The Pension Disaster Will Be Addressed

Springboarding from the woes of California’s public-sector pension problems, The American Interest suggests that it might be too late to avoid some sort of crisis with such pensions across the country:

This long-running failure of governance may be irreversible. All that’s left for state governments to do now is reform pension systems for new employees, phasing out defined-benefit systems for 401(k)-style plans, and, where possible, trim benefits or raise contribution requirements for current workers. In the meantime, federal policymakers should start thinking about a reform-for-relief framework that will enable states and localities to honor their obligations to retirees while getting their finances back under control for the long haul.

We should consider it evidence of the extent of the problem that the generally wise American Interest falls back to the irresponsible cop-out that the federal government ought to step in and make the problem go away — as if the feds aren’t already headed toward dozens of trillions of dollars in debt absorbing every other bad policy decision made throughout the country over the past century.  That is, pensioners relying on the writer’s solution would have to hope that none of the other myriad problems and looming crises comes to a head and absorbs the nation’s very last tolerance for debt before the pension problem.  (My wager is that the multiple crises will cascade into one uber crisis.)

If the idea of the government takething away the pensions that it gavethed is inconceivable, peruse the ruling issued this week by Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter (internal citations removed):

It was clear that to avert disaster the City had to act. (p. 11)…

Notwithstanding a finding of substantial impairment, a contract modification remains constitutionally valid if the City produces sufficient credible evidence that the modification was done to further a significant and legitimate public purpose and if doing so was reasonable and necessary. (p. 30)…

… the Court is satisfied that the City has produced sufficient credible evidence through the testimony of Mayor Fung, Mr. Strom, and Mr. Sherman that the Great Recession, the decline in state aid, and RIRSA’s requirements created an unprecedented fiscal emergency neither created nor anticipated by the City. (p. 34)

Taft-Carter affirmed that cities cannot be expected to raise taxes indefinitely, and unless I missed it, she didn’t so much as speculate that the state could be forced to intervene.  The same will prove true up the scale, all the way to our giant national blob of debt.  At the state level, one could imagine a judge considering something like my argument about the flight of the “productive class” as evidence that higher taxes would accelerate a death spiral already underway.

For those who think the same couldn’t happen at the federal level, one can only suggest that they not take the risk of finding out.


Support for Families More Effective than Government Co-parenting

Grover Whitehurst of Brookings has made an attempt to compare research findings concerning the effects of different programs on the test scores of young students, and the findings conflict with the progressive preference for increasingly moving responsibility away from people and toward government:


Whitehurst suggests:

The results illustrated in the graph suggest that family support in the form of putting more money in the pockets of low-income parents produces substantially larger gains in children’s school achievement per dollar of expenditure than a year of preschool, participation in Head Start, or class size reduction in the early grades. The finding that family financial support enhances academic achievement in the form of test scores is consistent with other research on the impact of the EITC showing impacts on later outcomes such as college enrollment.

The most important takeaway from this is that it reinforces conservatives’ contention that government should not seek to displace parents, relieving them of responsibility for raising their children.  Government policy should seek to strengthen families.

Of course, the fact that this would tend to reduce the influence of government and (therefore) progressives leads me to expect Whitehurst’s research not to have a significant effect on progressive policies.  Indeed, in his subsequent discussion, Whitehurst endeavors to speculate that imposing restrictions on families’ use of the funding would be even more effective than simply improving their financial standing. However, if giving parents money is so much more effective than public funding of pre-school programs, one might question Whitehurst’s belief that letting the public funding stop in the parents’ accounts for a moment would be better than both approaches.

Note, too, the limits of Whitehurst’s consideration.  The first and irreducible assumption is that government must do something to bring about specific social outcomes.  If supporting families through broad welfare that is largely free of strings is so much more effective than building government programs, one might expect even greater rewards from getting government out of the way of families.  Let people act in the economy without the weight of high taxes and oppressive regulations; allow communities and states to determine their own economic and social policies; allow the society, broadly, to follow cultural traditions that have proven, over time, to be the healthiest for human society (such as the traditional institution of marriage).

Unfortunately, it’s much more difficult to test for and make charts of the effects of progressive redistribution on the whole society.  Researchers can’t know (to simplify) that taking EITC money out of the economy wound up hurting other families, resulting in worse test scores.  Still, taking in all of the evidence, the weight of it suggests that leaving people free is not only the most moral approach, respecting civil rights, but is also likely to prove to be the most effective system by any standard apart from the wealth and power of government.


Now for Something Completely Different: Quantum Biology

This interesting article by Martha Henriques on the possibility that quantum physics might play a role in the ways in which living organisms interact with their environment is of the scientific genre wherein everybody seems surprised at something that shouldn’t be surprising at all.

Whether one believes that reality was designed in a matter of days by a purposeful God, with humanity as its focus, or that a some fundamental physical rules set in motion a universal evolution of which living organisms are the most developed (and known) part, there’s no surprise, here.  If God implemented quantum physics, one would expect it to serve the rest of his creation.  If life developed through a long process of evolution, one might reasonably expect organisms that could take advantage of quantum interactions to have an evolutionary advantage.

The one saving grace is that these truly bizarre quantum behaviours don’t seem to have much of an impact on the macroscopic world as we know it, where “classical” physics rules the roost. …

Now that reassuring wisdom is starting to fall apart. Quantum processes may occur not quite so far from our ordinary world as we once thought. Quite the opposite: they might be at work behind some very familiar processes, from the photosynthesis that powers plants – and ultimately feeds us all – to the familiar sight of birds on their seasonal migrations. Quantum physics might even play a role in our sense of smell.

In fact, quantum effects could be something that nature has recruited into its battery of tools to make life work better, and to make our bodies into smoother machines. It’s even possible that we can do more with help from the strange quantum world than we could without it.

To the extent that scientists (as distinct from those who just write about science) really do find these things surprising rather than just exciting and intriguing as a matter of new discovery, it may be an indication that they’re approaching physics with a faulty framework — what I’d actually say is most accurately described as a faulty metaphor.  From my perspective, the basic missing piece is an allowance for a spiritual dimension, by which I mean a plane in which intentionality and perspective exist apart from the materials on which they act, but pursuing that suggestion would bring me to depths beyond my intentions for this post when I set it in motion.


