Winter 2004

Winter 2004

Boston tries to keep a token presence in the magazine publishing industry

Boston tries to keep a token presence in the magazine publishing industry

Jeremy Brosowsky, age 28 but already a publishing success, thought he had the formula. His Washington Business Forward was 18 months old and going strong. He could imagine Business Forward magazines in two dozen markets, including fast-growing cities like Atlanta and San Antonio. Why not Boston, for a start?

Before long, Brosowsky had a downtown office, a staff of veteran editors, and a stable of freelancers. Unfortunately, the year was 2001.

“In retrospect, the timing could not have been worse,” he says. “We ran into a buzz saw. If it had been launched a year or two earlier, it might have been a different story. But we just didn’t have time to get our legs out from under us.”

Trapped in an economic slump that worsened after the terrorist attacks of September 11, Boston Business Forward died at the end of that year, after just four issues.

You can’t fault Brosowsky for picking Boston as a target. For years, Boston-based Inc. had been a service-journalism bible to small-business owners across the country. And start-up Fast Company was growing fat on the stories of free-agent high flyers who imbibed the New Economy’s electric Kool-Aid. A lifestyle publication, P.O.V., encouraged the moneyed readers of the other two magazines to “Live Large.” Those magazines combined with the intellectual heft of Harvard Business Review and MIT’s Technology Review to give the Boston-Cambridge tandem, for a brief moment, the leader’s yellow jersey for New Economy journalism.

Of course, when the race gets called because the promoters have run out of money, that yellow jersey turns into just another shirt. So, instead of leading a charge to a new business journalism based in Boston, Brosowsky led a charge out of town, folding Boston Business Forward. (The Washington Business Forward closed up shop a year later, following its November 2002 issue.)

The last few years have been hard on magazines in Boston, not only for those in the New Economy sector but also for intellectual darlings like Doubletake and The American Prospect. Last year, Inc. and Fast Company left town, called to New York by new owners Gruner + Jahr USA, who had paid more than $500 million for the pair of titles. P.O.V. left town before it folded, in January 2000. Doubletake, despite a pair of benefit concerts by rock god Bruce Springsteen last February, hasn’t put out an issue in more than a year, and the bulk of the Prospect‘s editorial staff moved from Boston to Washington, DC, in an attempt to root the left-wing intellectual-journal-turned-political-magazine in the center of national politics. In the niche magazine market, the new owner of local stalwart Natural Health fired the entire staff and relaunched the title from Los Angeles, while Walking was finally hobbled–permanently–by its new owner, Reader’s Digest, in 2001.

Has the Boston magazine scene died a tragic death? That depends on whether you thought there was a magazine scene here to begin with. Boston “hasn’t historically been a magazine town,” says Jon Marcus, editor of Boston magazine. “I don’t think things have changed in Boston, but in the magazine industry [as a whole].”

A town of readers, not publishers

The magazine business has always been concentrated in New York. But still, industry analysts, including those who slave away here, say it’s getting harder to escape the Big Apple’s gravitational pull. The recent recession, in particular, has made it more important than ever to be a known quantity among the advertising shops on Madison Avenue. And that’s tough to do out here in the provinces. When the New Economy money started to drain away, the city was left with what it had before: a few franchises, a few struggling niche publications, and a pair of strong technology-oriented trade magazine groups in the suburbs, as well as the decidedly noncommercial academic and scientific journals produced by the area’s powerhouse universities.

Boston editor Jon Marcus says the entire
magazine industry has changed.

“There was great potential,” for a while, says Sarah Noble, a veteran journalist who has spent the past several years working as a media industry recruiter. “We have a lot of intellectual horsepower here. But the downturn in the magazine industry overall, the consolidation, left everyone so obsessed with advertising dollars [that] they felt they needed to be in the hot spot for those dollars, which is New York.”

Still, Boston seems like fertile ground for journalistic experiments. “There’s a high density of scholars and intellectuals,” says Robert Kuttner, one of the founders of The American Prospect. “It’s a very good place for what they call ‘thought-leader magazines.'”

Boston is “one of the great readers’ cities in the country,” says Cullen Murphy, managing editor of Boston’s venerable Atlantic Monthly. “The Boston Globe‘s decision to create an Ideas section of the newspaper on Sundays surely recognizes that fact. And that section, a mini-magazine in its own right, is a welcome and successful addition.”

Boston is ‘one of the great readers’ cities.’

And a great readers’ city makes a great writers’ city. Boston is one of the few remaining places in America to support two daily newspapers, the Globe (which recently decided to overhaul and expand its Sunday magazine, in the face of an industry-wide trend toward scuttling such publications) and the Boston Herald, and it’s also home to a strong alternative weekly, the Boston Phoenix. These publications continue to produce such well-regarded writers as Charlie Pierce, formerly of GQ and Esquire (now at the Globe magazine) and Sean Flynn, now a regular contributor to GQ.

“You’ve got an extraordinary talent pool, particularly on the more creative ends–writing, editing, reporting, and design,” says George Gendron, who, in addition to editing Inc. during most of its life in Boston also edited Boston magazine in the 1970s. “Going all the way back to the period when you had the Real Paper and the Boston Phoenix competing, there was a hotbed of talent, and that’s primarily due to the extraordinary educational institutions.”

But none of this makes the Hub a great place for glossy magazines to call home. Indeed, the pull of New York is so strong that many people assume even the oldest Boston warhorses are stored in the Gotham barn.

The Atlantic‘s Toby Lester and Scott
Stossel reflect Boston’s distaste for glitz.

“People are regularly surprised to hear the Atlantic is in Boston,” says Toby Lester, a deputy managing editor at Boston’s oldest magazine, which was founded in 1857. (Lester also worked locally at Doubletake and at Country Journal, an intellectual take on small-town life that folded in 2001.) “There’s not enough of a critical mass of general-interest magazines here to create cross-pollination. There are a couple of places, and as long as those magazines have similar goals, the people from one publication or another will certainly drift over. But I don’t think there are enough to create a culture.”

Scott Stossel, another Atlantic editor, sees the Atlantic‘s serious tone as reflective of Boston’s famed distaste for nonsense and glitz. Still, there are hardly enough publications based here to define a “Boston Style.”

That is not to say that the city has never produced thought-provoking consumer magazines. In addition to the Atlantic, a National Magazine Award winner for General Excellence, Boston magazine consistently wins awards from the City and Regional Magazine Association. And a few years ago, awards were going to another regional publication, New England Monthly, which, in a memorable six-year run in the 1980s, won a pair of National Magazine Awards and lost a pile of money.

The Atlantic still struggles to make money, but it is possible for a profitable magazine to operate in the Hub. Cook’s Illustrated, headquartered in Brookline, has proven that a magazine without advertisements can be lucrative –although some scoff at it as little more than a newsletter –and will soon launch another title. In the North End, CFO has become one of the country’s largest business- to-business magazines. In the Metrowest suburbs, tech-oriented IDG runs a passel of profitable trade publications, and Reed Business Information recently purchased the healthy trade-magazine group once known as Cahners. In the downtown area, custom-publishing house Pohly Publishing puts out the Continental Airlines in-flight magazine, among other periodicals.

And if the city doesn’t have a pile of glossies, it does have lots of publications generated by its universities. In addition to the usual academic journals, there’s Technology Review, which recently went through a redesign and is positioning itself to occupy the once-crowded intersection of technology and enterprise. Both Technology Review and Harvard Business Review receive support from their parent institutions, giving them shelter from economic storms.

But the list of survivors is random and unconnected, a problem typical of regional publishing centers like Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, each featuring a few magazines but remaining incapable of reaching what Lester terms “critical mass.”

“It’s always been the equivalent of that old saying about the Red Sox: 25 players, 25 cabs,” says area publishing veteran John Strahinich, long the number-two guy at Boston magazine and editor of the ill-fated Forward. “When I was at Boston, we’d all go to one watering hole. Everyone [at other publications] would go to their own place, with their own masthead. Part of the fun with magazines has always been ‘growing your own,’ grooming those magazine writers out there who are the next generation. But it’s always been kind of fragmented up here.”

Seth Bauer, the former editor of Walking–“one of our big contributions to the community was our interns,” he says–took over the helm of niche survivor Body and Soul (née New Age Journal) earlier this year and is doing his part to combat that fragmentation. Bauer knows a bit about developing a group spirit, having served as the coxswain for crews of Olympic rowers.

“I’d like to have it happen more than it does,” Bauer says in his Watertown office. “Toby Lester at the Atlantic and I have become friends. We go to lunch. They were completely isolated from the magazine community. Someone’s applying for a job here who interned there… but we’re a ways away from being able to make Boston a strong magazine culture.”

It will take a lot more than a few lunches, says Nate Nickerson, Fast Company‘s former managing editor, who is currently freelancing as both a writer and editor.

“How many of us are there, anyway?” Nickerson says of established magazines and their staffs. “You can count them on one hand. And Cook’s Illustrated really doesn’t have much in common with Fast Company.”

“There is real cross-pollination in New York,” says veteran journalist Craig Unger, who worked at New York magazine and edited Boston magazine in the 1990s. “But it just doesn’t exist like that in Boston. It’s hard to have a major media career there. When I left Boston magazine, what would have been the next job for me?”

A city for startups

So should Bostonians be concerned that a place famous for its literary traditions can’t seem to sustain more than a sprinkling of credible publications? Not really, according to Alan Webber, one of the co-founders of Fast Company.

“You might as well ask, is Boston a failure as a national film center?” Webber suggests. “The city ought to be very proud of the fact that it has several magazines that continue to function here. It has spawned several already, but there’s no presumption of a right or a need to be a headquarters of a nationally prominent magazine to be a great city. There are very few cities in America that think their viability is maintained by their ability to sustain a great magazine.”

And yet, while having thriving magazines might not indicate that there is a powerful magazine business, exactly, it can indicate that there is a kind of buzz coming from a city, in some thriving sector. And in a city where a lot of industries have been beaten up since 2000, where many homegrown businesses are rapidly being aggregated into larger conglomerates, some local buzz might be nice.

Ex-Inc. editor George Gendron: More than
New York, Boston is “driven by innovation.”

“Having a Fast Company sent a message to the world that interesting things were happening in high tech, and in that respect, it was nice to have it,” Marcus says. “I don’t think it sent a message that there is a burgeoning magazine community.”

But that first message might be as important as the second.

“Out of a kind of richness in culture come these magazines,” says Lindy Hess, the founder of the Columbia Publishing Course. (Sign of the times: Hess founded the Radcliffe Publishing Course, a Cambridge camp that annually sent dozens of college graduates into the magazine and book publishing industries. It moved to New York in 2001 and recently changed its name.) “I think the two business magazines that grew up in Boston are emblematic of that. When Jan Wenner started Rolling Stone, he was sitting in a certain place at a certain time. So was Louis Rosetto, when he started Wired.” Both Rolling Stone and Wired were born in San Francisco (in 1967 and 1993, respectively), but Rolling Stone shifted to New York in 1976.

In fact, while Inc. and Fast Company came out of different generations, they did reflect a measure of something that, if not limited to Boston, has always been active in the area: the idea that business could be done in a way different from how it is done on Wall Street.

“I don’t think we could have started the magazine in New York,” says Webber. “In some cases, it’s harder to do something new when you’re in the headquarters of the old. We were close enough to New York to get advice and direction and professional input, but without having to listen to the steady drumbeat and inevitable discouragement of people saying ‘you can’t do it that way’ that comes from being in the headquarters of the old regime. We were doing a business magazine about ideas and new ways of thinking about business, and Boston is a great place for that kind of talent.”

Inc. came from similar origins, according to Gendron, who notes that the magazine’s founder, the late Bernie Goldhirsch, thought his how-to guide for small-business owners should be aimed at startups that could exist anywhere, rather than those simply interested in Wall Street-centered financial journalism.

“Early on, there was pressure to move it to New York, but Bernie really felt passionate about Boston being the appropriate home,” Gendron says. “Here you have a different environment, and it’s driven by innovation and entrepreneurship. He just felt that if he were sitting in Peoria looking for the best strategic location to start a magazine that does what Inc. does, Boston was the place to be. New York is a big-company town.”

At Cook’s Illustrated, one of the few profitable consumer magazines left in the Boston area, uber-Yankee founder and editor Chris Kimball says that he wanted to innovate, and the Gotham magazine culture sometimes doesn’t allow for that. Nobody would have bought into his idea for a subscription-only, no-ad model, he says.

“From our perspective, we couldn’t be in New York,” Kimball says. “As an independent, you’ve really got to find a new way.”

And the Cook’s Illustrated serious approach to food–a typical article will describe, in step-by-step, adjective-free prose, repeated attempts to fry up the perfect cheese omelette–fits the reputation of its surroundings.

“Boston’s never been a source of those penny-dreadfuls,” Kimball says, referring to the celebrity journalism practiced at Us magazine and its kin. “It’s always been thought of as a little small, studious, and intellectual.”

Proof of life

“There are a lot of stories about how magazines begin,” Hess adds. “Sometimes it’s the passion of a single person who will do anything. Sometimes the culture of a place can make a group of people come together and believe in a magazine.”

