Participants in the climate change debate tend to stand at opposite ends of a string of questions and push “yes” and “no” against each other along the scale. We should break the question down to the political theory underlying the tug-of-war.
Over the weekend, I had a Twitter tiff with Providence Journal columnist Ed Fitzpatrick over a comment in his Sunday column, which was about the negativity between the two Republicans vying for the party’s gubernatorial nomination. Noting that they both have liberal or Democrat backgrounds, Fitzpatrick wrote, “In Ted Cruz’s Texas, they’d give you the electric chair for less than that.”
It’s obviously a joke, but this sort of humor requires some sense of underlying truth. To mainstream New England liberals, the two bits of common wisdom on which Fitzpatrick is playing are that conservatives brook no dissent and that we are casual about human life.
But humor doesn’t only rely on underlying truth, it also reinforces it. If that smart and reasonable political columnist in the state’s major newspaper can casually reference conservatives’ willingness to put people to death for disagreeing with them, then (while of course everybody knows they aren’t that bad… at least not all of them) it’s smart and reasonable of others to trust in the sentiment. This is how the Obama administration can actively abuse Americans during the government shutdown in full expectation that the news media will blame conservative Republicans (e.g., Ted Cruz). This is how local activists (backed by the teachers’ union, naturally) can get away with declaring that their neighbors want to hurt children and destroy the community for seeking to slow the rate of growth of taxes.
It wasn’t that long ago that mainstream journalists (including Fitzpatrick, as I recall) were assuring me that they understood that it’s possible to oppose same-sex marriage without being a bigot, and now look where we are. In part we’re here based on the casual dismissing of opponents’ views, such as performed by Fitzpatrick’s fellow Providence Journal columnist, Bob Kerr. Many were the jokes about traditionalists’ ignorance and bigotry.
This is a lot of weight to put on a throw-away line in an ephemeral bit of political literature, to be sure. I elaborate on the 140 characters of my tweet only because Fitzpatrick and others objected to my objection. Comedians are comedians, and ideologues are ideologues. Even those who agree with them can see the role they fill and take their words in that spirit. At some level in the development of a smart and reasonable columnist, though, an awareness should develop that even jokes can have consequences.
The federal government’s release of Medicare data mainly raises the question of whether the system should work the way it does.
Friday’s discussion on Wingmen was about the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Spotlight on Spending report.
Steven Brown of the RI Chapter of the ACLU: “The votes that voters get to choose across the country are on some of the most divisive, controversial, social, ideological issues there are; abortion, gay rights, same-sex marriage, anti-immigrant. We are deluding ourselves if we think we can hold a convention and not have those issues come to the fore….What’s troubling about that is that we are talking about individual rights that should not be subject to majoritarian control. You’ll hear about all of the safeguards that are in place; first you have to elect the delegates, and then the convention has to vote to approve an amendment, then it’s up to the voters to approve or reject it….They aren’t safeguards, when you’re talking about minority rights”.
Professor Jared Goldstein: “On a basic level, the concern that we’ll have a runaway convention, or that they’ll pass recommendations that are contrary to our fundamental rights is really a point of view that expresses simple, profound distrust of the people, that is, we can’t trust the people the enact legislation that will help us because they may take away our constitutional rights….Don’t we want the people to decide these fundamental questions about what our society is like?…If the answer is no, then who do we trust? Do we just want the judges to decide what our rights are? What are they basing them on?”
Professor Robert Williams: “Some people think that the state constitutions are too easy to change, and therefore aren’t really constitutional. Some people think that state constitutions are too long, they’re too detailed….What these people are doing are comparing state constitutions to the model that all of us know, which is the United States Constitution. I want to suggest that that’s a big mistake, and as you go forward and try to determine whether to have a convention to look at your state constitution, and if you do have a convention, look at what functions and qualities a state constitution has in contrast to the US Constitution….They’re different from the United States Constitution and they ought to be different”.
Professor Alan Tarr: “Most of us revere the US Constitution….Most of us feel we couldn’t do a very good job improving on [the Founders'] handiwork. But somehow, we don’t feel the same reverence, the same attachment to our state constitutions….What we really have are two different constitutional traditions. At the national level, we value stability and continuity. At the state level, we value change and experimentation. The reflects a conflict of views, if you will, at the very point of the founding”.
