Friday, December 18, 2009

Not Pretty


These are the Rhode Island towns that had revaluations in 2009 and will tax their property owners on their reassessments in 2010.

Since Governor Carcieri has announced major reductions in state aid this year in an attempt to balance the state budget, these unfortunate property owners will be facing a
double whammy; not only significant tax increases because of reduced state revenue but because revaluations produce their own dramatic shifts in tax burdens regardless of what happens to municipal budgets and tax levies.

In a typical revaluation year, from 1/2 to 2/3 of owners face tax increases far greater than necessary to fund the tax levy. It's an unjust and unfair system that lawmakers can fix if we and they are serious about being fair to Rhode Island property tax payers.

You can read more at the
RIGHTTAX website: http://righttax/org

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Makes religion look bad

I'm not a religious guy but for those who are, I'd suggest that if you accept as evidence of a supreme being a sort of weird cross on the shell of a chicken's egg or on a heifer's forehead your standards are pretty low. Do you think so little of G_d to believe he'd show his presence in such trivial ways? C'mon now.

But if you do need proof, the story Bob Kerr wrote about in the Providence Journal about someone giving his coat to a man wearing only a sweater pushing a shopping cart along the street on a cold winter day, or the story about the three men who pulled a fourth from icy water at Waterplace Park might provide far better evidence for you. I hope so.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Those Pesky Averages

Imagine you're asked to put one finger in each of two substances whose average temperature is 52°. No problem, right? But what if one glass contains boiling water at 212° and one contains dry ice at -109°? Would you accept this as a fair request?

Averages can be misleading.

Not much different with property taxes after revaluations. Data often deals with averages. The RI law called "S3050" sets the annual limit for local tax levy increases. When it drops to 4% (in 2013) it means that the when all the taxes of all the property owners are combined, the average increase will be 4%. Looks good - on paper.

The reality is that in town after town, despite the 4% limit, about a third of taxpayers get increases much above 4%, some as high as 100%, while others actually pay lower taxes. That's right, lower taxes, even as the tax levy just increased. In reality there are two kinds of taxpayers: those who pay too much and those who pay too little.

Until this unjust distribution of the local tax burden is acknowledged and fixed, all the posturing, the complaining about assessments, about the 'greedy' public employee unions, about graft and corruption, will produce little relief for those who have to pay the bills based on market values.

We must convince our legislators to discuss a new paradigm, where taxes for existing property owners are based on a system of "taxable" values producing tax bills directly related to budgets instead of the marketplace, where new owners will receive their first tax bill based on the market value of their purchase, instead of after a two year wait for revaluation, and where the limits on tax levy increases will apply to individual tax bills as well.

Please visit for an in depth discussion on this most important issue. Please talk to your legislators and ask that they at least think about this proposal. If you do, they might listen and we can get fair and just property taxes, at last.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Are we too stupid?

The highway signs informing us that "Texting" while driving is illegal made me smile. I can see it now:

Judge: "Mr. Jones, you have been charged with texting while driving. How do you plead?"
Accused: "Not guilty, your honor."
Judge: "Officer Smith says he watched you texting on your cell phone for several minutes before stopping you"
Accused: "Officer Smith was mistaken. I was not texting. I had just filled up with gas and was using my phone's calculator to figure out how much mileage I was getting. That's not texting, your honor. "
Judge: "Case dismissed".

Maybe we just need a few more laws, like "Crocheting while driving is against the law" or "Spreading mayonnaise on a tuna sandwich while driving is against the law".

A police officer should use his or her judgement to determine if one is not driving with appropriate skill, attention and equipment. This is beyond silly.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

We're Too Lazy

Facts can be deceiving at times. Recently the Providence Journal had a front page article about Rhode Island's high property taxes. Being fourth highest in the country isn't anything to be proud of . But what if our student performance were the best in the nation? Those property taxes would be a real bargain and a source of pride, as I see it.

The point is that spending (or any one single thing) in itself is not the only consideration when we form our opinions about our taxes or government or anything for that matter. There are often other, equally or even more important considerations which should be considered.

It's so easy to be lazy when we read the headlines and form our opinions and we pay a terrible price for this laziness.

Maybe it's just me.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Are you with us?

Laura Lederer, adjunct professor at Georgetown Law Center should know better. In her letter in the Providence Journal, November 16, "Defeat for prostitution" she writes, "while others (more than one might think) are anti-trafficking and pro-prostitution". She characterizes those who would legalize indoor prostitution as PRO prostitution.

Ms. Lederer makes the same mistake that so many of us make, that everything can be viewed as an either-or position. "You're either with us or against us" might have done more harm to our society than we will ever know. Can she not see that one could favor legalization of an activity between consenting adults and not therefor advocate or promote it?

Might I prefer that a woman have the legal right to decide on an abortion and still prefer that she make a different choice? Is it too hard to imagine that I could favor equal treatment for homosexuals and not, at the same time, personally prefer heterosexual relationships? Can I not personally avoid alcohol yet allow others to legally indulge?

The legislators who voted against the recent anti-prostitution law did not do so because they advocate prostitution and to suggest otherwise is an example of the same old canard, "You're either with us or against us". A law professor should know better. We all should know better.

Friday, October 30, 2009

3 Questions

One would have to have been asleep for the past few years not to know that Rhode Island has a money problem - we spend too much and receive too little. It is laudable therefore that the General Assembly will have a conversation in December to talk about these problems.

With regard to the high property tax issue (5th highest in the nation) I would urge the legislators to consider the following questions:

1. Do changes in one's property taxes always reflect the changes in the tax levy of their community?
2. Do new owners always pay taxes based on the value of the property they have purchased?
3. Do all owners always receive a limit on their tax increases the way S3050 limits the growth in the tax levy?

