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Events From 12+ Billion Years Ago Cited as Evidence of Human-Driven Global Warming

Phil Plait, a blogger for Slate magazine, recently linked to a literature-review style “investigation” which claims that only 1 out of 2,258 “peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals over the period from Nov. 12, 2012 through December 31, 2013…rejected man-made global warming”.

Here’s an example of the quality of analysis that went into the literature review.

Paper number 2254 is titled “X-ray emission from high-redshift miniquasars: self-regulating the population of massive black holes through global warming”. The subject of the paper is super-massive black hole formation believed to have occurred in the first billion years of the universe, which the authors attempt to explain in a way that is consistent with the observational record of distant quasars.  The “global warming” referred to in the paper has nothing to do with planet Earth, it is the name given to a warming of the intergalactic medium, associated with early cosmological objects, that occurred 12-and-a-half-billion years ago (i.e., the 13.7 billion year estimated age of the universe, minus the first billion years, plus or minus a few hundred million).

This is one of the 2,257 papers considered as supporting the consensus that human-driven global warming is occurring.

Anyone claiming the mantle of “science” should realize that events that occurred 12-and a-half billion years ago are not relevant to the particulars of Earth’s climate of the last several centuries — but ironically and dangerously, actually reading a scientific paper and trying to understand what it means and how it fits with other work is more likely at the present time to be labeled “anti-science”, than is taking a decidedly unscientific posture that details matter less than consensus, when trying to prove the existence of scientific phenomena.

 

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Together Again for the First Time

The title of this post is a phrase that’s struck me as peculiar ever since I first spotted it on a comic book that had found its way into my childhood collection, somehow. Does it indicate that it was the second time the two characters had been together?  Or had they been together in some other setting or comic book series before?

Whatever the case, the phrase seems applicable to a joint venture that places Anchor Rising and the Ocean State Current at the same URL.  As a matter of content, the two have had considerable overlap, but with respect to content emphasis, they differ somewhat, and organizationally, they are very distinct.  The organization part is the critical one, with the Current having a back-office structure that we hobbyists at Anchor Rising have never had the capacity to build.

But the relevance of the comic book implied in my title goes beyond the bold-print declaration that appeared in a Kablow!-style call-out on its cover.  The characters working together in Marvel Team-Up #31 were Spider-Man and Iron Fist — an established hero in the Marvel Universe and a lesser-known player with an occasional hit.

Even more significant is the plot.  The villain who brought “spider-skill and kung fu fury” together was Drom, a man living his life backwards — beginning old and declining, as it were, toward birth and an existential disappearance so profound that nobody would even remember he’d existed.  To slow his inverted progress, Drom had to drain the life force from other people.

That’s about as good a metaphor for the civic and economic circumstances of Rhode Island as one is apt to find.  And it has been the mission of both Anchor Rising and the Ocean State Current to save and protect the people of Rhode Island from the path on which their government has placed them, which is inexorably draining their economic life and their liberties.

With respect to the content that will appear on this page, we can only cite the established practice of both contributing sites to experiment.  It is certainly central to the motivation for the overlapping effort to enable everybody to do more of what we’ve found effective (and enjoyable) in the past — from liveblogs to research to good old investigative journalism and (yes) comment-section debate.

We are perhaps not alone in thinking that the mission of our day has changed a bit from the stated intention when Anchor Rising began, back in November 2004.  “Moving the state forward toward less-waning waters” is arguably no longer sufficient at a time when the keel appears to be scraping the bottom of the bay.

We’ve reached the point of dredging, and that requires greater focus and greater unity of purpose.

Technical Notes

Unlike certain other media Web site redesigns in recent memory, we’ve made a point of keeping the voluminous Anchor Rising archives in place, at their prior locations.  They remain searchable through the Internet and can be browsed starting from here (also accessible on the “Archives” drop-down menu on the navigation bar at the top of every AR/OSC page).

Another new feature is the “blog style” layout available through the navigation bar.  This would be the page for readers to bookmark if they prefer the full content of all posts to appear on a single page.  (The RSS feed on that page is also the most comprehensive.)

Finally, money donated through the links at the original Anchor Rising site, whether one-time or by subscription, will continue to go directly to the AR contributors for costs associated with maintaining the archives and their continuing activities on the AR/OSC site. Advertising and contributions on the new page will benefit the joint effort.

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Government Employees Get Paychecks, Not Handouts

While I don’t expect to change his final assessment, I’d like to correct a misunderstanding in Thomas Kolodziejczak’s letter in today’s Providence Journal, “Katz’s rightist ravings.” Responding to an op-ed of mine from the previous Saturday (“Apathy, fear as R.I. dusk turns to night”), Mr. Kolodziejczak paraphrases that I meant to suggest “that nearly 20 percent of the state population is employed by state or local government, is a retired employee or related to one.”

Actually, the “around twenty percent of the overall population [that] relies on government for direct handouts” is a different group from the “sixteen percent or more of the state’s working population” whom I cite as “employed by a state or local government.”  I suppose I could have been clearer, but I don’t consider money earned through work to be a “handout,” so I thought the two categories would be sufficiently distinct.  (Also, the “working population” is much smaller than the “overall population.”)

A total count of people who receive direct payments from government is difficult to find.  Partly that’s because there are so many programs, funded through so many mechanisms, run by so many tiers of government.  Partly it’s because there’s significant overlap from program to program.

By way of a sampling: around 4% of RI families participated in the state’s cash assistance program in 2006, per the latest annual report on the state’s Web site. The nearby Medicaid report (2010) puts total enrollment for that program at 21% of the population. Media reports recently put food stamp participation at 17% of the population.  Another 3% are on Social Security disability.

Putting these and other numbers together a while back, I concluded that it would be fair (conservatively) to say that direct government payments go to “around twenty percent” of the population.  Inasmuch as these programs require only that the applicant fits certain criteria, it’s reasonable to call them “handouts.”

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Redistributive Property Taxes: Who’s in the Providence Crosshairs?

Yesterday morning, Ted Nesi tweeted mention of “a number of East Side residents saying their land value shot up while their structure’s value fell in Providence revaluation.”  A few Twitter replies visible at the link add their own testimony to the fact.

Later in the morning, Anchor Rising writer Patrick Laverty offered the necessary reminder about the relationship between assessments, property tax rates, and a city or town’s property tax levy:

The cities actually do these calculations in reverse. In a way that might not really make sense. First they figure out how much money they need for everything they want to do and everything they want to support. Next, they take the total assessed value, divide one by the other and the result becomes the tax rate.

In a nutshell, your assessed value going down really doesn’t mean anything at all.

That’s not entirely accurate.  Behind all of the math, what the assessments ultimately do is to change around the distribution of the city or town’s tax burden.  If your property value goes up while your neighbor’s goes down, you pick up a larger portion of the town’s total tax levy — which is to say, you cover more of the total amount of money that the town’s government tells its residents it needs from them in order to do all of the things it wants to do.

In principle, none of this is inherently bad or unfair, and RI’s tax reformers arguably err when they target the property tax.  Handled intelligently and in keeping with democratic principles, the way the property tax works should give the town’s government incentive to make taxpayers’ property worth more, as well as to make it easier for people to improve their own property.

As with just about every other civic principle in Rhode Island, though, this notion has been perverted, not the least with the concepts of “equity” and redistribution.  To the prevalent progressive mindset around here, every tax should be treated as if it is ultimately an income tax.   Put differently, the progressives want to take more from people who ostensibly can pay more, even when the rationale for the tax has nothing to do with how much money they earn.

This perversion of principle is made much worse by the process that Patrick describes, whereby the property tax rate is just about a meaningless number, not unlike the unemployment rate.  Sure, it gives you a quick way to calculate your tax bill from your property value, but voters and taxpayers don’t really focus on the rate as much as they do when it comes to what they pay on their income or on the things that they buy.

But back to the redistributive nature of property value assessments:  According to Ted and his correspondents, for some reason on which nobody has apparently reported, the city shifted its tax burden away from buildings and toward land.  Since this won’t really have an effect on the total amount that the city collects from taxpayers, it must necessarily redistribute the tax burden from property owners whose buildings are especially valuable to those whose land is especially valuable.

People with a more local knowledge of Providence and its tax code would be better positioned to judge whose wealth is being redistributed to whom.  In a general way, we can speculate that lots that are almost entirely filled with structures — such as the Superman Building — end up on the better end of this new assessment.

The reports from Providence taxpayers also provide an interesting perspective on two bills currently awaiting review by the Rhode Island General Assembly’s House and Senate Finance committees.  S0819 and H5816 — sponsored by Senator Gayle Goldin (D, Providence) and Representative Raymond Hull (D, Providence, North Providence) — would put state taxpayers on the hook for the property taxes of land that was formerly occupied but I-195 until it is sold.

Obviously, if the weight of property value has shifted from buildings to land, the taxes owed on undeveloped parcels will have gone up considerably.  The money that investors would need up front would also increase, inasmuch as their taxes will be higher for those initial years that they have no usable buildings in which to work and live.

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Health Benefits Exchange: What They Mean by Self-Sustaining

Amidst the political noise of news on marriage, immigration, and guns, Phil Marcelo has an informative article in today’s Providence Journal highlighting the fact that the State of Rhode Island is going to have to pay to maintain its ObamaCare health benefits exchange when federal dollars run out.

That’s an issue that I raised last July, in a policy brief for the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity. As I wrote at the time:

… federal assistance toward start-up and operation expenditures for exchanges will end after 2014. Stan Dorn, of the Urban Institute, notes that states will thereafter have to come up with some reliable funding source — perhaps “surcharging insurance premiums; assessing health plans, employers, or individuals; appropriating state General Fund dollars; or otherwise.”

In Massachusetts, as part of its recent state-based health care reform, the exchange charges participating insurers a fee equivalent to 3% of premiums. Writes Dorn, “The insurers then pass on this cost to purchasers of coverage.”

That comparison gives some context to this sentence from Marcelo’s article:

Christine Ferguson, the exchange’s director, has said the state is considering various options to pay for operations, including charging administrative fees on plans sold through the exchange.

The underlying service of Marcelo’s article — and the financial inquiry by RI House Finance Chair Helio Melo (D, East Providence) that starts it off — is to strip the question of the exchanges down to the practical issue of what it is and how it will work. On that topic, consider the following:

[Exchange spokesman and former Lincoln Chafee campaign manager Ian] Lang says exchange staff will develop ways to rate and analyze how effective insurance plans are in keeping people healthy.

That public information, he said, will help residents and businesses make better decisions about health care and, hopefully, influence insurers to improve benefits.

“Over time, it’s going to drive reform and improve the way the system delivers care,” he said.

At the end of the day, the state’s health benefits exchange is nothing but a start-up company intended to fill a market need that the state and federal governments largely created, with $74 million in taxpayer money essentially handed over as a gift to get the organization up and running.  The business model has the value proposition of “driving reform,” but that promise is entirely speculative and vague.

Furthermore, as Marcelo’s article amply proves, the government made the investment without requiring any substantial explanation of the cost structure or plan for covering operational expenses.  (When you’re the government, you can force people to pay whatever is necessary, and if the whole experiment goes sour, hey, it’s not your money, anyway.)

The 3% “surcharge” on premiums is also speculative. As the entire health care industry of Rhode Island and the United States adjusts to the new reality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA; aka “ObamaCare”), prudent observers should prepare for the business model of the exchange to adjust, as well.

Not only is 3% likely to prove a dramatic understatement of the cost, but “driving reform” is likely to prove to be a euphemism for government intervention in health care decisions, accomplished largely outside of any political process for accountability by making activists’ plans a condition of doing business on the exchange, either as a consumer or a provider. Put differently: Insurance will become more expensive and harder to find outside of the exchange, and since the exchange is built almost as an independently operating quasi-governmental agency, special interests will be able to manipulate the plans that are available without anybody’s having to risk any backlash from voters.

Pay close attention to this thread from Marcelo:

[Lang] also said the exchange believes the governor’s executive order provides the authority needed to operate going forward. No legislation has been introduced to grant it legislative authority.

The sooner the people of Rhode Island realize that the problems of the health benefits exchange far exceed the question of paying for it, the less of their own money they’ll waste, and the more of their own freedom they’ll keep.

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Minimum Wage Workers and the Threat of Increases

A quick update study from the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity finds that legislative proposals at the state level to increase the minimum wage to $8.25 per hour would cost workers in the state 432 jobs, measured against last year’s $7.40 per hour rate.

Even worse would be the proposal suggested by U.S. Congressmen Jim Langevin and David Cicilline to increase the national minimum to $10.10.  That would cost 3,466 Rhode Islanders their jobs.

In a press conference this morning, replayed in large part by Dan Yorke on 630 WPRO, the Congressmen presented the image of struggling families working full time in minimum wage jobs just to subsist.  That is simply not the profile of this group of people.

The following chart applies to the Rhode Island proposal of $8.25 and shows households with at least one member currently earning that amount or less:

Living Situations of Rhode Island Households with a Member Earning $8.25 or Less per Hour

Even among households with at least one minimum-wage worker, only 14% are families living at these low pay rates; that’s about 0.75% of all workers.  Even moving the line up to $10.10, only approximately 17% of workers making that amount or less in Rhode Island are either single parents or spouses with households living on their income, or about 3.20% of all workers.

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Note in Response to the Providence Journal

Because Providence Journal staff writer Lynn Arditi never made any attempt, of which I’m aware, to contact me or anybody associated with the Ocean State Current while writing her article,”Overtime reports inflated, say R.I. officials,” a few moments of a Saturday morning are justified for response.

In the article, the Projo reports on the payroll controversy that we reported in three articles this week (here, here, and here). Arditi’s failure to seek comment from — or even to name — the people whose credibility her article attacks is in stark contrast to the response that our stories have gotten from all of the following local media sources, most of whom also contacted government officials for their explanation of the payroll numbers:

  • Bill Rappleye, TV news, on NBC 10.
  • Helen Glover, talk radio, on 920 WHJJ.
  • Abbey Niezgoda, TV news, on ABC 6.
  • Buddy Cianci, talk radio, on 630 WPRO. (Buddy had on RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity CEO Mike Stenhouse in the segment prior to the one with BHDDH director Craig Stenning provided at the link.)
  • Kate Nagle, online news, on GoLocalProv.
  • Steve Kass, talk radio, on 1480 WSAR.

As far as I know, the only media professionals (other than Lynn Arditi of the Providence Journal) who commented on the story without contacting somebody affiliated with the Ocean State Current were Paul and Al, on 94 HJY, whose morning show on the rock radio station included a song parody inspired by our findings.

Within the article itself, Arditi mentions only a single person associated with the Current.  That would be Mike Stenhouse, who is the CEO of the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, the parent organization of this Web siteMike did not conduct any of the research or investigations for these articles, and he did not direct that they be written.  Worse, the only detail about Mike that Arditi finds somehow relevant to the story is that he spent a couple months a few years ago on the payroll of the RIGOP, directing the multi-party Clean Slate initiative. Clean Slate’s goal — of which Mike sought assurances before accepting the job — was to offer at least some alternative to the dominant Democrats, whatever political affiliation that alternative might have.

Truth be told, Arditi doesn’t even give that much detail, saying only that Mike is a “former GOP campaign strategist.”

Next time the Providence Journal is looking to provide a smokescreen for the state government to disguise unambiguously outrageous payroll numbers, it might interest the paper’s journalists to know that I was once arrested, as an early-’90s teenager, for changing the lettering on a movie theater sign in New Jersey.  The judge let me off with a warning, as I recall, so I don’t know that it would be technically accurate to call me an “ex-convict,” but at least the reporter could insinuate that I have a long history of rearranging words.

