Whitcomb: Private Commuter Trains; Go, Giovanni, Go! We’ll Take Menhaden; The Next Recession

Monday, November 06, 2017


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Robert Whitcomb

“It was modern-day media, and social media, that kept pushing people further right and further left. People started to figure out … they could choose where to get their news. And so what do people do? They choose places they agree with, reinforcing the divide.”


-- John Boehner, former House Speake, and an Ohio Republican


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


-- George Mitchell, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, and a Maine Democrat




Regarding the rather tropical-style storm we had last Sunday and Monday: Do the radio talk-show and other complainants about lost electricity realize how difficult it is to clean up after any big storm, especially when summery (up to now) weather has left most leaves on the trees and so especially vulnerable to being blown over or losing big branches?


Unlike in much of the developed world, we in New England don’t usually bury our electric lines underground in heavily wooded areas. Further, in perhaps another sign of America’s crummy infrastructure maintenance,  some electric utilities don’t do a very good job cutting back branches that could easily come down on wires even in relatively mild storms.  


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National Grid

They should step up inspection and trimming operations,  especially in the summer, before tropical storm and snowstorm/ice storm seasons.  And state and municipal agencies could do more to monitor locations where trees pose the worst threats to lines, alert the utilities and in some cases do the trimming themselves. But in anti-tax America, how much are citizens willing to pay the added costs that this might entail? This takes more manpower.


Perhaps the storm will boost solar-panel installations.  It should. There are several ways in which you can obtain electric autonomy from the likes of National Grid and Eversource by installing a photovoltaic system. The most reliable system is one connected to batteries, which will provide you electricity (for a while) even at night.


Please hit this link for pithy descriptions of your solar options to avoid what happened to so many people in New England as a result of the Oct 29-Oct. 30 tempest:


By the way, I heard a National Grid spokesman (a brutal job after a storm) say on the usual whineathon WPRO radio talk show that the storm was more intense than predicted. No, it wasn’t! The National Weather Service was remarkably accurate about the storm’s timing and intensity.


As for whether the cleanup was slower in Rhode Island than in  Massachusetts and Connecticut: Maybe, but I heard the same sort of complaints from talk-show callers in those states about slow repair work there as I did from Rhode Islanders about power restoration in the Ocean State. This storm hit a very wide area. It would be nice to get some solid state-by-state comparisons of repair-work speed. Anyway, when you’re cold, your appliances don’t work and you can’t recharge your cellphone (“I have a cellphone, therefore I am’’) patience fades fast.





In further acceptance that southern New Hampshire is part of Greater Boston (as is northern Rhode Island), Nashua, N.H., Mayor James Donchess has proposed doing a deal with Boston Surface Railroad Co. to provide commuter service from Nashua and Bedford, N.H., to Lowell, Mass., where passengers could link up with the MBTA. The only passenger rail service that the Granite State has now is Amtrak’s Downeaster, which connects Boston and Brunswick, Maine (via Portland), with stops at Dover, Durham and Exeter.


Mayor Donchess says the service would be a public-private partnership.


Some readers of past columns might remember that Boston Surface Railroad plans to open  a commuter rail line connecting Providence and Worcester,  with service now expected to start in the summer of 2019.


Great stuff!




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Gio Feroce

At least for the entertainment value, I very much hope that former Rhode Island Republican state representative and TV personality Joe Trillo and Giovanni Feroce, the entrepreneur and former state senator, both run for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. They’re both flamboyant and fun to listen to and both  are backers of Donald Trump. Mr. Feroce, in particular, shares some of the President’s entrepreneurial over-the-top risk-taking, including extensive exciting experience and a love of living large, with lots of glitz. Who knows how much of that is materialism and how much is performance art to display his confidence?


The other possible GOP nominees, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, are not overflowing with public charisma. Mr. Feroce has  by far the most charisma of the four, but more personal baggage than a luggage company.


Gov. Gina Raimondo is rather unpopular, in my view partly because she has trouble transporting the warmth she shows in small groups to broad forums. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, however, can do the warmth thing in small and very large groups. He’s the country’s most popular governor now.


Exasperating problems with Rhode Island’s Unified Health Infrastructure Project for human-service benefits will continue to bedevil Ms. Raimondo’s re-election bid. The governor got a $58.6 million credit from Deloitte Consulting for its screwing this up, but the failure early on get a handle on this mess will hurt her politically, although such system disasters are fairly common around America. Of course, benefits recipients have been hurt much harder than the governor.


