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McNamara’s Bid to Make Others Pay for His Heroism

The legislative proposal by Warwick/Cranston Democrat state representative Joseph McNamara has made the news rounds, but it deserves a stronger point to be made.  The press release says he’s “drafting new legislation that would help businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis by guaranteeing that business interruption insurance would cover their losses regardless of policy language.”

It’s kind of a dishonest move.  Insurance companies charge their clients rates based on the risk involved in their policies.  These charges go toward a fund to cover the estimated payouts based on the risk for each thing that’s insured.  There is competition in insurance just as there is in every other private-sector market, so companies can’t charge fees that are so high they’re disconnected from this relationship to payouts.

If the General Assembly and governor pass a law that requires insurance companies to pay for events that were deliberately left out of the calculation of risk, the insurance companies will have to find that money somewhere.  One way or another, that means distributing the cost among other clients.  The complications of reinsurance (insurance for unexpected insurance payouts), do not change this fundamental fact; they just mean the spread is broader.

If government officials want to insure Rhode Island businesses against a loss during a crisis, they should do it the more-honest way of using government funds.  The legislature and governor should make the statement that this is a worthwhile priority and will therefore either displace lesser priorities or require tax increases.

Of course, cost comes at a political price, which politicians prefer to avoid.  Thus, these sorts of mandates that make other people pay for government policies (aka hidden taxes) ensure that the McNamaras of the state can pat themselves on the back for giving away money while hiding the fact that it has to come from somebody.

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A Way to Deal with the New Normal

Over on the blog of Rhode Island Women for Freedom & Prosperity, Judith Bowman describes her sense of the new normal, concluding thus:

Although we cannot change others, each of us has the ability to change ourselves. We have a responsibility to model appropriate language and behavior and lead by example. Americans have historically answered every call to action when the country’s well-being has been at stake. As we are diverted from our normal routines we must surely put partisan politics aside and continue to come together. As we practice and calibrate new communication approaches perhaps we could consider choosing more measured words to help restore emotional health and well-being, civility, respect and unity to our country.

We gratefully acknowledge the swift and decisive actions by our government leaders, physicians and health professionals, companies and corporations, friends, neighbors and perfect strangers and thank them for their prompt and tireless efforts, updates and generous spirit. They say, ‘out of every tragedy comes new strength.’ During this very challenging era in American history, we have a chance to not only heal the wounded and win the viral war but reinforce American exceptionalism merely by choosing more measured words and matching those words with actions.

This attitude is sorely needed.  To be honest, it’s rattling to read some of the hostility, sometimes approaching glee, out there, particularly among progressives.  A former legislator who has been filling his time accosting me on Twitter talks down any news that might potentially give people some hope that there’s light at the end of this tunnel.  It is apparently catching on in certain circles to call COVID-19 “the Trump Virus.”  Yesterday, Rhode Island Public Radio columnist Scott MacKay retweeted left-wing activist Barbara Malmet declaring the inevitable recession to be “Trump’s Great Depression.”

Who wishes such things on their country?  Is there any concern or hope among such people around ever reconciling with their fellow Americans again?

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Out from Behind the Mask

It seems like a strange thing to remember more than thirty years on.  I was probably eleven or twelve, walking through New York City with my parents.  As usual, my mother was up ahead, driven to get wherever we were going, while my father meandered behind, absorbing the day.

I made eye contact with a girl about my age walking in the opposite direction, and she smiled.  That’s the memory.  A passing moment.  A fleeting, ephemeral relationship.

As the movement swells on social media to make the constant wearing of masks part of our culture, even when this current madness has passed, I think of that momentary connection.  We’re so isolated already.  I was an only child, and there are more of those now, too.

I’m just not sure hiding our faces is something we should want to adopt as an expectation.  If times require it, sure.  If we had East Asia’s pollution problems, maybe.  But the United States responded to the pollution problem by seeking to reduce pollution while keeping our faces exposed.

At the very least, let’s acknowledge the trade-off.  If we could quantify a random smile in the isolating mass of a New York City street, what would it be worth?  If I were in my eighties and facing the fear of viruses, would I trade a lifetime of such smiles and memories for a little bit less risk?  And if I would, is that the attitude our culture should encourage?

To be sure, living otherwise entails risk.  Yes, trying to fix the world’s illnesses so as to live free is more challenging.

A short online discussion I had along these lines centered around different notions of maturity.  Is it more mature to be willing to give up a little bit of our freedom in order to provide ourselves and others a little more security, or to take responsibility for our own security so that others may live more freely?

The right answer is some balance between the two, of course, but this universal-mask idea seems also brings along a sort of deprivation.  Hiding our faces doesn’t just impose a restriction on us; it also deprives others of the ability to see us, to see our smiles.

This view may be destined for decreasing tolerance as our expanding longevity increases our terror of risk, but my vote is for a humanity that strives to be closer rather than more isolated and accepts that not everything is possible to control.

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A Finger Prick to Free Us All

Here’s some encouraging news out of London:

The British government is just “days” away from releasing 3.5 million self-administered finger prick tests that could prove a game-changer in easing the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The tests will likely be stocked in retailers like Boots, a major pharmacy chain in the United Kingdom, and available to order online via Amazon, however the first stage of the rollout will be reserved for doctors, nurses and other essential workers.

