Plugging a Hole with Opposition


A hole in the bottom of my water heater has meant that I’ve spent more time than I can spare encountering an old complaint of mine.

Back in 2005, while considering what trade to enter, I noted that Rhode Island’s licensing regulations lead the state to produce half the number of master plumbers in 12 years that Massachusetts would.  In other words, the market can’t adjust to demand as quickly, which pushes up the price that plumbers can charge and affects anybody who needs a plumber in a negative way, in terms of both expense and convenience.

My conclusion has been borne out as my experience of Rhode Island politics has increased:  “the willingness — the drive — to change must be so thorough as to encompass areas that most people not vested in the status quo don’t give any thought.”  In other words, anybody who wants to reform the state will be going up against groups that have a strong interest in keeping things as they are, and the reformer must pull together people who have a more general interest in good government.

One problem that I hadn’t fully appreciated until this year was how difficult it is even to get people to correctly identify reformers.  This challenge has been especially striking this week.  A local man who is spearheading an effort to recall me and another town council member in Tiverton has been telling people that we’ve violated the state Code of Ethics but got away with it because we have “friends” on the Ethics Commission.  Beyond simply being wrong, this is arguably the opposite of the truth.  We weren’t found in violation of the Code of Ethics despite an institutional bias against reformers because we didn’t violate the code.

Another example:  On Monday, the Town Council continued the interim appointment of the town solicitor into a longer-term engagement.  The council members remaining from the prior council wanted to have the discussion at the end of the meeting in a closed executive session… literally in the back room.  We four new council members wanted to have the discussion out in the open.  That’s what we did, but we adjusted our agenda on the fly in order to take care of a couple house-keeping items that would allow staff members to go home before a potentially long debate.

The same local man mentioned above shouted out that we were moving the solicitor discussion back because we were hoping people would leave and fewer voters would see what we were doing.  (All meetings are filmed for YouTube and streamed live on Facebook, by the way.)  Again, the accusation was the opposite of the reality:  The elected officials seeking to give the maximum amount of transparency were accused of trying to hide things.

Among the relatively small group of people who pay close attention to local politics, the rule of thumb is clear to see and probably pretty common:  Everything the reformers do is wrong and everything we want is evil, while everything the old guard does is right and everything they want is good.  What’s new and unsettling to me is how easily that message is pushed out into the public, making me wonder how many political decisions are made in Rhode Island based on impressions that are simply wrong.

The insiders who want to protect their power are quick to go out and spread false, often malicious, ideas about anybody who wants to give power back to the people.  Once they’ve done that, it’s very hard to change minds toward the truth, because there’s always some deeper falsehood to explain the truth away — like the suggestions that the Ethics Commission corrupted itself on our behalf and that moving an agenda item by 10 minutes was somehow more nontransparent than having it in a backroom.  The less tricky we appear, the more tricky we must be being!

The first step upon discovering water in my basement was to find the source, which wasn’t hard given that a stream of warm water was flowing out of the heater where there shouldn’t have been a hole.  The next steps were to find something to plug the hole, to run a hose from the actual drain spout out into the yard, and to spread towels around to soak up the water.  As I ran around the house gathering supplies, my dog started barking about the unusual activity.

The problems facing Rhode Island are pretty obvious, but there are many people with an interest in keeping the status quo.  Imagine somebody who had some reason to want my water heater to keep leaking.  He might tell anybody passing by that I was lying about wanting to fix the problem and was, instead, making it worse.  After all, I obviously didn’t have the professional tools of an established repairman, and it might not even look like it was my house — why would my own dog be barking at me?

Sure, over time, I should be able to prove the truth of the matter, but by that point, the heater would be empty and the basement ruined.

  • Christopher C. Reed

    I’m guessing the water heater was well out of warranty.

