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Robert Whitcomb: Christmas for RI’s Public Unions; Worcester Pitching the PawSox; Thayer St. Churn

Monday, July 10, 2017


Robert Whitcomb

If only  more humans had the anti-sucker capabilities of members of the corvid family. This quote is from The Economist:

“Members of the corvid family, including crows, ravens, rooks and magpies, are known to be unusually intelligent birds capable of keeping track of complex social relationships. Magpies can recognize themselves in mirrors; rooks and crows make and use tools. Ravens and jays can remember which of their group mates were watching when they hid food; American crows can remember the face of a dangerous human years after a single encounter. In the latest example of corvid ingenuity, detailed this month in the journal Animal Behaviour, nine ravens played a simple food-trading game with researchers—and were able to remember, a month later, which humans had behaved fairly or unfairly. They would then choose to avoid playing with humans who treated them badly.’’




And now on to human suckers:


This is so predictable: When Rhode Island’s unemployment rate is low, as it is now, public-employee unions move in to grab rich new perks from their allies in the General Assembly. These slam state and municipal budgets when the economy goes down (as it’s likely to do over the next year). During the  ‘70s and ‘80s, we saw vast pension-benefit increases at the state and municipal levels, which  turned into fiscal disasters when the economy went south in the early ‘90s.


And so in the legislative session just, if incompletely, ended were two potentially gigantic and unaffordable giveaways. One allows indefinite extension of expired municipal labor contracts. That means that very generous contracts signed in a time of relative prosperity could go on and on in a time of recession-caused falling tax revenues.


The other part of the raid is that the General Assembly has approved even richer tax-free disability pensions for police and firefighters by allowing “illnesses sustained while in the performance of duty’’ as acceptable reasons for getting a tax-free disability pension – allowing decades of affluence for many more pensioners (many of whom get another job after leaving public employment). As I’ve written,  this bill, sponsored by legislators swimming in conflicts of interest, would mean that they could claim cardiovascular disease – extremely common and the most frequent cause of death in America! – as a reason to get big  disability pensions.  Or skin cancer, contracted from spending a lot of time outside. Or many other  common ailments.

The disability pension system for police officers and firefighters is already widely abused. It’s depressing that the General Assembly would be willing to make it worse.


Let’s hope that Gov. Gina Raimondo has the fortitude to confront this raid on the treasury and veto both these deals.




There was unfortunate chaos at the end of the legislative  session caused by a war of wills between House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. The battle was ignited by Mr. Ruggerio’s last-minute inclusion in budget legislation of an escape clause that would let the General Assembly stop the car-tax phaseout – beloved by Mr. Mattiello --  if in any given fiscal year the legislature determines it to be fiscally irresponsible. As regressive as the car tax is, Mr. Ruggerio is right to be leery of a phaseout’s long-term fiscal effects, especially given the inevitability of recessions.  Where would legislators find the money to reimburse the municipalities to offset their loss of car-tax money when the economy goes south?


It’s too bad that the two leaders couldn’t have worked out a deal on the budget, which is now in limbo because of their standoff.  That’s because, as I’ve written, the stalled budget was generally fair, practical and reasonable, or about as much as it could be given political realities.


In the end, it comes down to personalities as much as policies and principles. Perhaps the two leaders will go fishing or play 18 holes of golf together in the summer to achieve a détente before a special session in the fall to address the budget and the Pawtucket Red Sox’s desire for a new stadium. Okay. Maybe they don’t like each other and probably won’t get together. But  a cooling-off period might help.




Worcester, MA

Worcester officials are quietly reaching out to Pawtucket Red Sox owners about moving the franchise there,  perhaps at the vacant Wyman-Gordon Co. property downtown.  Presumably they’d pitch the old  industrial city’s location well within the Boston Red Sox orbit, its slowly reviving downtown and its commuter rail service to and from Greater Boston.


But the Worcester metro area is not on the Main Street of the East Coast, Route 95, as is Pawtucket, and, at 924,000 doesn’t have the population size of the Providence metro area, 1.6 million. And many simply find the Providence area more interesting, or at least more complicated.


Further, however, much  as Worcester officials and downtown business leaders might like to get the PawSox franchise and a stadium to go with it, public support would probably fade if and when the PawSox made their formal proposals for aid from the state and the city, especially if  state and local tax revenues fall over the next few months. And foes would cite  as warning the infamous cost overruns and other hassles in the construction of Dunkin’ Donuts Park in fiscally sick Hartford, the home of the hideously named Hartford Yard Goats, a Colorado Rockies farm team. Building baseball stadiums is not for the faint of heart!


