Written RSS feed for this section
justin-katz-avatar-smiling

NAEP Scores: Another Unacknowledged Crisis in RI

The word “pleased” should not have appeared anywhere in the statement of Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner upon release of 2017 scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test:

“Nationwide, results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress remained relatively flat, and we saw a similar trend in Rhode Island,” said state Education Commissioner Ken Wagner. “I’m pleased to see us perform better than the national average on fourth grade reading… I hope that our work around early literacy as part of the Third Grade Reading Challenge will speed up that progress going forward.”

That’s like being happy that your child is vomiting a little bit less than half the kids in the sick ward.  Never mind that his or her fever is slightly higher, his or her bleeding out of the eyes is slightly worse, and he or she is slightly more delirious than half the children.

According to the data, Rhode Island students don’t break the 40%-proficient mark in either 4th grade or 8th grade in either math or reading (or science or writing, for that matter).

For some quick perspective take a look at the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s States on the Nation’s Report Card tool, which has been updated to include the latest data.  Rhode Island’s 4th grade reading scores may be above the average state, but we used to have a lead of three points, and that’s now only two.  Worse, the Ocean State’s 8th grade math scores have fallen off a cliff.  Since the 2013 test, RI students’ average score has dropped from 284 to 277.  That’s 2.5%.  In 2013, our children were scoring the same as the average state… no longer.

RI-NAEP-Gr8-subjects-2000-2017

More broadly, the fashionable distraction to which state bureaucrats lead, which journalists follow, is to lament that “achievement gaps between white students and students of color continue to remain stubbornly high.”  This emphasis manages to imply that the real challenge isn’t a broken educational system, but institutional racism, and to lead white parents to think the state’s problems belong to other people, but it disguises the more disturbing conclusion.

Combining 4th and 8th grade scores on reading and math, black students in Rhode Island are actually slightly outperforming their peers in the average state.  Hispanic students in Rhode Island do worse than in the average state, but they track closely with black students, which is more typical in our region.

The big drop in Rhode Island is actually among white students, who are the majority.  Managing to keep Rhode Island’s minority students relatively flat has actually helped keep up our scores.  To the extent that Rhode Island has addressed its “achievement gap,” it has been by failing white students even more.

As I wrote in 2015, the data is strongly suggestive of a change during the governorship of Democrat Lincoln Chafee that looks like a ceiling on Rhode Island’s progress in reforming education.  If anything, we can now see that the trends have worsened, rather than improving, under his successor, and the spin should no longer be tolerated.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Statistics: Economic and Political

Click on over to my op-ed in today’s Providence Journal:

To be clear, these are massive and sometimes subtle trends, and a particular governor can only be saddled with so much blame or lauded with so much credit. Still, if Rhode Island had kept pace with other states — and with itself before Raimondo took the reins — around 10,000 more of us would be employed.

Anecdotally, that presentation of our economy more closely matches the experience of most Rhode Islanders than does the governor’s self-promotion. Promising four more years of “exactly [that] kind of progress” may therefore not be the pitch that the Raimondo camp believes it to be.

Perhaps that’s why 60 percent of Raimondo’s political donors were out of state in 2017. Opinions may differ as to whether that represents “progress” from her 40 percent out-of-state result in 2014.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Live by the Facebook, Struggle by the Facebook

Think whatever you like about Diamond and Silk, specifically, and capitalizing on the political success of Donald Trump, generally, but their conflict with Facebook provides a very helpful lesson for one’s interaction with the Internet:

Diamond And Silk have been corresponding since September 7, 2017, with Facebook (owned by Mark Zuckerberg), about their bias censorship and discrimination against D&S brand page. Finally after several emails, chats, phone calls, appeals, beating around the bush, lies, and giving us the run around, Facebook gave us another bogus reason why Millions of people who have liked and/or followed our page no longer receives notification and why our page, post and video reach was reduced by a very large percentage. Here is the reply from Facebook. Thu, Apr 5, 2018 at 3:40 PM: “The Policy team has came to the conclusion that your content and your brand has been determined unsafe to the community.” Yep, this was FB conclusion after 6 Months, 29 days, 5 hrs, 40 minutes and 43 seconds. Oh and guess what else Facebook said: “This decision is final and it is not appeal-able in any way.” (Note: This is the exact wording that FB emailed to us.)

