Rhode Island Policy Reporter

What's this? A Book!

Or buy here: Light Publications, Powell's, or Bn, Amazon

A look at the lousy situation Rhode Island is in, how we got here, and how we might be able to get out.

Budget Demystification!
Fiscal Derring-Do!
Economic Jiggery-Pokery!

Now at bookstores near you, or buy it with the button above ($14, or $18 with shipping and sales tax).

Contact information below if you'd like to schedule a book-related event, like a possibly entertaining talk on the book's subjects, featuring the famous mystery graph.

Join the RIPR Mailing List! For a weekly column and (a few) other items of interest, click here or send an email to ripr-list-subscribe@whatcheer.net.

RIPR is a (paper) newsletter and a weekly column appearing in ten of Rhode Island's finer newspapers. The goal is to look at local, state and federal policy issues that affect life here in the Ocean State, concentrating on action, not intentions or talk.

If you'd like to help, please contribute an item, suggest an issue topic, or buy a subscription. If you can, buy two or three (subscribe here).

Search this site

whole site RIPR back issues

Available Back Issues:

  • Aug 09 (38) - How your government's economic policies have worked against you. What a fake nineteenth century nun can teach us about the tea party protests.
  • Jun 09 (37) - Statistics of optimism, the real cost of your government. Judith Reilly on renewable tax credits. Review of Akerlof and Shiller on behavioral economics.
  • Apr 09 (36) - Cap and trade, the truth behind the card check controversy, review of Governor's tax policy workgroup final report.
  • Feb 09 (35) - The many varieties of market failures, and what classic economics has to say about them, review of Nixonland by Rick Perlstein.
  • Dec 08 (34) - Can "Housing First" end homelessness? The perils of TIF. Review of You Can't Be President by John MacArthur.
  • Oct 08 (33) - Wage stagnation, financial innovation and deregulation: creating the financial crisis, the political rhetoric of the Medicaid waiver.
  • Jul 08 (32) - Where has the money gone? Could suburban sprawl be part of our fiscal problem? Review of Bad Money by Kevin Phillips, news trivia or trivial news.
  • Apr 08 (31) - Understanding homelessness in RI, by Eric Hirsch, market segmentation and the housing market, the economics of irrationality.
  • Feb 08 (30) - IRS migration data, and what it says about RI, a close look at "entitlements", historic credit taxonomy, an investment banking sub-primer.
  • Dec 07 (29) - A look at the state's underinsured, economic geography with IRS data.
  • Oct 07 (28) - Choosing the most expensive ways to fight crime, bait and switch tax cuts, review of Against Prediction, about the perils of using statistics to fight crime.
  • Aug 07 (27) - Sub-prime mortgages fall heaviest on some neighborhoods, biotech patents in decline, no photo IDs for voting, review of Al Gore's Against Reason
  • Jun 07 (26) - Education funding, budget secrecy, book review of Boomsday and the Social Security Trustees' Report
  • May 07 (25) - Municipal finance: could citizen mobility cause high property taxes? What some Depression-era economists had to say on investment, and why it's relevant today, again.
  • Mar 07 (24) - The state budget disaster and how we got here. Structural deficit, health care, borrowing, unfunded liabilities, the works.
  • Jan 07 (23) - The impact of real estate speculation on housing prices, reshaping the electoral college. Book review of Blocking the Courthouse Door on tort "reform."
  • Dec 06 (22) - State deficit: What's so responsible about this? DOT bonding madness, Quonset, again, Massachusetts budget comparison.
  • Oct 06 (21) - Book review: Out of Iraq by Geo. McGovern and William Polk, New rules about supervisors undercut unions, New Hampshire comparisons, and November referenda guide.
  • Aug 06 (20) - Measuring teacher quality, anti-planning referenda and the conspiracy to promote them, affordable housing in the suburbs, union elections v. card checks.
  • Jun 06 (19) - Education report, Do tax cut really shrink government?, Casinos and constitutions, State historic tax credit: who uses it.
  • May 06 (18) - Distribution analysis of property taxes by town, critique of RIEDC statistics, how to reform health care, and how not to.
  • Mar 06 (17) - Critique of commonly used statistics: RI/MA rich people disparity, median income, etc. Our economic dependence on high health care spending. Review of Crashing the Gate
  • Feb 06 (16) - Unnecessary accounting changes mean disaster ahead for state and towns, reforming property tax assessment, random state budget notes.
  • Jan 06 (15) - Educational equity, estimating the amount of real estate speculation in Rhode Island, interview with Thom Deller, Providence's chief planner.
  • Nov 05 (14) - The distribution of affordable houses and people who need them, a look at RI's affordable housing laws.
  • Sep 05 (13) - A solution to pension strife, review of J.K. Galbraith biography and why we should care.
  • Jul 05 (12) - Kelo v. New London: Eminent Domain, and what's between the lines in New London.
  • Jun 05 (11) - Teacher salaries, Veterinarian salaries and the minimum wage. Book review: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
  • Apr 05 (10) - Choosing a crisis: Tax fairness and school funding, suggestions for reform. Book review: business location and tax incentives.
  • Feb 05 (9) - State and teacher pension costs kept artificially high. Miscellaneous tax suggestions for balancing the state budget.
  • Dec 04 (8) - Welfare applications and the iconography of welfare department logos. The reality of the Social Security trust fund.
  • Oct 04 (7) - RIPTA and DOT, who's really in crisis?
  • Aug 04 (6) - MTBE and well pollution, Mathematical problems with property taxes
  • May 04 (5) - A look at food-safety issues: mad cows, genetic engineering, disappearing farmland.
  • Mar 04 (4) - FY05 RI State Budget Critique.
  • Feb 04 (3) - A close look at the Blue Cross of RI annual statement.
  • Oct 03 (2) - Taxing matters, a historical overview of tax burdens in Rhode Island
  • Oct 03 Appendix - Methodology notes and sources for October issue
  • Apr 03 (1) - FY04 RI State Budget critique
Issues are issued in paper. They are archived irregularly here.

