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To Lift All Boats, the Tide Has to Come In

What’s your first thought upon reading the following, from a Linda Borg article in the Providence Journal?

The rising tide of economic recovery has not lifted Rhode Island’s poor, the 2017 Report on Hunger in Rhode Island found.

Rhode Island, at 12.8 percent, has the highest rate of poverty in New England, with 130,000 people living in households with incomes below the poverty line. One-third of the jobs created in Rhode Island last year have an annual wage of $26,529, the study says.

Unless you believe the politicians’ rhetoric that our state’s economy is strong — in which case, you’ll see these 130,000 as inexplicably slipping through the cracks — you’ll probably conclude that Rhode Island’s economy needs to improve so the tide actually is rising.  As the RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI) shows, it’s not.

But Borg’s article, which is essentially promotion of a Rhode Island Community Food Bank report, never challenges our state’s approach to economic development.  Rather, it advocates against Republican policy proposals in Washington and spares a word to chide the state government for the UHIP debacle.

Charity is an important part of the equation when it comes to helping our fellow human beings, but the higher goal — mentioned whenever the topic comes up — should always be to get folks on their own feet and in a condition to be charitable toward others.  That is how the rising tide works, and too much reliance on government suppresses it.

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… By the Way, RIDOT’s New Tolling Study Has Major Problems, Too

At about the same time they issued a not-ready-for-primetime Environmental Assessment of the first two proposed toll gantry locations in southern Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) also issued an “investment grade tolling study” of the entire RhodeWorks toll plan – a study, we should note, which cost the taxpayers of Rhode Island a cool million dollars.

During their show, “Changing Gears”, yesterday on WPRO, Mike Collins and Chris Maxwell broadly hinted at major problems with this tolling study. Maxwell remarked that the state “would have been wise to put it through the shredder because it is very favorable” to the truckers’ anti-toll position.

Stay tuned on this – or drop by RIDOT’s hearing on Tuesday to hear about it first hand. That’s when the Rhode Island Trucking Association (represented by Maxwell) and the American Trucking Association (represented by Collins) will point out chapter and verse how RIDOT’s own toll study apparently torpedoes Governor Raimondo’s highly destructive, wasteful and unnecessary RhodeWorks toll plan.

Remember, Governor Raimondo and the General Assembly are only going to toll trucks! *snort*

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We Must Preserve Our Right to Drive

I have to say that I’m with Andrew Stuttaford when it comes to the United States’ deciding whether the advantages of banning human-driven cars outweighs our, you know, right to independence:

For all the irritations that can come with car ownership, the essence of the automobile is the autonomy that it brings. The ability it gives, so long as there’s money for gas, to just get up and go, when you want, where you want, the way you want.

Forget all the environmentalist grumbling, it’s that individual autonomy that has long made the auto so offensive to so many on the left.

I’m astonished that Stuttaford has to address his commentary in response to conservative thinkers.  We on the right are supposed to understand that convenience is one way the Devil buys your soul.  Give the government power over your decision to operate an automobile independently for the sake of economic (or any other kind of) gain, and you’ll find that the government will tell you where to (or not to) go, when, and how.

It must be at least 10 years ago, probably more, that I commented somewhere on a blogger’s suggestion that driving is a “grandfathered right.”  Given the progressive state of our country, the theory goes, if driving were to have been introduced now, there’s no way the powers who be would let us do it… even without the alternative of driverless cars.

As Stuttaford notes, if people opt to allow their cars to drive them around (and I might very well give such a vehicle a place in our household fleet), then that is their prerogative.  But just as your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose, your right to autonomous vehicles must accommodate my right to drive.

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A.T. Cross Out the Incentive Programs

Not long after hitting up the Rhode Island taxpayer for incentives to move from one municipality to another within the state, pen company A.T. Cross has sold itself to a California private-equity company, according to WPRI’s Ted Nesi.  The silver lining:

A.T. Cross was awarded $1.9 million in state subsidies to help pay for the move to Providence, but R.I. Commerce Corporation spokesman Matt Sheaff said Thursday the company has not received any of that money at this point because the incentives are tied to job benchmarks it has not yet achieved.

