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Rolling Effects of Housing Wealth Redistribution

As hints had suggested Rhode Islanders should expect, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 (beginning July 1, 2020) includes a new program with new dedicated funding to build affordable housing.  (Naturally, Democrat Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, of Providence and North Providence, a Laborers Union careerist, loves the idea.)

WPRI’s Eli Sherman summarizes the plan:

The budget, which will now be vetted by lawmakers during the coming months, suggests creating a two-tiered tax system that doubles the so-called “conveyance tax” to 0.92% on all property sales – both residential and commercial – totaling more than $500,000. The current rate — 0.46% — would apply to the first $500,000 of any transaction. …

State officials estimate the new tax would generate about $3.6 million in state revenue next fiscal year, and $8 million in each budget year afterward. The money would create a dedicated funding stream that would go into a restricted receipt fund at Rhode Island Housing, a quasi-public agency, and be controlled by the Housing Resources Commission.

This scheme brings to mind some analysis I did of tax rates in Tiverton back in 2018.  My conclusion was that the exorbitant tax rate was suppressing home values at the high end of the market.  At the same time, broader market forces were increasing house values at the low end.  Because the tax rate is uniform across the town, and because the tax rate is set in order to match the town’s budget (not the other way around), this had the effect of moving the tax burden toward the working class neighborhoods.  Their houses were worth more, while the expensive houses were worth less, so the taxes followed the value.

Of course, adding a couple thousand dollars at the point of sale will have much less effect than a tax rate that charges that amount every year, but the principle is the same.  Taxing high-end houses more will make them less valuable, shifting the real estate tax burden down the scale.

At the same time, the state projects that it will be building an additional 250 “affordable houses” every year.  Increasing supply at the low end of the market will tend to reduce prices there, too.  So, while the increased stock will expand the low-end’s share of total value, taxpayers’ bills will decrease with the value.  Whether this helps spread municipal tax bills to more homeowners will depend on whether the affordable houses are distributed evenly across the state.

This leaves the middle of the market, which will see upward pressure on its annual tax bill, while also being nudged toward the $500,000 line, where it will be more-expensive to sell.

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For and Against a TCI Gas Tax

The Gaspee Business Network — an alternative business group to chambers of commerce — has published an interactive table showing the opposition or support of the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI).

Such lists have long been a tool of professional lobbyists.  The movie, The American President, comes to mind, in which the president (Michael Douglas) begins to date an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening).  The Internet has increasingly broadened its utility to the general public.  If our elected representatives are going to be representative, the people need to know where they stand.

You might be surprised, however, how difficult it is to find out where they stand.  Send out emails asking where the various legislators who represent your town stand, and you’ll find some don’t bother to respond.  And some of those who do will give answers that evade and/or must be interpreted.  Asked if they support TCI, they might ask if there’s specific legislation.  Asked about the concept in principle, they might stop responding.

As of this writing, only 19 of 113 legislators (17%) have provided an answer, or something close enough to interpret as one.  The only one deemed by Gaspee Biz to support the initiative is Senator James Seveney (D, Bristol, Portsmouth, Tiverton).  Notably, Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (D, Cranston) opposes it.

Imagine if tables like this were available for every hot-button issue the legislature was facing!  That might cut back on some of the late-night votes and horse trading.  And then imagine an electorate that actually paid attention… that would make all the difference.

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Municipal Government Moves to the Back Room

With the old establishment players back in power in Tiverton, we’ve seen a quick return to the practices that have done so much damage to local government over the decades.  Decisions are being made by a few, unidentified people in back rooms and private communications.  New hoops are being erected for community groups to jump through.  The law is being rewritten by the minute depending on what the Town Council leadership needs it to be.  The council’s votes are becoming mere recommendations unless approved by the president.

Members of the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) talk about that and more on Episode 9 of the Tiverton on Track podcast.

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Catch Up with the Monthly State of the State

If you try to keep track of policy and politics in Rhode Island (and if you’re reading this site, you probably do), you should put the State of the State program on your watch list.  The program usually has two half-hour segments, but sometimes sticks with one guest for an hour, and it’s a good way to get a different point of view from the mainstream, from both the guests and the hosts, who often ask questions public figures and others wouldn’t be asked elsewhere.

The latest episode had a segment on Title IX abuse and another on Second Amendment rights.

1-13-20 Recent Title IX Cases from John Carlevale on Vimeo.

1-13-20 Stun Guns, Tasers and the 2nd Amendment from John Carlevale on Vimeo.

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A State That Doesn’t Need to Raise Gas Taxes

With the advocates for the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) now revving up for their cause, and with Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo remaining intrepid in her desire to push Rhode Islanders out of their cars for the good of the planet, Ocean Staters might wonder where we stand already on the gas tax.  Fortunately, the American Petroleum Institute has compiled information on all states’ gas taxes, and the Tax Foundation provides this useful map:

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Taking note that none of these numbers includes $18.40 added per gallon by the federal government, we can say that Rhode Island is most definitely not in need of new taxes on this basic fuel.  If the TCI tax were to be implemented at the 17-cent high that has been cited, the Ocean State would rocket to 4th highest.

