HEADLINES

September 2014 Unemployment: Down Some More

Rhode Island’s September employment story was one of “down.” The unemployment rate was down, but so were labor force and employment numbers.

Things Go Sour in the Shire

At the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits return from their battle with ultimate evil to find it necessary to vanquish some vestiges in their country home, the Shire.  I’m hoping this election season ends up to be something like that.

Depending on your city or town, the 2012 election may have left you under three layers of bad government.  The Obama Administration has proven to be more ideological, partisan, and (worst) incompetent than even most of us early skeptics feared.  The fruits of Rhode Island government under the General Assembly and Lincoln Chafee (who is still governor, I believe, although it doesn’t seem like it) are impossible to ignore.

And in Tiverton, we’ve had scandal after scandal, failure to oversee employees competently, and a regular practice of back-room decisions and subversion of government processes for political reasons.

Video of a hostile, uncomfortable Town Council meeting, last week, caps off the experience of the last two years.  Among the many scandals has been the council’s determination to appoint a specific person to the role of full-time town planner, even though budgets are tight, the voters did not approve enough money for the planning office for a full-time position, the anointed person lacks the credentials, and the Personnel Board did not include her among the finalists.  In the course of this battle, two members of the Personnel Board left, and three people have volunteered to fill the slots, one of them the wife of Town Council President Edward Roderick.

Another of the three volunteers is resident Donna Cook (also running for Budget Committee).  The day that she was scheduled to interview for the position, Council Member Jay Lambert, who has been on the council with Roderick for quite a while, called Cook on the phone and suggested that she should consider some other volunteer position in town.

Each party to that conversation tells it a little differently.  Cook says Lambert suggested that she withdraw her application to the Personnel Board, leaving a clear, uncontroversial path for the president’s wife.  Calling her “a liar” (but choosing his other words with a lawyer’s skill), Lambert presents it more as a friendly suggestion that she help the council fill the many vacancies.

I believe Mrs. Cook.  You can watch the seven-minute video yourself, but it’s apparent to me that Roderick — who tried to have her physically removed from the podium almost the moment she began speaking — had prior knowledge of the call and that the majority of the council at least had some sense of what was going on.

Sadly, I imagine these scenes are playing out across Rhode Island and the United States after the last election.  We might have to reverse Tolkien’s tale and clean things up from the Shire in.

Kilmartin’s Gift from the Providence Journal’s PolitiFactRI

Both a statement from Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and a related review by PolitiFactRI leave out important context that should have affected the Truth-o-meter rating.

The Providence Journal’s Credibility Problem with Cianci

The Providence Journal’s war against Buddy Cianci feels similar to the battles that the paper regularly conducts against people on the wrong side of its institutional bias.

The Message that’s Opened the Door for Cianci


Boston Globe deputy editorial page editor and Rhode Island native Dante Ramos somewhat misses the mark, in his basic assessment of the Providence Mayoral race…

In Cianci’s Providence, as in James Michael Curley-era Boston or Edwin Edwards-era Louisiana, there’s a sharp divide between good-government reformers and a, well, more instinctive style of politics.

“Instinctive” is an appropriate euphemism for describing Cianci’s brand of politics.

However, “good-government reformers” cannot be used to describe an opposition that’s centered on political players who believe that corruption and mismanagement from a Mayor aren’t issues, as long as they are kept at levels that David Cicilline or Lisa Baldelli-Hunt would tolerate.

Moderation of the General Assembly’s Wrecking Ball

Trends in the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Legislative Freedom Index show the unhealthy attitude of the state’s legislators.

Rhode Island’s Ghoulish Government

An article by Lynn Arditi in today’s Providence Journal, Report: Too many teens in state care,” looks likely to be one of those dry, bureaucratic-process-related matters that many readers probably skip over.  That would be a mistake:

In her testimony, Field described a system where overloaded caseworkers who don’t have the time or resources to help families are increasingly removing teenagers from their homes and sending them to live in group homes. And group homes are paid only by the numbers of beds filled, so “you’ve got incentives for providers to keep kids to keep those beds filled,” [Tracey Field, director of the child welfare strategy group at the Casey Foundation’s Center for Systems Innovation in Baltimore] said.

To summarize in one sentence what appears to be going on:  The state government of Rhode Island is taking children away from their parents in order to maintain a government program, in part because its priorities have led the state government not to adequately fund a responsibility that it arrogated to itself.

