Who’s “Working for the Government”?

Two items in today’s Providence Journal “Political Scene” column make me hope for broad agreement on a proposition.  Item 1:

In 2012, Political Scene reported that Kilmartin and his wife, Kristine, derived big chunks of their income the previous year from his $56,862-a-year pension as a retired Pawtucket police officer. When she retired that year, on the cusp of her 51st birthday, as director of the legislature’s data-services office, she started collecting her own $60,030.96-a-year state pension.

Total pensions: $116,893.  According to the RIOpenGov payrol application, Kilmartin added $116,611 via his salary as AG.  Total income: $233,504.

Item 2:

Former Family Court Magistrate John J. O’Brien retired with two state pensions totaling more than $195,000. …

The retired chief judge of the state Family Court, Jeremiah S. Jeremiah Jr., took another path to receive $207,207 in two pensions  — municipal ($22,126) and judicial ($185,648).

Proposition: Can we all agree that it’s simply obscene for households to live this well off the public dime — for work they are no longer doing?  

Really.  Flip over to the commentary section of the paper, and you see a letter from Lorraine Keyes, of West Warwick, who returned to her Westerly business after a few months away only to discover that an oversight in paying her taxes resulted in not only hundreds of dollars of additional fees, but also a heavy-handed threat that the town would be selling her property two months later if the bill were not paid.  Her conclusion:

No wonder people leave Rhode Island as soon as they can. I don’t know if this happens in every town, but it is such a shame that this state tries to drain every cent it can from the average person.

Oh, Lorraine.  Even just in the state system, Westerly’s got 245 retired employees taking home up to $95,237 per year.

Don’t you see?  They don’t work for us (literally, in the case of retirees).  We work for them.  Everything you own in Rhode Island, even if you think you built it, is really just a privilege that they allow you to enjoy while supporting their machine.  If you’re not going to keep up on your payments, naturally they’ll take it all away.

Perverting the Utility of Shame

Speaking of an ailing civic system, Megan McArdle’s worth reading on the subject of public shaming:

In the small groups we evolved to live in, shame is tempered by love and forgiveness. People are shamed for some transgression, then they are restored to the group. Ultimately, the shamed person is not an enemy; he or she is someone you need and want to get along with. This is how you make up with your spouse after one or both of you has done or said something terrible. …

On the Internet, when all the social context is stripped away and you don’t even have to look at the face of the person you’re being mean to, shame loses its social, restorative function. Shame-storming isn’t punishment. It’s a weapon. And weapons aren’t supposed to be used against people in your community; they’re for strangers, people in some other group that you don’t like very much.

The Internet has brought things to a sharp edge, but anybody involved in local politics — particularly if they face progressives who believe they speak for The Community — will recognize McArdle’s notion of shaming as a weapon against an enemy group.  That pretty precisely describes my experience in Tiverton.

Glenn Reynolds sharpens the edge a little more, writing:

They’re not well-meaning people who want to make our shared society better, and sometimes just get carried away. They’re angry, vicious people who want to eliminate disagreement.

At this level of conversation, though, the “they” has to be defined.  McArdle suggests that the people engaged in online social shaming probably would back away from a mob doing it to somebody in person.

Many on the political Right want to turn the psychological warfare of Saul Alinsky back on the Left, but that strikes me as a misunderstanding of objectives (or perhaps evidence that the objectives of some of our conservative friends are more alike to those of our progressive non-friends than should be the case).  Rather, we need a counter-weapon, and as difficult as it might be, the sole antidote may be standing up to the attacks and letting those who’ve sided with the attackers slowly come to the realization that they’re on the wrong side.

Magaziner’s Uninformative Op-Ed

Politics is a game of persuasion… if we’re putting it nicely.  “Deception” would probably be more accurate.

But even within that jaded paradigm, I have to marvel at how uninformative state General Treasurer Seth Magaziner’s op-ed in yesterday’s Providence Journal is.  Even putting aside questions about the green theology, the op-ed doesn’t really explain what the treasurer wants to do.

We’ve got a name change of the RI Clean Water Finance Agency, and we’ve got a couple of green-industry ideas, but shouldn’t the treasurer of the state focus on explaining what the bank would mean, functionally, and how much it would cost?  Presumably, an op-ed is meant to be the policy folks’ medium for explaining their proposal to the broader public.  If the treasurer of the state is offering mainly assertions about the wonders of his idea, who’s going to translate the nuts and bolts for the masses?

