June 30, 2009

Attention, Boaters

Monique Chartier

A cautionary photo courtesy Dave Barry.


The Seemless Drift to Gomorrah

Justin Katz

Sometimes, it seems as if the Left and Right agree on much more than their adherents perceive, the difference being mainly semantic... and concerning whether the sociological item on the table is positive or negative. Of course, in most contexts, that either/or judgment is the core determinant of whether we would characterize two parties as "in agreement," but it would surely serve the end of clarity if we could develop a social vocabulary that enabled us to trace agreement on cause and consequence even when we disagree vehemently on the desirability of the latter.

Take the thread that can be made to unravel beginning with Megan Andelloux's letter of objection to the Donna Hughes op-ed that I mentioned the other day:

Let me introduce myself: I’m the [sexologist and] nationally certified sex-educator and derogatorily labeled “tattooed lady” mentioned by Donna Hughes in her June 24 opinion piece. It seems that the professor of women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island was so put off by my appearance that she called into question my credentials. Putting quotation marks around my profession was insulting. And yes, I am a contributor to the sex-workers magazine $pread. Is it so shocking that sex workers can read?

Here's where we pause for a moment either to marvel that we're being asked to take seriously a magazine called $pread or to huff at the judgmentalism of those who don't appreciate the campy wordplay appropriate to a quirky profession. My reaction was the former, of course, and I'm further inclined to propose sympathy with academics who can't resist putting quotation marks around a line of work that entails publication in such a "periodical."

Still, we'd do better all around by practicing a healthy humor over undo seriousness concerning titles. Odd that I, arch conservative, should be the one thus to chastise, but as far as I'm concerned, quotations are implied around any and every title and credential; we print the punctuation merely as an expression of personal opinion about a particular one. Being a "professional" ultimately indicates little more than the ability to collect money for a particular service. Credentials and degrees mean specifically that hoops have been jumped, and the fact that they are available means primarily that somebody has found profit in offering them.

This is not to say that there isn't value to credentials and degrees; if a person is in the market for a sexologist (or, for that matter, an astrologer), it would be prudent to seek one who is recognized by the structural consensus of the field. It is also not to say that degree programs and certifications of longer pedigree aren't subject to the same yardstick; they profit mainly from better phrasing and a more sophisticated marketing campaign, and I'm as apt to pfft bubbles into my milk over any given university's catalog of degree offerings as over certain documentation available exclusively online.

Let it be acknowledged, though, that those of a radical bent have strong motivation to assert the legitimacy, even banality, of their officialnesses — initially because they don't have a track record of respectability, but also because their object (whether conscious or instinctual) is the incremental implementation of a culture toward which a majority of their countrymen would decline to set sail were it in the travelogue. The radical, progressive agenda proclaims the mildness of each turn of the rudder, suggesting that circumstances just favor the port to the immediate west. When the evening tides change the weather, the radicals cajole that a nearby island promises a safer harbor, and they announce their ever-foreseeable destination only after they've won control of the helm at midnight.

Sexology elides quickly to $pread, which explicitly validates prostitution, which is lashed to a culture of drugs, perversion, and abuse. The difficulty in communication is that the folks who inhabit points along that progression see nothing wrong with it and, where malevolent symptoms are undeniable, will blame stigma and society's blurred vision of the "real" problems beneath. To outsiders inspecting the strange world, its advocates raise people, like Andelloux, who appear admirably well adjusted except for the fetishes and kinks (although they'd argue against my "except").

Megan's Web site, for example, is conspicuously harmless, exuding softness. She doesn't appear dangerous, nor does she appear unhappy. See, naught can be wrong with a life led smiling. Personal unhappiness, however, is not the only — not even the most important — consequence of committing one's self to her worldview. That actuality comes into view with Ms. Andelloux's list of professional memberships, which includes both NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Once again, some will applaud that association, but we others see in it the most dire consequence of sexual "liberation."

The most dire in a parade of consequences. There's a whole lot of societal deconstruction to be observed in the life of this girl next door:

Derek Andelloux is an ex-football player, and he is built like one. He is blonde and blue-eyed with high cheekbones, and, like all blondes, Megan says, he smells like candy. He is husky, and Dutch-looking, and enjoys chopping wood. And after a few years of dating, he wanted to propose to Megan.

She gave him a hundred different reasons why marriage was antiquated and sexist. She pointed out that her gay friends couldn't get married. She didn't want to lose her identity, to be introduced as Derek's wife, to be seen as a ball and chain instead of a sexual being. But she did want to spend the rest of her life with Derek.

The couple agreed to have a commitment ceremony instead, and after exchanging rings in front of 135 friends and relatives in September 2004, they merged their last names — he went from being Derek Mailloux to Derek Andelloux, and she added the French suffix to the first two syllables of "Anderson."

The life of this particular sexologist strives for sterility and is scornful of the institution by which Western society has so successfully managed relationships in which intended sterility is notoriously difficult to achieve. Conveniently, her "life partner's" Daily Kos diary describes him as a "future abortion provider."

Some will decry it as inflammatory to observe the fortuity of their relationship: Her life's work is to encourage a cast of mind with consequent behavior that tends to result in the creation of inconvenient human life, and his will be the termination of that life. I'd describe that as a cross-marketing package designed in Hell. They, likely not believing in Hell, would see their ideologies as mutually — and benignly — reinforcing and as reflective of their complementary affinities. Given her declared disinterest in becoming a parent, would it be offensive of me to wonder whether the couple mightn't find intimacy in the shared experience of eliminating their own accidental offspring? If so, why? It's an honest question.

With this image of suburban domesticity in a world in which prostitution is just another trade, cultural corruption is only mildly visible on the surface but applies its inevitably destructive subversion. It puts a whimsical, pastel face on a set of cannibalizing priorities. The legions of less-advantaged souls who cannot afford the Andellouxs' packaging will suffer tangible harm by the destruction of a culture from which they've benefited hugely, but in which radicals see only obstacles to the fulfillment of their desires.

Now consider Megan's behavior with her extended family:

Though Andelloux does not plan on having children of her own, she loves the sassiness and angst of teenagers. She often picks her niece Becky up in a town outside of Worcester, Massachusetts, and takes her out to dinner or shopping for shoes. Although Becky's parents, Andelloux's sister Amy and her husband Michael Zakarian, don't approve of her attempts to educate their children, Andelloux finds ways to spend time with her niece and her nephew, Tommy.
Would it be judgmental to characterize the subversion of others' attempts to guide their own children as the polar opposite of respect? And if respect for differences and tolerance for the social enclaves that others build for themselves — most concretely, under their own roofs — is not the hallmark of a social movement that lists the Kink-Aware Professionals group alongside the ACLU, doesn't the cry of "live and let live" take on a vicious insincerity?

Would it be hyperbolic of me to suggest that such as these are blithe to their deconstruction of our society? It could not be, because rephrasing the suggestion in sunnier terms, they'd likely agree.

The Sad Gavel Falls; Budget Now Law... with No Credibility for Future Gubernatorial Complaints

Justin Katz

From the governor's office (full release in extended entry):

Governor Donald L. Carcieri today transmitted, with signature, the FY 2010 budget, citing he had no other choice with more than $200 million at stake.

In a letter to Speaker William H, Murphy, Governor Donald L. Carcieri voiced his disappointment with the budget stating, "My signing this budget is not an endorsement of it in its entirety. I had intended to allow this budget to become law without my signature, however it was delivered to my office too late to do so. I am signing for this reason: over forty million dollars of state funding, plus hundreds of millions in Federal FMAP funds are at risk if the budget does not become law before July 1st."

"I had the option to veto this ill-conceived budget, however it was overwhelmingly approved by both the House and Senate. A veto would have required both chambers to return to override it before July 1st. It appeared highly unlikely that they would have returned, leaving us with no budget. As Governor, I was not willing to risk forfeiture of this money and the potential of creating an enormous additional burden for our taxpayers."

Governor Carcieri underscored the lack of long-term vision by the General Assembly in crafting the budget. "My original budget proposal, which I submitted in February, balanced our immediate needs, and most significantly presented a plan to address many of the ongoing budget problems that have plagued our state for decades. My goal has always been to build a positive future for Rhode Island. Unfortunately, the General Assembly chose a short-sighted scheme with narrow political goals that addresses some but defers more far-reaching, difficult choices for yet another year." ...

In conclusion, the Governor again reiterated his decision to sign the budget was based on the potential to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in savings if not signed by July 1, 2009. "As I have said, this budget is not good for Rhode Island in the long run, and my signature should not be seen as an approval of this budget. However, given the little time left before the start of fiscal year 2010, and because of the hundreds of millions of dollars at risk, I have reluctantly signed this budget into law."

So it was "highly unlikely" that both houses of the General Assembly would rush to override a veto? Is that judgment based solely on House Speaker Bill Murphy's European vacation, or are there other considerations that led the governor to demur from forcing the senators and representatives to show just how vehemently they wish to let the state stagger in the wrong direction?

Sorry, governor. You signed the beast's release papers; the blood of its victims will be on your hands as much as the legislature's.

Governor Donald L. Carcieri today transmitted, with signature, the FY 2010 budget, citing he had no other choice with more than $200 million at stake.

In a letter to Speaker William H, Murphy, Governor Donald L. Carcieri voiced his disappointment with the budget stating, "My signing this budget is not an endorsement of it in its entirety. I had intended to allow this budget to become law without my signature, however it was delivered to my office too late to do so. I am signing for this reason: over forty million dollars of state funding, plus hundreds of millions in Federal FMAP funds are at risk if the budget does not become law before July 1st."

"I had the option to veto this ill-conceived budget, however it was overwhelmingly approved by both the House and Senate. A veto would have required both chambers to return to override it before July 1st. It appeared highly unlikely that they would have returned, leaving us with no budget. As Governor, I was not willing to risk forfeiture of this money and the potential of creating an enormous additional burden for our taxpayers."

Governor Carcieri underscored the lack of long-term vision by the General Assembly in crafting the budget. "My original budget proposal, which I submitted in February, balanced our immediate needs, and most significantly presented a plan to address many of the ongoing budget problems that have plagued our state for decades. My goal has always been to build a positive future for Rhode Island. Unfortunately, the General Assembly chose a short-sighted scheme with narrow political goals that addresses some but defers more far-reaching, difficult choices for yet another year."

"Rhode Island is facing an extraordinarily challenging economic time. Over the past year, state revenues have declined significantly. Some of our cities and towns are struggling to meet payroll each week, and too many of our citizens are unemployed," continued Carcieri.

During these challenging times, our General Assembly needed to find the courage to make the tough choices to put our state back on the path to financial health. The FY 2010 budget passed by the General Assembly makes some difficult choices, but not enough to really put Rhode Island on the path to prosperity. We must grow jobs and incomes, and to do that, we need to become more business friendly by reducing spending and our overall tax burden.

Governor Carcieri praised the General Assembly for the major pension reform passed, but criticized the General Assembly for not going far enough and for not establishing a transition to a 401K-style retirement system. "In the last few years, my administration has made significant personnel reforms, including changes to the retiree health plan, increased health care co-pays and co-shares for state employees, and a significant reduction in the state's workforce. On the positive side, this year the General Assembly approved the most significant reform yet, with major changes to the pension system. I commend the House and the Senate for their courage in pressing ahead with pension reform, despite the overwhelming pressure from organized labor. However, we need to do more to secure our retirement system, and we must change to a defined contribution retirement system for new hires. Such a change would ensure that over time a state employee's retirement fund would be both portable and sustainable."

A cornerstone of the Governor's budget proposal was significant tax reforms that would make Rhode Island more competitive and strengthen the state's economic foundation. The General Assembly's budget, instead, opted to treat Capital Gains as ordinary income and raise the gasoline tax. "Last June, I created a Tax Policy Strategy Workgroup that worked for months and offered several proposals that aimed at making our state more business friendly and competitive with our neighbors. I included many of these recommendations in my 2010 budget, not the least of which was a reduction in the business corporation tax rate, a restructuring and lowering of the personal income tax brackets and a significant increase in the estate tax exemption. Our corporate tax rate at 9% is the highest in New England and is discouraging to business. While the increase in the estate tax exemption to $850,000 was a move in the right direction, it was not much more than a token. However, I do commend the General Assembly for continuing the reduction in the Flat Tax Option to 6% beginning January 1, 2010."

"Thankfully, this budget does not raise broad-based sales or income taxes. However, raising the Capital Gains Tax to the ordinary income rate is discouraging to businesses, and eliminates one area where our tax policy was more attractive than our neighbors," continued Carcieri. "In my opinion, the General Assembly wasted the chance to embrace new tax policies that would have encouraged job growth within our existing businesses and would have had great potential to attract new businesses here. My tax reform proposals were designed to energize our economic development efforts, attract new business and grow jobs."

Of great concern to the Governor was the General Assembly's inaction to address the structural spending reforms at the city and town level and not passing any of his proposed reforms to help cities and towns balance their budgets. "Regrettably, the budget approved by the House and Senate does not include structural spending reforms at the city and town level. The cost of services must be reduced by local governments in order to lower the property tax burden as well as the level of state government support. By refusing to pass the 21 recommendations I proposed - that would have saved cities and towns more than $125 million every year - the cost of municipal services will continue to rise. Relief from mandates, onerous labor contracts, and a parochial view of municipal service delivery is long overdue. If state revenues do not greatly improve next year, the only choice we will have is to significantly reduce local aid much further than what was done in this budget."

The Governor called the move to strip $70 million in state department cuts problematic and signaled the possibility for further reduction of the already overburdened state workforce and salary reductions. "The $70 million in across the board departmental cuts, without any reductions in programs and services, is problematic. With the already significant reduction of the state's workforce and the increased demand on state services, the additional $70 million in unspecified savings will put in jeopardy existing labor agreements and most likely force further reductions in the workforce and employee compensation. My administration has begun discussing the consequences with union leadership."

In conclusion, the Governor again reiterated his decision to sign the budget was based on the potential to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in savings if not signed by July 1, 2009. "As I have said, this budget is not good for Rhode Island in the long run, and my signature should not be seen as an approval of this budget. However, given the little time left before the start of fiscal year 2010, and because of the hundreds of millions of dollars at risk, I have reluctantly signed this budget into law."

Handing Over Iraq

Marc Comtois

As Ralph Peters writes, "Our effort in Iraq passed a major milestone today: Our troops are leaving the cities." For whatever reason (um, dare I say victory?), interest in Iraq has waned since it collapsed as a viable anti-you-know-who talking point. But progress has been made and now we can safely return Iraq's cities to Iraqi's. Peters:

Looking back over six years of good intentions, tragic errors, generosity, arrogance, partisan vituperation, painful deaths and ultimate vindication, two things strike me: the ever-resisted lesson that human affairs are more complex than academic theories claim, and the simple truth that most human beings prefer a measure of freedom to immeasurable repression.

Now the symbolism of our troops withdrawing from Iraq's cities is richer than Washington grasps. Mesopotamia created urban culture: Ur, Babylon, Nineveh and countless lesser-known sites are where humans first worked out ways to live together in close quarters in large numbers. The coming wave of terror will strike cities that make Baghdad seem a youngster.

The "cradle of civilization" is rising from the grave again.

Yes, sectarianism, old grievances and the greed for power may deliver future crises -- even an eventual civil war. An unnatural state with grossly flawed borders, Iraq has more obstacles to overcome than any of its neighbors except Lebanon.

But our achievement remains profound: We gave one key Arab state a chance at freedom and democracy. We deposed a monstrous dictator who butchered his own people and invaded two foreign countries. And we didn't quit, despite the scorn of the global intelligentsia.

And Pete Hegseth, Iraq veteran:
The historic events of June 30, 2009 didn’t come about because politicians passed resolutions or regional allies capitulated. With the help of President who showed resolve and a General who changed strategy, this day was made possible by over 4,300 American warriors who gave their lives (and over 31,000 wounded) so that others—Iraqis they barely knew—could live free.

This enduring truth is the legacy of this day. May we take pause and remember that nothing good comes without a cost, and that at the end of the day—the only thing standing between the sectarian abyss of 2006 and the triumphant transfer of 2009—were stalwart American troops, their brave Iraqi counterparts, and an Iraqi population that rejected the violent ideology of Al Qaeda.

And it wasn't just the surge. It was the troops who tore down Saddam's statue for the world to see, the Soldiers and Marines who crushed insurgents in Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, and elsewhere, the Special Operators who hunted and killed Zarqawi, and the thousands of young men who, every day, patrolled endless miles of Iraqi roads, deserts, and cities. Every action played a role, large or small.

We may forget all this, but only at our peril.

The Budget: Give it a Shove, Gov

Monique Chartier

The Governor's office confirmed five minutes ago that the Governor had not yet acted on the budget. Still time to sneak in a suggestion, then.

In the category of just-because-it's-obvious-doesn't-mean-it-doesn't need-to-be-said, the Ocean State Republican urges Governor Carcieri to veto the budget bill on his desk.

... the Assembly’s budget increases taxes on investments in businesses, fails to reduce any taxes, and increases the gasoline tax at a time when Rhode Islanders are already hard hit by the recession. The token changes in the state pension system and health-insurance premiums for government employees are ineffectual in the face of enormous, and increasing, unfunded liabilities that Rhode Islanders in the private sector simply cannot afford. We note that the Assembly, in a self, cynical gesture, voted to continue free health insurance for themselves. The longer we wait to address these issues head-on, the worse they will be.

Just a Bad Dream? Perils of Binding Arbitration

Monique Chartier

I awoke this morning with a buzzing in my ears and a panicked conviction that binding arbitration for teacher contracts would be a very bad thing. A very bad thing, indeed. Perhaps those who oppose the concept of a never-ending contract should clear their ears, too, so as to hear the buzz.

From "Vermonters for Better Education".

Here's how collective bargaining with binding arbitration works. Management and union representatives come together on opposite sides of the table and predictably fail to reach mutual agreement on the really important issues of hours, wages, and working conditions. They predictably fail because union negotiators frequently make exhorbitant demands designed to wreck negotiations and force the parties into binding arbitration where the union is virtually guaranteed to win and management to fail.

Here's how that works. A typical arbitration panel is composed of three professionally trained arbitrators, one chosen by management, one chosen by the union, and one chosen by the first two. They will hear the arguments, consider the issues, and fashion a remedy, a contract. That contract almost never favors management. It almost always favors the union and for a very simple reason. Arbitrators need to work. When they work they always face the same unions on one side of the table, but different governing bodies on the other. Unions keep book on the performance of arbitrators, and they will shun or boycott arbitrators who don't favor union positions. Put bluntly, arbitrators who don't please unions don't work. Arbitrators don't have to fear governing bodies because they very seldom have to face the same one twice, and governing bodies don't keep book on them. Hence, governing bodies enter binding arbitration at a terrific disadvantage and virtually never win.

Something Not to Forget on Rising Healthcare Costs

Justin Katz

There are more problems with our healthcare system than this allows, but Thomas Sowell's point is well worth remembering:

Just as medical care, houses, and cars were all cheaper when they lacked things that they have today, so medical care in other countries is cheaper when it lacks many things that are more readily available in the United States.

There are more than four times as many Magnetic Resonance Imaging units (MRIs) per capita in the United States as in Britain or Canada, where there are government-run medical systems. There are more than twice as many CT scanners per capita in the United States as in Canada and more than four times as many per capita as in Britain.

Is it surprising that such things cost money?

The cost of developing a new pharmaceutical is now about a billion dollars. Neither political rhetoric nor government bureaucracies will make those costs go away.

We can, of course, refuse to pay these and other medical costs, just as we can refuse to buy air-conditioned homes with built-in microwave ovens. But that just means we pay attention only to prices and not to the value of what we get for those prices.

RI Supreme Court to the People of Rhode Island: We Think Legislative Immunity Needs to be Broader Than You Realize, So We're Going to Ditch the Plain Meaning of that Constitutional Amendment You Passed

Carroll Andrew Morse

In the Rhode Island Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Irons v. RI Ethics Commission, three justices of the Rhode Island Supreme Court defied very clear precedent in order to replace the plain meaning of the state Constitution with their own view of what the law regarding the ethical conduct of legislators should be, based on a belief that legislators should have immunity for "core legislative acts" that is more broad than what the people of Rhode Island are willing to provide. What had been specified by the people via Constitutional Amendment has thus been scaled back, for not being in harmony with what the judiciary thinks is best.

Yesterday's ruling ignored the fact that the United States Supreme Court had repeatedly and explicitly declined to extend legislative immunity to laws specifically intended to regulate legislative behavior prior to the ratification of the Rhode Island Ethics Amendment in 1986, in the 1966 case of United States v. Johnson

We expressly leave open for consideration when the case arises a prosecution which, though possibly entailing inquiry into legislative acts or motivations, is founded upon a narrowly drawn statute passed by Congress in the exercise of its legislative power to regulate the conduct of its members.
...and in the 1972 case of United States v. Brewster
The [Johnson] opinion specifically left open the question of a prosecution which, though possibly entailing some reference to legislative acts, is founded upon a "narrowly drawn" statute passed by Congress in the exercise of its power to regulate its Members' conduct.
...both of which were used to define the scope of legislative immunity in Rhode Island law (via the 1984 case of Holmes v. Farmer).

It is an affront to the principles of self-government and the rule of law for judges to invalidate a Constitutional Amendment that filled an ambiguous area of Constitutional law, based on judges' granting themselves the power to extend previous court rulings beyond their original scope and asserting that that power outranks the actual amending of the Constitution by the people.

Adding insult to injury, the Court's explanation of its judge-manufactured rules that, for the moment, trump the plain meaning of the State Constitution is not coherent. The Court claims that legislators are not really immune from violating the Code of Ethics -- except when they are…

We wish to stress in the strongest possible terms, however, that it in no way grants a legislator the right to transgress the Code of Ethics or any other law. Legislators are held accountable for violations of the Code of Ethics, and they are not immune for actions which violate that code. The only exceptions are those in which the speech in debate clause of the constitution is implicated. The immunity afforded merely precludes the Ethics Commission from prosecuting within a narrow class of core legislative acts.
To understand the imprecision of the reasoning above, consider a hypothetical legislator who holds a position on the House or Senate Finance Committee that allows him or her control the flow of legislation. Suppose this legislator comes out and says "I'm not going to ever vote for tax deals with any company that doesn't throw some business my way."

That is now protected behavior in the state of Rhode Island, for which a state legislator is immune.

Peculiar Goings On with Comments

Justin Katz

For some reason, one of our spam filters became overly broad within the last sixteen hours — blocking for example, comments including the URL "anchorrising.com," as well as the various IP addresses of regular readers. Having been alerted to the problem, I "approved" all of the comments that had been withheld, and I apologize for any confusion.

This could have been a temporary blip in the functioning of our neighborhood of the Internet, or it could have been a deliberate stratagem from one of our (ahem) neighbors. I'd appreciate it if regular readers who get any sort of message about comments being "held for review" (for example) would send me a quick email so that I can investigate.

Re: RI Supreme Court Undercuts Ethics Commission

Justin Katz

Writes the RI Supreme Court majority in the case of William Irons and the Ethics Commission:

"We wish to stress in the strongest possible terms, however, that it in no way grants a legislator the right to transgress the Code of Ethics or any other law," the majority wrote. Unprotected actions include political activities, efforts for constituents, assistance in securing government contracts, soliciting and taking bribes and criminal activities — "even those committed to further legislative activity."

It's good of them to break out those dusty ol' "strongest possible terms," but how exactly would that work? Here's the full text from that part of the ruling (PDF; citations removed):

This Court has interpreted the speech in debate clause to provide legislators with "absolute" immunity from questioning "by any other branch of government for their acts in carrying out their legislative duties relating to the legislative process." We wish to stress in the strongest possible terms, however, that it in no way grants a legislator the right to transgress the Code of Ethics or any other law. Legislators are held accountable for violations of the Code of Ethics, and they are not immune for actions which violate that code. The only exceptions are those in which the speech in debate clause of the constitution is implicated. The immunity afforded merely precludes the Ethics Commission from prosecuting within a narrow class of core legislative acts. Actions of legislators "in proposing, passing, or voting upon a particular piece of legislation" are core legislative acts that fall "clearly within the most basic elements of legislative privilege." In short, "as long as [a legislator's] challenged actions, stripped of all considerations of intent and motive, were legislative in character, the doctrine of absolute legislative immunity protects them from such claims."

Activities that remain unprotected by this immunity include, but are not limited to: speeches delivered outside of the legislature; political activities of legislators; undertakings for constituents; assistance in securing government contracts; republication of defamatory material in press releases and newsletters; solicitation and acceptance of bribes; and criminal activities, even those committed to further legislative activity.

"Mr. Legislator, your testimony is that Mr. Money gave you $500,000 to assemble a $15 plastic toy wagon on Saturday, June 27. Didn't that seem like a lot of money?"

"It's generous, but I'm a lawyer, not a professional toy assembler, so I wasn't sure what to charge."

"Why then would the Moneys hire you for that job?"

"I don't know. I guess they know I'm good at bringing pieces together."

"The next day, Mr. Legislator, Mr. Money's business partner, Mrs. Bucks, gave you a check for $200,000. What was that money for?"

"It was a gift."

"You then introduced legislation effectively giving Bucks and Money a monopoly on processing government widgets in the state of Rhode Island — legislation that later passed with your vote — is that true?"

"Objection, your honor. The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled in William V. Irons v. The Rhode Island Ethics Commission et al. that a legislator cannot be questioned for his 'core legislative acts,' which is clearly what the prosecutor is doing."

"Sustained. Mr. Prosecutor, do you have any further evidence that these financial transactions constituted bribery for activity not involving Mr. Legislator's core duties as an elected representative?"

"No, your honor."

"The witness may step down."

Re: No Amazon Money for the Little Local Guy

Carroll Andrew Morse

In the previous post, Justin said that…

According to the Wall Street Journal, Amazon has around 2,000 affiliates in Rhode Island who pay an estimated $3 million in state income tax…
Not anymore, according to Steve Peoples and Neil Downing of the Projo
The Internet giant Amazon.com has severed formal ties with all Rhode Island businesses, a move intended to shield the online retailer from the General Assembly’s push to tax some online sales as soon as Wednesday.

An Amazon spokeswoman declined to say how many businesses –– local book dealers and other retailers — will be affected, but she confirmed that notification letters were distributed to “many local associates” early Monday morning.

June 29, 2009

No Amazon Money for the Little Local Guy

Justin Katz

Matt Allen has been talking about the Rhode Islander's grab for tax revenue from Amazon.com. Amazon's affiliate/associate program is essentially a referral service. Web sites link to items on Amazon, and if their readers/visitors buy the item, the referrer receives a percentage of the sale.

Some folks use the service as another source of advertising revenue. Some use it to avoid creating an online store for their own products. What states, like Rhode Island, have been trying to argue is that affiliate programs amount to a "physical presence" in the state, requiring online retailers to collect sales tax on all items sold into the state, whether or not there's an RI affiliate involved in the sale. The budget legislation accomplishes this end by changing the definition of "retailer" to include (PDF):

Every person making sales of tangible personal property through an independent contractor or other representative, if the retailer enters into an agreement with a resident of this state, under which the resident, for a commission or other consideration, directly or indirectly refers potential customers, whether by a link on an Internet website or otherwise, to the retailer, provided the cumulative gross receipts from sales by the retailer to customers in the state who are referred to the retailer by all residents with this type of an agreement with the retailer, is in excess of five thousand dollars ($5,000) during the preceding four (4) quarterly periods ending on the last day of March, June, September and December. Such retailer shall be presumed to be soliciting business through such independent contractor or other representative, which presumption may be rebutted by proof that the resident with whom the retailer has an agreement did not engage in any solicitation in the state on behalf of the retailer that would satisfy the nexus requirement of the United States Constitution during such four (4) quarterly periods.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Amazon has around 2,000 affiliates in Rhode Island who pay an estimated $3 million in state income tax. (The article doesn't relate that income directly to Amazon.) Say this for our state: Rhode Island is very innovative — cutting edge — when it comes to finding ways to harm residents who are trying to scrounge together a living.

Evening Music Video: We're Going Green!

Justin Katz

Any song with the line "and estimated environmental impact is not really calculable" would be worth a listen, but I've been humming this one all day:

(via the Corner)

Breaking: RI Supreme Court Undercuts Ethics Commission

Marc Comtois

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has managed to take away one of the RI Ethics Commission's big sticks:

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has upheld a lower-court ruling on behalf of former Senate President William V. Irons, saying that state legislators cannot be prosecuted by the state Ethics Commission for their votes or official legislative actions.

The vote was 3-1, with retired chief justice Frank Williams joining Francis Flaherty and William Robinson. Paul Suttell, recently confirmed by the Rhode Island Senate as the next chief justice, dissented.

Full opinion here. At issue was how to reconcile two sections in the RI Constitution; the "speech and debate" clause--that "enables representatives to execute the core legislative functions of their office without fear of civil or criminal prosecution and ensures the separation of powers among the coordinate branches of government"--and the amendment that created the Ethics Commission. As soon-to-be Supreme Court Chief Justice Suttell writes (in dissent):
I agree with the majority that the ethics amendment and the speech in debate clause are two conflicting constitutional provisions. If both are accorded their broadest readings, neither can flourish to their fullest extents....Harmonization, however, is not possible in this case; I share the majority’s view that the two provisions “stand in diametrical opposition to each other.” Accordingly, these provisions being irreconcilably repugnant, one provision must necessarily bend to the other. The majority resolves this conundrum by declining “to abridge such a long standing and widely accepted constitutional provision in the absence of an express and uncontroverted manifestation of electoral intent.” By doing so, however, it perforce vitiates the applicability of the ethics amendment to legislators with respect to their performance of legislative activities, contrary to the plain and unambiguous language of the ethics amendment. In essence, the majority chooses to accord greater import to “an ancient and venerable hallmark of our form of government” than to the more newly minted ethics amendment.


I would hold that in matters concerning the ethical conduct of legislators the ethics amendment creates a narrow exception to the immunity historically adhering to legislators in the performance of their legislative activities. Such a construction of our constitution, I believe, gives greater effect to the intent of the convention delegates and electorate in 1986 than an interpretation that places legislators beyond the reach of the ethics commission for violations of the code of ethics with respect to their performance of legislative activities. It would also preserve the full measure of protections accorded legislators by the speech in debate clause as to questioning from any person or entity except the ethics commission.

The majority has essentially made it impossible for any Ethics Commission investigation to be able to show a quid pro quo (ie; getting a "favor" for a favorable vote). Instead, back to business as it used to be done. Great.

Brian Bishop: Perpetual Contracts Push Constitutional Envelope

Monique Chartier

The General Assembly is still open for business - possibly with questionable motive, as Justin points out. One of the items of unfinished business that certain legislators may wish to revisit as Rhode Islanders head to the beaches is the never-ending contract. Brian Bishop looks at certain constitutional issues raised by the bill.

It is a foundational tenet of the American political system that a sitting legislature cannot bind a future legislature. This concept is the very basis of our electoral system. Elections would have little meaning if the actions of former legislators could not be dislodged by their successors.

The RI Supreme Court has articulated this common-law principle as meaning

any contract made by a governmental authority involving the performance of a governmental function that extends beyond the unexpired terms of the governmental officials executing the contract is void because such an agreement improperly ties the hands of subsequent officials.

As is often the case, one needs to refer to another case on how this limitation on “governmental function” applies to running public schools. The Supreme Court subsequently said unequivocally

It is our opinion that the operation and the maintenance of a public school is a governmental function and not a proprietary one.

In “proprietary” areas, political actors can contract for periods normal to similar private transactions without regard to elective terms. Proprietary functions, according to the court, are those

not so intertwined with governing that the government is obligated to perform it only by its own agents or employees.

Ironically, the Ocean State Policy Research Institute has argued forcefully that public education ought to be viewed more as a proprietary function -- not so fully dependent upon government run schools or so fully funded by government resources. To date, we have not prevailed in making this case and absent such a clear change in public policy the Court has definitively limited contracts with public school teachers.

In apparent recognition of this paradigm, the legislature has limited teacher contracts to years. But this year, they have proposed making public teacher contracts perpetual.

Of course the same principle at issue here means that the present legislature is not bound by the previous legislative determination that 3 years is a proper contract horizon. Although this proposed legislation seems to confirm the custom of keeping the old contract in force while negotiating a new one, such an enactment would be constitutionally suspect.

Often, by mutual agreement, contracts made in previous elective cycles have been continued during an impasse in negotiations with newly elected officials. But mandating this outcome is quite different than sitting school committee members endorsing it.

The cities and towns are the laboratories of democracy in Rhode Island. School budgets represent the vast majority of local spending, and teachers’ salaries the lion’s share of those budgets. Altering local officials’ ability to control those costs relegates local elections to doing little more than changing the names on town welcome signs.

It seems certain that adopting perpetual contracts, even in the name of smoothing labor disputes and improving government functioning, is constitutionally prohibited.

[Brian Bishop is the Director of the Founders Project and Fellow for Regulatory and Environmental Policy at the Ocean State Policy Research Institute.]

Who's Working the Plantation, Now?

Justin Katz

Being neither a native nor a linguistic pro forma traditionalist, I'm in the "who cares" camp when it comes to the excision of the word "plantations" in the official full name of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The change would affirm a detrimental and immature impulse that's pervasive in modern society and should, itself, be excised, but ailments are so prevalent in the culture that one must sometimes let the disease eat a bit of loose flesh so as to better address the causes.

As if my metaphor had peculiar accuracy, however, the agreement-fest in the RI House over putting the question of the offending word on the ballot exposed a pair of ugly lesions that ought to concern Rhode Islanders a great deal:

State Rep. Doug Gablinske, D-Bristol, said that when he spoke out in March in favor of the bill, and said he was not proud of his community's involvement in the slave trade hundreds of years ago, he got more flack from his constituents than he has on any other issue.

But he said he believes it's much easier for white men and women to "enjoy this country's bounty" and people should try walking "in the shoes of a black man." He said he was backing Almeida. ...

The word plantation is hurtful to his 83-year-old father, [Rep. Joseph] Almeida[, D- Providence] said. He's watching now, he said. And why, he asked, are Gablinske's constituents so upset over his support of the bill? "That should tell you something."

Here we have one "representative" — Gablinske — making the casually paternalistic declaration that he will not represent his constituents on a matter that drew more passion from them than any other (or so he professes). That spurt of moral superiority served to lob a softball to another "representative" — Almeida — to slur the people of Bristol as racists because, for whatever reason, they like the name of the state just the way it is.

Not fully indentured, as yet, the people of RI&PP will have the final say on the matter, and I'd wager that they'll vote the change down. As I said, it won't bother me in the least to be proven wrong, on that, but if the vote goes the way I expect, I'll smile at the implicit rebuke of our State House masters.

Putting School District Mergers into Perspective

Justin Katz

Gina Macris reports on a document by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) exploring the financial possibilities of merging the three school districts on Aquidneck Island. Readers may have picked up on the fact that I'm a regionalization skeptic, and Macris's first paragraph points to the reason:

Declining enrollment and escalating costs mean that Aquidneck Island’s three school districts cannot afford to remain independent and maintain the same quality of education, according to a study by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

Unless Newport, Middletown, and Portsmouth pool resources and services and consolidate spending to realize economies of scale, the RIPEC study concluded, the districts will become mired in deficit spending over the next several years while seeing the scope of their academic programs curtailed.

Education is only one area in which a sales and marketing campaign is coming together around the notion that regionalization of services is our only hope for financial solvency. Recent experience of local taxpayer groups' having an increasingly rapid and increasingly potent effect on municipal policies, while at the same time the General Assembly drags its feet and plays procedural games, ought at least to cast a shadow of doubt that consolidating control and (therefore) power is a sensible response to escalating local costs.

In some cases, such as utilities, having a larger contract to offer increases negotiating clout, but in others, such as labor, it narrows the field on which the clout of others (i.e., unions) must be expended. The NEA still receives the same dues, but it needs to influence fewer elected and appointed representatives. With its state and national structure in place, the union will realize efficiencies when it comes to selecting and promoting candidates when there are fewer campaigns to battle; in contrast, concerned residents will face a much more daunting task gaining recognition beyond their immediate communities.

When it comes to operations, yes, there would be fewer "top" jobs, but there would be more lower jobs, each with greater responsibility than before:

The most far-reaching model assumes one central school administration for all the schools on the island. It anticipates the closing of one high school and one middle school but doesn't designate which ones. Working with the lone superintendent would be two assistant superintendents and one director each for finance, facilities, student services, technology, athletics and academics.

Instead of three superintendents responsible for an average of $37 million and 2,585 students, you get one superintendent and two assistants responsible for $111 million and 7,755. Generally speaking, the savings would seem to be minimal. Of course, closing schools and having the capacity to shuffle around staff (perhaps achieving efficiencies when it comes to teachers who can float from school to school) create savings, but let's put the numbers into perspective:

RIPEC's 150-page analysis offers six options for the island's three districts, from maintaining the status quo to a complete merger. Although not recommending which option the districts should pursue, RIPEC found that making no change could lead to sizable financial problems, and merging services could result in estimated annual savings of $2.8 million to $12.3 million, depending on the degree of consolidation. The savings would begin to be realized in 2012.

Depending how fully the districts regionalize, the savings amount to 2.5% to 11%. Millions of dollars should never be pshawed, but these are hardly game-changing figures, and Rhode Islanders should have zero confidence that bureaucrats and union leaders won't keep the very same "capacity to pay" numbers in mind as they negotiate and shuffle money around.

In essence, my warning is that we shouldn't let a fancy new concept distract us from our experience of how Rhode Island actually operates, and the following figures give some representation of that experience. (For the first chart, I laid out the axes to illustrate percentage change, effectively taking the 26% difference between the minimum and maximum for expenditures and showing the same range for enrollment, which varied by about 12%.)

To my eye, combining these three school districts into one, of itself, would buy a few more years before expenditures are right back to their currently problematic mass, and I'm not persuaded that a new paradigm will have been instituted that would change the trajectory or the results.

Folks in business, government, media, and the general population seem to be convincing themselves that consolidation is the clear and obvious way forward. They are correct that some resistance is motivated by narrow parochial preferences, but it would be a risky error to suppose that there aren't better-informed reasons to object.

Weekend Review

Justin Katz

A typical weekend on Anchor Rising — and just about all such Web sites, as far as I can tell — brings a 25% drop in daily visitors compared with a weekday. Herewith a summary of our Saturday and Sunday posts for readers who believe their weekends better spent doing otherwise than obsessively reloading our site. (Can you imagine?)

I began the weekend pondering the implications of males' natural behavior for a society definitionally concerned with targeting behavior toward civilization's ends. It took fewer intellectual steps than one might think to transition to a look at the upshot of federal and state trends in energy legislation that will increase costs for everybody across the country, with Rhode Island (as ever) striving to impose an additional premium on its residents.

In like vein, I later noted that market and medical realities will not bend for government care and wondered aloud how a gang with police power will respond to them. Marc pointed out that one strategy (at least for Democrats) might be to give labor unions special treatment. On education, some resident comments at a West Warwick town meeting prompted the question of whether it mightn't save money just to send all of our children to private school.

Focusing more directly on governance qua governance, I directed readers to the Wall Street Journal's argument that progressive policies hurt and opined that nepotism doesn't help. Monique offered Speaker of the RI House Bill Murphy the suggestion that less government might be more, when it comes to the General Assembly. I posed the hypothetical of whether Murphy's expressed objective of allowing legislators to "cool off" was more likely a hope that others would look away. Monique might quip that legislators desire, thereby, to sweep the non-cancellation of local mandates under this year's rug.

Mark Steyn inspired a post on celebrity culture and politics, for which I subsequently presented a piece of evidence in the form of a columnist's pining for dates like the Obamas go on.

Monique also posted a cartoon on Iran by the ever insightful Charlie Hall.

June 28, 2009

... And What Happened to Lifting Mandates for Cities and Towns?

Monique Chartier

Here was one good attempt at relief - an amendment to the budget submitted by Rep John Loughlin.

Chapter 45-13 of the General Laws entitled "State Aid" is hereby amended by adding thereto the following section:

45-13-1.3. Relief from unfunded mandates. – Notwithstanding any provision to the contrary, contained in the appropriations for the support of the state for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010, any general or public law, rule or regulation, the general assembly hereby relieves the school committee of any city or town from any unfunded mandates with the exception of those mandates pertaining to transportation, transportation safety and fire safety.

Killed, though the twenty one in favor was a tantalizingly respectable outcome. [Thanks to Rep John Loughlin for the info.] Below for the record are the twenty one representatives who voted to put the best fiscal interest of their districts ahead of other considerations.

Azzinaro Baldelli-Hunt Brien Driver Edwards Ehrhardt Fierro Loughlin Malik Newberry O'Neill Petrarca Pollard Rice, A. Rice, M. Schadone Sullivan Trillo Ucci Watson Winfield

Let's see, other mandates considered. Leaving the deployment of bus monitors to local discretion: sent back to committee.

