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The Impression of a Surplus

This article from a few weeks ago shouldn’t pass into memory without comment:

Rhode Island finished the past fiscal year with a $29-million surplus, $25.5 million of which the state is already counting on in its budget for the current year, according to a preliminary accounting of the year that ended June 30.

State spending for the year that ended June 30 came in $12 million lower than the final, revised spending plan lawmakers approved earlier that month; state revenues were $2.1 million higher than expected.

Review the budget documents from the House Fiscal office for the real story.  With less than two weeks remaining in the fiscal year, the state increased its final budget for that year by $174 million.  This new “surplus” is just the extra wiggle room they gave themselves, and the fact that they are counting on almost all of it for the next year raises the question of how aware they were of the likelihood.

Of course, one could reasonably argue that the state ought to budget with the expectation of a small surplus.  In that case, however, the story isn’t really about a surplus, but about the absence of an unforeseen deficit.

To say that the government ended the year with a surplus is like saying your child has money left over when he or she gives you back a quarter from a hundred dollar bill that you gave him or her to buy something for $98.  That $1.75 went to buy some unapproved candy, but your kid wants credit for giving you any change at all.

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An Unaskable What If in Providence Education

The story of Providence schools’ purchase of an inspirational book took an interesting turn as a second act.  Act 1 was, “We Can’t Teach Anything That Sounds Religious”; Act 2 brings, “What Are We Not Being Told About How the City Spent $187,000 on this Book?”  Naturally, the reporting (and Rhode Islanders’ long, painful experience with their government) lends itself to suspicion, but an innocent explanation is still possible for details like this:

[Vernon Brundage, Jr.] published “Shoot Your Shot” last year, but it’s unclear how many copies were sold before Gallo ordered 16,510 books. Maryland business filings show Brundage didn’t establish “Shoot Your Shot Globe Enterprises,” the company Providence paid for the books, until Aug. 15.

It could be that, in the way of modern life, somebody in Providence came across this book and proposed it for distribution.  The proposal might have gone around the bureaucracy a bit, gathering approvals, and then inquiry made to the self-publishing author.  Upon the order of 16,510, perhaps he realized the need (or opportunity) to set up a company to handle the transaction.

This kind of serendipity happens in the entrepreneurial universe.  The catch in this instance, however, is that the district’s purchasing process should at least have produced some negotiation for a better price.  And (of course) there’s the reflexive anti-religious sentiment in the district (from the first link above):

Gallo said she read “Shoot Your Shot,” authored by Vernon Brundage Jr., prior to purchasing it, and the religious references didn’t alarm her. The breezy read uses stories from professional basketball stars to inspire readers to accomplish their goals.

She said the book is meant to teach “grit and perseverance,” but she now sees why some teachers were uncomfortable using it.

Despite all of the claims that we have to put the students first, here’s a question that I haven’t seen anybody even hint at asking:  What if a touch of religious faith is what Providence students really need?  The district would implicitly be making a religious statement if it were to declare that this could not be the case.

To be sure, a political philosophy could simultaneously hold that students need religion and that government schools cannot provide or even encourage it.  If that is our stance, however, then we have to question whether we should be expending so many resources on a system that can’t provide what is needed.

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The Lamentable Process of Rhode Island Reform

During a hearing on the state’s takeover of Providence schools, WPRI’s Steph Machado tweeted the following comment from Domingo Morel, who wrote a book on state takeovers of schools and who joined the Johns Hopkins team to review Providence:

“It’s pretty unique” that the mayor, city council and school board haven’t objected to the state taking over the PVD schools

Perhaps these amount to the same thing, but one wonders whether the reason is that they know they aren’t capable of fixing the problem or want to pass the buck for the responsibility.

On most of Rhode Island’s intractable problems, especially those that manifest most significantly at the local level, one gets the sense that the strategy goes something like this:

  1. Try to mitigate the harmful effects of the problem while not making any difficult decisions.
  2. Allow the problem to get so bad that somebody has to step in, whether it’s the electorate with permission for a big bond or tax increase or the state or federal government with a takeover.
  3. Accept (maybe even take credit for) this manifest proof of incompetence.
  4. Work to limit the impact of any actual reforms to the status quo system and to siphon any increase in funds away from the problem.
  5. Proceed to revert to the way things were once the spotlight moves away.

Of course, this process isn’t purely a function of our elected officials.  We the people, after all, allow them to bring things to this point because we’re not willing to elect and support candidates and elected officials who could turn it around.

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Identity Politics Summed Up in a Game

Understanding that Hasbro has been trying to find the profit in contemporary politics by targeting markets with specialty versions of Monopoly, I still am a little surprised that this game made it through to production:

One of America’s most recognizable board games is getting an upgrade. Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based Hasbro is debuting a new game celebrating women’s empowerment — Ms. Monopoly, marking the first time in Monopoly history when a new mascot will be featured on the cover of the game.

The twist? In Ms. Monopoly, female players will get more money.

Switching the “mascot” and the iconography of the game is fine, but creating sex-specific rules for players seems destined to ensure that playing it always has a hostile tinge.

The most likely scenario is that all of the players will be women, in which case their advantage is illusory.  In those cases in which men are at the board, the rules seem designed to emphasize anything unhealthy in the relationship.  Perhaps the man is obsequious.  Or maybe he’s playing the male feminist as a predatory strategy.  Or maybe he’ll approach the game in good fun, but his loss will have the taint of unfairness and his victory will come with a feeling of “Ha! The man won anyway!”

