Thursday, January 29, 2009

Almost as good as President Bartlett

Barack Obama has started off his new job doing a number of good things, and it is exciting to see a president make smart and important decisions each day. He is sending envoys, holding meetings, signing executive orders, making phone calls and working with Congress. I feel like I'm watching The West Wing, which was the only other time in my life that I was able to witness a Democratic president in whom I had complete faith.

Obama signed his first bill into law today, and it was a no-brainer. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is named for a woman who worked for two decades for Goodyear Tire & Rubber, but was paid less than the men in equivalent positions the entire time. Up until today, a ridiculous law -- supported by Republicans -- said that an employee could only go to court in such an instance within 180 days of the first unequal pay check. Since Ledbetter didn't know she was being slighted until she neared retirement, her case was tossed out by the Supreme Court, 5-4. The new law says that each paycheck is a violation of the law.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009

I must admit to having not read much John Updike -- and most of his work that I have read has been in the form of literary criticism published in The New Yorker. Still, at his death yesterday, Updike was America's preeminent man of letters -- and one who spent much of his life in nearby Beverly -- so I cannot allow his passing to go unremarked.

In a 1990 interview with The Boston Globe, the prolific novelist, poet, essayist and critic said this about writers:
There's a kind of confessional impulse that not every literate, intelligent person has. A crazy belief that you have some exciting news about being alive, and I guess that more than talent is what separates those who do it from those who think they'd like to do it. That your witness to the universe can't be duplicated, that only you can provide it, and that it's worth providing.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Toll tiff on Hill

The organization Stop the Pike Hike put out a press release late this afternoon that said its leader was verbally abused by a pair of elected officials from East Boston earlier today.

Members of the group were apparently invited to a meeting at the State House this morning by state Rep. Carlo Basile and state Sen. Anthony Petruccelli "to discuss a solution to the problem" of proposed toll increases on the Massachusetts Turnpike and the harbor tunnels. Then, the press release says:

Within a few minutes into the meeting, the two elected officials began to berate the founder of the group and their own constituent Michael Kelleher by cursing at him regarding his tone of voice.

There’s nothing more specific about the incident, but the statement says that because of the “lack of professionalism” shown by the elected officials, Stop the Pike Hike is “more determined than ever” to block toll increases. They are calling for a boycott of the Pike and tunnels beginning Feb. 2.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

It's official

Michael Flaherty, an at-large city councilor who lives in South Boston, has officially announced his intention to run for mayor, putting himself on a collision course with the Tom Menino juggernaut.

Though his candidacy has been seen as likely for months, the official word slipped out on an internet video apparently before the Flaherty camp intended, but the video is up now and in it the five-term councilor says clearly, "Today I am announcing my candidacy to become the next mayor of Boston."

Flaherty, who served as City Council president for five years, has more than a half-million dollars in his war chest, and he is likely to be the toughest challenger that Menino, who has a million dollars plus on hand, has seen in his record 16 years as mayor.

There has been speculation that Sam Yoon, another at-large councilor, will run for the mayor's seat as well, but so far he has not committed.

The tech house

Barack Obama's presidency has -- at least for now -- excited large numbers of people and rekindled their interest in government.

The Obama Administration promises to be more open and more technologically savvy than any previous government. For example, at the revamped citizens can look at proclamations, statements and executive orders from the new president, and over on YouTube the White House has its own page, where today's weekly radio/video address can be viewed.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Speaker out?

It looks like Speaker Sal DiMasi is on the verge of resigning from the House of Representatives. Rumors are swirling on Beacon Hill, with a couple of Democrats shoring up support among the rank-and-file for a run at the soon-to-be-vacated speakership.

If DiMasi does go, look for casino gambling to return as an issue. The North End Democrat held the line against the proposal, but in his absence -- and with the state budget shortfall certain to impact people -- legislators and their constituents will, unfortunately, see casinos as a solution.

Update (1/26): The Globe is reporting that DiMasi has resigned as of tomorrow.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Relearning the lessons

A number of serious people are arguing that the best -- and maybe only -- way out of the current financial crisis is the nationalization of some of our largest banks. Things are that desperate.

We've reached a point, they say, where Citibank, for example, is actually insolvent, but is still afloat with the belief that the US government will and must step in because it is too big an entity to fail. As a result, the stock price has not collapsed; however, this means that Citibank will have to be propped up at some point by the Treasury because the other option -- that it falls off the cliff -- would be catastrophic.

One point I feel strongly about is that no business should be "too big to fail." The size and span of corporations should be limited so that their power to negatively impact our economy is greatly diluted. Greed has put us at the mercy of the conglomerate.

