December 31, 2008

Ireland's Unconventional Minister of the Environment

Monique Chartier

Unlike many of his counterparts around the world, put Minister Sammy Wilson squarely in the category of AGW sceptic. Drudge links to this article in today's Belfast Telegraph. [Check out all the global warming alarmist articles linked on that page, by the way.]

Spending billions on trying to reduce carbon emissions is one giant con that is depriving third world countries of vital funds to tackle famine, HIV and other diseases, Sammy Wilson said.

* * *

"I think in 20 years' time we will look back at this whole climate change debate and ask ourselves how on earth were we ever conned into spending the billions of pounds which are going into this without any kind of rigorous examination of the background, the science, the implications of it all. Because there is now a degree of hysteria about it, fairly unformed hysteria I've got to say as well."

Exactly right, Minister Wilson! When Al Gore took up the cause of AGW, science was summarily shown the door.

A quick google led me to Minister Wilson's webpage, where can be found, naturally, all of the minister's Press Statements, inclusive of this little seasonal gem, excerpted below.

... what would Christmases be like if we had to live as the green fanatics would like us to?

First of all, we probably would not have lights on our Christmas Trees, as they use energy which is frowned upon. And because the Greens are against artificial Christmas Trees you will only be able to get one if you manage to push your way past the tree huggers and cut it down yourself.

Not that this would matter anyway as there would be no presents to go under the tree. The Green Party has supported the Buy Nothing Christmas Campaign which advocates not buying anything for Christmas. If we all had to indulge in this there would no doubt be further redundancies and job losses as the Christmas trade keeps many companies afloat.

However we wouldn't have as much money to spend on Christmas: the massive cuts in carbon that the green lobby wants would result in our fuel bills rising by up to 40% so we wouldn't have as much cash in the kitty anyway.

If Christmas Day with no presents wasn't bad enough it gets worse when it comes to Christmas Dinner. The climate change extremists have said that we must stop eating meat as flatulent cows are the cause of so much carbon emissions. So far they haven't passed judgement on the turkeys but either way we would be eating less meat. This will of course mean more hardship for farmers, if they have not already been put out of business by the cost of rising fuel bills and more expensive feed for their livestock.

Unsurprising Construction Delays

Justin Katz

Working in construction, I really didn't expect the new Tiverton elementary schools to be ready for student occupancy this coming Monday, and indeed, the school committee has held off the transition until February 23:

A unanimous school committee voted Tuesday night to delay until Feb. 23 the move of an estimated 350 elementary students into Pocasset and Fort Barton Schools, where final touches on major renovations still continue.

The vote reflected the "consensus recommendation" made at the meeting by project architect Greg Smolley and builder H. V. Collins, said Douglas Fiore, director of administration and finance for Tiverton schools.

The recommendation was based on the views of over half a dozen inspectors (electrical, plumbing, mechanical, fire, health, elevator, and the town building official), who with the architect and builder and school officials, had toured Pocasset School Tuesday afternoon, punch lists in hand, and were scheduled to do the same at Fort Barton School on Friday afternoon.

Why a two-story school needs an elevator is beyond me; so is the reason the General Assembly hasn't scaled back the ridiculous fire codes, yet. The extra month-and-a-half that Tiverton students will be spending in horribly inadequate surroundings is in large part a consequence of those two factors.


I raised the topic of elevators with somebody in my household who has much more extensive experience with day-by-day life in school buildings, and she pointed out something that hadn't occurred to me: broken legs.

The fire codes are still outlandish.

Career Path Logjam

Justin Katz

Robert Wendover, director of the Center for Generational Studies, offers some thoughts related to my concerns that some number of Baby Boomers won't accept it as their social duty to pass the torch along to the next generation:

... Regardless of their financial position, most Boomers are reluctant to leave the workforce. While income plays a role, there is also that many in this generation have tied what they do for a living to their identity as a person. Introduce yourself to a Boomer and chances are he or she will include a job title in the first few seconds of conversation. Assemble a few of them at a gathering and they'll find a way to talk shop. Outplacement counselors know that one of the biggest hurdles for Boomers in transition is to let go of the identity they are clinging to based on a former role. An impending retirement presents them with some of this same trepidation.

Additionally, Boomers have tended to use their work environment as a source for building and maintaining a social life. There's the annual holiday party, the summer barbecue, the company sporting events and the monthly trade association meetings where 50-somethings take turns being volunteer leaders. Retirement can be the perfect storm: loss of income, loss of identity, loss of social circle. Why not remain in a role that is comfortable, reassuring and pays for the first and second mortgages?

Retiring Objections

Justin Katz

Commenting to my post on returning retirees in RI's public higher ed system, Steve appears to have inside information:

Justin, I'd like to clarify something, if I may. No one has "eased back into their old positions." The staff that retired and were brought back have returned on a part-time basis. No one is working 40 hours weeks. They are working fewer hours and being paid at an hourly rate. They are not on salary.

(Incidentally, of the 44 retirees who have returned on a part-time basis, 21 are staff and 23 are adjunct faculty being paid $3,000-$4,000 on a per course basis.)

For example, the director of institutional research at RI College returned after retiring and is now working part-time as a consultant. Institutional research was a one-professional department at RIC. (That is the case with many departments; our ranks are painfully thin.)

Without the director's return, part-time, RIC would have no institutional research capacity at all. It made more sense to bring her back on a part-time basis than it did to hire a full-time IR professional and pay salary, benefits, contribution to retirement plan, etc. That would have cost upwards of $80k at a minimum.

Know, too, that what the institutions are trying to achieve here is being able to cope with $30 million in budget cuts over the last calendar year and still provide the necessary services for students who are paying tuition to attend their institutions.

Since the retirement program is private, and nobody returns full-time, and the system stands to realize substantial saving, it appears that I reacted too quickly characterizing this story as in line with, say, a judge who manages, via retirement, to take home more public money for less work and responsibility.

Thanks to those who persuaded me of my error calmly.

Politicians as Wonderworkers

Justin Katz

Thomas Sowell's worth reading on the incentive to treat the impossible as if it simply needs to be enunciated as plausible:

People can get the possible on their own. Politicians have to be able to offer the voters something that they cannot get on their own. The impossible fills that bill perfectly.

As a noted economist has pointed out, nothing "could prevent the California electorate from simultaneously demanding low electricity prices and no new generating plants while using ever increasing amounts of electricity."

You want the impossible? You got it. Politicians don't get elected by saying "no" to voters.

Recognizing Socialism Before Everyone Else Was

Carroll Andrew Morse

Remember, when you read stories over the next few months that begin like this Washington Times story does…

Republican Party officials say they will try next month to pass a resolution accusing President Bush and congressional Republican leaders of embracing "socialism," underscoring deep dissension within the party at the end of Mr. Bush's administration.
…that Anchor Rising commenters were calling President Bush a socialist, long before it was cool to do so; here's Tom W from June of 2007
George W has been a disaster for the Republican Party, and he's getting worse with each passing year.

He's also been a disaster for conservatives, for the unwashed masses think he is one, all the while he's been governing like an "evangelical socialist" (I wish I'd thought of that description, it is soooo apt).

As we head into 2009, Anchor Rising hopes to continue to be the place where you can get next year's news now!

The resolution is being spearheaded by Republican National Committee Vice-Chairman James Bopp, a name that may be familiar to Rhode Islanders as the lawyer who represented the Republican party in their 2002 campaign finance/First Amendment case in front of the Board of Elecitons, and who helped write the Carcieri administration's legal brief arguing that Rhode Island can grant same-sex divorces without recognizing same-sex marriage.

Y EZPass?

Monique Chartier

So the point of setting up EZPass on the Newport Pell Bridge is to faciliate the flow of traffic, right? Okay, I'll say what seems to have escaped the attention of the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority.

This isn't New York or New Jersey. Using tokens, has anyone ever had to wait longer than three minutes to make it through that toll plaza? There isn't enough traffic to warrant the hassle and expense, on the part of both the RITBA and drivers, of EZPass. So can someone explain why we're doing it? Is it now axiomatic that digital is always better than analogue? Was it just because, like Everest, the federal funds were there? Or, worst of all, are we trying inexplicably to ingratiate ourselves with out of state drivers annoyed that their out of state transponders don't work at Rhode Island's only toll plaza?

Further, Charlie Hall has a point about some potential issues of execution.


Saved by Failure

Justin Katz

The vicious insinuations that Tiverton Citizens for Change faced for turning in some campaign finance reports late gives me a whole new perspective on this sort of thing:

The former Tiverton Town Council violated the state's Open Meetings Act last summer, an assistant attorney general has ruled, but the matter is moot, because a proposed town charter amendment that was the subject of the complaint was not approved by voters during the November election. ...

If voters had approved the proposed amendment that would have replaced the annual financial town meeting with a process that would have given the Town Council the final say on the annual budget, the vote could have been invalidated because of the attorney general's finding, said James Amarantes, a former town treasurer who filed the complaint in July. The answer to the complaint is dated Dec. 17.

Amarantes said he depends on the postings of meeting agendas to know what the Town Council will be discussing at its upcoming meetings. The proposed charter amendment was not on the agenda for a meeting on July 7, when the council first voted to send it — and several other amendments — to a public hearing that was slated for later that month. The proposed amendment was included on the meeting notice for the public hearing on July 28.

In all honesty, I don't believe the town council was up to anything suspicious by moving to place a newly thought-up amendment in among the rest. Indeed, the fact that the technicality might have led to voters' being overruled had the results gone another way raises questions about the damage that too many specific rules and tight hoops through which to jump can do to a local government's ability to lead in new directions.

On the other hand, in this instance, the new direction entailed a councilor disregarding months of Charter Review Commission meetings and proposing a new budgeting strategy that handed more authority to the town council. As I suggested, I don't think the proposal was planned for introduction thus, but it is telling, and convenient, that the upshot was the arrogation of more power.

The underlying problem may be that local legislators believe in their own good intentions and capacity for sound judgment. They've witnessed the difficulty of doing things that they think ought to be done, and the way appears clear to making it possible for themselves to act more expediently. Thus, a councilor has a brainstorm epiphany that nobody is better suited to develop the town's budget than him and his peers, and it appears perfectly reasonable to slide that thought onto a list of other items resulting from a lengthy formal process conducted by another elected body.

December 30, 2008

Just When You Thought Gov Blago Had Lost His Shock Value

Monique Chartier

In part blaming the Illinois legislature for failing to pass a law that would give the people of Illinois the chance to elect Barack Obama's successor, Governor Rod Blagojevich has appointed former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to the United States Senate, saying,

The people of Illinois are entitled to have two United States senators represent them in Washington DC.

As the Illinois Secretary of State has refused to certify Blagojevich's selection and Democrats in the United States Senate, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, have stated that they will not seat the Governor's selection - both well within their right and power to do so - this unexpected appointment has set up a fascinating showdown. Gov Blago has a point, not quite so baldly stated, that he has not been impeached, has not been convicted of any crime and, in fact, is still the Governor of Illinois, in possession of all of the power conferred by that office, including the power to appoint the successor to a vacant Senate seat. Does the fact that his overt, running auction of a US Senate seat for personal gain was caught on tape really change the core, indubitable fact that he is still Governor of Illinois?

Selfish Boomers Marching Toward Retirement... or Whatever They Want to Do, Darn It!

Justin Katz

It's difficult to comprehend why society would create lucrative positions known as "philosophy professors" if the people who fill them (at Ivy League schools, no less) are incapable of reasoning more sharply than this:

The article tells alumni that Ruthellen Williams is a remarkable teacher. Her classes are "packed, every term," and her "career holds many decorations, including top teaching awards, and many letters from students expressing her impact on their lives." She loves teaching and loves her students. "Nevertheless, Williams says, it's time to take her leave." Thirty-seven and newly married to a prosperous surgeon, she is resigning her professorship to free up a post for men who have families to support. "If I hold onto my post, they can't have a post, not this one," she says. ...

Of course, the entire scenario seems preposterous. Colleges and universities don't treat women this way, do they?

That's right; they don't. They treat old people this way. The article about 37-year-old Ruthellen Williams is imaginary. It is based on a recent real article about Ralph Williams, a 67-year-old professor at the University of Michigan. All the passages I have quoted appear in that article, except that I have substituted "her" for "his." The buyout for newly married women faculty is also imaginary. It is based on the real practice of giving elderly professors financial incentives to retire.

How is it even possible for somebody who, like Felicia Nimue Ackerman, author of the above, has made a career studying human thought not to see the significant category differences between her analogs? To modify the saying, perhaps it takes a Ph.D. actually to believe that all identity-isms are interchangeable. She goes on in like vein:

"When elderly professors hold onto their jobs, there are fewer jobs for young faculty." But when women and minorities hold onto their jobs, there are fewer jobs for white male faculty. Does this mean that women and minorities should resign? Obviously, the departure of some people can increase job opportunities for others. Why single out elderly professors as expendable?

Nobody should force retirement on folks who cannot afford whatever decrease in income would follow, but it says something about our culture — or, specifically, a certain generation within our culture — that even old age looks likely to fall prey to the cult of "I, me, mine." The elderly should remain as active as they're able, and seek to contribute to society in sundry ways. But especially as medical technology elongates their lives, they ought to hold on to the principle that giving subsequent generations the opportunity to make their way is incumbent upon us all.

Retirees Back Again

Justin Katz

Rhode Isand commissioner of higher education Jack Warner has an op-ed in today's Providence Journal "Explaining college retirees' return." This is the only new, mitigating factor:

The Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education, through its predecessor, the Board of Regents, was given the authority to establish its own retirement plan in 1967 (Rhode Island General Law 16-17.1).

Higher-education employees who participate solely in this plan are not members of the state retirement system.

Under the provisions of this plan (known as a 403(b) plan), the public institutions of higher education can legally bring back any member of the system at any time without any restrictions.

There are restrictions on members of the state retirement system, also known as ERS. While there are some ERS employees who work in higher education, the large majority of higher-education employees have 403(b) plans. The 403(b) plans are defined-contribution plans, which makes them very different from the defined-benefit state pension plan. A 403(b) is more like the private-sector 401(k) plan in that employees contribute a minimum of 5 percent of their salary and the state makes a contribution of 9 percent as an employee benefit (much the same way a private-sector employer contributes to an employee's 401(k) plan).

So, in essence, a higher-education employee who retires on a 403(b) plan is largely receiving a payout of his or her own money invested over the years of employment, not a continuous payment from the state under a state pension.

Well, his own money plus that 9% public contribution. In any case, the practice of rehiring employees immediately after they've retired still leaves a sour, contemptuous of the regular working stiff, taste in the mouth.

Mark Zaccaria: Closing the Deal

Engaged Citizen

Recently Rhode Island Congressman James Langevin has been quoted as saying “We’re way behind where we need to be now” in terms of our preparedness to withstand and resist Cyber Terrorism attacks.

Going beyond the purely defensive posture of his initial position, Congressman Langevin also told United Press International "The best defense is a good offense and an offensive [cyberwar] capability is essential to our national defense."

In fact, just before Christmas, the Congressman was quoted by Reuters as saying, "This is equivalent in my mind to before September 11 ... we were awakened to the threat on the morning after September 11."

During his recent campaign for re-election Mr. Langevin made much of the fact that his committee assignments required him to observe tight security restrictions. Candidate Langevin allowed as how his inability to publicly debate these sensitive matters had much to do with his extremely low effectiveness ratings in Congress. Those who know ranked Langevin 217th out of 235 Democrats in the House in the last Session. That puts him well behind many of his more junior colleagues, including some who were in their Freshman Term.

So here we are. Mr. Langevin was returned to the House for a fifth term. No one would suggest that he reveal any of the details of the sensitive briefings he receives. Still, his comments about our nation’s lack of readiness do indicate that he now publicly wishes to be considered an authority on these matters and one who is ringing alarm bells.

So what’s your next move, Congressman?

I earnestly hope that since he has now released himself from the veil of secrecy that has restricted him in the past he will be free to do what we have hired him to do. I trust he will now introduce legislation that will correct the inequities he has cited in his recent comments to the press.

Even the Vice President Elect has suggested that he has some knowledge of impending terrorist activity that will be timed to test the new Administration. While no legislation of any kind will prevent a physical attack, James Langevin heads a subcommittee on Cybersecurity. From that chair he is well positioned to suggest incentives, if not actual regulations, to increase the levels of existing Public Key Encryption schemes that now offer some level of protection to every wireless digital device in the world. Such legislation need not increase the costs of government in these difficult economic times. There’s no need for new bureaucracies to oversee the implementation of detailed regulations that first have to be written by someone before they can be implemented. Existing industry standards can be used with more complex key structures to make the cyber communications we all depend on even more secure than they are today.

If you and I know that, it’s a cinch Mr. Langevin does.

So what we need from our Representative now is not simply a clarion call telling us there is a problem and that the Government ought to do something about it. He is the Government. We need to see him initiate corrective action to neutralize the problem that he, himself, has highlighted in his recent public comments.

We all know there are challenges facing America. Any casual observer of current events could give us quite a list of them. We look to Congress, and those we elect, not for a more detailed listing of problems but for one or two real solutions. As the head of the Committee we should reasonably expect more from Representative Langevin than just an attempt to fill the air with commentary, but no real ideas.

Years ago an advertising campaign asked all of us the question, “Where’s the Beef?” Now a campaign for better representation here in Rhode Island is asking James Langevin the question, “Where’s the Bill?”

Mark Zaccaria is a small businessman and former elected official who was Congressman Langevin’s GOP Opponent in the recent election.

Taxes Even a Right Winger Could Love

Justin Katz

Kathy Santos, of Riverside, proposes some new taxes to which I find it difficult to object:

Perhaps there are some new taxes that should be considered, though, ones that would not be such a burden to businesses and citizens:

Incumbent politician tax
Legislative grant tax
Union dues tax
Legislative slush fund fee
Campaign donation fee
Legislative leadership top-of-the-line vehicle tax
"Massage" parlor, prostitution, adult-entertainment tax
Gambling tax
Shady lobbyist fee
Corruption tax
Legislative license-plate tax
Kickback tax
Windfall tax on buybacks for vacation and sick time
Health insurance buyback fee

Perhaps we could add a "strategic public retirement tax" to cover those who retire because they want to get out before their unsustainable deals are modified. The list could go on (and on), I'm sure.

Keeping an Eye on Content

Justin Katz

Dan Yorke took the opportunity of the seasonal downtime on his radio show to turn back to an op-ed by Tim Giago published in the Providence Journal a couple of weeks ago:

About 14 years ago I attended a convention of the National Newspaper Association in New York. The publishers of all of the major newspapers in America were there. The keynote speaker was Bill Gates of Microsoft. Later I asked an officer of the NNA why it chose Gates as the speaker. I told him that I believed that the Internet would become the greatest enemy of newspapers. He angrily dismissed my concern. ...

The New York Times is now suffering because its publisher chose to put the paper on the Internet. The bean counters at The Times discovered too late that the paper could not make the money on advertising on the Internet that it made the old-fashioned way, by placing ads in the newspaper itself. It soon found that no advertiser would pay the price of an ad placed in the newspaper for an ad on the Internet. And advertising is the life’s blood of the newspaper industry.

The Internet is doing what radio and television could not do: It is killing the American newspaper. And until every newspaper publisher in America rebels and says, "No, we are not going to put our newspaper on the 'Net," the slow death of newspapers will continue.

Dan concurred, saying that "content is king" — by which he meant that the audience is after the content, which therefore ought to be placed behind the revenue stream like a castle behind a moat. I'd suggest that, while Dan's assessment of a media organization's value is dead on, his defensive strategy is misdirected, if understandably so. The alternative began to emerge when caller Chris offered the following comments (which begin around minute four in the mp3 file that Dan helpfully had his producer post for me):

I think the proposition has to be about value, and the newspaper has to have currency. That's what the value of your show is; you bring a currency to the topics that you don't get in print media. But the print media can certainly provide a quick read and synopsis of the news events that are going on out there and then provide a link or a reference in the article to their Web site, where you can get more details, and in that Web site location provide a link to their sources, if they can disclose them, so you can make your own opinion — validate the integrity of the paper. Then you've got a value proposition.

Dan paraphrased this as using the Web site as a "backup or development spot," rather than "a duplicative spot," but the specific suggestion isn't the key element, as evidenced by the easy transition that Dan made to decrying online newspaper "feedback" sections, which he likened to blog comments (with unflattering reference to another RI site). Both Dan and Chris are describing ways in which newspapers can use the Internet to add something — presumably of value — to their existing product. The critical difference that makes Chris's suggestion insightful and reader comment features dubious is that his plugs into the new reality of media distribution, while blog-like anonymous "reactions" attempt to trample it.

One can imagine the conversation in a hypothetical newspaper office boardroom: The executives saw the emerging force of bloggers and other Internet media as a threat and sought to leverage their own market clout to carve out a safe area. The goal was to "keep readers on our site," returning to pages (and triggering ads) again and again. As Dan stresses, though, any success in that area came at a huge loss of self-definition and credibility:

Dan: Why the newspaper business has tried to duplicate on the Internet what blog sites do is beyond me.

Chris: And that's where they lose their readership, because you look to the newspaper for consistent factual reporting.

The content, to return, has to be king. Newspapers have to invest in and reclaim their core competency: gathering and transmitting news. That doesn't mean that they should lock their content up on dead-tree pages and fight the Internet as so many journalistic practitioners would like to do; in general, the realities of new media won't allow such a thing. Tim Giago claims to have managed it, but his experience was at some unspecified time in the past, and more importantly, his audience was niche: a regional American Indian market. The same is true for the retrograde newspaper editor whom David Carr recently highlighted:

Finally, I thought, a story about a print organization that has found a way to tame the Web and come up with a digital business approach that could serve as a model. Except that TriCityNews of Monmouth County, N.J., is prospering precisely because it aggressively ignores the Web. Its Web site has a little boilerplate about the product and lists ad rates, but nothing more. (The address is, for all the good it will do you.)

"Why would I put anything on the Web?" asked Dan Jacobson, the publisher and owner of the newspaper. "I don't understand how putting content on the Web would do anything but help destroy our paper. Why should we give our readers any incentive whatsoever to not look at our content along with our advertisements, a large number of which are beautiful and cheap full-page ads?" ...

"I don't allow our name to be used on any kind of content on the Web — not bulletin boards or listings or anything," Mr. Jacobson said. "I don't want anybody to connect The TriCityNews and the Internet. I don't want anything that detracts from the paper and the presence of those big, beautiful full-page ads."

Mr. Jacobson hasn't stumbled upon a revolutionary strategy of ignoring the Internet; his paper has a well defined niche, so the Internet hasn't smoked him out, yet. TriCityNews has bought itself some time, but it should use that leeway to adjust to the evolving market, not to set up barricades against change. Jacobson may not want TriCityNews associated with the Internet, but that won't be a choice that he'll be able to make for long. Aggregation sites will eat into his audience. His writers will make their offerings available online. And even the print pages themselves will be digitized in one fashion or another.

The scary thing, for newsies and we who rely upon their output, is that nobody's found the magic formula for online profitability, yet. Personally, I think the Era of Pay for Nothing is running its course, and if the newspaper industry would focus on what it does best, it could bring the online culture around more quickly to a willingness to pay for desired content by some mechanism.

For one thing, the mainstream media should let the blogs be blogs. I know corporate wants the "eyeballs" to impress potential advertisers, but they're missing the real lesson of blog economics. Perhaps a couple of dozen regular readers will engage in extended conversations on newspaper Web sites, but a greater number of readers will be attracted by letting independent blogs into the mix. Consider the result when high-traffic blogs allow smaller blogs to acquire links and traffic by tracking back to individual posts: To rack up their currency of readers, the smaller blogs race to write pieces that link back to whatever the bigger blog puts up; readers then tend to use the bigger blog as an aggregation site for topics initially of interest to its owner.

The same would happen if newspapers made the decision to let their readers comment on somebody else's Web site by means of a "what the bloggers are saying" feature. Let some hobbyist Web site commentator deal with the vitriol. New participants and rhetorical pugilists will ultimately go back to the source. And if bloggers and other readers have to pay a subscription to access more details, they'll do so more willingly if there's a wall between the room where the spittle flies and where the professionals make their wares available.

What will develop is a tiered market, in which the basic facts of any given story are free and widely available online, in which blog-level analysis is free (or just about free), but conducted on the wooden nickel of the blogger, and in which in-depth coverage justifies advertising and subscription revenue. That will mean that journalists will have to produce something for which people are willing to pay.

That's a frightening prospect for some, I know, but if the Internet is killing the newspaper star, it is only because it undermines the profitability of easy content. Newspapers won't be able to continue to be aggregators, themselves, because their medium just isn't ideal for that task. It is no longer enough — and never will be again — for a few hundred papers around the country to fill their pages by recycling AP stories, Washington Post reportage, and New York Times analysis, with a few syndicated columnists to flesh out the opinion section. (Especially when there are local bloggers who could use the money!)

December 29, 2008

Pro-Obama Media Bias

Monique Chartier

In response to assertions by commenters under Justin's post "All The Difference from D to R" that no bias exists in the press, below are two studies conducted just before the election which demonstrate otherwise.

An MSNBC article of October 31 cites the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

Comments made by sources, voters, reporters and anchors that aired on ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts over the past two months reflected positively on Obama in 65 percent of cases, compared to in 31 percent of cases with regards to McCain

And a October 22 article at references a study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The media coverage of the race for president has not so much cast Barack Obama in a favorable light as it has portrayed John McCain in a substantially negative one, according to a new study of the media since the two national political conventions ended.

Press treatment of Obama has been somewhat more positive than negative, but not markedly so.

But coverage of McCain has been heavily unfavorable—and has become more so over time. In the six weeks following the conventions through the final debate, unfavorable stories about McCain outweighed favorable ones by a factor of more than three to one—the most unfavorable of all four candidates—according to the study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Or is it contended that, well, yes, there was bias during the election but all media bias ceased on November 5?

Redefine a Word and the Problem Goes Away!

Justin Katz

Some readers may have found cause for a sparkle of hope in the following turnabout, as explained in the NY Times:

The number of black children being raised by two parents appears to be edging higher than at any time in a generation, at nearly 40 percent, according to newly released census data.

Demographers said such a trend might be partly attributable to the growing proportion of immigrants in the nation’s black population. It may have been driven, too, by the values of an emerging black middle class, a trend that could be jeopardized by the current economic meltdown.

Unfortunately, I think Domenico Bettinelli is probably correct that the third explanation dominates... and invalidates:

The Census Bureau attributed an indeterminate amount of the increase to revised definitions adopted in 2007, which identify as parents any man and woman living together, whether or not they are married or the child’s biological parents.

Dom writes:

There's no denying that grandparents, aunts and uncles, foster parents, or just good-hearted folks who raise other people's children are better for these children than not having anything, the re-definition of the word and concept of "parent" broadens its meaning to insensibility and risks watering it down, not unlike what has been done to the word and concept of "marriage" by civil partnerships, same-sex "marriage" and no-fault divorce.

It is undeniable that children are better off when raised by both parents living together in a loving household.

Yep, and as Dom goes on to suggest, the forces of "progress" are laboring to ensure that we soon lack the necessary language even to discuss such plain realities.

All The Difference from D to R

Justin Katz

Michelle Malkin marks an early example of the can't-make-this-stuff-up media bias that conservatives will no doubt make a regular pastime of spotting over the next few years:

Sighed smitten reporter Eli Zaslow, "The sun glinted off chiseled pectorals sculpted during four weightlifting sessions each week, and a body toned by regular treadmill runs and basketball games." Drool cup to the newsroom, stat.

Zaslow imparted us with vital information about buff Bam's regimen: "Obama has gone to the gym for about 90 minutes a day, for at least 48 days in a row." The Washington Post enlightened us with more gushing commentary from Obama friends and associates, who explain how, as the subtitle of Zaslow's opus put it, "Gym Workouts Help Obama Carry the Weight of His Position."

Compared with:

Former Washington Post writer Jonathan Chait famously attacked Bush three years ago in an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times headlined "The (over)exercise of power." Recounting how President Bush ran 3.5 miles a day and preached more cross-training to a federal judge, Chait fumed, "Am I the only person who finds this disturbing? ... What I mean is the fact that Bush has an obsession with exercise that borders on the creepy."

Chait argued that Bush's passionate devotion to exercise was a dereliction of duty. "Does the leader of the free world need to attain that level of physical achievement?" he jeered. "It's nice for Bush that he can take an hour or two out of every day to run, bike or pump iron. Unfortunately, most of us have more demanding jobs than he does."

Can you imagine any member of the Obamedia mocking the incoming gym rat-in-chief this way?

No, I cannot. Neither can I imagine that any comments from mainstream media types will treat Obama's periodic flights out to remote Hawaii in the same manner as met Bush's jaunts to his own vacation spot in the middle of the contiguous states.

Which Side Their Bacon's Buttered On

Justin Katz

I've been meaning to make sure y'all are aware of a newly available resource for transparency in state government:

For the first time, the commission has posted online the latest financial disclosure statement filed by each of the state's general officers - the governor, lieutenant governor, state treasurer, secretary of state and attorney general - and every current state legislator.

The filings can be found under the heading "financial disclosure'' on the Ethics Commission's web page:

Our judiciary can declare legislators' votes to be sacrosanct, but if voters have the right information — and someday manage to gather the will to deny lawmakers' political checkmate — they can punish the appearance of impropriety.