The answer to these questions should be a solid "yes" but sadly, the answers are "no".

Until this is addressed, controlling local spending alone will not produce the beneficial results for the taxpayer that it should.

Replace the property tax with an Owners' Tax and we will be able to answer "yes" to all the above questions and save some money too.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Still Crazy?

"Gang leader gets lengthy prison sentence" read the headline on Saturday, October 24, in the Providence Journal. A federal judge sentenced a Laotian gang leader to more than 18 years in prison for agreeing to participate in an armed home invasion. And just who will emerge from prison in 18 years (or maybe sooner with parole)?

You can make a good guess from the fact that he just completed a four year prison term for .... a home invasion!

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.

On a more positive note, someone isn't crazy. An educational practice that doesn't work for the welfare of the students needs to be ended. Education Commissioner Deborah Gist wants to stop using seniority as a basis for teacher assignment and promotion. Bravo and congratulations to her.

Maybe it's just me.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Don't Forget

There were times during my forty years practicing dentistry that patients could be demanding, late for appointments, and sometimes even rude. Those, especially, were the times that I had to remind myself, and my staff, that people don't exist for us to have someone to practice on. We are there for them. That is not to say that we had no right to expect certain levels of behavior. We do. But without the people, we have no purpose.

The corporate world, those exalted executives, those "too big to fail" banks, other financial institutions, especially the largest ones, corporate lobbyists, union leaders, politicians, all seem to have forgotten something; that without the people, us, they would cease to be. They are there for us, not the other way around. On the other hand, if they ceased to be, we would replace them. We should not let them forget it. Unless we too, forgot.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Right Tax

Today's Providence Journal carried a story about a Barrington couple who "say that town officials knowingly withheld public records in violation of the state Access to Public Records Act" and have lodged a complaint with the state attorney general. People must have easy access to public records particularly if they directly effect the person making the request. We wish them well.

Sadly, even if they are vindicated they will achieve little more than a moral victory. Their complaint deals with the accuracy of house appraisals which determine one's tax bill, the assumption being that a fair appraisal will produce a fair tax, a right tax.

But is the right tax the one resulting from an accurate assessment? Traditional thinking says yes and people often appeal their assessments when they think they're too high after revaluation.

Now imagine Barrington resident, Mr. David B., sitting before the assessment review board having been shocked that his new tax bill is 42% higher than the prior year while the tax levy increased just 3.96%.

He felt that his property value increase of 30% was far too much. The board listened patiently and agree to a reduction in value of $35,000 bringing the increase to only 15%. David, happy with the board's decision, left satisfied.

In the afterglow of his victory David didn't realize that his new tax bill, while less than before, is still 25% higher than the year before. So, is David now paying the right tax? My concept of fairness says that David, and every other Barrington resident, should be paying 3.96% more to fund the 3.96% tax levy increase. That is the right tax but no existing owners will receive it because of the revaluation itself, which is fair only to new owners who choose the price of the house they buy and are correctly taxed on that market assessment, at that time.

It's wrong for everyone else.

Read more at the Righttax website link to the right.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Learning From History

In the ongoing conversations about American involvement in wars across the globe reference is often made to what is arguably our most important war, World War II.

In a recent article in the Providence Journal the writer referred to Japan's attack of the United States at Pearl Harbor in 1941. He drew a parallel to our current involvement in Afghanistan suggesting that we need to apply the same resolve now as we did then, when we fought the Japanese.

I would like to ask what might have been different if, as we fought and killed Japanese soldiers (and civilians, as happens in all war) there were created more and more Japanese soldiers? I know this is a silly question to ask about fighting Japan or Germany back then.

But it isn't so silly now. The number of terrorists and terrorist attacks appear to be increasing rather than decreasing according to every survey in an internet search. So one has to ask, should we change our strategy in the face of this evidence or continue to apply the World War II model to the present "war on terror"?

Maybe It's Just Me

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

There's a black man in the White House

With that pronouncement many feel really proud about how far we've come in our fight against racism and discrimination. Yet the statement itself shows how much farther we have to go.

President Barack Obama's genetic racial background is more white than black yet he still is described as a "black man". I guess it's better than being called black for one drop of African American blood but it's a far cry from where we need to be.

We have a long way yet to go.

Maybe It's Just Me.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Just Who Are They?

You know those folks that show up at the town hall meetings with those "We want our country back" signs?

I'd like to ask them, "Back from whom?" When they say 'our country' just who is the 'our'?

Do they want the country for white Christians? to get it back from blacks and foreigners? to take it back from the poor and needy? the unemployed and sick?

So just who is America anyway? And who is it for?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Are Corporations People?

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that Free Speech is fundamental to our American Democracy and one of the most basic rights protected by the first Amendment to the United States Constitution.

A continuing controversy persists about free speech when it relates to political speech however. For example, is a political contribution an exercise of free speech? Can contributions be excessive such that they might exert improper influence on the outcome of an election? If indeed, political contributions are considered the exercise of a First Amendment right can there be placed a limit on such contributions in the name or protecting free speech?

It gets even more murky when the 'free speech' is being exercised by a corporation. Are corporations people? In an April 2007 ruling Federal Judge Paul Barbadoro found that corporations, as legal persons, have "free speech rights that would be infringed . . . ." in a case involving doctors and drug companies.

It is no secret that corporations spend a lot of money in the support of particular candidates or legislation that is in their best interest. Is this free speech too? Should such campaign financing therefore be protected as free speech in such cases?

