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Whitcomb: Rewards to Repopulate Main Street; Quieter Drives; Pre-Dawn Drinking; In Search of Steamer

Monday, July 16, 2018

 

Robert Whitcomb

“On some summer days in New York City, the air hangs thickly visible, like the combined exhalations of eight million souls. Steam rising from vents underground makes you wonder if there isn't one giant sweat gland lodged beneath the city.’’ 

 

-- Diane Ackerman, poet and essayist


 

 “As Trump arranges to meet face-to-face and privately with Vladimir Putin later this month {tomorrow}, the collusion between the two men metastasizing from a dark accusation into an open alliance, it would be dangerous not to consider the possibility that the summit is less a negotiation between two heads of state than a meeting between a Russian-intelligence asset and his handler.’’

-- From “Will Trump Be Meeting With His Counterpart – or His Handler?’’ by Jonathan Chait, in New York Magazine. To read his article, please hit this link:

 

See my take on the “Manchurian Candidate’s’’ remarks to NATO near the bottom of this column.

 

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Far too many downtowns have been hollowed out first by big-box chain stores and their windswept parking lots on the edge of town and then by the Internet -- especially by the near-monopoly Amazon.

 

So some state legislators in Massachusetts, which has many once-thriving and now moribund, if still-pretty, downtowns, seek to revitalize them with an economic-development bill that, reports The Boston Globe, “would provide up to $500,000 a year in tax credits to merchants who {decide to} occupy vacant storefronts in downtown areas. The promise of new jobs would help a retailer’s case, but it’s not required. Other factors could come into play: anticipated pedestrian traffic, synergy with nearby businesses, a commitment to improve the storefront, matching funds from a landlord or community.’’

 

This would have to be a long-term experiment but, depending on the total price tag, worth a try in a few places. The big question is whether you can lure consumers who have grown addicted to the Internet back into the habit of patronizing small stores, for their visual, tactile and social pleasures. This little initiative is as much about rebuilding a sense of community as it is about economic development.

 

Maybe Rhode Island should try this sort of experiment in, well, Pawtucket – especially if the PawSox decide to become the WooSox.

 

 

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At least anecdotally, Rhode Island’s new law banning drivers from talking into cell phones they’re holding while driving seems to be starting to work. I think that a lot of drivers will grow to like the law because it will encourage quiet time and reflection and let them enjoy the ride much more. There’s a false urgency about most cell phone calls. The vast majority of calls can wait!

 

The addicts will, of course, continue to take the risk of a $100 fine. Their brain chemistry, as with some of those who spend their days looking at social media, has been permanently rejiggered. For some reason, people in SUV’s seem particularly prone to cell-phone addiction. They seem to especially like to talk on cell phones while turning. And some just can’t stop texting while driving either!

 

Then there’s our over-reliance on GPS for directions. Google Maps, et al., are sometimes wrong! Old-fashioned printed maps are often more reliable but too many people seem to have forgotten how to use them. But then so many people in the age of the hand-held calculator have forgotten how to do basic arithmetic.

 

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Let’s jack up the addiction rates!

 

Now that Massachusetts regulators have agreed to let the new MGM Springfield “casino resort’’ serve booze until 4 a.m. to grab more state revenue, officials of Connecticut’s huge Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos, worried about more intense competition for the gambling and drinking communities, seek the same privileges, as the race to the bottom continues.

 

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In a very modest effort to help save local journalism, New Jersey is enacting a law that dedicates $5 million in state money to strengthen local media outlets. They’re very important as watchdogs in America’s decaying democracy. Political and other corruption rises as journalism fades.

 

The bill created the Civic Information Consortium — a nonprofit developed with five universities — to promote the spread of professionally reported news and information throughout the state. The Free Press Action Fund proposed the law.

 

The College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University are the participating institutions.

 

The consortium will share the $5 million with local news organizations, emphasizing "underserved communities, low-income communities and communities of color," the Free Press Action Fund said.

 

"Local news is the lifeblood of a community. It adds local context to stories and keeps those in power accountable. Supporting it is undoubtedly in the public's best interest," noted state Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald in co-sponsoring the bill. Quite right.

 

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Hartford, CT, PHOTO: Flickr Global Jet

Connecticut has been hammered by Republican politicians for years for its high taxes and sluggish economy. From the propaganda you’d never know that Connecticut remains the richest state on a per-capita basis, followed by Massachusetts.

 

In any event, things are finally looking up in the Nutmeg State. Among the good news, The Hartford Courant reports:

 

Seven Stars Cloud Group, a financial technology company, will spend $283 million to create a tech hub at the former University of Connecticut regional campus in West Hartford.

 

Infosys will create a regional tech and innovation hub in Hartford, which has been in a steep economic and social slide for years, and hire 1,000 people for its information-technology and consulting business.

