Whitcomb: No Pension Panacea but a Start; Slowing the Streets; Feast on Scary Food

Sunday, June 06, 2021

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Robert Whitcomb, Columnist

“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.   

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,   


we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy   

(repeatedly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored   

means you have no inner resources….’’

– From “The Dream Songs, No. 14,’’ by John Berryman (1914-1972)

“What, generally speaking, is history? A fable agreed upon.’’

— Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

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Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza PHOTO: GoLocal

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s plan for a $704 million bond issue to use to bring the city’s pension system to 65 percent funded from its current scary level of about 25 percent makes a lot of sense in today’s low-interest-rate environment. The plan would include the option to refinance the loan if circumstances warrant.

But the Rhode Island General Assembly needs to act fast in the waning days of this session to approve it. Interest rates will rise.

This might be a way to avoid municipal bankruptcy, though some would argue that such a nuclear explosion is needed – to wipe the slate clean of irresponsible labor contracts and other deals going back decades that have long held back the city’s ability to address important physical-infrastructure and social needs. In any event, the Elorza plan seems reasonable and careful in current circumstances.

Car Calmers

In last week’s column, I complained about the high bumps (which the city quaintly calls “humps’’) on the road coming off the Henderson Bridge and heading to Providence’s Wayland Square neighborhood. I suggested that they be “adjusted’’ – lowered – to avoid damaging vehicles and to discourage swerving. Driving there last week, I saw that the bumps had been removed. But modest bumps there would be good, discouraging drivers from speeding into Wayland Square, with its many walkers.

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Speed hump, Henderson Bridge, PHOTO: GoLocal

In general, speed bumps, with, on some roads, indentations so that fire trucks can speed through, are a very good idea. They needn’t be quite as high as those above were to make drivers slow down. An important factor in their effectiveness is adequate warning. Two warning signs well-spaced instead of one would lead to more slowing well before the bumps. Those electronic signs that flash your speed can be very useful, too.

Traffic calming is needed to improve safety and the quality of life in the city. Bumps and electronic warnings can be important parts of that, freeing up police officers to spend more time preventing and responding to serious crime. And cars going very fast are often driven by criminals. If they hit a speed bump at, say, 80 miles an hour, it could stop them very quickly, indeed perhaps ruin the vehicle they’re in  – making it easier for the cops to arrest them. It’s hard to escape in a car with a broken axle.

And if the city fines a lot of people for speeding (as they have me a couple of times), well, the city can use the money, and the threat of fines may save some lives.

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Promises, Promises

If only we could travel by time machine five years ahead and see how many of the promises about jobs and other local investments in the extension of the IGT/Twin River Rhode Island lottery contract were actually kept! It would be a world-historical achievement if they were.  As a former business editor, I learned to be very skeptical about corporate promises.  Just call them all part of our economy’s “creative destruction.’’

Meanwhile, these two gambling-industry outfits will continue to benefit from their glorious mission of separating lower-and-middle-income people from their money and shipping it to out-of-state investors. “Gaming’’ the system indeed.

To call gambling real “economic development’’ is a stretch in a place like Rhode Island. It’s a drain on the economy. But you can’t block such impulses as gambling, which can mimic substance abuse.

Trans Teaming

Should we let young people who don’t “identify” as being in the sex they were born in, at least as defined by the physical characteristics, pick whether to play on a male or female sports team? While I’m sympathetic about their feelings of confusion and anxiety, it’s unfair to let them play as if birth gender didn’t matter.

Even after, say, hormone treatments, surgeries and so on, someone who started out as male will always have different capacities than someone who started out as a female. As John Adams, noted: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Encouraging, er, gender fluidity in school sports would undermine their competitive integrity.

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Putin denies ties to cyber attacks PHOTO: file

Vlad Our Impaler

Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship is quite obviously aiding and abetting Russian cyber-criminals to hack major business entities in the West, particularly in the United States, for ransom money and to steal information. This cyber war is also aimed at undermining trust in our institutions and weakening the American economy and therefore our national security. And it causes pain to millions of consumers/voters who, Putin hopes,  in response to the attacks’ effects might help return to power the likes of Trump.

Consider the recent cyberattacks on Colonial Pipeline and JBS, the huge meat-processor. These attacks have been facilitated by Russian crooks’ ability to freely operate in the darkness provided by Bitcoin and other cyber-currencies, which are paradises for theft and fraud. We’d all be better off if Bitcoin disappeared. It has turned out to be an even bigger cesspool than some of us had warned about a few years ago.

We’re under constant attack by the Kremlin. It’s past time to counter-attack. And yes, other dictatorial enemies, particularly the Chinese, are also launching cyberattacks on us (such as on ferry service the other day to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket) but the Russians and such close allies as Belarusians are the main villains.


