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A World With More than One Captain America

SPOILERS about Avengers: Endgame ahead.

I agree with Jonah Goldberg more than I disagree with him, but sometimes a guy has to stand firm in what he believes.  Of all the complaints one can make about the last of the Avengers movies (at least in this cycle), inconsistency about its treatment of time travel is not one of them.

I should note that I think the movies’ conception of how time works is pure fantasy not applicable to reality, but if one accepts their physics framework, the story is just fine.

Seemingly in order to make a fun reference to the Back to the Future movies, the smarter characters explain that it isn’t possible to go back in the past in order to change the present.  The heroes live in a world where the bad guy, Thanos, has used the Infinity Stones to wipe out half of all life in the universe.  The problem is that the people whom they left behind when they went into the past would still be in a future in which Thanos had already accomplished his goal.  It would be along a different time stream that Thanos had failed.  Undoing what has already been done is a logical impossibility if we accept a tangible universe.

Jonah’s complaint is about the end of the movie.  Once the world is saved, Captain America travels into the past to return the stones to their proper times, and he doesn’t return.  It turns out he’d decided to stay in the past and live out a lifelong retirement with his one-time love.  But then… there he is, as an old man sitting nearby a few seconds after the younger him had gone into the past.  Weren’t we already told that changing things in the past put you on a different time stream?

Yes, but we’ve also seen evidence that two copies of the same person could exist alongside each other.  Indeed, Captain America had to fight with himself!  Jonah’s complaint is that Captain America’s staying in the past would have changed reality in all sorts of unpredictable ways, but as long as he stayed quiet and lived as a regular Joe far away from the action of the Avengers, he would have done nothing logically incompatible with the world of the story that we’ve been following over the past eleven years.  For all we know, he was out there all along.

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Solving Government’s Bad Attitude About Lunch Bills by Replacing Parents with Government

It appears that another embarrassing Rhode Island story has captured the imagination of the nation: Lunch shaming, or giving students a minimal meal when their parents have built up a tab for school lunches.  Locally, the topic has been around for quite a while; it was a topic in one of my podcasts from April 2017.

In a nutshell, my take was to suggest that we’ve lost our way if we’re having public policy debates about how school districts should deal with parents who are deadbeats when it comes to lunch money.  I mean, can you imagine a private school shaming their customers’ children over a $5 lunch tab?  The whole attitude is different, even to the point of seeing students and their families as customers rather than something more like wards or even burdens.

The expansion of that attitude rears its head in a policy proposal that is making its way through Rhode Island’s brain trust:

[Elizabeth Burke Bryant of RI Kids Count] is advocating for the approval of a community eligibility provision which would provide free and reduced lunches to all students and avoid singling out children based on their family’s finances.

The community eligibility provision, which is part of Governor Gina Raimondo’s proposed budget, would provide free meals for all students within districts that have a large percentage of low-income families.

The unhealthy perspective engendered by big government has had the unhappy consequence of shaming children.  The solution, we’re told, is to expand government further into the role of parents, thus expanding the reach of the big-government attitude.  This will have consequences for Rhode Island families that can be as disastrous, in aggregate, as they are unmeasurable.

Providing for your children is part of what makes parenthood worthwhile.  Packing a lunch with love is one of the most straightforward and basic expressions of that responsibility.

Go away, big government.  Let us be families.

The dynamic is reminiscent of the argument that government schools have to instruct all children according to the state’s beliefs about sex because some minority of parents will do a poor job educating their own children.  In the case of school lunches, statists don’t want to single out children who need help funding lunch, so they’re going to edge in on the relationship of most parents and their children.

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Imbalanced Equity in Fortnite

Sometimes the practical wisdom of children — who can see past the hangups of adults, if only because they lack the experience that makes those hangups justifiable, even wise — brings a unique perspective.

By coincidence, on the same day that Rhode Island’s Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo swore in the fifth adolescent winner of her sexist girls-only “Governor for a Day” contest, I asked an early-teen boy of my acquaintance a question about his choice of characters in the video game Fortnite.  If you’re somehow not familiar with it, the game places characters on an island for a “Battle Royale” in which only one player can survive.  It’s a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, meaning that all of the other characters are people playing on their own devices somewhere in the world.

Earlier on in the game’s life cycle, players were cast randomly as female or male and had no choice.  Recently (it appears), the designers have made it possible to choose the sex of one’s character.

“Why have you been using that girl character?,” I asked.

He replied, “Because the girls are smaller, so they don’t stick out when you hide in bushes.”

Ah.  See, the male characters are all large, muscular types, which is a liability if you’re crouching in a bush or behind a rock.  Yet, they gain no advantage from their size.  They can’t carry any additional weapons or materials.  They can’t run any faster.  They have no advantage when it comes down to a pickax fight.  They can’t jump any higher or withstand more of a beating.

By social necessity, the game is a level playing field between the sexes, except in the one way that would be visually unrealistic, and that one way is an advantage to females.  Yet, it is a competitive environment in which players will make rational decisions.  Where the qualities of men provide no advantage, even as the attributes that would more-realistically produce those qualities create a liability, competitive boys will co-opt the advantages of women.

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Unfairness in RI Government’s Priorities

Mike Stenhouse’s recent op-ed in the Providence Journal puts the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Public Union Excesses report in a broader context:

Beyond these extreme financial costs, an even more corrosive impact from this political cronyism is at play. People have lost trust in their government and are fed up with betrayals from lawmakers who have forgotten them, who cater only to special-interest concerns. Lawmakers make it ever-harder for people to take care of their families and reside in Rhode Island.

