Getting a Sense of Rhode Island First

Brookings Institution scholars Bruce Katz and Mark Muro are on Newsmakers this week, talking about their new report giving tips to Rhode Island’s upper crust how to reinvent the state in their image.

That opening sentence is definitely contentious, but some of the things that the Brookings guys flew in from Washington, D.C., to say suggest that they believe the real fundamental questions that should be the right of every Rhode Islander to answer should actually be off the table.

For instance, Katz in particular attacks Rhode Island’s preference for smaller-level organizations, saying, “You’ve got a lot of parochialism here. It’s like 18th century government in the 21st century.”  Stated without the insult, though, I think most Rhode Islanders would say that’s a good thing.  The local-area distinctions are part of the state’s charm and ought to allow for more creativity in governance and economic activity.

Our problem is that insiders and special interests have sought to impose the 20th century progressive notion of the primacy of government, organized labor, and activists.  That’s what’s killing our state.  It prevents real diversity while locking in a sort of aesthetic parochialism.  In other words, we can’t change the character of villages that the ruling elite like or take nest eggs away from established interests, and we can’t truly innovate in our lives… at least without persuading government to let us.

Such centralized social restrictions relate to Brookings’s repeated suggestion that Rhode Island (by which they mean the insiders and special interests) has to figure out “what we’re good at.”  Even without access to its underlying research, it appears that the report should have concluded that Rhode Island government isn’t really allowing its people to be good at anything.  Rather, they found a few very small niches that aren’t completely stultified — perhaps because of a localized connection to the insider system or simply based on the strength of a few individual personalities — and lumped them together so they’d fit in boxes that could conceivably be called “industry sectors.”

That’s not identifying unique capacities of the state; it’s reinforcing the principle that the very things that are actually holding Rhode Island back are the basic qualities that can’t be changed, leaving them only to be worked around.  Indeed, mechanisms such as insider contests to hand out awards and grants for innovation are custom designed to ensure that nothing can happen without special interests’ say so.

Reading through the report, one can’t help but wonder if the progressives at Brookings looked at Rhode Island, saw the unavoidable consequences of their political philosophy, and layered on nearly 200 pages of analysis and proposals seeking some fancy policy maneuver that will escape the trap of reality.

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