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Government’s Role in Housing Bubble Memory Holed

Having not seen The Big Short, I don’t know whether the problem originates with the movie or with Providence Journal business editor John Kostrzewa’s review of the movie, but it’s discouraging to observe that the federal government’s role in creating the housing bubble has been airbrushed out of history:

For years, bankers made mortgages that they bundled together, called mortgage backed securities, that they sold on the bond market to investors. The bankers used the proceeds from the bond sales to lend more money to home buyers. Simple, so far.

But the process became corrupted when predatory lenders made mortgages to people who put no money down, had low credit scores and no income, at teaser rates that adjusted sharply upward after a couple of years. The mortgages, called subprime because of the risk, were bundled and then repackaged by Wall Street bankers who collected big fees when they sold the bonds. Corrupted ratings’ agencies gave the bonds high marks.

Notice that this “simple, so far” story makes no attempt to explain why so many investors believed they could leave somebody else holding the bag.  No mention of the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, with their implicit government backing.  No mention of the federal Community Reinvestment Act, and its push for more and more of these subprime loans.  No mention of Democrat President Bill Clinton and his administration’s elimination of banking regulations that partitioned banking and investment.  Definitely no mention of the reality that the government managed a surplus under Clinton mainly because he essentially privatized the creation of national debt.

We just get a tale of cartoon private-sector villains who brought down the world out of greed.  History of this sort is dangerous because the solutions that seem reasonable after the revision are likely to draw us right back into the arms of the real troublemaker.


Another Lesson We Seem Never to Learn

After Kenneth Colston’s inclusion of The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, during his talk at the 2015 Portsmouth Institute conference, I put the book on my reading list.  The relevance to the conference was Pope Francis’s saying in an interview that he had read the book three times and was preparing for a fourth reading.  “Manzoni gave me so much,” he said.

One chapter in, the novel has given me some hope that Manzoni placed a light bulb in the pope’s mind on a topic for which it may prove very important to have light in the coming years.  With the narrative set in northern Italy, just under the Alps, at around the time that the Pilgrims were settling in to their new home across the Atlantic Ocean, the civic culture that Manzoni describes gives the impression of a fully formed variation of a type of tyranny that is hardening anew in our own age:

… We do not mean that there was any lack of laws with penalties directed against private acts of violence.  There was a glut of such laws in point of fact.  The various crimes were listed and described and detailed in the most minute and long-winded manner. The penalties were of insane severity, and as if that were not enough, they were almost invariably subject to augmentation at the whim of the magistrate himself, or of any one of a hundred subordinate officials. …

… If [the proclamations] had any immediate effect, it lay principally in the addition of many new harassments to those which the pacific and the weak already suffered from their tormentors, and an increase in the violence and the cunning shown by the guilty; for their impunity was an organized institution, and had roots which the proclamations did not touch, or at least could not shift.  There were places of asylum; there were privileges attached to certain social classes, which were sometimes recognized by the forces of the law, sometimes tolerated in indignant silence, and sometimes disputed with empty words of protest. …

… With the appearance of each proclamation designed to repress men of violence, those concerned searched among their practical resources for the most suitable fresh methods of continuing to do what the edicts prohibited.

What the proclamations could do was to put stumbling-blocks in the way of simple folk, who had no special power of their own nor protection from others, and harass them at ever step they took.  For the proclamations were framed with the object of keeping everybody under control, in order to prevent or punish every sort of crime; and so they subjected every action of the private citizen to the arbitrary will of all kinds of officials.

This perspicuous observation applies to any number of issues, particularly those near and dear to the hearts of progressives, including among others campaign finance, environmental regulation, and general economic/business policy.


Progressive Economics Tend Toward Givers and Receivers, Not Earners

Being a lover of long-term economic graphs, I found this ZeroHedge post intriguing.  The theme of the post is the disappearance of the middle class, which (as one chart shows) no longer accounts for half of the country’s population and (as another shows) no longer holds more wealth than upper-income households.

The animated graphic from FT is worth watching through a few times.  The first take-away is that much of the middle class has smoothed out upwards since 1971, but with a huge boom at the very top of the income scale (as a percentage of all adults).  It’s the animation that tells the historical tale.  The ’70s didn’t see much growth, and the ’80s saw about a one-percentage-point increase among the rich.  Bill Clinton’s ’90s turned into a big boom for the rich, while George Bush’s ’00s pretty much held them steady. In the wake of the economic collapse, the first three years of Barack Obama’s presidency saw a decrease at the top with more than a recuperation since then.

