My Favorite [Stolen] Insight: Chastity of Intellect Must Be Preserved in Public Affairs

Friday, September 18, 2015

When the spirit of George Will, that great god of conservatism, is upon me, I cannot resist the urge to begin a post with a quotation from some intellectual giant, past or present.  The urge is accompanied by the hope I’ll be thought a scholar if I am able to call forth so effortlessly the words of this or that Great Mind.   

In that spirit, I entreat you: ponder the words of George Santayana (1863-1952), the once celebrated Boston Latin- and Harvard-educated philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist, who said (or maybe wrote; I’m not sure):
“Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon.”

They don’t make men of letters like George Santayana any more.  Or maybe they do.  I wouldn’t know.  I’ve never read a book by him and probably never will.  Philosophy, essays, poems and novels -- they’re so much work, you know.
I glommed onto the “skepticism” quote the other day when reading an article in a New Yorker magazine I borrowed from a doctor’s office because I was headed to the subway and needed something to distract me from the pain and misery of riding the MBTA.

The article explored the troubled history and eventual sale of a failed and foreclosed-upon casino in Atlantic City.  One of the parties involved was a university president, described as “a leading scholar of Santayana,” who had dreams of converting the hollowed-out casino to academic uses.  The author cleverly worked in this quote because it underlined the president’s ironic lack of skepticism when he got involved in the deal.  (Not long afterwards, the president had to resign.)

Anyway, it’s a good quote.  I especially like how Santayana connects skepticism to virginity.  A pronouncement with a sex angle always has more impact. 
As chance would have it, right after I read that New Yorker piece, I happened upon two quotations from notable figures in Massachusetts politics touching upon the subject of skepticism.

One, by Charlie Baker, was in a State House News Service article, dated September 11, concerning the governor’s thoughts on a meeting he’d just had with two of his predecessors, Bill Weld and Mike Dukakis.  The former governors were educating their successor on the virtues of spending at least a couple of billion public dollars on an underground rail link between Boston’s South Station and North Station.
“This is a lot of money, taxpayer money,” said Baker, “and a lot of people call me skeptical when I get into these conversations.  I’m not being skeptical.  I’m being cautious.  There’s a difference.”

(Question: If you are the Bill Weld who served as political godfather to Charlie Baker, is it better to be greeted by your protégé cautiously or skeptically?)

The other quote was by that machine of memorable quotations, Barney Frank, who retired not long ago from the U.S. House and recently published a book: Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage.
Frank was being interviewed in the online version of the best publication on Massachusetts public affairs, CommonWealth magazine. 

Reporter Gabrielle Gurley asked, “Now that you’re working in the news media, how does that affect your view of journalists?”
Frank said, “I don’t like journalists.  I like them personally.  They frustrate me though.  They are among the most intelligent people I deal with.  But there’s been a negativism that has suffused the profession for so long that I resent that.”

Gurley asked, “What do you mean by negativism?”
Frank said, “It was best summarized for me by a very good (retired) journalist named Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post.  An editor friend of his once said a few years ago, ‘I wish young journalists today were as skeptical of bad news as they are of good news.  If you tell them something good, they can’t wait to debunk it; if you tell them something bad, they can’t wait to push it into print.’ “

Charlie and Barney, and all those who aspire to follow in their footsteps, May they be forever chaste.





High Rollers Are Fine but Resort Casino Needs Orange Line Riders to Thrive

Monday, September 14, 2015

On the sidewalks of Everett, I have heard it said that Steve Wynn is quietly planning to lure planeloads of nouveau riche from the People’s Republic of China to his new “Wynn Everett” casino on the banks of the Mystic River.

According to this theory, there are millionaires galore in China who’ve experienced the Wynn treatment at his fabulous casino in Macau and who’d be eager to combine a stay at the Everett pleasure dome, the long-planned resort casino for eastern Massachusetts, with an extended weekend of shopping, sight-seeing and culture mavening in Boston.  
“You watch!” a friend of mine says. “Wynn will be doing charter flights from China every other weekend.  He’ll have yachts picking up his most loyal Chinese customers at the Logan Airport dock and whisking them to the casino.  These high rollers will be dropping Franklins at the tables as soon as they recover from the flight.  And when they’re not betting in the casino or eating at Wynn’s restaurants and shopping at the high-end shops in his luxury hotel, he’ll be sending them in his fleet of limos to the best that Boston offers: restaurants, shows, art galleries, you name it.”

Little known facts that bolster this line of thought: (a) Macau is one of the world’s richest cities; (b) Macau is the most densely populated city in the world.
The China-Wynn Everett connection also makes sense, as my friend sees it, because of the affinity China’s movers and shakers already have to Boston.  “They have business connections here,” he says.  “They’ve invested money here.  They’re sending their kids to Harvard and MIT.”

He asks, “Can’t you see it?  If you’re a member of China’s wealthy elite and you’re a regular at Wynn Macau and your kid is at Harvard, you’re going to stay at Wynn Everett when you come to visit the kid.  Hell, you’ll want to visit more often because you’ll have the casino as your base camp.”
I’m the last person to say if this is a valid theory.  I don’t know gambling from gamboling.  I can’t tell the difference between international markets and the International Houses of Pancakes.