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Living the Governor’s Dream

On a number of topics, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s interview with Kim Kalunian of WPRI was disturbing, with the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) taking the lead.  The segment points directly to her political philosophy and presumption of authority.

In pushing for a new tax on gasoline, she envisions herself as a sort of superhero, pushing forward regional plans for incremental socialism in order “to save our kids and to save us.”  Such is the arrogance and bad-faith-argument of all demagoguery.  Well, look, if you want to save the planet, you have to give me money and power.  You do want to save the planet, don’t you?

Not to worry, though.  The governor also sees a benefit for you right now:  “Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to drive your car to work?”  If your answer to that question is “no,” Raimondo doesn’t seem to have a good answer for you.

Of course, progressives have an answer to every specific point you might make:  Government will take care of you.  Perhaps you dread the idea of being forced into taking public transportation to work because you don’t know how you’d manage to get one child to day care and the other to school and slip out for errands at lunchtime all according to a bus schedule.

Not to worry!  Government will subsidize day care and before-school programs so you can spend less time with your children and deliver them under the wings of the state earlier, so as to catch the bus.  Government will also change zoning to force all workplaces into condensed areas so that all of your errands will be within walking distance of your job.  (And don’t forget that government will help you sterilize yourself so you don’t have to worry about any more children complicating your life.)

All of your needs will be answered, if you just sacrifice your freedoms to the better judgment of the governor.  You do want to save the planet, don’t you?

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Replace the Ethics Commission with Competitive Politics

Former Republican state senator Dawson Hodgson made an interesting point on Twitter recently:

Yes, the RI Ethics Commission is little more than a political score settling arena. No, more secrecy isn’t the answer. New leadership culture would be: replace staff & body, hold both ethics code violators and malicious complaint filers to account.

I’m not sure I’d go as far as Hodgson in minimizing the current role of the commission.  Yes, complaints can be mechanism for political gotcha, but fear of complaints leads many officials to seek advisory opinions, or at least to be sufficiently familiar with the state’s Code of Ethics to have a sense of when they should think of doing so.  There’s some value to that.

My problem with the Ethics Commission is that its decisions often seem to start with whether something feels right and then dig into (often contradictory) precedence for rationalization.  Worse, what “feels right” to commissioners is overly favorable to the enterprise of government.  Take some action that would be obvious corruption if it crossed between the public and private sectors and put it entirely in the public sector, and the corruption is assumed away.  As long as everything is accomplished within the walls of government, it doesn’t matter that the people involved have a personal financial interest.*

So, yes, I agree with Hodgson that the commission needs a new “culture,” but I’m skeptical that changing out every person in the office would make much difference. Empowering an agency to issue official government proclamations about the behavior of people who regularly engage in political contests will always create an opening for political maneuvering.

The culture that needs to change is that of the electorate.  For starters, we need more people willing to run, but more than that, we need voters who actually care about the behavior of their officials.  If that doesn’t exist, no law or regulation will remain free of corruption.

 

* Actually, the commission of the late 1990s began to acknowledge the possibility of intra-government corruption, but by the late ’00s, staff of the commission would actually take shots at their predecessors on this point.

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The Hidden Message of the Music Box

Back before many people trusted the Internet as a medium through which to conduct consumer transactions — or even thought to use it for that purpose — I would periodically travel over the bridge from the University of Rhode Island to Newport to hit the Music Box, a record store on Thames Street.  When searching for recordings of the (sometimes relatively obscure) music I was studying for performance or theory, a trip of that distance was often unavoidable.

Now we’ve reached the point that almost any recording you might want to hear is available instantly on a portable device for a relatively inexpensive annual subscription.  It isn’t difficult to understand why the business model of stores like the Music Box has hollowed out.

As Scott Barrett reports, however, Rhode Island’s pitiless government didn’t make it any easier for the store — which just closed after extending its life by changing its product mix — to survive:

Jay added that operating a business in Rhode Island, and Newport specifically, is getting more and more difficult because of the mounting taxes.

Express, a clothing store located directly next to the Helly Hansen store, also had signs in the window Thursday announcing a going-out-of-business sale. An associate at Express told The Daily News the store will close at the end of the month. Across the street, a pair of stores — The Tourist Trap and Nautical & Nice — had signs on the door that read “Sorry, closed.”

Defenders of Rhode Island’s insider status quo sometimes assert things like, “Businesses don’t go under because the tax rate is a couple percentage points higher,” or, “People move south for the weather, not the tax savings.”  Such arguments, while they may be untrue because too simplistic, make valid points, but they miss the critical point.  Our government shouldn’t be laying sticks on the camel; it should be striving to accomplish what it needs to accomplish with the least amount of disruption possible.

Politicians are terrible at predicting and adequately considering the consequences of their policies.  Rhode Island officials frequently prove they can manage to provide targeted incentives so new businesses can overcome the artificial barriers, but they should be making business easier across the board so legacy businesses like the Music Box can better survive the changing landscape.