 

Stanley Black & Decker will open an advanced-manufacturing center in downtown Hartford to develop its “smart factory’’ initiative.

 

CVS will keep the headquarters of Aetna, which it is buying, in Hartford.

 

EIP LLC is setting up banks of computer servers in an abandoned factory in New Britain, an old factory town, to process and store data for many businesses.

 

Despite its woes of the past few years, Connecticut’s large number of highly educated people and its location between the wealth-creating behemoths of Greater Boston and New York will continue to make it very attractive to sophisticated businesses – generally more so than the low-or-no-income-tax and low-public-services Sunbelt states. The Northeast will remain, after all these years, the richest part of the country.

 

Meanwhile, the financial-services complex in Fairfield County, and especially Stamford, closely linked to nearby Wall Street, will slowly shrink, as artificial intelligence and other technological change, as well as offshoring, reduce job counts. Finance has been the biggest wealth creator in Connecticut for a long time. It’s a healthy sign for the state that geographical and industry diversification, most of it involving high technology, is well underway.By the way, I spent much of last Friday and Saturday driving around to see friends in Westport, Norwalk and Greenwich, all in rich Fairfield County. If taxes on the rich are so onerous in the Nutmeg State (where I lived for four years when in school) how come I saw so many new mansions and McMansions going up? It looked richer than ever!

 

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Stonington, Conn., is considering banning all single-use plastic bags and straws, joining an increasing number of communities because these petrochemically based products kill wildlife, pollute water and make a mess on shorelines, such as Stonington’s, on Long Island Sound.

 

Good for Stonington.

 

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President Donald Trump

Trump has encouraged right-wing violence as well as hypocrisy by pardoning father-and-son cattle ranchers in heavily armed southeastern Oregon who had been sentenced to prison on charges of arson on public lands. But it will play well at Trump’s remarkably demagogic rallies. (He virtually never talks to large groups who aren’t followers.)

 

Setting aside the convictions of Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond will, of course, undermine federal officials trying to enforce rules on grazing and other activities on tens of millions of acres owned by taxpayers. The Hammonds have been unwilling to adhere to rules aimed at protecting the lands from manmade erosion and conserving wildlife for future generations and act as if they own them. Federal-land grazing fees (when the likes of the Hammons deign to pay them) are a small fraction of what they’d have to pay on private land.

 

Hammonds got almost $300,000 in federal disaster payments and subsidies from the mid-90s to 2012.

 

The loudest denouncers of “Big Government” tend to be among the biggest recipients of federal largesse.

 

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Republican Party leaders, now glued to right-wing evangelicals, often allege that Democrats, atheists and “globalists’’ are on a campaign to somehow persecute “Christians’’ (including devout ones such as Trump…) in America. You hear this a lot from rich con-men televangelists and “conservative’’ cable-TV and radio performers. But in fact, organized religion has a hell of a deal in this country; it’s one of our most protected groups and helps to concoct public policy.

Not only do politicians cynically feel that they must suck up to religious extremists, no matter how ignorant, as long as they call themselves “Christians,’’ but more importantly, churches, including those that effectively operate as adjuncts of the GOP, don’t pay taxes. The rest of us have to make up the money, whatever we think of their politics, which we in effect subsidize.

 

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Kavanaugh likely to be confirmed

I predict that the probable next Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh, will take a very expansive view of presidential powers as exercised by Trump but decide that those powers should be sharply curtailed when a Democratic president seeks to exercise them – assuming that we still have something like free elections. The Russians might not approve.

 

Meanwhile, Paul Waldman’s Washington Post column “We’re living in an age of minority rule’’ deserves reading. Among his remarks:

 

“Using Dave Leip’s invaluable election atlas, I added up all the votes cast for Democrats and Republicans in 2012, 2014 and 2016 Senate elections, which put the current Senate in place. I didn’t bother with the few special elections since 2012, which in total wouldn’t change the results much, but I did include Bernie Sanders’s and Angus King’s last elections, since they are nominally independent but caucus with the Democrats. Here are the results:

 

“Republican votes: 102.3 million

“Democratic votes: 117.4 million

 

“In the elections that determined the current Senate, there were 15 million more votes cast for Democrats than for Republicans. Yet Republicans maintain control and therefore get to confirm President Trump’s  {who got 2.8 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton} Supreme Court nominee.’’ The joys of our 18th Century Constitution! Suck it up, Dems.

 

To read his whole essay, please hit this link:

 

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As it turns out, the people in Britain’s Conservative Party who pushed for Brexit had and have no coherent plan to achieve separation from the European Union without doing considerable damage to the British economy.  Now they’re running away from the unsightly and hugely complicated work that must be done to complete the divorce, which Prime Minister Theresa May is trying to oversee. The unpleasantness must please Russia, which funneled millions of pounds into the Brexit campaign in order to undermine the West.