At first, the tests would be held for critical personnel, but as more are produced, they’ll be available to the general public.

The article emphasizes that people who have the antibodies and are therefore inoculated can get back to work (and, implicitly, economically productive play).  Of course, knowing that they haven’t yet built up an immunity will also help people make decisions about how isolated to make themselves.

This news speaks to a question many families have surely had upon hearing that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has extended the ban on in-person schooling to May 4.  Isn’t that an unnecessarily pessimistic step?  Going forward, a vaccine would be the gold standard relief innovation, but that isn’t the only thing to watch for.  Means of treating the effects of the virus (not only for individuals, but also for hospitals to handle large numbers of cases) are also in the works, and broad availability of tests for live infections and immunity would be hugely helpful in managing the epidemic.

The entire world is focused on this disease.  We’ve already inculcated a sense of the importance of hygiene and social distancing, as well as a practice of self evaluation for symptoms.  If we improve our knowledge about who is infected and who is immune, while we reduce the worst effects for individuals and hospitals or limit the populations who might experience them, restrictions could ease sooner than expected.

Of course, in a situation like this, we shouldn’t count on such outcomes, but we should leave open the possibility.

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Decisions and Consequences in a Mortal Life

A Rhode Island family has a child with a disease that requires pretty significant daily treatments and an increased concern about illnesses like the flu.  After receiving the diagnosis, they increased their household emphasis on hygiene, cleanliness, exercise, and health and battled with tricky questions about longevity and quality of life.

When do you pull a child out of school?  What sort of activities can you no longer do?  Water parks might definitely be out, per the doctor, but what about trampoline parks and that sort of thing?  That is for each family to decide.

This year, the child is in a grade that traditionally takes an extended class field trip, which has been a source of anxiety for the parents for months, or even years.  The early weeks of attention to COVID-19 put a sharper point on that anxiety, and it was looking more and more likely that they would have to speak the difficult “no.”

In such circumstances, it might be natural for parents to feel a little bit of guilty relief when they don’t have to say, “no,” because the event itself is canceled.  But circumstances have moved well past that.  The final, decisive end of hope for the trip was closure of the century-old Rhode Island travel company that handled the arrangements from its Cumberland office.

The company opened its doors in 1926.  It survived the Great Depression, World War II, the stagflation of the 1970s, the dot-com bubble, and the Great Recession.  In the face of COVID-19, the announcement on the website of Conway Tours gives the impression that the owners have no plans to re-open or try to start things up again when the wave of this virus has passed.

Without doubt, travel agencies are uniquely vulnerable to the recession that we now face, but the survival of other businesses and industries that live a bit farther from the cliff’s edge will depend on how we, as a society, respond to the crisis. It’s still too early to know what the best response is, right now, but we have to remain mindful that none of our reactions is without a trade-off.

Recent public debates have renewed over the old conflict between security and freedom, but the question is deeper than that.  Civilizations have to make decisions that balance longevity and quality of life, too, because every life begins with a diagnosis of its end.  That is nothing new, and nothing unique to any given family.

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The Immediate Consequences of Rolling Panics

Today, the governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, began soliciting contributions of ordinary medical supplies (like masks) for healthcare workers.  That certainly sounds like a crisis sort of request, but with only 54 cases of Coronavirus in Rhode Island total (the great majority simply working through the illness at home), what caused it?  Well as early as January, Rhode Islanders were panic-buying such supplies.

That occurred to me for other reasons tonight.

While picking up some take-out dinner, I saw another customer showing around some sort of official-looking letter, and unless I misheard, somebody said, “Sounds like they’re expecting a lockdown.”  Perhaps you saw the news today that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker had to assert that he doesn’t, at this moment, have plans to order “a statewide lockdown” as New York and California have done.

Those assurances might not be as powerful as the fact that they had to be made.  In a way, we’re all like stock traders looking for hints about the intentions of the Federal Reserve Bank.  Sure, Baker said he doesn’t intend a lockdown today, but if that changes tomorrow, we’ll want to have been ahead of the curve.

And so, when my wife went to a Massachusetts supermarket tonight thinking Friday night preferable to Saturday morning for the regular grocery run, she found the store shockingly busy and surprisingly empty of supplies.  Whereas so far the panic buying had concentrated on toilet paper and other paper goods, now the shelves are being cleared of everything.

The empty shelves aren’t the most relevant consequence, though.  Right now, government officials have placed their bets on getting people to keep their distance so the virus doesn’t spread as quickly.  Yet, when people get the feeling that restrictions are about to be ramped up, their natural urge is to rush out and gather what they think they’ll need.  This brings crowds to a grocery store relatively late on a Friday night.

How many days of “social distancing” was undone in one evening of lock-down-suspicion panic shopping, we may never know (assuming that’s what was going on).  But maybe we can remind ourselves that our actions should be governed by reason, even if it serves personal and political interests to play on emotions.

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A Crisis-Related Lesson from Truckers

This story seems to me to be not only an important issue of its own accord, but also a good lesson in the dangers of government overreaction to crisis:

As the United States gradually shuts down in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the trucking and tire industry is appealing to the government to allow gas stations, rest stops, and repair facilities to remain open to keep deliveries rolling.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation, for example, shut down all of its rest areas and welcome centers to the public on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it agreed to reopen the parking lots at nearly half of them at the request of truckers and the Trump administration.

