Taking steps to repair Bay State’s role in Alaska Native history

Turning to indigenous peoples news relating to my hometown, Newton MA, this troubling story popped up on my radar last week…

July 1878: Skidegate Indian Village of the Haida tribe. Skidegate Inlet, British Columbia, Canada. (Library and Archives Canada)

July 1878: Skidegate Indian Village of the Haida tribe. Skidegate Inlet, British Columbia, Canada. (Library and Archives Canada)

Alaska Dispatch News – “Massachusetts college cancels sale of Alaska Native art”:

A Massachusetts theology college has abandoned plans to sell off art from 52 Native tribes, including Tlingit and Haida items, as the federal government investigates.

The Andover Newton Theological School could face penalties for quietly planning the sale of 80 Native art pieces this summer, possibly violating a federal law that would require some items to be returned to the tribes, reported KTOO-FM [Juneau AK].

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., has displayed the collection since the 1940s and alerted hundreds of tribal leaders to Andover Newton’s plans.
[…]
Andover Newton president Martin Copenhaver didn’t comment but forwarded KTOO-FM a letter that said the school “will proceed to repatriate artifacts if feasible and appropriate ways can be found to do so.”

 
The collection of Alaska Natives objects included many items of spiritual significance under traditional religions of the Alaska and Pacific Northwest coasts, which Christian missionaries seized in their efforts to force the Native populations of the Alaskan Panhandle and coastal British Columbia to convert (or just stay in line under White authority). One item was a decorated halibut hook, emblematic of the Native coastal fishing cultures.

The school now faces a formal investigation by the Federal government’s Interior Department, under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 and could potentially face fines of close to $20,000 for violations from the attempted sale.

Massachusetts has long had complicated and destructive ties with Alaska Native communities because of the New Bedford-based global whaling industry, which often hunted whales industrially in Alaska’s Pacific and Arctic waters traditionally harvested (at a much lower impact) by Alaska Natives. Christian missionaries from the Bay State often followed their economic counterparts into other parts of the world.

While I wish Andover Newton had been more diligent and thoughtful, I’m glad the Peabody Essex Museum did its part to help stop this illegal sale and encourage the restoration of Alaska Native artifacts to the opposite coast, where they rightfully belong. The Museum has an excellent collection (well beyond these items) of Native American Art, past and present, from many different Native cultures of North America.

In 5th grade at Newton’s Angier School, after I had been lucky enough to be assigned the Haida peoples of the Pacific Northwest for a research project on Native heritage, I got to go on a field trip to the Peabody Essex Museum and see some distinctive Haida and Tlingit art in person — an experience that has stuck with me for all these years. The collection will remain strong and vibrant even after the Andover Newton items stolen from Alaska’s and British Columbia’s Tlingit and Haida people by missionaries are repatriated.

This is an important symbolic step in repairing the hurt and pain that some of our state’s citizens caused many years ago in that part of the world.

Revisiting the Mayflower Compact, 395 years later

Cape Cod and Plymouth (NASA Satellite image, April 1997)

Cape Cod and Plymouth (NASA Satellite image, April 1997)

In November 1620, the Mayflower was bound for Virginia but found itself diverted by storms to what is now Massachusetts. The leadership on board made a decision to establish a colony there instead of attempting to continue to the Mid-Atlantic. They also made a hasty decision to draw up their own emergency charter for a new, separate colony. While this may have been a bid to retain control over a ship full of passengers who weren’t all part of the religious mission or colonial vision of the elites leading the mission, the result was the Mayflower Compact. The lost original document likely occupied a single page in large handwriting. Yet in that limited space, it explained the premise and goal for any future governmental structures or laws in the colony: a just and equal self-governance dedicated to the common good.

