Political Theory RSS feed for this section

Children as Political Hostages in an Empty Room in Cumberland

Marcia Green’s Valley Breeze article on the Cumberland School Department’s threatened cuts if its budget isn’t increased by more than the mayor has proposed caught my attention when Monique tweeted it thus: “Cumberland School Committee issues list of (budget) hostages; threatens to start shooting.”

This sort of thing takes place all over the state — probably the country — and it’s a good example of why it’s dangerous to attempt to do things through government.  Everything’s a battle.

For contrast, try to imagine a similar situation for a private school.  It’s actually not that difficult, with so many smaller schools that serve working-class populations closing.  They don’t berate the parents with threatened cuts.  Instead, they very often try to increase programming, asking faculty and staff to pitch in to move a plan forward, and then asking parents to volunteer in order to minimize tuition increases and ensure the best educational experience for the students.

If faculty, staff, and parents don’t step up, it’s on them.  Note this, for example, from Green’s article:

Monday’s subcommittee meeting drew a half-dozen parents, including Laura Sheehan and Linda Haviland, who were not only speaking against the proposed cuts, but beginning to prepare for Town Council hearings.

Cumberland has nearly 5,000 students, and about six parents showed up at a meeting discussing supposedly dire cuts in programming.

Perhaps one of those parents should research the budget of Cumberland’s schools.  As it happens, I’ve been doing just that, looking into comments made by Sen. Ryan Pearson (D, Cumberland, Lincoln) about the cost of charter schools during the hearing the other day on the Bright Today legislation.

In the five years ending with the current one, Cumberland Schools’ revenue and expenditure increases have averaged a little more than 4%.  Meanwhile, its October enrollment has dropped an average of 2% per year over those five years.  That has led to average per-student expenditure growth of 6.21% — or 5.34% if we take out the tuition paid to charter schools.  Inflation, by contrast, has averaged around 1.7% per year.

Discussions about schools should be sensitive.  Maybe one of the reasons parents and other members of the community are checking out is that they aren’t being offered decisions; they’re being whipped into inexplicable frenzy.  The first approach is empowering; the second is enervating.

The tone should not be “give us more money or else.”  It should be, “here’s where we are, here’s why these are the best steps to take, and here’s what we can do to live within the means that the people paying the bills are willing to provide.”

Of course, a calm recitation of reasonable options might lead people to choose them.  Where would that leave the folks with very healthy salaries and unparalleled benefits working for the system?


Keeping the Productive Class, Not in Government’s Interest

Roger Williams University Professor Thomas Lonardo has picked up a thread of the apocalyptic Rhode Island tapestry that I noted about a decade ago:

However, a major part of the Rhode Island population typically associated with middle- and upper-middle-class taxpayers seems to be ignored, the 35-to-54-year-olds. This group makes up 26.8 percent of the population. Although income class distinctions are a moving target, it is assumed that the middle- and upper-middle-class income range is $75,000-149,999, with 27.4 percent of the households in Rhode Island in this range.

‘The modest overall decline of the Rhode Island population of 1,365 from 2010 to 2013 may not raise concerns. What should be of concern is the decline in the 35-54-year-old population by an astounding 16,567!

This is another way of getting around to describing what I’ve called the productive class.  If I could pick any age range, I’d probably go with something closer to 28-50, but that’s a minor and largely arbitrary distinction.  The point is that this is the age range during which people make something of themselves.  They go from being on the lower rungs to getting near their full potential.  It’s a lot of human initiative, sweat, time, and investment, and as people climb those rungs in large numbers, they bring the economy up with them.

Lonardo sticks to thinking of people in their groups, so I don’t think he quite gets to the heart of why the productive class is important.  It’s not about employers versus employees and everybody fitting in their groups.  As in physics, the real action happens with acceleration.  I think, therefore, there’s a simpler answer to this question:

Why doesn’t retention of this taxpayer class seem to be a primary focus of our elected officials? Maybe because the solutions that make a public opinion impact beyond an election cycle are not worthy of consideration. Possibly because solutions include difficult decisions and bold comprehensive strategies addressing the myriad of troubles facing the state such as: high taxes (including fees and surcharges), substandard roads and bridges, underperforming public schools, etc. 

Fundamentally, the problem is that the government can only help the productive class by relinquishing control and taking care of the basics.  The government would have to get out of the business of telling people what they can do in every minute aspect of their economic lives and start taking care of boring stuff like infrastructure.  

