September 30, 2010

How Your Legislator Voted on Relieving Your City or Town From Unfunded Mandates

Carroll Andrew Morse

After the Rhode Island House of Representatives passed this year's set of individual budget articles, Representative John Loughlin of Tiverton/Little Compton/Portsmouth introduced an amendment to add an additional article to relieve cities and towns from certain unfunded education mandates (pg. 162)...

Notwithstanding any provision to the contrary, whether contained in the appropriations for the support of the state for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, or in any general or public law, rule or regulation, the general assembly hereby relieves the school committee and city or town council of any city or town, to the extent that expenditure for compliance would exceed the city or town's maximum spending level permitted by law, from compliance with any unfunded mandates with the exception of those mandates pertaining to transportation, transportation safety and fire safety.
The amendment failed.

Representative Karen MacBeth of Cumberland then proposed a similar amendment addressing non-educational mandates on municipalities (pg. 164)...

Notwithstanding any provision of the general or public laws, or any rule or regulation to the contrary, all unfunded state mandates, not attached to federal funds, required of the cities and towns in municipal areas of operation under their jurisdiction are hereby repealed.
This amendment also failed.

52 Representatives voted against relieving cities and towns from unfunded mandates on both the municipal and educational sides...

The Honorable Speaker Fox and Representatives Ajello, Almeida, Caprio, Carnevale, Coderre, Corvese, Costantino, DaSilva, DeSimone, Diaz, Edwards, Fellela, Ferri, Gablinske, Gallison, Gemma, Giannini, Guthrie, Handy, Jackson, Kilmartin, Lally, Marcello, Martin, Mattiello, Melo, Messier, Murphy, Naughton, O'Neill, Pacheco, Palumbo, Petrarca, Pollard, Rice A., Rice M., Ruggiero, San Bento, Segal, Serpa, Shallcross, Silva, Slater, Sullivan, Ucci, Vaudreuil, Walsh, Wasylyk, Williams, Williamson, Winfield.
2 other Representatives voted to lift the the municipal mandates, but not the educational ones...
Fierro, Jacquard.
...and another 3 voted to lift the educational mandates, but not the municipal ones...
Carter, Hearn, Kennedy.
Finally, 13 Representatives voted for both of the unfunded-mandate relief amendments...
Azzinaro, Baldelli-Hunt, Brien, Driver, Ehrhardt, Loughlin, MacBeth, Menard, Newberry, Savage, Schadone, Trillo, Watson.
Rep. Lima voted for lifting educational unfunded mandates and did not vote on the municipal amendment. Rep. McCauley did not vote on the educational amendment and voted against lifting municipal mandates.

It should also be noted that, between this year and last, a substantial number of Representatives changed positions on unfunded mandates. During the 2009 legislative session, Rep. Loughlin had introduced a slightly different version of his amendment addressing educational mandates (pg. 56)...

Notwithstanding any provision to the contrary, contained in the appropriations for the support of the state for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010, any general or public law, rule or regulation, the general assembly hereby relieves the school committee of any city or town from any unfunded mandates with the exception of those mandates pertaining to transportation, transportation safety and fire safety.
Ten Representatives who voted for this amendment in 2009 voted against the similar amendment in 2010...
Edwards, Fierro, O'Neill, Petrarca, Pollard, Rice A, Rice M, Sullivan, Ucci, Winfield.
And on top of this flip-flop, all ten of these Reps voted in favor of reducing the car-tax exemption from its initially proposed new value of $3,000 to just $500, and eight of the ten voted for the final car-tax change Article. In other words, the ten Representatives listed above suddenly decided that they were against increasing municipal budgeting flexibility in the same session they decided to have municipalities assume a larger direct share of their spending. This is the Rhode Island let's just shift the costs to somebody else and let them worry about it mentality at its worst.

5 other representatives switched their votes the other direction, voting in favor of lifting unfunded educational mandates this year, whilst having voted against lifting them last year...

Carter, Hearn, Kennedy, Lima, Savage.
Finally, the award for the most brazen flip-flop on this issue has to go to Representatives William Murphy, Al Gemma, and Peter Petrarca. In February, these three reps were co-sponsors on a bill identical to the MacBeth amendment...
Notwithstanding any provisions of the general or public laws, or any rule or regulation to the contrary all unfunded state mandates required of the cities and towns in municipal areas of operation under their jurisdiction are hereby repealed.
In June, Reps Petrarca, Murphy and Gemma all voted against language they had sponsored just months earlier. I wonder who told them it was time to change their positions.

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Learning Well the Ways of the World at URI

Justin Katz

Back when I was a student at the University of Rhode Island, campus activists misinterpreted (deliberately, I'd say) a cartoon published in the student paper, The Good 5¢ Cigar, with racial undertones and secured funding for additional positions and student groups for minorities. At least the hook, in that case, came from an official publication, if erroneously accused. Now, another minority interest group is pushing for the same rewards based on less specific, and less institutional, offenses:

University of Rhode Island officials have responded to a student sit-in at the library by acknowledging that gay and lesbian students have endured discrimination. ...

Brian Stack, president of the Gay Straight Alliance and a volunteer at the center, said the group has been trying to get the administration's attention since January. "We have had students throwing used condoms into students' rooms, drawing offensive images on people's doors and an epidemic of people yelling 'faggots' as they drive by the GLBT Center," Stack said. ...

The group wants better facilities, a bigger budget for programs and better pay for staff members, a handbook of policies for reporting bias and hate crimes, sensitivity training for resident assistants, and regular meetings with Dooley. ...

He said a Bias Response Team was created for students to report harassment, funding was added for diversity programs, and the GLBT center was added to freshman orientation. And he noted that Ron Suskind's book "A Hope in the Unseen," about overcoming discrimination, was chosen as the book every freshman must read.

The lesson, learned through numerous previous incidents, is that protesting a sympathetic organization based on sometimes unverifiable incidents can be very rewarding. Granted, according to the Cigar, a student has been arrested for "writing anti-gay comments on several residence hall doors," although no details about the targeted locations of the slurs (if any), the actual content thereof, or the perpetrator's explanation are provided.

The oddity is that I keep hearing, during discussions about same-sex marriage, how tolerant younger generations are. Why should expanded programs to combat a growing wave of intolerance be necessary?

My suspicion is that they are not, but that once an organization (or society) makes it clear that it will take a particular interest in protecting certain identity groups, including recourse to indoctrination on their behalf, it will find increasing petitions to be counted among those groups and to expand and deepen the methods of shaping others' views. Moreover, having infantilized protected victim groups with the promise that the world will be made to feel safe, for them, authorities have established a very narrow range of acceptable responses that they can make.

More precisely, they have disallowed boundaries beyond which it is not their institutional responsibility to go. They cannot, that is, suggest that the university will do everything it can to ensure physical safety and equal opportunities, but beyond that, students should take the quasi-sheltered environment as a chance to learn to deal with disagreement and insults without recourse to a central authority.

The Civics Interview with John Robitaille: "Is it by design or by accident that government has been growing as if on autopilot?"

Carroll Andrew Morse

Question 4 to Republican Party Gubernatorial candidate John Robitaille: The combined state and municipal budgets for Rhode Island have grown steadily (adjusted for inflation) over the past 10 years, a period of time which includes September 11, 2001 and its immediate aftermath, the end-of-the-financial world as we knew it in 2008, and the relative lull (at least domestically) in between. Is it by design or by accident that government has been growing as if on autopilot -- or would you disagree with that characterization entirely?

I believe that government is growing. Government is growing at the Federal level and the state level in scary proportions… Audio: 56 sec

…President Bush was a Republican, but he spent like a drunken sailor. President Obama is trying to expand government at a rate unheard of historically. He passed a healthcare bill that includes the hiring of hundreds of new IRS agents. It is scary to see where that’s going… Audio: 54 sec

It is interesting though. When you look at the size of Rhode Island government, on a state level we have close to 3,000 fewer employees, but the budget has gone up…We have about 10 billion dollars we’re spending for a state with about a million people as small as we are, way too much. Rhode Island does not have a revenue problem. Rhode Island has a spending problem… Audio: 1m 10 sec

We’ve created this destructive co-dependency on government with people who are lower-middle class or poor people, and there’s no incentive for them to get out of this destructive pattern that their lives are in… Audio: 39 sec

There are hundreds of millions of dollars of waste in the social service programs, and that’s the area that I’m going to focus on. People know me, they know I’m an advocate for people with developmental disabilities. People who come into this world who need our help through no fault of their own, we need to help them to the fullest extent that we can afford. But able bodied people, people who are on the system and work the system, and are not encouraged to get on a pathway of self-reliance, I’m going to zero in on those people… Audio: 1m 21 sec

On the municipality side, the cities and towns need to do exactly what has been done on the operations side of state government, but even better, and I know some of them are. We’re beginning to hear where cities and towns are working concessions with police and fire and some of the schools. That needs to continue. The public employee pension program is a bust. It needs to be stopped and frozen and we need to go forward with a 401(k). Audio: 30 sec

There are so many things that we need the political will to do, and I’m just optimistic that come November, we’ll have some people in that General Assembly that will support me… Audio: 59 sec

Can the Governor do it alone? No. The Governor can propose, through budget articles and the budget submission, to make a lot of these changes but the General Assembly has to make those changes. It’s within their purview. If anything this November, if I’m fortunate enough to be elected Governor, I need a bunch of help in that General Assembly, or we’re not going to get a lot more done… Audio: 33 sec

The Civics Interview with John Robitaille: "What do you believe are the basic limits on what powers government can acquire over time?"

Carroll Andrew Morse

Question 3 to Republican Party candidate John Robitaille: Much of the history of the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution has been defined by the fact that the Federal government gets to decide the scope of that Amendment and has over time tilted the playing field in favor of claiming more power for itself. Currently, we are seeing in Central Falls an analogous process at the state level where over time the state disregards its own rules with regard to municipalities, so that it can do what it wants, resulting in power being moved away from the local levels of government that are closest to the people. Do you believe there is an actual problem here? What do you believe are the basic limits on what powers government can acquire over time?

Really, if you look at our constitution, it's the other way around. It's the people giving power to the government. We're into basically, I don't want to say untested waters, but in a way we are, because we are in such extremely difficult times right now... Audio: 45 sec

Regionalization: I've come out strong against forcing any regionalization or consolidation on the communities, period. I think we can have incentives, we can look at regionalizing police, fire, schools, if and only if the communities involved voluntarily want to do it. That to me is perhaps almost a defining issue for the powers of the state and the powers of the communities... Audio: 56 sec

As far as the state imposing mandates on cities and towns, I'm against it. I'm against unfunded mandates, I'm against a lot of mandates...That's why I want to shrink government. I want to shrink government to historical levels, in terms of people programs and policies... Audio: 1m 8 sec

...The constitution should drive everything we do. In the real world, when you start looking at modern times, and how our cities and towns are so interlaced with each other in many ways, from taxes to education funding to say that we're not an interlaced society in right now in Rhode's not the real world.Audio: 45 sec

It's something that has to evolve. There's no one answer. I think we have to look at each situation as it comes up, make sure that its constitutional, make sure we protect separation of powers. But to me, if there's a common sense approach that can be offered to the people of a community, we need a mechanism to be able to do that, and if it's a local referendum that pops up and says 'hey, in lieu of bankruptcy, we agree that the state can come in and help us', then we ought to do that...Audio: 1m 21 sec

Europe Hanging America Out to Dry (By the Heat of Terrorist Attacks)

Justin Katz

One wonders whether the days of international comity are coming to an end:

The European Commission has announced that it will negotiate deals to prevent countries like Pakistan from providing travel data to the United States — except when the US already suspects a particular traveler or is otherwise investigating a particular case. In other words, the European Commission wants to bar the kind of wholesale data exchange that's needed to spot at the border terrorists who have successfully disguised themselves as tourists. And it plans to withhold all European travel reservation data from Pakistan unless the Pakistanis agree to join a data boycott of the United States. ...

... The first salvo set forth the principles the Commission will insist upon in negotiations with the United States and other countries that gather travel data. These new negotiating principles include a demand that third countries supply data to the US and other third countries "only on a case-by-case basis." This would seem to prevent exactly the kind of sharing of information that the Caribbean countries have relied upon successfully for years. It would also prevent Pakistan from giving the US information about Europeans who traveled to that country for long stays.

Interestingly, the principles wouldn't prevent Pakistan from giving the same information to European countries. Quite the contrary. The EU's new principles for negotiation will require such sharing: "Information about terrorism and serious transnational crime resulting from the analysis of PNR data by third countries should be shared with EUROPOL, EUROJUST and EU Member States."

As Stewart Baker notes, this sort of attack on the United States by Europe has been a recurring theme in international intelligence cooperation, but wasn't that all supposed to end when the internationally respected, unifying, diplomatic figure of Barack Obama became president?

The Unthrilling Election

Justin Katz

On last night's Matt Allen Show, Matt and I pondered why there seems to be little excitement around Rhode Island's gubernatorial race. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

September 29, 2010

The Civics Interview with John Robitaille: "Are we living in a society that believes that financial-industry needs take precedence over democratic voice?"

Carroll Andrew Morse

Question 2 to Republican Party Gubernatorial Candidate John Robitaille: One set of criteria in the new fiscal stabilization law that can trigger a municipal takeover by the state involves decisions made by bond-rating agencies. The 1990s RI Supreme Court opinion which will likely be used to justify this new law begins with the statement that "on or about July 16, 1993, Moody's Investors Services, a recognized bond-rating agency, downgraded the town of West Warwick's municipal bonds to a grade Ba". Are we living in a society that believes that financial-industry needs take precedence over democratic voice?

Rhode Island is such a small state and I know the fear recently was if Central Falls were to fall, what would the next communities be. And if bankruptcy was in fact an option, would there be this whole domino effect of the weaker cities and towns all imploding… Audio: 44 sec

It is a Constitutional question, and I think if I’m reading the Supreme Court’s decision correctly, it was almost a defensive move to protect as well as an adverse effect coming up on the bonds which would have cost all of the taxpayers across the state, outside of West Warwick. Similarly to current Central Falls problems, as the bond ratings go down, it will also have a negative effect on the other communities that perhaps are doing a better job. At what point does the state have an obligation to help protect all the other communities… Audio: 1m 39 sec

And what recourse do the citizens of the community, be that West Warwick or Central Falls, have in this process. Should there be an immediate referendum that says yes, we as citizens want the state to come in and help us because our elected officials have fallen short of their responsibility….Now, if the citizens of Central Falls got together and said no, we don’t want the state to help us, we want to go down in flames, then if that’s what the municipal rescue legislation says that everyone has agreed to, then that’s another kettle of fish… Audio: 48 sec

My fear from a statewide level is if you have a municipality that chooses the wrong road while there were other options on the table, and that choice is going to adversely impact the rest of the state, I think there needs to be more conversation than there was between Central Falls and the state, before the municipality chooses on its own to take the course of receivership…Maybe we need to do more to protect the Constitutionality of it and specifically bring it to the people… Audio: 53 sec

The Civics Interview with John Robitaille: "Are we living in times so extreme that basic principles of democratic government need to be shoved aside?"

Carroll Andrew Morse

Rhode Island's media and civic organizations have done an excellent job giving the 2010 Gubernatorial candidates forums to present their views to the public. However, there has been at least one noticeable gap in the questions put to the candidates so far: questions involving some particular recent and longer-term state-level developments that relate to the basic extent of government.

I pre-submitted a series of four questions to the major gubernatorial candidates on this subject and asked for an opportunity to interview the candidates directly. Presented next is the interview with Republican Party candidate John Robitaille.

Question 1: The legislative year began with the creation of a Teachers' Health Insurance Board, which on its face looks to be a violation of the separation-of-powers provision of the RI Constitution. We ended the year with the passage of a municipal fiscal stabilization bill, that can be basically used to suspend democratic governance in any RI municipality. Are we living through times right now that are so extreme that basic principles of democratic government need to be shoved aside?

Absolutely not. I am, as you probably know, a big Tenth Amendment proponent, and I as governor will support the other states in pushing back on the Obama health care plan. I believe it's unconstitutional for the Federal Government to force any Rhode Island citizen to buy anything... Audio: 38 sec

This healthcare committee, for the health insurance for teachers: bogus, I absolutely agree. Separation of powers said the executive branch will handle things within its purview... Audio: 26 sec

...I think the Central Falls situation was a very unique and unfortunate situation. The City Council and the Mayor already made a decision to go into the receivership, and my understanding is that that decision was made without any consultation at al, with any state resources from the Governor's office, the General Assembly...and you would think that a city that's already relying on the state to pay 100% of its school budget would have some obligation at least to see if there was another option... Audio: 37 sec

The question should be maybe restated. If a municipality is so irresponsible and its elected officials so corrupt that it is to the detriment of its citizens of that city and the citizens of the state, the question should be when and if should the state intervene to assist a community. I think that the city of Central Falls has, for years, been a corrupt city... Audio: 53 sec

...I think that since the city council and the Mayor took that first move, to say that we can't do it on our own, we need help from the court, they opened up the floodgate for intervention... Audio: 51 sec

A Correction to the Car Tax Post

Carroll Andrew Morse

Rep. Jon Brien of Woonsocket has brought to my attention the section of the House Journal from June 8 (pg. 2), where his intention to vote against the amendment lowering the statewide car-tax exemption from $3,000 to $500 was entered into the official record.

With that change, Rep. Brien should be counted in the group of legislators who voted against the the final car-tax exemption budget article which reduced the $6,000 exemption (and the associated reimbursement), against the amendment that lowered the exemption from the initially proposed new value of $3,000 to $500, and in favor of a uniform reimbursement rate for all RI cities and towns.

The Straight Line Crosses Political Groupings

Justin Katz

Timothy Sandefur's edifying review of the shift in legal thought on the Supreme Court during the era of President Franklin Roosevelt's progressive revolution points, among other things, to the way in which political groupings do not draw straight lines across history, such that a conservative or progressive today would have agreed with their supposed forerunners:

For a legislature to exert power in this way — for the personal benefit of the lawmaker or his allies — would be to act arbitrarily; to exert its mere will. But the due-process-of-law clause allows states to act only pursuant to law — that is, general rules serving the public good. In 1874, less than a decade after the Fourteenth Amendment added a new "due process of law" clause to the Constitution, the Court held that states could not take property from some citizens to benefit others because such legislation was not "law," but "a decree under legislative forms." Legislation restricting freedom only to enrich a particular faction, or lacking any basis other than legislative say-so, abridges liberty without due process of law.

Progressive-era lawyers recognized that this legal doctrine was among the most serious obstacles to redistributive legislation. They therefore formulated a theory that the due-process clause required only fair procedures, and that the constitutional prohibition on legislative arbitrariness — which they derisively labeled "substantive due process" — had been concocted by "activist" judges who merely enforced their individual political views from the bench. The judges of a previous generation would have been stunned by this accusation, but by the 1930s, it had become common in the legal academy and among younger lawyers. The clash between the two interpretations of the due-process clause would form one of the central dramas of the New Deal decade.

As it happens, I agree with the progressives, as described in the above. Within the boundaries of the Constitution, states ought to be able to be given maximal leash, with residents never deprived of the right to work to change policies or to leave, and the expectation that state governments that choose poorly will watch productive residents leave and take the health of the local society with them. The problem is that federalism turned out to be an argument of convenience for factions outside of the judicial majority.

The insight of the progressives in the text that I've just quoted was that there exist rules laid out in the law concocted by people in a system of self government and that the people could therefore change them. Experiment. In terms of government, there isn't some abstract, pure Law to which legislatures and jurists must hew, because that abstraction turns out to be suspiciously similar to the opinions of the ruling class. But once they gained the majority, the progressives set about undermining the rules that made possible the very notion of due process:

... the Constitution explicitly bars states from "impairing the obligation of contracts," a prohibition adopted in response to uprisings like the 1786 Shays's Rebellion, in which farmers mobbed foreclosure sales, closed courts, and demanded "debtor stay laws" like that enacted in Minnesota. Laws limiting lenders' ability to recover from defaulting borrowers dry up credit and stifle economic expansion, which is why James Madison described them as "wicked" and "contrary to the first principles of the social compact." Even law professor William Prosser, who helped Minnesota legislators write the law, confessed in 1934 that the contracts clause "was inserted in the Constitution for the purpose of preventing precisely [this] type of legislation."

When a bank foreclosed on the Blaisdell family's boarding house, they sought to extend the redemption period. The judge refused, finding the law unconstitutional, but the Blaisdells appealed, and the Supreme Court upheld the law in a 5–4 decision. Admitting it could not be reconciled with the Constitution, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes nevertheless held that the law was justified by the economic "emergency." It was "no answer," he claimed, "to insist that what the provision of the Constitution meant to the vision of that day it must mean to the vision of our time." To say "that the great clauses of the Constitution must be confined to the interpretation which the framers, with the conditions and outlook of their time, would have placed upon them" simply "carrie[d] its own refutation."

With legislatures thus freed to to do anything, provided it coincided with the ideologies and opinions of a majority of Supreme Court justices, the deterioration of the American experiment began in earnest. In our day, the federal government has stepped up its own involvement — from minimum wages to, now, healthcare — making real due process — the ability to organize and work for change in response to unjust laws — that much more difficult, and the decision of our rulers that much more arbitrary.

September 28, 2010

Coming Soon to Your Highrise: the Cicilline Lie-Apalooza

Monique Chartier

Kicked off at a senior center in Pawtucket, Hot Air calls it the "Let’s Scare Grandma Tour".

[Mayor David] Cicilline’s presentation to seniors was false in numerous respects. There is no threat to the checks to be received by seniors now in the system either under the present system or with any reforms now in the early stages of discussion. None, yet Cicilline cynically suggests to the elderly that their checks are in jeopardy.

Cicilline’s fear mongering about ”privatization” also was misleading because the types of changes proposed by people like Paul Ryan would not affect anyone currently receiving social security, or even people a decade or more away, and would not require people to invest in the stock market.

Yet Cicilline raises the bogeyman of privatization to scare the elderly at senior centers.

Know the real name of this campaign tour?

"Fighting for Social Security"

Fighting for social security?? What does that have to do with the targeted demographic??? Not a single social security check in the audience is in jeopardy!!!

This is despicable. Clearly, the mayor of Providence believes that he can win the first Congressional district only by 1.) brazenly lying and 2.) needlessly terrifying seniors.

The Civics Interview with Ken Block: "Is it by design or by accident that government has been growing as if on autopilot?"

Carroll Andrew Morse

Question 4 to Moderate Party Gubernatorial Candidate Ken Block: The combined state and municipal budgets for Rhode Island have grown steadily (adjusted for inflation) over the past 10 years, a period of time which includes September 11, 2001 and its immediate aftermath, the end-of-the-financial world as we knew it in 2008, and the relative lull (at least domestically) in between. Is it by design or by accident that government has been growing as if on autopilot -- or would you disagree with that characterization entirely?

...and you neglected to identify that Don Carcieri shrank the number of employees...The budget breaks down in some very specific ways. We have fixed costs, in terms of employees, we have pension costs and the pension cost is a significant driver of what's coming into our budget and will become much more so, over the next five years... Audio: 1m 33 sec

Our health and human services budget has necessarily had to rise up, because we have so many more people who have fallen into the social safety net at this point, whether it's unemployment benefits, whether it's food stamps... Audio: 25 sec

Part of it is the inability to really and truly identify the fix to the pension mess that we have. We keep nibbling at the corners, but nobody has really sat down and said 'here's where we are, here's where we need to be in 10 years, and here's the steps we need to take to get there'... Audio: 1m 4 sec

...other areas that could explain and go into the growth, other than pensions are that we have to provide raises to people. You can't freeze them at a specific level in time... Audio: 53 sec

I think I've identified the biggest drivers of it. We spend the majority of our services in health and human services, Medicaid in particular, a very big cost driver to us as a state, and we are not actively looking hard at our Medicaid expenditures, and we're not doing a good job of squeezing the waste and fraud out of it... Audio: 48 sec

...I want to go in hard, at waste and fraud, inside of Medicaid. There's corporate, systemic waste and fraud. There are sham companies that set up, that put in false claims and all kinds of things that happen. And states that have used technology to go after waste and fraud inside of their Medicaid programs have found between 10% and 20% waste and fraud. Since this is Rhode Island, let's assume 20%...If you round up to a 2 billion dollar program, 20% of waste and fraud in a 2 billion dollar program is 400 million dollars... Audio: 1m 27 sec

...We've been in a serious crisis for a decade at least, and in 10 years our elected officials have not done a good job of concentrating and solving two problems that most Rhode Islanders care about: we need to fix our economy and fix our educational system. And we're beginning to chip away at the educational pieces finally, but economically, not only have we not done much to address it, but in this gubernatorial race so far, most of the candidates don nothing more than pay a passing homage to small business... Audio: 47 sec

Our biggest problem is the fact that even with a 5.99% high-end income tax rate, Mass. remains at 5.3%. That's an 11-and-a-half percent difference between those rates, and that's enough of a difference for a small business owner to look across the border, and make the simple decision to go there... Audio: 27 sec

We have to get a hold of our chronic budget deficits. We have to stop them, and I believe we can do that by squeezing out the waste and fraud from within health and human services. We have to be able to bring our income taxes beneath Massachusetts. And the biggest thing that I have proposed, that I believe can really make a difference in this state, is instead of $125 million in loan guarantees, $75 million which has gone to Curt Schilling, what I would do with $125 million worth of money is break it into three venture funds... Audio: 1m 32 sec

The Civics Interview with Ken Block: "What do you believe are the basic limits on what powers government can acquire over time?"

Carroll Andrew Morse

Question 3 to Moderate Party Gubernatorial Candidate Ken Block: Much of the history of the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution has been defined by the fact that the Federal government gets to decide the scope of that Amendment and has over time tilted the playing field in favor of claiming more power for itself. Currently, we are seeing in Central Falls an analogous process at the state level where over time the state disregards its own rules with regard to municipalities, so that it can do what it wants, resulting in power being moved away from the local levels of government that are closest to the people. Do you believe there is an actual problem here? What do you believe are the basic limits on what powers government can acquire over time?

