Scott MacKay Commentary: Can Rhode Islanders Evah Stop Being So Negative?

May 20, 2016


New Public opinion surveys show Rhode Islanders are pessimistic  about the future. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says it’s time for some new perspective.

The latest poll from Bryant University’s Hassenfeld Insitute shows just 31 percent of Ocean State voters think the state is headed in the right direction, while 50 percent now say it’s going in the wrong direction.

It isn’t the worst poll rating by this measure in recent years – that came in recession-washed 2010 when 72 percent said Rhode Island was headed in the wrong direction, says pollster Joe Fleming. But the economy is markedly better now.

You might think it’s the  rash of government corruption at  both the Statehouse and Providence City Hall that’s driving this bleak view. But the recent Bryant poll was done before the arrest of Providence City Council Majority Leader Kevin Jackson and the resignation of House Finance Chairman Ray Gallison.

Some of the negativity may be spilling over from the noxious presidential campaign. Donald Trump’s anthem is that the country is going to hell and that we’re becoming a Third World nation.  Bernie Sanders echos some of this discontent, particularly with his focus on how unfair trade deals have stolen working-class  jobs from the U.S.

Well, as the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. The jobs that Sanders and Trump describe as lost aren’t to be found anywhere.  Technology is making factories more efficient the world over, with machines taking over jobs humans once performed. This isn’t new; it’s been happening since the spinning jenny put the weavers of Manchester out of work.

Rhode Island’s unemployment rate is down, closer to the national average than it has been in years. We aren’t doing as well as neighboring Massachusetts, chiefly because of the high-tech, financial  and life-science cluster in and around Boston.

Crime rates in our state are low. We have the nation’s second-lowest gun violence rate. Teen pregnancies, child death rates and teen death rates are among the nation’s lowest, says Rhode Island Kids Count. The murder rate in Providence has plunged  to the lowest in years.

The number of Rhode Islanders without health insurance is below five percent. Abortions in our state have dropped from more than 4,000 in 2009 to less than 3,000 in 2014, according to the state health department.  Our society is fairer for minorities and women.

In so many cases, government action and reforms have made life better. Our drinking water is among the nation’s best. Narragansett Bay is far less polluted today than three decades  ago. Anti-pollution laws have made for cleaner air. Our cars run cleaner and get better gas mileage.

Rhode Island  has great colleges; if you think young people don’t want to come to our state, try getting your kid into Brown, RISD or Providence College. Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island provide good educations at reasonable tuition.

Of course we have difficulties. Any level of government corruption is too much. Climate change is a serious challenge. Our public schools could be better. Income inequality should be lessened. And we need to fix the roads.

Yes, Rhode Islanders are a cantankerous lot. But over the years we have adapted to changing times and seismic economic upheaval. Are things really worse today than during the Great Depression or during World War II, when a madman like Hitler stood astride the world?

The media deserves some blame here. Despite the low violent crime rates, if it bleeds it leads. Local t.v. news sensationalism gives viewers the skewed impression that crime is on the rise. News outlets  that once featured strong analysis now cater to low information voters swayed by gotcha  journalism and simplistic opinion. The faux anger of talk radio is just silly. And social media enables anonymous whiners.

Yes, the state’s tourism promotion campaign was a disaster. Yet visitors still flock to Rhode Island. In a few weeks, we’ll be complaining about the traffic at South County beaches and in downtown Newport.

As is the case with every state, we have problems. We aren’t going to solve them by complaining. Let’s lighten up as summer, our best season, blooms.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our  `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.og