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Chutzpa and Beach-Front Sign Questions Around Trillo

The latest fight for independent gubernatorial candidate Joe Trillo is against the Town of Narragansett, which has been trying to get him to remove a giant political sign from a family-owned beach-front property that his sister currently occupies.  The story has a number of angles that might pull a political theorist in conflicting directions.  On one hand, doesn’t a town have a right to set some restrictions on signs in residential zones?

Even if the Trillo property on Ocean Road wasn’t in a “public” zoning district, Manni said, the sign would be too large. In residential districts the maximum size for a yard sign is 6 square feet, he said.

On the other hand, how could a town (or state) possibly have the Constitutional ability to ban specific kinds of speech?

… since political signs are banned anywhere in town until 60 days before voters head to the polls, Trillo would have to wait September before he could advertise for the November general election.

On this count, the law will surely fall the very first time anybody challenges it, and it would be interesting for that anybody to be Joe Trillo.  Of course, that doesn’t mean the sign should stay.  It’s difficult to have sympathy for the property owners on small-government grounds after reading this:

Trillo acknowledged that the private residential property, occupied by his sister, sits in a zoning district designed for public land that does not allow the use of any private signs.  But he says the town should be working with him to remedy the situation, a result of his family decades ago having sold the state the beachfront land.

Without digging into the details, one can infer that the Trillos availed themselves of one of those schemes that allows a property owner to sell property (or development rights) to the government while maintaining ownership of the structure, or some similar arrangement, thus getting out from under taxes and, in some circumstances, blocking others from developing land that might otherwise be sold in subdivisions.

So, yeah, when you manipulate the law to get special treatment for your property, demanding to be able to use that property for your own political advertising takes a bit of chutzpa.

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The Business That Pickets Clients When They Choose Competitors

A number of policy questions come into play with GoLocalProv’s coverage of a labor union’s picketing a project receiving Commerce RI tax credits.

As a result of the investigation on 4/24/18 it has been substantiated that JS Interior Construction has misclassified 27 employees as independent contractors and has failed to pay wages to the employees in violation of R.I. General Law 28-14-19. Misclassification of Employees — (a) The misclassification of a worker whether performing work as a natural person, business, corporation or entity of any kind, as an independent contractor when the worker should be considered and paid as an employee shall be considered a violation of this chapter.

If I’m interpreting the story correctly, a builder hired workers as subcontractors in order to avoid burdensome laws that prevent workers from agreeing to work for less than an arbitrary level set by government.  Labor unions push for these laws in order to make their competition less competitive, and politicians agree to these laws in order to secure financial and boots-on-the-ground support from labor unions.

The first issue is that the state government shouldn’t be subsidizing private-sector projects in the state because bureaucrats have judged them worthy.  The second issue is that the state government shouldn’t be restricting the rights of Rhode Islanders to agree to pay rates agreeable to both parties, especially as a systemic subsidy to private labor unions.

But the eye catcher of this issue is the labor union picketing a project ultimately (I’d suggest) because a non-union shop got the job.  What would you think of a company that sent its employees to picket another business that was out-competing it — or, more accurately, to picket a client because he or she chose a different contractor?

That’s obviously offensive, but labor unions fit the progressive narrative and (more importantly) the progressive money-flow scheme, so it’s not only tolerated, but lauded.

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Law Will Cure Lack of Paid Time Off by Undermining Businesses That Have Difficulty

Paul Edward Parker’s Providence Journal article profiling businesses that are and aren’t concerned or confused about Rhode Island’s recently passed law to force employers to provide paid time off for employees implies the reason the legislation was a product of hubris:

“I can’t even imagine how that would work out, being a seasonal business,” Bitto said in a telephone interview last week. At Evelyn’s, the season runs from mid-April to Oct. 1. …

With the Evelyn’s season running about 170 days, any employees who work the whole season will be able to use their accrued sick time during the last two or three weeks of their employment. …

“Honestly, I have no focus on it at all,” she said. “I’m just busy running the business, worrying about my freezer breaking down.”