Our civic culture is really much-deteriorated around here.

Getting Economic Development Wrong

Readers may get the impression of a broken record with this post.  Before I go on, perhaps I should explain to the younger folks that records were large black vinyl discs, of about 10 or 12 inches, that would spin on a table called a “record player,” with a needle following grooves in the plastic and thereby transmitted prerecorded audio.  If the record were scratched, the needle would skip across grooves and the listener would often hear the same phrase repeated over and over again.

Anyway, repetition is obligatory in Rhode Island, these days, because the people we’ve elected to public office have the completely incorrect view of economic development.  Here’s Governor Gina Raimondo’s Commerce Czar Stefan Pryor responding to the House Finance Committee’s concern that the governor intends to give him a great deal of money and discretion:

… Pryor bluntly told the committee that the corporation cannot grow the state’s economy without the programs proposed in the governor’s budget. He described a conversation he had with the corporation’s executive staff before he formally assumed his new role earlier this year. Pryor said he asked the staff how Rhode Island would attempt to compete with a company that arrived in the state with a list of project terms provided by another nearby state, such as New York.

“This is not a fictionalization. This is the actual answer I got back: We cannot — on any point,” Pryor said. 

“That’s a problem. We must ensure the appropriate level of accountability and the necessary level of flexibility to carry out this work. But the primary problem that we have is we can’t even counter. We can’t help our businesses in Rhode Island grow.”

Simply put, it should not be the role of government to take money away from the people who live in the state in order to outbid other states’ bribes to lure the economic actors whom government prefers to the state.  Rather, the government’s role should be to ensure that Rhode Islanders have the space — in stability, security, and infrastructure — to make their state a place that attracts the sorts of economic actors whom they prefer.

Politicians sometimes say that Rhode Islanders are Rhode Island’s greatest asset, but they don’t really mean it.  If they did, they’d let Rhode Islanders maximize their own efforts toward building their lives and shaping their state.

The technocratic, Raimondian method of economic development is akin to confiscating money from the music industry in order to subsidize companies that make enhanced record players when they should be leaving the money in the economy and trimming regulations in order to allow Rhode Islanders to develop cassettes, compact discs, and mp3 players.

Lincoln Chafee’s sense of modern politics could indicate the U.S. has caught RI’s civic illness

A shock went through the collective psyche of Rhode Island when former governor Lincoln Chafee announced that he had formed an exploratory committee to consider a run for the Democrat nomination for President of the United States in 2016.  As governor, Chafee’s public support became so thin that he announced in September 2013 that he would not seek reelection to his office, which didn’t expire until January 2015.

Stepping back from the local incredulity, however, it’s an open question whether Chafee’s got a political sense that his critics lack.  Maybe things like experience and evidence don’t matter as much as they once did.

Continue reading on WatchDog.org.

A Two Million Plus Dollar a Year Loser of a Stadium: What Does the Governor See that Almost No One Else Does?

Two million dollars per year because that is the projected annual loss for state taxpayers in the just-unveiled proposal by the new owners of the Paw Sox for construction of a baseball stadium in Providence. It’s worth repeating: the numbers offered by the Paw Sox owners THEMSELVES have state taxpayers losing two million dollars per year.

“Plus” – and the plus could be quite a large figure – because the president of the Providence City Council has told WPRI’s Dan McGowan that Providence would be looking to state taxpayers to pick up the property taxes that the owners of the Paw Sox have requested to be relieved of. This suggestion would be a laff riot, especially in light of the state’s multi-hundred million dollar structural deficit, except that the council president seemed quite serious about it.

Earlier today, John Marion tweeted out,

Received a call from someone looking to know if there is an organization actively opposing the PawSox stadium deal. Anyone know if there is?

Most of the reaction I’ve seen and heard can be described as “actively opposing” the stadium (also: vigorously opposing, seriously concerned about and downright appalled by), though a single-purpose opposition organization – presumably what Marion’s caller meant – has not yet popped up. Even Bob Plain over at RI Future, never shy about spending tax dollars, has expressed skepticism about the proposal.

In fact, it would be far quicker to list those who support the Paw Sox proposal. This list so far consists of the building trades unions – not a shock as the Paw Sox owners have promised that the proposed stadium would be built with union labor.

