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The Rights That Keep the School Shootings Going

Strange how inconsequential moments can lodge in one’s memory.  I remember one day in junior high school — this probably would have been ninth grade — sitting in the gymnasium, having been put in lines for some purpose and hearing a helicopter nearby.  The vision that flitted through my young imagination was of a Red Dawn–style invasion during which I would help to save my fellow students.  Around the same time, I wrote a short horror story about living rain that ate human flesh, and my narrator similarly sought to save the other children in his school.

Then as now, I was a bit of an outcast, and then as now, my dream was personal redemption by helping others.  That’s why, a few years after that day in the gym, I found the Columbine High School shooting especially bizarre.  In broad ways, I felt like I knew those kids.  I had the black trench coat, for example.  But when I thought, “I’ll show them,” it wasn’t in the sense of the classroom massacre of Pearl Jam’s song, “Jeremy,” or the movie, The Basketball Diaries, but in the sense of what I could accomplish, proving that I was a good person who could overcome life’s challenges.

Sadly, the pop cultural influences aren’t even necessary anymore.  These days, a school shooter doesn’t need the influence of a film like Natural Born Killers.  In keeping with our do-it-yourself, reality-TV culture, the news media carries the story just as well, and in some ways, that seems worse.  In the fictional accounts, we tended to get the gory details of the event, and the aftermath was left to the imagination.  School shooting journalism doesn’t give us many images of the gore (although that may change with social media in the mix), but we do get video of the community reacting and fame-making investigations of the shooter’s motivation.  And the subjects aren’t fictional figures, but real kids just like other kids.

Also trumpeted is the message that something good can come from the horror if only politicians would take on the NRA and get rid of guns.

The principle that the Bill of Rights should bend in response to this terrible new trend raises an important question.  The Second Amendment isn’t new, yet the sorts of school shootings that have been proliferating are.  Guns may be the most prominent tool of the would-be killers, but social media and television news carry the message from one to the next and provide the reward.  Should we ban news coverage of these events?  Should we ban social media?  How about the days of revenue-generating commentary on TV and radio talk shows after each attack?

As the reaction most people will have to curtailing the First Amendment illustrates, we understand that there are larger considerations around our rights than just “taking action” after the latest incident.  We should also understand that none of this will stop the nightmare, because ultimately the horror is that kids want to do this to other kids.  That’s the problem we must solve, and it isn’t going to happen by limiting rights.  It’s going to happen when we remember that we have to use our rights responsibly, not just in our handling of weapons, but also in our public talk and in our families and personal relationships.

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Income Inequality and Occupational Licensing

An essay in The Economist gives a quick overview of current thinking on occupational licensing, with an emphasis on its role in driving up the income of those who make it through the obstacle course, especially for higher-income professions:

More educated workers reap bigger wage gains from licensing. Writing in the Journal of Regulatory Economics in 2017, Morris Kleiner of the University of Minnesota and Evgeny Vorotnikov of Fannie Mae, a government housing agency, found that licensing was associated with wages only 4-5% higher among the lowest earning 30% of workers. Among the highest 30% of earners, the licensing wage boost was 10-24%.

So, at the low end, overly burdensome licensing keeps poor people poorer by preventing their experimentation with occupations, and at the high end, it keeps rich people richer by cutting down on their competition and preventing innovation.  Consider:

The medical and legal professions account for around a quarter of the top 1% of earners, whose incomes have grown faster in America than in other rich countries in recent decades. A study published in Health Affairs, a journal, in June 2015 found that the average doctor earns about 50% more than comparably educated and experienced people in other fields. Another study, from 2012, put the wage premium from working in law at 23%.

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Doctors are also unusually well-paid compared with those in other countries. The average general practitioner earns $252,000 and the average specialist $426,000, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. According to OECD data on a handful of other rich countries, the averages there were $130,000 for generalists and $273,000 for specialists in 2014. (These figures adjust for differences in living costs, and include only self-employed doctors, who tend to earn more.)

Here we come to one of those areas of irreconcilable difference.  Some want to address, for example, the shortage of doctors and high cost of medical care by giving government more control over the health care industry.  Others suggest opening up the market.  We can’t go in both directions at once, in health care or any other industry.

