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The Evolution of a Strip

For readers elsewhere in Rhode Island, WPRI’s brief report about a Fall River store now approved for retail sale of recreational marijuana may not provide a sufficient picture:

The Cannabis Control Commission approved the final retail license for Northeast Alternatives on Thursday during a meeting in Boston.

Northeast Alternatives currently sells medical cannabis at its location on William S. Canning Blvd., a short distance from the border with Tiverton, Rhode Island.

To be more specific, this pot shop is a short distance from the new casino in Tiverton.  The image that begins to come to mind is that of Pottersville in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Also in the news, lately, has been the arrest of some Foxy Lady employees for prostitution.  With state governments’ pursuing the strategy of making vices legal in order to profit from them, one can’t help but wonder on which side of the border the brothel will go when state coffers continue to run low.

To be clear, this wonderment should not be taken as a comment on the loosening of any of these laws in particular.  We should, however, question this new way of looking at government’s relationship to our liberties and address these changes with open eyes.

The flip side of not believing that government should make everything bad illegal is realizing that not everything legal is desirable.  Our social and political processes can figure out where those lines are for any given topic or any particular location, but our decisions will be distorted if we legalize vices for the reason that government can profit from them.

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Turning the Corner on Sexism in STEM

You know those table-top games for which you tilt a board in order to get a ball to roll through a maze or obstacle course of some kind?  They’re an excellent metaphor for the problem with using government to tilt society to achieve socially engineered outcomes.  The ball rolls, picking up momentum, and the means of controlling the board can be awkward.

To improve upon the metaphor imagine that the obstacles sometimes move around in unpredictable ways… and you’re trying to turn the knobs while wearing slippery mittens.

A century and more ago, maybe it was possible to believe in the totalitarian, yet beneficent, governance by experts, but in the intervening years, the experts should have concluded that it can’t be done.  The solution is to use cultural means to change things in the culture and structure the laws to provide a neutral playing field.

Instead, progressives have turned both knobs, as if they can get the ball to hop over all the walls.  So, we get a social standard that promotes girls and women while demeaning boys and men and a legal regime in which it is permissible to discriminate only against the latter.  The obvious question that some of us were asking decades ago was:  Even if we grant that male chauvinism is too powerful of a force, how will we know when to stop correcting for it?

That is arguably the implied question of Toni Airaksinen’s PJMedia article on some new research from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI):

Mark Perry, a University of Michigan-Flint professor, appears to be the first to discover that the “STEM gender gap” doesn’t exactly exist after all. According to his recent AEI report, women now earn 50.6 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, and are also overrepresented in graduate school.

While 50.6 percent is only a slight majority, this translates into 8,500 more female STEM graduates per year and about 33,000 more women in STEM grad school. And because college is now a woman’s domain, it’s likely these small disparities will expand over time. …

“The 60/40 gender disparity in college degrees favoring women that the Department of Education forecasts within the next decade should be of much greater concern to society than failing to achieve 50/50 gender parity in a few STEM fields, in terms of the future implications for the labor market, for family formation and other concerns.”

Returning to the metaphor above, anybody who has played those games knows that the trick is to start changing the tilt of the board before the ball has reached a turn.  Otherwise, momentum will carry it along in a direction you don’t want to go.  Well, we’ve arguably just missed the turn, and with no signs that adjustments are coming.

Instead, we can expect activists to highlight such findings as the fact that, with more choices available to women, fewer of them have gone into computer science.  This evidence of people acting according to their interests will no doubt inspire our cultural engineers to keep on pushing, even as imbalances and injustices open up and cause untold damage to our society.

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Where Would Excess Health Insurance CEO Pay Go

So, socialist Senator Bernie Sanders is on Twitter highlighting the pay of health insurance CEOs:

What insurance company CEOs made in 2017:
-Leonard Schleifer (Regeneron): $95.3 million
-Dave Wichmann (UnitedHealth): $83.2 million
-Mark Bertolini (Aetna): $58.7 million

We need a system that provides health care for all, not massive compensation for a few CEOs.

Putting aside Regeneron, which is not an insurance company and is therefore a different conversation, I agree with Sanders that these pay amounts are excessive, but the senator skates by an important point:  The reason insurance companies can do this sort of thing is that government insulates them from competition.  It also forces market-distorting policies on them, like requiring less-costly insurance customers to pay more to reduce the gap in prices.

For context, the pay for Wichmann that Sanders cites equates to around $2.25 from each of the company’s members, so as an isolated expense, it doesn’t mean much by way of price competition.  Still $83 million is a lot of money that could be put toward some other benefit or organizational improvement that would be salable.  Government has shaped the market landscape that allows that money to pool in executive compensation.  Naturally, the socialist’s solution to this problem is… more government!

