Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

0Coverage of the Government Shutdown Highlights A Lack of Critical Analysis on the Left

When it comes to the circus that is the modern day news cycle, the government shutdown has undoubtedly become the main attraction.

At the same time, an ever-popular sideshow attraction seems to be the saga of division within the Republican Party, presenting differences between Tea Party Republicans and John McCain moderates that people are silently hoping will turn ugly.

Many have lamented the unfavorable coverage of what seems like a divided political ideology on the right. I, on the other hand, welcome it.

A party rich with intellectual differences is both healthy and vibrant. Compromise within and without parties is a natural and productive exercise (a fact which it seems some in Washington have forgotten).

And, in fact, the focus on Republican differences does not mean that the left is a unified entity. Rather, the seeming unity of the Democratic Party is due to a lack of intellectual challenge to modern liberalism, a deficiency which is neither healthy nor productive.

The difference stems in many ways from the double-edged sword that is conservative talk radio. Men like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin are lambasted for their support of the right, and yet their criticism of certain elements of the Republican Party has provided all the fuel needed to stoke the “Republicans are divided” fire.

However, I prefer to view their criticism in a more favorable light: they provide the intellectual stimulation and critical analysis that ultimately results in a solid, logical political platform.

Liberals, on the other hand, have been largely left to their own devices. A lack of media scrutiny and internal analysis has allowed the left to present an ambiguous blob of ideas as a firm absolute. They have been allowed to equate misguided, unfounded ideas and programs with kindness and populism, and thus equate the liberal Democratic label with the notion of caring for the people.

The difference between the Republican and Democratic Party is therefore a difference in how the debate is framed. If voters must choose between what seems like a firmly established, ‘benevolent’ ideology and a fragmented, ‘evil’ one, they will obviously choose the former. Not because liberalism is better, but because it seems simpler.

And yet these citizens fail to realize that the simplicity of liberalism is its greatest weakness. A lack of internal criticism has allowed the Democratic Party to expand government power and influence unchecked. It does not solve problems, but rather exacerbates them. It is not emancipating, but rather enslaving.

For this reason, until people start to examine both sides with a critical eye, the fallacy of the caring liberal will remain. It is far too easy to establish a dichotomy of good and evil. A much more complicated and intellectual activity entails understanding the deeper meaning of issues and policies.

This is what the Republican Party is endeavoring to do, and maybe, just maybe, it will pay off in the long run. But first, it must survive this current crisis.

0Government Shutdown Actually A Marginal Reduction in Spending, Taxes

You often don’t know the value of what you have until it’s taken away from you. In the words of the Counting Crows, “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone”.

If age-old wisdom and 1990’s rock bands are correct, then Americans still have no idea what government is worth.

Despite a government “shutdown”, U.S. Treasury accounting sheets show that in the first two days following Congress’ failure to pass a budget the United States government spent $63 billion, collected almost $26 billion in taxes, and borrowed approximately $1.6 billion in the form of Treasury securities.

In fact, in day seven of the shutdown, the United States Army spent more than $47,000 on a mechanical bull, a ludicrous expenditure in times of normalcy and a glaringly obvious indicator of this shutdown fallacy. The government is by no means gone.

For comparison, in the first two days of FY2013, when the government was not “shut down”, the federal government spent $124 billion, collected $29 billion in taxes, and sold $100 billion in government debt.

In other words, the lack of a budget has only cut spending by half and has had a marginal impact on the money taken from citizens.

In fact, according to the Washington Examiner, in reality the shutdown has only reduced government activity by 17percent. Only in Washington would operating at 83 percent capacity be termed a shutdown.

In any other situation, this “shutdown” would be a joke. What business, after its board decides to shut down, continues to spend 50 percent of their budget? What magazine or newspaper, after ending delivery services, continues to collect 90 percent of their subscription fees from customers?

But here’s the scariest part: government has grown so big that, even though it is constitutionally unable to operate, it is still spending extraordinary amounts of money and taxing at a near-normal rate.

What kind of beast have we created? If nothing else, this shutdown has shown us that cutting spending is an extraordinarily difficult task, but an increasingly important one. If the government will never, even in the most extreme circumstances, operate at less than 83 percent of its capacity, then spending cuts must be made. Any other course of action is unsustainable.

0Sharkey Letter Reveals Inherent Flaws in Political Process

Our honorable Speaker of the House, J. Brendan Sharkey, has once again exemplified the convoluted way of thinking that afflicts most of Connecticut’s public officials.

