-cutting motivation does not underlie those efforts.  Good policy is not incompatible with partisan politics, any more than is bad policy.

Governor Patrick had one other thing to say to the union bosses this week.  "I want you to know that Tim Murray and I still stand behind you."

Of course they do.  Safely behind, where they always stand.  While the union bosses do their fighting.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Economic development on the Underpants Gnomes' model

During a quick Q and A today with a group of reporters, Governor Patrick suggested that a plan to finance expansion of commuter rail service to the South Coast will be ready in six to twelve months.

Commuter rail service to the South Coast was a Patrick campaign staple, though of course he never responded to questions raised by his opponents about how such a major project would be financed. There are more than a few people out there - not all of them on the South Coast - who are as interested in the Governor's financing plans as in the specifics about routes, stations and the like.

Asked again today to explain how the Commonwealth can afford a major rail expansion in these troubled economic times, the Governor was characteristically sanguine [from the State House News, via the Taunton Gazette]:
The governor indicated he had no hesitation on making an investment in the expansion of commuter rail to the South Coast despite MBTA debt problems and continuing state budget gaps, and he said troubles with delays on existing rail lines this winter were a result of neglecting that infrastructure.

“The reason we are having issues with commuter rail is because we don’t invest in our infrastructure, and the reason we are investing in infrastructure is because we need that platform for economic growth,” Patrick said.
Got it? Governor Patrick has no hesitation about a huge investment in new infrastructure, despite the deplorable condition of much of our existing infrastructure, because... um... the "issues with commuter rail" exist because "we don't invest in our infrastructure"... and so we need to invest in infrastructure to create a "platform for economic growth." It's all so clear now!  The Governor has adopted the Underpants Gnomes' model of economic development.

The Underpants Gnomes, for anyone unschooled in the wisdom of South Park, are diminutive and stealthy entrepreneurs expert at converting purloined undergarments into enormous profits.  How they achieve this conversion - the infamous "?" factor - is a closely-held secret.

So too, it seems, the Governor's mysterious plan to convert a popular but decidedly non-specific (did he have any other kind?) campaign promise into "a platform for economic growth."  Where the Gnomes have "Underpants + ? = Profit," Governor Patrick has "Promise + ? = Growth!"

Virtually nobody is against commuter rail service for the South Coast as a concept.  Cities like Fall River and New Bedford have been hit particularly hard by the recession, and that part of the state - where the economy was once dependent on a manufacturing base that no longer exists - was not in such great shape even before the downturn hit.  Republicans have made the commuter rail promise too and failed to make good - a fact the Governor has been only too happy to point out for two campaigns in a row.

So yes, it is quite easy to get one's mind around the proposition that commuter rail service could/would be a shot in the arm to a struggling part of the state.  We'd all like to see it happen.  A lot of us would also like to see 5.0 on the income tax, removal of the Pike tolls, and - more to the point - commuter trains that run on time (or that run at all).

But then - ach! - there is that whole money thing.  The Governor talks about "investment" as though the word were enough; as though his promise of investment could conjure the dollars to invest.  There is a reason that candidate Patrick never answered the funding question, and that Governor Patrick now lapses into Gnomish generalities when faced with the same query.

The MBTA is drowning in debt.  Roads and bridges?  Candidate Patrick told us repeatedly that they are "crumbling," a description for which there is no shortage of support particularly at this time of year.  And the vehicles currently rolling (or not) the rails of the Commonwealth's existing commuter rail lines are breaking down and falling apart, pressed by budgetary necessity into service long past their intended useful lives.  So where, exactly, are the billions necessary to turn the dream of South Coast rail into reality coming from?  The question is not unreasonable.  And it may be that the Governor has an answer.  But if he does, he isn't giving it.
Against inflexible fiscal reality - and the inevitable skepticism to which it gives rise - the Governor offers only his inscrutable (but always earnest) assurances.  "Promise + ? = Growth!"

Here's what I'd bet is going to happen: the financing plan that the Governor today promised in six to twelve months will arrive in two years.  Maybe 36 months.  Fiscal watchdogs will analyze it and find it wanting for particulars and optimistic in its assumptions, but its publication will allow the Governor to move the South Coast rail project to "the next phase" (whatever that is).  That will in turn allow Tim Murray, who by then will be running in earnest for the top job, to stand up at campaign rallies on the South Coast and claim "progress" toward South Coast rail. 