Subscription information:


For those of you who can read english and understand it, the following is an email address you are welcome to use. If you are a web bot, we hope you can't understand it, and that's the point of writing it this way.

editor at whatcheer dot net


Deep archive


The Rhode Island Policy Reporter is an independent news source that specializes in the technical issues of public policy that matter so much to all our lives, but that also tend not to be reported very well or even at all. The publication is owned and operated by Tom Sgouros, who has written all the text you'll find on this site, except for the articles with actual bylines.


Creative Commons License Tom Sgouros

Tue, 30 Nov 2004

Worth reading, if you're not feeling angry enough

An article about voting that asks "Why are we lying down and taking it again?" click

22:19 - 30 Nov 2004 [/y4/no]

Mon, 29 Nov 2004

Computational Genomics

What to make of an article in the National Review about amazing advances in genetics and what that means for cherished liberal ideas? The article, predictably, was all about how advances are really going to uncover important differences between races, and deterministic facts about intelligence, and therefore it has to be conducted in secrecy, lest the researchers be branded bigots. The writer told about a friend of his, a "datanaut" who was up to his neck in complex math to analyze the genome.

Well, there is a lot to say about computational genomics, but not really what the NR author had in mind. The message of modern genetics is both encouraging and discouraging, but not in the way he had it.

The encouraging part is that while the "datanaut" in that NR article knows a lot about the math of genetics, math is hardly everything. A developmental biologist (whose name I wish I could remember, but maybe someone will help me) made this point famously many years ago by taking a chick embryo, pureeing it, and centrifuging it. He pointed out that after pureeing, it still contained as much genetic information as it had before, and that the centrifuging added order, but that no one thought it would still turn into a chick. A living egg is a complicated thing, and no one has yet figured out how to reduce its complexity to math, which is why there is no field of "Computational Development," with computer scientists pretending to "slum" as development biologists. So the encouraging part is that there is still a great deal of mystery in life, and most of the claims you read about in the Science Times or in the National Review are at least partly crap.

Here's an example: you hear pundits moaning about the possibility of cloning babies. Our Congressman Langevin says this is why he voted against stem-cell research: over the fear of reproductive cloning. Well, I guess we've cloned a sheep, so why not a baby? What you never read about is that Dolly the sheep was the first successful result after almost 300 failures. That's 300 stillborn, deformed, or died-as-infant sheep to produce just one now-that-we-think-about-it-not-very-healthy adult, to translate "failure" into something more concrete. Presumably this record will improve, probably dramatically. But will it improve enough for even the most morally obtuse person to want to try it? Maybe, but it hasn't yet, so far as I know.