Meanwhile:

Dan Dwight, president and chief executive of the Pawtucket-based Cooley Group, which makes fabric and polymer roof membranes, isn’t sweating the new law. His company, which has about 130 employees in Rhode Island, already provides paid sick days.

For the most part, employers who can offer this benefit already do, and those that don’t have a good reason and (given market pressures) have probably accounted for the omission somewhere else in their compensation packages or business practices.  That could mean higher pay, to attract employees willing to forgo paid time off, or a work environment that is attractive for some intangible reason or hiring people who might not otherwise be able to find work (like young adults looking for seasonal jobs).

Forcing this regulation on every business reduces employees’ negotiation leverage, makes it more difficult for new businesses to get going and to expand, and gives some businesses an advantage over others simply because of their size or because the nature of their work better lends itself to this particular benefit. In the long run, the result won’t be that every Rhode Island employee has paid time off so much as that those whose potential employers who can’t offer it simply won’t exist.

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The Conditions Under Which Progressives Will Lease Us to Businesses

One last minute bill in the Rhode Island General Assembly, H8324, may or may not be going anywhere, but it’s worth a look as an educational exercise.

Very simply, it would require any “hosting platform” (e.g., AirBnB) that allows people to “offer any property for tourist or transient use” to be responsible for making sure that the rentals are in compliance with state and local laws and regulations.  It would also require the platform operators to take a more active role in the collection and transfer of all relevant taxes.

This little change in law, affecting a narrow portion of a single industry in the state, carries some important questions of the sort that we don’t consider thoroughly enough.  What is the nature of commerce?  Who works for whom?  Who has responsibility for whom?

From a free-market perspective that starts with the individual as the origin of all economic activity, the property owners are responsible for the product that they are offering, and the hosting platforms work for them.  Because they are the constituents of state and local government, they have a say in that government and can arguably be said to have consented to granting it some authority to regulate their activities.

The progressive perspective that has long been insinuating itself into Rhode Island government and encroaching on Rhode Islanders’ rights is very different.  That view doesn’t begin with individuals as autonomous sources of responsibility and power.  The Rhode Islanders seeking to rent their property don’t truly have ownership of themselves.  Rather state and local government has claims on their activities, and the hosting platforms own their rental businesses.  It is therefore reasonable for the government to require platforms to make sure that their workers comply with its requirements.

From a free-market perspective, a government that imposes requirements on people might create incentive for them to hire a contractor to do tasks for them — for AirBnB to provide inspections for regulatory compliance, for example, with an extra fee.  But from a progressive perspective, the government has a right to tell companies that intend to draw profits from its people what conditions they must impose, or else they cannot do business here.

In other words, progressives implicitly believe that the government is renting us out to the companies.

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Missouri Takes the Obvious Step for Hairbraiders

Missouri has taken a step that Rhode Island should follow:

Previous state legislation in Missouri had required people who wanted to braid hair for profit to obtain a cosmetology license — which required the completion of 1,500 hours of training.

This requirement was time-consuming, expensive, and created an unnecessary obstacle that made using one’s knowledge and skills to earn a living more difficult. Furthermore, it mostly affected women of color, who primarily make up both the customers and the braiders.

The requirement was yet another example of the ways regulations hurt everyday Americans’ ability to provide for themselves and to pursue their own economic liberty.

We can discuss in a more rigorous way when licensing is needed.  Is the use of chemicals a line?  Should it be a matter of life and death or contagion?  But surely, when one person consents to give money to another to braid her or his hair, the government doesn’t have to be in the middle of that transaction, especially to require a license for something that hair braiders don’t actually do.

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How Could Natural Hair Braiding Be So Difficult to Free?

I don’t doubt that Jocelyn DoCouto will eventually win her issue with the State of Rhode Island.  What’s astonishing is that it should take years of advocacy and lobbying to get it done:

I have spent my life mastering the art of African-style, natural hair care. As a young girl, I learned to braid and even practiced on my own head. I later learned more advanced techniques from my aunt. My knowledge has expanded to include weaving, crocheting, extension braiding and many other natural techniques — all collectively referred to as “protective styling.”

