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Whitcomb: Fire and Ice; A City for the ‘Middle Class’? Demeaning the FBI; Bike-Friendly URI

Tuesday, January 09, 2018


Robert Whitcomb

“I can taste the tin of the sky —- the real tin thing.
Winter dawn is the color of metal,
The trees stiffen into place like burnt nerves.’’

-- From “Waking in Winter,’’ by Sylvia Plath


One of my sisters, an engineer and scientist, lives in Pasadena, Calif., where, like most of Southern California, the weather has been much drier and warmer than usual for months, leading to vast and devastating fires in large suburban areas. We were talking the other day about this so-far exasperating winter in southern New England. Maybe, I thought, putting up with snow and ice in the winter is a lot better than having bad droughts and horrific fires. The runoff from the melting snow and ice, along with several inches a month (in most months)  of rain, helps ensure that New England has plenty of water, as does a cool climate, which means less evaporation. Count that big blessing.


Better a snowstorm than a huge brush fire near your house. I think…..




As I looked at the pictures of flooded roads and buildings along the Massachusetts shoreline during Thursday’s storm I again wondered how long federal taxpayers will have to keep subsidizing (mostly affluent) people to live where Mother Nature doesn’t want them.  I refer to the National Flood Insurance Program.



Boston Mayor Marty  Walsh promised at his second inauguration last Monday that he’d rebuild the city’s middle class.  “We can be the city that is world class because it works for the middle class,’’ he said. That’s an admirable if vague goal for a city that’s among the most prosperous in America but that also has increasing income inequality, as very highly compensated people at the top of the city’s tech and financial-services sectors get bigger and bigger slices of the economic pie. The new federal income-tax law will further widen the inequality. But Mr. Walsh can’t do much about it and he can sincerely celebrate Boston’s prosperity.


Boston's Growth

Mr. Walsh has shown himself an effective booster of the city’s reputation and so far, anyway, shows the potential of being as good a mayor as his immediate predecessor, Tom Menino, the “urban mechanic’’ who served from 1993 to 2014 and whom Mr. Walsh sees as his model. The current mayor said Mr. Menino “put us on the world stage as a national leader in healthcare, education, innovation, and the nitty-gritty of executing basic city services.” Of course, Boston was already a leader in those areas but there’s no doubt that Mr. Menino helped make “the Hub of the Universe’’ truly a world city.


Most interesting to me was the mayor’s promise to rebuild the Long Island Bridge and create on the Boston Harbor island a campus focused on substance-abuse treatment and especially on the opioid crisis. Perhaps it could become a center serving all of southern New England.




President Trump’s frequent diatribes against an alleged federal government “deep state,’’ especially the Justice Department (particularly its FBI unit), the CIA and the State Department,  are doing what I fear will be permanent damage to them and thus to the country. To try to protect himself from charges of corruption and worse, he is desperately trying to undermine their credibility, upon which their sometimes dangerous work depends. But then Trump tries to undermine anyone whom he sees as a potential or real critic, including now Steve Bannon, who helped put him in the Oval Office. The president ends up betraying nearly everyone except his immediate Mafia-like family because what he perceives as his interests, not the country’s, trumps, so to speak, all else.  His loyalty is one-way.


Damage to the FBI's reputation

The FBI, of course, is a particular target because of its probe of the extensive contacts between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin’s Russian police state. Trump is trying to undermine the investigation, led by a man of great integrity and intelligence – former FBI director and now special counsel Robert Mueller, who had been a Republican. And Trump fired another man of integrity and courage – former FBI Director James Comey – who had also been a Republican. For that matter, the FBI had usually been seen as having many Republicans and a  generally rather conservative mind cast.


That many in the FBI see Trump’s behavior as personally detestable is not surprising. The president, in his personal and public life, has often shown himself to lack the most basic decency. He is a demagogic con man and a pathological liar. (Many FBI agents also intensely disliked the Clintons when they were in power, by the way.)


