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The Advantage of the Blue States

Providence Journal columnist Mark Patinkin continues his series of essays learning about the United States by way of his old college buddies with a review of what one of them learned by biking across the country.  The short version:  The fly-over states are filled with nice people whom our economy is bypassing, which explains why they were willing to look past Donald Trump, the man, and see him as a challenge to the establishment.

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Of more interest, to me, is this bit of parochial chauvinism in the comments to Patinkin’s article, from Douglas Maiko:

people in blue states are much wealthier than midwest red states. It comes down to blue state economic policies and great opportuites to create wealth for one self here in blue land. Red State people tend to be cynical about the american dream, watch too much fox news, obsess with cultural issues. The numbers speak for themselves, move to a Blue state if you want the american dream

Even to the extent that there’s truth to his assessment of economic balance, Maiko’s attitude exhibits the dangerous arrogance seen in successful civilizations whose people believe their condition is permanent.  The likelihood is that the coasts are thriving based on a legacy of lucky geography and historical accident.

After all, the East Coast is the oldest region in the country, and both coasts have access to the world’s waterways, which is of decreasing value.  The coasts’ living generations, in other words, started from an advantaged place that had nothing to do with “blue state economic policies.”  Rather, the natural and cultural advantages of the areas allowed advocates of those economic policies to impose them without people’s feeling it as acutely as they would in regions requiring harder work and more sacrifice.

We should fear that our advantages won’t last if we keep driving out our productive class — those who want to cash in their drive and abilities for income, forcing established players to compete.  The crisis point may take time, or it might come all at once, when some fly-over city comes up with the next big thing that makes our legacy institutions and industries unnecessary.

Perhaps they’ll maintain the generosity that Patinkin’s friend observed in their roadside diners even when the coasts become dependent on the fly-overs.  Counting on that probably wouldn’t be a wise plan, however.


Hearing Tuesday on First Toll Gantries With Acute Case of UHIP-itis

A couple of weeks ago, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) released an Environmental Assessment of the first two proposed toll gantry locations in southern Rhode Island, a major initial step to the launch of Governor Gina Raimondo’s highly destructive, wasteful and unnecessary RhodeWorks toll program.

This Tuesday at 6:00 pm (that’s right, two days before Thanksgiving) in Richmond, RIDOT will be holding a workshop and taking public comment about it. Note that RIDOT will not be responding to any questions about the assessment or the gantries – heaven forbid they be responsive to the public – they will only be recording the public’s comments.

There’s one major problem with this Environmental Assessment: the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management explicitly told RIDOT that they cannot proceed with the second gantry location (PDF page 153 of the assessment) because no determination could be made about its impact on nearby wetlands due to inadequate information provided by RIDOT. That’s right, this ENVIRONMENTAL Assessment was released even though it was not ready – where have we heard that before? – lacking as it does a determination about a critical ENVIRONMENTAL component of the project.

In other words, as with the UHIP system, this Environmental Assessment was not ready and should not have been released.

(Important side bar: Governor Raimondo is purportedly a big proponent of the environment. Perhaps the press or some of her eventual opponents can ask her why she allowed the release of an Environmental Assessment that is glaringly incomplete. Does she care about the environment or does she not?)

In terms of the process going forward: after Tuesday’s hearing, RIDOT will submit the Environmental Assessment to the federal government. Governor Raimondo and RIDOT will do so with the fervent hope that the feds concur with the findings of this (incomplete) assessment that there would be no significant impact of the proposed first two gantries and do not make them do a full blown, drag-it-out-for-years environmental study. (Remember, she’s the environmental governor!)

The responsible reaction by the feds to this request should be exactly the same as RI DEM to the incomplete wetland information: decline to issue a determination in light of sloppy and incomplete information submitted by the Raimondo administration and send this Environmental Assessment back to the drawing board.

In terms of what concerned toll opponents can do: all comments made at Tuesday’s hearing will be passed along to the federal government. The hearing takes place at Chariho Middle School, 455 Switch Rd B, Richmond, RI 02894. (As a friend drolely observed, RIDOT is holding it there only because they couldn’t book a cornfield in an even more obscure location.) If you happen to be free that night and can stop by – the hearing starts at 6:00 pm but don’t hesitate to arrive early if you can – perhaps you can respectfully suggest that the feds do exactly that: send this not-ready-for-prime-time assessment back to the drawing board. Or feel free to comment on anything about these first two proposed gantries, including especially their very proposed existence.

