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Another Way Activists Manipulate Government

Here’s a key part of a recent article by Kimberley Strassel, of the Wall Street Journal, profiling President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) director, Scott Pruit:

Speaking of lawsuits, Mr. Pruitt says he plans to end the practice known as “sue and settle.” That’s when a federal agency invites a lawsuit from an ideologically sympathetic group, with the intent to immediately settle. The goal is to hand the litigators a policy victory through the courts—thereby avoiding the rule-making process, transparency and public criticism. The Obama administration used lawsuits over carbon emissions as its pretext to create climate regulations.

“There is a time and place to sometimes resolve litigation,” Mr. Pruitt allows. “But don’t use the judicial process to bypass accountability.” Some conservatives have suggested the same tactic might be useful now that Republicans are in charge. “That’s not going to happen,” he insists. “Regulation through litigation is simply wrong.” Instead, Mr. Pruitt says, the EPA will return to a rule-making by the book. “We need to end this practice of issuing guidance, to get around the rule-making procedure. Or rushing things through, playing games on the timing.”

There are way too many ways for activists to slip changes into the law without the awareness of a voting public that can’t possibly keep track of it all or, even if we could track it, select candidates to correct specific problems on the vast field of government activity.  That’s why it’s entirely appropriate to elect executives who see themselves in opposition to the bureaucracy itself.

Don’t forget, by the way, that the activists moving policy through “sue and settle” also tend to take home a decent paycheck courtesy of the government, like the ACLU lawyers who sued Rhode Island over the UHIP debacle.

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The Key Paragraph of the ACLU UHIP Settlement

You may have read that the state government settled the lawsuit that the ACLU filed over the debacle of the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP; aka RI Bridges, if it ever works).  As I’ve asked before, was this necessary?  Even assuming the state wouldn’t have taken the same steps that it has promised in the settlement once negative attention forced action, couldn’t a push from a few activist groups have produced the same result?

Well, mostly.  This part of the settlement probably wouldn’t have been in the outcome of a simple petition:

Plaintiffs shall be entitled to recover their reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Within sixty (60) days of the Court’s entry of this Order as an order of the Court, Plaintiffs shall file a bill of costs and motion for attorneys’ fees and costs with the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, unless such time is extended by agreement of the Parties or order of the Court or unless such motion is rendered unnecessary by agreement of the Parties. Prior to filing such motion, 13 Plaintiffs shall present a bill of costs and fees to Defendant and within fifteen (15) business days thereafter, or at such time as the Parties mutually agree upon, the Parties shall confer by telephone or in-person in a good faith effort to agree to an amount in settlement of fees and costs. If the Parties are unable to agree to a fee amount, Plaintiffs may file a motion for attorneys’ fees and costs with the Court.

Indeed, if a petition-driven resolution had included language promising money to the activists, it would have seemed shady.  But in this case, to recap, the state is having trouble providing money and services to needy people, and some activist lawyers managed to make a payday of it while appearing to be warriors of charity.  That’s government under a progressive regime, I guess.

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Yes, Let’s Keep the Rule of Law

Andrew McCarthy has been taking the lead in noting the basic principle behind some of President Trump’s immigration policy:

On Tuesday, John Kelly, President Trump’s secretary of Homeland Security, published a six-page, single-spaced memorandum detailing new guidance on immigration enforcement. Thereupon, I spent about 1,500 words summarizing the guidance in a column at National Review. Brevity being the soul of wit, both the memo and my description of it could have been reduced to a single, easy-to-remember sentence:

Henceforth, the United States shall be governed by the laws of the United States.

That it was necessary for Secretary Kelly to say more than this — and, sadly, that such alarm has greeted a memo that merely announces the return of the rule of law in immigration enforcement — owes to the Obama administration abuses of three legal doctrines: prosecutorial discretion, preemption, and separation of powers (specifically, the executive usurpation of legislative power).

