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The “Let Me Outta Here” State

Things are getting so hopeless in Venezuela that young go-getters trained for high-prestige jobs are going… to get low-level jobs in nearby countries:

After six years of studying and working part-time jobs, Cristian Diaga, 24, will soon graduate from medical school in Caracas, Venezuela. But instead of continuing his training in a top hospital in the country, as he had hoped, he is taking a job in a fast-food restaurant in Argentina – a situation he says is much more preferable. …

More than half of Venezuelans between 15 and 29 want to move abroad permanently, according to a poll carried out by the US firm Gallup and shared exclusively with the Guardian.

“In Venezuela, it feels like we are all just dying slowly and there’s no hope for a change. I don’t care if I’m gonna work as a doctor or not. I just want to have food, medicines, security, a house, a car, and be able to give a good life to my loved ones,” he says.

Regarding the population as a whole, a 2017 Gallup poll found that 41% of Venezuelans would like to move away permanently.

As it happens, 41% is also the result Gallup found in 2016 for the percentage of Rhode Islanders who would like to leave the state.  That was a slight improvement from the result from the same poll in 2014, although the Ocean State fell from 5th worst to 4th worst.

As I noted regarding the earlier finding, the comparison isn’t really fair.  After all, states with more opportunity are close and easy to move to and, therefore, probably more tantalizing.  Moreover, I’d wager that more than 41% of Venezuelans would jump at the chance to move to Rhode Island.

But still.  Only 22% of New Hampshire residents want out (8th best).

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An Obvious (But Insufficient) Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

Isn’t it strange that there should even have to reforms like this?

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, signed into law a forfeiture reform bill last week that will require law enforcement officials to obtain a criminal conviction before permanently taking a person’s cash or property, making Wisconsin the 15th state to do so.

The law is intended to address the controversial practice of civil asset forfeiture, a common legal maneuver that allows police to seize and keep cash, real estate and other property from people suspected of criminal activity, regardless of whether those people are convicted. …

Nationwide, forfeiture actions amount to a huge transfer of property and wealth from private people to government agencies. At the federal level alone, asset seizures topped $5 billion in 2014, greater than the amount of property lost to burglary. The inspector general of the Justice Department last year found that since 2007, the Drug Enforcement Administration alone took more than $3 billion in cash from people who were never charged.

The article, from the Washington Post, goes on to suggest that even this sort of reform is not enough, given the loopholes.  For instance, the requirement for those whose property has been taken to file a complaint and go to court creates a large disincentive in cost and convenience.  A person who had his or her money confiscated while passing through a distant state might not find it worthwhile to pursue the matter.

Still, some reform is better than none, in this case.  Ideally, legislation would require the confiscating agency to pro-actively return the property, and that shouldn’t be a difficult addition unless, of course, the practice is more a money maker than a law enforcement tool.

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A Progressive Plan to Give Workers Rights They Already Have

A couple of weeks ago, I expressed support for the notion of employees’ becoming owners of their workplaces, suggesting that the best way forward was to remove government barriers to their doing so.  As WPRI’s Ted Nesi notes on Twitter, progressive Democrat Representative Aaron Regunberg of Providence has a hearing today on his legislation to, as Nesi puts it with reference to Benny’s, give employees “the right to buy the retailer and turn it into a worker-owned co-op, rather than let it shut down.”

Reading the bill, however, I can’t see that it really does much of anything.  When employers are about to take an action that requires them to notify the federal government about a substantial layoff, the state Department of Labor and Training (DLT) would remind the employees that buying their workplace is an option.

The employees would then take a vote on whether to buy the company.  If the vote succeeds, then any employees who are interested would form an entity in order to buy it.  If the vote fails… well… I guess any employees who are interested in buying the company would do exactly the same thing.  In either case, the employer can decline to sell.  In other words, the bill does nothing but give a politician another talking point about supporting “working Rhode Islanders.”

Of course, because it is so ineffectual, one suspects that this legislation would be the foundation for an incremental change that activists think wouldn’t have chance if pushed into law all at once.  In a few years, progressives might argue that too many owners are unwilling to sell for the price that employees are able to pay and remove their ability to say “no thanks.”  Or maybe a state bank would come along, and these sorts of buy-outs would explicitly be given preferential treatment for loans.

Considering the origin of the bill, the safest bet for Rhode Island would be for the General Assembly simply to let it fade away.  In the meantime, we should reinforce a simple truth that progressives seem to want people to forget:  We already have inalienable rights that come from a higher place than the State House, and we don’t need government to step in and claim to be creating them for us, as if from nothing.

After all, if government can grant a group the right to buy a company, it can remove another group’s right to do the same.

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What’s in a Word or Pronoun?

One thing I never could understand as hysteria over The N-Word became mainstream was why people let the word have any power over them.  Basically, granting it power implies some mixture of two assumptions:

  1. That it has some power over white people, in an irresistible call to racist arms, as if uttering the word leaves us with no personal agency and no choice but to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who share our hue.
  2. That it points to a real inferiority that we must perpetually pretend doesn’t exist for moral reasons.