Corporations Are Only People When Barney Wants to Give Them Something

Justin Katz

I just came across this bit of economic philosophy from Congressman Barney Frank (D - MA), on 60 Minutes, that contradicts the standard liberal construct (emphasis added):

STAHL: But there was never any doubt that Frank himself didn't want the car companies to go under. What about the idea that, in capitalism, if a company doesn't cut it, they die? It's over.

FRANK: And that's what Herbert Hoover said. And Franklin Roosevelt said no.

STAHL: That's what Darwin said.

FRANK: Yes, it's true. And Darwin was a very good biologist. I don't think he was much of an economist.

STAHL: What we're now faced is with all the taxpayers having to prop up companies that made terrible decisions consistently.

FRANK: No, we're not propping up companies. That's your mistake. We're propping up individuals. The world doesn't consist of companies. The world are people, the country is people. And yes, it is possible to argue that the government should stay out of-

STAHL: But then — but then you're talking about welfare.

FRANK: Yeah, I'm for welfare. You're not? Are you for letting people starve?

One could quip that it apparently takes union membership to make the individual employee worthy of props... so to speak. Suffice to say that the likes of Frank have been all too willing to look beyond the individuals whom companies support when they've decried "corporate welfare" and demanded that corporations be taxed as if they're people.

December 28, 2008

Living for the Public Worker

Justin Katz

Chris Powell's description of the public sector in Connecticut sounds very familiar:

With its law requiring binding arbitration of public employee union contracts, state government has established an elaborate mechanism of disconnecting the compensation of public employees from democracy, the public's ability to pay, and even any discussion in politics. Since that compensation totals about half of all state and municipal government spending combined, reconnecting it to those things is the great challenge facing state government.

If, because of the recession and the sharp curtailment of the public's income, government has to economize, and if public-employee compensation constitutes about half of government spending, then exempting that compensation from the economizing forces all the economizing onto the remaining half of the budget, and public services are devastated so that public employees may avoid sacrifice. This is what has been happening at the municipal level, with services being liquidated to finance ever-increasing compensation for town employees. It's not that towns have cut spending. It is that their tax bases have not grown enough to sustain services and to increase town employee compensation. So services formerly considered basic, like school sports and extracurricular activities, have been eliminated so that raises can still be paid.

One need only look to the results of arbitration in East Providence to see the mechanism in action. Even with the numbers laid before him, and an understanding that economic reality is likely to worsen before improving, the arbitrator still presented his proposal to advance teachers' remunerative goals as a compromise.

Luckily such "arbitration" is not binding, in Rhode Island, but our deeper and longer-term stagnation more than make up the necessary difference toward draining our public coffers of funds for much beyond employing people.

Coming Soon to Havana: Russian Orthodox Spires

Monique Chartier

In post-holiday catching up of some favorite columnists, I learn from Christopher Hitchens that Fidel Castro, near death, has commissioned the construction of a Russian Orthodox cathedral in the capital of a country that completely lacks adherents to that religion.

Hitchens soundly hypothesizes a desire on the part of Castro to solidify Cuba's ties with Russia.

I have been in Cuba many times in the past decades, but this was the first visit where I heard party members say openly that they couldn't even guess what the old buzzard was thinking. At one lunch involving figures from the ministry of culture, I heard a woman say: "What kind of way is this to waste money? We build a cathedral for a religion to which no Cuban belongs?" As if to prove that she was not being sectarian, she added without looking over her shoulder: "A friend of mine asked me this morning: 'What next? A subsidy for the Amish?' "

All these are good questions, but I believe they have an easy answer. Fidel Castro has devoted the last 50 years to two causes: first, his own enshrinement as an immortal icon, and second, the unbending allegiance of Cuba to the Moscow line. Now, black-cowled Orthodox "metropolitans" line up to shake his hand, and the Putin-Medvedev regime brandishes its missile threats against the young Obama as Nikita Khrushchev once did against the young Kennedy. The ideology of Moscow doesn't much matter as long as it is anti-American, and the Russian Orthodox Church has been Putin's most devoted and reliable ally in his re-creation of an old-style Russian imperialism.

It is difficult to also exclude the possibility of a second, too obvious purpose for the construction of a religious edifice: a conscious or unconscious desire on the part of someone near death to either compensate for sins committed in the mortal coil or to ingratiate himself with God. In Castro's mind, God may or may not exist; such a project, however, would cover Castro (again, at least in his mind) in the event of the first of those two possibilities.

From Blogger to Notable

Justin Katz

Congratulations to Matt Jerzyk for his inclusion as one of eight notable people of 2008 by the Providence Journal — or as Matt sardonically calls it, the Belojo — which puts him in company with a U.S. Senator, the RI Supreme Court Chief Justice, a big-city police chief, and an Olympic athlete, among others. Honestly, I didn't immediately identify Matt in his picture; he's undergone quite a transformation from the man I met some four or five years ago.

I note, by the by, that judging from the statistics that he's been offering for RI Future in recent media coverage, we're just about even in readership, nowadays. When last I took a moment to compare, back in May 2007, RI Future had us by about two-and-a-half times.

On Love and Confidence

Justin Katz

Perhaps it's his lack of children that enables liberal columnist Joel Stein so succinctly to enunciate one of the more damaging failures of philosophy in modern culture:

True love is the blind belief that your child is the smartest, cutest, most charming person in the world, one you would gladly die for.

The ineluctable consequence of a belief that "true love" entails certainty in its object's perfection is the conclusion that one does not love that object when flaws inevitably emerge. Can it be doubted that this is a common pathology in our era? Irresponsible fathers leave their children because they prove difficult. Wives leave their husbands because they can't maintain that alluring blend of mystery and security. And Joel Stein is only "in 'like' with [his] country" because its people are flawed.

That said, I'll acknowledge that love "because it's mine" — what Stein calls "tribalism" — is intellectually unsatisfying and, indeed, stinks of self deception. One should no more love based on happenstance than one should hate based on coincidence. The lingering "what if" of those bases for such strong emotions can fester and corrupt.

No, love — whether of child, spouse, or country — must be a matter of spark and decision. The spark is of inspiration — the comprehension of something in the other that rests in the palms like a precious gem — and the decision is to commit to intertwinement — even when beauty fades and quirks begin to rankle, even when the child rebels and the nation falls into the hands of a political enemy, even when the gem no longer gleams from beneath layers of muck. The failure of such love is less evidence that the object is not worthy of being loved than an indication that the erstwhile lover is incapable of loving.

Thus it is that Stein pats himself on the back for his intellectual complexity, even as he exhibits simplicity of self-comprehension:

... I still think conservatives love America for the same tribalistic reasons people love whatever groups they belong to. These are the people who are sure Christianity is the only right religion, that America is the best country, that the Republicans have the only good candidates, that gays have cooties.

I wish I felt such certainty. Sure, it makes life less interesting and nuanced, and absolute conviction can lead to dangerous extremism, but I suspect it makes people happier. I'll never experience the joy of Hannity-level patriotism. I'm the type who always wonders if some other idea or place or system is better and I'm missing out.

Although his claim is of a native circumspection, Stein is apparently very certain that it is false to claim Christianity as "the only right religion" and that it is simplistic to rank America as "the best country" (leave the two lapses into partisan rhetoric aside). It is difficult to take Stein at his word, therefore, that he "wonders" whether something better exists; there aren't really any mystery countries out there, after all. His reader can infer with confidence, from Stein's writing and his identified ideology, that he already knows what idea and system would be better and will love the place that most closely approximates his utopia.

Joel is not wrong that he cannot love his country as others do, because a requirement of love's commitment is acceptance, to the point of a willingness to change rather than impose. After the spark and the decision comes growth, of the sort that lattice enables in vines.

Stein ends his column with a statement of recognition that he cannot love his country as he professes to love his wife. Presumably he's made a deliberate attempt not to "always wonder" whether he isn't missing out on someone better. If I were to advise the lady, though, I'd suggest that she see if she can't bring her hubby around to a less abashed patriotism, perhaps beginning with a flag lapel pin as a St. Valentine's Day gift.

December 27, 2008

Up Against the Pirates Who Never Left

Justin Katz

I understand that part of historian Doug Burgess's argument is that piracy was once a somewhat respectable occupation among American colonies, but I can't help but take this as an indication of the historical nature of conservative reformers' current task:

Newport became a Colonial capital for pirating.

"The Colony [of Rhode Island] now began to attract brigands from every Colony," Burgess writes. "This was due both to its geographic advantages as a safe harbor and to the complacency of its government. Yet 1691 also marks the beginning of Rhode Island's 'pirate fever' when the Colony became virtually synonymous with piratical trade."

Ironically, pirating's success became its problem. Pirates became plentiful, lazy and inarguably unlawful, according to Burgess. Instead of traveling to some far away place to loot ships, they simply cruised the coast, robbed some boats and returned home from a day's work. And what's worse, at least for the Colonial governments, is the pirates didn't seek commissions, and, consequently didn't give any cuts.

There's a novel waiting to be written on the premise that some spiritual force located in this area attracts a certain type of character — the pirates and mobsters — and instills a certain insidious apathy among broad segments of the population. The state is possessed by a demon whispering, "Just get yours, brother."

Even if we're merely up against a regional character trait centuries in the stewing, we must take it as an opportunity to undo what the pirates have wrought.

America Gets It in the End, Again

Justin Katz

This has a sadly familiar feel for conservatives, who've again and again been vexed by a president mislabeled as one of us:

Last week's deal was supposed to hold both the managers' and unions' feet to the fire. In handing out the taxpayer money, the White House insisted the auto union cut worker pay roughly to the levels of their successful competitors, Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

For $17 billion in emergency bailout cash and possibly much more later, it was a reasonable request. As President Bush said, "The time to make the hard decisions to become viable is now — or the only option will be bankruptcy." He added that a deadline of March 31 for the industry to prove its "viability" and other limits "send a clear signal to everyone involved."

Well, if so, the United Auto Workers didn't get it.

Just days before Christmas, the UAW let it be known it'll fight any concessions on wages and benefits. "An undue tax on the workers" is how union boss Ron Gettelfinger described it as the UAW reneged on the deal almost before the ink was dry.

This will go down as one of the most cynical acts of political manipulation ever. The UAW agreed to one thing with President Bush, knowing full well President-elect Barack Obama and congressional Democrats were big recipients of union largesse and would let them slide. They read the situation correctly.

Democratic Rep. Barney Frank this week called union concessions an "unfair assault on working men and women" — a not-accidental echo of Gettelfinger's comments.

Something tells me that the sinking feeling of America's being had will only worsen over the next four years, and Chrysler's use of our own money to pay for a $100,000 ad to thank us for allowing our representatives to fleece us is probably not the greatest insult we'll see during that time.

Sage Advice

Marc Comtois

I enjoy Mark Patinkin's "bullet" columns. The headline of today's rings true for many men. "Husbands can be right or happy..." Then there is the wisdom my father-in-law passed on to me on my wedding day: "There are two words that are the key to every successful marriage, 'Yes, Dear.'" Any guy who follows those two pieces of advice will find a certain sort of peace in his life. Bottom line: if she's happy, you're happy!!!

If Dr. Frankenstein Had Been an Adolescent...

Justin Katz

Mark Shea has an oft-recited line that fits this turn of events well:

Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life-forms through genetic engineering — a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories.

In her San Francisco dining room lab, for example, 31-year-old computer programmer Meredith Patterson is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine, the chemical that turned Chinese-made baby formula and pet food deadly.

"People can really work on projects for the good of humanity while learning about something they want to learn about in the process," she said.

As Mark says, human history is often a tale of two questions: "What could it hurt?" Followed by, "How were we supposed to know?"

Sticking Out Like a Sore Economy

Justin Katz

Two sentences from Edward Mazze's commentary, yesterday, ought to be repeated daily for the benefit of every Rhode Islander until we force some real change in the right direction:

In New England, Connecticut reported unemployment at 6.6 percent, Maine 6.3 percent, Massachusetts 5.9 percent, New Hampshire 4.3 percent and Vermont 5.7 percent. ...

There is little evidence the unemployment rate [in Rhode Island] will be below 8 percent until 2012 without changes in the way the state does business and deals with economic issues that work against job creation.

In short, we've got at least three more years of unemployment rates surpassing a line that no other New England state has even come close to crossing yet. Our state's "leaders" ought never be seen in public without reeds in constant self-mortifying motion lest citizens begin volunteering their grips for the cause.

And just in case anybody quasi-sentient remains who believes that the representatives of Rhode Island's coalition of public-dole special interests might have a point, the answer is not to increase the burden on private industry or to absorb a greater swath of the market and its services into the government.

December 26, 2008

Diagnosis Hypecolodria

Justin Katz

It certainly behooves humanity to follow the trends and assess the contributors to changes in the global environment, but increasingly, there seems to be an environmentalist version of hypochondria at play:

In one of the report's most worrisome findings, the agency estimates that in light of recent ice sheet melting, global sea level rise could be as much as four feet by 2100. The IPCC had projected a sea level rise of no more than 1.5 feet by that time, but satellite data over the past two years show the world's major ice sheets are melting much more rapidly than previously thought. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are now losing an average of 48 cubic miles of ice a year, equivalent to twice the amount of ice that exists in the Alps. ...

Scientists also looked at the prospect of prolonged drought over the next 100 years. They said it is impossible to determine yet whether human activity is responsible for the drought the Southwestern United States has experienced over the past decade, but every indication suggests the region will become consistently drier in the next several decades. Richard Seager, a senior research scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said that nearly all of the 24 computer models the group surveyed project the same climatic conditions for the North American Southwest, which includes Mexico.

Throughout history, mankind has watched weather patterns change in regions around the world, but they used to talk about "dry spells" or "warm spells" (or their opposites). Now everything is plugged into incomplete models (the more honest of whose keepers acknowledge that prognosticating to a date as far out as 2100 represents mere speculation), and we're all instructed to panic and make dramatic changes to our ways of life.

Our planet is organic, and it is in the nature of organisms to change. As with our own bodies, we do well to be aware of signs and symptoms, but too much fear of illnesses can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Winning Hearts, Minds and, Afghanistan

Marc Comtois

Hey, whatever works:

While the CIA has a long history of buying information with cash, the growing Taliban insurgency has prompted the use of novel incentives and creative bargaining to gain support in some of the country's roughest neighborhoods, according to officials directly involved in such operations.

In their efforts to win over notoriously fickle warlords and chieftains, the officials say, the agency's operatives have used a variety of personal services. These include pocketknives and tools, medicine or surgeries for ailing family members, toys and school equipment, tooth extractions, travel visas, and, occasionally, pharmaceutical enhancements for aging patriarchs with slumping libidos, the officials said.

"Whatever it takes to make friends and influence people -- whether it's building a school or handing out Viagra," said one longtime agency operative and veteran of several Afghanistan tours.

For example:
The Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women. His visitor, a CIA officer, saw an opportunity, and reached into his bag for a small gift.

Four blue pills. Viagra.

"Take one of these. You'll love it," the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.

The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes -- followed by a request for more pills.

Letting Truth Stand on the Environment

Justin Katz

James Lewis worries that the incoming administration will sign the United States on with what he characterizes as a sort of eco-Inquisition, in the continued politicization of science:

The world's Green politicians are gathering in Poznan, Poland, to split the loot through a new Kyoto II Treaty. They blame the failure of the last Kyoto Accords on the United States, and now that America has seen the light by electing Obama, by golly, they are going to collect but good. Sugar plum fairies? How about power and riches through a worldwide carbon trading scheme? How about a centralized international planning bureaucracy for all the smokestack industries in the world (except in China and India, which have wisely exempted themselves). How about selling Papal indulgences to make all the dirty sinners living off coal and cars and cow meat beg for forgiveness for their transgressions against Mother Gaia?

From a political viewpoint it's better not to have any evidence on global warming. If we had facts, we might find out that warming, if it existed, might actually go away. It's not much good to tax a sin that can be absolved. Much better to tax that pervasive feeling of guilt directly. Leave it to the popular media to spread free-floating guilt, and to the political experts in the new administration, who know in their very bones, like Danny the Red, that "You can believe what you want, I don't believe, I know that global warming is a reality."

Bow down, ye sinners. The time has come for you to pay through the nose.

Christmastime in Baghdad

Justin Katz

Being from an AP report, the headline is rapidly submerged in lest-you-think-this-is-good-news "context," but it's worth noting, nonetheless:

Iraq's Christians, a small minority in the overwhelmingly Muslim country, quietly celebrated Christmas on Thursday with a present from the government, which declared it an official holiday for the first time. ...

In his homily on Thursday, Chaldean Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly praised the establishment of Christmas as an official holiday as a step toward easing tensions.

"I thank it too for making this day an official holiday where we pray to God to make us trust each other as brothers," he said at the Christmas Mass before several dozen worshippers in the small chapel of a Baghdad monastery.

A senior Shiite cleric, Ammar al-Hakim attended the event, flanked by bodyguards, in a gesture of cooperation with Christians.

"I thank the visitors here and ask them to share happiness and love with their brothers on Christmas. By this they will build a glorious Iraq," the cardinal said.

December 25, 2008

A Quiet Start, Barely Audible

Justin Katz

My teens and early twenties were, in a word, turbulent — mired in self-destructive behavior and emotional flights. Typical. Oh so typical was my pushing the world away in order to create an explanation for my feeling of isolation. In my impatient mind, the world had promised me much and delivered little.

The fruits of this attitude, and of the atheism with which it tumbled, were borne as I sat by one of my apartment's two windows, on a day away from my gray office cubical, and heard nothing in response to my demands that God provide a decisive sign of His existence. Promises being what they were, surely He owed me a voice from the sky — something so miraculous as to be unreal and inspire doubts about my sanity were I to describe it to others (whom I had well prepped for such doubts). Yet I heard nothing.

On a Saturday shortly thereafter, I paced my apartment while my new wife was at work. I drove the streets. I found myself at a Catholic Mass in Fall River, the church dark, its windows covered during renovation. And there, amid the legs of scaffolding, I heard the phrase for which I longed: "Peace be with you." I don't remember specifics about the scriptural readings and homily, but my recollection is that they dealt, even more than usual, with the message of internal peace, and when I turned to shake hands with the child in the pew behind me, it was as if Jesus himself were looking through that boy's eyes as he spoke the compulsory greeting. Indeed He was.

Today we celebrate the birth of a child to little immediate fanfare. Three magi saw some signs, and a king arched his eyebrow. Some shepherds heard a herald — in a sense of the arrival of the apotheosis of their profession. It would be decades, however, until the significance of that child truly came to be felt, and centuries and millennia would pass with the slow growth of his message.

The difference between one's early twenties and early thirties — between one's first standard workyear and one's calculation that a decade and more of labor are light on the scale against the possibility of 2,500 workweeks remaining — is a better understanding of time, and of the ways in which seeds grow in life.

We've recently installed a gate across the front lawn from one of the houses on which my company is working, and it will be four or five years before the bushes that line the property are high enough to give it coherence. During that time, the gate will look unnecessary and awkward. It will wear and be repainted. Ultimately, however, it will make sense and fit its surroundings.

Life's promises, I propose, are always kept, although we are deceived in hearing what we want. Prayers are answered, but the response is often, by necessity, not as clear or as quick as we would like. In the noise of our philosophies and desires, Truth is often too soft to register.

Peace be with you, this Christmas Day, and may the child born of Mary in the manger help us all to understand that He does not merely whisper, but speaks in such long phrases as to require close listening.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen...

Carroll Andrew Morse

Streaming version
Download version

Midi accompaniment courtesy of the Classical Midi Connection.

December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!!!

Marc Comtois

Merry Christmas to my fellow Anchor Rising contributors and to all of our readers and commenters (both the "Hallelujah" chorus and our "polar" opposites)!

The Comings and Goings

Justin Katz

I've been meaning to update the Census component of my analysis of RI's taxpayer exodus (as I did with the related IRS data), but time has been too short.

In the meantime, mull over this conspicuous paragraph from a Providence Journal article on the Census data:

Census Bureau spokesman Robert Bernstein said that between July '07 and July '08, there was a natural increase of about 3,600 more births than deaths in Rhode Island, and a "net international migration gain" of 2,900 people who moved here from abroad. But those increases "weren't enough to offset a loss of 8,800 people who left Rhode Island for other states."

Increasing foreign immigrants. Population growth based on births. But Rhode Islanders leaving in such numbers as to swamp both. One needn't be a demographic specialist to make some inferences.

Union Reverse Tautology and Arbetrayal

Justin Katz

The rhetorical dance of the East Providence teachers' union is so flowing, it's easy to miss the essential argument:

"The School Committee's solution to their self-inflicted fiscal problem is to blame it on the teachers' contract and to shift the entire burden of paying off that deficit to the teachers," union representative Jeannette Woolley countered in her opening statements. She also said the district had opportunities to implement health-care cost sharing before with past contracts but the school board members at the time "dropped the ball."

In addition, Woolley showed the teachers conceded scheduled raises three years ago when the district needed help, and the committee and school administration didn't raise the issue of health-care cost sharing then, either.

"So the bottom line from our perspective is that this school district is not in its current condition as a result of what the School Committee likes to term an overly rich contract," she said. "The facts suggest that the School Committee simply hasn't taken care of business over the years in this school district."

Got it? The School Committee didn't negotiate tighter contracts over the years, leading to the currently unaffordable one, so that contract can hardly be said to be "overly rich." The lessons for children are manifold: That overweight child could have forced himself away from the potato chips and the video game console at any time, so it can hardly be said that he ought to change his behavior now that he's obese!

The worst part is that the tie-breaking "neutral" arbitrator apparently bought the argument, at least sufficiently that his panel issued a decision that the school committee clearly can't accept — thus illustrating what a scam the arbitration process is in Rhode Island:

Mr. Ryan continues:

"The Union urges that comparability (to other district contracts), not ability to pay, should be the panel's paramount consideration. The School Committee insists that it has no choice but to pay its FY08 debts and adhere to its budget for FY09. School department deficits are unlawful under R.I.G.L. §§ 16-2-9(d), (e), & (f); 16-2-21 (b) & (c); 16-2-21.4; 16-2-11 (c); and 16-2-1. These interlocking enactments prohibit school departments from incurring or maintaining a deficit or engaging in deficit spending." ...

Mr. Kinder commenting on his dissenting vote said: "The award is useless because the School Committee is prohibited by law from accepting it. The award is useless because the School Committee cannot meet the award's costs in the first year of its 3-year term, let alone in the second or third years. Those are facts. Those facts were placed before the panel. The panel's award ignores these facts and provides modest changes that, if adopted last year, might have served to avert this year's financial crisis. But, last year, when the Teachers' Union was asked to accept similar, modest changes in order to avert a $3.2 million deficit, the Union refused. In consequence, the School Department will end this year with a deficit of well over $8 million, if nothing is done."

Will's got the entire School Committee press release up on Ocean State Republican.

December 23, 2008

Some Mid-Week Christmas Cheer

Carroll Andrew Morse

Ye gods.

The weather has disrupted my theory of final-week Christmas shopping density. With Christmas falling on a Thursday and last-minute shoppers having three make-up days to catch up after realizing they can't possibly get it all done on the final weekend, it should have been an easy one this year.

However, with most of the final-weekend-before getting wiped out by the snowstorm, final stage holiday preparation insanity has been pushed to near maximum intensity.

Which means that, this year, George Washington's eggnog recipe may be a better aid than ever for helping you through…

  • One quart cream
  • One quart milk
  • One dozen tablespoons sugar
  • One pint brandy
  • 1/2 pint rye whiskey
  • 1/2 pint Jamaica rum
  • 1/4 pint sherry
Mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add liquor to mixture drop by drop at first, slowly beating. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.
And remember, as always with this recipe, the frequent tasting step should begin only after the final trip out for the evening.

Looks Like Stabilization

Justin Katz

Here's an interesting fact for perspective:

The number of daily attacks in Iraq has fallen almost 95% from levels a year ago. Also of note, the murder rate in Iraq in November was 0.9 per 100,000 people. That is lower than the rate from before Saddam was overthrown. For those keeping score, the 2007 murder rate in the US was 5.9 per 100,000. Can we declare victory yet?

Now we sit back and watch the real-time hagiographers transform Iraq into Obama's military victory.

Another Square-Peg-Round-Hole Task Force

Justin Katz

Obama's "task force to bolster the standard of living of middle-class and working families in America" can't possibly succeed at its stated objectives, because the ideas and priorities that constitute its basis for formation are deeply flawed, even inimical to the goal that it professes. Here's a bit of ready evidence (emphasis added):

The effort, which is called the White House Task Force on Working Families, is intended to focus on improving education and training for working Americans as well as protecting incomes and retirement security of the middle class. The group, officials said, will work with labor and business leaders.

Labor and business leaders can be relied upon to push their own interests as if they are the interests of whatever group is being targeted. Can you imagine, for example, such a group finding that regulations that favor established businesses and hinder the movement and earning power of private-sector entrepreneurs must be curtailed?

All in the Name of Civil Rights

Justin Katz

From the town hall to the courthouse, the same-sex marriage movement has been characterized by a willingness to disregard law and democratic practice. (Which isn't surprising, from a crowd that goes so far as to declare a desire to defend a pivotal cultural institution to be bigotry.) California Attorney General Jerry Brown is the latest to shirk his duties and infringe on the civil rights of a majority of citizens in the name of liberty:

In a December 19 press release, the attorney general said: "Proposition 8 must be invalidated because the amendment process cannot be used to extinguish fundamental constitutional rights without compelling justification." He thus endorsed the idea that marriage, as it has always been understood, is so grossly contrary to California's constitutional principles that an amendment protecting that understanding cannot be allowed into the constitution even if duly enacted by voters. ...

All of this serves to confirm the worst fears of Proposition 8's supporters. The political and legal elites of the state have done all within their power to endorse the idea that support for traditional marriage is the rankest kind of bigotry that does not deserve even a nominal word in its favor by government officials.

If Proposition 8 does not hold, this new dogma will be the official state policy — and this in spite of a clear legal mandate of the voters of the state to the contrary.

A court order invalidating Proposition 8 would also give the supreme court a super-constitutional power, above the amendment process provided for in the text of the constitution, to determine what subjects are germane to constitutional lawmaking by the people of the state. There is no other way to understand this new theory that a manufactured and unenumerated "right" can become so "fundamental" that it can no longer be the subject of a simple amendment. And, of course, who will decide whether a right has attained this stature? The California supreme court.

This turn of events highlights two of the three (often willful) blind spots of those who wish the whole icky argument would just go away:

  1. That the philosophical basis and emotional drive will not stop with the imposition of same-sex marriage and will advance to egregious trampling of Americans' rights of conscience, association, and religion.
  2. That among those trampled rights will also be the right, via democratic means, to shape the nature of one's government and society.

It defies reason and historical experience to think that the arguments and processes that bring same-sex marriage to the nation despite the people's wishes (and interests) will not become tools for further assertion of an ideological agenda, even in ways entirely unrelated to marriage, family, and sexuality.


The third blind spot overlooks the likelihood that radical changes to the very essence of the meaning of marriage will indeed affect families — as always, with emphasis on those who are most vulnerable.

RE: Warwick Schools Cancellation

Marc Comtois

Following up, the ProJo has their report on the situation today:

School officials said that few members of the union that represents custodial, maintenance and secretarial employees — the Warwick Independent School Employees (WISE) –– responded to calls to come to work late Sunday afternoon even though union workers had showed up for snow duty on Friday and Saturday.

The School Department and the WISE union have been stalemated over a contract for more than two years, but union leaders last night said that there was no concerted attempt to avoid working on Sunday.

Mayor Scott Avedisian, who was in contact with both sides yesterday morning, said he did not care which was in the wrong and that it is “absolutely unacceptable” that Warwick schools were not ready to open along with almost all other public school districts yesterday.

To prevent a repeat occurrence, Avedisian said that after talking to School Committee Chairman Christopher Friel in the morning, he issued an executive order forming a special committee to deal with efficient snow removal at the schools. He said that he and Friel agreed that if school employees are not available to clear the drives, parking lots and walkways, the city will do the work and bill the School Department.

A Resource with No In-State Outlet

Justin Katz

As one who graduated from the University of Rhode Island almost — amazingly — a decade ago, I'm not surprised that the school is considered to be a good deal:

The cost of attending the University of Rhode Island is going up, but the editors at one financial magazine say it's still a bargain — and an investment that pays off in the long run.

According to next month's issue of SmartMoney magazine, URI ranks 15th in a nationwide study of private and public colleges analyzing the connection between tuition costs and graduates' earning power. The magazine examined colleges based on "their ability to deliver the best return on investment," and URI ranked the highest institution in New England. Brown University was ranked 36th. ...

On average, graduates of Ivy League and liberal-arts institutions earned more than graduates of public institutions three years after graduation — $51,000 a year compared with $48,500, and the gap widens more after 15 years.

But when college costs are factored in, the "long-term payback" picture shifts, ranking Georgia Tech far above Dartmouth and Texas A&M above Swarthmore, for example.

The reality, in my opinion, is that a motivated student can derive an excellent education from any school, but doing so is better facilitated at higher-end institutions. For its part, URI provided strong and innovative — and improving — educational opportunities when I was there, and things seem to have continued on the upswing.

The travesty of the university is that the state fails to follow up on the boon by giving graduates a reason (or even the ability) to remain in the state and apply their skills and knowledge.

December 22, 2008

Of Two Minds on Abstinence

Justin Katz

An interesting juxtaposition of "role-model" attitude appears in Bob Kerr's column from yesterday. On one hand:

The kid eagerly raised his hand at the back of the room at the Lincoln Middle School. He had the answer.