In a letter to four video game companies, Sharkey called on game-makers to sever the tie between video game weaponry and real-life gun manufacturers. “The industry practice of video game publishers entering into licensing, marketing or other financial arrangements to feature real guns in their games,” he wrote, “blurs the lines between fiction and reality in ways that can have tragic consequences.”

Drawing parallels between the video game Call of Duty and Sandy Hook Elementary shooter Adam Lanza, Sharkey concluded with a simple appeal: “I write to you today to request your cooperation in ending the nefarious relationship between video game makers and gun makers.”

Following this year’s gun control law and national calls to temper, regulate, or even abolish violent video games in general, this plea seems quite rational.

However, the Speaker undermined his own request by stating, mere paragraphs earlier, “It is true that research has shown little connection between the virtual gun violence depicted in your games and the actual gun violence that claims the lives of 33 Americans every single day.”

If the research has shown no connection between video game violence and actual violence, then what is the point of his letter? Why is he seeking to end a relationship which, by his own admission, has no known impact on these 33 daily deaths?

Absent logic or reason, the answer to these questions seems simple: he has chosen the politically wise route of going with the crowd. Americans have chosen the video game industry as a scapegoat, and so politicians have clamored to lead the charge against it, regardless of the effect (or lack of effect) it will have on the issue at hand. The same situation occurred when the gun manufacturing industry was chosen as the culprit.

And so it goes for any number of other issues. The only thing worse than government passing laws we don’t want is when government passes bad laws we do want.

The issue is therefore far bigger than the debate over gun control or media violence. The problem with the Speaker’s letter is that it reveals an inherently flawed way of thinking in government: develop an ideological viewpoint, ignore or discount fact and reality, and push for legislation.

Far too often, legislators mistake the forest for the trees. They pass misguided, politically predictable laws without ever getting to the heart of the issues. The easiest or most readily identifiable target is not always the right one.

Maybe dulling down video game violence would help to mitigate real-world violence. Maybe it wouldn’t. Regardless, whatever the issue, my message for the Speaker is this: slow down, think it through, and do what is correct, not what is easy or expected.

After all, you’re not running a race (every bit of irony intended).

1Connecticut Welfare Benefits Equal the Salary of An Entry Level Teacher

Common sense seems to indicate that, given equal pay for working and not working, an individual will tend to choose the latter. Of course, who is going to pay someone to do nothing?

A recent Hartford Courant Op-Ed by Michael Tanner provides an answer to this question: the state of Connecticut (along with every other state, although we offer some of the highest wages).

Citing an upcoming Cato Institute study, Tanner describes how welfare recipients are incentivized to not work. The article, which is worth reading in its entirety, states in part:

Most decisions in life are the result of a cost-benefit analysis. When residents in Connecticut consider getting a job, they assume they would be better off having a job than not. They’d be wrong. Because in Connecticut, it pays not to work.

Next Monday, the Cato Institute will release a new study looking at the state-by-state value of welfare. Nationwide, our study found that the value of benefits for a typical recipient family ranged from a high of $49,175 in Hawaii to a low of $16,984 in Mississippi.

In Connecticut, a mother with two children participating in seven major welfare programs (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, food stampsWIC, housing assistance, utility assistance and free commodities) could receive a package of benefits worth $38,761, the fourth highest in the nation. Only Hawaii, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia provided more generous benefits.

When it comes to gauging the value of welfare benefits, it is important to remember that they are not taxed, while wages are. In fact, in some ways, the highest marginal tax rates anywhere are not for millionaires, but for someone leaving welfare and taking a job.

Therefore, a mother with two children in Connecticut would have to earn $21.33 per hour for her family to be better off than they would be on welfare. That’s more than the average entry-level salary for a teacher or secretary. In fact, it is more than 107 percent of Connecticut’s median salary.”

Given this information, it’s no wonder Connecticut’s unemployment rate for June 2013 was 8.1 percent, 14th highest in the nation.

As Mr. Tanner stated, deciding to work is the result of a cost-benefit analysis. The cost of working in Connecticut, according to this study, is $21.33. However, costs also include time away from children and families, lost leisure, and a plethora of other “intangibles”. The benefits from work, therefore, must ultimately be greater than $21.33 an hour in order to drag most people into the work force.

Fixing this problem is not easy. It involves fundamental changes in welfare administration and benefits, as well as a wholesale social change in attitudes toward government and work.