Neither of these propositions is true, but at least one must be assumed for the n-word to have any power.  Either it must have an effect on other people’s actions, or it must have an effect on the listener him or her self, bringing to mind something like an actual handicap, as if uttering it shatters an illusion of self worth.  In the absence of the mindless mob, the obvious cure is confidence in one’s self worth and denial of the word’s power, not fixation on it.

Something similar seems to be going on with the not-yet-mainstream hysteria over misgendering, only in an inverse sort of way.  The n-word shouldn’t have power because the implied inferiority is, in fact, the illusion, and giving the word power gives force to something that isn’t real.  An undesired pronoun does have power because the presumed identity is the illusion, and it loses its force if others don’t acknowledge it.

Whether we should bend to the demands of identity politics in this case depends on whether morality requires the illusion, which would cut against the better part of philosophical thought, including Christianity.  Only the Truth can be morally binding.  The most insidious imposition of recent faddish philosophy is its holding that other people can define their own truths and make them morally binding on everybody else.

Thus, we’ve come around to the use of the word “bigot” as the latest power word, perversely defined as somebody who holds to objective reality despite somebody else’s assertions.  Unsurprisingly, we see the word given its force through the use of mobs.

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Toward Colleges That Are More than Indoctrination Hubs

Recent events at Providence College came to mind when I read this paragraph from a Rod Dreher post:

By the way, it’s not simply a matter of ideologically capturing areas of scholarship. The SJWs are now marching through student affairs offices. Patricia Daugherty writes at The Federalist about the annual convention of ACPA, the American College Personnel Association: College Student Educators International. This is the professional organization for campus administrators who oversee student life. She recently retired from a long career in the field, and says she always looked forward to going to this convention. Times. Have. Changed.

During recent controversy at (Roman Catholic) Providence College, involving an RA who came under attack for putting up a bulletin board promoting the Catholic teachings on marriage, hostility to the Church’s teachings found succor with Vice President for Student Affairs Kristine Cyr Goodwin.  The student affairs administrator clearly leaned toward the side of criticizing the RA and supporting those who’d reacted aggressively toward him.  At an event endorsing alternative lifestyles, she initiated a “we’re queer, we’re here” chant, as audible on a recording reviewed by The Current.

Thus, the overall impression of the controversy was of some professors and representatives of the Church (including the bishop) taking the RA’s side, administrators taking the other side, and the college president attempting to find the middle ground.  Objectively, in this situation, the administrators are radicalizing the school, which most students probably do not attend in order to be radicalized.

As that dynamic becomes increasingly pervasive, it changes the nature of higher education.  Colleges should be more than simply white collar trade schools, but they should also be more than hubs for the indoctrination of young adults.

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Farmland Subsidies and a Bad Trade in the Economic Ecology

In late summer 2016, I looked into the state government’s program, then under development, to purchase farmland and distribute it to small-time farmers (see here and here).  Well, Jennifer McDermott reports for the Associated Press that the program is now getting underway, emphasizing that the “entrepreneurial” farmers can buy the property for about one-fifth of what the state pays.

The National Farmers Union knows of no other state that buys farmland to sell to farmers at less than market price. Other states give tax credits and loans to beginning farmers.

Though some critics say this is not the role of state government, Rhode Island sees it as a way to keep young entrepreneurs from moving to other states, where land may be cheaper. It also could attract other farmers to the state, though retaining farmers who already are here is the main goal and the selection process favors Rhode Island farmers.

These points don’t make sense.  If other states don’t offer these benefits, farmers won’t find much-cheaper land for quite some distance, creating a pretty high barrier in order to up and leave.

More importantly, allocating resources to this activity — not only in the purchase price, but in the effect of preventing more-efficient usage of the land — implicitly makes somebody else’s activity more difficult.  On the hill down which excrement rolls, that “somebody” is more likely to be some other variation of entrepreneur trying to scrape resources together.

To keep the boutique farmer, in other words the state government may ultimately (although invisibly) be dismissing the office-based innovator with some hot technology of the future.  Given the geography and soil of the area, such a trade means playing to the Ocean State’s weaknesses, not its strengths.

And farmers aside, which Rhode Islanders does this policy benefit?  I’d suggest that the answer is relatively wealthy people who like the aesthetics of having nearby farms and purchasing local produce.  Those are aesthetics that I share, but our community (and economy) would be much better served by having it expressed in actual prices for produce.  Subsidizing local farms to keep the prices down creates higher prices for something we can’t see.

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Objection to UHIP on the Surface and Conceptually

The court-appointed “special master” tasked with getting Rhode Island’s Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP) working, Deming Sherman, tells Kate Nagle of GoLocalProv that the system is flawed:

“It (UHIP) was not a bad idea, but bad execution,” said Sherman about UHIP. The good idea of UHIP was to tie five distinct programs together, but the flaws have been that the vendor, Deloitte and the workforce did not work and were not trained, respectively. Just as the UHIP program was being implemented the state laid off key workers. Since then DHS has had a difficult time training and retain workers for the program.

