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Robert Whitcomb’s Digital Diary: Shrinking New England & Banking with Trump

Monday, January 02, 2017


Robert Whitcomb

Democracies Decay; Is Sluggish Population Growth Bad?  Ranking Worcester; Raising Tuna at URI


‘’New Year’s Day… is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” 

— Mark Twain


"To argue with a man who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead."


Thomas Jefferson, letter to the Danbury Baptists (1802)


“The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by the force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notions that his mind is a virtual vacuum.


“The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.


-- H.L. Mencken, in The Baltimore Sun, July 26, 1920


Democratic republics are doomed by the inevitable decay and corruption of civic culture. For a while, enough of the electorate is willing to learn real facts, study the issues, reflect on the lessons of history and bestir themselves enough to take a few minutes to vote to usually prevent deeply corrupt and incompetent people from achieving high office.


But as time goes by, a growing proportion of the citizenry loses its civic enthusiasm as the education system ceases to teach them how their political and governmental institutions work and to remind them how precious and fragile those  institutions are. Meanwhile, society’s leaders become increasingly corrupted by self-interest, usually economic, and expend most of their political energies on strengthening the  (mostly hereditary) plutocracy that nurtures them. (Read The Sunday New York Times’s wedding section for the zoology of the plutocracy.)


The rise of the bread-and-circus-and-cute-kitten machines of the Internet and cable television accelerates this decline, encouraging citizens to stay within self-referential  and escapist echo chambers where lie-based but comfortingly simple and engaging stories are told  by employees of the powerful and facts are treated as irritating distractions.


Most people have always preferred well-told stories, including ones based on lies, over facts and reason anyway. And now the electronic media give them such tailored stories 24/7.


To think that most citizens operate on the basis of reason, as opposed to wishful thinking and fear and other visceral emotions,  is naïve. And they want a leader who can convince them that he/she will take care of them and make all the hard decisions in the public square for them.


For a while – and  the U.S. has had quite a run -- the ruling class in an officially democratic republic is proud to be considered relatively thoughtful, selfless and civic-minded. But corrupted by addiction to money and power, the proportion of such people in our leadership groups inevitably declines. The rise of the 24/7 electronic media  demagoguery machine accelerates this by  intentionally distributing falsehoods, devaluing public probity and sowing confusion. As bad money drives out good, so bad (fraudulent) information tends to drive out accurate information.


In the end, democracies end  and dictatorships return; the latter is the natural default.  Nothing lasts. You can see this around the world now, where frustrated citizens  in democracies are increasingly looking to tough men to address their nations’ problems, if need be with extra-legal means.

The conservative columnist George Will wrote during the election campaign:


“The beginning of conservative wisdom is recognition that there is an end to everything: Nothing lasts. If Trump wins, the GOP ends as a vehicle for conservatism.’’

“Pessimism need not breed fatalism or passivity. It can define an agenda of regeneration, but only by being clear-eyed about the extent of {civic} degeneration, which a charlatan's successful selling of his fabulousness exemplifies.’’ 


For an exciting example of one aspect of our new civic life on the Internet, take a look at http://www.dailystormer.com/






Some  New England  public-sector economic-development officials and business leaders say that they’re worried about slow population growth in New England; in Connecticut the population has actually slipped a bit in recent years. Well, we can always use more highly trained people to staff the many sophisticated enterprises in our region, and we need more young adults, but I have  heard these tales of woe about New England’s sluggish population growth –among the lowest of any states in America – for decades and yet New  England continues to be among the the richest parts of the U.S.


And it’s hard to argue that the world needs more people! Indeed, the swelling human population is destroying the planet’s eco-system at an accelerating rate. One of the nice things about New England is that it has less of the new sprawl and mess of the rapidly growing South, most of which remains the poorest part of the country and whose sparse social services are heavily subsidized by the richer, better run and more humane Northeast.


Rhode Island, for its part, is likely to lose a congressional seat because of its sluggish population growth.  That’s just as well. The state would be better off merged with Massachusetts anyway.




In a related matter: To address what is seen as a manpower deficit in some parts of New England, there are efforts to bring in more immigrants from abroad. One example: Rutland, Vt., where Syrian refugees are encouraged to move to.


This gets to the issue of whether to invite Muslim immigrants in large numbers to America.


I would urge caution. Look  at the Muslim world and you see that just about all of it is brutally and corruptly governed. A key reason  is Islam itself, in which an individual’s free will is respected  less than in the West and other religions are persecuted. There’s a fatalistic “if God is willing’’ attitude that encourages a supine subservience to corrupt dictatorships, be they monarchical or just thugs who install themselves in power by nefarious means.


