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Whitcomb: Big Brother’s Store; Banning Junk From Food Stamps; A Drive Through the South

Monday, January 29, 2018


Bob Whitcomb

“The liberals can understand everything but people who don’t understand them.’’

-- Lenny Bruce


Push is coming to shove. It will be interesting, indeed entertaining, to see what sort of offers Massachusetts officials throw to the Pawtucket Red Sox owners given that those officials have said that they oppose giving state funds to help build stadiums for professional sports teams. (They have used taxpayer funds for public-infrastructure improvements (for roads, etc.) around new or renovated stadiums – as with Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium.)


What we’ve got going here with all this is a giant game of chicken, with the very rich PawSox owners threatening to move the team to Worcester unless they get State of Rhode Island and City of Pawtucket tax money to help build a (presumably fancy) new stadium. The owners are banking on the emotions (especially nostalgia) around the team, particularly around its status as the storied Boston Red Sox’s premier Minor League affiliate. They’re trying to get Ocean State politicians worried about the anger in a large section of the public if the PawSox are allowed to slip away to Worcester, in what some would be presented as a humiliating loss of face or prestige for the state.


But Pawtucket, on Route 95, the Main Street of the East Coast, and in much bigger metro area than Worcester’s, is a far better place for a stadium than Worcester. It’s clear that the PawSox management wants (needs?)  the team to stay there. And most Rhode Islanders don’t go to PawSox games and most realize that helping to finance a new stadium would have little economic effect on the state as a whole, among other reasons because it would employ few people, most of them probably seasonal. And it would deepen the state’s debt, at least for a while.


PawSox boss Larry Lucchino

Perhaps the best economic argument for a new stadium is that it might help stave off the municipal bankruptcy of the city, which the state would have to address. But it’s easy to exaggerate the economic benefits of a  baseball farm team to Pawtucket, which has hosted the PawSox since 1969 and certainly hasn’t gotten rich on the relationship.


The bluffing goes on.


Have Pawtucket and Rhode Island state officials closely studied the current PawSox lease of McCoy stadium? And I repeat the suggestion that the New England Revolution move its home to a new stadium, if one is to be built. The future demographics of soccer might be better than baseball’s.




The most important but underreported story of the past week or so might Amazon’s new, prototype convenience store in Seattle, where the company is based.


The establishment, called Amazon Go,  doesn’t have cashiers, checkout lines or shopping carts. But you’d probably not notice, unless warned, that hundreds of sensors and cameras are watching the shoppers as they move to automatic checkouts using their cellphones. The store, which opened to the general public last Monday, offers prepared foods,  limited groceries, and liquor.


Service will be fast and convenient. It will also give the increasingly monopolistic Amazon yet more personal information on your habits.


It’s yet another extension of the surveillance society being built by business and government.


Danielle Citron, a law professor and privacy expert at the University of Maryland, remarked to The Washington Post (owned by Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos):


Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and owns Washington Post

“It’s not just the transaction. Powerful companies like Amazon don’t just have what you bought at the grocery store, but they’re also connected with and combined with nearly every aspect of your life,’’ including where you live, what you buy and what you watch for entertainment and information.


Of course, in the pursuit of convenience, most consumers have long been giving away lots of personal information, especially by using credit cards. But Amazon Go can collect much more such information than other stores, though many of them will soon start doing the same thing.


After all, Amazon-style cameras can track not only what you’re taking off the shelf to buy but also what you’re just looking at. How alluring to retailers for inventory planning!


Amazon  Go stores will have few employees; those few will do such things as stock shelves (though some of that, too, might be swiftly automated). The Post reports that a few employees will also check the IDs of young people seeking to buy alcoholic beverages and/or prepare meal boxes for sale. But such stores could eventually wipe out most of the about 3.5 million cashier jobs in American retailing – positions that have been important to people with relatively little education and/or as second jobs to help lower-income people make ends meet.


Amazon and other tech-based companies like to say that new jobs will be created for this part of the workforce, for instance in customer relations and in huge distribution warehouses. But it’s very hard to see at this point that there would be nearly enough to offset the effects of the hyper-automation and artificial intelligence that the big tech-based companies, especially Amazon, Apple and Google, love so much.


To read The Washington Post’s take on this, please hit this link:




In other tech behemoth news, Apple says it plans to build another corporate campus. It also says it will hire another 20,000 workers, in part because of the new U.S. tax law, which cuts corporate income taxes. (Not all of the windfall will go to investors in the form of stock buybacks and dividend increases!)


Of course, Apple’s announcement means that various cities and states around America are already looking into how they can bribe the Cupertino, Calif., company to build its new campus in their jurisdiction. Presumably, vast tax breaks, to be subsidized by the individuals and businesses already there,  will be offered, along with very expensive physical-infrastructure improvements. As with Amazon, Greater Boston (which you might say now sort of includes northern Rhode Island) would be in the running because of the huge technology complex there. But would such legal bribery be worth it for the macro-economy of the region?


