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Imagine Every Rep Surveying Constituents

One of the topics on my weekly call-in to the John DePetro Show, today, was the idea of Democrat House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s surveying his constituents regarding their views on various issues as the House moves into its annual race to do everything that’s important within a couple of months.  No doubt, he’s got some sense of the responses he’ll get and (inasmuch as he’s keeping the results secret) will only release those data points that serve his political interests.

But still, let’s not let cynicism brush off what I would argue is an excellent development.  I’ve confirmed with the speaker’s office that he used campaign funds for the survey.  Imagine if every representative and senator used his or her campaign funds to survey constituents annually (at least) specifically on current issues of political debate.  Then imagine if they made a practice of releasing the results and then working to justify, to their own constituents, any areas in which they voted inconsistently with their preferences.

Why, that might be something like representative democracy!

Of course, in this case and in Rhode Island, one can’t step away from the cynicism of noting that this survey of the speaker’s specific 10,000ish voter span in Cranston could be setting the policy terms for a state of around one million people.  But even then, if an open process of surveying constituents were part of the culture of the State House, it would be immediately clear who was voting with their constituents and who was finding excuses to vote with legislative leadership.

As a bonus, this practice would give incumbents something to spend their campaign money on, maybe avoiding the trap of letting it build up into the tempting pots that have been tripping up Providence City Council members.


If I were of a progressive bent, I’d suggest passing a law to require legislators to use campaign funds in this way.  Being reasonable (which is to say, being a conservative), I’d just suggest that it’s a good reason for all politicians to face political opposition every election, as Mattiello did last year.

And as a hint to potential candidates, it wouldn’t be a bad campaign pledge to make.


Maybe They Really Just Don’t Get It in the Public Sector

On Channel 10, we learn of the dozens of state employees, some with six-figure salaries, put on paid administrative leave for months on end, even more than a year.  Perhaps among thousands of employees, an organization will sometimes find it to be the most efficient thing to do to pay employees not to work while some issue is resolved, and in the case of government, the glacial pace of action is its own, distinct story.  Even so, when the number of such employees gets to be over fifty at a given time, doesn’t it begin to reveal an employment attitude in government that money is never really an issue and that the system is set up mainly for the benefit of employees?

Channel 12 has another example.  This time, in the evergreen field of government employees’ doing things that shock, it’s a Department of Transportation employee who (allegedly) regularly sleeps in his vehicle during working hours.  Department Director Peter Alviti (formerly a director for the Laborers’ union) displays that attitude again:

Alviti told us the engineering technician’s job was to inspect concrete at a Rhode Island plant, to make sure the mix had the required ratio of water and dry material. Alviti also said this case prompted him to personally address about 90 RIDOT employees who have similar access to state vehicles.

“The public sector is not an easy place to be, I reminded them,” said Alviti. “But it’s the place we chose to be employed. All of us. And with that comes some additional responsibilities, particularly when it comes to public perception.”

Yes, you read that right:  An employee is (allegedly) caught sleeping on the job, and the director’s response is that public sector employees are like martyrs of accountability.  A job that allows for regular midday naps is “not an easy place to be”?

Never mind “public perception.”  I think we ought to be more interested to learn about and understand the perception of those who work in government.


Is Party or Country First for Whitehouse?

One of Rhode Island’s U.S. Senators, Sheldon Whitehouse, recently illustrated the outrageous level of partisanship that he exemplifies.  Asked at a South Providence event “how long we have to wait” for the impeachment of President Trump, Whitehouse provided the following response (captured by RI Future’s Steve Ahlquist).

Sure, the blame could go around on who has contributed to the current atmosphere in the United States, and the argument would become yet another political rabbit hole.  Not surprisingly, I’d fault the national Democrats and news media for stoking anti-Bush lunacy, an attitude that Barack Obama perpetuated as a theme of his presidency.  But putting blame aside, what struck me is that Senator Whitehouse didn’t even give lip service to responsible rhetoric or patriotic sentiment.

  • He didn’t caution his audience that investigations might produce nothing, or stop well short of the president.
  • He didn’t express even superficial hope that the country could avoid something that would be so disruptive and damaging to our unity.
  • He didn’t express a preference for a president who would grow in office, even if he’d find that miraculous, at this point.
  • Instead, he furthered the speculation and presented impeachment as something for which we can and should hope.

That is a shocking degree of callousness.  Until November 2016, we could have expected elected officials to muster at least the sense of responsibility for the health of the republic to express hope that even a horrible president wasn’t proven to have behaved in an impeachable manner and would correct himself in office, rather than drive the country to the point at which kicking him out would be the best option.

But not in 2017, apparently, and not Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.


Talk Property Taxes in Real Terms

Here’s a worthwhile exercise.  Pick a house value — the median for your town, perhaps — and search your town’s tax rolls for every house of about that value.  Then go back a few years, find the same houses, and see how things have changed.

For Tiverton, I used $260,000, which is around the median for the town, with this result:

In 2009, which is the first year for which the town has tax rolls that are easy to search on the computer, those same households paid $4,231, and the average value of their homes was $294,843. In other words, each family is now paying $744 more in taxes, even though each house is worth about $35,000 less.

Of course, that doesn’t tell the whole story because for the past three years, voters have used the [financial town referendum] to keep their taxes from increasing more than 0.9%. From 2009 to 2013, before the first zero-point-something FTR, those 37 taxpayers lost 14% of the value of their homes, but their actual tax payments went up 16%. Does that seem fair? Would Mr. Edwards tell his neighbors, “Hey, don’t worry! We ‘only’ added $166 to your tax bill every single year, and you ‘only’ lost $11,563 of your house’s value each year”?

