Whitcomb: The Delaying Delights of Debt; Walled In; Ocean State to Golden State; Dying Malls

Sunday, January 13, 2019


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Robert Whitcomb, Columnist

“Pale January lay

In its cradle day by day

Dead or living, hard to say.’’

-- Alfred Austin


“At a time when other democracies around the world are slipping toward authoritarianism – and when the president seems eager for the United States to follow their example – we would be wise to shore up the guardrails of liberal democracy. Fixing the current system of {presidential} emergency powers would be a good place to start.’’

-- Elizabeth Goitein, in the current issue of The Atlantic


Debt-Based Prosperity

“Are we really growing at all, or is it just debt-based,’’ asked Jeffrey Gundlach, chief investment officer of DoubleLine Capital, the other day in commenting on the U.S. economy, which is continuing to be propped up  (for now) by easy money and consumption enabled by swelling borrowing. He called the exploding national debt a “horrific situation.’’  And so, I might add, is corporate debt, student debt and borrowing in some other sectors.

DoubleLine has about $120 billion under management.


The Fed has kept interest rates very low for a very long time; so it doesn’t have much capacity to cut them to stimulate the economy when the next recession arrives, perhaps in 2020; our huge economy has far too many variables to make a confident prediction on timing.


In any case, as Warren Buffett famously observed: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked.’’



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Trump's address to the nation

Trump Has Walled Himself In

Trump’s rather desperate speech last Tuesday demanding a wall all along the Mexican border is about trying to retain the affection of his MAGA fans. He was advised that “Build the Wall!” and “Lock Her (Hillary Clinton} Up!’’ would be effective rallying cries, and they were amongst his followers, few of whom were interested in serious public-policy discussions. But in using the wall trope so much, he has boxed himself in. Of course, few of his followers took the time to research Trump’s business career, which included copious hiring of illegal aliens, or took the time to find out that illegal and legal immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than the native-born.


Which isn’t to say that new walls might not be useful along some more short and flat stretches of the border. There are already more than 650 miles of barriers on the border.


By the way, analyses in M.I.T. Technology Review (www.technologyreview.com) have said that the real price of Trump’s wall could be up to $40 billion, not the $5.7 billion he demands in return for reopening the many parts of the government he has closed. And the Government Accountability Office politely notes that it could “cost more than projected, take longer than planned, or not fully perform as expected” {by Trump}.


On the federal partial shutdown, I feel particularly sorry for federal civil servants, many of whom are highly skilled and have very valuable technical knowledge that they use to protect the public, though they lack the talents for fraud, lying, thievery and demagoguery practiced by the man who has thrown them out of work.


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Flights to the West Coast?

Greater Providence has long been hurt by the absence of direct flights to the West Coast from T.F. Green Airport (although there are a few direct flights to Europe). That is especially true for sectors connected with media and tech. Consider Pawtucket-based Hasbro, which has long since become an entertainment business rather than just a toy company. So, its creative and executive people need to go back and forth a lot to Los Angeles. L.A. and New York are the media and entertainment capitals. No wonder that Hasbro is reportedly considering moving its headquarters to one of those two cities. Or it might settle for downtown Providence, especially because the Rhode Island School of Design is there.


The Providence area has many animators, filmmakers, illustrators, graphic designers and so on. Many have work that may take them often to and from the West Coast.


And many southern New England companies need to keep connected with the tech hubs of Silicon Valley, in the San Jose/San Francisco area, and Seattle.


Now that T.F. Green Airport’s main runway has been extended, non-stop service to the West Coast is feasible, offering a way to avoid the frustrating congestion you must go through to get to and from Boston’s Logan Airport.


Some see Sun Country Airlines’ announcement that it will start service this spring from Green to Nashville and Minneapolis-St. Paul as an interim step toward those direct flights. The airline has numerous flights from its Minnesota base to the West Coast. Let’s hope that Hasbro, etc., persuades the airline to start non-stop flights from Rhode Island to the West Coast as soon as possible.


Creative Types

“Creative types’’ want to be near creative types. Thus it’s not surprising that the growing Alex and Ani jewelry company is moving from Cranston to downtown Providence, not coincidentally next to the Rhode Island School of Design (which has produced many jewelry designers) and in a neighborhood crowded with Millennials. Sort of like Amazon setting up new headquarters in New York City and Arlington, Va., right across the Potomac from Washington, D.C.


Alex and Ani is opening new stores on the West Coast, which should encourage the company to join Hasbro, et al., in lobbying for nonstop flights from Green to the West Coast.


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Redeveloping Dying Malls

Swansea, Mass., Selectman Christopher Carreiro wants the town to establish a Redevelopment Authority that could take the likes of the dying Swansea Mall (Macy’s has just announced that it’s pulling out) by eminent domain and use it for other purposes. Housing? Recreational centers? Schools, private and public? And develop the vast parking lots for solar- and wind-energy installations? And green space? Or maybe tear down the mall buildings and use all the property for renewable energy? There may be some new property-tax revenue in this redevelopment.


