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Whitcomb: Civics Class; Creepy Designer Genes; Cost of Endless Wars; Letting Fish Commute

Tuesday, December 04, 2018


Robert Whitcomb

“All the complicated details

of the attiring and

the disattiring are completed!

A liquid moon

moves gently among

the long branches.

Thus having prepared their buds

against a sure winter

the wise trees

stand sleeping in the cold.’’

-- “Winter Trees,’’ by William Carlos Williams

(Yesterday was the first day of “meteorological winter.’’)




“{Cindy} Hyde-Smith succeeds [in the U.S. Senate} the ailing Thad Cochran, a veteran who was famous for his ability to Get Stuff for his state. As a result, Mississippi moved into the 21st century receiving $3 in federal aid for every dollar it sent to Washington, including funding for about a quarter of the public schools’ budgets.’’

-- Gail Collins, writing in The New York Times


Governor Gina Raimondo

The Atlantic reports that a class-action lawsuit, Cook v. Raimondo, has been filed in U.S. District Court in Providence alleging that the state has failed to provide an adequate education for many students, especially in civics education. Part of the headline of the article reads “A new federal complaint with a unique argument accuses the state of Rhode Island of failing to provide students with the skills they need to participate effectively in a democracy’’.


Rhode Island happened to be a handy locale for the suit, but very similar ones could be filed in just about any state.


Implied in all this is that our constitutional system can’t function as intended without some sort of minimum civic knowledge by the citizenry.  And certainly, the teaching of civics and its sibling history has grossly deteriorated in recent decades. The results can be seen in a decline in the quality of our political life, with an increase in successful demagoguery and tribalism.


The suit also reminds us of the differences in the quality of education between rich and poor districts – inequality worsened by too-heavy reliance on local property taxes, as well as by the family dysfunction more likely in low-income than higher-income places. Thus, students in affluent districts are more likely to receive the tools needed to defend their interests, and the public interest, in our federal system; having affluent parents is the most important factor in students’ success in school and later. But, as I have discovered in my teaching gigs over the years, even kids in affluent public-school districts and private education in the last few years display more ignorance about how their government works, and of history and current events, than similar cohorts a half-century ago.


Public education is legally a state, not a federal function, and I would guess that higher federal courts won’t want to open the can of worms that is education inequality and its relationship to widening socio-economic and political-power inequality. Still, the plaintiffs have served the public interest by making us think more about the dangerous inadequacy of civics education in our frayed quasi-democracy.


To read The Atlantic’s article, please hit this link:

See interview with Jennifer Wood, the attorney in the case


Trying on Designer Genes

A Chinese scientist named He Jiankui asserts that he altered the DNA of twin girls before their birth by using a gene-editing technology called Crispr-Cas9. He claims that he used the tool to modify a gene in order to make the twins resistant to the HIV virus.  His work has not been peer-reviewed and no one has enough information at hand to verify his claims. Some other scientists, and regulators, have denounced He for ethical violations and some have implied fraud.


Whatever.  The case reminded me of the ethical, psychological and other ambiguities of trying to use new genetic tools, to, as it were ‘’play God.’’ Obviously, many good things can come out of this knowledge but it can also be abused. And one would guess that rich folks will benefit much more than poor ones from the genetic revolution. Expensive designer babies and all that.


That, in turn, reminds me of how technology allows us to be better protected from criminals, including terrorists, by the use of ever more intrusive surveillance systems. But those systems can also be used to violate the privacy of law-abiding people and suppress dissent. Just ask the Citizens of increasingly Orwellian China.


Technology’s quandaries….


Automakers facing challenges

The Joys of Capital

General Motors Corp.’s announcement that would close four plants and lay off around 14,000 employees has drawn the predictable complaints and threats from Trump. After all, our capo dei capi made his promise to boost U.S. manufacturing a central element of his presidential campaign, and many people in such swing states as Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin fell for it.


But big companies will go their merry way, whatever a president says – the way to maximizing profits to benefit shareholders, especially shareholders who also happen to be companies’ senior executives and such big institutions as pension funds and university endowments. It’s all part of the “creative destruction’’ of capitalism, which is great at invention/innovation, and creating long-term economic growth, but which also throws a lot of people overboard to the sharks along the way.


General Motors assumes that it won’t need as many workers in the future, primarily because of computer-run hyper-automation and the movement away from the internal-combustion machine and toward electric cars. I found it troubling that at the same time, the company apparently plans to double down, at least in the near term, on its production of high-profit-margin, gasoline-guzzling SUVs and trucks and to reduce the output of sedans. That means adding to global warming.


