Sunday, November 12, 2017

Robert Whitcomb

“There is no such thing as not voting: You either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some diehard’s vote.’’

— The late novelist David Foster Wallace

“We endure potholes and live in fear of collapsing highway bridges because our leaders wanted these very special people to have an even larger second yacht….Today it is these same golden figures with their offshore billions who host the fundraisers, hire the lobbyists, bankroll the think tanks and subsidize the artists and intellectuals.

“This is their democracy today. We just happen to live in it.’’

— Thomas Frank, writing in The Guardian about rich individuals’ tax-sheltered offshore accounts, as seen in the “Paradise Papers’’.


Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo promised in her pitch to Amazon to build its “second headquarters’’ in the state that  “You’d {Amazon} have the access, influence, and impact that comes from being a dominant employer in our state.’’

This (along with a bizarre rendering showing Amazon buildings taking over much of the area around the State House) is a tad chilling. Does a tiny state want to take orders from some huge company?

RI’s Amazon submission and missing buildings

Of course it would be very nice to get some Amazon jobs. With Boston, a leading (and perhaps the leading) candidate to get the company’s second headquarters, perhaps Greater Providence could get some spillover employees from the behemoth online retailer, especially in such specialties as design, in which Rhode Island has particular strengths. But it’s dangerous for democracy and long-term, steady economic growth to be at the beck and call of one huge company. Better 50 small and medium-size companies than one huge quasi-monopoly.  Big company means big hiring but also eventually big layoffs.

Some Amazon executives are reportedly pushing hard for Boston to be the second headquarters. To learn more, please hit this link:


Perhaps the most significant news from last Tuesday’s off-year elections, some of the results of which were clearly a repudiation of Donald Trump’s administration, was that Maine voters, by a 20-point margin, voted to expand Medicaid in the way envisioned in the Affordable Care Act. (Maine can be called a purple state.)

Maine voters

Maine’s Republican Tea Party governor, Paul LePage, elected twice by a minority of the voters, fought hard to prevent Medicaid expansion because of perhaps valid fiscal fears. Will the legislature come up with enough state money to make expansion work in the next few years? Medicaid is, after all, a federal-state program. In any event, a majority of voters decided that they’d be better served by a system that doesn’t make hospital emergency rooms the only venue for healthcare for many poor folks.

Increasingly, Americans realize that the chaotic U.S. healthcare “system,’’ in which providers are paid the highest rates in the world, insurance premiums for many are exorbitant and yet the medical care (including outcomes) are worse than in most of the Developed World, must be fixed so that healthcare is accessible at  a reasonable price to everyone – even though more taxes  (and  tough cost controls!) may be required to provide it.  The Affordable Care Act has been a big improvement over what we had before, but….

Now,  after the Maine event,  there will be a big  Medicaid-expansion push where Republican governors and legislators (almost all of whom have very good insurance coverage themselves) have blocked expansion. There will be more ballot initiatives to expand the program. Note that voters raised the minimum wage in four out of four states where such increases were on the ballot in 2016.

Polls suggest that most voters across America dislike GOP moves to gut the Affordable Care Act. Mainers have just given a dramatic example of how much.


Here’s an example of both New England interstate collaboration and of using our region’s comparative advantage in marine affairs:

The University of Rhode Island and the University of Connecticut have created a joint venture called the National Institute for Undersea Vehicle Technology, at UConn’s Avery Point campus, in Groton. Researchers there will collaborate with General Dynamics’s Electric Boat unit, based in Groton and with a big operation at Quonset, as well as with Navy institutions in the region, which are concentrated on Aquidneck Island. Indeed, the center got a $1.3  million grant from the Office of Naval Research in August, with the aim of preparing students to work in shipbuilding, reports the Providence Business News.

Somehow, such projects look more promising for the region’s economy than, say, helping some rich folks finance a baseball stadium for their team in Pawtucket, much as I love the PawSox.

Kurt Hesch, Electric Boat’s chief operating officer, said of the new center:

“The intellectual horsepower and state-of-the-art research facilities at the universities provide the tools necessary to research technologies so that industry partners can transition them for integration onto undersea vehicles.’’


Localities need to crack down hard on the screeching, polluting use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers that make living in many neighborhoods with lots of trees miserable for weeks at time. No wonder people have come to blows over these machines, often wielded by “landscaping companies’’ staffed by illegal aliens.