Surprisingly, in light of Connecticut’s legislative and administrative ineptitude, the societal change might be easiest to accomplish. As Mr. Tanner remarks, even a minimum wage job can serve as “a springboard out of poverty”. Helping people realize that they have more to offer themselves than the government can ever hope to provide, therefore, is the first step in reversing the welfare and unemployment trends in our state.

1A Full-Time Legislature Would Mean Full-Time Trouble for Connecticut

By most accounts, this past session of Connecticut’s General Assembly was an abysmal, opaque legislative failure. Bills were rushed through the Chamber, public input and government transparency were trampled or ignored, and convoluted legislation has raised questions no one seems able to answer. I think our legislators deserve a raise.

That last sentence, of course, is entirely sarcastic. No one could possibly think that government officials in Connecticut need to be paid more and govern longer, right?

Well, a recent opinion piece in the Hartford Courant shows that at least one person in the state feels that way. Written by lawyer Matt Zagaja, the article entitled “Connecticut Deserves A Full-Time Legislature” reads, in part:

“For the most part, the people serving us in Hartford are good, and many are exceptionally good… However, we have seen too many talented people decline to run for the state legislature, instead campaigning for more prestigious federal or statewide positions… According to the National Conference of State Legislators, 10 states have legislatures that operate full time or nearly full time. It is time for the Connecticut General Assembly to join its exceptional brothers and sisters in New York and Massachusetts and move to operating full time. Of course a full-time legislature would come with a salary increase for its members. For taxpayers, this would be an investment worth making… [B]y paying lawmakers more, the legislature could free itself from the artificial deadlines that have hamstrung its ability to tackle the state’s largest problems. A full-time legislature could go through the full procedure without leaving questions about the propriety of its process… Having extra days and months to get these right, along with giving the legislature time to face challenges that have been neglected, would be a worthwhile investment for taxpayers.”

Mr. Zagaja’s argument is so fundamentally wrong that most readers can easily deconstruct it. For those who need some help, I will take it on point by point.

First and foremost, the notion that the people serving us in Hartford are, for the most part, “exceptionally good” is fallacy. Certainly there are legislators who are benevolent, and legislators who are good at legislating, but the number of legislators who are good at doing what is right for the state is incredibly small. Most are experts in doing what is best for them, a fact reflected in the state’s “Corrupticut” nickname.

A full-time legislature would merely allow the self-serving more opportunity for personal gain. The issues faced in this session were not institutional but rather individual. The gun law was not covertly voted on, without public forum, due to time constraints. Comptroller Kevin Lembo’s transparency bill was not ignored by Senate leadership because of strategic prioritizing.

Rather, these bills succeeded or died because of calculated political decisions. Time constraints are important because, theoretically, they should limit legislation to that which is strictly necessary. The longer the General Assembly is in session, the greater the burden of government on the backs of Connecticut citizens.

Mr. Zagaja’s own example should point to this fact. By arguing that Connecticut should join Massachusetts and New York in instituting a full-time legislature, the author is pointing to two of the worst nanny states in the nation. The state legislatures in Massachusetts and New York are constantly interfering in the lives of their citizens, with devastating results. Despite their size and the presence of two large cities, our northern and western neighbors rank 29th and 49th in the nation, respectively, with regard to ALEC-Laffer’s 2013 State Economic Outlook.

So, if Mr. Zagaja wants to party with our neighbors at the bottom of the barrel, a full-time, amply-paid legislature is the way to go. For those who want to see Connecticut rise to the top once again, the current legislature serves as an impediment, not a solution.

7McDonald’s Billboard Points to the Cold Truth About Living in Connecticut

photoOf the thousands of billboard advertisements in Connecticut, those placed along I-84 in Hartford must be some of the most viewed. The reason is not simply the number of commuters who travel that highway on a daily basis, but also the fact that those commuters are very often stuck in traffic. If you’re just sitting there you might as well read something, right?

I found myself in that very situation several weeks ago. Staring up at an electronic billboard between exit 47 and 46 going east, I was confronted by a simple red McDonald’s advertisement for one dollar iced coffee. The ad simply read, “Living here is expensive enough”.

The slogan is both clever and accurate; for chilled coffee lovers, a one dollar alternative is surely a welcome reprieve.

However, the billboard is also an embarrassingly truthful reflection on the state of Connecticut. Living here is incredibly expensive, a fact reflected in numerous national ratings and lists.

