Friday, February 27, 2009

Implementing change

Two of the main reasons that I voted for Barack Obama were to bring an end to the war in Iraq and to shrink the disparity of wealth in America. In the past 36 hours the president has made major steps in both of those directions.

Today, before an audience of Marines, Obama announced that combat troops would be out of Iraq by next summer, with all troops out by the end of 2011. Admittedly, those of us on the left would like to see American troops back home even sooner -- and we're also leery of the announced buildup in Afghanistan -- but I believe this president to be a man who listens to others and thinks before making decisions, so I am confident that Obama believes that this is the best course of action.

Yesterday, the White House released its proposed budget for fiscal 2010, and -- from what I've read and heard -- Obama hopes to cut wasteful programs, close unnecessary loopholes, raise taxes on the very wealthy and increase spending on his priorities, like health care, green energy and education. I agree with all of those steps. Some are calling the budget a redistribution of wealth, and I say, "Hurrah!" to that.

This is what I sent Obama to Washington to do. The work has just begun, but I am glad to see him doing it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The party of snickering

When Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991, the US Geological Survey was able to warn the local populations -- as well as American military personnel who were stationed at our bases there -- in advance of the impending cataclysm. As a result, it is estimated that thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars were saved.

Monitoring volcanoes -- in the US and in places where our soldiers, sailors and airmen are located -- is one of the things that the USGS does. It's not an easy thing to predict eruptions, but the scientists who work in that field keep trying and have learned much.

Why, then, would Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, giving the Republican response to the president's address last night, choose to point to "volcano monitoring" as an area where he believes the new Democratic administration is throwing away taxpayer money? This from a governor whose state was devastated by a natural disaster -- and government's unpreparedness to deal with it.

As is often the case, the arguments offered by the Republican Party on serious issues amount to a few simplistic and ridiculous phrases. Paul Krugman writes:
And leaving aside the chutzpah of casting the failure of his own party’s governance as proof that government can’t work, does he really think that the response to natural disasters like Katrina is best undertaken by uncoordinated private action? Hey, why bother having an army? Let’s just rely on self-defense by armed citizens.

The intellectual incoherence is stunning. Basically, the political philosophy of the GOP right now seems to consist of snickering at stuff that they think sounds funny. The party of ideas has become the party of Beavis and Butthead.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A pair of deuces

Though it seemed that Sal DiMasi's departure from the State House would signal a new day for advocates of bringing casino gambling to Massachusetts, a couple of obstacles have been tossed into the fray.

First, the economic downtown makes developers and potential customers harder to find. Second, a ruling today by the Supreme Court undoes the status of the Middleborough land purchased by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. Without the land being placed in a federal trust, the tribe does not have the right to bypass current state law and go forward with its plans.

Of course, the state legislature could still vote to legalize casinos, the governor could sign the bill into law and the economy could bounce back, but for now the excitement of those in favor of the move would seem to be in a state of limbo.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Lending a hand

Once a week, students from Boston University's schools of medicine, dentistry, public health and social work come to East Boston, along with a doctor, to provide medical services to some of the neighborhood's homeless and indigent. There's an article about the program, which has been in place for a dozen years, posted today on BU's web site.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Not-so-private property

When work was being done to fix up a house on Chelsea Street two years ago, the crew on the job used the alley way on the right side to set up their ladders and to pass from the street to the back yard. The problem was that the alley is the property of my aunt, who lives next door to the building that was being worked on, and no one asked her for permission. Eventually the wooden gate was broken and one of the screens on my aunt's house was torn by a ladder.

Several people, myself included, spoke to the guys doing the work, but communication was difficult as they only spoke Spanish. An Internet search yielded the out-of-town owner of the house, but my messages were not returned. Eventually we made some headway and the gate was replaced. Still, the alley was used as a throughway until I put a lock on it with a "No Tresspassing" sign. Two years later the garbage from the house next door is still occasionally piled in front of the gate in anticipation of pick-up day.

