Sunday, October 18, 2009

Basic Research

There is a great op-ed piece today in the Boston Globe over something I have been writing about for a number of months. This piece written by Robert Weisman is titled Business Intelligence and can be found here:

The article states that we have little basic research in the US as compared to the past and that hampers our abilities to create new industries and new inventions or innovations. While our life science success in Massachusetts has been very good, it has masked this lack of basic research that we used to do in abundance. In a state that relies on innovation and creativity in our economy as much as Massachusetts does, it is critical that we return to our roots, tend our knitting, begin at home or any other worn but true cliché you can come up with.

The articles about Evergreen Solar in the Globe over the past few days detail the problem with picking winners and losers in our economy. I hope that Evergreen does well and becomes a leading company in Massachusetts, but we need to take precious state resources and put them in areas where all businesses can take advantage of them. We need to maximize our resources and let the market decide what is the next technology or invention. If I were king of the Forest, I would have used the stimulus money to launch a new economy rather than bail out the old. I would have called it “Retool America” and we would invest in job training, basic research along with the renewed emphasis on science and math in our schools. I would prepare industrial sites, manage our water and electric systems better and new equipment for our voke-tech schools.

A few years ago, I was in Mexico visiting companies along with other state officials including then Gov. Mike Huckabee from Arkansas. One of our fellow travelers told the companies in Mexico that they believe that Mexico took our jobs in the US after NAFTA was enacted. The companies replied that this wasn’t true and went on to defend their roles. However, they then bemoaned the fact that they were losing jobs and market to companies in China! Last year, I was in China in October to speak at a large tech conference. In meetings with Chinese officials, they told me they were losing jobs to Vietnam and Thailand because labor was cheaper. My point is this: We are never going to be the cheapest labor in the US. However, we can use our strengths in innovation and education to create new good paying jobs in new areas. We need to stay one step ahead of the competition on this and that means basic research to create new businesses.

Shakespeare and Company

There has been a lot written on Shakespeare and Company over the last few weeks. My role in this was simple. I have a relationship with someone at their bank and a mutual friend told me that Shakespeare may have some troubles that needed attention. I talked with Tina Packer from Shakespeare and Company and talked with Rep. Smitty Pignatelli who represents that district. I think it is important to be able t find a way to address ways to assist our cultural facilities and felt that, if we can help Shakespeare and Company, we could help all the other facilities in similar straits. Part of this is recognizing these facilities as parts, important parts of our business community. If a widget factory was having trouble and employed several hundred people, there would be several state agencies that would be rushing to help. We need to apply the same standards to cultural, tourism, agricultural, and other businesses that are extremely important for our economic health.

Having read the Boston Globe editorial this morning concerning Shakespeare and Company, I am of two minds. First, I think it is a tribute to the importance and the breadth of work from Shakespeare and Company that the Globe bothered to editorialize. They clearly understand that there are many many activities of the Company that transcend merely putting on performances. So it is heartening that the Globe gets it and opines that it is essential that Shakespeare and Company right their ship and restore their fiscal health.

On the other hand, almost every cultural facility relies heavily on their ability to fund raise private funds. When donors lose confidence in the future of a facility, it always hampers their fund raising ability. The Globe editorial was harsh, but honest and straightforward. Unfortunately, the word bankruptcy was mentioned in a local story and that hasn’t helped. A note to Alan Chartock: despite a disclaimer that he wants the company to survive, you can’t use that to excuse the rest of the column. It’s like the old comedian who said something to the effect of saying to someone” Gosh you gained weight and look awful.” And then saying, “I mean that in a good way.” You can’t have it both ways and your info is bad, even if you playfully use your dog as a foil.

There is a big lesson to be learned in the trials and tribulations over Shakespeare and Company’s troubles. A few cultural facilities have bemoaned the fact that people were looking to Shakespeare and Company as opposed to their needs. A few have suggested that we shouldn’t help them because they didn’t manage their finances as well as some others. I would suggest that they read the parable the Prodigal Son. We help where we can and no one suggested that we help one at the expense of another. I didn’t hear Shakespeare and Company complain when other received earmarks in the budget or received money from the Cultural Facilities fund. Rather than trying to stop assistance to one facility in a time of need, perhaps the parties in question should have been on the phone calling to find out how they can help each other for mutual benefit.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Stone Soup

When I was very young (yes, yes, a long, long time ago), I loved the Captain Kangaroo Show. Bob Keeshan was the Captain, and along with Mr. Greenjeans would entertain us every morning. I didn’t realize until many years later that this show was much more than Mr. Moose getting the Captain to say the word that would make lots of ping pong balls drop. It was also educational.

Jim Carville once said that all life you needed to know about life you can learn from watching The Andy Griffith Show. That’s how I feel about Captain Kangaroo. Life lessons were learned there long before Sesame Street. Where am I going with this? Well, as I watch our reaction to the recession, I am reminded of the story that the Captain used to read every now and then called “Stone Soup”.

