James P. Freeman

James P. Freeman: Hyannis's Famous Baxters succeed on sea and shore

— Photo by James P. Freeman

— Photo by James P. Freeman

“As the son of a son of a sailor
I went out on the sea for adventure
Expanding the view of the captain and crew
Like a man just released from indenture”

 

-- Jimmy Buffet, “Son of a Son of a Sailor” (1977)

 

With thick fog lifting off a placid morning harbor over a pleasant Memorial Day weekend, Sam Baxter laughed at recalling a vivid memory he would just as soon forget.

Dressed for the  sun and armed with a window-cleaner squeegee on a poll, he was clearing off 18 moisture-laden picnic tables on the patio at Baxter’s Fish N’ Chips, when,  pausing for a moment, the thought struck him. “I used to do this on my great uncle’s boat,” he said, wincing. The vessel was, in actuality -- a black and white photo confirms -- a ferry boat named Gov. Brann that used to make excursions to and from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. In the 1970s it was converted into a floating ramshackle seafood courtyard with tables and benches and docked against the restaurant. Grueling drudgery for a youngster, it was Sisyphean work. But now, smiling, with the Gov. Brann long gone, Baxter admitted, “I like this better.”

Life has never been better at Baxter’s.

For one hundred years there has a been a business bearing the Baxter name at the end of Pleasant Street, just off Main Street in Hyannis, the largest of seven villages comprising the Town of Barnstable. Today’s iteration of commerce sits on pilings -- Baxter’s Wharf -- nestled within the innermost part of the harbor that connects with Lewis Bay, which connects with Nantucket Sound. The harbor is the largest recreational-boating  port and second-largest commercial fishing port on Cape Cod, behind only Provincetown.

In fact, Hyannis Harbor has played a pivotal role in regional maritime lore: In 1602, Captain Bartholomew Gosnold was the first to survey the area; in 1639, settlers from England incorporated the Town of Barnstable; in 1666, Nicolas Davis, among the first settlers, built a warehouse for oysters on Lewis Bay; and, in 1840, over 200 shipmasters established dwellings in Hyannis and salt works became an important industry.

Furthermore: In 1849, Hyannis Harbor Light was built, marking the channel in Lewis Bay; in 1854, the first railroad cars reached Hyannis, signaling increased commercial development (by century’s end the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad had rails extending to Hyannisport Wharf, which hauled many tons of coal, fish and agricultural products); and, in 1928, Joseph P. Kennedy and his wife, Rose, purchased the Malcom Cottage in Hyannisport; an adjacent residence would later become the “Summer White House” under his son John F. Kennedy.

Today, the cedar-shingled Baxter’s building, painted in the classic seaside colors of gray with white trim, is nondescript and houses the Boathouse (a private club) and Fish N’ Chips (the public restaurant). The outside looks like the kind of place that Guy Fieri might discover on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

But that wouldn’t do it justice.

At Baxter’s, genetics carry more ballast than aesthetics. Once inside you will understand. Five generations of history sway fore and aft before your eyes. The ghosts in these walls call you back in time. They almost dare you to immerse yourself in a time that was simpler but, for seafaring people like the Baxters, very difficult indeed. And dangerous.

The long lineage of Baxters on Cape Cod extends way, way back.  

It begins with Benjamin D. Baxter.

Born on Camp Street in West Yarmouth, in January 1833, he was one of a family of 15 children. Like many boys at the time, he went to sea when he was 12. His life is captured in an extraordinary compendium entitled Hyannis Sea Captains. In 1939, author C.R. Harris wrote that the book was written as the last of the “deep water men of Hyannis” were leaving the good earth. And with them, he warned, “was going the record of adventure and achievement of … sturdy characters who were pioneers in the world of commerce through the medium of transportation by sail.” Baxter fit that description and was, by all accounts, a remarkable mariner.

Captain Baxter commanded the transport Promethus as well as two gunboats, the Vedette and the Chasseun, during the Civil War. Later, in the merchant service, he commanded the ships Nearchus and John N. Cushing. For years he traded in the East Indies. At one point, writes Harris, the Cushing was dismasted in a typhoon. Baxter “managed to sail it into a river, rigged a jurymast, with his crew, and sailed it to its destination, after it had been given up for lost.”

But it was his command of the Gerard C. Tobey for which he gained further esteem and “perpetuated the fame” of the bark for his speed records. Barks (derived from the French barques) are sailing vessels with distinctive rigging (three or more masts, having the fore and main masts rigged square and only the mizzen rigged fore and aft). During the golden age of sail, in the mid-19th Century, barks were the workhouses of the sea (analogous today to Boeing 737 jets, workhorses of the air). In 1878, Baxter retrofitted the Tobey with double topgallant and main skysails, both unusual with a bark. On the first leg of one of its last voyages, it sailed from Wiscasset, Maine, to Cardiff, Wales, in 18 days. (Today’s transatlantic crossing, with engines, is about seven days.) These boats were smaller than most other ocean-going ships and could sail with fewer crew members and  so were cheaper to operate. \

After 30 years at sea, Baxter retired in Antwerp, Belgium, and engaged in the ship chandlery and outfitting business. Then, in ill health, he returned to Hyannis to spend his remaining days. (At one time he had a shoe store in what is now the Hyannis Inn, 209 Main St.) He died in April 1897 and is buried in Hyannis.

Captain Baxter had four daughters and one son. Benjamin D. Baxter Jr. was born on Park Square, in the Marcus Crocker House. Junior became a stevedore and U.S. shipping master. Notably, on Nov. 4, 1904, he was appointed by the U.S. director of customs as deputy collector and inspector for the District of Barnstable. In these roles Baxter oversaw much of the maritime commerce in Hyannis. Given the circumstances, he must have seen the potential at the end of Pleasant Street. The family had been operating the dock since the early 1900s.

So he bought the property in 1919.  

The next generation of Baxters -- Benjamin D. Baxter and Warren Baxter Sr. (Sam’s grandfather) -- were fixtures on the Hyannis waterfront. At first, they had a fuel depot next to the Steamship Authority that served the local fleet and by the 1940s and 1950s a thriving fish market. Then Baxter’s Fish ‘n’ Chips opened in 1957, after Sam’s grandmother   had started frying local fish. The fish market closed in 1966 as supermarkets became the primary retail distribution channel. But the next year, Baxter’s Boathouse opened as a “companion bar and restaurant to the more family-friendly fish and chips half,” reported The Cape Cod Times. The only alcohol served was Budweiser on tap and vodka with cranberries. Nothing else.

Ben Baxter was a scrappy character: a tinkerer, collector and restorer. He was also a fisherman and captain. He lived in a house on the water’s edge that was built in 1898 and flooded severely by three hurricanes in 1954. Among his special talents was sailing. He befriended and raced many Kennedys, including the future president. He actually had the audacity to beat John F. Kennedy and claimed, in 1993, that he had effectively retired the Scudder Cup.

The Baxter-Kennedy relationship is as long as a generational yardarm.

Evidence abounds in the restaurant. An envelope postmarked Aug. 3, 1961, contained a thank you note from the White House and addressed to Warren Baxter. Next to it, encased in glass, is a short companion article dated Aug. 16, 1961, from Time Magazine. It reads: “Baxter’s Fish Market was standing anxiously by, awaiting the order for lobsters and fish for chowder.” President Kennedy was entertaining Lester B. Pearson, then the Canadian prime minister, at the compound.

Warren Baxter Jr. (known as “Barney,” after Barnabas was rejected), a Marine Corps veteran, and Sen. Edward Kennedy were friends and the senator would patronize the restaurant to say hello and enjoy fried clams. Sam recalls -- casually and hilariously -- one day seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger, adorned with  an apron, cooking his own swordfish in the kitchen. Just another day in the office…

Both the Boathouse and Fish N’ Chips are peppered with nautical artifacts and memorabilia. The late senator’s water skis hang from the ceiling. A buoy from the movie Jaws is tucked over a gable. And a ghost in living color eerily jolts your attention: a photo of the fishing boat Andrea Gail. Several times she was docked at Baxter’s before “The Perfect Storm,” of Oct. 29-Nov. 2, 1991, in which she went down.

Today, Baxter’s is run by Sam, now 47, and his brother named, appropriately, Ben, 54.

The fifth-generation Ben Baxter just retired from the Barnstable Police Department after 34 years of service. He bears an uncanny resemblance to his captain namesake, sans beard. They share something else, too. At their core they were journeymen. One cruised the high seas while the other patrolled the highs on the streets. You can picture them at a table in the Boathouse trading salty stories over rum and ribaldry. “Aye, Aye!”

Sitting with the brothers in their second-story office overlooking the harbor, the mood and the water glisten with nostalgia as friendly currents and conversations lead to the present. The crammed space is a tangle of wires and memories. Computers, not sextants, guide navigation and operation. The family institution reflects 2019.

While fish and chips are still the most popular items with customers, today’s menu features new takes and tastes,  such as gluten-free selections and salads. Years ago the old chalk board menu was replaced with an electronic one. Today’s offerings include an all-natural proprietary Bloody Cocktail Mix (don’t ask for the secret recipe, you’ll have better odds of discovering a buried treasure off Nantucket) and, of course, colorful merch.

Some things change very little.

Business opens on the second Friday in April and continues through Columbus Day. Words like “consistency” and “quality” are imperatives. The Boathouse is a private club that requires membership. (Two years ago, celebrating its golden anniversary, $50,000 in membership proceeds were donated to charity.) Maintenance and insurance can be crushing. (Hurricane Bob, on Aug. 8 1991, flooded the entire space.) Many of the 75 seasonal staff return each summer (Adriano, manager and chef, has been a mainstay for 22 years; he is considered like family.) And already the next-gen of Baxters is onboard.

Incredibly, not one dime is spent on marketing or advertising. The brothers say word of mouth suffices – along with word of boat. The harbor side of the building comes with a dock letting boaters  park and get food delivered to them. As Ben says, “Docking and dining is first come first serve, on Saturday and Sunday there is usually a wait time.”

“I’ve been here full time my whole life,” Sam quips, still cheerful after all these years. The brothers hope to be serving new generations for the rest of their lives, just as previous Baxter generations have done.

“Having a family-run business for over 50 years,” Ben ruminates, “is almost unheard of nowadays. Having a business located on the property our great grandfather started a hundred years ago is even more rare. It means a lot to me.” He adds, “I want my children to be proud of their name and heritage.”

For Sam and Ben the familiar refrain needs extension. They are literally sons of a son of a son of a son of a sailor.

A shorter version of this article appears in Cape Cod LIFE, where the article first appeared.

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer. He is a former columnist with The Cape Cod Times and New Boston Post. His work has also appeared, besides in New England Diary, in The Providence Journal, The Cape Codder, golocalprov.com, nationalreview.com and insidesources.com.

 

 

  

 

 

James P. Freeman: Noel Beyle, a brilliant, zany and workaholic Cape chronicler

This is a version of an article that first appeared in Cape Cod Life.

Noel W Beyle

Noel W Beyle


He sold books and bravado. He relished humor and history. And he peddled curios and curiosity. He was  one of Cape Cod’s most memorable characters.

Noel W. Beyle, who died on June 14, 2017 at 76, was a writer and historian. He was also husband to Sue,  whom he always referred to as “my bride.” The self-proclaimed “Mayor of West Eastham” lived on a dune overlooking Cape Cod Bay in a home constructed of three one-story Army barracks during World War II and known to locals as West Eastham Town Hall; during the summer a sign warned passers-by of a poison ivy yet encouraged them to “pick what you want.” In his later years, he drove a white delivery truck bearing the custom-made corporate logo “Viagra Oyster Company.”

He was  also a prolific collector and seller, ranging from vintage postcards (at one point he owned nearly 60,000)) and  an eclectic collection of antiques -- not to mention calendar art, nostalgic signage and kitsch junk. Many likely knew him from his decades-long presence at the Wellfleet Flea Market, where, with a wool hat, purple crocs, glasses and mustache, he sold memorabilia by the boatload.

He was featured many times on  Channel 5’s  (in Boston) Chronicle program. In one memorable segment he was golfing on Cape Cod Bay ice in the middle of winter.

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He wrote columns on local historical stories and for many years put together  the Cape Cod Five Cent Saving Bank’s calendar of vintage photographs and commentary. He was a lover of dogs (he had one in the 1970s named -- of course! -- “Kitty Kitty,” just to see people’s reaction when they called “here, kitty, kitty…”) and a philanthropist. Many local charities benefited from his quiet generosity.

Foremost, though, he was a storyteller. For more than 40 years Beyle was a local fixture who scoured the peninsula in search of a good story. He canvassed, cultured  and composed stories. Even when he sang, lectured and performed standup comedy, he was telling stories. Driving on Route 6A in the mid-1970s, he surmised once that “there is a story almost every four seconds here if you’re observant.”

Beyle seemed to many of us a member of  a lost breed: a charming eccentric.

But his qualities– an intense love of history and a playfulness, combined with a strengths in marketing, moxie and mischief -- produced one of the greatest collections of publications about Cape Cod.

From 1976 (Entering Eastham) to 1987 (“Fishy” Stories of Cape Cod) and beyond 2000, (assorted cookbooks and photo-journal texts) Beyle published 40 booklets ranging from weather oddities to the old Target Ship and everything in between the Bourne Bridge and Race Point, including Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands.

In 2011, he estimated that he had sold nearly a million copies of his pamphlet-sized books, which ranged from 50 to over 100 pages. Editions from the 1980s sold originally for under $1.  Today, however, virtually every edition is out of print and many are offered online for 25-50 times their initial sale price. Most of the work was published by the Beyle-conceived First Encounter Press. The Cape Cod Times believed that this was “probably (Eastham’s) first publishing firm.” Before “local sourcing’’ became synonymous with farming, Beyle was ahead of the curve. All of his booklets were printed on the Cape.

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Today, reading and rummaging through the entire catalog is revealing and great fun.

The four booklets written in 1979 -- Cape Cod Off Season, 6A All The Way, The Cape Cod Lampoon and The State of Cape Cod -- are marvels of style, wit and personality. Beyle worked with a number of talented illustrators throughout the years, including James E. Owens and Kathryn M. Meyers. But the accompaniment of William Canty in Off Season (and others) is the hilarious literary equivalent of a Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle collaboration from their monumental concept albums during the early Capitol Records years.

There is a lyrical and luminescent quality to his writing. Take 6A All the Way, for instance. It is a kind of whimsical retrospective as Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” was a metaphorical one. Turn to page 53 and see the Brewster General Store over the course of over 150 years.

A hallmark of his work is that it reflects who we were and what we have become.

Beyle employed a trademark technique that creates a striking impression of time and space and emotion -- the recurring interaction of the silly and the serious; the flow of advertisements for local businesses that blend in seamlessly with pictures and graphics. In many ways they are part of the story itself. Evidence of this technique abounds in Cape Cod to the Rescue. This 1984 story about the grounded merchant ship Eldia (pages 24-25) showcases dramatic pictures of the crippled vessel along with recipes for shrimp scampi and ads for a dry cleaner and photography studio. Such an idiosyncratic presentation could have easily degenerated into a hopelessly tangled mashup. But it didn’t.     

Stylistically, Beyle was slightly diabolical, if not contumacious. He wrote with a nod to the classic Cape novelist Joseph C. Lincoln combined with an attitude recalling Monty Python and Mark Twain. ]

He inhabited a retrospective universe of black and white images and silent history, but his unique storytelling brought Technicolor of insight and appreciation to the subject matter. That may explain his appeal. His stories talk back. And laugh back, too.

He took some time in late 1979 to reflect on his methods. In an interview of Beyle by Samuel Howe in The Register,  Beyle said “the concept is simple: to make sure that some of the old and new about Cape Cod  is caught and put down on high-quality paper -- whether it takes just the right typewritten word, an old scrapbook picture, or a catchy cartoon.” He didn’t have to go looking for humor. Invariably, it found him. 

Given the efficiency of today’s digital world, the quality and prodigious output Beyle achieved in the analog world he worked in is hard to believe. He began writing in 1962 on a then state-of-the-art IBM Selectric typewriter and never looked back. He had an email address but rarely used it. He had a beguiling distain for cell phones. And Web site? -- not on your life!

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Much of his success can be attributed to an old-fashioned idea: an indomitable work ethic.

In June 1979 he told The Cape Cod Times, “A lot of people don’t think I work… I run around trying to be funny -- I’ve been doing that all my life.” He was 38 then and worked 12-16-hour days. Back then, it was customary for him to type 150 or so personal letters to those on his “Friends” list, alerting them to new booklets and thanking them for their financial support. One letter, dated Feb. 24, 1982, wished the addressee a “much-belated new year.” That was quintessential Noel Beyle.  