Obviously, this is just one side of the story, but the fact remains that anybody who builds their Internet presence primarily by using somebody else’s platform is subject to the whims of that other party.  Use Facebook to build a following, and that other party is Facebook.  Build your online presence with a heavy reliance on Google referrals, and online giant’s algorithm may subtly shift to move you down the list of every search.

And it won’t always be obvious that it’s happening.

The lesson is a back-to-basics one.  Use these platforms for self promotion, but get people interacting with a URL that you own, and build it up with your content, not the tricks that social media allow.

That’s harder, yes, but it’s a more stable strategy than building on a foundation that others can disappear with the push of a button.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Holding On to a Fading Tax

Add the Tax Foundation‘s Morgan Scarboro to the list of people observing that state-based estate taxes are on their way out:

In addition to the federal estate tax of 40 percent, some states impose an additional estate or inheritance tax. Twelve states and the District of Columbia impose an estate tax while six states have an inheritance tax. Maryland is the only state in the country to impose both. …

Recently, states have moved away from these taxes or raised the exemption levels:

  • Indiana repealed its inheritance tax in 2013
  • Tennessee repealed its estate tax in 2016
  • New York raised its exemption level to $5.25 million this year and will match the federal exemption level by 2019
  • The District of Columbia is set to conform to the federal level this year after meeting its revenue triggers
  • New Jersey will fully phase out its estate tax by 2018
  • Delaware repealed its estate tax this year

Rhode Island is holding on to its estate tax for the time being, and it’ll probably take something like a political earthquake to shake it loose.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Benighted in the Enlightenment

Taking recent celebration of the Enlightenment as a cue, Yoram Hazony lays out some of the flaws and consequences from an overly zealous promotion of reason as a guide and source of meaning:

For Kant, reason is universal, infallible and a priori—meaning independent of experience. As far as reason is concerned, there is one eternally valid, unassailably correct answer to every question in science, morality and politics. Man is rational only to the extent that he recognizes this and spends his time trying to arrive at that one correct answer.

This astonishing arrogance is based on a powerful idea: that mathematics can produce universal truths by beginning with self-evident premises—or, as Rene Descartes had put it, “clear and distinct ideas”—and then proceeding by means of infallible deductions to what Kant called “apodictic certainty.” Since this method worked in mathematics, Descartes had insisted, it could be applied to all other disciplines. The idea was subsequently taken up and refined by Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as well as Kant.

In the popular imagination, the Enlightenment was a sort of stage in intellectual evolution.  To the contrary, Hazony suggests that the driving theories of the Enlightenment weren’t so much unknown prior to that era, but repeatedly rejected because of the obvious dangers.  The breakdown of the family, the lonely solipsism of the modern age, the devastation of secular ideologies over the past couple centuries — these and more grew out of the essentially mystical notion that individuals could tap into some fount of reason.  Gone is the wisdom of the ages and any cultural mechanism for learning and remembering truths that the average Joe or Jane would not bother or be able to conceive after some time with hand on chin.

The “aim” of Enlightenment figures “was to create their own system of universal, certain truths, and in that pursuit they were as rigid as the most dogmatic medievals.”  Like other areas from which human beings strive to derive meaning — such as government and capitalism — reason is really just a tool.  Meaning must come from elsewhere… and will, for better or worse.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Discrimination and a One-Way Establishment Clause

I’ve got an op-ed in the Rhode Island Catholic, pointing out how progressives seem to think the Establishment Clause only blocks other religions than progressivism:

If the clause in the First Amendment that forbids “an establishment of religion” within government means anything, it means that government can’t enforce one set of beliefs as the law to the exclusion of others. Unfortunately, too many people in an increasingly powerful ideological group don’t much care about the objective meaning of words. To them, the Establishment Clause is a one-way street. They get to establish, you have to follow their dogma.

