Whitcomb: It’s Economic, Too; Providence Schools Hope? Fireworks Frenzy; Rich Country Towns

Monday, June 29, 2020


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Robert Whitcomb, columnist

“As this suburban summer wanders toward dark

cats watch from their driveways — they are bored

and await miracles. The houses show, through windows


flashes of knife and fork, the blue light

of televisions...


“….There is a time, seconds between

the last light and the dark stretch ahead, when color

is lost — the girl on her swing becomes a swift

apparition, black and white flowing suddenly into night.’’

-- From “The World in the Evening,’’ by Rachel Sherwood (1954-79)


“However tidy well-built walls might appear, most functioned originally as linear landfills built to hold nonbiodegradable agricultural waste.’’

-- Robert Thorson, Connecticut-based geologist and writer, in Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History of New England’s Stone Walls



“So long as we have enough people in this country willing to fight for their rights, we’ll be called a democracy.’’

-- Roger Baldwin (1884-1981), founder of the American Civil Liberties Union



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Union Soldier monument at Roger Williams Park PHOTO: GoLocal's Richard McCaffrey

The efforts of “woke’’ people to create a new federal holiday, “Juneteenth,’’ to mark the end of slavery (or at least of legal slavery) in the United States is the sort of thing that will do little or nothing to help African-Americans. It will, however, create an expensive (to the taxpayers) new perk for public employees, who, unlike many in the private sector, would get another holiday, like Martin Luther King Jr. Day.


Of course, there’s lots of racial bigotry, in America and elsewhere. But the best way to address it, besides enforcing the clear anti-bias laws now mostly in effect, is to lift the socio-economic status of African-Americans through a range of policies, including that controversial tool of affirmation action. The more secure their socio-economic status, the better able African-Americans will be to overcome racism, among other reasons because reaching a  certain level of family economic health makes it easier to ensure that children get the education they need to rise in the world.


And promote laws/policies at the state and federal levels that encourage marriage and the family stability and economic health that tend to go with it. There’s a close connection between one-parent (usually the mother) families and poverty. The increase in single parenting has been a problem in all groups but for historic reasons, it’s particularly high among African-Americans. In general, having two parents in a household to share the work and cost of child-raising is better than one.


Juneteenth marks Union  Gen. Gordon Granger’s orders in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, proclaiming that all slaves in Texas, the farthest away from Washington of the slave states, were free.


But, oddly, slavery was still legal and practiced in two Union border states (Delaware and Kentucky) until Dec.  6, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was ratified, abolishing non-penal slavery nationwide.


The past of all this is not that past. The last veteran of the Civil War, Albert Henry Woolson, died on Aug. 2, 1956.  I remember being told of it in the late 50s. Sort of eerie.



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The move to remove  the 17th Century phrase “Providence Plantations” (which doesn’t quite mean what “plantations’’ meant in the Antebellum South) from the name of what most everyone just calls “Rhode Island’’ will mystify most Americans since they only know this tiny state as “Rhode Island.’’  In any event, the change will save the state a few bucks in printing costs, after of course big initial outlays to change the name on innumerable document templates.




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Providence's Christopher Columbus Statue - now in storage PHOTO: GoLocal

In the Statue Wars

Christopher Columbus,  et al., could be brutal. And so were many Native Americans whose tribes fought nasty wars with other tribes and sometimes imposed slavery on captives. But the Europeans had far more lethal technology, along with diseases that Native Americans had no immunity from.

So they’ve taken down a San Francisco statue of Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union Army in the Civil War and as president was an advocate of the protection of full civil rights for African-Americans.


Eh? Because it’s fun to tear down stuff?


Maybe we need a lot of new statues of neglected heroes. We certainly need less virtual signaling and to accept that history is usually a lot more complicated than what you hear in slogans.


Some now-controversial works of fine art such as the 1939 statue of Theodore Roosevelt, with a subordinate African-American on one side and a subordinate Native-American on the other, outside of New York’s Museum of Natural History should be publicly displayed somewhere both because of their artistry and for what they might teach us about attitudes at the time they were created.

The endless stuff in the news media revolving around identity politics, be it of racial, religious or sexual identity/preferences, has taken space from coverage of things that affect everyone and of many other, narrower stories of interest and importance, too. Maybe part of the problem is that so many journalists have lost their jobs -- thanks, Facebook  -- leaving all too many subjects – political, cultural, economic – uncovered. During the last few weeks, we’ve seen a flood of highly repetitive stories on only two topics – COVID-19 and race and other identity matters --  but little reporting on anything else.