This is only a gimmicky game, of course, but culture is important.  Why not just stick with equality?  Even Jimmy Kimmel gets it.

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A Reporter Who Spins and a System that Drags Students Down

Erika Sanzi calls out Providence Journal education writer Linda Borg both for her bias and for blocking Sanzi on Twitter.  On behalf of my fellow Rhode Island subversives, I welcome Erika to the club.

It’s nice to have somebody else spotting and calling attention to the obvious errors in the pro-establishment spin.  Borg tweeted that Rhode Island had moved “up to 12th in a national ranking by Ed Week on academic achievement.”  Anybody who’s paid any attention to our state’s scores and trends should have done a quadruple-take on that claim, and that’s what Sanzi did:

People can certainly celebrate or quibble with EdWeek’s finding of Rhode Island landing in the 12th spot for its school systems overall. If 22nd for chance for success, 30th for academic achievement, and 5th in school finance puts us in 12th place, perhaps we should be asking ourselves the following questions:

  • Why is every state in New England, except for Maine, ranked higher than we are
  • Why, with such a strong score for school finance, do our achievement scores remain so low?

Dwell on that second bullet point.  In any fair assessment, excess spending ought to be calculated as a negative, not a positive. (This is a common point not considered in comparisons of government activity across states.)  Making a quick index of EdWeek’s “achievement” score against its “spending” score — sort of an efficiency index — puts Rhode Island at 46th in the country.

That illustrates a point that I’ve made many times in the past and that Sanzi suggests above:  Being middle-of-the-pack is not very impressive when you’re spending top-of-the-line dollars.  That’s especially true when you consider that Rhode Island is above average in “chance of success,” which largely depends on socio-economic conditions.  In other words, our students’ achievement should be higher than average based on this factor alone.

The conclusion to which this analysis leads may be a painful one for Rhode Islanders to hear, but if we actually want to help our children succeed and to improve our state, we have to address it:  Rhode Island’s education system isn’t just failing to add value for its students — holding them back; it’s actively harming them — dragging them down.

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The Magnitude of Charter Demand

In the past couple decades — especially the first decade of this century — Rhode Island’s public school districts have lost grades’ worth of students.  In Newport, it is as if an entire high school were standing empty; Providence has fared better, losing between one and two grades’ worth of students.  Yet, budgets have continued to climb.

Rhode Islanders should think of all of those empty classrooms when they hear somebody make the point that Democrat state Senator Ryan Pearson articulates here:

The reasons why costs are projected to soar are nuanced, but Pearson points to Cumberland where education expenses grow each time a student moves from a traditional school to a mayoral academy.

The per pupil price tag stays the same, he said, but because overhead costs at the traditional school – such as teachers and classroom expenses – don’t simultaneously disappear, the net cost to the town grows overall.

Yes, costs don’t necessarily disappear on a per pupil basis, but when 7-28% of students are no longer enrolled, surely there are savings to be found.

The more salient point from the Eli Sherman article linked above, however, is stated by a charter school advocate:

“If we’re talking about saving a district to enable them to operate in perpetuity – even if means generations of education are sacrificed in the process – we have our priorities wrong,” said Mary Sylvia Harrison, a longtime educator who most recently served as vice president for programs at the Nellie Mae Foundation.

Consider this chart from Sherman:

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Over the time span in the chart, demand for charter schools has grown 25%, but the number of available seats has gone down.  For the 2019-2020 school year, 8,494 students would like to attend a charter school but can’t.  If they were all in Providence, that would be more than four whole grades.  That’s a bigger number than all of Cumberland and Lincoln school districts combined.  It’s almost a full grade’s worth of students across the entire state.

Numbers of that magnitude don’t indicate a small leak of students that doesn’t allow districts to reduce their costs.  They indicate a mandate for a systemic change to the way we do education in Rhode Island.

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Casinos and Government Non-Competitiveness

As more casinos open their doors in Massachusetts, Rhode Islanders are at least presented with an important lesson in government.

Insider Senator Frank Ciccone (D, North Providence, Providence) has demanded to know “How can we compete?”  The answer, in short, is to stop requiring an act of the General Assembly for Twin River to do so.

Rhode Island takes a high percentage of gambling revenue, reducing the incentive for private investors to be involved.  The state dictates details about how many of what games from what company should be on the premises, and the governor is even now seeking to lock in a restrictive contract with IGT for 20 whole years.  Read through the state’s laws pertaining the the casinos, and it is clear that Twin River is little more than a management company for a state-run casino.

How can we compete?  Change that around.

Steve Frias notes that Rhode Island has already been down this path with horse racing, writing that it declined and disappeared for three reason:

First, competition from horse race tracks located in other New England states caused Rhode Island horse race tracks to lose customers. …

Second, the number of horse racing gamblers shrank as the sport failed to attract younger fans. …

Third, the quality of Rhode Island horse racing became poor due in part to a high tax burden. Rhode Island politicians steadily increased the state’s share of horse racing revenues from 3.5 percent in 1934 to 9 percent by 1971. This caused race track owners to invest less money into their facilities and it reduced the quality of the horses they could attract for races since the prize money was smaller. By 1976, Rhode Island race tracks were being called “the most miserable race tracks in America” with “the most miserable horses in America.” In 1978, horse racing in Rhode Island came to an end.

This is a microcosm of the way Rhode Island operates.  Simply put, you can’t compete when you have to cut a state’s worth of insiders in on the deal.  As life becomes less and less dependent on where you live, the captive audience will shrink, and business (any kind of business) will shift to the best competitor.

