Monday, August 20, 2007

Local Politics Meets Global Finance

Standing on the podium in the hall at First Church in Roxbury, Maria Myers introduced herself as a “proud foster mother” and said her home in Dorchester was going into foreclosure.

“I take care of teenage boys,” she explained. “If I lose my home, I will be unable to do this work any more.”

When John Patterson took the podium, he said he was afraid of losing his apartment in Roxbury, due to foreclosure on the property owner by Deutsche Bank. Other speakers at last Wednesday's meeting talked about wages below Boston’s high cost of living, street violence, and how hard it was for people with criminal records to get or keep a job. Like traders watching turmoil in financial markets, the people in Roxbury had anxieties. In the middle of economic anxiety around the world, they were looking for a better deal from Boston’s largest property owners, including one reporting “fantastic” earnings growth for the 2nd quarter of this year, The Blackstone Group.

Local advocacy groups organized the meeting so that a Blackstone Group representative would appear and answer demands, or at least make a non-appearance. Either way, the organizers would make a point. After decades of losses in manufacturing jobs (many of them unionized), more of Boston’s wealth is being generated—directly or indirectly—by corporate administrations and other service sector jobs based in commercial property. One of the largest owners of that property is The Blackstone Group. With more wealth concentrated at the top income levels, while people at the bottom lose ground, organizers argue, Blackstone should narrow the gap.

A few hours before Wednesday’s town meeting, The Blackstone Group took a step in that direction by endorsing goals of the union representing Boston janitors, SEIU, Local 615. There was support for giving janitors more full-time jobs that would include access to health insurance. There was also a condition—for the new union contracts with cleaning companies to give managers more flexibility. The current contracts expire at the end of this month.

But a number of groups working together through Community Labor United have even more demands for the Blackstone Group to help, with either money or corporate leadership. The demands cover everything from help for job-seekers with criminal records to a fund for homeowners facing foreclosure. The tenant organizing coordinator with the housing advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana, Steve Meacham, called for a new form of “linkage” payments, a contribution of $1.00 per square foot, what he described as a “drop in the bucket compared to what they make.”

“We’re not stealing from the rich,” Meacham reasoned. “We’re getting back what was stolen from us.”

Between that statement and the income gap in Boston’s “hourglass economy” were some unconnected dots. At least during the meeting, there was no explicit connection made between the Blackstone Group’s profits and the chain of predatory lending that begins with homebuyers and mortgage brokers. And that would be one reason for the Blackstone Group to avoid discussing demands presented by groups at the meeting in Roxbury. The day after the meeting, Blackstone’s senior vice president for Global Corporate Communication, John Ford, said, “I think they’ve got the wrong idea of what we do for a living here.”

But the chain of global finance makes it more difficult to distinguish victims from exploiters, who are sometimes one and the same. Some of the difficulty lies in the virtual outsourcing of home mortgage lending from more tightly regulated banks to the more elusive—or slippery—transactions of mortgage companies. And the original loans are reconfigured in the world of asset management as securities, which provide money for more loans, good or bad. Even if none of the bad loans were enabled by Blackstone’s asset management, they could have been recycled by other companies making a living in some of the same ways. And nervous financial markets have more trouble distinguishing between bad debt and good debt that no one wants to buy.

“You got to wonder why things got so messed up,” said State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, “and they are pretty messed up right now.”

That comment in the church hall was about the not-so-effective attempt to curb predatory lending at the state level. Wilkerson argued that attempt might have been more successful had there been more attention to the heavy concentration (or, as some call it, the targeting) of sub-prime loans among people of color. In other words, the best way to close the racial gap was to put it in the spotlight and mobilize a push for change.

“If you lift the boats for black and brown people,” said Wilkerson, “the boats get lifted for everybody.”

City Councilor Sam Yoon drew on his experience of trying to get the most community benefit from development in Chinatown. And he recalled the challenge from Wilkerson to get as much of the community unified as possible.

“We have to talk about race,” Yoon said, “and how all of us unite.”

In his advice to groups in the hall, US Rep. Michael Capuano concentrated on numbers—as in voters and money.

“The people you’re talking about tonight—they’re not looking for a fight,” said Capuano. His advice: build pressure through voter turnout, and elected officials will be more likely to lean on commercial property owners at pressure points such as zoning appeals. And Capuano said what a corporate player lacked in political goodwill might be offset by concern for money.

“If you want to do business,” he said, “and if the only way to make a buck is to share a dime, you’ll do it.”

But, if politics is local, the business of asset management is global. The business can mean investing in commercial property in downtown Boston, or acquiring a company with an eye on growing demand for hotels in India. The gains from those investments can be mapped for Boston or India, but the trickle-down can be spread more widely to pension funds or individual investors. From that perspective, it becomes more difficult for even a politician to distinguish between one dot representing the global investor and another representing the woman from Dorchester who invests in the well-being of foster children.