People accomplishing things create a competing source of power and authority to that of government in a way that people who already have a lot of money or who have almost no money at all cannot match.  Indeed, the already-wealthy have incentive to work with government to keep the upstarts out, while the poor represent a client-and-voter base for the government.


Legitimacy and the Trust Deficit

Scott Rasmussen notes that the American people are losing trust in government for all sorts of (justified) reasons, which erodes the public sense that the government has any real legitimacy as a representative organization:

Until people can trust government, the government cannot enjoy the necessary consent of the governed. That’s true whether the distrust comes from a black teenager in Baltimore or a Tea Party leader in Texas.

For government in America to regain its legitimacy, government officials must change their behavior. People may gain power by winning an election, getting a badge or landing a job with the IRS, but legitimate authority is something that has to be earned every day.

This observation, at the national level, is evidence of my theory that the ills that plague Rhode Island, and similarly governed places, will eventually spread like an infectious disease if they are not cured at their source.  Rhode Islanders have long had a sense that they are locked out of government, that the rule of law does not exist (at least not in a fair, even way), and that things will never change.

There’s a reason people will be surprised if the public doesn’t help fund a second minor-league baseball stadium in the heart of Providence, on land that was promised to be a source of tax revenue and economic development.  This level of distrust is what happens when it’s clear that special interests will manipulate laws, as with the Central Coventry Fire District, in order to ensure that they never lose.

Although not to that level, yet, the “government versus the people” dynamic goes on in every city and town in Rhode Island, every year.  When voters approved, by nearly a two-to-one margin, an alternative budget that I proposed last year in Tiverton, holding the tax levy to a 0.0% increase, elected officials didn’t embark on a year of soul searching to figure out (or even ask) what people want.  They spent the year using their public meetings to attack me as if I somehow fooled the community, and they (apparently) worked in back rooms to come up with threats that might help them turn out the vote.  (This is nothing new.)  Now, we’ve got Town Administrator Matt Wojcik using a public forum (in front of other town employees over whom he has managerial authority) to snarl at me as if I’m a reckless deceiver simply for giving the people an alternative.

I think that’s what Rasmussen means about earning legitimacy every day.  In Rhode Island, and increasingly at the national level, the emphasis is on finding ways to give the people something the insiders say they need, but that they may not want and would not accept if they could actually make representative democracy representative.


Education Failing the Republic

Richard Dreyfuss’s thoughts on American politics and education are somewhat surprising, coming from an upper-tier Hollywood star:

This is the result of a complete absence of teaching current events in our schools and teaching without context or candor. We have eviscerated our children’s education and unconsciously treat them as people we hate, denying them any excellence or agility of mind.

Western kids are reportedly trying to join ISIS; why? Perhaps because the only spiritual movement being discussed in public, however ugly its ideology, is extremist Islam. Judeo-Christian spirituality seems pallid and disconnected; certainly Americans are no longer learning the secular faith of the Constitution, the musculature of republican democracy, its values of individual worth, its religious tolerance, its embrace of opportunity and merit.

Dreyfuss could have been a little more explicit that such education is the responsibility of all of us, teachers and otherwise.  If we’re not engaged with and vocal about our political and religious beliefs, then even if they’re taught in school, they’ll be abstract, “pallid and disconnected.”

But when it comes to public education, he’s right on, and the problem appears to be by design.  Just look at the perversion of AP U.S. History (appropriately, “APUSH”).  In some ways, this is simply a consummation of the content that academics have been injecting into education for decades.  It’s a deliberate attempt to undermine the political and cultural underpinnings of our country.  At least, it was once considered an “alternative” history, with the standard kind presumed to be still taught in schools.

It’s not just the academics, with their educational theories, either.  There’s a reason teachers’ unions are deeply interwoven with (and significant funders of) progressive causes.  Those causes are their mission, although it’s a case in which form marries function: As a group — that is, as a union collective — public school teachers’ most visible activity is using political activism to redistribute wealth from taxpayers to themselves.

In the vision of civic engagement that (it appears) Dreyfuss and I share, that’s not supposed to be how politics and education work.


Letting Disadvantaged Communities Improve

A secondary theme from this Kevin Williamson essay relates to something I’ve been hearing on the subject of school choice, lately:

Being poor is a burden; being poor in a poor community is a danger. Poverty — individual poverty or family poverty — is difficult enough to overcome; overcoming it in an environment in which everybody one encounters is in roughly the same situation (or worse) is much more difficult. One of the best ways to increase generational income mobility for children born in places such as the poor sections of Baltimore is — this will not surprise you — to get the hell out of Baltimore, the sooner the better: The income effects of leaving Baltimore are more pronounced the younger the child is when he leaves.