If we have some agreement that the problem is greed’s leading to undue advantage, which way do we go?  Well, if we agree that people will pursue their self interests, we can deduce that they will attempt to use consolidated government power to serve those interests, if they can, and exit a market that doesn’t allow them to make enough profit, if they can’t.

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A Word on Maintaining Calm (And Rights) in the Face of Tragedy

Horrible events like the school shooting in Florida yesterday are painful to contemplate, but contemplate them we must.  However, “contemplation” entails attention to details and balancing of considerations.  Unfortunately, emotions run high when it comes to safety on school grounds, so facts become easy to discard.  Also unfortunately, activists rev up the outrage before facts are even known.

From what we know — and it’s still not much — authorities had multiple signals that the shooter merited scrutiny.  The Daily Mail reports that, when a student, he wasn’t permitted to carry a backpack.  The New York Daily News reports that the shooter was flagged to the FBI months ago for a school-shooting comment on YouTube.  His Instagram account was a chilling, easy-to-find signal.

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Of course, the warning about waiting for more information covers all directions in which this investigation may go, and it’s possibly understandable that a few reports to different agencies wouldn’t combine to bring real attention to a potential threat.  Even if there is no fault to assign on this count, though, it remains true that authorities did not protect the public from somebody whom others had identified as dangerous.  It is not obvious, therefore, that the appropriate response to the government’s inability to protect people is to further curtail Americans’ ability to protect themselves.

So let’s tone down the rhetoric and try to avoid making emotional decisions that remove other people’s rights and might have unintended consequences.  Consider, for example, that one of the supposed 18 school shootings that are being hyped actually involved a student’s pulling the trigger of a police officer’s gun while it was still in the holster, and others are also a stretch to put on the list.

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Word Games With Public Debt

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Rent Control: A Bad Idea That Won’t Go Away

Perhaps no issue illustrates the challenges of public policy and public discourse more clearly than rent control.  On one side are activists with (let’s be charitable) the “just do something” mentality that believes society must use government to directly help people having troubles.  On the other side is a broad consensus among economists across the political spectrum who warn that rent control limits the construction of rentals for anybody but the wealthy and places a ceiling on how much landlords can spend maintaining and improving units for everybody else.

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So, those who want intelligent policy that will actually lead to an improvement of living conditions have to match their ability to spread economic lessons among a general public with little time for and interest in public policy debates against the ability of the activists to find and promote sympathetic stories of people whose circumstances pull at the heart strings, usually with the advantage of journalists who only present the stories, not the lessons.  Few people are (like me) going to say anything against such an emotional set-up unless those with a financial interest in the issue (landlords) add some monetary incentive to the scale, in which case the activists will deploy ad hominem attacks insisting that a speaker’s pay means his or her arguments can be ignored.

And so, in Rhode Island, the only thing most voters will hear about rent control will come through one-sided reports like Christine Dunn’s in the Providence Journal:

Meeting Wednesday morning at the home of an elderly couple facing eviction, about 20 activists from DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) announced the start of an effort to put a rent-control initiative on the Providence ballot this fall. …

Butch, 78, and Madonna Trottier, 76, live on the first floor of 40 Grove St. Butch Trottier said that their son, Steven, who is in his 40s and is disabled, lives on the second floor. Christopher Samih-Rotondo, an organizer from DARE, said the third-floor tenant has already been evicted.

As I say again and again, price is just a measure of value.  In this case, the value of rentals in general is much higher than the Trottiers are paying, and the value is greatest to students attending nearby colleges.

Dunn tucks the real problem into the tail end of the family’s narrative: “Butch Trottier said the family has not been able to find a residence they can afford.”  Rent control will make this problem worse, by reducing incentive for people to invest in the creation and maintenance of lower-end housing.  The way to address these problems is by looking at the underlying causes, not by using the force of government to deny economic reality and force people to behave as activists with no immediate skin in the game want them to behave.

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Not Really a Gotcha on Charitable Giving

Something in this headline from Politico raises a meta question:

Even putting aside the distinction between the president’s budget and the private donations of one of his secretaries, anybody who’s vaguely familiar with political philosophy would see that the implied gotcha of this headline is bogus.  Giving one’s own money to a charity is not at all inconsistent with reducing the compulsory charity of taxpayer funding to the same group.  (Yes, it’s deliberate that “compulsory charity” is any oxymoron.)

