The Harsh Realities of Rhode Island's Economy

Sep 23, 2013

Rhode Island’s politicians are talking about the economy again. Rhode Island Public Radio political analyst Scott MacKay warns of a campaign cliché voters ought to view with skepticism

Jump starting Rhode Island's economy will take more than the typical statehouse spin.

As predictable as the turning of autumn leaves, Rhode Island’s political campaigns will once again be filled with talk about creating jobs and jump-starting our stalled economy. Expect to hear the ancient Ocean State chestnut from the pols who’ll say, the biggest economic fear of Rhode Islanders is that their children can’t stay in our state because there aren’t enough jobs.

State General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, who is on the cusp of running for governor, is fond of this trope. She says that in her travels around the state, she hears everywhere that people worry about the lack of opportunity in our state for the younger generation.

The other shibboleth that will be trotted out again and again is that we need to bring manufacturing back to the state. Congressman David Cicilline is fond of this theme, even though in his long career in local and national politics he hasn’t been able to deliver on this one in any meaningful way.

Then there is that Rhode Islandism that’s as local as a steaming bowl of quahog chowder: Even if my kids get an education, they have to go to Boston to get a good job. As if Boston, less than an hour’s drive from Providence, was located next door to San Diego. If your kids work in Boston and they can’t make it home for a Sunday family dinner, well, its because they don’t want to or aren’t ready yet to introduce that new significant other to their parents.

A historical pause here: Rhode Island is an accident of history, a 17th century colony that was founded solely because the first white settler, Roger Wiliams, couldn’t get along with the theocrats who ran the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Rhode Island became a home to religious dissenters and was the first liberal capitalist place in the New World. It thrived during an era when the principal mode of transportation and trade was the clipper ship, then evolved into a manufacturing powerhouse.

The way some of these early Rhode Islanders built their wealth wouldn’t pass the moral tests of later generations. These early fortunes were built on such dubious foundations as slave trading and child labor in textile mills.

Some of us wonder if Rhode Island, a state so tiny it doesn’t qualify as a county anywhere west of the Hudson River, is a viable economic unit in a 21st Century global economy. Can our watery sliver of a state compete in the increasingly predatory worldwide capitalism?

One thing we know is that too many Rhode Islanders think in the warm nostalgic glow of an earlier era, say the middle of the 20th century, when factory jobs for the low-skilled among us were still plentiful.

It is tragic to think that so many Rhode Islanders say things were better in the old days, when just about could get a manufacturing job that came with living wages, health care and often, a union card. We sometimes forget that all those textile and jewelry factories polluted the air and turned our rivers and Narragansett Bay into open sewers.

It is true that we had a thriving business community during the manufacturing era. But these businessman – and they were all men_- were not always right. Remember the 1950s plan to turn the northern tip of Jamestown into an oil refinery. Just think of how our tourist, fishing and recreational boating economy would fare if the gateway to Narragansett Bay was a pollution-belching refinery?

Some of the elements that are needed to reshape our economy have talked about for generations and advanced in study after study. We know we need to invest in education because our workforce is not as well educated as it is in such neighboring states as Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. Yet our government only intermittingly gets this; when the economy dips we slash investments in education, a self-defeating strategy.

Politicians keep looking for the so-called economic `game changer,’ which never works, says Len Lardaro, the University of Rhode Island economist. The last of these swing-for-the fences ideas was 38 Studios, which led to an embarrassing strikeout for both state government and that infamous video game wannabe, retired Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.

This doesn’t mean that government shouldn’t think out of the box and grasp new ideas. Targeted tax cuts sometimes work; eliminating the state passive investment tax in the 1990s led directly to Fidelity Investments building a modern office park near Bryant University in Smithfield. This facility now employs more than 3,000 white collar workers at fine salaries.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s support that resulted in a Rhode Island’s public colleges allowing the children of undocumented immigrants to attend school for in-state tuition was also a wise move that should contribute to a better work force down the road.

Yet most change is incremental. It will probably take years and more investment for our urban schools to routinely graduate students prepared for college or 21st century careers. Rhode Islanders also need to adjust their attitudes to a new economy. If your kids don’t do well in school, they aren’t going to gets jobs in manufacturing. They will be stuck in the dead-end, non-union world of ``do you want fries with that burger.’’

And maybe the politicians should stop repeating what the public opinion polls and campaign chatter tells them. This means telling the truth instead of what voters want to hear.

Boston is a world-class city, one of a handful of places in the world with a strong innovation economy. If that’s where the 21 Century jobs, why don’t we just work with it. This would mean investing in things that link our economy more closely with New England’s hub, such as faster and better train service between Providence and Boston.

Most of our politicians are smart enough to get this. For example, Raimondo acknowledged in a recent interview that her husband works…in Boston. Rhode Island’s state motto is Hope. It’s sad that so many Ocean Staters think that means ``Hope Nothing Ever Changes.’’

Scott MacKay’s commentary runs every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on all Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at our `On Politics’ blog at