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Well, RI Does Love Passing Laws for Emotional and Political Reasons

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed with the get-right-to-the-point title, “Tuition-Free College Is Nothing More Than a Political Ploy,” Allysia Finley suggests real motivation is Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo’s presidential aspirations.  She also suggests another topic that merits some careful research before Rhode Island jumps on the bandwagon:

Promising free tuition could steer more students to public schools from private ones. The Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York estimates Gov. Cuomo’s plan would boost enrollment at public colleges by 116,000 while reducing the head count at nonprofit schools by 11%. The declines would be particularly acute at small, less selective colleges. For-profit schools would be pinched, too.

According to the commission’s analysis, the plan would shift $1.4 billion away from nonprofit colleges, resulting in 45,000 job losses. Compensating jobs would be created at public schools, but dislocations would invariably occur. “Once this is out there and implemented, possibly some of the more precarious institutions will go under,” Gary Olson, president of Daemen College, told Inside Higher Ed. “And what that will do is cause millions of dollars of lost economic impact on the local community where the college is located.”

Yes, the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities sounds like an interested party, but our society is supposed to work by pitting such interests against each other for the public’s edification.  Perhaps one of Rhode Island’s problems is that it isn’t big enough for collective voices to emerge, even as politicians have enough power to make individual institutions wary of crossing them.

In that, Rhode Island an excellent case study in the danger of big government.  When your economy depends on the ability to procure special deals from the government, the incentive is to not advocate for your interests publicly, which leaves the public uninformed for votes.

Anyway, if Rhode Island’s non-government institutions of higher learning are too besotted or timid to argue their own interests, mark this down as another reason the General Assembly should pass the “free tuition” idea along for a study commission that might draw some real evidence out of the still waters of public discourse.

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Higher Education Funding for Unaccountable Administrators

The American Interest points to an investigation of California’s state higher education system:

In other words, administrators have been hiring more administrators for make-work positions and giving each other raises without sufficient accountability in a self-perpetuating cycle of bureaucratic decay that is sadly endemic to academia at large.

These findings should give pause to those who think that larger and larger state subsidies are the answer to higher education’s woes. Much of the public money spent on “free college” schemes championed by left-wing populists would end up being pocketed by the ever-expanding bureaucratic class of student services directors, Title IX coordinators, and HR managers, raising costs while steadily diluting quality.

Before Rhode Island embarks on this “free tuition” idea — Curious, isn’t it, how this out-of-nowhere scheme by the governor is being pushed through without any real time to think? — maybe the state should conduct a study of the administrative weight of the organizations under the state’s system.  It’d be difficult to out-do California, but Rhode Islanders have a right to know how much they’re wasting on unaccountable educational bureaucracy.

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Having Enough Sense to Come in Out of the Rain

Reading about Rhode Island’s obligatory branch of the “March for Science,” I couldn’t help but think of this scene from the classic philosophical work, Big Trouble in Little China.

A brave man (or a left-wing ideologue) may like the feel of nature on his face, but there’s something humorous about the idea of people with saturated political signs standing in the rain for an hour and a half listening to speeches about the importance of learning the lessons of science.  Jacqueline Tempera’s credulous reporting for the Providence Journal only adds to the humor:

After about an hour and a half of speeches, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott from the Rhode Island Department of Health ended the program with a strong message.

“This is more than bad policy,” she said. “This is a profound environmental injustice that will have the biggest impact on our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.”

Before the reader can even get to wondering whether Tempera believes “strong message” is an objective phrase or is just cheering on her political allies, the absolute absence of context for the “strong statement” — from a state employee making an overtly political statement — captures the event to perfection.

What is “more than bad policy”?  We don’t know, and one suspects the Puddle-Jumpers for Science don’t either.

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Lumen Gentium Award and Banquet

Among the most significant surprises that this year has brought me was the news that I’ll be receiving a Lumen Gentium award from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence.  As the Rhode Island Catholic newspaper reports:

The 10 categories of service in which the awards are presented include Parish Service, Community Service and Charitable Outreach, Catholic Education, Evangelization, Communications, Administration and Stewardship, Respect Life, Public Service, Distinguished Catholic Youth and Friend of the Diocese.

The Lumen Gentium awards are presented to honor those “who toil in the vineyard of the Lord,” across the diocese.

Proceeds from this year’s Lumen Gentium Awards banquet, which will be held May 17 at Twin River Event Center in Lincoln, will benefit senior priests who have served the Diocese of Providence.

The category that applies to me is “communications” — basically, defense of the faith in communications media.  Honestly, I’m so much more impressed with those who defend the faith through the example of their deeds that I feel the award to be a future-focused call for me to better deserve the honor.

As it is each year, the banquet on May 17 is a fundraising event, this year to support the growing ranks of retired priests, so if you’re able and interested, I’d love to see you there.