Cruz Shows the Contrast, in More Ways Than One

You’ve heard the hype.  Now, if you haven’t already done so, take 25 minutes and watch Ted Cruz’s Republican convention speech.

Actually watching the video, I’d say by far the most disturbing aspect is the booing — the inability of the assembled Republicans to muster some grace.  The new GOP apparently cannot accept somebody who articulates a beautiful vision of the party’s perhaps-erstwhile values if he doesn’t at the same time utter a magic phrase of endorsement.  In that regard, it truly is now Trump’s GOP.  Me, I agree with Jonah Goldberg:

This is part of the corruption of Trump. He called Ted Cruz a liar every day and in every way for months (it used to be considered a breach in decorum to straight up call an opponent a liar, never mind use it as a nickname). The insults against his wife, the cavalier birtherism, the disgusting JFK assassination theories about his Dad: These things are known. And yet the big conversation of the day is Ted Cruz’s un-sportsmanlike behavior? For real? But forget Cruz for a moment. For over a year, Trump has degraded politics in some of the most vile ways. His respect for the Republican Party as the home of conservatism is on par with Napoleon’s respect for churches when he converted them into stables.

Read the whole thing.  Goldberg, like Cruz, is intent on exiting the Trump era (whenever that may be) with his courage, integrity, and well-formed political philosophy intact.  People who claim to share at least some significant share of that philosophy and yet who can boo its articulation if it does not mix in Trump’s cult of personality bring home just how much this election may hinge on a seesaw of alternating disgust.


Hints of Life Independent from Government

Kate Bramson’s article in yesterday’s Providence Journal would make for an interesting case study.  It seems — Doesn’t it? — that so much of news reporting is akin to a corporate newsletter for the government.  Three reasons for this come quickly to mind:

  1. Government confiscates a great deal of tax money in order to pay communications employees to promote its activities, and they make it very easy for journalists by staging events with notable people, finding the human interest characters to populate the stories, and providing all of the background information.
  2. Journalists tend to be liberal or progressive (whatever distinction one might see between the two), so they have an innate sympathy for what appear to be positive actions from government officials, particularly liberal or progressive government officials.
  3. We all have some stake and responsibility when it comes to government, so publications aimed at a general audience understandably treat it as an area of focus.


Unfortunately, though, this running narrative becomes self-reinforcing, as government becomes the central story of our lives.  Bramson’s article, for instance, is about the state government’s program giving taxpayer money to a private company, Electric Boat, to train new employees.  The human interest component is a young woman from Tiverton:

New England Institute of Technology welding instructor Matthew Topper is teaching the trade to Coventry teacher Jamie Cotnoir this summer and recently trained Hannah Cook-Dumas, a Tiverton High School graduate who now works for General Dynamics Electric Boat. …

Cook-Dumas, 19, said she was mostly home-schooled and her father was her first welding teacher. After she tried college and realized her initial career idea wasn’t right, Cook-Dumas got an internship with a welder who used to work for Electric Boat. He urged her to apply to the company.

Hannah was educated at home through tenth grade, and her younger siblings are mostly taught at home, with private high school filling in at the upper levels. (One might reasonably draw conclusions from that change in practice with the younger children.)  She was first in her class at New England Tech, as well as the youngest, indicating not only intelligence but drive.  Yet, the story is that Electric Boat needs $2 million in taxpayer money — with photo ops for two senators, a governor, and an education commissioner — in order to make the eminently wise decision of hiring her?  Come on.

We (ourselves and our media) need to start challenging these unspoken assumptions, because our approach to policy will broaden tremendously, with expanded opportunities and effectiveness.  Step back a moment from the well-constructed tale of the article and the picture takes on other shades.  Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo has, in the past, proposed eliminating funding that allows private-and home-schooled students to borrow textbooks and participate in public school busing services.  Her dual enrollment program, funding college courses for high school students, is explicitly only available to those in public schools.  The same is true of her free-SAT program.  The program in this article gives companies money to shape workers to their own needs as a competitive advantage to other companies, including small shops.

In the progressive Raimondo vision, our “education system” is just the series of public schools in which politicians and bureaucrats have control over the content, and it is mainly a means of promulgating progressive values, shaping the skills of Rhode Islanders to match the requests of high-profile private interests, and (naturally) funding the big-government machine (in the form of union activists).  In a contrary vision, families make decisions specific to their own children and their own situations, students strive to succeed and to find work that satisfies them as unique individuals, and businesses hire them because it makes economic sense to do so.

One of those visions fosters fully formed, independent, and self-valued individuals.  The other fosters dependency and diminishes individual achievement.


Rhode Island… Not the Place to Be for Economics or a Zombie Apocalypse

I’ve long found the notion of a zombie apocalypse to be a useful metaphor when discussing the condition of Rhode Island. In 2013, for example, I suggested the following:

The American economy is not being kept alive by unnatural forces (stimulus and quantitative easing); that’s the talking-point dogma of Obama zealots in whose view the president can never fail because it will always be possible to close their eyes and believe that things would have been worse without him.

Rather, it is being held back by those unnatural forces and others (most notably over regulation). Look to Rhode Island for the test case — with a General Assembly that has now concluded its session proud to have made it more difficult to live and do business in their state. In light of Woodhill’s analogy, I’m inclined to see the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ map showing New England unemployment as a sort of infection map for the zombie apocalypse.

So, of course I clicked on the link when RIPR’s Ian Donnis tweeted out that Rhode Island has been judged the 49th best (i.e., 2nd worst) state in which to live in order to survive a zombie pandemic.  As usual with such rankings, it takes bad performance by most measures to land at the end of the list.

Rhode Islanders are about average when it comes to being physically active, so we’ve got an OK chance of running away from individual zombies when necessary, and we’re out of the bottom quarter when it comes to leaving our dead uncremated, reducing the ranks of the monsters from among the already dead.  But our state is the second most densely populated by the living and has the fourth lowest gun ownership.  We’re also in the bottom 10 when it comes to the preparation of watching zombie movies.

