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Fung in for Governor

Citing the inspiration of Governor Baker in Massachusetts, Allan Fung tells the Tiverton Republicans he is running for governor again.

He cites problems with our governor and the General Assembly and the flight of younger families and has plenty of material to cite in criticizing the incumbent.

He cast eyes to New Hampshire and its lower capita budget and promised to propose tax cuts, mentioning the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity and the elimination or big cut to the sales tax. (Of course, he’s aware that I’m here.)

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“Base Amoralism” Across the Progressive Left

I read this opinion piece by Dinesh D’Souza when he first published it, but something in particular stands out to me, now.

In it, D’Souza quotes from a 1998 interview with progressive megadonor George Soros in which the wealthy investor describes his experience pretending to be Christian under Nazi rule and going out to help confiscate the property of his fellow Jews.  Soros says he felt no guilt at all, because he couldn’t stop their property from being confiscated, so he might as well be on the side of the dictator.  D’Souza writes:

Soros reflects the type of base amoralism that is more characteristic of fascism and Nazism than of the forces that defeated fascism and Nazism. His anti-fascist pose camouflages deep affinities between Soros and the Nazis, in the same way that antifascist groups today closely resemble the Blackshirts of fascist Italy and the Brownshirts of Nazi Germany.  Soros and the left’s self-styled antifascism is a fraud because there are no fascists they are fighting.  The only fascism that is recognizable in their actions is their own.

“Base amoralism.”  Recall my post from last Monday about a Princeton philosophy professor’s belief that an unborn child whom we know is going to die (because the mother is certain to have an abortion) is “a very different kind of entity” than an unborn child whose mother is likely to bring him or her to term.

This sort of thinking pervades the Left because it makes every moral decision contingent and every issue about power — about being the one with the power to make decisions about who is deserving of life and rights.  That’s why progressives are so prone to excusing the bad behavior of their co-religionists (progressivism being a religion) based on their intentions.

In 2003, I wrote a series of essays after reading Frank Tipler’s Omega Point, and in one, I pointed out that Tipler’s promise of a god of man’s creation at the end of the universe would be prone to washing away the ethical protections of those who opposed such a project.  The same applies to the progressive god of government: Opposition is evidence that one’s intentions are bad, a disqualification for rights.

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When Government Pays Us to Be Parents

Zach Maher, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, explains how the government-paid-parental-leave-in-Sweden-is-great scales fell from his eyes:

When the girl’s parents refused to subject her to this unnecessary procedure, the hidden machinery of the Swedish welfare state sprang into motion. My brother-in-law and his wife were required to attend multiple interviews with social workers and to submit friends and neighbors in their small town for questioning. Social workers even inspected their home. Suddenly, decisions as benign as what milk to buy seemed potential evidence of parental deficiency. My in-laws feared their two children might be taken from them.

In Sweden, the state reserves for itself ultimate responsibility for children’s well-being. As a parent my job is to give my kids the trygghet necessary to become productive, tax-paying members of Swedish society. This is why I receive financial support and medical benefits. The state is paying me to be a parent. I am, in effect, an employee—and if I do a poor job, my responsibility as a parent might be taken away from me.

 

When we give government responsibility for things — even good things, like the well-being of children — we also give it authority over those who provide those things, like parents.  Suddenly, government isn’t just filling in gaps, but seeking out gaps by putting parents under the microscope.

The United States is not immune to such thinking, obviously.  Some 20 years ago, on Matt Allen’s Mental Floss radio show with the more-liberal Jennifer Brien, the latter argued that schools have to teach sex education (liberally tinted, naturally) because parents simply aren’t doing the job adequately.  I called in to ask what gives her or the government the right to make that determination, but she wouldn’t be shaken from the assertion of need.  (And then I was cut off.)

Suggesting that he and his wife “insist… on having their own ideas about raising children,” Maher asks, “Does this mean we can’t accept parental support from the state?”  My guess is that he doesn’t really have a choice — that the government doesn’t actually see it as an exchange or contract.

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Universal Basic Income and Our Aspirations

Once upon a time, folks actually hoped that a universal basic education plus a prosperity-driven increase in free time would draw people toward intellectual pursuits and self improvement.  I’m sure there’s data on such things, but for my purposes, here, let’s just speculate that most folks’ general sense would be that it hasn’t quite worked that way.

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Dan Nidess asks why we would expect a universal basic income to have a different effect.  Indeed, he suggests that the policy “addresses the material needs of citizens while undermining their aspirations”:

At the heart of a functioning democratic society is a social contract built on the independence and equality of individuals. Casually accepting the mass unemployment of a large part of the country and viewing those people as burdens would undermine this social contract, as millions of Americans become dependent on the government and the taxpaying elite. It would also create a structural division of society that would destroy any pretense of equality.

