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School Choice and Elections

A pair of items on today’s Wall Street Journal opinion pages connect the issue of school choice with the election last week.  First a column by Jason Riley:

… most policies that effect our daily lives are generated at the state and local level, not in Washington. Nowhere is this more evident than education, where Republicans governors and state legislatures have advanced all manner of school-choice options over the past decade, to the benefit of low-income families. More than three million children now attend charter schools, and private-school choice, including voucher programs, has spread to 20 states and the District of Columbia. Education reformers are concerned that Democratic state-level gains in the midterms could now jeopardize decades of real progress.

I’m not so sure about Riley’s predictions.  As a general matter, the biggest push for school choice (mainly charter schools and voucher-like programs) came when Republicans held the White House, but before the shift toward the GOP at the state level, nationwide.  When a Democrat took the White House but the Democrats lost ground among the state, that momentum seems to have slowed.  So… we’ll see.

What’s interesting, though, is to combine Riley’s mention of school choice as a political issue across the country with an unsigned editorial on the facing page:

It’s impossible to know for certain what motivates voters, but [Republicans Doug Ducey of Arizona and Ron DeSantis of Florida] appear to have won more minority votes because of their support for school choice. A survey last month by Harvard’s Education Next journal showed 56% of blacks and 62% of Hispanics favored private-school vouchers for low-income families.

And what do you know? According to exit polls, Mr. Ducey received 44% of the Latino vote, which is significantly more than the 30% that Martha McSally tallied in her Senate bid. In Florida, 44% of Latinos and 14% of blacks backed Mr. DeSantis compared to 38% and 12% for Gov. Rick Scott four years earlier.

Liberating kids trapped in failing public schools is a matter of moral principle, but it’s nice to discover that doing the right thing can also pay off politically.

Somehow the infamous statement of former Democrat Vice President Joe Biden that Republicans would put black Americans “back in chains” comes to mind.  The opposite is the truth, and the school choice issue illustrates the point.

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Another Special Arrangement for a Rhode Island Government Union

WPRI’s Tim White provides another example of the excesses of government union contracts in Rhode Island:

A disproportionate number of Rhode Island sheriffs are out of work after claiming an on-the-job injury, collecting their full salaries tax-free at a cost to taxpayers of more than $2 million a year, according to a Target 12 review of payroll data.

As of September, 23 of the 179 sheriffs were on injured on duty status, or IOD. By comparison, only three of Rhode Island’s 226 state police troopers are out on IOD.

Target 12 discovered that unlike other public safety agencies, Rhode Island’s sheriffs have a unique two-tiered system that allows them to stay on IOD for years. Of the 23 sheriffs who currently have that status, seven have been on IOD for more than four years, with four on IOD for more than eight years. The longest for 11 years and nine months, as of September.

That $2 million is just the start, because the courthouse sheriff division has to pay overtime to cover missing employees, approximately $732,000 annually.  Moreover, the lack of sheriffs creates inefficient and dangerous environment, as courtrooms close or judges go without security.

Last year, the General Assembly refused to act, and Rhode Island law stacks the deck too strongly in favor of unions during negotiations, and that’s beyond the degree to which unions’ political activity places friendly faces on the other side of the negotiating table. This state of affairs can’t go on forever, especially in a state that strangles its economy with taxes and regulations.

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A Possible Misunderstanding of the Status of Representatives

We’re only hearing murmurs, but already one #MeToo-era bill potentially on track for introduction into the Rhode Island General Assembly for the upcoming legislative session suggests that lawmakers don’t quite understand their unique roles in our system:

A top Democrat in the state House of Representatives has written legislation that would create an “Equal Opportunity Employment Officer” in state government with the power to investigate claims of sexual harassment within the General Assembly.

Rep. Christopher Blazejewski, the deputy majority whip in House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s leadership team, plans to pre-file a bill creating the office and a special committee on professional conduct with “broad investigatory and disciplinary powers,” he said in a news release.