Of course, that’s not always the case, particularly in a magazine economy that saw a three-year drop in ad pages from 2000 to 2002, the mothballing of several major titles, and a heavier focus on niche publications.

“I don’t think the Atlantic would have ever emerged in Boston in a modern day,” says Toby Lester. “It was born when Boston was considered the intellectual capital of the country in many ways, but it would be hard to believe a similar magazine could emerge out of the blue and really make it without the support of a big, New York-style media company.”

Nate Nickerson left New York for
outsider-friendly Boston.

As bleak as things are in Boston, however, Gendron sees signs of life. Now retired from Inc., he regularly gets calls for advice from people thinking about magazine startups.

“I can’t tell you the number of magazines that are on the drawing boards in every possible category,” he says. “Will all of them succeed? No. But there are more than a handful of new Inc.‘s out there.”

Publishing’s morgues are littered with well-regarded periodicals, beloved by their readers, that landed with an economic thud. Spy and the Oxford American, Lingua Franca and Might, not to mention New England Monthly and Doubletake, all fall into that category.

Magazines fail at an astounding rate. Four out of 10 make it through their first year, and only one in 10 survives a decade, according to Samir Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi who carefully follows the industry.

“My magazine in Washington is legitimately considered a success by most publishing people, and it’s not around anymore,” Brosowsky says. “I published for two and a half years, and no one would call it a failure. It’s like a noble pursuit. There’s something about publishing a magazine that insulates it from reality. But financially, these things fail.”

In fact, what might be to Boston’s credit is the fact that Inc. and Fast Company are still alive, even if they have been forced, Napoleon-like, into an island exile.

“You could almost say that it’s salutary that they were able to sell out for as much as they did,” says Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam, who has written extensively about local magazines. “At the time, they were both over-mature. You could almost chalk that up to some kind of Bostonian shrewdness.”

Nate Nickerson, for one, hasn’t given up the hope that that shrewdness will strike again. He was part of that “magazine culture” in New York, leaping from one magazine to another, before he came to Boston after getting married. Once in the Hub, he worked at Cook’s Illustrated, then at Fast Company, and believes in the possibilities of an outsider’s market.

“Professionally, the big irony for me, careerwise, was, when I left New York, I was pretty sure I was leaving big-time publishing,” Nickerson says. “But then, call it good luck, I got to work for two of the most interesting magazines in the country. Who would have figured that?”

Jeffrey Klineman is a freelance writer in Cambridge.

Its time for Romney to reform the correctional system

Pledging themselves to the cause of reform, Gov. Mitt Romney and his team have taken on a number of shibboleths in state government during their first year in office. From UMass to the courts, the Romney administration has raised legitimate questions about the way state government organizes and delivers vital services to citizens of the Commonwealth and put forward ambitious, if not always persuasive, plans for improving public services in Massachusetts. If the governor has done so with an eye toward scoring points with the electorate, who can blame him?

But governing is not just about picking your battles. Sometimes, the battle picks you. In this way, the first true test of Romney as governor, not just politician, has come from the state Department of Correction.

If the governor were to draw straws, he could hardly have done worse. The correctional system performs a vital, if largely unappreciated, public service. Even in the most perfect society, there will always be malefactors, and, as Nelson Mandela has said, the way any society treats those behind bars is “a reflection of its character.” Even without sentimentalizing sociopaths, it is in the best interests of a free society that those who victimize their fellow citizens be redirected into the law-abiding mainstream. If the DOC fails in its mission of correction, the Commonwealth becomes a more dangerous place.

Romney did not set out to take on this particular challenge. A law-and-order regime that staked out its criminal-justice turf on a sex-offender registry and restoration of the death penalty (on scientifically irrefutable grounds Romney has appointed a task force to develop), the Romney administration did nothing to make inmate rehabilitation a centerpiece of its reform agenda. A gubernatorial working group on criminal justice appointed shortly after the administration took office did put mandatory post-release supervision–a worthy idea put forward by the MassINC report From Cell to Street–on its agenda, but little has come of the body or its agenda. No broader review of correctional policy was ever contemplated.

Then, in August, came the cellblock killing of John Geoghan. A defrocked priest sent to prison for child sexual abuse–a crime despised not only by society but also by inmates–Geoghan did not make a sympathetic victim. But the revelation of a frail old man being tormented on a daily basis by prison guards was more shocking than the killing itself, by a fellow inmate. Although the team initially assigned to investigate Geoghan’s death in state custody and the circumstances leading up to it–a trio of DOC and correctional industry insiders–gave rise to suspicion of a coming whitewash, the subsequent appointment of a “blue-ribbon” panel of respected outside reviewers, chaired by former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, now heralds the most sweeping re-examination of correctional purpose and method in a generation.

The extent of the rethinking underway is evident within the administration itself. Testifying before a legislative committee in late October, Public Safety Secretary Edward Flynn expressly refuted the Weld Doctrine (the former governor pledged, as a candidate in 1990, to “reintroduce prisoners to the joys of busting rocks”) that has guided, rhetorically if not literally, criminal justice philosophy for a dozen years. “We are emerging from an era in which Massachusetts was proud to be ‘tough on crime,'” Flynn told the Public Safety Committee. “This emphasis on punishment over rehabilitation came with a price tag, which was costly both economically and socially.”

The economic cost has come to the attention of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which recently pointed out the uncomfortable reality that, after cuts to higher education in the last two budgets, the state now spends more on state and county corrections ($830 million in fiscal 2004) than it does on public colleges and universities ($816 million). “We simply cannot afford the course of rapid expansion in prison populations–and even more rapid growth in costs–that has characterized the corrections budget for more than two decades,” MTF concluded.

When it comes to corrections, reform can be perilous, at least politically. Already, the Boston Herald has chided Flynn for his “get smart not tough” testimony, charging in an editorial that Flynn’s vision of criminal-justice reform “risks igniting a legislative retreat from tough criminal justice policies implemented successfully over the past 12 years in favor of ‘rehabilitation.’ Any such move would be incredibly stupid.”

Though this pre-emptive editorial broadside was directed more at liberal legislators than at the administration, which shows few bleeding-heart tendencies, the Romneyites should be aware of the bodies strewn along the path of prison reform. There was John O. Boone, the state’s only African-American commissioner of correction to date, who was Gov. Francis Sargent’s chosen clean-up artist. In that post-Attica era, Boone tried to give voice to inmate grievances, but that backfired in prison violence –and a revolt by correction officers. Boone was soon gone, but Sargent still managed to push a package of reforms through the Legislature, adding halfway houses, work release, and furloughs to the correctional repertoire.

In the mid-1980s, Gov. Michael Dukakis continued Sargent’s community-reintegration approach, but also launched the prison-building boom that MTF says we can no longer afford and pushed a precursor to the “truth in sentencing” law that resulted in continued growth of prison populations throughout the ’90s. That didn’t keep Willie Horton’s fateful furlough from defining Dukakis’s (national) profile on the crime issue–and dooming the reintegrative model of corrections even before Weld’s rock-busting declaration.

Soon after his appointment to head Romney’s commission, Harshbarger told the Herald that one of the key goals of corrections is to make sure that inmates “don’t leave [prison] more dangerous than when they went in.” That’s a mantra that’s easier to enunciate than to put into practice. But there is a way to gauge success–or failure–in that correctional mission: recidivism. The rate at which graduates of our state prison system get sent back to prison for committing new crimes can serve to focus efforts to make corrections more effective.

The point has been made in these pages before (“The revolving cell door,” CW, Fall 2000), but it deserves to be made again, under these new circumstances. The switch a few years ago by DOC’s research department from tracking recidivism on a one-year basis (which overemphasizes return to prison for technical parole violations over commitment for new crimes) to a three-year window provides a basis of comparison to other prison systems around the country.

Against national benchmarks, Massachusetts doesn’t look too bad. In the first three years of the new reporting system, state inmates released in 1995, ’96, and ’97 were returned to prison (for parole violations or conviction for new crimes) within three years at a rate of 44, 45, and 41 percent, respectively. These Massachusetts numbers compare favorably to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 15-state recidivism study of 1994 releases (its first since 1983), which yielded a three-year reincarceration rate of 52 percent. But in absolute terms, the rate of recidi-vism here, as elsewhere, is appalling. In what other state agency would failure nearly half the time be considered acceptable?

More to the point, the recidivism rate provides a potentially powerful management tool. Institutionally, DOC has nothing at stake in reducing recidivism; its interest (overwhelming, in the past dozen years) is security. For that reason, the one statistic former commissioner Michael Maloney always had at his fingertips was the number of escapes, which the department could hold down by steadily reducing the proportion of prisoners held at lower levels of security–levels of increasing freedom and responsibility inmates need to go through to prepare for a successful return to the community. The same is true of the Parole Board, which can reduce its chances of embarrassing misdeeds by parolees by denying parole to any inmate who presents the least risk; for that reason, state inmates are currently granted parole at half the rate they were pre-1990. If it’s important to the state–indeed, to public safety–that correctional agencies gear their efforts to turning offenders around, correctional managers need to be held accountable for what ex-offenders do after they’ve left custody.

This would be a new approach for Romney, in more ways than one. For all the talk of reform, the Romney administration has not gone in for one of the principal mechanisms for change currently in vogue across the country: results-oriented governing. From performance-based budgeting to CitiStat, public managers are increasingly relying on measurable outcomes as a means of reorienting bureaucracies. The recidivism rate would be a new and objective method of accountability for an area of state government that desperately needs one.

And it’s an idea that, once presented to him, Romney showed some enthusiasm for as a candidate. In a long interview with the editors and publishers of CommonWealth, Romney was asked what he would consider a reasonable goal for reducing the rate of repeat criminality. “I would hope the executive branch, and that means me if I’m lucky enough to be elected governor, [could be charged] with the responsibility to cut recidivism in half,” Romney said. “Once we’ve cut it in half, then we should cut it in half again. Once we’ve done that, we should do that again. We’ll make progress step by step.” A worthy goal, indeed. It’s not too late to set it–nor a moment too soon.

School-kids steamroll pols on Beacon Hill

School-kids steamroll pols on Beacon Hill

Do you think we need an official state color? If certain Bay State schoolkids named Amber, Ashley, Brittany, and Brianna have their way, it won’t be long before we have three!

Rep. Brian Knuuttila of Gardner has filed legislation to make blue, green, and cranberry the “official colors of the Commonwealth.” He did it on behalf of the fifth grade at Gardner’s Elm Street School. Blue was chosen for the Atlantic Ocean, green for the fields of western Massachusetts. Cranberry is a native fruit and one of the state’s largest cash crops, not to mention a stunning hue for a sweater.

JAMES FAGERQUIST

Those are perfectly nice colors, even though, in these tough budgetary times, some might argue that the official state color should be red. But the kids in Gardner shouldn’t get their hopes up. Bills to create “official state emblems” are filed every year; most of them are put in a “study” and killed in committee.

Still, every year one or two make their way through the Legislature and end up before the governor. One of Jane Swift’s final acts as acting governor made “Boston cream” the official state doughnut. Hours before Mitt Romney was sworn in to replace her, Swift signed Chapter 500 of the Acts of 2002, codifying Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings as the official state children’s book and Dr. Seuss as the official state children’s author and illustrator. This probably made a lot of sense to the first chief executive in the nation to give birth while in office.

But Swift wasn’t the first governor to expand the list of “Arms and Emblems of the Commonwealth.” We also have an official state polka (“Say Hello to Someone from Massachusetts”), thanks to Paul Cellucci. The legacy of William Weld includes an official bean (the navy bean), berry (the cranberry, of course), dessert (Boston cream pie), cookie (chocolate chip), and folk hero (Johnny Appleseed). Michael Dukakis gave us an official state soil (Paxton), muffin (corn), and cat (tabby).

High schoolers conduct mock legislative sessions to learn about state government, but their elementary school counterparts try to push dumb laws through the real Legislature. Most teachers never consider the bad laws already on the books. Working to repeal one of those would provide an equally valuable lesson in “how a bill becomes a law.”

Instead, Gov. Romney may have the opportunity to make “six” the official state number–based on the coincidence that we’re both the sixth state to enter the union and the sixth smallest state in the nation, as well as the birthplace of the sixth US president (John Quincy Adams). And he may have to decide whether the “Great Spangled Fritillary” should be the official state butterfly. Or he could veto both measures and give Maynard third-graders and the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts a real lesson in the legislative process.

But does Romney have the guts to do so? Will he explain to the kids that not every bill, no matter how warm and fuzzy it may be, gets signed into law?

Or would that just give the Democratic Legislature an incentive to override the veto and cite the governor’s snubbing of the grade schoolers as an example of Republican cold-heartedness? That, too, could be a political learning experience.

Perhaps we should consider ourselves fortunate that the Legislature has been too busy to decide whether Natick should be designated in statute, as well as slogan, the “Home of Champions” and Brockton the “City of Champions.”

Amid efforts to plug this year’s $3 billion budget shortfall and address next year’s $1 billion gap, the House and Senate have been hard at work passing a transportation bond issue that will cost $1 billion. They’ve also expanded the Prescription Advantage program for seniors, tightened drunk-driving laws, and further clarified the sex offender registry.

