June 16, 2010

Losing Faith in Our Government

Justin Katz

Ed Achorn joins those of us for whom the just-passed session of the General Assembly had the effect of bringing the representative nature of our state government into question:

Rhode Island leaders enjoy having the power to defy the public and render its representatives impotent.

But that power trip costs us dearly. An informed and active citizenry actually makes a state stronger and more vibrant. Citizens bring ideas to the table, help stop bad legislation, and form an important check against public corruption. That makes for a better-run state, with a stronger economy, less waste, lower taxes and fewer cozy deals for special interests.

I'll tell you truly that I'm finding the evidence to point toward the possibility that our current leadership actually does represent the majority of Rhode Islanders — a blend of self-dealing interests (whether corrupt politicians, unions, or welfare-statists) and apathetic sheep beholden to some notion of government, society, and themselves that reality ought long ago to have proven as false. I mean, look to Andrew's review of the new municipal receivership law, which (in advance) removes from the table of struggling cities and towns the possibility of repairing the single greatest factor in local governments' travails: excessively generous employment contracts.

More fundamentally, though, consider a provision of the law that Andrew had previously highlighted:

Upon the appointment of a receiver, the receiver shall have the right to exercise the powers of the elected officials under the general laws, special laws and the city or town charter and ordinances relating to or impacting the fiscal stability of the city or town including, without limitation, school and zoning matters; provided, further, that the powers of the receiver shall be superior to and supersede the powers of the elected officials of the city or town shall continue to be elected in accordance with the city or town charter, and shall serve in an advisory capacity to the receiver.

Financial difficulty, at the municipal level, is now cause for the elimination of democracy, assuming the benevolence of a state-appointed dictator. The only way this provision would make any sense whatsoever would be if the state government clearly understood our political and economic problems and would provide a better result. And the only perspective from which that opinion is conceivable is that of the special interests who are strangling the state. (This, I'd emphasize, is the problem with "regionalization.")

The behavior of the governments of the cities and towns and of the state as a whole reinforce each other and suggest that a handful of aristocrats are not to blame. They are merely puppets in a corrupt system with no chance of reform or improvement. There will be no outrage as the strategies for keeping the scam alive become more and more egregious as a matter of lost democracy and oppressive taxation. Most Rhode Islanders will lack the awareness to understand the origin of their increasing pain, and most of those who do will take the attitude of, "that's not how it should be; oh well."

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I was thinking about this the other day and I don't think our legislators reflect RI at-large. Instead, I think there is an ignorance regarding how things work and apathy built upon the belief that "there's nothing I can do" as you intimate in the last sentence of this post.

Unfortunately, with only one party have a significant presence at the state level we just don't have the types of checks and balances we need. But, this year there is an opportunity to change that. I hope that new-blood candidates can get their message out and I have hope that Rhode Islanders will respond and make different decisions than in the past.

Your analysis might be correct, but I just hope it isn't.

Posted by: don roach at June 16, 2010 8:06 AM

The problem is, even when we get new-blood candidates who want to upset the order a bit (like the GOP Senate candidate in my district in '08), the same people who complain about Democratic dominance don't lift a finger to help. Consequently, the Dems we need to be rid of most go, essentially, unchallenged.

Posted by: rhody at June 16, 2010 8:37 AM

Government only sucks in comparison to institutions which do not exist.

To translate that, let me suggest that ALL good government IS in many ways a reflection of our interests, selfish and otherwise. The same goes for many large institutions, and they carry forward the same problems - those probably being common to the Human Race.

One need only look at the church, big business (BP) and other vast institutions which will show selfishness, corruption, hierarchy and other non-egalitarian tendencies....while also serving many positive functions.

And so it is with government. Yes, RI sucks compared to some - but it doesn't suck as bad compared with others.

As a state government, RI probably needs more evolution than revolution. I'm not so sure I could say the same thing about the USA as a whole though. The problem there, however, is which type of revolution is needs! The righties want to make it into a more controlling and authoritarian warlike institution, while liberals like myself want it to become more about the happiness of the people as a whole.