A new office with “broad” powers to discipline elected legislators?  That’s not how this stuff is supposed to work.  Legislators aren’t employees; they’re representatives.  The state government didn’t hire them.  They aren’t there by contract or the assent of the other legislators.  They’re supposed to answer to their constituents.  Period.

That doesn’t give them a get-out-of-jail-free card if they break the law, but it should suggest wariness about appointing independent government officials with the power to “discipline” them.  The potential for mischief is huge.  From a narrowly political standpoint, such an officer could selectively enforce the rules and abuse the investigatory power to tar disfavored politicians.  From a wider philosophical standpoint, one can easily imagine circumstances in which a district elects a legislator explicitly because of his or her beliefs about men and women only to find expression of those beliefs to be subject to discipline.

Representative Katherine Kazarian reinforces the impression that some legislators are losing sight of their unique role when she says, “All legislators deserve to represent their communities and engage in the political process free from harassment and retaliation.”  Again, they are not employees, nor are they constituents.  They are adults whom we sent to the State House to battle for policy on our behalf.

They should be able to utilize the political system to hold their fellow legislators accountable and turn to voters for accountability.  This sort of legislation makes profound changes to the roles of the people in our political system.

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What If the Press Is Deserving of Mistrust?

A line in an op-ed by former Providence Journal columnist Edward Fitzpatrick has stuck in my head for the past few days:

There are near-daily additions to a dangerous “enemy-of-the-people” line of attack [against the mainstream media], which is chipping away at a cornerstone of our democracy.

“Chipping away at a cornerstone of our democracy.”  I wonder what Fitzpatrick thinks of the press’s role in demonizing President George W. Bush (including Dan Rather’s infamous Memogate), fawning over President Barack Obama, belittling the Tea Party, demonizing Republican Presidential Candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney (but only when they were running against Obama), and playing their part in the ongoing effort to delegitimize the current (legitimately elected) president.

Another line ought to have stuck in Fitzpatrick’s head, but he seems not even to have picked up on its true import (emphasis added):

Here in the home of the First Amendment, the last thing we should ever see is a U.S. president praising a politician who was convicted of assaulting a reporter. But that’s exactly what happened on Oct. 18, when Trump praised Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, for body-slamming a reporter in 2017. Trump said anyone who did such a thing was “my kind of guy.” Worse yet, the crowd cheered.

Now, Gianforte’s actions were wrong, and Trump’s lauding of them was callous, but:  “the crowd cheered.”  I’d suggest that the crowd was primed to cheer long before President Trump began using their attitude toward the media for his own advantage.  Those folks have long experience with the plain reality that, when it comes to any issue of importance to elite sensibilities or keeping liberal Democrats in power, the press is not above trying to use its cornerstone to shift democracy.

President Trump is too blunt and vehement in pushing back against the press, but a big contributor to his success has been the frustration of “the crowd” that nobody else would or could.  Perhaps rather than presenting that crowd as mindless drones manipulated by the president, Fitzpatrick and his peers should ask why the mainstream media lost their trust and what journalists and their employers could do to earn it back.

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Two Economic Directions for a Generation

We hear a lot of stereotypes about young adults in America today — that they’re soft snowflakes who can’t take criticism and think the world owes them ease and security.  Posts like this one by Helen Smith reinforce that view, noting that there is a 500,000-man gap of 25-to-34-year-olds who should be in the workforce but aren’t:

The colleges are hostile environments and bad fits for many of these men who know that they will not flourish there. Add in the risks of marriage for these men and the fact that many women don’t want them and leisure time playing video games seems like a better alternative, particularly if you can live at home to support a good time. It’s kind of like they are on strike or something.

Instead of punching a clock, they’ve checked out.  They live at home or collect some sort of disability or welfare subsidy.  Maybe they extend their educations (perhaps as a condition of the government’s or mom and dad’s indulgence), following up their useless four-year degrees by spending more of their youth chasing a career-specific education, or maybe they put themselves in a holding pattern, with no degrees or pursuits, just waiting for something to happen.  They’re looking for an easy path and draining their parents’ or taxpayers’ resources.

