May 31, 2009

All in the Service of Evil

Justin Katz

Only evil was served by the killing of abortionist George Tiller. Just as one can imagine the phrases by which Satan guided Tiller to see his barbarous work as righteous, one can imagine the whispers that brought the killer to Tiller's church — leading him perhaps to see as poetry a setting that should have resonated as blunt screams to stop.

Just so will the evil perpetuate itself. Some will find in this atrocity justification for restricting the rights of we who strenuously oppose abortion, and in the current political climate, they may achieve no small portion of their goals. In turn, frustration and complex feelings of persecution will escalate in opposition. Where will it stop? Well, where does it ever? Now, never, or somewhere in between.

With the simple, psychotic act of one man's murder, our society comes to another precipice, and when Americans inclined toward prayer have offered ours for Mr. Tiller and his family and have spared a word for the dementia-strangled soul of his murderer, we should turn our hopes toward a miracle of temperament. We should pray that from this horrible catalyst will emerge a fuller appreciation for the value of human life and for the civic structures and rights that enable us to resolve issues of cosmic consequence without violence.

Health Care Co-Sharing: The New Goalpost

Monique Chartier

A heads up to our elected officials as public sector contracts come up for renewal or must be reopened: twenty percent no longer cuts it.

A new national report shows U.S. residents enrolled in employer-sponsored health plans will cover an average of 41 percent of their families’ health care costs this year, the largest share to date, with increased premium contributions rising by 14.7 percent from 2008.

The report, the fifth annual Milliman Medical Index, measures average annual medical spending for a typical American family of four covered by an employer-sponsored preferred provider organization (PPO) plan – the most common type nationally and in Rhode Island.

[Source: Providence Business News, May 22, 2009]

How the Moderate Enables the Liberal

Justin Katz

David Brooks's recent column on judicial empathy is a wonderful example of the method by which moderates enable liberals. He begins with a strawman that in no way bears scrutiny:

The American legal system is based on a useful falsehood. It's based on the falsehood that this is a nation of laws, not men; that in rendering decisions, disembodied, objective judges are able to put aside emotion and unruly passion and issue opinions on the basis of pure reason.

Oddly, his very next sentence is, "Most people know this is untrue." If that's the case, perhaps Mr. Brooks should reconsider the accuracy of declaring the entire system's "basis." At the very least, some red flags ought to go up: It isn't accurate as a statement of our nation's founding, or else the Founders wouldn't have bothered interweaving the judiciary with the system of checks and balances. It isn't accurate as a statement about complaints against "judicial activism," which is made comprehensible by the fact that those who do the complaining don't promote the development of a system (one can imagine software) that takes the judgment out of judging.

By packing straw within reasonable-man's clothing, however, Brooks attempts to smuggle through an issue about which there would be some argument: that ours is a "nation of laws." His mechanism, here, is to present a definition of that phrase and to declare it false, while the substantive debate is over what the phrase means. I'd suggest the definition that our laws — not our personal histories, pedigrees, or credentials — set up the boundaries within which we should, as is unavoidable, rely on our human intellectual messiness. For his part, Brooks indulges in the falsehood that such plausible and necessary ideals are not ideals, but strict rules that may easily be proven to be impossible.

Thus, when he puts forward a perfectly banal observation about the process of decision making, he gives it the embellishing air of deconstructing a philosophical pillar of Truth (which, by the way, "most people know is untrue.")

The decision-making process gets even murkier once the judge has absorbed the disparate facts of a case. When noodling over some issue — whether it's a legal case, an essay, a math problem or a marketing strategy — people go foraging about for a unifying solution. This is not a hyper-rational, orderly process of the sort a computer might undertake. It's a meandering, largely unconscious process of trial and error.

The mind tries on different solutions to see if they fit. Ideas and insights bubble up from some hidden layer of intuitions and heuristics. Sometimes you feel yourself getting closer to a conclusion, and sometimes you feel yourself getting farther away. The emotions serve as guidance signals, like from a GPS, as you feel your way toward a solution.

Then — often while you're in the shower or after a night's sleep — the answer comes to you. You experience a fantastic rush of pleasure that feels like a million tiny magnets suddenly clicking into alignment.

Notice the transition of Brooks's subject from "the judge" to "you." He's shooting for a moment of recognition in the reader — an "oh yeah, I've felt that." At the other end of the transition, the author slips in what is likely subconscious legerdemain: "The crucial question in evaluating a potential Supreme Court justice, therefore, is not whether she relies on empathy or emotion, but how she does so." He's made us sympathetic to the process and now applies it to his specific topic so as to slip right past the significance of evidence that's already on the table, such as Sonia Sotomayor's view of legal indefiniteness, her use of the language of identity politics, and President Obama's view that "one of the roles of the courts is to protect people who don't have a voice."

Brooks's column, in short, skirts the relevant questions. He states that "Sotomayor will be a good justice if she can empathize with the many types of people and actions involved in a case," but he doesn't engage in the debate over whether that looks likely to be the case. He restates the "crucial question" in such a way as to brush aside previous attempts at an answer.He ends the piece by hearkening back to wise conservatives of yore, with the implication being that those participating in the particular current debate on the potential Supreme Court justice are drifting from those roots.

It makes a cartoon of conservatives to presuppose that we don't understand the limits of our humanity. If anything, conservatives focus on them and, as Brooks ought to know, construct our philosophies of governance around acknowledging them. In the case of the judiciary, we raise up the principle of objectivity — the rule of law — and encourage a system whereby the sides nominate judges who will strive to achieve that ideal, with some missing the mark to the left and some missing it to the right.

In the hands of "moderates," such strategies skew by virtue of their presentation. Aesthetically, modern "centrists" lean toward liberalism and so will tend to construct their obvious, nice-sounding abstractions in such a way as to elide the left's extremism while making the right's mainstream seem dogged and extreme. The end result is an expression of the truism that perfect balance and compromise is not realistic, which ultimately cedes to the liberal argument that factors outside of our shared system — be it legal, political, or social — ought to predominate.

May 30, 2009

Celebration of the Majority's Jeering

Justin Katz

Fully expecting scurrilous attacks that deliberately miss my point, I was going to put this one aside, but it nagged at me at periods throughout the day, as I constructed a client's two-flight deck stairs, so here it is: Am I alone in finding there to be something discomfiting about the Providence Journal's making this a front page story?

Hundreds of Rhode Islanders turned out on street corners Friday in opposition to the anti-gay, anti-Jewish message of a tiny group of demonstrators from Kansas. ...

Various counter-protesters chanted — "Go Home" or "Gay is the Way" — and for a short time the shouts unified in obscenities.

The Westboro Baptist Church crew is certainly deserving of jeers, but there's an aftertaste of mocking the infirm to this episode, and a belch of moral preening in making it the stuff of newspaper celebration. Is this really the sort of lesson that we want to teach our young? The Phelps family has absolutely no power but that of controversy; students and others amassing by the hundreds to oppose them is nothing if not safe (one could call it sport, even). And for their public display of the clear majority opinion in the state, they've been rewarded with just about the highest-profile reinforcement that Rhode Island has to offer.

Now, I am absolutely not saying that the counter-protesters should not have participated, and I'm not disagreeing with their general statement. What made me decide to post on this topic, however, was my total certainty that I'd have precisely the same reaction if the "tiny group of demonstrators" were of the left-wing-nut variety and the counter-protesting majority were right-leaning. Promoting such displays of force against minority viewpoints is a precarious principle, even when that minority contributes nothing to the public debate.

"We Can't Afford the Government that We Have"

Monique Chartier

So said Mayor Lombardi yesterday morning on the John DePetro Show. While the comment might also apply to our state and federal governments, in actuality, it referred to the status of the town of North Providence.

Indeed, one has to wonder what the town's options are at this point to deal with a $10 million shortfall for the fiscal year that ends next month.

It turns out that town officials have no easy way to cut expenditures by re-opening contracts, not even if they hand the town over to the state.

[Auditor General Ernest A.] Almonte told [Council President Joseph Burchfield] that state officials would have no special advantages, such as an ability to reopen contracts, if they take control of North Providence’s finances.

In recent days, Burchfield and others, including Mayor Charles A. Lombardi, have wondered if a takeover could be one way to cut spending that’s contractually protected or required by state mandates.

And they can't increase revenue enough to cover those contracts. An earlier request by the town to bust the cap and increase property taxes was nixed by the Senate.

While one sympathizes, one also has to wonder about the reasoning process that led North Providence solons, current and prior, to execute contracts that placed the town in this untenable position.

But North Korea Is Way on the Other Side of the World

Justin Katz

Someday, we'll all look back on global events in 2009 and... well, what? I'm afraid I believe that Mark Steyn offers some accurate clues:

Well, you never know: Maybe we're the ones being parochial. If you're American, it's natural to assume that the North Korean problem is about North Korea, just like the Iraq War is about Iraq. But they're not. If you're starving to death in Pyongyang, North Korea is about North Korea. For everyone else, North Korea and Iraq, and Afghanistan and Iran, are about America: American will, American purpose, American credibility. The rest of the world doesn't observe Memorial Day. But it understands the crude symbolism of a rogue nuclear test staged on the day to honor American war dead and greeted with only half-hearted pro forma diplomatese from Washington. Pyongyang's actions were "a matter of . . . " Drumroll, please! " . . . grave concern," declared the president. Furthermore, if North Korea carries on like this, it will — wait for it — "not find international acceptance." As the comedian Andy Borowitz put it, "President Obama said that the United States was prepared to respond to the threat with 'the strongest possible adjectives . . . ' Later in the day, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the North Korean nuclear test 'supercilious and jejune.' "

The president's general line on the geopolitical big picture is: I don't need this in my life right now. He's a domestic transformationalist, working overtime — via the banks, the automobile industry, health care, etc. — to advance statism's death grip on American dynamism. His principal interest in the rest of the world is that he doesn't want anyone nuking America before he's finished turning it into a socialist basket-case. This isn't simply a matter of priorities. A United States government currently borrowing 50 cents for every dollar it spends cannot afford its global role, and thus the Obama cuts to missile defense and other programs have a kind of logic: You can't be Scandinavia writ large with a U.S.-sized military.

The scary thing is that a weaker United States of America isn't going to make the world safer. It isn't even going to be a neutral development for world peace and safety.

On the bright side, global war, nuclear attacks, and even political domination might make it more plausible to develop a universal healthcare system that will last the duration of the nation.

DNA & Stem-Cell Tinkering in Science

Justin Katz

Those of us who are constitutional tinkerers (meaning our own constitutions, not the nation's) should find reason for deep concern in such news as this:

Human DNA inserted into mice caused their offspring to squeak at a different pitch, suggesting that the gene involved may be linked to people’s ability to speak.

The gene variant exists only in humans, meaning it developed after people separated evolutionarily from chimps. By inserting the gene into mice and measuring how it changed them, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, aimed to gain insight into the genetic forces that produce behavior unique to humans.

This sort of biological experiment will be extremely difficult to limit. Each step will justify the next, with the answer to the great puzzle just behind one more infinitesimal ethical compromise. Look, for instance, at this outcome, which intuitively seems peculiar in mice made a little more human (emphasis added):

In addition to the difference in squeaks, Enard and his colleagues found that the mice endowed with the human FOXP2 genes had changes in their brains. The alterations included lower levels of the chemical dopamine and longer dendrites, the branch-like projections of neurons. The mice also did less exploring of a board set up for them to wander in.

To unravel that part of the thread one can easily imagine a need to add just a few more human DNA, and as the curiosities pile up, limiting experiments to mice (rather than higher mammals) will loom as a larger and larger wall blocking answers. It's a dangerous path.

By way of contrast, this is wonderful news:

Researchers at Harvard and Advanced Cell Technology are reporting that they have been able to turn ordinary skin cells into stem cells by dousing them with the proteins made by four specific genes. The researchers were then able to turn the stem cells into mature cells of various tissues. This work is building off the discovery last year that adult cells could be reverted to embryonic stem cell-like state by integrating four specific genes that previous research had found were active in embryonic stem cells. Because the genes were added using viruses to produce these induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells researchers worried that they might have a high potential for turning cancerous.

The new breakthrough would seem to be an end run around the cancer problem.

One does wonder, of course, whether such discoveries would have been achieved had the previous administration discarded ethical concerns about killing embryos as this one has. But again, the ethical wall looms large, and it's easy for the tinkerers to imagine that the real answers to the significant mysteries lie just on the other side.

In a tinkering of a different sort, my teenage years were filled with songwriting — about twenty per year between the ages of 14 and 19 — and I recall several that came about as if by the walls to my playing. Periodically, I'd be attempting to figure out somebody else's music, plucking away at the piano looking for the accurate melody or chord structure, and my errors struck the ear pleasantly. I'd stumbled onto a musical path that the other songwriter had not taken, and the result was something different. If I'd been more talented, that something different might well have been something better.

Whether the walls are ethical, acoustical, or a matter of capability, the point is that the greater discoveries often do not lie in what appears to be the obvious direction, and where the walls have reason (such as moral principles or even mere prudence against progress for its own sake), we should not feel undue pressure to compromise their strength.

May 29, 2009

The Back Door to Silence

Justin Katz

Given the hour, perhaps this news excuses a cliché: first, they came for the Christians:

A local pastor and his wife claim they were interrogated by a San Diego County official, who then threatened them with escalating fines if they continued to hold Bible studies in their home, 10News reported.

Attorney Dean Broyles of The Western Center For Law & Policy was shocked with what happened to the pastor and his wife.

Broyles said, "The county asked, 'Do you have a regular meeting in your home?' She said, 'Yes.' 'Do you say amen?' 'Yes.' 'Do you pray?' 'Yes.' 'Do you say praise the Lord?' 'Yes.'"

The county employee notified the couple that the small Bible study, with an average of 15 people attending, was in violation of County regulations, according to Broyles.

Broyles differentiates between these meetings and religious assemblies, and in so doing, he may be highlighting a path to oppression of which citizens should be aware:

"For churches and religious assemblies there's big parking concerns, there's environmental impact concerns when you have hundreds or thousands of people gathering. But this is a different situation, and we believe that the application of the religious assembly principles to this Bible study is certainly misplaced," said Broyles.

Obviously, large-group concerns apply regardless of the topic inspiring assemblage. A political rally, for example, could create parking problems and affect the environment just as well; translate this story to that context, and overly enthusiastic government administrators could effectively strangle grassroots opposition groups before they've begun.

(via Hit & Run)

BREAKING: Mixed Victory for the Moderate Party

Justin Katz

I'm hearing that the Moderate Party had a mixed victory in district court today. The petition minimum of 5% of the previous election's winning vote total (for governor or president) still stands, but the late start date is unconstitutional.

So, the Moderate Party (for case in point) will still have to collect some tens of thousands of signatures, but it can begin doing so right away.

The Differences in Barrington

Justin Katz

So why did Barrington buck the school-budget-cutting trend? I'd say that there are three factors, the most important of which being the track record of the schools themselves.

As Andrew illustrated yesterday, Barrington's schools are arguably the best in Rhode Island. Of course, as even the union will argue when it suits its purposes, it's very difficult to tease those results apart from demographics, but one can make some interesting observations about spending. First of all, the district's per-student spending on teachers is relatively low; a spreadsheet that I've developed over time places the town as 23rd in the state for this measure. Indeed, Barrington's per student spending on just about everything is relatively low.

One other curiosity is the structure of the town's steps. For the 2007-2008 school year, the town was seventh from the top in pay for its highest step, but eight from the bottom in average step. Plotting all of the state's step structures on a line graph (covering the 2008-2009 school year) illustrates why:

Barrington doesn't escape the middle and back of the pack, in teacher pay, until the upper steps. The town also has relatively high longevity and higher-degree bonuses. In other words, one could surmise that the Barrington school district strains within the very narrow limits of the union step structure to reward desired behavior. It ain't a merit system, but it has some related features.

The second factor that I would note as explanation for the results of Barrington's financial town meeting is probably less consequential, but related. It's a relatively wealthy suburb, especially compared with some of the more politically heated towns in the news lately.

The third factor — once again related and once again of less significance — is that the taxpayer group formation in Barrington is tied, in its inchoate form, to property revaluations, especially on higher-end homes. The currently active (as opposed to potential) constituency is not as broad as with, say, Tiverton Citizens for Change, which has resulted from a mix of working-class and fixed-income ire, general response to suspicious political games at last year's financial town meeting, and (yes) property-tax concerns.

It isn't my intention to offer opinion on the Barrington voters' action, the other night, or to suggest a direction in which the town should head. Among the things that I love about Rhode Island, however, and among the reasons I'm hesitant to jump on the regionalization bandwagon, is that one really can look around at each municipality as a self-contained segment of the statewide experiment.

School Department Positions in South Kingstown

Carroll Andrew Morse

In a South County Independent letter to the editor, town resident Edward Collins presents the kind of statistic that raises eyebrows with regards to arguments that escalating public education costs are somehow inevitable…

In 2001 there were 519 people working for the school system serving 4,400 students. Over the last 10 years we’ve served 900 fewer students yet there are currently 590 people employed in the system.
71 seems like an awfully large number of new positions added, especially post-dot-com revenue boom.

Mr. Collins makes a private sector comparison to highlight the apparent inefficiency, but I think a more direct question is applicable to this situation: what is the South Kingston school system doing better now than it was doing in 2001, as the result of adding 71 new positions?

As the 80's Rock Band Asia Almost Once Said: Your Inconsistency, It Really Comes as No Surprise…

Carroll Andrew Morse

Here is the core of Miss California Carrie Prejean's now-famous statement of her position on gay marriage…

I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman.
And here is one of President Barack Obama's statements of his position on gay marriage, this one from an interview by the Reverend Rick Warren…
I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman.
For holding this position on gay marriage, Pat Crowley of Rhode Island's Future argues that Miss Prejean and President Obama (and former Warwick City Councilman Robert Cushman) should be considered "bigoted primadonas" (sic)…
Time was, considering people lesser beings, not entitled to the same legal protections as others, would rightly award you the moniker of bigot…NO MORE! Now, thanks to Mr. Cushman and the others that rose to the defense of Ms Prejean she wasn’t being bigoted at al…she was simply willing to speak her mind…and how American is that?...

So speaking you mind is courageous, but telling the person who speaks their mind they are a bigoted primadona who is using their platform to confirm their own superiority and reinforced the inferiority of others, well, that is unpatriotic.

Oh wait, Mr. Crowley doesn't include President Obama on his list of bigots. Or does he? Maybe at some point he'll clarify.


Commenter "Twisting the point" notes that Robert Cushman's op-ed is a viewpoint-neutral argument about the importance of "having the courage to speak our minds and stand up for what we believe" (Cushman's words), and takes no position one way or the other on gay marriage. So it's only Ms. Prejean and President Obama -- if this is about actual positions -- who are characterized as bigoted primadonas (sic) for disagreeing with Mr. Crowley on gay marriage.

Mr. Cushman stands accused only of questioning people's patriotism.

Legislators Making Up Taxes as They Go

Justin Katz

One must laugh out loud, if only to keep from crying. Here go Rhode Island legislators toying with making tax code more complicated and less beneficial to taxpaying corporations, with a tinge of state tinkering with the shape of the economy (i.e., what sorts of businesses it rewards):

Current law generally allows the tax break only if a business creates jobs that pay at least $11 an hour or so (about $22,900 or so a year, based on a 40-hour workweek).

The proposed legislation would allow the break only if a business creates jobs that pay at least $18.50 an hour or so (about $38,500 a year).

State Rep. Steven M. Costantino, D-Providence, chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee, and chief sponsor of the bill (H 6164), said, "I think we all want [more] jobs. But in order to get a credit, I think you have to have a higher threshold."

Businesses would continue to be free to create jobs at various pay levels, Costantino stressed.

But in order to claim the tax break, they would have to create jobs that pay more money than the law currently requires — and also carry health insurance and retirement benefits, according to the bill.

And yet:

The state thus far has not studied in detail the benefits that the job-creation or other such tax breaks provide to the state, cities and towns, such as tax payments made by the job holders or other economic benefits.

As far as I can tell, there's not even any sort of governing philosophy behind vague expectations about what the actual results of such legislation will be. That is, legislators don't even appear to consider whether, in broad terms, more companies will benefit, fewer will benefit, more will create jobs, or fewer will create the jobs that apply to their business models (because they don't qualify for incentives).

Of course, the whole issue is colored by the fact that this tax break is largely enjoyed by a single company — CVS. That being the case, the General Assembly should just make things simpler and boost business activity period by lowering the taxes and trimming the fees, regulations, and mandates on people and organizations that contribute to Rhode Island's economy.

May 28, 2009

Carcieri's Nominee for Chief Justice

Monique Chartier

... lacks a high powered lobbyist spouse.

From the ProJo's 7 to 7 News Blog.

Governor Carcieri nominated Supreme Court Justice Paul A. Suttell Thursday to be the next chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The nomination requires the confirmation of the state House of Representatives and the state Senate. If confirmed, Justice Suttell will fill the vacancy that was created by the retirement of Chief Justice Frank Williams.

Elected Official Performance Numbers from Brown (and the Justin Katz Senate Thesis)

Carroll Andrew Morse

If you aggregate the elected official job-performance results from Brown University's May 18-20 Survey of registered Rhode Island voters into "favorable" categories of excellent and good, and "unfavorable" categories of fair and poor, a few interesting trends emerge...

  1. Governor Donald Carcieri would have a hard time getting elected to a third term (if he were eligible) with a 36%/59% split in the "favorable" versus "unfavorable" categories.
  2. Outside-of-the-Democratic party conventional wisdom has tended towards viewing Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts as having very little shot at becoming Governor, while at least some insiders regard her as a serious contender. The poll numbers seem to support the outside-of-the-party view, with a 22%/36% disadvantage for the Lieutenant Governor in the "favorable" versus "unfavorable" job-ratings. In sharp contrast, both General Treasurer Frank Caprio (41%/24%) and Attorney General Patrick Lynch (47%/39%) have a substantial advantage in their "favorable" categories. Lieutenant Governor Roberts does have more undecideds to work with than the others.
  3. Amongst respondents who have an opinion about him, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is dead-even in the "favorable" versus "unfavorable" categories, 43%/43%. For an incumbent Rhode Island Senator, that is a surprisingly poor split -- perhaps Justin's rationale for voting for Senator Whitehouse is already starting to manifest itself!

RI Educational Data, Courtesy of the Town of Barrington

Carroll Andrew Morse

Here is some of the information, provided to the public at last night's financial town meeting in Barrington, regarding various aspects of public education in Rhode Island cities and towns...




Now It's "Indefinite" Judicial Empathy

Justin Katz

If, like me, you've mainly viewed Sonia Sotomayor as a sort of Hispanic-hued less-undangerous-than-you'd-like nominee for Supreme Court, Ed Whelan might push you over the edge to full opposition:

Sotomayor complains that "the public fails to appreciate the importance of indefiniteness in the law." But beyond pointing out the uncontroversial fact that some indefiniteness is inevitable (for reasons (a), (b), and (d) in point 1), she nowhere makes the case that indefiniteness is somehow a positive good. She relies heavily on Jerome Frank's legal realist views about the development of law, but nowhere explains why legislatures aren't the proper forum for (to use Frank's phrase) "adapting [law] to the realities of ever-changing social, industrial, and political conditions."

Jurists like Sotomayor are transforming the law from a set of rules by which a society agrees to live into a philosophy decipherable only by an elite class of robed seers. And with a political bias.

Another Sign of a Coarsening Culture?

Justin Katz

As Americans accede to the concerted push to break down our mores and cultural definitions, we shouldn't be surprised if there's an increase in this sort of double-take news items:

Two men and a woman, ages 18, 19 and 20, have been indicted for allegedly raping a fellow University of Rhode Island student on campus on Sept. 14.

There are no details about the incident, although another report pinpoints the alleged victim as a female. Whatever the case, it should shock our sensibilities to see a young woman among the indicted — not out of some false notion of womanly purity (or weakness), but as evidence that something more fundamental may be slipping that male animalism cannot explain.

Even given the negative reversal, I can already hear the indignation of those who fetishize an unconsidered vision of equality: Why shouldn't women be just as violent and just as inclined toward sexual abuse? Gender is a construct, don't you know.

May 27, 2009

The Barrington FTM

Carroll Andrew Morse

Bottom line: An approximately 850,000 dollar school budget increase, over what the appropriations committee recommended, passes by a vote of 569-323.

Good evening from the town of Barrington. Voting on several budget resolutions is about to begin...

Two non-controversial "housekeeping" items have so far passed.

300,000 from an unbuilt wind turbine was just moved to the general fund.

Next vote: 3 million to remediate and cap the town's landfills. Resident wants to know if it has to be done this year. Another resident: Is there a real economic benefit to doing this this year? TM believes delay would create financial hardship.

First voice vote tie occurs. Landfill money passes on a stand-up vote.

A million dollars for school roofs passes almost unanimously on a voice vote.

Another million for sidewalk repair passes easily on a voice vote.

Next item: "emergency notes to fund emergency appropriations". Resident wants to know what constitutes an emergency. TM says if we could predict emergencies, we wouldn't have them. Resident not amused by that answer. TM gives example of a sewer that exploded recently. Another official points out a formal procedure for declaring an emergency is contained in the resolution.

Resident proposes a 5 million dollar cap on the emergency note amount. Voice vote tie; amendment fails on a stand-up vote. Overall emergency note item passes on a voice vote.

Resident requests an explanation of the next item, tax-anticipation notes. Finance director explains they are used to cover gaps that occur because of the collection schedule. Also adds that they've never been used. Item passes on a voice vote.

Here comes the school budget. Appropriations Commitee is recommending a 2.21% increase, about 900,000 dollars. That's about half of what the school's management requested. Appropriations Committee hopes that the school system and the teachers union will be able to "renegotiate" a salary structure that will fit into the budget.

Residents now get to offer motions to change the bottom line.

First motion by resident: increase the budget by about 850,000, none of it to go to administrators. Praise for the Barrington schools from the resident and from a school committee member. Another resident objects, citing step increase + annual raises that exceed 5% or more.

Some detailed discussion about specific line items regarding supplies, aides and bus monitors.

Another resident is proud of the Barrington schools, but doesn't believe that the system is so fragile that it cannot survive one year of belt-tightening.

Senator David Bates says that the state is down 70 million for this year alone, based on the May revenue estimating conference. That could impact how much money is received from the state.

Resident asks for examples of belt-tightening that have already occurred. 4 positions were elimated last year.

Resident reads a letter from a retired school teacher, who thinks that the union should negotiate a freeze to get through this budget year, without the additional budget increase.

Resident discusses the macro global economic situation; with social security frozen and 401(k)s tanking, it's not fair to ask taxpayers to fund other people's pay increase.

Resident speaks in favor of increase -- Barrington should pay its teachers well enough so they can live in the town.

Another resident is embarrassed that teachers are paid as low as they are, from a societal standpoint. And is Barrington going to approve 1 million dollars for potholes, but not for the children?

Resident speaks who says he supports teachers, but is concerned that the compensation structure for teachers is top-heavy.

Resident (and state employee) cannot support a budget increase, when so much of the budget goes to salaries and benefits.

Resident argues that the budget needs to be increased, because the Paiva-Weed cap means that future year increases will depend on the baseline that is established this year.

Resident raises concern about pension spiking.

Resident thanks school committee for doing a thankless job under tough conditions.

Resident asks if money from the state or the feds is somehow found, after the budget is approved, will the tax-rate go down? The answer from the finance director is basically no.

Last speaker has spoken. It's time to vote; we're going right to a stand-up vote, counting person-by-person...

Motion passes 569-323. We move now to an additional increase motion, to restore the adminstrator salary increases.

School committee recommends against. Motion fails by voice vote.

Empathy Up and Down, but Not All Around

Justin Katz

A week or so ago, I put forward as an example of "judicial empathy" the case of Paul Kelly, whose house has been inhabited by somebody else for almost two years with the permission of RI Superior Court Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson, but not of the homeowner. Thomas Sowell provides another example related to U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor:

Nothing demonstrates the fatal dangers from judicial "empathy" more than Judge Sotomayor's decision in a 2008 case involving firemen who took an exam for promotion. After the racial mix of those who passed that test turned out to be predominantly white, with only a few blacks and Hispanics, the results were thrown out.

When this action by the local civil-service authorities was taken to court and eventually reached the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Sotomayor did not give the case even the courtesy of a spelling out of the issues. She backed those who threw out the test results. Apparently she didn't have "empathy" with those predominantly white males who had been cheated out of promotions they had earned.

The mechanisms in play are significantly different between the two cases, but mechanisms can be mere means to a priori ends when the issue of identity groups and subjective definitions of "equality" are imposed as higher principles. As Sowell suggests, though the Left may scream extremism at those who worry about these trends, it would be foolish not to throw down markers along this dangerous path to totalitarianism.

What Happens After One Side Withdraws From a Truce?

Carroll Andrew Morse

North Korea has announced it is withdrawing from the truce that, at least in practical terms, ended the Korean War…

North Korea threatened to attack South Korea one day after Seoul announced that it would join a U.S.-led naval exercise, aimed at intercepting any shipments suspected of carrying materials used in the making of weapons of mass destruction....The government also proclaimed that the North would no longer honor the North-South armistice signed at the end of the Korean War.
What happens next will be determined, in significant measure, by the facts that 1) the United States currently led by a President who fancies himself a liberal internationalist and 2) we are moving headlong into the kind of situation where the weaknesses of liberal internationalism are most exposed, i.e. what happens when one nation decides it doesn't want to honor its negotiated agreements, and that it has no interest in living in harmony with the rest of the "community of nations"?

The North Koreans are gambling that, despite its unsolved problems, the Obama administration will stay committed to a minimal-action, liberal internationalist ideology.

Airport Expansion Details

Carroll Andrew Morse

Paul Edward Parker's story in today's Projo on the Green Airport runaway expansion and the very good accompanying map mention only the expansion to the Southwest that will force a relocation of Main Avenue (Route 113) in Warwick. Only 11 homes will be required to move, but a number of others will be close to new runway lights and/or within a loud engine-noise area.

However, Dan Jaehnig's story from WJAR-TV (NBC 10), as well as the environmental impact statement available from the Projo website, mention a second phase of the expansion, where the section of Airport road that intersects with Post Road (near the old Ann & Hope, to give the location in the traditional Rhode Island way) will also be relocated, not as much as some of the other proposals had called for, but still forcing a number of businesses to move.

As best as I can tell from the Channel 10 story, Republican headquarters in Warwick will not get bulldozed as part of the current expansion plan. At least not in the construction-industry sense.

Business Models, Blog Style

Justin Katz

Ted Nesi's got a good story on the "business" of blogging in the current Providence Business News. One thing that didn't quite make the transition from my conversation with him to the printed word is the significance of the ethos of blogging.