For example, CityRating.com found that the Consumer Price Index in Connecticut is 9.38 percent higher than the national average, meaning that goods cost approximately 9 cents more per dollar in the Nutmeg state. In addition, FindTheData.org reports that every Connecticut metro area, as well as rural Connecticut, has a higher cost of living than the national average

The Connecticut tax burden is equally high; in 2012, citizens worked until May 5th to pay off their taxes, the latest Tax Freedom Day in the nation. The state’s corporate income tax is 9 percent, tied as the 7th highest in the nation. The individual income tax is the 18th highest in the nation, but in 2010 income tax collections per person were the 4th highest nationally.

These figures might lead citizens to wonder why Connecticut is such an expensive place to live, so expensive that a multinational corporation has based their marketing technique in the state around that fact.

The answer, at least partly, has to do with the reckless, runaway spending in our state government. Barron’s rated Connecticut’s debt and unfunded pension obligations, at 17.1 percent of GDP, the worst in the nation in 2012. The Institute for Truth in Accounting calculating the state’s debt burden to be $49,000 per taxpayer.

That amounts to a hefty bill to be paid by the state. It’s no wonder (but also no less despicable) that Governor Malloy has tried to squeeze more money from Connecticut citizens through new taxes, fees, and accounting gimmicks.

Connecticut is an expensive place to live, and unless state spending is reined in, it will only get worse. Get your one dollar coffees while you can.

0Lawsuit Takes Aim At Legislative Secrecy

Living up to their sport, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Inc. has taken aim at some very high level targets.

In a lawsuit launched Monday attacking Senate Bill 1160, which issued in sweeping gun reform legislation in Connecticut, the NSSF named as defendants Governor Dannel Malloy, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, Senate President Pro Tempore Don Williams, and state Attorney General George Jepsen.

The complaint stated, in part, that:

 “1. On April 3, 2013, Senate Bill Number 1160 (“SB 1160”) was improperly introduced via “emergency certification” by defendants J. BRENDAN SHARKEY and DONALD WILLIAMS, JR.

 2. As a result, SB 1160 bypassed basic safeguards of the normal legislative process, including the bill printing requirements and both the public hearing and committee processes, and was passed by both the Senate and House of Representatives the same day it was introduced.

3. One day later, on April 4, 2013, Connecticut Governor DANNEL MALLOY signed SB 1160 into law.

4. This is an action to vindicate the rights of the citizens of Connecticut whose Federal and State Constitutional rights have been adversely affected and significantly restricted by the passage of SB 1160 through an abuse of the “emergency certification” procedure, circumvention of the normal legislative process, and violation of Connecticut statutory law.

5. NSSF seeks a declaratory judgment declaring the invalidity of SB 1160 and an injunction prohibiting its enforcement.”

Regardless of personal thoughts about the gun legislation, this lawsuit is an important and long overdue attempt to restore, or at least retain, some semblance of grassroots governing.

I wrote several weeks ago about the Senate’s failure to pass a bill which would have helped ensure transparent government action in Connecticut. That article can be found here. The NSSF lawsuit seems to echo the sentiment of that post, which is simply that our state government continues to legislate in a secretive, top-down, undemocratic fashion. The recent flood of IRS, NSA, and State Department scandals points to the fact that the federal government is acting equally as unconstitutionally.

In the case of the Connecticut gun legislation, perhaps the result would have been the same even after greater public participation, more transparent processes, and a reasonable amount of legislative consideration. But the imperfect result is merely the product of improper means. For the bill’s opponents, the proper legislative process could have meant a more palatable outcome. For its proponents, a transparent process should be equally important, bringing legitimacy and sound governance to the end product.

For these reasons, this impending lawsuit is both practically and symbolically important. A victory for the NSSF will be a victory for every citizen, regardless of political ideology or legislative desires. An upholding of the status quo will serve as simply another nail in Connecticut’s coffin of responsive and responsible government.

0Legislative Inaction Could Mean the Death of Transparent Government

The election of Kevin Lembo as the state’s Comptroller has always stood out, in my mind, as a bright spot in an otherwise dismal 2010 electoral cycle. His policy initiatives, especially those aimed at greater government transparency, seek to remind lawmakers of an often forgotten fact: they are responsive to their citizens, and they are not above scrutiny.

For this reason, I felt Mr. Lembo’s pain when the Senate failed to vote on his “Act Concerning Transparency in Economic Assistance Programs”. The bill would have established a searchable database with information on the state’s economic assistance and tax credit programs for businesses, with an emphasis on the monetary value of these programs and their success (i.e. jobs created). In addition, the measure would have required periodic postings from the Department of Revenue Services on the incidence of taxes with revenue greater than $100 million.