But exit is not really going to be much of a broad solution for places such as Baltimore and Detroit. The white middle class left long ago; less remarked upon was the dramatic exit of the black middle class from those communities. In poor urban communities, as in the Big White Ghetto of Appalachia, most of those with the resources to leave left long ago. Simply abandoning poor cities is not really much of an answer.

I’ve heard a number of comments from people who express skepticism about school choice based on the assumption that it won’t immediately benefit children in the most challenging circumstances.  The child of the drug-abusing single mother won’t be as likely to benefit from school choice as those of his classmates whose parents have their acts together.

A first-order answer is that this isn’t really true.  School choice programs lead public schools to improve.  Some of that’s simply the pressure of competition, but some of it is also the increased ability of the public schools to concentrate on the needs of the students who remain, for whom there will be more money remaining per student.  And then there are organizations, like the San Miguel school and Star Kids, whose mission is to help such children, specifically.

The more-important answer, though, is that the skeptics’ concern ties into the whole welfare-state mentality that, in actuality, preserves a culture of failure.  Looking at the personal stories of Rep. Ray Hull and Gertrude Jones posted on RIFreedom’s school choice page, it’s striking that they both had families that worked hard to do what was right for their children.  They should be models, not opportunities for naysayers to slip in a “yeah, but.”

Public policy should strive to help people who’ll maximize the opportunity that the community is able to offer.  Some of those people will choose, as Williamson suggests, to exit their bad neighborhoods.  Others will stay.  Either way, though, they’ll point the way toward a path that the next family down the line can follow.

Life boats on a sinking ship should be withheld until the people who are farthest away can reach them.  They should load up shipwreck survivors as they arrive.  Disadvantaged communities need opportunity and inspiration more than they need government holding down others in order to enforce a perverted vision of fairness.


Happening to Follow a Checklist for Fascism

Elizabeth Price Foley highlights something that might have been easy to miss in the drama of recent racial rioting:

Al Sharpton is calling for the creation of a national police force. And it looks like President Obama is considering the option. While the federal government undoubtedly lacks a “police power” and the concomitant authority to create a national police force, it does have a “spending power,” implied from the Constitution’s enumerated power to levy taxes, and the Supreme Court has upheld the imposition of “strings,” or conditions, on the receipt of federal funds.

Sort of like Common Core or the many federal programs that have led states simply to implement federal policy, with some local latitude at the margins, such policies would effectively nationalize police forces that take the deal.

Now, I’m not saying President Obama and the Democrats are deliberately following the textbook steps for taking totalitarian control over a previously democratic country, but these are one set of steps nonetheless:

  1. Stoke divisions along national, class, religious, or racial lines.
  2. Foster an environment in which chaos and violence come to feel endemic.
  3. Propose a nationalized solution that gives control over police forces to a central authority and excuses crackdowns on people’s rights.

Powerline notes that police shootings are actually extremely rare, particularly if narrowed down to those that aren’t clearly justified, and yet, they are dominating the news to the extent that they’re sparking (or providing pretense for) riots.

Really, it’s time to wake up from the hopenchange daydreams.


Days of Independence and Dependence

On Twitter, Jessica David reminds us that today in 1766 Rhode Island led the nation in declaring independence.  Obviously, independence wasn’t the immediate consequence of that declaration; such things take time.

That makes me wonder.  What would people consider to be the date on which Rhode Island declared its turn away from representative democracy and back toward governance by the powerful? There are a lot of possibilities, and in the absence of an actual declaration, such things are incremental.

A leading contender, I’d think, would have to be the date on which the state officially declared the possibility of public-sector unionization.  Other possibilities, like implementing an income tax, for example, corroded our ability to live independently of the government, but public-sector unionization allowed for an organized force to counter the will of the people.  Worse, that organized force (ultimately funded by the people) is able to organize not only for its side of the negotiating table, but also to affect elections — thereby not only electing the people with whom they’d be negotiating, but also giving them a role in the broader political landscape, affecting every aspect of our lives.

Writing specifically about police unions, Ross Douthat mentions an example in California in which “the correctional officers union first lobbied for a prison-building spree and then, well-entrenched, exercised veto power over criminal justice reform.”  But the public policy problem goes much deeper, with unions able to affect any public policy that might conceivably serve them (from abortion to welfare to war) and also to use their members’ money to advocate for positions that leadership wants for ideological reasons (like same-sex marriage).