Pat Mikulak noted long ago in Cape Cod Life that “Beyle is zany…” and that his “forte is play on and with words, so if you’ve gotten to taking life too seriously, we’re sure he’d suggest that you go out and get a Beyle of his books.” =

Each quirky one of them is worth a reread or first read in 2019.]

James P. Freeman, a former banker, is a veteran New England-based writer, including as a former columnist with The Cape Cod Times and New Boston Post. His work has appeared in The Providence Journal, The Cape Codder, golocalprov.com, nationalreview.com and insidesources.com, as well as Cape Cod Life and New England Diary.

 

 

  

James P. Freeman: Mogul August Belmont Jr. and the digging of the Cape Cod Canal

Postcard_view_of_breaking_the_dam_of_the_Cape_Cod_Canal,_July_1914.jpg
The Bourne Bridge over the Cape Cod Canal, with the Canal Railroad Bridge in the distance.

The Bourne Bridge over the Cape Cod Canal, with the Canal Railroad Bridge in the distance.

This article first appeared in Cape Cod Life.

August Perry Belmont Jr. was a product of his age, in an age that needed his products.

The Gilded Age—a period roughly from post-Civil War Reconstruction (1865) up to the first Progressive Era (early 1900s) was marked by energetic entrepreneurship, industrial vitality, technical invention and innovation. Commerce was transformed by new developments in steel, petroleum, electrification, transportation and finance. Engineering advances produced the transcontinental railroad, the telephone and the light bulb. New technologies yielded elevators, skyscrapers, trolleys, subways, bridges and canals.

With little regulation and fierce allegiance to laissez-faire capitalism, vast monopolies and interlocking trusts were created by such titans as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan. 

Nearly forgotten is August Belmont Sr. Belmont was among the defining figures of the Gilded Age. He emigrated from Prussia in 1816 and later founded August Belmont & Company, a Wall Street firm. He was a fixture of New York’s high society and his lavish lifestyle reportedly was the inspiration for Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920). By the time of his death, in 1890, he left  the huge sum for the time of $50 million to his wife and four surviving children.

Belmont’s second son, August Belmont Jr., was a builder and financier. He built New York City’s first subway route (Interborough Rapid Transit) in 1904 and was a major figure in thoroughbred racing (New York’s Belmont Racetrack). He also served as a major in the U.S. Army during World War I, in his 60s. But, arguably, Belmont’s crowning achievement was the Cape Cod Canal.

In Images of America: Cape Cod Canal, Timothy T. Orwig wrote that the need to find a shortcut across Cape Cod was “ancient.” Given its treacherous currents and shifting shoals, passage around the Outer Cape was fraught with danger and known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Ever since the Sparrowhawk went down in 1626 off Orleans, over 2,700 wrecks and 700 lost lives have been recorded around the Cape, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Not to mention untold tonnage in cargo.

As early as 1623, Miles Standish, military leader of Plymouth Colony, advocated building a canal. In 1697, a Massachusetts General Court resolution called for “a passage [to] be cut through the land at Sandwich from Barnstable Bay.” Remarkably, in 1776, George Washington authorized the first of many surveys to consider the feasibility of such an undertaking. And by the late 1800s, President Chester Arthur saw the prospect of a canal as a military asset and considered coastal waterways among his highest priorities. 

Nevertheless, nearly three centuries of legislative ineptitude combined with virtually no heavy industry, made the project impossibly impractical. That is until the early 20th Century saw a coalescing of financial power, industrial power and will power. 

Technically, a crude canal  had already sliced through the peninsula. That distinction belonged to what was known as “Jeremiah’s Gutter” (also known as “Jeremiah’s Dream” and “Jeremiah’s Drain”). It formed naturally after The Great Storm of 1717 and made travel between Orleans Town Cove (fed from the Atlantic Ocean) and Eastham’s Boat Meadow Creek (fed from Cape Cod Bay) possible. In 1804 a canal was first dug over this periodically flooding lowland owned by Jeremiah Smith. According to Robin Smith-Johnson, in Cape Cod Curiosities, “It was also used as an escape route by local boatmen in the War of 1812.” But by 1817, 100 years later, it was effectively impassable.  

Belmont was perfectly suited for the gargantuan task at hand. Construction of the new canal was a personal as well as professional endeavor for him. Author and historian J. North Conway makes the connection in his wonderfully engaging book, The Cape Cod Canal: Breaking Through the Bared and Bended Arm.

While Belmont was motivated by profit—improving transport of raw materials and finished products in and out of New England via shipping through a toll canal—he had personal ties to the Cape, despite his New York roots. “Part of Belmont’s… reason for involving himself in the digging of the Cape Cod Canal,” writes Conway, “was due to his deep affection for his maternal grandfather, Commodore Matthew Perry, who lived on Cape Cod.” Perry is credited with opening trade with Japan to the West in 1854. So it was appropriate that the ceremonial first shovelful of earth marking the start of the Cape’s Big Dig occurred on June 22, 1909 at the Perry farm in Bourne. 

The sheer scale of the undertaking and associated disruption was not without controversy. Harper’s Weekly in 1908 lamented that “the new conditions which must prevail on the peninsula will cause the disappearance of the simple and unaffected people.…” The magazine did recognize that “40,000 vessels pass around the Cape annually… while only between 3,000 and 4,000 ships traverse the Suez Canal during the same length of time.” A year and a half later, the same publication  wrote more approvingly of “The Conquest of Cape Cod.” Shortening the trip by 74 miles between Boston and Southern ports, “it is in the saving of lives, ships and cargoes that the canal will be chiefly valuable.”

Belmont, like  other businessmen of his day, insisted that the project not involve government intervention. His chief engineer, William Barclay Parsons (Belmont’s engineer for the New York subway and a member of the Panama Canal Commission), underscored such sentiments before the Boston Chamber of Commerce in May 1910. “This is a private enterprise,” Parsons said, “supported by private capital invested under a state charter… asking for neither federal, nor state, nor municipal aid.” And it should come as no surprise that Belmont employed Gilded Age financing structures to make the canal a reality. His Boston, Cape Cod and New York Canal Company bid out a contract to build the canal. Cape Cod Construction Company was the winner: a company controlled by Belmont.

The Bourne Bridge was finished in May 1911 followed by the Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge (November 1911) and Sagamore Bridge (February 1913). An engineering and picturesque marvel spanning 13 miles, the new canal was 25 feet deep and roughly 125 feet wide. It cost over $11 million to build. Over 16 million cubic yards of sand, stone, clay and glacial boulders were removed. And six men lost their lives.

The new waterway opened to great fanfare in a ceremony on July 29, 1914. Among the dignitaries in attendance was Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even President Woodrow Wilson wrote a “hearty congratulations.” 

World war and a new progressive direction in America changed everything. Just the day before the grand opening, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, leading to World War I. At President Wilson’s direction, the United States Railroad Administration took control of the canal in July 1918. After the war, in April 1919, the government filed a petition to begin condemnation proceedings to formally acquire the canal. 

August Belmont Jr. died in December 1924. After years of legal, political and financial haggling, the sale of the Cape Cod Canal took place in April 1928. The Belmont estate received a mere $4.5 million in proceeds. And based upon Belmont’s overall investment, J. North Conway estimates the estate lost nearly $5 million.

Congress gave authority to the United States Army Corps of Engineers to take over operation and maintenance of the canal. Work began to effect badly needed improvements: widening and deepening the canal, and constructing new bridges. The modernization of the Cape Cod Canal became a public-works program. Leisure would complement commerce. A sprawling federal government acted like a die grinder to temper the sharp edges of the Gilded Age. Power shifted away from unbridled titans to Washington bureaucrats. 

The new and improved canal was squarely a byproduct of progressive policies put into place during the Great Depression. Such New Deal programs as the Public Works Administration, Emergency Relief Act and Rivers and Harbors Act in the mid-1930s helped finance the $37 million cost. Several hundred workers helped build the two distinctive vehicular bridges and unique vertical-lift Railroad Bridge, still standing and functioning 84 years later. Toll free. 

Perhaps fittingly, a black and white postcard of the sparkling new Sagamore Bridge dated June 22, 1935 (the official dedication of the rebuilt canal) noted that “Mrs. August Belmont parted the ribbon.” 

Mark Twain’s novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today was a biting satirical commentary about a by-gone age. His work exposed the appearance of gross materialism, political corruption, corporate greed and widening social inequality just beneath the surface of glossy, heady progress. 

Twain actually traversed Cape Cod before Belmont’s canal became reality.  

“‘This, gentlemen,’ said Jeff, ‘is Columbus River, alias Goose Run. If it was widened, and deepened, and straightened, and made, long enough, it would be one of the finest rivers in the western country.’”

James P. Freeman is a New England-based  columnist and financial adviser and a former banker.

The drawbridge over the canal that was replaced by the Sagamore Bridge.

The drawbridge over the canal that was replaced by the Sagamore Bridge.

 

 

James P. Freeman: Questions for Kavanaugh's kickoff

1908 cartoon, by  W.C. Morris ,  highlighting the dangers  associated with the football.

1908 cartoon, by W.C. Morris,  highlighting the dangers  associated with the football.

“Football is football and talent is talent. But the mindset of your team makes all the difference.”

–Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Baltimore Ravens and 2011 Heisman Trophy Winner

As Americans prepare for fall and football, the new political season kicks off the day after Labor Day with public hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of the confirmation process of  Federal Appeals Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Little is known about the judge’s mindset or how he’ll play on the team. And during the upcoming televised stagecraft partisan Senators will likely get bogged down in jurisprudential minutia unintelligible to every day people.

So here are some questions that might elicit better insights:

1. Judge Kavanaugh, on Jan. 22, 1973, the court affirmed the legality of a woman’s right to abortion under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Since that time, it is estimated that there have been over 60 million abortions in the U.S. It is still a contentious issue. Much has changed in those 45 years: biological and scientific revelations, legal and economic assumptions, and political and social values. Given all we know today, what are your thoughts on “fetal viability”? Is it time to reconsider that concept as it applies to constitutional law? Why or why not?

2. Since the Supreme Court was established in 1789 there have been a total of 113 people who have served on the high court. Of this elite and select group — among the living and the dead — whom do you most admire and why?

3. You worked in the 1990s on the team (led by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr) investigating the Whitewater matter. Those efforts eventually, and remarkably, led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. In February 1998, you were part of a panel discussion about the future of the Independent Counsel Statute (1978). You raised the question of whether a sitting president could be subject to criminal indictment at all. (You called it a “lurking constitutional issue” that should be “resolved so that we can determine whether the Congress or an independent counsel can investigate a president when his conduct is at issue.”) What are your thoughts on the matter today? What parallels do you see between the investigation of Clinton and today’s investigation using an independent counsel that is edging ever so close into the red zone of President Trump’s presidency?

4. What is the most important opinion you have written as an appeals judge? Why?

5. Here’s a riddle: Which of the following is considered in some circles a violation of state and federal law and hence an affront to individual liberties? (A) Requiring identification to board a plane. (B) Requiring ID to purchase cigarettes and alcohol. (C) Requiring ID to open a bank account. (D) Requiring ID to enter into corporate and government offices. (E) Requiring ID to vote in state and federal elections. If you guessed “E” you are correct! If public officials initiate steps in choice E, are such measures unconstitutional? Why or why not? Might any of these be deemed unconstitutional? Why or why not? On the night President Trump nominated you to the court, did you need to show ID to walk into the White House?

6. Since the inception of the court, there have been 91 Protestant judges named out of 113 justices. Roger B. Taney was the first Catholic to serve on the court, beginning in 1836. In more recent times, Catholics have dominated the court. At one point, when justice Antonin Scalia was alive, there were six Catholic justices on the same court. If you were to be sworn in to the court today you would be the fifth Catholic justice (joining John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Sonia Sotomayor). How has your Catholic faith shaped and informed your judicial philosophy? Did the court get it right last year in the separation of church and state case Trinity Lutheran v Comer?

7. Are The Federalist Papers still relevant today in terms of interpreting and understanding the original intent of the Constitution? Why or why not?

8. In an October 2016 ruling, PHH v Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in a case involving the unbridled power of what some would call extra-constitutional congressional creations, you wrote that, “Indeed, other than the President, the Director of the CFPB is the single most powerful official in the entire United States Government, at least when measured in terms of unilateral power.” You added, “The concentration of massive, unchecked power in a single Director marks a dramatic departure from settled historical practice and makes the CFPB unique among independent agencies.” Can you further articulate your philosophy on the separation of powers and overreaching executive authority? What other government entities, in your estimation, resemble those of the CFPB?

It remains to be seen on Sept. 4 if Brett Kavanaugh will fumble the opening kick off or return it for a long touchdown. But it is certain he will be brushing up on the playbook.

James P. Freeman is a New England-based essayist and a former banker.

James P. Freeman: Democrats demand truckloads of docs on Kavanaugh to confirm their disdain

Paper_Chase_Book.jpg

 

Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Texas) described it this way: “Well, you might call this the great paper chase.” The senator was not referencing the 1971 novel or the 1973 movie or the 1978-79 television series each named The Paper Chase and based on goings-on at the Harvard Law School. Instead, he was referring to the process of retrieving the massive paper trail left by U.S. Appeals Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Despite the fact that public hearings for Kavanaugh will begin on Sept. 4 (the day after Labor Day) Senate Democrats insist that the judge’s entire back catalog of written work -- like going back to the vaults to recover all of The Rolling Stones original recordings on tape since 1962 -- be made available to them before a vote is made in the full Senate on his Supreme Court nomination. Democrats aim to delay any vote until after the mid-term elections holding out hope that they may retake the Senate. (Currently, Republicans control the chamber, with 51 members; no date is set for the Senate vote.)

However, recalcitrant Republicans counter that determined Democrats are behaving like paper wasps, gathering dead wood not to build a nest of objective information, but, rather, to build a rickety narrative about Kavanaugh in order to defeat his placement on the high court. Save for hope, Democrats -- notwithstanding the upcoming public hearings -- are using a bold new tactic to spur the vetting process in their favor. And it’s a long shot.

They actually filed several FOIA requests.

FOIA stands for “Freedom of Information Act” and became federal law in 1967. The act, says foia.gov, “has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.” There are more than 100 agencies subject to FOIA requests. Last year, according to the Office of Information Policy of the Department of Justice, government agencies received over 820,000 requests.

The Hill reports that Democrats submitted requests to the CIA, the National Archives, the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security for documents “tied to Kavanaugh's three-year period as staff secretary for President George W. Bush.” Democrat petitioners have also asked for an expedited response given the enormity of the paperwork sought.

It is estimated that these documents could be in excess of 1 million pages, notes USA Today. By comparison, senators had far fewer records to review under two past justice to be confirmed to the high court (182,000 pages of documents on Neil Gorsuch and about 170,000 pages on Elena Kagan). More documents will be produced about Kavanaugh than any other nominee in history, said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA).

Judiciary member Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D.-Conn.) called the FOIA requests an “extraordinary step,” “unprecedented” and a “last resort.” The senator also believes that this action has never been done with regard to a Supreme Court nominee. Blumenthal told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that Senate Republicans are “hiding” and “concealing” Kavanaugh documents.

But as Gabby Morrongiello wrote in The Washington Examiner, “Normally, records from Kavanaugh's time in the White House would be protected by the Presidential Records Act, which allows former presidents to keep their White House files secret for up to 12 years after leaving office.” President Bush left office, in January 2009.

The National Archives is indeed screening nearly 1 million of these pages to ensure none of the material is subject to executive privilege under the Act. “It says,” reports npr.com, that the review “will not be completed until the end of October.” As a consequence, Senate Republicans have moved to obtain documents directly from Bush’s legal team in order to expedite the process.

Republicans, meanwhile, argue that all this Democratic bluster is merely political stagecraft.

They recall that during Kavanaugh’s 2006 nomination as a judge to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Democrats then never demanded such a ferocious examination of his paperwork related to his White House work. Last week, Grassley released nearly 5,800 pages of documents from Kavanaugh's tenure as associate White House counsel to Bush. Already, the Judiciary Committee has received over 125,000 pages of these type of documents. And the committee is expected to release substantially more documents in the coming weeks.     

Finally, Republicans say -- professing mock horror -- that Democrats are also acting disingenuously. They contend that Senate Democrats announced their opposition to Kavanaugh immediately after his nomination, without regard for the need for extensive review of documentation before such opposition.

In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Grassley comments, “It stands to reason that Senator Schumer wasn’t too concerned about Judge Kavanaugh’s record before he announced his opposition. Why is it so important to Senator Schumer now?” Further, with regard to documents already in the public domain, “How much more do Democratic leaders need to know when they’re already voting no?”

Democrats are essentially saying  that they detest Mick Jagger but need to listen to all his music to confirm their disdain.