UBI supporters would counter that their system would free people to pursue self-improvement and to take risks. America’s experience over the past couple of decades suggests that the opposite is more likely. Labor Department data show that at the end of June the U.S. had 6.2 million vacant jobs. Millions of skilled manufacturing and cybersecurity jobs will go unfilled in the coming years.

Notably, Nidess uses the term “productive class,” which I’ve been using for years in attempting to describe what populations have been leaving Rhode Island.  Basically, the Ocean State has been attracting the poor and (largely) holding on to the wealthy while driving out those who are looking for some way to transform their smarts, brawn, and effort into wealth.

Put in those terms, it’s clear that Nidess fears the UBI would bring about a national version of what I’ve called the “government plantation” or “company state,” whereby the government draws in dependents in order to provide services billed to somebody else.  Whatever arguments and motivations may underly such policies, they certainly don’t have the feel of being healthy for our society.

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The Complexities of Tax Policy

I’ve always been skeptical when wonky types on my side of the ideological aisle start proclaiming one tax or another to be universally better than others.  Typically, among conservatives, that becomes a preference for consumption taxes, like the value-added tax (VAT).  What appeals to them (and me, honestly) about such a tax is that it applies taxes to consumption, meaning everybody who consumes something has to factor the value of government into the equation.

What may appeal to big-money donors is that it pushes the tax burden down the economic ladder.  Joseph Sternberg points that out in the context of Europe and, specifically, Germany:

Indirect taxes, such as the value-added tax on consumption and social-security taxes (disguised as “contributions”), are a different matter. The VAT disproportionately affects lower earners, who spend a higher proportion of their incomes. And social taxes tend to kick in at lower income levels than income taxes, and extract a higher and more uniform proportion of income.

A chart at the link shows that Germany’s tax burden, as a percentage of income, falls pretty evenly across the socio-economic landscape.  Take social security out, and essentially, the country has a VAT for lower-income households and an income tax for higher-income taxes.

I’m not sure that spreading the tax burden on paper ought to be the goal, though.  The cost of government is spread out in one way or another, even if we don’t capture the effect of, say, lower wages and lost jobs because wealthy job creators pass on the cost of government to their employees.

The really lost component is the effect that particular taxes have upon the economy, and that will depend greatly on the specific conditions of the local area… its culture, its industry mix, is geography, and so on.  Rhode Island, for example, could boost its economy with a low sales tax because none of the state is far from the reach of out-of-state consumers.

These questions get impossibly complex, though, and the best approach is probably to tax based on the legitimate claims of government, meaning a philosophical rationale for each tax, not an economic one. That way, the cost of government will be most accurately priced into the economy.

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Regulatory Reform Requires Different Elected Officials

Don’t get me wrong.  I like the regulatory suggestion put forward by Republican U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah, as Eric Boehm describes on Reason thus:

The Supreme Court in 2014 overturned a North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners ban on non-dentists offering teeth whitening services. The ruling opened the door to lawsuits against state-level licensing boards that behave like private-sector monopolies by enforcing anti-competitive rules against their very own potential competitors. …

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, on Thursday will introduce a bill that would give states two paths to immunity. The first by bringing state licensing boards under direct supervision by the legislative and executive branches. The second by requiring states to show why a certain licensing requirement is necessary to protect public health and safety.

Lee’s “Restoring Board Immunity Act” creates a limited, conditional exemption shielding licensing boards from federal antitrust lawsuits, but only for states that change how their licensing boards operate and how courts handle disputes between those boards and individuals subjected to their rules.

The problem, in Rhode Island, is that I think the new rules would apply only to licensing bureaucrats, not legislators, and that’s where the problem lies.  For a forthcoming brief from the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, I’ve been reviewing the (let’s pretend) deliberative process behind some legislation introduced into the state’s General Assembly with an eye toward pricing some of the proposals, and I found the experience depressing.

Consider the paid-time-off legislation that is on the cusp of passing into law.  From what I can tell, nobody in our government made any effort to estimate how much this mandate would our neighbors’ businesses.  (It’s a lot.)  To them, the cost is beside the point.

As for the supposedly limited authority of government, our elected officials simply don’t believe in the concept.  Any freedoms that you continue to enjoy in Rhode Island, you enjoy entirely by their sufferance.  Your money is theirs to collect.  Your psychiatry is theirs to control.  Your actions are theirs to regulate.

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The Purpose of the Military

The most disturbing aspect of the rhetorical style of modern progressives is its peremptory, irrational foundation.  Disagreeing with them is simply bigotry, leaving no room for debate.  All contrary arguments are irrelevant to the overriding moral mandate to do what they want to do.