That’s a long sentence, and the second half of it goes into the process stuff on which politicians like to focus because they can muddy the water.  It’s the first part of the sentence, though, that’s important: “The state government of Rhode Island is taking children away from their parents in order to maintain a government program.”

You don’t get much more ghoulish than that, and you don’t get a much better representation of the progressive style of governance.

Out-of-State Special Interests and the RI Constitution

We keep hearing complaints that out-of-state special interests are trying to manipulate Rhode Islanders when it comes to our own state constitution.  We hear it from folks like the three special-interest speakers who attended the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s luncheon with Grover Norquist, last week, and managed to grab a good portion of the coverage:

… Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, spokesman for Citizens for Responsible Government, which opposes a convention[, said,] “But today we have the prime evidence that outside wealthy special interests are coming into our state.”

Rodriguez was referring to Norquist, but his own little event did much more to prove his thesis about “outside wealthy special interests.”  As far as I know, of the seventy or so people joining the Center to support the idea of a constitutional convention, only three were from out of state: Norquist and his Massachusetts-resident parents.

It’s true that the special interests with whom Rodriguez was standing were in-state special interests. Kate Brewster of the Economic Progress Institute and Michael Araujo of  the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees were the speakers.  Of the three or four non-speakers at the anti-constitutional-convention rally, I recognized two:  Jenny Norris, the campaign manager for Rodriguez’s group, and James Parisi, a lobbyist for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals.

But the small group wasn’t only representative of in-state wealthy special interests.  Among CRG’s sponsors is Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, which (according to the Providence Journal) donated one-sixth of its initial funding, or $10,000.

Planned Parenthood of Southern New England is actually not a Rhode Island organization.  It operates out of New Haven, Connecticut.  According to the organization’s 990 form for 2013, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England had revenue of $34.2 million that year, with $4.9 million left over after expenses (what some might call its profit), contributing to assets of $28.3 million.

Judith Tabar, its president and CEO received $392,150 in compensation from the corporation and related entities, and the seven members of her executive staff listed on the form each received well over $100,000.

That looks like a wealthy out-of-state special interest, to me.  Meanwhile, actual Rhode Islanders — you know, the in-state non-special-interests — overwhelmingly support a constitutional convention.  I suspect they are who Rodriguez really fears.

The Expanding Nature of Government “Investments”

Here’s the latest word on the major public works program related to the land in Providence formerly occupied by Route 195:

It’s the kind of project the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission and state economic leaders have long said they hope to foster on nearly 20 acres of prime real estate. In the spring, [Lawyer Timothy H.] Ehrlich’s team submitted a bid to the commission to create [a biotechnology] incubator.

But after working all summer, Ehrlich is convinced the project needs financial help from the state, and that the help must be more than the life-sciences tax credits outlined in the state law that created the commission.

No doubt a variety of people would jump at the chance to tell me I just don’t understand how these things work.  Government must invest in economic development.  Biotech is a growth sector, and an incubator will attract all those “well-paying jobs” that we hear about.  Every other state is subsidizing this industry.  And yet, somehow Rhode Island will become a hub, even though small and late to the game.  Yadda yadda yadda.

Indeed, the article has Marcel Valois, the executive director of the Commerce Corporation (which was formerly the Economic Development Corporation that invested in 38 Studios), insisting that “the project would ‘absolutely’ help the economy.”

Still, I just can’t get past the plain-language description of this whole process.  The government invested in a project to move a highway because it would free up all sorts of “prime real estate” that could be sold to raise money and make economically productive use of the land.  Now we’re “investing” in the process of luring organizations to the property.  Next, those organizations will need massive subsidies to get off the ground.  And then the start-up companies that this particular project attracts as clients will need additional subsidies to afford its services.

I ain’t a biotech-investment guru by a long shot, but this has all of the common-sense markers of a bad way to go about economic development and all of the common-sense markers of a scheme for empowering government agents and enriching connected individuals.

Timothy H. Ehrlich is, according to Kate Bramson’s Providence Journal article, “very encouraged by gubernatorial candidate Gina Raimondo’s knowledge and background as a venture-capital investor.”  He’s so encouraged, it appears that he’s given Raimondo’s campaign $1,500 since May 2013, although the campaign refunded $250 of that two weeks ago.