"A condom," he said.

Right he was. A condom is the safe way. Abstinence is probably not going to work for most people, Scott Mitchel told the class.

"You can make a choice," he said.

On the other:

He started, as he always does, with "HIV101." He talks of the virus attacking the immune system, of T-cells and how their numbers are a barometer of health or sickness. He points out there are four bodily fluids — blood, breast milk, semen and vaginal fluid — that can transmit the disease. Tears, saliva and sweat cannot. And taking the risk of injecting drugs with a needle is just too stupid to consider.

There are vast differences, of course, between sex and syringe-based drugs, but the difference in this HIV-positive speaker's attitude is striking. "Most people" (Kerr's paraphrase) can't be abstinent — and monogamy is apparently hardly worth mentioning — but injecting drugs — whether with shared or clean needles — is beyond stupid.

I'd suggest that the first step toward making abstinence a feasible for middle schoolers is for adults to tell them that it's something that they can conceivably accomplish.

Looking for Answers on Warwick Schools Cancellation

Marc Comtois

UPDATE: Mayor Avedisian called Dan Yorke and unequivocally stated that there was a concerted effort on the part of the school maintenance union (WISE) to not come to work. The union president is claiming that 11 of the 15 people involved didn't get a phone call from the school administration. Avedisian stated that, phone call or not, WISE workers should have figured they'd be needed to work on Sunday to prep for school on Monday. He also resolved that if this occurs again, then the city will simply meet the need with city employees and back-bill the school department.

Dan mentioned that combining maintenance positions seems like a good idea and Mayor Avedisian agreed and said they'd been trying to negotiate that for some time. However, there has been resistance.

Avedisian also implied that perhaps the Superintendent and the Director of Buildings and Grounds needed to take action against the employees who didn't show.

A follow-up caller "with knowledge of the situation" (and was sympathetic to the WISE guys) essentially confirmed that the workers were making a statement.

No one has a clear answer, but Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian called John DePetro this morning and tried to explain why the Warwick Schools were closed today. Apparently, Superintendent of Schools Peter Horoschack called school department maintenance employees in on Sunday to clean up the school grounds (parking lots, sidewalks, etc.) but got little response.

In Warwick, the independent school employees union (WISE - Warwick Independent School Employees) has been operating without a contract for a couple years and Avedisian openly speculated that the ongoing work-to-rule mindset was to blame for the large number of no-shows. Additionally, Mayor Avedisian explained how many school events have been moved, canceled or manned by volunteers (I know, I've been one of them) because janitors wouldn't come in to open schools or clean up after the events.

As in other cities and towns, the city maintenance workers and the school maintenance workers are two different entities. Situations like this make a strong case for unifying the administration of all maintenance workers, be they city-side or school-side.

A Gift to the RI Right

Justin Katz

I don't know what makes Ian think think this news would "irritate" us: "Crowley to succeed Jerzyk at RI's Future." There's even more reason for optimism in the fact that the RI Left doesn't understand what a gift to Ocean State conservatives this is.

On Legal Corruption

Justin Katz

The link is more associative than direct, but something in attempts to use recent research to paint as a myth the pervasive impression of rampant corruption in Rhode Island has seemed off to me. I've thought, for example, that there must be something in the fact that journalists put Rhode Island at the top of the national corruption list even though comparisons of convictions place us in the upper portion of the middle of the pack. Mark Patinkin implies that Rhode Island's politicians are so good at corruption that their hands remain clean in the eyes of the law.

The drama of the Resource Recovery Corporation expands on that general principle, in my opinion:

A recent audit of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation cites "a clear pattern of gross mismanagement" and confirms that the agency has lost $13.7 million on the development of its industrial park.

The state agency, which oversees the state Central Landfill, has restated its financial records to show real estate losses on about 70 acres, including land purchased from the family of former Johnston Mayor William R. Macera. ...

Straightening out the books, and accounting for overstated assets, has not answered all of the questions about Resource Recovery’s real estate practices.

"The real question is, Why did we do that?" OConnell said. "Why did we spend money that way?"

Another team of forensic auditors, commissioned by Governor Carcieri, is still examining the land transactions as well as allegations of theft by employees and other possible crimes, payments for services not rendered or of questionable value, potential state ethics violations and violations of procurement procedures.

There are, obviously, allegations of actual law breaking, here, but it's also worth noting that corruption doesn't necessarily cross the line into illegality. Especially in a state in which it's apparently legal to bribe legislators for their votes.

Perception = Reality

Marc Comtois

Speaker Murphy expressed a desire for politicians, the press and the public to put a shiny, happy face on our troubled state. But that's hard to do when national news outlets like the Washington Post run stories that ask questions like, "So how did little, picturesque Rhode Island become one of the most economically depressed parts of the country?"

Forcing Opportunity into the Mix

Justin Katz

My emphasis is always on increasing opportunity. Because it's the situation in which I find myself, for example, I believe that many (maybe most) of the people with credit card problems didn't sink into debt living lavishly with their few thousand dollars of Monopoly credit, but rather because life has continually thrown obstacles at them, keeping the monthly bills from being paid. Given opportunity, and seeing clearly the trap of high interest rates, people will work hard and strive to be debt free, and government meddling tends to result in less opportunity — often for unpredicted reasons.

The urge to reach federal fingers into the credit industry and dictate the terms governing credit cards has therefore been suspect, in my estimation. Doing so would decrease access to credit at the low end, and credit schemers would probably find some other way to manipulate the system to their own iniquitous ends, harming those who've avoided pitfalls thus far.

I'll say, though, that Ed Fitzpatrick's presentment of Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life as the poster villain for the credit card industry softened my view a little:

... credit card companies are making the most money when they get consumers in the "sweat box" of credit card debt, Lawless said, borrowing a phrase from a law review article by Columbia Law School Prof. Ronald J. Mann.

In that sweat box, "People are not in good enough shape that they are paying on time but they are not in bad enough shape that they can file bankruptcy," Lawless explained. "They are piling up the huge interest rates, piling up the big penalty fees, and the longer the credit card companies can keep people in that sweat box, the more money the credit card companies are going to make." ...

"Once a debtor falls into the trap of exponential debt growth, can such a person ever climb his or her way out?" Chung asked. "I highly doubt it. Perhaps we are witnessing the 21st-century equivalent of the company store where the debtor is just another day older and deeper in debt because he has sold his soul to his credit card issuer."

Surely there are changes of policy that could benefit credit card users, but it's not clear that those who would "solve" the problem won't make it worse. Consider Fitzpatrick's brief history of the problem, which has left credit card companies able to use Nevadan interest laws to snare Rhode Islanders with higher rates and fees than Rhode Island would allow. Conspicuously, none of the proposals listed from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse address the laws and court rulings that made the practice of interstate usury possible; they all federalize rates and such.

Moreover, it seems to me that representatives who truly wished to help families who've become ensnared in the plastic trap could find creative ways to shift the end results of fees and punitive interest rates. Rather than capping interest rates, for instance, the law could require a formula that would boost minimum payments to outpace the heightened interest. That would put creditors in the position of having to judge the profitability of forcing their customers into bankruptcy, and it would give imprudent borrowers a more immediate lesson in wise practices.

Surely, too, some portion of fees could be required to go toward some mechanism or other that would actually help families to get out of debt. The point is that the "just do something obvious" strategy of mitigating the consequences of past policy changes will only ensure more dire consequences in the future. The Mr. Potters of the world have made it their business to push regulations in their favor, and the predictable noises of activist representatives seem likely to play into their hands, one way or another.

December 21, 2008

Murphy Speaks

Marc Comtois

Newsmakers with Tim White (and Ian Donnis and Arlene Violet) had House Speaker William Murphy on this morning. Here is some of what he had to say (rough transcription, folks).

Ian Donnis mentioned how the RI Legislature has typically been shortsighted--the tobacco money grab--and how that gave the impression that there was no long term planning. Murphy replied that the emphasis has always been on balancing the budget--a short-term item--over long term planning. Now, during a "tough economic time" it's "easy to make changes."

Arlene Violet mentioned that cities and towns have come to expect help, and more of it, year after year. Murphy said this year cities and towns are prepared for less because state aid isn't going to be the same. Wouldn't commit to repealing the Carullo act, but recognized the difficulty it posed in tandem with the property tax cap.

Ian Donnis mentioned Murphy had cited a goal of growing the RI Economy back in 2007. What's happened? Murphy said he was disappointed and he thinks the EDC's biggest failing was in the P.R. He based this on meetings he's had with businesses who have been "amazed" with what they've seen in RI. Mentioned that the overall cost of doing business-specifically cited energy costs--was more in RI.

Donnis said we'd never be as cheap as the South, so what can we do? Murphy reiterated that we as RIers (specifically public officials and the media) have to be more positive about our state. Tim White challenged Murphy on that and asked, don't we need fundamental changes?

Murphy said we have done this, especially with regards to modifying the tax structure.

White asked about the newly retired state college workers who are collecting a pension and a paycheck by working part time. White also mentioned the 75 day rule that applies for teachers (whereby they can retire and then return to the job 75 days later). Murphy said that we should revisit and that he and many in the House were "taken aback," His intents is to "close the loophole" as long as doing so doesn't make another problem.

Arlen Violet asked about a statewide health contract. Murphy said we made some headway last year, but everything is on the table. The opportunity is here to make some changes in preparation for when we come out of this recession.

Donnis asked about tax credits (specifically movies). Murphy cited the historical tax credit and that it had done wonders, though it needed to be tweaked. RIers benefited from the jobs created and abandoned property has been put on the rolls. Supported the movie tax credit and thinks it brings jobs to RI. Donnis asked for hard numbers and Murphy referred to Steve Feinberg. Donnis wouldn't settle for that, but Murphy could only say that he knows they're working on it and that the National Governors Organization supports such a program and also cited Massachusetts. (He wasn't comfortable with this line of questioning).

Tim White asked about the pension commission and asked if there is any progress. Murphy said the report is coming...

Semi-Random Thoughts About Bernard Madoff

Monique Chartier


Fifty billion is missing and presumed lost or stolen. Lacking a clear picture of how much of that is lost and how much is stolen, is $10,000,000 really an adequate bail amount? Madoff needed to send only an equal amount offshore during the course of his scheme to be ready for a sudden need to disembark from the shores of the United States. Further, while I understand that bail, if set, has to be somewhat achievable by the defendant and that presumably, Madoff's domestic assets are now frozen and unavailable for things like bail, in view of the magnitude of the crime and the corresponding impetus to flee, two one hundredths of a percent of the amount of the alleged crime seems an absurdly disproportionate bail amount.

His Accomplice

Bloomburg columnist Jonathan Weil wonders what other slightly more legal "Ponzi" schemes government regulators are deliberately looking away from. In fact, he correctly points to this as yet another reason that government should not bail out any company, any industry, any time.

So why have other Ponzi-esque operators emerged scot-free (so far) with taxpayer bailouts, while Madoff gets pinched?

* * *

Yet perhaps the best explanation can be found in a Dec. 4 speech by SEC Chairman Christopher Cox on why the government needs an exit strategy to unwind its myriad bailout commitments.

"From the standpoint of the SEC, the most obvious problem with breaking down the arm’s-length relationship between government, as the regulator, and business, as the regulated, is that it threatens to undermine our enforcement and regulatory regime,” Cox said.

When the government becomes both referee and player, the game changes rather dramatically for every other participant. Rules that might be rigorously applied to private-sector competitors will not necessarily be applied in the same way to the sovereign who makes the rules.

* * *

He’s right. The government can’t live up to the task, even if it wanted to.

Madoff probably wasn’t the biggest Ponzi-scheme artist out there. He’s just the first of his size to get nailed during the current bear market.

He also knew he was fair game for the government. The people running companies with taxpayer bailout money know there’s an excellent chance they won’t be. As long as that remains true, this crisis of confidence isn’t over by a long shot.

An Erroneous Knee-Jerk Reaction

Meanwhile, President-Elect Barack Obama has vowed to implement tougher regulations "to ensure that a crisis like this can never happen again". Is there one action that Bernard Madoff took as he carried out his Ponzi scheme that was legal? Even one? Respectfully, the President-Elect is off base. As with the Station Night Club fire, what faciliated this crime was not a lack of regulation but an absence of will to enforce existing laws. The only question now is what evoked such an extreme laissez-faire attitude on the part of the regulators.

When Doctors Define Health

Justin Katz

Such arguments become deep precipitously, but there remains something disconcerting about the method by which society determines the behaviors that are considered within the bounds of normality and those that justify treatment:

The book is at least three years away from publication, but it is already stirring bitter debates over a new set of possible psychiatric disorders.

Is compulsive shopping a mental problem? Do children who continually recoil from sights and sounds suffer from sensory problems — or just need extra attention? Should a fetish be considered a mental disorder, as many now are?

Panels of psychiatrists are hashing out just such questions, and their answers — to be published in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — will have consequences for insurance reimbursement, research and individuals' psychological identity for years to come.

The process has become such a contentious social and scientific exercise that for the first time the book’s publisher, the American Psychiatric Association, has required its contributors to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

The debate is particularly intense because the manual is both a medical guidebook and a cultural institution. It helps doctors make a diagnosis and provides insurance companies with diagnostic codes without which the insurers will not reimburse patients’ claims for treatment.

The judgment of normality and disorder ultimately falls to the individual and to those who interact with him or her. The difficulty (and political jockeying) increases in proportion to the compulsory assistance of those whom consensus acknowledges as having problems — and compulsory acceptance of those whom "consensus" denies as having problems.

We are called, I believe, to help those who need help and to accept those whose challenges do not bear directly on our specific relationships with them. The current structure for psychological diagnoses, however, seems to be drifting toward ever more infringement on our own ability and right to judge those around us for ourselves.

They Didn't Intercept Any Toast Points?

Monique Chartier


Part of me thinks that a portion of this haul should be sold (at a discount price to ensure a prompt sale) and the proceeds used to distribute more ... necessary supplies to the targeted recipient organizations and part of me is amused and pleased at the intended disposition of the illicit beluga.

RI Economy: Solution is Obvious to (almost) All

Marc Comtois

John Kostrzewa writes:

The state’s economic development strategy needs short-term and long-term goals. It gets out of balance when too much energy goes into attracting out-of-state companies with tax breaks or taking care of the demands of the politically connected while deciding not to invest in developing companies that will create jobs in the future.

The other lesson is that the key constituency is the small-business owner. There are 54,000 of them in Rhode Island, and by Carcieri’s own estimate, they employ 90 percent of the workers. Too often, they feel left out of the state’s plan and think the state, with its tax or regulatory policy, is only out to hurt, not help them.

Small-business owners have a clear list of priorities; they want a lower cost to do business; access to capital; a consistent, manageable system of rules and regulations and the ability to keep more of what they earn.

The other constituencies — the elected officials who seek special treatment and the big-company leaders who have the ear of the governor — will all fall into place if the first two lessons are learned.

This is nothing new. It's been said here, there and everywhere. The governor's small business plan is a start, but more needs to be done, across the board.

December 20, 2008

Searching for New Directions

Justin Katz

Since it's been a topic of discussion around here, it's worth noting that — although Capitol Records continues on its litigious path, the Recording Industry Association of America is discerning the error of its ways:

After years of suing thousands of people for allegedly stealing music via the Internet, the recording industry is set to drop its legal assault as it searches for more effective ways to combat online music piracy.

The decision represents an abrupt shift of strategy for the industry, which has opened legal proceedings against about 35,000 people since 2003. Critics say the legal offensive ultimately did little to stem the tide of illegally downloaded music. And it created a public-relations disaster for the industry, whose lawsuits targeted, among others, several single mothers, a dead person and a 13-year-old girl.

Instead, the Recording Industry Association of America said it plans to try an approach that relies on the cooperation of Internet-service providers. The trade group said it has hashed out preliminary agreements with major ISPs under which it will send an email to the provider when it finds a provider's customers making music available online for others to take.

ISPs are going to have a bevy of moral and strategic questions to answer, but this is certainly a more prudent approach than demanding to dig through the computers of families that, once upon a time, had different computers that may or may not have contained pirated digital music.

Beware Tax Tinkering

Justin Katz

Efforts to "update," or otherwise change, Rhode Island's taxation regime give the unmistakable impression of tinkering. That impression is solidified under one insidious phrase, which I've italicized in the following paragraph:

"It may be in the '10 [fiscal year budget], not in the supplemental," Carcieri said [of a plan to broaden the sales tax]. "I think we need to bring the nominal rate down. And I would be supportive of that. It's a matter of how you do it so it's revenue neutral."

That misguided phrase, reformers will note, is much less often applied in the form of expenditure neutral, when spending programs are broadened. Moreover, the reality is that there's no such thing as "neutrality" when it comes to adjusting tax code. Consider:

The tax-policy workgroup found the state could generate more than $200 million by taxing goods and services that are currently exempt. They include non-prescription drugs, car washes, spectator sports, theater, dry cleaning, business-support services and travel arrangements.

The net impact of the sales tax expansion and rate reduction, according to the tax-policy workgroup, would be a $4.3-million increase in sales tax revenue for the state’s coffers. ...

Indeed, the tax policy workgroup determined that a sales-tax expansion could create a new burden for some taxpayers, but the vast majority of households would actually pay less sales tax over the course of the year because of the across-the-board reduction to 5 percent.

In other words, taxes would increase by $200 million, by these estimates, but decrease by $195.7 million. The question is who — excluded from "the vast majority of households" — would be contributing to that first number? If Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce President Laurie White intends to make the state "more tax competitive," even as total revenue remains statistically the same, for which taxpayers' inclusion are we competing, and to which are we going to hand the bill?

A look at the partial list of new sales/service taxes begins to create a picture. The various "repair" items are indicative of ownership. The self-improvement and leisure activities bespeak those who are progressing beyond subsistence and beginning to have financial room to focus on quality of life. And amazingly, such services as tax-return preparation, classified ads, and employment-agency fees will affect those seeking to generate economic activity (but without internal departments to handle such things). That is, precisely the critical group between the working and upper-middle classes that has been fleeing from the state for several years, now, will disproportionately bear the burden of this "neutrality."

One can expect many service providers to follow them across state lines.

Allowing Respectful Adjustments

Justin Katz

The solution that David Benkof describes is one that I've been suggesting for years:

The 30 constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, including Proposition 8 in California, are a direct result of the lawsuits-for-marriage strategy practiced by gays and lesbians since the mid-Nineties, including successful suits in Massachusetts, California and Connecticut. So achieving marriage in three gay-friendly states (two now that Proposition 8 has passed in California) came at the expense of barring marriage in 10 times as many states, many much less hospitable to same-sex couples.

Worse, 18 of the constitutional amendments, in places like Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, bar not only marriage but any kind of rights specifically for same-sex couples. That means that even in gay-popular cities like Austin, Texas, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, there can be no benefits for gay and lesbian couples unless and until those statewide amendments are repealed — an unlikely scenario. ...

... a coalition of concerned politicians from both left and right have come together in Salt Lake City with a plan that can be a model for those concerned about the problems faced by same-sex couples anywhere. Guided by Democratic Mayor Ralph Becker, the "mutual commitments" plan was approved with both liberal and conservative support in the city council and the state legislature. It provides a package of rights, including hospital visitation and health care, to any two people who can show financial interdependence. The pair can be a mother and adult daughter, two straight male roommates or lesbian lovers.

The government doesn't ask — and doesn't care — which.

Of course, resolving some of the egregious shortcomings of current law would decrease the arsenal of emotion-based rhetoric in the service of full radical social change and is therefore not likely to be tolerated by the forces of tolerance. And so, people will continue to suffer for the cause.

A beautiful day

Donald B. Hawthorne

It is one of those beautiful mornings after a snow storm where the crisp whiteness of the fresh snow is everywhere, set against the quietness of people still being largely indoors.

It is another one of those times when we all have an opportunity to take a step back and reflect on the beauty of our world as well as the power and majesty of nature.

December 19, 2008

The Land of All or Nothing

Justin Katz

So we're within a couple of hours of the end of the normal school day, and I haven't seen a snowflake yet. It seems that there ought to be a middle ground between utter calamity during a snowstorm and unnecessary public panic. Would it be too much to orchestrate for early releases to be played by ear? (That's my recollection from similar forecasts during my youth.)

I wonder how much economic activity was lost today as public school employees got a free day off and private-sector workers had to take personal days or scramble to accommodate their children's schedules.

Keeping Up Property One Owns

Justin Katz

Offering assistance to steer foreclosed neighborhoods away from blight is a worthwhile goal, and the collection of initiatives recently announced by Governor Carcieri and Senator Reed seems properly targeted. It does seem, however, that the actual owners of the properties (i.e., banks) get a pass on the whole problem.

Increasing the risk of lending money to homeowners — by increasing the responsibilities of banks should the owners fall aside — could have disagreeable consequences, but I'm not sure why taxpayers should wind up on the hook for other people's economic transactions. Don't stagnant and decomposing houses cost banks money over time?

Perhaps banks could contrive some sort of low-income rental system for maintenance purposes, or maybe the state could develop a rent-maintain-and-fix program.

Keeping the States Interested in the Electoral College

Justin Katz

Everybody's talking about the Electoral College and the national popular vote movement, 'round here. Ian's on it in the Phoenix. Matt Sledge talks it up on RI Future (although he doesn't think it pertinent to mention that he's the executive director of FairVote RI). Most interesting, however, is Edward Fitzpatrick's column, because the recent FairVote event that sparked the discussion apparently changed his mind, based on the arguments of senior editor and staff writer for The New Yorker (and FairVote board member) Hendrik Hertzberg:

If people such as Carcieri "think the Electoral College is such a good idea, why don't they propose it on the state level?" Hertzberg asked. In most elections, the candidate with the most votes wins. "It's pretty simple," he said. "And that’s how your governor was elected."

On his blog, Hertzberg noted the Constitution gives each state the power to pick electors "in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct." And he said the Founding Fathers did not establish "the current system," in which states award all their electoral votes to whoever wins the popular vote in each state.

Hertzberg said the current system is "unjust" because "it can easily deprive the people of their preferred choice but also, and mainly, because it shuts the citizens of the 30 or more non-'battleground' states out of the game."

In an interview, Carcieri said the Electoral College was meant to prevent smaller states from being "steamrolled" by larger states, and he said the system "has withstood the test of time."

Hertzberg said, "To say that it has withstood the test of time is simply to say that it's old." And he said having a disproportionate share of electoral votes hasn't kept Rhode Island from becoming a "spectator" state — all but ignored by presidential candidates. Of the 13 states with the smallest populations, only New Hampshire has avoided "spectator" status, he said.

The only thing more disheartening than the realization that a senior editor for a major cultural publication would make these arguments is that they have such wide currency. Firstly, it isn't difficult to comprehend the differences between the nation and its political divisions (states), on one hand, and a state and its political divisions (municipalities), on the other: The geographic, economic, and cultural dispersion among municipalities is not nearly as dramatic as among states, and the federal government behaves beyond the scope of states in a different way than states do municipalities. (There isn't really a state-level analog to the nation's interaction with the world community.)

That point is minuscule, however, in the shadow of the notion that Rhode Island would somehow become more important during campaign season under a national popular vote scheme. Under the Electoral College system, Rhode Island accounts for 0.75% of the available votes. In terms of population, the state holds 0.36% of the national total. In other words, our vote value on a per capita basis would be equivalent to having only two Electoral College votes (with the national total remaining the same).

The specific National Popular Vote proposal currently on the table would actually reduce Rhode Island's significance further. Given Constitutional difficulties, the way the proposal actually functions is by having state legislatures give their Electoral College votes to whichever candidate wins the popular vote, but only when enough states have signed on to guarantee victory — that is, when the signatory states account for over half of Electoral College votes.

What that means is that politicians would have our four-EC votes of incentive to campaign in cities and states with higher populations and less homogeneous voting patterns. One-hundred and thirty cities have larger populations than Providence's, and 42 states have larger populations than Rhode Island's. And the state-by-state component of campaign strategies would account for a smaller amount of the total effort, because the National Popular Vote would effectively make the voter audience a national one, thereby increasing the importance of advertisements on a national scale.

I haven't had a chance to research extensively why leftists, in particular, are so keen for the popular vote, but I don't believe that it's residual bitterness over the Bush/Gore race. It could have to do with the fact that Democrats dominate in urban areas, so the math would therefore leave them with a greater advantage, particularly in organizing. Their investment in identity groups may also be a factor, given that geography dilutes such cuts of society.

The advantage of that dilution is perhaps the strongest argument for the Electoral College: It preserves our nation as the United States of America, not the United Interests of America. In a similar vein, it stands as a final safeguard against a populist tyranny — giving small states an allowance against large ones, and political minorities protection against a zeitgeist.

December 18, 2008

Wagner v. Taylor

Carroll Andrew Morse

Michael Barone of U.S News and World Report has an interesting capsule history of how labor/management relations through the 20th Century have brought the U.S. auto industry to where it is today…

Mickey Kaus, pretty much alone among the commentators I've been reading, indicts "Wagner Act unionism" for the decline and fall of the U.S. auto industry. The problem, he argues, is not just the high level of benefits that the United Auto Workers has secured for its members but the work rules—some 5,000 pages of them—it has imposed on the automakers. As Kaus points out, unionism as established by the Wagner Act is inherently adversarial. The union once certified as bargaining agent has a duty not only to negotiate wages and fringe benefits but also to negotiate work rules and to represent workers in constant disputes about work procedures.

The plight of the Detroit Three auto companies raises the question of why people ever thought this was a good idea. The answer, I think, is that unionism was seen as the necessary antidote to Taylorism. That's not a familiar term today, but it was when the Wagner Act was passed in 1935. Frederick Winslow Taylor was a Philadelphia businessman who pioneered time and motion studies. As Robert Kanigal sets out in The One Best Way, his biography of Taylor, he believed that there was "one best way" to do every job. Industrial workers, he believed, should be required to do their job in this one best way, over and over again. He believed workers should be treated like dumb animals and should be allowed no initiative whatever, lest they perform with less than perfect efficiency.

It is interesting to note that "Taylorism" was a part of the general trend occurring in the first half of the twentieth century, where the old classically liberal ideas were considered passé and the idea that the common folk needed strong management by an elite, in every area of their lives that mattered held a strong foothold.

We should be trying to move past Taylorist attitudes, the collateral damage they've caused in the past, and a possible revival of them in the near future, in as many places as possible.

Outsmarting the Taxpayers

Justin Katz

I'm sure there are arguments that it's financially efficient. That it preserves human capital. That it's better than alternatives. But when all th talking is done, this is just outrageous:

They left the state college system in droves in recent months to avoid paying more for their health insurance or losing it entirely, and they left with thousands of dollars in retirement incentives and severance payments for things like unused sick time.

But now, 44 retirees from Rhode Island College, the Community College of Rhode Island and the University of Rhode Island are back on the state payroll — in many cases, back in their old jobs as professors, administrators, school nurses, accountants and computer technicians while collecting state-subsidized pensions.

State law permits class instructors to remain on an explicitly limited basis, but the others are leveraging this bit of specious reasoning:

When asked, however, how that law justified the rehiring of top-level administrators, back-office financial staff and computer techs — including one CCRI retiree with a $44,412 state pension — spokesman Steven J. Maurano offered up a new and previously unheard of argument in the halls of state government, after consulting with Ron Cavallaro, general counsel to the Board of Governors for Higher Education.

Maurano said Cavallaro believes the law limiting which retirees can be rehired — and how much they can earn without giving up their retirement benefits — applies only to those enrolled in the state retirement system, not the vast majority of newly retired state college and university faculty and administrators enrolled in the privately operated TIAA-CREF, to which the state contributes 9 percent of pay annually for each enrollee.

Under that reading, Maurano said, the administrators of the state college system can bring back whomever they want, for however long they want, at whatever level of pay they deem appropriate without any loss of retirement benefits.

Most Rhode Islanders, one shouldn't have to explain, don't ever get the option to retire with a large incentive check and in time to preserve unsustainable healthcare benefits on a public-sector-level pension and keep the very same job on a lighter basis to make up (or exceed) the difference in income. This asserted loophole should be closed immediately and all cases retroactively challenged in court.

At the very least, very tight time constraints ought to be placed on the retiree-temps so that the organizations for which they work can absorb as much institutional knowledge as possible. Then the public-sector kings should be let out to pasture so that Rhode Islanders suffering from the nation's worst unemployment rate (and without pensions) can claim any positions that absolutely must be filled.

RI Supreme Court: Governor Controls CMRC

Marc Comtois

In a major victory for separation of powers proponents, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has ruled that the Governor, not the legislature, has ultimate control over the Coastal Management Resources Council. From 7to7:

In what may finally settle a longstanding controversy, the Rhode Island Supreme Court today came down solidly in favor of giving the governor sole control of the powerful state Coastal Resources Management Council and against allowing any further legislative influence over the council.

While most other state agencies have been revamped in line with the Separation of Powers referendum approved by voters several years ago, leaders of the House of Representatives have insisted the Rhode Island Constitution continued to give the legislature power to regulate the coastline, and that meant the power to appoint members to the CRMC.

The House basically asked the court four questions:

1. Would a bill allowing legislators to resume sitting on the CRMC violate the Separation of Powers Amendment?

The court said yes.

2. Would the bill allow the House speaker to appoint public members to CRMC?

The court said no.

