Who’s Going to Get Fulfilled at Amazon’s New Fulfillment Center?

Amazon is coming to Fall River. The on-line giant announced yesterday that it will occupy a million-square-foot building that’s going to be built on the Fall River-Freetown line. The new warehouse, which in Amazon-speak carries the name “Fulfillment Center,” will join 50 or so similar facilities around the country.

So who among us can look forward to being fulfilled by the Fulfillment Center?

For starters, Amazon customers in Massachusetts, who can look forward to next-day delivery of their $600 premium foosball table with enamel screen-printed graphics and a one-inch Moroccan finish or their Natura Bisse Oxygen Cream (immediately softens the most dehydrated skin, only $88 for a 2.5 ounce jar).

Second, Amazon itself, which in addition to its profits gets more than $6 million in state and local tax breaks for choosing the Fall River site.

Third, Governor Charlie Baker, who’s pretty excited about it all.

Anybody out there who’s not going to be so fulfilled?

Well, construction companies in Massachusetts, which lost out on the building contract.  That went instead to a company from East Rutherford, N.J.

And the people who will be working in the new Fulfillment Center? Amazon is promising 500 full-time jobs at an average salary of $35,000. Which might well sound great to people in Fall River right now, where the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high. But then again, when you figure that by the time the Fulfillment Center opens, a $35,000 salary will translate into a minimum wage job for only 32 hours per week, maybe not so much.

The Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call newspaper has been covering the working conditions at Amazon’s nearby Lehigh Valley Fulfillment Center for the past five years. Anybody contemplating an Amazon job in Fall River and anybody who is unequivocally keen on Amazon’s arrival in the state might want to take a look at the Morning Call‘s stories about life in an Amazon warehouse: punishing productivity quotas that result in the firing of workers unable to meet them and injuries to many who try; a management structure in which the real employer is not Amazon itself, but a temporary help agency called “Integrity Staffing Solutions,” which can take advantage of laws that limit its liability for unemployment insurance and can help reduce the risk of encroachment by labor unions through constant employee turnover; triple-digit temperatures in the warehouse during the summer (on this point, Amazon was at pains to say that it had arranged for paramedics to be in ambulances parked outside the warehouse to treat the severely dehydrated).

If you take another look at Governor Baker’s enthusiastic comments about Amazon’s arrival, you’ll notice that while he’s very excited to help Amazon meet its needs, he seems to regard the Massachusetts residents who will be working there as merely an afterthought:

“Our collaboration and partnership with Amazon is a good example of where the state has worked with, and will continue to work with, companies and help them meet their needs for everything from tax incentives to training new employees to permitting so that they can continue to grow in the Commonwealth.”

Points for honesty.

The Bond Between War and Football: It Started Right Here

Re: the Globe story last week that much of the military-inspired pageantry at football games is a recruitment effort paid for by the Department of Defense. The teams on the receiving end of that largesse (the Patriots, Falcons, Bills and Ravens top the list) have bristled at the notion that they have been in it for the money. They insist that pre-game and halftime ceremonies honoring active service members and veterans have always been part of the whole Sunday afternoon ritual and will continue to be, whether or not the Pentagon chips in.

Even though the NFL and its franchises usually are in it for the money, I believe them this time (although I agree that accepting taxpayer dollars cheapens their efforts). Football and war are inseparable. The story of why that is so is one of the subjects of a brilliant book by Stanford Professor George M. Fredrickson, The Inner Civil War. The only copy of it at my public library is currently checked out to me, so I’ll tell you a little about it.

The link between our military institutions and our athletic ones started right here in Boston. Four Bostonians, who were of fighting age during the Civil War and then went on to prominence in American intellectual life, did more than anyone else to forge the bond between our armed forces and our sports teams (the name “Patriots” didn’t win the nickname contest back in 1960 for nothing). All four of those men, understandably, needed to make sense of the Civil War as a formative event in their lives — to feel assured that, despite its horror, the war had yielded up a lesson or bestowed a virtue.

Start with the philosopher William James (1842-1910). The only one of the four who did not serve in the Civil War (for unspecific reasons relating to his health about which he later expressed guilt) posed this question: even considering all the bloodshed and suffering of the Civil War, how many of us would like to see it utterly expunged from our history? The answer, he believed, was hardly anybody, because “those ancestors, those efforts, those memories and legends, are the most ideal part of what we now own together, a sacred spiritual possession worth more than all the blood poured out.” This paradox — that armed conflict is both unspeakable and invaluable — led him, most famously in an essay entitled “The Moral Equivalent of War,” to search for ways in which the “strenuous honor” of battle could continue to be cultivated but harnessed for peaceful purposes.

