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Bob Whitcomb’s Digital Diary: Bikes, Bush, and Merger Mega-Healthcare Collapse

Friday, October 21, 2016


Bob Whitcomb

Bike-path challenges; port potential; blame it on Perot? Tory chief takes on global elite


‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’


“Nature’s first green is gold, 

Her hardest hue to hold. 

Her early leaf’s a flower; 

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief, 

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay. ‘’


Robert Frost


(Rather Octoberish, eh?)


Alex Marshall, writing recently in Governing.com, raised some cautionary notes about the bike-path mania in some cities.


The biggest one is whether it’s worth it to eat up a lane of car traffic to assign the space to bicyclists.  Have cities adequately forecast the number of people who are likely to use bikes and maybe even give up their cars? We see a lot of dedicated bike lanes with very few bicyclists.  Perhaps in a city with a lot of college students, such as Providence, a  dense and carefully planned network of bike lanes can make sense. But what would be the tradeoff against what might be heavier motor-vehicle traffic congestion created by removing lanes?


And safety would call for many bike lanes to have physical barriers separating them from car and truck traffic rather than just lines. Many of these lanes now are too dangerous, especially compared to Europe’s.


I learned in Europe, where I used to work, and rode a bike a few times in the Netherlands, that compared with the U.S., car and truck drivers there bear much more legal responsibility in crashes with bikes than do bicyclists. That’s simply because the former are driving fast, multi-ton machines. “It’s a standard sometimes known as ‘default liability,’’’ Mr. Marshall says. We need that in America. (I wonder how the coming of self-driving cars might affect all this.)


U.S. jurisdictions should look at their traffic laws and make adjustments.


Perhaps after a few years of adding bike paths, communities might very rationally decide to turn some of them back to cars, trucks, buses and install light rail. My own preference is for cities and states to focus on mass transit, not bike lanes. But, of course, they’re both admirable.




It’s too bad that expansion of Rhode Island’s ports has been so slow, but at least they’re belatedly getting much more respect as economic-development drivers for the state and all of southeastern New England.  


We’ve missed a huge opportunity in the last 30 years during which world trade has swelled. A wave of protectionism and slower national economies are slamming brakes on that growth. Still, trade between the U.S. and Europe is likely to grow, especially if policymakers and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic give the go-ahead to the long-proposed  Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the European Union and (a post-Brexit) Britain and Canada and the United States. Note that Rhode Island’s ports are very close to the major transatlantic shipping lanes.


And doesn’t it make a lot of sense to tighten our relations as much as possible with European democracies to strengthen our economies and make us better able to stop such threats as Russian aggression?


Rhode Island voters can do their bit to take advantage of international trade and the local jobs, and in some cases, lower regional costs, associated with it by voting affirmative on Question 5 on their ballot Nov. 8. The question asks for authorization to sell $50 million in bonds for infrastructure improvements at the Port of Davisville at Quonset and $20 million for expansion/improvements at the Port of Providence.





I have a theory that at least some of the descent into vitriol of the Republican Party can be traced back to Ross Perot’s angry presidential candidacy in 1992. That proto- Tea Party candidacy prevented George H.W. Bush from being re-elected. Then the Clintons over-reached with a far too-complex healthcare reform plan and some personal scandals and in response a very right-wing U.S. House of Representatives was elected and then run by the cynical egomaniac Speaker Newt Gingrich, who, it must be said, had a few good ideas.


The party never fully regained the milder conservatism exemplified by George H. W. Bush and, yes, at least in tone, Ronald Reagan, who would have been mortified by the Tea Party rage,  let alone the grotesque Donald Trump. If old Bush had been re-elected, the party probably would not have fallen into the hands of someone like Mr. Gingrich and now Donald Trump.


Ross Perot, I should emphasize, is no Donald Trump! He has been a very honest and patriotic American (who has paid a lot of federal income taxes ), a brilliant businessman and a devoted philanthropist who has given away hundreds of millions of dollars.




British Prime Minister, Theresa May

British Prime Minister Theresa May said some surprising things about globalization the other day in attacking members of the multinational corporate and investment elite who often show no loyalty to the people in their own nations. Their closest relationships tend to be with each other. Her remarks are particularly interesting in that she leads the pro-business party in her country – the Conservatives – but recognizes the dangers of increasing income equality and the tendency of many in the upper echelons of business to forget their moral obligations to their own communities.