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Irrational Avoidance of Actual School Choice

In a not-online Newport Daily News article from April 18, Derek Gomes reports on new programs allowing students from other towns to attend Portsmouth High School:

The move comes on the heels of the state Department of Education designating the high school as a regional program provider for the career and technical pathways of child development and television production.

While the school has offered courses in each subject for years, it had to tailor curricula and have state education officials observe the classes before the state education department approved Portsmouth’s application last month.

“These tuition-based programs will welcome students statewide to participate and earn industry-based credentials and job experiences in these areas,” according to a letter the School Department posted on its Web site.  “Students from other districts may apply for enrollment … and be considered for admission on a competitive basis.”

Details from the district’s Web page don’t make it immediately clear whether students attend the district full time or, as with vocational classes at Rogers High School in Newport, just attend for the few relevant classes.  The Portsmouth tuition of $15,830 could certainly be full time, but the economics of these programs are crazy, with students’ home districts paying the same tuition for a couple of courses as they would for a full course load.

What strikes me at the moment, though, is how narrow and convoluted this all is.  There’s a reason Little Compton sends its high school students all the way through Tiverton to attend Portsmouth High School.  People actually move to Portsmouth for the same reason, and some private school parents in the area simply treat Portsmouth as another private school and pay the tuition.  Why should the district have to offer specialized programs in order for the Department of Education to incorporate the choice into the system?

As I’ve written before, taxpayers should see themselves as funding the education of children in our community, not the maintenance of a government-branded school system.  If that were the attitude, then we’d direct our resources where they will be used to greatest effect.

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Dealing with Disruptive (aka Opportunity-Creating) Technology

This passage from Matthew Rees’s Wall Street Journal review of Move Fast and Break Things by Jonathan Taplin is worth highlighting:

It may be hard to get stirred up about the interests of celebrity millionaires like Ms. Swift and Sir Paul, but the broader concern is legitimate: how to reward those who create content—music, film, even mere words—in an era when technology can distribute it at virtually no cost. In “Move Fast and Break Things,” Jonathan Taplin argues that today’s technology behemoths are decimating content industries and eroding the broader culture. …

[Taplin] devotes more space to a more mundane concern: money. Consider music revenues. Last year, in the U.S., they were $7.7 billion, down from $19.8 billion in 2000. In 2015, music creators earned more from the sale of vinyl records than they did from music streams on YouTube and other platforms. “How can it be,” Mr. Taplin asks, “that the arrival of digital networks composed of billions of music fans has not been a boon to musicians?”

In essence, this is the complaint of gatekeepers.  Note the assumptions embedded in the phrasing of the question: “how to reward those who create content?”  Are they rewarded, or do they earn their money?  And either way, who gets to decide what is worth rewarding?  Taplin complains that “the economics of ‘more’ [may be] drowning us in a sea of mediocrity.”  Well, it’s up to the non-mediocre to prove it, and it’s also up to those who want to support their preferred content to find ways to do so.

This is all on the content creators and those who make a career of helping them to find an angle, as well as their fans.  They have to prove that they’re worth the consolidation of society’s entertainment resources.

One can see in Taplin’s perspective the same mentality that leads to high taxes and big government: this insinuation that particular interests should find ways to use government to spread the costs of doing things they want done, but for which they don’t want the responsibility of paying.

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The Measure of Debt in Rhode Island

The debt study put out today by the state treasurer’s office merits a more detailed look than I’ve been able to do today.  For the quick summary, see Ted Nesi’s article on WPRI:

The $10.5 billion in total public debt – excluding pensions – breaks down as $1.9 billion for Rhode Island state government, $6.6 billion for quasi-public state agencies such as Rhode Island Housing and Commerce RI, and nearly $2.05 billion for municipalities and local special districts. With pensions, the combined total rises to $17 billion, Magaziner’s office said. …

… The study suggests a community’s debt and pension liabilities should be less than 6.3% of its total assessed property value; in Providence that ratio is 17.8%, and in Woonsocket it’s 20.3%. Central Falls, Pawtucket, Johnston, West Warwick and Cranston are also above the target.

One question Rhode Islanders should consider is whether assessed property value really ought to be the measure.  Assets are certainly important to the question of debt, but mainly from the perspective of the lender, not the borrower.  For your mortgage, banks want to know your property value and other assets because they’re looking at the likelihood that you’ll be able to liquidate and pay them back if things go wrong.  That’s not really possible for a state (even “a state for sale,” as Rhode Island has been called).

From the perspective of the borrower, income is more important, because it relates to the ability to pay off the loan.  In that regard, we can look at the matter in two ways.  Rhode Islanders’ personal income (including investments) is about $44.5 billion, which means that even using the treasurer’s unrealistically sunny estimate of pension debt, government debt is about 40% the size of our income.  And of course, personal debt would come into play when thinking about personal income.

The second way to look at the public debt would be public revenue, and Rhode Island’s state and local tax revenue totals around $6 billion.  So our government owes about three years’ worth of revenue.