Scrolling down to the next chart reveals at least part of the reason.  The early ’70s saw the end of 30 years of income growth for the bottom 90% of earners, and it hit a ceiling with the death of the gold standard.  Money was no longer tied to some finite good, so government policy could be truly redistributive, without being bound by anything of actual value.  The bottom 90% have stagnated or drifted down, since then, while the top 1% have taken off.  One bump came in the mid-to-late ’80s, but Clinton’s banking and mortgage policies cut the reins.

As I’ve said before, fiscal, monetary, and regulatory policy under Obama have only solidified the tendency to make the well-being of the rich investor class and established players the core basis for policy decisions while shoring up political power by simply giving things to those toward the bottom of the scale.

This scheme wouldn’t work out well under any circumstances, but with the explosion of automation, it’s going to be a recipe for economic disaster, civic unrest, and lost rights.


Reasoning Needed in Race Discussion

In its Sunday edition, the Providence Journal continued its destructive and divisive vanity project stoking racial unrest.  This time, the subject is the different proportion of “people of color” in law enforcement and the courts as opposed to the population.  Once again, the ostensible act of journalism doesn’t deign to present anything that might be considered an opposing — or even skeptical — voice.  This is activism, pure and simple, and reporter Katie Mulvaney offers a helpfully concise example of the utter lack of reasoning that the activism requires:

While the makeup of the state’s population continues to change, the complexion of its power structure, including those who enforce, dictate and argue the laws, remains largely the same. It is predominantly white, even as children of color now make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s youth population.

If the absurdity of those two sentences doesn’t hit you in the eye like social-justice-warrior spittle, think about it for a moment.  The “makeup of the state’s population” is changing — meaning that people with darker skin tend to be recent arrivals or very young.  The racial proportions of people in higher positions within law enforcement and the courts is not comparable to “the state’s youth population.”  To match the population at large with a pool of older people within a limited range of personal accomplishment in a specific professional field, the hiring process would have to be so skewed as to constitute overt racism.  That’s what the activists want.

Also consider the age of folks who would be entering that range of their careers.  When they were young adults, choosing a course in life a quarter-century ago, two of the iconic songs in rap/hip-hop were N.W.A.’s “F*** Tha Police” and Body Count’s “Cop Killer.”  Those songs may (or may not) have been authentic voices of the black experience in America, but shouldn’t they be considered, a generation on, while navel gazing about the skin color of police and judges?

“When you go in anywhere, you would like to come in and see yourself,” said [barber and activist Dewayne “Boo”] Hackney, 42. That means at City Hall, the State House, courtrooms, police departments. “You tend to relax more when you see yourself on the surface.”

That sort of thinking is what needs to change.  If cops were cops and judges were judges, then young black men and women interested in those careers would be cops and judges, not black cops and black judges.  We would see ourselves in each other, even on the surface. Unless the activists want apartheid, even in a perfectly balanced justice system, some people will draw an arresting officer or a judge of another race.

Activist journalists continue to focus on race as if it is not just on the surface.  Suggest that we should move toward an understanding that race is, in fact, superficial, and the likes of WPRO reporter Steve Klamkin will insinuate that you’re advocating for genocide.


A Job Is a Powerful Incentive

Steven Frias takes another instructive look at Rhode Island’s political history:

The scramble for patronage began. Under Green, about one-third of legislators were given state jobs while they served in the General Assembly. The trading of votes for jobs became apparent. One Republican senator was given a state job after he voted to confirm Green’s department directors. House Republican Leader Walter Curry was given a Superior Court judgeship after he assisted Green in getting most of his legislative agenda through the House of Representatives. The three senators on the recount committee were rewarded with state jobs, one of them a District Court judgeship.

The most important political event in 20th century Rhode Island history, the Coup of 1935 may have been furthered by the promise of state jobs for state legislators.