The suggestion by the retired general and very briefly Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn that the military should overthrow our elected government as the kleptocratic generals did in Myanmar and install what would in effect be a fascist dictatorship is typical: It vividly displays the evil festering inside the  GOP/QAnon Party. But to sort of defend Flynn – a Rhode Islander: He’s seditious.

Sickly Sunbelt

A study shows that the fastest-growing states in population – e.g., Texas, Florida and Georgia – have the worst health care. Will migrants from places with strong healthcare systems  (including New England) push their new states to impose new taxes to pay for better health? Presumably. But these Sunbelt states’ tax systems particularly favor the rich, who are, of course, politically powerful. It will be very difficult to overcome their opposition to new or increased taxes, whatever the public wants.

To read the article, please hit this link:

Kids Are Pricey

So China is now encouraging couples to have up to three children. But, as in America, I’ll bet that few will do so. They won’t feel that they can afford to rear more than one or two children in a time when expenses to do so are so high – particularly the higher education that the Chinese, like Americans, consider essential for upward mobility. Further, women are marrying later, if at all.

Be Adventurous

“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.’’

— Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, poet and Anglican cleric

My friend Dr. Ed Iannuccilli’s recent funny column about postage stamps and insects (what a combo!) reminded me of how food fashions develop after initial revulsion. The arrival of the 17-year cicadas has restarted a modest American conversation about eating insects, which they do in parts of the Developing World. Cicadas, locusts and some other insects are edible and apparently healthy eating – high in protein, minerals and vitamins. And the supply seems bottomless….

Insects are said to taste like nuts or popcorn. Fire up the grill!

The idea of crunching into them revolts many. But why should it be more revolting than consuming our fellow mammals, who are a lot more sentient than bugs? For some reason, this reminds me of being served whale meat when I was around 10 in a Scandinavian restaurant in Boston called Ola. It was oily and fishy. Back then, I thought of whales as a sort of glorified big fish. Shortly thereafter, I became very aware that they were highly intelligent and social and mammals like us.

Think of how gross certain things might appear as food, such as lobsters, eggs, and shellfish. Nasty aesthetics! But we gobble them up.  And there are mammal organs that, for example, the French and Asians enthusiastically consume that Americans wouldn’t touch. Try some brains and intestines? Kidneys? There are a lot of bugs out there to harvest, which would be better for us and the world than eating ever more mammals and birds.

Oh yes, and snake meat can be tasty, too. The old Massachusetts grocery company S.S. Pierce used to sell it in cans.  And alligator is delicious and, of course, tastes like chicken….

To read Dr. Iannuccilli’s column, please hit this link:

Old Home Week

Reading about the Millennials madly seeking to buy their first houses in the current bubble reminded me of the house where I grew up, from about the age of four. Although I haven’t been in it for more than half a century, I remember every inch of it. At this time of year, I especially remember, from our pre-AC days, how hot it got on the third floor, forcing my little brother and me to go downstairs to sleep.

But the heat was good for one thing: There was a cedar-lined closet for storing winter clothes. If we left its door open we could smell its rich aroma intensified by the heat. Smell reignites memory. Whenever I smell something salty and musty I think of my paternal grandparents’ modest house on West Falmouth Harbor, on the Cape, in the ‘50s. It was torn down years ago to make way for somebody’s summer McMansion.

Just to the left of the cedar closet, a door opened into a playroom with a blackboard and a swing. The room was really too small for a swing. In our exuberance, we pushed big holes with our feet into the sloping walls, which were made out of some strange fibrous material. (The house was insulated with ground-up  newspapers treated with God knows what – asbestos?) My parents must have spent a hell of a lot of money to make it saleable. Five kids can do a lot of damage.

I’ve lived in many places since but none have possessed my thoughts as much as that house, which still evokes a wide range of unhappy and happy memories, indeed even more so lately.


I’ve noticed that at least half the people under 30 at the pool where I swim laps most mornings have tattoos, some of them very big. I wonder how many will have them in five years. Maybe a future job interview problem?


Wouldn’t it be nice if some of the big drugstore chains considered bringing back those lunch counters and soda fountains that were such popular and cheap meeting places for many decades? Have some French fries, a cherry coke, or a frappe, and then pick up your statins to offset them?

Rational Arguments

Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education, by Jonathan Marks, is an eloquent and often charming defense of open inquiry, skepticism and rigorous fact-based argument in the face of sometimes intellectually stifling political correctness and victimology on too many campuses. Students heading off to college would benefit from reading it; so would professors and college administrations.

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