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Whitcomb: ‘Marriage’ Mess; ‘Back to Basics’ on Economic Development; Baker Waves ‘Red Flag’

Monday, July 09, 2018


Robert Whitcomb

"It was a splendid summer morning and it seemed as if nothing could go wrong."

--  John Cheever


 “{T}he American left and right, which disagree on almost everything, are both turning against American exceptionalism. Democrats don’t think America lives up to liberal democratic ideals. Republicans don’t think Americans need to.’’

-- Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic


Politicians and often the general public like the idea of snaring famous big tech companies with massive incentives, such as huge tax breaks, free land and infrastructure. But these deals are often made by policymakers with little knowledge of the individual companies or industries that they’re trying to attract.


Too many states and localities are handing out sweetheart packages, some of which add up to billions of dollars, to a few sexy companies whose long-term prospects are, of course, unknowable. Too many eggs in a basket. When such huge companies pull out of a region the economic effects can be devastating.


{image)_2}Maryann Feldman, a public-policy professor at the University of North Carolina and director of the Center for Innovative and Prosperous Economies at the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, and Greg LeRoy, who directs Good Jobs First, a nonprofit economic-development organization, have better ideas than committing so much to a few companies because they’re famous. They wrote about them in a Guardian article headlined “Cities need to stop selling out to big tech companies. There’s a better way’’.


Among their remarks:


“Here are two proven alternative strategies. The first could be called ‘back to basics’. A regional government inventories existing small- and medium-sized firms, the backbone of many local communities. Typically family-owned and located in micropolitan and rural areas, these firms are often neglected by policymakers and shortchanged by incentive programs.’’


“The second alternative takes this same approach and applies it to very young companies and to emerging technologies with more speculative prospects. This was North Carolina’s successful strategy from the 1950s until the mid-1990s. Making no big bets on any one company, the state invested in all levels of education, created its community college system and upgraded the state universities. It also focused on highway upgrades and other infrastructure investments.’’


“The state followed up with targeted investments such as the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which especially benefited the Research Triangle Region. The center wasn’t created for one company; its programs provided an umbrella for a range of activities that promoted collaboration and commercialization, such as offering small amounts of seed money to enable companies to test ideas, and convening diverse groups to respond to larger funding opportunities.’’


“This is a strategy for the long term, but arguably a much safer and more effective use of government funds. Plus, it uses the tax revenue of current local citizens for their own benefit.’’


To read the article, please hit this link:






U.S. Supreme Court

Trump’s next Supreme Court nominee will lie, or just be evasive, about his or her stance on Roe v. Wade in the nominee’s Senate confirmation hearing. Roe, of course, backed the idea that there’s a constitutional right to abortion across America. But once on the court, the newbie will join with the rest of what will be the new hard-right majority on the court and reverse (the weirdly written – “penumbra of privacy,’’ etc.) Roe. This will leave it to the states, wherein domestic-law matters, fair or not, have usually been lodged in this country.


Most of the states of the Old Confederacy (now the GOP heartland) will probably ban abortion outright, except perhaps with the escape clause of abortion needed “to save the life of the mother.’’  There might be a big increase in “back alley abortions’’ in those states even as some women expensively flee to (mostly Blue) states that permit the procedure -- very tough for low-income women. Perhaps some new foundations will be set up to help pay for women to travel to states that still permit abortion.


Still, birth control has improved a lot since 1973, including the so-called “morning-after pills,’’ though some zealots oppose that, too. (I don’t consider a collection of a few cells soon after conception to be a “person,’’ but I respect those who do on theological grounds.)


In any case, I predict that the inevitable demise of Roe v. Wade will have less effect than some might fear.


All this reminds me of former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank’s line:


“The Moral Majority (a right-wing Republican televangelist-promoted group in ‘80s) supports legislators who oppose abortions but also oppose child nutrition and daycare. From their perspective, life begins at conception and ends at birth.”




MA Governor Charlie Baker

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s signing of a “red flag” gun law that will let household members seek a court order to take guns away from people posing a risk to themselves or others means that the Bay State’s gun-death rate, already the nation’s lowest, will probably get lower. Of course, the rate is low because the state has among America’s most restrictive gun laws.


The new law encourages family or household members to ask a judge for an order to remove guns from persons at risk of harming themselves or others and to ban them from having firearms for up to a year when an extension could presumably be requested.


Massachusetts has become the sixth state to pass such a law, and Mr. Baker the fourth Republican governor to sign the bill into law since the Parkland shooting last winter. But the gun makers, and their lobbying organization, the National Rifle Association, own Congress – especially the House – so don’t expect any such action there anytime soon.