3. Is the Separation of Powers amendment in effect, or does it need legislative approval.

The court said yes, the amendment is in effect. {ie; it's "self executing"}

4. Is CRMC a legislative function?

The court said no.

Full decision can be found here (PDF). One wonders if this is actually, truly, the end of this issue. But it is Rhode Island...

Removing Unfunded Mandates

Marc Comtois

As John Howell reports in the Warwick Beacon, cities and towns are going to be clamoring for a reduction in unfunded mandates (ie; rules or laws imposed by the state on municipalities without the concomitant funds).

“There’s slim hope that the legislature would relieve schools of providing textbooks for non public schools or special education busing,” said Daniel Beardsley, president of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns. Textbooks, busing and much more are on the radar screen, although there was a reluctance on the part of most contracted for this story to disclose too much. Efforts appear to be directed at arriving at a consensus and drafting an agenda before going public....

Timothy Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said yesterday the group has forwarded a list of mandates that “hopefully” the governor will consider lifting as part of his supplemental budget. They include eliminating step increases for teachers; lifting the requirement that school nurses are also certified teachers and revising requirements that public schools provide out of district transportation for private and parochial schools. He noted that often private and parochial schools operate on different school calendars yet municipalities are required to provide busing at times when public schools are closed.

Ha. Yeah, "eliminating step increases for teachers", that'll happen! Regardless, I'm all for removing the various transportation requirements. Warwick Mayor Scott Avedesian also recommended removing the school bus monitor requirement. He also had a pretty convenient complaint (conspiracy alert!):
Mayor Scott Avedisian had a...suggestion: the requirement...for the city to conduct a full revaluation every nine years with a statistical revaluation in three year increments. When the revaluation requirement was enacted, the state underwrote the cost. That’s no longer the case and cities and towns are faced with the burden.
In Warwick, the most recent revaluation was conducted at the peak of the housing market. So removing that revaluation requirement would probably keep current tax rates on individual properties the same, which is to say artificially high. In tight economic times, I'm guessing that would be fine with Avedesian who is already faced with decreasing revenues. But it would stink for Warwick property owners. I'm with Mayor Avedesian on this one, though:
The mayor also targeted the potential inconsistency between legislation that caps how much municipalities can increase the tax levy and the Caruolo Act that gives school committees the power to sue a municipality for additional funding.

“If it goes to Caruolo we really need to change the law so a judge can’t do something that doesn’t fit within the cap,” he said.

The Impact of the "Employee Free Choice Act" on Minorities

Marc Comtois

Jennifer Rubin reports that "Al Sharpton announced that he would be opposing the EFCA and mobilizing the African American community against it." Additionally, some of Sharpton's concerns--and that of other African-Americans--were explained in a discussion on Sharpton's radio show with African-American small-business owner Sylvester Smith and Charlie King of the National Action Network (the civil rights group headed by Sharpton). As King explains:

So let’s say using my hypothetical...that the workforce gets unionized by getting, let’s say, 21 people to sign a card saying that they want a union. Then you could have, after 90 days--if you can’t have an agreement between the union and the employer--it [goes] into what’s called binding arbitration and an arbitrator, a federal arbitrator, would come in and basically decide what that contract is going to be for two years. So, essentially what you could have is a person, a working man or woman, in a business who will have a contract put upon them without them ever agreeing to have a union or voting on it or having a say in what that contract will be once unionized.
Sylvester observed:
[W]e think that the heart of this issue is not about protecting workers, the heart of this issue is about the decline of union membership that’s been going on in this country for the past thirty years. The unions at this point are in a death spiral and much of it’s tied to the exportation of production jobs from this country to other countries and the unions.…
As Rubin adds, "Whatever one’s opinion of Sharpton, his opposition to EFCA signals an important division within the Democratic Party."

Coming to a State Near You?

Justin Katz

Could be that New York Governor David Paterson is offering a taste of things to come in Rhode Island:

Gov. Paterson's proposed $121 billion budget hits New Yorkers in their iPods - and nickels-and-dimes them in lots of other places, too.

Trying to close a $15.4 billion budget gap, Paterson called for 88 new fees and a host of other taxes, including an "iPod tax" that taxes the sale of downloaded music and other "digitally delivered entertainment services."

Two significant differences are that New York is a much bigger state than Rhode Island, making it more difficult for residents to skip state lines to make purchases and receive services, and that New York does not have the nation's highest unemployment, meaning that there's less incentive to stay in Rhode Island.

As a state, we can't afford mere attempts to weather this storm. We have to turn things around completely, and that's not going to happen unless the government pulls back. If, instead, Rhode Island officials attempt to get their hands into more pockets (or more deeply into the same pockets), they'll only exacerbate the problem.

The Business of Poverty

Justin Katz

Marc and Matt talked Poverty Institute research last night on the Matt Allen show. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

December 17, 2008

"Bigger Government isn't Stimulus"

Marc Comtois

Predirecting Anger

Justin Katz

My response to Richard Joslin made it into this week's print edition of the Sakonnet Times (as did TCC President David Nelson's), and I'm sure it'll spark an angry response or two from unionists.

Who knows but that ringleader Crowley will pen a guest letter from across the state. Given the extent of his so-called research and other writings at RI Future, his day job apparently leaves him with copious amounts of time for extracurricular activities. That assumes, of course, that the teachers aren't paying his salary for his blogging.

Whether that's the case or not, I'd suggest that teachers are misdirecting their anger if I'm the recipient. I'm merely arguing in what I believe to be the best interests of my town and its students (agree or disagree). On the other hand, the central justification for teachers' union dues' going to the state NEA would seem to be for state-level advocacy and planning.

Tiverton teachers should take especial note of the latter, because for all of their "research" and statewide contacts, the union officials appear to have failed to foresee and/or advise members of the likelihood of a state budgetary collapse. Inasmuch as it contributed to the local's dogged pursuit of a better deal, that failure cost the union members thousands of dollars, with no end to the state's and town's fiscal crises in sight.

Seeping Illness in Tiverton

Justin Katz

The tentative deal between Southern Union and residents of Tiverton concerning contaminated soil has fallen through. It's a travesty that those who live in the Bay Street area should spend so long in limbo, as the article puts it, but this is particularly disconcerting:

In the end, Southern Union could not strike a deal with the town. The town's lawyer, Andrew Teitz, told Torres in October that Tiverton could not agree to hold Southern Union harmless as long as the utility continued to seek money from the town, claiming the town was at fault for allowing the contamination.

Teitz said that the pipes, which were put down with a life expectancy of 80 to 100 years, already are starting to fail.

The Town Council is worried that the fire district's customers, about 1,500 to 2,000 town residents living north of Route 24, may have to shoulder an estimated $2-million liability for replacing the water lines, Teitz said.

And he said that some settlement discussions between the plaintiffs and Southern Union raise the possibility that a future DEM director may hold the town liable for millions of dollars in costs for cleaning up toxic soil under public roads.

It sounds to me as if Southern Union might have been spooked by the prospect of financial responsibility for the replacement of a substantial amount of utility and road infrastructure. As unsettling as the idea may be of requiring just a section of the town (the poorer section) to cover a multimillion-dollar construction project, the knowledge of contaminated soil surrounding failing pipes — serving residents who are forbidden to sell their properties — is worse.

Somebody better start compromising soon, particularly considering that nobody currently engaged in the game of chicken appears likely to face health repercussions from its continuation.

Reduce Poverty by lower taxes, not more

Marc Comtois

It's not a stretch to say things are tough all over this year, worse than most. Yet, whether it's good times or bad, the one constant is that we will see news stories detailing the annual end-of-year (ie; right around Christmas) Poverty Institute study aimed at tugging at our wallets heartstrings. (They alternate the publication of their "Rhode Island Standard of Need" report and their "State of Working Rhode Island" report).

But I'm not going to take them to task for advocating for the poor, nor do I dispute their findings. I have little doubt that budget deficits will affect the programs for which they advocate. I certainly don't want to see hungry, homeless kids. No one does. But the problem is that they have sent the same message year after year: "Rhode Island(ers) are not doing enough." And people--average Rhode Island taxpayers--are less likely to be receptive to the guilt game when they are feeling the pain themselves. Maybe the impact of the PI's message would be greater in lean times if it wasn't broadcast so loudly in good times.

And maybe, instead of focusing on increasing Rhode Island's tax burden, they should turn their attention to shrinking other areas of government to make up for the shortfalls in the programs they prioritize. No one wants to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor," so why don't they spend more time advocating for cutting the extravagances in state and local government or consolidating services to free up more money for those in need?

That's a better solution than adding to Rhode Island's tax burden, particularly on businesses (say, by advocating for expanding sales tax to services). Taking money out of the pockets of job producers is one surefire way to reduce employment and add to the constituency for which the Poverty Institute advocates. And I'm sure they wouldn't want that.

Using Immigration Law Toward an End

Justin Katz

Yeah, I'm aware that a politically noisy segment of our society views immigration more as a social work process than a set of policies intended for the benefit of the country, but Dori Segal and Brian Lee Crowley have a worthy (if politically infeasible) idea:

... America should immediately offer fast-track immigration to foreigners willing to do two things.

First, they must buy a house in the United States worth a minimum of $200,000 or with a minimum area of 2,000 square feet, paying cash up front. Second, they must place a further $250,000 in a government-insured account with a U.S. financial institution or spend $250,000 to create a business in the U.S. employing a minimum of three U.S. citizens. The need is immediate and urgent, and so upfront entry requirements should be stripped to the bare minimum.

The fatal flaw of the plan is that, as with military action, Americans have absorbed the principle that the only morally legitimate actions and policies are those with no immediate national interests tainting their purity. How can the wealthiest nation in the world give preference to entrepreneurs with a strong financial starting point over poor, unskilled laborers?

One can hope that this attitude will change when the "wealthiest nation" tag begins not to apply, but given the politically claimed definitions of "hope" and "change," which have been retooled to point toward a dreamlight of national morality, a healthy dose of skepticism is advisable.

Clear the Way (But Don't Build It) and They Will Come

Justin Katz

It must be their training that leads business advocates and practitioners to declare that Rhode Island requires a targeted business plan.

A state is not a business; it's a location. Government leaders are not CEOs and corporate board members; they're politicians. We shouldn't rely upon them to innovate and develop visions for business in the state; that should be left to business people — with their own professional necks on the line — to do.

Why, then does Newport County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Keith Stokes specify targeted tax changes and usage of an assumed federal stimulus windfall?

Of particular priority would be capital and infrastructure investments in designated industrial zone lands, enterprise zones, redevelopment districts and empowerment zones. ...

The Rhode Island Five Year Comprehensive Economic Plan states "approximately 32,450 acres were zoned for industry. The inventory of industrial-zoned land showed that 11,116 acres were actually in industrial use, the remainder being vacant or in other uses." Unfortunately, many acres of industrially zoned land in Rhode Island lack the basic infrastructure required for immediate business investment, most notably a lack of approved permits, utilities, environmental remediation, and road improvements. Investing in improving and expanding our state's industrial zoned lands and existing industrial and corporate parks has been a state planning goal for many years, but consistently lacked adequate funding. Rhode Island already enjoys many important industrial and corporate parks that with additional capital and investment will further expand their jobs and tax revenue potential.

With the state crumbling around them, a few square miles of predeveloped industrial lands here and there will not persuade companies that Rhode Island has its act together. Indeed, depending how the development is done, the location and configuration could be all wrong for a specific company. We must invest in infrastructure, but we're far from the point at which the state as a whole is in sufficiently healthy shape to focus on specific limited-use areas, and our leaders have demonstrated much less than the required insight to discern what uses companies may find for our land.

Smaller Business Association of New England Chairman Grafton Willey puts similar constraints on his advice:

We should build on our strengths and support those industries that have a unique advantage in Rhode Island. They would include: marine trades — boat building, boat storage and repair, slip rentals, boat equipment manufacturers and repairs; hospitality industry; health care; higher education; innovation and research; knowledge-based economy; and niche manufacturing industries where R.I. has a competitive advantage.

In its current predicament, Rhode Island needs to support any industries, within the boundaries of morality and safety, whose leaders determine from their own perspective that the state has a competitive advantage for them. Even putting aside the question of competence, to the degree that Rhode Island develops its own competitive advantage, it opens itself up to the subjective expenditure of public money to the benefit of politically powerful politicians and other interests.

Once again, it's not as though we've money lying around without purpose because everything basic is already done. When energy and thought are expended on specific purposes despite general disarray, it's a fair indication that the powers who be are distracting themselves from the straightforward steps that must be taken before innovation can stay on the tracks.

December 16, 2008

Obama's Education Secretary

Marc Comtois

Considering everything, Arne Duncan looks like a decent selection for Education Secretary. Dan Lips explains:

Mr. Duncan is known as one of a handful of innovative, reform-minded big city schools chiefs. How that will translate to the national level remains to be seen. Conservatives should be heartened that Mr. Duncan recognizes the need for local leadership and innovation. And that he supports amending federal policy to grant states greater flexibility and autonomy. Yet given his support for sharp federal spending increases, it is unclear how well the Secretary translates local lessons to the federal level.

What is clear is that Mr. Duncan's past work has earned applause from school reformers. He supports charter schools, public school choice, and merit pay for teachers and school leaders. Duncan also supports holding schools accountable for results and maintaining transparency about school performance through public reporting.


Don't Believe the Worst-Case

Justin Katz

Andrew Redleaf and Richard Vigilante's argument for letting the automakers (and the union that feeds off them) face bankruptcy should definitely be on your reading list for today:

Over the past couple of decades, the suppliers - actually systems makers - have taken over most manufacturing of American cars. The "hollowed out" Big Three now have not much more to do with making cars than Dell has to do with making PCs (which of course are really made by Intel and Microsoft).

In that sense, the Big Three have already been through bankruptcy once - except that they outsourced their bankruptcies over the last 20 years to their suppliers, along with their design and manufacturing. ...

... Bankruptcies are essentially negotiations among claimholders, supervised by a judge. To get to a "fire sale" liquidation, most of the most powerful claimholders must first want to get there, and then the judge must agree to enforce this outcome against claimholders who oppose it. ...

As long as the government continues to conceive its job as saving bad companies from their just deserts - rather than getting the trillions of dollars of credit destroyed by the panic back out to the productive economy - the bailout will continue to expand and continue to fail.

How did the Big 3 and UAW Get to this point?

Marc Comtois

In his most recent column, Ed Achorn cites information from Investors Business Daily, which states that "U.S. automakers pay their average worker just over $70 an hour in total compensation, compared with about $45 an hour for Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai and other transplants." However, the way the information is presented has led to some confusion. As a recent NY Times article explains, the average current auto worker isn't making $70/hour, more like $55/hour (this includes salary and benefits). However, the Big 3 are paying all of their workers--past and present--the equivalent of $70+/hour. How did they get to this point?

Micky Kaus explains that union work rules have a lot to do with the current problems.

Why have unionized Detroit auto manufacturers manifestly lost out to their non-union Japanese competitors, even when it comes to building cars in the United States--to the point where Congress is presented with a choice of bailout or bankruptcy? There are some obvious culprits: shortsighted American managers, schlocky designers, an insular corporate culture. Here's another: the very structure of Wagner Act unionism. The problem isn't so much wages as work rules--internal strictures that make it hard for unionized competitors to constantly adapt and change production processes the way the Japanese do.
Kaus points to this article from 1983:
Under the Wagner Act, management manages. What the union does is complain, and negotiate for a rule limiting management's right to do what the union doesn't like. A worker protests that his job should be classified as "drilling special and heavy" instead of "drilling general." The parties butt heads, a decision is reached, and a new rule is deposited like another layer of sediment. At some GM plants, distinct job categories evolved for each spot on the assembly line (e.g., "headlining installer"). In Japanese auto plants, where they spend their time building cars instead of creating job categories, there is only one nonsupervisory job classification: "production."

But as Barone explains, where we are now is directly attributable to the tension between "Wagnerism" and "Taylorism".

[U]nionism was seen as the necessary antidote to Taylorism. That's not a familiar term today, but it was when the Wagner Act was passed in 1935. Frederick Winslow Taylor was a Philadelphia businessman who pioneered time and motion studies...he believed that there was "one best way" to do every job. Industrial workers, he believed, should be required to do their job in this one best way, over and over again. He believed workers should be treated like dumb animals and should be allowed no initiative whatever, lest they perform with less than perfect efficiency.

Taylor's work was regarded as gospel by many industrial managers in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, a time when many factory workers were recent immigrants, often with a less than perfect command of English. Auto assembly lines were organized on Taylorite principles to squeeze the last bit of efficiency out of low-skill workers. And squeeze some more. If you ask UAW defenders why they have so many work rules, they will tell you horror stories of the "speedup" dating back to the 1930s. Workers who were required to do some operation 20 times an hour were told to do it 30 times an hour, and so forth. Wagnerism was a response to Taylorism.

Workers hated these jobs. But in the 1930s, with unemployment ranging over 10 percent, they were happy to have them: At least they got a paycheck and there were thousands of others who would be happy to take their jobs if they told their bosses to shove it. Flash forward to 1970, when the UAW was negotiating its contract with General Motors, a story told by William Serrin in The Company and the Union. Taylorism was still the reigning philosophy of management, and workers really hated their jobs. I remember hearing a UAW political operative tell me, with horror in his voice, that a colleague who deviated from UAW discipline "was sent back to the line." So the big UAW demand that year was "30 and out"—assembly line workers could retire after 30 years on the job. This in turn led the union to demand generous retiree benefits. A worker who retired at 51 wouldn't be eligible for Medicare for 14 years, and therefore the UAW negotiated incredibly generous medical benefits—elective dental work with no copayment is one that sticks in my mind.

The UAW also created a constituency within itself of retirees who have voting rights in union elections just as actual workers do, and there are now something like three times as many GM retirees as GM employees as voting members of the UAW. Retiree benefits account for the lion's share of the difference between GM's labor costs and the labor costs of foreign automakers in the United States.

At the time, the U.S. auto makers could afford to be generous. Heck, they didn't have any competition, right? Well, that changed and now they are where they are. Bad management and over-aggressive unions have combined to make the situation. There is plenty of blame to go around, but both sides have to adapt to current realities to survive. That means management has to manage better, leaner and smarter and that means unions have to change their organizing model away from the 1930's and into the actual work environments of the 1980's, to say nothing of the new millennium.

ADDENDUM: More recommended reading from Rand Simberg:

The auto workers and I grew up in a golden era that it was unrealistic to think could continue. They were so well paid and unproductive, not because the market valued their labor at their wages and their product at its prices, but because they had a foot on the throat of the industry management, thanks to the imposition of the government via the Wagner Act and the NLRB. When each contract came up for renewal, they could single out one company, use the strike funds accumulated from workers at all the companies, and literally threaten to kill it. The next strike, they could do the same to the next one, continually imposing new rules, benefits, and restrictions that strangled the entire industry slowly instead of cleanly killing one company at a time. Remember that too when you blame management for all the problems.

Claiming One's Life Repository

Justin Katz

We should all hope that Capitol Records fails in its efforts to claim a Providence family's computer for inspection, but as the breadth of activities occurring on computers expands, the likelihood goes up that they will become subject to confiscation for one reason or another. In that light, even just the circumstances of the threat are disconcerting:

The company has asked the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island to compel his parents, Judith and Arthur Tenenbaum, to turn over the family computer so experts can inspect it.

Judith Tenenbaum said before proceedings were to begin yesterday that the family disposed of the computer her son used as a teen years ago.

"That was two computers ago," she said. She is reluctant to turn over her current computer, she said, because it contains personal information.

This over seven songs downloaded when a doctoral student was in high school. Think of the potential for pretext when a small amount of questionable data processed by a computer (let alone previous computers owned by the same family) becomes an excuse for outside access to machines used for everything from private communications to personal finances to business back-office work.

Hurry Up to Unemployment

Justin Katz

If, like me, your prospects of facing unemployment in the near future are all too real, this news is unsettling, no matter the assurances that the "move would have no impact on beneficiaries":

Rising unemployment in Rhode Island is draining the fund that the state maintains to pay unemployment benefits. ...

Such a move would have no impact on beneficiaries; payments would continue without interruption and with no change in the way they are calculated, the officials stressed.

But a bailout, in the form of a loan from the federal government to the unemployment insurance trust fund, could trigger a hike in unemployment taxes for employers — on top of the one they already face next year.

Once again, one wonders from where officials think businesses get the extra money that they are taxed. Consider:

Rhode Island's unemployment insurance tax is paid entirely by about 32,000 employers. Because of a change in the tax formula posted last month, many employers will pay more into the fund next year.

The amount of a worker's wages to which the unemployment tax applies will jump to $18,000 next year from $14,000 this year, up 28.6 percent. As a result, "The employer's cost is going to go up," said Patricia A. Thompson, former president of the Rhode Island Society of Certified Public Accountants.

On average, employers will wind up paying about $625 in tax per employee next year, an increase of about $139, Filippone said.

But exactly how much each employer will pay will depend on various factors, said Thompson, tax partner at Piccerelli Gilstein & Co. LLP, a CPA firm in Providence.

In general, the more layoffs an employer has had, the higher the tax rate — and the more tax the employer will have to pay.

A report issued in October by the nonprofit Tax Foundation said that Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Alaska and Michigan have the least favorable unemployment insurance taxes from an employer's standpoint — and Rhode Island ranks as the worst.

There's a reason some employers strive to inspire workers to quit, rather than lay them off. (Although it's still pretty petty and selfish to do so.) More importantly, even the most scrupulous boss will associate rising expenses with the cost of each employee. $139 isn't much, compared with workers' compensation, but in aggregate, it could mean the loss of a raise (or the reduction of a salary) if the boss thinks it prudent to find savings with a handful of employees.

It's also just one more nut tightening on employers in Rhode Island.

December 15, 2008

Takin' Care of a Tax-Lien

Carroll Andrew Morse

Here's a better explanation of the point regarding Felix Garcia's tax-lien that I didn't do a very good job of making on Matt Allen's show on Friday night: If the standard operating procedure in the City of Providence is to release a tax-lien, before even a promised partial payment has actually been made, the City of Providence should let the public know, and some of the appearance of corruption in the Felix Garcia/John Cicilline case might go away -- but not all.

According to Christopher Bizzacco's affidavit, if the city was unable to obtain the $75,000 (part to be applied to a partial payment to the city?) from Cicilline by February of 2007, at the absolute latest, then the lien should have been restored, yet it never was. Why didn't the city reinstate the lien after February 2007? (And we know it wasn't because the property in question was sold in May of 2007, without the issue of the lien having been addressed).

To me, the repeated instructions not to cash the check, but the lack of mention of any instructions not to reinstate the lien is the strangest part of Christopher Bizzacco's affidavit. We know that the city still considered Felix Garcia's debt to exist, because it was continuing to track the interest on the money owed. Are we to believe that Robert Ceprano (the city tax collector), on his own, made a decision not to reinstate the lien and let the matter drop, and that Ceprano was the sole city finance official who would have been aware of the status of an unpaid debt of over $100,000?

Subtle System, Simple Politics

Justin Katz

Perhaps our system of government requires too much depth of thought and strategy. Defending the straight-party voting option, John Callaci of Cranston writes:

I suggest that splitting the ticket is often irrational. For example, one can easily understand someone voting for Sen. Jack Reed or Governor Carcieri but not both, as many Rhode Islanders have done. The two men stand for very different and conflicting principles. Or, for example, it is easy to understand Massachusetts's residents voting for Sen. Edward Kennedy or former Gov. Mitt Romney but not both, as many Massachusetts residents have done. Both men stand for polar opposite policies and principles.

Without the straight-ticket option, my individual votes will be the same. What does this have to do with a "corrupt legacy of machine politics"?

Put aside the specifics of the candidates: How could one not see the possibility for different voting strategies at the state and federal level? On the executive and the legislative? Having answered those questions, perhaps we can move on to wondering how an interest in "a veto- and filibuster-proof majority" ought to be seen as reason to grant a near monopoly of power.

Purpose Driven Lives?

Marc Comtois

Driving into work and listening to NPR (yup, really) I heard this story about Obama's nationwide "Change is Coming" house party meetup things (there were some in Rhode Island, too). My first thought was: "It's the holiday season, and these people have no better way to spend their Sunday than regurgitating Obama talking points at each other?"I wasn't far from the truth.

For the house parties, the Obama campaign assembled a team of organizers from battleground states to work with local volunteers. Citizens taking leadership roles hosted the house parties. A packet -- which was given to each host to play during the meetings -- included a DVD of Obama's election night speech, a three-minute "We Have a Lot of Work to Do" video showing off the volunteer efforts during the campaign, and a video from Nikki Sutton, an online Obama campaign organizer.

"Now that the campaign is over, you might be wondering what the next steps are," Sutton says, speaking straight to the camera on the clip that was distributed to play at the house parties, "One of the goals of these house meetings is to come together with friends and neighbors and think about how you will help Barack pass legislation though grassroots acts in your community. In the course of this meeting you'll lay the groundwork for what you can do over the coming months and years."

Boy, sounds like a fun time.

Minimum Wage, EITC and Poverty

Marc Comtois

One of President-elect Obama's solutions to fighting poverty is to "raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2011." In their forthcoming book Minimum Wages, M.I.T. professor David Neumark and William L. Wascher of the Federal Reserve Board make the following conclusions (PDF):

First, minimum wages reduce employment opportunities for less-skilled workers, especially those who are most directly affected by the minimum wage....

Second, although minimum wages compress the wage distribution, because of employment and hours declines among those whose wages are most affected by minimum wage increases, a higher minimum wage tends to reduce rather than to increase the earnings of the lowest-skilled individuals....

Third, minimum wages do not, on net, reduce poverty or otherwise help low-income families, but primarily redistribute income among low-income families and may increase poverty....

Fourth, minimum wages appear to have adverse longer-run effects on wages and earnings, in part because they hinder the acquisition of human capital.

Further, research (PDF) done by Joseph J. Sabia of American University and Richard V. Burkhauser of Cornell University for the Employment Policies Institute shows that raising the minimum wage "is an increasingly ineffective anti-poverty strategy."
Our results show that recent minimum wage increases between 2003 and 2007 had no effect on state poverty rates. Moreover, the proposal to raise the Federal minimum wage to $9.50 per hour is unlikely to be any better at reducing poverty because (i) most workers
(89.0 percent) who are affected are not poor, (ii) many poor workers (48.9 percent) already earn hourly wages greater than $9.50 per hour, and (iii) the minimum wage increase is likely to cause adverse employment effects for the working poor.
However, their research also examined the possible effects of another Obama proposal, which is to increase the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit).
While raising the Federal minimum wage is an increasingly ineffective anti-poverty strategy, expansions in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program may be a promising alternative for several reasons. First, because eligibility is based on family income rather than a wage rate, the benefits are much more likely to be received by workers living in poor families....Thus, most of the 48.9 percent of poor workers who
earned hourly wages greater than $9.50 per hour in March 2008 and who would thus not gain from the proposed increase in the Federal minimum wage, could gain from expansions in the EITC. Second, because the costs of the EITC are not directly borne by employers, expansions in this wage subsidy do not cause adverse labor demand effects. In fact, a large body of empirical literature finds that expansions in the EITC increase employment among low-skilled single mothers....Given that employment is an important anti-poverty mechanism and wage subsidies can increase income to the working poor, expansions in the EITC may be a more effective means of aiding the working poor than increasing the Federal minimum wage.
Yet, Neumark conducted a study (PDF) in 2007 that helped to describe how increases in both the minimum wage and the EITC affect different groups.
Higher minimum wages reduce earnings of minority men, and more so when the EITC is high. In contrast, the EITC boosts minority women’s employment and earnings, and coupling the EITC with a higher minimum wage appears to enhance the positive effect of the EITC for minority women, although it hurts female teenagers and 20-24 year-old high school dropouts. Whether or not the policy combination of a high EITC and high minimum wages is viewed as favorable or unfavorable therefore depends in part on whose incomes policymakers are trying to increase. There is a potential argument for more concern with the incomes of younger minority women, who may be more likely to have and be caring for children. On the other hand, the estimates suggest that at high EITC rates the negative effects on men’s earnings are somewhat larger, and the apparent adverse effects for female teenagers and dropouts also have to enter into the equation. Given the variation in effects, there is no clear policy prescription. We hope, though, that we have helped to identify some of the important distributional effects that need to be weighed by policymakers.
In short, the solution is never cut and dried. Helpful, I know, but worth realizing that there is no poverty panacea. Never has been, never will be.

Lot's of Money, No Research Beef

Justin Katz

So, over about seven years, Robert Felner, a director of an independent center at the University of Rhode Island, was apparently able to siphon $1.7 million in funding away from its intended purpose:

Two months after a former administrator at the University of Rhode Island was indicted on 10 federal fraud charges, URI officials say they are putting in place measures designed to prevent future fraud. ...

According to the federal indictment, Felner, 58, diverted $1.7 million from a respected education research center he had established at URI. The fraud began while Felner was at URI and continued after he became dean of education at the University of Louisville in 2003, federal authorities say. ...

URI officials say that Seitsinger, Laferriere and the center's other employees were kept in the dark about most of the center's finances. They had no idea that hundreds of thousands of dollars for work developing surveys for school districts in Atlanta, Buffalo and Santa Monica allegedly flowed into private bank accounts controlled by Felner and Schroeder, say URI officials.

