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Whitcomb: Declare Your Own Holidays; Skills of a Speaker; Marketing Our Beautiful Bridges; Go VAT;

Monday, November 26, 2018


Robert Whitcomb

“At the top of this somnolent fountaining

of trunk, boughs, branches, twig, leaf-splashes,

all of it tinned with the industrial dust

of Pawtucket in Depression,

I gave my ape-cry.’’

-- From “Trees,‘’ by Galway Kinnell (1927-2014), a Pawtucket native who ended up in Vermont and won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry


“A few days ago I walked along the edge of the lake and was treated to the crunch and rustle of leaves with each step I made. The acoustics of this season are different and all sounds, no matter how hushed, are as crisp as autumn air.’’

-- Eric Sloane (1905-1985), Connecticut-based painter and cultural historian


 “How can one expect rational administration when good men are held in the same esteem as bad men?’’

-- Polybius (circa 200-118 B.C.), Greek historian


I have long wondered why people put themselves in such travel trauma on holidays, which are, after all, merely dates declared by the authorities. Why do so many people spend half or more of their “holiday weekends’’ traveling on packed roads or in trains, planes and buses that recall Japanese subways at rush hour? And, of course, in more northern climes, the weather from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day throws more uncertainty and sometimes chaos into the mix.

The pain of holiday travel often exceeds the pleasure of the reunions that are the main reason for setting out on these trips. Many people express dread at the prospect of “having to travel’’ in a holiday period. But it’s still a free country. You can usually set your own holiday reunions, with a little planning with family, friends and employers. They don’t have to be on dates arbitrarily set by the authorities.


Last Tuesday, it was standing-room-only space left on an MBTA Boston-to-Providence train I took. Many of the stoic standees looked like college kids. Anyway, at least they weren’t on the roads.


I got this emailed note on Thursday from an old classmate:


“Thanksgiving secret: have it on Tuesday! We had family who were traveling to other spots (turned out to be 4 hours late out of SFO). Now it’s all turkey soup, pumpkin pie leftovers and football. Life is good. Happy Thanksgiving to all.’’


Boosting Bridges for Tourism

Rhode Island, in and around a bay and in part an archipelago, is known for its bridges, with spectacular views. The state should market them more, for the pleasure of locals and out-of-state visitors alike. Buddy Croft, executive director of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, has discussed ways to do just that. As he told the Newport Daily News, the improvements might include paths for pedestrians and bicyclists on the Pell, Jamestown-Verrazzano and Mount Hope bridges. And he forwards the exciting idea of building an enclosed observation deck, accessible by elevator, on top of one of the Pell Bridge’s towers.


“The impact these advancements will have on our state cannot be expressed enough. It’s a great time to reflect and celebrate this milestone and look back at the last fifty years, while also looking ahead to the future and the exciting things that could come,” said Croft in GoLocal.



There would be a fee to go up, revenue from which could be applied to bridge maintenance. Given the dramatic vistas, I think that the deck would draw many happy people, albeit mostly in the warm weather.


Meanwhile, work continues on the Providence River pedestrian bridge, in the Route 195 relocation area. The span, connecting the city’s East Side and downtown, is now projected to be ready by next August. I predict that it, too, will become a tourist draw, if not in the winter. People love to look over water.


Back in 1982, the late Baltimore developer James Rouse, whose projects included Baltimore’s Harbor Place and the redevelopment of Boston’s Faneuil Hall area, expressed dismay that the downtown part of the Providence River was covered up by “world’s widest bridge’’ – basically a huge parking platform. “People love water. Why have they covered it up here?’’ he was said to have remarked while walking across the platform before climbing College Hill to speak at Brown University.


The platform was torn down, replaced by smaller and very pretty bridges, recalling those in, say, Italy and making the center of the city much more alluring. (I do wish that better materials had been used on the bridges – more stone, less now-flaking concrete.) Rhode Island has extraordinary scenic stretches along its streams and coast. It should take more advantage of them.



Bloomberg donated $1.8B to Hopkins

Share the Wealth Wider

I suppose that former New York mayor and Bloomberg L.P. founder and CEO Michael Bloomberg is to be commended for giving his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, another $1.8 billion, in order to, as he said, “eliminate money problems from the admissions equation for qualified students.”


This most recent gift to Hopkins brings his total to $3.3 billion! This self-made man has also given a lot to other organizations.


The latest donation, which will make the university’s undergraduate admissions completely “need blind,’’ will let the private research university, most famous for its medical school, end loans for incoming students, expand grants for those in financial need and help current undergraduates who had taken out federal loans to pay their bills.