Other states are considering similar closures, officials said, to try to prevent the spread of the highly contagious virus and discourage people from traveling.

The government isn’t in an especially good position — and politicians aren’t particularly well suited — to foresee unintended consequences and adequately weight them on an individualized basis.  Ensure that the public is informed, and let people make their own decisions.  Those who exist in critical supply chains see their importance and will evaluate their own risk-reward balance.

Truckers’ stopping at rest stops is a particularly direct example, but the principle runs through our entire economy.

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Civility in the time of COVID-19 (And After)

Maybe it’s just me, but it’s beginning to seem like The Virus is actually beginning to reach into the world of Twitter, and with a positive effect.   The invective meter seems to have dipped, if only a little.

One suspects that the reprieve is only temporary, however.  Depending how the infection trends go, more and more Americans are likely to push back on an enforced cessation to economic activity.  People need to work; they need to earn money.  Even debt-funded handouts from the federal government can’t stop that need, especially if the initial hysteria begins to pass without having proven justified.  As that begins, people fired up for normalcy will clash with those still smoldering with concern about COVID-19.

This ebb and flow brings to mind Judith Bowman’s “Call for Civility” on the blog of the newly formed Rhode Island Women for Freedom & Prosperity:

Amidst our nasty divisive political climate, record immigration influx, an unprecedented global economy and dazzling high-tech toys designed to connect us, we have never been more divided, disorderly, disrespectful or disconnected.

Reality check. It’s time: to acknowledge what is happening to us as a country and as individuals, in our own families and at our dinner tables, in our workplaces and neighborhoods, sports arenas and playgrounds and know that we need to make conscious adjustments in attitude, conduct and behavior.   The way we treat and respond to each other needs to be brought back to the conversation. …

Thoughtfulness is contagious, always appreciated and does come back to you. Being thoughtful and actionable is a necessity today. We have a responsibility to step up, be a ‘warrior’ to help restore and re-engage the rules of social conduct by extending purposeful acts of kindness. Try it and watch the results in terms of quality work performance, team camaraderie and personal connections. Extend yourself in selfless ways and bask in the positive, contagious results.

Imagine if we all step out from under the shadow of the contagious illness now permeating the world — whether that takes weeks or months — intent on spreading a contagious thoughtfulness.  Not everybody will manage it; too many are invested in division and want the influence that they expect it to bring to them.  Too many profit from envy, wallow in pride, and fester with wrath.

But what if some large majority of us strive to take this global pause as an opportunity to adjust our attitudes?  If we do that, maybe we can move forward understanding that the hostility is a contagion, too, and calls for us to maintain some social distancing from it.

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The Importance of Sacrifice and Recognizing Differences

This bit of a letter from a young doctor puts a spotlight on one of the weaknesses of our modern culture.  Noting that healthcare workers are still going to be needed no matter what happens with this virus, he asks:

How can we be proactive about protecting our healthcare workers? To start, we need to consider protecting our older colleagues and those with certain preexisting medical conditions. We may even need to decide that only young and healthy doctors and nurses should be triaging and caring for these patients. I’m in. But is this discriminatory or putting too much risk on the young? I’m not sure.

Step out of our times for a moment, and this is an astonishing thing to read.  Not that long ago, it used to be expected that people would sacrifice for others.  Young people, in particular young men, would take risks for the whole community where strength and resilience were needed.  Heretical as it may be to acknowledge, this is so true that we seem to have evolved around the principle.

Yes, maybe that increased risk came with the compensation of some privileges and cultural encouragement, but trying to distribute such things without the prejudices of the past doesn’t have to mean discarding the ability to differentiate.

A society that doesn’t inspire its people to sacrifice will not last, and a grievance culture characterized by identity politics will not inspire anybody.

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If the Planners Planned the Medical System

As never-let-a-PANIC-go-to-waste grips the country, we’ve been hearing a lot of insistence that the epidemic proves the need for government-run healthcare.  Typically, this is merely offered as a Twitter-sized assertion, so there isn’t much specific to argue with.  (One suspects that’s by design.)

However, the talk about how our challenge is to keep the incidents within our health system’s capacity rang a bell: specifically, the talk about how the United States has insufficient hospital beds to deal with the potential influx of patients.  Here’s the bell, from a House Finance hearing in 2014 on legislation that would have increased the government’s role in Rhode Island health care.  This particular speaker is Steve Boyle, who was president of the Greater Cranston Chamber of Commerce, who was advocating for the bill, but the same thing could have been said by any of the supporters:

Boyle says the state needs a “coordinated approach.”  “We all know there’s too many hospital beds, but I’m told over and over again that there’s not the political will to close them.”

So, if they didn’t have to worry about “the political will,” the planners at that time would have reduced the number of beds. As it is, our more-socialized health system since Obamacare has overseen a reduction in staffed beds in Rhode Island from 2,535 in August 2012 to 2,424 in August 2018.  That 4.4% reduction means 111 fewer spots if there’s a surge.

Now, I’m not saying that the market is always right or that planners are always wrong, but they do take different things into consideration.  The market works by finding the value of a particular thing to the society in which it is operating, and that value will naturally adjust for subtler reasons than planners can possibly consider.  A culture can remember that its hospital beds filled up at some point in the distant past, while planners might not have the data or might dismiss it.