But they’ve also convinced Gov. Romney to sign a bunch of bills you never thought you’d need–and may be better off not knowing about. Some are simply feel-good laws. One creates a “United We Stand” license plate and another makes September 11 “Unity Day.” It’s a safe bet that nobody reread Profiles in Courage before those votes were taken.

There was a bill naming a bocce court in the North End.

Others are absurdly narrow in focus, in part because cities and towns in Massachusetts can’t do much of anything without having home-rule petitions approved by the Legislature. This year, for instance, there was a bill naming a bocce court in Boston’s North End in honor of Guido Salvucci. And was it really the best use of legislators’ time to put through a bill allowing the Moby Dick Boy Scout Council to merge with the Narrangansett Council?

How about the laws dedicating–or in some cases rededicating–a bridge in Billerica, a field in Lowell, another bridge in “the City known as the Town of Methuen,” and the town square in Webster?

The debate to allow Sunday liquor sales got a lot of publicity, but did you know that bills granting individual liquor licenses in Middleboro, Maynard, Milton, and Topsfield (twice) were signed into law by our teetotaling governor?

What about the bill allowing the town of Sunderland to conduct part of its annual town meeting in Deerfield? Was that legislation integral to the day-to-day operation of the state?

Maybe, maybe not.

Should we count ourselves lucky that, as of this writing, the number six hasn’t been designated the official state number; that blue, green, and cranberry haven’t been made the official state colors; and that the Great Spangled Fritillary hasn’t become the official state butterfly?

Yes.

But don’t applaud yet. We’re only halfway through the 183rd biennial session of the Great and General Court. There are thousands of bills still making their way through the legislative process. And so many emblems to be designated.

James V. Horrigan is a writer living in Boston.

Robert Putnams stories of hope for civic life in America

Robert Putnams stories of hope for civic life in America

Better Together: Restoring the American Community
By Robert D. Putnam and Lewis M. Feldstein, with Don Cohen
Simon & Schuster, New York, 318 pages.

In 2000, Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone documented his claim that America is in free fall as far as civic life is concerned. With cool and scholarly detachment, trenchant analysis, and voluminous data, Putnam chronicled the country’s slide into the murky clay of civic solipsism.

Bowling Alone‘s central assertion was this: America is losing its social capital. It’s losing that reservoir of interpersonal interactions among friends, family, and community, that fount of good feelings, trust, and reciprocity that are the DNA of any healthy body politic. Putnam’s assertion was buttressed with fact after convincing fact, portraying a generation of Americans that is less inclined than its predecessors to do such things as write letters to the editor, attend PTA meetings, vote, interact with neighbors, or, as the title of the book suggested, join a bowling team.

The absence of these signs of civic, or even social, spirit is a bad omen for the future of the republic and our ongoing democratic practices. Indeed, it may well be the first symptom of civic death.

Cognizant of the book’s lugubrious tone, Putnam ended Bowling Alone by mustering up some predictions of civic blossoming, and by pledging to provide a forum–through an initiative called “Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America,” at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government–to nurture such a revival.

In Better Together: Restoring the American Community, Putnam teams with Lewis Feldstein, president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, to document examples of social capital being built, rather than depleted, in America. In doing so, they seek to explore social capital formation in its variant manifestations, explicate its existential meaning, and proffer models of how the ends of authentic community building can be achieved by the means of social capital development.

Over the course of a year, the authors painstakingly document social, political, and entrepreneurial movements in 12 different cities. The result is a book that is very much unlike its statistics-laden precursor, Bowling Alone. This is an accessible volume filled with the stories and voices of Americans who are improving social reality in their communities. The authors write that they have “descended from the statistical heights of Bowling Alone to the ground level,” entering the living rooms, the classrooms, the violence-plagued inner cities, the church sanctuaries, and the business boardrooms.

Take, for example, the branch library movement in Chicago. In the age of the Internet and increasing illiteracy (in practice if not in ability), many believed that the neighborhood library would become practically obsolete, with Americans opting to access information more and more from television or from the confines of home or office. But in Chicago, library usage is on the rise as new branches are being constructed. A literacy initiative advanced through the library system has generated citywide reading projects that have brought residents and neighborhoods together in dialogues that are now expanding into conversations about neighborhood renewal, crime reduction, and civic engagement more broadly.

Putnam and Feldstein offer stories of social capital building in places that seem likely and unlikely, including the evangelical Saddleback Church in California, the United Parcel Service (which built cohesion even as it diversified its workforce), the Shipyard Project in Maine, the Harvard Clerical Union, and the virtual-community Web site craigslist.org. The result is a collage of community building, detailing the obstacles that confronted the citizens in their various efforts and how they called upon bonds of trust and reciprocity to manage crises and achieve significant community successes.

Of particular interest for local readers is the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in the Roxbury section of Boston. By the late 1970s this once middle-class and immaculately preserved neighborhood, five miles east of the Massachusetts State House, had become a civic, social, and political backwater. It was undesired by many and avoided by most.

An illegal dumping ground had surfaced as an eyesore and source of toxicity. A faltering neighborhood infrastructure, episodic gang violence, and neighborly distrust also punctuated community life, leaving such longtime residents as Julio and Sandra Rodriguez (she is now director of the Boston Housing Authority) wary of the long-term prospects of the Dudley area. John Barros, then a youth of Cape Verdean descent and now executive director of DSNI, witnessed fires in his community on a nightly basis–evidence, to many residents, of absentee landlords abandoning the community as it transitioned from virtually all-white into a multiracial mix.

The Dudley Street revitalization movement was founded in the ashes of arson fires and illegal waste dumps. In 1984, Nelson Merced, then executive director of La Alianza Hispana, a multiservice center for the city’s emerging Latino community, responded to the Boston-based Riley Foundation’s request that he organize a “visioning” process for the community. What that process identified was a beleaguered community, the needs of which went well beyond what the foundation’s capital improvement grant could address.

It also got the ball rolling on what has become one of the most celebrated examples of self-directed neighborhood renewal in the country. The first years were rocky, with DSNI residents and organizers at one point rejecting the foundation’s involvement as patronizing, but the community is now a vital web of human interconnectivity addressing problems ranging from school reform and affordable housing to racial bridge building and political participation.

DSNI has constructed an organizing infrastructure that demands a high level of inclusion in order to meet community goals. Holding regular community meetings, hosting celebrations, and honoring community and stakeholder commitments are behaviors that have helped to build trust and fellowship among neighbors. Such a human network allows DSNI to pursue its goals of social justice.

To be sure, the neighborhood and DSNI leadership still confront the familiar menu of issues impacting almost every urban center, including gentrification, a public school system with a poor reputation, and ethnic tension. But, say Putnam and Feldstein, the Dudley Street community is awash in social capital, giving people the means to engage with each other in solving neighborhood problems.

Better Together also highlights the Experience Corps, a Philadelphia-based organization seeking to improve the academic performance of inner-city middle-school children by matching retired professionals with struggling students. Experience Corps is credited with successfully engaging isolated seniors with public school staff, students, and parents in North Philadelphia.

The retirees tutor youth on subjects ranging from algebra to English composition. In the process of tutoring, seniors feel reconnected to youth, and also to teachers and administrators who work in their local community. Likewise, young people come to know elders in the community and pay respect and deference in ways that would not have been imagined a short time ago. Such social capital development, the authors assert, enriches individual lives, but it also weaves a tapestry of neighborhood connectedness.

Portland, Ore., provides yet another example of the success that results from intentionally building social capital. In 1978, Mayor Neil Goldschmidt sought to reverse the trend of civic disinvestment across the city by creating the Office of Neighborhood Associations. Goldschmidt aimed to bring the city together through small, city-funded neighborhood organizations that could advise the city on issues ranging from commercial zoning to municipal budgetary priorities. In the 25 years since, civic participation in Portland has risen in inverse proportion to how it has fallen nationally. Notwithstanding some failed initiatives attributed to tensions steeped in issues of class and race, the Portland civic participation model has been a success.

The common thread running through Better Together is the observation that social capital building was not necessarily the end sought in any of the documented projects, but instead the means by which each of these initiatives met with success. DSNI was not so much about building temples of social capital as it was about cleaning up illegal waste dumps, abating gang violence, and repairing a devastated housing and commercial infrastructure. Similarly, the branch library movement in Chicago, or the evangelical movement at the Saddleback mega-church in California, is less about creating platforms for social interaction than about advancing literacy and saving souls. But, in the view of Putnam and Feldstein, social capital is the glue that held these efforts together, and a byproduct of these efforts that enriches the broader community.

Readers of Better Together will come away with the clear message that there are numerous and various ways for social capital formation to take place. But for those who have followed Putnam’s intellectual journey more closely, there may be a yearning for more. Indeed, with its emphasis on storytelling over theorizing, Better Together is a mile wide, but an inch deep.

Even after several tomes exploring different aspects of social capital, Putnam has never made the philosophical underpinnings of this notion clear. Is his conception of social capital grounded in any discipline of political theory or ideology? Is it part of modernist enlightenment thinking, in the tradition of Descartes, Hobbes, or Hume? Or does it rest on the neo-social contract or state-of-nature theory of John Rawls? These queries are not inconsequential to the reader who wants a clear and certain epistemological reference point.

In the end, Better Together is an important contribution to the literature and the practice of civic engagement for a number of reasons. First, it is a book that will aid and inspire professional and lay activists who are struggling to make change in their communities. Any serious activist will find in Better Together a number of strategies he can put to use in his own circumstances. So, in this regard, Better Together serves as a template for action.

Second, Better Together offers a mature look at serious problems and offers solutions while not denying the grave state of social and civic disrepair we are in.

Third, Better Together makes connections that may not be readily obvious. The most important of these may be the fact that government, and institutions such as foundations, can play a significant role in generating social capital. In most of the 12 narratives in this book, government plays a featured role in assuring that social capital building is a supported activity. In Chicago, for instance, social capital is built as people share ideas and lives, but they do so in library space provided by the city.

A final caveat from the authors is that social capital formation doesn’t happen overnight. It is the product of numerous face-to-face encounters, protracted periods of human engagement and reflection, and episodes of struggle and celebration. In essence, social capital building is a gradualist’s enterprise that demands patience and persistence.

In all, Putnam and Feldstein have done well to produce a volume that educates and enlightens activists, leaders, and laypersons alike regarding the importance of social capital formation. In a country where democracy is dependent on the degree to which citizens are bonded together in networks of engagement and mutual affection for public life, this book sheds light on how we can, indeed, be better together.

Kevin C. Peterson, a senior fellow at the Center for Collaborative Leadership at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, is founder and executive director of the New Democracy Coalition, a Boston-based organization focusing on civic policy, civic literacy, and electoral justice.

Rising medical costs could upend state government

Rising medical costs could upend state government

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When we speak of balance in government, the typical reference is either to the intricate separation of powers inherent in our constitutional democracy, or to the fiscal requirement of a balanced budget. Questions of balance, then, are usually left to the political scientist or fiscal officer, and are of secondary importance to most citizens. I would like to explore a third aspect of governmental balance that we should be concerned about, this time in an ecological context.

A primary issue in ecology is sustainability (or the lack thereof) of the natural system under study. Ecologists honor endurance–that is, species survival–as the critical objective. We also honor endurance in government. We are justly proud to be part of the oldest continuously functioning constitutional democracy in the world, right here in Massachusetts. July 4th marks the annual celebration of our American experiment.

Endurance does not mean stasis, a dead world without change. We expect dynamic changes and anticipate adapting to them. But how do we know whether each new development can be sustained?

The French biologist Jean Rostand said, “The obligation to endure gives us the right to know.” This powerful idea inspired a chapter in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that popularized the ecological movement in America. Exercising our right to know depends on asking the right questions.

A little history lesson is instructive here. Almost everyone viewed the significant “dust bowl” warming in the United States during the 1930s as a mild natural cycle of unknown origin. The one exception was G.S. Callendar, a steam engineer, who wrote a 1938 British journal article that described a potential link between carbon dioxide gas and a greenhouse-like warming in the atmosphere. If Callendar was correct, rising temperatures would result in an ecological imbalance. Everyone ignored him.

Callendar’s idea eventually attracted some government funding–especially from the military, which was interested in adaptive weather tactics–for studies that showed carbon dioxide could build up in the atmosphere and trigger warming. In 1961, scientific instruments showed that the level of CO2 was indeed rising each year, but no direct link to temperature was made. Silent Spring was published the next year.

By 1967, some speculated that average temperatures might rise a little over a century or so, but scientific concern remained low. During the 1970s, the mass media confusingly predicted both global flooding as the ice caps melted, and the possibility of a catastrophic new Ice Age. The scientific community reached no consensus.

The record hot summer of 1988 focused public concern. Greatly improved computer models began to suggest more rapid jumps in temperature. In 1992, international discussion of global warming was embodied in the agreements that led to the Kyoto Protocol. Scientific debate on the causes and extent of global warming continues to this day, but it is now an issue that no one–in the scientific community or the broader community–can ignore.