I’m open to suggestions, though, that other landmarks might have represented a more significant or fundamental “declaration of dependence.”


Riots, Regimentation and Rhetoric

I am afraid that the third paragraph from the bottom of Wednesday’s E.J. Dionne column on the riots in Baltimore all-too-accurately reflects the state of elite thinking in America, and not in a good way…

[William Julius Wilson] offered a central truth: “Regular employment provides the anchor for the spatial and temporal aspects of daily life. It determines where you are going to be and when you are going to be there. In the absence of regular employment, life, including family life, becomes less coherent.”

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking, where the idea that people who agree upon some bigger meanings in life can work together to build something is replaced by an idea that people cannot find meaning until they’ve first been regimented, seems to have become the dominant philosophy of a wide swath of a “respectable” political elite who, for various reasons, are unable to articulate anything beyond a few economic platitudes when discussing what a society should aspire to (e.g. “Let’s get Rhode Island back to work“), and who assume everything else takes care of itself, if government can be made to function as the comprehensive human-resources bureaucracy for everyone.

Or am I reading to much into E.J. Dionne seeing something profound in William Julius Wilson’s statement above?


SCOTUS, SSM, and Baltimore’s Mother of the Year

More people are beginning to wake up to the reality — which, let’s be honest, was always obvious for those willing to look — that same-sex marriage is not some a step toward a libertarian live-and-let-live ideal.  The refrain used to be “how will their marriage affect you.”  That’s now changed to “it’s certainly going to be an issue.”  From the related Supreme Court hearing:

JUSTICE ALITO: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­ exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­-sex marriage?

GENERAL VERRILLI: You know, I ­­ I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I ­­ I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is ­­ it is going to be an issue.

Colleges.  Private schools.  Other charitable organizations.  Private businesses.  “It’s going to be an issue.”

I grabbed the above transcript from an article by David French, who recently issued a mea culpa for having fallen for the line that SSM “changes nothing.”  (The phrase is from something French wrote in 2004 taking the pro-SSM side.)

Again, this shift in message was always obvious; I’ve been pointing it out for almost fifteen years.  Unfortunately, this particular “it’s going to be an issue” isn’t even the biggest problem.  As I’ve also been saying for almost fifteen years, the most profound consequence of the radical change is that our society will have given up its best tool for enshrining the cultural message that the couples who create children should work together to raise them.

That principle was already under assault, but it will be entirely untenable now.  And anybody who wants an image of what that will mean needs only look to Baltimore, where a lone, apparently single, mother has become something of a sensation — a standout parent — for braving a riot to drag home her teenage son, a full head taller than her, so she could ensure that he wasn’t helping to burn down his own city while risking arrest, injury, or even death.


When Religion/Ideology Can and Can’t Coincide with Innovation

The topic of the interaction of religion and innovation, which I mentioned the other day, is a rich one worthy of elaboration.  For the moment, I’ll add just one dynamic, related to the fact that the United States is the only country in the box for “high belief, high innovation” on the chart I cited last time.

Some resistance to experimentation is healthy in a society.  Like rules of ethics, it ensures that the community is helped, not harmed, by the wild actions of a few.  (It’s safe to suggest that this understanding is strong in East Asian countries, despite their non-religiosity.)

It’s a balance, though.  On the other side of the scale is the danger that a few powerful religious leaders, or those otherwise defined by ethics, will limit innovation at the borders of their own imaginations (and their own personal interests).  That harms the community, too.

The key to the balance is a pluralistic society that handles most social interactions socially, not through its political system.  In the ideal, each side makes its case to the community, and in the end, all interests are likely to come into balance.

Ideals rarely exist, of course, but it’s very important, at this time in history, for Americans to take an honest look at which side of the culture war and the partisan battle comes closer to the ideal.  It couldn’t be clearer that the progressives, Leftists, and liberals (mainly Democrats) will accept less dissent and insist on the most strict adherence to their beliefs.  They work to silence disagreement.  They don’t see the fight as a tug of war, but as an ideological struggle to the death.  Pick an issue, from same-sex marriage to climate change.

Hitting the gas pedal while using both hands to restrain a would-be driver only works as long as the road is straight, but it never is.  The progressive demand for centralized planning and concentrated power only appears sane as long as scientific, economic, and social reality are in line with the Left’s political demands.  Even if that happens to be the case at a particular time on a particular issue (which is less frequent than progressives want us to believe), it won’t be for long.  When the luck of the moment passes, progressives are as harmful to social advancement as the most ardent theocracy.