We'd almost have to take it on a case-by-case basis...I believe that there should be boundaries on what the Feds try to do in one direction, and I may believe that some other things that are Federally guided decisions and programs are probably appropriate... Audio: 29 sec

So let's take Obamacare...Let me just state right for the record that I think that we do need to come up with a way to make sure that we can insure people who can't afford to be insured. Do I think Obamacare is the correct answer for that? No. It think it's imperfect, and I think there are some things that are actually wrong with it. But do I think we have to take that step as a society, to figure out how to provide insurance across the board? I do, and I do think that is guidance that has to come from the Federal level down to the state level... Audio: 1m 38 sec

Let's just talk about ballot laws, ballot access and how you qualify a political party across the country. It's an absolute mess. You have states that are free-for-alls, you have states that make it almost impossible to do, and it's all about the thing that's nearest and dearest to every American, our democracy...I would be a proponent of Federal guidelines and Federal mandates that all ballot access has to become reasonable and it has to be uniform across all 50 states... Audio: 1m 26 sec

There are a lot of scenarios where I would think that the Federal government shouldn't be reaching in and dealing with things. And one example I would say, and this is a very clear cut example for me, is the determination of Medicaid compensation. One of our significant problems we have in this state is the fact that our Medicaid rates that are set by the Federal government are significantly lower, the reimbursement rates are lower, for primary care docs and dermatologists and bunch of different folks than they are right across the border in Massachusetts. This is some sort of crazy Federal thing that happened apparently back in the 60s where our reimbursement rates were set significantly lower than our neighbors, and in 50 years no one's been able to figure out how to correct that problem... Audio: 1m 21 sec

I don't subscribe to the fact that all government is bad – although we have a lot of examples of really bad government in Rhode Island. I believe that smart government can play a role and should play a role in working things out...In a classic Moderate example, for this particular situation, I can see both sides of it, and it's really dependent on the specific issue. Audio: 50 sec

The Marriage Game, as Predicted

Justin Katz

A recent editorial in National Review concerning same-sex marriage is a good summary of arguments that traditionalists, like me, have been making for nearly a decade now:

If it is true, as we are constantly told, that American law will soon redefine marriage to accommodate same-sex partnerships, the proximate cause for this development will not be that public opinion favors it, although it appears to be moving in that direction. It will be that the most influential Americans, particularly those in law and the media, have been coming increasingly to regard opposition to same-sex marriage as irrational at best and bigoted at worst. They therefore dismiss expressions of that opposition, even when voiced by a majority in a progressive state, as illegitimate. Judges who believe that same-sex marriage is obviously just and right can easily find ways to read their views into constitutions, to the applause of the like-minded.

The emerging elite consensus in favor of same-sex marriage has an element of self-delusion about it. It denies that same-sex marriage would work a radical change in American law or society, insisting to the contrary that within a few years of its triumph everyone will wonder what all the fuss was about. But its simultaneous insistence that opponents are the moral equivalent of the white supremacists of yesteryear belies these bland assurances. Our tolerance for racism is quite limited: The government, while it generally respects the relevant constitutional limits, is active in the cause of marginalizing racists and eradicating racist beliefs and behaviors. Moreover, social sanctions against racism, both overt and implied, are robust. If our society is truly to regard opposition to same-sex marriage as equivalent to racism, it will have to undergo change both dramatic and extensive. Churches that object, for example, will have to be put in the same cultural position as Bob Jones University was in the days when it banned interracial dating, until they too join the consensus.

There was a notable shift, following the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's Goodridge decision, when advocates for same-sex marriage ceased to try to conduct an intellectual discussion, as Andrew Sullivan had most notably been doing for many years prior, and simply ceased to respond seriously to objections. The entire movement, right up to the judges who have answered the call for activism, has proceeded with large blinders to the possibility that those who disagree, first, might have a point, and second, have a right to shape the relevant law in their system of supposed self government.

The practice continues, even as the obvious next steps emerge before our very eyes:

TLC, the network responsible for behemoth family exposes like "Kate Plus 8" and "19 Kids and Counting," is turning its reality TV attention to another kind of domestic abundance: polygamy. "Sister Wives," premiering at 10 p.m. today, follows a fundamentalist Mormon family composed of one daddy, three mommies and 13 children living under one roof.

"It just felt like our story needed to be told," said Kody, the affable patriarch who works in advertising and lives with his family in Lehi, Utah. "There's a lot of stereotypes out there that are actually perpetuated by the press. I wanted to make sure the world understood that we're polygamists, but we're not the polygamists that you think you know."

Plenty of Anti-GOP News, Still No DOJ News

Justin Katz

As of Monday's edition, the Providence Journal had still not deigned to mention Congressional testimony about racial bias in Obama's Department of Justice. Indeed, yesterday's paper revisited the apparently more-important testimony of comedian Stephen Colbert that migrant farm workers do work that a Hollywood celebrity might find arduous.

Curiously, as well, Sunday's paper featured an entire above-the-fold page (B7) of arguable advocacy for national Democrats. Top left was an "analysis" declaring the GOP's "Pledge to America" to be a heavily poll-tested document, with all of the insinuations that come with such a quality:

Billed as a Pledge to America, the House Republican campaign manifesto is as much political straddle as conservative call to action, long on poll-tested goals, short on controversial specifics and designed to reassure independent voters who abandoned the party in the last two elections.

In case that tint wasn't adequate, the piece immediately below gave President Obama almost as much space to do his hyper-partisan schtick about the "disastrous decade" that he managed to make worse. Filling the rest of the page was an article about potential third-party election spoilers, with a heavy emphasis on moderate (read: "liberal") Republicans edged out in primaries by dissatisfied conservatives:

Nine-term Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware is the third prominent Republican to consider a third-party bid this year after a suffering a stinging setback at the hands of tea-party-backed conservatives.

If Castle decides to make an independent run for Senate, he will join Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski in refusing to let GOP primary voters force them into retirement.

Some folks presume that media bias is a subconscious slip into what editors and journalists believe just to be objective truth, but it simply isn't possible that a quasicompetent editor wouldn't see how this collection of stories would come across.

Not Quite a "Barb"

Justin Katz

So, the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in keeping with his usual subject matter, utilized the podium of the United Nations to call for investigation into the conspiracy theory that the United States was behind the 9/11 attacks. And I'm sure he's just a-fearin' all over after the response of our own president:

"It was offensive," Obama said in an interview with the Persian service of the BBC that was to be broadcast to the Iranian people. "It was hateful."

"And particularly for him to make the statement here in Manhattan, just a little north of ground zero, where families lost their loved ones, people of all faiths, all ethnicities who see this as the seminal tragedy of this generation, for him to make a statement like that was inexcusable," Obama said.

"Inexcusable" has to be among the most useless words in our era. Especially in the mouth of the current commander in chief, it requires no course of action from anybody and has no implicit threat. Indeed, we could reasonably suppose that the most hedged of apologies from Ahmadinejad would be met with a stumbling eagerness to excuse his comments.

Look, Ahmadinejad is the most prominent face of a theocratic tyranny who appears to revel in the civil bonds with which people whom he sees as his enemies bind themselves, and the United Nations is a band of bureaucrats whose purpose is to further hamstring those nations that are willing thus to be strung. What's truly inexcusable is that the United States offers unquestioning legitimacy to an organization that gives a globally respected platform to tyrants, including seats on laughable human rights committees and conferences designed to marginalize the world's one Jewish nation while they shake down wealthy countries to aid that may be siphoned to dictators' coffers.

September 27, 2010

What the Vote on the Car Tax Tells You About Your Legislator

Carroll Andrew Morse

As you may have heard, the Rhode Island legislature voted in this year's budget to reduce state reimbursement of the $6,000 local car-tax exemption to a reimbursement on only the first $500 of value. In the same budget article (Article 23), cities and towns were given the option of making up the lost reimbursement money by reducing the exemption itself to as little as $500, i.e. by raising a local tax.

To understand your state representative's position on this issue, votes on two amendments need to be considered in addition to the final vote (pg. 160) on the Article.

  1. The original version of the bill submitted to the legislature would have had the state reimburse the cities and towns for an exemption on the first $3,000 of vehicle value. Representative Steve Costantino of Providence introduced an amendment (pg. 155) which reduced the reimbursement to taxes paid on the first $500 of value. The amendment passed.
  2. Rep. Karen MacBeth of Cumberland introduced an amendment (pg. 157) to make the reimbursement rate uniform across all cities and towns in RI. This did not alter a city or town's power to set the level of the exemption, only the amount that the state would reimburse. The amendment failed.
A sizable majority of reps (46) voted both for the amendment lowering the exemption amount and for the final article. Of this group, only 4 voted to make the state reimbursement rate uniform; they are underlined in the list below...
The Honorable Speaker Fox, Ajello, Almeida, Azzinaro, Carnevale, Carter, Coderre, Costantino, Diaz, Driver, Edwards, Fellela, Ferri, Fierro, Gablinske, Gallison, Gemma, Handy, Hearn, Jackson, Kennedy, Lally, Malik, Marcello, Martin, Mattiello, McCauley, Melo, Murphy, Naughton, O'Neill, Pacheco, Palumbo, Petrarca, Pollard, Rice M, Ruggiero, San Bento, Serpa, Shallcross, Silva, Sullivan, Vaudreuil, Walsh, Williams, Williamson.
This is yet another example of the dysfunction in Rhode Island's governing class; proposals that take the form of shifting costs from one place to another can expect to receive overwhelming support from the current statehouse majority, while reforms that would nudge the system towards a more rational and equitable structure garner little support.

In addition to the 46 reps listed above, another 7 representatives voted to lower the vehicle tax exemption from $3,000 to $500 but voted against the final article. Of this group of 7, 3 voted in favor of a uniform state reimbursement rate (indicated below using the same underlining convention as above) and 4 voted against...

Ehrhardt, Kilmartin, MacBeth, Menard, Rice A, Savage, Winfield.
Don't let this group of 7 tell you that, because they voted against the final article, they were stalwarts in opposing the vehicle tax change -- they all supported lowering the exemption to next to nothing, when that specific issue was voted on. Reps MacBeth, Menard and Rice may have voted against the final article on principle because of the failure to make the reimbursement uniform, but I'm not sure what excuse Reps Ehrhardt, Kilmartin, Savage and Winfield have. (And shouldn't a guy who aspires to be the state's AG have a better sense about bringing some fairness to the entire state?)

Two other reps voted no on lowering the exemption from $3,000 to $500, but yes on the final article, with Rep. Trillo also voting in favor of making the reimbursement uniform...

Caprio, Trillo.
Finally, 13 reps voted against the entire article changing the car tax and its associated reimbursements, against the specific amendment that lowered the new statewide exemption from $3,000 to $500. Of these 13, 9 voted in favor of a uniform state reimbursement rate...
Baldelli-Hunt, Brien, Corvese, DaSilva, Giannini, Guthrie, Jacquard, Lima, Loughlin, Messier, Newberry, Schadone, Wasylyk.
There were also some amendments offered on the subject of fire-district taxes that may have impacted a few votes, but the anti-correlation between the "let's-make-the-reimbursement-fair" group and the "let's-shift-the-burden-to someone-else" group is sadly telling. Rhode Island's state representatives most eager to shift their fiscal problems to someone else are also the reps who seem to care the least about creating a system that is maximally fair to all of Rhode Island's taxpayers.


Rep. Jon Brien of Woonsocket has brought to my attention the section of the House Journal from June 8, where he had his intention to vote against the amendment lowering the statewide car-tax and associated reimbursement from $3,000 to $500 entered into the official record. I've updated the post above to reflect Rep. Brien's intent.

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Footnote on Reps who didn't vote on all 3 votes tallied in this post:

Reps DeSimone, Slater, Segal and Ucci did not vote on the amendment to lower the reimbursed amount from the first $3,000 of value to the first $500 of value. Rep Watson voted against.

Rep Ucci did not vote on the amendment to make the reimbursement rate uniform. Rep. Watson voted for, and Reps DeSimone, Slater and Segal voted against.

Rep Watson did not vote on the final article. Reps DeSimone and Ucci voted for, and Reps Slater and Segal voted against.

The Civics Interview with Ken Block: "Are we living in a society that believes that financial-industry needs take precedence over democratic voice?"

Carroll Andrew Morse

Question 2 to Moderate Party Gubernatorial Candidate Ken Block: One set of criteria in the new fiscal stabilization law that can trigger a municipal takeover by the state involves decisions made by bond-rating agencies. The 1990s RI Supreme Court opinion which will likely be used to justify this new law begins with the statement that "on or about July 16, 1993, Moody's Investors Services, a recognized bond-rating agency, downgraded the town of West Warwick's municipal bonds to a grade Ba". Are we living in a society that believes that financial-industry needs take precedence over democratic voice?

Looking at state finances holistically, and looking at our town finances holistically, our elected leaders have done an awful job of strategic planning and thinking and laying out sustainable budgets and insuring that we can handle financial crises when they come down the line... Audio: 50 sec

The credit agencies and the bond ratings, where they look at the states finances and town's finances as a whole, look at the unfunded liabilities and pension plans, look at where the tax dollars are going and look at what other liabilities you have is a very necessary benchmark in my opinion, to determine if we have a problem or don't have a problem, because we don't really have a mechanism other than that, unless we send in the Auditor General because something has been raised as a red flag. I think the bond ratings agencies are probably a good canary in the coal mine, to determine if we have a substantial problem... Audio: 1m 4 sec

We have to get our hands around this, and do something about it, because the average taxpayer is entrusting their elected leaders to just do the right thing, and when they don't, what do we do? We don't really have a recall provision. We don't have a systematic way for assessing the health of governments and budgets and finances... Audio: 25 sec

We need to have the early warning. We need to have a process and procedure in place. If a town is spiraling down the insolvency drain, how do we yank it out of there...You can certainly make the claim that we're stepping out of the boundaries of the strict constitutional read of things, but in the absence of a better idea right now, I think it's appropriate and necessary, because we can't have the disasters unfolding that appear to be happening to us... Audio: 42 sec

The Civics Interview with Ken Block: "Are we living in times so extreme that basic principles of democratic government need to be shoved aside?"

Carroll Andrew Morse

Rhode Island's media and civic organizations have done an excellent job giving the 2010 Gubernatorial candidates forums to present their views to the public. However, there has been at least one noticeable gap in the questions put to the candidates so far: questions involving some particular recent and longer-term state-level developments, that relate to the basic extent of government.

I pre-submitted a series of four questions to the major gubernatorial candidates on this subject and asked for an opportunity to interview the candidates directly. Presented first is the interview with Moderate Party candidate Ken Block.

Question 1: The legislative year began with the creation of a Teachers' Health Insurance Board, which on its face looks to be a violation of the separation-of-powers provision of the RI Constitution. We ended the year with the passage of a municipal fiscal stabilization bill, that can be basically used to suspend democratic governance in any RI municipality. Are we living through times right now that are so extreme that basic principles of democratic government need to be shoved aside?

Those are two interesting examples, because I think they highlight two completely opposite ends of the spectrum of problems and how you might address them. As far as the teachers' health insurance board is concerned, that's an absolute end-run around taxpayer representation and it's wrong in every way. I'm wholly against it...As it is, the taxpayers don't have a lot of direct control over way too much that happens in their lives... Audio: 50 sec

As far as the Central Falls receivership is concerned, what we've seen is a failure of representative government to do what's right economically for the people of Central Falls and the state, I believe, does have a very strong vested interest in making sure that our cities and towns don't tumble into insolvency... Audio: 35 sec

The reason that I called out the difference between the teachers' health insurance board and the receiver is that in some ways, an all-powerful receiver gives you a way to work your way around these embedded infrastructures that work against the best interests of the taxpayers... Audio: 40 sec

My hope and desire would be that we don't have to go the receiver route... Audio: 34 sec

Willingly Distracted from the Real News

Justin Katz

Before it actually occurred, many in the blogosphere speculated that Congressional testimony by comedian Stephen Colbert was intended to distract from concurrent testimony. If that was the case, from the perspective of mainstream media, the ploy clearly worked. Saturday's Providence Journal, for example, dutifully covered the "controversy" over the Colbert performance.

Unless I've missed it, the paper has yet to mention more-serious testimony by former voting chief for the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division Christopher Coates that race determines whose voting rights are protected under the Obama administration.

Yes, Colbert thwarted the strategy at least to the degree that he made a mockery of such hearings and thus threw mud on those who oversee them. But getting dirty is part of politics, and it's a calculated and tolerated outcome for politicians who prefer that you look at the dirt on their lying faces rather than the tar that they've smeared on our civic structure. As for the mainstream media, their pages probably won't bear the weight of much more fluff.

Servility with Outward Liberty

Justin Katz

In a review of Kenneth Minogue's The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life (subscription probably required), Diana Schaub touches on a topic that is subtle, but central to current political disputes. "Freedom is mentally and morally demanding; bondage is easy (painful and miserable, but easy)," she writes. Therefore, we are beginning to see the emergence of "a new 'dependence of mind' compatible with the outward forms of freedom."

The "one right thing" to do — the new orthodoxy — becomes defined not by the individual, with reference to authorities that may be addressed on their own merits, whether scriptural, traditional, or empirical, but by social activists, with government as "the agent of human improvement":

Servility takes a double form: "On the one hand, human beings are mobilized . . . to be the instruments of the social purpose of perfecting the world. On the other hand, as the beneficiaries of free-standing rights, they have been liberated from most frustrations and inhibitions on their right to satisfy all their own impulses. They are, in other words, to be collectively dutiful and individually hedonistic." Both attitudes entail servility. One's ideas and pieties are acquired through social osmosis. One follows along, obeying or at least mouthing the right slogans. Meanwhile, one's day-to-day behavior is impulsive, not under the guidance of long-range reason. To mention just one instance: "Saving for a rainy day" (the practice of delayed gratification) is not imperative, or perhaps even possible, when the state taxes you for the provision of all needs. Consumption, debt, impulse-buying, and gambling are all officially encouraged. The servile mind is enslaved to society without and the passions within.

Arguably, the skill that Western society developed, over millennia, was one of self discipline yielding a higher liberty, and when liberated from oppressive domination by others (through democracy) and given structures that facilitate the choice to rise above the base urges of the self (mainly through religion), humankind will strive and advance.

It is well known history (and, truthfully, current events) that people desiring to dominate can leverage that understanding to impose servility in the name of stamping out personal urges, with a corruption of religious structures as the primary vehicle. What we're seeing, in our place and time, is the encouragement of poor behavior so that the dominators have reason to impose their own order to manage the consequences through government.

September 25, 2010

The Signage War

Justin Katz

I've wanted to mention: Over the past few weeks, I've been driving up and down a number of the main roads in the East Bay, particularly on Aquidneck Island and east of the Sakonnet River. In the balance of yard signs, I have to say that it isn't even a contest between the Republicans and others. The signs are everywhere, led by first Congressional district candidate John Loughlin, Gubernatorial candidate John Robitaille, and attorney general candidate Erik Wallin. Local General Assembly candidate Nancy Driggs has, however, been hugely active — placing ubiquitous signs and standing at key intersections during commute times.

Granted, the East Bay might not be representative — and yard signs are hardly tantamount to election returns — but there appears to be a clear enthusiasm gap. I wonder how things appear in other parts of the state.

The Missing Tools - Why Car and Property Taxes are Going Up in Too Many Cities and Towns

Monique Chartier

In an e-blast yesterday, the John Robitaille campaign helpfully supplied the list for which I have been hunting since the end of the last G.A. session: all of the local budget control tools which the General Assembly refused to supply to cities and towns. (One item only from the list made it into law: a statewide school bus system.)

• Establish a Statewide School Food Services Program
• Establish a Statewide School Health, Dental Insurance
• Establish a Statewide Purchasing Systems
• Establish a Statewide School Transportation System
• Suspend the Caroulo Act When Aid is Reduced
• Repeal the Requirement that School Nurses be Certified Teachers
• Make Changes to Teacher Layoff Procedures
• Require Posting of Collective Bargaining Agreements
• Strengthen RIDE authority to suspend collective bargaining and intervene, and to evaluate teachers
• Restore management rights to school committees
• Base Police and Fire arbitration decisions on last best offer
• Modify the scope and criteria of binding arbitration for police and fire
• Remove minimum manning from collective bargaining/arbitration
• Require 25% health insurance cost sharing for municipal employees
• Make comprehensive changes to municipal pension and disability programs
• Limit injured on duty compensation for public safety workers
• Impose requirements for collective bargaining agreements to which the State is a party

Robitaille correctly noted that

Passage of these articles would reduce costs, restore management rights and make up for any lost revenue resulting from the elimination of the car excise tax.

The refusal to furnish these tools, of course, added legislative insult to the budgetary injury of the reduction of state aid in the form of car tax revenue. Platitudes by House leadership that municipalities "do business differently" and "be lean" ring hollow in the wilful absence of the means to accomplish this.

As for why this happened, it's difficult to argue with Robitaille's conclusion.

The only explanation for inaction is that those interests who have a stake in keeping things the way they are won out over the taxpayers and fiscal responsibility.

Congressional Timidity on ObamaCare - Or - We Certainly Won't Remind You What We Did

Monique Chartier

Further to Justin's post, ABC's The Note is hard pressed to find any congressperson expending precious campaign dollars to broadcast their "Yea" vote for ObamaCare.

Six months after President Obama signed a sweeping health care measure into law, how many Democrats nation-wide are running TV ads touting their votes for the law?

Answer: Zero

Caveat: We have trolled through ads ourselves and checked with Republicans and Democrats who would know. So its possible there is some innocuous ad out there. But it would be the exception that proves the rule.

A survey two weeks ago by Jennifer Haberkorn at Politico came to the same conclusion.

Many congresspeople voted for Obamacare. They must have thought it was a good thing. So why the scarcity of tv ads bragging about that vote? Why the reluctance to run on their own voting record on this matter?

A Practical Philosophy of Tools

Justin Katz

"All levels lose their accuracy, so buy the cheapest ones you can find." That was among the first bits of tool advice that I received when I started in the trade. In the years since, I've found that carpenters tend to develop what might properly be called a philosophy of tools.

Like other philosophies, the experience of the individual usually turns out to be the determining factor. The builder who preferred cheap levels also suggested that one's first step, upon buying a new tool, should be to beat it up badly enough that nobody would want to buy it stolen. He'd spent his formative years in the business with a temporary tradesman agency — essentially a carpenters' union without the inflated salaries and collective protections. In such an environment, one can hardly expect tools to last, and any that are too overtly desirable are apt to disappear.

On the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, would be the high-end shop carpenter for whom top-of-the-line tools are both an aid for the fine work that he does and part of the machinery by which he builds his reputation. He buys the best equipment, first, because it is best for a reason and, second, because his being able to afford it implies to prospects that previous clients have judged his work worthy of the tools and of the premium paid. Into that premium, he must build a physical demonstration of refined taste and the habitual care made evident by a pristine workshop.

But most of us spend our careers somewhere in between — in somewhat unpredictable environments. Our tools will have to be rushed from rainstorms, from time to time. They'll wind up in the hands of apprentices. They'll be thrown in the truck uncleaned after long, frigid days spent in a mad dash for deadlines, when the irresistible call of home overwhelms the professional habit of maintaining equipment.

The biggest factor behind the tools that one buys has got to be economics. High-end tools are a luxury, and most carpenters whom I've met buy the least expensive brands that they believe will accomplish the tasks for which they're intended. Tools that are too close to the low end will often have to be replaced before they've returned even their small value, partly because they're cheaply made and partly because they won't receive the care that more respectable brands command. Worse still, "homeowner" brands can be a matter of professional embarrassment.

The common practice, of course, is hardly so considered and deliberate. We carpenters buy from among the range of brands that are considered mainstream — Bosch, Makita, Hitachi, Milwaukee, DeWALT, Porter Cable — and make our specific decisions based on limited feature differences, sale price, battery compatibility, or just plain ol' brand loyalty.

Older carpenters emerge from their vans with heavy metal boxes containing tools that feel as if they hardly need any extra protection at all. They bring them to be serviced, or service them themselves, and for the extra effort and expense, the reward is a lifetime with the same saws, drivers, and shapers. The craftsman gains a comfort with and intimate knowledge of his arsenal, the tools carry an unmistakable authority, and local repair shops are able to stay in business.

Younger carpenters have grown up in an era of gadgets and rapid technological advancement. In the long view, high-tech devices are disposable, and nobody laments their loss too much because the latest editions that replace them are always able to do so much more for so much less. Construction tools are a different matter: Try as the big-name companies might to make their older products seem obsolete — adding lasers to miter saws and fancy self-lifting table saw stands — tried and true designs achieved decades ago promise to suffice for decades more. Still, consumers raised in the high-tech culture that has straddled the millennium find it natural that purchased items should be discarded every few years, even if the replacement is pretty much the same as that which it replaces.

There is a wise middle road, here, acknowledging (1) that a philosophy of tools depends on what kinds of carpenters we want to be, (2) that most of us don't figure that out before investing years in the trade, and (3) that tools can be very expensive. After about six months of working in construction full time, I began filling my nights and weekends with side jobs and using the profits to expand my collection. Thousands of dollars later, I had every tool necessary to build a house from start to finish.

I'd still be collecting... and borrowing... and struggling to use the wrong tool for the job in some instances had I not been taught to be practical about my purchases — to see tools as far less than sacred objects. Now, as my first tools fail from the abuse of having been used to train me, as much as to accomplish the tasks for which they were designed, I've a far better sense of what features (and dollar amounts) are appropriate for the work that I actually do.

More importantly, I've a better sense of what investments I'll have to make in order to move my career in the direction that I want to go. Years after my first clumsy cuts with a circular saw, I've learned that the path of disposable levels and deliberately mangled power tools is not the path that I wish to take. I've also discovered that the perfect shop is likely either to be the product of luck or a means of semi-retirement some decades away, several generations of midrange tools down the road.

September 24, 2010

No Comment from Lincoln Chafee on Organized Labor's Focus on Opposing RI Pension Reform

Carroll Andrew Morse

Based on independent Gubernatorial candidate Lincoln Chafee's description of party primaries as "destructive beasts" in response to Christine O'Donnell's victory in the Delaware Republican Senate primary (earlier Anchor Rising item here), I e-mailed the Chafee campaign to ask if Mr. Chafee believed that opposition to pension reform constituted a purity test for organized labor's political activity in Rhode Island, which also fed a "destructive beast" when applied to the primary process.

A spokesman for the Chafee campaign said that the former Senator had no comment on the matter.

Reminders of What They Did

Justin Katz

The Washington Examiner offers a useful reminder of some of the actions of ObamaCare:

Six months ago, President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rammed Obamacare down the throats of an unwilling American public. Half a year removed from the unprecedented legislative chicanery and backroom dealing that characterized the bill's passage, we know much more about the bill than we did then.

Costs will go up; abortions will be funded; consumers will lose the coverage that they like; doctors will be harmed, economically; jobs will be lost; the government will grow and become more invasive. The slight correction may be necessary that a lot of us "knew" these things about the bill inasmuch as we expected them to be included.

How Is Debt Going Away?