I recount this history to point out that ecological issues take a long time to surface. Defining them requires a concerted and serious quantitative effort, and it depends on asking the right questions.

My examination of Massachusetts state spending trends (as documented by the US Bureau of the Census, which tracks spending over time more consistently than state budget accounts) leads me to ask some very difficult ones. Is the growth in health and human service programs–driven by obvious needs we all care about–causing a kind of fundamental imbalance in our governmental affairs? Are these problems squeezing out other needs and/or crimping economic growth by consuming an ever-larger share of our incomes? Or are we witnessing just a mild natural cycle of unknown cause, as everyone but G.S. Callendar thought back in the 1930s?

Today, state government pursues two fundamental missions: 1) aiding those unable to pay for the basic necessities of life, and 2) providing the infrastructure and shared services that form the fabric of our society, like roads, schools, parks, police, and courts.

This year in Massachusetts almost half of state spending aids the needy, while the other half is devoted to public goods and services shared by all. Most assistance the state gives to the needy is handled indirectly through payments to providers for medical care and nursing homes, primarily through Medicaid (also known as MassHealth). Public health and social service spending account for the next largest portion. In 2004, only 3 percent of state dollars went directly to individuals as cash payments.

2004 Spending: Health & Welfare vs. All Other

Does this division–state spending roughly split down the middle between services to the needy and functions that serve us all in common–reflect a natural balance between basic functions of government? Can we expect to maintain it? Or are we quietly, but dynamically, changing the mix of basic governmental missions in a way that threatens to be unsustainable going forward?

Within the services provided to the needy, a shift is well underway–indeed, almost complete (see Fig. 1). In 1977, direct cash assistance and provider payments were nearly identical in scale, each representing 16 percent of state spending. From there, cash assistance began a long, 25-year slide, interrupted only by the 1990-92 recession. Meanwhile, vendor payments held relatively steady for a decade up to a significant escalation in 1990-91, followed by another stable decade at a level of roughly 23 or 24 percent of the state budget.

Figure 1: Medicaid and Public Assistance (Percent of State Budget)
Source: US Bureau of the Census and Mass. Executive Office for Administration and Finance

Since 2001, however, we have witnessed a jump similar to the last recessionary period. State spending on medical care for the needy crossed the 30 percent threshold in 2003, and is at 33 percent of state expenditures this year.

Is this leap in medical payments a function of a decade-long cycle? Should we expect a slight decline over the decade ahead, as a new equilibrium settles in? Or is the recent upward movement evidence of unsustainable cost growth, driven by an aging population, new technology, or other unknown factors? And if so, what does that mean for the long-term balance between the two core missions of state government? In other words, what does it mean for the ecology of government?

Two scenarios

It is possible to project the Commonwealth’s spending mix into the future according to two different scenarios (see Fig. 2). Each scenario has implications for the ecology of government services. But one is less troubling than the other.

If we forecast a slight decline in the share of state spending going to medical care and nursing home payments for the next decade, similar to the 1990s, we reach a new balance, albeit at levels reached only during previous peaks in the cycle. That would mean the balance between the two fundamental missions of caring for the needy and meeting common needs would stay roughly where it is in 2004. Any new initiatives–in education, environment, housing, or transportation, for example–would have to be accommodated within the current share (half) of total state spending (which would, of course, generally grow with the overall economy).

Figure 2: Spending Scenarios: Cyclical vs. Imbalance
Source: US Bureau of the Census and Mass. Executive Office for Administration and Finance

Now let’s turn to the alternative scenario, one that I consider a scenario of imbalance in the making. Here we see no equilibrium reached, as medical and nursing home payments continue to escalate. At this point, cash assistance is too small for any further declines to offset this expansion of medical spending. Even with other, non-medical social-service programs for the needy remaining under 15 percent of state spending, as they are now, after a decade, the mix between the two fundamental missions of government would shift from today’s roughly 50-50 balance, with functions shared by all citizens declining below half of total spending. In order to accommodate this growth in medical payments, services shared by all citizens would have to shrink as a portion of the state budget. This imbalance scenario raises obvious questions about sustainability.

Government and the economic ecosystem

Of course, there is another possibility. What about raising taxes? Why not simply increase the size of government relative to the private sector in order to satisfy the new demands of the public assistance mission?

Viewing government from an ecological perspective, taxes do not exist in a vacuum. Tax policy is part of our economic ecosystem, as well as our government ecology, and it contributes to the dynamic balance between job growth and decline. Again, a look at history is helpful.

State and local taxation has been relatively stable–hovering around 10 percent of personal income–for 40 years (see Fig. 3). Proposition 2H, which was fully implemented by the early 1980s, corrected for a spike in taxes that occurred in the mid-to-late-1970s. Currently, we have still not emerged fully from the latest economic downturn, which has had a significant impact on state tax revenue. But the important thing is the long-term stability in the share of Massachusetts income taken by state and local taxes, a stability that can be seen despite hundreds of tax law changes during this period, including:

  • income tax rates that went from 5 percent to 6.25 percent and then back down to 5.3 percent;

  • cigarette tax rates that rose 800 percent; and

  • gas tax rates that rose 150 percent.

In fact, the only tax change even visible on this time scale is Prop. 2H, which only impacted local real estate taxes.

Figure 3: State and Local Taxes (Percent of Personal Income)
Source: US Bureau of the Census and Mass. Executive Office for Administration and Finance

Stability also implies a central fact of governmental budgets: Over the long term, budgetary spending tracks economic growth. From an ecological viewpoint, we should be concerned with economic growth rates, not with tax rates. We should also be thankful that this government share has remained stable, for the past 20 years have witnessed a remarkable revitalization of a once- stagnant state economy. A fluctuating governmental share would certainly have impeded robust job growth.

Our modern capitalist system is like a complex bio-sphere, influenced by multiple factors, such as tax burdens, housing costs, transportation infrastructure, concentrations of educated workers, and climate. To grow, we need to accentuate the positive and minimize the negative. In this context, a move to raise taxes would threaten the long-term balance on which we all rely.

Looking at historical data, we can reasonably expect income growth (in nominal terms) to average around 5 percent. We have a state law that sweeps any “excess” revenue due to inflation into a rainy day fund, so 4 percent is a realistic growth expectation for our state budget.

These assumptions regarding economic growth (and government’s share of that growth), put together with the two different scenarios I’ve projected, have implications for the governor’s fiscal 2005 budget and beyond. Overall, we might expect a 4 percent increase in spending next year. However, the mix change I have described puts the major government missions in direct competition for resources. And that competition is likely to get worse.

If, over time, we experience an unsustainable escalation in medical and nursing home payments, then funding for the rest of government will have to decline. For schools, parks, subways, and roads, each year will be harder than the previous one. Meanwhile, cost pressures on the health-and-human-services side will collide with the natural growth rate of the underlying economy. This will mean continuing budget shortfalls–and cuts.

A cyclical scenario offers, perhaps, a slightly more optimistic assessment. A new equilibrium will emerge, but with the public goods mission of government permanently downsized to a level only seen once or twice before in the state’s history. In either case, we will have to make better use of existing resources.

Ecological issues take a long time to surface and even longer to understand. The ecology of government is no different. It is too soon to tell whether unsustainable medical and nursing home costs would need to be addressed by narrowing eligibility, reducing benefits, or other remedies we haven’t yet contemplated. But the longer we wait to think about these issues, the more painful the remedies will be.

In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson defended the perspective of nature:

In some quarters nowadays it is fashionable to dismiss the balance of nature as a state of affairs that prevailed in an earlier, simpler world–a state that has now been so thoroughly upset that we might as well forget it. Some find this a convenient assumption, but as a chart for a course of action it is highly dangerous. The balance of nature is not the same today as in Pleistocene times, but it is still there: a complex, precise, and highly integrated system of relationships between living things which cannot safely be ignored any more than the law of gravity can be defied with impunity by a man perched on the edge of a cliff. The balance of nature is not a status quo; it is fluid, even shifting, in a constant state of adjustment.

I think this logic applies to our governmental affairs as well. It is tempting to dismiss the notion of the long-run balance between government and the private sector as a relic from some simpler American era. It is easy to ignore the mix changes we see in government missions.

But we cannot do so with impunity. The obligation to endure gives us the right to know, and exercising that right requires that we ask the right questions, no matter how difficult they may be.

Eric Kriss is the Commonwealth’s secretary for administration and finance.

An unsentimental look at teen parents in Pittsfield

An unsentimental look at teen parents in Pittsfield

Growing Up Fast
By Joanna Lipper
Picador, New York, 432 pages.

The Berkshires, or “America’s premier cultural resort,” as the region is referred to by the local Chamber of Commerce, is also the home of wrenching poverty–much of it in Pittsfield, the bleak industrial city just a few miles away from the cultural tourism hubs of Lenox and Stockbridge. Social service agencies now dominate a quiet downtown that, during the glory days of General Electric, throbbed with life, as GE workers and their families strolled in and out of busy stores. The agencies help the unemployable, the drug-addicted, the alcohol-ravaged, and, in alarming numbers, the young, single mothers.

The Teen Parent Program is the agency charged with the challenging task of helping these young moms deal with the difficult, often cruel, realities of their new lives that they had never anticipated, and it was to workshops at the Teen Parent Program that filmmaker Joanna Lipper, at the invitation of psychologist Carol Gilligan and her colleague Normi Noel, came to make a documentary. Over a period of four years, Lipper interviewed young mothers, their parents, and the fathers of their children. The result was not only a film, chosen as one of the outstanding short documentaries of 1999 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but now a book, Growing Up Fast, which turns the desperate young mothers who are usually no more than the stuff of government statistics into flesh and blood and tears.

Growing Up Fast focuses on six young moms–Amy, Shayla, Jessica, Colleen, Liz, and Sheri–as they confront societal obstacles that their youth and naiveté leave them ill- prepared for. The story of Colleen, who grew up in Dalton, a small town bordering Pittsfield, is representative of them all.

An alcoholic father and a depressed mother created a turbulent home environment that, in essence, deprived Colleen of her childhood. Her boyfriend, Ryan, is a heroin addict with a similar background, yet Colleen sees him as a white knight who may rescue her from her unhappy life. She is confident that Ryan’s weak points–drug addiction, a propensity for violence and petty theft–are things she can correct.

Unprotected sex leads to Colleen’s pregnancy, which does not contribute to Ryan’s anticipated reformation. He assaults Colleen, kicking her in the stomach, and is arrested and jailed. Neither does the birth of her child magically transform her life as she had hoped it would. She goes to school, with young Jonathan watched by her parents, who appear to have been jolted into sobriety by the birth of their grandson, then returns home for a few brief moments with her son before heading to her job at Burger King. After work, she heads back home, falls into bed, and begins the cycle again the next day.

Ryan responds to her visits to him in jail with verbal abuse, accusing her of cheating on him–as if she had the time. Nonetheless, Colleen convinces herself that this is not the “real” Ryan and she can still rescue him. When Ryan is freed, the couple moves in together, where the verbal abuse turns into physical abuse. Colleen, who blamed herself for much of her parents’ fighting, convinces herself that she is the cause of Ryan’s behavior and sinks into the paralyzing depression that has plagued her mother.

The clouds finally begin to part for Colleen when Ryan, whose heroin habit and thievery have kept the cops on his tail, flees to Florida. With Ryan’s abuse now limited to long-distance phone calls, Colleen moves back in with her parents, along with her son, and begins taking courses at Berkshire Community College.

Jonathan, however, is showing signs of problems. His right hand is clenched at all times and he drags his legs behind him when he scoots along the floor. For nearly a year, Colleen avoids taking him to the doctor, afraid of what she might learn. When she finally does, a neurologist informs her that her baby has cerebral palsy and polymicrogyria, a rare brain disorder. He will have difficulty controlling movement and posture and most likely will have impaired cognitive and verbal abilities. Since cerebral palsy can be caused by problems during pregnancy, the doctor asks Colleen if she experienced any trauma during her pregnancy. In denial to the end, Colleen says no.

Growing Up Fast goes on in this way with the stories of five other teen mothers, the particulars differing but the basic similarities strikingly and demoralizingly similar. The young moms and dads come from broken or dysfunctional homes, and they behave much as their parents and stepparents did. The girls believe that having a baby will improve their lives and aid in their efforts to reform their boyfriends. When this doesn’t prove to be the case, the girls generally soldier on. A couple of them try, selfishly if understandably, to join in the carefree social lives of their childless friends. Meanwhile, the boys make themselves scarce or react abusively, out of panic as well as irresponsibility.

Products of the MTV culture and prone to long hours in front of the television set, the single moms and their boyfriends have a worldview that bears little correlation to reality. A few of the young people profiled express a desire to become actors or models or wealthy in some fashion. Failing this, they go to work at Burger King. (Without belaboring the point, Lipper points out how much hugely profitable fast-food chains benefit from a large, uneducated class of young people with no other options for employment.) The vast middle ground of opportunity that lies between fast-food worker and celebrity doesn’t exist for these young parents; if they know it is out there, they don’t know how to reach it or lack the time and energy to make the attempt.