The First Amendment protects federal employees’ ability to speak in their private capacities, on their own time.  After all, we all have opinions. Most federal employees manage to do their jobs fairly,  going about their work in a nonpartisan way. In any event, lest they cloud public debates and create public perceptions of bias in the performance of their jobs, they’d best avoid public comments in the media, with the Internet a particularly dangerous minefield.


It is depressing that Trump continues to demean people who so patriotically serve America. It’s also depressing that he has so little respect for (and knowledge of) the American justice system, including, most depressingly, the U.S. Constitution.


More broadly, the president’s attack on government (except his allies and lackeys) and disdain for truth undermine the public’s trust in their institutions, which is necessary if our democratic system is to prosper. He’s suited to be the dictator of a banana republic.


But until the world economy goes south again, he’s probably safe from ouster. My guess is that the crash will come later this year or sometime next year. Financial-asset values are very high. Perhaps a bitcoin collapse will precipitate a stock market implosion and the next recession.


As one entry into Trump’s  inner world, read about him and Roy Cohn, who was, along with Donald Trump’s father, Fred, the president’s most important mentor.  READ HERE 





Mitt Romney, running for U.S. Senate in Utah?

It’s good news that 2012 GOP presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is expected to run for the Senate from Deep Red and Mormon Utah to succeed the super-annuated Orrin Hatch, who since Trump was elected has cast off much of his self-respect and independence to become a slavish suck-up to the president, rivaling the pathetic Mike Pence in the sycophancy department.


Some readers may remember these remarks by Mr. Romney in 2016:


"Here's what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He's playing the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat."


Mr. Romney, who was a very competent governor and highly successful businessman (helped by being born on third base), will almost certainly win this seat in November in Deep Red Utah. We can expect that he’ll be a thoughtful, well-informed and calm right-of-center voice and will show occasional flashes of political independence.


It may be particularly interesting to see what role he plays in healthcare reform since he signed into law as governor a near-universal-coverage health-insurance system that provided a template for the Affordable Care Act.  But then, much of the ACA had its origins in GOP ideas dating from the early ‘90s and promoted by the Republican think tank and lobbying group the Heritage Foundation. I talked in detail with the Heritage folks about their health-insurance proposals way back then. The proposals included the hated “mandate’’ to buy insurance.


But when the Dems adopted those ideas, the increasingly right-wing Republicans turned against them.




My wife and I attended a big wedding high in a Hyatt Hotel on the waterfront of Jersey City on New Year’s Eve. That city, once mostly famous for political corruption and the Mob, now has a strip of glitzy steel and glass buildings – banks, hotels, condo towers, apartment houses; a huge mall, etc., with theatrical views of the very close Manhattan skyline. Virtually none of that was there when we lived in New York in the ‘70s. Developers were drawn to the waterfront strip by real-estate prices lower than Manhattan’s (though still very high) and, of course, one of the most spectacular urban views in the world.


But if you go inland a few blocks you find crumbling roads and other infrastructure – a mess. As the late economist, John Kenneth Galbraith said of America in general: “Private affluence, public squalor.”


The wedding was an international group, dominated by Americans and French people. As the rock roared on at the reception, you could hear, if you listened very hard, foreigners asking their American tablemates whether it was always this cold on New Year’s Eve and how long the Trumps would stay in power. The music is so loud at wedding receptions these days that guests are hoarse for days from trying to speak over the din.




Trump rightly applauds the demonstrators in Iran. But I think that the president misconstrues what’s happening there. It’s actually the old “revolution of rising expectations.’’ The nuclear deal between Iran and world powers led to the removal of economic sanctions. That, in turn, has fueled impatience among the Iranian masses for a vast improvement in living standards. The much-maligned nuclear agreement has led to the demonstrations, whose brave participants have demanded more and cheaper goods and, increasingly, an end to the corrupt and often brutal Islamic “Republic.’’ The regime will kill some more protesters but the regime will still weaken. It’s losing its credibility.





The Trump administration wants to shrink and/or open up for commercial fishing the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Monument, 130 miles off Cape Cod.  Considering the administration’s deep affection for the fossil-fuel industry, some see this as presaging a bid to open up the area for oil and natural-gas drilling. Indeed, the administration would open up all of America’s offshore waters for drilling if it could.