Let’s imagine, then, what would happen to this money if the government even more-fully ran our health insurance industry.  With no competition, the government would have little incentive to ensure that the CEO’s wages were redistributed in the way that would attract more customers.  Would it reduce prices by $2.25 for everybody?  That seems useless.  If you say it would hire more doctors, do the math, and you’ll find that the United CEO’s pay would maybe allow for another 400-500 for a nation of well over 300 million people.

Two areas in which some significant portion of the money would surely go are predictable based on other government activities:  More administrators and bureaucrats would be hired, and targeted special interest groups would receive enhanced benefits or cost savings, to be distributed based on the political value of their support.

This likelihood should lead anybody who thinks the CEOs make too much money and that it ought to fund, instead, an improved healthcare system to the conclusion that we need more market force in health care rather than less.  That would squeeze the pay of the top employees and distribute it where the market finds the most value.

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The Power Center of Intersectionality

A recent Ordered Liberty podcast took up the topic of intersectionality in away that made it especially clear.  According to the discussion, the ideology gives the person with the most direct claim to victimization the lead authority to decry any given target, and then it is the duty of the “allies” to back her or him up.  Thus, in the case of shutting down speech, the people doing the dirty work aren’t necessarily even offended themselves, but see themselves as defending others who hypothetically are or might be.

On the podcast, David French and Alexandra DeSanctis emphasize the greater power this system gives to the most supposedly victimized person in the group, but I think it’s much more insidious than that.  After all, if that were the case, you could reason with the person flagging the offense, bring in somebody of the same category to dispute it, or persuade the mob that the person leading the charge isn’t reliable.

More likely, the power actually goes to whoever it is who defines what is offensive, which is probably a smaller, more elite group.  After all, we regularly see people from minority groups who decline to take offense dismissed as inauthentic.  Somewhere, somebody is declaring what interest groups are included in the network and what they should find offensive.

When these declarations are distributed, people within an interest group will either respond with the required offense or, for the most part, simply step back and be quiet out of fear that they’re just different (in a way that makes them the worst thing: privileged).  Those who don’t want to go along or step back are brushed out of the picture.  With this nucleus of offense, “allies,” who may fear they have no right to voice their contrary opinions, act on behalf of people who might not ultimately be offended themselves.

So, the question is:  Where are the orders coming from?  For the most part, it seems that people “just know” what the dictates are.  It could be that somebody proposes an idea or responds with offense and the proposal either catches on or it doesn’t, suggesting that the power of intersectionality is held by those with the most credibility on the Left in general — professors, activists, famous people, union organizers, billionaire donors, and so on.

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Confirming a Conservative Response to Poverty

Writing about public policy day in and day out, one can forget that not everybody follows every argument with close attention.  Broad philosophical points of view and underlying intentions can therefore be lost.

Just so, I almost didn’t bother reading a brief essay in which Michael Tanner promotes and summarizes his forthcoming book offering a broad explanation of a conservative policy response to poverty.  It’s worth reading, though, because he summarizes some conservative policies specifically in terms of their human objectives:

  • Keeping people out of jail can promote work and stable families.
  • Breaking up “the government education monopoly and limit[ing] the power of teachers’ unions” is rightly seen as an “anti-poverty program.”
  • Preventing government from driving up the cost of living, especially housing, will give poorer families a chance to get their feet on the ground.
  • Policies that discourage savings also discourage healthy financial habits.
  • A heavy hand in regulating the economy tends to target economic growth toward the rich and powerful.

As he concludes:

An anti-poverty agenda built on empowering poor people and allowing them to take greater control of their own lives offers the chance for a new bipartisan consensus that rejects the current paternalism of both Left and Right. More important, it is an agenda that will do far more than our current failed welfare state to actually lift millions of Americans out of poverty.

My only objection is that I’m not sure that the “paternalism of the Right” is a view that conservatives actually hold rather than a caricature that the Left spreads about us.  Of course, the fault is arguably ours, if we don’t often enough express our real intentions.

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The Ambiguous Middle in the General Assembly

I’m not sure if the Providence Journal’s Political Scene crew is right to summarize the General Assembly’s left-right divide based solely on abortion and gun rights, but the reported numbers do raise an interesting question: Are the relatively conservative legislative leaders on the edge of a progressive precipice, or are the legislators whose views aren’t explicitly known more conservative than they want to show in floor votes, thereby exposing themselves to progressive attack?

Cranston Republican Steven Frias seems to think the former:

Frias said his own analysis of the ratings suggests that “Mattiello is in the minority among House Democrats on abortion and guns, which helps explain why [he] has dropped the ‘firewall’ rhetoric.”

