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A Culture of Pay to Play

Yesterday, I suggested that IGT’s $150,000 donation to the Democratic Governor’s Association (DGA) looks kind of quid-pro-quo-ish, given that the organization’s chairwoman is Gina Raimondo, who was at the time preparing a long-term, no-bid contract for the country in her role as Rhode Island’s governor.  WPRI’s Eli Sherman now reports that this instance was actually part of a much more pervasive culture of pay to play:

IGT and Twin River Worldwide Holdings – the state’s leading gambling companies – contributed $150,000 and $100,000 to the DGA through the first half of the year, respectively. The national organization announced Wednesday it raised a record-breaking $19 million during the same period. …

… IRS records show IGT on average has contributed $159,285 each year since 2013, including $175,000 last year and $160,000 in 2017.

For Twin River, the $100,000 it contributed this year marks the first time in at least the last five years the company has given money to the DGA, according to a company spokesperson.

This inevitable mixture of politics and profit is important to keep in mind whenever government gets involved in a line of business, as it is with gambling.  The development of a pay-to-play environment becomes absolutely critical to remember when allowing a state to do as Rhode Island has been doing — involving itself deeply in economic development.  The more central government is in the economy, the more campaign donations increase in importance and the less relevant business viability or the health of the economy becomes.

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RI Has Been Following the Wrong Approach to Economic Development

GoLocalProv recently published an essay of mine laying out the errors of the central-planning approach to economic development and suggesting an alternative:

In [Bryant University Professor of Economics Edinaldo Tebaldi’s] vision, policymakers (like the governor and legislature) advised by experts (like economics professors) stand before the complex machine of our economy and turn dials as they seek the optimum operation. …

An alternative vision would treat Rhode Island’s economy more as a landscape in which valuable fruits cannot grow because opportunistic weeds are draining the substance of the soil and blocking out the sun.  The people who live here have roots and should not be forced to tear them out, but government makes it too difficult for them to flourish, so they wither instead.  In this view, the Ocean State and its residents already have everything they need to innovate and advance the economy, and anything that’s missing, they can figure out and procure.  They just need space and freedom.

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Education to Build Sturdier Bubbles

As Glenn Reynolds suggests, news like this isn’t exactly “startling”:

In a surprising new national survey, members of each major American political party were asked what they imagined to be the beliefs held by members of the other. The survey asked Democrats: “How many Republicans believe that racism is still a problem in America today?” Democrats guessed 50%. It’s actually 79%. The survey asked Republicans how many Democrats believe “most police are bad people”. Republicans estimated half; it’s really 15%. …

… But what’s startling is the further finding that higher education does not improve a person’s perceptions – and sometimes even hurts it. In their survey answers, highly educated Republicans were no more accurate in their ideas about Democratic opinion than poorly educated Republicans. For Democrats, the education effect was even worse: the more educated a Democrat is, according to the study, the less he or she understands the Republican worldview.

Democrats without high school diplomas are three times more likely to understand members of the opposing party than Democrats with PhDs.  That may not actually be that surprising, but one odd finding is that ignorance of the opposition’s beliefs increases as people become more politically engaged.

Of course, we should layer on the caveats.  The questions by which the study collected its data deserve scrutiny, and there could be all sorts of distinctions that might correlate with party affiliation and/or education, such that neither is really a cause of the effect.

That said, the study makes intuitive sense that corresponds with conservatives’ interpretation of modern political dynamics.  Working class Democrats are more likely to be conservative, which would give them more sympathy with Republicans; if you hold a particular political view, for example, you’ll be able to see that it isn’t implicitly racist.  Moreover, at lower levels, occupations are less likely to be a matter of choice, so perhaps those who hold them are more likely to be thrown together with people in similar circumstances who have different political affiliations.

At the same time, education has shifted toward indoctrination, which means that it teaches and prioritizes judgment, not understanding.  This, in turn, changes the nature of political engagement, as being politically active shifts away from an emphasis on addressing real problems and toward the dominance of an ideology.

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A Need for Courage on the Right

Princeton Professor Robert George offered important advice at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver:  We need to display conspicuous courage. This explanation is important to keep in mind:

George acknowledged it is not easy to suffer such “abuse” and “defamation,” noting it places jobs, relationships, businesses and much more in jeopardy. But the more people stay silent, the bigger a problem it becomes, he said.

“If we want our children, if we want our young men and women, to be able to stand up on a college campus and not be bowled and not be intimidated, and to speak the truth and to speak their minds — we had better set an example in our own adult lives,” George said, prompting applause.