Thus, mobile sports betting (or wind turbine production or whatever) is no answer for the long term.  Even if Rhode Island is first to market, we’ll never be able to compete until we change the way the state runs.

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In Advance of the Salem Grope Trials

For a little more than a year in 1692 and 1693, a small area in Massachusetts around the town of Salem provided the world with a classic example of mass hysteria, moral panic, or witch hunting… literally.  Two preteen girls in the family of the local minister began having fits, as if they were being assaulted via voodoo dolls, and the search for the perpetrators began.

Once that ball gets rolling, an accusation is a powerful weapon in an environment of unease and division.  Fingers are easy to point, and doing so comes with no consequence.  People with scores to settle have an opportunity, and even people who would never consciously set the mob upon somebody they don’t like may find themselves convinced that they’re doing it for the right reasons.

With our historical experience in this area, it’s shocking that this BBC article doesn’t even mention the possibility of abuse with a new device:

An anti-groping device aimed at tackling sexual harassment on public transport has been launched in Japan.

It allows victims to mark their assailants with an invisible ink stamp in the shape of a hand.

People can then use the device’s black light to identify those who have been marked.

Apparently, groping is a real problem along Japanese rail lines.  Still, the only concern expressed in the article is by Katie Russell, a spokeswoman for Rape Crisis England and Wales, who is concerned that the device unfairly puts the responsibility on victims to take action against their assailants.

Put aside the silly, childish notion that people should not take responsibility for their own self protection and that it is somehow wrong to provide them with tools for that purpose.  What’s striking is that it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anybody involved with the article that the practice of marking other people as perps could be abused.

It would be one thing for a man on the station platform to deny a false accusation.  It would be another for him to insist that somebody had unjustly pegged him with the groper stamp.

This may or may not be a sufficient problem to justify resistance to this new device, but the fact that it isn’t front and center in consideration of the thing indicates that abuse is likely.

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Hasbro Toying with Tariffs

Let’s stipulate that, as a general proposition, tariffs are bad.  Of course, such stipulations don’t provide quick and clean answers to every particular question.  As a general proposition, cutting people open is bad, too, as is punching them, but if you’re performing surgery or defending yourself, the general proposition doesn’t apply.  Losing your job isn’t great, either, but it doesn’t end your life, and you can adjust and even wind up better off than you were.

None of this is meant to offer support for any specific policy or trade war, but only as an encouragement toward a more comprehensive view.  Just so, the CEO of Hasbro is taking tariffs on China as an opportunity:

Hasbro shifting its business out of China has been positive for the company, according to its CEO. «It’s gone very well for us,» Brian Goldner told CNBC on Tuesday.

The toy company has been focused on diversifying its manufacturing operations since 2012 due to «enterprise risk reasons,» he said.

«We’re seeing great opportunities in Vietnam, India and other territories like Mexico. We’re doing even more in the U.S. We brought Play-Doh back to the U.S. last year,» Goldner said on «Squawk on the Street.»

Of course, that one industry giant is happy to adjust to this reality isn’t definitive proof that the tariffs are a net gain.  Market leaders often don’t mind restrictions, provided they create roadblocks for smaller competitors, too, because big players can better overcome artificial hurdles.

Moreover, the fact that the cost is artificial means that it is drawing resources away from something else altogether.  Writ large, the world is now paying more for toys, and those resources have to come from somewhere.

The question is: Are these costs worth the gains?  Such questions will always be subject to opinion, and it’s too early to tell, anyway.  Still, it’s worth remembering to ask them.

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Maybe We Should Say, “At Least It’s Only 18 Days”

When Rhode Islanders read an article reporting that about 25% of all Providence teachers were marked absent 18 times during a school year, we tend to think that’s a lot.  That’s especially true considering that the teachers’ 181-day work year is already one-fifth smaller than the 230 days private-sector workers typically work after they’ve taken all of their allowed paid time.

But there’s another way to look at this question.  As the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity points out, today, the Providence teachers’ contract allows them to take many more days off than they do.  In fact, in a standard year, every teacher could be out of the classroom 26 days, for various sick, personal, and other reasons.

On top of that, life events requiring time off — weddings and deaths — are counted neither as sick nor personal time, but are additional.  If the teacher gets married and experiences deaths in his or her the immediate, in-law, and extended families, the total would be 11 days.

That doesn’t happen all the time, of course, for which we can be grateful, but teachers could also rack up another 11 days out of the classroom for various activities related to their labor union.  And even this doesn’t count the equivalent of 36 and 72 days that a union coordinator and president do not have to do classroom work.

These totals also do not count longer-term absences, like sabbaticals or time off for being injured on the job, or the years Providence teachers can take off without pay.

A table on the Center’s report lays it all out, with references to the contract.  And again, this is all in addition to the fact that public school teachers who don’t take a single additional day off would still work about five fewer workweeks than somebody in the private sector who used up all of his or her time-off benefits.

So, maybe the takeaway shouldn’t be that Providence teachers are abusing their time off allowances, but that they aren’t even using them to their fullest.  It’s the entire system that is abusive.

(Of course, one caveat in our compliment to teachers’ diligence is that they get to carry over all sick days they don’t use, up to 150, and then receive a portion of that pay as a bonus when they leave the district.)