Thus, for example, in some “woke’’ media you get so many stories about “trans” people that you’d think they make up a large percentage of the population rather than the 1 percent (or less) that they are.


So much focus on identity drains energy from policies that would help people in general. We are all much more than a single identity.


Who can know exactly what’s going on between someone’s ears? Still, I  doubt that many white police officers are racists. Their jobs sometimes involve making nearly split-second decisions in chaotic circumstances in our gun-ridden society, opening up the possibility of big mistakes, as opposed to, for example, what happened in the nearly nine-minute-long police killing of George Floyd. Of course, cops get scared and make rash decisions, like everyone else…. And a highly toxic few are racists, bullies and sadists. There need to be better ways of identifying such people before they become police officers.


But what seems clear is that without some major changes in police labor contracts no major improvements in policing are likely. And cops, as with other groups, will tend to continue to circle the wagons when one of their own gets in legal trouble.


Certainly, the police are suffering from the general erosion in trust in institutions in a rapidly declining America.


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Protest in Providence on June 4 PHOTO: GoLocal's Richard McCaffrey

For those who worry about “defunding the police’’ and the crime and anarchy that would cause, stop worrying! The overwhelming majority of Americans, left, right and middle, know that we need police to protect us from bad people and that “law and order’’ (touted by our lawless president) are essential. “Thy liberty in law!’’, as it says in the very aspirational  “America the Beautiful.’’ And it bears remembering that  Joe Biden, a moderate, easily won the Democratic primary campaign; he’s not the sort of candidate who would seek to “defund the police.’’


But we need better selected, better-trained police, and in some places more police, along with more youth centers, mental-health services, housing assistance and other programs that tend over time to reduce crime as does, of course, reducing poverty.


Relief for the Underpaid

I noticed that the U.S. poverty rate fell in April and May, even as the economy fell into depression because of the pandemic,  according to a new study from researchers at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago. They estimated that the poverty rate fell 2.3 percentage points to 8.6 percent in April and May, from 10.9 percent in January and February.


The researchers said that the main reasons were temporary government aid (probably made more generous by the fact that this is an election year). The $1,200 stimulus checks sent to millions of households and the federal $600 weekly boost to unemployment payments under the CARES Act were key, along with expanded eligibility to gig workers to receive unemployment benefits.


This suggests that such permanent measures as raising the minimum wage could do a lot of good.


I’m pretty sure that the Trump administration, and of course Democrats, will support further emergency aid through the election. But then what? We’ll be in economic trouble for a long time after that.



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Providence Schools PHOTO: GoLocal

Can Schools Be Turned Around?

People are analyzing what seems to be a rather vague, specifics-light if ambitious turnaround plan for Providence Public Schools announced last week. The goal is to raise their outcomes/quality to the top 25 percent of school districts in the state within five years. Hmm…seems implausible but maybe the age of miracles isn’t past. The very large number of kids from low-income, poorly educated families and the high percentage of kids for whom English is a second language make for daunting challenges.


The biggest uncertainties are what kind of cooperation the city and state can get from the Providence Teachers Union in negotiations and how to pay for the improvements. Rigid work rules have made it difficult to make such improvements as making it easier to fire bad teachers.


(Should the state consider putting Providence into a new, broader, regional school district,  for cost efficiencies that could free up money to improve schools? Politically impossible?)


One specific thing in the Providence plan caught my eye: State Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green, in reference to the fact that many of Providence School District’s buildings are in deep disrepair and would be closed, said that someone would  give a building in South Providence, a low-income, majority-minority area, to the district to be transformed into a K-8 school.

With so many stores and other businesses closing for good, can many be repurposed into schools?


In any event, the Providence Public Schools certainly need more calm and order. Read this GoLocalProv article about the relentless interruptions that characterizes all too many classrooms:


The article discusses a report from Brown University that says interruptions and the disruptions they cause have resulted in the loss of 10-20 days of instructional time in each academic year (not including the bizarre one just completed). Many, many years ago I taught high school in a program in North Andover, Mass. I can’t imagine what it would have been like trying to teach in some of the Providence schools (with such exceptions as Classical High).


It’s tough to teach and learn in such frequent chaos.



Urban War Zone

Residents of Providence are being increasingly disturbed by fireworks and firecrackers being set off for hours every night, especially in poorer neighborhoods. Lots of these are being illegally used, since in Rhode Island only ground fireworks and sparklers can be legally ignited – in other words, quiet displays --  with firecrackers, rockets and mortars or other devices that launch projectiles banned, except, I assume, for professionally run public fireworks displays that we used to enjoy on special occasions, especially The Fourth and New Year’s Eve.