In a word, if something comes of this, great; if not, well, we've got lives. If this were to become a (more) profitable enterprise, that'd be wonderful, but an advanced business model following traditional design would tend to shift the focus. Just as bloggers have been doing something new with media itself, they're bringing a different emphasis to the business of media.

That has yet to translate into careers for all but a handful of the extremely successful among us, but to the degree that the business model of blogging isn't but so "advanced," it's because a developed model would be something new — something that hasn't been invented yet. When it has, I suspect, first, that it will seem obvious in retrospect, and second, that it will help to revive the news and information industry.

Using the Same Story Everywhere to Push for Budgets

Justin Katz

There's a familiar sound to status-quo argumentation that Matt Welch's highlights among those who lament that "petulant voters failed to heed the weary wisdom of their betters" in California:

Calfornia lawmakers, and the unions who put them into office, will do everything in their power to cut services first, employees last. That is indeed a crucial reason why we got here in the first place. Any analysis that doesn't explore how a higher-than-inflation-plus-immigration budget has failed to deliver on any increase in services, is not an analysis worth taking more seriously than common propaganda.

When special interests are done soaking up new money, the not-so-paradoxical result seems to be even less money for such basic government functions as infrastructure. And whether the government in question is local or state, the repeated talking points hardly stand up to a moment's display of reality:

California companies would then find it harder to attract high-value employees who might be dubious about moving to a state with sub-par schools. Here is the fundamental point behind every California budget story: The state has increased spending on K-12 education by 40 percent under Schwarzenegger (it has to; by dumb law, 40 cents on every state dollar has to go to education). The main drain on the California economy is that these massive increases in spending are producing ZERO noticeable improvements. Because the union-run school districts are infamous laboratories for inefficiency, job protection, and corruption, the state spends and spends, with nothing to show for it. Teachers unions are literally running out of other people's money, and now they warn us about "sub-par schools"? That par got done subbed a long time ago. If politicians, journalists, and other "experts" want to defend the status quo (of constant spending increases), then they need to explain why Californians need to keep throwing more and more good money after bad on a K-12 system that is showing no results.

(via Instapundut)

May 26, 2009

The Real Discussion Happens in the Dark

Justin Katz

A pre-meeting executive session has occupied the Tiverton School Committee for the past hour and fifteen minutes. About twenty minutes ago, Chairman Jan Bergandy and Vice Chairwoman Sally Black stepped into the auditorium to announce that a discussion of legal issues related to the budget would delay them for another fifteen.

Although my reader-funded high-speed Internet makes my entire office essentially mobile, I do wonder whether there ought to be some sort of start-time clause in public meeting laws.

I'll admit that it was kinda neat to sit in an empty auditorium for forty-five minutes. (The teachers who are no in the room with me were hanging out in the lobby area.) Pleasant memories of practicing piano in a mostly dark auditorium during study hall seventeen years ago.

And here comes the committee...

8:30 p.m.

The budget discussion has begun with the pivotal nature of state and federal aid. Supt. Bill Rearick suggested that everything is speculative until those numbers are in. (Of course, he was a bit less circumspect when telling the Sakonnet Times that children are going to be hurt.

8:37 p.m.

About eight of the 24 or so teachers in the room left when the agenda moved on from the budget to the district's strategic plan. Just sayin'.

8:54 p.m.

And that's it. Short meeting... once the waiting was over. Of all of these meetings that I've attended, this was by far the most promotional of the students' activities. That's a good thing, and prudent, too, given the realities of budget formation. For one thing, it shows an increased appreciation for the importance of bringing the community into the various processes.

The next step should be to find ways to increase the percentage of per-student spending that goes toward such activities.

Quotes from Judge Sotomayor

Carroll Andrew Morse

This Sonia Sotomayor quote from a 2001 lecture at the Berkeley School of Law has been getting a lot of attention…

I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.
…but as Peter Kirsanow has pointed out at National Review Online, an earlier section of the same lecture is potentially more troubling…
Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging.
It will certainly be fair game to ask Judge Sotomayor to expand on what kinds of national-origin based physiological differences she believes are relevant to performing the duties of a judge.

Civilization as the Imposition of Tastes

Justin Katz

John Rosemond offers a reminder that surprises most especially in the degree to which it reads as revolutionary:

A child, lacking farsightedness, does not know how to govern himself. He does not know what is in his best interest. He is apt to prefer that which is bad for him and reject that which is good for him. Thus, he would rather drink a soda than a glass of water, eat a bowl of ice cream than a helping of broccoli, play video games than do chores, stay up than go to bed at a decent hour, disobey than obey, and so on. His parents and teachers must provide the restraint and direction he cannot provide himself.

To be sure, one can trace this problem beyond the bounds of adolescence. Rosemond quotes Flannery O'Connor's insight that a student's "taste should not be consulted; it is being formed." The reason our society has lost this proper sense, I'd suggest, is that adults do not wish to admit cultural claims against their less refined tastes; if a society has no grounds to impose behavior on adults, then adults have scarcely more grounds to impose behavior on children.

And various powers — from government, to the entertainment industry, to promoters of certain ideological flavors — have found it to be in their interest to encourage disregard for cultural refinement. After all, those not guided by a transgenerational consensus on standards for quality and etiquette will be guided by simpler lures.

1/4 to 1/3 of RI Legislators Linked to Local Government

Marc Comtois

Russell J. Moore at the Warwick Beacon reports:

A Beacon survey of the Rhode Island Government Owner’s Manual found that 30 of the legislature’s 113 members are either employed or retired from one of the state’s municipalities, or serve as business agents for a union that represents those employees. That means 26.5 percent of the legislators have careers tied into local government.

Those counted in the survey have careers ranging from teachers, social workers, police officers, firefighters, union business agents, to a town solicitor. Those numbers do not reflect the number of legislators who had spouses employed by local communities....Bill Felkner, of the Ocean State Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank in Rhode Island, compiled his own statistics using the financial disclosure forms from 2007—the latest available.

In his analysis, Felkner found that during the 2007 legislative session, there were 42 legislators (37 percent of the House and Senate combined) that derived income from local governments. Those numbers did include spouses of the legislators, whereas the survey using the R.I. Government Owners Manual does not.

No one is really surprised. Hey, it's a "who you know" state. It's a nice perk to have an "in" somewhere. Especially when BC/BS and a pension come with it! Further:
Felkner said he’s skeptical the legislature will reform the pension plan to protect taxpayers, given the fact that so many of them receive, or are scheduled to receive one. After all, the union motto is ‘solidarity’, he points out.

“It just seems to me that there’s this mindset of people in government to not want to give anything up,” said Felkner.

“And let’s face it, technically they all have a conflict because as legislators they’re slated to receive a pension from the state.”

When the Supplemental Budget was passed last month, mayors and town managers throughout the state complained that they received few, if any, of the management tools necessary to give taxpayer’s relief.

Harriet Llyod, the Vice President of Communications for the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition (RISC), a civic group oriented towards ethics and fiscal reform, said it’s easy to see why. There is far too much public sector union control in the General Assembly, she said.

“The problem is insidious,” said Llyod. “And it’s even worse because it’s not just these individuals and their spouses in the legislature who are tied into local governments. It’s sons, daughters, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and cousins.”

Emulating the Airbrushed

Justin Katz

Although it's really tangential to the main subject of the article (which is the effect of high-tech communications on real relationships), this quotation hits some notes that have been a minor theme, of late:

"TWO HUNDRED FIFTY years ago," [Saint Joseph’s University social ethics professor James] Caccamo says, "our role models would have been people close to us. We would have imitated the wise in our communities, and probably could have attained what they had. Today, we have so many images of vast wealth, power, and bodily perfection at our fingertips and in the media, and none of them are anything we could ever attain. Our lives simply pale in comparison. How could they not?

"Because we are inundated with the unattainable, lust and envy have become our daily companions. Because we expect rapid change, frustration and impatient anger have become part of our normal social discourse. This has not made our lives better. Relationships still take time, and spiritual development is still a lifelong process."

Lust and envy certainly come into play, but the more potent emotion, I'd say, is insecurity. Coveting implies the ability to take or claim, but I suspect that it's more broadly the case that average folks feel deep down that they simply aren't good enough to live up to the impossible images. Consumerism, however, provides a pressure valve in the form of "unless": unless I take these pills, buy this exercise machine, wear these clothes, have that car.

Information technology can emerge as one more example, granting new powers to those who master it — cloaking actual qualities prominent among them. Of course, by lowering costs and democratizing tools, IT also opens legitimate paths toward true achievement — whether we're talking the ease of desktop publishing, the ready availability of multimedia production programs, or the empowerment of online communications. It takes constant vigilance, however, to determine whether we remain on a path toward real-life goals or are drifting into virtual isolation in a cyber-cavernous echo chamber.

Obama Selects Sonia Sotomayor for Supreme Court

Carroll Andrew Morse

So says the Associated Press...

U.S. President Barack Obama tapped U.S. Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court on Tuesday, officials said, making her the first Hispanic in history picked to wear the robes of a justice.


This is from a Sotomayor supporter, interviewed by Jeffrey Rosen in the New Republic...

She's a fine Second Circuit judge--maybe not the smartest ever, but how often are Supreme Court nominees the smartest ever?
Memories of G. Harrold Carswell, anyone?


Three quick bullets out of the AP story...

  • "In one of Sotomayor's most notable decisions, as an appellate judge she sided last year with the city of New Haven, Conn., in a discrimination case brought by white firefighters. The city threw out results of a promotion exam because too few minorities scored high enough."
  • "As a federal appeals court judge in 2002, Sotomayor ruled against an abortion rights group that had challenged a government policy prohibiting foreign organizations receiving U.S. funds from performing or supporting abortions.
  • (On a bit of a lighter note) "In one of her most memorable rulings as federal district judge, Sotomayor essentially salvaged baseball in 1995, ruling with players over owners in a labor strike that had led to the cancellation of the World Series."

The Environment Enables the Camel's Nose in the Tent

Justin Katz

Casual attendees at local government meetings might on occasion be stunned by the utter lack of discomfort among officials about using children to advance environmentalist principles. As with much else, the English are blazing the path to the next step down:

Children as young as seven are being recruited by councils to act as 'citizen snoopers', the Daily Mail can reveal.

The 'environment volunteers' will report on litter louts, noisy neighbours - and even families putting their rubbish out on the wrong day.

There are currently almost 9,000 people signed up to the schemes. More are likely to be recruited in the coming months.

Controversially, some councils are running 'junior' schemes which are recruiting children. ...

Luton Borough Council's Street Seen scheme encourages its 650 volunteers to report 'environmental concerns'. It is also recruiting 'Junior Street Champions', aged between seven and 11.

Primary schools could also be involved within two years.

It's one thing to train interested citizens to take relevant notes about such crimes as prostitution and drug deals, but leveraging public schools to enlist the help of children is a dangerous innovation. We've already seen decades of child-focused propaganda on environmental issues, and that's certainly had an effect on the habits of American families. Recruiting the kids to snitch on hold-outs should inflame such concerns as are mildly evoked by the phrase "government schools."

May 25, 2009

It's Definite: President Obama Will Not Prosecute Members of Bush Admin for "Torture" Crimes

Monique Chartier

So reports Newsweek's Michael Isikoff in a fascinating article posted last Thursday. (H/T Newsbusters.) The decision was announced during an off-the-record meeting that President Obama held last Wednesday with some disgruntled supporters.

Administration officials organized the session just a few days [prior], summoning the leaders of groups such as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU, as well as several liberal law professors. As a sign of how seriously the White House took the matter, just about all of Obama's senior staff were there, including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, White House counsel Gregory Craig, senior adviser David Axelrod and [Attorney General Eric] Holder.

* * *

It was at that point, toward the end of the meeting, that one attendee raised the idea of criminal prosecution of at least one Bush-era official, if only as a symbolic gesture. Obama dismissed the idea, several of those in attendance said, making it clear that he had no interest in such an investigation. Holder—whose department is supposed to make the call on criminal prosecutions—reportedly said nothing.

The other fascinating aspect if this is the silence by the mainstream media. Where are the headlines, the blaring chyrons, the brisk debates among talking heads about this significant development? NewsBusters P.J. Gladnick theorizes that they are, essentially, covering up for the president.

And Rachel Maddow has provided us with another reason why there has been almost no coverage of this meeting in the MSM. Because it would show Obama's deceptiveness. Saying the matter of prosecutions were up to the Attorney General in public while in private making the decision to cut them off.

* * *

So it is fascinating to once again see a story being widely discussed in the Blogosphere while being almost completely ignored in the MSM. Obama saying one thing in public and quite another in private. And that is why the mainstream media is reluctant to report on it.

There is no doubt a reluctance on their part to show the president in a bad light, though I would disagree with P.J.'s characterization of the President's actions; i.e., the negative quality that the press is not anxious to expose. Rather than "deceptiveness", it would be more accurate to say "propensity to make decisions in excess haste and without thinking things through".

His handling of this matter is a good example. He released the four memos about post-911 enhanced interrogations and announced his intention to prosecute almost fliply and as a political reflex. However, after some reflection - upon the participants' motives? upon the implications for national security? upon the potential political blowback to members of his own party? - he has reached a more prudent conclusion. For this, he is to be applauded.


Carroll Andrew Morse


From Mineral Spring Avenue, North Providence, Rhode Island, May 2009.


Marc Comtois

I've spent the last week training members of the U.S. Navy down in Norfolk, VA. Their dedication and can-do attitude is a refreshing reminder of the best that this country has to offer: her young men and women. Thus has it always been and will, thank God, continue to be. So take some time this weekend to thank those who serve our country and to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. May God bless them and their families.


May 24, 2009

The Binary Option of Hero or Schmo

Justin Katz

It may be that a partial explanation for this ...

Furthermore, "It was not manly to put a lot of time and effort into academics," said Edwards. It's not cool to study, to read the book: "Sometimes it's not cool to even buy the book. But you've got to ace the test. You've got to make the grade," continued Edwards, who described male students studying on the sly, telling their buddies they were spending the evening with their girlfriends and then hitting the books instead. "The script to be a manly man means you're good at everything and you don't have to work at it," he explained.

... may be found in my observation that our society seems increasingly to insist that all heroes be superheroes, often on top of being counter-cultural antiheroes. It's not that there are no role models so much as that those who are available are inadequate to the promoted ideals, and that the promoted ideals are increasingly narrow in variety.

We see the chiseled actors and shapely actresses, but we too seldom recall that being fit and attractive is a large component of their job. We see the natural ease with which characters have mastered impossible bodies of knowledge and limitless mechanical knacks, but we miss the indications that it is all an illusion created by teams of researchers and writers.

In the case of college men, I'd suggest that these factors intermix with the long-running vilification of males in such a way as to make an ordinary fellow feel suspect. They must either transcend the rules or be mired in the original sin of their own masculinity within them. That the researchers in the first link above suggest that all students be subjected to a course in women's studies shows how terribly little they understand about their subjects.

One initial stage of a remedy for a multitude of societal problems would be to stop pushing all young adults into college as if it must be an extension of high school. Let the kids work for a few years, routing about in our civilization for a broader sense of the possibilities, both for career and for identity. Those who then return to higher education will be more confident and better oriented toward their purpose.

Of course, they'll also be less easily manipulable, which may be an objection in some quarters.

(via Instapundit)

Honesty in Torture

Justin Katz

Among the many topics that I regret having had insufficient time in my schedule to address appropriately is torture (and I'm not claiming this post to constitute all that I'd like to say about it). Frankly, I've been torn, and I view with suspicion anybody who believes that the debate, as it's been cast, is an obvious call. Torture is wrong, clearly, but the very question at issue is what constitutes torture.

There are extremes about which we can agree. Scourging, torture; refusing to provide arugula (whatever that is), not torture. The line, though, is inherently subjective, and if we're to discuss it, we've got to be honest about the specific act about which we're talking.

For my part, superficial as it may seem, when I think of torture, I think of the scene in Lethal Weapon that begins at 13:20 of this video. The famous quotation sums up the dividing line: "Endo, here, has forgotten more about dispensing pain than you and I will ever know." (I've always thought that to be a dumb way to phrase a threat, by the way. If the measure is what Endo has forgotten, then it's quite possible that he's forgotten enough to be just about harmless.) The idea is that mounting pain will bring the torture to an end, even if that end is a quick, painless death.

On the other side of the line, my subjective take is colored by having been a fraternity pledge. Sleep deprivation. Subjection to disagreeable, repeated, and very loud music. Being made to swallow live goldfish whole. Unless we're to define torture to absurdity, these practices do not suffice. (Indeed, all but the last are as readily applicable to parenthood.)

If we attribute even a minimal sincerity to the sides on this issue, it's clear that waterboarding resides somewhere very near the natural line of torture/non-torture for our society. In contrast to the electroshocks and salt rubbed in wounds in the Lethal Weapon scene, waterboarding as performed by American agents was not a means of inflicting pain, but of triggering a reflex. Implemented as approved, it leveraged discomfort and instinctive fear in a controlled environment.

The topic comes up, now, because the Left is delighted to have video of conservative shock jock Erich "Mancow" Mullen succumbing within seconds to waterboarding and declaring it to have been torture. If we're to be specific, however, it's debatable whether this was the version of waterboarding used during U.S. interrogations; the "interrogator" covered Mancow's nose with a wet cloth and then proceeded to pour water into his open mouth. Large amounts of water, therefore, likely filled his nasal cavity, which resulted in the quick cave.

This video better captures the procedure, as I understand it. Do your best to put aside circumstances; Mancow was in a brightly lit office building surrounded by friends during his popular radio show, while Kaj Larsen subjected himself to the broader experience of hostile interrogation, including the jumpsuit, the dark basement, the masked perpetrators, and the isolation from other people.

Mr. Larsen's experience does look, as he says with a laugh toward the end of the video, as if it "sucked." The wet cloth covered his nose and mouth, for a slower build-up of moisture. A second "interrogator" put pressure on his abdomen, and the scene was performed with a much more hostile, desperate tenor, with banging canteens and such. It's certainly not a pleasant experience, but it probably wasn't only his comparative softness that led Mancow to surrender more quickly. In Larsen's video, one gains better context for the actuality of being waterboarded 183 times, if (as I understand to have been the case) each application of the towel, even if only for a second, counts as one.

So, is this torture? Is it a sin that cries out to God? I can't say that I think it is. It's immoral, surely, at least inasmuch as it objectifies the subject. I would not perform it, and I would not ask that somebody else do it on my behalf. But does this specific procedure surpass the line across which we must forbid it even among those who believe it to be necessary? Those who have the burden of security for millions of their countrymen? I'm not so sure. Does it so clearly cross that line as to justify retroactive prosecution of those who approved it? No.

Let's be honest, too, about the impetus for the continuing outrage, even as the technique — this worst of the batch — has ceased to be used. It's a political cudgel and opportunity to express an unhealthy hostility toward a hated President and loathed cultural class. Consider this comment on RI Future from Matt D, in response to a conservative commenter's offer to be waterboarded:

Hopefully it's either Carcieri, Watson or Trillo all right wing whackjobs. Even DePetro or Yorke would do also, maybe we'll get lucky and whoever it is will drown and we'll have one less of these idiots. Sign me up for front row......

There's a contingent, in this country, for whom it is a far greater affront to hold conflicting political beliefs (well within the republican democratic mold) than to threaten and pursue genocide against their fellow Americans.

May 23, 2009

Iran: Quick Electoral Update and a (Nuclear) Question

Monique Chartier

Did you know Iran has an election coming up on June 12? It's amazing the things you learn sitting in a coffee shop, browsing electronic headlines and pretending to be an intellectual. (Drinking your coffee black enhances the illusion image.)

Iran's elections have a history of surprises, with unknown candidates suddenly ending as victors. [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's challengers are backed by a coalition of prominent Muslim clerics and veteran Iranian politicians who oppose Ahmadinejad's policies both at home and abroad, turning this election into an unusually stark confrontation between two political factions with opposing views of the future of Iran.

Ahmadinejad's main challengers advocate better relations with the United States. They promise to ensure that Iran's nuclear program will have strictly peaceful purposes, and they say the Holocaust should not be an issue in Iranian politics.

In fact, on the subject of Israel, one opponent put forward this bit of concise reasoning.

"Ahmadinejad's comments on the Holocaust were a great service to Israel," Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric and the most outspoken opposition candidate, told a group of students in April. "What has happened that we now have to support Hitler?"

Indeed, an excellent question.

Even if President Ahmadinejad's most "dove-like" opponent prevails in June, there is, of course, no guarantee that Iran's nuclear program will remain devoted to the benign generation of energy. This is not a personal criticism of any candidate. One thing that politicians around the world seem to have in common is the apparent difficulty of enacting all promises made on the campaign trail. This leads to the question, which pops into my head every time a commentator advocates, usually with some urgency, that the nuclear programs of both North Korea and Iran be stopped.

Short of the serious territorial breach, reportedly contemplated by Israel against Iran, of bunker busting bombs propelled by either planes or missiles, how do we accomplish this?

Cash diplomacy has been referenced in another comment thread. But this is complicated by issues of sanity: in the first instance, an actual madman; in the second, someone prepared to act like a madman for puposes of domestic politics. In short, the US could not count on the bribee staying bribed.

The dangers of such a situation are difficult to argue away and only more so with the missile launch Wednesday. The bigger issue is, how do we disassemble it without resorting to a jackhammer and the considerable - make that massive - direct and collateral damage it would wreck?

Dave Barry's "Commencement Address"

Monique Chartier

In the season of graduation, his column from 2004 doesn't so much contain advice as, perhaps, hold up a mirror to the graduating "audience".

This is your big day -- the day when you jam four years' worth of unlaundered underwear into a Hefty bag and leave college, prepared by your professors to go out into the Real World. The first thing you'll notice is that your professors did not go out there with you. They're not stupid; that's why they're professors. They've figured out that college is a carefree place where the most serious real problem is finding a legal parking space. So your professors are going to stay in college until they die. Even then, they'll go right on teaching classes. This is called ''tenure.'' But you have committed the grave tactical blunder of acquiring enough credits to graduate. So now you're leaving college and embarking upon the greatest adventure -- and the biggest challenge -- of your young lives: moving back in with your parents.

Decades ago, when I graduated from college, my friends and I would rather have undergone a vasectomy with a fondue fork than move back in with our parents. But times have changed, and today many graduates don't want to go straight from college into a harsh and unforgiving world fraught with unbearable hardships, such as no free high-speed Internet. And so many of you will return home, hand your Hefty bag to Mom for processing, and move back into your old room, which is filled with your childhood memories, not to mention the faint aroma of gerbil doots.

Is this a bad thing? Does the fact that you, a grown adult, are moving back in with your parents mean that you're a sponging loser?

Yes. You are SpongeBob LoserPants.

No! Sorry! I mean: No. It's fine! Your parents don't mind! They're thrilled to have you back home! Even from way up here on the podium, I can hear their teeth grinding with joy. ...

Telling Reasons to Object to Tax Cuts

Justin Katz

I've got my reservations about Governor Carcieri's tax proposals on the grounds that they don't go far enough, especially in extending their effects to middle and working class residents. But some of the objections from the other side should inadvertently direct Rhode Islanders' attention to the underlying problems of the state:

Karen Malcolm, executive director of Ocean State Action, a coalition of labor unions and advocacy groups, said previous state tax cuts have not worked. "The policies we've been following have not brought the promised jobs," she said.

Instead of phasing out the corporate income tax, for example, Rhode Island should instead seek changes to local property taxes, which represent the single greatest tax burden for business, she said.

Of course, local property taxes are so high in part because the unions — especially the teachers' unions — have been more successful at pumping up their members' remuneration packages from that stream. Witness:

Malcolm goes on:

And to improve Rhode Island’s overall business climate, the state should focus on other areas, such as fixing crumbling roads and bridges, she said.

Of course, infrastructure repairs are more expensive than they would be absent union rule and the related regulations. (It's quite a thing to drive by a roadwork site and witness the two flag-bearing women standing next to each other, flags down, chatting while the mandatory police officer chats on his cell phone, back to the scene.) Moreover, the fact that the state typically allocates 0.0% of its General Revenue to transportation suggests that Malcolm is seeking to raise additional taxes to direct toward labor.

Then there's the other side of the problem:

Rick Harris, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said Carcieri's proposals would drain away tax revenue at a time when it is most needed for education, health care and other programs. "If you're taking more money out of the system, how are we going to meet this need?" he said.

Directing the wealth of productive, working Rhode Islanders to those who are otherwise — even if the intention is to make them more productive — is part of what created our current hole. If we're to have any hope of turning things around, we must reverse our focus and increase activities that create revenue, rather than expend it.

Turning Up the Heat on Smokers

Justin Katz

Laws should be enforced (or stricken or modified if they will not be), but there's something unseemly — extortionate — about this:

The state in April increased the excise tax on cigarettes by $1, to $3.46 a pack, the highest in the country. The move has obvious health benefits, but it also aims to generate millions more dollars for the financially strapped state.

Now, state taxation and law-enforcement officials are poised to do their part. They are cracking down on the illegal sale of out-of-state cigarettes to make sure that the state collects as much money as possible from smokers who now plunk down some $8.35 for a pack. ...

Under state law, Rhode Island residents can have up to a carton of out-of-state cigarettes in their possession. Anything more and they are subject to arrest.

Violators face up to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

For reasons unrelated to money, I quit smoking about a decade ago, and it's increasingly difficult to comprehend what drives people to continue with the practice, but reading today's article, I found myself surprised to recall that it's about a legal product. The state government is facing tough financial times, so it has arbitrarily decided to collect more money from a population of residents who have a chemical and psychological dependency on a particular item.

Here's a clue that something isn't right with the current government attitude: Resident smokers' doing the right thing by their health would do more harm to the state revenue than does the illicit behavior on which the state police are so focused. If only for that reason alone, Rhode Island's smokers should kick the habit.

Do what they will, however, I'll still predict that revenue from this tax is going to go down, even if the number of smokers stays exactly the same. Unfortunately, Rhode Island businesses are likely to take a hit, as well, and not only on sales of cigarettes, but also on sales of such goods as smokers will pick up when they're out of state shopping.

May 22, 2009

It's Their State; We Just Wallow in It

Justin Katz

Such outrages are so common as to lose their status as such, in this state, but more interesting than the General Assembly leadership's decision to compensate a former colleague for eight-year-old legal fees is the point of view that House Speaker Bill Murphy betrays in defending the action:

"No, it doesn't set a precedent," echoed Murphy.

But elsewhere:

The chairman of the legislative leadership committee that made the decision — House Speaker William J. Murphy — said he urged state payment of Harwood lawyer, Lauren Jones, because he saw the complaint as an assault on Rhode Island's "citizen-based legislature" and more specifically, on lawyer-legislators like himself who need to earn a livelihood.

At first, I thought that the second quotation cast the $25,540 as deliberately setting a precedent that would protect citizen-legislator-lawyers, making Murphy's other statement a contradiction, but Senator (lawyer) Teresa Paiva Weed changed my mind when she suggested that "each case would have to be evaluated on its facts."

Y'see, it doesn't create a precedent because the General Assembly leadership doesn't operate according to such rules. When everything is at the whim of a half-dozen legislators, there's no such thing as precedent. The winning argument is whichever they happen to prefer in any given case, at any given time.

2010 AG Race: Ian Donnis' Interesting Conversation with the Current AG

Monique Chartier

... can be found at Donnis' blog on WRNI.

It sounds like the current AG read a recent comment here by Joe Bernstein - something about the inadviseability of two Lynchs running for two out of five General Offices in 2010 - and has taken it to heart.

During a taping this morning of WPRI/WNAC-TV's Newsmakers, Attorney General Patrick Lynch called it unlikely that his brother Bill, chairman of the state Democratic Party, will run for AG in 2010.

This comes as Bill Lynch has said he is considering the AG race, amid questions about Patrick Lynch's focus on the 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

Here is a verbatim transcript of a followup interview I had with Patrick Lynch after the show. (I've left a voice mail for Bill Lynch and will post his response if and when he responds.):

Ian Donnis: How likely is it that your brother Bill will run for attorney general if you do indeed run for governor in 2010?

Patrick Lynch: I don’t think very high at all. I think Bill is a fine candidate, I think he’s a tremendous chairman, but I don’t think the two Lynches being on the ballot is necessarily something that would be responded to well by the people. That’s understandable. But remember, we’re a long way off from anybody deciding what office they’re formally running for. While there’s kind of rank speculation on the street, and some buildup in the background -- of whether it’s money and support in some levels -- there’s a lot of people exploring a lot of different opportunities. So if someone, including my brother, indicat[es] they’re considering a run for the office, [that’s] kind of light years away from where someone actually puts their name on a ballot.

Donnis: If your brother were to run, and you were to run for governor, would you endorse him for attorney general?

P. Lynch: I just don’t see that happening.

Donnis: You don’t see your endorsement happening, or you don’t see him running?

P. Lynch: I just don’t see . . . I have every intention of my name being on the ballot for governor of the state of Rhode Island, next September if there’s a primary, and if there’s not, in November. I don’t see when that happens, my brother’s name being on the ballot as an attorney general candidate, because I don’t see the people responding well to it.

Import of Gitmo Detainees: Assuaging the Wrong Fear

Monique Chartier

From President Obama's speech yesterday:

Where demanded by justice and national security, we will seek to transfer some detainees to the same type of facilities in which we hold all manner of dangerous and violent criminals within our borders -- namely, highly secure prisons that ensure the public safety.

As we make these decisions, bear in mind the following face: Nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal, supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists. As Republican Lindsey Graham said, the idea that we cannot find a place to securely house 250-plus detainees within the United States is not rational.

Isn't this a red herring? The threat to the continued detention of such persons is not inadequate physical arrangements. It is that bringing them onto the soil of the United States and into the direct purview of our court system greatly increases the chance that such detainees will leave the prison not by breaking out but by a turn of the key ordered by an American court.

This is not in any way to advocate for the indefinite detention of these detainees but rather, to identify yet another instance of flawed reasoning; in this case, one that will permit casual observers to say, "Oh, yeah, our prisons are secure; go ahead and bring them here". In fact, prisons are comprised of both walls and authority. A breach of either enables a prisoner to go free; if of the latter, freedom tends not to be temporary.

Building a Better Career

Justin Katz

I can most definitely relate to Michael Crawford's observations:

When Matthew Crawford finished his doctorate in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, he took a job at a Washington think tank. "I was always tired," he writes, "and honestly could not see the rationale for my being paid at all." He quit after five months and started doing motorcycle repair in a decaying factory in Richmond, Va. This journey from philosopher manqué to philosopher-mechanic is the arc of his new book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. It's appropriate that it arrives in May, the month when college seniors commence real life. Skip Dr. Seuss, or a tie from Vineyard Vines, and give them a copy for graduation.