For these reasons, Rhode Island is not keeping pace with the rest of the nation when it comes to jobs and population growth. After 10 years of perhaps the slowest economic recovery among all states, Rhode Island’s political leaders are failing on their promises to help the average family.

Instead, by heaping more privileges upon those who help get them elected, politicians continue to lose the trust of the people, who are also losing hope for their state. These tragic circumstances have conspired to make it a virtual certainty that the Ocean State will lose a prized U.S. congressional seat after the 2020 national census because of its stagnant population growth.

Rhode Island strangles its families and businesses with taxes and regulations, but often, the sheer unfairness of the system can be the real poison.  As a member of the Tiverton Town Council, yesterday I participated in a “business walk” hosted by the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, which involved stopping in to talk with some business owners around town.

Of course, we heard about the problem of taxes, but the subjects that really animated business owners would better be classified as injustice.  The cost of government labor was seen not only as a cause of high taxes, but also as a budget imbalance preventing infrastructure improvement.  Similarly, the capriciousness of enforcement, with the rules not seeming to apply fairly to every business and changing depending on which government inspector paid a visit, is irksome beyond the cost.

Even after figuring out how to overcome all the regulatory obstacles that the state throws in their way and even after building high taxes, regulation-driven energy costs, and government bungled healthcare expenses into their business models, they still never know when an inspector will find some new rule to enforce or the legislature will come up with some new fee or obstacle to impose.

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The Mystery of Lost Jobs in RI

Time will tell whether I’m wrong, but I’m not sure the warning in Patrick Anderson’s Providence Journal article about RI employment last week was sufficiently vehement:

A sudden plunge in the number of Rhode Island-based jobs over the winter has caused fiscal analysts to darken their outlook for the state’s economy in the coming year, but they are not expecting a major downturn.

In March, state and federal officials decided they had overcounted the number of jobs in the state at the end of last year by 7,300 positions. Then, in the first three months of this year, Rhode Island shed another 2,800 jobs, putting it 10,100 jobs shy of the record employment high water mark celebrated last December.

Economists and state labor officials are a little puzzled by the job losses.

Regarding the drop in the first quarter, one quoted economist, Michael Lynch, notes that the sector leading the losses was “administrative support/waste management services,” which includes “office administration, hiring and placing of personnel, document preparation and similar clerical services, solicitation, collection, security and surveillance services, cleaning, and waste disposal services.”  Inasmuch as the losses come in a single sector and there have been no massive layoffs to explain the drop, Lynch ascribes the trend to “noise in the data.”

We’ll see.  Another possibility is that, despite the national growth, Rhode Island’s economy isn’t supporting a particular sector, for some reason.  In this case, that sector is the one that operates offices and helps companies grow.  If it is unique in having lost jobs, it may be that Rhode Island is uniquely a bad location from which to operate a business and capitalize on broad growth.

Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s dismissive response that “those adjustments are pretty typical of what happens at the end of every year” is alarming in its own right.  The revisions to employment data each year reflect the fact that the state’s economy is doing something that economists didn’t expect.  If the economy had truly been as strong as Raimondo claimed while campaigning for reelection, the revision would have been up.  Instead, economists are surprised and mystified by how poorly our state is doing under her leadership.

They shouldn’t be.

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Curiosity About the Sale of Assets

This news isn’t sufficiently filled out, yet, to offer a firm reaction:

The University of Rhode Island’s Providence campus would move out of the historic Shepard Building to an unknown location under state plans to sell government real estate released on Friday evening.

The state Board of Elections would be moved out of its current Providence headquarters on Branch Avenue, and the state Medical Examiner’s Office would move from its laboratory on Orms Street in the next two years, according to the proposals from an ad hoc committee charged with finding state savings. The recommendations do not say where either of those agencies would go.

The real estate sales are part of a wider effort by a group of state officials and groups with business before the state, known as the Efficiency Commission, to come up with at least $10 million in money-saving ideas for the budget year that starts July 1.

Efficiency is a good thing, and if it doesn’t make sense for government to continue owning particular properties, then it shouldn’t, but if the efficiencies and the sale of assets result from the government’s inability to continue paying its bills, that’s a whole nother thing.  Once the state government collects the estimated $16–25 million in sales revenue, the assets are gone, but the spending is still there.

The article states that moving out of the buildings will save $2.5 million per year in “operating costs,” but note, in particular, that “those figures do not include the cost of finding new homes for the current occupants.”  If rent and other costs to house these government agencies elsewhere are roughly a wash, then we’re back to selling assets for its own sake.  And that can be an ominous sign if the government isn’t giving a clearer rationale for why it would do so other than “efficiency.”

One can’t help but wonder, too, what sort of tax increase the City of Providence will see if the state government hands off property to a private owner.

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Assumptions of Perfection in Prostitution

For a recent episode of his Uncut podcast, Matt Allen had an interesting conversation with Bella Robinson, who is (I think it is accurate to say) a prostitute based in Rhode Island.  Matt remarked several times that Ms. Robinson seemed to paint those who do charitable work as well as government agencies tasked with human services as unfailingly bad or misguided, while also seeming to prefer big-government policies.

The flip side of this tendency toward blanket condemnations of adverse institutions is blanket praise for one’s own.  Listening to Robinson, one would think that prostitution is preferable to, and even safer than, just about any other occupation, and certainly to dating and marriage.

Along those lines, Matt confronted her with the broadly understood reality that a traditional, responsible lifestyle will bring 90% of people out of poverty.  Actually, the progressive Brookings Institute finds that 98% of poor people who finish high school, get full-time jobs, and wait until 21 and married to have children will escape poverty, with 75% making it to the middle class.

