Whitcomb: Raimondo Lunch; Sugar-Coat Carbon Taxes; Nasty Campaigner; Two Memoirs; It’s Not a Busines

Monday, December 10, 2018


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Robert Whitcomb, columnist

Shyly coated in greys, blacks, browns -

to keep us out of sight of the cold -
we weren't expecting this this morning: sun
and shadows, like a summer's evening, like summer


-- From “Winter Morning,’’ by Richard Meier


Climate change is far from the top of the consciousness of most people, except, perhaps, during and right after the latest disaster – e.g., hurricane, flood, wildfire, etc.  And so the most practical and fairest way (except politically) to reduce carbon emissions – imposing a tax on those who burn and use fossil fuel  -- can cause an uproar, such as in France the last couple of weeks.


The government of President Emmanuel Macron had sought to raise already high diesel- fuel taxes by the equivalent of about 24 cents a gallon and gasoline by about 12 cents a gallon. The response was massive rioting, especially in Paris, where considerable property damage was wrought. Left-and-right-wing extremists, aided by the communications made so easy by the Internet, used the controversy ignited by the proposed fuel-tax hike to denounce other government policies, too. So, the government put the tax hikes on ice, at least for a while.


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French President Emmanuel Macron

Macron is quite right to accept the fact that global warming is an existential threat for humanity. But most people, who have little or no knowledge of, or interest in, climate are only thinking short term. They get angry when prices go up and in some sectors, such as trucking and coal-mining, fear for their jobs when measures are taken to address global warming beyond windy rhetoric.


So carbon-tax proponents should push for immediately rebating all or most of the carbon-tax revenue back to the people. Call it a carbon-tax dividend. Yes, governments could use the money for other worthwhile purposes, such as reducing deficits. But no long-term public policy is more important than confronting global warming even if the public remains mostly myopic and/or ignorant about it. I admire Macron’s courage in addressing climate change but he needs to be a far most astute politician, and student of mass psychology, in dealing with its economic and policy demands. Make carbon taxes politically popular!


It would be nice to think that someday America will again be a leader in addressing global warming and other environmental issues but so pervasive are the demagoguery and flat-earthism among many Republican politicians, and the greed and political power of the Koch Brothers and other fossil-fuel moguls who fund them, that I’m not very optimistic about the short term.




The pictures of the demonstrations in Paris reminded me of the paradox (?) of France, where public services – transportation, etc. – usually run very smoothly. But from time to time riots and general strikes seem to paralyze everything.   I suppose you can chalk it up to France’s highly centralized government and the larger state role in local affairs compared to American arrangements. So, among other drawbacks, local controversies can more quickly become national and vice versa than is the case here.


As a former resident of la Ville Lumiere I remember vividly a day back in 1986 when I had dental surgery near the Arc de Triomphe and had to walk many, many blocks home with an unexpectedly bleeding mouth.  All the cab drivers and subway workers were on strike. Of course, the traffic was terrible, and everyone was in a bad mood, though the city seemed otherwise very beautiful that day.


These inconveniences, which sometimes reminded me of the hassles of living in New York City, would lead me to ruminate on returning to a somewhat less complicated life in New England. Then the strikes would end, the often sweet qualities of Parisian daily life would reassert themselves and I’d put the thought of returning to America out of my mind for a while.


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Long Road to Better Schools

Fixing public education takes a long, long time. It demands political, economic and cultural changes at the state and local levels over the years,  including cooperation from teachers’ unions, and so on. Thus Rhode Island’s mediocre education metrics can’t be turned around, especially in comparison with national leader (and much richer) Massachusetts, in four years. But I applaud the Raimondo administration for pushing what will be a laborious, often controversial and unpopular, but necessary, process of implementing more rigorous teaching and asking more of students.



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George H.W. Bush

Nasty Campaigner, Good President

The over-the-top encomia to George H.W. Bush show how difficult it is for many people to tolerate ambiguity. Since his death he has generally been presented as an overwhelmingly kindly and honest gentleman, and a brilliant statesman. He was sometimes the last, but a review of his career displays plenty of ruthlessness and intellectual dishonesty, copious opportunism and a powerful sense of entitlement. He was, as we all are, a mix.


After he moved to Texas and, bankrolled by his rich family, got into the oil business, he entered Republican politics. Running for the U.S. Senate, he opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, on the grounds that it was a “radical’’ bill  (that was enacted with bipartisan support in Congress) to “protect 14 percent of the people’’ (blacks). He was appealing for white votes in a former slave state.    


He adjusted his positions to fit the rightward and southern and western movement of the GOP from its more moderate Northeast and Upper Midwest roots. While he had once been pro-choice, he pulled a 180, seemingly to further his political ambitions in a party becoming more conservative in such social issues as abortion even as Democrats moved the opposite way.  And as chairman of the Republican National Committee during the Watergate scandal, he stoutly defended the corrupt (and increasingly unhinged) Richard Nixon.


Again and again, he took the “to get ahead, go along’’ approach. It was often hard to figure out what his real political principles were.


Consider that after denouncing Ronald Reagan’s dubious “supply-side economics’’ as voodoo, Bush as Reagan’s running mate climbed aboard the GOP tax-cut bandwagon that led to huge federal budget deficits. (Later, his decision in 1990 to agree to modest tax increases to address the deficits led to a split in the party and the rise of the outstandingly sleazy con man Newt Gingrich.)


Bush also ended the investigation of the Reagan administration’s Iran Contra Scandal, an action that helped protect him from possible prosecution for his actions as vice president.


As in some of his earlier political efforts, Bush’s dirty 1988 presidential campaign against then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, in which Bush’s campaign expertly played the race card and engaged in relentless and unfair personal attacks, including impugning Dukakis’s patriotism, showed how far he would go to fulfill his ambitions. (Dukakis might have been far too gentle a guy to be president anyway.)