So even if "Promise + ?" does not = "Growth," it might well = "Another Term in Office."

Friday, March 18, 2011

"Sweet fancy Moses!" Patrick Admin does the Elaine

Observing the Patrick Administration lately I cannot help but return to an observation I made back in June of last year: "A vote for inspiring Candidate Patrick gets you... four more years of feckless Governor Patrick."

With all of their flailing and thrashing about on everything from the probation and parole scandals that broke almost immediately in the wake of the 2010 election, to the more recent Fidelity job losses and Big Dig ceiling fiasco reprise, a political observer in the Commonwealth begins to feel like he's watching a never-ending loop of the infamous Elaine Dance.

The most recent Administration spasm came today, from our newly repatriated Governor, who told reporters at the State House that although the recent Fidelity decision to ship over a thousand jobs out of state may be "a done deal" from "Fidelity's perspective," he wants to meet with Company executives so that they can "say that to my face." 
Go ahead. Tell him to his face. [AP Photo]

Excellent.  And if that doesn't work, the Governor can challenge them to meet him behind the back-stop after school.  That'll learn 'em.

This latest fit of pique comes immediately on the heels of a fantabulous display of organizational dysfunction related to this week's (not last month's) news of more gravity-induced problems in the Big Dig tunnels.

As the Patrick Administration would have us believe it, five weeks ago an eight-foot section of tunnel lighting crashed to the roadway, neither injuring nor - thankfully - killing a soul, but raising certain obvious questions about the integrity of the hardware holding the rest of the thousands of tunnel lights to the ceiling.  Transportation Secretary Jeff Mullan swung appropriately into action, initiating an investigation and check of the remaining lights.  But - we're told - he did not tell the Governor or anyone in the Governor's office about the incident until last Friday , when he briefed the Governor's staff (and Acting Governor Murray).  THEN, nobody bothered to loop in the Governor until TUESDAY, another four days later, when the Gov - ever with his finger on the pulse - instructed Mullan to un-sheath his sword, issue a tragic mea culpa, and fall upon the blade (and to notify the press).

Careful readers will detect a note a skepticism in the above paragraph, for which - let me be clear - I have no concrete basis whatsoever.  It's just that I worked in the Governor's office, in the Romney Administration, and nothing like this mess would ever have happened under Mitt.  Ever.  Ev-er

Today Governor Patrick said he was "frustrated" that he was not informed of the incident sooner, but that Secretary Mullan has "taken the right step by apologizing."  If a member of the Romney Administration had failed to report such an event to the Governor for so much as an hour - never mind five weeks - well, there would have been more serious consequences.  Jobs lost.  Heads rolling. 

And by the way, what about the last four days of that five weeks?  According to the Globe's account and others, Mullan came clean to the Governor's staff and to the LG last Friday.  So presumably Patrick's chief of staff knew, along with untold other members of the Administration - at least some of whom (one earnestly hopes) were in contact with the Governor multiple times between Friday and Tuesday.  And yet instead of bringing the boss into the loop, Tim Murray and Co. were running around like Tom Cruise in Risky Business, trying to get the Porche dried out and the crystal egg back on the mantel before Mom and Dad returned home.

Look, I get it.  Nobody likes to bother the boss when he's on a taxpayer-funded vaca- uh... when he's on a trade mission.  But come on.  This was stuff falling from the ceiling of the BIG DIG

Patrick/Murray crisis response team
There are really only two possibilities here.  Either (a) the Governor was aware of the falling light situation much earlier, he was complicit in the (terrible) decision to delay notification of the public, and Mullan is now dutifully playing the fall guy; or (b) the Patrick Administration part deux has reverted to the Keystone Kops form that characterized good chunks of its first term.

Either way, there is only one appropriate response.

Sweet. Fancy. Moses!

Top 10 Reads of the Week (March 18, 2011)

GOP 2012 Theme: American Decline - Jonathan Martin [Politico]
Republican activists in this key presidential state have a dark, foreboding feeling that America is in decline. They believe the nation is hurtling in the wrong direction and, worse, on the brink of losing its unique place in the world.