The graduates won't even skim Shop Class, of course. But maybe, five years from now, when they can't understand why their high-paying jobs at Micron Consulting seem pointless and enervating, Crawford's writing will show them a way forward. It's not an insult to say that Shop Class is the best self-help book that I've ever read. Almost all works in the genre skip the "self" part and jump straight to the "help." Crawford rightly asks whether today's cubicle dweller even has a respectable self. Many of us work in jobs with no discernible products or measurable results. We manage brands and implement initiatives, all the while basing our self-esteem on the opinions of others.

Compare that with the motorcycle mechanic. Instead of the vague threat of a performance review, the mechanic faces the tactile problem of a bike that won't start. He tests various theories and deploys actual tools. The sign of success is a roaring engine. In Shop Class, Crawford talks about fixing bikes and the analytical lessons he draws from his gearhead days. It's kind of like Heidegger and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In one virtuoso episode, an oil seal on a 1983 Honda Magna V45 becomes a lesson in how curiosity can be dangerous when it becomes fixated. We become self-absorbed, even self-indulgent. The ideal, when working on a bike, is to keep the customer in mind, to realize that messing with the bike (satisfying our curiosity) ultimately needs to be curtailed by consideration of the wider world—i.e., the customer, who doesn't want to overpay. As Crawford points out, much "knowledge work" lacks this element of practical wisdom, of opening out into the experience of others. Just go read a few dissertations.

While doing the work of a mechanic provides intellectual challenges and the intrinsic satisfactions of completing problems from start to finish, Crawford knows that working in the trades is seen as déclassé and too limiting for a college graduate. And then he goes on to show how stupid that viewpoint is.

Of course, from my point of view, I see how lessons learned in a trade can be reapplied in an office. Reviewer Michael Agger's language doesn't suggest this as an option, but the "enervating" careers that he mentions can be made to have discernible products and measurable results. They may necessarily have to be traced in the longer term — building a house rather than installing a kitchen — but anywhere there is an objective, there is an opportunity to measure progress. Furthermore, it may require a little bit more work on the part of managers, but even employees who are applying their time on some small, discrete component of a larger project can be enabled to see the usefulness of their tasks.

Which is not to disagree with the suggestion that young adults learn a trade. There is a risk, however, of romanticizing blue collars too enthusiastically. We have our cogs, and we certainly have our tedium. But even those, properly approached, offer opportunity for progress in our broader personal occupation of building a healthy frame of mind.

Can Anything Stop RI's Unemployment Rate Escalation?

Justin Katz

This month's iteration of a grim series of headlines:

R.I. jobless rate: 11.1%

Unfortunately, the series finale doesn't appear to be likely any time soon:

A group of economists testifying at the State House in early May projected that Rhode Island's unemployment rate would peak at 12.3 percent in 2010. One of the economists was Andres Carbacho-Burgos, of Moody's In a phone interview Thursday, Carbacho-Burgos said Rhode Island's rate of job loss should begin to slow soon, and there might even be some slight job gains, perhaps 5,000 jobs, toward the end of next year. But real improvement probably won't take place until 2011, he said.

Yup, that says 2011, as in two more years of job declines. As in a forty-month run of losses.

Of course, the wrong moves in state and local government could exacerbate the problem. Yesterday's headline was that our rate of population loss has slowed, probably because Rhode Islanders are trapped and see no significant improvement of their odds elsewhere. Imagine the change in that dynamic when the state lags the national recovery, as is widely expected.

By contrast, if the General Assembly were to take some bold steps designed to attract businesses and give current managers, owners, and consumers confidence in the state's future, Rhode Island could actually lead the recovery. Part of the advantage of being so low is that it takes much less to advance.

May 21, 2009

Migratory Food for Thought

Justin Katz

Tom Golisano puts high local taxation in perspective — the individual's perspective, that is:

Last week I spent 90 minutes doing a couple of simple things -- registering to vote, changing my driver's license, filling out a domicile certificate and signing a homestead certificate -- in Florida. Combined with spending 184 days a year outside New York, these simple procedures will save me over $5 million in New York taxes annually.

By moving to Florida, I can spend that $5 million on worthy causes, like better hospitals, improving education or the Clinton Global Initiative. Or maybe I'll continue to invest it in fighting the status quo in Albany. One thing's certain: That money won't continue to fund Albany's bloated bureaucracy, corrupt politicians and regular special-interest handouts.

Have I mentioned, recently, that the state and local taxes that wealthy folks are paying in Rhode Island has been going up even as their rates go down?

(via Michelle Malkin)

No Union Is an Island

Justin Katz

From a piece on the Caruolo Act comes this familiar anecdote:

When West Warwick learned this winter that it would lose much of its revenue sharing funds from the state, [West Warwick Town Manager James] Thomas said the town laid off more than a dozen workers and secured union wage concessions. "Some of them will not have had a raise for 30 months. The same comment cannot be said for school teachers in West Warwick. It is out of control, there is no accountability and they believe they are islands onto themselves," he said.

Union members get raises in good times and bad. They'll explicitly strive to hurt their students academically to manipulate parents as voters and tear apart the community that they profess to serve in order to avoid a mere 3% cut in their remuneration. It's shameful, and the worst part is that the union organizations have structured the system such that even well-intentioned residents and school committee members actually believe that it functions as it does according to some irrevocable universal mandate.

We all want the best education possible for our students, but union schools are simply not providing it. And we all (should) agree that talented teachers ought to be well compensated, but really, the current system, handling teachers homogeneously, as if they are operating a factory, amounts to a middle class entitlement system. Enough is enough.

Grassroots Against the Socialist Revolution

Justin Katz

Former CIA official Herbert Meyer has an excellent article about the Left's strategy and methods for radically transforming the United States of America, touching on some broad themes in current events:

At the core of democracy is the rule of law, and we have already lost it. The liberals lecture us incessantly that everything is "relative," but that's not true; some things are absolutes. You cannot claim to be faithful to your spouse because you never cheat on her -- except when you're in London on business. And you cannot claim to have the rule of law if the government can set aside the rule of law when it decides that "special circumstances" have arisen that warrant illegality. When the President and his aides handed ownership of Chrysler Corp. to the United Auto Workers union, they tried to avoid sending that beleaguered company into bankruptcy by muscling its bondholders into accepting less money for their assets than the law entitled them to collect. These contracts, and the law under which they were signed, were mere obstacles to a thuggish President bent on paying off his political supporters.

It's going to get much worse, fast. President Obama has told us time and again that among his criteria for choosing Federal judges will be "empathy." Empathy is a wonderful quality in any human being, but a judge's job is to rule according to the law. Once our courts are presided over by judges who will reach verdicts based on how they feel about an issue -- such as abortion or the right of citizens to bear arms -- the law will be whatever the judges wish it to be; the rule of law will become an empty phrase rather than the architecture of our civilization.

We have lost our free-market economy as quickly as we have lost the rule of law. Money is to an economy what blood is to a body; life and death resides within the organ that controls its flow. The government already owns our country's leading banks, which means the government now controls our economy. (And in all fairness to President Obama, it was the Bush administration that started us down this ghastly road.) One indicator of the Obama administration's real objective: When some banks that had taken federal money attempted to repay their loans, the Treasury Department refused to accept repayment and step aside. This shows the government's goal isn't to prop up the banks, but rather to control them.

Here, too, things are going to get much worse, fast. The government now owns General Motors Corp., is reaching for control of insurance companies, and has launched plans to take over our country's healthcare industry. It even wants authority to set the salaries of executives in industries that, at least for now, aren't being subsidized or underwritten by the government.

Put all this together, and what we have in our country today isn't a democracy and it isn't a free-market economy. Reader, what we have now is a revolution.

And his solution should resonated especially well among Rhode Islanders:

We need to launch a counter-offensive, so to speak, and the place to start is at the local level. Working with our county and state political parties when we can -- or working around them when we must -- our objective will be to elect as many people as we can to public office who understand what a democracy is and how the free market works. This will include city council members, county commissioners, school board members, judges, sheriffs and even members of the local parks commission. With the strength and political momentum their elections will provide, we can surge to the state level and then -- before it's too late -- take back the power in Washington DC.

Although centralization of resources and legislation has been a creeping corrosive for quite some time, power is still pretty widely distributed in the American system of governance. Most of us do not wish to wield even local power, but as Meyer goes on to suggest, the alternative to engaging with our intact civic system will be much more burdensome — perhaps even "horrific."

The Crier and the Untold Story

Justin Katz

Last night, Matt Allen and I chatted about our new Community Crier feature and reviewed some of the particulars of Paul Kelly's ordeal with the Rhode Island judiciary. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

May 20, 2009

WW Voters to WW Budgeters: No, Thanks

Monique Chartier

Dateline: Takebackourtownville.

Taxpayers defeated the municipal budget, school budget, and voted down any tax levy with a resounding majority at the Town Financial Meeting last night.

Of the 416 voters counted by the West Warwick Board of Canvassers in a ballot vote, 333 voted against the municipal budget presented by the town council at $30,512,700, a majority in a standing vote defeated the school department budget of $49,269,685, and all but three people voted down a motion to keep the tax levy the same as it was last year.

With nearly three times the attendance of last year’s financial town meeting, the meeting began at 7 p.m. and did not let out until 10:45 p.m.

Your Late-Night Entertainment

Justin Katz

Via the College Republicans at Roger Williams, "Obama-man can 'cause he mixes it with hope and makes the world feel good."

Singing the Union's Tune in Tiverton

Justin Katz

At the May 12 School Committee meeting in Tiverton, Guidance Counselor Lynn Nicholas gave the following advice to the committee related to the financial town meeting's $627,247 cut to the schools' budget:

You need to be serious about what you plan on cutting. I am the last person on this Earth that would want to hurt a child, but you need to make a statement. I don't know how you're going to do it. I don't know what you're going to do. But you need to make a statement to get people to the town meeting.

As a matter of content, readers should put the emphasis on that "but." Nicholas doesn't want to hurt the students, but...

At some point between that night and publication of the May 21 Sakonnet Times, Superintendent Bill Rearick told reporter Tom Killin Dalglish:

...our kids are going to be hurt. I want to be blunt about it.

Mr. Dalglish offers that quotation directly after a list of academic programs that might be on the chopping block, according to "other sources." (One wonders if Mr. Dalglish has been calling the guidance office.) At the end of the piece, Mr. Rearick sounds the note again:

I feel awful for the kids, because we won't be able to continue the current level of programs that we have now.

Mere residents aren't privy to conversations behind closed school administration doors, of course, but it appears that Mr. Rearick is singing the union's tune. The objective is to scare parents into demanding the opportunity to reinstate the requested budget amount.

I've got another solution. Adding the salaries and benefits lines in the school department budget docket yields a total of $19,568,684. An across-the-board cut of 3.2% to some combination of pay and benefits would absorb the shortage. Problem solved with no harm to students and at an employee cost that is hardly egregious in the current market.

Then, the school committee should admit its error in approving an inadvisable teacher contract that accounts for roughly three quarters of the missing money and suggest that the teachers ask their well-paid lobbyists to pressure state legislators to lighten the mandate burden in order to free up money for the next contract.

The Revolution Continues in Woonsocket

Justin Katz

Various considerations may intervene, but I'm going to try to make it to tonight's meeting of the new Woonsocket Taxpayer Coalition at 6:30 p.m., on the second floor above the Vose True Value on Cumberland Hill Rd. Representative John Loughlin was at the initial meeting, and he tells me that it's an exciting thing to watch these groups take shape, forming organizational structure out of gangs of upset taxpayers.

At this point of formation, it's critical to instill certain principles into the inchoate group's culture. Perhaps the two most important are:

  • Limit goals to areas of broad agreement. Factionalization can collapse reform groups more effectively than opposition and give that opposition fissures to exploit. The idea is to begin the process of reform and to point in the right direction; the group should not strive to determine every policy, but to get residents and leaders thinking in the right way.
  • Information is your friend. Get as much information out to the public as possible. That includes statements and actions taken at government meetings and such. Even if nobody appears to read a Web site or newsletter, it's important to have a medium through which to make information public; the fact that voters might read something will have an effect on those in power. And if a particular fact is unhelpful to your cause, then your cause should be adjusted to take it into account.

These two suggestions point to a single underlying principle: trust. Trust that the system can work and that people can come to the right conclusions when the information is available and the arguments are presented.

Pelosi: Approval Numbers in the Range of the Revolting Newt?

Monique Chartier


Nearly half of all Americans — 48 percent — disapprove of how the California Democrat she is handling her job as Speaker of the House in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released Monday, while 39 percent approve of her performance.

* * *

That puts her approval rating at roughly the levels Newt Gingrich had in his first year as Speaker of the House. (Back in 1995, Gingrich's approval rating was 37 percent; by 1997 — at the same point in his speakership that Pelosi is now — that had dropped to just 25 percent.)

The Rhode Island Economic Story

Justin Katz

In the second paragraph of the following quotation we see why Rhode Island will find another bottom to hit as the rest of the country recovers economically (hopefully):

"With the exception of the tax proposals, I'm not sure what else has been put on the table," [Department of Administration Director Gary Sasse] said. "If you don’t change our economic climate, deficits are going to get worse, and you're not going to sustain the investment in services we're currently making ... I think if we make decisions now to position ourselves we could take a quantum step to improve our competitiveness.”

But Sasse’s position was largely drowned out yesterday by a chorus of opposition, which included an economist from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

The article doesn't explain the reason that a Boston bank VP was at the hearing, but it's mainly the chorus that's of interest — drowning out the soft-spoken voice attempting to explain that the various interest groups are going to lose the things that they're seeking to protect if we don't take action.

URI Advancements in True Mind Reading

Carroll Andrew Morse

Walter Besio, a biomedical engineering professor at the University Rhode Island, has received a grant from the National Institute of Health to continue his work into developing sensors that can interpret the electrical signals that come from the brain -- and perhaps turn those signals into functional inputs for a new generation of biomedical technologies...

A unique electrode developed for non-invasive use by a University of Rhode Island biomedical engineer is showing promising results in helping to interpret brain signals so paralyzed patients may control their environment. It is also being studied as a means of delivering a stimulus to control epileptic seizures....

Initially used for a more accurate detection of cardiac signals, Besio began to test its usefulness in detecting brain waves in an effort to help his brother who had become paralyzed in an automobile accident.

"I wanted to see if the electrode could help us figure out what someone was thinking," he said. "When you think about moving your arm, can we discriminate the signals from the brain to interpret the movement you want to make? It would allow paralyzed individuals to be more independent by letting them use their thoughts to perhaps control a robot or computer or a wheelchair."

Driving the Country into the Ground

Justin Katz

Well isn't this just dandy (emphasis added):

Some soccer moms will have to give up hulking SUVs. Carpenters will still haul materials around in pickup trucks, but they will cost more. Nearly everybody else will drive smaller cars, and more of them will run on electricity. The higher mileage and emissions standards set by the Obama administration on Tuesday, which begin to take effect in 2012 and are to be achieved by 2016, will transform the American car and truck fleet.

Agree or disagree with the concept of higher mileage and emissions standards, just about everybody acknowledges that there's an economic cost, and this one will hit Americans as (at best) the country's taking shaky legged steps out of a severe recession. The President has hopped into the driver's seat of the U.S.A. — which already needed repairs — and opened her up. "Let's see what this baby can do!"

Even David Brooks — who once fawned over a certain literary academic politician — is beginning to realize that indications of Barack Obama's intentions weren't mere rhetorical flourishes:

What these traits do add up to is a certain ideal personality type. The C.E.O.'s that are most likely to succeed are humble, diffident, relentless and a bit unidimensional. They are often not the most exciting people to be around.

For this reason, people in the literary, academic and media worlds rarely understand business. It is nearly impossible to think of a novel that accurately portrays business success. That’s because the virtues that writers tend to admire — those involving self-expression and self-exploration — are not the ones that lead to corporate excellence.

For the same reason, business and politics do not blend well. Business leaders tend to perform poorly in Washington, while political leaders possess precisely those talents — charisma, charm, personal skills — that are of such limited value when it comes to corporate execution.

Fortunately, America is a big place. Literary culture has thrived in Boston, New York and on campuses. Political culture has thrived in Washington. Until recently, corporate culture has been free to thrive in such unlikely places as Bentonville, Omaha and Redmond.

Of course, that's changing. We now have an administration freely interposing itself in the management culture of industry after industry. It won't be the regulations that will be costly, but the revolution in values. When Washington is a profit center, C.E.O.'s are forced to adopt the traits of politicians. That is the insidious way that other nations have lost their competitive edge.

And the children sing:

We're gonna spread happiness
We're gonna spread freedom
Obama's gonna change it
Obama's gonna lead 'em

May 19, 2009

The Decline of Western Civilization Continues Apace

Justin Katz

Do we really need to transform Sherlock Holmes into a prior generation's James Bond, as this trailer indicates a forthcoming movie will do?

It's as if we've gone from the anti-heroes of late-twentieth-century affection to obligatorily super heroes. It ought to be enough that Mr. Holmes is uncommonly insightful; he needn't be a ninja, as well. One senses, beneath both the anti-hero and super-hero trends a deep cultural insecurity, whereby ordinary humans are inadequate to the task of battling evil.

(via Instapundit)

Attorney General: Pay No Attention to that Plea Agreement Behind The Bench

Monique Chartier

In 2007, Attorney General Patrick Lynch charged Ryan Greenberg with Second Degree Murder; Operating a boat to Endanger, Death Resulting; Refusal of a Chemical Test for Intoxication; and Minor Possessing Alcohol - charges related to the death of Patrick Murphy on the Barrington River.

Yesterday, Ryan Greenberg pled no contest to being involved in a boating accident, death resulting - a plea agreement authorized on behalf of the State of Rhode Island by Patrick Lynch in his capacity as Attorney General. Immediately afterward, the Attorney General issued the following statement.

With today’s plea, I am hopeful that we have heard the last of Patrick Murphy’s death being described as an accident and that it is recognized that Patrick Murphy died as the result of Ryan Greenberg’s criminal conduct. Our focus now is on sentencing, and on ensuring that to the degree it can, our legal system provides some measure of justice to the Murphy family, to whom I continue to offer my prayers and deepest condolences.

So ... after authorizing a plea that stipulates that Mr. Greenberg's actions were accidental, the Attorney General steps out of the courtroom and insists that Mr. Greenberg's actions were not accidental?

If the Attorney General believed that Mr. Greenberg's actions were deliberate, he needed to pursue the original charges against him in a court of law. If the case was not provable for whatever reason, the Attorney General should have remained silent after the plea agreement was formalized ... or limited his words to sympathetic generalities.

Instead, the Attorney General went with Option #3; namely, issuance of a statement that can only be viewed as a transparent and inept p.r. sleight-of-hand. "Oohoo! Over here! Look at my words! No, no, don't don't pay any attention to my official actions. All that matters is what I say. You are getting sleepy, very sleepy ..."

In short, why has the Attorney General chosen to make his words in this matter so starkly disconnected from his actions?

Spotted Today During Lunch

Justin Katz

Stumbling Is Human, and Honest

Justin Katz

Have you ever thought that somebody suspected you of something, and as you offered a relevant explanation, you found yourself drifting into tangents and having to amend things that you'd just said and thought, "he's going to think I'm lying"? Well, research suggests that what appears to be poor lying skills may be the natural expression of honesty:

Kevin Colwell, a psychologist at Southern Connecticut State University, has advised police departments, Pentagon officials and child protection workers, who need to check the veracity of conflicting accounts from parents and children. He says that people concocting a story prepare a script that is tight and lacking in detail.

"It's like when your mom busted you as a kid, and you made really obvious mistakes," Dr. Colwell said. "Well, now you're working to avoid those."

By contrast, people telling the truth have no script, and tend to recall more extraneous details and may even make mistakes. They are sloppier.

A New Proposed Income Tax Structure for Rhode Island

Carroll Andrew Morse

Here are the details of the new income tax brackets contained in the state budget that Governor Carcieri submitted to the General Assembly (Article 38)...

RI Taxable
Income Over
But not over: Pay + % on excess Amount over:
$0$55,000 $0+3.5% $ 0
$55,000 $110,000 $1,925+4.0% $55,000
$110,000 $175,000 $4,125+4.5% $110,000
$175,000 $7,050+5.5% $175,000

However, there are also proposed changes in allowed deductions, which a staff report from the Projo summarizes as...

  • Treating capital gains as ordinary income. (In general, the state’s maximum capital-gains tax rate now is 1.67 percent, or 0.83 percent in some circumstances.)
  • Ending the option to claim a variety of “itemized” deductions, such as those for mortgage interest, local property taxes and charitable contributions. Instead, all taxpayers would claim a standard deduction, the amount of which would be expanded.
  • Eliminating most of the state’s tax credits and keeping four: the statewide property-tax relief credit; an expanded earned-income credit (essentially a tax break for the working poor); a credit for lead paint abatement; and a credit for income taxes paid to other states.

Sides of a School Funding Formula

Justin Katz

I'm suspicious of Rhode Island notions of a school funding formula. Obviously, state aid has to be dispersed by some method, and a formula of sorts is intrinsic in that activity, but the emphases and consequences make a hang-up of the word "equitable."

For one thing, we in the suburbs have no reason to trust the administrators of Providence, over whom we have no direct democratic influence. Therefore, funneling a greater rate of taxpayer dollars into their accounts accomplishes, if anything, an easing of the pressure to spend wisely. Perhaps that's why some folks incline toward a greater state role in administering the education system, even though such consolidation ignores the fact that powerful special interests benefit by the consolidation of the pool in which they seek to dip their buckets.

For another thing, adjustments based on a community's "ability to pay" have a redistributive tint that is likely to exacerbate social bifurcation. If, for example, the state takes the wealth of Barrington as a reason to require that town to carry a greater percentage of its educational burden, while taking the lesser wealth of, say, Central Falls, as justification for the state's stepping in a bit more, local taxes will gradually diverge in such a way as to make a virtual gated community of the wealthier municipality.

Much more equitable, to my mind, would be a decision by the state how much it can and should spend per child and the allocation of that money to the school departments, no matter which communities they serve. (Even more equitable, I'd suggest, would be distribution of that money to the students for use wherever they wish to go, but we can only take one step at a time.)

Perhaps the solution takes the form that Julia Steiny described on Sunday. Essentially, the state would take over non-educational services that would benefit from economies of scale, such as food services and busing. (Considering their importance to the unions, I'd be wary of consolidating all healthcare contracts for the reason stated above.)

Whatever the case, reforms of Rhode Island's way of doing business will have to occur before anything resembling a reasonable strategy will be politically feasible.

These Are Silver Linings?

Carroll Andrew Morse

According to Benjamin Gedan's story in today's Projo, the "Current Conditions Index" compiled by URI Economics Professor Leonard Lardaro, a combination of 12 different indicators that measure the strength of the Rhode Island Economy, reached a value of zero in March for only the fourth time in its history. The index is down from a value of 8 in February. Any value below 50 indicates an economy in recession. The Current Conditions Index hasn't been above 50 since July of 2007.

However, according to Professor Lardaro himself, the news might not be all bad; we might be about to start a recovery…

Twenty-one grueling months later, Lardaro said he is now expecting to see a “growth bounce.” The recovery, he said, although unlikely to be rapid, will be helped by the federal stimulus, which Governor Carcieri says has done little to spark economic activity in Rhode Island.

“We’re still in a very serious recession here,” Lardaro said. But, he added, “you’ve got to look at momentum.”

“We’ve taken such a beating, for such a long time, things are finally leveling out,” Lardaro said. “We’re not in a recovery. We’re starting a process of a recovery.”

However, the set of specific indicators that Gedan cites as possibly indicative that things may be ready to improve aren't really the most confidence inspiring…
Although 7 of the 12 indicators worsened compared with a year ago, the same number either improved or were stable compared with February. Loses in government jobs slowed; permits for new houses shot up with the annual rate rising to 518 from 297; and the labor force did not register a major decline, meaning that fewer unemployed residents are abandoning their job searches.

The state’s jobless rate, although still devastatingly high, held steady at 10.5 percent in March, “a big moral victory,” Lardaro said.

So unemployment held steady, while the size of labor force stayed the same and losses in government jobs "slowed" -- suggesting that losses in private sector jobs didn't. If that's the peak of the good news, exactly how strong of a recovery are we expecting?

How Economic Development Should Work

Justin Katz

Brian Bishop takes up the appropriate call to government when it comes to economic development: just get out of the way.

The last thing we need is a government-run Chamber of Commerce, a retread bureaucracy of fortune tellers picking winning businesses or sectors that will be offered state loans and regulatory absolutions. Rather, we should attract new businesses and nourish existing businesses with the level playing field of a better business environment.

You might think this is a time when we need an economic development agency more than ever. It’s not a military secret that Rhode Island is among the nation’s leaders in unemployment, a key indicator of a low-performing economy.

But it is also not a secret why. Corporate and personal income taxes are high, estate taxes are repulsive, energy costs are high, our education system produces a labor force with below-average skills, our legislature has empowered unions over management, our roads and bridges are in worse shape than other states’ at higher costs, our regulatory environment is stifling, and this all takes place in a good-ole-boy environment that breeds, at minimum, a perception of corruption.

In other words, our policies make us unattractive to business, and when you look at these problems you realize they are not to be addressed by the EDC. This systemic hostility to economic growth is brought about by the legislature and all the other departments of state government. These are the arenas where change must take place.

Of course, Jim Beale raises salient questions as we move toward implementation of necessary changes:

Does anyone believe that the Rhode Island General Assembly will enact the major structural reforms necessary to put this state on a new course — a path to prosperity for everyone instead of just their favored special interests: the public-employee unions, their relatives' state jobs, and the Poverty Institute constituency?

Does anyone believe that absent such reforms — and therefore regime change in the General Assembly — that Rhode Island will not continue its decades-long economic decline?

May 18, 2009


Monique Chartier

Courtesy the CBS blog Econowatch.

The Obama administration appears to have reminded Chrysler about the cost of accepting government bailouts: with federal funds comes federal control.

A report this week in Advertising Age said that Chrysler wanted to spend $134 million in advertising over the nine-week duration of its bankruptcy. But Mr. Obama's auto-industry task force sliced that figure in half.

Robert Manzo, executive director of Capstone Advisory Group and a Chrysler consultant, testified at a May 4 hearing in bankruptcy court that the task force "believed that it was not feasible to not spend anything on marketing and advertising for fear of eroding the image of the brand." But, Ad Age said, the task force overruled the car maker. (Chrysler's factories will be shuttered for those nine weeks.)

Mr. Obama's Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry includes Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and officials from the Commerce, Transportation, Labor, and Energy departments, plus representatives of the EPA, White House, the Economic Recovery Advisory Board, and the National Economic Council. It includes no professional marketers.

This happened on Thursday; it took me four days to figure out the problem. (Yup, not always swift on the uptake.)

Say what you want about corporations, they don't generally expend advertising dollars unless they deem it necessary and then only after consultation with marketing experts. It is alarming to watch our federal government override the decision of industry and marketing experts in a clumsy attempt to manage a private corporation through a non-expert committee.

Actual Discussion on Marriage

Justin Katz

Pat Crowley offered a pleasant surprise by actually making a counter-point in response to my recent post on encouraging marriage:

Because apparently now the law tells married couples that your ability to marry is relative to your ability to create children. Which makes many marriages, mine included, some how null and void. After all, my wife and I are deliberately choosing not to have children ( I have 3 from a prior marriage but that is a WHOLE ‘nother story). We must be somehow flaunting our liberty to interpret the reason behind the law as we see fit by not reproducing. And what about couples who want to have kids but can’t? And what about adoption? Are people who are married but adopt somehow exploiting a loophole in the law, thus violating the intent? Are they adoptive couples really still married or are they also re-defining the institution by adopting instead of conceiving?

Not to muddy the waters by quipping toward the issue of abortion, but I wonder whether a broader inference could be derived from Crowley's apparent understanding of the notion of choice. By his own admission, his failure to procreate with his current wife is a freely chosen decision, which means that, even if he were correctly understanding my argument, his marriage would not be "null and void," because he and his spouse have the ability to have children. Should they change their minds, or should their birth control method fail, they are already in the relationship into which society ought to prefer that children be born. For similar reasons, the notion of sterility is inadequate as a contradiction of my construct, because sterility is generally not known to be a problem until the couple is already attempting to have children, in which case, again, we want them to be married.

Be that as it may, Crowley makes a common error to the degree that he's actually attempting to understand the opposing side. Marriage is inherently related ("relative" implies degrees of marriage) to the "ability to create children" inasmuch as it has until recently been limited to those pairings that tend toward that end. Men and women tend to create children when they're intimate together, so limiting marriage to relationships that include one of each draws that line.

That a couple does not procreate, by choice or by inability, does not affect the cultural understanding of their relationship type. This is how the culture works — on the basis of principles. Principles are not like the law — which operates on the basis of rules — in that mild contradictions or variations don't represent a break.

(As for his comments on Charles Murray: It's apparent that Crowley has never read the Bell Curve, which did not put forward the argument that he attributes to it.)

Municipal Increases Are Mainly Pay and Benefits

Justin Katz

This story on the likely decreases in state aid to municipalities appears to break apart two categories of spending that are very closely related (emphasis added):

Indeed, the numbers suggest that municipalities have largely avoided the budget cuts that swept across state government in recent years, according to a report to be released this week by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

Since 2004, "the increase in local government expenditures has outpaced the growth in the state general fund budget, [the consumer price index], and personal income in almost every year," the report says. "The majority of this expenditure growth has been to support education spending, which accounts for the majority of local spending; however, spending on employee benefits is the second-fastest increasing component of municipal budgets."

In point of fact, most of the increase in education spending has gone toward employee pay and benefits. Treating education as its own all-inclusive category blurs the story. And that story relates to a point made later in the article:

The governor has introduced legislation to eliminate most of the mandates. But the Democrat-controlled Assembly has been reluctant to support the Republican governor's initiatives, most of which are opposed by organized labor.

Labor has the RI system structured so well in its favor, that there isn't much by way of reform that won't disrupt its schemes to some degree. Yet, they must be disrupted, and both union members and elected representatives must soften their opposition.

Judicial Empathy and a Veteran Without a Home

Justin Katz

The tale begins and ends with Pocahontas Cooley (photo here), whose very name lends a fictional tone to a true story of justice deferred. The travesty is the number of times the setting has been the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson, Rhode Island Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse's pick to fill a vacancy in the first U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The case itself defies all reason, but the explanation could be precisely the judicial empathy for "underprivileged" groups on which President Barack Obama has placed such emphasis.

The person who is actually disadvantaged in the situation is 52-year-old Paul Kelly, Navy Reserve Boatswain's Mate First Class. Since July 2007, Ms. Cooley has refused to leave his house in Exeter, Rhode Island, or to allow him to enter it. In the hectic months before Kelly was deployed to Kuwait as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Judge Thompson stayed an eviction order from a district court and essentially handed Cooley a rent-free home until the owner's return from a theater of war, despite the availability of his brother to act as power of attorney.