Read the whole thing.  One can only hope that, as the picture of Rhode Island corruption becomes clearer and clearer the opportunity for change will get better and better, but it’s going to take concerted effort and a news media that is more disgusted by the corruption than by the Republican brand.  (That’s not to say that the party or, especially, particular Republicans are the answer, but the news media tends to lump everybody who isn’t an insider with the GOP for the purposes of bashing them.)

The problem isn’t just job trading, though.  It’s contract trading, welfare trading, policy trading, access trading, and any other kind of trading that politicians can turn into a buck.  And if that sort of corruption isn’t inevitable with a liberal/progressive style of governance (which I think it is), then it’s at least inextricably interwoven in Rhode Island.


What the Radical Party Thinks of Its Country

You may have heard that Connecticut Democrats have disowned Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.  Here’s Dennis Prager, writing on National Review Online:

Every year for the past 67 years, the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner has been the major fundraising event for the Connecticut State Democratic party. Not anymore. The party unanimously voted to drop the two Democratic presidents’ names because they were slaveholders.

That is the way the Left sees American history.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the document that articulated the principle of human rights endowed by the Creator (thereby ultimately ensuring the end of slavery) and led to the establishment of the country that has served as the beacon of hope for people of every race and ethnicity. More black Africans have voluntarily emigrated to the United States to seek liberty and opportunity than came to America as slaves.

But that is not how the Left views Jefferson or America.

As the Far Left has completed its takeover of the Democrat Party, this sort of thing has become inevitable.  Prager goes on to describe why it wouldn’t be too much to suggest that the party has become the home for Americans who hate the United States, in the absence of radical transformation into something else.  Think of Michelle Obama’s admission that she had never, as an adult, been proud of her country until it put her husband in a position to undermine it.

To be sure, Republicans do a lot of dumb things, and I switched my voter registration to unaffiliated some years ago, but, wow, a party that has ample room for an organization that harvests the body parts of aborted babies can’t stand to be associated with Thomas Jefferson?


The History of Rhode Island Crony Deals

Steven Frias had another excellent essay in the Providence Journal, yesterday:

Using funds raised through a refinancing of state debt, Raimondo proposes spending about $35 million, in total, for a First Wave Closing Fund, a Small Business Assistance Program and a I-195 Redevelopment Fund. The Rhode Island Commerce Corporation and the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission would have broad discretion over how these funds are be spent and over which businesses benefit. 

Supporters of Raimondo called these programs “bold” and “game-changing.” However, Rhode Island politicians have used various government financing programs to benefit select businesses for more than a half-century, with little success at reversing Rhode Island’s decline. History shows that the state’s efforts to select businesses for help have been, at best, ineffectual at improving the economy in the long-term, and at worst, disastrous for taxpayers.

I’ve been thinking that it would be useful to have an online museum exhibit, of sorts, that presents timelines of various controversies, themes, and trends, in Rhode Island.  Unfortunately, most of the people I know who would undertake such a project are busy trying to support their families while doing some work to try to save the state for itself.  Meanwhile, it’s hard to see an academic taking it on, because it would inevitably make big government look bad, which academics aren’t allowed to do.


The Ballad of Sucker Brook

I love little details interwoven with political issues that give the sense of life imitating Mark Twain or William Faulkner.  Kevin O’Connor’s provided a great example in a Fall River Herald story about the brook that runs through the area that Twin River is considering for a casino in Tiverton.

For one thing, he found the explanation for the name “Sucker Brook” as being a misspelling or evolution of Succor Brook, but the political history is one of those gems that surfaces in areas that have been inhabited since before the time of digital technology, mass communication, and rapid transportation:

Sucker Brook, once called Succor Brook, runs north from Stafford Pond in Tiverton to the South Watuppa Pond in Fall River. No one quite knows who owns Stafford Pond. South Watuppa Pond is owned by the Watuppa Water Board, which is controlled by the city.

But while the ownership of Stafford Pond is in question — that question is wrapped up in land grants issued by the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony in the 1600s — the ownership of the water coming from the pond is not in question. That is Fall River’s water.

The whole article’s an interesting read.


The Academy’s Fruits in the Grown-Up World

After coming across the subject five or six times, I finally followed a link on Instapundit to Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s attempt at a left-wing explanation and, to some degree, rationalization of Rolling Stone’s fake reporting on rape at the University of Virginia.  The article reminded me of the much-ballyhooed gobbledegook that good liberal students used to churn out when I was in college.