That sentiment is hardly new to American politics, but it’s one that’s been reanimated by the presidency of Barack Obama. Some see him as hostile to the notion of American exceptionalism. Others simply don’t believe he’s an American at all. Together, it’s fueling the rise of an emerging debate on the right that could overshadow the traditional focus on social and fiscal issues and create an opening for a candidate who can speak to a still inchoate but clearly volatile element that is roiling the conservative grass roots...
Read More
Wisconsin's Governor wins, but is he now Dead Man Walker? - Dawn Reiss [Time]
Listed because it is important to pay attention to how the other half thinks...
The Wisconsin State Capitol had taken on an eerie quiet by late Friday. Gone were the throngs of protesters who had occupied its marble floors like it were a summer campground. The midnight honking of cars circling the white building had ceased. The chalk outlines around fake dead bodies etched with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's name remained in dismembered parts, not yet completely washed away by hoses.

It was the governor, however, who had walked away the legislative victor in the showdown. On Friday, as angry protesters chanted "Shame" and blew horns and vuvuzelas, Walker took up a dozen pens, one at a time, to sign into law a bill that not only takes away the ability of unions to bargain collectively over pensions and health care but also limits pay raises of public employees to the rate of inflation and ends automatic union dues collection by the state. It also requires public unions to recertify annually. It was a coup by Wisconsin Republicans against the labor movement in one of its strongholds...
Read More [the final para is particularly rich]
Are Israeli settlers human? - Bret Stephens [Wall Street Journal]
A few years ago, British poet and Oxford don Tom Paulin offered a view on what should be done to certain Jewish settlers. "[They] should be shot dead," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "I think they are Nazis, racists. I feel nothing but hatred for them." As for Israel itself, it was, he said, "an historical obscenity."

Last Friday, apparently one or more members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, the terrorist wing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's "moderate" Fatah party, broke into the West Bank home of Udi and Ruth Fogel. The Jewish couple were stabbed to death along with their 11-year-old son Yoav, their 4-year-old son Elad and their 3-month-old daughter Hadas. Photographs taken after the murders and posted online show a literal bloodbath. Is Mr. Paulin satisfied now?...
Read More
Japan Does Not Face Another Chernobyl - William Tucker [Wall Street Journal]
Even while thousands of people are reported dead or missing, whole neighborhoods lie in ruins, and gas and oil fires rage out of control, press coverage of the Japanese earthquake has quickly settled on the troubles at two nuclear reactors as the center of the catastrophe.

Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.), a longtime opponent of nuclear power, has warned of "another Chernobyl" and predicted "the same thing could happen here." In response, he has called for an immediate suspension of licensing procedures for the Westinghouse AP1000, a "Generation III" reactor that has been laboring through design review at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for seven years.

Before we respond with such panic, though, it would be useful to review exactly what is happening in Japan and what we have to fear from it...
Read More
Ready for unionized airport security? - Kimberly Strassel [Wall Street Journal]
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker made some progress this week in rescuing his state from the public-sector unions holding it hostage. Ever wonder how Wisconsin got into trouble in the first place? Washington is providing an illuminating case study.

Even as state battles rage, the Obama administration has been facilitating the largest federal union organizing effort in history. Tens of thousands of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners are now casting votes to choose a union to collectively bargain for cushier personnel practices on their behalf.

Liberals are calling it a "historic" vote. It is. Henceforth, airport security will play second fiddle to screener "rights." ...
Read More
 Time to end the spending shell game - Michael Walsh [New York Post]
Fifty-four House Republi cans bucked their leadership Tuesday, voting against a farce -- the farce of passing "continuing resolutions" to fund the government in stages in the hopes of forcing the Democrats into significant cuts in so-called discretionary spending.

The measure passed anyway, with support from 85 Democrats -- averting the meaningless fiction of a "government shutdown" for another three weeks.