The discouraging part, on the other hand, is that nothing seems to stop people in this kind of science from overstating the power of their results. Scientific hubris is an old tradition, and the successes of datanauts at finding things like the gene for Huntington's disease has only emboldened them. I don't doubt for a minute that they may have found "genes" that have some correlation with intelligence. (Such a claim was made in the NR article.) But so what? Good diet correlates with intelligence, too. I doubt very much that there's any kind of profound understanding why some stretch of DNA correlates that way. Maybe they've found a section of DNA that regulates something else that has to do with efficient digestion. Who knows? I don't. And I stongly suspect they don't, either. They can't even agree on what constitutes a gene.

Humility is a virtue, but it's not one shared by most computer scientists, who think they have a monopoly on understanding issues involving computation. Genetics and psychology both seem to touch on related subjects to some degree, but does that give computer programmers the keys to the kingdom?

The NR author writes that he is snowed by the sophisticated math of his datanaut. What he doesn't realize is that the math is sophisticated because the understanding isn't. They're using the math to look for correlations between distant parts of the genome, and looking for all different kinds of ways to massage the genetic data so that it is readable. But it's all based on the assumption that all the information is in there, which anyone who spends five minutes thinking about the subject can tell isn't true. (Think of that poor chick again.)

But, like the NR author fears, word will get out, and pundits who don't know squat about the science will be persuaded by the simple and straightforward and mostly wrong story told by datanauts. They'll find some gene that correlates with intelligence and then find that Asians have more of it, and there will be a to-do and cry in our newspapers and on our television sets about how it's inevitable that China overtake the US in everything. And then in 20 years we'll learn that it's really a bit of DNA that makes something to do with your lungs (which are also important to intelligence), and there are two other genes that do the same work, and are just as good. But in the meantime, we'll have made all kinds of stupid policy decisions based on that first interpretation.

So that's the discouraging part. What makes me fearful is not that we'll eventually understand too much of what makes our selves and our races. It's that on the way there, we'll fool ourselves into thinking that we know more than we do and we will do some very very stupid things to ourselves.

23:49 - 29 Nov 2004 [/y4/no]

Wed, 24 Nov 2004

Blue Cross rate hike rejected

Well DBR went and made a liar of me by refusing to approve the Blue Cross hike for direct pay subscribers. As usual, it takes egregious behavior to get useful things done around here, and the outrageous executive pay at Blue Cross accomplished more than any number of outrageous annual reports has ever done. (See issue 3 from last winter.)

It appears that the grounds on which DBR rejected the increase are legally untested, so this may not be the last word.

Projo story here, but you have to register, and then wait for all the popup ads to settle down, and then click again on the story you wanted to see, and watch more popup ads, and then maybe get to the story.

10:20 - 24 Nov 2004 [/y4/no]

Tue, 23 Nov 2004

Where's the Health Insurance Commissioner?

You can pass all the laws you want, but the power to enforce them still belongs to the Governor. Six months ago, the legislature passed the "Health Care Reform Act of 2004" which, among other things, provided for a Health Insurance Commissioner and a Community Advisory Council, to try to keep a tighter rein on health insurance costs. To date, neither has been appointed or convened.

So last week, Blue Cross asked for (and will probably receive) a 17% rate increase for people who buy their insurance direct (usually because they don't belong to a group or don't have a job -- like me). The state's insurance "advocate" said, "it's probably justified."

It would seem from outward appearances that the Governor feels there is no answer to health insurance costs besides the magic of the market.

12:09 - 23 Nov 2004 [/y4/no]

Mon, 22 Nov 2004

Exciting contrast

In Saturday's paper, there was the thrilling juxtaposition of Governor Carcieri calling for lower income taxes (as threatened) in the (business section (registration required), and his chief budget officer predicting a $163 million deficit for the next fiscal year (here). She said things are basically ok for FY05, but FY06 looks like a nightmare.

Our prediction: the state will use the threat of a deficit to continue deficit spending at DOT, to deny any increase in welfare payments (still waiting), and to refuse any increase in state aid to the cities and towns. The cities and towns in turn will enact substantial tax increases. This spring should be a good season for tax riots.

