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Whitcomb: Superman Teardown? CT’s Tough Gun Laws Seem to Work; Puppy Parties

Monday, December 18, 2017


Robert Whitcomb, Columnist

"At Christmas I no more desire a rose

Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth; 
But like of each thing that in season grows."

--   William Shakespeare


News that Providence developer (and former mayor) Joseph Paolino and Gilbane Development are pitching a plan to demolish the 26-story Industrial Trust Building (aka “Superman Building’’) and replace it with a modern, glassy 35-story tower as a new headquarters for Hasbro draws yelps from preservationists who love the empty Art Deco tower, which went up in the late ‘20s.


But the fact is that the old building presents an almost impossible retrofitting challenge. The stepped-back structure makes modern office and utility rearrangement difficult, leaving reuse almost prohibitively expensive, at least in a mid-sized city like Providence, which just doesn’t have that much money around and is too small to lure the cash to be spent on such an awkward if formidable-looking structure.  Indeed, estimates are that to make the tower commercially viable again would require reconstruction work costing $60 million to $100 million. And the building has been vacant for five years! No one’s stepping forward to save it.  Show us the money!


In a city with piles of capital and rich commercial-office-space customers, a city such as Boston, it can make sense to attempt the difficult task of retrofitting an old iconic skyscraper, as was done with the United Shoe Machinery Building downtown (built in 1929-30),  with its gold top. That building’s structure is rather similar to the Industrial Trust Building but the building materials are better.


I confess to never having had much affection for the Superman Building’s exterior. Its limestone facing is crumbly and dirty and the top of the structure looks like an incinerator. The beautiful part is inside, in the palatial former public banking area on the first floor. Wouldn’t it be nice to save that and put the modern, glassy skyscraper over it?


And office dwellers these days like a lot of natural light, which means big windows.


Rendering of Hasbro corporate HQ concept




Republican congressional leaders are talking about taking on “entitlements reform’’ next year, which sounds like cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. There’s no doubt that demography will ultimately force major changes in these programs, lest they consume the entire federal budget. But if you thought the tax battle was ferocious….




After a lunatic young gunman murdered 20 first graders and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, Nutmeg State legislators in  2013 broadened the definition of “assault rifle’’ and the sale of gun magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds. State law also requires a permit to buy any gun or ammunition. And Connecticut has a registry of weapon offenders and a universal background check system.


Ron Piniciaro, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, told WNPR that the state had 53 homicides with guns in 2016, way down from the 92 before the new law took effect.  But then, southern New England has long had among the lowest gun-death rates in America.


Interestingly, reports WNPR, gun sales are still rising in the state. But Mike Lawlor, Connecticut’s undersecretary for criminal-justice policy and planning, says the rigorous permitting process keeps down the violence.


There have been variants of the Connecticut legislation promoted in Congress but as long as the National Rifle Association, which acts as chief lobbyist for the gun-manufacturing industry, holds sway there, don’t expect anything. Polls suggest that most Americans want tougher gun laws, but that counts for little on Capitol Hill!


Gun-control advocates lack the lobbying and campaign-contribution money of the weapons industry and, whatever the opinion polls show, gun lovers vote more intensely than do gun-control folks. And the gun lobby and its servants in Congress and the White House are far more politically ruthless than are gun-control people. For that matter, on a range of issues from health care to taxes to the environment, the majority of the public seems to favor slightly left-of-center positions, if national opinion polls mean much. But they vote at considerably lower percentages than do people on the right. They get the government they deserve.


To read a WNPR story on this, please hit  this link:





Governmental micro-management/social engineering can get pretty silly and intrusive. Consider the Colorado case heard the other week by the U.S. Supreme Court. In this case, Jack Phillips, the owner of a bakery called Masterpiece Cakeshop, refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple on the grounds that to do so would violate his Christian beliefs,  the expression of which is protected under the First Amendment. The state took him to court for allegedly violating the gay couple’s legal rights.


I hope that the Supremes rule in Mr. Phillips’s favor. It seems to me that someone running a tiny business should have the right to refuse to sell something to some whose behavior he opposes. Further, for government officials to intervene in such micro-relationships dilutes their authority and effectiveness. And there are plenty of bakers who would be happy to sell a wedding cake to anyone.  Money usually trumps (so to speak) religion in America. (For that matter, religion can be very lucrative.) The Colorado officials should pick their battles more carefully.


This isn’t like an African-American being denied service because of his race.


We might also remember just how recent gay marriages are. Thirty years ago, the idea that gay marriage would be the law of the land would have seemed preposterous to most Americans. Many people are still getting used to the idea, an idea that’s a good thing.




Connecticut state troopers are ingenious in laying in wait for speeding drivers on Route 95. They park between trees before lunging toward speeders.





That there’s increasing competition to establish wind-power facilities south of New England shows the increasing cost-efficiency of wind turbines and the growing awareness of the need to reduce fossil-fuel consumption.


So there now are three companies vying to build wind farms off the southern Massachusetts coast – Bay State Wind, Vineyard Wind and Deepwater Wind (which has already put up a small wind farm east of Block Island, after much opposition from some wealthy summer people).