The sameness of these stories is a strength of Growing Up Fast, as it pounds away at the social problems behind broken homes and broken lives, resulting in the next generation of young parents who are a product of this dysfunction and carry on the sad tradition. In one sense it is a weakness, however, as incidents and actions that were shocking the first time around become numbing through repetition. A shorter, punchier book that concentrated on just four or five girls would have been a better book, if only by degree.

What is society’s role in this saga of young moms and dads continuing a legacy of unhappiness and dysfunction? Lipper does an excellent job of exploring how society in general and government in particular have failed to address the issue of single parenthood and its attendant issues of poverty, drug abuse, violence, and hopelessness.

But Lipper does provide some rays of hope in the fine organizations these young women come in contact with, the Teen Parent Program first and foremost among them. Jessica is able to attend Berkshire Community College thanks to a grant arranged by the college’s financial aid advisor and Berkshire Works (a collaboration between the state Division of Employment and Training and the Berkshire Training and Employment Program), which pays for her books. Many of these and other beneficial programs, however, have been hamstrung by severe budget cuts, and given the political climate in Boston and Washington, DC, that reality is not likely to change for the better anytime soon.

Young, single moms inevitably find themselves enmeshed in the welfare bureaucracy. Beacon Hill has congratulated itself in recent years because the welfare numbers have declined considerably. This is in part because of stricter work requirements –which send moms to the Burger Kings and Kentucky Fried Chickens, where they often work double shifts to make ends meet. Are “reform” measures to be celebrated when they leave babies to vegetate in poorly run day care centers or put children in the care of unstable grandparents? Lipper makes a convincing case that they should not be.

There are good day care programs in the Berkshires, but not enough of them. Shayla is dismayed when young Jaiden returns from a home day care bruised and withdrawn. Exhibiting the denial typical of these young mothers, Shayla explains away these injuries, rationalizing that her hyperactive son banged himself up playing, until the woman running the day care center dies of a drug overdose. These bruises are likely to turn into psychological scars that Jaiden will carry into young adulthood.

Growing Up Fast also portrays the foster home bureaucracy as a complete nightmare. Foster parents, at least the (unnamed) ones we see here, are in it solely for the money, warehousing kids at best, further contributing to their misery at worst. When the young girls or boys inevitably run away, they are tracked down and returned to their parent or parents, where the problems that sent them to foster care in the first place remain unaddressed. Soon enough they are in another dysfunctional foster home where the vicious circle continues. A foster care system this destructive needs radical reform, but again, there is little reason to see that happening.

The public schools seem to do little for the troubled teens in their classrooms, but it is hard to find fault with the harried teachers we see in Growing Up Fast. The shedding of teachers is an annual ritual in Pittsfield, as it is in many financially strapped school systems. The inability of teachers who are struggling to teach in overcrowded classrooms is just another of the societal and political failings Lipper illustrates.

The main weakness of Growing Up Fast is Lipper’s superficial knowledge of Pittsfield politics. Those who see Pittsfield as a helpless victim have her ear. Yes, General Electric’s slow departure from the city has led to a loss of jobs, income, and hope, not to mention the creation of related social problems. But while Pittsfield sees itself as unique, its story is shared by any number of New England and Northeastern industrial cities, many of which have found ways to bounce back. Pittsfield’s inclination to self-pity has slowed its response to problems that are all too common.

Nonetheless, Growing Up Fast should find an audience among readers who know or care nothing about Pittsfield because the plight of the six teen mothers is a universal one. The counterparts of Amy, Shayla, Jessica, Colleen, Liz, and Sheri exist all over Massachusetts and all around the country. Lipper’s book is powerful because she resists the temptation to preach and overanalyze, letting the girls speak for themselves.

Lipper tries to leave us on an upbeat note, and it is hard not to be cheered by the outreach program launched by Shakespeare & Co., the Lenox-based theatrical group, and its artistic director Tina Packer. Edith Wharton, that great chronicler of societal hypocrisy, lived and wrote in the Berkshires, and Packer’s workshops with young mothers employ Wharton’s works to help them understand that many of the problems they face are age-old, and that they don’t defy solution.

Still, the larger sense a reader is left with is that of a lost class of young people, deprived of role models, repeating the mistakes of their parents, lacking self-esteem or a reason to hope, and failed by government–and this leads to a sense of alarm about the generation to come, the small children of these lost young women. This stark, insightful, often riveting book reminds us that the fate of what Lipper refers to as the “young sons and daughters of the class of ’99” remains up for grabs and must be addressed before they are lost as well.

Bill Everhart is the editorial page editor of the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield.

Letters

I have read the Conversation with bankruptcy expert Elizabeth Warren in the recent issue of CommonWealth magazine (“Doubling Down,” Fall 2003). In short, let me say it was fantastic. It sent a message that should be read by every family or individual, whether they are just starting their financial life or are somewhat down the path and have not come to grips with financial reality.

I thought the article presented the message so well that I am sending a copy of it to every college graduate I know–the children of my friends–and to the high school principals in my district. I think that getting the moral of your lesson out into the young community may relieve future financial grief as well as reduce the divorce rate. When I started practicing law in 1966, the major cause of divorce on Cape Cod was not having enough money.

Rep. Thomas N. George
1st Barnstable District

Boston mayoral campaign was about race and class

The night of October 11, 1983, was indeed a watershed moment for black political power in Boston (“Black Power“). It was also a high water mark for populist politics. The surge of electoral activity that year was about more than race; it was about race and class. That evening, the city’s power structure lost complete control of a mayoral election that was still six weeks away.

A Paul Szep editorial cartoon captured the results of the preliminary election, which put Ray Flynn and Mel King into the November runoff, with full shock value: A dignified, elderly woman faints on the pavement. To the rescue come the mayoral finalists, Mel King in dashiki and Ray Flynn in scally cap. The matronly lady in distress is the Vault, the establishment committee of corporate CEOs who had backed anyone but these two.

In the final election, the two men argued over who was more authentically dedicated to social and economic justice. Though they had always considered themselves political competitors, Mel King and Ray Flynn could not help but agree on most issues. They supported rent control. They were for linkage. They ran against the downtown power structure. They advocated higher taxes on the wealthy in order to fund better services for poor and working-class people.

They both called for unity across neighborhoods in the face of downtown power. Mel had his Rainbow Coalition; Ray told audiences across the city, “The issues we share are more powerful than the issues that divide us.” There were two incidents of racial violence during the final six weeks of the campaign, and each time King and Flynn appeared jointly on television to call for peace and calm. Unity prevailed–and inspired.

It’s hard to imagine a campaign like that one today. Flynn organized 125 house parties across the city. King held rallies on every issue imaginable. A field of nine candidates–including former school committee president David Finnegan, former city council president Larry DiCara, and Suffolk County Sheriff Dennis Kearney–faced each other at 76 forums.

The climax of the campaign came five days before the preliminary election. Jesse Jackson came to town, endorsing King in front of more than 800 supporters at Concord Baptist Church, a political rally for the ages. That same evening, Ray Flynn stood on City Hall Plaza and confronted presumed frontrunner Finnegan live on the Six O’Clock News. “This building is not for sale,” Flynn shouted as he pointed to City Hall, the concrete fortress behind him. “Stop yelling at me, Ray,” Finnegan responded. Flynn kept pressing. “First you called me a racist, then you called me a lizard,” referring to a radio ad comparing Flynn to a chameleon.

More than 200,000 voters went to the polls for the final election, almost 70 percent of an electorate newly swollen by King’s voter-registration drives, and more than twice the number that voted in the 2001 mayoral election. It was this surge that raised hopes that a totally independent black candidate could become mayor.

The other path to power for black leaders is in coalition with white politicians. As hard as it is to imagine, this might very well have happened in 1983. If not for the unprecedented numbers of new voters, Finnegan would have outpolled King. In all likelihood, this would have led to a Flynn-King alliance in the final election and a multi-racial, coalition city government in January 1984. A coalition like this, perhaps with a black candidate atop the ticket, could happen in the future, but only if the issues are as clearly and passionately defined as they were that year.

Neil Sullivan
Dorchester

The writer was a campaign aide and chief policy aide to Mayor Ray Flynn from 1983 to 1992.

Massachusetts comes around to supporting an Internet sales tax

Massachusetts comes around to supporting an Internet sales tax

A pair of boots from L.L. Bean. The latest bestseller from Amazon.com. A diamond engagement ring from Blue Nile. Every day, more and more consumers are buying items like these over the Internet. According to the most recent estimates, nearly 100 million Americans bought something using the Internet in 2003, with about 7 million buying online for the first time. Internet sales nationwide totaled about $100 billion, according to Cambridge-based Forrester Research.

The steady growth in online retailing is the one bright spot remaining in Internet commerce following the dot-com collapse. It’s also a growing worry for struggling state governments, which see a growing loss of sales-tax revenue from purchases made by modem. But if a new bill proposed in Congress by US Rep. William Delahunt and backed by a bipartisan group of legislators becomes law, Internet retailers will be required to collect sales taxes and remit them to the consumers’ home states–including Massachusetts, which has only lately joined the push to collect taxes on online sales.

The reason the Bay State has jumped on the Internet tax bandwagon is the ongoing fiscal crisis now working its way down from the state to municipalities. “Our state and local governments are laying off teachers and firefighters, and we are eliminating programs in our public schools,” says Delahunt. The Quincy Democrat believes that Massachusetts’s commitment to limiting property-tax increases, by means of Proposition 2H, will be sorely tested if the state continues to lose sales-tax revenue. “There will be pressures to seek more and more Prop. 2H overrides, or to see it amended or even repealed,” he says.

In 2002, the state lost $240 million in tax revenue because of online sales.

With its many tech-savvy citizens, Massachusetts has been hard hit by the shift to Internet purchasing. In 2002, the state lost $240 million in tax revenue because of online sales, and by 2011 that figure is expected to jump to $830 million, according to the Salt Lake City­based Institute for State Studies. Massachusetts counts on the sales tax for about a quarter of its tax revenue; $3.7 billion was collected in sales taxes last year.

But taxing Internet transactions is easier said than done. In a 1992 decision, Quill v. North Dakota, the Supreme Court ruled that state governments could not force out-of-state retailers to collect sales taxes. (Technically, consumers are expected to pay that sales tax themselves, in the form of a “use” tax, with their state tax return, but they generally ignore the requirement, and states do little to enforce it.) Because state and local governments impose multiple sales taxes, at varying rates, the high court determined that making these retailers collect for the more than 7,000 local and state taxing jurisdictions in the country would be an excessive burden. That is, the court said, unless the states could agree to streamline their disparate taxing systems and convince Congress to sign off on the plan.

In 1998, Congress passed the Internet Tax Freedom Act, which prohibits states from taxing access to the Internet, or from taxing online sales more heavily than those made by brick-and-mortar retailers or catalogers. But the bill never prohibited states from taxing online sales. As a result, Web retailers must now collect sales tax on purchases made by consumers living in the store’s home state, just as catalogers do. Amazon.com, for example, must collect sales tax on purchases made by residents of Washington and North Dakota, where the Internet retailer maintains offices.

In 2000, state officials from across the country organized the Streamlined Sales Tax Project in order to meet the court’s challenge in the Quill decision. Under the proposal they developed, each participating state would be allowed to set one primary sales tax rate, with the option of a secondary rate for food and pharmaceuticals. Each local jurisdiction with a sales tax would be allowed to add one more rate into the mix. In addition, states would adopt a set of definitions for all consumer products, grouping the products in categories. Now, for example, some states tax baseball hats as sporting goods, whereas others consider the hats clothing and don’t tax them. Under the proposed plan, states could choose to tax or not tax either sporting goods or clothing, but they would have to agree on which category each item belongs to. Participating states would pay for software that enables out-of-state retailers to collect the correct tax for all jurisdictions and would agree to limit or eliminate audits of retailers that use the software. Businesses would no longer have to file tax returns with each local jurisdiction that levies a sales tax. Rather, there would be in each state a central point of administration for sales tax collection that would also distribute the proceeds to cities and towns.

The plan would “simplify the collection of taxes,” and in that sense “reduce the burden on businesses,” says Delahunt. “It forces states to come together and say, ‘Let’s make sense out of this hodgepodge that we have.'” Some 20 states have passed legislation adopting this streamlined tax system. Eighteen other states, Massachusetts included, have passed legislation supporting the concept of streamlining sales-tax collection.

For Massachusetts, this represents something of a change of heart. Two previous Republican governors, Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift, refused to take part in the effort, taking the stance that Internet sales should remain tax-free for out-of-state purchasers. But Gov. Mitt Romney approved a budget rider last March authorizing the state to join the tax-streamlining compact. “For us it’s a matter of enforcement,” says Eric Fehrnstrom, director of communications for Romney. “We already have a use tax that applies to transactions over the Internet. These taxes go [mostly] uncollected. We would prefer to collect the tax directly from the retailer.”

In 2003, for the first time, Massachusetts included a line on its state tax return requesting that consumers report and pay the use tax. Fehrnstrom says between 11,000 and 12,000 people voluntarily paid about $1.2 million. But if the Streamlined Sales Tax Project comes up with a better method, he says, Romney will support amending the state tax code to conform to it.