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The Elusive Lesson for the Angry Progressive

Sometimes a reader can’t help but feel like a professor watching a student come so close to an epiphany only to talk right past it.  One such moment can be found in this paragraph from an essay on UpRise RI by Missak Melkonian, about the JUMP bike gang that roved Providence for a day (emphasis added):

Maybe the youths terrorizing the yuppies have a point. I would be, and hell, I AM pissed that hotels and lofts can go up in the blink of an eye but repairing public schools is tantamount to rewriting the Constitution! If those in power wanted to fix the conditions that create these “issues” amongst the youth, they could do it, but they won’t and never will because their bottom line will always be money and power. I grew up in Providence schools. I didn’t need a report from Johns Hopkins to tell me the schools are awful. Anyone with common sense could tell you that – racist teachers, dilapidated facilities, extremely punitive disciplinary policies, do-gooder white savior NGO’s – not to mention the status of the recreation centers in Providence or the various boys and girls clubs. These all make for a ripe combination of anger, resentment, and antipathy in the youth. It’s hard to care about the well-being of something like a JUMP bike when it’s so evident the world doesn’t give a sh*t about you, or even consider you a human being.

Hmmm… what quality applies to hotels and lofts that does not apply to public school?  Ceding a little ideological ground, one could note that the for-profit incentives of the private sector align the drive for “money and power” with the good being sought.  Moreover, the need to draw resources through the consensual commerce of customers translates into incentive to treat them as human beings, without bias or unduly “punitive disciplinary policies.”

A failure to spot this lesson will lead to one place only:  a tacit desire to squash the productive private sector so that it does not outshine the under-performing public sector, thus increasing the amount of resentment in the world.

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Fundamental Questions Vaped

Joanne Giannini’s essay in this space yesterday points in the direction of fundamental questions our society doesn’t seem interested in asking these days — much less answering.

A former state representative, Joanne was in office during a time when state government was cracking down on smoking.  She sees the rise of vaping as an as-bad-or-worse substitute cropping up and (one infers) probably deserving of the same response.

The first question is whether the rash of illnesses is actually an indication that vaping is truly dangerous.  Robert Verbruggen writes for NRO that reports of “the mystery vaping disease” merit investigation and concern, but indications are that they may be highlighting a tangential, not endemic, problem:

… while a lot remains to be learned about the illness, there are strong suggestions it’s caused by bad or counterfeit products, not by normal vaping. The cases cluster geographically, and in some states they have been found exclusively among those who vape cannabis products, not nicotine. Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA director who launched a crackdown on vaping when studies showed teen use on the uptick, told KHN he suspects the problem is counterfeit pods, both because of the clustering and because the FDA inspects the facilities of legitimate manufacturers to ensure the products aren’t contaminated.

This, in other words, may be less like cigarettes, which cause disease by their nature, than like food poisoning.  If that’s the case, then regulation should be less about limiting access as a way of discouraging use than about helping consumers differentiate between safer and riskier products.

Either way, the question remains what our society ought to do when the short- and long-term effects of a consumable are unknown or are known to be bad.  Limiting their use by minors, who are presumed to be unprepared to make informed decisions, is an obvious possibility.  But shouldn’t adults be permitted to balance the risks and rewards of these things for themselves?

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A Disabled Society in an Abled Social Body

The headline of Ashley Taylor’s JSTOR Daily essay doesn’t so much articulate the problem as illustrate it: “The Complicated Issue of Transableism.”

In the late 1990s, the Scottish surgeon Robert Smith performed elective, above-the-knee amputations on two people. (The hospital he was affiliated with eventually compelled him to stop.) Smith’s patients are just two examples of people who have body integrity identity dysphoria, also known as being transabled: They feel they are disabled people trapped in abled bodies. Some people feel that they are meant to be amputees and will even injure themselves in order to create the desired amputation or make it medically necessary for a surgeon to perform it. Other people feel that they were meant to be blind or deaf.

A healthy society would not find “transableism” complicated at all.  It is an indication of deep mental illness, and it should be treated, not indulged.  To the extent our society cannot articulate this unambiguously, we are clearly falling into social illness.

At the very core of this question is a denial of our right as a community to hold Platonic ideals — not to mention the necessity and even inevitability of doing so.  Being able-bodied is the objective norm, the ideal.  When people are disabled, we make allowances and provisions for them in order to close the gap to that ideal.  It is therefore objectively wrong to expect society to offer those accommodations to somebody who deliberately moves away from the ideal.

Somebody of an opposing view might turn this argument around and suggest that all they’re doing is accommodating the person’s psychological distance from the ideal of feeling like an able-bodied person.  But making permanent physical changes compounds the distance rather than relieving it: the person is now disabled and still averse to being able-bodied.

The best one could say is that the person is closer to the ideal of being comfortable, but that is potentially fleeting.  After all, it is always possible to be more disabled.

Elevating the ideal of individual comfort is also destructive of the possibility of objective norms.  On the social scale, such principles have to be taken as simply true, else the utility of culture evaporates and society simply falls apart.

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Felonious Dark Humor from Teenagers

An Associated Press story on WPRI’s Web site raises two questions:

A Florida teenager faces a felony charge after getting so fed up with her little sister’s noisy phone that she threatened to shoot up a school. …

The teen told investigators she was so annoyed by the sounds from a sixth-grade group chat that she took her sister’s phone and wrote: “Next person to say something is the first person I will shoot on the school shooting that will take place this Friday.”

The police have officially determined that the 16-year-old does not actually have any plans for a school shooting.  While we can all be grateful for that, one must wonder:  Isn’t felony sarcasm a bit of an extreme charge in response to teenagers’ famously poor judgment?