Sherman said the UHIP system has two problems technology and the workforce that operates it.

The surface reaction one has to this is to be incensed that the state government has already spent roughly a half-billion dollars on the system.  Nobody forced state government to undertake a project that it was not competent to oversee.  In fact, the state barely conducted public discussion before jumping in.  Bureaucrats under former Democrat Governor Lincoln Chafee simply went forward as if it was the obvious thing to do.

Similarly, nobody forced Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo to manage her personnel under the assumption that flipping the switch on UHIP would instantly bring a new day.  She took a big, big gamble, attempting to make budgetary room for other things, like her crony capitalist approach to economic development, and the state’s vulnerable populations have suffered for it.

More deeply, though, we should challenge Sherman’s statement that the concept was sound.  The goal of UHIP, which was pushed down from activists at the national level (with the encouragement of Democrat Congressman David Cicilline), is to draw people into dependency on government.  The system has the 40-page application about which Sherman complains in part because the designers want it to collect scads of information about people, which would be constantly updated on the pretense of regularly checking eligibility.

If it weren’t for the human suffering and loss of opportunity that it’s causing, we should actually be happy that UHIP isn’t working, which is a sad statement on the condition of our democracy.  Being saved from insidious ideas by managerial incompetence is not a silver lining that ought to inspire confidence or hope.

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A State-Run Bank in RI: The Ocean State Shavings and Cronies

Progressives in Rhode Island, with potential gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown the latest among them, have been floating the idea of a state-run bank for a few years.  Cato Institute Fellow Walter Olson expressed some thoughts on the question in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.

The concerns are manifold.  For one thing, government-run banks “succeed, if they do, because of unfair advantages.”  (And if they fail, look for them to receive more advantages at others’ expense.)  Because they’re fundamentally political in nature, they also tend to allocate their resources with less concern for sound investments than private banks must.

Referring specifically to his state of concern, Olson writes:

A State Bank of New Jersey would be unlikely to content itself with the predictable and repetitive lending that goes on in an agriculture-and-extraction economy like North Dakota’s. It would inevitably turn into a Favor Bank for politicos hoping to lure subsidized jobs from the more vibrant cities of New York and Philadelphia. Once the initial buzz of idealism passed, it would become a tempting honey pot for the corrupt politicians for which New Jersey is famous.

Rhode Island has a similar fame, along with a newly minted reputation for institutional incompetence — along with a not-so-newly-minted history involving organized crime and a banking crisis.  Frankly, Rhode Islanders should find it unsettling that anybody of influence could look at the socio-political landscape of the Ocean State — with Crimetown, 38 Studios, the UHIP debacle, Deepwater Wind, unfunded pensions, one-party rule, regular investigative reports showing public-sector malfeasance, and all the rest — and conclude that what we really need is another way to shuffle money around.

With the prospect of a state-run savings and loan operation, one suspects insiders are waiting in the wings to do business at the Ocean State Shavings and Cronies, but if the rest of us fall for it, the smart investment would be in local U-Haul operations.

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Always Record Revenue, Always a Shortfall

Doesn’t it always seem that government spending goes up and up, and yet officials always claim it’s not enough?  Andrew Malcolm notes that… umm… paradox on HotAir:

According to the Census Bureau, last year alone state and local governments collected a record $573 billion just in property taxes. That’s about $1,759 for each one of the estimated 326 million Americans.

Add to that another record — $386.2 billion — in sales and gross receipts taxes.

And another $405 billion in income taxes.

That’s almost $1.4 TRILLION. Quite a haul for governments. And yet, as the Wall Street Journal reports (subscription), state and local governments are hiking taxes and fees even more, claiming budget crunches.

The bottom line, I’d say, is that we’re just trying to undertake too much of our society’s activity using government.  Even if they are supremely capable and well meaning, those in the public sector are given broad goals and also have to factor in institutional sclerosis and corruption.

Because the goals are both mandated by law and generally unbound by targets or metrics, resources will always be drawn away from their intended use.  And because the people who supply the resources aren’t typically the first beneficiaries of the programs and don’t really have a choice on an individual basis, the business model must be to find ways to pry out more.  The paying customer isn’t being persuaded that he or she should spend more for something, but rather, is being told that government has no choice but to take it.

It’s difficult to imagine an activity in which these features would actually make things happen more efficiently, so they should be considered an inevitable drag outweighed by some other problem, like free riding when it comes to national defense.  At this point, our sense of that balance is way out of whack.

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The Changing Raison D’Etre of Organized Labor

Gail Heriot takes the birthday of labor hero Cesar Chavez as an opportunity to point out a change in union activities since Chavez’s heyday:

Things are different now. Instead of focusing on their members’ wages as the bottom line, union leaders are often unwavering in their support for the leftist party line. It’s about political power. In order to gain or keep it, they seek to keep the coalition together, even if it means sacrificing the short-term good of their own members. Fight global warming. Support abortion rights. Honor same-sex marriage. Elect Democrats. Any of those may or may not be good policy. But none is directly the concern of farmworkers as farmworkers.  Somehow union leaders have to believe that in the long run their members will be better off by maintaining the coalition.

