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The Big Apple’s Progressive Lesson

Let’s be honest, New York City has not been a bastion of conservative policies, at least in my lifetime, and its previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was progressive even as a Republican.  News of the Big Apple’s rapid deterioration under overtly progressive mayor Bill de Blasio, however, has been coming in from all directions.

The latest is from Myron Magnet, in City Journal, which ends with the following advice that Rhode Islanders should take to heart for their own government:

Listen, Mayor: the first job of government is to keep the people safe in their homes and in the streets. If you can’t do that as a municipal chief executive, you are a flop. Equality is not the job of government, unless you are a Communist, in which case equality usually comes at the barrel of a gun or the end of a noose. And voters of New York, please learn this lesson too, despite your attachment to FDR and the New Deal or your seductive professor of race-class-and-gender studies at Brown or Wesleyan. New York needs a realistic mayor. We don’t have one.

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The Decoding Key for Progressive Policies

Glenn Reynolds built Instapundit.com on two things: his relentless ability to supply a constant stream of links to interesting things on the Internet, and his talent for encapsulating concepts in brief phrases.  One of his best, on the latter count, is to say that this or that common sense policy is undesirable to the elite because it presents “insufficient opportunities for graft.”

This week, he’s elaborated on the point for his USA Today column:

… why are so many politicians coming out against innovative new services such as Uber or Airbnb?  The answer, I think, is simple: Those new services offer insufficient opportunities for graft.  The old services they compete with — hotels or taxi companies — offer politicians a better deal, even if the deal they offer for consumers often isn’t as good.  And politicians back the companies because — and be clear about this — politicians don’t care about you, they care about using their positions to accumulate money, power and prestige.

… politicians don’t care, except to the extent that we make them care.  Whatever they say when they’re running for office, their top priority once elected is to build a coalition that will keep them in power, and accumulating money and influence, regardless of whether the interests of that coalition coincide with the public’s.

There’s a lot of explanatory power in Reynolds’s short phrase, and readers can surely think of examples at all levels of government to prove its truth.  At the state or local levels, there is certainly a closer link between politicians and their constituents, so the urge toward graft will be balanced in some degree by a closer interest in the community.  But self-interest still exists, and a certain amount of back scratching is the price of gaining and keeping office.

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Allowing Representative Democracy at Outdoor Restaurants

Reviewers of legislation for the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s annual Freedom Index had some mild disagreement about H6210, which passed the Rhode Island House but didn’t make it over to the state Senate before the end of the session.  Basically, the bill would have given restaurants with outdoor tables some flexibility to allow patrons to have leashed dogs with them.

The negative view of the bill begins with the (appropriate) belief that it is ludicrous for the government to be getting involved with this question at all.  On the other hand, the positive reviewers assumed that this was a legislative attempt to return some freedom to Rhode Islanders, providing relief from rules already on the books.

It turns out that the assumption is correct.  Regulation 6-501.115(A) of the state Dept. of Health’s “Food Code” is the culprit:

Except as specified in (B) and (C) of this section, live animals may not be allowed on the PREMISES of a FOOD ESTABLISHMENT.

The exceptions are edible or decorative fish, patrol dogs, security dogs in outside fenced areas, service animals, and pets in institutional care facilities.  Arguably, the additional relief that the House bill sponsors sought to provide was so narrow and minimal that it didn’t justify inclusion on the index at all, but lovers of freedom in Rhode Island have to take whatever hints of light they can get.

Upon consideration, the bill actually raises an indictment of the depths to which we’ve allowed our government to sink.  Apparently, the process for law is for regulators to issue decrees, and people can appeal to the legislature for relief on specific grievances.  That’s more like a parliamentary monarchy, or something, whereby the emperor pronounces rules, but people can go to the parliament (or senate) to argue for mild relief.  That is, the representative aspect is effectively secondary.