Perhaps the worst news for Rhode Island, though, isn’t captured by this list.  Judging by our apathetic response to the destruction of our state and the impositions on our lives perpetrated regularly by politicians and bureaucrats, one might reasonably expect Rhode Islanders to be slower to react to the obvious signs of a civilization-ending catastrophe.

On the other hand, the number of former Rhode Islanders proves the willingness and ability of our population to flee to healthier environs.


Testing and Accountability in Public School

Linda Borg’s article in today’s Providence Journal gives a small taste of an argument that would be much more prominent if Rhode Islanders really cared about education as much as we say that we do.  At issue is Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s decision to end standardized testing at the high-school level.  Tim Duffy, of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, gets it right:

“If you aspire to be Massachusetts, then high school graduation requirements are going to have to have some consequences,” he said. “If there are no consequences for students, teachers or the system, we end up with improved graduation rates but we haven’t measured whether they are living up to the standards.”

One superintendent adds to that:

Chariho School Supt. Barry Ricci applauds any reduction in testing, but he doesn’t want the state to abandon tying a standardized test to graduation. Without that incentive, he said, high school students will not have any reason to take the test seriously. “I don’t want to give kids the message that we’re lowering the bar,” Ricci said.

In a word, what Wagner has diluted is accountability.  There has to be some way to hold not just students, but teachers and our entire public education system accountable.  What has happened (as I keep repeating) is that Rhode Island’s “fix the system” approach to education reform hit a political ceiling.  The adult special interests that infect our education system feared the prospect of having their failures laid bare in undeniable fashion, so they used our political system as a defensive weapon.  The repercussions of that explosion are reflected in standardized scores, with disadvantaged students (predictably) suffering the most harm.

I happen to agree with those who express concerns about high-stakes testing, but the public needs some means of measuring performance and imposing accountability.  Our children would be much better off, though, and our education system tremendously improved, if accountability derived from market mechanisms.  Let Rhode Islanders determine their own priorities for themselves and their own children and send students to the schools — public, charter, private, home — that best reflect those priorities.  Schools that cannot maintain viable student populations will have to improve or go out of business.

That scares our state’s politicians and insiders because no political ceiling would be possible once Rhode Island families got a taste of real reform.


Insider Reps Under Fire; Will Anybody Care?

Questions, questions, questions.

Why would a state representative (Democrat John Carnevale [Providence, Johnston]) under fire for doubts about his residency request that the Providence police ticket his car for illegal parking?

Embattled state Rep. John Carnevale asked a police officer to intentionally write him parking tickets at his Barbara Street home in recent days, Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare confirmed Tuesday.

What was a former state representative (Democrat Raymond Gallison [Bristol, Portsmouth]) under federal investigation doing with a deceased client’s possibly valuable coin and stamp collection, which may not have been valued into the man’s estate under the rep’s executorship?

The NBC 10 I-Team spoke with the new attorney handling the Medley estate. Thomas “Tucker” Wright said he suspected something was array when Medley’s personal property from inside his house only amounted to $750 on an inventory list. He knew Medley to have an extensive coin and stamp collection, he said, but was unsure of the value. Those items were not listed on the inventory. Also missing was the total of Medley’s stocks and bonds. That value is also unclear. However, the new lawyer for Medley’s estate told the NBC 10 I-Team that Gallison returned the coin and stamp collection last week.

Is anybody picking up an overwhelming anger in the electorate about these matters — on top of new tolls, last-place rankings, botched marketing moves, corporate welfare, and a completely stagnant employment situation?


Trees in Warren and Government from a Distance

The man-made conflict between trees and federal disability law is a fine example of why most government should be done locally (to the extent it has to be done at all):

Town officials say they are facing a painful dilemma: They can’t make the sidewalks accessible to the handicapped and save the trees.

]Nearly 80 years after the Works Progress Administration installed the curbing and sidewalks during the Great Depression, the thick trunks and roots of the trees planted along the road are blocking and buckling the pedestrian way.

The situation came to a head recently when the town began reconstructing King Street, a quiet road one block east of Main Street and just south of the downtown. Once the town undertook substantial repairs to the road, it triggered federal requirements that the sidewalks comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Public Works Director John Massed.

For a before-and-after picture, click the link above and watch the related video.  The camera shot at the 20-second marker shows the street with one side de-treed and the other not.

As communities, we do have a responsibility to accommodate those with the misfortune of being disabled, but dictating minute policies from Washington, D.C., is lunacy bordering on tyranny.  If the responsibility were local, neighbors could figure out solutions that work best for everybody involved, answering questions like, “What are the odds that a disabled person is going to go down this street so often that both sides have to be cleared of trees?”

We’ve reached the point of the absurd.  When the Tiverton Yacht Club reopened this year (after a fire and years of legal battles), members could not use the second floor.   Hefty barriers blocked the stairs, not because the upstairs was unfinished or otherwise unsafe, but because there had been a delay in installing the elevator required for people with disabilities.  A private club, using the property mainly for a children’s camp, a swimming pool, and the occasional social gathering, could not let members upstairs because some hypothetical disabled person wouldn’t be able to get up there for a couple of months.

Now apply this observation to the thousands and thousands of pages of laws and regulations passed at the national level that affect our lives in ways we can’t so obviously see.


Getting Credit for Identity Requires a Creditor

Ed Driscoll rounds up a few links to construct the argument that progressivism and, specifically, identity politics are no substitute for finding real meaning in life:

In this era of nihilism, in which traits substitute for accomplishments, a former POW running for the White House in 2008 is mocked for being too old and infirm, and an ultra-successful businessman four years later is mocked for giving his employees cancer. Meanwhile, a failed community organizer is compared to God by magazine editors who should know better (and actually do, somewhere deep down in their hearts). And we wonder why ISIS appeals to far too many disaffected youth, as a macho religious alternative to becoming Nietzsche’s dread “Last Man,” as personified by a sniveling figure such as Footie Pajamas Obamacare Boy.