Next up, Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935). A veteran of the battles at Antietam and Chancellorsville, Holmes went on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court for thirty years. In an 1895 essay entitled “Soldier’s Faith,” Holmes echoed the paradox that William James had spoken of: war is horrible and dull but “when time has passed you see that its message was divine.” And one of the places Holmes found the strenuous honor that James was searching for was in sport, especially sport that carried a risk of injury: “Dangerous sport is an excellent way of developing courage. I gaze with delight upon our polo players. If once in a while in our rough riding a neck is broken, I regard it not as a waste but as a price well paid for the breeding of a race fit for headship and command.”

Then, Henry Lee Higginson (1834-1919). A veteran of the First Battle of Bull Run, Higginson later became wealthy enough at his father’s brokerage firm not only to give us the Boston Symphony Orchestra but also, in 1890, to give Harvard a 31-acre plot of land in Allston to be called “The Soldier’s Field” in honor of his fellow soldiers who had died in the Civil War. Soldier’s Field was to be dedicated to athletics, because sports make “full-grown well developed men ready to do good work of all kinds.” Harvard Stadium was built on Soldier’s Field soon after. It’s the home of the Harvard Crimson football team and was the one-time home of the Boston Patriots.

And finally, Francis Amasa Walker (1840-1897). A veteran of Chancellorsville who went on to become the President of MIT, Walker summed up the similarity of virtues between the Civil War and football in a 1893 Phi Beta Kappa address: The Civil War showed us the nobility of “strength of will, firmness of purpose, resolution to endure and capacity for action,” he said. He went on to praise Soldiers Field as a place where “something akin to patriotism is developed. It is a good thing that the body of students should now and then be stirred to the very depths of their souls that they should love passionately even if a little animosity toward rivals must mingle with their patriotic fervor.”

That’s how the bond between war and football got started. It continues, through the 1926 dedication of another Soldier’s Field, this one built in Chicago in honor of those who had died in World War I (the inaugural Soldier’s Field game in Chicago pitted Army against Navy and ended in a tie), through thousands of flag unfurlings and Star Spangled Banner playings and fighter jet flyovers at halftimes, to the Pat Tillman story, to today.

I have doubts about the wisdom of the war-and-football bond, but I have no doubts about its power.

Honoring Veterans (By Accusing Others of Dishonoring Them)

(Update 11/5: Republican candidate Geoff Diehl lost his Senate race to Democrat Michael Brady. The House passed the Stolen Valor bill on Wednesday without any attempts by House members to introduce anti-immigrant amendments. The House also passed bills to give Purple Heart recipients free access to state parks and to impose a fine for the removing of commemorative flag holders from graves of veterans and police and fire personnel. Unless the electoral strategy of Mass. Fiscal, Jobs First and their allies has changed significantly, I’d guess their efforts to secure roll call votes on immigrant-related measures will continue, in as misleading a way as necessary.)

Veterans’ Day being next Wednesday, and our Legislature being fond of honoring those who have served our country, it’s expected that tomorrow the House of Representatives will take up the “Stolen Valor” bill, which would make it a crime to claim, falsely, that you have won a military decoration like a Silver Star or a Purple Heart. (It seems that the problem of lying about military service — whether for emotional or financial gain — is disappointingly prevalent.)

The last time the House of Representatives commemorated Veterans’ Day through legislative action, two years ago, great controversy ensued. Back then, the House was getting ready to pass a bill honoring veterans by, for example, establishing a “Support Our Veterans” license plate program and by granting a property tax exemption for certain disabled armed forces members, when GOP Representative Geoff Diehl of Whitman (who, come tomorrow, may or may not be Senator-elect Geoff Diehl) offered an amendment to require that anyone seeking state housing assistance provide a social security number.

The purpose of this amendment, its backers claimed, was to ensure that non-citizens be prevented from securing housing aid ahead of, and therefore at the expense of, veterans. Whether this amendment was merely a solution in search of a problem was a question that its champions were — and remain — deeply uninterested in. Their only point was to fashion an occasion in which it could be claimed, however implausibly, that members voting against the amendment were dishonoring veterans.

Because the Diehl amendment had nothing whatsoever to do with the subject of the bill — veterans — it was ruled out of order. However, the amendment’s backers, undaunted in their quest for a recorded vote, called for a vote on the ruling that the amendment was out of order. The result, a 126-29 vote in support of the ruling, gave them what they wanted — the scandalous (if entirely specious) news that 126 members of the House had voted to give priority for state housing assistance to undocumented immigrants over veterans. The vote was the centerpiece of a flyer distributed in 20 legislative districts the next year by the Mass. Fiscal Alliance and its sister PAC, Jobs First Massachusetts, who were targeting Democratic incumbents in 2014, and who, as it happens, are busy right now supporting Representative Diehl in his campaign for the State Senate.