Anyway, the PawSox owners clearly want to stay in Pawtucket.




U.S. Army

The news from North Korea is, of course, scary. It’s also a reminder that decades of appeasement of that  murderous Communist dynasty has just made matters worse. The North Koreans have routinely broken arms-control and other international agreements as they have continued to ceaselessly build up their nuclear and  missile forces. The regime takes concessions,  even food and fossil-fuel aid, as a sign of weakness.


Ten years ago, it might have been possible to destroy their key missile and nuclear facilities in U.S. military “surgical strikes,’ as was very seriously considered by American officials. But current dictator Kim  Jong-un and his brutal father before him so expanded and spread out the facilities housing their weapons of mass destruction (which include poison gas), that a direct preemptive attack on the regime would not prevent it from wreaking havoc on South Korea, Japan  and, soon, America.


Seeking help from the anti-American Chinese and Russian dictatorships will probably be fruitless: They benefit from the U.S. being distracted by North Korean saber-rattling. China, especially, wants to distract the U.S. from trying to thwart Chinese attempts to essentially take over the entire South China Sea. And, as Anders Corr notes, China has helped to build the North Korean nuclear-weapons program, “from trucks to warheads.’’ See his essay here:


The only practical response to Kim’s latest nuclear-powered threats is a tough and very patient containment policy. This would include putting U.S. tactical  nuclear weapons back in South Korea, from which they were pulled in 1991 in a failed effort to persuade Pyongyang to permit long-term  international inspection of its nuclear plants.  Such weaponry in the South would tend to make the North Koreans worry more deeply about attacking the South, be it with the North’s nukes and/or massive artillery attacks on Seoul, which is less than 40 miles from the border.


It bears noting that in the early ‘90s, North Korea and South Korea signed the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, whereby both sides promised that they would "not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons." And the pact bound the two sides to forgo "nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities."  Another sick joke by the Kim Dynasty.


The agreement, which North Korea signed merely to buy time, also provided for a bilateral inspections regime, which soon fell apart because of North Korean noncooperation, despite the efforts of the U.S. and South Korea to bribe the Kim dynasty out of its barbarism with aid offers.


Meanwhile, we’d be very foolish to follow the advice of China and Russia and put a moratorium on large-scale U.S. and South Korean military exercises meant to display force and will. As with earlier displays of goodwill, this would be taken as a sign of weakness and further egg on the North Koreans.



We must also step up our cyberwar against Kim’s regime and seek as many ways as possible to financially hurt Kim, his family and his well-fed and luxury-loving retainers in a state whose regime has killed so many of its people, through direct mass murder and policies that have made inevitable occasional famine. This will require finding tougher and broader ways to penalize the many Chinese government officials, companies and private individuals who profit from doing business with Kim and his cronies.


Then we must wait out the regime as best we can, perhaps over many years.




President Donald Trump

In a warning to the fossil-fuel industry that Donald Trump and Republican Party love so much, Chinese-owned Volvo, the Swedish carmaker, has announced that from 2019 on, the company will only sell cars with electric motors, either with a small gasoline-powered engine as a backup or an electric motor alone.


This move will fuel an expansion of charging stations for electric cars, which in turn will further boost sales of electric vehicles. The Chinese, unlike the Trump administration,  accepts that the future of cars and trucks will be based on electric motors, not the internal-combustion engine, and sooner than you might think as battery technology gets better.




Avon Cinema

The current issue of East Side Monthly has  a long article by Amanda Grosvenor is about Thayer Street, on Providence’s College Hill. The basic theme is that the street, long seen as Providence’s Harvard Square because of the proximity of Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, has become less  “edgy’’ and “funky’’ as some of the quirky stores have moved out and other, presumably more boring stores and, especially, restaurants, have moved in. Indeed, it’s now mostly a restaurant strip.


But such changes never stop.  Retail is always a churn.


My wife and I first lived in Providence in the late ‘70s, before exiling ourselves to France, and remember that back then, the street was rather stodgy, not edgy, with shops (or “shoppes”) appealing to “blue-haired ladies.’’


