Whitcomb: They’re Leaving but It’s Still Crowded; NEPOOL; End of Zoning? Crowded Block

Sunday, December 30, 2018


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Robert Whitcomb, columnist


and the afternoon sunlight

lasted that little bit longer,

like an unexpected, perfect Christmas present’’


-- From “January Sunlight,’’ by Michael Shepherd


“For eleven months and maybe about twenty days each year, we concentrate upon the shortcomings of others, but for a few days at the turn of the New Year, we look at our own. It is a good habit.’’


-- The late Arthur Hays Sulzberger, New York Times publisher from 1935 to 1961


I hope that most readers have enjoyed the quiet, mellow days between Christmas and New Year’s. In our house, we use some of the time to send out New Year’s cards as a semi- apology to friends and relatives for failing to send them Christmas cards in a timely fashion.  You can respectfully send out New Year’s cards for a couple of weeks into the new year. What a convenience!




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For some reason, I’ve been remembering past New Year’s holidays more than usual this year.


One is Jan. 1, 1961, when my parents and a couple of my siblings were staying in an old inn, or glorified bed and breakfast, in Jackson, N.H., then, as now, a ski town. As we sat in the dining room having a breakfast of blueberry pancakes and enough bacon to instigate acute myocardial infarction, the co-owner (with his wife) of the establishment, a retired Episcopal priest, came bounding in, wishing everyone a “Joyous Feast of the Circumcision!’’ Later that day, I saw him speeding down the slopes of Black Mountain with great skill, despite his having called himself a “lousy intermediate’’ and his having consumed several martinis with his guests the night before.


Skiing then was a lot cheaper – fancy equipment such as snow-making machines and high-speed chairlifts, and huge personal-injury lawsuit settlements and soaring insurance premiums, not yet having made the sport so expensive. And there were still lots of tiny commercial ski hills (many owned by local dairy farmers) with rope tows powered by truck engines spewing out very dirty exhaust. Indeed, whenever I smell heavy exhaust, I think of those ski hills, especially in “spring skiing’’ on corn snow in March. Richly evocative.


Whitcomb appears with GoLocalProv News Editor Kate Nagle.


Always Leaving the Northeast

Every once and while a story comes out about people leaving the Northeast, especially to move south, for jobs, lower taxes, cheaper housing, less winter and so on.  These stories have been a staple of journalism since the invention of air-conditioning, which made manufacturing and its jobs more attractive in the South.  And yet the Northeast remains the richest part of the country. That’s because it has the academic institutions, dense centers of skilled workers and several “world cities’ that are so closely associated with wealth creation and preservation.  And it’s on the coast.


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The large number of affluent people in the Northeast helps explain why property prices and taxes are so high here: They can bid up prices.


As for Northeast’s weather: Yes, winter in the region can be tedious, but most of the year is fairly mild and the region rarely suffers the floods and droughts so frequent in much of the rest of the country. And we have plenty of fresh water. It’s interesting, by the way, that the happiest place in the world appears to be cold, dark Scandinavia, at least in part because of its public services. (Still, I think I’ll nip down to Florida for a week soon to break up the winter.…)


And there’s what should be an obvious reason why population growth in the Northeast is so slow – the region has long been densely populated and urbanized; it’s much further along in development than most of the Sunbelt. Consider that the seven most densely populated states are, in order of density: New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware and New York (even with the vast Adirondack wilderness). They aren’t going to empty out as people move to Florida and Texas subdivisions.


The most serious demographic challenge facing the Northeast is its aging population. This is an especially serious problem for Rhode Island, exacerbated by its deeply entrenched cynicism and parochialism; someone once called it an “urban backwater.’’ It needs a higher percentage of younger adults to start and grow businesses and to help pay the soaring social costs of the elderly. More on that to come in future columns.


I’m sure that cheaper land and lower taxes (except for regressive sales taxes, which tend to be highest in the Sunbelt) will continue to draw many from the Northeast for some years to come. But I’m just as sure that the Northeast will remain the richest part of the country. And many of those who stay will appreciate its slow population growth, which means less sprawling development, and a healthier natural environment, than in much of the country. And eventually, growing populations and other demographic change will lead to political pressures for more and better public services, more controls on land development and higher taxes in the Sunbelt –  even as the effects of global warming make them more problematic.


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RI has among the highest costs in U.S.

NEPOOL and High Utility Costs

Rhode Island, reports GoLocalProv, has the third-highest overall utility costs in America. That’s not very surprising since it still depends on expensive, end-of-the-pipeline natural gas to generate much of its electricity and provide fuel for heat and cooking in many buildings. It also has very expensive, if fast and generally reliable, Internet service.


But there’s hope: Technology is gradually bringing down the cost of locally produced energy such as solar and wind, and there will probably be more competition entering the Internet sector because of technological advances and corporate shuffles.


To read the GoLocal piece, please hit this link:


One reason that electricity prices are so high in New England may be the New England Power Pool (“NEPOOL”). This trade group is dominated by big utilities and power-plant owners, reports New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR), and its meetings aren’t open to the public.