“Mattiello’s dilemma is whether to allow a floor vote where representatives will be allowed to vote their conscience on legislation related to abortion and guns. Regardless of what he decides, someone will feel duped,″ either the “House liberals … [or] the cultural conservatives who backed [him] for reelection thinking he would be the ‘firewall’ on abortion and guns.”

Frias’ argument: “If Mattiello betrays his culturally conservative constituents it would be a signal to cultural conservatives that they cannot rely on the Democratic House leadership and they should vote Republican in General Assembly races.”

A corresponding dilemma faces quiet conservatives. As long as legislators are allowed to remain fuzzy on these issues, relatively conservative constituents will continue to rely on the good graces of “firewalls” like Mattiello. An unambiguous understanding of the danger would be clarifying as people make their decisions as voters, volunteers, and donors.

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Meeting the Challenge of Education Reform

The Providence Journal editorial board is (let’s just say) very forceful on the subject of Rhode Island students’ test results:

The weak and timid reforms he and Gov. Gina Raimondo have advanced, while soothing to special interests, have been plainly insufficient. It is time for a shakeup at the Rhode Island Department of Education and the state Board of Education. Will anyone have the decency to resign for having failed our young people?

Robert Walsh of the National Education Association and Francis Flynn of the American Federation of Teachers have, similarly, served Rhode Island students abysmally. Union leaders in civic-minded Massachusetts understand that an education system is about more than providing salaries and benefits for adults. We know there are many teachers who yearn for a sound, long-term plan to improve standards.

It is a shame Rhode Island cannot simply shutter its Department of Education and hire Massachusetts to run the Ocean State’s public schools as a subset of its own. It at least knows how to do the job.

I saw editorial page editor Ed Achorn pushing back on Facebook against those who respond to these sentiments by pointing out that the Providence Journal endorsed Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo. Part of the editor’s response was that the paper has also implored her to improve her record on education, which I’m not sure quite meets the challenge.

Some of the entities that should be a check on government, like the state’s major newspaper, have this problem: They formulate their solutions as if we had a properly functioning state. Under such circumstances, a governor who had received the endorsement might change out of concern that she would lose it. In Rhode Island, she knows that she has nothing to fear.

Nobody who has secured a role of significance wants to throw down a gauntlet to make any bold changes to the way decisions are made in the state.

It isn’t sufficient to suggest, in passing, that somebody should resign over abysmal test scores. That outcome has to be important enough that advocates will ensure that insiders cannot achieve their other goals unless they address education.

That, incidentally, is win-win, because the insiders’ other goals are, on the whole, corrupt and oughtn’t be achieved, anyway. They need to be made to understand, however, that their only hope of keeping any of their ill-gotten gains is by making improvements in this area.

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A Post-Racial Society Would Be More Conservative

So here’s something for a bit of Friday fun:

A new study suggests that the words you use may depend on whether the club secretary’s name is Emily (“a stereotypically White name,” as the study says) or Lakisha (“a stereotypically Black name”). If you’re a white liberal writing to Emily, you might use words like “melancholy” or “euphoric” to describe the mood of the book, whereas you might trade these terms out for the simpler “sad” or “happy” if you’re corresponding with Lakisha.

But if you’re a white conservative, your diction won’t depend on the presumed race of your interlocutor.

Interestingly, the article appears to suggest that the conservative approach is ultimately what minorities want: “research shows that racial minorities are more concerned about being respected than about being liked.” One might speculate that, if minorities believe conservatives don’t respect them, it’s not because of the way in which conservatives behave, but because the liberals who control most of our news and information media expend so much energy painting conservatives as racists.

The article and the study on which it’s based provide a small example of how that works:

What she found, by performing online text analysis of 74 campaign speeches over the last 25 years, was that white candidates who were Democrats used significantly fewer words about “agency or power,” and more about “affiliation and communality” when addressing minority voters. There was no significant difference exhibited by Republican candidates.

The irony, as the paper notes, is that “Whites who may be more affiliative toward Blacks alter their verbal responses toward them in a way that matches negative stereotypes. Despite the patronizing behavior that they enact, these liberal candidates may hold more goodwill toward minorities.”

The bias comes with the imperative that liberals must be right and must be the good guys. Looked at objectively, no irony need be involved. Conservatives are less condescending in their language, and they are less interested in addressing minority groups as minority groups. The latter doesn’t explain the former so much as they are the same thing.

We conservatives take people as they come and present ourselves as we are — as individuals, not as identity groups. We don’t hold less “goodwill toward minorities” as people, but we don’t put much stock in treating them as a group of minorities, as opposed to treating them as a group of our fellow human beings.

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The Constitutional Importance of Our Legislators’ Authority

Rhode Island has had lengthy debates about who, outside of the legislature, should have authority to judge what our state representatives and senators do in their official capacity, and few questioned whether that sort of protection belonged in the state constitution. Yet, nobody has yet suggested that legislators deserve the same level of protection from the abuses of other legislators, specifically when it comes to the House and Senate rules.