Clearly, this bill would have had important implications for state accountability and transparency. Shouldn’t citizens have the right to know what businesses are receiving government exemptions or assistance? Isn’t the impact of taxes on our economic well-being an important issue?

Apparently the Senate President, Don Williams, did not think so. After unanimously passing in the House, the bill was left to die in the Senate chamber as the thirty-six legislators adjourned last Wednesday night.

Williams, commenting on the Senate’s failure to vote on the bill, stated, “There are a lot of bills that died on the calendar.” Nevertheless, the Senate managed to pass 553 bills in this year’s session, with an astounding 51 of them voted through on the last day.

I was there to witness many of these bills. I was there when the Senate voted to allow students to opt out of school dissections. I was there when the Senate debated the creation of a seal to verify state certification of interior designers. I was there as other mundane, seemingly silly bills were debated to the point of exhaustion.

And, once this point was reached, I was there to see Mr. Williams repeatedly pick up his phone and call the Lieutenant Governor to decide which bills to call next. I was there when, after these private conversations, the Senate clerk called out the next round of bill numbers. And I was there to see the dejected faces as various visitors, including two from Mr. Lembo’s office, realized their bills would not be called in this session.

Perhaps the Senate’s failure to consider this important bill is a reflection of the growing secrecy in our state government. Perhaps it reflects the danger of one-party rule, or the immense power wielded by the Senate President. Most discouraging, perhaps it is another indicator of the “we know best” attitude so many government employees have.

What it is not an indicator of, however, is a desire, reflected in the wishes of so many citizens like Mr. Lembo, for greater government transparency, efficiency, and responsiveness. These values may be the greatest casualty of this legislative session.

0Is ‘global awareness’ to blame for Connecticut’s low reading scores?

Two researchers at the Pioneer Institute in Boston think so. They explain how Connecticut fell behind in reading in their Wall Street Journal op-ed questioning the wisdom of the Common Core.

This academic-lite approach has been tried before—and it failed. In 1998, Connecticut had higher reading scores than Massachusetts. But just as the Bay State was pursuing clearly articulated academic goals, Connecticut chose a curriculum that put soft skills (such as cultural competence and global awareness) on a par with academic content. By 2005, Connecticut was one of seven states that had outsized drops in reading scores, falling by nearly 10 points in seven years.

 

0Predictable Results from a Union-Run School

Most people who have ever taken a physics course know Newton’s law, which states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Similarly, most people who follow state and local politics recognize that every governmental action has (typically) negative unintentional consequences.

As an intern at the Yankee Institute in the summer of 2012, I wrote an article which predicted the unintentional consequences of a New Haven “turnaround” school being administered by its own teachers union. I wrote:

While most will agree that a more individualized education is in the best interest of children everywhere, the fact that the New Haven Federation of Teachers will have so much discretion in this education is a topic of contention… [At other union-run schools, rather] than improving efficiency, increased union involvement has made it more difficult to run these schools effectively. Is it too late to turn this decision around in New Haven?

A recent article in the New Haven Independent seems to answer this question in the affirmative.

Melissa Bailey notes that union leader Dave Cicarella, the effective chief of New Haven’s High School in the Community, is seeking changes which have “sparked some tension, confrontation, and distrust between the union president and his membership at HSC.”

Experimental schools are most likely going to become a larger fixture in American education. Magnet schools, charter schools, and voucher programs are all potentially positive school reform efforts. However, schools run by teachers unions, with vested interests and no political accountability, are not.

As my article noted, similar union-run schools in New York City experienced problems long before the New Haven proposal was adopted, with one teacher comparing a school to a union “dictatorship”.

And now, the High School in the Community and the New Haven Federation of Teachers union are facing the same issues as those New York schools: a hijacking of school administration by an unaccountable union head and teacher-leaders who are caught between the best interests of the school and union directives.

After only one school year, my predictions seem to be coming to fruition.

If this story did not involve the education and future of so many young students, I might savor the “I told you so” moment. Unfortunately, however, the situation is no laughing matter. With every failed “school reform” movement or union power struggle, the school children suffer. For every wasteful government attempt to retool education without first examining similar failures in neighboring states, Connecticut taxpayers suffer.

So, perhaps the most important “turnaround” would be a 180 degree turn away from union meddling and government incompetence. That would be a reform in everyone’s best interest.