And even if RIDOT obtains this wetlands determination by Tuesday’s hearing, they have already failed to comply with the regulation/procedure which governs this assessment and, minimally, need to start the thirty day clock again. At some point, Governor Raimondo needs to be held accountable, on a large scale or small, for green-lighting major state projects on the basis of unrealistic, self-serving whim rather than facts on the ground and the best interest of all Rhode Islanders.


State and Local Tax Deduction, Media Bias Lesson

Although I haven’t gone back in search of the articles I remember to have read, I don’t recall having come across articles in the mainstream media that reported ObamaCare, as a proposal, with headlines like this:  “Thousands in RI to Be Hit with Individual Mandate.”  Change the issue to a reform (and a party) that journalists oppose, and we get precisely such headlines from the Associated Press, appearing in the Providence Journal: “GOP tax overhaul: Targeted deduction would hit many in R.I..”

The print version is even worse: “Loss of targeted deduction could hit R.I. hard.”  Keep in mind that this isn’t hidden in the Business section or something.  This is front-page, above-the-fold in the Sunday edition, which is the most-read of the week.  The basis of the claim is this, with journalists Christina Cassidy and David Lieb relying heavily on left-leaning think tanks:

The exact effect in every state isn’t known, in part because of differences in the Senate and House versions of the bill. But the change to the deduction for state and local taxes could alter the bottom lines for millions of taxpayers who itemize.

In Rhode Island, 32.8 percent of filers claim the deductions, ranking it 12th among all of the states.

Back when ObamaCare was the question, journalists (and their left-wing sources) were much more interested in the number of people to be saved from the ravages of lacking health insurance even if they didn’t want it.  In other words, they played up the notion that the cost was worth it.

With tax reform, they downplay the trade-off, even though it’s much more direct and quantifiable.  Cassidy and Lieb do vaguely acknowledge that “most tax filers currently take the standard federal deduction,” which means this provision won’t affect them, and “some of those taxpayers [who do itemize] could get a larger deduction under the Republican plan.”  They don’t bother to put numbers on it, though.

In 2015, 170,890 Rhode Island tax filers took an average state-and-local tax deduction of $7,242. Under the GOP plan, the standard deduction on federal taxes will increase by $5,650.  This increase in the standard deduction is bigger than the state-and-local tax deductions for every single Rhode Island tax filer with income under $100,000.  The change will be a net benefit to all of those Rhode Islanders.

If journalists wanted to be accurate, they’d report that 15% of Rhode Island taxpayers might see an increase based on this change, all of them in the upper income brackets.  But that wouldn’t help the media’s preferred party nearly as much.

Of course, the obvious solution is to force our state and local governments to stop taxing us so highly, but that would be unthinkable.


We Must Preserve Our Right to Drive

I have to say that I’m with Andrew Stuttaford when it comes to the United States’ deciding whether the advantages of banning human-driven cars outweighs our, you know, right to independence:

For all the irritations that can come with car ownership, the essence of the automobile is the autonomy that it brings. The ability it gives, so long as there’s money for gas, to just get up and go, when you want, where you want, the way you want.

Forget all the environmentalist grumbling, it’s that individual autonomy that has long made the auto so offensive to so many on the left.

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I’m astonished that Stuttaford has to address his commentary in response to conservative thinkers.  We on the right are supposed to understand that convenience is one way the Devil buys your soul.  Give the government power over your decision to operate an automobile independently for the sake of economic (or any other kind of) gain, and you’ll find that the government will tell you where to (or not to) go, when, and how.

It must be at least 10 years ago, probably more, that I commented somewhere on a blogger’s suggestion that driving is a “grandfathered right.”  Given the progressive state of our country, the theory goes, if driving were to have been introduced now, there’s no way the powers who be would let us do it… even without the alternative of driverless cars.

As Stuttaford notes, if people opt to allow their cars to drive them around (and I might very well give such a vehicle a place in our household fleet), then that is their prerogative.  But just as your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose, your right to autonomous vehicles must accommodate my right to drive.


A.T. Cross Out the Incentive Programs

Not long after hitting up the Rhode Island taxpayer for incentives to move from one municipality to another within the state, pen company A.T. Cross has sold itself to a California private-equity company, according to WPRI’s Ted Nesi.  The silver lining:

A.T. Cross was awarded $1.9 million in state subsidies to help pay for the move to Providence, but R.I. Commerce Corporation spokesman Matt Sheaff said Thursday the company has not received any of that money at this point because the incentives are tied to job benchmarks it has not yet achieved.