    • Justin Katz

      Not as “well” as I’d like, but yes, out of warranty. The plumber who replaced it gave me the impression that it’s pretty much expected that they’ll blow shortly after the warranty expires.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    It seems [plumbers have been the most noteworthy in this post. I think it might be something to investigate. Most of the plumbers I hire are in Massachusetts. they tell me the average age of a plumber in MA is 55; that means people “are not going into it”. A self employed plumber that I have dealt with for years recently pulled up stakes and headed for (I think) Arizona. He said two things of interest. He couldn’t’ hire anyone here to assist him, in AZ he could make as much as an employee as he did running a business here. Combining this with the info in Justin’s post, there might be some interesting research for an Economist here. I have noticed it is much more difficult to get some one to do “old work”, than “new work” (they can afford to be selective). Naturally, they are disinclined to crawl around in dirty 50-75 year old basements.

    • Joe Smith

      I’ve also found that plumbers won’t take new customers..

      Part of a larger story from MaineBiz – seems to be putting a dent in the shortage in Maine.

      Hey image that – using settlements from a lawsuit to actually address the problem..haven’t heard much after the ruckus made by Patricia Morgan on where the google funds actually spent (besides some for Kilmartin’s resettlement to FL).

      Of course in RI, Gina pushes more kids to go to college with abysmal graduation rates – meanwhile you read New England Tech having to lay off people due to declining enrollment in trades programs. I did read though some high schools down in South Country doing some partnering with Electric Boat and Wind Turbine outfit.

      “Funding for the high schools’ plumbing programs comes from a 2015 settlement that Mills reached with Bath Fitter of Portland for engaging in unlicensed plumbing activities, using non-conforming construction contracts, installing plumbing before plumbing permits were issued, misrepresenting employees’ license status, and engaging in plumbing installations that may violate the Maine State Internal Plumbing Code.

      The settlement, reached by consent judgment, included a monetary penalty. The Attorney General’s office determined that it would use the $500,000 in settlement funds to support four plumber training programs aimed at filling the plumber shortage in Maine.

      Each of the four high school selected by Mills received approximately $120,000 for two years to start the programs.

      According to annual reports submitted to the AG’s office, in addition to classroom training, students worked with local plumbers on projects in their community.”

      • Rhett Hardwick

        I heard something on the radio today that I would like confirmed. The commentator mentioned that 40 years ago 11% of high school students were on the Honor Roll. The figure now approaches 75%.

        • ShannonEntropy

          There is a sad old joke at Brown that the Honor Roll and the student roster are identical lists

        • Joe Smith

          I’d throw the challenge flag on that. I think studies have shown grade inflation, especially in more affluent areas partly in competition with grade inflation at private schools. I also believe the addition of more “honors” and “AP” courses with added GPA weighting would skew any apples to apples comparisons to the “40 years” ago data.

          It’s kind of like regular price inflation – if the a computer rises in price but offers more features/quality, then the general stat shows price inflation but it’s questionable if you could do a “value” comparison. I know the popular tagline is to say kids are dumber (or not any smarter) so any GPA increase is inflationary, but honestly, the level of work done due to technological and pedagogical changes to me at least from anecdotal experiences is both greater (more applied, in depth) and varied (assessment measures, assignments). I thought I had some pretty good teachers but we hardly did any reflective/portfolio/case study/progressive type assignments – just a lot of repetitive memorization and recall work.

      • Christopher C. Reed

        You have to know a guy.
        All the trades are completely slammed, working 6-7 days a week.

        I was joshing the electrician rewiring a kitchen for us…we got him through our carpenter…”You don’t even have your phone number on your truck! What kind of advertising is that?”
        “Don’t need it. Don’t want it.”

        I brought an electrician who’d wired a new house for us 10 years ago back after a kitchen fire. Nearing retirement, he’d apprenticed a few guys who now had their own businesses. But he couldn’t get anybody new interested in the trade. A friend asked him to take on his son. Came time to put in a trench, that would be your job, son. Sonny throws down his tools, “That’s Mexican work!” and stomps off. Well, yeah.

        This is why we need open borders…right?

        • Rhett Hardwick

          ” Came time to put in a trench, that would be your job, son. ”
          If my boss wouldn’t rent me a Ditch Witch, I would quit too. Times change.

  • bagida’wewinini

    why would my own dog be barking at me?

    Pets usually reflect the negative energy of their owners

    • Rhett Hardwick

      The voices in my head are telling me to go home and clean my guns.