Central to this discussion is the decision in the late 1800's that established "the doctrine of corporate personhood -- the claim that corporations were intended to fully enjoy the legal status and protections created for human beings".

One might have serious doubts about such an interpretation of the First Amendment when one considers the different treatment of people and corporations in a court of law. One has to ask if a corporation has ever been or could be sentenced to life in prison (or even executed) should its deliberate and/or negligent actions be found to be directly responsible for the death of an individual, as would a person on trial in similar circumstances.

There is no shortage of articles describing corporate behavior which has directly caused serious injury or death of employees and customers. Tobacco, lead paint, mining disasters come to mind. Negligence in aircraft maintenance has been in the news recently with its tragic consequences.

In some cases individual executives have been singled out and punished but the standard response of courts has been some sort of fine or reprimand for the corporation.

Corporations do enjoy the privileges of 'personhood' but they certainly have few of the responsibilities or obligations of real people.

Clearly corporations are not persons and it's about time we stopped pretending that they are.

Maybe it's just me.

Friday, August 14, 2009

New job opportunity: Director of Fear Mongering

What in the world is going on around the country? Have we just become gullible and lazy or have we always been so? Sarah Palin calls a provision of the health care bill a "death panel", Sen. Chuck Grassley worries that people might think that the government can coerce an older person to choose to die so he advocates removal of the provision in the bill that offers to cover end of life consultations.

And many people believe them!

On the other hand, since when does a medical consultation have to include anything in particular? It's a voluntary private conversation between a doctor and a patient, isn't it? And they're covered by Medicare so why in the world did the drafters of the bill even have to bring it up?

Foolish decisions all around.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Crime Against Integrity


So Rhode Island's Attorney General agreed on Thursday that there were two "bad checks", city employees behaved in a manner that was "unprofessional", "misguided", and "inexplicable" , and the superintendent of the state police called their behavior "unsettling".

On the same front page, the Board of Elections, also on Thursday, concluded that the Attorney General, in an unrelated matter, had not violated state statute by calling $9000 in his campaign spending "petty cash" when the law limits petty cash spending to $25.

In both instances complaints were dismissed and no crimes were found to have been committed.

I submit that there was a crime committed, a crime against integrity, a crime against the people who deserve to have admiration and confidence in their government.

I'd recommend that all involved read Stuart Chase's, "The Nemesis of American Business", written after the crash of 1929 during the Great Depression, especially Chapter 2, "The Luxury of Integrity"

Maybe it's just me.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Racism, Still

The Gates story is inflating beyond control. For anyone who doesn't know, it seems that a distinguished Harvard scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested for disorderly conduct during a confrontation with a Cambridge, MA police officer investigating a reported break-in attempt at Gates' home.

From the newspaper account and the police report it would appear that Mr. Gates became outraged that a police officer would question him about the alleged break-in.

On the other hand the police office was indeed called by someone who witnessed two black men on the front porch apparently trying to break into the home on Ware St. in Cambridge.

Mr. Gates allegedly yelled at the police that the only reason he was questioned was that he "was a black man in America". In my view Mr. Gates was overly sensitive to his race as the precipitating factor in the officer's behavior which angered the officer.

On the other hand the police office should have used more common sense, and as soon as Prof. Gates' identity was confirmed he should have simply apologized for the misunderstanding and left the premises.

My take is that they both were guilty of feeling insulted and not accorded the respect to which each felt entitled.

All in all, a petty and provocative reaction by a Harvard professor and an over reaction by the police officer. In any case the latest news is that the charges have been dropped. Good.

There is plenty of real racism against which to fight without diluting and trivializing what in my opinion, is still the biggest problem facing this country, true racism.

The President didn't help either. He should have taken the opportunity to encourage dialogue on this most important issue facing the nation. Instead he took sides after saying he didn't know all the facts in the case. A missed opportunity, in my view.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Just Do It

Just how can any thinking person object?

I suggested some time ago that the Secretary of State modify the Voter Handbooks that are distributed prior to elections to include more information about the Proposals that appear on the ballot. Currently the information is expressed in limited terms, too technical and confusing to the average voter and neglects to present any possible negative consequences of the proposal.

I propose that the Handbook shall present explanations of each proposal, pro and con, drafted by supporters and opponents using language that is acceptable to the Secretary of State as being objective representations of each position.

Do we choose to know little or nothing about the matters before us or do we prefer making informed decisions on the matters that concern us?

If we read this and do nothing we have made our choice.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Needs Saying Again

I apologize to readers for bringing this up again but I believe that ethical government is the foundation of democracy without which everything else is window dressing.

Our Supreme Court has shown contempt for both Rhode Islanders and common sense in its recent 3-1 decision (William V. Irons v Rhode Island Ethics Commission).

It seems to me that unethical behavior of a legislator is of the greatest concern precisely where the Court claims it is no one else's business, during "speech and debate".

In 1986 the people passed by a huge majority, ethics legislation which amended the Rhode Island Constitution and the people have been ignored.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Tell Them We're Mad

The editorial in the Journal on Monday, June 8, illuminated a puzzle; why do we keep sending poor legislators back year after year?  One observation was that many  candidates run unopposed.  When voters are faced with such an option there is no way to express dissatisfaction other than to leave the candidate's name unchecked.

I'd recommend another option.  I'd like to see an option to vote against an unopposed candidate; a check box or arrow that indicates a NO vote.  It would be much more meaningful if the votes for an unopposed candidate elected with 2,400 votes looked like this instead:

YES     2,400

NO       4,400

We the people should have the opportunity to vote our dissatisfaction during an election other than by silence for an unopposed candidate. The candidate would still get elected but at least will know that people are mad.