The Bruenig passage on which most commentators have focused consists of a pair of paragraphs, the first of which explains the subtle thought of liberals in understanding oppression versus the second of which, asserting the brutish right-wing “obsession” with individual, factual cases and “specific details.”  Admittedly, it’s a telling turnabout.  The Left, in its superior thought, understands the real Truth, even if it can’t be articulated in actual facts; the Right, being less capable of the higher thought that transcends facts, extrapolates meaning from mere happenstance.

The more interesting passage, though, is the one that fully articulates Bruenig’s thesis:

Pinning an indictment of a system on the story of an individual is essentially a rightwing tactic with a dodgy success rate; it’s a way of using an individual as a metonym for systematic analysis that both overplays the role of individual heroism and effort and underplays the complicated nature of oppression as a feature of institutions, policies, traditions, and persons.

Note that this is presented as if it’s one of those examples of higher thoughts that needn’t be attached to “specific details.”  The word for that (even if only in right-wing circles) is “unsubstantiated.”  Upon a little bit of thought, in fact, it’s utter nonsense.  From Saul Alinsky’s rule to “personalize” issues to the labor-friendly “Ballad of Joe Hill” to the statement that a single death is a tragedy while a million deaths is a statistic, generally attributed to Joseph Stalin, the Left has long consolidated movements into individual stories.

Bruenig is accurately describing a leftist tactic, but because the context puts it in a bad light, it must temporarily be characterized as a right-wing tactic.  It’s not unlike analysis of religious freedom laws that depends on whether they advance conservative or progressive causes at a particular moment.

The Bruenig essay brings to mind a law review article by now-Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, in which he expounded on the constitutionality of using government schools to teach that God does not exist.  (See also here, here, and here.)  In my brutish, fact-driven conservatism these two examples seem like evidence of the Left’s strategy to destroy the capacity of Americans to engage in reason, as opposed to logical gymnastics to support conclusions that are actually driven by politics and emotion.  The gobbledegook of the classroom has made its way into the grown-up world.

That may help to explain why government and the news media seem to operate as if the world has the padded safety of the campus, permitting concentration on abstract “deeper truths” disconnected from reality.


Fiddling While Conspiring and Oppressing

The cliché of “fiddling while Rome burns” suggests that a leader is engaged in petty activities while his society falls apart.  What I didn’t realize (or at least did not remember having learned, if I once did) is that the metaphor implies much more of relevance to the current experience of the United States.

According to The Annals by Tacitus (this translation), it wasn’t just that Emperor Nero was rumored to have been “at the very time when the city was in flame… on a private stage [singing] of the destruction of Troy,” but that he was also rumored to have been behind the starting of the fire.  “It seemed that Nero was aiming at the glory of founding a new city and calling it by his name.”

Indeed, during a purge at the end of the book that might remind modern readers of the purge at the end of a mafia movie, one of the targeted soldiers tells Nero, “I began to hate you when you became the murderer of your mother and your wife, a charioteer, an actor, and an incendiary.”

Moreover, the aftermath of the fire presents the first appearance of Christians in Tacitus’s narrative.  (For context, the fire occurred around the same time as the death of St. Paul in Rome.)

… all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order.  Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.  Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.  Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.  Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths.  Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car.  Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.

Of course, we’re much more civilized, these days, and powerful people have much less gruesome means of distracting the public and transferring mockery and blame to people who observe the world mainly by the reflection that they see with their eyes turned to Yahweh.


History May Not Repeat, but It Sure Does Echo

Continuing my quest to work through all of the books that I’ve inherited and should have read already, I’m now enjoying Tacitus’s complete works.  This is from Book I of The Annals:

When after the destruction of Brutus and Cassius there was no longer any army of the Commonwealth, when Pompeius was crushed in Sicily, and when, with Lepidus pushed aside and Antonius slain, even the Julian faction had only Cæsar left to lead it, then, dropping the title of triumvir, and giving out that he was a Consul, and was satisfied with a tribune’s authority for the protection of the people, Augustus won over the soldiers with gifts, the populace with cheap corn, and all men with the sweets of repose, and so grew greater by degrees, while he concentrated in himself the functions of the Senate, the magistrates, and the laws.  He was wholly unopposed, for the boldest spirits had fallen in battle, or in the proscription, while the remaining nobles, the readier they were to be slaves, were raised the higher by wealth and promotion, so that, aggrandised by revolution, they preferred the safety of the present to the dangerous past.  Nor did the provinces dislike that condition of affairs, for they distrusted the government of the Senate and the people, because of the rivalries between the leading men and the rapacity of the officials, while the protection of the laws was unavailing, as they were continually deranged by violence, intrigue, and finally by corruption. …

… At home all was tranquil, and there were magistrates with the same titles; there was a younger generation, sprung up since the victory of Actium, and even many of the older men had been born during the civil wars.  How few were left who had seen the republic!