So stay tuned tomorrow to see if the effort by the House to honor veterans by passing the Stolen Valor bill includes an effort by some of its members to accuse others of dishonoring them.

Let’s Occupy the Film Tax Credit

A reprise of an earlier post, in light of the Herald article today reaffirming the folly of the state’s film tax credit program.


Original Post: May 7, 2013

Old joke – a merchant tells a customer that the goods he’s selling actually cost him more than he’s charging the customer for them. When he’s asked how he can afford to sell them at a loss, he answers: the profit comes from selling in volume.

Sadly, something akin to that joke is serving as the premise for our state’s film tax credit program: all our tax break giveaways are — somehow — going to boost our bottom line.

This is the eighth year Massachusetts has offered a film tax credit. For the first six of those years (2006-2011, the years for which data is available), the state gave away $327 million in credits. These tax credits attracted $186 million in new spending, which yielded $44 million in new revenue. That is to say, for every dollar we spent on film tax credits, we lost 87 cents and retained 13.

Given its abysmal record so far, why is it (to borrow a line from a movie that was not filmed in Massachusetts) that we just can’t quit the film tax credit? Let’s review.

In 2005, Massachusetts enacted a relatively modest film tax credit, which was signed by Governor Mitt Romney. The credit under that program was limited to $7 million, and it was not refundable. Also in 2005, director Martin Scorsese filmed a movie about Boston, The Departed. Most of the filming for that movie, however, took place not in Boston but in New York. And especially after that movie won four Oscars in 2006, people got to talking about how other states were poaching on what should be our movies and how we needed to do something about it.

So in 2007 (possibly influenced by one film director who said that film executives “would shoot a movie on Mars if they could get a 25 percent tax break”), Massachusetts opened the spigot wide, where it remains today. Now we reimburse film companies for 25 percent of their production and payroll costs, and we also throw in an exemption from the sales tax. Most significantly, the film tax credit is now refundable and transferable. This means that after the film company has paid the state taxes it owes, it can sell the remainder (usually at a slight discount) to a company or individual who owes state taxes and who can therefore capture the full value of the credit. As soon as he signed the legislation, Governor Deval Patrick (apparently unconcerned about criticism that the point of the the film tax credit was to let politicians hobnob with Hollywood celebrities) hurried off to hang with Denzel, who was in town filming The Great Debaters. And probably at exactly the same time, markets sprang up for the buying and selling of film tax credits.

Who’s buying them? Primarily insurance companies, financial institutions and other corporations that owe state taxes. Of the $327 million in film tax credits that have been generated since 2006, these organizations have purchased $280 million, or 86 percent. They have paid an average of 89 cents for a dollar’s worth of tax credit and thereby reduced the state taxes they would otherwise have had to pay by $30 million.

In the difficult budget years after he signed the film tax credit into law, Governor Patrick has lost some of his original enthusiasm. He now believes that the credit should be capped at $40 million per year. There’s no cap under current law. This is an entitlement program — filmmakers are free to come to Massachusetts and we are obliged to pay them 25 percent of their production costs, whatever those costs are. And if past experience is a guide, 87 cents of every credit dollar we give will simply disappear. The Department of Revenue estimates that the projects claiming the film tax credit in 2012 will cost the state more than $78 million. Representative Angelo Scaccia of Boston filed an amendment to the House budget last month to cap the film tax credit at $40 million, but it was rejected; the prospects for closing the spigot are not good.

So what to do? How about — if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em? The market for buying film tax credits is open to everyone. Maybe some civic-minded individuals or companies or individuals who owe state taxes could purchase tax credits at the going rate of 89 cents on the dollar and then, instead of keeping the 11 percent savings, donate it to a worthy cause. Or we can organize ourselves into (gasp!) collectives and then share the proceeds among us. As the insurance companies and financial institutions have demonstrated, there’s lots of money to be had. If they can make millions from this policy debacle, why can’t we?

So what do you say? It’s showtime!

Let’s Draft Dan Wolf

The Cape Cod Times brings the news that State Senator Dan Wolf (D-Harwich) will not seek re-election to the Senate in 2016 and that he will be issuing a statement about his plans in the near future.

Here’s hoping that those plans include running for the Democratic nomination for Governor in 2018. It is always nice to vote for somebody who thinks the Democratic Party in Massachusetts should stand for something more than its perpetual numerical majority.

The Ethics Commission has come to its senses on the issue that derailed his run for Governor in 2014, so that’s no longer an obstacle.

Plus, the 2018 ballot might also include the initiative petition that RaiseUpMassachusetts is fighting for to amend the State Constitution to raise additional revenue for education and infrastructure. A great cause to pair with a great candidate – what’s not to like?