The name on the campaign reports is “Tim Ehrlich,” but the address given belongs to this $1.4 million property in Concord, Massachusetts, which is owned by “Timothy H. Ehrlich,” matching the article.  The article also calls Ehrlich a “lawyer,” and the campaign finance reports list the donor as employed by Boston law firm Gunderson Dettmer, where partner Timothy H. Ehrlich “focuses on the representation of start-up, emerging growth and public companies in the information technology, biotech and medical device industries.”

Democratic Elections Without Roots

Campaign finance filings may provide a clue showing that different candidates (often from different parties) operate in ways that might reflect where they’ve been and what they’ll do.

Unpaid Campaign Finance Fines

Why do lawmakers get away with having unpaid campaign finance fines? Why don’t we actually enforce the laws that they were elected to create? This is an affront to all voters and taxpayers of the state.

Matt Fecteau: 1st Congressional District Should Consider Republican for Term Limits

Congressman David Cicilline’s primary challenger asks voters to consider Republican Cormick Lynch in the general election as a step toward term limits.

Beware the Simple Controversy

Folks who pay a whole lot of attention to politics and policy (myself included) can be astonished at things that don’t take off as controversies.  Manipulated studies about casino gambling.  Pension reforms that give the legislature’s authority away to a union-heavy board.  Development of plans that seek to undermine property rights and individual liberty (while using supposed outreach meetings to find local activists).  An unnecessary government start-up healthcare broker intended as a gateway to increasing the people addicted to government programs.

None of that registers, mostly because it’s complex, and there’s too much space between the walls for politicians and insiders to fill with smoke.

Tom Ward highlights the dynamic on a smaller scale, in Woonsocket, with a view from the perspective of a controversy that actually did catch on — Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt’s political jobs program:

Why was this clumsy move such a bombshell? Because it’s so easy to understand, that’s why. While it may be difficult to decipher funding kindergarten and water treatment plants, everyone understands that their own kids got the short end of the stick. In fact, there are unemployed adults who would have been grateful for the work! They know where they stand with her now, and it’s on the outside, looking in.

What is even more striking is the mayor’s ethical blind spot and lack of any contrition.

Too often, we wait until hubris brings on the obvious corruption.  One can’t help but wonder what it looks like from the politicians’ perspective.  Hey, they got away with all of these huge power grabs and political maneuvers.  A few thousand bucks of straight-up corruption shouldn’t matter if all that didn’t.

Progressive Policies Hurting Minorities

Looking at the brief report that the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity released, yesterday, showing some slices of employment data, something struck me about the numbers for labor force participation — that is, percentage of each demographic group that is either working or looking for work:

Notice that a larger percentage of black and Hispanic Rhode Islanders are either working or looking for work.  Inasmuch as the unemployment rate (i.e., those who are looking for jobs) is almost two times higher for blacks than the average and more than two times higher for Hispanics than the average, we can infer that the higher labor force participation rates for those groups result mainly from the unemployed.

That makes sense, of course, because the income levels for these minorities tend to be lower than the average, so their need for jobs is greater.  The gap between people’s need to work and their ability to find work is a humanitarian concern, but it’s also an indication of lost opportunity for our economy.

Here we see another indication of the harm that Rhode Island policies (and progressive policies more broadly) do to the productive class, no matter what race we’re talking about.  These Rhode Islanders want to exchange their productive effort and their talents for money.  Oppressive big-government policies make that exchange more difficult.  High tax rates remove money from the economy and reduce incentive to expand productive activity (both work and investment), and invasive regulations make it more difficult to engage in productive activity legally.

It’s not surprising that minority groups are most profoundly affected by a wrong-headed approach to government.  It is surprising, though, that the votes of different racial groups prove that they haven’t caught on to the abuse, yet.

Pensions Are Debt

Rhode Islanders should keep an eye on this story, out of California:

Striking at the sanctity of public pensions in California, a federal judge ruled Wednesday that U.S. bankruptcy law allows the city of Stockton to treat pension fund obligations like other debts, meaning the city could trim benefits.

State laws vary.  Judges vary.  Circumstances vary.  But this is important because it goes to a broadly applicable principle.  U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein is the judge in the case:

The judge spent much of the morning questioning whether CalPERS and its members enjoy a protected status under federal and state laws.

“One can’t mess with CalPERS, that’s the vernacular way of putting it,” the judge said at one point, summarizing the view of CalPERS and Stockton officials.