A second question follows on that one:  Should we really want children to internalize the idea that just mentioning a school shooting is a major crime?  It seems to me that we’d want the threats to be made so that they could be quickly investigated, not only to determine whether there’s an actual threat, but also to discover whether the teenager needs help.

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The Target of an Ethics Investigation

It isn’t mere pedantry to see something conspicuously off about the Providence Journal headline, “Ethics Commission to probe GOP ethics complaint vs. Raimondo, IGT.”  The Boston Globe might be slightly better inasmuch as it leaves the GOP out of the headline, with “State Ethics Commission to investigate complaint against Governor Raimondo.”

The problem, of course, is that the commission is investigating the governor, not the GOP or its complaint.  As WPRI correctly puts it, “Ethics Commission to investigate Raimondo over IGT deal“:

The R.I. Ethics Commission on Tuesday voted to open a formal investigation into Gov. Gina Raimondo’s dealings with gaming giant IGT in response to a complaint filed by the state Republican Party.

The GOP alleged that Raimondo violated the state ethics code by negotiating a proposed 20-year extension of IGT’s state contact to run lottery and casino games. The Republicans cited Raimondo’s relationship with Don Sweitzer, IGT’s former chairman and current lobbyist, who was tapped by the governor to be treasurer of the Democratic Governors Association. Raimondo is the current chair of the national group.

Tuesday’s vote was an initial step based on the facts put forward by the GOP. “The decision to investigate does not address the validity of the complaint; rather, it merely indicates that the allegations properly fall under the provisions of the Code of Ethics,” the commission’s website says. “Neither the complainant nor the respondent participates in the initial determination.”

This is the sort of detail that used to give conservatives the impression of media bias back in the days before it was open and explicit.  Whether it’s deliberate or an indication of the mental tics of the editors, errors or ambiguous language unfailingly makes it more likely to think the conservative or Republican side of dispute has done something unseemly, rather than the other way around.

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Continuing Education for Professionals

Dan McGowan’s review of some claims that have recently been made about problems in the Providence school district is worth a read.  Broadly speaking, the claims about the school facilities themselves proved to have been exaggerated, while problems with management of teachers were not so much.

This item raises something that I’ve wondered about before — specifically, how much emphasis people really put on “professional development”:

Teachers get one day of professional development a year.

Grade: C

During a series of public forums following the release of the report, Infante-Green often asked attendees the same question: Would you go to a doctor who only received one day of training each year? While it is accurate that the current union contract only requires one professional development day during the school year, more nuance is required. Union president Maribeth Calabro and the Elorza administration maintain most teachers receive significantly more training each year. As an example, Calabro said at least half of her members have attended professional development sessions during their current summer vacation.

To be honest, I’d have no problem discovering that my doctor has only “one day of training each year.”  Doctors spend every day analyzing patients and determining the best treatments for their ailments.  One can expect that they are continually reviewing the latest information that might help them to do their jobs better.

The idea that they’ll simply coast along for their entire careers — doing the equivalent of handing out photocopied worksheets year after year — just seems strange.  Some will be better about this and some will be worse, but the fact that a doctor dedicated more than one day to some government-approved course of study that may or may not be relevant to my health and that may or may not have focused on some medical fad or PC indoctrination would not impress me at all.

So the question, then, is why we shouldn’t expect the same from teachers.  They have a 180-day work year.  Why should we assume that if we don’t use up some of those days for “professional development” instead of teaching, they’ll just let their skills atrophy and knowledge become antiquated?

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The Best Way to Ensure a Long-Term Morality

My post this morning, about the incentive for those who rely on Minnesota trees to ensure the long-term health of Minnesota forests, came right up to the edge of a much bigger topic.  The most-important factor guarding humanity against the tragedy of the commons — wherein individuals use up natural resources because the incentive to preserve never outweighs the incentive to profit for any one person — is that the human beings involved think forward to the future beyond their own personal needs and desires.

As I wrote earlier, we can expect people not to poison their own well, so to speak, by destroying the resources on which they rely, but only within a certain range.  If the activity (like cutting down trees) is relatively difficult and the people able or willing to do it are relatively few, it is more likely they’ll collectively recognize their long-term incentives.  If something is easy to do and many people are doing it, then it is less likely that they’ll delay immediate profit for longer-term stability, because somebody else can come along and edge in.

Obviously, it also matters how far into the future the players are looking.  If people are desperate to have a meal today, they’ll be more careless about the resources.  The selfish, childless businessman of progressive fantasy need only preserve the resource to the extent that he can capitalize on it.

This is where the topic expands.  A business owner who sees him or her self as building a multi-generational source of income will worry about critical resources indefinitely into the future.

That principle extrapolates beyond businesses, too.  People who are thinking about their own children and their children’s children have a living, breathing reason to figure the future into everything they do.  That is, making families and children central to personal and cultural meaning has philosophical benefits for the entire society.

This realization points an interesting light at secular progressivism, which is fundamentally anti-family in its philosophy.  When progressives find it necessary to appeal to a long-term perspective for their political advocacy, as with the environment, they have to resort either to abstractions (the good of humankind) or to a religious elevation of something else (like the planet) as an object of concern in its own right.

Neither alternative can compete with the incentives that come from love of one’s children.

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The Once-ler Protects His Long-Term Interests

As part of a series called “Capitalism Is Saving the Planet,” Isaac Orr reviews the forestry industry in Minnesota for the Center of the American Experiment:

Did you know that Minnesota’s forests are flourishing? According to research from the U.S. Forest Service, forests account for 17.7 million acres of land in Minnesota out of a total of 54 million acres, meaning forest cover about 35 percent of the state. Furthermore, this number is increasing due in no small part to the fact that 51 percent of forested land in Minnesota is owned by the timber industry.

