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Robert Whitcomb: Double-Dipper, Washington Grifter-in-Chief Update, and More

Sunday, June 18, 2017


Robert Whitcomb

Early last Thursday morning in southeastern New England, in its calm, cool, green beauty, was the sort of setting we dream of in February.


As we move into real summer, we set out many plans – people to see, places to go and books to read and so on. We probably won’t do most of them but if we’re lucky enough to retain some of our childhood sense of spacious time we’ll get a start. The summer is certainly high season for bucket lists, especially in a place with a climate like New England’s.


We’re so fortunate to have so much to look at in this little corner of North America. From mountains that go above the tree line, spectacularly varied coastlines, from the sandy south, with its surprisingly warm summer water, to the dramatically rocky Maine Coast, with its frigid sea, to gorgeous small towns and haunting old and gritty mill towns, to several dynamic cities,  including one truly world city -- Boston.  The best way to see it is to go off the Interstate and take your time as you wander through lush countryside, towns with surprising, even bizarre mixes of architecture, from colonial to hyper-modern, patronize small-town diners and stock up on local tourist kitsch.


Get to it. Labor Day will be here in a flash and we’ll think summer is over. (Actually, the best weather is in September.) Indeed, some of us start thinking summer is about over when we start hearing the cicadas and crickets.


One of the most poignant essays I’ve read about the speed of summer,  and of life  in general, is E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,’’ about being with his young son at the same Maine lake where Mr. White’s father had taken the author years before. You won’t forget the essay’s chilling end.


May this summer be your good old days.




Prov to Newport Ferry

Whatever you think of the heavy government subsidy for the Providence-Newport summertime ferry, the service provides more than just a very pleasant way to travel between the two cities. With adequate promotion it could bring many more tourists to the region. And the service’s existence is a reminder of the big potential of traveling – including commuting – by water in densely populated Rhode Island, with so much water. In parts of Europe and Asia a place like Narragansett Bay would be crowded with ferry boats year round.


Massachusetts Bay has long had successful year-round ferry service connecting Hingham and  downtown Boston, although, of course, that’s a richer and more heavily populated area. Not to subsidize the Providence-Newport long enough so that it helps create a traveling habit and becomes a model for other ferry service around here would be a false economy. And wouldn’t drivers on Routes 95 and 195 prefer to have more people on  boats and fewer on the roads?


Meanwhile, the small and unsubsidized Newport-Jamestown ferry service operated by Conanicut Marine Services suggests that there could eventually be a plethora of such services linking  Narragansett Bay communities. The ferry has been particularly alluring in the past few weeks with reconstruction work on the Pell Bridge causing big delays.




The Rhode Island General Assembly needs to close the outrageous double-dipping loophole that let former state Rep. Frank Montanaro Jr. get nearly $50,000 in free tuition for a “child’’ and another mysterious person since he left his $83,536-a-year  job as associate director of facilities and operations at Rhode Island College to become the $155,930-a-year director of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS).


Thank you, WPRI, for reporting this.


Mr. Montanaro is the son of former Rhode Island AFL-CIO President Frank Montanaro Sr., for many years one of the state’s most politically powerful people.


The reason that  Frank Montanaro Jr.  got this tuition deal was outrageous, if legal:

He didn’t have to completely give up his old job at RIC when he took the legislative job, whose duties seem a tad opaque. Instead he got “leave-to-protect” status, which gives state workers the right to get back their old jobs while they test new ones.  Thus, this gentleman remained eligible for this juicy benefit. This sort of arrangement, which doesn’t exist in the private sector, is usually good for six months, but RIC let Mr. Montanaro, an ally of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, stay on leave for three  years!

This policy should be abolished ASAP.




AG Jeffrey Sessions

There was lots of sound and fury but no light in Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee last Tuesday on the scandal involving contacts between people in the Trump tribe and the Putin regime in Russia. There’s nothing much to say because he stonewalled. And since he has lied before about his contacts with Russia, and is working for a pathological liar, it’s hard to believe anything that he says about the scandal.


Meanwhile, The Guardian reported last Thursday:


“An American lobbyist for Russian interests who helped craft an important foreign policy speech for Donald Trump has confirmed that he attended two dinners hosted by Jeff Sessions during the 2016 campaign, apparently contradicting the attorney general’s sworn testimony given this week.