My second thought is that this is another death knell in the complete faith in unfettered free markets, a movement that returned under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. By 1980, the lessons of the Great Depression and its causes had been lost -- or conveniently forgotten by those looking for quick riches -- and so some of the checks and balances instituted by the New Deal were abolished, and then things accelerated under George W. Bush. And here we are, learning the same lessons again.

Finally, at what point do I pull my money out of the bank and stuff it in the mattress?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hail to the chief

Barack Hussein Obama is now the President of the United States. His supporters are ecstatic; many of his detractors seem willing to give him a chance; and people around the world are cheering, crying, hoping. Is it possible for this single person to do all that is now expected of him?

We'll know those answers only in time. For now, let us offer a few comments on today's festivities:

***Chief Justice John Roberts screwed up the oath of office as he was administering it to the 44th president. How could that happen? I've known the presidential oath by heart since I was a teenager (OK...I am a geek like that), but Roberts muffed it when the whole world is watching. I find him in contempt!

***The inaugural speech, I thought, was good, though at moments like this, one hopes for better than good. It is doubtful that Lincoln's soaring and poignant rhetoric will ever be matched, but FDR and JFK are the high-water marks of the modern era and I don't think Obama delivered any lines as memorable as "...fear itself" or "Ask not..." He did, however, offer better remarks in his first 20 minutes on the job than his predecessor did in eight years.

***Obama specifically referenced atheists in his address ("We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers."), which is a small, but wonderful nod to the fact that a significant portion of the country's citizenry (10% to 15%) does not believe in a supreme being. That kind of inclusion and tolerance is not only nice to see, but appropriate and necessary.

***Controversial Evangelical pastor Rick Warren, who delivered the invocation, said a few good things, but he ended with specific references to Jesus Christ and by reciting the "Our Father," two clearly Christian touchstones at a moment when non-denominational prayers are usually offered. He also mentioned the Obama girls' names in a creepy way.

***The inaugural poem, recited by Elizabeth Alexander, seemed unremarkable at first, but after reading it again I like it.


Years ago I began seeing T-shirts and bumper stickers that said, simply: 1.20.09. Finally, that day has arrived, and it is wonderful to see the enthusiasm that Barack Obama's inauguration has cultivated among a significant chunk of the population.

I hope to hear a memorable speech today, but expectations for the inaugural address -- like everything else about Obama -- are extremely high. As a correspondent joked on The Daily Show last night: "Obama's speech will make the Gettysburg Address look like a bunch of simian grunting."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Holding the scoundrels accountable

The always-thorough Glenn Greenwald of lays out a seemingly irrefutable case as to why the incoming administration must investigate and hold the Bush Administration accountable for violating US and international law by torturing people in the aftermath of 9/11.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman weighs in similarly, but expands the notion to a widespread inquiry into a number of areas (going to war, warrantless wiretaps, politicizing the Justice Department, the response to Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis) where incompetence and criminality may have taken place.

The desire to hold a mirror up to the past eight years and to punish this arrogant collection of rascals is strong, but doing so would undermine Barack Obama's attempts at shelving partisanship and could derail much of what he hopes to accomplish. The president-elect has said, “I don’t believe that anybody is above the law," but he's followed that with "...we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

Tomorrow, Obama will take an oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution..." If he pushes aside a complete and just accounting of the Bush Administration in order to keep the mood in Washington, and around the country, positive, is he trampling on that oath? Is he allowing some people to get away with being above the law?

Krugman writes: "So Mr. Obama should reconsider his apparent decision to let the previous administration get away with crime. Consequences aside, that’s not a decision he has the right to make."

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Listening and inspiring

On NPR today I heard a story that included interviews of officials from veterans' groups. One guy said that, in eight years, the Bush Administration had never reached out or contacted them about issues concerning veterans. He was then asked his opinion of the incoming president.

"People from Obama's transition have already contacted us," he said. "They wanted to know who we'd like to see in the top 35 positions in the Veterans Administration. We couldn't believe it."

Barack Obama has much to do and the issues and problems he and our country face are daunting, but the soon-to-be president is certainly inspiring many and even winning over some. He has, so far, lived up to his talk of a post-partisan administration. Of course, he hasn't spent a single second as chief executive yet; let's hope he continues to be the person that those of us who voted for him believe him to be.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Times a-wasting?

This week's East Boston Times clocks in at a mere 12 pages. I have a copy of an issue from August that was 20 pages and one from December that was 16. Is this the typical post-holiday decline in advertising, or is the neighborhood weekly, like most newspapers, being squeezed by the sluggish economy and the general decline in readership?