URI VP of Administration Robert Weygand defends the dupes by characterizing Felner as a "cult-figure" with a "strong personality," but taxpayers and those who despise waste ought to wonder: How is it possible for so much money to disappear without producing discernible deliverables? To what degree does higher education research amount to a box of air?

In the coming audit, which ought to waft through every college and university in the nation, I'd advise those with the spectacles to begin with any group or center that has a name of similar construction to Felner's "National Center on Public Education and Social Policy." Why can't an Education Department just focus on teaching teachers?

Where's the "So"?

Justin Katz

No doubt, we're in for a string of news stories describing the essential work that this group or that group does with government dollars. Today's, dealing with the Office of the Public Defender, includes a statement that oughtn't be allowed to remain standing in any instance:

"I just don't see how we can cut budgets on that type of service," [District Court Chief Justice Albert] DeRobbio said. "They need representation and they need representation every step of the way." He plans to work with Hardiman to make changes to accommodate the office.

The I-don't-see-how approach to consideration of government funding is one contributor to our current problems. Every group and expenditure functions in a way that somebody considers to be critical. From here on out, advocates are going to have to begin offering arguments about what ought to be cut instead.

December 14, 2008

Not a Centrist

Justin Katz

Charles Krauthammer argues persuasively that Obama's apparent centrism goes only so deep as pragmatism requires:

Take the foreign policy team: Hillary Clinton, James Jones, and Bush holdover Robert Gates. As centrist as you can get. But these choices were far less ideological than practical. Obama has no intention of being a foreign-policy president. Unlike, say, Nixon or Reagan, he does not have aspirations abroad. He simply wants quiet on his Eastern and Western fronts so that he can proceed with what he really cares about — his domestic agenda.

There's a similar explanation for his senior economic team, the brilliant trio of Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and Paul Volcker: centrist, experienced, and mainstream. But their principal task is to stabilize the financial system, a highly pragmatic task in which Obama has no particular ideological stake. ...

Obama was quite serious when he said he was going to change the world. And now he has a national crisis, a personal mandate, a pliant Congress, a desperate public — and, at his disposal, the greatest pot of money in galactic history. (I include here the extrasolar planets.)

It begins with a near $1 trillion stimulus package. This is where Obama will show himself ideologically. It is his one great opportunity to plant the seeds for everything he cares about: a new green economy, universal health care, a labor resurgence, government as benevolent private-sector "partner." It is the community organizer's ultimate dream.

Obama's objective, in other words, isn't to tilt the deck to the left; it's to turn the entire ship in that direction. Ships turn slowly, no doubt, but they go down quickly when ideology obscures real hazards in the water.

"A Fussy and Difficult Student"

Justin Katz

There's a familiar face on the front page of the Providence Journal today:

From the beginning, the relationship between William Felkner and the Rhode Island College School of Social Work has sounded like the screech of chalk on a blackboard. ...

Felkner has filed a lawsuit against Rhode Island College that revives arguments from conservatives who have assailed the NASW code of ethics, the profession of social work and the structure of academic programs in schools of social work across the country.

The article reminds readers of a quotation from one social work professor in Felkner's past who succinctly illustrated the attitude that can fester when a group is ideologically cloistered, standing as timely evidence of the need for intellectual diversity and of the opportunity for citizen media, such as blogs, to have an effect by shedding light even in small dark pits:

[Felkner's] complaint about the film prompted an e-mail from his professor, former adjunct faculty member James Ryczek. "Social work is a value-based profession that clearly articulates a socio-political ideology about how the world works and how the world should be," Ryczek wrote.

While Ryczek said he wanted to promote an open debate in class, he acknowledged his own liberal leanings.

"I revel in my biases," Ryczek wrote. "So I think anyone who consistently holds antithetical views to those that are espoused by the profession might ask themselves whether social work is the profession for them."

One problem that arises from this particular mentality is that it creates a system whereby public funds are used toward the education of people subsequently tasked with pressuring the public for further funding by a caste of secular sacerdotalists who dictate the methods and means for which acolytes must advocate. Along those lines, note this paragraph, as well:

The School of Social Work and its advocacy arm, the Poverty Institute, favored an "education first" approach to welfare, arguing that training helps recipients land higher-paying jobs in the long run.

A peculiar and tricky business this balancing of "arms," as one can begin to see (for example) in one California union's stewardship of a charitable appendage:

A nonprofit organization founded by California's largest union local reported spending nothing on its charitable purpose -- to develop housing for low-income workers -- during at least two of the four years it has been operating, federal records show. ...

The primary mission of the charity -- the Long Term Care Housing Corp. -- is to provide affordable homes for the local's members, most of whom earn about $9 an hour caring for the elderly and infirm. But SEIU officials declined to discuss the charity, saying it is a separate legal entity from the union, even though its board is dominated by officials from the local. The charity is located at the local's headquarters.

In some respects, it's surprising that Bill was able to infiltrate our local cell of poverty advocates as deeply as he did.

December 13, 2008

If You're Going to Torture, Do It Right

Justin Katz

Mark Patinkin humorously suggests that interrogators using rock/pop audio to soften up their subjects could be more effective if they'd change the soundtrack:

The Associated Press reported this week that the military has been attempting to break down terrorist detainees by blasting music into their cells.

This has created controversy, with some musicians objecting to their work being used to apply pressure. Human rights activists have also protested, saying the practice should be out of bounds.

I don't disagree. I find it a bit much that prisoners are subjected to this for months at a time.

Today, I would like to help with a compromise.

The reason I call the military amateurs is they are using the wrong music.

This sort of thing is actually a hell-week torture in some fraternities: make the pledges carry around a radio playing the same annoying song over and over again. I can tell you from experience that, after a while, the effect just fades away; a painfully repetitive playlist might actually enhance the effect. Recalling my own college days, I'd suggest that the Chipmunks' "Christmas Time Is Here" be included on the list. Even the brainless lead-in is enough to inspire shivers, but the saccharine end result of a commercialized Christian holiday would surely pinch the insecurities of a captive Islamist.

The issue does make me wonder, though, whether foreign enemies — whether state supported or terrorist — have any programs to inure soldiers and spies to the worst of American metal and cheesepop. A bit of creativity and the right attitude, and a master could turn the weapon around on his captors.

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there's currently a script in development, somewhere in caverns of American comedy writing, that grants the protagonist an indefatigable (and karaoke-derived) power to enjoy every torture method known to man. After a light day of embarrassments and beatings, he would recline in his cell and belt out "I Think I Love You." As the camera turns toward the moon above the prison, the voice of the head guard would pierce the night: "Would you just shut up?!"

The Response to Defensiveness Is in the Eyebrows

Justin Katz

To some extent, the suspicious mind will be inclined to see evidence in contradiction, but Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank Williams does seem to be a bit to defensive about his sudden decision to retire:

"Why can't they accept the truth for a change?" he asked with frustration. "Why can't they accept the fact that we accomplished what we set out to accomplish in my inauguration, which was big, and we did it in very quick time. I want to be relieved from the administrative burdens that are 24/7 as chief, and I want to continue to do jurisprudential stuff … Why can't that be accepted?" ...

"If I stayed two years for 100 percent [of my pension] instead of leaving for 75 percent, I'd get criticized for that, too," he said. "If I think outside the box and say, at [age] 68, I have other interests, in cooking and Lincoln and writing, why isn't that acceptable? Because this is Rhode Island, because people here are suspicious and cynical?"

Believing Rhode Islanders to be "suspicious and cynical" and knowing the recent history of those who've held his position, Williams would be, you'd think, more apt to acknowledge the appearance of his decision. He might even have sent out signals for months in advance were there not some sudden catalyst.

Or perhaps he's just an impetuous guy, in which case it's undoubtedly a positive development for the state that his impulse was to resign.

Three Bloggers and a Talk Host

Justin Katz

If you missed (or would like to recap) last night's all–Anchor Rising Violent Roundtable on the Matt Allen Show, the download is available here. Matt, Andrew, Monique, and I discussed matters various and sundry, and I even sang a bar from the musical 1776.

December 12, 2008

Trying to Predict the Economy

Justin Katz

Dan Yorke had an economic back-and-forth with Richard from Tiverton, just before 5:00, that points to a consideration of which we ought all be in awe: The economic big picture is just too complicated to predict or guide (hence the genius of the free market). Dan argued that ancillary industries to the Big Three would suffer the consequences of an industry failure. Richard argued that surviving auto manufacturers (whether domestic or foreign) would pick up the demand slack. Dan pointed out that there would be a lag time while suppliers ramp up production. The exchange shouldn't stop there.

As the remaining manufacturers come up short in meeting demand, they would be willing to pay more for parts (etc.), which would make up some of the lag gap for the suppliers, which would be able to charge more for the same number of units. On the finished side, as the supply of cars constricts, the prices would go up, which would open a little bit of cushion for restructuring companies.

Similarly, as workers lose their jobs, surviving and restructuring companies would find labor costs going down. The manufacturers and suppliers would be able to hire more people to make the products that they'd be producing for a smaller pool of manufacturers. Of course, increasing prices would also begin to suppress demand, but my point is that it would be folly to declare a particular outcome, and it is conceit to attempt to tweak and control the industry from the governmental tower.

By contrast, I'd suggest that the political-cultural big picture is a bit easier to predict: The effect of asserting government interest in and practice of sustaining particular companies or industries would be deleterious to innovation and would encourage deeper and deeper unwise meddling in the marketplace, ultimately putting our entire economy in the too-big-to-fail category, but with nobody left to bail it out. Putting emphasis back on the people whose lives actually depend on their own actions, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that a large dump of unemployed Americans into the marketplace would create an army of workers who must find some way to earn a living and would, therefore, have huge motivation for innovation and the creation of wholly new industries or industrial practices.

Let the car companies go down. No good can come of the process of propping them up, while the process of surviving — of thriving — can renew America for the new century if the government will let it happen.

Internecine Rhetorical Heat

Justin Katz

Anchor Rising will be invading the 630AM/99.7FM WPRO studio tonight for an all-AR Violent Roundtable on the Matt Allen show. Tune in to hear Andrew, Monique, and me bat around the issues of the day as Matt tosses them out to us.

In a funk

Marc Comtois

I've been preoccupied with several matters (work, family, volunteering) and have had little chance or time to ponder, much less post, about the news of the day and the like. It occurs to me that, to the regular (ie; non-political) person, this is the norm. There is plenty to worry about and deal with before one comes to the point of thinking about those matters that seem so uncontrollable by an average citizen. It is what it is and we just struggle to get by in the short term. Thus, focused on the day-to-day goings on, big pictures aren't even seen because we're living our lives through a zoom lens.

UPDATE: I guess that's another way of saying I wish I could've made the AR roundtable tonight!

Fortunes Untold

Justin Katz

Police officers deserve to be well paid, but this is astonishing:

Nearly one in 10 Massachusetts State Police officers made more than the governor last year, with 225 officers topping the $140,535 annual salary of the state's chief executive.

Four of the 2,338 state troopers were paid more than $200,000, and 123 others were paid more than $150,000, the salary of the governor's Cabinet secretaries, according to payroll information obtained by the Globe under the state public records law.

A sizable chunk of that amount, it bears noting, was earned standing around construction sites, and the totals do not include sums paid by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the Massachusetts Port Authority.

Stimulated in an Airless Room

Justin Katz

In a way addressing the general economy, Governor Carcieri's stimulus plan will surely help small businesses to get started and, perhaps more directly, to keep going, and with the bulk of the effort occurring beyond the scope of the government:

Overall, the plan is intended to provide more than $200 million in new sources of capital for small businesses that are struggling amid a global economic downturn and rising unemployment.

"These are tough times," Carcieri told nearly 100 business and government leaders, and others, at a packed State House meeting room yesterday.

And small businesses — which represent 90 percent of all businesses in Rhode Island and employ 25 percent of the work force — are being squeezed, Carcieri said.

Together, the package's provisions will encourage banks, credit unions and other lenders to make more money available to small businesses, Hayward said. "It's critical that we keep our lenders in the game," he said.

However, looking at Rhode Island's situation in specific, I wonder about the efficacy of spurring businesses in a state that isn't attractive for their continued operations.

December 11, 2008

Justice Williams Out the Door

Justin Katz

It's difficult not to suspect something other than a desire for a life change lying behind this:

Frank J. Williams, the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, stunned the legal and political community today with his announcement that he is stepping down from the high court. ...

He plans to continue his Lincoln scholarship, and looks forward to relinquishing the administrative duties of his job before the start of the new General Assembly session in January. ...

Williams, an Abraham Lincoln scholar who earns about $180,000 a year, will be eligible for 75 percent of his salary in retirement. Had he remained for two more years, he would have been able to collect his full salary.

Apparently absolutely nobody had any idea this was coming. That aspect of the report alone makes one wonder whether there's somebody out there who had advance warning, and who knows the reason... if you catch my drift.

Bounced vs. Presented: Parsing A Denial

Monique Chartier

About his brother's bad $75,000 check, Mayor David Cicilline said this yesterday to the I-Team's Jim Taricani:

But what is absolutely not possible is that it was ever brought to my attention that a check had been issued, had been dishonored by bank or bounced in the amount of $75,000 by my brother. I would have immediately intervened.

Doesn't "bounced" or "dishonored" mean that it was actually handed in to the bank, processed and then returned by the bank to payee? The ProJo's Mike Stanton reported in September that the check was handled as follows:

But when the city's lawyer tried to deposit the check, which was written on May 9, 2006, on John Cicilline's law office account at Fleet Bank, he was told that there were insufficient funds.

Standing at the teller window with a check and being told that there are insufficient funds to cover it is not the same as depositing a check and then having it bounce. Choosing his words carefully, the mayor has denied an event that no one alleges took place.

Exhausted by Corruption

Justin Katz

Wherein, I express tiredness with political corruption on the Matt Allen show. Why aren't other people fed up with the likes of Cicilline? Stream by clicking here, or download it.

William Felkner: Not All the Answers, Just a Few Things That Worked

Engaged Citizen

According to Rasmussen, when given a choice between a government that provides fewer services and sets lower taxes and one that demands higher taxes but offers more services, Americans choose smaller government by a 59% to 28% margin. So, if these views are in the majority, why is it that our elected representatives do the opposite?

Maybe the answer lies in how we communicate with them.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in a large meeting room with individuals from other state think tanks, advocacy organizations, state parties, and the different branches of our government. As the nation slips into an economic abyss, or becomes more RI-like, people there were asking the same question we do here at home: "How do taxpayers communicate their wants with policy makers more effectively?"

Like most meetings, it was 90% complaining and campaigning, but I did find a few examples around the country that showed success.

The first order of business is to establish an infrastructure of advocacy. I used to call it the Poverty Institute–One RI–Working RI model. Then I found the good people at the Sam Adams Alliance working on a similar program, but on steroids, called the Six Capacities. This model suggests having the following tasks performed:

  • New Media Capacity — Blogs and other online venues can refute and direct the 6:00 news (think Drudge Report and Monica Lewinsky).
  • Political capacity — Taxpayer groups are the political muscle to rally, lobby, and influence policy makers at all levels.
  • Legal capacity — He who wins the case, influences policy. We have long been losing in this category.
  • Intellectual capacity — Create empirical evidence that is timely and made for general consumption.
  • Investigative capacity — Lets face it, newspapers and TV don't have the resources or, sometimes, the will. We can perform this function and let them report it.
  • Leadership training capacity — Like anything else, a political party needs to develop the majority of its team through a farm system.

In a perfect world, our side would be funded in parity with union dues and tax (or litigation) funded advocacy, but it's not. That being said, we do have each of these functions covered, at least in part. Once the infrastructure is in place, we need tactics and strategies. I heard a ton of these over the week, but two struck me as consistently successful.

I heard from more than one state that voters want assurances of candidates' intent on issues they cared about, which is provided by a simple and straightforward process. First, review the Democrat and Republican Party platforms for those items in which they are diametrically opposed. Second, review the poll numbers on each of those issues and find the ones with the most voter support. Third, have each candidate sign a "Pledge to the Taxpayer" that those issues will be supported.

Each and every area that implemented this system had success.

The next idea having the most success provides a more direct path to changing the law, especially relevant to states like Rhode Island that do not have voter initiative. This strategy has been mentioned on this blog before: initiate change via referenda at the municipal level.

The General Assembly does have authority over municipal decisions on some issues (education and costal development come to mind), but that doesn't mean they have to intervene or that they would if the will of the people were squarely opposed. Besides, there are lots of things the General Assembly might not be able to stop (such as tax caps). So rather than fighting the special interest groups at the State House, champion reform in your own back yard.

For relatively little money, a grassroots effort at the municipal level can be a very effective strategy. One example given involved referenda at three different towns. The local teachers' union spent money at a ratio of 30:1 more than our side, but they only defeated two out of the three.

If we are correct that our views on issues like school choice, tax caps, and transparent governance are universally supported then local referenda can be our voice.

Those are the basics of what I learned on my field trip. Specific issues relevant to specific areas will require unique tactics, but it's the job of the six capacities to figure them out. It may sound as if it is out of reach in far-gone Rhode Island, but Justin showed in a piece on the statewide battlefield, we already have most of the infrastructure, and many of you are already doing your bit (this blog front and center). We just need a little more collaboration and a little (lot) more funding.

Bill Felkner, executive director of Ocean State Policy Research Institute writes this letter as an angry taxpayer and not in a professional capacity.

Killing the Seeds

Justin Katz

I've been arguing that change has to come to Rhode Island from the municipality up. If we begin at the local level identifying and placing worthy candidates and generating a grassroots comprehension of the state's problems, we'll be positioned to grow upward and begin to crowd out the entrenched interests.

Although I haven't followed the politics of Little Compton very closely, this letter from the Little Compton Taxpayers Association appears to provide evidence that those entrenched interests are intent — probably long have been — on squelching local whispers of change:

In a stunning turn of events, the newly elected School Committee tossed out experience and accomplishments by electing Attorney Mike Harrington as its chairman, and rejecting incumbent Joe Quinn. Mr. Quinn, a lifelong educator himself as well as an experienced contract negotiator, has been of tremendous benefit to our school by helping Wilbur & McMahon to be among the best in Rhode Island, attending numerous state conferences and hearings representing our interests, working with the school superintendent to develop fully accountable school department budgets, and taking part in teacher contract negotiations resulting in one of the best contracts ever seen in Little Compton. He also voted to outsource student transportation saving the taxpayers nearly $1 million over a 5-year contract. ...

And who caused this? It was Lynn Brousseau who ran as an endorsed Republican in the November 4 election only to turn against the Republicans by nominating both Attorney Harrington as the chair; and, newcomer Micah Shapiro, a registered Democrat, as the clerk. When confronted, her response was that she did not believe in "party loyalty" but was for "the kids." She also said the teachers are angry and miserable, and so are the children. She must see something that nobody else does. She went on to be elected as the vice-chair, and Micah Shapiro became the clerk. Joe Quinn, Don Gomez, and their combined experience were dumped in favor of two newcomers. ...

The National Education Association vowed to "get" the ones that outsourced the transportation function. They delivered, at the expense of the taxpayers of Little Compton.

The voting habits of the new leadership bear watching, if only to disallow their actions from occurring in the dark. If we remain collectively aware, we'll likely see a pattern emerge across the state.

The LCTA has more, including video, on its Web site.

December 10, 2008

Re: Anyone Need...

Justin Katz

The Providence Journal's front-page lead for the New York Times version of the story that Monique mentioned this morning is precious:

Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich is accused of trying to profit from his appointment of Barack Obama's successor in a scheme that didn't involve the president-elect.

It's possible I've missed such things in the past, but I can't recall having ever seen a lead that explicitly running interference. Can you imagine:

Investigators say Enron engaged in illegal activities that in no way implicate President Bush.

Hitting Snooze on the Economic Alarm Clock

Justin Katz

Perhaps there is reason for hope if Bob Kerr and I are beginning to have similar reactions to policy proposals:

Desperate times call for desperate measures. As Rhode Island leaders look for ways to squeeze money from previously untapped sources, the possibilities for creative income growth seem darn near unlimited.

Short of a tax on the air we breathe and the sidewalks we walk, almost anything could carry a price tag.

Let's call it the Rhode Island Pay Off Fiscal Folly program. Or RIPOFF. A bit of a stretch, but it works.

I note that Kerr neither defines the problems made up our drunk-like government structure nor offers suggestions to avoid the darkest of the days to come, and I'm sure he'd still balk at mine. Waking up to reality doesn't happen with the first alarm, though.

A Society Without Trust

Justin Katz

Ronn Torossian makes an important point, although I'd argue that his observation is a small part of a much broader issue:

There is now an inherent distrust of the "system," from the White House to local car dealerships. Trust has been broken in all facets of American business, because for far too long, top brands have been making decisions in an environment where they stand to gain without personally taking on risk or responsibility. This atmosphere breeds recklessness, as it's easier to play dangerous games with money that's not your own, and you aren't responsible for.

Not since the Great Depression has the global economic outlook been so bleak. My solution as an entrepreneur and a marketer is to stress the importance of brands earning trust — good old-fashioned entrepreneurial trust — by working hard and taking responsibility, long term and short term. And no one knows how to earn basic trust more than the entrepreneur, an individual who takes significant responsibility for the inherent risk and outcome of his or her enterprise.

Although they can mitigate the effects around themselves, I'm not so sure that individuals can really make a tremendous difference here, at least acting within the business world. One could take the problem of trust as far as desired, whether through cultural cynicism, political bifurcation, atheism. It all comes from the same place: a belief that life is a prison of isolated action, founded in nothing more than biological processes.

Anyone Need a State Contract? How about a Senate Seat?

Monique Chartier

Hopefully, the conduct of the next Governor of Illinois will be guided by his or her observations of the fate of the current and prior occupants of the office.

The allegations against Blagojevich provide a sharp contrast to a Democratic governor who campaigned for office promising reforms in the wake of disgraced, scandal-tainted Republican chief executive George Ryan. The complaint against Blagojevich comes little more than two years after Ryan was sentenced to 61/2 years in prison on federal corruption charges.

It's hard not to conclude that someone is keenly interested in the goings-on of the office, which may not make it the best place for funny business.

Progressive magazine compiled some ... er, highlights of Governor Blagojevich "In His Own Words" from the FBI wiretaps. They make it clear that Blagojevich viewed his appointment power vis a vis the empty Senate seat pretty much like an ATM card. From the tapes, we also learned that the gov ... well, really didn't want to be gov for the balance of his term. During a conference call (that his wife attended):

ROD BLAGOJEVICH asked whether there is something that could be done with his wife’s “series 7" license in terms of working out a deal for the Senate seat. ROD BLAGOJEVICH stated that he is “struggling” financially and does “not want to be Governor for the next two years.”

How Employer and Employee Achieve Fairness

Justin Katz

Last week, I sent the following unpublished letter to the Sakonnet Times:

School Committee Vice Chairman Sally Black gave an impassioned speech at the board's meeting last Tuesday explaining why she voted unsuccessfully to approve the latest iteration of the teachers' contract, despite likely cuts in state aid. As sincere as her reasoning may have been, it's indicative of the mindset that has laid Rhode Island so low.

Mrs. Black cycled through a bit of education policy history to conclude that the state and federal governments have not followed through with promised funding for decades, even as they've demanded more and more from local schools. From her perspective, the school committee did the work that they were supposed to do, and moreover, she was very pleased with her children's experience in the school system and believes the teachers deserve as much compensation as the town can give them. Her conclusion is that the contract is "fair and just" and therefore ought to be ratified regardless (apparently) of the town's ability to pay for it.

Tiverton and all of Rhode Island simply can no longer afford to arrive at salary, benefit, and service numbers in that fashion. In every area of government functionality --- from the development of laws to the expenditure of petty cash --- officials must build policy structures to reach goals, instead of declaring the goals and then searching for some miracle bridge to reach them.

Good teachers deserve good pay, and the approach of the school committee member and the Department of Education official alike ought to be to determine the ways in which the system can be improved to bring resources and remuneration to those who deserve it while enhancing results. Insisting on the worth of all teachers as a group and then scrambling for revenue and workable reforms will ensure neither fair pay nor just results for our children.

My point, in sum, is that public officials — although many have no experience operating businesses — have a responsibility to behave as employers. When it comes to setting salaries and benefits, the employer's duty is to maximize productivity while minimizing cost; the employee's role is to maximize the remunerative and atmospheric equation toward his or her individual goals. Both sides, of course, ought to operate within moral boundaries that prevent either from taking advantage of the other.

Yes, it is possible for employees to take advantage of their employers. Observe the public sector unions in Rhode Island for an example.

The tendency of both the population and its officials to approach public employees from an incorrect perspective — even as unions push with all their might for the employees interests — became apparent in a conversation I had with an anonymous commenter on the Sakonnet Times Web site:

The new Tiverton teacher contract, which has not yet been ratified by the town, is actually for alot less than most other towns in RI and Mass. ...

I am not in a union, yet I will be damned if I am going to accept less pay at my job than the local average compensation. And you are right, there should be a pay differential, Tiverton should pay a bit more than Providence, not less, because we want better teachers, not glorified babysitters like Providence and woonsocket. Good teachers flock to better salaries, as does any job.

My end point there was to point out that teaching is, even as it stands, a LOW PAYING career. You can make more, alot more, as almost anything else with a college degree. Yes, they choose to be teachers, does that mean they should choose to be near the poverty line as well? A family of 4 with $45,000 per year income qualifies for state assistance, yet people complain because teachers want SLIGHTLY more than that? With a 4 year degree? Give me a break. ...

... you should wake up tomorrow and go to work and decide for yourself whether you are being paid fair market value for your job or not. Personally, I compare my salary and benefits against others in similar jobs to see if I am being paid fairly. I am. But many are not. RI teachers are paid a fair wage at what the contract state here in Tiverton. Other teachers in teh state make more, but not a whole lot more.

Put aside that the commenter compares teachers with families, often having two incomes to reach that amount. (Also put aside that it's ridiculous for the state to give assistance to families with median income.) Two indications that his view is from the employee side, are:

  1. That he does not factor work environment into comparative salaries. Tiverton may want to lure the best teachers from Providence, but it can expect to discount the rate that it pays, to some degree, based on the fact that it's a more comfortable place to work. On the flip side, Providence must pay more to attract good teachers, because fewer teachers want to work in the city.
  2. These considerations play out in a marketplace, which determines "fair" salaries more effectively than citizens poking around the Internet are able. The final indication that Tiverton is paying below market rate for its teachers shouldn't be that a union in another town (or all other towns) has negotiated an even more outlandish deal; it should be that the town is having difficulty finding qualified teachers. That is not the case. Nor is it the case, as far as I know, that teachers are preparing to abandon the town for higher pay in nearby districts.

Just like the housing market, the job market fluctuates. I can do all the research I want to determine the average pay for my job in my area, but I must adjust my findings by my individual talents and flaws, and by other aspects of my employment that aren't easily translatable into numbers. I must also realize that average salary information is next to useless if there are no jobs available that will pay more, no matter my expectations. So, over the past couple of years, my current employer has offered me advancement opportunities that probably wouldn't have been available elsewhere, even were another company to offer more money. And now, the job market has shifted such that it would be foolish to jump ship in search of opportunities that aren't available.

There is plenty of room to negotiate teachers salaries downward — most fairly by holding them steady. Moreover, there would be many more ways in which to work mutual benefit into employment relationships if there weren't a union mentality that forces the teachers to behave as if they're all identical cogs.

December 9, 2008

Conclusion First, Analysis Second

Justin Katz

It appears that Kate Brewster is fully back from hiatus, offering the Rhode Island College Poverty Institute response to every new suggestion for changing the state's oppressive and ill-considered tax structure. Her conclusions all translate into the principle of "take more from them, and give it to my preferred group":

The Poverty Institute, a think tank at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work, last week called for the [death] tax to be preserved.

Kate Brewster, executive director of institute, said in a statement that the tax "is the most fair tax that we have and must be preserved to maintain a balanced tax structure that requires those with the greatest ability to contribute their share towards public services and infrastructure."

A report issued last week by the Washington, D.C.-based liberal Citizens for Tax Justice, showed that comparatively few Rhode Islanders wind up paying the tax. The figures do not take into account those who escape the state's tax by using planning techniques or by moving to other states.

It's nice of Brewster to make it so nakedly clear that, in the progressive lexicon, "fairness" means little more than taking money from wealthy people — regardless of the event being taxed. Not so nice is the habitual refusal to consider how our government might be creating incentive for taxpayers to leave.

It's difficult to maintain civic optimism when the parasites of public funds offer reminders that they'll keep on sucking out that blood, even as the organism of state becomes anemic and dies.

Reply to Joslin

Justin Katz

As East Bay scribe can attest who's spent a late-night hour or two trimming words and sentences from a letter to make it of acceptable length, the Sakonnet Times has a 500-word limit on missives. Yet, by the time Richard Joslin got around, last week, to challenging Tiverton Citizens for Change (TCC) to "prove they care about Tiverton's children," the paper could have printed both his introductory reminiscences of his own childhood and a letter that I'd written explaining why public officials should define "fairness" from a budgetary standpoint, not a union one. As it was, Mr. Joslin's diatribe rambled on for 908 words, and my letter disappeared into cyberspace.

In the light of Joslin's assault, a pillar of erroneous thought is starkly observable: Both he and young Caitlin Alexandra, whose letter appears just behind his, gauge concern for education in terms of teachers' remuneration. This despite the fact that a higher percentage of Tiverton's per-pupil costs already go to teachers than is true for the state overall. Indeed, Joslin positions "oust[ing] the teachers' union" as an unthinkable option following cuts to "programs in sports, advanced placement, language, music, art and more" that have already been made.