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity is signing on to calls for rules that reduce the power of legislative leaders and give it back to legislators, but with the caveat that it ought to happen where new factions can’t change the rules back if they take control:

In calling for a dual-legislative track, the Center’s primary objective is to ensure that elected Senators and Representatives will have greater capacity and freedom to represent their individual districts, rather than being compelled to back the personal agendas of Senate and House leadership.

The first piece of legislation would immediately implement certain reforms for the 2019 General Assembly session, while the second piece would call for a ballot-referendum in 2020, whereby voters could approve codification of those reforms into the Rhode Island constitution.

The political Left, in particular, has exhibited a tendency to back individual rights until such time as Leftists are able to impose their preferred regime, at which point individual dissent suddenly becomes illegitimate. With legislative rules, as with our rights, we should move them as far out of reach as possible while we still have some semblance of representative democracy.

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Rights Erode with a Living Constitution

For a reminder of how the slow erosion of our constitutional rights proceeds, give a read to Damon Roots’s short article, “The 5 Worst Supreme Court Rulings of the Past 50 Years,” on Reason.* The entries don’t appear to name a winner, but I still find the Commerce Clause perversion to be the most indicative of the problematic political theory that has pervaded our government for a century:

Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution recognizes the congressional authority “to regulate commerce…among the several states.” In Wickard v. Filburn (1942), the Supreme Court gave federal lawmakers a massive shot of steroids, enlarging their power in this area to include the regulation of wholly local activity if it has a “substantial economic effect” on the national market.

Six decades later, in Gonzales v. Raich (2005), the Court handed Congress even more power, upholding a federal ban on marijuana, even as applied to plants that were cultivated and consumed by patients for their own doctor-prescribed use in states where medical cannabis was perfectly legal. As Justice Clarence Thomas observed in dissent, “by holding that Congress may regulate activity that is neither interstate nor commerce under the Interstate Commerce Clause, the Court abandons any attempt to enforce the Constitution’s limits on federal power.”

Once one erases the distinction between taking an action (like conducting business across state lines) and doing something that reduces the need for that action (producing something in your own home, for your own use, that reduces your need to conduct business across state lines), there really is no feasible limit on federal power.  In theory as well as in practical reality, every action in our society has some effect on every other action.

This is the problem with accepting government officials’ creativity in finding ways around Constitutional limits.  If people really want to ban marijuana, then they should push for legislation to do so.  If that legislation turns out to be unconstitutional, then they should amend the constitution… as narrowly as possible.  Bending the rules can never be a narrow measure in the long term, because it bends principles as well, and many issues reflect the shapes of our principles.

* Of course, the omission of Roe v. Wade is clearly a function of the publication in question.

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A Progressive Fawns as Amazon Shifts to Robber Barron Mode

Here’s an odd moment in a Scott MacKay essay on The Public’s Radio, about Amazon’s choice of our nation’s two bases of power — New York City and Washington, D.C. — for its new headquarters:

Luring 21st century innovation jobs to Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts will require changes in economic development thinking. These companies aren’t going to places that rely on the traditional metrics, such as low-taxes, low rents and cheap labor. “They aren’t going to low-cost places, right to work states,” says Michael Goodman, director of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “Nowadays brains matter much more than brawn.”

That’s music to MacKay’s ears, because his a big union and high-tax guy, but it’s weird that he would present a behemoth establishment player like Amazon as an archetype of “innovation jobs.”  The choice of NYC and Washington for its new locations is an indicator that Amazon is shifting into robber baron mode, which means using the power of the media and government to suppress competition and secure its advantages.

Of course the company is fine with high taxes and organized labor.  Its executives want to be sit in a room with other powerful people who can tell their constituents or members what to do.  The freedom of low taxes and a right to work makes things unpredictable for the power brokers.

But the real innovators will go to places where they aren’t inhibited by these legacy systems, meaning places where they can try new things and reinvest what they earn.  Mix that economic flexibility with a culturally intriguing location (characterized, I’d suggest, by the freedom and character that come from a government that doesn’t meddle in people’s lives), and we’d have something powerful in Rhode Island.

Unfortunately, that’s a big “if” and a big lift in Rhode Island.

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The Dogs That Aren’t Barking

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, “Silver Blaze,” Sherlock Holmes cracks the case with the observation that a dog didn’t bark during the commission of a crime.  From this, he infers that the animal knew the criminal.  Perhaps that explains a phenomenon that Rick DeBlois notes in a letter to the editor:

… Rhode Islanders complain about high taxes, incompetent leadership, back-door deals, cronyism, nepotism, and all the mobsters up on Smith Hill. We complain about poor roads, poor schools and a myriad of other issues that are wrong with our state.