In times of panic don’t believe people who exploit current circumstances to pretend they would have been able to plan for them if they’d had more power.

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The Long Pursuit of Rights

So, you believe some government agency is violating your civil rights.  What do you do?  You file a civil rights lawsuit, you make the argument, a judge gives it some thought, and there you go.  Sounds simple, right?

Well, there’s a little more to it than that — time, not the least.

Back in November, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity partnered with the Liberty Justice Center (LJC) to challenge unconstitutional requirements for the disclosure of donors to issue advocacy organizations.  As the press release notes, “this invasive and unconstitutional law exposes citizens to possible retaliation and harassment for simply exercising their free speech rights.”

About a month ago, Rhode Island’s attorney general, Peter Neronha, filed a 20-page motion to dismiss the case.  And now a month later, as announced in another press release, the Center and LJC have submitted their response.

This is a long, drawn out process that leads one despairing of the capacity of the average citizen to defend his or her rights.  Lawyers must either be paid or convinced to donate their time, and those whose rights are being violated must simply live with it for months and years.

If that’s the process, then that’s the process, but it’d be much better for legislators to keep their constituents’ rights in mind when creating laws.

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The 2020 Rhode Island General Assembly Bill Tracker – A Handy Way to Track the G.A.

Are state lawmakers helping to make Rhode Island a better or worse place to raise a family and build a career?

With Rhode Island already ranking a dismal 47th on the Jobs & Opportunity Index and with the worst business climate in America, the Center tracks critical pieces for legislation making their way through the Rhode Island General Assembly and what they will do to your freedom.

We evaluate bills in terms of their likely effect on the free market, the size and scope of government, the balance of residents’ interests against those of public employees and beneficiaries, and the constitutional structure of a divided government with limited power over the people whom it represents.

It is the core tenet of the Center that with greater freedom comes greater prosperity, or conversely, as is the case in the Ocean State, that a continued loss of freedom leads to the type of economic stagnation that Rhode Islanders have suffered from over the past decade.

We encourage you to follow along with us as we track the 2020 General Assembly session. Click on the link here to see our 2020 Bill Tracker.

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Veterans of Government Error

How is it possible that people don’t look at stories like the problems at the Rhode Island Veterans Home — which are very common in the Ocean State and around the country — and conclude that the notion of ever-more government involvement in our lives is the wrong way to go?

The narrow doorways are one of many issues at the home fueling frustration among residents, families and employees. Expensive equipment goes unused, visually aesthetic rooms sit empty and the crown jewel – an eye-grabbing galley at the center of the home – has served more as a venue for lavish parties thrown by outside groups than as a central dining room for residents.

Multiple people told Target 12 that Veterans Home employees staffed at least some of those events, raising questions about whether taxpayer money went toward private parties held at a publicly funded nursing home for veterans.

If one were to evaluate this as a grant-funded project from a non-profit organization or something, the conclusion would have to be that the entity took on a project that it was not competent to complete.

Those things happen across the economy and in every sector, of course, but governments are the the one sector that can’t go out of business.  So why do we keep imagining that the same system will get the next great-sounding project done right?

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An Election About Suppressed Dislike

With Bernie Sanders’s front-runner status in the Democrat primary for president, political analysts are starting to contemplate the consequence on that race and on down-ticket races.  Many of us can’t help but see the parallel to Republicans’ predicament in 2016, when they were forced to grapple with their own discomfort with candidate Donald Trump.

This topic came up at the tail end of Republican Representative Michael Chippendale’s appearance on the Matt Allen Uncut podcast.  Chippendale’s position is that he’s uncomfortable with Trump, the man, but his policies have been positive.  That phrasing makes me think of Game of Thrones.

As a fan of the books years before the show was even a rumor, I was captivated by J.R.R. Martin’s character development and underlying themes.  Those aspects are what made the HBO series such an epic mega-hit, but its being HBO, they were delivered with a lot of gratuitous moral assaults, particularly with sex scenes in the earlier seasons.

Those of us who could have done without the moral challenges could still appreciate the writing, the story-telling, the themes, and the show-craft, but the question arises: At what point does the bad outweigh the good?  That’s an individual judgment concerning not only what we allow into our own brains, but also what we promote and normalize for others.  A Christian who emphasizes personal purity could still plausibly claim that the sex scenes do not rouse lust in his heart and that the combination of compelling art and cultural awareness make the risk worthwhile, but only for mature audiences.  As the famous question goes, who am I to judge whether what that person says about his feelings is true?

Just so with President Trump.  A good, moral conservative needn’t elevate Twitter etiquette and a history of boorish behavior into a litmus test that disqualifies the president from support no matter what he accomplishes.  The challenge is to make ourselves, and our society, better and more mature so as not to be affected by the negative.

Therein lies the distinction between President Trump and Bernie Sanders.  The objection to Trump is behavioral and related to insinuations about his motives, whereas the objection to Sanders is his history of anti-Americanism and dangerous policies.  That’s a problem of substance rather than style.  At best, that’s Game of Thrones without the gratuitous sex, but with an evil, dangerous theme.

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The Trick of “Move Forward”

A theme that emerged during Tiverton on Track Episode 13 was the tendency of government insiders to urge the public to “move forward” from the problems and mistakes of the past.  Depending on your perspective, it’s either a bug or a feature that this has the effect of making it more difficult to fix underlying problems.  (Probably because a major underlying problem is often the government insiders!)