We also know approximately what it said. Here is an excerpt from the core of The Mayflower Compact:

“Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”

 

While that’s pretty easy to read for an early 17th century charter, it also certainly is still a bit confusingly written and “old-timey.” Here is my attempt at a somewhat cleaned up and streamlined paraphrasing of the key objectives that could also be applied in a more general context:

Those present — solemnly and mutually, in the presence of one another — covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation. [For this purpose, we pledge to] enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices as shall be thought most convenient for the general good, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

 
This, in essence, means that government is a mutual compact between a collective of people. They promise each other that this government will be dedicated to establishing order in and ensuring the survival of society. To achieve this, the government must be based on laws, ordinances, acts, and structures which apply equally and justly to everyone in the society and which promote the “general good.” And to make it all work, everyone promises to submit to this rule of law and follow the order established by this collective government, as far as was reasonable to expect. (The words “all due” before “submission and obedience” — in my opinion — qualify that it is not requiring unlimited obedience without challenge to unjust authority.)

At the time, of course, they meant this self-government really to apply to wealthy and free men aboard the ship. But as you can see, they never actually specified that in the text. Thus, these become universalizable principles for participatory collective self-governance in a free, fair, and just society for the promotion of the common good and common self-preservation.

The Compact is so simple, brief, and non-specific that its core elements — with very few points removed — can apply to any society that wishes to adopt its principles.

It is a bold and noble compact with one another that we the people would do well to renew, as we approach its 400th anniversary in 2020.

The Russian Revolution & the 1918 Massachusetts Convention

I’ve been reading very heavily from the “Debates in the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention 1917-1918” (particularly Volumes III and IV) — published by Wright and Potter Printing Company (the state printers) in 1920 and freely available today from Google Books — and it’s pretty fascinating for both its detailed discussions of political theory and practice and its time-capsule-like preservation of the tumultuous historical time period in which the convention occurred.

The convention was convened in early 1917, before the U.S. entered World War I and as Russia was beginning to collapse. By the time it ended in mid-1918, the U.S. intervention was in full swing — as was the Bolshevik October Revolution and the Russian Civil War. The delegates in the heat of debates toward the end of the convention could not help but be swept along by the momentous history unfolding around the world.

While there are many historical points I hope to explore more, the convention’s discussions of the Russian Revolution interested me for a first post. Just a few selections are included below.

One important Somerville delegate thought ballot initiatives were as bad as the Russian Revolution:

Mr. Underhill (Somerville): I may be unduly alarmed. The initiative and referendum are not in operation in Massachusetts as yet, and possibly the recent publicity given to the chief backer of the initiative and referendum, Mr. Hearst, and his newspapers may cause the people of Massachusetts to pause and consider whether anything advocated by that gentleman or his newspapers is for the best interest of the community, and it will be defeated. But, sir, if it should be adopted, I should like to remind you that since the Convention passed the initiative and referendum, we have had an illustration of the will and rule of the majority, in Russia. We have had an example of popular government without restraint and without restrictions, which could occur in Massachusetts as well as in Russia. And, sir, it seems to me that if we are going to open the doors wide, we are going to have every demagogue from Cape Cod to the Berkshire Hills telling the people “All you have got to do now is to vote for a homestead and the Government the State or the municipality is going to give it to you.”

 
In reality, contrary to Delegate Underhill’s belief at the time, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia proved to be a coup by a small minority faction, rather than an expression of majority will. He made repeat appearances in the convention debates labeling every left-leaning constitutional proposal a Bolshevik plot, including the idea of having state-subsidized housing as a right for every citizen. Another point of contention in the debates was when Underhill implied that the Russian immigrant population in Brockton at the time was a Bolshevik sleeper cell.

Ironically, a Boston delegate argued that ballot initiatives might actually help conservatively counteract the (what he believed to be) undue militant leftist influence upon state legislators, who he felt would actually be easier to pressure behind closed doors than the whole electorate:

Mr. Herbert A. Kenney (Boston): What do we find in this situation? President Wilson has called the initiative and referendum “a gun behind the door.” My distinguished friend from Brookline (Mr. Walker) spoke very forcibly on those lines. Suppose, for instance, that the House and the Senate say that the minimum wage shall be, – as they do in Russia under the Bolsheviki, – say, $100 a week. Now the Legislature must vote for that; why? Because if one single member of the Legislature votes against that the labor element will center its fire on that man. They might not get him in one year but they can get him in two years or three years or perhaps ten years. He is a marked man. The same way with the Senate.