In making this policy shift, Romney has broken ranks with a local high-tech industry that, despite the absence of major online retailers here, is dead set against taxing any Internet sales. “What suffers is economic growth, because there is a new layer of uncertainty and administrative tax bureaucracy,” says Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, a business trade group. “It will dampen the full potential of the Internet.”

In this, the state high-tech group echoes the stance of national trade associations. George Isaacson, counsel for the Washington, DC­based Direct Marketing Association, which represents Internet and catalog retailers, says that the states are looking to cash in on Internet taxes without actually doing much to streamline their tax systems. Indeed, when state officials working on the project “were confronted with the difficult task of surrendering the unique features of their state and local tax systems, they repeatedly retreated from proposals for real tax reform and consistently rejected, or diluted, provisions that would have produced true uniformity,” Isaacson said in congressional testimony last fall.

In addition, he said, retailers would still have to juggle different tax rates for thousands of local communities; in some cases, two different rates within the same state (one for food and drugs and one for other items); and various product categories being treated differently from state to state. To date, the states have not produced software that can handle the job, he asserted.

Industry complaints about the unwieldiness of managing the collection burden are undermined, in part, by the many retailers that have brick-and-mortar stores around the country and also sell products over the Internet. Earlier this year, several of these major retailers, including Wal-Mart and Toys “R” Us, agreed to collect sales tax on all of their online sales, even in states where they do not maintain a physical presence.

Another countervailing force is the traditional retail industry, which sees the sales-tax free ride of Internet sellers as an unfair competitive advantage. Thus, the National Retail Federation, a trade group for major retailers, supports the streamlined sales tax proposal, and some retailers have proven to be aggressive advocates for the new system. Jack Vanwoerkom, executive vice president of the Massachusetts-based office supply store Staples, for example, says that taxing Internet sales by all retailers is simply a matter of fairness.

“A sale is a sale no matter how it is made–in-store, online, by phone, or by mail,” says Vanwoerkom. He adds that Staples is already required to collect taxes in myriad jurisdictions, employing 30 full-time staffers and spending about $30 million on tax compliance each year. Consider, he says, the state of Colorado, which imposes a 2.9 percent state sales tax. Seven Colorado counties impose additional sales taxes to pay for mass transit, subsidize cultural events, or fund a new football stadium for the Denver Broncos. In addition, more than 200 cities and towns in the state tack on their own sales tax. The streamlined sales tax proposal, he says, would be an improvement.

Ultimately, the fate of Delahunt’s bill may come down to regional interests, rather than partisan differences. States with lots of online or catalog retailers, which would also come under the streamlined sales-tax scheme, are likely to resist the proposal, while states that don’t have such retailers will support it. Currently, Delahunt’s bill has 20 co-sponsors, including several Republicans, as well as three of his House colleagues from the Massachusetts delegation: Michael Capuano, Barney Frank, and John Tierney. But apart from the Bay State, Delahunt has found few allies from states with large high-tech industries.

Economist David Cutler says increased life expectancy comes at a price and we havent figured out how many more years we want to pay for

Economist David Cutler says increased life expectancy comes at a price and we havent figured out how many more years we want to pay for

Harvard economist David M. Cutler’s new book, his first, has a catchy, if somewhat threatening, title: Your Money or Your Life. The subtitle promises “strong medicine for America’s health care system,” and the book delivers on that promise in a number of ways. But the real dose of castor oil Cutler dispenses is for the employers, insurers, government officials, and even consumers who howl about health care costs that are driving up premiums, state expenditures, and co-payments. Cutler’s cure for health care inflation: Get used to it.

That’s his message, Cutler says, because he’s done the math. Sure, spending on health care consumes almost 15 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, up from just 4 percent in 1950, crossing 10 percent in the mid-1980s and, after a brief leveling off in the mid-1990s, now hurtling, perhaps inexorably, toward one-fifth of the US economy. In 1950, medical spending was just $500 per person annually, adjusted for inflation; now, it is $5,000 per person. But Cutler asks, which would you rather have: today’s $5,000 treatment, or $4,500 in your pocket–but medical care at the standard of 1950?

For him, the question is more than rhetorical. By comparing other economic tradeoffs in the areas of health and safety, Cutler has put a price tag on an additional year’s worth of healthful life: $100,000. On that basis, he can determine whether the medical improvements that have driven up health care spending over the years have been worth what we’ve paid for them. Are we shelling out too much? Not by Cutler’s calculations. He says that improvements in life expectancy made possible by advances in care in just two areas, cardiovascular disease and low birth weight babies (three and a half years, out of an overall nine-year rise in longevity), are worth the entire increase in lifetime medical costs since 1950. And, he says, no need to stop there.

“I believe that we can afford additional medical spending, and further that it will be good for us as a society to do so,” writes Cutler.

Cutler’s been wrestling with health care costs and benefits for more than a decade, ever since his mentor, Lawrence Summers, now president of Harvard, pointed him in that direction. After receiving his Ph.D. from MIT in 1991, Cutler got a heavy dose of the political, as well as economic, realities of health care reform as part of the team that developed President Bill Clinton’s ill-fated health care plan in 1993. Cutler was also a health care advisor to former US senator Bill Bradley in his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000. But mostly, Cutler churns out papers on the dollars-and-cents value of medical improvement by the ream for the National Bureau of Economic Research. Now, he gives us a book that tells us that the medical system is in “crisis,” but perhaps not quite the one we think it’s in.

“We worry far too much about wasting money on medicine,” writes Cutler. “The issue in spending is not how much we put in, but making sure we get value for our dollar.” I sat down with Cutler one morning last fall to talk about cost, value, and coverage in health care. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

CommonWealth: Let’s get into the nature of the health care crisis at the present moment. We’ve gotten back to a point where health care costs are escalating at a rate that is well in excess of overall inflation. Premiums are increasing again at a double-digit rate. Employers are passing along more of their costs to the employees, and the numbers of the uninsured are on the rise once again. I can’t help but have a feeling of déjà vu. It seems very much the way things were in the early ’90s, the last time the health care crisis was acute. But at that point, we had this solution in the offing, namely managed care, which was ultimately embraced across the political spectrum as the solution for cost. So why are we back to square one again?

Cutler: Those who forget the past are destined to repeat it.

CommonWealth: In this case, whether we forget it or not.

Cutler: That’s right. Nothing in medical care ever looks so rosy as what you had a decade ago. I think there are a couple of issues. One is, I think the most fundamental thing is that we misdiagnosed the nature of the crisis, so we’re always trying to come up with a solution that is not appropriate for what the real problem is. Maybe I should expand on that for a minute. We pose the crisis as rising cost of medical care, and I think that’s our first big problem. Let’s say, instead: Was it a bad idea that we spent so much more on medical care over the past decade? Would it have been better if we had not spent the money that we did? If you look at it that way, we spent a lot more, but we’re really much better off for it, because what it’s done is it’s increased the length and the quality of life. And if you look back over the past several decades when people have been continually complaining about rising medical costs, not all of it has been worth it, but enough of it has, to where you’d say this was really a good thing for us to do, in total. So I think we get into trouble by saying we’ve got to control costs. It seems to me what that’s doing is substituting for two other things, and if we focused on those two other things, we would be much better off. The first is, there is certainly a lot of waste out there, and we would like to trim the waste, if we could. We’d like to use a scalpel to get rid of the fat in the system. So far, most of the things we’ve invented in the past, like managed care and whatever we’re thinking of now, are closer to meat cleavers than scalpels. If we use the meat cleaver on things when we really wanted the scalpel, we’re unhappy. So we have yet to figure out how to do that.

But, somewhat more fundamentally, the reason we’re scared by costs going up is that we’re afraid that’s going to push us out of insurance and into a situation where medical care is going to bankrupt us. Let me give you an analogy from another situation. Suppose that you didn’t have automobile insurance and, God forbid, you were in an automobile crash. You were fine, but your car was completely wrecked. Well, you need a car to get to work, and you need a car for your family and stuff. So, all of a sudden, you would be stuck with paying, out of pocket, $10,000 or $20,000 for a car. You haven’t saved the money for it. You’re not ready for it. Now, in that context, the things that add to the price of a car, like better safety features, new braking systems, and crumple zones, [might put a new car out of your reach]. So you would be afraid of a lot of the stuff that goes into making a car better, because when you really need a car, you might not be able to afford it. Fortunately, because we have auto insurance, when you’re buying a car, it’s more discretionary. So we don’t fear the innovations that come along in cars, because it’s never a situation where we have a life-or-death need to buy the car and we don’t have the money. We have put ourselves in a situation with health insurance where having it can mean life or death, but we don’t guarantee coverage. So that means that the things that make health care more expensive are things to be feared, rather than things to be welcomed. What people want is to make sure that they will be able to afford medical care at the time it’s needed, and that’s a statement about poor insurance coverage more than it is a statement that we are obviously spending too much on health care.

CommonWealth: You spend a good deal of your book trying to get a sense of whether the improvements in care that the medical field has given us over the years are worth the cost. I’d like you to walk me through the cost-benefit analysis that you do, because it’s a fascinating exercise.

Cutler: Thank you.

CommonWealth: And it’s one that’s based on a calculation of just what a year of life is worth.

Cutler: It’s about the most morbid thing one can do as an economist. It’s a conversation that necessarily makes people uncomfortable. But in order [to make judgments about] the medical system, you’ve got to be prepared to face up to certain things. And those involve a host of ethical choices, religious issues, legal issues, and political issues, in addition to economics.

When you say, “What’s the value of medical care?” a lot of people would say, “Well, suppose I had a heart attack, or suppose I was hit by a car on my way crossing the street in downtown Boston. What would it be worth to have access to medical care?” And the answer is, well, whatever you have in your wallet and whatever you can get your hands on. That’s not incredibly helpful, and it’s also not the way we want to think about things like this. Suppose you’re thinking about, let’s say, Medicare and what Medicare should cover. You’re not saying, my mother is sick, or my spouse is sick, what should Medicare cover? But really, what’s it right to cover? What do we think is appropriate to be covered? Should we cover in vitro fertilization in insurance policies? Should we cover extremely expensive care for low birth weight infants? Should we cover heroic end-of-life care? We know how much that will cost. How much is it worth to us?

Actually, in our daily lives, we frequently face issues like that [even if we don’t think about them that way]. For example, nowadays all new cars come with air bags. But if you go out and buy a used car, you’ll find choices between cars with air bags and cars without air bags. And the car with an air bag might sell for a few hundred dollars more than a car without air bags because it’s a safer car. People have to make that tradeoff about how much it is worth to them to have the air bag in the car or not. If an air bag costs $300, if the equivalent car with an air bag costs $300 more than one without an air bag, most people will be willing to pay that amount. If it were to cost $30,000 more, a lot of people would say, “I understand the value of that, but I just can’t afford to spend that amount of money.”

What the analysis in the book does is ask how good an investment a particular health care improvement is, based on how much people are willing to pay in comparable situations, such as air bags and other safety devices. How much more do people have to be paid to work in jobs that are riskier compared to jobs that are safer? There is a whole range of decisions that people make where health is one of the considerations. So it’s trying to put medical care into a context where health is one of the choices that we make and saying, “How does it fare?” When you put it in that framework, it actually fares very well. It’s a bit like a $300 air bag, which is to say, for the vast majority of people, that seems like a good thing, so most people would be happy to pay for it.

‘People value their health very highly.’

CommonWealth: Your chapter entitled “Pricing the Priceless” certainly seems to capture that issue, because it talks about what it’s worth–in broad societal terms, not individual–to generate the kinds of improvements in health care that our medical community is routinely doing these days. You actually come up with a price to compare those costs to: $100,000 for extending life expectancy by one year. Now, using this method, you determine that the benefits of improvements in just two areas–low birth weight babies, and the treatment of cardiovascular disease –in longer life expectancy are enough to justify all of the cost increases in all of the areas of medical treatment over the past 50 years. That’s fairly extraordinary.

Cutler: People value their health very highly. We’re fortunately in a situation where we can afford–at least as a society, not everybody individually–but the vast majority of people can afford the basic necessities of life. We have enough food for our families. We have enough clothing for our families. Shelter isn’t quite what we want, certainly not in the Boston area, but we have a reasonable amount. So, unlike the old days, when essentially all the money we had had to go to real necessities, now we have more discretionary income to think about. Some of what we’ve done is buy computers, and VCRs, and fancy TVs, and so on. But another thing that people want, that’s very high on their list, is they want to be healthy. They want to live longer lives and higher quality lives. What the calculations you’re describing basically reflect is that people are really saying that’s a very good use for my discretionary income. Therefore, when we wind up spending a lot more on medical care but it saves low birth weight infants, we say that’s really a good thing to do. Whereas, if this had been a century ago, we would say well, okay, but we have houses without running water and no heat. Maybe we need to spend the money there. In terms of cardiovascular disease, we’ve gotten a lot for the money we’ve spent. Now we can say that’s good, whereas a century ago we would have said, yes, but kids need things, too, and how are we going to ever pay for schools if we do that? So, as we’ve gotten richer, we can afford more. And as we get richer in the future, we’re going to want even more-improved health. I think that’s the biggest message that comes across, that things that improve our health, even if they’re expensive, are worth a lot…. All [my] calculation does is put dollars and cents on something that people know intuitively.

