Rhode Island Fix a Philosophical Shift; Contra Renn, Part 1 of 6


[Responding to Aaron Renn’s multiple essays on Rhode Island made for a large dish.  I’ve therefore broken it into six pieces, more conducive to digestion.]

Rhode Islanders keep recommending Aaron Renn’s writing on the Ocean State’s predicament.  It’s telling that it can generate so much excitement when somebody simply acknowledges that reality matters when formulating public policy.

Excitement that somebody in the policy universe is willing to agree on a basic principle of analysis, however, shouldn’t be the same as agreement with his conclusions.  In that regard, those promoting Renn’s suggestions should look more closely.  I’ve already addressed parts of his City Journal essay, which kicked off the series, but posts on his blog drift farther into error.

Prior to offering his “starter set of action items” (forthcoming) Renn describes a “toolkit,” or six questions that leaders in the state should ask as they develop policy.  In some cases the question is generic enough to be useful, but the hints of implied “action items” are worrisome.  In other cases, the questions set the conversation off in the wrong direction.

“1. What does this proposed policy mean to us, considering our competitive context?”

This question fits neatly in the category of acknowledging reality when setting policy.  Anybody who disagrees with this sentiment should be banished from making policy decisions: “Rhode Island has to ask what the results of a policy will be in the Ocean State, not just how well it worked out in New York, San Francisco, or Seattle.”

However, when Renn gets to his interpretation of how the question might apply to Rhode Island, his ideological preferences begin to emerge:

In my view this means that in most cases Rhode Island needs to be a bandwagon jumper, not a bleeding edge innovator, on things like green energy and social service levels.

Renn omits a limiting factor, here.  The stated principle — “Rhode Island needs to be a bandwagon jumper” — applies only if the “bandwagon” is (as he implies) one of big-government social policies.  We shouldn’t be “a bleeding edge innovator” when it comes to making bleeding-heart decisions for which the people of Rhode Island are willing to sacrifice some of our prosperity.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t other ways in which we can be an innovator, especially when our values will arguably advance our economy.  The reason Renn gives this possibility short shrift (one suspects) is that policies that help people while not being a drag on a community’s prosperity tend, in our current context, to involve less control for government and planning wonks, like Renn.

Suppose, for example, Rhode Islanders determine that a system of total school choice would be in line with our values by providing the greatest amount of opportunity for our children to learn while also allocating resources more efficiently and representing a competitive differentiator when families and businesses consider where to locate.  Or what if being the first state in the country to eliminate or dramatically reduce its sales tax would give an economic and motivational boost to Rhode Islanders?

It’s notable that Renn has mentioned the sales tax policy twice.  In his City Journal article, he dismisses it as the suggestion of “some locals.”  Later in the “toolkit” post, he calls it a policy on which “the Republicans have really focused.”  Never mind that the primary sponsors of the legislation, and the most vocal legislative champions, have been Democrats.

By telling progressives to take it easy on the layers of suffocating regulations and handouts, Renn also neatly invalidates ideologically opposite policies that would change the trajectory of the state quickly enough that our children could actually benefit.  What if our “competitive context” calls for innovation?

[Read part 2, here.]

  • Mike

    I think he is just being realistic. Little 'ol RI is just not going to be a successful innovator. So instead of a hail mary pass, let's just try not to be 50th. Let's get to 25.