The story goes something like this. Three soldiers were on their way home from a war when they happened into a small village of suspicious and war weary inhabitants. They stopped and asked for food. The villagers replied that there was no food to be had. One of the soldiers suggested that they make stone soup and feed the entire town. They got a big pot, filled it with water and placed three large stones in the bottom. They proceeded to boil this, stirring it and tasting it every now and then. The townsfolk were very curious. How could you make soup from stones? The soldiers said it would be delicious and would serve the entire town. As they went along, one soldier opined that it was good, but could be great if there were only a few carrots. One of the townsfolk said that he may be able to find a few carrots. So that went in. Over the course of cooking the soup, the townsfolk responded like this with potatoes, tomatoes, and much more until there were all sorts of seasonings, vegetables, and much more in the soup. The soldiers fed the town, ate, and went on their way. As they left the town marveled at how they made soup from stones!!

I haven’t seen nor heard that story since the days of the Captain (Kangaroo, not Morgan), but think of it often in my job. It should be required reading for all elected officials.

The federal government’s use of stimulus funds is much like the stones. It requires people to feel it works and then they begin to supply the other ingredients. Consumers spend on things like cars. Businesses invest in manpower or equipment upgrades. Each of these borrows from financial institutions as people invest in themselves and the economy. Government doesn’t have enough spending power by themselves, but must inspire and lead as we rebuild our economy. Whether that causes people to start to invest depends on whether you have sold them on the idea of stone soup, and of course, whether they have a few carrots or potatoes left.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Local News

For those who have said I don’t post enough about district concerns, it isn’t because we are not working on district issues. This week was a very good one in spite of the economy. The biggest news was that the Governor released his five year capital spending plan and MCLA’s science building is in the plan. Despite having to cut over $1.1 billion from the original plan, the $50+ million science building has made the cut and we will release $500,000 this year to begin the design phase. This is good news. It brings our science facilities into the 21st century, consolidates the classes, and stabilizes this area of curriculum. Besides that, it allows us to train our future workforce for the types of jobs that we need. That can be truly transformative for our economic efforts.

This week also saw the release in committee of the creative index bill for our classrooms. I believe that this will help to continue the innovation and creativity that is the hallmark of the Massachusetts’s economy. In this area, coupled with the Berkshire compact, the lap top initiative, and other local programs, gives us an ability to compete with other parts of the state to improve our economy and compete or anywhere else.

We also had a hearing on renaming the local skating rink. This bill was released from committee and we should see action on it very soon. It is important that we continue to remember the Viet Nam Veterans who the rink is names after, but giving it the name also of Peter Foote will personalize the sacrifice that each one who served in Viet Nam made and that will amplify the remembrance of that sacrifice.

Finally, we will be delivering a check to the city of North Adams this week on the improved corridors to the city. This transportation money will improve the entry corridors to the city. This helps us in so many ways from looking nicer, better services for constituents, to improving our ability to attract businesses.

Economic Update

Economists in Massachusetts have indicated that we are going to have a very slow recovery from the recession. Last month’s revenues, despite higher sales and other taxes, were off by $243 million and it is projected by the Department of Revenue that we have to reduce projections by $600 million for the next year.

This does not bode well for the Commonwealth, obviously. We are spending down our federal stimulus money and have about $600 million left in the stabilization fund. Next year’s budget is going to have to cut more spending at a time when many services have already been severely cut back.

If you are one of the two or three people who read this blog on a regular basis, you know that I have been saying that consumer spending is not rebounding and that job loss will continue to impact our recovery. At this recent hearing, many of the economists who spoke mentioned both of these factors. Let me once again state that in this time of fiscal downturn, we need to invest money into our efforts to create jobs in Massachusetts. While some are saying we have too many economic development agencies in the state, I believe we need to take advantage of all of the programs that have worked in the past to try to prepare ourselves as we come out of this economic crisis. The only way to restore fiscal health is the creation of jobs and that means working with the employers of the state to find ways to remove barriers on job creation. More on this in future posts.

Pandemic Bill in Massachusetts

This week was a mixed bag of issues at the State House. On the larger issues, we passed a pandemic bill in the House that closes gaps in our chain of command and should make it easier to react to a health emergency, whether it is an illness outbreak or a terrorist biological attack. We did so while avoiding the controversial issues that have plagued (pun intended) this bill since it was introduced.

The House bill struck out the Senate version sections that mandated vaccination, that allowed entry into people houses, and that took away the right to public assembly. While these were probably well intentioned by the authors, they traded away too many freedoms in exchange for control. This bill has been around for eight years, and we needed to get a bill passed.

What does this bill do? It gives local boards of health a role in pandemic preparations for the first time. It codifies a lot of regulation so that everyone is aware of the actions that could be taken. It codifies an appeal process for individuals for the first time. It limits the Governor’s power to suspend rules and call for a public health emergency to ninety days. It gives people civil liability protection if they volunteer to assist in a public health emergency. And it sets out rules for the Department of public Health in how they react and what they can do in case of emergency.

This is important. A few weeks after September 11, I was part of a group of Legislators that were chosen from the large municipality and state organizations to meet with Homeland Security in order to detail plans in case of further attack. It became apparent that we needed better inter and intra state cooperation in order to react to threats, whether they were natural or “man made”. For example, if a terrorist biological weapon were to be released in New York City, what do we do if parents start arriving at Williams College in the Berkshires to pick up their kids? If the Massachusetts Turnpike finds a pathogen in a rest stop, who do we contact to coordinate efforts on containment? Or if the Swine flu becomes an epidemic, how do we contain the illness and cover essential services? We need plans to react to these and we need to coordinate our efforts in a clear manner. This bill sets us on that path to planning.