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Local Podcast Kicks Off Budget Season

For those in and out of Tiverton who have some interest in the politics and budget process of the town, the latest episode of the Tiverton on Track podcast of the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) covers that ground:

Track 1: The Gander Hires a Solicitor
Track 2: Passing the Joint… Meeting
Track 3: What’s the Plan?
Track 4: How the Budget Thing Works

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Don’t Let Silence Seem Like TCI Gas Tax Support

Around Thanksgiving, I spent some time trying to understand what the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) was, what it would do, and where it was in the process.  While poking around, I discovered the public feedback form and table of the feedback so far.  At the time, there were around three comments from Rhode Island, all supportive.

Now that tide has turned in a big way, with dozens of comments from Rhode Islanders, almost all opposed.  Here’s John Cullen from Lincoln:

Stop burdening tax paying citizen with more taxes that do little or nothing to better the lives of ordinary taxpaying citizens.

Do not create more taxes for others to parasite off those who drive gas powered vehicles.

Start your low carbon initiative with China and India before you attack myself and other Rhode Island Taxpayers.

The big contrast in RI results over the past month and a half points to an important lesson I’ve been learning over the years.  It’s understandable just to shake one’s head and not get involved, coming to the reasonable conclusion that your one voice won’t make a difference because things have either been decided by insiders or the public opinion will overwhelm the decision with or without you.

Even if one of those two possibilities is true, however, it’s important for the people in power to know that there is opposition.  Where no opposition is expressed, decisions can be presented simply as the public desire.

This is especially notable when it comes to things like municipalities’ comprehensive plans.  Such documents are often developed by a handful of people on an unelected committee, working with professional consultants (who are often thinly disguised advocates), with “public input” from a very limited number of people who were willing to spend a boring night or two at a public meeting without being on the committee.

Yet, when the report is released and the plan adopted, the government moves forward under the pretense that it is the people’s vision for their community.  That’s often true only inasmuch nobody cared enough to keep track of it and make time to object, which is a very weak form of support, indeed.

Conversely, when a public forum like the TCI feedback table shows overwhelming opposition to the project, it at the very least removes the value of a propaganda tool and might even become the basis for elected officials to listen to their constituents.

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Opioid Solutions When the Government Refuses to Address Problems

In his recent essay on this site, Dr. Stephen Skoly described the consequences of legislation seeking to regulate prescription opioids, but he stopped short of broad conclusions about the politics involved.  As it happens, one such conclusion fit in well with the other topics that John DePetro and I discussed on December 30.

We can, of course, debate whether a new $5 million fee for opioid manufacturers and wholesalers is actually about solving a social problem, rather than finding a new source of revenue.  But taking the politicians at their word for their motivation, one can at least say that such policies infantilize the people, as if our legislators and governor are the only adults in the state and therefore must protect patients from their irresponsible selves and from greedy doctors.

Something milder and, in its way, worse is probably going on, as well.  The theme that John and I happened upon in our segment was that government officials in Rhode Island shy away from addressing actual problems.  They look for all sorts of ways to get at them without actually naming and attacking the root causes.

When it comes to a failing education system, they seek work-arounds and small tweaks like, like shifting authority toward principals, rather than draw attention to the labor-union structure that makes the system all about the remuneration of adults rather than the education of children.  When it comes to teenage fights at a mall, the focus goes to things like community programs to give kids something to do, rather than unraveling the progressive assumptions that lead to gang-friendly policing and suspension-unfriendly school regulations (not to mention identity-group entitlement).

Just so, going after fentanyl and heroin on the criminal market would manifest in urban areas and among minorities.  Many people in those communities would be grateful for the improved environment, but the enforcement and incarceration statistics would look bad and draw the attention of groups like the ACLU.  So instead, government tries to find a solution from the other side, making things more difficult (literally more painful) for law-abiding citizens, in the hopes that they can limit the market for the drugs and make the dealers go away for lack of profit.

If that approach also produces a $5 million fee for government, so much the better.

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Local Podcast Year in Review and Look Forward

The Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) is keeping its New Year’s resolution of maintaining its podcast, Tiverton on Track, throughout 2020.  The latest episode reviews 2019 and looks ahead to 2020.

Episodes of this podcast are available as they’re released on BuzzsproutiTunesSpotifyStitcherTuneIn, and a variety of other services that can be found via the Buzzsprout page.  Episodes will also be posted on the group’s blog, Tiverton Fact Check.

If you are a Rhode Islander who produces podcasts on your own or with a group from a conservative perspective, let me know about it.  (And “conservative” doesn’t mean “far right.”  At this point, anybody who isn’t a progressive is on the same side in the Ocean State.)

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Of Course Police Like Powerful Tools

For the category of the news media constructing narratives on behalf of government, is there any way this finding could have been otherwise?

Police: R.I.’s red flag law ‘likely averted potential tragedies’

As of Oct. 31, state and local police across Rhode Island had invoked the red flag law on 33 occasions since its adoption in June 2018. The law allows police to petition a court for an “extreme risk protection order” that allows them to confiscate firearms from individuals believed to be at “imminent risk” of killing themselves or others.