I started receiving clients at home, based completely on referrals, and now have customers of all ages. I have even been lucky enough to use this art to give clients who have recently undergone chemotherapy the protective, natural styles they have always wanted. And I strive do the best job possible for every client who walks through my door, because my customers’ satisfaction literally determines whether my business lives or dies.

I wanted to open my own salon, but Rhode Island would not let me. Under state law, I am not allowed to braid hair without a cosmetology license, which requires 1,200 hours of irrelevant training and can cost upwards of $17,000.

As I wrote earlier, Rhode Island can have a vibrant, innovative economy, or it can have its insider system, but it can’t have both.  It is well past time for us to let people like Ms. DoCouto explore their areas of specialty, even if it means some comfortable people have to compete a little harder.

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When an Administration Cares About Regulatory Reform

In the Washington Examiner, Paul Bedard points to an under-reported achievement of the Trump administration:

When he came to office, Trump promised to cut two regulations for every new one he imposed.

The duo said that the percentage is actually 3.75 to 1, an unprecedented reduction.

Trump believes that cutting regulations, while it receives few headlines, is one of his team’s biggest accomplishments and a driver in the improving economy and investment in the United States.

Contrast this with Rhode Island’s efforts.  Here, it takes years to create a special commission that takes years to get rolling in order to produce a short list of licenses and regulations that can maybe be taken off the books, which list the legislature will trim before it becomes law, after which the special interests that benefited from the existence of the regulations will agitate to put them back.

This shouldn’t be so hard.  Rhode Island overtaxes and over-regulates.  We need a strong, quick push that changes the impression of our state into one barreling in the right direction, and the right direction is not extending limited taxpayer subsidies to counteract the effects of our taxes and regulations for hand-picked companies willing to cut deals with politicians.

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Some Unanswered Questions on Housing

Perhaps it’s healthy every now and then to post something without implying that one knows how to fit it into a mural of opinions.  If so, I’ve found an opportunity in this news:

Rhode Island’s median house price jumped 13 percent in March, rising to $265,000, as the inventory of houses for sale plunged by 16 percent, compared to March 2017, the Rhode Island Association of Realtors reported Thursday.

Naturally, the realtors’ association suggests the problem is that they need more properties to sell.  In general, the trend would seem to count as contrary evidence to assertions that the state is losing people.

Both economic curves that bear on price come into play, here: supply and demand.  It could be that people want to buy property in Rhode Island, and that’s driving up prices.  Or it could be that regulations are too restrictive to allow sufficient expansion of supply.  And referring to “regulations,” we have to expand the term not only to mean direct zoning restrictions and the like, but also other regulations, like licensing restrictions that drive up the cost of building.

Too many threads must be unwoven, here, for a rainy Thursday, and I don’t have a quick answer.  I continue to hold that people should have a right at the local level to determine what sort of community they live in.  (Although, I’ll generally argue against using that right to hamstring your neighbors.)  I’d also suggest that we do too much to subsidize some construction while restricting different kinds of construction (say commercial versus residential), and much too much to prevent the economy from growing quickly enough for people to be able to afford housing.

My suspicion, in other words, is that all of Rhode Island’s economic meddling is doing something to focus economic value unnaturally on housing.  I also suspect the people who benefit from that state of affairs would be much better able to explain it.

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Arthur Brooks Of AEI Inspires Audience at Center’s Leadership Luncheon

This last week, one of America’s leading conservative thinkers, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, inspired over sixty local leaders at our Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity leadership luncheon. One guest said: “Every once in a while I get the opportunity to experience something that will change my life in such a profound positive way, that was exactly what happened to me yesterday as I listened to Mr. Arthur Brooks’ words of wisdom. I was further empowered and assured that together we all can and should make that needed difference!”