But when the time comes to make a change, they reelect the same old gang of incompetent fools who got us here in the first place.

To be sure, part of the problem is that the people complaining turn on each other, a conundrum now personified in the person of Republican gubernatorial candidate Patricia Morgan.  She spent years building up an admirable brand as a politician who responds to Rhode Islanders’ complaints and presses for change, but when primary voters didn’t pick her to be their candidate, she targeted the only alternative candidate with a chance to win.

The bigger, more-systematic problem, however, is all the dogs that aren’t barking… the voters who aren’t complaining.  These are folks who don’t want anything to change because they’re getting something out of the system as it is, whether it’s a do-nothing government job, a government union perch with inflated compensation, or some kind of handout (from welfare to corporate cronyism).  These voters know their masters.

Another layer of voters may sometimes growl a little, but they are easily distracted.  The insiders throw them some progressive causes, some bits of identity politics, or some Trump hatred, and they happily gnaw on those meatless bones while the crime against our state persists.

It’s a fascinating state of affairs to investigate, although one needn’t be Sherlock Holmes to figure it out.  Rather, where that character’s genius is truly needed is in coming up with a way to unravel the trap, because the complaints (and the bites) will multiply exponentially when necessary reforms begin to clear the fatal excesses away.

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A Possible Misunderstanding of the Status of Representatives

We’re only hearing murmurs, but already one #MeToo-era bill potentially on track for introduction into the Rhode Island General Assembly for the upcoming legislative session suggests that lawmakers don’t quite understand their unique roles in our system:

A top Democrat in the state House of Representatives has written legislation that would create an “Equal Opportunity Employment Officer” in state government with the power to investigate claims of sexual harassment within the General Assembly.

Rep. Christopher Blazejewski, the deputy majority whip in House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s leadership team, plans to pre-file a bill creating the office and a special committee on professional conduct with “broad investigatory and disciplinary powers,” he said in a news release.

A new office with “broad” powers to discipline elected legislators?  That’s not how this stuff is supposed to work.  Legislators aren’t employees; they’re representatives.  The state government didn’t hire them.  They aren’t there by contract or the assent of the other legislators.  They’re supposed to answer to their constituents.  Period.

That doesn’t give them a get-out-of-jail-free card if they break the law, but it should suggest wariness about appointing independent government officials with the power to “discipline” them.  The potential for mischief is huge.  From a narrowly political standpoint, such an officer could selectively enforce the rules and abuse the investigatory power to tar disfavored politicians.  From a wider philosophical standpoint, one can easily imagine circumstances in which a district elects a legislator explicitly because of his or her beliefs about men and women only to find expression of those beliefs to be subject to discipline.

Representative Katherine Kazarian reinforces the impression that some legislators are losing sight of their unique role when she says, “All legislators deserve to represent their communities and engage in the political process free from harassment and retaliation.”  Again, they are not employees, nor are they constituents.  They are adults whom we sent to the State House to battle for policy on our behalf.

They should be able to utilize the political system to hold their fellow legislators accountable and turn to voters for accountability.  This sort of legislation makes profound changes to the roles of the people in our political system.

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A Pro-Family Attitude Can’t Put Comfort Above Life

About a month ago, Gerry, a reader of Rod Dreher’s blog, sent him a 2,600-word complaint against professedly pro-family conservatives who promote economic policies that create disincentive to have children.  His points are too densely packed to pick a representative section, but in summary, he sees everything from our health care system to our immigration system to housing costs as of conservative origin and as creating too much risk to allow his wife and him to have children.

Of course, he’s mistaken about much of it.  The idea that conservatives support our current health care system or that it has a free market design is absurd.  But also of course, he has a fair point when he complains that people in his conservative community didn’t help a family member who had fallen on hard times.  They should have, which is what conservatives would encourage.

More interesting, though, is the underlying assumption of Gerry’s rant: He feels that he shouldn’t have children in the face of risk and that it is the government’s job to smooth those risks.  In that respect, I can’t help but see a connection to the contraceptive mentality.  At core, in my view, the problem with contraception is that it moves the responsibility and fault for unwanted pregnancy onto an object or chemical, rather than on the parents. Gerry just abstracts that principle further, such that the responsibility for children rests not with the parents, but the government, and the fault for (potentially) not being able to remain comfortable while having children rests on the government’s shoulders, rather than on the parents’ personal ambitions.

Having children is always a risk.  Life is always a risk.  Gerry, as a Christian, should appreciate the point that if life was supposed to be otherwise, then God would have made it so.

Instead, he seems to elevate comfort — his comfort — above life.  That may or may not be rational, but it certainly isn’t pro-family.