As to the substance of Arditi’s article, while she does not provide a link to the Current, she does provide one to the Northeastern WatchDog site that ultimately sent us the numbers.  Put in any of the names for which we’ve posted information, and you’ll see that we cited the data exactly as it was given to us, with the one exception that we inferred “regular pay” as “gross pay” minus “overtime pay.”  If the State of Rhode Island hadn’t kept us running in circles for a year before denying our request for this information, perhaps we would have been able to post a more comprehensive and precise set of numbers.

Since we published the articles, public records officials have appeared to be more amenable to working with us, so we will incorporate additional years and update the data that we’ve got, if there’s any difference.  I suspect that there will be little variation, though, inasmuch as other news outlets have published snippets of this information in similar formats: gross pay and overtime pay.

The bottom line, however, is that it would make the pay more outrageous, not less, if the overtime numbers that we were given include things that are really part of standard pay agreements.  It’s one thing for a laundry worker to earn almost $125,000 in a year for working 100 hour weeks, every week, all year. That’s not efficient, because the state is paying time and half where it ought to be paying straight time, but at least the guy was working all those hours for it.

It would be quite another thing if that same laundry worker earns $125,000 while not giving the state so much of his time.  If all of his pay were simply an accumulation of base salary, longevity, and other bonuses for a 40-hour week, would that make you less astonished at the total?

A more important, question, however, arises about Lynn Arditi’s piece in the Providence Journal: How does this article differ in any way from what state officials trying to obscure government excesses would have produced through their own hired-gun communications teams?

Perhaps it would read better to the tune of a Don Henley song.

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What Dan Harrop Halted

Following the announcement of Dan Harrop’s withdrawal as a candidate in the contentious race for Rhode Island Republican Party chairman, some question arose as to the move’s significance.  The evening before, the RIGOP’s Credentials Committee had ruled to dismiss Harrop’s complaints about registration irregularities in a prior vote that he lost by one and that was deemed invalid at the State Central Committee meeting last week, but reinstated by party leadership on Sunday.

With the announcement of that ruling yesterday morning, many in the news media concluded that the issue had been settled, making Harrop’s withdrawal in the evening largely without effect.  In general, the parliamentary rules by which all meetings (but especially political meetings) are conducted provide many opportunities for appeals and maneuvers to change outcomes that subcommittees and officials bring about.  At the end of the day, a faction that controls the floor by a significant margin can usually achieve its goals.

More specifically to the RIGOP, a source inside the party tells me:

When the meeting was recessed (not adjourned) the announcement was that the election was void.  When the chairman announces the results next Tuesday, a motion could be made to overturn the ruling of the chairman and that could be voted on — so to overturn the election.  At least two town chairs were planning this.  In addition, the report of the Credentials Committee could be overturned, which would strengthen a legal case.  In addition, even though the Credentials Committee found against [Harrop], because the RIGOP is a quasi-public agency (with rights written into state law), he could sue in the courts for relief, including the option of an emergency injunction — you could not do that with a private organization, but an allegation that state laws have been violated in the selection of delegates allows access to the courts (and the mechanism for doing this is in state statues, not our bylaws, and not subject to our Credentials Committee rulings).

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The Three Ts Are Proving to Be About Ruling Class Insulation

What are Governor Lincoln Chafee’s three Ts of economic development, again?  Is it talent, technocrats, and tolerance?  Or is it technology, tolerance, and twee ideological fashion?  It can be so difficult to keep these gimmicky strategies straight.

This particular strategy is also turning out to be difficult to make work.  In fact, it may just be a description of a handful of cities that chance made “hip,” rather than a workable, replicable strategy for turning around any given city.  Indeed — as should probably be expected when we give broad authority to powerful people to plan the society in which everybody will live —  it appears that pursuing a “creative class” strategy tends to produce the sorts of communities that serve powerful people and the cool folks with whom they like to hang out.

Such appears to be the epiphany that is dawning on the father of “creative class” prioritization, from whom Chafee procured his three-Tiaras, Richard Florida.  Without really acknowledging that the economic development strategy that made his career is tangibly harming real people, Mr. Florida has come to understand “talent clustering” as “insidious.”  Here he is in his own words:

On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits. Its benefits flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers whose higher wages and salaries are more than sufficient to cover more expensive housing in these locations. While less-skilled service and blue-collar workers also earn more money in knowledge-based metros, those gains disappear once their higher housing costs are taken into account.

… There is a rising tide of sorts, but it only lifts about the most advantaged third of the workforce, leaving the other 66 percent much further behind.

If Chafee’s economic development goal is a bifurcated society in which the wealthiest third of residents are able to enjoy elite entertainment and amenities while the other two thirds struggle to get by and are frozen in socio-economic place… well, then I’d say Rhode Island already has achieved that condition. What we’re looking at when we observe the struggling employment picture and the continual exodus of productive people is a sort of “mission accomplished” for central planning.

In his response to Florida’s revelation, long-time critic Joel Kotkin emphasizes that the Floridian approach winds up producing a less diverse community that discourages families:

Indeed in many ways the Floridian focus on industries like entertainment, software, and social media creates a distorted set of economic priorities. The creatives, after all, generally don’t work in factories or warehouses. So why assist these industries? Instead the trend is to declare good-paying blue collar professions a product of the past. If you can’t find work in deindustrialized Michigan, suggests Salon’s Ray Fisman, one can collect “ more than a few crumbs” by joining the service class and serving food, cutting hair or grass in creative capitals like San Francisco or Austin.

There’s the elite, and then there are those who service the elite.  With pre-determined, centrally planned economies, the opportunity to truly innovate in the way that people who work with their hands do — inventing whole new industries or just revolutionizing age-old ones — begins to shrivel.  As Florida admits, the necessary zoning restrictions of a planned economy hobble the ability of upwardly mobile families to make the necessary space for life and for work.

Add in the union-subsidizing labor rules and family-killing social policies that elite people tend to prefer, and you’ve got a society that is more about preserving the wealth of those who have it and ensuring the dominance of a particular ideology.  That sparkling candle burns especially brightly when the economic strategy is designed to attract “largely childless, young urbanistas,” as Kotkin describes them.

A better approach is freedom: allowing the people closest to their own families and their own lives to figure out what they need, in their own unique circumstances, and to go about fulfilling those needs.  That means policies like eliminating the sales tax.  That means policies that empower all families to determine what schools best fit their children’s circumstances.

That is the engine that harnesses the natural drive for people to improve their own lots in life and to pull the entire community forward.  It doesn’t allow those who’ve amassed their fortunes to sit back comfortable in the knowledge that their work is done, and it doesn’t relieve those who’ve gambled on particular industries or occupations of the need to continually innovate and compete.

But economic development shouldn’t be about the upper third.  It shouldn’t be about three fashionable Ts.  It should be about human beings improving their lives.

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We Have to Insist on Rules

Rules of procedure are a sore spot for me.

For several years, now, I’ve been watching at the state and local levels (especially the local level) as laws and procedural rules have been distorted beyond recognition.  On Monday, in fact, I presented a case in a four hour hearing before the Tiverton Town Council, making up the rules as it went, concerning a process for Charter Complaints. The Town Clerk had simply invented a new process that hadn’t been done in the past and that wasn’t described in the Town Charter.

Typically the lawyers’ trick goes something like this: The law doesn’t say what the people in office want it to say.  It is therefore “ambiguous,” and they can do whatever they, themselves, feel is reasonable.

A more extreme example is when the lawyers simply pretend the rules are clear and in their favor.  That’s the case in the argument of the legislative lawyer whom Ted Nesi cites in his review of how House Speaker Gordon Fox “nullified” a committee vote that he didn’t like (ironically concerning the authority of the Ethics Commission over the legislature):

The essence of the lawyers’ explanation for why Tuesday’s vote wasn’t allowed is fairly simple: they say that once a committee votes to hold a bill for further study, the committee is barred from taking any further action on it – even later on during the same hearing – until after a notice is posted for a new hearing.

“Under the rules once they hold it for further study it has to be re-posted,” Susan Pegden, House Speaker Gordon Fox’s legal counsel, told WPRI.com. She cited Rules 12(e) and 12(f).

Rule 12(f) says a committee member may make a motion to reconsider the committee’s vote on a bill – but it also says it doesn’t apply to bills held for further study, an action that’s defined under Rule 12(e)(v).

“Because the first sentence [of Rule 12(f)] specifically excludes bills held for further study, bills held for further study under the second sentence cannot be the subject of a motion to reconsider,” Raspallo said. “The only way a bill that has been held for further study then gets new consideration – reconsideration – is if it’s re-posted.”

Most people’s eyes glaze over as soon as anything resembling legal language appears before them, but it’s important that we develop the ability to challenge these grammar-defying reinterpretations of clear rules.

First of all, rule 12(e) doesn’t appear to apply at all. Reading through the rules, we find that 12(e) specifically applies to cases in which “a written request from the principal House sponsor of a bill or resolution” necessitates a hearing within 30 days.  Subsection (v) defines “held for further study” as an acceptable response of the committee, satisfying the sponsor’s request.

No interpretation is necessary to read the rule this way. Rule 12(h) explains what it means: “House Rule 12(e) regarding the necessity to hold a hearing at the sponsor’s request through 12(h) pertaining to the timing of placing a bill onto the floor calendar shall not apply to any bill or resolution which shall have originated in the Senate.”  So 12(e) applies to “the necessity to hold a hearing at the sponsor’s request.”

However, it has become standard practice, at this point, for the legislature to gloss over this distinction, so we’ll assume that such requests are inherent in submitting bills.  (There’s a complication in why they don’t all receive hearings within 30 days, but we can only straighten so many suspicious wrinkles at a time.)

Even if there is such a request, rule 12(f) in no way takes bills held for further study magically off the table of the committee.  Here’s the rule in its entirety:

Committee Chairs shall bring reports of committee actions to the floor no later than two (2) weeks following the committee votes thereon, provided that this shall not apply to the Committee on Finance, nor shall it apply to bills being held for further study under subdivision (e)(v). A committee member may move reconsideration of any vote taken so long as the bill or resolution which was the subject of the vote remains in the possession of the committee and that the motion is made by a member voting in the majority. A motion to reconsider in committee shall not be debated.

Bills or resolutions concerning appropriations, revenue or expenditures shall not be 32 subject to the above time limits.

As I said above, the exception for “bills being held for further study” only applies to those that were initially requested to have a hearing by the sponsor.  But in any event, 12(f) sets a time limit.  Committee Chairs have two weeks to get their reports to the Clerk of the chamber.  If anything, this would mean that bills held for further study can remain in the committee’s possession for even longer.

Indeed, this is how the legislative leadership prevents bills from getting to the floor: the committee holds the bill to study it and then never brings it back for consideration.  For illustration, I’ll trace H7086, which is among the first bills disappearing into the “further study” abyss that comes up on a search for House Judiciary Chair Edith Ajello as a “prime sponsor” last year.

The bill was presented to the chamber on January 11, and it appears in the journal for that day.  At that point it was “referred to House Judiciary,” meaning that the House judiciary committee had possession of it, and all scheduling was technically in the hands of the chairwoman of that committee.  On February 8, Ajello (that chairwoman) scheduled the bill for “hearing and/or consideration,” and it appeared on the agenda for Wednesday, February 15.

The committee voted to hold it for further study on that day, and that’s it.  It never appears again in any document, much less in any journal of the House.  As a practical matter, we can infer that Speaker Fox never gave Ajello permission to bring it up again, but whatever her motivation, she never did.

In short, Rhode Island’s entire political game is rigged.  Every now and then, something slips through, like Rep. Patrick O’Neill’s motion to reconsider the ethics bill.  And when that happens, the lawyers wave their wands and waive the rules by pretending they say something innovative and out of keeping with both prior practice and basic grammar and definition.

But if this is how they want to play the game, if I were a legislator, I’d start demanding that all “held for further study” bills be placed immediately before the entire House. After all, the technical language is that the committee “recommends” that the bill be held.  The full chamber can disagree with that recommendation and vote to approve the bill.

If “further study” doesn’t keep the bill in committee, but rather sends the bill immediately to the whole chamber, then they actually have rights as, you know, elected representatives of the people of Rhode Island.

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Kicking Off the Office Pool on the Size of the Block-Report Scandal

With Governor Lincoln Chafee planning a “media availability” at 2:30 this afternoon related to an analysis by Ken Block’s Simpatico Software to find waste, fraud, and abuse in Rhode Island’s social services programs, many residents are wondering whether he’s been hoping to hide something.

Governor Chafee has excused his early decision not to release the full report on the grounds that there is an investigation ongoing into the results, but there is much that he could tell us without jeopardizing official state police activities.  Most significantly: What’s the total?  What’s the bottom line for what the State of Rhode Island is losing to incompetent, inappropriate, and illegal activity?

The biggest portion of the waste likely comes via Medicaid.  Digging in to estimates of such waste and fraud nationally, a common number to come up in searches is a minimum of 10% of spending.  In our updated report on the Zero.Zero sales tax initiative, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity referred to a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform document that uses that number.

Estimates from the federal Department of Health and Human Services, however, put current “improper payments” at 7.1%, with 6.4% as the target.  While we were looking for potential sources of money to invest in elimination of the state sales tax, we conservatively chose 10% as the high end, with 6% as the low end, for the flawed expenditures that Mr. Block’s work may have already uncovered.

The governor’s budget document for fiscal year 2014 revises the current estimate of what the state will spend this year on “medical assistance” (i.e., Medicaid) to $1.616 billion, going up to $1.743 billion next year. Using the 2013 estimate puts the range for waste, fraud, and abuse at between $96.9 million and $161.6 million.

The other large portion of government spending in the report that Chafee is withholding is the food stamp program — also known as the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” or by the mechanism used to distribute the money, electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards.  A report on government waste that Senator Tom Coburn (R, OK) published in October offers such examples of “improper payments” as 2,000 well-nourished dead people in New York and Massachusetts and 7,236 people in those two states receiving duplicate benefits.

Coburn’s report actually provides a low-end, for our purposes, estimating around 3% in “improper payments” nationwide. The more official number from the Department of Agriculture is 3.8%, which I’ll round up to 4% for the high end.

In this case, Governor Chafee’s revised expenditure for 2013 is $298.2 million, recommended to hold steady through 2014.  That puts the range for food stamp waste, fraud, and abuse between $8.9 million and $11.9 million.

In summary, I anticipate that the release of Simpatico Software’s report for Rhode Island (if the governor releases it) will show a problem in the range of $105.8 million to $173.5 million.  That puts 38 Studios at the lower end of this scandal of government inefficiency — a scandal that recurs each and every year.

It is reasonable, therefore, to wonder whether Governor Chafee’s motivation for keeping a cloth over the actual results doesn’t have something to do with the programs for which he advocates.  Proof of big-dollar taxpayer losses could bring into question the wisdom of pursuing a centrally planned, government-first strategy for economic development and social welfare.

While Governor Chafee, Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts, and Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services Secretary Stephen Costantino were charging forward with ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion, the Center for Freedom & Prosperity was pointing out that doing so would likely add around $365 million in new costs, not including administration.  That would imply new waste, fraud, and abuse of up to $36.5 million.

That high end might actually turn out to be a low end, though, because the Medicaid expansion widens the door through which people can get to Medicaid benefits, which would likely have the effect of increasing the rate of “improper payments.”

And this is just the tip of the Big Government agenda that our state’s governor, our nation’s president, and many of the mayors and councils of our cities and towns appear determined to chase down.

ADDENDUM:

According to the AP, Rhode Island’s “error rate” for the food stamp program in 2012 was 7.69%.  That would bring the high-end estimate for food stamp waste, fraud, and abuse to $22.9 million, bringing the overall total to $184.5 million. (Via John DePetro.)