Those who run government, and those who profit from it, are focused on their expenditures and finding ways to get taxpayers to keep handing over more and more money for their use and personal gain.  Hey, $166 added per year is only $3 per week.  If everybody in town would just skip a couple of coffees every week, they can collectively hand over millions more of their dollars to the town government.

Of course, after a few years of that, the entire town has had to give up the pleasure of coffee altogether, but it’s for the greater good, right? And we can feel comfortable letting the people who benefit from the money decide what the greater good is, can’t we?


The Corporate Welfare Strategy Has Failed

The massive budget shortfall is proof that the state government’s corporate welfare strategy has failed. Rhode Island’s current corporate tax-credit economic development strategy is highly inefficient as it creates relatively few jobs at an extremely high cost per job to taxpayers. This targeted ‘advanced industry’ approach does little if anything to improve the overall business climate, which is necessary if organic entrepreneurial growth is to occur on its own. A 3.0% sales tax would disproportionately help low-income families.
The folly of relying on the unemployment rate as an indicator of growth is apparent in the Ocean State. The Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI), developed by the Center, provides state lawmakers with a more comprehensive view of the larger state economic picture. This index is designed to show broader picture of our economy as opposed to the narrow snapshot of the monthly unemployment rate. Rhode Island is still trapped in last place in New England and at 48th in the country on the JOI.
Rather than make the situation worse via the progressive’s “no shot” agenda, bold pro-business, pro-family reforms like a 3.0% sales tax must take on renewed priority.  The progressive-left is openly promoting job-killing, anti-business, and anti-family policies. Their so-called ‘fair shot agenda’ would transform our Ocean State into a liberal hell, where businesses face even higher legal risks and financial burdens. There schemes would make Rhode Island a less attractive place for employers and resulting in fewer good job opportunities for families.
Rhode Islanders deserve the freedom to achieve their hopes and dreams. I ask you to continue to make your voice heard against the status quo public policy culture in Rhode Island. We know what the solutions are, but when will the insiders listen? The rigged system does everything it can to keep the little guy out of the process. But, things do not have to be this way in Rhode Island. We have seen big changes in other states. Speak out against the cronyism and corruption. Our families can’t afford to wait.

State House Report with John DePetro, No. 9: We’re All Gonna Die!

For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WADK 1540 AM show, the topics were the Democrats’ health care scare mongering and the early political campaigning of two Republicans.

I’ll be on again Tuesday, May 16, at 2:00 p.m.


The Paper of the RI Resistance Does Its Best

Notice that today’s half-page (with pictures) Providence Journal article about a Woman Project “rally” to support the right of women to kill their children doesn’t mention how many people actually attended.  Sure, Patrick Anderson lets us know that prior rallies of the Rhode Island left wing were sizable, but from the text and the pictures, one gets the impression that a dozen or two people (including the performers and professional activists) showed up.

That fact doesn’t prevent the Projo from considering the event newsworthy, which contributes to the impression that it’s really just fulfilling its role in “the Resistance” by making sure that readers of its biggest weekly edition know that the anti-Trumpers are still out there.

State Rep. J. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, [who doesn’t appear to have been at the rally,] has been a lead organizer of the Rhode Island anti-Trump movement and has watched it evolve from, as he described it, “an inferno to a slow, steady burn.”

He noted that in addition to all the weekend events, there were several State House rallies each week on different left-leaning bills.

“One important thing the movement is doing is moving from resistance to policy,” Regunberg said, “making the transition from outrage to something concrete.”

I couldn’t help think of the movement’s transition to “a slow, steady burn” while reading Cheryl Chumley’s Washington Times article about escalating left-wing violence against conservatives and Republicans.  Add to Chumley’s list a message sent to Republican Congressman from Virginia Tom Garrett: “This is how we’re going to kill your wife.”

At this point, it probably won’t take much effort, but for a moment’s imaginative exercise, consider how the Providence Journal would have reported on a small conservative rally at the State House in the context of national increase of violence and intimidation perpetrated by right-wingers.  “Slow, steady burn” might have been used to insinuate something sinister.


Changing the American Campus with Conservatives

Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, has an essay in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal suggesting that institutions of higher education pursue a sort of “affirmative action” to ensure that conservative and traditionalist viewpoints are represented on their campuses in a sustained way:

The issue, however, isn’t whether the occasional conservative, libertarian or religious speaker gets a chance to speak. That is tolerance, an appeal to civility and fairness, but it doesn’t take us far enough. To create deeper intellectual and political diversity, we need an affirmative-action program for the full range of conservative ideas and traditions, because on too many of our campuses they seldom get the sustained, scholarly attention that they deserve.

Such an effort can take many different forms. In 2013, Wesleyan decided to join Vassar College in working with the Posse Foundation to bring cohorts of military veterans to campus on full scholarships. These students with military backgrounds are older than our other undergraduates and have very different life experiences; more of them also hold conservative political views.

Wesleyan is expanding this program to include teachers, as well as students, with military backgrounds, as well as instituting more right-wing course content.  One might also suggest expanding courses in other ways — requiring some sort of course in a trade, for example, or theology taught by an actual religious person.

Although I agree with Roth’s general suggestion, the notion of “affirmative action” isn’t the right approach.  What he’s really talking about is improving the product that universities offer, presenting a full range of intellectual perspectives and giving students a more-thorough education.  One wouldn’t say that a university needs an “affirmative action” program for mathematicians; one would simply say the university needs to hire more.