In this episode, Donna Cook, Nancy Driggs, and I discuss ways in which local government can get a handle on things, including meetings in which not everybody has to agree.

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Christopher Maxwell: A Quick Cost Benefit Analysis for Tolls

The all-powerful director of the R.I. Department of Transportation, Peter Alviti, has invoked the authority granted to him by Gov. Gina Raimondo and General Assembly to double the toll rate at Oxford Street overpass. The increase is justified by a nebulous, internally-concocted cost-benefit formula.

I am reminded of the very telling testimony of one Mike Riley, my friend and the former head of the Connecticut Motor Truck Association, who joined us in opposition to RhodeWorks before the House Finance Committee back in 2015.

He stated: “Methinks your director protests too much. He wants way too much authority and you ought not give it to him. You ought to stop. You ought to think about this. Remember the highway intersection sign: Stop, look and listen.”

With the General Assembly’s self-proclaimed “firewall” against car tolls currently taking on water, the recently-announced move by RIDOT to “nationalize” the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority, and this latest toll increase maneuver, I urge Rhode Islanders to “stop, look and listen.”

Methinks (MeKnows) you are next on the establishment’s “cost-benefit” menu. After all, the formula is very simple: your cost will always be to their benefit.

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Behind the Deterioration and the Hostility

Members of the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) are finding a single cause behind many of the problems and controversies going on in town.  The guest for episode 12 of the Tiverton on Track podcast is Richard Rom, who is on the board of the Tiverton Library and who is the chairman of the Tiverton Republican Town Committee (TRTC).

Richard’s appointment to the library board generated a lot of heat last year, because he came from a different perspective than the other members.  That was exactly the reason the majority of the Town Council supported him, and now he’s offering suggestions as the board figures out how to address maintenance issues and the contents of the library.

Meanwhile, a group of men who have been supporters of a faction heretofore hostile to the TRTC have suddenly registered as Republicans and have begun to attend its meetings.  A big tent and conversations are great, but somehow they bring the air of a hostile takeover, rather than of an intent to build on shared values.

The single cause between these and other controversies is the sense among some in town that people who disagree with them should be locked out not only of decisions, but of institutions where they might feel comfortable.

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The Governor’s Conflicting Projects

Rhode Island’s Democrat governor, Gina Raimondo, has been pledging to do “whatever is needed” for a lot of people who aren’t Rhode Islanders, lately.  First she became one of six co-chairs of a new PAC called “Organizing Together 2020.”  As she says, “good organizing takes time.”  The she became a co-chair of Mike Bloomberg’s campaign for president, another national political effort that is not focused on Rhode Island.

Rhode Islanders might wonder what they’re paying her for.  We should also worry about what we’re paying her for.

After all, her fellow activists in Organizing Together are in large part labor unions:

The group includes labor unions — Service Employees International Union, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — and a collection of progressive advocacy groups including Planned Parenthood Votes, the Color of Change PAC, the NAACP and VoteVets, according to a news release.

One of the major challenges of the remaining years of her gubernatorial administration is going to be the improvement of Providence schools.  The state has taken over the district; the governor has hired a new education commissioner; and the commissioner has hired a new superintendent.  Whether the officials involved will admit it publicly or not, this project is going to require pressure to be put on the teachers union.  How does that play out when the governor has made common cause with their national organizations?  How can the families of Providence trust that she’s fully on their side as their governor?

As for the Bloomberg move, what’s notable is the focus on career moves.  The promise of a local campaign office for a presidential candidate who is a billionaire many times over gives the governor jobs to hand out out to allies… jobs that have nothing to do with governing Rhode Island.  And the responsibilities of a national campaign co-chair will give the governor reason to be outside the state, networking and building her brand in key battleground states that aren’t Rhode Island.

Again the question arises:  Does Gina Raimondo want to end her terms as governor on a high note from the perspective of the people of Rhode Island, or from the perspective of an ambitious career-building politician?

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The Gambling Giants Make Nice-Nice

Just a short while ago, Rhode Islanders were treated to a refreshing opportunity to see our system of government work the way it should.  With one of the two major managers of the state’s gambling line of business challenging a no-bid deal the governor had worked out with the other, it looked like the Ocean State might benefit from an open-bid process bringing in competing proposals and driving down the cost of the contract and/or the benefits to Rhode Islanders.

Oh, well.  Twin River and IGT have teamed up to present unified front to the state government:

If the proposed agreement is approved by lawmakers and state gambling regulators, Twin River would evolve from a casino-operating company to one that provides video-slot machines, giving it a large source of the revenue now going to out-of-state game manufacturers and suppliers.

International Game Technology would emerge as 60% shareholder of the new company, with a clearer shot at winning the 20-year contract it has been seeking from the state, without Twin River executives — and the big-name gaming industry players that Twin River had lined up as potential partners in a rival bid — nipping at its heels. Twin River would have a 40% stake.

And as if to capture the full circuit of issues that have illustrated Rhode Island’s flawed approach to government and economic development, Twin River has pledged to open up a new headquarters in the Wexford Innovation Complex, a recent addition to Providence that the governor has huge incentive to see filled with tenants.