It also means that more people will be borrowing more money to buy trucks and SUVs, which cost more than most sedans. That will cause a crunch in the next recession as unemployment rises. It sometimes seems as if we’re partying as if it’s 2006.


As for the thousands being laid off, in America, capital almost always wins over labor.


Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler may make similar announcements soon. And, blessedly, there’s little that Trump can do about it.


From the Rivers to the Sea

The law of unintended consequences perhaps:


As part of the multibillion-dollar post-Superstorm Sandy federal cleanup, a small amount – about $11 million – of the money has been used in southern New England and the Middle Atlantic states to remove dams and other blockages that have prevented fish from migrating between the sea and coastal rivers, blockages that have much diminished their numbers. Species include sea-run brown trout, Eastern brook trout and river herring.


This has already paid dividends in an increase in these fish in some places. As Tim Dillingham, the American Littoral Society’s executive director, told the Associated Press in regard to the construction of a culvert connecting a New Jersey pond and the ocean: “The restoration of connectivity to allow fish to spawn has been a great success. We’re seeing fish come back in numbers we hadn’t seen before.’’


To read more, please hit this link:



Then we have phragmites, an invasive plant most often called the “common reed’. This thing grows like crazy -- to 13 feet high -- and blocks out sunlight for native marsh plants. And, as a WBUR article by Barbara Moran notes, its shed leaves create “a thick layer of wrack that keeps native plants from germinating. Its stalks clog waterways, thwarting fish travel….The roots…secrete a chemical that prevents other plants from growing, and they grow so deep they are nearly impossible to pull out.’’


Nasty, but, Ms. Moran reports, the “Smithsonian Environmental Research Center found that the very traits that make phragmites a tough invader – larger plants, deeper roots, higher density –enable it to store more carbon in marshy peat. ‘’ As climate change races forward, carbon storage becomes a bigger part of the ecosystem equation.


So the question arises: Should phragmites be planted in some places as part of a big program of natural carbon sequestration? It’s the need for biodiversity versus the need to slow manmade global warming.


To read the WBUR piece, please hit this link:


U.S. Military

Wars Since 2001…

The open-ended U.S. wars in the Islamic world since 2001 have cost trillions of dollars and drained resources that could have been used to do such things as improve infrastructure, education and healthcare in America. It would have been wiser to have taken a much smaller and more surgically targeted approach to the dangers posed by the likes of Saddam Hussein and Islamic terrorists instead of sending armies to try to pacify places that no outside force can pacify for long.


Some of the money could have been used to strengthen America’s overall defense posture, especially as we face increasing threats not so much from terrorists as from increasingly aggressive and expansionist China and Russia.

And now the National Defense Strategy Commission reports that America could suffer a “decisive military defeat’’ in war against China or Russia.  That’s not surprising given the erosive effects of so many years of open-ended war in the Mideast. And Trump’s undermining of our alliances with such traditional allies as Western European nations further weakens our military strength.


As a result of the commission’s report, some members of Congress will call for big increases in defense spending. Many of the same people will also call for more tax cuts.

In any event, we need a reappraisal of our global military strategy and a fast strengthening  (or perhaps “repair’’ is a better word) of our military alliances. And we simply can’t afford to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely.



Providence Graffiti

Clean It Up

Graffiti is a very tough eyesore for mayors to keep up with. But they must try. Providence has seen an explosion of this defacement on buildings, walls and elsewhere in recent months. To ignore it encourages more of it, and worse. See James Q. Wilson’s famous “Broken Windows’’ theory: The Wikipedia definition is as good as any:

“{A}criminological theory that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious crimes. The theory thus suggests that policing methods that target minor crimes such as vandalism, public drinking, and fare evasion help to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes.’’


It’s Canute against the waves to some extent, but newly re-elected Mayor Jorge Elorza would do well to put this on his to-do list.


To Scare ‘Em Everywhere

The torture and murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khasshogi at the order of Saudi Arabia’s effective ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, was not meant to silence just one critic, but, as with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s and North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-Un’s murders of foes at home and abroad, It’s also  meant to scare the living into silence and hiding.


That the Trump administration fails to strongly denounce and punish such outrages encourages more such murders.

D.C.’s ‘Play-Date Police’

If you try to regulate everything, you won’t well regulate things that really need regulating. My eye caught a Nov. 17-18 Wall Street Journal headlined “The Play-Date Police’’ about District of Columbia education officials seeking to close down the Capitol Hill Cooperative Play School because it doesn’t operate as an officially recognized day-care center.


