Thursday, July 10th, 2014

A Toolkit for Rhode Island Policy Analysis

Sunday I described how Rhode Island’s fundamental economic problem is that it has been acting like it’s selling a premium product from a structurally advantaged position when in reality it’s selling a commodity product into a highly competitive global marketplace. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t gotten a lot of takers.

Before giving my starter set of action items, I want to provide a brief decision toolkit in the form of a set of guiding principles or questions to help people evaluate any proposed solutions. I won’t pretend this is a totally comprehensive list, but clearly these ought to be front and center.

Here are six questions that should be asked in evaluating policy:

1. What does this proposed policy mean to us, considering our competitive context?. This is where Rhode Island has to swallow hard and recognize that it is not a premium location for business and has start behaving like and making decisions like it’s in a competitive market. That’s gonna be tough, but it’s imperative.

Another way to think of this is my question about how to best embody the values of Rhode Islanders into a contextually appropriate policy set. It may be that in some cases, economic development takes a back seat. For example, Rhode Island is a “must shelter” state for homeless families. That is, families have to be given a place to stay, even a hotel room, if they are homeless. I’m sure this costs a lot of money, but I don’t care. I’d personally be willing to sacrifice some economic growth for this purpose (assuming someone made the case that eliminating this mandate would affect that). On the other hand, is it really necessary for people on temporary disability to be able to double-dip from both their employer and the state administered benefits fund? I don’t think so.

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. Again, like it or not, the state border is never more than a few miles away, and in today’s globalized economy, localities are at the mercy of the market. As progressive commentator Ramsin Canon put it regarding Chicago:

What we’re feeling viscerally, but seeing from too close to appreciate, is the logical end of decades of neoliberalization of government, which has transformed a managerial state into an entrepreneurial one. Our Mayors are now “entrepreneurs-in-chief,” and the result is that governance has been transformed from a participatory process of pooling resources and regulating behavior for the public good into one of government by private negotiation and enticement of capital through competition between states, cities, and even neighborhoods.
….
Why not raise property or luxury taxes, or institute a city income tax, to make up the deficit? Why not divert money from the TIF districts? See above; Chicago is no longer a political community, it is an economic entity that is in competition with other cities in the region, in the state, across the world. In that mental framework, tax is cost, or price. You raise prices, you drive away your clients.

Read the full piece for his prescription for change – again from a staunch progressive. Regardless of what we think of current conditions, anyone left or right has to start with an acknowledgement of reality.

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. Let California experiment with cap and trade or other things, succeed or fail as the case may be, and once there’s a proven model that’s economically efficient, jump on board. It’s like how flat panel TVs were originally the province of the rich, but eventually got perfected and prices collapsed down to where they became the norm. Similarly, when it comes to mandated benefits, if there’s one the state wants, rather than being one of the top five early adopters, wait till a tipping point gets hit (say 25 states) and join in then. Or think of it as a “pick your battles carefully” approach. But always be aware of the competitive context.

2. Is Rhode Island continuously improving at a rate faster than its competitors on a long term, sustainable basis? A second factor to consider is that it took a long time to get into this situation, and it will take a long time to get out. It’s just like losing weight. There is no silver bullet. There is no quick fix. There is no magic pill. We need to make lifestyle changes over the long term to get us where we want and need to be. As local consultant Kevin Hively once put it, “Rhode Island needs to change its diet, not take a shot of 5hr Energy.” And that’s dead on.

The guiding principle here should be: “Continuously improve at a rate faster than your competitors are improving over the long term.” And that’s the second way to evaluate policy proposals. Are they part of a sustainable program of change? Or are they just a flash the pan? Are they a gimmick? And are they improvements that are outpacing the improvements we know every other state is striving to make? Just because it’s better than the state’s past doesn’t mean it isn’t still falling further behind. Rhode Island needs to keep a finger on the pulse of the competition and what it’s doing. But it’s a journey and it’s lifestyle change.