“Sessions testified under oath on Tuesday  {June 6} that he did not believe he had any contacts with lobbyists working for Russian interests over the course of Trump’s campaign. But Richard Burt, a former ambassador to Germany during the Reagan administration, who has represented Russian interests in Washington, told the Guardian that he could confirm previous media reports that stated he had contacts with Sessions at the time.’’


The former  Alabama senator’s intense interest in Russia remains a wonderment.


Anyway, America is very lucky to have  former FBI Director Robert Mueller (like fired FBI Director James Comey a long-time Republican by background although that affiliation may have changed in the past year) leading the investigation. People who know Mr. Mueller well say  that he’ll follow the leads of the Trump group’s links with Russia wherever they go. (I hope that he and Mr. Comey have lots of police protection. Some people who do things to discomfit Vladimir Putin have a surprisingly high early-mortality rate.)


One of the creepiest things about the scandal so far is that President Trump refuses to express any concern about the Russians’ successful efforts to pervert the 2016 presidential campaign and to hack into our state election systems.


While he attacks Western allies who share our values, he continues to cozy up to the Kremlin. Indeed the White House has been plotting ways to drop the sanctions against Russia for its armed aggression in Ukraine. (Meanwhile, it  will restore some sanctions against tiny Cuba, which would please the politically powerful right-wing Cuban-American community in Florida. How brave.)


One or more or a mix of these reasons can explain the Trump-Russia connection.


* Mr. Trump and his family-run company owe the Russians a lot of money and/or the Russians have bailed him out by buying or leasing apartments in his over-leveraged buildings. The president’s releasing his tax returns might help answer the question.

* Putin, seeing  Mr. Trump as a useful, amoral tool who has little interest in such Western values as democracy, has worked hard to put the uber-con man in the White House so as to give the Kremlin the most powerful ally it could ever have.

* The Russians are blackmailing Mr. Trump by means of juicy records of  incidents from his private life, which we know has often been sordid.




Meanwhile, Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III has introduced a bill to create the National Russian Threat Response Center, a $20 million agency charged with snuffing out Russian hacking. His move followed a new report that Russian hackers breached 39 state voting systems before the 2016 election and tried to delete or alter voter data.

Can’t existing agencies do what this agency would do? Well, maybe, but they sure didn’t  do all that well last year.





President Trump is wise to give the U.S.  military more decision-making authority in war zones. But that doesn’t mean that we should stay in Afghanistan. In fact, after 16 years, many thousands of deaths of all sides and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, we’re pretty much right back where we were back in 2001. While we must be prepared to strike to prevent or punish attacks on America originating in Afghanistan, we must admit that we’ve lost our campaign for nation building and pacification there. It’s time to accept that tribal barbarism will be the  rule for the indefinite future in that tormented land and we can’t do much about it.




Whatever the chaos of his leadership, Donald Trump is correct to emphasize that, regarding immigration, a nation that doesn’t rigorously enforce border controls threatens to imperil its status as a nation.




U.S. public policy helps the old far more than the young. Consider  an International Monetary Fund study that found that the lifetime net tax benefit in the U.S. – that is, the value of what we receive in government benefits compared to the taxes we pay – is positive for everybody over 18 but with the biggest benefit for those over 50.

But of course deficit spending (i.e., borrowing from the Chinese, etc.) has been paying for much of this. That suggests that eventually, younger people must pay much more to cover the cost of old people from Medicare and Social Security payments.


The attitude of many oldsters is: “Don't cut my Medicare, don’t cut my Social Security; I paid for those benefits!’’ Well, they only paid for part of them. As long as so many young people decline to take 20 minutes to vote, the heavy-voting oldsters will get an ever bigger slice of the pie.




Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is a right-wing Republican who, encouraged by the Koch Brothers, pushed through massive income-tax cuts that ravaged public schools, social services and transportation. His line was the old “supply-side’’ mantra that  massively cutting taxes would lead to a business boom. In fact, as the American economy as a whole has been growing at around 2 percent, Kansas’s has been at 0.2 percent.


