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Robert Whitcomb’s Digital Diary: Providence Bankruptcy and Worcester’s Resurgence

Friday, December 16, 2016


Bob Whitcomb

Providence Bankruptcy: Get It Over With; ‘New England’s Pittsburgh’; How Fascist Is Trump?  Hotel on Mt. Washington


Ken Block, the systems analyst and former Rhode Island gubernatorial candidate, and Alan Hassenfeld, former CEO of Hasbro, are right to urge that Providence promptly be put into bankruptcy protection. (I have said for years that the city should do this.)


The city’s vast $1.9 billion liability for unfunded pensions and capacious retiree health benefits, and largely intransigent municipal unions, make it impossible for the city to dig itself out of its hole unless it goes into bankruptcy, with a  highly experienced, decisive and tough receiver appointed by a federal judge to make drastic and long-overdue changes.


The aforementioned liabilities can be blamed largely on  past mayors’ (especially the late, outstandingly corrupt  thug Vincent Cianci) sweetheart deals with labor unions in return for their political support,  and wishful thinking about, for instance, the rates of return possible for the city’s investments.


Should Providence go bankrupt

Paying for this immense debt eats up money that otherwise could go into better city services and lower taxes. Better services and lower taxes would, of course, make Providence much more attractive to taxpaying businesses and individuals that might consider moving to it. The city’s  superb location, distinguished educational and other institutions (albeit too many of them officially “nonprofit’’ and thus sharing little of  the tax burden) and many cultural charms would have drawn many businesses, large and small, over the past few decades if its fiscal condition had been healthy.


Providence is already effectively bankrupt. It’s past time to accept that and enter a fast and efficient bankruptcy process. Detroit has recently done just that and is now enjoying a revival. So has Central Falls. And Providence has more going for it in the long run than Detroit, especially in  location and demographics. It’s embarrassing for politicians and residents in general to admit that their city is bankrupt, but energizing to know that bankruptcy can help shovel out the manure left by years of irresponsible governance.


Disinfecting Providence’s finances would, of course, be a big boost to all of Rhode Island, which is in many ways a city-state, and indeed to all of southeastern New England, of which Providence is the center.




The lack of imagination and even common sense in talking about public projects in Providence could sometimes be heard in a Dec. 6 community  meeting on a proposed high-frequency bus corridor from the city’s train station on Smith Hill to the hospital district near the waterfront – a fine idea. One lady raised the specter that not enough people would use the line to justify its $17 million cost.


But as been proven time and again, dense, reliable mass transit draws people (and money) to cities. Look at Boston, especially after the Big Dig. And Providence already has growing population density  in the neighborhoods that would be served by the proposed corridor.


Further, the aging of the population can only increase the demand for such lines. (With my deteriorating eyesight and reflexes, I can speak to that. Driving does get tougher every year after about 60.)



Worcester is on the rebound

Worcester, which I have always seen as “New England’s Pittsburgh’’ because of its metal-related companies, is enjoying a revival, including in manufacturing, which first made it rich. Indeed, in a recent three-year period, the Worcester area’s manufacturing sector grew 15 percent as measured by revenue.

The city also has numerous higher-education institutions that are contributing to its renaissance but probably the University of Massachusetts Medical Center has been the most important, helping to turn the city into a major biomedical center. Further, there are big redevelopment projects underway downtown. Some of the revival is simply the westward expansion of the booming Greater Boston economy but some of it is due to healthy homegrown boosterism.

And there are such distinguished cultural centers as the Worcester Museum of Art and some gorgeous suburbs, such as Princeton and Harvard, Mass.

Worcester has plenty of problems, of course, but its recent success is edifying for other mid-size cities, in New England and beyond. If only its winters were  tad milder.

By the way, Worcester is somewhat misleadingly called “the second-biggest city in New England,’’ with a population of about 181,000, compared to Providence’s about 180,000, but the latter’s metro area has many more people than Worcester’s – about 1.3 million compared to Worcester’s about 800,000. Worcester has far more square miles, at 38.6, than Providence’s 20.6. Like Boston and some other Colonial-era towns, Providence’s area is tiny because other towns in its area were quickly incorporated well before Providence could absorb their acreage as its population and economy boomed in the 19th Century. Out west, on the other hand, cities could easily gobble up vast stretches of unincorporated and under-populated land.



Is the deeply corrupt, greedy, selfish, narcissistic and pathological liar who will soon be our president a would-be quasi-fascist dictator? Well, yes, in some ways. Consider:


He sees himself as the center of everything.