Enter Governor Raimondo, who spoke to NBC 10’s Bill Rappleye today.

“I also think this has the potential to create a lot of jobs – immediately construction jobs,” Raimondo said. “It brings people into the city and could catalyze other economic development in the area, which has been done in other cities. If we do it right, I think it could be a good piece of our economic puzzle.”

The Convention Center Authority, 38 Studios and others – the very last thing that state taxpayers can afford is yet another costly economic development loss leader. But by the Paw Sox owners own calculations, that’s exactly where we would be headed with a minor league baseball stadium in Providence. We would respectfully ask to see your numbers, Governor Raimondo. How exactly would a brand new $2+ million hole in the budget make a good contribution to the state’s “economic puzzle”?

Following Up on EITC

While looking into Rhode Island’s earned income tax credit (EITC) benefit for lower-income workers, I asked Director of Revenue Analysis Paul Dion to clarify something in the revenue expenditure report that his office maintains.  The answer might put Governor Raimondo’s proposal to increase the EITC in a new light.

Under current law, recipients of the EITC can receive 10% of the federal version of the benefit, and 100% of it is refundable, meaning that even if the credit is greater than their actual tax liability, they get the money back as a refund.  (I have confirmed, by the way, that beneficiaries do actually have to have some taxable income.)

The estimates for the cost of the program that I cited from the report were based on the law as it was before the General Assembly changed it last year.  Before, beneficiaries could get 25% of the federal EITC, but they would only receive 15% of a resulting refund.

That change slipped through without much notice, though, because budget documents paired it with a reduction of property tax relief for elderly and disabled residents.  The two changes together actually had a taxpayer savings of $3.9 million.  I, for one, had thought that meant the EITC change turned out to be a reduction, so both parts of the package were cuts.

According to Dion, that was not the case.  The EITC change actually increased the cost of the program by $4,293,291.  Roughly speaking, then, the cost of the program, in 2015, is more like $16 million, rather than $12.2 million, with an average benefit of $167 per year.

For the next budget year, Raimondo’s benefit increase would bring the total program up to $19.1 million, about a 70% increase over two years, bringing the total average benefit to around $192 per year.  The following year would bring the program’s cost up to $22 million or so, because the budget increases it by the same increment in the second year, essentially doubling the cost from its 2014 base.

Can Rhode Island really afford to continue ratcheting up its degree of income redistribution?  Add in other burdens on the economy, like the continually growing minimum wage, and it’s little wonder that our labor force is shrinking and employment struggling.

Coming up in Committee: Proposed Constitutional Amendments Being Heard by the RI General Assembly, April 14 – April 15

1. Proposed constitutional amendments, requiring voter approval if passed by the legislature, being heard in the Rhode Island General Assembly this week:

  • S0173: Subjects the General Assembly to the state Ethics Commission, while changing the composition of the commission so that 6 of its 11 members are appointed by the Governor from lists of candidates submitted by “the speaker of the house of representatives, the majority leader of the house of representatives, the minority leader of the house of representatives, the president of the senate, the majority leader of the senate, and the minority leader of the senate”, and allows Ethics Commission decisions to be appealed to the courts. (S Judiciary; Tue, Apr 14)
  • S0056: Subjects the General Assembly to the state Ethics Commission and that’s it. (S Judiciary; Tue, Apr 14)
  • S0057/S0059: Line-item veto for the Governor of Rhode Island. (S Judiciary; Tue, Apr 14)
  • S0062: Extends state Senator and state Representative terms to four years, in return for creating a term-limit of three terms. (S Judiciary; Tue, Apr 14)
  • S0436: Mandates instant-runoff voting for the state’s general officers (but doesn’t specify the details of the process, though that could reasonably left to legislation). (S Judiciary; Tue, Apr 14)
  • H6027: Eliminates the requirement of 30 days of residency at an address, before being allowed to vote in an election as a registered voter at that address. (H Judiciary; Wed, Apr 15)

Coming up in Committee: Gun Rights/Gun Control Bills Being Heard by the RI General Assembly, April 14 – April 15

2. Of this year’s raft of gun rights/gun-control bills, this one is the most significant:

  • H6017: Changes concealed carry permitting authority for the RI Attorney General from a “may issue” basis, to a “shall issue” basis, provided that the permit applicant passes a background check, and meets all criteria laid out in a detailed application specified in the law. (H Judiciary; Wed, Apr 15)