Justin Katz

Most of us have taken it to be one of the few salutary effects of this recession that Americans' debt habits appear to have shifted somewhat. Blogger Les Jones suggests that we've overestimated that result:

It turns out that the belt-tightening interpretation may not have been true in the least. If the data below is correct 99% of the reduction in consumer debt was due not to repayment of loans, but to non-repayment. The debts didn’t go away because they were paid off. They went away because they were written off as hopeless.

I'm not inclined to disagree with Jones that "there's too much debt that will never be repaid" — although, in the name of exactitude, I'd note that the Wall Street Journal's numbers to which he's reacting actually suggest that 96% of the reduction was due to default. However, this evidence alone doesn't prove that habits haven't changed. After all, it's much more difficult to pay down debt than to default and takes a longer time to show results.

If I pay every dollar that I can toward debt reduction, my total goes down a couple of hundred dollars per month. If my creditors were to write off my debt in total, well, it would plummet quite a bit more than that. Indeed, in the balance between the two ways of reducing debt, there would have to be a large number of folks like me to offset even one defaulter.

Lifetime Health Care for 6 Years of Work

Marc Comtois

As a Warwickian, I'd be remiss not to call attention to the latest Hummel Report:

While unfunded public pensions have gotten the lion's share of the headlines recently - the unfunded health benefit liability for retired employees is a much bigger problem here in Warwick, to the tune of more than $300 million. Part of the reason: promises made years ago to give lifetime health coverage to many - including city council members.

Warwick is one of a handful of communities in Rhode Island that offers city council members medical coverage. All but one of the 9-member council take it - seven have family plans.

And up until last year, if you served three consecutive terms on the council - or as mayor - you qualified for lifetime health benefits. That's six years for lifetime health coverage.

That means taxpayers this year are paying for 16 former councilmen, mayors, or their widows - to the tune of more than $50,000.

Not a lot in the big picture, sure. But it's the principle of the thing. Six years? Well, the current City Council has made some changes--exempting themselves, of course:
Council President Bruce Place said the council last year voted to eliminate the lifetime benefit for elected officials, saying it is a move toward reigning in the city's obligations on healthcare costs across the board.

Place: ``It's one of the highest costs we incur, especially with retirees. I firmly believe that people that were hired by the city 20 years ago and retired, you don't change the rules on them in the middle of it. But you have to be proactive and think ahead, you have to think about new contracts in the future. What you sign and what you don't sign and we just can't afford those kinds of benefits in the future.''

But what about benefits for current city council members? Employees of the city must work more than 20 hours to get the same benefit, but council member don't punch a clock so it's difficult to quantify how many hours they actually put in.

What is clear: The Blue Cross plan they receive is one of the best available. The council members now pay at least a 10 percent co-share; some volunteer to pay more.

Only in the public sector does "reform" mean providing full health-care coverage to employees who--if they worked any other place--would be considered part-time. Finally:
But the premiums are only part of the real cost of the benefit to the city and its taxpayers. The Hummel Report has learned that last year the claims against the city's policy for the current council were more than a quarter of a million dollars.
Not surprising. If it's "free" (or cheap), you'll use it more. That's how we got into the current health care mess. Private sector employees have been dealing with burgeoning costs and cuts in health care for at least a decade. It must be nice to work in the public sector where economic reality can be ignored.

Chris Christie: Conservative Hero, Necessary Solution

Justin Katz

He seems so astonishingly unique and determined, but the reality is that, if conservatives wish to move the country in the direction that we believe to be the right one, we're going to have to elect a lot more leaders like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie:

Part of Gov. Chris Christie's belt-tightening plan for New Jersey was the termination of $7.5 million in public money for Planned Parenthood clinics in the state. But Democrats in the senate fought back, passing with a 30-10 majority a bill that reinstated the funding. That margin included several Republicans and was enough to be veto-proof. But when that veto actually came, Republicans wary of crossing Christie peeled off, and the measure failed 23-17.

Every government expenditure has a bought and sold constituency and some dressing that makes it seem critical to somebody, even when the funded action is the killing of unborn children. Throughout the last decade, we've seen the results of electing people for whom "compromising" somehow always leads to the growth and expansion of government.

September 23, 2010

Adding Up the Turbines

Justin Katz

An article about a small-scale windfarm to be completed by spring 2012 offers some numbers and thereby invites readers to do the math:

Three, 360-foot tall turbines — the largest in the state — will be built at the Narragansett Bay Commission's Fields Point Wastewater Treatment Facility. The team for the $12-million project includes Gilbane Building Co., Atlantic Design Engineers, Glynn Electric, Barnhart Crane & Rigging, Earth Systems Global Inc. and Terracon.

The commission estimates that at that height, the turbines will generate 1,500 kilowatts and supply 55 to 60 percent of the current power demand at its facility. The electricity is valued at more than $500,000 per year and will offset 3,000 tons a year of carbon dioxide that would have been released from fossil fuel.

So let's assume that the project keeps to its budget and that the turbines generate the predicted amount of energy with the forecast value. Let's also leave out all costs associated with operating and maintaining the mini-farm. It will take 24 years for these turbines to pay for themselves, which brings us right about the time that they'll have to be replaced refurbished, for additional years of service required to cover the cost. (Again, that's the cost beyond operation and maintenance and with all of the friendly assumptions, as described above.)

Now, we can argue about the need to "go green," and I'll take the position that the environmental benefits of these programs are not worth the cost. But it remains disingenuous to speak of such projects as money-saving.

Re: Chafee Just Doesn't Understand....Race to the Top

Monique Chartier

The bottom line of Race To The Top, as was No Child Left Behind ('fess up, leftie friends who oppose NCLB, that program name is you and you'd have supported NCLB if it hadn't been proposed by a Republican president) is an effort to increase academic achievement in this state. Whether, as Marc wonders, the former senator is "wary" of RTTT on its merits or to score targeted political points, does he have an alternative proposal to boost academic achievement in Rhode Island's public schools?

One hint: adding ever more money to our education budgets - more specifically, to contracts - won't get the job done. Rhode Island has decisively demonstrated this, with teacher pay in the top 20% nationally [page 37 of this PDF], student achievement in the bottom 20% and the lowest (51st) ratio of students enrolled to teacher [page 35 of this PDF].

Remembering the Pain

Justin Katz

On last night's Matt Allen Show, Andrew noted that voters tend to forget, by November, all of the things that upset them throughout the year and suggested that Anchor Rising can help to remedy the situation. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

September 22, 2010

What the Pension Reform Vote Tells us About the Current State of the Legislature

Carroll Andrew Morse

The "Article 16" vote, which apparently was the litmus test for organized labor's support of sitting legislators, was a vote on limiting cost-of-living increases to the first $35,000 of benefits for state employees, teachers, judges and "justices" who retired after September 2009 (see pg. 138). Before the full article was voted on, there was also a vote on an amendment submitted by Rep. Gregory Schadone (which failed) that would have eliminated cost-of-living increases for any state employee, teacher, judge or justice hired after this year's budget went into effect (see pg. 126).

The combination of the two votes provides an informative look at the current make-up of the Rhode Island House, and how the November general election will impact near-future decisions to be made regarding the major fiscal and governance issues confronting Rhode Island.

Two yes or no votes can always be divided into four groups. In this case, the four groups are:

Group #1: Reps who voted no on the amendment to eliminate COLAs for new hires, and no on the overall Article limiting COLAs to the first $35,000 for new retirees: [Carnevale, Carter, DaSilva, DeSimone, Diaz, Fellela, Fierro, Giannini, Guthrie, Handy, Messier, Palumbo, San Bento, Savage, Segal, Slater, Sullivan, Ucci, Walsh, Wasylyk].

Group #1.5: Not present for the vote on the amendment to eliminate COLAs for new hires, and no on the overall budget Article limiting COLAs to $35,000 for new retirees: [Rice A].

Group #2: Reps who voted no on the amendment to eliminate COLAs for new hires, but yes on the overall Article limiting COLAs to the first $35,000 for new retirees: [The Honorable Speaker Fox, Ajello, Almeida, Caprio, Coderre, Costantino, Edwards, Gablinske, Gallison, Gemma, Jackson, Lally, Martin, Mattiello, McCauley, Melo, Murphy, Naughton, O'Neill, Pacheco, Petrarca, Rice M., Ruggiero, Serpa, Shallcross, Silva, Vaudreuil, Williams, Williamson].

Group #3: Reps who voted yes on the amendment to eliminate COLAs for new hires, and yes on the overall Article limiting COLAs to the first $35,000 for new retirees: [Baldelli-Hunt, Brien, Driver, Ehrhardt, Ferri*, Hearn, Kennedy*, Marcello, Trillo, Winfield].

Group #4: Reps who voted yes on the amendment to eliminate COLAs for new hires, and no on the overall article to limit COLAs to the first $35,000 for new retirees: [Azzinaro, Corvese, Jacquard, Lima, Loughlin, MacBeth*, Malik, Menard, Newberry, Pollard, Schadone, Watson].

Initially, there were 20 reps in group #1, the no-pension-reform group. Due to primary defeats (Fierro, Wasylyk) and retirements (Giannini, Segal, Sullivan) it currently stands at 15. Group #2, who supported the COLA change, started with 29 reps. Due to the loss of the 5 seats claimed by organized labor as its targeted victories (Caprio, Gablinske, Gemma, M. Rice, Shallcross-Smith) plus Almeida and Vaudreuil also through primaries, plus the retirements of Costantino, Murphy, Pacheco and Williamson, it currently stands at 18. (Someone will have to ask Rep. Amy Rice which group she belongs to).

Group #3 is pretty obviously reps who supported the pension reform they could get, but still potentially in favor of more. Group #4 is potentially the most eclectic, allowing for the possibilities of both very strategic (vote for an amendment, but against the bill, and claim to be on both sides) and very principled (vote against a bill that you could support, but doesn't go far enough) voting.

Organized labor's goal is to have as many people join Group #1 as possible, either by electing new reps who hold Group #1 positions, or by scaring old reps from other groups (but mainly group #2) into Group #1. The primary results and the claims made in their wake show that partial loyalty on the pension issue isn't good enough; labor leadership in RI wants representatives who are going to pretty much oppose any move at pension reform.

38 seats are needed to have a lock on the business of the House. The Group #1 bloc is at least 20 seats away from that. On the the other hand, members of Group #2, seeing what happened to five of their comrades, may be tempted to trade other issues to remain in good-graces of the Democratic party's traditional special-interest base, e.g. will you let me make up for my pension vote from last year by voting for binding arbitration this year. It's something to watch out for, meaning that a relevant set of questions that Rhode Island voters have to ask themselves in this election cycle is...

  • Whether they can trust potential new reps to stay safely out of Group #1's orbit and make fiscally and economically sensible decisions for all of Rhode Island...
  • Whether the current reps from outside of Group #1 -- especially those from Group #2 -- can be trusted not to be frightened into going along to get along with Group #1, and...
  • Whether the state will ultimately be better off by electing new reps, not so enmeshed in the current system.

Chafee Just Doesn't Understand....Race to the Top

Marc Comtois

"I'm wary of Race to the Top." So says Lincoln Chafee, as he vaguely expresses concern over the long term state and municipal obligations that he implies could be generated by federal Race to the Top money. Except there really aren't any because the goal of Race to the Top is to accelerate current (ie; already underway) education reform by helping pay for studies, computer systems, etc. that will help with such things as new teacher evaluation programs and the like. These reforms are intended to replace, not add onto, existing programs.

Chafee is simply playing a political game here. His spokesman, Mike Trainor, was on with WPRO's Dan Yorke trying to spin this as Chafee expressing merely "cautionary" concerns, not criticism of RTTT. As Yorke explained, though, such expressions of "caution" are meant to be taken as criticism. Yorke calling it a "trial balloon" is spot on. The target? Most likely those within the education establishment with concerns about RTTT. Especially given that Chafee also lumped RTTT with No Child Left Behind, a favorite talking point of anti-RTTT folks.

Caprio's New Target

Justin Katz

So, in the year-plus prior to the election, General Treasurer Frank Caprio courted the Rhode Island right — Anchor Rising, the Ocean State Policy Research Institute, and the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition — to foster the general impression that he'd be a tolerable governor. He talked the small-business, free market talk.

During the primaries, while battling Attorney General Patrick Lynch, he tacked left. There were various examples of that move, but his active support for same-sex marriage comes to mind as something dramatically contrary to previous assurances to us.

Now that he's won the Democrat nomination, he seems to be moving toward the union-left:

State General Treasurer and Democratic candidate for governor Frank T. Caprio promised to "go out and get the money" to launch "one of the biggest public-works projects" Rhode Island has ever seen to put thousands to work fixing the state's road and bridges. "As much as we can do, as quick as we can do it," he said. "What we'll do is we'll sit down with the experts in the transportation area and the banking area, and we'll be a leader in the country in making sure we have the funding."

Sure. We'll just "go out and get the money" from all of those revenue sources that we're not yet exploiting so that we can create union jobs. The relevant question for conservative reform groups in the state is what happens when "get the money" comes into inevitable conflict with the interests of private-sector industry.

A Government-Everything Complex

Justin Katz

News comes this morning that the inclusion of a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" has sunk a defense policy bill in the U.S. Senate:

Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked an effort by Democrats and the White House to lift the ban on gays from serving openly in the military, voting unanimously against advancing a major defense policy bill that included the provision. ...

Democrats included the repeal provision in a $726 billion defense policy bill, which authorizes a pay raise for the troops among other popular programs. In a deal brokered with the White House, the measure would have overturned the 1993 law banning openly gay service only after a Pentagon review and certification from the president that lifting the ban wouldn't hurt troop morale.

Although I oppose progressives' efforts to impose social engineering on our military forces, my larger concern, on this issue, is that such policy decisions are unnecessarily bound up with budgeting, such as the aforementioned raises. If it's true, as the Democrats have asserted, that they're merely following "public opinion," why ought the controversial issue not be handled on its own? The other day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, NV) announced his intention also to append a bill that would have (had it not been blocked) allowed young illegal immigrants "who attend college or join the military to become legal U.S. residents."

Add in with this social stuff policies that more appropriately belong in a bill addressing military spending. I'm thinking of the F136 engine for the F-35 Lightning II jet engine. Back in the mid-'90s, the bidding process left the engines in the hands of the company Pratt & Whitney (the F135), but General Electric/Rolls-Royce managed to secure funding for its alternate, as well.

Four years ago, the Department of Defense and both administrations began attempting to withdraw funding for the F136, but Congress has kept it going. The core remaining argument on behalf of the engine is made on the grounds of market competition — although it's questionable whether a single entity's purchase of two products creates real competitive incentives for either provider.

What makes the engine issue particularly relevant is that President Obama has vowed to veto the defense policy bill if it includes funding for the F136. The opportunity, therefore, for political maneuvers that have nothing to do with the well being of the military or the nation would have been huge if a pledge to veto wasteful spending had come up against the waves of homosexual and immigration activism.

These are the sorts of complicated and difficult-to-follow conflicts that arise with big government, of which the much-forewarned military-industrial complex seeks to make use to ensure continued economic benefit to interested parties. Yet, the typically left-leaning folks who decry such back-room cooperation when it comes to businesses and the military would like nothing better than to extend that same complexity and opportunity for diversion and corruption to every aspect of American society — healthcare, finances, the "green" industry, and on and on and on.

September 21, 2010

State Budgets, Easy to Grow....

Marc Comtois

Matthew Mitchell at George Mason University's Mercatus Center has done research showing that States will have to increase their 2009 budget cuts (average of 6.8%) to 12.3% and sustain that level of spending to pay off their debts. Rhode Island is one example he cites:

[T]he entire budget gap could have been eliminated had the state maintained 1987 inflation-adjusted per capita spending levels. Rhode Island's 2009 expenditures were $7.6 billion. If held to real 1987 per capita levels, however, the budget would have been less than half this amount: $3.3 billion. This would have been more than enough to close the state's $872 million gap. But as with other states, spending restraint needn't have begun in 1987 for the state to have avoided its budget gap. If held to real 1995 per capita spending levels, I estimate that the state would have spent $5.1 billion in 2009. Assuming revenue would have followed its same course, the difference is still enough to have avoided the state's entire gap.
There are also some charts to help illustrate the point. It's basically a confirmation of data we've presented before. When times were good, government explodes, when bad, it shrinks just a little. The truth is that a regular COLA-like increase for government budgets should be MORE than enough to "provide the services that the public demands and expects." (To sorta paraphrase a mantra we regularly hear from the "more gov't" types).

But Don't Tar Everybody, Especially When Independence Is the Message

Justin Katz

However one feels about specific, statewide campaigns, it's worth remembering that candidates (especially those running as Republicans) are individuals worthy of assessment on their own merits. It remains critical to bring new faces and political balance to the General Assembly, especially in light of the proven union influence on policy, there. The Clean Slate Web site has been updated, with a by-district listing of candidates in your area, some with their own Web sites.

It's also worth remembering that the Clean Slate program is available to independent candidates, as well as Republicans. Those not already on the list should consider contacting the initiative's director, Mike Stenhouse (email).

Nothing from Nothing Leaves Nothing

Marc Comtois

Did you hear about the controversy surrounding the Republican candidate for Lt. Governor pulling out in favor of an independent?


That's the response I've gotten from an informal survey of non-political types. That about says it all, doesn't it?

So, while in-the-know political observers (including us) continue to entertain ourselves with this tempest in a teapot regarding the GOP Lt. Governor race, regular Rhode Islanders yawn and think about the *New Fall Lineup* emerging on their TV sets.

And as we shake our heads at the opportunity the RI GOP has provided to perpetual wannabe political players Chris Young, his multi-office candidate fiance Kara Russo and (now) Keven McKenna, regular Rhode Islanders will be thinking about how they're going to handle the logistics of getting 3 kids to 5 events on one night while Mom is working late and Dad has to fill in (uh oh!).

Come November, when the 20-25% of Rhode Islanders get around to voting, they may or may not notice that the GOP has a candidate for Lt. Governor (at least those that don't automatically "pull" the Democratic Mastah completing the arrow). And the 35% who always vote against the Democrat will get behind Bob Healey (or the other Bob) and the rest will vote for the status quo.

Thus, all the air, ink and pixels consumed, spilled or, um, pixelated regarding this issue over the last few days will result in....nothing. Well, at least it kept us entertained.

Under Union Governance

Justin Katz

Janet Daley's reminiscences of union-run England as it was some decades ago sound eerily familiar, although even Rhode Island, among the states, still has far to fall before matching her experience:

In the 1980s, as now, the justification for nihilistic persecution of the innocent citizen was The Cuts: the diabolical reductions in spending which the Tory government was reputedly making to public services. Except that it wasn't. For all the determined rhetoric, the Thatcher government never succeeded in reducing public spending. Funding for the NHS — which became, in the language of the spinners, a "toxic" issue for the Conservatives — increased in real terms every year under the Tories.

What produced (or facilitated) the mythology of "Tory cuts" was the capping of local council rates: in order to curb the robber baron antics of Loony Left councils, whose escalation of the rates was killing whole swaths of urban Britain by driving out businesses and property owners, the Conservatives placed a limit on what we now call council tax. The consequence of this was that local councils had to make cuts in services. In the great spirit of Left-wing social conscience, the Labour ones made sure to cut the most high-profile, front-line services in order to milk the public outrage that would do maximum political damage to the government. So it wasn't the gender equality outreach officers who were first to go: it was Meals on Wheels.

No, we don't yet have overt extortion from public trash collectors, who'll dump garbage on the lawns of low "tippers," as Daley describes. But tactics such as targeting critical, rather than frivolous, services are the same and the end goals are related.

Public-sector unions create a structure that institutionalizes and perpetuates the concept that public employees can exert political pressure to ensure special deals for themselves — although they call them just deserts that they've earned. When financial reality requires "Tory cuts," it's natural for public employees to consider proving to voters just how critical their services are.

We should take England's experience as a warning against broadening the reach of government (as into healthcare) and, by extension, the unions that come to dominate it.

Unnecessary Division

Justin Katz

I suspect that those who orchestrated Heidi Rogers' move of withdrawing from the race for lieutenant governor in order to ensure an easier path for independent candidate Robert Healey did not anticipate such controversy:

Kara D. Russo, who lost the Republican primary for lieutenant governor, filed a legal complaint with the state Board of Elections Monday that seeks to reverse the decision by GOP primary winner Heidi Rogers to drop out of the race to improve the election chances for Robert J. Healey, head of the Cool Moose party. ...

Russo, accompanied by her fiancé, Christopher F. Young, and lawyer, Keven A. McKenna, who is also an independent candidate for attorney general, presented their legal complaint to Robert Kando, executive director of the state Board of Elections.

Upon request, the campaign of John Robitaille for governor sent me this carefully worded statement:

I am disappointed Heidi Rogers has withdrawn from the race, but I respect her decision to do so. After speaking with Heidi I am convinced that she gave this careful thought and consideration.

And in a casual email that I requested permission to post, in part, former Cranston mayor Stephen Laffey comments as follows:

Imagine running for statewide office and seeing this happen ... hurts everyone all the way down the ticket. People in Afghanistan just went out and voted again ... some died ... some will die soon ... and in RI they make a mockery of it.

Perhaps the intra-Republican heat is a surprise (although players in politics ought to have known that the risk was there), but that the Democrats would try to damage the Republican brand on the basis of Rogers' decision should have been entirely predictable. Moreover, even were the local mainstream media not so sympathetic to the Democrats, the maneuver was sure to be one of the most interesting (read: "newsworthy") events in the post-primary lull. This controversy — which runs contrary to the message that the GOP is trying to promote for this election cycle — was completely unnecessary.

Of course, the silver lining for the cynic is that so few Rhode Islanders actually pay attention that a majority of voters will probably go to the polls with a paraphrased version of the national storyline foremost in their minds.

September 20, 2010

The Union's Political Game is Twisted from the Beginning

Justin Katz

I don't think WRNI reporter/commentator Scott MacKay would take offense at the suggestion — or bother to deny — that he's got a union-friendly worldview, but I wonder whether it's occurred to him that this imbalance in political influence might be structural and unfair in its core:

Union activists and their allies in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party won some big victories. The legislature that takes office in January is likely to be more liberal that the one that adjourned in June.

There is no secret as to why this happens; forget the peddlers of arcane conspiracies. The liberals and labor union members take elections seriously. While the business leaders squawk, labor leaders walk, as in door-to-door campaigning in districts across the state. ...

But there is a solution to the State House labor-business imbalance. Business advocates should leave their boats on the moorings some weekends and try selling their case to door to door to average voters.

Put aside the class-warfare angle. What MacKay elides, here, is that labor leaders and their activist allies make their livings by the activities for which MacKay applauds them. Business leaders — whether of the boat-owning sort or the just-getting-by-working-eighty-hours-a-week (and daily-thinking-about-leaving-the-state) set — must engage in politics on their spare time and with money piled upon the already burdensome costs of operating in Rhode Island.

Not only that, but when it comes to public sector unions, their politicking directly helps them to increase their revenue. And it is ultimately taxpayers' money that is being used to fund campaign activities on behalf of candidates who wish to transfer more of it to their union supporters.

Mix-N-Match a GOP Presidential Ticket

Monique Chartier

Are you pleased at the sight of Sarah Palin edging towards the ring, hat in hand? No? Then who would you prefer?

Choose from the fairly comprehensive list of candidates offered at the Values Voter Summit straw poll this weekend

Michele Bachmann | Jan Brewer | Chris Christie | Mitch Daniels | Jim DeMint | Newt Gingrich | Mike Huckabee | Bobby Jindal | Bob McDonnell | Sarah Palin | Ron Paul | Tim Pawlenty | Mike Pence | Marco Rubio | Mitt Romney | Paul Ryan | Rick Santorum

or toss in a wild card.

I'm still mulling over the best person for the top of the ticket. The exceedingly frank and unabashed style of Governor Chris Christie, however, strikes me as an excellent fit for VP.

The Obama-BP Message Control

Justin Katz

It is odd in the highest degree that left-wing commenter Russ, responding to a post about the failure of onshore environmental armageddon to materialize in the Gulf of Mexico, thinks that conservatives would shrink from this information:

FLATOW: Yeah, let me to go the phones, Darren(ph) in College Station, Texas. Hi, Darren.

DARREN (Caller): Hello, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

DARREN: I'm an adjunct professor here at A&M, and we were also in the Gulf, but got thrown out. We were testing a theory that the chemical composition of the dispersant they were using was causing the oil to sink. And we'd been there for approximately three days, and federal agents flat told us to get out. And it wasn't Fish and Wildlife officers. These were Homeland Security officers, and we were told that it was in the interest of national security. ...

DARREN: Oh, yeah, they inspected the boat. They, of course, checked everyone's identification, and they took all the samples that we had. And they also took some notes that we had. The theory that we were operating upon was information that had been given to us by someone who worked in the plant that made that dispersant. And they took everything.

So, the oil didn't wash over the land in the ecosystem-killing amount initially predicted, but it might not have been absorbed by the Gulf to the degree subsequently thought. Whether the remediation effort did, indeed, coat vast swaths of the seafloor with oil and what the repercussions will be — the breadth of the damage, whether the previously cited oil-eating microbes will remove it over time, and so on — are all questions that should be answered. And if this talk-radio caller can be trusted, it's discouraging to see the administration, whose deep-water-only policies and poor execution of oversight helped to precipitate the disaster, trying to keep those answers from materializing as quickly as possible.

Doing Well in the General Assembly

Justin Katz

The spin is bad enough:

House Speaker Gordon D. Fox said that while Republicans talk about a need for balance, Democrats can talk about accomplishments — pension reform, a budget deficit that recently turned into a surplus and passage of an education-financing formula, to name a few.

Pension reform has been pitiful and inadequate. The budget deficit turned to a surplus thanks to hundred of millions of dollars from an Obama administration intent on bailing out states and the General Assembly's ability to pass remaining budget gaps on to cities and towns. The education-financing formula only seems like a major accomplishment because the General Assembly (i.e., the Democrats) was too incompetent to implement it for such a long time... until, of course, it was created and forced through by an education commissioner appointed by Republican/reform figures (particularly Governor Carcieri and Board of Regents member Angus Davis) with the lure of another federal windfall.

What's worse, though, is that the spin finds partial support in public statements from the governor's office. From a PR release sent out last week:

A national news crew came visiting Governor Carcieri this week to find out how Rhode Island was able to change colors: from being in the red to being in the black. Even more, they wanted to know how Rhode Island came to be the only state that has been able to reduce spending AND lower the tax rates in these difficult economic times.

