Whitcomb: Thanksgivings; ‘Millionaires Tax’;  Private-Equity Healthcare; Crypto Catastrophe

Sunday, November 20, 2022

 

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Robert Whitcomb, Columnist

“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.’’

— Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), businessman, scientist, inventor, writer and a U.S. Founding Father

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“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.’’

— Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), American writer and muckraker

 

 

“Thanks for the memory
Of tinkling temple bells

Alma mater yells
And Cuban rum

And towels from
The very best hotels
Oh how lovely it was.’’

 

— From “Thanks for the Memory,’’ a song in the movie The Big Broadcast of 1938, as sung by Bob Hope and Shirley Ross, playing a divorced couple.  The music is by Ralph Rainger and lyrics by Leo Robin.

 

 

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PHOTO: file

Like many of us, I closely associate past Thanksgiving with the places they took place.

 

When I was a young kid, it was mostly in our gray-shingled house on a hill near the ocean. The weather always seemed to be either drizzling and clammy or dry and brisk, with the sun slanting low on the horizon. These early-afternoon feasts, often preceded by watching the Macy’s parade in Manhattan on TV, were sometimes followed by walks, often to a rocky point, and dull headaches.

 

One memory from there is the Great Cranberry Scare of 1959. Arthur Flemming, President Eisenhower’s secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, told the public on Nov. 9 that year that a little bit of the cranberry crop in the Pacific Northwest had tested positive for a herbicide called aminotriazole, which had caused abnormal growths, perhaps carcinogenic, in lab rats.

 

Although the major cranberry growers’ cooperative, Plymouth County, Mass.- based Ocean Spray, said accurately that you’d have to eat massive quantities of cranberry sauce (which was/is heavily sugared) to get sick from them, Flemming still advised people to avoid the fruit just as that treat’s biggest day, Thanksgiving, approached. Sales plunged, which hit the many growers in southeastern Massachusetts’s bogs hard.

 

In any event, the industry and the Feds worked out a deal to ensure that future lots of cranberries were clear of aminotriazole, and growers fairly quickly recovered from the economic blow of the Flemming announcement.  It was the first big consumer-product crisis I remember.

 

My recollection is that at our Thanksgiving table, we ignored the warning and helped ourselves to hearty helpings of cranberry sauce. That reminds me of the time soon after I graduated from college when my father, a smoker, cheerily offered a cigarette to a friend of mine with the words “Have some cancer!’’ He was a fatalist.

 

In later years, we’d be taken out by my paternal grandfather, by that point a widower, to the Daniel Webster Inn, in the Cape Cod town of Sandwich, which, happily, provided a meal lighter and brisker than what we’d get at home. He was a laconic Yankee, but he made an effort to show interest in what everybody had been up to recently.

 

And those of us of a certain age, of course, won’t forget the sad Thanksgiving less than a week the assassination of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.  Whether you politically supported him or not, it cast a deep pall.

 

On Thanksgiving 1975, my wife and I dined virtually alone in a Philly hotel dining room near our shotgun apartment. It was quite pleasant.

 

In a couple of years, because of an unforgiving work schedule, I ate alone at home. King Oscar sardines are delicious out of the can!

 

Much later, for some years, we took an elderly, smart, and rather cranky aunt and one or both of our daughters and another relative or two to the Coonamessett Inn,  in Falmouth. That joint knew how to move things along! Since none of us were particularly enamored of Thanksgiving, or at least of big mid-day meals, that was fine. We’d be out of there in an hour and a half.

 

When we were living in Paris, we were invited to a big Thanksgiving dinner at my boss’s apartment. We invited along an American friend, a historian with a stentorian voice, who proceeded to sit at the head of the table and take over the room. Our hosts controlled their irritation.

 

There was the Thanksgiving at some friends’ house in Providence, where the pleasant post-prandial conversation and clean-up was brought to a sudden close by a phone call that announced the death of one of our hosts’ mother.

 

Thanksgiving is reported to be the second most popular holiday, after Christmas. Is that for real or do many people just say that because they want to sound people-friendly and anti-materialist? Meanwhile, one often wonders about the increasing percentage of people who live alone and how they spend highly familial holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Of course, we speak more and more of creating nonfamily “families,” but when push comes to shove, we usually have to fall back on relatives rather than friends. Maybe that will change.

 

As Robert Frost grimly put it in “The Death of the Hired Hand’’:

 

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’’

 

I wonder how many people are moving to vegetarian or vegan Thanksgivings, both because of health and as a small way to address the suffering we inflict on the animals we eat. (I’ve seen stockyards.) We had some fake turkey last week; it was pretty good.

