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Whitcomb: Making R.I. One Big Port; Big Hydro for MA?; Facebook Should Pay for Journalism

Monday, February 05, 2018


Bob Whitcomb

“Don't ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”

-- Robert Frost


“Keep this in mind: the solution to every human problem contains within itself the seeds of a new problem.”


-- Former Maine Sen. George Mitchell


My take on Trump’s boffo State of the Union show last Tuesday: The event befitted our optics-obsessed, post-literate, post-respect-for-facts times. Much of it consisted of heavily choreographed mini-dramas with human props invited to sit in the gallery too, in effect, promote the president’s program and feed his voracious ego.  The use of heroic individuals as actors on State of the Union nights has been expanding for many years. Some of it is touching.The Democrats, by the way, would have been wise to have shown more respect for the head of state than they did; too many of them looked churlish. (Of course, some GOP legislators were much more rude to Obama in his State of the Union shows. One shouted “You lie!”) Trump is, character-wise, an odious creature but federal officials should show at least a modicum of respect for the office.


Trump, as you would expect from a “reality’’ TV star,  performed very well indeed in his highly effective if cynical,  hypocritical, jingoistic and detail-scarce show.  As for the “substance’’ of the event, despite calls for unity, there was little real outreach to the Democrats. And his calls for improving infrastructure (yes, slash the regulatory-approval time!), boosting the military, fighting opiates, improving vocational education and so on lacked details about how to pay for them. (For a sound approach to the infrastructure challenge, please hit this link:


President Donald Trump

Those are especially intriguing gaps given that the Republicans, now almost totally in thrall to our Demagogue-in-Chief, have just enacted a $1.5 trillion tax cut, mostly for business (okay) and rich individuals (unwise). The Congressional Budget Office said last week that the United States will bump up against its borrowing limit a month earlier than previously expected because of the tax cut, which is cutting revenue for the Treasury Department. Still, few people seem to care about our rapidly swelling debt. The bond market will tell them when to get anxious.


Trump’s TV show was fundamentally a pitch to his base, which will probably stick with him until the economy, which has been growing since 2009, starts sinking. The folks who get most of their “news” from the Grand Old Party’s Fox News subsidiary will not seek out other information and opinions. They, like those on the left who only watch MSNBC, seek to avoid the anxiety of hearing information and opinions that might upset their worldviews. Intellectual cowardice and confirmation bias, not to mention false equivalence, reign.


The President’s prime-time program had plenty of evasions of the truth.   You can look them up. The most important one to me was his suggestion that many immigrants were apt to be lethally dangerous to God-fearing U.S. citizens. In fact, U.S. citizens commit crimes at a higher rate than illegal immigrants.

For instance, a March 2017 study by Republican-leaning Cato Institute found that “all immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than natives relative to their shares of the population” and that “even illegal immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans.”


A successful con man never lets the facts get in the way of a pitch to his suckers.


Trump is playing his anti-immigrant cards well. Not only do the fanatical followers of this crafty if chaotic would-be fuehrer want more rigorous controls on immigration; most Americans in general do. If the Dems ally themselves with those seeking to increase, or at least maintain current levels of, and rules governing,  legal immigration and continue to go light on illegals, they lose. Most of us know that if you have very porous borders, eventually you’ll have no country. And most Americans don’t like the idea of
“sanctuary cities’’.


Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, made the case in The New York Times that Democrats should cooperate with Trump on immigration:

“If the Democrats compromise on a few of the non-DACA items {e.g., more border security} and the (Congressional) Republican position is no DACA relief, then the Republican position becomes untenable and looks as though they are caving to their extreme nativist faction. And if the Democrats make their position a clean bill on DACA and no compromise on the other items, it hands the Republicans a perfect wedge item going into the 2018 election, possibly keeping them in control of both houses.’’


As do all presidents, but much more so, Trump took credit for economic growth, now in the ninth year of the post-crash expansion. (Many other nations have faster-growing economies than America’s.) It will be fun to see how he rhetorically navigates the inevitable recession. Maybe he’ll blame it on “Crooked Hillary.’’




The Democratic response to the Trump event was another heavily visual event. U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, without a jacket and with blinding lip balm, spoke in a Fall River vocational school. The redhead spoke intensely to an enthusiastic local crowd. Behind him was a car with the hood up. (Maybe not necessarily a good optic for us old folks who remember his Great Uncle Edward Kennedy’s incident at Chappaquiddick.)