 
In a discussion of the minimum wage (and whether to guarantee it under the Constitution), one of the more leftist delegates argued that it was a necessity to avoid a revolution or takeover by industrial labor — and described his own evolving viewpoints on the future of labor politics in the U.S. over the momentous course of 1917 and early 1918: Read more

The origin story of minimum wage laws, part 1

Part 1: New Zealand, Australia, Massachusetts, the New Deal, and China: How governments took an active role initially, and how they balance economic variability now. || This original research was produced for The Globalist Research Center and Arsenal For Democracy.

More than 150 countries have set minimum wages by law, whether nationwide or by sector. Other countries have no legal minimum, or governments play a different role in wage setting processes.

Where in the world did government-set minimum wages originate?

In 1894, over 120 years ago, New Zealand became home to the first national law creating a government role for setting a minimum wage floor – although this may not have been the initial intention.

The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act established an arbitration court made up of both workers and employers. It was intended to resolve various industrial-labor relations disputes in a binding manner. The goal was to avoid all labor strikes.

The court was empowered to set wages for entire classifications of workers as part of these resolutions. It did not take long for this to evolve into a patchwork of rulings that effectively covered all workers.

Today, New Zealand’s hourly minimum wage is about equivalent in purchasing power parity (PPP-adjusted) terms to US$9.40.

Which country first adopted a living wage?

In the 1890s, neighboring Australia was still a loose collection of self-governing British colonies, rather than one country. One colony, Victoria, was inspired by New Zealand to adopt a similar board with wage-setting powers. This occurred shortly before the Australian colonies federated together in 1901 to become one country.

In 1907, Australia pioneered what is now known as a “living” wage when the country’s new national arbitration court issued a ruling in favor of a nationwide minimum wage.

That court specified that it had to be high enough to fund a worker’s “cost of living as a civilised being.” While the ruling soon ran into legal trouble from the federation’s Supreme Court, it remained a crucial precedent in future labor cases.

To this day, Australia has a generous minimum wage. The current rate is about equal to US$11.20 in PPP-adjusted terms. This represents about 55% of median pay. However, New Zealand’s minimum wage is actually proportionally higher, at 60% of median pay.

N.B. Purchasing-power currency conversions are from 2012 local currency to 2012 international dollars rounded from UN data.

Which U.S. state had the first minimum wage?

In the United States, a minimum wage mechanism was first introduced in 1912 at the state level — but specifically for female workers (and some child laborers) — in Massachusetts.

The state passed a law to create a “Minimum Wage Commission” empowered to research women’s labor conditions and pay rates, and then to set living wages by decree. For any occupation, the Commission could set up a “wage board” comprising representatives of female workers (or child workers), employers, and the public to recommend fair pay levels.

The Commission’s decreed wage had to “supply the necessary cost of living and to maintain the worker in health.”

1912, the year Massachusetts passed the law creating the commission, was part of a period of major reforms in the United States, which had become the world’s largest economy.

These changes gave government a more active legal role in economic policy. In 1913, the country adopted the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. constitution, which made possible a federal progressive income tax. Also in 1913, the Federal Reserve System was created.

More than a dozen U.S. states followed Massachusetts within less than a decade. However, they had to contend with frequent battles before the U.S. Supreme Court on the constitutionality of government-set minimums. Read more

MA legislature blocks Gov. Baker’s painful education cuts

massachusetts-statehouse

Last week the State Senate voted to restore much of the education funding to the Massachusetts State budget, including: $5.25 million to the University of Massachusetts, $217,000 for Quinsiggamond Community College, and, perhaps most importantly, $17.6 million in kindergarten grants. The House followed along the same lines.

