Scott MacKay Commentary: More Wonky Reports About RI Economy

Jul 17, 2015

Credit Aaron Read / RIPR

A coalition of researchers from Rhode Island’s colleges and universities have released another round of reports on the state’s economy. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders what will happen to the latest round of research.

If Rhode Island were a bench, it would splinter under the weight of all the blue-ribbon commissions and consultant-generated reports that have for decades weighed in on what ails our state’s economy.

Now comes  another passel of reports from the College & University Collaborative. This group comprises professors and researchers from 11 Rhode Island higher education institutions. The reports cover a spectrum from education to transportation, along with such trendy topics as keeping educated millennials in Rhode Island.

This effort, financed by the Rhode Island Foundation as part of its `Make It Happen’ campaign, is a good one. There are fine ideas in much of this data, such as the need to explore partnerships between the public and private sectors to finance road and bridge repairs. Excellent work has been done on other issues, such as the viability of the state-run Obamacare HealthSource Rhode Island and the need for a better educated work force.

But this is old news. One report recycles rankings from such national sources as the CNBC cable network and Forbes, a business magazine.

Rhode Island ranks as the worst business climate in the nation, says CNBC.  Other states that rank high by this measure are Georgia, Texas, Nebraska and North Carolina. Forbes rates Utah, North Dakota and North Carolina as the top states to do business in.

These ratings play well in emphasizing decades of complaints by the business community and political conservatives. They also segue into our small state’s big inferiority complex. Why should we pay attention to such rankings that compare us to states that have very little in common with Rhode Island or any other New England state?

Texas, with its huge deposits of oil and gas, and fracking-friendly North Dakota, have economies that are nothing like the Ocean State. We don’t have extractive industries or massive mineral deposits. The other element the top rated states have in common is an antipathy to organized labor and a porous safety net for the poor.

Let’s say we don’t want to be a right-to-work for-less state, which is the case in most states in New England and the northeast. How can we be compared to Texas, a state in which 25 percent of children lack health insurance (just 5 percent of RI children do). And do you really know any smart young person who does not plan a career in the National Hockey  League who would turn down acceptance from Brown or Providence College to attend the University of North Dakota? (Even a hockey player might think twice after PC’ winning the NCAA Hockey title).

There are different measures of how well-off  a state is. One is data used by Rhode Island Kids Count, which measures children’s well-being on a state-by-state basis. This ranking takes into consideration such factors as the health, education, family and economic well-being of children and their families.

On this model, Rhode Island ranked 26th in the country, which doesn’t seem so bad until we are compared with our New England neighbors: Massachusetts (1), Vermont (2), New Hampshire (4), Connecticut (7) and Maine (14). On this scale, the Ocean State is dead last.

Other findings from the collaborative  show a great grasp for the obvious. Case in point: a paper by Joseph Roberts of Roger Williams University points out that education is the fulcrum for a higher-skilled work force. This research states what everybody at the Statehouse knows, that state support for public higher education was slashed by 26 percent between 2008 to 2013. Who did that? Look no further than the Smith Hill crowd.

Another round of research from the collaborative is planned. Let’s hope it contains some more realistic solutions to our state’s economic doldrums, such a cost estimates for improvements.

Rhode Island’s economy has been subject to study after study since the 1984 Greenhouse Compact, which urged investments in such industries as health care, high-value manufacturing and marine industries. Voters overwhelmingly rejected it but it didn’t stop the reports from piling up as the economy drifted down.

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