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Robert Whitcomb: Throw the Book at Taggers: Put Transit Center Below Ground? Storing Windpower

Monday, August 07, 2017


Bob Whitcomb

Throw the Book at Taggers: Put Transit Center Below Ground? Storing Windpower

Eruptive lightnings flutter to and fro
Above the heights of immemorial hills;
Thirst-stricken air, dumb-throated, in its woe
Limply down-sagging, its limp body spills
Upon the earth. A panting silence fills
The empty vault of Night with shimmering bars
Of sullen silver, where the lake distills
Its misered bounty.—Hark! No whisper mars
The utter silence of the untranslated stars.


-- ‘’Summer Silence,’’ by E.E. Cummings


Localities and states need to get much tougher on graffiti “taggers’’  on publicly owned structures. Such public vandalism should be treated as felonies, with serious jail time, not as misdemeanors. And police and the rest of the law-enforcement community should make sure that photos of these people, who are mostly young males, be widely distributed to the public.


I was reminded of the need for this long-overdue change while reading about the graffiti guys’ attack on David Macaulay’s beautiful mural on a retaining wall alongside Route 95 in Providence. The state gave up and painted it over.


Graffiti in Providence

The effect of graffiti itself, and of leaving it visible far too  long, is much more serious than some might think. It signals lawlessness and menace to residents and visitors and tends to make people want to avoid areas where it’s common. Thus it’s bad for public morale and the economy.


It’s particularly offensive and depressing in such older areas as southern New England, with considerable manmade beauty in the form of old buildings.


Make this public vandalism a felony.




Speaker Nicholas Mattiello

Rhode Islanders (especially local officials) breathed a sigh of relief when House Speaker  Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominic Ruggerio agreed to end the state budget impasse.


Apparently the clincher was the speaker’s agreement for a study of the fiscal effects of phasing out the local car tax – a phaseout strenuously endorsed by the speaker. Mr. Ruggerio is quite right to think that the phaseout might be fiscally unsustainable. We’re overdue for a recession, which could cause a crash in overall tax revenues.  Now on  to the PawSox crisis….




How much of the transit center and commercial complex, etc., proposed for the Rhode Island State House/train center area could be put underground to protect the public park aspects of the area? Would that be prohibitively expensive? Could it be done attractively, not like the grim and claustrophobic underground Penn Station in New York?




Deepwater Wind

It was, well, energizing to read about Deepwater Wind’s plan to build another offshore wind project south of Martha’s Vineyard – and, very importantly – to be paired with a battery storage system. The battery storage system will, the company says, defer the need to build  very expensive new peak-energy-demand facilities and lay transmission lines, which are always controversial in our hyper-NIMBY region.


Storage has always been the biggest challenge in expanding the use of clean, renewable and increasingly cost-competitive energy as wind, solar and water energy become more efficient.  The problem, of course, is that this energy is intermittent, not constant, unlike burning fossil fuel. If the battery storage problem can  be fixed, then New England can become independent in electricity generation, with vast benefits to its economy and environment




Some Democrats are pushing former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. If only the very managerially competent, politically astute  and sometimes even visionary current Bay State governor, Charlie Baker, a Republican, could run for president. But he wouldn’t have a prayer with the crowd who dominate his party now across most of America.




But Mr. Baker’s support for an August sales-tax holiday does nothing for economic development and is an unwise gimmick in times like now when state tax revenues are down. And they won’t save brick-and-mortar stores from the Amazon assault. Mr. Baker is running for re-election next year and these summer sales-tax holidays are good for a few more votes, not that the very popular governor is likely to need them.


Meanwhile, people are lining up to try to get a job at Amazon, which is hiring 50,000 people across America. But Amazon is destroying far more jobs than it’s creating, as it hollows out brick-and-mortar retail outlets and some old downtowns. And it will probably soon be using  new distribution center robots that will destroy many of the positions it’s now offering with so much fanfare. Millions of people love the convenience of Amazon, but they may not understand they’ll get hit good and hard by it.




