Politics This Week with John DePetro: The Crazy Activists in Schools and the State House

By Justin Katz | February 5, 2023 |
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Crazy Eggs

On WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM, John DePetro and Justin Katz discuss:

  • Who wants a new train station?
  • Who hired the Mt. Pleasant vice principal?
  • Who’s dictating McKee’s opinions?
  • Who thinks the woman’s caucus shouldn’t be run by a woman?
  • Who thinks Providence schools shouldn’t be changed around?


Featured image by Tengyart on Unsplash.

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Journalists face a real risk to digging into Antifa.

By Justin Katz | January 30, 2023 |
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A water drop and ripples

Andy Ngo continues to do the work mainstream journalists won’t digging into the ranks of Antifa:

They present themselves as rebels against the system, fighting to preserve a piece of local woodland.

Yet many of the terrorist suspects arrested and charged over occupying government property and the violent attack in downtown Atlanta on Saturday are children of pampered privilege from out of state.

Ngo has been beaten to the point of hospitalization for his reportage, but one suspects members of the mainstream media may be more afraid of awkwardness at dinner parties.

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Rhode Island Republicans need a new policy strategy.

By Justin Katz | January 30, 2023 |
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A message in a bottle at the beach

Two stories in the news recently have been nagging at me in combination over the past week.  The first is the Republican response to Democrat Governor Dan McKee’s State of the State address, as delivered by Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz.  Here’s the part that resonates particularly oddly:

Where McKee called for cutting the 7% state sales tax to 6.85%, de la Cruz called for tax rebates and slashing the sales tax to 5%.

“Why does RI continue to be so timid and lackadaisical with tax policy?” she asked.

The message that emerges is that Republicans will generally follow the same path, but with the knobs turned a little bit more toward the private sector and economic growth.  Now put this difference in context of a different story, which has received coverage out of proportion to its practical importance to the lives of Rhode Islanders:

Ten environmental groups wrote to McKee this week, thanking him for highlighting the issue of litter in his speech. “Despite decades of anti-littering efforts and an increase in access to single-stream recycling in the state, litter and marine debris continue to be a persistent and growing environmental problem,” they wrote. …

So the groups urged McKee to join them in asking the General Assembly to pass a container deposit law, or “bottle bill,” calling it “the single most impactful policy we can adopt to reduce litter in the state.”

We could take hold of the rope that the activists dangle out there for a tug of war.  Up to 47% litter reduction!  But what’s the scale, how’s it counted, and what’s the cost?  That would be falling into the trap, however.

More important is how this policy embeds assumptions into the debate that advance progressive causes.  It assumes, a priori, that litter is palpable problem, generally from environmentalist (rather than quality of life) principles.  It is structured to express a priority of the environment over the economy (as distinct from a policy that increased policing, for example).  It is presented with an open-ended target that can never be achieved (inasmuch as the benefits are stated in percentages of change, wherein it will always be possible to reduce litter by 80%, no matter how much it has already gone down).  It implies that the policy must be universal (otherwise one might ask whether Rhode Island would make much difference, considering that every shoreline state around us already has such policies, yet bottles still wash up on our beaches).

The contrast between the two approaches to advocacy described above is striking.  The ascendant progressives push specific policies that cleverly carry their ideological assumptions along with them.  The fading Republicans demand that the state make adjustments in degree.

To some extent, this imbalance is structural and built into the differing worldviews.  Still, it seems to me that the RIGOP would do better to march along two complementary paths.  Conservatives could mirror the environmentalists and pick issues that seem to address practical problems but require assumptions that can be expanded.  School choice is such an issue.

The second path would involve making more noise about the assumptions themselves.  One can state this with only decreasing confidence, but we might reasonably hope that a majority of Rhode Islanders actually would not agree with the ideology behind the state’s progressivism if it were made clear.


Featured image on Shutterstock.

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Rhode Island’s privileged class may begin getting more than half off its property taxes.