Maybe it's just me.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Sound of Silence

Today's (June 4, 2009) North East Independent carried a story about the poor performance of North Kingstown High School.  It is one of about 15% of Rhode Island Schools that have missed NCLB targets for multiple years. 

Several people and groups were referenced in the article including Superintendent Dr. Phil Thornton.  There were statistics on different student groups in several areas of learning, especially math and reading and writing and they were deficient in most. 

There was not one word mentioned about the teachers' union and its position on this critical topic. From their website:
The National Education Association North Kingstown is a professional organization dedicated to work for the welfare of school children, the advancement of education, and the improvement of instructional opportunities for all.
The news article was about the very issues to which the union claims to be dedicated yet their silence is deafening. If the article were about changes to retirement, work hours, salary, medical co-pay or tenure would they be silent?  

They should be out front on this issue but I don't see any participation or suggestions. Why?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Bump in The Road

There was a commentary in the Journal today, May 27,2009 by Charles Chieppo and Joseph Giglio, "In Mass., user fees best way to pay for roads." In it, the authors advocate that people who use roads the most should pay the most for them and they recommend that we use electronic technology to charge people accordingly.

The authors write, "When it comes to roads, most agree that how much you pay should be commensurate with the benefits you derive."

I'm no professor or professional public policy writer but I do have some serious questions about their assumptions and suggestions.

For example, if the Johnson family drives every Sunday from Boston to Cranston to visit their elderly grandmother Mabel, exactly who benefits the most from the use of the roads, grandma Mabel or the Johnsons?

When the trucker delivers his load of fresh produce to the market is he the beneficiary of good roads or is it the market owner, or is it we the consumers, who benefit the most? It's pretty clear to me that good roads benefit everyone, just as do efficient police protection and fire protection and public education.

This is a poorly thought out idea, which is in fact, just another way to provide more revenue for cash strapped states. I agree that the revenue problem is serious and needs to be solved but let's not delude ourselves by pretending that this suggestion is in some way a fairness issue. It isn't.

There are those who see government as a necessary evil and others who see government as the answer to our problems. It is neither and it is both. Our task is to define, as carefully and precisely as possible, what role government should play in our lives.

Maintenance of public roadways and infrastructure is one of those roles and should be paid for with public funds. Our challenge is to guarantee that government spends our money wisely and with greater care and respect for the taxpayer.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Tax Exempt Property 101

There are many worthy organizations and businesses that do good works; churches, hospitals, universities and colleges and charitable organizations, all provide humane and important services and are rewarded with tax exempt status.

In such cases the property owned by these organizations and used in the performance of their routine functions are not taxed. Most agree that it is only right to provide support for these worthy organizations and the other businesses and residents, through their property taxes, pay the share of the tax exempts who also receive benefits such as road maintenance, fire and police protection, maintenance of public spaces etc.

Communities obviously vary in population, infrastructure, size, and industrial density.    Because of this, some communities are more attractive to tax exempt organizations. On July 21, 2008, Providence City Council President Peter Mancini, in a special section to the Providence Business News said "We’re almost at 50 percent tax-exempt real estate". This means that just 50% of the property owners are paying 100% of the tax levy - their portion and the portion of the tax exempts.

This is clearly unjust and unfair to the property owners of Providence and other towns with the larger percentages of tax exempt property.

One approach would be to charge fees to various organizations but it will produce ill will and resistance and some groups will always feel they have been unfairly and unreasonably taxed. There is a lot of push back to Mayor Cicillini's efforts to authorize new local taxes on private colleges, universities and hospitals.

And if the extra revenue is used to fill holes in the budget instead of being used to bring relief to beleaguered tax payers, they too will feel betrayed. This piecemeal approach fails to deal with the  underlying problem of unfair distribution of tax burdens.

It is for this reason that the following plan is offered for consideration.

The General Assembly shall determine the *percentage of tax exempt property that any community will be required to support.  For simplicity let's assume that percentage is 10%.  In this case the remaining 90% of the community will pay the 10% tax exempts' share, who pay nothing.

As the percentage of tax exempts increases they will begin to share in funding of the tax levy through a tax on their property according to the following simple formula:  Their property tax shall be a percentage of the standard property tax equal to the difference between the percentage of tax exempt property in the community and the 10% allowed by law.

For example, should a community actually have 16% tax exempt property each tax exempt property will be taxed 6% (16% minus 10%) of the normal tax on said property.  As the percentage of tax exempts increases so shall their contribution to the tax levy. If, as in Providence, the percentage reaches 50%, the tax exempts would pay 40% of the normal property tax an their property (50% minus 10%).

*The actual numbers used shall be determined by careful analysis so as not to be unreasonable to any of the involved parties while standardizing the process for all. The General Assembly can also provide for different rates depending on the nature of the organizations. Some might even remain tax free.

Wouldn't it be better to have a known and transparent system rather than what we have now, individual mayors and town councils working out a variety of different arrangements of PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes) that vary from town to town, inconsistent and unpredictable? 

The taxes would be levied in a manner that is sensitive to the value tax exempt organizations bring to a community while not unfairly burdening others whose property is not tax exempt.

Maybe It's Just Me     

Monday, May 18, 2009

Time For And

In a recent Projo Commentary, "RI should stop trying to pick winners", a main theme was that markets are the best and most efficient way to determine whether policies are working.  A fundamental premise of markets is reliance on "cost benefit analysis to guide... policy".

To most of us, cost benefit analysis emphasizes the amount of money spent compared to the amount of money earned.  While this is undoubtedly important we must acknowledge that there are "costs" and "benefits" other than financial.  For this 'human' analysis, markets are not very good judges. 