“Anyone who succumbs to the intimidation and bullying, anyone who acquiesces or goes silent out of fear, not only harms his or her own character … he or she also makes things harder for others,” George said. “We owe it not only to ourselves to be courageous … we owe it to God.”

In cultural matters — as well as spiritual — we’re all part of a chain.  Each person who steps back from the challenge makes it that much more difficult for the next person in line.  The ideal state of a movement is for its members to be so uniformly sturdy that is difficult for the weakest to break ranks.  On the other end of deterioration, even the strongest find it difficult to be sturdy.

One can observe this in play as an ideological strategy when even the most reasonable progressives refuse to acknowledge that a conservative is making a reasonable point.  In such cases, reasonableness is a sign of weakness (in actuality betraying the weakness of the position that the progressives are defending).

That is not a model that conservatives should emulate, because it is morally wrong and intellectually vapid, but it merits remembering:  Whenever you feel yourself wavering in the face of hostility, bring to mind those next in line who will find it more difficult to uphold your shared principles because you backed down.

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Assessing the Problems and the Solutions of the Town

The particulars will vary from town to town — depending on the makeup of the population, the availability of non-tax revenue, the personalities involved in local politics, and so on — but key principles are essential for government to operate.  In a representative democracy with frequent turnover of elected officials, the rules have to be clear and consistent (and the power limited), such that the electorate is voting on broad questions of direction, not to address immediate crises or controversies.

As vice president of the Tiverton Town Council, I’ve been giving these matters a great deal of thought, and it has ultimately come down to this assessment of problems and solutions:

  1. Tiverton has no long-term financial plan.  Beginning at the council level and with input and cooperation across town government — municipal and schools — we must put every known challenge on the table and piece them all together so we can make rational decisions going forward.  Everything is a trade-off with something else, and without a real and concrete understanding of what needs to be done by when, town government cannot make informed decisions.
  2. The roles of town officials are not clearly defined (at least in how they are executed).  Much of our difficulty maintaining employees in critical positions as well as our political acrimony comes from the same source.  Whether we’re talking micromanagement from the Town Council, decisions by employees that follow improper channels, or boards that claim power for themselves (or neglect it), lacking a clear picture of who is responsible for what can result in conflicts and wasted effort.
  3. Basic and consistent rules of operation haven’t been followed.  A clear message from local businesses when Town Council members, town officials, and various volunteers toured their facilities a couple months ago was that the rules they have to follow change depending whom they ask or who holds a particular office at the time.  Meanwhile, every time employees have done something so egregious as to deserve to lose their jobs, lawyers advising the town have pointed out that no prior violations were ever actually put in their files. At the same time, the Board of Canvassers has picked and chosen what it would put on ballots.  These examples all illustrate the importance of consistency.

Some of these challenges will sound familiar across Rhode Island, but talking to people involved in politics in some other towns, I’ve been struck by just how out-of-whack Tiverton is on some of them.  That is particularly true when it comes to the lack of a financial plan.

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Bruce and the Incentives of the Central Planner

Here’s a telling note from Ted Nesi’s Nesi’s Notes on WPRI.com:

The CNBC list drew a lot of attention on social media, including from economic-development expert Bruce Katz, who tweeted: “I find this ranking difficult to understand given large drop in RI unemployment, investments in infrastructure, off-shore wind, innovation vouchers + innovation campuses, attraction of Infosys and other significant companies and many other smart moves.” Turns out Katz had good reason to have Rhode Island on the mind: on Wednesday night I ran into him in Providence, and discovered he was in town to interview with Commerce RI about writing its new economic development study. Katz, of course, helped put together the 2015 Brookings Institution report that provided the blueprint for the Raimondo administration on economic development. Katz has since left Brookings, and now runs a consultancy called New Localism Advisers. The other three contenders are Camoin Associates, TIP Strategies, and The Research Associates. Commerce spokesperson Matt Sheaff says there’s no timeline yet for making a pick.

How perfect is this.  A guy who was at the center of RI’s failed economic development strategy is publicly praising the state’s economy four or five years later while also secretly in the running for a big contract from the state government.

The archetypal central planner would no doubt disagree with this assessment, but a skeptical observer might see in the above blockquote a reason to doubt central planning.  Even by their own philosophies central planners aren’t demigods who should be expected to get every decision right from the start, which means they have to be able and willing to review their results with a cold, clinical eye.  The political incentives and human nature, however, make that practice virtually impossible.

