Whitcomb: Skyscraper Story; Main Street Help; Looking for Fung; High-Fiber Rivers

Monday, August 13, 2018


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Robert Whitcomb, Columnist

"Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau…. I expect to see the stock market a good deal higher within a few months." 

-- Irving Fisher, Yale economics professor and the most famous U.S. economist of his day, speaking on Oct. 17, 1929, shortly before the Great Crash on Oct. 29.


“Given the re‐election of President Nixon, we believe that our growth from 1972 to 1976 will be dynamic, vigorous and different from what has gone before.’’

-- Pierre Rinfret, economic adviser to President Nixon, in the Oct. 29, 1972 New York Times. A deep recession lasted from late 1973 to the spring of 1975, with the peak jobless rate for the cycle -- 9 percent – in May 1975.  A period of high inflation and low growth came next, followed by a deep recession in 1981-82, when the jobless rate hit 10.8 percent, followed by strong economic growth until the 1990-91 recession.


“The trees tremble with delirious joy as the breeze
Greets them, one by one - now the oak
Now the great sycamore, now the 

And the locusts in 
brazen chorus, cry
Like stricken things, and the 
ring-dove's note
Sobs on in the dim distance.’’ 

--From “In August,’’ by Hamlin Garland


“To lie on these beaches for another summer
Would not become them at all,
And yet the water and her sands will suffer

When, in the fall,
These golden children will be taken from her.’’

-- From “Late August on the Lido,’’ by John Hollander

“Is it the Lido I see or only Asbury Park (N.J.}?, from “At Long Last Love,’’ by Cole Porter


So the light’s gotten noticeably softer, the crickets are making a racket at night, the leaves on the trees are looking dusty and limp and many people are making Labor Day Weekend plans. And the fading summer has been so warm and humid that the six-foot-high stump of a huge tree that we had taken down a few months ago is now covered with ivy.

Things are moving right along. Some days may be long, but, as the phrase goes, the years are short.


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Jason Fane

Fane Tower Trauma

If the Providence City Council decides to nix New York developer Jason Fane’s proposal for a 46-story skyscraper in the Route 195 relocation area, don’t expect a new proposal from him or indeed any proposal for the site any time soon. Interest rates are rising and while income-tax cuts targeted for the rich and companies are producing a sugar high in the economy (the stock-buyback craze is one sign of it), the economic recovery that began in 2009 is very old. A rough consensus is developing that a recession will start next year or in 2020, which would probably put the kibosh on new development in Providence for several years. Hope not!

Of course, Mr. Fane wouldn’t be facing much opposition to his tower if he built it in the large vacant lot downtown with the rest of the high-rises. But he has emphasized that he won’t consider that. Too bad!

I suspect that a lot of local real estate agents don’t like his plan because Mr. Fane’s group would grab some of the high-end business on Providence’s East Side and downtown. I have spoken to some residents of expensive houses and condos who have told me that they’d love to live in the Fane tower. (What a view down to Newport!) But they tend to keep their opinions quiet because of the intensity of the opposition.

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Worcester, MA

Lost in Worcester

It  looks as of this writing that the Pawtucket Red Sox may well decamp to Worcester, and become known as the “Woosox.’’ I think that the club would regret such a move. After a year or two of enthusiasm, attendance would probably fall off sharply. After all, Worcester has a much smaller metro population (about 924,000) than Providence (about 1.6 million) and is not on the Main Street of the East Coast – Route 95. And soccer, not baseball, is apt to eventually become the biggest summer sport. In any case, I hope that if the PawSox stay in Rhode Island they make their stadium as multi-use as possible.

Help for Rhode Island Main Streets

In my July 15 column, I cited Massachusetts legislation to provide up to $500,000 each in tax credits to merchants who decide to occupy now-vacant storefronts in downtowns. The idea is to help revive small-store neighborhoods that have been hollowed out by competition from big-box chains as well as from Amazon and other online retailers.

I should have mentioned a somewhat similar program in Rhode Island created by the Raimondo administration in Rhode Island that provides grants (there’s a total of $1 million available now, with a  required 30 percent minimum local match) to spiff up downtowns. The administration is pitching the addition of tax credits to the program.