The more conservative view places most of its faith in the traditional market view while the more liberal view emphasizes the human factors.

We seem to fight about which is the right view, the best view, and insist on EITHER/OR solutions.  We desperately need "AND" solutions. 

Saving money is important to commercial and residential taxpayers AND it's also important that we care for the needy and the homeless.

Good benefits and pay for union members are important AND it's important for taxpayers to be able to pay their own bills as well as for those benefits.  

For far too long this bipolar paradigm, that only one viewpoint is the right one, has stifled our potential and it's high time to stop this "either / or" battle. We can do better.  

Thursday, May 14, 2009


There has been a lot of print devoted to government ethics these past weeks. In particular, Sen. William Irons claims that his conviction is faulty because he is protected from the Ethics Commission probe by the Rhode Island Constitution's Section 5. "For any speech in debate in either house, no member shall be questioned in any other place."

This seems a bit odd to me, a non attorney, but isn't unethical behavior of most concern to taxpayers precisely where Mr. Irons claims it is no one else's business?

The solution appears to be that the Legislature investigate the case brought to its attention by the Ethics Commission. If it refuses, then it would fail to perform its duty under Section 4. of the Constitution, "-- No member of the general assembly shall take any fee, or be of counsel in any case pending before either house of the general assembly, under penalty of forfeiture of seat, upon proof thereof to the satisfaction of the house in which the member sits."

The Senate must take responsibility to police its own members.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Are They Limits or Targets?

The Rhode Island legislature has passed a law (S3050) requiring town tax levy increases to have annual limits gradually dropping to 4% by 2013.

This puts towns who have tried hard to limit costs in an awkward situation. If a town were able to hold the levy to a low or even zero percent increase for example, the following year's allowable increase will be based on that low levy. On the other hand, were the town to increase the levy the maximum, it would be entitled to the same percentage increase the next year but based on a higher amount.

A town which is conscientious in holding expenses can effectively be punished by that decision creating an incentive for the town to request more than it really needs, just in case. The limit becomes a target.

Wouldn't it better to amend the current law so that towns can "bank" the unused portion of any allowable increase? This amount of money could be made available to increase the limit in the event of a shortfall in a subsequent year, subject to certain restrictions and time limits upon application to the state. This could also reduce or eliminate litigation involved with a Caruolo action.

In this way a town could try its best to hold down taxes while not being punished in future years should real need arise.

But maybe it's just me.

Friday, May 1, 2009

OK to Lie?

In a recent Providence Journal article the writer mentioned legislation which a committee of the General Assembly would "hold for further study". It occurred to me that there must be hundreds of bills languishing in committee, being held for further study that never actually get further study. In fact, they lied.

They simply pat us on the head when we introduce bills through our elected representatives and senators, telling us, "Now, now, that's very interesting and we'll look into it, now go outside and play like good little children".

I believe that lying to a legislative committee is a pretty serious offense and can even get a president impeached. How come the committee can get away with it?

Maybe it's just me

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Photo-Op, Cheap

How dumb can one be not to realize the impact on New Yorkers of a low flying jumbo jet? And what about the cost? $328,000!

I did it for free and never left home.

Friday, April 24, 2009

From Intolerance to Fear

In a recent Providence Journal letter to the editor, "Can't be natural and unnatural" Apr. 23, 2009, the writer notes that some people believe homosexuality is a 'natural occurring anomaly', and he compares it to other natural anomalies such as "robbing a bank, raping a child, or killing your wife and children".

Is there no limit to the level will people sink to justify their intolerance and hatred and fear of someone different?

Can anyone explain how any homosexual marriage might threaten, not just traditional marriage but the "perpetuation of the human race" as the writer suggests?

For homosexual marriage to indeed threaten the perpetuation of the human race it would, by definition, have to become natural law and replace traditional marriage. I think we can rest easy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

To Torture or Not To Torture

There's been a lot of talk on the cable networks, talk radio and newspapers about what is and what isn't torture. There was even a recent report about the training that our personnel received where they are subjected to the very techniques in question; waterboarding, sleep deprivation and others so that they might be better prepared for possible capture.

The conclusion in this study was that since these folks didn't suffer permanent psychological or physical damage that the techniques didn't rise to the definition of torture. They investigators were influenced by this in particular: "For survivors, torture often leads to lasting mental and physical health problems."

The investigators concluded that since the Americans who were tortured as part of their training didn't suffer lasting harmful effects that such techniques did not constitute torture under the definition. I'm no psychologist but what level of intelligence would not see the difference between Americans being 'tortured' by Americans as part of training and people being subject to the identical techniques, isolated in a foreign country by sworn enemies? Are they fools?

This brings me to the latest flap about releasing the CIA memos and holding those in charge, responsible for torture policy. Former Vice President Dick Cheney (he brings an expanded meaning to "vice") insists that there were productive results from the techniques in question and thus they were justified.

I'd like to ask Mr. Cheney if he believed that tearing the arms out of a terror suspect might produce useful information would he allow it?

From his talking points it seems he would. If this represents America, may heaven help us all.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Is Segregation the Problem?

I just finished reading "The Shame of The Nation" by Jonathan Kozol. In it he documents the de facto segregation of public education in America, apartheid if you will. His statistics are numbing and depressing. And this unofficial segregation today is as bad as it ever was before Brown v Board of Education, 1954 and the Civil Rights Act, 1964.

That Blacks and Hispanics in America perform poorly in public schools will come as no surprise to anyone. Mr. Kozol implies that the underlying cause for this is first and foremost, segregation and second, unequal spending on students in these segregated schools. Additionally he believes that the emphasis of No Child Left Behind on strict education by specific protocol and accountability testing actually harms hoped for outcomes. Again, here his observations are persuasive.