Impressive, but I  wish that he’d given the money to programs that help students at non-elite universities rather than already rich ones such as Hopkins. That would do wider good for the country.


Consider that states have cut back on support of public colleges and universities that obviously serve far, far more people than elite schools such as Hopkins.


45 of the 50 states have spent less, per student, on public colleges and universities in 2018 than they did in 2008, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In nine states, the amount is down by more than 30 percent, in part to allow for tax cuts for the rich and for businesses. This has forced these public institutions to jack up tuition and other charges and reduce financial aid, making it even more difficult for low-and-middle-income students to attend.


The Bloomberg gift is another example of very rich people giving huge sums to already rich colleges and universities that serve a small number of disproportionately affluent students.  (They also like to give big bucks to rich museums, whose visitors skew affluent.) That the Bloomberg gift will assist a few young people without meager financial resources is admirable in itself but it won’t do much for the national problem of access to quality academic and vocational education.


So the gap between the 20 or 30 “elite colleges’’ and others widens. But Bloomberg deserves much praise for his years of philanthropy and, of course, it’s his money (made honestly) to give away as he pleases.


Partial Substitute for Income Tax

I’ve written about the need for the Feds to raise more tax revenue to pay for the things that Americans say they need and/or want and have suggested that the top income-tax rate may have to go to 50 percent. But implementing a national value-added tax  (VAT) as at least a partial substitute for the income levy would be a far more efficient way of getting more revenue. Among other things, it would reduce the total amount of tax cheating and the vast, productivity-sapping time needed to prepare returns.


A value-added tax is assessed incrementally, based on the increase in value of a product or service at each stage of production or distribution and is used around the world.


A VAT would be a very difficult thing to enact but its proponents shouldn’t despair. Our chaotic, crazy income-tax system can’t last forever.


Former MA Governor Michael Dukakis

Dukakis Keeps Going

Whatever you think of the politics and policy positions of former Massachusetts Governor and 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, his sterling character and concern for the common good are unassailable.


Consider that at 85, he still shows up at such events as a Massachusetts Department of Transportation meeting on Nov. 19 to present a report touting a long-proposed rail link between Boston South and North stations, which would speed up travel throughout eastern New England. At such meetings, he patiently waits his turn to speak.


He displayed such patience – and deep policy knowledge and commitment -- even when he was governor. He has always been much more than a politician; he’s a devoted public servant.


The Boston Globe reports that he told the attendees: “It’s inconceivable to me that we are going to deal with congestion problem of ours without getting cracking in a hurry on a first-rate regional rail system.’’ At 85, still looking ahead.



Sports betting scheduled to begin Monday at Twin River

You Can Bet on It

So, Rhode Island will allow sports betting, starting at Twin River next Monday. Many thousands will be able to do legally what they have long done illegally. And thousands of new gamblers will join in the fun.


And in the pain and anxiety of losing. But another ambiguous innovation – medical, followed by recreational – marijuana will be around to soothe the discomfort.



Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Antitrust Division Where Are You?

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive officer, and Sheryl Sandberg, its chief operating officer, have proven themselves promiscuously conniving and untruthful. Many of us in business are forced to use Facebook but the company has done civic life more harm than good. The Justice Department’s Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission should have cracked down on this huge amoral enterprise long ago.


The Skills of a Speaker

I hear people often wonder out loud how congressional leaders, especially House speakers and Senate majority leaders, get and keep their jobs despite their seeming lack of charm to many people who watch them on TV.


Well, many citizens don’t understand the strengths such leaders need: A 24/7 work ethic and the ability to count accurately how many legislators in their parties can be relied upon to support, oppose or revise the leaderships’ bills. This requires great psychological and political insight into the individual legislators’ wants and needs and into the strength and weakness of their connections with their constituencies. House Minority Leader (and probably next Speaker) Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have this sort of insight, formed by a kind of high emotional intelligence, however much some partisans might not like what they see of them on TV.


Having written that, I do think that Californian Nancy Pelosi, who is 78, should announce that she’d retire from her next speakership within two years and in the meantime move fast to develop a younger leadership group with very visible people from “The Heartland.’’ Maryland’s Steny Hoyer, the number 2 House Democrat and presumably future majority leader, is 79. The GOP House leadership is considerably younger even though that party’s electorate skews considerably older than the Democrats’.


Some Cheers for Gentrification

We read much in the press of the drawbacks of urban gentrification, be it on the West Side of Providence or in Brooklyn. The main complaint is that gentrification, which most visibly includes fixing up old and crumbling buildings and the blossoming of new stores and restaurants, pushes poor people out of newly popular and thus increasingly expensive neighborhoods. That most of the people being forced out by higher housing costs tend to be minorities adds to the tensions of gentrification.