Frankly, I don’t expect this idea to catch on in a broad way.  On some level, it seems to me, progressives understand that conservative ideas have an intellectual appeal, and when that is mixed with a confident sense of rebellion in an otherwise uniform liberal context, it can be irresistible to the young adults whom progressive professors believe a university’s purpose to indoctrinate and a refuge for those whose values they wish to undermine.

In other words, I think the Leftists who’ve dominated the American campus and turned it into the country’s bleeding edge of liberal fascism want it that way, even as it undermines their value proposition.


Not Stating the Obvious on RI Economic News

I noted a couple of days ago URI economic professor Len Lardaro’s witticism at Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s suggestion that the state government’s revenue shortfall is a consequence of the Donald Trump presidency.  Lardaro also appears as a stronger-than-others voice of sanity in Patrick Anderson’s Providence Journal article on the same subject:

Leonard Lardaro, economics professor at the University of Rhode Island, said overall revenues falling short by 1.6 percent is “not a crisis,” but may be a sign that the recovery, tepid as it was, may be giving way to a stall in growth.

“The second half of last year was not a terribly favorable one for Rhode Island,” Lardaro said. “The biggest problem is our labor force has been declining since the last recession peak. Rhode Island for a decade should be in crisis mode.”

If anything, Lardaro understates things.  As I’ve written before, employment (Rhode Islanders working) has essentially flatlined since the start of Governor Raimondo’s first full fiscal year in office, and job growth (jobs in the state) has slowed down.  New York Times proclamations notwithstanding, there is no “momentum” in the Rhode Island economy.  And there’s no surprise that revenue growth isn’t materializing.

Why is everybody so hesitant about stating the obvious:  that Governor Raimondo is just making things up?  Is it partly because of glowing political profiles across the nation are a signal to local journalists and commentators about how they should be presenting our governor?  I rather think that pressure should go in the other direction, with the national press looking locally to make sure that they’re not falling for some spin about one of our own politicians.


Choosing a Scandal… and a Reality

The most fascinating thing about the era of President Trump, so far, is the degree to which it exposes our capacity to live in different dimensions of reality.  When that’s the case, the same new events manage to affirm people in contradictory understandings of the facts.

So, if you believe that there’s some major Russia scandal poised to take down the Trump White House hiding just beneath the noise, the president’s firing of the FBI director is an obvious attempt to move back from his inevitable fall.  That firing a single director could hardly accomplish his supposed objective doesn’t matter, because one can bridge the gap with the explanation of Trump’s ham-handedness.

If, however, you believe that the scandal is of a Democrat establishment trying to cover up its own malfeasance and take down a Republican president, with the help of a news media that is largely indistinguishable from the party, then you’ll be inclined not to fault the president for dismissing FBI Director Comey even if his intention was to stop the Russia talk, because that talk doesn’t indicate a serious investigation, but rather a misuse of government process to impede the administration and help its opponents.

My own view is that the second scenario is closer to reality, although I would fault the president for handling these issues in a way that generates noise rather than clarity.  For some evidence of the Democrat/media scheme, consider this tidbit, buried at the very end of a Washington Post article that the Providence Journal headlines, “Acting FBI director contradicts Trump White House on Comey, Russia probe“:

[Acting director Andrew] McCabe was also at the center of a controversy in the Clinton email investigation – the case that administration officials have pointed to as Trump’s basis for firing Comey. The Justice Department inspector general is investigating whether McCabe should have been recused from the case because his wife ran for a Virginia Senate seat and took money from the political action committee of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D, a Clinton ally.

The FBI asserted at the time that McCabe had checked with ethics officials and followed agency protocols. He also was not yet deputy director when his wife was recruited to run.

We’re not talking one small donation among many from McAuliffe — long known to be close to the Clintons — but a half-million dollars.  That fact, along with the decision of the journalist to hold this significant context until the very end (tacking it on as if in acknowledgment that it would be simply inexcusable not to include it at all) supports the idea that the real scandal (a noun that should probably be plural in this case) is an obstructionist establishment attempting to ensure that the people’s elected executive and legislative majority don’t actually manage to accomplish the sorts of things that they were elected to do.


Mild Nod to Pension Reality Shows the Scam

You have to laugh (lest you cry) at the gimmicks of state government financing.  Rhode Island General Treasurer Seth Magaziner is preparing to lead the state Retirement Board in reducing the pension fund’s discount rate (that is, the assumed investment return) from 7.5% to 7.0%.  For the record:

The pension’s investments lost 0.27 percent in fiscal 2015-2016 and have gained 5.75 percent over the prior five fiscal years and 4.8 percent over 10 years.

Our investment assumption should be no more than 4.5%, because this assumption is supposed to be what we can reasonably guarantee the investments will yield.  Unfortunately, the pension fund’s assumptions aren’t really meant to help the state plan accurately; they’re meant to hide the real cost of benefits that politicians have promised to unionized employees.  As I’ve gotten Tiverton’s investment advisors to admit, the high investment assumption actually has built into it the willingness of elected officials to increase taxes down the road to cover shortfalls.

Notice, for example, that the treasurer’s plan delays increased payments for a year.  That’s a political concession, not a financial one.  Again, making the pension system work in the way that has been sold to taxpayers and employees is not the primary goal.  Helping politicians get away with bad management and crony deals is.


What Are City Governments’ Real Priorities?

Ted Nesi reports (if I may paraphrase) that Rhode Island cities have been crawling over each other to slurp from the sluice some money from the Boston Federal Reserve:

Federal Reserve Bank of Boston President and CEO Eric Rosengren visited Rhode Island on Thursday to award $400,000 grants to three local cities through the bank’s Working Cities Challenge.