But at least the attempt was made -- no thanks to Speaker John Boehner, who has been at least temporarily abandoned by his conservative and libertarian Tea Party allies and must now rely on Democrats to keep the shell game going, while avoiding the much more serious issues at hand...
Read More
'Another dictatorship, just with new faces' for Egypt? - Will Dobson [Washington Post]
On Saturday, millions of Egyptians may do something that they have never done before: vote in an election that wasn’t rigged in advance. The Egyptian military, in its new role as interim government, has put forward a constitutional referendum that seemingly offers a chance for people to turn many of their political demands into the nation’s highest law. Some of the proposed reforms include term limits on the presidency, judicial supervision of elections and greater political competition.

On the face of it, it looks like hard-won progress. But conversations with opposition politicians, activists and the youth who drove the revolution in Tahrir Square cast Egypt’s first experiment in democracy as something else: a shrewd military strategy for returning Egypt to the dictatorship they fought to abandon. “You are giving me honey,” says Sherif Mickawi, an opposition political figure, “but that honey is poisoned.”...
Read More
Listening to Libyans - Cliff May [Foundation for the Defense of Democracies]
A friend, I’ll call him Mohamed, has been keeping in close touch with people inside Libya, and he’s been kind enough to send me updates. In a note last week, he quoted one of his brothers who told him that Muammar Qaddafi “is savagely waging a war against an entire nation … Years ago, a suicide bomber struck in a Pizzeria and the entire West was up in arms. Libyans are being killed by the thousands with heavy and deadly weapons… and the West is silent."

Mohamed then added that “to Libyans” it has “become obvious” why the US is not intervening: “It is about oil, paranoia and racism against Arabs and Muslims.”

I was chagrined and I expressed that to my friend. Americans have paid a high price in blood and treasure attempting to rescue Arabs and Muslims from tyrants – in Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, to cite a few examples. These efforts have brought more vilification than praise, more resentment than gratitude. And now the reason we’re not intervening in Libya is because we are paranoiac racists coveting Libya’s oil?...
Read More
'Worse than our worst nightmare under Mubarak' - Will Dobson [Washington Post]
On Tuesday evening, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held a meeting at the Four Seasons hotel, overlooking the Nile, with nearly 20 Egyptian activists and representatives of leading local non-governmental organizations. Such round-table discussions are intended for America’s top diplomat to take the pulse of the country’s civil society and exchange views; she doesn’t expect to hear reports that were not included in her brief. However, that is what apparently happened on Tuesday night. Hossam Bahgat, the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, appears to have been the first person to inform Clinton that citizens had been tortured by military police at the Egyptian Museum on March 9.

When Bahgat told Clinton that the museum had become “the new torture camp,” Clinton replied, “What! The Egyptian museum?” Other activists in attendance quickly confirmed what he said. Clinton appeared to be genuinely surprised. She was scheduled to meet with members of the Supreme Military Council the next day, and promised to take up these disturbing reports of abuse and torture with the generals...
Read More
Progressive government is obsolete - Stephen Goldsmith [Wall Street Journal]
Across the country, the interests of organized labor, elected officials and taxpayers are colliding over wages, work rules and the astronomical costs of retiree pensions and health care. As important as these specific issues are to resolve, there is another, more fundamental problem causing so many Americans to lose faith in their government: It is not government unions per se but progressive government itself—long celebrated in Wisconsin, New York and elsewhere—that no longer produces progressive results.

In the early 20th century, the progressives championed a rule-based approach to public-sector management that was a big step forward from the cronyism and corruption of Tammany Hall. Today, however, the very rules that once enhanced accountability, transparency and efficiency now stifle the creativity of public-sector workers and reduce the ability of public investments to create opportunities for citizens—outcomes precisely the opposite of those intended by Progressive Era reformers....
Read More

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Re-cap of Tim Murray's 'first term' as Acting Governor

Governor Patrick is slated to return late tonight from his ten day trip to Colorado, Israel and England.  Lt. Governor Tim Murray will wrap up his first prolonged stint as Acting Governor when Patrick's loafers hit the tarmac. In all likelihood nobody will be happier about that than Tim Murray.  He's had a rough go of it.

