The US is reinventing its economy; can Rhode Island do likewise?

Jul 18, 2012

Even with what often seems like a tepid recovery, the United States is working its way back toward a muscular economy — if you believe the Economist.

The sharp-eyed British newsmagazine points to a number of factors: under-valued homes, increasing exports, the growing “app economy,” and more. So if the nation can do it, what about the perennial sick man of the New England states?

The unveiling of JetBlue today as a new carrier out of T.F. Green offers a boost, even as the woes of the state Economic Development Corporation very much remain in the news. But perhaps if we’re lucky, the 38 Studios’ debacle will lead the state to drop its periodic pursuit of an imaginary magic bullet to juice the economy.

Governor Chafee campaigned on a theme of building on Rhode Island’s assets. That hasn’t helped the state, so far at least, to lower its high unemployment rate.

During an interview on a different subject this morning, I asked state Treasurer Gina Raimondo about the economic outlook, since she has a background as a venture capitalist. Specifically, how does she thinks Rhode Island should simultaneously pursue short-term and long-term economic development. Here’s part of what Raimondo said:

“I think the question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘what do we have to do to make Rhode Island competitive?’ You know, we live in an increasingly competitive world; what do we have to do to make our state competitive ?

And that means we have to have a strong public education system ; infrastructure — you know, I was very happy earlier this year to be part of an effort to extend the runway at T.F. Green Airport.  We need roads, bridges, and transportation. We need a regulatory environment and an openness on behalf of state officials to have a real sense of urgency around making Rhode Island a good place to do business . . . “ 

Rhode Island has struggled to reinvent its economy since the decline of the Industrial Age, and there hasn’t been much urgency attached to the issue any time recently, at least judging by the pronounements of public officials.

The state’s small size, rather than enabling it to be nimble, often seems like a barrier to overcoming inertia. So if Rhode Island can solve its biggest problem without outside help, it still has to prove the skeptics wrong.