Congressman Kennedy

Appealing to blue-collar workers by speaking in such a venue would probably have been more effective if the school had been in one of the Rust Belt states that handed Electoral College victory to a rich guy from New York, mentored by Roy Cohn, with a more than 40-year record of sleaze. (Many Trump voters said they mostly knew of Trump from his TV star stretch and admired his act; most avoided researching his career. New Yorkers, who know Trump’s deeply shady career well, voted overwhelmingly against him. For an entertaining look at Trump’s rise to celebrity, view http://www.trumpthemovie.com)


The congressman was very articulate and, I thought, sincerely passionate. Still, most people have no memory of the glory days of his family, and some folks, including Democrats, didn’t want to hear from another East Coast child of privilege. (But Republicans admire their chief East Coast child of privilege.)


I remain convinced that the Democrats would do better to back off from their obsession with identity politics and instead tout above all else their programs to improve the socio-economic condition of all people in the middle class and below. Kennedy alluded to that but spent too much time talking about immigrants and others you’d  put under the heading of “identity politics.’’ As I wrote above, most Americans want more controls on immigration. And most Americans are still getting used to such new developments as, for example, bathroom rights for the transgendered. Young Kennedy should have positioned himself and his party as the party of FDR, Truman, JFK and LBJ (minus the Vietnam War) and less as movers of social movements most popular on the East and West Coasts. And the Democrats should have gotten somebody from, say, Ohio, to give the speech.





With its big and mostly sheltered bay on the Northeast Corridor and proximity to major shipping lanes, Rhode Island is very well-situated for the state to expand its foreign-trade zone to the entire state. As I remember from my business editor days here and in Europe, Free Trade Zones, if promoted well, can be big prosperity builders in the jurisdictions that have them. Rhode Island’s compactness, ports on Narragansett Bay and increasingly international T.F. Green Airport should make it an easier place than most to go after revenues from international trade.


In the Jan. 26-Feb. 1 Providence Business News, Mary MacDonald well summarized the attractions of Free Trade Zones in her article headlined “R.I. bids to become a statewide foreign trade zone. Who will benefit?’’


“{A}approved companies that make use of a zone do not have to go through Customs entry or pay import duties on certain merchandise. Duties and excise taxes are only paid when products move into the U.S. market for sale. If the items are then moved on to another country, the company pays no duties or taxes on those items.


‘’Companies will often move product through a FTZ if they want to hold it before sale, because this allows them to delay the payment of their tariff, and frees that money for other purposes….there is no time limit for how long something can be stored in the trade zone.’’



Is Massachusetts wise to put so many of its energy eggs in one basket? Consider the Northern Pass project, which would send electricity from massive Quebec hydro-electric operations via a power line (some of it buried) through New Hampshire. The Bay State has given preliminary approval to having the utility Eversource deliver the hydropower. But the project may never happen: New Hampshire’s Site Evaluation Committee has just rejected the plan, after all, other appropriate state agencies had approved it. The company is expected to appeal.


{image_4The $1.6 billion Northern Pass project,  which would be the largest renewable-energy-source in the state's history, would benefit from a 2016 state law mandating a big increase in green energy in Massachusetts. The aim is for the project to provide the equivalent of 17 percent of the state’s current electricity needs.


It’s not environmentally perfect. Generating the power necessitates big dam projects in Canada that flood wide areas and of course putting the line (some of it buried) through New Hampshire would require some disruption.


The Bay State ought to be wary of over-dependence on one source. A big expansion of small-scale solar-, wind-, hydro- and tidal-energy projects should continue to be encouraged. Homeowners are increasingly turning to roof-top and backyard solar panels to get around high electricity prices on the grid and exacerbated by the political difficulty of running natural gas lines (to generate heat and electricity) lines into New England.


Anyway, it’s hard to see that we could have too much diversification, which ought to include even stronger conservation efforts, too.


Meanwhile, Eversource is getting pushback in the Massachusetts legislature about its new charge for homeowners who start using solar power next year. The fee, $120 a year, is meant to ensure that solar users pay to help maintain wires and poles for the grid. This may seem unfair but we’ll need many years to transition away completely from an electricity system based on burning fossil fuel and nuclear energy. In the meantime, society needs to maintain the infrastructure we have now. The typical solar-energy user might pay $25,000 (partly offset by tax credits and other incentives)  to put up a system.  But after that, they’re basically getting free power and perhaps even making money by selling excess electricity to the grid. So the $120-a-year charge seems reasonable.