Anything else? Nothing that passed, in any case. [Standing by to correct if this is wrong.]

Even Providence Mayor David Cicilline testified in favor of such measures! It is an absurd and irresponsible proposition to mandate certain operating conditions without simultaneously supplying the funds to implement them. At least the $9,000,000 loss generated by grayhound racing has slot revenue to cover it. The General Assembly has also ordered cities and towns to continue operating at a loss ... but in this case, without providing a revenue source to cover those losses.

Re: The Confused, Non-End of this General Assembly Session

Justin Katz

I concur with Monique about the Speaker of the General Assembly House Bill Murphy's suggestion that the legislature is a full-time occupation, but it was a different line of his that caught my eye when I read that article:

"We said in January that the budget was going to be the issue this year and it was," Murphy said early Saturday morning. "I think once we got that over with Wednesday night, Thursday morning, people have had a long month, the Fourth of July is next week, we need a couple weeks to cool off."

"Cool off"? Somehow I can't help but wonder if — during a year of tea parties and coalescing opposition groups and local taxpayer organizations — the objective wouldn't be more accurately characterized as permitting the attention of difficult constituents to drift off: to let the summer doldrums settle in, vacations to drain the ground troops (so to speak), and a few weeks of hiatus to change the topics on folks' minds.

Taxing Health Care

Marc Comtois

One idea that has been floated as part of comprehensive health care reform is to tax health care benefits as income. I recall Senator McCain's plan contained such a provision for example. Well, it looks like the Senate is considering going with it, too. Except for union workers.

The exception, which could make the proposal more politically palatable to Democrats from heavily unionized states such as Michigan, is adding controversy to an already contentious debate. It would shield the 12.4 percent of American workers who belong to unions from being taxed while exposing some other middle-income workers to the levy.

“I can’t think of any other aspect of the individual income tax that treats benefits of different people differently because of who they work for,” said Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington research group that often criticizes Democrats’ economic proposals. Edwards said the carve-out “smacks of political favoritism.”

Sheesh. There's no way to see this as other than fundamentally unfair. But some unions think it's fine:
Gerald Shea, an AFL-CIO official lobbying for health-care reform, said grandfathering benefits negotiated in a collective bargaining agreement is a “common thing when there is a big change in federal law.”

“Once a collective bargaining agreement is set, employer’s budgets are set, workers expectations are set. It doesn’t make sense to go back in the middle of the contract and change it,” he said.

Union groups and workers said Congress shouldn’t target contractually negotiated benefits.

Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, said in an interview that workers have often traded salary increases for better benefits in agreements.

Taxes “shouldn’t be taken from the backs of workers who have bargained away wages and other things for their benefits over the years,” Burger said.

We're quite familiar with that mindset, aren't we? However, there are some unions who do oppose the idea:
Other unions say they’re opposed to a tax on some employer- provided benefits, regardless of whether collective bargaining agreements are exempt.

“Either way, we are against a tax on health-care benefits in whatever form it takes,” said Jacob Hay, spokesman for the Laborers’ International Union of North America. The union represents 500,000 workers, largely in the construction industry.


Exhibit H Supporting the Thesis That Obama's Celebrity Status Has Acheived Unprecedented Importance to His Standing as President

Justin Katz

I mean, come on:

He even topped that by making sure to carve out time for a lovely date night in Paris. PARIS! Dining on foie gras and pheasant de truffled snootypants beneath the Eiffel Tower? Now that's a European adventure and makes me a little pouty when I consider that, like most American women, the closest I've come to that lately was the "Tour of Italy" trio of I-talian favorites at The Olive Garden.

Even on the night of a big NBA playoff game, Barack made sure date night would go on. He arranged for an early dinner allowing plenty of time for digestion before tipoff. He and Michelle had supper at ritzy Citronelle in Georgetown, cooing and hand-holding and everything.

The thing with the fawning over run-of-the-mill celebrities is that it's the fawning that gives them influence. Blending that influence with the actual power native to the presidency of the United States of America makes for a dangerous cocktail.

Devoted fans will typically not be adequate judges of their heroes' work product, and it is just plain dangerous to give political leaders too much of that beneficent haze.

Private School as Money Saver

Justin Katz

Think about this, from amidst the continuing saga of the West Warwick school budget:

After one resident learned that it costs about $15,000 to educate each child in West Warwick, she suggested that the town simply send its students to private Catholic schools. [Town Council Member Angelo] Padula quickly agreed, saying, "If we sent 200 children to a private school, Prout is $9,500. LaSalle is $9,800. We would save $6,000 per child."

For those who've learned under new math techniques (or do not have a calculator handy), $6,000 times 200 children is $1.2 million. As a bonus, with those millions of dollars in savings, Rhode Island private school students on average score 200 points higher on the SATs than their public-school peers.

(Yeah, I'm aware of the arguments about demographics. Just sayin'...)

The Confused, Non-End of this General Assembly Session ... and a Slightly Ominous Big Picture Remark by the Speaker

Monique Chartier

Needham, Peoples and Gregg have a very good description in today's ProJo

With scores of bills still in limbo, the Rhode Island House of Representatives abruptly went into hiatus at 1 a.m. Saturday. Speaker William J. Murphy cited the need to cool off and return for at least a day in July, and again on a regular basis in September, to continue working through Assembly business.


The speaker insisted that it was always his plan to leave that night, despite the fact that his majority leader, Gordon D. Fox, spent much of Friday’s 10-hour debate reassigning bills to “Monday’s calendar.”

The state Senate, which left hours earlier Friday, after sending the state budget to the governor’s desk, promised to return this week to complete its business, though it did not schedule a specific date.

Exhausted lawmakers, expecting to work through the week, or at least through the night, speculated that the hasty end of business was the result of an unexplained communications breakdown between House and Senate leaders. Even Fox acknowledged they “had not had much discussion with the Senate.”

as well as a rundown of the current status of some prominent bills (partial list only below; see the article for more).

The legislature failed to close a loophole in the state’s prostitution law that legalizes the act so long as it happens indoors. ...

A high-profile, labor-backed bill to allow expired schoolteacher contracts to remain in effect until a new agreement is reached was put off until the elusive “Monday calendar,” along with a proposal to assess municipal-impact fees on students at private colleges and universities. The fate of both bills now remains unclear. ...

Lawmakers battled over a bill that would allow school districts to decide on their own whether to cease placing bus monitors on elementary school buses. ... As the firestorm of criticism intensified, Fox eventually sent the proposal back to committee. ...


On a night defined more by what didn’t happen than what did, few high-profile bills were sent to the governor’s desk. Carcieri spokeswoman Amy Kempe confirmed that apart from budget legislation, the only bills transmitted to the governor late Friday and early Saturday were a proposal born out of a Tiverton pollution incident, raising fines for environmental polluters and a bid to rename the Kent County Courthouse.

The Speaker's slightly ominous comment came at the non-end of this session.

“The actuality is that we’re a full-time legislature now. We’re not the traditional citizens’ legislature that our forefathers created,” Murphy said as he stepped off the rostrum for the last time this month, a decision that surprised the public and many rank-and-file lawmakers.

Respectfully, sir, if that's the case, you and your collegues are doing too much. It is, indeed, a "full time" legislature in that all members have full time jobs in addition to their legislative duties. Those duties should be reduced, not increased. Contrary to the myth or legislative culture on Smith Hill, it is not necessary for a legislator to have sponsored or had passed X number of bills in order to justify him/herself to the voters at election time. Their thoughtful vote on hundreds of bills throughout the session speaks volumes, AS LONG AS that vote was cast to advance of the best interests of their district and the state.

In short, Mr. Speaker, give yourselves a break - do a little less.

The Daughter Is In

Justin Katz

Kristin Rodgers, now confirmed to the Superior Court, has an admirable background suggestive of the possibility that, in a world of judicial activism, Anchor Rising readers should prefer her to most others. But still:

In remarks to those gathered in the Senate chamber, Sen. John F. McBurney III, D-Pawtucket, whose father was a state senator, said that some there understood "the honor and responsibility when we carry on in the footsteps of a parent."

Not to be too delicate about it, but given the state in which Rhode Island finds itself, "honor and responsibility" aren't the words that come to mind when I consider those who've contributed to its guidance. We do not need legacies. We do not need carrying on in footsteps. We need redefinition. We need a change in the governing relationships.

Ms. Rodgers may be a fantastic judge, but she should be one somewhere else — where her father wasn't a judge before her and her husband isn't a state trooper. It can only exacerbate Rhode Islanders' tendency toward fatal apathy when the impression is proven accurate again and again that a cadre of families and close associates run the state.

June 27, 2009

One Needn't Guess at the Results of Progressive Policies

Justin Katz

Glenn Reynolds points to a Wall Street Journal editorial that is well worth a few moments of your time. (Those in Rep. Ray Sullivan's Coventry may be relieved to learn that it's available online.)

President Obama has bet the economy on his program to grow the government and finance it with a more progressive tax system. It's hard to miss the irony that he's pitching this change in Washington even as the same governance model is imploding in three of the largest American states where it has been dominant for years -- California, New Jersey and New York.

A decade ago all three states were among America's most prosperous. California was the unrivaled technology center of the globe. New York was its financial capital. New Jersey is the third wealthiest state in the nation after Connecticut and Massachusetts. All three are now suffering from devastating budget deficits as the bills for years of tax-and-spend governance come due.

These states have been models of "progressive" policies that are supposed to create wealth: high tax rates on the rich, lots of government "investments," heavy unionization and a large government role in health care.

Lacking the time, just now, I'll have to rely on general experience, but I'd be surprised if Rhode Island weren't right up there with these three states on the various lists that the WSJ puts forward as evidence for its thesis that progressive policies are harmful to the entities foolish enough to pursue them. Our local progs would be better positioned to opine on this than would I, but the detrimental outcomes seem to me so predictable that the engaged citizen may wonder whether the harm is intentional.

Charlie Hall on the Technical Intricacies of Iran's Election Process

Monique Chartier

... and how they make clear one aspect of the electoral fraud that took place June 12.

Of course, the rest of Iranian society is much more advanced - and wants to continue progressing, one of the impetuses of the post-election uprising. But this is a pretty good depiction of their voting and ballot counting process. And it's a perfectly fine method - when it's implemented.


When the Government Faces Healthcare Reality

Justin Katz

Put aside aspersions against health insurers, whether for-profit or (ahem) non-profit, because it simply isn't credible to assume that government bureaucrats won't be corrupt and selfish. What, then, will the government response be when it faces these forces as a (or the) national healthcare financier:

"We understand that many of our members are suffering in the current economic conditions, but the fact is that rising medical costs and increased utilization of services are climbing faster than our rates," James E. Purcell, president and CEO, said in a statement. "Quite frankly, the OHIC [Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner] is putting the state's oldest nonprofit health insurer at financial risk by denying our filing. We simply cannot afford to lose $125 million."

Cost controls. Service limitations. Tax increases. The government can't make human nature what it is not, and it cannot mandate an end to market forces. What it can do is jail those who don't follow its instructions, so people will try to play along, no matter how detrimental certain policies are.

Rock-Star Pols and Deterring Regular Folks from Government

Justin Katz

Mark makes an interesting point in the weekend Steyn:

The real bubble is a consequence of big government. The more the citizenry expect from the state, the more our political class will depend on ever more swollen Gulf Emir–sized retinues of staffers hovering at the elbow to steer you from one corner of the fishbowl to another 24/7. "Why are politicians so weird?" a reader asked me after the Sanford press conference. But the majority of people willing to live like this will, almost by definition, be deeply weird. So big government more or less guarantees rule by creeps and misfits. It's just a question of how well they disguise it. Writing about Michael Jackson a few years ago, I suggested that today's A-list celebs were the equivalent of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria or the loopier Ottoman sultans, the ones it wasn't safe to leave alone with sharp implements. But, as Christopher Hitchens says, politics is showbusiness for ugly people. And a celebrified political culture will inevitably throw up its share of tatty karaoke versions of Britney and Jacko.

The retinues to which Steyn refers are the staffs that, for example, must accompany President Obama on a jaunt out of the White House for ice cream and, for another example, that Governor Mark Sanford sought to escape with his liaisons. With the former example, I'm beginning to think that may be part of the political point. As Steyn notes, it's laughable to think the wave of Obama's entourage permits him to truly intermingle with "regular folk," but it does create a scene — not unlike a rock-star sighting. Although not beneficial to the public that elected him, such scenes are certainly worth the cost to a politician who is so dependent on his image.

Rhode Island, Always Striving to Make Life That Much More Difficult

Justin Katz

So, with legislation to make energy more expensive for all Americans making its way through Congress, what can one say about this?

Governor Carcieri on Friday signed into law legislation that could pave the way for offshore wind farms in Rhode Island.

The bill, passed by both chambers of the General Assembly earlier this month, allows electrical utility National Grid to enter into long-term contracts to purchase "green" energy. For Deepwater Wind, the company proposing more than 100 wind turbines off the Rhode Island coast, the law means having a guaranteed buyer for its energy, a crucial selling point to investors. The legislation will also benefit other clean-power proposals, including a plan to build a solar farm in Coventry.

The first thing on which to remark is Journal Staff Writer Alex Kuffner's peculiar choice of the word "allows" to characterize the bill's relevance to the energy company. Here's how the General Assembly press release about the legislation puts it (emphasis added):

The House and the Senate each took final votes today approving legislation sponsored by House Majority Leader Gordon D. Fox and Senate Corporations Committee Chairman Joshua Miller to require the state's largest electric utility to enter into long-term contracts to purchase power from renewable energy producers in Rhode Island.

Under the eye of the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC), National Grid (and any other energy distribution companies that may be lured into the Rhode Island market) will have to enter into contracts with "new," "green," "renewable," whatever energy producers with a duration of at least 10 years. Then, if we turn to the statutory language itself (PDF) we find explicitly what we all should expect implicitly:

The electric distribution company shall file tariffs with the commission fo commission review and approval that net the cost of payments made to projects under the long term contracts against the proceeds obtained from the sale of energy, capacity, RECs or other attributes. The difference shall be credited or charged to all distribution customers through a uniform fully reconciling annual factor in distribution rates, subject to review and approval of the commission. The reconciliation shall be designed so that customers are credited with any net savings resulting from the long-term contracts and the electric distribution company recovers all costs incurred under such contracts, as well as, recovery of the financial remuneration and incentives specified in section 39-26.1-4.

In short, National Grid must enter into decade-long contracts for the purchase of energy at prices consistent not with the energy market in general, but with "newly developed renewable energy resources," however much more it may cost than regular ol' energy resources. It then sells the energy at market rate and tacks the "newly developed" premium on the bills of customers across the board. Oh, and the law permits the company to add another 2.75% premium to the cost of the fancy new energy as "incentive."

Let's follow the money, shall we? You, energy consumer, will pay more for your usage so that the distributor can, without loss (indeed, with explicit profit), subsidize politically preferred energy sources in order to guarantee sales of an energy product whose risk investors are not otherwise willing to accept. Your money, in other words, is serving to secure investment earnings for others. Those investments, in turn, will flow to land owners, materials suppliers, and workforces. To some degree, the prices of all of those things will be inflated; to the extent that unions are involved, another layer of money-takers slips into the mix; and to the extent that materials, land-owners, and workers reside elsewhere, the money will flow out of the state.

To those parties, the law represents a net benefit, but that requires a net cost to a much larger field of people. That field of people is contained geographically within the borders of Rhode Island, because National Grid has no reason to spread the "renewable" deficit more broadly across its own operations. Moreover, the state is contained geographically within the borders of a nation with a government hell-bent on piling on its own premiums.

Evolving Out of Social Chaos

Justin Katz

Among the more foolish slams against traditionalists is that our views are arbitrary religious dictates disconnected from realms of clear reality like science. Folks who believe that trope would likely find Faye Flam's mention of homosexuality in her recent op-ed on male behavior to count as evidence:

I also learned there’s abundant homosexual behavior in male animals. Killer whales and manatees engage in gay trysts, while gay geese and ducks latch onto one another in devoted male-male partnerships. About 8 percent of domestic rams are gay — a persistent source of frustration for sheep breeders.

There are many theories about the persistence of homosexuality in nature — but one of the most interesting connects it to the power of diversity, which gives creatures the flexibility to adapt to different circumstances.

If homosexuality is natural, the errant thinking goes, then it ought to be fully accepted, and such relationships ought to be treated in like kind to the closest heterosexual relationship. That is, marriage should be redefined as an intimate pairing so as to incorporate the natural affections of gays. As it happens, I happen to agree that homosexuality ought to be accepted as natural, although I don't believe the government should strive to force any more than civil tolerance among those who do not accept it. On a personal level, I'd encourage homosexuals toward the strictures of what I believe to be an accurate religion, but in similar fashion to my encouragement of heterosexuals whose behavior is immoral by that measure.

On the marriage count, though, I'd raise a subsequent paragraph from Flam:

Other men just want to have fun. One man I interviewed admitted to having sex with more than 200 women by the time he turned 40. But he was ready to change — and hoped to find someone to inspire him to settle down. Others may start out devoted to one partner but then their circumstances change — they get elected governor of some state — and they start mating with other women, too.

Society's project is to mold rough human nature toward healthier, more productive ends — to learn over the millennia what practices are fruitful and which are detrimental. Marriage is a mechanism for just such a molding, so the fact that an impulse or desire is natural has no bearing on whether marriage ought to bend in its favor. Marriage is meant to pull that philanderer into the devoted relationship into which he says he'd settle down if somebody "inspired" him so that children aren't left without fathers and mothers without support for their children.

The plain biological reality is that these concerns do not exist in homosexual relationships. Other concerns do, and ought not be sloughed away, but insistence on total equivalence would be a reckless response to the existence of partial similarity.

June 26, 2009

BREAKING: Dark Days Getting Darker

Justin Katz

Well, it isn't law yet, I suppose, but when legislative supporters of a government change as well as the Associated Press admit substantial cost to an initiative, it certainly gives pause:

In a triumph for President Barack Obama, the Democratic-controlled House narrowly passed sweeping legislation Friday that calls for the nation's first limits on pollution linked to global warming and aims to usher in a new era of cleaner, yet more costly energy.

Americans are going to feel the effects of their action with the last election, and they aren't going to like it. Bitter pills and broken eggs are key ingredients in the hope and change omelet.

BREAKING: Budget Passes Senate

Justin Katz

It's not online, yet, but the Senate has emailed a press release announcing passage of the budget:

The Senate today voted to approve a $7.76 billion state budget for the 2010 fiscal year that closes a $660 million deficit while avoiding cuts to school aid, pharmaceutical assistance to the elderly and disabled, and welfare and dental benefits for the poor.

The budget bill (2009-H 5983Aaa), which passed the House Wednesday and has now been transmitted to the governor, includes $60 million in pension savings and $58 million in cuts across state office budgets, and avoids increasing the sales tax or income taxes or creating any new taxes on services.

And now — in the absence of new policies that will improve Rhode Island's health — we begin the clock on accumulating "unexpected" costs and shortfalls, putting the fall/winter deficit announcement at... what? I'll go with $340 million, which puts the total realistic deficit that the state ought to be addressing right now at a cool billion.

The governor should veto the beast... at least to let Rhode Islanders know that it's no good.

Alert: The Never-Ending Contract Heads to the House Floor Today

Monique Chartier

Most contracts are of limited duration in large part because circumstances change and the terms of a contract could become infeasible for either party after a certain amount of time. This is no less true of a government contract.

Peculiar to public sector contracts, however, while any public employee is free to leave that job at any time for a job with better or different employment terms - in fact, every employee covered by that contract can do so - the management side is locked into the contract for its duration. In effect, then, a public contract, limited or perpetual, is really only binding upon management. Employees have the freedom to walk away at any time.

Late yesterday, the House Labor Committee passed S0713, a bill that

unilaterally mandates that existing teachers' contracts remain in effect until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.

The bill is scheduled for a vote in the House today, though as Will Ricci at Ocean State Republican pointed out, no advance notice has been posted of this action because the General Assembly has exempted itself from Rhode Island Open Meetings laws.

The General Assembly need to give this bill a big thumbs down. Further, it must go on to repeal the law that permits municipal contracts to continue in perpetuity. (The contract between Providence and city firefighters is a notable though certainly not the sole example.) As it is impossible to predict economic conditions and the corresponding revenue stream needed to fund these contracts, perpetual contracts are patently infeasible. The only responsible legislative course is to halt their expansion and then set about revoking all such arrangements.

About those Extra and Missing Frog Limbs....

Marc Comtois

Remember how concerned we all were about frog limbs? Answers!:

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, researchers started getting reports of numerous wild frogs or toads being found with extra legs or arms, or with limbs that were partly formed or missing completely.

The cause of these deformities soon became a hotly contested issue.

Some researchers believed they might be caused naturally, by predators or parasites.

Others thought that was highly unlikely, fearing that chemical pollution, or UV-B radiation caused by the thinning of the ozone layer, was triggering the deformations.

"Deformed frogs became one of the most contentious environmental issues of all time, with the parasite researchers on one side, and the 'chemical company' as I call them, on the other," says Stanley Sessions, an amphibian specialist and professor of biology at Hartwick College, in Oneonta, New York.

"There was a veritable media firestorm, with millions of dollars of grant money at stake."

Somehow, the voices of the latter group were much more prevalent in the media than the former. (Surprise!). Well, the mystery of the missing legs was resolved a few years ago (what, you didn't know?). Just like we all thought, it was we humans who were to blame.....!:
Sessions and other researchers established that many amphibians with extra limbs were actually infected by small parasitic flatworms called Riberoria trematodes.

These creatures burrow into the hindquarters of tadpoles where they physically rearrange the limb bud cells and thereby interfere with limb development.

Er...oh. OK, but what about all of those poor three-limbed frogs. Surely we did it to 'em!
The mystery of what causes frogs to have missing or deformed limbs remained unsolved until Sessions teamed up with colleague Brandon Ballengee of the University of Plymouth, UK....While surveying, Ballengee also discovered a range of natural predators he suspected could be to blame, including stickleback fish, newts, diving beetles, water scorpions and predatory dragonfly nymphs.

So Ballengee and Sessions decide to test how each predator preyed upon the tadpoles, by placing them together in fish tanks in the lab.

None did, except three species of dragonfly nymph.

Crucially though, the nymphs rarely ate the tadpoles whole. More often than not, they would grab the tadpole and chew at a hind limb, often removing it altogether.

"Once they grab the tadpole, they use their front legs to turn it around, searching for the tender bits, in this case the hind limb buds, which they then snip off with their mandibles," says Sessions.

Hm. So bugs eat frogs. Payback is a b$%#&! I wonder if there are other environmental claims out there that could use some further research?

The Cap and Trade Scam

Marc Comtois

OK, what's this "cap and trade" thing all about? Well, first its a bid to massively change some fundamentals of our economy all for the sake of reducing global warming (by a few tenths of a degree Celsius in a few decades). Although the powerless House GOP has offered arguments against its passage, Democratic leaders have had more problems with their own rank-and-file (especially blue dog and farm-state Dems) and have been forced to make deals in hopes of pushing the Waxman-Markey bill through today (though no one will have a chance to read it--kinda sounds like RI).

The reason for the resistance is simple: no matter how you slice it, American's are going to pay more for everything for the sake of "feeling better" about "doing our part" to help reduce global warming. Or something. Its a redistributive tax increase, plain and simple, and it affects that 95% of the people President Obama claims to want to leave alone.

The Congressional Budget Office review of the bill explains the basics:

H.R. 2454 would establish two cap-and-trade programs, one for six GHGs
(mostly CO2) {GHG= "green house gas"--ed.} and one for a seventh GHG, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The first program, the focus of this analysis, is generally referred to as the GHG cap-and-trade program. H.R. 2454 would set limits on GHG emissions for each year. Regulated entities could comply with the policy in some combination of three ways:

■ By reducing their emissions,
■ By holding an allowance for each ton of GHGs that they emitted, or
■ By acquiring an “offset credit” for their emissions.

Offset credits would be generated by firms that were not covered by the cap but that reduced their emissions or took actions to store emissions in trees and soil, using methods that would be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. The bill would allow firms to use a significant quantity of offset credits—generated in the United States and overseas, with a maximum quantity for each specified in the legislation—toward compliance with the cap. Most of those offset credits would be generated by changes in agricultural and forestry practices. To the extent that acquiring offset credits was cheaper than undertaking more emission reductions, allowing firms to comply with offset credits would lower compliance costs overall.

The CBO also determined that:
Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the net annual economywide cost of the cap-and-trade program in 2020 would be $22 billion—or about $175 per household. That figure includes the cost of restructuring the production and use of energy and of payments made to foreign entities under the program, but it does not include the economic benefits and other benefits of the reduction in GHG emissions and the associated slowing of climate change. CBO could not determine the incidence of certain pieces (including both costs and benefits) that represent, on net, about 8 percent of the total. For the remaining portion of the net cost, households in the lowest income quintile would see an average net benefit of about $40 in 2020, while households in the highest income quintile would see a net cost of $245. Added costs for households in the second lowest quintile would be about $40 that year; in the middle quintile, about $235; and in the fourth quintile, about $340. Overall net costs would average 0.2 percent of households’ after-tax income.
However, the Wall Street Journal explains the CBO was too narrow in its projections:
For starters, the CBO estimate is a one-year snapshot of taxes that will extend to infinity. Under a cap-and-trade system, government sets a cap on the total amount of carbon that can be emitted nationally; companies then buy or sell permits to emit CO2. The cap gets cranked down over time to reduce total carbon emissions....

The biggest doozy in the CBO analysis was its extraordinary decision to look only at the day-to-day costs of operating a trading program, rather than the wider consequences energy restriction would have on the economy. The CBO acknowledges this in a footnote: "The resource cost does not indicate the potential decrease in gross domestic product (GDP) that could result from the cap."

Kind of a big caveat, there. The WSJ also mentions the analysis of Waxman-Markey conducted by the Heritage Foundation, and summarizes the findings:
Under this more comprehensive scenario, [Heritage] found Waxman-Markey would cost the economy $161 billion in 2020, which is $1,870 for a family of four. As the bill's restrictions kick in, that number rises to $6,800 for a family of four by 2035.
But, at least we'll have less global warming. Maybe. In truth, as the WSJ explained back in March:
Cap and trade, in other words, is a scheme to redistribute income and wealth -- but in a very curious way. It takes from the working class and gives to the affluent; takes from Miami, Ohio, and gives to Miami, Florida; and takes from an industrial America that is already struggling and gives to rich Silicon Valley and Wall Street "green tech" investors who know how to leverage the political class.
Taking from blue-collars and giving to Bobos, how "progressive."

RI House Keeps Full Health Care Benefits

Marc Comtois

Entirely unsurprising, now, isn't it?

It is budget-cutting day at the State House, but not when it comes to the free health care packages costing up to $17,296 that are given the state's part-time lawmakers and their families.

The $7.76 billion state budget headed for a vote by the full House of Representatives Wednesday afternoon would give the state's part-time lawmakers who meet on average three days a week, six months a year, a budget totaling $37.4 million, up $1.8 million from the budget lawmakers gave themselves this year.

Free health insurance for the lawmakers is not a big ticket item, but it has in recent years become a sore point for full-time state workers - and others - being asked to pay larger and larger shares of their health insurance premiums each year.

Starting July 1, the average state employee will be required to pay between 13.5 percent and 25 percent of the premiums for their health, dental and vision care packages in amounts ranging from $37.13 to $172.95 biweekly, depending on how much they make and whether they choose individual or family coverage.

Rhode Island lawmakers currently get free health, dental and vision-care benefits. Some voluntarily pay a portion of the premiums; others do not. One of two bills considered by the House Finance Committee on March 3 would have required all of them to pay 10 percent, and the other, 20 percent

The reform bills were submitted by Brian Newberry (R) and Amy Rice (D), so credit them for not having a tin ear.

The Culture's Canary

Justin Katz

None of Michael Jackson's albums ever made it into my collection, although I did have the "Beat It" jacket — red leather with zippers everywhere. Soon, the "Thriller" jacket was the height of coolness, but most of our parents weren't willing to establish the precedent of buying an expensive new fashion item every time Jackson put out a video. As it turns out, "Thriller" was the height of Jackson's coolness, and within a decade, he would transform himself into a figure of strangeness — so bizarre, even the most rapidly spreading vicious jokes that made the rounds already seemed too obvious.

One can't deny Jackson's prominence in the development of pop music or his transformation of music videos as a genre. "We Are the World," the album for which I had on vinyl, without knowing how integral Jackson was to the project, was a big-name milestone in supporting worthy causes, replete with a catchy tune and who's-next video intrigue. Although I don't know how much direct responsibility Michael Jackson bore, as an artistic act, the song was brilliant.

Watch the video, for example, and beyond the white/black pairings of alternating lines — with overlapping vocal harmony — one can observe a gradual crescendo from melodic singers like Lionel Richie to rock belters like Bruce Springsteen, culminating in Cyndi Lauper's explosion — as if she couldn't contain herself — before the unified chorus, which then received the blessing of the icon's icons, Bob Dylan and Ray Charles. The song used, in short, the collection of vocal personalities itself as a musical instrument, just as it made their celebrity an activistic instrument.

During the '80s, Michael Jackson's videos were like earthy Broadway musical miniatures. I use "earthy" mostly to evoke the image of zombies emerging from their graves to dance a number on the street. He translated a higher-brow genre for a crowd that would never enter a theater to see The King and I and had only seen West Side Story because the music teacher filled a couple of periods showing it to the class. Admirably, the content was often an argument for elevating disadvantaged people through art, and it does present an interesting exercise of the imagination to ponder what Jackson might have done if he'd turned cultural, as Elton John has been doing recently, rather than spinning out of control like, well, Michael Jackson.

One could argue that, when the kid from Home Alone blasted Norm from Cheers through the roof with a stolen gag from Back to the Future at the beginning of Jackson's farewell to creativity in social conscience, "Black and White" — Western civilization jumped the shark. In the video, Jackson proceeds to dance through the full extent of multiculturalism's intellectual content, the final statement of which comes with the digital morphing of differently hued attractive people into each other, until a large black cat morphs into Jackson for his utterly bizarre dance indulgence in vandalism and gratuitous self fondling. All vestigial pretenses of seriousness dissipate when the Simpsons — the Simpsons — get the last word. PC had arrived so fully that it had even engulfed a cartoon specializing in the anti-PC.

What stands out is that Jackson's real-boy fantasy of destruction of an urban street finds him totally alone. Contrast that with "Beat It," in which his character moves from staring at the wall on his bed to breaking up an actual knife fight for some gangland choreography. Think of it! About the time of "Black and White," news people began pronouncing "harassment" as "hairussment," and workplace re-education of males had begun apace, while only three years earlier, the video for "The Way You Make Me Feel" had made a compelling statement about adolescent feelings of inadequacy with Jackson's posse chasing a model down dark alleyways. Jackson leveraged the incomprehensible image of himself as a sexual threat to point to feelings that can become endearing when developed in a healthy way or menacing when left to corruption. Significantly, the older video ends with a hug, not a kiss.

There was this sort of discordant grit to Jackson's work during the '80s. In the early '90s, he indulged in Disneyfication in preparation for our vacation from history. In the culture, grit bifurcated into grunge. Development and cultural reinvention gave over to saccharine banalities, on one hand, and raw expressions of impotent frustration, on the other. Some switch had been flicked, and if there are historians around centuries from now, perhaps they'll discern what it was.

Michael Jackson did not cause these seismic shifts, of course. But at the pinnacle of his success as they progressed and characterized most profoundly by his apparent fragility, he reflected them like a canary in a coal mine. This reflection continued, horribly, as the corruption of his own emotional expression surrounded him with an aura strongly redolent of pedophilia. What, in the culture, this stomach-churning development might have been reflecting is chilling to ponder.

In that light, it would be as frightening as it would be presumptuous to make a metaphor of his death. Both with respect to him and to the culture that shaped him, it would be better to rewind and rewatch in the hopes of reclaiming what's been lost.

June 25, 2009

The Image of a Bad Place

Justin Katz

University of Rhode Island Women's Studies Professor Donna Hughes is pessimistic about the likelihood that Rhode Island will decline to correct its permission of prostitution:

AFTER MY EXPERIENCE at the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday, I believe Rhode Island is headed for a human rights disaster and nationwide political embarrassment. It is becoming apparent that the Senate is not going to pass a much-needed prostitution bill. Rhode Island will continue to have an expanding number of spa-brothels, prostitution of minors in clubs, and no law that will enable the police to stop it. ...

The end of the General Assembly session is near. From my observation, I believe the Senate is going to let another year go by without a prostitution law. This will be a tragedy for victims caught in the sex industry, a black eye for Rhode Island’s reputation, and a victory for the pimps.

Between those two paragraphs — the first and the last of the article — Professor Hughes describes the (ahem) colorful atmosphere of the Judiciary hearing as well as some of the political circumstances of the times. The scene blends with various other news items in the state to evoke a common image in American movies and books of the Place Gone Wrong. I'm thinking of Pottersville, from It's a Wondeful Life, and (for those of my generation) Biff Tannen's remake of Hill Valley in Back to the Future 2 — the archetype of a place governed by the wrong people, succumbing to the wrong impulses, bereft of goodness and soul.

Matching up the particulars of that cliché, it's difficult not to find Rhode Island to be well on its way. Prostitution. Gambling. General corruption.

You know, maybe it just needs to be said in order to give others permission to believe it: Sometimes that which has been known to be bad is, indeed, bad.

UPDATED: The Governor's Proper Stance

Justin Katz

Governor Carcieri struck the right notes on budget deliberations in his op-ed yesterday:

THE STATE BUDGET plan for fiscal year 2010 passed by the House Finance Committee is not a plan to lift our state out of this economic malaise. It lacks a coherent policy and strategy to move our state forward.

My budget, which I submitted back in February, proposed a clear strategy to move Rhode Island in the right direction and offered real solutions to pension reform, economic development, tax reform, education and municipal spending. ...

My budget proposal made new investments in education and economic development, and included significant tax reforms for individuals and businesses. These changes would send a loud and clear message that we are serious about growing jobs in our state, and that we are serious about improving our children's education. Our early- literacy programs and charter schools are having great success, especially in the urban districts, and we need to continue investing in them.

The House budget eviscerates these critical investments and sends a message that we don't care about jobs, economic development or our urban children.

For too long (probably), the governor allowed an aura of comity and cooperation to serve as cover for the General Assembly's mismanagement. The message from here on out has to be that Rhode Island's problems legislators' doing.

ADDENDUM 6:09 p.m.

George rightly snaps me out of the Rhode Island fog that had drifted over me somewhat with the rainy days: The governor could have been much more vociferous and prominent in declaring that there should be no changes to his budget. Every day in the news. Once a week outside the State House with a bullhorn.

Why Exactly Does the Iranian Government Believe it is Beyond Criticism?

Carroll Andrew Morse

It may seem like a trivial question, but it's really a very important one: when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad voices his displeasure at President Barack Obama voicing his displeasure over recent events in Iran, as described for example in an article appearing in today's Deutsche Welle

[President Obama] has recently has ramped up his previously muted criticism, saying he was "appalled and outraged" by the crackdown on protesters. Ahmadinejad reacted by comparing Obama to his predecessor Georg[e] W. Bush.

"Mr Obama made a mistake to say those things," he said. "Our question is why he fell into this trap and said things that previously Bush used to say."

…exactly on what is President Ahmadinejad basing his belief that the actions of his government -- especially the violent ones -- are beyond criticism? We know he isn't shy about criticizing other governments. So what's his basis for making public criticism a one-way street?

It's not really possible to negotiate with his regime, until this underlying belief is understood.

When Negotiators Are Using Monopoly Money

Justin Katz

Think of the attitude expressed, here, by West Warwick School Committee Chairwoman Lindagay Palazzo:

"Regardless, whether we win or lose [their Caruolo lawsuit], the town is responsible for our bills," Palazzo said. "They're going to have to pay them anyway."

One wonders what effect that point of view has on Mrs. Palazzo's negotiation tactics. One also isn't surprised to learn that she just retired (PDF) from her $80k job (PDF) as a Clinical Training Specialist with Rhode Island College's Child Welfare Institute.

Being in the public sector tends to impart the belief that somebody else has to pick up every professional bill that public "servants" manage to rack up — the racking up of which seems to become their central goal.

Budget Passes

Marc Comtois

ProJo has the rundown. But for Federal Dollars, our legislators would have been forced to make tougher decisions. As it is....

The $7.76 tax-and-spending plan headed for passage increased overall spending by 12 percent -- including $226.5 million in federal stimulus dollars -- compared to the state budget adopted last June. The state-only portion dropped 10 percent to $2.98 billion.
But it really didn't drop 10% since that $226.5 million in stimulus money essentially covers the decrease in state-only funding. Governor Carcieri's proposals to remove many state mandates and to go deeper into pension reform would have allowed for more savings--or more aid to cities and towns--if the House Leadership would have allowed. But they didn't. Instead, they increased some taxes and fees:

* 2 Cents/Gallon gas tax increase
* Tax capital gains like regular income
* Maintained current corporate tax rate
* Passed the "Amazon tax" requiring RI residents to pay taxes on Internet purchases (with some qualifications--this is a gray area and a similar law passed in NY may end up in the US Supreme Court).
* Increased fees---a) on the criminal background checks; b) $100 processing charge for criminals seeking to expunge their records; c) increased RV beach permits to $100/$200 for residents and nonresidents; d) increased dock permits for oceanfront property owners to $1,500.

There was more that could have been done to mitigate raising taxes and fees. All of the Governors proposed cuts in Human Services were reinstated (one would think some compromise could have been hashed out) while some of the House bills new cuts are pretty vague (like $58 million in undefined state cuts). That being said, there were some bright spots: keeping the flat tax in place, reinstatement of $1.5 million for charter schools and, frankly, the fact that any pension reform was passed. Still, overall, the feeling is "meh." Missed opportunities abound.

But for Some Legislative Popo

Justin Katz

As one might expect, Matt and my topic was the state budget and the flat tax on last night's Matt Allen Show. By way of explanation for my opening comments, "popo" is the word that Rep. Anastasia Williams used to indicate the police when she said that the flat tax would lead her constituents to burglarize each other because if any of them — including her, a "green Nubian queen" — were to appear in the rich neighborhoods, the "popo" would swoop down. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

June 24, 2009

House Passes Pension Reform

Marc Comtois

It wasn't what the Governor asked for, but the House passed an amended pension reform article as part of the budget.

Despite threats of lawsuits by teachers unions, the House of Representatives has approved a slate of pension cuts aimed at shaving a total of $55 million off the soaring taxpayer cost of providing pensions to more than 26,000 public school teachers and state employees, including new judges.

The final vote for the package was 50-to-24.

For reasons that remain largely unexplained, House Finance Committee Chairman Steven Costantino introduced, and won support, for a last-minute amendment exempting District Court judges from the new curbs the budget seeks to place on the pensions available to judges hired after July 1. When asked the reason, Costantino said: "They are in a different statute.''


In one vote after another, the House rebuffed attempts to stretch the retirement age to 65, or avert any of the pension cutbacks by re-amortizing the state's pension debt, to avoid having to make any cuts now by stretching out the payments.

House leaders objected strenuously to both, with House Majority Leader Gordon Fox delivering an impassioned speech in which he said: "This is when it's going to be step-up time... Now is the time for you to be profiles in courage, not to placate who is going to be supporting me with a campaign check in the next election, not worried about you may offend somebody.''

"So welcome to the club ladies and gentleman. Welcome to the club because these are your times and you are either going to rise to the occasion and make the tough decisions or you are not,'' Fox said. "Send the message that we are not going to put off to our children and our grandchildren the decisions that we need to make now because I would hate to think that some poor state representative 15 years from now now is going to have to deal with the crap we left them.''

I still think that age 65 makes a helluva lot more sense, given current actuarial tables and all, but it is a step in the right direction.

Flat Tax Good, but Not Enough

Justin Katz

As you may have heard, the gradually decreasing flat tax in Rhode Island has survived attempts to freeze or repeal it (so far). I'd note, though, an excellent point that Matt Allen made during the six o'clock hour: It's foolish to think that the flat tax decrease is sufficient. For two things: Rhode Island's tax advantage for capital gains is evaporating with this budget, and new savings for businesses have been left on the cutting room floor.

The tendency of disputants to break the big questions into their constituent parts goes a long way toward explaining the condition of our state. It's all patchwork policy, with no overarching principle. We trade this tax break for that union concession and that welfare adjustment, with the result being incoherence and inadequate counterbalance to the special interests that have infested the State House and town halls. Any potential reform candidates loitering about the edges of public consciousness should come up with a holistic plan and insist that it only works as an irreducible machine — as I've been suggesting that the governor do by disowning the budget if the General Assembly made any substantial changes.

