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Whitcomb: Border Wars; Ninth Inning for the PawSox? Kochs Derail Public Transit; Small Real Retail

Monday, June 25, 2018


Robert Whitcomb, columnist

“In the summer, the days were long, stretching into each other. Out of school, everything was on pause and yet happening at the same time, this collection of weeks when anything was possible."

―Sarah Dessen in Along for the Ride



With all the sound, fury and vivid videos about Trump’s now-rescinded decision to separate a couple of thousand children from their illegal-alien parents at our border with Mexico, many people might not have noticed that there’s a small number of people involved, considering the size of the U.S. population.  Indeed, the immigration crisis, in general, has been exaggerated, largely for political reasons.


Note, for example, that apprehensions of illegals by the Border Patrol fell from about 1.1 million in 2006 to just over 337,000 in 2015, rising in 2016 (the latest year for which figures are available) to 416,000, with increases in the number of  Central American families and unaccompanied minors partly offsetting a steep fall in the number of Mexicans trying to enter the U.S. illegally.


That’s a lot of people but not very significant in a country with about 325 million people, of whom about 3.5 percent are illegals, which is about 26 percent of all foreign-born U.S. residents. And America takes fewer legal immigrants as a percentage of our population than many of our allies, if we have any left.


Some of the migrant flow from Mexico and especially Central America stems from the violence of drug gangs there connected with the insatiable U.S. market. (Of course, much of the current U.S. drug crisis was caused by American pharmaceutical companies, such as the Sackler family’s Purdue Pharma, irresponsibly marketing opiates.) At the same time, the U.S. has been slashing foreign aid to Mexico and Central American nations. This makes it harder to fight the poverty and crime there that send desperate refugees north.


And those illegals who manage to disappear into the United States? Many businesses, many of them run by loyal “conservative’’ businesspeople, will continue to find ways to hire a lot of them at very low wages, at least until the economy crashes again.  Some of those illegals are blasting away with leaf blowers on my street.  As for the economy that draws them: I’d guess the current credit-bubble, sugar-high-from-tax-cuts expansion will end next year or in the first half of 2020. Meanwhile, a serious crackdown on such hiring would, over time, go some distance in discouraging illegal immigration.


But such big Republican campaign contributors as the relentless Koch Brothers would not like that. It would go against one of their key goals – keeping wages, as well as taxes, low.


We do need tight border controls and much clearer immigration policies; no border = no country. But we also need to accept that it will always be difficult to keep desperate migrants from crossing a nearly 2,000-mile-long border separating poor countries from a rich one, and with much of the border in very rugged terrain not suitable for wall-building.  And in some long stretches a wall would create an ecological disaster for wildlife.


The situation of the kids at the border has provided many sad photo ops and real and fake expressions of concern. But another crisis will soon catch the news media’s and public’s eye and we’ll be on the coverage conveyor belt of that for a few days.





Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s last-minute bill to keep the Pawtucket Red Sox in, well, Pawtucket, is classic. As I’ve observed in legislatures in various states over the years, if you have a controversial measure -- especially involving a special interest -- you want enacted, slide it through fast in the inevitably confusing and even chaotic last days or hours of a session. And you can usually bet that many legislators won’t actually read the legislation.

Let’s hope that if the stadium is built that many other paying activities go there besides baseball, which won’t be enough to make it work financially.



Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

-- Ambrose Bierce


That America is increasingly a plutocracy and not a democracy might be suggested by a story in The New York Times headlined “How the Koch Brothers Are Killing Public Transit Projects Around the Country.’’ The story details how the Koch lobbying group Americans for Prosperity has been working to block efforts around America to reduce traffic gridlock and air pollution with bus, trolley and light-rail projects. The Koch Brothers, who inherited their company, Koch Industries, from Daddy, use highly sophisticated data-analysis tools to sow fear about projects they don’t like.