Meanwhile,  as NIMBYs and their political allies strive to prevent new gas pipelines from Pennsylvania fracking fields from being extended into New England, the Russians are shipping liquefied natural gas to Boston!




The complaints from car-hailing services and their passengers about the $6 pickup fee at T.F. Green Airport ring hollow to me. Jim Hummel wrote about this in a good Jan. 28 Providence Journal story, “Driving revenue: Price of arrival rises at T.F. Green’’. All users should help pay for the airport, which has been much improved in recent years. Uber and Lyft have taken away some of the airport’s revenue from rental cars and taxis. It’s generally cheaper to take a car-hailing service than a cab. Further, many airports charge to drop off and pick up passengers.


As usual, people want more services but lower charges. Take the federal gasoline tax. It was last raised in 1993! No wonder the roads are such a mess. And while Trump talks about improving transportation infrastructure, he got Congress to enact a huge tax cut, mostly for business and the rich. America remains a fiscal Fantasyland.




Southern New England lobstermen (or should I say lobsterpersons?) may have hurt themselves by taking as many lobsters as they can, without looking at the species’ ability to reproduce. It may be a case of “the tragedy of the commons’’ -- wherein individual users in a shared-resource system acting independently in what they see as their own self-interest undermine the common good by depleting that resource through their collective action.


Has that attitude had as much impact on the plunging lobster stocks along the Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut coasts as environmental changes, especially warming seas? Hard to tell. Commercial fishermen are notoriously independent and secretive about their catches.


You can’t but think of that when you learn that many Maine lobsterman have long used what seems to be a very effective conservation method. As reported by Fred Bever for Maine Public Radio:


For years, Maine lobstermen have used "’V-notching’: when they found an egg-bearing female in their traps, they would clip a ‘V’ into the end of its tail, and throw it back. The next time it turns up in someone's trap, even if it's not showing eggs, the harvester knows it's a fertile female, and throws it back. Later, the lobstermen also pushed the Legislature to impose limits on the size of the lobster they can keep — because the biggest ones produce the most eggs.’’


“And those fertile females have been doing that job very well in Maine. Since the 1980s, lobster abundance here has grown by more than 500 percent, with landings shooting up from fewer than 20 million pounds in 1985, to more than 120 million pounds in 2015 with a value of more than a half-billion dollars.’’


To read more, please hit this link:



One of the world’s most important but under-reported stories is the transformation of China into a vast  24/7 surveillance system aimed at quashing all dissent. It’s backed up by a vast network of what are in effect concentration camps. Orwell would have been impressed.



There ought to be a prize competition to find an economical replacement for the rock salt dumped on our roads in the winter. That salt is polluting water supplies and killing fish and other wildlife as well as causing severe corrosion to vehicles, bridges and other objects, as well as to cement.


Some public works departments have been trying to cut their salt use by using such substances as beet juice, molasses, and beer waste, but usually with only marginal benefits. Can’t some chemist come up with something better?




Facebook and the media

Rupert Murdoch, the executive chairman of News Corp., has told Facebook that it should pay credible news organizations for use of their content that shows up on that social-media site. He said: “Publishers are obviously enhancing the value and integrity of Facebook through their news and content but are not being adequately rewarded for their services.’’ That’s putting it mildly. Murdoch, whose Fox News is not exactly a pillar of integrity, and nor is Murdoch personally, is quite right, even if he does employ such sleazoids as Sean Hannity.


Murdoch wants Facebook to do what cable- and satellite-TV companies do: Pay for content from TV channels, such as Fox News, via a monthly, per-subscriber charge.


America has suffered from the Internet-wrought destruction of much of journalism. Murdoch’s organization, which also includes The Wall Street Journal, would, of course, profit if Facebook accepts his request. At least some of that would go into hiring more journalists, hopefully, more for the still highly respected Wall Street Journal (where I worked many moons ago) than for Fox.


Even a modest increase in revenues for news providers would help slow such sad developments, as, for example, good reporters at The Providence Journal leaving to work in state government because they see no future in paid journalism. Not good for a country whose FIRST amendment enshrines the importance of a free press.




Read about what the once-revered Berkshire Eagle newspaper, out in western Massachusetts, is doing under new local ownership to try to improve its journalism and make money after it was ravaged by a cost-cutting national chain. Please hit this link:




I’m impressed by how the workers on those big downtown Providence building projects carry on through cold and bad weather.





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