On the other hand, there’s this encouraging bit of news:

Generation Z—those who were born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s—are more often turning to trade schools to avoid the skyrocketing student debt crisis and hone skills that translate directly into jobs, from electrical engineering to cosmetology. While the power of trade unions has dwindled, and societal value still favors more elite professions, young students are finding themselves drawn to stable paychecks in fields where there’s an obvious need.

The appended podcast has the headline: “The Hot New Gen-Z Trend Is Skipping College.”  Per this narrative, young adults want to work, and their rational assessment of current conditions is finally overcoming a cultural bias for a particular direction.  More kids should go into the trades.  They provide a path with tremendous opportunity, life lessons, and fulfillment.

With a broader perspective, we can see the operation of our economy.  The young adults in the first group are spending down what their parents have earned, and the young adults in the second group are preparing to collect it, thus shifting our society’s wealth toward those who advance our economy.  This will be healthy if the government doesn’t interfere… but it will.

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A Pro-Family Attitude Can’t Put Comfort Above Life

About a month ago, Gerry, a reader of Rod Dreher’s blog, sent him a 2,600-word complaint against professedly pro-family conservatives who promote economic policies that create disincentive to have children.  His points are too densely packed to pick a representative section, but in summary, he sees everything from our health care system to our immigration system to housing costs as of conservative origin and as creating too much risk to allow his wife and him to have children.

Of course, he’s mistaken about much of it.  The idea that conservatives support our current health care system or that it has a free market design is absurd.  But also of course, he has a fair point when he complains that people in his conservative community didn’t help a family member who had fallen on hard times.  They should have, which is what conservatives would encourage.

More interesting, though, is the underlying assumption of Gerry’s rant: He feels that he shouldn’t have children in the face of risk and that it is the government’s job to smooth those risks.  In that respect, I can’t help but see a connection to the contraceptive mentality.  At core, in my view, the problem with contraception is that it moves the responsibility and fault for unwanted pregnancy onto an object or chemical, rather than on the parents. Gerry just abstracts that principle further, such that the responsibility for children rests not with the parents, but the government, and the fault for (potentially) not being able to remain comfortable while having children rests on the government’s shoulders, rather than on the parents’ personal ambitions.

Having children is always a risk.  Life is always a risk.  Gerry, as a Christian, should appreciate the point that if life was supposed to be otherwise, then God would have made it so.

Instead, he seems to elevate comfort — his comfort — above life.  That may or may not be rational, but it certainly isn’t pro-family.

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Increased Wealth and Equality Lead to Gender Differences

So here’s a global research outcome, published in Sciencethat is different from what we’re supposed to believe:

We contrasted and tested two hypotheses that make opposite predictions concerning the cross-country association of gender differences in preferences with economic development and gender equality. On one hand, the attenuation of gender-specific social roles that arises in more developed and gender-egalitarian countries may alleviate differences in preferences between women and men. As a consequence, one would expect gender differences in preferences to be negatively associated with higher levels of economic development and gender equality (social role hypothesis). On the other hand, greater availability of material and social resources removes the gender-neutral goal of subsistence, which creates the scope for gender-specific ambitions and desires. In addition, more gender-equal access to those resources may allow women and men to express preferences independently from each other. …

Gender differences were found to be strongly positively associated with economic development as well as gender equality.

When men and women can afford to choose their occupations, they tend to choose differently.

Of course, this doesn’t tell us whether a particular woman is better for some job than a particular man or how much different jobs are worth in the marketplace.  It should, however, lead us to pause before declaring that any occupation that isn’t distributed 50:50 across the sexes is evidence of sexism. It should also lead us to ponder whether forcing parity would require forcing a reduction in wealth, freedom, and equality.

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What the Newspapers Emphasize

Just for fun, I’ll be keeping an eye on the Sakonnet Times’ coverage of the local election results.  Readers may recall that the paper decided that the first town budget fight that my friends and I lost after four straight victories was the only one worth reporting on the front page.  Moreover, the headline seemed to present me (like my most-aggressive opponents do) as some interloping enemy of the community:  “Voters favor Town vs. Katz.”