How does one deal with situations where one party is unclear of property boundaries -- or just insists on ignoring them? Today I spoke with friends of mine who are dealing with a similar situation. They own a coffee shop on Meridian Street and their neighbors -- a music store -- has been dumping trash in the coffee shop's backyard for a while. Now the music store had a compressor built in the alley that is property of the coffee shop.

The owner of the music store has been unresponsive, according to my friends, and calls to the Boston Police have not been helpful either. The responding officers have told them to call the city's electrical inspectors. The city has said to call the police. Is there no recourse besides legal action -- which is a slow and expensive process. Any thoughts?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Free market high priest backs bank takeover

Alan Greenspan -- the former longtime chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank and a staunch free-market, laissez-faire capitalist -- has said publicly that the US may need to nationalize parts of the banking system to turn around the current economic crisis. This is like the Red Sox walking over to the Yankees' dugout during a baseball game and asking to use their opponents' bats because they are superior.

Greenspan, one of the architects of US fiscal policy during his nearly two decade reign as Fed chair, has been cited by Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman as the individual most responsible for the current economic crisis. A couple of months ago Greenspan sat before a Congressional committee and admitted that he was wrong in assuming that banks and other financial institutions would regulate themselves.

There seems to be a general feeling building that nationalization is inevitable and that what has prevented it from happening so far is public opinion. The price tag is likely to be more than a trillion dollars. Do such numbers even matter any more? Has the value of the dollar become meaningless? Will the situation become as bad as the Great Depression? Is all of this an admission that the basic tenets of capitalism are all wrong?

Speaking of the economy, I watched "Inside the Meltdown" on PBS's Frontline a couple days ago, and the program detailed how the economic crisis unfolded and how Ben Bernanke, current Fed chair, and Hank Paulson, former Tresury secretary, walked into a meeting with Congressional leaders and showed them that the entire US economy was standing on a cliff.

And in a recent issue of The New Yorker there is an article called "The Ponzi State," which details the collapse of Florida's housing market in an economy that is based almost completely on outsiders moving in. In effect, says writer George Packer, the Sunshine State is one giant Ponzi scheme. Could this be true of the nation's -- nay, the world's -- economy?

Musical chairs

The Boston Phoenix discusses new House Speaker Robert DeLeo's leadership team, noting that it's more diverse than ever, especially with regard to those under-45 who have been appointed to chair committees. It seems that DeLeo is somewhat more pragmatic than his predecessors, who doled out leadership spots with loyalty as the only criteria.

The second half of the story notes that East Boston's state senator, Anthony Petruccelli -- who moved from the House to the Senate in the summer of 2007 -- was named chair of the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee by Senate President Therese Murray. The appointment has some in the state's environmental sector concerned, but Petruccelli notes that he has been active in the areas of airport pollution and beach preservation.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Teachers to the rescue

The quick actions of two local teachers may have saved the life of a six-year-old girl last week. Bobby Casaletto and Kathy Carabine, faculty members at East Boston Central Catholic School, performed CPR when the student collapsed Friday at school.

I've known Casaletto since he was not much older than the child he helped save, and he is one of the most upstanding, hard-working, energetic and dedicated people I've ever met. We were on the staff at the Salesian Boys & Girls Club together back in the 1990s, and Bobby has been a teacher at EBCCS, my alma mater, for many years.

The girl has some previously unknown heart ailment, and the latest reports have her in fair condition.

Budgetary quake rattles Golden State

The state of California is close to fiscal collapse. A story in the New York Times describes the huge budget shortfall, massive layoffs, tanking bond rating and legislative gridlock that has the nation's most-populous state on the brink of bankruptcy.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seems powerless as his Republican colleagues in the state legislature refuse to vote for some sort of financial remedy. California has a deficit of some $41 billion.

