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A Crisis-Related Lesson from Truckers

This story seems to me to be not only an important issue of its own accord, but also a good lesson in the dangers of government overreaction to crisis:

As the United States gradually shuts down in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the trucking and tire industry is appealing to the government to allow gas stations, rest stops, and repair facilities to remain open to keep deliveries rolling.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation, for example, shut down all of its rest areas and welcome centers to the public on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it agreed to reopen the parking lots at nearly half of them at the request of truckers and the Trump administration.

Other states are considering similar closures, officials said, to try to prevent the spread of the highly contagious virus and discourage people from traveling.

The government isn’t in an especially good position — and politicians aren’t particularly well suited — to foresee unintended consequences and adequately weight them on an individualized basis.  Ensure that the public is informed, and let people make their own decisions.  Those who exist in critical supply chains see their importance and will evaluate their own risk-reward balance.

Truckers’ stopping at rest stops is a particularly direct example, but the principle runs through our entire economy.

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If the Planners Planned the Medical System

As never-let-a-PANIC-go-to-waste grips the country, we’ve been hearing a lot of insistence that the epidemic proves the need for government-run healthcare.  Typically, this is merely offered as a Twitter-sized assertion, so there isn’t much specific to argue with.  (One suspects that’s by design.)

However, the talk about how our challenge is to keep the incidents within our health system’s capacity rang a bell: specifically, the talk about how the United States has insufficient hospital beds to deal with the potential influx of patients.  Here’s the bell, from a House Finance hearing in 2014 on legislation that would have increased the government’s role in Rhode Island health care.  This particular speaker is Steve Boyle, who was president of the Greater Cranston Chamber of Commerce, who was advocating for the bill, but the same thing could have been said by any of the supporters:

Boyle says the state needs a “coordinated approach.”  “We all know there’s too many hospital beds, but I’m told over and over again that there’s not the political will to close them.”

So, if they didn’t have to worry about “the political will,” the planners at that time would have reduced the number of beds. As it is, our more-socialized health system since Obamacare has overseen a reduction in staffed beds in Rhode Island from 2,535 in August 2012 to 2,424 in August 2018.  That 4.4% reduction means 111 fewer spots if there’s a surge.

Now, I’m not saying that the market is always right or that planners are always wrong, but they do take different things into consideration.  The market works by finding the value of a particular thing to the society in which it is operating, and that value will naturally adjust for subtler reasons than planners can possibly consider.  A culture can remember that its hospital beds filled up at some point in the distant past, while planners might not have the data or might dismiss it.

In times of panic don’t believe people who exploit current circumstances to pretend they would have been able to plan for them if they’d had more power.

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Veterans of Government Error

How is it possible that people don’t look at stories like the problems at the Rhode Island Veterans Home — which are very common in the Ocean State and around the country — and conclude that the notion of ever-more government involvement in our lives is the wrong way to go?

The narrow doorways are one of many issues at the home fueling frustration among residents, families and employees. Expensive equipment goes unused, visually aesthetic rooms sit empty and the crown jewel – an eye-grabbing galley at the center of the home – has served more as a venue for lavish parties thrown by outside groups than as a central dining room for residents.

Multiple people told Target 12 that Veterans Home employees staffed at least some of those events, raising questions about whether taxpayer money went toward private parties held at a publicly funded nursing home for veterans.

If one were to evaluate this as a grant-funded project from a non-profit organization or something, the conclusion would have to be that the entity took on a project that it was not competent to complete.

Those things happen across the economy and in every sector, of course, but governments are the the one sector that can’t go out of business.  So why do we keep imagining that the same system will get the next great-sounding project done right?

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The Gambling Giants Make Nice-Nice

Just a short while ago, Rhode Islanders were treated to a refreshing opportunity to see our system of government work the way it should.  With one of the two major managers of the state’s gambling line of business challenging a no-bid deal the governor had worked out with the other, it looked like the Ocean State might benefit from an open-bid process bringing in competing proposals and driving down the cost of the contract and/or the benefits to Rhode Islanders.

Oh, well.  Twin River and IGT have teamed up to present unified front to the state government:

If the proposed agreement is approved by lawmakers and state gambling regulators, Twin River would evolve from a casino-operating company to one that provides video-slot machines, giving it a large source of the revenue now going to out-of-state game manufacturers and suppliers.

International Game Technology would emerge as 60% shareholder of the new company, with a clearer shot at winning the 20-year contract it has been seeking from the state, without Twin River executives — and the big-name gaming industry players that Twin River had lined up as potential partners in a rival bid — nipping at its heels. Twin River would have a 40% stake.