That wasn't enough for Pocahontas. According to Mr. Kelly, she took the opportunity of access to his possessions and files to forge documents, order heating oil in his name, reopen a credit card for her own use, make withdrawals from his bank account, and arrange for insulation work to be done on the house by South County Community Action Agency, a non-profit provider of services for economically disadvantaged Rhode Islanders. At the request of Paul's brother, Thompson ordered Cooley to cease and desist such activities. At no point, however, did the judge see fit to change the housing arrangements, and Attorney General Patrick Lynch's office has postponed prosecution of related charges until the judge has ruled on the cases before her.

In Kuwait, Paul Kelly strove to maintain his habitually positive attitude, even as he received notices about delinquent payments on accounts that he thought he had suspended before he left, and even when his commanding officer pulled him off watch duty to mention the scene that his "wife" had caused trying to retrieve his paycheck from the Navy base back in Newport, RI. Fortunately, base personnel were able to determine within minutes what Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson has been mulling for over a year: that Mr. Kelly is not married.

In fact, Paul, a submarine rigger by profession, had been sharing his country-living bachelor pad with only his dogs when his ex-girlfriend Pocahontas caught him preparing to head to Norfolk, Virginia, for processing prior to deployment. She lied about having been kicked out of her mother's house, and still considering her a friend, he told her she could stay for a few days while he was away. But only a few days; his niece was going to move into the house while he was overseas.

Upon his return the next week, Paul found Pocahontas thoroughly at home. She declared the house to be hers and prepared to tell the Rhode Island judiciary that she was his common-law wife. Although disbelieving her outlandish insinuations of murder attempts from her "husband," Superior Court granted her request for a restraining order against harassment. When Mr. Kelly arrived on his property to collect clothes and other items for his tour of duty, he found all of his possessions in the barn.

And when he finally had his day in court, in October 2008, he found the woman whose 1998 personal ad in the Providence Journal claimed a desire for an "honest relationship" to be adept at manipulating the system. Her first ploy was to demand thirteen subpoenas for information — some of which actually proved to support the case against her, and all of which Judge Thompson granted at taxpayer expense. During one subsequent appearance in court, Cooley insisted that she was awaiting subpoenaed information from the Pentagon, a clear impossibility. At other times, she challenged the reality of Kelly's deployment.

In December, she had the good fortune to fall on the way into the courthouse. In the intervening months, Ms. Cooley has appeared in court on a regular basis, each time finding ways to err in her attempts to prove that she is not physically capable of a hearing. While granting continuance after continuance, the judge has provided Cooley with further instructions on acquiring the proper doctor's note.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kelly is living in his sister's basement (without his dogs), awaiting his next chance, on May 29, to receive a hearing date at last. Judge Thompson rotates out of the county at the end of June, at which point she may either take the case with her or leave it for one of her peers — one more whim over which Kelly is powerless. Even more so is Thompson's potential elevation to federal court a variable in his fate.

As for Pocahontas Cooley, the Internet may be catching up with her. Two pieces about the situation by Providence Journal columnist Bob Kerr have brought Kelly and his lawyer, Patrick McKinney, into contact with people from her past, some of whom find his story eerily familiar. (See the last comment here.) A few months ago, searches for Cooley's name turned up mainly announcements of her art exhibitions — one of them in the public offices of the City of Providence, which recently named a school after her politically involved late father.

Whereas episodes in her life before she found Paul Kelly seemed apt to fade away in the memories of individuals, permitting sequels with new characters, the worldwide public record online will now preserve a cautionary tale of political correctness, with the judge, the veteran, and the Indian princess illustrating the injustice of targeted empathy from the bench.

May 17, 2009

Senator Whitehouse's Imaginative Qualifications for a US Supreme Court Justice

Monique Chartier

Outlined in this morning's Ten News Conference with Jim Taricani and Bill Rappleye. (Thanks to commenter Joe Bernstein for the heads up.)

I think [President Obama]'s used an interesting word about this which is empathy and I think that's a good word. I hope he leans towards someone who is not yet another white male. But I think that the most important thing is that the person has to be spectacularly intellectually qualified, have broad experience and have that quality of empathy that he's looking for so we don't get somebody up there who is a cipher (slave?) for corporate and political interest but remembers that every lawsuit has people at the heart of it.

1.) "... not yet another white male".

Aren't we supposed to refrain from pre-judging on the basis of race and gender? Or has there been a scientific study that determined that white males are intrinsically less qualified for this position?

2.) "... empathy ..."

Empathy for one side of a case can mean the opposite for the other side. Who promulgates the guidelines for establishing which side receives empathy? Further, empathy can so warp judicial actions that it entirely take the place of law. This is what we are witnessing in the Cooley/Kelly case that Justin highlights.

What the Senator (and the President) have overlooked is the function of the US Supreme Court. It is to enforce the law; more specifically, determine the constitutional of a law. By definition, this does not leave a lot of room for empathy, which, if anything, is the purview of the legislative branch; i.e., those who make laws.

Washington's Unfortunate Bipartisanship on Human Rights

Monique Chartier

... and not so much a pure, reach-across-the-aisle spirit is the basis for President Obama's selection of our next ambassador to China, The Corner's Jay Nordlinger has concluded.

I have had a line for some years now: Just as China is a one-party state, America is a one-party state, where China policy is concerned. There are no R’s and D’s; virtually the entire political establishment wants the same thing: to make money off China (often a pipedream); to accommodate China; and not to ruffle China at all (e.g., by bringing up what the government does to its citizens).

Oops - Cancel that Projected $2 Trillion in Health Care Savings

Monique Chartier

Remember that big announcement by President Obama earlier this week that got a ton of coverage?

Barack Obama praised the health care industry's promise to cut $2 trillion in costs over 10 years Monday, taking a sharply different course than President Bill Clinton did 16 years ago in an opening bid to overhaul the U.S. health system.

Drawing skepticism from lawmakers, Obama summoned representatives of the insurance industry, doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and labor groups to the White House for what he called "a watershed event in the long and elusive quest for health care reform."

Actually, not quite. Will the correction get the same widespread coverage?

From Politico via Thursday's Charleston Gazette; h/t Kathryn Jean Lopez at The Corner, National Review Online.

The president of the American Hospital Association said Thursday that a deal with the White House to cut the growth in health care spending has been “spun way away from the original intent.”

* * *

... in a conference call Thursday, President Richard Umbdenstock told 230 member organizations that the agreement had been misrepresented. The groups, he said, had agreed to gradually ramp up to the 1.5 percentage-point target over 10 years – not to reduce spending by that much in each of the 10 years, .

So what went wrong? It seems that someone wanted to rush the announcement before the details of what is clearly a difficult, complicated goal had been ironed out.

The comments from Umbdenstock cap a week in which some in the Washington health care world struggled to make sense of the surprise White House announcement Monday. The group of six organizations with a major stake in health care – the Service Employees International Union, the American Medical Association, America’s Health Insurance Plan, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, the American Hospital Association and Advanced Medical Technology Association – had been working in secret for several weeks on a savings plan.

But they learned late last week that the White House wanted to go public with the coalition. One health care insider said: “It came together more quickly than it should have." A health-care lobbyist said the participants weren’t prepared to go live with the news over the weekend, when the news of a deal, including the $2 trillion savings claim, was announced by White House officials to reporters. The fact sheet they distributed at the time offered general categories from which the savings would come, but few specifics on how they would be achieved.

Neighborhood Associations

Justin Katz

The sun shone throughout the morning on Saturday, and it cast a timeless spring-in-the-city atmosphere across the neighborhood of Brown University where I was modifying a new door — manufactured with modern materials and recent engineering — to fit a very old opening.

A carpenter can do just about anything with an old door. When the rails and stiles are four or more inches of solid wood, all manner of liberties may be taken with blade and sandpaper. If one trims too much, or if rot requires repairs, new wood may be fit in place, glued, and made to blend as if the old-growth tree felled, cut, planed, and shaped by hand one hundred years ago were destined to be joined with the new-growth one largely processed by machine in recent months.

A hollow-core Masonite door is much less expensive, but the carpenter has less freedom. It consists of two sheets of pressed fibers shaped and textured to look like a paneled door and then adhered to a wood frame approximately an inch and a quarter deep; cut beyond that allowance, and the hollowness gapes dark and flimsy. The floors of century-old houses often dip and bulge to noticeable degree within the swing of a door, and depending on the material layered on the floor and the height of the opening, the installer may have no choice but surgery — cutting into the hollow parts of the door and then gluing a block between the sheets.

Thus was I employed by the street as the collegiate panoply strolled by: parents and preppies and dark-eye-shadowed lads, lovely young ladies ruined with tattoos from wrist to neck, lovelier ladies in spring dresses, professors in their conscientiously gaudy or anachronistic outfits, and men and women both with the manifest beauty of open eyes and a ready smile for strangers. The young children are the best, though; they watch intently, craning their necks as parents pull them along the sidewalk, because saws and hammers are interesting. The solid, sure things in life — doors, floors, roofs, and walls — are the province of the carpenter, and there's something of a mysterious meddling to our tasks.

And there's a thread across history to our practice, which I saw in the practices of others after I'd finished my work, cleaned up the more conspicuous evidence of my presence, and eaten my lunch and rumbled out of the neighborhood in my van (which now stalls at selected intersections). Along the way, peddlers stood by their tables, selling knickknacks. A man with white socks sat leaning against a bank wall playing guitar. A painter chipped away at an old iron fence, while his partner faced the other direction, leaning against a lamppost. People in their roles ever do as they do.

The old buildings have long stood on that steep hill, and their windows have reflected parades of human variety — in dress, in manner, and in occupation. The roads have experienced the evolution of vehicles. (How did horses and carriages ever manage such steep inclines?) And the neighborhood has held its character in an unspoken message from one generation to the next.

Waiting for the change of a traffic signal, brake pressed hard against the forty-five-degree pitch, I pushed a small piece of plastic into my ear and sent my voice across the state, leaving a digital message that I'd begun the journey home, and I wondered how fast I would have to drive to catch the last rays of springtime light on my own block. As they tend to do, clouds were drifting in from the west.

May 16, 2009

Moving Independent Candidates to a Different Spot on the Ballot?

Carroll Andrew Morse

  1. Take a look at the sample ballots that TPublico has mocked at up over at RI Future. Start off with this one, laid out according to how the law now reads.
  2. Either laugh or scream, depending on your temperament, especially after reading the choices under Governor and Lt. Governor.
  3. Then return to pondering the serious issue that TPublico brings up, about why the legislature is pondering this strange and probably discriminatory change towards independent political candidates.

A Major Truther is Missing from Senator Whitehouse's Truth Commission

Monique Chartier

For the record, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's subcommittee hearing on the use of torture and harsh interrogation techniques following the 2001 terror attacks has been chugging along this week. This is necessary to note because one of its potential star witnesses has sucked much of the p.r. oxygen out of the hearing room with her energetic and ineffective attempts to convince the world that she should not, in fact, be considered a star witness in this or any inquiry.

Substantive changes to Speaker Nancy Pelosi's ... recollections have done the most damage to her credibility on this subject, though disorganized press appearances have not helped.

"My statement is clear, and let me read it again. Let me read it again. I'm sorry. I have to find the page," said a flustered Mrs. Pelosi, shuffling through papers, her hands quivering a bit, as she sought to stick to her prepared text.

"When -- when -- when my staff person -- I'm sorry, the page is out of order -- five months later, my staff person told me that there had been a briefing -- informing that there had been a briefing and that a letter had been sent. I was not briefed on what was in that briefing; I was just informed that the briefing had taken place," she said.

Nothing sharpens the mind like testifying in front of a Congressional committee. Notes, not to mention recollections, can be sorted out with some finality. For your own peace of mind, for the sake of the country and, perhaps most importantly, for the sake of the truth, Madam Speaker, you may wish to consider appearing in front of Senator Whitehouse's hearing.

Middle Class Welfare

Justin Katz

Sometimes one is reading a news story that follows the usual script — such as presenting the hardship that the governor proposes for pregnant women "who otherwise cannot afford health insurance," in reporter Steve Peoples' phrase — when an actual fact lands in the mush like a giant crystal:

Defending the proposal yesterday before a skeptical House Finance Committee, Florio told lawmakers that the pregnant women would have other options if cut. Specifically, she noted a Blue Cross & Blue Shield private plan available for $660 per month.

"That's an option?" a concerned committee chairman Steven M. Costantino asked in disbelief.

The current state program allows pregnant women between 250 and 350 percent of the federal poverty limit — between $36,425 to $50,995 for a family of two — to buy into the state's Medicaid system for around $300 per month. In turn, all pre-natal care and post-partum care is covered.

The state, however, is left to pick up the entire cost of each birth — approximately $8,400.

According to 2007 Census data, approximately 49% of Rhode Island families are eligible for this program. (I say approximately, because the Census includes the range 3.00-3.99 times poverty level, which I divided by two for my purposes.)

I'm certainly for encouraging the development of Rhode Island's families, but after reviewing the actual numbers for calculating eligibility, Costantino's incredulity over the ability of such families to afford $660 per month cannot be taken seriously. Here are the incomes at which households hit 3.5 times poverty:

  • Two people: $50,995
  • Three people: $64,085
  • Four people: $77,175
  • Five people: $90,265
  • Six people: $103,355
  • Seven or more people: $116,445

Would a little perspective among our legislators be too much to ask?

May 15, 2009

I'm Sorry, You Don't Get to Create a Problem

Monique Chartier

... and then sternly point to it like you're an uninvolved third party.

President Barack Obama, calling current deficit spending “unsustainable,” warned of skyrocketing interest rates for consumers if the U.S. continues to finance government by borrowing from other countries.

“We can’t keep on just borrowing from China,” Obama said at a town-hall meeting in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, outside Albuquerque. “We have to pay interest on that debt, and that means we are mortgaging our children’s future with more and more debt.”

Holders of U.S. debt will eventually “get tired” of buying it, causing interest rates on everything from auto loans to home mortgages to increase, Obama said. “It will have a dampening effect on our economy.”

Friday Afternoon Kudos

Justin Katz

Well into the night last night, early this morning, during my morning 15 minutes, and now at lunch, I've been working on something with the potential to blossom into a pretty big deal, so my stack of topics to address has been growing rather than shrinking.

But the sun's coming out, and it's Friday afternoon, so it may be the perfect time to note a good article in the Sakonnet Times on our friend Matt Allen. The print edition has a short Q&A that doesn't appear to be online, and given our different shades of conservatism, I found this exchange particularly interesting:

Have you ever changed your opinion on a particular subject after hearing from listeners? "Sure. I've gained more respect for people of faith more than anything. I used to think of religion as divisive and archaic and man-made. As you get older you realize how not in control you are of things. If I was ever in a foxhole and I needed somebody to back me up, I'd want somebody of faith sitting next to me because they believe in something bigger than themselves and being accountable to something else."

The rest of the questions are worth reading, as well, if you can get your hands on a copy without making that long, long trip across the state.

Gallup: "More Americans 'Pro-Life' Than 'Pro-Choice' for First Time"

Marc Comtois

I greet Gallup's most recent poll indicating that there are more Pro-Life Americans than Pro-Choice with qualified optimism. Qualified, because the split essentially flipped from 50% pro-choice and 44% pro-life last year to 42%/51% this year. I wonder why? Gallup has some theories:

With the first pro-choice president in eight years already making changes to the nation's policies on funding abortion overseas, expressing his support for the Freedom of Choice Act, and moving toward rescinding federal job protections for medical workers who refuse to participate in abortion procedures, Americans -- and, in particular, Republicans -- seem to be taking a step back from the pro-choice position. However, the retreat is evident among political moderates as well as conservatives.

It is possible that, through his abortion policies, Obama has pushed the public's understanding of what it means to be "pro-choice" slightly to the left, politically. While Democrats may support that, as they generally support everything Obama is doing as president, it may be driving others in the opposite direction.

They also mention the Obama at Notre Dame controversy. The shift was particularly evident among men, conservatives and moderates. To which Peter Lawler offers the political observation that:
Whether this new climate of opinion benefits the Republicans depends, of course, on leadership. Obama’s Court nomination will give our guys another chance to explain what ROE etc. actually say and why they were wrongly decided. The truth is they haven’t been so good at that so far. It also presents another chance to explain why if Republicanism becomes libertarianism or even Specterism it will not only lose its soul, but lose elections.
Regardless of the politics, I hope that the trend continues.

UPDATE: More thoughts here.

This Would Certainly Save Him the Trouble of Having to Ask for Investigations of Voters of Who Vote Against Democratic Incumbents…

Carroll Andrew Morse

…because he could move right to ordering them instead!

From Katherine Gregg in today's Projo

Disappointed in his quest to become U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island, state Democratic Chairman William J. Lynch says he is considering whether to run to succeed his term-limited brother, Patrick, as attorney general.

Society Is a Long-Term Project, and Marriage Matters

Justin Katz

Bob Kerr's dogged obliviousness notwithstanding, the concern of marriage traditionalists is that changing the definition of marriage will have cultural consequences stretching out into the future. Of course, ever since Massachusetts's Goodridge decision forcing just such a redefinition in that state, same-sex marriage advocates have made a point of addressing mainly strawmen and portions of opponents' arguments that don't risk pulling them off message.

From deep in New England, the strategy appears to be working, although other regions may allow other conclusions. Wherever one resides, however, some research explored by Charles Murray deserves a look. A study following women born between 1957 and 1964 found that, among white participants, the overall illegitimacy ratio was 11%. Dividing the group roughly 10-40-40-10 by socioeconomic class, that rate breaks down as follows:

  • Overclass (17 years of education and family incomes over $100,000): 1.7%
  • Middle class (family incomes over $60,000): 4.0%
  • Working class (family incomes less than $60,000): 10.2%
  • Underclass (fewer than 12 years of education and family incomes under $20,000: 44.5%

Murray is in the process of completing updated research, but he describes his current estimates:

Today, the illegitimacy ratio for non-Latino whites is 28 percent. How do the classes break down now? As it happens, I've spent the last few weeks exploring that question. I'm not done, and want to save that discussion for a formal presentation in any case, but here are some tentative estimates: The illegitimacy ratio for the white underclass is probably now in the region of 70 percent. I think that the proportion for the white working class may be above 40 percent. The white middle class is approaching 20 percent—a scarily high figure when you think about all the ways that the middle class has been the spine of the nation.

The white overclass? They're still living in the 1950s—their ratio is probably about 4 or 5 percent tops.

I don't know whether the "current" group includes all women (and therefore those in the previous study), but that ambiguity means that these numbers are a minimum for illegitimacy.

The relevance to same-sex marriage is that such an innovation hinders our society's ability to leverage the institution to arrest this downward slide by erasing the link between marriage and childbirth. Whatever definition of marriage rising generations absorb from our culture, the law will tell them that it has nothing to do with the spouses' ability to create children. Moreover, those toward the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder tend to be more susceptible to the broader culture than their better-off peers.

The women in the older study typically had their children in the '80s and early-to-mid '90s. That means that Murray's new figures trace women one or two generations subsequent. Where the numbers will be in another fifteen to twenty years we can only guess. But when some long-memoried blogger like me points out declining marriage rates, increasing out-of-wedlock births, compounding teenage pregnancies, and so on, we can predict that the short-memoried public will snort at the suggestion that redefining marriage could have had anything to do with the deterioration of marriage culture.

May 14, 2009

A Problem of Remuneration Strategy in Education

Justin Katz

We on the right understand, of course, the concept of paying a premium for quality executives and administrators, but there seems to be something of, well, an employer's vanity in paying our new, relatively young Education Commissioner Deborah Gist substantially more than her predecessor, who had logged nearly two decades in the position:

Rhode Island's new education commissioner Deborah Gist, and her bosses, the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education, have signed a three-year contract that takes effect nearly a month earlier than expected -- June 8 -- and will pay Gist about $20,000 more a year than departing Commissioner Peter McWalters now earns. ...

McWalters, 62, will step down June 30 after 17½ years, making him one of the longest serving education commissioners in the country. This year, he earns about $152,000, plus $31,500 in retirement benefits because he does not participate in the state pension system, for total compensation of $183,500.

Gist's contract will run from June 8, 2009 through June 7, 2012. For the first year of the contract, she will earn $190,000 in base salary, plus $13,870 for retirement, or a total of $203,870, an amount that was approved by the state Department of Administration.

It's the new bonus, though, that is really suggestive that something is conceptually awry among those with control over pay and negotiations:

Gist's six-page contract adds a new perk: a possible performance bonus, although the amount or the goals Gist would have to reach to receive one have not been ironed out.

"The Regents agree to actively pursue legislative or other authority to establish a 'pay for performance' pool of funds to offer additional salary to the Commissioner conditioned upon the outcome of her annual performance reviews," states the contract.

The Regents felt it was only fair to include a performance bonus since the concept is being considered for teachers, say education officials.

A newbie being paid so much more than a seasoned veteran ought to be expected to impress as a matter of her baseline performance. The reason to incorporate a bonus is to hedge against disappointment.

Protesting the Ethics Loophole at the Courhouse

Carroll Andrew Morse

I'll add a couple of pictures to Jim Baron's Woonsocket Call article on yesterday's oral arguments inside and protest outside of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, concerning the appeal of the State Ethics Commission's case against former Senate President William Irons. Last year, the State's Superior court threw out the Commission's conviction of Irons on the grounds that the official acts of state legislators, regardless of their motivation, cannot be prosecuted because they are protected by the State Constitution's speech-in-debate immunity clause...

Outside the courthouse, protesters, many from the watchdog group Operation Clean Government, held signs bearing slogans such as “Speech in Debate is not a License to Steal,” “Let the Ethics Commission do its job,” and “Don't kill ethics in Rhode Island.” It was two OCG members who filed the original ethics complaint against Irons.

“Are we going to have a double standard for the application of ethics in this state, or are all our elected and appointed officials going to be subject to the code of ethics?” asked one of the sign holders, Robert “Al” Benson. He said the speech in debate clause allows lawmakers to vote any way they like, “unless they use their vote to break the law.”


One argument discussed in Baron's article whose resolution is sure to impact the Court's decision in this case is the unique legal status of the RI Ethics commission…

[Ethics Commission Lawyer Jason Gramitt] pointed out that in a 1992 opinion, the court ruled that the 1986 constitutional change amounted to “an implied modification of legislative powers” because it gave the ethics commission the authority to write its own ethics laws that the General Assembly did not have to approve and could not change.

He asserted that such an “unheard-of grant of further evidence of the lengths that the drafters (of the amendment) and the voters felt they needed to go to change the landscape of government in the state of Rhode Island. There is no other state in the country since 1986 or currently that has that kind of system of legislating ethics in state government. It never existed until then and it still doesn't exist except here in Rhode Island.”


And Katie Mulvaney's coverage of the oral arguments in the Projo makes a brief mention of what I think is another central argument in the case…

[Justice William P. Robinson] asked Gramitt yesterday how he would deal with the fact that the law disfavors arguments that a law has been repealed by implication.

Gramitt said the 1986 amendment carved out a narrow exception to legislative immunity by expressly giving the commission authority to investigate and impose penalties against legislators.

This is important because, in the years before the passage of the Ethics Amendment, the United States Supreme Court had expressly declined to take a position on whether legislative immunity extends to laws narrowly tailored to regulate legislative conduct, and the idea that judges have an inherent authority to rewrite the plain meaning of Constitutional language that does not conflict with existing interpretations of the Constitution -- which is what the Superior Court did, when it decided that the State Constitution's Ethics Amendment does not fully apply to state legislators, despite text that says it is to be applied to "all elected and appointed officials" -- is an idea that replaces the rule of law with the rule of lawyers.

Further details on the Rhode Island Ethics Amendment and legislative immunity are available here, here, and here.

Their Errors, Our Freedoms... and Taxes

Justin Katz

So when the president's budget errs in its estimation to the tune $58 billion, why is a more invasive pursuit of taxes the obvious answer?

The Obama administration on Monday proposed $58 billion in additional taxes to offset budgeting errors that overstated revenues in the president's plan to finance health care reform.

The tax measures target a host of activities, including people who for tax purposes aggressively reduce the value of property received as gifts or in estates. To reduce fraud, other provisions would require investors, contractors and taxpayers to provide more information about certain transactions to the Internal Revenue Service.

The largest budgeting error overstated the amount of money that would be raised by limiting charitable and other deductions for high-income taxpayers. The limits would generate $267 billion over the next 10 years — $51 billion less than the administration projected in February.

It seems that, no matter what happens — even an incident of miscalculation on the administration's part — the government gets a little bit more power and control.

E-Verify in the Senate Judiciary Committee (and Some Blog-Lobbying on It)

Monique Chartier

The Senate Judiciary will hear Senator Cote's e-verify bill this afternoon at the Rise of the Senate in Room 313.

Employment is the biggest draw to the United States. Legal immigration is a wonderful thing. But illegal employment encourages illegal immigration. A simple, highly accurate tool, E-Verify discourages illegal employment.

E-Verify passed the RI House yesterday For the sake of those who came here the right way, for the sake of the sovereignty of the country, for the sake of not creating an exploited, cheap labor force, I respectfully urge members of the Senate Judiciary to allow this bill to pass on to the Senate floor for due consideration and a vote.

Where the Jobs Are

Marc Comtois

Mama's, don't let your kids grow up to be bureaucrats:

Last week the Department of Labor reported that employers shed a net 539,000 jobs in the first three months of 2009, bringing the nation’s unemployment rate to 8.9%. The manufacturing sector lost 149,000 jobs, business services lost 122,000 jobs, and construction lost 110,000 jobs. All told, the private sector lost 611,000 jobs. So how was the total job loss only 539,000? Because one sector of the economy has proven impervious to economic realities: the public sector. Government actually added 72,000 jobs so far this year.

The continued growth of the public sector while all other sectors of the economy contract is no accident. Government employee unions were a driving force in making sure large chunks of President Obama’s stimulus package went to states and cities to preserve jobs. In fact, when you talk about the entire labor movement today, you are really talking about government employees. Less than 8% of the private sector workforce belongs to a union. Contrast that with 37% of all government employees carrying union cards and 42% of all local government employees.

Make no mistake, collecting union dues from public-sector employees (whose salaries are paid by taxpayers) is big business. The Service Employees International Union collects nearly $5 million a month from just 223,000 health care workers. And when the SEIU is not blatantly stealing this money, they are turning it into efforts to elect politicians who promise to endlessly grow the public sector. SEIU president Andy Stern recently told the Las Vegas Sun: “We spent a fortune to elect Barack Obama — $60.7 million to be exact — and we’re proud of it.”

Rising in the Phoenix

Marc Comtois

The Phoenix's David Scharfenberg took the recent Tea Parties as indicative of something and looked into how the right side of Rhode Island--both overtly partisan like the RI GOP and RIRA and non-partisan, grassroots organizations like OSPRI & RISC--are working toward changing the political landscape in the Ocean State. Oh, and some blogger gets a mention, too.

"The important thing right now," said Justin Katz, Anchor's blogger-in-chief, "is to build that structure so when people say, 'I've had enough,' there's somewhere to go."
If we build it, they will come. We HOPE. But maybe there is just a little more waiting to be done. One more chip to fall before those on the outside can rise like the, ah, phoenix.
GOP leaders say one of their chief frustrations is that the public pins the state's fiscal woes on the Republican governor when authority is actually centered in the Democratic-dominated legislature.

But if the blame game is paramount in tough times, suggests Jennifer Lawless, associate professor of political science and public policy at Brown University, the Republican Party's weakness could actually turn into a strength.

"Ironically, the best bet for the Repub-lican Party might be a complete Democratic sweep of statewide office," she said, "because then there's no one else to blame."


A Fair Hearing for E-Verify in the Senate?

Justin Katz

A comment from Joe Bernstein:

E-verify will not make it through the Senate.

It is "inexplicably" being scheduled for hearing before the Judiciary instead of Labor.

Why? Because Paiva-Weed knows she can't any longer just bury it, so she wants to make damn sure it gets voted down in committee. That won't happen in Labor.
Judiciary has a different makeup this session - apparently Raptakis and Blais, who would be good bets to vote for E-verify, have been replaced.

Goodwin and a new Senator, Erin Lynch, are on the panel, along with RHODA PERRY, CHARLES LEVESQUE, AND HAROLD METTS.

Do the math.

A question: Are there any rules governing which committee handles which bill, or is this yet another means by which the legislative leadership wields its power?

Painful Glimpses of the Rhode Island Way

Justin Katz

There was an air of exasperation as Monique and Matt Allen discussed tax breaks for political supporters and threats from teachers. On a separate issue, hope remains that the General Assembly will pass E-Verify. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

May 13, 2009

Can Non-Persons Be Gendered?

Justin Katz

The intellectual dissonance of this is achingly painful:

The Local reported in February that a woman from Eskilstuna in southern Sweden had twice had abortions after finding out the gender of the child.

The woman, who already had two daughters, requested an amniocentesis in order to allay concerns about possible chromosome abnormalities. At the same time, she also asked to know the foetus's gender.

Doctors at Mälaren Hospital expressed concern and asked Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen) to draw up guidelines on how to handle requests in the future in which they "feel pressured to examine the foetus’s gender" without having a medically compelling reason to do so.

The board has now responded that such requests and thus abortions can not be refused and that it is not possible to deny a woman an abortion up to the 18th week of pregnancy, even if the foetus's gender is the basis for the request.

Critical to pro-abortion arguments — or at least their ability to remain viable in an even modestly moral society — is the fiction that there's some state of being called "personhood" that bestows a basic right not to be killed on a whim by one's own mother and that unborn children lack such being. Here, we have a mother considering qualities of the child as a determinative factor for execution.

There is no way that such a decision can be made without envisioning that child's life with his or her parents. There is no way, in short, not to be thinking of that fetus as a person who will grow through the stages of childhood. To crush that life while it is sufficiently vulnerable is, well, monstrous.

Closing Cranston's Budget Hole, By Saying Let's Pretend It's Not There

Carroll Andrew Morse

Randal Edgar of the Projo captures both the tone and content of last night's Cranston City Council meeting, where the Council seems to have decided how they will "close" Cranston's budget deficit: by assuming union concessions that have not yet been obtained…

The City Council charted a financial course Tuesday that differs sharply from the wishes of Mayor Allan W. Fung, approving a fiscal 2010 budget that restores more than 40 jobs, reduces a projected tax hike, levy increase and counts on more than $2.2 million in not-yet negotiated union concessions to make the numbers balance....the Republican mayor called the budget irresponsible, saying before the meeting that it makes no sense to add $2.6 million to the personnel costs he proposed when the council is also reducing tax revenue and counting on concessions that may not materialize.
This decision by the City Council to assume non-existent as of yet concessions was made, of course, after they refused to accept a police contract that included $1.4 million in concessions over three years.

The Council approved the final budget by a vote of 7-2 with Councilmen Mario Aceto and Robert Pelletier voting against. I asked Counciman Pelletier the reason for his vote, and he answered that he did not support the tax increase contained in the budget.