This dynamic may be most visible in the matter of transgenders in the military, on which David French has already articulated my view:

The military is different. You’re trying to forge men into a team, place them into the most stressful situations humanity has ever seen, and get them to perform under pressure. Oh, and in total war you need numbers. Lots of numbers — but without fracturing unit cohesion, coddling weakness, or taking on unacceptable risks.

So, here’s what you do — you make group decisions. Do people with certain kinds of criminal backgrounds tend to be more trouble than they’re worth? They’re out. How about folks with medical conditions that have a tendency to flare up in the field. They’re out also. It’s foolish to create a force that contains numbers of people who are disproportionately likely to have substantial problems. Increased injuries lead to manpower shortages in the field. Prolonged absences create training gaps. Physical weakness leads to poor performance.

The military is people fighting and dying in order to preserve our nation, not a place to make social statements to accelerate acceptance.  Even putting aside any awkwardness and discomfort, as French points out, transgenders as a population exhibit higher rates of warning signs about which the military is rightly concerned.

But putting aside awkwardness and discomfort is a step too far.  Progressives’ message to those brave Americans who join the military is, and has long been, “Hey, thanks for agreeing to risk your lives on our behalf, now we’ll just insist that you also accept our leveraging our control over you to make you accept our most radical beliefs.”

This, you’ll note, is in keeping with the rhetorical style mentioned above. Nothing is more important than pushing the Left’s beliefs — not others’ right to disagree and not even the existence of our civilization.

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A Progressive with Reason to Smiley

Progressives want big government that’s involved in our every transaction and life decision because they want to help, right?  Sure, maybe they’re woefully misdirected, but that’s their objective, isn’t it?

Yeah, about that… GoLocalProv has been tracking the financial dealings of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s Chief of Staff Brett Smiley, who ran as a progressive for mayor of Providence last time around:

Brett Smiley, the failed 2014 candidate for Mayor of Providence, is today Governor Gina Raimondo’s Chief of Staff. He also owns a political consulting business that represents clients including Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, and he has hired his consulting firm’s former staffers to work in the Governor’s office. Smiley earns more than $170,000 per year in his role for Raimondo.

This month, Providence City records show that he and his husband Jim DeRentis sold their house to Brown University for $1.1 million — 30% more than the assessed value of the house at $843,600.

The story has multiple angles.  According to GoLocal, Smiley was a high-up officer with the City of Providence when it assessed his house 6% below what he’d paid for it two years earlier, during which time houses in his area had gone up 20% in value.  That implies a 21% discount in the assessment of his house, implying something like a $4,400 discount on his property taxes each year.

Now he’s collecting money from the mayor of Providence through his consultancy at the same time that he’s a higher-up with the governor of the state, who implicitly negotiates deals with the mayor.  At the same time, he’s sold his house to a university that is also involved with deal making with the governor.  (Even if Brown is paying Smiley what his house is worth, it simply proves the point of the too-low assessment.)

Big, intrusive government, in short, creates a giant funnel, at the point of which already-wealthy progressives can position themselves for enrichment.  This is the inevitable chemical reaction when one mixes human nature with a lack of freedom, whether it comes in the form of dictatorship, communism, socialism, or progressivism.

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“Regular Order” in the U.S. Congress and Rhode Island

Angelo Codevilla summarizes the history of how the U.S. Congress undermined our system of government as the end of “regular order.”  By this, he means the process by which laws were supposed to be reviewed in committee and then passed on the floor, all in full view and deliberation, with each legislator ultimately accountable for votes.  But…

… For over a century, congressmen and senators’ procrastination had pressed legislative business into the last weeks before the end of congressional sessions. Members had noted that they could slip items into bills in frenzied times, which would not have survived regular order’s scrutiny. In the 1970s, some committees started to procrastinate on purpose, so that the end of the government’s fiscal year would come without an appropriation for one or more department of government. The Appropriations Committee would then prepare a “continuing resolution” to substitute for the uncompleted appropriations. These were supposed to just “keep thing going next year as in the previous year,” thus avoiding all issues. At the very least, they obviated whatever major changes anyone might want to make. But it was never that simple: from the beginning, these CRs always had riders. The more influence you had, the more you could slip into the CR.

This gave leadership more power, because they had more leeway to determine what could and couldn’t be “slipped into” continuing resolutions.  In the last decade, according to Codevilla, Harry Reid pushed Congress to the final step, essentially making continuing resolutions the rule for the whole budget and, therefore, the whole government.

If this sounds familiar to local ears, it’s because this is exactly the way in which the Rhode Island legislature operates.  The entire session is warm-up and theatrics for a final push during which the action is frenzied, the rules are suspended, and legislative leaders have all of the say.

The solution is the same, too:  Voters have to insist on regular order, not a few oligarchs who leverage a weak version of representative democracy for their own benefit.  Unfortunately, the corrupt system works well for special interests, too, who corrupt our electoral system.

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