And as if to capture the full circuit of issues that have illustrated Rhode Island’s flawed approach to government and economic development, Twin River has pledged to open up a new headquarters in the Wexford Innovation Complex, a recent addition to Providence that the governor has huge incentive to see filled with tenants.

Republican candidate, lawyer, and historian Steven Frias has it right when he says, in the first linked article above: “This deal does not automatically become a good one for taxpayers because IGT and Twin River will now be business partners.”

We benefit from competition, whether it’s political parties or private vendors for state, and we shouldn’t assume that it’s a good thing when they work together.

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Corruption as a Means of Survival and as a Weapon

As the subpoenas fly and the investigation continues into the unseemly air surrounding the Convention Center Authority and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s call for an audit, we’re stuck in a moment of intense interest but little information.  That gives us a chance to look for broader lessons.

One recurring theme with Mattiello is that his “friends” and allies keep popping up in a conspicuously connected way.  So, the former Authority employee whose suspension allegedly sparked the audit as payback, James Demers, is often called “a Mattiello friend.”  The head of the Joint Committee for Legislative Services (JCLS) who has been subpoenaed is “Mattiello friend” Frank Montanaro, Jr.  And when the offices of JCLS were suddenly cleaned out, ostensibly to address a mold problem, a company called Single Source, owned by Mattiello associate Jack Pomeranz, did the work.

An argument sometimes advanced by people seeking to justify Buddy Cianci’s activities comes to mind:  In a corrupt environment, those in power have a reason to cultivate a network of people they can trust… which starts to look like corruption.  A line exists somewhere between filling offices with people who’ll help you deal with the corrupt system and giving out patronage jobs to friends who bring nothing to the table.  The point at which an official crosses that line is not always clear, and it can move depending on the individuals and the circumstances.  We’re talking something more like a battlefield, where natural and strategic considerations may suggest rough boundaries, than a football field, where the lines are so clear that a toe can make a difference.

Of course, because the line is not clear, allegations of corruption can become a weapon even when not justified.  We have some experience with that in Tiverton.  When reform-minded residents (including this writer) claimed a majority of the council, cries of (and lies about) corruption became commonplace.  There was never any evidence, but the accusation was thrown around on social media and even statewide TV.  The slender hooks were that the council hired a solicitor whom we knew would not undermine us, but just explain the law, and appointed a resident with a different view than the establishment to the library board.

At the same time that we keep an eye out for corruption and hold officials accountable, we do need to be careful about being misled by accusations about it.

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Redistricting Toward a People’s Convention

When an initiative like this moves through the news cycle, I find myself wondering what workaday Rhode Islanders think of it:

Common Cause Rhode Island is asking state lawmakers to support a constitutional amendment to create an independent redistricting commission, rather than continuing to allow the legislature to create the commission and fill most seats with incumbent legislators.

This would be an important change to Rhode Island’s civic structure, but how many voters will find out about this legislation, and how many of them will know what it means (or bother to find out)?

Then there’s the path Common Cause is taking.  The bills in question are H7260 and S2077, and if either passes and is signed into law, the legislature and governor would ask voters in November if we want to modify the state constitution to take the power of setting up their own district lines away from legislators.    It seems obvious, but it also seems impossible.  After all, the assumption is that we cannot trust lawmakers to oversee the redistricting, so why would we pursue a plan that relies on the same lawmakers to change the rules that allow them to do that.

What’s needed is to back off the request one step more.  Ask the legislators to put a people’s convention on the ballot, as allowed under our state constitution.  Then a world of possibilities will open, including changing how we draw our legislative districts.  Voters could more readily understand the value of reviewing the constitution, and the people elected to the convention would more readily take the time to understand redistricting.

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Iowa Caucuses and UHIP

The campaign manager for President Donald Trump, Brad Parscale, offered a take on the Democrats’ Iowa caucus troubles that probably occurred simultaneously to just about every conservative in the country:

And these are the people who want to run our entire health care system?

A point often gets lost in all the jockeying for control of the American narrative.  When we object to this program or that one, conservatives aren’t typically opposing government-driven solutions regardless of whether they’ll work.  On the flip side, we also aren’t typically saying that the certainty of a fix can always overcome principled objections based on a philosophy of how government should function.

Rather, the conservative position tends to be that, for any given issue, the trade offs are not sufficiently clear, the benefits are not sufficiently certain, and side effects are so excessively probable that humility should be the underlying principle.

