Things We Read Today (19), Tuesday

Rhode Island’s Lack of Non-Political Protections

No doubt it will seem like a minor matter to most, and moderates, libertarians, and liberals alike will be uncomfortable with its intersection with religious organizations and social issues, but there was a stunning statement made in passing in a blog post by Ian Donnis on Rhode Island Public Radio’s Web site, today, in a post titled, “Was Laura Pisaturo’s loss to Michael McCaffrey actually a win for same-sex marriage supporters?“:

[Openly homosexual Warwick Democrat State Representative Frank] Ferri notes how Pisaturo ran strong in a largely middle class district, where, he says, some local priests endorsed McCaffrey from the pulpit on the Sunday before the election.

That block quote comes from the current Google cache of the page, because RIPR has apparently scrubbed the statement from the post, adding the generic note, “This post has been updated.”

I’m reluctant to dive into this, on a personal level, because I’ve been very grateful for my cordial-to-the-point-of-friendship acquaintance with Ian over the years, but when I asked him for details on Twitter, he responded that “My understanding is this isn’t unusual in RI.”  Frankly, I would hope not, because doing so is illegal, in the sense that churches would be violating their tax exempt status and should thereby lose it.

Yet on the basis of an accusation from a politician who is clearly hostile to the cause espoused by the alleged churches, WPRI reporter Ted Nesi picked up on the comment via Twitter, tweeting it to his 2,893 followers and eliminating even the important information of the source:

Some Warwick priests reportedly endorsed Senator McCaffrey from the pulpit on the Sunday before the election.

“Reportedly” by whom?  Sworn affidavits from trustworthy little old ladies?  Police officers?  Or activist politicians?

Making matters worse, the usually excellent investigative reporter and Newsmakers host Tim White retweeted Nesi’s comment to his 1,310 followers, and John Marion, of the good-government group Common Cause RI, did the same with his official Common Cause Twitter account.

And that’s where the matter forcefully explodes beyond my reluctance to disrupt relationships with any of the men mentioned above, because Marion and Common Cause successfully moved legislation into law to force groups advocating for causes — not corruptible politicians, but principles expressed through ballot questions — to out their top donors.  The bill became less objectionable as it progressed from the hearing described in that link, but throughout the months, Marion repeatedly told me that “the intent” was not to give activists on the other side a political weapon with which to undermine politically active groups, but to increase the information available to voters. (By contrast, my view has a bit more of the ol’ caveat emptor.)

The point is this: In all of our attempts to accommodate a massive government having minute power over our lives with the principles of democracy, we’re creating a system in which those who find themselves on the wrong side of the Kulturkampf have no protections whatsoever.  Not from the fight-the-power guardian media, not from the transparency advocates, and as legal culture war battles in the state have recently shown, not from the judiciary.

More Spin, for Our Failing Education System

Having been chastised by the usual suspects, over the years, for daring to compare Rhode Island students’ SAT scores with those of other states’ students, I was surprised to see this spin stated without contrary opinion in Jennifer Jordan’s Providence Journal article, today, about Rhode Island’s lagging SAT scores (both regionally and nationally):

The state lags behind the national average and the average of the six New England states. But Rhode Island ranks 14th in the country for student participation rates, with 69 percent of high school students taking the exam in 2012, up from 68 percent in 2011. …

“Participation rates … are strong indications that many of our students are taking challenging courses that will prepare them for postsecondary education.” [said Acting Education Commissioner David V. Abbott]

Actually, participation rates are strong indications that the colleges in the region pay attention to SAT scores; elsewhere, the ACT test is more common. Generally speaking, the states with the highest average scores are those in areas where the local colleges and universities don’t pay much attention to the SATs, so the only students taking them are those seeking to attend elite East Coast schools. Not surprisingly, those students are above average.

As a matter of fact, when I looked deeply into this data in 2008, there were only sixteen states with participation rates over 60%.  The same was true in 2010; in 2011, the count was 17.  In that landscape, it should not be accepted as a positive sign to be 14th, especially since that’s down from 12th in 2008.

By the way, participation rates in our neighboring states were, in 2010, 84% in Connecticut and 86% in Massachusetts.

What Skills the Kids Lack

Given the prior segment, this seems like an appropriate time to raise the question of young adults’ job skills.  Writes Matthew Yglesias (with whom I’m surprised to agree):

The idea that high unemployment is due to “skill mismatch” is largely a myth—generally based on a fallacy and ignoring the basic reality that in a properly functioning capitalist labor market employers are able to train workers to do jobs.

Particularly interesting, here, although Yglesias doesn’t mention it, is that (awkward as the phrasing may sound) being trainable is itself a skill.  Here’s Nick Schulz, writing in the Wall Street Journal, last week:

The problem seems soluble: Equip workers with the skills they need to match them with employers who are hiring. That explains the emphasis that policy makers of both parties place on science, technology, engineering and math degrees—it is such a mantra that they’re known by shorthand as STEM degrees. …

But considerable evidence suggests that many employers would be happy just to find job applicants who have the sort of “soft” skills that used to be almost taken for granted. In the Manpower Group’s 2012 Talent Shortage Survey, nearly 20% of employers cited a lack of soft skills as a key reason they couldn’t hire needed employees. “Interpersonal skills and enthusiasm/motivation” were among the most commonly identified soft skills that employers found lacking.

If I may make the leap to my conservative preconceptions, I’d suggest that the problem, in this regard, is too much self-esteem training in American schools and not enough experimental falling-down-and-getting-up-again, colored with a healthy dose of some-day-nobody-will-be-there-to-do-the-lifting. There are some basic principles that our current society likes to disregard, or even actively undermine (especially the progressive portions of it so popular in popular culture and, therefore, among the young).

A case in point is that you should see an employer as somebody who has something that you want — a job — and so it is your responsibility to put forth some effort illustrating that you want him or her to see you in a professional light.

Employment Principles and Unions

When I read articles about public-sector union grievances, I often wonder whether I’m the only person who feels as if he’s peeking into some farce of a fictional foreign land with an entirely different notion of employment.  Take this, from another article by the Providence Journal’s Jennifer Jordan:

During the public comment portion of the meeting, [Frank Annunziato, executive director of URI’s American Association of University Professors] called the board’s actions “outrageous” and told them to “clean up the mess.”

If you’re in the private sector, imagine going up to your boss in public and haranguing him or her for “outrageous” changes that he or she perceived as necessary given the economy and customer concerns.  As the majority of Rhode Island workers watch the economy collapse around them, it’s peculiar (to say the least) to read such tales of demands for raises.

The sensation goes to a deeper level, for wonky policy-type people:

URI’s faculty are among the lowest paid in the region. A professor earning the average salary –– $84,500 ––would have received a raise of about 1.8 percent, or $1,604, once the increased health-care costs were factored in, according to Annunziato.

The article doesn’t say who’s included in the “region,” and such data points offered by one side tend to be tinted with selective limitation of the counted comparisons.  (Only public research universities, for example, excluding comparable professors in private universities or community colleges.)  More to the point, though, is the apparent belief that this comparison is some sort of an objective benchmark to which employees have a right.

In a sense, it’s a fictional market valuation, because of the limits that public-sector unions impose on hiring, firing, salaries, and so on.  The most accurate (if often impractical) way to find a fair market value is to experiment with salaries until the organization is able to fill its positions at the lowest cost that people with the appropriate skills will accept, given their other options.

In Unionland, finding fair market value for labor is a process of collective bargaining units’ leapfrogging each other to the maximum of taxpayers’ willingness to pay.

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