In June, I noted a similar encroachment when it comes to the bureaucracy-decreed mandate for all seventh graders to be vaccinated against the sexually transmitted HPV disease.  In that case, it appears that Rhode Island is one of only two states to mandate the vaccine, and the other, Virginia, did so by legislation, not by bureaucratic fiat.

What legislators ought to begin doing — and what Rhode Islanders ought to begin demanding that they do — is going through the Rhode Island General Laws and tightening whatever language it is that allows unelected agencies to assume the authority to issue such edicts.  The basic assumption is that experts in the government have a need, and the right, to comb through our society searching for anything that might cause harm to anybody and implementing rules to protect us from ourselves.

If we don’t demand that such a bureaucracy be pulled back, then we can’t claim to be a society that values independence and freedom.

 

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Money Management Requires Acknowledgement of Reality

Many of us free-market types have watched Greece with a sort of morbid fascination.  What can one say of a country whose people apparently believes that they can vote to suspend reality?

One thing you could say is that such people aren’t only in Greece.  Inasmuch as progressives have an ideology built on denial of human nature and reality, wherever they dominate, one is likely to see, first, inadvisable fiscal risks followed by, second, a refusal to accept reality when things come to a head.  There’s a lot that an increasingly controlling government can do to fudge numbers and put off the day of reckoning — including moving power up to higher levels of government that can redistribute from other areas that have been better managed — but with each postponement it gets worse, and the people become more incredulous that reality could actually exist.  (Not for no reason have conservative gadflies called progressivism/liberalism a “mental disorder.”)

I’m thinking, at the moment, of the Mercatus Center’s new ranking of states by their fiscal condition, on which I’ll have an article on WatchDog.org sometime this week and about which Investor’s Business Daily observes:

There’s only one factor these fiscal winners and losers share in common. And that’s their political leanings. Of the top 10 states in the Mercatus ranking, just two — Florida and Ohio — voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in the past four elections, and just one — Montana — has a Democratic governor. Even if you look at the 25 best-performing states, only three could be considered reliably liberal.

At the other end of the list, just two of the 10 lowest-ranked states — Kentucky and West Virginia — have voted for the Republican in the past four presidential elections. And while four of them have Republican governors, they all are in solid blue states and all were elected to clean up messes left by their Democratic predecessors.

The editorial ends by crediting conservative policies, like low taxes and limited government, but I’d submit that there is a more basic distinction.  Conservatives tend to look at the way in which people actually behave, balance their observations with the wisdom of the ages (call it “tradition”), and strive to give individuals maximum autonomy to move things forward while attempting to educate them about said wisdom through the culture.  Progressives, in contrast, start from ideological and emotional premises, determine from them how the world must be, and then strive to use power in order to force people to fit the mold.  (I’m being charitable; many would say that the lust for power comes first.)

Unfortunately for those who find themselves under progressive control, reality isn’t as malleable as it would need to be for the progressive remaking to work.

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Charters in Public-Private Limbo

I’m in the minority among my ideological peers, on this, but my thinking on charter schools has changed quite a bit in recent years.

Many conservatives, I believe, see them as a sly way to insert wedges into public education’s cracks in order to bring about wider-scale reform of the system.  If we create this alternate system of schools, literally entered with the luck of the draw, that is free of the restrictions that (for some reason) we continue to tolerate in district schools, then parents will demand that district schools be made free of the restrictions, too.

To advance this stratagem, we’ve been willing to overlook basic descriptive facts about charters that would normally concern us a great deal.  In order to work around the damage that the democratic nature of our government has wrought in education (thanks, largely, to the self-interested activism of teacher unions), we’re creating institutions over which the public has less control.  On the one hand, charter advocates insist that they are “public schools of choice,” so they should fall within the range of inside-government benefits, but on the other hand, they are demanding that the people paying the bills should not have immediate, democratic control over them.

In any other context, conservatives would recoil against that just as surely as they ought to recoil against crony capitalist deals giving connected insiders taxpayer cash for their private business dealings.  Principle should not be something to be weighed against practicality.  Rather, we should hold to our principles because they produce the outcome that we desire; it is in determining our goals that we should weigh morality and practicality.