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A Revision in Time Saves 1600

In George Orwell’s 1984, the protagonist, Winston, begins to notice the import of the revisions that he makes to news and history as an employee of the Ministry of Truth. No fact is so set in stone that it can’t be made to look better through revisions of the past.

In the real world, nationally, as well as locally here in Rhode Island, the newspapers have been touting the lower unemployment rates. Somehow the massive revision of the numbers and change of the methodology have gone sparsely mentioned.

In the Ocean State, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) revised both labor force and employment downwards, but since more people had quit the labor force than previously thought, it didn’t matter that fewer people are actually employed.  Unemployment dropped.  In the word of punk magician David Sleaze, “It’s magic!”  (Big-time language warning on the video.)

When the BLS revised its state-level employment numbers last month, I tallied up the change. The revision lowered employment — that is, the number of people telling interviewers that they are “employed” — by 76,760 across the country in December. That’s nothing, though.  Remember the big surge in employment just before the election?  It’s interesting to observe that, according to the revision, the employment numbers were under-counting by 704,784 people in August, 508,764 people in September, 212,647 people in October, and 69,069 people in November.

In other words, if we take the revisions as correct, employment increased by more than 600,000 people in the three months before the election just because the numbers were becoming more accurate.

I’m not going to pretend to be well versed on every stage of BLS methodology.  Even the huge revision in August is only about a half of a percent change in the number of employed Americans, and that’s hardly the stuff of fiction.  The Half-Percent Conspiracy wouldn’t make for much of a thriller.  Still, it does make one wonder whether the mainstream media isn’t being a bit irresponsible reporting this data with such fanfare from month to month.

The following chart shows the number of people by which the original data overstated or understated employment, according to the revision.  It’s a curious shape, indeed, and to the extent that people base their votes on what they see in the headlines, even relatively small adjustments to data can have huge repercussions for the country.

U.S. Employment Difference Between Original Report and Bureau of Labor Statistics' Jan. 2013 Revision, Jan. 2008 to Dec. 2012

 

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The Mysteries of Employment Statistics

According to a news release from the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (DLT),  there are actually 800 fewer people employed in Rhode Island than previously thought.  But that’s a good thing… because even more people gave up looking for work than we thought.  Recovery!

You see, a smaller number of people looking for work means fewer people are “unemployed.”  When you add employed people and those who say that they are unemployed and looking for work, you get the state’s “labor force.”  The “unemployment rate” is the percentage of the labor force claiming to be unemployed, and the revisions brought that rate down 0.3 percentage points, to less than 10.0% for the first time since early 2009.

Today, Kate Bramson’s front page Providence Journal article proclaims in its headline, “Rate finally falls to single digits,” and the story’s lead explains, “Revised figures show recovery more robust than previously indicated by monthly reports.”  In a related blog post on WPRI.com, Ted Nesi calls it “welcome news” and refers to the Great Recession in the past tense.

Not to be a downer, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the revisions helped Nevada even more than they helped Rhode Island.  That means that we’re no longer tied for last; we’re dead last.

What’s worse, putting the prior results and the revised results on a line graph gives some important context to these statements, and it arguably makes Bramson’s lead factually inaccurate. The solid lines are the original numbers, and the dotted lines are the revised numbers:

Rhode Island Labor Force and Employment, January 2007 to December 2012

 

So, to review: In the run-up to the recent election, Rhode Island saw an unprecedented jump in employment and labor force. I pointed out, at the time, that the Ocean State was leading the country in employment growth, and the DLT announced that the state had never seen such a jump.  After the election, the growth rate moderated. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has delayed release of its January employment numbers, because it is changing its methodology, which will make it impossible to compare numbers going forward precisely with historical numbers.

Whatever the reliability of the numbers then, now, or to come, one needn’t be constitutionally skeptical to question a statistical methodology that creates good news out of downward revisions.

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Things We Read Today (49), Weekend

Facts and Opinion in Journalism

A recent Providence Journal article by Christine Dunn illustrates how dramatically — whether intentional or not — news reportage can lapse into narrative setting.  By that, I mean the provision of evidence to support a particular worldview, as opposed to relating the facts of a newsworthy case so that readers can decide.

The headline for the article (which, admittedly, the reporter does not typically write) is “Development elicits protest,” and the lede expands: “More than 500 residents sign petition against Palmer Pointe affordable-housing plan to build 48 units on Sowams Road.”  But the actual complaints of those petitioners aren’t offered until paragraph six, and although Dunn provides us all the specific details for the development itself, the reader is left without any specifics about the complaint:

The state’s Low and Moderate Income Housing Act allows developers of affordable housing to build more housing units per acre than is usually allowed by local zoning rules. The density of the proposed development at Palmer Pointe is one of the concerns of the opponents, said William D. LeMoult, a soft-spoken, retired lawyer who lives near the Sowams Road site. Another is that Palmer Pointe may receive local tax benefits, which would not be fair to other residents, he said.

Instead of elaboration of the deal that might not be fair, we get several more paragraphs from supporters of the housing project.  So, in effect, an article ostensibly about an objection to a development begins with a few paragraphs of statements from the developer and ends with some more paragraphs of statements from the project designer.

In response to my guffaw about the article on Twitter, progressive blogger Bob Plain tweeted: “I think this is an example like climate change where giving equal weight to both sides is not 0bjective journalism.”  Given its product, one can only infer that the Providence Journal agrees.  But it’s a ludicrous assertion that misses the point.

Having read Dunn’s article, one doesn’t know if the “tax benefits” are a pittance or are a demand that every resident of Barrington leave a $1,000 in unmarked bills in the development’s main office every month.  By removing “both sides,” the journalist clears a path for developers to cut lucrative deals for themselves (the “nonprofit” label, notwithstanding) and for politicians to abuse the electorate.

In a small way, in other words, the article illustrates what’s wrong with today’s mainstream, activist press.

The Demagogue Manifested

Very much related to the above, sequester news is in the air, and the absurdity of it all can be a little hard to take.  In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan touches well on one reason:

Obviously the potential budget cuts that the administration is announcing—well, not announcing but warning of—are the kind that would cause maximum pain, inconvenience or alarm. Obviously too, the administration doesn’t want to be clear about exactly who might be affected, how or when. Let the imaginative dwell on the extent of the menace; let them do it on cable news.

In a way it’s all brilliant showbiz: Scare people into supporting your position. But we’ve been through it before, and you wonder, again, why a triumphant president and a battered Republican House majority can’t reach a responsible agreement.

And then you remind yourself why. Because Mr. Obama thrives in chaos. He flourishes in unsettled circumstances and grooves on his own calm. He spins an air of calamity, points fingers and garners support. His only opponent is a hapless, hydra-headed House.

And in the New York Post, Michael Goodwin points to another (emphasis added):

To believe his scenario on the impacts of the $85 billion in cuts, you have to believe the federal government is 100 percent efficient; that any penny cut from spending would damage the daily life of every American.

To see how preposterous the claim is, imagine a smaller example — a family with a weekly budget of $100. Under Obama’s math, cutting $2.30 a week would mean the family would have to give up its home, car and food.

It sounds crazy because it is, especially because Obama proposed these cuts in the first place. He knows he’s blowing smoke, so why does he do it?

That is an implied assumption of government budget rhetoric at every level — local, state, and national. Budgets are always asserted to be cut to the bone.  To the extent that they are not, the expenditures and increases in them are asserted to be irrevocable, whether because they’re part of contracts, or because they’re required in order to claim matching funds from somewhere else, or because they are assistance programs defined by the benefits and not the costs, like food stamps and Medicaid.

At some point, Americans and Rhode Islanders are going to have to stop accepting the bullying tactics that never allow government spending to go down in absolute terms. Of course, my “at some point” assumes that the electorate wants their government and their society to be able to continue on, and I’m less and less convinced that their desire for sustainable government trumps their desire for handouts and redistribution.

Protecting Kids from Learning Self-Reliance and Responsibility

Since the topic has transitioned naturally to the perspective of the electorate — that is, our society in its role as a civic unit — it’s worth putting forward some thoughts from David French about “effort shock.” By that term, he means “the alarm and surprise that so many Millennials are experiencing when ‘real life’ turns out to be much, much harder than their childhoods”:

Several weeks ago, I attended a basketball game — my kids’ school versus their crosstown rivals — and I was struck by the number of parents who were sitting in the stands, hunched over papers and textbooks, literally doing their child’s homework. Not helping, doing. That is of course one extreme of greasing the wheels of your child’s success, but the extent that we confuse hand-holding and sometimes even carrying our kids with “going the extra parenting mile” is shocking to see. When our kids get jobs in the real world, they likely won’t get private tutoring to help them accomplish daily job tasks, no one will be hovering around the boss making sure they get enough “playing time” or that the boss utilizes them to maximize their skills effectively, and not every key test of their professional competence will be preceded by an expensive six-week Kaplan prep course. Yes, life is easier for a teenager with the direct assistance of one or two highly motivated adult advocates and partners, but will this round-the-clock aid make life better for that 15-year-old when they’re 25?

The image of moms and/or dads multitasking on behalf of their children, not just to get their own work done while carting the kids around, but doing school work so that sports won’t suffer, brings to mind President Obama’s “Life of Julia” montage, which followed a woman through a life-cycle in which government was always there to offer assistance in the form of funding as well as legwork. Most of the folks on my side of the political aisle found Julia’s fictional life disturbing in both implication and presentation, but then, most of us can’t believe that the country wanted more of Obama.

If we accept some linkage between the political and social observations, two possibilities emerge: either the Obama Democrats picked up on a social trend and are moving to fill the void of the multitasking parents for people who never truly grow up, or the emergence of Papa Government has advanced alongside the deterioration of our culture, perhaps with some level of premeditation.

My opinion is that the latter possibility is more likely the case.  The progressive program has, for the better part of a century, been to systematically challenge all of the social structures that empowered us to be independent and self-reliant.  Simultaneously, it has elevated a special class of government planners to pick up the slack and to ease our descent into dependency.

 A Strategy for Subjugating a People

While we’re strolling in these dark passages, take a look at this union organizer strategy highlighted on RedState.  It offers suggestions on how to increase “pressure on employer,” escalating from “solidarity actions” to “confrontational actions.”

Good government types who have been mystified by the rhetoric and divisiveness that characterize any community debate in which there’s a real division of beliefs and ideas will recognize the tactics.  When we’re talking government, the “employer” target seamlessly transfers to “taxpayer/voter.”

The main difference is that a private-sector labor union has to get the employer to take an action.  In the case with government, the desired outcome is to intimidate and silence the political opposition.  To my experience, the first stage is personalized and quiet — nondescript, anonymous letters in a home mailbox.  When that doesn’t inspire a change of heart in the would-be reformer, the demonization everywhere in the community begins.

Anonymous comments on Web sites serving the city or town pop up to cause “confrontation” and to teach others the lesson of what they’ll face if they dare side with the targets.  Whisper campaigns spread across soccer fields and various clubs and organizations.  (My wife happened to receive such whispers from somebody either too careless or ignorant to consider to whom she was married.)  It’s an amazing thing to watch take shape.

It’s a tautology to say that politics have played a role in communities throughout history, but these recent observations have the feel of innovation.  After all, when government is involved in every area of our lives, the allowances that neighbors used to make for one another become less and less possible.  We can’t just agree to disagree and go back to our corners of the town when tens of millions of dollars are at stake in a community of fewer than 20,000 people… and when the government control room has levers not just for certain infrastructure and utilities, but education, health care, and minute details of property usage.

And as more and more decisions are made more centrally and at increasing distances — moving from the Town Hall to Providence to Washington — it’s less true that we’re neighbors in a community in the way we used to be.  The Left’s local attack dog is more a neighbor to her broader movement than to the conservative fellow down the street.  Communities being what they’ve become, she socializes with the former; the latter she only sees sporadically when he’s marked as the target at some town meeting or other.

In tandem, then, with new generations with waning experience fending for themselves, we get a sort of grassroots fascism.  To complete the loop of this post, the prospect is made all the more frightening by the realization that those who wish to bring freedom and economic advancement back to American society can’t even get a fair description of our grievances in the ostensibly objective news media.

When you’re outside of the “community,” after all, telling your side of the story wouldn’t be “objective journalism.”

Building It Doesn’t Make Them Come

Bruce Landis had an article in the Sunday Providence Journal with the telling title, “Few, but enthusiastic, riders.”  The “few” are people actually taking advantage of the new length of commuter rail to Wickford. The train goes on from Providence to Boston.

Data from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority show monthly rider- ship increasing from the time the station opened, April 23, 2012, to 6,000 that June. After that, the figures become uneven, plunging by a third from June to July and then shooting up, doubling from July to August. It isn’t clear why the figures were so irregular during the summer. The DOT said it couldn’t immediately explain them.

After August, the data show ridership flattening out, with between 5,000 and 6,000 people riding per month.

This is despite “vigorous” promotion by the state and free-ticket deals.  The accompanying table shows that “between 5,000 and 6,000″ per month is actually a little generous.  The reality is more like a steady decline since August.

On one hand, that’s understandable, given that riders probably tend to walk from the station to their offices, and cold weather is a strong incentive to take a car and park nearer one’s destination. On the other hand, if the Rhode Island job market has really been booming, as government statistics suggest, one would expect that to show in commuter data.

Therein lies the critical point not mentioned in the article: For people to ride a commuter train, they have to have somewhere to go. Landis reports that the average day in December saw 151 passengers on the Wickford train.  If we assume they were all round trips, that’s actually 75 people.

Seventy-five people.

Judging roughly from the pictures in the newspaper, if all of them boarded the train at the same time, they wouldn’t need much more than a single car, if they needed that.

Take a look at this advertising video of testimonials:

Of the half-dozen or so people interviewed for the video, two indicate that they’re teachers or professors.  I recognize one as a State House librarian.  Landis’s article broadens the scope a bit, including folks who appear to have office jobs, albeit with a heavy weighting toward those who commute to Boston a few days per week.

The bottom line is that taxpayers are essentially financing an empty train to travel back and forth across the state because there aren’t enough people who have to get into the city.  The heaviest part of rush-hour traffic in Providence is about equivalent to the traffic that I’ve experienced ten miles outside of Boston and New York, when I’ve lived and worked in their vicinity.  Those cities have the sort of commutes that create real incentives to drive to a suburban train station and ride in.

The bottom line is that building infrastructure to accommodate an active economy doesn’t beget an active economy.  Lowering taxes and making it easier for people to create and operate businesses to which to go in the morning do that.

The micromanaging technocrats in Providence like taking credit for the first part of “if you build it, they will come.”  The reality should be more like, “if you let them come, they will need you to build it.”

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Things We Read Today (48), Post-Blizzard

That’s “post-blizzard” in the sense of having lost power for a while and in the sense of having to read through hundreds of bills submitted last week.  On the first count, though, when did we start having to expect lengthy power outages with every significant storm?

Places Other than RI Are Doing, Rather than Talking About Doing

The economic development talk in Rhode Island has hummed with the buzz of “knowledge economy” phrases. The folks who pull the government levers in Providence are stating their intention to manage the state’s way forward — they’re picking industries, and they’re going to target very, very narrow market niches to collect the best jobs that the marketplace has to offer.

What do actual Rhode Islanders want?  Well, we’ll worry about that later, by taxing them in order to retrain them in the designated professions.

But as we talk about what we’re going to do, other areas are doing what they talk about. According to Praxis Strategy Group, the Providence area is 48th of 51 metropolitan areas when it comes to “professional, technical, and scientific services.”  The Boston area comes in at 23, and Hartford at 45.

The Providence-Fall River-New Bedford region has the third-lowest proportion of jobs in this sector (versus other jobs), and it’s losing ground by several measures.  That’s “losing ground” as in actually experiencing negative growth.