President Donald Trump

Ocean ecologists consider the Northeast Canyons as particularly sensitive because of the variety of its sea life, (including its dense forests of deep-sea corals) and its role as a migratory route, for among other species, the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

I hope that the administration reconsiders, although it almost certainly will not. The area at issue is only 2 percent of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone off its Atlantic Coast. And saving it from commercialization will pay off commercially in the long run – by shielding an important fish habitat/refuge.

Speaking of fossil fuel, New England needs considerably more natural-gas pipeline capacity to get it through the decades that it will take to get to a 100 percent renewable-energy future. The lack of capacity to bring gas to New England from the Pennsylvania fracking fields only a couple of hundred miles west means big spikes in heating and electricity costs in brutal cold spells such as what we’ve been having. The lack of gas capacity has meant that some New England power plants have had to turn to burning much dirtier (than gas) oil to keep up with demand for electricity during this cold spell.




Kudos to the University of Rhode Island for working to make the Kingston campus better for bicyclists with, for example, plans to rebuild Flagg Road and Upper College Road into what a URI master plan calls “complete streets’’ that would include bike lanes on both sides. There’s also the idea of connecting URI to the William C. O’Neill Bike Path, reported the Independent newspaper. The program is officially called URI’s Transportation and Parking Master Plan.

The URI campus is mostly lovely, a good reason in itself to lay out more bike paths. And many students can’t afford cars.

The master plan, overseen by Christopher McMahan, the university’s much-admired architect and director of capital planning and design, also envisions further increases in bus service provided by the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.

These moves will make the campus more attractive, improve its natural environment, reduce the pressure to add more parking and make it easier for students and others to avoid driving. URI has made much progress in recent years in raising its academic and aesthetic stature. The transportation improvements are an important part of that.




Higher Northeastern taxes

We’ll see how far states’ rights can go when it comes to tax policy as “Blue States’’ seemingly singled out for punishment in the Republican tax law seek to lighten the impact. The New York Times reported that one proposal “would replace state income taxes, which are no longer fully deductible under the new law, with payroll taxes on employers, which are deductible. Another idea would be to allow residents to replace their state income tax payments with tax-deductible charitable contributions to their state governments.’’


Thus as individuals and businesses have long done, state governments are now looking for every possible loophole they can find to be better able to deal with the confusing challenges presented by the thrown-together new tax law, which will further enrich K Street lobbyists, tax lawyers and CPAs across America, as well, of course as other rich folks in general. The world’s most complicated tax code just got more so.


Of course, rich Blue States could simply lower their state income taxes. But voters in those states have shown again and again that they want the sort of extensive public services that are unavailable in most Red States. Or to put it perhaps more accurately, voters want lower taxes and more and better services!


New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said: “They want to target us for certain provisions? Well, let’s see if we can redesign our tax code to get out of the federal trap we set.’’




Higher taxes on newsprint?


Here’s more bad news for newspapers. The Trump administration is expected to impose duties on newsprint from Canada, thus further imperiling the publications that have been so important for democracy, especially in areas away from the big cities. The small local weekly and daily newspapers are still where much local government, political and business news is reported. But the Internet has taken away much of the advertising they depended on to make a profit. The biggest “national newspapers’’ – The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Washington Post – will probably survive over the long haul because they have the widest and deepest advertising and readership (mostly affluent) bases and more diversified revenue sources. But many of the smaller papers have died or are close to collapse.


Echo-chamber social media and local TV station news, the latter of which is also shrinking with the old ad-based business model, will not fill the gap. So ignorance and misinformation will continue to swell.


More than 1,000 small and mid-sized U.S. newspapers are pleading with the Feds not to impose duties. If their pleas aren’t answered, expect a wave of closings, which wouldn’t bother the White House one bit.




This sort of brings me with a pang to a new book called The Gifted Generation: When Government Was {seen as} Good, by David Goldfield, about the decisive, confident and generally successful actions of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Johnson to improve life in America. In this era of extreme mistrust and demagoguery, the story seems almost quaint.


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