Whitcomb: Let Managers Manage; Red Bridge Renovation; Airbnb Angst; Lobbying for the Little Guys

Tuesday, March 05, 2019
Robert Whitcomb, Columnist

Robert Whitcomb
"This hill

crossed with broken pines and maples
lumpy with the burial mounds of
uprooted hemlocks (hurricane
of ’38) out of their 
rotting hearts generations rise
trying once more to become
the forest.’’

-- From “A Walk in March,’’ by the Grace Paley, who had a house in Vermont



‘’One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of March thaw, is the Spring.’’


-- The late Aldo Leopold, writer and naturalist


 “Unlike the Chinese government, the E.U. can’t order private companies to make splashy purchases of U.S. goods. And it certainly can’t steer business to Trump Organization properties. As a result, the chances of spiraling trade conflict remain high.

“The point is that when it comes to dealing with Trump and his team, autocracies have an advantage over democracies that follow the rule of law. And trade disputes are arguably the least of it.’’


-- Paul Krugman in a column “Trump, Trade and the Advantage of Autocrats’’. To read the column, please hit this link:


Disarmed Administrators; Better River Views

Some good and bad news in Rhode Island the past few days.


Let’s start with the bad news. The well-regarded and reformist Providence schools superintendent, Christopher Maher, has decided to step down. And while he gave a frequently used explanation for exits – to spend more time with his family – another reason seems to be that he’s frustrated by the bureaucratic limits on his ability to get things done to improve the city’s schools – improvement they urgently need.


The fact is that the superintendent needs far more freedom to improve the system. World War II Adm. Chester Nimitz famously said: “When you’re in command, command,’’ but the Providence schools chief is remarkably hamstrung. As Hillary Salmons, executive director of the Providence After School Alliance, told The Providence Journal in the Feb. 27 article “Another schools chief is leaving”:


“When the City Council controls any {expenditures} over $5,000 how can anyone manage his resources? It’s going to be hard to attract leadership with a district hamstrung by these structural impediments.’’


People in authority should be given, well, authority to do what needs to be done and of course be held accountable for their decisions. I keep citing my friend Philip K. Howard’s books on red tape and bureaucratic paralysis, the latest entitled Try Common Sense. It seems very appropriate here.


There need to be changed to enable future Providence school superintendents to actually manage their department.


Henderson Bridge, Flickr, Marcbella
The "New" Red Bridge

On a happier note is news that the nearly crumbling Henderson Bridge (aka “Red Bridge”), connecting the East Side of Providence with East Providence, will be rebuilt in a fashion to make it more of a public asset.


The new version will be narrower, with only two lanes instead of the current unnecessary four lanes (put in for a superhighway that never happened), but will include bike/pedestrian paths in both directions. Thus, the bridge will offer people in our area yet another way to enjoy the views up and down the Seekonk River as it enters Narragansett Bay, and get exercise while doing it. 


Kudos to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation for this plan.


By the way, my favorite writer about bridges and other transportation infrastructure is Henry Petroski – e.g., see his book The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure.https://nenc.news/airbnb-is-tough-competition-for-berkshire-inns-new-massachusetts-state-law-may-have-impact/


Brown University
Special Favors for Rich Students

Does Brown University tend to suck up to rich applicants and rich current students, and their parents, and sometimes give them preferential treatment?  Yep. Does this help perpetuate the privilege and power of the richest people? Yep.


But most, maybe all American “elite institutions’’ do this sort of thing. That’s just one of many reasons that wealth-and-status-obsessed America has become among the most socio-economically stratified Western nations, with among the lowest rates of social mobility.


There are few signs that the preferences, varying by country, given to those born on third base will change, in America and elsewhere. Complaining about it is a little like complaining that rocks are hard.


GOP Toxic-Smoke Machines

It was predictable that the Trumpists on the House Oversight Committee would try to change the subject from Trump’s bottomless corruption, and possible treason, to the obvious character flaws of his former long-time fixer and personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.  


They zeroed in on Mr. Cohen’s previous lying to Congress, which he has admitted, while hoping that the public would not know that the lies came at the behest of Trump, whom Michael Cohen, as well as Trump’s pathetic protectors on the committees, fear.


It’s interesting how virtually all the people in Trump’s circle seem to share his amorality/immorality.  Job requirement.