The top 10 states on the list give some indication of what makes for a productive economy: Texas, Florida, California (Silicon Valley), North Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma, Missouri-Kansas, Virginia, North Carolina-South Carolina, and Oregon-Washington.  There’s a high degree of policy diversity in there, but the list clearly leans toward areas that are known as “business friendly” in terms of taxes and other government policies.

One gets the sense that, if those folks pulling levers in Providence would stop talking about steering the ship of state into a narrow stream and instead free up people to pursue their own dreams according to their own abilities, we could probably expect many of them to seek after the “right” kind of jobs.  Contrary to the sense that permeates the political culture around here, the average legislator or other official isn’t any better at picking winners than the average Rhode Islander, and when people are working for their own success, they tend to make more prudent decisions and to work harder.

What Legislators Want to Penalize

“Business friendliness” isn’t just a policy proposal with some tax breaks and an agency tasked with reviewing regulations.  It’s an approach to government.

That thought came to mind as I skimmed through H5331, sponsored by Representatives Joseph Almeida (D, Providence), William O’Brien (D, North Providence), Kenneth Marshall (D, Bristol, Warren), Grace Diaz (D, Providence), and Anastasia Williams (D, Providence).

Basically, the bill sifts through the law for “petty” crimes and treats them as even more petty.  Shoplifting, for example, would have a get-out-of-a-misdemeanor-free card to be played on the first offense.  So would driving without a license… provided the perpetrator has never bothered to apply for one.

Most of the provisions of the legislation are of minor concern, but I can’t help but see them in the context of bill after bill increasing the fine for this economic violation and new license requirements for that profession.  So, we get a person convicted of shoplifting for a second time (that is, actually caught and prosecuted a second time) facing a $100 fine on a misdemeanor charge, while somebody who connects a storm drain has to buy a $200 license — plus paying for and taking a standardized test, plus buying insurance, plus buying a bond — before getting to work each year.

It says a lot about our elected officials which activities they want to penalize financially.

The Root Causes of Education Decline

This essay by retired high school U.S. Government and Politics teacher Kenneth Bernstein has been getting a good bit of play.  Its literary device is presentation as a letter to college professors “warning” them about the lack of critical thinking and writing skills among the students heading their way.  The villain?  Standardized tests.

Mr. Bernstein says that public school teachers from grade 3 up are teaching to the test, which cannot be done, he says, while also taking the time to work on an individual basis with students to help them to write and reason well.

At this point, these are familiar arguments.  Stripped of the complaints and unsubstantiated claims about “wealthy corporations that profit from the policies they help define and the think tanks and activist organizations that have learned how to manipulate the levers of power, often to their own financial or ideological advantage,” what Bernstein wants is a just-trust-us form of accountability.  Standardized tests don’t adequately capture the knowledge, progress, and needs of individual students, and we can’t possibly let schools have managerial authority to handle individual teachers in the same way that professionals are handled in the competitive marketplace, and we certainly can’t allow people who aren’t wealthy to have a broad array of education choices for their children.

I’m comfortable inferring the above point of view from Bernstein’s essay because a quick Internet search reveals a Huffington Post biography listing publication credentials as monolithic  as Daily Kos and the New York Times, as well as status as “a building representative for the National Education Association.”

The heavy union involvement relates to another response I’m inclined to make to Bernstein’s essay.  Those whose experience with education comes mainly through having acquired one may wonder why it isn’t possible to teach children good writing and critical thinking as a way of educating them so well that standardized tests aren’t a problem.  Why teach to the test?  Answers Bernstein:

Even during those times when I could assign work that required proper writing, I was limited in how much work I could do on their writing. I had too many students. In my final year, with four sections of Advanced Placement, I had 129 AP students (as well as an additional forty-six students in my other two classes). A teacher cannot possibly give that many students the individualized attention they need to improve their writing. Do the math. Imagine that I assign all my students a written exercise. Let’s assume that 160 actually turn it in. Let’s further assume that I am a fast reader, and I can read and correct papers at a rate of one every three minutes. That’s eight hours—for one assignment. If it takes a more realistic five minutes per paper, the total is more than thirteen hours.

It can hardly be claimed that the money pouring into public education has decreased over the years, so (again) one not familiar with the particulars of public education may wonder why schools can’t hire additional teachers to make the highly detailed work more feasible.  One reason is the layered, suffocating fabric of mandates that create a sort of standardized baseline of spending to which localized investments must be added.

The layers include content, building requirements, services, and more.  In my town of Tiverton, the average per-student spending for the general population was around $11,000 last time I checked.  For those requiring special education, it was over $60,000.  Surely, very few people would argue that we shouldn’t invest in the development of disabled students, but it’s reasonable to wonder whether it overextends the mission of a local school district to span from Mr. Bernstein’s AP courses all the way to students whose coursework is almost more of a medical procedure.

And then there are the unions, a central focus of which is ensuring that districts have difficulty applying funds where they are needed.  If they’ve got the same time on the job (and with a few other adjustments), a teacher with Bernsteins 129 advanced essays to correct makes the same amount of money as one with 25-30 first graders whose homework assignments are more likely to consist of fewer than a dozen multiple choice questions and some coloring.

I wouldn’t presume to claim that there are no circumstances in which an early childhood teacher couldn’t be worth every penny as much as a heavily utilized AP teacher, but the system that the unions have created presumes to claim that there are no circumstances in which they are not.

So, we’re back to the basic problem: if we disallow parents and local districts from having the flexibility to make their own schools accountable according to the subjective assessments that they make up close, then accountability has to be standardized and imposed.  Personally, I agree that the current approach does not work, but I don’t see that the prescriptions of a Daily Kos-writing union organizer will do anything but delay the day of reckoning and harm untold numbers of children in the process.

Binding and Bound by Legislation

Interesting things happen when news producers order wall-to-wall coverage of a storm set to arrive in a day or two and visibility of anything but snow moves toward zero. Over the last twelve hours, two such things came flashing out of the blizzard of pre-blizzard forecasting and caught in my eye via email.

The first was in the humdrum yet esoteric area of legislative rules for the Rhode Island House of Representatives. H5350 — courtesy of Majority Whip Stephen Ucci (D, Johnston, Cranston) and Deputy Majority Leader Arthur Corvese (D, North Providence) — would change the rules for lesser representatives to make changes to the proposed budget.

Currently, the only limitation on amendments proposed from the floor is that they must be submitted to Legislative Council and available for other legislators to review at least two days before the budget vote.  The proposed change would, in essence, prevent legislators from putting forward amendments at all.  They’ll be able to suggest them to the Finance Committee, but that’s about as far as their ability to represent the Rhode Islanders who elected them will go.

It may or may not be related, but I was just thinking, yesterday, what a large number of bills are being assigned to the Finance Committee even though they don’t seem to have much to do with the state government’s finances.

The other bit of legislative shrapnel to pierce the snow coverage is the annual bid to give union employees of public schools (teachers and others) access to binding arbitration in matters of money. According to a prescribed schedule, contract disputes between the local school committee and the union will make their way to three unelected arbitrators who will pick and choose from the “last best offers” of each side and whose decisions will be final.

The law would require the arbitrators to consider such things as the town’s “ability to pay,” the pay in other Rhode Island districts, and the pay available through other professions with similar “education qualification and professional development requirements.”

H5340 carries the names of Anastasia Williams (D, Providence), Scott Guthrie (D, Coventry), Spencer Dickinson (D, South Kingstown), Deborah Fellela (D, Johnston), and Mary Duffy Messier (D, Pawtucket, East Providence).  For those keeping score, Fellela is a school secretary in Providence, Messier is a retired Cumberland teacher, and Guthrie is a retired North Kingstown fireman.

Both bill are already on the calendar to be heard this coming Tuesday, the 12th — H5350 by the Rules Committee and H5340 by the Labor Committee.

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Things We Read Today (47), Wednesday

Taxes, Sweet Taxes

You may have seen that a familiar crew of liberal legislators in the Rhode Island House has proposed a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.  H5225 is the handiwork of Edith Ajello (D, Providence), Arthur Handy (D, Cranston), Teresa Tanzi (D, Narragansett, South Kingstown), Maria Cimini (D, Providence), and Larry Valencia (D, Richmond, Exeter, and Hopkinton), and it is doubly objectionable.

The first head-shaking aspect of the bill is the $1.28-per-gallon level of the tax.  Today, I just happened to be reviewing Rhode Island’s various per-gallon taxes on a variety of liquids, and it breaks down as follows:

  • Gasoline: $0.33
  • Beer: $0.11
  • Wine: $0.60
  • Hard liquor: $3.75

On the hit list of sin taxes, our leading liberals apparently find sweet drinks to be nearly twelve times as sinful as beer, twice as sinful as wine, and almost four times as sinful as the evil petrol by which we pollute the atmosphere while driving ourselves around (prior to drinking our gallons of adult beverages). Perhaps they thought it would be too laughable to rate soda as more wicked than drinks that can knock you unconscious in just a few ounces.

Even worse, though, is that the money wouldn’t just go into the General Fund to be wasted on the usual government indulgences.  Rather, it would go into a dedicated fund within the Executive Office of Health and Human Services that would be paid out to organizations in a quest to modify the behavior of Rhode Islanders in a way that the government decides is healthy.  In other words, you’ll be paying them to harangue you about your lifestyle and other personal choices.

Of course, many of you won’t be paying anything, because you’ll just add sugary drinks to the list of things to buy on a quick run across the border.  Not only do neither Connecticut nor Massachusetts have sugar sin taxes, but Massachusetts exempts alcoholic beverages and soda from its sales tax.

I just recently discovered, by the way, that the BJ’s in Seekonk sells beer and wine.  I’ve never seen alcohol in a BJ’s before, but Rhode Island has done quite a bit to make that a valuable bit of Massachusetts real estate.

Getting That Union Thumb Back on the Scale

Meanwhile, a union-backed crew is at its own legislative game. H5219 is another one of those fun bills that hides its real effect from the official description that appears in most places, which says the bill would “eliminate longevity payments for any state employee, as well as, any employees of the Board of Governors of Higher Education, the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education, and of quasi public corps. not in a collective bargaining agreement.”

Putting aside the exception for union employees, that sounds like a step in the direction of limiting government payroll spending, no?  Well, no.

What the bill actually does is to repeal the law that ended longevity payments for all state employees beginning in fiscal year 2012. But it leaves the ban in place for those that aren’t union workers, which provides the basis for the spin in the description.

For those of you keeping score, the names on that bill are: Representatives William San Bento (D, Pawtucket), Thomas Palangio (D, Providence), Scott Guthrie (D, Coventry), Robert Jacquard (D, Cranston), and Joseph Almeida (D, Providence).

While you’ve got your pen out, make note of the names on H5221: Representatives John DeSimone (D, Providence), Scott Slater (D, Providence), Guthrie (again), Raymond Johnston (D, Pawtucket), and Peter Palumbo (D, Cranston).

There are two reasons to raise objections to this bill.  What it professes to do is to reinstate 3% cost of living adjustments (COLAs) for low-income pensions, those that pay out less than one-and-a-half times the poverty level.

The first problem is that it doesn’t consider the retiree’s income, just the pension payout.  A state retiree with a lucrative second career would still receive the increases if his pension is relatively small.

And that’s not all: the calculation applies only to the defined-benefit portion of the pension.  So, as the new hybrid plan shifts more and more of retirees’ actual income to the defined-contribution portions of their pensions (to which taxpayers throw in 1% of pay per year), they’ll be more and more likely to qualify for COLAs.

The second problem is that I can only offer the above analysis tentatively because the drafting of the language is so horrible:

In order to receive the annual benefit adjustment, the retiree must provide a certified earnings statement that proves their annual income from the defined benefit plan(s) is one hundred fifty percent (150%) below the federal poverty level to the retirement system.

What does “150% below the federal poverty level” mean?  That the state is taking money away from the retiree?

Highlighting the Unfair Union Pay Regime

Moving away from legislation, but sticking with unions, I spotted an interesting line in a recent Jennifer Jordan article in the Providence Journal:

MaryAnn Snider, who has led the development of the state evaluation system, says the alarm gripping school districts is unwarranted, as the vast majority of teachers will score well enough to keep their jobs.

The intent of the system, she says, is to give teachers and principals feedback so they can improve.

“Prior to this work, essentially everyone was told they were terrific,” Snider said. “So when we move away from that, just the thought that you are less than wonderful in all regards is difficult to accept.”

It’s discouraging, of course, to think how pervasive the cult of self-esteem must be if there’s organized resistance to efforts to shatter professionals’ delusions of perfection.  More important, though, is the thinking that an accurate rating system might encourage.

It doesn’t matter, so much, that very few teachers would score on evaluations low enough (for long enough) to actually lose their jobs.  More importantly, it can become a bitter pill for truly excellent teachers, or even just the better-than-average ones, that every skin-of-her-teeth teacher on the same step receives the same salary.  Worse still would be the stark comparison of step 10 mediocrities to early-career shining stars.

That would help explain why the article emphasizes opposition to making the results public.

All the News That Fits the Agenda

How broadly do Rhode Islanders read?  I mean, among those who make the effort to follow the news, how many look for perspectives from across the opinion-journalism divide as well as across the left-right spectrum?  I suspect a count wouldn’t be overwhelming.

I ask because here’s what I found on the front page, above the fold, of Saturday’s Providence Journal:

Job Market Strengthens

U.S. economy shows signs of health even though unemployment ticked up last month

That is what people who glanced at the top of the paper as they were out and about on Saturday would have seen. The article by the conspicuously named Paul Wiseman begins as follows:

The U.S. job market is proving surprisingly strong and raising hopes that the economy will be resilient enough this year to withstand a budget standoff in Washington and potentially deep cuts in federal spending.

“Surprisingly strong”!  “Resilient”!  “I haven’t laughed like this since Airplane 2!”

Even adjusting for my political bias, I think it’s fair to say that it would be a healthy leaven for the folks who glanced at the Providence Journal’s “news” message also to read the Investors Business Daily editorial “Obama’s Jobless Recovery Continues Unabated“:

So the economy created 157,000 new payroll jobs in January. Wow. At this rate, we might actually get back down to Bush-era unemployment rates sometime, oh, within the next 100 years. …

It took an average of just 24 months to regain all the jobs lost in the previous nine recessions. But at the current Obama job-creation pace, it will take about 80 months to regain those lost jobs.

And this doesn’t factor in the growth in the number of job seekers over the past five years, which makes the real jobs gap more like 9 million.

So what’s the real picture look like?  Or perhaps we should ask first: How many Americans even know to ask the question.

An Emblem of the Civil Rights Movement

Alright.  I’ve debated back and forth whether to mention this, but let me tack one more bill on the end, here.

On the last day of January, the Rhode Island House passed a resolution by unanimous voice vote.  The first part of the resolution is worthy and admirable — namely, to designate December 1 as “Rosa Parks Human Rights Day.”  But the second part is to “urge” the Public Transportation Authority to make all public transportation free on that day every year.

The cost to RIPTA is an open question… although the cost to the legislators of “urging” the expense is clearly minimal.  But my recollection from history class is that Rosa Parks didn’t object to paying her fare.  It was a matter of choosing a place to sit.

Sadly, the legislative impulse strikes me as all too emblematic of what the civil rights movement has done with the heroic actions of its first generation.  If “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” has transformed into affirmative action, it may be only fitting that an assertion of equality would be memorialized with a free ride.

When the Insiders’ Cut Comes First

Even if you’ve disagreed with everything I’ve ever written, take a moment to ponder the thinking on display in this Kathy Gregg article.  It’s about a study from the left-wing Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy finding that Rhode Island places a high tax burden on lower-income families.

Nobody is claiming that Rhode Island doesn’t already have a high tax burden on everybody in every income group.  Gregg notes that middle-income families lose a large amount of money to property taxes.  She highlights the reality that the income tax is already relatively progressive, giving high standard deductions at the low end and restricting itemized deductions at the high end.  “The biggest disparity,” she writes, “is the proportion of income eaten up by sales and excise taxes.”