The program aims to promote collaboration between local leaders to address socioeconomic challenges. The three Rhode Island winners are Providence, Cranston and Newport. Eight other cities submitted applications but did not win grants, which are funded by public and private contributions, not the Fed. …

Appearing on this week’s Executive Suite, Rosengren said the four-year-old program grew out of research conducted by the Boston Fed that showed efforts to tackle cities’ challenges worked best when leaders from different groups worked together toward a common goal.

Readers may recall that the Boston Fed’s involvement with Lawrence, Massachusetts, under a project in the same program is what kicked off my thinking about the “company state” or “government plantation” model, whereby government services become an area’s core industry, with the revenue coming from other taxpayers or higher levels of government (such as state or federal taxpayers).

With these new grants, we should also put the matter in the context of political structures and incentives.  Here we have cities competing to charm “public and private” outside interests with their proposals.  That is, they’re competing to match the values of the Boston Fed and the people or groups funding the project.  Sure, these “community” projects have local advocates (most often ideological activists, special interests, and other insiders), but ultimately, these projects are things being done to local constituents, not for them.

It’s time we stop seeing money that our governments manage to collect from other sources as money that we’ve somehow received.  It isn’t.  That’s especially true when it’s used for projects that the government wouldn’t otherwise have bothered to do.  It’s money that goes to the sorts of people who know how to get government money and spent in order to shape our society in ways that other people want, not us.


End “Crimetown” Government by Shrinking It

The front-page article of today’s Providence Journal raises a contrarian warning flag for me:

[Former U.S. Attorney Peter] Neronha said the Aponte, Jackson and Fox cases had threads that are common to many public corruption prosecutions. They all involved misuse of campaign funds, he said, and for relatively small amounts of money and the cases were built on examining those campaign finance records.

“That’s how we got Fox,” Neronha said. “They are all mini-Foxes.”

It’s obvious that the public has an interest in protecting itself from bribery of government officials, but it should also be obvious that setting up a system for regulating political campaigns is sensitive territory.  Increasingly, these incidents seem to be moving from cases of using campaign finances in order to purchase influence to cases that purely involve violations of campaign laws.  As a community, we may conclude that campaign finance laws are important to enforce strictly, but we lose sight of something important if we elide mafia crime and systemic bribery of government officials with elected officials’ use of money given to them to advance their political careers for expenses that don’t appear to directly further that cause.

Dan McGowan, of WPRI, provides the most detail that I’ve come across for the case of Providence City Council President Luis Aponte, and this is the crux:

[Rhode Island campaign finance director Richard] Thornton conducted a review of Aponte’s campaign expenses and personal bank account expenses from December 2013 through December 2015, and the report stated that it “suggests that campaign funds were used for personal expenses, particularly during periods when there were insufficient funds in his personal bank account.”

Sure, the amount in Aponte’s case (around $14,000) is substantial, but this is the sort of temptation that anybody who’s ever had a period of living paycheck to paycheck can understand.  Moreover, on a smaller scale, it’s easy to think of examples in which donors probably wouldn’t object to the use of their money to cover expenses that may not fall within the letter of campaign finance law.  If, for example, your Internet is crucial to your campaigning and you can’t pay the bill, a temporary loan (or even withdrawal) of campaign funds isn’t obviously a violation of the donors’ intent.

Note that I’ve picked that example from thin air, and a process may exist to apportion Internet fees, as a specific example, but people who want to participate in their government may not do so if they’re going to have to figure out every little accounting nuance.  Do we really want to make representative democracy such that anybody running for any office needs to hire an accountant specializing in campaign finances?

And then there’s the information — which I guarantee will be news to some folks inside and outside of government — that campaign finance officials can dig into candidates’ personal finances looking for violations.  Many people are just not going to want to get involved with this mess, meaning that incumbents will have less competition, which will lead to less of the true accountability that politicians are supposed to have in a competitive political system and therefore more corruption.

We’re in a regulatory trap, here, and while it may create content for journalists and opportunities for established politicians, it isn’t healthy for our state or country.  The solution isn’t to chase corruption deeper and deeper into engaged citizens’ personal lives.  Rather, the solution is to reduce the scope of what government does (so there’s less influence to buy) and limit the length of time that individual people can hold particular offices.


Who Is That Guy?

Rick Snizek, executive editor of the Rhode Island Catholic, has posted a profile of me related to my being awarded a Lumen Gentium award for communication of the Catholic faith:

Katz says that being honored with the award makes him feel as if he has to redouble his efforts to deserve it.

“While I have written quite a bit that has been explicitly Catholic, I’ve tended to see my vocation as a more subtle evangelism,” he says. “In our place and time, many people are entirely unmoored from our Christian roots, and the secular culture has taught them to be suspicious of the religious presentation. Articulating the beautiful logic and practical wisdom of a worldview rooted in Catholic belief and tradition can be the force of revelation in such an environment.”

The dinner and award ceremony — also highlighting the activities of others, whom I’d concede are much more deserving than I am — is next week and, apparently, sold out.


Last Impressions Podcast Episode 15: Western Elite’s Original Sin/Blindspot

We’re no longer swallowing the spin, and the central planners better get over themselves pretty quickly.

Right-click title on track list to download.



The Mysterious Missing Government Revenue

I’ve got to give it to University of Rhode Island economics professor Len Lardaro.  He issued a good line upon hearing Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo blame the Trump administration for Rhode Island’s just-announced revenue gap:

Revenues are falling because we are looking to Washington? What a joke. Growth is slowing. Does she think it is sunspots, perhaps?

Ted Nesi highlights a big shortfall in the expected corporate income tax revenue, which jibes with my running hypothesis.  Within the last decade, Rhode Island government has made a number of tax changes to make it seem as if politicians were doing something to address our sluggish economy, including to the corporate income tax.  These changes have all been gimmicks, though — lowering rates by shuffling around how taxes are calculated.