We’ll be seeing more and more such actions across America as the Internet continues to eat away at big physical stores.



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Twitter Trauma

I hope that Rhode Island state Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, who’s also a special-education teacher, conducts herself with more dignity and fairness in that occupation than she showed in her embarrassing and erroneous Twitter attacks on Republican state Rep. Brian Newberry. Her remarks, first reported by GoLocal's News Editor Kate Nagle, came after he tweaked a response to her inane message in which she asserted that “Most people who offer opinions abt teaching & learning have never been in a classroom haven’t taken a course in education or educational psychology have never had a real conversation with teachers or students. Then you should stop giving opinions U are not an expert#ITeach.’’ (I left her punctuation uncorrected.)


An aside: Just about everyone has been in a classroom and had a “real conversation’’ with teachers and students….


The thoughtful, dignified and polite Mr. Newberry responded to Ms. Ranglin-Vassell’s  Tweet thus:


“All part-time legislators have expertise and experience in some areas and not others. That said, we should all respectfully listen to the views of those we represent and, if we disagree and know better, seek to educate and inform, not rudely dismiss….’’


To which an apparently enraged Ms. Ranglin-Vassell responded:


“Stop trolling and trying to cyber bully me with your racist attitudes.’’




Here we have a hint of why Rhode Island schools are sub-par. By the way, I and most other people have had superb teachers who never took a course in education or “educational psychology’’ and indeed never went to schools of education, few of which are known for their rigor. They thoroughly knew the subjects they were teaching and understood from intrinsic ability and intuition and experience how to instruct young people.


This back and forth is another reminder that Western Civilization was not improved by the invention of Twitter.



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Blow to ‘Yankee Cuisine’

Durgin-Park, the Boston restaurant founded in 1827 (!) and famous for heavy “New England cuisine’’ and by turns rude  (and often large) waitresses, is closing, to the gnashing of teeth of habitues, or, to be more accurate, mostly former habitues. It has always amused me that so many people who demand that a “beloved institution’’ stay open either have never been there or have long since stopped patronizing the joint.


And so another famous restaurant will join Locke-Ober and many other famous Boston eateries that haven’t been able to keep up with patrons’ changing tastes, demographics, and daily schedules. Yankee pot roast and Indian pudding just don’t have the allure that they had 50 years ago. Boston is a big and rich city; there are more than enough prosperous people to keep the likes of Durgin-Park open – if restaurant romantics wanted to eat there. But it seems that many who did now just want to wax nostalgic or have shuffled off to the great dining room in the sky.


I’m hoping that an even older place, the Union Oyster House, started as a restaurant in 1826 but in a structure believed to have been built in 1704, will survive.  I go there sometimes with a French friend. (Weird fact: Louis Philippe, the king of France in 1830-1848, lived in exile in that building in 1796, paying his expenses by teaching French to young women. But perhaps that’s not as weird as that the late Vietnamese dictator Ho Chi Minh had worked in the Parker House hotel.)


The Oyster House still has at least one big thing going for it: As the great oyster-eating scene in the movie Tom Jones demonstrates, oysters are a lot sexier than roast beef.




The Durgin-Park closing reminded me of another sign of the passing of generations and changing tastes. An old friend who teaches at a certain elite college invited her class to dinner and a showing of the classic movie Casablanca, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1943.


While you might think that the movie, with its suspense, witty lines, bittersweet romance and evocative music might be well-known across age groups, you’d be wrong. The kids had small reaction to the film and demonstrated little knowledge of its historical context of World War II. It seemed dead to most of them.


So they come and they go.


One bit of dialogue from the movie, with the French police Captain Renault (played by Claude Raines) and café owner Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, seems appropriate:


Renault: '’Why can't you go back to America? Why Casablanca?'’

Rick: “I came here for the waters?'’

 '’The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.'’


‘'I was misinformed.'’


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Advertising for Higher Medical Costs

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association discusses an all-too-little noted reason for America’s bad but expensive health-care “system’’.


The research, by two Dartmouth professors of medicine, reports that marketing by drug makers and other healthcare companies rose to almost $30 billion a year in 2016 (and is presumably higher now). It’s obvious that the plan was/is to steer ever-more patients and physicians toward treatments that are brand-new or at least still under patent and much more expensive and sometimes less effective, and indeed riskier,  than long-established treatments, including generic drugs.


We all end up paying for this directly or indirectly, in co-pays, insurance premiums and taxes (for Medicare and Medicaid). Unfortunately, given how Washington is run, there’s no imminent cure for the greed of the health industry, and, to be fair, their many direct or indirect (pension funds) investors.