Michael Cohen
But Mr. Cohen was utterly credible. As most New Yorkers know well, Donald Trump is effectively a mobster, and has been for his entire career. That’s why few people in Gotham want to have anything do with him. Thank God that the Democrats (with all their flaws) took the House in the mid-terms and are now airing some of the steaming corruption that pervades this Mafia-style family – sleaze that a deeply compromised and cowardly congressional Republican Party has tried to hide.


The congressional Trumpists also turned on the smoke machine by viciously denouncing some people, most notably former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump had fired for trying to defend the rule of law.  (Trump ousted former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions for the same reason.) Defending the rule of law can be a firing offense in the Trump administration. But then, as Tony Schwartz, who ghost-wrote Trump’s fantasy-filled book The Art of the Deal, published in 1987 -- after Mr. Schwartz spent many months observing the thug very close up, -- said, Donald J. Trump is a “sociopath.’’


Trump's Troubles

Why does Trump express such admiration, even affection, for tyrants, such as mass-murdering North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. It’s both hilarious and deeply unsettling to hear Trump say that he and Kim “are in love.’’


They zeroed in on Mr. Cohen’s previous lying to Congress, which he has admitted, while hoping that the public would not notice that the lies were to protect Trump, whom Michael Cohen, as well as Trump’s pathetic protectors on the committees, fear.


Gregory Carter, a psychologist at Britain’s York St. John University, told The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, in trying to explain why Trump is attracted to tyrants: People like Trump “will use soft tactics — compliments, charm, praise — and hard tactics — bullying, threatening — interchangeably based on whatever will get the best result for themselves.”

“’Individuals who are highly psychopathic gravitate to other individuals who are also highly psychopathic. Individuals possessed of this personality are relatively rare. So one who has defied the odds and become a successful psychopath represents something desirable” to a fellow psychopath, confirming ‘that this deceitful, personal, manipulative, callous perspective on the world does actually pay off.”’

Meanwhile, we contemplate the third president in a row with a mostly failed foreign policy.


The Airbnb Life

Renting an Airbnb can be a somewhat spooky experience. After sometimes byzantine instructions on how to get into the house, condo/apartment – codes, keys left under Burmese pythons, etc., you find yourself in a place with someone else’s stuff, including food, some of it very old, and, of course, most troubling, yourself. The owners of many such places tend to make themselves scarce, and in fact, don’t really live there all.

One owner, I dealt with in person very briefly and mysteriously said he had to make many trips abroad, apparently mostly to South America.


The alleged owner – a lady -- of an Airbnb in Los Angeles where I stayed a couple of years ago never appeared, though she left fresh snacks, fruit and wine and friendly messages. No way-past-sell-date stuff, unlike in the paragraph above. The rental space was the first floor of a two-family house on the slope of a mountain, with a lovely semi-tropical garden and a small fountain. No one else was there the whole week.


This and other reports suggest that the Airbnb biz is being increasingly dominated by nonresident investors buying up/renting out a whole bunch of places and running them as unregulated (for such things as fire prevention/mitigation, cleanliness and so on) hotel/motel chains.


There are some nice things about many Airbnbs – including usually more space than a hotel room and often savings. But I think that I still prefer the predictability/standardization of even a mediocre hotel or motel, with the hustle and bustle of guests in the lobby (I love hotel lobbies) and the corridors and restaurant in which to get breakfast and maybe even talk with an interesting stranger. And a hotel worker with a Ph.D. in electronic engineering from MIT to explain how to use the wide-screen TV in your room.

To read an article about the Airbnb epidemic in the Berkshires, please hit this link:


Massive Maniacal Wet  Green Energy

Good for new Maine Gov. Janet Mills and some environmental groups for backing, against, among other interests, fossil-fuel providers and some local renewable-power providers, a $1 billion project by Central Maine Power to bring some of Quebec’s copious hydro-electric power to Massachusetts along a route in the mountainous and lightly populated western part of the Pine Tree State. This ought to reduce New England’s dependence on gas and oil being used to generate electricity.


Happily, the powerful and well-heeled Conservation Law Foundation supports the project.


Of course, the power line’s construction would disrupt some wildlife and some other environmental elements along the power line route but not nearly as much as burning gas, oil and coal does.