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A Better Way to Cover Americans

With the State of Rhode Island writing ObamaCare into state law with this year’s budget, it’s worth noting a proposal floating around in conservative circles and the Trump Administration, as Avik Roy articulates here:

Last week, the White House finalized a new rule that allows employers to fund health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) that can be used by workers to buy their own coverage on the individual market. This subtle, technical tweak has the potential to revolutionize the private health insurance market. …

The administration estimates that as many as 800,000 employers — mostly smaller businesses — will choose this option, expanding health care choices for 11 million workers in the next decade. These employers will benefit from having fiscal certainty over their health expenditures. And workers will benefit from being able to choose their coverage and take it from job to job.

This is the health-care-market fix for which I’ve been advocating for years.  Everybody would get accounts, and employers could put money into them for their employees.  So could the government, as welfare benefits, and so could charities.  So could parents or even concerned members of a community after some surprise accident or illness for a neighbor.

At the same time, eliminate most mandatory coverages for health insurance so people for whom it makes sense can buy catastrophic coverage inexpensively.  That way everybody is covered for emergencies and nobody ever has a preexisting condition, because everybody has always had some sort of coverage.  At the same time, Americans would be better able to make health care decisions because they’d more often be paying directly for the services they receive and doing the cost-benefit analyses that people several steps removed from their situations can’t possibly do.

Of course, under such a system politicians attempting to buy votes would have to be more direct about it.  They’d be limited to transparently depositing taxpayer money into accounts instead of implicitly driving up costs in our opaque system by requiring insurers to cover certain benefits.  But in a fair analysis, a better, more-sustainable health care system that doesn’t distort the employment market is probably a little bit preferable to enabling corruption in politics.

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The Obviousness of Brazen Subversion

Whenever the subject comes up, conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg jokes that he feels a bit like he’s picking up opposition communications when he listens to NPR.  Every now and then on his podcast, Bill Bartholomew gives me the same feeling.

Most of the time, the difference of Bartholomewtown resides in the sorts of guests who appear on the show or the general thrust of the questions.  Sometimes, however, the conversation takes place so many ideological assumptions deep that a conservative can only listen as if to a surrealist novel or coded dispatches from foreign spies.

Not surprisingly, one such episode was the one featuring drag queen activist Naomi Chomsky.  From the beginning, Bartholomew and his guest proceed on the assumption that drag queen story hour is wholesome.  What’s surreal and disconcerting is that the two of them seem unable to comprehend why others might disagree.  It’s simply posed, “What could be more wholesome than that?”  (I think that’s a direct quote, but I haven’t gone back and checked.)

Frankly, one gets the impression that such principles must be asserted as if they are obvious because they aren’t obvious at all, but pretty clearly a subversive opposite.  I’m reminded of Andrew Sullivan’s insistence in the early days of the same-sex marriage debate that we all had to get past the “circular fiat” of a definition.  Brushing aside the fact that activists were seeking to change a definition was intrinsic to the argument that there was no reason not to change it.  When asked directly, mainstream journalists would acknowledge that one could oppose same-sex marriage for reasons other than bigotry, but they never presented the issue as if that were true.

A particularly educational aspect of the Chomsky Bartholomewtown episode is how much is smuggled in with the initial assumption.  Even if one were to accept for argument’s sake the proposition that drag queen story hour could be wholesome, this particular drag queen chose a stage name to be explicitly ideological.

Over the course of the interview, Chomsky celebrates the Russian Revolution and looks forward to something similar in the United States, talks about hanging Confederates, and calls minority and homosexual police officers “traitors to their communities.”  And somehow a wig, a dress, and a bunch of makeup makes it obviously wholesome for this radical to read to children.  Contrast that with the experience of Karen Siegemund, who lost her job teaching math in California explicitly because she’d said something positive about Western Civilization in a speech outside of the school.

One needn’t agree with me that the subversiveness of drag is entirely reinforcing of the subversiveness of Chomsky’s entire ideological program to acknowledge a crucial point:  All of the important arguments are simply brushed aside because — consciously or not — the people having the conversation refuse to entertain them.  Pair that with activists’ having created an environment in which other people don’t want to raise the obvious objections and you can see what dangerous times we’re living in.

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The Question of Cashlessness and Dictatorship

Since we’ve recently had some discussion about cashless business and the way it connects with freedom, which is particularly appropriate this week, developments in Hong Kong deserve a timely mention:

In Hong Kong, most people use a contactless smart card called an “Octopus card” to pay for everything from transit, to parking, and even retail purchases. It’s pretty handy: Just wave your tentacular card over the sensor and make your way to the platform.

But no one used their Octopus card to get around Hong Kong during the protests. The risk was that a government could view the central database of Octopus transactions to unmask these democratic ne’er-do-wells. Traveling downtown during the height of the protests? You could get put on a list, even if you just happened to be in the area.