With “life entrepreneurship” as his central theme, Brooks encouraged the lawmakers and civic leaders in the audience to advance a “start up your life” attitude among the people of Rhode Island. Brooks said that by taking the risk of investing love, time, and commitment to the important people and self-improvement opportunities in one’s life, that this “start up your life” attitude will bring happiness, prosperity, and overall returns on that investment many times over.

The feedback from the bipartisan attendees, whether liberal or conservative, was overwhelmingly positive. As only Arthur Brooks can do, he challenged us intellectually to consider the kind of moral, family, and work culture we want to have in our state. Click here now to see pictures of the event.

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Licensing’s Contribution to Inequality

Occupational licensing takes rungs off the mobility ladder for those who most need them, suggests Jared Meyer, writing in the Washington Examiner:

According to estimates by the Archbridge report’s authors, the growth of licensing corresponded with up to a 6.7 percent decline in absolute mobility, depending on the state. In other words, because of occupational licensing, children who grow up in low-income families are less likely to achieve the American Dream when they are adults. …

Researchers are still discovering just how much occupational licensing harms economic mobility, but there is no question that these barriers disproportionately harm low-income individuals. The Archbridge Institute’s new report, along with a continued focus on the problem by state and federal policymakers, offers hope that more positive policy changes are coming.

According to the report, the reduction in upward mobility for Rhode Island due to its licensing regime is 3.7%, and the increase in the Gini Coefficient (a measure of income inequality) is 8.6%.  That is, occupational licensing helps those who’ve already made it keep it and serves to block those who haven’t from doing so.

Added to tax burdens and every other drag that Rhode Island puts on economic activity, licensing is one reason the “productive class.”  We don’t need more programs, government handouts, and central control.  We need more freedom and opportunity.

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A Tip for the Restaurant Industry When It Gets into Politics

I’ve also got an op-ed in today’s Newport Daily News:

So here is what the Trump administration is suggesting: Employees who work for particular restaurants will be able to negotiate a tipping system that works for them. If a state finds that the balance of power favors one side or the other in those negotiations, it can regulate the matter at the state level. The only difference is that distant politicians in Washington, D.C., won’t be telling the whole country what to do.

If you find that “kind of disgusting,” I can only ask: Why do you feel so threatened by others’ freedom? Nothing in the rule change would require any change to the way restaurants handle tips. As the article illustrates with quotes from restaurant managers who support servers’ keeping their tips, the status quo – which was the status quo even before Obama’s power grab – would remain in place. Regulations could be imposed at the state level, if that’s what Rhode Island wants, and individual businesses could figure out what works for them.

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Rent Seeking Pot Dealers Look to the Government Crime Boss

Could there be a more clear example of rent seeking crony capitalism than a direct payment from marijuana interests to pay off government officials to block competition?

The offer came with a condition. State regulators would have to change their plan to hike the number of state-licensed pot dispensaries from the existing three to 15.

“We’re very sensitive to the state and its challenges,” Reilly told members of the House Finance Committee. “And if there is a way to find the $5 million that you need to plug the budget hole that you need for the coming fiscal year, we’d like to be part of the solution.” …

Regulators say the plan would increase competition among dispensaries, lower prices, offer a wider array of tested marijuana strains and improve access for patients, whose numbers keep growing.

This just like occupational licensing.  Established businesses use political clout to leverage government and block competition, which makes markets more efficient and helps consumers.

Rhode Islanders should take this as a lesson in political theory, as well.  Those on the progressive side tend to think of government as “the people’s” source of leverage against powerful special interests, but it quickly becomes the opposite, as the special interests give government cash in order to come around to the idea that it’s to the people’s benefit for the special interest to benefit.

In this case, the pot dealers see upstarts moving in on their business, and they’re looking to the crime boss of the area to muscle them out through extortion and threats of violence (via fines and maybe incarceration). The picture gets clearer and clearer.

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A Subtle Distinction on Government Problem Solving

I recently came across this story on regulation in Ohio, and the statement the Republican Senate president, Larry Obhof seems broadly applicable and worth sharing:

Ohio has nearly 250,000 regulatory restrictions in its code, according to research from George Mason University. The study’s authors say this holds back economic growth for industries like manufacturing and health care.