Bella Robinson’s response, in essence, was that she tried that strategy, and it didn’t work for her.  Well, yeah, any system that is 98% effective will not work for 2% of people.  That doesn’t mean that we should reorder society in a way that might work for that 2% but fails some much larger percentage.  (One thinks of radical feminism, which tears down standards for relationships that work for large numbers of women and replaces it with one that might not work for anybody except the feminists themselves.)

During the entire podcast, listeners get the impression that Robinson doesn’t believe anything works except the subject of her advocacy: sex work.  Religion, government, relationships, marriage, social work… all of them are entirely flawed because they’re not 100% perfect.  But tossing our “old tired ethics,” which our civilization has honed (yes, with missteps) over thousands of years, that apparently will cure everything.

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Local Pensions and the Labor Squeeze

A summary for Pensions & Investments of Rhode Island’s latest report concerning local pension plans passes a spotlight quickly past the ways in which government agencies, aided and abetted by labor unions, obscure the costs of benefits:

For the underfunded plans, assumptions about investment returns and payroll growth “may not be realistic,” said the report, which cited Providence’s 8% return assumption as the highest in the state.

“In more than a few cases … local pension liabilities are, or have the potential for, crowding out other important budget priorities.”

Take a look at the scorecard for Providence on page 22 of the report.  The plan is 26.3% funded, which means it would have to have about three times more money in the fund collecting investment returns right now in order to be solvent.  The city assumes that its payroll will only grow 3.5% per year, which must account for both raises and new hires.  It also assumes an unrealistic 8% return on its investments every single year, which means it can put less actual money into the plan each year, because it assumes more will come from investments than is likely.

To top it all off, Providence has more former employees collecting pensions than it has employees paying into the system.  Consequently, it pays out more every year than it adds to the fund, by about 4%.

Think about that.  The city’s pension fund is actually shrinking, not growing.

In order to buy labor peace, Rhode Island governments have made huge retirement promises.  So they don’t break the bank, they’ve then disguised the true cost with unrealistic assumptions.

That sword cuts both ways, though.  Because the pressure that the pensions should be applying to budgets is drastically understated, labor unions are able to push for bigger raises and benefits for active employees, which has crowded out the money for appropriate pension funding.  Now that accounting standards are making pension funding more visible and even mandatory, it has joined with other labor costs in squeezing the budgets for other expenses — even as prevailing wage and other union rules have ensured that the money for those other expenses cannot go as far as it should.

As the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s new report on excessive labor costs shows, these and other problems are creating a huge additional burden on our state, which is already struggling to meet budgets while allowing its economy to grow.

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Disclosure and the Separation of Politics from Life

During a Twitter debate online concerning campaign finance and anonymous donations to think tanks and the like, Public’s Radio reporter Ian Donnis summarized his perspective thus:

Entities with millions to drown out their opponent is ‘part of an open & free democracy’? OK then!

That’s what the best interpretation of the pro-donor-disclosure point of view comes down to.  As Mike Stenhouse noted in the thread, the other side of the coin is that the people who donate those “millions” to such organizations aren’t only, or even mainly, the powerful rich, and disclosing donors is a way to allow targeted political campaigns against them.

The fact is that people whose views are not in line with the progressive mainstream narrative do have an entirely reasonable and well-substantiated fear that their political donations will make them targets for activists.  This possibility — and the countless iterations that occur on lower levels — strikes at the heart of our democracy.

Carry the logic out a bit: Why not identify every person’s ballot and make it public, in the name of transparency?

We manage peace in a diverse and free society because we separate out politics from other areas of life.  If donating to a particular candidate or cause puts my family or business under threat, then our society is no longer answering political questions through a discrete set of rules.  We can no longer have our political contests and then return to other interactions with maximum cooperation.

But isn’t using wealth to political advantage a violation of the principle that politics should be a separate matter?  Perhaps in a manner of speaking, but there are all sorts of ways to have disproportionate influence in politics based on other areas of our lives — whether because of a job in media, family connections, affiliation with a government labor union, or whatever — and we can’t root all of them out of politics.  Moreover, our personal interests obviously influence the public policy that we prefer, and it would be plainly tyrannical to prevent people from voting according to their interests, from wherever they derive.

So, we should be hesitant to limit different types of influence, so as to maintain balance, while striving to keep those sources of power from being used by citizens against each other outside the intermediary of politics.

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The Balance of the Budget Under Collective Bargaining

Today, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity released a major study that I coauthored with Penn State business professor Dennis Sheehan about the effects of collective bargaining in the public sector on the cost of government.  Using both statistical estimates and reviews of specific contract provisions and budgets, we found that the state government’s cost of labor is $96–299 million too high, with an additional total for all municipalities, school districts, and fire districts coming in at $228–825 million.

Our “best estimate” for the combined total excess for the whole state is $888 million, or 21%.  This is money that state and local governments should be able to use for other purposes, including tax relief.  In this sum, we see the primary reason that state and local governments never seem to have enough money to accomplish basic objectives like maintaining buildings, roads, and bridges and why our taxes are still among the highest in the country.

There is a lot to the report, and we’ll be laying it out in detail and building on it over time.  The ultimate conclusion, however, can be seen in the following chart.  We chose Portsmouth for our most-detailed analysis because it is the median town for taxes and population and also makes a good amount of the required information publicly available.

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One way to understand this chart is to take the two largest segments as the baseline budget that the town must have to do everything it currently does, with market-rate employee compensation in green and the budget for everything else in dark blue.  Right now, every wedge on the chart in between those two goes toward employee pay and benefits.

If the report’s “low-end estimate” of excess compensation is correct — that is, if we use our most conservative methodology — the second-darkest blue wedge could shift from employee compensation in order to pay for other expenses or to provide tax relief.  At the other end, if even our “high-end estimate” of excess is accurate, nearly one-quarter of the town’s entire budget could be shifted away from paying employees.