As I wrote before, this would have to be a long-term experiment but, depending on the total price tag, worth a try in a few downtowns with promising local demographics. The big question is how many consumers who have grown addicted to the Internet can be lured back into the habit of patronizing small stores, for their visual, tactile and social pleasures.  

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Cranston Mayor Allan Fung

Fung Lays Low

Things are pretty prosperous – for now – in Rhode Island and there have been no huge scandals in Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration, which has had some big program wins – education and transportation improvements  -- and the inevitable disaster or two, the biggest being a Deloitte benefits-payment system, launched in the Chafee administration, of the sort that has bedeviled a number of states. Kentucky’s Deloitte’s mess may most closely recall Rhode Island’s.

 (A 2016 annual global survey of IT implementations by the Standish Group, a software project management-consulting company, said that 29 percent of such big, complex projects succeed, 54 percent have major problems, e.g., being behind schedule, over budget and not performing as well as promised — and 17 percent are outright flops. Standish accurately calls its surveys “Chaos Reports’’.

So why is this highly intelligent, innovative and earnest person only a couple of percentage points ahead in the polls of the probable general-election GOP candidate, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung? As I’ve said before, it’s partly because the governor usually displays little charisma and warmth except in small gatherings, not that Mr. Fung has a lot either.

But I suspect that it’s also because Mr. Fung, who has been a competent mayor, has been able so far to avoid taking strong, controversial stands. No one knows what sort of governor he’d be.

If, as seems almost inevitable, he wins the Republican primary he’ll have to expose himself much more to impatient demands that he clearly state his positions. But in the August dog days, all he has to do is not be Gina Raimondo. I assume, of course, that Ms. Raimondo will probably win the Democratic primary. But former Secretary of State Matthew Brown, who has both charisma and considerable support on the left wing of the party, could pull off an upset.

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MA Governor Charlie Baker

Gov. Charlie Baker’s Mass. Management

The low-key Republican governor of a very Democratic state, Mr. Baker is close to a model chief executive. He rigorously oversees the administration of state government, with a sharp eye on personnel selection and oversight; after all, government is just a bunch of people. He doesn’t overpromise.

He makes his important decisions after much consultation with leaders of both parties and with cities and towns; he seeks consensus whenever possible. He tends to grant localities more say than many previous governors have, showing great respect for local knowledge. He knows how to strongly advocate his usually very pragmatic proposals, how to cut deals with the legislature, and when to give up. A former highly successful businessman, he brings a knowledge of private-sector efficiencies and innovation without confusing the responsibilities of government with those of companies, even as he’s always on the lookout for ways to privatize some services.

In another time and another national Republican Party, he’d be considered a potential presidential candidate.

‘Streets Full of Water. Advise’*

The population of flood-prone coastal zones in America is rising faster than elsewhere. That’s because most people love to live near water and developers have huge political and economic clout. Making matters worse is that the Feds’ National Flood Insurance Program does not take into account global-warming-connected sea-level rise, which is accelerating, especially along the U.S. East Coast. Just ask the people living in such low-lying places as Newport’s Point section, but at least that neighborhood of old houses will not be seeing more development.

And the anti-environmentalist and very developer-friendly Trump administration wants to eliminate some rules in order to make development easier in flood-prone zones! U.S. taxpayers will get stuck with ever bigger bills to clean up the damage when these areas are hit by storms.

*Line reputedly in a telegram from Venice by the late humorist Robert Benchley.

To read a Governing Magazine article on this, please hit this link:

Cutting Taxes Instead of Fixing Roads

And so Trump and his congressional servants have dropped all pretense of repairing America’s crumbling public infrastructure in favor of cutting corporate-income and personal-income taxes. The latter cuts strongly advantage the rich, including, of course, corporate executives. This may be pleasant for now, but many businesses will find their bottom lines are increasing eroded by the effects of rapidly decaying infrastructure, especially in transportation.  There’s a big bill for such short-termism.

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President Donald Trump

Trump Keeps Throwing the Red Meat

“President” Trump’s attacks on the media and the many others on his enemies list keeps his followers stirred up and loyal, more than a few of whom embrace his viciousness and endless lies and ignore his nearly lifelong corruption. Like many demagogues, he derives strength from raucous rallies at which he throws out red meat to his fanatic, unquestioning adherents. Their adoration of their corrupt leader seems to give their lives meaning.