Yeah, of course any time you take away somebody’s gun, you can say you might have stopped some tragedy.  But (of course) maybe you didn’t.

The implicit bias of this article is indicative of the entire gun-control impulse.  It’s the same mentality that says if we just take away all guns, we’ll obviously be avoiding tragedies.

Except when we don’t.  In those cases, there’s always an excuse and an explanation of how being even more aggressive about taking away guns would work better.  Contrary evidence is also difficult to connect decisively; while law enforcement can claim that every confiscated gun might have “averted potential tragedies,” we simply don’t know what “potential tragedies” might be caused by confiscation.

There are the immediate scenarios, of course, like the woman who obeyed a gun-free-zone law while the stalker who murdered her husband did not or the Texas church-goers who brought a quick halt to a mass shooting attempt.  And then there are the longer-term consequences of being the sort of people who’ll let government promise us greater security if only we’ll sacrifice a little bit more of our freedom.

By capitulating to progressive-union pressure, and despite disingenuous claims that no broad-based taxes were imposed, Ocean Staters will once again bear increased burdens to pay for new taxes and regulations, more spending, and more union giveaways. Lawmakers chose to appease, rather than resist, the progressives’ job-killing, big-spending agenda.

Tightening Screws on Freelancers

If you follow national economic or political news, you’ve probably caught wind of California’s new law — which takes effect this Wednesday — making it more likely that companies will have to treat freelancers as employees for the purposes of employment regulations like the minimum wage and benefits.

One reason this California law has generated so much conversation is that it affects freelance writers.  In this regard, the left-wing website Vox has provided the perfect lesson on progressive rhetoric.  A September 11, 2019, essay on that site by Alexia Fernandez Campbell places the issue as a win for labor unions and proclaims the headline, “Gig workers’ win in California is a victory for workers everywhere.”  Fast-forward a few months, to December 17, and an article in the Los Angeles Times informs readers, “Vox Media cuts hundreds of freelance journalists as AB 5 changes loom.”  Those 200 people will be replaced by “20 new part-time and full-time staffers.”

A CNBC article puts things a bit more broadly with the headline, “California’s new employment law has boomeranged and is starting to crush freelancers”:

“I don’t believe legislators realized the impact this had,” says Gene Zaino, founder and executive chairman of MBO Partners, which studies the freelance economy and provides back-office services to freelancers. “This was really designed to create a safety net for people that needed it. Legislators didn’t realize at the same time, they impacted millions of people in thousands of businesses that are using freelancers, even though that was not their intent. A lot of businesses are paralyzed, in terms of ‘everyone needs to be on payroll.'”

Oh, the legislators realized it.  They just don’t care.  They’ve got their eyes on other prizes than the likes of Mr. Zaino — powerful labor unions and constituencies who think progressive legislators are going to give them more handouts.  And progressives realized it, too, but those gig jobs don’t fit their vision and therefore shouldn’t exist because they are institutionalized oppression (or something).

Even those of us who don’t rely on the gig economy should take notice… in a “first they came for the freelancers” sort of way.  Progressives are intent on remaking the world according to their erroneous understanding of how the economy ought to work.  That will mean you have a decreasing ability to decide what works for you in your life and just have to settle for the deal that government provides for you.

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From Childish Negotiations to Demands

As we edge toward a new decade, something about the progressive RI Political Cooperative’s tax-the-rich plan is especially worrying:

They propose a state income tax hike for individuals making more than $467,700 a year. By their calculations, raising the top marginal tax rate from 5.99% to 10.99% on these top earners would “generate over $170 million″ in new revenue “to help meet Rhode Island’s critical needs in education, housing, health care, and clean energy.”

They also endorsed the $15-per-hour minimum wage proposed in recent years by left-leaning Democrats in the Rhode Island legislature and public employee unions. The proposal generated headlines and some support, but not enough to win General Assembly approval during the last session in the face of heated opposition from the state’s business lobby. A $15-an-hour wage equates to $31,200 a year.

Right away, progressive Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo balked at the idea of doubling the income tax rate to make the Ocean State a regional outlier again, which brings to mind my op-ed about how progressives who aren’t in direct control of government can just say anything to seem more pure, while those in office have responsibilities.

In this case, the progressives have to know that their policy has no chance, which makes the proposal a sort of childish, aspirational negotiating ploy — start high to increase leverage.  In public policy, however, that means we can never have an honest discussion about what’s realistic and what the trade-offs are.  The biggest trade-off is the principle of giving government the authority to decide how much money people should make.

This is well-trodden ground, however.  What feels new and worrying is that education (particularly higher education) has increasingly become about training activists, rather than breeding thinkers.  We might soon get to a place where a critical mass of our countrymen have forgotten not only about negotiation and rights, but also about reality.  At that point, it doesn’t matter what the effects might be of taking a big chunk of money from those with the higher income, while also forcing them to pay employees above market rate.  Even as the economy shrivels, no trade-offs will be acknowledged, because there will always be somebody to blame for inequity and government screws to tighten.