The problem with this strategy is that it’s so easy to lose sight of the people you are supposed to be representing. The thinking gets very complex. It gets easy to confuse policies that benefit union leaders (or just make them happy) with policies that benefit union members.   One can always come up with a story about why the policies you personally favor will, in the long run, benefit the rank-and-file members too. Sometimes it’s just wishful thinking.  Keeping the goal simple is a better guarantee that the fiduciary will remain loyal to the beneficiaries’ interests.

One wonders about such things often, in Rhode Island, where the labor unions (particularly government labor unions) seem to be behind every left-wing cause, not only through support but also through funding.  Does every public school teacher in Rhode Island, for example, support the full range of their union’s activities?  The prospect seems… implausible.

Indeed, this changing attitude — with unions’ seeming to treat labor services as the fundraising mechanism for their real purpose of progressive activism — may be a big contributor to opposition to unions.  It may also be a big factor leading to the Supreme Court’s pending ruling on compulsory union membership.

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The Flawed Thinking of a #10kPaysTheWay Policy

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has found its Bad Bill of the Week in Pawtucket Democrat Representative Carlos Tobon’s legislation proposing to pay wealthy people $10,000 each to move to Rhode Island:

“If we have to pay families, students, and businesses to move to or remain in Rhode Island, to survive our state’s oppressive tax and regulatory climate, then something is very wrong,” said Mike Stenhouse, the Center’s CEO. “Worse than the obvious face-value inanity of the bill, the ignorant belief of how an economy and family dynamics actually work is what is most troubling. The legislation openly acknowledges the negative economy in our state, yet, as with other progressive policies, it tries to band-aid the symptom rather than cure the core illness. ”

The bill is so incandescently wrong-headed that it’s difficult to know where to begin criticizing it, but among the more objectionable aspects of Tobon’s proposal is the explicit concern of losing a seat in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.   That is what motivates politician’s to take action.  Decades of watching productive Rhode Islanders flow elsewhere for opportunity weren’t enough.  Political clout is the real concern.

As of the July Census projections of states’ populations, Rhode Island was just 157 people away from losing one of its congressmen.  That’s a 0.015% decrease in population, and we lose out.  The next state in line is New York, which is currently on track to lose a congressional seat.  But if the Empire State manages to add 0.015% to its population, then it will keep what it has at Rhode Island’s expense.

Numbers aside, suffice it to say that a state that has to bribe people in order to maintain its level of congressional representation — through either government welfare programs or direct hand-outs — is a state that has proven that it doesn’t deserve much clout in determining the course of the nation.

Rhode Islanders must get our own House in order.  If we could just  put into office people who don’t prioritize central planning and insider control, we could make our state a place that people aren’t as quick to leave and to which they want to move.

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Fatherlessness, an Out-of-Fashion Problem

There it is again. Joanne Jacobs writes on a problem that it just isn’t fashionable to care about solving:

We track school success by race and family income, but ignore the consequences of growing up in unstable, fatherless families, writes Ian Rowe.

Boys are more vulnerable to fatherlessness than their sisters, when it comes to school misbehavior, cognitive disability, low test scores, dropping out of high school and juvenile crime.

Rowe also cites the newly released study, Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States, which found “higher rates of father presence among low-income black households are associated with better outcomes for black boys.”

Addressing the problem of fatherlessness would require a return to more-traditional values and family structures, and that’s simply not a possibility for people of a certain ideology.  Unfortunately, that ideology controls large segments of our society and culture.

These side effects (as a charitable person would see them) provide a valuable lesson in how we should discern what is good.  Professing an intention to help people is worthless if one’s solutions create worse problems or even, more accurately, barricade the way to the correct solution.

We can consolidate the gains our society has made in areas such as equality without assenting to the deadly ideological virus that has piggybacked on good intentions and infected the body politic.

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Not Surprising That Young Americans Repeat What They’ve Been Told

This news, reported by Steve Peoples and Emily Swanson of the Associated Press, is really not at all surprising:

A majority of young people believe President Donald Trump is racist, dishonest and “mentally unfit” for office, according to a new survey that finds the nation’s youngest potential voters are more concerned about the Republican’s performance in the White House than older Americans.

The poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV found that just 33 percent of Americans between the ages of 15 and 34 approve of Trump’s job performance.

Among all adults, that number was 9 percentage points higher, or 42%, which is well above recently reported results for Democrat governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo (at 37%).

In general, though, the news media gives undeserved attention to the opinions of teens and young adults, and reporters do so for the very reason that they shouldn’t:  Those in this age group are the most susceptible to the non-stop propaganda that the news and entertainment media dish out.

Of course younger Americans are more likely to feel that the president is “racist, dishonest and ‘mentally unfit’ for office.”  That’s the message that is hammered again and again by unfunny comics and opinionated journalists.