Indeed, Islam and Western ideas of democracy do not mesh very well. If devout Muslims remain only a small part of the population in Western nations, no big deal. But large numbers could jeopardize our already decayed democracy. Western democracies require broad  respect for free will, reason, tolerance of opposing views and fact-based knowledge to work.





TF Green

Here’s some good use of economic-development money because its benefits would be widely spread instead of given to a single company. First, Rhode Island has a new $1.5 million fund to encourage airlines to add nonstop flights to and from T.F. Green Airport.  Adding airlines at Green would help a very broad range of enterprises in the state and region to better compete nationally and internationally, not just the sort of sexy big companies (e.g., General Electric, Virgin Pulse and Johnson & Johnson) that in Rhode Island and elsewhere get big state tax and other economic incentives to no small extent because they are famous.


Second, there are two state contracts totaling $194,500 to see what sort of changes can be made to the Ocean State’s tax structure to lure more business and to work with national survey companies that do rankings on business climate to  evaluate how the Ocean State can improve its rankings. I am always dubious about such national rankings (‘’best colleges,’’ ‘’best cities’’, etc., etc.) because they usually compare apples and oranges and thus are almost always misleading. Still, people make decisions based on them, no matter how unfair they might be.


Here’s an example of how stupid many rankings can be:


The Milken Institute Best-Performing Cities Index has cut Worcester’s national ranking to 79th in 2016 from 37th in 2015.   In only one year! The index purports to rank U.S. metro areas on how well they are creating and keeping jobs and promoting economic growth in general.  But given the almost infinite number of variables involved in measuring the progress of a metro area, such yearly rankings are basically ridiculous. They  are, however, quite profitable for the ranking organizations’ employees.






Thank God for scallops. These shellfish have been a boon for New England fishermen– a nice offset to the tendency of fishermen to fish to near-extinction finfish, such as as cod, off New England to meet the world’s rapidly growing appetite.


By the way,  experts in a facility on the campus of the University of Rhode Island School of Oceanography are raising yellowfin tuna in an exciting and potentially very lucrative aquaculture experiment. I recently had a tour of the URI Bay Campus facility, with a giant tank, where this is taking place. To see the tuna school in the tank is, well, neat.


If this experiment works, it could mean a lot of money for URI and for businesses, based, let us hope, in New England. Most of the aquaculture around here has been with shellfish. It’s nice to see more diversification.





Trump the salesman

Now, this is refreshing. University of California at Irvine Peter Navarro (with whom I used to deal when publishing his op-ed columns) will lead a Trump administration office for U.S. trade and industrial policy. He has famously and accurately denounced the police state that runs China for doing devastating damage to the American economy by destroying many millions of good jobs and forcing the closure of thousands of factories through illegally subsidized trade, “contaminated, defective and cancerous’’  exports and massive theft of U.S. intellectual property.


Of course, all this has been enabled by GOP and Democratic presidents and big U.S. companies’ executive suites. But then, big business and the White House are always closely linked.  This may well be even more so in the Trump administration, going by the people slated for the Cabinet and other key jobs. What’s bad for U.S. factory workers is often very good for their companies’ C-Suites.


Will Mr. Navarro be permitted to keep up this rhetoric when in public office? Will President-elect Trump, who prides himself on having  world-historical deal-making skills, be able to negotiate better deals with these very tough customers?


A cousin of mine, now a retired banker,  negotiated with Mr. Trump in the ‘80s when the latter was trying to get a big loan from the Philadelphia bank where my cousin then worked. My cousin told me that The Donald was a hell of a salesman --- full of charm and self-confidence – although the bank didn’t in the end extend the developer the big loan he wanted. Whether those qualities will work with the Chinese is debatable.




The battles continue in Connecticut over the proposed route of a long-long overdue high-speed Northeast rail line that would go near the Nutmeg State’s coastline. Many of the complainants are affluent and influential and thus in stronger positions than most people to thrown spanners in  the works of progress.  Remember how billionaire Bill Koch almost singlehandedly stopped the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound – a project that would have provided clean energy for much of southeastern Massachusetts?


Faster Northeast Corridor trains would take many more people off the adjoining  region’s very congested roads, reduce the need to widen or build new highways (highways are much wider than rail lines), reduce air pollution and in so doing improve southern New England’s environment as well as make its business more competitive. The big question will be, as so often in such delayed public works, whether a small number of powerful people will defeat the broad public interest.




2017 should be exciting, perhaps too exciting for some people.


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