And what do the progressives and their allies in the labor unions conclude?

Kate Brewster, executive director of The Economic Progress Institute in Rhode Island, viewed the report as ammunition for the campaign by organized labor and others to persuade state lawmakers to ask the wealthy to “pay a little more” by creating a new [income] tax bracket.

So, the answer to a sluggish economy, high unemployment, and a high tax burden that disproportionately harms low-income families is to increase the burden even more, while transforming the “most fair” tax into outright redistribution to compensate for the “least fair” taxes?  That’s lunacy.

Or rather, it would be lunacy if there weren’t an absolutely rational explanation for it.  Brewster and her gang benefit directly from the money that the Rhode Island government removes from the local economy.  They’ve sliced up the multibillion-dollar pie, so ensuring that the total only ever grows is the starting point for their analysis.

If an even distribution of taxes by percentage of income is desirable, then the most fair thing to do is obvious.  A state that already has a high tax burden should eliminate the tax that harms those on the bottom end.  It should eliminate the sales tax, helping everybody all around by leaving more money in Rhode Islanders’ pockets while improving the overall jobs outlook and economy.

Selective Standards in Legislation (Uneducated and Unemployed)

Senate bill S0117 is one of those pieces of legislation that disguises its major effect in the description that most people will see (even among the minority of people who actually dig that deeply).  The five initial sponsors of the bill are Senators Harold Metts (D, Providence), Elizabeth Crowley (D, Central Falls, Pawtucket), Paul Jabour (D, Providence), Roger Picard (D, Woonsocket, Cumberland), and Juan Pichardo (D, Providence), and it promises that it:

would provide for certain notifications that would need to be provided to parents or guardians of students identified as performing significantly below proficient on any state assessment

That sounds like such a reasonable “well, duh” requirement that one wonders whether it’s actually necessary.  Not surprisingly, it also isn’t the first objective of the bill.  That comes with this language in the bill itself:

No state assessment conducted pursuant to this chapter, and no other standardized testing program or assessment, shall be used to determine a student’s eligibility to graduate from high school.

In other words, the five urban legislators want to forbid the Department of Education or any public school district from using test scores in any way to determine whether students have achieved the level of knowledge that a diploma is meant to signify.  That’s a controversial subject, and one that has generated significant heat in the past, so one would expect it to be the headline for what the bill actually does.

And what it actually does is to take the pressure off of the folks (including labor unions) who operate our public schools, because it reduces the incentive for parents of slipping students to react to the stark reality of what a lack of substantive education will do to their children’s futures.

Meanwhile, another bit of legislation, S0100/H5046, would add to the burdensome list of credentials that Rhode Islanders need before they can perform work.  The top sponsors on these companion bills are Senators Frank Lombardi (D, Cranston), Paul Jabour (again), Stephen Archambault (D, Smithfield, North Providence, Johnston), Louis DiPalma (D, Little Compton, Middletown, Newport, Tiverton), and Frank Ciccone (D, Providence, North Providence) and Representatives John Lombardi (D, Providence), Arthur Corvese (D, North Providence), Anastasia Williams (D, Providence), Raymond Hull (D, Providence, North Providence), and Peter Palumbo (D, Cranston).

The description of this legislation falls on the cryptic side:

This act would include the maintenance of certain electrical components within the purview of this chapter.

And what is “the purview of this chapter”?  It’s licensing.  It would require people who find work “maintaining wires, conduits, apparatus, fixtures, and other appliances for carrying or using electricity for light, heat or power purposes,” not including low-voltage wires for heat and refrigeration, to acquire electricians’ licenses.

The practical effect of the change gets very confusing very quickly to somebody not already familiar with this area of regulation (which I am not).  Class M licenses (“limited maintenance journeyperson license”) fall under new regulatory scrutiny, apparently for the first time.  Class B licenses (“journeyperson electrician’s license”) won’t allow maintenance work unless the person is employed by somebody who holds a Class A license (“electrical contractor’s license”), and a Class A license would be required of anybody whose business involves maintenance.

All of these licenses rack up hundreds of dollars in fees.  And they all entail testing — yes, a standardized test — costing $75 to take.  They protect the jobs and paychecks of those who’ve already worked the system, and they make innovative self-starters more vulnerable to the entrenched network of tradesmen, union organizers, and government functionaries.

Sadly, the legislation described in this post is all too typical of the thinking that governs Rhode Island.  Having to pass tests to prove that the public schools succeeded in teaching you some baseline amount of knowledge is unthinkable, but not having passed tests to perform maintenance work is a violation.

woonsocket-pension-featured

Woonsocket Matters to Rhode Island and the Nation

John Hill’s Providence Journal article about Woonsocket’s deficit problem contains two important lessons:

As bad as the city’s financial situation is now, the state-appointed Budget Commission running its finances was warned Tuesday that if no fiscal actions are taken, the city-school deficit could grow to $91 million by 2017. …

Commission members were uncomfortable with how Findlay and the city’s Finance Department had calculated spending on city pensions. Commission member Peder A. Schaefer said he felt the staff had used a method that overestimated the costs of financing the city’s pension debt.

The projection assumed the city would need to set aside about $11 million a year to pay off a 2002 pension bond, but Schaefer said the real annual cost was closer to $3.6 million. If the projection was to use a true baseline, it should use that number, he said.

The first lesson is that everybody who’s interested in these topics should read the Ocean State Current.  An article here from last May explains the problem:

…  in comments after Governor Lincoln Chafee’s related press conference, yesterday, Gallogly presented Woonsocket’s budgetary gaps as much greater, to the tune of around $7 million a year. …

Asked whether the budget commission would make five-year amortization of the plan a priority, Gallogly told The Current, “they definitely will.”  She explained that the city has expressed a desire to increase its pension payments after it is done paying off its deficit-bond debt, “but that’s a five-year bond, so that’s going to be a while before that’s paid off.”

According to the city’s actuarial consultant, USI Consulting Group, the employer contribution, as of last July, should have been $10,484,317 under the five-year amortization schedule.  Instead, the city has illegally been following a 30-year amortization schedule, reducing its payments to $3,610,195.

Here we are, seven months later, in the thick of another legislative session, after an election cycle, and public officials are only now getting around to airing this dispute.  Expect them to attempt a resolution that doesn’t involve informing the public or addressing the underlying problems, probably in the form of state legislation that makes the legal funding conflict simply go away.

That would be a huge mistake because of the second lesson of the article: The public is being poorly served by the way the pension issue is being framed.  Everybody is being sold on the goal line of being “fully funded,” but just a few years ago Woonsocket had achieved that goal.  The numbers people told them that their pension system could be made healthy at the lowest cost by using bonded debt to put the fund at the level that would supposedly make it self sustaining until its remaining beneficiaries had run their lives’ course.

Unfortunately, investment is just educated gambling, and as with every city and town in Rhode Island, plus the state itself, political calculations have pushed the educated guess for investment profits way too high.  Consequently, Woonsocket’s pension fund lost about a third of its value.  The $10+ million contribution is what actuaries (still using the high guesses) think the city needs to pay into the fund every year in order to get it back on track in five.

(The five-year timeline was part of the deal that allowed the city to borrow money to bring itself from 0% funded to fully funded all at once.)

Rhode Islanders should take Woonsocket’s example as an opportunity to learn that “fully funded” does not mean that the pension problem has been solved in the sense they think it means.  It does not mean that the portion of their taxes that will go into the pension fund will be locked in.

The employees’ contributions may be locked in as a percentage of their salaries, but taxpayers alone are responsible for making up for any losses at the investment table.  And again, the estimates of potential winnings that are being sold to voters are way too high if the goal is to ensure a stable system.

Government as Reporters’ Parachute

During the handful of interactions I had with Connie Grosch at the State House, last session, she was friendly and very helpful. Moreover, she did her job taking photographs for the Providence Journal well.

So, I was sorry to see her name added to the list of personnel cuts that the paper has made in recent years, and I’m glad that she’s landed on her feet. But the way she’s done so worries me.

Grosch has taken a job (perhaps “has been offered and accepted a job” would be better put) as Congressman David Cicilline’s press secretary.  At Governor Lincoln Chafee’s State of the State address, her former media colleagues highlighted her attendance in that capacity.

In the past year, I’ve also had a few introductory lunches with folks in the Rhode Island media, and a number of them have declined my offer to pick up the bill for their sandwiches.  For some, it’s apparently company policy.  As a matter of risking the credibility of reportage, how a couple of slices of bread with meat between them compares with, say, Providence Journal reporters’ largely undisclosed membership in the RI AFL-CIO, I’m not sure.

How it compares with a politician’s saving a late-career journalist from unemployment, I’m a little more confident.  No doubt the message has been received loud and clear in the ranks of the Rhode Island press corps.  Having friendly relationships with powerful people — much of whose individual power derives from the ability to hand out jobs — can be a helpful hedge as technology threatens the financial health of journalists’ employers.

It is only human to survey the landscape with a different eye when one’s career path may eventually meander over it.

And it was with a different eye that I read a front-page, above-the-fold article in Monday’s Providence Journal titled, “Cicilline has aim to repair Congress.”  Paul Davis’s story is about Cicilline’s involvement with a bipartisan “Problem Solvers” group in Congress that claims an intention to break the gridlock in the national legislature.

The article mentions that Cicilline’s Republican challenger in the last election, Brendan Doherty “mocked” the Congressman’s prior attempts at a bipartisan social club.  (“Mocked,” by the way, is Cicilline’s word.)  But it doesn’t even hint at the extremely partisan rhetoric that Cicilline deployed over the course of the election.

If I’m recalling his statement correctly, during a radio debate on WPRO, Cicilline said in an ominous voice, “I’ve seen these Republicans up close.”  They’re scary and want to hurt people.  (I’m just shy of sure that I could accurately put quotation marks around the word, “scary.”)  The comment capped months of Cicilline’s warning of the “extreme Republican agenda.”

Yet, down the memory hole goes Cicilline, the far-left, partisan-demagogue candidate; on the front page goes Cicilline, the practical, reasonable, cross-the-aisle-reaching Congressman.

The critical role that news media plays in our civic system is to give voters, who are busy keeping the society and the economy going, an accurate view of how government is working, and how politicians are behaving.  If reporters are on the roundabout treadmill that one sees with government hires and lobbyists, the public should fear that what we’re reading, hearing, and seeing is less an accurate record and more a constructed narrative that won’t upset potential future employers.

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01/17/13 – RI House Economic Conference

12:34 p.m.
There’s gotta be some kind of twelve-step program for folks who show up forty-five minutes early for a five-hour conference put on by members of the state legislature.

Sapinsley Hall in the Nazarian Center for Performing Arts at Rhode Island College is a great theater, though. I think I saw a Russian pianist play here a decade and a half ago, but I wasn’t very familiar with Northern Rhode Island, in those days, so I might be mistaken.

So far, aside from paid staff, only a few legislators and two of the planned panelists look eligible to join the recovery program with me.

1:01 p.m.
Around 40 legislators are here. Four media types, including me. They’re starting the program now.

1:04 p.m.
Speaker Gordon Fox (D, Providence) says that he thought that it would be good to do something productive while the legislators aren’t busy. He says the legislature is critical to economic development.

Gordon Fox

1:05 p.m.
While waiting, one of the other early birds (a panelist) commented to me that he’s surprised this is open to the press but not the public. I responded that they might have worried about seating, but looking behind me, any such concerns were mistaken.

Fox just said: “You can’t do sound research without doing the homework.” He says folks in business and labor have to do sound planning and research and so should a legislature.

1:08 p.m.
Fox says he’s trying to make the House a “legislator-driven legislature.” I imagine most Rhode Islanders thought that’s what they already had.

1:11 p.m.
Karl Wadensten, of Vibco, is up first and gets out from behind the table, displaying his bright-red slacks.

Karl Wadensten

He called Speaker Fox back onto the stage and had the audience stand to chant, “Rhode Island Number 1!”

1:13 p.m.
Wadensten asks what’s getting in RI’s way. He quotes Ben Franklin, saying there are three things that are really hard: steel, a diamond, and knowing one’s self.

1:15 p.m.
Wadensten: “From what I know about your customers, the people of Rhode Island, they don’t want a plough-horse economy.”

1:18 p.m.
Wadensten asked the legislators to raise their hands if they would like to be customers of the services they provide. Hesitant elevation of hands, but a majority gradually were up.

1:19 p.m.
“In industry, we don’t look for fixes; we look for possibilities.” He doesn’t just want fixes.

Says RI is one of only five states with legislation creating an ORR (that’s Office of Regulatory Reform), yet we’re on the bottom of every list.

1:22 p.m.
Wadensten offers to work with legislators and urges them to take one step at a time copying what other states are doing right.

1:23 p.m.
Cheryl Snead, owner of Banneker Industries, is speaking; she held up her company’s 3-year strategic plan and is encouraging the legislators to follow the recommendation from the RI Public Expenditures Council (RIPEC), including a proposal for such planning.

Cheryl Snead

1:25 p.m.
She says election cycles tend to limit themselves to two-year plans (i.e., to ensure reelection). She’s also on the EDC board, by the way, as is Wadensten.

1:26 p.m.
She’s citing the difficulty of a services economy’s not having infrastructure to use as collateral for capital borrowing. (Of course, I’d note, they need less start-up money if they don’t have to build structures and buy equipment.)

“It’s great to bring in outside funding, but you always hear, ‘What skin in the game are you going to put in?'” She means the state should put public money into businesses.

1:29 p.m.
Snead says her company has a close relationship with Bryant University (which, I’d note, took the lead on creating the economic development collaborative that saw the EDC giving partial funding for the universities’ activities).

1:32 p.m.
Snead invites the legislators to come observe Six Sigma “continuous improvement” in action in her company.

Within one of the six steps of the program, she says there are no bad ideas… living in Rhode Island, I’m not so sure about that.

1:35 p.m.
Gary Ezovski says he’s going to speak mainly in his capacity as chairman of the Regulations Subcommittee of the Annual RI Small Business Administration Economic Summit.

Gary Ezovski

1:37 p.m.
“The engineer in me tells me that the friction” that keeps RI in the policy doldrums is just like traffic friction, using the example of “a dolt stuck in a catatonic state using his cell phone in the left lane” forcing everybody to break one of the fundamental rules of the road: keep right pass left.

1:42 p.m.
Ezovski offered ten specific regulatory priorities, both things that the government should not halt (e.g., regulatory review and reform) and a bunch of things that it should change, right down to loosening rules on the length of pay periods to let businesses operate themselves. On the other hand, he wants the state to impose more restrictions on what cities and towns can do with their own zoning and regulations.

1:45 p.m.
Ken Block, Moderate Party founder and gubernatorial candidate and owner of Simpatico Software Systems, says he’s got a stack of recommendations that he can’t possibly fit into ten minutes, but he invites anybody to sit down with him.

Ken Block

“Business is all about competition,” and he says RI is in competition with MA and CT. He says he’s talked to an economic official in Fall River, who told him his office is daily full of RI businesses looking for a comparison to what they’re experiencing.

He says legislators ought to consider every piece of legislation in light of what it would do to employment/unemployment.

Speaks against raising income tax because it disadvantages local businesses. “When you tax my net profitability at a rate that is twice as high as in MA,” it “directly impacts competitiveness.”

He says when we talk about raising taxes every single year, even if it doesn’t happen, that “projects instability.”

1:54 p.m.
Block shows a slide illustrating that unemployment insurance looks like some minority of companies are using it as part of their compensation structure. An example I’d offer would be a construction company that lays off its employees for the winter every year, relying on the insurance to supplement the pay it’s able to offer in the other seasons.

