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The Advantage of a Generalist

James Holmes plumbs the zombie apocalypse, as described in World War Z by Max Brooks, for strategic lessons, concluding thus:

Resourceful folk fashion new weapons and tactics while unimaginative foes plod along, doing the same thing time after time—which makes a hopeful note to close on. When facing new circumstances, get to know the circumstances and stay loose. Recognize that the nimbler contender is apt to be the victor—and broad-mindedness is the key to staying nimble. I daresay Epstein and Clausewitz would agree.

Being something of a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none type, myself, this paragraph near the beginning of the essay caught my attention:

Maintains [David] Epstein, specialists encounter trouble when tackling the problems characteristic of a “wicked” world. Wicked problems are intricate. They involve variables that combine and recombine in offbeat ways. They defy the boundaries of a single field and often vex specialists. By contrast, generalists hunt for “distant” analogies to challenges. Analogies seldom reveal answers, but they help inquisitors discover the right questions to ask. Asking penetrating questions constitutes the first step toward a solution, toward wisdom.

Exactly right.  We err if we look to analogies for answers, but by our nature we understand situations by comparison, through metaphors — stories.  The closer the metaphor we apply to a situation, the more correct (even if unexpected) conclusions we can find.  Having a broad range of experience allows us to cast more broadly for metaphors.

For example, a social problem will have nothing to do with building a house, but metaphorically, they may have some things in common: the need for a strong foundation on which sturdy framing supports the useful and aesthetically pleasing components.  If your social institutions and artistic productions are crumbling, the metaphor might direct your attention to problems with the cultural foundation that is failing to support it all.  If your popular art is cracked and allowing evil ideas in, they can rot the institutional framing.

Metaphors can be pretty abstract.  We still use the metaphor of particles to understand physics, but we know that the building blocks of material reality don’t act very much like particles.   They can act like waves, they can occupy the same physical space, and so on.  Perhaps a different abstract metaphor — seeing “particles” as identities with certain qualities might help us resolve some of the remaining puzzles.

This is why innovators in particular fields are often newcomers who aren’t bogged down in standard ways of thinking, but bring metaphors from their earlier lives.

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A Far-Reaching Conversation on State of the State

State of the State co-host Richard August invited me on for a full hour of the show to cover a broad range of topics, from Tiverton’s recall election to broad political philosophy.

12-9-19 A Different View of Matters from John Carlevale on Vimeo.

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Political Monday with John DePetro: A Creature of Their Own Making

My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for November 25, included talk about:

  • Insider Alves and the radical caucus
  • The union view of employer responsibility
  • Gaspee versus campaign finance laws
  • Paint on the statute becoming blood on government’s hands
  • Blood on the police officer’s hand gets a slap on the wrist

Open post for full audio.

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A Need for Space and Friction in Social Media Gravity

What if, all of a sudden, the force of gravity doubled throughout the universe?  This, according to social scientist Jonathan Haidt, is analogous to what society has experienced with the rapid effect of social media on human nature.

The implications for political science are particularly immediate:

… in “Federalist No. 10,” James Madison wrote about his fear of the power of “faction,” by which he meant strong partisanship or group interest that “inflamed [men] with mutual animosity” and made them forget about the common good. He thought that the vastness of the United States might offer some protection from the ravages of factionalism, because it would be hard for anyone to spread outrage over such a large distance. Madison presumed that factious or divisive leaders “may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.” The Constitution included mechanisms to slow things down, let passions cool, and encourage reflection and deliberation.

The palliative effect of time and distance apply on a smaller scale, too.  Even in a relatively small community, when people were having their feuds either face-to-face or in the necessarily well-paced medium of letters to the editor, they could not spread as broadly or as powerfully.  Now the group think and the side-picking spreads at the speed of the Internet, and as I’ve recently written, there is no escaping it.

While he captures something in social media and offers some suggestions for adding a little distance and friction to its processes, Haidt doesn’t go far enough in assigning responsibility to changes in society with which social media interacts.  A need for space and friction is also why our system limits the activities that we pursue through government, with its powers to tax, regulate, and police.

As government becomes an increasingly efficient way to impose our wills on each other, not only does it become easier to accomplish that goal, but the stakes go up for winning the fight.  The attractiveness of leveraging the tools of social warfare goes up even as the opportunity to defend against them goes down.