Each man woman and child in the state owes $17,000, around $68,000 for a family of four.  Whatever arbitrary benchmarks politicians may pick, that’s too high.

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The Peter Pan Generation in Rhode Island and Nationally

The U.S. Census has put out a report contrasting the living conditions of young adults (18-34) over time.  Some of the long-term data is stunning, such as the collapse of young adults who are married.  Nationwide, in 1976, around 93% of women in their late 20s and 57% of women in their early 20s had been married; for men, the percentages were 75% and 38%.  By 2014, these percentages had fallen to 46% and 17% for women and 32% and 10% for men.

One suspects a great deal of social and psychological pain can be explained by the fact that women with children have not decreased by as much.  Whereas in 1976 the percentage of women who were married was substantially higher than the percentage who had children, those with children now outnumber those who are married.

It’s related data, available at the state level, that initially caught my eye, with reference to Millennials.  From 2005 to 2015, the percentage of young adults living with their parents jumped up from 26.0%, nationwide, to 34.1%.  Rhode Island had a bigger jump than the national average: from 28.6% to 37.1%.  Rhode Island’s jump was the 15th biggest in the country (3rd biggest in New England).

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As Aleister suggests at Legal Insurrection, perhaps young adults should stop pursuing useless degrees and start seeking rewarding careers in the trades.  Along the way, they should also stop voting for politicians who promise them handouts but undermine the economy.

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Picking Statistics to Push for More Taxpayer Funding of Higher Ed

Budget season has arrived in Rhode Island, which means it’s time for credulous journalists to pass along spin from powerful insiders preaching the need for more taxpayer funding.  Here’s Linda Borg, in the Providence Journal:

Rhode Island ranked 41st in the nation on state spending per student in public higher education during the 2015-16 school year.

Among the six New England states, only Vermont and New Hampshire spent less on their public colleges, according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research institute in Washington, D.C.

The latest data also show that Rhode Island’s support for higher education declined 23 percent from 2008 to 2016. By contrast, the national average dropped 15 percent.

Two factors make this line of argument highly misleading, to the point of spinning things around backwards from how we ought to look at them.  First, as I’ve written before, a business model is absolutely bizarre if an increase in customers creates a shortfall in revenue.  To the extent that each additional student’s tuition exceeds the marginal increase in costs per student, higher enrollment should mean more money.  And to the extent that the student’s tuition falls short of the marginal increase, the increased enrollment indicates room to increase tuition.

The CBPP’s “drop” in funding is calculated per student.  That means that states with big increases in enrollment will show a “drop” in funding, even if funding goes up substantially.

Second, as I’ve also written before, Rhode Island has a high percentage of out-of-state students.  Here again, success would show as failure by CBPP’s measuring stick.  Out-of-state students should be a source of additional revenue helping the public colleges and universities fulfill their primary role of providing educational opportunities for the people of the state.  Yet, the more we attract, the lower our funding will appear to be per student.

In summary, if our colleges and university are being successful, attracting more students from in state and out of state, they will appear to be losing public funding.  If it weren’t government, these arguments would be a scam.

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The Risk of Premature Marijuana Policy

Mary Rezac, of the Catholic News Agency, reports on a study out of Colorado from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Trafficking Area, which is a government agency tasked with tracking the illegal drug industry in the Rocky Mountain Area.  Here’s a taste, but there’s much more:

Marijuana-related traffic deaths increased by 62 percent in 2013, the first year of legalization of recreational marijuana. About one in five more youth are now reporting having used marijuana in the past month since its legalization. Marijuana-related hospitalizations in the state nearly doubled from 6,305 in 2011 to 11,439 in 2014.

This statement, from Dr. E. Christian Brugger, a moral theology professor at a Colorado seminary, should resonate strongly in Rhode Island, as we debate taking the step of legalizing marijuana:

“If there had been any sincere effort on the part of Colorado citizens and legislators to gauge in advance the harms that would arise from legalization, they would have foreseen precisely (these results),” he told CNA in e-mail comments.

Rezac goes on to report that “adolescent exposure to marijuana can lead to an 8-point drop in IQ, on par with the drop seen in children exposed to lead.”  Lead, as we know, is treated as a public health crisis for children in the Northeast, and if I’m remembering my construction history correctly, the government once actually mandated that lead be put into paint.

Advocates on the other side of the issue do what one would expect and argue against the data and the incentives of the source.  Here, for example, is a Forbes article addressing the prior-year report from RMHITA.  At the link, Jacob Sullum makes some compelling points, but he also argues some of the statistics in ways that are, themselves, arguable.

These backs and forths would characterize any healthy debate about public policy, and we shouldn’t fall into the trap of picking our favorite side and believing its data with undue credulity.  The problem is we’re looking at just a couple years of data from a single state, so it’s all difficult to sort through.  All that’s needed is time and dialogue.  There’s no hurry.