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Raimondo in Search of Yet Another New Thing to Tax

Here’s one of the more-worrying parts of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s recent interview with the Providence Journal:

Raimondo said she is trying to come up with a permanent and steady revenue stream to address Rhode Island’s shortage of affordable housing and its homelessness problem.

“I don’t know where it will come from. I have a $200-million hole. But everyone who is an expert in this area tells me: If you are serious about housing, you need a steady funding stream …. So if we can find a way to do it, I’d like to do it.”

“I just have to find some money,” she said. “It could come from anywhere. It could come from an income tax. It could come from a sales tax. It could come from a fee.”

Put aside the laugh-line that experts in the field say the field needs its own dedicated money.  This sounds like the same rationale as the controversial truck tolls.  It is as if Governor Raimondo came into office knowing the state was already over taxed and so — being unwilling to reduce the overall burden of government — she decided early on that the only solution would be finding new ways to take people’s money away.

What this really reminds me of, however, is the “permanent and steady revenue stream” some in state government attempted to secure for the non-profit RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence.  For a few years, legislators tried to get that organization $300,000 through a new, $46 fee on marriage licenses.

Of course, that was terrible policy, but it was offensive, too.  We should want people to get married, so taxing the action is just dumb.  But then to implicitly link marriage with domestic violence?  Only progressives could see that as natural.  So, the state gave up and decided to fund this handout straight from the general fund.

What the governor tries to do in the upcoming legislative session will depend how much money her experts think they need.  A few years ago, I traced the connections between various housing-related organizations and special-interest groups, and they are extensive, with a lot of overlap.  If the money needed to make that network flush is high, look for some sort of new statewide building permit fee or added stamp taxes.  From experience, however, we should probably expect a more-limited tax on something the wealthy governor thinks she can vilify as a luxury.

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The Draw of Political Violence

The Democrat Congress produced a sham impeachment of President Trump the day after the “secretive court that approves sensitive surveillance issued a rare public rebuke of the FBI on Tuesday, saying the bureau misled the Justice Department and the court when it sought permission to wiretap a former Trump campaign aide.”  Democrat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi had to shush her members to stop their shouts of glee at what they had done, thus cheering away any pretense that this was anything other than a political stunt.

A somber moment of answering the call of history to preserve the nation?  Ha!  Anybody who has watched this travesty play out over three years has known since the last election that this was coming.  This is not evidence of the competence of the speaker, as some want to see it.  Had she failed to answer the three-year-old calls of her rabid base for this moment, it would have been a political disaster.  And having failed to use her power responsibly, it is now a moral failure.

A bad situation for her and dangerous times for all of us.

Also yesterday, the Providence Journal gave this headline to an AP article, “MMA fighter says victory over Trump supporter was for the ‘entire world’”:

Kamaru Usman sent a bloodied, bleary Colby Covington spiraling to the ground for the second time. Usman then leaped on him and went to work on Covington’s badly injured face, battering his dazed opponent with hammer fists until the referee mercifully intervened.

Although he had to wait until the final minute, Usman settled his very personal feud with his sharply divisive challenger in perhaps the most satisfying way possible.

“This one is not just for me,” Usman said. “This is for the whole entire world right now.”

The article goes on to explain that antipathy toward Covington is much more about him, personally, than about the President of the United States.  That puts a spotlight on the irresponsible decision of the press to play up a political angle.  They are encouraging violence.

It is unfortunate, in that context, that the last name of the “Trump supporter” is the same as the high school whose Trump-supporting students became the target of a national two minutes of hate, last year.  The coincidence of these names gives the impression of a divine author who is making His connections almost too obvious.  Shame on us if we can’t figure out the lesson.

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Regional Opposition to Regional Gas Tax Imposition

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has joined with allies throughout the Northeast in opposition to the proposed Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI), which Rhode Island’s Democrat governor, Gina Raimondo, has described as an attempt to make gasoline less expensive so Rhode Islanders will give up their cars.  As the letter that the Center has signed notes:

The TCI Open Letter discusses how the TCI gas tax is “the equivalent of a sin tax – a penalty for engaging in bad behavior” (driving), as defined by radical environmentalists.

“Hard-working Rhode Islanders should not be purposefully punished for driving their kids to school, going to work, visiting family, going shopping, or delivering goods and services,” said the Center’s CEO, Mike Stenhouse. “We are proud to stand with our coalition partners in opposing this stealth tax on gas. Our coalition letter points out how the TCI Gas Tax will especially harm low-income and rural families.”

New Hampshire has declined to join, and Vermont remains an open question.  In Rhode Island, it would be unconscionable of the governor and/or the General Assembly to deprive their already-overburdened people of the opportunity for some small advantage over their neighboring states.

One consequence of continuing policies that make Rhode Island the poor neighbor of Southern New England should be that we can’t chase after every shiny “green new deal” that makes its way through insider circles.  Our neighbors have healthier economies; if they want to ding their residents with a scheme like this, that’s up to them, but Rhode Island should not follow suit.