To be sure, that’s not to say that all coverage is terrible, and it’s certainly not to say that Donald Trump doesn’t deserve criticism.  But just like adults who laud the wisdom of children who repeat their opinions back to them, proclamations that younger folks hold the view that big-time opinion setters say they should have is more rightly seen as evidence of an echo, not a harmony of independently considered voices.

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The Soul of a Chicken

OK. Here’s one that’s a little outside of our usual content, here:

The headless chicken that found internet fame for surviving more than a week after being decapitated has now been adopted by monks.

Earlier this week the headless chicken made headlines around the world as it survived a beheading and was looked after by a kindly vet.

Take a look at the pictures (if you’re so inclined) and ask yourself:  What does this say about the boundary of “life” between animals and plants?

From a purely materialistic standpoint, living thing can be defined as an entity that processes information internally.  Weather can wear away a rock, but a plant can change what it does based on the information of the weather.  What separates an animal, like a chicken?  My view (broadly), is that animal life can deal in some level of abstraction; it takes in information from its senses and reacts in a way that adjusts from experience and predicts the future.  This is the inchoate foundation of the soul, to be less materialistic.

So, without a head, what is the chicken doing?  Can one train it to approach certain stimuli in the knowledge that it will receive food?  Or is it just a biological machine?

On a metaphysical level, one could go either way.  One could point to the chicken and still consider its animal life sacred and then conclude that plant life should be similarly sacred.  Or one could suggest that a headless chicken raises doubts about how much of a leap there really is from plant to animal and whether we really should value animals more highly than plants simply for the fact of their being animals.

I’m not quite in the mood to place my marker on this game board, at this moment, but as the stories increase in frequency of activists and lawmakers’ going after people who treat animals without the most recently approved level of care, I’ve thought that folks should perhaps consider these deep questions a bit more thoroughly.

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The Herd of Rhode Islanders Can Afford to Allow Some Freedom

Some families don’t believe that the fact that their children go to school with other children gives the government the right to force them to take drugs related to sexually transmitted diseases.  Many become more suspicious when they hear of terrible side effects that some appear to experience and observe the overlapping financial interests of state government and company behind the drug.

Mind you:  If the government simply recommended the drug, there would be no problem.  But as it is, dedicated families feel the need to become activists and testify in pursuit of legislation to return their freedom.  On the other end are bureaucrats whose social concern is difficult to entangle from the pursuit of metrics:

Among her arguments against the “personal belief” exemption that some lawmakers are seeking: “The proposed legislation, if enacted, will potentially decrease our state’s vaccination coverage rates, putting people at risk … [especially] those who cannot be vaccinated″ for medical reasons. …

In one letter to the lawmakers, [Director of Health Nicole] Alexander-Scott wrote: “Most vaccine-preventable diseases are transmitted from person to person. When a sufficiently large proportion of individuals in a community are immunized, those persons serve as a protective barrier against transmission of the disease in the community thus indirectly protecting those who are not immunized … This phenomenon is referred to as ‘herd immunity.’”

Good of the government to have such concern about the “herd.”  One doubts that Alexander-Scott highlighted the fact that Rhode Island’s HPV vaccination rate was already high, and that the mandate increased it almost not at all.

That is, acting of their own free will — not as herded cattle — Rhode Islanders were already doing what the government wanted.  Knowing that, one can reasonably infer that making us do things is the point, establishing the principle that we have to go where they think we should.

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Approaching the Easter Vigil


When introduced as an element of Catholic theology, some people will find the idea of a power entering the universe from outside and bending the rules of time to be too fanciful to merit a second thought. But suppose a similar idea was presented in a different form, perhaps as a “new” idea behind a bestselling novel or a blockbuster movie? In that context, might not a fair number of people you know (and perhaps even yourself) find the concept of human beings connected by a force that actively reaches around the flow of time to bring them together to be at least intriguing, maybe even cool, and perhaps worth exploring further?

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Overcoming America’s Boy Problem with Masculinity

The Cranston Herald has run a post of mine defining the flawed thinking in our society’s current approach to boys’ being boys:

The crisis we’re now facing is that our feminized society forecloses many of those channels. Boys with too much energy are drugged in schools. Sports that seem aggressive have come under fire, and we’re now several generations into the Title IX project to require bean-counting equality in the number of sports on college campuses.

A kid who wants to turn his boyish frustration into an intellectual pursuit and the heroism of curing some disease or something might find that – sorry, pal – the mission of the moment is promoting women in STEM. Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo has an annual “Governor for a Day” writing contest from which Rhode Island boys are excluded.

Most of all, far too many homes have no father to provide the subtle example that boys need to follow. We see the result in school shootings, but also in suicides and drug overdoses, all of which disproportionately involve boys and men.

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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?

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Rent Seeking Pot Dealers Look to the Government Crime Boss

Could there be a more clear example of rent seeking crony capitalism than a direct payment from marijuana interests to pay off government officials to block competition?

The offer came with a condition. State regulators would have to change their plan to hike the number of state-licensed pot dispensaries from the existing three to 15.

