Rhode Island Policy Reporter

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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

Wed, 03 Aug 2005


The editor (that's me) is away until the 14th of August, when posting will resume. Until then, feel free to browse the archives, and can we suggest you read about Judge Roberts here to prepare for the fall nomination follies?

22:36 - 03 Aug 2005 [/y5/jy]

Mon, 25 Jul 2005

Another moment of art

For those who like Faulkner.

14:31 - 25 Jul 2005 [/y5/jy]

More about Canada

Paul Krugman weighs in. Here's the original post.

Read these, and then let's talk about economic development, and whether what we do here in Rhode Island under that name has any useful function at all.

14:05 - 25 Jul 2005 [/y5/jy]

Sat, 23 Jul 2005

Governor peddling misinformation

According to this article, the Governor is claiming that "only Tennessee, Mississippi and California have rates at or above 7 percent," in service of a push to cut the state sales tax this coming year.

While technically correct, the statement overlooks the fact that counties and cities also charge sales tax. This is not true in Rhode Island, but it is true all over this great country of ours. There are places in over 27 states where the combination of state and county taxes is substantially greater than it is in Rhode Island, including much of California, for that matter.

The Governor, like his predecessor, has presided over a massive shift in the burden of taxes: from wealthy people to the less wealthy. Income taxes have been cut, capital gains taxes have been cut, corporate and business taxes have been cut, and property taxes have continued their rise. His solution? Cut some more.

Sales taxes in general are regressive taxes, but through targeted exceptions, they can be made less so. Rhode Island, by exempting groceries and clothes, does ok on this count, and the incidence of our sales tax isn't anything to be ashamed of. But the incidence of the property tax is highly regressive, and—what's much worse—is quite arbitrary besides. Shifting the tax burden further from sales to property taxes will only deepen our current funding crisis.

22:34 - 23 Jul 2005 [/y5/jy]

Fri, 22 Jul 2005

Some links about John Roberts

(Tue 7/26) Useful links at the NY Times: a career summary with links to Roberts's decisions and opinions.

(Mon 7/25) Yet more update: A NYTimes article about whether Roberts' writings as a Deputy Solicitor General are covered by attorney-client privilege. Let's remember that the Solicitor General's office exists to argue the Government's case, not the President's. The President has his own counsel, and Ken Starr said that even those lawyers were not covered by the attorney-client privilege, so long as they were employed by the government. This is why Clinton and other White House staff retained their own private attorneys during the Whitewater/Lewinsky probe. The idea that any principle resides behind the unwillingness to share opinions or briefs written by a Solicitor General or one of his deputies is laughable.

(Mon 7/25) Still more update: Read this. (subscription required, but here's the money quote):

Roberts was asked by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) what he would do if the law required a ruling that his church considers immoral. Roberts is a devout Catholic and is married to an ardent pro-life activist. The Catholic Church considers abortion to be a sin, and various church leaders have stated that government officials supporting abortion should be denied religious rites such as communion. (Pope Benedict XVI is often cited as holding this strict view of the merging of a person's faith and public duties).

Renowned for his unflappable style in oral argument, Roberts appeared nonplused and, according to sources in the meeting, answered after a long pause that he would probably have to recuse himself.

It was the first unscripted answer in the most carefully scripted nomination in history. It was also the wrong answer.

So presumably he would either vote no on choice, gay rights, pornography, or anything else that matters to the Pope, or he wouldn't vote at all? Isn't he essentially saying here that his first allegiance is to the Church before the Constitution? I wonder how he feels about separation of church and state.

Via dKos.

More update: Media matters has been tracking several misuses of the media about Roberts. See especially this one about his comment that Roe v. Wade is "settled law."

Update: briefing memo from the Senate Judiciary Committee Majority staff.

Other links, mostly from dKos.

10:18 - 22 Jul 2005 [/y5/jy]

Wed, 20 Jul 2005

Why not ask?

It's been pointed out that what many (like me) fear most, is another Justice as activist and willing to impose their own personal views of righteousness on all of us as are Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. To that end, one tack to take is simply to ask the new nominee about the most egregious of their opinions. My favorite: Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, from 1992, where Scalia seems to invoke precious little precedent and ignore the fact that the case before the Court had been rendered moot by the South Carolina legislature two years earlier. This case is the linchpin to a series of cases decided in the past few years that severly undercut the ability of any governments to issue land-use regulations.

To reach this decision, Scalia had to reach back 70 years to find precedent, skipping over all the stuff in between, and where he found it was in an opinion of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who might in a kind of convenient shorthand be called the antithesis of Antonin Scalia. But that precedent could be read to support what Scalia wanted, so citing him apparently was ok, despite their disagreement on almost everything else.

In his dissent in Lucas, Justice Harry Blackmun pointed out that Scalia was purposefully misunderstanding Holmes's opinion, and the others he cited:

[T]he Court seems to treat history as a grab bag of principles, to be adopted where they support the Court's theory and ignored where they do not... What makes the Court's analysis unworkable is its attempt to package the law of two incompatible eras and peddle it as historical fact.

Alternatively, one could ask the new nominee about Justice Thomas's recent dissent in Kelo et al. v. City of New London et al., where the important cites were to a review of English common law from 1765, a dictionary from 1773, and a 1888 screed by a freelance critic that was already the minority view then. A lot has happened since these books were written. Asking the prospective Justice for a scholarly critique of opinions like these would, I think, be a productive—and defensible—possible path to arriving at an opinion on Judge Roberts.

(There's more about both of these opinions and related ones in the current issue of RIPR.)

Correction: Lucas was decided in 1992, 70 years after the Holmes decision, Pennsylvania Coal v. Mahon. Text modified to say so.