Cicilline’s Bid to Facilitate Fascism

Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline (who, let’s not forget, helped draw Providence to the precipice as mayor) wants to give his fellow members of the acronym group of sexual preference special rights at the national level:

Cicilline said he plans to introduce a comprehensive anti-discrimination bill later this spring that would address the gaps in current law. The resolution is a first step, he said, and it currently has over 100 sponsors, though a Republican-controlled Congress could prevent the proposed bill from becoming legislation.

As a political matter, there’s a gaping hole in the logic behind the legislation.  If “the overwhelming majority of Americans oppos[e] discrimination against LGBT people,” as Janson Wu, executive director for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, says, then why do they need special protections?  There should only be a small minority discriminating, right?  It’s flatly impossible, at this point, to pretend that this supposed bogeyman is powerful on the order of the lingering institutional racism that existed after Western Civilization ended the ancient practice of slavery, thereby necessitating government to take a side in social disputes.

What Cicilline and his comrades want, one suspects, is actually to facilitate the fascistic behavior that has begun in order to wipe out anybody who expresses reservations about undermining cultural institutions, like marriage, that have formed the foundation of our society.  Skim through the news on any given day:

  • A pair of gay businessmen who hosted an event for Republican Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz were forced to offer a groveling apology (contradicting their stated belief that “an open dialogue with those who have differing political opinions is a part of what this country was founded on”).
  • A couple operating a small bakery in Oregon to support their three children faced a life-altering fine of $135,000 for declining to bake a cake for a same-sex marriage ceremony. (The complaining lesbian couple, by the way, has the impossibly perfect name of “Bowman-Cryer,” considering that they are leveraging their tears to shoot deadly legal arrows at the family.)  Making matters worse, GoFundMe pulled the plug on a national campaign to support the family against the ridiculous penalty when a local competitor of the bakery complained.  Presumably, the competitor would have been happy to bake the disputed cake, illustrating how little sacrifice is needed to allow our neighbors to have different beliefs.

The national anti-discrimination legislation that Cicilline wants is simply an attempt to make it illegal to act on beliefs that differ from his and make it more difficult for people who share those beliefs to help each other.  Just as redefining marriage (mostly through the judiciary) is removing the ability of religious people and organizations to uphold their beliefs about the institution, making “discrimination” illegal will give opposing activists the ability to use government to target them.  It’s an attempt to bring the point of a gun to the culture war.


Journalistic Privileges Require Speaking Truth to Power

Elizabeth Price Foley is following a thread of the Democrat-driven Wisconsin invasions of conservatives’ homes that winds into the local news media, and it raises an interesting question of journalistic privileges and civic structure:

So the question remains:  Who tipped off Stein (a political reporter) about the Archer raid?  Stein denies that his source was a prosecutor or law enforcement officer, and it’s theoretically possible (though somewhat farfetched) that one of Archer’s groggy neighbors just happened to know Stein’s home or cell phone number and called him in the middle of the night to tip him off.

The John Doe investigation has been plagued by selective leaks all along, is an ongoing problem, and is almost invariably favorable to the prosecutors. All of this strongly indicates that the source of these leaks is an insider in the John Doe investigation.  While Stein appears to claim a reporters’ privilege to protect his source regarding the Archer raid, Wisconsin does not have a reporters’ shield statute, its courts have recognized only a qualified privilege pursuant to its state constitutional equivalent of the First Amendment.  So in theory, the identity of Stein’s source could be revealed under the right circumstances.

Whether there exists a legal route to address the political corruption of journalism is an important question, but those who ply the trade should also concern themselves with deeper consideration of the sources of their presumed privileges.  Their support is ultimately social, and it can rapidly disappear if they’re no longer acting as a public protection against tyrannical government.

In Wisconsin, journalists appear to have been part of the overtly fascist attempts to silence and punish political opposition.  In the Obama Era the news media’s sycophancy has woven from the adulation and failure to vet the unknown candidate through to the disgusting juxtaposition of an opulent White House Correspondents’ Dinner with riots in Baltimore.

It’s certainly been seeming that the news media is, on the whole, a partisan enterprise that has stoked racial and other divisions.  Put plainly: If you’re not protecting the people from an overreaching government, and if you’re not fostering a society-wide mutual understanding that allows our civic society to function, you forfeit your presumption of privilege.