But Bush also skillfully navigated the end of the Cold War; threw the Iraqis out of Kuwait; helped enact amendments to the Clean Air Act that were essential for reducing acid rain, and signed the Americans With Disabilities Act. And he governed with dignity, courtesy and an apparent sense of humility. In his personal life, he was by most accounts a very nice man, as he was brought up to be, though always with a sense of privilege, usually camouflaged by displays of self-deprecation. (I grew up on the margins of this East Coast WASP style and know the style fairly well.) He also wrote very nice thank-you notes and was very hospitable.


Compared to the current moral squalor in the White House and in much of the national Republican Party, George H.W. Bush looks more like a saint rather than a man in full. In any event, he made more than a few nasty moves to get to the presidency, but once there his old-fashioned New England rectitude dominated.


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Former MA Governor Deval Patrick

Patrick Won’t Run

So former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has decided not to run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.  As a fine speaker (to me better than Obama) and retail politician with two successful terms as the state’s CEO, he could have been a formidable candidate for the nomination, if not in the general election.  


His decision opens the door wider for fellow Bay State Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who, if she decides to run, could draw on some of the financial and other campaign resources that Patrick would have gotten and certainly has an enthusiastic following of progressives. But it’s hard to see how the senator could get elected president.


Nabokov and Hersh

I’ve been reading two very different memoirs, one by the late great novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Speak, Memory’s most important part is about his youth in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution, which forced his aristocratic family to flee Lenin’s bloody dictatorship. The other is Reporter, by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, whose work investigating many scandals, including My Lai, Watergate, the CIA, Abu Ghraib and others, made him famous.


Hersh’s book methodically traces his life from near-poverty in Chicago, to his start in the often gritty world of journalism, to reporting that made him a feared figure in official Washington and elsewhere. It is clear, rich with often entertaining anecdotes and acts as a kind of primer on journalism. And he doesn’t hide his mistakes.


He notes that most of his career took place in a golden age of well-financed journalism, an age now long gone because the Internet has upended the business model, making far less money available for reporting, opening up public affairs to more corruption. Investigative journalism, in particular, is expensive.


I find it increasingly eerie to read about events from the ‘60s on that I well remember and some of which I had to write about, or edit articles about, as they happened. The events seem both like yesterday and long, long ago. I’m always curious to hear how young people react to stuff that happened long before they were born but that I remember.


Nabokov’s evocative and sometimes poetic book is impressionistic,  filled with flashbacks, and brilliantly describes and analyzes his feelings,  his relationships, his developing aesthetics, his conceptions and his misconceptions over time, albeit in the context of tumultuous, indeed traumatic events in the wider world. As such, it speaks more profoundly about the human condition than Hersh’s workmanlike description of the events of his career. But then, Hersh’s book is prosaically titled Reporter.


And Hersh’s world is tough, with terrible hours, relentless deadlines and for a long time, smoky rooms. I inhabited it myself off and on for years, and especially at the holidays, when in the old days, I had to work, I don’t miss it at all. That he is still at his trade at age 81 speaks to his passion for it.


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Governor Gina Raimondo

Promote a Restaurant a Month

One of Rhode Island’s glories and an important element of its economy is its small, often chef-owned restaurants. Indeed the Ocean State is justly famous for its eateries. So I propose that Gov. Gina Raimondo have lunch or dinner at a nonchain Rhode Island restaurant once a month to promote the sector.


So How Many Went?

We await with keen anticipation data from the Preservation Society of Newport County that will show how much the new Visitors Center at the  Breakers may have boosted attendance at that mansion and others owned by the society. The main season is over and so there must be pretty good numbers available by now.


Picture Palace

The annual “Little Pictures Show’’ at the Providence Art Club now underway is great fun to see and a fine source of memorable holiday presents. The 114-year-old cash-and-carry-away exhibition is the oldest and one of the largest such shows in America.



No Town Cops

The Boston Globe had a rather poignant story Dec. 4 about the perhaps permanent loss of the town police force of Norman Rockwellian Randolph, VT., in the White River Valley, because of fiscal and other issues. Law enforcement will, at least for the time being, be provided by Orange County. Townspeople are saddened that they’re losing an element of their local identity and some folks seem to feel less secure. It’s important to preserve such local agencies. Not every public service should be outsourced, or privatized.

To read more, please hit this link:


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Business Needs It but It’s Not a Business

The U.S. Postal Service provides an essential public service and should not be expected to be run as a business, though services are essential for the success of most businesses and of the whole economy. Like roads. The Trump administration has said it wants to privatize the USPS.  (Some juicy corruption potential there?) The financial problems facing the service are mostly caused by the rise of email, cutting way into paper-mail revenue, and outrageously unfair rules imposed by Congress that force the USPS to make inordinately large payments into a retiree-benefits fund.


Meanwhile, Trump himself wants the service to jack up package-delivery rates to stick it to Amazon. Jeff Bezos, the company’s CEO, owns The Washington Post, which relentlessly pursues the scandals of Trump’s regime. For Trump, everything is about him, including postal policy.

David Dumas

RIP: David W. Dumas, former  Rhode Island Republican state senator, a parliamentarian and amateur historian. He died unexpectedly on Nov. 27 at age 75.


It was in the last role that I knew him best, and mostly at lunches and dinners. He was great fun to chat with. He was very well read, and his knowledge was well seasoned with a droll sense of humor. David had great integrity coupled with a sense of the practical in getting things done. And his word was his bond.


I had lunch with him a few months ago. People keep disappearing on me at an accelerating rate.

This column was updated 12/9/18 at 8:34 AM.


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