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Whitcomb: Amazon’s Brilliant Ploy; America’s Minority Rule; Terror in Pawtucket; Try Common Sense

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


Robert Whitcomb

“Without going against Nature and absolutely defying the seasons, Rhode Island’s climate has as many variations as the solar system will permit.’’


From the WPA Guide to Rhode Island (1937)


The War to Start New Wars

Today is the centennial of the end of World War I, marking the end of the catastrophic conflict that still profoundly affects us today. Very few observers in June, 1914, would have predicted that a huge war would start July 28 and cause such suffering. People thought that burgeoning world trade and modern communications would make a general war in Europe and beyond impossible. Paranoia, misinformation, misunderstanding, arrogance and an obsession with ethnicity and nationalism led international tensions to spiral out of control.

Civilization is always more fragile than we’d like to believe.


RI's Amazon submission

A Brilliant Market-Data-Gathering Scheme

Amazon’s decision to split its much-hyped “Second Headquarters’’ between the Long Island City section of New York City and Arlington, Va.,  right across the Potomac from Washingon, with about 25,000 generally well-paid, well-educated and young workers at each location, testifies to the fact that Red State-style low-taxes (except for their high – and regressive – sales taxes) and crummy public services hobble those states in competing with high-tax, strong public-services places like New York City and metropolitan Washington. Both metros have large numbers of highly educated people, and many distinguished public and private educational institutions. Well-educated and technological astute workers are more attractive to most companies than low-income taxes.


That both New York City and Greater Washington have dense – if far from perfect – mass- transit systems is another reason why they “won’’ the Amazon contest. I say “won’’ because maybe all those new people will cause so much more gridlock, and send already high housing prices in the two metros so high, that the prize may come to seem toxic. Or not. Perhaps the Long Island City operation will spin off a few jobs to Connecticut and Rhode Island to reduce crowding.


So, more than ever, the wealth and socio-economic dynamism are on the coasts, even as much of the Heartland continues to fester in fear of change, and engage in wishful thinking. (BTW, by background, I’m partly a Midwesterner and I have Southern relatives, too.) J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy sums up some of the Heartland’s problems.


Jeff Bezos and his colleagues in the Amazon executive sure were crafty (dishonest?) in attracting hundreds of pitches from around America to win what the behemoth had said would be a single-site Second Headquarters with about 50,000 employees. These pitches provided Amazon with immense quantities of regional-market-data -- for free! -- that the company can monetize. I wonder if Bezos had thought from the start that second headquarters would go exactly where they’re going….


A handy convenience for Bezos: His Virginia operation will be right across the Potomac from headquarters of The Washington Post, which he owns.


Is Hasbro next to leave Pawtucket

Another Pawtucket Crisis

Having lost the PawSox and Memorial Hospital, Pawtucket officials are desperate to keep Hasbro’s headquarters. But the toy and game company, while expressing empathy, will solely make its decision based on bottom-line considerations and its projection of company needs and wants over the next decade. That might mean moving to downtown Providence, close to the designers at the Rhode Island School of Design, other colleges and many other activities and services lacking in Pawtucket -- and far less car-dependent.


Or perhaps it might make the most sense for Hasbro to move to Los Angeles or New York, two capitals of the entertainment industry, of which Hasbro is very much a part.


Why Witman Lost

The very bright Dianne Witman did so poorly in her election challenge to victorious incumbent Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza because she had no real plan for what she would do in office, because of the stain of having been a fundraiser for the late corrupt and sociopathic former Mayor Buddy Cianci and because Mr. Elorza has been an adequate, honest, if uninspiring, mayor with city-wide political support during rather prosperous times. But municipal pensions remain a huge fiscal time bomb. And, yes, the city should sell the Scituate Reservoir (if that would be legal!) to raise money to address some of the pension problems.


Election as Expected; Greens Help the GOP; Will Sessions Sing?