 

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One of the joys of living near the New England coast used to be eating soft-shelled clams - -called “steamers’’ because that’s how they’re cooked. But they’re getting much harder to find.

 

Apparently, a major reason is an increase in invasive green crabs, which like the warmer water, associated with global warming, we’ve had along the New England coast the last few decades; these crabs eat the clams.

 

Perhaps encouraging the development of steamer aquaculture in places that can be protected from green crabs and other predators associated with warming seas will be necessary if we want to continue to enjoy these delicious shellfish. And the heart-stopping butter you dip them in.

 

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Strong memory of summer: Lying in bed on a hot, sleepless night listening to far-away radio stations playing jazz and the “Great American Songbook’’ with, in the background, the sighing of the wind through the oak trees around our house on a hill.

 

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The view looking across Buzzards Bay at the Elizabeth Islands, with the tiny “town’’ of Cuttyhunk (a cute, cozy name but with wary residents) at their end, from South Dartmouth must be one of the prettiest in New England. And the bay has the region’s nearest thing to tropical water in the summer.

 

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Many people may long remember the Summer of 2018 for the riveting rescue of the Thai boys and their coach from the cave. It seems a miracle that all the boys and the coach were brought out alive because of a triumph of ingenious teamwork, technology and bravery. Of course, we need to remember that one rescuer died.

 

 

 

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What’s behind Trump’s denunciations of our (soon to be former?) European allies at the NATO summit for being too slow to increase defense spending? It may be partly to distract attention from his very private meeting with Vladimir Putin tomorrow. After years of  Trump-Putin romance, European allies don’t trust our maximum leader.  They shouldn’t: His entire adult life has been a series of betrayals.

 

Trump’s call for the Europeans to accelerate their defense-spending increases, which have been slowly underway since 2014 as Russia has become ever more threatening – might be more use of the Trump smoke machine. American administrations have been calling on other NATO members to spend more on defense since George W. Bush; starting in the Obama administration they’ve been doing it, albeit most of them too slowly. 

 

We spend about 3.6 percent of GDP on defense, considerably more than the less than 2 percent by most other NATO members. But that’s in part because the U.S. is a huge Pacific power as well as NATO’s leading power and because the “military-industrial complex’’ that Eisenhower warned about is much more politically powerful in America than in Europe and Canada – big contracts!

 

Do our allies need to go to 4 percent of GDP for defense, as Trump says? No, but they should all go to 2 percent as soon as possible to counter Trump’s pal in the Kremlin.

 

What’s too often forgotten in all this is that America, which pays about 22 percent of NATO’s bills (not 90 percent, as made up by Trump), is in the alliance out of enlightened self-interest. It can far more effectively protect itself as part of a collective defense than all alone. And nations that share Western values -- liberal democracy, human rights, free (not monopolistic) markets, tolerance, etc. – would seem more reliable allies than the corrupt dictators whom Trump admires so much. But then, Trump, like his American cultists, demonstrates little understanding of or affection for Western values

 

NATO partners are obligated to defend the U.S. if threatened. Article 5, the collective-defense portion of the North Atlantic Treaty, has been invoked just once so far — following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. NATO has been a big partner with the U.S. in fighting terrorism since then.

 

Further, the U.S. military presence in Europe, through the 29-country alliance, helps the U.S. project its power around the world.

 

As for Trump’s complaint that Germany is a “captive of Russia’’ because it buys natural gas from Russia, and has a new pipeline in the works: A quick look at the map shows why. Germany has bought gas from Russia for decades as part of its increasingly diversified energy mix because Russia is almost next door.

 

13 percent of Germany’s energy for electricity comes from gas—yes, with Russia as the largest supplier. In 2017, Germany got more than a third of its energy for electricity from coal and nearly 12 percent from nuclear plants, with a hefty third from renewable energy (lots of wind turbines and solar panels). It also uses a small amount of oil to generate electricity. Contrary to Trump’s assertion, Germany has not "got rid" of either coal or nuclear.

 

Germany plans to retire nuclear plants by 2022 and intends to cut its reliance on coal. Buying gas from America would be prohibitively expensive because of shipping costs.

Trump is probably the most ignorant president in American history but remains a highly effective demagogue as he weakens alliances that have protected the freedoms of many millions of people for decades.

 

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For connoisseurs of business fraud, I highly recommend Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by The Wall Street Journal’s brilliant and brave John Carreyou. It’s about Theranos, the Silicon Valley company run by a charismatic and sociopathic crook called Elizabeth Holmes. This blood-testing enterprise turned out to be a cesspool of lies and viciousness, animated by even more greed than we’ve come to expect these days, but alluring for a time to a bunch of celebrity investors.  Theranos is the most interesting business fraud since Bernie Madoff.
 

Yet again, it’s that old willful suspension of disbelief, in business, politics and private lives.

 

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