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Holding the Thread on Pension Stipends

This idea of giving government retirees a stipend in years that they don’t receive cost of living adjustments (COLAs) to their pensions seems to me a much more dangerous one than it might appear on the surface:

In legislation debated in a House Finance Committee hearing Tuesday night, Reps. Robert Craven, Michael Morin (a retired firefighter), Carol McEntee and Justine Caldwell propose that “an increasing stipend″ be paid retired state employees, municipal employees and teachers or their beneficiaries in years when there is no scheduled cost-of-living adjustment. …

Starting in the year that begins Jan. 1, 2020, the legislation would have the state pay a 3% “stipend″ on the first $15,000 in pension benefits, a boost of up to $450 initially, in each year in which there is no scheduled COLA payment.

In 2022, the stipend would increase to 3% of the first $20,000 in pension benefits, up to a maximum of $600 a year, and in 2026 it would increase again to 3% of the first $25,000 in benefits, up to a maximum of $750 per year.

Starting in 2030, the proposed increases would be tied to an annual index.

The pension system is a fund into which the employee and the employer pay throughout his or her career.  The supposition is that those contributions will be enough by the time the person retires to cover his or her retirement with no further additions.  If the system is not working, adjustments should be made within the system or funding increased to the system to shore it up.

To take the approach of adding some additional direct payment to the pension plan’s members is, in principle, no different than having the state pick any group of people and start giving it money.  As a practical reality, that happens all the time — far too much — but this legislation would cross another line and destroy the principle that government shouldn’t do such things.  A lingering sense of propriety may be all that’s holding our government together at the moment, and it’s a thread that shouldn’t be cut.

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Seeing RI Policy Through a National Lens

Being so enmeshed in Rhode Island policy and politics, while also following national news and commentary, I always find it to be like a crossing of the streams when the state becomes part of the national narrative.  Here’s Rhode Island’s entry into the national conversation about “free” college, via a Grace Gottschling report on CampusReform, under the headline, “RI Gov. pushes for ‘free’ college… with $200 million deficit”:

All graduating high school students, regardless of family income, are eligible for RI Promise and non-citizen residents are also eligible. It is unclear if this proposed expansion to include Rhode Island College, the four-year state school, would also allow non-citizen residents to be eligible. According to the RI Promise website, individuals are eligible if they are Rhode Island residents and qualify for in-state tuition. Rhode Island is one of two states in the nation that allows individual college Boards of Regents to decide whether to offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.

Campus Reform reached out to the governor’s office to confirm whether illegal immigrants would be eligible for free, four-year college under the proposed expansion, but did not hear back in time for publication.

Sometimes it renews one’s sense of the insanity of Rhode Island governance to presumptively see it through the eyes of those who live elsewhere.  Perhaps increased coverage by the Boston Globe will mean more RI-story pickups at lower-tier publications like CampusReform.

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Looking for the Secret of Democrat Mayors’ Mystique

The polling group, Morning Consult, has released its first-quarter 2019 results for the approval and disapproval rates of governors across the United States.  Glancing at the feature at the top, showing the 10 most popular governors, an obvious fact might jump out at those who pay attention to politics:  They’re all Republicans.

In fact, of the 22 governors with at least 50% approval, only four are Democrats.  That means 19 Democrat governors are leading states in which fewer than half of people are willing to say they approve of  them.  That contrasts with just nine Republicans of whom the same could be said.

Rhode Island’s Democrat offering on the list, Gina Raimondo, ties with two other Democrats for third-lowest approval rating.  The tie goes away, however, when one notes that Raimondo’s disapproval rate of 50%.  Only Republican Matt Bevin, of Kentucky, outdoes that, with 52% disapproval.

That means Rhode Islanders have more reason than most to solve a mystery inherent in the numbers:  How are Democrats able to secure and hold governorships despite their unpopularity while governing?

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Toward a Consensus on Free Speech

The defenestration of British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton based on a deceptively presented interview may be of limited relevance to Rhode Island politics.  The lesson, however, is worth presenting in every venue of our modern age:

But while certain Conservative politicians seem set on appeasing what they take to be the spirit of the age, they might have misjudged the turn. … Those who were most angry were young people, who have grown to loathe this social media hate-mongering.

Their instincts are right. Our world is replete with complex matters that need discussing. We need philosophers, thinkers and even politicians of courage to help us find our way through this. We live in the age of character assassination. What we now desperately need is a counter-revolution based on the importance of individuals over mobs, the primacy of truth over offence, and the necessity of free-thought over this bland, dumb and ill-conceived uniformity.

People across the political spectrum must rebuild the consensus that everybody has a right to express their views, that we should give each other wide latitude to err (whether in fleeting words misspoken in an instant or more-fundamental flaws in a way of thinking), and that punishing people for the ideas that they express, to the extent that it should be an option at all, should be done only with full awareness of the context and intent of their speech.  Knowing what they actually said is only the first step of that process.

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From GOT to the Meaning of Life with Matt Allen

Honestly, I was a little bit more apprehensive than usual going on Episode 27 of Matt Allen’s Uncut podcast.  I’ve gotten used to talking about topics, and this was just… a conversation.  It ranged from casual life talk to deep political philosophy.  Give it a listen and let me know what you think.

Listen to “Episode 27: Justin Katz” on Spreaker.

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Low Revenue and Locking in the Union Advantage

A week ago, Providence Journal reporter Katherine Gregg tweeted out that the state’s revenue was under performing by about 7%:

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Note two things.  First, if not for the application of sales taxes to new items, especially online, and an increase in the various fees and such that make up “departmental receipts,” the picture would be significantly worse.  Second, about half of the shortfall is attributable to unexpectedly low income taxes.