One piece of this puzzle that hasn’t been adequately explored, that I’ve seen, is why Leftists would foster this fatal dynamic in the first place.  Yesterday, I came across somebody (I think Jonah Goldberg, talking to Bill Kristol in the middle of a lengthy interview) suggesting that progressivism is essentially a suicide cult.  That may explain the motivation of some key figures, but for most of those who constitute progressivism’s ranks, I’d argue that the explanation is more a mix of blindness and fashionable views, reliant on the subconscious belief that the safety and comfort of the world exists naturally.

But what of the leaders of the movement who aren’t suicide cultists?  Drisoll’s points on identity politics direct us toward an answer.  After all, in order for people to get credit simply for their identities — with a relative advantage over others who actually do something worthy of recognition — there has to be a creditor.  That is, somebody has to hold the legal and social power to recognize the identity claims and suppress those who reject their asserted value.  That is: progressive elites.

As one investigates the various angles of modern socio-politics, that theme arises again and again.  Progressivism is a thuggish route to power built on the model not of empowering the powerless, but of draining the intrinsic individual worth of each human being as a means to social dominance.  They claim to bestow advantages, but the real benefit goes to them.


National Popular Vote and the Company State

Yesterday, Dan Yorke had Providence College Political Science Professor Joseph Cammarano on his 630AM/99.7FM WPRO show, discussing a variety of topics.  When I first tuned in, a caller was growing angry that the professor wouldn’t say for whom he intended to vote, and over the next hour or so of sporadic listening, I came to see how Cammarano might have inspired that response.  His bias came through, most notably in his drive for equivalence with Republicans whenever a caller brought up Democrats’ malfeasance.

One question that came out of nowhere was the professor’s opinion of the electoral college, and he clearly supports the efforts of states, including Rhode Island, to work around the Constitution with the national-popular vote movement.  In not so many words, he that it makes no sense — given our increasingly national culture — to have a system in which we think of states as states, regardless of their population.  That is, he thinks it’s obvious that states don’t have an equal standing of themselves, as political entities, necessitating that the votes of people in low-population states are weighted to give them greater balance against the national votes of people in high-population states.

When this topic came up a few years ago, I mainly thought of it in terms of politics and the calculation for Rhode Island.  After all, Democrats tend to do better in urban areas, so the General Assembly’s signing on to the national popular vote compact was a partisan act, not a representative one (as in advocating for the people whom one actually represents).  The reason Rhode Island gets no attention in national politics isn’t that we’re small; it’s that we’re one-sided.  Republicans have no chance, and Democrats don’t have to work for our electoral votes.  But the reality is that the national popular vote scheme would cut Rhode Islanders’ electoral sway in half.  Why would our representatives agree to do that?

Cammarano’s short statement was the first time I’ve considered this question since stumbling upon the idea of the “company state.”  I’ve been noting that certain cities and the whole state of Rhode Island are moving toward a civic business model in which government becomes the major industry, with incentive to import or create new clients for its services as justification for taking money away from other people in order to finance them.  As Rhode Island has long been learning, the flaw in this model is that the payers can simply leave, and the state is under constant risk that, due to recession or otherwise, people in other states will push back on the federal government’s subsidization of the scheme.

The electoral college, in other words, is one protection against having this “company state” model become truly national, such that municipal and state governments that rely on the compulsory transfer of wealth will be able to reach any wealth from sea to shining sea.


Missing the Point of Conservatism and Western Culture

Pamela Constable’s Washington Post reflection on her conservative Connecticut WASP parents has been making the rounds on the right-wing Internet.  Her personal connection with her parents is just that (personal), but the Baby Boomer journalist appears mainly to have become more comfortable with her parents’ somewhat moderate political conservatism mainly because she can now see it in contrast with movements that she finds more distasteful, like the Tea Party and Trumpism.

What’s most clear, though, is how much she’s missing the essential point.  Feeling stifled and separated by the cool, hip movements during her youth, she set out to become a “crusading journalist” (telling phrase, that).  As a foreign correspondent, she traveled the world and witnessed some of the worst hardships that human beings face, even today.  Then:

Visiting home between assignments, I found myself noticing and appreciating things I had always taken for granted — the tamed greenery and smooth streets, the absence of fear and abundance of choice, the code of good manners and civilized discussion. I also began to learn things about my parents I had never known and to realize that I had judged them unfairly. I had confused their social discomfort with condescension and their conservatism with callousness.

Notably, Constable learned that her parents had actually developed their habits in reaction to the hardships and terrors of the early 20th Century:  “Eventually, I saw how loss and sacrifice had shaped both my parents, creating lifelong habits of thrift, loyalty, perseverance and empathy for those who suffered.”

I recall a lesson in elementary school concerning the layers of need that an individual has in order to achieve higher planes of action.  One must have bodily necessities.  One must feel relatively safe; intellectual pursuits don’t quite fit into the schedule while fleeing for one’s life.  Civilization needs a safe place to cultivate those willing to change the world for the better, in part because they’ve seen a better world.

The problem is that Constable took that place for granted, and she didn’t bother observing as the world changed around her, in large part because of the actions of her ideological peers and their consequences.  Too late is she discovering that the traditions and culture handed down to her have been learned over millennia of a magnificent civilization’s development mainly in order to address the changes that we can’t see happening and lack the capacity to predict.

Progressives like Constable don’t see that the voices they don’t like — the Tea Party and the Trumpists — are becoming more forceful because progressives are marching along, intent on trampling them and their continued sense of the wisdom in our culture.  Like a religious cult, progressives are blind to much that is essential, not only why the culture they loathe is so well evolved, but also how much damage their heroes, like Barack Obama, are doing, and how much they are ensuring conflict and a descent into increasing hostilities.


The Status Quo’s Boasts – And Rhode Islanders’ Complacency?

Rhode Island has the worst business climate in the nation. It ranks 48th on both the Family Prosperity Index of the American Conservative Union and the Jobs and Opportunity Index of our Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity. It has virtually zero population growth, and it has suffered the ignominy of dozens of other near-bottom rankings. Despite all this, our Rhode Island political class appears content not to rock the boat. The question remains why are they satisfied with being in the bottom of the pack?