After the final vote on the judge by the full Senate, it would be understandable if Kavanaugh acted as the character Hart did at the end of The Paper Chase novel: Where the finally tally of grading was pitched off in a form of a paper airplane -- a metaphor, perhaps, of a scoring and vetting system that should be thrown out.

The judge will have many papers from which to build his aircraft.  

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer who writes the Word Wise column for Inside Sources. He is a former columnist with The New Boston Post and The Cape Cod Times. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal, The Cape Codder, newenglanddiary.com, golocalprov.com, and nationalreview.com.

James P. Freeman: Applying data analysis to Supreme Court nominees

U.S. Supreme Court Building.

U.S. Supreme Court Building.

Last autumn, techrepublic.com concluded, with its feature “How big data won the 2017 World Series,” that America’s pastime was more the cold science of analytics than the graceful art of, say, a George Springer swing. This fall, progressives hope that big data will win the day to thwart Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court.

When the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game was published in 2003, it acted as a catalyst for Major League baseball teams to “start taking data-based decision making more seriously.” The employment of metrics was also rooted in cost-effective ways to win. The prize was the Fall Classic.

Baseball, already known for its rich sediment of data, hired experts to “make data-driven decisions based on predictive analytics.” Perhaps the biggest manifestation of data predicting outcomes is the use of “the shift” — a technique where a coach will move his defensive players to one side of the field knowing, in advance, that a hitter will put a ball into play there a statistically significant number of times. (Shifts increased from 2,350 in 2011 to 28,130 in 2016). TechRepublic notes that teams with a “prowess with data” — the once moribund Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros — are recent World Series champions.

Some now believe that these methodologies can be applied to Supreme Court nominees.

Data for Progress is, in its own words, “the think tank for the future of progressivism.” Claiming that “a new generation of progressives is rising,” it wants to be the Elias Baseball Analyst for left-leaning causes. Using scientific techniques to support progressive activists and issues, it also aims to “challenge conventional wisdoms about the American public that lack empirical support.”

Areas of its research include: “Multilevel Regression and Poststratification analysis,” to provide “reliable sub-national opinion estimates on progressive issues;” “deep learning textual analysis of media;” and “data mining and analyzing social media data for politicians and pundits to find interesting trends and patterns.”

Pitchers and catchers beware!

In another sign of the miniaturization and mobilization of complex matters on social media, Data for Progress prefers to distribute its research over the internet because “data can only help interpret the world.” (Many credit its co-founder, Sean McElwee, with inspiring the “Abolish ICE” movement based upon a tweet he posted in early 2017.)

Today, however, McElwee is focusing on the Supreme Court. And his opposition to Judge Kavanaugh.

Data for Progress believes that a Kavanaugh seat on the high court would set back progressive causes in areas such as voting rights, Medicaid, corporate pollution, unions, gerrymandering, and, most urgently, abortion rights.

A key component of its approach is that ideological implications can be measured. Data for Progress uses a political science methodology called Judicial Common Space, which seeks to answer, among other things, why courts make the decisions they do. Judicial politics, like a Chris Sale slider, can be measurable and explainable. Or can it?

Justices are “scored” or measured in similar ways that members of Congress are measured for their roll call votes. So, Justice Sonia Sotomayor appears on the left of the spectrum and Justice Clarence Thomas appears on the right. But, like all computer modeling, how Kavanaugh fits into the equation — hence, how he would affect the ideological balance of the court — is entirely hypothetical.

Data for Progress suggests that judicial reasoning is necessarily a linear process; past judicial decisions are a measurable and definitive predictor of future decisions. This in turn determines where judges stand on an ideological plane.

For Data for Progress — even if its quantitative analysis stands close scrutiny — prospective liberal justices are acceptable and conservative justices are not. Big data is now political fodder for modern progressives.

But history may prove McElwee and Data for Progress wrong.

In a recent piece for The Nation, McElwee argues that “Democrats Must Stop Pretending the Supreme Court is Apolitical.” He worries about the looming “threat” of a Supreme Court that could “reverse progressive legislative accomplishments.” When did Democrats stop believing the court was apolitical?

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, attempted a ''court-packing” plan. His motivations were entirely political. He intended to shape the ideological balance of the court so that it would cease striking down his New Deal legislation. And in 1987, Democrats launched a full partisan attack on the nomination of Robert Bork to the high court. The conservative jurist was soundly defeated over what conservatives believe were purely political motivations. There is a long history of partisan battles in picking Supreme Court justices.

And Data for Progress’ fears of the court — and, by extension, the nation — being held hostage by conservative justices for years to come may be mistaken. In fact, big data may prove Data for Progress to be just another political lever of the progressive organ. And render their rantings moot.

Fivethirtyeight.com concluded three years ago that “Supreme Court Justices Get More Liberal As They Get Older.” The “ideological drift” of justices is cited in a 2007 academic paper. The authors of the study, using scores based on data from the Supreme Court Database, write that: “Drift to the right or, more often, the left is the rule, not the exception.”

A 2005 New York Times expose, “Presidents, Picking Justices, Can Have Backfires,” should be a reminder to Data for Progress that, despite a wealth of data, Supreme Court justices’ ideology is malleable and subject to change. As President Eisenhower learned of  Chief Justice Earl Warren and President George H.W. Bush learned of Justice David Souter.

Whatever their political persuasions, Americans are now keeping score in two spectator sports because of big data.

James P. Freeman is a former banker and now a New England-based essayist. This piece first appeared in Inside Sources.

James P. Freeman: McConnell the central figure in reshaping the Supreme Court

Mitch_McConnell_portrait_2016.jpg

Perched high above the fray, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.Ky.) has comported himself in going about the people’s business like that of the reserved Barred Owl: observing keenly, roosting quietly, and acting decisively. Such attributes have allowed McConnell — a tactical and strategic master of parliamentary maneuvers — to calmly consolidate power, particularly with regard to shaping Supreme Court appointments.

President  Trump may have nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, but Kavanaugh’s likely confirmation to the court this year will be because of something McConnell understood almost five years ago.

In November  2013, at the urging of then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.), Democrats — voting along party lines — changed the rules of the Senate. This became known as “the nuclear option.” As The Atlantic then noted, under the new rules, “presidential nominees for all executive-branch position — including the Cabinet — and judicial vacancies below the Supreme Court could advance with a simple majority of 51 votes.”

(The rules for legislation were untouched, but the nuclear fallout was that the 60-vote threshold for overcoming a filibuster on nearly all nominations was dead; the net effect is that the minority party is nearly powerless to stop these nominations.)

Furious, then-Minority Leader McConnell issued a stern and prescient warning to Democrats on the Senate floor: “You’ll regret this, and you may regret this a lot sooner than you think.”

McConnell could not have imagined that members of his party — and, by extension, conservatives — would soon be the beneficiaries of his prophetic words.

After the 2014 mid-term elections, Republicans regained control of the Senate. The significance of this became apparent upon the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in February 2016. An intellectual heavyweight, he was, by all accounts, the staunchest conservative on the court. And Republicans rightly feared that President  Obama would not replace Scalia with another conservative. They were correct.

Obama nominated Appeals Court Judge Merrick B. Garland, a centrist, to the Supreme Court in March 2016. He was indeed no Scalia. The Washington Post wrote that Obama figured that “the highly regarded jurist might blunt some of the expected political attacks and ultimately embarrass Senate Republicans into dropping their fierce opposition to the nomination.” Obama badly miscalculated Republican judicial motivations.

In a stroke of bold politics, McConnell imposed a blockade of the Garland nomination, letting it languish — without a hearing or a vote — until after the 2016 presidential elections. The action, or inaction, denied Obama the chance to replace Scalia. If anything, it proved a successful delaying tactic.

McConnell could hardly have foreseen a Trump (Republican) presidency but he knew that even if Republicans fell back into minority status in the Senate and Democrats retained the presidency after the elections, he could engineer a filibuster of Garland or another Supreme Court nominee. (Recall that the nuclear option did not apply to nominees of the high court.)

But Trump won, and Republicans still controlled the Senate.

Fulfilling a promise to nominate conservative justices, the new president nominated Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch in early 2017. Expressing their displeasure, Democrats in the Senate threatened to filibuster the conservative jurist, an option still available to them.

While Reid went nuclear in 2013, McConnell went thermonuclear in 2017.

Republicans in the Senate changed the rules whereby the nuclear option would also apply to Supreme Court nominees, not just lower-court nominees. (Democrats had threatened a similar change before they unexpectedly lost the 2016 election). Last month, The New York Times reminded its readers that “simple majority approval for considering and confirming Supreme Court nominations is the standing policy of the Senate now.”

While both parties have tinkered with procedural changes in the Senate in the short run, Republicans are using it to their advantage for the long run.

The Boston Globe recently reported that Trump (guided by Republicans) has already appointed 44 judges since taking office — “including more appellate judges than any president in American history at this point in his tenure.” He has another 88 nominees currently pending before the Senate. “If,” The Globe asserts, “Trump is able to fill just the current vacancies alone, he will be responsible for installing more than one-fifth of the sitting judges in the United States.”

Barring a political catastrophe for them this November, McConnell and the Republicans will likely retain power in the Senate. Consequently, they will continue controlling Supreme Court nominations and other federal court nominations. At least for two more years.

The retirement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy means that there are no longer any justices serving on the Supreme Court who were nominated by President  Reagan. However, should just one more justice leave the high court before the 2020 presidential elections, Trump’s changes to the composition of the court would rival those made in the Reagan era.

History will show that McConnell also played a critical role in reshaping the court for generations to come.

James P. Freeman, a former banker, is a New England-based essayist. This piece first ran in Inside Sources.

James P. Freeman: Those scary 'stans' of pop music

Eminem, who boosted the 'stan' sentiment with his song "Stan'' in 2000.

Eminem, who boosted the 'stan' sentiment with his song "Stan'' in 2000.

Gentle reader, are you consumed — in thought, word or deed — by your favorite actor, athlete or rock star? If yes, you’re considered a “stan.”

In today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, stan is a fitting portmanteau of stalker and fan (derived from fanatic or the Latin adjective, fanaticus). According to en.oxforddictionaries.com, it is defined as “an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity.” And given modernity’s looseness with language and linguistics, the word may be used as a noun (i.e., “Kylie Jenner has millions of stans”) or a verb (i.e. “millions stan for Kendall Jenner”).

Many point to the song “Stan” by rapper Eminem (released as a single in 2000), about the warped idolatry of a disturbed fan of the Slim Shady himself, as giving popularity to the stan sentiment. Still others point to rapper Nas who, in 2001’s “Ether,” intentionally used the word for what became its popular connotation.

We’ve come a long way from the delirium of Frank Sinatra’s rabid 1940s “Bobby Soxers,” perhaps the earliest stans.

There was “Beatlemania” in the 1960s. Later, in the 1980s, young Madonna enthusiasts were known as “Wannabes.” Before the death of Jerry Garcia, in 1995, for decades legions of loyalists (“Deadheads”) lived a lifestyle synonymous with members of The Grateful Dead. Now we have “Sheerios” (Ed Sheeran), “Finaddicts” (for fans of the Jaws franchise), “Llamas” (Cowboy Junkies), and “Streepers” (Meryl Streep). And closer to home: “Red Sox Nation” (Boston Red Sox).

Social media — Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Reddit — have given rise to a weird mass intimacy (“like me” and “follow us;” “hearted”) between object (celebrity) and subject (stan). And vice versa.

This twisted relationship has spawned the professional fan. Part mystic. Part hysteric. Part parasitic.

And the new digital symbiosis practically requires that stans don the same clothes, drink the same Armand de Brignac, and download the deep-cut track. But don’t dare disagree or think differently. Or become a detractor. Just ask Wanna Thompson.

The New York Times recently reported that she incurred the wrath of the stans of Nicki Minaj (known as, appropriately, “Barbz”) and the artist herself (via a practice known as celebrity “clap back” — she has 20.2 million Twitter followers) when Thompson (a freelance writer with a mere 14,000 followers at the time) wondered if the singer would “put out mature content?” That simple question produced a hailstorm of scorn and derision toward Thompson.

It’s fun to imagine what stans’ reaction would be today if John Lennon posted on Snapchat that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now.”

James P. Freeman, a former banker, is a New England-based columnist. This piece first ran in Inside Sources.

James P. Freeman: Aided by the U.S., China's hybrid economy looks to continue to surge

As Americans escaped for burgers, barkers and beer over  the Fourth of July, they were not only celebrating the nation’s independence. Some well-informed ones might  also have been celebrating that the trade war with China had not arrived in their backyards before the fireworks finale. Surely, they are mindful that 99 percent of the fireworks they set off came directly from China.

Maybe President  Trump didn’t get the memo that imports of fireworks dwarfed exports by a ratio of more than 40 to 1. As NPR amusingly noted, this “exploding trade deficit” has not prompted the kind of protectionist crackdown that the president has directed at other industries. At least not yet.

As Trump lights his own bottle rocket of tariffs targeted at China (so far, 25 percent on $50 billion out of $636 billion in total exchange of goods), with threats he may use heavier artillery -- and with China countering, dollar for dollar -- it is particularly timely to revisit a recurring but relevant question: Can China’s economy continue to flourish moving forward with the hybrid (capitalistic/highly controlled) model that the government has implemented?

The answer is a resounding Yes!

Last March, Yukon Huang, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, wrote in The New York Times that “China has never been a normal economy.” He believes that unbalanced growth is a sign of successful industrialization; surging debt is a marker of financial deepening, rather than profligate spending; and, perhaps surprisingly, corruption has spurred, not stalled growth. Future success, he allows, hinges “on whether the Chinese government can strike the right balance between state intervention and market forces.”  Huang also says China’s remarkable progress can be credited in part to its leaders’ willingness “to set aside communism for pragmatism.”

Cary Huang, writing for the South China Morning Post last fall, as the centennial of Lenin’s Russian Revolution quietly passed, says that China is now more a “Leninist capitalist state” than a “Marxist socialist one.” Even as China is among the most exploitative nations in the world, (income and wealth inequalities, lack of political and other freedoms), “it is all the more ridiculous to call an economy, the world’s second-largest, ‘socialist’ when 70 percent of it is privately owned, when it hosts the world’s largest army of billionaires, or when it grapples with issues such as a debt crisis, stock market woes and a real estate bubble,” argues Huang.

The creation and embrace of this hybrid capitalism -- state capitalism -- is not entirely new. However, China has fostered (and to a lesser extent Malaysia and Russia also have) the rise of what The Economist called in 2012 a new kind of “hybrid corporation.” It behaves like a private-sector multinational but is backed by the state.

These new economic and corporate alloys of conventional capitalism might confound certain world leaders (and perhaps distract the one with Twitter Tourette’s syndrome) but China’s leaders intend to continue policies that have reaped rewards.

As Americans look to the next quarter, the Chinese look to the next quarter century.

Earlier this year, China’s Communist party cleared the way for President Xi Jinping to rule for life. He has been president since 2012 but the move is seen as a means to consolidate his power and continue his successful policies (not to mention his predecessors'). Richard McGregor, senior fellow at the Lowry Institute, told The Financial Times this past February, “I don’t see any indication of a faster pace of what Westerners see as economic reforms and what Chinese see as tinkering with their hybrid economic model.”

China was the world’s largest economy  until it was displaced by Great Britain as the Industrial Revolution swept through Europe. China (aka the Middle Kingdom) then fell behind -- remaining agrarian and poor. But since economic reforms were implemented in 1978, China has roared backed. From that period until 2014, its annual GDP growth averaged 10 percent; now it’s closer to 6.8 percent (U.S. first-quarter annualized GDP growth was calculated at 2.2 percent). China has raised per capita GDP almost 49-fold, from 155 current U.S. oollars (in 1978) to 7,590 U.S. dollars (in 2014), lifting 800 million people out of poverty.

It is expected that in 10 to 20 years this demographic will become a massive middle class.

As China shifts emphasis from heavy industry toward health care, technology, education and entertainment to accommodate a consumer-oriented economy, (and self-reliance) it already is the world’s largest exporter, according to weforum.com.  17 percent of its goods and services head to the U.S., 15.9 percent to the European Union, 15.5 percent to Hong Kong and 6.4 percent to Japan. (As President Trump further agitates trade with North American, Asian and European allies, China will absolutely exploit such frictions.) China is expected to become the world’s largest economy once again by 2030.

With President Trump considering a military Space Force, the Chinese are wisely filling space on earth. In 2013 China launched the Belt and Road Initiative. Having underwritten $900 billion in loans already, China aims to modernize the infrastructure of the ancient Silk Road, linking Europe and Eurasia. With 71 countries participating -- from Poland to Pakistan -- it also promises to revive ex-Soviet states, according The Economist. And strategically important Turkey, where over 1,000 Chinese firms operate.