The other bills being heard are:

  • H5872: Extends the ban on individuals convicted of committing crimes of violence “purchasing, owning, carrying, transporting, or having in his or her possession any firearm” to individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors. (H Judiciary; Tue, Apr 14)

Coming up in Committee: Twenty-Five Sets of Bills Being Heard by the RI General Assembly, April 14 – April 16

3. H5819: 1) Outlaws stop-and-frisk police procedures by extending the current requirement that motor vehicle stops be predicated on “reasonable suspicion or probable cause of criminal activity” to pedestrians, 2) requires that, whenever possible, motor vehicle stops be recorded (but not making the recordings part of the public record), and 3) mandates that the department of transportation gather data on whether “racial disparities in traffic stops exist”. (H Judiciary; Tue, Apr 14)

4. Bud. Art. 11, sec 15: Creates a statewide property tax on non-owner occupied residential property, applied to properties valued at $1M or more.(S Finance; Tue, Apr 14) The odd construction regarding taxing the privilege of owning property rather than the property itself is slated to be removed by amendment (h/t Katherine Gregg).

5. S0296: Repeals the section of the law allowing “deferred deposit” loans, i.e. “pay-day” loans, also eliminating the provisions in the law that allow check-cashing businesses to automatically operate as pay-day lenders. (S Commerce; Tue, Apr 14) According to the official description, this is a complete repeal of pay-day lending.

6. Bud. Art. 29: Gives the Commerce Corporation power to issue tax-credits for large construction projects, with special provisions allowing projects in Providence — oh, excuse me; in communities with 150,000 or more in population — to be fast-tracked, allowing them to bypass local building and inspection requirements. (H Finance; Wed, Apr 15)

The Corporatist Net Is Tightening

In keeping with a recurring theme, on this site, a statement from Governor Raimondo that appeared in a Providence Journal blurb last Wednesday raises a central, fundamental question that nobody is asking as part of the discussion about how to move Rhode Island forward (or at least stop its backwards trajectory).  The topic has to do with government job-training programs:

“We have to put employers at the center of the process to determine what they need to hire workers,” she said, “It has to be employer-driven and it has to move at the speed of business.”

Here’s the question:  Why is it a legitimate government activity to shape the population to fit the needs of corporations?

Seriously.  I’m a free-market champion, and improving the business environment is critical.  But (1) that can be done by loosening, rather than tightening, the government’s grip on the reins, and (2) people, not businesses, must be central.  If businesses are telling the government what sort of employees they need, and if government is using its coercive advantages in order to shape the people to fit the request, that isn’t free market.  It’s corporatist and certain to result in long-term stagnation and a dismantling of the bridge between the have-nots and haves.

Regulatory Humility as an Illustration for Civic Principles in RI and IN

Federal Trade Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen believes in “regulatory humility,” and policy makers on the state level would be wise to hear her out. The concept is one that seems like common sense, but examples in government and politics more generally suggest that humility is less attractive in practice.

With reference to economic theories by the likes of Friedrich Hayek that are, she says, not exactly in dispute these days, Ohlhausen explained at a recent American Enterprise Institute event that regulators should be aware of their limits.  Especially in an era of technological lunges, regulators can’t know everything about the industries that they regulate–let alone other industries that innovation might bring into competition–while facing an unknowable future.

A skim of the legislation proposed in any state will likely show a less-than-humble approach to regulating (although some will be worse than others).

Continue reading on WatchDog.org.

The Chafee Indictment of Our Political System

Given the title ,”Why Chafee for President actually makes sense,” I wanted to be able to lay into Ted Nesi’s essay, but I really can’t.  It’s smart and well reasoned.  But for all that, it’s a discouraging statement on the state of our political system.

Here’s a guy who had no real success as a U.S. Senator and was arguably a disaster as governor.  His go-to talking point is that unemployment dropped during his term as governor, but that’s only the case because people’s hopelessness drove them out of the workforce.  By all appearances, he opted not to run for a second term because he realized he had no chance whatsoever and might very well be heavily chastened by the vote totals.

