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Rights Erode with a Living Constitution

For a reminder of how the slow erosion of our constitutional rights proceeds, give a read to Damon Roots’s short article, “The 5 Worst Supreme Court Rulings of the Past 50 Years,” on Reason.* The entries don’t appear to name a winner, but I still find the Commerce Clause perversion to be the most indicative of the problematic political theory that has pervaded our government for a century:

Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution recognizes the congressional authority “to regulate commerce…among the several states.” In Wickard v. Filburn (1942), the Supreme Court gave federal lawmakers a massive shot of steroids, enlarging their power in this area to include the regulation of wholly local activity if it has a “substantial economic effect” on the national market.

Six decades later, in Gonzales v. Raich (2005), the Court handed Congress even more power, upholding a federal ban on marijuana, even as applied to plants that were cultivated and consumed by patients for their own doctor-prescribed use in states where medical cannabis was perfectly legal. As Justice Clarence Thomas observed in dissent, “by holding that Congress may regulate activity that is neither interstate nor commerce under the Interstate Commerce Clause, the Court abandons any attempt to enforce the Constitution’s limits on federal power.”

Once one erases the distinction between taking an action (like conducting business across state lines) and doing something that reduces the need for that action (producing something in your own home, for your own use, that reduces your need to conduct business across state lines), there really is no feasible limit on federal power.  In theory as well as in practical reality, every action in our society has some effect on every other action.

This is the problem with accepting government officials’ creativity in finding ways around Constitutional limits.  If people really want to ban marijuana, then they should push for legislation to do so.  If that legislation turns out to be unconstitutional, then they should amend the constitution… as narrowly as possible.  Bending the rules can never be a narrow measure in the long term, because it bends principles as well, and many issues reflect the shapes of our principles.

* Of course, the omission of Roe v. Wade is clearly a function of the publication in question.

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Changing Our Landscape to Gray and Black in Order to Be Green

Some years ago, back before it included two giant cooling towers, when I’d take that turn on Route 24 in Portsmouth that brings the Brayton Point power plant into view, I’d wonder how different it would feel if the structure in the distance were a medieval castle or something.

On the same stretch of highway, two separate wind turbines sit not far from the road, spinning away.  As suburban novelties, they bring almost a country feel, as if a couple of farmers installed them on their copious land to supplement their energy.  (Although, I’ll admit that driving through there at certain times of day is a little more unsettling than it used to be, because the flicker of the blades does spur a reaction.)

Reading Alex Kuffner’s Providence Journal article on proliferating turbines, along with the panic among local municipalities as solar companies swoop in more aggressively than expected, makes me wonder if we’ve really thought out how all of this fashionable renewable energy will change the character of Rhode Island:

The wind turbines appear up ahead as you drive west on Route 6, rising high on a hill over Johnston.

In a matter of weeks, Green Development, of North Kingstown, has installed six of the German-made behemoths that each stand 524 feet tall when their blade tips are at their highest point — higher than the Industrial Trust building in Providence.

They aren’t buildings, of course, but that’s essentially a few city blocks worth of whirling skyscrapers.  Add in the replacement of forested areas with fields of black solar panels, and the Ocean State will start to feel very different.

We should probably start thinking about that.  After all, we’re not only tolerating the change, we’re subsidizing it heavily through our taxes and our electric rates.

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Are State Agencies Really “Overspending”?

Unfortunately, we have to admit that this is nothing new:

Overspending by state agencies has opened up a $42-million hole in this year’s budget, according to new estimates from the state budget office.

The state departments of Children, Youth and Families; Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals; Labor and Training; and Revenue were among eight agencies over budget in the first quarter of the fiscal year that started July 1, according to a memo from State Budget Officer Thomas Mullaney on Thursday.

Some doubt is arising, however, whether we can really claim that these agencies are “overspending.” When departments regularly spend more than their budgets and the governor and General Assembly simply add money in a supplemental budget as the books come to a close and then audits come in much lower, it begins to look as if the departments are simply following the ordinary course of operation.