Edgar's article makes mention of the most contentious exchange of the evening, where City Finance Emilio Navarro expressed skepticism about using $1.7 million in Federal stimulus money targeted towards education to compensate for reduced state education aid:

The most heated debate last night centered on the school budget, the one area on which Fung was allowed to comment because he was asking the council to approve an amendment. Fung asked for a $4 million increase for the schools, in part because he had made an error in calculating the minimum city contribution to the schools, which is $86.4 million. The actual city contribution will be $87.4 million because Fung had pledged to provide $1 million more than required, a plan to which the council agreed.

The total school allocation is $122.6 million when state and federal dollars are counted, but councilman Emilo L. Navarro, chairman of the council Finance Committee, questioned Fung's plan to use $1.7 million in federal stimulus money reach that figure.

Navarro asked Fung repeatedly if he was using one-time money to fund the schools. Fung replied that the issue is whether or not the money counts toward the base budget figure that determines what the city must provide in local dollars each year. Since $1.7 million does not count toward the base figure, the city is not obligated to provide the money again, he said.

How Rhode Island Corruption Works

Justin Katz

The story itself is egregious enough, but of particular interest in Mike Stanton's excellent coverage of the potential that Maureen McKenna Goldberg, the wife of a top lobbyist and former legislator Robert Golberg, might become Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court is the peek into the mechanics of our state's endemic corruption:

THE SAGA OF A Block Island marina where the Goldbergs enjoy leisure time in the summer illustrates the dilemma of whether to recuse or not to recuse.

In 2003, Bob Goldberg represented Champlin's Marina in its application for a permit to expand its dock space in the Great Salt Pond, only to run into fierce opposition from many islanders and environmentalists. In 2006, after a series of contentious hearings that helped run the marina's legal and professional bill to more than $500,000, the Coastal Resources Management Council blocked the expansion.

Goldberg cried foul, accusing key council members of being biased and basing their votes against the marina on private communications with CRMC staffers and direction from Governor Carcieri, who opposed the expansion. Goldberg appealed to Superior Court.

Meanwhile, the composition of the CRMC was the subject of another fight, at the State House. Following Rhode Island voters' approval of the separation of powers law in 2004, which barred legislators from executive boards and commissions, lawmakers were forced to give up their seats on the CRMC.

But House leaders weren't eager to cede their powers. Speaker Murphy argued that the state Constitution still gave the legislature authority over regulating the coastline.

In 2005, with the Champlin's decision still pending before the CRMC, the House killed a Senate-passed bill giving the governor more appointments to the council. That June, the Rhode Island Supreme Court weighed in. In a case involving a swimmer who had been cited for swimming illegally in the Winnapaug Pond breachway in Westerly, the court ruled that the legislature, not the executive branch, was responsible for regulating Rhode Island’s tidal waters.

Justice Goldberg participated in that decision, Westerly v. Bradley.

The following year, during a Senate hearing on who should control the CRMC, Bob Goldberg cited Westerly v. Bradley to support his argument that it was the legislature's prerogative.

"This is as clear as it gets in the law," said Goldberg, who spoke of Champlin's fight but appeared before the committee as a "citizen." "This is a legislative function . . . This is a clear definition from the Supreme Court . . . It's not my job to tell you people what to do; all I can tell you is what I think."

Justice Goldberg subsequently ruled on another case with direct implications for her husband's interests, but a more pertinent thread runs through a companion story on Mr. Goldberg:

In 1997, she was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Lincoln Almond. She was chosen after House leaders rejected the governor’s first choice, federal prosecutor Margaret E. Curran, who would not commit to the legislature's position on separation of powers.

When separation of powers came before the Supreme Court in 1999, Justice Goldberg voted with the majority in a 4-1 decision in favor of the legislature. In two subsequent separation-of-power cases, involving the Lottery Commission and the Coastal Resources Management Council, the justice recused herself, because her husband represented gambling interests and a marina embroiled in litigation with the CRMC.

There appears to be a contradiction to be parsed regarding Justice Goldberg's "participation" in separation of powers cases, but the picture is clear. In a state with many lawyers as legislators — and with a habit of populating government across branches with multiple members of the same families — the legislature has a strong hand in selecting judges and judges nominate candidates for lucrative magistrate positions, often filling them with legislators and political friends.

Meanwhile, the General Assembly leadership is able to push legislation into a black hole of "further study" and has created a spoils system of legislative grants to dole out to their less powerful associates. Moreover, the lack of political opposition means that the thousands that they rake in as campaign donations from political friends and special interests are freed up for lifestyle amenities and for recirculation to other politicians. As Stanton's articles show, the family connects extend out into the broader political class, including many of those same special interests.

It's a closed system that tends toward cronyism and nepotism, and it's going to be very difficult to combat, even as the state collapses under its weight.

Hosting Matters: Reliable, Reasonable Web Hosting

Community Crier

From Justin:

Knowing little about the functioning of the Internet when I entered the online game back at the turn of the millennium, for my first Web host, I went with a company associated with a popular computer brand. The world was less trusting of online correspondence, then, so the availability of phone support was the other key factor in my choice.

I soon learned that a brand name has little to do with reliable uptime, and telephone support typically means long, stressful conversations with lower-tier "specialists" who know how to solve basic problems that you're not having. Sometimes it would take several late-night hours to finally come across somebody who actually had the knowledge to advise on a critical problem.

Soon thereafter, I took the recommendation of another blogger and switched to Hosting Matters. The company offers reasonable, easily expandable packages offering more features than I've yet found reason to explore. When we at Anchor Rising do find something new that we'd like to try, I've always found that the function is already supported. More importantly, the service is very rarely down, and problems with the Web site almost always originated somewhere else in the chain.

Most importantly, the email-based technical support has always produced rapid responses, no matter the urgency level that I claim, and the people who respond — usually the same two women with whom I've been dealing for years — quickly find the problem and know how to fix it. If the "problem" is actually my own lack of knowledge about how to accomplish something, the host's forums and knowledge base often have the answer, and if they don't, the technical support help desk does.

The options for Web hosting are virtually unlimited. The nature of the medium is such that one can go with a company from pretty much anywhere, and there are few obvious reasons to choose one over the other. But there are many reasons that Anchor Rising has remained on the servers at Hosting Matters and is happy to recommend the provider to others.

Different Statements (and Threats) from the Unionist

Justin Katz

As I noted during liveblogging last night, Tiverton Guidance Counselor Lynn Nicholas had the following to say at the school committee meeting in November, at which the committee voted to hold off on approving a retroactive teachers' contract until state numbers came in (stream, download):

Before I ask Doug a question, I just need to make it clear that, if the award is not agreed upon tonight, there will be a lot of harm done. Some of it will be financial; a lot of it will not be, and I'm not going to go into detail.

In reviewing the audio from her speech tonight (stream, download), I was planning to note how her perspective is quite different when taxpayers, not union teachers, are the ones removing money from the budget. But on the scene, I hadn't caught the implications of the sentences with which she closed her speech. Addressing the school committee (emphasis added):

You need to be serious about what you plan on cutting. I am the last person on this Earth that would want to hurt a child, but you need to make a statement. I don't know how you're going to do it. I don't know what you're going to do. But you need to make a statement to get people to the town meeting.

Keep in mind that this was before the conversation turned to ways to "get out the vote." That being the case, Ms. Nicholas would appear to be suggesting that the school committee make targeted cuts, risking harm to students, that would anger parents enough to get them to the next FTM. True to union form, the kids — whose well-being, the disclaimer goes, is a top priority for everybody — are to be leveraged as pawns to drive the parents toward actions beneficial to the union.

This coincides with a — for now — rumor that I'd heard today that a certain school committee member is planning to recommend cuts in programming intentionally in order to fire up parents. Me, I'd suggest that the school committee consider the possibility that such maneuvers could very well motivate parents to take quite different actions than the committee intends... especially now that a local organization exists to explain precisely where the district's money has been going.

May 12, 2009

Campaign Contributions: Bready to Cicilline

Monique Chartier

Under Marc's post concerning the lawsuit filed by former Providence Tax Collector Robert Ceprano against Mayor David Cicilline et al, commenter Damien Baldino observes

I don't know if Richard Bready is a generous contributor to the City, but he is a generous contributor to Mayor Cicilline.

Indeed. Richard and Cheryl Bready have made the following contributions to David Cicilline's mayoral campaign.

June, 2002: $1,000

September, 2003: $500

September, 2004: $1,000

June, 2005: $1,000

March, 2006: $1,000


September, 2004: $1,000

June, 2005: $1,000

March, 2006: $1,000

For a grand total to date of $7,500. The question is, did these contributions, which had reached $5,500 by June, 2005, influence Mayor Cicilline's decision in 2005 to waive the interest that Mr. Bready owed on an unpaid real estate tax bill?

Addendum - More Contributors, More Interest Waived

Under comments, Damien Baldino directs us to a January post on his blog, RI Republican, in which he has compiled the campaign contributions of five additional people. Not just any people but

... some of the people David Cicilline helped with their tax problems. Not surprisingly, all of them are regular contributors to Cicilline's campaign, which currently has an ending balance of more than $600,000.

Listed below are the five individuals mayor Cicilline so graciously helped, including a list of their contributions to Mayor Cicilline and a link to their contribution history at

Well, well, well. Five more generous contributors. Five more dollops of interest waived. Coincidence? Or pattern?

A New Dawn for Tiverton Education... or Is It Dusk?

Justin Katz

A larger-than-usual crowd is in t Tiverton High School library for the first school committee after the financial town meeting cut the district's budget by $627,247. A healthy TCC showing; the rest, I assume, are teachers and sympathizers.

School Committee Chairman: "Our only priority in dealing with this cut is to protect our students, and to make sure that our students are impacted as little as possible... everything else is secondary."

7:17 p.m.

They're going to speak vaguely for public consumption and reserve specific strategies for executive session because, as Bergandy put it: "We have to explore possible legal consequences."

Carroll Hermann started by thanking those who showed up at the FTM and voted against the cut. "With $600,000, everyone will get hurt. No one will walk away whole."

7:21 p.m.

Sally Black is taking a general tack, currently suggesting that, at a certain point, "tinkering" with the "delicate balance" has to stop.

She's emphasizing the "fair funding formula" from the state, pointing to a clause in proposed legislation reading "regardless of annual availability of state revenues."

Mild dig at Budget Committee members who didn't vote with the budget they proposed.

7:27 p.m.

Bergandy suggested that, when the state is done cutting, the shortfall may reach a million dollars.

TCC member Joe Souza is speaking, saying that the cut wasn't to "hurt the kids." Scoffs from the teachers in the room: "Yes it was."

7:29 p.m.

"We need to stand up in this town and make some noise... together." Too much in-fighting.

"It's not the Tiverton taxpayers against this school committee."

Guidance Counselor Lynn Nicholas — who is heavily involved in the union — thinks that lawsuits against the town "need seriously to be considered."

Now she wants to know what advocacy the school committee will pursue to get parents to the town meeting.

7:35 p.m.

One teacher wants to form an organization to battle TCC. My impression was that the union and the town Democrats were organized for such purposes.

How absurd that a small group fighting back can make these people feel that the process was somehow unfairly tilted.

7:37 p.m.

Bill Rearick just read the new charter amendment that prevents town funds from advocating for causes.

Sally Black described an undue concern about what it allowed her to do.

7:41 p.m.

A reader just emailed to remind me of Lynn Nicholas's comment during contract disputes: if the committee does not pass the contract, there will be "a lot of harm done — some financial, some not."

The audio is here. Full quote:

Before I ask Doug a question, I just need to make it clear that, if the award is not agreed upon tonight, there will be a lot of harm done. Some of it will be financial; a lot of it will not be, and I'm not going to go into detail.

When you make a statement like that when you're looking for money for yourself, you don't have a whole lot of credibility to villainize taxpayers as hurting children.

7:51 p.m.

And business moves on to sex offender notification and heating oil bids.

7:54 p.m.

At last night's town council, apparently at the beginning (why I missed it), Council Vice President Joanne Arruda made a point during the consent agenda segment of expressing opposition to a petition to end the Caruolo act and another to allow town councils power over teacher contracts.

7:58 p.m.

It just occurred to me that one of the speakers during the financial town meeting segment of this meeting pointed out that services to students have been declining for years. She was making the point that parents will leave town if the new cut exacerbates the problem; I'd note that TCC is less than a year old.

The NEA-RI has been around for quite a while, though...

8:02 p.m.

And out into the night...

Re: Bizarro Beauty Pageant World

Justin Katz

What caught my eye about the Miss USA story that Marc mentioned earlier was this line from an unattributed Providence Journal "staff" report:

Prejean created controversy when, during the live pageant broadcast, she gave her philosophy of marriage.

Not "confronted." Not even "caused." "Created." Out of the thin air of a perfectly benign question, Miss California created controversy with her not-to-be believed agreement with a majority of her countrymen and just about every culture throughout history.

Well, I suppose this is light fare — of interest only to language folks, like me — from a paper that's had regular pieces promoting the cause of same-sex marriage recently.

Obama Admin to Brits: Only We Can Rat Ourselves Out

Monique Chartier

This is a little confusing.

The Obama administration says it may curtail Anglo-American intelligence sharing if the British High Court discloses new details of the treatment of a former Guantanamo detainee.

A court filing from the British Foreign Office released recently includes a letter from the U.S. government, identified as the "Obama administration's communication." Other information identifying the U.S. agency and author of the letter appears to have been redacted.

* * *

At issue is whether the British courts will disclose a seven-paragraph summary of the treatment of Binyam Mohamed, a former detainee who was released from Guantanamo Bay prison in February.

How about a compromise? Hand it over to the US Justice Department. It's not enough to fill four memos but that seems to be the acceptable channel for release of such info.

Tabbing Goldberg Would Look Bad

Marc Comtois

Dan Yorke was all over the ProJo expose on potential RI Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg and her husband, super-lobbyist Robert Goldberg. Mr. Goldberg has his hands in so many cookie jars that it would seem impossible for potential Chief Justice Goldberg to be able to rule on any number of potential cases without recusing herself. For instance, he has lobbied for interests in gambling (GTECH), alternative power (Deep Water Wind) and health care (CVS). How effective could she be when her spouse is involved--even if only peripherally--in any number of hot button issues? Plus, he's a major political donor.

H. Philip West, former executive director of Rhode Island Common Cause and a longtime follower of the judicial selection process, wonders how much the Goldbergs share with each other about their work, and how that might affect their attitudes and actions.

“Bob has his hands in scores of policy and legal issues across state government,” says West. “I’m troubled that Maureen will have to recuse herself or by the anxiety that people might have if she doesn’t recuse herself.” Given her husband’s broad portfolio, from gambling to health care to energy to the environment, potential conflicts might not always be so obvious or apparent, he noted.

Echoes Arthur C. Barton, president of Operation Clean Government: “Legislation that her husband is paid to promote, she is paid to review. We don’t want a chief justice who is compromised, or has to recuse herself. It’s one of those things that taint government in Rhode Island, if the chief justice is married to the highest-paid lobbyist in the state.”

Barton says that Justice Goldberg’s presence on the bench could also be perceived as helping her husband’s law practice as well as his lobbying at the State House, where many legislative leaders are lawyers who earn their livelihood in court.

When both Common Cause and Operation Clean Government have raised alarms, I'd say that's more than enough for me to have serious reservations. Whether Judge Goldberg recuses herself or not, the perceived, inferred and real influence of her own husband is enough to call her selection into question. Perhaps its unfair to well-connected individuals, but we'll never change the negative perception of this state so long as we continue to go back to the same well of insiders time and again.

Cicilline's Scapegoat Fights Back

Marc Comtois

Be wary of who you throw under the bus. Like, say, a city tax collector who may know some things (via 7to7):

Fired tax collector Robert P. Ceprano....Ceprano alleges that Mayor David N. Cicilline pressed him in 2005 to waive back interest on unpaid property taxes by Richard Bready, the CEO of Nortek. According to the 86-page lawsuit, Ceprano refused to accept a $25,000 check from Bready in 2005 for two properties that were facing a tax sale for unpaid taxes. The reason: because the check did not include interest, which Bready was asking be waived.

When Ceprano refused, his lawsuit says, Bready instead delivered the check directly to the mayor. The mayor, through then-chief of staff Michael Mello, then ordered Ceprano to remove the properties, at 145 Benefit St. and 24 Stimson Ave., from the tax sale.

According to the lawsuit, Mello told Ceprano that Bready was "a generous contributor to the city.'' Ceprano subsequently wrote a note in city tax records, attached to the lawsuit as an exhibit: "At the request of Mayor Cicilline & Chief of Staff Michael Mello, interest will not be charged on this account.''

Wonder if this has legs?

Bizarro Beauty Pageant World

Marc Comtois

I'm not sure when beauty pageants (you know, wouldn't they be considered as objectifying women?) became so PC, but the flap about Miss California wasn't really about previously undisclosed semi-nekkid pics--it was about Miss California Carrie Prejean saying she disagreed with the concept of gay marriage.

The trumped-up nature of the bogus picture charges was, erm, exposed by Miss Rhode Island Alysha Castonguay, who has some pics of her own and who explained, “I personally believe this situation is stemming from the controversy over her opinion and not a photo.” She also defended Prejean's right to answer as she did, whether you agree with her or not. Pretty basic civics, isn't it? And it all came to an end today with a decision by Donald Trump, owner of the Miss USA Pageant:

“It's the same answer that the president of the United States gave,” Trump said. “She gave an honorable answer. She gave an answer from her heart.”

In her own remarks moments later, Prejean echoed Trump’s statement, telling reporters: “The president of the United States, the secretary of state, and many Americans agree with me in this belief.”

Anyway, from all of this we have learned: 1) Posing for semi-nude pics as a teenager = OK; 2) Bucking the liberal Conventional Wisdom on the PC topic-du-jour = not OK. Lesson: No matter the question asked at a pageant, always bring your answer back to any or all of the following: feeding the hungry; clothing the poor; world peace. Or be ready to stand up for yourself, like Prejean did.

RE: Can You Imagine Doing This at Home

Marc Comtois

Justin beat me to the punch, but here's the link to the AP story he mentioned about the budget deficit. More:

The new record deficit this year -- driven by the federal government's efforts at bailing out financial institutions and automakers, the $787-billion economic stimulus act that Congress approved one month into Obama's term and slumping federal tax revenue -- will amount to 12.9% of the nation's Gross Domestic Product...."The deficits ... are driven in large part by the economic crisis inherited by this administration," budget director Peter Orszag wrote in a blog entry on Monday.
Aahhhh....inherited..."It's not our fault!" Hm. Perhaps this will lend perspective on the "inheritance".

Yes, the above graph has been around for a while, but it's a useful reminder that:

1) We're engaging in way more deficit spending than ever before, and plan on continuing because...
2) The projected numbers escalate even after the current economic crisis is "solved" by the Obama Administration.

Can You Imagine Doing This at Home?

Justin Katz

I don't have time to get the link, right now, but this is jaw dropping, from the AP:

The government will have to borrow nearly 50 cents for every dollar it spends this year, exploding the record federal deficit past $1.8 trillion under new White House estimates.

Budget office figures released Monday would add $89 billion to the 2009 red ink — increasing it to more than four times last year's all-time high...

Providence Housing Offenders and One of Their Neighbors.

Monique Chartier

Further to Justin's post, the homeless shelter on Prairie Avenue in Providence, one of two in the state required to accept predators, is next to (that would be next to) Edmund W. Flynn Elementary School‎.

As the host city of the other homeless shelter required to accept predators, Cranston is understandably up in arms because

... the Howard Avenue location, less than a mile from Brayton Avenue Park and its youth playing fields, as well as three elementary schools and the city library, has sparked an outcry.

Less than a mile from children in Cranston. Less than a block from children in Providence.

It's one thing for a homeless shelter to be located near children. It's another matter when some quirk of funding or of law subsequently requires that that shelter house pedophiles. Somehow, the location of the shelter and the proximity to potential victims gets forgotten between the two steps.

Let's be clear that keeping a distance between elementary schools and shelters which accept offenders does not necessarily deprive offenders of new victims. Once offenders have served their sentence and are out in the community, they can and do strike again anywhere.

At the same time, there are certain steps that can be taken to eliminate easy targets. Keeping a twice daily parade of potential victims away from such offenders would seem to be one obvious step.

Addendum - Credit

Thanks to Michael Morse for pointing out, under Justin's post, the alarming juxtaposition of these two buildings.

The Budget Hole Rhode Island's In

Justin Katz

Sympathy is in order for the state's lawmakers, although not of the exculpatory kind. It must seem to them that, no matter what they do, the economic dirt keeps falling in on them in the economic hole that they've dug:

Rhode Island government's budget deficits have grown by $200 million over the last six months, a massive jump that exacerbates an already-staggering budget hole and intensifies pressure on the General Assembly to raise taxes or slash state spending across a host of popular programs.

Elected officials have less than two months to close combined budget holes totaling roughly $661 million, according to projections finalized Monday by the state's top budget officials on the final day of the semiannual Revenue and Caseload Estimating Conference. The shortfall includes an unanticipated current-year gap of $70 million and a $590-million deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1. ...

Next year's hole amounts to approximately 19 percent of Rhode Island's current state budget, excluding federal dollars.

If you add in what's become a typical mid-year deficit in the hundreds of millions, the shortfall for fiscal 2010 hovers near a billion dollars. Upwards of a fifth of the working budget is money we don't have. But hey, it's not as if nobody's seen this coming. In fact, in considering an interviewer's question about the impetus behind Anchor Rising's founding back in 2004, I recalled that our prognostications for the state made action a civic imperative.

The state is reaping what it's sown, and those who've liked the policies that got us here just fine have but one scapegoat before they must begin battling each other for the trickle of satiating largess for their unhealthy dependency:

"We are paying the price not only for national and international economic factors, but also for years of misguided decisions by our policymakers that have cut taxes for those who need cuts the least, while increasing the pressure on the rest of us," Peter Asen, spokesman for the labor-backed advocacy group Ocean State Action, said in a statement.

As satisfying as some may find the class warfare angle, the reality is that income tax revenue from "those who need cuts the least" has gone up dramatically, with $228 million more paid by those with incomes over $100,000 in 2006 than in 2002, with $156 million more coming from those with incomes over $200,000.

Rhode Island must push the likes of Ocean State Action aside and do what so clearly must be done.

Cut taxes. Trim mandates. Lighten regulations. And quick.

May 11, 2009

Speed Reading License Plates

Monique Chartier

Matt Allen asked a good question this evening: would this be acceptable if it does, in fact, focus solely on cars involved in real crimes?

The Police Department is going to try out a new gizmo installed on its cruisers to automatically read motor-vehicle license plates and give officers a quick read-out of whether a plate is on a "hot list."

The technology, manufactured by ELSAG North America Law Enforcement Systems, is supposed to give officers an advantage in knowing what they may be up against before they get out of the cruisers during a vehicle stop.

ELSAG's proprietary software searches criminal and motor vehicle databases and alerts an officer to any violations or crimes associated with that plate number.

Let us emphasize, conversely, that if the device is to be utilized as some imaginative minds have projected - to identify delinquent parking ticket recipients - it needs to be deployed in a completely non-discriminatory manner. Let no one be excluded from its watchful eye. Not city employees. Not relatives of the Mayor.

In these matters, egalitarianism is a beautiful thing.

A Broader Application than Broadband

Justin Katz

It seems to me that Frank Rizzo's reasoning in deciding that government-run broadband Internet is a bad idea applies pretty much across the board for possible government actions beyond a limited set of activities:

At the heart of the problem is this: The economics simply didn't work [in Philadelphia]. To come close to breaking even, municipal systems need to attract sufficient numbers of low-dollar subscribers to help offset the ever-swelling capital costs of building, maintaining and upgrading the network.

Typically, any wire line or wireless broadband network will cost, conservatively, tens of millions of dollars in initial investments. On top of massive start-up capital costs for initial construction, broadband networks require huge annual operating costs to pay for administrative staff, customer service, repairs and maintenance. Equipment upgrades — needed every four to five years — often cost potentially tens of millions of dollars more.

To offset these costs, municipal systems need to attract thousands of local subscribers by either drawing customers away from commercial providers or by persuading nonbroadband users to sign up.

But commercial providers generally offer more reliable and faster service — few of their subscribers are likely to switch to a slower municipal service to save a couple of bucks. And, as the Pew Internet & American Life Project has found, broadband nonusers don't see relevance of the technology in their lives, making it unlikely that a taxpayer-subsidized network would suddenly change their minds.

Government isn't as sufficient. It can rig the system. And it drives up prices for everybody outside of its offering and diminishes quality for those within.

Despite his insight, Rizzo falls back on brainstorming ways in which to make the system work:

What's really needed is not a utopian dream bound for fiscal bankruptcy, but rather a true national broadband policy that will give the nation's mayors the resources for low-cost computers, digital training, local technology centers and resources for creative nonprofits and other third parties to generate targeted online content that will foster greater interest in broadband by nonusers. When Wireless Philadelphia failed, we did just this with the Digital Inclusion 2.0 program and, as a result, more low-income residents are online in our city than ever before.

Thus does a limited effort to level the playing field and create a baseline public infrastructure for Internet access grows into the generation of content meant to generate interest in a government service. It's like government mission-creep at Internet speed.

The Meeting After

Justin Katz

I apologize to readers from elsewhere for all the Tivertonalia 'round here lately, and I've got so much on my plate, right now, that I wasn't intending to come to tonight's Town Council meeting. But rumors that the council might (at some point) call for a special financial town meeting for a redo vote and the fact that discussion of Saturday's result is on the agenda for this evening persuaded me that it would be prudent to be in the room.

Of course, I've also heard whispers from my allies about town that a second round might be fun, perhaps to go back for the municipal cuts that the 1:00 p.m. deadline prevented in round 1. Me, I'd prefer that the town spend a year in these new waters before any more such tugs of war.

7:49 p.m.

Discussion of the financial town meeting was limited to an announcement that Michael Smith won the FTM moderator position, 373 to 312, and a vote to send a letter of thanks and compliment to Mike Burk for his job at the last one.

8:31 p.m.

During the administrator's announcement and comments section, Council Member Louise Durfee asked Administrator Jim Goncalo what the effect will be of the council's failure to secure an additional $300,000 for abatement. He'll reply at the next meeting.

8:36 p.m.

And now into executive session for a "quick" discussion about unspecified litigation.

Myopia Versus the Long View in Rhode Island

Justin Katz

Self-described newcomer to local politics, Brian Gough, has a letter on the Sakonnet Times Web site criticizing reformers' efforts. Individuals' understanding of the appropriate actions of elected representatives, particularly those in leadership roles, may vary, and differences of opinion aren't necessarily worth the expenditure of much heat. But Mr. Gough's snap assessment of the sides makes an egregious error:

The level of passion behind the actions taken at this meeting was apparent. I am a realist, and quickly did the math. I realize the impact of a small group's efforts to push their agenda is minimal in the short term but the impact on our long term financial viability is extreme. They are selling us out for a short-term reduction in our taxes, and willing to risk our long-term values (home value, bond viability, etc.) Based on this, I must question whether I am a short- or long-term resident of this town. The answer is easy, I am here for the long term, and based on this, I will focus my energy on what will help all of us for the long term.

Members of Tiverton Citizens for Change, as the most local representatives of our broader movement, take a very long view of the actions and the changes necessary to renew our town, our state, and our nation. Those who think we see each cut in terms of its immediate affect on our tax bills miss the point and are likely to stop following the thread before they've come to the real structural problems that we're trying to address.

Housing Offenders

Justin Katz

Focusing mainly on the local controversy, journalist Randal Edgar didn't ask why this should be true:

Dennis B. Langley, president and CEO of the Urban League of Rhode Island, which runs Harrington Hall, played down the concerns, saying the shelter, which opened as a permanent center in 2003, has housed sex offenders for years. The only difference now, he said, is that more are being sent there.

"We have a large number of sex offenders throughout the state. We have never seen as many," he said.

It could be that offenders are attracted to the state of Rhode Island by legal loopholes that allow them to remain anonymous while they appeal their convictions as well as the risk tier at which they're classified. The process of appeals can take years. The process of closing the loophole is also likely to take years, inasmuch as the General Assembly has held for study a bill to close it. Also held for study is a bill requiring "sex offenders temporarily living in Rhode Island" to register with police within their first two weeks here.

In the meantime, we can only marvel at the lives that our guests lead:

... While sex offenders who have been released from prison might live in any given neighborhood, local residents say housing offenders at the shelter is different, because they are required to leave by 7 a.m. each day and cannot return until 6 p.m.

"It's just too much," Bergin-Andrews said.

Langley, however, said the likelihood of repeat offenses is small. People staying at the shelter are given bus passes and routinely ride to Providence shelters during the day to get free meals, he said.

Generally speaking, Rhode Island is a good place to be if you've got no place to be.

May 10, 2009

Comprehensive Immigration Reform Stalling - Advocates in Neutral

Monique Chartier

It looks as though President Obama is holding off on comprehensive immigration reform. Even if it would be more corect to append a "for now" to that sentence, the president is to be applauded for doing so.

What caught my eye was this.

"I'm just surprised at how muted the reaction has been to Obama's complete lack of action on immigration," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, who said immigrant rights groups are giving Mr. Obama "a lot more slack than they would have given a President McCain."

Now why would that be? Is it because advocates of illegal immigration believe that the president will deliver comprehensive immigration reform, a.k.a. amnesty, in due course and they just have to be patient? Or is it just easier to hear "bad news" from someone whom you view as being on your team; i.e., because President Obama is a Democrat?

One example that comes to mind is President Bill Clinton signing welfare reform to minimal objection on any front. (Republican examples welcome; I'm sure they exist but am drawing a blank at the moment.)

Where Tiverton Goes from Here

Justin Katz

Saturday morning, a majority of electors at the Tiverton financial town meeting (FTM) for 2009 voted to cut the Budget Committee's recommended school department budget by $627,247 — explicitly subtracting $174,054 from the local contribution and $453,193 from the expected general state aid. Owing to a Budget Committee resolution passed earlier in the meeting, any "federal, state, or local government aid" in excess of that amount would be "returned to the Town's General Fund as a surplus."

If not for a time limit before the meeting would automatically have recessed until the following week — thus risking a repeat of last year's performance — the municipal budget could have experienced a similar cut.

As one might expect, rumors (aka threats) of litigation are already circulating, and Rhode Islanders have been conditioned to see such actions as unavoidable consequences of cold process. As with children decrying the restrictions imposed by peer pressure, the excuse will go out from officials and union members alike that laws, mandates, and contracts leave them no choice. Adults should understand that there are always choices, the question being who refuses to make the right ones.

In evaluating the path forward, Tiverton should recall to mind two antecedents without which Saturday's result would likely have been quite different: the suspicious outcome of last year's FTM and the imprudent raise and retroactive giveaway to the teachers' union in January. Both galvanized those of us who see a need for an overhaul of priorities, and both compounded the difficulty of dealing with current financial strain.