My theory is that these reforms weren’t revenue neutral at all, but were instead effectively tax increases.  This made revenue come in higher than expected for a few years, because taxes had been increased, but it actually put more drag on the economy.  Under that scenario, what we’re seeing in Rhode Island is the end of that effect, as projections based on the illusion of growth out-pace the economy.


Demagoguing Pre-Existing Conditions

Rich Lowry gives an explanation, in the New York Post, of why the fear mongering about the American Health Care Act (AHCA)’s effects on those with pre-existing conditions is yet another manufactured outrage:

The perversity of it all is that the legislation is properly understood as doing more to preserve the ObamaCare regulation on pre-existing conditions than to undermine it. The legislation maintains a federal baseline of protection in such cases, and says only that states can apply for a waiver from it, provided that they abide by certain conditions meant to ensure that no one is left out in the cold.

Since these provisions only involve the individual insurance market, a small slice of the overall insurance picture (about 18 million are on the individual market), and merely make possible state waivers, they are inherently limited.

You’re not affected if you get insurance through your employer (155 million people), or through Medicaid or Medicare. You’re not affected if you live in a state that doesn’t request the waiver, a category that will certainly include every blue state and most red states, too. Even if you buy insurance on the individual market and live in a state that gets a waiver, you’re not affected if you’ve maintained insurance coverage continuously and not had a gap in coverage longer than 63 days.

By this point, we’re talking about a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the population. If you do have a pre-existing condition in a waiver state and haven’t had continuous coverage, you can be charged more by your insurer only the first year. The state will have access to $8 billion in federal funds explicitly to ease the cost of your insurance, and the state must further have a high-risk pool or similar program to mitigate insurance costs for the sick.

People who oppose these sorts of measures — especially with as much heat and smoke as we’ve been seeing related to the AHCA — give the appearance of elevating their own access to power above any real policy consideration.


We Had the Logic, Now We Have an Example, Too

Rhode Islanders, especially, should heed the admonition of The American Interest that Puerto Rico may be a final warning lesson to states within the United States:

This [bankruptcy] could have been avoided by sensible and timely cuts, by turning a deaf ear to public sector union demands for wages and salaries, by a series of small but definite steps away from the blue model, welfare state governance. But the press, certainly including the NYT which is now reporting the disaster, would have attacked any politicians taking these steps as “harsh”, or “cruel to the poor”.

Now Puerto Rico is in a deeper hole, with much more suffering than any of the moderate cuts would have imposed.

Just look at the false rhetoric permeating the debate over some overly mild reforms to the disastrous ObamaCare entitlement system for a timely illustration.  Any restraint on government programs is declared to be a “draconian cut” that will hurt or kill people, marking politicians who support reforms as evil.  This will not end well, but just like junkies, supporters of big government just want that one more fix, and let tomorrow take care of itself, somehow.


Suicide Demands More than Generic “More Services” Answers

I suppose Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner deserves credit for mentioning non-government organizations when answering a question about young-adult suicide, but his “solemn” answer still elides something important:

A student from Barrington High School said suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young people ages 10-24 in Rhode Island. What can the schools do to help students with mental illness?

Wagner grew solemn. He said he had lost a close friend to suicide when he was young. That was one of the reasons he became a school psychologist. The schools have to invest in mental-health services, he said. But they also have to partner with mental-health organizations, with churches and temples, to get the word out, to publicize the warning signs.

Let’s start by acknowledging that the numbers are, thankfully, relatively small.  According to the WISQARS database of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the number of suicides among Rhode Islanders 19 and younger was 26.  That’s 26 horrible tragedies, but in light of the fact that there are more than 140,000 students enrolled in Rhode Island public schools, it’s a very small percentage, which suggests that the answer is more cultural than representative of a systemic problem that government services can solve.

The disappointing omission in Wagner’s generic, albeit heartfelt, answer is that this isn’t a demographically even group.  In the age group that the Barrington student mentioned (10-24), 80% of suicides are boys and young men.  If we look only at boys, defined as teens and pre-teens, the percentage is 73%.  That goes up to 77% if we just look at 2014 and 2015, meaning that the gender disparity is getting worse.

If teenage suicide is a problem in Rhode Island, it’s overwhelmingly a problem among boys.  Yet, Wagner’s boss, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo, hosts an annual “Governor for a Day” writing contest that is only open to girls.

If we look only at Rhode Islanders aged 20-24, 88% of the 32 suicides over five years were young men.  These guys don’t need government services.  They need opportunity and a strong, healthy culture that encourages marriage and families.  In short, they need everything that the progressive agenda discourages.


What Do Non-Rhode Islanders Care About a State Rep or Lieutenant Governor

Pondering why a young, still-new state representative from Rhode Island would have $128,000 sitting around in campaign donations, I thought I’d run his name through Rhode Island’s campaign finance search tool.  Regunberg is reportedly considering a run for lieutenant governor, which anybody who watches Rhode Island politics knows is essentially a political holding spot by which to live off of taxpayers while gathering media attention in preparation for a more-significant office, a political appointment, or some sort of private-sector payoff.

That being the case, why has 51% (i.e., a majority) of Regunberg’s campaign cash, gathered since he started collecting it in 2014, come from beyond the borders of Rhode Island?  The average Rhode Island donor has given him $273, while the average non-Rhode Island donor has given him $582.  What are the donors hoping to get for their money?