We need responses to such statements as the following example, from Matt Jerzyk, of why I'm nostalgic for the previous iteration of RI Future:

What should be more important in a recession in Rhode Island? Just think about it.

If you are recently unemployed in Rhode Island or facing tough times at work, can you afford a jump in your property tax bills?

Alternatively, would a Rhode Island millionaire even know if their accountant paid a little more on their tax returns.

Even a few hundred dollars of increase or decrease in a given tax bill is not what unemployed Rhode Islanders need. They need jobs. They need businesses that find their state to be an attractive place to open up shop and expand — without special deals or credits, merely because that's the way the state is structured. They need the sorts of people who have money to burn no matter the overall economy renovating homes, buying goods, dining out... being present and living their lives among us.

As for the millionaires and their accountants, the premise that we can slip tax increases by them is (I'll euphemize) poorly considered. Even so, an accountant will inform his clients if a move — often an on-paper affair, when it comes down to it — to Rhode Island would cost them thousands or millions over a certain period of time or from Rhode Island would save them the same.

Dirigo, Indeed

Marc Comtois

From the Wall Street Journal

At last, there's a place in America where tax cutting to promote growth and attract jobs is back in fashion. Who would have thought it would be Maine?

This month the Democratic legislature and Governor John Baldacci broke with Obamanomics and enacted a sweeping tax reform that is almost, but not quite, a flat tax. The new law junks the state's graduated income tax structure with a top rate of 8.5% and replaces it with a simple 6.5% flat rate tax on almost everyone. Those with earnings above $250,000 will pay a surtax rate of 0.35%, for a 6.85% rate. Maine's tax rate will fall to 20th from seventh highest among the states. To offset the lower rates and a larger family deduction, the plan cuts the state budget by some $300 million to $5.8 billion, closes tax loopholes and expands the 5% state sales tax to services that have been exempt, such as ski lift tickets.


One question is how Democrats in Augusta were able to withstand the cries by interest groups of "tax cuts for the rich?" Mr. Baldacci's snappy reply: "Without employers, you don't have employees." He adds: "The best social services program is a job." Wise and timely advice for both Democrats and Republicans as the recession rolls on and budgets get squeezed.

Dirigo? We can only Hope.

The Clarity of the Point Is the Point Itself on Marriage

Justin Katz

In a letter responding to my recent op-ed on same-sex marriage, Peter Asen does the service of illustrating why opposition to same-sex marriage is not the same as anti-gay bigotry. Readers should be apprised of the fact that I did not argue that homosexuality should be hidden from view. Rather, I suggested that marriage should remain an opposite-sex relationship that is fundamentally procreative in its meaning.

The Providence Journal was helpful in titling Asen's letter, "Boys already see gay pairs holding hands." Boys also see friends hugging and siblings kissing. My point was not that children cannot process the reality of differing relationships; it was that they should understand marriage to be uniquely intended for relationships that tend to have as an outcome (and typically an intention) the creation of children.

Asen misinterprets my point to be that girls and boys will grow up wanting to marry their friends, as if by first option. To be honest, I don't find it difficult to imagine older women bequeathing the honor on their dearest friends or young men finding it financially advantageous to sign each other up as spouses. A variety of circumstances might provide incentives — in a nation and culture of loose divorce rules — to enter into marriage, from work benefits to immigration policy.

That is not, however, my central concern, nor was it the argument of my op-ed. In a society with a multitude of relationship types, it remains true that children will eventually have to be told why they can't (or shouldn't) marry their friends, and with the innovation of same-sex marriage, the explanation can no longer include the fact that husbands and wives tend to make each other mommies and daddies. They won't, for that reason, conclude that marrying a pal is equivalent to marrying a lover, but they will, at the deep level of understanding what is just true, have a different sense of what it means to transform a lover into a spouse.

A Simplistic Reaction to the Flat Tax Will Hurt the State and Cities and Towns

Justin Katz

Everybody wants to nix the flat tax in Rhode Island:

The dispute has drawn the interest of a host of powerful players — labor unions, mayors, and a coalition of elected officials — who hope to repeal the high-profile tax break that benefits 2,267 Rhode Island taxpayers. Supporters want to funnel the savings to the cash-strapped cities and towns, which are slated to lose more than $55 million in state aid for the budget year that begins in seven days.

Municipalities think it's an easy way to get a few million more dollars. Union members think it's a way to ensure that the local and state governments that employ them will be able to make payroll. Elected officials think they'll pick up a good talking point about looking after the majority against the narrow interests of a wealthy minority. I'd suggest that all of these groups would do well to be wary of short-term thinking.

As I've followed long-term trends from both Census and IRS data, the conclusion has emerged that one area in which Rhode Island has seen positive developments is among wealthier residents. Indeed, the state income that taxpayers with incomes over $200,000 per year are claiming on their federal tax returns was up more than 50% from 2002 to 2006 — the period during which our state's tax reforms began to kick into effect. That is why Steve Peoples and Cynthia Needham's characterization is woefully incomplete:

The state will forgo an estimated $34.7 million in tax revenue next year because of the flat-tax option, according to an analysis by the State Budget Office.

In tax year 2009, the rate is scheduled to drop from 7 to 6.5 percent. If frozen at the current rate, the state could recover $12.2 million in tax revenue for the coming fiscal year, according to the governor’s budget office.

One cannot calculate the "cost" of the flat tax by recalculating returns as if it did not exist, because some percentage of returns would not exist if it were not for the flat tax option. With residents with household incomes over $200,000 contributing about $400 million in income and alternative minimum taxes every year, we're talking a huge amount of money.

Unfortunately, the relevant data from the state ranges only from 2005 to 2007, and the presentation of resident and non-resident taxes is not uniform. Nonetheless, looking at the resident returns (which are parallel to federal data addressing Rhode Islanders), one can observe that, over that period, the total income and alternative minimum tax collected by the state was up more than $5.12 million from those earning over $200,000 and up a total of $40.33 million from those earning over $100,000. The actual number of state tax returns filed by those earning between $100,000 and $200,000 increased 20.8%, and those showing income over $200,000 increased 14.2%.

This is where advocates for repealing the flat tax will point out that, while actual taxes paid by the $100,000-199,999 group increased $13.5 million (5.5%) from 2006 to 2007, those earning over $200,000 — who benefit most from the flat tax option — contributed $37.4 million (8.6%) less. Given the close proximity of the dollar amounts, one might presume that the flat tax simply gave that money away (as Rep. Scott J. Guthrie, D-Coventry, would put it). That would be incorrect.

Of that year-to-year loss, the capital gains tax accounted for $30.1 million. In other words, non-capital gains income taxes among the wealthiest group decreased only $6.5 million (1.9%) in 2007 from 2006. More importantly, the average adjusted gross income per return fell 4.3%. (I'm not sure whether that includes capital gains.) Although there were more of them, the rich, that is, earned less money to tax.

All such aggregate analyses are tricky, of course, because so many factors and considerations come into play. Advocates making the journey from their municipalities to the State House to demand those dollars that the flat tax "gives away" should recall that these are residents. They are paying property taxes on homes and vehicles. They are paying fees for everything from dog registrations to construction permits. If they leave, they take not only the income tax dollars that the state may (or may not) filter down to the local level, but also all of the revenue that cities and towns currently procure directly. Moreover, they take the money that they pay to other residents as part of the private-sector economy.

For some general and rough perspective, consider this: The number of tax returns showing income over $200,000 increased 14% from 2005 to 2007. It will only have to decrease by about 7% for repeal of the flat tax to be a revenue wash for state income tax alone. If we broaden the group to those over $100,000, the increase from 2005 to 2007 was 19%, and only a 3% loss of the current number would cancel out the estimated tax revenue gain.

Rhode Island is already turning away from the path toward a vibrant economy in a vain attempt to ease short-term pain — which is to say that it is continuing on its path to collapse. Let's not expedite the process.

Portsmouth Institute Table of Contents

Justin Katz

So the Portsmouth Institute's conference on "The Catholic William F. Buckley, Jr." has come and gone, and we who've returned to our ordinary lives — with both glass slippers, as it were — must move through our days as before, awaiting the next opportunity to glimpse the world through which the threads of history run. For my part, I've been grateful for the spurs to contemplation that have served to occupy my mind during damp days building a deck under a tarp. I'm also extremely grateful to Jamie MacGuire, first, for organizing the event and, second, for inviting Anchor Rising to participate.

Herewith are my excerpts, summaries, and reflections:

Day 1

"Portsmouth Institute Bill Buckley Conference, First Thoughts"
"The Erudite Father, Spiritual Enrichment, and the Personal Pianist": Fr. George Rutler (speech) and Lawrence Perelman (piano)

Day 2

"The Marriage Debate in the Wake of the Buckley Conservative Movement": Maggie Gallagher (speech)
"The Writerly Catholic on Mr. Buckley's Catholic Writerliness": Joseph Bottom (speech)
"Correcting a Misimpression, and the Charitable Speaker": Roger Kimball (speech)
"The Musical Pursuit of Life": (musical performances)
"The Liberal's Tempered Perspective": E.J. Dionne (speech)

Day 3

"The Journalist Who Believed Catholic Christianity to Be True" and "BREAKING: K-Lo Not Leaving NRO": Kathryn Jean Lopez (speech)
"The Professor and Friend": Lee Edwards (speech)
"Memories of William F. Buckley, Jr.": Neal Freeman, Dom Damian Kearney, James MacGuire, and Clark Judge (speeches)
"To the Final Notes": (choral performance)

June 23, 2009

To the Final Notes

Justin Katz

The performance of Fauré's Requiem, Op. 48 with which the Portsmouth Institute ended its conference on "The Catholic William F. Buckley, Jr." doubled as a celebration of the completed restoration of the Church of Saint Gregory the Great, in which the concert took place.

This particular requiem is among my favorite works in the classical canon — certainly among choral works — and the setting and temporal context made it a magnificently fitting culmination of my three-day glimpse of a life of the mind. The horns punching into the "Sanctus" finally pierced the gauze with which the necessities of daily life tend to wrap our spirits. Stream, download (3 min, 17 sec).

Holy, Holy, Holy
Lord God of Hosts
Heaven and earth are fully of thy glory
Hosana in the highest. Holy.

Thus struck, I scattered my nearly illegible scrawl as notes in the margins of my program:

Think of the divine order that brings together these people, each of whom believes his or her present task to be the most important thing to be doing at this time (ipso facto) — even extending the performance back to the piece's composer, adding in the engineering of the instruments over centuries, the honing of talents, the skill: all for the glorification of God and to request His mercy, His intercession in the cold workings of nature's machine. Even if the music were not created or presented for that purpose, I defy you to explain that it was randomness and pure human preferences that brought it to be.

I defy it because I shall not believe it and will think you tragically deprived of grace by Satan himself.

The performers needn't believe themselves to be doing otherwise than singing pretty music. Even Fauré — when it comes to it — could have had other intentions for all it matters. A librettist, try as he might, could not deprive the Maker of this sort of praise. Even constructing the archetype of all that is disgusting and base — destroying all marks of the beauty that is divine inspiration — the devil would by that very act prove an order and thereby point to the One whom he detests.

Question about Proxy Voting on the House Floor

Monique Chartier

... er, is it legal?

While I caught only the last twenty minutes of the House session tonight, I sat next to a friend had arrived before myself. She cheerfully pointed out three or four House members who had voted on behalf of other House members. Each had pushed their own "Yea" or "Nay" button and then hurriedly pushed the button at the desk of a neighbor. Or neighbors. My friend said a couple of reps looked like they were working several bingo cards.

This was presumably done with the permission of those absent House members. ("... wait, I don't remember voting to reinstate slavery.") That doesn't make it legal, though, does it?


Thanks to Will and Andrew for advising that proxy voting is, indeed, legal. Andrew kindly supplied the pertinent House rule.

No member shall speak or vote, unless within the bar of the House and at his or her seat, except as hereinafter provided. Every member (except as provided in Rule 3) who shall be in his or her seat in the House Chamber when the question is put, shall give his or her vote, unless prior thereto the Speaker shall have excused him or her in accordance with the provisions of the Code of Ethics statute (RIGL 36-14-6). No member may vote for another member, nor activate another member's voting machine except by the express direction of that member who is present in the House chamber. No one may occupy the vacant seat of a member

Andrew has a point when he remarks,

There's something weird about a rule that says you can vote in place of another person, but don't sit in their seat.

The Latest Weapon in the U.S. Arsenal: The O-Bomb

Justin Katz

Just wanted to share this fantastic line from Jonah Goldberg that readers might not have caught because it was in an extended entry:

So, if Obama deserves "credit" for what's happened in Iran, there are several possibilities. The first is that he intended for something like this to happen. He gave his speech in the heart of the Muslin and Arab world, knowing full well the glorious inspirational power of his words.

Or, he didn't intend for his words to specifically inspire the Iranians, but he's glad the shrapnel from his wisdom grenade generated so much collateral hope and change.

Eventually the Campaign Has to Look Like Leadership

Justin Katz

Michael Barone offers his "Three Rules of Obama:

First, Obama likes to execute long-range strategies but suffers from cognitive dissonance when new facts render them inappropriate. ... On domestic policy, he has been executing his long-range strategy of vastly expanding government, but may be encountering problems as voters show unease at huge increases on spending. ...

Second, he does not seem to care much about the details of policy. ... The result is incoherent public policy: indefensible pork barrel projects, a carbon emissions bill that doesn’t limit carbon emissions from politically connected industries, and a health care program priced by the Congressional Budget Office at a fiscally unfeasible $1,600,000,000,000. ...

Third, he does business Chicago-style. His first political ambition was to be mayor of Chicago, the boss of all he surveyed; he has had to settle for the broader but less complete hegemony of the presidency. From Chicago he brings the assumption that there will always be a bounteous private sector that can be plundered endlessly on behalf of political favorites.

The presidency is not a Senate seat, which one can fill from a distance — as a matter of location as well as responsibility. Even when it is unfair to do so, Americans tend to feel that the buck stops with the President. The endless campaign, in other words, will ultimately hinge on occupational results in a way that President Obama may never have encountered before.

Here's an interesting (and loaded!) question: At what point will the President begin secretly hoping that Congress changes hands in the next election? If the country continues to tumble down the cliff face, he'd have a crew of bogeymen to blame; if the Republicans somehow manage (by bolstering their principles) to turn the U.S. around, Americans would be able to return to their preferred mindset of adoring their cool, black, rock-star President.

Where the Confidence is Truly Lacking

Monique Chartier

... is referenced, in fact, by National Education Association Executive Director John I. Wilson in yesterday's 7 to 7 ProJo News Blog report about the teachers' "no confidence" vote in the School Committee.

Our goals are basic and universal - to protect the rights of employees and defend quality public education.

Undoubtedly, most individual teachers in the East Providence school system do their best to deliver "quality education". If, however, this were a goal shared by Mr. Wilson's organization, wouldn't there be some mention of student achievement or teacher merit in the contact [PDF] negotiated by the East Providence affiliate of the NEA with the City of East Providence? In fact, that contract is bereft of all such language or any mention of the provision of a quality public education to East Providence children.

It is much easier to have confidence in a purported goal when it is memorialized in writing instead of verbally trotted out on certain very limited occasions.

A Press Release to Emulate

Justin Katz

East Providence School Committee Chairman Anthony Carcieri has issued a press release on which other elected representatives throughout the state should take notes:

On being informed that NEA has voted "no confidence" in the East Providence School Committee, its Chair, Anthony Carcieri, said this.

"So what’s new? No union is going to give a big vote of confidence when they're told they have to contribute to their health insurance. It's unfortunate, but it's the way of the world. That all happened six months ago. We've moved past it. We're bringing technology to our students for the first time in the Fall. Our Vocational School is launching innovative new programs that will catapult our students forward. We're pushing forward a revolutionary initiative to raise the quality of special education in East Providence to World Class standards. These are just some of the things we’ve accomplished in the last six months, as we are bringing the school system back from the brink of bankruptcy.

What has NEA done in the last six months?

They put on red shirts and disrupt School Committee meetings. They say they want to bargain, but they never schedule a meeting. They try to stop innovation. They demand that we raise taxes and go deeper in debt.

The East Providence Schools will be a magnet for students from other communities within the next few years. We will be a magnet for creative energetic teachers who put kids first. We don't need teachers who want to spend their time parading around like the Red Army. We need teachers who will help us to prepare our kids to deal with an increasingly competitive world.

We're told that NEA has threatened to tell their members to leave our school system. Any teacher who doesn't want to be a part of what's going on here should do what NEA says. We're building to be the best. We're putting the students first. Any teacher who doesn't want to be a part of that should follow NEA's direction.

Remember, we pay our teachers better than 90% of the school teachers in America. The teachers' union just can’t get over the fact that we had to retrench a little bit in January so we could pay their salaries in June. This is the time to focus on delivering the best education for our students without breaking the backs of our taxpayers. It's time to get over it. We have a lot of work left to do to raise the performance of our schools. We have to do a better job for the kids. That's our focus, and it’s the focus of most of our teachers."

What Rhode Islanders Ought to Be Thinking About

Justin Katz

It is, of course, a matter of concern — a travesty — that Rhode Island is tied for third worst among states when it comes to unemployment. The fact on which its residence should think hard, though, is Rhode Island's position relative to its fellow New England states:

Rhode Island 12.1 %
Maine 8.3 %
Massachusetts 8.2 %
Connecticut 8.0%
Vermont 7.3%
New Hampshire 6.5 %
U.S.A. 9.4%

Not only is Rhode Island worst among its neighbors, but it stands a good distance on the other side of the national rate. New Hamshire's unemployment is almost half of ours, for crying out loud!

Unless he was taken out of context to libelous degree, URI Business Administration Professor Edward Mazze brushes away his credibility like dandruff when he states (in reporter Andy Smith's paraphrase) that "Rhode Island shouldn’t be worrying about competing with neighboring states" because in a global economy "our competition comes from place such as Alabama — or China." Our competition for what?

I get the impression that Mazze is referring to Rhode Island as a geographical location in which businesses reside. It's not (or not only); it's a political entity relying on taxpayers to subsist and utterly failing in the governance of its people. Those people — especially the most productive and motivated of them — will find it much more comfortable a prospect to relocate within the few hours' drive that New England spans than in Alabama, let alone China.

Forgive me for saying it again and again, but we have a serious problem. Those who are supposed to be guiding our state through these rough waters have shown themselves to be utterly incompetent. The less intelligent of them behave as if they have all of the authority of a college's student legislature, and the governing principle of the more intelligent of them is scamming for their own benefit.

Obama Admin Tells RI: Charter Schools or Else

Marc Comtois

It should be no surprise that the Obama Adminstration, which is on the record as favoring Charter Schools and other education reform, would raise its eyebrows when a state cuts such funding. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made it pretty clear that the President won't look favorably upon those who turn their backs on educational innovation:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in Washington on Monday that Rhode Island may be putting itself at “at a huge competitive disadvantage” for securing federal stimulus dollars.

The General Assembly’s proposed 2010 budget eliminates $1.5 million that Governor Carcieri wanted to spend to open two new charters — a middle school in Central Falls and the state’s first “mayoral academy” in Cumberland.

“Places like Rhode Island that are thinking about underfunding charters are obviously going to put themselves at a huge competitive disadvantage going forward. So we don’t think that’s a smart thing for them to do and we’re going to make that very, very clear,” Duncan told an audience of more than 3,000 people when he was asked about Rhode Island during a question period at the National Charter Schools Conference.

“Where states are considering underfunding charters, as appears to be the case in Rhode Island, they’re placing themselves at a strategic disadvantage for Race to the Top money. They’re going to hurt their chances,” he added moments later, according to U.S. Education Department officials.

From a fiscal point of view, it seems like that $1.5 million would be money well spent.
The Race to the Top fund is a $5-billion discretionary pot of cash within the White House’s economic stimulus package that Duncan will distribute later this year to a handful of states with a proven track record of innovation.

For Rhode Island, that grant money — if secured — could come on top of more than $200 million that the federal government has already earmarked within the stimulus for education.

Rhode Island Board of Regents member Angus Davis, speaking on behalf of the state Education Department, said the secretary’s remarks should send a clear message to state lawmakers that they would be wise to restore the $1.5 million in new money for charters if they don’t want to jeopardize millions in additional funding.

“Secretary Duncan’s comments are entirely consistent with the comments he and the Obama administration have made about artificial limits about charter school limits,” Davis said.

I'm not sure if Rhode Island has a "proven track record of innovation", but killing any innovation certainly won't help! Where to get the money? How much additional savings could we get for moving the retirement age from 62 (or 55!) to, say, 65? It seems like a compassionate and forward-thinking way to go: postponing the payouts to adults for the sake of the children.

Memories of William F. Buckley, Jr.

Justin Katz

The final session of the Portsmouth Institute's conference on "The Catholic William F. Buckley, Jr." could be considered fated in the fashion of those humorous suspicions that something is cursed. First slated to be filled by the subject's son, Christopher, the slot was handed within the past few weeks to Reagan speechwriter Anthony Dolan. A last minute scheduling problem, however, required substitutes for the substitute. Such was the caliber of the conference's audience that organizer James MacGuire was able to put together a compelling set of speakers within a mere hours.

The first to take the podium was Neal Freeman, a close friend of Buckley's who undertook multiple professional tasks at his behest.

Suitably, Mr. Freeman focused on WFB's talent for making friends: Stream, download (27 sec). That talent was not a contrivance, though, as Freeman illustrated through a humorous anecdote relating Buckley's ostensibly confidential comments about him to the FBI: Stream, download (1 min, 35 sec).

Expanding the portraiture, Portsmouth Abbey Oblate Director Dom Damian Kearney related his experiences with Bill Buckley, first when they were both students at Yale (among the strictly limited 10% of students who were Catholic) and later when Mr. Buckley sent his son Christopher to Kearney's school, where the monk once caught the young man thumbing through an issue of Playboy, featuring an article by his father: Stream, download (59 sec).

James MacGuire was a friend of Christopher's in those days, and remains such, now, so he had several personal anecdotes about the Buckley family, as well, when he took the microphone (which had been reduced to a mere turn of phrase by the failure of the actual microphone's battery).

MacGuire's central mission, though, was to read some excerpts from Christopher Buckley's book Losing Mum and Pup, and he summed up Christopher's tenuous relationship with his father's faith thus: Stream, download (1 min, 8 sec).

The final speaker of the whole shebang was Clark Judge, Managing Director of the White House Writers Group, who brought the conversation back toward the academic and strove to describe the essence of William F. Buckley, Jr.'s accomplishment: Stream, download (46 sec).

June 22, 2009

Scenes from Today's Iran Demostration at the RI Statehouse

Carroll Andrew Morse




Another Way to Add to RI's Unemployment Problem...

Justin Katz

... would be for the House to join the Senate in passing legislation automatically adjusting the minimum wage every year. A bill proposed by Sen. Leonidas P. Raptakis (D- Coventry, East Greenwich, Warwick, West Warwick) slithered easily through the Senate in May. A similar bill (PDF in the House is currently being held for study.

As Employment Policies Institute Senior Economic Analysis Kristen Lopez Eastlick explains, the move would hurt low-wage earners:

Decades of economic research demonstrate that there is an increase in job losses following minimum-wage hikes, particularly among vulnerable groups such as minority teens and adults without a high-school diploma. Legislation that would make minimum-wage increases automatic merely shifts these negative effects from a once-in-a-while occurrence to an annual event.

While a 25-cent increase may not seem like a lot, a business owner with 20 entry-level employees would have to absorb over $10,000 in new labor costs each year. Small businesses faced with decreasing demand would be forced to cut employee hours and eliminate some jobs entirely in order to stomach an automatic-wage hike that would take place regardless of the economic climate.

It would also hurt new-job creation by adding a cost structure for potential employers to consider before hiring new employees. Moreover businesses that don't already operate in Rhode Island would have to take the requirement under advisement, as well.

A Moratorium on Suspicious Appointments, Please

Justin Katz

Whether or not one considers a legislative log-jamb at the State House to be a positive or negative development, a lowly taxpayer can't help but feel that the appointment of family and friends to positions of influence is on a different track for approval:

Superior Court Presiding Justice Joseph F. Rodgers Jr. on Wednesday announced that he was retiring from the bench at the same time that Governor Carcieri selected Rodgers' daughter, Kristen E. Rodgers, for a seat on the same court.

Rodgers, 67, said that his retirement will be effective Aug. 28. The justice said he expected the Senate Judiciary Committee to take up his daughter's nomination late next week, with a vote by the full Senate on her confirmation before the legislature adjourns for the session.

Rodgers has been a judge for 35 years. His pension will be equal to his full salary, which as of July 1 will be $185,649, he said.

He said he was announcing his retirement now "to accelerate the process" so the General Assembly can name someone to fill his vacancy on the Superior Court sooner rather than later. He said it was his understanding that the legislature was planning to return for a special session in August or September to take up additional judicial nominations.

And of course, there's this convenient factor:

[Kristin] Rodgers was selected from an older list of finalists recommended by the Judicial Nominating Commission. He passed over five people the JNC nominated for the Ragosta seat a year ago.

The law that allows Carcieri to pick from lists submitted by the commission over the past five years is due to expire June 30. Legislation to extend that law by one year passed the Senate last week and has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee for action.

Be impressions what they may, it's possible that this curious timing is not the result of backroom murmurs. Still, I propose that state officials impose upon themselves a moratorium against nepotism. Frankly, the overlapping webs of familiar last names within our various layers of government is becoming a bit too suffocating to take, to the point that I'd almost rather have positions filled by a random finger-poke in the phone book than by the current process.

A passable test for whether a particular appointment would violate the moratorium would be a formulation applied by one of our commenters to a similar story not long ago: After an exhaustive nationwide search, the governor has nominated... the daughter of retiring Justice Joseph Rodgers. If the ellipsis seems justified, the nomination is not.

Too Much Work Being Done

Justin Katz

Quip though it may have been, this paragraph from an article about the General Assembly's probable rush to pass a bunch of bills over the next couple of weeks expresses the appropriate sentiment:

House Minority Leader Robert Watson, a vocal critic of the Democratic leadership, quipped that the state may be better off if the Assembly passes fewer bills. "It's a step in the right direction," he said. "Less is more up here."

Why should such a long-standing civic entity require so many laws to be passed? The article mentions around 2,000 bills to be addressed. Hasn't the state of Rhode Island had sufficient time to explore most of the questions that government should consider its purview to answer?

The state won't begin to turn around, I'd suggest, until some significant number of the bills on the table propose dismantling the laws that have been put in place. Not only is less more, but the only healthy path requires diminishment.

It's Almost as if There's Only a Real Interest in the Problems of One Community…

Carroll Andrew Morse

Over at RI Future, Pat Crowley doesn't seem quite up to speed on the public budgeting process occurring in most Rhode Island cities and towns. Mr. Crowley assumes that last week's announcement that there will be no general revenue sharing in FY2009-2010 means that city and town governments will have to "re-raise" taxes.…

If the State does not repeal the flat tax and continues the elimination of general revenue sharing, this is how much towns would have to re-raise their property taxes to make up the difference.

For example...take a look at North Providence....

But if "re-raising" taxes means municipal governments asking for more than they've already asked for, he's wrong. North Providence, for example, built an assumption of zero state aid into its budget for FY2010 (see page 5). In fact, according to Philip Marcelo's report in Sunday's Projo, most Rhode Island cities and towns have already accounted for the cut in general revenue sharing...
Mayor David N. Cicilline says his administration will need to resubmit his plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 if the General Assembly votes to end the $55-million general revenue-sharing program that Providence and other Rhode Island communities have enjoyed for two decades….Providence appears to have taken a gamble that few other communities were willing to make in assuming it would get anything at all from the state from the program.
I know Cranston has zeroed out its general revenue sharing figure for FY2010 (see page 4). Warwick too (see page 105). So did the town of Lincoln (see the bright yellow column, hidden on page 1). Mr. Crowley is active in party politics in Lincoln, so you might of thought he'd have a sense of what's going on there, but I guess not, as he claims that Lincoln will either have a 1.65% or a 3.46% "re-raising" of property taxes, depending on which of his RI Future posts you believe.

Actually, the 3.46% for Lincoln is obviously the result of a second layer of faulty analysis, where Mr. Crowley tries to calculate the percentage tax-increase that replacing general revenue sharing would require, but presents inflated figures as the result of considering only the municipal side of the local spending, neglecting the fact that property taxes also are used to pay for schools. (Is this error maybe corrected between the two posts?) That error notwithstanding, however, any "re-raising" of taxes in most municipalities, as a result of the official announcement on general revenue sharing, will amount to 0%, because most city and town governments budgeted responsibly and assumed that no aid was coming.

The major exception, of course, is Providence, where the administration of Mayor David Cicilline assumed that the city would receive 6 million dollars in state aid, and now has to re-budget assuming the loss. The total lesson from all of this, as always, is that progressives and public finance don't mix.

June 21, 2009

The Professor and Friend

Justin Katz

In summarizing the first three speakers at the Portsmouth Institute's WFB conference, I observed their different styles. Among subsequent speakers, I'd say that, truly, E.J. Dionne and K.J. Lopez spoke much as columnists. They offered facts and quotations, giving their own opinions, and building overall arguments. None who've read their work would be very surprised at, essentially, their style of reading of their work.

Roger Kimball's presentation was that of a compelling university lecture. It's difficult to articulate the difference, but one can hear it in reviewing the speeches. The best that I can do is to say that the lecturer's first objective is to edify, while the columnist's is to state an argument. Perhaps another way to think of it is to see the lecturer as reading a chapter from a book; it's still the presentation of an argument, but it's a longer form argument, stretching beyond the bounds of an individual chapter.

Lee Edwards, of The Heritage Foundation, joins Mr. Kimball in that category.

The perspective of the personal acquaintance was particularly valuable in Mr. Edwards's talk — which was, after all, billed in the program as "The William F. Buckley, Jr., I Knew." It is, therefore, an obvious act to relay some personal anecdotes:

  • Young Bill and Trish Buckley's adventure to secretly baptize house guests in order to save their souls: Stream, download (1 min, 3 sec).
  • In the line of Bill Buckley investing in the human capital of young conservatives, an anecdote involving Mr. Edwards's wife and her hanging-up-the-phone disbelief that the celebrity would call her dorm: Stream, download (2 min, 28 sec)
  • Summing up much of what had been said of Buckley's charitable nature and self-contradictions (that are not really contradictions at all, in the end): Stream, download (2 min, 22 sec).

Additionally, during the Q&A period, Mr. Edwards offered an abstract-type summary of his essay, "The End of Conservatism?" in which he describes five essential elements required for a movement, stream, download (1 min, 54 sec):

  • A philosophy
  • An infrastructure/constituency
  • A financial base
  • Media facility
  • Charismatic and principled leaders

Members of the budding Rhode Island reform movement could benefit greatly by heeding Mr. Edwards's advice.

The Journalist Who Believed Catholic Christianity to Be True

Justin Katz

Kathryn Jean Lopez, of National Review Online, began her speech — beginning day three of the Portsmouth Institute's conference on William F. Buckley, Jr. — by stating that she would not have described WFB as a "Catholic journalist," because both descriptors were so thoroughly integrated into his persona, and she seemed genuinely awed that he plainly and directly incorporated religious beliefs in his writing. Her first example was his handling of a question on Satan, which she asked us to imagine being posed on Hardball: Stream, download (1 min, 26 sec).

Lopez read, as well, an extended excerpt from a WFB column in the '90s decrying the taping of a murder suspect's Catholic confession to a priest as "the end of the line" to "fascism": Stream, download (3 min, 20 sec). The point came up again, during the Q&A, when an audience member asked the outcome of the controversy, and Kathryn promised to post the answer in the Corner on Monday. Of course, being a blogger, my Anchor Rising co-contributor Andrew Morse had googled the matter and let Ms. Lopez know that the district attorney had ended up apologizing. The case apparently became quite a row, with the defense ultimately seeking to use the tape (raising questions about whether the suspect had known to expect the recording) and the courts disallowing it, although not going quite as far as the local diocese requested and destroying the tape.

I've seen no indication, through quick online research, to indicate that Bill Buckley played a role beyond that typically inhabited by a columnist in that case, but as Lopez suggests, his death has left somewhat of a void where previously we all might have expected an additional, trusted, and authoritative opinion on matters of interest to those who explicitly undertake, share, or are incidentally interested in the contemporary Catholic mission. What, she wonders, would he have said of President Obama's rhetoric when speaking at the Notre Dame graduation? Stream, download (48 sec).

A couple of notable (or, rather, especially notable) segments came during Kathryn's Q&A. One is her response to conference organizer Jamie MacGuire's question about her experience with Buckley as a young NR employee in which she described something that came up repeatedly during the several days devoted to the man: his investment in human capital. Stream, download (4 min, 16 sec). She suggests that WFB's investment in and support for others extended even when they moved beyond the reach of his immediate projects, such as National Review, and sees the workings of his Christianity in that tendency. I see, as well, his larger project of building a movement of which NR was a central part; if the movement is the thing, one doesn't want to ghettoize the soldiers in a single publication, but to send them out into the world.

A second notable exchange began with New England Cable News Reporter Gregory Wayland's relation of his experience producing stories on the anniversary of Humanae Vitae (video) and embryonic stem cell research (video). On the first, he (and Kathryn) stated some surprise that it had been acknowledged as newsworthy. On the second, he expressed that he'd felt pressure to lessen the prominence of a scientist who researches and supports adult stem cell research. The question to Lopez was, in Wayland's words, how to deal with "the well-worn trough down which the waters of journalism flow lined by very definite assumptions which are the received wisdom of the journalistic community." Stream, download (3 min, 39 sec).

The Liberal's Tempered Perspective

Justin Katz

The first thing to note about Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne's after-dinner speech at the Portsmouth Institute's conference on William F. Buckley's conservatism is his mention of something that struck me for the duration of the event: namely, that religious life does not preclude real life, much less intellectual life. Stream, download (52 sec). Experience with the monastery and admiration for the monks, Dionne said, saved him "from a sometimes popular and always foolish prejudice against men and women of faith."

That perspective brings into relief the difficulty of Dionne's task at the conference, as the lone liberal speaker in the program as well as an alumnus of the school, a personal friend to many in the audience, and an ideological dissenter handed a microphone at what was, after all, a multiday tribute to WFB. Still, I would have preferred his going a good bit further in challenging his audience, because the debate that he might have sparked would have exposed a more comprehensive picture of what Buckley actually accomplished.

Dionne described, for example, what he takes to be "the many contradictions of contemporary conservatism," and the messiness and continual threat of collapse that such composition implies: stream, download (47 sec). Missed in his convenient observation (for a liberal) is, first, that reality itself is messy and seemingly self-contradictory and, second, that Western civilization itself is more a brilliantly contrived pile of loose stones than a solid monolith. He speaks of conservative fusionism as an idea that "never fully cohered" without apparently seeing that an ideology that would accurately address the world as it stands must necessarily involve an organic process of adjusting to infinite semblances of incoherence in the universe and human nature.

Of a piece is Dionne's characterization of Buckley's conservative counterculturalism as a paradox: stream, download (46 sec). Dionne describes Buckley's work as a reaction to the stultifying conformity of the '50s, but he seems not to understand that the objection to "middle of the road qua middle of the road" is that making moderation a goal is not only incoherent, but points to emptiness.

WFB's accomplishment, in this regard, is that he manifested the age's aesthetic preference for rebels but pointed it toward an intellectual structure concerned, at its soul, with a higher order, compared with the deliberate (and selectively beneficial) chaos underlying the prescriptions of radicals.

E-Verify: House Finance Committee (Unintentionally) Obviates One Major Obstacle

Monique Chartier

One of the objections to e-verify has been that to oblige a small business - all businesses - to go on line to verify an applicant's employment eligibility would be too burdensome.

Rep Trillo and Rep Loughlin reported on Matt Allen's Violent Round Table Friday night that the budget bill contains a provision that, henceforth, all Rhode Island businesses will file their state tax returns on line. While some might see this as yet another unnecessary regulatory intrusion on the conduct of business in this state, I prefer to see the glass half full. If the Finance Committee has judged that the somewhat complex task of preparing and submitting a business tax return on line is feasible for all businesses, surely e-verify passes the feasibility test with flying colors.

Status: E-Verify has passed the House and is currently waiting to be voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Even Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano supports it which, frankly, surprises the heck out of me.) For the sake of undocumented immigrants as well as everyone here legally, e-verify is the right thing to do and a reasonable, minimal measure to implement.

Senate Leadership
Senate President Sen. Teresa Paiva-Weed: sen-paivaweed@rilin.state.ri.us 401-222-6655

Senate Majority Leader Senator Daniel Connors: sen-connors@rilin.state.ri.us 401-222-3310

Judiciary Committee Members

Senator Leo R. Blais: sen-blais@rilin.state.ri.us (401) 823-4536

Senator Maryellen Goodwin: sen-goodwin@rilin.state.ri.us (401) 272-3102

Senator Paul V. Jabour: sen-jabour@rilin.state.ri.us (401) 222-6625 (at committee clerk's office)

Senator Charles J. Levesque (Vice Chairman): sen-levesque@rilin.state.ri.us (401) 683-9194

Senator Erin P. Lynch (D): sen-lynch@rilin.state.ri.us (401) 739-8500

Senator Christopher B. Maselli (bill co-sponsor): sen-maselli@rilin.state.ri.us (401) 222-6625 (at committee clerk's office)

Senator John F. McBurney III: sen-mcburney@rilin.state.ri.us (401) 725-2459

Senator Michael J. McCaffrey (D; Chairman): sen-mccaffrey@rilin.state.ri.us (401) 739-7576

Senator Harold M. Metts: sen-metts@rilin.state.ri.us (401) 272-0112

Senator Rhoda E. Perry: sen-perry@rilin.state.ri.us (401) 751-7165

The Musical Pursuit of Life

Justin Katz

Friday's pre-dinner musical interlude consisted of three soloists with piano accompaniment by Dom Ambrose, one of the abbey's monks, a graduate of Harvard and attendee at Julliard who now teaches music theory and English.

First came trumpeter Nathaniel Hepler, a professional with that instrument. Mr. Hepler played Bruce Broughton's "Oliver's Birthday" and a Sonata by Eric Ewazen.

Second was Evan Geiger, currently a graduate student in music at the Manhattan School, on horn. He and Dom Wolverton played Adagio and Allegro for Horn, Op. 70, by Robert Schumann, the audio of which I select for my excerpt for several reasons: I've always had an affection for the sound of the French horn; Marc Comtois and I had a subsequent disagreement about the quality of that instrument in general; I was too slow on the record trigger to capture the beginning of "Oliver's Birthday"; and I note a death year next to Mr. Schumann's birth year in the program, so there will be one less party in any complaints about intellectual property. Stream, download (8 min, 55 sec).

Closing out the program were tenor Troy Quinn performances of Handel's "Ombra mai fu" from Xerses and "Johanna" from Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (an odd interposition, given the content of the conference). Mr. Quinn (although — and mortality taps me on the shoulder as I write this — very young to my eye) is the school's director of music. Infer no ageism with that; music can be a young-man's game, and in my limited observations, Troy is a man of substantial knowledge and ability.

To dispel accusations of ageism in the other direction, I'll note that Dom Ambrose Wolverton was the star of the performance. I overheard, as I attempted to advance my blogging backlog during a rehearsal, that he'd had no more than ten days to learn the music. To be honest, I don't know what the monk's schedule might have been during that week and a half, but it was quite an achievement, whatever the case.

Once again, the figure of the hooded robe at the piano served to disprove my erroneous impressions of what life as a monk entails. As a man fully happy in his role as a husband and father, I nonetheless pass by my own piano with lament all too frequently (or, every time I pass by my piano) and cannot find fault with a life that has deliberately made way for contemplation and such pursuits as music.

June 20, 2009

Correcting a Misimpression, and the Charitable Speaker

Justin Katz

Between the Friday morning talks of Maggie Gallagher and Joseph Bottum, I was asked in the presence of a notable personage about my conversion to Catholicism. It took some time — well past the cessation of the conversation — for my mind to catch up to the realization that said personage's response indicated that I had inadequately characterized my emotions about the circumstances that brought me to the event in question.

My pithy summary was that, having had no experience with religious faith, I found myself within a year graduating from college, moving to a new apartment, pursuing employment, getting married, commuting for over an hour each way to and from work, and inhabiting a gray cubicle for the better part of every weekday, and I realized that something within my belief structure (more accurately, my non-belief structure) was not functional. The distinguished gentleman suggested that only the long commute and gray cubical were dispiriting aspects of the life that I'd described, and it still bothers me to think that he might not have understood how integral to my meaning precisely that actuality was.