The Times story focuses on Nashville, whose voters, after an intense propaganda campaign by the Kochs, turned down a $5.4 billion public-transit program, to be financed by boosting the city’s sales tax by a percentage point and raising some taxes on local business, which enthusiastically supported the plan. Polling before the Kochs arrived had indicated that the transit plan would easily win because the booming Country Music Capital is choking on car traffic.


Rail traffic

Mass transit reduces traffic, boosts economic development and reduces air pollution. (I’d add warily it also helps to address man-made global warming but most Republicans don’t seem to believe in that. After all, what do 97 percent of scientists know?) It’s no accident that the richest U.S. cities – New York, Boston, etc., have dense (if far from perfect) mass-transit systems. Mass transit helped make and keep them rich.


Tori Venable, who runs Americans for Prosperity in Tennessee, came up with an intriguing reason that the car culture should continue dominant in crowded cities: “If someone has the freedom to go where they want, do what they want, they’re not going to choose public transit.’’ Eh? Millions of people take mass transit every day because they want the freedom to nap, to read and to avoid being hit by the idiot weaving in and out of lanes while texting.


Among the assorted illogical but emotionally satisfying things that Koch-connected people say about public transit came from Randal O’Toole,  of the Koch-funded Cato Institute, who said “Why would anybody ride transit when they can get a ride at their door within a minute that will drop them off at the door where they want to go?’’


Well, how about those folks who don’t want to be trapped in traffic, which ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber are making much worse in many downtowns.  Buses, trolleys and light rail take cars off the roads. And what about poor people who can’t afford to pay ride-hailing services (which jack up their prices at rush hour)?


Rarely do the Koch Brothers act for any other reasons than economic self-interest, e.g.,- promoting wide-open immigration to keep wages low and tax cuts focused on the very rich. Koch Industries is a big producer of gasoline and asphalt and makes a variety of automotive parts. The more that people drive, the richer these billionaires become.




In happier transit news, Connecticut has opened a new commuter line connecting Springfield, Mass., and New Haven via Hartford. Called CTrail, it will thus link rail travelers from interior southern New England more directly with the major Amtrak and Metro North station in New Haven, on Long Island Sound. I’m sure that most readers are familiar with the thick traffic on Route 91; the new rail line should reduce a bit of the pressure on that road and even on Route 95 (aka the Connecticut Turnpike). No, it won’t make a profit, any more than a road does. But it will help Connecticut’s economy, among other ways by freeing up space for truckers and other business travelers to more easily go about their business on the state’s roads.




Amazon warehouse

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling (South Dakota v. Wayfair) that Internet retailers be made to collect sales taxes in states where they have no physical presence is good news for what’s left of physical stores and downtowns in many places. Because of earlier legal actions, Rhode Island and Massachusetts are unlikely to be affected much by the ruling.


The Government Accountability Office says that states were already collecting about 75 percent of the potential taxes from online purchases.  Still, the part not being taxed could be as much as $13 billion a year nationally.


It has been unfair that a god-awful 1992 ruling let online retailers based far away from most of their consumers avoid paying the local and state sales taxes needed to help pay for public services while stores that directly served local customers and employed local people have had to levy these taxes, of course, making their prices less competitive.


Kudos to the 40 states and the Trump administration for suing to overturn a ruling that both violated states’ rights and made for a very unlevel playing field for retailers.




I was in Manhattan a couple of days last week and seeing all those young adults (some are friends of mine) on the sunny streets brought back memories of when I lived in New York, in the ‘70s. Most of them seemed to be in their twenties, recently out of college and at least looked and sounded ambitious and not yet soured by the claustrophobia and stress that accompany life in the city and that ultimately drives out a lot of people when they enter their thirties. The sight of a bunch of young lawyers with the name of their corporate firm, “Davis Polk,’’ on their T-shirts and probably headed for an obligatory softball game in Central Park sort of crystallized my nostalgia as I gazed at the gleaming towers, too many now occupied by Russian oligarchs and other flight capitalists.