My concern, in treading off our principled path, is that we’re more likely to get lost than to return to our firm ground.  Instead of breaking the rigid grip of special interests on public schools, charters will kill off private schools — at least all of them that are accessible to anybody who’s less than rich.  Then special interests will successfully tighten the vice, making government education a true monopoly rather than the near-monopoly that it currently is.

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Indications of Government Homogeny

The two stories at the top of today’s Providence Journal give a sense of the problems when government is characterized by a homogeneity of party and governing philosophy.  For example, the House plans to waive rules that put the governor’s raises for upper staff squarely in the middle of the budget process:

Current law gives the governor a small window of time, in March of each year, to propose and then justify at a public hearing any proposed raises for cabinet members.  

The Department of Administration then has until the last day in April to refer the proposed new salaries to the General Assembly. The raises go into effect 30 days later unless rejected by the House and Senate.  

Raimondo asked lawmakers to do away with that provision in the budget that she proposed to lawmakers in March. The General Assembly’s Democratic leaders didn’t go that far.

Instead, the budget will give leadership a deadline of late August to drag everybody back to the State House to undo the raises.  We can gather that the governor would have to be pretty unreasonable to spark that level of reaction.

The second story has to do with the House Republicans’ alternative approach to funding roads and bridges.  Obviously, the GOP’s proposed amendment to the budget is political theater, but that’s indicative of the problem.  Both the governor and the Speaker of the House can be utterly dismissive of the plan because there is no chance of its happening.

Rhode Island’s governing system leaves little opportunity for surprises (other than revelations of corruption, naturally), so the participants can come to consensus in back rooms among partisan friends without any real need to negotiate a minimization of risk.  If there’s a chance, even a small one, that the minority party can orchestrate a surprise, it isn’t as obviously political theater, which would be a healthier state of affairs for both sides, not to mention the people of Rhode Island.

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America’s Autoimmune Disorder

In keeping with my earlier post about curing Rhode Island’s political ills, Jonah Goldberg’s metaphor that America has an ideological autoimmune disorder is spot on:

I loved David Brooks’s BoBos In Paradise, but its biggest flaw was in underestimating how much of the so-called bohemian-bourgeois lifestyle came pre-loaded with very political features. In 1997 Brooks wrote in The Weekly Standard that “one of the striking things about Burlington [Vermont] is that it is relatively apolitical.” I really don’t think that was true. More likely: Burlington was — and is — so uniformly liberal that even an astute observer might confuse stultifying political conformity for apoliticalness (not a word, I know, but like they said in Fast and Furious 3, you get my drift).

It’s telling that when Phil Griffin predicted MSNBC would overtake Fox News by 2014 (Stop laughing!). He said he wanted to do it by turning MSNBC into a “lifestyle” network. “It’s a mistake for us to limit ourselves to news,” he told The New Republic. Instead, he wanted to build up something he dubbed, “the MSNBC lifestyle.” This is the sort of thinking you fall into when you can’t see where politics ends and “lifestyle” — i.e., life — begins.

I’m not a big fan of generational stereotyping, but it’s fair to say that a large number of Millennials constitute the first big cohort of kids to be fully raised within this lifestyle-ized politics.

I’d add to this is that the Boomers and GenXers who taught this way of thinking to the Millennials have spouted it for so long they’ve come to believe it’s true just as fully as if they’d been raised on it themselves.  As Goldberg suggests, we’ve allowed too many of our co-culturalists to develop allergies to the sort of debate and critical thinking that is indispensable to a self-governing population.  But I’d say it’s worse than that:  Malignant progressivism attacks the very principles and preferences that allow a society to remain healthy and protect itself — from strong families to notions of property rights to freedom of speech.