Republican candidate, lawyer, and historian Steven Frias has it right when he says, in the first linked article above: “This deal does not automatically become a good one for taxpayers because IGT and Twin River will now be business partners.”

We benefit from competition, whether it’s political parties or private vendors for state, and we shouldn’t assume that it’s a good thing when they work together.

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Corruption as a Means of Survival and as a Weapon

As the subpoenas fly and the investigation continues into the unseemly air surrounding the Convention Center Authority and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s call for an audit, we’re stuck in a moment of intense interest but little information.  That gives us a chance to look for broader lessons.

One recurring theme with Mattiello is that his “friends” and allies keep popping up in a conspicuously connected way.  So, the former Authority employee whose suspension allegedly sparked the audit as payback, James Demers, is often called “a Mattiello friend.”  The head of the Joint Committee for Legislative Services (JCLS) who has been subpoenaed is “Mattiello friend” Frank Montanaro, Jr.  And when the offices of JCLS were suddenly cleaned out, ostensibly to address a mold problem, a company called Single Source, owned by Mattiello associate Jack Pomeranz, did the work.

An argument sometimes advanced by people seeking to justify Buddy Cianci’s activities comes to mind:  In a corrupt environment, those in power have a reason to cultivate a network of people they can trust… which starts to look like corruption.  A line exists somewhere between filling offices with people who’ll help you deal with the corrupt system and giving out patronage jobs to friends who bring nothing to the table.  The point at which an official crosses that line is not always clear, and it can move depending on the individuals and the circumstances.  We’re talking something more like a battlefield, where natural and strategic considerations may suggest rough boundaries, than a football field, where the lines are so clear that a toe can make a difference.

Of course, because the line is not clear, allegations of corruption can become a weapon even when not justified.  We have some experience with that in Tiverton.  When reform-minded residents (including this writer) claimed a majority of the council, cries of (and lies about) corruption became commonplace.  There was never any evidence, but the accusation was thrown around on social media and even statewide TV.  The slender hooks were that the council hired a solicitor whom we knew would not undermine us, but just explain the law, and appointed a resident with a different view than the establishment to the library board.

At the same time that we keep an eye out for corruption and hold officials accountable, we do need to be careful about being misled by accusations about it.

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Promising the World to Sell the Policy

A couple things should be observed about the claims of RI Department of Environmental Management Deputy Director Terrence Gray on State of the State, recently.

Mr. Gray was on the show to talk about the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI).  That’s a proposed regional organization that our state government wants to permit to tax gasoline to create a slush fund for projects that can fit under the “green” umbrella.

The definition of the “tax” is the first observation that must be made.  At one point, Mr. Gray insists that TCI is not a new gas tax, but then he proceeds to describe the mechanism by which the tax is implemented.  It reminds me of an old Remi song about cap-and-trade schemes:

It sounds like cap and trade is a tax we pay then
No sir, cap and trade is just a regulation

See tax is when there’s money spent
this is just a fee to the government

With TCI, the new regional government artificially limits gasoline production and distribution, forcing companies to bid for “allowances.”  The profit from these bids goes to government.  It’s a tax.

Which brings us to the spending part of the equation.  The other important observation one can make from Mr. Gray’s commentary is that he tried to sell the new tax on a wide variety of great things that could be done with the money, when obviously, it can’t go to everything.  So, when convenient, he’ll talk about spending it on public transportation… or charging stations for private cars… or some sort of dividend or fund to offset the new costs for residents.  Until there’s a written plan, it’s possible to say that the money will do any number of wonderful things.

If we look to the spending of the similar Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which covers energy production with a regional cap-and-trade scheme, we can get some sense of what actually happens.  Maybe early on the money is used to offset something in the costs to average Rhode Islanders, but inevitably, the funds drift toward government, whether solar for municipalities, buses for RIPTA, or similar programs.

Those may or may not be worthwhile projects, but one suspects it would be a harder sell if it were made clear that TCI is, yes, just another tax to fund government activities, which ought to be funded already if they’re good ideas, given the amount we already pay for government.

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Redistricting Toward a People’s Convention

When an initiative like this moves through the news cycle, I find myself wondering what workaday Rhode Islanders think of it:

Common Cause Rhode Island is asking state lawmakers to support a constitutional amendment to create an independent redistricting commission, rather than continuing to allow the legislature to create the commission and fill most seats with incumbent legislators.

This would be an important change to Rhode Island’s civic structure, but how many voters will find out about this legislation, and how many of them will know what it means (or bother to find out)?

Then there’s the path Common Cause is taking.  The bills in question are H7260 and S2077, and if either passes and is signed into law, the legislature and governor would ask voters in November if we want to modify the state constitution to take the power of setting up their own district lines away from legislators.    It seems obvious, but it also seems impossible.  After all, the assumption is that we cannot trust lawmakers to oversee the redistricting, so why would we pursue a plan that relies on the same lawmakers to change the rules that allow them to do that.

What’s needed is to back off the request one step more.  Ask the legislators to put a people’s convention on the ballot, as allowed under our state constitution.  Then a world of possibilities will open, including changing how we draw our legislative districts.  Voters could more readily understand the value of reviewing the constitution, and the people elected to the convention would more readily take the time to understand redistricting.