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The Cheese Sandwich Lesson for Socialism in Schools

It’s difficult to believe that Bob Plain isn’t trying his hand at parody with an interesting article on RI Future today about “lunch shaming”:

It’s known as lunch shaming. Students are subjected to special, sometimes embarrassing, treatment because their parents didn’t pay the school lunch bill. “Some provide kids an alternative lunch, like a cold cheese sandwich,” according to a recent NPR story. “Other schools sometimes will provide hot lunch, but require students do chores, have their hand stamped or wear a wristband showing they’re behind in payment. And, some schools will deny students lunch all together.”

The so-called cheese sandwich policy seems popular in suburban Rhode Island: Bristol/Warren, South Kingstown, and East Greenwich all use it.

From Bob’s article it appears that we’re talking debts in the amounts of $5 or $10, which seems like a paltry amount that districts could find some way to accommodate.  I’m trying to imagine a working-to-middle-class private school taking such steps.  In a transaction in which one side actually has the option to leave, other approaches have to be considered, whether a mandatory up-front fee, a deposit of some kind, a credit card on file, mandatory use of a payment processor that handles the collection, or a slight increase to all lunches in order to generate a reserve fund that provides a buffer for this sort of “debt.”

Putting aside the “what would the private sector do” comparison, though, think of what this little story says about the relationship of government to the people.  Adults in position of authority over school districts with budgets in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars are agonizing over ways to embarrass children so as to extract a few owed dollars from their parents.  That doesn’t indicate a mindset of provider-client or public-servant–beneficiary.  Rather, it indicates the dynamic of ruler-subject similar to a Dickensian orphanage.

Suffice to say it takes a series of monumentally bad social and public policy decisions to get us to the point at which the proverbial lunch lady is scornfully handing a child some bread and cheese over $5 owed.  We should start unraveling those decisions.

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Crime and the Rhode Island Puzzle

Poking around the Family Prosperity Initiative data tool, I was struck again by how well Rhode Island does when it comes to violent crime.  According to the last-published Rhode Island report, Rhode Island is fifth-best in the country by this measure.  One could consider it to be counterintuitive or obviously correlative, but Rhode Island also has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the United States, as depicted in this slide from a presentation by David Safavian, an expert with the American Conservative Union Foundation, when he spoke at Bryant University at a Family Prosperity event:

safavian-incarcerationrates

While reviewing this information, I happened to be distracted by an “Economics 101” video by the Center for Freedom and Prosperity (not the RI organization of a similar name) emphasizing the combination of stability and freedom that characterizes prosperous countries.  The video is mainly concerned with financial stability, but overall stability is critical, too.

A safe state that doesn’t lock up large numbers of its residents should have an advantage economically.  Indeed, add that advantage to all the rest — location, history, etcetera, etcetera — that ought to make Rhode Island the jewel of New England, rather than the armpit.

Unfortunately, we get other things terribly wrong, so our advantages go to waste, largely in the service of our insider system of centralized micromanagement and profiteering.

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Live by Cronyism, Die by Cronyism

GoLocal is reporting that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island plans to move a good chunk of its Providence workforce to East Providence:

Despite making promises to the City of Providence in 2007 to centralize its work force in its gleaming $125 million tower, Blue Cross Blue Shield of RI confirmed late Tuesday that it will be moving more than 125 jobs out of Providence to East Providence.

The Blue Cross Tower is assessed at $46 million, but only pays a portion of its tax obligation because of a generous twenty-year tax stabilization.

Average residents tend to get caught up in rhetoric and lose sight of basic realities like incentives.  Although individual workers and executives do take morality and personal fulfillment into consideration, private businesses ultimately exist to make money (whether for profit or non-profit).  If they don’t do that, they don’t get to do what it is they do.  Likewise, politicians’ have to gather votes and political support, otherwise they lose both their livelihoods and ability to accomplish what they want.

So, when a particular arrangement is no longer optimal for a business, given other opportunities, it will walk away from deals.  And when a politician comes into office who didn’t make a particular deal and is building a different base of support, the dynamic changes from that direction.

Public policy should therefore build beneficial incentives and then let people work out their deals in a free market.  From cutting deals for office buildings to reshaping an entire population for the benefit of a sugar-daddy industries (through, for example, “free tuition”), it is utter folly to accept central planners’ promises that the people can make out in the long run.

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The Right Track for Those Who Stay

Ted Nesi highlights something in the recent Hassenfeld Institute poll that may be worth a deeper investigation:

The poll also showed that for the first time in years, more Rhode Islanders think the state is moving in the right direction than in the wrong direction, with 42% of voters saying it’s headed in the right direction, 36% saying it’s headed in the wrong direction, and 16% unsure.

Nesi combines the Hassenfeld results from the last couple of years with prior polls asking the same question on WPRI’s behalf to show that Rhode Islanders’ outlook has improved since 2010, when it was about 70% wrong track, 12% right track, to statistically even, now, at around 40%.

