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Translation from a Place of Disagreement

Well, look, I know my writing is often abstract and that I tend to include words that aren’t exactly of quotidian usage.  When I first developed a literary voice, I was up to my vocal chords  in Melville and Hawthorne and Shakespeare.  Then there are all the ordinary hurdles of writing — ensuring that context is clear, crafting sentences that contain enough information but don’t barrage the reader, and so on.

Nonetheless, I continue to be amazed at the degree to which readers can find a text to say what they want or need it to say, especially when they hate the writer for political reasons.  That’s the subject of my latest Tiverton Fact Check post.

Back in college, it occurred to me that, in some situations, the better somebody articulates an opposing view, the more dishonest or insane he or she appears to be to the opposition.  I’ve certainly had that feeling while reading those with whom I disagree, with the frustration that every sentence seemed to be just a little bit off, just a little nudge of the wheel to keep the argument from going off the sheer cliff of actual truth.

My particular literary tics and foibles seem to allow those who disagree with me to believe that I’m weaving an elaborate illusion to hide my vicious insanity behind a reasonable facade.  Some years ago, progressive commentator Tom Sgouros repeatedly insisted that I was arguing that “the rich” were leaving Rhode Island.  Finally, in some comment section, somewhere, I got him to see that I was actually arguing nothing of the sort.  His response, if I remember correctly, was that I’d used “stylized prose” to give the impression that that had been my point.

The confusion can snowball, too.  When the person who stubbornly misreads turns around and tells other people what the writer was really saying, even when those people read for themselves, they implicitly begin with the challenge of reconciling what they expect the message to be with what it really is.

Communication on charged topics is tough.  I’m certainly a long way from having it down and often reread things I’ve written and see that they could have been clearer.  That said, writers should remember that it isn’t always their fault when people don’t understand.

Thankful for Our Irascible Ancestors

If you’re looking for some midday Thanksgiving reading, Kevin Williamson offers some words on Americans’ heritage of independence as it relates to innovation and prosperity:

The division of labor is the essence of civilization, the underlying source of practically every good thing about the material conditions of the modern world. It is why civilized countries do not have famine any more, why we are surrounded by technological wonders, why things like air travel and mobile phones go from being restricted to millionaires to being ho-hum over a short course of years. Most of the technological ingredients for the Industrial Revolution had been in place not only in Britain but in Spain, France, Italy, etc., for years. But British subjects and American colonists had the opportunity and the inclination to begin a finer and more robust division of labor than did their European counterparts. They were just a little bit more free — and a little bit more determined to be free — and that little bit made an incalculable difference, not only to them, but to the world.

Setting up government as the thing to which we should be thankful means gratitude of diminishing returns — thanks for not letting things get any worse than they would have under some imaginary always-worse scenario.  We need to be not just “a little bit more free,” but a lot more free, and we should begin seeing Thanksgiving as this time of year’s variation on Independence Day.

What’s Next for the Social Equity Advisory Committee?

The future of the state Division of Planning’s RhodeMap RI scheme is suddenly in question.  The state Planning Council may not meet on December 11 to review the plan.  If it does, it may not approve the plan.  And legislators may step in before or after that event to pull the statutory legs out from under it.

If RhodeMap does become an official plan of the State of Rhode Island, nobody is really sure how it will operate, or even what mechanisms the state will put in place to continue advancing it.  One subsidiary question is what the state Division of Planning will do with the Social Equity Advisory Council (SEAC), which was tasked with defining and pushing the “diversity” piece of the plan.

According to the state’s three-year planning plan (yes, these weeds are very deep), the SEAC is generally intended to continue on in one form or another.  The descriptive part of section V.B. of the three-year plan ends as follows:

The intent of this process is not only to guarantee that the RPSD [Regional Plan for Sustainable Development] accurately reflects the vision and needs of the state’s underserved and underrepresented populations, but also to produce relationships that will become the building blocks necessary for completing and implementing the RPSD. At the conclusion of the grant period, the SEAC will propose next steps for continuing their work, as it is imperative that these community leaders are committed not only to the completion of the RPSD but also to the successful implementation of the identified strategies.

A bullet point under “Products/Outcomes” calls for:

A guidance document for the State Planning Council on improving procedural and distributional equity in planning activities, including potential future engagement of SEAC.