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So here’s the meta question:  Do the journalists who publish this sort of story not foresee this obvious response, indicating that they are reporting on subject matter without understanding how about half of their potential audience will see it, or are they framing stories mainly as an opposition party would, with the goal of hurting an elected official with whom they disagree?

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Tinnitus Among RI’s Would-Be Overlords

I never quite knew how to feel about the fact that I could hear the famous dog whistle that The Beatles recorded for the final moments of their iconic album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Nowadays, I’m very clear on my feelings about hearing a constant ringing in my ears, though, thanks to playing my albums too loudly, attending too many concerts, and working in construction for years.

When Gayle Goldin accuses the Gaspee Project of using an anti-Semitic dog whistle, the progressive Democrat state senator from Providence is not somehow overhearing a secret message intended for her political opposition, but rather, she is afflicted with a sort of identity-politics tinnitus.

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Goldin attributes the tone that she hears to a meme from the Gaspee Project calling another progressive Democrat, Representative Aaron Regunberg, a “Thought Police overlord” for co-sponsoring a vague bill that would give the state government the power to determine whether any decision made by any public or private school amounts to discrimination for a wide range of identity-politics groups.

The animating political belief behind the proposed legislation (now withdrawn after public outrage) is that the state government is the rightful ruler of every educational institution in the state.  Every little fief of education must pay homage to their feudal overlords and be subjected to whatever investigations latter might deem necessary to assert their power and impose their view of the world.

In short, “overlord” is entirely appropriate, not only in the case of this bill, but especially when it comes to Regunberg’s broader legislative output.  Indeed, just now in my inbox comes a release from General Assembly’s press office promoting Regunberg legislation that would have the government take over the energy industry in the state, not just de facto, which is arguably the case under current regulations, but in name, too.  A second bill would force private energy providers to give the state government an accounting of their advertising budgets.

Only a wanna be overlord could be so tone deaf as to miss the hypocrisies of this press release.  On his first proposal, Lord Regunberg cites “continuous rate hikes and service complaints” as incentive to put energy fully in the hands of the state government.  Seriously.  Somebody should tell the twentysomething politician that the state government’s budget went up about 37% in the 10 years after he graduated high school, while National Grid’s standard offer rate has gone up 3%.  As for “service complaints,” should we talk about UHIP, the DMV, the condition of our roads and bridges, the poor performance of our public schools, and just about every other government service in the Ocean State?

On his second proposal, Regunberg complains that “National Grid should not be using ratepayer dollars from our energy efficiency programs to boost their own corporate public relations and branding.”  Yet, Regunberg is currently campaigning for the state’s most notable do-nothing government job, as the state’s $118,000-per-year lieutenant governor, while using taxpayer money to submit and promote himself through legislation, most of which has little chance of actually becoming law.  Nine out of 122 legislative press releases since January 16 are attributed to Regunberg, who is 1 out of 113 legislators.

So, no, using the word “overlord” to describe Regunberg’s intentions is not an anti-Semitic dog whistle.  It’s more like the phrase that’s repeated on endless loop when old record players reach the end of Sgt. Pepper’s: “Never could be any other way.”

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Sabitoni’s Slippery Statistics to Justify Loose Rhetoric

Laborer’s union organizer Michael Sabitoni throws out a curious statistic as part of his response in a Providence Journal article about the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s push to reduce licensing regulations:

Asked about the report, Michael Sabitoni, the president of the R.I. Building & Construction Trades Council, LIUNA said: “No one labor or business like onerous government regulation, but when it comes to workers health and safety the Rhode Island building trades and our signatory union contractors believe and support license requirements and regulated training and apprenticeship programs for our Industry.

“In fact collectively, the trades and our contractors invest and spend over $4 million of private industry money training and retraining our work force every year. This investment … has had a drastic impact on workplace fatalities in our state in the construction industry,” he said. His count: only 3 of the last 35 fatalities that have occurred in R I. from 1998-2013 were union construction workers; the others were non-union.

