Whitcomb: Fireworks in the Federal System; Providence Bankruptcy? How Very Burrillville

Sunday, July 05, 2020


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Robert Whitcomb, columnist

“Even blowing over the water it burns,

    pin-pricks of sand in every gust, hot

        sting of sun in its touch. The boys are



throwing rocks at the boats – they can’t

    reach them, they’re throwing fireballs

        into the sun, heaving great black fistfuls


of the earth’s dried magma into the blistering


-- From “Hot Wind, Provincetown Harbor,’’ by Cynthia Huntington


“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.’’

-- Leonard Bernstein, composer and conductor, 1918-90



“Think of how many blameless lives are brightened by the blazing indiscretions of other people.’’

-- Saki (H.H. Munro) (1870-1916), British writer


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As it turns out, many perhaps most, of those fireworks that have ruined life recently for many people in Providence, Boston and other New England cities came from New Hampshire, that old “Live Free or Die” parasite/paradise (where I lived for four years). There, out-of-state noisemakers stock up and take the explosives back to Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, where they ignite them all over the place, with the worst impact in cities. While the fireworks are illegal in densely populated southern New England, they’re legal in the Granite State.

New Hampshire has long made money off out-of-staters coming to buy cheap (because of the state’s very tax-averse policies) booze and cigarettes.  The state also has loose gun laws. Fireworks are in this tradition.


That’s its right. But it could be a tad more humane toward people in adjacent states by making it clear to buyers at New Hampshire fireworks stores that the explosives they’re buying there are illegal in southern New England.


Because of our federal system, states that may want to control the use of dangerous products can be hard-pressed to do so because residents may find it easy to drive to a nearby state and get the stuff.  Still, in compact and generally collaborative New England, it would be nice if New Hampshire, much of which is exurban and rural, would consider the challenges of heavily urbanized Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut as they seek to limit the use of fireworks, especially in cities. Granite Staters might remember that much of the state’s affluence stems from its proximity to that great wealth creator Greater Boston and show a little gratitude. (This reminds me of how Red States are heavily subsidized by Blue States, whose taxes fund much of the federal programs in the former.)


Ah, the federal system, one of whose flaws is painfully visible in the COVID-19 pandemic. Look at how the Red States, at the urging of the Oval Office Mobster, too quickly opened up, leading to an explosion of cases, which in turn hurts the states that had been much tougher and more responsible about imposing early controls. But yes, the federal system’s benign side includes that states can experiment with new programs and ways of governance, some of which may become national models, acting as Justice Louis Brandeis called “laboratories of democracy’’.


To read more about New Hampshire’s quirks, please hit this link:



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Providence Mayors PHOTO: GoLocal's Richard McCaffrey

Providence’s Latest Pension Problem

In a complicated decision, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has ruled that if the courts change a pension plan for municipal workers and retirees, the City Council can’t change it again without the workers’ and retirees’ permission.

This will immediately affect several dozen retired firefighters and police officers (both of which groups are famous for taking very early and well-compensated retirements), and will cost the city millions. The ruling could also hamstring future efforts, in Providence and other Ocean State communities, to address municipal fiscal crises by blocking pension-system changes that don’t have the permission of the workers and retirees.

Meanwhile, of course, Providence, as do other towns and cities, already faces a fiscal crisis because of COVID-19, which has slashed the incomes of businesses and individuals and thus their tax-paying ability. What to do?


First off, let’s again look at the painful remedy of municipal bankruptcy, which would let the city out of labor contracts and otherwise permit major restructurings in how the city is run. Second, consider again Mayor Jorge Elorza’s (and others’) idea of selling off the Providence Water Supply Board to get hundreds of millions of dollars to be dedicated to the greatly underfunded pension system.


In any event, property taxes will almost certainly have to rise.


Despite Providence’s recent budget surpluses, the city continues to bend under the historic weight of grotesquely irresponsible sweetheart deals with municipal unions that date back to the mayoralties of Vincent Cianci and Joseph Paolino.  The huge cost-of-living adjustments were among the most egregious parts. (COLAs are unavailable to most retirees, not counting the tiny ones for Social Security recipients.)   The COVID-19 crisis may force a final reckoning.


As grim as bankruptcy sounds, it could pave the way to better, more rigorous, more realistic administration of Rhode Island’s capital and New England’s second-largest metro area, albeit after some years of pain. (Worcester itself has marginally more people than Providence but its metro area population is much smaller.)