I wonder what effect population change has had on these numbers.  Every year for the past 12, something like 20,000 to 30,000 Rhode Islanders have left for other states.  Smaller numbers of people have moved here from other states.  Over a decade, though, that’s an exchange or loss of about one-quarter of the whole population.  If we assume people coming will have a more positive view than those leaving, that could have a big effect on a question like right-track/wrong-track.

It’d be interesting if pollsters would start asking how long survey respondents have lived in Rhode Island.  The cross-tabs might be telling.  New arrivals might skew the results positive, or those who’ve been here a while might be comparing our current stagnation with the huge deterioration of the last decade.

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Marijuana and the Inevitable Pin-Hole Burns

The headline for this post derives from the Pink Floyd song, “Nobody Home,” from the concept album turned movie, The Wall.  As our rock star protagonist slips into loneliness and insanity, he’s looking around his hotel room and at himself, and he sees “the inevitable pinhole burns all down the front of my favorite satin shirt.”  The holes are from the embers of his cigarettes, which presumably he’s chain smoking.

Of course, neither smoking nor the indolent burning of holes in your shirt are inevitable.

Anyway, the lyric came to mind when I read the reaction of RI’s leading lobbyist for the legalization of marijuana upon hearing that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo backs a study commission for the related bill, not the actual policy:

… legalization advocates say the commission would only delay the inevitable.

“The public is behind it. Massachusetts is moving forward. We don’t think a study commission is necessary because we already have the data,” Jared Moffat, of Regulate RI, said. …

Massachusetts retail shops will begin selling marijuana in July 2018. Moffat said delaying legalization in the Ocean State will result in sending jobs and revenue to the Bay State.

So speaks the pusher:  “Hey kid, your friends are all doing it.  You’re going to buy some eventually.  You might as well buy it from me, now.  Why be the last?”

Pink Floyd rhymes “inevitable pin-hole burns” with “the obligatory Hendrix perm.”  Hendrix’s death from a drug overdose wasn’t inevitable.  As a carpenter, I worked on a few projects with a painter who railed against anti-drug laws on the grounds that Hendrix died because his girlfriend was afraid to call for help out of fear of being busted for possession.  The first day I worked with that painter, by the way, he mentioned that he wasn’t quite himself because his friend had just died.  Another overdose.

Legalization is not inevitable.  If states that have made the leap find, for example, an explosion of hard-drug use (which is still in the cards), opinions will change quickly.  Haste is the imperative of those who fear a gamble will go sour.

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Work Requirements for Medicaid in Maine

The Wall Street Journal’s Jennifer Levitz reports that the GOP-governed state of Maine is looking to add work requirements to the Medicaid program for those enrollees who are able-bodied adults.  When the state did the same with the food stamp (SNAP) program, enrollees dropped 90% and analysis suggested that the group of people who had been on food stamps actually saw an increase in wages.

The argument against such reforms shows the completely different starting point of each side:

But Maine’s approach is drawing criticism from advocates for the poor, who say jobs, volunteer positions and transportation to either of them can be hard to come by in rural pockets​with persistent unemployment. They say those losing the assistance turn to charities instead, increasing demand at food banks.

To which I would ask:  So?  Whether society provides food for the poor through a government program or private charity, we’re still supporting our neighbors.

The implied difference is that private charity has the feel of relying on the goodness of others while government programs have the feel of society’s handing over what it owes — an entitlement, in other words.  That difference is critical, and right in line with the work requirement.

What we owe each other is the chance of personal development and fulfillment, which comes from working, including being part of a self-supporting family team, even if not everybody within it works.  For those who really can’t work and who aren’t part of family that can address the greater challenges it faces, we should offer help in a way that shows genuine concern and community, not forced entitlement.

The attitudes and mechanics of welfare affect each other.  There’s a difference between the obligation to care for other people and a right to be cared for.  When a third party — government — asserts the authority to impose the obligation and bestow the right, it harms those who face adversity and deprives those who contribute of the benefits of being charitable.

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Ease on Easter

Easter vigil and eggs hidden for four children kept me up later than I’m accustomed, and (I suspect) a little too much sampling of the candy made me restless in the night.  I suppose it’s theologically appropriate to have this mixture of exhaustion and excitement on Easter Day.

Also appropriate, perhaps, is the reminder that one must relax from time to time.  I’ve found I can no longer do it.  Movie watching I do while folding laundry or some other stationary task.  Exercise comes also with reading (on the exercise bike) or podcast listening (on the machine).  Some tasks can only be done on their own, such as book reading and piano playing, but these I’ve put on the itinerary as productive tasks.

It occurred to me, while pouring my first post-Lent beer before undertaking the late-night tasks, that I once could sit and listen to night sounds for unplanned spells.  Or maybe I’d contribute to the suite with a guitar in hand, but idly, not as practice or on a schedule, simply strumming for as long as I felt like it.  Once, at my parents’ apartment, a raccoon poked his head up on the deck to see what I was playing.