The long and convoluted legal case involving the ownership of Touro Synagogue, the Western Hemisphere’s oldest synagogue, and the synagogue’s deep and important historical background remind me of what you might read in a 19th Century English novel by Dickens or Trollope. Quite a show. It would be a good book.




Good news! Bees may be coming back, slowly. The U.S. Agriculture Dept. says the number of commercial honeybee colonies rose 3 percent in the April 2016-April 2017 period after years of crashes.


Some of the improvement may stem from a mysterious decrease in the varroa mites implicated in the deaths of  many bees. And some may be due to more careful pesticide use by farmers and others.  Still, pollinators such as bees and butterflies remain under great stress, much of it manmade, including from the paving over of foraging areas for bees. And without pollinators, we’d eventually starve to death.


The USDA reported that the  varroa mite,  which has afflicted  U.S. honeybee colonies since 1987, was reported in 42 percent of commercial hives between April and June this year, down 53 percent from the year-earlier period.





Stocks Market's gains

The stock market has been going up for years. President Obama, rather quietly, sought to get credit for that, as is President Trump, with far more bluster. But neither has had much influence. There are innumerable variables in the economy. Probably the most important are Federal Reserve Board policy on interest rates and the direction of corporate profits.


But  beware: The Trump regime would like to emasculate financial-services-sector controls put into effect after runaway speculation and fraud (little of it punished because of Wall Street banks’ vast  economic and political power) brought us the Great Crash of 2008 and the Great Recession. The Trump people are in the bag for Wall Street; indeed, Goldman Sachs – a major culprit in the crash – is basically running the administration’s economic policy.


Still, you’d think that more of the public would be pleased as punch with the recent level of the (over-emphasized) Dow Jones Industrial Average. However, about half of adult Americans are not members of the investment class and their wages continue to lag and their fringe benefits continue to be cut or eliminated.





But wages certainly aren’t lagging for company and “nonprofit’’ organizations’ executives as more and more of the country’s wealth goes to a sliver of people at the top, in a winner-take-all economy that eschews sharing with lower-level but essential employees.


Consider The Boston Globe’s Aug. 1 story “Some charter school leaders’ pay far outpaces their public rivals.’’ 


The Globe discovered that the “median pay package for the top leaders  of the 16 charter schools in Boston was $170,00 last year.’’ Some Rhode Islanders might remember the former Providence school Supt.  Diana Lam. As the boss of Conservatory Lab, she got a $275,000 in salary and $23,000 more for unused personal time off in 2016.


That was more than Boston School Supt. Tommy Chang’s total  compensation of  $272,000 in 2016.


These just-before-retirement pay packages are used as the basis for maximizing the departing executives’ pensions, which approach $200,000 a year.


Remember these charter schools are public institutions.


Over the years of looking at executive-suite compensation I’ve there’s often remarkably little connection between execs’ pay and the success of their organizations,  in the public or private sectors. They mostly get these pay packages because the boards authorizing them are composed of very affluent people made uncomfortable by the idea that these execs should be paid at rates commensurate with common sense and reality. Hey! We’re rich and so you should be too! Meanwhile, lower-level employees often see their pay and benefits slashed.


(If Hollywood, publishing houses, basketball teams, etc., want to pay their stars millions for bringing in these organizations’ revenue, that’s perfectly fair. Clear talent.)_


U.S. Education Secretary Best DeVos, wallowing like much of the Trump regime in economic conflicts of interest, wants to dramatically increase the number of charter schools. If that happens, let’s hope that more attention is paid to  their executive salaries.




In other education news, the Trump administration, playing to its white male base, wants to sue colleges to block affirmative-action programs aimed at increasing the number of people of color on campuses. The implication is that black and Hispanic students get far more help than do white kids. (Asian-American students are put in another category.)


I’m not crazy about formal affirmative-action programs but colleges have, and should have, many things to consider when putting together classes. For example, many of the most prestigious colleges, including the Ivy League, give a big preference to “legacies,’’ those students, most of whom are white, with alumni parents or other close relatives.