So the savvy subversives turned to cash instead. Normally, the lines for the single-ticket machines that accept cash are populated only by a few confused tourists, while locals whiz through the turnstiles with their fintech wizardry.

How do I reconcile my agreement with the concerns of Reason’s Andrea O’Sullivan, who wrote the above, and my aversion to the Rhode Island government’s ban on cashless retail?  Well, I ask myself an important question:  Did the General Assembly pass and the governor sign that legislation in order to preserve the rights and anonymity of the people of Rhode Island?

No.  By all appearances, somebody complained to a legislator or two about running into difficulty making a purchase at some point.  The politicians thought the legislation would buy them some good will from desired constituencies (like young voters), and they don’t give much thought to the rights of business owners to define their own business models.  That doesn’t mean that the legislators’ conclusions were wrong or right, but it does suggest that they weren’t crafted carefully in such a way as to balance the interests of various groups and all of our interest in preserving our freedom.

Yes, Hong Kong does give us preview of a dystopian future.  Everybody’s accustomed to life without cash, and they’re on the dangerous edge of a communist dictatorship.  In evaluating legislation in the Ocean State, we shouldn’t start by imagining how it would play if transported into a dictatorship, but rather by asking whether it brings us closer to being one.

To avoid the dystopia, we need the freedom to innovate.  A society in which the government does not feel it has the authority to impose business requirements is one in which people will develop new technologies and value their freedom, competing against large conglomerates that, themselves, would one day be subject to takeover by a central government.

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Relentless Perpetuation of the “Equal Pay” Myth via Legislation

Helpful headlines notwithstanding, the Rhode Island Senate once again passed legislation to address the mythical “wage gap”:

A plan to close the gender wage gap in Rhode Island by adding new, sharper teeth to the state’s fair pay law and banning employers from asking job candidates their salary history sailed through the state Senate again Thursday.

“Rhode Island first passed an equal pay law in the 1950s, and I am sure it was revolutionary at the time, but we have not gone back and updated it unlike many other states,” said Sen. Gayle Goldin, lead sponsor of the pay equity legislation. “Passing this bill is not going to resolve the wage gap on its own, rather, this bill in combination with so many things we have worked on… is the way we will address the gender wage gap.”

And so it goes.  As long as progressives want to foster division and grievance, this legislation will keep appearing.  Maybe some year the gears of political necessity will get it over the finish line.  As that process plays on from year to year, opponents will tire of saying the same thing over and over again.  That’s the advantage of the left-wing approach to public “debate”:  When you refuse to acknowledge the other side’s arguments and just keep repeating the talking points, the other side moves to other topics, and the public just becomes used to the deception.

By way of a preventative measure, here’s my op-ed on the topic, from the Providence Journal last year around this time, which I published in more casual, expansive form in this space the month before:

Plainly put, this gives the government power to investigate just about any business and dictate changes to its pay policies, because the only pay differentials that wouldn’t have legal risks would be those between people of the same race, religion, sex, orientation, gender identity, disability, age, and nationality.  That is, for any two employees who aren’t more or less demographically identical, the lower-paid one could initiate a complaint with the state with the same treatment as complaints that the employer withheld pay, and the burden is on the employer to explain it and to prove that no other business practice could erase it.

Think about how much of an encroachment on private activity and interactions that is, as well as the presumption that government is some sort of neutral judge that can accurately assess every business decision.

If this legislation ever passes, I expect it will have some degree of the same effect as the ill-advised paid leave legislation which progressives did manage to pass last yearl.

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Dealing with RI’s Endangered Place

Something seems odd about declaring the Providence Superman Building as “endangered,” making one wonder whether the designation is the result of lobbying by interested parties:

Rhode Island’s tallest — and vacant — landmark, the former Industrial Trust Building in downtown Providence, otherwise known as the Superman Building, is on this year’s list of the nation’s most endangered historic places.

For more than 30 years the National Trust for Historic Preservation has produced a list of the 11 most endangered places in the country to call attention to what it considers “one-of-a-kind treasurers.”

The 91-year-old art deco Superman tower, which earned its nickname for its resemblance to the Daily Planet building from Superman comics, joins Nashville’s Music Row and the National Mall Tidal Basin in Washington, among others, as this year’s threatened places.

On the topic, Matt Allen expresses the extremity of the opposing point of view:  “This is not an ‘iconic’ building. It’s an eyesore and a terrible investment. Tear it down.”  My views are somewhere in the middle, still bogged down in questions I haven’t answered completely.

How do we measure the value of some publicly accessible (or at least publicly visible) thing, like a building or geological feature that has contributed to an area’s character?  Who gets to determine what can, can’t, should, and shouldn’t be done?