When I lived there, “The City,’’ as we still call it, was falling apart for various reasons, some affecting all large American cities, some unique to New York. Crime was high, the subways were a mess (and mostly un-air-conditioned), strikes were frequent and many big employers were fleeing the city for Fairfield County, Conn.


Bloomberg impact

Still, because of demographic changes, huge Reagan-era incentives for Wall Street, stronger mayors and an unexpected increase in younger Americans’ appreciation of the joys of city life, New York came back and is a hell of a lot spiffier now than it was 40 years ago. But you can see a few signs that it’s sliding again – there’s more graffiti and more bums than just a few years ago, when Michael Bloomberg was mayor, and the current mayor, Bill DeBlasio does not, shall we say, have the reputation for competence and integrity that Bloomberg had and has.


The city’s Achilles heel is its over-dependence on finance. Artificial intelligence and big New York banks’ drive to lower costs by moving major operations to cheaper places threaten to shrink the city’s greatest wealth creator.


The most surprising thing I saw on a sidewalk: A bike whose frame was made of wood.




Atul Gawande, M.D., is a fine surgeon, writer, charming public speaker and teacher who became famous writing about the extreme inequities of health-care provision and cost in America. His main statistical tools were developed by the Dartmouth (College) Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice.


Now he has been tapped to be CEO of a still somewhat mysterious health-care venture formed by the far-too-big Amazon, giant conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan, the behemoth bank.  The companies haven’t yet presented a specific plan for the new nonprofit enterprise, which hasn’t even been named yet.  But the main mission is to cut health-care costs for employers.


The good economic news for New England is that this outfit, which I suppose could become very big itself, will be based in Boston.


"I have devoted my public health career to building scalable solutions for better healthcare delivery that are saving lives, reducing suffering, and eliminating wasteful spending both in the U.S. and across the world. Now I have the backing of these remarkable organizations to pursue this mission with even greater impact for more than a million people {who work for the three companies}, and in doing so incubate better models of care for all. This work will take time but must be done. The system is broken, and better is possible," Gawande said.


The system is indeed broken, but can this rock star run a very large organization?




Robert Mueller, special investigator

Congressional Republicans have made much of FBI official Peter Strzok’s anti-Trump text messages with his then-lover, Lisa Page, a since-fired trial lawyer on Robert Mueller’s team investigating the Trump mob’s collusion with Russia in 2016. Strzok, a counter-intelligence expert, is a 22-year veteran of the FBI, where he dealt with various Chinese and Russian spy efforts and has been involved in many other highly sensitive cases, including 9/11.


Well, Strzok’s shouldn’t have spouted off but I can understand why he did. He knows a lot about Trump’s sleazy career and personal life and as a patriotic American feared that someone as dangerous to national security as Trump could become president. And there are thousands of FBI agents. They have long leaned Republican although that may have changed with Trump’s relentless attacks on the agency’s reputation and independence.

Don’t let the smoke created by Trump’s congressional valets obscure a central fact: The FBI’s actions in 2016 entirely benefitted Trump, not Clinton. Indeed, since-ousted Director James Comey’s negative remarks about Mrs. Clinton’s emails, along with Trump’s help from the Kremlin, were the nails in her political coffin.




You might like Alan Bennett’s latest book, Keeping On, Keeping On, a collection of the English playwright’s (The History Boys, The Madness of King George, etc.)  diary entries and essays. He’s often very funny and always sharp-eyed, by turns gentle and charming, and then almost vicious in his denunciations. But keep a dictionary handy for words only used in England and, I suspect, in some places in the book, only in Yorkshire, of which he’s a proud native.


It reminds me that when I was an editor at the International Herald Tribune, in Paris, we developed a     computer program that would turn the English-English spellings of Reuters and other British media outlets into American English ones and make a few other changes in order to publish the paper in American English.  We called it our “de-Reuterization key’’.


George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill are both reported to have said: “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.’’ And I was amused to see French translations of books from the “Americain,’’ not from the “Anglais’’.


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