There are practical steps to make the legislature reform itself (with or without rules changes), but Rhode Islanders and their direct representatives will have to prove their interest.
People inside and outside of Rhode Island government really do live in alternate universes, and it’s up to the people to make their representatives admit it.
An ethical government is critical for a healthy society, and the burden of enforcing it ultimately falls on the voters. If unethical officials can get reelected without fail, then imposing small fines on their behavior is simply a cost of doing business. In that context, as I’ve said before, advisory opinions from an official Ethics Commission can become a mechanism for approving all corruption up to a line.
But what about that line?
Writing about the new Speaker of the House’s professed emphasis on jobs and the economy, Providence Journal columnist Ed Fitzpatrick argues that strong ethics laws have an effect on such matters, too:
“You can’t convince me that being in The New York Times two days in a row for an FBI raid on the State House sends the right message about the way we do business in Rhode Island,” John M. Marion, Common Cause Rhode Island executive director, said. …
I’d argue that restoring Ethics Commission power is not about progressive or conservative government; it’s about good government. I’d argue that ethics and openness are directly tied to the main priorities — jobs and the economy.
Whatever the effect of New York Times coverage, would a restored Ethics Commission have prevented the FBI raid? I don’t think so. After all, the commission did recently manage to fine the FBI’s target.
I’m not saying that legislators should be immune to the Ethics Commission; they shouldn’t. But we have to be careful about seeing the Bureaucracy of Ethics as a magic pill.
For context, I’ll admit that I’m currently down on the Ethics Commission as an agency. I’ll soon be elaborating on the reasons, but for now, I’ll summarize that it has to do with the complete lack of protection it offers residents of Rhode Island when the conflicts of interest they’re fighting are entirely within government. Conflicts of interest one step into the shadows are entirely invisible to the commission’s government lawyers.
In a separate op-ed, Marion suggests that the Ethics Commission’s advice “protects” citizens and legislators both. I think that’s incorrect, at least if the citizenry isn’t willing to protect itself, and if the commission’s understanding of ethics is as skewed as the legislators’.
Voters of the United States should learn a lesson about leadership and leverage from President Obama’s utter impotence in the face of Vladamir Putin.
A conservative’s agreement with an old Marxist suggests some models for how people of different ideologies perceive liberty and freedom.
The legal regime making its way into Rhode Island and American law is indicative of a new secular religion being established under the government.
Many among the conservative commentariate have quickly gotten past their brief flirtation with “I told you so” and are moving toward a tone of slow, aching disconcertment.
Small government Rhode Islanders have a lot to dislike about HealthSource RI, the state’s ObamaCare health benefits exchange. But never mind that the agency is spending public dollars to remedy much-lower-than-expected paying customers, but instead attracting many-more-than-expected free Medicaid recipients (including many in the non-expansion group for whom the federal government isn’t picking up the whole tab).
Never mind that it’s simply inappropriate for the government to take our money and change our laws in order to create a market space that it can fill with a $100 million start-up with no plan to pay for itself and nobody whose livelihood is really on the line if it fails.
Never mind all of that, because HealthSource has stepped into the realm of self-parody with regard to how invasive government can get when money is no object and behavior must be changed. Welcome to HealthSource’s “Nag Toolkit.” As Christine Rousselle of Townhall explains:
The website for the “Nag Toolkit” features tutorials to teach adults how to use the mobile apps Snapchat, Twitter, Vine, Tinder, and OkCupid to connect with their children. While Snapchat, Twitter, and Vine are apps mostly used for communication and sharing things with friends, Tinder and OkCupid are dating/hookup apps. The goal of the “Nag Toolkit” is to assist parents with bothering their kids about health insurance in places where children would not typically expect to find their parents.
So, parents, pick a “provocative username,” and ambush your children on social media, encouraging them to sign on to an overreaching top-down plan to rope them into dependence on government. It gets even better, at the bottom of the page, where the government suggests that confused (or squeamish?) parents can just hand over their kids’ email addresses, and “we’ll do the nagging.”