Thus the State had been revolutionised, and there was not a vestige left of the old sound morality. Stript of equality, all looked up to the commands of a sovereign without the least apprehension for the present, while Augustus in the vigour of life, could maintain his own position, that of his house, and the general tranquillity.


Why Do Planners Plan?

Commenting on a recent post on this site, “Mangeek” expresses the socialist planners’ rationalization for undermining democracy:

Politicians generally prefer votes over growth, because votes are useful right away, whereas decisions to maximize growth often take longer to materialize; sometimes longer than an election cycle.

“How… do we suddenly get “good planning”?”

By insulating the planners from the voters and politicians, and recruiting/retaining good ones? I guess I’m a bit of a technocrat. If things like RhodeMap, Obamacare, and the EDC are properly done, they’ll have better outcomes than the hyperlocal model Justin seems to champion, because they’ll be backed by research and statistics instead of popular opinion and votes.

As I commented briefly in reply, just one more step in reasoning and a little more historical knowledge would bring this faith in government crashing down.  Stalin, for example, was a master planner insulated from voters and politicians.  How’d that work out?

Even if you think it’s too much of a leap from Rhode Island’s Kevin Flynn to Stalin, it raises the question:  Once we’ve “insulated” the planners from public accountability, what do we do if we happen — by some horrible twist of bad luck — to have bad (even wicked, self-interested) planners in place?

The disconnect may be the incorrect sense that mere planning is a benign, passive, objective activity.  That’s the substance of Mangeek’s subsequent reply, in which he supposes that only the state government has the resources to pay people to do the research, so planners should be insulated to do that, but local governments should be free to ignore the plans.

That misconception, too, would fall quickly upon scrutiny.  First of all, local volunteers appointed to planning boards do plenty of research, and political opponents do more, between which the public must judge.

More importantly, what’s the point of insulated planners if their suggestions have to be ratified by the popular will anyway?  No, if we’re going to create a technocratic class of planners, then it must be assumed that their “good plans” will be implemented.  That’s why RhodeMap RI includes plans on how to get communities to adopt the plan. 

As Glenn Reynolds summarizes, while posting an excerpt from an essay by Alicia Kurimska, “urban planning is about control.”  As Kurimska argues, Soviet planning designed communities in a manner intended to force people to structure their lives as the planners wanted… with the values that the planners demanded.

Reynolds follows the excerpt with this: “The planners promise more than they can deliver, time after time. And someone else pays the price, time after time.”

We must stop accepting the pretensions of the planners simply because they claim to have expertise and good intentions.


The Pilgrims’ Flirtation with Socialism

It’s possible some teacher along my educational path pointed out this tidbit from history, but it was certainly never a major theme sufficient enough to cause me to remember it:

In 1620 Plymouth Plantation was founded with a system of communal property rights. Food and supplies were held in common and then distributed based on equality and need as determined by Plantation officials. People received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food, and residents were forbidden from producing their own food. …

Faced with potential starvation in the spring of 1623, the colony decided to implement a new economic system. Every family was assigned a private parcel of land. They could then keep all they grew for themselves….

Once the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Plantation abandoned their communal economic system and adopted one with greater individual property rights, they never again faced the starvation and food shortages of the first three years.

How different might our society be if such themes were more widely taught!  Instead, we’re several generations into a culture in which people don’t understand the foundations on which their society is built, and even those inclined to defend the American Way don’t have the intellectual ammunition to do so easily and comprehensively.


