Whitcomb: Social-Media Giants Won’t Change; Less Local at Whole Foods; Need Trains to Newport

Monday, April 02, 2018


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Robert Whitcomb, columnist

“The caribou factor – when a hunter looks into the woods, he cannot see the caribou until it moves. After it moves, it seems obvious where the beast had been standing all the time….if investors knew what was going to make the {stock} market decline in the future, it would have already declined.’’


-- The late Christopher H. Browne, a famous value investor.


“Sow disinformation, discredit the FBI… all to undermine the special counsel and create an environment of confusion and doubt about the legitimacy of the special counsel’s work – that’s what Russian intelligence would do to destabilize our society, yet that’s what’s being done by our own government officials and their collaborators.’’


--Christopher Hunter, former federal prosecutor and FBI agent to The New York Times.


“In inflation-adjusted dollars, our tech masters of the universe {Apple, Facebook, Google,  Amazon, Microsoft) dwarf the 19th-century so-called robber-baron fortunes of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Fords, and Mellons that once prompted a cultural revolution of muckraking and trust-busting. Such huge amounts of capital, coupled with monopolies over the way much of the world communicates, gives just a handful of people never-before-seen political power.’’


From “Where Are the Left’s Modern Muckrakers?’’ by Victor Davis Hanson in National Review. Hit this link to read the essay:





I suppose the over-quoted opening to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland’’ – “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land….’’ – can refer to how the new life and color of spring throws personal depression into stark relief and forces painful memories to surface. But here in New England spring tends to come so grudgingly that’s not such a problem.




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Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook

Barring powerful federal and international regulations, it’s hard to envision Facebook, Google, Twitter, et al., doing much to stop their misuse by bad outside actors and by the social-media giants’ relentless use of the personal data of their users, much of it effectively without permission.  After all,  the sector’s whole business model is based on the use and misuse of personal data in pursuit of advertising revenue, which it drains from other media.


Of course, you can always decide to get off these platforms, but their ease of use and their purposively addictive qualities suggest that it will take a lot more than fear of Russian trolls to wrest many people away from these octopuses.


The Justice Department’s Antitrust Division should have long since broken up Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. These oligopolies use their vast size to suppress potential new competitors.





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GoLocal’s March 28 story headlined “Amazon Is Slashing Jobs at Whole Foods in New England Region’’ is an unsettling sign of the times. The story was instigated by a Business Insider article that said: “Whole Foods is slashing regional and in-store marketing and graphic-design jobs in its latest push to centralize operations, say people with knowledge of the matter….It’s not clear exactly how many jobs will be affected….”


GoLocal reports that “the impact locally is that the hand-drawn blackboard signage will disappear and local advertising promotions with {nonprofit} community organizations may go away.’’’ On the East Side of Providence there are two Whole Foods stores and a somewhat similar high-end supermarket called Eastside Marketplace, formerly locally owned but now owned by Ahold, a Dutch company but which heavily promotes local ties. Will Amazon/Whole Foods’ centralizing drive push customers there?


(Trump is correct to say that Amazon has too much power, although he may be mostly driven by his fear and hatred of The Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.)


To read the article, please hit this link:


This seems all of a piece with Amazon’s move toward automated “Amazon Go’’ stores with very few employees. The big employment at the retail behemoth will continue to be at its vast distribution centers, but robots will eventually erode even that.


The aim is to have fewer and fewer employees and richer and richer senior executives and shareholders. It’s the American way and unstoppable.


Still, America does need many more plumbers, electricians, masons, house painters, roofers and the like. Some things are just too physical to be computerized/automated/centralized away. Young and not-so-young people looking for good jobs would do well to go to vocational school. Retail as we’ve known it will continue to fade. Hit this link for an article on the trades:


Among the article’s observations:


“Skilled trades show among the highest potential among job categories, the economic-modeling company Emsi calculates.  It says tradespeople also are older than workers in other fields — more than half were over 45 in 2012, the last period for which the subject was studied — meaning looming retirements could result in big shortages.’’




There’s been quite a scandal about heavy abuse of overtime in the Massachusetts State Police but it has long struck me that abuse of overtime is institutionalized in many police and fire departments across America. Please hit this link for background on the Massachusetts case:




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U.S. Census

At first glance it might seem appropriate that the government ask on the U.S. Census form whether the respondents are citizens.


After all, 2010 was the only year for which no survey conducted as part of the U.S. Census asked about citizenship.  But, it gets murky: Citizenship hasn’t been a question on the mandatory Census survey since 1950.