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Raimondo’s Strange Excuse for Marijuana

Sometimes the explanations that politicians give for their support for a particular policy make you go, “Wait… what?”  Such was the case with Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s response in a recent Providence Journal interview:

The setting: a roundtable discussion with students in one of Rhode Island’s poorest cities, a week after she had signed an executive order temporarily banning the sale of flavored vaping products.

“And the kids said vaping is expensive. ‘We use that as a treat for party nights …. Marijuana is the day-to-day thing.’”

“Like, wow,” Raimondo remembered thinking and maybe saying. “How do you obtain that? And they’re like, ‘Attleboro is 10 minutes away, if you haven’t noticed.’ So we are kidding ourselves if we think we don’t [already] have recreational marijuana [in Rhode Island]. Talk to the state police. They see it on the roads.” …

Yes, for the second year in a row, she intends to propose legalizing the adult use of marijuana — and not, she said, just because of the millions of dollars in new revenue it could provide the state (at least $9.4 million a year, the state estimates) but because she sees unregulated access to the drug as a “safety issue.”

Umm… if the point of the story is that the kids are buying marijuana in a state where it’s legal, then it isn’t “unregulated access to the drug.”  It might be regulated badly, but legalizing the drug in Rhode Island will only mean that the kids have regulated access that is more convenient.

This isn’t an argument against legalization, but since the governor isn’t making a rights-based argument, and since her rationale for regulation is foolish, that leaves us with “thou dost protest too much” and the conclusion that, yes, she’s after the money.  (Whether that money is cash for the state government or donations from vested donors I leave for the reader to decide.)

This time of year, my usual analogy is even more apropos.  Our culture has repeatedly warned us about people who make fortunes in the private sector and then take over government to make illicit businesses legal and prominent, as with the alternative Pottersville reality in It’s a Wonderful Life.  But that can happen in the other direction, too, with government making previously illegal industries for profit, and we should all be wary of it.

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Next, They’ll Come for Meat

Earlier today, I highlighted Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s intention to make gasoline more expensive because “we have to get off of gas-guzzling cars for the existence of us.”  By pure chance, today, I also came across this indication, in The Economist, of the future of this sort of argument, under the headline, “How much would giving up meat help the environment?”:

IT IS NO secret that steaks and chops are delicious. But guzzling them incurs high costs for both carnivorous humans and the planet. Over half of adults in both America and Britain say they want to reduce their meat consumption, according to Mintel, a market-research firm. Whether they will is a different matter. The amount of meat that Americans and Britons consume per day has risen by 10% since 1970, according to figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

People who want to eat less livestock—but who can’t quite bring themselves to exchange burgers for beans—might take inspiration from two recent academic papers.

Whether we’ll freely take inspiration from those two academic papers, we can predict that somebody else will take inspiration to use government to force us to stop being “meat-guzzlers.”

Once we allow that government can use its power to nudge us away from exercises of our freedom, activists will find an endless series of activities that the world would be better off without.

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Raimondo Comes for Your Car

The Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) is scheduled to put out its initial memorandum of understanding (MOU) today, which the northeastern states will consider signing in order to impose a new gasoline tax on their residents.  It was therefore helpful of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo to be so clear and direct about her intentions for Rhode Island, during a recent Providence Journal interview:

“Yeah, there is going to be some element of a fee on fuel. Now, how do you assess it? What do you assess it at? … What do you [do] with the proceeds? That still needs to be figured out,” she said about the plan, which is modeled on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative program for the energy sector.

What’s her message to Rhode Island drivers about the costs of the program being passed on to drivers at the pump?

“It is a fact we have to get off of gas-guzzling cars for the existence of us,” she said. “If we don’t do it, we will all be in much bigger trouble because climate change is here and it is real and we need to meet the challenges.”

She doesn’t know how much the fee will be, how it will be collected, or even what it will be used for.  The whole point is to make gasoline more expensive so you have to give up your car.

She added, “By the way, there will be benefits to consumers. This money will result in more, better, faster electric trains, more electric forms of busing and public transit.”

Isn’t that wonderful?  You lose the ability to afford your car and the freedom that comes with it, and you’ll get public transit in exchange — along with a requirement to trust in and rely on a government that can’t seem to do anything right.

Wealthier people (like Gina Raimondo) will be able to buy electric cars (thus transferring their fossil fuel consumption from gasoline to energy production), which raises the question of whether this is a power grab or a condescending statement.  Is the governor pushing you into a lower class, or is she saying she doesn’t trust you to use freedom responsibly because you are already of lower class?

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The Advantage of a Generalist

James Holmes plumbs the zombie apocalypse, as described in World War Z by Max Brooks, for strategic lessons, concluding thus:

Resourceful folk fashion new weapons and tactics while unimaginative foes plod along, doing the same thing time after time—which makes a hopeful note to close on. When facing new circumstances, get to know the circumstances and stay loose. Recognize that the nimbler contender is apt to be the victor—and broad-mindedness is the key to staying nimble. I daresay Epstein and Clausewitz would agree.