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Burrillville Bathos

Gun-toting Burrillville, R.I., has become a sort of mini-Red State, in which science and public health take a back seat to libertarian obsessions. I’m referring to its Town Council’s 5-2 vote on June 24 to declare Burrillville a “First Amendment Sanctuary Town.”


This was part of the council’s denunciation of    Gov. Gina Raimondo’s executive orders regarding social distancing, crowd size, face masks and other coronavirus-control measures as “unconstitutional’’ and, presumably, ignorable under the First Amendment. The council asserts that the measures have caused “substantial harm to the emotional, spiritual and financial well-being” of residents. Give me a break! Surely Burrillvilleans aren’t that sensitive and fragile!?


Of course, living in a community where you’re more likely to get infected than in some  nearby places because the usual public-health rules in a pandemic aren’t followed can  also do “substantial harm’’ to your “well-being.’’ And being sick ain’t good for your freedom either.


Oh, well ….


In any case, Governor Raimondo and her team have done a good job in managing the pandemic through relentlessly promoting behavioral guidelines and tests,  especially considering the state’s location between the two hot spots of metro New York and metro Boston and that it’s the second most densely populated state (after New Jersey). As of this typing, the Ocean State had reported a little over 900 deaths in a population of a bit over 1 million while Massachusetts has reported over 8,000 deaths in a population of about 6.9 million.


Leaders like Ms. Raimondo must battle the politically driven, or just crazy, misinformation about the pandemic on Facebook and other social media and the strong anti-science element in America now.


Of course, people generally don’t want to be told what to do…



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U.S. Supreme court paves the way for religious schools PHOTO: GoLocal

Church-State Walls Erode

For states or the Feds to subsidize any private schools, religious or otherwise, can be problematic, mostly because such subsidies tend to erode money away from public schools.  Of course, such subsidies are old hat; consider the federal money that goes to Catholic and other religiously affiliated colleges in Pell Grants, research funds, and so on. But in giving money to religious schools, government in effect discriminates against those many millions of people who are atheist or agnostic or deist or who otherwise aren’t affiliated with the sects being subsidized.


Religious zealots and their politically cynical political allies demagogically whine that “Christianity is under attack in America!” Nothing could be further from the facts. Organized religion in general and Christianity, in particular, is hugely privileged, especially by the tax laws.


In any case,  the U.S. Supreme Court, which is usually controlled by the Republican right-wing, which relentlessly appeals to Evangelical and some Catholics voters, has decided in a Montana case that states that aid private schools, say through scholarships, must include religious schools in the money from taxpayers.


No one is stopping the free exercise of religion, as enshrined in the First Amendment, by barring government money to religious schools (some of which are, among other things, Bible literalists and anti-science). Worship away!  Send money to rich TV preachers! But let religious advocates pay full freight to support their own faith. The traditional and wise walls between church and state are crumbling, mostly because of the power within the GOP of certain religious groups, especially Red State Evangelicals.

Which reminds me why I increasingly dislike tax-exemption for churches and other religious institutions: Too many have turned themselves into political organizations, mostly right-wing but some left-wing. Why should we pay for the taxes they don’t pay?


I should note that I was brought up as a churchgoer, have read the whole Bible, am a former church vestryman and have always been fascinated by religion and especially its history. And I even have, from time to time, a sense of the numinous.


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BLM protest PHOTO: GoLocal's Richard McCaffrey

Reparations Won’t Happen

With the upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement, the issue of reparations to African-Americans for slavery has bubbled up again big time. But reparations won’t happen: They would be prohibitively complex to create and implement and they’d penalize people who never owned slaves and indeed people whose ancestors came to America long after formal slavery was abolished. And do we believe in blood guilt anyway?


Maybe most important: Reparations would be politically impossible.


Chris Powell, writing in the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn., had some useful observations about the complexities of slavery:

“{O}f of course the whole country is connected to slavery. Even today's Black people benefit from the labor of their enslaved ancestors who helped build the country generations ago. {And many African-Americans have white ancestors because of whites’ sexual exploitation of enslaved Blacks.}

“Indeed, the whole world is connected to slavery, since nearly every culture and civilization has practiced it, from ancient China, Egypt, and Rome to the Aztecs and Incas and Mayans before the European conquest of Central and South America to the Ottoman Empire and Kievan Russia. As recently as the 1960s there were hundreds of thousands of slaves in Saudi Arabia. Mauritania didn't outlaw slavery until 1981.