For all the shades of gray, there are really only two paths forward. Our representatives can take the taxpayers' cue and push back on those whom they've previously perceived as tying their hands — the unions and the state. Or our representatives can continue fighting reformers and attempting to move as much of their habitual agenda as possible.

If they choose the former approach, they'll force the unions and state lawmakers to accept the mantle of intransigence against financial reality and taxpayers' demands. They'll also find eager support amidst a growing wave of active citizens with their eye on transforming Rhode Island into the national leader that it ought to be.

If they choose the latter approach — if they cling to the remnants of a withering status quo, if they continue to pile on the antecedents to escalation — they might just push an increasingly organized opposition to the next level of involvement: namely, campaigns for office.

Big Brother Is Only Logical

Justin Katz

Does anybody else pick up a willful naivete in Gerald Bastarache's advocacy for a mileage tax?

To measure these miles, the commission calls for "in-vehicle or after market Global Positioning System (GPS) devices" that would track the way we drive. The per-mile charge would depend on whether the driving is on crowded urban freeways during rush hour (higher charge) or lightly traveled rural roads (lower charge).

The goal of the mileage tax is still to collect the funds we need for good highways through user fees, but in a more logical way than we do now.

The report says the amount charged for cars could range from 0.9 cents per mile to match current trust fund revenues, or go up to 2.3 cents per mile to "maintain and improve" the annual investment level.

The levels of taxation require careful calibration to ensure fairness. But compared with the current system, fairness should be relatively easy to achieve. ...

Privacy is sometimes cited as a concern, but privacy is protected when the data is kept within the vehicle. The many tracking devices already in today’s vehicles, such as OnStar, E-ZPass and LoJack, are effective without compromising privacy.

"Careful calibration" in a system of taxation that varies by location and maintenance needs? Chilling.

Moreover, consumers can have some trust in private companies, because if they violate that trust, car owners can cancel their services and even rip the units right out of the cars. If the violation is sufficiently egregious, the entire business model could tank. Taxpayers, by contrast, would not be permitted to "cancel" the service, except via indirect application of the political process, even when bureaucrats and government officials find the excuses to violate trust far too compelling to ignore.

The First Murmurs of a Healthcare Debacle

Justin Katz

It's all very hush-hush, at this point, but our nation's brightest minds — those in the U.S. Senate, of course — are set to point their considerable intellectual prowess in the direction of universal healthcare. Currently, three general plans are on the table:

_Create a plan that resembles Medicare, administered by the Health and Human Services department.

_Adopt a Medicare-like plan, but pick an outside party to run it. That way government officials would not directly control the day-to-day operations.

_Leave it up to individual states to set up a public insurance plan for their residents.

The Medicare for all discussion has been ongoing for quite some time. Roland Benjamin took a look at it, for example, about a year and a half ago on Anchor Rising. The first link above provides a couple of scenarios that ought to enable any rational person to begin to see the fatal flaws of such plan:

If the public plan were open to all employers and individuals — and if it paid doctors and hospitals the same as Medicare — it would quickly grow to 131 million members, while enrollment in private insurance plans would plummet, the study found.

By paying Medicare rates the government plan would be able to set premiums well below what private plans charge. Employers and individuals would rush to sign up.

But the results would be far different if the government plan was limited to small employers, individuals and the self-employed.

In that smaller-scale scenario, the public plan would get from 17 million to 43 million members, the study said. It found that a government plan could be effective in reducing number of uninsured.

In either case, the system would lower incentives and motivation among healthcare providers and surely diminish services and quality. Insurance companies would begin struggling, and folks who maintain private plans will see prices float right past affordability, pushing them into the government net.

If the government outsources administration of this same plan, it achieves no end but creating an additional layer in the process and generating the friction inherent in a system that leaves one group (politicians) to set rules and standards and another to make the numbers work. In other words, it would exacerbate trends that are already too prevalent. And if the feds punt the issue to the states, it would do what big government does best and find the worst of all worlds in the name of expediency.

May 9, 2009

Rule of Lawyer: Tiverton Town Solicitor Andrew M. Teitz and Disenfranchisement of a Lowly Blogger

Justin Katz

Reflection has not changed my opinion, stated while liveblogging, that Mike Burk, the moderator of today's financial town meeting in Tiverton made every effort to be fair and, on the whole, succeeded. That said, he did make a few substantial errors, one of which brings into stark relief a problem of governance pervasive in Rhode Island — namely, the undue power of hired attorneys in the conduct of school and municipal business.

I am neither an experienced parliamentarian nor a lawyer, so in the flow of the meeting, I focused more on principle than on procedural law. Moreover, as is evidenced by my ready willingness to modify an amendment that I'd made to the proposed school budget, I wasn't heavily invested in the specific numbers that I put forward. But it is my opinion that Tiverton Town Solicitor Andrew M. Teitz strove to disenfranchise me as a taxpaying voter in the town, and that Moderator Burk permitted him to accomplish that goal.

As I offered the initial discussion on my amendment, Solicitor Teitz interrupted to make a point of order (stream, download):

Teitz: Excuse me, I have a point of order. The number that you suggested for the appropriation is 20,046,960; is that correct? Which is actually less than the number that was appropriated last year.
Burk: Which means that that is out of order, am I catching that?
Teitz: Yeah, the state law requires that they receive at least as much... that the appropriation be at least as much as it was in the previous year.
Katz: My understanding, though, is that if the number of students declines, maintenance of effort permits an adjustment downward.
Burk: I will rule that out of order if it is below the number that was appropriated last year.
Audience: No.
Teitz: You are correct; it can be adjusted if you have the information on that.
Katz: I'm not aware that I actually need that information to pass an amendment. These are questions of... I mean, if people distrust my number, they can vote my amendment down and vote for another one or the main motion, if they prefer, but I'm not understanding why I... [somebody handed me a piece of paper.] Alright: In the past six years, enrollment is down 13.5%, and tax spending has gone up 45%. I think if we're trying to show maintenance of effort, we've certainly done so.

School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy requested that the school department's attorney Stephen Robinson have the floor to offer relevant information. What he offered (included in the above audio link) was a statement that he's previously made as to the procedure for proving maintenance of effort and the right of the FTM to address line items in the school budget, as opposed to the whole thing. Then, Budget Committee Vice Chairman Rob Coulter pointed out that the law is certainly not as unambiguous as Mr. Robinson had stated and argued that, given the trends in enrollment and funding, it is simply "incorrect" to state that the previous year's exact dollar amount must be matched. Furthermore, Rob noted Teitz's opinion, elsewhere, that the charter trumps state law in these contexts, and the charter allows for line-item modification.

At that point, Burk insisted that he was going to rule the amendment out of order, based on a lack of "significant enough details" and gave me the option of modifying it to avoid the objection. Wishing to expedite the process, I agreed. However, upon further discussion, I thought it necessary to take the thread up again (stream, download):

Katz: I disagree that the legal issues are a matter of procedure for this particular meeting. An amendment is not "out of order" because there may be litigation. This body can submit the numbers that it would like to do, and that could be resolved after the fact. The fact that there are lawyers in the room who are willing to testify to the law does not mean that we are bound by their judgment. And I would remind people that Mr. Coulter is also a lawyer, so if he presents a different opinion...
Burk: He is not here to practice law. Our solicitor is our legal council.
Katz: Right. But if they're simply giving an opinion of the law, we can disregard that. They're not judges. They're not juries. And they're certainly not executioners.
Teitz: Point of information regarding that. The advice that is given here is to the town. The client is the Town of Tiverton. You're right: it is to this financial town meeting, as interpreted by the moderator, and you can listen to everybody. You can listen to all the lawyers, including me, as to what the advice is. And this body, if there's an appeal — if you want to do it over a dollar [the substantial difference of my proposal] — you can. An appeal going through the proper decision... an appeal to the moderator's decision, a majority vote, and whatnot can overrule that. Obviously, you do it at your own risk, but you are correct. The body can overrule the legal opinion through the moderator if you wanted to do it. I have provided you with the information; the moderator has ruled it "out of order"; but even if it is out of order, it can be appealed.
Katz: I'm merely stating the opinion that it is not the procedure that the lawyers in the room dictate the procedure of the meeting — dictate what's in order and what's out of order. We can vote on what we want.
Teitz: I'm agreeing with you, but there's a way to do it, which would be to appeal the moderator's decision.
Katz: Right, but that's only if the moderator turns to the lawyers and takes your dictation wholesale.

The point that became obscured amidst all of Teitz's agreeing with me was that he had managed to deprive me of my right to make the motion that I desired in the financial town meeting despite three parliamentary and legal matters of which he — as the paid "expert" in the room — should have been knowledgeable and of which the moderator — presumably qualified for his role — should have been aware:

  1. Mr. Teitz had no standing to interrupt me for a point of order. Robert's Rules allow members to make such interruptions, but not being a resident of the town, Teitz does not qualify. Somebody else could have done so, and the moderator could have requested Mr. Teitz's opinion, but as it happened, the lawyer displayed his eagerness to turn the direction of the meeting in a preferred direction, and the moderator let show his willingness to be led.
  2. Mr. Teitz's point of order was too late. As one can plainly hear (stream, download), my motion to amend had been duly made and seconded, and the moderator had stated the question and opened the floor for debate. According to Robert's Rules: "After debate on such a motion has begun — no matter how clearly out of order the motion may be — a point of order is too late."
  3. There is no restriction in Robert's Rules, the Tiverton Town Charter (PDF), or the Rhode Island General Laws that forbids a town meeting from explicitly taking actions that challenge the law. Indeed, the RIGL makes provisions for a ballot vote option in situations "involving... the incurring of liability by the town." In other words, it is not out of order to make a motion that knowingly opens the door to litigation, much less a motion that kinda-sorta, in the opinion of a hired lawyer, might open that door.

None of this is to say that I'm particularly upset about the outcome. I would suggest, however, that the people of Tiverton — and I'm sure this applies across the state — should insist that our elected officials enlist the services only of lawyers who are sufficiently knowledgeable and ethical to avoid trampling the rights of citizens. Because I know it couldn't possibly be the will of those officials to do so.


For further clarification of my thoughts on Teitz's speech about the proper procedure for disregarding the advice of lawyers: The hired legal advisers do not enter the procedure as issuers of decisions that must be overruled. They are there to offer analysis of the legal repercussions of particular decisions and, if necessary, to give suggestions as to the specific procedural rules governing the meeting. There is no procedural rule that requires a meeting to steer well clear of potential sources of legal liability.

Furthermore, it is inappropriate for the moderator to behave as a proxy by which the legal advisers can accomplish this end. Moderators are not the dictators of the meetings that they are running. Unless I'm mistaken, to accomplish their end, the moderator should have put forward as a resolve — or the body should have made as a prior motion — a stipulation that no motions would be entertained if, in the judgment of the town solicitor, they stood a reasonable chance of creating an opportunity for litigation. That would have negated my objections #2 and #3 above.

(Before anybody on the other side spends too much time pondering the possibilities, let me suggest that I think Tiverton Citizens for Change could have a lot of fun with such a rule.)

UPDATED: Correction on Property Taxes

Justin Katz

Based on conversation here and here, it appears that I was wrong to state that "a new methodology will skew taxes toward waterfront properties." Several people who are typically more specifically knowledgeable about town financial matters made statements that I apparently took too literally.

That said, Tiverton Tax Assessor David Robert has strangely refused to answer, here, direct questions about the process, a decision that I attribute more to my local reputation than to his having anything to hide. (I suspect that, in certain circles, I'm taken to be much more of a conniver than I actually am.)

What I'm trying to determine is whether a decreasing pool of sales from which to determine trends has resulted in differing bases for different neighborhoods. I'd welcome feedback from folks familiar with the controversy in Barrington, especially if it might pertain to the varying results in Tiverton.

ADDENDUM 05/09/09 2:14 p.m.:

After conversation with Tax Assessor David Robert after today's financial town meeting, I'm persuaded that nothing different was done that unfairly skewed the revaluation results... at least any more than is always the case.

In essence, all sales forming the basis for the revaluation were in town. In cases in which a subsection of houses had insufficient sales to make reassessments valid, the assessor calculated based on overall sales and the typical ratio of that neighborhood to the overall. (I'm summarizing the effect, here, and may not be to-the-letter accurate about the procedure as implemented.)

I'd argue that this methodology is inherently unfair, inasmuch as a neighborhood with too few sales can't even be said to have kept up with the values of the rest of the town. If a dozen houses sell in my working class neighborhood at a 10% decrease from previous assessments, but no houses sell down the hill from me, closer to the water, one cannot infer that they would have sold at that 10% decrease. Indeed, they might well have sold only if offered at a 50% decrease, which means that their value is unfairly assessed to have held.

That said, it would be difficult (mathematically or politically) to come up with a number that adjusts for sales that didn't happen. The town could investigate the prices that the houses weren't getting, but that would only give one a maximum and, as a matter of principle, bases taxes on prima facie unrealistic home values.

Whatever the case, I was unequivocally wrong to assert a change in methodology.

Financial Town Meeting 2009

Justin Katz

Quirky Internet service has delayed my initial post, but I've been sitting in the Tiverton High School gymnasium for about a half-hour already. At about ten-of-nine (start time), I'm a little surprised that the turnout isn't better. We're probably somewhere in the 300-400 people range — sufficient for a quorum, but disappointing, given the turn-out-the-vote effort on all sides. I wonder if the lack of substantive immediate political controversy (as opposed to the specific disputes typical of town politics) have kept the enthusiasm low. Maybe it's the weather, cultural depression... who knows.

9:08 a.m.
Moderator Michael Burk just announced a few more minutes of delay to allow the lines of people to get in. Rumors have it that the lines extend to cars waiting to get in several blocks away.

9:29 a.m.

Still waiting. We're probably nearing 1,000 people at this point. Apparently, if the building hits capacity (upwards of 2,000, I believe), they postpone the meeting.

My early concerns appear to have been premature.

Town Solicitor Andy Teitz, Budget Committee Chairman Jeff Caron, and Moderator Michael Burk

Budget Committee Vice Chairman Rob Coulter chats with School Committee Attorney Stephen Robinson, while Superintendent Bill Rearick speaks with school department Director of Administration and Finance Doug Fiore as I take a picture immediately over Fiore's shoulder on the big screen:

The crowd just before the start of the meeting:

9:41 a.m.

We're under way. The official count is 700 people. Mr. Burk is currently going over the process for a ballot vote; the presentation is certainly persuasive to avoid them for more than close, important votes.

9:52 a.m.

The town council just lost its bid to add $300,000 to the budget for abatement protection. That should have been in the budget.

9:56 a.m.

Current discussion is whether the petition for a ladder truck is in order. Burk ruled the resolution is in order, even if it would be impossible to actually enact it.

A resident asked whether more firefighters would have to be hired to man the truck. Town Council President Don Bollin said that they don't have that information. Audience unrest, but Bollin clarified that he doesn't support the truck.

Chief Robert Lloyd is answering that all firefighters will be trained on the truck.

10:09 a.m.

Fire truck goes down.

10:20 a.m.

Some resolves from the Budget Committee were unexpectedly controversial. The mood may indicate that the taxpayers are again rising up.

10:55 a.m.

We're talking about the school department's budget. Three amendments to the initial amount have reduced the total and divided the total into an Operating and Capital Budget from Local Sources amount and a General State Aid, essentially determining who has to make up the difference if aid falls short: the town (taxpayers) or the school.

11:29 a.m.

An amendment that I made to the school committee budget was voted down. It was the third amendment, which is the maximum allowed. In short, I'm not too sad that it fell. It was actually the highest in dollar amount of the three by one dollar.

11:36 a.m.

Just a note: Mr. Burk is being fair, writing down the order of questioners regardless of microphone, etc. There have been a couple of points in which he's seemed a hair argumentative, but nothing beyond the boundaries of plain human nature.

The latest people count was 666, and people continue to leave.

11:43 a.m.

School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy requested a paper ballot.

11:48 a.m.

I can't believe the amount of contention even to do a paper ballot. If this happens and the vote changes there will be huge angst.

11:51 a.m.

No paper ballot, and there's been a motion to move the remainder of the budget.

11:54 a.m.

A moment to breathe while we figure out procedure. I'll take the opportunity to suggest that the powers who be in Rhode Island take note that the Tiverton School Department just experienced a taxpayer-driven cut in its budget.

12:25 p.m.

Town Council member Hannibal Costa appealed the moderator's decision to let amendments be made to the municipal total. His appeal passed, and Jeff Caron appealed on the grounds that Robert's Rules disallow appeals after debate has proceeded. Costa's clearly incorrect, and Caron is clearly correct that Costa's appeal was out of order. But, we have to finish the meeting in order to ensure that there's no redux of last year's reworking of the budget, so it's probably a good thing that reformist efforts thus far are preserved.

12:43 p.m.

Town Council member Louise Durfee just took the opportunity of a procedural intermission to chastise a few members of the school committee for not speaking out more forcefully in favor of their budget.

Well, well, well...

UPDATED: "A brazen new era of government"

Donald B. Hawthorne

Dave Cribbin, quoted in yesterday's WSJ:

In the Chrysler deal, the [United Auto Workers] were unsecured creditors and the Chrysler bondholders were secured creditors. The bondholders received 28% of the value of their $6.9 billion in bonds in cash; the Union will receive stock worth approximately $4.2 billion, and a note for an additional $4.58 billion, which represents 82% of the value of their claim. Either the government negotiators have dyslexia and have made a terrible mistake in their paperwork, or this is political payoff writ large. Is this not the equivalent of financial waterboarding? And thus we enter a brazen new era of government, when the White House is openly complicit in the theft of, as a matter of fact is directing, the looting of private property from investors. Welcome to the Rule of Man, or as the President calls it, change we can believe in!

Which reminds us what Gerald Ford once said:

A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.



Political risk is becoming a growing concern for investors in the United States as the government plays a larger and more controversial role in private enterprise because of the financial crisis.

State intervention in economic affairs is always closely watched by investors for what it means for their decisions on where to allocate money, although this is usually more of a worry in emerging markets than in developed economies.

Political risk is becoming more of a U.S. issue as some investors howl over what they see as arbitrary intrusion by the government in business affairs...

Investors concerned that politics could hurt them may demand a risk premium before they buy stocks or bonds or do a business deal. That could make the U.S. less competitive and money might flow elsewhere.

"There is a much larger political risk premium on investing in the United States than there has been in years," said Sean West, an analyst at Eurasia Group, a research and consulting firm that studies political risks.

"What we're seeing now in the United States is much more like what we see in emerging markets, where the government either by choice or as a result of circumstance is in a position to decide which companies or banks survive and which ones don't," he said. "These were almost unthinkable risks a year ago."...

In assessing political risks in emerging markets, investors often look at factors such as the stability of the government and the soundness of its economic policies. In developed countries, they assess things such as proposed changes to the tax system and the resulting impact on corporate profits.

Risks in the United States include fears the dollar could dive because of the rapidly growing budget deficit and the potential for inflation because of radical moves by the Federal Reserve to flood the financial system with money.

But a bigger immediate concern, say risk experts, is that established rules governing businesses could be changed depending on the political winds...

The fear that rules can change midstream -- and contracts investors thought were valid are no longer seen as sacred -- can drive up risk premiums, experts say.

"Investors want to know what the rules are so they can determine whether opportunities are profitable or not," said Jaret Seiberg, a financial services policy analyst at brokerage firm Concept Capital.

All this in just over 100 days. Lovely.


Originally disclosed here, the bullies in the White House have won the day.

Welcome to the new United States where contracts mean what they say...unless the Obama administration decides otherwise.

Isn't this how banana republics are run?

The Unions' Guy

Justin Katz

In effect, the Obama administration insists that some of the federal money given to the states is meant to go directly to unionized public sector workers in California:

The Obama administration is threatening to rescind billions of dollars in federal stimulus money if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers do not restore wage cuts to unionized home healthcare workers approved in February as part of the budget.

Schwarzenegger's office was advised this week by federal health officials that the wage reduction, which will save California $74 million, violates provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Failure to revoke the scheduled wage cut before it takes effect July 1 could cost California $6.8 billion in stimulus money, according to state officials.

The state lowered the maximum hourly wage of members of the Service Employees International Union from $12.10 to $10.10, and the SEIU picked up the Obamaphone.

May 8, 2009

Overheard on the Jobsite

Justin Katz

Multi-job-site days always disrupt my posting routine, but I was rewarded with an encouraging exchange at my second stop. Two glass guys from the cape were installing a shower door as I put trim around the large vanity mirror. When they broke out the hammer drill to put screw anchors in the marble around the shower:

Me:You guys sure are loud.
Glass guy 1: Hey, you gotta break some eggs to make an omelet.
Me: Are you communists, too?
Glass guy 2:No, but we're all socialists now, apparently. You gotta spread the wealth around.
Me: Change you can believe in, because you've seen it before.
Glass guy 1: Hey, did you hear what the interest payments are going to be on all this borrowing?...
Glass guy 1: And you know how much that photo shoot from the plane in New York cost? ...

I work among non-union blue collar guys, of course, but it's still surprising (and pleasant!) to have such conversations.

I had my MP3 player on shuffle. If only it had happened to play that children's choir Obama campaign song...

Whitehouse's Dog and Pony Show

Marc Comtois

So, Senator Whitehouse is pretty proud that he's finally getting a chance to question Bush Administration lawyers about "torture memos." I wonder if he's interested in questioning members of Congress, particularly House Speaker Pelosi, about what I'm sure Whitehouse would consider a lack of oversight of the program?

The Fire Code Strikes Again

Justin Katz

And the squeeze on non-governmental services — most notably from the Roman Catholic diocese — pushes another one over the edge:

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence has told a state nursing home association that it is closing St. Francis House, its assisted-living center at 167 Blackstone St. later this year, a spokeswoman for the association said. ...

Mary K. Talbot, of the Rhode Island Association of Facilities and Services for the Aging, said the diocese told the association it would cost $250,000 to $500,000 to bring the center into compliance with the state fire code.

WPRI has more details:

It serves 46 low-income elderly residents who require assistance with normal daily activities, but do not qualify for nursing home care.

To achieve full compliance with fire code regulation in Rhode Island, the St. Francis House would need $500,000 in immediate upgrades to the sprinkler and fire alarm system.

In addition, officials say that low reimbursement rates for patient care at the facility has caused St. Francis House to incur monthly deficits of $10,000.

Yes, many of these suborganizations were struggling already, but that's nothing new to charitable groups, and $500,000 is more than four years worth of $10,000 monthly losses.

By the way:

St. Francis House employs 22 full- and part-time employees.

For a chuckle

Donald B. Hawthorne

Check out the video.


The original Reagan ad.

May 7, 2009

Some Ideas on Immigration Reform

Marc Comtois

David Segal believes that illegal immigrants in Rhode Island have come here for the same reason as other, previous immigrant groups: Flight from violence, and flight from destitution. I agree. Further, he attempts to knock-down our current immigration restrictions by reciting a brief history of immigration to the U.S.: the hurdles, the hardships, the "Know-nothings", "no Irish need apply", With Out Papers, etc. This is all in an attempt to persuade that we need a better immigration policy than what we have now: one that was conceived--he contends--out of hatred:

And so I ask myself, do I want to uphold this legacy? Do I want to put a "no immigrants need apply" sign on the state of Rhode Island -- understanding that today's undocumented immigrants would be here entirely legally if they had come under the same regulations that were in place when the bulk of the Germans and Irish came, and when the first southern and eastern Europeans came? Do I want to strengthen pernicious regulations, born of hatred of my ancestors, and those of so many of my friends and colleagues?

Hell. No. Let's put an end to this terrible cycle. Let's welcome our new neighbors with open arms -- even the 2% of the population that's here without papers. Let's allow them to integrate, and allow them to work and to feed their families.

I'm also quite familiar with immigration history and I understand, though I don't entirely agree, with his broad sentiment. I also can relate to the compassion he exhibits: having visited many countries in my time in the Merchant Marine, I have witnessed first hand the poverty and violence so many try to escape. It would be a cold soul who didn't feel compassion for these human beings.

Unfortunately, no matter how much we might wish it so, we cannot harbor--or save--all of those in dire straits. And so, though some "pernicious regulations" were "born of hatred", many--if not most--were put in place for the purpose of maintaining what was deemed to be the national interest. Segal is right in that call for immigration restrictions were often couched in the worst kind of xenophobic rhetoric, but that was a symptom of the fear that Americans had when it came to keeping their jobs. In the early twentieth century, as the need for primarily unskilled labor decreased, the call for restricting that flow of labor increased. And very often, it was the follow-on generation of previous immigrants who were afraid of losing their jobs to the new waves of immigrants reaching American shores. For instance, while many "Anglo's" demeaned French-Canadians, the latter faced some of the stiffest resistance from 2nd or 3rd generation Irish who worked in the mills of New England.

I am sympathetic with Segal's desire to help out those in need--America has always reached out a hand--but the bottom line is that we have laws restricting immigration for good reason. There is only so much we, as a nation, can bear. That these laws have been repeatedly ignored by illegal aliens and those elected and appointed to uphold them is a major reason so many Americans--including legal immigrants who followed the rules--are angry and distrustful of any call for reform. They don't trust politicians and they don't trust business and they don't like rule-breakers. Their anger and fear can lead to hyperbole--including, perhaps, paranoia--but their reaction is often in response to those who recognize no rule, no border and will excuse those who enable breaking the rules. It offends the deep-seated sense of fair play held by Americans. When they hear "reform", they think, "let them off the hook."

Thus, the solution is not to ignore inconvenient rules, but to enforce them while seeking reform. That's why tightening restrictions first is so important: it displays a good faith effort at comprehensive reform. And while it's clear that we need immigration reform, it should be implemented with the best interest of the future of our country in mind. That's not being "nationalistic" or xenophobic, it's being responsible for current and future generations of Americans and fair to those who followed the rules as written, no matter how difficult or unfair.

So how do we get there? There can be no doubt that compromises will need to be made. There will always be naysayers, and no solution is perfect or will be the end-all, be-all. Yet, recent pieces by Gordon Crovitz, Michael Barone and Victor Davis Hansen all exhibit ideas that seem, if mixed and modified, could go towards what I think would be a broadly acceptable plan.

Crovitz's call to increase the amount of skilled workers we allow into the country would provide a benefit to our nation and our economy. Crovitz also thinks we need more unskilled workers, but I don't think he has a strong case to make, especially with today's economy. Barone agrees with the skilled-worker idea--noting we could use the Canadian or Australian model--and thinks perhaps a guest-worker would be acceptable to a majority of people. Hansen would allow for a path to citizenship, too.

[W]e say to the illegal alien: if you are working, if you have not committed a crime after arriving here illegally, and if you are willing to stay in a country that makes no special allowances for those who speak languages other than English or who claim some privileged ethnic heritage, then, yes, you can find a path to citizenship involving fines for your initial crime of breaking the law, and necessary background checks and testing of basic acquaintance with American citizenship.
Following such a path would help convince most Americans that illegal immigrants truly want--to use Segal's term--to "integrate."

Those who come to America to escape hardship should recognize that living in America is a privilege. As an American, they will enjoy all of the rights of a citizen, but they also must be made aware that there are duties and responsibilities that come with citizenship. That means we should expect them to obey the law, learn our culture, work hard, participate in the political process, and pay taxes. (Yes, I realize that many Americans who were lucky enough to be born here ignore some or all of these expectations: but it doesn't logically follow, ie; "you're being hypocritical," that we should make the same allowances--or mistakes--when it comes to new citizens). I think most immigrants would readily accept these expectations--these conditions--if it means the chance at a better life. We just have to require it of them.

Finally, learning the American culture does not mean we expect immigrants to forget their own or that their heritage is second class. However, none should forget that it is American culture that lay at the heart of this nation of opportunity. I agree that immigrants should be integrated into our country, but it is incumbent upon them to prove that they actually want to be integrated.

United States as Helpless Giant

Justin Katz

Tony Blankley makes a chilling observation:

News item No. 1 concerns the testimony of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on April 22. She said deteriorating security in nuclear-armed Pakistan "poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world."

News item No. 2 is this headline on the front page of the May 4 edition of The Washington Post: "U.S. Options in Pakistan Limited."

News item No. 3 is a quote in Jackson Diehl's May 4 column in The Washington Post from a senior Obama administration official: "It's not good when your national security interests are dependent on a country over which you have almost no influence."

In a matter of two weeks, we have gone from witnessing the U.S. secretary of state testify to Congress that a nuclear Pakistan run by Islamist radicals would be a "mortal threat" to America to hearing the administration admit that we have limited options to avoid such a threat.

What are we to make of such a development? I and many others had previously warned of the dangers of a nuclear "Talibanistan" (which have been obvious and talked about for years). Experts I have talked to in the past week do not believe Clinton is overstating the case. Nor do I. She is very careful with her words -- and they fit the danger.

Blankley isn't blaming the Obama administration ("not yet"), but he does want to see a plan for increasing our ability to address military matters around the world (in his view, by increasing troop counts). The American political landscape is not likely to be such that effective plans will be forthcoming for quite some time... hopefully not too late.

Rob Coulter: Property Revaluation and Subjectivity

Engaged Citizen

I had a very helpful conversation with a gentleman from the property revaluation vendor for Tiverton last night, and I learned quite a bit about the process. By the way, he was very patient and cordial, and I was very impressed with him, even if we may arrive a different conclusions. I agree with Justin that this should be an exploratory dialogue, and I do not pretend to have all the answers either.

The truth is somewhat in the middle of what I'm reading from comments here. As far as I can tell, they are using a multivariable regression computer model. It is susceptible to error because the sample sizes are not statistically robust enough for so many variables. When this happens, judgment calls have to necessarily be made. In a sense, the "methodology" has not changed, but there are still many, many variables calling for subjectivity on the appraiser's part.. I don't want to go so far as to call these judgment calls arbitrary, but there is definitely enough play between the joints for the appraiser to "skew" (if that's the right word) a result based on assumptions being made.

Although it sounds fancy and complicated, the idea of using multivariable regression is to let the computer try to find the impact of one variable while holding all others constant. It's like algebra on acid. This can't be done by hand when there are dozens and dozens of variables, as there are, here, so we let a computer do it.

I do not believe that it is incorrect to use this type of modeling, but there are two very important qualifiers:

  1. The model only works if there are enough samples for each variable. I'm not sure there are here.
  2. More importantly, this model and all models have assumptions built into them. These assumptions are necessary for any model but are at the end of the day subjective and subject to dispute. For example, I learned last night that (roughly speaking) all taxpayers are taxed at nearly one acre of land no matter how much less they have, and owners with additional acres are only taxed at a very low cost per acre. So if you own one-third of an acre or one full acre, you pay about the same tax on land. Do you think that's fair? Maybe yes, maybe no, but these are some of the assumptions that lurk behind the "methodology."