This is much like campaign finance reform.  We can make changes around the edges, but the only way to really “get the money out of politics” is to reduce the value of winning.  The same is true of social media.   The nasties have escaped the bag, so the better approach would be to become the type of society in which their bad effects will do less harm.

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Generations of Sam Bells

Based on the commentary of progressive Democrat state Senator Samuel Bell (Providence) at a local economic development event featuring central planning guru Bruce Katz, you really have to wonder how little he thinks of the intelligence of his supporters:

“The reason I wanted to go back to that slide [showing RI’s unemployment rate from 2010 to 2018] is you can see the results,” said Bell. “Because before we implemented these corporate policies our unemployment rate was plummeting, relative to the national average. And once we implemented these policies, once they start to bite – implemented largely at the beginning of 2015, we see it stall. And that means people in my district suffering because of the economic damage.”

Here’s the slide he’s talking about, as reproduced on Uprise RI:

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Now, I think the unemployment rate in Rhode Island is pretty much a bogus statistic that misrepresents the state’s economy, but still: Bell must be relying on slavish agreement from his listeners, because nobody should be surprised that a bad statistic would slow down its improvement as it reached the national average.

Indeed, digging into how the rate is calculated, one could even make the opposite argument to Bells. One important reason the rate of improvement of RI unemployment slowed down in 2015 was that people stopped quitting the labor force, and that number, which is the denominator for the unemployment rate, actually started going up during the period in question:

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In other words, if Rhode Islanders were more optimistic about their prospect of finding jobs, they would keep looking, which would slow the reduction of the unemployment rate. This could be said to prove that Bell has things backwards.

The irony, here, is that I actually agree with Bell’s observation. Rhode Island’s employment scene has indeed been doing worse under Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo than it had been doing. However, the reason is that her policies are too progressive — too centrally planned — which points to a problem with progressives’ assumption that government can run the economy.

To implement centrally planned policies, the decision makers rely on the continued buy-in of their fellow progressives. Yet, there will always be some truer believer who benefits by being more extreme and more pure. There will always be a Sam Bell with incentive to use misleading statistics and hints of corruption among his predecessors to advance his own career.

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NYC Exports the Problems of Progressivism

What is a progressive mayor to do when his city’s policies produce the inevitable problems, including homelessness?  Well, in an area of the country where the average temperature ranges from 60 to 80 degrees, the government can let tent cities emerge for a while.  In a place like Bill de Blasio’s New York City, where January’s average is 40 degrees (which any winter visitor knows can feel like it’s in Kelvin, not Fahrenheit, when the wind cascades between the buildings), that isn’t an option.

So, the city has come up with a novel solution:

From the tropical shores of Honolulu and Puerto Rico, to the badlands of Utah and backwaters of Louisiana, the Big Apple has sent local homeless families to 373 cities across the country with a full year of rent in their pockets as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Special One-Time Assistance Program.” Usually, the receiving city knows nothing about it.

City taxpayers have spent $89 million on rent alone since the program’s August 2017 inception to export 5,074 homeless families — 12,482 individuals — to places as close as Newark and as far as the South Pacific, according to Department of Homeless Services data obtained by The Post. Families who once lived in city shelters decamped to 32 states and Puerto Rico.

As Shaun Towne reports, using the interactive map provided in Sara Dorn New York Post article on the program, a handful of beneficiary families found their way to Rhode Island — one each in North Kingstown, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket and three in Providence.  The mayors of the northern three of those communities are reportedly not happy about the situation:

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien and Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt released a joint statement Thursday calling the program “an outrageous example of bad public policy.” They said it’s “irresponsible” for New York to spring needy families on other communities without warning, especially those already “working with limited resources to improve [their] residents’ quality of life.”

A cynic might quip that these mayors are only upset that they were not notified so as to ensure that their new constituents are registered to vote.  This thought leads to a more intellectually interesting problem.  The Big Apple’s program suggests a system that creates pressure for the exportation of bad ideas, including both the policies that created the unpleasant situation and the paternalism of using taxpayer dollars to compensate their victims.

Would it be possible to design a system that sends people from localities where good ideas dominate to such benighted states as New York and Rhode Island?