What I'd meant to convey was that the rapid succession of these life-changing events seemed to have as their consequence a lack of success so profound that it couldn't even be called a failure. My great sprint through the final years of youthful development hadn't left me falling because unable to fly; rather, they'd placed me on a treadmill (the walls of which, I might add, were not only gray, but of such a design that it seemed as if a previous occupant had taken up the habit of checking off the days of his captivity). Furthermore, I had no basis to expect anything other than the continuation of that treadmill until my ultimate collapse into oblivious death.

Thence religious faith, which gave me a context by which to understand that, even if phony cloth partitions were to become the sum of life's setting, its real texture spread to spaces inherently unaffected by them.

Which brings me to the afternoon speech of New Criterion editor and publisher Roger Kimball.

Mr. Kimball gave an exquisite, if negative, description of the sign of peace moment in Roman Catholic Masses (stream, download) in which he lamented the disruption of "the mood appropriate to the celebration of the awful mystery of the Mass." The aesthetician does not like the moment, to say the least, but I'd propose that it makes a difference which threads are setting the mood.

My first trip to Mass as a might-be believer (rather than mere accompaniment for my wife) was made alone to an old urban church in Fall River that was, at the time, under construction, making it dark and close, with boards on windows and scaffolding constricting the pews. To this day, I remember how suffused was the service with the invocation of the quality that my days were desperately lacking: internal peace. And the moment at which that message's light managed its first wink into my psychological darkness came when the small boy behind me held out his hand and wished for it to do so (albeit with no great enthusiasm).

There may be something, here, of the distinction between those who've had faith and those who are approaching it. Kimball went on to describe the delight that Bill Buckley took in life (stream, download), and I can't imagine that he (or Mr. Buckley) would object to the observation that there are prerequisites to delight. Among them is that internal peace.

That is to say that one profits nothing from concentration at Mass if one's mind is a chaos of despair. A handshake can only be disruptive of prayer if a person's very thoughts are not a prior disruption. As one who knows neither man, and for many years knew not peace, I find Kimball's reference to Buckley's spiritual generosity significant (stream, download); how conducive to spiritual advancement it would be were one to find Mr. Kimball or Mr. Buckley among the randomly proximate churchgoers reaching out across the pew with a smile.

Speech after speech, this week, made the case that WFB was generous, indeed, with his smile, so it's odd that he would share Kimball's aversion to offering it during Sunday worship. Perhaps he needed that time for his own rejuvenation. I'll confess, however, that my newly Catholic eyes (relatively speaking) do not see the difficulty in reformulating that rejuvenation to the minor degree of affirming the importance of the church community as a constituent part of one's own, personal, and humble relationship with God.

Toward the end of his speech, Kimball spoke of time's internal complement (stream, download): taking away moments, while still providing the substrate on which achievement can grow. Just so with that non-traditional practice that he so loathes. Just so the presence of traditionalists among parishioners who don't know more than a garbled phrase or two of Latin.

Just so, as well, was it an act of spiritual generosity for Roger Kimball to offer his thoughts for our audience's consideration, facilitating the sort of discussion that — even if online, and even if without response — draws participants into the mechanics of the faith such that, by focus of the intellect, they almost do not notice that they have moved more deeply into belief.

Heads Up, Recreational Saltwater Fishermen: Kilroy Killjoy Was Here

Monique Chartier

A bill is on its way from the House to the Senate. It would mandate that you buy an annual license at a cost of $100 $7 (seven dollars) [correction supplied by Rep Loughlin via e-mail: the cost of the license is $7.00; it would be a $100 fine if you were caught without a license] and that you keep a log of all fish that you catch. Said log would have to be presented when you renew your license the following year. If said log was not maintained, said license would not be renewed.

This fun-killer of a soon-to-be law is not entirely the brainchild of the Rhode Island General Assembly. Apparently, the federal government would have imposed the requirement for a federal saltwater fishing license, inclusive of the fishing log component, if the state did not implement a state license. It is not entirely clear, however, whether the state is obliged to charge a fee for the license or, if it is, that it has to be as high as a c-note [see correction above]. Addendum: Or that the fine has to be as high as $100. It's not like someone is counting on the proceeds of such an offensive fine for revenue. Right?

And while we're on the subject of fishy, heavy-handed regulation, it was revealed this week that President Obama would like to zone the ocean. Yes, you read that correctly: zone the ocean.

(Let's see, zone the ocean. A media that swoons over the president catching a fly. Health care reform to be accomplished by gutting existing programs. Predatory lending to be outlawed ... unless conducted by the federal government. Now I get it. We're trapped in a Saturday Night Live skit!)

RI Supreme Court Places More Emphasis on Family than the Family Court

Monique Chartier

In one case, anyway.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court on Friday overturned rulings by the Family Court that had allowed a divorced woman and her two children to remain in Rhode Island for almost seven years despite an order from a North Carolina judge that they return to that state, where the children’s father lived.

* * *

In concluding the Family Court erred, the high court deplored the case’s being allowed to languish “in a judicial morass for many years,” particularly when the jurisdiction of the Rhode Island Family Court was being challenged.

The years of delay to “complete a case that was both cast as an emergency and was one in which the authority of the court to hear the case was challenged, while two young lives hung in the balance, is simply inexcusable,” the high court said.

On this eve of Father's Day, we have to ask: why did the Rhode Island Family Court deprive two children of their father for seven years? Is it because the court's rumored bias in favor of one particular gender has a basis in actuality?

By the way, "languish in a judicial morass for many years". Isn't that an apt description of another case currently pending in the Rhode Island court system?

BREAKING: K-Lo Not Leaving NRO

Justin Katz

Perhaps because they don't realize how little understood the world of opinion journalism is among the public, various posters in the Corner have left a large question mark in their posts about Kathryn Jean Lopez's employment change at NRO: Rich Lowry, Jonah Goldberg, and John Derbyshire.

Right after her speech at the Portsmouth Institute's Bill Buckley conference, I asked Kathryn what she'll be doing now that she's leaving NRO, and with a look of great emphasis, she waved her arms and explained that she's doing nothing of the kind. The "career change" is more of a lightening of responsibilities, perhaps to write a book, although she said that she doesn't currently have any specific plans.

Stream, download (2 min, 3 sec)

(NB: I'll have excerpts from her speech up in due course, as I blog about the conference, a task for which I'm way behind, by blog standards, but life is interfering... such as the circus that I'm squeezing in for my children between today's sessions.)

The Writerly Catholic on Mr. Buckley's Catholic Writerliness

Justin Katz

The thought that rushed to mind as soon as First Things Editor Joseph Bottum began his speech had to do with the striking differences in style between the speakers at the Portsmouth Institute's conference on William F. Buckley, Jr.

Fr. Rutler spoke from a prepared text as a transcendent intellectual with years of experience speaking in public, attempting to convey the practical application of abstractions to religious followers. His style was measured — the computer rendering of his speech patterns shows the expression of a thought followed by a pause, as if he has constructed his speech like a work of music, with beats and measures ordered so as to better convey the theme.

Maggie Gallagher speaks like the columnist and activist that she is. There is a point to be made and evidence to be marshaled in its service, and having become thoroughly comfortable with the material, she embarks on her talk with no script, ready to adjust as her audience requires. When the listeners respond with inadequate evidence of familiarity with the origins of conservative fusionism, she is prepared to devote some minutes in summary. If a particular point seems to have more or less resonance than expected, she dwells or moves along as appropriate.

Joseph Bottum strikes me as a writerly speaker. I thought of audio that I've heard of William Faulkner's Nobel acceptance speech. Writers — some writers, at least, among whom I number — hear their texts in their heads, and for them, speechifying is not much different than the recitation of poetry. If a sentence seems rushed, it's the downward arc to something poignant. A mumbled phrase is akin to a passing note. The musical parallel comes from the Romantic period; the feel of the thing is what's being conveyed, because its intellectual theme is inextricable from the images and emotions in which it is saturated. That, of course, does not substitute for intellectual content, and Mr. Bottum in no way attempted such an exchange.

  • A wonderful description of the young Bill Buckley: stream, download (1 min, 48 sec)
  • Making a critical point about the money's role in Buckley's career, specifically with reference to God and Man at Yale, namely that it brought notice to uniquely compelling content that could then flourish: stream, download(35 sec)
  • On the perspectives of different generations of Catholic writers, with Buckley illustrating an inclination to assume his faith and write about other things while standing on its foundation: stream, download (3 min, 22 sec)
  • Answering a question on the drift of Catholic institutions (i.e., colleges) from the Catholic Church, suggesting that, at some point, the bishops will have to pull the trigger and threaten to declare the institutions to be no longer Catholic: stream, download (1 min, 11 sec)
  • Addressing a question about simply moving on and supporting smaller, more faithfully Catholic institutions by suggesting that it would be better to get religious institutions off the path of drift, because the metaphysical assumptions on which Catholicism is based are worth preserving (because they happen to be true): stream, download (1 min, 36 sec)

June 19, 2009

The Marriage Debate in the Wake of the Buckley Conservative Movement

Justin Katz

For the opening speech of the Portsmouth Institute's Friday session, Maggie Gallagher traced the effects of a few cultural (particularly marital) trends on the conservative fusionism that William F. Buckley, Jr., helped to develop.

Some highlights:

  • On the character Bill Buckley cut for himself by "refusing to grow" (meaning to become gradually more liberal upon becoming famous). Stream, download (52 sec).
  • On the left's attack on conservative fusionism, assuming neutrality and leveraging Americans' general prosperity. The focus of this audio clip is abortion, but the interesting application to the same-sex marriage issue comes, first, in the further challenge of the notion that cultural traditionalism can coexist with limited government and, second, in the disallowance of traditionalists to continue to practice their faiths without bowing, in the public square, to a radical proclamation on marriage. Stream, download (2 min, 5 sec).
  • On the intellectual difficulty that divorce and same-sex marriage present to those who wish to choose a traditional marital arrangement, in which both sides agree on the indissoluble nature of the relationship — are enabled, that is, to make vows that they truly know mean in the eyes of the law what they profess them to mean. Stream, download (3 min, 25 sec)
  • On the same-sex marriage movement's attempt to make marriage address the cultural problem of toleration in such a way as to detract from the institution's ability to address its own mission. Stream, download (59 sec)
  • On the danger (especially for cultural conservatism) that the traditionalism of the creative class — in which group Gallagher includes business people, especially entrepreneurs — are breaking away from the structures of society that have nourished our own. Stream, download (2 min, 25 sec)

Tom Ward: Pinpointing the Two Big Weaknesses in the G.A.'s Draft Budget

Monique Chartier

From Valley Breeze publisher Tom Ward's on-line only editorial of yesterday.

• The pension “Cost of Living Adjustment” (COLA) cuts are minimal, and a joke. Those in the private sector would have to save well over a million dollars by age 60 to have anything even approaching the largesse of a state pension. Pension proposals put forward by both Gov. Donald Carcieri and a House study commission were ignored. Limited cuts were made, but very generous pensions remain.

• The biggest disappointment is this. Carcieri spent years working on a plan that might cost us a few bucks in the short term, but would put the state on a path to grow private sector jobs with cuts in business tax rates. In the end, it is only the private sector that creates wealth and can get us out of this mess.

Indeed, while some - any - form of the Economic Death and Dismemberment Act was thankfully kept out of this budget, our legislative branch very much needs to begin building a better outlook for Rhode Island in the medium and long terms as well. This involves modifications to our tax and regulatory codes.

Unless the General Assembly is planning to stay in session past June 30 to address this matter separately, now is the time and the budget is the place to undertake this critical work.

The Erudite Father, Spiritual Enrichment, and the Personal Pianist

Justin Katz

Fr. George Rutler, author and pastor of Our Saviour Church in New York City, evinced sparkling erudition during his speech yesterday at the Portsmouth Institute's conference celebrating William F. Buckley, Jr. That Fr. Rutler has lived a life of the mind came across forcefully, with regular practice at public oratory, and one couldn't help but imagine his lunches with Mr. Buckley and assorted guests as historic events.

There has been a somewhat official-looking video camera following conference-goers from event to event, and I encourage readers to seek out Fr. Rutler's portion of the final product, whatever it may be, but here's audio of a few highights:

  • On religious belief in the eyes of the post-modern relativist: stream, download (1 min, 47 sec)
  • On Buckley's "Christian longing for death": stream, download (34 sec)
  • On the inadvisable good humor of those who usher in the collapse of society: stream, download (1 min, 32 sec)
  • On conservatism disconnected from faith: stream, download (1 min, 15 sec)

After a few questions and answers, Fr. Rutler's talk was followed by the Portsmouth Abbey monks' observance of vespers (if that's the right way to phrase it). Having never been to such a service, I found the experience to be more spiritually enriching than even I would have expected. One does wonder how much stronger the effect might be were the monks' seats behind the altar filled, rather than smattered, with black cloaks, but I suppose we are generally so stultified, spiritually, that we needn't be gifted with the full effect of rituals. We mightn't know how to process it.

And thus primed with heavenward thoughts, we moved on to the auditorium, where Lawrence Perelman (miraculously arrived after enduring a broken down train north of Westerly) shared some of the music that he'd played for WFB in keeping with the relationship that I described yesterday.

On the program were Bach's Partita No. 6 in e minor (the last piece that Mr. Buckley had requested that he play) and Beethoven's Sonata no. 31 in A Major, Op.110 (apparently a favorite of the requester). The performance was compelling throughout, but it was the first movement of the Beethoven that I found myself whistling as I made my way to the working man's van — foregoing dinner out so as to preserve harmony with my family. Stream, download (7 min, 7 sec). (The decision turned out to be wise, because as it was, I remained awake until 1:00 a.m. learning PowerPoint sufficiently to put together an end-of-year presentation for my wife's kindergarten class.)

On Past Twelve

Justin Katz

Admittedly, gut-based prognostications are easily dismissed — a bit like guesses of the number of jellybeans in a jar. In the case of unemployment trends, it's more akin to guessing the number of jellybeans that won't be in the jar tomorrow, and to be honest, I'm not sure so-called educated guesses are much more firmly based.

The news is that RI's unemployment rate has jumped a full percentage point, to 12.1%, which makes my standing ballpark of 14% more plausible, as the experts ratchet theirs up to 13%. Thanks to the General Assembly's predictable, but disheartening, failure to release a budget, as opposed to an instructional pamphlet on prayer-based juggling, I'm adjusting my prediction, as well. President Obama solidified Rhode Island's likelihood of 14%, I'd say, and the General Assembly has done the extra work, lately, to drive it over 15%.

The disclaimer is that we're in uncharted territory, here, and the unemployment number may not cease its rise for the foreseeable future. This is particularly concerning:

The national unemployment rate also rose, from 8.9 percent in April to 9.4 percent in May. Unemployment in Massachusetts grew slightly during the same period, from 8 percent in April to 8.2 percent in May.

Even putting the concrete effects of the state budget aside, its huge power to demoralize puts a new, brighter light on the single-digit unemployment rates of elsewhere for ambitious workers and employers.

June 18, 2009

... So Calling a Female General "Ma'am" Would Be Disrespectful?

Monique Chartier

In a hearing room, Tuesday, on Capitol Hill.

Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was testifying on the Louisiana coastal restoration process in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He began to answer one of Boxer's questions with "ma'am" when Boxer immediately cut him off.

"You know, do me a favor," an irritated Boxer said. "Could say 'senator' instead of 'ma'am?'"

"Yes, ma'am," Walsh interjected.

"It's just a thing, I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it, yes, thank you," she said.

"Yes, senator," he responded.

There were scattered calls this afternoon for Senator Boxer to apologize to Brigadier General Walsh. It didn't particularly strike me as I heard the exchange that an apology was necessary. It wasn't really about the Brigadier General. It was about the Senator from California, in more ways than one, and a startling look into her character. To be truthful, any apology would have to be phrased along the lines of

"I apologize that I dropped a facade and you had to see the petty, insecure and self obsessed side of my nature."

Paraphrasing Les from Pawtucket, a caller to the Matt Allen Show tonight: some people join an organization to accomplish something. Others join to be someone.

House Defeats Nat'l Popular Vote Scheme

Marc Comtois

Via ProJo:

In a sharp reversal from last year, the House has voted down a proposal aimed at changing the way that the president and vice president of the United States are elected.

On Thursday afternoon, lawmakers defeated a measure that would have allowed Rhode Island to join in a compact with other states that would commit to having their delegates to the Electoral College vote for the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of who won each particular state. The vote was 28 for and 45 against.

Here is the legislation that was voted down. Andrew and Justin (and me, a little) have been on top of this issue for a while now.


Justin Katz

A couple of William F. Buckley, Jr., displays:

Portsmouth Institute Bill Buckley Conference, First Thoughts

Justin Katz

In the latest Community Crier announcement of the Portsmouth Institute's inaugural conference, on the topic of William F. Buckley, I wrote of the importance of stepping away from one's life. I mentioned dislocation of place — the religious man's journey into the desert, as well as the working man's days of intellectual pursuits, as represented for me by this event.

A letter from Portsmouth Institute Director James MacGuire on the inside cover of the program notes that the organization's purpose will be to offer the opportunities of "a conference, study, recreation, and retreat center for all those interested in Catholic life, leadership and service in the 21st century." It will be exciting to watch that opportunity take shape, in the hopes of partaking.

Arriving on the campus of the Portsmouth Abbey school evokes another difference of lives with which we all ought to pursue experience from time to time — that of cultural distinction. In all honesty, had I known such settings in my youth (meaning prior to my marriage) — and had I not been a thorough-going agnostic — I might have considered taking the monk's path. It was my understanding, back then, that entering into religious life was the end of one's ordinary life and foreclosed altogether the possibility of an extraordinary one. Thus does a secular mindset get the truth completely backwards.

There is another way to enjoy this particular abbey as a quotidian setting, of course, which is much more in keeping with the secularist's vision of an extraordinary life. In the case of renowned private schools, it comes with the prerequisite of tuition and puts one in the company of such peers as Mr. Buckley's son, Christopher. And among that company, one can find a substantially different world. A charming anecdote from the biography of tonight's pianist, Lawrence Perelman, is telling of that world's breadth:

Larry gives two recitals annually for friends. In 2006 he performed Beethoven's last three sonatas at Steinway Hall on the occasion of his 30th birthday. He first played for William F. Buckley, Jr., in April 1995. He gave many recitals at National Review's fortnightly editorial dinners at 73 East 73rd Street in Manhattan and on occasion in Stamford. Larry and Bill had a tradition, whereupon after Larry performed a piece, Bill would pick the next one for him to learn; both pieces on tonight's program were learned for Bill.

As a cultural figure, WFB stands at the nexus of routes into this world, which one can enter as an aristocrat, as an artist, a writer, a priest, a thinker, even as a reader. That is to say, it's a world permeated with the strands of history, and encountering its various folds, by whatever method, taps into a sense of something bigger and longer standing — to wit, the "extra" that we all yearn to suffix to the ordinariness that we ought never to discard.

Full Budget For Your Review

Marc Comtois

OK, the Budget as amended by the House Finance Committee is up. Have at it:

Table of Contents


House Bill to Eliminate Coastal Resources Management Council, Replace with Department

Marc Comtois

Save the Bay's Jonathan Stone recently wrote:

For years, vacancies have undermined the CRMC’s capacity and effectiveness. Now, the council’s lack of compliance with the separation-of-powers amendment continues to leave its decisions open to legal challenge. The Supreme Court confirmed that CRMC members must be appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. Only three current members, and indirectly the director of the state Department of Environmental Management, meet this standard. Save the Bay believes that the CRMC is taking a calculated risk in continuing to meet and make important decisions on this basis.

It is critical for the General Assembly to put a sound structure in place and for the governor to revitalize the council by submitting the strongest possible appointees. Now that the advisory opinion requested by the House has resolved the major questions regarding the status of CRMC, we have the opportunity to move ahead with legislation and appointments. It is high time for the Assembly and the governor to bring the council back to full strength with an infusion of well-qualified and public-spirited members.

Thus inspired, it would appear that the General Assembly (the House specifically: PDF) is adjusting to not having so many seats on the Coastal Resources Management Council by...replacing it. Goodbye CMRC, Hello Department of Coastal Resources Management.
46-23-2.3. Department of coastal resources management established -- Transfer of functions. – (a) There is hereby established within the executive branch of the state government a department of coastal resources management. The head of the department shall be the director of coastal resources management, who shall be in the unclassified service and who shall be appointed by the governor, with the advice and consent of the senate, and shall serve at the pleasure of the governor. Provided, this section shall not be construed to abrogate any contract in effect on the effective date of this act. (b) Upon the effective date of this act, the coastal resources management council shall be abolished, and all functions, powers, duties, liabilities and obligations of the council conferred thereon pursuant to the provisions of this chapter shall be transferred to and administered by the department of coastal resources management.
All of those employed by the CRMC will be transitioned into the new department. The only political appointee will be the new Director: the rest of the CRMC will be replaced by and advisory committee made up of experts, not politicians (ahem). I don't think it's much of a stretch to read this as the General Assembly telling the Governor that if they can't stack the CMRC then they're going to take it away so that he can't stack it either--even if the State Supreme Court said it's his to stack! So they're restructuring it out from under him and defining who will be on the advisory council:
There shall be established a coastal resources advisory committee which committee, appointed by the director of the department of coastal resources management, shall include, but not be limited to, representation from the following groups: one of whom shall be a representative of the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography and the College of Resources Development, one of whom shall be a representative of the Sea Grant National College Program, one of whom shall be a representative of the army corps of engineers, one of whom shall be a representative of the federal environmenta l protection agency's Narragansett Bay laboratory, one of whom shall be a representative of the department of coastal resources management, one of whom shall be the director of the department of environmental management; one of whom shall be a member of the Rhode Island Marine Trade Association and one of whom shall be a representative of a regional environmental group. The department of coastal resources management shall have the authority to appoint such additional members to said advisory committee as is deemed necessary or advisable by the advisory committee or the department of coastal resources management. It shall be the responsibility of the committee to advise the department of coastal resources management on environmental issues relating to dredging and permitting related thereto...
Objectively, this does look like an improvement over the old way that was vulnerable to patronage and general hackery. However, it is notable that the General Assembly never saw fit to create such a department filled with non-political appointees until they were forced out of the loop. One would almost think they were having a bit of a tantrum.

Will Ricci: East Providence GOP Puts Its State Reps "On Notice"

Engaged Citizen

The following resolution was passed by unanimous vote of the East Providence Republican City Committee at its meeting on Wednesday, June 17, 2009. Copies of this resolution will be mailed to all state senators and representatives in East Providence.

The East Providence Republican City Committee strongly condemns the fiscally irresponsible and grossly short-sighted actions of East Providence's two State Senators, Daniel DaPonte and Frank DeVall, for their recent votes in support of Rhode Island State Senate Bill 0713, "An Act Relating to Labor and Labor Relations — Certified School Teachers Arbitration."

S-0713, if enacted, would change the law so that the terms of any expired teacher contract in Rhode Island would remain in effect until a new collective bargaining agreement had been ratified. This may seem harmless or even helpful to some, but in fact, it is uniquely dangerous. This legislation would give already very powerful public sector unions even more power to wield over us. It would strip away one of the very few weapons which school committees in Rhode Island have left at their disposal to try to curb out-of-control spending in the face of massive budget deficits. It would specifically give teachers unions throughout the state, the ability to effectively extend their contracts indefinitely, with absolutely no incentive or need to ever renegotiate new terms when their contract is up for renewal — at levels which may be more reasonable for struggling taxpayers.

The effect on local taxpayers and homeowners would truly be disastrous. Given the favorable nature of many current contracts, the unions could run forever with those contracts without local governments having any ability to modify the terms, even after the contracts have "run out" — leaving the only truly viable alternative to be municipal bankruptcy. Without the ability to rein in costly contracts, which account for most city spending and the overwhelming majority of the school department budget (87% in East Providence), the impact of this bill on residents may well include any or all of the following: massive annual property tax increases; mass layoffs of teachers, administrators, and municipal employees; multiple school closures; reduction or elimination of school sports and after school programs; and finally, the very real possibility of bankruptcy. This is "a clear and present danger" to the fiscal health of our city. For the sake of our city, we must not let this happen!

According to S-0713 co-sponsor Sen. Charles Levesque (D-Bristol/Portsmouth), the introduction of the bill was prompted by the contract stalemate between the East Providence School Committee and the East Providence Education Association. As a result of the teachers union's unwillingness to make fair and reasonable concessions after their extremely generous contract expired last October — in an attempt to put a dent into the school department's over $9 million anticipated budget deficit — the School Committee was forced to unilaterally implement a 5% pay raise rollback and enforce a 20% health insurance co-pay and other cost savings measures. This action alone has already saved the taxpayers of East Providence over $3 million so far; thus averting a roughly 10% property tax increase (about $300) for the average East Providence homeowner.

In light of this, we are particularly disturbed that freshman East Providence State Sen. Frank DeVall (Dist. 18) not only voted “in favor” of this fiscally irresponsible bill, but according to official records, even “seconded” passage of S-0713. Additionally, he spoke in favor of S-0713 right from the Senate floor! What a disgrace!

As S-0713 has now been sent to the Rhode Island House for consideration, we strongly encourage residents to immediately contact their state representatives to urge the defeat of its House companion bill, H-5762. Furthermore, the East Providence Republican City Committee hereby puts any and all state representatives in East Providence — regardless of political affiliation — ON NOTICE. A vote in favor of H-5762, will rightfully be considered to be a vote against the taxpayers of the City of East Providence and the people of the State of Rhode Island. As such, we will make it our goal to target for political elimination any East Providence legislator in the 2010 election cycle who votes in favor of this dangerous legislation. WE ARE WATCHING YOU.

Robert S. Carlin, Jr.
Chairman, East Providence Republican City Committee
Media Contact: Bob Carlin at chair@epgop.org

Will Ricci is Treasurer of the East Providence Republican City Committee, a member of the Executive Committee of the Rhode Island Republican Party, and Editor of The Ocean State Republican blog.

And the Budget Discussion Begins

Justin Katz

Monique and Matt had a somewhat extended discussion of the beginning of the budget debate on the Matt Allen Show, last night. Another year of the wrong focus in the General Assembly, enabled with one-time revenue. You can be sure that we'll have much more to say as the days and weeks pass. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

BREAKING: Crowley Says Union Lawsuits Frivolous

Justin Katz

Well, there you have it — further evidence of the unions' strategy for getting their way. In a comment to Marc's post on legislation creating perpetual union contracts, National Education Association of Rhode Island Assistant Executive Director Pat Crowley comments:

Right wingers in favor of frivolous lawsuits.....gotta love it.

As in: If this legislation doesn't pass, we, the unions, will deliberately drain public coffers with frivolous lawsuits designed to twist your arms until you cry, "Alinsky!"

Of course, this is a threat that has surely rung out in every town in the state; here's our example in Tiverton.

Jim Quinlan: Another $25,000 Wasted by the Cranston School Department

Engaged Citizen

According to a Projo article by Randy Edgar:

The [Cranston] School Department will pay outgoing Supt. M. Richard Scherza $25,000 this summer to work as a consultant and help with the transition to a new superintendent, according to an agreement signed last month.

Scherza will work on an as-needed basis during July and August, providing "technical assistance" and helping in areas such as community and government relations.

In a city whose school department is struggling, to say the least, to balance a budget filled with years of giveaways and mismanagement, it is curious that the School Committee would vote unanimously to continue to keep Mr. Scherza on board on an "as needed basis."

Budget session after budget session has been filled with program cuts and layoffs — directly affecting our children. EPIC, middle school sports, guidance vounselors, and teaching positions have all been on the table, yet the committee has found $25,000 to pay Mr. Scherza more than he was making while employed by the department.

If in-coming Superintendent Peter Nero was not qualified to sit in the big boy chair (after 3 years of working directly under Scherza), the committee should have not rushed to promote him in one week. If he is qualified, then the elected representatives should insist that he does the job.

I brought this concern to a School Committee member who told me that "because this was a personnel matter we could not discuss it." I would like to know since when an independent contractor is a personnel member of the School Department.

We deserve to know what Mr. Scherza's contract says and what his duties will be. I am not ready yet to deem this decision as corrupt, but it is certainly a poor business decision and another example of the School Committee's lack of leadership.

Jim Quinlan is the chairman of the Cranston GOP.

I figured it out!

Justin Katz

The budget summary that Marc posted last night caught my eye:

Overall spending is up 12 percent from the $6.92-billion state budget approved by lawmakers for the current fiscal year. But the general revenue portion is down, roughly 10 percent, from the $3.28 billion originally approved for the current year.

I'm tempted to dwell on that slippery phrase "originally approved for the current year," pondering what the decrease (or increase) is for the new budget as compared to the supplemental-adjusted version for this year. Instead, I'll move on to superimpose this from the article on state revenue that I posted earlier:

Altogether, Rhode Island’s general revenues fell by $405 million, to $2.486 billion, for the 11 months through May 31, according to a report issued Monday by the state Department of Revenue. ...

Paul L. Dion, chief of the state Office of Revenue Analysis, said that, for technical reasons, a revision will be made that will end up boosting total general revenues by about $50 million.

So the general revenue budget fell roughly 10% to $2.952 billion, but actual revenue over the past year has fallen 14% to $2.486 billion (or, with the $50 million adjustment, 12% to $2.536). So not only is the General Assembly doing nothing to stop state revenue from decreasing, but it isn't even keeping expenditures' pace with revenue as it's lost.

So maybe the strategy is really to drive us complainers out of the state. How blissful all will be then! Just spending each year's unpredicted windfall without the painful noise from taxpayers. On next year's agenda: A memories tax for anybody who's ever lived in Rhode Island (pension-bearing public-sector union members exempted, of course).

June 17, 2009

Gov's Reaction to the G.A.'s Budget Bill

Monique Chartier

Governor Carcieri's office has issued this statement about the 2010 budget bill (PDF) passed late today by the House Finance Committee.

While the budget does make some very difficult choices and includes pension reform, it does not include much needed structural changes that will move the state forward and make us competitive to create jobs and grow our economy. Absent in this budget are key proposals to give the cities and towns the tools they need to control costs and property taxes. Further, by raising the gas tax and treating capital gains as ordinary income, the House proposal includes an increase in the overall tax burden.

The only way we can turn this state around and begin to pull ourselves out of this economic decline is to grow our economy. We need a tax structure that encourages businesses and individuals to stay in stay in Rhode Island, to invest in Rhode Island, to grow our economy and to grow jobs. I hope to work with the leadership of the General Assembly to secure approval of a responsible budget plan that puts Rhode Island on the path of economic recovery.

Budget Details Trickling Out

Marc Comtois

The House Finance Committee is releasing its modifications to Governor Carcieri's proposed budget. Here's what we've learned (via the ProJo 7to7):

Tax Increases:

* Raise the gas tax by 2 cents/gallon (earmarked for RIPTA)
* Require out-of-state websites (think Amazon.com) to charge RI consumers Rhode Island's 7% sales tax when applicable.
* Rejects most of the governor's tax-cut proposals.
* Eliminates recent capital gains tax breaks.

Program Cuts

* Eliminate the general revenue sharing program. (Saves the state $55 million. Now it's up to the local communities....)
* Eliminate $6.3 million aimed at education system professional development
* Cuts $1.7 million that Governor Carcieri had proposed for charter schools.

Program Retentions

* Restores funding for Rhode Island's Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Elderly program.
* Restores funding for dental services via the RIte Care program .
* Continues to subsidize health care for 28 moderate-income pregnant women slated to lose coverage.
(No indication how much these restorations "cost").
* Restoration of $1.9 million for "nursing home acuity rates".

Pension Changes:

* "attempts to cut $45 million"
* "adopt age 62 as the new "target'' age for retirement. In actuality, however, the minimum age for retirement would vary widely depending on how long an employee had worked and how close he or she was to qualifying for retirement."


$226.5 million in Federal stimulus money is used to help shore things up.
$58 million in savings "through an across-the-board cut for all state departments."


The state budget released by the House Finance Committee Wednesday represents $7.76 billion in spending. Of that total, $2.98 billion represents state-only spending, known as "general revenue." The rest largely comes from the federal government.

Overall spending is up 12 percent from the $6.92-billion state budget approved by lawmakers for the current fiscal year. But the general revenue portion is down, roughly 10 percent, from the $3.28 billion originally approved for the current year.


Who's the Boss of Primary-Care Doctors?

Justin Katz

I've read the editorial several times, and it still isn't clear to me how or why the Projo writers avoided mentioning the problem of liability insurance for primary-care doctors.

Shortly after I moved to Tiverton and found a nice local doctor to visit, he packed up and left the state for sunnier climes. My understanding is that the cost of insurance and the threat of being sued in Rhode Island were motivating factors. (It worked out, though, because it got me on the list of the practice's senior doctor, who hadn't been accepting patients when I inquired.)

Primary-care physicians seem to mirror a small-business model more than specialists do. People will travel farther for specialists, and their work is more likely to come to them via the referrals of other professionals. I'm sure there are other distinctions (such as the closeness of relationships with hospitals), but I don't want to delve too deeply into guesswork. The point is that, as our society considers healthcare policy, we ought to think of primary-care providers in the same way that we think of other self-employed professionals.

Market and deregulatory incentives can encourage the occupation without bureaucracies meddling, as the Projo winds up suggesting:

Alan Sager, a health-policy expert at the Boston University School of Public Health, has suggested paying primary-care doctors $250,000 a year to work under a capitation system. The doctors would be earning considerably more than they do now. And because they would treat a set number of patients at a fixed yearly cost, adjusted for medical risks, the doctors would have no financial reason to offer more care than necessary.

Question number one is who will set and process the numbers of patients and income? By default, it would have to be the government, which means that doctors will no longer work for themselves, but for the folks who can give them raises and who can cut their pay or increase their work burden. I'd worry about the sorts of practitioners such an arrangement would attract, as well as the institutional focus that would shift to lobbying the authorities for more.

Question number two is what would provide incentive — given the rigid quota and salary deal — for doctors to resist the human urge to do as little as possible? If the five patients whom I have to see in an afternoon (hypothetically) don't pay me and their return is not really my problem, I might just take the opportunity of a sunny day like today to rush through my itinerary and get out of the office. (Of course, for a reality check, I get to be outside all day anyway... digging post holes and mixing concrete.)

As I said, the editors don't provide the "who," but what they propose amounts to another increment of socialization, and in that respect, it provides another instance of the plain inadvisability of such a system.

Perpetual Contracts

Marc Comtois

RI Sen. Charles Levesque (D-Bristol/Portsmouth) and Rep. Peter Palumbo (D-Cranston) have introduced legislation that would keep expired teachers’ contracts in place until they are replaced by new contracts. The Senate passed the measure and it is now waiting in the House (see the proposal here) for consideration. Why?

Levesque said the intent is to help clarify the issue so a community’s resources, financial and otherwise, aren’t wasted.

“I believe that the proposal codifies the current understanding of the law,” he said. “I do think it is wise to do, so that the community will move on to resolving the issue, and not [spend] hundreds of thousands of dollars on finding out that a court will rule that existing contracts do continue. Even if they are successful in destroying that principle, what would the School Committee have gained?”

Simple question: so why would any teacher union--or anyone--ever see the need to renegotiate? The yearly COLA-like increases (2-3%/year) would be locked in. The currently generous benefits would be locked in. Heck, who wouldn't want that deal? As explained by the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition
“This obviously removes any incentive for unions to negotiate, and comes close to transferring the largest element of town budgets from town councils to the unions....Unions could run forever with their current contracts without town governments having any ability to modify the terms, other than by declaring bankruptcy.

“This law would set a precedent for other government unions and thereby lock town and state budgets into permanent cost-of-living increases, minimal health-care co-pays, and the other lopsided union benefits that could no longer be negotiated because the existing contracts would remain in force forever, regardless of their nominal end dates.”

I can't blame the unions for trying to lock in in perpetuity. Heck, that's their purpose: to get the best deal for their membership. And it's supposed to be the job of our politicians to take into account the best interests of ALL of their constituents. But we know how that works around here.

Society Needs Religious Organizations That Transcend the Political

Justin Katz

The Roman Catholic Church has been under veritable government attack in Connecticut, and its travails highlight the need for religious organizations, Catholic and otherwise, to be selective and to tread carefully with political activism:

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport sued Connecticut officials in federal court Friday, after being told it needs to register as a lobbyist to hold rallies and use its Web site to oppose legislation.

The move is the latest chapter in tensions between the Catholic Church and the state over issues including gay marriage, emergency contraception and giving parishioners more control over church finances.

As I've suggested before, the Church should undertake some institutional introspection and then strongly delineate its role in American society. Having done so, it should stand its ground, whatever tricks or overreaches government officials should attempt. That means proving itself not to be a lobbyist and providing concrete examples of its approach to society's challenges apart from government intervention; the more religious and other groups permit of (even foist on) government, the more those groups are going to become petitioners, rather than coequals.

The dangers of a strategy that is more accommodating of big government initiatives are visible in the Church's current legal battle in Connecticut:

The ethics office, the diocese says, is claiming the diocese acted as a lobbyist by taking part in a March 11 rally at the state Capitol against a church finances bill, which would have given church lay members more power over parish finances. The bill was actually withdrawn by Judiciary Committee leaders before the rally and officially killed a week after the protest.

The diocese also says ethics officials are further claiming that the diocese acted as a lobbyist when it made statements on its Web site urging members to contact their state lawmakers to oppose the finances bill and another bill on same-sex marriage.

Consider the precedents. In one instance, a powerful apolitical organization under unconstitutional attack from its state government held a show of its influence. In the other instance, the Church communicated how its teachings would apply to its members activity as engaged citizens. It tightens the totalitarian clamp to permit the principle that an aggressive government can require registration of and the imposition of lobbying regulations on its targets as they defend themselves.

Gov. Carcieri Reacts to Budget Hints

Marc Comtois

Governor Carcieri was on the John DePetro Show this morning and expressed his concern over what he was hearing--more taxes, fewer cuts--about the budget being floated out of the House. Calling them a "tin ear bunch," he was clearly frustrated that some of his proposed program cuts had been reinstated and, worse, that taxes (including the gas tax) were being raised. On a more positive note, he was pleased that some pension reform (though not as much as he'd like--he called it a "half-a-loaf") was apparently being introduced. In general, according to the Governor, it looks like the GA has decided to continue on with "half-baked" measures to address real problems instead of taking the opportunity to make hard decisions on substantive changes and improvements.

The Wrong Leaders Applying the Wrong Strategy at the Wrong Time

Justin Katz

So, state government revenue has an even more giant hole than expected:

Altogether, Rhode Island’s general revenues fell by $405 million, to $2.486 billion, for the 11 months through May 31, according to a report issued Monday by the state Department of Revenue. ...

Among the revenue report’s findings:

•The state's personal-income tax generated about $798.6 million, a decline of $157.1 million, or 16.4 percent.

•Collections from Rhode Island’s sales-and-use tax totaled $747.7 million, a drop of $27.9 million, or 3.6 percent.

•Transfers from lottery operations totaled $279.6 million, down $16.9 million, or 5.7 percent.

•Money collected through fees, fines, penalties and other "departmental receipts" totaled $233.6 million, a drop of $57.6 million, or 19.8 percent.

•The state's general business taxes generated $208.3 million, a decline of $26.4 million, or 11.2 percent.

And yet:

"Overall, we’ll see that many of the programs the governor cut have been restored [in the General Assembly's budget]," [Finance Committee member Elizabeth] Dennigan [D-East Providence] said, specifically citing the state’s prescription drug program for the elderly known as RIPAE, funding for nursing homes, money for the developmentally disabled, dental coverage for low-income adults and children’s breakfast programs.

Further, [Rep. Thomas] Slater [D., Providence] noted that plans cut 7,800 people — including 5,000 children — from the state's welfare rolls in two weeks have been delayed, although he couldn't say for how long.

And cities and towns, which depend on the state for more than $1 billion each year, may not lose as much state funding as they feared.

Several Finance Committee members said they expect to cut $55 million in general revenue sharing, as the governor had proposed, but no more.

How are legislators accomplishing this magic trick?

"Obviously, everything is still fluid," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel DaPonte. But "the gas tax has to be part of the equation." ...

Lawmakers are expected to eliminate Rhode Island's preferential treatment of capital gains, according to another Finance Committee member, Elizabeth M. Dennigan, D-East Providence, referring to the break for taxpayers who profit from the sale of stocks, bonds and other such investments. ...

Governor Carcieri has consistently warned Democratic legislators against rolling back the tax breaks enacted in recent years. And despite massive budget deficits, he pushed for new tax cuts.

The Assembly appears to have ignored those arguments, according to fellow Finance Committee member Laurence W. Ehrhardt, R-North Kingstown; the state budget excludes the governor's proposal to eliminate Rhode Island's corporate income tax or raise the value of estates subject to Rhode Island's estate tax. ...

Meanwhile, Senate leaders have sketched the likely shape of a pension-cutting package aimed at shaving anywhere from $45 million to $60 million off the taxpayers' share of the annual cost for the retirement benefits given state employees and public school teachers.