When we hear boasts that there were no broad-based tax increases in the recently passed state budget, we hear an attitude of complacency that is typical of the political elite, whose main goal is to perpetuate the status quo, as opposed to making the hard decisions that will improve the quality of lives of its residents. The irony, of course, is that our political leaders seem to genuinely believe that they have made major positive reforms. Maybe, relatively speaking, they just don’t understand what major reform looks like.

If Rhode Island’s complacency continues – both by our political class and by voters who re-elect it year after year – we will soon see Rhode Island lose one of its two congressional seats and shamefully slip to last place when it comes to renewing hope and opportunity for our families. Rhode Island needs to dare to disrupt the status quo and boldly evolve itself into a regional outlier so that we can become a magnet – on our own – for businesses, jobs and families.

In this wild and unpredictable year of national politics, the big question is whether or not the tsunami of public discontent will reach our Ocean State shores and compel voters to send a necessary jolt to our political class. Rhode Island politicians will not have the chance to change their act until next year. However, voters can lead the way by acting this year to deliver a clear message at November’s ballot box. I encourage you to continue to speak out against the status quo public policy culture in Rhode Island. Your voice is powerful, and things can change.

[Mike Stenhouse is the CEO of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity.]


Katz’s Kitchen Sink: But Bountiful Parody Song

As the fiscal year comes to a close for the State of Rhode Island and most municipalities in June, it’s ever more clear that civic life in Rhode Island revolves around government budgets.  For insiders, town, city, and state budgets represent their hopes and dreams — often their livelihoods.  For everybody else, though, they can be a time of dread, as the impossibility of real change is affirmed, cherished programs are threatened (if you’re on that side of the ledger), or more money is confiscated from your bank account (if you’re on the other side of the ledger).

Herewith, a parody song to the tune of “But Beautiful,” inaugurating a somewhat regular new video series, “Katz’s Kitchen Sink,” which will feature whatever sort of content I think might be useful to throw at the problems of the Ocean State — songs, short skits, commentary, or whatever.

Download an mp3 file of this song.

But Bountiful

A budget’s taxes, or it’s pay
Handouts are credits or giveaways
We’re investing, or we save
But bountiful

Bountiful, our industry’s bureaucracies we run
It’s a budget you have no choice but to fund

A budget appropriates, or it steals
Votes are traded in backroom deals
Nobody’s sure just what’s real
But bountiful

And I’m thinking if I had chips, I’d cash them in for gold
And take them to a more bountiful abode


Nice Attack: Are You Serious, AP and Projo?

Here’s the information from a top-of-the-front-page Associated Press article that ran in today’s Providence Journal:

“I saw that suddenly people were fleeing and shouting,” she said, speaking by phone from Nice. “People were shouting, ‘It’s a terrorist attack! It’s a terrorist attack!’ It was clear that the driver was doing it deliberately.”

The astonishing thing is that it takes reporters Ciaran Fahey and Raphael Satter until paragraph 20 for the statement that the massacre in Nice, France, was likely a terrorist attack (which we now know to be true).  Here are the operative phrases in the opening paragraphs, which (to my mind) bring into question the integrity of the journalists and the publication that selected this particular article for its coverage:

  • Paragraph 1: “A truck loaded with weapons and hand grenades drove onto a sidewalk”
  • Paragraph 2: “the truck ran over people on a ‘long trip’ down the sidewalk”
  • Paragraph 3: “a Nice native who spoke to the AP nearby, said that he saw a truck drive into the crowd”
  • Paragraph 5: “the truck plowed into the crowd over a distance of 1.2 miles”
  • In paragraph 7, we finally learn that the truck had “a driver.”

We’re reaching the point, in Western Civilization, that we face the very real possibility of death by passive voice and personification.  For crying out loud: Even those whose reading is no deeper than Harry Potter should have learned the lesson that one can’t defeat an evil whom one won’t even name.

Perhaps it would help to offer a practical lesson with reference to evils that the news media is happy to proclaim: If you want to help stop such things as the mosque vandalism in South Kingstown (assuming it wasn’t a hoax), or Donald Trump’s candidacy, or Brexit, the very first step — the very first step — is to show that you can be trusted to report on (journalists) and combat (politicians) a clear and present danger.

If your focus is, instead, your own politically correct virtue signaling, you’re only going to contribute to frustration and maybe (just maybe) finally get the backlash you’ve been self-righteously worrying about since a handful of Islamic extremists connected to an international jihadist organization flew planes into American buildings in 2001.


Reason for RI CNBC Slip Critical

Gary Sasse tweeted an important point the other day:

Lot of chatter on CNBC ranking RI business worst in USA. Reason not @GinaRaimondo spin, but precipitous drops in quality of life& education

Before agreeing more determinedly, I’d point out that Rhode Island did pretty poorly on the economy score, too, dropping from 136 points (39th in the country) last year to 114 points (45th) this year.  But Gary’s right: we did tank by those other measures, too.

In education, Rhode Island fell from 124 points (13th), which was a too-sunny fluke of the methodology, I’d say, to 111 points (20th).  This may be what happens when reforms hit (as I’ve been saying) a political ceiling.

As for quality of life, Rhode Island’s drop from 216 points (12th) to 186 points (24th) does seem to correspond with some of the Family Prosperity Index (FPI) results that I’ve mentioned before.  If my intuition is correct — that Rhode Islanders who haven’t fled the state have responded in two distinct ways to the decline of their state: either unhealthy behavior or a return to basics like family and faith — CNBC’s methodology appears almost entirely to catch changes in the former, not the latter.


Fed Money Locks in the Local Bill for Later, Helps Senator’s Brother

How is this, from the Providence Journal, a good idea?

The City of Providence will receive a $15,011,440 federal grant to hire 80 firefighters and stanch the bleeding from a mass loss of Fire Department personnel over the past 18 months.

And the City of Cranston will receive a $2,765,310 federal grant to hire 15 firefighters, increasing the possibility that the Fire Department will hire its first female firefighter. …

A SAFER grant carries the full cost of firefighters with fringe benefits for two fiscal years, after which the municipality must pick up the cost.