From a global perspective, the whole meeting hall in Roxbury was just another dot on a map. Outside the hall, the grounds of First Church looked very much the way they might have appeared more than 200 years earlier. On a warm, early evening in August, the glow of sunset deepened behind the outlines of church spires and a minaret. Surrounding the dot, as far as the ear could follow, were the sounds of crickets. Instead of a perch for viewing Boston’s downtown skyline (which it is), Eliot Square seemed more like the center of a small village, and the white clapboard of Boston’s oldest frame church looked as carefully preserved as a photograph from another time.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Hart to Stick with State Senate

State Senator Jack Hart (D-South Boston/Dorchester) has decided to pass up on a chance to lead the Mass. Biotechnology Council. In a statement issued this afternoon, he said: “I no longer wish to be considered for the position of President & CEO of the Massachusetts Bio-Technology Council. Although the MBC does important work and I am grateful for their interest in me, I have decided to remain in the Massachusetts Senate serving the wonderful people of the 1st Suffolk District. As Senator, I cherish the extraordinary honor and responsibility to positively affect the lives of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Unconnected Dots to the Biolab

The road to the biocontainment lab planned by Boston University passes through a tangle of forethought and conjecture. On one side are the multiple layers of official reassurance. On the other side are the alarming, though not totally implausible what-ifs of grassroots opponents. Between those sides at a hearing Monday, July 30, were members of the City Council Public Safety Committee. One member, Roxbury Councilor Chuck Turner, reaffirmed his opposition to using the lab near Boston Medical Center for “level 4” research involving the deadliest pathogens. But even his colleagues, Councilors Steve Murphy and Mike Ross, had their moments of disquiet.

The hearing was supposed to provide information about how biological agents would be delivered to the lab. But there was no representative from Boston University, which Murphy said would have plans ready for presentation later this year. The Council has practically no say over the lab, though a committee hearing does provide some leverage for inquiry. By the time BU’s plans are discussed before the Council, even that leverage could be diminished if an upcoming federal court decision gives the lab full approval.

The Council did hear testimony from city officials in charge of public safety and public health. The executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, Bárbara Ferrer, said she expected dangerous pathogens would be shipped to the lab only 4 or 5 times a year. “I would say we’re talking about a very limited number of pathogens coming into the lab,” she told the committee, “and a very limited number of experiments that involve using the pathogens.”

Regulations for shipment would have to be cleared with the Boston Police Dept. Superintendent in Chief Robert Dunford said there would be “point-to-point tracking” of shipments, which would have to comply with regulations for packing and security. This would include security clearance for carriers.

Councilors were told shipments would probably have to avoid “areas of high concern” such as tunnels. In the event of an accident, would all first responders know they were rushing to a level 4 bio-hazard? Not necessarily. Instead, councilors were told, responders would take an “all-hazard approach,” exercising “universal precautions.”

Turner even wondered if information about the arrival of level 4 shipment might circulate too widely. He said he was afraid the number of people being alerted would be “large enough to raise concerns on the security of the information.”

Dunford said responders would try to avoid that danger by having information “compartmentalized.” For example, he said, firefighters would not be notified about a level 4 shipment unless there were “an exceptional event.”

Earlier this year, at BU’s less hazardous level 3 lab, the notification traveled the other way, when medical waste caught fire in a sterilizing machine and the lab building had to be evacuated. The Fire Dept. responded immediately but, according to the Boston Globe, the Boston Public Health Commission was notified three hours later. There have been no reports of any infection from the fire, and it might be argued the incident wasn’t serious enough to trigger the regulatory requirement for notifying the commission immediately. But incidents in the level 3 lab were used by opponents to argue that even the best regulations and protocols won’t always be observed.

An opponent of the level 4 lab from Hyde Park, Mary Lee Marra, said hoping all biological agents would be safely contained at all times was a “Hail Mary pass.”

“Once they get out,” she said, “you can’t get them back in the bottle, even if you have the best cardboard box in the world.”

When Dunford said the city would be “in the driving seat” for security requirements, Councilor Mike Ross raised the possibility that local officials might have to yield to another authority. Ross was also less than fully persuaded about the dependability of the company that would be making shipments to the lab.

“I’m just not that comfortable with FedEx,” he said, “even if it’s FedEx Plus.”

Turner said the information at the hearing only reinforced his opposition.

“It should convince those of us who are not convinced that we should ban Bio-4 labs in Boston,” he said.

For Public Safety Committee chair Steve Murphy, the case was still incomplete.

“Legitimate transportation questions have not been answered,” he said, “and BU owes it to the public to answer those questions.”