The answer really goes back to 2003. Since then, Governor Carcieri, with his staff, department directors, and the General Assembly, has:

  • Eliminated the Structural Deficit

The list goes on, but the very first bullet stops you in your tracks with the question: When was the "structural deficit" eliminated? This year's budget, beyond moving burdens toward the cities and towns, relied on more than a hundred million dollars in one-time federal largess that almost didn't materialize. Further adjustments are likely to be necessary before the budget year is up. And the tax-rate changes were mainly a numbers shuffle, intended to remain "revenue neutral."

This strange harmony of message should begin to look suspicious when Fox decides to go for the big lie in the paragraph following the one quoted at the beginning of this post:

"That's the message, which is that Democrats are in the majority for a reason, because we know what is needed for people to do well," he said. "We're delivering."

We've still got unemployment at nearly nation-leading rates. Our students are still facing a criminal deficiency in the education that they're receiving. We're the languishing armpit of New England in more ways than one. Just who is "doing well," Gordon?

I guess we all know the answer to that question.

September 19, 2010


Justin Katz

As difficult as it may be for me to come to the defense of Patrick Lynch, I have to point out that the PolitiFact folks are doing exactly what they accuse Lynch of doing, here:

Our Truth-O-Meter can't predict the future, so we don't know if the jobs estimates being projected by either Lynch or Deepwater are correct, whether the wind farm will -- as some experts have predicted -- actually cost the state jobs by driving up the cost of electricity, or whether fossil fuel prices will someday make Rhode Islanders glad they invested in the small- or large-scale offshore wind farms.

But for now, we rule that Lynch was telling only half the story when he quoted Deepwater officials, so we'll give him a Half True

Lynch had quoted Deepwater's testimony that it would directly create only six new jobs in the state, and PolitiFact objected that he didn't account for contractors who would help to build the necessary components. Putting aside the fact that it is wholly speculative (i.e., predicting the future) that the company will not find out-of-state contractors, as any Rhode Island business, agency, or even municipality is wont to do when a non-RI firm wins the bidding process, PolitiFact ignores the context of the debate.

The weight of the decision to privilege Deepwater with government assistance — to the point of manipulating the law to ensure that guardian agencies, like the Public Utilities Commission, wouldn't have to acknowledge that the project is a bad deal for the people of the state — fell on the assumption that building a permanent industry, here, would be worth the cost, Building buildings and the other "temporary construction jobs" on which PolitiFact relies for its verdict are great but don't necessarily justify the extraordinary steps that our state officials have taken.

I'd adjust Lynch up to a "mostly true."

Okay, It's Beyond Me: Should the Curriculum of Any Public School Include a Class about "Enduring Beliefs in the World Today" - a.k.a., Religion - that Includes Field Trips to Religious Services?

Monique Chartier

... though in the case of the Wellesley Middle School, the field trip in question inexplicably included student observation (which turned into something more for some of the boy students; thus, generating keen attention from outside of the school district to this field trip and an apology [PDF] from the superintendent) of the service of only one religion. I have e-mailed the teacher to ask why this was and whether the program would be modified to include observation of the services of the other religions studied in the course.

But for the sake of this discussion, let's stipulate a hypothetical course that includes observation of the service of all religions studied. Should such a course even be taught at a public (k-12) school?

My initial reaction was "no", in part, because it strikes me that religion is the primary purview of the parent and mainly because of what happened on this field trip: participation was invited and supervising teachers were too lax or too misguidedly polite to intercede. But is this hindsight casting an unwarranted negative pall on an otherwise good course idea?

Helping Small Businesses by Making Their Lives Harder

Justin Katz

It's as if, even when they're claiming to be legislating on behalf of small businesses, Obama and the Democrats can't resist binding small businesses:

But under a little-publicized provision in the bill, mom-and-pop owners of triple-deckers, duplexes, condos and other such rental real estate will have to obtain the names, addresses and federal tax identification numbers of many of their snowplow operators, electricians, painters and other such service providers.

If the landlord pays such a contractor a total of at least $600 for the year, the landlord will generally have to issue that contractor a special tax form, called a Form 1099 (or "ten ninety-nine" by tax professionals). The landlord will have to list on the form the amount the contractor was paid for the year, and send a copy of that form to the IRS.

When hiring workers, in this way, businesses are acting as consumers, not as contractors; it's not as if they charge renters a markup on top of handyman bills. But to clueless Democrats (and not a few establishment Republicans, I'm sure), anybody who profits from any activity is a target for taxes or assistance in collecting taxes. It will now be that much more difficult for Americans to start business operations involving rental properties and to hire tradesmen and workers to maintain them.

On the margins, the decision of whether to hire somebody or to do repairs one's self will tip toward the latter. There will also be increased incentive to hire off-the-books tradesmen rather than small operations that are striving to follow the rules. Finally, although the news report explains that the government hopes to recoup $2.5 billion in taxes over the next decade, by this move, it seems not to be questioned what the real cost to affected businesses will be.

The only rational justification for this move, that I can see, is that the government is trying to fund its incompetent stimulus programs by squeezing the private sector so that it doesn't have to shave its own programs. The problem is that even tax-cheating small businesses contribute to the economy, while government is all absorption.

September 18, 2010

While We're Condemning Threats

Justin Katz

I'm sure it's just taking some time for transreligion councils to organize their press conferences over this story:

The Seattle cartoonist whose artwork sparked the controversial "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!" has gone into hiding at the advice of the FBI after being targeted by a radical Muslim cleric, according to the newspaper that published her comics.

Molly Norris has moved and changed her name, the Seattle Weekly said Wednesday, after U.S.-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki placed her on an execution hit list. Awlaki -- who has been linked to the botched Times Square bombing and cited as inspiration for the Fort Hood massacre and a plot by two New Jersey men to kill U.S. soldiers -- reportedly called Norris a "prime target" for assassination and that her "proper abode is hellfire."

Surely the threat to kill a specific person is as grave an insult to God and to all religions as the threat to burn a printed copy of scripture. I'll await the high-profile denouncing... and await... and await.

The Origins of Orientation

Justin Katz

I suppose it's generally been taken differently, coming from a politically and theologically conservative traditionalist like me, but it looks like the thinking about the origins of homosexuality are moving toward what I've long contended to be the case (here presented by research psychologist Jesse Bering, who is, himself, gay):

Another caveat is that researchers in this area readily concede that there are probably multiple—and no doubt very complicated—developmental routes to adult homosexuality. Heritable, biological factors interact with environmental experiences to produce phenotypic outcomes, and this is no less true for sexual orientation than it is for any other within-population variable. Since the prospective and retrospective data discussed in the foregoing studies often reveal very early emerging traits in prehomosexuals, however, those children who show pronounced sex-atypical behaviors may have "more" of a genetic loading to their homosexuality, whereas gay adults who were sex-typical as children might trace their homosexuality more directly to particular childhood experiences. For example, in a rather stunning case of what I'll call "say-it-isn't-so science"—science that produces data that rebel against popular, politically correct, or emotionally appealing sentiments—controversial new findings published earlier this year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior hint intriguingly that men—but not women—who were sexually abused as children are significantly more likely than non-abused males to have had homosexual relationships as adults. Whatever the causal route, however, none of this implies, whatsoever, that sexual orientation is a choice. In fact it implies quite the opposite, since prepubertal erotic experiences can later consolidate into irreversible sexual orientations and preferences, as I discussed in a previous piece on the childhood origins of fetishes and paraphilias.

It is fashionable these days to say that one is "born gay," of course, but if we think about it a bit more critically, it's a bit odd, and probably nonsensical, to refer to a newborn infant, swaddled in blankets and still suckling on its mother's teats, as being homosexual. I appreciate the anti-discriminatory motives, but if we insist on using such politically correct parlance without consideration of more complex, postnatal developmental factors, are we really prepared to label newborns as being LGBT?

There is no "gay gene," although there are probably collections of heritable traits that make predisposition and socialization toward homosexuality so likely as to be indistinguishable from a biological certainty. But there are also a range of routes toward the same adult sexual preferences, spanning from what I've just described all the way to young (and not-so-young) adults who do, in fact, choose the lifestyle and identity group.

If it weren't for the current emphasis on identity politics, though, it'd all be a moot point. Discrimination against homosexuals is socially evaporating, and if we thought of public policy on its merits, rather than as a political football or battle ax, the question of whether the emotions and ways of life are "natural" would barely be relevant.

Democrat PR as Editorial

Justin Katz

Perhaps it shouldn't seem odd, but it's still discouraging to see the editorial board of the state's major daily paper offer up partisan spin as an unsigned editorial. Consider:

The GOP argues that extending the tax cuts for the affluent is good for small business, which creates most new jobs. The Democrats, pointing to dismal wage and job-creation data since the first of the big Bush tax cuts went into effect, in 2001, say that boosting the economy by expanding middle-class purchasing power would be the best approach. It would, they assert, help small firms by bringing in more customers.

Read that again. The argument is that:

  1. The tax cuts have not worked since 2001, but that keeping some of them will work now.
  2. Keeping taxes exactly the same as current levels is "expanding... middle-class purchasing power

Whoever penned that paragraph should be embarrassed and angry at the rest of the editorial board for not pointing out that only one who is completely submerged in Demorat Kool-Aid could fail to see its illogic. Or try this:

Perhaps Mr. Boehner fears that the Democrats might force him into a corner as favoring the well off in the election campaign over the next few weeks. The Ohioan complains that the Democrats are conducting "class warfare" on this matter.

Except that Republicans appear to be winning on the issue:

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb, made clear last week that he supports extending all of the Bush tax cuts, particularly in a bad economy, but on Monday he went further. Nelson told reporters he would be willing to join Republicans in crafting a bipartisan bill that does just that and even left open the possibility of supporting a GOP-led filibuster of any measure that stops short of a full extension.

Nelson said he does not expect to have to filibuster anything, however, as he does not expect his leadership to bring foward a bill that leaves out the well-to-do.

Meanwhile, Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman, who has said he supports extending all of the tax cuts, as well, told reporters he is not prepared to join Republicans in opposing a bill that only extends tax cuts for the middle class. ...

Several other Democrats in the chamber have come out publicly in opposition to letting tax cuts for the wealthy expire, and a number of others are known to be in that camp, as well.

And one more from the Projo editorial:

Consider that investment income, not earned income, is a major source of money for many better-off people. They pay a 15 percent capital-gains tax on their investments while people working for them might be paying an income-tax rate twice that on their wages.

Considering that the percentage of Americans paying no income tax at all is nearing 50%, including household incomes up to $51,000 per year, complaints against a 15% rate have a little less bite. For some perspective, 15% of $250,000 is $37,500, which begins to near the threshold at which those of us at the lower end begin paying taxes at all. I'm not supporting the rich over the working class with this point, just encouraging fair rhetoric and clear thinking.

To the current crop of Democrats (on and off the editorial board), not raising taxes is actually a cut, and taxation can never be high enough on disfavored groups of Americans.

September 17, 2010

Speaker Pelosi Yesterday: "If I were not in politics, I'd probably be in business"

Monique Chartier

Fred Thompson today:

If she weren't in politics, a LOT of people would be in business.

Rogers' Reason, and Giving Voters More Reasons to Distrust Unknown Republicans

Justin Katz

Here's Heidi Rogers' letter of withdrawal from her candidacy. Note the text that I've italicized, suggesting that this was possibly her plan all along and that RIGOP leaders were complicit:

First and foremost, I want to thank the Rhode Island Republican Party for their support in the primary election. I consider myself a loyal partisan, and in my view being a Republican is based on a philosophical commitment to foundational principles of small, limited government, operated in the most efficient manner.

Being a Republican extends beyond what is good for the party, but goes to what is good for our fellow citizens.

As a Republican dedicated to these fundamental principles, and as the Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor, I find myself faced with a dilemma. I firmly believe that the Office of Lieutenant Governor as it stands today is a waste of state tax dollars.

When Bob Healey announced his candidacy and discussed with us the idea of a Republican nomination of his candidacy, I was in full support. His message spoke to the very bedrock of Republican philosophy of small and limited government.

When it appeared that the Republicans were ready to leave the office uncontested in the November ballot, in essence, allowing Healey a head-to-head contest over the uselessness of the office, I was pleased. But when I heard that other members of my party were considering running for the office and maintaining it in its current wasteful form, I stepped forward to run.

As a Republican, I want to re-instill the idea that we are statesmen first and party members second. I want to demonstrate that our party is about good government and not about the politics or the personalities.

In this election, both Bob Healey and I believe in the same vision for the office of Lieutenant Governor. With both of us running on the same platform for the same office, the outcome would be to hand over the election to the incumbent Democrat. Splitting the "abolish the office" vote by having two candidates simply does not make sense, and it is my firm belief that it would deny the voters a clear choice.

When I entered the race, Mr. Healey and I had agreed to speak after the primary to see if we could come to some common ground to avoid having our shared goals thwarted by a difficult three-way race.

Since the primary, we have had such a conversation, and we have discussed this decision at length with the leadership of the Republican Party to ensure that we were all in agreement before making any radical move. In essence, it was a discussion of the nuts and bolts of which candidate was more likely to win.

I had to concede that Mr. Healey has a long history of advocating for this position, that he has a following of supporters who identify him with this cause. Mr. Healey had to concede that he had limited success in the past trying to get the people to embrace the idea of "No Lieutenant Governor", and that running without a party structure made the race more difficult.

The talks with party leadership included consideration of the best interests of both the candidates and the party I am honored to represent as its nominee. I am in full and complete support of the Republican Party and its statewide slate and in no way wanted to make any move that would negatively impact the team.

It is my belief, however, that having a strong standard bearer for the Republican philosophy of small government as embodied in the platform of Bob Healey will draw the voters' attention to the principles that motivate us. Our Republican brand should represent our ideas and ideals, and present real solutions to the voters. In this race, they will be presented with a clear path to a solution that saves us all $4,000,000 per term. Mr. Healey is more widely identified with this idea, and, I have come to believe, has a better opportunity that I to see it through this November.

I have, in what I see as the best interests of the people of Rhode Island and in the furtherance of the basic philosophy of the Republican Party, filed papers to withdraw my candidacy.

In closing, I reiterate my support for the Republican philosophy and its candidates. If the Republican nominees want my help and support, I will be there. I will be there for John Robitaille, Erik Wallin, Kerry King, and Catherine Taylor. I will be there not because they are merely Republican in name, but because they stand for the Republican ideals that this state so desperately need to see in action.

I thank you for the opportunity to serve this party, and I hope through my actions today we all receive some recognition for putting principles before partisanship, and setting aside pride and political expediency for the great good of our fine State.

What utter disrespect for Rhode Island Republican voters who believe that their primary votes are honestly given to sincere candidates. As it turns out, we are just as apt to be manipulated as any other group to serve the higher cause that our political betters have discerned to exist. Frankly, I probably would have gone with Healey in the general election, but there's absolutely no way he'll get my vote now.

There are rules. Voters have expectations about the meaning of their votes. Their game playing and procedural manipulation are very much partial causes of the current hostility toward President Obama and Congressional Democrats. Why on Earth would the RIGOP cheer along as a candidate who just won the party's primary offers ham-handed illustration that the loathed "ruling class" with no respect for the rules extends to such a pitiful office as lieutenant governor?

I worry that this political fakery has the potential to diminish whatever wave of anti-Democrat-establishment sentiment might exist in this state. (And judging by primary turnout, there might be precious little of that sentiment to waste.) Why should voters take seriously any GOP candidates with whom they are not very familiar when the party and one of its candidates have shown a willingness to conspire against them?

Other Republican candidates should think long and hard before they align themselves with this stunt.

Lincoln Chafee and Destructive Beasts

Carroll Andrew Morse

According to Philip Elliot of the Associated Press, former Senator and Independent Gubernatorial Candidate Lincoln Chafee had this to say about Mike Castle’s defeat in Delaware’s Senatorial Primary…

[Chafee] pointed to Castle's loss Tuesday as the latest example of a competent lawmaker losing his seat in an unrealistic purity test.

"These primaries, they're destructive beasts," Chafee said in an interview with The Associated Press at his campaign headquarters. "If those people are going to control the Republican Party, good luck. You'll have a tough time getting into the majority. Ever."

The reaction raises the question of what Mr. Chafee thinks about primary results closer to home and more immediately relevant to the office he is currently seeking.

In Tuesday night’s Rhode Island statewide primary, the issue of pension reform was the purity test for the Rhode Island Democratic party’s organized labor wing. Progressives, venerable party stalwarts (i.e. Al Gemma), and conservative-leaners all were expelled from their seats, basically for having supported recent reform proposals brought to the legislative floor. Does Senator Chafee believe that organized labor’s singular focus on opposing pension reform in this primary is feeding a “destructive beast” within the Rhode Island Democratic party, or does he find purity tests to be acceptable when applied by organized labor to its particular goals?

Details on Tuesday’s nights primary results in Rhode Island are available here.

RIGOP "All In" for Healey as Lt. Guv

Marc Comtois

According to the ProJo, GOP Candidate for Lt. Governor Heidi Rodgers is going to pull out, leaving the way clear for Cool Moose Party Candidate Bob Healey.

Rogers said she was dropping out to give Healey a better chance of winning because "Bob Healey and I believe in the same vision for the office of Lieutenant Governor'' and "with both of us running on the same platform for the same office, the outcome would be to hand over the election to the incumbent Democrat.

"Splitting the "abolish the office" vote by having two candidates simply does not make sense, and it is my firm belief that it would deny the voters a clear choice,'' she said.

Sounds like there was a lot of strategery going on. We'll see if it works.

Clearing the Bin (Lunch Time Reading)

Marc Comtois

Busy. C'est la vie. I've been collecting articles that I found interesting and worthy of some kind of commentary, but I just don't see getting to them any time soon. So, instead of letting them go to waste, here you go (some of them may have been touched on by others).

A book review of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character, by Claude S. Fischer.

R.R. Reno on "the modern tendency to make a god of critical reason, as if avoiding error, rather than finding truth, were the great goal of life."

In August, Philadelphia began temporarily closing fire stations to balance its budget.

Terry Teachout delves into the conservative conversion of playwright David Mamet.

How a bunch of medieval historians flagellated themselves over the Arizona immigration reform.

Jonah Goldberg on how conservatives flagellate themselves over how today ain't as good as the "good ol' days."

How the "Devil's in the Details" when it comes to "value-added" systems for teacher evaluation, etc.

An business owner told the Wall Street Journal why he wasn't hiring.

"Slicing the Bagel Reveals VAT Flaws". It ain't a panacea and will feed the beast.

An article on why "socialism" as a term applied to international soccer teams can be translated as "team-first" for Americans. In other words, this ain't politics.

Apparently, Brazil is an agricultural miracle.

There's evidence of a reverse-gender wage gap.

Finally, it's not old, but Peggy Noonan looks at why the Tea Party is seeing success.

And Government Busts Our Boom

Justin Katz

After a brief lesson in economics — which is most likely to be ignored by those most in need of heeding it — Kevin Williamson notes that the tweaks and adjustments that central planners make to running systems are not light in their effects:

... It's easy to say: Well, we'll just raise the retirement age, or cut benefits, or means-test them, or raise taxes on the wealthy who receive them (which amounts to means-testing, but Democrats like that version better). And, yes, that probably is what we will do, eventually. But that does not get us out of the economic pickle: People have been making decisions for years and years — decisions about saving, investing, consuming, working, and retiring — based at least in some part on what are almost certainly faulty assumptions about what sort of Social Security, Medicare, and other benefits they will receive when they retire. When those disappear, a lot of consumption is going to have to be forgone — and a lot of capital dedicated to producing those goods and services for consumption will be massively devalued. Businesses will have to retrench, probably in a way that is more disruptive and more expensive than the housing-bubble recession necessitated.

A core reason that conservatives prefer natural mechanisms (such as price in the marketplace) to regulate human society, with slow, "soft" influences through culture, is that human decisions can be made rapidly and based on factors that have little to do with the topic at hand. One can look at the current landscape for retirement, say, and plan and predict, and while surprises and errors are always possible, at least there isn't the possibility that a one-party government will force through legislation that changes the entire regulatory and budgetary landscape.

My assertion may jar against assumptions that government programs ensure a baseline benefit that recipients, providers, and everybody in between can count on, but that's only true to the extent that government can find the resources to fulfill the expectations better than can individuals operating on their own behalf. When government fails to do so, it must take money from elsewhere — in huge quantities — often entirely unrelated to the service and bound up in the plans and expectations of others.

Moreover, as we learned with the housing/mortgage crisis, giving markets false reasons to decrease the influence of perceived risk on decisions can be very dangerous.

Government Drives Us Crazy

Justin Katz

My first thought, upon reading about Butler Hospital's attempts to gain government approval for a 26-bed addition for psychiatric patients was, "Must everything be a controversy?" Unfortunately, the more government involves itself in every corner of American society, the more the answer becomes, "yes."

Psychiatric hospitals around the country have also been expanding, and about a dozen new psychiatric hospitals have been built in the past few years, said Mark Covall, president and CEO, of the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems, in Washington, D.C.

This is in reaction to a decline in psychiatric beds during the previous decade, the closing of state mental hospitals, and today’s surging demand as insurance coverage improves and the stigma of mental illness eases, Covall said.

The improvement of insurance coverage can be substantially explained, one supposes, by the government parity mandates spearheaded by our own Rep. Patrick Kennedy. And when people feel like they are either getting something for free or paying for it regardless of usage, they'll tend to use it more, eliminating price mechanisms as a fulcrum for supply and demand. What people are willing to pay for becomes moot to the extent that government requires that they (or others) provide financing.

Naturally, it therefore falls to government to regulate usage — whether through quotas, rationing, or the allocation of funds for supply. Thus, when a provider, like Butler Hospital, perceives a shift in demand and seeks to adjust accordingly, competitors, like Rhode Island and Miriam hospitals, and organizations that handle the money, like Blue Cross & Blue Shield, have the opportunity to stop it from doing so through public hearings. The determination, ultimately, is made by unelected bureaucrats, in this case, in the state Health Department, tasked with oversight of the entire system.

Such judges will perforce be drawn from within the industry and, however much they proclaim a narrow focus on the public interest, will be most approached, wheedled, and manipulated by large, powerful entities. Which entity wins, ultimately, is only incidentally related to the well-being of one-voice-one-vote citizens who live and die by the ability to acquire that which they need.

September 16, 2010

Analyzing the Races Where Incumbents Lost on Tuesday

Carroll Andrew Morse

Scott MacKay of WRNI's On Politics blog summed up Rhode Island's Tuesday-night primary election results by saying "the only real throw-the-bums out anger came from the Democratic left, not the GOP right". MacKay also quoted Local AFL-CIO President George Nee's reaction, "I’d say it was a pretty good night for organized labor". Let's take a closer look at the nine House races where incumbent Democrats lost, to get a clearer idea of how large a role organized labor did or did not play in them

There's no doubt that Teresa Tanzi's victory over David Caprio in District 34 (Narragansett/South Kingstown) and Richard Morrison's victory over Doug Gablinske in District 68 (Bristol/Warren) were the result of long-term, announced campaigns over Democrats consistently described as DINOs -- Democrats in Name Only -- by the RI progressive/labor left.

David Bennett beat Al Gemma in District 20 (Warwick) by the largest margin of the night for anyone challenging an incumbent. Despite Gemma receiving August campaign contributions from House Speaker Gordon Fox, Majority leader Nicholas Mattiello and Democratic Party Chair Ed Pacheco, as well as having received support from a number of private-sector labor organizations earlier in the election season, Bennett was clearly the candidate of public sector organized labor, racking up big donations from NEARI-PACE, the RI AFL-CIO, the SEIU, and the United Nurses and Allied Health Professionals late in the cycle. It looks as if organized labor wanted to replace a sometime supporter (Gemma) with someone they expect will act more predictably (Bennett). However, especially given the size of Bennett's victory, it would be a mistake to chalk up the final result entirely to machine politics -- it is also likely that a portion of Gemma's constituency believed that the time had come to let someone new take on the task of representing the district. Still, it's safe to make David Bennett's victory the third victory for George Nee's "organized labor".

Mary Ann Shallcross-Smith lost to challenger Jeremiah O'Grady in District 46 (Lincoln/Pawtucket). In 2009, Shallcross-Smith received money from the big public labor PACs like NEARI-PACE and the RI AFL-CIO, but in 2010 O'Grady got their money while Shallcross-Smith didn't. It seems that the incumbent did something to displease her organized labor benefactors; a pre-election interview of both district 46 candidates done by Audra Clark of the Valley Breeze provides a list of possibly significant issue differences; Shallcross-Smith was yes on e-verify, favored pension reform, and non-committal on binding arbitration. O'Grady was no on e-verify, non-committal on pension reform, and yes on binding arbitration.

Spencer Dickinson defeated incumbent Michael Rice in District 35 (South Kingstown). Rice was very specific in an interview with Liz Boardman of the South County Independent as to why he believed he was primaried...

Rumor is that the AFL-CIO and teachers union is upset with me for voting for Article 16 of the budget, which removes part of the pensions for teachers. They courted Spencer Dickinson to run against me.
Rice also speculated that some constituents may have been upset with him for sponsoring a same-sex marriage bill. Dickinson replied in the article by saying that social issues aren't his thing, and by talking about how important pensions are. Rice received money from multiple teachers unions up until April of this year. After the state budget vote that included pension reform (early June), Rice got nothing else from the teacher's union, while Dickinson received a substantial contribution from NEARI-PACE in August. Rice had been generally regarded as a reliable progressive, evidenced by his no vote on e-verify when it was voted on last year and his sponsorship of a same-sex marriage bill this year. The combination of Shallcross-Smith's and Rice's races seem to show that Rhode Island legislators don't have to reach Al Gemma levels of non-linear behavior to find themselves subjected to union discipline; apparently taking the wrong side of pension reform is enough.

The dynamics in the other four races are a tad murkier.

James McLaughlin defeated incumbent Kenneth Vaudreuil in District 57 (Central Falls/Cumberland). McLaughlin was not the recipient of overt organized labor support. At the level of statewide intrigue, McLaughlin did receive a contribution from Rep. Karen MacBeth, an opponent of the current House leadership cadre, while Vaudreuil received money from House leaders Fox and Mattiello. The more notable name on Vaudreuil's contributor list, however, may be that of Central Falls' deposed mayor Charles Moreau. Vaudreuil won Central Falls, but lost Cumberland, and it is easy to imagine that association with Moreau would be a magnet for voter dissatisfaction, with voters from Cumberland being less than enthused about a friend of Charles Moreau representing them, and MacBeth taking the opportunity to ingratiate herself to a potential new ally against the House's leadership.