It's no surprise that local elected officials Carlo Basile and Anthony Petruccelli are pictured on the front page above the fold. In addition, there's another story about Basile inside and Petruccelli's photo with an editorial. I like both of these guys, but as I said before, I'd love to see stories and photos about people other than elected officials and Chamber of Commerce officers. Who are the other 40,000 people who live in this neighborhood?

Wait...there is a front-page story on someone else: Andrew Kenneally, an East Boston resident who is running for an at-large seat on the Boston City Council. The Times seems not to have contacted the former aide to Councilor Michael Flaherty for the article, instead listing information from a press release -- including the quotation.

More beefs: the Times' once decent sports coverage has shrunk down to half a page, with no photos; the story on the construction of the First Priority Credit Union makes no mention of the picketing workers who I saw out there a couple weeks ago; and, while it is nice to see a story on a fairly new local eatery, the piece on Scup's in the Harbor comes one week after the Globe spotlighted the place. Shouldn't the local paper get us there first?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Reshuffling state transportation reports that a plan surfaced in the legislature today that would combine the MBTA, the state highway department and the Turnpike Authority into one quasi-public agency. Because of my experience growing up in East Boston, I don't trust quasi-public entities, such as Massport, which are not directly accountable to voters.

I think that the T, the Pike, the roads and all of the transportation agencies in the state -- including Massport -- should be combined under the authority of the state transportation department. This makes state government completely accountable for it all. That's not to say that corruption or incompetence or tyranny will not surface, only that we will know who to blame when it does -- and they can be voted out of office.

Why is Massport being kept out of the proposed Massachusetts Surface Transportation Authority? Even the name seems to have been created with the goal of excluding the only agency of the bunch that makes a profit. Wouldn't it make some sense to use some of that cash to help run the MBTA, which has seen an increase in ridership? Or is Massport too powerful to touch?

Monday, January 12, 2009

An eight-year nightmare

President Bush, in his final press conference, said today that Iraq "not having weapons of mass destruction was a big disappointment." Imagine feeling let down because a brutal maniac like Saddam Hussein did not possess weaponry that could have been used to commit mass murder.

If he had half a brain and any humility, Bush would have said that his decision to launch an invasion of Iraq -- based on intelligence that was shoddy and trumped up by his own administration -- ranks as a disappointing episode in his presidency, an eight-year reign that certainly has no shortage of disappointments, outrages and other low points.

One week from tomorrow Barack Obama will speak the words that usher out this regrettable and damaging era in American history. Looking through the litany of wrongheaded and failed policies -- as well as watching the evening news -- leaves me shaking my head. How could my countrymen (and women) have elected this guy? (Twice!)

Here is just some of what we witnessed during Bush's two terms:
*The 9/11 terrorist attacks (Say what you will, but the August 6, 2001, intelligence brief, if nothing else, should have inspired a more vigorous response.)
*The illegal and poorly conceived invasion and occupation of Iraq
*The woeful response to Hurricane Katrina
*Tax cuts that benefit the wealthy and bankrupt the treasury
*A denial of fact and science that negatively affected public policy from sex ed to climate change
*A complete politicization of the rank-and-file legal professionals at the Justice Department
*Weak and incompetent oversight and regulation in areas from imported toys to the financial industry

Who knows how Obama's presidency will turn out, but I am thankful that Americans rose to the occasion and chose the smarter, more forward-looking candidate. Still, I have a hard time forgiving those who voted for Bush in either 2000 or 2004 for what they did to my country.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Patrick backing away from toll hikes?

Deval Patrick said yesterday that it may be possible to "find alternatives" to toll increases on the turnpike and the tunnels. A bill to overhaul the state transportation system, the governor said, will be introduced next month.

Just yesterday the Globe reported that UBS, an international banking giant, may be demanding a $400 million payment on a loan from the Turnpike Authority.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Massport smiles while kicking Eastie in groin again

Longtime local activist Mary Ellen Welch, writing at, argues against Massport's "proposed $455 million, 9,000-space Logan consolidated rental car and relocated commercial parking garage." The contract for the project, which will be right next to residential neighborhoods, was awarded to those models of efficiency and accountability, Parsons Brinkerhoff, just before Thanksgiving.

Welch cites a number of issues raised by the project. The incoming transportation secretary, James Aloisi, is a son of East Boston, and he should immediately step up to instruct Massport to complete the appropriate health studies and to include the neighborhood in the planning process before the first shovel of dirt is removed from the ground.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Pike screws thousands who used to receive discount

The Turnpike Authority pulled a fast one on us in recent days by apparently sending notice to some -- but not all -- East Boston, South Boston and North End residents who are part of the discount program that allows us to pay less to use the tunnels that connect us to the rest of our city. I, for one, have not received anything.

