Whitcomb: Two Good Governors; Dubious Economic Forecasts; Gumming Up Decision-Making; Mill Towns

Sunday, November 04, 2018


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Robert Whitcomb, columnist

“Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth

of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,

anything to believe in, true as rain, sure as red wheat.

I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,

resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric


From “Exquisite Politics,’’ by Denise Duhamel


I think that Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker have done good jobs. They’ve been carefully innovative and usually strong managers who generally try, despite the political pressures in a time of extreme and volatile politics, to do things for the long-term benefit of their states. They have made plenty of mistakes, of course. In something as complicated and unpredictable as politics and government that’s inevitable. And everyone in authority is at the mercy of utterly unpredictable events, over which they have little or no control.


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L-R MA Gov. Charlie Baker and RI Gov. Gina Raimondo

Ms. Raimondo has had the courage and grit to get a truck-toll law enacted that is helping to fix Rhode Island’s Third World roads and bridges.  She has pushed for long-overdue improvements in education, including vocational training. It’s too early to tell if her “free’’ college plan will work as advertised but I admire her gumption in pushing for it. Let’s look at it again in a year or two to see how it’s working, and ditch it or make repairs.


The state’s crumbling transportation infrastructure and mediocre education have been two of the biggest drags on the state’s economy for decades and no recent governor has faced them as forthrightly as has Gina Raimondo.  It is true that the premature launch of a flawed new computerized social-benefits system was, as in some other states, a disaster! But it is finally getting under control.


As for Mr. Baker, he has taken on the huge administrative challenges of reorganizing the MBTA, upon which much of the prosperity of Greater Boston depends. He has confronted the opiate crisis with solid programs. He has taken on overtime corruption in the state police. Perhaps most importantly, he has helped maintain the Bay State’s reputation for having what is probably the best public education in the country.


Of course, both governors have benefited from serving, since 2015, in a period of prosperity. That will end sometime in their second term, maybe in the form of a severe recession -- in a mix of a normal cyclical downturn, rising interest rates, trade wars and ever more extreme income inequality. How they deal with that will be the toughest test of their leadership abilities.

From CBS’s Nov. 26, 2012 MoneyWatch:

·       “The majority of economists didn't ‘predict’ the three most recent recessions (1990, 2001 and 2007) even after they had begun.

·       “In November 2007, economists in the Philadelphia Federal Reserve's Survey of Professional Forecasters called for growth of 2.4 percent for 2008, with only a 3 percent chance of a recession, and only a 1 in 500 chance of the GDP falling by more than 2 percent. GDP actually fell 3.3 percent.

·       “Since 1990, economists have forecasted only two of the 60 recessions that occurred around the world a year in advance.’’


In any event, the economy will fluctuate!

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President Donald Trump

More Red Meat to Frenzied Followers


Trump’s promise to end birthright citizenship by executive order, in apparent violation of the U.S. Constitution, is just the sort of thing you’d expect from this relentlessly mendacious demagogue/would-be-autocrat just before an election as he tries to fan hysteria and bigotry by pointing to a few thousand Central Americans walking north in Mexico seeking to get to the U.S. border and ask for asylum from their countries, whose poverty and crime are partly the fault of the U.S.


BUT, perhaps birthright citizenship should be ended!  Maybe far too many people come here illegally in order to have children with automatic U.S. citizenship. Obviously, we can’t take everyone who would like to live here. But the way to address this question is through the sort of long, thoughtful, rigorous analysis via the constitutional-amendment process invented by the Founders. Changing the Constitution was rightly made difficult.



Readers might take a look at a new Harvard Business School article titled “Research Shows Immigrants Help {U.S.} Businesses Grow. Here’s Why’’:


Among the observations:


“On average, immigrants contribute twice as much to U.S. entrepreneurship as native-born citizens do.’’


“To migrate to a new country … takes a high level in confidence in one’s ability to change and a high level of tolerance for uncertainty….Being unafraid of new challenges and proactively reaching for them is extremely important for long-term business survival.’’

“Non-homogenous teams outperform teams with lots of similar people.’’


“I}n order to keep growing nearly every business hits a point at which they need to expand beyond borders. And today, with most businesses having an online presence, they are global from day one.’’


To read the article, please hit this link:


Reminder: Illegal aliens pay billions of dollars in U.S. taxes every year, and legal immigrants, of course, even more. Further, illegal aliens and legal immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans.  Speaking of immigrants, here’s a Snopes.com report on the president’s paternal grandfather, an immigrant who founded the quasi-mobster family:


 “In summation, Donald Trump’s grandfather Frederick Trump was a German immigrant who made his fortune by opening several restaurants and hotels in Seattle and British Columbia during the Yukon Gold Rush. While some of these hotels may have been used for prostitution, gambling, or other seedy activities common on the trail, it is incorrect to say that Trump built his fortune on illegal activities.’’


 After he made a lot of money in the “hospitality business,’’ he returned to Bavaria.