When I finished the book however, I was plagued by a sense that something was missing.

The primary emphasis was that segregation in schools in poor neighborhoods produced inferior education for their students with dropout rates of as much as 40% for black students. According to Mr. Kozol the all white schools in affluent neighborhoods rob the poorer schools of critical funding, siphon off the best teachers resulting in superior outcomes with the vast majority of students in these schools graduating and going on to college.

But aren't these also segregated schools? Has segregation hurt them?

So should we segregate schools? Of course not. It is not only illegal, it is reprehensible and immoral. Conflating the education problem in America with segregation, however tempting, is an oversimplification. Requiring integration of schools will not improve student performance of primarily non-white schools in poor neighborhoods.

Another of Mr. Kozol's observations is that poor neighborhood schools are underfunded. This is undeniably true. The conditions in these schools are too often deplorable and must be rectified. Students can not learn without books, study materials, a safe environment, clean surroundings and a sense that people care about them. Teachers are being asked to do the impossible, teaching in the typical minority school with its faulty bathrooms, oversized classes, lack of study supplies, peeling paint and leaky windows. This is a disgrace and must be reversed, yesterday.

However, if anyone believes that sprucing up these facilities to match the more affluent schools will fix education for the disadvantaged, they are foolish. It may make lawmakers feel proud that they did something wonderful for their constituents, but did they? You can rent Boston Symphony Hall, hire the Boston Pops, put Keith Lockhart on the podium, dress me in an Armani tuxedo, sit me down in front of the most expensive Steinway in the world, and you will have thrown away a lot of money. I never learned to play the piano.

No, Mr. Kozols observations, while not exactly untrue, lead him to only partial solutions. We can never really fix the education problem doing only what he suggests since he skims over what I believe is the fundamental problem.

Until we come to grips with the fact that the children most at risk have already begun to lose the battle long before they ever get to school we are doomed to more of the same disappointment and failure. None of Mr. Kozol's suggestions include the parents and families of these kids.

Who are the children's earliest teachers? How frequently do the most disadvantaged children come from homes with no father, mothers on welfare and uneducated themselves, with little or no work ethic or work experience, with no tradition of independence and productivity?

It is my belief that when any child is perceived to have a problem in school, parents and family must be involved if this child is to have any chance at survival, any chance to realize his or her potential, any chance to escape a bleak, too often abbreviated future.

No laws, no amount of money, will work until the social and cultural deficits are acknowledged and addressed. We have to stop expecting our schools and teachers to be parents and, especially in the preschool years, we have to help parents learn how to be teachers.

So, do we have an education problem or do we have a family problem? Yes.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

You Aint Seen Nuthin' Yet

Property tax increases are in the news once again. This time it's Barrington, RI where the citizens have finally said enough! The ire has been directed at Vision Appraisal who did the revaluation last year.

The fact is that even with perfect appraisals, the distribution of the tax burden will always be unfair to large groups of owners. And that's because individuals can get as much as a 100% tax increase while the law limits the total tax levy increase to 4.75% this year. And if you look at the data you will find that as most people get increases greater than 4.75%, thousands of people will pay lower taxes.

So the anger and outrage will continue.

But to quote Al Jolsen, "You aint seen nuthin yet".

Try to imagine what will happen after the next revaluation when people get lower assessments yet still see higher tax bills. And make no mistake, this will happen. Why? Because values don't change uniformly whether markets are on the way up or on the way down and there are always people who will get higher tax bills to make up for the ones who get lower tax bills.

Some neighborhoods will drop in value less than others and these owners will get the larger tax increases while the other owners will get smaller increases and thousands will even get decreases. If the multi million dollar home values fall more than the more modest homes, the owners of the more modest homes will be the ones to take up the burden with higher taxes. No one knows for sure which houses will go up or down the most. It's a crap shoot and it's the way we've been doing it for years. One thing is sure however, there will be wide variations in the changes, and the outrage will be even greater.

This is a system that continues to utilize the flawed model of taxing property values over time, that has taken our economy for a joy ride for decades, but the ride is over.

On our website you can see the impact of revaluations in Cranston, West Warwick, and North Kingstown after recent revaluations and compare those traditional taxes with the taxes produced by the RIGHT plan. The differences are striking.

We believe it is a much better way to pay for local government. Fair taxes for new owners, dependable revenue for towns, limits on increases for all existing owners. Visit

Friday, March 13, 2009

Have Capitalists Killed Capitalism?

Capitalism: "An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market."

It might be said that the goal of any economic system is the production of goods and services which a population values and wants. If those products are priced fairly the consuming public will purchase them, the producers will make profits which can then be used to grow their businesses, hire more people and expand the economy, creating more wealth, and so on...

So what just happened?

Maybe we lost site of the goal: to produce products which have value for the consuming public. It seems the more ethically challenged of Wall Street and our financial markets thought they had achieved the alchemist's dream; they found a way to create something out of nothing, which they then sold at a profit. And this is how they did it.

They convinced gullible and/or naive buyers that the rising home prices will continue and that market values are no different than real money, just like money in a bank. These buyers then borrowed on that so called "market value", often more than they could afford to pay back, believing that if they got into financial trouble, they could always sell their homes at a higher price, and come away with a profit.

(NB. The only time the market value is real is when a willing buyer buys from a willing seller. That agreed upon price is generally considered "market value". )

The predators in the financial and banking industries then took these mortgages, bundled them together so that they were impossible to analyze and price fairly, then sold them as 'investments', taking their cut of course, thus creating wealth for themselves without actually producing anything of true value. They even gave them important sounding names like - Mortgage Backed Securities, Credit Default Swaps etc.