By Justin Katz | January 27, 2023 |
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A behind the back cash bribe

Once upon a time, the common wisdom was that government work couldn’t compete with the private sector for pay but made up for it in benefits and job security.  Whether that was ever true, I don’t know, but it has long been the case that government workers in Rhode Island get the best of all worlds — pay, benefits, and job security.

Indeed, it is becoming so difficult for the government officials whom the labor unions put in office to come up with new ways to sweeten the deal — within the boundaries of propriety and conscience — that legislators are having to get creative.  Enter Democrat Representative Jason Knight of Barrington with a bill (H5118) that would create a new tax exemption status to cut the property tax bills of municipal employees (including those who work in local schools) in half or more.  I write “or more” because the legislation sets the minimum benefit at $5,000, which could be much more than half.

I should note that, as is often the case, the bill is sloppily written (which ought to be, but is not, surprising given the number of lawyers in the legislature).  That said, it appears to be the intent that the employee must have worked for the municipality in which they pay the tax for at least 10 years.  (They don’t have to live there that whole time; the measure is only the employment.)  This caveat is of little comfort, however, because this is exactly how the envelope is pushed toward the fire.

A minor amendment or judicial ruling could expand the definition of “the municipality” to include cities and towns around the world or expand “aggregate years” combine the employment time of couples who both work for local government.  Future legislation could reduce the number of years, increase the minimum benefit, or even remove the requirement that the municipality opt in by passing an ordinance.

Take particular note that this benefit would exist outside of any contract, so when once the local union achieves the ordinance, it cannot merely be negotiated away.  Note, as well, that it’s a somewhat hidden benefit, inasmuch as money never collected is more subtle than money handed out.

The simple introduction of this bill, with a long list of sponsors including the state Democrat Party chairman, sends a very strong signal that Rhode Island government does not exist to serve its people.  The truth is actually the other way around.


Featured image from Shutterstock.

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Politics This Week with John DePetro: The Defining Problem (and Opportunity) of RI

By Justin Katz | January 25, 2023 |
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Liquid pouring into an invisible glass

On WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM, John DePetro and Justin Katz discuss:

  • McKee’s uninspiring State of the State
  • The RIGOP’s response to McKee
  • Sales tax reductions
  • How to match MA in education
  • Controversy at RIPTA


Featured image by Charles Unitas on Unsplash.

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Goyette is a problem for mainstream Democrats.

By Justin Katz | January 18, 2023 |
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A hooded man in shadows

Or rather, he would be if anybody were reporting on the story.  As Republican state representative Brian Newberry noted a week ago on Twitter, Jordan Goyette’s story is not one that anybody in Rhode Island’s mainstream is keen to cover:

Brian Newberry tweets on non-coverage of Jordan Goyette.

If you picture the news media as a filtering machine, Goyette falls easily through one of the holes over the barrel labeled “Ignore.”  He’s shaped like a progressive.  He’s sized a few tiers down in the state political hierarchy.  Most importantly, however, the thing that should make him controversial strikes at the heart of a crucial progressive presumption.

Specifically, at least according to the information available, he is practically a cartoon version of everything non-progressives are worried about and a symbol of the reality that progressives insist everybody ignore.  For instance, upon hearing that an advocate for “pleasure-based sex education” is tangled up in a controversy about rape fantasies, anybody whose politics are right of radical will say, “Well, duh.”

Unfortunately, contemporary journalists (especially those specifically trained as such) have an implicit suspicion of stories that neatly exemplify concerns about progressives.  In the other direction, they have an implicit trust of any claims that amplify concerns about conservatives.

People with common sense would expect to find sexual deviants among those who want government schools to teach sex as a pleasurable activity, rather than as a matter of health and biology.  This, to journalists, is actually a reason to ignore it when those expectations prove out.  Their judgment is framed according to political narratives, such that conservative warnings are unreasonable by definition, so when right-wingers get a hit now and then, “truth” requires limiting awareness of it.  Consciously or not, journalists’ impulse is to reduce conservatives’ ability to make the rare seem representative.