How will the paper cover our local electoral victory, which saw the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) gain control over the town council and the budget committee and led a rejection of ballot questions that would have limited voter control over the budget?  In Portsmouth, the Sakonnet Times‘ sister publication, the Portsmouth Times, proclaimed at the top:  “A big night for Democrats.”  Another East Bay RI paper, the Bristol Phoenix, went with, “Bristol voters choose new faces… and reward old favorites,” the majority of whom are Democrats.  In East Providence, Democrat Mayor-Elect Bob DaSilva got a triumphant photo under the headline, “Victory!”

The Sakonnet Times?  Well, nothing political.  To be fair, even though the Tiverton paper has the same publication date as the others, it apparently goes to press on Tuesday, before election results would be available.  Still, I haven’t heard from the paper, and neither has anybody else from TTA, to my knowledge.  An online article is mainly a short recitation of the numbers as they were earlier reported, although it does state that TTA “appears to have captured a majority.”

We’ll see what we see with next week’s edition.  Will the bold letters across the top of the paper read, “Tiverton Favors TTA”?  Maybe, “A big night for TTA.”  Or, “Taxpayers’ strong campaign pays off.”

I’d settle for “Victory!,” but I expect something much different.  Maybe the editors will go with the old standby of crediting “angry voters” for the results.  Or maybe the paper will decide that the election is already old news and bury the brief article somewhere beyond the front page, as it has done with the taxpayer budget victories.

Watchers of local news and politics can place their bets.

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When People Become Too Expensive

Blogger The Phantom spots a Reuters article that, in Phantom’s words, shows “what inevitably happens when you raise minimum wage to idiotic heights.”  A grocery company is developing automated stores that are essentially like giant vending machines.  The advantages as the blogger sees them:

Lets list the advantages for the vendors here:
No shoplifting (Which is huge)
No employee stealing (Which is huge)
Much reduced breakage (robots don’t drop stuff as much)
Much reduced spoilage (Just In Time delivery and stock rotation goes a lot faster.)
Tiny square footage compared to regular market
NO EMPLOYEES means the store can be open 24/7/365, including Sundays and holidays. It’s a vending machine.

What’s the downside for the customers or the companies making the decisions?  Well, human interaction is nice and important (at least for most of us) and has some value.  I’ve never seen a statistic, but it has always seemed to me that people will typically go into a store to buy a soda even when there’s a vending machine outside.

The value of human interaction applies to the business owners, too.  Folks start or run businesses in order to earn a living, of course, but they mostly like the idea that they’re helping people support their families and that sort of thing.  Even looking at Phantom’s list of advantages to automation can remind us that a store manager, while annoyed about breakage and such, derives value from interactions — helping an employee to improve, for example, by teaching them life lessons and work strategies.

This is why minimum wages, regulations requiring the provision of certain benefits, and other government interventions are so detrimental.  They increase the direct cost of people to the point that the business begins to not be able to provide the financial benefit to the owners and managers.  That is, they place the ancillary benefits of employing people in opposition to the primary benefit of operating a business in the first place.

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Flipping the Emphasis on the Experience of Parenting

Way back in 2004, when same-sex marriage was still mostly on the periphery of public debate, I argued that the logic of contraception would eventually lead to a right for same-sex couples to create their own biological children with some sort of cloning.  This story seems like a partway step between the final two steps in the progression that I described:

“Obviously, us being two women, we were like, ‘How can we make this happen?'” Ashleigh said. “We felt like there has to be a way.”

It turned out there was a way for both women to carry their child.

Fertility specialists Dr. Kathy Doody and her husband, Dr. Kevin Doody, of the CARE Fertility in Bedford, Texas, were the first to try reciprocal effortless in vitro fertilization using radical technology, which gave the Coulters a shot at motherhood.

“We were just talking one night at home and I said, ‘You know, I think we could use this for a same-sex couple,'” Dr. Kathy recalled. “And Kevin said: ‘I think you’re right. I think we could.'”