For some comparison, consider Regunberg’s fellow legislator House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, who has collected fully 94% of her campaign money from within the Ocean State.  Moreover, Rhode Islanders have given her an average of $277, while non-Rhode Islanders have given her an average of $197.  Alternately, look at Regunberg’s fellow Democrat, current Lieutenant Governor (and former Cumberland Mayor) Dan McKee.  His in-state percentage for money is 85%, with RI donations averaging $261 and non-RI donations averaging $343.

There are two possibilities, with both probably playing a role:

  • As we’re seeing with our current governor, out-of-state Regunberg donors may be interested in pushing their nationally focused agenda within Rhode Island, or
  • they may see Rhode Island as one of the increasingly limited staging grounds for left-wing politicians.

In neither of those cases should we expect the well-being of Rhode Islanders as Rhode Islanders to be the top priority of the donor, and we can reasonably wonder how much weight Rhode Islanders’ well-being will have on the politician’s scales as he makes decisions when in office.


Why Real Insurance Is Preferable to Centrally Managed Health Care

In The Washington Times, Cheryl Chumley tells the 2008 story of her husband’s sudden illness and brush with death.  Her insurer at the time, Blue Cross Blue Shield, didn’t deny any bills, even though the doctors keeping her husband alive told the family to prepare for his imminent death.

It was a few months after my husband left the hospital from his heart attack that we ran into one of the nurses who cared for him — at a presidential campaign event, no less. One chat led to another and the subject of socialized health care was raised. And this is what the nurse said: Had my husband been on Medicare or Medicaid at the time of his heart attack, the doctors would have quit their life-saving efforts long before his 10 comatose days had ended. Why? Because the government health care plan wouldn’t have paid for the around-the-clock intensive care. The situation would’ve quickly evolved into a pull the plug, wait and see what happens type of deal.

It occurs to me that, in a competitive market, of course this would be true.  The insurance companies are selling insurance, which means everybody who buys insurance is thinking of these sorts of horrible circumstances.  If it gets out that a particular insurance company doesn’t cover them, then the value of insurance for that company and generally goes down.

So, it’s in their interest to accurately price risk so as to charge a rate at which they can maintain their value proposition.  They do this with a mix of pricing features, including premiums, deductibles, and maximum out-of-pocket limits.  A consumer with a low tolerance for risk may choose to pay a high premium, while one who wants to save money understands that risk is part of the equation.

Central planning is a completely different thing.  In that scenario, supposed experts are figuring out how best to distribute resources.  They don’t have to have attractive products, because nobody has a choice.  ObamaCare’s hybrid system of planning and choice transforms the insurance incentives into hiding costs, not accurately assigning them.


Money’s a Dead End Without a Moral Destination

On the “Back Page” column in December’s First Things, Mark Bauerlein profiles a few real-life characters from the seedy side of life.  Bob (out of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy) can’t put in the minimal effort to capitalize on the opportunity of a warehouse job.  Ray (out of Bauerlein’s own experience) would rather blow a big gambling win on an expensive vacation than set himself up for a summer of stability.

Those of us who’ve spent some time struggling financially and in the company of others doing the same will have similar stories.  Bauerlein asks and answers the “why”:

I asked my friend David, an attorney with underclass clients, to account for Bob. He replied, “The guy has no sense of an order higher than himself.” That sounded too conceptual, so I asked for specifics. “Bob has no idea that the company he works for has to have people do things or it can’t survive. To him, it’s just some force telling him what to do.” The company has to operate on a long-term plan, he said, but Bob can’t see it and he has no plan of his own.

That clicked as soon as he said it. Bob and Ray will remain who they are until they realize there is an order to existence, and that it is rational and good. A higher plan would prompt Bob to devise a “lower” plan of some kind. It would make Ray seek the stability of the motel across the street. Without it, company demands are ­unreasonable to Bob, and Ray sees the motel as a sad alternative to three wild days down south. Secular minds don’t make this connection between metaphysical order and daily habits. The lure of prosperity should be enough to ensure good behavior, and welfare programs should work. But they don’t, not for Bob and Ray and others in the underclass. That’s why secularists say, “They just need more education.” They suspect that some kind of moral reform is needed, but they don’t want it to be ­metaphysical.

The secular, policy answer is to foster circumstances that allow metaphysics to do their work, mostly by giving individuals incentive to seek, and communities space to provide, answers.


State House Report with John DePetro, No. 8: A State for Sale

For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WADK 1540 AM show, the topics were Raimondo’s big out-of-state fundraising take, when Chafee’s right, the Jackson recall, and Providence City Council comes to its community safety senses.

I’ll be on again Tuesday, May 9, at 2:00 p.m.


Important Questions for Rhode Island In A Reshaped Healthcare Landscape

If the final federal healthcare law that eventually emerges from Washington, D.C. is similar to the version that passed the House of Representatives in early May of 2017, Rhode Island lawmakers will find themselves in the middle of largely reshaped federal and state healthcare landscape. Soon they may be faced with multiple important questions; and they will also realize that they will be newly empowered to make state-specific decisions for the people of Rhode Island.
  • What to do with HealthSourceRI?
  • Should RI apply for Medicaid block grant waivers? Or a waiver to set up its own high-risk pool?
  • Should RI reduce mandated-coverage and allow cross-state sales?
  • Should work-requirements, cost-sharing arrangements, or time-limits be placed on Medicaid benefits? Are Medicaid vouchers a good idea?
Does Rhode Island want a transparent healthcare market that relies on the free-enterprise system and that enables providers and patients to craft and choose their own plans, driving down the price for consumers? Or do we want to continue with a government-controlled market that mandates what individuals, employers and insurers must provide and buy, with continually increasing premiums and deductibles? The choice should be up to the real people of our state.
In short, the concept of a government-run health insurance market has failed. Rhode Islanders will be better served when they have expanded options to purchase or enroll in one of the many new plans that will best meet their needs at the lowest possible price, and at quality levels. If only lawmakers were to realize that there are answers, we could restore prosperity to the Ocean State. I encourage you to speak out against the insiders who want to further their own agenda, while your family is kept out of the process.