This will go on at least until the next recession. Trump is, after all, a “reality TV’’ star who knows how to push buttons, especially of people who spend much of their time with the likes of Fox “News” and assorted online echo chambers. Trump rallies don’t feature a lot of big readers and Trump and his fellow grifters take full advantage of that.

(I love the “Blacks for Trump’’ (say the signs they hold) at his rallies! I wonder if they’re paid as much as the actors hired to cheer our mobster-in-chief when he announced his candidacy in 2015 at Trump Tower.)

The trial of Paul Manafort has provided the public with words and colorful images of just how corrupt and materialistic parts of America ’s politically connected plutocracy have become. Increasingly,   Beltway Bandit Democrats and Republicans have put their wealth and power above the public interest.  Still, the current rendition of the personal-riches-obsessed GOP has taken the corruption to astounding new heights. But perhaps Ayn Rand, the party’s patron saint of selfishness, would have approved.

In other con men news, one wonders why such “responsible’’ social-media outlets as Facebook have taken so long to disinfectant their sites of mega-media liar, conspiracy “theorist’’ and bogus-health-product salesman Alex Jones, of InfoWars infamy. He has done so many despicable things that we’d need hundreds of pages to describe them. But perhaps the worst was his assertion that the massacre perpetrated by a young gun nut in 2012 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in which 20 young children and six adults died (the murderer, Adam Lanza, then killed himself) was "completely fake" and "manufactured". Jones’s lies have lead some of his followers – the sort of foaming-at-the-mouth creatures you see at Trump rallies – to relentlessly harass parents of some of the slain children.

Some Sandy Hook parents are suing Jones for libel and defamation.

You can’t stop low life like Jones from mouthing off but responsible media are not obligated by the First Amendment to run his garbage. Indeed, it’s outrageous and surprising that he has been given such exposure – even considering how much the generally amoral social-media companies profit from the clicks ignited by Jones and other demagogues.

The screamers at Trump rallies and Jones’s suckers should, but won’t, read Kurt Anderson’s new book  Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. Some of it’s hilarious.


On a less outrageous front, we have the bad hire of  Sarah Jeong to The New York Times’s editorial board.

A former technology writer, Ms. Jeong, who is of Korean ethnicity, has in the past often jokingly and foolishly tweeted about her frustrations with white people – e.g., “Are white people genetically predisposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins” and “oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy i get out of being cruel to old white men”).

The Trump Republicans, who include many white racists, of course, jumped on this silly stuff. The Times shouldn’t have hired her.

Union Free Riders

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s anti-public-union Janus ruling,  some states are considering letting unions stop offering some services to nonmembers. In Rhode Island, for instance, a new law will let public unions cease representing nonmembers (who don’t pay dues) in grievance cases. A similar law– but for all state employees – has been enacted in New York. Good.  I’m not crazy about public-employee unions – too many political conflicts of interest! (But public employees deserve strong civil-service protections.) Still, free-riding is unfair.

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Keep Reforming the Regulations

The right of Rhode Island’s cities and towns to enact and enforce their own regulations in a multitude of areas greatly adds to the red tape and cost of doing business in the state, what with its 39 cities and towns.

And so it was good to learn that the “State Mobile Food Establishment Registration Act” was recently enacted. It will standardize the business registration process for trucks or carts that sell food, ice cream or lemonade by creating a state mobile food establishment registration,  and would exempt such establishments from laws regulating peddlers.

Rhode Island’s multi-layered regulatory hurdles hinder business development. There are too many requirements.  Consider that there are expensive licensing rules for hair braiders and sign-language interpreters! Get rid of them.

A reason for such licensing is to prop up prices charged by what are effectively guilds by restricting supply. Special-interest restraint of trade!

And for activities in which the public interest really requires regulation: Lawmakers and the governors should as much as possible unify and simplify regulations under state oversight after ascertaining that eliminating localities’ powers would not hurt the public. The localities are, after all, legal children of the state. The hotel and restaurant businesses, in particular, would be the sort of enterprises that would greatly benefit from having to adhere to fewer local regulations.

Obviously streamlining regulations will encourage more people to launch new businesses and expand existing ones.