“We’re very sensitive to the state and its challenges,” Reilly told members of the House Finance Committee. “And if there is a way to find the $5 million that you need to plug the budget hole that you need for the coming fiscal year, we’d like to be part of the solution.” …

Regulators say the plan would increase competition among dispensaries, lower prices, offer a wider array of tested marijuana strains and improve access for patients, whose numbers keep growing.

This just like occupational licensing.  Established businesses use political clout to leverage government and block competition, which makes markets more efficient and helps consumers.

Rhode Islanders should take this as a lesson in political theory, as well.  Those on the progressive side tend to think of government as “the people’s” source of leverage against powerful special interests, but it quickly becomes the opposite, as the special interests give government cash in order to come around to the idea that it’s to the people’s benefit for the special interest to benefit.

In this case, the pot dealers see upstarts moving in on their business, and they’re looking to the crime boss of the area to muscle them out through extortion and threats of violence (via fines and maybe incarceration). The picture gets clearer and clearer.

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The Incentives of School Bonds

Regular readers know I put a lot of emphasis on incentives as a way to understand events and a key consideration when crafting policies.  The $250 million school bond proposed for the November ballot is a good example.

On the front end, the incentive is very strong for school districts and municipalities to let facilities deteriorate.  First, the law is structured to give advantages to labor unions organized at the state and even federal level, creating incentive for them to manipulate the political structure.  Then, elected officials have incentive to tilt budgets toward organized labor, drawing money to compensation.  Next, having learned from that experience over time, taxpayers have incentive to squeeze money out of budgets so that even higher taxes aren’t paying again for things like maintenance that they thought were already included and that might be diverted again if available.

On top of it all, the near certitude of passing bonds for dire repairs creates disincentive for regular maintenance from the start.  This mechanism creates incentives for financial interests and investors, and the bias toward big projects brings in the incentive that got me thinking of these things.  As Dan McGowan reports for WPRI:

Fix Our Schools R.I., a 501(c)4 nonprofit formed last week, will spend the coming months “educating communities across the state about what this plan is and how it would affect them,” Haslehurst told Eyewitness News. …

The organization lists its address as 410 South Main St., the same building as the Laborer’s International Union of North America. Haslehurst said it will share space with the Occupational and Environmental Health Center of Rhode Island, a nonprofit that has an office inside the building.

A quick look at the health center’s IRS filing shows that it’s a labor union organization, with AFL-CIO poobah George Nee as the treasurer.

‘Round and ’round the incentives go, to the point that running things efficiently — in the way people run their households, planning ahead and all that — seems almost to be an impossible task.  Be skeptical of anybody who tells you that this is a “once in a generation” investment that fixes a problem.  After all, when the debt payments subside, the incentive will be to find more projects in need of debt or to build the payment amount into regular budgets.

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Lack of a Scandalous Flop Isn’t “Guts and Vision”

A recent editorial in the Providence Journal lauding the Rhode Island Convention Center deserves some push-back.  The writers applaud those who “invested” in the center back in the ’90s for their “courage and imagination on the basis of eye-popping numbers:

The analysis, conducted by Conventions, Sports & Leisure International of Plano, Texas, found that the Rhode Island Convention Center, the Dunkin’ Donuts Center and the Veterans Memorial Auditorium generated $838 million in total economic impact for the State of Rhode Island from fiscal year 2013 through 2017.

That far exceeds the costs of running the facilities, including $23 million a year in state bonding costs.

This isn’t a reasonable number to proclaim for these purposes.  A quick search turns up the iteration of the report from 2015, which tells pretty much the same story, and it shows that the great majority of traffic in the three venues considered (the Convention Center, the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, and Veterans Memorial) is local.  As the report puts it, “It is appropriate to assume that much of the spending from attendees that are from the local area is “displaced”, or would have taken place somewhere in the local economy if the event had not been held.”

This is compared with the result if we switched out the venues for three holes in the ground.  The $838 million of economic impact assumes that none of the customers would have spent their money locally, that none of the employees would have had jobs, and that none of contractors would have found other clients.  The study makes no attempt to estimate how much additional impact the center has over any likely alternatives if it weren’t there.  If the land remained in private hands, the owners would have had incentive to sell it, the buyers would have had incentive to develop it, and the developers would have had incentive to figure out the most efficient things to develop.

The study also doesn’t consider that the government spending that has bolstered the center could have been used for something else, like leaving money in people’s pockets to spend and invest in the ways that they considered most important.

In short, the Convention Center hasn’t been a scandalous disaster, but proclaiming “guts and vision” for investing other people’s money seems a bit overstated.

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After the Green Charmer Moves On

Remember when Rhode Island helped get Deepwater Wind off the ground by forcing Rhode Island energy users to pay an artificially high price for its product, in the name of making the Ocean State “the Saudi Arabia of wind”?  We were supposedly taking the lead in an industry of the future and securing the “well-paying jobs” that Rhode Islanders deserved.