CommonWealth: And that’s what you do as an economist.

Cutler: That’s part of what the job is as an economist, to try to do that. If it didn’t resonate with what people were saying, you’d trust what people were saying more than the calculation.

CommonWealth: What you’re talking about is, in the broad sweep of society, what it’s worth to us as a people, a people with a certain amount of income, in terms of GDP, and how we can justify making this kind of investment in medical care. And you suggest that, as a society, we should be pretty satisfied with the value we’ve gotten and be willing to invest more still.

Cutler: Yes.

CommonWealth: But then when you get down to levels where people are actually allocating those dollars, things get much more contentious. I would have to say I know one person who would take issue with the idea that we should be content to be spending more and more dollars on health care, and that’s the state’s secretary of health and human services, Ron Preston. Increases in health costs, and especially increases in the Medicaid budget, are threatening to squeeze out spending on other social goods, like public education, roads and bridges, and all sorts of things. Preston regularly tells audiences that if Medicaid spending continues to grow on an unchecked basis, there will have to be a tax increase, not only this year, but next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. So what do you say to somebody like Ron Preston?

Cutler: Good luck. Nice to have met you. [Laughs] What do I say? [The problem is,] people have an unwillingness to think about the government getting bigger to pay for services that we want. A century ago, roughly the turn of the 20th century, government spending was about one in every $25 in the economy. Today, it’s about one in every $4 in the economy. So the government has expanded by a factor of eight. Why? It’s because there were things that only the government could provide us that we wanted to have, so we had to give the government more money. Social Security is an example. There was no Social Security a century ago. Unemployment insurance, there was none. Worker’s compensation, there was none. Medicare and Medicaid, there wasn’t any. Child care was very, very slight in the public sector. All of these things that over time we said we wanted we ultimately found a way to put them in [the public budget and] attach new revenues to them, because it would have been ludicrous to cut everything else government was paying for. The same will have to happen here, with health care. If we as a people want to have it, and it makes sense to do some of it through government, then we’re not going to get rid of everything else the government does. We’re going to create more revenue for it. Partly, I think that people get fooled by seeing government as sort of a black hole, that money goes in and nothing comes out. Ironically, the kinds of taxes that people don’t talk about cutting are things like the payroll tax for Social Security, and the payroll tax for Medicare, because it’s very clear that your money is going into some pot, and that pot is used to pay for those benefits. It’s not inconceivable to me that, to avoid crowding out education and so on, we will adopt the same strategy with regard to Medicaid, which is to have a dedicated stream of revenue that can only be used for that. If we want the government to do it, which I think we do, we will have to be willing to put up the money, and what we should think about are the systems of financing that make that the most transparent for people.

CommonWealth: Now, even as you defend the wisdom of medical spending, as tradeoffs go in our society, you don’t claim that every health dollar is well spent; far from it. You say that, even after more than a decade of managed care, we’re still paying for medical care largely on the basis of the intensity of the service rather than on its value in improving health. As a result, high intensity services, like coronary bypass surgery and cardiac catheterization–some might add Caesarian section to that list–are overused, if not misused, while low intensity services, such as management of blood pressure for patients with chronic hypertension, are still underutilized, even for those who have insurance. How do we get the incentives right?

Cutler: Economists spend a lot of time worrying about incentives–not that we do so productively, but we do spend a lot of time thinking about it. What I’m amazed by is how well one can understand what’s happening in the medical system by understanding the dollar flows. Not that dollar flows are everything. No physician that I know is motivated entirely by dollar flows; they’re motivated by a desire to help patients. But they’re constrained by the fact that the way the money flows has to influence what goes on; that is, you can’t do things that are unprofitable for too long, or you won’t be able to survive. The way that the money flows have traditionally worked in medical care is that we pay more based on the intensity. The bypass surgeon will earn $400,000 a year, potentially. The internist or family practitioner will earn $100,000 a year, because what they’re doing is less intensive. So payment by intensity leads to a lot of very intensive treatment.

To think about a different payment system, suppose that we took what we currently pay, and we don’t do anything major [to adjust that] at the moment, but all we do is introduce a bonus system that says if the doctor does the right thing, we’ll pay more, even if it’s for doing things that are not reimbursed very well now. For example, currently there is no money to pay doctors for actually controlling a patient’s blood pressure. There is money for seeing the patients, for recommending things, but a physician can’t go and follow up with a patient and get any reimbursement. Suppose we said, “Look, we’re going to measure how well your hypertensive patients do and if you’re doing well by them, you’ll get paid more,” so that there will be the money there to do that. We know that a lot of surgery is done in situations where it’s not appropriate, and we know by diagnostic criteria when a lot of those are. So we say, “We’ll reimburse less, if the surgery is done in situations where the literature doesn’t suggest it’s very valuable or where it’s against the guidelines of common medical practice.” Every time a doctor does something that is consistent with what the literature says is good, or is consistent with helping patients [with particular ailments], that would contribute to bonus points, and there would be no points for things that it’s not clear were really appropriate to do. And for things that are inappropriately done, you would actually lose points for that. Then you could add up, for each physician, how many bonus points they earn, and one could make additional payments on that basis. So it would be a step towards a system that rewards good stuff better than bad stuff, and effective stuff better than ineffective stuff, instead of intensive stuff more than less-intensive stuff.

‘Measuring things seems to be helpful.’

CommonWealth: Now, why hasn’t managed care been able to do that? That was part of the basis on which it was sold, as an approach not only to restraining costs, but to improving care. That is, it would place an emphasis on primary care, and on medical management rather than crisis management in acute care settings. It promised to hold doctors accountable to those dreaded bean counters–not to mention medical directors–who could say, “It seems like you’re doing an awful lot of procedures that we’re not sure are medically necessary.” Why haven’t we made more progress toward getting the incentives right after a decade and a half of managed care?

Cutler: That’s a good question. I think, partly, the ethos of a lot of the early managed care was really along those lines. What managed care became, particularly over the 1990s, was something that particularly employers were pushing for, saying, “It’s fine if you do this stuff, but show me the cost savings.” Whatever incentive there would have been to [restructure incentives to improve care] got subverted. The other thing is, one of the premises that we went into managed care with was that lower cost-sharing was the way to ensure [routine care]. That is, managed care noticed that a lot of people, for example, were not coming in to the doctor for diabetes care, people with high cholesterol were not coming in, and hypertensives were not coming in. So they said, “Look, we want to encourage that, so we’re going to have very, very low cost-sharing”–$5 to go to the doctor, $10 to go to the doctor. That did remove the disincentives for people to come into the system, people enrolled in indemnity policies who were discouraged by, say, a $200 deductible or a $500 family deductible. But even that was not enough. The system was so complicated that just having low or even zero monetary price didn’t make it that much better, because people would just get so frustrated.

CommonWealth: You tell a great story about the way that letting financial interests do their work in health care may drive costs up but, in fact, provide dramatic improvement in care for serious illness. The example you give is the treatment of depression, and the solution is that class of drugs of which Prozac is the most well known. The way you tell the story, no one knew how to treat depression very effectively. It was underdiagnosed, undertreated. Along come the pharmaceutical companies, which develop this class of drugs that is very effective at treating depression with few side effects, but in order for them to make money, doctors have to prescribe these drugs, and patients have to come forward for treatment. The pharmaceutical companies went to great expense to make sure that doctors knew about their cure and its effectiveness, but also, through direct advertising to consumers, to make potential patients aware that there is a treatment for what they’re feeling: Go to your doctor, and–as the commercials always say–ask your doctor about Prozac.

Cutler: Yes.

CommonWealth: Now, that same example has got all sorts of people fretting about the corrupting, as well as cost-driving, effects of direct-to-consumer advertising, as well as doctors getting their information about new drugs from manufacturers who stand to benefit. But you say that, in the case of depression, this all worked out pretty well.

Cutler: Yes. It was not the best we could possibly do, but your description was entirely accurate. Prozac was approved in 1987. If you go back in the early 1980s, it was clear from many, many research studies that depression was under-treated, underdiagnosed. Patients were not doing well. The estimates were that about 5 percent of patients with depression were effectively treated. The federal government had issued calls to action. There were journal articles about how we need to do better. There were professional conferences. Nothing seemed to work. What billions of dollars in advertising, both to physicians and to consumers, did, was it brought awareness [of the illness as a treatable condition], so that diagnosis of depression has doubled. We have also removed a lot of the stigma associated with it. Thomas Eagleton had to resign from being a vice presidential candidate because he admitted that he had been hospitalized for psychiatric disease. Today, if a presidential candidate admits that he’s receiving help, or has received help for a psychological problem, it would be nothing more than an item on the back page of the newspaper. So we’ve gotten rid of enormous amounts of stigma. We’ve made it possible for a lot of people to get better treatment. Those have all been very good. There have also been some drawbacks, in the sense that some people switched off effective medications, and into newer, more expensive medications, and some people on Prozac who don’t really need to be on Prozac. But you’ve got to temper that against the fundamental benefit of getting millions of people treated who would not have been treated. People do well in their lives who did not do well before, and a lot of that is the result of the billions of dollars that were spent.

CommonWealth: Absolutely. Now, the Prozac story makes me wonder, though, whether the sort of bonus system you talk about is a powerful enough mechanism. I mean, the remarkable thing about the Prozac story is that there were really immediate interests involved. There were big dollars at stake. I wonder if an end-of-the-year bonus is really enough to change the clinical practice of doctors. Is it enough to change institutional practices, in the case of hospitals? Is it enough to change insurer practices? I wonder, do you have enough incentives in this strategy?

Cutler: That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer for sure. I’m afraid of overdoing it at first, because like all great ideas, you want to see if it actually works. You know, there is a wonderful joke about economists: How does an economist on a desert island open a can of peas? Well, he assumes a can opener. So you need to be a little bit careful before you say, just because it seems right to me, we should do it wholesale. [Using measures of effectiveness to change incentives in medical care] is not just ivory tower economics, though. Probably the best established rating system now is a number of states–including Massachusetts, which is starting to do this–that are rating the quality of, say, bypass surgery done by hospitals. New York State has been doing this the longest. For close to 15 years, they’ve been rating the quality of all the providers, and then they release that rating publicly. That influences, to some extent, where patients go, what decisions hospitals make regarding who’s allowed to practice there–mixed evidence, but it seems that it’s been fairly beneficial. That’s an example of where actually measuring things, without even attaching dollars, seems to have been helpful. In Massachusetts, you can’t turn on the radio without hearing the insurance companies tell you about their ratings in various national quality assessments. It’s the same sort of thing, which is them saying, “People care about quality, and it influences whether employers are willing to contract with us or not. If I have good quality, I’m going to advertise that quite a lot.” So I think there is a sense that it’s enough of a thing that people care about [that using outcomes to drive institutional behavior is] likely to work.

CommonWealth: The other recurring challenge, if not the ongoing shame, of the American health care system is the lack of universal coverage. And that’s likely only to get worse as insurance premiums, and employee shares of those premiums, continue to rise. Your solution is to require individuals, indeed every individual, to purchase health insurance, with subsidies available for those who can’t afford it without help.

Cutler: Yes.

CommonWealth: This individual mandate stands in contrast to employer mandates, which would require employers to provide insurance to all their workers, and also to a single payer plan, which would replace private insurance with government coverage of all. Why do you see an individual mandate as a better way to get to universal coverage?

Cutler: That’s a very good question. Is health insurance a thing that gets better by tying it to your job? Not in any material way. If you change your job, do you really want to change your insurance, change your doctor, change the nature of what expenses you bear? If somebody loses a job, should they automatically lose their health insurance? It’s kind of like automobile insurance. Suppose that whenever you changed jobs, you had to change auto insurance. Or supermarkets. Obviously, that wouldn’t be as big an issue as changing health insurance, but you could see the frustration. Why can’t I go to my old supermarket? So this isn’t something that gets better by linking it to employment. Some things do get better when you link them to employment, like maybe a pension plan, or something about job safety. But this is not something that gets better by tying it to employment.

So I think that ultimately we’ve got to divorce health coverage from the employment situation. Then there are only two ways to do it. One is, you tell families that they have to have health insurance, and we’re going to make sure they will be able to afford it. It’s going to be their choice about where they go to get that insurance. If they want one plan versus another, we’re not going to have a strong say about that. The other way is, you tell people they’re going to be on whatever the public sector program is, and they’re going to pay taxes into the system to support this. I’m not a big fan of that, but not for the reasons [others give]. I mean, there is a debate out there about, is government good or is government bad, or the virtues of private markets, and on. I don’t think that’s the real issue here. When you look at single payer plans, either the Medicare plan in the US, Medicare in Canada, the Western European countries that have national health insurance systems–none of them do better on the kind of problems that we were talking about: the diabetic patients that are not getting care, the hypertensive patients that are not getting care. All of them pay more for intensity. Canada does that; Medicare does that. Most of the French system does that. Most of the systems that people think about–the German system–wind up that way. Even in those systems, while people have a lot of access to care–more than people in the States–they don’t wind up doing a lot better on some of those really crucial outcomes where we know the system fails. So I think we need something different from that. I think if one does it right, as we were talking about, that is, motivate the insurers to care more about [giving providers incentives to provide appropriate treatment], one could do it in the private sector. And the good features of being able to compare across lots of plans will really show us where improvement is possible and how we can do it. So that’s why I tend to favor [the individual mandate] solution.