Is this a harbinger of things to come all across America? We know that Massachusetts, like many other states, has a budget shortfall, and the Times also has a brief story on Kansas's state government running out of cash. There is money for the states in the stimulus package that President Obama will sign tomorrow, but not enough to completely bail them out.

In his Times column yesterday, Paul Krugman said that the US is in "deeper trouble, I think, than most people realize." There will apparently be much more pain and much more government spending before we are even treading water again.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Time for Aloisi to step up

There is a report today in the Globe on last week's community meeting about the parking garage that Massport is stuffing down East Boston's throat. The Southwest Service Area proposal (sometimes referred to as the consolidated rental-car facility, or CONRAC) would put 9,000 parking spaces in a 49-acre lot that abuts the Jeffries Point and Mount Carmel residential areas.

Eastie residents have legitimate concerns, but as usual Massport responds with sweet talk. The project's draft environmental impact report, from June 2008, includes comments submitted from the public, and in a smart and detailed letter, former state secretary of transportation Fred Salvucci laid out some of the neighborhood's objections. After noting the specifics, Salvucci writes that:
The long history of unfulfilled environmental commitments should be reviewed and redressed by [the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act office] as a prior condition to any processing of the Massport proposal. The relationship between Massport and the adjacent community over the past two decades is littered with unfulfilled commitments, a "bait and switch" pattern of commitments that disappear once Massport gets approval to proceed with terminals, runways, or taxiways, at which point the environmental commitments are never fulfilled.
After listing seven specific broken promises, Salvucci writes:
This behavior pattern makes a mockery of the Environmental Process and can be redressed only by insisting that Massport deliver on prior commitments, prior to being allowed to proceed with any new projects. The non-urgent (and possibly not even useful or desirable) $450 million Southwest Service area proposal is the right place for MEPA to draw a firm line and force Massport to dramatically change its behavior.
Salvucci hits a key point that many newcomers to East Boston or people unfamiliar with the decades-long struggle aren't aware of: Massport lies, and it does so with impunity. Before any big new projects move forward, the agency's pattern of abandoning its promises should be reviewed, after which Massport should be made to live up to its word. Only then can there be discussion of the Logan Airport's future, and the people who live around the airport -- not just those who stand to profit from it -- should have a larger voice in such matters.

I call on Jim Aloisi, the state secretary of transportation, to step in and to hold Massport accountable. He grew up on Chelsea Street in Eastie and is well aware of the history. He has the power to intervene on this matter and to prevent the further trampling of the rights of local residents.

A little outrage

Congressman Michael Capuano went off on eight bank CEO's at a House Financial Services Committee hearing last week. The representative from the 8th District, which includes East Boston, told the bankers that he refuses to put any of his money in their banks and that he is surprised they haven't been prosecuted criminally for their misdeeds.

These guys need to be humiliated more often. You can watch Capuano's tirade here on YouTube.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Remembering two giants

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, a pair of towering figures from the 19th Century, were both born 200 years ago on this day. One kept the United States together at the nation's most perilous hour, and the other pulled together an explanation for the development of life upon our planet.

Let us all hail these two great men.

Eastie fire truck has equipment failure

An East Boston fire truck pulled over yesterday because its lug nuts were loose, a scary thought in the wake of the engine that crashed into a building in early January and killed one firefighter. The Boston Fire Department does have a squad of firefighter-mechanics, but the city wants to bring in civilian mechanics to oversee the health of fire trucks and equipment.

As has been the case for a couple of years, the city and the firefighters' union are at odds with one another and neither shows any willingness to compromise.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

And Yoon makes three

Sam Yoon, an at-large city councilor who lives in Dorchester, has joined the race for mayor of Boston, according to Another at-large councilor, Michael Flaherty, has already thrown his hat into the ring against powerful Mayor Thomas Menino, who has held the office since the summer of 1993.