What’s supposed to happen between now and two budgets from now to make these positions more affordable for the cities?  Without that piece to the puzzle, this is just the federal government using some additional deficit spending to lock the taxpayers of Providence, Cranston, and Rhode Island into a larger bill in a couple of years. (Don’t forget pensions and other post-employment benefits [OPEB], too.)

Without a specific plan to supplant the federal grant when the time comes, the local governments are acting recklessly.  In offering the grants, though, the federal government is acting immorally, and not just because Senator Jack Reed’s brother Paul is a major figure in Rhode Island labor unions for firefighters who has recently been under fire over financial challenges within his union.

Rhode Islanders don’t have the flexibility for government to play these games.  As very specific evidence, turn to an article out today, on GoLocalProv:

In a letter sent to the Providence City Council this week, Dulgarian informed elected officials that after talking with business owners, he learned:

* Paragon Restaurant had averaged 6200 customers a month before [parking] meters and now averages 4000 a month

* Antonio’s Restaurant had 25 employees before meters and now has 7

* Silvia Disposal hauled away 2.5 truckloads of rubbish a week from Thayer Street before meters and now has 1.5 truckloads

“Quite frankly, it’s embarrassing to have to review things of this nature,” said Dulgarian on Thursday. “Even to be off 5% on sales is devastating. These businesses are on oxygen support.”


The Minimum Debt Load of Rhode Island: $16 Billion

Just for fun (come on, you know you do it, too), I thought I’d go through the audits for the State of Rhode Island and the cities and towns contained therein to total up the amount of debt.  The exercise wasn’t intended to be comprehensive, so I just grabbed, as well as I was able, the long-term debt or liabilities from each government’s statement of net position (including the current portion for long-term liabilities).  The numbers therefore capture pensions, other post employment benefits (OPEB), bonded debt, and other ways in which a town, city, or state can owe somebody money.

The numbers therefore are extremely conservative.  The incentive, for governments, is to minimize the amount of money that it looks like they’re spending, and truly cutting through the methods for answering that incentive would be a very significant project.  One notes on the audits, for example, that some portion of pension debt is calculated as a “deferred outflow” rather than a liability, and so would not be included; in Cranston, for example, the deferred outflow for pensions is $36.6 million, while the liability is listed as $1.5 million.  (There is typically a deferred inflow, too, but even subtracting in from out tends to produce a greater liability; $1.8 million in Cranston.) Remember, too, that the calculations that government auditors use to figure pension and OPEB liabilities can underestimate a more-realistic assessment of liability by four or five times.  Oh, and none of this includes other government units that might not fall under these specific audits, such as fire and water districts.

Consequently, the $16 billion total that this method produces is pretty much the absolute minimum that governments in Rhode Island have saddled residents with.  Using the latest U.S. Census data provided by the state Dept. of Labor and Training, this comes out to $15,180 for every person in the state, or 27.3% of the total annual income of Rhode Islanders.

If you want to darken your financial picture, for some reason, add that amount to the $154,000 or so each of us owes for the federal debt.  Then factor in entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare… and don’t forget to adjust everything up for accounting gimmicks and understatements, as with pensions.

In short, the $16 billion of acknowledged debt in Rhode Island is just the tiniest tip of an iceberg of hopeless proportions.  Don’t fall for the distractions, either: The bill is going to come due, and somebody is going to get shafted.


The Vision of Completion, Left and Right

So, apparently the body type of a character in a new Disney film is raising some ire.  The “Polynesian demi-god Maui” in Moana is of the, let’s say, thick and powerful type, and that’s upsetting some activists.  As Tom Knighton writes, “You can never make SJWs happy.”  (That is, “social justice warriors.”)

Perhaps Knighton should have added “for long,” because each act of capitulation surely pleases them in itself.  But SJWs do seem to have a need to march quickly on to the next complaint that can give them a righteous high.

Even the most-basic story arc of The Lord of the Rings is, in that sense, conservative:  The hobbits are comfortable in the Shire until danger arises; they resolve the danger and then return to their comfort.  They’re changed, of course — stronger and wiser — but their mission is complete.  To Leftists, the battle is always the thing.  Comfort (at least other people’s comfort) is always a lie, because it’s built on the suffering of somebody, somewhere, and rather than find that somebody and ease their suffering, they’d rather attack the comfort.  No justice, no peace.

To be sure, not every progressive or liberal lives on the constant hunt for outrages to battle, but their leading edge (particularly those whose personal financial comfort depends on stoking outrage) certainly is and churns out the latest hashtags, Facebook picture overlays, and fashionable causes that define the virtuous worldview of the moment.

Some on the right have a similar temperament (and incentive system), of course, and no doubt that some on the local Left would say I’m describing myself with the above.  Honestly, though, I can’t imagine being satisfied with an occupation that entailed digging for excuses for activism.  The danger of Sauron did arise, in The Lord of the Rings, even if others might have been inclined to deny it at first, and our world does face, I’d contend, existential dangers that manifest at all levels of government.

My Shire would find me contemplating the universe, reading and writing fiction, and having more time for leisurely activities.  But then, again, I believe in diversity and would be content to let others persist in their errors, provided they leave me space to escape them and leave me free to explain to people who’ll listen what they’ve got wrong.


Imagine a World in Which Everybody Agrees with Me

This parody video of a TED talk has pushed its way to the front of my mind several times since I first saw it a few weeks ago:

The crescendo is the most profound part, when the faux “thought leader” closes thus:

How ’bout we end with a question, a very big question:  What if everybody in this room decided to come together and agree with what I’m saying? Look at a picture of the planet again.  That is a world I want to live in.

You might recognize the “very big question” as precisely the tone that has infected our ruling classes and aggravated so many of the rest of us.  It’s the tone of the Rhode Island Foundation and its Nail Communications video.  And it’s the tone of these comments from Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo responding to recent shootings, particularly of policemen in Dallas.  These three paragraphs came to me (for some reason) as the first item on Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s “Memo to Friends of Education” newsletter today:

It is time to say enough. Enough violence. Enough hate. Enough tragedies. It is a time for healing, time for peacefulness, time for unity.