The biggest Thayer Street retail disaster in recent years was the closing of the College Hill Bookstore, a wonderful place to browse and buy. It had a much more interesting collection of books  and periodicals than the nearby Brown Bookstore, which has been sliding into mediocrity for years. The College Hill Bookstore’s owner, local real-estate mogul Ken Dulgarian, decided that he could make more money with another tenant, Spectrum India, which sells boring (to me) cheap clothes, jewelry and other stuff generally associated with the Subcontinent and/or retro hippies.


But bless Mr. Dulgarian for keeping the high-end, intimate and Art Deco’ish Avon Cinema going with an electic and exciting mix of films, big and small. (More comfortable seats  and a better sound system, however, would be appreciated.)


I think that there’s still a future for small stores with good service and a commitment to neighborhoods, especially the most attractive and walkable ones. I’m not so sure about the big physical stores, such as Macy’s. These brick-and-mortar outlets (and yes, of course they also have Web sites from which you can order) are being walloped by Amazon. Thus store traffic is way down  in many of them and these retailers respond to that by keeping fewer and fewer items in stock.


In my case, which I’m sure is common, I find that they often lack the sizes that they used they have, and as Americans become ever fatter this won’t get better. Being by American standards (but not the rest of the world’s) thin, I now must order almost all my clothes online. (That’s not much; I’m no clothes horse.)  The Web, being so huge,  has my  small size. So that’s one less customer willing to go to a real, physical store. Vicious circle and all that.




Americans’ capacity for self-delusion may exceed that of  citizens of other Western nations. And our leaders’ have a well-honed capacity for selling snake oil to a citizenry many of whose members are happy to buy it in a spirit of wishful thinking. Consider P.T. Barnum and greedy TV evangelists. Many of  the latter love Trump, despite a life that’s been anything but “Christian’’ in practice. But then, they love money and luxury, provided by the terrified-by-death suckers who send it to them. The amoral Trump represents the Gospel of Money that they consult daily. They don’t ask how he got it. --  very big inheritance,  conning customers and  massive use of tax breaks.


Trump’s remarks and warm reception at the First Baptist Church in Dallas-sponsored “Celebrate Freedom Rally” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on July 2 was an orgy of hypocrisy.  Of course, speakers as usual kept implying that freedom of religion was under threat in America when it is anything but.  It receives massive financial and other protection, even when it’s run as a business and as an extension of a political party.


And please let’s not ignore the fact that the U.S. Constitution also protects those who don’t want anything to do with organized religion, too much of which has become a racket.




Consider Sen. Marco Rubio’s remarks back in 2010 to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, in which he said that America is the “only place in the world where it doesn't matter who your parents were or where you came from. You can be anything you are willing to work hard to be. The result is the only economy in the world where poor people with a better idea and a strong work ethic can compete and succeed against rich people in the marketplace and competition.”  It’s amusing how many people believe these brazen untruths or at least want to believe them. (I italicized “only’’ before “economy’’ because it’s either another popular political lie or it bespeaks a staggering lack of knowledge of other nations.)


International statistics on upward mobility show that who your parents  are, and thus the money and other privileges they give you as head starts, matters more in the U.S. than in most other Developed Nations. And the lack of  U.S. social mobility is getting worse as income inequality widens.


Senator Rubio’s Horatio Alger-style remarks remind me of the innumerable times I’ve heard rich physicians and health-insurance and hospital executives assert that the U.S. has “the best healthcare system in the world’’ despite World Heath Organization and other statistics that have marked  it among the  very worst in the Developed World as measured by outcomes, access and cost.


However, it’s certainly the most lucrative system in the world for the folks selling its products. This gives them lots of money to spend in Washington to prevent real reform.


I would agree that America is a very dynamic, if anxiety-ridden, place. And while the pace of technological and other innovation has slowed in the past couple of decades in this country, it’s a still a place that encourages invention. That keeps us going.




“Massachusetts! A word surrounded with an aura of hope! A state with a soul! There is gathered up into her name the brilliant program of a new world.’’


From Massachusetts Beautiful (1923), by Wallace Nutting




Related Slideshow: 10 Things That Need to Happen to Get PawSox to Worcester

Prev Next

Arrange Meeting with PawSox Owners

City officials need to sit down with the new PawSox ownership group. CEO Michael Tamburro grew up in Worcester and is a graduate of North High.

The new ownership group is led by Boston Red Sox President Larry Lucchino, who will serve as Chairman, and James J. Skeffington, who will be President

"We are very excited about our purchase of the Pawtucket Red Sox and the opportunity to partner with the Boston Red Sox to provide first class baseball and family entertainment to our loyal fan base in New England," said Skeffington, who will oversee the operation on a daily basis.