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Not to quibble, but Kate Bramson reported last year in the Providence Journal that the company had already received $200,000, which would presumably be in addition to the thousands of dollars it receives every year through various government programs and directly from the governor’s office.

More to the point, the company now confirms that it will be shedding jobs, rather than adding them, which raises the question of whether it really needed the promise of millions in order move.


Is the Game About to Change for Labor Unions?


Can Worcester Really Support the PawSox?


Civic Groups and Socializing Just Aren’t What They Used To Be

Although I’m not sure why it was above-the-fold, front-page news in yesterday’s Newport Daily News, Sean Flynn’s mention that the Newport County Retired Teachers Association is struggling for participation is worth noting for its broader implications:

The annual dues for the organization are only $10 a year, which about 160 retirees currently pay.

“Only about 20 to 25 of them are active,” Bugara said. “NCRTA is not sustainable with that low a number. It’s the same people putting on the luncheons. We don’t have that much help.”

The retired teachers meet every three months for a luncheon at a local restaurant.

Mainly, the group meets for social reasons, puts out a newsletter to keep retirees informed about their mutual interests, and gives out a couple of scholarships to students each year.  It’s tempting to speculate about some cause specific to public-school teachers, who may be more likely to move on to second careers after retiring relatively young than in the past, or something like that.  After all, retiring in one’s early 50s now leaves multiple decades to fill with activity.

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But this story is too familiar to anybody who has anything to do with volunteer social organizations to be specific this group.  Are people busier than they used to be?  Do we have too many more distractions?  Are communications and transportation technologies so improved that we more-easily satisfy our need to socialize with family and people more of our choosing?  Or has something changed in our culture?

Personally, I’m not in a good place to judge.  Four children, two working adults, and a wide array of responsibilities prevent me from going to many events that I’d actually like to attend.  The answer to the mystery of reduced participation, however, seems unlikely to be that increasing numbers of people match my circumstances.

Something, somewhere seems to be slipping, and I haven’t seen a good explanation.


Last Impressions 40: The Chaos of a Correcting Culture

Not interested in Moore; Trump the drunken wrecking ball operator; and the needle that conservatives may be able to thread to social victory.

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Making Meaning a Real Part of Economic Discussions

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz is right to point out that we don’t put enough emphasis on an important aspect of our working lives:

A job’s meaningfulness — a sense that the work has a broader purpose — is consistently and overwhelmingly ranked by employees as one of the most important factors driving job satisfaction. It’s the linchpin of qualities that make a valuable employee: motivation, job performance and a desire to show up and stay.

About the closest one gets to this conversation comes when, as part of political debates about living wages and mandatory benefits, some religious leader adds the phrase “meaningful work” to the list of workers’ rights.

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Although she didn’t go so far as to raise the prospect of government action, Elejalde-Ruiz’s article does emphasize that employers are doing something they shouldn’t when they don’t give meaning to their employees’ jobs, not unlike the presumptuous statements that RI employers are cheating themselves by not offering sick time.  Perhaps she backs away because talk of meaning begins to illustrate how little ground one can actually cover when insisting on assigning people to categories (boss versus worker) and trying to resolve perceived problems categorically.

Blanket rules won’t help employers make employees’ jobs more meaningful, just as one can’t force the employees to take a deliberate approach to seeking meaning.  These questions are bound up with individual worldview and personal interactions.

What we can do is to stop oversimplifying our lives for the sake of political tugs-of-war.  Consider how easily the notion of meaningful work can flip:  Human beings will be attracted to work that is meaningful, which means they’ll tend to work for less pay.  Conversely, employers have to pay more to attract employees when the work isn’t attractive in its own right.  Put that way, it’s simply inappropriate to make declarations about, say, low pay for teachers without also commenting on how much they’re paid in meaning, so to speak.

Indeed, an interesting study could probably be made of gender gaps in these terms.  What if the longstanding cultural expectation that men would provide for their families left them with a meaningfulness deficit?  That could certainly play into suicide rates.