“That so many Black Africans were enslaved was firstly the crime of other Black Africans, the rulers of the kingdoms of western and eastern Africa. The slaves didn't just volunteer on the wharves of Ouidah and Zanzibar for transport in Spanish and British ships to the Americas and Arab ships to the Middle East….

{And there are the Nazi and Communist slave-labor camps….}


History is heavy.

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PHOTO: Cornell

Rationale for In-Person College Reopenings

Cornell University, the Ivy League school in Ithaca, N.Y., had an interesting rationale for deciding to partly open this for its fall semester, Bloomberg News reported:


“Cornell plans to resume classes in September with a mix of in-person and online instruction, as researchers found that being on campus would reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19.


“Modeling by a Cornell team determined that two to 10 times more people could be infected with Covid-19 during a semester conducted entirely online, with significantly higher numbers becoming seriously ill….


“That’s because surveys showed that a large percentage of Cornell students planned to return to off-campus housing in Ithaca even if all instruction was conducted remotely…. In that case, Cornell would have had no authority to mandate testing or restrict students’ behavior.’’


The university said that students living on or off-campus must follow public health guidelines and an “absolute requirement” to comply with a testing program.


In other words, in loco parentis is the way to go? It’s certainly the way to go financially for mostly residential colleges, many of which face desperate finances. A lot of students and their parents will be unwilling to pay sky-high tuitions for the right to stare at screened classes for hours every day.

Cornell may be a model for residential colleges. But, of course, we don’t know what the pandemic will look like next week, let alone in September. We do know that younger people are much less in danger of getting COVID-19 than people middle age or older.



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Providence Place restaurant vacant for years PHOTO: GoLocal

Former Malls Into Small Towns

I’ve been glad to read in various media about how the accelerating collapse of much of the physical-store economy is leading to a re-envisioning of malls. This would include some of those now-empty stores being turned into housing, many of whose residents would be patrons of the remaining stores in the malls; some of the establishments, I hope, might be small and locally based. (Many more big-box national stores may be on the road to oblivion, killed  by the monopolistic  Amazon.)


It would be back to the future, in which malls would be repurposed into something like the walkable village centers that started to die off in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But with roofs!


My hunch is that many malls, such as Providence Place, will look like that within a decade, with some colleges or other institutions in the space, too, along with the likes of local-police facilities.


Providence Place is one of the more attractive malls in America, especially its brick exterior. Let’s hope that much of its aesthetic charm can be preserved in a repurposing.


To read a CityLab piece on  the future of malls, please hit this link:



Flying Intellects

There’s been quite a bit of science and journalistic reporting in the last couple of years about the high intelligence of some bird species – particularly crows, ravens and parrots: They have long memories, make sharp distinctions between human individuals, make tools and can count.


I never thought of seagulls as being particularly bright but they are in their way. We saw this last Sunday on a beach on Buzzards Bay. The seagulls watched carefully as people brought bags that the birds suspected held food. Most people covered the bags, usually with heavy beach towels, before walking down the beach, swimming or snoozing.  But a few seconds of human inattention was enough for the gulls to swoop in, uncover the bags and take off with the food, whatever it was. Like rats, they seem to eat anything, which is good because they act as garbage collectors. People shouted: “They’ve got your crackers!”


Gulls put on quite a circus act on a New England beach in summer.


Which makes it sad news that the populations of some species, such as the Herring Gull and the Great Black Gull, are in decline, though you might never guess it in some places where they congregate in large numbers, such as in Portland, Maine, and Boston. That’s probably because they scavenge there for food (especially garbage from humans) as more natural sources, such as certain fish, decline. Cities, not the sea, may be key to their survival.


The gulls can be very aggressive – don’t approach their eggs! -- but we need them. And they are beautiful to watch glide through the air.




In other nature news:  EcoRI News’s (ecori.org) Todd McLeish had a very interesting story about the excessive release of those little pet turtles called Red-Eared Sliders into the wild around here,  where they can screw up the ecological balance, or what’s left of it. Mr. McLeish writes:


“Numerous studies suggest that sliders outcompete native turtles for food, nesting, and basking sites,’’ and, he notes, the turtles can live for decades, mostly in and around lakes, ponds and swamps.