If Team Murray was hoping the Governor's extensive second term travel plans would afford the LG a great chance to 'appear gubernatorial' in the public eye, well in advance of 2014, then this first go-round has been something of a disaster.  Let's review the low-lights of Acting Governor Murray's 'first term':
  • Just before the Gov went wheels up, he apparently handed his LG a big bag of trouble labeled "Big Dig light-bombs," and said something along the lines of, "here, you handle this Tim." 
  • For unexplained reasons, the Acting Gov felt compelled to weigh in on the Japanese nuclear crisis, and in so doing he revealed a fundamental lack of understanding of how the Commonwealth's sole nuclear plant operates.
  • Speaker DeLeo and Senate President Murray canceled the regular weekly leadership meeting.  DeLeo's spokesman explained, "We were not aware there was leadership. Leadership does not take place when the principals are not together."  Whether he also patted the Acting Governor on the head is not yet known.
  • He made the rest of the Beacon Hill patronage kings look like amateurs by installing his former top campaign strategist in a brand-new six figure state job.
  • Then of course there was the whole Fidelity thing.
Yes, it has been a tough week-plus for the Acting Governor.  Patrick shouldn't be surprised if when the airplane doors open tonight, Murray is at the bottom of the stairs waiting to greet him with a big bear hug and an earnest  plea that Patrick never, ever leave him alone for so long again.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

There's a term for this... and it isn't "economic development"

So yesterday, financial services giant Fidelity announced plans to move roughly 1,000 jobs from Marlborough to Rhode Island and New Hampshire.  But they still employ somewhere around 8,400 people here in the Commonwealth.  Company spokeswoman Anne Crowley made this not-so-subtle point today (from the State House News Service): "We still employ thousands of people here, and have invested hundreds of millions of dollars of capital. There are many corporations that have left the state altogether. We're still hiring."

They won't be hiring for long, if some cranky members of the Massachusetts Democratic legislature have anything to say about it.   One might think that when a major employer and favorite corporate child decides to shift a pile of jobs both up and down the road, government leaders would want to know how it came to that decision. Is there any chance of convincing the company to reverse course?  What do we need to do to make sure the remainder of those 8,000+ jobs stay here? 

But no.  A day after Fidelity's decision, legislative Democrats are thinking not of improving the business conditions that would prompt an employer to look elsewhere, but rather of punishing a company that had the temerity to make an unfortunate but wholly rational business decision.  Again from the SHNS:
A day after Fidelity Investments announced it planned to close its Marlborough office and shift nearly 1,100 jobs out of Massachusetts, a Senate committee whose chairman claims Fidelity "fleecing the Commonwealth" announced plans for a March 29 oversight hearing. "My committee will be asking the questions that the public has demanded answers to for years now," said Sen. Mark Montigny, whose Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee has statutory power to summon witnesses and compel the production of books, papers and other documents in connection with any of its reviews. Senate President Therese Murray said she supported the committee's decision to hold the hearing. "It is very disappoint[ing] to be blindsided by a homegrown company that has benefited greatly from its long relationship with the Commonwealth," Murray said in a statement. She said the hearing would help lawmakers "make sure we know all the facts of their decision."
Subpoenas.  Public hearings.  Words being tossed about like "fleecing," and "blindsided."  Yeah.  That's the way to keep what remains of Fidelity in Massachusetts.  Never mind all of the other Massachusetts-based employers watching all of this play out.

There is a technical term for this kind of economic development strategy.  It's on the tip of my tongue...

Oh yes.  Dumb.

Lawmakers aren't entitled to "know all the facts of [Fidelity's] decision." But I'll bet if they care to ask the company, it will be more than happy to tell them - no subpoena or public flogging necessary, thanks.  Fidelity does business with the Commonwealth, yes.  And the Commonwealth is certainly entitled to evaluate its contracts with the company, and to make a rational decision as to whether any part of the rationale for those contracts is based on the assumption of a certain level of continued employment by the company within our borders.

But if the goal is to "create and maintain" jobs in Massachusetts, well, again I come back to the fact that even after those 1,000 jobs peel off and head north and south on 95, there will still be 8,400 employees who cash Fidelity paychecks in the Commonwealth. 

At some point in the not-too-distant future, the good folks in charge at Fidelity will again face an asset allocation decision.  The question might be whether to expand in Massachusetts or elsewhere.  Or it might again be whether to peel off another chunk of the remaining Massachusetts workforce and send it to business-friendlier climes.  When that decision point arrives, will this month's temper tantrum, with its subpoenas and hearings and recriminations, make it more or less likely that Fidelity will either maintain or expand its current Massachusetts workforce?