Let’s commit to being a community that rejects violence and poverty, and embraces diversity and civility. I believe we can be bolder. I believe that our families, neighborhoods, state and country can do better, and I believe we can move forward together.

Today our emotions are raw. We are all filled with a mix of shock, anger, frustration. If anything good can come of these horrific killings, let’s replace these emotions with respect, unity and action to bring about a more just, equal and peaceful Rhode Island.

We absolutely should embrace diversity and civility, but the myopia that leads progressives to adopt the “come together and agree with me” tone may arise from their core belief that we can’t really be diverse.  “Diversity and civility” is just rhetoric as empty as the presentation in the parody video.  They don’t believe, for example, that some private business in some far away state should be permitted to conduct its business in a way with which they disagree — whether the wages that it pays, the materials that it uses, or the projects that it’ll accept.

They’re religious zealots who believe they have uncovered the truth of the universe (although it might change with their fashions) and think we all ought to be cordial while they force us to live as they prefer.  Their civility is that of the persecutor who calls you ma’am or sir while closing the door of the dungeon behind you.


Whitehouse’s Attacks on Private Groups

Rhode Island Democrat U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has repeatedly shown that he’s got no problem using government to go after people and groups he perceives as political enemies.  He’s sympathetic to the literal conspiracy of attorney generals to prosecute those who take a different view on the question of climate change, and now he’s coordinating a smear campaign from the floor of the Senate.

Whitehouse’s office circulated assignments for his fellow Democrat senators for a two-day extravaganza of attacking private center-right think tanks and advocacy groups, from the local (Nevada Policy Research Institute) to the national (Heritage Foundation), from the morally focused (Acton Institute) to the libertarian (Reason Foundation).

To be sure, much of this is the pure stagecraft of politics, but it ought to, in any event, make us a little uncomfortable.  The senators are using a government podium to embark on a coordinated attack on Americans, dividing the country as if their domestic opposition is the real enemy.  One could suggest that it would be incorrect to see Whitehouse as representing all of Rhode Island.  He represents a specific worldview, and he’ll use our money and other resources to advance that worldview and impose its conclusions on everybody who live within the borders of his reach.

English has multiple words by which to describe that sort of behavior.


Bad Rankings, Empty Buzzwords

You just can’t spin Rhode Island’s poor performance, particularly in recent years.  The evidence is just too pervasive.

Based on the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI), the Ocean State has been 48th in the nation since 2012, during the Chafee years.  Looking at employment, the state has been completely stagnant since May 2015, when Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s had implemented her own policies.  Now, we’re back to 50th on CNBC’s ranking of states for business.

Again: You just can’t spin these numbers.  The only legitimate response is that our state is clearly, obviously doing something wrong and needs to rethink its approach.

But reality has not been something to stop Rhode Island’s progressive Democrats.  Our Senate president illustrates something I’ve noted before, that elected officials are more interested in gaming the statistics than changing what’s wrong:

“It doesn’t matter whether those surveys are real or unfair – they’re there, and we’re judged on them,” Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed said in 2013.

And CNBC writer Scott Cohn notes the familiar ring of rhetoric from our current governor:

To hear the governor tell it, Rhode Island is just a few years away from becoming a little business powerhouse.

These big changes, she contends, “will make it cheaper and more attractive to do business here.”

But Raimondo is not the first Rhode Island governor to claim that the state has turned over a new leaf.

Simply put, the first priority of Rhode Island insiders is to maintain their advantage and protect the policies and special deals that give it to them.  Sure, they wouldn’t mind if the economy improved (if only to get these annoying rankings off their backs), but it has to happen in a way that doesn’t harm their leverage.  Similarly, they wouldn’t mind if educational outcomes improved for Rhode Island students, but that has to happen without harming their friends and allies in the teacher’s unions or limiting their ability to pass feel-good policies concerning (for example) recess and transgender bathrooms from the top down.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, the things that the insiders are protecting are the fundamental reason for our state’s suffering.


Purpose, Happiness, and Genes

I do wonder if the obvious hostility toward Christianity limits the conclusions of pieces such as Will Storr’s New Yorker essay on the benefits of a purposeful happiness (“eudaemonia”) for health, at the level of one’s genes, but the insights are good regardless:

When they parsed the data, they saw that Fredrickson’s prediction appeared to be wrong. “This whole hedonic well-being stuff—just how happy are you, how satisfied with life?—didn’t really correlate with gene expression at all,” Cole said. Then he checked the correlation with eudaemonic happiness. “When we looked at that, things actually looked quite impressive,” he said. The results, while small, were clearly significant. “I was rather startled.” The study indicated that people high in eudaemonic happiness were more likely to show the opposite gene profile of those suffering from social isolation: inflammation was down, while antiviral response was up. Since that first test, in 2013, there have been three successful replications of the study, including one of a hundred and eight people, and another of a hundred and twenty-two. According to Cole, the kind of effect sizes that are being found indicate that lacking eudaemonia can be as damaging as smoking or obesity. They also suggest that, although people high in eudaemonic happiness often experience plenty of the hedonic stuff, too, the associated health benefits tend to surface only in those who lead what Aristotle might have called a good life.

“Hedonic,” by the way, isn’t exactly the same thing as hedonism, which implies an excess.

It should surprise nobody who hasn’t written off a spiritual reality that our bodies seem to respond well when we do the things we find ourselves called to do, including building toward larger goals, which implies purpose.  Take that a step farther: Storr and his stable of researchers seem surprised that striving for goals and maintaining multiple ongoing projects have benefits even when they aren’t associated with either socializing or a sense of humanity’s greater good — the former being one good that materialists can imagine us to be evolved to desire and the latter being their sense of the highest purpose.  People who believe in an individual relationship with God, however, can see that living up to one’s own potential and finding one’s own unique purpose can be sufficient of itself.

It would be interesting, next, to test whether there are characteristics of goals that do people particularly well.  There may be no lesson in the exercise, inasmuch as the biology that encourages rightly ordered goals could respond to goals that have been corrupted, but it would be interesting to discover whether correlation is stronger when particular worldviews inform the goals, whether one believes a project serves God’s purpose, will save Mother Nature, or conquer the world with wealth.