Hartley Boudreau, 1 – Boston Herald, 0

The supplemental budget that’s making its way to the Governor’s desk includes a small offering of vindication for retired Lynnfield police officer Hartley Boudreau.

Three years ago, Boudreau was on the receiving end of some Boston Herald vituperation that designated him the “poster boy” for an alleged public employee income scam the paper was busy flogging:

A retired Lynnfield cop, already collecting a pension check while pocketing thousands in detail pay, has now managed to score taxpayer-funded unemployment benefits — part of a pattern of public cash grabs that has municipal officials howling to the Patrick administration for reform.

To flesh out the story a bit, in 2012 Mr. Boudreau was 70 years old and receiving a pension of $36,000 a year for his 32-year career as a police officer. (It’s doubtful that he was receiving any significant amount of federal Social Security retirement income because state and municipal employees in Massachusetts do not pay into that system.) The town of Lynnfield had supplemented his income in recent years by employing him as a part time police officer, but those wages were subject to a statutory cap limiting a public employee’s post-retirement earnings. When Mr. Boudreau reached the cap (of $25,000 annually), the town ended his part-time employment. He then applied for and received some unemployment insurance benefits under a statute of some 58 years’ standing that expressly permitted him to do so. Based on his $25,000 salary, the benefits he received could not have exceeded $9,000 and might have been less. Mr. Boudreau was required to pay both federal and state income taxes on them.

(A pause here to note that when some people — Donald Trump — avail themselves of the benefits of the law by, for example, filing for bankruptcy when their investments go sour, they are praised and admired for their shrewdness. But when others do, not so much.)

The Herald put the Patrick administration back on its heels with this issue, to which the paper devoted more than 20 stories and editorials. The state’s unemployment insurance agency immediately rescinded Mr. Boudreau’s benefits and appointed a special commission to investigate whether, as the Herald was claiming, Mr. Boudreau was no more entitled “to an unemployment check than the Powerball winner who decides to ‘retire.’”

But as time passed and the Herald was probably beginning to conclude that it had extracted just about all the outrage against government workers that this particular vein was going to yield, the Patrick administration reinstated Mr. Boudreau’s unemployment benefits, concluding that the law intended him to be eligible. The special commission that the Governor had appointed also determined that policy behind that law had much to recommend it: the average public pension was a mere $28,000 annually, the number of former public employees across the state receiving both pension and unemployment benefits was probably not much higher than 100, municipalities choose whom to hire and they are free not to hire retirees if they want to avoid any risk of owing unemployment insurance, and federal law requires that states treat their public sector retirees the same as their private sector retirees, who are certainly eligible for unemployment benefits if they are laid off from post-retirement jobs.

So when the city of Boston recently sought permission to hire retired police officers for part-time work and the question of the possible future eligibility of these officers for unemployment benefits arose, Governor Baker signaled his assent to that notion and the Legislature responded by including a provision affirming the law as it stands.

SECTION 76. Notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, a retired police officer of a city or town who is appointed as a special police officer pursuant to special legislation shall be subject to chapter 151A of the General Laws.

So far, no comment from the Herald.

The Dog Ate My Homework: Water Conservation Edition

Update, September 30: This afternoon, the House adopted the amendment I wrote about in this post. On to the Senate.

Anybody who shares any remotely credible explanation of why I’m wrong and how it is that this bill would make only minor and benign tweaks will be thanked with a copy of The Scarlet Letter.


An amendment to the supplemental budget that’s up for debate in the House tomorrow would broaden a 10-year old law that allows landlords to bill tenants for their water usage under some circumstances.

The current law lets landlords who have installed water-conserving fixtures in their rental units and have also installed water submeters that accurately measure water usage to the tenants’ apartments to charge tenants for water once they have certified to the local board of health (under the penalties of perjury) that they have complied with these requirements.

The amendment, filed by Representative Angelo Puppolo (D-Wilbraham), would appear to apply to situations in which the rental property has been sold to new owners since the time that the former owners certified that they were in compliance with the law’s requirements but the certification cannot be located.

One might think that an appropriate solution in these cases (which should be few in number since the local boards of health have records of the certifications) would be for the new owners to provide proof that their properties are equipped with water-conserving fixtures and water submeters.

But instead, the new owners need only file a new “form” to the effect that their rental units are in compliance with the law. The form, which need not even be submitted under the penalties of perjury, concerns almost by definition a topic about which the new owners are confessing their lack of direct knowledge — they weren’t involved.

The House tried to get the Senate to agree to this change during the conference committee negotiations on the main budget in June, but the Senate said no. If the change goes through this time, expect that suddenly lots of tenants will be obligated for water charges on top of their rent.