Another sector in which to make Rhode Island more competitive might be to reform “prevailing-wage’’ laws, which predetermine hourly rates that contractors must pay for specific services in performing certain work, generally by skilled trades, for the state and municipalities. This can force companies to bid very high – sometimes over $80 an hour for overtime work. The taxpayers get hard hit.

It’s time for the state to review the prevailing-wage situation.

Cleaning up Rivers With High-Fiber Regimen

Here’s an interesting way to partly clean up urban rivers: Put coconut-fiber beds, made by a company called Biomatrix, along a river’s edge as fake islands and embed a variety of growing plants in them. The plants suck up nutrients from the water as well as pollutants, which they store and break down, and the roots in the water provide habitats for aquatic species.

Try this in some sections of the mighty Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket rivers in Providence and along the lower Blackstone?

To read more, please hit this link about how they’re doing this in Chicago:

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Bird Scooter

The Streets for the Birds

The sudden recent sight of many people in Providence on those dockless Bird electric scooters is cheering, and vaguely comic. The users look vaguely birdlike – or insectlike -- as they dart around (though not very fast), some of them giggling. If these things keep more people out of cars, so much the better.

Georgia on My Mind

Thank you, historian Robert Kagan, for reminding everyone that in 2008 Russian dictator Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Georgia, and the seizure of its South Ossetia region,  as part of a campaign to reassert Russian control over as much of the non-Russian states of the former Soviet Union as the Kremlin could get away with. Using cyberwarfare and “fake news,’’ as well as troops, tanks and warplanes, the dictator stole a large part of a sovereign nation. Then-President George W. Bush did virtually nothing.

This encouraged Putin to think he could get away with it again, which he did in 2014 with the invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and the attack on eastern Ukraine. Then-President Obama ordered some sanctions but refused to give Ukraine arms. To its credit, the Trump administration has provided anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. (There remains an intriguing gap between anti-Putin hardliners in the Trump administration, along with many congressional Republicans and Democrats, on the one side and the pro-Putin Trump. At least some of the explanation can be found in Trump’s 30 years of business and personal interactions with the Kremlin.)

The U.S., and the West in general, gave Russia many billions of dollars in aid, and other assistance, and sought to bring it into the community of democratic nations after the fall of the Soviet Union. But the ancient Russian tendency to blame other nations for the huge nation’s own pathologies and its tradition of dictatorship reasserted themselves, and we now face a fierce, expansionist and technologically advanced foe.

To read Robert Kagan’s recent essay on this, please hit this link:

Saudi Arabia vs. Canada

Saudi Arabia, which treats women like second-or-third-class citizens, has frozen all new trade with Canada, stopped flights with that nation and expelled its ambassador over its "interference" in the reactionary kingdom's domestic affairs. The move comes in response to Canada’s call that the Saudi monarchy release detained civil-society and women’s rights activists, including Samar Badawi, sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi.

In response, Canadian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marie-Pier Baril said that Canada would "always stand up for the protection of human rights... including women's rights, and freedom of expression around the world". The Trump administration has been silent but then Trump has expressed great affection for Saudi Arabia’s effective leader, Crown Prince Salman bin Mohammed. Does the United States still stand for human rights?

Despite promised reforms,  the arrest and prosecution rates of rights activists have risen under Mohammad bin Salman. Saudi Arabia is an ally of the United States against Iran, whose human-rights record, isn’t as bad as that of Saudi Arabia, some of whose terrorists brought us 9/11.

Foreign Elations

Kudos to my friend Hannah Tessitore Hazelton for putting together a super starting lineup of speakers for the 2018-19 season of the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations (thepcfr.org; [email protected]).

xxx[email protected]

No more fake news.

Actually, no more news at all for a while.

Yep. Time for all newspapers in this country to shut it down. A few weeks, maybe. No more newspaper at the doorstep in the morning, no more websites to air pithy social commentary. Just a well-deserved hiatus for the ink-stained wretches who produce, what the 45th President of the United States calls a product that’s ‘fake and disgusting.’

What, we can’t call the man’s bluff?

The residual effect might be interesting.

And perhaps awaken a few of the sycophants who think with their mouths and subscribe to the ‘fake news’ narrative.’’

From “We are the enemy of the people except when you need us,’’ by Mike DiLauro, in The (New London) Day. To read the column, please hit this link:


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