The debacle of the 2020 Iowa caucus should be more proof than anybody needs of this principle.  It’s not as if this was the first time Iowa Democrats have caucused, but now (regardless of the reason) there will be lingering doubts about the process, including discord between factions that suspect some sort of political scheme.

To be sure, government and political parties will naturally handle elections-related activities, but they don’t have to handle things like healthcare.  Look at experience with the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP).  When bureaucrats committed Rhode Island to the scheme during the Chafee administration, they had wide eyes about “one-stop shopping” for government services.  When they rushed ahead with a system that they’d been warned was not ready, no doubt the Raimondo administration was hoping for some sort of PR win.  And we got… a debacle.

This isn’t a claim that Democrats are especially incompetent, but that our political system creates incentives and risks that should advise a strong preference for handling society’s challenges through other institutions than government.

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Convention Center Controversy: Heads They Win, Tails You Lose

If you’ve been around government and politics in Rhode Island for a while, you probably know people who’ve been audited at conspicuous times… like after having spoken up publicly about some issue.  This may be part of the reason ripples of excitement have followed indications that Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello of Cranston might be caught red-handed flipping the switch on the familiar weapon.

Particularly intriguing is the way those ripples have caused turmoil among people and entities that tend to unite around good-government issues.  Thus, as Mattiello claims to be targeting the Convention Center Authority with an audit to fix what former Republican House Minority Leader and gubernatorial candidate Patricia Morgan calls “a poorly run, incompetently managed building [that] works as a favor factory,” we get current House Minority Leader Blake Filippi filing a lawsuit claiming that Mattiello abused his influence over the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS) to order the audit, followed by the Providence Journal editorial board, led by Ed Achorn, belittling the Republican’s suit as “partisan animosity.”

If the good guys are tripping over each other, the bad guys have wind at their backs.  The Convention Center has rejected the audit and called for an investigation of Mattiello by the State Police, which has lost some of its objective luster in recent years for seeming to align too eagerly with Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo, who has (1) given indications that she sees Mattiello as an obstacle and (2) proven her intent to use political means to advance her agenda through the legislature (including, for example, raising campaign funds to go after legislators at the ballot box).

Interested observers face that old puzzle about whether the enemy of your enemy is your friend.  Do good government forces benefit by helping a progressive governor knock out the more-conservative speaker, or by turning a blind eye to what might be raw corruption on his part?

Why everybody can’t be right?  Yes, the Convention Center should be audited.  Yes, the whole JCLS should meet and take action in a transparent fashion.  Yes, it’s worth having some agency look into whether use of the legislature’s auditing power is being abused. Yes, we should be suspicious that a politicized State Police might serve the governor’s political interest.

This is how divided government is supposed to work, making it in everybody’s interest to seek leverage against the others.  The problem is that state government in RI is so one-sided that it’s always “heads they win, tails you lose.”

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Rhode Island Brakes on the American Dream

In today’s Providence Journal, I contrast the difference between national economic policies and what we put up with in the Ocean State:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Making America great, making Rhode Island worse. Facing the real world, living in a pretend world.

The contrast could not be more striking. Recently in Davos, Switzerland, despite impeachment distractions, President Trump systematically laid out America’s successful roadmap to unprecedented freedom and prosperity, with trillions in investment dollars and a flood of companies choosing to repatriate to America.

Conversely, Rhode Island’s political class follows a government-centric command-and-control approach, resulting in the worst business climate in the nation as well as economic and educational stagnation that is forcing families and businesses to choose to flee our state.

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Tyranny Out of Partisan Gripes

Read around social media for even a short time, particularly in Rhode Island, and you’ll come across a Never Trumper making some sort of claim that he must be impeached so future presidents don’t get the impression that they can do whatever they want.  Put aside that President Trump is, if anything, an improvement in this regard from his predecessor.

If folks are truly concerned about tyranny as the child of our political moment, statements like this ought to set off alarm sirens:

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The translation is that these things cannot be decided at the ballot box “for we cannot be sure that the vote will be won by us.”  With even Never Trump Republicans (or former Republicans) saying they don’t care who the Democrats nominate so long as they get rid of President Trump, the mission is clear.  Nothing matters to them but making sure the outcome they want is the outcome the United States gets.

If Mr. Schiff is concerned about the integrity of our elections, then that’s where his attention should be focused.  As it is, he’s being either recklessly ignorant or horrifically welcoming of an obvious consequence of his self-proclaimed mandate:  Namely, if differences like this are not decided at the ballot box, sooner or later, they will be decided in the streets, with blood.