Considering that the changes that ought to be made to pensions would save considerably more than that, one can reasonably say that the General Assembly is continuing its short-sighted strategy of relying on taxes (backwards-looking is more accurate). Once the budget is officially released and then passed, sit back and watch as revenue declines even further, when gas taxes that businesses pay are passed on to consumers, as consumers take the gas tax money from other expenditures, as both groups take their business across the borer, as capital investments in Rhode Island decrease, and as businesses continue to decline to settle here.

June 16, 2009

United Healthcare Sues City of Warwick

Marc Comtois

United Healthcare is suing the City of Warwick, as reported by Russell Moore at the Warwick Beacon:

United Healthcare of New England...claim[s the City of Warwick] violated its own ordinances in awarding a healthcare administration contract for its employees without seeking a joint bid with the school department.

The suit asks the State Superior Court to declare the council’s award of the city’s health insurance administration contract to Blue Cross Blue Shield R.I. invalid.

The city council passed an ordinance in September of last year that required the city to go out for a joint bid for a health insurance contract with the school department.

The basis for the ordinance, sponsored by former Councilman Robert Cushman was that the city would save on administration costs if its bid specifications included all of its employees due to economies of scale.

The ordinance was passed by a wide margin.

However, last fall, the School Committee renegotiated a contract extension with the teachers in which Blue Cross was designated as the health care provider. According to United Healthcare, when the Warwick City council requested bids for a health care provider for city-side contracts, they were already in violation of the just-passed ordinance.
“The city has an ordinance that expressly states that all contracts - city and schools - must be bid together to get the best price for the city. We have asked the courts for a declaratory judgment declaring that the city did not comply with this ordinance in the awarding of a contract for health care administrator (insurer),” said Deborah Spano, United’s spokeswoman.
City Councilman Steve Merolla stated that he warned the rest of the Council that they were making themselves vulnerable for a lawsuit by conducting business in this manner. City Council President Bruce Place was apparently unaware of the lawsuit, but Mayor Scott Avedisian said he wasn't surprised that the losing party in a bid procedure had followed this course of action.
“We expected it. There was a bid process. We went through it. United wasn’t awarded the bid,” said Avedisian.

"The Federal Government ... Is the Health Care Equivalent of Bigfoot"

Monique Chartier

Fred Thompson pointed out this afternoon that even the Chicago Tribune has doubts about President Obama's proposed expansion of the federal government as a health care insurer.

But we do know a few things about government-run health plans. We draw upon decades of experience with Medicare, the government's plan for the elderly, and Medicaid, which provides coverage for the poor.

We know those plans pay bare-bones rates and yet still are busting the federal budget. One part of Medicare will be insolvent in 2018 if nothing is done. States are staggering under Medicaid costs. We know, as the president said in his AMA speech, Medicare and Medicaid spending will "grow over the coming decades by an amount almost equal to the amount our government currently spends on our nation's defense." And that "it will eventually grow larger than what our government spends on anything else today."

That's scary. Costs clearly need to be controlled. But the Democrats' solution to all this government excess is to create . . . another government-run health plan.

Umm, Gov...

Justin Katz

... could we stop with this stuff?

Until Friday, the Carcieri administration had insisted for months that John Stephen and the Lucas Group, the Boston company for which he works, had volunteered their time to the state's effort to win from the Bush administration a waiver giving it unprecedented freedom in how it spends its Medicaid dollars on health care for the poor, the elderly and the disabled.

A partner in the company, Stephen is a former health and human services commissioner in New Hampshire and failed GOP candidate for Congress. Gary Alexander, who was confirmed by the Senate last Tuesday as Rhode Island's new chief of health and human services, campaigned for Stephen and helped raise money for him with a fundraiser at his home. ...

Not until last Friday, did the Carcieri administration acknowledge the extent of the company's role. A statement by the governor's office said: "The Lucas Group requested payments totaling $468,127 for services the company performed in assisting the state on the Global Medicaid Waiver and identifying significant savings initiatives and reforms."

"After several months of disagreement ... [and] intensive mediation facilitated by retired Associate Justice, Richard Israel ... the Office of the Governor agreed that even though no formal contract had been signed by the time the waiver was completed, the state did benefit, and payment to the Lucas Group is appropriate under the circumstances." The agreement appears to have been signed on Thursday by both Alexander and Sasse.

Payment is certainly justified to a company integral to an effort to save the state hundreds of millions of dollars, but with reformers pushing hard for transparency and other initiatives related to open and responsible government, peculiar processes bound up with political insiders do a tremendous amount of damage. Do members of the political class just not see what the rest of us see?

The Worms Come Out When It Rains on Healthcare

Justin Katz

These people aren't fit to lead:

[A citizen] opposed the [health insurance] rate hikes, as did other speakers including Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts and state Rep. Edwin Pacheco, D-Burillville. Roberts, who has been working with business leaders, opposed any hikes until the state can develop a plan for affordable health care. Pacheco and Assistant Attorney General Genevieve Martin, speaking on behalf of Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, both criticized Koller for not holding a formal rate hearing, in which evidence for and against the rate hikes is presented and witnesses testify and face cross-examination. The lack of such a hearing, said Martin, "is an injustice to the people of this state."

Her suggestion of explicitly freezing hikes until Rhode Island legislators institute significant reform is perhaps the strongest argument that Roberts has made against her candidacy for governor. If anything, such a policy would delay reform, as unrest fizzles in the face of steady rates.

More important, however, is the utter lack of leaders with a clue as to the appropriate shape of reform. Why not suspend policies that are contributing to escalating costs? Why not investigate the reason that Rhode Island has as many branches of government as healthcare insurers?

Every week it becomes more incomprehensible that Rhode Islanders continue to vote the way they do.

Waiting for Wednesday on the Budget

Marc Comtois

Welp, the budget "drops" (I believe that's current hip vernacular, right?) in the House tomorrow afternoon at 1 PM. And no one has a clue what's in it but a select few. I heard NBC 10's Bill Rappleye say this morning on the John DePetro Show that he couldn't find anything out and it doesn't look like the ProJo--or the people they interviewed--have any idea either.

“I haven’t heard a thing,” Dan Beardsley, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, said Monday. “But I’m not looking forward to it.”


“Conjecture has it there will be some changes on the revenue side,” said John Simmons, executive director of the business-backed Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

Simmons said he was aware of high-level discussions involving potential changes in the state’s tax rate on capital gains and the alternative flat tax, among others. “But until you see it, it’s all rumors in the hallways.”


“At this point it is fluid. I don’t think anything’s been firmly decided,” said Sen. Charles J. Levesque, D-Portsmouth. But “the broad outlines we’ve known about for a while.”

Specifically, Levesque said there isn’t broad support for raising new taxes or going after the already depleted state work force to close the deficit.

“There aren’t that many places where you could get the type of money you’re talking about — especially if you’re not talking about enhancing revenues,” he said, specifically noting expected cuts in state aid to municipalities and broad pension changes.

Is America a fading beacon for freedom in the world?

Donald B. Hawthorne

There is significant unrest in Iran in the aftermath of their "election." More here, here, here, and here.

Unfortunately, we now have a President whose response to the Iranian unrest (more here, here, and here) shows again how he does not believe in American exceptionalism.

Jonah Goldberg pleads for a different approach that endorses freedom. Both Goldberg and Power Line offer poignant comparisons of how America under JFK and Reagan was once the leading advocate for freedom in the world.

With nuclear weaponry imminent in Iran and the openly expressed threat to use it to destroy Israel, even a more narrow advocate of realpolitik should see value in endorsing freedom at this crucial juncture.

Hope doesn't mean what it used to mean in America. And the world will be a lesser and more dangerous place as a result. How profoundly sad.


Technology enables freedom fighters in their fight against oppression. It is simply precious how the human longing for liberty naturally brings together kindred souls around the world in this important battle. Sometimes the most radical changes can occur in the most unexpected of ways. More here (H/T Instapundit) and here.

How can your spirit not be drawn to news like this and this? Or this?

More on Reagan's actions, contrasting with Obama's responses thus far - including this one.


Ralph Peters connects the dots to Obama's speech in Cairo. Seth Cropsey offers his thoughts on the consequences of the Cairo speech.

And more on Reagan's response to the 1981 imposition of martial law in Poland, again contrasting it with Obama's response to current events in Iran. Bill Kristol exhorts Obama to speak out. Rich Lowry adds a thoughtful perspective.


Is there really any question about Iran's publicly-stated intention to wipe Israel off the map? Does anyone actually believe that Hezbollah is not one of Iran's proxies in their war of terror against non-Muslim infidels?

With H/T to Instapundit, follow Michael Totten's blogging for updates on the situation in Iran. Nico Pitney is live-blogging at The Huffington Post.


Mona Charen states the liberal tendency is to view foreign policy as a form of social work. It comes down to a difference in core beliefs about human nature, doesn't it? And the mullahs are showing their true colors, again, causing Charen to observe that it has suddenly become much more difficult to pretend that you are not betraying the Iranian people by engaging with the junta in Iran.

Nobody knows what will happen next in Iran, whether a true revolution is possible and - if so - what shape it might take. Amir Taheri offers thoughts on whether there is a nucleus in Iranian society to drive regime change. More on the nature of the Iranian regime.


As a measure of how much Obama has conceded America's leadership role in the world as a beacon for freedom, the President of France (yes, France!) is showing more support for Iranian demonstrators than Obama. So much for real hope and change.

Explaining Obama's conventional view of the Iranian regime. By contrast, modeling on the Ukrainian revolution of 2004, here are some thoughts on what Obama could do instead.

Are crackdowns imminent?

Andy McCarthy, whose past experiences include prosecuting those responsible for the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, brings the issues of the Iranian regime legitimacy and regime change into sharp focus, noting the often incoherent policies of past administrations.

Cogent thoughts from Victor Davis Hanson. More from Jonah Goldberg.

Interesting Poll Results

Justin Katz

One hardly needs to be a far-right-winger to observe that the Providence Journal has been a local booster of the same-sex marriage cause, so it's not but so interesting to compare for bias the front-page coverage of the Victor Profughi poll, commissioned by the National Organization for Marriage Rhode Island, finding more opposed than supportive, with the front-page coverage of Marion Orr's Brown poll finding conflicting results in May. The lead for the latter:

Nearly two of every three people surveyed in the Brown University poll favored the concept, and the results spotlight a generational divide

For the former:

But some question the pollster's methodology and challenge the results, which run counter to a previous survey's findings.

The different results are likely explained largely by the ages of the respondents. Random evening calls to registered voters netted Profughi only 31.3% under the age of fifty. Orr hasn't released comparable information from his poll, although like the Providence Journal, I've got a request in.

Left-wing Brown professor and congressional candidate Jennifer Lawless complains that Profughi used the word "personally," although she doesn't explain why seeing the issue in personal terms would increase opposition to same-sex marriage. One could just as easily argue that Orr's "Would you support or oppose a law that would allow same-sex couples to get married" might make it sound as if "opposition" means actively speaking out against it, and the vast majority of Rhode Islanders simply don't see the issue as that important.

More pointed criticism has been directed at a new question from Profughi:

Thinking about this issue further, some people say that gays and lesbians have a right to live as they choose, but they do not have the right to redefine marriage for all of society. Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree or strongly disagree with that statement?

Fifty-seven percent agreed, and 34% disagreed, but the problem with relying on this question to taint the other results is that the question was second to last. All of the other substantive questions had been asked and answered before this supposed "push poll" question entered the conversation, with the exception being the final question about support for teaching school children about gay marriage, which 66% opposed and 25% supported.

Putting aside the political wrangling over language and demographics, one thing that emerges from both surveys is that support for same-sex marriage decreases as the respondent considers it. Profughi recorded 36% support for same-sex marriage and 43% opposition, but after an interposing question about whether voters should "have the opportunity to decide" about same-sex marriage, he recorded 52% support for a "proposal" declaring that "only marriage between a man and a woman will be valid or recognized in Rhode Island," with 38% opposition. (The differences entailed folks coming off the "don't know/undecided" bench.) Similarly, Orr recorded 60% support for SSM and 31% opposition, but after a question about civil unions, only 55% supported marriage.

The reality of the issue is that most people don't want to have to be in the position of talking about it. When it comes up, their initial response is more favorable, as if to make the topic go away, but when other options are presented or other angles considered, underlying concerns begin to emerge.

June 15, 2009

Re: Dave, You May Want to Get a Ruler

Monique Chartier

It had to be serious if even NOW was taking the side of Governor Palin and her family.

Drudge is reporting that tonight on his show, Dave Letterman sincerely apologizes

... especially to the two daughters involved, Bristol and Willow, and also to the governor and her family and everybody else who was outraged by the joke. I’m sorry about it and I’ll try to do better in the future.

Good for you, Dave.

We can call off the fire-Dave protests, people.

The Only Reason to Put Government in Healthcare Is to Put Government in Healthcare.

Justin Katz

A healthcare reform suggested by Sen. Kent Conrad (D, ND) sounds reasonable, but I'm not sure why it should be so limited:

The Conrad proposal is modeled after rural electricity, farming and telephone cooperatives that are owned and organized by members. The entities would negotiate rates with health-care providers and would have to meet the same licensing and regulatory requirements as private insurance companies, the senator said.

"I tried to come up with something that is not government-controlled, is a competitive delivery model, but nonprofit," Conrad said in an interview. "It would be on a level playing field with everybody else with, with a different ownership structure."

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the finance panel, said he likes the Conrad plan, and said Obama raised no objections when the issue surfaced at the Wednesday White House meeting. Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate health committee, the other panel with jurisdiction over reform legislation, said he is seeking more details. He said the co-op approach could "increase the level of competition, if it were done right."

We're over-thinking this. Sure, let such co-ops form. Let insurance companies develop ready-made products for them, if they like. More broadly, though, we should open up healthcare beyond employers (largely by repealing or adjusting ERISA) and allow any group that wishes to offer health coverage do so. Churches, charities, social groups, whomever — if it serves a group's mission to help its members or others to procure health coverage, let them do so.

There's no need to involve the government in medical services beyond a mild regulatory hand — unless, of course, expanding government is actually the first priority.

Stepping Outside of Life for The Portsmouth Institute's Catholic William F. Buckley Conference

Community Crier

From Justin:

Back when I was a catechumen in the process of joining the Roman Catholic Church, a priest giving a Holy Week lecture in Fall River spoke of the need to step outside of life periodically in one's search for a closer relationship with God. The lesson applies beyond we who are explicitly religious: The noise of our habits and routines can disguise universals and drown out the wonder of life.

As I recall, the priest was talking about physical dislocation into the desert, but one needn't travel far for the same (or similar) effect. Indeed, I'm expecting much the same opportunity to arise from taking two days off from work and one off from errands this week to attend a conference at the Portsmouth Abbey School hosted by the newly formed Portsmouth Institute, with the help of a list of familiar personages who will address William F. Buckley's work and life and the role of Roman Catholics in intellectual society:

  • Rev. George Rutler, Pastor of Our Saviour Church NYC
  • Maggie Gallagher, author and nationally syndicated columnist
  • Joseph Bottum, Editor, First Things
  • Roger Kimball, author and editor of The New Criterion
  • E.J. Dionne, author and syndicated columnist
  • Kathryn Lopez: Editor, National Review Online
  • Lee Edwards, The Heritage Foundation
  • Tony Dolan, chief speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan

Other activities during the June 18-21 event include meals, tours of the school's church and wind turbine, and classical concerts by pianist Lawrence Perelman and Portsmouth Abbey faculty. Register online.

A "Safeway" Towards Health Care Reform?

Marc Comtois

Safeway CEO Stephen Burd explains:

While comprehensive health-care reform needs to address a number of other key issues, we believe that personal responsibility and financial incentives are the path to a healthier America. By our calculation, if the nation had adopted our approach in 2005, the nation's direct health-care bill would be $550 billion less than it is today. This is almost four times the $150 billion that most experts estimate to be the cost of covering today's 47 million uninsured. The implication is that we can achieve health-care reform with universal coverage and declining per capita health-care costs.
What was the "Safeway"? First, they focused on encouraging healthy behavior:
Safeway's plan capitalizes on two key insights gained in 2005. The first is that 70% of all health-care costs are the direct result of behavior. The second insight, which is well understood by the providers of health care, is that 74% of all costs are confined to four chronic conditions (cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity). Furthermore, 80% of cardiovascular disease and diabetes is preventable, 60% of cancers are preventable, and more than 90% of obesity is preventable.
Thus, they designed a voluntary "Healthy Measures" program, which requires employees to be tested for the aforementioned chronic conditions. If they "pass" all four tests--the information is not shared with management--they receive a rebate. If they don't pass, they can make adjustments and retake the test (so to speak) in a year. According to Burd, "the numbers speak for themselves."
Our obesity and smoking rates are roughly 70% of the national average and our health-care costs for four years have been held constant. When surveyed, 78% of our employees rated our plan good, very good or excellent. In addition, 76% asked for more financial incentives to reward healthy behaviors. We have heard from dozens of employees who lost weight, lowered their blood-pressure and cholesterol levels, and are enjoying better health because of this program. Many discovered for the first time that they have high blood pressure, and others have been told by their doctor that they have added years to their life.
Sounds like a win all around.

Physics First in Woonsocket, Portsmouth and Elsewhere

Carroll Andrew Morse

Since we devoted space last week to education problems in Woonsocket, I think it's only fair that we note the city's (and other city and town's) initial successes with a Rhode Island science education initiative that's been showing some promise. From Gina Macris, in today's Projo

With the backing of the state, Woonsocket and five other high schools have moved physics class from its longtime status as a junior-year course to one offered to freshmen, a change they hoped would improve the teaching of all sciences and motivate students to pursue more advanced study. Biology and chemistry follow.

And there are signs the effort is beginning to pay off.

In Portsmouth, for example, the demand for Advanced Placement science courses in physics, biology, chemistry and other offerings has nearly doubled since Physics First was introduced, from an enrollment of 41 students in the 2005-2006 school year to a total of 78 requests for next fall.

The idea of offering Physics First is gaining traction across the state as educators try to improve the dismal results of Rhode Island’s first-ever standardized science test. That test found that only 17 percent of the state’s high school juniors understood basic scientific concepts and skills.

Ahhh, The Good Ol' Days

Marc Comtois

In preparation for Father's Day, and homage to what once was....


(Submitted with tongue firmly in cheek....honest!). More old-fashioned stuff HERE.

The Saintly Purity of Government

Justin Katz

So the story is that business executives and corporate boards have created a scheme of mutual backwashing that has resulted in salaries disconnected from economic reality. I'm open to that possibility, as well as solutions that open up the process to light and give tools to shareholders, but how in the world does the concept of imbuing an unelected individual with power over these decisions of the powerful respond to the insight that riches can corrupt?

The regulations followed requirements set by Congress earlier this year when it passed the $787 billion economic stimulus legislation. The regulations will limit top executives of companies that receive TARP funds to bonuses of no more than one-third of their annual salaries. But the administration also went beyond the steps mandated in the legislation.

The administration named Kenneth Feinberg, a lawyer who oversaw payments to families of Sept. 11 victims, as a "special master" with power to reject pay plans he deems excessive at the seven companies with the biggest injections of public money. Feinberg also would have authority to review compensation for the top 100 salaried employees at those companies.

Going one step more deeply, how is it that we can assert the guilt of those who run individual corporations but not fear the result of expanding power on a president who is now not only the top government executive, not only commander in chief of the military, but also the de facto head of auto companies, banks, and other financial institutions? A handful of rich people can manipulate investors to ensure their little empires, but an unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of a federal administration yields no opportunity to corrupt the democratic process?

The right-wing view of a capitalistic free market isn't that it's a divine ideal. It's that nothing else will work as well for as long — a historical observation that the left wing is intent on proving true once again.

The Hardship Chicken, or the Prostitution Egg

Justin Katz

Here's where the prostitution decriminalization narrative begins to unravel for me:

"We urge Rhode Island to go forward, not backwards, in the fight against human trafficking," Andrea Ritchie, director of the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center in New York City, said. If Rhode Island wants to "eradicate prostitution," she said, the way to do that is to address the underlying causes, which include sexual abuse, drug addiction and economic hardship. To make sex-for-money a crime, she said, would only hinder efforts to root out sex-trafficking by making victims less likely to come forward because they fear prosecution.

On first glance, the notable thing is the suggestion that addressing a concrete social blight like prostitution must follow resolution of endemic root causes that can never really be overcome — "sexual abuse, drug addiction, and economic hardship." More fundamentally, though, one must wonder what it says about prostitution that it reliably follows those causes. An occupation that preys on sexually abused, drug addicted paupers has very little claim to the freedoms that ought to be granted to economic activity. A prostitution industry gives victims of such problems somewhere to capitalize on them, not to address them.

If the concern is that illegality traps victims, then sentencing guidelines should specify the targets. Making it illegal to profit from somebody else's sale of sex, for example, would be targeted law. Warnings that victims will not "come forward," however, often seem to be founded in an irrational fear of prosecution; that is, no matter the laws, advocates declare that the women won't think that wholly. At any rate, jailing the pimp puts the victimized prostitute at economic risk.

Which really should tell us something about the, ahem, business model. It begins to feel as if we're all pretending not to know that the whoring biz is inherently abusive, both to the women and to the society that permits it.

June 14, 2009

Surreality in Johnston Contract

Justin Katz

Rhode Island's circumstances won't change until enough voters see the scam in such news as this:

The agreement, ratified by the committee on Tuesday night, gives all teachers a 2-percent raise for the 2010-2011 school year, said the schools superintendent, Margaret A. Iacovelli.

The most experienced teachers (at the 10th step) will receive a 1.75 percent raise during the upcoming 2009-2010 school year while teachers at all lower steps will see no increase in their wages.

There is simply no way it wouldn't be major news if the lower-step teachers forewent their step increases. In the previous contract (PDF via Transparency Train), step increases ranged from 5.24% to 8.38%, with an average of 6.81%. Only in Rhode Island labor lingo is a 5–8% increase in pay considered a flat-lined concession during hard economic times.

And only a citizenry fatally inured to having their elected representatives give away their tax dollars to organized labor would fail to laugh at this negotiating accomplishment:

Teachers' contributions to their health-care costs will increase by $114,000 in the second year of the contract and by $142,500 in the final year, she said. The teachers’ contributions to their health insurance will gradually increase from $780 per year now to $1,280 in the final year of the contract between the town and the Johnston Federation of Teachers.

So, in the third year of the contract, teachers will get raises (on top of step increases and other adjustments, such as higher-ed degree bonuses) ranging from $757.70 to $1,369.88, and their share of healthcare payments will increase by $500. For comparison with your own healthcare deal, their co-shares will be rising from $15 to $24.62 per week. That certainly doesn't break the 10%-of-premium milestone now — let alone two years from now.

This, Projo reporter Mark Reynolds tell us, is the result when a union "has come to recognize the severity of [a] town's finances." Judge from that what they've been doing to us during somewhat less lean years.

Dave, You May Want to Get a Ruler

Monique Chartier

No doubt, they were tasteless and crude, even about an eighteen year old, as he thought, and not a fourteen year old. They were also not particularly funny.

But what reflects most poorly on David Letterman in his telling jokes about Sarah Palin's daughter is that it demonstrates a lack of consistency on his part. The point is not that jokes were never told about Chelsea Clinton; they were and it was equally unacceptable. The point is that Letterman never told them.

Nor do I want him to even the score by doing so after the fact. Matt Allen got it right Friday when he said that politicians' family members who stay on the sideline are off limits.

Letterman is a funny and talented guy. I enjoyed, probably too much, all of his observations about the Clintons, Bill and Hillary. With this instance, he finally let his slip show. Potshots at all politicians AND the uninvolved families of Republicans are fine.

You drew the line, Dave, but it's kind of wavy.

Healthcare Reform: Easy as One, Two, Minus Three

Justin Katz

Who knew finding twelve digits of savings in the healthcare industry would be this easy?

The administration expects to achieve the lowered hospital payments in two major ways. First, said Obama's budget director, Peter Orszag, payments to hospitals will be reduced to try to encourage them to work more productively and efficiently.

Orszag said hospitals could figure out ways of treating patients "more effectively, through health information technology, a nurse coordinator instead of an unnecessary specialist," for example. These "productivity adjustments" would account for $110 billion in savings.

If you cut it, they will innovate! Or maybe cease to provide, but we won't dwell on that. We also won't consider why price controls on hospitals will spur desirable efficiencies, but reducing the burden on patients to pay more directly for the services that they use won't exacerbate waste on their part. (The key, we can imagine, is in the consumption controls that are visible a few more steps along the process.)

Pondering the Difference Between Good Protests and Bad Protests in Providence

Carroll Andrew Morse

Providence Mayor David Cicilline has called Providence Firefighter's Local 799 decision to picket this year's Annual Meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors an attempt at "extortion"…

As you may know, next week, for the first time ever, our city will have the honor of hosting the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Providence to shine on the national stage, highlighting all the good things about our city, and all the accomplishments of our community.

But this opportunity is now in jeopardy. Because the union bosses have decided to picket next week’s meeting. The result of the union’s action is that members of the Obama Administration, including Vice President Biden, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Education and eight other members of his cabinet won’t be coming to Rhode Island.

The union thinks this will force me to agree to a bloated, unaffordable contract. They are expecting me to cave in and allow the taxpayers to pay the price. I will not give in to this political extortion.
The Providence Journal Editorial Board opted for the term "intimidation"…
It is sad that Providence firefighters will apparently refuse to set aside their tactics of intimidation during the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Providence this coming weekend.
But given that the firefighters are not the only ones protesting outside of the Mayor's conference this weekend, it's fair to ask why this picketing by the firefighters on Saturday morning is considered intimidating…


…when this activity, from Friday afternoon's Head Start protest, is not…


Er, maybe that second photo wasn't such a great choice for illustrating the point I'm trying to make. Allow me to re-queue…


But given that the firefighters are not the only ones protesting outside of the Mayor's conference this weekend, it's fair to ask why this picketing by the firefighters on Saturday morning is considered intimidating…


...when this activity, from Friday afternoon's omnibus left-wing protest at Kennedy Plaza, is not…


Have you heard anyone, Mayor Cicilline or the Projo editorial board or anyone else, say that the assorted left-wingers who have showed up in Providence for the Mayor's conference shouldn't be there, because they're making the city and the state look bad? If not, then why should firefighters, uniquely amongst the assorted protesters, stand accused of casting Rhode Island in a bad light? (Especially, when according to this Richard C. Dujardin Projo story, the left-wing protests seem as likely as any to discourage visitors from attending events associated with the conference)...

With signs declaring "Take Back the city" and "Mayor Cicilline, We will not be silenced," a noisy crowd of nearly 300 activists marched from Broad Street to the center of Kennedy Plaza Friday night, calling on the nation's mayors to enact measures to make sure federal stimulus dollars go into projects that will benefit the poor -- instead of the pockets of corporations with political connections....

There is no question that sounds from at least part of the noisy demonstration filtered into the white tent where the nation's mayors were gathered, though drums from a regimental band drowned out some of the sounds.

One mayor, from outside Chicago, said he hadn't expected "any of this" and called a cab to take his family to a restaurant somewhere else.

I'll offer two theories of why the focus is on saying that firefighters shouldn't protest, while taking no position on what other protesters are doing. As always, I welcome objections to my ideas and the addition of others.

  1. There may be a sincere belief amongst some Rhode Islanders that a union protest is inherently more significant than a non-union one, because a union protest can "compel" certain actions by government officials. However, this belief is hardly an uncontested one. John E. Mulligan of the Projo provides one example from a visiting mayor…
    "This is a very bad decision that was made'' by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, and other White House officials to withdraw from the convention," Patrick Henry Hays, mayor of North Little Rock, Ark., said in an interview. But Hays said if he is invited to the White House, he would probably accept. "I don't want to take what has been a pretty bitter plate of sour grapes and try to magnify that,'' he said.

    "I am a Democrat'' from a strong union family background, Hays said, ``and I can't tell you how excited I am about the partnership that has been forged'' between mayors and the White House in the early months of the Obama administration. But he called it "a big mistake'' for the White House to back out of the mayors meeting in order to respect firefighters union picket lines aimed at Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline….

    Hays said the firefighters success in keeping the Obama administration out of Providence might give other municipal unions ideas. "I'd be very reluctant to invite an Obama administration official to my city now,'' Hays said, because a union in bargaining talks with him might raise a picket line.

    …and Ian Donnis of WRNI (1290 AM) radio's On Politics blog provides another, from the text of an e-mail written by a local Obama supporter…
    I am extremely disappointed in the response of President Obama and his administration to the dispute between the City of Providence and the Providence firefighters. It is a clear signal that the President is lacking in his support for the challenges that cities and towns across the country are engaged in to manage the impossible budget problems they face in these unprecedented times.
    Encouragingly, the leaders of America's cities seem to understand that there's more governing a municipality than figuring out how to give the unions what they want -- and it's only our current Federal leadership that seems to believe that unquestioning deference to unions is a core governing principle!

    The solution here is to choose different leaders, not to discourage protests.

  2. Beyond the issue of union versus non-union protesting, I can't help but think there's something deeper at work. To my ear, at least, there are definite similarities between some of the commentary discouraging the firefighters' protest and some of the commentary discouraging the recent statehouse protests (albeit originating from different sources).

    I think tea-party-goers will know the kinds of arguments that I'm talking about, i.e. what do you really think you are adding by making your dissatisfaction public? If better solutions were possible, don't you think the government would have already bestowed them upon you? Don't you realize your job, if you've got one -- whether you're in the public or the private sector -- is to do your job QUIETLY and let government handle everything else, because it knows what's best for you?

    I know I'm not terribly impressed when these kinds of arguments are hurled in my direction -- I don't think the firefighters should be expected to take them seriously either.

June 13, 2009

The Kids Get the Power Structure

Justin Katz

Details are sparse in the Sakonnet Times account (which isn't online), but from what's presented, I'd suggest that the teacher-student power structure is out of whack in American education:

According to police, Wayne Collins... an industrial arts teacher at Tiverton Middle School, made a comment at around 9:18 a.m., on Friday, May 29, to a group of students, one of whom commented back, whereupon Mr. Collins alegedly got nose-to-nose with the student, who reached out or pushed Mr. Collins. Police say he then grabbed the boy's hand, locked it, and brought the boy to his knees.

According to Superintendent Bill Rearick, the teacher was "placed on 'paid administrative leave immediately on the accusation being made.'" How's that for giving students a trump card?

Obviously, we can't have adults manhandling students, but throughout our culture, the illusions on which adult authority are based are unraveling. This passage of Stephen King's It often comes to mind in these circumstances:

Through half-lidded, tear-blurred eyes, Eddie saw a big hand come down and grab Henry by the collar of his shirt and the strap of his biballs. The hand gave a yank and Henry was pulled off. He landed in the gravel and got up. Eddie rose mores slowly. He was trying to scramble to his feet, but his scrambler seemed temporarily broken. He gasped and spat chunks of bloody gravel out of his mouth.

It was Mr. Gedreau, dressed in his long white apron, and he looked furious. There was no fear in his face, although Henry stood about three inches taller and probably outweighed him by fifty pounds. There was no fear in his face because he was the grownup and Henry was the kid. Except this time, Eddie thought, that might not mean anything. Mr. Gedreau didn't understand. He didn't understand that Henry was nuts.

"You get out of here," Mr. Gedreau said, advancing on Henry until he stood toe to toe with the hulking sullen-faced boy. "You get out and you don't want to come back, either. I don't hold with bullying. I don't hold with four against one. What would your mothers think?"

He swept the others with his hot, angry eyes. Moose and Victor dropped their gazes and examined their sneakers. Patrick only stared at and through Mr. Gedreau with that vacant gray-green look. Mr. Gedreau looked back at Henry and got just as far as "You get on your bikes and —" when Henry gave him a god hard push.

An expression of surprise that would have been comical in other circumstances spread across Mr. Gedreau's face as he flew backward, loose gravel spurting out from under his hels. He struck the steps leading up to the screen door and sat down hard.

"Why you—" he began.

Henry's shadow fell on him. "Get inside," he said.

"You—" Mr. Gedreau said, and this time he stopped on his own. Mr. Gedreau had finally seen it, Eddie realized— the light in Henry's eyes. He got up quickly, apron flapping. He went up the stairs as fast as he could, stumbling on the second one from the top and going briefly to one knee. He was up again at once, but that stumble, as brief as it had been, seemed to rob him of the rest of his grownup authority.

He spun around at the top and yelled: "I'm calling the cops!"

Very few children are the massive psychotic bullies of Stephen King's rendering, here, but as I've made my transition to the grownup side of the line in the years since I first read the above, I've noticed many signs that adult society has stumbled up the steps with sufficient frequency that more than just the bullies are noticing, and the response to the threat of involving civil authorities is more likely than not to be, "You go right ahead."

As King often captured masterfully, the world of children is often a chaotic place, prone to test authority, not adhere to it on a rational basis. Sometimes being pinned to the ground is a lesson not to force things even further next time around.

Passing the Eternal Contract

Justin Katz

The email is already rapidly permeating the Rhode Island wing of cyberspace announcing Senate passage of S0713 (PDF), which adds the following language to teacher-related labor law:

In the event that a successor collective bargaining agreement has not been agreed to by the parties, then the existing contract shall continue in effect until such time as an agreement has been reached between the parties.

As today's RISC-Y Business newsletter suggests, this legislation "removes any incentive for unions to negotiate, and comes close to transferring the largest element of town budgets from town councils to the unions." If school committees ever get it in their heads to begin scaling back pay and benefits, unions could simply stall in perpetuity.

RISC also offers the interesting note that this bill was originally scheduled for debate on the day that the legislators ran away from the Gaspee Tea Party. According to the Senate journal for the next session (PDF), when we voters weren't literally at the gates, the votes went as follows:

YEAS- 32: The Honorable President Paiva Weed and Senators Algiere, Bates, Blais, Ciccone, Connors, Cote, Crowley, DaPonte, Devall, DiPalma, Doyle, Felag, Gallo, Goodwin, Jabour, Lenihan, Levesque, Lynch, Maselli, McBurney, McCaffrey, Metts, Miller, O'Neill, Perry, Raptakis, Ruggerio, Sheehan, Sosnowski, Tassoni, Walaska.

NAYS- 2: Senators Maher, Pinga

ABSTAINED- 1: Senator Picard

The three names in bold are Republicans who voted for this desperate attempt to dig a deeper grave in which to bury Rhode Island alive, and if it becomes law, not a single one of them should ever receive the support of Republican voters again.

House bill 5142 (PDF) would have the same effect, although it would create binding arbitration on all issues (right now it is not binding on financial matters), with the arbitration panel resolving "each individual disputed issue by accepting the last best offer thereon of either of the parties." So, for instance, if a school committee agrees to certain requests of the union as part of negotiations toward higher healthcare co-shares, but the union won't budge on the benefit number, the arbitration panel could pick the union's "last best offer" without anything previously set aside being taken up again. The new contract would, as a matter of law, be retroactive to the previous contract's expiration, and it's worth noting that, although the bill makes financial arbitration binding, it does not remove language forbidding appeal.

H5142 is currently being "held for further study" in the House Labor Committee. I'm not very familiar with the rules for the speed at which it could happen, but 5142 could be resurrected at any time.

Ban Legislation Crawling

Justin Katz

With emphasis on the likelihood that it would stick, Governor Carcieri should veto this nonsense:

Five years after a college student was struck and killed by a bus during a pub crawl in Newport, Rhode Island lawmakers have voted to impose a statewide ban on such events with the onus on bar owners to enforce the rule or risk losing their liquor licenses.

Cynthia Needham's writing muddies the issue, here, although the relevant point is clarified farther down the page:

In May 2004, a 21-year-old Fairfield University student, Francis J. Marx V, fell in the path of a bus bringing University of Rhode Island students to Narragansett after a pub crawl.

The people on the bus were the ones who had been pub crawling, so unless the General Assembly has information that the bus driver him or her self had been drinking, the evening's itinerary was irrelevant. (Even if he or she had, the nature of the event would have been largely irrelevant.) It could have been members of a senior center returning from a late night bridge party; would that sort of event have thereafter been banned?

As I began by saying: Governor Carcieri should veto this legislation with the statement that legislators should not presume to meddle so minutely with the lives of their constituents, especially when they (the GA totalitarians) so clearly lack the brainpower to target details that are actually relevant to a presumed problem.

Moreover, the governor should take the opportunity to announce a much lower threshold for vetoes until the truly critical issues — notably, the budget and pension reform — have been addressed.

June 12, 2009

False Emergencies, Real Dollars

Monique Chartier

Mayor Cicilline has repeatedly expressed concern for the burden of the taxpayer. I'm sure I speak for taxpayers everywhere when I say "thanks".

My question is, does his concern manifest itself anyplace other than the expired firefighters' contract?

Let's be clear. I'm the first to ask for a fair contract between municipality and valued public worker. Commenter and firefighter advocate Tom Kenney said something nice under this post. Loathe though I am to introduce a slightly discordant note, even temporarily, he probably wouldn't be too happy about my likely stance on the terms of the contract now in contention between the mayor and Local 799.

At the same time, the budget for the Providence Fire Department is 6.5% of the city's total budget (FY 2008, PDF ). Does the other 93.5% of the budget get the exacting attention that the Fire Department has received, lately and for the last five years?

What got me thinking about the bigger budget picture is this nonsense, far from the first such incident reported by Michael Morse at Rescuing Providence. More important than dollar cost is the potential human cost of such a diversion of resources. Did someone wind up more seriously injured or worse while Rescue Taxicab One was attending to this woman? At the risk of stating the obvious, public services are provided for use, not abuse and for need, not greed. This woman and everyone who has done likewise should get an invoice - a complete invoice, labor and equipment - for the ride.

Now we have to ask: is this sort of thing going on with other city services? Are city ambulances called like taxicabs reflective of how the city - more specifically, the tax dollar - is managed overall?

Kudos to the mayor for his extreme concern about the firefighters new contract. At the risk, however, of sounding a tad ungrateful (really, I'm not), every budget dollar counts, not just the dollars expended on a department that accounts for 6.5% of the city's budget. And a dollar saved from an abused city service is a dollar that can go back into the budget ... or, in the most dire case, back into the taxpayer's wallet.

The Next Step in Government's Ambivalent Relationship with Tobacco

Monique Chartier

President Obama now has on his desk a bill permitting the FDA to regulate tobacco.

After the bill becomes law, tobacco-product manufacturers must register with the FDA and provide a detailed product list. They also must pay user fees to cover the cost of the new regulation.

The FDA can evaluate health claims made by cigarette makers and require companies to change their tobacco products. Packets of cigarettes will have larger and more strongly worded warning labels. There will be strict controls on advertising, stopping use of the terms "mild" and "low tar."

Because, after all, tobacco use is a seriously unhealthy habit.

However, setting aside yet another unacceptable instance of goverment meddling (if you extend the definition of meddling to include outright ownership) in a private industry and looking at this pragmatically,

Since 1998, federal, state and local governments collected more than $284 BILLION in cigarette taxes and payments

So this unhealthy habit is, in fact, a cash cow for our government. They count on it to fund programs that they deem valuable.

Is it wise, then, to mess with a revenue stream by empowering a government agency to modify the product sold?

It's necessary to do so for reasons of public safety, comes the reply. Indeed, such a case can be made. But if that is so, should the goverment be profiting from an unhealthy habit practiced by its citizens?

Lima Gives a Short Budget Heads-Up

Marc Comtois

Rep. Charlene Lima (D-Cranston) was on the Dan Yorke Show to talk about license plates, but Dan steered the conversation to the budget. Lima stated that the budget would be out next Tuesday and that, from what she was hearing, the emphasis was on budget cuts and not tax increases. She also indicated that some fees would increase. Finally, she clarified that, though a member of the leadership, she wasn't privy to the ongoing, high-level negotiations. Hm.

Revisiting the Roundtable

Justin Katz

For those who missed it live and/or who would like to hear the impetus for my posts — on same-sex marriage, on church and state, and on populism — I'd like to join Marc in noting that WPRO now has the audio online.

Pay Increases But No Pay Raises in Johnston

Carroll Andrew Morse

Has the Johnston teachers union sold its junior members out? A cursory reading of Mark Reynolds' 7-to-7 item in yesterday's Projo could lead one to believe that the union has secured raises for it's higher-paid members, but nothing for the lower tiers…

Teachers at the 10th step will receive a 1.75 percent raise during the upcoming 2009-2010 school year while teachers at all lower steps will see no increase in their wages.
However, I think that it's more likely that the clause "teachers at all lower steps will see no increase in their wages" isn't quite accurate. The next sentence reveals that pay "raises" and pay "increases" are treated differently in the parlance being used, and that one can occur without the other…
The contract, which also covers the current school year, does not grant teachers any retroactive raise for 2008-2009, although teachers have received $452,000 in step increases, [Johnston School Superintendent Margaret Iacovelli] said.
So if what will happen in 2009-2010 is similar to what happened in 2008-2009, Johnston teachers in the lower steps will receive pay "increases" via progression through the steps, but not pay "raises" related changes in the amounts associated with each step.