We can only hope that such efforts have the unintended consequence of pushing young Rhode Islanders toward a gut-level distrust of government and lead them to rebel.
(Click “continue reading” for addendum.)
Two interesting assessments, today, give one the impression that the characteristic Rhode Island game of “let’s pretend” is perhaps coming to its untenable end, at least with regard to land usage. This is from a column by retired Providence Journal commentary page editor, Robert Whitcomb:
It is hard to quantify how much Rhode Island has gained or lost from trying to preserve old mills because people think that they’re quaint. Many can never be retrofitted to make a fair (without tax breaks) profit. Preservationists (not a few of whom are financially secure and don’t have to worry too much about finding a job in the sluggish Rhode Island economy) fiercely fight to save as many of these mills as possible, once built for economically logical reasons that disappeared decades ago. Indeed, the Ocean State has not exactly become a boom town during all these years of trying to keep old factory buildings that don’t make anything anymore except the occasional arsonist.
And this is from the weekend column of Millennial WPRI journalist Ted Nesi:
It’s time for Rhode Island to take a deep breath about the old I-195 land – particularly the state’s politicians, who’ve been promising big things from the 19 acres of potential redevelopment for years now. I-195 Commission Chairman Colin Kane said on this week’s Executive Suite he doesn’t expect construction on any buildings to begin there before the fall of 2015, with the spring of 2016 more likely. And as Jef Nickerson has pointed out, Providence already has plenty of undeveloped land in prime locations in the form of surface parking lots (not to mention Victory Place); the fact that developers aren’t snapping those up suggests weak demand.
It all comes back to Rhode Island’s practice of single-entry bookkeeping — meaning that the powers who be like to coddle the public into believing that the benefits of their preferences have no negative consequences.
Ours isn’t a mature polity. Rhode Island is an excellent sampling of what the world would look like if teenagers ran it. Every game is designed to make sure the cool kids do well.
The Rhode Island Tea Party says freedom is the cure for the illness that the Ocean State’s leaders have brought upon the state.
Justin and Bob Plain review the failure of HealthSource RI to accurately predict its results and discuss whether it’s government’s role to find people in order to give them things they didn’t know they needed.
Jobs and employment data allow different interpretations and come back (as every issue around here seems to do) to competing political philosophies.
Maybe it’s just that the NBC 10 Wingmen segment is sitting me face to face with one on a weekly basis, but it has seemed like a certain refrain has become more common in the responses of Rhode Island progressives to conservative ideas: “The people of Rhode Island disagree with you.”
By way of evidence, they cite the makeup of the state’s legislative and executive branches, 90% and 100% Democrat, respectively. Throw in the federal delegation for another 100% blue block (not to be confused with Blu Blockers).
There are two obvious problems with this bit of non-argument. First, it confuses ideology and principle with partisanship. The majority in Rhode Island disagrees with conservatives on some things and agrees with us on others, yet somehow, that mixture doesn’t translate into a mixed-party State House. Rather, there are progressive Democrats, and there are conservative Democrats.
Second, it treats popularity as an argument. Even if every Rhode Islander disagreed with a person’s policy suggestions, that doesn’t mean that those suggestions are wrong or are not the wisest thing that the state could do, in a particular instance.
A third problem emerges with a poll that Bryant University’s Hassenfeld Institute released, this week, finding that 82% of Rhode Islanders would grade their legislators negatively for effectiveness. It should be noted, of course, that “effectiveness” doesn’t necessarily mean a difference of opinions. After all, RI progressives still manage to keep a straight face when calling the legislators “conservative.”
Still, the results suggest it’s mistaken to equate the output of the legislature, or even the elections, with the views of the population. In that respect, the poll results only reinforce what could be inferred from the low turnout for elections.
The emerging question — which is beginning to cross the threshold from private conversations to public speculation — is whether we’re living under a legitimate representative democracy. It sure does seem as if the public is tuned out and hopeless, sensing that nothing can be changed through civic processes.
That’s a dangerous place to be, if so, and reaffirming the rule of law and promise of democracy should be the very highest priority.
Representative Raymond Hull’s legislation to make business decisions for Cox Communications is a fine example of why Rhode Islanders are suffering.