It’s a short life, perhaps, but a long wait for the Savior’s return, and relearning how to be at ease can only be healthy.  Seems to me there’s a Commandment involved in it, too.  Perhaps I’ll make it a resolution for the Easter season and beyond.

Simply sitting and being is difficult, though.  Thoughts intrude… challenges to resolve at work, a family to order and raise well, a house to maintain, a community to guide toward a more harmonious and fairer future, and a parade of the “least of these” through whom to serve the Lord.  All these demands must be ordered and prioritized and scheduled and planned.  How can one simply sit?

I’ll give it a try, today.  I see I’ve got an opening from 4:00 to 4:25.

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What Freedom Means When Government Takes Over for Organized Crime

The strongest argument for legalizing marijuana is based on freedom, particularly among the libertarians with whom I’m generally sympathetic.  Reading this article by Jennifer Bogdan and Tom Mooney in the Providence Journal, though, I’m surprised by ways in which this might not be so true:

Birenbaum touted the state’s camera surveillance system, which keeps electric eyes on all the grows, and various other tracking and security measures.

While the attorney general may have legitimate concerns about future recreational use, Birenbaum says, “we want cities and towns to see there’s a difference” with a well-regulated medical marijuana program.

Weeks after the tour, Pawtucket gave local approval for three medical cultivation applicants, noting how impressed they were with the state’s ability to track grows and the pot they produced.

Statewide surveillance of an industry and close government tracking aren’t generally the hallmarks of freedom.

That’s why my view is one of freedom gained through strengthening society.  If in general we’re operating under the civic premise that government has to take care of us all and take invasive measure to do so, then expanding the options for incapacitating ourselves and inviting government intervention aren’t likely to increase our total amount of freedom.

On the other hand, in a society in which individuals have strong character and families and communities are geared toward helping each other without the force of the law, our liberties can expand without infringing on our freedom.

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A State Without Children

Way down in his weekly roundup column, Ted Nesi highlights another point from the recent RI Kids Count report:

One statistic that stood out: Rhode Island now has the fifth-lowest birth rate in the country, following a 15% slide in the number of babies born here over the last decade. What does that mean for the state’s future? It’s already having an effect on the economy, with Care New England saying the decline in births is hurting revenue at Women & Infants.

That’s an understated example of the effect of this dynamic.  Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate the effects of an increasingly sterile population.

To touch on one narrow political matter: As I’ve pointed out in Tiverton and for the state as a whole, our public schools have generally lost about two full grade-levels worth of students in the last decade.  Picture no fourth and no fifth grade students in the entire state; that’s how much enrollment has decreased.  This leaves a bureaucratic, unionized, and expensive education establishment demanding increased budgets to educate fewer children, which its partisans do against a taxpaying public that has less and less actual use of the schools.  That battle alone will be huge in Rhode Island.

But even an issue of that magnitude is as nothing to the reorientation of a society with fewer children.  The way people think and interact with the world will change on that basis.  Indeed, not having children (or not having multiple children) takes pressure off of people to become full adults, making them more susceptible to the pitch of the “government plantation” advocates to look to central planners as parents to us all.  It also makes us vulnerable to people from other cultures in which Peter Pan has been held at bay.

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The Partnership Model of Oligarchy

One wonders: If it weren’t for the heavy government-centric packaging and cover of the left-wing Brookings Institution, wouldn’t so-called progressives be highly skeptical of efforts like the Partnership for Rhode Island?

This is about CEOs addressing large societal issues and figuring out how money and expertise might advance certain efforts, said [Neil] Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations.

For a refresher, refer back to my piece on the “Wexford-Brookings Franchise.”  This is about business magnates working with government insiders and non-profit profiteers to shape our society more to their liking.  (We can trust that they like being wealthy and elite, by the way.)

We’re watching every socio-political lesson from history and fiction take shape before our eyes, and so many people are caught up in low-level political squalls and identity politics that we’re strolling right along with it.

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has been placing more emphasis on the need for “civic society” institutions — that is, moving authority and decision making away from government and toward other institutions by which we interact, like business, churches, non-profits, and so on — but we mean something substantially different.  In our vision, people work together to solve their problems, forming organizations as necessary.

In the Wexford-Brookings-RI Foundation model, the people who already hold all the cards in our society essentially interweave government throughout our institutions to use them as leverage in their centralized goals.  That’s not freedom; it’s subjugation, however friendly a face they manage to put on it at first.

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Rich Senators Target Poor Children’s Scholarships

Yes, of course we should be interested in having government-driven programs be free of waste, fraud, and abuse, but this sure does seem like a political attack on a policy that helps disadvantaged students escape failing government schools and secure real opportunities through private schools.  According to Emma Brown, in the Washington Post, three Democrat Senators are asking the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate states’ tax-credit scholarships, which allow businesses to donate money for scholarships in exchange for some percentage back as a tax credit.