But America still factors into China’s long-term prosperity.  As long as America runs large debts (everything suggests that it will continue) China prospers. It owns $1.19 trillion, or nearly 20 percent, of U.S. debt held by foreign countries. Kimberly Amadeo wrote this past May in thebalance.com that this helps China’s growth by keeping its currency weaker than the dollar. This also keeps its products (hence exports) cheaper than U.S. goods. 

As America’s largest foreign creditor, China is able to exert more political and economic influence over America as it unwittingly finances China’s grand hybrid experimentations.

James P. Freeman, a former banker, is a New England-based writer. He is a former columnist with The Cape Cod Times and The New Boston Post. 

 

 

James P. Freeman: Curling toward GOP victory

Curling in Toronto in 1909.

Curling in Toronto in 1909.

 

“Cry out full-throated and unsparingly,

Lift up your voice like a trumpet blast…”

                                                --Isaiah 58:1a

 

If voters mean what they say -- constantly expressing dissatisfaction with the current hyper-partisan political class and calling for its removal -- they could convert hyper-pandemonic emotion into action by dismissing Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren in 2018. An able replacement would be Beth Lindstrom. She is the saucer that could cool the Senate’s tea. And, maybe, ferocious minority factions.

If this is, as we are reminded daily, the Year-of-The-Woman in American politics, Lindstrom, a moderate Republican, counters the argument that her party is comprised of old white men, tired and empty. And should she win her party’s nomination to unseat Warren this autumn, her candidacy removes one stone from the hand holding the political rocks  that Warren likes to throw: the progressive granite of gender politics.

If you are Warren, you must hope that Lindstrom is not your challenger in November. For Lindstrom, personable and perspicacious, makes the improbable seem possible -- Warren’s wicked claw paralyzed; the screech silenced; the progressive oppression lifted.

For this column, appearing sturdy, cheerful and thoughtful over English Breakfast, fittingly, at a Boston hotel, the single biggest take-away is that Lindstrom is serious and compelling.

“A strong economy,” she says, is still the biggest issue for Massachusetts residents. Ever since Donald Trump won the presidency stock markets have anticipated the unbridling of America’s economic might. Higher wages, bigger bonuses and lower taxes (mere crumbs to likes of Warren and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi) are filtering into wallets and purses. A recent national poll found that the second and third most important issues to respondents were, respectively, the economy and taxes. (Healthcare ranked number one; a relative non-issue in Massachusetts since Romneycare in 2006.) This bodes well for Lindstrom’s focus on economics.

Though never elected to office, Lindstrom brings just enough public-sector experience (executive director of Massachusetts State Lottery (1997-1999); director of Consumer Affairs in Gov. Mitt Romney’s cabinet -- overseeing regulatory agencies including banking, telecommunications, energy, insurance and licensure (2003-2006)) and private-sector experience (a founder and owner of small businesses) to understand the complexities of modern government.

As President Calvin Coolidge noted nearly a century ago, “the chief business of the American people is business.” But today much of America’s business is government. Lindstrom’s skill-sets and her MBA degree, therefore, will come in handy as Trump steers his massive $1.5 trillion infrastructure initiative into a hybrid of public-private partnerships (with lots of still-unknowns).

In January, Lindstrom launched a Business Growth Tour, intended to “collaborate with Massachusetts business owners on the steps that can be taken to help them grow and expand.” Lowering costs and reducing regulation present a “fair opportunity,” she insists. Small business owners make a big voting bloc. In 2016, there were nearly 640,000 small businesses in Massachusetts. They employed 1.4 million workers, representing nearly 47 percent of all  workers in the commonwealth. And nearly 90,000 of these businesses are minority-owned.

 

Warren, meanwhile, defends her questionable lineage, and her support of Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- both saturated with excessive regulations. Do small-business proprietors think that  there are too few regulations?

Perhaps unintentionally, Lindstrom’s presence is that of a restorer of Rockefeller Republicanism -- to frustrate today’s right-wing pathology; and repairer of the breach -- the chasm between professional politicians and everyday citizens. She speaks in tones of incrementalism, not extremism.

For the doubters -- those wondering if she knows how to win in liberal Massachusetts -- Lindstrom managed Scott Brown’s successful Senate campaign eight years ago. The inconceivable to the achievable.

Lindstrom senses a tremulous electorate in 2018, like what she felt in 2010. But today it’s harder to define; and it’s not yet articulated into a slogan. (In 2010, Brown ran to capture “the people’s seat.”) She may be forgiven for defining herself as an abstraction: “A common-sense Republican.” But what does that mean? Standard definition is yesterday’s technology and yesteryear’s candidacy. It will need some high-def refinement before Warren pounces. (In 2012, incumbent Brown called himself a “Scott Brown Republican,” letting Warren ill-define him.)

Her fractured party and its national leaders pose problems, too.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky bemoans Republicans embracing Trump’s $1.5 trillion in new debts (reminiscent of Obama-era levels) and projections for unbalanced budgets for the next decade. Ironically, Rand joined Warren in opposing the recent “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018,” which increases the debt ceiling and spending by hundreds of billions of dollars over the next two years. Lindstrom believes that the GOP must remain “the party of fiscal responsibility” and determine whether spending that is “necessary versus nice.” She favors congressional term-limits and a presidential line-item veto to force the government to think long-term, not each election cycle.

Like many Americans, she winces at the president’s “tone, temperament and tweeting” but thinks that more Americans will continue reaping the benefits of Trump’s economic policies by this year’s mid-terms. And, like many Americans, she supports his tax cuts; she expects that higher growth rates (not the paltry, so-called “new normal” touted after the Great Recession) will “temper higher debts and deficits.”

Talk of voters abandoning the GOP en masse in November may be premature. Just this month, a Politico/Morning Consult poll showed Trump’s approval rating equaling the percentage of voters who disapprove of his job performance (47 percent). And on a “generic congressional ballot” basis, the same poll found that the GOP now enjoys a one-point advantage over Democrats, as of Feb. 12. Will Americans reward his policies and ignore his personality this fall?\  

Still, while Trump may be the elephant in the room, he is not on the ballot in 2018.

Fortunately for Lindstrom, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker will be on the ballot. Baker, like Lindstrom, is a moderate. And more importantly, he is also the most popular high-level politician in Massachusetts. A January WBUR poll found that 74 percent of Massachusetts voters approve of the job that Baker is doing. That means  that he is more popular than Warren, and Lindstrom hopes  that his coattails will carry Republican votes down ballot.

(Incidentally, the same poll found that: “The one somewhat positive number for Trump is that a plurality of Massachusetts voters (43 percent) say the president has been good for the overall economy.”)  

For the next few months, Lindstrom looks to build her brand. Currently fewer than 8 percent of Massachusetts residents know who she is; Warren is recognized by nearly 95 percent of residents. That’s a challenge also facing her principal Republican opponents, state Rep. Geoff Diehl and former hedge-fund executive John Kingston. But all three Republicans are confident that they will meet April’s GOP state convention threshold to appear on September’s primary ballot. It’s still early.

Voters have been watching more Olympics than politics lately. Nevertheless, they may soon understand that Lindstrom’s campaign is analogous to the winter sport of curling, which requires resistance, patience and persistence to win. Whereas Diehl and Kingston are the two-man luge. Exciting and daring, certainly, but susceptible to crashing.

James P. Freeman, a former banker, is a New England-based writer and former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal, newenglanddiary.com and nationalreview.com.

James P. Freeman: R.I.'s moderate Democrat Gina Raimondo a very consequential governor

The Slatersville Stone Arch Bridge, in  the old Blackstone River Valley industrial zone.

The Slatersville Stone Arch Bridge, in  the old Blackstone River Valley industrial zone.

 

For more than 200 years water has flowed underneath a bridge in North Smithfield, in the Blackstone Valley corridor of the smallest state in the Union, which helped usher in  the American Industrial Revolution. The Slatersville Stone Arch Bridge, the oldest masonry bridge in Rhode Island -- built in 1855 to replace the original wooden structure and subsequently listed on the National Register of Historic Places – was for decades neglected and structurally deficient. Now it’s undergoing a complete rehabilitation at a $13.5 million cost. The bridge is symbolic of the state’s rise and fall. And now its revival.

Much of that effort is being spearheaded by Gov. Gina Raimondo.

Amidst the partisan tempest -- The Great Political Uncentering -- Raimondo, 46, the state’s first female executive, stands in defiance of political trends. And recent history. She’s seeking re-election this year, after a record of public service that has been a series of calculated experiments. She is arguably the nation’s most consequential reform-minded, results-oriented politician. She is resuscitating a nearly extinct species -- Truman Democrats. She is a pro-growth moderate and has handled heavy turbulence.

For an insular and provincial state -- where coffee milk is the official drink, Catholic Mass is still televised on Sunday mornings and, unbelievably, New England Cable News is not offered for viewing by the largest telecommunications provider -- the last decade was particularly cruel. Nothing went as planned and many plans went for nothing.

In the wake of The Great Recession of 2008-2009, Rhode Island’s already corroded economy saw unemployment spike close to 12 percent while housing prices plunged 27 percent. In 2010, after luring it away from Massachusetts, the state financed Curt Schilling’s scandal-plagued video-game start-up, 38 Studios, with $75 million in bonds before the company went bankrupt, two years later. And in 2011, sparking national headlines, Central Falls, a city with a population of 19,376, covering an area a little over a square mile (more densely populated than Boston), filed for bankruptcy, raising concerns that other heavily encumbered municipalities (including the capital, Providence) might follow suit.  

Residents probably needed a professional psychologist to lead them out of their depressed state.

Instead, they chose a thoughtful capitalist. Raimondo -- a Rhode Island native with degrees in economics (Harvard), sociology (Oxford) and law (Yale), and co-founder of the state’s first venture-capital firm, Point Judith Capital -- was elected state treasurer in 2010. So began the secular resurrection.

Raimondo immediately understood a law of modern politics that most public officials refuse to acknowledge or act upon: Demographics is destiny.

Overly generous and ambitious, yet massively underfunded, pension assurances to Rhode Island’s aging population coupled with a rapidly hemorrhaging fiscal condition (exacerbated by the recession) were certain to wreak financial havoc. A series of cascading municipal failures would likely render the state itself technically insolvent. And that would be unchartered territory (a state declaring bankruptcy is not a contingency properly addressed under current bankruptcy laws). Raimondo foresaw that imminent horror.

So, the treasurer did something astounding. She conducted town-hall-style meetings exposing the severity of the crisis. And she told the unions and pensioners something that  few Democrats ever say to those loyal constituents: “No!”

She engineered an overhaul by suspending cost-of-living increases and raising the retirement age for retirees, pointing the system towards solvency. Raimondo also understood state law. While many state pension systems are determined by contract (making modifications more difficult under constitutional law), Rhode Island’s, by statute, lets the government, if so inclined, make changes via swift legislative maneuvering, not protracted judicial wrangling.

It worked.

Predictably, though, public-sector unions fulminated and sued. A September 2014 Washington Post editorial noted, “In the face of ferocious opposition from labor, she explained the plain budgetary impossibility of maintaining pensions at the levels promised by politicians in Providence.”

Still, she was able to win the governorship that year with 41 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Later, in 2015, she negotiated legal settlements that preserved the reforms in the face of continued legal opposition. Her efforts are proof that pension reforms can be administered and may prove to be a model for other states suffocating under mountains of indebtedness.  

Just after Raimondo was elected governor (the first Democrat in over 20 years to win the office despite Rhode Island being heavily Democratic) and after the national Republican congressional victory in 2014, The Daily Beast’s Joel Kotkin demanded that Democrats go back-to-the-future: “Time to Bring Back the Truman Democrats.”

“To regain their relevancy,” he hypothesized, “Democrats need to go back to their evolutionary roots. Their clear priorities: faster economic growth and promoting upward mobility for the middle and working classes. All other issues -- racial, feminine, even environmental -- need to fit around this central objective.”

Raimondo, perhaps instinctively, has embraced much of this sensible framework. Most of it via a back-to-basics moderate agenda. Actually, future-to-the-basics.

In February 2016, she launched Rhode Works, a comprehensive 10-year transportation improvement program to repair crumbling roads and bridges. Rhode Island ranked dead last (50 out of 50 states) in overall bridge condition and is one of the only states that did not charge user fees to large commercial trucks on its roadways, which do most of the damage to roads and bridges. Tolling on certain roads begins this winter. Unsurprisingly, she is facing more opposition. This time from trucking associations, leery of the legislation; claiming that they’re being  unfairly discriminated against, they are threatening lengthy lawsuits. But her infrastructure initiative might be a template for the anticipated trillion-dollar federal program.

Raimondo has also looked north for much of her inspiration. It’s home to another moderate.

In her fourth State of the State address she made this startling admission: “For decades, we just sat back and watched as Massachusetts rebuilt and thrived. Boston and its suburbs flourished, while the mill buildings along {Route} 95 and the Blackstone River stood vacant and crumbling. The resurgence in Massachusetts didn't just happen. It wasn't an accident. They had a strategy and a plan to create jobs and put cranes in the sky. They used job-training investments and incentives to create thousands of jobs in and around Boston.”

Why not study a success story?

Unlike many parochial powerbrokers of the past who were content to resist change, at the state’s peril, Raimondo recognizes that Rhode Island’s is  part of a regional economy. Indeed, in many ways it is dependent on Massachusetts’s economy. Two-thirds of Rhode Island’s population is within a 20-minute drive to any Massachusetts border. (Incidentally, she made the trip at least twice last year by appearing on WGBH’s Greater Boston program, marketing her ideas and progress.)

Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker is the most popular governor in the country, with a 69 percent approval rating. He too is a moderate (a Rockefeller Republican), a technocrat, and also up for re-election this year. While Raimondo’s most recent approval rating stands at only 41 percent, that figure may be distorted and artificially low. Baker’s reforms have centered on the inner workings of government, largely lost on everyday residents. Raimondo’s reforms, meanwhile, have been about the very public machinations and expressions of government. Her controversial actions have directly affected,  and been clear to, the entire electorate.

Today, the unemployment rate is 4.3 percent. Last March, The New York Times wrote, “Ms. Raimondo’s frenzy of economic and job development is striking because Rhode Island has long been in a slump. It was the last state to emerge from the recession that began in 2007. As recently as 2014, it bore the nation’s highest unemployment rate for seven months in a row.” At the same time, private-sector employment has reached its highest level ever.

Even with forward momentum, the governor may be more popular outside the state than within. Two years ago, Raimondo and then-Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, a Republican who is now the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., were cited by Fortune Magazine as two female governors being among the world’s 50 greatest leaders. And last month, she was named as new vice chair of the Democratic Governors Association.

Big challenges, however, still loom large locally. The Pawtucket Red Sox, Boston’s minor-league affiliate, are threatening to leave the state. (Will the public finance a nine-figure stadium for a rich, privately owned team?) Nearly a third, or $3.1 billion,  of the state budget is funded by the federal government. And opioids continue to consume lives.    

But due to Raimondo’s centrist leadership -- despite the occasional progressive flourish (tuition-free community college) -- she has largely validated Kotkin’s hypothesis by focusing primarily on economic matters. Rhode Island might finally be poised for a 21st Century renaissance.

As the Slatersville bridge undergoes its third iteration in its third century, Rhode Island voters are reminded of this possibility in 2018 -- the Year of the Woman.  Should Raimondo be re-elected and serve a full second four-year term, she would be just the third woman (all Democrats) in American history to do so (after Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm and Washington’s Christine Gregoire).

And with the Clintons out of the running,  serious Democrats must consider her fortitude and record of accomplishment  when they’re looking for vice-presidential timber for 2020.

James P. Freeman, a former banker, is a New England-based writer and former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal, newenglanddiary.com and nationalreview.com.

James P. Freeman: A bumpy trip though Massachusetts's circus of 2017

circus.jpg

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools”
—  William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act V, Scene V)

The struts and frets of 2017 confirm we are on a portentous path to a dusty death.

Is there a doctor still in the house?

The Massachusetts Medical Society rescinded its opposition to physician-assisted suicide. Perhaps that phrase was too forthright in these sensitive times. So, a statement from the society reads “medical aid-in-dying.” The society’s governing board will, for now, adopt of position of “neutral engagement.” Theirs might be a dutiful death.

Newly offensive public statues and monuments were the rage. In Boston a street sign, “Yawkey Way,” so-named 40 years ago, became an object of moral grandstanding. Red Sox owner John Henry is now “haunted” by the racist legacy of a predecessor  owner, Tom Yawkey. Never mind that the Yawkey Foundation is one of the largest charitable organizations in the city. Henry and fellow progressives are more concerned about erasing history than improving it.