Personally, I happen to believe ousting the unions to be a prerequisite for improving both Rhode Island's educational system and its economic viability. Surely neither has sunny prospects as long as teachers absorb more and more of our education dollars, continuing to cost us programs that might keep RI parents from having to sacrifice for private school (which they do more frequently than parents of most other states). One mustn't forget, by the way, that the loss of programs will tend to mean the immolation of teachers whose jobs depend on them.

So, although I can speak only on my own behalf, I say, yes, let's "break the teachers' union" --- and use the savings to reinvigorate sports, advanced placement, language, and music programs (and more). Perhaps the crossing of that rubicon will give Ms. Alexandra cause to consider Tiverton a superior place to raise her "potential family" than some "small developing communit[y] in the south of Africa." Perhaps, too, the political loss will motivate Mr. Joslin to examine the roots of his hatred and anger and give him something for which to be truly thankful during this season next year.


I see this letter made it onto the Sakonnet Times Web site, as did one by TCC President Dave Nelson. Now comes the interesting new game of waiting to see what gets into print.

Crisis Reveals Long-Term Principles (And Short-Term Interests)

Justin Katz

Funny how, in a crisis, short-term needs bring forward principles that ought to have longer duration, but always with the suspicious taint of self-interest. Writes Providence real-estate mogul Joseph Paolino:

I call on Governor Carcieri and Mayor Cicilline to convene a summit of nonprofit leaders and to offer state and city support for accelerated construction timetables. This targeted approach could begin to yield results in a matter of months.

Government can help in many ways — for example, by reviewing institutional expansion plans and issuing building permits on an expedited basis, by removing bureaucratic obstacles, and by allowing the tax-exempt institutions to expand in commercial zones.

The underlying truth is that Rhode Island's economy is in a perpetual crisis, staggering from year to year on this windfall patch or that. Government has to get out of the way in every instance; it doesn't require extensive analysis to see the benefits across the board.

But it doesn't require paranoia to suspect that Mr. Paolino might have some specific interest in his strangely targeted proposal. If the equations make sense, then private industry will move to expand, and immigrate, as well, and in the long term, that's what Rhode Island needs above all. Handing over more land to tax exemption, in other words, for "payment in lieu of property taxes" will have deleterious effects long after the construction and real-estate companies have cashed their checks.

December 8, 2008

The Flow of Public Employment

Justin Katz

Those are some telling résumés those Senate fiscal advisers have (emphasis added):

Peter Marino, former policy director of the business-backed Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, will become the Senate fiscal adviser beginning Dec. 22.

He will be paid $125,000 a year, according to Senate spokesman Greg Pare, and he will play a key role as lawmakers decide how to close massive budget deficits in the coming months.

Marino is largely considered more moderate on fiscal issues than his predecessor, the recently retired Russell Dannecker, who has taken a job at the Poverty Institute at Rhode Island College.

Asked how he would describe his fiscal policy, Marino said this to Political Scene: "I'm someone who looks at things as objectively as possible."

His longest work experience came at RIPEC, where he served as policy director from 1995 to 2006. He previously worked as a budget analyst for Gov. Bruce G. Sundlun's budget office from 1992 to 1995 (alongside the governor's current budget officer, Rosemary Booth Gallogly, and House fiscal adviser Michael O'Keefe).

Most recently, Marino was an adjunct professor at Brown University. And in the last legislative session he worked as a lobbyist, according to the secretary of state's office, for clients such as the National Federation of Independent Business, the Rhode Island Association of Realtors and the Rhode Island Mortgage Bankers Association.

Marino is clearly very qualified, but what Rhode Island needs more desperately than anything else, right now, is a deep infusion of new blood.

Beware Advocates Looking to Take Advantage of Economic Doldrums

Marc Comtois

As Justin points out, The Poverty Institute's Kate Brewster seems to be basing much of her "more taxes, increase spending" argument on the work of Peter Orszag and Joseph Stiglitz. Brewster states that they've determined that "tax increases on high earners are less harmful than spending cuts." True enough and plausible, but that isn't exactly the whole story. Orszag and Stiglitz were talking short-term.

The conclusion is that, if anything, tax increases on higher-income families are the least damaging mechanism for closing state fiscal deficits in the short run. Reductions in government spending on goods and services, or reductions in transfer payments to lower-income families, are likely to be more damaging to the economy in the short run than tax increases focused on higher-income families. {Emphasis mine}.
However, in the long-run, tax rates most certainly affect spending. For example, Christina Romer, President-elect Obama's appointed Chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, has written extensively on tax cuts and revenue and shown that tax increases do influence behavior.
Our baseline specification implies that an exogenous tax increase of 1% of GDP lowers real GDP by almost 3%. Our many robustness checks for the most part point to a slightly smaller decline, but one that is still typically over 2.5%. We also find that the output effects of tax changes are much more closely tied to the actual changes in taxes than to news about future changes, and that investment falls sharply in response to exogenous tax increases.
Here in Rhode Island, we're still operating under the "temporary" sales tax increase of the early '90s. So while Brewster et al may be trying to tell us its better for the short term to raise taxes on the wealthy, we know that their actual goal is, and has been, to keep taxes higher, permanently and to increase--not reduce, not maintain--current levels of entitlement spending. This latest op-ed is nothing more than another example of one of the usual suspects attempting to take advantage of an economic downturn to re-institute failed policies of the past.

A Bracing Dose of Reality

Engaged Citizen

Proem: Al Lubrano, President of the RI Manufacturers Association, appeared on the Dan Yorke Show December 2 to share his thoughts on turning the Rhode Island economy around. Jeff Deckman e-mailed the following to Dan, reprinted here with Jeff's permission. M.C.


You are dead on with your comments to Al about his seeing it as a collaboration and the unions seeing it as a competition.

I worked with Al when I was on the Economic Policy Council for a few years. He is a very sharp and hardworking guy but like the Governor, he doesn't get that he is in a street fight with an opponent who is after a different outcome.

Al wants a great place to raise a family and run a company and he cares about his fellow Rhode Islanders. As long as he has that, then he has a chance at being able to afford to live.

The unions want their power and their pensions and they see their fellow Rhode Islanders as people who are obligated to pay the bills. As long as they have that, they are protected from any fall out.

Al cares about the state because he is a good guy who is honorable. But unless he shows up with a baseball bat VERY early on in the conversation there will be NO cooperation or collaboration.

It amazes me how everyone wants to be nice and negotiate with union leaders. You have to be a moron to not know how these guys negotiate. I had a company that went union last year and their tactics would make your hair curl.

Besides, negotiating with [Secretary-Treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO George] Nee or the rest of them is like negotiating with Tony Soprano.

As long as you are giving him what he wants, he is at the table. The minute you aren't, he breaks out HIS baseball bat and takes what he wants because he already has the power.

You totally get it that one can only negotiate from a position of political power. Al may know business power but he doesn't understand anything about how political power thinks.

So I wish him well. But he better button his chin strap because he will be looking out the ear hole by the time they are done with him.

[Jeff Deckman is the founder of Capability Accelerators and served as the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Republican Party in 2005.]

The Voice of Continued Decline

Justin Katz

True to form, the Poverty Institute's Kate Brewster notes that "two-thirds of the [state budget] gap is due to declining corporate, income- and sales-tax collections, as well as shrinking lottery revenues," but her proposed response is not to find ways to increase the economic activity that drives such revenue. Rather, she'd simply like to jack up the rates (or broaden the shadow, in the case of the sales tax)

One needn't dig too deeply around the foundations of her conclusions to begin to see the crack:

According to leading economists, it is better to raise taxes on high earners than to cut spending during economic downturns. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities cites two well-respected economists — Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, of Columbia University, and Peter Orzag, the recently announced director of the Office of Management and Budget — who during the last recession asserted that tax increases on high earners are less harmful than spending cuts. Raising taxes may result in money not saved, but cutting programs for low-income families will result in money not spent which has a more dramatic impact on the economy.

One would hope that economists making such general statements would append a long list of circumstances that must be present in order for their conclusions to obtain. If they did so, in this case, then Brewster's printer must have run out of paper before it got to the caveats.

In a system as oppressive as Rhode Island's, money not taxed is not merely "money saved." It's money spent more productively. It's money spent creating jobs, investing in education, and improving property.

Rhode Island must prepare itself for the reality that its policies for surviving as a state will tend to drive out one group or another. What the leadership must do — now that the voters have abrogated the responsibility to make the call — is to decide whether it wants to tell the needy to seek services elsewhere or to tell the productive that they'll have to turn their eyes to other states for opportunity. If the latter, the likes of Brewster best begin developing their excuses and spin for the continued shrinkage of state revenue.

Reshuffling the Tax Deck

Justin Katz

Neil Downing explored the governor's taxation panel, and beyond my complaint that it strove to remain essentially revenue neutral (rather than decreasin taxes), if we strip away the specifics, none of the proposals are very attractive in their predicted effects:

  • The first solution would transfer the income tax burden from the top and the bottom to the middle and increase tax revenue by less than a million dollars.
  • The second solution would also transfer the income tax burden from the top and the bottom to the middle, but it would decrease tax revenue by $3.4 million.
  • The third solution would decrease income tax across the board, but the sales tax rate would remain the same and apply to more goods and services, bringing in an extra $38 million in revenue.

The direction of the shift in income tax for the two solutions that are effectively revenue neutral suggests that the tax panel didn't look closely at the demographics concerning the sorts of people who have been leaving the state. Middle-income families — the key for productivity and growth — have been fleeing the state for years, so increasing their share of the burden would likely prove counterproductive.

Broadening the sales tax will also be counterproductive. More people will simply move their shopping over the state border, and the more aggressively the state cracks down on that, the more contentiousness will exist between citizens and their government, and the more likely they'll be to throw in the towel and move.

Bottom line: there is no way out of this mess that doesn't require huge cuts to government spending.

December 7, 2008

And the Jihadi Clock Ticks On

Justin Katz

Mark Steyn gives it good and righteous to the PC media and a Western culture intent on turning a deliberately deaf ear to the beast growling outside the tent:

In a well-planned attack on iconic Bombay landmarks symbolizing great power and wealth, the "militants" nevertheless found time to divert 20 percent of their manpower to torturing and killing a handful of obscure Jews helping the city's poor in a nondescript building. If they were just "teenage gunmen" or "militants" in the cause of Kashmir, engaged in a more or less conventional territorial dispute with India, why kill the only rabbi in Bombay? Dennis Prager got to the absurdity of it when he invited his readers to imagine Basque separatists attacking Madrid: "Would the terrorists take time out to murder all those in the Madrid Chabad House? The idea is ludicrous."

And yet we take it for granted that Pakistani "militants" in a long-running border dispute with India would take time out of their hectic schedule to kill Jews. In going to ever more baroque lengths to avoid saying "Islamic" or "Muslim" or "terrorist," we have somehow managed to internalize the pathologies of these men. ...

Last week, a Canadian critic reprimanded me for failing to understand that Muslims feel "vulnerable." Au contraire, they project tremendous cultural confidence, as well they might: They're the world’s fastest-growing population. A prominent British Muslim announced the other day that, when the United Kingdom becomes a Muslim state, non-Muslims will be required to wear insignia identifying them as infidels. If he's feeling "vulnerable," he's doing a terrific job of covering it up.

Mark's picture becomes even darker, of course, when his understanding of Western demographic trends is taken into account:

Britain's future will be more Muslim. The only question is how much more. But, at some point, those fertility rates put a question mark over the social compact. In 20 or 30 years' time, will a young, demographically healthy Muslim working population with vast extended families be willing to pay confiscatory tax rates for the shuffleboard years of an aged, childless, fast shriveling Anglo-Celtic population? All welfare societies presuppose a commonality of interest that in the Britain of 2025 will no longer be there.

Perhaps we'll emerge from the shadow of the Obama years just in time to see what's happening elsewhere and renew our own cultural confidence sufficiently to prevent its happening to us. Or perhaps it's encoded into our cultural DNA that the time is nigh to fling ourselves from the demographic cliff.

Re: Not the Way to Run a City... or a City-State

Monique Chartier

From the ProJo article which Justin cites:

According to the mayor's chief of administration, Richard I. Kerbel, the retroactive pay for the nonunion officers matches retroactive pay awarded to police union members in arbitration over the last fiscal year

Unlike so many other aspects of public sector compensation, it is, in fact, common practice in the private sector for a company to keep management raises in line with those received by unionized workers. The difference is that companies in the private sector usually do not hand out raises during tough budgetary times. If the Mayor and the City Council had not agreed to raises for rank and file members of the work force, there would be no need for Providence to match the compensation of nonunion officers.

This is in no way intended to single out Providence's first responders. I am on record as stating that Mayor Cicilline's contractual "stance" against the firefighters was solely a campaign melodrama (entitled, "Look At Me! I'm Drawing The Line For The Taxpayer!") that accomplished nothing as it focused on such small portion of the salary column of the city's budget. Raises across the public sector board in Providence - make that around the state and in the State House - needed to be sharply curbed years ago.

Healthcare Shouldn't Work This Way

Justin Katz

Tied to employment, that is:

As jobless numbers reach levels not seen in 25 years, another crisis is unfolding for millions of people who lost their health insurance along with their jobs, joining the ranks of the uninsured. ...

About 10.3 million Americans were unemployed in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of unemployed has increased by 2.8 million, or 36 percent, since January of this year, and by 4.3 million, or 71 percent, since January 2001.

Most people are covered through the workplace, so when they lose their jobs, they lose their health benefits. On average, for each jobless worker who has lost insurance, at least one child or spouse covered under the same policy has also lost protection, public health experts said.

Most people who are unemployed for a time manage to continue making payments for cars and auto insurance, houses and home-owner's insurance, and so on. There is no reason that employers ought to have the power of life and death over their employees. And there's no reason that we should take that power from them and give it to the government.

Totally Separate Stories. Totally.

Justin Katz

Here's a mild head-shaker of a story on page A12 of today's Providence Journal:

... when he retired in June at the age of 75, the [Rhode Island College] gave [former President John] Nazarian something back: a $205,008 severance check.

The check included $67,890 for unused vacation time, $31,366 for unused sick time and $29,902 in deferred pay from the 1991 budget crisis that was belatedly paid to him based on the $189,625 a year he was making when he retired 17 years later.

It also included a $75,850 "retirement incentive."

While the University of Rhode Island offered its workers a $20,000 incentive to retire, RIC and the Community College of Rhode Island offered their employees 40 percent of their pay to leave before the end of June, a decision that provided tens of thousands of extra dollars to dozens of their highest paid professors and administrators. ...

Overall, 90 employees in the state college and university system received a total of $2.3 million in incentives, ranging from $13,870 to the $75,850 paid to Nazarian. The college and university employees were among 1,521 state workers who retired between May 1 and Sept. 30 as part of an effort to cut the state payroll.

All told, the state paid out $18.8 million to the retirees, including unused sick and vacation time and other payments. ...

Asked why URI bumped its retirement incentive from $7,000 to $20,000 last spring — and why RIC would offer a $75,850 retirement incentive to a 75-year-old — Steven Maurano, a spokesman for the state Office of Higher Education, said the decisions were made before the state slid into its current budget crisis.

And from the front page of the Local News section:

Bracing for deeper budget cuts, higher education officials are considering a range of cost-saving measures at the state's three public colleges — from eliminating dozens of small academic programs to consolidating some redundant programs to reducing the number of credits needed to earn a degree.

They also warn that increases in tuition and fees for next year will probably double. Students at the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and Community College of Rhode Island will most likely see increases of 20 percent to 25 percent, or even higher.

"We need to have an ongoing analysis of how we can reduce costs," said Jack Warner, the state's higher education commissioner.

See, the thing is, when those kids chose Rhode Island institutes of higher learning — often uprooting their lives to do so — their decisions were also made before the state slid into its current budget crisis. Former director of institutional research at RIC, Donna Konicki, says that she understands "why taxpayers might be upset with the amount of sick time we are allowed to accrue," bringing her total severance package to $88,223, but perhaps the students deserve an explanation, too, justifying the translation of retirement largesse into further education loan payments by the new indentured servant class.


While on this topic, I've got to point out a great line from a related article addressing the sick-time payments more broadly:

The president of the largest state employees union, J. Michael Downey, said the payments for unused sick time are also one of the benefits given state employees to compensate them for getting paid less "historically" than their private-sector counterparts.

In this case, "historically" is meant to be understood as "at some point in history." Of course, there are plenty of examples in which RI unions exhibit a strange sense of fairness, including this argument:

Defenders of the payouts for unused sick time say the policy gives state workers — who are not covered by temporary disability insurance — an opportunity to "bank" blocks of time so they can be paid in full if they are out of work with illness for an extended period.

Hey, that's reasonable... as long as I someday am able to recoup a portion of the $707 dollars taken from my paycheck every year for a program that I may never use.

Re: The Anchor Rising Pension Simulation: The Walshian Assumptions

Monique Chartier

Commenter George Elbow is back and once again requesting that Andrew revisit his post about Bob Walsh's public pension investment scenario.

Yes, we all understand the concept of compound interest. Rather, what we'd like discussed is the sustainability and FAIRNESS of the Walshian demands, particularly in this economic enviromnent.

Please help us understand why Public Employees should receive Guaranteed benefits that grow by 3% automatically every year regardless of the fact that there are NO guarantees with respect to economic conditions and irrespective of the minimal amount that the Employee contributed.

My commentary here is in no way intended to preempt a potential response by Andrew or even to imply that a response is needed.

In fact, going back, I see that Andrew's post is pretty narrow and self-explanatory, focusing as it does on the question of the viability of the Walshian Assumptions were they all to become reality. He makes no reference, positive or negative, to the qualities of sustainability or fairness.

Neither does Andrew purport to address the feasibility of the individual Walshian Assumptions. Let us take this opportunity to look at them now, shall we?

13.5% of salary contributed to the fund each year

The current contribution level, less than that proposed by Walsh - 8.75% for state workers, 9.5% for teachers - is already not hailed with enthusiasm by those doing the contributing. How realistic would it be to request a 42% or 54% increase in the next contract negotiations?

8.25% investment growth

This assumption, in turn, is composed of two separate assumptions: the performance of the stock market and adequate funding by the General Assembly.

George Elbow correctly disposes of the first when he points out that the stock market cannot be counted on to sustain any particular growth or direction, thereby casting doubt on even the 7% return table to which Andrew extended the Walshian Assumption. The General Assembly itself has disposed of the second assumption with its track record: funds needed for pension investing have been diverted over the course of decades to programs of dubious public merit deemed to be political advantageous to certain sectors of the General Assembly.

In short, it is difficult not to conclude that the Walshian Assumptions are overly optimistic and that, therefore, his scenario is unrealistic and unsustainable. As to fairness, George, I'm glad to state the obvious: promising a guaranteed income to one sector of the state's population on the basis of the non-guaranteed income of another sector is not just unfair but unrealistic to the point of delusion.

Bill Ayers tries to airbrush his personal history

Donald B. Hawthorne

Bill Ayers tries to rewrite his personal life history in this New York Times editorial.

J. G. Thayer doesn't let him get away with airbrushing history:

...The facts are simple: Ayers — by his own admission; he described himself after his trial as “guilty as hell; free as a bird” — should have been sent to prison. Instead, he is not only free, but an honored professor who specializes in teaching future teachers — working to make certain his toxic ideology and principles are passed on to more and more young people.William Ayers is not a victim. He is not a misunderstood hero. He is not someone who, despite his protestations to the contrary, deeply regrets the folly of his youth. He is not someone who is repentant of his past misdeeds. He is a would-be Timothy McVeigh, but with more degrees and less technical competence.


More on Bill Ayers. Yep, just another law-abiding citizen.

Deja Vu

Donald B. Hawthorne

As the master of malaprops, Yogi Berra, once said:

This is like deja vu all over again.

I guess it isn't enough to pull out all the old books which tackled the realities around the Great Depression and FDR's New Deal versus the commonly held myths.

It now looks like the time to also pull out the decades-old books on the fallacies of industrial policy:

A proposed government "car czar" would oversee any bailout of U.S. automakers under terms being negotiated by the White House and Congress for extending billions in emergency loans to the auto giants, Reuters reported.

Sources familiar with the plan for oversight by an official within the executive branch said Saturday conditions were not final as Democratic leaders and the White House tried to cut a deal.

One leadership aide said both sides favored creation of a "car czar" role to ensure proposed conditions were met, Reuters reported. The funds are designed to last until March, giving the incoming Obama administration and the new Congress time to consider the issue anew.

Racing to seal a deal with the White House, Democratic congressional leaders dispatched aides Saturday to draft an emergency $15 billion aid package to pull Detroit's Big Three automakers from the brink of collapse...

Still, with Washington spooked by massive job losses that provided the latest evidence of a deepening recession, the White House said it was in "constructive discussions" with lawmakers in both parties on the assistance. House and Senate Democratic staff aides worked through the weekend to hammer out details, with votes on the plan expected in the week ahead.

The emerging measure would speed short-term help to General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC, while empowering the government to order a wholesale restructuring of the industry and imposing tight restrictions on the Big Three, according to congressional officials and others close to the talks...

Does anybody old enough to know any history appreciate the irony that these politicians are pursuing government-driven industrial policy - like the Japanese advocated decades ago - while Japanese auto companies have moved beyond that and are now profitability producing vehicles here in the USA in a way which cleans Detroit's economic clock?

As Santayana wrote back in 1905:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.

Bailing out Detroit
Bankruptcy, please
Irresponsible talk
Told you so...

A Pause Before the Future Comes

Justin Katz

Thanks to the Rhode Island Republican Assembly for the invitation to their Christmas dinner, last night. Good food and excellent conversation.

I'll say this: I'm starting to get a sense of some of the possible strategic intentions of the RIGOP, and I can't say that I'm overly enthusiastic. It's good to know, however, that there's a satellite group of good folks who know their way around Rhode Island politics.


On my way home, I turned off 195 in Fall River, rather than at 24, as usual. Of course there's a big sign at the state line, on Main Street, but it's hardly necessary: The immediate transition from smooth roads to a rough ride is notice enough.

December 6, 2008

Real Stimulus

Justin Katz

I suspect that this idea from Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX) would have broad support among the Republican Assembly members and sympathizers with whom I'm spending time this evening:

Where the Pelosi-Paulson plan takes the taxpayers' money and puts it under the government's thumb so that predatory politicians and micromanaging bureaucrats have more and more control over the American economy, Congressman Gohmert's plan puts the money back into the pockets of the American people and allows them to choose. ...

For the $350 billion second bailout installment Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is going to request, every American taxpayer could have a two-month tax holiday from both income tax and the Social Security-Medicare (FICA) tax.

That means that for all of January and all of February you would pay no federal income tax and no FICA tax, which—for most Americans—amounts to about 33 percent of your gross income.

Furthermore, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has proposed an additional $700 billion as a stimulus package.

That would pay for an additional four months of a tax holiday.

Thus, if you combined the Pelosi and Paulson proposals, you could create a tax holiday through June.

That would mean no working American would pay a penny in income tax or a penny in FICA tax for the first six months of the year.

And that would mean no business would pay a penny in matching FICA tax for the first six months of the year.

As a pro-small business, pro-jobs creation, pro-market stimulation measure, imagine the power of that much extra money in the hands of the American workers and the American entrepreneur.

If the unalloyed objective of the political class were to effect economic recovery and set the nation on a course of greater opportunity, it would be talking more about such approaches. Cynic though it may mark me, I can't help but infer the strategy of using difficult times to advance ulterior goals — such as expanding and centralizing government influence. Sure it'll extend and deepen the hardships of average Americans, but the powers will make it up to us one day, when they've got this whole economy problem licked.

An Example of the Necessary Pushback

Justin Katz

Two principles necessary for Rhode Island to turn back from the brink (or, more accurately, to climb back onto it) have been coalescing in my commentary of late:

  1. The change must move from the municipalities, up, both in the ascension of a new ruling class and in the direction of reform.
  2. Policies can no longer be treated as irrevocable, allowing legislators and other state officers to skirt blame for the consequences of their decisions. In other words, there must be push-back and demands that the General Assembly et alia provide guidance as to how their demands ought to be balanced. That is: What do we erase, and whom do we tax in order to accomplish what you've dictated?

This development contains both of those elements, along with an acknowledgment that relief from union power is required:

Leaders from five municipalities met with Governor Carcieri’s policy director yesterday, saying they will back his efforts to bring state spending under control as long as he helps get them the tools to curtail spending in their own municipalities. ...

Lombardi said North Providence would stand to lose $2 million in state aid if some of the cuts being talked about come to pass. He said he could close that gap by $750,000 if he were allowed to reduce the number of firefighters who would have to be assigned to a shift at any one time from 21 to 17, saving on overtime.

The North Providence contract with the firefighters calls for a minimum of 21 firefighters, but that contract expired in July and the town and union are on the verge of going to binding arbitration.

It's a problem that could be solved, he said, if the General Assembly enacted a law barring arbitrators, or those who negotiate contracts, from putting minimum manning levels into future contracts.

Polisena said he has already told Johnston's local senators and representatives that any reduction in state aid to the town this late into the fiscal year would hurt the taxpayers and would be unacceptable.

The loss of an estimated $2.1 million in revenue would be more palatable, he said, if cities and towns were given the authority to ignore some state-imposed mandates, and were freed from a provision in state law that prohibits them from earmarking less for education than the previous year.

"I asked our [school] superintendent to come up with a list of mandates that we could do without, without affecting education. Her list totaled $1.6 million," he said.

Individually and collectively, every town council and school committee in the state ought to be knocking on doors at the statehouse with documents describing everything — other than money — that they need from the state government.

Not the Way to Run a City... or a City-State

Justin Katz

At this point in our decline, every public official should have a policy of zero increase. This is simply irresponsible:

Mayor David N. Cicilline is facing criticism this week for a one-time payment of retroactive raises to five current and former high-ranking police officers — over the objections of the City Council — and for his plan to merge the parks and recreation departments.

Cicilline's administration last month made payments ranging from $14,400 to more than $20,000 to two majors, two retired majors and Deputy Chief Paul J. Kennedy, for time worked from Jan. 1, 2006 to July 1, 2008. ...

According to the mayor's chief of administration, Richard I. Kerbel, the retroactive pay for the nonunion officers matches retroactive pay awarded to police union members in arbitration over the last fiscal year and will be paid out of a reserve account for union arbitrations.

It exists everywhere, but the tendency toward battles of ego and plays of power (on both sides) is particularly acute in Rhode Island. One can picture the mayor telling his employees, "Don't worry, you'll get yours." If he wants to make a stand against the unions, that's wonderful, but the passive aggressive skirmish along the road will make it more difficult to achieve substantive goals on the next battlefield.

Still Feeling the Violence

Justin Katz

Anybody who missed last night's Violent Roundtable on the Matt Allen Show — or who would like to listen to it again — can download it here.

I'll tell you that, from the other side of the microphone, that hour just flies by. By habit, I keep out a notebook during such discussions and jot down points to which I'd like to return. Matt keeps the show moving at a pace that leaves those notes bare of check marks. I'd like to salvage two points, though:

  • Marketing food stamps. It took a little of my drive-home time to articulate, but what bothers me about the idea of the government's marketing food stamps so more eligible recipients will apply is the message that it works into the culture. We've already done too much to erase the stigma of existence on the public dole. The more we do to market the "benefit" — not the least by declaring it an economic stimulus for the state — the more we cast it not only as something about which people shouldn't be ashamed, but as something about which they might actually be proud. "Hey, I'm helping to bring money into the state!"
  • State government departments' overspending. Paul Tencher bragged that Lieutenant Governor Liz Roberts (for whom he was chief of staff) operated within her budget, in contrast to other executive departments. What that declaration elides is the fact that all of the other departments have functions — actions that they are required to take and systems that they are required to perpetuate as a function of their very existence. The demands made upon them ultimately have their origin in the legislature. The lieutenant governor, in Rhode Island, is free of such burdens. Be that as it may, perhaps Tencher would agree with me that the various departments ought to have planned their activities within their budgets, rather than within the mandates that elected officials have placed upon them.

December 5, 2008

The Wrong Starting Point

Justin Katz

Well, the governor's tax panel appears to be a bit more in line with the state's needs than his transportation panel, but we really have to turn this starting point around:

Overall, "The goal is to develop . . . alternatives that would be revenue neutral . . . but would present options that would increase tax competitiveness" compared with other states, said [Edward] Cooney, who also chairs the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce.

Why "revenue neutral"? At least at the beginning of an actual recovery, our policies are going to have to be revenue negative.

Rhode Island to Hard-Working Taxpayers: You're Not Wanted

Justin Katz

So I took a 14% reduction in my hourly pay rate this week. My other option was to quit and look for another job (without the benefit of a few months of unemployment insurance). Desperate times are here.

Meanwhile, the Sakonnet Times did run Richard Joslin's diatribe against the Tiverton taxpayers group with which I'm involved. The Providence Journal has also given Tom Sgouros's "Quit yer moanin'" rhetorical dreidle a bigger spin through the population, with Opinion Page Editor Bob Whitcomb offering Sgouros kudos for his "fact-filled and very thoughtful commentaries" (in general).

Then comes the broad list of possible new tax-the-people solutions for avoiding the necessity of paying for Rhode Island's transportation infrastructure out of the revenue pool that really ought to supply it. I'll tell you right now that just about any one of these options — except the higher gasoline tax, which won't affect me, except indirectly via higher costs passed on to customers — may be the final straw for my family.