There are myriad assumptions and they have a major impact. They do not involve only objective things such as acreage and square footage, but multiplying factors applied based on the style of the house. These are very subject to debate. For example, I argued that a solar panel on a roof should add value to a house based on fuel costs. The vendor suggested that it might detract because of decreased curb appeal. I replied that a new buyer could simply remove the panel. And so on. You can see how very quickly a lot of error and assumptions can creep into a system that otherwise sounds so impressive.

Again, I want to stress that I don't think anyone is trying any funny business here. I was very impressed with the vendor, and I also very much respect David Robert, Tiverton's tax assessor. But I do have experience with multivariable regression, and if that is the model behind this, I can tell you that we can't trust it wholesale. I don't think the "methodology" has changed, but there are many assumptions under this methodology that can be adjusted and are essentially subjective.

Rob Coulter is a member of the Tiverton Budget Committee as well as Tiverton Citizens for Change.

Michael Morse's Budget Plan: What Civilians Can and Can't Do Budgetwise

Justin Katz

Michael Morse has up a humorous post describing his personal household deficit reduction plan, but his intended point isn't quite clear. It's worth reading the whole thing for enjoyment, though, before making it a subject of discussion.

In some respects, he illustrates well the things that families actually do have to cut back, but that governments tend not to parallel:

... Wait staff in area restaurants will no longer receive the customary 15% tip, 8% will now be the norm. ...

Charitable contributions will cease immediately. Also, all pets will be asked to leave. These pets will not be replaced until the current economic crisis passes.

But then, there appears to be a complaint about actions the government does take against public-sector employees:

All work performed at Morse's house will be subject to a 20% co-pay by the person doing the work. Plumbers, electricians and all other contract labor will adhere to these new cost saving measures until the economic crisis passes. This plan will save the Morse budget in two ways, the contractor will charge less for work performed because their co pay will also be less. Appliance repairmen with their gold-plated "service call" fees will no longer be tolerated, a set hourly fee will be paid.

Putting aside the odd use of the co-pay concept, the laugh comes from the fact that no contractors would accede to those demands. (Of course, when they really need work, they do drop their prices to the same effect.) Similarly, public sector workers are under no obligation to continue providing services that a government body requires.

And then, there are suggestions that are impossible for the individual family, but that would be very worrisome if the government were actually to attempt similar measures:

For example, Morse plans to stop paying co-pays for prescription drugs and doctors visits, and cutting his $100.00 emergency room payment in half with a projected annual savings of $2600.00. These fees are simply unsustainable. Supermarkets are being asked to lower their prices until this economic crisis passes, realizing an additional $1380.00 in annual savings.

When families feel the economic squeeze, they must do without, because they cannot suspend the laws of supply and demand. The government cannot perform that miracle either, although it does attempt to try more frequently than is healthy.

Gambling, of the Casino and of the Region

Justin Katz

On last night's Matt Allen show, Marc spoke of reemergence: of the gambling issue and of the regionalization issue (the latter of which perhaps we can dub Westconnaugium). Stream by clicking here, or download it.

May 6, 2009

National Geographic Rains on the Global Warming Parade

Monique Chartier

... though snows would be the more accurate verb. Ha! (Additional silly jokes supplied upon request.)

The sun is the least active it's been in decades and the dimmest in a hundred years. The lull is causing some scientists to recall the Little Ice Age, an unusual cold spell in Europe and North America, which lasted from about 1300 to 1850.

The coldest period of the Little Ice Age, between 1645 and 1715, has been linked to a deep dip in solar storms known as the Maunder Minimum.

During that time, access to Greenland was largely cut off by ice, and canals in Holland routinely froze solid. Glaciers in the Alps engulfed whole villages, and sea ice increased so much that no open water flowed around Iceland in the year 1695.

Of course, N.G. solicits the other side of the argument. (Would that more publishers of global warming articles did so.) To start with, an AGW devote accuses skeptics of infringing on the specialty of AGW advocates.

"[Global warming] skeptics tend to leap forward," said Mike Lockwood, a solar terrestrial physicist at the University of Southampton in the U.K.

Hey, no problem. We'll stop looking forward if you do.

Lockwood then goes on, remarkably, to make the case that the measly 6% of greenhouse gases generated by man (the other 94% being supplied by Mother Nature) has a greater influence on Earth's climate than the Sun.

I think you have to bear in mind that the CO2 is a good 50 to 60 percent higher than normal, whereas the decline in solar output is a few hundredths of one percent down. ... I think that helps keep it in perspective.

Perspective? Try this for perspective. The sun sends 29.4 Megajoules of radiation to every square meter of the Earth's surface every day. (No, I have no idea what a Megajoule equates to. It just sounds impressive because it has the word "mega" in it.) Now, how many Megajoules does man's CO2 equate to? Again, I have no idea. But it isn't in the realm of what the sun sends us.

Still not convinced? I don't blame you, after that bit of incomplete science. Let's compare the impact of man's carbon versus the impact of the sun another way. If man altogether ceased generating carbon, what would the effect be on our climate? on the planet overall? Well, we know the answer to that. Or at least, AGW advocates claim to know. They say it is man's carbon that has warmed the Earth one one hundredth of a degree a year for the last 120 years. This is the global warming part of the theory of anthropogenic global warming. So, using this measure, the worst thing that would happen if man stopped generating carbon is that the planet would be one one hundredth of a degree cooler every year.

Now, what would happen to our climate - to the Earth - if the sun altogether ceased burning?

Thank you, Your Honor. No further questions.

Run People With Roots

Marc Comtois

Jim Geraghty notes:

...last night a Republican and a Republican-endorsed independent won two of six seats on the Alexandria, Va., City Council, the first ones elected to the city's governing board since 2000.

The city-council race was actually the fourth recent contest in which Northern Virginia Republicans overperformed, in a region that went heavily for Barack Obama last fall....I spoke with Michael Ginsberg, chairman of the Eighth Congressional District Republican Committee, which includes Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church, and Fairfax, about what lessons can be learned from last night's results and the recent trend.

"We ran people with good, local roots, and they've been very active in this community for a long time," Ginsberg said. "You don't come in third (out of 10 candidates, as Republican Frank Fannon did) unless you've got strong support from independents, and working the polls yesterday, I saw Democrats who said they were going to vote for Fannon."

Now, RI ain't VA, but the idea that political success comes from running local candidates who are truly of their community has always rung true with me.

Denouncing Nuts... of Two Kinds

Justin Katz

For the record, I have no trouble denouncing these people — a denunciation in which I include both the subject of the linked post and those who associate with its poster. By suggesting that I might "think like" the "God hates fags" lunatics, Crowley illustrates his profound lack of reading comprehension skills and vicious disregard for the truth.

I don't believe that God hates, period, and I have a deep sympathy for homosexuals who wish to live as closely to heretofore heterosexual norms as possible. I've written before that I can envision a route to inclusion of their relationships in the institution of marriage in the long term and have lamented that the zeitgeist and subculture of the same-sex marriage movement make that possibility virtually nil.

Fringe groups like the Westboro Baptist Church and Phelps family get their theology so wrong as to further the cause of evil in the world, both by their own offensive acts and the degree to which they justify the errors of those whom they oppose.

When All Else Fails, More Gambling...Until That Fails

Marc Comtois

Revenue is down $100 million from what was projected. Twin River is in serious trouble, putting another $248 million in revenue for the state at risk. Faced with this, there has been renewed interest by the legislature to ask Rhode Island voters to allow casino gambling--again. It's all too predictable. Back in July 2005 I wrote:

While gambling can be addictive for the individual, government can become just as addicted to the revenue that gambling generates. History has shown that the appetite of the RI State government increases faster than the revenue pie can be enlarged. Remember the windfall of the tobacco settlement? The future can almost be predicted. The legislature will inevitably earmark all of this new gambling revenue for necessary programs on which many citizens will come to rely. Eventually, another budget shortfall will occur and, rather than rein in government spending, another quick fix (like a Narragansett Casino) will be sought. But there are only so many magic bullets in the gambling gun. We have to deal with the root cause, too much government spending, in a realistic way or the false promise that gambling offers could end up hitting us all right in the wallet.
There are several ways to reduce government spending--pension reform, consolidation, plain old cuts--but that's not what we're hearing about. Instead--more gambling!!! Haven't our legislators been vainly looking for the pot-o-gold at the end of that false rainbow for long enough?

Nick Gorham, North Westconnaug Needs You!

Carroll Andrew Morse

The conventional wisdom is that Nick Gorham lost his seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives because of his support for regionalizing Exeter, Foster, Glocester, Scituate, West Greenwich and part of Coventry into a single town of Westconnaug, offending the delicate parochial sensibilities of his constitutents.

I wonder what Mr. Gorham's former constituents from Foster think of former Providence Mayor Joe Paolino's plan, published in today's Projo, to fold the town of Foster into a new Super-Providence…

The Providence County I envision would include Providence, East Providence, North Providence, Cranston, Johnston, Foster and Scituate — 36 percent of the state’s population at present, hardly enough to take over the state.
At least Mr. Paolino is more honest than most about his reasons for regionalization -- Providence needs more tax money from other communities to fund city development…
Providence needs a much larger, growing tax base to launch additional renewal campaigns in the city.
Mr. Paolino also demonstrates the primary reason why people are rightly skeptical of municipal consolidation plans, with this section of his op-ed…
The new Providence County would be created by a “merger of equals,” rather than by an annexation of the other cities and towns by the capital city.
Why is "annexation" even being brought up in this context? Is Mr. Paolino suggesting, perhaps, that if you're not from Providence you should agree to a regionalization plan, because Providence might just annex you anyway if you don't do the right thing?

But if Joseph Paolino and others think that annexation of cities and town is a legitimate bargaining chip in the regionalization discussion, just think how they're going to act towards those (former) cities and towns, when they have taxation and other formal powers over them!

A Full Court Press, in Local Terms

Justin Katz

Well, it's some sort of milestone, I suppose, to be denounced by name in a mailing to the email list of Tiverton Youth Soccer (with which my children are not currently involved):

Hi all,

It is that time of the year again.... time for me to urge each of you to attend Tiverton's Financial Town Meeting. I know, I know, sheesh Deb we don't like to go to those. They are long and confusing and lots of folks just get angry and yell.

You are right about all that, but here's the thing - I can think of lots of other things I could be doing on a Sat. morning at 9am, but I do not want to wake up on Sunday morning and hear that because enough reasonable people weren't at that meeting, a group of extreme, self-seeking residents slashed the town budget by $2 million dollars. It almost happened last year!! It would have been devastating to town services - a closed fire station, no trash pick up, etc. The schools would have had to eliminate anything not considered basic by the state - band, sports, maybe close a school. You all know the things that will go. The TCC contingent on the budget committee already tried for a $1 million dollar cut to the schools and over $250,000 to the fire department. They produced graph and charts and yelled and cut off any that would try and counter the incorrect, skewed or misleading "facts." Luckily, more reasonable and responsible voices on the committee prevailed. But, now read the letters in the Sakonnet Times from TCC members Justin Katz, Jeff Caron and Tom Parker (available on-line) filled with anger and innuendo and rumors which will stir the pot and get their cut-cut-cut base to the FTM.

I am NOT for higher taxes, but I am for maintaining services. That is what a community does - share the costs of preserving services. The proposed municipal operating increase is .5% over last year, the school increase is 1.48% over last year. These are reasonable and prudent and all have worked hard to keep taxes down while maintaining the services we all want (or at least I want). PLEASE, PLEASE try to have at least one member from your family (or 2 or 3) at the financial town meeting so we don't wake up on Sunday to find out that our town has been drastically changed. It is only a few hours but will impact the entire town for the rest of the year and beyond. Please call or forward this message to at least 10 others and let's spread the word. Thanks.


Oh, yes. Deb would never use anger (unless calling people self-seeking [sic] extremists with double exclamation points counts) or rumors to rile her base audience to the FTM. Yeah, villainizing neighbors to community groups — as opposed to letters to the editor and such — might be a little aggressive, but in order to be offended, one must imagine that we right-wing agitators are merely people trying to do what we believe to be right, not only for ourselves, but for the town, as well, and that clearly cannot be the case in Deb's aw-shucks world. Never mind that TCC's position (which may be different than a given member's) is to "hold the line" by approving the budget as it stands, without any surprise increases.

I do wonder, though, whether Deb's ever taken the opportunity of a group mailing to warn that the ever-growing remuneration of public-sector unions would squeeze out those "services we all want." If it's the Deb whom I believe it to be, she took quite the opposite view with the recent teachers' contract. So add that to the list of reasons for a community to exist: to provide services to the town, and to ensure disproportionate pay and benefits for union members.

Meanwhile, our old friend Richard Joslin once again appears to have hijacked (or attempted to hijack) TCC's mailing list:

If you do not want this email, please just delete it.

Once more, the TCC is lying to you. No one is planning to increase the School Budget; we support the Budget Committee on the schools. No one is trying to steal votes at the FTM. That is a paranoid fantasy Parker, Nelson and your TCC leadership are trying to "sell" you. . I for one am sick of David Nelson's lies, and you should be too. There has been an 8 month campaign to destroy our public school system by cynical people like Mr. Parker, who is claiming falsely this week that people will try to add $500K to the School Budget. And by Mr Coulter who has authored two legal suits- one attacking volunteer counters at the Town Meeting, and one destructive lawsuit which will accomplish nothing but spending your money on lawyers to defend the Town. Do you want you political "heroes" to attack the Town with lawsuits? All we are asking is for all voters to attend the FTM and vote for the Budget already approved by the Budget Committee, Town Council and School Committee. Please attend.

You cannot vote to reduce teacher's salaries or benefits at the FTM, you cannot vote to change the public pension structure at the FTM. You cannot change minimum manning of the Fire and EMTs at the FTM. Just about no one wants a ladder truck we cannot afford.

But keep on believing the lies of Parker, Coulter and Nelson. The TCC is proving to be a rogue right-wing bunch of idiots. It is an embarrassment.

This is being sent to you because (twice) three weeks ago Mr. Nelson intercepted emails I sent to supporters of the budget approved by the Budget Committee and TIV Town Council and sent my it to all TCC members. He urged you all to go to a non-public meeting to be held about the budget. Only one sad person tried to come, and as it was a private meeting he was turned away. You deserve to know the nasty tactics your TCC leadership practices.

Richard Joslin

Yup. No anger, there, from the man who decries a "right-wing bunch of idiots"! No paranoia from the guy complaining about Dave's "interception" of an email in which he (Joslin) — whom I'm pretty sure I've spotted attempting to spy on TCC meetings — asked all residents to attend a meeting that he hosted and encouraged recipients to forward the invitation.

Joslin never explains for whom he intends to speak with his "we," but perhaps his extensive network of informants are the reason he's so confident that "no one" is planning to increase any budgets at the financial town meeting. "Just about no one" wants a ladder truck, and yet enough residents petitioned for one to get it on the FTM docket.

At least Mr. Joslin realizes that unions are an issue, though. Unfortunately, in the cluelessness typical of those comfortable with the same-old governance of Rhode Island and its municipalities, he looks right past the effect that taxpayer pressure can have during negotiations. He has no concept of the importance of the leverage that officials can derive from downward pressure from voters.

And pressure is all we have. The unions may give some slack for this year, but their contracts are typically for three. Thus, at next year's FTM, any increase given away by negotiators will be declared untouchable. The current budget provides for no increase. That means that we're seeing a budget unaffected by the unions — and it still represents more than a three percent increase! (Unaffected, of course, except for the retroactive raise that the teachers just got and that carries through to this contract as the new baseline. In the absense of a contract, by the way, I imagine, contra Joslin, that line item is in fact available for modification.)

It's time to change the conversation and to stop falling for the soothing tones of people who turn their smiles to snarls with a disconcerting ease, depending on whether they're addressing the opposition or those whom they'd like to lull back to sleep while they make decisions — folks like Yer Pal Deb, Richard the Level-Headed, and Mike Burk, the FTM "moderator" who happens to have been one of the most aggressively anti-TCC partisans to emerge over the past year.

May 5, 2009

Banned from Britain: Michael Savage's Company

Monique Chartier

(... his real name is Michael Weiner?)

From the BBC News.

Islamic extremists, white supremacists and a US radio host are among the 16 of 22 excluded in the five months to March to have been named by the Home Office.

Since 2005, the UK has been able to ban people who promote hatred, terrorist violence or serious criminal activity.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said coming to the UK should be a privilege.

Certainly, Madame Secretary. And some of the people on the list seem to pose a genuine threat of violence. However, some appear to be banned solely for certain utterances - speech - that has been deemed unaceptable for reason of thought, emotion or other non-threatening content. And therein lies the problem. Take it, Christopher Hitchens.

What is at stake in all these cases is not just the right of the people concerned to travel and to take their opinions with them. It is also the right of potential audiences to make their own determination about whom they wish to hear.

* * *

The underlying premise of the First Amendment is that free expression, when protected for anyone, is thereby protected for everyone. This must apply most especially in tough cases that might raise eyebrows, such as the ACLU's celebrated defense of the right of American Nazis to demonstrate in heavily Jewish Skokie, Ill., in the late 1970s. One of the effects of the "war on terror," and of one of its concomitants, namely the attrition between the Muslim world and the West, has been an increasing tendency to make exceptions to First Amendment principles, either on the pretext of security or of avoiding the giving of offense. We should have learned by now that, however new the guise, these are the same old stale excuses for censorship. We might also notice that if one excuse is allowed, then all the others are mahde "legitimate" also. The risk of allowing all opinions by all speakers may seem great, but it is nothing compared with the risk of giving the power of censorship to any official.

Below is the list, excluding six whom the UK has declined to name. Details as to grounds for their banning here.

Abdullah Qadri Al Ahdal

Yunis Al Astal

Samir Al Quntar

Stephen Donald Black

Wadgy Abd El Hamied Mohamed Ghoneim

Erich Gliebe

Mike Guzovsky

Safwat Hijazi

Nasr Javed

Abdul Ali Musa

Fred Waldron Phelps Snr

Shirley Phelps-Roper

Artur Ryno

Amir Siddique

Pavel Skachevsky

Michael Alan Weiner

Margaret Thatcher: Reflecting on the Iron Lady 30 Years Later

Donald B. Hawthorne

We don't have a lot of people in today's public life who deserve the word "hero" attached to them. Things were so different some 20-30 years ago when we had three who were shining beacons for liberty in our world: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II.

Yesterday was the 30-year anniversary of Margaret Thatcher taking office. Power Line has a tribute to her and links to these articles:

Boris Johnson: Blonde on Blonde
John O'Sullivan: The Lady Turned Around Britian's Fortunes
Kenneth Minogue's review of Claire Berlinski's book There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters

Thatcher's own books include:

The Downing Street Years
The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher
Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World

The Iron Lady was quite a leader. And, in these uncertain times, she would probably be telling us not to go wobbly.

Regulations Are Like Taxes

Justin Katz

Although he isn't speaking solely about our state, Theodore Gatchel's op-ed, Sunday, presents a worthy reminder that taxation is not the only government burden that must decrease in Rhode Island:

The idea held by many politicians and government bureaucrats that simply passing a new law or issuing a new regulation will solve a problem is a common one. Unfortunately, once a new regulation is turned over to the bureaucrats who administer it, the focus becomes the regulation, not the problem it was created to solve, and common sense goes out the window. The resulting mindset also ensures that most regulations can easily be circumvented.

Whether it's in housing, healthcare, or business, a heavy regulatory hand creates a minefield — albeit one navigable by those clever enough to game the system (or wealthy enough to pay somebody else for that service). Thus do we see name changes, the shuffling (rather than mandated servicing) of patients, and a class of government officials with lapses in their tax records.

Taxes and Incentives

Justin Katz

Most Rhode Islanders are likely ambivalent about their state's status as background scenery for Hollywood movies. Yeah, it's neat to see familiar places on the big screen, as well as to spot famous people around town, but it remains a novelty, not a matter of economic import or civic identity. Still, this strikes me as a fitting allegory:

A year after lawmakers voted to cap the controversial movie and TV tax-credit program, Rhode Island Film & Television Office Director Steven Feinberg acknowledges it has been "a challenge" to continue to attract movies and other productions to the state.

Forget the historic charm and seaside vistas: without the tax breaks, Rhode Island loses a little of its luster.

One suspects that a similar dynamic exists with that much lauded "quality of life" by which certain players attempt to distract from the fact that scenery is of mere mild comfort when one can't pay the bills.

The Portsmouth Institute's Catholic William F. Buckley Conference

Community Crier

From Justin:

Among the highlights of my summer is likely to be the three-and-a-half day conference hosted at the Portsmouth Abbey School by the newly formed Portsmouth Institute. Taking William F. Buckley as the unifying theme, a series of familiarly named speakers will address Mr. Buckley's work and life and the role of Roman Catholics in intellectual society:

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

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

At least to my experience, we don't see these sorts of events that often in Rhode Island, and the founders of the Portsmouth Institute intend to make a regular practice of them. The best way to ensure that they do so — and that other organizations pursue similar offerings — is simply to respond to the opportunity for edification and attend.

Town as Big Business

Justin Katz

One could understand, perhaps, the city/town being its own biggest employer in a rural area or suburb with little by way of industry. But Warwick? Bob Cushman writes:

According to Warwick’s 2007 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, the City of Warwick was the No. 1 employer in Warwick, with 2,900 employees. Number two was Kent Hospital, with 2,050 employees. Number three was Metropolitan Life/Property Insurance, with 1,450 employees. Number four was United Parcel Service, with 1,000 employees. Number five was Leviton Manufacturing, with 840 employees.

In 1998, the population of Warwick was 85,427 citizens. By 2007, the population had increased slightly, to 87,365 citizens. In 1998, the number of full-time municipal employees was 875. By 2008, the number of municipal employees had increased more than 6 percent, to 929 employees.

In 1997, the number of students in Warwick’s schools was 12,124. By 2008, the number had decreased to 11,150 students. In 2012, the projected student population is expected to further decrease, to 10,442, or a 14 percent decline from 1997 levels. In 1997, the number of teachers employed was 1,056. By 2003, the teaching staff had increased more than 7 percent, to 1,133.

Since then the teaching staff has been reduced to 1,088 teachers, still an increase of 3 percent over 1997 levels.

Little wonder public-sector unions do so well, as a political constituency, when the biggest employer in town receives its revenue through force of tax.

May 4, 2009

Warwick Closes School, Approves Budget Number

Marc Comtois

The Warwick School Committee voted to accept the recommendation of the School Consolidation Advisory Committee and close John Greene Elementary School. Prior to the vote to close John Greene an amendment to redistrict a portion of the area that feeds Warwick Neck school from Warwick Neck to Oakland Beach was approved 5-0. As to the vote to close Greene, there was some confusion as, at first, it appeared as if the vote was unanimous (5-0). However, School Committee member Patrick Maloney asked for a re-vote so that he could clarify that his vote was against closing Greene.

Four of the five School Committee members (Maloney, Paul Cannistra, Chair Chris Friel and Vice-Chair Lucille Mota-Costa--Bethany Furtado did not explain her reasoning) explained their reasoning throughout the decision-making process, which was much the same as I've previously blogged about.

Once the vote to close Greene was finalized, some members of the public--comprising parents of John Greene students and members of the Parents of Warwick Schools--stood up and then turned their backs to the School Committee in protest. Throughout this process, several have indicated frustration with the lack of two-way communication and, without being able to get direct answers from the Administration, have attempted to answer questions on their own. In some cases, this led to misunderstanding and, eventually, deep distrust of the School Administration.

For example, there had been much concern and talk concerning expenditures at the Crowne Plaza hotel and for "champagne" that were listed in the check registers available on-line. As explained by Mota-Costa, the hotel bills were evidence of a requirement by an accreditation organization (I believe NEASC) that the School District house them and feed them while they assess the city schools. (Like it or not, a cost of doing business--hopefully one that can change). The bill for "champagne" was actually money paid to an employee with the last name of Champagne.

While having access to open records is manifestly a good thing, records are only part of a bigger picture. Concerned parents, taxpayers and bloggers should use this information responsibly as they seek to propose alternative solutions. And they (we) should refrain from making assumptions before making accusations.

By the same token, the Administration and School Committee could have better refuted these claims if they had addressed them in a timely manner--ie; at the public comment sessions--instead of waiting until the end of the process. Perhaps some limited response should be allowed at public comment sessions in the future (not just after the session, when some answers were provided to those who asked--but not the public). Instead, the time lag between question and answer resulted in the two groups talking at each other. As is so often the case, a lack of communication caused distrust and fomented suspicions that were, and will be, hard to overcome.

For his part, Maloney has explained (on the Parents of Warwick Schools forum) that he was confused by the way the voting was handled and thought that he would have had another chance to explain himself prior to the actual vote. Part of the proposed budget is to pay the City of Warwick back for the cost overruns of the School Department last year. Maloney wanted to split that payment over two years, which would have enabled keeping Greene (or any school) open while a more comprehensive school consolidation plan was studied.

Cannistra expressed his empathy for the parents and students involved. He also cast blame for the current problem on the past decisions of previous School Committees who took the easy road when it came to making tough decisions. As he said, now that road "has come to an end." He emphasized that he had a fiduciary responsibility to all of Warwick's 85,000 residents and that, unfortunately, nothing in life was guaranteed. Something we should all know and that, like it or not, our children must learn. Friel discussed his thought process at length, particularly the dropping demographics and increased costs, and also noted that 90% of the savings in closing a school comes from reducing the staff.

Once these presentations were over, the vote on the amendment was called and approved 5-0. The vote to close Greene was called, and after some confusion, the final tally was 4-1 in favor.

After the vote, in what was perhaps the most politically charged incident of the night, Paul Cannistra called out Councilwoman Helen Taylor for grandstanding at one of the Public Comment sessions last week. He stated that her facts were wrong, that she was irresponsible in her presentation and that it was ironic that she would call out the School Committee for being fiscally irresponsible when she had voted against savings (via city employee contract negotiations) herself and that she had not even seen fit to attend a meeting where the School Committee spoke to the City Council last year. He said he wouldn't stand for her grandstanding any more. (For his part, Cannistra voted against the recent teacher contract re-negotiation because he felt it didn't go far enough).

Finally, the School Committee voted to accept the School Administration's budget request and moved it to the city-side for review and approval. Line-by-line review will be done at a later date (once the city approves the actual amount for appropriation).

ADDENDUM: ProJo story here. ABC 6 video here.

Government as Pension Program

Justin Katz

Here's an eye-popper: Cranston spends more than a fifth of its total budget on pensions (not including teachers). Nine municipalities spend over 10%.

While Rhode Island's political leaders wrestle with state pension reform, there's another big pension headache out there — the soaring cost of municipal pensions.

A new study by the business-backed Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council reports that the amount of money that communities spend on pension costs has increased nearly 50 percent in the past five years, from $101 million in 2004 to $149 million in the current fiscal year ending June 30.

But the raw amount, the exclusion of teachers, and the addition of state employees is not all:

The study found that locally administered pension plans were able to fund only an average of 45 percent of their obligations as of June 30, 2006, with an unfunded liability of $1.6 billion. That encompasses quite a wide range, from a Coventry police pension plan that is only 7.9-percent funded, to the Jamestown police pension plan, which is over-funded, at 123.9 percent.

In other words, as much as they're spending, many cities and towns ought to be devoting more resources to pensions.

That's if you look at it as a funding matter. If you look at it as a practical and moral matter, they ought to be devoting less to pensions. It's time to bring public workers back to the real world.

In Warwick, Voting on School Budget, Maybe Closing a school?

Marc Comtois

The Warwick School Committee will be meeting to vote on the FY 09-10 School Budget and will also render its decision on whether or not to close a school. The meeting is at Winman Jr. High and starts at 5:30, but the Committee will go into executive session almost immediately and the public portion is slated to start at 7 PM.

One of the big questions surrounding the school closings was how much money was saved by closing/reconfiguring 3 elementary schools last year. This information was finally released late last week (PDF). In short, the estimated savings was $2,683,424 and actual savings totaled $2,695,008. That's pretty close, though there was an overestimation of savings associated with cutting personnel (salary, benefits, etc.). Most of the difference was made up by re-mapping bus routes, which necessitated only one additional bus instead of the 5 that were estimated. One quick note: it has been proposed by several parents at these various meetings that all school employees (admin, teachers, janitors, etc) take a 1% cut across the board to help save a school. It's just not that simple in a collectively bargained world, though.

Whether a school is closed this year or not, tight budgets and school closings lay in Warwick's future for the next few years. This is due to shrinking student population and a need to become more efficient and cost effective in educating students. Because past Warwick School Committees (on which some of the current School Committee members also sat) acquiesced (or kicked the can down the road) in negotiations with the Warwick Teacher's Union, they are left to nibble around the edges of their budget to find savings. There are always cuts that can be made, including in the Administration, but employee payroll and benefits make up the lions share of any entity. This is not "going after" school employees, it's an unfortunate reality. When times were good, their contract negotiations reflected that. Well, now times aren't so good.

Will Ricci: Reaction to Endorsements of Linc Chafee for RI Governor

Engaged Citizen

You will rarely, if ever, find me in 100% agreement with a press statement on behalf of the Rhode Island Democratic Party regarding anything, so savor the moment.

That a freshman Democratic legislator has endorsed a possible candidate for political office who is not a member of his own party, for an election which won't occur until November 2010, means less than zero in the grand scheme of anything political. If anything, it actually shows that there is neither broad, nor deep support for someone who may or may not be a candidate for governor in 2010. Given Linc Chafee's past record, I absolutely assume that, at some point, he will make up his mind and be a real candidate for governor. I certainly don't think he will win, but that's beside the point. Rather, I am more concerned about a politician who has been at the game for quite a while and who should know better.

Of course, my concern is in regard to the very premature endorsement of Linc Chafee for RI governor made by "Republican" Mayor of Warwick Scott Avedesian. Scott is widely presumed to be interested in seeking a higher office in 2010, so perhaps this is a strategic decision on his part, or perhaps it is purely personal. Scott can perhaps be forgiven his transgression on the basis of their longtime friendship. Of course, they both share nearly identical left-of-center political ideologies that are not within the mainstream of what is generally considered "conservative" or even "Republican."

However, any political party — in this case, the Rhode Island Republican Party — is supposed to stand for something, is supposed to believe something, and this honestly deserves a timely response by it. I would certainly think that any potential Republican candidates for governor, including the one who also hails from Warwick, must feel a certain sense of betrayal. However, I honestly doubt that anyone is actually surprised by this act.

Regardless of the motivation behind Scott's endorsement, I would sincerely hope for a similarly worded statement by an official representative of the Rhode Island Republican Party. Given our past record as a state party — and its precarious state at present — I am not exactly holding my breath. There are any number of reasons to expect neither talk, nor action, including but not limited to the fact that the RIGOP headquarters in Warwick is in the very same building as Scott Avedesian's campaign headquarters and that the only remaining member of the RIGOP office staff formerly worked for Linc Chafee when he was in the U.S. Senate. These should not be obstacles to action, but rather inconveniences.