Many fear that the Trump administration will obtain information about individual households and use it to go after the millions of illegal aliens in the U.S. Many illegals presumably wouldn’t dare to indicate their status, or to fill out the form at all. That would lead to a big undercount of the population in such predominately Democratic states as California and New York. (The information on individual Census forms is not supposed to be shared with politicians but trust about confidentiality is low these days.)


An undercount could force congressional redistricting that could reduce the number of House seats in some Democratic-leaning states and hence electoral votes in presidential elections. It could also lose them billions of dollars in federal funds based on population size. Good news for the Republican Party!


My main concern is that government, business and other parts of American society benefit greatly from having as much information as possible about the demographics of the country.  Discouraging people from filling out what are supposed to be confidential forms is no way to do it. The Census Bureau needs to do everything it can to protect the integrity of the system, and to publicize the protection.


What happens if millions of people answer every question on the form except the one on citizenship? Would the government throw away all the other data on individual forms? I hope not.




A provision added to the huge federal spending bill (which is filled with surprises!) that Trump recently signed into law would cut certain funding to the Palestine Authority until it stops payments to the families of Palestinians killed or arrested during attacks on Israelis. Critics have called the Palestinian payments program “pay to slay’’.

About time. To read more, please hit this link:




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U.S. Supreme Court

You may have read that retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (nominated to the court by President Ford, a Republican} has called for a repeal of the Second Amendment.


His reasoning is that an NRA-driven campaign against reasonable gun control overturned a long-settled understanding that the Second Amendment was all about maintaining state militias (and was written long before the invention of, for example, assault rifles). The amendment says: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” 


Justice Stevens writes, in a New York Times article:

“For over 200 years after the adoption of the Second Amendment, it was uniformly understood as not placing any limit on either federal or state authority to enact gun control legislation. In 1939 the Supreme Court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a ‘well regulated militia.’

“{W}hen Warren Burger {a Republican named to the court by Richard Nixon} was our chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge, federal or state, as far as I am aware, expressed any doubt as to the limited coverage of that amendment. When organizations like the National Rifle Association disagreed with that position and began their campaign claiming that federal regulation of firearms curtailed Second Amendment rights, Chief Justice Burger publicly characterized the NRA as perpetrating ‘one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”’

“In 2008, the Supreme Court overturned Chief Justice Burger’s and others’ long-settled understanding of the Second Amendment’s limited reach by ruling, in District of Columbia v. Heller, that there was an individual right to bear arms. I was among the four dissenters.’’

To read Justice Stevens’s essay, please hit this link:


But rather than go through the tumult of trying to change the Constitution itself,  undermining its solidity as our basic law, better to be patient and press for rulings that return our gun policy to its traditional common sense. With the gun industry and its main lobbying wing, the NRA, so powerful in the Republican Party, this will take time and presumably new appointees to the federal courts and especially the Supreme Court. And, horribly, more mass shootings.

Let the Supremes themselves undo their 2008 mistake.




Colleges should afford a very wide range of speakers the opportunity to express their views, be they left, right or other. So on the face of it, a program at elite Wellesley College, in Massachusetts, called the Freedom Project sounds fine. The programs bring “libertarian’’ and conservative speakers to the beautiful campus, with the idea of offsetting the generally liberal views of students and teachers there.


But the program is funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, a right-wing group aimed at promoting the views of the current version of the Republican Party. Charles Koch, of course, is a member of the billionaire Koch Brothers, who inherited their sprawling business from their father and are leading members of the plutocracy now running the country. They are, not surprisingly, obsessed with tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation.


Conflicts of interest abound. For example, reports The Boston Globe, Wellesley sociology Prof. Thomas Cushman, who has been running the Freedom Project there but is stepping down, said he wouldn’t invite The New Yorker’s famous investigative writer Jane Mayer  to speak because he didn’t like her book  about the Kochs, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

To read The Globe’s story, please hit this link:


But the Wellesley Freedom Project has invited Alex Epstein, author The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, which the Kochs, who have huge stakes in the fossil-fuel industry, not surprisingly have recommended to their donors.


Better if colleges assiduously avoid relationships with big foundations and businesses that want to pick speakers for propaganda reasons. But that also means that college administrations and faculties have a duty to ensure that students can hear a very wide range of views on their campuses and that they punish students and faculty who try to prevent speakers from making their arguments. Too many colleges have been weak on free speech, which should be enshrined in academia.


And to have foreign propaganda and surveillance outlets on campus, such as the Chinese government-run Confucius Institutes at, among other places, Bryant University and the University of Rhode Island, is utterly inappropriate.



There’s a proposal to start summertime passenger rail service to Rockland, Maine, from Boston. Rockland, a boating and arts center, is on Penobscot Bay and a prime vacation area. The idea reminded me that establishing summertime rail service between Providence and Newport would be a wonderful thing. More entrepreneurs these days are looking into starting fairly short-distance rail passenger lines. Providence-to-Newport summer service might attract one.