By July 30, lawmakers had restored 60% of Governor Baker’s $162 million budget cuts (via line-item veto) to the $38.1 billion Massachusetts budget originally sent to his desk. As to be expected in Massachusetts, a state consistently ranked as having one of the country’s best public education systems, it was the cuts to education that drew the most attention and ire.

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg (D) spoke strongly about the need to keep funding for education:

“If we’re serious about closing the income inequality gap, expanding educational opportunities for working families must be an important priority. By overriding the governor’s ill-advised education vetoes, we’re helping middle-class kids get the tools they will need to prosper in a demanding and competitive economy.”

 
Governor Baker, who ran and won his seat as Governor as a moderate Republican in a deeply blue state, has been evasive when it comes to his true opinion of early childhood education. While running for governor, he insisted:

“We need to make sure there’s a runway here between pre-k into strong elementary and middle school and high school education.”

 
However, as a candidate, he refused to pledge to shrink the waiting list of 17,000 low-income students hoping to get a spot in a subsidized pre-kindergarten program.

As governor, Baker has frequently pointed to the cost of pre-Kindergarten programs, but vetoed a program to establish best practices for cost-control in pre-K programs. Baker also frequently sites a Brookings Institute study, which notes the disappearance of benefits of a pre-K program by the third grade if students are in under-preforming schools. This seems like a thin defense for cutting pre-K programs, but an important reason to figure out how to improve pre-K programs.

Governor Baker points out that the $17.6 million of kindergarten grants he planned to cut was part of a program originally intended to help school districts establish full-day kindergartens and with 90% of MA towns now providing full-day kindergarten, the grants no longer fulfill their original purpose. Many school leaders say their kindergarten programs rely on this funding and if it is to disappear, it should do so gradually, not all at once, leaving school districts in the lurch.

The cut of these kindergarten grants was overridden unanimously in both the House by a vote of 155-0 and the Senate by a vote of 38-0.

The truth is that Baker governs a state where 73% of residents support early childhood education and 53% would support raising taxes to support it. With polls like this one, it is easy to see that Baker’s values may not match up with the state he is governing. It is hard to believe that short-sighted budget cuts like this one will not come back to haunt him.

Patriots’ Day 240

Today, in Massachusetts it’s Patriots’ Day, a holiday on which this year we mark 240 years since the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 — depicted with some artistic license in the Capitol frieze currently featured at the top of this website.

For those of you not fortunate enough to be from Massachusetts, that was the day that the great and democratic people of this state decided to liberate the rest of the dithering colonies from Great Britain, over a year before everyone else could be bothered to sign the Declaration of Independence.

You’re all welcome.

Now here’s a photo I took last 4th-of-July Weekend of a cow next to Battle Road in Lexington. This cow is wholly unimpressed by your lack of Massachusetts-centric patriotism today.

Credit: Bill Humphrey for Arsenal For Democracy

Photo Credit: Bill Humphrey for Arsenal For Democracy

Conservatives can hate Massachusetts all they want, but that doesn’t change the fact that we shot first at the monarchy.

As a native, I can assure the rest of the country that we definitely haven’t forgotten about any of the early events leading to the Revolution. Massachusetts took a lot of the brunt of the British response before and during the American Revolution. Things like the Third Amendment are mostly about how we really don’t want British troops living for free in our houses in Boston. The American Revolution is a big part of Massachusetts history classes from grade school through high school, and the historical sites are literally all around us.

Contrary to the snide remarks of conservatives in many other states, I think we Bay Staters have a pretty solid handle on what the American Revolution was about and what unreasonable government oppression looks like. Nevertheless, Massachusetts folks by and large seem pretty happy with the progressive agenda they’ve been voting their representation into office to enact. If it were tyranny — or even mildly inconvenient, as in the case of tea taxes passed without legislative representation — we would have noticed by now.