Local politicians’ and some business leaders’ obsession with attracting huge, rich, sexy tech companies may be popular in the short term but the diversion of so many public resources to a few big firms could have a very big long-term cost. The problems of General Electric that were revealed after it was lured to set up its headquarters in Boston might be providing a useful caution sign.




The best part of Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s economic-development program is her consistent emphasis on education and training.  For years, going back to my first tenure in Rhode Island, as a Providence Journal business editor about 40 years ago, I’ve heard more complaints from business executives about the dearth of educated/skilled workers in the state than about taxes or other issues, as its old manufacturing sector declined. The governor has put more emphasis on the need to address the state’s education gap than any Rhode Island governor I can remember. Closing that gap with, especially, Massachusetts, will do far more to create an enduring prosperity than tax and other incentive programs to lure famous big companies to the Ocean State.




Democratic Party leaders are too often adept at pulling defeat from the laws of victory. Thus it was with the recent brief federal government shutdown,  which was mostly over Democratic congressional leaders’ demand that the young people in the U.S. illegally who had been covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program get safely put on the path to legal citizenship.


That in itself is a good idea. After all, these people, many of whom have been productive U.S. residents, were brought here by their parents or other adults through no action of their own.

But while most Americans have great sympathy for them, they certainly don’t want the government closed over the issue. And most citizens want more stringent limits on immigration in general. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D.-N.Y.) belatedly awoke to that tough political fact and agreed to a deal that would keep the government fully running through Feb. 8,  citing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s rather vague promise to take up the DACA issue.


Of course, Republicans’ exploitation of many white Americans’ feelings about race and immigration had something to do with Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory.

The shutdown battle last weekend once again identified the Democrats as the party of identity politics, be it race-, immigration- or sexual-identity-related. That not a good place to be. Rather they should emphasize their support for broad policies that improve the lot of all Americans, such as programs that start to fix our crumbling transportation and electrical infrastructures and extending Medicare to all.


Much simpler taxes would be nice, too. The more complex the tax system, the more advantageous to the rich, who can pay people to help them game it. As it is, many middle-class people have to hire help to do their returns. That’s  a tax of sorts in itself, not to mention the time that must be spent to wrestle with your returns. Time is money. The new tax law may simplify things for some people, but overall, the tax code remains a swamp.


Anyway, many, perhaps most, Americans don’t like identity politics. If the Democrats want to ride back into power in Washington, they need to get off that horse.


Immigration protest

As for immigration, they’d do well to back a bill first filed in 2013 that would make employers use E-Verify, a secure database created to confirm job applicants’ legal right to work in the U.S. E-Verify is meant to sharply reduce illegal aliens’ ability to use counterfeited documents to get jobs.  And after all, most adult illegal aliens come to our country seeking jobs.


Ironically, by the way, mostly Republican businesspeople for years have fought such tough immigration monitoring because it would cut into their supply of cheap labor.


As for Trump’s “Beautiful Wall’’ on the border, there are some urbanized places where high walls make sense, but much of the border is far too rugged to put up any walls. And in many places putting up any wall would kill a lot of wildlife, some endangered, that needs to move around.  More Border Patrol personnel and further aerial-surveillance expansion are far better than walls in most places.




Maine deserves credit for seeking to improve the health of low-income people on Food Stamps while trying to cut the cost of the state-federal program in the Pine Tree State. (The federal government pays 100 percent of Food Stamp benefits  but shares administrative costs with the state.)


The state wants to ban the purchase with Food Stamps of candy and soda. New York, Illinois, and Minnesota have also sought approval from the U.S. Agriculture for similar bans.


Sadly, as anyone who watched checkout lines in supermarkets can confirm, many people buy lots of candy, soda and other junk food with Food Stamps. But consuming candy and soda, whatever the quick pleasure they provide, do far more harm than good, among other things in raising the incidence of obesity and diabetes, which are epidemic in America, where poor people tend to be fatter than more prosperous ones. The science is clear.


When Food Stamp recipients get sick because of their over-consumption of this junk, the taxpayers must pay for much of the cost of their care through Medicaid.


As Maine Gov. Paul LePage (a Tea Party Republican!), said the other week: “The time has come to stand up to Big Sugar and ensure our federal dollars are supporting healthy food choices for our neediest people.’’


Seems very fair and reasonable.


But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Food Stamp program, has rejected Maine’s request, using  such vague excuses as concerns about administrative costs for retailers and the alleged difficulty of deciding on which products to take off the Food Stamp list. But seems to me that these problems, especially in the computer age, can be very easily overcome. And again, the science on the effects of consuming large quantities of candy and soda are clear.


I suspect that the USDA’s opposition to Governor LePage’s proposal reflects the Trump administration’s disinclination to displease the powerful U.S. sugar lobby, based in swing state Florida, and other players in the junk-food world.




U.S. House Intelligence Committee  Democrats have drafted a document aimed at countering Republican efforts to discredit the FBI probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign  -- interference aimed at electing Donald Trump, who has longstanding business links with Russia.