As a longtime member, I've come to expect little from the party, and my expectations are almost always exceeded in a bad way. I want the party to succeed — if I didn't, I wouldn't have been involved in it for so long — but it isn't going to succeed at anything if it doesn't stand up for even the most basic of Republican principles.

Despite that, I still hold out a tiny glimmer of hope the party will act. Paging Gio...

The RI Democrats' statement to the press read in part:

"I wasn't surprised to see that Rep. Fierro was sitting alone when he announced his decision to support former Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee. I would have advised Rep. Fierro to have considered Senator Chafee's record before so hastily and haphazardly announcing support for a candidate, who for so long embraced the ideals of the Republican Party, but who has suddenly labeled himself an 'independent' because he finds it politically expedient. If Chris had a little more gravitas and experience I believe he would have ultimately made a better and more well-informed decision. Much like his endorsed candidate, I wouldn't be surprised if Rep. Fierro changed his mind a few more times before the election. If Chris Fierro endorses a former Republican candidate in the middle of the woods and nobody cares, did it ever really happen?" [Democratic Party executive director Tim] Grilo said.

While I don't believe that I have heard or seen anywhere where Mayor Scott Avedesian has literally said the exact words "I endorse Linc Chafee for Governor," he has done everything humanly possible to demonstrate strong support of his candidacy, including but not limited to being a prominent member of the host committee for Linc's upcoming "exploratory committee" fundraiser. Whether the RIGOP manages even a mild correction remains to be seen.

Will Ricci is a Delegate of the Rhode Island Republican State Central Committee, a Director of the Rhode Island Republican Assembly, and the Editor of The Ocean State Republican blog.

Property Tax Illusion

Justin Katz

Because it works differently than most other taxes with which we're familiar, it surprised me when first I learned how property taxes are calculated, at least in Tiverton. In short, the rate is almost an irrelevant statistic. Confusion over that fact has led local Budget Committee and TCC member Tom Parker to pen the following explanation

2009 property revaluations have been mailed out in Tiverton, and if you listen carefully you can hear a collective sigh of relief across the town: "My property value has gone down, my taxes must be going down. Life is good, and I'm safe, at least for the time being, from the insatiable tax demands of the Tiverton government. For once, I can relax...right?" Actually, no. Unfortunately, things are not what they seem. There are two good reasons why you need to pay careful attention.

First, the letter we taxpayers got in the mail was our property revaluation, and, indeed, for many of us it is significantly lower than the previous assessment (my own decreased about $120,000). The tax RATE is the other key component in the final calculation of YOUR property tax bill. The FY2009 tax rate proposed by the Budget Committee is $14.73/1000. This is a $3.47/1000 increase (31%) over the current tax rate of $11.26/1000. So even if your assessment has gone down, your taxes could substantially increase. In my case, even though my assessment decreased $120,000 (14%), I estimate my tax bill will increase by over $1,100 (12%).

The town doesn't apply the rate to the property values to figure out how much money it has to work with. Rather, it figures out how much money it wants and then divvies the total up among all of the property in town. When property values go down, it doesn't figure out how to function with less revenue; it simply adjusts the rate to ensure the same revenue as a matter of course, with no votes or political risks necessary.

So the key question, when it comes to revaluations and taxes isn't whether your house is worth more or less; it's how it changed compared with all of the other properties in town. If they all decrease by the same percentage, everybody's taxes stay the same.

It's true that, in Tiverton, a new methodology will skew taxes toward waterfront properties, this year, which means that recalculations will hurt those homeowners more. But as Tom describes, the huge leap in the rate likely means increase for anybody whose house's value dropped less than 31%. And that's before tax-revenue beneficiaries have their whack at the budget during the upcoming financial town meeting this Saturday.

ADDENDUM 05/09/09 5:10 p.m.

The deleted sentence is incorrect. See here for explanation. Apologies for the error.

May 3, 2009

Repackaging Global Warming (Surprisingly, Not "Climate Change" This Time)

Monique Chartier

And speaking of fibbing, someone's fingers slipped when entering recipient e-mail addresses and a draft memo outlining a ... rebranding campaign for global warming got wider distribution than intended. From Friday's New York Times; h/t Drudge.

The problem with global warming, some environmentalists believe, is “global warming.”

The term turns people off, fostering images of shaggy-haired liberals, economic sacrifice and complex scientific disputes, according to extensive polling and focus group sessions conducted by ecoAmerica, a nonprofit environmental marketing and messaging firm in Washington.

Instead of grim warnings about global warming, the firm advises, talk about “our deteriorating atmosphere.” Drop discussions of carbon dioxide and bring up “moving away from the dirty fuels of the past.” Don’t confuse people with cap and trade; use terms like “cap and cash back” or “pollution reduction refund.”

EcoAmerica has been conducting research for the last several years to find new ways to frame environmental issues and so build public support for climate change legislation and other initiatives. A summary of the group’s latest findings and recommendations was accidentally sent by e-mail to a number of news organizations by someone who sat in this week on a briefing intended for government officials and environmental leaders.

"Cap and cash back". Can we get a time frame on the second part of that phrase?

Other suggestions from the prematurely released memo.

“... remember to speak in TALKING POINTS aspirational language about shared American ideals, like freedom, prosperity, independence and self-sufficiency while avoiding jargon and details about policy, science, economics or technology,” said the e-mail account of the group’s study.

Mr. Perkowitz and allies in the environmental movement have been briefing officials in Congress and the administration in the hope of using the findings to change the terms of the debate now under way in Washington.

"Change the terms of the debate" now that we've figured out that cap-and-trade alone will cost every U.S. household $3,100. (We're still waiting for the other wallet ... er, shoe to drop on all of the "green energy" and "green jobs" promised by the administration.) What we haven't figured out is how placing $366b in the hands of a public body not exactly renown for its fiscal restraint or dependability - i.e., Congress - would stop global warming, even if man is responsible for the phenomenon.

Why is all of this couching and reshaping necessary? Isn't it clear to everyone that "the planet has a fever" and that cap-and-trade legislation is "the moral significance equivalent to that of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s"?

Environmental issues consistently rate near the bottom of public worry, according to many public opinion polls. A Pew Research Center poll released in January found global warming last among 20 voter concerns; it trailed issues like addressing moral decline and decreasing the influence of lobbyists.
Even behind moral decline? Yikes. Certainly, then, in their effort to raise consciences, advocates are justified in resorting to pretty lies steroid-juiced euphemisms.

War criminal claims and our ignorance of history

Donald B. Hawthorne

Instapundit does us another public service by highlighting this Pajamas TV commentary about Jon Stewart claiming Truman was a war criminal:

Jon Stewart, War Criminals & The True Story of the Atomic Bombs.

As one of my friends wrote me after listening to it: "We were moved nearly to tears by this. What has happened to the world we knew?"

Our society is increasingly ignorant of history, which means we have lost touch with our roots and are subject more and more to whims of the moment that can only further endanger our liberty.

Attorney General Belatedly Enters the Irons Fray

Monique Chartier

... pointing out that the RI Supreme Court

1.) has messed up

2.) by skipping past grounds to exonerate William Irons.

The attorney general argues the high court need not take up the constitutional question at all, that the Ethics Commission itself issued an advisory opinion that gave Irons the OK to cast legislative votes that might have a financial impact on his clients.

Lynch’s friend-of-the-court brief comes about two weeks before the high court is to hear arguments on May 13. It drew fire Friday from the Ethics Commission and other parties with a stake in the case, with all saying they would like the constitutional issue settled. They complained its late date did not give them a chance to respond as the deadline to file briefs is up.

The focus of the case, William Irons, then President of the Rhode Island Senate, resigned abruptly in early 2004 rather than disclose the names of clients for whom he may have abused his official power. Two of the state's good government organizations Common Cause Rhode Island and Operation Clean Government, the latter having filed the ethics complaint that kicked off the case,

... remain perplexed. “We find it interesting that the defender of the state Constitution [the attorney general] is trying to get the court to punt on the constitutional issue,” said John Marion, executive directive of Common Cause. “It seems like he would be interested in getting the constitutional question answered.”

Chuck Barton, president of OCG, said it looked like Lynch, who is said to be in the Democratic race for governor, is playing it both ways: “It looks like he’s siding with the Ethics Commission but at the same time he seems to be finding a way to endorse Irons’ behavior.”

No, no, no, says the AG's office.

Lynch’s spokesman Michael J. Healey says not so. “It’s not pro-Irons; it’s not anti-Irons,” he said. “It’s about trying to help the court settle an important issue.”

Even if the Attorney General is simply trying to be helpful, isn't he erroneously trying to inject a legal irrelevancy into the case? Isn't the court obliged to limit its focus to the basis of a ruling by the lower court, which concluded that

... past legislative acts performed by Irons are prohibited from inquiry by the Speech in Debate Clause. Consequently, the Ethics Commission is constitutionally precluded from questioning Irons about those acts.

Nowhere in that conclusion is there reference to the Ethics Commission Advisory Opinion that Patrick Lynch is now waving.

David Scharfenberg has a well-written article about Dem gubernatorial candidates in the April 22 Providence Phoenix. In it, the Attorney General indicated that

... he was eager to tout his record on heftier matters in building the case for a battle-tested leader with the energy to shake up Smith Hill and lead the state out of its morass.

During his tenure as the state's chief law enforcement officer, the Attorney General passed up several opportunities, large and small, to "shake up Smith Hill". On Friday, notoriously the news day which accrues the least press coverage and pubic attention, he appears to have stepped in to actually amplify the defense of a former member of Smith Hill leadership. Not so much shaking up, then, as trying to hold together.

Battle-tested, indeed. The question is, in whose army?

William Allen: George Washington as America's First Progressive

Donald B. Hawthorne

During my undergraduate years, I was fortunate to have Dr. William Allen as an advisor. A truly wonderful man and dear friend.

Here is his talk on his new book entitled George Washington: America's First Progressive. The talk starts at the 6-minute point.

Why is George Washington so important? Allen explains between minutes 11:15-21:00 and what he shares will likely surprise you.

He defines Washington's progressive thought in minutes 21-25.

Between minutes 29:00-30:40, Allen reflects on how the love of liberty is the foundation of the free society and how the love of being one people is the means of preserving it against domestic and foreign assault. He adds that the key to making progressive freedom work is for the American people to understand themselves as one people defined by their love of liberty in order to preserve both liberty and the opportunity for self-government.

The question & answer stage begins at minute 36 and is quite informative as it unfolds. In particular, during minutes 50:00-55:34, he discusses the meaning of liberty, the duties it confers upon us, and the meaning of self-government.

Other books by Dr. Allen:

George Washington: A Collection
The Federalist Papers: A Commentary (Masterworks in the Western Tradition)
The Essential Antifederalist
Works of Fisher Ames
Rethinking Uncle Tom: The Political Thought of Harriet Beecher Stowe

An American patriot talking and writing about our American Founding and heritage.


A college classmate just sent me this link to another talk by Dr. Allen on George Washington. The synopsys in the link is also informative, including this excerpt:

George Washington defined progressivism and provided the rationale for its constitutional basis in a vision of self-government: a nation dedicated to and capable of sustaining civil and religious liberty, the intertwined ends of politics as he saw it. For Washington, religious liberty was not a side benefit of independence but rather the objective for which independence was sought.

Washington’s political philosophy—radical for his time—was a commitment to the belief that law can never make just what is in its nature unjust. Before the close of the Revolutionary War, he had conceived of a union based on the progressive principle that the American people would qualify for self-government in the sense of free institutions in proportion to their moral capacity to govern themselves by the light of reason. Washington managed the conflicts over the spoils of victory that threatened to fracture the union. Containing this discord "within the walls of the Constitution" may be considered his single greatest achievement...

The Flush Heard 'Round the World

Justin Katz

As some of you have already noticed, The Economist is the latest broad-circulation publication to offer a summary of Rhode Island's economic woes. The attractiveness to writers is easy to see; a mere list of gloomy facts and figures can fill an entire article.

Today almost no homes, opulent or otherwise, are being built in Rhode Island. Only 16 permits for single-family dwellings were issued in February in the whole state. In March 633 homes were in foreclosure. The job front looks even worse. Last September Rhode Island had the highest unemployment rate in the country, exceeding even Michigan. In March the rate was the sixth-highest in the country, 10.5%, compared with 8.5% nationally.

Almost every sector has been affected. Jobs are so scarce that 200 people turned up recently at a job fair hosted by Foxy Lady, a Providence strip club. But the current misery comes on top of long-term decline. The state's once thriving manufacturing industry has been fading for decades, with production slowing and working hours cut. Manufacturing lay-offs were persistent, even during good times; and good times have not been seen in the state for almost two years. Rhode Island entered the recession six months before the rest of the country.

And on and on. One can't help but think of state Rep. Elizabeth Dennigan's suggestion that Rhode Islanders have to stop complaining about the state's current circumstances (audio at the twelfth bullet point here). Too many who live in the state may choose to look away from the problems, but apparently, the rest of the world is keenly interested.

Paloozas All Around

Justin Katz

I'll admit some jealousy.

Over the course of a year, Matt Allen built a brand new radio gig into the number 1 show in its slot. His previous experience had been limited to production and some periodic shows here and there on the schedule. For his show's one-year anniversary, his company threw him a big "Mattapalooza" party, replete with a cake, an office-produced video, and a parade of people offering much-deserved plaudits.

During an overlapping time period, with plenty of help from other carpenters, architects, engineers, and various subcontractors, I built this addition and renovated two-thirds of the existing house (two-thirds being equivalent to two-and-a-half to three times the size of my working class ranch):

My previous experience had been limited to small jobs and a couple of suburban basement finishes. As the project — and a hellacious year — neared completion, my reward was a series of insults from the boss and a substantial cut in my pay. (The insults, I suspect, were meant to cover the fact that, just a few months earlier, he'd promised quite the opposite change to my remuneration.)

These disparate outcomes were not the result of government regulations. Unionization did not play a role. To some extent, the cultures of the industries did; with the prominence of names and personality, the information and entertainment industry is more sensitive to the competition for proven quantities. Construction is more of a dirt-field bulldog game, with a culture of teeth-gritted tolerance for struggle (which somehow seems always to benefit the honchos financially).

But what it comes down to, it seems to me, is that some employers view talent as something to be nurtured and guarded, justifying periodic costs on an individual basis as investments in a long-term competitive advantage. Other employers view talent as something to be exploited for every immediate penny that it can generate, even if the wringing process drains the last ounces of drive from its vessel.

This comparison came to mind mainly as a starting point for ruminations about ways to make the system better... or worse. Public policy ought to encourage entrepreneurship, to be sure, but not everybody, indeed a likely minority, will have the interest or specialized knack to set out on their own. For those who wish mainly to apply their non-business skills in the workplace — which is to say, those who prefer to leave organizational processes to others — advantage is to be gained to the extent that they are (one) not tied to their current employers and (two) able to go elsewhere.

Regarding the first, it is understandable to lament the loss of those storied lifetime relationships between worker and organization. However, it isn't immediately obvious that employees benefited more from, say, promised pensions, than did employers who, by those promises, had less fear of attrition. The manacles of workplace-based healthcare are a stark example of the detriment: Why should somebody's boss hold in his hands the health of his crew's families?

Regarding the second, incentives for companies to grow ever bigger should be viewed with suspicion. Technology has done much to decrease the advantage of size — for example, by bringing the development and production of marketing materials increasingly within the capability range of neophytes. On the other hand, the new implied government insurance that companies gain by becoming "too big to fail" is certain to have repercussions that are not agreeable to workers. Especially in an environment in which businesses are developing global pools of potential workers, the fewer potential employers, the less leverage the workers will have. How much worse, too, would it be to give ultimate responsibility for the economy to a governing regime of so-called public servants?

The gathering consensus appears to be that we're heading for a time of willing dependency — a European-style socialist democracy that seeks to make guarantees to citizens of a certain standard of well-being. I maintain hope that Americans are not a people who will find the taste of such a life to be to their liking, but ultimately, Americans will have the system that they desire.

Whatever our decision, we should pause to reflect on the subtle, yet profound, significance of relations. Assistance given for family or for charity is a pleasure for the giver. Recognition of an employee, freely offered, is an opportunity. Better to be the recipient of these than to be the obligation of government functionaries or, more directly to the point, the ostensible beneficiary of mandates on one's employer. A person who is a mandated obligation is a burden to be minimized.

Reality is not such that we can each and every one of us expect paloozas in our own names, but our individual freedom and independence correlates with the value that we can place on our time. What we need, for our own fulfillment, is for those who would claim more of that time to realize that talent is more precious than money, even if their market values are the same.

May 2, 2009

Poll: Gun Rights Pulls Almost even with Gun Control

Monique Chartier

NewsBuster's Noel Sheppard points to the results of a Pew Research survey released Thursday.

For the first time in a Pew Research survey, nearly as many people believe it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns (45%) than to control gun ownership (49%). As recently as a year ago, 58% said it was more important to control gun ownership while 37% said it was more important to protect the right to own guns.

My own unofficial survey, gathered from unsolicited - "Did you hear ...?!" - remarks among friends and work associates during the last four months, attributes this shift directly to the various proposals by candidate/President Obama and members of his administration to constrict legal gun ownership, including the suggestion (rumor?) that bullets should be stamped with serial numbers. That last would be a form of sneaky, indirect gun control as it would apparently make bullets exhorbitantly expensive.

Wide-spread perpetuation by gun-control advocates in Congress and the media of the flat-out false "90% of all guns in Mexico came from the U.S." story - only 17% did so - did nothing to assuage the concerns of supporters of the Second Amendment. While I have never been particularly interested in the Second Amendment, I can understand their concern, especially on that last point. It is unacceptable that public policy be formulated or public opinion manipulated on the basis of a gross fib.

Paving the Way for the Next Suppression

Justin Katz

The Providence Journal editorial board argues against hate-crime legislation on the grounds that it "can empower an increasingly intrusive government, already snooping enthusiastically into private communications" and classifies the citizenry in "protected" and "unprotected" groups. The editorial notes one worrying example:

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, notes that protesters have already been punished under state hate-crimes laws for exercising First Amendment rights.

In one 2004 case in Pennsylvania, he noted, Christians were arrested and clapped in jail under a state hate-crime law for singing hymns, reading from the Bible and carrying signs during a street fair celebrating homosexuality. They were charged with felonies and misdemeanors that could have earned them 47 years behind bars. Officials eventually dropped the charges.

Add to this David Freddoso's observation concerning the legislation that's currently on the table at the federal level (emphasis added):

Another problem with this particular bill is that it explicitly encourages federal prosecutors to try defendants twice for the same crime, even if the first trial results in acquittal.

People usually think of hate-crimes bills as sentence-enhancers — and indeed, many state hate-crime laws take that format. The Shepard bill does not. In addition to providing financial help for local prosecutors for hate crimes, it creates a new federal charge, with a ten-year prison sentence, that can be used against those who commit "crimes of violence" with firearms or explosives, or which cause serious bodily harm, motivated by hatred toward certain groups.

Among other things, the bill permits the U.S. Attorney General to initiate federal hate-crime prosecution in cases where

"the verdict or sentence obtained pursuant to State charges left demonstratively unvindicated the Federal interest in eradicating bias-motivated violence."

Somebody found innocent, in other words, must still be prepared to stare down the federal government if the U.S. AG is of a different opinion than the jury of peers. When it comes to their dealings with special demographics, suspects would be guilty until proven innocent... twice. And even twofold acquittal won't erase the effects of prolonged exposure in the court of public opinion.

Public-Sector Rules May Be Strict, but Respectful

Justin Katz

It is wholly reasonable — even obvious — for the city of Woonsocket to implement these rules for its firefighters:

The order bans work that that would involve using department time or resources, including the uniform, for personal gain; doing work that would normally be expected to be done for the city while the firefighter was on duty; any acts that would have to be reviewed or approved by the Fire Department or other city employee; and lastly, work that "involves such time demands as would render performance of his or her duties as a firefighter less efficient and effective."

These four requirements follow basic ethical and professional norms from which public sector employees and officials seem too often to be excused in Rhode Island. Where Woonsocket goes too far, however, is in presuming not to treat firefighters as adults and professionals:

The city has issued a general order to its firefighters that says starting May 11, if they want to work a second job, they will need the permission of the chief or the public safety director.

Policies should be in place to take corrective and punitive action when rules are broken, but giving an employer a preemptive veto power over activities outside of the workplace is a clear violation of rights and due respect.

Sitting 'Round the Table

Justin Katz


The link for the online stream isn't working; I'll let y'all know when it's fixed.

For those who missed it, Matt Allen has posted audio from last night's Violent Round Table, featuring Tea Party organizer Kristen Bond, Andrew, and me. The conversation ranged from the swine flu to left-wing activists to prostitution. (Some might suggest that a thread or two run through all three topics...)

A Tax by Any Other Name

Justin Katz

Maintaining infrastructure is one of the basic tasks appropriate to government, but for that very reason — its clear importance — politicians in the state of Rhode Island tend to seek money for it independently, as a sort of deliberate afterthought. Rhode Islanders' ultimately don't want any bridges to collapse, and if they don't get incensed over the fact that the money wasn't already apportioned from taxes, they'll accept toll hikes even though they are, in effect, taxes for programs and giveaways that they wouldn't approve given the option:

The state Turnpike and Bridge Authority needs to raise tolls to pay for $50 million worth of repairs to the Pell and Mount Hope Bridges, Chairman David Darlington told a legislative committee Thursday.

Darlington asked the House Finance Committee to approve borrowing the $50 million through a bond issue for the work, which would include repairing rusted steel and doing painting on both bridges. He said that a toll increase would be needed to cover the bond issue, but that the authority wants to avoid raising tolls for Rhode Island residents.

Darlington said it would be the first toll hike in the history of the Pell Bridge, which opened in 1969. And if tolls are reinstituted on the Mount Hope Bridge, it would be for the first time since they were eliminated in 1998. Maintenance on the Mount Hope Bridge is now paid for with tolls paid by drivers crossing the Pell Bridge.

Of course, even the bond and toll gimmicks are beginning to raise hairs, so the plan is at least to double EZPass charges on the Newport Bridge for out-of-state drivers only. Of course, those paying cash — the majority, at least the last time I went back and forth over the bridge, last Saturday — would not be distinguished by their license plates and would pay the out-of-state fee. (It'd be interesting to see the data related to cash and EZPass payments; it's not inconceivable that doubling the toll will spur more Rhode Islanders to get EZPass, thus decreasing revenue.)

Perhaps the most important point to absorb from the linked article is the ultimate cost of this $50 million bond:

According to the legislation before the committee, the bond issue could actually cost as much as $132 million when the cost of 8-percent interest is added in, assuming a 30-year maturity for the bonds.

I'll reach across the aisle, here, and note that even Tom Sgouros has raised an eyebrow over the fact that Rhode Island currently pays $100 million in interest on Department of Transportation borrowing every year. This game can't go on; our government is going to have to find ways to keep the roads and bridges in good repair with money already in its budgets.

May 1, 2009

Tancredo in Pawtucket

Monique Chartier

Our coverage this time is courtesy of Joe Bernstein who, along with myself, was one of over a hundred in attendance at the event Wednesday night.

Joe walked right by me that night without saying "hi", not that I'm calling him a snob. But in his comments under Justin's post, Joe channelled and articulated my reaction to the substance of Tom Tancredo's remarks very well and has kindly agreed to let me post them. The balance of his comments, slightly edited, is left as color commentary of the event as a whole.

Crowley was easy to spot-he was the only protester who didn't look like he had just scrounged in a dumpster. I gave an appropriate comical gesture (non obscene) to his little camera, but I guess he chose not to display it because I was neither intimidated nor angry. It was amusing to watch this assemblage of feckless ****-ants trying to pass themselves off as the vanguard of the "revolution". There were about 100-120 attendees and maybe 30 or so protesters.They were all mostly empty headed young people or old {people} who looked like 60's protest retreads ...

The police did a good job of preventing vandalism to parked vehicles so beloved of these low*****. They were busy copying down our plate numbers, though. I'm terrified - eek!! They didn't chant the hey-hey, ho-ho garbage at least, so it was tolerable.

Tancredo was a good speaker and if he made any racist comments I must have missed that. I am no one's robot, so I may not be down with Tancredo 100%, but he certainly made a lot of valid points, and he really didn't seem to be driven by hate, but rather by love of country. The protesters sounded and looked pretty hateful. It must be tough for them getting up every and realizing what empty lives they lead,waiting for the next picketing event. ...

* * *

For what it's worth,Tancredo didn't even have a racist undertone to what he said. ...

Assimilationist thinking is quite anti-racist. The"multicultural" way of thinking which leads to an ethnic mosaic is a recipe for mutually hostile enclaves wiithin a larger society. Assimilation doesn't necessarily mean abandoning one's original culture, but it does require acceptance of the larger culture to some significant degree. Older immigrants may not be able to do this, but younger people (under 50) can and should for their own good and America's.

Maybe you want to belong to some world village. I don't. I will always believe in independent countries.

Warwick Schools: City Council to the Rescue?

Marc Comtois

It was open-mic night at Gorton Jr. High in Warwick last night. The School Committee gave the public a chance to voice their opinion regarding the proposed closing of John Greene school. Several of the issues generated by a meeting earlier in the week were brought up last night. Of particular interest was the appearance of Warwick City Council Woman Helen Taylor, who stated she had gone through the School Department's proposed budget and, after 30 hours of study, had found approximately $3 million in savings. Addressing the crowd, she told them to "hang in there" and that the Council was working for them so that all of the schools could stay open. She also mentioned something about pending legislation in the General Assembly giving town and city councils oversight of school committees (I couldn't find any). Was this political grandstanding or is real action imminent? We shall see.

Regardless, the Warwick Beacon's recent editorial is spot on:

A RIPEC report from several years ago predicted 5 percent declines in student population for years into the future, which Warwick has experienced.

The student population decline requires fewer buildings be used to accomplish the department’s goal: educating students.

School districts have to use the resources they have to the best of their ability to educate students. With that in mind, School Committee member Paul Cannistra is right on target in saying that he’d much rather close a school building than eliminate educational programs. Why would the School Committee continue spending in excess of $800,000 in energy and maintenance costs per year to keep students in an underused building?

To say that no schools should close in light of declining enrollment is illogical. A school isn’t a building, but a group of students, educators and programs.

That being said, it would have been preferable for the school department to undergo a citywide redistricting. The process of pitting one community against another has been counterproductive at best and why it’s being done piecemeal is beyond understanding.

Where is the long-term plan?

Demographics and fiscal responsibility require a leaner and more efficient school department, even via this piecemeal approach. The major problem with putting together a comprehensive plan is the uncertainty surrounding the prospect of airport expansion, which will affect (probably close) one school. The feeling I get is that, once expansion is set, the school department will proceed with the inevitable city-wide redistricting.

This all points to the inter-related problems we have here in Rhode Island. This is linked to that, which is linked to another thing. And everyone is frozen until someone makes a decision somewhere else. Perhaps the best thing would be to just take the bold step of closing the one school--Wickes--that will probably be closed anyway and proceed with a city-wide restructuring. But it's apparently too late for that now.

The Administration to Allow Regression in Iraq

Justin Katz

This sort of statement from folks inside the administration certainly will not help the situation in Iraq:

"We are not even talking about" changing the withdrawal plan, an administration official told McClatchy Newspapers. "The situation would have to get a lot worse for that to change."

The recent upsurge in violence hasn't triggered a return to wholesale sectarian warfare, said the officials, although they conceded that they don't know whether the U.S.-backed government of Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces could prevent large-scale chaos.

I suspect that the uptick in violence is a test of President Obama, to see if he will do what President Bush more likely than not would have done: assert the resolve to stall withdrawal until circumstances improve again.

Meanwhile, the media is already laying the groundwork to absolve the current administration should Iraq backslide into chaos:

Instead of a flourishing democracy at peace with Israel, after six years, 4,278 American and perhaps 100,000 Iraqi deaths and an estimated $2 trillion, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq appears likely to leave a fractious Iraqi government, renewed internal tensions, uncertain security forces and a local chapter of al-Qaida that, while weakened, can still launch major terrorist attacks on Iraqis.

Seems to me that the general message was quite a bit different a year or so ago, while the American people were trying to decide between a war-time president and a peace-time president.

The Sort of Too-Easy Legislation That Has to Stop

Justin Katz

Two General Assembly press releases from yesterday provide examples of the deceptively simple actions to which our state government is prone that are strangling to business and economic environment. The first comes from Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed (D - Jamestown, Newport):

Rhode Island law prohibits health insurance companies from adjusting the premiums charged to small employer groups more often than once a year, but it doesn’t specify what those adjustments can or cannot be.

The Senate yesterday approved legislation, (2009-S0539Aaa), that sets a cap on the amount that premiums can be raised from year to year based on changes in each employer group's age and gender of persons to be covered. That cap on adjustments in the "age and gender rate factor" would be set at 120% of the prior year's amount for that same rate factor. This would provide a maximum increase allowable (due to age or gender) of 20% or less, compared with 40% increases recently reported by some small businesses. ...

"The bill we passed in the Senate is a small piece of the vast and challenging health insurance and health care picture," said President Paiva Weed. "Yet each action we take is important if it helps more citizens, more workers and their families, have access to affordable care. Prohibitive costs are one of the major problems. This bill should help rein in and control those costs for small employer groups."

The press release evinces no attempt to understand why those rates go up, and why they might go up more one year than the previous. In the long run, this sort of mandate is likely to increase the costs of health insurance for everybody in the state, ensuring that fewer workers and families have access to affordable care, because rates don't go up "just because."

The second piece of legislation comes via the House, from Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy (D - Hopkinton, Westerly):

Under current state law, an auto insurance company can refuse to renew a customer policy if the company has to pay out more than $1,000 for a claim in any one policy year.

The legislation approved today by the House, (2009-H5193A), will raise that limit to $1,500.

It also increases to $1,500 — from the $1,000 figure in current law — the property damage claim limit below which an auto insurer is prohibited from assessing any premium surcharge against a policy holder.

Just because insurance companies can take a particular action unless forbidden by law doesn't mean that they will. If a customer, or group of customers, is profitable over the long term, the company will work to keep him, her, or them. Conversely, if the regulatory regime is too restrictive in a particular state, companies will leave or avoid it.

The way to increase consumer leverage — or leverage of individuals in any capacity — is to increase their opportunities to refuse to renew contracts and policies, which means more providers and more options.

A Family Business

Justin Katz

Just to keep track of these things, although that's a herculean task in Rhode Island:

The brother of the state Senate Judiciary Committee chairman has been named associate jury commissioner for the Rhode Island court system.

Eugene J. McCaffrey III began his new post overseeing jury operations for the Kent, Washington, and Newport county courthouses on March 1 at an annual salary of $62,284, said Craig N. Berke, court spokesman. His father, Eugene McCaffrey, is a former Warwick mayor, and his brother is Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael J. McCaffrey. His sister, Mary E. McCaffrey, was named a District Court judge last year.