“Is CalPERS a state unto itself?” Klein mused later.

The labor unions and their backers want everyone to believe otherwise, but the fact that the debt is owed to people who exchanged their work for promises rather than people who exchanged their money for promises doesn’t mean the deal is signed in magic ink that cannot be edited.

The Whole Sordid Rhode Island Way in East Greenwich

Another example of Rhode Island government as a political jobs program has arisen in the East Greenwich school department, and it raises deeper questions than does the Woonsocket mayor’s summer street cleaning crew.

Keeping up Negotiations Under a Supreme Court Cloud

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Harris v. Quinn, which found that personal assistants for disabled recipients of state aid in Illinois could not be forced to be part of a labor union.  They aren’t state employees, and the state isn’t their direct client.  The people for whom they care are their clients, and they are a disparate group, not an entity with which they can negotiate as a collective.

That ought to have frozen efforts to implement a new Rhode Island law requiring child care providers to be part of a union if their clients receive state subsidies, and yet today’s Providence Journal Political Scene reports that negotiations are ongoing:

This was the initial answer from the Department of Administration’s policy director, Allison Rogers: “The negotiations are ongoing. Subsequently, the department is unable to provide any further comment at this time.”

When pressed recently on why the negotiations are still going on a year later, she said: “This is not an unusual length of time for negotiations, especially for a brand new contract.

It’s good that the reporters are keeping tabs on the progress or lack thereof, but it’s strange that the article doesn’t mention the cloud of unconstitutionality under which the negotiations are happening.

Why Rhode Islanders Have No Hope, Judicial Branch

I frequently state my opinion that there’s basically no rule of law in Rhode Island.  An article in today’s Providence Journal about a lawsuit concerning an “affordable housing” development illustrates why.

The basic point is that citizen groups almost never win.  Either the government agency appeals to the department under which it works, and that department rules in its favor (as with a school committee appealing to the Dept. of Education) or some quasi-judicial agency, like the Ethics Commission, waves the language of the law away, or the courts carry the water.  The foreclosure of that route to reform and civic engagement leads people who might otherwise become more politically active, perhaps even running for office, to give up totally, sometimes directing their efforts to an exit strategy from the state.

I didn’t realize (but probably could have guessed) that Maya Angelou, the poet, has precedential weight in Rhode Island courts:

In his written decision, filed Wednesday, Procaccini opened with a quote from the late Maya Angelou: “ ‘The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.’ As this Court considers the case before it, it keeps Maya Angelou’s wise words in mind.”

Whatever the law says, the ruling class of Rhode Island will find it to say whatever they feel is right.  There’s no way citizens can work to craft language that will actually do what they want it to.

That’s not the rule of law.  It’s an aristocracy.

10 News Conference Wingmen, Episode 44 (Lieutenant Governor Race & Constitutional Convention)

Justin and Bob Plain discuss the campaign for lieutenant governor and the possibility of a constitutional convention, and (in text) Justin corrects an assertion of Bob’s.

Putting Brakes on Medical Miracles

In a must-read article, Scott Atlas looks at one of my biggest fears about ObamaCare and the regulatory state generally, when it comes to healthcare:

Of the many unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act, perhaps the least noticed is its threat to innovation. Although most discussions center on the law’s more immediate effects on hiring, insurance rates and access to doctors and care, attention should also be paid to its impact on U.S. research and development and health-care technology.

Millennials may be too young to appreciate it, but the last twenty years have been a time of medical marvels.  Things that were a death sentence when I was young are now curable, or at least their fatality can be delayed.  We’d gotten to the point, I think, of taking for granted that all cures were just a matter of time.  ”I hope I don’t get [disease X]” was becoming “I hope I don’t get [disease X] before they’ve found a cure.”

We who inhabit the modern era don’t seem to understand that such progress is not inevitable.  It takes risk and investment, and maybe a little bit of apparent unfairness.  (After all, if you can’t see the vision of the inventor and the investor, it looks like an awful waste of resources to do what they’re doing, and once they’ve succeeded, it can look so obvious that it hardly seems fair to reward them so lavishly.)

That’s not an argument for an anything-goes society, but it seemed like we had found a decent balance between ensuring that somebody was keeping a check on the system and allowing the system to operate.  Now, it seems like the weight has shifted, and the whole thing is wobbling.