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A Surprisingly Unknown Raimondo Pension Story

Reading Edward Siedle’s recent Forbes column, which is the text of a speech that he gave to a “Rally for Pension Justice,” involving the Rhode Island Retired Teachers Association, one can’t help but wonder why his claim isn’t more widely known around the state:

In 2007, Rhode Island current governor and former state treasurer, Gina Raimondo was a co-founder and partner in a very small local venture capital firm with very little money under management and a very short investment track record.

Miraculously, Gina succeeded in convincing the $8 billion state pension to invest $5 million in a brand new fund her nascent, unproven firm was offering called the Point Judith Venture Fund II.

According to Siedle, that one deal grew Point Judith’s portfolio by 33%, but the state considered the investment reasonable because the firm “had a billionaire hedge fund investor in New York backstopping” it.  Then, the state gave Point Judith a 2.5% fee, even though the sales presentation only asked for 2%, which is the industry standard.

There’s more.  Per Siedle, Point Judith gave Raimondo an ownership interest in the pension investment, with a $125,000 minimum payout per year, no matter how the fund did.  That revelation puts a much different light on the annual story we hear about Point Judith extending its contract with the pension fund without the state’s consent due to secret provisions allowing its investors to do so.

How is this not a regularly revisited investigative story in the Rhode Island press?  Granted Siedle was talking to a very interested crowd and telling them something sure to keep their interest, but he’s a credible guy in this area.  After all, the article appeared in Forbes.

Maybe the layers of secrecy and PR professionals, combined with the specialized knowledge to investigate it, move this down local reporters’ to-do list, especially given the flagging journalism industry, which can afford fewer and fewer specialized investigators.  (I’ll admit to being unable to devote time to the story, myself.)  Whatever the mechanism, though, it seems as if a healthy civic environment would somehow get this story into the awareness of more Rhode Islanders.

There’s something very similar between this story and the conspicuously timed clean-out of the JCLS offices just as the Speaker of the House is under fire for that agency’s activities.  That’s easier to speculate about, though, because white-collar schemes aren’t as easily understood.

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Complaints and Interference

The pervasive theme throughout Tiverton on Track Episode 11 (stream below) is that a lack of transparency and a lack of respect for confidentiality when it is justified mix to create tension in a community.  That’s the case whether somebody elsewhere in the state tweets a detail out of supposedly confidential contract negotiations or the leadership of the Town Council attempts to resolve a community disagreement the way they want it resolved by keeping the details out of public view.

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Iowa Caucuses and UHIP

The campaign manager for President Donald Trump, Brad Parscale, offered a take on the Democrats’ Iowa caucus troubles that probably occurred simultaneously to just about every conservative in the country:

And these are the people who want to run our entire health care system?

A point often gets lost in all the jockeying for control of the American narrative.  When we object to this program or that one, conservatives aren’t typically opposing government-driven solutions regardless of whether they’ll work.  On the flip side, we also aren’t typically saying that the certainty of a fix can always overcome principled objections based on a philosophy of how government should function.

Rather, the conservative position tends to be that, for any given issue, the trade offs are not sufficiently clear, the benefits are not sufficiently certain, and side effects are so excessively probable that humility should be the underlying principle.

The debacle of the 2020 Iowa caucus should be more proof than anybody needs of this principle.  It’s not as if this was the first time Iowa Democrats have caucused, but now (regardless of the reason) there will be lingering doubts about the process, including discord between factions that suspect some sort of political scheme.

To be sure, government and political parties will naturally handle elections-related activities, but they don’t have to handle things like healthcare.  Look at experience with the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP).  When bureaucrats committed Rhode Island to the scheme during the Chafee administration, they had wide eyes about “one-stop shopping” for government services.  When they rushed ahead with a system that they’d been warned was not ready, no doubt the Raimondo administration was hoping for some sort of PR win.  And we got… a debacle.

This isn’t a claim that Democrats are especially incompetent, but that our political system creates incentives and risks that should advise a strong preference for handling society’s challenges through other institutions than government.

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When Every Conversation Is a Labor Fight in Warwick

A familiar subject floated through Rhode Island’s news cycle again last week when Warwick schools Superintendent Philip Thornton reported to his city’s school committee that the district should do something about teacher absenteeism:

Two schools — Wyman Elementary and E.G. Robertson Elementary — have chronic absenteeism rates of 24.4 percent and 22.7 percent, respectively. Chronic teacher absenteeism is defined as missing 18 days or more of school out of a typical 180-day school year.

Two more schools — Oakland Beach Elementary and Sherman Elementary — have rates above 20 percent.

In the 2018-2019 school year, more than 11 percent of all Warwick teachers — 100 teachers — were chronically absent, Thornton said, using data from the Rhode Island Department of Education. That said, more than a third of all teachers — 312 — missed less than five percent of school.

This isn’t just some hobby horse on which the superintendent wanted to beat for some reason.  He raised the issue because teacher attendance is part of the formula that the RI Department of Education (RIDE) uses to grade the Ocean State’s schools.  Looking for some means of holding our education system accountable (without actually changing anything), the state has developed metrics, and the chief executive of an organization has strong incentive to have his metrics look good.