The whole area is superb for wind power. That’s because of relatively shallow water in which to put the structures and lots of wind year round, as well as proximity to a densely populated area dangerously dependent on natural gas from outside the region to generate electricity. Further, New England is a famously difficult place in which to put any power plant; NIMBYIsm reigns. (One reason our electricity costs are so high.) Thus offshore wind farms are more attractive than ones on land, albeit more expensive to erect and maintain. There’s another attraction: The supports for the turbines attract fish.




Flickr:Kinjeng Submiter

Bill Nemitz, a very good columnist for the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, had a good piece the other day about the tendency to coddle college students at some campuses;  the young people are considered all-so-fragile. He cited a “campus puppy party’’ at the University of Maine at Farmington that used seven golden retriever puppies (criminally cute!) at the student center as part of administrators’ efforts to help students deal with the anxiety associated with final exams and papers.


Meanwhile at Yale, Mr. Nemitz reports, students can “actually check out dogs from both the medical and law libraries because, as one librarian explained to the student newspaper {the Yale Daily News}, ‘For a lot of students, it’s their first time away from home and they do miss their home comfort – families, pets.’’’


All this cosseting, which includes a proliferation of highly paid assistant deans to address a panoply of students’ emotional, psychiatric and sociological worries,  and some luxurious spa-like services, has, of course, helped make college ever more expensive (another cause of anxiety!).


The students will find the world after they leave college remarkably unsympathetic.  How to prepare for that? As Mr. Neimitz writes: “Rather than agreeing with hand-wringing undergrads that life is indeed a tough journey and they’d best get about navigating it, we’re validating their ‘suffering’ with adorable little bundles of bliss.’’


To read Mr. Nemitz’s column, please hit this link:


From the Yale Whiffenpoof song:


We're poor little lambs who have lost our way
Baa, baa, baa
We're little black sheep who have gone astray
Baa, baa, baa

Gentleman songsters off on a spree
Doomed from here to eternity
Lord have mercy on such as we
Baa, baa, baa




As I’ve written, there are far too many variables to confidently make a prediction on the economy, other than what goes up will go down and vice versa. But we can see the major forces behind the current global expansion – years of loose Federal Reserve Board monetary policy; record corporate profits; very fast growth in many nations, most dramatically in China and India, with annualized  gross domestic product growth in those two nations at well over 6.5 percent, and in some “emerging economies,’’ and a strengthening European Union after its Greek, Spanish and other crises. Of course,  the economies of developing nations will tend to grow faster than those of already developed nations: They have much further up to go!


Meanwhile, America’s GDP seems to be growing at a tad over 3 percent at the moment. That could be raised, or maintained, if more attention were paid to raising low-and-middle-income wages to increase purchasing power. But there’s little in current and planned government policies to suggest that this will happen.


In any event, beware of predictions of continued growth. Herbert Hoover said in 1928, when he ran for president and was elected in a landslide: “The outlook of the world today is for the greatest era of commercial expansion in history. The rest of the world will become better customers.” We know what happened in the fall of 1929. Stock prices and corporate profits are very high now.

Desmond Lachman, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has a good cautionary column on our current bubble. To read it, please hit this link:




Congressional Republicans and Trump have denounced the top “statutory’’ corporate-income tax rate of 35 percent and plan to cut it to a tad over 20 percent. But when you figure in all their credits and deductions companies pay on average 18.6 percent; some pay nothing – the tax code is, if nothing else, remarkably plastic in the hands of good tax lawyers.

I wonder what the average will look like after the GOP tax bill is enacted. 10 percent?

And so with a flood of retiring Baby Boomers, decayed infrastructure,  swelling national debt and intensifying security challenges abroad we’re gonna slash tax rates. That means we’ll have to boost them big time in a few years to pay for the party.




The Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm, by Thomas Campanella, a city planner, is a fascinating look at how elm trees were planted and nurtured in American towns and cities to bring together nature and human systems. They have great height,  their crowns have a wide fountain shape, and their leaves are small, which lets through a lot of sunlight to dapple the ground below. So wide are their crowns that long rows of elms on both sides of a street create a Gothic cathedral effect. No wonder that there are so many Elm Streets in New England and in the Mid-Atlantic and Upper Midwest states.

The author says that Charles Dickens was very enthusiastic about elms when he visited New Haven, “Elm City,’’ in 1842. Dickens wrote that the trees “bring about a sort of compromise between town and country.’’

Sadly, Dutch Elm disease killed most of these beautiful trees in the 20th Century. But forestry experts have been developing more disease-resistant elms in the past few years. We’re hoping that these elegant trees can make a big comeback and again grace many streets, parks and commons.

My strongest memory of them is from the mid-50s, when Memorial Day marchers in uniform walked at generally stately paces below their new leaves. Most of those trees were gone in the next decade.

To hear Mr. Campanella discuss his book, please hit this link:




“Winter arrived with December, and the world continued to suffer the loss of the Internet and most forms of communication. Supply chains were disrupted. The only mass form of personal communication was the letter, and postal workers were having their worst year ever, as they were actually needed. Food was becoming scarcer and more expensive, as was fuel for vehicles and heating. Major cities experienced riots on a regular basis, spurred on by religious fervor and want. Civilization was on the brink of collapse.” 


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