As Ted suggests, though, he’s rich; he’s got an outsized ego; this will get him some attention; and he’s got nothing else to do, right now.  Here’s the depressing part:

During his time as governor, Chafee’s aides would marvel at the warm response he’d receive when he traveled out of state, a marked contrast with his 30%ish approval ratings at home. Many Democrats still appreciate his votes as a GOP senator against the Iraq war and the Bush tax cuts, as well as his repeated argument that the Republican Party is no longer open to pro-environment, pro-choice, dovish moderates like himself. Most Iowa and New Hampshire primary voters have never heard of 38 Studios – and Chafee has no reason to tell them about it. (Although, Chafee being Chafee, he probably will anyway.) His authenticity and quirkiness could play well in the retail politics atmosphere of those early states, particularly with Clinton skeptics searching for an alternative.

Political statements are fine… valuable, even.  If subgroups of the major parties can have an effect on important races, then that’s a positive feature of our political system.  But going with Chafee would be worse than going with somebody who is either completely unknown or who has name recognition, but hasn’t really done anything.  He’s demonstrably not a competent executive or a good leader of large, diverse populations.

The statement isn’t even, “Hey, let’s give this guy a shot.”  It’s more like, “What’s governing have to do with elections?”

Coming up in Committee: Ten Sets of Bills to be Heard by the RI General Assembly, Today, April 9

1. H5563: Inter-district school choice plan for Rhode Island public schools, where “any child may attend a public school, in a city or town where he/she does not reside, as provided for in this chapter”. (H Finance; Thu, Apr 9)

2. H5956: Bans union versus non-union status from being used as a criterion for the awarding of public contracts, and prohibits public-works contracting provisions requiring utilization of specific unions, or requiring that a union be recognized as an exclusive bargaining representative. (H Labor; Thu, Apr 9)

3. H5962: Extends the authority of the Director of Environment Management to regulate construction near freshwater wetlands, to include granting building approvals over “areas subject to flooding”, “contiguous areas that extend outward”, or land “two hundred feet from the edge”. (H Environment and Natural Resources; Thu, Apr 9)

The Academy’s Fruits in the Grown-Up World

After coming across the subject five or six times, I finally followed a link on Instapundit to Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s attempt at a left-wing explanation and, to some degree, rationalization of Rolling Stone’s fake reporting on rape at the University of Virginia.  The article reminded me of the much-ballyhooed gobbledegook that good liberal students used to churn out when I was in college.

The Bruenig passage on which most commentators have focused consists of a pair of paragraphs, the first of which explains the subtle thought of liberals in understanding oppression versus the second of which, asserting the brutish right-wing “obsession” with individual, factual cases and “specific details.”  Admittedly, it’s a telling turnabout.  The Left, in its superior thought, understands the real Truth, even if it can’t be articulated in actual facts; the Right, being less capable of the higher thought that transcends facts, extrapolates meaning from mere happenstance.

The more interesting passage, though, is the one that fully articulates Bruenig’s thesis:

Pinning an indictment of a system on the story of an individual is essentially a rightwing tactic with a dodgy success rate; it’s a way of using an individual as a metonym for systematic analysis that both overplays the role of individual heroism and effort and underplays the complicated nature of oppression as a feature of institutions, policies, traditions, and persons.

Note that this is presented as if it’s one of those examples of higher thoughts that needn’t be attached to “specific details.”  The word for that (even if only in right-wing circles) is “unsubstantiated.”  Upon a little bit of thought, in fact, it’s utter nonsense.  From Saul Alinsky’s rule to “personalize” issues to the labor-friendly “Ballad of Joe Hill” to the statement that a single death is a tragedy while a million deaths is a statistic, generally attributed to Joseph Stalin, the Left has long consolidated movements into individual stories.

Bruenig is accurately describing a leftist tactic, but because the context puts it in a bad light, it must temporarily be characterized as a right-wing tactic.  It’s not unlike analysis of religious freedom laws that depends on whether they advance conservative or progressive causes at a particular moment.

The Bruenig essay brings to mind a law review article by now-Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, in which he expounded on the constitutionality of using government schools to teach that God does not exist.  (See also here, here, and here.)  In my brutish, fact-driven conservatism these two examples seem like evidence of the Left’s strategy to destroy the capacity of Americans to engage in reason, as opposed to logical gymnastics to support conclusions that are actually driven by politics and emotion.  The gobbledegook of the classroom has made its way into the grown-up world.

That may help to explain why government and the news media seem to operate as if the world has the padded safety of the campus, permitting concentration on abstract “deeper truths” disconnected from reality.