“The Founders imagined that the Senate would check and cool the impulses of the majority. But the body is poised to serve as a reactionary rural veto on a center-left country, routinely thwarting efforts to address major issues such as immigration, climate change, the national debt, health care, international cooperation and wealth inequality.’’


-- Stephen Stromberg, in The Washington Post


The mid-term election results didn’t surprise me. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker were easily re-elected because they were seen as successful, honest and pragmatic leaders. The GOP tightened its hold on the U.S. Senate because the party had an astonishingly favorable electoral map this year: The Democrats had to defend 26 seats in the Senate compared to only nine for the Republicans!  And some of those Democratic seats were in states that Trump won. Further, the GOP benefited from having loads of “dark money’’ --- political spending in which the name of the donor is not disclosed. The phrase can refer to funds spent by a super PAC, funded by the likes of the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson and other moguls.


And, in some places the Republican operatives engaged in highly effective voter-suppression (mostly of voters who are black and Hispanic) efforts, some of it recalling Jim Crow days in the South. The GOP has long been a more ruthless party than the Democrats. When I was young, it was the other way around.


It should be noted that in some of the big Senate races that the Democrats lost, most notably in  Texas, and, at least as of this writing Florida and Arizona – three Republican states – the margins of victory were razor thin, as were the GOP gubernatorial victories in Florida and, apparently, in strongly Republican Georgia.  The Peach Tree State election was marked by major voter suppression.


The Green Party, meanwhile, continues to help elect right-wing Republicans from time to time by siphoning off votes from Democratic candidates; it apparently just happened again, this time in the Arizona Senate race. The Greens, who are serious lefties, are a menace to Democrats, most of whom are only center-left, and act as allies of the very party they claim to hate – the GOP.


The House, of course, was another story and a powerful sign of how changing demographics could imperil the future of the nativist, older-white-male-dominated GOP, many of whose voters get virtually all of their political information from Trump’s house organ, Fox “News.’’ Trump benefits greatly from having millions of followers who avoid reading and research, much preferring to sit on their couches and enjoy the demagogic Fox echo chamber expertly presided over by Trump, who could also be called the president of the Confederacy.


Relying on Fox for public-affairs guidance is unlikely to improve the prospects of its viewers.

 It’s amusing that the crooked developer and “Reality TV’’ exhibitionist from Queens should become the hero of the likes of the KKK. What a country! Fantasyland indeed.

The American Civil War never ended.


The Democrats took back the House by appealing to an expanding, younger, more diverse and more educated audience than the Republicans’ and one whose members seem considerably more interested in finding and acting on facts than most of the Trumpists. The willful ignorance of so many Trump followers is his ticket to ride. They’re putty in his hands.




Interestingly, the Democrats won a hefty 8 percentage points more of the total popular vote for the House than did the Republicans, but that sort of margin doesn’t necessarily matter much in America, given gerrymandering. And, of course, Trump, after all, won 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016 but won via the Electoral College. And Arkansas, for instance, has two senators, as does California. America is a semi-democracy directed by a plutocratic oligarchy that thrives in the nation’s increasingly bizarre-looking federal system.

In any case, the percentage in the American population of the followers of Donald Trump, not coincidentally centered in the old Slave States, is likely to continue to shrink, but such is their paranoia and resentment that they’ll lose their privileged (at least compared to people of color) positions, that they’ll keep voting for Trump and his fearful  servants in Congress.


That is, at least until the next recession comes along. The economy, which has been rising since 2009, has certainly made it easier for Trump; he’s been coasting on the economic rescue mission crafted by the Democrats. How will he handle a recession? This extraordinary narcissist has, after all, made everything about him, including the strong economy, pumped up by tax cuts this year, but whose effects are fading.