From my perch in Rhode Island, where this autoimmune disorder has been coupled with the flight of any voters who figure out the problem, I don’t know if there’s a cure.  How do you turn things around when nobody with social power wants to, when those who might gain social power and grab the wheel decide it’s just more practical to leave, and when everybody else finds change impossible and keeps their heads down, hoping for a civic miracle that will allow them to keep making a living while not having to think about it all too much?

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Sum of All Fears; Sum of All Obama Policies

We tend to be nostalgic for the times of our youth, but one burden that I have been very happy not to see darken my children’s minds is the prospect of nuclear explosions.  Sure, as long as they exist (and they will, barring a complete global societal collapse) they will be conceivable, but with the end of the Cold War, there’s been a palpable decrease in the possibility.  Terrorists have striven to fill some of the void, but their capabilities are substantially less than those of modern nations and competing superpowers.

This period of relative tranquility may be nearing its end.  Here’s Investor’s Business Daily (via Instapundit):

In the latest edition of its propaganda rag, the Islamic State says it has enough cash to buy a nuclear weapon from Pakistan and smuggle it into the U.S. through Mexico. This is the sum of all fears, and it’s not overblown. …

Despite falling world oil prices that have slowed IS’ energy revenues to about $2 million a week, the terror group is still raking in more than $1 million a day in extortion and taxes alone. IS has also stolen some $500 million from state-owned banks in Iraq.

The incompetent poseur in the White House has made a hazardous mess of the planet, particularly the Middle East, where dangerous people took the measure of the president far better than American voters did, and they’ve taken full advantage of the historic opportunity.

Meanwhile, in order to tilt domestic political scales, Obama has widened the holes in the sieve that is our southern border.  As a draw, to pull people through that sieve, he and his fellow Democrats (with a compliant lack of resistance from Republicans) have proceeded to expand welfare offerings while adding tripwires to the obstacle course of political correctness.

When history’s most momentous events touch upon our daily lives, they tend to seem impossible until bad decisions make them inevitable.

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A Budget for Special Interests

The budget that appears poised for passage through the General Assembly and Governor Raimondo’s office fills me more with dread than hope.  In recent years, state budgets have moved us incrementally in a worse direction.  The combined effort of Raimondo and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello seems almost like a reordering of things in the favor of special interests, with substantial risks for the future, like a wrecking ball held high somewhere in the dark.

Consider the programs that directly offload risk from private development companies and create union jobs.  A sample from Patrick Anderson’s Providence Journal article:

The other large tax break Raimondo proposes is a “tax-increment financing” program that would allow new state tax revenue created by big development projects to be funneled back into paying for the project or infrastructure surrounding the project.

Most commonly attached to local property taxes, a state TIF could involve a range of state revenue, including income tax, sales tax and hotel tax. For example, a developer proposing a neuroscience building that includes a hotel and shops could pay off a bond using a portion of the new state taxes it generates.

What a contorted concept.  When does a developer get his or her hands on tax revenue to pay off his or her own debt?  Never.  These would be non-voter-authorized bonds taken out with future tax revenue as security.  Whether tax revenue actually goes up or not, the money must be paid.

Maybe most frustrating, though, is that the call of the obvious is finally starting to permeate the discussion, but our supposedly fiscally responsible leaders are refusing to hear it.  Here’s a line about the Superman Building’s limbo:

… if demand for downtown Providence real estate were stronger and companies were clamoring for Financial District offices, someone, if not the current owner, would come to the rescue.

And here’s a word from an economist:

“Providence seems to have a surplus of empty buildings already, so providing incentives for more is not going to make this better,” said Brown University economics professor Matthew Turner. “If they are vacant because it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and two years at City Council to get approved, then the government should be simplifying the permitting process. If the answer is that no one wants to occupy them, you will end up with more empty buildings.”

The fatal problem that appears destined to destroy Rhode Island and undermine the United States is that simply making things better and easier for everybody does not create enough opportunity for political favors and self-dealing.