As Ms. Crowley remarked today, pointedly, "There are many corporations that have left the state altogether."  Do we want Fidelity to be one of those?

Meanwhile, the Globe's Political Intelligence Blog lays into Governor Patrick, comparing him inevitably to Nero with his fiddle as the Gov enjoys a London schedule that bears a remarkable resemblance to the itineraries of untold thousands of tourists who are under no obligation whatsoever to generate jobs for their home states.
Since the weekend, the immediate benefits of the trip have become even more imperceptible, as the governor has visited a World War II cemetery, taken a tourist's trip to the House of Commons for "question time," and held a series of meet-and-greet meetings with members of Parliament.

The purpose for the latter, according to a gubernatorial statement, was "to discuss growing economic opportunities between the UK and Massachusetts."...
Today, as Marlborough reeled from a blow to its tax base, Rhode Island reporters highlighted their state's efforts to expand Fidelity's presence, and the Massachusetts Senate announced it would investigate the company's decision, Patrick went to his Twitter account and wrote, "Attended Prime Minister's Questions & later met Speaker of the House of Commons Bercow."

An earlier tweet read: "Met with Members of Parliament this morning in London."

At least he isn't working on his brackets.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Well. Ain't that a kick in the pants - Fidelity continuing slow exodus from MA

Not only is Fidelity shuttering its operations in Marlborough and moving over 1,000 jobs out of Massachusetts by next year, but it is sending those jobs to BOTH New Hampshire and Rhode Island.  

It's like a kick in the pants and a cuff upside the head.  Adding insult to injury.  Choose your metaphor.  
According to a company spokeswoman, via, the company is taking this step, in part, to "spread its employees out to better reach potential customers and attract talented employees."

That works as an explanation when jobs are moved, say, to South Carolina or to Texas.  Someplace you can't get to by car without a couple of bathroom breaks.  But it's plenty easy to service customers in NH and RI from good old Marlborough, MA.  Clearly there is more in play here.

And anyone who has run - or tried to run - a business in Massachusetts knows exactly what that "more" is.  It's tacked onto the front of "expensive," as in "it's more expensive to do business in Massachusetts than just about anywhere else."  

Until our elected officials acknowledge that stark reality and take real steps to address it, we are going to continue to see the slow bleed out of companies who were once our highest-profile employers.

Maybe there is a silver lining to Governor Patrick's Israel trip

Reading a truly horrifying account in today's Wall Street Journal of what is only the latest in a long string of murderous attacks on Israeli civilians (including in this case a preschooler and an infant) living on the West Bank, a random and some might say optimistic thought occurred to me.

Governor Patrick is taking flak here at home for reports that his trade delegation has departed Israel for Great Britain with nary a single new trade deal to show for the days spent visiting our Middle Eastern ally. The absolute best the Governor's spokespeople can say for the trip is that it produced a "memorandum of understanding" that will - they say - lead to "increased research and development collaboration between Massachusetts and Israeli companies" by (Gov's words) ""formaliz[ing] an already strong relationship." Kind of an international renewal of vows. Nice, but the kind of thing that leaves the family back home wondering if we really needed to spend all that money (somewhere around $300K for the Governor and his entourage of 11 staff) on such a lavish ceremony when times are tough.

I had the tremendous good fortune over a decade ago to be part of a political delegation to Israel; a delegation hosted, as it happens, by then-and-current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - one of the most stunningly impressive individuals I have ever been privileged to meet.  Shimon Peres is another - same trip. These are men who deal on a daily basis with the kind of sustained pressure that leaders of Western democracies rarely experience even for a day. Netanyahu comes in for a lot of criticism - some of it admittedly self-inflicted - for his statements actions, but to hear him speak in a small group about his responsibility to the Israeli people is to be absolutely convinced beyond the slightest doubt. The man is not political - he is intensely passionate.

"I will defend my people!" Shouted, fist slamming the conference table around which our small delegation sat.

The declaration erupted from Netanyahu in the middle of an otherwise calm and cordial discussion of the security situation facing his country in 1998, shortly - as it happens - before events began to happen that would eventually culminate in the Second Intifada. Netanyahu was responding to a polite question posed to him about the political implications of some of his harder-line positions. The anger in his voice was directed not at the questioner, but at his critics, many of them international.