Diaz may have pulled her bill when people didn’t treat it as the feel-good filler that she intended, but Catholics should consider it to be a warning shot. After all, if people in the state government believe they should have the right to come into our schools and determine whether our teachings discriminate, they must also believe they have the right to tell our children how they ought to live and, ultimately, what our relationship with God must be.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Regarding Non-Competes for the On-Air Talent

I’m not sure why Patrick Anderson weaves together the hoopla about Sinclair Broadcasting’s recent promotional script with the idea of banning non-compete agreements in journalists’ contracts.  That he strives to do so gives the impression of an ulterior motive to construct a narrative, as does the monolithic presentation of non-competes:

Used in a number of industries, non-compete clauses prevent employees from taking a job with a competing company for a set period of time, often one year, after they end their employment, even if it was the station that decided to part ways. …

Former WJAR investigative reporter Jim Taricani called non-competes unfair in written testimony supporting the bill.

“Prohibiting an employee from finding work to support themselves and their families is an outrageous condition of employment,” Taricani wrote. “Unlike non-compete clauses used for employees who work for companies where they may have knowledge of company ‘secrets’ or ‘confidential product research,’ ‘on-air’ talent in broadcasting have no such knowledge of any confidential information.”

The reasons for non-competes vary from industry to industry.  In some cases, knowledge of sensitive information is the thing being protected.  When I worked for a carpentry temp agency, non-competes were a way of preventing contractors from using the company as a trial service.  In the case of journalism, building up contacts and expertise is a critical part of the job, and people who appear on camera are intrinsically part of a station’s brand.

I’m not, therefore, endorsing non-competes, but these aren’t crazy points to make.  WPRI and WJAR have invested in Tim White and Parker Gavigan, respectively, to develop contacts and credibility for investigative reports; if WJAR were to hire White away, WPRI would lose one of its key faces and would have to scramble to rebuild its brand on a very important line of products.

Of course, that should encourage the company to make sure that its star employees are happy, but that balance should be subject to negotiation.  For newcomers, a non-compete agreement could be something of a box, but further along in a career, an employee may offer a non-compete as a way to get more money out of the employer.  If new employees don’t like the box, they don’t have to take the job.

The speed with which people turn to government to enforce whatever they think is in their best interest at any given time is disturbing to behold.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Will We Wake When Treated by Woke Doctors?

This, from a Weekly Standard article by Devorah Goldman, is terrifying:

In 2015, the Association of American Medical Colleges revised the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) for the first time in nearly 25 years, stretching the full exam-day experience from around five hours to eight or more. The test drew attention at the time for its sheer length; less widely noted was the explicitly ideological bent of the new exam.

The AAMC occupies a curious place in the world of medicine. It forms one-half of the only government-approved accrediting entity for U.S. medical schools, and it is solely in charge of administering both the MCAT and the national standardized medical school application. Unlike the American Medical Association, which represents physician groups without exercising much direct control over doctors, the AAMC has immediate and significant authority over its constituent medical schools and academic health centers. And in recent years, it has used this leverage to fundamentally alter the way medical schools assess applicants. …

In that address and others, [Dr. Darrell Kirch, president and CEO of the AAMC,] described the AAMC’s “Holistic Review Project,” which the organization launched in 2007 with the goal of “redefining what makes a good doctor.” The project’s objectives included revising the MCAT and a wide range of other reforms. A series of new guidelines (some of which have yet to be implemented) called on medical school admissions teams to place less emphasis on applicants’ grades, changed the requirements for letters of recommendation, and altered the standardized application by requesting a great deal more information about students’ upbringing and life experiences. The AAMC is also planning to add “situational judgment tests”—carefully crafted interviews in which applicants will be presented with a variety of hypothetical scenarios involving ethical conflicts—to the current admissions requirements. Along with the new MCAT, these changes are part of Kirch’s plan to shift the focus of medical-school admissions toward a “new excellence,” a standard based less on test scores and more on “the attitudes, values, and experiences” of applicants.

Sorry, but I’m much more concerned with whether my doctor knows how my body functions and how to fix it when things go wrong than what his or her attitude and values might be.  Basically, if he or she values my business and my health, I’m good with whatever else he or she might believe.

As progressivism seeks to turn everything in our society to the single goal of political ends, it will seek not only to ensure that progressive doctors and other professionals are available to those who value them, but that no other options exist.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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).

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

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.

Quantcast