Not to quibble, but Kate Bramson reported last year in the Providence Journal that the company had already received $200,000, which would presumably be in addition to the thousands of dollars it receives every year through various government programs and directly from the governor’s office.

More to the point, the company now confirms that it will be shedding jobs, rather than adding them, which raises the question of whether it really needed the promise of millions in order move.

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Is the Game About to Change for Labor Unions?

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Can Worcester Really Support the PawSox?

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Civic Groups and Socializing Just Aren’t What They Used To Be

Although I’m not sure why it was above-the-fold, front-page news in yesterday’s Newport Daily News, Sean Flynn’s mention that the Newport County Retired Teachers Association is struggling for participation is worth noting for its broader implications:

The annual dues for the organization are only $10 a year, which about 160 retirees currently pay.

“Only about 20 to 25 of them are active,” Bugara said. “NCRTA is not sustainable with that low a number. It’s the same people putting on the luncheons. We don’t have that much help.”

The retired teachers meet every three months for a luncheon at a local restaurant.

Mainly, the group meets for social reasons, puts out a newsletter to keep retirees informed about their mutual interests, and gives out a couple of scholarships to students each year.  It’s tempting to speculate about some cause specific to public-school teachers, who may be more likely to move on to second careers after retiring relatively young than in the past, or something like that.  After all, retiring in one’s early 50s now leaves multiple decades to fill with activity.

But this story is too familiar to anybody who has anything to do with volunteer social organizations to be specific this group.  Are people busier than they used to be?  Do we have too many more distractions?  Are communications and transportation technologies so improved that we more-easily satisfy our need to socialize with family and people more of our choosing?  Or has something changed in our culture?

Personally, I’m not in a good place to judge.  Four children, two working adults, and a wide array of responsibilities prevent me from going to many events that I’d actually like to attend.  The answer to the mystery of reduced participation, however, seems unlikely to be that increasing numbers of people match my circumstances.

Something, somewhere seems to be slipping, and I haven’t seen a good explanation.

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Making Meaning a Real Part of Economic Discussions

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz is right to point out that we don’t put enough emphasis on an important aspect of our working lives:

A job’s meaningfulness — a sense that the work has a broader purpose — is consistently and overwhelmingly ranked by employees as one of the most important factors driving job satisfaction. It’s the linchpin of qualities that make a valuable employee: motivation, job performance and a desire to show up and stay.

About the closest one gets to this conversation comes when, as part of political debates about living wages and mandatory benefits, some religious leader adds the phrase “meaningful work” to the list of workers’ rights.

Although she didn’t go so far as to raise the prospect of government action, Elejalde-Ruiz’s article does emphasize that employers are doing something they shouldn’t when they don’t give meaning to their employees’ jobs, not unlike the presumptuous statements that RI employers are cheating themselves by not offering sick time.  Perhaps she backs away because talk of meaning begins to illustrate how little ground one can actually cover when insisting on assigning people to categories (boss versus worker) and trying to resolve perceived problems categorically.

Blanket rules won’t help employers make employees’ jobs more meaningful, just as one can’t force the employees to take a deliberate approach to seeking meaning.  These questions are bound up with individual worldview and personal interactions.

What we can do is to stop oversimplifying our lives for the sake of political tugs-of-war.  Consider how easily the notion of meaningful work can flip:  Human beings will be attracted to work that is meaningful, which means they’ll tend to work for less pay.  Conversely, employers have to pay more to attract employees when the work isn’t attractive in its own right.  Put that way, it’s simply inappropriate to make declarations about, say, low pay for teachers without also commenting on how much they’re paid in meaning, so to speak.

Indeed, an interesting study could probably be made of gender gaps in these terms.  What if the longstanding cultural expectation that men would provide for their families left them with a meaningfulness deficit?  That could certainly play into suicide rates.