Note how irrelevant most of this response is.  First, the Center isn’t saying that there shouldn’t be any regulation or licensing, but that the state government should take care not to impose licenses that seem to have little justification but protectionism of established providers, limiting the ability of new competition in their markets.  (Clearly, that dynamic helps Sabitoni’s organization.)

Second, the Center’s related brief focuses on 102 low-to-average-income occupations that are licensed, most of which have nothing to do with construction.  Notably, hair braiding would seem to be a relatively safe occupation.  Rhode Island’s third-most-arduously licensed occupation is public school preschool teacher is one that only 15 states license and isn’t notably dangerous.  Similarly, Rhode Island has the most arduous licenses for non-instructional teaching assistants… among the mere five states that license the job.

Even taking Sabitoni’s bait, however, leaves plenty of room for argument.  Philosophically, it may be great that his union provides safety training, and construction workers should definitely have those services available to them if they want them, but why shouldn’t adults be able to balance risk and reward for themselves?  According to the state Department of Labor and Training, there are 18,100 construction workers in Rhode Island.  Taking Sabitoni’s numbers at face value, why shouldn’t they be able to decide that a 1 in 500 chance of a fatal accident over 16 years is worth the rewards?

But when it comes to unionization, we shouldn’t take Sabitoni’s numbers at face value.  First of all, only 21% of Rhode Island’s construction industry is unionized.  Moreover, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists only 13 deaths in the construction industry over that period.  (Sabitoni may be inflating the fatality numbers by including some related occupation that tends not to be unionized.) In other words, the three fatalities are almost exactly the proportion that one would expect by Sabitoni’s reckoning.

It’s quite a thing to accuse others of wanting people to die, as Sabitoni does later in the article.  If only our standards for political discourse required more than undefined numbers to justify that sort of rhetoric.  By the Sabitoni standard, one could just as easily point to the tragic story of Sandy Meadows to suggest that it’s actually Michael Sabitoni who wants people to die, and after a long period of poverty and suffering, at that.

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Political Monday with John DePetro: Clarification from Democrats and Progressives

For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, this week, the topic was the clarity we’re getting from Providence Democrats, Rhode Island progressives, and teachers unions.

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I’ll be on again Monday, February 5, at 1:00 p.m. on WNRI 1380 AM and I-95.1 FM.

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Providence’s Ward Brings Clarity About the Game

The saga of Patrick Ward in Providence is proving to be very clarifying and therefore worthy of brief consideration.  Ward was, until he resigned last week, the chairman of the Providence Democratic City Committee.

I actually met Ward years ago in the early days of Anchor Rising, and my recollection is that he was relatively conservative.  He brought his then-girlfriend Sabina Matos to an Anchor Rising gathering of conservatives, and we joked about her progressivism.  Matos is now his wife, as well as a member and former president of the Providence City Council.

Ward’s recent travails basically break into three categories:

  1. Under his chairmanship, the Providence Democrats entered a secret and (by most accounts) unusual agreement with Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo, involving her fundraising prowess and their ability to take lots of extra money from donors for “party building.”
  2. Both Matos and Ward work for Raimondo’s administration, with Ward having been hired for a $71,608 job last June, sparking an ethics complaint by the state Republican Party.
  3. The reason Ward stepped down was that he came under fire for a Facebook post that he put up and took down in December applying ethnic stereotypes to two Italian council members.

Of the three, the first may be the most notable as clarification.  Governor Raimondo has proven to be much more successful at raising money from across the United States than convincing Rhode Islanders that she is a competent executive.  Given that she barely won in a three-way race last time, she’s going to need to rely heavily on her money.  The problem is that Rhode Island is a small market, so candidates with less money can still get their messages out, and pouring all of her cash money onto a limited area like Rhode Island has the risk of turning people off.  So how can the candidate maximize the advantage of all that dough?

John DePetro has been pointing to something that he and I discussed back in August, related to the special election in RI Senate District 13:  Close followers of campaign finances noticed that progressive Democrat Dawn Euer had paid somebody to become a notary public and go out collecting mail ballots, the importance of which is expanding.  According to Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, they increased from 6,000 statewide in 2012 to 15,000 in 2016.  Money from Raimondo’s national contacts could be used to register thousands of voters and walk tens of thousands through the process of voting for Raimondo… and any other candidates favored by the Providence committee… from the comfort of their own homes.