Using phrases like “passing the baton,” the article explains how both women carry a fertilized embryo.  The egg comes from one, who carries the in vitro-fertilized embryo for a while.  Then she hands it off to the other woman to carry to term.

Even if this weren’t an experimental procedure, one imagines there must be some risk associated with each step.  As a parent, something about the whole thing seems cavalier to me.

Obviously, the experience of parenting is part of why men and women plan to have children in the modern world, but experimenting and taking risk with those children’s lives in order to enhance the experience for the parents suggests there’s a more fundamental change in social perspective going on here, and we ought to be aware of it.

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Asking the Wrong Question When the Toy Company Thinks About Leaving

I join others in wondering why it is, exactly, that nobody in Rhode Island government happened to mention that Hasbro was considering a move out of the state until the day after the election.  But the election is over, so we return to our regularly scheduled observations about politicians’ flawed mindset.  Oddly the most telling sentence on this subject has been removed from Tom Mooney’s Providence Journal article since last night:

Grebien said city officials have been talking to Hasbro for several months but that Grebien remains unclear specifically what Hasbro wants in order to stay in the city.

That is simply the wrong question and the wrong attitude, and it shows how politicians’ desire for every decision to run through their hands has put our communities at risk of extortion.  In a healthy political system, Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien would be asking what the city and state governments are doing that makes companies want to leave, because we’re doing something wrong if its directors feel as if they can’t remain in the state of their business’s birth.

If the state isn’t doing anything wrong and some factor beyond our control creates the necessity for the move, then we should admit that Rhode Island may no longer be the best fit for the company, or the company for Rhode Island, and society would be better off with more-efficient use of its resources.

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The Congressional Plot Thickens

Looks like local political pundits will have to adjust their predictions for another candidate: Dr. Evil!

But of course his lair is in Rhode Island.  Hasn’t that been obvious all along?

His entry into the Congressional game is definitely going to mix things up when we lose one of our two congressional seats in 2020.  At least my five year old already knows all of the words to our soon-to-be-new national anthem.

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The Fight for the One Ring on Election Day

This election day, that scene from The Lord of the Ring keeps coming to mind — the one in which Boromir tries to take the ring of power from Frodo.  He doesn’t want to rule the world with it; he just wants to crush his evil enemy and return the world to harmony.  What they’ll do with the ring after that accomplishment, well, both Frodo and Boromir seem to have some doubts that everyone will conclude that Middle Earth is better off without its power.

Earlier in the book, a council of the various species and tribes decided to leave the ring with innocent Frodo and entrust him with the mission of destroying it.

Over the past couple decades, elections have increasingly felt as if we’re voting to decide who gets to carry the ring.  Some candidates on the ballot claim to be Frodo, but we haven’t had much luck electing them or keeping them on the path to the volcano into which they’re supposed to throw it.

Maybe it’s always felt like this to some degree for people as they’ve worked their way to my age, but I don’t think so.  Government is just involved in so many aspects of our lives now.  At the same time, other areas of community activity have decreased in prominence.  It feels like more hinges on what happens today because more does hinge on what happens today.  That isn’t healthy.

In political discussions with people who disagree with me broadly, I get the sense that they really do think of “representative democracy” as a process of electing our temporary dictators.  Of course, when somebody they don’t like wins, they insist that something illegitimate happened — some cheating or intervention from outside powers or exploitation of hate or something.  In other words, they give the impression of thinking our system should be one in which every couple of years voters exercise their right to ratify the power of dictators who are made legitimate by their ideology, not their electoral victory.

We’re not too far gone, though.  The unexpected can happen.  The forces of the status quo won’t make it easy or pretty, but we can get that ring to Frodo and send the poor, unfortunate hobbit on his just-shy-of-impossible mission.

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Thoughts on Providence’s New Non-Utilization Tax

Because I looked into the concept when Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo attempted to corrupt it into a statewide tax on high-end vacation homes, the new “non-utilization tax” in Providence that Madeleine List describes in the Providence Journal caught my eye.  The policy rationale from the city is to make it expensive to leave property deteriorating into blight:

“It is in the best interest of all Providence residents that we address the vacant and abandoned properties that negatively impact the quality of life in our communities,” Elorza said in a statement. “The non-utilization fee aligns with our EveryHome program by holding property owners accountable while encouraging them to rehabilitate properties into productive reuse. This powerful tool will help us to support stronger, more vibrant neighborhoods throughout the capital city.”