It's possible they'll hit me with to-and-fro tolls just to get to work each day, and noises are that we're not talking the 35¢ that has been unchanged on New Jersey's Garden State Parkway for as long as I can remember. My wife could conceivably encounter four tolls, as she drops off the children at her mother's house three miles away and then heads to work in a part of Rhode Island more readily accessible via 195. Families in Portsmouth and Middletown could end up hitting six tolls on an evening trip to Providence. And then there are the other taxes and per-mile fees, no matter where one drives.

Of the half-dozen or so jobs that emails to me each day that somewhat match my criteria (although rarely sufficiently), not a single one has been in Rhode Island for quite some time. And if I were to find another job in the state, chances are slim that I wouldn't have to deduct heavy transportation costs from my earnings. The question, therefore, is this: Do the state's leaders really intend to further weigh the "get out of here" side of the decision scale for the slice of the population that has been streaming out of the state in the thousands every year?

Talkin' Violent Roundtable Blues

Justin Katz

For those near a radio from 8:00 to 9:00 tonight, I'll be on Matt Allen's Violent Roundtable. Those near a computer, can stream the show here.

A Mileage Tax in Rhode Island?

Marc Comtois


A new mileage fee. The $150-million plan would not include it, but the $300-million plan would impose a half-cent-per-mile fee, raising an estimated $50 million per year. But officials said yesterday that they expect to eliminate the transfer of some sales tax revenue to the transportation system, proposed elsewhere in the report. Raising the mileage fee to 1 cent per mile would make up the difference.

At a half-cent per mile, driving 10,000 miles per year would cost $50 per vehicle. One cent would cost $100.

Also referred to as a VMT fee (for vehicle miles traveled), the mileage fee would be based on odometer readings reported by vehicle owners when they renew their registrations. The mileage could be verified during mandatory auto inspections, the study says. Robert A. Shawver, the DOT’s assistant director, said that although one state, Oregon, is pilot-testing a similar fee, Rhode Island’s would be the first of its kind in the country.

How much revenue will this really generate considering that most Rhode Islanders think a trip from Providence to South County (or vice versa) requires an overnight bag?

Seriously though, what about the miles traveled outside of the state? Why does Rhode Island have a right to tax people for miles not put on roads within RI borders--just because the car is registered in Rhode Island? Plus they'll be getting you as you come and go (via the tolls also mentioned in the article). What if Massachusetts wants to tax their drivers? Are we going to have cross-border "VMT" pissing matches? GPS tracking devices are next.

I understand these are tough times and can see the point in toll booths on bridges, etc. (though I'm not sure how much money will be raised vs. cost, especially initially) to help defray transportation infrastructure expenses. And I assume (heh) that the new tax revenue will be specifically designated for transportation and not General Revenue. But this VMT thing isn't the sort of "innovation" the state needs.

The Energy Life of Trash

Justin Katz

This seems to be a great idea — especially since it appears to be free-market, rather than government, driven —

An $80-million project to generate electricity from the methane gases that are given off by Rhode Island's trash drew support from local and state officials yesterday morning.

Executives from a New Jersey company, Ridgewood Renewable Power, unveiled detailed plans and announced that their project, to start this spring, will more than double the output of gas-fueled electricity generation at the state's Central Landfill, creating the second-largest such facility in the United States.

The proposed plant would churn out 41 megawatts of electricity — enough to supply more than 38,000 homes, according to the company, which aims to bring the new plant online late in 2010.

Over three decades, the facility's projected energy output would be on par with what a coal-burning facility would produce with about 2.9 million tons of coal — enough to fill a freight train 275 miles long, the company said.

I'm curious how long of a freight train a coal plant actually accrues over three decades, but there doesn't seem to be any downside to letting a company create energy from trash, if it wants.

Even Lenin would be impressed

Donald B. Hawthorne

Melanie Phillips:

Trevor Loudon has got hold of a fascinating analysis of Prez-elect Obama's administrative appointments by Mark Rudd and Jeff Jones, two former Weather Underground terrorists (chums of Obama's old ally [chance acquaintance], the unrepentant former WU terrorist William Ayers). The two of them are now on the board of Movement for a Democratic society, in turn the parent body of Progressives for Obama, the leading leftist lobby group behind Obama's presidential campaign. And waddya know - just like me they believe Obama is practising stealth politics with a degree of sophistication and success with which 'even Lenin would be impressed.' As they say, Obama knows that he must be subtle and reassure even the most conservative of his opponents if he is to achieve his radical goals...

Read Phillips for key excerpts from the articles by MDS members. Here is the link to Trevor Loudon's writeup with more complete information.

Phillips continues:

The key is the stupidity of so many of Obama's opponents, amplified by the credulousness and prejudices of the media and the ignorance of the public. The shallow Republicans and their supporters in the media and blogosphere have in large measure fallen for Obama's stealth politics hook, line and sinker. As a result of his 'centris' appointments which have got them absurdly cooing over people like Clinton and Holder, Gates and Jones, their guard is now totally lowered. They still don't know the true nature of what has hit them -- and at this rate will never know until they wake up one morning to a transformed America and a free world that has lost the war being fought against it.

And the more the left shrieks 'betrayal', the more American conservatives will wrap themselves in denial. But characters like Rudd and Jones are the horse's mouth. They know from the inside the manipulative and stealthy game that is being played here. Lenin would be impressed indeed.

As further background, here are a series of Obama posts from the general election:

Clarifying the deeper problems with Barack Obama
Summarizing the philosophical problems with Barack Obama's view of the world
More troubling thoughts about the One
Crisply defining the core problem with Obama's economic and tax policies
On Obama's economic and tax policies
Multiple choice options regarding Obama's "spread the wealth" comment
Any bids for $75,000?
Yep, that'd be my reaction
Obama and ACORN's overt and criminal voter fraud acts
McCarthy: Stifling political debate with threats of prosecution is not the "rule of law" - it's tyranny
Obama on his desire for a civilian national security force
Does Obama believe in liberty?
Obama vs. McGovern on eliminating secret union elections
Obama's fundraising: Insufficient transparency and yet more unanswered questions
A rare Zen moment of simplicity
Senator Obama's naive, ahistorical, and unrealistic foreign policy viewpoints: His Achilles Heel for the November election
On Obama's disarmament priorities
On Obama's healthcare policies
On Obama's extreme abortion beliefs
Obama's views on coal industry
Oh my, it just never stops: In the tank for Obama
Creepy, indeed
Creepy, again
An argument for divided government

Anyone want to bet on what direction Obama wants to take America?

Insertion of a Legacy

Justin Katz

I may be reading too much into this, but it strikes me as odd that some versions of this AP report of good news in Iraq contain Obama's name, but none (that I've found) contain Bush's:

Attacks fell in November to their lowest monthly level since the Iraq war began in 2003, a top U.S. commander said Wednesday. ...

U.S. troops are working with Iraqi soldiers and police in hopes of improving their performance ahead of substantial withdrawals expected next year.

President-elect Barack Obama wants to bring most U.S. combat troops home from Iraq within 16 months.

My recollection is that the withdrawals were already being planned, based on improvements in the field. Am I wrong? We may have the first sign, here, of a fawning media's intention to make ultimate success in Iraq part of President Obama's legacy, rather than President Bush's, even before he's taken office.

December 4, 2008

Revelations of the Beatified

Justin Katz

Rev. David Lewis Stokes's reflections upon the failed exhumation of Cardinal Newman is a rewarding read:

What really makes Newman our contemporary was his life-long sense that at the heart of modernity churns a moral vortex that promises to consume us all. Writing in 1875, Newman captured the century and a half to come:

"To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race—all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution."

Newman always sensed that we live out our lives in spiritual exile, pretending all-the-while to be at home. And he came to see in most political wrangling a wrestling with smoke and fog, having little relevance to the "aboriginal calamity" that has marred the human soul. For Newman, here we have no abiding city. We belong elsewhere.

Individuals in a Package Deal

Justin Katz

In the midst of a very edifying conversation in the comments section of my "Powers and Victims" post, Tiverton teacher Ed Davis offers the following significant perspective:

You're right, no one is forcing us to work here. Unfortunately, I saw this philosophy take hold in the school system my son attended. Many of the good young teachers, in the critical areas of math and science, left for better paying jobs. This is beginning to happen in Tiverton.

Doesn't that just highlight the spectacularly inappropriate setting that unions create within the public school system? In order to keep well qualified and fresh teachers covering central subjects, the school must hand out raises across the board. The cost of giving a young science whiz a 5% raise (beyond steps) can turn out to be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That is plainly insane, and plainly indicative of the detriment that unions present to our children.

Told you so....

Donald B. Hawthorne

Jim Manzi does good work for all of us in GM's Magical Thinking:

I’ve been working my way through GM’s much-heralded restructuring plan that is being submitted to Congress tomorrow. It’s a lot less work than I thought it might be (though I’m blogging late at night as I’m reading it, so all of my comments are subject to revision).

It makes at least one point very effectively: GM has an incredible short-term cash problem. While I am skeptical of bankruptcy in the next 27 days — which GM claims will happen without a $4 billion government cash infusion by the end of the month — it is surely true that at current course and speed, this company is going to run out of money within a few months.

And even worse, if we look out over the next 6 – 9 months, it’s very discouraging, even if they get the bailout. GM has requested $18 billion in loans from the government, in addition to the $8.3 billion they are already getting under the fuel-efficient cars program (which, in practice, will provide a ton of general financial support — I’m willing to bet a lot of money that the green cars program at GM is soon going to find that it simply can’t do without a huge number of accounts payable clerks, market research managers and prime Warren, Michigan office space that just happens to be paid for today out of GM’s general treasury). GM’s base case restructuring plan calls for them to use $4 billion dollars of this $18 billion in December, $4 billion more in January and $2 billion more by the end of March. That’s about a $10 billion drawdown. They also present a far from unthinkable “downside scenario” in which industry auto demand is 10 – 15% lower than in their base case. In the downside scenario, they would draw down about $15 billion instead of $10 billion by the end of March, and have a cash balance at that time of about $13 billion. If industry demand stays at this lower level for the next quarter, they would burn through another $6 billion of cash in the second quarter, and would therefore consume the last $3 billion of the $18 billion they have requested, plus drive their cash balance down by $3 billion, to about $10 billion, or right where it is now. In other words, even if they got everything they asked for and achieved whatever short-term operational and asset sale plans they have, but consumer demand were soft over the next six months, we’d be right back to same place by the end of June.

However, if GM got the loans, and if we have a decent consumer auto purchase market for the next year or two (how’d you handicap that?), and if GM is able to improve its operations sufficiently, then they could squeak by. The point of this document was supposed to be the presentation of the plan to achieve these operational improvements. But there’s no there there. I guess somebody who’s never read a real business plan might mistake this document for one, but it’s a joke. It’s basically a list of assertions of amazing improvements, entirely discontinuous with actual performance to date, that they will achieve. What's missing is any real indication of how they will go about accomplishing this.

Here are four huge examples:

1. As a practical matter, the core of any GM restructuring plan to achieve sustained cash profitability is unit cost reduction. GM simply asserts that they will do this, and lays out the targets. The only support is a bunch of rhetoric and cherry-picked facts about the recent past designed to lend credibility to these assertions. Consider the chart of historical and projected U.S. active hourly manufacturing costs shown in Figure 3. This total cost has been reduced from $12.8 billion in 2004 to $7.4 billion in 2008. This makes the projected reduction from $7.4 billion to $4.5 billion from 2008 to 2012 seem pretty reasonable — it’s fairly close to a continuation of the pre-existing cost trend. But consider this in context of (as per Table 6) total employment of 167,465 in 2004 and 96,537 in 2008. If we calculate the crude productivity measure of active hourly manufacturing cost / employee, this was $76,434 in 2004. In 2008, it was…$76,655. In other words, the reduction in aggregate active hourly manufacturing costs between 2004 and 2008 appears to have been driven by simply having fewer workers, with unchanged productivity. If we apply this same productivity assumption to the projected headcount of 67,500 for 2012, we get total active manufacturing costs for 2012 of about $5.2 billion, instead of GM’s plan of $4.5 billion. Where does this $700 million dollars of productivity improvement that seems to have heretofore escaped management come from? — No idea.

2. Similarly, look at Figure 4. It is an assertion that so-called structural costs will decline from 34% of revenue today to 25% of revenue within 4 years. That’s close to a nine-point gain in margin in four years, which would be pretty awesome operational performance improvement. Actual structural costs have fluctuated between 30 and 35 percent of revenue over the past five years — so how is GM going to get this huge improvement? They provide one sentence that claims that already-negotiated reductions in legacy costs will do this, and provide a chart in the appendix (Exhibit C-2) that breaks this cost reduction into four big categories. That’s it, as far as I can see. What a coincidence — GM just happens to be at the moment when their fixed cost problems, which have plagued them for decades, are about to go away, if they can just get a bridge loan.

3. In Exhibit B-1, GM notes that last year they forecast that GM would achieve a 2009 unit market share of about 20.6% (3.3M / 16MM), but now project a 2009 unit market share of 22.5% (2.7M / 12MM). Are they really asserting that their competitive position has improved over the past year, in direct contradiction to all external evidence and their own statements elsewhere in the plan? Of course, we have no idea what market share their plan assumes going forward, since they don’t provide this. They also don’t provide any serious financial statements or projections, only a projection for ultimate cash flow by year, without any useful description of the assumptions that generate this forecast.

4. In Table 4, GM claims that total debt will go down from $62 billion to $30 billion, or be reduced by $32 billion. They are asking for a loan of $18 billion. How do they get the extra debt reduction of $16 billion? They don’t say in the plan, but they appear to be basically assuming that their debt holders are going to “restructure” too, which is a 50 cent Wall Street word for agreeing to give up a lot of the debt in the hopes of getting paid at least something. This is like your brother-in-law’s plan to get out of credit card debt by getting Visa to just agree to forgive a lot of what he owes. Felix Salmon made the same observation, and called Troy Clarke, the head of GM’s North America business. Clarke confirmed that GM is assuming exactly this.

Now, the most obvious response to all of this is to say that I’m the fish at this table, because this is not a real business plan, but simply a political document. It exists to provide political cover to members of Congress. But if that’s the case, it’s an unintentionally beautiful illustration of why industrial policy fails. It’s both economically crucial and very hard to allocate capital well; that’s why people who are good at it make so much money. Businesses struggle to do this well, and they’re really trying. What do you think the odds are that this is a wise use of money, when the people involved are barely pretending to try?

More here and here.

Relieving Rhode Island of Providence's Pension Burden

Justin Katz

On last night's Matt Allen show, Monique presented her proposal that the state of Rhode Island deduct the unreasonable excess of Providence's pension system from its state aid. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

And the Redirection Effort Continues

Justin Katz

Anthony poses a worthy question in the comments to my post on the RI House Finance Committee's grilling of state department heads:

This is surreal. For years, the General Assembly filled state agencies with a "Family and Friends" plan that rivaled AT&T, raked Carcieri over the coals for wanting to "cut too much" and overrode gubernatorial vetos to pass bloated budget.

Now the same people are questioning spending of state agencies and trying to blame Carcieri?

Maybe it's too much to ask, but shouldn't somebody be pointing this out?

Oh, but the surreality gets worse, with today's continuing reportage:

State officials hope to pump tens of millions of dollars into Rhode Island's drowning economy in the coming months as part of a "mini stimulus package" that key lawmakers say would cost Ocean State taxpayers almost nothing.

The plan, disclosed yesterday in what was likely to be the last special meeting of the House Finance Committee, pushes the Carcieri administration to enroll more than 10,000 new food-stamp recipients in the next year, expedite unemployment insurance claims, and rush millions of dollars to stalled infrastructure projects across the state. ...

The state stimulus package essentially urges the Carcieri administration to spend millions in federal dollars and already earmarked state funds as soon as possible. While some state departments struggle to limit discretionary spending, they also struggle to spend a pool of money that could help create thousands of jobs, improve bridges and roads, and boost tax revenue.

I caution readers that some of the quotations from legislators not reprinted here may induce nausea. A new question worth asking, however, is: How much of the "allocated" money is actually sitting in a bank account, somewhere, and how much is tied up with revenue that the state has not yet received as it spends $1 million per day that it does not have?

My favorite part is the note that the announcement came at what is "likely to be the last special meeting of the House Finance Committee." This has set-up written all over it. "Yeah, you guys have to do more. We'll be back next year."

Come a Saturday Night

Justin Katz

Incidentally, I'll be at the Christmas party of the Rhode Island Republican Assembly this Saturday evening. If you happen to attend, please help me with my habitual social awkwardness at public gatherings by saying "hello."

December 3, 2008

Even Nature's Against the Taxpayer

Justin Katz

Apparently, Tiverton's deer population is conspiring to cost taxpayers even more money:

Deer have run into three of the town's police cruisers in the last 10 days, smacking the front of one and causing minor damage to the sides of two others. The repair bill will exceed $5,000, according to Police Chief Thomas Blakey.

Of course, other folks than the police are experiencing damage to their vehicles, but we can look to Gina Macris's excellent ending for relief:

Shotgun season for deer hunting starts Saturday.

I'm not sure what the market rate is for venison, these days, but perhaps there's a means for the town to make up some of that lost cash.

Adjustments to State Aid to Providence

Monique Chartier

And we do not need to single out Providence for this treatment. Certainly the aid to any other municipality that has budgeted unreasonable expenditures should be adjusted accordingly.

But taxpayers from other cities and towns have no obligation to fund the extravagance, not to say folly, of public officials, whether past or current, whom they had no say in electing. Accordingly, I propose that, once the General Assembly settles on an amount - almost certain to be less than the $65,000,000 of FY2008 - of state aid to be given to Providence, the following sums should be deducted.

> Whatever the city pays out, above and beyond a reasonable baseline, for disability pensions which compound and, therefore, double every eleven years. Rough figures:

Assuming an average of $132,000 annually X 108 such retirees: $14,256,000

What the average should be ($60,000 annually?) X 108: $6,480,000

Amound to be deducted from state aid: $7,776,000

> The total number above the national average of disability pensions handed out in Providence during the bounteous early 1990's. It is extremely difficult to believe that 88% of all police and fire retirees during that period were truly disabled. [Amount to be calculated.]

- The total amount paid by the city to able bodied people receiving a disability pension. [Amount to be calculated.]

If Providence voters deemed it in their best interest, whether now or eighteen years ago, to elect officials who chose to be guided by a very loose definition of "disabled", the resultant cost of that decision must be for the exclusive account of Providence.

[All data from investigative reporter Tim White's excellent expose on WPRI 12 Eyewitness News.]

A Missing "U" Word

Justin Katz

It's maximally conspicuous that Louis Gerstner omits a key detail while enumerating his recommendation for public school reform:

I recommend that President-elect Barack Obama convene a meeting of our nation's governors and seek agreement to the following:

- Abolish all local school districts, save 70 (50 states; 20 largest cities). Some states may choose to leave some of the rest as community service organizations, but they would have no direct involvement in the critical task of establishing standards, selecting teachers, and developing curricula.

- Establish a set of national standards for a core curriculum. I would suggest we start with four subjects: reading, math, science and social studies.

- Establish a National Skills Day on which every third, sixth, ninth and 12th-grader would be tested against the national standards. Results would be published nationwide for every school in America.

- Establish national standards for teacher certification and require regular re-evaluations of teacher skills. Increase teacher compensation to permit the best teachers (as measured by advances in student learning) to earn well in excess of $100,000 per year, and allow school leaders to remove underperforming teachers.

- Extend the school day and the school year to effectively add 20 more days of schooling for all K-12 students.

Key components of this plan will prove flatly unworkable as long as unions sit at the head of the educational table. They'll certainly battle merit-based pay scales and hire-fire processes, and they'd rush to print up the bills for extended school years. They're also likely to push back against comparative standards. It's astonishing that Gerstner doesn't so much as whisper such a central name.

I submit that the paucity of progress over his decades-long quest for school reform has had less to do with the number of school districts than the special interest group that prevents children's betterment from standing as the unrivaled focus of the public education system. If one increases the size of the playground without removing the bully, he'll just bring along more of his friends.

Irresponsible talk

Donald B. Hawthorne

As a long-time turnaround professional, I deal all the time with companies which only have enough cash left to maintain operations for a limited number of months.

It is a setting which requires intense focus, an unrelenting sense of urgency, and the ability to take decisive actions on many, many fronts - usually all at the same time - in an effort to restructure operations and survive.

Which is why this is simply irresponsible talk:

A top executive of Chrysler LLC cautioned Wednesday that a carmaker collapse could send the economy spiraling into a depression, as the United Auto Workers union braced for contract concessions. Jim Press, Chrysler's vice chairman, said the U.S. automakers were "down to months left," as industry officials ratcheted up a fierce lobbying push to persuade Congress to approve as much as $34 billion in emergency aid.

"We're on the brink with the U.S. auto manufacturing industry," Press told The Associated Press in an interview. "If we have a catastrophic failure of one of these car companies, in this tender environment for the economy, it's a huge blow. It could trigger a depression."

No, the American auto industry is not on the brink. The unionized Detroit auto industry is on the brink. And until their management and unions have the backbone to make themselves cash flow positive and cost competitive with the rest of the vehicle manufacturers operating in the USA, they will fail and deserve to do so.

The article continues:

Under consideration were the possibility of scrapping a much-maligned jobs bank in which laid-off workers keep receiving most of their pay and postponing the automakers' payments into a multibillion-dollar union-administered health care fund.

If the Big 3 were serious about surviving as economically viable companies, they would not be addressing these issues only now, at the last minute.

The article continues:

...[Henderson, president and COO of General Motors said]...choosing the bankruptcy route would further erode consumer confidence in the automaker and "we want them to be confident in their ability to buy our cars and trucks."

If consumer confidence is eroding, it is because Americans have grasped the now-obvious fact that other auto manufacturers have come to America and shown it is possible to run profitable domestic manufacturing operations but Detroit only knows how to whine for corporate welfare funds as they lose money.

There are plenty of valuable assets in the Big 3 - trained workers, facilities, physical materials, etc. Those assets don't go away in a bankruptcy. Rather, someone who is more capable of thinking outside the box will figure out how to deploy them economically. Bankruptcy gives such new actors the time to figure out a new business model which is cash flow positive - including the right to reject contracts which inhibit implementation of such a model.

More here.


The Big 3 spent $50 million on lobbying Washington politicians in the first 9 months of this year and gave another $15 million in campaign contributions to politicians.

Think if they had spent that money instead on restructuring professionals and figured out how to make their businesses cash flow positive instead of begging politicians for more corporate welfare.

These are just the latest two examples of why they deserve NO bailout monies.


Don Boudreaux offers these thoughts:

Detroit auto executives advocate "government getting a stake in the auto companies that would allow taxpayers to share in future gains if they recover."

I remind these executives that each American is already perfectly free and able, with no action from government, to "get a stake" in these companies. Of course, few Americans now choose to do so – a fact that reflects the considered judgment of millions of people that these companies are unworthy recipients of investment funds. If millions of investors, spending their own funds, refuse to invest in GM, Ford, and Chrysler, why should Congress force them to make such investments? Why should we trust that Congress will make wiser investment decisions with other people's money than these people themselves make with their own money?

Whistles Can Make a Lot of Noise

Justin Katz

Enabling employees and citizens to bring attention to immoral or illegal behavior is a necessary goal, but North Kingstown may be creating a new tool for exactly the sorts of people that it wishes to disarm:

Town employees, vendors and even students can now complain online about government abuse — without fear of retaliation.

The complaint form is a few mouse clicks away and users don't have to leave a name. ...

... Visitors can log a variety of charges, from the serious to the outright criminal: conflict of interest, violation of policy, discrimination, harassment, falsification of contracts, substance abuse, theft or embezzlement. ...

... those who fear retaliation can rely on the anonymous reporting system, which is handled by EthicsPoint, an Oregon-based company.

The complaints are reviewed by [Town Manager Michael] Embury, the school superintendent and members of the town audit committee, depending on the charges. A complaint involving the town manager or superintendent may be made directly to the audit committee through the EthicsPoint hot line or Web site.

So without any fear of repercussions, anybody in the world can whisper directly to key officials about disliked people and political enemies. That's a pretty powerful weapon, and the safeguards are just about nonexistent:

Residents should try traditional channels first. "Everyone is encouraged to use the 'chain of command' to report problems or resolve disputes," the new site says. ...

Officials, meanwhile, hope the site won't be abused.

Complaints are considered to be serious matters, they say. Users are urged not to "file frivolous or mischievous reports or in retaliation for slights, either real or perceived."

Well, I would have hoped that political corruption and abuse would be avoided in the first place. Attacking those cancers with promises of secrecy isn't fighting fire with fire; it's adding gunpowder.

The Powers and the Victims

Justin Katz

I note something telling and pervasive in the latest anti-TCC assault by Tiverton Democrat stone-thrower Richard Joslin (currently online only; we'll see tonight whether it gets into the Sakonnet Times):

I know TCC supporters who are elderly, on fixed income and live mostly in North Tiverton. I am not upset about these people. I know they struggle with paying taxes. I think the TCC leadership uses these people and incites them with economic fear. I think these taxpayers deserve assistance.

I believe that the TCC in part is fighting for a large number of older wealthy adults without kids who bought very expensive retirement property here during the real estate boom of 2002-2007. Stuck now with houses whose value has plummeted, they are just looking out for their pocketbooks. Holding onto their wallets trumps any care for the future of education here.

Isn't that always the storyline from the Left? The ideas are presumed to be in the service of affluent greed, and those without the bank accounts who sympathize are mere pawns. Couldn't it be that the "root cause" of that right-wing evil can't be so simply drawn? One hesitates to point out something as obvious as the fact that those on fixed incomes have, if anything, more reason to "hold onto their wallets," but, well.

In his ideological determination, Mr. Joslin misses a blindspot that leaves him vulnerable to the charge of allowing union benefits to trump local education:

TCC says it wants budget cuts. Tiverton schools have already cut programs in sports, advanced placement, language, music, art and more. So, TCC, cut what else? Oust the teachers' union? As a 12-year resident and taxpayer I demand that we all make the TCC more transparent. They are arrogant; as newcomers they tell us that we have been incompetent and they know best. They point fingers at respected officials.

I haven't polled my peers, but I suspect that there'd be a softening of their wallet-grips if the argument weren't that programs have been cut and teachers need more money, but that teachers' compensation had been cut and the programs required more funding. Be that as it may, it's a curiosity, indeed, that those who argue so vehemently for the future of education seem incapable of articulating the thought that, in tight financial times, all increases ought to go to programs, rather than teachers (who make more individually, by the by, than whole households up here in the North).

Count me among those inclined to withhold further contributions from the obligatory charity of public education if the dollars are to be snatched from the table for the enrichment of adults, rather than for the restoration of programs that might allow me to return my children to public education without feeling irresponsible as a parent.

Spitballs for Fun and Politics

Justin Katz

Yes, the governor has been too quick to allow the budgetary games to continue, and before that he was too eager to present an optimistic picture. Most definitely, furthermore, public department heads should have been loud and visible declaring the unrealistic nature of the requirements and budgets that they were given. But as long as House Finance Committee Chairman Steve Costantino's actions are limited to conducting hearings, Rhode Island's downward spiral will continue:

The House Finance Committee called upon nearly every major department director to explain spending decisions responsible for almost $80 million of Rhode Island's current-year deficit of $357 million, believed to be the largest budget shortfall as a percentage of state spending in the nation.

"This committee is not trying to be contentious. We're trying to put pressure on you because we are in crisis," committee Chairman Steven M. Costantino said after a particularly tense exchange with Gary Alexander, director of the Department of Human Services....

Costantino asked Jerome Williams, director of the Department of Administration, whether the governor's office could assume direct control over state departments that overspend. ...

Costantino also questioned whether the governor had sufficient knowledge of spending in departments under his control. Directors make up the governor’s cabinet and answer directly to him.

There is only so much an administrator can do when the mandates handed down don't match the budgets available. A delusional business plan makes it impossible for the various departments within a company to meet their goals. It's too easy for legislators to "put pressure" on officials from the operations side; to get the state back on track, the General Assembly must overhaul everything that it tries to get the state government to do.

Executive departments — with the governor leading — should take Costatino's citation of a law that fines department heads for overspending should take the threat as an opportunity to put on the brakes no matter the consequences and post the list of statutory requirements that made the action necessary on the statehouse door.

December 2, 2008

Didn't Chuck and Larry Get "Married"?

Justin Katz

I highlight this only because I think Crowley, in his ineptitude, stumbles into an error of reason that others exhibit more subtly. Pointing to the expressed concern of Howard Weizmann, deputy director of the U.S. Office Of Personnel Management, that expanded domestic partner benefits would increase incidents of the sorts of fraud depicted in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Crowley writes:

Bush administration officials hard at work protecting us from gay people insurance fraud. Now all this silliness can end with a very simple solution: grant marriage rights to all couples and we won’t have to worry about the nuances of Chuck N Larry.

In point of fact, in order to procure their benefits, Chuck and Larry do get married. The only way "granting marriage rights to all couples" avoids fraudulent benefit transfers (for instance) is by legitimizing what had previously been held to be fraud. Marriage and divorce laws being what they are, there would be very little disincentive to "marrying" a friend for benefit, tax, housing, or even testimonial reasons.