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Political Monday with John DePetro: The Essence of RI Corruption

My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for November 4, included talk about:

  • Jeff Britt in court (with Nicholas Mattiello looming)
  • Brett Smiley in the news (with Gina Raimondo bumbling into ever-bigger controversy)
  • The Board of Elections in the market for a lease (with Stephen Erickson running interference)
  • Senate President Dominick Ruggerio in a symbolic role (with the RI system setting the standard for corruption)

Open post for full audio.

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The Limits of Lawlessness in Service of the Progressive Cause


A brief summary of the essential elements leading to no indictments related to the August 14th incident where a Wyatt Detention Center guard drove his truck into immigration-enforcement protesters blocking the entrance to the facility parking lot is as follows…

Protesters at Wyatt wanted some lawlessness, when it gave them an advantage in imposing their will on others.

At the point where the lawless enviornment no longer provided the protestors with the advantage they sought, they wanted the state to step in and take their side.

The system seems to have reached the conclusion that the protestors’ ask was unfair, and has rejected it.

 

The continuation of events following the decision not to indict is also worth noting…

As recorded in the Woonsocket Call, on the day it was announced, the grand jury decision not to indict was protested at the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office in downtown Providence.

However, despite the parking lot for the Attorney General’s office being nearby, the protestors chose not to block traffic or attempt to deny anyone access to a public space during the Providence protest.

 

Worth discussing, especially with people with divergent views on how the police, prosecutors and the court system are dealing with these types of events; is why the protesters chose blocking access to a public space as their tactic in one place but not the other. There are variety of possibilities and working through them may be revealing.

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The Importance of Opposition

The indictment of Mattiello campaign contractor Jeff Britt raises an important theme that all Rhode Islanders should think about:  the importance of political opposition:

The investigation dates back three years, to the fall of 2016, when Mattiello was in the political fight of his life against Republican Steven Frias. Mattiello defeated Frias by just 85 votes after his campaign coordinated a supportive mailer from Frias’s one-time Republican rival Shawna Lawton, who had lost to him in that year’s GOP primary.

But for the political pressure from Frias, Mattiello’s campaign would have felt no need to be so brazen.  But for the RIGOP’s pursuit of the matter, the unusual campaign activity never would have become an issue:

As Lawton had only $43.34 in her campaign account at the time, state GOP Chairman Brandon Bell filed a complaint with the Board of Elections questioning how she could have paid for the $2,150 mailer. That led to a two-year, stop-and-start investigation by the elections board, the initiation of contempt proceedings, and now, to the doorstep of the state’s attorney general — and a second look on the now-closed case against Mattiello.

One could go even farther and suggest that Attorney General Peter Neronha has political competition as a reinforcing incentive to pursue these matters.  In this episode, we’re getting faint glimpses of the sort of corrections that would be natural and unexceptional in a healthier polity.

This principle extends across government in Rhode Island.  Political competition keeps politicians honest and ensures that there is always somebody who benefits by looking for better ways to serve the community and respond to constituents.  When everything is locked up in a one-party system with an insider mentality, those in power are freer to serve each other.

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Annette Lloyd: Crushed Freedom Inspires Another Escape Plan

Rhode Island’s ban on flavored vaping shows a mentality that Rhode Islanders increasingly want to escape.

I’m constantly confused by politicians who think that their election also comes with honorary degrees in medicine, education, commerce, and the like… that upon their election, they have a right to appoint themselves as doctor, teacher, etc., to their constituents. Most of our elected officials are purely bought and sold tools of one lobby or another. They know no more than you or me.

Informed adults don’t need this kind of micro-supervision. Vaping has allowed me to get away from cigarettes, and I imagine the hundreds of thousands or millions of vapers in New England resent having their legal sources of vaping suddenly cut off with no compelling research into the public health effects of the habit.

This ban is a terrible trend by our governor. What she isn’t considering are the local small businesses she is destroying. There are plenty of online sources (for now) which will take more money out of RI. And, even more crucially, those who use vaping as a safer alternative to smoking will be forced to return to tobacco products. Maybe Governor Raimondo has missed the tax dollars from each pack of cigarettes purchased in RI.

The messages she is sending, of government overreach and a total lack of consideration of the ramifications of her edict, are yet another nail in this beautiful state’s casket. The R and I are, increasingly, standing for Really Idiotic.

Once our son is done with high school and Boy Scouts, we are fleeing. In search of freedom and some self-respect.