Thankful for Our Irascible Ancestors

If you’re looking for some midday Thanksgiving reading, Kevin Williamson offers some words on Americans’ heritage of independence as it relates to innovation and prosperity:

The division of labor is the essence of civilization, the underlying source of practically every good thing about the material conditions of the modern world. It is why civilized countries do not have famine any more, why we are surrounded by technological wonders, why things like air travel and mobile phones go from being restricted to millionaires to being ho-hum over a short course of years. Most of the technological ingredients for the Industrial Revolution had been in place not only in Britain but in Spain, France, Italy, etc., for years. But British subjects and American colonists had the opportunity and the inclination to begin a finer and more robust division of labor than did their European counterparts. They were just a little bit more free — and a little bit more determined to be free — and that little bit made an incalculable difference, not only to them, but to the world.

Setting up government as the thing to which we should be thankful means gratitude of diminishing returns — thanks for not letting things get any worse than they would have under some imaginary always-worse scenario.  We need to be not just “a little bit more free,” but a lot more free, and we should begin seeing Thanksgiving as this time of year’s variation on Independence Day.


The World the West is Creating with Vladimir Putin

Is there a better way than political authoritarianism and stunted economic growth that Vladimir Putin’s subjects (including high-ranking oligarchs) might want to consider? Western elites might not like to admit this, but ratcheting up an “uncivilized” tribal strategy may be an effective way for Putin and current Russian leadership to answer this question in the negative, by boosting the morale (at least in the short term) of his Russian followers, and by frightening an “internationalist” coalition away from being willing to take the steps necessary to slow his expansion.

The ultimate effectiveness of this strategy depends on the strength and the nature of the coherence of the adversary that Russia faces.


A Declaration, Softly, Under the Rain

There was something fitting about reading the Declaration of Independence in the rain, this year, at the Doughboy statue in Tiverton.  A smaller crowd of about twenty joined organizer Susan Anderson to keep up the tradition of taking turns reading from the document on this day each year.

At times, the rain was so loud on the umbrellas that the voices were as whispers — wisps of freedom’s memory in the gathering din of tyranny.  From time to time the stream of words was punctuated with exclamations about the relevance of the Founders’ protests to our government today.

Analysis of the founding documents of the United States of America tends to present the Declaration as the expression of the positive spirit of the nation, with the Constitution providing the structure in which those principles might be maintained.  As raindrops smeared the ink, it emerged that the Declaration does its own work to buttress its principles by describing exactly what the revolutionaries opposed.  Specifics might require translation over time, but in the list of complaints, the signers painted for their progeny a picture of the actions of which to beware.

A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.

Through the sunny days of long-established democracy and liberty, a people can forget what the clouds portend, if not for whispers and wisps among friends.


Rep. Frank Ferri’s Disingenuous Objection

Mike Stenhouse, the CEO of the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity (the Current’s parent organization), testified in some strong terms against H7819, which would declare a specific structure for the state’s healthcare system and put in place the beginnings of a plan to achieve them:

“This is talk you would expect to hear come out of Communist China, not a legislative body in the United States of America,” said Stenhouse.

I would have gone with the old Soviet Union, because at the heart of the bill is a five-year plan.  For readers whose secondary-school education didn’t manage to impress upon them the significance of that construct, this About.com page captures the essence:

In the name of Communism, Stalin seized assets, including farms and factories, and reorganized the economy. However, these efforts often led to less efficient production, ensuring that mass starvation swept the countryside. …

While all of these plans were unmitigated disasters, Stalin’s policy forbidding any negative publicity led the full consequences of these upheavals to remain hidden for decades. To many who were not directly impacted, the Five Year Plans appeared to exemplify Stalin’s proactive leadership.

The “health care authority” imagined in H7819 would be no different.  It would work to push all healthcare spending in the state through HealthSource RI for the explicit purpose of giving government a monopolistic controlling hand.

Representative Frank Ferri (D, Warwick), who is the bill’s prime sponsor, waited until four more people had testified and Stenhouse was away from the witness table before responding.

By way of partial transcript:

What this says is, “we should come up with a five-year plan.  It’s talking about a plan.  A comprehensive plan.”  …

So what is wrong with having a plan?  It’s not a question.  I just wanted to make a statement, because give us something better and work with us instead of coming here and shouting “Communism” and “death camps” or whatever it is they want to shout.  Why don’t they say, “Let’s get together, and let’s work together on this.”