One other note of interest: Vaudrieuil was one of 10 legislators commended in a recent letter from a national group called "Democrats for Education Reform". Five of the ten legislators mentioned in that letter lost their primaries on Tuesday night (Vaudreuil, Gablinske, Gemma, Shallcross-Smith, plus Joseph Almeida who will be discussed below). It doesn't look like either Vaudreuil or Almeida were targeted specifically for their education reform positions, but whether it was intended or not, there is the potential for a major shift in the state legislature's balance on education policy brewing -- unless more explicitly pro-reform legislators are elected in the general election in November.

Peter Wasylyk's loss to Raymond Hull in District 6 (North Providence/Providence) and Christopher Fierro's loss to Robert Phillips in District 51 (Woonsocket) seem to have been powered by regular voters unhappy with their incumbents performance, as both incumbents were on organized labor's side of the Article 16 pension vote mentioned by Rice, and both were no's on the 2009 E-verify vote, suggesting they reliably voted with the progressive caucus.

Finally, there is Leo Medina's (pending recount) victory over Joseph Almeida in District 12 (Providence). Beyond the entanglement with the Providence Mayoral race, Almeida seems to have found his way to Rhode Island political no-man's land. Though he was an annual sponsor of some of Rhode Island's most progressive legislation, Almeida also voted in favor of the dreaded Article 16, and was praised by the Democrats for Education Reform. So while organized labor may not have targeted him in this cycle, neither were they inclined to come strongly to his support. On the other hand, based on the campaign finance reports, it doesn't look like Almeida was interested in anyone's support -- he has no reports of any individual campaign contributions since 2005. His minimal campaign efforts obviously opened the door to a challenger out-hustling him on the ground.

By my tally that makes 5 cases of organized labor knocking off their targets (Gablinske, Caprio, Gemma, Shallcross-Smith, Rice) and 4 incumbents who fell victim to broad-based dissatisfaction amongst their constituencies (Vaudreuil, Wasylyk, Fierro, Almeida). 5-4 is not quite the rout that was reported in the early analysis, though the organized labor wing of the Rhode Island Democratic party does look to be engaging in a systematic purge of any legislator whom they can, who even considers pension reform.

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Who's the Industrialist?

Justin Katz

Always desirous of sharing the wise observations of my fellow Rhode Islanders, I recommend Raymond Palmieri's recent letter to the editor:

Union leadership now plays the role of the industrialists.

The Aug. 25 Wall Street Journal reported that the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees Industrial Union (SEIU) "have a combined $88 million or more to deploy in this year's election cycle." That is money spent to keep its hold on favored politicians and maintain its strong influence in both our federal and state governments. Union leaders freely spend hundreds of millions of dollars of their members' money supporting political candidates and agendas that many of their members may not agree with. They have no say in the matter.

Unidirectional Interfaith Statements

Justin Katz

It's often subtle — and I certainly don't mean to discourage interaction between leaders of different religions — but it does seem as if the statements of unity all follow a, well, a non-objective narrative. After an apparently religiously inspired multiple murder, an act of terrorism, to be blunt, this was the message of the an interfaith press conference in Rhode Island:

The meeting came as a quick response to the shootings at Fort Hood, which authorities have attributed to Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, 39, a Muslim psychiatrist on the Texas base.

The Rev. Dr. Donald C. Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, said that the reason for this meeting was to stop placing blame on the entire Muslim community.

"It was our concern to step forward in a proactive way and make a statement about our unity together as people of faith and just let the Islamic community know that they are not standing alone," said Rev. Anderson. "It is our prayer that in response to this tragedy we will increase our efforts to live together in peace and understanding."

"Any reasonable conscious person," Imam Farid Ansari assured the media, "would know that these type of unconscionable acts was not something that has anything to do whatsoever with the religion of Islam."

Not quite a year later, a small-time Christian minister in Florida threatens to burn a Koran, and here's the message from the same folks in Rhode Island:

The Rev. Donald C. Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, said that even if the Rev. Terry Jones has cancelled the book burning, apparently on the understanding that proponents of a planned Islamic Center in New York will move the proposed facility farther away from ground zero, Mr. Anderson strongly believes that Rhode Island's religious leaders should proceed with an anti-bigotry news conference Friday.

"While I would celebrate [the cancellation] news, it does not sound to me that he's repented. To have even intended to burn the sacred book of another religion is wrong-headed," Mr. Anderson said.

Imam Ansari took the proverbial podium to opine that the First Amendment doesn't cover the burning of a Koran, because "you can't cry 'fire' in a crowded theater." The person burning the book, in other words, would be sparking an almost involuntary backlash from Muslims and would therefore be responsible for "endangering many lives."

"As Muslims, we would never dare think of burning the Bible. That would be unconscionable. It would be tantamount to burning Jesus Christ in effigy," he said, adding that the anti-Christian laws found in such places as Saudi Arabia are a "cultural thing" and have nothing to do with true Islam.

(One wonders whether Ansari accepts any financial or other support from within that culture.)

Why is it that acts of violence done in Islam's name require warnings against infidel backlash, while an act of offensive self-promotion threatened by a Christian requires unified condemnation? Perhaps the reportage omitted the statement, but I don't see any mention of warnings to those who've made it prudent for said Christian to carry a gun.

When Muslims are the perpetrators, the statement is, "We condemn, in advance, any backlash, and of course, when Muslims behave badly, it has nothing to do with Islam." When Christians are the prospective perpetrators, the statement is, "We condemn, in advance, this act and feel it must be made explicit that it is not a legitimate expression of our faith; any backlash would be understandable, and of course, when Muslims behave badly, it has nothing to do with Islam."

Peculiar Primary

Justin Katz

On last night's Matt Allen Show, Monique and Matt discussed some of the peculiar happenings of the primary. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

September 15, 2010

Hitchens' "Dossier" on Bloomberg

Monique Chartier

During his just-ended Dem primary campaign, Anthony Gemma darkly warned that, bad as his attack informational ads were, the GOP had even worse goods on David Cicilline. It will be interesting to see over the next seven weeks whether this hypothesized dossier pertaining to the newly chosen Dem congressional candidate materializes.

Meanwhile, the unaffiliated mayor of New York arrives tomorrow to campaign for Rhode Island's unaffiliated gubernatorial candidate. Six years ago, Christopher Hitchens conducted a slightly different investigation of Mayor Bloomberg for Vanity Fair.

In fact, the law these days is very clear. It states that New York City is now the domain of the mediocre bureaucrat, of the inspector with too much time on his hands, of the anal-retentive cop with his nose in a rule book, of the snitch willing to drop a dime on a harmless fellow citizen, and of a mayor who is that most pathetic and annoying figure—the micro-megalomaniac.

Progressive Uprising Ousts Incumbent Legislative Dems

Marc Comtois

Scott McKay's analysis confirms my anecdotal observation that the Progressive/Labor wing of the Democratic party had a successful night.

The only real throw-the-bums out anger came from the Democratic left, not the GOP right. And it was in General Assembly elections. Nine House Democratic incumbents were tossed from office on a day when the progressive wing of the party and organized labor were successful....“I’d say it was a pretty good night for organized labor,’’ said George Nee, AFL_CIO state president.

While House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence was not pleased that he lost some stalwarts, he probably can keep his perch as speaker. The new House Democratic caucus will be more liberal than the last, so Fox may have to shift left a bit, which should not be too difficult for him.

McKay also notes the "paltry" turnout on the GOP side. Well, that shouldn't be a surprise.

My quick analysis: There were very few real races in the GOP and my belief (hope?) is that many--including independents--are keeping their powder dry until the General Election. Overall turnout was very low, which is why the establishment Democrats did well statewide and a small block of motivated Progressive/Labor voters were able to win the ground game in a few targeted races against "DINOs." They know how to play that game well. The key will be, as always, voter motivation. So which will be greater: the traditional GOTV ground game sure to be run by a coalition of Progressives/Labor and knee-jerk Democrats or the anti-incumbent wave comprised of conservative Democrats and highly motivated independents and Republicans?

Keep the Bugs Out

Justin Katz

Know the politician by the company he keeps:

In 2007, two well-known figures on the Northeast political landscape dropped their Republican party affiliation and became Independents with a capital "I''. One was New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the other former U.S. Senator Lincoln D. Chafee.

On Thursday, Bloomberg is headed this way to endorse Chafee's bid to become Rhode Island's next governor.

Perhaps Mayor Bloomberg will submit to a voluntary inspection of his person and belongings to ensure that he isn't carrying the bedbugs that have begun to plague his city to our state. And hopefully, the Rhode Island electorate will ensure that he doesn't transmit his nanny-state vision for government action here, either.

Back to Issues: Education

Justin Katz

While we all follow the horse races of election season, it's worth turning our eyes now and then to the issues that our elected representatives will decide. Toward that end, consider Bill Costello's argument against the government monopoly of education:

The current public education system is not preparing Americans to succeed in the increasingly competitive global economy. In the U.S., this will lead to growing unemployment rates, a decline in Gross Domestic Product, unsustainable levels of national debt, and reduced military capability. ...

Those who argue that the solution is more money for public schools have had three decades to test their theory. Increased spending has not led to improvement. American test scores have remained flat since the early 1970s even though per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, went from $4,489 in 1970-1971 to $10,041 in 2006-2007 -- an increase of 124 percent.

No public motivation could outstrip parental incentive to ensure better lives for one's own children. In other words, individual parents are better positioned and more motivated to choose particular schools and ensure that they provide desirable, beneficial educations. At the very least, parents who choose private schools should receive refunds of that portion of their tax money that goes to public education, with that loss coming directly from the public schools that would otherwise educate those children.

I'll return to my local example: During this year's budget battle in Tiverton, the School Committee strove to frighten parents into voting for a massive tax increase by threatening to close one of our brand new elementary schools. The insider rumor mill worked over time choosing the school that was in the target hairs for maximum political effect, transforming a general statement that closing a school "might be an option" to a public sense that it would be unavoidable that a particular school would become an empty building if the district's budget request failed. Parents began to turn their eyes to private school, and some broke away from the public system even though the schools ultimately got the money they demanded.

The point is that the threat of parents to withdraw their children from public schools is not a threat at all. Until it reaches the point of giving budget hawks political ammunition, if anything, fewer children helps a public school district's bottom line. They profit by losing customers.

Worse still, under such circumstances, it is sure to be the most motivated parents, who put the most emphasis on and are willing to get most involved with their children's education, who leave first. That is not a model for success.

September 14, 2010

Polls are Closed Half an Hour 'Til Poll Closing

Carroll Andrew Morse

Consider this an open thread for observations & predictions for primary day...

[11:29] Incumbent Democrat Michael Pinga (who upset former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steven Alves in the last election) holds on to beat his challenger Peter Calci in District 9, 52.8% - 47.2%.

[11:26] Lombardo over Conti in Johnston Senate District 25, by 13 votes.

[11:10] Incumbent Democrat Kenneth Vaudreuil loses to James McLaughlin in District 57 (Central Falls/Cumberland), 52.5% - 47.5%.

[11:06] Incumbent Democratic Rep. Christopher Fierro loses to Robert Phillips in District 51, 53.3% - 46.7% (h/t Brassband).

[10:58] In the Republican primary in Senate District 36, William Connelly beats Michael Riley 52.3% - 47.7%.

[10:55] Doreen Costa has won the Republican Primary in District 31 with 63.6% of the vote, over James Halley and Ann Marie Marshall.

[10:51] With 5 of 6 precincts in, incumbent Republican State Rep. Jack Savage has a 70-30 lead over challenger Stephanie Sivalingham.

[10:44] Incumbent Democratic State Representative Joseph Almeida has lost to Leo Medina 51.9% - 48.1%. Almeida was a regular of sponsor of lots of progressive legislation; there's not any strong pattern emerging in these results.

[10:37] Incumbent Democrat Representative Peter Wasylyk losing to Raymond Hull in Providence 59.2% - 40.8% with 8 of 9 precincts in. No idea what the implications are on this one.

[10:29] Justin wanted something unpredictable: District 21 Incumbent Senator Leo Blais has lost to Nicholas Kettle in the Republican primary, 51.3%-48.7%

[10:23] Incumbent conservative Democrat Doug Gablinske loses to Richard Morrison in District 68, 46.7% - 53.3%

[10:19] On the other hand, in district 35, incumbent Michael Rice who I believe had a pretty good reputation amongst progressives has lost to Spencer Dickinson 53.4%-46.6% who ran as a folksy common-sense Democrat for Lieutenant Governor four years ago.

[10:15] Progressives flex their muscle: Teresa Tanzi beats incumbent David Caprio in district 34, 57.8% - 42.2% (setting the stage for a matchup with Tim Burchett).

[10:11] Democratic Rep. Al Gemma in big trouble in Warwick, down 37-63 with 7 of 9 precincts in.

[10:03] With 58% of precincts reporting, it will be very surprising if it's not Robitaille, Rogers, and Zaccaria on the Republican statewide side.

[10:01] One incumbent legislator in trouble: Michel Rice is losing to Spencer Dickinson 46-54 in District 35 (South Kingstown), with one precinct left to report.

[9:51] The free-for-all Democratic primary in Johnston is coming down to Frank Lombardo vs. Giovanni Conti. They're separated by one vote, with only one precinct left to report.

[9:48] Same 33% as the previous item: CICILLINE 36.3% LYNCH 22.1% GEMMA 21.3% SEGAL 20.3%: KILMARTIN 41.7% ARCHAMBAULT 35.7% FERNANDEZ 22.6%: LANGEVIN 5.6% DENNIGAN 35.2% GRECO 9.2%

[9:45] OK, real numbers now: 33% of precincts in: ROBITAILLE 66.7% MOFFITT 33.3%: ZACCARIA 55.9% CLEGG 21.4% GARDINER 13.1%

[9:37] 7% of precincts in: ROBITAILLE 65.6% MOFFITT 34.4%: ZACCARIA 53.5%, CLEGG 22.7% GARDINER 14.4%.

[9:32] From AR's news that will be stale in about 5 minutes bureau: The 4 precincts that are in from the official BOE tally are from Johnston, Coventry, and 2 from Portsmouth.

[9:28] Live numbers are up on the BOE website...

[9:00] Polls are closed. Anyone have an exit poll they want to leak?

[8:53] Patrick's comment of "All favorites win" reminds me to ask: did I miss the Projo endorsements list, or did they just not do them?

[8:46] Ted Nesi of WPRI-TV's campaign blog notes that Politico has picked up the John Robitaille/Frank Caprio story.

A Primary Night Reminder

Justin Katz

Not to bring Charles Krauthammer back into the negative spotlight, but there's a key consideration that he's left out of his assessment of the GOP's primary races:

Now, we are in a cycle where we have seen that this is not a normal Democratic administration. It's highly ideological. It's instituted changes over the last 18 months that are structural — and some of them irreversible, like Obamacare — and it will try to do the same in the next two years or six.

If you're a Republican and you're a conservative, you want a majority in the Senate that will stop that agenda and you have to elect the most electable. Delaware is not Alaska. In Alaska you can endorse a Joe Miller, who's going to win anyway, even though he's more conservative. In Delaware, O'Donnell is going to lose, and that — that could be the difference between Republican and Democratic control, and make a difference about the Obama agenda in the future.

What's missing is the degree to which the Tea Party movement is not just a reaction to the Obamanation, but to trends that even Republicans have helped to advance. In other words, voters do not trust the GOP to "stop that agenda." Republicans will slow it down — rather, advance it more slowly — but that is no longer a satisfactory objective. The edge of the cliff is too near.

In the Interest of a Coherent View of Nation Building

Justin Katz

As part of my continuing effort to work through right-leaning arguments for and against the sorts of foreign (especially military) efforts under the umbrella of "nation building," I can't but point out something that strikes me as a contradiction in reasoning in an essay by Justin Logan and Christopher Preble (emphasis added):

What was needed in Afghanistan was not counterinsurgency and nation building, but a violent response to the terrorist attacks. However, as the U.S. routed the Taliban in Afghanistan and trained its sights on Iraq, it became clear that the problem Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had identified in Afghanistan — that there were no good targets — was true for the overall War on Terror. In December 2001, immediately after the successful overthrow of the Taliban (a feat accomplished with no more than a few hundred U.S. personnel on the ground), Charles Krauthammer published an article titled "We Don't Peacekeep," in which he argued that while U.S. military forces "fight the wars[,] our friends should patrol the peace." The Bush White House apparently disagreed, defining U.S. objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq expansively to include the establishment of viable, modern democracies, growing economies, and equitable judicial systems.

In context, the authors clearly agree with Krauthammer, even though, previously, while arguing against the very notion of nation building, they'd observed:

... a brief look at the Balkans suggests that the wariness some expressed at the time was well-founded. In the nearly 15 years since the Dayton Accord was signed, Bosnia has been the site of the largest state-building project on earth. On a per capita basis, the multinational project there has dwarfed even the post — World War II efforts in Germany and Japan. Tiny Kosovo received higher per capita expenditure. Yet, as political scientists Patrice McMahon and Jon Western warned in Foreign Affairs last year, Bosnia "now stands on the brink of collapse" — partly as a consequence of persistent ethnic cleavages and the inherent difficulty of state building. McMahon and Western — who support additional efforts in Bosnia to prevent a collapse — warn that Bosnia has gone from being "the poster child for international reconstruction efforts" to being a cautionary tale about the limits of even very well-funded and focused efforts at state building.

Similarly, in surveying conditions in Bosnia and Kosovo, Gordon Bardos of Columbia University recently concluded that "it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that we have the intellectual, political, or financial wherewithal to transform the political cultures of other countries" at an acceptable cost. If Bosnia and Kosovo — European countries less rugged than Afghanistan, and with, respectively, one-sixth and one-twelfth of its population — represent the case for optimism in Afghanistan, then the case for gloom is strong.

I'm tempted to quip that the United States shouldn't take Europeans' inability to nation build shouldn't stand as evidence that our own country could not do so, but the logical problem is more substantial. In the quotation above, Krauthammer implicitly acknowledges that a peace-keeping/nation-building component follows naturally on a military victory. That is so for precisely the same reason that the "surge" strategy of capturing and holding territories was necessary: a slippery, insurgent-style opponent will simply reinsinuate itself where ever the conquering army does not look.

In that context, the evidence that Europeans can no longer be trusted to hold up that end of the process does not negate the necessity of finding some way to follow violence with reconstruction.

Maybe I'm Too Cynical, But...

Justin Katz

Did you happen to catch this article by Felice Freyer?

Do you want a governor who will embrace the law and make the most of it? Independent Lincoln D. Chafee, Democrat Frank T. Caprio and Moderate Party candidate Kenneth J. Block all accept the law — with varying degrees of enthusiasm — and all pledge to carry it out fully.

Do you want a governor who will resist the law, perhaps join other states in challenging it in court, and take a minimalist approach to its requirements? Either of the Republican candidates would probably satisfy you on that score. John F. Robitaille and Victor G. Moffitt both say they believe the law is unconstitutional.

Do you want a governor who will enter office with a deep understanding of the health-care system and the nuances of the federal overhaul? You're out of luck.

Two points follow from the above. First, developing a nuanced understanding of ObamaCare hasn't been necessary, because opinions are generally formed, and the issue has been defined by the side that believes the whole "reform" ought to be scrapped on both pragmatic and principled grounds.

Second, ObamaCare defined the current Congress and administration — and set the tone for this election season — in terms of the fact that voters who wanted elected officials who would develop an understanding of "the nuances of the federal overhaul" before making it the law of the land were out of luck.

So That Nobody Hasn't Been Warned

Justin Katz

Just in time for election season, I've finally managed to read Travis Rowley's The Rhode Island Republican. For good reason, the largest portion of the forty-page pamphlet addresses unions, specifically public-sector unions, primarily in context of the "Cloward-Piven Strategy":

In 1966, two Columbia University political scientists, Richard Andrew Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, penned an article in the Nation magazine titled, "The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty." The purpose of the article was to inform Marxist radicals of the most prolific method for hastening a socialist revolution. What became known as the Cloward-Piven Strategy instructed anti-capitalists to overload welfare bureaucracies with impossible obligations, thereby causing civil unrest and economic collapse. The political turmoil, it was predicted, would lead to the rejection of capitalism and the embrace of the quick fixes promised by redistributive policies.

That certainly rings familiar during the era of the Obamanation.

For most of us who pay regular attention, Travis's project was to collect examples that have tended to blend together into a sense of "normal" over the years, and we do well to seek reminders of the mentality that we face (and that must be stopped at the ballot box). Here's one telling passage, involving the move in Providence to force businesses to retain employees after a sale or merger:

[Rhode Island Hospitality Association President Dale] Venturini pointed out that "from July 2008 to July 2009, city revenue from the 1 percent hotel tax has dropped nearly 11 percent," and informed the Council that the "city hotel industry has been battered by the drastic reduction in corporate travel for conventions." Executive Director of the Convention Center Authority James McCarvill said that the legislation would "make it harder for the Authority to negotiate new contracts for food vendors at The Dunk and for management of the Convention Center."

But it matters little to dictatorial Democrats what business professionals have to say. And when McCarvill questioned the Council's authority to have their hands so deeply involved in business affairs, Councilman Solomon "maintained that the city [was] within its jurisdiction since the hotels and convention center buildings currently recieve, or did receive, public money, including city tax breaks."

Let it be known, once you accept any form of tax leniency from the government, Democrats consider you their property, and grant themselves unlimited license to mingle in your private affairs. Now ask yourself, Have I ever claimed a tax deduction?

It's quite the reasoning. Government will confiscate the wealth of private individuals and businesses not just for the operation of necessary functions, like public safety and infrastructure, but for the purpose of shaping society. And when they don't confiscate that wealth, officials see that not so much as money not taken, but as money given.

Of course, to the Left, morality — as conceived and interpreted by the Left — is its own justification for government action, even when it makes no sense, as this insight from Travis notes:

... Howard Dean will have nothing of the free exercise of charity, which is the danger to his liberal logic. If people already have a sense of community, then why would Dean feel compelled to control it? If "communitarianism" is people's "natural tendency," why would an elected agency be required in order to provide it? Why is the practice of taking-and-giving necessary in a world chock full of good-hearted communitarians [as Dean argued as justification for blending capitalism and socialism]?"

Well, because liberals want charity to go to the people whom they prefer for causes of which they approve. A cause that has the effect of creating dependents and decreasing the disincentive to procreate recklessly? That's for them. A charity that reinforces Christian faith? Not so much.

The one concern that I have with The Rhode Island Republican is that I'm not sure whom Travis considers to be his audience. While the reminders to the likes of Anchor Rising readers are worth the short time to read the booklet and a rallying cry to conservative activists is always worth heeding, the people who really require to be informed are those who haven't already spotted the threads that Travis follows. They are apt to be suspicious of the frequent focus on some narrow figures on the Rhode Island Left, like Patrick Crowley, and pushed toward the apathy that meets partisan squabbles by unnecessary heat and name calling. (For example, Travis declares National Education Association [NEA] Rhode Island Executive Director Bob Walsh to be a "dingbat" early in the text.)

That said, Travis does provide a foundation from which his readers can go on to do the work of persuading their neighbors that their votes, this year, shouldn't be a simple matter of habit, because that approach has proven to be unhealthy to us all.

September 13, 2010

Doing College the Right Way

Justin Katz

Jonah Goldberg mentions something that is entirely accurate, to my experience:

... a new study, "Conservative Critics and Conservative College Students: Variations in Discourses of Exclusion" by sociologists Amy Binder and Kate Wood at the University of California San Diego, confirms that many conservative students at an (unnamed) elite Eastern university, felt as if they benefited from the need to sharpen their arguments and know their facts more than liberal students.

Despite having to work through college and carrying a heavy course load to make up for a misspent freshman year, I always new that my arguments in papers and in classrooms would have to be better researched and written simply because the professor would be beginning with the understanding that my conclusions (and worldview) were clearly wrong. So, I'd have double the bibliography and quadruple the pages than the syllabus required for a particular essay. If classroom conversation tended to turn toward vilifying a book that supported a premise with which I agreed (The Bell Curve comes to mind), I'd get my hands on that book and read it as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

Incidentally, I'm among "the 22 young conservative writers who have contributed to 'Proud to Be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation,' published next month by Harper and edited by Goldberg," mentioned at the top of the essay. And yes, I'm thrilled that more than a decade since I graduated from college, I've still made the cut to be a "young conservative."

Thursday's District 2 Republican Debate

Carroll Andrew Morse

For those still looking for information on the candidates in the Republican Primary in the Second Congressional District, here is a report on a portion of the debate held last week in Warwick where moderator Russell Moore of the Warwick Beacon asked candidates Bill Clegg, Michael Gardiner and Mark Zaccaria about their positions on the basic issues that a Congressman will have to deal with. The links next to the summaries take you to the audio of the candidates' answers. [Disclaimer: I arrived to the debate a few minutes late, so I missed the first few questions]

Question: What is your position on health insurance reform and specifically the reform that was passed earlier this year?

Gardiner: Obamacare is intended to move people to a 'public option'. The US needs to create a nationwide market in health insurance through something like the uniform commercial code. Tort reform is necessary, but at the state level.

Zaccaria: Obamacare will crush the healthcare system as we know it. US needs to create a legislative environment where a marketplace in healthcare can operate. The ultimate goal should be some kind of health savings account, plus insurance that is available nationwide.

Clegg: Obamacare will send costs through the roof and uses bogus accounting. Solutions at the state and regional level need to be tried, before nationalizing healthcare. Insurance should be available across state lines.

Question: The Federal government deficit is approximately 1.3 trillion dollars. How would you address this problem, and can this problem be addressed without curbing entitlements or raising taxes?

Zaccaria: The deficit has to be managed without increasing taxes. Federal managers have to be asked to manage and deal with smaller budgets. Certain kinds of entitlement relief are necessary, including changes to social security where individuals retain control of their contributions.

Gardiner: Social Security is a foundation element of our lives. Improve the economy and raise payroll taxes so more money can be contributed to SS. Quit wasting 5% of GNP on healthcare spending.

Clegg: Social Security is a sound system, if not looted by Congress. Opposes privatization of Social Security. Raising retirement age by one year and reducing the annual cost-of-living increases would solve the shortfall.

Question: What is your position on immigration reform, and should the birthright citizenship provision of the 14th Amendment be modified?
Gardiner: Fence the border. "Comprehensive" immigration reform is code for not doing anything. Can't round-up 12 million people, so grant amnesty instead. Birthright citizenship is a wrong interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, but it can be changed through Congress.