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Asking the Wrong Question When the Toy Company Thinks About Leaving

I join others in wondering why it is, exactly, that nobody in Rhode Island government happened to mention that Hasbro was considering a move out of the state until the day after the election.  But the election is over, so we return to our regularly scheduled observations about politicians’ flawed mindset.  Oddly the most telling sentence on this subject has been removed from Tom Mooney’s Providence Journal article since last night:

Grebien said city officials have been talking to Hasbro for several months but that Grebien remains unclear specifically what Hasbro wants in order to stay in the city.

That is simply the wrong question and the wrong attitude, and it shows how politicians’ desire for every decision to run through their hands has put our communities at risk of extortion.  In a healthy political system, Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien would be asking what the city and state governments are doing that makes companies want to leave, because we’re doing something wrong if its directors feel as if they can’t remain in the state of their business’s birth.

If the state isn’t doing anything wrong and some factor beyond our control creates the necessity for the move, then we should admit that Rhode Island may no longer be the best fit for the company, or the company for Rhode Island, and society would be better off with more-efficient use of its resources.

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The Fight for the One Ring on Election Day

This election day, that scene from The Lord of the Ring keeps coming to mind — the one in which Boromir tries to take the ring of power from Frodo.  He doesn’t want to rule the world with it; he just wants to crush his evil enemy and return the world to harmony.  What they’ll do with the ring after that accomplishment, well, both Frodo and Boromir seem to have some doubts that everyone will conclude that Middle Earth is better off without its power.

Earlier in the book, a council of the various species and tribes decided to leave the ring with innocent Frodo and entrust him with the mission of destroying it.

Over the past couple decades, elections have increasingly felt as if we’re voting to decide who gets to carry the ring.  Some candidates on the ballot claim to be Frodo, but we haven’t had much luck electing them or keeping them on the path to the volcano into which they’re supposed to throw it.

Maybe it’s always felt like this to some degree for people as they’ve worked their way to my age, but I don’t think so.  Government is just involved in so many aspects of our lives now.  At the same time, other areas of community activity have decreased in prominence.  It feels like more hinges on what happens today because more does hinge on what happens today.  That isn’t healthy.

In political discussions with people who disagree with me broadly, I get the sense that they really do think of “representative democracy” as a process of electing our temporary dictators.  Of course, when somebody they don’t like wins, they insist that something illegitimate happened — some cheating or intervention from outside powers or exploitation of hate or something.  In other words, they give the impression of thinking our system should be one in which every couple of years voters exercise their right to ratify the power of dictators who are made legitimate by their ideology, not their electoral victory.

We’re not too far gone, though.  The unexpected can happen.  The forces of the status quo won’t make it easy or pretty, but we can get that ring to Frodo and send the poor, unfortunate hobbit on his just-shy-of-impossible mission.

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The Inverse Relationship of Voter Interests and Voter Interest

Even at the state level, in Rhode Island, there isn’t but so much debate about major issues, like massive new debt proposals on the ballot.  At the local level, it’s even worse.  Trying to remedy some of this in my town, I’ve been writing a Daily Tiverton Truth Flash (well, almost daily) on Tiverton Fact Check for about a week, and the related Facebook page has had some great exchanges, but even this feels insufficient, not the least because there doesn’t appear to be anything comparable from the opposing side.

This is indicative of a broad problem in our representative democracy.  Our government is (or is supposed to be) structured so that the most important decisions affecting people’s lives are made at the most-local level possible.  But involvement in local government is no longer the important source of personal entertainment that it used to be, and mass media means that the most money and promotion will be devoted to national topics.  One of the Daily Tiverton Truth Flash posts took up this very problem:

… the story of voter participation in Tiverton follows a clear pattern: People like to vote in high-profile elections in which their votes count for the less. Looking at data from the state Board of Elections, when the presidential race is on the ballot, Tiverton voters turn out in the mid-60% range. In off years, turnout drops to the mid-40% range. By contrast, the last two competitive FTRs [financial town referendums] saw turnout of just over 20%.

However, low interest in local government can be seen during regular elections, too. Taking into account that voters get seven votes for council, the effective participation in that contest has tended to be around 40% during presidential years and around 30% during non-presidential years. In 2014, the council race had effective turnout of 27.5%, and the 2015 FTR the following May hit 20.5%. That’s a difference, but it isn’t huge, especially considering that the 7% gap contains people who might not follow local government very closely.

This is a problem we don’t see many people trying to solve… because of the very same lack of interest.  Local government is involved in so many things that it takes a lot of work to keep up, and special interests, like labor unions, have incentive to make too much involvement painful for anybody who isn’t advocating on their behalf.