Republican Senate president Larry Obhof says he wants to take a broad look at Ohio’s code to see what they can do to scale back these regulations. He adds that a mindset change is needed for people in the legislature and state agencies.

“Who start the day looking for problems to solve and trying to solve those, and what I’d like to see is a reset where they start the day and some significant number of them are saying can I find a burden that we don’t need that we can get rid of,” said Obhof.

This gets right to the subtle (and detrimental) shift in Americans’ attitude and, perhaps, a chief dividing line between ideologies.  One view is that government exists to solve people’s problems; another is that government exists to remove a limited number of problems from people’s path.

When the goal is to remove problems (like foreign invasion, inadequate basic infrastructure, and so on), the emphasis is much more securely on avoiding causing additional problems in the process.  When we make government a more active participant in the solving of problems, unintended consequences can be written off on account of good intentions — “nobody can solve everything, but at least we tried.”

And when government is a problem solver, there is no boundary.  It should try to solve every problem it can.  When government is just a mechanism to take a few big problems off the table for the public at large, the debate becomes whether something is a problem or an area in which freedom makes it a challenge for the people to resolve among themselves.

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Hair Braiders Should Have the #RIghtToEarn a Living

Oppressive Regulations Harm Low Income Families. Hair braiding is a generational and practical African-style art-form for Jocelyn DoCouto and her family, which hail from Senegal and Cape Verde. Yet, unable to afford the burdensome levels of fees and training required to receive permission from the government to legally work in a field that presents no safety risks, Jocelyn, as well as other would-be entrepreneurs, are not able to operate a business that would provide them hope to achieve financial independence.

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Racking Up Fees from the Working Class Through Licenses in Tennessee

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds is embarrassed to report this, from his home state of Tennessee:

“I never did any other job but hair braiding my whole life,” she said. “I cannot recall a time when I did not know how.”

But in recent years, Tennessee has forced Fatou to pay a staggering $16,000 in fines, simply because she employed workers who did not have a government license to braid hair. Nor is she alone. After examining meeting minutes and disciplinary actions for the Tennessee Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners, the Institute for Justice has identified nearly $100,000 in fines levied against dozens of braiders and more than 30 different natural hair shops and salons since 2009. All of those violations were for unlicensed braiding; none were triggered by any health or sanitation violation.

It’d be interesting to tally up all such fines in Rhode Island, not only for hair braiding but for every other egregious occupational license.

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Can We Realize The Destruction Of Families Has Unintended Consequences?

In the Providence Journal this week, Wendy P. Warcholik and J. Scott Moody write, “This growing number of children in Rhode Island without a solid familial foundation should give us all pause. This is not a problem that is going to just go away, and we must find ways to help these children before tragedy strikes, perhaps in your own neighborhood.”

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Let’s Avoid the Big Government Trap with Regulation

George Mason University Economics Professor Tyler Cowen sees occupational licensing as such a problem, he’s willing to modify his conservative leanings in order to suggest that the federal government step in on the issue:

Unfortunately, I don’t expect the federal bureaucracy to usher in the reign of Milton Friedman’s Chicago School economics. But the federal regulatory process would likely pay less heed to local special interests, and it would produce a more homogenized and less idiosyncratic body of regulatory law more geared toward the most important cases, such as medicine and child care. The federal government is less likely than many state and local governments to obsess over licensing rules for fortune tellers, florists and athletic trainers.

Cowen is falling into the progressive trap.  He recognizes that the “machinery for creating new licenses is much better organized and funded than the institutions for getting rid of them, and once in place these requirements have natural defenders, namely those who have invested in the credentials,” but he somehow imagines this advantage will simply disappear at the federal level.  Why wouldn’t these state-by-state organizations just start making alliances across state lines?

The assumption that a federal bureaucracy will be free of an inclination to the petty has little foundation in theory or experience.  Presumably, the agency will collect fees through regulation, and that will certainly be the source of its power.  Even just incentives toward job security will keep the numbers of licenses growing.

