March 21, 2021

Whitcomb: Make Them Want to Stay Home; Beware Business Breaks; Downtown Dining Hall

Sunday, March 21, 2021   View Larger + Robert Whitcomb, Columnist “So long as an…

Sunday, March 21, 2021


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Robert Whitcomb, Columnist

“So long as an opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than loses stability by having a preponderating weight of argument against it.”

— John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) English philosopher, political economist, Member of Parliament and civil servant.



Ain’t it the truth!? Never let the facts get in the way of a good story!



Here we go again.

Of course, many of the migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexican border are fleeing political oppression,  drug gangs (helping to supply the insatiable U.S. market), and general violence in Central America. But many, perhaps most, of them primarily seek escape from poverty, which recent natural disasters such as hurricanes,  droughts and COVID-19 have worsened.  Long-term emphasis on agricultural mono-culture, such as for bananas, by big U.S. companies operating there has also made them more vulnerable.


We need to make life better in their home countries. As I’ve written before, American policymakers should consider a kind of Marshall Plan to strengthen the economies of the “Northern Triangle’’ of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador while using carrots and sticks with their governments to strengthen democracy and reduce the pervasive corruption of governments and violence in the region. As much as possible, we need to find ways to make life much better in their home countries to reduce the desperation that leads so many to risk the perilous trek north! Or, if things become too difficult for them in one of these countries, we can also help move some individuals to a neighboring Central American country with better conditions. The cultures are similar in these countries.


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Another border problem

The U.S. should also boost the number of its consular personnel there so that applications for asylum in the U.S. can be processed in more orderly ways than in a crush at the U.S.-Mexican border.


Of course, the U.S. Border Patrol needs more people to apprehend people trying to sneak into our country and to send most back across the border. Once these migrants get in, all too many can disappear. We also need more investigators, immigration judges and other officials to determine who should stay. All this would cost a lot of money but not to spend it would be a false economy.


And yes, walls are needed in urban areas along the U.S.-Mexican border. But Trump’s idea of stretching them along the whole border is an environmental nightmare.


Some Americans, meanwhile, mistakenly think that Mexico wants these migrants to rush the U.S. border. No, it doesn’t. The Mexicans (except for some criminals) don’t like thousands of desperate and impoverished people walking through their country, creating chaos along the way and opening up many opportunities for smugglers of humans and drugs. So, the U.S., out of enlightened self-interest, needs to do more to assist Mexican officials in stopping migrants from coming over Mexico’s southern border and helping them establish humane facilities for them there as needed.


Finally, the Feds need to crack down on U.S. employers who illegally employ these migrants. (Ironically, many have been Trump supporters despite his anti-immigration rhetoric; they loved his tax and deregulation policies.) The migrants know that if they can get into America, there’s a good chance they can find jobs, albeit low-paying. We see plenty of them up here in New England, in landscape crews, etc. Hard workers indeed.


Meanwhile, basic morality requires the U.S. to treat the migrants at the border, all too many of whom are unaccompanied minors, as humanely as possible.



Think Macro

Rhode Island’s new governor, Dan McKee, plans to keep such business incentives as certain tax credits for selected enterprises. While these sorts of goodies can sometimes create a few jobs in certain places, they have little effect on a state’s overall economy. And such companies’ promises about job creation are often broken. States’ targeting of enterprises based on the assumption that they’ll grow a lot if they can just get enough taxpayer-funded help often doesn’t work. The economy is too dynamic and unpredictable for even the smartest economists to know where it’s going with any precision.


Of course, the taxes these lucky outfits don’t pay have to be made up by others.


I’ve long thought it much wiser for state and localities to focus entirely on very broad improvements that help everyone – including all businesses — in their jurisdictions — e.g., in schools, police, fire and public health and in transportation and other public physical infrastructure – than forgoing tax revenue (which has to be made up elsewhere) to benefit some favored businesses. And make the tax systems and regulations as simple, transparent and fair as possible for everybody. That, too, would be good for business.



Downtown Food Fair

It’s happy news that Marsella Development Corp. wants to establish a Faneuil Hall-style food hall on the ground floor of One Union Station in Providence, in the space that, pre-pandemic, housed the high-end Capital Grille and Bar Louie. With COVID-19 having probably permanently reduced the number of people, often armed with expense accounts, who work in downtowns, or in offices in general, the outlook for establishments like the Capital Grille doesn’t look all that good.


But the plan to put in that space a dozen restaurants of varying cuisines and price ranges makes a lot of sense for a state with such a rich food culture. It could become a destination for many people, including tourists, especially in synergy with Waterplace Park and WaterFire. The food hall would presumably feature a lot of local food, such as produce from local farms and fish. It could become quite a destination.




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Newport Jazz Festival, Christian McBride and George Wein PHOTO: GoLocal

News that Newport’s famed music festivals will return this summer must have put a big spring in the steps of people in the hospitality industry. Fingers crossed that we get COVID-19 “herd immunity’’ by then.




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Rep. Jon Acosta

Rhode Island state Sen. Jonathon Acosta calls a proposed Senate dress code mandating that such traditional business clothing as jackets and collared shirts for men and blouses for women be worn in the chamber is somehow ‘’oppression’’ by white culture. In fact, such clothing, whatever its origins in Western culture, has long since become near-universal as a sign of seriousness, decorum and respect for the organizations that people work for. Just look at what people wear in international organizations.


Consider that officials of China, the ultimate non-Western power, all wear “Western” business clothes. I don’t think that they feel oppressed by this.