“While {a}  meme exaggerated Frederick Trump’s involvement in ‘criminal rackets,’ it did correctly state that Trump returned to the United States after the German government determined that he had originally left Germany in 1885 to avoid taxes and the army.’’


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First Lady

Sound familiar?


Maybe of interest: Melania Trump’s parents were able to move to the U.S. via the sort of “chain migration’’ that our leader denounces. And two of Trump’s three wives are immigrants.


Another fact: The Democrats as a party, contrary to Trump’s lies, don’t favor “open borders.’’ Many, probably most oppose building longer high walls on the Mexican border, arguing that other border-security measures would be more effective, less environmentally damaging and of course, cheaper.


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Guns in the House

In another sign of the lethal pervasiveness of the gun culture in the U.S., there’s a Johns Hopkins University study for 2006-14 referencing 75,000 children and adolescents sent to emergency rooms by gunshots in that period. More than a third of these ER entrants were admitted to the hospital and 6 percent died.


But the full reality could be much worse. The Associated Press reports that the researchers didn’t count the number of children killed or hurt by gunshots who didn’t make it to the hospital.


Among the findings: Almost 50 percent of the wounds were from assaults and 40 percent were unintentional (too many guns lying around at home). Two percent were suicides.


Not surprisingly, gun makers, whose lobbying organization is the National Rifle Association and whose leading domestic servants are Republicans on Capitol Hill, has suppressed attempts to obtain government funding for gun-injury research. Obviously, only a political tsunami will change this.


Denise Dowd, M.D., an ER physician at Children’s Mercy Hospital, in Kansas City, Mo., told the AP:

“We need national surveillance systems just like we do with motor-vehicle deaths, to track these injuries and figure out the circumstances.’’


To read more, please hit this link:


and/or this one:


Electric Buses: Back to the Future


The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority has added three electric buses to its fleet. Bravo!  One small step against global warming. For some people of a certain age, the buses are a reminder of how much of our urban public transportation used to be electric, in the form of trolleys.


Meanwhile, we’d better deal with the fact that the advent of millions of self-driving vehicles, hopefully electric, will probably worsen traffic congestion by encouraging more single-passenger driving and even no-passenger driving, with many vehicles being used to deliver stuff. We need much more MASS TRANSIT, not more vehicles, roads and parking lots.


As a sign of the hunger for expanded mass transit, consider that crowding has gotten so bad on Connecticut’s new CTrail line, between Springfield, Mass., and New Haven, that the state and Amtrak are scrambling to make more trains available. Some of the crowding is caused by a surprisingly large number of college students using special passes that gives students at participating institutions unlimited access to public transportation in the Nutmeg State.


To read more of this bad news/good news story, please hit this link:


The Decision-Avoidance Crisis

“A free society rests on the freedom to make responsible decisions.’’

-- Peter Drucker


“Responsibility, to be effective, must be individual responsibility….As everyone’s property  in effect is nobody’s property, so everyone’s responsibility is nobody’s responsibility.’’

-- Frederick Hayek


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Fane Tower

It’s still too cumbersome to build in Providence – too many agencies to go through, too many rules. But then, in too multi-layered bureaucratic and legalistic America it sometimes seems impossible to get officials to make any decision or even to let them. Everything is gummed up by runaway legalism.  We drown in contradictory rules. This legalism enables people in authority to avoid the blame involved in making any controversial if correct decision. So important projects are delayed and delayed or don’t get done at all, and the public suffers. We’ve got to make it easier for our leaders to make and implement decisions!


What would help at least a bit would be state Rhode Island Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio’s plan to speed review of projects in the I-195 district (where, among other things, the approval process for the Jason Fane’s Hope Point Tower has been held up for so long that now-rising interest rates and, perhaps, a recession starting in 2019 will kill it, leaving yet more vacant space, perhaps for years).


Creating a standardized tax-stabilization-agreement policy for the entire city and not requiring City Council approval for projects under $100 million could help a lot. Too many high-quality developers find dealing with Providence, for all its antique charms, exasperating and give up.


Malaise of Mill Towns


Jeffrey Lewis’s new novel, Bealport: A Novel of a Town, published by Haus Publishing, is about the socio-economic woes of a Maine Coast community all too dependent on a shoe factory (makes me think of Maine’s famous Bass Weejun loafers). A private-equity fund partner buys the company on a sort of lark because he likes its products. He and his partners load it up with debt and basically loot it before he decides to close it, in part because of bad behavior by a local guy whom the fat cat briefly puts in charge of new product development.


The crusty Bealporters, most of whom refuse to move to places with better prospects, are left with dark futures but mostly retain their sardonic sense of humor, but some also use drugs and booze as pain relievers, along with the distraction of a demolition derby.


Coincidentally, while working on this column, I came across an article in the current issue of Yankee magazine headlined “The Town That Refused to Die,’’ about Bucksport, another, but real, Maine Coast town that had been too dependent on a mill,  in Bucksport’s case a paper mill that was shut down in 2014, and the town’s efforts to economically and culturally re-invent itself. Part of the reinvention will involve the planned opening of a huge salmon-aquaculture facility. Let’s hope that Bucksport folks don’t become too dependent on that single big employer.