In cases of asymmetrical incentives, we’re always better off keeping decisions at the smallest scale possible.  The number of dog walkers in a particular town, for example, who want to create some kind of local license will more easily matched before the town council by people who think the license would be unnecessary protectionism.  At the federal level, the side with incentive to organize will have even more aggregated power, while the other side will be even more difficult to organize.

Frustrating as it can be, there is no end run to limited government that goes through big government.

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Standing Against The Progressive-Left

At our Center, we know that the extreme levels of taxation and over-regulation forced on Rhode Islanders by an ever-growing government is the primary culprit in causing our state’s sad performance. Look at it this way— heavy handed action by a state government that mainly seeks to perpetuate itself, actually works against the best-interests of the very individuals it is supposed to be serving.

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The Society-Wide Human Cost of Occupational Licensing

Apply this principle — from a Reason interview with a Boston hair stylist:

If people want to work in Zona’s salons, in virtually any capacity, they must first obtain a cosmetologist license from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. That’s true even for positions that don’t have anything to do with cutting, coloring, or styling hair. Even shampooing or blow-drying hair, or being a stylist’s assistant—the types of entry-level jobs that allow someone to test out the profession before deciding whether to work in it—must be filled only by licensed professionals. …

These one-size-fits-all licensing rules make it harder to find new employees. They also contribute to high turnover in the profession, Zona says, because newly minted cosmetologists who never had a chance to try an entry-level job before getting a license often leave the profession because it’s different from what they expected. That’s not good for businesses, which want a stable workforce, and it’s even worse for those workers who wasted thousands of dollars and months of their lives.

This can’t be a problem only in hair styling, and if we consider the cost in human potential (for people who never find their vocation because of licensing walls) as well as in innovation (due to the loss of variety and perspectives), licensing is doing real harm to our entire society.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to be (for whatever reason) the sort of person whom others ask to do something when they just can’t find anybody.  I’ve done sales, teaching, graphic design, construction, and countless one-off projects for pay and as a volunteer.  Some of those efforts turned out better than others (some ended pretty badly), but that’s life, and outcomes vary dramatically even for people who go through years of training, but they’ve already invested so much that their options are limited.

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Bringing Logic to the Net Neutrality Debate

The Sunday Providence Journal carried my op-ed on net neutrality:

Really, with what other service do people insist that customers’ only options must be everything or nothing? Should we all have to have the same gym memberships? Should every car have to have the same engine and the same sound system?

A preference for an all-or-nothing industry, as with health care, tends to mean that the advocates want to be able to control the “all” so they can control our lives. Auton and Holden probably have no such intent, but following their suggestion would clear a path for those who do.

One comment, from Mike Berry illustrates the challenge of political discourse these days:

Hard to follow the logic here.
Mandatory free and open access cannot possibly restrict what ISPs sell us. It does the opposite.
Internet access is not like gym memberships or auto service. It should be a utility in which, yes, we ALL get the same thing!!

Notice the immediate logical inconsistency in Berry’s response.  On the one hand, he says net neutrality “cannot possibly restrict what ISPs sell us”; on the other hand, he insists that ISPs should sell everybody the exact same thing.

Objectively, it appears that Berry is tangled up in the talking points.  Proponents of net neutrality use phrases like “mandatory free and open access” because that implies more access not less, but using a talking point doesn’t mean it’s accurate.  Maybe if Internet access were some boundless resource that could simply be plucked for free and distributed without limit, but that isn’t the case.

The mention of utilities is also instructive.  Think about your electric bill.  Regulators and activists are working to ensure that you cannot get electricity from coal while they force you to pay extra for politically favored energy like wind.

In that case, we’re only talking about how the product is generated.  With the Internet, the control of the “utility” would implicitly cover what we receive.  We’ll quickly find that disfavored content — the coal of the Internet — is blocked while we wind up with government fees on our bills to fund content or services to which we object.

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