Overestimating the Concern of Education Officials

I think Sandra Stotsky overestimates the degree to which Rhode Islanders actually pay attention to things like the standardized tests that government schools give our children, but her NewBostonPost essay does serve notice to those who do that Massachusetts’s test mightn’t be the font of rigor that they think:

We don’t know if the Rhode Island Department of Education knows it has been bamboozled because state education officials there haven’t told Rhode Island parents that the “MCAS” tests it is giving Rhode Island students are PARCC in disguise. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education convinced Rhode Island education officials and the Rhode Island legislature to use the Bay State’s tests in place of Rhode Island’s previously used PARCC tests.  Did it tell Rhode Island education commissioner Ken Wagner and state Representative Gregg Amore that Massachusetts’s current tests, called MCAS, use mainly PARCC test items and bear no resemblance to the Bay State’s pre-Common Core tests?  That would be the ethical thing to do.

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Why are PARCC tests being called MCAS in Massachusetts? Because state law (the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993) requires assessment of state standards in grade 10 through state tests called MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) and the law couldn’t be changed without the legislature knowing about the game being played. So, if the Massachusetts education department and state board of education keep the name, but change its substance, the governor, the secretary of education, and the state legislature won’t be, officially, wiser.

Wagner doesn’t seem like much of a boat rocker and is childless, while Amore is a now-retired union teacher.  In other words, they are more likely to be happy, rather than concerned, that the new test they’ve brought to the state won’t be as effective in illustrating how much our public education system isn’t teaching children.


Fancy Funding Deals That Skirt the Law Should Be Avoided

On Tiverton Fact Check, I’ve detailed an example of how the town government appropriates money in a way that (let’s say) conflicts with the clear language of the town’s Home Rule Charter:

The complicating factor is that the vote [to create a restricted revenue source for pay-as-you-throw trash bag revenue] was taken as a resolution in the FTM docket, which should have made it valid for the duration of that year’s budget only. Resolutions have to be renewed each year, and the PAYT restricted account has not been renewed. In other words, the town has been putting that money into a restricted account illegally for six years. To avoid an annual vote, the council would have to present voters with an opportunity to write the account into the charter or provide some other vote akin to a bond approval, making clear to voters that the restricted account will go on forever, or end at some future date.

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To some extent, these sorts of things should be expected.  Local government generally consists of people who aren’t government experts and who often see themselves as engaged in a sort of volunteer service; process rules can therefore seem frustrating and unreasonable.  Additionally, in a council-based system, they’re often overseeing a rolling series of town managers and solicitors who lack a long-term institutional knowledge (which is just objective fact) and have financial incentive to tell the council that it can do what its members want to do (which can be corrupt).

In my view, that’s a reason to keep government limited.  If a transaction is too technically or politically complex for a council and well-paid staff to make it under the clear rules of the law, then it shouldn’t be done.  In this case, the council created a new rubbish fee without taking additional steps that would have required additional votes of the public, which sounds quite a bit like the proposed PawSox stadium deal, specifically, and moral obligation bonds, in general.

I often wonder how many similar examples could be found throughout Rhode Island if residents were to make a dedicated practice of combing through their municipal governments’ audits.


Giving Money Outside of Government Still Counts as Compassion

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The Unadulterated Projection of Relative Decline for Rhode Island

The word “mixed” in the headline for a Ted Nesi report on seems misplaced.  Michael Lynch’s report for the state government, by way of consultant IHS Markit, seems pretty negative to me:

Through 2022, Lynch predicts Rhode Island payrolls will grow by just 0.4% a year on average, a rate that would rank near the bottom among the 50 states, at 48th. …

Overall, IHS expects Rhode Island’s population and labor force to grow about 0.1% a year on average of the next 10 years. “This will rank among the lowest in the country,” Lynch noted, and is “reflected in our forecasts for lackluster employment growth.” …

“This would provide a useful crop of young and well-educated workers ready to enter the labor force and fill vacancies left behind by the aforementioned retirees,” he wrote. “Our forecasts indicate that the state will fail in this area – its 20- to 29-year-old cohort will contract over the next decade.”

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Nesi touts a “silver lining” in the “booming” housing market, but in context, that’s a negative.  Regulations and taxes are keeping the housing inventory in Rhode Island from growing (which means construction jobs are restrained, too).  In context, the more-accurate characterization would be that, however pitiful Rhode Island’s economy may be, the government is keeping our housing market even more suppressed.

This isn’t a mixed picture.  It’s an unadulterated portrait of how an overbearing government can drag down a state.