Translated, this means that State Planning should soon have a document explaining how the SEAC can continue helping the council find ways to redistribute wealth in Rhode Island.

Learning from Local Issues

There are essentially two reasons I encourage people to become involved in government and politics at the local level.

First, it’s the closest to the voters and their community, so it should be easier (although still very difficult) to overcome the institutional advantage of insiders.  Most people in a city or town don’t pay much attention to local civics, and a large portion of those who do are part of the vested-interests crowd.  But when a topic has to do with their neighbors, it’s a little bit more possible to change people’s minds, and if not, it ought to be more likely at the local level to get other people to be better informed — perhaps well enough informed to get involved.

Second, local government and politics is very educational.  Many of the battles are fought over the same sorts of things, and on the same types of battlegrounds, as state and national issues.  What’s more, the local players tend not to be as slick, so their maneuvers are easier to see and make for better lessons to the general public.

More for the second reason than the first, I took a little time, on Tiverton Fact Check, to analyze one aspect of the latest incident in the ongoing saga of town government’s making up the rules as it goes.  Of particular interest is the degree to which the Town Solicitor, Andrew Teitz, has pushed the envelope when it comes to the Ethics Commission’s tolerance for corruption provided that nobody involved is not in government.

I’ll have more on this in the future, but he’s going so far as to tell the council what he’s going to argue when he defends a client before it a couple weeks later and to advise the council from the witness table while it’s trying to make a motion in favor of his client.

This is one of those fine cracks in the foundation of our society that nobody seems to be too concerned about but that really deserves more attention than a largely apathetic electorate is likely to pay it.

Gina Raimondo and Rhode Island’s Preemptive Surrender to the Threat of Collusion

Gina Raimondo could stand with the people of Rhode Island on the 38 Studios matter and, with her venture capitalist background, could be an especially forceful advocate for the principle that the laws apply to everyone, from big bondholders to regular citizens. Instead, she has chosen to stand with big finance against the people of Rhode Island, taking the cavalier attitude towards representative democracy and the rule of law that has become the hallmark of Rhode Island’s political establishment.

If Not on the Ballot, Where?

Jim Vincent, of the Providence NAACP, quotes the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity in a recent Providence Journal op-ed.  (Naturally, he fails to name his source, because progressive activists aren’t about public debate, they’re about confusing public debate for political reasons.)

Supporters have also suggested that a Constitutional Convention would be a good opportunity to “resolve some thorny cultural issues — one way or another.” Cultural issues have no place on the ballot.

He’s referring to a line, way toward the end of this analysis from the Center, in a section about ways in which Rhode Islanders might use a constitutional convention to “take issues off the table” of the General Assembly, where they come up regularly to distract the public and distort the legislative process.  Most of the points have to do with the operation of government, but here’s the final bullet point:

Resolve some thorny cultural issues — one way or another — though the mechanism that most clearly represents the will of the people

Look, cultural issues have to be resolved.  When the government begins dabbling in them (which it inevitably will do if we let it become as large and invasive as it has become), lines must be drawn by somebody concerning the appropriate scope and, if government is going to take a side, which side it will take.  To people with Vincent’s political philosophy, it’s not a question of whether cultural issues should be resolved within government, but how government should assert authority and make decisions.

In March, Vincent told Bob Plain, of RI Future, that “he will lobby legislative leaders this session to pass a bill that would tax and regulate rather than criminalize pot.”

In other words, the “thorny cultural issues” — which are at the core of defining our society and directing its course for generations — “have no place on the ballot” because he wants them decided in back rooms by insiders and special interests.  He doesn’t trust the people — black, white, male, female, gay, straight, liberal, conservative — to come to the right decisions, so it’s imperative that their betters — the elite power brokers who’ve manipulated their way into positions of influence — control the system to tell the people what to do and who to be.

Rhode Island’s Ghoulish Government

An article by Lynn Arditi in today’s Providence Journal, Report: Too many teens in state care,” looks likely to be one of those dry, bureaucratic-process-related matters that many readers probably skip over.  That would be a mistake:

In her testimony, Field described a system where overloaded caseworkers who don’t have the time or resources to help families are increasingly removing teenagers from their homes and sending them to live in group homes. And group homes are paid only by the numbers of beds filled, so “you’ve got incentives for providers to keep kids to keep those beds filled,” [Tracey Field, director of the child welfare strategy group at the Casey Foundation’s Center for Systems Innovation in Baltimore] said.