The erosion of the rule of law in the United States (and, of course, in Rhode Island) is a topic on which I’ve written a great deal in recent years.  Note the political dynamic, though:  The Left (encompassing the mainstream media, universities, various supposed good-government groups, and others) is willing to look the other way when the rule of law erodes in ways they like under progressive government, but then they’ll howl if the Right reaffirms the rules and scream if they can so much as insinuate that conservatives are promoting some similar erosion that doesn’t serve the progressive ideology.

Let’s hope the eternal record of the Internet (1) stays free and (2) gives the people an edge against the ideologues by helping us remember what has been said and done in the past.

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Psst… Lack of Mandate Is Not Lack of Choice

The Trump administration’s change of course on the issue of transgender bathrooms (and similar facilities) — sending the question back to state governments — was excellent for illustrating the narrative-driven bias in the news.  The best expression that I’ve seen came from the Newport Daily News, which ran a front-page headline last Thursday proclaiming that “Transgender students lose bathroom choice.”

The McClatchy news service article beneath the headline, however, immediately tells a different story:

The Trump administration Wednesday told public school districts across the nation that they no longer have to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

In the progressive lexicon, when the federal government doesn’t force a position that progressives support, it is automatically forcing the opposite position.  In the terms of the headline, transgender students didn’t lose anything by this decision; rather, states gained a choice.

And what happened?  At least in Rhode Island (which should be the central concern of the Newport Daily News), Education Commissioner Ken Wagner immediately issued a statement to say:

The rescinding of this federal guidance does not change our policy – there is no room for discrimination in our schools, and we will continue to protect all students, including transgender and gender nonconforming students, from any type of bias.

Of course, what he says isn’t exactly true.  Students who aren’t comfortable sharing bathrooms with those of a different sex are “all students,” but the system is explicitly biased against accommodating them.  If they should be so bold as to express their discomfort, the state government suggests, “administrators and counseling staff” should get involved to change their beliefs.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that the state of Rhode Island is perfectly able to continue setting its policy, and several school districts have made a point of proclaiming their agreement.

For some, though, that’s never sufficient.  They are incensed by the notion that people hundreds or thousands of miles away might be able to agree among themselves to disagree with the progressives of Rhode Island.  Our freedom is only ever to agree with the Left.

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Corporate Personhood and Three Steps to No Rights

Brad Smith recently took up an important point in the Providence Journal, responding to Democrat U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who is seeking to “strip rights from corporate entities,” in Smith’s words.  He cites the 1819 Supreme Court case, Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward:

A corporation, the court noted, “is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law.” But that didn’t mean that people gave up their rights when they formed a corporation. Rather, the decision emphasized that when people join together to accomplish things, they usually need some form of organization, and shouldn’t have to sacrifice their rights just because they organize.

This is one of those recurring discussions that are frustrating because they’re mainly semantic, and one feels as if normal people sitting down to fairly explain to each other what they mean will agree and move on.  The danger is that the semantics could allow radicals like Whitehouse to push the law a few steps to totalitarian control.

Step 1 is to force people to organize for any sort of public activity by offering either competitive enticements (from tax benefits to liability protections) or regulations restricting activities if people do not organize.  We’re already pretty far along this path.

Step 2 is declare that those organizations that people have formed don’t have rights.  Another way of putting that, as Smith explains, is to say that people lose their individual rights when they organize as corporations… which they were more or less forced to do in order to accomplish their goals.

Step 3 will be to force people to do what government insiders want by imposing requirements on the rights-less corporations.

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Government Coercion by Another Means

Here’s the article I mentioned in this week’s podcast, about tax deals for corporate charity:

A bipartisan group of congressmen recently introduced a new bill intended to reinvigorate America’s poorest communities. The Investing in Opportunity Act (IOA) will allow investors to temporarily delay paying capital-gains taxes on their investments if they choose to reinvest the money into “opportunity zones” or distressed communities across the country.

The legislation was cosponsored in the Senate by Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina and Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey, and in the House by Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio) and Ron Kind (D-Wisc.).  These congressmen report that their bill has garnered bipartisan support in both chambers, and they believe that its provisions will allow for tremendous economic growth in some of the country’s most underserved communities.