Posted by: Stuart at June 16, 2010 9:06 AM

Think of the stereotypical 1950's family:
A father who works at the plant - the producers
A stay at home chain-smoking mother - politicians
And four unruly children - unions, insiders, welfare recipients, illegal immigrants.

That's Rhode Island - one big happy family. Until Dad leaves.

Posted by: Dan at June 16, 2010 11:53 AM

Let's see we're "apathetic sheep" who "lack the awareness to understand" these complex problems, unlike certain enlightened bloggers on the fringe-right. Hard to see why that message doesn't resonate with more voters. Yet another perfect example of the real elitists in this state, who presume to be oh so much more able to understand the needs of average folks than they themselves. Keep up the good work, Justin!

Posted by: Russ at June 16, 2010 11:58 AM


Your introduction of the word "complex" takes my meaning to be one of intelligence. That isn't my view; I actually don't think most of our problems are that complex, once acknowledged. I used the word "awareness" because that is, indeed, what is lacking.

Do you dispute the suggestion that a majority of Rhode Islanders pay next to no attention to happenings in the state (let alone absorbing sufficient detail to understand even easy issues)?

Posted by: Justin Katz at June 16, 2010 12:12 PM

Justin, my experience is that Rhode Islanders are somewhat in the middle as far as political awareness. States like Ma. seem to have more political interest in the general population, while MANY states like NJ, NY and dozens of others have much less interest.

Most people are frankly busy with keeping healthy and sane, putting bread on the table and pursuing their life interests - is that a bad thing? If they truly felt that their state political system was really far out of whack (in a comparative sense), they would quickly either get involved or move. It seems like hubris to assume that others who do not share your politics are somehow wrong. As I have mentioned before, no matter how many flaws you can find with government, the only real measure is how it compares with whatever the suggestion for change is...

Those of us of advanced age have not seen the corruption of government our entire lives! We all know you can't fight City Hall - heck, that's why it is a common saying!

Much of it comes down to that other saying about know what is worth while to spend your (or my) energy changing...

For the vast majority of us here, success or failure in our lives has very little to do with what the state government does. I hope that does not come as a great shock!

Posted by: Stuart at June 16, 2010 1:03 PM

"If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere!"

You can spend all of your time bitching and moaning about the government, the corporations, the immigrants, the terrorists, the unfairness of it all, or you can get busy making something of your life.

Dan, your stereotypical 50's family is well, stereotypical.

Posted by: michael at June 16, 2010 1:18 PM

Ah, "Eddie" Achorn again...

Let's see, from his soapbox Achorn declares that our political leaders mislead us. But has Achorn ever 'fessed up to his wife's (Valerie Forti's) six- or seven-figure fraud as head of the now-defunct Education Partnership -- a fraud from which Achorn benefited (as her spouse)? Although a ProJo news story recently (and belatedly) admitted to Achorn's and Forti's connection, Achorn remains stubbornly silent -- thereby misleading his readers into assuming that Achorn is more holy than those he criticizes in his now irrelevant columns. In effect, a further fraud, this time wholly his own.

Posted by: Bill at June 16, 2010 2:49 PM

"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." -- H. L. Mencken

Given that RI government's defining characteristics are corruption, self-dealing and across the board incompetence (try to name even one thing that government in RI performs both well and efficiently / cost-effectively), this quote doesn't reflect well on the caliber of the average Rhode Islander.

Posted by: Ragin' Rhode Islander at June 16, 2010 3:36 PM

Raging, my god, man, look around! Do you think those traffic lights just work, the parks stay clean, the beaches remain safe, roads get paved, fires go out, crimes solved, kids taught, fireworks appear and you stay safe enough to pursue happiness all by themselves?

Take away the government for five years and see just how wonderful things are. Some will thrive, those who thrive on that kind of every man for himself thing, but most will find their comfortable, satisfying lives and the quality of it gone.

Posted by: michael at June 16, 2010 3:47 PM


I didn't say that there should be no government. Nor did I say that some government services aren't necessary and valuable.