This is fully in keeping with the latest Jobs & Opportunity Index report from the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, which found that Rhode Island is uniquely lagging the country in residents’ personal income growth.  In fact, we were the only state to lose personal income between the latest report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the originally reported numbers for the prior quarter.

Combine that fact with a downturn in employment in the Ocean State, and we’ve got a clear warning sign that we need to change direction.  Unfortunately, our governor is busy pushing progressive social-welfare policy while the General Assembly is hurrying to grab the unions everything they can before the next downturn.

That last note kind of makes one wonder what the legislators know that the rest of us don’t.  If they are expecting another recession in Rhode Island, that would be the time to lock in as much as they can for their friends in the labor unions.

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RI Down in Jobs and Innovation, Up in Lack of Hope

In terms of politics, it seems to me that the trend is the key question with news like this:

According to Bloomberg’s U.S. State Innovation Index, California and Massachusetts are ranked first and second respectively, but Rhode Island was in steep decline over the past three years.

Rhode Island is ranked 23rd in the 2019 ranking — far behind Connecticut which is ranked fourth. Most concerning is that Rhode Island fell seven positions in the ranking from the 2016 Index — the last time Bloomberg released the Index for innovation.

Now, Rhode Island is the second lowest ranked in New England — only Maine is ranked lower at #41.

This is the opposite of what ought to be happening if we have a governor who prioritizes and understands innovation.  We’ve long been able to observe as job and employment growth has slowed under Governor Gina Raimondo, and it’s turned into job and employment loss.  Now, even contrived ratings for innovation are showing a decrease in strength in a metric that the governor ought to be able to present as contrary evidence to the broader employment data if her method of economic development worked.

Read further down the GoLocalProv article linked above, and you’ll see the usual talk from government insiders presenting all the wrong metrics.  It’s always about how much money the government is managing to spend.

Raimondo somehow managed to get herself reelected, so Rhode Islanders shouldn’t expect much change in execution over the next four years.  The General Assembly, for its part, has been mainly intent on showing its fealty to organized labor.

Looking out over the landscape, the most depressing deficit is the lack of somebody to be a leading light of opposition.  In a system doing this poorly, people ought to be emerging in unexpected places to provide the right answers to a growing population of malcontents.  Where are they?

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Fish on Fridays


Nothing symbolizes the supposed arbitrariness of religion to those predisposed towards skepticism towards religious belief more than does the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays during the season of Lent. I’ll admit to having asked myself, especially on Good Friday, what connection is there really, between not eating meat and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. And then there is the philosophical paradox. If my soul is lost after I’ve eaten meat on a Lenten Friday, does that mean I’m free to commit worse sins without making my situation worse? But if the rule doesn’t really matter, then why follow it? And on and on and on and on…

Here’s what I do know. With the wide variety of fish and other meatless options available to a 21st century American, abstaining from meat on Fridays is about as small a “sacrifice” in a material sense as can be asked for. But honoring the rule does require me to make some conscious choices that run contrary to what the surrounding culture tells me are cool and sensible. And if I am unable to make this small sacrifice, because I find it too inconvenient, or because I’m afraid to explain myself to others who don’t share my belief or who might think that I’m being just plain silly, then on what basis can I believe myself to be capable of taking a stand in more serious situations, when the choices might be a little harder and the stakes a bit higher?

Slightly edited re-post of an April 6, 2007 original.

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The Undeserved Confidence of the New Upper Class

One common suggestion for those who wish to be aware of current events and engage in civil dialogue is that they should seek out alternate opinions and actually listen to the other side.  This practice does create a deeper understanding, but deeper understanding doesn’t necessarily bring a softening of reactions.  That was my thought while listening to former long-time PR guy for Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo, Michael Raia, on the Bartholomewtown Podcast.

Listening to Raia talk about opportunities for our state and region, I couldn’t help but feel my impressions of the Raimondo administration affirmed and my concern about its type of thinking amplified.  The listener can hear how confident Raia is that he’s got the region all figured out, as if a society is just a puzzle for which placement of the correct pieces provides the solution.

Whether it’s the operation of businesses and the economy, the development and modification of the infrastructure, the operations of the healthcare system, or the quality of life of particular demographic groups, like senior citizens, one gets the impression that Raia has a firm belief that he and other go-getter experts can think it all through, plan it all out, wind it all up, and set the great society in motion.  Unfortunately, the human community doesn’t work like that.

Intelligent as they may be, the Raias and Raimondos aren’t smart enough to plan a society even if everybody wanted to live in neighborhoods like the ones they prefer and spend their senior years playing pickleball. Such an accomplishment would require infinite expertise and a God-like perspective.

The fact of the matter, though, is that most other people do not share the tastes of what Charles Murray called “the new upper class” in his book Coming Apart, and those people have a right not to have their societal preferences bulldozed aside by a powerful government.  Moreover, as Murray explains, the ethos of that new upper class is destructive of society in the long run.

Even in the immediate, direct trends of the economy, we can observe the economic sluggishness since Governor Raimondo took office, which suggests that her approach does not work.  In February, Rhode Island was the only state in the country that had fewer jobs than it did a year before.  Yet, one hears no trace of doubt in Raia’s voice that maybe (just maybe) crafting a society isn’t so easy.

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Who Is Working For You? New Major Report Coming Soon From The Center

Who does the Rhode Island General Assembly really work for? Too often, the people of our state are left voiceless as special interest dominate the conversation. Recently, the Ocean State Current broke a major story that ignited media coverage across the state. In H5662 and Whom Rhode Island Representatives Represent, Research Director Justin Katz, uncovers a key admission from the political class.