Rhode Island’s Tyranny That You Can Only Leave

Rep. Patricia Morgan (R, West Warwick) had an important commentary in yesterday’s Providence Journal:

Many residents of Coventry are deeply concerned about the high cost of fire services and the inadequate response of state receiver Mark Pfeiffer to this problem. Last week, at a hastily assembled meeting called to inform taxpayers of their preordained fate, Pfeiffer responded to those concerns with a dismissive remark: “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

How could he be so indifferent? Well, the state Fiscal Stability Act, expanded last year to cover fire districts, has given him sole power and control; the only opinion he is required to consider is his own.

The implications of the citizens’ struggles in the small Central Coventry Fire District should be chilling to any Rhode Islander who believes in the words “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Please pay attention to this if you are concerned about Rhode Island’s high taxes, insider deals that benefit the few and an economy that continues to shed jobs as companies leave for friendlier environments. The Fiscal Stability Act has thwarted governance for the common good. In its place is rule by one man and his special-interest backers.

This is the march of tyranny.  The notion of the state’s taking dictatorial control over subsidiary governments arose because of a fiscal emergency and the fear that a municipal bankruptcy would affect the state’s credit rating.  It was a thin pretense, but it had a certain defined purpose.

Let’s not forget that the purpose quickly expanded:

Frank Flynn, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, which represents Central Falls, said he had appealed to Governor Chafee.

“We haven’t met with the receiver, but we have spoken to the staff of the governor and we told them it was our intention to go to court and get a temporary restraining order,” Flynn said. “The governor’s office, through the receiver, asserted his authority to intervene.” …

Receiver Robert G. Flanders Jr., who is overseeing the bankruptcy filing of the state’s smallest and poorest city, notified Gallo Friday afternoon that her authority to negotiate with the union was being revoked. He also revoked her plan to unilaterally impose new terms on the school district’s 330 teachers on Sept. 1.

The Central Coventry Fire District didn’t stumble into a financial crisis.  Taxpayers, there, repeatedly declared that they weren’t going to pay exorbitant costs.  Now, the state has stepped in to undo those votes, mainly on behalf of the labor union that drove the district to those lengths in the first place.

It’s getting more and more difficult to believe that Rhode Island is a representative democracy.  At some point, it’ll become a Constitutional issue.  In the meantime, the people running and ruining Rhode Island leave increasingly few options but to leave the state, which guarantees more taxpayer fights, as the burden falls more narrowly.


Academic Hypotheses Versus Religion & Easily Dismissed Conclusions

The National Bureau of Economic Research set out to determine whether religiosity corresponds with a lack of innovation, as measured by the issuance of patents.  As the economists surely expected when they set out to publish such a paper, the answer at which they arrive is: “yes.”

Even the summary published in the Wall Street Journal gives hints of where argument with the methodology could begin, and purchasing the study itself would no doubt allow for a fleshing out of objections.  But it doesn’t seem necessary to go to such lengths.  Just a look at the headline chart gives reason to think the study’s conclusions aren’t worth exploring in detail.

Reporter Jeffrey Sparshott writes that the negative “relationship is apparent when plotting the percent of the population that describes itself as religious against a population-controlled measure of patent applications filed by a country’s residents.”  The distribution actually shows something more like the opposite.

Sure, the most patent-heavy countries, Japan and South Korea, are not religious, but they’re also from a certain culture.  Another East Asian country, the most unreligious, is China, and its innovation is in the middle of the spread.  Vietnam is nearly as unreligious as South Korea, and it’s the fourth-least-innovate country on the chart.  (North Korea isn’t included, by the way.)

Moving out of the orient continues the point.  The chart is broken into a five-by-five grid, and of the five non-oriental countries in the top quintile for innovation, three are more than 50% religious.  Expand the view to the top two quintiles for innovation, and it isn’t even close.  Only seven of nearly 30 countries in this space have less than 50% religiosity.  Moving the threshold to 60% of residents self-describing as “religious” only picks up two more countries.

From the chart, it’s pretty clear that the reasons there appears to be a correlation between the two variables is that (1) the great majority of countries are substantially religious, (2) Japan and South Korea are innovative outliers, and (3) a number of relatively poor countries (heavily weighted toward Islam) are very religious.

“We’re not making strong claims as to what is causing what,” says one of the study’s authors, but that’s obviously not true.  Even the abstract makes much of a presumption of religious opposition to science.


Figuring Out Who the Sucker Is

As Rhode Islanders hear about the latest ideas for economic development percolating among their elected and appointed officials, whether minor-league baseball parks or big bucks for a Commerce Czar, Kevin Williamson looks to Maine for an important reminder:

When some lobbyists for a business interest—any interest group, really—come to the state capitol and tell you that they have a tremendous new idea that will create jobs-jobs-jobs-jobs-jobs, grow the tax base and get voters off the backs of citizen-legislators, listen carefully to see if the next sentence is: “All you have to do is to give us a tremendous amount of money.”