Notably, this impulse is entirely unidirectional.  The same ideology that is rapidly making way for euphemisms such as “minor-attracted adults” also produces journalists whose first words upon the death of a Catholic pope are a rant about pedophiles.  In the old Marxist formulation, the issue is never the issue; the revolution is the issue.  It doesn’t matter what people are saying or doing; it only matters who they are.  And advancing the correct ideology is the most important factor in who somebody is.

No matter what one’s position on conflicts in the Middle East (to pick a non-sexual example), it’s jarring to see the skirt-clutching posture of progressives giving antisemitism its turn among the bogeymen of “white supremacy” while their broader movement has nothing to say about calls for “revolution” against the Jewish state.  Again, the issue is never the issue.  Those in sympathy with the Left must be justified in their emotions, so it isn’t lamentable “hate,” but righteous anger.

Those who would slow the Left’s progress, on the other hand, deserve no hearing, so evidence that their concerns were not without merit, as in the apparent case of Goyette, must be made not to exist.


Featured image by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash.

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Politics This Week with John DePetro: When Czars and Chiefs Become Politicians

By Justin Katz | January 16, 2023 |
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Edwin Lord Mills A Royal Procession

On WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM, John DePetro and Justin Katz discuss:

  • Housing czar, we hardly knew ye.
  • The state of the governor
  • Providence police to hold auditions for the role of chief
  • Caught [up in politics] in Providence


Featured image by Edwin Lord Weeks on WikiArt.

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Maybe we should try for a more-empathetic political atmosphere.

By Justin Katz | January 13, 2023 |
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A teacher reads to children

Somewhere or other in my social media flow, I recently came across the outrage of a moment, wherein a director of communications for a school district jumped in to halt a Dr. Seuss reading that had prompted discussion of America’s racial past:

The assistant director of communications for Olentangy Local School District abruptly stopped the reading of the Dr. Seuss book “The Sneetches” to a third-grade classroom during an NPR podcast after students asked about race.

Shale Meadows Elementary School third grade teacher Mandy Robek was reading “The Sneetches” to her class as part of NPR’s latest episode of “Planet Money” about the economic lessons in children’s books. During the podcast, which aired Friday, Amanda Beeman, the assistant director of communications for the school district, stopped the reading part way through the book.

Honestly, I forget which side of the political war was outraged at this… maybe both sides would be.  But I’m finding as I clear the crest of middle age, what jumps out at me with such stories is how little human sympathy there is.  Maybe it’s because the nature of my work, recently, puts me in frequent contact with highly diverse people trying to fulfill their roles in multiple organizations.  Navigating modern society can be a huge challenge.

One might pause to wonder why a school district serving a population of around 30,000 people needs a dedicated “assistant director of communications,” but even that question reinforces the point.  Whether it should exist or not, Assistant Director Amanda Beeman has the job.  She applied for it.  Presumably she was excited about the opportunity.

So, one day, the district has this big-time journalist visiting a classroom, so everybody’s trying to do what they think they should do. A communications employee’s mind must whir at the opportunity and risk.  So, maybe Beeman’s response wasn’t perfect, or even reasonable; maybe she’s young or not very good at the job for some other reason.  Be that as it may, ought it be considered news?  Perhaps after many incidents established a pattern, but a single example of bad judgment?  (Note, by the way, that the NPR journalist was clearly a participant in the controversy, not merely somebody happening to report on it.)

The standard appears to be that everybody should be ready at every time not only to fulfill their jobs in all their complexity, but also to manage an international PR presentation for the media, on the assumption that anything can go viral.

Actually, it’s worse than that, because the rules aren’t evenly applied, which one suspects is the underlying motivation.  If you’re on one side of the political divide, your actions must be impeccably beyond reproach; if you’re on the other, an ocean of acceptance and forgiveness is available.