That Gorbea is trying to move the primaries up a few weeks and expand early voting puts an explanation point on this observation.  Former gubernatorial candidate Ken Block has been adding even more emphasis with his discovery that the special election currently in process in Pawtucket featured a single day of campaign time between the settling of the candidates and the opportunity to start voting.

This all starts to give one an idea of why a city political committee is valuable to cultivate with friendly faces, which gives some explanation for why number 2, above, is curious.  If Raimondo can have “her guy” running a city committee tasked with directly producing votes, her national donors could conceivably buy the election for her.

The kicker comes with number 3, wherein we see the progressives’ investment in identity politics blowing up on Raimondo.  Somebody held on to Ward’s offending Facebook post for a couple of months and then deployed it at a politically opportune time.  Consider that Ward called the vote on the agreement with Raimondo when several members of his committee were absent, notably Secretary Vincent Igliozzi… the father of one of the two city council members whom Ward mocked, John Igliozzi.

The fate of the Raimondo agreement has not been publicly disclosed, but if it remains in effect, other players in Rhode Island politics may now have a stronger hand in determining who benefits.

And so we start to see all the lines:  family and employment relationships, the mechanism for turning national money into votes, the impetus for moving elections away from a single day and an in-person vote, and the usefulness of identity politics for creating fodder for political hits.  The remaining question is whether Rhode Islanders are paying enough attention to notice.

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The Lesson of Personal Experience with Child Labor

An apparently missed connection in Laufton Ascencao’s response to Mike Stenhouse’s call for some champions of Rhode Island business betrays what looks like a missed life lesson, and it’s one that goes directly to debates about minimum wages and other uses of government to limit the arrangements to which employers and employees can agree:

I was 12 years old when I started working full-time. I was illegally paid $2 an hour under the table. I didn’t take the job because I wanted to buy myself something nice or because I just loved working so much. I took the job because my family needed food and we needed to keep the lights on. If I didn’t work, there was a good chance we’d end up hungry or in the dark. My mother worked over 80 hours a week and still we struggled.

These are unfortunate circumstances, to be sure, and we should keep in mind that we don’t have important details about Ascencao’s childhood job.  If it was dangerous or arduous work that children shouldn’t be doing under any circumstances, then that would have been wrong on its own merits.

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But if it was work suitable for a child — something safe and of mild strain and low pressure — then one could recast Ascencao’s lesson thus:  Being able to have her child work for $2 per hour allowed Ascencao’s mother to keep food on the table and power in the house.  When those are the stakes, desperate families will go outside of the law, as they did in this case, which is generally a more risky place to be.  Of course, not everybody who might be able to provide such a job is willing to go outside the law, limiting the supply, which means the restrictions can make a bad situation worse.

It would be an error (one that some readers are no doubt itching to make) to take this post as advocacy for child labor.  My preference, however, would be to reduce the circumstances that put families in the position of making these sorts of decisions, and that means developing a healthier economy, which means reducing the drag of taxes and regulations — that is, less government rather than the ever-more government that progressives seek.

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Political Incentives for the Opposition as for the News Media

A few weeks ago, Rhode Islanders were reacting to the rapid-fire news of two Providence Journal reporters’ transition to jobs in government offices on which they’d recently written stories.  Shortly thereafter, the announcement came that former Republican state Senator John Pagliarini had taken a job as the Senate parliamentarian, and Rhode Island Public Radio reporter Ian Donnis asked state GOP Chairman Brandon Bell whether this was a matter of concern as well.  I never saw Bell’s response, but mine was:  of course.

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An item in today’s Providence Journal Political Scene fleshes out why I’d say that:

Until recently, [Pagliarini] had kept the door open to a potential GOP run for a range of political offices from mayor to lieutenant governor. Now? “I have no aspirations to run for political office as of today,″ he told Political Scene about a week ago. He has also resigned as the state GOP’s general counsel.

And there you go. As with the reporters, the problem isn’t so much the appearance that the government is buying out the potent soldiers of the opposition, but that the prospect of a $54,259 part-time gig makes clear who has the career prospects on offer for anybody who might consider the possibility of raising the sorts of objections that might offend the powerful.

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