The Boston Globe — which Henry owns — haunted many subscribers with delivery and production problems. The Globe got it wrong in asking its readers this question: “Does Boston deserve its racist reputation?” More probing would have been: “How does racism still exist after a century of pure-bred progressivism in Boston?”

Bad news. The Boston Herald filed for bankruptcy and was sold for pennies on the dollar.

Boston Public Schools needed a bigger piggy bank, surprisingly, as it paid certain employees with off-the-books payments, revealed an IRS audit. But they won’t be pressing the snooze button. BPS announced (based upon computer research) the rescheduling of most of its starting times next school year.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh was overwhelmingly re-elected to a second term. No mention during the campaign that Walsh overwhelmingly crushed free speech and freedom of the press during the Free Speech Rally in August.

Andrea Campbell, 35, will be the first African-American woman to lead the Boston City Council. Her presidency, says The Globe, will make the council the “most diverse in the city’s history.” Forget political diversity, though. Republicans need not apply — there are none on the council.

For all the region’s proud progressives, don’t kiss and tell. The following codswallop appeared in wearyourvoicemag.com:  “10 Things Every Intersectional Feminist Should Ask on a First Date.” Warning: “What do you do for fun?” isn’t one of them.

Amazon came calling and Massachusetts went groveling. Twenty-six Commonwealth entities submitted bids to become the company’s second headquarters.

Take the long road home. State Sen. Thomas McGee, a Democrat from Lynn, proposed legislation that would bring more toll roads to Greater Boston. Funds would be allocated to all statewide transportation needs, including the troubled MBTA. For roadways, however, Massachusetts already spends an average of $675,939 per state-controlled mile — a figure exceeded only by Florida and New Jersey.

Massachusetts Atty. Gen. Maura Healey continued her quest as progressivism’s most litigious social-justice warrior. Her personal vendetta against the Trump administration included 24 instances of legal intervention in just the first six months of the year. How about Ticketmaster? Drug dealers?

A high school girl golfer beat a high school boy golfer by shooting the best score in the Central Massachusetts Division 3 boys’ golf tournament this fall. But she did not get the trophy, sparking national headlines and progressive incredulity.

In more gender-related news, the Girl Scouts of America advised against children hugging relatives. Such activity, reported The Washington Post, “could muddy the waters when it comes to the notion of consent later in life.” Meantime, the Boy Scouts of America accepted girls into their ranks to “shape the next generation of leaders.” And the singer Pink is raising her daughter gender-neutral. No wonder kids are confused today.

Poor Johnny and Jane.

Liz Phipps Soeiro, a librarian at Cambridgeport School, refused to accept a gift of Dr. Seuss books from First Lady Melania Trump — a gesture recognizing “National Read a Book Day.” The Seuss illustrations are “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes,” she wrote in a letter to Trump. Shortly thereafter, it was discovered Soeiro posed for a picture in 2015 wearing a Seuss outfit and holding a copy of Green Eggs and Ham book. Only in Cambridge. Well, maybe not …

In a letter to parents, the Boyden Elementary School, in Walpole, bizarrely asserted that its annual Halloween costume parade “is not inclusive of all the students and it is our goal each and every day to ensure all student’s individual differences are respected.” Instead, trading a parade for political correctness, the school laughably said that Halloween would be known as “black and orange” spirit day. Call it Banned in Boyden.

Not on my ocean view! Having faced a “very vicious and very well-funded lobbying organization” to protect Nantucket Sound for 17 years, said Bloomberg, the last gale warnings were issued for America’s largest proposed  (and now dead) offshore wind project, known as “Cape Wind.” It’s officially kaput. Some wonder if Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth will now close, as scheduled, in 2019. Power down, green protesters!

Scandals ran down Beacon Hill. Former Democrat state Sen. Brian Joyce was indicted in a sweeping federal corruption case. i And Democrat Stan Rosenberg stepped down as state Senate president amid an investigation of sexual-assault allegations against his civil-law husband, Bryon Hefner — while he conducted state business. Rosenberg said the Senate has a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual harassment.

Charlie Baker is running for Comedian-in-Chief of the Commonwealth. When the popular incumbent announced his re-election, a running joke circulated within the GOP:  “For which party?” Confirming his unassailable allegiance to progressivism instead of conservativism, the governor signed bills mandating free birth control and bilingual education.

Always in character, thin-skinned progressive U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren got her feathers ruffled with faux-outrage, once again. She said President Donald Trump used a “racial slur” during a White House celebration of Native Americans when he referred to her as “Pocahontas.” Funny, did she consider the 1995 eponymous movie to be a slur, too? Millions didn’t. The Disney animation grossed over $141 million during its theatrical release in the United States.

Among the initially named visiting fellows at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics for the 2017-2018 school year were two improbable scholars:  former Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and former U.S. Army intelligence-analyst-turned-traitor Chelsea Manning. Harvard students are falling behind … Fordham students. Two students were kicked out of a coffee shop at Fordham University for violating a “safe space” with their “Make America Great Again” hats.

Shootings were up 18 percent in Boston. There was no evidence, nonetheless, that those weapons were modified with “bump stocks.” But bump stocks were outlawed in Massachusetts as a threat to society.

Fifty years after The Summer of Love, take the flowers out of your hair but be sure to put some LSD in your head. People looking to get an “extra edge at work are turning to [the] illegal drug to boost their focus and creativity,” reported fox25boston.com. They are micro-dosing, which involves taking small amounts of the substance about twice a week. Says computational neuroscientist Selen Atasoy, “It’s really like jazz improvisation, what LSD does to your brain.” Will it block progressive impulses in 5/4 time?

Psychedelic meet-up groups are trending in Portland, Ore.; San Francisco, and New York. Cutting-edge hipster millennials in Boston are likely meeting now.

Meanwhile, the opioid crisis rages on. However, for the first nine months of 2017, Massachusetts reported a 10 percent decline in deaths over the like period in 2016, likely a result of more immediate administration of Naloxone, which reverses the effects of overdose. Theirs is a dusky death.

Needham-based TripAdvisor, the travel and restaurant Web site (which includes reviews and public forums), got into trouble when it repeatedly removed posts warning of alleged rape, assault and other injuries at Mexican resorts. And, forbes.com reported, a writer in London tricked TripAdvisor by creating a “fictional eatery” that became the city’s top rated restaurant. Trust but verify.

Snowflakes actually coated the College of Holy Cross in May. A committee was formed to determine what to do about the fact that its founding president owned slaves, and what to do with a now-objectionable sports name: “Crusaders.” As National Review noted, “where there’s a will, there’s a microaggression.”

Not to be outdone, Pope Francis, a leader in thoughts and words, is considering a change in one word of “The Lord’s Prayer.” The pontiff, conversant in nine languages, is concerned about the word “temptation.” He believes that the phrasing in the Our Father prayer “is not a good translation.” Will this translate to stemming high rates of disaffiliation plaguing the Catholic Church?

Next year, should it be tempted to arrive, marks the 45th commemoration of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion. Since then, it is estimated that over 58 million abortions have taken place in America. As a stark reminder, the only gravestone on the premises of the chapel at Holy Trinity Church in Harwich reads: “In memory of The Unborn – Denied the Precious Right to Life (1973-   ).” Theirs was a despicable death.

James P. Freeman, a former banker, is a New England-based writer and former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal, newenglanddiary.com and nationalreview.com

James P. Freeman: Taylor Swift shows herself as a coldly calculating capitalist and techno tyrant

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift

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Fans of Taylor Swift (a part-time resident of Watch Hill, R.I.) should prepare themselves for despair. In youthful vernacular, Hundo P will dissolve to Sus and Salty AF. Girls will cry. Fingers will point. Ticketmaster will shrug … And Taylor Swift will need a bigger bank. A databank.

In early November, Swift, America’s biggest and most influential pop sensation, announced a massive new world tour beginning next May (stopping at Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium on July 28). She is employing Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan, a new process to purchase tickets, where Swift and Ticketmaster are committed “to getting tickets in the hands of fans. Not scalpers or bots.” Their collaboration, they say, will help fans — mostly teenage girls — get the best access to tickets “in a really fun way.”

Those efforts will fail. Badly.

On Dec. 5, many Swift fans felt Swiftboated. That date marked the beginning of her Presale (a ticket-buying window usually limited to fan clubs and corporate sponsor clients, but prone to ticket-buying bots masquerading as humans). The date also marks the time when young fans will learn a bitter lesson in economics and literature that no school can teach. A date — an early Pearl Harbor Day for “Tay” fanatics — when dollars, disappointment, and Orwell collide. Even non-fans should take notice.

Ticketmaster, America’s largest primary ticket distributor, conceived Verified Fan last year after Adele’s 2016 world tour.

When tickets first went on sale, in December 2015, 10 million people initially attempted to purchase 750,000 tickets. The market acted supremely efficiently with this vicious demand-supply imbalance:  Prices rose dramatically (face value is not necessarily indicative of market value). Conveniently, though, Ticketmaster and ticketless fans blamed high-speed computer programs (called bots) and scalpers for market disruptions (price gouging). So, Ticketmaster created Verified Fan with this noble goal:  ensuring more so-called “true fans” secure valid tickets at reasonable prices.

But Verified Fan is troubling on a practical and philosophical level.

Just ask U2 and Bruce Springsteen fans.

Last August, Springsteen on Broadway, a limited engagement, used the new system that, in the words of observer.com, “wasn’t born to run properly.” Fans were subjected to a “confusing” and “complicated” process. To make matters worse, “Verified Fan didn’t stop bots and scalpers from reselling tickets.” In fact, seats were “listed on StubHub for $2,500 before tickets even went on sale to the general public.”

More recently, U2 fans (for whom, or perhaps against whom, Verified Fan is being used for the first time on a full-scale arena tour) expressed loud Irish stage whispers over the new process anticipating the band’s 2018 tour. Malfunctioning codes (read on) and miscommunication, among other problems, greeted Presale and General Sale participants seeking tickets for next year. So bad was the global reaction that U2’s manager felt compelled to respond to numerous fan sites. On Twitter, there is a thread #Verified Scam. It is sure to grow more active.

But Taylor Swift and Ticketmaster take “Taylor Swift Tix Powered by Ticketmaster Verified Fan” to a whole new devious and disingenuous level.

Unlike hyperventilating analog Beatles fans in 1964, hyperactive digital Swift fans in 2017 had to register on her official Web site and further register (linking) on Ticketmaster’s website to become a “verified fan” (and further register with a given concert venue).

It sounds simple enough. However, unlike U2 and Springsteen fans, Swift fans were encouraged to participate in “unique activities” to bolster their verified fan status. For unsuspecting young people, the euphemistic and purposely vague phrase “unique activities” (which sounds like it came straight out of a Cold War-era espionage enterprise) means, in ticket industry parlance, “boosting.”

This disturbing practice was explained on Swift’s Ticketmaster FAQ site. Boost activities “come in all shapes and sizes.” Her fans were implored to “watch the latest music video on the portal, purchase the album, post photos, and engage on social media to boost your opportunity to unlock access to tickets.”

Even before boosting began, there was reasonable skepticism about the entire initiative. Some accused the entertainer of scamming her most dedicated fans. Those sentiments gain credible strength given the preposterous activities fans were instructed to indulge.

There were music boosts, merchandise boosts, UPS boosts (where fans could spot and track — Seriously! — the exclusive Taylor Swift UPS Truck), friends and family boosts, video boosts, and social media boosts. Theoretically, more activity meant more opportunity to move up the virtual electronic line to get tickets. “While boosts are optional, we hope you’ll play along with the Taylor community and to help you unlock the best opportunity to access tickets!”

Ticketmaster isn’t Sesame Street. But it still wanted you to “come on down …” A series of Swift-sanctioned YouTube videos — examples of strategic marketing — targeted her young fan base with animated kitten cartoons. One tells fans Ticketmaster’s new approach is “better” and “fun.” In another, the female announcer says, “you’re the best fans” “doing the best things” “to get the best seats possible.” And, the voice continues with sinister serenity, “it was easy to do, because who doesn’t love boosting their faith?”

Place not your faith in boosts.

Throughout the entire marketing campaign Swift and Ticketmaster strongly implied that all the boosting aerobics would result in true fans actually purchasing face value tickets. They won’t. And many fail to understand this crucial point. Just like popsugar.com. It mistakenly asserted on a Nov. 18 posting, “dedicated fans will be able to purchase tickets in advance through the Ticketmaster …” Potentially millions won’t. Simply registering for Verified Fan guaranteed fans absolutely nothing. Fans only had the opportunity for access. They are guaranteed neither access nor tickets.

This all smacks of false advertising. And pay to play. Or, more precisely, pay to prey.

More dangerous is that while fans are paying Swift for swag, they are also unwittingly paying both Ticketmaster and Swift for the privilege of obtaining lots of their personal information (cell phone, email, credit card, and social media — Twitter and Facebook). They are not only custodians of this information, but they actively monitor and track that sensitive information. And they determine if you are a true fan or even a living human.

Even if this strategy is a “brilliant scheme,” Elana Fishman writes in racked.com, “challenging fans (and their parents) to assert their loyalty by spending the most money possible feels problematic, particularly considering how expensive concert tickets are in the first place.”

For Ticketmaster and Swift, Big Brother and Big Sister, the new thought police of entertainment, big fan data collection is more important than ticket distribution and fan satisfaction. What happens to all this data? Who will have access to this data, after the last song is sung? Will tracking continue indefinitely? The tour begins in Arizona but will likely end in Oceania.

For now, though, Ticketmaster will use “data science technology,” a software program, to determine winners and losers. Boosting activities for the Swift tour closed on Nov. 28, the last day for fans to register as Verified Fans. Afterwards, recode.com explains, “Ticketmaster [will] take time to figure out if [you’re] human, looking for clues like past ticket-buying history and social posts, and lets ticket-buyers know if they’ve made the cut.”

After all this, inquisitive young minds will be asking this question: “When will I know my final spot in line?”

The answer is inadequate:  Sometime after the 28th. Certain fans (not all) who are certified as “verified” will receive an email message with further instructions about the Presale. Early on Tuesday, Dec. 5 (the start of the Presale, “T-Day”), verified fans got a text message with a link to search for tickets and a second text message with a unique code to access tickets. Even with access, tickets are not guaranteed. Remember, fans will never be told where their final spot in line lies. If anyone knows, it’s Ticketmaster.

Verified Fan and boosting have never been used in tandem on something as big as Swift’s new stadium tour. Dave Brooks, executive editor of the concert-industry trade magazine Amplify, estimated in August that demand for Swift tickets is at five to 10 times the amount of available seats. And boosting probably created added levels of artificial demand. December 5 promises mountainous chaos.

All entertainers want to capture hearts and minds. Now they want to capture data.

Swift’s cuddly embrace of Verified Fan and Boosting means she has shed her quirky, feel-good, girl-power persona. In its place is a new calculating capitalist and tenacious technologist. A cold character.

Legions of disappointed fans will learn a painful lesson. At school, everyone gets an award. At Taylor Swift Presale, not everyone gets a ticket. Ticketmaster and Swift will eventually learn a lesson, too. Passion is an emotion, not a metric, and devotion can not be measured by bits and bytes. True fans are humans, not data points.

This piece first appeared in The New Boston Post. James P. Freeman, a former banker, is a New England-based writer and  a former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. His wortk

 

James P. Freeman: Boston's mayor should keep his ambitions within reality

Boston Mayor Martin ("Marty'') Walsh.

Boston Mayor Martin ("Marty'') Walsh.

“Believe or not I’m walking on air
I never thought I could be so free
Flying away on a wing and a prayer, who could it be?
Believe it or
not it’s just me”

— Theme from The Greatest American Hero (“Believe It or Not”)

In homogeneously progressive Boston  pell-mell fantasy  can exceed partisan reality.

Appearing on WGBH's Greater Boston a day before Election Day to promote his book Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, former aide to the late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, was getting a second thrill going up his leg. When asked who in the Democratic Party today is closest to the late senator (presumably in temperament and spirit), Matthews responded with understated hyperbole:  “Maybe the mayor here.”   

And on WCVB-TV’s Sunday political program OTR five days after Election Day, the usually rational Patrick Griffin was clearly under the influence of hypnosis. Or something else. When asked during the roundtable discussion who had the “best week,” the Republican strategist responded with overstated gusto. “Marty Walsh!” Where the mayor, newly reelected, is now poised and positioned to begin a “national narrative.” Well.

Cue the needle scratching over the record.

With little enthusiasm (just 27 percent voter turnout in the general election; 14 percent in the primary), little competition (his challenger lost by over 30 percentage points), and little in the way of transformational advancement during a single term (understandable after following the longest-serving Boston mayor, the late Thomas Menino (five terms, 1993-2014)), Boston Mayor Marty Walsh won re-election. And, summoning ghosts in machine politics, Walsh is — so say observers — now worthy of higher office in Massachusetts and, possibly, a position in national affairs. Play me a new song.