The quintessence of this elitism is at the annual mutual-admiration society called the World Economic Forum, every January at Davos, Switzerland, where corporate titans and such movers and shakers as Bill Clinton preen. Mr. Clinton would have spent more productive time talking with unemployed factory workers in Ohio.


Prime Minister May said of these globalists:


“{T]today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.


“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’  means.’’


Resentment of such arrogant elites explains much of the support for Donald Trump, even though he himself is, by some measures, a member of that arrogant elite himself.




The sad Secretary of State John Kerry continues to say of America’s stance in Syria “The tools we have are diplomatic.’’


Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin must get some chuckles out of the hapless Mr. Kerry. You can’t negotiate with the likes of Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad as you can with, say, France. History proves again and again that rhetoric without the possibility of force is worthless when dealing with tyrants.


Putin and American interests

Robert D. Kagan, in the Oct. 17 Wall Street article “What Can the Next President Do About Russia?’’ put it well:  …”Kerry is a man who has a checklist of negotiations he wants to conduct rather than of American interests he wants to defend.’’ And so, other than the recent climate agreement, he has little to show for his tenure. His most famous agreement is the nuclear deal with Iran, which that dictatorship will violate at all levels.


The U.S. must reinvigorate NATO and be willing to send more troops to Europe to defend the West and its common values from Russian aggression. Such a buildup would  get the Russians’ attention in the Mideast, too. Of course, we must press our allies to fulfill their duties to pay for the collective defense. Donald Trump is quite right to complain about NATO deadbeats.


Let us hope that the next U.S. president conveys the impression that further Russian aggression will be blocked in Syria, Ukraine and the Baltic Sea – three areas where Putin has been testing Western resolve. Or, if Donald Trump is elected, will his business interests in Russia (and loans from Russian oligarchs?)  just lead to appeasement of Mr. Putin?


Meanwhile, some people are starting to ask belatedly why there have been no Wikileaks involving emails of Donald Trump and his associates. The answer is quite simple: WikiLeaks works for Vladimir Putin.


In any case, an effect of the WikiLeaks/Russian assault on Hillary Clinton may well be to cause many more people with sensitive jobs to eschew email, Twitter and social media and try  to confine serious discussion to in-person or phone talks. That would be a healthy development.




The Oct. 16 Providence Journal story headlined “Why Massachusetts schools are better’’ (than Rhode Island’s) reminded me yet again of why what is now Rhode Island would be better run if it were part of Massachusetts and thus not so tribal and provincial.




Thanks to Darrell West for sending this along.


Stephen Prothero, a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University, will lecture on “What Next? … Healing a Broken Nation After November 8th” on Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. at Central Congregational Church, 296 Angell St., Providence.  The trouble with such events is that they’re geared to one point of view. You can pretty much rest assured that no Trump backers will be there at the church for this talk.




The collapse of affiliation talks between Care New England, the Rhode Island hospital chain, and Southcoast Health, in southeastern Massachusetts, as did the collapse of Lifespan and Care New England talks a few years back, raises the question of when we’ll see another hospital chain merger around here, given the inevitable turf battles.


With the drive for economies of scale and for sharing access to the best care and research, will the latest collapse lead to a big Boston-based chain coming in and taking over? Partners HealthCare, whose hospitals include Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham & Women’s, might eye expansion in these parts because Massachusetts regulators think that it has gotten too big and powerful in Greater Boston. The Brown Medical School would presumably not like a Partners invasion because Partners is joined at the hip with the Harvard Medical School behemoth. Maybe given the size and executive salaries of hospitals these days, affiliating with the Harvard Business School would be appropriate.


Many hospital chains want to merge to strengthen their bargaining power with huge insurance companies. Maybe in 10 years, we’ll have “Medicare for all,’’ which will make much of this moot.




I spoke at a Providence Rotary Club lunch the other day and came away impressed, as I did when I spoke to the Bristol Rotary a couple of years ago, at how good for society and civic culture such organizations are. They do much valuable charitable work while fostering fellowship and devotion to the community. And they display a thoughtful patriotism.  They give us hope even as American society seems to be coming apart at the seams.


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