Whales’ Group Learning to Avoid Lethal Humans

Scientists have determined that sperm whales (think Moby Dick), under relentless attack by whalers, many from New England, in the 19th Century communicated with each other on ways to escape their killers. Whales are highly intelligent and have very well-organized social cultures. We humans too often forget that we’re far from the only intelligent creatures on Earth. Indeed, we’re often not very intelligent at all.


Consider this from a Royal Society report:

“Analysis of data from digitized logbooks of American whalers in the North Pacific found that the rate at which whalers succeeded in harpooning (‘striking’) sighted whales fell by about 58% over the first few years of exploitation in a region. … The initial killing of particularly vulnerable individuals would not have produced the observed rapid decline in strike rate. It appears that whales swiftly learned effective defensive behaviour. Sperm whales live in kin-based social units. Our models, show … that learned defensive measures from grouped social units with experience could lead to the documented rapid decline in strike rate. This rapid, large-scale adoption of new behaviour enlarges our concept of the spatio-temporal dynamics of non-human culture.’’


How much have the whales learned from their groups on how to avoid collisions with ships and fishing-line entanglements, or how to find new sources of food as mankind changes the ocean environment?


To read more, please hit this link:



Identity Courses

There’s been a big increase in special-interest, identity-based “disciplines’’ at colleges, such as women’s studies, Black studies, Queer studies and so on. They often lack the rigor demanded in traditional college courses and end up acting as political-interest advocacy groups. Take literature courses: Female, Gay, Black and writers from other groups, if they’re good, should be studied in courses, such as “English 101,’’ etc., that focus on their literary quality and, I suggest, their wide, if not universal, appeal and not on their real or asserted current political importance to this or that group.


And Shakespeare and other famous “Dead White Males’’ are studied not because of the relative power of men as opposed to women but because of their genius. As his contemporary Ben Jonson said of The Bard after his death:


 “He was not of an age, but for all time.’’




It’s been amusing to hear/watch the ongoing “cancel culture’’ non-crisis. One of the silliest remains the right-wing reaction to the decision of Dr. Seuss Enterprises to stop printing, for perfectly good business marketing reasons, six of Theodor Geisel’s (aka Dr. Seuss) earlier books because they include some racist images.  The company, after all, doesn’t want to insult large parts of the reading public.


Republican pols who are not averse to racism themselves are calling this “censorship,’’ as if the books are being burned and as if Dr. Seuss Enterprises should be forced to continue to print them.


And I thought that the GOP respected the rights of businesses to manage their enterprises with minimal government interference! It’s all about stirring up the addicts of Fox “News’’ for higher ratings and to get them to send money to Trump.



Our Disembodied Lives

How much our lives have been changed by the pandemic was amplified for me last week by two long Zoom sessions. One was a talk I gave to a women’s organization in Florida about the Standard Oil mogul Henry Flagler, who helped turn the east coast of Florida into a resort and agricultural powerhouse and did some wonderful and terrible things to achieve it.


This was in lieu of a talk I had been scheduled to give to a lunch meeting of the group in Palm Beach last March that of course was canceled at the last moment because of COVID-19. (Reminder: despite the vaccination hoopla, the pandemic continues.) I suspect it was canceled so late in part because Palm Beacher Trump had been downplaying the threat.


I would have preferred doing it in person – easier to know how to present oneself.


Instead of seeing these ladies, along with a few of their spouses and others, at round tables with, say, plates of stone-crab salad beside glasses of white wine and iced tea, I mostly saw their disembodied heads, some moving and some stationary. Not much body language! Some – perhaps shy? – didn’t show themselves at all but spoke out of little black boxes on the screen with their names in white. A little hard to relate to. I never did find out how many people were there – whatever “there’’ means.


I doubt that with, perhaps a couple of exceptions, I’ll ever see/hear these people again. If I had actually spent the hour with them in person, I might well have reunited with a couple of them for, say, dinner when I next visited friends and relatives in South Florida.


The other Zoom meeting was led by a very articulate young man in a tiny town (population 800) in Alaska. He told of the joys and challenges of his life there as a teacher of the mostly indigenous  — and poor — people living in that harsh setting. He talked about its culture, economy,  hunting, fishing, flora and fauna, the weather, global warming (folks there are worried) and so on. I’m guessing that there might have been 20 people in the Zoom meeting, only one of whom (I think) I had known previously – his grandfather. Lots of the faces of the participants were blacked out.


Without Zoom, I probably never would have never learned so much so quickly about what it’s like to live and work in such a windy, wet remote place, so far away from New England. And as a result of it, I’ve become at least an e-mail & Zoom friend of a fascinating person.


Meanwhile, all this makes me wonder how much the pandemic is rewiring how brains adapt to/relate to people.


For instance, what are we losing in the workplace with so many people doing all or most of their paid work remotely? Probably a lot. Studies show that even casual in-person conversations among co-workers can boost productivity by improving morale and strengthening relationships, increasing creativity and improving decision-making.


Consider that a study at Northwestern and Stanford universities headlined “Schmooze or Lose” found that face-to-face small talk helped establish and maintain trust that e-mails can’t replicate.


To read more, please hit this link:





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Google, anyway, sees in-person work as very important. It’s dramatically expanding its space in Cambridge, where it will eventually have more than a million square feet,  allowing for a doubling of its current Cambridge workforce of almost 2,000 people! They love being next to Harvard and MIT.


Its CEO, Sundar Pichai, said last Thursday: “Coming together in-person to collaborate and build community is core to Google’s culture, and it will be an important part of our future.’’





Late-winter/early-spring snowfalls, followed by quick warmups, seem to speed up the flowers.



There will come soft rain and the smell of the ground,

And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,

And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,

Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one

Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,

If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn

Would scarcely know that we were gone.

“There Will Come Soft Rain,’’ by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), American poet. This was published in 1918, during World War II and the Great Flu Epidemic



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