Their homeowner customers are too lazy to pick up a rake for a little while, or hire a teen to do so, and too self-absorbed to think about the misery that leaf blowers impose on their neighbors.

I’ve missed the sweet smell of burning leaves in the late fall, although the banning of leaf-burning was good for public health.


Deming Sherman, Special Master UHIP

In case anyone wondered: Deming Sherman, the highly respected Providence lawyer and civic leader who has been named special master to oversee the cleanup of the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP) mess, has had no personal or professional dealings with Deloitte, the giant creator of the troubled UHIP benefits-eligibility system.


The Spanish government was quite right to sack the Catalan government for declaring that the province was independent of Spain. For one thing, the declaration was illegal and traitorous. For another, more citizens of Catalonia oppose independence than support it.

In many ways, the Catalan independence movement reminds me of the populism associated with Brexit and Trump’s Russian-assisted Electoral College victory.

It also hints at yet more interference by Vladimir Putin’s people in European politics.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont fled to Belgium after the Spanish government ousted his government. He was encouraged to do so by Flemish nationalist Bart De Wever, who, for his part, would like to split up Belgium, which is headquarters of both NATO and the European Union.

Putin is doing everything possible to divide, and therefore weaken, Western Europe by massive disinformation campaigns (much of it in cyberspace) meant to intensify political, ethnic, class and other entities. The Kremlin tool WikiLeaks has played a major role in this, including by pushing Catalan independence, achievement of which would, of course, weaken a major NATO ally. It will be interesting to see how much Russian money is subsidizing these efforts to fragment Europe in order to make it more vulnerable to Russian aggression. Putin hates the example of successful democracies to the west of his dictatorship.


I wonder how much envy President Trump felt in “negotiating’’ with the Chinese dictator, Xi Jinping, on Trump’s visit to China last week. Oh, to be able to rule such an orderly,  respectful Orwellian police state/surveillance society!


President Donald Trump

As I’ve written, stock markets around the world have been rising for a long time, as have most national economies. The main reasons in the U.S. are years of record corporate profits (and companies need a big U.S. tax cut?) and very low-interest rates engineered by central banks and particularly the Fed. This has made stocks far more attractive than bonds. Also, at least for a few months after Trump’s inauguration, the hope that his regime would get a major infrastructure bill enacted helped elevate stock prices.

But now that Trump and congressional Republicans have shown that they’re much more interested in cutting taxes for the rich than in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure (even though that would mean lots of huge contracts for construction companies and many new jobs) that hope has faded.

Stock prices are at perilously high levels, central banks are starting to tighten credit and we face serious geopolitical issues, including North Korean nuclear threats, Russian and Chinese expansionism and a possible Saudi-Iranian war, not to mention an unstable, corrupt and ill-informed American president. Who knows when the stock markets’ house of cards will collapse, but it will collapse. Then Donald Trump will do a 180-degree turn from saying that the stock market’s continuing rise was due to his policies (as far as anyone can figure them out) to saying that he has nothing to do with it.

The stock market and an unemployment rate that has continued to fall this year (albeit with a simultaneous low workforce-participation rate) have helped keep  Trump’s poll numbers – hovering in the 35-38 percent range — from nose-diving much further. But if they start to look bad too, his poll numbers will really collapse.

It reminds me a bit of how Richard Nixon’s efforts to goose the economy with the help of fiscal stimulus and a friendly Fed’s irresponsible easy money policies contributed to his landslide victory in 1972.  But the economy’s going south in 1973-74, in part because of Nixon’s  and the Fed’s policies,  along with the Arab oil embargo, accelerated the plunge in his popularity already made inevitable by the Watergate scandal.


The House GOP tax bill dovetails almost perfectly with Trump’s and his family’s financial interests, especially in slashing the taxes on “pass-through’’ income of closely held family companies such as the Trump organization, and phasing out the estate tax.

Under the current Republican tax plan, the Trump Organization’s “pass-through income’’ would be taxed at no more than 25 percent —compared to the 39.6 percent top individual income tax rate that now applies to such income, or the 35 percent top rate that would apply to individual income under the GOP plan.

What a fine way to strengthen America’s much-put-upon hereditary plutocracy!