As the poker players say: If you don’t know who the sucker at the table is . . .

Perhaps Maine’s legislators were thinking to themselves: “Financiers and their lobbyists are well-known for their selflessness and their sense of public duty—surely they would not lead us astray!”

If so, they should stop thinking that.

In Maine, as Williamson says, “legislators put millions of dollars into a deal that they did not understand.”  Rhode Island is a leading example of legislators attempting to micromanage an economy that they don’t understand — that it is actually impossible for anybody to understand well enough to direct.


Perverting the Utility of Shame

Speaking of an ailing civic system, Megan McArdle’s worth reading on the subject of public shaming:

In the small groups we evolved to live in, shame is tempered by love and forgiveness. People are shamed for some transgression, then they are restored to the group. Ultimately, the shamed person is not an enemy; he or she is someone you need and want to get along with. This is how you make up with your spouse after one or both of you has done or said something terrible. …

On the Internet, when all the social context is stripped away and you don’t even have to look at the face of the person you’re being mean to, shame loses its social, restorative function. Shame-storming isn’t punishment. It’s a weapon. And weapons aren’t supposed to be used against people in your community; they’re for strangers, people in some other group that you don’t like very much.

The Internet has brought things to a sharp edge, but anybody involved in local politics — particularly if they face progressives who believe they speak for The Community — will recognize McArdle’s notion of shaming as a weapon against an enemy group.  That pretty precisely describes my experience in Tiverton.

Glenn Reynolds sharpens the edge a little more, writing:

They’re not well-meaning people who want to make our shared society better, and sometimes just get carried away. They’re angry, vicious people who want to eliminate disagreement.

At this level of conversation, though, the “they” has to be defined.  McArdle suggests that the people engaged in online social shaming probably would back away from a mob doing it to somebody in person.

Many on the political Right want to turn the psychological warfare of Saul Alinsky back on the Left, but that strikes me as a misunderstanding of objectives (or perhaps evidence that the objectives of some of our conservative friends are more alike to those of our progressive non-friends than should be the case).  Rather, we need a counter-weapon, and as difficult as it might be, the sole antidote may be standing up to the attacks and letting those who’ve sided with the attackers slowly come to the realization that they’re on the wrong side.


Getting Economic Development Wrong

Readers may get the impression of a broken record with this post.  Before I go on, perhaps I should explain to the younger folks that records were large black vinyl discs, of about 10 or 12 inches, that would spin on a table called a “record player,” with a needle following grooves in the plastic and thereby transmitted prerecorded audio.  If the record were scratched, the needle would skip across grooves and the listener would often hear the same phrase repeated over and over again.

Anyway, repetition is obligatory in Rhode Island, these days, because the people we’ve elected to public office have the completely incorrect view of economic development.  Here’s Governor Gina Raimondo’s Commerce Czar Stefan Pryor responding to the House Finance Committee’s concern that the governor intends to give him a great deal of money and discretion:

… Pryor bluntly told the committee that the corporation cannot grow the state’s economy without the programs proposed in the governor’s budget. He described a conversation he had with the corporation’s executive staff before he formally assumed his new role earlier this year. Pryor said he asked the staff how Rhode Island would attempt to compete with a company that arrived in the state with a list of project terms provided by another nearby state, such as New York.

“This is not a fictionalization. This is the actual answer I got back: We cannot — on any point,” Pryor said. 

“That’s a problem. We must ensure the appropriate level of accountability and the necessary level of flexibility to carry out this work. But the primary problem that we have is we can’t even counter. We can’t help our businesses in Rhode Island grow.”

Simply put, it should not be the role of government to take money away from the people who live in the state in order to outbid other states’ bribes to lure the economic actors whom government prefers to the state.  Rather, the government’s role should be to ensure that Rhode Islanders have the space — in stability, security, and infrastructure — to make their state a place that attracts the sorts of economic actors whom they prefer.

Politicians sometimes say that Rhode Islanders are Rhode Island’s greatest asset, but they don’t really mean it.  If they did, they’d let Rhode Islanders maximize their own efforts toward building their lives and shaping their state.

The technocratic, Raimondian method of economic development is akin to confiscating money from the music industry in order to subsidize companies that make enhanced record players when they should be leaving the money in the economy and trimming regulations in order to allow Rhode Islanders to develop cassettes, compact discs, and mp3 players.