From 2012 to 2017, Minnesota’s forested land area increased by 755,000 acres, which equates to an increase of 1.7 percent. During this time, the number of live trees increased by one billion trees, increasing from 14 billion to 15 billion, which is a 7.1 percent increase in the number of trees in our state.

The image of the industrialist Once-ler denuding the world of Truffula trees for his own selfish gain does not appear to apply.  The companies are trying to balance their profits with preservation, utilizing new technologies and techniques to be more efficient.

The forestry industry has incentive to preserve the resource on which it depends.  So, even if we disregard people’s sense of right and wrong (which we shouldn’t do), self-interest is not divorced from reason.  Just so, workers who come into your home have incentive not to steal from you because the long-term benefit of trustworthiness is more valuable than just about anything in your house.

We should recognize, however, that all of this may apply only in a limited range of economic activity.  Cutting down and milling trees is a relatively difficult activity, so the barriers to entry are high, the participants relatively few, and the cutting relatively easy to track and regulate (whether through government or industrial practice).  In circumstances in which the profits are high and the players many, the tragedy of the commons will be more likely.

In other words, what this case study does most effectively is to remind us of the danger of blanket analyses and categorical thinking.  A moralistic children’s story can create a humanoid monster willing to destroy the planet for just a little profit, but we shouldn’t apply him for cookie cutter analysis of every business.

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Looking to the Data on Gun Control

Leah Libresco’s Washington Post commentary on gun control is worth a read, not only for information on that specific issue, but also for some perspective on how political issues should be considered:

By the time we published our project, I didn’t believe in many of the interventions I’d heard politicians tout. I was still anti-gun, at least from the point of view of most gun owners, and I don’t want a gun in my home, as I think the risk outweighs the benefits. But I can’t endorse policies whose only selling point is that gun owners hate them. Policies that often seem as if they were drafted by people who have encountered guns only as a figure in a briefing book or an image on the news.

Instead, I found the most hope in more narrowly tailored interventions. Potential suicide victims, women menaced by their abusive partners and kids swept up in street vendettas are all in danger from guns, but they each require different protections.

One often gets the impression that the motivation for gun laws really is an assertion of power over the types of people who own them.  Another motivation often seems to be a personal sense of having done something about some tragic event by passing new laws, which shouldn’t outweigh the rights of others.

The key quality of Libresco’s thinking is that she apparently began by asking what her objective was and then measuring possible solutions.  Following her lead would also allow us to weigh one objective against another.

For example, among the policies that she suggests is “identify[ing] gang members for intervention based on previous arrests and weapons seizures” using “an algorithm.”  This brings to mind the Community Safety Act in Providence, which places extreme limits on the lists that law enforcement can use to track gang activity.  If reducing gun violence is a critical goal, then a policy like the CSA would have a different context.

Maybe one policy wins out over another, or maybe neither makes sense, but if our public policy debates were more logically structured and more rationally conducted, at least we would be weighing pluses and minuses.  Instead, it too often seems that the arguments proceed with participants feeling that the problems and solutions are obvious and easily resolved if not for the intransigence of the other side.

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The Ocean State Current Is Growing

We’re excited to have a new writer on the Ocean State Current!

Joanne Giannini, JFK Democrat, served as a Rhode Island state representative from Providence (District 7, Mt. Pleasant/Elmhurst) from 1994 to 2010.

She will be adding her voice to our independent nonpartisan news and commentary wing.

She has previously written commentaries for the Providence Journal, the Federal Hill Gazzette, GoLocal Prov, and RI News Review.

The Current’s mission is to leverage online multimedia to ensure that a well-informed public has the breadth of information required for healthy self governance.

During her tenure in the General Assembly, she made appearances on CNN network news, Primetime news, and American Morning regarding legislation she filed in the Ocean State.

You can read her new posts by clicking the links below:

What’s in…. What’s out… 8/9/19

Two Giants’ Gaming Wars in Rhode Island

We’re always looking to add broader perspectives to the news and conservative commentary that we offer on the Current, so that many Rhode Islanders have a place to express their views. If you, or someone you know, would like to submit work to the Current, please reach out to us.

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The Language of Collegiate Grit

Call me “old school,” or a fuddy-duddy, but my reaction to this story by Sarah Wu in the Boston Globe is, “Give me a break”:

Faced with mounting debt and strapped for cash, many low-income college students across the country are skipping meals, buying cheap junk food, or devoting time that could be spent learning to searching for free food events, researchers say.

A national survey published this year by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that 48 percent of students in two-year institutions and 41 percent of students at four-year institutions experienced food insecurity within the past month.

The problem of food insecurity — an inconsistent supply of nutritious food — on college campuses has garnered more awareness in recent years, and psychologists have started to take note.

When I attended Carnegie Mellon University, I lived off canned vegetables for a while, selling my CDs to treat myself to Wendy’s every now and then.  That’s when I transitioned from my teenage preference for plain food to the enjoyment of meals with all the extras piled on — not because I discovered my taste buds, but because it hit me that the additional nutrition came at no extra cost.  When I found myself at the University of Rhode Island, I woke up at 4:00 a.m. some mornings to unload fishing boats and took whatever fish or squid were going to be discarded.

This used to be considered part of the rewarding, empowering struggle to advance in life, and of course — obviously — it was a more common experience among the disadvantaged.  The difference was that it was something of which to be proud; you started there, and through this dedication, you are headed somewhere different.  With the label “food insecurity” tacked on, that source of pride now “disproportionately affects low-income, first-generation, international, and other minority students.”