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War on Poverty Bolsters… Poverty

Here’s another data point for your “not what I was told to believe” file:

In Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, John Early and Phil Gramm share some depressing numbers about growing dependency in the United States:

During the 20 years before the War on Poverty was funded, the portion of the nation living in poverty had dropped to 14.7% from 32.1%. Since 1966, the first year with a significant increase in antipoverty spending, the poverty rate reported by the Census Bureau has been virtually unchanged…Transfers targeted to low-income families increased in real dollars from an average of $3,070 per person in 1965 to $34,093 in 2016…Transfers now constitute 84.2% of the disposable income of the poorest quintile of American households and 57.8% of the disposable income of lower-middle-income households. These payments also make up 27.5% of America’s total disposable income.

This massive expansion of redistribution has negatively impacted incentives to work.

Incentives aren’t only relevant to welfare recipients, but also to government and the politicians who populate it.  The progressive concept of scientific governance — setting experts to make the “right” decisions for everybody — requires that the people making decisions will make them honestly.  But when government begins giving things out, the incentive is to keep doing so whether it achieves the desired policy outcome or not, because at the end of the day, the desired outcome is votes.

More broadly, the incentive for the bureaucracy is to keep having things to do, like processing benefits, and to sell government as the solution for problems.  For all of these reasons, the incentive is to never honestly assess whether a War on Poverty has actually helped maintain poverty levels while causing a host of unexpected social ills.  Alternately, the incentive is to keep adjusting the definition of “poverty” so that the rate never changes even if the experience of the population does.

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Mattiello Promotes Thwarting Representative Democracy

Here’s something that jumps out at me from Katherine Gregg’s article about Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello’s race against Republican challenger Stephen Frias:

He also says the rules concentrating power in the speaker were adopted to prevent the “wrong things” from reaching the House floor for votes, such as a vote to slash the state’s 7-percent sales tax.

“At some point someone is going to come up with that,” he said. “You are going to force every member to start taking votes to not do something that is terribly irresponsible … [that] will just become fodder for political season.”

One’s first reaction (especially if one has been advocating for precisely that legislation for a number of years) is:  That’s the policy that comes to Mattiello’s mind as irresponsible?  Really?

A more important reaction, however, is to note that Mattiello is essentially acknowledging that his role as Speaker of the House is to thwart the healthy operation of our representative democracy.  What he describes as a problem is how government is supposed to work.

Legislators with incentive to give people what they want bring policies forward, forcing other representatives to take a stand.  If voters don’t like the result, they vote for other people who will better represent their interests and their values.  Under this system, being responsible in the face of popular demands is supposed to come at a cost; that is what balances the self governance of democracy with the prudence of judgment.

If legislative leaders can kill legislation in an opaque process, the electorate can’t be represented, because we can’t know where our legislators will stand when a bill is before them.

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How We Should Address Climate Change

Here’s another narrative-disrupting bit of information, this one from Michael Bastasch on The Daily Caller:

Greenhouse gas emissions continued to plummet during President Donald Trump’s first year in office, according to new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data.

Based on data from more than 8,000 large facilities, EPA found greenhouse gas emissions, mostly carbon dioxide, fell 2.7 percent from 2016 to 2017. Emissions from large power plants fell 4.5 percent from 2016 levels, according to EPA. …

Earlier this year, the Energy Information Administration reported that per-capita greenhouse gas emissions hit a 67-year low during Trump’s first year in office. …

[Meanwhile,] EPA’s new data follows news that, globally, greenhouse gas emissions are set to rise to historic highs by the end of the year, despite nearly 200 countries signing the Paris climate accord. Global greenhouse gas emissions also rose in 2017.

On the other side of all those questions about how much warming we should expect and who or what is causing it lies a whole ‘nother series of questions about how best to address it.  I’ve long been of the opinion that economic and technological progress is the only way forward.

If we’re really only 12 years from a point of no return that could only be averted by the impossible decision of the people of the planet to hand over their freedom to a group of unaccountable global elites, then the only way out really is through.  Set a reduction in fossil fuels as a goal — a good thing — and then step back.  Bureaucrats are neither well positioned nor vested with the ideal incentives to understand what will achieve the end and what won’t.

This is another area in which, it seems to me, the constant need of progressives to filter everything through government is harmful even to their own ends (to the extent that they have ends other than the accumulation of power).

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The View the Left Has of “Conservative” Judges

One really must wonder where folks like Art Corey get their ideas:

Congratulations to Republicans on their big Supreme Court win. Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation could ensure GOP control over the court for a generation. Who could have imagined that obstructing Merrick Garland would result in not one but two hard-right conservatives joining the court?