I might have misspoken in the podcast and attributed the article to the legislator.  The legislator is Tim Scott; the writer is Alexandra Desanctis. Whatever the case, this isn’t a direction in which we should go.

There’s a push among conservatives, recently, to rephrase policies in terms more amenable to the themes in which the Left has caught up the public conversation.  On one end, this is an obvious thing to do — to explain why conservative policies are the ones that will actually help individuals and families come to their full fruition.

Less obvious are policies that accomplish some of the Left’s goals (like making government central to charity), but that have potential to start to reshape thinking.  In that way, for example, taking the step suggested by Representative Scott could lead, in the future, to the additional step of questioning why government’s picking charitable causes at all.

I think this proposal goes a little too far over that line.

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Keeping Up with the Pros in the Bureaucracy

The odds are pretty obvious and challenging, if you think about it:  Government at all levels employs millions of people; many of them have access to information the public does not; many of them make decisions that affect their own compensation and that of their peers; and (at least for now) their continued wealth and opportunity depends on getting people to allow government to take their money away.

Since the years of Obama stimulus spending — let’s say Rhode Island’s fiscal years 2009 through 2011 — I’ve been convinced that the administration’s goal was to ensure that government agencies were insulated from the recession.  (Another goal was to launder money to left-wing activists, but that’s not my subject with this post.)  As time moves along and data becomes more available, it’ll just take some work to trace the dollars.

But it is a lot of work.  The general public, occupied during working hours in their own private-sector occupations, can’t hope to keep up.  This fund blends into that fund from the other source through technical accounting categories, with repositories here and there that must remain shielded from public view for privacy or other reasons.  The opportunity to mislead is structural.

In a small way, though, I think I’ve got a handle on how the Tiverton School Department transformed temporary stimulus money into a permanent increase in local funding and have written about it on Tiverton Fact Check:

In summary, when the state money shifted from regular aid to “restricted,” the school department built the excess into its budget.  But when the funds shifted back, the increase was buried in this “restatement,” so local taxpayers would remain forever responsible for the supposedly temporary increase.  As a matter of fact, the “restricted” aid didn’t actually decrease much; the accounts just changed.

Thus, the Tiverton schools maintained healthy budget growth even as the Great Recession wore on and housing values plummeted.

I’d be surprised if something similar wasn’t accomplished by school districts throughout Rhode Island and across the United States.  Actual stimulus would have been a government reduction in taxes, but that wasn’t Obama’s goal.

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The Poster Hairdresser for How Government Interferes with Civil Society

Rhode Islanders may have noticed that Providence Democrat Representative Anastasia Williams has submitted legislation to allow people to braid hair for pay without requiring a license.  This is actually a subject that the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has raised in the past (although I can’t find a link, just now) and is consistent with both our long-running insistence that the state government is strangling our economy with regulations and our more-recent emphasis on shifting policy in favor of helping Rhode Island families and facilitating non-government civil society.

Via Instapundit, however, comes an entry by Eric Boehm of Reason, who may very well have spotted the poster child for the government’s overreach in directing our lives and preventing us from serving one another as human beings:

The Arizona State Board of Cosmetology is investigating Juan Carlos Montesdeoca after receiving complaints that he was cutting hair without a license, Tucson News Now reported Monday. According to the complaint, which Montesdeoca shared with the TV station, the board received an anonymous complaint alleging that Montesdeoca was “requesting local businesses and local stylists to help out with free haircuts (unlicensed individuals) to the homeless.”

This morning, the Tiverton Budget Committee (of which I’m a member) toured the town’s Senior Center, and the new director related some of the anecdotes that she’s heard about the 100-year-old building.  Back when it was a school, apparently doctors would open weekend clinics for various procedures, including the removal of tonsils.

Now, given advancements in knowledge, we can surely agree on a role for government in requiring sanitary conditions and licensed professionals to perform such surgeries.  At the same time, we should be able to agree that rules against hair braiding and charity trims don’t really protect anybody but established practitioners who are able to charge more money the less competition they have.