The states with the lowest gun-death rates are, in order, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Hawaii and Connecticut – all with restrictive (by American standards) gun laws. The NRA and its congressional servants say that “guns don’t kill people, people do.’’ Yeah, but it’s a hell of a lot easier with a gun….




The story of Kevin Gaugler, of East Providence, and his former-live in girlfriend, Angela Luis, reported in a July 1 Providence Journal story by headlined “A Cautionary Tale: Long relationship is not a marriage,’’ is a warning about legal obligations and the lack thereof and the rootlessness of American life.


The five-year-long Gaugler-Luis case (the lawyers must have prospered!) involves Ms. Luis’s assertion that she and Mr. Gaugler were in a common-law marriage.  But the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled in May that his 23-year relationship with Ms. Luis was not a common-law marriage. As noted: “Rhode Island is one of several states that leave it to the courts to determine whether a long-term relationship constitutes a common-law marriage.’’


Ms. Luis had big economic reasons for wanting the relationship to be declared a (kind of) marriage. It would have given her half the marital assets after they split up, including half the proceeds from selling a house that he had bought as well as his retirement accounts and insurance policy.


Complicating things were that he had helped raise Ms. Luis’s son as his own.

There’s enough disorder in American life. “Common law marriages’’ should be abolished and what we used to call “illegitimacy’’ (which is closely correlated with poverty) discouraged.  The states ought to encourage individuals to understand and take on the legal obligations of regular marriage, especially regarding children and property.


Meanwhile, Mr. Gaugler told the reporter that he and his post-Luis girlfriend plan to get married – someday. They’ve been together since 2013….






President Donald Trump

That the Trump administration has decided that the federal government will no longer encourage colleges and universities to use race in the admissions process, reversing Obama-era guidance meant to promote diversity, will have the least effect on the nation’s richest, most prestigious and thus hard-to-get-into colleges and universities, of which New England has a lot. They get so many applicants and have so much financial aid to give out that they can easily create very diverse classes.   The schools want to show such diversity in part because it reinforces their position as national and even international institutions. They want their students’ faces to look like the, well, world.


Using race as one criterion among others also has socio-economic-diversity effects– e.g., African-American and Hispanic students tend to come from poorer families than white and many Asian families.


Meanwhile, the Feds are investigating Harvard for alleged racial bias after complaints from some Asian-Americans that the admissions process is skewed against them.


Harvard has argued that it “does not discriminate against applicants from any group, including Asian-Americans’’ and notes that this group currently makes up a hefty 22.2 percent of students.  But some rejected applicants say that’s too low considering their high marks and other indicators of future success.

We should leave to the colleges what sort of mix they need and want.  Barring provable racial bias, the Feds shouldn’t try to manage colleges’ decision-making.


Trump’s policy, which will appeal to his mostly white base, will mean that poorer schools (public and private) will be less likely to offer admission to minorities. They’ll become whiter even as the Ivy League and other highly selective colleges maintain their affirmative-action programs. Poorer, less prestigious schools could try to maintain racial diversity indirectly, especially by providing more financial aid on the basis of a family’s finances – again, African-Americans and Hispanics tend to be considerably poorer than whites – but in a time of fiscal austerity for many colleges and universities and a shrinking number of overall applications because of demographic change, don’t bet on it.


The Trump policy will tend to favor affluent whites and widen the class divide.




Southern New England squid fishermen worry that Vineyard Wind’s plan to put up as many as 100 wind turbines in 250 square miles south of Martha’s Vineyard will hurt their business. It almost certainly will not. For one thing, most sea creatures thrive near wind turbines, whose supports act as reefs. The Europeans, which have massive offshore and coastal wind facilities, have shown how commercial fishing and such clean energy can co-exist.


Offshore Wind

And Vineyard Wind has contorted itself to make the big project easy for fishermen to live with, such as by promising to space the turbines eighth-tenths of a mile apart and to create special transit lanes for fishing boats.

With any project in public space as big as this, constituencies will sometimes engage in fierce debate. And ancient industries tend not to like change.


Fishing is an important sector in southeastern New England’s economy. But far more important than fishing for a single species is for the region to gain much more energy dependence. It’s dangerous for New England to depend so much on fossil fuel from outside the region. And burning that fossil fuel causes massive pollution, global warming, and acidification of the oceans. The last is already killing some life in the ocean.




How long will a majority of Americans, who, if polls mean anything, tend to favor Democratic Party policies, continue to tolerate being ruled by an increasingly right-wing Republican Party that stays in power by extreme congressional-district gerrymandering and an Electoral College that greatly favors small Republican states? Consider that Republicans lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections (2004 was the exception) and yet took the presidency three times because of the Electoral College. Will the U.S. Constitution ever be amended to give primacy to the popular vote?


