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Politics This Week with John DePetro: Decision Time!

My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for April 13, included talk about:

  • The governor’s handling of the virus crisis
  • The silence from everybody else
  • The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s suggestions
  • The decisions facing the governor and the people of RI

I’ll be on again Monday, April 20, at 12:00 p.m. on WNRI 1380 AM and I-95.1 FM.

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Rhode Islanders Are Adults and Have a Right to Explanations

Here’s a clip from WPRI’s coverage of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s latest daily COVID-19 statement that shows an absolutely unacceptable attitude from the governor:

Asked about the latest projections from the University of Washington — which now predict nearly 1,000 Rhode Islanders will die due to COVID-19 and the outbreak will peak in the state later this month — Raimondo said the school’s model has been updated after conferring with Rhode Island officials. She again declined to share the state’s own predictive modeling, but indicated she thinks the peak could be as late as mid-May.

“If anyone tells you they know exactly when Rhode Island’s peak is, and what the number of hospitalizations will be at that peak, they’re not being honest with you,” she said.

The governor is making decisions that have profound effects on our lives, including the exercise of direct executive authority to do things that would not normally be permitted in a representative democracy.  She has an obligation to explain herself to the public.  “Take my word for it; I’m the boss, and I have the best of intentions” is not good enough.  (That’s a characterization, not a quotation, if you weren’t sure.)

How many deaths does the governor project Rhode Island will experience, and how many does she expect to avert by taking this or that action?  These aren’t idle questions from a Don’t Tread on Me enthusiast.  Every new restriction on our activity comes with a price-tag in health and lives.  In rough numbers, Rhode Island experiences just under 400 suicides and drug overdoses each year; how much is poverty, isolation, and idleness going to drive up those numbers?  Does the governor have a model for that? 

Tough-gal talk about driving around the state and “you’re not going to want to be in that group” if she has to “break up any crowds” is (maybe) how you manipulate teenagers, not how you communicate with adults.  Declaring a slow-rolling state of emergency for months on end does not make us subjects, and the governor’s legitimacy requires complete transparency so we can evaluate for ourselves whether her actions are justified.

Of course, it doesn’t help that our legislators are proving that they lack the courage to fulfill their role in our government during this tricky time.

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A Glimpse of the Media Narrative’s Assumptions

This short March 14 ABC6 story by Nick Pappadia didn’t have much of a shelf life,  but it’s worth noting because it is a good study of underlying assumptions underlying and the way in which a sense of what must be believed spreads:

Despite Governor Gina Raimondo’s advice, urging all Rhode Islanders to stay indoors as much as possible and to avoid crowds, Bishop Tobin has not officially cancelled Mass services for Catholic’s in Rhode Island.

On Saturday morning, Bishop Tobin released a statement requesting Catholics over the age of 60 not to attend Mass, and to refrain from receiving Holy Communion. There was no mention of him cancelling mass for all Catholic parishioners.

Governor Raimondo said, “I’d like to thank Bishop Tobin for his cooperation, and that it is within local pastor’s discretion to cancel masses on their own.”

Since then, we have learned that many local priests have taken matters in to their own hands and have cancelled Mass services at their individual parishes.

Bishop Tobin did not impose a restriction from the top down, and pastors who cancelled services were “taking matters into their own hands.”  No, they were choosing one of the options open to them.  The assumption appears to be that things are and should be typically dictated from the top down.

More deeply than that, notice the hierarchy in Pappadia’s construct:  The governor to the bishop to the parishes.  Fundamentally, this means there is no real separation of church and state, because the bishop is in some sense obligated to follow the governor’s “advice.”  When he doesn’t do so, he is implicitly hinting that he prefers the opposite outcome, so when priests follow the governor’s advice rather than this supposed hint, they are actually rebelling… even though they’re acting within the bishop’s range of instructions.

Many fascinating perspectives are being revealed during these times.

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Time for Government to Pop the Superficial and Focus on What’s Important

Being in the car less, recently, I’ve fallen behind on podcast listening, so the episode of Changing Gears to which I listened while working out last night was a few weeks old.  The guys were explaining the various reasons (having to do with materials, labor, and politics) that Rhode Island’s roads don’t last.

Not long afterwards, I was back at the computer and thinking (again) how far Internet technology has come in the past year… when the power went out.  All the Zooming, podcasting, on-demand streaming, and other innovations that this viral crisis has made so critical to basic life fell of the table of social organization in an instant.  On a clear night, the flow of electricity just stopped.

Growing up, I don’t remember ever losing power when the weather didn’t provide an obvious explanation, and it seems to be becoming more common in recent years.  Every time it happens, I can hear a few more generators running, as my neighborhood adapts to this new reality over time.

While the world has been substantially shut down, I’ve also been catching up on reading legislation that managed to receive floor votes.  Here’s one to ban disposable plastic shopping bags, and I note the news today that San Francisco has now banned reusable shopping bags to prevent spread of COVID-19.  Another bill that didn’t manage to get a vote in the innocent days before the pandemic (House, Senate) would have criminalized the intentional release of balloons into the air.

Yes, while a virus was spreading around the planet bringing death and economic ruin, Rhode Island legislators were pondering a bill titled “Relating to Health and Safety – Balloons.”

Whether we’re talking about the roads or the power grid or the budgetary desperation we’re hearing from our elected officials, the message ought to be clear:  Rhode Island has to get back to basics.  Stop worrying about balloons.  Stop micromanaging the economy.  Stop confiscating tax money from people in order to fund superfluous things or pet projects.

This crisis is illustrating the necessity of government for a variety of functions, but it is also proving the need for government to do those critical things well.  And that means focusing on them, including a halt to the drain of taxpayer money to things that just shouldn’t be priorities.  Both basic government functions and private-sector activity are more important.

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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.