The simplest answer that conforms with my philosophy is that people who want to preserve it should find a way to buy it with private money, and then to maintain it at least to a baseline standard for health and safety.   One complication arises in my belief that local areas can answer the relevant questions differently, so if the people of Providence want to use some measure of public resources to preserve the building, then to the extent the city is acting independently from the rest of the state, I’m not going to tell them they can’t.

This only raises the next question: On the state level, do we want to be the kind of place that preserves its landmarks?

My answer on this one is “no.”  Our state isn’t so thoroughly thriving that we can afford nostalgia.  Just like protectionism with dying industries, if we manipulate the market value of a building like this, we don’t allow the best use of that property.

Let the skyline change.  Let the city’s character change.  That’s the sign of human adjustment, and we should embrace it.  Anybody who disagrees should use their own money and sweat to find some use for the antiquated hulk.

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Millennial Suffering and the Right to a Coastal Lifestyle

As a general proposition, I find debate about the conditions of different generations — Millennials, GenX, Boomers, etc. — to be not much more than merely amusing.  However, a point that David Harsanyi makes in The Federalist touches more broadly on the way a certain sort of coastal elite looks at people’s conditions and rights.

Broadly, Harsanyi acknowledges that Millennials do show slower growth in wealth and delayed achievement of life milestones, but he argues that this is a function of their choices.  Indeed, delaying milestones like marriage and home ownership are likely the causes of slower growth in wealth, rather than the effects of it.

However, the interesting point about perspective comes with this:

… millennials aren’t compelled to rent apartments in the middle of the most expensive cities in America. Yet, many are happier living in urban areas than previous generations were. Pew Research found in 2018 that 88 percent of millennials now reside in metropolitan areas. That’s also a choice.

And the urban areas that millennials choose are more expensive partly because they are far better iterations of cities than previous generations encountered. In the past 30 years, these places have undergone waves of gentrification and revival, in part to cater to the tastes of younger Americans. Most are cleaner, safer, and more livable in numerous ways—and thus, more pricey. Yes, Brooklyn was a lot cheaper in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. It was also more dangerous, dirtier, and less enticing for families and businesses.

True, Harsanyi grants, half-million-dollar “veritable castles” in high-demand suburbs are out of reach for young adults, but starter homes in more reasonable zip codes are not.  That’s why we call them “starter homes.”

Of course, this point gets tangled up in the self-contradictory beliefs of modern progressives — for instance, that nobody needs a large house with all the fixin’s, but that anybody who cannot have such a house is unjustly deprived.  Just so, the insinuation on behalf of Millennials is that they have a right to live the lifestyle that coastal elites consider to be de rigeur and are deprived if they cannot.  The hardship of the generation, in other words, is that they cannot afford the things that a traditional lifestyle lived over a at least a decade helps a family to achieve.

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Solving Government’s Bad Attitude About Lunch Bills by Replacing Parents with Government

It appears that another embarrassing Rhode Island story has captured the imagination of the nation: Lunch shaming, or giving students a minimal meal when their parents have built up a tab for school lunches.  Locally, the topic has been around for quite a while; it was a topic in one of my podcasts from April 2017.

In a nutshell, my take was to suggest that we’ve lost our way if we’re having public policy debates about how school districts should deal with parents who are deadbeats when it comes to lunch money.  I mean, can you imagine a private school shaming their customers’ children over a $5 lunch tab?  The whole attitude is different, even to the point of seeing students and their families as customers rather than something more like wards or even burdens.

The expansion of that attitude rears its head in a policy proposal that is making its way through Rhode Island’s brain trust:

[Elizabeth Burke Bryant of RI Kids Count] is advocating for the approval of a community eligibility provision which would provide free and reduced lunches to all students and avoid singling out children based on their family’s finances.

The community eligibility provision, which is part of Governor Gina Raimondo’s proposed budget, would provide free meals for all students within districts that have a large percentage of low-income families.

The unhealthy perspective engendered by big government has had the unhappy consequence of shaming children.  The solution, we’re told, is to expand government further into the role of parents, thus expanding the reach of the big-government attitude.  This will have consequences for Rhode Island families that can be as disastrous, in aggregate, as they are unmeasurable.

Providing for your children is part of what makes parenthood worthwhile.  Packing a lunch with love is one of the most straightforward and basic expressions of that responsibility.

Go away, big government.  Let us be families.

The dynamic is reminiscent of the argument that government schools have to instruct all children according to the state’s beliefs about sex because some minority of parents will do a poor job educating their own children.  In the case of school lunches, statists don’t want to single out children who need help funding lunch, so they’re going to edge in on the relationship of most parents and their children.

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