The insinuation is that society’s failure to give you what you deserve is hindering you from getting where you would naturally transition, as if without effort, and that you can’t reasonably be expected to advance based on your own grit. Unstated is that framing things in this way takes the emphasis off of the individual and the employers who provide opportunity and moves it toward the sociologists who get grants to do the studies, the political advocates who force redistribution of wealth, and the social workers who dispense it.

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Another Big Casino Player Enters the Ring

News and commentary in Rhode Island have focused on the battle of the two big players in our gambling market.  Casino.org reports that the dispute has attracted another interested party:

The ongoing spat between Twin River Worldwide Holdings, Inc. (NYSE:TRWH) and International Game Technology Plc (NYSE:IGT) regarding the latter’s dominance in Rhode Island’s gaming machine market has a new participant: Scientific Games Corp. (NASDAQ: SGMS).

Scientific Games, one of IGT’s primary rivals, is reportedly in talks with Twin River, the operator of Rhode Island’s two casinos, to bid for Ocean State business. …

Earlier this week, two SG lobbyists met with Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-RI). Mattiello has previously expressed dismay with Raimondo’s dealings with IGT, while questioning whether the governor’s proposal could hold up to legislative scrutiny.

Gambling is big business and, thanks to the government’s having claimed a monopoly, that business operates in a restrictive market that doesn’t spread out leverage very well.  Now that gambling isn’t restricted to lotteries, bingos, and isolated casino districts, the number of players will grow, but they’ll still be big, making every policy change highly political.

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News to Warm a Coffee Drinker’s Heart

Here’s the sort of news I like to see:

People have been drinking coffee since at least the 15th century, and it’s been a staple of the workplace for more than a century. But it’s only fairly recently that science has explained some of its incredible health benefits.

As an avid coffee fan, I’ve written a lot over the years on new scientific studies about coffee’s health benefits. Here’s a quick recap of some of the best of them.

According to science, coffee is a veritable miracle drink that reduces your chance of death, lowers risk of heart disease, stroke, and suicide, burns fat, slows down the aging process, and maintains brain activity farther into old age.  Clearly with results this good, we can reasonably expect that they must be accurate and will not be contradicted by future research.

Sure, there’s a chance that drinking over 35 ounces per day will begin to have some negative cardiovascular consequences, but that’s manageable.  And besides, I’m skeptical of that one.

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Maybe Providence Schools Need to Allow Diversity

This isn’t a way of thinking that I tend to encourage, but we’ve all been trained to it, and in this case, it might apply.  Go back and take a look at the photos from Mark Patinkin’s interview with students from Providence schools who say that teachers have taken no interest in them.  Now, click over to Dan McGowan’s interviews with five Providence teachers of the year, in which they suggest fixes.

What do you notice?  The list is missing the teacher of the year from 2017, but your observation that they are all white women still applies.

Now, I believe that hiring and, especially, professional awards, should be done based on objective criteria; whoever wins, wins.  And of course, the teachers of the year aren’t necessarily representative of the entire faculty, demographically.

That said, when black male students are expressing a sense that teachers in a failing school district don’t take an interest in them, and the stars among those teachers are all white women, we might reasonably ask whether we’re missing some important criteria.  Consider that the student who most directly insisted that not a single teacher has taken an interest in him did concede that the dean of students seemed to care, and his mother told Patinkin that the administrators at the school “were the only ones who tried to get students on track.”  At least as currently reported on Gilbert Stuart Middle School’s Web page, the administration is four-fifths male.

Our current approach to education, as well as political correctness, make it difficult to think of a fair solution that could conceivably make it through the public-policy gauntlet.  Here, again, educational freedom might help.  If a school could try to fill an obvious need by emphasizing male teachers, for example, then families who think that environment might help their children could give it a try, and we could all observe the results.

As it is, we’re locked in to making universal decisions within the confines of discrimination policies that have to apply across the board, and that are founded on narrow ideological views of fairness.

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The National Story for the Governor

Michael Graham, who can be credited with ramping up questions about Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s dealings with IGT and Donald Sweitzer, is out with another column asking whether the air of scandal that now lingers around her will be good for Democrats elsewhere, especially in swing states:

“[The Democratic Governor’s Association’s fundraising windfall is] great, until GOP oppo researchers in Kentucky and Louisiana start putting together DGA donations to Democrats in those states and the ethics scrap back in Rhode Island,” one national Democratic strategist told InsideSources. The strategist requested anonymity in order to speak freely about Democratic campaigns. …

Veteran Democratic strategist Jim Manley doesn’t agree that it’s a problem. “Sure, the GOP will try to make an issue out of it, but in the grand scheme of things, the 2020 election is going to come down to Donald Trump,” he told InsideSources.

And having one of the nation’s most unpopular governors as the public face of the DGA?

“Now that’s a good question,” Manley concedes.

For Rhode Islanders who believe our governor is best predicted, at this point, by her national ambitions, this is a conspicuous trend.  So far, Raimondo’s PR army has managed to get her good press nationally no matter what was going on in Rhode Island.  We’ll see how well that holds as she gets an increasingly real sense of the national stage, where not everybody who has substantial influence is more inclined to be on her side than not.

By the same token, Rhode Islanders who are frustrated with our state’s inability to address its systemic corruption can take a lesson:  Where there are competing groups, there is accountability.