Independent Service Operator of New England (ISO), created by the Feds to keep the region’s power on, is charged with overseeing the region’s grid. NEPOOL makes recommendations to ISO on rates and on whether and where new transmission lines should be strung, NHNPR reports.  But NEPOOL can submit its own regulatory ideas to the government, which may contradict those of ISO.


Don Reis, New Hampshire’s utility ratepayer advocate, told NHPR: NEPOOL is “more powerful than the other stakeholder advisory boards at other regional transmission organizations around the country.’’


We need to know how much of New England’s high electric rates can be explained by the structure and power of NEPOOL.


To read the NHPR story, please hit this link:


The creation of ISO and NEPOOL can be traced back to federal regulators’ efforts to prevent a repeat of the huge blackout that darkened most of the Northeast on Nov. 9 and 10, 1965.


I remember it fondly, but then I wasn’t stuck in an elevator. I was in a classroom in a girls’ school in Waterbury, Conn., for a rather vague course called “Philosophy of Religion.’’ The class was one of the very few co-ed classes open for students at my boys boarding school, which was in another town about eight miles away.


At about 5:20 that dark day, the room went pitch dark and someone muttered: “The wrath of God!’’ Weirdly, a now-long-dead classmate (and terrific musician) called Al d’Ossche, from New Orleans, found a candle in the room and lit it using a cigarette lighter.


Chuckling nervously, the spinsterish teacher soon dismissed us, and we headed out the door to find the grumpy driver and his van that would take us back to our school. With most everything dark except for car headlights, we had an eerie, exciting trip up and down the hills. When we got to the school we carefully walked up to second-floor apartment of Mr. Dunlop (an English teacher) and his eventual ex-wife, off the dorm corridor where most of the seniors lived. Thank God there were no electric door locks at the school then.


There were a couple of flashlights and hurricane lamps lit, along with the glow of cigarettes; seniors were allowed to smoke in teachers’ apartments if the teachers (aka “masters’’ – sounds a little S&M) permitted. And in the background you’d hear on a transistor radio: “77 WABC – home of the All Americans!’’ from New York. The WABC DJs and news folks reveled in describing the drama of Manhattan gone dark.


It was a delightful evening, in part because it was impossible to do any “homework.’’ It was one of those gleeful, lovely inconveniences, like, for some, southern New England’s Great Blizzard of ’78 – that is gleeful, for a day or two….


The End of Zoning

Please read Brian Bishop’s (who comes from a real-estate business family) controversial, very perceptive and entertaining piece about residential zoning on Providence’s East side, with resonance for most communities in America.

To read “The End of Zoning,’’ please hit this link:




Seattle has enacted a trendy ordinance that bars landlords from checking into potential renters’ criminal past. What a violation of free speech, property rights, safety and common sense!

The law is being challenged in court. This sounds like something out of Philip K. Howard’s book The Death of Common Sense.  An unintended effect of the measure would be for landlords to simply avoid renting to African-Americans and perhaps some other minorities at all by, among things, not publicly listing some vacant properties.


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Syrian Refugees

Be Careful How You Leave

As I’ve noted, America can’t run the Mideast, although our national security, including economic, interests demand that we maintain influence there.  But Trump’s announcement  -- without consulting our allies! -- that he’ll precipitously pull out all U.S. troops from Syria and perhaps most from Afghanistan is not the way to go.  It betrays those who have been bravely fighting with us, especially the Kurds, in Iraq, and the anti-Taliban Afghan government. Betrayals like those will make it all that more difficult to keep and find allies when we need them. The U.S. is seen more and more as an unreliable partner.

But, again, no final U.S. military “victory’’ seems possible in the Mideast and the human and financial cost to try to achieve it has been proven to not be worth it. So let’s gradually, and in close cooperation with our allies, draw down the regular troops while boosting intelligence and special operations to block, or retaliate against, terror operations run from the region. And sorry, we’ll have to more openly talk with the likes of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Syrian mass-murderer/Putin pal Basher Assad in Syria. This will require great and patient diplomatic expertise, but unfortunately, Trump has also done great damage to America’s diplomatic corps, driving out many of the best people.


Our focus must be on protecting our allies (which also means protecting ourselves)  with which America (if not the dictator-loving Trump) in Europe and Asia shares human-rights, democratic and other political values, as well as economic interests. This gets me to Trump’s complaint that while, he asserts, the U.S. spends more than 4 percent of its GDP on its military (the real number is about 3.5 percent), most of our European allies have only recently made efforts to hit 2 percent -- to meet NATO guidelines. Obviously, they should have acted before; Putin’s aggressions finally got their attention.


But such comparisons are misleading because America’s huge geographical, population and economic size,  and its location, requires it to spend a larger percentage of its GDP to defend its interests than its NATO allies and Japan can be expected to.  It benefits from that military power in various obvious and not so obvious ways (such as the dollar still being the world’s pre-eminent reserve currency).