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Deming Sherman, can he clean-up UHIP

So last week, U.S. District Judge Will Smith named very highly respected Providence lawyer Deming Sherman to oversee cleanup of the mess as special master. Mr. Sherman, who knows Deloitte well, will bring a lot of expertise and credibility to the situation.


Ellen Liberman wrote a very useful story about the fiasco in the September 2017 issue of Rhode Island Monthly. Among her remarks:

“Catastrophes {such as with UHIP} are more common than people realize. According to a 2016 annual global survey of IT implementations by the Standish Group, a software project management consulting company, 29 percent of projects are successful, 54 percent are challenged — behind schedule, over-budget and under-performing — and 17 percent are outright failures. The bigger the scope, the more likely the failure. Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Massachusetts are among the states that have suffered major benefits-related IT failures. Kentucky’s new benefit system, Benefind, also designed by Deloitte, similarly crashed and burned when it went online in February 2016.’’

Ms. Liberman also reported:

State Rep. Patricia Serpa,  (D.-West Warwick), chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight, said: “The auditor’s report found that [the contract with Deloitte] was poorly written, poorly overseen and poorly executed. They [the state] were warned against the implementation because the system was not ready. Not only did they implement it, they displaced all of the most senior workers with the wealth of experience. We pulled all the plugs to make sure this was a failure.”


But I think that the governor’s Rhode Works transportation-infrastructure-repair program and accompanying truck tolls will help her in her campaign.  Rhode Islanders are noticing as they drive up and down the Northeast Corridor that highway tolls are the norm and that the states that have such tolls have much better roads and bridges than does Rhode Island.  It might also finally sink in that trucks do most of the damage to our roads and bridges; it's only fair that truckers pay more to repair the massive damage they do. And it won’t bankrupt them to cross tiny Rhode Island. (Connecticut, by the way, which dropped highway tolls years ago, will probably bring then back in a year or two.)


The dramatic new construction projects in downtown Providence might help her too, by communicating the sense that the state is  growing more prosperous and, well, important.


But what happens if former Gov. Lincoln Chafee runs against her in the primary?



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President Donald Trump

President Trump has been an expert operator of smoke machines during his entire career as a crooked businessman, “reality TV’’ star and demagogic politician.


He and his accomplices have done much with the weapon of false equivalency. The latest is trying to make Hillary Clinton look like a crook regarding the purchase  in 2010 by Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency, of  a piece of the Canadian company Uranium One, which held rights to some U.S. uranium deposits. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States cleared the deal with a laborious process of vetting.


As has been widely reported, the Trump gang, including their spokespeople on Fox News, cooked up a conspiracy theory that because Uranium One had donated funds to the Clinton Foundation, mostly before the  2008 presidential election, that Mrs. Clinton somehow pushed the deal through. Fox & Friends, et al., alleged that this would mean that America would export a lot of uranium to a nation that even back then was  widely considered (though not by the Trump gang) more foe than friend.


No, she didn’t push through the deal, which she didn’t control. And it was and is illegal to export the uranium anyway. And as secretary of state, she harshly criticized the regime of Russia’s cold and murderous dictator Vladimir Putin.


Her campaign also hired an opposition-research firm to do a dossier on the Trump gang’s collusion with Russia.  Sounds like a good idea, especially given the contacts between the Trump Organization going back more than two decades.


What seems clear is that the Trump mob collaborated very closely with Putin’s regime to wreak havoc in the Clinton campaign. It won Trump the Electoral College. (I myself wrote in Jim Webb’s name on the November ballot.)


For  a handy review of how the Kremlin’s folks used social media to sow division and help elect their boy Trump, please hit this link:


Despite the fact that Trump’s, er, colorful, career leaves Hillary Clinton’s looking like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (look her up), the Russians only pushed anti-Clinton stuff.


This quote from Donald Trump Jr. in 2008 may explain some of Trump’s affection for the Kremlin: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” (Contacts between the Trump mob and the Russians go back to about 1990.)


It’s too early to know how much of this involves out-and-out treason.





Speaking of history, John Kelly, the slowly imploding White House chief of staff, said the other day that the “lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.’’ Maybe they should have agreed to free half the slaves over, say, 50 years to avoid the war? But actually, in 1860, Southern leaders wanted to expand slavery through the Southwest.