Avoiding that outcome is the basic underlying principle of our republic.

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The Miracle of Good-Government Policy in RI

In intellectual discussion at the intersection of religion and science, participants sometimes propose to define miracles as extremely improbable events that happen at a significant time, such that the significance itself appears to have influenced the outcome.  If, for example, there is some infinitesimal chance that an incurable disease will just go away and does after the patient prays at some holy shrine, then that might meet the definition of “miracle.”

In a somewhat crass way, this definition came to mind while reading about the state legislature’s audit of the RI Convention Center following the center’s investigation of the speaker’s friend:

“The JCLS has an obligation to meet and determine exactly why an audit was ordered of the Convention Center after Mr. Demers got in trouble at his job,” [RIGOP Chairwoman Susan] Cienki said. “The public deserves to know if government resources are being used by Speaker Mattiello to satisfy a petty personal grudge. If the JCLS won’t meet and explain what is going on, then perhaps the attorney general should investigate.”

Mattiello’s spokesperson, Larry Berman, pushed back at Cienki by pointing out that House Republicans, notably former Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, have been calling for better oversight of the Convention Center’s finances for years. He sent Target 12 multiple press releases and news reports in which Morgan laid out her criticisms.

One gets the sense that this has become the way that Republican, conservative, or just good-government policies find their way miraculously into state law and activity.  It is improbable that a Republican’s call to audit a government agency will be heeded in Rhode Island… except at that significant moment when it serves the interest of some powerful interest for ulterior reasons.

Makes one wonder if there’s a list of policy proposals out there awaiting some direct pay-off before they are implemented, with the fact that somebody (or some party) suggested them used as cover.

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Anti-TCI Gas Tax Coalition Meets

The first observation that a conservative might make upon reading Chris Lisinski’s State House News Service article on a press conference of groups opposing the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) gas tax is the skewed perspective.  According to Lisinski, conservatives’ expressing their view on an issue “deepened tensions between the think tanks who hosted it and environmental groups.”  When environmental groups hold similar events, are they ever described as “deepening tensions” with people who disagree with them?

Still, hearing from folks on the other side is always valuable:

One of those individuals, Environmental League of Massachusetts President Elizabeth Henry, told the News Service that she did not intend to ask any questions but hoped to hear a clear alternative for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from TCI opponents. She said that hope went unfulfilled.

“We have a statutory obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050,” she said, referring to the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008 that sets an emissions reduction target. “Climate change mitigation is statutorily mandated, and if not TCI, then what? I’m open to hearing it, but I feel like we have a really great solution in TCI.”

As Rhode Island’s governor attempts to impose the absurd goal of 100% renewable energy supply in her state by 2030, we should consider what Henry is making of this “statutory obligation.”  If it can’t be met without imposing overly restrictive burdens on the people of the state, then remove it.  Presumably, one is supposed to bow in the face of “statutory obligations,” but the reality is that the obligations are only statutory.  They can be changed easily with another statute.

Thus does the Left like to box a democracy in, to make it seem as if the people have no choice.  In this case, TCI is an attempt to hide the choices that have been made, as one of the TCI-opponents explains:

“Why are they doing this through this interstate compact? Why don’t you just raise the gas tax by 17 cents? The infrastructure is already in place to collect the tax, you wouldn’t have to hire any more bureaucrats to do it,” said Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute in Vermont. “The reason they’re doing it through this convoluted, expensive means is because it’s a CYA program for politicians who don’t want to be seen as raising a tax.”

Supporters of this sort of environmental policy take intricate steps to make it seem as if the public has no choice and then to make it difficult to find accountability when they don’t like the choices that have been made.

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Political Monday with John DePetro: Budgets and Politics

My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for January 20, included talk about:

  • The governor’s budget (and popularity)
  • The speaker’s interest in the Convention Center
  • The women’s march
  • Big money state jobs, especially corrections

I’ll be on again Monday, January 27, at 12:00 p.m. on WNRI 1380 AM and I-95.1 FM.

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Living the Governor’s Dream

On a number of topics, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s interview with Kim Kalunian of WPRI was disturbing, with the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) taking the lead.  The segment points directly to her political philosophy and presumption of authority.

In pushing for a new tax on gasoline, she envisions herself as a sort of superhero, pushing forward regional plans for incremental socialism in order “to save our kids and to save us.”  Such is the arrogance and bad-faith-argument of all demagoguery.  Well, look, if you want to save the planet, you have to give me money and power.  You do want to save the planet, don’t you?