“Hard-right conservatives”?  What?  Kavanaugh was the more-moderate pick, and the whole thing about “conservative” jurists is that they rule according to the law, not ideology or a party’s contemporaneous requirements.  The GOP won’t “control” the court; the court will ensure that legislative changes to the law happen in the legislature, whichever party happens to control it.  That’s why this is so wrong:

But the Republicans’ lust for power has blinded them to the truth that the court derives its legitimacy from the belief that it is above politics.

If the court is above politics, it has to be because it rules according to the written law, whether or not a particular ruling is politically popular or corresponds to the temper of the time.  The entire “living Constitution” idea pushed by the Democrats and the Left more broadly is what makes the court inevitably political.  That is why the progressive wing of the court has ruled much more in lock step than the conservative wing and why this seems either disingenuous or naive:

So now any liberal group with business before the court could rightly question the legitimacy and impartiality of its decisions.

Corey would do well to recall that progressive Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg regrets making injudicious statements about Donald Trump not because she allowed herself to have political thoughts, but because it was “incautious.”  In other words, she should have kept her bias well hidden.

But nobody is fooled any longer, which is why conservatives seek originalist judges who will rule impartially and restore legitimacy to the court.  Every judge has bias; what’s needed is a legal philosophy that really does leave that aside.  Conservatives’ hope is that the experience of his confirmation will provide Justice Kavanaugh with some inoculation against the social pressures that sometimes push judges toward the elite (which is to say, progressive) understanding of the law.

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Tempering the Terror of a Climate Doom Report

WPRI reporter Tim White tweeted that this New York Times article about the United Nations’ accelerated doom-saying about climate change is “truly terrifying.”  My response was to ask if this section (emphasis added) doesn’t set off his alarm bells:

Avoiding the most serious damage requires transforming the world economy within just a few years, said the authors, who estimate that the damage would come at a cost of $54 trillion. But while they conclude that it is technically possible to achieve the rapid changes required to avoid 2.7 degrees of warming, they concede that it may be politically unlikely.

Look, one needn’t be a climate change skeptic to acknowledge the layers of assumptions that go into these scary warnings.  First, one must ignore the lack of warming over the last two decades and assume that the models will be more accurate going forward.  Then, one must assume that the change really does derive from human activity and that it’s possible to avert the worst.  Then, another wave assumptions comes with predictions about the effect on weather, creating soaking rains where that will be harmful and droughts where that would be harmful, all coming together in a way that doesn’t equalize the effects (by, for example, simply moving where farming must be done).  Add in the effect of technology and changes in energy production that have made the United States a leader in CO2 reduction.  And don’t forget that one must balance the estimated $54 trillion in costs from warming against whatever the cost would be to rework our economy — including an assessment of the people who bear those costs.

Put that all on a scale that pivots on the promise that giving more power to the people who brought the warning, and a tempered reaction to the terror is justified.

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Funny How Rhode Island Works

Readers know that I’m not a fan of our campaign finance regime.  It imposes a complicated, intimidating set of laws for grassroots candidates and groups that creates opportunity not only for prosecution of them, but also political attacks on their donors.

I have a hard time, therefore, getting worked up about the apparent probability that the campaign of Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello funded a mailer allowing Republican Shawna Lawton to endorse him in a high-profile way against his Republican challenger, Steven Frias.  To the extent the activity is illegal, it is because of this complex, unconstitutional labyrinth we’ve built, with incentive to find workarounds.

That said, the investigation is unearthing an education in the way Rhode Island politics work, and the stunning thing is that the most objectionable things are treated as incidental… and they’re all completely legal.  I’ve already highlighted one connection:

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has put Edward Cotugno, the mail-ballot guru who helped him eke out an 85-vote victory in 2016, back on his campaign team and given his son a $70,000 a year State House job.

Mattiello, D-Cranston, hired Michael Cotugno as the legislature’s new associate director of House constituent-services.

Here’s another:

Included in the evidence packet that the board provided to The Journal on Friday, in response to a records request, was an Aug. 14, 2016, text from “Teresa” to [political consultant] “Jeff” [Britt] and his partner, Daniel Calhoun, who is still listed as a $60,891-a-year legislative employee on the state’s transparency portal.

Think of this.  Under Mattiello, the legislature has given well-paying legislative jobs (of unknown difficulty) to the son of his “mail-ballot guru” and the man who shares a nice Warwick house with one of his campaign operatives, and the thing we’re supposed to be upset about is a relatively small contribution toward political free speech!

But arguing that the campaign finance investigation is the only reason we know about the rest doesn’t justify burdensome campaign finance laws.  When people act in suspicious ways (like endorsing people of other parties or independent spoiler candidates), we should… well… suspect them of having some ulterior motive, unless they can express a persuasive rationale for the odd decision.  And if somebody who benefits from that persuasion wants to fund it, their money doesn’t change the validity of the argument.

Ultimately, the answer is just to reduce the size of government and the value of controlling it.

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