The legal rationale, as I explained my understanding back in 2015, is as follows:

With the nonutilization tax, the General Assembly of the 1980s was saying that doing nothing with land is essentially holding it for some other purpose, like an investment, which is a financial “use” that can be taxed separately from ownership.

While I can understand the impulse for this approach, I’m not a fan.  Especially, in the city, people don’t just buy property to sit on it.  If they’re not using it for some productive purpose, something is probably preventing them from doing so, and there are a range of policy solutions a local government could pursue.

The problem is that the politics of our day create this us-versus-them mentality whereby politicians pledge to impose pain on those rich slumlords to get them to change their ways, rather than see the property owners as people who might be grappling with some problem… perhaps a problem that originates with the politicians.  Maybe some tax is too high, making the property difficult to sell.  Maybe the person just hasn’t thought of the property as a potential source of value.  Maybe some special zoning plan could help somebody make use of the property while the other person owns it.

Or maybe — stop me if this sounds crazy — the local government could concentrate on getting out of the way of the economy so the property becomes valuable enough to prompt a sale.

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Teacher Absenteeism and RI’s Gap in Accountability

Taylor Swaak on The 74 reports that the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) is beginning to use its Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan to address teacher absenteeism:

… This means the state will consider teacher absenteeism rates when gauging schools’ success and identifying low-performing schools. All ESSA plans have been approved as of last month.

The need for reform is clear in the Ocean State. It reported the third-highest rate of chronic teacher absenteeism nationwide — 41 percent — in 2015-16, according to federal data. Only Hawaii and Nevada recorded higher rates, at 48 and 50 percent, respectively.

Given the season, one thing that readers might observe is that Rhode Island is releasing its first ESSA report about our schools after the election.  Put that on the list of politically curious delays.

On a more-procedural note, though, consider what weak sauce this measure of accountability is.  First, the state includes the information in its report.  Next, the community has to begin making noise about it, pressure administrators, and elect new school committee members (or city/town council members where they handle contracts).  Then, those newly motivated decision-makers have to fight unions for changes in contracts.

As Swaak notes, teachers are absent so often because they are permitted to be.  Even with their 180-day school year, they still get a disproportionate number of extra days off — typically 20 sick days, plus a couple personal days, plus sabbaticals, plus leaves for various reasons, including union business.

With that as the origin of the problem, Swaak is correct to point out that the state doesn’t negotiate the contracts.  However, the state does set the conditions under which the local committees must negotiate.  If education really is a priority for Rhode Islanders, we have to begin tilting that balance back toward the officials who are supposed to be the people’s route to accountability.

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Dr. Prakash Chougule: Choose Flanders for Balance of Representation in Congress

It’s been almost three decades since we have had balance of power in Rhode Island’s representation of U.S. Senators in Washington DC. Senator John Chafee(R) and Claiborne Pell(D), both highly regarded and respected across party lines, made Rhode Islanders proud at home and in Washington DC.

Time has come for Rhode Island to do it again.

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The Inverse Relationship of Voter Interests and Voter Interest

Even at the state level, in Rhode Island, there isn’t but so much debate about major issues, like massive new debt proposals on the ballot.  At the local level, it’s even worse.  Trying to remedy some of this in my town, I’ve been writing a Daily Tiverton Truth Flash (well, almost daily) on Tiverton Fact Check for about a week, and the related Facebook page has had some great exchanges, but even this feels insufficient, not the least because there doesn’t appear to be anything comparable from the opposing side.