Clegg: Proper border security will reduce the problem, but Congress so far hasn't given the necessary funding. Rewarding people for breaking the law undermines the rule of law and shouldn't happen. Previous amnesty did not solve the problem. Fourteenth Amendment has been misinterpreted, judges that understand this need to be appointed to the court.

Zaccaria: "Comprehensive" immigration reform is an attempt to institutionalize the current lack of immigration law enforcement. Problem is economic in nature and a combination of border security and employer enforcement will reduce it. Supports taking a lawsuit to the Supreme Court to clarify the Fourteenth Amendment, but immigration needs to be solved in a shorter amount of time than amending the Constitution will take.

Question: Do you think free-trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA are good for the U.S., or is free-trade a bad thing that sends our jobs overseas?
Zaccaria: Free-trade works on a level-playing field, but NAFTA and CAFTA give advantages to businesses outside of the U.S., that don't have to meet our OSHA or minimum wage requirements.

Gardiner: Free-trade does lower prices and helps raise the standard of living, but current system is not fair; other nations do not have the same environment and workplace safety regulations that the U.S. does.

Clegg: U.S. was built on free-trade and should keep trying to build a real free-trade system. However, current free-trade agreements have resulted in things like the World Trade Organization ordering the U.S. to pay cotton subsidies to Brazil. Congress should be working to correct this, but isn't.

Question: Are we on the right path in Afghanistan, or is Republican National Chairman Michael Steele correct when he says the war is unwinnable.
Clegg: Afghanistan is not unwinnable, but what is our national objective there? Trying to make Afghanistan into a modern democracy is going down the wrong path. Mission should be training, and keeping enough of a presence to be effective against al-Qaeda in the region.

Gardiner: Fighting in Afghanistan is very expensive. We're spending money in appropriations bills for costs related to the Vietnam war. We have got to have less war, and put the money to a different use, like building nuclear power plants.

Zaccaria: Mission creep is degrading our ability to do what we say were are going to do and contributing to a pattern of endless war. National command authority needs to be revised, to be more focused on what the military can and cannot do.

Question: Public pension plans are severely underfunded all over the country. Do you agree with the op-ed written by John Loughlin last year, who suggested a Federal bailout of state and local pension plans?
Clegg: We shouldn't depend on others, including the Federal government to bail us out for our own errors. We need to elect officials who will say "no" to unrealistic spending demands.

Gardiner: Federal government should offer "bridge loans" to the states, for instance to help with pension reform or regionalization.

Zaccaria: Bailing out the states is not a Federal function. Previous bail-outs have failed to produce any long-term reform.

Question: In the interests of government transparency and freedom of the press, would you support a Federal shield law?
Clegg: No to a shield law. Journalists don't need any special protections different from what others have.

Gardiner: Thinks that Jim Taricani's stand was courageous, but hasn't taken a definite position on a shield law.

Zaccaria: Gives credit to Jim Taricani for not revealing his source, but that is part of the risk that goes with the job of being a journalist. No to a shield law.

The Cooperative Temper

Justin Katz

Among the arguments that candidate Victor Moffitt has made for his election as governor has been an asserted ability to work with the General Assembly without Governor Don Carcieri's "CEO mentality." By that phrase, he means dictating policies and taking an overbearing posture. As I've written, I disagree with that assessment.

I also disagree when Moffitt brings his "accountant mentality" to the question of school regionalization. In that case, I'd argue that the political dimension is far more significant, to final costs, than the arithmetical dimension. (And the fact that the teacher union heads take Moffitt's side should be reason for him to question his stance.

It's interesting, therefore, to see those two threads come together during a Republican primary debate:

"To say that there's no savings in regionalization is a straight-out lie," said Moffitt, still fuming after the taping [of a debate with primary opponent John Robitaille] at Rhode Island College ended. ...

Robitaille said there has been "no documentation that says it will save us any money," and evidence that the "cost of administration per student" in the merged Chariho Regional School District is higher than it is in Westerly. Beyond that, "I believe that control of the schools should be at the local level."

But Moffitt said "anyone in their right mind" would recognize that by whittling 36 school districts down to 4, "we are going to save money ... and have less bureaucracy. Even John should understand there will be less bureaucracy."

The sniping meanness ("even John should understand") on an issue that is certainly arguable, going so far as to fling accusations of lying is discordant against a message of cooperative leadership. That's especially true when the candidate is pitting his assertions of common sense against his opponent's reference to evidence. And this is against a fellow Republican with whom the candidate agrees on most issues.

Arriving on Track One, ObamaCare Mandates; Arriving on Track Two, Heightened Premium Control

Monique Chartier

Last week, when insurers dared to point out to their customers that premiums will have to be raised so as to meet ObamaCare mandates, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius treated them to her best Edward G. Robinson.

It has come to my attention that several health insurer carriers are sending letters to their enrollees falsely blaming premium increases for 2011 on the patient protections in the Affordable Care Act. I urge you to inform your members that there will be zero tolerance for this type of misinformation and unjustified rate increases. ...

We will also keep track of insurers with a record of unjustified rate increases: those plans may be excluded from health insurance Exchanges in 2014.

You mugs are gonna shut up, see? Or we'll cut you out of the action, see?

Meanwhile, back in little Rhody, Health Insurance Commissioner Christopher F. Koller has sent out letters to the state's major insurers informing them that past is no longer prologue and a piddly matter like an expansion of coverage is no longer an adequate reason to raise premiums without first getting permission ... at least, not if it's an expansion brought on by ObamaCare.

On Thursday, Koller wrote to the three plans’ presidents informing them that any surcharges attributed to the federal law still had to pass muster with his office. Koller said he learned of the planned increases from a reporter for the Providence Business News.

For plans that renew after Sept. 23, the federal law requires insurers to allow adult children up to age 26 to enroll in their parents’ policies. It also eliminates out-of-pocket payments for preventive services. Other mandates in the federal overhaul, such as a ban on excluding people with preexisting conditions, are already part of Rhode Island law.

In doing so, he is complying with an earlier directive from Edward G. Sebelius that states aggressively challenge all proposed rate increases.

Look, I don't harbor any more warm feelings towards the health insurance industry than the next guy. And quite possibly, Commissioner Koller will approve this round of rate increases - or, anyway, allow an increase of up to 2%, as the HHS Secretary herself identified this as the outer limit of the "potential premium impact" of ObamaCare.

But suppose this projection proves overly optimistic? It's the next rate increase necessitated by ObamaCare, and the one after, that is worrisome. Already, the president is backing away from initial representations about the cost curbing that "reform" would confer. As costs rise, it appears that states will deny any additional premium increases. What happens then?

All-encompassing health coverage for all is a nice idea ... and an expensive one. Congress picked up fast on that first characteristic. It's alarming that they haven't yet figured out the second one.

Ordinary Heroes

Justin Katz

Like our society at large, families tend to emphasize their brushes with greatness — defined mainly in terms of fame. I've a familial connection, for example, to President Ulysses S. Grant, and my grandfather grew up in proximity to Robert Frost. By such relations do we feel a part of history and connect, by extension, to the broader society that shares a knowledge of the famous names.

In the regular flow of emails that travel among members of my own family, my mother's cousin, Jerry Mattison, sent the following, and thinking it profound, I asked for permission to reprint it. (N.B., "Uncle Burt" is my grandfather.)

As for President Grant, our connection to him is extremely distant at best. I think I figured out one time that he would be about a fifth cousin to our great grandmother. Robert Frost was a literary giant but only a distant neighbor to our Potter family.

I have learned much over the past 30+ years researching our ancestors, and what I have found is that they were all good salt of the earth people. Not Presidents or Poets, but just plain honest hard working people who did their best to provide for their families. I prefer to call them Ordinary Heroes, you know, the kind of people that just make things happen. Sure we have outstanding ancestors. We can claim at least one that fought in every war to make our country safe and sound. Just the other day I found that John Fay Potter, our great grandfather, fought in the Civil War, enlisting in the Union forces in New York State. I have sent for his entire Civil War record and pension file.

My father tells me that Uncle Burt was the first man drafted from Bennington County in World War II. He obviously saw a lot of action in Europe, rose to the rank of Warrant Officer, but came home to Bennington humble without fanfare and excelled in his chosen profession. Our family is full of men and women just like Uncle Burt. They are the people that rolled up their sleeves and built this nation. They played hard and worked hard to build a better life for us all.

I thank my lucky stars everyday that I was fortunate enough to grow up in Bennington, Vermont, in our family. My Uncles and Aunts are my heroes. Uncle Earl and Aunt Bessie, Uncle Burt and Aunt Mary, my parents and grandparents and yes even Uncle Richard.

September 12, 2010

The Fight Changes Over Time

Justin Katz

A common theme that one sees in the talk of the history of movements and political factions — and on which I comment frequently — arose in a recent Bob Kerr column:

"They knew nothing about the history of labor," [Studs] Terkel recalled. "The young have no sense of yesterday. She was sort of a yuppie girl, and she said she hates unions, they're terrible. So I asked how many hours a day she worked and she said eight hours. And I asked why she didn't work 15 hours a day. People did. I asked her how she thinks she got to work eight hours a day. People were hanged for that right. She had not the slightest semblance of what the labor movement is all about. You look at newspapers in this country and you'll see a business page, but there's no labor page. I think in some sense we've lost a sense of history, of who we are."

The flip side of ignorance of history is elision of the present with it. That members of a "labor movement" once fought for then-needed and now-appreciated rights and privileges, doesn't mean that those who now occupy their positions are driven with the same motivation or fighting for the same purpose. That fifteen-hour workdays were too long does not mean that forcing the public to pay for eight and only receive six hours of work from its employees is reasonable. (Let's put aside, for this post, the question of whether unions' means of achieving more reasonable labor practices were the best means available.)

The sorts of people who are happy to oppress their fellows to advance their own ends won't tie themselves to particular approaches or political categories. Across generations, they'll gladly take on the rhetoric and putative calling of those who fought their intellectual forebears.

Nobody questions that the young do not appreciate history, but sometimes those among their elders who've chosen a particular thread of heritage with which to associate lose a sense of how things change.

Keeping Murder in the Family

Justin Katz

Ancient mythology proves that parricide isn't anything new. Lizzie Borden proves that it isn't new to our region. But Joel Beaulieu's alleged patricide and attempted matricide in Tiverton has come mere months after the sentencing of James Soares across the bay in Warren for the same crime, and a mere two years after the act itself.

Both are men in their twenties still living with their parents. Both are described as showing little emotion. Soares's case involves drugs and a live-in girlfriend. Details on Beaulieu are still sparse. Two unusual murders of this sort does not necessarily a trend make, even when they occur in such proximity. But it is eerie and should make us wonder whether we're witnessing further evidence that something grievous in our culture needs correcting.

A Judgmental Pendulum

Justin Katz

A mid-August column by Fr. John Kiley has been swinging in the background of my mind:

In spite of this legacy of warnings about the gravity of the end times, the prospect of final judgment and any thought of ultimate justice have almost disappeared from the modern Christian mind. Saturday afternoon lines at the confessional are a vague memory. Funeral liturgies have devolved into celebrations of life during which the deceased's flairs are praised, flaws are ignored and faith is immaterial. A good number of Catholics unashamedly deny the existence of hell, citing the seeming incompatibility of God's infinite mercy with eternal damnation. This contemporary indifference to the moral nature of the universe contrasts greatly with the liturgical, devotional and catechetical experience that most of our ancestors in the faith endured. Death, judgment, heaven and hell were very real prospects for most, perhaps all, previous generations of believers.

The accusations of Christian hypocrisy by William Lobdell that I addressed a couple of weeks ago are surely related:

... many people who call themselves Christian don't really believe, deep down, in the tenets of their faith. In other words, their actions reveal their true beliefs.

To the extent that Lobdell's observations are accurate, I wonder whether it mightn't be more correct to suggest, per Fr. Kiley, that Christians don't really believe, deep down, in the consequences of failing to follow tenets in which they actually do believe. Their faith still encompasses the Christian structure of reality, and they still believe that what the Church says to do is best to do, but it's the "or else" with which they have difficulty.

It can hardly be denied that our time and place, in history, are very challenging for those who would live a moral life without withdrawing from human society entirely. Not that anybody should prefer such an existence, but one suspects that adultery was somewhat less of a temptation in a frigid, heavy-clothes environment of rotting teeth, body odor, and disease and a very real risk of illegitimate childbirth with every sexual encounter than in our current times of easy contraception and cleanliness, in which the images of sex and mandate of indulged liberty are in every cultural message and small girls wear clothes marked "Boy Toy" and talk of fellatio while waiting for the grammar school bus.

We can hope that God's mercy will take into account the sinful poison with which the air of our particular context is laced, just as we can hope that He took into account the specific failings to which our ancestors were more prone. Still, as the pendulum swings from excessive strictness and imposition of rigid rules, enforced by human beings with their own faults and tendency to over-instruct, to the ill advised mandate that human beings should never express strong disapproval of any behavior except the expression of strong disapproval, we should, indeed, fear that we will not accurately identify the thread of Truth and follow that needle-threading line that divine mercy draws between impossible perfection and callous disregard for the order of the universe.

September 11, 2010

Keeping Hold of the Butter Knife from Breakfast

Justin Katz

Tim commented, to Andrew's final memorial post, this morning, that he didn't personally know anybody killed on 9/11/01. I suspect that the majority of us with roots in the Northeast are in some way personally connected to the list of the dead, although perhaps without knowing so.

Fortunately, my closest contact is with the living — friends who ran from the debris (and spent years dealing with the experience), and a brother-in-law who helped to ferry people across the Hudson on his tug boat. It doesn't take much reach, however, to touch others who did not survive to share the experience of my friends. Here's a September 2002 piece that I wrote for a now-defunct online column:

The Heart Is Always More

Todd Ouida was born on my first birthday. I didn't know him then. I went to a different elementary school, so I didn't know him when he was forced to stop attending as a regular student to grapple with panic attacks for three years. I didn't even really know him when he returned and our two elementary schools fed us both into the River Dell Regional junior and senior high schools, where he became a 5'6" starting defensive back on the varsity football team. I knew of him, of course, because we shared a birthday and it was a small school.

Even our small school has had a number of brushes with history. As I recall, there was a plaque by the auditorium with the names and portraits of alumni who had died in Vietnam. I think there were three. The usual understanding of that war being what it has been throughout my entire life, such memorials have always seemed to ask, "See what they did to our community in order to fight their war?" I think it was one of my high school history teachers who related to me that every town lost some of its children.

Of course, memorials ought to be kept as tributes, and I don't mean to dishonor those young men when I suggest that the motivation for etching their names in metal and stone seems to be to make a statement about unnecessary loss rather than about accomplishment. They were heroes all, but the Vietnam War Memorial's emphasis on names rather than representations confirms that, in the words of the National Park Service's official Web site, "The purpose of this memorial is to separate the issue of the sacrifices of the veterans from the U.S. policy in the war."

Sacrifices. It seems that the quickness with which we commemorate the deaths of our citizens corresponds to the degree to which they were sacrifices — victims. The memorial for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing has already been completed, each name etched in its own symbolic chair. The Vietnam Wall predated the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and both came before the World War II Memorial, which isn't slated to be dedicated until 2004, about sixty years after that war ended.

If this trend continues, the September 11 memorial might be finished long before time has granted its designers much historical perspective. Hopefully, it will nonetheless capture the mood of our times. Just as the Vietnam War era marked a tremendous shift in citizens' conception of the United States of America, the Vietnam Memorial's lack of iconography makes quite a different statement than the statues and proclamations of grandeur and confidence that had come before. I think the September 11 memorial ought to make a statement of internal, national reconciliation. Sacrifice and confidence. Compassion and strength. Personal loss and triumph.

I envision a field of stone pillars recalling the World Trade Center towers in a pentagon formation, each about ten feet in height and bearing the names and portraits of those who died. Interspersed, for the visitor to come across while walking among these pillars, would be statues of the various heroes of that day — firemen, policemen, emergency and medical workers, and regular citizens — all in poses corresponding to their activities, helping others. At the center of the field would be a statue of the three firemen raising the U.S. flag, above which a giant sculpture of an eagle would hang, wings spread, from some type of supporting structure.

As for my high school, I don't recall any plaques devoted to alumni casualties of other wars that occurred before I walked the halls, and as far as I know, alumnus Marie Rossi, who died in a post-ceasefire accident in the Gulf War, has gone without such a tribute. But I think Todd Ouida and Scott Rohner, class of '97, ought to have one. They both worked on the 105th floor of One World Trade Center, which American Airlines Flight 11 hit between the 95th and 103rd floors.

Todd and Scott's memorial ought not be placed with the Vietnam one by the "official" entrance, near the auditorium and administrative offices, but by the common entrance, near the gym and the cafeteria. The two ought to be a reminder that the world is not separate from our lives. Every student at River Dell High School will play a part in history. It is unavoidable. They don't have to go in search of it; they don't even have to be drafted into it. History will come to them, and the implication should be that they ought to live their daily lives heroically and triumphantly, no matter how profound or mundane the sacrifices that they are called upon to make.

(For more information about Todd Ouida, visit The Todd Joseph Ouida Memorial Children's Fund at

Then there's the 9/11 connection that I discovered in 2004:

I turned to Google to see if I could confirm that Celita Schultz's televised dojo had been mine and to see whether she'd bought it from my sensei or something. Ms. Schultz's featured spot on the front page of the Kokushi Dojo's Web site quickly confirmed that my memory had been accurate, and I took a moment to smile at the discovery that the sensei's younger daughter, Liliko, has also been to the Olympics (in 1996). But then stories of being flipped by girls and flying from bicycles lost their profundity.

In the upper left-hand corner of the Web page is a picture of a boy with an afro and a trophy. The caption: "Kokushi Student Hero: September 11th Hijacked Jet." Jeremy Glick. You may recall the name as that of one of the passengers who defeated whatever plan the hijackers of Flight 93 had. In the series of headshots of the men to whom Todd Beamer said "let's roll," Glick is the one kissing a baby. His daughter.

I'd thought it neat randomly to spot on TV a room in which I'd spent many memorable hours. Small world. Small indeed, and not so much neat as awe-inspiring when one realizes the subsequent heroism of somebody with whom I very likely shared that room at one point or another.

Callings will come when they come; we may not know the hour or the form. In the meantime, we can only attend to life and do our best to choose wisely, to love well, and to remember those who've shown us what it means to fulfill a purpose for which we didn't even know we were preparing.

Jeremy's call from the flight to his wife, Lyz, is worthy of our meditation, these nine years later:

"Honey, it’s bad news."

"There are some very bad men on the plane. The men have a bomb and they have a knife. They are Arabic-looking men. They are wearing red headbands and there are three of them."

"We've had no contact with the pilots, but the men have taken over the plane and have moved everyone to the back of the plane and left us here."

"Lyz I need to know something. One of the other passengers has talked to their spouse, and he said that they were crashing other planes into the World Trade Center. Is that true."

[His wife pauses, not knowing what to say, but finally tells him it is true. There is a pause of a few minutes after hearing this.]

"I love Emmy, take care of her. Whatever decisions you make in your life, I need you to be happy, and I will respect any decisions that you make. Now, I need some advice - what to do? Should we, you know, we’re talking about attacking these men, what should I do?"

[His wife pauses for a long while, but finally tells him she thinks he needs to do it, after which there is another puase for a couple of minutes.]

“OK, The others and myself have voted to attack the terrorists. I have my butter knife from breakfast.. You know, I’m going to leave the phone here. Stay on the line, I’ll be back."

[The father in law takes the phone as Jeremy's wife could not bear to listen. There was a few seconds of silence folowed by a scream. More silence followed by another scream ... then ... nothing. Jeremy never came back to the phone.]

Measuring the Economy by Taxation

Justin Katz

Tax collections are up, in Rhode Island, and not a few people are happy to offer tentative suggestions that it's a positive sign for the local economy. I hope so. But still, I think it's tricky stuff to use this measurement. Consider two notes that Neil Downing offers on the data:

* The amount of state income tax withheld from workers' pay totaled about $145.5 million, up 9.1 percent from the same two-month period a year ago. In general, this suggests that more people are working, workers are earning more, or both, Dion said.

Sales-and-use tax revenue rose 3.5 percent, to $152 million. The category includes revenue receipts at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, which increased 6.8 percent, to $14.8 million. Overall, "there seems to be some pickup in consumer spending," Dion said.

Comparing this year's report with last year's iteration, the difference in total tax collections is $36 million. One-third of that ($12.1 million) comes from the increase in withholdings. This year's rate is even higher than that in FY09 (or actual year 2008), when it was $139 million. (The report for the year before is not online.)

So is our job market now better than it was two years ago, when the unemployment rate was 8.1%? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 505,495 Rhode Islanders were employed as of July 2010; the number in July 2009 was 501,957; in July 2008, it was 525,562. Why is an employed population that is 4% smaller withholding an amount of taxes that is 4.5% greater? If you want me to offer a comprehensive answer to that question, you'll have to finance Anchor Rising as my full-time job, but I'd be willing to speculate that it might have something to do with changes to tax laws that reduce itemized deductions and shift the tax burden around.

Another million dollars in increased "tax" collections derives from the Registry of Motor Vehicles. And again, the amount is well above the number two years ago. Is that a sign of new car purchases? Perhaps. Or maybe it's a sign of creeping fees.

Another $2.7 million in increased collections derives from Historic Structure Tax Credit Reimbursements that weren't given this year. $2.3 million comes from fewer refunds/adjustments this year. Business received $4.6 million less in refunds and adjustments..

About the only increase that doesn't have an immediately apparent dark lining is net sales and use taxation, which rose about $3.9 million. That's a 3% increase from the year before, although it's still $2.6 million less than the year before that.

If that's what we're looking toward for hope of a recovery, we must really be getting desperate. But the larger point is that taxation isn't a reliable advance-notice measure of economic improvement.


Carroll Andrew Morse

Remember: What Wasn't Seen...

Carroll Andrew Morse

...nine years ago, to the minute, when Islamist terrorists lost the initiative in the war they started.

From 9:57, the cockpit recorder picks up the sounds of fighting in an aircraft losing control at 30,000 feet - the crash of trolleys, dishes being hurled and smashed. The terrorists scream at each other to hold the door against what is obviously a siege from the cabin. A passenger cries: 'Let's get them!' and there is more screaming, then an apparent breach. 'Give it to me!' shouts a passenger, apparently about to seize the controls.


Carroll Andrew Morse


Carroll Andrew Morse



Carroll Andrew Morse

A Note of Credit

Carroll Andrew Morse

The structure and content of the postings above was designed and compiled last year by Marc.

September 10, 2010

A Man's Passion

Justin Katz

The wife's at a work-related function. The kids are abed. In a moment of weakness, on the way home, today, I splurged on an autumn sampler of Sam Adams beer. So, let me tell you what's really got me excited: My newest tool.

In an uncharacteristic stroke of good luck, I won the flashiest of the door prizes at the Gary Katz Roadshow event (seminar? presentation?) on Wednesday — donated by the event's host, JT's Lumber: a 24" digital Stabila level.

As it happens, of all the various sizes of levels, a two-footer is the one of which I've the least need. A while back, I bought a regular ol' Stabila of that size, and my other levels (all of cheaper brands) have Xs across some of the vials to remind me that they're no longer accurate... at least accurate for the sort of carpenter who frets that gravity naturally prevents an actually straight line. As it also happens, I've specifically pshawed at this series of levels as I've passed them in the store. When you're upset at having to replace a $3 set of scribes (like an art-class compass, for those outside of the trade), a level nearing $200 looks awfully luxurious and unnecessary.

But upon playing with my new toy at home, I discovered what makes it very valuable, indeed: It doesn't just beep with increasing urgency as you near your level line: It tells you how many degrees from level you are, or alternately, how many inches off of level you are over the tool's length. That means pitch.

The day before I won the level, I'd had cause to build a box around a chimney that spanned the ridge of a house that I'm renovating. I knew the pitch of the roof instantly by my usual means: the fear method. Pitch is determined by the number of inches that the roof goes up for every foot that it goes across, so a four pitch roof rises only four inches for every twelve inches of run. You can play Frisbee on such a roof. A six pitch roof is eminently walkable, but you do well to hook your tools on something so they don't take the quick route to the ground. An eight pitch roof can begin to be frightening if you've nothing to grab (especially when it's still covered only in plywood), and a twelve-pitch roof begins to feel like a ramp by which James Bond villains expel people from their zeppelins.

While the fear method is adequate for such tasks as estimating square footage or (more importantly) impressing clients and bosses with your ability to call a pitch on "sight," it doesn't quite get you to the point of knowing what angle to put on your saw when making cuts. I'm sure more-expert (and less self-taught) carpenters than I have better ways of discerning that data, but for me, tasks of such exactitude have required measuring down from the end of a shaking and wobbling level, with the other end touching the roof, and working out some basic arithmetic on a piece of scrap lumber, remembering that saws and squares measure angles at the perpendicular.

My new level, though, will tell me precisely how many degrees it is off from perfectly level. And since saws and squares measure angles at the perpendicular — which means, for example, that an angle of 60-degrees on the protractor reads as 30-degrees on the saw, because zero degrees is actually 90-degrees relative to the edge of a board — the number on the level is exactly the saw setting for a plumb (or vertical) cut.

As if to emphasize my good fortune, on Thursday, I found myself having to install a long trim board to which to attach a handrail. In old practice, the carpenter will measure up to the same height from the edges of stairs at each end of the run, draw a line, and find the angle of the line. Alternately, he could find an average length of each tread (keeping in mind how much it overhands the stair below) and the average height of each step (or riser) and use a framing square to mark out the plumb and level cuts.

With the digital Stabila, things were remarkably easier. I just spanned my six-and-a-half-foot level along the stairs and put my digital level on top of it. The screen informed me that the angle was 43.4 degrees, and I pressed a button that made that the reference angle (the zero). I then held the two levels against the wall and worked them up and down until the beeping told me that I'd achieved the same angle, and I drew my line. The plumb cut at the top of the board, I already knew to be 43.4 degrees, and for the level cut at the bottom, I merely subtracted that from 90 degrees.

In general, I prefer old methods to newfangled, mostly because they allow me to think about the physics and geometry involved. Where most guys will grab a laser level to draw a line around a room, I much prefer a coffee can, a clear 3/8" tube, and a length of ferring to make a water level. Somehow, though, finding angles doesn't have the same ye olde feel; it just feels as if I'm taking too long to accomplish a basic task.

Now, it's simple. Of course, being a conservative, I'm prepared to lament, in advance, that future generations will not have experience with the frustrations and long considerations that bring me to my appreciation of the technology that they'll take for granted.