Well, at least we can say we kicked off a job bump in the larger region:

Deepwater Wind will assemble the wind turbine foundations for its Revolution Wind in Massachusetts, and it has identified three South Coast cities – New Bedford, Fall River and Somerset – as possible locations for this major fabrication activity, the company is announcing today. …

These commitments are in addition to Deepwater Wind’s previously announced plans to use the New BEdford Marine Commerce Terminal for significant construction and staging operations, and to pay $500,000 per year to the New Bedford Port Authority to use the facility.”

Businesses will go where it is in their immediate interest to go.  That’s just what the incentives dictate.  Rhode Island continues to attempt to use crony capitalism in order to avoid making the changes necessary to be a place that businesses find attractive without special incentives.  That will ultimately fail, because it drives away all businesses that do not receive the special deals, and it keeps those that do only as long as the subsidies keep coming… and aren’t exceeded by somebody else’s deal.

But improving Rhode Island’s business environment inherently requires reform of and risk to the insider system that has corrupted the state, so it’s not a realistic option.

(Via Ted Nesi.)

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International Gangsters in the Land of the Government Plantation

In 2015, I presented Lawrence, Massachusetts, as a cautionary tale of the government-plantation economic model.  Just as industrialists once attempted to draw in foreign labor to the “company town” because it was less expensive, the local government is turning the city into a “government town,” whose main source of income is transfer payments from outside to pay for government services.

Consequently, this recent Boston Globe article caught my eye:

The federal government’s relentless assault on the feared MS-13 street gang in Greater Boston continued this week, with two members of the violent outfit admitting to their roles in the 2015 slaying of a 16-year-old boy in Lawrence, authorities said.

True, immigrant gangs are nothing new to the United States, and homegrown gangs certainly exist.  Still, tracing the arrival of an international criminal enterprise is a necessary task, and one needn’t indulge too much in speculation to propose that using immigration to bolster the population in need of government services leaves a region vulnerable to this sort of invasion.

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Rhode Island, a Coincidential State

Here’s a telling anecdote (in the “Rhode Island way” sense) in the Political Scene from today’s Providence Journal:

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has put Edward Cotugno, the mail-ballot guru who helped him eke out an 85-vote victory in 2016, back on his campaign team and given his son a $70,000 a year State House job.

Mattiello, D-Cranston, hired Michael Cotugno as the legislature’s new associate director of House constituent-services.

Yes, Rhode Island surely is a coincidential state, to coin a term.  If you’re politically helpful, a government job will appear for your or your family completely by coincidence.

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A Subtle Distinction on Government Problem Solving

I recently came across this story on regulation in Ohio, and the statement the Republican Senate president, Larry Obhof seems broadly applicable and worth sharing:

Ohio has nearly 250,000 regulatory restrictions in its code, according to research from George Mason University. The study’s authors say this holds back economic growth for industries like manufacturing and health care.

Republican Senate president Larry Obhof says he wants to take a broad look at Ohio’s code to see what they can do to scale back these regulations. He adds that a mindset change is needed for people in the legislature and state agencies.

“Who start the day looking for problems to solve and trying to solve those, and what I’d like to see is a reset where they start the day and some significant number of them are saying can I find a burden that we don’t need that we can get rid of,” said Obhof.

This gets right to the subtle (and detrimental) shift in Americans’ attitude and, perhaps, a chief dividing line between ideologies.  One view is that government exists to solve people’s problems; another is that government exists to remove a limited number of problems from people’s path.

When the goal is to remove problems (like foreign invasion, inadequate basic infrastructure, and so on), the emphasis is much more securely on avoiding causing additional problems in the process.  When we make government a more active participant in the solving of problems, unintended consequences can be written off on account of good intentions — “nobody can solve everything, but at least we tried.”

And when government is a problem solver, there is no boundary.  It should try to solve every problem it can.  When government is just a mechanism to take a few big problems off the table for the public at large, the debate becomes whether something is a problem or an area in which freedom makes it a challenge for the people to resolve among themselves.

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Contraception and the Loss of Responsibility

Mary Eberstadt located the cause of many of our current social problems with the sexual revolution, in a speech at Notre Dame University:

“To discern the record of the last half-century is to see that the Catholic Church was right to stand as a sign of contradiction to the devastation the sexual revolution would wreak; that accommodating to the revolution has been an epic fail for the churches that have tried it; and that the truths of Humanae Vitaeand related documents burn all the more brightly against the shadowy toll of the destruction out there.”

“Be proud in the right way of your Church for getting one of the most important calls in history right,” Eberstadt encouraged. “And never let anyone put a kick-me sign on you for being an unapologetic Catholic.”

These are encouraging words to hear, given trends that we see here in the Northeast, which are roiling even Catholic campuses.  (See “Complete Coverage” box below.)

When it comes to Eberstadt’s analysis, the only thing I’d add is that she stops short of the underlying mechanism.  Contraception’s role in our deteriorating society is not merely that it allows people to engage in the sexual activity toward which they are driven; one could argue that marriage does so, as well, with some concessions.  The problem with contraception is that it moves responsibility away from the adults; if a pregnancy results, it is the fault of a thing, not the responsibility of the two people engaging in intimate activity.