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Freedom… From the Progressive Point of View

Perhaps the most clarifying statement in Rhode Island politics, recently, came from one of the candidates now involved with Matt Brown’s Political Cooperative (which, despite the name, is not an alt-country band):

“Thought I may be the epitome of the American dream I cannot sit around and watch while many of my brothers and sisters are denied a shot at that very dream,″ said Jonathan Acosta, tracing his own story from “first generation American born to undocumented migrants from Colombia″ to the Ivy League.

“I believe that we are not free until we have dismantled structural inequality, developed sustainable clean energy, enacted a $15 minimum wage that pays equal pay for equal work, extended healthcare for all, provide[d] affordable housing, ensured quality public education starting at Pre-K, undergone campaign finance reform, criminal justice reform, and implemented sensible gun control,″ said Acosta, running for the Senate seat currently held by Elizabeth Crowley, D-Central Falls.

So, to Mr. Acosta, we’re not free until we’ve taken from some categories of people to give to others, limited people’s energy options to benefit fashionable technologies, forbidden employers and employees from setting a mutually agreeable value on work to be done, taken money from some people in order to pay for others’ health care (as defined by a vote-buying government) and/or put price controls on what providers can charge, placed restrictions on who can live where and what they can build, tightened the regulation of politics with limits on the donations and privacy of those who become politically active, and reduced the rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution.

If that doesn’t match your understanding of “freedom,” you’re not alone.  Indeed, by its mission, this “cooperative” is cooperating against anybody whose understanding of freedom differs, because it cannot possibly cooperate with anybody who disagrees.  You simply can’t hold a definition of freedom that doesn’t have satisfactory outcomes for the interest groups that progressives have targeted.

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Where Might an Objective Morality Come From?

The essay to which Isaac Whitney linked this morning comes right up to a question that is almost so obviously right at the center of questions about morality that nobody ever asks it:  If people are coming to their own conclusions about morality, where are they coming from?

Writes Isaac:

In one of my favorite quotes, Thomas Sowell says, “…each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late” (162). If, God forbid, the death of freedom should arrive, its death will be a result of our refusal to civilize these little barbarians. Our downfall will begin with our fear of infringing upon their personal autonomy, and our playing into the individualistic American gospel that says we must be free to choose our own path, find our own morality, and speak our own truth.

If everyone were rational, you’d expect this notion of radical autonomy to overlap with small-government and religious perspectives.  One oddity is that those who most vociferously proclaim that society has no right to impose a moral code also tend to emphasize the use of our most compulsory institution — government — to solve problems and disputes.  Another oddity is that you would expect people who trust in our ability to discern morality would also believe that there must be some form of deity dispensing it.  The opposite seems to be the case.

Of course, people don’t tend to be rational, especially in these areas of thought.  We tend to come to the conclusions that we want to be correct and then fit arguments to that image.

Consequently, as Isaac suggests, we risk coming un-moored.  Whereas conservatives would suggest that God defines an objective morality toward which we should guide each other by the least coercive means feasible, radicals object to any coercion at all (except where they want it to be total) on the grounds that there is no objective standard (except the one they trust us all to follow).

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The Autonomous Individual Versus Institutions

Looking for ways to create the new and improved you? This mindset can be harmful to society.

Freedom, liberty, and individuality are great things, but a society that considers them to be the ultimate things is bound to lose them. The art of subjectively finding one’s own truth without outside influence may sound attractive on the surface but will ultimately lead to destructive ends.

I explore this theme and ways to combat it in a blog post titled “The Surprising Roots of Liberty.”

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Casinos and Government Non-Competitiveness

As more casinos open their doors in Massachusetts, Rhode Islanders are at least presented with an important lesson in government.

Insider Senator Frank Ciccone (D, North Providence, Providence) has demanded to know “How can we compete?”  The answer, in short, is to stop requiring an act of the General Assembly for Twin River to do so.

Rhode Island takes a high percentage of gambling revenue, reducing the incentive for private investors to be involved.  The state dictates details about how many of what games from what company should be on the premises, and the governor is even now seeking to lock in a restrictive contract with IGT for 20 whole years.  Read through the state’s laws pertaining the the casinos, and it is clear that Twin River is little more than a management company for a state-run casino.

How can we compete?  Change that around.