The racket, injuries and fire threat from illegally used fireworks is one of those quality-of-life issues, like graffiti, that can drive people away from a city. The police must crack down hard. And the explosives are hurting the sleep we need, especially in these tenser-than-usual times. If some folks see the fireworks as an expression of personal or political liberation many more see them as reminders of entrapment in an urban dystopia.


Knock it off.


Ah, if only people were as interested in reading the Declaration of Independence as in making a lot of noise.


The fireworks frenzy is happening in other cities, too. Please hit this link:


The year-round fireworks dilutes the excitement that we used to feel as we approached the  public celebrations of the Glorious Fourth of July, which I suppose won’t happen this year in most places. When I was a kid we lived on the coast and so most of the fireworks spectacles we enjoyed were on beaches. But we also, probably illegally, had our private shows, mostly involving devices such as  M-80s, cherry bombs and Roman candles,  in backyards – with the  nearby thick woods muffling the noise a bit. But that was only on the Fourth, when the local cops, who seemed to know everyone in town, would look the other way.


My father would stock up several years worth of fireworks in Southern states, where laws were lax.


Then there was the little cannon he set off every year on the Fourth. We had a loud old time for several hours.


A few boys would light and throw M-80s and cherry bombs at each other (but only on The Fourth!), displaying the same sort of idiocy as in the BB-gun wars they had through the year, in which it was possible to lose an eye or two. Cheap thrills indeed!


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Providence to Newport Ferry back in service

Back on the Bay

Providence-Newport ferry service has resumed, albeit with pandemic restrictions. Heartening news: That naturally air-conditioned trip is one of the most pleasant and easy experiences you can have around here in the summer. For more information, please hit this link:



Do We Need to Go to Doctors So Much?

Another interesting phenomenon of the past few months is that the vast majority of patients who have not gone to their physicians because of pandemic disruption may have done just fine. That suggests that a lot of people with insurance have been overtreated in the world’s most expensive and wasteful health-care system.


Sandeep Jauhar,  M.D., a cardiologist, summarized the situation well in a recent article in The New York Times entitled  “People Have Stopped Going to the Doctor. Most Seem Just Fine.’’

Do Americans really need the amount of treatment that our health-care system is used to providing?

    Consider this passage from Dr. Jauhar:

“Wasteful care is driven by many forces: ‘defensive’ medicine by doctors trying to avoid lawsuits; a reluctance on the part of doctors and patients to accept diagnostic uncertainty (which leads to more tests); the exorbitant prices that American doctors and hospitals charge, at least compared to what is charged in other countries; a lack of consensus about which treatments are effective; and the pervasive belief that newer, more expensive technology is always better.’’


I’d add that the  obsession with very highly paid specialists compared to primary-care medicine, which focuses more on prevention, is part of the problem too. I’ve also noticed that some people like going to the doctor and being briefly the center of attention. And it seems that many people prefer frequent visits to physicians to changing how they live – getting more exercise, etc.

To read Dr. Jauhar’s essay, please hit this link:



The Wealth of Little Towns

While driving up and down the Upper Connecticut River Valley the other week I came through several towns – Orford and Haverhill, N.H., stand out the most – with grand houses,  beautiful churches and lovely commons. And they were all developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries very soon after people arrived to take land long used by Native Americans! How did they afford it?


Well, because these very entrepreneurial and energetic Yankees used the region’s natural resources to maximum benefit – its good grass for sheep raising for the burgeoning wool trade, the wood from its forests (especially white pine to make buildings), it's very arable land along the river and its water power  --- to very early on create thriving businesses. Consider that by 1859,  when Haverhill had 2,405 inhabitants, it had 3 gristmills, 12 sawmills, a paper mill, a large tannery, a carriage manufacturer, an iron foundry, 7 shoe factories, a printing office, and several mechanic shops!  Those industries helped finance well run local schools and cultural institutions.


The lesson is that it’s good to have nearby enterprises that make things.



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Should we raise the gas tax?

Raise Gasoline Taxes

Traffic is starting to back up again in southern New England roads as the economy opens up in fits and starts. I found it bumper to bumper  for a while the other week on Route 128 west of Boston. The roads are crumbling and the environmental effects of our extreme car-dependence are obvious. We need to expand mass transit. Yes, fear of COVID-19 has taken a toll on transit ridership but the frustrations and dangers of car travel (far more dangerous than travel on trains and buses) will soon enough send many people back to the likes of the MBTA.