Walsh’s parochial progressivism may in fact appeal to those outside  Routes 128 and I-495. And that may even extend beyond, to the hills of Williamstown and West Stockbridge, if he were to seek statewide office. But it stops there. (Besides, he will have to wait until 2022 to run for governor, when, presumably, Charlie Baker will be leaving, with the state in better condition than when he found it, after serving two terms.)

Thrilling for conservatives, Walsh’s platitudinous progressive record will play like warped vinyl on the national stage. It will be punched through with holes, and its collection of Democratic covers will be relegated to the bargain bin of bad ideas. Like abandoned vinyl records. 

Still, it will be fun listening. (Will he reprise Hillary Clinton’s “Listening Tours”?)

How does Walsh propose to solve problems in the country that he hasn’t been able to solve in the city or the commonwealth? The playlist is long but exposes progressivism’s universal shortcomings:  affordable housing, income inequality, climate disruption, sanctuary cities (some calling for sanctuary states), and public education.

And his first forays into the national spotlight proved opportunistic and potentially disastrous: He essentially blamed his hyper-interest in Boston’s 2024 Olympic bid as a form of payola, a political payoff to honor the legacy of a commitment made by the Menino administration. No friend of the First Amendment, he essentially suppressed freedom of speech and freedom of the press during the monstrously overblown Free Speech rally last August on Boston Common, despite favorable media coverage. That won’t work on the National Mall.

In many regards, Walsh is instinctively progressive but he has learned lessons from his Massachusetts mentors.

If you can’t fix it, expand it. Former Gov. Deval Patrick proposed in 2013 massive growth of the state’s transportation system, while he ignored the troubled MBTA. If you can’t improve it, market it. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s persistent message in tweets and books is that ever more government is what is needed to make America great again.

Walsh hasn’t written any books, but that didn’t stop him in 2016 from actually issuing a suggested reading list to all Bostonians. Reading is not fundamental in Boston. The booklist directive reflects the new soft sell of progressive bullying:  from the cold engineering of public power to the warm “engagement” of like-minded citizens. For Walsh’s Boston (like Warren’s America) believes in diversity of all aspects of life. Except thought. Or political party.

Walsh can’t even claim one thing that Patrick and Warren could:  reaching across the aisle to work with Republicans. Because there are no Republicans in the elected part of Boston government.

City Hall is not a standard steppingstone to the Oval Office. Only two mayors have gone on to become president of the United States. The first was Grover Cleveland, former mayor of Buffalo, N.Y. (1882), who is the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms (1885-1889 and 1893-1897). And the last was Calvin Coolidge, former mayor of Northampton, Mass. (1910-1911), who, as vice president, became president in 1923, when President Warren Harding died of a heart attack. Coolidge is the only American to be a mayor, lieutenant governor (1916-1919, Massachusetts), governor (1919-1921, Massachusetts), vice president, and president. He might be the last.

Mayors fare better becoming senators. Today, they include Dianne Feinstein (San Francisco), Bernie Sanders (Burlington, Vt.) and Cory Booker (Newark, N.J.). There might be a practical explanation behind these histories.

As citymayors.com explains, “Americans, not surprisingly, have come to respect big-city mayors as managers, but not necessarily as custodians of important values.”

Over the last 30 years, Massachusetts politicians have had difficulty articulating ideas — exporting local values? — that resonate with voters outside of the commonwealth, into electoral victory for national office. Probably, their loud, turgid progressivism is incomprehensible to the nation. And moderates are undoubtedly viewed with suspicion — guilty-by-approximation to progressives. Walsh must be acutely aware of the performance of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (1980), Gov. Michael Dukakis (1988), the late Sen.  Paul Tsongas (1992), Sen. John Kerry (2004), and Gov. Mitt Romney (2012) in presidential contests. What will happen to Elizabeth Warren in 2020?

With or without Warren, Walsh may decide next decade, cape in hand, that he will be the Greatest American Hero to progressive causes. For now, though, those lofty aspirations are prematurely foolish.

Should America reject Warren and Walsh’s propulsive progressivism, the consolation prize might be membership in an exclusive club. They could join George McGovern, who won just one state in 1972. In a landslide, he swept Massachusetts. As they likely would too.


James P. Freeman, a former banker, is a New England-based writer and former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal and here, in newenglanddiary.com.

James P. Freeman: With Halperin scandal, etc., time to pull the plug on NBC

“Perhaps the surest test of an individual’s integrity is his refusal

to do or say anything that would damage his self-respect.”

—  Thomas S. Monson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The NBC Peacock is no longer fanning its colorful plumage.

It is now cowering and no longer proud, given the news of sexual misconduct by a contributor at its affiliate, MSNBC. Trouble is an ongoing program at the cable network. Left-leaning viewers — and all serious students of politics -- should be looking to pull the plug on MSNBC.

Mark Halperin is the latest collateral damage in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment/sexual predator scandal. Halperin is a former political director of ABC News, former co-managing editor of Bloomberg Politics,   host of Showtime’s The Circus (a politics-focused documentary series), an author (Game Change), and, since 2010, a political analyst at MSNBC. He is also accused by multiple women of sexual harassment during the time he worked at ABC.

One woman, Lara Setrakian, wrote about her ugly Halperin experience for The Washington Post. And another, Eleanor McManus, did the same, writing on cnn.com. After acknowledging his “inappropriate” behavior, MSNBC and NBC have terminated Halperin’s contract. (Other media enterprises have also severed relationships with him.)

The Halperin case is troubling on several levels — most importantly, of course, about the well-being of the affected women. But also troubling are issues surrounding Halperin’s — and, particularly, MSNBC’s — integrity and character.

Halperin said, “I now understand from these accounts that my behavior was inappropriate and caused others pain.” Now?  This suggests that, until recently, Halperin considered and understood his lewd actions to be acceptable behavior.

It is not far-fetched to suggest, then, that a man unable to distinguish between fundamental basics of right and wrong behavior on a personal level, is also unable to distinguish between right and wrong on a journalistic level, too. Notably, Halperin was suspended in 2011 by MSNBC about a vulgar comment he made regarding President  Obama on the show Morning Joe. He was encouraged to “take a chance,” ironically, by hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. That episode explains a lot. Especially about MSNBC.

Just as disturbing for MSNBC — and, for that matter, the larger media industry — Halperin’s boorish behavior was well known to many people long before last week’s revelations. As thedailybeast.com reported, “According to numerous sources at NBC, MSNBC, ABC and Bloomberg, the private allegations of Halperin’s sexual misconduct were an open secret, particularly in New York City and D.C. political media, for many years.” One prominent cable-news host told The Daily Beast, “Everybody knew.” Except, apparently, the Morning Joe hosts. And MSNBC executives.

Still, it is hard to believe that the normally sanctimonious Brzezinski (along with her pugnacious fiancé, Scarborough; they are the penultimate politically connected, media-savvy power couple; the “In-Crowd”) did not know. In her on-air statement last Friday, Brzezinski seemed almost surprised by the serious charges against Halperin. (She said, with trembling voice “Now, ah, we’re looking at it, we’re talking about it …” and added, “We need to know what happened …”)  Now? How did they not know of this “open secret” before last week?

What isn’t surprising is this:  Readers of this column are likely subject to more intense scrutiny and vetting for their jobs than Halperin was when passing through the sieve-like gates of talent acquisition at MSNBC.

Sexual harasser?  Check.

In 1996, Microsoft and  the National Broadcasting Co.  formed a partnership with the goal of fusing branded content and state-of-the-art technology for both television and online distribution. The collaboration became MSNBC. It was launched nearly three months before Fox News and was seen, at first, as an alternative to CNN. But with the rise in  ratings of Fox News  over more than a decade, MSNBC turned decidedly left, attracting a definitively progressive audience. Today, long after Microsoft divested its interests, the network is competing with Fox News for cable news and commentary supremacy (and ratings).

Morning Joe, incidentally, occupies the same time slot that was held by Imus in the Morning, the radio program simulcast on MSNBC. The Imus cable program was dropped in 2007 after Don Imus uttered a racial slur against the Rutgers University women’s basketball team.

At MSNBC it seems that personal integrity is not linked to professional integrity.

Halperin joined a  roster of misfits and malcontents — poseurs of serious journalism — at MSNBC where standards seem fluid, if unnecessary. Mike Barnicle, unrepentant, is still a frequent contributor to Morning Joe and is opaquely listed as “Veteran Columnist,” despite resigning from The Boston Globe in 1998 amid plagiarism charges as a columnist. Another MSNBC veteran, the Rev.  Al Sharpton, unapologetic in his role as inflamer of racial tensions in New York City during the incendiary Tawana Brawley incident in the 1980s, has had longstanding issues of unpaid taxes; since 2011, he has hosted the now weekly PoliticsNation. And Brian Williams, was removed as anchor of NBC’s Nightly News in 2015 after embellishing several stories (called “inaccurate statements”) that were “ego-driven.” His time in Purgatory was brief; he is now host of The 11th Hour With Brian Williams. As the in-house advertisement on MSNBC says:  “This Is Who We Are.”

And who can forget past contributors to journalistic excellence at MSNBC?

Keith Olbermann, former host of The Countdown, was suspended in 2010 for apparently violating an NBC News ethics policy by making campaign donations to Democratic congressional candidates. He left in 2011. Ed Schultz, former host of The Ed Show, was suspended in 2011 for calling Laura Ingraham a “right wing slut.” His show was cancelled in 2015. And Melissa Harris-Perry, professor at Wake Forest University, and former host of MHP,  apologized in 2013 for comments on her show about Mitt Romney’s  African-American adopted grandchild. Mercifully, she and the network parted ways last year. Truth, justice and the MSNBC way.

True journalists must be lonely at MSNBC and its parent, NBC. One of them was Ronan Farrow, a former MSNBC contributor and former freelancer at NBC News. While at NBC, after months of scrupulous research and on-the-record sourcing, he had an iron-clad explosive exposé on Harvey Weinstein’s exploits. But NBC News President Noah Oppenheim killed the story, which ultimately appeared in The New Yorker. (Raising legitimate conflict-of-interest concerns as Oppenheim also moonlights as a Hollywood screenwriter.)

On a daily basis, though, NBC reporters use anonymous sources without hesitation for negative stories about President Trump. Such are the tribulations of intrepid journalists at a national media conglomerate with many layers of hierarchical management (MSNBC, NBC News, NBC Universal, Comcast).

Earlier this year, Ted Koppel, an elder statesman of journalism and a former host of ABC’s Nightline, said, in a feature segment for CBS Sunday Morning during an interview with Sean Hannity, that the Fox host and his show were “Bad for America,” lamenting the political polarization of American life. Especially regarding cable news programs. Koppel’s sentiments are understandable and largely correct. For Fox is hardly "fair and balanced''.

But Fox has also cleaned its house of the likes of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly — and, most recently, Eric Bolling — before the Weinstein scandal broke. In retrospect, it is highly probable that Halperin would still be at MSNBC had the Weinstein story not been made public. Ironically, MSNBC is the biggest beneficiary of Fox’s personnel problems. For this year's third quarter, MSNBC had its most-watched quarter ever, it was reported in September. And, remarkably, the network is in the closest competitive position to Fox News in 17 years. Just imagine what new viewers are being exposed to every day. When will Koppel dwell on MSNBC?

Next June will mark the 10-year anniversary of the death of NBC’s well-respected Tim Russert, the longest-serving moderator of Meet The Press. NBC and MSNBC would be unrecognizable to him today, and his journalistic excellence and impeccable integrity are unrecognizable to those who reduce such attributes to parody at NBC and MSNBC.

Meanwhile, the Peacock scampers, searching for the giants. But the ghosts of Huntley-Brinkley, John Chancellor and Tim Russert are long gone.

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer,  former columnist with The Cape Cod Times and former banker. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal, newenglanddiary.com and nationalreview.com.

James P. Freeman: Questions for two GOP candidates eager to take on Senator Warren

It’s been said that you can’t split dead wood.

Surprisingly, the Massachusetts Republican Party, usually barren tundra when competing in statewide races, is fielding a forest of formidable candidates to challenge Democrat incumbent U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren in 2018. Two of them — Beth Lindstrom and John Kingston — are twin oaks of establishment politics and just recently announced their candidacies. They are worthy contenders, nevertheless, and deserve recognition.

Lindstrom is a Groton resident. She was executive director of the Massachusetts Lottery in the 1990s and, later, worked as director of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation while Mitt Romney was governor. She also managed Scott Brown’s successful U.S. Senate campaign during the 2010 special election and is the first female executive director of the state Republican Party. Lindstrom appeared, notably, on television ads in 2014 for a super PAC backing Republican Charlie Baker. She announced her candidacy on Twitter on Aug. 21, with a formal announcement on Oct. 14.

John Kingston is a Winchester resident. He is a rich businessman and philanthropist. He was a lawyer at Ropes & Gray and went on to hold leadership positions at Affiliated Managers Group, the global asset-management company. He serves on the board of the Pioneer Institute, the public-policy organization, and is a member of  the American Enterprise Institute, the Washington D.C., think tank. He is also involved with several charitable endeavors. Active in state and national Republican Party affairs, Kingston was part of Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign and was an executive producer for the 2014 documentary film Mitt. He formally announced his candidacy on Oct.  25.

So, before debate moderators and deceitful mainstream media can ask them their favorite color or when they last wept, they should be asked serious questions. Herewith are some to ponder:

1. Your mentor, Mitt Romney, was mocked during the 2012 presidential campaign for suggesting  that Russia was the biggest geopolitical threat to the United States. Considering the allegations that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, is Russia today still the biggest threat to American security? Why or why not?

2. What should be done to mitigate North Korean provocations? Can America live with a nuclear-armed North Korea?

3. In May, with over $70 billion in outstanding debt, Puerto Rico filed for bankruptcy (believed to be the largest ever U.S. local government bankruptcy) under Title III of a U.S. Congressional rescue law known as PROMESA. Puerto Rico’s poor fiscal condition, highlighted again after Hurricane Maria, mirrors many mainland municipalities. What should this debt restructuring look like? Do municipal bankruptcy laws need modification given the sheer number of over-incumbered, bankruptcy-prone municipalities?

4. Some would argue that the likes of Google, Facebook, and Twitter are effectively operating as monopolies, and that their size and influence far exceed those of Standard Oil, and AT&T, for instance, which were ultimately broken up. Do the current examples raise anti-trust concerns? Does the Justice Department need to rethink its anti-trust policies?

5. For better or worse, President  Trump is the leader of the Republican Party, your party. In what regard is the president doing well? In what regard can the president improve?

6. In Massachusetts, you will not win election without winning over some Democrats. How do you garner their vote? What do you say to Senator Warren’s core constituency, progressive populists, to gain their vote?

7. The commonwealth has one of the highest rates of opioid overdose deaths in the country. This year police in several Massachusetts cities and towns are seeing massive increases, not decreases, in non-fatal overdoses. The rightly called opioid epidemic has been trending for over a decade in the wrong direction. What are your proposals for action? How should state and federal governments better address this matter?

8. The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon lured 238 bids from cities and regions for its second corporate headquarters. With no public vetting or commenting process, a total of 26 Massachusetts sites are competing for Amazon’s business, which, according to estimates, will bring tens of thousands of jobs to the winner. Is public policy perverted when one of the world’s richest companies is seeking — and will be granted — generous subsidies and tax benefits from these places where there is already high indebtedness, massive unfunded pension liabilities, and where there is need for drastic infrastructure improvements? What are your thoughts on these arrangements?

9. Does Obamacare need to be repealed and replaced? If yes, what are your proposals? If no, what improvements need to be made to make it a sustainable health care system? And looking at health care locally, Romneycare is now eating up close to 45 percent of the Massachusetts budget, prompting state Rep. Jim Lyons to call the budget “an insurance company.” How do you bend the cost curve? Is the expansion of Medicaid slowly bankrupting Massachusetts? How do you finance it on the federal level?

10. Former Sen. Scott Brown said during the 2012 senatorial campaign that he was a “Scott Brown Republican.” He lost by a wide margin. Likewise, both of you have described yourselves as abstractions. (Lindstrom: “a common-sense Republican.” Kingston: “an independent thinker.”) What do you mean by these Twitter-inspired thought bubbles? Do you have better descriptions?

11. Speaking of 2012, Brown and Romney could not decide if they were moderates or conservatives or something else. Lacking such identity probably hurt them. Warren is proudly progressive. What are you? And does it make political and electoral sense to fight a progressive with a conservative?

12. What are your reactions to the Massachusetts Republican Party settling charges for $240,000 in 2015 with Tea Party member Mark Fisher? (He claimed that the party stymied his efforts at getting on the Republican gubernatorial primary ballot in 2014, which raised larger issuers of attempting to purge the party of conservatives.)     