 

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The coming of cold weather (though the forecasters allege that this winter will be warmer than “usual’’ hereabouts) reminds me of a friend, or maybe glorified acquaintance,  of many years called Bill Ruger, who ran a hugely profitable gun company co-founded by his father called Sturm, Ruger & Co. and was one of the most brilliant and entertaining people I’ve ever known, though sometimes a tormented one.

 

He had an astonishing capacity for drink. He told me once, while sitting in a chair from the set of, I think, the 1925 movie version of Ben-Hur: “I’m just a recreational alcoholic.’’ He collected lots of strange stuff with his wealth.

 

Bill had a big estate in Newport, N.H., the site of one of the company’s factories. At lunch at a nearby restaurant (where he was treated like a duke) only a few months before he died, he told me about a second mansion he had bought in another often chilly spot, Bar Harbor, Maine.

 

Born in North Carolina, he had developed an increasing liking for cold places. When I asked, he told me he wanted to be “north of the bad bug line.’’

 

Which, in turn, reminds me of one of my fellow editors at the International Herald Tribune, in Paris. While everybody else in the poorly ventilated office (a kind of Petri dish) seemed to be frequently sick, with colds, flu and even pneumonia, especially in the winter, Sam Abt never got sick. He attributed his  seeming good health to his smoking (mostly unfiltered Pall Malls). “The smoke kills all those germs in the lungs,’’ he quipped. He’s still above ground at 88.

 

 

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PHOTO: file

How Will They Actually Spend the $?

Massachusetts voters, by a 52-48 percent margin, approved what’s been dubbed “the millionaires’ tax’’ in the Nov. 8 election.

 

The Bay State has had a flat rate of 5 percent of federal adjusted gross income. A new constitutional amendment will add an additional 4 percent tax on taxable income over $1 million, starting in 2023, in a  modest move to progressive taxation. (Federal taxation has progressive elements and unprogressive ones, the latter including shielding more income  from capital gains than from earned income, favoritism that benefits the affluent.)

 

A Tufts University study projects that the “millionaires’ tax’’ will bring in about $1.3 billion next year, and that the levy would only affect 0.6 percent of households.

 

Proponents promise that all the money to be raised by the new tax would go to education and transportation. If that actually happens, it could strengthen the commonwealth’s – and New England’s – economy. Despite all the promotion of  the Sun Belt’s tax systems – good for the rich, but not particularly for the poor and middle class, which are saddled with highly regressive sales taxes in these mostly Red States – the wealthiest states continue to be those willing to pay for good public services.

 

But would a recession, causing Massachusetts’s state tax revenues to fall, end up forcing the state to use much, or all, of that $1.3 billion to balance its budget? Could well happen next year in the predicted recession because there’s nothing to legally compel officials to spend the money just on schools and transportation (presumably mostly the MBTA, including trains to and from Rhode Island).

 

In any event, because of the new tax, a few rich folks will leave, and/or threaten to leave, the Bay State to go to Florida, that paradise of income-tax avoiders, money launderers,  gigantic, floodable oceanside mansions, inland tarpaper shacks, big donors to GOPQ campaigns, 7-Elevens, terrifyingly wide intersections and Burmese pythons, or to, say, New Hampshire, which prospers in no small degree because it’s next to the great wealth creator of Greater Boston, in a state that’s willing to pay for extensive public services that support that wealth creation.

 

(While New Hampshire famously has no income or sales tax, it relies very heavily on property taxes. About 65 percent of government revenues come from property taxes – the highest dependence on such levies in the U.S.)

 

By the way, eight of the ten states most dependent on federal money are GOPQ-dominated and seven of the nine states that send more to the Feds than they receive are Democrat-dominated. But maybe that will change as people move around.

 

It would be interesting to see the total number of votes cast for Democratic and Republican congressional candidates in the mid-terms to measure the effects of gerrymandering of districts.

 

 

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PHOTO: file

Private-Equity Profiteering

When you’re shopping for health care (if you’re in a position to do so), try to find out if the clinic, physician group or hospital you’re considering is owned by a private-equity operation.

 

If it is,  there’s a good chance that you and your insurance (if you have any) will be overbilled and that you’ll be overtreated while receiving substandard care. Private-equity firms push to maximize revenue and profit above all other goals. The growing cancer of private-equity firms in health care is yet another example of a bunch of impressively avaricious and affluent investors taking advantage of much poorer people, and the taxpayers.

 

The American healthcare “system’’ continues to be a snake-filled swamp.

 

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Regarding crypto chaos: Yet again people must be reminded not to invest/speculate in sectors they don’t understand, however sexy the marketing.