Adulting Is About Responsibility

An essay in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Senator Ben Sasse (R, Nebraska) is worth reading for some tips on raising children capable of becoming adults, as well as for the encouragement to even try.  This paragraph stood out for me, echoing my experience as a carpenter:

I don’t mean to suggest that there are no hard workers among young people now. But “work” is more than advancement in school. Our children need to appreciate not just the privilege they enjoy in being free from the demands of physical labor but also—especially—their own capacity to fix the messes that life will throw at them.

It was a revelatory moment for me, in my development as a builder, when I realized that I was the guy folks might call to fix the sorts of mistakes I might make.  Yes, a mistake would cost time and maybe some additional materials, but I wasn’t going to fall into some spiral of error falling into an irreparable catastrophe.  A novelist could even put a truism in the mouth of a wizened old tradesman:  “Well, if we break it, we’ll just have to fix it.”

As Sasse points out, that principle applies to life generally.  You’re an adult when you realize that you’re the person who can and should fix things, keep things orderly, take care of things.  It doesn’t require perfection, and it does sometimes lead to hardship, but “adulting,” as the kids are calling it, means we take responsibility for resolving the problems of life, because there’s nobody else.


Booze Confirms: Sales Tax Sauce for Art Is Sauce for Everything Else

In case you (especially my fellow tea-totallers) hadn’t heard: in 2013, Rhode Island removed the sales tax on wine and spirits.

Coincidentally, that was also the year, at the urging of then-Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed, the state removed the sales tax on art; more specifically, “original and limited edition works of art sold in the State of Rhode Island” were made exempt from state sales tax.

Then-Speaker Gordon Fox & then-Senate President Paiva Weed made the case for this exemption in a July 12, 2013 op-ed published in the Providence Journal. Very interesting, in this op-ed, they cited the lifting of this sales tax as a way to promote economic development and job creation.

“Within this framework, new initiatives will be set in place to address many factors related to economic development and job creation in Rhode Island. This framework will be visionary and comprehensive, rather than reactive.

(We should stop for a moment to acknowledge those people who might point out here that art is really kind of a luxury and question why the sales tax on a luxury item was lifted but has remained on all kinds of essential items. To those people, I would say, you are absolutely correct party poopers. Let us not get distracted by your wise observation buzz-killing judgementalism but remain focused on the main point, which is the too-rare example of an accurate economic development insight by former Senate President Paiva Weed and former Speaker Fox.)

This positive correlation between economic development/job creation and eliminating the sales tax on art was also echoed in a related report by the RI Division of Taxation. And, of course, it is exactly what the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity has been saying on a much broader basis for years with their sales tax elimination or reduction proposals.

But the Center went further than simply making a statement. They employed a complex economic model that showed a

21.2% positive statewide retail impact if the sales tax were to be cut to 3.0%.

We don’t have sales trends for art following the lifting of the state sales tax. (If you have them, please by all means send them along.) We do have it for the aforementioned wine and spirits. They confirm both the statement of the two former legislative leaders and the Center’s projection of a spike in retail sales that would follow a comprehensive reduction of the sales tax.

… in the years after the 7% retail sales tax on wine and spirits was repealed (to 0.0%) in 2013: … Wine and spirits sales saw a boost of 21.4% over the first two years

To reiterate: Rhode Island eliminated the sales tax on a product (wine and spirits) and retail sales went up significantly. Now imagine the impact – on retail sales, on businesses, on jobs and on the collection of other taxes – of doing that state-wide.

The Center this week released the latest JOI ranking (Jobs & Opportunity Index – a much more comprehensive way to quantify employment and non-employment) of Rhode Island this week. The state remains stuck at 48th.

Clearly, simply handing out gobs of taxpayer dollars to corporate cronies is not doing the trick.

A radically different approach is needed. The former speaker and senate president, along with the Center, correctly identified the mechanism; state data confirms the reality: ladle the art-and-booze sauce (???) all over Rhode Island.


Universal Pre-K, Another Way Government Makes Business for Itself

Susan L.M. Goldberg writes on PJMedia:

A scathing report, highlighted in the UK Daily Mail, details the findings of the Institute of Economic Affairs regarding Britain’s universal free childcare program. The bottom line: researchers have concluded that a government-funded, government-mandated universal daycare and pre-K program has done nothing more than bankrupt the middle class while failing to serve the country’s poor. What’s worse, government involvement has led to excessive regulation that not only drives up programming costs, but limits parental choice when it comes to how they would like to care for and educate their own children.

Goldberg suggests that universal pre-K plans have “everything to do with providing glorified daycare services so that parents can go to work.”  That’s only partly true.  Such programs also have to do with creating more unionized jobs that rely on government mandates and subsidies.

We’ve reached the point that government is acting entirely as a self-interested business, using its metastasizing ability to tell people what to do and how to live (backed by its authority to tax, jail, and kill) to generate business for itself, in a cycle of kickbacks and political quid pro quo.  In the name of doing good, by providing services that it insists people need, too-big government is undermining the very things that define good in life, from freedom to family.