According to the Boston Herald, postcards were sent warning that those receiving the discount needed to renew their membership in the program, something we haven't had to do in the past. Those of us who received no postcard and therefore didn't know we needed to do anything are being charged $3 to go through the tunnels, though we were unaware of our sudden change of status. Happy new year from the Pike!

One can argue about the merits of the program, but to secretly revoke it from some of us is slimy and probably illegal. Shame on the Turnpike Authority.

Update: I went down to the Fast Lane office near the tunnel late this afternoon to make sure I was registered, and one of the gentleman behind the counter said that the eligibility of residents expires in the month that they originally signed up and that postcards are sent two months before expiration.

Maybe I read the Herald article too quickly, but this wasn't clear to me from the story. The implication was that we had all been bumped from the program at the start of the year. I wasn't due to renew until March, but it's close enough that I was able to take care of it today.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Good eats by the harbor

I have got to get down to Scup's in the Harbor one of these days. The East Boston eatery has been mentioned in the Globe before, and today there is a brief "Cheap Eats" piece in which everything sounds delicious -- with a photo that seems to affirm that.

Located in the marina off of Marginal Street and only open for breakfast and lunch, the menu is inexpensive and the Globe's Ann Luisa Cortissoz concludes that eating there is "less like a restaurant than like a meal at a friend's."

Cortissoz also notes that Scup's has applied for a beer and wine license, with plans for a beer garden out back. Wow.

Update: I ate lunch here on Saturday -- a delicious ham sandwich. Sitting at the long communal table I recognized two young women who I'd known as kids when I worked at the Boys & Girls Club. We chatted for a bit, and I was happy to see that they are both doing well.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The bully on the block

Ten days into Israel's attack on Gaza and 550 Palestinians have been killed, with the UN estimating that one-quarter of those are civilians. Many newspaper and television reports note that many children are among the dead. Meanwhile, Hamas rocket attacks have killed five residents of Israel. Nearly as many Israelis died in a friendly fire incident, when a tank killed three soldiers accidentally.

Rocket attacks by Hamas are dangerous, but their weapons are minuscule compared to the Israeli Defense Force. This response by Israel is extremely disproportionate, yet no American politicians (including Barack Obama) are stepping up to condemn Israel's actions -- actions with weapons purchased by US military aid. The American media is filled with officials telling us that Israel has a right to defend itself, but none with the courage and sanity to renounce what is going on right now.

I don't condone the actions of Hamas, but the Palestinians have had their land occupied for decades, have been treated like dogs by Israel, have had shortages of food and medicine in Gaza becuase of Israel's blockade in recent months, and now Israel is acting like a bully again, hoping to teach the Palestinians a lesson by kicking the crap out of them.

Glenn Greenwald is a blogger at who I agree with on most issues. Recently he's weighed in on the attacks on Gaza.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Pledge to nowhere

Globe columnist Ellen Goodman discusses the failure of abstinence-only education that was advocated and funded by the Bush Administration for the past eight years. After spending $1.5 billion on such programs around the country, research shows what most non-ideologues already knew: abstinence-only does not work.

The latest study, from Johns Hopkins, of teens who took virginity pledges -- which is one way the government measured their policy as working -- "found absolutely no difference in their sexual behavior, or the age at which they began having sex, or the number of their partners." The only difference? Those who pledged abstinence were less likely to use birth control.

So what did we get for our money? More pregnant teens. That is what happens when, as Goodman says, we pay for "an ideology in search of a methodology." The good news is that the war on science, truth and reality that has been waged for eight years will end in 17 days. The bad news may be that the damage done is so great that it will take years to recover.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Of human bondage

While we tend to think of slavery as an evil eliminated by the Civil War, some recent newspaper stories remind us that around the world -- and even here in America -- people are still kept in bondage and treated like property.

According to an Associated Press article from earlier this week, there are an estimated 10,000 "forced laborers" in the US, many of them children purchased to do domestic work. That number is, sadly, just a tiny fraction of what goes on elsewhere in the world. Anti-Slavery International, which traces its roots back to 1787, estimates that there are at least 12 million people, half of them children, enslaved, and that the practice is going on in virtually every country.

In yesterday's New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about young girls used as sex slaves in Southeast Asia, an undertaking that is profitable because of the large number of men from the West who travel to those countries to pay for them. The girls are tortured in below-ground chambers if they don't smile, appear eager and get customers. There have also been recent stories about forcibly-held domestic servants in Saudi Arabia and child slaves in China.

We are sometimes tempted to ask, "Why should I care about this?" Of course, to think about all of the world's problems and about every human being who is suffering can be depressing and overwhelming, but as we begin a new year let us remember the words of the English poet John Donne:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.