Yoon would appear to be the most liberal of the three Democrats, while Flaherty should have strong backing from unions and Menino has a vast political machine at his disposal. Does Yoon's candidacy weaken Flaherty's chance to unseat Boston's longest-serving mayor?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Don't forget the marshmallows

The state's Department of Conservation and Recreation is hosting oceanside campfires at area beaches in February, including Feb. 7 at Winthrop Beach, Feb. 14 at Revere Beach and Feb. 28 at East Boston's Constitution Beach. Sounds like fun.

The DCR's winter program also includes winter tracking (Feb. 14) and nature photography for beginners (Feb. 21), both at the Belle Isle Marsh. Click here for details.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Nowhere to go but up

Looks like East Boston's state Rep. Carlo Basile has the worst office in the State House. The Globe has a story today on how legislative office space is assigned by the leadership, and with Bob DeLeo taking them helm in House there will be some changes.

The rank-and-file members -- those without leadership posts or committee chairs -- get what's left, sometimes setting up shop in the building's basement. In the photo, Basile works in a small space with cubicle partitions around his desk. Hopefully, he'll get a bump upstairs in the near future.

Monday, February 2, 2009

New sheriff, new laws

Robert DeLeo, the new speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, is in position to strongly influence two contentious issues that will effect East Boston in the near future: casino gambling and toll hikes.

DeLeo, who represents Winthrop and parts of Revere (including Suffolk Downs and Wonderland), has already spoken publicly about his positions on both matters. A vote to legalize gambling (to at least include slot machines and maybe more) will come "before the end of the year" reports the Associated Press. Former speaker Sal DiMasi was the main impediment to this proposal last year.

Meanwhile, the speaker told Michelle McPhee that the state needs "to do something fair and equitable" to meet the costs of transportation in the state" and not let a few communities pay for it. That would seem to indicate his support of a gas tax rather than a toll increase.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Super risk

This evening, the 43rd Super Bowl will be played in Tampa. Bodies will be thrown at one another with a force that most of us will never experience (my year of freshman football at Savio notwithstanding). There will inevitably be breaks in the action for players who are slow to rise from the turf, and the sight of someone being whisked off the field via golf cart or ambulance is always possible.

Almost all of the most dangerous injuries will be ignored -- excepting maybe a replay that elicits a comment from the color commentator along the lines of, "Man, that was some hit!" In the coming years, however, the individuals involved in that hit, and many of the others, will be living with the effects of playing a contact sport for a span of years, and we are only starting to realize the effect of this.

Last week the autopsy of an 18-year-old football player revealed "the earliest signs of an incurable debilitating disease caused by the kind of repetitive head trauma he experienced on the field." After playing the game only at the high-school level, this kid was already showing signs of brain damage because of hits taken or given on the football field.

With the Super Bowl as a back drop, some doctors and former players are pushing the National Football League to take more seriously the issue of concussions, which some are calling a "crisis," that affects football players from Pop Warner level to the NFL. The Globe editorialized on the subject today.

I know a little bit about this subject because I wrote a story on concussions back when I was a sports reporter in Maine. In the fall of 2005 I interviewed doctors, athletes, coaches, athletic directors, trainers, school nurses and parents, and the result was an article entitled "Hard Knocks" (which, I must add, took a first-place award from the Maine Press Association that year).

Concussions are serious business. They are small brain injuries, but they are brain injuries nonetheless, and should be treated as such by everyone involved. When a player returns to a game -- football, hockey, soccer, basketball or whatever -- not long after getting his or her "bell rung" there is a risk to the long-term brain function of that person, which can affect thinking, concentration, behavior and attitude.

In the case of the NFL, they should see to it that all practicable precautions are taken to insure that players are protected and that they fully understand the risks so they are best able to weigh the cost of being macho with the long-term health of their brain. The league also needs to use some of its money to help care for those who have already paid the price on the field.

Most concussions, however, affect younger athletes, and parents need to educate themselves and their children on the subject. Is a little temporary glory on the high-school field really worth a lifetime of headaches and depression?