Meanwhile, gasoline prices are very low and will likely continue so for some time to come. So when this depression ends, gasoline taxes should be raised to make the long-delayed improvements in transportation that will be good for the environment and for the economy. Maybe some people left permanently jobless by the pandemic depression can be employed in WPA-style work to help fix the region’s worst transportation problems.


Foreign Affairs

This week, the European Union will probably ban most visitors from the United States, Brazil, and Russia from entering the E.U. even after it officially reopens in July because of high COVID-19 rates and inadequate control policies. It’s no accident that all three nations have corrupt and incompetent governments led by authoritarians.




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Russell Taub and John Bolton PHOTO: Facebook

You don’t need to be John Bolton to know that China’s and Russia’s favored U.S. presidential candidate is Donald Trump. His antipathy to Western values and allies, his kowtowing to dictators as opposed to democratically elected leaders, his mingling of his private business and the presidency and his staggering ignorance, except of the arts of demagoguery, make him putty in the hands of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. They’re hard at work quietly doing everything they can for him, especially on social media.

The dictators know that Trump will always put his personal interests over those of his country.




The  Trump Cult’s denial of science regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is of a piece with its denial of global warming.  It’s now biting the cultists.



Overhauling ‘Legacy Bureaucracies’

As some readers of this column may remember, I’m a fan of many of the initiatives to improve government from the nonprofit and nonpartisan reform organization Common Good (commongood.org). So I note here its new, election-year bipartisan initiative “to overhaul legacy bureaucracies so that government can deliver results without stifling human initiative. The Campaign for Common Sense proposes a clear operating vision focused on goals, not red tape. This vision, like that of the Framers, is built upon the firm foundation of individual responsibility and clear lines of accountability.’’


“As we have seen this year with the botched responses to COVID-19, and the inability to terminate abusive police, nothing will work sensibly until Americans at all levels of responsibility are re-empowered to do their jobs—whether public health workers in Seattle or police supervisors in Minneapolis. Daily choices throughout America are weighed down by the accretion of rules that are far beyond the capacity of human understanding or compliance—as one report showed, 5,000 rules for a family-owned apple orchard.  


“Political debate is stuck in a kind of trench warfare, and largely misses the main source of voter frustration and alienation. What’s needed is not to get rid of government (‘de-regulation’)—but to make it work sensibly, whether dealing with pandemics, fixing decrepit infrastructure, or educating our children. What’s needed is not just new programs—but cleaning out waste, inefficiency, and obsolete programs so that taxpayers can afford new initiatives.’’


So, the group is rolling out a 16-plank platform with proposals for overhauling bureaucracy. The first two planks, on COVID recovery and on public-employee accountability, were presented last Thursday.


For more information, please hit this link:


Meanwhile, however much we make government more efficient and effective, rest assured that an aging population, a slow economy as far as the eye can see,  a crumbling infrastructure, and other factors will mean that the rich and the middle classes will have to pay higher taxes. We can’t live in fiscal Fantasyland forever. Eventually, Americans will have to actually pay for the public services they demand. We can tolerate an exploding federal debt – until the world’s financial markets decide – maybe suddenly – that we can’t.



Urban Longevity

Want to live to 100? University of Washington researchers suggest that you move to a walkable urban neighborhood with a wide range of age cohorts from young to old and lots of such places as cafes in which to meet your pals. Wear a face mask on the way. There’s a little café and deli down the street from our house in Providence where  little informal groups of elderly people meet almost every day and seem to have a fine time.

Please hit this link:



Along With the Virus

I wonder how many birds and other wildlife are being killed in anti-pandemic chemical spraying.



Comedy and Tragedy

“Human life 'means' nothing. But this is not to say that it is not worth living. What does a Debussy Arabesque 'mean,' or a rainbow or a rose? A man delights in all of these, knowing himself to be no more--a wisp of music and a haze of dreams dissolving against the sun. Man has only his own two feet to stand on, his own human trinity to see him through: Reason, Courage, and Grace. And the first plus the second equals the third.”



“’I am not impressed by big words,' said my uncle, who was always ready enough to bandy 'predestination' and 'infralapsarianism.”’

-- From The Blood of the Lamb


Rarely have I read such a brilliant interweaving of comedy and tragedy as Peter DeVries’s  (1910-93) autobiographical novel The Blood of the Lamb. We follow its protagonist, Don Wanderhop, the son of Dutch Calvinist immigrants in Chicago, from the ‘50s, as he makes his way in the world and suffers the deaths of his brother, wife and daughter. Sounds grim, but, in fact, some of the passages are hilarious, showing Mr. DeVries’s once-famous comic skills, including about the contradictions and confusions of religion.

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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