1:57 p.m.
Owen Johnson is the last speaker on this panel. He’s also the only one not in a dark suit jacket. Also the only one with hair past his ears, a fact that he utilizes for an opening joke.

Owen Johnson

Says of his company: “We don’t look at competing with the Silicon Valleys of the world; we compete with the Detroits of the world.” (Not sure what to make of that.)

2:01 p.m.
He says the number 1 thing business decision-makers are looking at is excellent education for their children, “and that’s very hard to find here in the public education system.” (I’d note that most of the people in the room probably heard that as a reason to devote more money to the system as it is, when they really should take it as a reason to allow more innovation and loosening their constrictive grip.)

2:04 p.m.
First question is to Johnson to ask whether he could apply his experience with Connect Providence to Rhode Island and work with the EDC. He explains that Connect Providence was really just a social gather, and the core of its success was the connection of people to other people.

2:06 p.m.
House Minority Leader Brian Newberry asks the two EDC board members what the legislators can do to make EDC work better. Snead says it goes back to planning, which is unfortunately tied to the governor (“unfortunately” because the actual person changes), but the legislature needs to be part of the plan, too.

2:09 p.m.
Wadensten says the EDC doesn’t even have a customer database. “EDC is just as much grassroots as it is high-tech financing.”

2:15 p.m.
A question from Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt asked about using funds (including unemployment insurance) to help place people in jobs. A little discussion at the table about whether the companies they all operate are looking for people. Ken Block said his company is not; one of the other panelists asked if he would take them if he were getting them for free.

He said, “no,” because there are no real entry-level jobs in his line of work. I wonder how many companies are more like that, especially small ones, for which even bringing on free labor creates a lot of work for existing employees who don’t have time to manage them.

By the way, Snead just stated that the thought of an income-tax increase is “scary to me.” Her company is national, having set up facilities elsewhere to be closer to clients. Whenever she fills out paperwork for new locations, she is “deluged” with calls and other contacts from officials in those states trying to persuade her to move their headquarters there.

Businesses in RI “are being challenged every day with lucrative opportunities” to move out of state.

2:24 p.m.
Asked about problems at the EDC, Wadensten said that all of the various proposals that people tend to put forward are “Band Aids” unless more structural issue are addressed… Who’s the point person? Who are the customers? Etc.

Wadensten inadvertently called Gordon Fox “governor,” to a smattering of applause. “Don’t get me in trouble,” Fox joked.

2:26 p.m.
First panel ends. Four minute break.

2:29 p.m.
There are more media folks here than I realized. One Projo reporter (Alex Kuffner) appears to be leaving, but Jennifer Jordan is here for the next panel. WJAR’s Bill Rappleye has hopped on the stage to interview some of the exiting panelists. Steve Klamkin from WPRO left about 45 minutes in, but the AP’s David Klepper appears to be settled in for the long haul.

2:32 p.m.
The first panel was on “Small Business Challenges and Recommendations,” and now the second one, on “Workforce Development Gaps and Opportunities,” is beginning. First up is Ronald Pitt, RI College VIP for Academic Affairs, apparently filling in for RIC president Nancy Carriuolo. He’s giving a quick summary presentation about RIC.

Ronald Pitt

One good line: “Contrary to popular opinion, artists really like money.”

2:40 p.m.
Pitt notes a few programs the college offers to help students with the challenges outside of the classroom that usually are the cause of their dropping out.

He highlights the fact that more young women than men attend college, and yet they don’t choose science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula, so there’s an “inadequate” representation of them there. He suggests (my words) social engineering, starting at early grades, to make girls as likely as boys to go into such areas.

2:44 p.m.
He positions the school’s arts programs as contributing to “quality of life,” which is very important, he says, to economic development.

2:45 p.m.
Ray DiPasquale, president of the Community College of Rhode Island, is now giving a summary presentation about his school.

Ray DiPasquale

2:46 p.m.
By the way, there are no exceptions to the dark-suit-jacket rule among the men now on stage, although Governor’s Workforce Board director Rick Brooks’s hair sticks out past his ears, and AFL-CIO boss George Nee has the liveliest tie.

2:49 p.m.
DiPasquale is describing some of the relationships that CCRI has with local businesses to provide training to their employees. He mentions the Tunstall deal that I pointed out here.

2:54 p.m.
He closes emphasizing the Governor’s Workforce Board’s thinking that internships are critical to economic development.

Now up is Rick Brooks, from that board. He’s describing what they do, noting that he represents the only organization on the stage that isn’t a household name.

Rick Brooks

2:57 p.m.
To be honest, I’m losing track of the many programs that the speakers are listing at top verbal speed. What I’m hearing is that the GWB has multiple multi-million-dollar programs using public money for workforce development purposes.

3:01 p.m.
Brooks says the bottom line is that Rhode Island just does not have enough jobs. If every current vacancy were filled with an unemployed Rhode Islander, there would still be about 50,000 too few.

He says the state is still 40,000 short of its peak employment, prior to the recession.

“Nonetheless,” he says, “many employers still report difficulty filling positions.” Top of the list of problems is a basic education and a basic understanding of professionalism (proper attire, punctuality, etc.). (I wonder how much of that is attributable to things like minimum wage laws that make it harder for teens and young adults to find jobs before they’re technically ready to enter the workforce.)

“Lastly, there’s not enough money,” Brooks said, with a chuckle.

3:06 p.m.
Nee is up. He says he’s been lobbying in RI since 1983, and he’s never seen a conference like this, that brought a whole chamber together.

George Nee

Understandably, he’s speaking on the importance of having labor at the table as a third partner with government and the private sector. “We can be number 1. I think we will be number 1. And today might be the start of it.”

I’m hoping he addresses the business leaders’ objections to the tax increases for which he helps advocate.

3:08 p.m.
Nee emphasizes seeking policies that help the economic situation “today.” First example is the historic tax credit program, which he wants revivified, but with rules to make sure that the contractors are “reputable,” and that they be required to have apprentice programs.

He’s presenting the apprenticeship requirement as economic preparation for the future, but he doesn’t note that it’s also a way of creating barriers to entry for companies that would come in and compete with his union shops.

3:10 p.m.
Nee also likes the public colleges’ idea to take up land freed up by the I-Way project. He says a public-private cooperation would make that happen faster than a bond.

Other programs he likes are those that subsidize construction, public and private.

3:13 p.m.
Nee says Chafee’s budget, release last night, was “historic,” because it’s the first since 1991 that puts more money into job training. He also says kids don’t believe rhetoric about the importance of education when they attend classes in inadequate, technologically ancient buildings.

Yeah… if only there were a way to make a higher percentage of our education expenditures go to technology and infrastructure.

3:17 p.m.
University of Rhode Island President David Dooley says he’s going to highlight some successes that folks in the room are probably aware of.

David Dooley

He expands on the idea of the “skills gap” to talk about “the gap that exists frequently” between the colleges and universities and the communities in which they’re located. “One of the functions of a research university” is to address the lack of jobs by training employers. He cites Brown and URI as two excellent research universities in the state.

3:20 p.m.
He mentions that he’s already had “several conversations” with the new president of Brown to build on their relationship.

3:22 p.m.
Dooley says the institutions of higher learning are “magnets for talent,” and suggests that “we” have to create opportunities for them. As one of those sucked into Rhode Island through URI, I’d offer the suggestion that it would be more true to say that the state has to allow them to build their own opportunities

3:25 p.m.
One specific tool he lists is a Business Engagement Center, a “portal” to allow businesses, government agencies, and non-profits to find and access the work that’s already going on at the university.

3:26 p.m.
Rep. Jim McLaughlin asks Nee and Dooley if they feel that $2 million (per the governor’s budget) is “inadequate” for vocational training in the current budget.

3:37 p.m.
Dooley highlights the necessity of innovation for advancing the economy so that people have the resources to afford their own healthcare and other necessities.

3:40 p.m.
DiPasquale fields a question about the combined Board of Regents and Board of Governors for Higher Education saying that “we’re embracing it,” because the board will be more harmonious in ensuring that public schools prepare students for college.

“Right now as we sit here, we do not have a Board of Education or a Board of Governors.”

3:50 p.m.
Panel 3 is on “Local/Regional Experiences, Successes and Solutions.” Projo’s Phil Marcelo takes the torch for that publication.

Meanwhile, Wadensten has positioned an unlit cigar between his lips in the audience. Me, I’m still working on the same piece of gum I’ve had since I got here.

3:54 p.m.
Gregory Bialecki, MA Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, says he’s not going to offer suggestions to Rhode Island, but just give a view into MA’s activities.

Gregory Bialecki

He refutes the notion that the New England states are competitors, but rather, he says they’re all competing with regions around the world.

3:56 p.m.
Bialecki says his state focuses on long-term planning, competing nationally, emphasizing existing strengths, and (if I may insert the central planners’ lingo) equitable economic development that helps all people in the state equally.

It’s interesting to note that he listed Massachusetts’ strengths as technology and innovation, thereafter offering that Rhode Island has strengths in marine industries and tourism. Somebody who sees the states as in competition might have taken that as a subtle suggestion that Massachusetts has ownership of the exact areas that Rhode Island leaders have stated an interest in pursuing.

4:01 p.m.
“It’s not an accident that Massachusetts has recovered more quickly than the rest of the nation.” I’d note that that’s a little bit of a different attitude from those in Rhode Island who think our state will recover when the national economy recovers… we’re always first into recession and last out.

4:02 p.m.
Catherine Smith, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, is describing an every-corner search of her state with the governor for information about helping businesses. Once again, we hear the term “strategic plan.”

Catherine Smith

(A theme is emerging there, and I expect it’s going to be an organizing principle of the policies that receive the “economic development” stamp in the State House this year. I’m not so sure that governments should be doing things that require “strategic plans.” Where does that leave the right of the people to shift direction every few years in elections?)

4:06 p.m.
This panel is the most fashionably diverse, by the way. Even Mr. Bialecki’s suit is lighter than the others that we’ve seen, and I think Smith’s suit jacket might be a perfect match with Wadensten’s pants.

4:13 p.m.
Smith credits two programs (sorry, I was distracted) with helping CT pull out of a recession that was, she said, worse than in Massachusetts. Actually, in terms of employment, Connecticut was doing much better than either of its New England neighbors, but it’s been in free fall in recent months. I wonder if these programs are to credit for that.

4:14 p.m.
RI Director of Regulatory Reform, Leslie Taito, says she’s going to “channel” Wadensten, because she wants the audience to become “souped” about regulatory review. (“Souped?” Did I hear that right? Where’s that from?)

Leslie Taito

She says everybody in RI is on the same page about a “clear, predictable, and reliable” regulatory system.

4:18 p.m.
Taito’s running through her description of what she does. I didn’t catch the specific numbers, but she said almost the same thing on the December 20 Positively Rhode Island show, if anybody wants to download the podcast. The upshot is that Rhode Island has a lot of regulatory government agencies and a whole lot of overlapping regulations.

4:24 p.m.
Interesting catch phrase from Taito, describing getting businesses “unstuck” from the regulatory system: If they’re not going to be successful in getting through the system, she wants them to “fail fast and fail cheap.”

4:25 p.m.
Responding to a question from Rep. O’Grady, Bialecki mentions Governor Patrick’s speech last night, proposing a major tax overhaul that would increase income taxes and decrease sales taxes “in a way that increases revenue.”

(Keep in mind, though, that he doesn’t see Massachusetts as a competitor to the states around it.)

4:32 p.m.
Smith is answering a question about the involvement of the legislature in CT’s economic development, saying she misspoke if she gave all of the credit to the executive branch, before. I missed some of her answer, though, because I was having a daydream in which at least one legislator knew enough about regional employment trends to challenge her on the effectiveness of an economic development regime in a state that’s been losing employment at a frightening pace.

4:35 p.m.
Smith said that traveling the state, she did get the sense that all businesses want government to be smaller, and that states are competing in that regard.

Rep. Frank Ferri notes that he attended a meeting with business leaders and Taito, and he’s never seen business folks open up so much to government officials, because they were so jazzed (my word) that the state might be doing something right.

But Ferri then went on to ask Bialecki about the possibility of a “Regional Economic Policy Council” that would involve governments in multiple states’ setting plans and pulling the strings for the regional economy. That doesn’t sound like competing for smaller government to me.

4:42 p.m.
Wadensten took a microphone to say that Taito has a four-star rating among all of the businesses he knows, and he’s asking the legislators “to support Leslie.”

4:45 p.m.
Important note: as we take a brief break before the next panel: the chemical bonds of my chewing gum finally gave out, and it became mush. I note the detail here so I’ll have evidence to describe when I find that 12-step program.

I’d also throw in a word of thanks for the magic of hard-drive camcorders. Still recording away, with no need to change a tape or a card. Think of that: technology for recording data-intensive video outlasts a simple piece of gum. (Of course, if I were chewing on my camera, that might make a difference.)

4:50 p.m.
Now on to the “Rebranding” panel.

4:53 p.m.
Martha Sheridan is president and CEO of the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau. She says her work is no longer about developing a slogan and buying ads, because of all the competition “from the states to the north and south” and any city that has a convention center is fighting for events.

Martha Sheridan

She says RI saw a 10% increase in hotel revenue, last year. The thing that’s missing is “a brand” to provide a “what does it mean” for people to visit RI, move here, start businesses here.

She cites a campaign in Michigan, although (again) I’m not sure how that comports with the reality that Michigan is the only state worse off than Rhode Island when it comes to recovering jobs lost in the Great Recession.

4:57 p.m.
Sheridan makes the most interesting point that I think I’ve heard all day: When her organization brings people in to preview Rhode Island, they always love it and see all of the state’s advantages, but they invariably express surprise that the people who live here don’t seem to see it.

Speaking for the Rhode Islanders I live among, I wonder how much of that is a problem of not having the time or resources to enjoy the state because they’re struggling to get by or figuring out how to move. That wouldn’t be a branding issue.

5:04 p.m.
John Bowen, Chancellor of Johnson & Wales University, opened with a story of two shoe salesmen who were sent to sell in Africa. One called back to the home office and said, “There’s no market here. All I see are people running around barefoot.” The second called back and said, “Send me shoes in every size. There’s a wide open market here.” He says that’s like Rhode Island.

John Bowen

He wants everybody to be positive and to stop complaining and start hiring and making people get to work. He’s tired of seeing elected officials going out and making great, positive announcements, and then the first three questions from the reporters are negative. (Sure does know his audience.)

Bowen also offered, if Leslie Taito has an empty office, that Johnson & Wales will find and pay interns to work with her.

5:10 p.m.
Bowen also wants his university to be like a venture capitalist, offering seed money for businesses.

5:16 p.m.
John Sheets of Boston Scientific Corp. says RI should be the Palo Alto of the East. He also told the story of police dragging four suspicious guys out of a white van outside of a shopping mall, and it turned out that they were from Toyota, doing research about how shoppers open their trunks with their hands full. Ultimately, that’s what led to remote openers.

The point, I guess, is similar to Wadensten’s “know your customers” admonition.

John Sheets

He also talked about the habit of Steve Jobs to call his employees with ideas at 3:00 a.m. Not sure what the point of that was, although it might be interesting for the owners of Rhode Island (i.e., the people) to be able to call the governor at that time.

5:23 p.m.
Neil Steinberg, head of the RI Foundation, joked that it’s tough to be the last person on the last panel. He listed many of the monetary contributions RI Foundation is putting into the recent economic development push, including $50,000 to Leslie Taito’s office for an e-permitting initiative.

Neil Steinberg

5:25 p.m.
He says Rhode Islanders need to be sold on an “internal pride,” in the way the biggest obstacle to the old “I Love NY” slogan was public opinion of actual New Yorkers. He’s got a lot of examples. One was that you go to a Patriots game, spend $12 on a hotdog and $6 on a bottled water, grumble, and then sit down and say how great it is to be at the game. Point being that Rhode Islanders should have that attitude.