One thing that jumps out is Ferri’s cowardice, waiting until Stenhouse wasn’t in a position to respond… while asking rhetorical questions that could have been actual questions if Ferri had posed them at the appropriate time.  There’s also a dishonesty underlying his objection.  Ferri’s bill doesn’t establish a framework for everybody to get together and come up with ideas.  It sets a specific policy toward which the authority is mandated to work, and it’s a dangerous one.


Dorr Was Cool, Until He Wasn’t

Steve Ahlquist has published a portion of the testimony he will be giving in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Senate Bill 2641, which is an attempt to revoke Rhode Island’s current Voter ID law. Calling upon the memory of “Governor” Thomas Dorr, Ahlquist writes:

Arguably, next to Roger Williams, no Rhode Islander has done more for the cause of human rights, freedom and democracy. In 1840, a mere 8,621 men voted in the presidential election, because at that time only white male landowners had the right to vote. In response, Dorr led a rebellion, which was unsuccessful in that he never won a battle, but he did win the war. Due to his efforts, voting rights were expanded and in 1844 12,296 white men were allowed to vote, whether they owned land or not.

Dorr suffered for his actions. He was sentenced to prison, and though he was later released and pardoned, his health was broken and he died at the age of 49. Thomas Wilson Dorr literally gave his life for the cause of enfranchisement.

Dorr truly was a revolutionary, but also a man (and eventually a politician) of his times (and perhaps motivated more by self-interest then we like to think).  Nevertheless, his battle to extend suffrage in Rhode Island was a noble one and he took it as far as he could at the time: for non-propertied white men.

Yet, there’s more to the Dorr story than the “he died a broken man”. It leaves out the last decade of his life when his views on popular sovereignty morphed to a variety that sought to maintain slavery. So, in essence, he fought to disenfranchise African-Americans. This summarized well by J. Stanley Lemons, Professor of History Emeritus at Rhode Island College in a review of Eric Chaput’s well-received 2013 book on Dorr, “The People’s Martyr“:

The man Chaput shows us in that last decade was anything but heroic or admirable. One of the great ironies of Dorr’s life was that his concept of popular sovereignty – the right of the people to choose their government — morphed into the popular sovereignty of Stephen Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, where the local people could choose whether to be a slave state. It became a tool for the expansion of slavery. Dorr defended that right even when it went wrong and prostituted himself to the cause of the Democratic Party in the 1850s. Dorr had opposed the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, and he urged every Democrat to oppose it. Now he came to argue that the “Slave Power” was just an idea promoted by the abolitionists to stir up sectional controversy, and he became wholly opposed to the abolitionists, with whom he had once been allied. He argued that Congress had no power to interfere with the spread of slavery into the territories or even to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. He even concluded that that the mass of slaves in the southern states were better off than those living in Africa and that the slaves had been brought over to serve a “better race.”

Dorr emerges by the end of Chaput’s biography as a gravely flawed figure, a man who betrayed his own reform efforts and who ended up as a Democratic hack politician, promoting the party’s ideology of territorial expansionism and the extension of slavery. In 1841-1842 Dorr had hoped for federal intervention on his side, but by the late 1840s he opposed federal intervention in the slavery issue with regard to the western territories. Popular sovereignty in the territories became part of the compromise to hold the Democratic Party together, and Dorr treated this compromise almost like a “religious faith” and the Democratic Party “akin to a church.” (208) Dorr’s negrophobia and defense of the expansion of slavery seems all the more dramatic when the reader is reminded that Dorr once was on the executive committee of the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society. Chaput concludes by saying that by the late 1840s “Dorr invented a new history for himself that completely left out his association with the northern abolitionist movement.” (206). It was almost as if his career as a reformer no longer counted. He became an ardent supporter of Franklin Pierce, a dough-face Northern Democrat who sided with the slave-holding wing of the party. Loyalty to the Democratic Party trumped everything for Thomas Dorr.


ADDENDUM: Ahlquist also cite’s a state from Nate Silver on the supposed disenfranchisement that occurs with Voter ID in place. Ahlquist argues:

In 2012, Nate Silver, the statistician who consistently astounds with the accuracy of his election predictions, estimated that the Rhode Island Voter ID law effectively disenfranchised .8% of voters, which translates to 6,704 voters losing their franchise. In essence, this body, the Rhode Island State Senate, in cooperation with the Rhode Island House of Representatives and the signature of Governor Chafee, disenfranchised nearly twice the number of voters Rhode Island hero Thomas Wilson Dorr gave his life to enfranchise.