Being something of a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none type, myself, this paragraph near the beginning of the essay caught my attention:

Maintains [David] Epstein, specialists encounter trouble when tackling the problems characteristic of a “wicked” world. Wicked problems are intricate. They involve variables that combine and recombine in offbeat ways. They defy the boundaries of a single field and often vex specialists. By contrast, generalists hunt for “distant” analogies to challenges. Analogies seldom reveal answers, but they help inquisitors discover the right questions to ask. Asking penetrating questions constitutes the first step toward a solution, toward wisdom.

Exactly right.  We err if we look to analogies for answers, but by our nature we understand situations by comparison, through metaphors — stories.  The closer the metaphor we apply to a situation, the more correct (even if unexpected) conclusions we can find.  Having a broad range of experience allows us to cast more broadly for metaphors.

For example, a social problem will have nothing to do with building a house, but metaphorically, they may have some things in common: the need for a strong foundation on which sturdy framing supports the useful and aesthetically pleasing components.  If your social institutions and artistic productions are crumbling, the metaphor might direct your attention to problems with the cultural foundation that is failing to support it all.  If your popular art is cracked and allowing evil ideas in, they can rot the institutional framing.

Metaphors can be pretty abstract.  We still use the metaphor of particles to understand physics, but we know that the building blocks of material reality don’t act very much like particles.   They can act like waves, they can occupy the same physical space, and so on.  Perhaps a different abstract metaphor — seeing “particles” as identities with certain qualities might help us resolve some of the remaining puzzles.

This is why innovators in particular fields are often newcomers who aren’t bogged down in standard ways of thinking, but bring metaphors from their earlier lives.

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The TCI Tax Looms

Over the coming months, Rhode Islanders will be hearing about the implementation of the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI), a cap-and-trade scheme for the northeastern states to impose a new tax on gasoline.  A brief that the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity released last week gives some of the details, including a quick look at TCI’s predecessor scheme, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which is directed at energy production, whereas TCI focuses on gasoline:

[Then-Governor Donald Carcieri’s] assurances that his policies would not severely hurt Rhode Islanders have proven unreliable. As he made his announcement, Rhode Island was enjoying the second-lowest cost per kiloWatthour for ultimate customers’ electricity in New England, at $13.08. By January 2019, this average price had increased to $20.12, by far the highest in the region. This 54% increase compares with an 18% increase nationwide over the same period (to just $10.47 per kWh) and 17% in New England overall (to $18.22 per kWh).

Despite enduring an increased cost for energy, RGGI states have experienced “no added emissions reductions or associated health benefits from the RGGI program,” when compared with different states that have otherwise similar energy policies, according to David Stevenson, Director of the Center for Energy Competitiveness at the Caesar Rodney Institute in Delaware.

It looks probable that these programs harm the economy and fail to achieve their stated objectives.  Why would the governor charge forward with another one?

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How Local Government Controls the Message

The Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) posted another episode of its podcast, Tiverton on Track, earlier this week, with me giving the opening monologue.  While the content is obviously local, some of the points probably have resonance across the state.  We talk about ways town government manipulates meeting rules and use the advice of its legal representation to limit the involvement of the public.

Track 1: The Silence the Public Scheme
Track 2: Heard Out on the Landfill?
Track 3: Mac’s Two Voices on Free Speech
Track 4: Fabisch Fabricates New Rules

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Vaping Shows How Quickly They’ll Take Away Rights

Note this, from Guy Bentley on Reason:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has finally identified a primary suspect in the wave of vaping-related lung illnesses and deaths.

Examining lung tissue samples of patients hospitalized with vaping-related illnesses, 100 percent tested positive for vitamin e acetate, often used to cut marijuana oils. This was not a surprise to those who have been arguing that the cause of these illnesses is not the commercial e-cigarette market, but the illicit market for THC vapes.

Now recall that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo moved quickly to hurt Rhode Island businesses by unilaterally banning a legal product that even then looked likely not to be the culprit.

Yes, we’re decades into a campaign by government to create a superstitious dread of nicotine products, but still… part of me can’t help but feel like every incident like this is a test to see how willingly Americans will give up their rights and their freedom.  The results of this test were not encouraging, at least in Southern New England.

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Hyperlocal Podcasting to Hold the Power-Hungry Accountable in Tiverton

People who are politically active locally in Rhode Island — especially those who aren’t plugged in to the state’s special interest, insider machine — may have noticed that technology and the general direction of our culture are making it increasingly difficult to get information to rise above the noise of social media and its amplification of the old-school rumor mill.

One way in which the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) is working to address that problem is through its new weekly podcast, Tiverton on Track.  Episodes will be available as they’re released on BuzzsproutiTunesSpotifyStitcherTuneIn, and a variety of other services that can be found via the Buzzsprout page.  Episodes will also be posted on the group’s blog, Tiverton Fact Check.