Libertarian Totalitarianism

Justin Katz

Wrapping up early on the Friday of a week of long days — and with an optimism that I haven't had for quite some time, perhaps somewhat attributable to the sense of autumn's onset... and the pumpkin beers now on liquor store shelves — the moment seems just right to jab at my libertarian (specifically, Randian) friends. I do so from the foundation of Jason Lee Steorts' excellent general review of Ayn Rand's two most noted books, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead:

[Egolessness's] antithesis is Roark's foil [in The Fountainhead, Peter Keating, also an architect, whom we meet graduating from college as valedictorian and self-consciously enjoying the fact that many people are looking at him. The crucial distinction between these types is that only a Roark can be creative. A Keating, a man who must justify himself before and in comparison with the world, is essentially derivative. He cannot create anything his own, because he has accepted a standard not his own. And this principle comes with a corollary for anyone who wishes to be a creator: He must not — as Rand puts it in a note that her heir, Leonard Peikoff, reprints in his Atlas Shrugged introduction — "place his wish primarily within others" or "attempt or desire anything that . . . requires primarily the exercise of the will of others. . . . If he attempts that, he is out of a creator's province and in that of the collectivist and the second-hander."

This corollary is not, properly speaking, a moral imperative, because no obligation has been established to try to be creative. But the Randian hero is creative, and will observe the corollary, and that is why, in addition to never sacrificing his interests for another's, he will never ask others to sacrifice their interests for his. Much like the Nietzschean superman, the Randian hero cannot be predatory or exploitative; this would not give him what he wants, because no one outside himself has it to give. (Chambers's statement that the Randian voice commands "from painful necessity," his belief that Rand favors rule by a technocratic elite, and the title of his review, "Big Sister Is Watching You," are all, therefore, in error.)

I'd make two points, one artistic and the other political. First, the notion that creativity belongs only to those who care nothing for the opinions of others is complete and utter hogwash. Comprehensible creativity is, above all, a matter of communication, and one cannot communicate without a deep sympathy for what others expect, desire, and understand.

Slavishness to approval is certainly an impediment to creativity, because it hinders the artist's ability to display the truth that he or see observes. Moreover, one must expect always to meet with disagreement. But disconnection from the very principle of interpersonal appreciation requires either reliance on primitive impulses that are derivative not of others' creativity but of our basic biology (lust) and have therefore been repeated countless times for millennia or adherence to modernist insanity that says nothing at all for the purpose of being misunderstood. We must accept a standard not our own, or else all creativity is a repetition of that which is available within our natural boundaries.

Second, the reason for the resonance of the famous statement that Atlas Shrugged is a mandate for the gas chamber is that, in conjunction with their adulation for liberty, Randians have a visceral detestation of others who don't share their sense of liberty — whether the source is a belief that human beings have a legitimate claim on each other's behavior or a simple apathy about personal freedom. The prerequisite for sharing in their vaunted mutual respect is acceptance of a narrow range of premises about what it means to harm or hinder other people.

More traditional conservatives will sense the connection to these two points. In arts and communications, one must accept technical and social standards in order to unearth that which is truly creative — truly original — at their intersection. In terms of liberty, one must accept socially implemented boundaries to achieve higher orders of liberty.

Even During Painful Time, the Urge to Redistribute

Justin Katz

To be fair, Kenneth Rogoff does maintain some balance:

While tax cuts enhance long-term productivity, expanding the government sector is hardly a recipe for economic vitality. There are surely many useful activities for the government to undertake in a market economy, but a frenzied orgy of stimulus spending is not conducive to rational discussion of what they should be. And of course, there again is the matter of the soaring national debt.

The problem comes with the reasons that Rogoff dislikes the tax-cutting solution. First, he argues against increasing public debt, which should only require that tax cuts be coupled with reductions in government spending.

A second problem with tax cuts is that they might well have only a limited impact on demand in the short run, with the private sector hoarding a significant share of the funds to repair badly over-leveraged balance sheets.

Here, Rogoff merely chooses to ignore human nature. Private sector entities with "over-leveraged balance sheets" will "hoard" until they feel secure, whether tax cuts help them to do so or not. They will also continue to be reluctant to hire and expand businesses, and by continuing to confiscate their resources through taxation, the government will only prolong this healing process. Moreover, Rogoff's central theme is that economic recovery is going to take "many years."

So, given the long-term recovery, why not go with a long-term solution? That's Rogoff's third and most mystifying reason for disliking tax cuts:

By some measures, nearly half of all Americans do not pay any income tax already, so cutting taxes skews an already very unequal income distribution. Deferred maintenance on income equality is one of many imbalances that built up in the U.S. economy during the pre-crisis boom. If allowed to fester, the political consequences could be severe, including trade protectionism and perhaps even social unrest.

Continued high unemployment and economic uncertainty won't cause social unrest? Rogoff should look around. Easing government confiscation from the half of the population that actually pays for it is unfair because the others contribute not at all? That's a truly remarkable sentiment; apparently it is the role of government to take from productive Americans merely for the sake of taking. And what's this about "maintenance of income equality"? I'd prefer maintenance of a bustling economy with plenty of opportunity for those willing to seek it. A moment's thought should lead any reasonable person to the conclusion that it's better to advance though others profit more than to wallow in stagnation.

Because he takes off the table tax cuts that would allow the private sector to repair itself at a more rapid pace, Rogoff winds up suggesting that the Federal Reserve should buy up government bonds and private debt. That means "printing money," which means inflation. I'm not a Harvard economist, by any means, but my understanding is that inflation would make it more difficult to pay off debt, generally. Thus, those who benefit from government handouts and who manage to sell their debt to the Fed would benefit at the expense of those — most likely throughout the broad economic middle — who must continue to pay off the same amount of debt with dollars that are individually less valuable.

Somehow, the question seems to come back to this: Is the redistribution of wealth worth continued all around hardship for everybody who isn't politically connected? It would seem to be one uberclass or another.

September 9, 2010

We Won't Long Be Weak... We Hope

Justin Katz

Bing West takes a look at counterinsurgency in the era of Obama the Weak. Here's the critical part:

Our battalions are spending too much time on nation building: Every battalion gives a briefing that shows security as only one of its four Lines of Operation, or LOOs. Security, they say, is no more important than governance, economics, or the rule of law. That military catechism is a fantasy, because the tribal response to all these well-meant priorities has not been commensurate with our efforts.

Nation building by LOOs was also part of our military doctrine in Iraq, but it does not explain our success in that insurgency. True, the Sunnis did eventually rebel against al-Qaeda and the Islamist extremists, but they did not come over because of improved governance; in fact, they loathed the American-installed Shiite regime in Baghdad.

Instead, they decided to join the Americans because we were the strongest tribe. I asked Abu Risha, who led the Sunni tribal rebellion, why it took three years of blood and fighting before the Sunnis came over. He said, "You Americans could not convince us; we had to convince ourselves." When they joined up, it was on the premise that the Americans would be staying. But that is not the case in Afghanistan. The Taliban repeat President Obama's pledge that we are leaving soon, so the people stand aside.

One smells the arrogant odor of the university and its rigged system of rewards for the dominant ideology in such strategies as declaring our certain intention to leave a battlefield by a certain date. More broadly, such an approach to international affairs could only be conceived by a ruling class for whom "failure" means moving from one lightweight job to another. Or, when things go really badly, departing to spend more time with the family.

If 9/11 wrenched us back from our "vacation from history," one can only hope that enough Americans recognize that we're currently operating in accordance with a pure fantasy in order to prevent an even worse wake-up call.

Once Again, Government Spending Can't Spark Growth

Justin Katz

John Kostrzewa mentions, as if it should be a surprise, that temporary tax gimmicks have been as unable to spur the economy as giving away loads of money:

The federal housing tax credit was supposed to be the bridge between a dead real estate market in early 2009 and a recovery this year.

The idea was that an $8,000 credit would stimulate sales and stabilize prices, forming a floor under a housing market that had been sinking for three years.

For awhile, it seemed to be working.

But when it expired last month, and the private housing market was left to stand on its own, another reality hit home — the federal tax credit had become a bridge to nowhere.

Used this way — especially by a government already running deficits — tax credits are little more than government giveaways. Economically speaking, they're good, as far as government giveaways go, because at least they reward some sort of activity, but they're still just a limited drop of resources.

In that, such credits are in keeping with the flawed and failed approach that the Democrats have been taking to stimulating the economy. Essentially, Obama and Co. have been gambling that the private sector would come up with something as government hand outs bridged the economic gap. Back in 2009, I likened the method to adding water to a pond in the hopes that it would overflow its bounds somewhere and expand.

There are two problems with this strategy:

  • The government, by its nature, must take money from one area of the pond in order to dump it in another.
  • The areas that it has sought most rapidly to fill — maintaining or expanding money in the public sector and in select, struggling industries like housing, finance, and automobiles — were a problem precisely because they were artificially high.

Kostrzewa cites uncertainty as the root cause of continuing malaise, but that's more of a subsidiary cause. The free market thrives on uncertainty and risk. What makes the current uncertainty insidious is that it is the result of government usurpation of market mechanisms. In other words, it's not that people are uncertain about what will happen in the future — which they always are — but that they're uncertain about the very rules of the economic game under the micromanagement of a capricious government that's easily manipulated by special interests.

At this point, the only way to change that dynamic — barring a surprise breakthrough like another Internet — will be a plausible mea culpa by the federal government for its actions over recent decades, the last two years most of all. New policies should lower taxes permanently and withdraw the government's various fingers from the economy. And the only way for such a turnaround to be plausible will be in conjunction with major turnover in elected offices.

And Let's Not Forget the Mayor's Prior Check Incident

Monique Chartier

Under my post about the new check situation involving the mayor, Tommy Cranston reminds us of the first, infamous check matter, this one also with the City of Providence triangulated in but starring both of the Cicilline brothers.

the 75K check

Yeah. Remind me: did that get paid back to the city?


Now, regardless of Attorney General Patrick Lynch's helpful whitewash finding of no criminality in this matter (it's amazing all of the wrong-doing he's failed to see during his tenure; he's kind of like a professional wrestling referee in that regard), isn't this money still owed to the city?


Would this state of affairs - the blithe non-repayment of these funds - be tolerated if the check had been tendered by anyone other than a family member of the mayor?

I didn't think so.

And David Cicilline wants a political promotion?

You really are kidding me.

Corruption and the Kids

Justin Katz

I called in to the Matt Allen Show, last night, for a round of back-and-forths about Rhode Island political corruption and education. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

September 8, 2010

Who Approved the Providence Mayor's Unauthorized Raises?

Monique Chartier

From ABC6.

Providence's Internal Auditor is telling City Council Finance Chairman John Igliozzi that Mayor Cicilline has been overpaid for the last four years.

The internal memo written by James Lombardi explains that the city's Home Rule charter caps the Mayor's salary at $125,000 annually but that since 2006, the Mayor has been taking home more than that. Cicilline currently makes $132,000 annually, in violation of the charter.

The amount of overpayment comes to about $20,000 since it started.

Sure, he was 100% complicit in, not to mention the 100% beneficiary of, raises not contemplated by the City Charter. But unless Providence's disbursement procedures are terribly, possibly criminally, disfunctional, Mayor David Cicilline does not actually give the order as to payee or amount when checks are issued. (Please note that only through grinding teeth do I point out that Mayor Cicilline is not solely responsible for this situation.)

The question is, who does? Who signed off on these ... "erroneous" check amounts? 'Cause s/he is the one who should have said "Nuts" when the request came, directly or indirectly, from the mayor for these unauthorized raises.

Additionally, where has the recipient of this memo, which has been conveniently released one week before the primary, been for the last four years? In his capacity as Finance Chair, how did John Igliozzi miss these unauthorized increases? Who else missed it who should have seen it? And what other ... "erroneous" check amounts have all of these people missed?

The Customer Has to Want It

Justin Katz

I've recently changed construction companies, for my day job, and my new boss is very interested in continuing education. Not surprisingly, given that information, he comes from a business executive background, rather than having progressed along a sort of tradesman-up route to management.

I offer that information by way of explaining why I'm sitting in a tent in the parking lot of JT's Lumber in Middletown watching presentations by carpenter Gary Katz. (No relation, but I saw on the registration list that there's also a Jeff Katz in attendance, meaning that there are three unrelated Katzes in this group of about 30 people. 10%. We're taking over.

The thought that demanded my lunch break to mention on Anchor Rising is that Gary is going over all sorts of "must do" techniques to ensure the longevity of materials and arguing for the purchase of good, long-lasting tools (read: expensive tools). The two points have a related problem: Contractors have to either find the right clients or sell the extra expense for doing work the right way, and even so, they have to compete with others who don't take the necessary steps or say that they do.

Turning to the question of expensive tools, I can sympathize with the penny-pinching clients. I've done just fine with my midrange tools and lack the money to buy tools just because they'd be marginally easier to use or last me into my eighties. Having begun in the high-end of the carpentry trade, I found it difficult to adjust when, for side jobs, I had clients who didn't want to pay for the deluxe treatment, even though I felt like a hack for doing less.

Which brings us back to the conversation in the comment section of my post about employee motivation. Therein, Russ points out that most people aren't motivated by money so much as a desire for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I've no doubt that true professionals in all fields seek after those rewards, but in a real sense, they have to be purchased. Mastery is wonderful, but one must find the resources to support it, and until they hit a livable income threshold, it's a trade that I wouldn't expect most people to make.

The Great Misinformation Spill of 2010

Justin Katz

Lou Dolinar takes certain folks to task for the coverage and official outlook on the BP oil spill (try here if you don't subscribe to National Review):

Four months after the Deepwater Horizon spill — which President Obama called the "worst environmental disaster America has ever faced" — the oil is disappearing, and fisheries are returning to normal. It turns out that this incident exposed some things that are seriously wrong in the world of oil — and I don't mean exploding wells. There was a broad-based failure on the part of the media, the science establishment, and the federal bureaucracy. With the nation and its leaders looking for facts, we got instead a massive plume of apocalyptic mythology and threats of Armageddon. In the Gulf, this misinformation has cost jobs, lowered property values, and devastated tourism, and its effects on national policy could be deep and far-reaching.

One interesting paragraph notes something about which I hadn't heard much, previously:

It also ignores the Gulf's well-known ability to break down oil. [Labyrinth Consulting Services petroleum expert Arthur] Berman points out that the Gulf has for millennia been a warm, rich ecological gumbo of natural oil seeps, oil-eating bacteria, and marine life that subsists on the bacteria. His research, he says, suggests that the spill represents at most four times as much oil as seeps into the Gulf naturally in a year — in other words, it is eminently digestible by the native ecosystem.

As it happens, an article in the morning paper takes up the topic of oil-eating microbes:

Government scientists studying the BP disaster are reporting the best possible outcome: Microbes are consuming the oil in the Gulf without depleting the oxygen in the water and creating "dead zones" where fish cannot survive.

Outside scientists said this so far vindicates the difficult and much-debated decision by BP and the government to use massive amounts of chemical dispersants deep underwater to break up the oil before it reached the surface.

The debate that will likely arise in the space between these two articles is whether the toxic oil dispersants were actually needed in the tremendous amount that they were deployed. I'm certainly in no position to offer an opinion on that, so I'll content myself with an expression of relief that the near panic of the spring and summer appears to have been far overblown.

More Education Money Is Not the Answer

Justin Katz

According to Providence Business News's Alyssa Foley, Rhode Island is precisely the middle of the country when it comes to student performance, and its reform efforts don't encourage those who grade such things:

Rhode Island came in at No. 25 in student performance in a ranking of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, the Ocean State's education reform policies earned a "D" grade on the A to F grading scale, according to ALEC's Report Card on American Education: K-12 State Performance, Progress, and Reform.

It's interesting to place the results in the light of this interactive map of per-pupil spending by state, presented online by the National Science Foundation. At $13,453, Rhode Island has the sixth highest spending in the nation. By contrast, ALEC's number 2–ranked state, Massachusetts, spends $12,857, while the number 3 Florida spends $8,567, and the number 4 New Hampshire spends $11,037. Vermont, however, does outspend Rhode Island, with $13,629, and ranked number 1 in performance.

Turning to ALEC's own interactive map of student performance, there does not appear to be much (if any) correlation between per-pupil spending and performance ranking. I should also note that the cost data does not include "school construction and other capital outlays, debt service," or (it appears) teacher retirement costs. It would be interesting to see what effect inclusion of those factors would have on state rankings. I suspect it wouldn't help Rhode Island.

September 7, 2010

The Presidents on the President

Justin Katz

Here's an interesting video about a new work of art by Jon McNaughton (via Michelle Malkin):

McNaughton's Web site has an online version of the painting that shows closeups and offers clickable summaries for each president (and other components of the painting).

Cutting to an Engorged Bone

Justin Katz

The headline is "Districts Cutting to the Bone," but the interesting item comes at the end:

Like many districts, West Warwick has been bringing back students with special needs who previously were sent to private schools in an effort to both save money and better serve students.

"We've brought back about 90 kids in the past two years," he said. "But when you don't have an assistant special education director, even though you have 900 children in the district with special needs, and you don't have an assistant superintendent or a curriculum coordinator or any assistant principals at the elementary schools ..... The point is, we are beyond the point where you look at the budget and are cutting. We can't even cut the crayons any more. There are no more crayons."

Nine hundred special needs students? In 2009, the district had 3,657 students total. That means exactly 25% of all students are "special needs." I'd suggest that either the town of West Warwick would do better to spend its money on investigating environmental toxins or special education has become an inflated measure.

Our state pays nation-leading money for its education system, and it's only ever gone up, across time. Maybe the bone to which we've supposedly just cut is just cartilage. Or maybe it's a tumor.

The Silent Majority Isn't Static

Justin Katz

David S left a comment to a recent post by Marc that indicates a lack of subtleties in his view of the political order:

- the silent majority-? Marc, where were the silent ones during the last election? The election that was this country's last real political referendum. Were the silent majority unable to rouse themselves for an election about the course forward concerning two full scale wars that had ground on for years? Were they equally uninterested in a tanking economy? Did they just decide they had better things to do on election day? Silent majority? I know its a Nixon term, but it probably can be applied to the present administration and not a noisy minority.

Considering the facts that we are in the midst of war and recession and fear and superstition- when the going gets tough, the cowardly go to tea parties.

The obvious rejoinder is that "the silent majority" did, in fact, rouse itself in the last election. The anger now evident on the political scene is attributable to its sense that it was duped. The American people thought that they were getting, with Obama and the Democrats, a centrist, reasonable party. The assumption, generally, is that the two major parties are mere shades of the same thing, and the United States wanted the other shade, after the Bush presidency. Instead, the Democrats' mantra, when they'd been handed power, became "elections have consequences," and they've set about proving that those consequences were not to Republican partisans so much as to the American people — the silent majority.


"Now, a lot of those voters appear to be bolting to the GOP," Holland said. "Republicans now have a whopping 38-point advantage on the generic ballot among voters who dislike both parties."

Republicans also have a large and growing advantage among independents. Sixty-two percent of independents questioned say they would vote for the generic Republican in their district, with three in 10 saying they'd cast a ballot for the generic Democrat. That 32-point margin for the Republicans among independents is up from an 8-point advantage last month.

The hope, now, is that the Republicans will at least conclude that the real consequence of elections is to the elected — that they must actually govern as if they are representatives. As the emergence of the Tea Party shows, this may be the last chance for the "shades of the same thing" bipartisan structure to function to the satisfaction of voters. The Republicans are benefiting from the lack of other options, and if they do, indeed, win hugely in November, they've only got this one chance to prove that a third option is not needed.

A Balance of Status and Meaning

Justin Katz

In one of those fortuitous instances that creates the sense of a plot to life, this story just arrived at the end of my driveway with the morning paper:

Deaton and Daniel Kahneman reviewed surveys of 450,000 Americans conducted in 2008 and 2009 for the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index that included questions on day-to-day happiness and overall life satisfaction.

Happiness got better as income rose, but the effect leveled out at $75,000, Deaton said. On the other hand, their overall sense of success or well-being continued to rise as their earnings grew beyond that point.

The number surely varies, by time and location, but it appears that $75,000 is currently the amount of money required to fulfill the tier of "needs" that follows the meeting of essentials. At $75,000, one can live pretty well, with enough for some vacationing and extracurriculars and the basic toys of modern society, and make some preparation for retirement.

The article's arrival was fortuitous because I was preparing to post on Michael Knox Beran's suggestion that social mobility begets status anxiety (subscription required):

The same anxiety explains why those who enjoy what is supposed to be an enviable status go to such lengths to preserve their preeminence by keeping down those who might otherwise rise above them. Nowhere are the hierarchies more jealously guarded than in democracies (or in societies that are becoming democratic), precisely because the degrees of rank there do not find as strong a sanction in law and principle as they do in rigidly oligarchic societies. George Santayana, who passed his early years in quasi-feudal Spain, found it "at first very strange" that Americans should have been more attached to hierarchy than Spaniards, and he was startled to find that the background of his highly cultivated Harvard friend Charles Loeser "cut him off, in democratic America, from the ruling society." (Loeser's father "kept a 'dry-goods store.'")

Unable to rely on the state to enforce their hierarchies, those who have caste advantage in free societies (or societies that are becoming free) must constantly change the social locks in order to make it more difficult for those who lack caste to fashion a satisfactory key. Perhaps the most ingenious of the devices the status "haves" have devised to demoralize the status "have nots" is status inversion. When a weapon in the social arsenal of status fails to hold the line, the elite will not merely discard it, they will ironically invert the old status hierarchy and disdain the thing that was once coveted, thereby disconcerting the aspirants who took so many pains to master it.

One can presume that this is mainly an overt concern for those who've reached the threshold at which "overall sense of success" becomes the emotional good purchased by advancement. Before that $75k is achieved, status and economic stability are more or less synonymous; the things that mark the "haves," up to that point, are actually useful on a daily basis. Thereafter, the competition begins in earnest.

Of course, status and wealth are certainly a concern for those below the threshold — especially well below it — and it is for them that the democratic accessibility of status creates the larger tangible problem. When status was a matter written in law and blood, Beran argues, societies formed accordingly, allowing those without to devote their aspirations to other things than becoming "with" and developing means of offering care:

The civic culture that was a by-product of the reaction against aristocratic hierarchy was highly artistic, but in contrast to the feudal arts, which exalted status, the civic arts soothed those who lacked it. Artistic motifs that depicted (in Pater's words) a "tender and accessible" compassion inspired conduct concerned less with distinguishing "who's in" from "who's out" than with nourishing the affections and awakening the sympathetic virtues. A culture that is driven principally by concern for status is unlikely ever to develop a really satisfactory discipline of pastoral care. Status-driven culture may be, indeed often is, generous in its charity; but the largesse always reinforces the status of the donor, and the cultural artifacts of status-driven culture, being stained by pride, tend subtly to betray the motive in which they were begot. Philanthropists today pour millions of dollars into the various civic projects that bear their names, but the power to create a civic culture like that which was fashioned in the shadow of Chartres and the Parthenon — built for the most part by unknown hands in the name of a glory greater than themselves — is beyond us. Nor can status-driven culture bring people together in the way the older civic culture could: Its deepest raison d'etre is to keep them apart.

In Beran's view, the travesty and the danger at the end of this shift is individual isolation — as brought to tight focus in the sociopathy of serial killers, and in fascination with them. I'd marry that cultural thread with our society's obsession with shooting-star access to high status as evidenced in primetime talent competitions, reality television, state lotteries, and the various other illusory rockets to social stratosphere. Unfortunately, that victory by that route should seem so fickle can only contribute to the sense of the self against a hostile world.

A thorough explication of the consequences of that isolation across classes and demographies would require the space (and time) of a book, but in the absence of that leeway in my schedule, suffice it to suggest that the tension in our society derives in significant part from the rut that personal autonomy — and the ability to rise — cuts in the mud of hard reality. In the generic case, the individual who does not advance, in our society, is to some extent to blame, and it is the fuel of our economy that we can find motivation in that fact. But the individual is not wholly to blame, and the challenge comes in contriving a means of assistance that does not squelch the individual drive, whether by reinforcing helplessness or fostering dependency.

Any compassionate person will look at the balance of happiness against "sense of success" and conclude that it would be a worthwhile project to sacrifice some of the latter in the cause of the former. But on neither side of the redistribution can the exchange be explicitly imposed. The happiness, after all, is not merely in the big-screen television and the retirement account, but in the fact of having achieved them, and the "sense of success" will resist confiscation of the resources that make it possible, yielding all varieties of unintended consequences.

Better to redefine "success" and "needs," and for that, a society requires a deeper meaning than materialism and secularism can provide.

September 6, 2010

Hoping for an Effective Stimulus Without Change

Carroll Andrew Morse

Victor Davis Hanson has an interesting post at National Review's The Corner, on why borrowing more money won't act as a stimulus in the same way that deficit spending during World War II did (he's reacting to a Paul Krugman column based on that premise). Hanson provides lots of macro-level historical detail, but the fundamental premise is that the deficit spending of World War II was paired with some fundamental changes in how the money was spent...

The war years were characterized by frenetic hyperactivity: Americans worked long hours, women were brought into the work force, new towns and manufacturing centers sprang up, and people gave up necessities — all on the assurance that this furious pace and consumer scarcity would be short-lived.
...which differs in both purpose and implementation from current "stimulus" spending, where the primary objective seems to be preserving the status-quo established in the last decade, without any changes having to be experienced.

Motivation in the Private Sector

Justin Katz

Both sides of the coin that the Providence Journal editorial board describes in this passage from an unsigned essay concerning public labor in Central Falls are overly broad assertions, but the sentence that I've italicized seems especially presumptuous:

... as virtually anyone who has dealt with public employees at the state and local levels can attest, don't expect many workers to take a relaxed view toward the "no-overtime" rule. As soon as a municipal office's closing time arrives, they tend to be outta there fast. People in the private sector, driven by financial fear, tend to extend their time a bit to provide customer service to help keep their enterprise afloat.

No doubt, some private sector workers put in extra time out of worry that management will otherwise crack down on them, and others are surely afraid that a failure to go work beyond minimum hours will cut into the entire company's competitive edge, but I'd wager that going above and beyond is motivated in the majority of private sector cases by ambition. Employees putting in extra effort, that is, are more likely to be hoping to advance than hoping not to backslide.

The inverse is the common complaint, among managers and ambitious workers, about unionized labor. Sure, they secure baseline rules for employees, but that baseline can also be a ceiling for those who wish to get ahead.

The Wrong Kind of Terrorist

Justin Katz

It's interesting that this AP article by Sarah Brumfield withholds until the last quarter the information that James Lee actually wanted more extreme environmentalist programming on the Discovery Channel:

A man who railed against the Discovery Channel's environmental programming for years burst into the company's headquarters with at least one explosive device strapped to his body yesterday and took three people hostage at gunpoint before police shot him to death, officials said.