I think it’d be better if we just stopped playing that game and strove actually to see things from the opposing perspective and put incidents in their proper context.


Featured image from Shutterstock.

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Lock the robots out of your bathroom, at least.

By Justin Katz | January 10, 2023 |
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A water drop and ripples

Nobody should be surprised by news that Roomba vacuums caught images of users in (umm) compromising positions and then the Venezuelan workers who review the images for product development posted them in an online forum.  This is a major reason that, even as an “early adopter” type of guy, I’m reluctant to move onto the “Internet of things,” especially when images and video are involved.

Then again, I’m old enough to remember the pre-digital-camera days when people would take their (let’s say) “fun” couple photos to be developed without thinking that somebody might be going through them.  Most often (we can hope) the review was simply a matter of quality-assurance, but even so… humans are human.

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The underlying problem in education is depressingly difficult to repair.

By Justin Katz | January 10, 2023 |
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A toy school bus

Perhaps my favorite moment in all of music ever comes in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  The music is a bouncy march, and in the libretto, the singers are proclaiming an intent to take paradise by storm, like “a victor.”  The mood changes suddenly, however, and I’ve always thought it a deliberate statement that you can’t get to Heaven with that attitude.

The school choice movement had something of that feel a decade ago.  Advocates thought their solution obvious, and expected to sweep the country, but it didn’t happen.  The reason wasn’t special interests (i.e., teachers unions); that fight was invigorating.  The problem was that the advocates marched forward, thinking they had a wave of support behind them, and when they turned around, their political soldiers were standing around looking at their shoes.

So, it often happens that I’ll see an essay like this, from Laura Williams and get that ol’ feeling of certainty of a solution:

Everywhere in education, you see incentives at work. The incentives, though, are so far removed from the actual goals of education that they produce perverse results.

Goodhart’s Law is usually stated, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Problem: When you set targets, like results on tests (especially standardized tests), the system will retool to improve those results, whether or not that serves the actual mission.  We should note, of course, that public schools aren’t even accomplish improved test scores, which is where the special interests come into play.  For that reason, we can’t trust the system that can’t even teach to the test to teach to a much mushier standard that the same system sets internally.

Solution: Make family choice the metric.  Families want what’s best for their children, right?  So, let them choose their schools, and the schools that gain students will be the ones that best serve them.  Metric and purpose meet!

For the depressing twist, turn to Providence, where a parent reported to the new mayor, Brett Smiley, referring to the likelihood that the system is going to closer her children’s school:

“It’s a neighborhood school, it’s a family, it’s a community,” Michelle Miller, a Providence parent, said. “I was heartbroken. I was devastated. It needs improvements, but I don’t believe it’s crumbling, if it’s crumbling. And if it’s so devastating, why are our children still being housed there for the next six months?”

The building isn’t the point.  Providence schools have failed generations of children regardless of the physical structures.  Parents should be anxious and outraged, and in fairness, many have been.  Those parents, however, have moved or found ways to utilize private schools or charters.  Those who don’t do so must value their schools based on different criteria — that they are neighborhood schools, families, communities.  The teachers feel like members of those “families,” not outside professionals hired to do a job.  Meanwhile, the teacher unions cultivate the sense among their members that they are essentially replaceable servants whom the community will abuse absent strong representation.

And so, we need tests (especially standardized tests) to ensure that communities aren’t abused in the other direction, and the story of education remains the battle between a sense of neighborhood, family, and community and an organizational imperative for the unions to prove their value to their members.  A system like this can’t be reformed by a storm of facts and smart policy.  It requires painstaking community-building, little by little, done patiently.

But nobody has incentive to do that for long, and so the problem will never be fixed.  The parents of school children are generational, and every generation has to relearn the lessons of the system’s reality.


Featured image by Vahid Moeini Jazani on Unsplash.

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