Steve Frias notes that Rhode Island has already been down this path with horse racing, writing that it declined and disappeared for three reason:

First, competition from horse race tracks located in other New England states caused Rhode Island horse race tracks to lose customers. …

Second, the number of horse racing gamblers shrank as the sport failed to attract younger fans. …

Third, the quality of Rhode Island horse racing became poor due in part to a high tax burden. Rhode Island politicians steadily increased the state’s share of horse racing revenues from 3.5 percent in 1934 to 9 percent by 1971. This caused race track owners to invest less money into their facilities and it reduced the quality of the horses they could attract for races since the prize money was smaller. By 1976, Rhode Island race tracks were being called “the most miserable race tracks in America” with “the most miserable horses in America.” In 1978, horse racing in Rhode Island came to an end.

This is a microcosm of the way Rhode Island operates.  Simply put, you can’t compete when you have to cut a state’s worth of insiders in on the deal.  As life becomes less and less dependent on where you live, the captive audience will shrink, and business (any kind of business) will shift to the best competitor.

Thus, mobile sports betting (or wind turbine production or whatever) is no answer for the long term.  Even if Rhode Island is first to market, we’ll never be able to compete until we change the way the state runs.

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The Elusive Lesson for the Angry Progressive

Sometimes a reader can’t help but feel like a professor watching a student come so close to an epiphany only to talk right past it.  One such moment can be found in this paragraph from an essay on UpRise RI by Missak Melkonian, about the JUMP bike gang that roved Providence for a day (emphasis added):

Maybe the youths terrorizing the yuppies have a point. I would be, and hell, I AM pissed that hotels and lofts can go up in the blink of an eye but repairing public schools is tantamount to rewriting the Constitution! If those in power wanted to fix the conditions that create these “issues” amongst the youth, they could do it, but they won’t and never will because their bottom line will always be money and power. I grew up in Providence schools. I didn’t need a report from Johns Hopkins to tell me the schools are awful. Anyone with common sense could tell you that – racist teachers, dilapidated facilities, extremely punitive disciplinary policies, do-gooder white savior NGO’s – not to mention the status of the recreation centers in Providence or the various boys and girls clubs. These all make for a ripe combination of anger, resentment, and antipathy in the youth. It’s hard to care about the well-being of something like a JUMP bike when it’s so evident the world doesn’t give a sh*t about you, or even consider you a human being.

Hmmm… what quality applies to hotels and lofts that does not apply to public school?  Ceding a little ideological ground, one could note that the for-profit incentives of the private sector align the drive for “money and power” with the good being sought.  Moreover, the need to draw resources through the consensual commerce of customers translates into incentive to treat them as human beings, without bias or unduly “punitive disciplinary policies.”

A failure to spot this lesson will lead to one place only:  a tacit desire to squash the productive private sector so that it does not outshine the under-performing public sector, thus increasing the amount of resentment in the world.

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A Thoroughly Predictable Chain of Events at the Wyatt Detention Center


In response to the events at the Wyatt Detention Center from two weeks ago, Our society could choose to accept anarchy, to accept that whoever has the bigger, tougher, better organized gang wins for themselves the use of public spaces; literally implementing might makes right as a governing principle. This does not seem to be a pathway that governing authorities in Rhode Island will consciously choose, as state government quickly remembered the importance of deterring violence from escalating, once the focus of events became people not involved in the intentional blocking of traffic.

A second possibility would be to cut the problem off at its root: enforcing laws and norms against blocking traffic and against denying people the right to travel in public spaces, and uniting around a shared norm that has served our society well. (I concede that that last phrase is a bit normative).

Of course, this depends on the right to travel being a norm that is widely shared. Is this still the case? The affinity repeatedly shown by protestors for blocking traffic, combined with the so-far one-sided response by Rhode Island authorities, suggests that it may not be; this, in turn, points in the direction of the third possible evolution of the system: convincing people that it is acceptable for government to protect fundamental rights within the context of a caste system, where some people have fewer rights than others. For various reasons, this is an unlikely candidate for smooth implementation.

That is your universe of choices. In the end, any way forward that abandons the impartial defense of the right to travel will lead to more and more cycles of violent conflict that will only be eliminated once the norm acting against those who try to block innocent people from traveling in public spaces is rediscovered.

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