He lashes out and threatens people who challenge his endless list of lies. He has little if any respect for the First Amendment and some other parts of the Constitution. But has he ever read it? He will try to threaten critics into silence.


This spoiled son of a rich and rapacious father sees politics and government as another way of further enriching himself and his family.



He admires dictators such as Vladimir Putin because association with them makes him feel more powerful. He likes to have generals in his cabinet for similar psychological reasons. Indeed, his proposed cabinet in some ways recalls a Third World military junta. (That is not to say that his choice for defense secretary, retired Marine  Gen. James Mattis, is not terrific.)


He favors personal deal-making with individual companies in addressing  economic challenges -- recalling the “state capitalism’’ of Nazi Germany -- rather than a level field for all players in our economy. But then, he gets the credit for deals like the dubious one for Carrier and others get the bill. The public is too lazy to study the macro-economic effects of government by deal. And the applause he gets for going after exorbitant “cost-plus’’ defense contracts and outrageous drug prices is, I must admit, emotionally satisfying.


On the other hand, I doubt very much he’s a bigot about race, religion and sexual identity. Looking at how he’s run his businesses and hired people, I don’t think he cares about  much of anything other than how something nurtures his wealth and in  some ways fragile ego. Yes, he appealed to white supremacists during the campaign but merely out of opportunism; he’s amoral.


Let us hope that the federal system and a hoped-for revival of morality in the now nearly morally/ethically bankrupt and astonishingly hypocritical national Republican Party can restrain Mr. Trump’s worst impulses. Notice that I wrote “national Republican Party.’’ There are some honest and able Republican politicians in high executive positions in the states. Consider Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, who may be the best governor in America.


And maybe Donald Trump won’t  make it through four years. Perhaps American University history Prof. Allan Lichtman, who famously predicted that Donald Trump would win the election, will also be right in predicting that this most corrupt and dangerous president in American history  (and not a “conservative’’) will be impeached by a Republican-run Congress. “I’m quite certain Trump will give someone grounds for impeachment, either by  doing something that endangers national security or because it helps his pocketbook,’’ Mr. Lichtman told The Washington Post.




Besides Vladimir Putin’s successful efforts to help get Donald Trump elected and  the Clintons’ decades of baggage, the Democratic Party and Obama administration’s stupid obsession with appealing to self-identity-obsessed voters with such trendy ideas as letting “transgendered people’’ use any bathroom eroded the vote in Democrats’ historical base of working people. The party must get back to the Roosevelt/Truman/Kennedy/Johnson appeal to the broad socio-economic interests of most Americans and drop its pandering to groups obsessed with their racial and/or sexual identity above all else.





People who are environmental-science “skeptics,’’ such as our next president,  and/or who basically want industry to do whatever it wants to maximize profits, might look at the Gulf of Maine, where anti-pollution regulations imposed on coal-fired power plants in the Midwest cut mercury levels in Gulf of Maine by 2 percent a year in the 2004-2012 period,  Maine Public Radio reported. Bad for utility execs and shareholders, good for public health and fishermen. Enjoy your sushi.




128 Visit New Hampshire

In other environmental news, the owner of the famous Mt. Washington Cog Railway, Wayne Presby, wants to build a luxury hotel, along or even over its tracks, at about 5,000 feet up New England’s highest peak (6,288 feet).


This has inevitably caused a rumpus. Hikers complain that the hotel will degrade their experience on the mountain, whose summit is now crowded in the summer with climbers and people silly enough to ruin their brakes and transmissions by driving there. (In my healthier times long ago, I climbed it in the winter, when it’s more beautiful, albeit a tad nippy and breezy, than in its over-populated summer.)


Some locals  are pushing back against the complaining greenies, many of whom are from out of state, saying that since tourism is the lifeblood of the White Mountains, the hotel should be allowed. I’m a former resident of New Hampshire and understand the tourism imperative but I think that building the hotel will, in the long run, hurt tourism by sending hikers and others bearing money elsewhere in search of a less sullied nature – maybe across the nearby border to Canada.


Yes, there was a hotel on top of the mountain in Victorian and Edwardian times but there was a lot more available nature in the region those days, before most people had cars and the invention of ski lifts.


The whole thing reminds me of current successful efforts to let companies turn some of our National Parks into major advertising  venues.  Thus it will get even harder to get away from the  images and cacophony of commercialism in order to quietly reflect on life while enjoying the beauty of things so much bigger than loud,  unreliable, anxious and grasping humanity.

Robert Whitcomb is the former Editorial Page Editor for the Providence Journal and is now a columnist for GoLocal.


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