No Health Policy Is Perfect, but Remember Both Sides

Mary Katharine Ham makes a critical point as we all debate (make that, “debate”) health care policy:

Arguing about this as if beneficiaries of ACA don’t exist isn’t right. Arguing about it as if people like me don’t is also not right. ACA was never the panacea it was sold as and it remains distinctly un-utopian in its results. Lazy characterizations of things you like as perfect—and of people you oppose as big fans of people dying—are not particularly helpful to actual people.

So if you’re weaving a utopian or dystopian scenario for Facebook, remember reality is almost always less extreme and more nuanced than you’re asserting, and you probably know a real human on both sides of every imperfect adjustment to our Frankenstein system.

That’s the level at which policy debates ought to be conducted, and it would be true to say that both sides have people who reach that level and people who decidedly do not.  It’s vertigo-inducing to watch the speed at which we go from a mainstream with no major concerns about the wholly partisan, parliamentarily manipulated, nature of ObamaCare to, for example, a Democrat Congressman’s proclaiming that overhauling health care shouldn’t be done in a partisan way.  (It’s like that childhood friend who would keep breaking the rules of a game and then saying that they would apply from that point forward.)

To get to that point, one must ignore the past, and in the case of ObamaCare, it means ignoring people who have been harmed, not to mention the long-term harm to our health care system and economy.  Somehow, we have to see the self-interested partisan talking points and get to the question of which direction policy should actually go.


Community Rating and Living the Unhealthy Fantasy

Kevin Williamson sums it up well when he writes that “it is a downer to start thinking about the facts when you’re right in the middle of a very pleasurable episode of moral grandstanding, but the facts will still be there when you’re done.”  His subject is the indignation that people who cost more to insure should pay more for insurance if the reason they cost more to insure is the biological reality of their sex:

… maybe the dudgeon here ought not be too high. Yes, you could make a very persuasive argument that women ought not be expected to bear the burden of their higher medical expenses, or at least not the entire burden. But you could also make a pretty compelling case that poor working people in the South Bronx ought not be forced to subsidize the lifestyles of the multi-millionaire vanden Heuvels out in the Hamptons or the multi-millionaire Clintons in Chappaqua (does Mrs. Clinton still pretend to live in Chappaqua?) just to satisfy some gender-studies graduate from Bryn Mawr. The higher premiums charged to women are not rooted in the malice of wicked insurance executives but in the thing that our progressive friends claim to love: science — in this case, actuarial science. The argument for charging women higher premiums may not be persuasive to you, but it has some basis in reality. The argument against doing so has no obvious basis in anything other than preference.

One angle to this argument that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere is the contribution of our social devolution to this as a difficulty at all.  When the rule — not in the sense of a requirement, but in contrast with the exception — was that most people paired up in marriage, this sort of thing wouldn’t have been an issue.  Economically, people thought in terms of families, and most families included a woman and a man.  So what if it costs more to insure women when their bills are combined with men on a family-by-family basis?

One can also see, in this, how short a jump it is to socialism the moment our sense of society becomes one of individuals mediating their differences using government.  Why should women pay more for health insurance just because they happen to be women?  Why should poorer people pay more for health insurance just because they happened to be born into worse circumstances?  Why should over-eating druggies who smoke pay more for health insurance just because their worse circumstances pushed them into an unhealthy lifestyle?  Wouldn’t it be more fair for us all to equally pay into the system (income-adjusted, naturally) however much it costs to cover everybody?

Williamson’s point is that, yes, we can do that, but it isn’t insurance; indeed, it casts the very idea of accurate insurance as immoral.  We should at least be honest about what we’re doing.

The bigger point, though, is that people change their behavior based on risk, and by padding the world and professing to have removed what is unfair in risk, we open the trap wider for those who are prone to doing what they oughtn’t do.  That includes decisions about what sort of families we build around ourselves, and that one decision has huge implications for everything, most especially our ability to advance in our own lives and across generations.

“Fairness,” it turns out, is hugely unfair to those who want to live healthy lives (in the broadest sense) and move toward a healthier society.


Disconnect Between Health Care Rhetoric and Reality

So it seems that Rhode Island and national Democrats have decided that the outrage machine must remain dialed up to 11.  Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline has proclaimed that Congress would kill “tens of thousands of Americans” if it passed the Republican health care bill.  (Put aside evidence that ObamaCare’s already tallying the deaths.)  Democrat governor of Rhode Island Gina (everybody calls me “gov”) Raimondo insists that the bill would strip families of health care coverage.

Meanwhile, as WPRI’s Ted Nesi reports, Care New England hospitals are losing money and struggling under ObamaCare:

The $26-million operating loss for the winter quarter, Beardsworth said, “further tells the story we have been very candid about – decreases in patient volume, a worsening payer mix, changing health care needs of the population, and extremely restrictive reimbursement caps in place through the state health insurance commissioner’s office.”

The payer mix refers to what share of hospital bills are paid for by different commercial and government insurers. In Care New England’s case, more of its revenue is coming from Medicaid, the state-federal insurance program for low-income people, and Neighborhood Health Plan; it says both pay less than Blue Cross & Blue Shield. The hospital group’s management attribute the shift to the Obama health law, which President Trump is now seeking to overhaul.

And not to be outdone, insurers around the country are beginning to be more vehement in warning that ObamaCare may have entered the much-warned-about “death spiral.”

Of course, many have suspected that a death spiral leading to full government control of health care was the underlying plan of ObamaCare all along.  So those now squawking are trying to score political points (and out-of-state donations, no doubt) while preventing Republicans from doing just e-pitiful-nough to keep American health care from fainting fully into the arms of the government vampire.

In a state with no political pull within the national Republican Party (i.e., the party in power), it seems politicians’ time would be better spent trying to figure out how to handle any changes that come along than jumping on this week’s excuse for stoking a “resistance.”