Indeed, rich (mostly white) kids get a big advantage in admissions. First, they (or, rather, their families) can pay full tuition, a not minor consideration for admissions officers. Second, being already affluent, they and their families are naturally more likely to donate to their colleges before and after graduation – especially the legacy students.  Thus Jared Kushner, with mediocre high school marks, got into Harvard – after his father donated $2.5 million to that illustrious institution. It’s unknown if Donald Trump’s rapacious multimillionaire real-estate operator father, Fred, wrote a donation check to get young Donald Trump into the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School as a transfer student from Fordham


Finally, a thought experiment for  white people: Do you really think that life would have been easier for you as a black person?


Probably the fairest way to  do college affirmative action in our increasingly genealogically plutocratic society is to make more of an effort to enable low-and-middle-income to attend. That would particularly benefit people of color, as well as poor whites.




The nationalist Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s most controversial adviser, wants Facebook and Google, both of which are far too big and powerful, to be regulated as public utilities. That’s not a bad idea. But even better would be  to revive the all-too-passive  Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division and break up these behemoths as they should have broken up Microsoft and as the government broke up the Standard Oil Trust in the days of John D. Rockefeller.  Google and Facebook act in restraint of trade because of their extreme dominance of advertising.




It’s sad that one of my former employers, The Wall Street Journal, is seeing what we called “The Chinese Wall’’ between the news and commentary sections erode. That’s what’s happening as Rupert Murdoch, a pal of Trump and the honcho of News Corp., which owns the WSJ, has given the word to go light on our corrupt president.  And the paper’s editor, Gerard Baker, has revealed himself as a first-class suck-up to Trump. Read this interview HERE.



Then there’s Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns a multitude of TV stations across America (including Channel 10 in Providence) and whose managers  have been directed by Sinclair primary owners to use them as pro-Trump propaganda organs, along the lines of Fox News.




President Donald Trump

The Tea Party/Trump wings of the Republican Party have shown themselves capable of anything. But then, they had the model of the bizarre but effective conspiracy theories about the Clintons back in  the ‘90s, abetted by the likes of Newt Gingrich. And now we’re cleaning up from the Fox News-promoted lie in May that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was murdered because he had leaked information about DNC matters to WikiLeaks, the Russia-linked hacking and espionage entity. Washington police believe that Mr. Rich was shot to death in a botched robbery.


Rod Wheeler, a Fox contributor who investigated the July 2016 murder for Mr. Rich’s family, now says the Trump-affiliated network used fabricated quotes implicating Mr. Rich in the leaks and that President Trump pushed Fox to run the story to take pressure off the White House about the collusion between Trump and Russia.


Mr. Wheeler’s lawyer, Douglas Wigdor, said: “Fox News was working with the Trump administration to disseminate fake news in order to distract the public from Russia’s alleged attempts to influence our country’s presidential election.’’


But then, this is the crowd that promoted the lie that leading Democrats were running a pedophilia ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza joint, that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and that the Clintons had people murdered in the ‘90s.




If you want to read a memorable survival story, read Ruthless River: Love and Survival by Raft on the Amazon's Relentless Madre de Dio,  by Holly FitzGerald. It’s the frightening story of Mrs. FitzGerald and her husband, Gerald (but called Fitz),  who set out on a honeymoon trip around the world. In South America,  they survived a plane crash near a remote and menacing penal colony but then found themselves lost for many  days on a tiny raft that they had built to try to escape to civilization.


They were finally rescued by natives in a  dugout canoe as they faced starvation in a jungle swamp. It's a story of love, endurance and  hope in the face of a seemingly hopeless and lethal situation, along with brilliant nature writing. I was shocked that fairly soon after they recovered (in Vermont) from their Amazon nightmare, they embarked on a trip to places in Asia and Africa that could have been as perilous as the Amazon jungle.


But they have lived most of the time since then in the lovely but not dangerous town of South Dartmouth, Mass.


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