He also called Gen. Robert E. Lee: “an honorable man who gave up his country to fight for his state.” And that “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.’’


Ulysses S. Grant had it right:


“As soon as slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.’’


And on the very dignified Robert E. Lee: His “cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.’’


Appropriately, the heart of the Trump country is the Confederacy.





There was a hopeful story the other day on WNPR, in Connecticut, about  a resurgence of fishing stocks of menhaden in Long Island Sound. Menhaden are small fish eaten by a wide range of larger ones, such as tuna, bluefish and stripped bass, and thus an important part of New England’s fishing industry.


The resurgence is the result of the decision of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to set a cap on the harvest of menhaden. Fishermen complained about the cap but menhaden had almost disappeared from the sound. Now they’re back and so are the tasty predator fish that eat them. Three cheers for fishing limits.





Stock and other economic indices have been rising for years in the U.S. and in much of Europe and Asia, whether they have right- or left-wing governments. The economic expansion is getting very old. Eventually the markets will tank and we’ll have another recession. (My guess is that it will start next year, but it’s impossible to predict booms and busts with any precision. Too many variables.)



Maybe a world credit crunch will start the crash, or an unexpected string of lower corporate earnings, a Russian invasion of another European nation, a war with North Korea,  the popping of the Chinese property bubble, Chinese aggression aimed at controlling the trade routes through the South China Sea, a Chinese, Russian or North Korean assault on Western electrical grids. The list goes on. Then what?


Deutsche Bank analysts have warned:


"With Government debt levels spiking since the last recession, are politicians able to act as aggressively as they might need to {when the next recession comes}?"


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"Could the next recession be the one where policy makers are the most impotent they’ve been for 45 years or will they simply go for even more extreme tactics and resort to full on monetization to pay for a fiscal splurge? It does feel that we’re at a crossroads and the next downturn could be marked by extreme events given the policy cul-de-sac we seem to be nearing the end of.’’


What makes prospects more exciting is that the U.S. may soon substantially expand its debt with big tax cuts.  That’s not to say there aren’t some very good things in the GOP tax plan announced last week, especially cutting back the mortgage-interest deduction. There are also some very bad things, such as getting rid of the estate tax. More to come, such as the fact that the tax bill would most benefit outfits like the Trump Organization.  Surprise!


In any event, Americans are undertaxed for the public services and infrastructure they say they want.  The United States of Wishful Thinking.




In another sign of the Manhattanization of downtown Boston, Dell Technologies founder and CEO Michael Dell reportedly plans to buy a penthouse at the Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences tower for up to $40 million.




Providence needs an honest but somewhat fascistic mayor to address its issues – a sort of Rudy Giuliani before he went off the rails after he left office. Or a Michael Bloomberg. A tough leader.




“The apples are everywhere and every interval, every old clearing, an orchard. You pick them up from under your feet but to bite into them, for fellowship, and throw them away; but as you catch their young brightness in the blue air, where they suggest strings of strange-colored pearls tangled in the knotted boughs, as you notice their manner of swarming for a brief and wasted gayety, they seem to ask to be praised only by the cheerful shepherd and the oaten pipe.’’

-- From “New England: An Autumn Impression’’ (1905), by Henry James



EDITOR'S NOTE: In an earlier version referenced that Feroce had a bankruptcy - he has not and we apologize for the error.


Related Slideshow: GoLocal: Benchmark Poll, October 2017

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Sponsor: GoLocalProv

Sample: N=403

Rhode Island General Election Voters Margin of Error: +/- 4.9% at 95% Confidence Level

Interviewing Period: October 9-11, 2017

Mode: Landline (61%) and Mobile (39%)

Telephone Directed by: John Della Volpe, SocialSphere, Inc.

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Are you registered to vote at this address?

Yes: 100%

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When it comes to voting, do you consider yourself to be affiliated with the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Moderate, or Unaffiliated with a major party?

Unaffiliated: 49%

Democrat: 32%

Republican: 15%

Moderate: .4%

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Next year, in November of 2018, there will be a statewide general election for Governor and many other state offices. How likely is it that you will vote in this election?

Will you definitely be voting, will you probably be voting, are you 50-50...

Definitely be voting: 78%

Probably be voting: 13%

50-50: 9%

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In general, would you say things in Rhode Island are headed in the right direction or are they off on the wrong track?