Social Impact? Deval Patrick joins Romney’s old firm

Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick seems to have decisively ended speculation he had national aspirations in the Democratic Party after announcing he will be going to work for the job-slashing firm Mitt Romney founded to help rich people park their money in “good causes”:

Deval Patrick is joining the Boston investment giant Bain Capital, where the former governor will start a new line of business, directing investments in companies that produce profits but also have a positive impact on social problems. […] Patrick will help give Bain its first foothold in the growing field of “social impact” investing, tackling social problems such as hunger and climate change with for-profit investments.
[…]
During the 2012 presidential campaign, when stumping for Barack Obama against Romney, Patrick declined to join Democrats who vilified Bain and Romney’s work for the firm. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Patrick called Bain “a perfectly fine company.”
[…]
For Bain Capital, the Patrick hiring goes beyond the common practice of giving a politician a desk and a rainmaker’s role between elections. It is a way for a firm known for hard-core business deals to provide clients such as pension funds and wealthy individuals with a social outlet for their money.

 

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick served from 2007 to 2015. (Photo by Scott LaPierre)

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick served from 2007 to 2015. (Photo by Scott LaPierre)

This role sounds innocuous, or even positive, and perhaps it will be. But Bain in particular has a fairly nasty reputation, and the general field of “social impact investing” can be fairly shady. Instead of just using money to fix long-term problems, everything becomes a shorter-term profit-seeking investment. Many of these private sector investments aim to replace government functions (or even profit off government) and treat all the problems in profit/loss terms. Whereas a one-way donor or a government program is ostensibly acting in the public interest, all social impact investments are made in the primary interest of the shareholders or company stake-owners. Some of the money that could be re-invested into getting an even bigger impact is instead needlessly siphoned out to create a profit margin.

Moreover, I am specifically concerned because of the recent, very sketchy “social impact” investments of Goldman Sachs in the Massachusetts correctional system, when Gov. Deval Patrick was still in office, which could foreshadow the type of investments he would introduce into the Bain portfolios. Such investments are far more concrete (and financially less abstract or long-term) than amorphous goals like “hunger” and “climate change.” I wrote about them in May 2014:

Recently, in some states, Goldman Sachs has been issuing “social impact bonds,” a new financial instrument that purports to help cure social ills with Wall Street’s “help.”

In this case, they’re loaning $9 million to the state of Massachusetts to help support a Boston organization that tries to help young offenders from bouncing back into prison. (Reducing young recidivism is a good social goal, obviously, and would have a ripple effect on crime prevention.)

If the effort reduces the number of days past inmate spend back in prison — which would save the state money — the savings would go back to Goldman Sachs, up to a million dollars. If the effort really pays off (above and beyond the bond repayment terms), then the state would get to keep the money. Of course, if the effort doesn’t hit the minimum targets needed to generate enough savings, Goldman Sachs would still get interest payments on the bond, but would lose the principal loan ($9 million or however much of it couldn’t be repaid due to insufficient savings).

As private investments in the prison industry go, it’s not the worst thing in the world. At least the profit incentive is toward rehabilitation rather than toward further imprisonment in the way privatized prisons are. But the question is why is it even necessary to involve the private sector middleman in the first place?

The state could pay for the upfront cost of the program through tax revenues (if it were willing to raise taxes, of course), instead of taking a loan, it would keep all the money and not end up paying Wall Street no matter how things turn out. That money could be reinvested into expanding the successful efforts even more, thus benefiting all taxpayers.

In my opinion, the job of corrections and the rehabilitation of young offenders is part of the role of government. The private sector is free to help, but it should be an add-on to the process, not a redundant profit diversion mechanism in the middle.

 
Another problem is the issue of emphasizing data-driven decision-making in government. The profit motive strengthens this trend much faster, even though government is often meant to be performing roles that could not be profitably well executed by the private sector and remain profitable. The data-driven policymaking favored by such approaches presents a false objectivity in place of really subjective questions: Read more