But, but, if you read the recent, required environmental impact report on Wynn Everett by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, you’ll see evidence that Wynn will be depending heavily on familiars from Massachusetts, rather than foreign nationals, for the success of his resort casino near Sullivan Square.
“The MBTA’s Orange Line is a key component of the project’s transportation strategy to maximize patron and employee use of non-automobile travel modes,” the report states.  “A significant proportion of patrons and employees are expected to travel on the Orange Line.”

Wynn is going to make an annual contribution of about $382,000 to pay for additional service on the Orange Line to accommodate his employees and customers, according to this report. A little more than a grand a day isn’t that encouraging to anyone who rides the T and knows how inadequate and outdated Orange Line service really is, but it ain’t pocket change either.
As I thought about how critical the Orange Line will be to Wynn Everett, my mind wandered back to my days as a Northeastern student riding the Blue Line (1968-73).  I grew up in Revere.  That was the line you rode if you had to get to Boston.  On many afternoons in the spring, if I had no afternoon classes and no hours at my on-campus work-study job, I’d head home, taking the Blue Line to the Revere Beach or Wonderland stations, where I’d catch an Everett Station bus to home.  (We lived off Park Ave., near the Revere-Everett line.)  

When the racing season was under way at Suffolk Downs, Blue Line trains would sometimes be filled in the early afternoons with horse fans heading to the track. I was always fascinated by how intently they studied their racing forms as the trains rattled their way out of the tunnel to the Suffolk Downs stop.  Most of them held sharpened pencils in their right hands and stared closely down at their pencil points as they marked their forms.  God, did they need their horses to come in.

It’s weirdly reassuring, in a deja vu all over again kind of way,  to think I’ll soon be spending time in the company of casino patrons on the Orange Line as I spent my college years with racetrack patrons on the Blue.  The gamblers who take the Orange Line to Wynn Everett in 2018 will be no more likely to rise from the ranks of the desperate-for-a-windfall than the gamblers I watched on the hard benches of the Blue Line in 1968.  Yet I shall find some inspiration in the example of their blind persistence. 


Connector Failure and Its Aftermath Will Weigh on All Future IT Procurement in MA

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General is investigating the failure of the Governor Patrick administration and its chosen information technology contractor to adapt the state’s health exchange to the complex requirements “Obamacare” back in 2013.

The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts may also be conducting a full-blown investigation of the massive and costly failure of The Connector, as the exchange is commonly known, during the latter part of Patrick’s second term.
We should wait for those investigations to be completed before grappling with the specifics of how to prevent another public technology disaster like the one that engulfed The Connector.

But we don’t have to wait to acknowledge that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, like most public entities in the U.S., is not really set up to be a high-functioning, equal-to-the-private-sector procurer of cutting edge technology. 
This is not to disparage anyone on the public payroll now doing tech procurement.  I’m sure most of them are intelligent, honest, dedicated, diligent, etc.  I’d be surprised if our state procurement units have enough people to do the work as thoroughly and as quickly as it needs to be done.  And they probably lack adequate resources and support from management above.

Given how long The Connector failure and its costly remediation have been in the news, I suspect that Charlie Baker began to take stock of the problems in tech procurement before he was even inaugurated.  I hope that, now, he’s as eager to make changes in that area as he is in mass transit.
The cost of The Connector failure has been estimated from a quarter of a billion to a billion dollars, or more.  And the tab's still open!

Just this week, the Center for Health and Information and Analysis (CHIA), a state agency established under health care cost control legislation in 2012, cited the failure as a major reason the cost of operating the Medicaid program jumped 19% in 2014.
Some 200,000 Massachusetts residents who were unable to enroll in private health plans due to technical problems at The Connector were put on Medicaid as a stopgap, meaning taxpayers had to foot the bill in 2014 for millions of dollars in care provided to persons who otherwise would have gotten private insurance coverage.

Connector: The gift that keeps on taking.
Back in May, during debate in the Massachusetts Senate over the state budget for Fiscal Year 2016, Minority Leader Bruce Tarr tried to get an amendment through that would have allocated $2.6 million for assisting the Attorney General in recovering funds from the private vendor involved in The Connector failure and appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the failure.

Tarr’s amendment gained the support of only 8 of the 39 senators in attendance at that point.  Several senators argued against it.  They said the AG was already investigating The Connector; therefore,  the $2.6 million appropriation was not needed.
“Hardworking people are working to address the systemic dysfunction of The Connector site and to remediate something that has been a disaster,” said Senator Tarr.  “We need to try to bring to justice and hold accountable the people responsible for the expenditure and the loss of those hundreds of millions of dollars.  We know the federal government is underway in that task and the U.S. Attorney has subpoenaed records.  The level of dysfunction has brought the attention of the federal government’s chief prosecutor in Massachusetts.  It would seem that the U.S. Attorney’s client would be the federal government and the federal government might seek compensation for acts on behalf of the federal government.  Who will stand for the citizens of the Commonwealth?…We can’t just let go by the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars and inappropriate acts by people representing the Commonwealth.”

This was an instance, common in the annals of our state and federal legislatures, where the best argument didn’t win.
Boston’s Pioneer Institute has taken some of the most critical looks at The Connector disaster.  For a good sample  of what the Institute has said on this issue, go to: