Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Future of Berlin

The economy of Berlin, NH has been collapsing for decades. Twenty years ago, it was a thriving place, with a population of 20,000, people who worked at mills and factories. Today, the population is 10,000. The factories are gone. Converse found it cheaper to manufacture sneakers in third world countries – like so many other American manufacturers. As business after business left town, Berlin put all of its economic eggs in the basket of the paper mill. Every year Berlin officials would make noise about Berlin as a tourist destination; blithely ignoring the reality that tourists weren’t coming to spend their dollars in a smelly mill town. Berlin was so accustomed to relying on the mill economy that elected officials couldn’t seem to develop a plan to diversify the economy, even as it became obvious that the mill wasn’t going to be around forever. The Berlin mill closed for the last time in May of this year.

A state prison was built in Berlin a few years ago, built to alleviate the crowding in other prisons around the state. In a state that funds very little in the way of social services, jails and prisons are increasingly the way in which we deal with addicts and the mentally ill. The prison was touted as being an economic boon to the area – though that hasn’t really been the case. The state prison has been neither boon nor bust – more neutral in effect than anything.

Ever eager to rely on a sole industry for survival, the elected officials in Berlin decided that a high security federal prison would be the answer to the problems of the city, and began to actually court the construction of such a facility. The people of Berlin voted against a federal prison. That voted was declared to be “non-binding” – and another vote was held, after an expensive PR campaign. This time, the vote was in favor of a prison. Governor Lynch, Senators Gregg and Sununu, and Congressman Bass have all worked to ensure that this prison would be built, as have local and state elected officials. When the mill closed, they all went into high gear – promoting the prison as the saving grace of the city.

Looking toward the future hasn’t been encouraged in the dialogue thus far. Turning Berlin into a prison town will stigmatize the area. Tourism will not flourish. As folks plan summer vacations they tend to think of visiting national parks, and recreation areas, not maximum security prisons with horrendous lighting, razor wire, and electric fences. The construction companies will import their own union labor, and procure materials through bid contracts – not local suppliers. Some low paying jobs might be available to local laborers. That leaves 250 mill workers still unemployed. The imported workers would bring their families – thereby inflating the cost of local housing, and adding children to the local schools – which impacts the already strained local budgets.

The federal prison is tax exempt. There will be no real estate taxes, no property taxes on the 450 acres. The city of Berlin will be absorbing the cost of improving the infrastructure needs – notably increasing the sewer capacity, which may require a new gravity system, and new pump station. Roads and bridges will need to be strengthened, all at taxpayer expense. The facility would generate approximately 2.7 tons of waste per day – about 81 tons per month going into the landfill, which will impact the life of the landfill considerably.

The favored site for the prison will destroy 242 acres of wetlands, and impact the wildlife significantly – which will impact the tourist economy of surrounding towns and areas. It will displace the Nansen Ski Touring Club. The prison will be at a higher altitude than the state prison, with lights on poles that will be 150 ft. high. The light pollution will interfere with the migratory habits of nocturnal wildlife and birds that live in the area. The combined light pollution of the two prisons will eradicate any view of the night sky, and be visible all over the north country.

But – the jobs! This is all about the jobs, right? The Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) is anticipating 350 jobs. Most would be filled by current FBOP employees. There would be 60 jobs for local folks in the three northern counties. That’s 20 jobs for Grafton, 20 for Carroll, and 20 for Coos County. That still leaves 250 mill workers unemployed. No one over the age of 37 is hired as a corrections officer, and corrections officers must have a bachelor’s degree. The new hires earn $25,000 a year, which may be problematic when the housing costs increase.

There will be increased demand on law enforcement, courts, health, and medical services. These costs will be borne by taxpayers. Maximum security prisons are filled with violent criminals. Some of them will be followed by their families. Some will be gang members, who will be followed by gang support systems. The prisoners will be released into the community, but won’t necessarily stay there. What goes up must come down. Gang and other criminal activity will be exported into the greater Conway area as well.

To summarize – a maximum strength federal prison may be built in Berlin/Milan. It won’t pay taxes. It will create a need for increased infrastructure, which will be at the cost of local taxpayers. The contractors will come from away, and drive up housing and education costs. There will be increased demand on law enforcement, courts, health, medical, and counseling services. Gangs will be present, as well as families of violent criminals. This is a pork project that will cost US taxpayers $179 million to build, even as the FBOP is closing other facilities. BUT – on the plus side, there will be 20 new jobs in Coos County. This is a quick fix that will only exacerbate the long term economic problems of the city of Berlin and surrounding towns.

The Informed Citizens for a Better North Country is a group that has formed in opposition to the prison. Check out their website at
No one is listening to these folks – their federal and state elected officials are ignoring them completely. Their state senator, in fact, is brokering the land deal. The FBOP comment period is open until September 15. This prison has potential to negatively impact the Mt. Washington Valley. Send the FBOP your thoughts on the subject at:

Federal Bureau of Prisons
320 First Street NW
Washington, DC 20534

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Jargon, Euphemism, and Acronym

Any English teacher, any book on writing or grammar tells us the same things. Write clearly. Be precise in the terms that we use. Strunk and White warn us to, “Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.” If they wee around to revise their handy book, The Elements of Style, surely they would also warn us against the overuse of jargon, euphemism, and acronym.

I work for a non-profit, and in the non-profit world, jargon and acronym are everywhere. At a recent conference, during a rather boring discussion, I began writing down some of the words and phrases that annoyed me the most. On that particular day, the term “skill-set” was being overused, as in “We should find someone for this job that has a strong skill-set.” This sounds pretentious, but pretentious crossed with silly. When the applicant “brings his skill-set to the table,” do we all get to play with it?
Another overused phrase is “at the end of the day,” which is being used as a sort of summation, or wrap up, the way we once used “on the same page.” We also use a lot of acronym in the non-profit world. It can be confusing for those of us who work there, let alone the uninitiated. We insiders have a tendency to think everyone in the room is “on the same page,” so we don’t always provide English to jargon or English to acronym interpretation.

The world of health care has been overrun by jargon. Once we had doctors, nurses, patients, and hospitals. Now we have shareholders, stakeholders, direct care providers, and managed care. Recently NHPR did a series on what they call “consumer driven health care,” a euphemism for new ways to be exploited by insurance companies. The term consumer is undoubtedly the one that offends me most. Once we were patients. Now, suddenly, we are consumers, and we’re supposed to be medical experts and be able to shop around for the best deal on surgical procedures. We hear from “experts” who believe that health care is so costly because people overuse it, and they overuse it because they don’t know how much procedures cost. If we knew how much it cost, we’d stop going out for recreational colonoscopies, apparently.
Much of the jargon around health care is designed to put the blame on the “consumer.” One of my friends recently received a letter from his insurance company, informing him that his doctor was leaving the area, so the company had assigned him a new primary care physician (what we used to call the family doctor). They had mistakenly assigned him a pediatrician, and the letter was to let him know all of the reasons why he couldn’t see a pediatrician, and came close to scolding him – as if he’d been the one who chose the pediatrician in the first place.
Consumers are supposed to have choices in the free market economy, yet it’s the health insurer who narrows the choices, and chooses doctors for us. Health care is not “consumer” driven, it is insurance company driven. The language used around health care seems deliberately intended to obfuscate, so that we don’t ask a lot of questions. It works. We don’t question our status as “consumers” on any level. Once we were patients, once we were citizens. Now we are consumers, and for all of the rhetoric around the concept, it seems we are expected to be passive consumers some of the time, at least when the insurance company is choosing with whom we will have a doctor-consumer relationship.

I work with a man who insists during our planning sessions that we use clear language. He used to drive me crazy at long staff meetings, insisting that we define what we mean when we use a term in a particular way. He won me over, however, and I’ve come to see the value in having clear definitions for the terms we use to describe the work we are doing. It’s a simple concept, if we all understand the terms we are less likely to make mistakes. Unclear language can cause and perpetuate mistakes.

Consider the “Global War on Terrorism,” which has been shortened to the “war on terror.” Webster’s defines terror as “intense, overwhelming fear.” No wonder this war isn’t going well. Let’s begin with the “Global War on Terrorism.” What does this mean? Where will this war be fought? How will we know when it is over? The term “War on Terror” is cleverly designed to prevent us from asking those very questions. The media uses “war on terror” without question – so why shouldn’t we? The obscuring of meaning enables the perpetuation of the war, because the terms aren’t clearly defined. If it were billed as the “Global War on Heathen Brown People,” we might have a different reaction to it.

It is an election year in NH, so we’ll all be tripping over candidates and incumbents everywhere we go. Talk to them – ask questions! As you do, remember to be very clear, and to ask your questions in such a way that calls for a direct answer. Politicians love to give long, rambling, filibuster answers. You do not have to accept this passively! You are not a consumer, you are a voter. You have the power to hire and fire our elected officials. They are not entitled to that seat in the NH legislature or Congress, no matter how long they’ve been there. They serve at our pleasure. The recent events in Connecticut should be a warning and a reminder to all incumbents. If you get a long, rambling answer, ask your question again, and insist on clarity. If we truly understood what some of our politicians were saying, they’d be unemployed.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” George Orwell