 

Watch this video:

 

https://twitter.com/Hedgeye/status/1593261508200390658

 

 

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PHOTO: file

Green Stuff

States must gird themselves to ensure that Nimbys in local communities can’t sabotage much-needed offshore wind-power projects by blocking the installation of onshore infrastructure – cables and related stuff–  by which the power from offshore turbines is fed into the electrical grid. Towns and cities are legal children of the states, which are supposed to protect the greater good.

 

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Many big cities are trying to “go green,’’ in part to confront global warming. This means, among other things, creating parks that can absorb floods, planting lots of trees and laying in more bike paths to encourage more people to get out of their cars. This, in turn, makes such cities more desirable.

 

But at least in some places, such improvements have led to real-estate speculation, rising housing costs and community displacement. So to address the effects of “green gentrification,’’ cities should redouble efforts to encourage much more construction of that admittedly rather vague thing called “affordable housing,’’ to better restrain housing costs, and they should bring low-and-middle-income groups into planning for these green projects as early as possible.

 

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I’d like to see the new play Straight Line Crazy, about Robert Moses (1888-1981), the brilliant New York City urban planner and often ruthless public-works czar who had a massive influence  — good and bad — on Gotham and beyond. He built bridges, roads, parks, tunnels and public housing, making powerful allies and enemies along the way. His career still holds lessons for other big and medium-sized cities.

 

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Former President Donald Trump PHOTO: GoLocal

Long National Nightmare Continues

“By gnawing through a dike, even a rat may drown a nation.’’

 

— Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Anglo-Irish statesman and political philosopher

 

The reasons for Trump’s presidential-campaign announcement last Tuesday are pretty clear.

 

The traitor, thief, pervert, con man,  extreme narcissist and wanna-be Fascist dictator cannot abide the thought of being out of the public eye, even as some of his fans are tiring of his act.

 

He will continue to harvest the ignorance,  insecurities, bigotries and hatred of his most devoted followers. And some cynical rich donors will stick with him, too, in the hope he can ride to power again and then give them goodies. Campaign contributions from both cohorts  will go right into his pocket.  He probably also thinks that Russia, Saudi Arabia and some other tyrannies friendly to him will help finance and otherwise  (planting stuff in social media, etc.) promote his comeback, in return for future favors.

 

The lives of all too many Trump fanatics are chaotic and miserable – some because of societal changes and some entirely self-inflicted,  a good foundation for creating a cult of personality around a demagogue who promises to smite their enemies, real or perceived. Then there are the thugs and craven suck-ups who comprise his palace guard.

 

This creature also thinks that being in an active political campaign will help protect him from prosecution for his truckload of offenses. I don’t think that will work.

 

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It’s past time for America’s geriatric political leaders to announce plans to leave the scene by January 2025  – Biden, Pelosi, McConnell,  Grassley, etc. I don’t list Trump because his narcissism will mean he won’t leave the stage voluntarily. As I type this, we learn that Nancy Pelosi, 82, is wisely stepping down as the Democrats’ leader in the House but will remain a member of Congress from California.

 

 

Family Saga and More

I just read Why? (Dorrance Publishing), Craig Evans’s first book. It’s a very idiosyncratic novel, comprising a sprawling family chronicle, terror-attack whodunit, travelogue, history lessons, financial disasters, futurist speculations and quasi-editorials. Its unusual structure includes lots of New England stuff, especially about Rhode Island — including what will happen to the Providence Place mall — and the book predicts a merger of three states. There are many memorable characters, though too many of them are nice people.

 

Mr. Evans has obviously been putting this thing together for a long time. A screenwriter could get several movies out of its many parallel plots.

 

Mr. Evans, whom I just met, sent me this bio, which might act as an incentive for other would-be late-in-life writers to start typing:

 

“After spending forty years as an itinerant executive working in a variety of health-care industries and amassing a collection of life experiences while residing in numerous states, Craig H. Evans decided it was time to create that novel ready to bust loose. As a lifelong soccer player and fan, it’s not surprising that his passion became a major theme in his book. His fascination with politics, futurism and leadership styles is also on display. Most importantly, as a grandfather of five, his inspiration for his main character was his obsession with leaving behind a better world. The author and his wife call Bristol, Rhode Island, their home and final destination.’’

 

 

I created a stupid typo in my mini-book review last week of David Kertzer’s book The Pope at War. I typed it as The Pope at Work, which I should have caught in the proofreading.

 

Mea maxima culpa.

Robert Whitcomb is a veteran editor and writer. Among his jobs, he has served as the finance editor of the International Herald Tribune, in Paris; as a vice president and the editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal; as an editor and writer in New York for The Wall Street Journal,  and as a writer for the Boston Herald Traveler (RIP). He has written newspaper and magazine essays and news stories for many years on a very wide range of topics for numerous publications, has edited several books and movie scripts and is the co-author of among other things, Cape Wind.


 

 

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