Most important is that its military power helps, along with allies, to protect the democratic world from expansionist tyrannies, most notably Russia and China.   Our core defense areas are North America, Western and Central Europe, East Asia outside of China and Australia and New Zealand. We must focus on them, even if it means pulling back from nations where we’ve expended so much blood and treasure since 9/11 – with so little to show for it.


We note Trump’s first visit to a war zone, or at least close to one, on Dec. 26  -- a few hours at an air base in Iraq. He might well have gone there as damage control after Defense Secretary James Matthis’s decision to quit, at least in part because of the capo’s decision to yank troops from Syria. On his visit, the capo said that Iraq would be used as the base from which to fight ISIS. But wait! Didn’t he say a few days before that ISIS was defeated? (Like Mexico will pay for that wall….)


Oh yes: Trump’s surprise visit also violated Iraqi sovereignty and sparked demands from all major Iraqi factions for American forces to leave their country. More brilliant diplomacy!



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Colonel resigns

Police Mystery Story

In the fullness of time, we’ll presumably learn why Ann Assumpico mysteriously stepped down after only a couple of years as superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police. Did she resign or was she “resigned’’?


From Commerce to Christ

We’ve seen plenty of stories about closed churches being turned into offices, condos, rental apartments and stores. But here’s a nice switch: The grand former Norwich (Conn.) Savings Society Building in that old mill town is being turned into a new Protestant church, the Castle Church, to open sometime in 2019.


The church describes itself thus:

“We love Norwich. Our passion is to work for the peace and prosperity of the city, aligning ourselves with God’s strategy for urban areas around the world. We regularly serve our neighbors in the Rose City. Jesus served among people – not above them. We look forward to doing the same!’’


Amazon and other parts of the Internet epidemic are killing many businesses in old (and even fairly new) buildings. Some of the old ones, especially former banks, even look a bit like churches and could be elegantly transformed to that use. But I don’t imagine that skeptical New England will be a very fertile region for this. Many of these projects will more likely than not involve the evangelical and/or fundamentalist wing of Protestantism.


It’s a Tight Little Isle

Interstate Navigation wants to double, to 500 passengers, the capacity of its main high-speed ferry service, to Block Island  from Galilee, in the warm months. At the same time, reports the Dec. 27 Providence Journal (“Ferry company seeks to expand high-speed runs’’), the current 250-passenger high-speed ferry serving that route would be shifted to the company’s Newport-to-Block Island route.



How much more summer population density can the tiny island and its fragile eco-system take? All this is happening even as the conversion of much of the island into an extension of “The Hamptons’’ continues apace as show-off McMansions, or just plain mansions, keep popping up. And, no, I don’t own any property on Block Island!


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Democrats Need to Show Clarity on Border Policy

Democratic leaders must say clearly and repeatedly why they think that Trump’s border wall would not work as well as their own plan to curb illegal immigration (which has generally been falling for years and legal, and illegal immigrants have lower crime rates than do native-born Americans). Trump’s base loves the idea of building a huge barrier (which topography would block for long stretches of the U.S.-Mexican border).


The Dems won’t be able to erode this base unless and until they can make the argument that their program of drones, new fencing in some stretches and more Border Patrol people will not only be more humane than Trump’s scheme but also more effective in keeping out illegals.  The Democrats also need to explain that a Trumpian wall would be an environmental disaster in some places along the border.


And they need to realize that the issue is a psychiatric one – some Americans’ fear of “The Other’’ – a fear stoked up by Trump, et al., for political reasons.  And note that people in the parts of America with the fewest legal or illegal immigrants fear them the most.


Place and Literature

In some books, a place seems almost a person, albeit a rather ghostly one. Gillian Tindall’s book Countries of the Mind: The Meaning of Place to Writers evokes this sense. She discusses “the literary uses to which places are put, the meanings they are made to bear, the roles they play when they are recreated in fiction, and the psychological journeys for which they are the destinations.’’


As the book’s cover blurb notes: “In some cases, literature so dramatically alters the image of a place that fiction and reality merge.’’ Think Dickens’s London, Proust’s France, and L.P. Hartley’s English country place, in The Go-Between (with its haunting first line: “The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.’’)


In my own case, there are some fairly nearby places I strenuously avoid because I associate them with bad stuff: Their atmosphere reeks of old malevolence. I’m sure many people react that way.



The Cost of Privatization

“Don’t privatize when the service is less costly when paid for through tax revenues than through prices set by for-profit corporations. 

America’s hugely expensive for-profit health-insurance system, for example, is designed to sign up healthy people and avoid sick people, while running up huge tabs for advertising and marketing, and giving big rewards to shareholders and executives. Which is why the administrative costs of Medicare are a fraction of the costs of for-profit medical insurance — and why we need Medicare for all.’’

-- Robert Reich, in “The truth about privatization,’’ in Salon. To read the whole article, please hit this link:


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