The District’s regulations are supposed to exempt “informal parent-supervised neighborhood play groups’’ from rules for formally recognized day-care centers. But, the WSJ notes, the regulators have declared the group at issue “formal’’ “because it has a Web site, draws participants from a hat to limit play-date sizes, and hosts scheduled get-togethers. In other words, the parents aren’t organized enough for the government’s satisfaction but are too organized to escape its harassment.’’


As The Washington Post noted: “The play group is a neighborhood tradition, used by families since the 1970s to provide toddlers and their parents with regular social interaction and a sense of community.


“There are no teachers and no staff — just parents watching children play, for no pay. The families pay a fee at the beginning of the year of about $175, which covers supplies such as craft materials and tissues, and a donation to the Lutheran Church of the Reformation for using its nursery.’’


The Wall Street Journal noted that the D.C. City Council has enacted a temporary measure to let this and similar parent-run organizations operate. But that measure will expire on Jan. 21.


Let’s hope that the measure is made permanent. The Capitol Hill Cooperative Play School is the sort of voluntary civic organization that Alexis de Tocqueville quite rightly lauded in Democracy in America. To try to oversee them as one would a public agency or a business reduces their ability to innovate and to respond to the particular needs of individual children and parents, as well as their communities.


Can the Churches diversify their revenue?

Churches Should Diversify Revenue

The closing of St. Anne’s Church in Fall River,  whose twin towers are a much loved feature of the Spindle City’s skyline, as well as the closing of many other Catholic and mainline Protestant churches across America, make me wonder if many could have remained open if their leadership had been more able and willing to repurpose parts of their churches for  regular non-religious functions to bring in revenue before closings became unavoidable.

Probably most of these old churches will never again have the big congregations they once had in more religious times.  But many more of the spacious rooms within old churches could be used for small businesses, exercise studios, co-working spaces, artists’ studios and so on, if churches would market those uses much more – and faster -- than they have. The naves would continue to be dedicated to religious services.


Now how to save beautiful St. Anne’s from being torn down? It sure would be a prettier City Hall than the Brutalist beast that now serves as that function!


Baltimore’s ‘Vacants to Value’ Experiment

Old cities such as Providence have lots of old, abandoned and decrepit houses that just sit there. Baltimore, in the face of worse problems than Providence’s, is taking a promising approach to alleviating this problem, reports Governing Magazine. In a program called Vacants to Value, Baltimore offers “city-owned vacant homes to developers and individuals alike.’’ (The city owns about 2,500 vacant houses and 7,000 empty lots.)


But, “buyers must prove they can afford to purchase a property. They also have to secure funding to rehabilitate it, which costs much more than buying it….Help is available in submitting bids and applying for an array of financial incentives and tax credits offered by the city and state.’’ Importantly, only homes that are “in places that seem to have at least some chance for a comeback’’ (or even full-scale gentrification) are in the program.


The depressing sight of blocks of crumbling and vacant buildings undermines the strongest efforts to revitalize cities.  The Vacants to Value project is worth following and perhaps emulating, especially in cities such as Providence and Fall River with large stocks of houses that may be old and falling apart but that still have enough physical integrity and aesthetic appeal to be rehabilitated. To read the Governing article, please hit this link:

Undermining a Basic Service

Even as the number of beneficiaries has swollen by 17 percent, Congress cut the Social Security Administration’s operating budget by 9 percent from 2010-2018 while eliminating 67 field offices. This has led to much longer in-person and on phone wait times, The New York Times reports. It has also meant longer delays in processing disability-benefit appeals.

Social Security has become a basic federal service that many millions of people rely on. Making sure it can provide good service would seem even more important than Donald Trump giving himself a big tax cut.


President Calvin Coolidge

The Last ‘Jeffersonian’ President

Coolidge: An American Enigma, by the late Robert Sobel, published by Regnery, is a very well written look at the life of the Vermont-born Massachusetts lawyer and politician who became our 30th president. I found the stuff about “Silent Cal’s’’ early life particularly engaging. Sobel calls Coolidge our last  “Jeffersonian’’ (limited government) president.


 A man of integrity and reserve, Coolidge rather incongruously presided over “The Roaring Twenties’’.  The well-educated and smart Coolidge was, of course, a far more complicated character than many people thought when he was president. He was also a good writer, and sometimes showed flashes of sentiment/emotion in speeches and letters that he usually kept hidden from the public. And he wrote almost all of his own speeches – the last president to do so.


Coolidge would have agreed with this quote from James Madison:

“The infirmities most besetting popular governments…are found in defective laws, which do mischief before they can be mended, and laws passed under transient impulses, of which time and reflection call for a change.’’



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