To be fair, other versions of the article informs readers, right up front that Lee's complaint was against programming that arguably encourage population growth. But it does seem that the mainstream media, generally, doesn't find environmental terrorism quite as interesting as anything that might serve to paint the Tea Party as bigoted lunatics.

September 5, 2010

Barely "Factual"

Justin Katz

The Providence Journal's still-new PolitiFact feature, with the market-hook Truth-o-Meter has generally been worth a perusal and sometimes a thorough read, although I've thought the journalists behind it could shoot for bigger targets much of the time. For today's review of a statement by state rep. and congressional candidate John Loughlin (R., Tiverton), though, they seem to have drifted a bit — claiming that a statement on the economic benefits of tax cuts was "barely true." Here's the statement that PolitiFact fact checked:

After Ronald Reagan cut taxes in 1981 the U.S. enjoyed "exponential growth."

Before looking at the substance of the claim, we need to adjust PolitiFact's parameters:

Taken literally, "exponential" refers to growth at an ever-increasing rate, as when something doubles, then triples, then quadruples. The economy during the Reagan years did no such thing.

Actually, it would be more accurate to suggest that the literal meaning of "exponentially" is not so much a reference to continual, unceasing growth, but to growth that is so large that it is best expressed in terms of exponents (x-squared and such). The growth of the economy in 1982 was actually recessionary, but in 1983, according to PolitiFact, it was 4.5%, and in 1984, it was 7.2%. Especially considering that nobody actually means "exponential growth" literally in public discourse, it isn't unreasonable to suggest that such growth fits the bill.

But the more important question is whether the statement is accurate by non-literal standards. PolitiFact offers two arguments in the negative. First, journalist Eugene Emery notes that growth thereafter "returned to a fairly typical 3 percent and 4 percent, which (while healthy) isn't exponential by any standards. Second, he points out that Reagan's 1981 tax cut was followed by tax increases, of various forms, in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, and 1987. He then asks Loughlin why "he mentioned only Reagan's tax cut and not the subsequent increases."

Perhaps if he hadn't been in a gotcha frame of mind, the journalist would have looked at the prima facie nature of his own question, particularly after he'd heard the following from a professional economist:

We asked Edinaldo Tebaldi, an assistant professor of economics at Bryant University, about the timing. He said it takes one to three years "to fully see the benefits of tax cuts."

In summary, Reagan (in concert, of course, with the rest of the federal government) cut taxes in 1981, and two and three years out, the economy grew. He then allowed taxes to increase, and after the same lag, the growth moderated. By the terms of the Projo's own fact-checking team, the evidence would indeed support the statement that tax cuts offer a very significant boost to the economy.

A Short Thought on a Long Road

Justin Katz

In a rare personal insistence on sitting down and watching a movie, last night, my wife and I viewed The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name. Based on some quick skimming of reviews around the Internet art of the allure of the movie appears to owed at least some debt to the mounting environmentalist scaremongering of the last few decades, but to focus on the apocalypse part of the post-apocalyptic tale clearly misses the point.

For those who don't know anything about the story, some very vague cataclysm wipes out most life on Earth and alters the weather. At least in the movie, the end-of-the-world plot is pretty studiously apolitical. It could be associated with environmental issues, or it could be more of a global war scenario. It doesn't really matter.

What matters is the reaction of humanity to the aftermath, and that's what makes the film so bleak. Starvation is pervasive, to the point that whole-family suicides are not uncommon. Survivors spend their time scavenging for any scraps of food, even if they have to scrape it from the tables of long-looted diners. Some people form gangs — mainly, it seems, to hunt everybody else as a cannibalistic food source.

Within the basic premise, McCarthy could have told any number of tales, and which one he picked strikes me as more than a little determinant of the message. A more familiar plot, for example, might have involved wars between the gangs, probably with an evil, man-eating gang, and a "good guy" gang striving to pull people together to increase their chances of surviving and perhaps even rebuilding (probably with the necessity of finding a more suitable landscape than suburban America).

That obvious alternative points to a plot imperative that continues to bother me as unrealistic: Of all of the other people with whom the father and son protagonists come into contact, all of those that aren't immediately apparent as a dangerous threat are either traveling alone or in very small families. One can presume that such a reality was a requirement of McCarthy's thematic intention: The father and son dynamic wouldn't have taken on a wholly different tone if the pair were to come across a gregarious (as opposed to violent) tribe. Either other characters would have intruded on the relationship, or the father would have been painted with clear paranoia were he to avoid helpful groups.

The plausibility of the story therefore collapses, in my view. However much a reader should be willing to suspend disbelief to get the plot rolling, human nature is supposed to remain intact; indeed, the unfamiliar setting is supposed to highlight core truths about humanity. And I just don't find it plausible that the father and son would regularly come across hostile groups of cannibals, but not a single group that had overcome distrust of strangers in the cause of making the most of the horrendous circumstances.

After all, that tendency was a large part of what has brought human society to its current state of mastery of its environment. Unless, of course, McCarthy's theme — and the main cataclysm that he intended to describe — was not life after the destruction of the world, but life after the destruction of humanity's striving for the higher good.

September 4, 2010

A Song for the Weather

Justin Katz

Sorry for the lack of posts. The Katz household is recovering from the hurricane. (Isn't yours?)

The day has not gone to waste, though. I've got a new song to add to the "Sing for Unity" album that I've created on my MP3 player:

Of course, the album started as a collection of outrageous Obama propaganda, and this song marks a decisive shift to opposition.

If the Mayor of Providence is So Easily Confused About What He Has and Has Not Signed, Perhaps It's Not Such a Good Idea to Send Him to Congress

Monique Chartier


So during the ABC6 debate, Mayor Cicilline was asked if he would sign a pledge to

support the Fair Elections Now Act ...

Cicilline responded, “I've already done that.”

“You’ve already signed the pledge?” Segal said

“Yes,” Cicilline replied.

Oops, no, he didn't.

Cicilline is not listed as one of the signatories online and an official with confirmed he had not signed it. Campaign manager Eric Hyers said Cicilline has been referring to something else and backs even stricter campaign finance reform measures than

But apparently is floating the only signable pledge for the Fair Elections Now Act. So why did the mayor say that he signed something when he didn't?

One shudders at the possibilities.

Aide: Sir, the page is here to pick up the caucus resolution applauding both sides for the progress they made during Mid-East talks. Didn't you say you signed it before you left?

DC: Yes, it's on your desk.

Aide: (sound of papers rustling) The only thing here is the statement you signed in favor of designating a National Rutabaga Appreciation Month.

- - - -

Speaker P: David, what happened? I understood we had your support for the appropriation to draw down troops from Afghanistan.

DC: You did. I voted for it.

Speaker P: No, you voted for the resolution that all fire fighters on duty wear cat-in-the-hat top hats and matching spats in between runs. Dammit, David, now I'm going to miss a meeting to deal with the troublemakers trying to organize my vineyard.

Why put ourselves through this when it can be so easily averted?

September 3, 2010

Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Marc Comtois

A lot has been said about the August 28th rally on the Mall last weekend. As a non-Beck guy (not anti- just agnostic) and having a lot to do last weekend, I frankly didn't pay too much attention to the event and the aftermath. Now that I've caught up a bit, I think Rich Lowry is pretty close in what it's all about:

This was the revolt of the bourgeois, of the responsible, of the orderly, of people profoundly at peace with the traditional mores of American society.
In other words, it's not a revolt so much as a retrenchment. While I think Lowry conflates the 8/28 and Tea Party movements a bit--it seems there may be some differences of emphasis (morals/tradition/religion or fiscal concerns, respectively)--they are pretty much the same bunch of people--average, middle-class Americans who our coastal/beltway elites like to call the bourgeois. Lowry continues:
For more than a hundred years, the bourgeois have been accused of being insipid, greedy, and unenlightened. To the long catalogue of their offenses can now be added another: unenthralled by Barack Obama, the Romantic hero seeking to transform the nation.

The tea party represents a revolt against his revolution, and thus a restoration. If a tea-party-infused Republican party were to take Congress and manage to cut federal expenditures by a sharp one-fifth, that figure would only be back to its typical level of recent decades of roughly 20 percent of GDP. If the party were to succeed in making the federal government more mindful of its constitutional limits, it would only be a step toward the dispensation that obtained during most of the country’s history.

Quite a revolt! Something about standing athwart History comes to mind....But Republicans shouldn't get too full of themselves, no matter what the current over/under on November looks like:
The last time Republicans benefited from a wave election, they had their own Beckian figure at the top in the person of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. They wallowed in their revolution and let Gingrich’s ideological grandeur define them — to their regret in the end. If the wave comes this time, Republicans should endeavor to be a sober and responsible party for sober and responsible people, resolutely cleaning up after the failed Obama revolution.
As the last two "wave" elections--one each won by the GOP and the Democrats--have shown, the quickest way for a political party to undercut such a win is to display vast quantities of hubris in the wake of a supposed mandate. In each case, the party that won went too far, reneged on promises or decided that ideals were worth sacrificing for the mirage of long term power. Americans want change, but not that kind or that much.

Now we see average folks clamoring for something else, anything else, to stop what they believe is a disaster in the making. They don't like the direction the country is taking politically so they've started Tea Parties. They don't like the long cultural decline so they find themselves inspired to hold a rally on the Mall. In short, average folks--the silent majority--are speaking up like never before. They've got nothing left to lose.

Still on the Hook

Justin Katz

Ted Nesi has responded to my post, yesterday, about state conduit debt. Giving some further details about the situation in Rhode Island, Nesi writes:

To return to Justin's critique, the reason it's easier and cheaper for these institutions to borrow through the state isn't because of an implicit Fannie-Freddie promise; it's because state bonds are tax-exempt, which tends to reduce how much interest they have to pay and the amount of time they get to pay it. The treasurer's office tells me there has been a surge of interest in RIHEBC bonds since credit markets started to seize up in 2007.

The tax exemption is likely part of it, but to my knowledge, bond ratings are still a factor, and when the the financial vehicle is issued by a public agency — created through legislation and staffed with board members appointed by elected government officials — the game is somewhat different than purely private ventures.

More important, though, is that there's got to be something in these deals for the state. For the most part, that something is an ability to borrow money without first acquiring direct voter approval. If, for example, the R.I. Health and Educational Building Corporation — which lends substantial money, let's remember, to government agencies like municipalities for education buildings — finds its borrowers defaulting in substantial amount, it will have a more difficult time finding investors, and its interest rates will have to go up to attract them.

That's where the Central Falls example comes into play: The reason given for state involvement in appointing a municipal dictator to repair the city's finances was that one municipal bankruptcy in the state would affect the borrowing opportunities for all municipalities in the state based on bond ratings. As I've said, if the borrowers utilizing the "conduit" cannot fulfill their obligations, the state will find a way to smooth the financial hit.

If defaults happen on a limited, atypical basis, then the arrangements will never be a problem, but remember that the reason that we're discussing the matter at all is that about half of the state's total debt is associated with the conduits. Therefore, even though we must certainly be aware of the different implications of the various forms of public bonds, it remains wise to keep an eye on them all, and it is hardly unreasonable to compare the figures on a state-by-state basis.

Rhode Island apparently leads the nation in conduit debt. We should be very suspicious about why that might be.

When Democrats Sound Like Democrats

Justin Katz

With the surfeit of debates, this election cycle, there's certainly plenty of opportunity to observe the differences large and small between candidates in the Democrat congressional primaries. One instance has to do with Anthony Gemma, in the First District race. Gemma had piqued my interest with a press release that he intends to forgo his salary, should he win the seat, and use it to create four jobs, instead. (Naturally, those jobs would be within his staff, working on a jobs plan.)

But Randal Edgar's coverage of an ABC6 debate suggests Gemma's still way too far within Democrat territory:

Asked what is more important, stimulating the economy or cutting the national deficit, the candidates responded with the familiar words that have marked their campaigns.

Segal said the priority needs to be stimulating the economy, with money going to areas such as public transit.

Lynch said his priority is putting Rhode Islanders back to work, and cutting spending for bridges and roads in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gemma said the government has to spend more wisely, giving money directly to private companies that will create jobs that will still be there when the government money is gone. Cicilline said the country needs to do both — stimulate the economy and pare down the debt.

More public spending will not stimulate the economy. It will supplant spending already planned, change little more than timing, create dependency, and increase worries about debt and taxes. Any candidate who states belief that government spending is the route out of our economic slump is not fit for public office.

This example is even more egregious:

Gemma said the state needs to expand preschool programs to make sure students know their letters and numbers when they get to kindergarten and to spend more time teaching reading and math.

Even government reports have shown that early childhood education isn't likely to be core to an education remedy. It does not make up for poor instruction in subsequent grades or for disengaged parents. When implemented by the state, however it does create a wave of new union members and begin government control of children at even earlier. My expectation is that such a program would only reinforce parents' understanding that educating their children is the responsibility of the government and will do nothing to change the structural mentality that binds our public schools in stagnating labor rules and unhealthy institutional incentives that leave students and parents little influence in policy.

By contrast, Ernest Greco, running in the Second District race, actually gives Democrat voters a substantive choice, and this is what he gets:

... Greco stuck to such conservative positions, that Scott MacKay, political correspondent at WRNI radio, asked him outright: "Why are you a Democrat? Every position you take is right from the Republican platform."

September 2, 2010

... Wait, the Obligation to Repay is "Moral" and Not "General"?

Monique Chartier

Not because Andrew's post is deficient (on the contrary) but because sometimes I'm thick, I hunted out two more definitions of "moral obligation bonds".

tax-exempt bond issued by a municipality or a state financial intermediary and backed by the moral obligation pledge of a state government. (State financial intermediaries are organized by states to pool local debt issues into single bond issues, which can be used to tap larger investment markets.) Under a moral obligation pledge, a state government indicates its intent to appropriate funds in the future if the primary obligor , the municipality or intermediary, defaults. The state's obligation to honor the pledge is moral rather than legal because future legislatures cannot be legally obligated to appropriate the funds required.


tax-exempt bond issued by a municipality or state financing authority, secured by revenues from the project financed, plus a nonbinding pledge by the state legislature. In the event that project revenues are insufficient to meet debt service payments, the legislature is authorized to step in and appropriate funds in the future to cover principal and interest payments to bondholders. The state's commitment to service the bonds is moral, rather than contractual, as legislatures have no legal obligation to do so if the original obligor defaults.

Okay, so what would it look like if there were a default on a moral obligation bond issued by Rhode Island? A request for repayment would be made of the state. The request would get forwarded to the General Assembly then in session for a vote on the necessary appropriation. Assuming matching bills made their way out of committee (a potentially significant stumbling point right there) and on to both floors, a majority of legislators would have to vote in favor. Further, they would most likely have to do so in the face of a budget deficit, thereby requiring the identification of a revenue stream (*cough*raisetaxes*cough*) to fund the repayment. Legislators would be acutely aware as the bill came up for a vote that an explanation to their constituency of their vote and the purpose of the ... er, revenue stream would need to follow in due course.

Under these circumstances, how likely is it that a repayment appropriation would pass?

Speaking for myself, if it had been clear from the beginning that these were not general obligation bonds, I wouldn't have gotten nearly as worked up. Presumably, however, it wouldn't help with bond sales if the state had issued a statement saying, "Hey, don't worry about it; taxpayers have no legal obligation to repay the bondholders in the event of a default."

Gridlock is Good

Marc Comtois

Via this piece against the implementation of a Value-Added Tax (ie; "A VAT is a terrible idea if it triggers bigger government, and a VAT is a bad idea if it merely finances bigger government."), I came across the below from a decade-old interview with Milton Friedman. It was 2000 and we had a budget surplus. Why?

Milton Friedman: The...reason you have a surplus today, in my opinion, the credit for that has to be given overwhelmingly to gridlock.

Peter Robinson: To gridlock?

Milton Friedman: If you had had a Democratic House and Senate, as well as a Democratic president, you would not have a surplus today in my opinion. They would have spent it. Similarly if you had had a Republican president as well as a Republican House and Senate, I doubt that there would have been a surplus today. Because they would either have spent it or had tax reductions.

Peter Robinson: So when President Clinton steps forward to take his bows, you don't applaud at all?

Milton Friedman: Well, I applaud. He provided gridlock.

Peter Robinson: Okay, you applaud but for a different reason than the one he supposes.

Milton Friedman: The winning thing that really contributed to our successful economy over recent years is that the government has stayed out pretty much, with the White House and the Congress and the Senate haven't done much.

Seems like the last ten years have pretty much proven him right.

On the Hook, One Way or Another

Justin Katz

Local journalist Ted Nesi has moved from the Providence Business News to and is maintaining a column there (although they're calling it a "blog"). One sample from a couple of weeks ago has been nagging at me:

The Daily Beast is out this week with one of its link-drawing listicles — "The Most Screwed States" — and guess who they say is the most screwed of all? You guessed it — good ol' Rhode Island. ...

But those numbers are also very misleading — and more than a little bit alarmist.

Nesi's first step is to update the numbers cited in the article, which adjusts our debt-to-GDP ratio in a little bit healthier a direction. But his next point, which relates to Andrew's commentary about state bonds, seems like it must be ignoring something:

Rhode Island taxpayers are not on the hook for the state's entire $8.9 billion in debt. In fact, we're on the hook for less than half of it. The reason is because a big chunk of that borrowing is what's known as "conduit debt."

Conduit debt is basically when the state goes out and borrows money on behalf of someone else — nonprofits like Brown University or Rhode Island Hospital, or individuals via state agencies like RISLA and Rhode Island Housing. Going through the state makes it easier and cheaper for those entities to borrow money.

Reading the article, one gets the impression that the state's involvement in conduit debt is less than superficial. If that were the case, however, then why would it be true that lenders make the borrowing process "easier and cheaper" when the state is involved? Nesi should be a little more careful with his language: The taxpayer is "on the hook" but is trusting the recipients of the borrowed money to pay it back — sort of like the federal government trusted mortgagees through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to pay for their houses.

Just as significant is the incentive system that conduit loans set up. Particularly when it comes to organizations — perhaps, although I lack the time to confirm, including the City of Central Falls — the state's interest in the health of its sub-borrowers could lead to special arrangements with tax dollars to enable them to pay back the debt before it officially defaults to the state.

In other words, conduit debt essentially makes the borrowers quasi state agencies paying the debt through their own revenue sources — no different than fees and other revenue that state departments take in — for the term of the loan. Perhaps they shouldn't be incorporated into lists tallying annual state debt payments, for example, but it surely shouldn't be written out of consideration.

And whatever the case, for all of the adjustments that Nesi makes, he still only manages to improve Rhode Island's debt problem from worst in the country to seventh or tenth worse (depending whether one looks at income or population). Not a comfort, especially considering that we tie with the collapsing state of California.

Small Cuts Credited, Huge Windfall Ignored

Justin Katz

This article, by Neil Downing, is a bit hard to take:

Despite a recession, record floods and high unemployment, Rhode Island managed at least one achievement this year — a state government budget surplus.

Preliminary figures posted Wednesday show that the state recorded a $17.7-million surplus for the year ended June 30, even though it began that year with a $62.3-million deficit.

The article goes on to meander through elected officials and bureaucrats crowing about the hard work that they've done to trim the budget in difficult times. This part comes almost as an unrelated tidbit toward the end (emphasis added):

The state could use the surplus should there be a budget deficit for the year that ends June 30, 2011, he said.

But if there is a surplus for that year, too, the state could use the money to deal with what is scheduled to be a budget deficit of about $320 million for the year that ends June 30, 2012.

That is when the federal government is scheduled to pull the plug on the extra aid it has been doling out to states to help them get through the recession.

There's something pitiful about state officials' slapping themselves on the back for fiscal-management prowess based on a tentative $17 million surplus when a higher form of government is shoveling hundreds of millions in future-taxpayer money to them through the back door. It's a bit like a glutton's claiming success in his diet because he skipped the sorbet in a ten-course meal.

Bonds, Morals, and Conservatism

Justin Katz

On last night's Matt Allen Show, Andrew touched on the nature of conservatism and the trustworthiness of the General Assembly when it comes to moral obligations to pay debts. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

September 1, 2010

What is a "Moral Obligation Bond"?

Carroll Andrew Morse

If you see the words "moral obligation" being repeated in statements and news reports related to the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation's loan guarantee program with 38 Studios (like this one from Jim Baron of the Pawtucket Times, or this one from Ted Nesi of WPRI-TV (CBS 12)), there is a specific reason why: there actually are financial instruments called "moral obligation bonds" that are distinct from "general obligation bonds" and, according to a statement from RI General Treasurer Frank Caprio, that are being used to finance the 38 Studios deal.

The difference between moral obligation bonds and general obligation bonds is that moral obligation bonds do not involve a full-faith-and-credit promise by the government to use its sovereign powers (e.g. its taxation powers) to raise the revenue needed to pay off the bondholders. The basic concept is explained in The Financial History of the United States, written by Jerry W. Markham...

Moral obligation bonds were introduced by Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York in the 1960s...[The] idea was that public corporations could be created that would issue housing or other bonds backed by income from the projects being financed, rather than from the state's taxes or other revenues. This avoided the necessity of obtaining voter approval of the bonds.
In fact, with moral obligation bonds, the government doesn't really promise to pay off the bondholders at all; that's why it's called a moral obligation (I'll throw it over to the ethicists, to decide if moral obligation should be considered more or less binding than legal obligation). There are, however, some rules that are supposed to be followed, regarding reserve funds to be used to pay off a moral obligation bond. Here is a brief description from the website of the Council of Development Finance Agencies...
Moral obligation bonds do not carry the full faith and credit pledge of the obligor (i.e. state or locality). Rather, the moral obligation requires the issuer to maintain a debt service reserve fund at a specified reserve requirement, typically maximum annual debt service, and report any deficiencies that arise to an appropriate official of state or local government. The official then is required to request an appropriation from the legislative body to make up any shortfall. Since there is no legal requirement to make the appropriation, timely payment depends on the obligor’s willingness to support the debt.
This newfound knowledge (at least to me) of "moral obligation bonds" leads me to ask if part of the initial wave of opposition to the 38 Studios deal, which came from many sources, was rooted in the fact that using instruments that are supposed to be paid for using future income seems an odd choice for guaranteeing a loan, where money will only be needed if the future income is not realized.

Or am I missing a step in how the chain of finance would work?

Don't Let the Bureaucrats Bite

Justin Katz


Bedbugs, a common household pest for centuries, all but vanished in the 1940s and '50s with the widespread use of DDT. But DDT was banned in 1972 as too toxic to wildlife, especially birds. Since then, the bugs have developed resistance to chemicals that replaced DDT.

Also, exterminators have fewer weapons in their arsenal than they did just a few years ago because of a 1996 Clinton-era law that requires older pesticides to be re-evaluated based on more stringent health standards. The re-evaluations led to the restrictions on propoxur and other pesticides.


Bedbugs, infesting U.S. households on a scale unseen in more than a half-century, have become largely resistant to common pesticides. As a result, some homeowners and exterminators are turning to more hazardous chemicals that can harm the central nervous system, irritate the skin and eyes or even cause cancer. ...

... authorities around the country have blamed house fires on people misusing all sorts of highly flammable garden and lawn chemicals to fight bedbugs. Experts also warn that some hardware products — bug bombs, cedar oil and other natural oils — claim to be lethal but merely cause the bugs to scatter out of sight and hide in cracks in walls and floors.

The government transformation of supposedly too-popular station wagons into too-popular SUVs comes to mind.

Now will come the public cry for widespread use of DDT, where limited, judicious use might have prevented the problem in the first place.

The Confusion of Success with the Meaning of Life

Justin Katz

Some strains of Darwinian secularism are speckled throughout with signs of the mansions and vast estates of their most prominent promoters. Such appears to be the case with Matt Ridley's philosophy, as presented in George Gilder's review of his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves:

Reason, to Ridley's mind, impels us relentlessly forward and upward. Religion, on the other hand, he sees as a reactionary obstacle to growth, progress, and even morality. He cites, for example, the indignation of Israel's prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, along with Homer, against the pride of the Phoenician traders as typical rants of reactionary traditionalists against the creators of wealth.

Instead — echoing his previous books on the evolution of virtue and the superiority of sexual reproduction to reduplicative cloning — Ridley maintains that moral codes naturally evolve from the rise of catallaxy. Cultures that reach out to immigrants and new ideas gain cultural and genetic innovation. As wealth grows, population growth relents; women instead release their energies into the marketplace.

Reason does not have a self-contained direction; it is dependent on circumstances. To those not living on the proceeds of best-selling books, reason alone may very well lead to the conclusion that the world is cold, unfair, and irrational, and life utterly pointless. Religion, in such circumstances, can reorder the individual's sense of reason toward productive ends.

This is no linguistic nitpicking; it is a thematic problem with analyses such as Ridley's. Reason is what allows humankind to take evolution into its own hands in ways broad and discrete, but it requires a larger principle to give it direction. The reference to "immigration and new ideas" is a perfect example: Such intermingling is only fruitful where it provides new perspective on existing principles, and the application of human reason must begin with an assessment of what is worth preserving and what is dangerously attractive. It supposes too much correspondence between cultural evolution and biological evolution to assume a parallel process of "good decisions" through trial and error judged by rates of survival.

As I'm able, I'm reading a book titled The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton, in which the author strives to argue that art is both something more than, say, the weaving of bird nests and something growing out of human evolution. So thoroughly dedicated to the principle of genetic development as a human determinant is Dutton that, in one passage, he gives the impression that he believes that it took a genetic mutation for mankind to cease jumping from cliffs. Those disinclined to such behavior survived, while the other perished. But surely it wouldn't have taken too advanced a brain to notice a bloody lifeless pulp at the bottom of a high drop and to conclude that jumping would not be wise and, moreover, to warn others of that finding.

Such is the function of reason. Even so, a precondition of its application is the principle that it is better to live than to plummet to death. That brings us back to Gilder's review:

That a secular-feminist society, feeding on hedonic incentives, can ultimately sustain a functional national defense capable of standing up to the Vandals and Goths of the 21st century is yet to be proven, but the portents are unpromising. Europe is dismantling its military, while the U.S. increasingly regards its own chiefly as an arena for sex-role gaming.

Cultural innovations may benefit individuals for a period of time, but what is supposed to set human beings apart is our ability to foresee pitfalls and to step around them and to carry non-biological lessons from the past that tell us which paths are likely to be perilous. We do so through mechanisms of religion and tradition.