If society wishes to create a system that encourages the mutual care of partnered pairs, then it should do so distinctly from marriage; to do otherwise would be to dilute the institution into nothingness. And if we are to set up domestic partnerships/civil unions, it would seem the height of government intrusion to insist that there be verifiable sexual intimacy between the participants.


Here's one further justification for taking Mr. Weizmann's concern seriously, but on a much broader scale:

Marriage to an American citizen remains the most common path to U.S. residency and/or citizenship for foreign nationals, with more than 2.3 million foreign nationals gaining lawful permanent resident (LPR) status in this manner between 1998 and 2007.

ProJo Administers Both Pink Slip and Red Pen

Monique Chartier

In an exclusive at Not For Nothing, Ian Donnis has learned not only the identity of the editorial writer laid off at the Providence Journal - David A. Mittell, Jr. - but that the ProJo refused to print his last column, which was critical of how newspapers have been operated in recent years.

At what point does such a decision cross the line from the inalienable right of an owner to operate his private business as he sees fit to censorship?

Below is an excerpt from Mr. Mittell's spiked column, more of which can be read at Not for Nothing.

The Boston Globe has reduced the number of papers distributed to stores -- presumably to save the cost of picking up unsold copies. I would call it suicide.

You would think newspapers would be democratic; "Here are my clips. Judge me accordingly!" In fact, large newspapers are hierarchical bishoprics in which power takes a long time to acquire and is jealously guarded. De-ossifying antiquated stratification, not gutting content, is the correct imperative.

This newspaper, like many others, runs three-inch ads stuck on the front page above the fold. We were sorely criticized in 2006, when a political ad of this genre ran on election day. A candidate had outsmarted his rivals. What would they have said if we had censored the ad? The critic missed the more revealing point that the literally tacky ad eclipsed the news headline and a logo commemorating the Journal's 175 years of service to Rhode Island and the nation.

California Does Away with Gerrymandering

Marc Comtois

Christian Whiton and Larry Greenfield report:

Proposition 11, which passed with the narrowest of margins (50.8 percent), could mark the most serious challenge to the political class by voters since the foiled term limit movement of the 1990s. It strikes at the core pillar of power: incumbency guaranteed through gerrymandered districts. Californians took away from their legislature the power to draw its own districts--a key element of nearly uninterrupted Democratic control since 1970. The task will now be handled by an eight-member commission chosen much like a jury, whose members cannot come from the political class.

Incumbent legislators have lost perhaps their best tool for avoiding competitive elections, long a disgraceful ritual in Sacramento and other state capitals following the once-a-decade census. The legislature still gets to draw districts for U.S. House seats, but here too it must adhere to rules that bind the new commission--namely keeping counties and cities whole as much as possible. Gerrymandered districts will now be more vulnerable to legal challenges.

Good idea, so how does it work?
The eight-member commission will consist of three Democrats, three Republicans and two independents. Most voters can apply to be on the commission, but anyone linked to elected officials, parties, lobbyists or political consultants is excluded, as are major donors. Independent auditors choose 20 applicants from each of the three groups. State leaders from both parties are allowed to strike up to eight people total from each group, similar to jury selection, and auditors then choose randomly the final eight commission members from those who remain.

The initiative passed narrowly, but undoubtedly attracted considerable non-Republican support in a state where registered Democrats exceed Republicans 44 percent to 31 percent and where Barack Obama won 61 percent of the vote. The California Democratic party opposed the measure, as did teachers and other government employee unions that have the most to lose in a fair redistricting of the state. A range of good government types from across the political spectrum joined the Yes on 11 campaign. These included groups as diverse as the AARP, the League of Women Voters and the Chamber of Commerce.

Of course, since Rhode Island doesn't have a voter initiative, forget about it happening here.

Saving Rhode Island in a Few Simple (But Difficult) Steps

Justin Katz

Hoping that repetition will get the message across, Ed Achorn tells Rhode Islanders that happy thoughts will not turn the beast around:

These pages have spelled out for years what must be done: Cut spending to what Rhode Island can afford. Make taxes competitive with (at least) those in neighboring states. Attack the public-employee-pension nightmare, and bring overall benefits for such employees back to earth.

Reform business regulations, including the over-reaching fire code, to make Rhode Island welcoming to job creators. Cut costly mandates to cities and towns. Encourage the municipalities in the state to merge as many of their services as possible. The duplication and waste are terrible.

Obey the constitution by fully implementing separation of powers and get rid of the straight-ticket voting option, so that Rhode Island functions more like other, more progressive and civic-minded states. Focus more on serving students at public schools. Develop the ports. Put a greater percentage of public dollars into higher education and infrastructure repair.

If our leaders did all that, Rhode Island's terrific advantages would spring to the fore, and we would be poised to boom as never before when hard times ended, reaping tax revenues that would provide all the money we would need for superb government services, including compassionate aid to the needy. As a bonus, residents would be much happier and healthier.

The probability is, though, that we're in for another half-decade of pain, and that's assuming the next two years are bad enough to spur the voters to change their behavior.

$621 Million Air Freshener?

Marc Comtois

Harry Reid, so classy:

"My staff tells me not to say this, but I'm going to say it anyway," said Reid in his remarks. "In the summer because of the heat and high humidity, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol. It may be descriptive but it's true."
Reid was talking about the new Capitol Visitors Center--all $621 Million worth of it. Citizens Against Government Waste sums up this case-study in "government boondoggle":
Initially conceived in the early 1990s and projected to cost $71 million, the CVC has become an example of out-of-control government contracting and mismanagement. After costs ballooned and construction schedules spiraled out of control, the three-level, underground monument to congressional excess finally came in at a whopping $621 million and three years behind schedule.

“The mismanagement and bloat associated with the construction of the Capitol Visitors Center is emblematic of the rampant waste in the nation’s capitol,” said CAGW President Tom Schatz. “This boondoggle should give pause to anyone contemplating the expenditure of hundreds of billions more taxpayer dollars for any federal infrastructure projects as part of any new stimulus package. Like the federal budget itself, Congress used the CVC as a warehouse for tens of millions of dollars in extravagant bells and whistles for itself. Even more reprehensible, members of Congress seeking to add special features for themselves used security concerns surrounding the September 11 attacks to justify their extravagant add-ons and constant change orders.”

Original plans called for more than half of the CVC space to be left as unfinished “shell space,” available to be outfitted for future needs. Instead, in 2001 Congress began implementing its wish list for the unfinished spaces. The House side got a two-story hearing room and the Senate grafted on a collection of small hearing rooms and a television and radio studio with adjoining makeup facilities so that senators could cut spots for their constituents back home. Those two efforts alone added $85 million to the cost of the CVC. The CVC will also have a 450-seat dining area, two orientation theaters (one for each chamber), a large auditorium, and an exhibition hall.

Air fresheners would have been cheaper.

Why Should Their Moral Rights Be Trampled?

Justin Katz

The Bush administration is entirely right to permit healthcare providers to refuse tasks that they find objectionable:

The outgoing Bush administration is planning to announce a broad new "right of conscience" rule permitting medical facilities, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare workers to refuse to participate in any procedure they find morally objectionable, including abortion and possibly even artificial insemination and birth control. ...

Health and Human Services Department officials said the rule would apply to "any entity" that receives federal funds. It estimated 584,000 entities could be covered, including 4,800 hospitals, 234,000 doctor's offices and 58,000 pharmacies.

If private organizations wish to require particular procedures to be done, that's within their purview, but the government's position should be in line with the rights and freedoms that it guarantees to its citizens.

Rhode Island's Redistributive Mindset

Marc Comtois

In a recent piece in National Review ("Beyond Tax Cuts"), Reihan Salam mentioned a study by economists Alberto Alesina and George-Marios Angeletos called “Fairness and Redistribution" (PDF). As Salam summarized:

Their argument was that our beliefs about fairness shape our beliefs about redistribution. If you believe that the system works and that hard work is rewarded, you will favor low taxes and low levels of redistribution. If, in contrast, you believe that the system is broken and corrupt and that only insiders and cronies are rewarded, you will favor high taxes and high levels of redistribution.

Alesina and Angeletos conducted their study by comparing the attitudes towards fairness and redistribution in the United States and Europe. They note that while pre-tax income inequality is higher in the United States than Europe, the latter spends a greater portion of their GNP towards redistributive programs as well as having a much more intrusive regulation regime. They note that the difference is based on "social perceptions regarding the fairness of market outcomes and the underlying sources of income inequality."

According to the World Values Survey, 60 percent of Americans to 29 percent of Europeans believe that the poor could become rich if they just tried hard enough; and a larger proportion of Europeans than Americans believe that luck and connections, rather than hard work, determine economic success.
Further, they determined that "the belief that luck determines income has a strong and significant effect on the probability of being leftist" and that, in the United States, "individuals who think that income is determined by luck, connections and family history rather than individual effort, education, and ability, are much more favorable to redistribution".

Rhode Islanders seem to believe it is more important to be lucky, "who you know," than to be good. And the state government and the various advocacy agencies and outlets continue to perpetuate this perception into reality. For, as Alesina and Angeletos conclude, it is possible for both the European (Rhode Island) and American philosophies to be right.

In the one...taxes are higher, individuals invest and work less, and inequality is lower; but a relatively large share of total income is due to luck, which in turn makes high redistribution socially desirable. In the other...taxes are lower, individuals invest and work more, and inequality is higher; but a large fraction of income is due to effort rather than luck, which in turn sustains the lower tax rates...

...from the perspective of the median voter: the one with lower taxes is superior. This is both because there are fewer distortions, more investment, and more aggregate income and because income inequality originates relatively more in ability than in luck. Poorer agents, however, may prefer the high-tax equilibrium, as it redistributes more from the rich to the poor. Also, the high-tax equilibrium provides more insurance against the risk of being born with little talent or willingness to work and may be preferred behind the "veil of ignorance" (that is, before the idiosyncratic shocks are realized).

In Rhode Island, then, it makes sense for individuals to follow the "European" model. It's been this way for at least 70 years, so why stop now? And, as Alesina and Angeletos conclude, history is very much destiny unless politicians exhibit the fortitude to change the minds of the people.
[R]eforms of the welfare state and the regulatory system may need to be large and persistent to be politically sustainable. In practice, this means that policymakers need to persuade their electorates that, although such reforms may generate rather unfair outcomes in the short run, they will ultimately ensure both more efficient and fairer outcomes for future generations.
So the question is: are there enough Rhode Islanders concerned about the future? Or are they more worried about "getting theirs" in the here and now?

ADDENDUM: Alesina and Angeletos explain the historical antecedents that led to how redistribution and fairness are defined or prioritized in America and Europe. Basically, the structure of European society--ie; class differences--has acted as a brake on upward mobility "at least since medieval times."

At the time of the extension of the franchise [voting], the distribution of income was perceived as unfair because it was generated more by birth and nobility than by ability and effort. The "invisible hand" has frequently favored the lucky and privileged rather than the talented and hard-working. Europeans have thus favored aggressive redistributive policies and other forms of government intervention. In the "land of opportunity [the United States]," on the other hand, the perception was that those who were wealthy and successful had "made it" on their own. Americans have thus chosen strong property protection, limited regulation, and low redistribution, which in turn have resulted in fewer distortions, more efficient market outcomes, and a smaller effect of "luck." Today, the "self-made man" remains very much an American "icon"; and Americans remain more averse to government intervention than Europeans.
As Salam summarizes, these basic attitudes have served to perpetuate the systems already in place:
The irony is that a system in which the state plays a larger role in the economy is a state in which rent-seeking behavior is more pronounced. So a belief in the unfairness of the system often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the United States really is sliding into crony capitalism, as Thomas Frank and other liberals have forcefully argued, the solutions on offer from the Left — which promise a bigger, more active government — create new opportunities for privileged insiders to make large fortunes by trading on their political connections.

Re: Tasked with Tiptoeing Around the Solution

Carroll Andrew Morse

Here is another set of recommendations made by the Governor's Urban Education Task Force that Justin discussed yesterday, as relayed by Linda Borg of the Projo...

The report recommends that urban elementary schools offer 20 minutes of daily phonics instruction, set aside time every day for children to read individually and in small groups, and test students frequently to catch those who are struggling. Schools should teach vocabulary early and often. And when a child falls behind, that student should be pulled out of class for additional small-group reading instruction.
Take the phonics recommendation out of the mix for one second, which I understand can be somewhat controversial. Given what remains, what exactly is there that any good teacher from 50 years ago to now wouldn't immediately recognize as a sound and necessary educational practice?

Now include the phonics recommendation -- and ask what there is in the above recommendations that a good teacher from 30 years ago wouldn't immediately recognize as a good idea?

If the members of the task force feel that these kinds of recommendations are important to the reform of public education, the real question they need to be asking is why as a society did we ever stop doing the basic and obvious things that work when it comes to educating our children?

Green Jobs to Put Us in the Red

Justin Katz

Russ Harding is skeptical of the persistent claims about "green jobs" being an economic stimulus:

Economic prosperity requires that we have access to both reliable and affordable energy to heat our homes and power our factories and vehicles. A steep run up in energy costs coincided with an economic recession in the 1970s and is once again a contributing factor to our current economic problems. Alternative energy mandates supposedly will serve as an economic stimulus by creating new jobs such as building wind mills and solar panels.

Claims similar to those being made by Phil Angelides of the Apollo Alliance that the development of clean energy will provide concomitant "growth in jobs, technology, equipment, suppliers and productivity if the United States actually treated the development of clean energy as a national economic priority" conveniently ignore economic realities. Mandating more expensive forms of alternative energy takes money out of the pocket of consumers and drives up business costs, resulting in the loss of jobs. An additional test for the viability of green job economic benefit claims is whether these projects require government subsides or not. If the answer is yes, the end economic results are more likely negative rather than positive.

I've no problem with environmentally friendly sources of energy and would much rather live around windmills than coal plants. The thing that concerns me is that expending public money and public effort seeding the industry is essentially a gamble, and the potential risk outweighs the probable costs.

In Support of Pride

Justin Katz

How's this for a study in contrasts:

OF ALL THE COMMUNITIES EXAMINED BY CHANNEL 12, THE STATE POLICE HAD THE LOWEST RATE OF ACCIDENTAL DISABILITY PENSIONS. MOST CITIES AND TOWNS WERE UP AROUND 40, 30 PERCENT, SOME IN THE 20S. YOU GUYS WERE AT EIGHT PERCENT. I THINK IT WAS OF 230 RETIREES, ONLY 19 HAVE AN ACCIDENTAL DISABILITY PENSION. WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE THIS LOW RATE TO? Unfortunately, we've had some troopers hurt to a degree where they have to retire. We closely scrutinize any request for a disability pension. I have refused two myself in the last two years, and those people have gone on to retire. I think the troopers take a lot of pride in their conditioning, and take a lot of pride in their job. We do not have a problem with sick leave. About four years ago, I surveyed the troopers of the state police and found, I believe, they use 1.5 sick days a year on the average. That's incredible. Now many, many do not use any time. I once went 10 years without a sick day, and there are many troopers that have gone longer than that.

One hears tales of public employees at the local level working the sick-time benefit to pump up each other's overtime. Perhaps the keepers of Rhode Island's ethical standards should spend some time examining the factors that make state troopers healthier and less — ahem — accident prone.

December 1, 2008

Strangely Controversial

Justin Katz

It's strange that this, from Rod Dreher's argument for the centrality of religious social conservatives to the Republican Party, should have the air of something controversial:

Times change. Today, the greatest threats to conservative interests come not from the Soviet Union or high taxes, but from too much individual freedom. Look around you: Americans have been poor stewards of our economic liberty, owing to cultural values that celebrate unfettered materialism. Our families and communities have fragmented, in part because we have embraced an ethic of extreme individualism. Climate change and a peak in oil production threaten our future because we have been irresponsible caretakers of the natural world and its resources. At best, the religious right stood ineffectively against these trends. At worst, we preached them, mistaking consumerism for conservatism.

All political problems, traditional conservatism teaches, are ultimately religious problems because they result from disordered souls. In the era now dawning, Americans will learn again to live within limits — and together. Religious conservatives are philosophically positioned to lead the way, but we can't do it by pouring new wine into old skins.

The piece that modern sensibilities tend not to infer is the specification that the excess of individual freedom oughtn't be curbed by government fiat. Some people overreach, of course, but the mainline of social conservatism holds that it is government's role to foster a sociopolitical environment in which sociocultural institutions can function to rein in behavior in an atmosphere respectful of free will and compromise. Even with clear atrocities such as abortion, social conservatives tend to advocate for federalist solutions. There's a reason that they and libertarians have managed to hold their alliance for so long: there's a significant ideological, and personal, overlap.

Dreher goes on to make a point that's entirely in keeping with my general philosophy of political rhetoric:

We're going to have to learn to think and talk in terms — and not overtly religious ones — of building up civil society and its mediating institutions. David Cameron has revived the Conservative Party's fortunes in Great Britain by following this model. His is a heavily secular approach for his heavily secular nation. Fortunately, American religious conservatives have more of a cultural base to build on.

St. Paul insisted that we can know God by His creation, and it follows that moral ills ultimately manifest in social wounds that we all sense to be wrong. That is where dialogue must start, and it is where civil-sphere argumentation must stay; once the social point is made, those who've been converted that far will either find the rest of the way for themselves or they won't. Attempting to force a particular destination on them ensures the latter outcome.

What's Tom Talking About?

Justin Katz

Once you get over the fact that they make a living doing for the left what we on the right must do as a hobby, a messaging guy like me really has to sympathize with the plight of those charged with maintaining the components of the status quo that have done so poorly for Rhode Island. How to present Rhode Island's predicament as such that it needs more poison? Well, here's one tack (emphasis in original):

The highest taxes? Please. New Hampshire is a tax haven, right? Some of it is, but if I were to move from my home here to a comparable house in Jaffrey, Keene, Peterborough, or any equally unfashionable town, my total taxes would increase even without a sales or income tax. Our state and local taxes are lower than the national average, according to the Tax Foundation rankings whose poor methodology actually exaggerates the impact of our income tax. (We rise to 10th in their rankings only when they add the taxes you and I pay to other states, I kid you not.) There are at least 27 other states with higher sales taxes for at least some of their counties than we have. We have high property taxes, yes, but can you fix that by level funding the cities and towns while piling on new mandates?

Because Tom Sgouros provides no sources for his New Hampshire assertions, I'll leave them alone, except to note the excess of wiggle room when comparing specific towns across state lines, as well as defining "comparable." The Tax Foundation argument, however, is worth a closer look.

The inclusion of out-of-state taxes isn't the only reason that "we rises to 10th" in the Tax Foundation rankings. Our relatively low average income is another. The Tax Foundation table shows that Rhode Island ranks 17th for absolute per capita taxes paid in state, but because we're #8 for taxes paid out of state, we come in at #12 overall.

We rise the extra two ranks when that dollar amount is expressed as a percentage of average household income. Granted, we're a small state, so a larger percentage of our population is likely to work and shop beyond our borders, but if one is looking at the state as a potential place of residence and business, taxes paid are taxes paid. Even this argument, however, allows too much, because the in-state-only ranking is a bit misleading, as is Sgouros's astonished declaration that our taxes are "lower than the national average"; that's the case only because the range of state taxes goes out more dramatically on the high end.

Changing measurements to deal with this imbalance, it proves true that Rhode Island's in-state tax burden is 21% higher than the national median. For perspective about why that matters, consider that Rhode Island's in-state taxes are farther above the median than the lowest-taxed state is below it. It's worth noting, too, that our progressive income tax would translate into a worse ranking as we succeed in attracting those coveted high-paying jobs.

Which brings us to the aspect of Sgouros's essay that really reads as spin:

This shortsighted perspective [of lowering taxes], and the determination to pursue it at all costs, has thoroughly ruined the service side of the equation, and given us the worst of both worlds: devastated services and higher state and local taxes. Bankrupting the state is not a route to prosperity.

We are a relatively poor state and proportionately very urban. We may not ever be able to be a low-cost state, but that doesn't mean we can't compete, as DandyID shows. We have other high cards: a beautiful state, a hip capital city, a fabulous art scene and more. What we don't have is policy makers willing to play them.

One might understand Tom to be arguing that DandyID, which he briefly profiles, points the way to the services that Rhode Island provides. In the preceding text, however, he lists "affordable office space," which is an indication of broad vacancy, Geek Dinners, which are a private initiative, and RI Nexus, which is a corporate database maintained by a quasi public organization. That's hardly a collection of assets threatened by deep cuts to state government spending (with the possible exception of the office space, which will go up in price if the state gets out of the private sector's way). On the other hand, it may be telling that DandyID, despite its office in Pawtucket, is not registered as a corporation in Rhode Island and still has its Internet domain registered in Colorado.

Be that as it may, if Tom wants to include government services that will help make Providence even hipper and the state art scene even more fabulous, he ought to argue for redirecting the revenue from his union clients and social service allies. Otherwise, we citizens who pay so much in out-of-state taxes will continue to conclude that we might as well pay them all elsewhere.

Vulgarity No More at Council 94

Marc Comtois

Apparently there was a "vulgarity" problem at Council 94 and J. Michael Downey ain't gonna take it anymore (h/t).

In an internal memo obtained by The Journal, Council 94 President J. Michael Downey tells staff that he will be "fully involved in the decision-making process" of union leadership following the departure of former executive director Dennis Grilli.

"As president of this council, it is my obligation to ensure that the members' hard earned dues dollars are put to the very best use on their behalf," Downey wrote in the Nov. 20 memo. "In this regard, it is my observation that some staff need significant improvement. Let me be clear. I expect that all of you (sic) to give full measure to the job you have been assigned."

He continued: "In addition, this council will not tolerate any form of disrespect or use of vulgar language and gestures -- either toward the members or to your fellow staff."

....There wasn't a specific incident that prompted the warning, he said, but rather a culture inside the union's Charles Street headquarters in which staff members regularly swear at each other or other union members. He also cited regular use of vulgar hand gestures.

"We don't want that here," Downey said. "If they don't work on the things I outlined, we will have a problem.... We're not talking about layoffs; we're talking about progressive discipline."

Wonder if the NEA has a similar policy?

Embrace Your Inner Underfunded Pension!

Carroll Andrew Morse

According to RI Future contributor Pat Crowley, if your pension plan is underfunded don't think of it as a bug, think of it as a feature…

An unfunded liability may in fact enhance the security of the plan because it requires more caution, therefore, more long term thinking.
I wonder if progressives will apply this line of reasoning to universal health care too -- sure there's no way we can pay for our proposals, but that's a good thing, because it means the government will plan them better! (The version of this kind of thinking often joked about amongst salespeople is "we lose a bit on every sale, but we make it up in volume.")

Anyway, back in the reality-based community, understanding why pension underfunding is a bad thing is straightforward. A pension plan is underfunded if, according to reasonable actuarial and design assumptions, it will run out of money before all obligations owed can be paid out. This situation should be avoided not only in pension plans but anywhere else in life. Claims from defined-benefit advocates that the current underfunding of Rhode Island's public pension system does not present a serious problem severely undercut the notion that defined benefit plans can be as cost-effective as defined contribution plans, if decades of total annual contributions equal to at least 25% of employee payroll are considered par-for-the-course for keeping a defined benefit system afloat.

In terms of present specifics, the underfunding of Rhode Island's state employee pension plan means that the state is required to contribute over 20% of employee payroll next year, to help get the pension plan to point where it will be self-sustaining by 2027, while still meeting all obligations until then. If the pension plan had been fully-funded (and never raided), the required state contribution would be much smaller, probably somewhere in the vicinity of 3% to 4% of total payroll per year. Given the current size of the state workforce, the difference between 4% and 20% of payroll is about $120 million, meaning that, if the state employee pension plan had been funded in accordance with its obligations assumed, $120 million more would be available to pay for existing programs or to reduce the deficit next year.

Finally, the pension study cited in Mr. Crowley's post takes a curious approach to the concept of "moral hazard". Here is the study's explanation of the concept…

If [pension plans’] investment decisions are being distorted by moral hazard, then we would expect to see less well-funded plans adopting more risky asset allocations.
But this formulation is incomplete. Moral hazard could also manifest itself in pension managers who don't believe they need to pursue a high-return (and associated high-risk) strategy because, hey, no matter how poor the investment returns are, as much money as is needed can be taken from future taxpayers – or should I say from current taxpayers, at a future time.

The Scars of Top Marks

Justin Katz

Yeah, I get that the top-of-page story on today's Rhode Island section is more of a departing profile than report on the state's conservation efforts — even if the title is "Federal conservationist gives Rhode Island Top Marks" — but a word about the costs of some of what Roylene Rides at the Door applauds in Rhode Island would have been justified:

Now, as she prepares to move on to another post, as conservationist in Washington state, Rides at the Door, 39, says she has been pleasantly surprised by Rhode Island and its people. She says Rhode Island is a national leader in land conservation and in supporting local farming.

She was amazed to see 450 people at a Save the Bay meeting. Back in Montana, she said, an environmental group would be lucky to attract 30 people.

Last summer at the dedication of a new fish ladder at the Rising Sun Mill in Providence, which her federal agency helped pay for, more than 100 people, including much of the state's congressional delegation, were in attendance. She says she has not seen such political and popular support for conservation in many other states.

A few weeks ago, in the face of staggering state deficits and a recession, Rhode Islanders voted overwhelmingly for a $2.5-million bond issue to preserve open space and farms.

"It's a bad economic year, with high unemployment, yet everyone is willing to tax themselves for conservation. I think Rhode Island could teach a lot of other places how to do it," said Rides at the Door.

Religious fanatic that I am, I treasure the many reminders of God's creation that one may find throughout Rhode Island (including, incidentally, as it is expressed in human history). On Saturday, we took our children for the annual trip down Main Street into the country to cut down our Christmas tree, and the contrast of the rows of trees to the temporarily forested parking lots of my Northern New Jersey childhood is clear.

That said, the fact that they approved the bond issue that Rides at the Door lauds is proof enough that Rhode Islanders need to hear about the costs of going too far. The state is suffocating, and we're breaking out the public credit card to charge some open space. The government structure is strangling the private sector, and we're making it even harder to lower the taxes that are driving out thousands of productive citizens every year.

Young adults are having to look elsewhere for homes, if they wish to fly from the nest at an appropriate age, because the scarcity of suitable residences has driven prices beyond their reach, even as the market deflates. The young and the working do not want "affordable housing," they want housing that's affordable, and if Rhode Island's efforts against sprawl push them (their productivity, and their tax and retail dollars) out of state, that's where they'll go.

Conservation is an important goal, but it doesn't so outweigh human suffering that we should allow ourselves to forget the latter when patting ourselves on the back for the former.

[Insert Your Own Bad Pun About "Ties" Here]

Carroll Andrew Morse

The Pawtucket Times' Jim Baron offers an assessment of the epic 2-2 deadlock in the race for Rhode Island Senate Minority Leader…

For years, [Current Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere] has led the Senate Republicans on the go-along course. Heck, most votes in the senate (I’m tempted to say almost all, but I don’t have the numbers in front of me) are 38-0 or however-many-senators-are-present-that-day to zero. On those pitifully few occasions where the Republicans do put up a fight, it is usually led by [Senator Leo Blais]....

Senate Republicans have to choose between the path of going along to get nowhere or of picking up the cudgel of activism and acrimony to go down fighting —between amity and the Alamo.

Neither strategy is likely to make the minority a winner in the Senate anytime soon. What the Republicans have to decide is how they want to lose. Once they do that, they will have their minority leader.

Tasked with Tiptoeing Around the Solution

Justin Katz

Yet another task force, this time addressing education in Rhode Island, has convened and tossed some suggestions out into the public breeze:

Expand the school day. Offer preschool to all students. Allow students to earn a high school diploma by taking night classes or enrolling online. ...

The task force also recognized that the state, which faces a massive budget deficit and is tied with Michigan for the highest unemployment rate in the nation, can no longer afford to throw money at the problem of low-achieving urban schools.

"In these difficult economic times, we can't rely on the public sector to create the system we need," Simmons said in an interview last week. "The education system needs to be bailed out by both the public and the private sectors."

As a result, the group’s recommendations rely heavily on partnerships with higher education, the business community, nonprofit organizations and the faith-based community. ...

The task force doesn't put a price tag on an early-childhood program. It does say that pre-K should be offered in a variety of existing settings, including daycare, Head Start and public schools. The state Department of Education is already planning a pilot pre-K program.

With both the preschool and night school proposals, the panel is suggesting substantial expansion of the student base of urban schools, even as it acknowledges that changes must be accomplished within a static (or decreasing) education budget. Considering that the greatest cost per student is for instruction, what the panel's proposal requires either that teachers do more work for the same pay or that the workload is spread out in a teacher pool that, in aggregate, makes less money. Two steps would accomplish this goal, while increasing the efficiency and (I'd assert) the quality of the regular ol' public school system:

  1. Create a voucher system that enables more parents to send their children to the schools of their choice. Political realities would likely prevent such vouchers from covering the cost of even less-expensive private schools entirely, so this step would have the added benefit of drawing more money into the total for childhood education, as parents and charities react to the incentive to pay more out of pocket to fund private school tuition.
  2. Introduce into state law, in such a way as to supersede local contracts, increased discretion for school administrators when it comes to hiring and firing. As public schools lose some of their funding based on children withdrawn from their student bodies, and to compete with each other and private institutions, principals will need greater leeway to excise teachers who burden the system and bring in those with a promise for progress.