Right track: 39%

Wrong track: 45%

Mixed: 10%

Don't know/Refused: .6%

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What would you say is the number one problem facing Rhode Island that you would like the Governor to address?

Jobs and economy:  21%

Education: 12%

Taxes: 12%

Roads: 12%

State budget: 9%

Corruption/Public integrity: .8%

Healthcare: 3%

Governor: 3%

Homelessness: 2%

Immigration: 2%

Other: 7%

Don’t know: .9%

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Over the past three years or so, would you say the economy in Rhode Island has improved, gotten worse, or not changed at all?

Changed for the better: 35%

Changed for the worse: 16%

Not changed at all: 43%

Don't know/Refused: 5%

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Over the same time, has your family's financial situation improved, gotten worse, or not changed at all?

Changed for the better: 26%

Changed for the worse: 19%

Not changed at all: 54%

Don't know/Refused: 1%

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Recently, a proposal has been made to permit the issuance of $81 million in bonds by the State to build a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox. If there was an election today on this issue, would you vote to approve or reject issuing $81 million in financing supported moral obligation bonds to build the stadium?

Net: Approve: 28%

Definitely approve: 15%

Probably approve: 14%

Net: Reject: 67%

Probably reject: 19%

Definitely reject: 48%

Don't know: 4%

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Could you please tell me your age?

18-24: 7%

25-34: 15%

35-44: 15%

45-54: 20%

55-64: 17%

65+: 25%

Don't know/refused: 1%

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What was the last grade you completed in school?

0-11: 2%

High school grad: 16%

Technical/Vocational school: 1%

Some college: 23%

College grad: 34%

Graduate degree: 24%

Don't know/refused: 1%

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The next question is about the total income of YOUR HOUSEHOLD for the PAST 12 MONTHS. Please include your income PLUS the income of all members living in your household (including cohabiting partners and armed forces members living at home).

$50,000 or less: 27%

More $50,000 but less than $75,000: 13%

More $75,000 but less than $100,000: 13%

More $100,000 but less than $150,000: 17%

$150,000 or more: 13%

Don't know/refused: 17%

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What particular ethnic group or nationality - such as English, French, Italian, Irish, Latino, Jewish, African American, and so forth - do you consider yourself a part of or feel closest to?

American/None: 21%

English: 13%

Italian: 13%

Irish: 12%

Black or African American: 6%

Latino/Hispanic: 6%

French: 6%

Portuguese: 3%

Jewish: 3%

German: 1%

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Would you say that Donald Trump has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as President?

Excellent: 13%
Good: 12%
Fair: 14%
Poor: 57%
Never heard of:  0%
Cannot rate: 3%

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Would you say that Jack Reed has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a United States Senator?

Excellent: 22%
Good: 29%
Fair: 23%
Poor: 15%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate: 6%

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Would you say that Sheldon Whitehouse has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a United States Senator?

Excellent: 17%
Good: 22%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 28%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate: 7%

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Would you say that David Cicilline has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a Member of Congress?

Excellent: 9%
Good: 29%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 27%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate:  8%

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Would you say that James Langevin has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a Member of Congress?

Excellent: 7%
Good: 30%
Fair: 20%
Poor: 18%
Never heard of: 13%
Cannot rate: 11%

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Would you say that Gina Raimondo has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Governor?

Excellent: 6%
Good: 28%
Fair: 30%
Poor: 31%
Never heard of: 1%
Cannot rate: 3%

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Would you say that Daniel McKee has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Lieutenant Governor?

Excellent: 3%
Good: 16%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 8%
Never heard of: 26%
Cannot rate: 25%

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Would you say that Peter Kilmartin has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Attorney General?

Excellent: 3%
Good: 20%
Fair: 28%
Poor: 17%
Never heard of: 13%
Cannot rate: 19%

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Would you say that Seth Magaziner has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as General Treasurer?

Excellent: 4%
Good: 18%
Fair: 24%
Poor: 13%
Never heard of: 21%
Cannot rate: 21%

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Would you say that Nellie Gorbea has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Secretary of State?

Excellent: 5%
Good: 21%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 10%
Never heard of: 20%
Cannot rate: 23%

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Would you say that Jorge Elorza has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Mayor of Providence?

Excellent: 4%
Good: 24%
Fair: 24%
Poor: 22%
Never heard of: 9%
Cannot rate: 15%


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