Child Care Workers and Questions Never Asked

There’s that phrase again, in the following Providence Journal article by Linda Borg (emphasis added):

Research has shown that children who attend high-quality early childhood programs are more successful in school, repeat grades less often and have higher graduation rates. Children from low-income families lag 18 months behind their more entitled peers in language development.

What research?  And what specifically did it show? Because I’ve seen research show the opposite. From this unsourced paragraph, I’d say the finding was probably more of a correlation of household income with both preschool and better school results.

The embedded assumptions are much deeper than research findings, though.  Consider:

Rhode Island and Maine are the only states in New England that require preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree. A preschool teacher typically works in a school or daycare center and promotes social and emotional learning. A childcare worker provides care rather than early childhood education.

“Currently, a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education occupies the dubious distinction of the college major with the lowest projected lifetime earnings,” according to the study.

Well, maybe some significant portion of the jobs that adults with such degrees take really don’t require the expensive credentials.  Or maybe the pay for the high end of the degree (e.g., public school elementary school teacher) is artificially high, which sends a distorted signal to workers that the market needs more such professionals, who then find that they can’t get the work they want because there aren’t enough jobs and therefore flood the lower-pay end of their profession and drive those wages down even more (making it even more valuable to gain one of the artificially over-paid jobs).

We really, really have to break the pattern of implementing public policy based on feelings and then trying to patch the leaks with subsidies and mandates when our meddling distorts the market.  Prices (including wages) are just signals.  If “childcare workers are among the lowest-paid workers in the country,” we have to figure out what signal that fact is sending us and, if it’s not healthy, figure out how to change that.  Otherwise we’ll harm more people than we help every time.


Is Climate Change Persecution Fading Already?

With one of our U.S. Senators’, Mr. Sheldon Whitehouse (Democrat, naturally), being a key figure in the fascist effort to pursue legal persecution of people who have a contrary opinion to him on the politically charged issue of global climate change, Rhode Islanders might be interested to hear that some of his allies are backing away from his level of aggression, as the Wall Street Journal notes (text here):

Virgin Islands AG Claude Walker recently withdrew his subpoena of Exxon Mobil. He was a leader among the 17 AGs charging that the oil giant defrauded shareholders by hiding the truth about global warming. That’s hard to prove when the company’s climate-change research was published in peer-reviewed journals.

Mr. Walker also targeted some 90 think tanks and other groups in an attempt to punish climate dissent. These groups and others, including these columns, pushed back on First Amendment grounds, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute counter-sued Mr. Walker and demanded sanctions. He pulled his subpoena against CEI last month.

The real shame, and the real warning sign, is that those AGs, and fellow travelers like Whitehouse, weren’t instantly lambasted by people across America’s political spectrum for even initiating such patently offensive-to-freedom steps .


Taking the “Predatory” Out of Lending

Although I can’t find the offending essay, just now, some years back, I upset some people by suggesting that the attack on payday loans was taking the wrong direction by using government to shut the practice down.  As I’ve also noted, such approaches tend to address what activists see as a problem without addressing (or even seeking) the underlying incentives.  As a result they can make things worse by, for example, denying opportunity to somebody whose specific interests might actually be served by a short-term loan at very high interest.

I noticed, in particular, that while all of the activists were sure that the terms of such loans were unfair, none of them appeared interested in providing high-risk, short-term loans at better rates, whether as a better business model or by writing off any losses as charity.  If the argument is that lenders are abusing people and charging them unfair rates, given the risk, then it ought to be easy for more moral people to make a healthy profit at the same occupation; otherwise, we can’t really say that the lenders are being abusive.

I was intrigued to see, therefore, a Los Angeles Times article reprinted in the Providence Journal, this weekend, about employers setting up such programs as a benefit:

[Doug] Farry isn’t trying to shame employers into boosting wages. He’s trying to persuade them to sign up with his company, Employee Loan Solutions, a San Diego startup that works with a Minnesota bank to offer short-term loans. They carry a relatively high interest rate but are still cheaper than typical payday loans. …

That there are multiple firms in the market illustrates the size of the opportunity and the dire financial straits many workers experience. An estimated 12 million Americans use payday loans, borrowing tens of billions of dollars annually.

Even with this approach, activists are worried that the loans don’t come with enough investigation about borrowers’ ability to pay, to which the entrepreneurs point out that they’re serving customers’ needs for high-risk loans made on short notice at the lowest possible cost.  Paying for reviews of their credit will either take longer than they have to wait or cost more than they can afford to pay.

Whether any of these products is the ideal solution, I don’t know.  But in a recurring theme, of late, solutions have to begin by acknowledging that everybody involved in a transaction is a human being in unique circumstances that can’t be addressed well when activists use government to make judgments for people whom they don’t know.


RI Foundation’s Sneak-Attack on Free-Speech

Should Rhode Islanders silently accept the corrupt political climate that has failed so many of us? Or should we, as free citizens in our uniquely American democracy, be encouraged to freely speak-out and engage in a battle of ideas so as to help make our state a safer and more prosperous place to live, to raise a family, and to build a career?

It is the Center’s primary mission to stimulate such rigorous public debate about important policy issues. However, the most powerful and wealthy nonprofit organization in our state is asking you to shut up.

As part of its own 100th year celebration, the Rhode Island Foundation this week published and promoted a video, which, in essence, encourages people to remain silent and to accept that the political elite know best about what’s in your and my best interests.

In what initially seems to be a video for kids, it is shameful that the Foundation hides its adult message behind children. With the frequent backdrop of our State House, it is obvious that the video is intended to be political. Under the pretense of “be nice or be quiet”, the Foundation is clear in its message that is directed to all of us – that we should just “stop complaining”.

Stop complaining about Rhode Island’s 48th place ranking on the national Family Prosperity Index?
Stop complaining that so many of our neighbors cannot find or have given up looking for meaningful work?
Stop complaining about the political corruption that continues to embarrass our state?
Stop complaining about the lack of bold and decisive action to do anything significant about it?

I don’t think so.

It is also despicable that the Foundation forces these children to read text that has to be bleeped.

← Older posts...