"My country is surrounded by well-armed nations that deny our right to exist, and who teach their children that our existence represents a crime against them," he said. "At its narrowest point, Israel is less than ten miles wide," he said (and yes, he said "miles"). "A bomber launched from any number of hostile countries can be in range of our cities in less time than it takes to get a response in the air," he said.

"I will defend my people!" SLAM!

I have no recording of that meeting. If I did, I would not be at all surprised to find a decade later that my memory matches the event exactly. It made an impression.

So too did our meetings with members of the Mossad, Israel's deservedly famous intelligence agency. And random Israelis having lunch at a cafe in Tel Aviv. And young military conscripts at a training facility outside Jerusalem. Military service is compulsory in Israel, but none seemed to mind. Kids who grow up there know all too well that they are - in the truest sense - all in "it" together.

Skeptics with whom I have shared variations on this account over the years fairly point out that the Israeli government is deeply invested in its international PR efforts, of which the invitation that brought my delegation to their country was most assuredly (and unabashedly) a part. We were "spun," no doubt. And the "Palestinian side" was not represented at our briefings.

But geography does not spin. Anyone who wonders why so many battles have been fought, blood spilt and political capital spent over possession of the relatively small plot of land known as the Golan Heights needs only to walk along the fortified ridge of the Golan. Pointing down into the valley, the Prime Minister observed blithely, "there is the Syrian army."  With binoculars, we could see faces. Turning back to face Israel, he pointed down again: "and there is where we would be, were they to re-take this land." I am not likely ever again to experience so stark and convincing a demonstration of the immutable value of holding "the high ground." There is nothing political or ideological about the view from the Golan - it is all naked military reality.

Governor Patrick at Yad Vashem - Globe Photo

Which brings me back to my thought about Governor Patrick this morning. I do not know how much of the tour and briefings I was fortunate to be part of back in 1998 was echoed in the Governor's experience over the past week. I am confident, however, that some of it was.

I assume he spoke to and was deeply impressed by "ordinary" Israeli civilians. He surely encountered young (very young) members of the Israeli Defense Forces. I trust that he shared a candid - perhaps even a private - conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and that Netanyahu looked him in the eye and gave him a candid assessment of the constant threat(s) under which all Israelis go about their daily business each and every day.

I have often wished in the years since my own trip to Israel that my experience could be had by everyone in a policy-making position in this country. Or by everyone, period, so long as I am fantasizing. For whatever reason, as Brett Stephens puts it in that WSJ piece today that I mentioned earlier (read it now if you did not already), a lot of people in the West are "so infatuated with [the Palestinian] cause that they were willing to ignore its crimes—or, if not quite ignore them, treat them as no more than a function of the supposedly infinitely greater crime of Israeli occupation." Horrific acts - such as last week's slaughter of an innocent family - are openly celebrated in the Gaza Strip and largely ignored here. Non-violent actions taken by the Israeli government to protect its very existence - such as erection of a border wall to stem a steady flow of suicide bombers to its cities - are castigated as crimes against humanity. The looming reality of a nuclear armed Iran led by a clearly deranged dictator who talks openly and often about wiping Israel from the face of the earth is casually brushed aside.

I do not honestly know Governor Patrick's position on the Israeli/Palestinian issue. Based on a pretty good working knowledge of his politics in general and familiarity with his political fellow travelers, however, I can hazard a guess.

It would be more precise of me, however, to wonder what Governor Patrick's position on that thorny issue is now, as he departs the Middle East and returns to the less volatile West. Whether there is any truth to recent speculation that Patrick is currently eying a national role, perhaps even a challenge to Senator Scott Brown next year, there can be little doubt that our Governor is riding an upward trajectory, and will likely find himself in an influential national position in the Democratic party at some point in the not-too-distant future, by one route or another.

I hope that this past week in Israel has made an impression on our Governor; one that will inform his thinking on the complex and often terrible choices faced too frequently by the leaders of our only truly democratic ally in an incalculably important and exceedingly turbulent region.

If it has, then in an important way this week's "failed" trade mission may have been in some sense "worth it" -  even if the Governor did not bring home a bunch of new jobs.