The question is, does the parsing of an explanation in this manner help or hinder the public's understanding of the issues involved?

"We're From the Government and We're Here to Help"

Marc Comtois

James Poulus observes:

I’ve said elsewhere that our vision of politics is being corrupted by a well-meaning but misguided epistemology of compassion: increasingly, we consider the person or group demanding a right to be the most trustworthy source of information about whether they deserve it. Anyone aggrieved, we think, must really be suffering grief, and since suffering is the worst thing and cruel is the worst we can be, justice is served when the law — that is, judges — fast-track the claims of the aggrieved and grant them instant — that is, legislature-circumventing — relief.

This is pretty transparently a medical way of viewing social relations. But our big medical brains are wired into big therapeutic hearts. And so what is happening in ‘politics’, which is actually the evacuation of politics by law on the one hand and desire on the other, is happening in medicine itself.

This leads into an observation by Keith Hennessey on private industry competing with government (ie; as proposed in the proposed health care reform):
I think that government cannot compete on a level playing field with the private sector. Government always has advantages because of its sovereign power. I also think that in most markets there is a range of private health insurance plans competing for business, and so the addition of one more plan is not worth the downsides of government involvement. (I believe that competition is flawed because for most people their employer shops for health plans. I prefer a system in which individuals are shopping for health plans.)

The government cannot compete on a level playing field with private firms:

* Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had competitive advantages relative to their purely private counterparts. They leveraged those advantages to the gain of their management and shareholders until they collapsed and jeopardized the entire financial system.
* Ford Motor Company was not bailed out. It is now disadvantaged relative to GM and Chrysler, which benefited from government oversight, funding, and effective rewriting of bankruptcy rules.
* Government-provided terrorism reinsurance is preventing private reinsurance from returning to the marketplace.
* Most physician- and hospital-reimbursement structures are based on the methodologies of the largest payor in the market, Medicare.
* Government-run direct student loans are now crowding out the guaranteed student loan program, in which private banks and financing firms offer loans. The government advantage comes from control over small details of the program that give direct loans a competitive advantage.

The ultimate fear of having a government-run “public” option is that it will crowd out private health insurance, and that ultimately most Americans will be getting their insurance from the government.

In other words, when government is involved--whether as a service provider itself or with a vested interest in particular entities within a given business sector--private companies without government help are at a disadvantage. Yet, some may welcome government intervention, according to Poulos:
Big Pharma has a vested interest in comprehensive government regulation, too, you know — the better to squeeze out competition, get institutionalized with an unkillable monster of market share, and permanently hedge, by way of unremittant lobbying and revolving-doorism, against market risk or corporate accountability.
What both illustrate is that the while government doesn't always actively pick winners, its insertion into markets results in preferred policies and "suggestions" that ultimately lead to losers: Either businesses that don't benefit from government largesse (Ford) or consumers who are affected as services are adjusted to comport with the new business model.

Obama's False Equivalencies

Marc Comtois

During last week's Violent Roundtable on WPRO's Matt Allen Show, we discussed some of the faux moral equivalencies brought up by President Obama in his speech to the Muslim world. Charles Krauthammer also weighed in:

(A) He told Iran that, on the one hand, America once helped overthrow an Iranian government, while on the other hand "Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians." (Played a role?!) We have both sinned; let us bury the past and begin anew.

(B) On religious tolerance, he gently referenced the Christians of Lebanon and Egypt, then lamented that the "divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence" (note the use of the passive voice). He then criticized (in the active voice) Western religious intolerance for regulating the wearing of the hijab -- after citing America for making it difficult for Muslims to give to charity.

(C) Obama offered Muslims a careful admonition about women's rights, noting how denying women education impoverishes a country -- balanced, of course, with "meanwhile, the struggle for women's equality continues in many aspects of American life."

Well, yes. On the one hand, there certainly is some American university where the women's softball team has received insufficient Title IX funds -- while, on the other hand, Saudi women showing ankle are beaten in the street, Afghan school girls have acid thrown in their faces, and Iranian women are publicly stoned to death for adultery. (Gays, as well -- but then again we have Prop 8.) We all have our shortcomings, our national foibles. Who's to judge?

The Portsmouth Institute's Catholic William F. Buckley Conference

Community Crier

From Justin:

Next week's highlight, for me and many other attendees, will be the three-and-a-half day conference hosted at the Portsmouth Abbey School by the newly formed Portsmouth Institute. The opportunity to invest some time in the life of the mind is something that most folks who work must normally squeeze into spare moments and is often accomplished in solitude — with a book, on a computer, or in front of the television.

A conference is more of a community event: in this case, listening to and having a chance to meet the roster of speakers who will address William F. Buckley's work and life and the role of Roman Catholics in intellectual society:

  • Rev. George Rutler, Pastor of Our Saviour Church NYC
  • Maggie Gallagher, author and nationally syndicated columnist
  • Joseph Bottum, Editor, First Things
  • Roger Kimball, author and editor of The New Criterion
  • E.J. Dionne, author and syndicated columnist
  • Kathryn Lopez: Editor, National Review Online
  • Lee Edwards, The Heritage Foundation
  • Tony Dolan, chief speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan

Other activities during the June 18-21 event include meals, tours of the school's church and wind turbine, and classical concerts by pianist Lawrence Perelman and Portsmouth Abbey faculty. Register online.

Perhaps the key reason to attend, however, remains the fact that we don't see these sorts of events that often in Rhode Island, and the founders of the Portsmouth Institute intend to make a regular practice of them. The best way to ensure that they do so — and that other organizations pursue similar offerings — is simply to respond to the opportunity for edification.

A Prescription for Me Time

Justin Katz

That's being a Congressman, for ya. Patrick Kennedy hopes to get back to work from a mental health retreat "in time for the... debate on a national health-care overhaul later in the summer." Presumably, he needn't expend any hope on whether the checks from his $174,000 salary will keep arriving, whether or not he manages to participate in the healthcare debate.

Look, without any information about what inspired Kennedy's decision, one can still say that it was probably the intelligent one to make. A person's health is paramount. The idea that somebody who holds an ostensibly important job can just "step away" like this raises questions about what they do, and who should be doing it.

Frankly, having stood on the incisors of alcohol abuse and stared into a dark psychological gullet, I see far too much permissiveness in this prescription explained by Kennedy friend Ronald Smith:

Smith said medical research has found increasing evidence that in early recovery, which he defined as two to three years, it is essential for addicts to recognize when they face "stressors" such as fatigue or illness or family problems. "You have to go back, take a couple of days off and renew your sobriety," he said.

As a matter of principle, I don't believe a solution calling for the avoidance of problems fosters the necessary change in outlook. Moreover, to the extent that a person is in the precarious position of having to avoid "stressors," his first step should be away from a high-stakes job like U.S. legislator.

June 11, 2009

Re: Nothing Egregious About This Picket Line

Justin Katz

Without coming down on either side of the particular issue on the table (which, whatever else its effects, has helped to highlight the multiple dumbnesses of Rhode Island politics), I have to express an objection to something that Andrew wrote earlier today:

... Vice-President of the United States of America is not a union job. Vice-President Biden's decision not to attend the conference is a purely political one and it is ludicrous to assert that people should self-curtail their rights of free expression and assembly, because the VP of the US needs to be protected from having to make political decisions.

The consideration that's missing from this analysis is that the Providence firefighters should and do have a more direct and more substantial interest in the well-being of Providence and of Rhode Island. It costs Biden next to nothing — and lesser federal functionaries even closer to nothing — to skip the convention. He's in office; he's just started in office. Indeed, bowing out arguably helps him to burnish union bona fides and illustrate independence from political leaders who happen to share the Democrat brand.

He's a politician, and he'll behave politically. Saying that the firefighters' union should not consider the consequences of its actions because they are filtered through the proxy of a politician's decisions is like saying that a dog owner shouldn't seek to protect his pet from having to resist biting guests. In the context of a dinner party, teaching the dog is not the focus; protecting one's associates is. In the context of rallies and national conventions hosted in Rhode Island, the Vice President's development and stagecraft shouldn't be the focus of those whose actions might repercuss in the state; the local community should be.

One could argue that the union's stunt will not have substantial consequences. It would also be reasonable to argue that things played out in a way that the union couldn't have foreseen, and its own political considerations required it to persist. But the general principle that a person or group's responsibility does not extend to anticipating the likely actions of others is not a notion that it is wise to promote.

John Loughlin Declares for District One

Monique Chartier

The Ocean State Republican has the press release.

Rep. Loughlin's solution for Rhode Island's substantial public pension liability is here.

Check out his profile on Project Vote Smart. (H'mm, he voted in favor of voter i.d.)

Visit his page on the Rhode Island House of Representatives web site which includes "latest initiatives and legislative activities".

This post is presented in the spirit of a public service announcement with the goal of informing voters and despite the somewhat insulting circumstance of this blog's omission from the recipient list of the aforementioned press release.

Left Moves Right Past Truth to Slander

Justin Katz

Somehow the Washington Post, via the mouth of U.S. News and World Report's Alex Kingsbury manages to pull pro-lifers and free-marketers under the same umbrella as Islamic radicals as a means of retroactively absolving Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano of the need for embarrassment over her department's politically motivated report warning of pending right-wing terrorism:

In the past two weeks, the country has seen the bombing of a Starbucks coffee shop in New York City, the arrest of four men for allegedly plotting to blow up synagogues and shoot down planes, the shooting of two soldiers at an Army recruitment center in Arkansas, the assassination of a doctor inside a Kansas church, and the shooting at the Holocaust Museum.... Although these are not all cases of right-wing extremism, each is an example of domestic terrorism.

That's right. A report that warned that newly returned veterans might be a stalking ground for recruitment by conservative villains is said to be vindicated in part by the murder of a military recruiter by a jihadi. Could a notion be more worthy of scorn?

Andy McCarthy does a fine job with the response that is unfortunately necessary in the face of such rhetoric. Paring the list of supposed evidence down to the fifty-something killer of an abortionist and the octogenarian white supremacist who attacked the Holocaust Museum, McCarthy explains:

The DHS report was noxious because it smeared conservatives as bigots and claimed, in the absence of any evidence that "rightwing extremists may be gaining new recruits" — including from returning military veterans — in preparation for a spate of terrorism. (Who's the new recruit? The 88-year-old Nazi?) It insinuated that traditional conservative policy positions (pro-federalism, pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, anti-illegal-immigration) were drivers of extremism. And it contended — in contravention of standard law-enforcement guidelines and federal law — that federal and state agencies should undertake pro-active investigations on the basis of constitutionally protected beliefs and activities.

Nothing Egregious About This Picket Line

Carroll Andrew Morse

I guess I'm to the left of Bob Kerr on this one. I agreed with him in 2007 (and thought he wrote the best single item on the subject) when he wrote that the Providence Firefighter's Local 799 threat to picket a statewide disaster drill, which could have shut down the drill, was wrong. I was glad when the union altered its plans and opted for an informational rally instead.

But the circumstances are different this time, for at least two reasons...

  1. A statewide disaster drill is fundamentally different from a mayor's conference. Stuff happens at a large-scale drill that cannot be simulated anywhere else. Had the drill not gone on, there's no guarantee that an adequate replacement could have been put together anytime soon after and the opportunity for coordinated training and learning would have been lost.

    A mayor's conference is no disaster drill. The main activity at a conference is talking and (hopefully) listening. While there is value in getting public officials to talk to one another face-to-face, they will have plenty of other chances to communicate with one another on issues they believe are important. Or, if you prefer a more colloquial expression of this idea, politicians will be able to find other opportunities to talk.

  2. Whatever I may think of the principle of union members respecting one another's picket lines, the fact is they do, and it was unfair of union leadership to potentially disrupt the drill by forcing firefighters to choose between their professional responsibilities and their union.

    However, Vice-President of the United States of America is not a union job. Vice-President Biden's decision not to attend the conference is a purely political one and it is ludicrous to assert that people should self-curtail their rights of free expression and assembly, because the VP of the US needs to be protected from having to make political decisions.

Tea Parties and the Attitude of the RI Revolution

Justin Katz

Appearing on the Matt Allen Show, last night, Marc discussed the tea party with Matt and described the "resigned determination" of we who keep banging our head against the wall of Rhode-apathy and the corruption that it enables. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

Answering Rep. Martin

Marc Comtois

According to the ProJo, Freshman Rep. Peter F. Martin, D-Newport witnessed yesterday's Gaspee Tea Party march through the halls of the State house. He asked some questions:

“It’s democracy in action,” Martin said, adding that the budget outlook is messy. “Do they have any answers? If they have answers, do they have any methods to implement them? What services and programs are they willing to give up?”
The answer to your first two questions is the same: Spend less. As for the services and programs we're willing to give up? Wrong focus. What services and programs are you, the politicians, willing to give up? Your reaction to legitimate taxpayer frustration betrays your ignorance of the alternatives that are out there. It's also a cop-out to look to those who elected you for answers. They elected you because you said you had the answers.

Most people--though maybe not your constituents--want government to leave them alone and only utilize basic government services, most of which are provided at the local level. At the state level, there are some over-arching, systemic problems that need to be addressed: pensions, health-care, tax policy, etc. You and your fellow legislators were elected to address these big problems, not to just submit feel-good resolutions or glad-hand at ballparks. I've got a soft spot for all of that, but there's some real work to do here.

I realize the House Leadership keeps Freshmen legislators like yourself in the dark. Perfect attendance is nice, but maybe it's time to be proactive, get out of the State House and look for some answers yourself. That's why you were elected.

Covering the Tea Party

Justin Katz

Will Ricci filled the gap on his Facebook page, but it didn't occur to me, yesterday, to try to get pictures of all of the speakers at the Gaspee Tea Party, as I focused instead on the people in the crowd and the message that they're sending via their hand-made signs. (MikeinRI has photos up, as well.)

That's really the story of these rallies, which is why it's objectionable that an unplanned visit from the governor toward the end of the rally became the photo for the Providence Journal's front page coverage, a fact made only more egregious by the Nixonian double-victory-sign pose that the editors chose. Contrast that with the Rhode Island section front page coverage of East Providence teachers' union protests. When a loose affiliation of angry taxpayers gathers, the governor becomes the face; when a group of organized union members gather (wearing identical t-shirts), they're presented as a "teachers and their supporters." (The online version, which is consistently more slanted, couldn't even spare the pixels for a picture for Steve Peoples's story, although there's one of the teachers.)

That said, Peoples's actual reportage is good, including this interesting tidbit:

Capitol Police Sgt. Joseph Habershaw said that the group — calling itself the "Gaspee Tea Party" — was the largest protest under the dome since the credit union crisis of the early 1990s.

There's also this concerning indication that, if we really want to encourage our legislators to take the only approach that will get Rhode Island out of its hole (namely, cutting taxes and reducing regulation and mandates), the phone of House Finance Committee chairman Steve Costantino ought to be ringing today:

"I think we've done pretty good on spending. I think we've dropped spending the last three years," he said. (State-only spending in the current budget dropped 3.7 percent in the current fiscal year, but increased 5.6 percent the year before.)

Costantino refused to discuss continuing negotiations on next year's budget plan, expected to be released by the House Finance Committee early next week.

Will there be any tax increases?

"I can't answer that," Costantino said of the budget that must fill a $590-million hole. "I'm in the process of negotiating a balanced budget."

Sounds to me like they've got a tax increase in the works, and if "few lawmakers paid attention to the outdoor event" (because miraculously, they happened to have a contracted session, yesterday), perhaps ringing phones will get their attention.

Or maybe they really do not care what the regular folks of Rhode Island want and need.


At least as of 8:22 a.m. — when Andrew commented to this post — Projo.com has had a picture and video associated with its story on the Gaspee Tea Party, so that complaint no longer applies. My opinion that the Web site turns up the bias a bit from the print edition is a long-standing impression, so it still stands.

June 10, 2009

"Free Speech" Zones in Providence

Monique Chartier

First of all, ya gotta love the name. Some spin meister someplace was on all sixteen cylinders when s/he thought of that term for curbing the speech of protesters by herding them away from the action.

"Free speech zones" have featured at the national conventions of both the Democrat and Republican parties, where the phrase and the practice attained national prominence. While we will probably never know, therefore, the partisan affiliation of the spin meister who originally coined the term, it should be noted that it was organizers of a democratic convention (2004 in Boston) who ratcheted the concept up to the next level of physically caging protesters. (The elephants have, so far, refrained from emulating.)

Fast forward to free speech channeling efforts here and now.

Foreseeing a large turnout of protesters, the city has marked certain designated areas for demonstrations and is asking protest groups to register prior to the start of the annual gathering of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which opens here Friday.

Under no circumstance should any protester headed for the US Conference of Mayors in our capitol city register with anyone. Sure,

There will not be any penalty for protesters that fail to register

but the fact of the matter is that the request is being made by a person of authority. The concept of opting out may not be readily apparent to everyone. I wonder, therefore, if it is constitutional to even make such a request. Certainly, the concept of requiring a protester to first register is unconstitutional. For the ease of reference of civil liberty types, the registration form has been placed, bold as brass, on the City of Providence's "First Amendment and Protest Information for the US Conference of Mayors Annual Meeting" webpage. "First Amendment and Protest Information" - it sounds like they hunted out that spin meister to name this page.

As for the "free speech" zones, renamed "public viewing" areas (aren't zoos also public viewing areas?), if the city is relying on the precedent set by national political conventions of restricting protesters to such areas, it could be a dubious proposition. However deplorable the establishment of free speech zones at political conventions may be, such events take place on private property. The property owner or lessee is presumably free to dictate where a visitor may or may not go on the premises and even to refuse entry to certain visitors. Accordingly, it seems to this highly amateur armchair non-attorney that such restrictions could apply to the public right-of-way only for very narrow reasons.

Providence officials have repeatedly used the word "safety" as they have set up "public viewing areas" and issued the request for protesters to register; safety, then, must be one of the few bases for such restrictions. It is important, however, that officials not abuse that word or exaggerate concerns of danger. Under such circumstances, "safety measures" can quickly cross the line from prudent to smothering and, thereby, leave the arena of public safety for the world of silence-your-opponent politics.

Gaspee Tea Party

Justin Katz

As ought to have been expected, the crowd is a bit smaller today than it was for the initial tea party — about, truth to tell — what I expected last time, probably a little south of 1,000, although I offer the usual disclaimers about being terrible with on-site estimating:

Some pictures of signage:

Helen Glover just estimated the crowd at about 1,000 or more, making the point that others will try to talk it down and ignore the fact that taxpayers don't have paid organizers in the mold of unions and other special interests.

5:17 p.m.

I'd say the crowd is probably over 1,000, at this point, which much exceeds what I'd expected, given the fact that this is sort of a second bite at the apple and is focused entirely on state-level issues. Speaker Aram Garabedian just declared that the biggest union in RI is the group of taxpayers.

Arlene Violet is making a great statement about endemic corruption and elected representatives' giving away tax money to preferred friends and preferred interests.

5:33 p.m.

A surprise visit from Governor Don Carcieri. "Are you ready to pay more taxes? [Crowd: No!] Good, because I'm not either." He mentioned that he just got back from Washington, where he's trying to get more funding for our children.

Ummm... I think the point is that we don't want more government money.

5:51 p.m.

Commenter Hank Bradley suggests that 1,000 people is more than double what the pictures suggest. Well, that's why I post them, because I'm not claiming any competence at crowd estimation. 1,000 may be a bit high, but 500 is considerably low. Given the shape of the crowd (spilling up the stairs, for instance), it's difficult to capture in a picture. I'd still be happy with the turnout even if it's 700-800.

6:07 p.m.

I'm currently in line to go through the metal detector to storm the statehouse. Gotta see the humor...

6:19 p.m.

I will say that if you ever have to wait in a protest line, being in front of John DePetro and his bullhorn is a humorous place to be.


I'm hearing that the legislators all left for the day. And why not? It's not as if there's anything for them to do these days.

6:28 p.m.

Still coming...

6:31 p.m.

... and coming...

And I hear the cry of "no more taxes" echoing through the building. Would that it were legislators.

6:34 p.m.

And coming...

6:38 p.m.

The most patient people at the rally...

6:45 p.m.

I've only been the statehouse a couple of times, and I've never looked at the ceiling. Now that I have, I have to say that taxes are not the true injustice; sexism is. Notice that all of the abstract principles are represented as women. Perhaps if there was gender equity in the paintings, legislators would more faithfully adhere to the principles.

But I see that the world that the General Assembly ordered has arrived:

And now on to Ri-Ra.

6:53 p.m.

Before I close the computer down, though, here are two pictures that Andrew took of Governor Carcieri:

What the Unions are For

Justin Katz

The possibility of payback in such forms as the following will be the continuing story:

That news comes courtesy of federal disclosure forms that unions file each year with the Department of Labor. The Bush Administration toughened the enforcement of those disclosure rules, but under pressure from unions the Obama Labor shop is slashing funding for such enforcement. Without such disclosure, workers wouldn't be able to see how their union chiefs are managing their mandatory dues money.

But there's a more fundamental, and more interesting, angle (emphasis added):

An SEIU spokeswoman says the union works on a four-year cycle, in which it goes "all out for the presidential election" and then rebuilds its finances. She adds the union has paid back more than $10 million of the $25 million it borrowed last year. But it's nonetheless true that the SEIU's liabilities have continued to climb each year from 2003 to 2008.

In that regard, there doesn't appear to be much difference between a labor union and a charitable organization that undertakes a remunerative enterprise (selling something or offering services) to raise money for the cause that represents its reason for being. The worker representation by which the unions raise their money is a means of financing political activism. Which side of the organizations represents their core purpose is probably not as easy a question to answer as it ought to be.

Gaspee Tea Party

Marc Comtois

The second RI Tea Party, the Gaspee Tea Party, will be held from 4-6 today in front of the State house and will focus on local issues. Here is the list of speakers (PDF). Here is list of House and Senate bills that the RI Tea Party organizers suggest voting AGAINST:

H5282 BY Guthrie, Pacheco, Williams, Sullivan, Almeida, ENTITLED, AN ACT RELATING TO TAXATION - ALTERNATIVE FLAT TAX (would set the alternative minimum tax rate at 7 percent.)

H5624 BY DaSilva, McCauley, Carnevale, Driver, ENTITLED, AN ACT RELATING TO TAXATION -- PERSONAL INCOME TAX (would freeze the alternative flat tax rate at seven percent for tax years 2009 and 2010).

H5469 BY Guthrie, Pacheco, Sullivan, Williams, Walsh, ENTITLED, AN ACT RELATING TO TAXATION -- ALTERNATIVE FLAT TAX (would end the Rhode Island flat tax alternative for the 2008 tax year).

H6163 BY Pacheco, Guthrie, Ferri, ENTITLED, AN ACT RELATING TO TAXATION (would repeal the alternative flat tax rate for state taxpayers and would provide a tax credit for small businesses that add new employees).

S115 BY Metts, Pichardo, Crowley, Jabour, Miller, ENTITLED, AN ACT RELATING TO TAXATION - PERSONAL INCOME TAX (would repeal the alternative flat tax rate).

The various speakers at the event will also advocate for various measures.

Rhode Islanders join citizens in other states like Montana, Georgia, MIchigan, Wyoming, North and South Carolina and Texas, who continue to stand up and speak for fiscal sanity in our government.

Analyzing the Healthcare Reform Proposals

Carroll Andrew Morse

Blogger Keith Hennessey, a former White House Senior Economic advisor, has been providing details of the various Federal healthcare reform proposals under consideration, as they become available.

His summary of what he's seen so far is…

  • The government would mandate not only that you must buy health insurance, but what health insurance counts as “qualifying.”
  • Health insurance premiums would rise as a result of the law, meaning lower wages.
  • A government-appointed board would determine what items and services are “essential benefits” that your qualifying plan must cover.
  • You would find a tremendous new disincentive to switch jobs, because your new health insurance may be subject to the new rules and would therefore be significantly more expensive.
  • Those who keep themselves healthy would be subsidizing premiums for those with risky or unhealthy behaviors.
  • Far more than half of all Americans would be eligible for subsidies, but we have not yet been told who would pay the bill.
  • The Secretaries of Treasury and HHS would have unlimited discretion to impose new taxes on individuals and employers who do not comply with the new mandates.
  • The Secretary of HHS could mandate that you provide him or her with “any such other information as [he/she] may prescribe.”

Trillo Talks

Marc Comtois

In the wake of business leaders explaining that they are "wary of heavily unionized states" like Rhode Island (like it or not, that's the perception, folks) and the new report from RIPEC explaining that State-level mandates are damaging to Rhode Island's cities and towns and economic development, Rep. Joe Trillo (R-Warwick) offers up his own 6-point plan:

To return to prosperity, some fundamental changes must be embraced and supported by taxpayers and politicians alike.

First, to lower both municipal and state operating expenses, public-employee unions must be held at bay and their interests must be placed second to the greater interests of the state, its cities and towns and the taxpayers.

Second, there must be some regionalization of services, including but not limited to police, fire, schools and highway departments, while still preserving the individual identities of each of the cities and towns.

Third, Rhode Island, which is currently at a competitive disadvantage with our neighboring states, must make its tax burden the lowest in New England, so as to appeal to business and to foster job growth.

Fourth, Rhode Island is in the midst of a financial crisis, and it must begin to operate accordingly. It must function like a business that is in Chapter 11. The General Assembly has the power to provide mayors and city and town managers with the authority to cut costs and make fundamental changes to the labor laws that have favored the unions, but will they have the political courage to do so? Will their constituents demand nothing less?

Fifth, the powers of the many school committees must be reduced. They should not be allowed to negotiate with unions nor should they have the authority to approve school budgets, which in many cases can be up to 80 percent of a city or town budget. Instead, those powers should be vested with mayors, administrators or city and town councils.

Sixth, with all of the above in place, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation should focus its efforts on recruiting companies with well-paying jobs and marketing Rhode Island to them.

The Funding Formula: Meanwhile, in Woonsocket...

Carroll Andrew Morse

In response to recent postings on the education "funding formula", commenter "John" offers this forthright reporting and analysis on the situation with regards to the City of Woonsocket…

The Woonsocket school representatives that testified in favor of a formula (a bad formula) today in the Senate Finance Committee hearing were ridiculed and insulted. The committee members were abusive simply because we have an ass for a mayor who likes to abuse people and falsely brag about not raising taxes when all she has accomplished is to create a classification system combined with homestead exemptions that artificially make it seem like we don't raise taxes. In fact, we now have among the lowest effective single family home (voters) tax rates (31st at last measure) in the state while chasing out business with the highest commercial rate in the state (Number 1). We have to fix that now. It won't be easy.

The generic criticism of teacher unions makes people believe that we are all in the same boat. The Woonsocket school employees have already agreed to no pay increase for both next year and the year after and reduced their current year pay by 1%, deferred for five years. Can you name one other community in the state where that kind of agreement is in place, or might even be expected to occur? The teacher contract compensation package is in the bottom third in the state. Yet we are criticized by Senators and the blogs as being among the ineffective money grabbers.

Our elementary class sizes are at an average of 23.4 per classroom across the district and in schools with odd numbers, grades are combined into multigrade classes of 23 to 25 students; any others out there at that level across their whole district? Our inclusion classes average over 22 students with only one special ed teacher and a regular ed teacher with no assistants; we've cut them all except for IEP mandated TAs. Our high school class size is at 30 and next year several programs will be cut from the class offerings so as to force class size in most elective courses as close to 30 as possible to save money. Maybe that helps to explain some of our performance problems on the tests. Oh no, that's right, we just have lazy teachers, right?

We have among the lowest per pupil administrative costs in the state according to In$ite data. Since 2003 we have cut our school staffing by 133, from 910 to 777 while experiencing a 13% enrollment decrease (884 students); a fair response I think except that it has eliminated teacher assistants still enjoyed by the students in the burbs. Over the last seven years local funding for education has grown by 12.9% while state funding has grown by 12.7%. When we factor in the impact of level funding by the state in the last two years, the city contribution will have to increase to 28.2% for FY09 to cover the deficit with the average seven year average jumping to 41.2%.

The Woonsocket School Dept is (soon may be was) part of the GHGRI, a group health care self insurance company paying administrative rates at almost the same low rate as the state now pays. Soon they may move to RIMIC where the admin fee is $28/employee/month, same as the state.

I can go on and on, yet I know there will be those out there who will scoff at my comments and ridicule the folks here trying to get legislation passed that is fair to all. Ideas like "hold harmless" and "minimum funding" are offensive concepts if we are to try to provide for equitable support based on the student, wherever they are.

When our budget comes up for passage I will not agree to use a super majority to override the cap in order to provide the $5 million needed to balance the school budget (They are asking for $7 million, but I know it can finish out at $5 million if the GA passes real pension reform). We were promised a fair formula when S-3050 passed. Maybe when we get that promise kept, I'll see fit to agree to support an override of the cap for whatever amount we can demonstrate is needed by the school department.

But our state Senators mock us and treat us like second class citizens. What a great state we live in.

In the original post, I offered this response…

Based on what you've described about tax rates and taking into account Woonsocket's school spending, you've got a mayor who's pretty clearly abusing the state education aid system. She's not using the $6,000+ per pupil her community gets from the state to overcome the posited difficulties of being a densely populated community, but to replace as much local revenue as she can, while spending a minimal amount on schools. The problem is that the "funding formula", as our legislature is trying to implement it, is completely insensitive to this type of concern about how money is being spent, and is instead based on the concept of cities-just-deserve-more, no-matter-how-strangely-they-are-run. It's wholly legitimate to ask if it's truly "fair" to take money away from taxpayers who would be willing to fund better education, to give it to units of government that don't seem to be.

RI Unionization and First Preferences

Justin Katz

Amidst a parade of economists and business advisers who see the prominence of unionized labor in Rhode Island to be a hindrance to economic growth in the state, the labor point of view is interesting:

George H. Nee is the secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and a member of the state Economic Policy Council, which advises the governor on economic issues. He says the state's unions prop up the Ocean State economy, making sure workers, after covering basic needs, have enough money left to afford a dinner out or a shopping trip to the Providence Place mall.

"It's a different perspective on the economy. If workers have disposable income, that benefits the whole business community," Nee said. "We don't benefit as a country or a state with a race to the bottom."

A pamphlet promoting unions in Rhode Island says the states with the highest levels of unionization have higher hourly wages, lower rates of poverty and fewer residents without medical insurance.

In contrast:

In 2008, the Chamber started a campaign — the Workforce Freedom Initiative — to slow the growth of unions. It says states with the highest levels of unionization have lower levels of economic growth and higher levels of unemployment than areas where unions are weak.

At issue, here, is a basic question of cultural preference that relates to national — and international — debates about the shape that our society should take. The dominant view in Europe, also ascendant in the campaign and victory of President Barack Obama, is that our focus should be on individuals' well-being: by union and by force of law "making sure workers, after covering basic needs, have enough money left to afford a dinner out or a shopping trip to the Providence Place mall." The source of that money is a secondary consideration, which is why public-sector unions are so harmful.

The alternate perspective, heretofore characteristic of the United States of America, is that an environment of economic freedom will foster a system of creative destruction that will, yes, permit some to fall into economic hardship, but that over time will improve the economy and advance technology such that everybody will benefit. The definition of hardship will shift from scrounging to eat to scrounging to pay for a television to scrounging to afford monthly Internet bills. (Suffering persists, of course, but it comes to be seen as extreme hardship.)

I'd suggest that strength of the first point of view is largely attributable to the success of the second. That is, unions haven't really had to explain from where the money would come, because the economic system was sufficiently healthy that nobody's minded much the bleeding. As the give-a-man-a-fish paradigm comes to dominate — drawing the productive toward itself with a gravity of comparative circumstances — the economy will atrophy, and the trajectory of hardship will head back the other way.

The Coming Healthcare Monster

Justin Katz

It isn't difficult to predict the effects of this. On one side:

A first-ever tax on employer-provided health benefits also figures prominently among options under consideration in Congress, but Obama campaigned against that last year and its inclusion in the bill would require him to reverse course. ...

... Private companies would be barred from denying coverage or charging higher premiums because of pre-existing conditions.

Both bills would require individuals to purchase insurance if they could afford it, with waivers available in hardship cases. The Senate measure provides for an unspecified penalty for anyone refusing to obey the so-called mandate, and House Democrats are considering a similar approach. ...

... the House approach would require employers to purchase insurance for their workers or pay a penalty. ...

To cut down on the ranks of the uninsured, the Senate bill stipulates that children up to the age of 26 could remain on their parents' insurance policies.

And filling in the other:

Individuals would be able to purchase insurance from new exchanges operated by the states or federal government. ...

On a hotly contested issue, the emerging House plan would give individuals the option of buying insurance provided by the federal government.

The president's assertion that the healthcare plan will be "revenue neutral" is an Orwellian kind of insulting. The tax on employer health benefits and all these penalties (paid to whom?) for failure to provide or to procure mean that the plan is — by design — not "revenue neutral" for anybody but the regime in Washington. Apart from the direct confiscation of money, they will lead to decreases in pay (as employers compensate for the greater cost of benefits) and increases in the price of goods and services (as companies try to make up for costs of producing them).

Moreover, the inability of insurance companies to adjust prices to account for pre-existing conditions and the ability of young adults to remain on parents' plans to the age of twenty-six are only two predictable ways in which this legislation will drive up the cost of insurance. Since the aforementioned penalties will hardly keep up with inflation, an increasing number of companies will opt to pay them rather than to provide the benefit, and an increasing number of individuals will have no plausible option but government care. So, the government program will grow, and if it remains "revenue neutral" by desire or by fiscal reality, price controls will be ramped up and rationing will begin. If it does not remain "revenue neutral," it will drive Americans into the ground.

Those who've pined for government healthcare are going to get a good look at it within the next decade, and I doubt they'll like what they see... at least when they find themselves needing to rely on it.

June 9, 2009

Trudging Through the School Budget

Justin Katz

Amazingly enough, I get email from people around the country who don't care about Tiverton politics! That's like not caring about politics in the Shire. Well, yeah, I know; these things have to be fictionalized in order to emphasize the undercurrents.

One issue of national interest, though, is the arrival of the first infusion of federal "stimulus" money. In Rhode Island's case, the "stimulus" is more like defibrillator funds. From the school's perspective, the federal dollars are merely a replacement for state dollars. Superintendent Bill Rearick expressed a wary hope that various one-time dollars might help the district to get through this year's financial trouble, with a stress on the one-time part.

The Funding Formula: Considerations from Outside the Box

Carroll Andrew Morse

As the result of historical and civic inertia, the discussion over public education in Rhode Island often begins and ends with plans for shifting money between district-level bureaucracies, the assumption being that money can be sent across municipal borders, but students are inalterably trapped within them. But, especially in a state as densely populated as this one, there is no reason to limit the options in this way. And in some cases, allowing students to cross municipal borders might be the best way to help smooth out some of the inequalities in the Rhode Island public education system, helping some students to reach their full potential more effectively than a new "funding formula" ever will.

Here's a specific example. According to the statistics compiled by Information Works and provided to the public at Barrington's financial town meeting, in the 2006-2007 academic year, Providence’s Classical High School produced the second-highest number of Advanced Placement examinations scored at "college-level mastery" of any school in RI (Barrington was first, North Kingstown third). At the same time, the high schools in two of the towns bordering Providence, North Providence and Johnston, have poor track records for AP examinations, with just a single AP exam taken between the two systems. The demography of the urban ring does not explain this result. East Providence (29 AP exams passed at college level), Pawtucket (33 AP exams passed) and Central Falls (11 AP exams passed) all did better than the combined North Providence/Johnston total of one exam taken, and it is not reasonable to assume that there is no one with the ability or the desire to take AP classes living in North Providence or Johnston.

Now, if Rhode Island is moving towards a system where the state is going to be funding a greater share of public education, while some of the towns in the urban ring are unable for whatever reason to support advanced academic programs, then doesn't it make sense to open some of Providence’s programs -- especially given that Providence is a district funded largely by state revenue -- to students from other communities in the state?

For instance, wholly consistent with the spirit of the regionalization that everyone is talking about these days, how about regionalizing Classical and allowing students from North Providence and Johnston who meet the entrance requirements have access? Or, if there is a concern that this might significantly reduce the number of Providence students able to attend Classical, allowing Classical to expand and establish a "satellite" campus that allows students from educationally underserved communities to have access to an advanced academic program?

Or perhaps North Providence and Johnston and maybe a few other communities could band together, to form an advanced regional high school of their own -- but wait -- I think I just backed into a version of Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee's "Mayoral Academy" proposal, except that Mayor McKee’s current proposal is focused on kindergarten through eighth grade, instead of high school.

OK, so maybe I didn’t back into this; maybe this is where I was headed all along, the essential point being that if Rhode Island allows one large community to have a special school -- a school that is an asset to its community and its state -- then why shouldn't Rhode Island allow other special schools to be formed, either building on what's here already, by using open districting to increase the reach of successful programs, or by trying new forms that cross town lines like the Mayoral Academies, and put the focus of education policy on good schools rather than on bureaucratic money shifting?

The Funding Formula, an Update from Inside the Box

Carroll Andrew Morse

I attended last night’s meeting at the Barrington town hall organized by state Representative Joy Hearn (D – Barrington/East Providence) on the status of the education "funding formula" deliberations in the Rhode Island legislature. Speakers on the panel included Tim Duffy of the RI Association of School Committees, Barrington School Committee members Buzz Guida and James Hasenfus, as well as Representatives Hearn and Jan Malik (D – Barrington/Warren).

The most important thing I learned at the meeting is that there are actually two separate "funding formula" bills currently before the Rhode Island General Assembly.

One of the bills (H5978), referred to as the "Ajello bill" after sponsor Edith Ajello (D - Providence), was the proposal discussed most frequently in the legislative session prior to this one. The Ajello bill would take the current total of money used for state education aid and rearrange its distribution-by-community over a three-year period. At the end of the third year, the final result would be to reduce state aid to 22 communities, completely zeroing out the aid to a number of them. Because of an increase in enrollment, Barrington would see a small $28,000 increase at the end of the phase-in. Providence, of course, would be the big winner, seeing an increase of about $50 million dollars. (Some of the specific numbers reported last year in conjunction with the Ajello plan are available here and here).

The other bill (S0921), referred to as the "Gallo bill" after sponsor Hanna Gallo (D - Cranston), differs from the Ajello bill, according to the panel, in three major ways...

  1. It involves a "hold-harmless" provision, so that no community will receive less than it receives now under the present system.
  2. Instead of being phased in over a fixed-window of time, new aid would be added to existing amounts only after state revenues begin to increase and funds become "available" (but what happens in the case where revenues go up a little bit, triggering the funding formula, while entitlements and pension costs also go up a lot, which is a distinct possibility in this state?), and
  3. There would be a minimum "floor" that every community would be entitled to receive, so that when the phase-in was completed, no community could receive less than 25% of the “foundation” amount deemed adequate for that community.
Fully implementing this plan would require $187 million in new state revenues.

The dominant consensus of the officials on the panel seemed to be that...

  • Nothing is going to get passed this year.
  • The Ajello bill is too blatant a money grab by a few communities to get the support needed to pass (that's a paraphrase, though it was explicitly mentioned that the huge cut to Newport that the plan mandates will not be easy to get through the Senate while Teresa Paiva-Weed (D – Jamestown/Newport) is Senate President)
  • But some form of the Gallo bill is very likely to be given serious consideration in the next 2 to 4 years.
My initial impression is that adding the concept of the “floor” to the transfers to the funding of the usual big-recipients could result in a system where the communities in the middle get squeezed by the top and the bottom.

The Barrington residents in attendance didn't seem thrilled with either the Ajello or the Gallo plans. Sensing this dissatisfaction via my keen bloggers instincts, when the official portion of the meeting had ended, I pitched to both a set of concerned (and energetic) Barrington citizens and to one of the officials on the panel the idea of using an open districting system, where students can cross town lines to attend a school and state aid follows the student, rather than a top-down funding formula, to allocate state funds. The answers from the pitchees I talked to were nearly identical -- an interesting idea in theory, but the Barrington school system doesn't have the excess capacity necessary to make it workable at this time.

But let's not give up just yet on considering how modifying the geographic-monopoly system could help improve public education in Rhode Island...

Nothing Like Inactivism

Justin Katz

Thomas Sowell puts his finger on something that many conservatives see as a frustrating and dangerous exercise in fantasy:

We have, for example, been doing nothing to stop Iran from getting nuclear bombs, but it has been elaborate, multifaceted, and complexly nuanced nothing.