This brings us to something like the innocence of the Garden of Eden, as I presented it a few years ago in an essay about property rights and responsibility.  Basically, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they lost their innocence most profoundly in the sense that they would have to work to live and take responsibility for their actions.  Childbirth, for example, would no longer be simply a natural process for which God would provide the resources; it would be a painful process for the woman and an added burden of responsibility to both parents.

If we’re relying on neither God nor ourselves to take responsibility, we’re putting our faith in either a thing or a person.  If it’s a thing, that makes us irresponsible.  If it’s other people, that makes us slaves. This conclusion doesn’t require our society to become overtly Catholic, or even more generally Christian, but we have to recognize the foundational challenges of social change if we’re to mitigate the consequences.

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No Surprise on Who Benefits from Legislative Grants

The year is still young, but this headline for a Tim White article on WPRI is an early candidate in the nobody-should-find-this-surprising category: “RI’s top Democratic lawmakers lead list in handing out taxpayer-funded grants.”

More than $500,000 of the taxpayer money handed out through the $2 million legislative grant program goes to organizations hand-picked by the General Assembly’s top Democrats, a Target 12 review has found.

We should go farther, though.  Every dollar goes to legislators hand-picked by leadership to give out these vote-buying grants.

Whether it’s at the state level or the local level, charity shouldn’t be the business of government, and it certainly shouldn’t become an excuse for taxpayer-funded campaign promotion.

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A Lesson in White Privilege

A couple of years ago, I wrote a parody song to the tune of Randy Newman’s “Short People,” titled “Pale People.”  No matter what the challenges of your actual experience might be, one verse suggested, “All a’ that ain’t nothin’ to the color of your skin.”

Well this is an interesting finding, from the left-leaning Brookings Institution:

… Poor minorities (defined here as blacks and Hispanics) face similar—and often worse—poverty-related challenges than do non-Hispanic poor whites. Yet they are more resilient in the face of negative shocks, less likely to report depression or commit suicide, and significantly more optimistic about the future. Part of the explanation is their higher levels of community and family support. Aspirations also matter. Poor blacks and Hispanics tend to report they are better off than their parents were, while many blue-collar whites are facing a reality of downward mobility. Many of their primary occupations are close to extinction, and family structures have weakened significantly (a trend that is associated with the drop in labor force participation).

That’s not surprising.  In the popular culture, which has been taken over by progressive ideology, minorities are to be celebrated.  They’re the future.  They can accomplish anything, and society should give them special advantages to make it so.  Meanwhile, white people, especially white men, are everywhere the villains.  They have to “check their privilege.”  Anything they accomplish is tainted because they are the beneficiaries of oppression.  Government-funded reports insist that the future has darker skin, and we should start changing the communities that government serves now, in preparation.

Based on the interactive graphic on the Brookings page, “poor non-Hispanic whites” in Rhode Island have low optimism relative to the country, high worry, and high pain.  Unfortunately, the statistics for minorities are too small for Brookings to rank them in Rhode Island, but Massachusetts is telling.  Poor minorities in our northern neighbor have among the lowest rates of worry in the country, while their white peers have among the highest rates of worry.

This shouldn’t be a contest; we should be concerned about all of our neighbors.  Unfortunately, progressive identity politics rely on dividing us so we’ll keep handing over power to the truly privileged and powerful.

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Cold Water on Fear About “The End of Work”

Everybody from pointy-headed think tankers to my father talks about the social upheaval on the horizon when technology makes work obsolete.  In a recent American Interest essay on the topic, Diane Francis quotes the late Stephen Hawking voicing one angle:

The late physicist Stephen Hawking warned that this would result in income disparity and chaos. “Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality,” he wrote.

Francis goes on to convey the similar views of others.  Lots of smart people think like this, so I shudder to admit that my opinion is:  Why is this so difficult?  I’d humbly suggest that in the excitement of prognostication, they’re missing a central economic principle — namely, that the free market is the greatest form of wealth redistribution.

Consider a simplified scenario: In some way or another, a company makes the screens on which we all receive our content.  Technology and AI revolutionize the factory so that it hardly needs any human workers to accomplish that task.  The cost of production goes down.  Now, the first urge of the company owners will be to keep the price the same, but all that takes is for some other company to come along and take advantage of the available technology to undercut its price.

The power of competition will only get stronger as automation reduces the amount of available work and people have less money, on average.  Companies have to sell their products to make money, and as the jobs evaporate, the incentive to produce increases.  As production becomes cheaper, the value of mass production could decrease, relatively.  Theoretically, technology could become such that we return to something like an artisan-driven economy, with a lot of self-employed people providing goods and services to each other.  I don’t know if things will play out that way, but somewhere is an equilibrium.

Looked at in this way, it is clear that the better path forward is to reduce central planning and the ability of powerful interests to leverage government for their benefit.  Reform patents.  Don’t dread deflation.  The more control we try to grab out of fear, the more ability powerful people will have to direct the economy in a way that primarily benefits them.

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