But the poor do not benefit over the long run if a city or town, in an effort to avoid antagonizing low-income voters, slows efforts at renewal and resale. Scenes of urban decay don’t entice new money and jobs to flow into cities; indeed, the sight of slums demoralizes residents, poor or otherwise. Further, gentrification means more tax revenue, some of which is used to help poor people. Cities should encourage gentrification while taking steps, in cooperation with the private sector, to provide affordable housing for people many of whom will get jobs because of gentrification.


President Donald Trump

Trump’s Murderers Club

Trump’s embrace of murderer Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, comes after his embrace of such other killers as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un. Our “president’’ continues to shrink America’s moral authority by the day.


 The interesting question on his relationship with the crown prince is how much Trump is motivated by oil issues as well as by U.S. military sales to this terrible regime and how much by his own business relationships with the malign monarchy, including past payments to Trump, his relatives and their often severely overleveraged enterprises.


By in effect encouraging despots to murder their critics, the creature in the Oval Office has made the world that much more dangerous. We’re still looking to see if Trump has any moral or ethical values, or any interests beyond self-interest.




Trump, meanwhile, continues to undermine American institutions, including by attacking the independence of the federal judiciary. He’d like judges to be his agents.  Chief Justice John Roberts, by background a Republican who got his job via George W. Bush, is pushing back.


“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts asserted. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”


The tempest started when Trump attacked a U.S. District Court judge who ruled against his asylum policy as an '’Obama judge.'’


Well, Republican and Democratic presidents do nominate to the courts people who they think will generally make rulings roughly similar to the presidents’ views and so Trump is not totally inaccurate. But with lifetime tenure, the judges can make their decisions with intellectual freedom, as the facts and their philosophies change over the years.  And thank God for that. Judicial independence can act as a brake on a would-be autocrat such as Trump, who has little or no respect for, and knowledge of,  the rule of law that protects us.



Whitcomb appeared with GoLocal News Editor Kate Nagle

Technology to Save Whales?

Man is rapidly wiping out species. Perhaps new technology can help save at least a few of them (though not nearly as a much as stabilizing human population growth). Consider, the Associated Press reports, a new simulator that lets scientists use a joystick “to swim a virtual whale across a video screen’’ as part of efforts to save the close-to-extinction North Atlantic Right Whales that swim off New England.  The idea is to better understand how the huge mammals become entangled in fishing lines and then develop such solutions as ropeless fishing gear, an experiment with which is underway with Maine lobstermen.


Tim Werner, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, told the AP: “If we can see how they get entangled, it would help us prevent it. The technology in computers has evolved to a state where we can model these things.”


More than 80 percent of Right Whales, of which there are only about 400 left, become ensnared by fishing lines. Many then die of starvation because they can’t move around to find food. Some drown. The stress of entrapment itself can kill them. It’s probably too late to save this intelligent species, but Mr. Werner holds out a little hope.





As a light cold rain fell, I was in a skyscraper overlooking Boston Harbor last Tuesday. In the gray murk, the harbor’s islands looked like surfaced whales.  It was a scene of great and mysterious beauty.



And her Parrot

Life online, including, for some of us, dealing with a daily flood of emails, can be tedious.


But sometimes there’s sunshine. On Thanksgiving, I got an email from someone, who turned out to be a radiologist in Boston, politely requesting that a nonprofit that I assist from time to time strike him from their emailed notification list for upcoming meetings; he was on the list by accident.


But we struck up a conversation, which included remarks about his wife’s beloved parrot and word, on that feast day, that he and his wife are vegans, as well as our discovery that we knew someone in common. The back and forth ended with him asking to remain on the email list.


Country Life

The late poet  and essayist Maxine Kumin’s In Deep: Country Essays (Viking) based on her unromanticized commitment to life on her New Hampshire farm, is well worth reading for an appreciation of the joys and challenges of rural life in our region – vibrant life, sad death, hard physical work and innumerable forms of beauty-- through the seasons.


“The idea of waiting and patience is based on the circumstances of the era, on the pace of life established by an era’s technologies. So, if we think something is going to take 10 days to arrive and it takes 20, then our impatience emerges because of the inability for that technology to meet the cultural expectation of the time. Whenever that expectation isn’t met, whatever it is, people get frustrated and impatient and are not willing to stick around or wait.’’


-- From Joe Pinsker’s conversation with communications scholar Jason Farman in The Atlantic. To read the piece, please hit this link:


Think of this when your Amazon package arrives a day late.


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