Though he cites the stat correctly, the article to which Ahlquist refers doesn’t quite frame it that way and Ahlquist leaves out some of the context Silver also offered with his analysis:

[T]here is…not necessarily a reason to think that the laws would reduce turnout by more than a couple of percentage points. It’s important to keep the following in mind:

• The vast majority of adults do have some sort of identification.
• Many people who do not have identification are not registered to vote — or if they are registered, they are unlikely to turn out.
• The laws may be inconsistently enforced by thousands and thousands of poll workers at the precinct level.
• In many cases, voters without proper identification can cast a provisional ballot, which could eventually be counted in the event of a vote-counting dispute.
• The campaigns have an opportunity to educate their voters about ID requirements as part of their turnout operations.

In short, can you be “disenfranchised” if you couldn’t or wouldn’t have voted anyway?


Frias on RI’s History of Voter Fraud

Steven Frias had another must-read article in the Providence Journal, earlier this week, detailing the longevity of the problems that have brought Rhode Island to its current condition — this time, voter fraud:

In the 1938 election, Rhode Island experienced it on a massive scale. A bipartisan legislative committee investigated the elections in Pawtucket and Central Falls. The committee unanimously determined that over 10 percent of the votes cast in these two communities were irregular and that hundreds of votes had been cast by floaters. In four Pawtucket precincts, there were more ballots cast than there were eligible voters. Voter fraud was also uncovered in North Providence and in the 13th Ward of Providence, which encompasses the Federal Hill neighborhood.

What followed appears to have been an example of “elect your savior” in the person of a conspiring attorney general.

Eventually, Rhode Islanders became so fed up with the fraud that they insisted on signature verification. Anybody who’s voted recently knows how weak of a protection that really is.

In our digital age, requiring a photo ID is neither overly burdensome nor, as the history shows, unwarranted.


The Revolution in Ukraine

Two weeks ago the question was how far would the government go beyond Russian-style anti-protest laws in restricting the civil liberties of the people, in order to protect the economic arrangements of a few. We learned at the start of this week that the Ukrainian government then in place was willing to murder its own citizens, rather than let them have the same options for making their way in the world that an average European has. This is the attitude of an unfree government, one that believes that people are disposable when they impede government priorities.

Because the Ukrainian people are standing firm, they are taking meaningful and necessary steps to show their government and the world that it is government that becomes disposable, once it becomes harmful to its citizens, and the people rise up to demand that it change its priorities as a result. Free people everywhere have common cause with those seeking freedom in Ukraine — literally today — to help ensure that the government there respects this reality, as Ukraine attempts to move forward.


Living Through an Echo of History

I have a somewhat miraculous view of literature. It seems more often than not to be the case that when I reach into the many boxes of books that I’ve inherited and pick out something to read, almost at random, it has a direct relevance to things I’d already been thinking about.

This time, it’s Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941). Fewer than 100 pages in, I’ve already got notes for myriad essays scribbled in the margins, but the following quotation, I just had to share. It’s actually something Fromm quotes from Jacob Salwyn Schapiro’s doctoral dissertation Social reform and the Reformation (1909).

The time period described is the later part of the Middle Ages, as medieval society gave way:

Notwithstanding these evidences of prosperity, the condition of the peasantry was rapidly deteriorating. At the beginning of the sixteenth century very few indeed were independent proprietors of the land they cultivated, with representation in the local diets, which in the Middle Ages was a sign of class independence and equality. The vast majority were Hoerige, a class personally free but whose land was subject to dues, the individuals being liable to services according to agreement … It was the Hoerige who were the backbone of all the agrarian uprisings. This middle-class peasant, living in a semi-independent community near the estate of the lord, became aware that the increase of dues and services was transforming him into a state of practical serfdom, and the village common into a part of the lord’s manor.

Frankly, I don’t think I’ve read a better description of what’s happening right now in any modern punditry. All that’s required is to update the language and replace “Hoerige” with “productive class” and the lord with the government.


How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

— From “Letter from Birmingham Jail“, by Martin Luther King, Jr.