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The Important Perspective on Providence Schools

If you missed Mark Patinkin’s interview with four students from Providence schools last week, rewind a bit and give it a read.  This may be the biggest gut-punch of the thing:

I asked Saquan if any teachers took an interest in him.

“Nope.”

Not even one?

“Nope.”

Then he said the dean of students did care, but not any teachers.

His mom, Sandra, agreed with that — that the administrators at Gilbert were the only ones who tried to get students on track.

Sandra had hoped teachers would provide the kind of role models she said are often lacking for kids like Saquan, but she’s been disappointed.

It’s heartbreaking for a student to feel this way, but we need to broaden the picture if we’re going to figure out a way through our current crisis.  We can certainly expect teachers to do more than the minimum and to take an interest in their students, and we can hope that they’ll be role models for students in particular need of such examples.  But we can’t count on their being so.

Time is just too short and human beings are too complicated.  Connections between people form in unexpected, often-inscrutable ways.  Therefore, children should be in as many situations where they might find healthy role models as possible.  When it comes to disadvantaged students, families need to be able to be more efficient in that search.

If we accept these principles, than it’s ridiculous of us to expect public schools to fill the same purpose for every student.  Different students within a community will require different settings, and the default public school in each community should be tailored to the students in that community.

This is one reason I’m skeptical of statewide curricula and that sort of thing.  It’s also why I’m a proponent of school choice.  To be sure, standardized testing would seem to be in contrast with this view, but that is only a necessity because a lack of choice leaves a school bereft of real accountability.

Or perhaps I should start modifying that assertion.  Providence shows that if things get bad enough, accountability might … might … find its way in, but we should set our social alarms to be much more sensitive than that.

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A Culture of Pay to Play

Yesterday, I suggested that IGT’s $150,000 donation to the Democratic Governor’s Association (DGA) looks kind of quid-pro-quo-ish, given that the organization’s chairwoman is Gina Raimondo, who was at the time preparing a long-term, no-bid contract for the country in her role as Rhode Island’s governor.  WPRI’s Eli Sherman now reports that this instance was actually part of a much more pervasive culture of pay to play:

IGT and Twin River Worldwide Holdings – the state’s leading gambling companies – contributed $150,000 and $100,000 to the DGA through the first half of the year, respectively. The national organization announced Wednesday it raised a record-breaking $19 million during the same period. …

… IRS records show IGT on average has contributed $159,285 each year since 2013, including $175,000 last year and $160,000 in 2017.

For Twin River, the $100,000 it contributed this year marks the first time in at least the last five years the company has given money to the DGA, according to a company spokesperson.

This inevitable mixture of politics and profit is important to keep in mind whenever government gets involved in a line of business, as it is with gambling.  The development of a pay-to-play environment becomes absolutely critical to remember when allowing a state to do as Rhode Island has been doing — involving itself deeply in economic development.  The more central government is in the economy, the more campaign donations increase in importance and the less relevant business viability or the health of the economy becomes.

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Raimondo-IGT Shows Some Campaign Finance Rules Are Good

Having posted this morning on the problem with overly aggressive campaign finance laws, I should point out the latest evidence pointing in the other direction.  This news about casino-game-company IGT’s big contribution to the Democratic Governor’s Association (DGA) shows that some level of transparency is a good thing, indeed, especially considering that the DGA has been bragging about its record fundraising under Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s leadership:

Records show that IGT donated $150,000 to the Democratic Governors Association in the last six months, while Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo was leading the group as chairwoman and former IGT Chairman Donald Sweitzer was serving as treasurer.

The contributions came while the Raimondo administration was negotiating a 20-year, no-bid Lottery contract extension with IGT. Twin River, which has led opposition to the proposed contract extension, donated $100,000 to the Democratic Governors Association on Feb. 28.

The association said Tuesday that it had broken its previous fundraising record during the first six months of the year.

Campaign finance regulations can become a way for political insiders to trip up newcomers.  They also allow activists to create the impression of improper relationships based on the likelihood of people knowing each other in a small state like Rhode Island.

That said, the governor’s bringing in a giant donation for a political organization that she leads while also preparing a long-term, no-bid deal with the donor company looks a lot like a quid pro quo.

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Theft Is One Way to Get the Money Out of Politics

When I’ve objected to the ever-growing regulations imposed on anybody who tries to participate in state or local government, I’ve had in mind mainly the disincentive for people to get involved and the potential for political “Gotcha!” games.  Recent news out of the Board of Elections is a reminder that government isn’t just this neutral, flawless storing house for all of our rules and information:

The Rhode Island Board of Elections acknowledged Monday that its inadvertent disclosure of banking information might have opened the door to “fraudulent activity” involving the campaign finances of two 2018 political candidates, Cranston Mayor and candidate for governor Allan Fung and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea — including the theft of money from Fung’s campaign account.

The board has learned that it mistakenly disclosed the routing numbers and account numbers of checks written by campaigns participating in the state’s Matching Public Funds program, according to a news release issued by Diane C. Mederos.

The Matching Public Funds program isn’t so substantial that every candidate or potential candidate in the state will even think about using it, but this is a warning.  The state now requires all candidates to have separate bank accounts and to provide statements to the Board of Elections.  These burdens have a way of expanding and becoming more detailed as they (inevitably) fail to stop the behavior they’re targeted toward stopping.

At the same time, being small and used only for the periodic purpose of elections, these accounts are easy for busy people to lose track of.

As long as I’ve been paying attention to politics, I’ve been hearing people say that we need to get the money out of it.  I’m not sure making it an easy target for theft is the right way to go about that.

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