The Republican-controlled committee has voted to provide all members of Congress with access to a GOP memo that suggests that in 2016 federal investigators conducted inappropriate surveillance on people close to Donald Trump allegedly based on bad information from a dossier containing allegations of financial and personal ties between Trump and the Kremlin.


Now the Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee want all House members to see their response document ASAP.


Fair enough. Assuming that it can be done without endangering national security, let all House members – and, if safe for national security, the general public -- see both memos as soon as possible.




Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals are looking forward to soon seeing many more customers from Rhode Island as it seems to be full speed ahead for  Boston-based Partners HealthCare’s takeover of Care New England.




Leaving our wives behind in Rhode Island (they had better things to do), an old friend and I drove the inland route to Florida the other week, mostly to check out what was happening in the inland southeastern corner of “Flyover Country.’’  We traveled in a huge Chevy Suburban, whose gas-guzzling appetite was gargantuan. Thus we did our part to boost global warming as we drove through weather that stayed nippy until we got to not-very-lovely Ocala, Fla., where it finally warmed up.


Much of the route was in the Appalachians, with the most spectacular sections, of course, in Virginia, East Tennessee and North Carolina. I was particularly eager to see the Smoky Mountains again. Some of my East Tennessee relatives had taken me up there when I was a boy. On this trip, the mountains still looked softly spectacular.


Most of the folks we met on the way were at least superficially friendlier than New Englanders, who tend to be guarded. I’m mostly referring to hotel staffers, restaurant workers serving deliciously unhealthy fatty and salty Southern food, the personnel in a Civil War museum in the Shenandoah Valley, in Virginia, who had good feelings about the Confederacy and the good ole fraternity house boys near the campus of the University of Georgia, in  Athens. In front of their plantation-style house, they gave us directions to a couple of quirky restaurants, one of which would have fit in well in late ‘ 60s San Francisco, with waiters in clothes that looked like Hippie outfits, or at least Halloween versions of same.


Athens and  Asheville, N.C., (also a college town) were the most engaging cities we visited.


There were innumerable attractions along the way, with seemingly every burg with more than 5,000 people with a museum or other attraction peddled on roadside signs, with such curiosities as upside down airplanes as graphic blandishments. I particularly liked such examples of local charm as the large but mysteriously closed auto museum (with big car models  sticking out from the brick exterior walls) in a remote area of Georgia; the billboard advertising “Virginia’s only cavern with elevator service’’;  a Virginia town named “Rural Retreat,’’ and a village in North Carolina called “Forks of Ivy.’’


But most illuminating were the big billboards along the Interstates seeming to give contradictory messages about the region’s moral climate. Hypocrisy, or just psychological/ sociological complexity in the Bible Belt?


Among the most numerous billboards were for those “Adult Superstores’’ (porn and sex toys), along with such related enterprises as strip joints (“Café Risque: We Bare All’’);  gun markets and such related attractions as “Machine Gun America,’’ and Protestant evangelical churches (“Jesus Paid for All’’), some of them put up to promote attendance at an individual institution in a small town. There were lots of simple crosses but we didn’t spot any roadside crucifixes. This was Protestant Bible-thumping country.


And, yeah, fireworks signs remain plentiful. But with the loosening of fireworks-sale controls in the Northeast, that draws much less excitement for travelers from up here these days. I remember my father filling the back of our station wagon with fireworks he bought in South Carolina back in the early ‘60s on our way back from Florida. That both my parents smoked added a touch of suspense to the rest of the trip home.


The billboards become more conventionally commercial from Orlando south, but then as they say, the further south you go in Florida, the further north you go.




Both as a memoir and as offbeat travel writing, I recommend Incognito Street: How Travel Made Me a Writer, by Barbara Sjoholm, mostly about her American and European travels as a young woman in the early ’70s, which, I suppose, makes it of particular interest to elderly Baby Boomers. There’s lots of finely wrought description of places beautiful and ugly, along with such highly personal stuff as sexual-identity confusion. READ MORE HERE.


A. John Elliot, M.D., is an old friend of mine who has written a wild ride of a historical novel called  The Last Trumpet. He practiced in Rhode Island and Connecticut, and has lectured widely. His teaching experience includes Yale Medical School and in Tibet and China, where he is an honorary professor at the West China Medical School. He has also taught in Tibet. In 1994, Dr. Elliot was the Republican candidate in Rhode Island’s Second Congressional District.


His book:

In the ‘30s,  we find the book’s deeply flawed hero, Andreas von Eckhart, as a tortured yet brilliant physician, famed mountain climber, war veteran, womanizer and a loner who trusts no one. His general father is dead and his sister has mysteriously disappeared,  and Andreas, in his inherited castle, contemplates his place in a chaotic world.


The Last Trumpet takes you on his torturous, colorful and macabre journey from London to the Himalayas in search of the truth amid the evils of the Third Reich.


No, I’m not getting any money from his book sales!


For more information, see:


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