Naturally, Rhode Island’s upper crust U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is one of the three signatories.  The emphasis of the letter on whether such programs “pose a risk of waste, fraud, abuse, misconduct, or mismanagement” indicates that the objective is to attack the programs, not simply to learn from them.  Note, especially, that the letter doesn’t ask the GAO to look into the positive results of the programs.

One wonders where Whitehouse sent his own children to school.

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, Republican state representative Robert Lancia (Cranston) has submitted legislation that would increase the cap on Rhode Island’s tax credit scholarship program and implement a feature that would allow it to grow according to demand.  His bill (for which I offered feedback based on a review of other such programs) would also make scholarships more predictable, by prioritizing continued funding of scholarships for students already receiving them.

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Fish on Fridays


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

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

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

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Twiddling Thumbs in Education

Stop the presses!  Rhode Island is switching standardized tests… again… this time to Massachusetts’s MCAS.  Now we’ll have another half decade during which Rhode Islanders have no way to measure the progress of students, overall, or schools.  This seems to be a suspiciously regular problem.  Every time we have a test for a few years and begin to be able to draw conclusions that aren’t favorable to our government school system, well then, it must be time to change tests.

With this switch, though, at least there’s this benefit:

“I think it’s long overdue,” said Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees. “We can now measure our performance against Massachusetts communities.”

What we allow government insiders and labor unions to do to our state’s children remains a travesty.

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Consumers Can’t Handle Options They Don’t Have

Not to build a day of blog posts drawn from a source, the Wall Street Journal, to which not everybody has full access, but an essay by Amanda Frost, taking up the “no” side of the debate question, “Can consumers be smart health-care shoppers?,” gives an opening for a point that ought to be made more frequently:

When it comes to making decisions about our health care, being a “smart shopper” takes more effort than most of us are willing to put in.

Advocates for price transparency would have us believe that we, as “consumers,” should consider our health care a product to be shopped for, like a pair of shoes. But mainly we are “patients,” with varied, often time-sensitive health-care needs. There is an important distinction between presenting the information—and choices—to patients and asking consumers to make complicated decisions about their health care based on that information. …

Available evidence is not cause for optimism about how much money can be saved with more choices and publicly available prices. While large health-care payers may save some money from consumer shopping, the average person will likely see little, if any, savings.

Frost’s argument appears to be that consumers in a market with artificially constrained options — that is, in which choices are limited, obscure, and difficult to understand — don’t seem to want to clear that high hurdle, so lowering the bar is a bad idea.

Look, if shopping for health care “takes more effort than most of us are willing to put in,” then people will pay extra for options that free them from the burden.  Frost is essentially saying that those who are willing to put the effort in should not be allowed.

But I don’t believe she’s correct.  Once people get used to the idea that they aren’t under the watchful eye (or the thumb) of their insurance companies and the government, they’ll begin figuring out pricing and talking among themselves.  The possibility of choices will make new products and more competition possible, lowering prices and improving quality.

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Talking Yourself into Too Much Debt for Baseball

Obviously, there are some differences between a city-funded facility for a double-A minor league baseball team and a state-funded stadium for a triple-A team, but Joseph De Avila’s Wall Street Journal article on the Hartford Yard Goats caught my attention yesterday because it illustrates some of the perils:

Hartford, a city of about 124,000 residents that is facing a fiscal crisis and a high poverty rate, is on the hook for $68.6 million in bonds issued to cover most of the construction of Dunkin’ Donuts Park.

Mayor Luke Bronin, a Democrat who opposed the stadium but is now reluctantly dealing with it, said the ballpark alone will never generate enough money to pay back the debt. The original idea was that surrounding development will generate funds to pay off the loans and bring in additional tax revenue for the city.

Given the incentives and structure of government, advocates for some big expenditure have a narrow objective to get a project approved.  They just need some authority — whether an elected official or an electorate passing a ballot initiative — to give the go ahead.  Then, decision-making enters a weird realm beyond the reach of the people actually paying the bill, but with a those in charge obligated to continue on the public behalf.

So, we start out with promises and grand visions and wind up scrambling just to make something work without loosing too much money.

Mr. Bronin plans to borrow $20 million in bonds in the coming weeks to cover a shortfall in the city’s budget, and next year the city is already projecting a $65 million deficit.

Despite the challenges, Mr. Bronin said: “There is no question it’s better for the city to have a baseball park than a vacant parking lot.”

Why is there “no question”?  Hartford is now borrowing money for operating expenses.  That’s insane.  Unfortunately, many people have a vision of government in which it is a means of doing things that really make no sense at all.

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Is Providence College a Place Where Catholic Views Are Welcome?

I can’t find the quotation on that horrible online monstrosity called “Facebook” that people like to use, for some reason, so the caveat “if true” applies here, but John Leo reports some disturbing news regarding Providence College and one of its professors, Anthony Esolen:

Support for Esolen by the college president, Father Brian Shanley, has been tepid, of the sort sometimes issued by Catholic administrators embarrassed to be interrupted while converting a Catholic college into a formerly Catholic one. Over the weekend, in a Facebook post, Esolen said of his scheduled speech, “Christ and the Meaning of Cultural Diversity,” that if he tried to give it, he had been told that activist students would shut it down. He said on Facebook: “It is no longer clear to me that Providence College would qualify as ‘worth attending’.”