The turtles are sold in many pet stores, usually for kids, who outgrow their interest in the creatures, go off to college or otherwise disconnect. Then they’re often put outside and even though the species is of southern origin, they’re very adaptable and thrive in southern New England, perhaps aided by our warming climate.


Just another example of how humans are taking over nature.


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



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Inspiring Images in Worcester

Art can provide solace in tough times. So, kudos to Worcester for the “Give Me A Sign’’ project, which is putting up more than 100 art works by 19 local artists. The project, a partnership of city government, the Worcester Cultural Coalition and the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, involves installing art on metal signs and digital billboards around the city.


“Art and other forms of creative expression contribute positively to a community’s mental, emotional, social, and overall well-being,” Che Anderson, the city’s deputy cultural development, told The Worcester Telegram.  “At a time when our country and local community is experiencing overwhelming loneliness and social unrest, the ‘Give Me A Sign’ campaign is focused on aiding the public in better psychological and physical health, encouraging them to explore their parks and neighborhoods while discovering inspirational messages of hope and empathy.”


Maybe Providence, a nationally known art center, could do something like this.


Please hit this link to read The Telegram’s article:



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President Donald Trump PHOTO: GoLocal

Trump’s Pal Still at It

The highly credible reports that the Russians paid the Taliban for bounties to encourage killing U.S. and British soldiers in Afghanistan and the Trump administration did nothing about it is no big surprise. Trump has never personally criticized the coldly murderous Vladimir Putin and indeed has called him a “friend’’ and made such gestures as inviting the dictator to join the G7 group (formerly the G8, before Russia became an expansionist tyranny again) of industrialized democracies. Trump has done so while frequently denouncing America’s (former?) democratic allies.

Meanwhile, the Russian air force has been approaching our air space over Alaska to test our defenses and resolve and continues to expand its domination of Syria. No complaints of course from the man they helped put into the Oval Office.


It will take another administration to explain the hold that Putin has on Trump – is it financial deals, blackmail or what?  Maybe a combination.


Trump is a dictator-adoring traitor who presides over a White House that resembles a Mafia operation.  Whatever!  Nobody’s perfect! The most troubling thing to me is not Trump himself, much of whose cesspool has been open to public inspection for decades, but that 30-35 percent of the adult American population continues to support someone of such moral squalor. Perhaps it’s just another sign of the country’s long decline.


In any event, the Kremlin has Trump cultists’ backs.  It’s now hard at work spreading pre-election disinformation in America, especially – natch -- on social media and finding ways to hack into voting systems in key states. They’re even better at this sort of thing now than they were in 2016.


If Joe Biden can overcome such challenges as Russian interference in our elections and his own gaffes and be elected president, what can/should he do to push back?


Well, he could do what Trump did against a far less dangerous and aggressive American foe -- Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard. He could declare the GRU, the Russian intelligence agency, a terrorist organization, which would lead to painful U.S. financial sanctions against the Putin regime. The GRU hacks into other nations’ elections, assassinates Putin foes at home and abroad and backs terrorists. It’s past time to inflict some pain on the regime giving it orders.


Meanwhile, Surviving Autocracy, by Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, is a good guide to the mechanics of installing and maintaining dictatorships, with plenty of cautionary stuff about what’s been happening in America.


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Tricks of Careerism in Plutocratic America

For a sometimes hilarious look at how to climb the greasy pole to wealth and power, especially as practiced in the Second American Gilded Age, which started back in the ‘80s, I recommend Lapham’s Rules of Influence: A Careerist’s Guide to Success, Status, and Self-Congratulation. Mr. Lapham is a former and long-time editor of Harper’s Magazine and the founding editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, an historical journal.


The little book serves as a taxonomy of the Western World’s most class-ridden society – ours. Among his observations:


“The people apt to do you the most good presumably possess the kind of money that expects a good time.  Fall in with their whims, pander to their lusts, approve their injustices, admire their deformities and their furniture. They hold in their hands the answers to all your prayers’’ and:


“With steady practice the duplicitous response becomes as natural as a good golf swing’’ and:


“A connection is an asset and a temporary convenience, like a rented car. A friend is a liability and a permanent obligation, like alimony.’’


The book was first published in 1999. It holds up well.

Robert Whitcomb's weekly examination of everything that is important. Only Whitcomb offers such a collection of insights on the global and local issues that matter.


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