Not to worry, though.  The governor also sees a benefit for you right now:  “Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to drive your car to work?”  If your answer to that question is “no,” Raimondo doesn’t seem to have a good answer for you.

Of course, progressives have an answer to every specific point you might make:  Government will take care of you.  Perhaps you dread the idea of being forced into taking public transportation to work because you don’t know how you’d manage to get one child to day care and the other to school and slip out for errands at lunchtime all according to a bus schedule.

Not to worry!  Government will subsidize day care and before-school programs so you can spend less time with your children and deliver them under the wings of the state earlier, so as to catch the bus.  Government will also change zoning to force all workplaces into condensed areas so that all of your errands will be within walking distance of your job.  (And don’t forget that government will help you sterilize yourself so you don’t have to worry about any more children complicating your life.)

All of your needs will be answered, if you just sacrifice your freedoms to the better judgment of the governor.  You do want to save the planet, don’t you?

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Replace the Ethics Commission with Competitive Politics

Former Republican state senator Dawson Hodgson made an interesting point on Twitter recently:

Yes, the RI Ethics Commission is little more than a political score settling arena. No, more secrecy isn’t the answer. New leadership culture would be: replace staff & body, hold both ethics code violators and malicious complaint filers to account.

I’m not sure I’d go as far as Hodgson in minimizing the current role of the commission.  Yes, complaints can be mechanism for political gotcha, but fear of complaints leads many officials to seek advisory opinions, or at least to be sufficiently familiar with the state’s Code of Ethics to have a sense of when they should think of doing so.  There’s some value to that.

My problem with the Ethics Commission is that its decisions often seem to start with whether something feels right and then dig into (often contradictory) precedence for rationalization.  Worse, what “feels right” to commissioners is overly favorable to the enterprise of government.  Take some action that would be obvious corruption if it crossed between the public and private sectors and put it entirely in the public sector, and the corruption is assumed away.  As long as everything is accomplished within the walls of government, it doesn’t matter that the people involved have a personal financial interest.*

So, yes, I agree with Hodgson that the commission needs a new “culture,” but I’m skeptical that changing out every person in the office would make much difference. Empowering an agency to issue official government proclamations about the behavior of people who regularly engage in political contests will always create an opening for political maneuvering.

The culture that needs to change is that of the electorate.  For starters, we need more people willing to run, but more than that, we need voters who actually care about the behavior of their officials.  If that doesn’t exist, no law or regulation will remain free of corruption.

 

* Actually, the commission of the late 1990s began to acknowledge the possibility of intra-government corruption, but by the late ’00s, staff of the commission would actually take shots at their predecessors on this point.

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The Hidden Message of the Music Box

Back before many people trusted the Internet as a medium through which to conduct consumer transactions — or even thought to use it for that purpose — I would periodically travel over the bridge from the University of Rhode Island to Newport to hit the Music Box, a record store on Thames Street.  When searching for recordings of the (sometimes relatively obscure) music I was studying for performance or theory, a trip of that distance was often unavoidable.

Now we’ve reached the point that almost any recording you might want to hear is available instantly on a portable device for a relatively inexpensive annual subscription.  It isn’t difficult to understand why the business model of stores like the Music Box has hollowed out.

As Scott Barrett reports, however, Rhode Island’s pitiless government didn’t make it any easier for the store — which just closed after extending its life by changing its product mix — to survive:

Jay added that operating a business in Rhode Island, and Newport specifically, is getting more and more difficult because of the mounting taxes.

Express, a clothing store located directly next to the Helly Hansen store, also had signs in the window Thursday announcing a going-out-of-business sale. An associate at Express told The Daily News the store will close at the end of the month. Across the street, a pair of stores — The Tourist Trap and Nautical & Nice — had signs on the door that read “Sorry, closed.”

Defenders of Rhode Island’s insider status quo sometimes assert things like, “Businesses don’t go under because the tax rate is a couple percentage points higher,” or, “People move south for the weather, not the tax savings.”  Such arguments, while they may be untrue because too simplistic, make valid points, but they miss the critical point.  Our government shouldn’t be laying sticks on the camel; it should be striving to accomplish what it needs to accomplish with the least amount of disruption possible.

Politicians are terrible at predicting and adequately considering the consequences of their policies.  Rhode Island officials frequently prove they can manage to provide targeted incentives so new businesses can overcome the artificial barriers, but they should be making business easier across the board so legacy businesses like the Music Box can better survive the changing landscape.