Colleges must make it clear that students who are incapable of considering ideas to which they object or (worse) unwilling to allow others to do so are not fit for the campus.  Students who disrupt speeches should be expelled, and non-students who do the same should be arrested for trespassing.  Any ostensible institution of higher education that does not take such steps to ensure the free and vigorous exchange of ideas certainly does not qualify as “worth attending.”

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Academic Central Planners Drift from Reality

Noting that the Federal Reserve Bank is increasingly guided by academic economists, rather than businesspeople and bankers with practical experience, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts worries about the consequences in the Wall Street Journal:

Central banking, in other words, is now dominated by academics. And while I don’t blame them for it, academics by their nature come to decision-making with a distinctly—you guessed it—academic perspective. The shift described by Mr. Grant has had consequences. For one thing, simplicity based on age-old practice has been replaced by complexity based on econometric theory. Big Data has played an increasingly prominent role in how the Fed operates, even as the Fed’s role in the economy has deepened and widened.

Rather than enlisting business leaders and bankers to fulfill the Fed’s increasingly complex mission, the nation’s political and monetary authorities turned primarily to the world’s most brilliant economists, who can be thought of more and more as monetary scientists. “Central bankers have invited politicians to abdicate leadership authority to an inbred society of PhD academics who are infected to their core with groupthink, or as I prefer to think of it: ‘groupstink,’ ” argues former Dallas Fed analyst Danielle DiMartino Booth in a new book.

Two of the important things that practical experience will tend to teach people are to be humble about one’s ability to plan in a complicated world and to be aware of the real, human consequences of decisions.  In contrast, the intellectual challenge of an academic and modeling approach is to push beyond the boundaries of practical experience.  There’s certainly a place for that — an important one — but it’s in the private sector, where people invest their own money.  A “central” anything ought to be overly staid and cautious.

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When Walking in Others’ Shoes, Must We Make the Same Decisions?

Rhode Island Catholic recently ran an essay by syndicated columnist Tony Magliano in which he describes a recent trip he made for a “migrant immersion experience,” by which he means a planned excursion that covers some of the same ground as those who enter the United States illegally from the south.  From the first paragraph, though, nagging unasked questions dog his heels:

Recently I was given a unique opportunity to taste some of the bitter hardships endured by fellow human beings fleeing drug gang violence, oppressive poverty and economic injustice south of the U.S. border.

Let’s state with moral certitude that we have a responsibility to help people who are suffering in the world as much as we’re able.  What always bothers me about arguments like that which Magliano implicitly makes is that the recipients of our sympathy turn into objects for the exercise of our charitable feelings.

If their motivation for flight is violence, poverty, and economic injustice, don’t these migrants have a moral obligation to remain and save those who can’t or won’t leave?  Yes, I realize that’s a very easy question for me to ask, standing at my computer in Rhode Island, but I’m not even saying it ought to be the full focus of advocates like Magliano.  One never even sees it mentioned.

Moreover, why does it seem our focus is never on attacking those factors that create the environment that the migrants are seeking to escape?  One can only do so much to alleviate the tragedy of children crossing the desert by focusing on their destination (and even then, to the extent we make it possible and attractive, we encourage the dangerous adventure).  The real solution would be to end that which sets them in motion in the first place.

And again, isn’t it the moral obligation of their parents and other local adults to work toward that end?

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How “Fair Shot” Becomes “No Shot”

RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity CEO Mike Stenhouse has been playing off Rhode Island progressives’ slogan about a “fair shot” agenda, which consists mainly of policies that reduce economic freedom so progressives can buy support by forcing other people to hand over money.  Stenhouse’s riposte is that it’s a “no shot agenda for businesses.”  I’d suggest that he should drop the second part.  Progressive policies are harmful for everybody, business owners, employees, and people who aren’t working.   Stephen Moore makes the case succinctly in The American Spectator, listing a number of specific policies and concluding:

These examples merely scratch the surface of scores of governmental polices that are regressive. Could it be that the gridlock and polarization in Washington would be ended by a bipartisan reform movement to scout out and remove laws and rules that hurt those at the bottom of the income scale the most? One universal goal that we should all agree on and aspire to is equality of opportunity — which these laws squelch.

Where are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi and the class warfare warriors on reversing government policies that are stealing money and opportunities for low income and minority families? Do they care about protecting the poor? Or do they care more about protecting big government? It’s time to really find out.

No need for investigation.  As proven in Rhode Island, progressives want to help the poor and disadvantaged only inasmuch as that translates into more wealth and power for them, through government.  Progressives to whom that doesn’t apply aren’t progressives; they’re conservatives.

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