But wait! There’s more! As a friend, columnist and former financial writer Froma Harrop, has pointed out: “The House tax bill would limit the interest expenses companies may deduct on their commercial loans, the exception being — guess who? — companies engaged in commercial real estate.’’

“It would also end the tax deferral for personal property exchanges for most every group except for one: commercial real estate developers.’’

Trump, Ms. Harrop pointed out, would get a “Champagne bath in a golden tub’’ if this “tax reform’’ is enacted.

Meanwhile, many middle- and upper-middle-income would see their taxes rise.


All hail Carol Sommer for her charming column in the (New London) Day on how names of places change over the centuries in New England. She focuses on Connecticut’s eastern Long Island Sound communities, but her stories would apply to many places across the region – except maybe the wilderness of far northern, unincorporated Maine. To read her piece, please hit this link:


One of the worst things about some corners of “liberalism’’ and “progressivism’’ is that too many of their denizens tend not to look at individuals as, well, individuals but solely as representatives of groups. This leads to runaway identity politics.

Consider the University of Pennsylvania’s Stephanie McKellop, who unfortunately is a teaching assistant for the class “Sinners, Sex and Slaves: Race and Sex In Early America.’’ She has announced: “I will always call on my black women students first. Other POC {people of color} get second-tier priority. WW {white women} come next. And, if I have to, white men.” 

Why is she teaching at that Ivy League school? Stories like this help enlarge the white-bigot community. One fine traditionally conservative (?) idea, in my view, is to treat each person as a complicated individual and not as symbol or stand-in for some huge population.


The Penthouse club in Providence

The Penthouse RI nightclub on South Water Street, in Providence, should have been closed down weeks ago. It has been rife with licensing violations and is attracting a very dubious crowd, and there was a shooting outside it on Oct. 28.

The city Board of Licenses revoked all this joint’s licenses but the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation overruled the board, saying that the troubles at the place hadn’t yet risen to “jeopardizing public safety.’’

Did inadequate legal work by the board have something to do with the decision?  In any event, Steven Pare, the city’s public safety commissioner, put it well: “Penthouse reopening by order of DBR is outrageous. This club has shown a total disregard for public safety….’’ We’ll see what happens on appeal.


Our Uber driver pulled into a gas station in Stamford, Conn., the other week. On one side of the property was a large Tesla electric-car charging station. Within a decade, there might be no gasoline sold there. There are already 702 electric-vehicle charging stations within a 30-mile radius of Stamford, reports SolvingEV.


There are attractions to November: The windy openness of the woods, the sere beauty of fields and how the sunlight slants in so low and produces fantastical shadows. But it’s mostly just something to get through, as is December, until the 21st, when hope revives with the days getting longer. Minimizing the holidays helps.


I hope those “Caution: Bus Turning’’ announcements from RIPTA buses improve safety enough to offset their irritating Orwellian qualities.


“The body is like a November birch facing the full moon
And reaching into the cold heavens.
In these 
trees there is no ambition, no sodden body, no leaves,
Nothing but bare trunks climbing like cold fire!’’

–From “Solitude Late at Night in the Woods,” by Robert Bly.


Sponsor: GoLocalProv

Sample: N=403

Rhode Island General Election Voters Margin of Error: +/- 4.9% at 95% Confidence Level

Interviewing Period: October 9-11, 2017

Mode: Landline (61%) and Mobile (39%)

Telephone Directed by: John Della Volpe, SocialSphere, Inc.


Are you registered to vote at this address?

Yes: 100%


When it comes to voting, do you consider yourself to be affiliated with the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Moderate, or Unaffiliated with a major party?

Unaffiliated: 49%

Democrat: 32%

Republican: 15%

Moderate: .4%


Next year, in November of 2018, there will be a statewide general election for Governor and many other state offices. How likely is it that you will vote in this election?

Will you definitely be voting, will you probably be voting, are you 50-50…

Definitely be voting: 78%

Probably be voting: 13%

50-50: 9%


In general, would you say things in Rhode Island are headed in the right direction or are they off on the wrong track?

Right track: 39%

Wrong track: 45%

Mixed: 10%

Don’t know/Refused: .6%


What would you say is the number one problem facing Rhode Island that you would like the Governor to address?