13. On March 10, The Boston Globe’s Frank Phillips wrote: “A major concern for the governor’s political team is that the party’s U.S. Senate candidate in 2018 be compatible with Governor Charlie Baker and his political positions.” You both speak of not being beholden to President Trump but you’re both considered insiders in the state Republican Party. How do you refute Phillip’s premise that you are not beholden to Baker? Do you think his team favored the party’s proposal of doubling the number of super-delegates at next year’s nominating convention?

14. Who are your political role models?  Why?

15. Has the national legislative branch abdicated its constitutionally prescribed powers to the executive branch? If yes, how do you bring the balance back?

16. Candidate Lindstrom:  In the announcement video for your candidacy, you say you are “not a professional politician.” (Technically Olympic athletes aren’t professional athletes either.) Granted, you were never elected to public office, yet a substantial portion of your career has been involved in government. Do you think that the average voter would believe your statement?

17. Candidate Lindstrom:  In 2008, Former Republican Lit. Gov. Kerry Healy would have been the first woman elected Massachusetts governor. You would be the first Republican woman elected Massachusetts senator. What advice has she given you?

18. Candidate Kingston:  It was reported that you switched party registration last year from Republican to unenrolled and led an effort to create a movement to field an independent candidate in the presidential election. You have lent your own campaign approximately $3 million. You are a harsh critic of President Trump. Candidate Trump also had a history of switching party affiliations and lending his campaign personal funds. Philosophically and operationally, aren’t you behaving like Trump? Why are you running as a Republican and not as an Independent?

19. Candidate Kingston:  You made a fortune in the asset-management business and spent a significant amount of your career in financial services. Did Wall Street learn any lessons in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008-2009? What were they? Are Americans more protected from Wall Street shenanigans today than last decade? Should hedge funds, which play increasingly powerful roles in trading and asset accumulation, be taxed and regulated more?

20. Candidate Kingston:  In your formal announcement video, you say you are a “different kind of leader.” How so? In a separate statement you also said, “We cannot risk that chance [defeating Warren] on candidates who cannot deploy the resources necessary to win, or on candidates who are unelectable or uninspiring.” Is that an elitist sentiment, and don’t ideas matter too? Are you suggesting that your primary opponents’ lack of comparable wealth is a disqualifier? How are you inspiring?

Lindstrom and Kingston aren’t the only GOP candidates. State Rep.  Geoff Diehl, businessman Shiva Ayyadurai, and Allen Waters of Mashpee are also running. But these questions are for the two candidates formally jumping in this month.

It’s too early to tell if Lindstrom and Kingston will split the vote or split their differences with Massachusetts Republicans. Each will need 15 percent of the vote at next April’s state party convention to secure their respective names on the primary ballot. But already there is controversy and trouble among them. Kingston, it was reported by the Globe, has bizarrely urged Lindstrom to drop out of the race. Surely a brush fire Baker wants extinguished immediately.

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer, former columnist with The Cape Cod Times and former banker.  This column first appeared in New Boston Post. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal as well as here,   newenglanddiary.com.

James P. Freeman:Tuesdays are big opioid-overdose days on the Cape

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The news this past Aug. 22, a Tuesday, seemed promising. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health released its quarterly report showing a 5 percent decline in opioid-related deaths in the first half of 2017 compared with the like period last year (978 deaths, as opposed to 1,031 deaths; January to June). The statistics led The Boston Globe to conclude this was “the strongest indication to date that the state’s overdose crisis might have started to abate.”

But the news was a tantalizing chimera. The Barnstable police already knew. August was cruel.

With overwhelming preponderance and without overlooking prejudice, the opioid crisis still rages unabated in Massachusetts. Especially on Cape Cod.

Figures provided by the Barnstable Police Department, the largest police force on the Cape, reveal a massive spike in opioid overdoses this past August compared with August 2016 (41 overdoses this year as opposed to 8 overdoses last year). Through the end of September, opioid-related overdoses in Barnstable, which at about 45,000 people is the largest town on the Cape, stood at 148. During the like period last year that number was 82.

Overdoses for the combined two months of August and September (61) were the highest for back-to-back months since January and February 2015 (51), when the Barnstable police first began keeping opioid-specific records. That’s when things seemed really bad. In many ways, now they’re worse.

Except for May, every month this year in Barnstable has seen an increase in overdoses compared to corresponding months in 2016. Already, there have been more overdoses in just nine months of 2017 than during all of 2016. And if current trends continue — nothing suggests that they won’t — this year will see more overdoses than in 2015, the year many thought was the high-water mark.

The death rate on the Cape isn’t encouraging, either. It is rising, not declining. Barnstable police report that 19 people have died due to overdoses through Oct.  10 of this year. In the like period, just nine people died through the end of October 2016. It is nearly certain that, beginning with respective Januarys, more lives will be lost by the end of October 2017 than were lost by October 2015 and October 2016, combined. This is progress in reverse.

Officer Eric W. Drifmeyer oversees the Research and Analysis Unit of the Barnstable Police Department. He is a busy man. Before 2015, the department, like many Massachusetts law-enforcement agencies, did not have adequate reporting mechanisms to track and maintain useful information relating to opioid-specific activity. In the past, Drifmeyer says, any data collected were categorized as generic “medical events.” But as the opioid crisis escalated — it is estimated that 85 percent of crimes on Cape Cod are opiate-related — the need for more accurate crime data increased, too.

So Drifmeyer and his colleagues built their own database.

Data-driven information provides police with intelligence. With superior intelligence trends become apparent — such as populations at risk in an opioid crisis. Here, that means young adults who are prone to abusing opioids. In Barnstable — an area of 76 square miles comprising seven villages of affluence and affliction — overdoses in 2017 disproportionately affect white males ages 20-29 and 30-39, far more than any other demographic group. Barnstable police statistics show that men are overdosing at nearly twice the rate of women. And for females, white women ages 20-29 and 30-39 show the highest levels of overdose in 2017. These have been trend lines for years.

A superior database of historical information doesn’t just reveal trends. Consistent trends become accurate predictors of criminal activity. Drifmeyer notes that a spike in overdoses correlates directly with an immediate surge in crimes, such as shoplifting and car and house break-ins. Accordingly, proceeds from illicit sales of ill-gotten goods finance the next purchase of heroin and other opioids on the street. And the cycle repeats itself. From this learning curve emerges better policing — devising effective strategies, dispatching efficacious resources, and thwarting criminal behavior.

Every day on Cape Cod, in a sad ritual, somewhere, someone is rolling up a sleeve, readying an arm for a taut elastic rubber tourniquet, anticipating the needle chill about to puncture a warm vein for perhaps the last sensationally euphoric high.

Tap. Tap. Tap …

Naloxone, the powerful opioid antidote, popularly known as Narcan, reverses the effects of overdose. Its widespread and immediate administration by first responders on those suspected of overdosing is probably the reason that the death rate has declined slightly this year in Massachusetts. Police in Barnstable have revived many people. Of the 148 officially designated overdoses this year, police have administered Narcan 46 times individually and another 25 times with assistance from a third party, such as a firefighter-emergency medical technician. In the short term Narcan saves lives. But Narcan solves nothing.

Stunningly, many addicts today have Narcan present while they are using, says Drifmeyer. Employing what one detective said was a “buddy system,” Narcan is administered by the corresponding partner in the event of overdose by the user. It is a bizarre insurance policy against a bad batch of drugs in this high-stakes risk/reward game; much heroin is now laced with the powerful additive fentanyl (itself a synthetic opiate), 50-100 times more powerful than morphine and 30-50 times more powerful than heroin itself.

Today, Barnstable police cruisers are stocked with two 4-milligram doses of Narcan. Not long ago it was 2-milligram doses. Those lower doses were not effective at neutralizing higher concentrations of fentanyl increasingly found in heroin.

First responders are also at risk from exposure to just small quantities of fentanyl. It is so dangerous, in fact, that police and paramedics can effectively “accidently overdose” if they come into contact with only a bit of the drug. Today, Barnstable police dog units now carry Narcan because service dogs sometimes accidentally overdose, too, by inhaling fentanyl into their nasal passages or absorbing in into their paws while working a case. This unimaginable collateral damage is the newest alarming phenomenon in what PresidentTrump in August rightly called a “national emergency.”      

Last decade, the most covered story in The Cape Cod Times, the largest paper on the Cape, was the controversial off-shore wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound known as “Cape Wind.” By the end of this decade, depressingly, the opioid matter will likely be the top story. Since 2000, nearly 400 people have died on the Cape and Islands due to some form of opioid overdose. With crashing regularity, stories appear on a near-daily basis, one falling into the other, like cascading dominoes.

Click. Click. Click …

In the last month, these stories received front-page treatment:  Oct. 7, “Construction Workers Hard Hit by Opioid Addiction”; Oct.  4, “Study at McLean Hospital Reveals Marijuana’s Benefits in Lowering Opioid Usage”; Sept. 22, “Judge:  Drug Dealing Merits Homicide-Level Bail”; Sept. 17, “Addiction Experts Warn of Detox Dangers”; and Sept. 12, “Drop-In Night New Option for Drug Users.”

Obituaries in the paper are sad narratives of dying youth. They are all too frequent. Last year, 82 people on the Cape and Islands died because of opioid overdose. (Barnstable County ranked third statewide for fatal overdose rates in 2015 and 2016.) And all too often these announcements contain no cause of death, wrongly stating the deceased died “peacefully” or “quietly.” One was named Arianna Sheedy. She was 23 and a mother of two when she fatally overdosed on Feb.  16, 2015, one of seven who died of similar causes on Cape Cod that month.

Sheedy was featured in the 2015 HBO film Heroin:  Cape Cod, USA. The documentary portrays the day-to-day lives of eight young addicts. It is equally haunting and horrifying and must-viewing for anyone — everyone! — intent on understanding the mindset of people completely consumed emotionally, psychologically, and physically by this kind of addiction. (The film will be rebroadcast on HBO2 on Wednesday, Oct. 18.)

There are many memorable vignettes but one stands out. Opioid nirvana, one participant said, “felt like Christmas morning every time I shot up. Who wants to give that up?” Sheedy and another addict, Marissa, died before filming was finished. The film is dedicated to their memory.

Among the intriguing statistics in the Barnstable police database are 2017 overdoses by day-of-the-week. Surprisingly, Tuesdays rank second-highest, only slightly below Fridays. As Drifmeyer dryly concedes, heroin “is not a recreational drug,” so weekdays are just as active as weekends. (Heroin is a retail business; perhaps even big deliveries slow on Sundays.) Still, why Tuesdays figure so prominently is puzzling to police. But as time and statistics accumulate, it is likely that mystery will be solved by their unsung and noble work.

Most of the heroin on Cape Cod arrives from Fall River and New Bedford, transported along the I-195 corridor, what is considered a local Heroin Highway. Every day, anonymous lives, hopes and dreams travel that lonesome road. Until something desperately changes, they are slowly passing …

Gone. Gone. Gone.  


James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and former columnist with The Cape Cod Times.  This piece first ran in the New Boston Post. Besides that outlet and newenglanddiary.com, his work has also appeared in The Providence Journal and nationalreview.com.

 

James P. Freeman: MTV pulls its young viewers into progressivism and degeneracy

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In the 2011 book, I Want My MTV, John Taylor, bass player for Duran Duran, commenting on early video content said, “All this stuff like Culture Club was the result of an underground, progressive, liberal, London art school sensibility.”

By 1992, however, an unscripted soap opera (The Real World) and a character named Bill Clinton became programming staples, nodding to its future direction. Gifts to cultural regression later included Beavis and Butt-Head, Jackass and The Jersey Shore. About the last, Snooki impressed producers in 2008 by her candid -- celebrated? -- talk about sex and alcohol for a show about “Guidos and Guidettes." Her years of embarrassingly bad behavior (2009-2012) were rewarded by, among other things, a paid appearance ($32,000) to speak to students at Rutgers University in 2011, (where she advised students to study hard but party harder) and as a participant on Dancing With the Stars (which was announced on the selectively prim and proper Good Morning America) in 2013.

Rob Tannebaum, author of I Want My MTV, told National Public Radio’s, All Things Considered, on a whimsical trip about the golden years of the cable station, “MTV quickly realized and learned that narrative television, even reality TV, rated better than music videos."

For years its reality programming has glorified and valued moral relativism (watch the appallingly dreadful Teen Mom and Undressed). But now the company believes that it is a moral arbiter to correct all that ails our culturally sensitive society. A culture that has been largely led by progressives for over a half a century and of which MTV has been a big promoter for the last 36 years.

 

Conservatives constantly complain about universities being incubators of progressive preening and pedagogy (where “white shaming” is the newest rage). But it starts well before the first delicate snowflake lands on a college campus. It starts with MTV and it is time  that conservatives start paying attention.

MTV is the greatest cultural influencer of young people today.  

According to marketing blogger Brandon Gaille, MTV reaches 387 million people worldwide and is considered the no. 1 media brand globally. In 2015, he wrote that, “It is the one channel where people in the 12-34 age bracket continually tune in to catch up with what is coming next in pop culture, music, and fashion.” Furthermore, he added, the network “provides a variety of programming, ranging from politics to reality TV, and it is all targeted to the young adult demographic.”

Its reach of young people is staggering. Over 47 million people follow MTV on Facebook, three times as many as those who follow Fox News. One in three U.S. citizens falls into the 12-34 age demographic, accounting for over 90 million people.

 

MTV’s sway may be wider than currently understood too. Notwithstanding a steady decline in overall television ratings -- VMAs showed an 18 percent drop in viewership from 2013 to 2014; Adweek reported last year that the network lost half its 18-49 audience from 2011 to 2016 -- it makes a greater impact on ubiquitous social media. Which is difficult to measure.

For the average MTV viewer, Gaille observes, the largest annual expenditure, unsurprisingly, is on personal computers, tablets and smartphones. As of Gaille’s 2015 writing, ratings for computers and mobile devices were not reflected in Nielsen ratings, “which is where many of the 12-34 key demographic consume media content.” (Nielsen in 2017 received accreditation for such digital measurements.)

MTV’s president, Chris McCarthy, 42, is progressivism’s newest cultural and political warrior. He is also proof that the personal values of powerful cultural decision makers can be newsworthy and wildly, unduly influential. Last month he told The New York Times that the station is “about amplifying young people’s voices,” adding, “we shouldn’t be telling people how to feel.” But telling people how to feel and what to do, like the federal government, is exactly what MTV is doing. Subtly and not so subtly.

There is no pretense to objectivity with MTV News. Thirty years ago, when it first aired, it reported on the comings and goings of music stars; now it has descended into the progressive abyss. Its “Politics” section makes The New York Times’s op-ed pages look moderate. A gem from this past January asked, “Why Do American Conservatives Look So Different From the Rest of the World?” And a recent post from the “Movies” section contained this headline: “Matt Damon Explains How Suburbicon Shows the ‘Definition of White Privilege’ at Work.”   

Ever since the first VMAs debuted in September of 1984, award winners received a trophy called a Moonman. No More. In politically correct 2017, McCarthy asks The Times, “Why should it be a man?” As only a progressive can describe a miniature silver statue, “It could be a man, it could be a woman, it could be transgender, it could be nonconformist.” It could be a conservative in disguise…

At this year’s VMAs, , no one, apparently, got McCarthy’s feelings and doings message.

Sadly, it is now taken for granted that elite entertainers use award ceremonies, however briefly, as a vehicle to express opinions and level grievances. No longer content to simply be recognized for questionable talent, today’s award winners (and special guests) are now social commentators and news broadcasters for young people. This year’s VMAs unrepentantly dissolved into a progressive political platform.  

Pink told the story of her six-year-old daughter feeling unattractive because she believed she looked like a boy. As CNN reported, “The singer said she used it as a teachable moment to discuss androgynous artists who have found success, including herself.” The program also showcased  the Rev. Robert Wright Lee IV, a descendent of Civil War Gen.  Robert E. Lee. Nervously, he lamented, “We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate.” Citing a “moral duty” to speak out against “America’s original sin,” Lee called on “all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on.” That statement implies there is a powerful sense of white privilege and channels white shaming.

Not to be out done by our ever-inclusive, multi-diverse cultural correctness, MTV, following grade-school catechism, chose to honor all six videos nominated in its -- seriously! -- “Best Fight Against the System” category. All artists received little Moon Persons for their so-called “groundbreaking” efforts.

The Technicolor irony is that MTV is the system.

The ratings results for this year’s VMAs are a compelling, if not revealing, story. Only 6.5 million brave souls watched the show -- linear viewing -- across 11 Viacom networks on traditional television (down from 10.3 million viewers in 2016). But as deadline.com reported, (“MTV Focuses on Social Successes”) the 2017 VMAs clocked 62.8 million video streams on Facebook. The 2015 show drew only 4.4 million streams.    