During the March 11th Tiverton Town Council meeting, a member of the General Assembly admitted that he put forward the bill at the request of Speaker of the House, without regard to the cost to the town he represents for the state firefighters union.

Don’t wait, you can catch the video on the Current by clicking the link here. You can also find the followup here.

In the coming weeks, the Center will be releasing a major report on the cost of collective bargaining in the Ocean State. This will be the longest and most in-depth research project the Center has ever undertaken on any topic. We invite you to be on the lookout for this critical report.

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Admissions Scandal Is So Very Rhode Island

I’ve got an op-ed in today’s Washington Times, about Rhode Island’s own connection with the college-entrance bribery scandal:

When Rhode Islanders heard that the women’s tennis coach of the state’s public university had been arrested in connection with the national bribery for admission scandal, many must have said, “Wait, what?” Students can get an excellent education at the University of Rhode Island, and it’s certainly an affordable option, but it isn’t exactly an institution for which the nation’s rich and famous would have to pay the sort of premium that might attract the FBI’s attention.

When they learned the details, locals’ reaction was probably something more like, “How very Rhode Island.”

This paragraph is probably the key takeaway for Rhode Islanders:

Rhode Island’s leaders are like the parents who’ve bribed their children’s way into institutions of higher education that were well beyond their merit. Both cases exhibit an implicit insecurity and a desire for people under their care or authority to be something they’re not. In contrast, the initial questions that political leaders and parents ask should be: Who are you really, and how can you achieve your full potential, being who you are? With that more-human perspective as the starting point, parents might not set their children up for embarrassing failure (or criminal prosecution).

Read the whole thing, as they say.

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The Pressure the General Assembly Is Trying to Control

The Providence Journal today has published an op-ed in which I address the admission of Representative John “Jay” Edwards (D, Portsmouth, Tiverton) that he put in legislation for the state firefighters union, by way of Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, without much consideration of its effect on the people he’s supposed to represent:

Watch Rhode Island politics for even a short time, and you’ll catch on to certain truths. Everybody seems to know them, and sometimes an op-ed or talk radio show will blurt them out. By now, in 2019, these truths have been sufficiently longstanding and have produced so many of their inevitable consequences that Rhode Islanders feel them in their bones. They are why few run for office and why many leave the state, year after year.

Still, a person who’s watched Rhode Island politics can’t help but be surprised when an insider, who ought to have the good taste to pretend these truths aren’t true, admits one of them. I had this experience at the March 11 meeting of the Tiverton Town Council, of which I am the vice president. We were engaged in a ritual conversation with our town’s representatives and senators, and I asked state Rep. John “Jay” Edwards about one of his bills.

One important lesson shouldn’t be lost as this matter predictably falls along lines of unions versus taxpayers.  With legislation like the bills Mattiello asked Edwards to submit, legislators aren’t only elevating the interests of the unions over those of the broader public.  They’re also advancing the statewide unions’ interests over those of the union locals and their workers.

That’s ultimately the upshot of having the General Assembly put limits on what the sides can negotiate in any particular city or town.  Inherently, both sides of the negotiating table are restricted in what they’re able to negotiate.

The pressure on budgets doesn’t go away.  Elected officials and municipal employees simply have to find other ways to release it.  Perhaps Mattiello and Edwards expect or hope that the “release” will come in the form of big tax increases in an already over-taxed state.  More likely, the result will be exacerbated under-funding of pensions, infrastructure, and other areas of the budget that aren’t as straightforward.

If the budget pressure can’t be released in those ways, the bubble will only grow, to the point that we’re talking about privatization and regionalization.  Maybe those are good ideas and maybe they’re not, but the only way to truly know is to let the people closest to negotiations talk about and try everything.

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Negotiating with the Speaker in the Room

Thanks to the reporting of Providence Journal reporter Katherine Gregg we have some explanation of the motivation behind Democrat state Representative John “Jay” Edwards legislation to change overtime rules in favor of fire fighters.  Unfortunately, the explanation comes not from the Tiverton/Portsmouth representative who put the bill in, but the Speaker of the House who told him to do it:

During an interview with The Journal on Tuesday, Democrat Mattiello, of Cranston, acknowledged he is an enthusiastic supporter of the legislation that Cranston Deputy Fire Chief Paul Valletta has been pushing at the State House in his role as the $3,035.58-a-month lobbyist for the Rhode Island State Association of Fire Fighters. …

“We had the opportunity to pass this bill several years ago. We elected not to at that point and I remember knocking on one of my constituent’s doors. He was a Providence firefighter and he was a little frustrated and he said, ‘I am still going to vote for you speaker but I’m angry with you. … I have not seen my wife and my 8-year-old daughter in a year.’ That is inappropriate,″ Mattiello said. “The schedules that three platoons create are horrific on families … and if communities are going to do that, they should at least be required to pay the overtime.”

Mattiello acknowledges that he did no research concerning this issue or how other states have addressed it.  Despite the distance from Cranston to the East Bay, he might at least have made some inquiries about things in Tiverton.  We’ve worked hard on a solution — through a contract negotiated in good faith that is on track to be signed within mere weeks — precisely because employees were unhappy with the arrangement and it has affected morale, retention, and hiring.  In fact, his interference at the state level has complicated the situation locally.

Readers of this site know that I’m (let’s just say) skeptical of unionization, especially of government employees, but even by labor’s own standards the whole idea is that two sides come to the table and work out an agreement.  If the Speaker of the House is in the room, too, then the arrangement deserves much more than skepticism.