CommonWealth: What I wonder about, in terms of the individual mandate, is–I guess there are a couple of issues. One is simply the novelty of it. As far as I know, there is no social benefit in this country that I can think of that essentially requires that people purchase something. You mention auto insurance, which is probably the closest parallel, but you always still have the option of not owning a car. Mandating that every individual and every family purchase something would be a new, and perhaps onerous, imposition. The other issue is, although I agree with you that we gain nothing, and in fact give up a lot, by tying health care to the employment situation, nonetheless, that is the prevailing way that privately employed people currently get their coverage. So, imposing a mandate on individuals to purchase insurance would disrupt the way most people now get their health care covered. And generally, as we’ve seen with managed care, as much as people complain about the health care system, the only thing they complain about more is any disruption in the way they are currently receiving health care.

Cutler: I wouldn’t actually tell employers they couldn’t pay for it, or tell people they couldn’t get insurance through their employer. So, for example, Harvard University, which offers extremely generous benefits, might very well decide to continue that and people could continue to purchase it here, or they could get it elsewhere. For a lot of people, that would be the least disruptive way [to maintain health coverage]. Suppose I described the system I have in mind the following way. What I want to do is take the tax cuts that the Bush administration generally directed to high-income individuals and here is what I want to do with it. Everybody who is really having a hard time making ends meet, I’m going to give them enough money so that they can buy health insurance. They’re going to get a refundable tax credit,…and the credit will be only for health insurance. The family would say, “I would like to enroll in the Cutler Health Plan,” and the government sends the [tax credit] money to the Cutler Health Plan for them. As one moves up the income scale, the tax credit is not for the full amount, but for a portion of it, depending on income, and you direct the money to whatever insurance plan you want. There is still a requirement that the individual pay for the rest, but because the family has enough resources they can do that. At very high incomes there is a small credit, because people deserve some help throughout the income distribution, but it’s a much smaller amount. So this would be a tax cut that is used for health insurance. That’s not so different from the other kinds of tax credits we have.

CommonWealth: Now, in your proposal to use the president’s tax cuts to finance this expansion of health care coverage, you’re falling into line with a number of the Democratic presidential hopefuls. Do any of their plans align well with your thinking on health insurance for all, or any that simply sound good to you on their own terms?

Cutler: Let me make two comments about that. There is great virtue in the fact that all of the proposals this time around are very substantive, hardy, meaty proposals. This is in contrast to Vice President Gore’s proposal in the 2000 election, which was much, much smaller. Everything on the table now is much bigger than either [major party nominee] had at the time. So I’m enormously encouraged that people are thinking bigger rather than smaller, because this is an issue where one needs to think boldly rather than timidly. None of them are exactly what I’ve laid out here, so none of them get my A+ rating. [Still,] that’s a criterion that one doesn’t necessarily want to apply rigorously, in the sense of saying, if it’s not everything that one envisions, one is going to fail it, or something like that. Generally, I like combinations of them. And overall I like the spirit of where the debate is going, even if nobody is earning the top grade in my book.

North Andover says the state is nothing but a tax deadbeat

NORTH ANDOVER–With the help of some thoughtful planning, the town of North Andover has been able to enjoy economic development without losing its historic character. About 27,000 residents coexist with such employers as Merrimack College and the Lawrence Municipal Airport. But in one sense, North Andover is among the Commonwealth’s biggest losers, and town leaders are looking to do something about it. Tired of waiting for full compensation for land that was taken over by the state, North Andover has joined STAR (Stand Tall, Act Responsibly), which began its existence as Small Towns Against Repression, a militant-sounding organization of rural communities that has recently grown to include nearly one-third of the state’s municipalities.

North Andover Quick Facts

Incorporated as a town: 1855
Population: 27,202
Town Meeting: Open

Facts:

  • North Andover occupies almost 28 square miles, 3,000 acres of which are preserved open space.
  • Located approximately 24 miles north of Boston, the town lies along the banks of the Merrimack River and is bordered by Methuen, Haverhill, Boxford, Andover, Middleton, North Reading, and Lawrence.
  • Settlement began in 1640 and the town was incorporated as part of Andover in 1646. The community was split into the North Parish (now North Andover) and South Parish (now Andover) in 1709.
  • Seventy-two percent of housing units in North Andover are owner-occupied.

When the state acquires land within a city or town’s boundaries, that municipality loses that land from its tax rolls. Yet it still must provide police, fire, and road-repair services to the area. To compensate for these expenses and for lost tax revenue, the state began the PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) program in 1910, with the amount due host communities determined by statutory formula.

But STAR members say that the state has reneged on these reimbursements to towns and cities across the Commonwealth. And North Andover is the fourth-largest casualty of PILOT penury. The state owns 91 parcels of land in town, including 1,967 acres in Harold Parker State Forest valued at $32.7 million and 60 acres in Boxford State Forest valued at $684,000, according to the Bureau of Local Assessment. (North Andover ranks 102nd among the state’s 351 cities and towns in terms of land area.) In 2003, the town received only $144,559 of the $559,718 owed, according to the North Andover Citizen. Over the last six years, the town has been shortchanged by an average of $311,000 per year. Only the towns of Edgartown, Framingham, and Sunderland are owed more PILOT funds from the state.

Town leaders in North Andover say they are joining the STAR movement because there is power in numbers, as well as in principle. Selectman Rosemary Smedile says that despite the state’s current budget problems, it has a responsibility to deliver the promised funds.

STAR members say the state has reneged on reimbursement.

“There is a moral piece to this because the state has pledged this money in the past, and [the lack of payment] has become a burden to the town,” says Smedile, comparing the state to deadbeat dads who won’t pay court-ordered child support. “Children and public safety suffer.”

Smedile’s sentiments are not universal, even among smaller towns without much of a tax base to make up for the loss of PILOT money. In the central Massachusetts town of Berlin, for example, some residents want the state to purchase more conservation land, and some town officials are willing to give up their PILOT claim to get what they want. Because development of the land would increase the strain on town services, they say, Berlin would come out ahead on the conservation deal even without PILOT funds.

“The bottom line is that by taking beautiful natural areas out of the grips of developers, the state is doing local communities and future generations a lasting service,” Walter Bickford, chairman of the Berlin Conservation Commission, told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. “The state should not, in addition to this wonderful gift of free open spaces to local towns, be pressured by local politicians into picking up the tab for other town matters beyond the demonstrable direct costs to towns for maintenance and protection of state lands.”

According to a 1975 law, the state’s annual PILOT obligation to each community is determined by the fair-market value of state-owned land (which is determined by the state Department of Revenue) and a town’s average commercial-property-tax rate over the previous three years. Under the law, state-owned land is defined as that “specifically used as a fish hatchery, game preserve, wild life sanctuary, state military camp ground, state forest or other land held for other state purposes.”

If Massachusetts towns were receiving these funds in full each year, STAR probably wouldn’t exist. But the gap between what is paid and what was promised keeps rising. In 1993, the state paid $6.5 million of the almost $18 million demanded by cities and towns. In 2003, the state forked over $10 million of the requested $30.8 million.

STAR was formed in 1996 to represent mostly small towns in western Massachusetts, like Adams, home to a large portion of Mount Greylock State Reservation, and Washington, where October Mountain State Forest is located. Eventually, the group did claim some credit for prying loose $10 million in overdue funding. It wasn’t all that they wanted, but it was better than the complete lack of funding proposed by then-acting Gov. Jane Swift–who, ironically, hailed from the western part of the state.

The organization lay dormant for a few years, but revived last May when the Legislature refused to appropriate $21 million in PILOT payments that were earmarked for various cities and towns. This time, STAR really spread its wings. Princeton town administrator Dennis Rindone, one of STAR’s organizers, said the group obtained a list of the top 30 PILOT fund losers in the Commonwealth from the state auditor’s office. (“We want to remain credible, so all of our numbers came from the state,” Rindone said. “It’s not something we made up.”) Surprisingly, 25 of them were communities in the eastern half of the state, including Concord, Bourne, Upton, Salisbury, and North Andover.

From its initial membership of 14 sparsely populated towns in the western part of the state, STAR now includes 110 cities and towns across Massachusetts, including voter-rich suburbs. The state’s most populous town, Framingham, was one of the first communities in the eastern part of the state to join. It was also one of the few towns that saw its PILOT funding increase from 2001 to 2002 (when it received $490,000), but it still gets far less than town leaders feel they are owed.

Members were briefly pleased by a proposal from Gov. Mitt Romney that would allocate $173 million in PILOT payments for fiscal year 2004. Then they read the fine print, which explained that most of the funds would go to cities that host state office buildings and courthouses (neither covered by the PILOT program previously), and not to towns with large blocks of state-owned conservation land. The governor’s formula would also have changed the way towns and cities receive all state aid–including education aid and lottery aid. Legislators have not been receptive to the idea because communities will be unable to predict how much aid they will receive, state Rep. Daniel Bosley, a North Adams Democrat, told the Berkshire Eagle.

All STAR members are now keeping tabs on the local services they provide to state land. These data will be used for a study to determine exactly how much money towns spend on land that they can’t tax. Expenses include sending police to investigate criminal activity, putting out fires, rescuing victims of climbing and snowmobile accidents, and cleaning up illegal dump sites.

“The state should have to pay their taxes. Everyone else has to.”

Not every STAR member community is in it for the money. Southwick and Easthampton have joined the group despite being owed less than $5,000 for the small parcels of state-owned land within their boundaries. With a membership fee of $25, it’s easy for towns to join STAR and demonstrate their support for other cash-strapped communities that are waiting for money they are owed. “Part of it is solidarity, and part of it is really believing that the state should have to pay their taxes,” says Florida town administrator and STAR administrative coordinator Jana Brule. “Everyone else has to.”

But as a recruitment device, there’s nothing like municipal self-interest. When STAR emissary Rindone visited North Andover town selectmen at a September board meeting, he informed them of the magnitude of funds owed to them. In addition, town administrator Mark Rees told the board of selectmen that over the past three years, the fire department has answered 129 ambulance calls to the Harold Parker State Forest, according to the Citizen, costs which the town has to incur. Fire Chief William V. Dolan has estimated that it costs the town $1,350 to respond to a single false alarm. The elected officials agreed to join the STAR cause.

“This has been something that [state Auditor Joseph] DeNucci’s been examining for some time,” Glenn Briere, director of communications for the office, told the Lawrence-based Eagle-Tribune, adding that the PILOT program was under review. “The auditor has been a consistent advocate for full funding,” said Briere. “It’s an important law. Particularly, smaller towns in the Commonwealth depend on this funding.”

Monies previously allotted to a variety of programs have shrunk dramatically as state leaders scramble to close the Commonwelath’s budget shortfall, but one North Andover legislator is concerned that the lack of funding puts an added drain on the communities it affects. “Obviously, if there is a drain on town services [because of] the state, the state should be doing everything in its power to pay for those services,” state Rep. David Torrisi, a Democrat, told the Eagle-Tribune.

If a home or business owner refused or was unable to pay their local taxes, town officials could place a lien on their property. Not so with state land. After Rindone spoke at the September selectmen’s meeting, town leaders complained to lawmakers, but nothing changed. “The number they give you is the number they give you,” Selectman Smedile told the Eagle-Tribune. “You can fight it all you want, but if that’s what you get, you’re stuck with it.”

While North Andover could obviously use the PILOT funding in the current economic climate, the money owed to them this year makes just a dent in their $62 million budget. But the tiny western Massachusetts town of Washington only received $26,000, a drop from last year’s payment of $102,000–40 percent of all the state aid it received, including money for schools and roads, out of a total budget of $650,000.

For now, Rindone and other STAR members are traveling to other select board meetings to speak with town leaders, and they’re cautiously waiting to see if Romney will fund the program next year. “We’re good stewards to [the state’s] property and we provide good services,” Rindone said. “We’ll have to see in January if Romney fully funds the PILOT program. If he puts it in the budget, we’ll have to get the Legislature to support that.”

And they’ll go there with new allies. As more voter-rich towns join STAR, Rindone believes that more lawmakers will fight for money owed to their districts. North Andover Selectman Mark Caggiano agrees that there is power in numbers. “It becomes so much easier when you’ve got a whole crowd of senators and representatives saying, ‘Hey wait, my people are involved, too,'” Caggiano told the Eagle-Tribune.

“I think the PILOT program will have greater success now because we’re picking up new legislators that we never had before,” says Rindone. Take Plymouth, which recently joined STAR; Plymouth’s state senator is Therese Murray, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “That’s got to make some difference,” says Rindone.

Victoria Groves is a freelance writer living in Chelmsford.