This is indicative of a broad problem in our representative democracy.  Our government is (or is supposed to be) structured so that the most important decisions affecting people’s lives are made at the most-local level possible.  But involvement in local government is no longer the important source of personal entertainment that it used to be, and mass media means that the most money and promotion will be devoted to national topics.  One of the Daily Tiverton Truth Flash posts took up this very problem:

… the story of voter participation in Tiverton follows a clear pattern: People like to vote in high-profile elections in which their votes count for the less. Looking at data from the state Board of Elections, when the presidential race is on the ballot, Tiverton voters turn out in the mid-60% range. In off years, turnout drops to the mid-40% range. By contrast, the last two competitive FTRs [financial town referendums] saw turnout of just over 20%.

However, low interest in local government can be seen during regular elections, too. Taking into account that voters get seven votes for council, the effective participation in that contest has tended to be around 40% during presidential years and around 30% during non-presidential years. In 2014, the council race had effective turnout of 27.5%, and the 2015 FTR the following May hit 20.5%. That’s a difference, but it isn’t huge, especially considering that the 7% gap contains people who might not follow local government very closely.

This is a problem we don’t see many people trying to solve… because of the very same lack of interest.  Local government is involved in so many things that it takes a lot of work to keep up, and special interests, like labor unions, have incentive to make too much involvement painful for anybody who isn’t advocating on their behalf.

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Learning That Providence Labor Unions Aren’t Divine

The headline of a Linda Borg article in the Providence Journal a couple of weeks ago might be “Parents air worries over student safety in Providence schools,” but it’s mostly about the problems that labor unions cause for students.  Asked, for example, how the city intends to avoid bus strikes in the future…

[City council member Sam] Zurier promised that there will no longer be language in the contract that includes bus strikes as “an act of God,” which allowed the bus company, First Student, to avoid responsibility for getting students to school.

Therein we see the basic lesson that one should always call things what they are.  The proclamation of a strike by a union is not an “act of God” and, even if one can’t foresee the consequences, should not be treated as such.

If the city is finally acknowledging its unions’ lack of divinity, members of those unions appear to be learning that they can’t wield their power omnisciently:

[Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth] Calabro also described a heated conversation with a parent who was furious that teachers would no longer be writing letters of recommendation for high school seniors. Calabro thought about how she would feel as a mother. Then she told her members to write those letters because, “This is a kid’s dream — to go to college.”

“If we don’t write the letters,” she said, “who are we hurting? Not the mayor. The kids.”

How is it that a teacher required soul searching to realize that harming children in order to hurt a politician would inevitably… harm the children?  And how is it that the practice ended only because the union president issued a decree, rather than bending in the face of pressure from the rank-and-file union members?

These aren’t lessons that should have to be learned.  They should be understood already.

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What to Expect from the PARCC Scores

The other day, I put a spotlight on the suspicious delay in the state’s release of results from public schools’ standardized PARCC tests.  In the days since, the two challengers facing incumbent Democrat Gina Raimondo have picked up that theme and drawn a response from the state Department of Education (RIDE).  If anything, Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s explanation only reinforces the suspicion:

“This is the first year of the new test,” Wagner said. “We’ve never released them before. People don’t know what it is.”

“Colloquially, it’s a harder test,” he said of the RICAS. “Massachusetts has a more rigorous standard. We have to figure out how to explain [to Rhode Island parents] the comparison with Massachusetts. We have to figure out how we help parents to understand the change in their child’s test scores.”

Wagner said that with the new tests, Rhode Island students, in order to reach proficiency, have to get more questions right than they did on the previous tests, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Wagner also said that student scores typically drop with any new test, which was the case when Rhode Island adopted PARCC several years ago.

In short, the state expects there to be score-shock from parents and the public because the harder test is producing results even worse than the earlier version, which was already producing shockingly poor results by some lights.  The only question, now, is the motivation for the delay:  Is it to figure out how to explain the setback in a way that will tamp down outrage, or is it to keep that outrage from affecting the election?

To formulate an answer, readers should ask themselves a somewhat different question:  If the results came in surprisingly fantastic, would RIDE have held back the good news until after the election?  Of course not.