Guess what: It’s hard to have a sustained strong economy if state services are bad. Obviously taxes can be so high that they stop  or slow growth. But it bears remembering that the economy boomed in the ‘90s after tax increases and did not after George W. Bush’s huge tax cuts – indeed, his tenure ended with the Crash of 2008, which his policies helped cause.


The crucial thing is to find the right balance between good public services and a streamlined, fair and transparent tax code. Massachusetts, Minnesota  and Virginia offers some models of how to do it well.


The Koch Brothers and other underminers of democracy, including their well-paid captive economists/PR people, constantly argue –in the face of historical evidence -- that big tax cuts spawn booms. In fact their real aim is to further enrich and increase the power of the rich and their descendants. They think themselves: “To hell with crumbling services and infrastructure. Everything is fine in my mansion/gated community. My kids go to private school and my Lear jet takes me everywhere.’’



People often cite  the Reagan tax cuts for the growing economy in much of the ‘80s (after a very deep recession as the start). In fact, the big elements were the Fed’s bringing down inflation; a massive fiscal stimulus from a defense-spending splurge;  a plunge in oil prices, and some technological breakthroughs. And, of course, the taxes had to be raised in 1986.)





I gather  that the public will have to keep paying the millions it’s paying for  security for President Trump’s  (and his family’s) very frequent visits to his private clubs even as his clan uses his position to drive people to spend money at his businesses.  More welfare for the rich. How perfect that someone so famous for stiffing vendors and charities finds it so easy to stiff the taxpayers.





The Boston Guardian reports that Uber is cutting into the valet parking business in downtown Boston. Lots of people like Uber services (if not the sleazy management of the company) because, for among other reasons, it makes it safer to drink in the evening. Will valet parking be a thing of the past soon?


But one old thing is making a tiny comeback: Typewriters. Lots of people like their tactile quality as they see letters move from their fingers to a sheet of paper. It gives a nice feeling of making something physical.


Of course I suspect that there are very few typewriter makers left, and very few repair people. But there may soon be more of the latter. Interest has been building for a decade at least.


Richard Polt, an Xavier University (in Cincinnati) philosophy professor, has written a book called The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist's Companion for the 21st Century.


I love the promotional copy:


“What do thousands of kids, makers, poets, artists, steampunks, hipsters, activists, and musicians have in common? They love typewriters―the magical, mechanical contraptions that are enjoying a surprising second life in the 21st century, striking a blow for self-reliance, privacy, and coherence against dependency, surveillance, and disintegration.’’ Get away from those Twitter alerts!


As the Internet becomes even more toxic,  and digital burnout intensifies, the fondness for typewriters may grow enough so that somebody starts making them again.


There’s even a new documentary coming out called California Typewriter.  In the film, its director, Doug Nichol, interviews actor Tom Hanks, who says he uses a typewriter almost every day. Mr. Hanks is said to own about 270 typewriters.


"I hate getting email thank-yous from folks," Mr. Hanks says in the film. "Now, if they take 70 seconds to type me out something on a piece of paper and send to me, well, I'll keep that forever. I'll just delete that email."


I’d love to be able to work again on that huge old office Royal typewriter on which I used to pound out stories at the old Boston Herald Traveler in 1970-71. It took immense abuse in that smoky, caffeinated, high-pressure newsroom. I’d even like to get back the tiny, tinny Olivetti portable I used for writing papers in college. Real things – not pixels.





U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s new book, Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy, provides a highly useful and deeply history-informed analysis of the great bribery machine that has become Washington, D.C. This by turns entertaining and mortifying volume  is  a manual for understanding how the ethical swamp might be drained.


Former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter – a Republican – accurately describes the book:  “A passionate and readable denunciation of the role of special-interest money in Washington and in our elections. For anyone seriously interested in ‘draining the swamp’ {which has been rapidly expanding since Jan. 20} this book has everything you need to know about the alligators.’’





RIP: A.R. Gurney, whose by turns funny, mordant and wistful plays are focused on the declining old WASP establishment’s values, anxieties, hypocrisies, humor and regrets. While that crowd in its heyday had plenty of problems, including some bigotries and perhaps too much repression, many of its members had a sense of honor, integrity and rectitude sorely lacking in today’s cheesy America.


His plays included Love Letters, The Dining Room, The Cocktail Hour and Sylvia.


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