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Prison Social Workers and the Fat Budget for Corrections

With the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity having recently dipped into the topic of criminal justice in the state, this Katie Mulvaney article in the Providence Journal caught my eye:

The director of behavioral health at the state Department of Corrections lamented Thursday that the prison system is functioning as the largest psychiatric hospital and substance treatment facility in Rhode Island, and yet it’s staffed with only 11 social workers serving about 3,000 inmates.”That is our staff,” Louis Cerbo told the 19-member Special Legislative Commission to Study and Assess the Use of Solitary Confinement in Rhode Island. He estimated that on any given day 400 to 500 inmates in the system are diagnosed as having serious, persistent mental illness.

One has to ask: Where does all the money go?  Of the 40 states with data in a 2012 report from the Vera Institute for Justice, Rhode Island has the fifth-highest cost per prisoner in the country and the sixth-highest corrections cost per capita.  (That first rank is actually better than the Ocean State’s second-highest-cost-per-prisoner performance in a 2001 Bureau of Justice Statistics report.)

These complaints from government officials should never be heard without being coupled with the existing costs of their departments, placed in context of the country.  If they lack for some personnel or shiny capital purchase, the reason is almost always that they’re already spending the money on something else.

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A Great Step Toward Regulatory Relief

Until they get tangled up in them, most people probably pay little attention to the metastasizing regulations that governments impose on us.  Spread across society, regulations tend to avoid focusing so much pain as to spark broad, targeted resistance, whereas special interests, including established businesses with incentive to create barriers to entry for competition, have great incentive to keep the ratchet turning.  Moreover, most people don’t see the direct link between regulation and mounting costs in the prices of goods and services and opportunities they personally never realize.  That’s why common sense rules of thumbs like this, described by the Wall Street Journal editorial board, are important:

President Trump signed an executive order Monday that will require federal agencies to eliminate two existing regulations for every new one created, fulfilling another signature campaign trail promise.

The president signed the order from the Oval Office minutes after emerging from a roundtable with small business owners, who surrounded the Resolute desk as Trump praised the rule.

The executive order would also forbid estimated costs of regulations from going up.

We need this sort of policy on steroids in Rhode Island.  Maybe a dozen regulations killed for every one introduced.

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Fix-the-System Reform Means Preserving the Very Things Causing the Problems

Andy Smarick, of the American Enterprise Institute, explains how President Obama wasted a whole lot of money for zero results in education reform:

The final IES report on the SIG program is devastating to the Obama administration’s legacy. An evaluation commissioned by the US Department of Education and conducted by two highly respected research institutions delivered a crushing verdict: The program failed and failed badly.

As I’ve periodically written, fix-the-system education reforms that seek to preserve the very qualities that are causing the problem — predictable labor union incentives, central planning, the disconnect of decision making from bill paying, and a lack of direct accountability to students and parents — cannot work. We must admit this.

In any area of life except government (specifically, progressive government) it would be considered pathological to look for all sorts of complicated ways to avoid addressing the underlying problem of unhealthy behavior.  Unfortunately, the clear objective of those who do such things (specifically, progressives) is to make government do things it shouldn’t be doing, so of course perpetuating that activity becomes the irreducible factor.

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Doesn’t Money Have to Come from Somewhere?

A nagging question is never addressed in this Christine Dunn’s Providence Journal article:

One of the Trump administration’s first actions last Friday was the suspension of a previously announced 0.25 percentage point rate cut in the Federal Housing Administration’s annual mortgage insurance premium. The planned cut, scheduled to become effective Jan. 27, had been projected to save new FHA-insured homeowners an average of $500 this year….

The FHA is a part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and it offers mortgage insurance, most often to first-time buyers and low-income individuals. An estimated 16 percent of mortgages in the U.S. are FHA-insured. The mortgage insurance is designed to protect lenders against defaults.