We’re used to these spats, around here, but it’s worth stepping back a moment and plainly noting what is going on.  The superintendent has identified a metric on which he believes the district can make improvements, and the relevant labor union, the Warwick Teachers’ Union, led by Darlene Netcoh, called out the troops and ramped up the objections, staking out ground for the fight.  Some teachers have to work until 67, she says, which drives up the sick time, as if Rhode Islanders in the private sector have anywhere near the days off that government-school teachers get.  Netcoh also attacked the numbers themselves.

Big picture, our elected and appointed officials have to be able to discuss ideas big and small, and they won’t feel as free to do that if every comment or proposal might begin the gears of the labor-unrest machine.  In the private sector, management can discuss things and make plans before a possible dispute is placed in the open.  In the public sector, only the unions have that privilege.

If we want open, transparent government, then we need some social (or legal) pressure on the labor unions to back off.

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The Starting Foot of the New Superintendent

There’s been something odd about the introduction of the new superintendent for the now-state-run Providence Schools.  The absence of Mayor Jorge Elorza from the public introduction of Harrison Peters was inexplicable.  The first Providence Journal article following that introduction, by union-friend Linda Borg as well as Madeleine List, starts with technical details about the district and the hire and then jumps to: “In Hillsborough County, where he is currently chief of schools, Peters has critics and his admirers.”  The following details are much heavier from the “critics.”

And then there’s general emphasis on the fact that Providence appears to have been his second choice, after having not been chosen for a promotion to Hillsborough County superintendent, while he was “at least” the second choice of Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green, after her first offer fell through.

Talk about starting a new leader off on a negative footing!

Of course, nobody should simply be rah-rah, but the whole thing seems a bit like a typical Rhode Island self-fulfilling prophesy.  From reformers’ perspective there is certainly reason for hope.  After all, Peters touts “that he played an important part in lowering the number of ‘F’ schools in the district by 60 percent, decreasing the student suspension rate by 35 points, adding 10 ‘A’ schools and helping 15 schools improve from ‘D’ to ‘C.'”

Being from a state with some of the strongest school-choice programs in the country, he’ll bring with him knowledge of the tools Florida provides to administrators and families.

One does wonder whether some of the indifference and negativity that appears to surround his hiring indicates that Rhode Island insiders are setting the battleground to get their way knowing what he might conclude and advise.

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Convention Center Controversy: Heads They Win, Tails You Lose

If you’ve been around government and politics in Rhode Island for a while, you probably know people who’ve been audited at conspicuous times… like after having spoken up publicly about some issue.  This may be part of the reason ripples of excitement have followed indications that Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello of Cranston might be caught red-handed flipping the switch on the familiar weapon.

Particularly intriguing is the way those ripples have caused turmoil among people and entities that tend to unite around good-government issues.  Thus, as Mattiello claims to be targeting the Convention Center Authority with an audit to fix what former Republican House Minority Leader and gubernatorial candidate Patricia Morgan calls “a poorly run, incompetently managed building [that] works as a favor factory,” we get current House Minority Leader Blake Filippi filing a lawsuit claiming that Mattiello abused his influence over the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS) to order the audit, followed by the Providence Journal editorial board, led by Ed Achorn, belittling the Republican’s suit as “partisan animosity.”

If the good guys are tripping over each other, the bad guys have wind at their backs.  The Convention Center has rejected the audit and called for an investigation of Mattiello by the State Police, which has lost some of its objective luster in recent years for seeming to align too eagerly with Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo, who has (1) given indications that she sees Mattiello as an obstacle and (2) proven her intent to use political means to advance her agenda through the legislature (including, for example, raising campaign funds to go after legislators at the ballot box).

Interested observers face that old puzzle about whether the enemy of your enemy is your friend.  Do good government forces benefit by helping a progressive governor knock out the more-conservative speaker, or by turning a blind eye to what might be raw corruption on his part?

Why everybody can’t be right?  Yes, the Convention Center should be audited.  Yes, the whole JCLS should meet and take action in a transparent fashion.  Yes, it’s worth having some agency look into whether use of the legislature’s auditing power is being abused. Yes, we should be suspicious that a politicized State Police might serve the governor’s political interest.

This is how divided government is supposed to work, making it in everybody’s interest to seek leverage against the others.  The problem is that state government in RI is so one-sided that it’s always “heads they win, tails you lose.”

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Rhode Island Brakes on the American Dream

In today’s Providence Journal, I contrast the difference between national economic policies and what we put up with in the Ocean State:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Making America great, making Rhode Island worse. Facing the real world, living in a pretend world.

The contrast could not be more striking. Recently in Davos, Switzerland, despite impeachment distractions, President Trump systematically laid out America’s successful roadmap to unprecedented freedom and prosperity, with trillions in investment dollars and a flood of companies choosing to repatriate to America.

Conversely, Rhode Island’s political class follows a government-centric command-and-control approach, resulting in the worst business climate in the nation as well as economic and educational stagnation that is forcing families and businesses to choose to flee our state.

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Trying to Keep Perspective on Local Politics

In President Trump’s economic speech in Davos, he attributes the recent economic strength of the United States to policies that put “the American worker” at their center.  Agree or disagree with the president (from any of the angles at which it would be possible to do so), he raises an important point.  We tend to get caught up in our preferred solutions or our own interests, to the detriment of our causes and our communities.

Listening to episode 10 of the Tiverton on Track podcast from the Tiverton Taxpayers Association, titled “Living in (And Budgeting for) a Community,” one hears that theme sneak in repeatedly.