Perhaps the best place to see this often misleading marketing is during the nightly broadcast news shows, with their older and generally well-insured viewers. One ad after another for expensive new drugs! Many viewers are persuaded by the advertising to press their physicians to prescribe the new stuff for them immediately, which many doctors are more than happy to do to keep them satisfied.


To read the article, please hit this link:



Keep Manufacturing in the Mix

A healthy economy includes a mix of services, technology and manufacturing. Such a mix of sectors, each with somewhat different business cycles, can better maintain their regions’ stability than if they had to depend on just one type of business.


But rising rents and other local costs can drive out manufacturing from rich regions, as a Jan. 5 Boston Globe story reports in focusing on the challenges of soaring rent facing CommonWealth Kitchen, a Boston food-startup incubator and a food manufacturer. As The Globe’s great Jon Chesto notes:


“Sure, Boston stands to gain when new apartments, offices, and labs sprout out of shabby old industrial properties: more workers to feed the tech economy, maybe, or more taxes for the city’s coffers. But Boston loses something important, too.’’


And, at least until the robots kill the humans, we’re going to need food. So food companies would seem to be a strong part of our economic future and relatively resistant to recessions. Let’s encourage them. All this is a reason why United Natural Foods’s moving its headquarters to Providence from Dayville, Conn., in 2009 was very good news for Providence’s economy.


To read Mr. Chesto’s article, please hit this link:


Decentralize the Feds!      

One of the most intriguing of  the ideas in my old friend Philip K. Howard’s new book – Try Common Sense: Replacing Failed Ideologies of the Left and Right -- is to move a lot of federal operations out of Washington to get them away from the entrenched  lobbyist-run corruption there and closer to the people and in some cases to outstanding local expertise. Such moves would liberate more federal employees to take decisions in the public interest.


The crux of Mr. Howard’s books is that people should exercise more individual judgment and take on more responsibility instead of turning over so much of their lives to regulations and legalism. They should be encouraged to exercise common sense.


“All the ligaments and tendons of Washington’s permanent apparatus – civil servants, lobbyists, lawyers, contractors, media and politicians – are conditioned to play their roles in its giant bureaucratic apparatus.’’ (I happen to think that the civil servants are the best of the lot….)


So Mr. Howard writes: “How can we govern sensibly or morally when officials in Washington refuse to change direction? The answer is that we can’t. …Why fight this culture head on? Start moving agencies out of Washington to places where people are not afraid of taking responsibility.’’ Big companies move all the time. Why not agencies?  And some could be moved to places with considerably lower operating costs than metro Washington.


Mr. Howard suggests, for example, that the Food and Drug Administration’s headquarters could be moved to Boston or California, where there are many, many physicians, biologists and others in health-care-related fields. Or the Department of Housing and Urban Development could go to Detroit. Consider that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention works well with its Atlanta headquarters.


This redistribution would also more fairly share the vast wealth associated with the federal government, which is so heavily concentrated in the Washington, D.C., region, which vies with San Francisco as the richest metro area in America.


Whether or not you agree with Mr. Howard on this or that policy proposal, you have to give him credit for, as he told me, “trying to change how people think about’’ government and civil society/citizenship in general. That has to be the start.


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Too Slowly Lighter

January obviously sometimes has a bleak beauty, but….

When I lived in New Hampshire some of the locals, to sort of justify living in a place with a, well, rigorous climate, noted that you were much more likely to get sick down south, where the year-round warmth helps bacteria and viruses to thrive far more than in New England. It reminds me of my former colleague Sam Abt, who smoked a couple of packs of Pall Malls every day and yet who never seemed to get sick even as everyone around him was coughing and sniffling. “No bugs can live down there’’ (in his lungs), he asserted.


To me, January is about slowly lifting darkness and taking people to hospitals on roads covered with black ice.  So bring on the January thaw, the seed catalogs and the annual beach-pass dues.


The New England Weather Book, by David Ludlum and the editors of the now long-departed Blair & Ketchum’s Country Journal, wrote of the thaw: “{R}esearch has demonstrated that the thaw is a reality and most frequently occurs between January 20 and 26….Although the thaw does not come every year, it has put in an appearance often enough to establish its place as a singular factor of the New England climate.’’


We’ll take it!


The Goose at a Wedding

Good Trouble, a book of short stories by the Irish-born and now New York resident and novelist Joseph O’Neill, provides memorable slices of 21th Century life. It’s rich with sad and funny incidents and sometimes jarring epiphanies, along with displays of characters’ self-delusions and evasions as well as their goodwill. Among the stories are those involving a single man’s experience – with a goose! -- at a wedding in Italy; a cowardly husband who fails to act when it seems a stranger has gotten into the house, and a man who can’t get anyone to give him a character reference so that he can rent an apartment.


There’s a nice line in the story titled “The Mustache in 2010’’ about how we all move on from past events and relationships: “We are not concerned with Viv and Alex as such. We cannot be. They interest us only as creatures in the understory of yesteryear.’’



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