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Civil Disobedience Against the Many Ways to Dictate Rules

Elizabeth Price Foley quotes the following from a Wall Street Journal column by Daniel Henniger:

Barack Obama, channeling decades of theory, says constantly that the traditional system has failed. He said it in his 2011 Osawatomie, Kan., speech: “It doesn’t work. It has never worked.” He has attacked Congress repeatedly as a failed institution, teeing it up for mass revulsion just as he did the 1%.

With Congress rendered moribund, the new branch of the American political system is the federal enforcement bureaucracy. The Department of Health and Human Services’ auto-revisions of the Affordable Care Act are the most famous expressions of the new governing philosophy. But historians of the new system will cite the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights’ 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter on sexual harassment as the watershed event.

I’m currently going through all of the legislation on the table in the General Assembly, and two observations stand out (as usual):

  1. Our elected officials really do believe that it is their role to micromanage life in this state.
  2. As bad as that is, worse still is the latitude that they are increasingly giving to appointed bureaucrats to do the same.

An example that I’ve heard from multiple directions, lately, is the still-new mandate that all seventh grade students (public or private school) must be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) — a sexually transmitted disease.  This isn’t like the flu or chickenpox, which students can catch and spread simply by attending school.  The Dept. of Health has crossed into a new territory of rationale, assuming the authority to instruct parents to put a drug in their children based on studies of long-term health risks, rather than immediate danger.

The bureaucracy has done so with the permission of extremely broad legislation, which states that students are required to show proof that they have “been immunized against any diseases that may from time to time be prescribed by regulation of the director of health.”  There is a religious exemption form, but that only mitigates the reality that freedom has been flipped.  Instead of the government attempting to persuade parents to make a particular decision, they’re requiring parents to actively notify the government of their decision in the other direction.

Charles Murray’s notion that Americans need to begin a regimen of deliberate civil disobedience against the bureaucracy seems wiser by the day.  There doesn’t appear to be anything about filling out the exemption form that precludes a parent from actually going forward with the vaccine, so it should become a matter of course among parents, and we should all look for other ways to thumb our nose at people who think they have authority over us, but shouldn’t.

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Government Micromanagement (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be)

This story out of Santa Monica might sound familiar to Rhode Islanders, given the vacation-related parts of Governor Raimondo’s proposed budget:

Home-sharing websites like Airbnb allow homeowners and apartment dwellers to rent their home and spare bedrooms to vacationers for a fraction of the cost of a hotel stay.

But on May 12, the Santa Monica City Council passed a new ordinance that will impose regulations that make that opportunity much harder to come by. …

The ordinance imposes strict restrictions on who can rent out their spare bedrooms for less than 30 days, including requiring those who wish to rent out their spare bedroom or apartment to apply for a business license and to remain on the property during the guest’s stay. The ordinance also imposes a 14 percent hotel tax on hosts.

A free society is supposed to work by allowing us maximum latitude to make arrangements with each other, with government providing security and an understanding that contracts can be reinforced.  There’s some room around the edges for government to take some of the risk out of the equation by (essentially) doing a portion of customers’ due diligence for them through regulation, but we’re way beyond that, at this point, and drifting farther out to sea.

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When Healthcare Providers Close

If you see news like this and think, “Maybe the government should step in and fix this,” think again:

Citing years of cuts and freezes in Medicaid payments, Gateway Healthcare announced on Monday that budget deficits are forcing it to close six group homes in Rhode Island for people with mental health and substance abuse issues.

About 70 residents, including 55 adults and 15 children and adolescents, will be affected when the homes close at the end of August, according to Gateway. The nonprofit agency, which is part of the Lifespan health system, pledged to either see their treatment to conclusion or transition them to “an appropriate care setting” before the homes are shuttered.

Closings like this benefit the government.  As the “provider of last resort,” the fewer other resorts there are, the more money the government can demand from the population, the more union employees it can hire, the more dollars get slushed around to their campaign accounts, and generally, the more power they have.

A government like Rhode Island’s wants more people dependent on it.  Watching private care providers for challenged populations go out of business serves that goal.

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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?

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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.