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Why We Should Be Afraid of Subjective Moral Reasoning

Believers and secularists can go around in circles when it comes to moral debates.  Mark Tapscott highlights the response of Christian speaker Ravi Zacharias when an audience member asks him why Christians are “so afraid of subjective moral reasoning,” and Zacharias’s response is excellent but, I think, vulnerable to the ideological roundabout.

He points to the genocides of the U.S.S.R. and China, but his questioner had already asserted that there were Christian Nazis and atheist Nazis.  Put aside the legitimacy of that assertion and simply note that he believes it and would likely move farther down that path had the argument continued.

The key point for advancing this debate is, in my view, that comments like “why are you so afraid” ignore that we live within a cultural framework.  Even now, we’re living within the moral momentum of Christianity.  Until very recently, children were still raised, in significant degree, to think that those things that were traditionally immoral are… immoral.  Telling a person when he or she becomes a teen that there is no ontological foundation for his or traditions doesn’t make them suddenly feel incorrect.  The transition takes time and an opposing catalyst.

In other words, something has to happen to change the feeling of right and wrong, and that something can be manipulation by an ideological movement, like the Nazis or the Chinese Communists or even the lower-scale bigotry that gives some superficially plausible reason why it’s OK to hurt a particular type of person (like a teenage supporter of the president).

Honestly evaluated life experience will suggest that the urge to break free of traditional moral restrictions is always lingering just below the surface, at least for a sufficiently large portion of the population to be dangerous.  It really doesn’t take much at all to break it free.

The Old Man in the Mountain looked out over New Hampshire for centuries, watching as horses lost ground to cars below and planes began flying overhead.  But time did him in.  Drops of water, freezing and thawing, worked their way through the crevices, and gutters and chains could ultimately not keep him attached to his foundation.  After that, there was no putting him back.

Culturally, we can resist the gravity of our nature for long eras, but a culture needs tradition to carry it forward.  Otherwise we’re pebbles on the edge of a cliff waiting while an evil ideology works its way into the fissures below.

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The Premium to Live in Rhode Island

Jeff Rose has an interesting article on Forbes.com calculating the take-home value of a $200,000 income in all 50 states.  Such a review requires assumptions and broad strokes, but the attempt is interesting.

Naturally, Rhode Island is in the bottom 8, with the theoretical person taking home $140,500 after taxes, or a 30% effective tax rate.  That ties the Ocean State with New Jersey and is worse only than Connecticut, Minnesota, Maine, Vermont, Hawaii, and (at the bottom of the list) New York.  At the other end of the ranking is Delaware, with $149,500, or an effective 25% rate.

Therein lies the key point.  Sure, folks will have a hard time feeling bad for those with such high incomes, but when they can give themselves up to a 6% raise simply by relocating, we should expect that many of them will try to do so.

That likelihood raises a related topic.  These rankings are purely tax burdens.  Different states have different costs of living, too.  If you’re living in Providence, your cost of living is 22% higher than the national average, according to Payscale.com.  Dover, Delaware, by contrast, is 3% lower than the national average.  That’s a 25% swing.

Readers can play around with the tools to look at the states that Rhode Islanders often mention when they daydream about leaving.  Raleigh, North Carolina, is 6% below the national average for cost of living.  Nashville, Tennessee, is 4% below.  Here’s the table that Payscale.com generates for comparisons:

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Rhode Island doesn’t need new gimmicks or more corporate cronyism to turn itself around.  We need to recognize and respond to this core problem of making it too expensive to live here, with too little opportunity to show for it.  More and more, it seems that we pay a tax premium merely to enable government employees and other insiders to make up for our high cost of living.

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The Violence Inherent in the Mainstream Narrative

Here’s a little story, from Brian Amaral in the Providence Journal, that oughtn’t be lost in the shuffle of day-to-day news:

A group of juveniles [apparently 15 years old and younger] holding “Trump flags” outside the Brown University bookstore on Thayer Street Friday told police a man accosted them and choked two of them.

According to a police report provided by Commander Thomas Verdi, the five juveniles flagged down police at about 8 p.m. to report the incident in front of the bookstore at 244 Thayer St. They told police they were holding the two flags when they were approached by the man, believed to be in his 20s. The man began to stare at them, then asked what they were doing, they told police.

This is a consequence of the prevalent attitude in much of the mainstream of the political and media classes that Americans with certain points of view are evil and therefore have no rights.  When the narrative flows from “punch a Nazi” to “Trump is a Nazi,” a dangerous atmosphere develops.  In this narrative, somebody “Trump flags” (whatever those might be) is trying to usher in a new fascism.

Sure, the 20-something guy walking down the street who decides to take it upon himself to do something violent about this incipient fascism probably has something wrong with him, but this isn’t an isolated incident.  Let’s not forget the mass hysteria over the viral video of the Covington Catholic students in Washington, D.C., after the latest March for Life.

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The Effects of the Minimum Wage

Written testimony from the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s CEO, Mike Stenhouse, opposing an increase in the minimum wage emphasizes that such legislation kills jobs:

After Seattle passed a rapid minimum wage hike, a study by the Univ. of WA found the cost to low-wage workers outweighed the benefits by a 3-1 ratio, and found that on average overall, low-wage workers, lost $125 per month – because of lost work hours, lost employment, or lost job opportunities because of the hike.

In Boston, high minimum wages have been publicly cited as a primary reason for many restaurant closings.

Writing on PJ Media, Stephen Green notes that the contagion has hit New York City:

Which brings us back to the NY Post, where an industry group was quoted saying that “full-service restaurants recorded a 1.6 percent job loss [in 2018], which is the first recorded annual loss in two decades.” The new minimum wage hadn’t kicked in yet, but fast-food and fast-casual restaurants were already rushing to automate in anticipation, and this year looks to be even worse

Green also shares this helpfully explanatory cartoon:

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Numbers, Facts, and Another Budget Battle

Over in Tiverton, we’re engaged in our annual budget debate, during which I have the new-to-me experience of being on the Town Council, this year.  This budget year is also unique because the full $3 million in minimum revenue from the new Twin River casino is in the budget for the first time.