What I said was that RI government doesn't perform anything BOTH well and EFFICIENTLY.

It does a few things well, and does everything INEFFICIENTLY.

Police / fire tend to do a pretty good job (albeit at Cadillac prices and staffing levels). OTOH, anyone who looks at the stats on school performance, or drives on the cratered roads, or has had to register a cars, or doesn't approve of political corruption, knows full well that RI government stinks, to put it mildly.

Posted by: Ragin' Rhode Islander at June 16, 2010 4:04 PM

Blackstone Academy,a charter school for grades 9-12,which services the same demographic as Central Falls and Pawtucket schools is sending 82% of their 2010 graduates to college.As far as i know,they aren't unionized.My wife taught part time as a resource and math teacher there for a number of years.The teachers are retained on a yearly basis based on performance(read as results)and they attract some very high quality people from institutions such as Brown among others.The school has a high percentage of minority students and also has students with various problems.
When thugs like Pat Crowley call the tune for union members,education suffers.
I have never been particularly anti-union any more than I am anti-government.
I just don't like thugocracies in either arena.

Posted by: joe bernstein at June 16, 2010 4:15 PM

In my opinion the government does a pretty good job of things on all levels, federal, state and municipal. There is vast room for improvement, but given the complexity of the modern world and the sheer number of people involved things run fairly smoothly.

I can't imagine private industry doing the job as well.

Joe, I'm pretty sure charter school teachers belong to the same union as the city or town the school is in.

Posted by: michael at June 16, 2010 5:01 PM

"In my opinion the government does a pretty good job of things on all levels, federal, state and municipal. There is vast room for improvement, but given the complexity of the modern world and the sheer number of people involved things run fairly smoothly.

I can't imagine private industry doing the job as well."

Then I suggest expanding your imagination to include how complex market systems actually work. Highcer population and increased complexity is not an argument for proportionately more government, it is an argument for less. Any market-based system will be far more complex than a government top-down solution could ever be, that is what markets thrive on - decentralization and complexity. Study Hayek - markets create spontaneous order and the most efficient information gathering and sharing networks possible. Government by contrast relies upon one entity compiling all of the necessary information and then choosing the right course of action, the inefficiency and cost of which grows exponentially as the system does.

You are mistaken about charter schools, their teachers are generally non-union. That is why Pat Crowley spends every day railing against them as the devil, they threaten his future hegemony.

Posted by: Dan at June 16, 2010 5:26 PM

Micheal, you need to have more imagination, like Dan and his libertarian friends.

Here is an example. Instead of being certified by the existing authorities to do your job....heck, if you don't like that idea, get a PO box, start your own certifying org, and certify yourself and others.

That is what Rand Paul did! Yes, he claimed to be board certified, but it turned out he didn't like the board that certified, so he started his own PO Boxed based org and certified himself.

Now, just imagine how much government could save by hiring self certified civil engineers, self-certified police, fire and EMS. Now imagine all those new certification businesses....all adding money and value to the economy!

It's a gold mine! We could start an alternative pilot certification program at Green Airport, and pull in wanna-be pilots from all over the world. Dans' hero, Rand Paul, could help us set it up. It could solve many of our fiscal problems. The only thing we have to make certain is that all the flight paths go over the Bay, because we don't want all that debris littering the land.....after all, the body pieces are so small, it's a messy cleanup. But, heck, we could have the new "cheap certified" EMS folks shovel up the pieces from the newly certified pilot crashes.

Such a deal.

Posted by: Stuart at June 16, 2010 8:25 PM

Stuart-don't tell half truths.
Rand Paul's invented certifying board is certinly ludicrous,and frankly I don't care for him very much.
However,he was certified originally by the long-established board,then that board initiated a periodic re-certification provision.Trouble is,it was a two tier system,exempting dotors certified before 1992,and he thought that was unfair and refused to comply.
His argument had some merit as to unequal treatment.
It's not like he was never certified.

Posted by: joe bernstein at June 18, 2010 11:04 PM
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