The Corporatist Net Is Tightening

In keeping with a recurring theme, on this site, a statement from Governor Raimondo that appeared in a Providence Journal blurb last Wednesday raises a central, fundamental question that nobody is asking as part of the discussion about how to move Rhode Island forward (or at least stop its backwards trajectory).  The topic has to do with government job-training programs:

“We have to put employers at the center of the process to determine what they need to hire workers,” she said, “It has to be employer-driven and it has to move at the speed of business.”

Here’s the question:  Why is it a legitimate government activity to shape the population to fit the needs of corporations?

Seriously.  I’m a free-market champion, and improving the business environment is critical.  But (1) that can be done by loosening, rather than tightening, the government’s grip on the reins, and (2) people, not businesses, must be central.  If businesses are telling the government what sort of employees they need, and if government is using its coercive advantages in order to shape the people to fit the request, that isn’t free market.  It’s corporatist and certain to result in long-term stagnation and a dismantling of the bridge between the have-nots and haves.


Regulatory Humility as an Illustration for Civic Principles in RI and IN

Federal Trade Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen believes in “regulatory humility,” and policy makers on the state level would be wise to hear her out. The concept is one that seems like common sense, but examples in government and politics more generally suggest that humility is less attractive in practice.

With reference to economic theories by the likes of Friedrich Hayek that are, she says, not exactly in dispute these days, Ohlhausen explained at a recent American Enterprise Institute event that regulators should be aware of their limits.  Especially in an era of technological lunges, regulators can’t know everything about the industries that they regulate–let alone other industries that innovation might bring into competition–while facing an unknowable future.

A skim of the legislation proposed in any state will likely show a less-than-humble approach to regulating (although some will be worse than others).

Continue reading on WatchDog.org.


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.


Acknowledging RI’s Religious Freedom Law, Surreptitiously

Except on this Web site, hardly a word has been said or written about the fact that Rhode Island has a religious freedom law on the books very much like the one in Indiana that has proven so (quote-unquote) controversial.  That’s actually pretty surprising, inasmuch as the General Assembly promoted a press release with the title, “Sen. Nesselbush blasts Indiana over discrimination, urges businesses to relocate to Rhode Island.”  You’d think journalists would pick up on the fact that Nesselbush’s proclamation requires some caveats, if it isn’t simply an expression of ignorance.

Ian Donnis, of Rhode Island Public Radio was one exception, with his Friday blog-style post, but it’s a peculiar exercise in contrasts:

In contrast to the proposed religious freedom law that generated national headlines from Indiana this week, Rhode Island’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been a non-issue since it became law in 1993.

I had a few uncomfortable exchanges with Donnis on Twitter, because this item on his post goes on to present the substantive contrast of the laws as one of intent.  As I put it on Twitter, “What’s the point? If you want to protect religious freedom, you have to do it when it serves the progressive cause?”

In Donnis’s post, Steve Brown, of the far-left RI-ACLU, explains that “the purpose” of Rhode Island’s law was to protect religious minorities, typically those with dark skin.  (I interpreted some cynicism in that paraphrase.)  Given the probable points of view of Brown and like-minded activists, it’s difficult not to conclude, as I suggested this morning, that the Left considers laws to be conditional to its own purposes.

Rhode Island’s religious freedom act was meant to protect certified minorities in the name of popular causes.  That is “in contrast” to Indiana’s law, which activists attack because it protects white Christians against a popular cause.  (Otherwise, the story would be that Rhode Island’s “non-issue” suggests that left-wing activists are being deceptive and unreasonable about Indiana’s version.)

If you want an interesting contrast, by the way, look to Andrew McCarthy, who takes the view of a prosecutor worried that religious freedom can become a cover for terrorist organization.  McCarthy also worries that such laws as Rhode Island’s and Indiana’s err in giving unaccountable judges the power to determine what a “compelling public purpose” is and whether a particular policy is the “least burdensome” possibility for achieving it.

McCarthy’s procedural objection would be difficult to address, unless the idea would be for legislators to lay out very specific boundaries for freedom of religion, rather than allowing judges to consider actual circumstances for the individual cases that come before them.  Whatever the case, we should consider backing off a bit in allowing government to step into the interpersonal balances of our lives.

From my point of view in Rhode Island, where the rule of law seems more like a legal fiction than a reality, the branch that interprets the language is irrelevant if the only thing that matters, ultimately, is what the current progressive talking point might be.