For the most recent episode, special guest Richard Rom joined me and Town Council members Donna Cook and Nancy Driggs.  Rom is the chairman of the Tiverton Republican Town Committee, a member of the Tiverton Library Board of Trustees, and the initiator of recall petitions to remove council President Patricia Hilton, Vice President Denise deMedeiros, and member John Edwards the Fifth.  Rom’s goal is to return the council to the TTA control that voters chose before the political stunt of an unjustified recall election in October that removed me and the council president.  (Note that I’m not involved in the second recall, thinking there are more effective ways to spend time holding the power-hungry of Tiverton accountable.)

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It’s Okay to Think Selfish Is Too Much

Retired Providence firefighter/EMT Michael Morse has a brief post on Rescuing Providence making the reasonable claim that “it’s okay to get paid”:

Without decent pay and great benefits I would have been forced to take my ability and passion for helping people elsewhere.

Morse’s argument is a bit of a strawman, however, and it’s one that labor unions tend to expand into a false dichotomy.  Nobody seriously argues that firefighters in communities that need or want something more extensive than a volunteer department should not be well compensated.  The tricky question is how much that should be.

Yes, in a more or less free market, it would be reasonable for employees to argue, as Morse does, that “it is okay to be selfless for selfish reasons.”  And if a community isn’t providing pay and benefits that attract workers, it will have to increase the pay.

The problem is that unions are designed to push beyond this dynamic.  We saw evidence earlier this year when legislation from Tiverton Democrat Representative John “Jay” Edwards the Fourth interfered with local negotiations to forbid firefighter union locals from continuing to negotiate contracts that the state and national unions don’t like.  (Edwards was very clear about who holds the power.)  This makes the compensation artificially high.  It takes whatever level of pay would not force Michael Morse and his peers to take their abilities elsewhere and then keeps going.

In those circumstances, one might reasonably suggest that it is not okay to be selfless for selfish reasons selfishly.  The unions would have us believe that workers who are not grabbing everything they can possibly get, by whatever means they can possibly get it, will inevitably be underpaid.  That perspective causes Morse’s reasonable point to evaporate and creates a society in which neither side can ever be content.

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The Tragedy of a Halted Development in Providence

There may be no better illustration of Rhode Island’s central problem than the foolish people celebrating the halt of a redevelopment project in Providence:

[Jim] Abdo’s request for a tax stabilization agreement, or TSA, was met with opposition from labor unions and progressive groups. Members of the groups applauded when the plan was tabled Tuesday night.

“I know Mr. Abdo is going to make out tremendously from his investment, with or without the TSA,” Nancy Iadeluca, the Rhode Island director for UniteHERE Local 26, said at a hearing about the TSA earlier this month. “What are we getting back?”

Mr. Abdo is looking to develop the former Providence Journal building and another next door, but he says he can’t secure financing for the project, pegged at $39 million, unless there’s a $2.7 million tax break.  According to the developer (who has reason to present his case in the best light, of course), property taxes resulting from the project would have been $5.7 million, anyway, in addition to more than $20 million in various state taxes.  All that comes with jobs and economic activity.

The article does not say, but one wonders, given labor’s involvement, if Mr. Abdo declined to promise to use union shops for his project.  Be that as it may, he says he’s going to hold on to the asset, undeveloped, whether or not it takes 20 years for him to do something with it.

Many Rhode Islanders oppose these special deals that make an inhospitable economic climate tolerable for hand-picked investors, but even we might see this outcome as tragic — if only as an indicator of things we don’t see.  Imagine how many deals are not being done in the Ocean State because of the environment progressive policies have created!

This is more than just tragic, though; it’s frightening, because under the progressives’ glee is the expectation that this is a step toward their “progress,” not an obstacle.  Note this comment from the Providence Preservation Society’s director, who supported the deal:  “These two buildings are eyesores in the core of downtown. They drive down the sense of positivity.”

Abdo says he’s patient, but his patience might be misplaced.  What the progressives may understand is that an “eyesore” is “blight,” and our society has given the government authority to confiscate properties on which they can pin that tag.  As Providence’s economy gets worse and worse, it may be that progressives are counting on being able to take Abdo’s property away from him, using public dollars to redevelop it into some delusional hipster dream (with expensive union labor), and taking the money to do it from the rest of us suckers who haven’t fled the state.

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Out-Progressiving Raimondo’s Progressives

The Providence Journal has an op-ed from me today, about progressive Democrat state Senator Samuel Bell’s freedom to use irresponsible rhetoric as leverage against the progressives in the administration of progressive Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo:

At the end of the day, Bell is just objecting to Raimondo’s efforts to buy off companies so that they’ll tolerate our horrible business climate, which he is free to do because his economic ideas are fantasy.

Gina Raimondo, Stefan Pryor and Bruce Katz are progressives who are responsible for implementing the central planning policies that progressives demand. Samuel Bell is a progressive with no real responsibility who is therefore free to be more irresponsible in his demands.

If it weren’t so harmful to our state, this would all be a laugh riot.

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