Had there been no United Nations, it would have been obvious to all and sundry that we were doing nothing — and that could have had dire political consequences at election time.

However, thanks to the United Nations, there is a place where political leaders can go to do nothing, with a flurry of highly visible activity — and the media will cover it in detail, with a straight face, so that people will think that something is actually being done.

There may be televised statements and counter-statements — passionate debate among people wearing exotic apparel from different nations, all in an impressive, photogenic setting. U.N. resolutions may be voted upon and published to the world. It can be some of the best nothing that money can buy.

On first look, Sowell's criticism of this nothingness would seem to conflict with the "inactivism" championed by Jonah Goldberg, but it doesn't:

These readers also note that I am in favor of an activist foreign policy when it comes to Iraq — and a few other places as well — and they accuse me of hypocrisy. It's a fair point as far as it goes in that I've never made a distinction between foreign and domestic policy when it comes to inactivism. But there is an important distinction here. In a decent, democratic, society individuals and associations of individuals can be trusted to regulate themselves and each other with minimal governmental — especially minimal federal — interference. Businesses solve their own problems without Washington, property owners protect their own property, communities devise ways to protect their citizens. Etc.

What inactivism comes down to is not taking action via government, because other social strata will take action and are better qualified to identify what action to take. On the international scene, however, dealing with other nations is explicitly the role of government.

To some degree, those on the other side of the aisle take the reverse approach: Taking action via government because they do not wish to let those other strata do what they do. But I've little doubt that they'd take the same approach to international affairs if given the chance. The difference is that liberals like to manipulate those who try to play by the rules, and the intractable rule-breakers who therefore get a pass are more prominent at the nation-state level.

Signifying Nothing, and Missing the Point

Justin Katz

Pointy-headed intellectual concepts too often become excuses to float above practical reality. Consider:

There is a technical term for this phenomenon. The GWOT acted as what, in the language of semiotics, is called a "floating signifier," able to be attached at will to a wide range of actions and policies. The Bush administration organized the al-Qaida 9/11 perpetrators and Saddam Hussein into seamless chapters in the same account. The GWOT narrative led directly to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, to justifying torture and to disregard treaty obligations under the laws of war. ...

... what is needed is an attack on the central fallacy at the heart of the current narrative, namely that a fantastically complex world can be reduced to a single storyline. The war in Iraq was justified on the basis of a baleful conflation of al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Today, a similar mistake threatens in Afghanistan, where - - contrary to the underlying facts -- a tacit conflation of the Taliban and al-Qaida justifies the expansion of the U.S. civil and military presence in the country. Seen through the GWOT lens, this makes sense. By any other measure, it is a gross distortion. Although General Petraeus recently acknowledged that al-Qaida no longer has a presence in Afghanistan, a shadowy presumption that it does, or might, continues to cast the indigenous Afghan insurgent movement as an existential threat to the United States -- thus turning what is in essence a local problem into a global challenge.

While excesses such as torture (or, to widen the historical lens, internment) are a continual danger requiring of vigilance and correction, the fact that an overarching idea has been applied to the global "narrative" does not mean that all conclusions within its fold are manufactured. What Amy Zalman and Jonathan Clarke, who penned the above quotation, have done is to lash the War on Terror with a too-specific target (al-Qaeda) and thereby exclude the setting in which al-Qaeda came to exist and to operate.

The Taliban is the perfect example: Given the structure of terrorist groups, if we are to avoid stomping on the source of motivation (i.e., Islam), we must modify the environment that permits its radicalization. The Taliban and al-Qaeda needn't be conflated in order to acknowledge that the former facilitated the latter. Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda needn't have been partners with a binding contract in order for the former's behavior to be intolerable.

Given fronts in the campaign to prevent terrorist attacks that could kill Americans by the millions may be justifiable or not, on their merits, but it would be a grave mistake to follow the lead of those who prefer to attack abstract principles. The unique problem of Islamofascism and terrorism on a massive scale is that the orderly rules by which we've striven to interact as nation-states do not apply. What we are dealing with — if a mere blogger might coin a technical term — is an army of "floating zealots" whose activities signify death on a horrifying scale.

An Experiment to Watch

Justin Katz

Supporters have presented charter schools as an educational laboratory, and here's a major test:

They are members of an eight-teacher dream team, lured to an innovative charter school that will open in Washington Heights in September with salaries that would make most teachers drop their chalk and swoon; $125,000 is nearly twice as much as the average New York City public school teacher earns, and about two and a half times as much as the national average for teacher salaries. They also will be eligible for bonuses, based on schoolwide performance, of up to $25,000 in the second year.

The school, called the Equity Project, is premised on the theory that excellent teachers — and not revolutionary technology, talented principals or small class size — are the critical ingredient for success. Experts hope it could offer a window into some of the most pressing and elusive questions in education: Is a collection of superb teachers enough to make a great school? Are six-figure salaries the way to get them? And just what makes a teacher great?

With that sort of money on the table, some tweaks in the process whereby professionals in other fields can make the transition to teaching — providing the system with the lubricant of vouchers — could catapult our nation's education system to where it needs to be.

June 8, 2009

Shifting Laws, Corrupt Continuity

Justin Katz

By now you should have read yesterday's front-page advertisement for the Gaspee Tea Party rally in the Providence Journal. I'm referring to the article on big-money state pensions that Monique mentioned last night.

Most of the article is a series of revelations that make one wish for something symbolic (but not harmful) to tip over or sink, but this insidious qualifier ought not slip by without note:

No one is allowed any longer to buy credit for more time than they actually served in the military. Since 1994, there has been a minimum 20-hour-a-week work requirement for pension credit. That same year, lawmakers repealed the pension provision that recognized the part-time, six–month-a-year legislative clerks and doorkeepers as full-time state employees for pension purposes.

As egregious pension-related schemes have come to light, policies have been changed, but neither the players nor the politics have been rectified significantly. Legislators and judges still offer mutual support for budgets and jobs and so on. Unions still get away with manipulating contracts to drain the public coffers. Who knows what tricks haven't been exposed in the pension system and in other areas of state government.

The only way to prevent such stories from being regular features of the state's major media outlets is to turn up the spotlight and change the people in office.

Toward that end, I hope to see you Wednesday.

Referendum Tomorrow

Monique Chartier

From today's Providence Journal.

Voters will decide Tuesday whether to cut $1.3 million from the $59.6-million school budget for the next fiscal year.

A special all-day referendum was scheduled after hundreds of taxpayers filed a petition following a Town Council vote last month to approve the spending plan. Councilman James W. O’Neill, who cast the lone dissenting ballot in the council’s 4-to-1 vote in favor of the spending plan, proposed the approximately 2 percent cut and led the petition drive.

View the ballot here, in Adobe Acrobat PDF form.

Why a cut at all? Concerns about the rise of the school budget over the last ten years have been expressed in several different ways. Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate the numbers is to point out the sharply different trends of school spending and student enrollment, as I highlighted in an l.t.e. that the South County Independent kindly printed on Thursday.

- In 1999 to 2000, the South Kingstown school fund was $34,425,000 to educate 4,380 children.

- The 2009-10 school fund just approved by the Town Council is $59,611,000. This is to educate 3,500 children.

Voting will take place tomorrow at Broad Rock School from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm.

Gauging Effectiveness of Tax Policy

Marc Comtois

In any kind of system--computers, manufacturing, planned maintenance, what have you--the importance of a "feedback loop" is recognized. Basically, you have a process or method in place and you want input as to how well it is working. "Good" feedback often necessitates a change in operating process or, possibly, system design. In yesterday's ProJo, John Kostrzewa essentially asks that our corporate tax policy--specifically targeted tax credits for certain businesses--be put in a feedback loop. The question: are we getting the benefits we hoped for (more jobs) when we let companies pay the state less in corporate taxes?

This is the way economic development gets done across the country. A corporation has jobs. The government has giveaways or tax breaks. They woo each other, get married and everybody lives happily ever after.

Except nobody checks back to see if the incentives really accomplished what they set out to achieve.

But now, Rhode Island has started to take a peek.

As Kostrzewa explains, current head of the Department of Revenue Gary Sasse advocated for just such a review process when he was running the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC):
When he ran the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, he advocated tax breaks that are accountable, transparent and targeted toward specific types of jobs. As head of the state Department of Revenue, he pushed forward the collection of data. He also headed the tax reform panel created by Governor Carcieri that advocated a study of job-creation tax credit and questioned why they shouldn’t be reserved for higher-paying jobs with benefits.

But now, in his additional role as head of the Department of Administration, he seems less aggressive.

Sasse says that such a study would be "complex." Well, that's too bad, such a study should be done to see if it's actually working. And if targeted tax cuts don't work, maybe the solution lay in broad based tax incentives, huh?

The Portsmouth Institute's Catholic William F. Buckley Conference Approaches

Community Crier

From Justin:

We're less than two weeks away from the three-and-a-half day conference hosted at the Portsmouth Abbey School by the newly formed Portsmouth Institute. There's been one change to the roster of speakers who will address William F. Buckley's work and life and the role of Roman Catholics in intellectual society; unable to make an appearance, Christopher Buckley has provided his slot to Tony Dolan, who was a friend of his father's and a speechwriter for President Reagan:

  • Rev. George Rutler, Pastor of Our Saviour Church NYC
  • Maggie Gallagher, author and nationally syndicated columnist
  • Joseph Bottum, Editor, First Things
  • Roger Kimball, author and editor of The New Criterion
  • E.J. Dionne, author and syndicated columnist
  • Kathryn Lopez: Editor, National Review Online
  • Lee Edwards, The Heritage Foundation
  • Tony Dolan, chief speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan

Other activities during the June 18-21 event include meals, tours of the school's church and wind turbine, and classical concerts by pianist Lawrence Perelman and Portsmouth Abbey faculty. Register online.

As I've said, we don't see these sorts of events that often in Rhode Island, and the founders of the Portsmouth Institute intend to make a regular practice of them. The best way to ensure that they do so — and that other organizations pursue similar offerings — is simply to respond to the opportunity for edification and attend.

An Open Thread for Gearheads

Carroll Andrew Morse

In Sunday's Projo, Froma Harrop suggested that fuel efficiency could be the key to a General Motors resurgence…

The point of this agony is to create a company that makes cars people want….GM lags in creating fuel-efficient vehicles, but that doesn’t mean it can’t catch up. It is preparing to launch the GM Volt, a plug-in hybrid, in 2010.

Blogger Mickey Kaus, on the other hand, (who was writing about cars long before anyone thought that nationalizing the auto industry would actually occur) says that GM's problem is more basic – the issue of reliability…

Toyota has been ascendant for at least three decades, and GM declining, for a simple reason: Toyota built cars that worked ("bulletproof," as they say) at a time when GM built cars that didn't work. That's what was "drawing people to Toyota lots" a generation before the Prius was conceived. Even today, when GM suffers "under the perception that they [are] saddled with cars of inferior quality," you only have to look at the Consumer Reports reliability ratings to see that the reason GM is saddled with this perception is that the perception is accurate….

But only one of the Big Three U.S. car manufacturers has made dramatic progress catching up to Japan on the bulletproof front--and it's not Chrysler or GM. It's the one that hasn't gone broke.

If it's reliability that's the problem, is government-ownership really going to be a factor in fixing it? (No, says Kaus, if the government is going to try to merge its car companies with companies that do worse than them in quality ratings.)

Are there any gearheads out there who'd care to comment on whether they believe it's reliability that's saved Ford (so far), and if anything can be done on this front to save GM and Chrysler?

What Marriage Means to Children

Justin Katz

I've got a piece in today's Providence Journal in which I attempt to explain a subtle mechanism whereby the simple change in the definition of marriage to incorporate same-sex couples can have a profound effect on society. It isn't about the effect on adults' current marriages, but on marriages yet to be consummated.

After a Difficult Violent Roundtable, Part 3

Justin Katz

As I intimated yesterday, conservatives' appropriate fear of populist movements connects with our conviction that the nexus of power and desire ought to be checked. (One can be fearful even of that which is necessary, of course.) During Friday night's all–Anchor Rising Violent Roundtable on the Matt Allen Show, Marc and Matt kicked off a related conversation in which the latter took the position that structures allowing more direct democracy — such as public referenda — ought to proliferate.

The problem with developing a taste for simple majority rule is that the masses know what they want, but not necessarily how to go about getting it or, even less, how to balance competing needs and interests. This isn't to take the line that the dirty common folk lack the intelligence to comprehend cause and effect and the possibility of unintended consequences; the salient factor filters through the mechanics of a movement. However well a given voter comprehends how his own interests might be balanced and what compromises would be tolerable in achieving them, by the time political action builds to critical mass, his interests and negotiable thresholds must be overlaid with thousands of variations.

If a movement is to avoid a fizzle from noise, it must be led. Only in sharp, very specific outrages will large groups of people congeal with minimal guidance to answer a question of public policy. In most cases, a handful of leaders with the time and motivation must sort out the series of binaries by which more subtle decisions are reached — "yes" to this policy, "no" to that one, "yes" to this request, "no" to that demand. When the democracy remains representative, those leaders may be held accountable for the results, even as their daily popularity rises and falls over each answer. When those leaders are as voices in the crowd — shouting out suggestions to which the populist cry returns a "hear, hear" — their accountability dissipates, as does the feasibility of subtlety. It becomes guidance by explosion, not by instruction. A herding of votes.

When it comes to the practical operation of a society, democracy is best enacted in escalating tiers — elections followed by referenda followed by revolution — but always with a philosophical tendency to worry about anarchic expressions of power. A population enthralled with its democratic override is at risk of wielding it too lightly, toward ends that are never adequately articulated until the knots cinch tight.

June 7, 2009

Public Pensions at the Fore

Monique Chartier

This is a rare, fortuitous instance in which one ProJo article answers another.

On Friday night (an interesting day in itself to hold a hearing), state and local public employees flocked to the Statehouse to advocate for no changes in pension benefits.

Public employees packed a State House hearing on Friday in an eleventh-hour effort to head off pension cutbacks, with Patricia Hines asking on behalf of school principals across the state: “What message does this send about how Rhode Island values education … if veteran educators, who devote their entire careers to educating R.I. youth, will have to worry about how they will get by in their elder years.”

And Kathy Gregg's article in today's ProJo should have been titled "Public Pension Extreme".

At least 48 retired state workers, teachers and judges who left government service in the last two decades have pensions that now pay them between $100,528 and $190,352 a year.

With years of 3-percent annual cost-of-living increases, some are receiving pensions that pay them far more than the salary they made when they were still working.

The point, of course, is not that these forty eight pensions by themselves threaten the pension fund, though they don't help, multiplied as they are by decades and COLA's. It is rather that they are major red flags of a system badly in need of reform. The same "reasoning" that spawned the borderline criminal practice of allowing a few soon-to-be retirees to buy credit into a system to which they never belonged also hatched the idea of excessively generous retirement benefits for all. PDF courtesy RIPEC.

● Based on a recent comparison among New England states, Rhode Island’s State employee pension system (Schedule A) appears to be more generous due to the availability of early age retirement without penalty and the program’s 3.0 percent COLA that is applied to years of service; and

● Even with changes made as of July 1, 2005, Schedule B participants still receive the 2nd highest pension for retirees in New England, assuming retiring at age 60 with 30 years of service, and a final average salary of $70,000.

And the fact that

contribution rates paid by state workers and teachers are already among the highest in the nation

is only a further indicator that something is out of order. Higher contributions all around are necessary when benefits are disproportionately high.

Worse, these pension benefits were for many years represented by elected officials to public employees as feasible and sustainable. The education process now underway that promised benefits are, in fact, the opposite, a situation exacerbated by the General Assembly's proclivity over the years to send insufficient dollars to the pension fund, is understandably difficult and painful. The only course that would be harder, however, is that of inaction.

After a Difficult Violent Roundtable, Part 2

Justin Katz

A second conversation in which sufficient articulation proved difficult on Friday night's all–Anchor Rising Violent Roundtable on the Matt Allen Show related to Matt's statement that the Catholic Church is in some respects an anti-American institution. Having such a strong statement catch one off guard doesn't make measured extemporaneous response an easy accomplishment, but upon reflection, I'd suggest that Matt is backing into a perilous political philosophy.

The Roman Catholic Church — any church, for that matter — should not be an "American" institution. The U.S.A. exists as an entity and as an idea; to the extent that an authentically American church were not redundant, it would be dangerous. A religion with policy conclusions in lock-step with the practice of the American idea would necessarily lend theological import to a quintessentially secular project. It would be a fundamental establishment of religion, marrying Church and State.

There is not only great value in, but essential need for cultural institutions completely separate from the reigning polity — with a source and structure of authority that is distinct from the nation's governmental strategy. Where members of the hierarchy are wrong in prudential matters, Catholics should discuss (even debate) the issues and argue for the Church's proper role, but all should realize that the Church's interests are not the same as the country's. Sometimes one will be wrong, or the human beings who guide it will step beyond their appropriate boundaries; sometimes the other will be the culprit; but that's reason to accept them as mutual ballast.

In an objective analysis, Matt's imputation of anti-Americanism on the part of the Church based on the public policies for which some of its representatives advocate is identical to the impulse of those within the hierarchy who wish overzealously to leverage the government's powers of taxation. Both sides judge and prescribe as if the two pillars of society ought to be more of a continuous support, in which the visibility of light is indicative of fatal cracks, not expected separation.

Let's not dilute anti-Americanism. I don't believe it is Matt's point of view that the Roman Catholic Church takes as its goal the downfall or diminution of the United States as a secular construct. The institutional Church has watched governments rise and fall throughout its history, and there are multiple bold lines between supporting policies that are arguably detrimental to the civic body and calling for the downfall of a Great Satan. An instructive distinction exists between President Ronald Reagan's characterization of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and Pope John Paul II's view of communism as "a medicine more dangerous than the disease itself" that became "a powerful threat and challenge to the entire world."

Both the United States of America and the Roman Catholic Church are centrally concerned with liberty. For one, it's liberty from oppression by people; for the other, it's liberty from oppression by sin and evil. Those concerned with either in particular should pay close attention to the other, but nobody should expect their requirements always to be the same, just as nobody should drive the two apart because one — accurately or erroneously — points in a different direction from time to time.

The project of post-Enlightenment conservatism (as we understand it today) is to layer balances and restraints against human nature, and theologically, the impulse to declare opposition amounts to a Church of Me, in which the individual pushes away a perspective that ought to be given credence. Here, the philosophical thread leads to a final point of contention on Friday night — namely, conservative wariness of populism — which I'll address after I've trimmed some hedges and made my way through the Sunday paper.

June 6, 2009

Re: Truly He Is the One

Monique Chartier

Justin, how about the Daily Show with Jon Stewart instead of SNL?

NewsBusters' Noel Sheppard concludes his post highlighting a segment of Comedy Central's not-exactly-right-wing mock news show thusly.

I guess it's time for NBC and others in the media to understand that when your gushing and fawning for Obama is fodder for comedians, you should consider becoming journalists again rather than the disgraceful sycophants you've been ...

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
The Real World D.C.
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorEconomic Crisis

GM: 17% UAW Stake + 60% Federal Gov't Stake = 100% UAW Control

Monique Chartier

Referring to the federal government acquisition of 60% of General Motors, President Obama stated that

the government would refrain from playing a management role in all but the most critical areas

It appears, however, that "critical" is in the eye of the beholder.

The latest self-appointed car czar is Massachusetts's own Barney Frank, who intervened this week to save a GM distribution center in Norton, Mass. The warehouse, which employs some 90 people, was slated for closure by the end of the year under GM's restructuring plan. But Mr. Frank put in a call to GM CEO Fritz Henderson and secured a new lease on life for the facility.

Congressman Frank has swiftly demonstrated one of the major perils of a government acquiring control of a business: the temptation to make operating decisions on the basis of political rather than business considerations can be overwhelming.

Making Reading Something Bigger

Justin Katz

The burdens and freedoms of summer reading lists probably play a role in a common memory — trudging through Of Mice and Men in the car on trips while eagerly bringing Stephen King's The Stand poolside. (The specific books, of course, will differ.) If the limited goal for the summer is to encourage reading — simply reading — then popular, current books are an understandable concession even in lieu of the classics during the months of July and August.

I wonder if the dynamic is changing, though. Folks of my age just barely caught an overlap of Nintendo GameBoy and high school, and there is only so much Tetris a teenager can play — especially on a pixelated green screen. Kids today can bring with them elaborate, high-definition video game systems, DVD players, computers with high-speed Internet, and that technological step may have been a game changer around this strategy:

Teachers hope the new round of current and young adult titles — thrillers, fantasies, memoirs and even graphic novels — will prompt students to open a book rather than just watch TV, play Guitar Hero or hang out at the beach.

In the 1800s, a young Robert Schumann was a slacker rebel for skipping class to read novels. In my youth, such truancy would have been a sign of studiousness. For the youth of today, voluntary reading must be a peculiarity, and that could be the key to capturing their attention.

Maybe enjoyment isn't the aspect of reading that ought to be emphasized. Perhaps significance ought to be moved toward the spotlight — cultural significance, intellectual significance, historical significance. I recall several group conversations outside of movie theaters during which the participant who had actually read the book stood with a respected authority, and often persuaded his or her peers to take it up. The greater detail of the text — sometimes in the form of associated edification — was usually the basis of interest, but when the movie was of a classic, having experienced the book came with the aura of achievement.

Just so, one of the girls in the high school group with which I saw Silence of the Lambs in the theater shared some of what she'd learned from the book. Not long thereafter, I took it out from the library for the ride home from college in Pittsburgh. Of course, back then, contriving to avoid boredom during a ten-hour train ride required planning and compromise, but perhaps an inculcated sense that reading carries the reward of inherent self-improvement and connection with humanity can better combat the tug of battery-powered distractions.

Toward that purpose, such books as have maintained their cross-generational connection for decades and centuries would be an easier sell. They'd be a better sell, at any rate.

This Mission of D-Day Continues

Justin Katz

Ocean State Republican has posted video and text of President Reagan's 1984 D-Day speech:

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One's country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.

Take special note of this passage:

... Soviet troops that came to the center of this continent did not leave when peace came. They're still there, uninvited, unwanted, unyielding, almost 40 years after the war. Because of this, allied forces still stand on this continent. Today, as 40 years ago, our armies are here for only one purpose — to protect and defend democracy. The only territories we hold are memorials like this one and graveyards where our heroes rest.

Presence is not occupation; that's a notion some among our countrymen don't seem to comprehend in their distrust of their fellows.

Truly He Is the One

Justin Katz


EVAN THOMAS [editor of Newsweek]: Well, we were the good guys in 1984, it felt that way. It hasn't felt that way in recent years. So Obama's had, really, a different task We're seen too often as the bad guys. And he, he has a very different job from ... Reagan was all about America, and you talked about it. Obama is - we are above that now. We're not just parochial, we're not just chauvinistic, we're not just provincial. We stand for something, I mean in a way Obama's standing above the country, above above the world, he's sort of God.

Some of our behind-the-mic conversation last night had to do with the fact that it's no longer fun to spot media bias. Back when I began blogging, it was like an easy game — conservative blogger solitaire or something. Now it's just nauseating, and not a little frightening. Just look at this from yesterday's Washington Post (also in the Providence Journal):

The 55-minute address electrified many Muslims in the Arab Middle East. The president celebrated the cultural, scientific and intellectual achievements of Islam to the delight of the audience inside the domed hall at Cairo University where he spoke -- and beyond.

Using spare language and a measured explanatory tone, the country's first African American president, whose Kenyan family has deep Islamic roots, drew on history, biography, moral principles and mutual interests to dispel cultural stereotypes that divide Christians from Muslims, Arabs from Jews, and the United States from many in the Islamic faith. Seemingly small but symbolically important gestures by Obama drew warm applause, including his use of the phrase "May peace be upon him" after a reference to the prophet Muhammad. Speaking in Arabic, he offered the traditional greeting of "May peace be upon you" on behalf of the American people, again to applause.

Kathryn Lopez has posted a parody Newsweek cover, but it's hardly possible to parody the president-media dynamic anymore. (Has Saturday Night Live been on this? I haven't seen.)

After a Difficult Violent Roundtable, Part 1

Justin Katz

Last night's Violent Roundtable on the Matt Allen Show was the most difficult public appearance/talk show that I've done yet. Probably because Matt correctly assessed that an hour of harmony wouldn't have been very interesting, his questions touched on a number of weighty subjects on which expressing comprehensive thoughts on the spot is not easy.

For instance, take Matt's reference to Rep. John Loughlin's suggestion that the government get out of the marriage business, and permit everybody civil unions, because "marriage is a religious concept." That attempt at compromise (I'd call it a cop-out) is simply based on a false premise. Marriage is not a religious concept; it transcends religion, not only in the sense that all religions throughout history have recognized its opposite-sex nature, as I mentioned last night, but also in the sense that it resides at the intersection of multiple social strata: religion (yes), but also family, heritage, government, property, history, and so on, all of which find relevance in the biological fact of a man and a woman's ability to become one in the person of a child.

Religion's role in marriage is to lend the mysticism that makes the relationship profound, and therefore worthy of lifelong vows. Ancestry roots children in their society. Property gives motivation for productivity and economic prudence, particularly with a long-term view of generations. And government's role is to protect the community that it governs, in this context, by protecting the familial structure on which all of Western society's progress has been founded.

Consequently, government has even more objective, secular interest in encouraging stable marriages — that is, permanent unions between intimate men and women — than it does in encouraging the additional social good of consistent mutual care, which is ultimately what civil unions would recognize. Even the requirement of intimacy would be impossible for the government to require or assume, opening the door for civil unions between anybody and anybody (or anybodies).

For government to reduce all mutual care relationships to a level field, relying on religious groups to define their profundity, it would create a necessary equivalence between them. By declining to adhere to a consistent definition understood across the aforementioned strata, the government referee would be declaring the concept of marriage available for redefinition and throwing it to cultural forces that include not only religious organizations, but also pop-culture industries. If nothing else, the social noise would end the marital institution's utility.

Matt's suggestion — fantastic in principle — that we should refuse to acknowledge the government's authority as lexicographer skirts an assessment of what is actually happening. Drawn forward by well financed and highly motivated special interests and prodded by a complicit media industry, the government has been forcing a new definition of marriage into the culture. That being the case, following Matt's political philosophy would actually require the people to demand that the government explicitly affirm the definition of marriage under which their culture has operated throughout history until such time as it is understood by all to have changed.

In other words, the trajectory of the change currently involves the government's redefinition in order to manipulate the culture. Those playing defense on the traditionalist side are not the ones ceding authority to the political class, nor is there equivalence between our attempts to hold the government in place and the attempts of radicals to drag it into the cultural fight.

The initial question that sparked our discussion, on the radio, was whether the government should be granting heretofore marital rights and privileges piecemeal, one by one, to same-sex couples. The topic shifted a bit by the time it got to me, but my answer would have been that such an approach is precisely the appropriate one. Formed back when people actually believed that same-sex marriage was sufficiently inconceivable that a constitutional amendment was not necessary, my view has long been that the governments at various levels should affirm the traditional definition of marriage and do so in such a way as to enable state-level legislation easing the difficulties that those with other relationship types face. Require that legislation to define new relationships and their privileges without reference to marriage (i.e., no "all rights and privileges of marriage" language), thus requiring our society to come to consensus about the justification, purpose, and meaning of each change.

Cultural forces will vie to define the new unions, and it would be appropriate for those on the same-sex marriage side to refer to themselves as married, if they so choose, as well as to strive for the broader society's similar understanding of their relationships. Over time, the culture may come to see no significant difference between civil unions and marriage, or perhaps the distinctions between mutual-care relationships and procreative marriages will become more prominent. All the debate, however, and experimentation would be performed outside of the core institution of marriage and without the government's being used as a lever to roll the cultural boulder.

June 5, 2009

An Interesting Convergence of Issues

Justin Katz

This story confounds categorization:

Eastern District of Michigan judge Lawrence P. Zatkoff handed down the decision, in a case involving an alleged violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. The issue is whether a government-owned company, AIG, can market sharia-compliant insurance products. (To be sharia-compliant, an investment vehicle must be created and structured in ways that do not violate Islamic law.) In a well-reasoned and cogently argued opinion, Judge Zatkoff refused to dismiss the case prior to factual discovery. ...

The problem with all of this public largesse is that AIG sponsors, pays for, and aggressively markets sharia-compliant insurance products. The practice of sharia finance has created lucrative advisory positions for often radical imams, who get paid to guarantee the religious "purity" of sharia-compliant products. Such vehicles typically follow the Muslim principle of zakat and donate a slice of their profits to charity. Unfortunately, many of the charities receiving these funds have links to terrorism. Mr. Murray objects to his funds' being used to legitimate and promote sharia law, when that is the same law that calls for jihad. For that matter, sharia allows Saudis, Iranians, Sudanese, Somalis, Afghans, Taliban members, and other adherents to justify the following: the execution of apostates who decide to abandon the faith; the criminalizing of "Islamophobic blasphemy"; the punishment of petty crimes with amputations, floggings and stonings; and the repression of “non-believers” from practicing their respective religions freely and openly.

On one hand, a private business should be able to develop, operate, and market whatever products it likes (provided doing so does not directly support our nation's enemies). On the other hand, AIG is not alone, now, in being a not-so-private company, and the government ought not be in the position of financing the adherence to religious law. It's a precarious balance, and the conceit of mere mortals to maintain it is apt to become hamartia.

Herman Melville functions out of context here:

So, when on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! Throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right.

Starboard side, we carry the notion that the government should not interfere with freedoms of association and religion. Port side, we've now hung the principle that the government can become a controlling investor in industry. Express no surprise when when find the deck taking on water.

WW Teachers’ Alliance Takes Legal Action Against an Event that Has Not Yet Taken Place

Monique Chartier

Is this even legally feasible?

A formal complaint has been filed against the school department and the Town of West Warwick by Donald Vanasse, President of the West Warwick Teachers’ Alliance, citing an impending failure to pay accrued wages and salaries.

He has reason to believe that there will be a failure to pay the wages or salaries to WWTA members on or about June 25, 2009, Vanasse wrote in a May 22 letter addressed to Sandara M. Powell, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training/Labor Standards Unit.

This potential situation has arisen because the West Warwck Town Council has chosen to observe their state mandated role of setting the amount of funding that the school department will receive

His last direction from the council, [Town Manager James] Thomas said, is that he is not to authorize any more than the amount approved at the Financial Town Meeting in 2008

while the West Warwick School Committee has tried to expand their own role beyond writing a budget based upon a funding amount set by the Town Council.

“As we sit right now, the town doesn’t have the ability to give the school a loan for the $3.3 million that they’re asking for,” Thomas said. “It’s not the town’s responsibility. The citizens of the town on May 20, 2008 made it very clear to the superintendent that they were giving him $49 million and some change. And the school committee and [Superintendent Kenneth Sheehan] have elected to spend $53 million and some change. The responsibility rests on the superintendent to find that money.”

Charters as Examples in Multiple Ways

Justin Katz

Readers' first reaction to this story may be "let my charters go":

Stymied by contractual rules that control the hiring and placement of teachers, three unionized charter schools are exploring whether to seek independence from the districts that govern them.

Times2 Academy and the Textron Chamber of Commerce Academy, both in Providence, and the New England Laborers Academy/Cranston Public Schools Construction Career Academy have expressed frustration with collective-bargaining language that permits teachers with more seniority to displace — or "bump" — those with less.

After all, some of the justifying evidence is pretty egregious:

Several years ago, 25 of the 35 teachers at Times2 Academy received layoff notices, including the entire elementary school staff. That same year, one-third of the faculty members at Textron received pink slips. Bumping wreaks havoc with small, innovative schools that strive to create learning environments where teachers collaborate on instruction and faculty members get to know their students. ...

"We are concerned about anything that would stifle innovation," Davis said. "At Times2, 72 percent of teachers received a pink slip this spring. When more than two-thirds of our teachers are being told, 'Take a hike,' that is massively disruptive. Times2 has the highest high school graduation rate in the state. We can't afford to put those students at risk."

With a little more consideration, however, one's inclination should be less to let the charters increase their independence (although that should happen, as well) than to address the problem for all schools. Status as a non-charter school does not make it any less disruptive to see large shifts in personnel.

Simply put, the one-two gut punch of bumping and seniority-based assignments and layoffs have no place in a profession like teaching, given the importance of talent — and specificity in talent — as well as consistency and community for the students. When a specific position is set to be eliminated, for whatever reason, that should be that. When faced with the necessity of broader layoffs, districts should be able to confer with principals and other school leaders to weigh the many class, program, school, and district–based factors that bear on each position.

The charters' charge of innovation most definitely highlights the problems in public education, but once identified, we should eliminate those problems for all schools.

Confused About the "Funding Formula"

Carroll Andrew Morse

Funding-formula advocate Jennifer D. Jordan reaches too far in this part of her description of Thursday's Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education meeting, published in today's Projo

Rhode Island is the only state that lacks a school financing formula, so taxpayers, in essence, pay extra money to support charters.
The word "charters" refers to charter schools. But you can direct money just as easily -- maybe more easily -- to charter schools through use a "funding formula" than you can without one. Or you could decide not to fund charters, without implementing a "funding formula". Either way, the decision by a state to fund or not fund charter schools precedes the creation of a "funding formula"; the formula only implements a policy decision that's already been made.

The "funding formula" itself, no matter what it's supporters claim, is not a magical incantation that immediately solves any and all policy questions, it is just a way for the politicians to try to deflect responsibility for the decisions they make, e.g. whether to fund charters, whether to raise taxes in the suburbs to pay for schools in the cities, etc. (It might also be used to get some pols to support a program without realizing what it is that they are supporting, but that kind of thing could never happen in Rhode Island, right?)

Finally, Ms. Jordan's use of "extra" to describe the money used for students in public charter schools requires some scrutiny. Shouldn't all public school students be considered equally worthy of taxpayer support, no matter what kind of management structure is operating above them? Or does the state see its role in education as promoting particular forms of bureaucracy, rather than funding students?

Taxes Go Up in Warwick

Marc Comtois

In Warwick this week, after all was said and done, the average homeowner will see an increase of $146 to their annual property tax bill. Ultimately, despite an attempt to cut more, the schools were level-funded, largely because--with 86% of the school budget locked in--the remaining 14% of cuts would directly affect the students. Think about that for a second: 86% of the school budget is related to contractual obligations or fixed costs (heating, electric, etc.). For his part, School Committee Chair Christopher Friel's seemed exasperated:

“I’m just absolutely flabbergasted that all the talk about budget has centered around reducing the school department budget when the city is raising property taxes by $8.7 million and none of it is coming to the school department.”
He's got a point, but the level-funding is going to a School department that has one less elementary school now (and 4 less over the last 2 years). That being said, it was very much a case of the City Council and the Mayor continuing to point the finger of blame at the School Committee and Administration, who lay outside of their direct control. Well, they have a point. And that's the, um, point. There is plenty of blame to go around. Warwick is just another example of the larger systemic problem we have in the state, but all our leaders seem willing to do is nibble around the edges and wait for someone else to make the tough decisions.

A Taste of the Future of Medicine?

Justin Katz

Long wait times will likely be more characteristic than lotteries, but somehow this strikes me as an extreme vision of the future of healthcare for the average American in a government-run system:

At 4 p.m., volunteers from the clinic came out with a roll of carnival-style paper tickets. They handed each person a ticket and asked them to put their name and number on the stub.

Someone else handed out sheets of paper with the rules in English and Spanish: the Free Clinic is only for people who have no health insurance. They must prove that their income is less that 150 percent of the federal poverty level — that is, less than $2,200 a month for a family of three. The Free Clinic does not care for children 18 and younger, nor does it provide obstetrical care to pregnant women.

Lynne Urbani, the president and chief executive officer of the Rhode Island Free Clinic, addressed the group, saying she would be drawing 14 names in a few minutes, about half as many as usual because there were fewer volunteer doctors available this night. With a translator, she asked them to affirm that they have no insurance and have a ticket in their hand. They nod in agreement. Those whose names are pulled should expect to stay till 9 p.m. Those who aren’t chosen will get a call offering them an appointment; the next opening is in July.

If prices are set, the medical industry will attract fewer professionals. If tax dollars (in one form or another) are the method of payment — filtered through the government bureaucracy — there will be rationing and long delays as financing and demand fail to balance.

In healthcare, we've got a product that people tend to see as an inconvenience when they're healthy and as a dire necessity when they're not. The more the system separates those who pay from those who receive, the more effort paid employees will have to allocate for determining priorities or the more they'll disregard that responsibility and rely on cold process and chance.

Invading the Studio Again

Justin Katz

Andrew, Marc, and I will be invading the 630AM/99.7FM WPRO studio again, this evening, for the second all-Anchor Rising Violent Roundtable from 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on the Matt Allen Show (which begins at 6:00 p.m.). What the topics will be only Matt knows — which is why I'll be reading my newspaper a little more closely today — but the hour always flies by; please join us.

Behind Every Wonk Is a Story

Justin Katz

My closest friend during my fresh-from-high-school year at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh was a small-venue professional wrestler. (Were I inclined to categorize it as a sport, rather than a form of performance, I'd have characterized him as a player in the minor league.) He and his twin brother were a bad-guy tag team of sufficient success to figure prominently in a small budget movie with a wrestling theme. As it happens, he also works closely with the director of a famous B horror movie franchise who was related to his long-time girlfriend.

Some people are attracted to exotic activities out of a need to assert their own differentness, but I think it is most often the case that talents and interests tumble with circumstances to bring some of us — the fortunate among us, in my book — to unique experiences. What could possibly possess a graduate from a top-notch college like CMU to overnight on a field in rural Pennsylvania with a film crew and a bunch of people made up as zombies? Well, the fact that it's cool!

I have a similar reaction to the fact that local left-wing wonk Tom Sgouros was a circus performer before he became a researcher and pundit:

About 20 years ago, when I was earning my keep as a rope-walker and fire-eater, I prevailed on Roger, an old-time circus performer who wintered in Fall River, to give me a lesson in rigging. Roger was a cool guy, and performed atop a 120-foot sway pole that wobbled back and forth while he did handstands and the like way up there. Circus performers all do their own rigging -- because who else would you trust? -- and he turned out to be as expert as any long-term survivor of a career like that.

I went over to his place one day, and Roger showed me the sequined capes and clogs he made his entrance with. I seem to remember a chimpanzee costume, too, though I can't remember how that fit in.

I'd love to know how Mr. Sgouros found his way from (as it were) the kindergarten classroom to the workshop of that high-stakes pole dancer and would find of even more interest the route from fire-eater to rhetorician. Unfortunately, the path that leads to the exotic activity of right-wing opinionating tends to make one an outcast among outsiders, and in conversation, things like the Economic Death and Dismemberment Act seem usually to get in the way. One becomes the noun in the phrase "fraternizing with the enemy."

Whatever the case, you won't find me looking to peculiar backgrounds for a dirty blow in debate. What perspective the tightrope walker — like the wrestler balancing on a turnbuckle — must gain up there! One wonders whether the affinity for ghouls is related or merely coincidental...

June 4, 2009

Boycotting Solipstocracy: Government by the Unitary Self

Justin Katz
"From the beginning, I made it clear that I would not put any more tax dollars on the line if it meant perpetuating the bad business decisions that had led these companies to seek help in the first place," he said. "I refused to let these companies become permanent wards of the state, kept afloat on an endless supply of taxpayer money. In other words, I refused to kick the can down the road."

To prevent GM from becoming a ward of the state, Obama made it the property of the state.

"I decided then," said the first person in chief, "that if GM and their stakeholders were willing to sacrifice for their companies' survival ... then the United States government would stand behind them."

Here, I, Barack virtually identified himself with the United States government.

There you have just five of the "I"s that Terence Jeffrey counted in President Obama's speech about his administration's takeover of GM. Jeffrey goes on to ask an important question:

He did not say he would ask Congress to enact legislation to provide the executive with the funds needed to purchase 60 percent of GM or with the legal authority to restructure the company and oversee its business plan. He said: "I decided then ... the United States government would stand behind them." Remember: In December, Congress specifically declined to enact legislation authorizing the president to bail out the auto industry--let alone to purchase an auto company. What law now gives Obama authority to buy General Motors? The White House says, when pressed, it is the Troubled Asset Relief Program. But that legislation was written specifically to allow the Treasury Department to purchase assets from "financial institutions." It says nothing about buying auto companies.

Ever since I began my all-too-American aggregation of debt with the purchase of a brand new Pontiac Grand Am GT on a fish huckster's wage, I've owned GM automobiles. Each time I've bought one, I've had a few thousand dollars worth of points from my GM credit card. Unless Ford or some Japanese automaker begins accepting those points, I'm afraid they'll be going to waste; I can't in good conscience support the machinations of a president who pats himself on the back for "deciding" that and how "stakeholders" in a private company should "sacrifice."

What Management Rights?