Not surprisingly, Trump fired Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions right after the election, replacing him with Republican operative Matthew Whitaker in an effort to sabotage Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump collaboration with the Russians and other corruption. But even if Trump manages to kill the Mueller investigation per se, much of the information his group has collected probably has been, or will be, distributed to various U.S. attorneys and state attorneys general. As of this January, the Democrats will have the majority of state attorneys general. Firing Mueller won’t be enough to shield Trump.


President Donald Trump

Now that Trump has betrayed the loyalty of Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator who was the first big-name politician to support the great con man, will Sessions become a source of public information about what he knows about the Orange Monster’s exotic activities? Probably not: He is clearly afraid of Trump.  But who knows, maybe he’ll show a little patriotism….


School and Community

Takeru Nagayoshi, a New Bedford public-school teacher writing in Commonwealth magazine about school accountability, makes the good point that however much local and state mandates focus on the internal operations of school, the problems of the broader community around the school must be addressed if there is to be substantial long-term improvement within the schools:

He writes:

“While these interventions {in individual schools} may have moved the academic needle, it felt as though at times we were chasing short-term successes, rather than addressing the fundamental causes of our challenges: racial and socioeconomic disparity, linguistic hurdles for immigrant populations, and socioemotional trauma. By attending to the symptoms of our problems, we unintentionally set aside the systemic and structural causes that exist outside the school.

“Our schools are both academic institution and a community resource; a reform effort that prioritizes one over the other can achieve only so much success. As many high-needs districts like mine struggle to close their opportunity gaps, we must radically reimagine an accountability model that heals schools in conjunction with their communities. This can be done through greater access to health care, social wraparound services, or more family-centered supports.’’

To read his essay, please hit this link:



What would help a lot would be a revival of the old-fashioned married two-parent family. Families led by unwed mothers are closely correlated with socio-economic decay, crime and low educational outcomes, and such families now dominate many cities such as New Bedford. 56 percent of children in the Whaling City live in single-parent families.


Carbon Tax Is Eventually Coming

Voters in Washington State have rejected a badly drafted “carbon tax’’ proposal for power plants and other polluters. The money from the levy would have gone to help pay for various air-quality and other environmental needs. Carbon taxes proposed for other jurisdictions would go to those sorts of initiatives as well as to other public projects or even be rebated to the public. 


The idea, obviously, is to reduce the burning of fossil fuels by making them more expensive. A carbon tax is the most efficient  --- and market-based way  -- to reduce our lethal fossil-fuel dependence. I think that we’ll eventually see it in all developed nations, though that might require more weather disasters first. We’ll do the right thing after we’ve exhausted all other options.



A Way to Speed Buses

Experiments in Greater Boston with dedicated bus lanes show major improvements in travel times for commuters. Time to consider dedicated lanes in Boston and Worcester?


Commonwealth Magazine Editor Bruce Mohl passes along suggestions from the Barr Foundation’s Mary Skelton Roberts that bus lanes be put in roadway medians and travel also speeded by requiring riders to pay before they get on and having them board directly without using steps.


To read more, please hit this link:


Watch for Philip K. Howard’s new book, Try Common Sense: Replacing Failed Ideologies of the Left and Right, in which he tries to change how we think about the powers, rights and duties of governance and citizenship and, for that matter, in private life, too.  It will be published in January by Norton. Very timely indeed.


‘Smile on the brown hills’

 “Yet one smile more, departing, distant sun!
One mellow smile through the soft vapory air,
Ere, o’er the frozen earth, the loud winds run,
Or snows are sifted o’er the meadows bare.
One smile on the brown hills and naked trees,
And the dark rocks whose summer wreaths are cast,
And the blue gentian flower, that, in the breeze,
Nods lonely, of her beauteous race the last.
Yet a few sunny days, in which the bee
Shall murmur by the hedge that skirts the way,
The cricket chirp upon the russet lea,
And man delight to linger in thy ray.
Yet one rich smile, and we will try to bear
The piercing winter frost, and winds, and darkened air.’’

-- “November,’’ by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)


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