The goal was no longer the production of products or services to produce a profit; it now was only the creation of capital, money, for their own benefit. That nothing useful was produced in the process was of no importance. Gordon Gekko lives. For the cinematically challenged, Gordon Gecko, in the movie "Wall Street" pronounced "Greed is good!"

And worse still, it was based on an illusion, a Ponzi scheme - the idea that the market value of anything is no different than real money, instead of what it actually is; a best guess, a hope, a gamble. We have built our financial markets on illusions, a gamble and we are now suffering the consequences of that pipe dream. We've been "Madoffed". (The illusion, the market price of property, also serves as the basis for funding local government. Property taxes based on market prices are responsible for the incredibly unfair distribution of the property tax burden after every revaluation. )

I hope we can return to our original goals - making high quality things and providing high quality services that people want and can afford. The profits will follow.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The economy, what else?

It seems to me that the government is using an indirect approach to fix our ailing economy. If the infusions of cash to failing banks and lending institutions do make it possible for them to lend money, then to whom do they lend it? Businesses that have no business? Retailers who have no customers? If the consumer stops consuming, everything grinds to a halt, credit or no credit.

Maybe consumers could be given a percentage off of certain retail purchases for say, a year. They could submit sales receipts (automated at the register) to the federal government who would immediately reimburse consumers directly, instead of giving the trillions to the businesses who have been so badly run in the first place.

This direct action will have immediate effects, would quickly stimulate business activity and unstick the economy. For example, the total retail and food services expenditures (excluding autos and parts) in 2006 was $3.9 Trillion dollars. An instant 10% rebate would cost about $390 Billion. Sounds like a better option than giving $390 Billion to AIG, GM, Bank America.

Maybe its just me.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Cancer: Lemons to Lemonade

Cancer is the diagnosis no one wants to hear. For some, treatment is getting better and survival rates are rising; for others it can be a death sentence. Still others find themselves in a sort of limbo, receiving chemotherapy, not getting much better, not getting worse. For much of the time, between chemo treatments, it's poor sleep, nausea, joint pains, general malaise, extreme fatigue and worse. The rest of the time the severity of the symptoms can lessen but they're never really gone.

Do they have to continue this way forever? What if they stop the chemo? Can they reduce the frequency? Can they reduce the dose? What are their options? Not unreasonable questions, are they?

Patients would welcome some guidance, some help in making a choice. If they ask their doctor, "What do the statistics show?" The answer will most often be, "We don't know"!

I have contacted the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, The FDA, and the Department of Health and Human Services trying to get these answers. Essentially they all said the same thing, they don't use historical hospital data. Eli Lilly, the maker of one recent cancer drug, Alimta, said the same thing adding only that the "standard dose is to be delivered every 21 days". When asked if they follow up hospital records to assess benefits or effectiveness of long term use they replied, "We don't have that data". After 6 months can the dose be safely reduced? "We don't have that data".

Surely patients have already made such choices in the past. Where is the information about those choices?

The sad truth is that the data is there, in every hospital, in patient records. It simply is not coordinated and analyzed. I asked an oncologist at the Dana Farber Cancer Center, one of the worlds finest cancer hospitals, if they pull their past data together to help answer these questions; "We don't have such studies." Individual doctors of course can review their own cases and try to draw conclusions but doctors are very busy treating patients and don't have the time or expertise to consolidate this data in a way that is scientifically useful. How ironic.

Pharmaceutical companies spend millions doing prospective studies on the safety and effectiveness of new drugs but once the drugs are brought to market there apparently is no effort to evaluate effectiveness after prolonged use. There should be follow-up. These questions deserve answers.

What if certain cancer drugs become less effective over time? These are not innocuous chemicals. They are toxic, they kill good cells along with the bad cancer cells, they make patients feel awful, and they cost a fortune. And when asked if their effectiveness diminishes over time we're told, "We don't know".

The federal government has announced a push to standardize and computerize patient hospital records to reduce errors and cut costs. This is a good thing.

And we should build on this and make it possible for investigators to access this data to analyze continued effectiveness of various treatments for cancer as well as other diseases. If the records were designed with a standardized format to include all data necessary for a scientifically valid retrospective analysis it would provide an enormous amount of information for doctors and patients. We have an extraordinary opportunity here in Rhode Island to do this. The data is there, waiting, in our hospitals and across the country.

What if we found that some long term treatments can be significantly reduced without danger? Think of the savings, think of the benefits to patients. It be wonderful for the Rhode Island Department of Health to embark on such a mission - to standardize and digitize all patient records while respecting patient privacy.

Rhode Island currently does keep track of cancer and related diseases (see Hospital Association of Rhode Island), but the reporting is not exhaustive and does not systematically track individual changes to treatment and their effect on outcomes.

This initiative will require creation of a team drawn from the Rhode Island medical community, including hospital and medical school staff, whose task it will be to standardize medical records, gather, analyze and publish the results in journals and on-line. This effort could serve as a model in which Rhode Island's medical community leads the way and helps our doctors provide even better medical care for our citizens.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Are We Doomed to Self(ish) Service?

You're either with us or against us is the philosophy that has gotten us where we are and it's a lousy place to be.

But the evidence abounds that this "either/or" mentality rules and when it comes to union issues it seems most visible.

When members of a private sector union are asked to sacrifice benefits for a company, they know that those sacrifices will benefit stock holders, executives, the company bottom line and their lenders - not necessarily bad things, but not something that will appeal to a worker's altruism and better nature.