Conservatives are largely to blame for allowing these cultural excesses to flourish and become mainstream, and for allowing them to go unanswered. Especially guilty are those running for political office under the pretentious slogan “fiscal conservative and social moderate.” On fiscal matters, they have not corrected any of the $20 trillion in national debt. And on social, hence, cultural matters, they have retreated and surrendered any sense of resistance.

Twenty-five years after Pat Buchanan’s much criticized speech, the moral and cultural cesspool has clearly been realized. MTV has eclipsed higher education as a new, larger, and more troubling progressive front in the ongoing culture war.

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and a former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journalnewenglanddiary.com and nationalreview.com.  He formerly worked in the financial-services industry. This piece first appeared in the New Boston Post.

 

James P. Freeman: Department stores in fast descent as Amazon takes their business and destroys jobs

Macy's flagship store in Manhattan.

Macy's flagship store in Manhattan.

“Macy’s of today is like in soul and spirit to

Macy’s of yesterday; Macy’s of tomorrow…”

— Edward Hungerford, The Romance of a Great Store (1922)

If today is yesterday’s tomorrow, the Macy’s of 2017 would be unrecognizable to its founder, Rowland Hussey Macy. Except, perhaps, for the ubiquitous red star, the company’s logo, which was inked onto his forearm as a young sailor, while working on the whaling ship Emily Morgan, based out of New Bedford, Mass.. The star was inspired by the North Star, which, according to legend, guided him to port and an optimistic future. Today, the company — and, by extension, the traditional retailing industry — rocked by an exceptional gale, looks to the heavens for safe harbor and secure future. The turbulence, however, is a healthy sign of the creative destruction of capitalism. Accordingly, let traditional retail perish.

Last April, a New York Times expose, “Is American Retail at a Historic Tipping Point?,” revealed that 89,000 Americans have been laid off in general-merchandise stores since October 2016. “That is more than all of the people employed in the United States coal industry, which President Trump championed during the campaign as a prime example of the workers who have been left behind in the economic recovery.”

About one out of every 10 Americans works in retail. That’s nearly 16 million people (both online and in stores), confirms the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unsurprisingly, only 5 percent are represented by unions.

More than 300 retailers have filed for bankruptcy just in 2017. Among them:  Gymboree (operating 1,300 stores), rue21 (1,200 stores), Payless ShoeSource (4,400 stores), The Limited (250 stores), and a century-old regional department store company, Gordmans Stores (106 stores, in 22 states). In the past year, Macy’s has announced it would close 100 stores (identifying 68 locations, eliminating 10,000 jobs). J.C. Penney will close 138 stores. Sears (which also owns Kmart) is shuttering 150 stores and said last March that the company has “substantial doubt” about its survival after 13 decades in business. Since 2010, Sears has lost $10.4 billion and has closed several hundred stores.

A report released this spring by Credit Suisse, the financial-services firm, estimates that 8,640 retail stores will close by year’s end and, more staggering, approximately one quarter of the nation’s 1,100 malls will close in the next five years.  

“Modern-day retail is becoming unrecognizable from the glory era of the department store in the years after World War II,” notes the Times. “In that period, newly built highways shuttling people to and from the suburbs eventually gave rise to shopping malls — big, convenient, climate-controlled monuments to consumerism with lots of parking.” The glitz and glamour of shopping reminiscent of the Mad Men period is over. Instead, a wrenching, permanent restructuring is likely under way. As it should be.

What happened?

Shifting consumer shopping habits driven by, and probably, a result of, e-commerce. Stated simply:  “market forces.” A concept understood by ordinary people. Alarmingly, though, highly compensated retail executives were slow in identifying these new dynamics. For which many big retailers are now desperately, but not adequately, adapting to these changes. They are failing.

Devoid of any romance, today’s retail is a hard scrabble of Sisyphean drudgery. Product comes in. Product goes out. Product comes back in … Repeat. Generic and dingy department stores are full of tired-looking mannequins and haggard-looking, underpaid sales associates pushing promotions and credit cards. But many stores are empty of customers.

America is called “overstored” — having too much retail space, which now totals about 7.3 square feet per capita. On a comparative basis, that is well above the 1.7 square feet per-capita in Japan and France, and the 1.3 square feet in the United Kingdom. Jonathan Berr of Moneywatch says:  “Overstoring can be traced back to the 1990s when the likes of Walmart, Kohls, Gap, and Target were expanding rapidly and opening new divisions.” And then the Internet happened.

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the evolution of a new business model. Those who embraced a so-called “brick and click” model (combining brick-and-mortar operations with online presence) were certain to survive, and those who executed it well would likely thrive for the foreseeable future. Many retailers were late to the party. When they did arrive, they never harmonized their physical space and cyberspace. Consequently, traditional retailers never kept pace with the value created by the likes of Amazon. The new disruptors perfected the model and, more importantly, created a better customer experience.

Between 2010 and 2014, e-commerce grew by an average of $30 billion annually. Now, e-commerce represents 8.5 percent of all retail sales, (trending straight upward since 2000) disproportionately affecting the big-box retailers that are anchor tenants in malls that, in turn, draw foot traffic from which other mall retailers ultimately benefit. ShopperTrak estimates that retail store foot traffic has plunged 57 percent between 2010 and 2015. And more stunning, Amazon is expected to surpass Macy’s this year to become the biggest apparel seller in the United States.

Macy’s, self-described as “America’s Department Store” — a brand celebrating ubiquity over uniqueness — is symbolic and symptomatic of retail’s quandary.

With its corporate sibling, Bloomingdale’s, the company is a constellation of complexities. Far from its meager beginnings as a single dry goods store in Haverhill, Mass. when it opened in 1851, it is now a cobbled-together conglomerate operating 700 stores in 45 states, employing 140,000 (of which 10 percent are unionized). Because of so many mergers and acquisitions, there is no unifying culture. It has 50 million proprietary charge accounts on record (nearly one in six Americans).  

Macy's flagship store in Herald Square in Manhattan attracts 23 million visitors annually. Known as an “omnichannel retailer” (myriad ways of consumer engagement; i.e., store, Internet, mobile device), with sales over $25.7 billion, Macy’s is still profitable (earning $619 million last year). But it is in trouble.

In July 2015, Macy’s market capitalization (total value of its publicly traded shares) was more than $22 billion. It has plummeted to about $7 billion today. Constantly tweaking marketing and merchandising, the company nevertheless reported that net sales declined for the ninth straight quarter, in May. Saddled with $6.725 billion in debt and with fewer customers, over half its earnings are derived from its credit-card business. (Just three years ago, credit cards accounted for a quarter of its earnings.) Lead times for its lifeblood, the supply chain, are long and slow. Real estate holdings (estimated to be worth between $15 billion and $20 billion) are substantially more valuable than its business operations. Double-digit growth in online business is cannibalizing negative growth in store business.

Macy’s is ever-reliant upon the next generation of shoppers, but Millennials may not be that reliable; they defy consumption patterns that previous generations followed for years (less materialistic and more loyal to experiences than to physical brands). And Amazon’s new Prime Wardrobe might prove to be a death star, obliterating many red ones. Gloomy and overwhelmed, Macy’s reflects the industry at large.

This past January, Amazon announced it would create 100,000 jobs over the course of 18 months. Yet it is foolish to think that Amazon — which is much more efficient than traditional retailers — will absorb all the displaced workers.

As Rex Nutting, writing for MarketWatch, warns, what Amazon “won’t tell us is that every job created at Amazon destroys one or two or three others.” And what Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos “doesn’t want you to know is that Amazon is going to destroy more American jobs than China ever did.”

Even if the American consumer is the beneficiary of these disruptive but necessary market forces, sooner or later this economic issue will become a political issue.

Conservative commentator George Will raises a good question:  “Why should manufacturing jobs lost to foreign competition be privileged by protectionist policies in ways that jobs lost to domestic competition are not?”

President Trump should, but probably won’t, answer a question that would help clarify the puzzling public policy he is now crafting (see his “major border tax” proposals). As the president will surely learn, economics — like health care — is complicated fare. And like most things involving Trump, it is personal.

During last year’s presidential campaign, Trump said Amazon has “a huge antitrust problem.” (An analysis found that 43 percent of all online retail sales in the United States went through Amazon in 2016.) Notably, Bezos owns The Washington Post, largely critical of the president. In late 2015, Trump called for a boycott of Macy’s after the company stopped selling Trump merchandise and severed ties with the presidential candidate because of comments he made about Mexicans earlier that year.

Then there is his daughter, Ivanka Trump. Despite her father’s call last January that “We will follow two simple rules — buy American and hire American,” she still owns an apparel company with much of its product line foreign-made. And with gilded irony, some is still sold at Macy’s.

With or without first family entanglements, markets will dictate those retailers it deems omnipresent and obsolescent.

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. He formerly worked in financial services.

 

James P. Freeman: Past time to break up America's mega-banks before they cause another crash

JPMorgan Chase & Co. headquarters, in Manhattan.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. headquarters, in Manhattan.

As Americans were lounging comfortably over the 4th of July holiday, some were surely feeling a sense of new-found serenity. Not because they were full of burgers, barkers and beer. On the contrary, they were digesting the news that 34 of the nation’s largest banks, for the first time since the financial crisis began a decade ago, all passed the Federal Reserve’s annual “stress tests,” which, according to The Wall Street Journal, “could bolster the industry’s case for cutting back regulation.” But hold the match before lighting leftover fireworks in celebration. Break up the banks first.

Remarkably, the five largest banks today — JPMorgan Chase  & Co. Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo Bank, US Bank — now control about 45 percent of the financial industry’s total assets or roughly $7.3 trillion in assets. To put that number in perspective, the size of the U.S. economy is roughly $18 billion.

Twenty-five years ago, the five largest banks owned just 10 percent of all financial assets. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s statistics reveal that in 1992 there were 11,463 commercial banks and 2,390 savings and loans. By March of 2017, that number had dwindled to 5,060 commercial banks and just 796 savings institutions. The assets held by the five largest banks in 2007 – $4.6 trillion – increased by more than 150 percent over the past decade, when they held 35 percent of industry assets.

The sharp rise in the concentration of these assets (a measure of size and wealth) has real economic, political and social ramifications. As oxfamamerica.org fears, “These massive banks use their wealth to wield significant political and economic power in the U.S., in the countries where they operate, and in the international arena.” Finance today, author Rana Foroohar reasons in Makers and Takers, “holds a disproportionate amount of power in sheer economic terms.” (It takes about 25 percent of all corporate profits while creating only 4 percent of all jobs.)

Moreover, writing five years ago in The Washington Post, just as the banking system was being recalibrated and reregulated, U.S. Sen.  Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee, recognized then (and still true today) what the federal government should recognize now:  “Even at the best-managed firms, there are dangerous consequences of large, complex institutions undertaking large, complex activities. These companies are simply too big to manage, and they’re still too big to fail.” While Brown is correct in citing “Too Big To Fail” (a warped public policy), he is right to emphasize (as many more public officials should) that these firms are simply too big to manage and maintain.

JPMorgan Chase is a financial colossus. In January 2017, it reported assets of $2.5 trillion that generated $99 billion in revenue and earned $24.7 billion in profit. It is the largest U.S.-domiciled bank and the sixth largest bank in the world. Today, it alone holds over 12 percent of the industry’s total assets, a greater share than the five biggest banks put together in 1992. Its global workforce of 240,000 operates in 60 countries. From 2009 to 2015, the bank paid $38 billion in fines and settlements (involving among them  the Bernie Madoff and London Whale scandals), mere rounding errors in its ethics and financials.

Jamie Dimon is the company's chairman and chief executive officer, perhaps the second most difficult job in the country, only after the presidency of the United States. To say that he “manages” the firm would be an overstatement. More accurately, he “presides.” Dimon was named CEO in 2005 (when assets were only $1.2 trillion) and is widely given credit for adroitly navigating the financial turmoil of 2008-2009. In 2015, he made $27 million and said that banks were “under assault” by regulators. He keeps two lists in his breast pocket:  what he owes people; what people owe him.

Now 61, he is the subject of much discussion centering on speculation about who his  successor will be. In an interview for Bloomberg Television last September, Dimon said he would leave “when the right person is ready.” But who is ever “ready” and able to run a $2.5 trillion company? No one competently.

Wells Fargo ($2 trillion in assets with 8,500 locations) was thought to be among the best managed banks before, during, and after the crisis until it was revealed last year that it had fired 5,300 employees and clawed back $180 million in compensation, due to the unauthorized opening of 2 million customer accounts. A flawed “decentralized structure” and perverse sales culture were to blame for illicit activities that occurred over a decade.

Fortune Magazine in March 2007, with sterling irony, named Lehman Brothers (No. 1) and Bear Stearns (No. 2), respectively, as the most admired companies in the securities industry. By the end of 2008 Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy (the largest in U.S. history, $692 billion) and Bear Stearns had been sold in a fire sale by fiat to JPMorgan Chase.

Big banks are driven by avarice and algorithms (complicated code-directing computers to effect financial transactions by the millisecond), not altruism. Lending is secondary to speculating. Complexity has replaced familiarity. Vaults hold more data than gold. And traders can destroy banks faster than boards of directors. On any given business day, no executive or regulator can be certain of the health of these institutions.

This is the new Wall Street alchemy.

The first public signs of distress in the financial system before the Crash of 2008 appeared 10 years ago, when a July 2007 letter to the firm’s investors disclosed that two obscure hedge funds managed by Bear Stearns had collapsed. The long fuse had been lit. The Great Recession was triggered. And the torch paper was provided in the form of legislation.

The Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 (known as Gramm-Leach-Bliley) neutered the Banking Act of 1933 (known as Glass-Steagall), which separated the riskier elements of investment banking from the more conservative aspects of commercial banking. The 1999 law spurred a new model of financial supermarkets (banking, investments and insurance under one company). It also unwittingly fostered a new risk-taking model:  Losses could be socialized (depositors, shareholders, taxpayers) while profits could be privatized (executive compensation). Exotic financial instruments and ineffective regulatory oversight fueled the meltdown.

Today’s big banks largely resemble Zuzu’s petals in the film It’s a Wonderful Life, seemingly mended but not made better. During the  Crash/Panic of 2008, the federal government engineered the financial equivalent of pasting damaged rose petals in a desperate attempt to prevent the total collapse of the banking sector. It effectively merged the unwieldy likes of Merrill Lynch with Bank of America, Bear Stearns with JP Morgan and Wachovia with Wells Fargo. 

In the wake of the crisis (which ultimately required $1.59 trillion in government bailouts and another $12 trillion in guarantees and loans), The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 became law. It sought to make the financial system safer and fairer than it had been, to reduce the risk of financial crises, to protect the economy from this kind of devastating costs of risky behavior, and to provide a process for the orderly disposition of failing firms. But after a staggering 848 pages and 8,843 new rules and regulations, Dodd-Frank does nothing to reduce the size of, and hence the systemic risk posed by, the biggest banks.

“We may have gotten past the crisis of 2008,” Foroohar concludes in her book, but, disturbingly, “we have not fixed our financial system.” Bankers still “exert immense soft power” via the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street. And today’s top government regulators are littered with former banking executives, who are “disinclined to police the industry.”  

The idea of overhauling big banks, however, is attracting some surprising converts.

In May, President  Trump acknowledged that he was “looking at” breaking up the big banks. And the principal architects and former co-heads of the first financial supermarket — Citigroup — have had an epiphany of sorts. In 2015,  ex-Citicorp CEO John Reed wrote in the Financial Times that “the universal banking model is inherently unstable and unworkable. No amount of restructuring, management change or regulation is ever likely to change that.” And in 2012, Sandy Weill, another former Citicorp  CEO, called for a return to Glass-Steagall.

Dodd-Frank mandates that the Federal Reserve conduct annual stress tests on financial institutions with assets over $50 billion. This year’s test on 34 banks relied upon enhanced computer modeling to assess how those banks would perform under “adverse and severely adverse” economic conditions. But such modeling is an unreliable predictor of reality. As JPMorgan Chase knows well.

In May 2012, The New York Times provided insights into massive trading losses at JP Morgan Chase. The bank had little idea that the losses were brewing. It entrusted computer modeling pioneered by its bankers in the 1990s to identify and measure potential losses. But the bank tripped up its measurements. It deployed a new model that underestimated losses; when it redeployed the old model, it nearly doubled the losses. As The Times chillingly remembers, such computer programs “proved useless during the financial crisis.”

James P. Freeman, a former banker, is a New England-based writer, former columnist with The Cape Cod Times and frequent contributor to New England Diary. This piece first ran in The New Boston Post.