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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.

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Don’t Let Silence Seem Like TCI Gas Tax Support

Around Thanksgiving, I spent some time trying to understand what the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) was, what it would do, and where it was in the process.  While poking around, I discovered the public feedback form and table of the feedback so far.  At the time, there were around three comments from Rhode Island, all supportive.

Now that tide has turned in a big way, with dozens of comments from Rhode Islanders, almost all opposed.  Here’s John Cullen from Lincoln:

Stop burdening tax paying citizen with more taxes that do little or nothing to better the lives of ordinary taxpaying citizens.

Do not create more taxes for others to parasite off those who drive gas powered vehicles.

Start your low carbon initiative with China and India before you attack myself and other Rhode Island Taxpayers.

The big contrast in RI results over the past month and a half points to an important lesson I’ve been learning over the years.  It’s understandable just to shake one’s head and not get involved, coming to the reasonable conclusion that your one voice won’t make a difference because things have either been decided by insiders or the public opinion will overwhelm the decision with or without you.

Even if one of those two possibilities is true, however, it’s important for the people in power to know that there is opposition.  Where no opposition is expressed, decisions can be presented simply as the public desire.

This is especially notable when it comes to things like municipalities’ comprehensive plans.  Such documents are often developed by a handful of people on an unelected committee, working with professional consultants (who are often thinly disguised advocates), with “public input” from a very limited number of people who were willing to spend a boring night or two at a public meeting without being on the committee.

Yet, when the report is released and the plan adopted, the government moves forward under the pretense that it is the people’s vision for their community.  That’s often true only inasmuch nobody cared enough to keep track of it and make time to object, which is a very weak form of support, indeed.

Conversely, when a public forum like the TCI feedback table shows overwhelming opposition to the project, it at the very least removes the value of a propaganda tool and might even become the basis for elected officials to listen to their constituents.

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Opioid Solutions When the Government Refuses to Address Problems

In his recent essay on this site, Dr. Stephen Skoly described the consequences of legislation seeking to regulate prescription opioids, but he stopped short of broad conclusions about the politics involved.  As it happens, one such conclusion fit in well with the other topics that John DePetro and I discussed on December 30.

We can, of course, debate whether a new $5 million fee for opioid manufacturers and wholesalers is actually about solving a social problem, rather than finding a new source of revenue.  But taking the politicians at their word for their motivation, one can at least say that such policies infantilize the people, as if our legislators and governor are the only adults in the state and therefore must protect patients from their irresponsible selves and from greedy doctors.

Something milder and, in its way, worse is probably going on, as well.  The theme that John and I happened upon in our segment was that government officials in Rhode Island shy away from addressing actual problems.  They look for all sorts of ways to get at them without actually naming and attacking the root causes.

When it comes to a failing education system, they seek work-arounds and small tweaks like, like shifting authority toward principals, rather than draw attention to the labor-union structure that makes the system all about the remuneration of adults rather than the education of children.  When it comes to teenage fights at a mall, the focus goes to things like community programs to give kids something to do, rather than unraveling the progressive assumptions that lead to gang-friendly policing and suspension-unfriendly school regulations (not to mention identity-group entitlement).

Just so, going after fentanyl and heroin on the criminal market would manifest in urban areas and among minorities.  Many people in those communities would be grateful for the improved environment, but the enforcement and incarceration statistics would look bad and draw the attention of groups like the ACLU.  So instead, government tries to find a solution from the other side, making things more difficult (literally more painful) for law-abiding citizens, in the hopes that they can limit the market for the drugs and make the dealers go away for lack of profit.

If that approach also produces a $5 million fee for government, so much the better.

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From Childish Negotiations to Demands

As we edge toward a new decade, something about the progressive RI Political Cooperative’s tax-the-rich plan is especially worrying:

They propose a state income tax hike for individuals making more than $467,700 a year. By their calculations, raising the top marginal tax rate from 5.99% to 10.99% on these top earners would “generate over $170 million″ in new revenue “to help meet Rhode Island’s critical needs in education, housing, health care, and clean energy.”

They also endorsed the $15-per-hour minimum wage proposed in recent years by left-leaning Democrats in the Rhode Island legislature and public employee unions. The proposal generated headlines and some support, but not enough to win General Assembly approval during the last session in the face of heated opposition from the state’s business lobby. A $15-an-hour wage equates to $31,200 a year.

Right away, progressive Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo balked at the idea of doubling the income tax rate to make the Ocean State a regional outlier again, which brings to mind my op-ed about how progressives who aren’t in direct control of government can just say anything to seem more pure, while those in office have responsibilities.

In this case, the progressives have to know that their policy has no chance, which makes the proposal a sort of childish, aspirational negotiating ploy — start high to increase leverage.  In public policy, however, that means we can never have an honest discussion about what’s realistic and what the trade-offs are.  The biggest trade-off is the principle of giving government the authority to decide how much money people should make.

This is well-trodden ground, however.  What feels new and worrying is that education (particularly higher education) has increasingly become about training activists, rather than breeding thinkers.  We might soon get to a place where a critical mass of our countrymen have forgotten not only about negotiation and rights, but also about reality.  At that point, it doesn’t matter what the effects might be of taking a big chunk of money from those with the higher income, while also forcing them to pay employees above market rate.  Even as the economy shrivels, no trade-offs will be acknowledged, because there will always be somebody to blame for inequity and government screws to tighten.

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Next, They’ll Come for Meat

Earlier today, I highlighted Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s intention to make gasoline more expensive because “we have to get off of gas-guzzling cars for the existence of us.”  By pure chance, today, I also came across this indication, in The Economist, of the future of this sort of argument, under the headline, “How much would giving up meat help the environment?”:

IT IS NO secret that steaks and chops are delicious. But guzzling them incurs high costs for both carnivorous humans and the planet. Over half of adults in both America and Britain say they want to reduce their meat consumption, according to Mintel, a market-research firm. Whether they will is a different matter. The amount of meat that Americans and Britons consume per day has risen by 10% since 1970, according to figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

People who want to eat less livestock—but who can’t quite bring themselves to exchange burgers for beans—might take inspiration from two recent academic papers.

Whether we’ll freely take inspiration from those two academic papers, we can predict that somebody else will take inspiration to use government to force us to stop being “meat-guzzlers.”

Once we allow that government can use its power to nudge us away from exercises of our freedom, activists will find an endless series of activities that the world would be better off without.

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Political Monday with John DePetro: Progressive Pressure

My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for December 16, included talk about:

  • The governor’s Projo interview
  • Where’s all the money go… in Providence and RI?
  • Progressives’ state-killing tax proposal
  • Women’s caucus: another progressive organization

Open post for full audio.

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The Advantage of a Generalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Far-Reaching Conversation on State of the State

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

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

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

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

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

Open post for full audio.

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A Need for Space and Friction in Social Media Gravity

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

The implications for political science are particularly immediate:

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

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

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

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

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

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Generations of Sam Bells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NYC Exports the Problems of Progressivism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Political Monday with John DePetro: The Essence of RI Corruption

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

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

Open post for full audio.

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The Limits of Lawlessness in Service of the Progressive Cause


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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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