Steinberg thinks the top elected officials should get together, pick 10 big things to get done, and do them.

He goes on, “It is inconceivable to me that we do not have a War on Unemployment.” He can’t understand how people aren’t “appalled and agonized” about the 58,000 people who are unemployed.

“I’ve never seen us miss a recession; we have missed upturns.”

Three goals: Unemployment must be the national average, raise median household income to the level of Massachusetts and Connecticut (“Massachusetts ain’t as great as it thinks it is”), and closing income, education, and employment gaps that exist across diverse cross-sections of Rhode Islanders.

5:33 p.m.
Rep. Deb Ruggerio asked about combining all of the funds that regional marketing entities spend, but Sheridan said it’s not a good idea, because each target audience is so distinct and unique.

“I really, to the core, don’t think that it’s work that a single statewide entity could do.” (Wise observation that, I’d argue, applies to many more aspects of Rhode Island than tourism marketing.)

5:34 p.m.
As we move into the Q&A, I want to mention that Steinberg’s enthusiasm is definitely contagious, but I think there are two fatal problems to it. The first is that (again) for many Rhode Islanders, the state is a different place than it is for legislators, lawyers, and organizational executive directors, one where it’s extremely difficult just to get by.

Here’s an example: I wanted to go to a really intriguing woodwind concert at an antique building in Tiverton a week or two ago, but looking at $25 per ticket for adults and $10 for children, well, when taxes and fees and tolls and regulations and subsidies for green energy in my electric bills take such a huge bite out of disposable income (not to mention the employer’s market that high unemployment creates), $80 for an hour or two of entertainment, however valuable it might be for the kids, is hard to justify.

The question is: Quality of life for whom?

The second fatal problem is that a “pick 10 things and just do them” suggestion assumes that the answer is obvious and that the objections aren’t sincerely held, just needing some easing of unnecessary friction. I’d put eliminating the sales tax high on that list of things to “just do.” How many of the legislators in the room would accept that?

5:45 p.m.
And on that note, Rep. Pat Serpa stood up to issue a call to “journalists and radio hosts and wonderful bloggers” to stop being so negative and to partner with them to turn the state around, presumably through positive branding. (I’m kinda new to this, but I’m pretty sure that’s contrary to the design of a necessarily aggressive media challenging the powers who be.)

5:47 p.m.
Fox closes, saying that they could have spent five hours with each of the panelists. He’s going to ask certain representatives to take ownership of certain aspects of economic development.

He notes that they have all of the representatives’ budget books, for those “who just can’t wait to delve into them.”

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To Save Constitutional Liberty, Save Marriage

With advocates’ having finally managed to bring the issue of same-sex marriage to the Supreme Court, it is critical that those who believe in limited government understand one thing: If the Constitution does not allow the people of the United States to maintain the traditional definition of marriage, then it does not allow them to govern themselves.

One often hears the classic quotations of the American Founders, such as “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” but we can go ol’ John Adams one better:  Plainly stated, there is no mechanism for limited government — not federalism, not separation of powers, not representative democracy — that can maintain freedom if the government cannot reflect, but can redefine, the culture of the governed.

Put differently, if the people of the United States cannot insert cultural notions into government that would be wholly inappropriate coming from elected officials, then elected officials will use government to change the culture to their advantage or their own liking.  That could be same-sex marriage.  It could be some vague “holiday tree” during a school celebration of the solstice.  It could be the assumption of Big Gulp evil. Or it could be the elevation of “equity” above Truth and Justice.

An obvious objection is that this is a distinction without a difference, because the people insert things into their government by means of their elected officials.  Yes and no.  Yes, apart from ballot referenda, an explicitly new concept inserted into law must make its introduction through some sort of official. This is an argument for a broad federalism that pushes substantive decisions as close to the local level as possible, where culture is most palpable and politicians are most accountable.

But on the bigger scale, it’s not true.

To hear some theorists express things, you’d think the government involved itself in marriage only as long ago as President Bill Clinton was disrespecting his own in the Oval Office.  The reality is that marriage was a cultural fact long before the United States was a glimmer in Great Britain’s eye.

Through marriage, two people became one entity for social purposes, just as they became one entity for biological purposes in creating children and just as they became one according to most of their religious beliefs.  Where the fact of that one entity was relevant to government, the law reflected the culture.  That is, elected officials didn’t insert marriage into the law; they built the law around it, with methods of certifying that one existed for the purposes of public policy.

Using the law to redefine “marriage” is what inserts government into the cultural institution. Avoiding that outcome by getting government “out of the marriage business” does the same, because it denies marriage as a real and legally tangible relationship existing within the culture of the governed. Unfortunately for libertarians and moderates, the principles and terminology of social traditionalists are not uniquely vulnerable to this treatment.

Viewed objectively, government has done the heavy lifting to impart a new sense, among younger generations, of what they should and shouldn’t believe about marriage.  At the turn of the century, most Americans still thought same-sex marriage to be a bizarre idea.  Now, many see it as inevitable.  Does anybody truly believe that the progressive, statist project won’t find a new issue on which to flex government’s growing muscle?  Here’s a more immediate question:  Can anybody think of many more issues solely having to do with the principles that uniquely characterize social conservatives?

In the summer of 2010, MIT Senior Lecturer Otto Scharmer began promoting a concept that he called “Capitalism 3.0.”  Free-market libertarians should be concerned to learn that Scharmer didn’t even count their economic principles as 2.0 (that’s European redistribution).  Beware, my “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” friends; you’re 1.0 and rapidly becoming economic traditionalists, and stodgy traditionalism is easily dismissed, these days.

Ultimately, even freedom and inherent rights are religious, philosophical, cultural notions around which we have required elected officials to build the laws of the land.  If the culture cannot define them into government, then we’ll find the government redefining them for us all.

It may make some branches of the center-right family uncomfortable — social conservatives may be the awkward cousins you’d prefer to usher out the door — but take a look: the statists are backing you out with us. Believe what you like about the clarity of the Founders’ language, but if traditional marriage has no place in the law, then neither does traditional economics or a tradition of liberty.

Legislation Under the Radar – Mo’ Money for the General Fund

I’m going through all legislation as it’s introduced to the Rhode Island General Assembly, and the Center for Freedom & Prosperity will be putting out a real-time Freedom Index — essentially a watch list — in a couple of weeks.  That’ll have the collection of good and bad within the think tank’s scope.

Card check? Check.  Master lever? Yup.  Mail ballots for lazy voters? Uh-huh.  General Assembly term limits? Absolutely.

But in keeping with yesterday’s post about overly discreet legislation concerning Bryant’s taxes, I’m not able to resist mention of bills that I find intriguing, including those that are of interest because of the way they’re presented.  In that category, 5073 is an excellent example, submitted by Representatives Jeremiah O’Grady (D, Lincoln, Pawtucket), Teresa Tanzi (D, Narragansett, South Kingstown), Arthur Handy (D, Cranston), Lisa Tomasso (D, Coventry, West Greenwich), and Cale Keable (D, Burrillville, Glocester).  (There may be more sponsors, but the online system only allows for five.)

The official bill description proves the legislation to be bad enough: “would include public transit in the Rhode Island highway maintenance fund and accelerate the surcharges that support the fund.”

Basically, in 2011, the General Assembly implemented a phased-in increase of automobile registration fees as funding to pay off the state’s irresponsible transportation debt related to roads, bridges, and other infrastructure.  Fairness to the Rhode Island public should force the government to take that money out of existing spending, but at least the economic principle behind it is sound: paying down expensive debt.

This legislation would make the fees go up faster and would redirect 35% of the proceeds to public transportation subsidies and expenses.

It’s worse than that, though.  Scroll down to page three, and you find that the above-listed Democrats want to fluff their own budget with most of the new money for a few years. Beginning this year (fiscal 2013), 80% of the money collected for this purpose would actually go into the general fund, for regular spending by the state government. The percentage would go down by 20 points every year until, finally, the money would all go to its intended purpose in 2017.

A state with a functioning civil society would have these legislators plastered across the front page of its paper of record (i.e., the Providence Journal) as examples of irresponsible and sneaky governance.  Of course, a state with a functioning civil society probably wouldn’t have agreed to so much debt in the first place, but we have to start somewhere.

Burying the Legislative Lead

Most legislation introduced into the General Assembly comes with a brief summary that appears with references to the bill — most visibly on the various pages of the legislature’s Web site.  Sometimes the descriptions are misleading; sometimes they’re just confusing.  (Usually, they’re pretty good, assuming one understands the lingo of policy.)

Today, Representatives Thomas Winfield (D, Smithfield, Glocester) and Gregory Costantino (D, Lincoln, Smithfield, Johnston) submitted legislation with a description that puts a superficial effect first and excludes the most significant purpose of the bill from the locations where it would be most easily spotted.

Here’s the description appearing with the bill, H5083, in the General Assembly’s tracking tool:

would amend the 1949 act used to incorporate the Bryant College of Business Administration to reflect its current name of Bryant University

And here’s language from the bill’s final paragraph:

… the value of the estate, both real and personal, of said corporation, wheresoever located, whatever its condition, or whenever acquired, shall be subject to taxation commencing July 1, 2014 by the town of Smithfield in the same manner as other businesses in the town, whether or not said property is used exclusively for educational purposes, unless the corporation and the town of Smithfield reach an agreement on payment in lieu of taxes on or before June 30, 2014.

As written, the bill would appear to give Smithfield the right to tax Bryant’s properties anywhere in the world.  More important, though, is the strategy of requiring the university to negotiate its payment in lieu of taxes with the town holding all of the cards.  Not coming to an agreement means full taxation.

Frankly, I’m not sure where I stand on the taxation of lucrative ventures in higher education, but it would be nice if Rhode Islanders didn’t have to read every bill from front to back to know what their most profound effects would be.

Daffy-Pearl-featured

Consequences Schmonsequences, as Long as We Have Control

In one of those old cartoons that — for better or for worse — taught moral lessons to a couple of generations of Americans, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck come across a Middle Eastern cave filled with treasure.  Searching every corner to make sure that he hasn’t missed a penny, Daffy comes across a magic lamp, and its jinni does what jinnis do and offers him wishes.

But Daffy fears that the jinni is really after his gold, so he stuffs him back into the lamp… temporarily, before the jinni shoots back out and declares that there will be consequences.  The duck dismisses the threat, saying, “Consequences, schmonsequences, as long as I’m rich.”

The cartoon ends with Bugs’ finding a pearl in a seaside oyster and a miniaturized Daffy appearing to claim it.  “Mine! Mine! I’m a happy miser.”

Two essays on very different topics, both by conservative stalwarts, brought that scene to mind — especially the part about consequences.

The first is by Roger Kimball.  I saw Mr. Kimball speak some years back, at the Portsmouth Institute’s inaugural conference, on William F. Buckley.  Kimball told of sailing with WFB… and then buying the boat from him.  That is to say that, in externalities, he fits the image of the conservative aristocrat.

That did not protect him from Hurricane Sandy, and it is not protecting him from the zoning zealots of Connecticut. Roger (dear fellow) was not aware that he needed a government permit to tear out and replace internal building materials that had spent some time under salt water.  His discovery sent him into the realm of surreal regulation:

Before you could get a building permit, however, you had to be approved by the Zoning Authority. And Zoning—citing FEMA regulations—would force you to bring the house “up to code,” which in many cases meant elevating the house by several feet. Now, elevating your house is very expensive and time consuming—not because of the actual raising, which takes just a day or two, but because of the required permits.

Kafka would have liked the zoning folks. There also is a limit on how high in the sky your house can be. That calculation seems to be a state secret, but it can easily happen that raising your house violates the height requirement. Which means that you can’t raise the house that you must raise if you want to repair it. Got that?

The schmonsequences of this actuality include, among others, that thousands of dollars that otherwise might have been spent much more productively in our nation’s struggling economy are going to temporary housing and government fees, as well as payments to people to help the family navigate the artificially imposed rules of building.

(By artificial, I mean the rules exist independently of natural things like the laws of physics and the properties of lumber.)

In his essay, Thomas Sowell argues that this difficulty is more than just a gnat nagging at the one-percent:

San Francisco is a classic example of a city unexcelled in its liberalism. But the black population of San Francisco today is less than half of what it was back in 1970, even though the city’s total population has grown.

Severe restrictions on building housing in San Francisco have driven rents and home prices so high that blacks and other people with low or moderate incomes have been driven out of the city.

Government interference, in other words, lays like a restrictive film across the economy and the society.  The result is not some minor inconveniences to people who can afford to deal with them.  It is a broad inability of people to advance their situation, and to do the sorts of things that help others to advance theirs.  Even the minor aspect of wealthy Kimballs’ renting living space helps inflate the cost of rentals throughout his region, during a time when homes have been destroyed.

Sowell’s topic is much broader, though.  In his view, the principle applies in non-economic ways, as well.  Affirmative action, for instance, forces a mismatch of candidates with positions, leading to outcomes that aren’t ideal for either.  And as for social matters:

The black family survived centuries of slavery and generations of Jim Crow, but it has disintegrated in the wake of the liberals’ expansion of the welfare state. Most black children grew up in homes with two parents during all that time but most grow up with only one parent today.

Statism, like Daffy Duck, only has eyes for the treasure — in its case, the authority to decree that things must be as its adherents believe they should be.  Houses must be so many feet above the ground and only so high.  Student bodies should consist of so many proportions of each demographic group.  “The rich” should (via costly government services) ensure that the natural consequences of personal decisions and misfortune do not threaten such hardship as to affect behavior.

The jinni of human nature will not return to the bottle, though, and scant thought is given to possible outcomes. Moreover, limited safeguards are in place to allow a course correction once bureaucracies have been born.  What we get, therefore, is a small-in-the-sense-of-petty government structure that is more concerned with preserving its rules than with allowing the human beings whom it is supposed to serve to thrive.

thingswereadtoday-featured-sunday

Things We Read Today (46), Weekend

Boy, It Really Is Flyover Country

For some super-secret training and conspiring, I flew out to Phoenix, Arizona, last week.  The trip was my second experience with airplanes since I was a young boy; the first was a trip to Florida in November for some not-so-secret training.

Given the timing of my flights, I managed to fly over the Great Plains, between Phoenix and Chicago, in both the day- and night-times, with clear skies for both.  During the day, when even substantial cities are hardly identifiable as such from that height, there really does appear to be nothing out there, except crop circles.

At night, the ebbs and flows of light from Northeastern sprawl give way to small bursts of population dozens or hundreds of miles away from each other.  One of Rhode Island’s special qualities is the strong definition of its various communities, even though they touch each other and even thought they’re all so close.  But when local character is matched by geographic distance, it must be easier to understand.

Of course, perspective is a necessary thing.  Coasting so far above the Earth, everything looks pretty flat.  The giant craters of New Mexico are only impressive inasmuch as one can make them out at all.  Unless one has stood beside them, has seen flyover country from the ground, one cannot see the landscape for what it is.

Another Kind of Perspective

Here’s the honest truth: I think that most people whom I would consider my political opposition are genuinely good people. Yes, some of them allow themselves to be lured into the dirty-fighting strategy of politics, but if they think they’re sullying themselves, they think they’re doing it for the greater good. One doesn’t have to agree with any aspect of that reasoning to see that the impulse underlying it is ultimately admirable.

This is all to say that I believe that many of the people on the other side would be genuinely appalled at their prior support for destructive, harmful policies if they could be made to see… that they are destructive and harmful.  But that’s precisely why it is so difficult for them to see it. As long as it’s possible to avoid the conclusion that we are to some degree culpable for grievous damage to people’s lives, we’ll do it.

(Of course, this would apply equally to my side, if we were wrong… he wrote with a smile.)