Jobs and economy:  21%

Education: 12%

Taxes: 12%

Roads: 12%

State budget: 9%

Corruption/Public integrity: .8%

Healthcare: 3%

Governor: 3%

Homelessness: 2%

Immigration: 2%

Other: 7%

Don’t know: .9%


Over the past three years or so, would you say the economy in Rhode Island has improved, gotten worse, or not changed at all?

Changed for the better: 35%

Changed for the worse: 16%

Not changed at all: 43%

Don’t know/Refused: 5%


Over the same time, has your family’s financial situation improved, gotten worse, or not changed at all?

Changed for the better: 26%

Changed for the worse: 19%

Not changed at all: 54%

Don’t know/Refused: 1%


Recently, a proposal has been made to permit the issuance of $81 million in bonds by the State to build a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox. If there was an election today on this issue, would you vote to approve or reject issuing $81 million in financing supported moral obligation bonds to build the stadium?

Net: Approve: 28%

Definitely approve: 15%

Probably approve: 14%

Net: Reject: 67%

Probably reject: 19%

Definitely reject: 48%

Don’t know: 4%


Could you please tell me your age?

18-24: 7%

25-34: 15%

35-44: 15%

45-54: 20%

55-64: 17%

65+: 25%

Don’t know/refused: 1%


What was the last grade you completed in school?

0-11: 2%

High school grad: 16%

Technical/Vocational school: 1%

Some college: 23%

College grad: 34%

Graduate degree: 24%

Don’t know/refused: 1%


The next question is about the total income of YOUR HOUSEHOLD for the PAST 12 MONTHS. Please include your income PLUS the income of all members living in your household (including cohabiting partners and armed forces members living at home).

$50,000 or less: 27%

More $50,000 but less than $75,000: 13%

More $75,000 but less than $100,000: 13%

More $100,000 but less than $150,000: 17%

$150,000 or more: 13%

Don’t know/refused: 17%


What particular ethnic group or nationality – such as English, French, Italian, Irish, Latino, Jewish, African American, and so forth – do you consider yourself a part of or feel closest to?

American/None: 21%

English: 13%

Italian: 13%

Irish: 12%

Black or African American: 6%

Latino/Hispanic: 6%

French: 6%

Portuguese: 3%

Jewish: 3%

German: 1%


Would you say that Donald Trump has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as President?

Excellent: 13%
Good: 12%
Fair: 14%
Poor: 57%
Never heard of:  0%
Cannot rate: 3%


Would you say that Jack Reed has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a United States Senator?

Excellent: 22%
Good: 29%
Fair: 23%
Poor: 15%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate: 6%


Would you say that Sheldon Whitehouse has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a United States Senator?

Excellent: 17%
Good: 22%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 28%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate: 7%


Would you say that David Cicilline has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a Member of Congress?

Excellent: 9%
Good: 29%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 27%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate:  8%


Would you say that James Langevin has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a Member of Congress?

Excellent: 7%
Good: 30%
Fair: 20%
Poor: 18%
Never heard of: 13%
Cannot rate: 11%


Would you say that Gina Raimondo has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Governor?

Excellent: 6%
Good: 28%
Fair: 30%
Poor: 31%
Never heard of: 1%
Cannot rate: 3%


Would you say that Daniel McKee has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Lieutenant Governor?

Excellent: 3%
Good: 16%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 8%
Never heard of: 26%
Cannot rate: 25%


Would you say that Peter Kilmartin has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Attorney General?

Excellent: 3%
Good: 20%
Fair: 28%
Poor: 17%
Never heard of: 13%
Cannot rate: 19%


Would you say that Seth Magaziner has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as General Treasurer?

Excellent: 4%
Good: 18%
Fair: 24%
Poor: 13%
Never heard of: 21%
Cannot rate: 21%


Would you say that Nellie Gorbea has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Secretary of State?

Excellent: 5%
Good: 21%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 10%
Never heard of: 20%
Cannot rate: 23%


Would you say that Jorge Elorza has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Mayor of Providence?

Excellent: 4%
Good: 24%
Fair: 24%
Poor: 22%
Never heard of: 9%
Cannot rate: 15%

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News | Whitcomb: All Bow to Amazon; Mainers Want More Medicaid; Money Underwater; Perfectly Awful Penthouse