Both parties have always done gerrymandering of congressional districts through control of state legislatures, but since the ‘80’s the Republicans have been far more ruthless in this and other political areas. Their current congressional power can be traced back to the 2010 elections, when a Tea Party-energized party did so well in state legislative elections that they were able to use the 2010 Census to redraw congressional districts, often into bizarrely contorted creations, to their maximum benefit.


Of course, barring a “Blue Wave’’ this November and again in 2020, they’ll create even more contorted districts with the 2020 Census, with the aim of creating a near-permanent majority in the House.


The prime methods of gerrymandering: "packing" many votes from the opposing party into a few districts to concentrate their votes into as few districts as possible and “cracking’’ - diluting the opposing party’s presumed voters by spreading them among several districts.


I mentioned that the Republican Party has been far more ruthless and effective in gerrymandering. I think that their purported love of  “small government’’ and “conservative social values’’ (whatever they means in the Age of Trump) has little to with it. I think it’s mostly about money – expanding the wealth (and political power – they go together) of the very rich through favorable tax and regulatory policies enacted by the people they elect. Indeed, these campaigns are heavily financed by those, such as the Koch Brothers and Robert Mercer, who directly benefit from GOP policies.




More than two dozen of the Democratic challengers for U.S. House seats this fall are veterans.




Putin's relationship with Trump

Of course, Trump wants to meet alone with his hero Vladimir Putin this month. They will have much personal business to transact. Putin knows only a little English, Trump knows no Russian. So they’ll need translators. Perhaps Trump will only use Putin’s translator, as he did in a previous meeting. Much more secure.  And for a U.S. translator to hear their discussion might be bad for that person’s health. He or she might get dizzy and fall out a window, or brakes might fail…




The Russians stuck their big bear paws into the successful (so far) campaign for Britain to leave the European Union – something devoutly to be wished by Putin because he thinks it will weaken the West’s ability to push back against Russian aggression in Europe and elsewhere, and it has. (I myself underestimated the dangers of Brexit, which British voters backed very narrowly on June 23, 2016.) In some ways, Brexit was a practice run for the Trump-Putin victory that November in America.


It turns out that a notably sleazy British businessman named Arron Banks, a bankroller of the Brexit campaign, has had very close contacts at the Russian Embassy in London, which connected him with folks running investments in Russian-owned diamond and gold mines. It’s still unclear how much of a financial link he had or has with the Russians.  Mr. Banks demonstrated a very selective memory before a recent parliamentary investigation of Russian support of the Brexit campaign.

Interestingly, Banks met with Trump in New York right after the 2016 U.S. election and soon after, The New York Times reports, he met with his pal the Russian ambassador in London.




The Parisian-looking Welcome Center, with its modest, low-key eatery and restrooms, has finally opened at The Breakers mansion, in Newport. Some members of the Vanderbilt family and some neighbors had alleged that the project would “desecrate’’ the property, while many visitors have complained that the portable toilets that had served as the sole restrooms for tourists there were the real desecration.

I think that the main reason for the opposition to the Welcome Center was simply the fear that it would draw more people to neighborhood, and it probably has. It will be interesting to see the visitor count compared to last summer.




I have always hated “open offices’’. People need privacy. I was lucky enough as a manager to have a private office for much of my so-called career. Open offices have been touted for purportedly breaking down interpersonal barriers and in so doing encouraging more creativity and coordination.


But,  reports Bloomberg (which favors open offices in its own facilities), a new paper by Harvard’s  Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban showed that, in  Bloomberg’s words, “on the basis of two field studies of corporate headquarters, that the modern open office architecture tends to decrease the volume of face-to-face interaction by some 70 percent and increases electronic communication accordingly. With such a communication pattern, the workers might as well be anywhere.’’


The lack of privacy tends to make workers warier of face-to-face conversations and less frank in such conversations they do have for fear that they’ll be overheard. And open offices force workers into fish bowls with far more distractions than they’d have if they worked in their own walled spaces (if only a cubicle). This undermines developed thought. Executives might like open offices because it makes it easier to spy on their employees. But these unwalled spaces may be bad for business. They sure make telecommuting from home much more alluring.


To read more, please hit this link:





It’s fun to see the most corrupt president in U.S. history forced to fire the corrupt, anti-environmentalist EPA Director Scott Pruitt, who will be succeeded by a former coal industry lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler. Sweet dreams.



Rocky Marciano

Mike Stanton’s latest book, Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano's Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World, about the Brockton-born son of Italian immigrants who was arguably the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, is a riveting piece of 20th Century history. (I liked the gritty stuff about Brockton, where my grandfather was a manager in a now long-dead shoe company.)


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