To summarize in one sentence what appears to be going on:  The state government of Rhode Island is taking children away from their parents in order to maintain a government program, in part because its priorities have led the state government not to adequately fund a responsibility that it arrogated to itself.

That’s a long sentence, and the second half of it goes into the process stuff on which politicians like to focus because they can muddy the water.  It’s the first part of the sentence, though, that’s important: “The state government of Rhode Island is taking children away from their parents in order to maintain a government program.”

You don’t get much more ghoulish than that, and you don’t get a much better representation of the progressive style of governance.

Beware the Simple Controversy

Folks who pay a whole lot of attention to politics and policy (myself included) can be astonished at things that don’t take off as controversies.  Manipulated studies about casino gambling.  Pension reforms that give the legislature’s authority away to a union-heavy board.  Development of plans that seek to undermine property rights and individual liberty (while using supposed outreach meetings to find local activists).  An unnecessary government start-up healthcare broker intended as a gateway to increasing the people addicted to government programs.

None of that registers, mostly because it’s complex, and there’s too much space between the walls for politicians and insiders to fill with smoke.

Tom Ward highlights the dynamic on a smaller scale, in Woonsocket, with a view from the perspective of a controversy that actually did catch on — Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt’s political jobs program:

Why was this clumsy move such a bombshell? Because it’s so easy to understand, that’s why. While it may be difficult to decipher funding kindergarten and water treatment plants, everyone understands that their own kids got the short end of the stick. In fact, there are unemployed adults who would have been grateful for the work! They know where they stand with her now, and it’s on the outside, looking in.

What is even more striking is the mayor’s ethical blind spot and lack of any contrition.

Too often, we wait until hubris brings on the obvious corruption.  One can’t help but wonder what it looks like from the politicians’ perspective.  Hey, they got away with all of these huge power grabs and political maneuvers.  A few thousand bucks of straight-up corruption shouldn’t matter if all that didn’t.

Why Rhode Islanders Have No Hope, Judicial Branch

I frequently state my opinion that there’s basically no rule of law in Rhode Island.  An article in today’s Providence Journal about a lawsuit concerning an “affordable housing” development illustrates why.

The basic point is that citizen groups almost never win.  Either the government agency appeals to the department under which it works, and that department rules in its favor (as with a school committee appealing to the Dept. of Education) or some quasi-judicial agency, like the Ethics Commission, waves the language of the law away, or the courts carry the water.  The foreclosure of that route to reform and civic engagement leads people who might otherwise become more politically active, perhaps even running for office, to give up totally, sometimes directing their efforts to an exit strategy from the state.

I didn’t realize (but probably could have guessed) that Maya Angelou, the poet, has precedential weight in Rhode Island courts:

In his written decision, filed Wednesday, Procaccini opened with a quote from the late Maya Angelou: “ ‘The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.’ As this Court considers the case before it, it keeps Maya Angelou’s wise words in mind.”

Whatever the law says, the ruling class of Rhode Island will find it to say whatever they feel is right.  There’s no way citizens can work to craft language that will actually do what they want it to.

That’s not the rule of law.  It’s an aristocracy.

People Go Where the Future Is

A New Englander’s first reaction to news like this is to sound the alarm:

The Northeast, once the nation’s political engine that produced presidents, House speakers and Senate giants including the late Edward M. Kennedy, is losing clout in Washington as citizens flee the high-tax region, according to experts worried about the trend. …

Deep in a recent report, for example, the American Legislative Exchange Council tabulated how the drop in population relative to the rest of the nation cut the region’s power in Washington. While the states from Pennsylvania to Maine had 141 House members in 1950, they are down to 85 today, a drop of some 40 percent.

Upon reflection, what we see here is the American system of government working.  New England policies aren’t policies for families and growth.  They’re policies for a ruling elite and an underclass to serve it.  In the long-term, they’re policies for stagnation and decline.

I’ve said before that I think the illness that infects the Northeast has spread to the national body, and it may be incurable.  But maybe, just maybe, the shift in population and representation will slow the contagion long enough for a cure to be found.