11:23 - 22 Nov 2004 [/y4/no]

Thu, 18 Nov 2004

"Kicking the tax habit"

We got the following press release in the Governor's e-news today.

Reducing Rhode Island's Tax Burden

In remarks prepared for delivery at tonight's Providence Business News Business Excellence Awards, Governor Carcieri is expected to say it is time to tackle the tax burden on Rhode Island businesses and individuals.

Hear, hear!
"If we are to grow our economy and attract the kinds of jobs that will keep our children and grandchildren here," the Governor noted, "we must reduce our tax burden, and we must begin now!"

"I submit that a tax reduction strategy should be based on three principles: First, the tax reduction should be broad-based. It should benefit all Rhode Island taxpayers."

Even the ones who have seen their taxes cut consistently over the past 10 years? They should get a cut along with the ones who have seen their taxes increase over the same period? The fact is that high-income people (people with incomes more than five times the median) pay less tax now than they did a decade ago, and middle-income people pay more. This counts federal taxes, state taxes, and local taxes. This is true of the rich people with bad accountants. The ones with good accountants pay even less. (You can read about this in issue 2, a study that does not account for the Bush tax cuts.)

"Second, it should be a multi-year plan, say 5 years, with a specific programmed reduction, with a goal of achieving a total tax burden more in line with Massachusetts."

Sure, why not? Massachusetts set arbitrary caps on local taxes twenty years ago, and chaos ensued. We could do that, too.

"Third, the tax reduction should be focused on state income taxes, the broadest tax affecting the most Rhode Islanders. It must be simple to understand and hard for government to reverse. We must not promise a reduction on one hand, and push through a tax hike with the other. The key is to reduce the overall burden. Let's kick the tax habit."

If the key is to reduce the overall burden, ignoring the distribution of the burden is the key to getting it wrong. Lowering the only progressive tax in the array of taxes levied by our state and towns will only increase the pressure on the most regressive one: the property tax. The state can continue to beggar itself if it wants to, but the towns operate under laws that say they can't. Public education, for example, is still a right in this country.

If the state could double the income tax and apply that amount solely to property tax relief, over two-thirds of the state would see a tax cut. Some would see a cut of thousands of dollars. If the income tax were to go up only 10% -- a return to the bad old days of 1996, and that money applied to property tax relief, then around 90% of the state would see a substantial cut. Many of these are the ones on whom taxes went up over the past decade.

If the Governor wants to see real tax relief, he should work to fix the broken relationship between the state and the towns. They don't trust the state to make good on its promises of funds, and the state doesn't trust them to lower taxes if they receive extra state aid. This is the problem we face. The habit we need to kick is the habit of addressing the symptom instead of the problem.

23:02 - 18 Nov 2004 [/y4/no]

RIPTA avoids service cuts

The RIPTA board voted yesterday (11/17) not to cut its service, but instead to raise its fares, to fill a $1.9 million budget hole for this fiscal year. This is a good thing, but as usual, the way a budget crisis is "solved" around here is simply to put it off until next year. Next year's budget is looking much worse already, with an almost $10 million hole in it.

None of the pressures that have brought RIPTA to this pass have been made to go away. Health insurance will still increase, the cost of paratransit will still be higher than the dollars it brings in, and few think fuel prices are headed down any time soon.

What's also funny about the solution is that while some of the costs will be cut using the Governor's solution (not filling vacant positions), the bulk of the cost ($1.1 million) will be filled by getting more money from DHS under the RIte Care program, which subsidizes bus passes for people who are part of the program. It's not 100% clear to me why transportation has to be funded under health care. Perhaps that's what it takes to run the system we need. But health care premiums are already under pressure. Will this help?

There's more about RIPTA's budget woes in issue 7.

09:40 - 18 Nov 2004 [/y4/no]

Tue, 16 Nov 2004

That thing with feathers

A friend writes:

After reflecting on the passing of Nancy Gewirtz today, I happened to receive an email with a quote that matched my reflection of her. For me, it demonstrates the moral courage and relentless pursuit of Nancy for a fairer Rhode Island and America. She crafted a vision of justice, asked partners and allies to join her, sacrificed and worked as hard as can be imagined and, finally, showed the absolute courage of holding on to her beliefs in the great moments of their testing. Let us continue her vision, her sacrifices, her courage. -matthew jerzyk

"Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Either, we have hope within us or we don't; it is a dimension of the soul, and it's not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons...