The whole thing reminds me a bit of J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, about growing up poor in Appalachia. Why don’t more people just get up and move to places with more economic potential? Well, many aren’t well educated and so don’t have mobile skills, many feel that they’re too old to start over, many adore their gorgeous if sometimes harsh regions and many have very strong family and friend ties to these places going back generations. For good and for ill, they are rooted.


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More Excitement for Drivers

Some states, including in New England, are blithely rushing into legalizing marijuana use, in large part to get tax revenue from pot sales, setting aside the inconvenient fact that use of the drug undermines memory, concentration and reasoning and causes accidents.  And it can be a gateway drug for stronger stuff.


Consider, for example, that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that Washington, Colorado and Oregon, which have legalized the drug, now have 5.2 percent more vehicle crashes than neighboring states.


"Despite the difficulty of isolating the specific effects of marijuana impairment on crash risk, the evidence is growing that legalizing its use increases crashes," said institute president David Harkey, as quoted in thedrive.com.


 "The {institute’s}new research on marijuana and crashes indicates that legalizing marijuana for all uses is having a negative impact on the safety of our roads. States exploring legalizing marijuana should consider this effect on highway safety." Just what we need in our attention-deficit times!


To read more, please hit this link:


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U.S. Supreme Court

Citizens United Undermines Democracy and Free Speech

As we head to Tuesday’s elections, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, in 2010, continues to undermine democracy and civic life in general by giving vastly disproportionate, and often camouflaged, power to powerful economic and political special-interest groups by granting them the “free speech”’ rights of individuals as expressed by political spending.  This power has coincided with the rise of rapacious, amoral social-media companies – most notably Facebook – on which powerful groups push their positions, often drowning out individuals’ free-speech rights.


Geopolitics and Economics

As conservative writer Walter Russell Mead noted in his Oct. 30 piece in The Wall Street Journal, “Geopolitics Trumps the Markets,’’ the idea that rising world trade and the associated pulling of many millions out of poverty  around the world would give us “a hiatus from history’’ has yet again  been blown away by a revival of big-power geopolitics, especially regarding increasingly aggressive China and Russia. More money will be spent on the military, more tariffs will be imposed and appeals to nationalism and even xenophobia will often trump (so to speak…) appeals based on promises of economic growth.


Man is not just an economic creature.


Consider the summer of 1914, when, after a long period of economic growth and technological advance, particularly in the West, nationalism and militarism (centered in Germany) led to the bloodbath of World War I and, a couple of decades later, World War II. Mr. Mead writes, accurately:


“Russia, China and Iran decided to challenge the American power on which {the post-Cold War} economic order depended, and Mr. Obama’s response to that challenge was, regrettably, insufficient….’’


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Arthur Robbins, HopeHealth Fundraiser

Honoring the Great Arthur Robbins

HopeHealth, in Providence, at its annual fundraising dinner on Oct. 13, raised $310,000 to help the Philip Hulitar Hospice Center in Providence.  I attended.


But this item is to focus on Providence-based property developer and philanthropist Arthur S. Robbins, who received HopeHealth’s 2018 Human Dignity Award at the dinner.  Mr.  Robbins has for decades been one of New England’s most charitable people, putting in lots of time, including by serving on boards, as well as financial assistance (much of it unknown to the general public). The lion’s share of his charitable work has been focused on helping the underprivileged and those facing serious physical and mental problems.


He is a great (and unassuming – though tall!) man, and I wish that many more people knew how much this gent has done for the community.


Free Admission to Fall Show


I don’t like late fall in general but I must say that the play of sunlight on the gold and red on still partly leafed trees has seemed particularly beautiful this year.  A photo op at so many corners.


A Trip Through Lost Culture


For a trip through literary, political and academic worlds from the 1920s to the 1970s, you’d do well to read Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling, edited by Adam Kirsch and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Mr. Trilling (1905-1975) was for decades of America’s one or two most respected and famous literary critics (e.g., his essay collection The Liberal Imagination) as well as a distinguished writer of fiction (e.g., his novel, The Middle of the Journey, as well as short fiction, e.g., his collection   Of This Time, of That Place, and Other Stories).


His career spanned what was probably the golden age of American criticism. His formidable wife, Diana, was also a distinguished member of the famous collection of writers, most of whom lived in New York and whose heyday was the ‘30s through the ‘70s, and at the center of which was Lionel Trilling.


Professor Trilling was a very sharp and subtle social observer as well as a legendary teacher at Columbia University. (Among his famous students were Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.)  He mined literature, politics, history and the wider society to find and explain cultural connections and causes and effects.


Some of these “public intellectuals’’ became famous enough, in less crass times, to be invited to appear on late night commercial television. This book walks you through what seems a lost world of great intellectual excitement.


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