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Overestimating the Concern of Education Officials

I think Sandra Stotsky overestimates the degree to which Rhode Islanders actually pay attention to things like the standardized tests that government schools give our children, but her NewBostonPost essay does serve notice to those who do that Massachusetts’s test mightn’t be the font of rigor that they think:

We don’t know if the Rhode Island Department of Education knows it has been bamboozled because state education officials there haven’t told Rhode Island parents that the “MCAS” tests it is giving Rhode Island students are PARCC in disguise. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education convinced Rhode Island education officials and the Rhode Island legislature to use the Bay State’s tests in place of Rhode Island’s previously used PARCC tests.  Did it tell Rhode Island education commissioner Ken Wagner and state Representative Gregg Amore that Massachusetts’s current tests, called MCAS, use mainly PARCC test items and bear no resemblance to the Bay State’s pre-Common Core tests?  That would be the ethical thing to do.

Why are PARCC tests being called MCAS in Massachusetts? Because state law (the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993) requires assessment of state standards in grade 10 through state tests called MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) and the law couldn’t be changed without the legislature knowing about the game being played. So, if the Massachusetts education department and state board of education keep the name, but change its substance, the governor, the secretary of education, and the state legislature won’t be, officially, wiser.

Wagner doesn’t seem like much of a boat rocker and is childless, while Amore is a now-retired union teacher.  In other words, they are more likely to be happy, rather than concerned, that the new test they’ve brought to the state won’t be as effective in illustrating how much our public education system isn’t teaching children.

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Fancy Funding Deals That Skirt the Law Should Be Avoided

On Tiverton Fact Check, I’ve detailed an example of how the town government appropriates money in a way that (let’s say) conflicts with the clear language of the town’s Home Rule Charter:

The complicating factor is that the vote [to create a restricted revenue source for pay-as-you-throw trash bag revenue] was taken as a resolution in the FTM docket, which should have made it valid for the duration of that year’s budget only. Resolutions have to be renewed each year, and the PAYT restricted account has not been renewed. In other words, the town has been putting that money into a restricted account illegally for six years. To avoid an annual vote, the council would have to present voters with an opportunity to write the account into the charter or provide some other vote akin to a bond approval, making clear to voters that the restricted account will go on forever, or end at some future date.

To some extent, these sorts of things should be expected.  Local government generally consists of people who aren’t government experts and who often see themselves as engaged in a sort of volunteer service; process rules can therefore seem frustrating and unreasonable.  Additionally, in a council-based system, they’re often overseeing a rolling series of town managers and solicitors who lack a long-term institutional knowledge (which is just objective fact) and have financial incentive to tell the council that it can do what its members want to do (which can be corrupt).

In my view, that’s a reason to keep government limited.  If a transaction is too technically or politically complex for a council and well-paid staff to make it under the clear rules of the law, then it shouldn’t be done.  In this case, the council created a new rubbish fee without taking additional steps that would have required additional votes of the public, which sounds quite a bit like the proposed PawSox stadium deal, specifically, and moral obligation bonds, in general.

I often wonder how many similar examples could be found throughout Rhode Island if residents were to make a dedicated practice of combing through their municipal governments’ audits.

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The Unadulterated Projection of Relative Decline for Rhode Island

The word “mixed” in the headline for a Ted Nesi report on WPRI.com seems misplaced.  Michael Lynch’s report for the state government, by way of consultant IHS Markit, seems pretty negative to me:

Through 2022, Lynch predicts Rhode Island payrolls will grow by just 0.4% a year on average, a rate that would rank near the bottom among the 50 states, at 48th. …

Overall, IHS expects Rhode Island’s population and labor force to grow about 0.1% a year on average of the next 10 years. “This will rank among the lowest in the country,” Lynch noted, and is “reflected in our forecasts for lackluster employment growth.” …

“This would provide a useful crop of young and well-educated workers ready to enter the labor force and fill vacancies left behind by the aforementioned retirees,” he wrote. “Our forecasts indicate that the state will fail in this area – its 20- to 29-year-old cohort will contract over the next decade.”

Nesi touts a “silver lining” in the “booming” housing market, but in context, that’s a negative.  Regulations and taxes are keeping the housing inventory in Rhode Island from growing (which means construction jobs are restrained, too).  In context, the more-accurate characterization would be that, however pitiful Rhode Island’s economy may be, the government is keeping our housing market even more suppressed.

This isn’t a mixed picture.  It’s an unadulterated portrait of how an overbearing government can drag down a state.

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