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A Voice of “No” on Debt

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has released a statement against all three ballot questions for more debt:

Broadly, Rhode Island is relying too heavily on debt to cover its bills. The Mercatus Center at George Mason University puts Rhode Island’s long-term liabilities at 90% of the state’s assets, which is higher than the average state. Truth in Accounting’s State Data Lab gives Rhode Island a D for finances, with $8,288,881,000 in bonds and other liabilities, plus another $4,316,527,000 in pension and other retirement liabilities. A recent Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council (RIPEC) report finds Rhode Island already among the worst states when it comes to debt per capita and debt per income.

More debt is not the answer to the Ocean State’s problems; it is a major problem in itself. Adding $589,462,045 in principal and interest by passing the three ballot questions will make it worse.

The State of Rhode Island and its municipalities must be more prudent with the tax dollars they already collect — for example, prioritizing school-building maintenance over more frivolous projects.

Every election brings this same issue.  It’s just too easy for people to tally up the promised benefits and not consider the costs.  Meanwhile, the special interests — from the construction unions to the environmentalist groups — have huge incentive to advocate for the debt. (Contrast that, by the way, with the dangers of advocating for a bigger piece of existing spending, which might go up against other special interests who want to keep what they’ve got.)

This is another area where the public needs more education on the issues and all too few people have any incentive to provide it.

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Moderate Democrats’ Tepid Response to Their Biggest Threat

The most surprising thing about this article, which mentions “a backlash against progressive lawmakers in the East Bay,” is how limited the actions it describes are:

Democratic Lt. Gov. Dan McKee is joining a backlash against progressive lawmakers in the East Bay, endorsing an independent candidate over an incumbent Democratic House member, while in a separate race a retiring member of House leadership has backed a Libertarian over the Democratic nominee.

Progressives are working to undermine every policy that moderate Democrats profess to believe as well as to seize power.  Any observer can see that they struggle to play along with the comity game, which can be a good thing when they’re a small minority but, when they gain critical mass, will explode into a demand for 100% conformity.

People who are more-moderate in their beliefs should be pushing back against progressives across the state, not just in a couple of races in the East Bay.

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War on Poverty Bolsters… Poverty

Here’s another data point for your “not what I was told to believe” file:

In Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, John Early and Phil Gramm share some depressing numbers about growing dependency in the United States:

During the 20 years before the War on Poverty was funded, the portion of the nation living in poverty had dropped to 14.7% from 32.1%. Since 1966, the first year with a significant increase in antipoverty spending, the poverty rate reported by the Census Bureau has been virtually unchanged…Transfers targeted to low-income families increased in real dollars from an average of $3,070 per person in 1965 to $34,093 in 2016…Transfers now constitute 84.2% of the disposable income of the poorest quintile of American households and 57.8% of the disposable income of lower-middle-income households. These payments also make up 27.5% of America’s total disposable income.

This massive expansion of redistribution has negatively impacted incentives to work.

Incentives aren’t only relevant to welfare recipients, but also to government and the politicians who populate it.  The progressive concept of scientific governance — setting experts to make the “right” decisions for everybody — requires that the people making decisions will make them honestly.  But when government begins giving things out, the incentive is to keep doing so whether it achieves the desired policy outcome or not, because at the end of the day, the desired outcome is votes.

More broadly, the incentive for the bureaucracy is to keep having things to do, like processing benefits, and to sell government as the solution for problems.  For all of these reasons, the incentive is to never honestly assess whether a War on Poverty has actually helped maintain poverty levels while causing a host of unexpected social ills.  Alternately, the incentive is to keep adjusting the definition of “poverty” so that the rate never changes even if the experience of the population does.

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A Curious Delay in Test Scores

Wouldn’t it be good for Rhode Islanders to know how our education system is faring prior to next week’s election?  Apparently, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo would prefer that you wait until after for information:

Last year, the Department of Education released its PARCC scores in August. This year, the scores on the new test won’t be released until late November, after the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Of course, they’ve got the excuse that “the department needs more time to pull together the data” because it’s a new variation of the test, but the intervening election makes the claim suspicious.  One wonders how many discouraging facts are in the queue for release after the political contests have been decided.

We can’t have accountability in public education if government times information to affect political outcomes.

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