When a municipal union member is asked to sacrifice benefits, is it because the stockholders want more profits, the executives need more compensation than their already obscene pay, or the city isn't wealthy enough?

Of course not. It's because the city, with the available revenue, is having trouble providing the services expected by everyone. If it's not possible to reduce costs then reduced services will surely follow.

If we don't see a difference, then our unions are in danger of becoming no better than their original foes - the selfish business owners who didn't want to give an inch to their employees. Only now it's the unions who won't give an inch to their employers, the property tax payers. We have to do better.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Will We Ever Not Be Stupid?

Read the blogs, read the papers, listen to talk radio, watch TV. It's the same everywhere.

The [you choose: right, left, Republican, Democrats, unions, businesses, liberals, conservatives] are un-American and think only of themselves. They are clueless and if you listen to them they will destroy this country we all love (except them, of course)

Can it be that we're really so dumb as to believe that only one side has exclusive access to the right answers and all the others are wrong?

Will we ever be able to stop and actually listen to each other. When (if) we finally do, we will benefit from the combined wisdom of our people and be the America we once were.

Maybe President Obama will let it happen. We can hope.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dick Cheney's Comments

Dick Cheney was quoted in an interview with on his views on terrorism and the Obama administration;

"The choice, he alleged, reflects a naive mindset among the new team in Washington: “The United States needs to be not so much loved as it needs to be respected.”

Mr. Cheney is at least partly right but I don't believe he's using the words he really means. I think he has conflated respect with fear and really means we must be feared if we are to be safe from a terrorist attack. Fear results from displaying power and military strength, being ruthless and flexing muscle.

Mr. Cheney, respect has to be earned by our deeds and principles. When we have once again regained the respect that we once had we will indeed be safer than we are now. On the other hand, fear spawns mistrust and even hatred which is exactly what the last eight years have given us.

So, Mr. Cheney, you are right. We need to be respected. If only you understood the difference between respect and fear.

When is investing not investing?

Most everyone is affected by the recent financial meltdown in the stock market and the economy in general. Millions have seen their investments in their retirement plans lose a huge part of their value and they are justifiably worried.

Since you have no influence on stock prices once you purchase them, are they really investments or should it more accurately be called gambling?

Some definitions of gambling include:

1) anything involving risk or uncertainty

2) take a risk in the hope of a favorable outcome

This sounds much more like what we do when we "invest" in the stock market. In fact when we buy a house with the goal of making a profit when we sell it aren't we doing the same thing? Indeed, we are gambling.

On the other hand if one buys a house to live in while raising a family or to enjoy retirement, we are more like the business owner who invests in his business. We too, maintain value by keeping our home well cared for and updated. We even may increase its value and if and when we decide to sell the home it may even be at a profit. So much the better.

But if our home is worth a little more or even less when it comes time to sell, have we not enjoyed our 'investment' all the years we have owned it and lived in it? This is a true investment.

We need to rethink our notions of investments and gambling. When we buy stocks and lose money on them we need to understand that we have lost a gamble; we made a bet and lost. If the price goes up our bet has paid off. It's a gamble not an investment. Our so called investment is actually a crap shoot and the most we can expect is that the dice aren't loaded.

If our pension plans 'invest' in the market and lose value we can be disappointed but don't whine about it. We lost a bet. If you don't want risk, don't gamble.

It's an ugly truth that transparency, oversight and basic honesty have been in short supply, and those in charge on Wall Street and in Congress need to be taken behind the woodshed. Despicable, greedy, dishonest behavior needs to be stopped, and punished and soon.

But the bottom line is that our economy has been built on gambling, and as any good gambler knows, you have to "know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em".

And let's not be stupid - always keep some 'real' money in the bank for emergencies. (preferably a bank that isn't getting a bailout)

But maybe it's just me.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Did you see this?

Did you catch this in President Obama's inaugural on Tuesday?

"It is the. . . selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose a job that sees us through our darkest hours."

When I recently suggested in a letter to the editor that teachers' union concessions would help ordinary Rhode Islanders, not corporate executives and shareholders, to weather this financial storm, I was trounced by union members suggesting I was just anti-union.

Why aren't they criticizing President Obama?

Some good news for Rhode Islanders?

Tucked away on page B3 of the Projo, January 21, 2009, was an article, "Supreme court to hear ethics appeal", which is certainly good news for Rhode Island citizens. In fact the Supreme Court decision may have a greater impact on us than the hugely important Inauguration of President Obama.

I hope that all Rhode Islander follow this case, which can determine whether or not RI lawmakers can be held to some standard of ethical behavior instead of ignoring the people. The current "speech in debate" clause is an impediment to honest and just government.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Politics v Ethics

Robert Benson Jr., in his Providence Journal, Jan. 2, Commentary, "Legislators can ignore ethics law" asks "Where's the outrage and protest?"

His concerns are real and frightening for every Rhode Islander no matter what party. Article VI, Section 5 of our state constitution says: "For any speech in debate, in any house, no member shall be questioned in any other place." Judge Francis Darigan has ruled that this provision means that a State Senator can not be prosecuted by the State Ethics Commission for his actions (read; votes) in the General Assembly.

The response in the local blogs to this piece was about whether more Democrats than Rebublicans were being held up as bad examples. This serves only to deflect attention away from an extremely important and serious decision by a Superior Court judge and turns it into nothing more than partisan posturing.

That's not what is important here. This is not a political issue, it's an ethics issue.

If current language in the Constitution insulates Senators or Representatives from charges of ethics violations, then that language must be changed, either by changing the Constitution itself or a challenge before the Supreme Court. As it stands now, this makes a mockery of our ethics laws.

Mr. Benson is right. Every one of us should be outraged.