Given these realities, I’ve been pushing for a compromise that would allow the town to reset local politics and spend the next year developing a long-term plan that allows us all to get our expectations on the table.  Maybe, just maybe, we could move forward from that exercise working together like a community rather than lurching from election to budget to election in a whipsaw of factions.

Unfortunately, given the recent history of the town, trust is an issue, and (from my perspective) it seems as if the old familiar strategies are difficult to move beyond:

During his initial pitch to the Budget Committee, Tiverton’s new superintendent, Peter Sanchioni, suggested that people had to trust him to set our school system aright.  He is correct that trust is critical, and distrust is the major hurdle facing anybody who wishes to bring Tiverton back to a place of compromise and cooperation.  That is why the superintendent’s final presentation to the Budget Committee before it voted on a budget for his department was so disappointing.

At the highest level, the School Committee never really compromised.  They asked the town for the highest budget they could possibly request by law.  (Actually their request exceeded the maximum by $3,624.)  On top of that, they appear to have overestimated state aid by $92,004 (which local taxpayers would have to make up for) and added $311,000 in “critical” capital expenses that they’d planned to fund out of their own reserves but now want the town to cover.

Two more-specific parts of the presentation, however, are where trust really takes a hit.

The closing sentiment of the post is key for Rhode Island as well as for Tiverton:  numbers have to be seen as an area of common ground rather than as an opportunity to mislead.  If I present numbers that lead me to a particular conclusion, somebody who opposes my position should explain which statements are incorrect or why they should lead to some other conclusion.  We at least have to share the the goal of agreeing on what the facts are, even if nobody changes his or her views because of them.

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Social Isolation for Elders and the Cause of Freedom

It’s been out for a few months, so readers who frequent this sort of Web site may have already come across WalletHub’s ranking of the “Best States to Retire,” which places Rhode Island 49th, better only than Kentucky.  What does the Ocean State in is the combination of low affordability and low quality of life for seniors.

That latter point is what caught my eye this week in Adriana Belmonte’s summary of the ranking for Yahoo Finance:

Colorado and New Hampshire’s spots jumped out to [WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez], as well. New Hampshire has the lowest property crime rate, and is the fourth-best state overall.

“While they aren’t exactly the most affordable, these states ranked among the best to retire to,” Gonzalez said, noting both states’ high-quality health care and physicians per capita. “This is because they both have a low risk of social isolation, as well as a low share of the population aged 65+ in poverty.”

New Hampshire is 3rd for “quality of life,” which includes a variety of entertainment and leisure items (like “scenic byways” and “museums per capita”), as well as crime rates.  The subcategory also includes “risk of social isolation,” measured as follows:

This metric considers the following six risk factors of social isolation in population aged 65 years and older: a) Divorced, separated or widowed; b) Never married; c) Poverty; d) Disability; e) Independent Living Difficulty and f) Living alone.

That’s a cultural thing, and it points to a traditional view of life.  If you divorce or never get married, you have a higher risk of being alone.  Likewise (although it doesn’t appear that WalletHub measured this) if you never had children or if your children had to move somewhere else in order to find work, your risk of isolation goes up.

We most certainly shouldn’t compound the tragic events in people’s lives with unnecessary ridicule and stigma, but we’ve tended to forget an important point:  Traditional values are traditional for a reason.  They were learned over the course of centuries, not (as the ideological scions of Marx would have it) because they served some patriarchy or ruling elite, but because they made people’s lives better.  They also provided the foundation for freedom and for social advancement, which means losing our traditional values will actually bring us back toward rule by others.

In that regard, it is a telling coincidence that New Hampshire’s motto is “Live Free or Die.”

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Truck Tolls: Plaintiffs Appeal Ruling to Dismiss; Do Not Accede to Moving the Fight to State Court

On March 19, the federal district court in Providence dismissed the American Trucking Associations’ lawsuit against Rhode Island’s truck-only tolls, heeding the State of Rhode Island’s legal argument that their truck-only tolls are not a federal but a state matter and within the state’s purview to assess because they are actually taxes. (Wait, what?? Since when? From the beginning and all through the toll battle, Governor Gina Raimondo and state leaders repeatedly told us that tolls are a “fee”, a “user fee“, an apple – anything but a tax.)

At that point, the ATA had two choices: file the suit in state court or move to keep the suit at the federal level by appealing the decision. They just issued a statement indicating that they have chosen the latter course, stating, in part

Yesterday, the American Trucking Associations, along with three motor carriers representing the industry, appealed last week’s decision by the federal district court in Rhode Island to dismiss their challenge to Rhode Island’s RhodeWorks truck-only toll scheme, on procedural grounds.

In its challenge, ATA contends that Rhode Island’s truck-only toll scheme is unconstitutional because it discriminates against interstate trucking companies and impedes the flow of interstate commerce. In its March 19, 2019 decision dismissing the case, the district court did not address the merits of that constitutional claim. Instead, it held only that ATA’s challenge could not proceed in federal court.

ATA President and CEO Chris Spear went on to underscore, “…we look forward to establishing the unconstitutionality of Rhode Island’s discriminatory tolls on the merits.”

[Monique has been a contributor to the Ocean State Current and Anchor Rising for over ten years, was volunteer spokesperson for the citizens advocacy anti-toll group StopTollsRI.com for three+ years and began working for the Rhode Island Trucking Association as a staff member in September of 2017.]

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