Was there no information about why the Trump administration took this action or where the money comes from?  Maybe this move benefits corporate interests, or maybe it benefits taxpayers; it would seem incumbent upon journalists reporting the benefits of a government program for the recipients to also give some sense of whom it affects adversely.

Inadvertently or deliberately, this omission perpetuates an imbalanced understanding in the public, disallowing us from weighing costs when assessing how well government is making decisions.

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Stop Putting Half Our Eggs in the Federal Basket

Hey, here’s a thought: Maybe the State of Rhode Island should stop acting like a subsidiary of the federal government and start acting like a sovereign state that thrives when its people thrive.  If this isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what could be:

While other states – including Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Montana and Kentucky – are more federal aid-heavy than Rhode Island, a newly-released analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, of 2014 census data, found Rhode Island 16th highest in the nation in terms of how much of its budget is financed by federal dollars. In that year, 34.7 percent.

Anyone worried? The answer: You betcha. But some more openly worried than others.

In large part, this is the government plantation, but it’s also indicative of the government’s crowding out the private sector as an economic competitor, too.

Any wise investor upon having a scare with a particular stock would figure out the importance of diversifying.  It’s time for Rhode Islanders to stop relying more on government as an economic driver and start relying on each other.

And don’t let fear of President Trump specifically be the end of your consideration of the matter.  Think about how vulnerable to real tyranny it makes us that our supposed leaders apparently have to make decisions about governance in order to keep the money flowing.  Everything else, from culture to global warfare, could easily take a back seat to that bottom line.

As individuals, families, and a state, being dependent makes us weak and vulnerable.

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Rhode Island’s Parable of the Snake and Parasite

For the Family Prosperity Index (FPI) forum on Tuesday, Mike Stenhouse developed an interesting slide showing how the balance in our society (amplified in Rhode Island) is being thrown off as the government encroaches on the institutions of civic society — churches, private businesses, and other private organizations — even as it fosters and encourages a radical individualism that leads people to disengage from those intermediary community groups and connect directly with government for all of their needs.

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I made an attempt to get Stenhouse to amplify this point with imagery, essentially a start to an unwritten parable.  In his chart, the government is like a constrictor snake squeezing the life out of society from the outside, and as individuals stop turning to their communities as their first social contact and, instead, look to government to take resources away from their neighbors to pay for their benefits and services, they become more like parasites.  So, basically, this:

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Central planning and government action dehumanize us.  We stop being self-directed individuals in relationships and transform into variables in an equation to be manipulated so that we fit the space the government has shaped for us.  Through it all, our attitude toward others and sense of our own character dissipate.

Then, at some point, when there’s nothing left but the government and the individual, the snake will keep squeezing until it has claimed every drop of human blood.

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Catching Up to My Traffic Observations, Government Still Shouldn’t Take Action

Back in 2013, I expressed frustration with Rhode Islanders’ willingness to merge early before a lane reduction and let “scum” take advantage of them by driving up the open lane to the very end and described the results when I decide to be a traffic vigilante:

I’ve tended to take that on as a cause of one.  Wherever my place should be, that’s where I stay, but in my own lane, with the length of empty road before me.  Without fail, as soon as the remaining scum in front of my blockade have been absorbed, the line, which had previously been at a standstill, begins to move smoothly.

But as proven by their waving arms and the number of times that I’ve had to sneak on to side roads to avoid road rage once the obstacle had been passed, the scum apparently feel that the moral advantage has been passed to them.  I am at fault, in their eyes, for preventing them from taking advantage of everybody else.

Well, whaddaya know:

There’s a growing consensus among many state transportation officials that when a lane closure is looming, getting drivers to use all available lanes until the point where cars need to merge can keep traffic moving more efficiently and safely, and even cut down on road rage.

The article is too delicate to explain the mechanism that makes it less efficient and safe when drivers get over too soon, but it’s clear nonetheless.  But come on, folks, we shouldn’t need government to cajole us into orderly cooperation.  If one individual out of every 50 or so drivers is willing to stand up to the scum, we’ll solve the problem entirely through private action and civil society.

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