To read more, please hit this link:


Sox May Cure Kelley Square Chaos

At least something specifically good (maybe even save lives!) will come out of construction of a stadium in downtown Worcester to house what’s now called the Pawtucket Red Sox: It will eliminate Kelley Square, perhaps the most dangerous and confusing intersection in Massachusetts. To read a darkly humorous  Globe article on this, please hit this link:


Letting the Little Guys Lobby

Big companies and other powerful organizations have a huge advantage over individuals (unless they’re very rich) in lobbying to promote their economic and other interests, sometimes edging into out-and-out political corruption. A tour of “Lobbyists Row’’—K Street in Washington – can make you want to take a bath in disinfectant. But now a New Hampshire startup company called EchoRidge wants to even out the playing field a bit.


As The Concord Monitor reports, EchoRidge “is designed to make it possible for individuals and small groups to do what large companies and advocacy groups do all the time: Find a cause, develop legislation to help that cause, then hire lobbyists to get it passed.’’

The Monitor explained:


“First, {“EchoRidge} helps you find people with similar opinions who want to band together around an idea (e.g., ‘clean water is good’). This is the Facebookish part.


“Second, after the band of people develop a coherent proposal (e.g., ‘outlaw the release of XYZ into waterways’) they can try to crowdfund it. This is the Kickstarterish part.


“Third, once they’ve hit their funding goal, EchoRidge gives help in hiring a lobbyist to create actual legislation and try to get it passed through some legislative body, at the state or federal level. This is the Upworkish part, echoing the website that connects people with contractors for short-term jobs.’’


To read more, please hit this link:



The Limits of Cost-Cutting

Conor Sen, in Bloomberg, put out an interesting essay suggesting that the cost-cutting mania of the past few decades has greatly weakened many large companies by hollowing out their ability to grow and respond to the public’s changing needs and wants.  Eventually, companies must invest or die.

Somewhat similar problems arise in public-sector cost-cutting, mostly through layoffs and wage cuts, which can drive good people out of public service. These cuts over time cause shortages in staffing to serve the public – and the public, of course, includes business.

One of the areas in which there’s been the opposite of cost-cutting is senior executive compensation, which continues in the stratosphere, whatever the overall financial health of the companies they lead.

 To read Mr. Sen’s piece, please hit this link:


Spreading Creepiness

Huge tech companies look creepier and creepier. Consider an app, called Absher, on Google and Apple that lets Saudi men track the movements, and thus more rigorously control, their wives and daughters in that brutally sexist country.  Silicon Valley sometimes seems a giant Orwellian laboratory devoted to crafting products that steal our privacy.


Rich Big-Game Hunters

Oh, those brave rich Americans who kill elephants and giraffes with high-powered rifles and then proudly have themselves photographed standing by the corpse! And then they can sell off the elephant ivory to the Chinese, who are steadily driving elephants into extinction.


An Outstanding Obit

I read the obituaries fairly closely, in part because more and more of my contemporaries have brief starring roles there.


Every once and a while one stands out for its clarity, quiet eloquence and controlled, not maudlin, emotion. Here I write of the obituary of Kathleen Gremel in the Feb. 21 Providence Journal. In an understated but always interesting narrative, the obit writer(s) described her journey from her childhood in dry Colorado farming country through her education to work as a nurse and then  as a nurse practitioner, teacher and health-care organization administrator in several states. Throughout her career, much of it in Rhode Island, this religious person focused on community health and underserved populations, even after she developed ovarian cancer in 2014.


She died in California, but at her request, her ashes were to be dispersed at Beavertail Point, in Jamestown.


What a glorious life, and a model obituary.


Prof. Jeffrey Hart
RIP Jeffrey Hart

Meanwhile, a hearty RIP for conservative writer and Dartmouth College professor Jeffrey Hart, an old-fashioned “Burkean conservative’’ (not a neo-con or a Tea Partier), a great scholar of 18th Century English and 20th Century American literature, long-time writer and editor at the National Review, speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and some other Republicans and a first-class eccentric with a mischievous sense of humor, including presenting himself as a country squire and driving to the Dartmouth campus in  gas-guzzling Cadillac to irritate his greenie fellow professors.

He was a prolific author. My own favorite was his When the Going Was Good: Life in the Fifties.


Growing Up Italian-American

Rita Esposito Watson, born in 1942, has come out with a charming memoir (with recipes!) of growing up in an Italian-American family in New Haven – Italian Kisses: Rose-Colored Words and Love From the Old Country.

Her family had its fair share of eccentrics, as do most extended families, while loyally adhering to certain Italian-American customs as well as to some that may have been unique to the family. There’s also some very vivid social history here, lots of evocative photos and the connective tissue of family occasions and the delicious Italian food that helped fuel them.



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