Marc Comtois

Whether it's with Police departments in Cranston and East Providence or charter schools in Providence and Cranston, union contracts just always seem to contain provisions that restrict basic management rights. In the case of the Police, why on earth should the Mayor and/or City Council not be able to hire whomever they want to be Chief? Well, because both Cranston and East Providence have contracts restricting new hires to from within their own ranks. As for the charter schools, the price for getting charter schools in Rhode Island at all was, apparently, that they be unionized and young teachers be subjected to the same "bump" process that can short-circuit any hopes of school-team building.

Cranston's Mayor Fung seems to have conceded the point (the City Council is still looking into its options) and the E.P. City Council is fighting the union. As for the charter schools, Education Commissioner McWalters previously directed the Providence schools to replace vacancies based solely on teacher qualifications, not seniority, and the belief is that his directive can be extended to include the Charter Schools. Or they'll seek emancipation from the school systems to which they are currently linked.

A Missed Opportunity for a Lesson in Charity... and Independence

Justin Katz

Marc addressed the intention of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence to request that its pastors advocate during Mass on Sunday for maintenance of welfare payments. Dan Yorke expressed dismay, as well.

What I find most discouraging about the initiative is its indication that the Church is misassessing (or not adequately considering) the political tides. Religious organizations are facing increasingly pointed questions about the justification for social and political exemptions when it comes to the practical expression of their faith. The most prominent example has been Massachusetts's refusal to permit Catholic Charities to apply its religious beliefs to the practice of placing children in adoptive homes consisting of a mother and a father. With the swell of the same-sex marriage movement, those questions will become demands.

What the diocese and the Church must do is to define religious organizations' position in contrast with the state — delineating distinctions of priorities, appropriate approaches, and independent value. Preaching political activism from the pulpit in the service of maintained government spending and services does not take the wise path. It affirms the principles that will smother the vitality right out of America's religious institutions.

Observing budget-driven hardship among those who rely on government services and handouts, the Church should strive to pick up the slack, not to crack the whip. The homilies that Rhode Islanders hear this weekend should not focus on asking the Statehouse's little Caesars to wield the the power of their thumbless economic hands, but on asking parishioners to target charity toward people in need, to consider hiring from among the ranks of the unemployed, especially the long-unemployed. Rather than using its structure in the fashion of a political action committee, the hierarchy should mobilize an institutional brainstorming session to determine how the diocese's own programs and resources might be leveraged for the benefit of those whom the state can no longer afford to support financially.

Stepping in to do God's work when the government cannot (or should not) will reestablish religious organizations as an important institution apart from the political structure, deserving of maximum freedom to do what they do. By contrast, not only endorsing, but advocating for statist economic policies will inevitably compromise the Church's strength when it comes to resisting the social and cultural policies on which those who deify the state will insist.

The Big Picture on Progressives and Pensions

Carroll Andrew Morse

A defined benefit pension system, like any retirement system, only works if there's enough money in it to fund what needs to be paid out. Seems straightforward, right?

Alas, not if you're a progressive. That's why they simultaneously push ideas like these, via a recently recycled Pat Crowley post at RI Future

  • 87% believe all workers should have a pension so they can be self-reliant in retirement.
  • 79% of Americans think it is a good idea for government to sponsor pension plans that small employers or individuals can join.
...that suggest the goal should be to get to a place where "all" people are going to be in a pension system, with a large part of the system "government sponsored". But if everyone is in a defined-benefit plan, then where will the money come from, when there's not enough money to simultaneously meet current obligations, while keeping enough in the kitty to pay for future obligations -- as is the case in many state pension funds (including Rhode Island's) right now? Or what will happen to pension benefits promised by companies that go out of business, without adequate resources in their funds to cover their future obligations?

DB proponents offer two basic categories of answer to these questions…

  1. Answer #1: What problem are you talking about -- pensions are always secure because as much money as is necessary can be taken at will from future taxpayers to pay for them. (DB proponents don't actually say this, it's just implied). To get a rough idea of what this future would look like, imagine having Social Security as your only retirement, and probable continuing increases on your FICA payroll taxes throughout your lifetime in order to pay for it.
  2. Answer #2: Trust us, you can be sure that government will put aside the money it needs to pay for future obligations, even though it hasn't managed to so far. Note, however, that amongst Rhode Island DB supporters, there are several who do not believe that providing the funding that pension plans need to meet their future obligations should be a budget priority (see Answer #1 on how they plan to make up the difference.)
But as we've discussed in some detail here at Anchor Rising, DB pension systems that are properly funded and managed over their lifetimes are virtually identical, from a fiscal perspective, to defined contribution systems that are properly funded and managed over their lifetimes , i.e. you get the same amount out relative to what you put in.

In the end, DB advocates, who also argue the adequate funding and reasonable benefit levels can be assumed, aren't arguing for a system that's fiscally different from a 401(k)-style defined contribution system, they're arguing the government needs to take a certain portion of everyone's paycheck, because it can plan for everyone's retirement better than they can themselves (especially, I learned this week, in the case of people who belong to certain demographic groups whom they've concluded are unable to make the investment decisions that improve their chances for a maximal return, but I wouldn't dare touch that point, except to note that Judge Sonia Sotomayor might also agree that there are "inherent physiological differences" that might make one group "wiser" than another when it comes to decision-making, but that's her stated position, not mine, and I'm getting way off-track now...)

Not for Nuthin', But the Pizza's Good!

Marc Comtois

According to GQ, Rhode Island can lay claim to 2 of the 25 best pizza's in the U S of A (hat tip ProJo). Number 5 overall was the Spinach-and-Mushroom Pizza at Bobby and Timmy's while #18 was the Grilled Pizza with Roasted Eggplant at Al Forno. Overall, Providence ranked #5 on the list of Top Ten Pizza Cities. The writer, Alan Richman, encountered his share of annoyances along the way:

Overaccessorizing was far from the worst problem I encountered. There is a dark side to the triumph of the American pie.

Pizza has become the gourmet food of the recession, and the men who create these pies consider themselves artists—narcissistic, reclusive artists, at that. I’ve told you about Margherita DOC. These eccentrics specialize in Pizza OCD, bringing obsessive-compulsive disorders to the once simple business of making pies.

They often refuse to take reservations, thus guaranteeing themselves long lines of worshippers. Their primary weirdness, however, is preparing not quite enough dough for the day ahead so they might turn away the last few desperate customers. Even if they are doing this to ensure freshness, as they claim, they could rely on a practice perfected in modern times that would enable them to never run out of dough—it’s known as refrigeration. Or they could prepare more than enough, but that would create the possibility that a ball or two of the dough that they love more than their customers would have to be thrown out.

These guys find multiple ways of being annoying. At Pizzeria Bianco, a friend and I ordered four pies that we shared with the people who had stood in line with us for more than an hour. Still hungry, I tried to order a fifth, but I was cut off like a roaring drunk in an American Legion hall, told that I had reached my limit. At a pizzeria (I do not recommend) in Chicago, I was informed when I called that I had to order ahead of time, although there is no menu on the restaurant Web site and the lady on the telephone refused to tell me what pies were available. Pizzerias now inhabit a space once occupied by snooty French restaurants, and they are smug, too. One pizzeria in Brooklyn (I do not recommend) lets you know that its pork is sustainable, its beef grass-fed, its eggs organic, and its grease converted into biofuel. (If only as much attention had been given to crusts.)

Note that #2 on his list was a "plain pie" (sauce, cheese and a little basil) made in Brooklyn. When done right, a simple pie can still be the best.

AR's Optimism That It Doesn't Have to Be This Way

Justin Katz

Andrew presented the question, in studio with Matt Allen last night, about whether Rhode Islanders believe that their state must always be at the wrong end of every list (especially those that are economic in nature). Stream by clicking here, or download it.

Yes, Let's Compare North Carolina and Rhode Island Public Sector Pensions

Justin Katz

It must be difficult to continually strive to find concrete facts to bolster the clearly erroneous position that Rhode Island needn't make dramatic changes to its public-sector union deals. In response to an op-ed touting North Carolina's 106% funding of its public pension system — versus Rhode Island's 53% — Pat Crowley presents the following argument:

... it doesn’t take too long to figure out that maybe it isn’t the benefits that are dragging down the state pension system. After all, a quick examination of the North Carolina plan shows that it may not be the benefits that drag down a plan, but political meddling. For example, public employees in Rhode Island make the highest contributions of any public employees in the country. Teachers contribute 9.5% of their pay to the pension plan. State workers contribute 8.75%. What do they contribute in North Carolina? 6%. That’s right, they contribute less.

So they must get less, right? Nope. Take a worker who earns $50,000 when they retire. In Rhode Island, under schedule A (the old system), a worker could retire at any age after 28 years of service and collect a monthly pension benefit of $2541 per month. But, under schedule B (the new system) that worker must work at least until age 59 and have 29 years of service to accrue a monthly benefit of $2,208. In North Carolina? Any age, 30 years, the person gets $2,275. Not quite as good as schedule A, but remember, in they are contributing nearly 4% less of their salary. And it is still better than Schedule B.

North Carolina pensioners also get a cola, tied to the CPI, just like Rhode Island. The handbook wasn’t exactly clear about when the cola takes affect… in other words, it isn’t clear if they have the Rhode Island delay factor. Nor does it seem like they have a cola cap as in Rhode Island.

Until Mr. Crowley nudged me in this direction, I'd found the "political meddling" talking point to be mostly persuasive, requiring an answer of, "yeah, but the now-what is the thing." Having scratched the surface of the NC-RI comparison, however, I'm not so sure that's the appropriate response. Let's start with the easy points:

  • Cost of living: Crowley relies entirely on North Carolina's pension handbook (PDF), which is why he finds the description of the COLA process vague; the Rhode Island handbook (PDF) lays out the formula. The vagueness results from the fact that North Carolina does not appear to have automatic cost of living adjustments: each one is a function of legislative statute, taking into account various factors, especially the state's financial condition. In 2008, NC gave pensioners another 2.2%; in 2006, it was 3%; in 2003, 1.28%; in 1991, nothing at all.
  • First-year calculations: Take note of Crowley's sleight-of-hand when he compares the two states' calculations. Assuming a final average salary of $50,000 — which North Carolinans would have to average over four consecutive years, while Rhode Islanders are judged by three — Pat plugs the numbers into the formulas to show those in NC receiving more despite their lower contributions. The problem is that he calculates the Rhode Island numbers using fewer years of service (their respective minimum ages), which clearly skews the numbers. In RI, a state worker who works the 30 years at which those in NC can receive their full pensions will actually receive $2,302, on schedule B, and $2,750, on schedule A. In other words, after working 30 years, the NC pensioner begins with $27,300 per year, while the RI pensioner begins with $27,624 or $33,000.

Moving beyond the assumed average salary, however, brings us to the doozy. As a preliminary note, I'll point out that North Carolina requires employees to work 30 hours per week to be eligible for a pension, while Rhode Island requires only 20, so I've excluded part-time workers in what follows. Using the U.S. Census of Government Employment Build-a-Table Tool, I dug my way to the following data related to full-time state and local employees (dollar amounts are annual):

North Carolina Rhode Island % Difference
Total employees 488,723 49,378
Full-time pay $20,079,838,692 $2,720,994,372
...Average $41,086 $55,105 34%
Elementary & secondary instruction employees 147,738 16,258
Elementary & secondary instruction pay $6,106,397,004 $1,009,706,664
...Average $41,333 $62,105 50%
All non-instruction employees 340,985 33,120
All non-instruction pay $13,973,441,688 $1,711,287,708
...Average $40,980 $51,669 26%

It's true that Rhode Island teachers, who contribute the greatest percentage of their pay toward retirement among RI public employees, put 3.5% more toward their pensions than do their peers in North Carolina, but on average, they're paid 50% better! Furthermore, if we calculate pensions from these averages, the thirty-year North Carolina teacher gets $1,881 per month, while the average RI teacher gets $2,859 under schedule B and $3,416 under schedule A. Annually, those three numbers work out to $22,568, $34,313, and $40,989. So, while it may be the case that the two states' formulas don't make the difference between funded and not-so-much (although Rhode Island's does grant a little higher percentage of salary, and then there are those automatic COLAs), the major difference derives from the fact that public employees are paid so much more, up here.

And lest somebody argues that our more-expensive region makes the difference, Bureau of Economic Analysis data paints that as a relatively minor consideration. (Note: This table includes part-time employees.)

North Carolina Rhode Island % Difference
Wage and salary employment 4,423,523 513,562
Wage and salary dispersements $170,554,670,000 $21,048,764,000
...Average $38,556 $40,986 6%
State and local government employees 629,279 62,157
State and local government pay $21,755,270,160 $2,869,287,108
...Average $34,572 $46,162 34%
Non-state & local government employees* 3,794,244 471,405
Non-state & local government pay* $148,799,399,840 $18,179,476,892
...Average* $39,217 $40,273 3%
* These numbers mix the data sets, so they should be considered estimates for illustration purposes only.

In summary, yes, Mr. Crowley, this is a union and union benefit issue, in which North Carolina public-sector employees earn 12% less than the average non-state employee, while their Rhode Island peers earn 15% more. (And that's not even getting into benefits, such as healthcare.) I'm certainly eager for considered discussion of the data, but it appears to me that the great pension debate that never seems quite to happen returns rather quickly to the battle over remuneration.

Attorney General Holder, Chiquita Banana and Death Squads

Monique Chartier

This is the improbable combination suggested by commenter Joe Bernstein under Justin's post.

But sure enough ...

Do not expect these recommendations to be carried forward if Eric Holder decides to forgo his lucrative corporate law practice at Covington & Burling and accept the U.S. Attorney General position for which many believe he is the top contendor. Eric Holder would have a troubling conflict of interest in carrying out this work in light of his current work as defense lawyer for Chiquita Brands international in a case in which Colombian plaintiffs seek damages for the murders carried out by the AUC paramilitaries - a designated terrorist organization. Chiquita has already admitted in a criminal case that it paid the AUC around $1.7 million in a 7-year period and that it further provided the AUC with a cache of machine guns as well.

Indeed, Holder himself, using his influence as former deputy attorney general under the Clinton Administration, helped to negotiate Chiquita's sweeheart deal with the Justice Department in the criminal case against Chiquita. Under this deal, no Chiquita official received any jail time.

Firedoglake has more details.

An Attorney General with such items on his resume reflects poorly on the President who nominated him. Setting aside for a moment the ruinous economic policies that he and Congress have been implementing, President Obama is a genuinely nice guy. I'm surprised, in light of these nasty details, that Eric Holder was his choice for this important position.

Carrying this over to the domestic front, by the way, it appears that guns are fine for South American death squads but possibly not for Americans.

June 3, 2009

Cuts for Me, Not for Thee

Marc Comtois

The Diocese of Providence and other religious institutions plan on preaching from the pulpit against a planned reduction in welfare spending. A plan that was passed by the General Assembly a year ago. The Interfaith Coalition wants to delay the cuts for another year, when, hopefully, the economy has rebounded. According to the Diocese of Providence's Rev. Bernard Healy, “A budget is a moral document that reflects the priorities of our state leaders. The future of our children must be the first priority.”

Indeed. But sometimes, whether we like it or not, cuts have to be made. Sometimes institutions have to be consolidated, sometimes with little warning, because there aren't enough people giving enough money to provide and maintain the same amount of services. Sacrifices are made and people adjust.

And sometimes providing our children, our future, with the same level of quality education becomes too expensive, particularly when trying to operate on reduced revenue. So schools simply have to be closed--even if with little warning. Yet, the kids can go to public or other private schools and they will adjust.

And sometimes it costs too much money to upgrade aging facilities that help the elderly, so they have to be closed, often with little warning. It's the only fiscally responsible thing to do. The elderly move to other homes and adjust.

Now the Governor and the Legislature, faced with a fiscal crisis and after having given people a year to plan, are being chastised and asked to give just one more year. So many years have already been given.

No more. These cuts have been on the horizon and people should be more than ready to adjust. For those who don't, I have faith that our religious institutions and our booming non-profit industry will continue to help as they can. In this, the state and its taxpayers are acting with the same sort of fiscal responsibility as exercised by the Catholic Church. No more, no less.

Using the Impossible Dream for Political Advantage

Justin Katz

Whether voiced by Democrats or Republicans (and both have), this sort of talk has got to be getting nauseating for anybody who's paid even passing attention during the past few decades:

Obama administration officials argue that this unpopularity has hindered the United States' ability to achieve its goals.

"Our image in the world, particularly in the Muslim world, has, over the course of many years, not been what it needs to be in order to accomplish, for instance, peace in the Middle East," said Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary and a top advisor.

Oh yes. If only we rephrase our position and leverage polls to make ourselves more palatable to the "Muslim street," we'll be able to resolve a perennial conflict in which one side openly expresses a desire for genocide and sends women and children to blow themselves up as human guided missiles. The last guy just said the wrong things is all, so a change of rhetoric will be as a balm on a lesion.

Any politician who expresses the position that Gibbs has articulated is not to be taken seriously. Again: whether they're on the left or the right.

Rhode Island is Among the Worst in a Bad Economy

Carroll Andrew Morse

Does the release of yet another set of statistics showing how badly Rhode Island is doing economically still count as news? The answer, unfortunately, is yes, as Rhode Island still manages to find its way to the bottom of the pack when states are ranked in terms of their economic performances, a measure which takes into account the nationwide slowdown.

Yesterday, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis released its initial state-by-state gross domestic product (GDP) figures for 2008. While growth across the country was slow, just 0.7% above the previous year, 37 states still managed to show positive economic growth of some kind. Rhode Island, however, was one of 12 states showing negative economic growth, with its gross state product of shrinking by 0.9%, the 5th worse change in state GDP in the nation.

The negative growth cannot be blamed on our location. Of the six New England states, Rhode Island ranked last in GDP change, with 4 of the states showing positive growth (Massachusetts leading the way, at 1.9%).

Consider the above data to be a Rorschach test about what you believe the source of Rhode Island's troubles to be. Do you look at the above figures and say, well when the nation is doing badly, it's inevitable that Rhode Island will be doing even worse, so there's nothing we can do (a symptom of what I believe University or Rhode Island Economics Professor Leondard Lardaro would call an endogenous view of Rhode Island's troubles) -- or do you look at the figures and think that they point to a need to fix something in Rhode Island that's broken?


Government Doesn't Count as a Monopolist?

Justin Katz

What's vexing is that Herchell Talan of North Kingstown has the basic principle right but comes to a statist conclusion anyway:

In the past 13 years, health-insurance companies have merged with each other at a frightening rate, and now a small number of companies dominate local markets. Rhode Island basically has two insurers: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island and United HealthCare. The data in the report show how much of states' markets are controlled by one insurance company. Indeed, 94 percent of insurance markets in America are controlled by one or two companies, a near-monopoly under Department of Justice definitions.

We need more competition. By giving us a choice of a public health-insurance plan that's available to everyone, Congress can break the insurance industry's monopoly.

A choice of public health-insurance plans is good for consumers. It will let us choose the plan that meets our needs the best. More competition and choice means more efficiency as insurance plans compete and prices go down.

The government doesn't operate like a private company; competitive forces don't affect it the same way, and neither does its activity affect those forces in the same way. For one thing, a given activity of government doesn't have to be profitable to persist, which is why statists like it so much, because it enables the perpetuation of favored policies even when those policies prove a drain.

The remedy for monopolies (as we've seen in other industries) is to break them up, not to introduce a larger player that doesn't have to meet basic competitive standards. It is all but inevitable that government healthcare will draw the market toward itself until it is a true monopolist. Somehow, I suspect that's not an outcome that Talan fears.

June 2, 2009

Battles over Language

Justin Katz

It's difficult not to see a deliberate stratagem behind the left's reaction to the "S" word, as Jonah Goldberg describes in USA Today:

Washington Post columnists Jim Hoagland (a centrist), E.J. Dionne (a liberal) and Harold Meyerson (very, very liberal) have all suggested that Obama intentionally or otherwise is putting us on the path to "social democracy." Left-wing blogger and Democratic activist Matthew Yglesias last fall hoped that the financial crisis offered a "real opportunity" for "massive socialism." Polling done by Rasmussen — and touted by Meyerson — shows that while Republicans favor "capitalism" over "socialism" by 11 to 1, Democrats favor capitalism by a mere 39% to 30%. So, again: Is it really crazy to think that there is a constituency for some flavor of socialism in the Democratic Party?

When the question is aimed at them like an accusation, liberals roll their eyes at such "paranoia." They say Obama is merely reviving "New Deal economics" to "save" or "reform" capitalism. But liberals themselves have long seen this approach as the best way to incrementally bring about a European-style, social democratic welfare state. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (Robert's father) wrote in 1947, "There seems no inherent obstacle to the gradual advance of socialism in the United States through a series of New Deals."

The label of "socialist" doesn't play well across the United States, so as the administration inches toward applicable policies, the interference machine will kick into gear. I say call it what you will: Pravda uses "Marxism"; Golberg suggests "corporatism" (a marker of fascism). We could go with "statism," or perhaps we should coin "Obamaism" (although that sounds more like a trademark pattern of speech).

Just as with "liberalism," "Leftism," "progressivism," and so on, the stink of the concept will come through whatever perfumed linguistics are applied.

Just an Observation

Justin Katz

Anybody notice that the proud (still) new owner of RI Future has ceased to post under his own name — both on the main index and in the comments?

I wonder if Mr. Crowley and/or others have recognized the toxicity of his personal brand. Or is there some other motivation?


I appear to have posted too quickly. There's some flipping back and forth, between the two names, although everything currently on the main page, including Pat's ham-handed Tuesdays with Eddie feature is labeled as "RIFUTURE." I've adjusted this post some, but truth to tell, I should have resisted the urge to quip. Chalk it up to tiredness and the sorts of minor errors in judgment that a blogger is apt to make from time to time.

It just struck me as odd to see a generic "RIFUTURE" posting using the first person so copiously, as well as engaging in vehement attacks. It honestly saddens me to watch the RI Future brand so despoiled.

A Despicable Omission

Justin Katz

Byron York wonders whether the GM bailout will finally tie the popular President Obama to the sinking weight of his policies. Personally, I wouldn't presume to predict.

I will say this, though: I expect it registers with more voters than one might think that a president who issued a statement about the murder of an abortion doctor within hours on a Sunday is also a commander in chief who has yet, within days, to express similar "shock and outrage" that one of his soldiers was gunned down on an American street the following morning.

I guess a president must have priorities.

But What Are Immigrants Coming For?

Justin Katz

David Segal's phrasing of the motivation for immigration is telling:

Reasons for immigration vary year by year and generation by generation, but there are two basic themes: Flight from violence, and flight from destitution.

Whatever somebody's reasons for running from a place, it's not irrelevant to consider why they run to another place — in this case, the United States. Immigrants travel to the United States for freedom and opportunity — self governance — and unless we acknowledge that our nation has something of globally incomparable value, then we'll forget that precious qualities must be preserved. And if we forget that, then we just might follow the likes of Segal into confusion about how immigration policy can affect such preservation.

John J. Loughlin II: Socialized Medicine - Let’s Look Before We Leap

Engaged Citizen

Our healthcare system is on life support. While the career politicians in Washington have done little, too many Rhode Islanders remain underinsured or uninsured. The system is characterized by rising costs, quality concerns and a lack of patient control. These problems hit the poor and the elderly hardest.

One of the chief reasons is that our healthcare system is governed by a complicated system of laws and regulations forcing patients and doctors through a maze of red tape. You’ll hear a lot in the coming weeks about a new administration socialized medicine program supported by Congressman Kennedy. More government can’t solve this problem because government is the problem.

Socialized medicine resulting in government-run healthcare is exactly the wrong direction for Rhode Islanders. If you think a government-run health system would be easy to use and efficient, I would encourage you to stop by the Registry of Motor Vehicles to see what a government-run system to deliver services would look like. Not a pretty picture. Socialized medicine would bring on more red tape, healthcare rationing and your medical decisions made by Washington bureaucrats rather than doctors. This would all come at an enormous cost in higher taxes and even more money borrowed from foreign governments on the backs of our children and grandchildren.

There are some common sense alternatives that I would encourage Congressman Kennedy to seriously consider as an alternative to government run socialized medicine. One such alternative is called the Patient’s Choice Act. This proposal would allow patients, not government bureaucrats, to choose their health insurance plans and their doctors. Patient’s Choice features preventative measures rewarding Rhode Islanders for choosing healthy lifestyles, with real incentives for states to reduce rates of chronic ailments such as heart disease and diabetes.

Our healthcare system should be easy to navigate and provide integrated care. The best way to achieve this is to create a vibrant health insurance market that is consistent, fair and affordable. New consumer protections would ensure that every Rhode Islander has access to the same benefits that have been enjoyed by Congressman Kennedy for the past 15 years.

The Patient’s Choice Act would protect the most vulnerable Rhode Islanders and ensure that no individual would be turned down based on health or age. Allowing states to pool their healthcare resources and creating reinsurance markets and risk adjustment mechanisms would provide coverage for those Rhode Islanders most at risk. By modernizing Medicaid and Medicare we would give low-income families the same access to high-quality care through direct assistance.

Creating Medicare Accountability Care organizations would also improve payment to our physicians, hospitals, pharmacists and nurses for demonstrable improvements in quality and patient satisfaction while reducing costs at the same time.

Our current legal system does a poor job at compensating patients for medical mistakes in a fair and efficient manner. Instead of creating an environment where medical professionals can openly learn from their mistakes, our legal system often forces doctors and patients into contentious and expensive courtroom disputes. This drives up the costs of health care with staggering costs for medical malpractice insurance we all pay for. Why not put in place a panel of medical experts, patients and healthcare providers to resolve disputes without costly legal fights?

Lastly, our current tax system is stacked in favor of the wealthy and those who get their health coverage through their employers. This discriminates against the self-employed, the unemployed, and small businesses. We need to provide advanced and refundable tax credits in order to increase the amount of money Rhode Islanders can contribute to their health savings accounts.

In short, we need to be very cautious about jumping headlong into a costly and infective socialized medicine government-run system like the one Congressman Kennedy is proposing. Let’s look before we leap and build an affordable system that makes the most of the doctor-patient relationship. We can craft a system to provide universal access to affordable and effective health care, without allowing our well being to be rationed by Washington bureaucrats.

State Representative John J. Loughlin II (R) represents District 71 (Little Compton, Portsmouth, and Tiverton).

They Said, They Said

Marc Comtois

Last night, members of the Warwick Schools Administration and School Committee attended a public hearing in front of the City Council to discuss the 2010 budget. Blame was cast, fingers were pointed and recent contracts approved by the School Committee and City Council were compared and contrasted:

Under a contract extension negotiated last year, teachers gave back part of their pay raises for the current school year and will receive a 2.25-percent salary increase next year.

In return, their health-insurance premium co-payments were kept status quo at a flat rate of $11 per week per employee.

When council members repeatedly pointed out that the School Committee had won no health insurance concessions in that renegotiation, Committee Chairman Christopher Friel countered that the schools' health benefits pale in comparison to what the city gives its employees.

Avedisian was recently able to renegotiate the labor pacts with all city unions in which employees not only made wage concessions but agreed to increase their health-insurance payments to $28 per week.

Friel said that while that is true, the schools do not provide lifetime health insurance like the city does and it requires co-payments from retirees while the city does not. If the School Department's benefits matched what the city gives it employees, it would cost tens of millions of dollars, he said.

Nothing new, but the public sector mindset is still obvious to see. Concessions bartered still result in better deals than in the private sector during these tough economic times. Real concessions would have entailed--at the very least--wage freezes and pragmatic benefit adjustments all-around. (Instead, for instance, neither Council nor Committee saw fit to make health insurance co-pays or co-shares a percentage rather than a flat fee). So while the pols point fingers at each other, the taxpayer is left to shake their head and wish a pox on both their houses. For the bottom line remains: real fiscal sanity cannot be restored until the accumulated, negotiated detritus of the past 30 years is cleaned up and simplified. Until then, we're just nibbling at the edges and praying for pennies from heaven.

Tuesday Morning Theology

Justin Katz

Given the comments to my post about Monday's (apparently) politically founded murder, it would seem that my non-symbolic reference to an entity named Satan has caused some confusion about my view of human agency.

The existence of evil as a force in the universe does not absolve humanity of responsibility for acts committed in its service. Wicked acts are always a choice, else they are not wicked, but unfortunate — tragic. There's a subtlety along that line, to be sure, having to do with individual intention and awareness, but I'm speaking in broad categorical terms, here.

However, I maintain that we never relinquish our humanity — or our inherent value as human beings — on the basis of our acts. The precious soul still exists, clouded (even suffocating) amidst evil's corruption.

Abortionist George Tiller, like his murderer, like the murderer of the soldier in Arkansas performed evil acts. But they were not evil of themselves. Thus is it appropriate to say that somebody has been guided — or lured — by Satan without thereby implying that he or she sacrificed moral worth.

Widening the Field?

Carroll Andrew Morse

Is this Associated Press article (via the Boston Herald) talking about candidates for Governor, candidates for the general offices, or candidates in general?

Gov. Don Carcieri is a rare Republican governor in one of the bluest of blue states, a social and fiscal conservative who won re-election in 2006 even as fellow Republicans were swept from office.

It remains unclear who in the governor’s party, if anyone, will continue his political legacy….Republicans, however, are still searching for viable candidates, even as they hope to continue their hold on the governor’s office. So far, only Rep. Joseph Trillo of Warwick, a public access TV host best known for his outbursts, has publicly announced he’s considering a run....

Republican leaders including [Party Chairman Gio Cicione], Trillo, former state Rep. Carol Mumford and others met as recently as Tuesday to continue searching for additional candidates. Although the group has not divulged names under discussion, some are people who have approached the party while others would be newcomers to politics.

Given the context of the article, which is all about the governor's race, the answer would be candidates for governor -- except that it seems a tad strange for the party's only declared candidate for governor to be on a committee actively seeking other candidates.

A Thirteen Member Scapegoat

Justin Katz

Barring the inconceivable possibility that it will be empowered to change the policies that overburden the Rhode Island economy, the Economic Development Corporation will continue to function mainly as a scapegoat for the elected officials on whose conscience the state's condition ought to rest. If anything, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed's legislation appears to go in the other direction:

... the bill did not follow the panel's advice to give the governor greater flexibility in appointing EDC board members.

The review panel had said members should be "selected based upon their skills, their passion for economic development and their willingness and ability to help drive change, not because they represent a particular constituency, group or geographic area."

The legislation, however, retains a slot for a labor leader and a seat for a small-business owner. The legislation specifically says that "the membership of the board shall reflect the geographic diversity of the state," and it adds a requirement that one board member represent the state's higher-education institutions.

So, the group will be enlarged to thirteen members and designed to represent various points of view, rather than develop a point of view of its own to pursue. Moreover, not mentioned in the Providence Journal article is the fact that the legislation (PDF) also modifies the General Assembly's permanent joint committee on economic development in such a way as to reduce the minority party's representation by two seats and to give the committee new powers and explicit authority to oversee the EDC.

Considering that the EDC executive director would be made a member of the governor's cabinet, it's a little surprising that Governor Carcieri isn't expressing reservations — not the least that legislators are slipping into their habit of violating the intent of separation of powers.

June 1, 2009

Not a Direction in Which We Wish to Head

Justin Katz

Growing up in the '80s, with all of the romanticizing of the '60s that was fashionable, then, I thought it pleasantly discordant to hear George Harrison describe his disappointment in the Beatles' visit to Haight-Ashbury, where the big scene consisted of "a bunch of spotty teenagers" (or something close thereto). Less pleasant was learning, some years later (under circumstances that I don't recall), just how tumultuous and violent the era really was.

I hope and pray, therefore, that the back-to-back shootings this week — both with political undertones — are an aberrant coincidence and not a sign of times to come. Details from Monday's atrocity:

Police say the incident occurred around 10:15 a.m. at a U.S. Army Navy Career Center inside the Ashley Square Shopping Center at 9112 North Rodney Parham Road. According to Lt. Terry Hastings with the Little Rock Police Department, two enlisted soldiers standing outside the office were hit when a suspect drove up in a black SUV and began shooting. ...

At the Monday-afternoon briefing, Thomas said investigators believe [shooter Abdul Hakim Mujahid] Muhammad acted alone, and likely carried "political and religious motives." Thomas said the gunman targeted the military but was not believed to be part of a broader scheme.

So, for the second day in a row, we must offer prayers for the deceased and his family, the recovery of the injured, the liberation of the killer's soul from evil, and rebalancing of our society lest the descent continues.

'Family' is Goode

Marc Comtois

I've been traveling for the last couple weeks, and last Wednesday while doing some work holed up in my hotel room, I stumbled on "The Goode Family". It made me chuckle quite a few times. As described in today's ProJo:

Though it will no doubt be labeled right-wing agitprop by some of its trashed targets, The Goode Family is not really conservative, but something closer to the barbed libertarianism of South Park. What the show is really mocking is groupthink conformity — some of the funniest bits in the opening episode concern the creepy sexual-abstinence group, where teenage girls “marry” their fathers.

But when ridiculing conformity these days in Hollywood, where late-night comics are afraid to tell Obama jokes, most of your targets will necessarily be left of center. And The Goode Family is fearless in firing at them. When Gerald, a college administrator, tells his boss his department needs more funding to improve the percentage of minority employees, the boss replies: “Or we could just fire three white guys. Everybody wins!”

There were many, may one-liners that were laugh-out-loud funny. But the fun poked at the broader mindset--the PC assumptions; the struggle to BE PC, and basically that no idea coming from "the other" could be good (and that goes both ways)--was spot on. The show is the work of Mike Judge, who sent up Texas rednecks in King of the Hill and, before that, slacker headbangers in Beavis and Butthead. I'm not sure if the Goode family will make it, times as they are, but it is worth a watch. (Btw, you can see it online here).

An Oblique Way of Asking If it Makes Sense to Regionalize, If the Regions Will Be Governed By the Same People Who Made the Original Mess

Carroll Andrew Morse

Lynn Arditi has an excellent article in today's Projo on the evolution of prostitution law in Rhode Island, challenging the notion that the loophole in state law allowing indoor prostitution was somehow created by accident. Apparently, pro-legalization activists in the late 70s were active in many states…

Margo St. James, the former prostitute who challenged the prostitution law in the 1970s, hopes Rhode Island keeps the law the way it is….Even now, she’s proud of the change she helped bring about in Rhode Island.

“We tried Massachusetts. California. Hawaii. Florida,” she recalls. “Most of them didn’t get anywhere.”

…but only one state (this one) had a legislature dumb enough to rewrite its law to legalize prostitution without realizing it…
“We probably vote on 500 bills a year,” Sen. John F. McBurney III, the only member of the General Assembly who served in 1980, said recently. McBurney says he can think of only one explanation for why a bill that decriminalized prostitution would win unanimous approval by the General Assembly: “They didn’t know what they were voting for.”

John C. Revens Jr., a former Senate Majority leader and a lawyer who served in the General Assembly for nearly four decades, agrees.

“They would never sponsor a bill decriminalizing prostitution if they knew what it was,” Revens said. “No way. Not in a million years.”

Besides the obvious direct relevance to the legalized prostitution debate in RI, I am also bringing this up in the context of the "regionalization" topic that seems to be on many minds. Are Rhode Island residents really, really sure that this idea of moving more and more government decisions away from local communities is a guaranteed formula for improvement? Of anything? I find it hard to believe, for example, that most Rhode Island city and town governments would have legalized prostitution without realizing it. And there's no obvious reason to believe that more remote, more centralized government is going to do better in other areas of governance than it has done in this one.

The Unions' Legislative Connivances; or, Why We Are Where We Are

Justin Katz

A good letter from L. Chappell of Saunderstown:

With the state and local budgets running deficits, the teachers' unions wish to add insult to injury with a bill that would force municipalities to keep the expired contract in force while they negotiate a new one. This bill is clearly a reaction to the events in East Providence.

The bill sponsors, Senators Rhoda E. Perry, Charles J. Levesque, Michael J. McCaffrey, Joshua Miller and Susan Sosnowski, have shown their true colors toward the taxpayers of East Providence in particular and the state in general with this bill. Actions like this are why your property-tax bills continue to climb. Ask yourselves if you have legislation like this protecting your job.

With a law like this on the books, unions would have even less reason to negotiate toward good-faith compromise.

Is This How Democratic Compromise Is Supposed to Work?

Justin Katz

Put aside the contentious context of the debate in question. Doesn't something just seem wrong about this?

Because a compromise must receive unanimous support to survive, Roberge was then removed from the committee and replaced with Sen. Matthew Houde, D-Plainfield, who voted with the majority. Roberge said she was disappointed she was removed.

What's the point of having a rule requiring unanimity if it means merely that a legislative body must be able to put the right number of agreeable people in a room?

"It's For the Children": Legitimate Plea or Nice Window Dressing?

Monique Chartier

On Friday, Andrew highlighted a letter to the editor laying out some of the issues that has prompted the June 9 Referendum, at which the town will decide whether to cut the school fund property tax appropriation (not the entire school budget) by 2.7%.

This sign, urging a "no" vote on the cut, has popped up in some locations around town. It incorporates a theme that A.R. readers may be familiar with.


Below, however, are the budget cuts which Superintendent Robert Hicks has recommended to the School Committee should the referendum pass.

Custodial Supervision: $80,000

2 Teaching Assistants: $60,000

HVAC Technician: $50,000

Middle School athletics: $60,000

Grade 7/8 math position (stimulus): $75,000

P accounts (texts, supplies, materials): $100,000

Ed Programs (CARES, FCE, Smile): $50,000

1.0 Elementary Band: $75,000

0.5 Elementary Strings: $40,000

1.0 Middle School Guidance: $75,000

2.0 HS (Language, Art, FCS, Tech-Ed): $150,000

2.0 Support (Psych, OT, SLP, PT, SW): $150,000

Technology: $110,000

Maintenance Supplies: $40,000

0.6 K-5 Art, Library, Music reductions: $60,000

Undesignated Fund Maximization: $125,000

TOTAL: $1,300,000

And an excerpt from the memo explaining the rationale.

However, at this stage I compile a list not of what we should reduce, but what we can reduce. We still need to operate our classrooms, heat our buildings, and remain safe. We still need to uphold laws and regulations and honor our contractual obligations.

The Gravity of Big Government in Education, for One

Justin Katz

Despite agreement with the thrust of the initiative, this sort of thinking is proving insidiously detrimental to the health of the nation:

... the federal stimulus law gives Obama a powerful incentive to push the expansion of charter schools. The law set up a $5 billion fund to reward states and school districts that adopt innovations the administration supports. The fund is part of $100 billion for education over the next two years.

"We want to reward those states that are willing to lead the country where we need to go and are willing to push this reform agenda very, very hard," Duncan told the AP.

"There are a number of states that are leading this effort, and we want to invest a huge amount of money into them, a minimum of $100 million, probably north of that," he said.

"And the states that don't have the stomach or the political will, unfortunately, they're going to lose out," Duncan said.

Even though any given citizen will favor the results in one instance or another, we must cease encouraging the states to sell their sovereignty to a central government that knows best. Furthermore, it ought to transform warning bells to a cacophony that the federal government is making the purchase with money that it simply does not have and should neither take nor attempt to create.

A Tin Ear Is a Thing to Behold

Justin Katz

Approximately three hours after the murder of George Tiller, Nancy Green left this comment on RI Future:

When persuasion and the democratic process did not convince a majority of Kansans to make abortion illegal, they resorted to the bullet. This is terrorism and a subversion of democracy.

About twenty minutes later, this post appeared on Kmareka:

When moral argument, persuasion and the democratic process did not convince a majority of Kansans to make abortion illegal, someone resorted to the bullet ...

Any coward can grab a gun and sneak up on an unarmed man. Violent anti-abortion groups have used guns, bombs, threats and deception to try to accomplish what they can not do by peaceful means. This is an act of domestic terrorism.

Clearly, the intent is to tar the "they" whose persuasion and democratic action have not defeated abortion — i.e., pro-lifers. As if to clarify the point, Green returned to the comment section last night to elaborate:

one man pulled the trigger. some vandalized the clinic. many made their careers with hate speech and inciting. who is guilty?

And yet, at 9:21 p.m., the same Kmareka poster was writing scornfully about the rapidity with which pro-life groups "expressed concern that abortion-rights activists would use the occasion to brand the entire anti-abortion movement as extremist."

Internet speed sure is dizzying, but the rate of the process doesn't mean it is outlandish to respond to rhetoric that's already being voiced. I'd note, by the by, that the linked article actually quotes more pro-abortion spokespeople than the pro-life "theys" about whom the article is ostensibly written.

I'd make the much more important point, as well, that no amount of persuasion or democratic process would have empowered a majority of Kansans to make abortion illegal. A handful of federal judges have made sure of that — a reality that only highlights the danger of making political processes unavailable in areas of core disagreement from a central perch in government.