Prev Next

Providence Deal Needs to Fall Through

There's always the chance that Providence could balk at the amount of public funding that the new ownership group is looking for. Early indications show that the number could be upwards of $70 million.

"The doors are always open," said Tim Murray, President and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. "If the deal were to fall apart, I think people here would be willing to listen, but everyone recognizes this requires signifcant municipal assistance. Massachusetts, traditionally, has been reluctant to use tax dollars to those kind of things, and I think in most cases, appropriately so."

Prev Next

Sell Public on WHY It Will Work

With the loss of the AHL Worcester Sharks looming after this season, Worcester will be without a professional sports team. Worcester residents will look to its city officials to do something to get a pro team back to the city.

"As usual, the city leaders have done nothing to attract the PawSox. It's been known for several months that the PawSox were going to be sold. Much like with the Sharks, the city has been reactive instead of proactive. The city leaders - (i.e. government and businesses), and some state leaders as well - need to step it up. Unfortunately, they seem to think Spag's is still around and want something for nothing (or almost nothing). Looking for bargains where very little effort has to be put into it. The city manager, mayor, and city council have been virtually silent on the Sharks move, and probably weren't even aware about the PawSox until it was too late," said Rich Lubin, President of the Worcester Sharks Booster Club.

Prev Next

Strengthen Public Support

Worcester is home to the Worcester Bravehearts, the defending Futures Collegiate Baseball League (FCBL) Champions. After the fiasco that the Worcester Tornadoes turned out to be, residents of Worcester would be proud to see both the Bravehearts and the PawSox succeeding in the city. 

“Worcester is a city that has always loved baseball. You can track the history all the way back to the early 1900’s when we had a team in the National League. With the (Boston) Red Sox so close, and all of these minor league teams, the city still took to the Worcester Bravehearts. We were tops in attendance and won the Championship game in front of more than 2,000 people. Baseball will certainly thrive in this city,” said Casey Cummins, Bravehearts pitching coach. 

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Find Land in Worcester for Stadium

“The 'WorSox' could purchase, clean up and build a fine stadium on the spacious Wyman Gordon property near Kelly Square. That location also has excellent highway access. What a welcome neighbor the team would be to the up-and-coming Canal District. Worcester, New England's 2nd largest city, would be a much better home for the "WorSox." People from cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and beyond would flock to our city on a frequent basis to see such high level and quality baseball," said City Councilor Gary Rosen.

Prev Next

Utilize Central MA Connections in MA Gov

Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, of Shrewsbury, now holds the highest seat of anyone from Central Massachusetts in state government. Her position was formerly occupied by Tim Murray, now the President of Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Worcester could use this connection to help gain support from Governor Charlie Baker and may even be able to garner state funding to help lure the PawSox to the city.

Prev Next

Find Local Business Partners

The cost of a new stadium could run the city and state upwards of $70 million.

Worcester will need to turn to local businesses to invest in the cleaning up of any area they decide to build a stadium and the actual construction of the stadium.

Prev Next

Push Forward Canal District Plans

The Canal District is located on the "Green Island" area of Worcester that includes Water Street, Green Street, Millbury Street, and Kelley Square.

Over the past ten years, the city and the Canal District Business Association has put a lot of money into the area to revive it and bring business in.

A push to gain funding to continue to improve the Canal District could be a great sign to the PawSox owners that Worester means business.

Prev Next

Pay to Clean Up Proposed Land

Tim Murray, President and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce said the city has looked previously at the Wyman Gordon site, discussed expanding the field at Lake Park, or partnering with one of the colleges or universities on a site to build a baseball stadium. Murray noted that things get tricky when you start looking at these sites when you begin dealing with property and land acquisition costs and clean-up costs. 

Prev Next

Keep the Bravehearts in the Discussion

The Worcester Bravehearts, the 2014 Futures Collegiate Baseball League (FCBL) Champions in their inaugural season, will be entering their second season as the only local major sport team left in the city. Last season, they drew over 50,000 people to Fitton Field.

Murray said "We have a great product with the Bravehearts and they had a great inaugural season. The Bravehearts are locally owned and controlled, and they had a great product and strong attendance in their first year. It plays on one of the advantages that Worcester does have that a lot of places don't, is the amount of colleges and universities around and the large number of student atheletes we have here."


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