This observation is sharpest with matters of life and death. Tremendous emotional weight must exist, for example, for those who’ve argued with full throat in favor of aborting unborn children, or participated in the act in ways personal and industrial.  It must be a sort of purgatory to cross from such experience to the opposite understanding.

But the same is true of economic matters, even if they are so much more complicated.  Think of the collective suffering for years on end in Rhode Island — from the daily grind of trying to support a family here to the heart-wrenching decisions that come from having no options or expectations of improvement.  How difficult it must be for well-meaning public servants to look at the undeniable evidence of decline and to question whether it isn’t just the fault of circumstances, but of their core beliefs.

Cover-up as Policy

Something along these lines came to mind as I listened to the podcast of the December 20 episode of Positively RI.  The hosts had as their guest Leslie Taito, who is in charge of sifting through the state’s regulations to make them less repetitive and more efficient.  (I saw her speak last February.)

Ms. Taito is doing good, necessary work. But I fear that RI government is trying to do what it does more efficiently without really changing what it does. Here’s an actual line from the state’s request for proposals to hire a contractor to review our abysmal business climate rankings (apparently duplicating efforts also underway in the RI Senate): “The State intends to grow its business environment in a way that maintains high standards for development that equitably serves all our residents, protects the environment and builds on our assets.”

Translation: “We want to find metrics to game rather than to fix.”  More money “invested” in education would improve our rankings?  Coming right up.  Reduce taxes and mandates?  Sorry, that doesn’t maintain our “high standards for development that equitably serves all our residents.”

Or, as House Speaker Gordon Fox put it, “Maybe if we looked at those rankings and figured out what’s making us look so bad and shine ’em up a little bit then maybe we won’t have the Eeyore effect.”

Here’s the missing piece: Efficiency applies to every individual and entity in the economy, on a personal level as well as an operational level. Like education, if you’re doing a job that you don’t want to do, even if it’s a role that the economy needs to have done, then you won’t be efficient at it. Nobody is better at making these sorts of judgments than the person who’ll have to deal with the consequences of the decision. So all the top-down talk about making sure that we have this type of workforce or that type of workforce heads in the wrong direction, no matter how efficiently the doers can get through the regulatory screening process.

Of course, the top-down approach as an attractive allure.  Even one of Positively RI’s free-market hosts, “Madman,” argued that Rhode Island leaders should find an economic niche. I’d argue that the government is not well suited to pick that niche, because (1) politics gets in the way, (2) government is too insulated from the personal decisions of individual people, and (3) it’s too easy for government officials to “shine up” their failures, both philosophical and practical.

The Economy Sure Is Complicated

Forbes staff writer John Tamny published an interestingly contrarian essay this weekend:

Considering future generations, they’re lucky in that if what the worriers foretell is true, interest payments will gobble up limited federal revenues at which point the federal government will no longer be a source of employment for so many Americans, will no longer wreck the lives of other Americans with programs that make them dependent on handouts, plus our military will no longer have bases in 175 countries around the world. Assuming spending and deficits today wreck the ability of the federal government to spend irresponsibly tomorrow, we’ll be doing future generations a favor.

As for the bill they’ll be handed, that’s not the burden. In truth, the burden left on future generations will be a much less evolved economy in terms of technology, the ability to cure fatal diseases, and the ability to employ them in as specialized a manner as possible. Deficits can be financed as we all know, but growth lost is just that. Future generations will inherit a less evolved economy because we let politicians from both political parties waste so much of our growth capital. Sorry, but the latter’s true. If readers disagree, please find me an example of a vibrant company that became that way without investment.

Life in Rhode Island is a good indication of what can happen when the ruling class pays too little attention to the unseen opportunity costs that come with taking so many resources out of the economy and imposing so many restrictions on innovation of product and of organization.  We’ll never know the society we could have built if we’d been permitted, and the inability to know is a central flaw in central planning.

Where Tamny’s contrarianism goes a bit off-track, though, is in his overly light view of the consequences that our mammoth government has made unavoidable if we want to get from here to there.  From a certain perspective, growth in the U.S. economy has been premised on government debt for going on a half-century.  That means that there’s a whole lot of social learning and expectation adjustment before things can improve in another direction, and social learning and expectation adjustment will probably require hardship as motivation.

As the debt is paid back, it’s true, the larger portion will flow back into the hands of the private economy, but even to the extent that the money stays within our country, it represents a transfer of wealth from the most productive to the less productive.  That is, it shifts from the younger families striving to build lives to others who are collecting their investment profits; with the aging Baby Boom generation, many of those will be retirees.  Will younger generations acquiesce to harder lives while watching retirees live it up?  And will the Boomers, now wielding that politically coveted senior vote, recognize that the government can’t simply will the world well?

The second problem is the one described above: Those complicit in the government rampage have incentive to cover up their errors in judgment, and they’ll spend taxpayer dollars on studies about how to manipulate rankings and spin the evidence in such a way as to support continued “investment” in their own priorities.

The best hope, perhaps the only hope, is for the American people to awaken more quickly than seems likely and gain perspective from both the air and the ground.  We have to be clear-eyed about what has happened and what needs to be done, and we have to be able to see the actual people involved — not only those who evoke sympathy for the harm that they experience (whom activists are always ready to parade), but also those on whose interests and personal decisions we rely.

We can fly over the people, so to speak, but economically speaking, we’re relying on them to build us a place to land.

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Concluding a Strange Season for Employment Data

An unanticipated (unprecedented) leap in employment just prior to this year’s presidential election brought the Current Population Survey (CPS) data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) an unusually high degree of technical scrutiny.  As I’ve been noting, the seasonally adjusted and unadjusted results have been a bit peculiar.  With data from December now available, the BLS concluded the year by changing five years’ worth of seasonal adjustments and announcing changes that will make subsequent years “not directly comparable” to anything that came before.

For the final month of the year, the “headline” unemployment number, which is the percentage of people in the labor force who say they are actively seeking work, held at 7.8%.  Two frequently highlighted considerations are that, one, certain demographic groups are way above that percentage and, two, the rate would be significantly higher if the American labor force hadn’t slowed its pace.  If the labor force of the last five years had continued to grow at the rate of the prior five years, the unemployment rate would be 8.6%.

But it’s the difference of seasonal adjustment that illustrates the peculiarity of this year.  Seasonal adjustment shifts the employment changes around within the year in order to reduce the effect of changes that happen annually, so that we can see larger scale trends that give better evidence about the health of the economy.

You may have to spend a moment with the following charts, because they’re a little confusing at first look.  One tip is that any given year begins in January reasonably closely to where the prior year left off in December.

Each chart shows the monthly number of Americans who say that they are currently employed.  The bluer the line, the older the data; the redder the line, the newer the data.  The dashed line is 2012.  The first chart shows the data seasonally adjusted, which is the more common way of reporting the numbers; the second chart shows them without the adjustment.

U.S. Seasonally Adjusted Level of Employment, 2002-2012

U.S. Not Seasonally Adjusted Level of Employment, 2002-2012

 

The seasonally adjusted story of 2012 is utter stagnation with a big, unusual upswing from August to October.  Without the seasonal adjustment, the story is a typical increase in employment for the first half of the year and late-summer down-slide followed by an unusually large and consistent spike in October, the month before the election.

Regarding the seasonally adjusted chart, the end of year change in past numbers — which a BLS spokesman tells me happens every year, always addressing the previous five years — reduced the big autumn jump by 9.3%. That is, the seasonal adjustment for the months leading up to September raised the line up, while the peak in October shifted down and the next month, November, increased a bit.  (For some reason, September’s number didn’t change at all.)

So, in the “raw” unadjusted numbers, we see a strange jump, which the seasonal adjustment de-emphasized, and the revised numbers de-emphasized it further.  But if you’re thinking that it would be interesting to see how all these lines develop over the coming year, you’re out of luck.  This is from the BLS news release, this morning (emphasis added):

Effective with the release of The Employment Situation for January 2013, scheduled for February 1, 2013, new population controls will be used in the monthly household survey estimation process. These new controls reflect the annual updating of intercensal population estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. Historical data will not be revised to incorporate the new controls; consequently, household survey data for January 2013 will not be directly comparable with that for December 2012 or earlier periods. A table showing the effects of the new controls on the major labor force series will be included in the January 2013 release.

It will certainly be interesting to see which way the new methodology shifts the numbers.

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Things We Read Today (45), Wednesday

The First Question Facing Rhode Islanders for 2013

What all Rhode Islanders should be asking themselves — to the extent that they give any thought to governance — is whether they’re optimistic about their state’s near- and long-term prospects.  I suspect not, inasmuch as even a modest recovery isn’t expected for the better part of the rest of the decade and all signs point to people leaving and trying to leave.

The next question, of course, is what has to change…

The Proof of a “Top Priority”

Legislators in both chambers of the General Assembly are proclaiming that their central focus this session (fully six years after the state’s employment situation began collapsing)… let me write that outside of parentheses and in italics: fully six years after the state’s employment situation began collapsing… legislators are proclaiming that their central focus is employment and the economy. The Providence Journal political team’s coverage of the GA’s first day back in session even puts it in the lede/subhead: “Economy top priority in new session.”

I won’t bother to go back and check, but I’m pretty sure we’ve heard this all before, and more convincingly.  Frankly, reading the article leaves me feeling that the economy is not at all the central focus for either the legislators or the reporters.  Some questions not asked:  What and where are the specific proposals?  What makes the legislators think that this or that will improve the economy?  How many jobs do they hope to enable the economy to create?  What about alternative proposals — as general as unleashing the private sector or as specific as eliminating the sales tax?

No, a fair reading of the article and the statements around which it is built would clearly leave the average reader with the conclusion that the top priority of the people who operate and who report on the state is same-sex marriage.

Speaking of Marriage…

For the second year in a row, at least, the Providence Journal’s story about the state’s first-born baby makes no mention whatsoever about the child’s having (or not) a father.  In this case, a week’s delay from the baby’s due date enabled his mother to turn 18.  Now she can return to high school, relying on her aunt, who appears to be a single mother of two young children, herself.

There is one positive note, I guess. Last year, Angel Taveras came within a day of fathering the state’s first baby, although it wouldn’t have changed the trend of first babies born out of wedlock, because he had not yet made the marriage commitment.  The positive note is that Taveras married his daughter’s mother in a quiet “surprise” ceremony in some gymnasium somewhere the other day.  Stealthily, as if it is something to be hidden.

I’d been wondering how the unmarried fatherhood image would play if the mayor does run for statewide office in the near future.

I’m still wondering, though, why no advocates for same-sex marriage are willing to acknowledge the clear potential social harm of extinguishing the principle that marriage and parenthood should be inextricably linked.  As I’ve been answering the “whom does it hurt” question for the last decade of marriage debate, the consequence of redefining marriage falls predominantly on society’s most vulnerable, those for whom cultural expectations provide a guiding structure.

Those like Rhode Island’s first babies.

At the end of the third page of this Washington Times article on the surge of fatherless households, you’ll find a very interesting map.  Drag it up to Rhode Island and zoom in until you can see individual neighborhoods.

In most neighborhoods in Providence and Newport, the majority of black and Hispanic children have no father in the home.  In some, the fraction of children who live with both of their parents is around a quarter. By contrast, the map shows the most nuclear families in towns that the urban kids often cite as their unreachable competition, such as in Barrington and East Greenwich.

We don’t hear much about this in the local press or from local advocates for disadvantaged Rhode Islanders.  It’s difficult not to wonder whether the story conflicts with progressive and big-government objectives.

The Path We’re Not Taking

This is as good a place as any to throw in a note that markets and industries will to a large extent self-regulate even without the domineering hand of big government.  As John Stossel writes:

Stringham researched how the first stock exchanges developed in London in the 1700s: “Government refused to enforce all but the most simple contracts. Nevertheless, brokers figured out how to do short sales, futures contracts, options contracts — even though none was enforceable by law.”

They came up with private enforcement.

“They traded in coffeehouses. And after a while, they decided: ‘Let’s enforce rules within this coffeehouse. If you default, you’re going to get kicked out of the coffeehouse, and we’re going to call you a lame duck.'” (Because you had to waddle out of the coffeehouse. That’s actually where the phrase “lame duck” originated.)

Years of consumer reporting have taught me that such private regulation is better for consumers than the piles of rules produced by our bloated government.

Ultimately, it comes down to whether one has faith in ordinary people as individuals or in a handful of special people who claim to be acting in everybody’s best interests out of the good of their hearts.

Hey, We’ll Just Have to Make Due with Less

Think the fiscal cliff solved the problem for non-rich folks?  Well, check the Associated Press:

…  the legislation did nothing to prevent a temporary reduction in the Social Security payroll tax from expiring. In 2012, that 2-percentage-point cut in the payroll tax was worth about $1,000 to a worker making $50,000 a year.

Households making between $40,000 and $50,000 will face an average tax increase of $579 in 2013, according to the Tax Policy Center’s analysis. Households making between $50,000 and $75,000 will face an average tax increase of $822.

And then check your paycheck.  My first one of the year is already down the equivalent of taking the family out for dinner once every two weeks.  Unfortunately, we had to cut out that sort of luxury some years ago.  And unlike the government, we can’t reduce our projected increases in spending, call it a cut, and claim the rest has to come out of other people’s bank accounts by force of law.

Better get ahead of the curve, Americans and (especially) Rhode Islanders.  You’re going to be making even more reductions in your quality of life, thanks to the crew you keep electing to government office.  Better to figure out what you can live without before the money suddenly disappears from your take-home pay.

 An Agreed-Upon Framework for Working Together

A number of commentators have decried a New York Times op-ed by Harvard-educated Constitutional law professor Louis Michael Seidman suggesting that the United States should “give up on the Constitution.” He apparently means that as a serious suggestion.  Two essays worth reading in response are by Michael Walsh and Victor Davis Hanson.

Hanson argues that circumstances should make our current times days of optimism, as we profit from some centuries of the American Way.  Some examples are too often unheralded.  He notes, for example, that the modern American poor man is “not deprived of a big-screen TV, a Kia, warm water, or an air conditioner.”  (Of course, there are people without such things, but when we speak colloquially and politically about “the poor,” we tend to include many people who do.)

Still, he finds our times “scary” because of the direction in which it appears to be headed, and it’s one that Seidman’s argument will advance.  Here’s Seidman:

The deep-seated fear that such disobedience would unravel our social fabric is mere superstition. As we have seen, the country has successfully survived numerous examples of constitutional infidelity…What has preserved our political stability is not a poetic piece of parchment, but entrenched institutions and habits of thought and, most important, the sense that we are one nation and must work out our differences. No one can predict in detail what our system of government would look like if we freed ourselves from the shackles of constitutional obligation, and I harbor no illusions that any of this will happen soon. But even if we can’t kick our constitutional-law addiction, we can soften the habit… before abandoning our heritage of self-government, we ought to try extricating ourselves from constitutional bondage so that we can give real freedom a chance.

Two points.  The first is that, as with the argument against maintaining traditional marriage, Professor Seidman thinks prior erosion of the Constitution excuses radical change.  We continued to thrive under imperfect practice, the reasoning goes, so we will continue to thrive without any notion of what we’re trying to practice in the first place.  This is akin to saying that our random victim has survived a severe beating, so a swing of the hatchet wouldn’t be immoral.

The second point, more important by far, is that documents such as the Constitution, with a thoroughly described and easily understood process for changing it, are absolutely critical if a nation is to continue to be a society of equals “working out their differences.”  That’s how we work them out; it’s the framework.  Without it (as we see every day in Rhode Island) “working together” is an exercise in comparing each participant’s power.  The law doesn’t matter; the ability to ignore the law does.

Walsh puts it much more colorfully: “Scratch a leftist, find a fascist inhabiting the skull beneath the smiling skin.”

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