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For fiscal years 2012 through 2017, the state government increased its supplemental budget by an average of 2.4% and then actually spent an average of 4.7% less than that.  Every year, the state estimates that it is overspending and adds money to the supplemental budget.  The local news media for some reason tends to trumpet the increase from the supplemental amount to the next year’s final, which looks more reasonable because the bulk of the increase is in the supplemental.  All of this happens with plenty of fluff above the actual spending of the state, with a reliable 2.6% annual increase.

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A Progressive Fawns as Amazon Shifts to Robber Barron Mode

Here’s an odd moment in a Scott MacKay essay on The Public’s Radio, about Amazon’s choice of our nation’s two bases of power — New York City and Washington, D.C. — for its new headquarters:

Luring 21st century innovation jobs to Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts will require changes in economic development thinking. These companies aren’t going to places that rely on the traditional metrics, such as low-taxes, low rents and cheap labor. “They aren’t going to low-cost places, right to work states,” says Michael Goodman, director of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “Nowadays brains matter much more than brawn.”

That’s music to MacKay’s ears, because his a big union and high-tax guy, but it’s weird that he would present a behemoth establishment player like Amazon as an archetype of “innovation jobs.”  The choice of NYC and Washington for its new locations is an indicator that Amazon is shifting into robber baron mode, which means using the power of the media and government to suppress competition and secure its advantages.

Of course the company is fine with high taxes and organized labor.  Its executives want to be sit in a room with other powerful people who can tell their constituents or members what to do.  The freedom of low taxes and a right to work makes things unpredictable for the power brokers.

But the real innovators will go to places where they aren’t inhibited by these legacy systems, meaning places where they can try new things and reinvest what they earn.  Mix that economic flexibility with a culturally intriguing location (characterized, I’d suggest, by the freedom and character that come from a government that doesn’t meddle in people’s lives), and we’d have something powerful in Rhode Island.

Unfortunately, that’s a big “if” and a big lift in Rhode Island.

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Parsing “Advancing Political Interests” Versus “Crusading to Change the World”

Conservative writer Rod Dreher has an interesting post on the superficiality of news organizations’ obsession with “diversity,” but the most intriguing part might be something that he seems to miss entirely in these two paragraphs (emphasis in original):

To be fair, if news organizations made a concerted effort to recruit conservatives, they would have a hard time finding qualified candidates. That’s because journalism, for whatever reason, tends to disproportionately attract liberals. I wish that weren’t the case, but there it is. From what I’ve seen in nearly 30 years of working in professional journalism, conservatives who have an interest in the field are usually focused on opinion journalism. I’m generalizing here, and I haven’t been working in a newsroom in eight years, but I haven’t seen a lot of conservatives who are interested in journalism as journalism, journalism as a craft — this, as distinct from journalism as a vehicle for advancing their political interests.

Conservatives love to bitch about media bias, but they are much more reluctant to become journalists. You might say that that’s because they anticipate that the deck will be stacked against them in newsrooms, and there’s something to that. Mostly, though, I think that it’s because the craft of journalism, for whatever reason, tends not to attract conservatives, but it does tend to attract crusading liberals who want to change the world, and are willing to work in a profession where they won’t make much money in order to do it.

 

So conservatives aren’t interested in the craft of journalism, but in “advancing their political interests,” while liberals want to “crusade” and “change the world.”  What difference, I wonder, does Dreher see between advancing political interests and crusading to change the world?  Maybe what he meant to write is that liberals tend to be attracted to the craft of journalism, and some of them happen to be crusaders.  Even then, though, one might suggest that the distinction is only that liberals are more comfortable disguising their biases as they attempt to shape the world under the false pretense of objectivity.

Honestly, I’m not sure how one might estimate conservatives’ interest in journalism in a counterfactual reality in which they were able to present their own biases as objective truth through “the craft of journalism.”  But in our actual reality one might observe this tendency to assume their beliefs as fact among liberals in every industry.