One possible entrepreneur might be Vincent Bono, whose Boston Surface


Railroad Company wants to start a private commuter rail line between Providence,  Worcester, and Nashua, N.H., by 2020.


I’ve been thinking a lot about trains from my boyhood lately, such as the cozy Pullman compartments on our trips to the Midwest and the South, the blue air in the smoking cars, the damask table cloths in the dining cars where union rules mandated that you write down your meal order and that the trains would pick up piles of local newspapers from the cities where you’d stop on the Southern Railroad.




Up to a point, it was nice to see Western allies expel a bunch of Russian “diplomats” (aka spies) in retaliation for Vladimir Putin’s attempted murder by nerve agent of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. (Usually, the dictator succeeds in killing people he doesn’t like at first go-around.


Consider Nikolai Glushkov, a critic of Putin who fled Moscow in 2006 and was strangled a couple of weeks ago in his London home.


If the West was really serious about punishing the Russian kleptocratic oligarchy led by former KGB agent Putin (whose fortune has been estimated as exceeding $50 billion), they would freeze their bank accounts, bar them from visiting Western nations (the oligarchs  particularly love hanging out in London, where many have luxurious homes) and take other actions to impose pain on these thugs. And of course, it would help a lot if the president of the United States led the way, both in rhetoric and action. But Trump is so personally corrupt and so compromised by Russian blackmail and/or financial ties that we can’t expect that sort of leadership from him, even though the Kremlin is hard at work seeking to undermine the unity of the Western democracies and democracy itself.


Other people in the U.S. government will have to do what they can to fill the gap. What a country!




A spot of good news. Ecuador will reportedly cut off the outside communications of WikiLeaks impresario and de facto Russian agent Julian Assange, who has been sheltered in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012.


Ecuadorian officials have announced that they were taking the action in response to Assange’s recent activity on social media that violated a deal he had made with the government of the South American nation.


Assange has been living in Ecuador’s embassy for more than five years, since he sought asylum there to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual-assault charges. He was an enthusiastic tool of Putin in undermining the U.S. electoral system in 2016.




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Healthcare costs

Now that many more  U.S. health-care consumers with insurance are becoming more aware of the real cost of our red-tape-bound health-care system because they are paying bigger co-pays and deductibles these days, maybe they will be the ones to push to cut the sky-high administrative costs that are passed on to insurers and patients.


Of course, as I’ve written here before, the best way to cut costs and raise efficiency would be to go to a Medicare-for-all system. But given the political power of the economic interests that benefit from the current mess, that almost certainly won’t happen.


Bloomberg News published a strong editorial on how to improve the situation. It says what I’ve been saying since I edited medical newsletters more than 25 years ago: Providers and insurers should standardize their billing and modernize and unify their computer systems. To read the editorial, please hit this link:


Bloomberg (which is mostly a business news service) notes, most “insurance companies continue to maintain distinct billing codes and forms, and providers still use separate computer systems for medical records and billing, making it impossible to automate claims processing. In this healthcare stands apart almost every other industry.’’

To read the Bloomberg piece, please hit this link:


This intense inefficiency, along with the world’s highest-paid physicians and health-care executives, Robber Baron-level drug prices and over-testing (to make money and in fear of lawsuits) together explain most of why American health care is so astronomically expensive and inefficient. But it’s been very, very profitable for some groups with big lobbying offices in Washington.



With the rapidly swelling population of people 65 or over, you can bet that the Clutter Crisis will intensify as elderly people strive to simplify their lives, which might include living in a smaller home. There’s been quite a spate of stuff in the news media lately about the anti-clutter industry, probably because of the flood of new retirees.  The industry causes some clutter itself with its innumerable books, consultants and anti-clutter plastic boxes for sale.


Years ago, as my children were going off to college, I wrote a piece whose title I’ve long since forgotten for The Providence Journal about trying to get rid of stuff that had piled up over the decades. Flotsam and jetsam.


We’ve made some progress but of course, more stuff has flowed into the house in the intervening years. Now we have resumed the clearing out process.


It’s mostly tedious but coming across old pictures, toys, kids’ books, etc., raises pangs of nostalgia and regret. And you always think that a child or grandchild might be interested in keeping such items. But that’s rarely so. It’s just more stuff for the dumpster or the Salvation Army. Perhaps a few nice or at least very old pieces of furniture, a couple of pictures, especially an old oil painting or two, and a family Bible might be acceptable to the next generation but that’s about it.

So do them a favor and get rid of as much as you can before your demise. As the song from the Thirties, says “It’s later than you think.’’ 


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