18:18 - 20 Jul 2005 [/y5/jy]

Sun, 17 Jul 2005

It's not what you think

An article in Health Affairs (subscription only, but you can read the abstract here.) takes on the ideas that our health care is so expensive because:

  1. Medical malpractice rates are out of control in the US.
  2. Health care in other countries is plagued by waiting lists and delays in treatment.

The findings:

  1. The cost of defending malpractice suits in the US is about 0.46% of all spending on health care.
  2. The services that typically have waiting lists in other countries make up about 3% of health care spending in the US.

The study also points out that the US spends about 53% more per person for health care than Switzerland, the second most expensive nation in the world.

(There's a Projo article with a bit more detail, but navigating the Projo site is a pain, I find. It was in the paper edition, so it's probably in the online one, too, but finding it is more than I'm currently up for.)

23:42 - 17 Jul 2005 [/y5/jy]

Tue, 12 Jul 2005

New issue out

The July issue of RIPR is back from the printer, and will be in tomorrow's mail. It's mostly coverage of the Kelo decision, and a discussion of the sinister cabal that has undermined environmental protection and sensible land-use planning over the past 18 years, mostly abetted by some very activist judges, willing to make all kinds of new law.

Don't you wish you were a subscriber, too?

For readers of the issue, look below for links to the court decisions and sources discussed in the article. They make more interesting reading than you might think.

p.s. The pension follow-up and the tax follies mentioned last week weren't forgotten, but they've been pushed to the next issue by space demands.

13:11 - 12 Jul 2005 [/y5/jy]

Sat, 09 Jul 2005

O Canada

Read this, and then let's talk about real economic development.

For those too lazy to click, the story is about how Toyota is about to open a huge new factory in Ontario, rather than in Alabama or Mississippi, because of the quality of the education there, and because health care costs are cheaper there.

The factory will cost $800 million to build, with the federal and provincial governments kicking in $125 million of that to help cover research, training and infrastructure costs.

Several U.S. states were reportedly prepared to offer more than double that amount of subsidy. But Fedchun said much of that extra money would have been eaten away by higher training costs than are necessary for the Woodstock project.

He said Nissan and Honda have encountered difficulties getting new plants up to full production in recent years in Mississippi and Alabama due to an untrained - and often illiterate - workforce. In Alabama, trainers had to use "pictorials" to teach some illiterate workers how to use high-tech plant equipment.

"The educational level and the skill level of the people down there is so much lower than it is in Ontario," Fedchun said.

In addition to lower training costs, Canadian workers are also $4 to $5 cheaper to employ partly thanks to the taxpayer-funded health-care system in Canada, said federal Industry Minister David Emmerson.

Via dailykos.

16:54 - 09 Jul 2005 [/y5/jy]

Thu, 07 Jul 2005

Useful Supreme Court links

Having nothing whatever to do with who might replace Sandra Day O'Connor, although they might help explain some of why that question is so important.

These cases are mentioned in RIPR issue 12. Links provided to those who would like to see the decisions for themselves.

You also might be interested in a 1998 report which describes the network of legal foundations and lawyers who made much of this work possible. (ok, not the Hawaii decision, but the Lucas and Palazzolo decisions, among many other terrible cases).

This article is mentioned in RIPR issue 12, too. It's a scholarly look at the "public use" clause of the Fifth amendment.

14:29 - 07 Jul 2005 [/y5/jy]

Activist judges

An op-ed in the New York Times points out that the Supreme Court Justices we call "conservative," are the ones most willing to overturn acts of Congress.

The late Justice Blackmun had a similar view of his colleagues (mostly the same ones). He wrote of his "conservative" colleagues:

the Court seems to treat history as a grab bag of principles, to be adopted where they support the Court's theory and ignored where they do not.

The current labels we use to indicate political allegiance seem largely to be fairly unhelpful in their literal meanings. When the "conservatives" are the ones seeking to overturn the established order, and "liberals" the ones defending it, isn't it time to demand some truth in labelling?

10:14 - 07 Jul 2005 [/y5/jy]

Tue, 05 Jul 2005

A moment of art

On the value of the Bible as the last word.

The Everlasting Gospel (frag.)
The vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my vision's greatest enemy.
Thine has a great hook nose like thine;
Mine has a snub nose like to mine.
Thine is the Friend of all Mankind;
Mine speaks in parables to the blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates;
Thy heaven doors are my hell gates.
Socrates taught what Meletus*
Loath'd as a nation's bitterest curse,
And Caiaphas was in his own mind
A benefactor to mankind.
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read'st black where I read white.
—William Blake

This is only a fragment of a much longer poem Blake wrote (or almost wrote). Nine pieces of it exist, but it's not clear what order they're meant to be read in, what parts are missing, or whether he ever considered it finished. But the other eight parts are as provocative and intriguing as this one. One ordering can be found here.

* Meletus was the main accuser of Socrates, whose prosecution led to Socrates's death sentence by hemlock. Meletus, interestingly, was a poet and religious fanatic recruited and used by the other two accusers, whose objections to Socrates were more pedestrian. (i.e. they had a lot invested in the traditional order he urged his students to question). Who says classic poetry isn't relevant to modern issues?

13:56 - 05 Jul 2005 [/y5/jy]

Mon, 04 Jul 2005

New issue en route

Happy independence day!

Posting has been light while I work on the new issue. Due out Real Soon Now. Articles:

  • Another look at pensions. Can something be done for the rest of us?
  • The Kelo v. New London decision. The Supreme Court upheld the right of governments to take property by eminent domain for economic development. Is this a travesty, or what?
  • Tax follies at the federal level.

Wouldn't this be a great time to subscribe?

20:14 - 04 Jul 2005 [/y5/jy]

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