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Opening Up Occupations to Apprentices

This is a problem in Rhode Island, too:

A new report authored by my colleagues from the Foundation for Government Accountability and myself points to one reason for the lack of apprenticeships: Restrictive occupational licensing laws stand in the way.

To follow through on their promises to expand apprenticeships, policymakers should take [recent legislation in Connecticut allowing apprenticeship to substitute for cosmetology school] and bring similar reforms to professions in states across the country. Doing so would promote job competency and hands-on training through apprenticeships, rather than arbitrary time requirements through licensing.

Licensing requirements are very often nothing more than a mix of protectionism and nanny-state meddling.  As Jared Meyer notes in the above link, reforming these policies doesn’t require government subsidies, just a willingness to let people find ways appropriate to their circumstances to learn careers.

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RI Microbreweries Offer a Lesson in Regulatory Reform

Sometimes when one follows the news it seems like the lessons are right in front of us, yet never heeded. Such is the case with Diana Pinzon’s  WPRI article about the explosion of microbreweries in Rhode Island:

In 2016, the General Assembly voted to allow breweries and distilleries to sell limited amounts of their products to plant visitors for sampling and off-site consumption. Prior to that change in law, only wineries were allowed to do that.

Since that change was made, the number of microbreweries nearly quadrupled in the two years, according to the R.I. Department of Business Regulation.

One of the construction companies for which I worked had its shop a few units down from Newport Storm brewery, and when they had their weekly tours (with sampling), there would always be a line.  But expanding the ability to serve customers directly from the brewery wasn’t the only regulatory change, and the state reduced the targeted taxes and fees on brewers, as well:

Earlier this year, two additional beer industry bills were signed into law by Gov. Gina Raimondo.

The first eliminated the so-called “Keg Tax” that required brewers to pay sales tax on kegs they purchase to fill with beer and then sell to distributors. The second piece of legislation reduced the alcoholic beverage manufacturing and wholesale licensing fee from $3,000 to $500.

What if we took the same hands-off approach across our economy?  Existing businesses would expand, and we can only guess how many innovations might emerge that lawmakers can’t even imagine, let alone be aware that Rhode Island’s regulatory regime is blocking.

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The Dogs That Aren’t Barking

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, “Silver Blaze,” Sherlock Holmes cracks the case with the observation that a dog didn’t bark during the commission of a crime.  From this, he infers that the animal knew the criminal.  Perhaps that explains a phenomenon that Rick DeBlois notes in a letter to the editor:

… Rhode Islanders complain about high taxes, incompetent leadership, back-door deals, cronyism, nepotism, and all the mobsters up on Smith Hill. We complain about poor roads, poor schools and a myriad of other issues that are wrong with our state.

But when the time comes to make a change, they reelect the same old gang of incompetent fools who got us here in the first place.

To be sure, part of the problem is that the people complaining turn on each other, a conundrum now personified in the person of Republican gubernatorial candidate Patricia Morgan.  She spent years building up an admirable brand as a politician who responds to Rhode Islanders’ complaints and presses for change, but when primary voters didn’t pick her to be their candidate, she targeted the only alternative candidate with a chance to win.

The bigger, more-systematic problem, however, is all the dogs that aren’t barking… the voters who aren’t complaining.  These are folks who don’t want anything to change because they’re getting something out of the system as it is, whether it’s a do-nothing government job, a government union perch with inflated compensation, or some kind of handout (from welfare to corporate cronyism).  These voters know their masters.

Another layer of voters may sometimes growl a little, but they are easily distracted.  The insiders throw them some progressive causes, some bits of identity politics, or some Trump hatred, and they happily gnaw on those meatless bones while the crime against our state persists.

It’s a fascinating state of affairs to investigate, although one needn’t be Sherlock Holmes to figure it out.  Rather, where that character’s genius is truly needed is in coming up with a way to unravel the trap, because the complaints (and the bites) will multiply exponentially when necessary reforms begin to clear the fatal excesses away.

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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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