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed." - Vaclav Havel in 1986 (later to become President of the Czech Republic)

Frankly, there are those of us who feel that it is a darn good thing that hope is not dependent on some particular observation of the world. Else where would reformers be found?

See here for Nancy's legacy.

17:09 - 16 Nov 2004 [/y4/no]

Tue, 09 Nov 2004

Blue states and Red

There's an interesting study published by a public health group called the United Health Foundation purporting to rank the "healthiest" states. It's not 100% clear to me what they're trying to provide with this report, since it uses measures of health care policies and personal behavior surveys. To me those seem like related but separate questions: a great health care system can be undone by lots of smokers, but what does that show?

Studies are presumably done for a reason: to affect public policy, to persuade people to change their behavior or to identify problems in the making. When the measures are all lumped together, it's no longer clear what the study is about or what the authors want us to know about their data.

But go look at the rankings in the study anyway, and count the blue states near the bottom and the red states near the top. There aren't many of either. Maybe this is the category of problems in the making?

The study findings are here. Scroll down a bit to see the table "Overall Rankings."

12:41 - 09 Nov 2004 [/y4/no]

Mon, 01 Nov 2004

Getting the diagnosis right

A fellow policy nerd writes:

Second, from reading your site, it would appear that you believe that raising Rhode Island's taxes is the answer to a lot of our problems. We also disagree with that conclusion...

But I see I will have to watch my rhetoric. I don't believe that "raising taxes" will solve a lot of Rhode Island's problems. In fact, I don't believe I've made the kinds of blanket assertions about taxes you attribute to me. It's a common mistake, though. Pretty much all the anti-tax crusaders I've met aren't interested in hearing about progressive vs. regressive taxes or taxing wealth vs. taxing income or fairness issues. To them, all taxes are bad and anyone who wants to make these fine distinctions must be a tax-and-spend liberal: the enemy.

But I believe that an honest look at who pays which taxes will uncover some real injustices done in the name of "cutting taxes." I further believe that raising some taxes to relieve pressure on others will move us toward a system that is fairer than what we have now, and that it's largely political cowardice and the refusal to acknowledge the reality of the tax burden's distribution that got us to the place we're in now.

In our town, for example, a recent revaluation left Wal-Mart and Home Depot with hundred-thousand-dollar property tax cuts, while most of the town saw (sometimes vast) increases. The burden of funding our town's services has been shifted from commercial property to residential property. One town councillor suggested a split rate, where business property is taxed at a higher rate. This would have restored the distribution of the tax burden to something closer to what it had been. But businesses called it a "tax increase" and the local Chamber inveighed against it, and so the council cowered and all the businesses got a big cut and my taxes went up a bundle. You may think that's fair, and you may not, but I think honesty demands that we admit the vast bulk of my tax increase is going to pay for Wal-Mart's tax cut, and that only a tiny portion of it is going to pay for teacher health plans.

Against that backdrop, to see people arguing about how fiscal responsibility demands that the rental rates at the community hall be raised, or that the town start charging local soccer leagues more rent for the fields occasionally seems bizarre. Maybe both of those are prudent, but to call them the source of the problem is simply false. The dominant thread in discussions of the town budget has been that somehow a 2% school budget increase is responsible for people's 35% tax increases.

I don't mean to denigrate the anger. People are angry, and they have every right to be. But lashing out at the wrong target has only made the situation worse over the time I've been watching.

You're in business. Ask yourself which is the most onerous tax your company pays. Is it the corporate income tax, or the property tax? My vote has it that the property tax is much worse. But over the past decade we've slashed the corporate taxes, and slashed school aid, too. The result: lower corporate taxes and higher property taxes. I know for a fact that there is waste and inefficiency and bad labor contracts all over our state and municipal governments, and I intend to do my part to find and illuminate them. But I also think that by identifying those as the worst of our problems, we will miss (and have already missed) some much more serious ones.

14:04 - 01 Nov 2004 [/y4/no]

Ads and the like:

RIPR, subscriptions

Rhode Island 101
(A funny book you should own)