And it needs to be maintained for the long term. Short term upticks can lull us into complacency. For example, as the national jobs picture improves, Rhode Island’s unemployment rate has fallen. But we’ve seen this movie before. Back in 1984 when the Greenhouse Compact failed, its opponent did a jig on its grave when Rhode Island’s economy had a moment in the sun. But it quickly faded and look where the state came to decades later. Rhode Island has to see evidence of improving strength across business cycles, not just following along in the footsteps of the national economy.

3. Is Rhode Island addressing the areas where it is worst in class or otherwise particularly disadvantaged? Since it is a long journey, Rhode Island has to know where to start and where to go next. The state should start where it’s worst in class or where it has things that are particularly causing competitive problems, the things that are directly a burden on job creation and economic growth.

For example, I hear about people wanting to eliminate the estate tax. I’m not a big fan estate taxes, and there were some particular problems with the so-called “cliff” that the legislature did something about this year. But is the estate tax the biggest thing discouraging people from starting a business in Rhode Island? I don’t think so. You have to have earn your estate first before you worry about paying taxes on it.

Similarly, the Republicans have really focused on the sales tax. Rhode Island’s sales tax isn’t low, but it’s not nearly the highest in the country either, especially when local taxes in other states are factored in. It’s almost 10% in Chicago, for example. In response to my City Journal piece, one local free market type said that his reason for advocating a sales tax cut was border arbitrage. But “beggar thy neighbor” policies and border wars are seldom positives over the longer term and generally indicative of “5Hr Energy” thinking. That’s doubly true in this case when Massachusetts has way more ammunition to fight with. The sales tax needs to be looked at competitively, but in a broader context and at a the right time.

On the other hand, Rhode Island has the worst rated unemployment insurance system in the country. That’s a direct burden on business. Places like that are where to start.

4. Is Rhode Island moving toward or away from the right balance between consumption vs. investment spending? Rhode Island government as a whole only spends 4.8% more per capita than the national average. But Rhode Island is well above average in spending on consumption items like social services and very below average in spending on investment items like infrastructure and higher education. Rhode Island spends 52% more per capita on human services than the national average. But it’s 47th in per capita higher education spending and has the 4th worst rated bridges in the nation.

I believe the state has to rebalance away from consumption towards investment. I’m not suggesting that Rhode Island gut its safety net. I’ve personally received government benefits and can attest to their importance. I won’t even say Rhode Island needs to have below average social services. But on a whole range of items it’s in the top five states in America. That’s simply not realistic given the competitive context, financial condition of the state, and the dire need for longer term investment.

But whatever your take, you should come up with a point of view on the right balance, and evaluate policies based on how they adjust the dials towards or away from that target balance.

5. Is Rhode Island promoting and de-risking entrepreneurship and the scaling of local businesses inside the state (vs. targeting large corporations and luring businesses from elsewhere)? Rhode Island needs to remember how it made its money in the first place. It did it through mostly through home grown businesses. It’s the same with other places. The Big Three were founded in Michigan. Most firms in the Bay Area started there – Google, Intel, Cisco, etc. Facebook may have moved, but it was tiny at the time.

So the state needs to adopt that mindset again. It’s going to have to grow its own success stories, and focus on creating an environment that’s conducive to that, not convincing fickle firms from elsewhere to pick it in a site selection. Post 38 Studios, I think that should almost go without saying. And again, the state doesn’t have enough financial ammo to get in bidding wars for business in any case.

CVS is an interesting case study here. It does get subsidies from the state, but fundamentally why is CVS in Rhode Island? Because, although it was originally started in Mass, the founders were from Woonsocket. So they grew it there and now the company has a huge headquarters in the state. Rhode Island needs to build more home grown success stories like that over the longer term.

6. Is Rhode Island setting policies and making investments like an integrated urban region (a city state)? Rhode Island is the city-state. People there say it a lot, but don’t act like it. Instead, all of its 39 cities and towns are treated similarly, and as completely autonomous independent entities, not part of overall urban or metropolitan region.

In the 21st century economy, it’s metropolitan areas, and particularly metropolitan areas of greater than a million people, that are the hubs of economic activity. That’s Rhode Island (aka Metropolitan Providence). That’s good news. That is a structural advantage, but the state isn’t taking advantage of it because it doesn’t make policies like it’s an urban region. Its policies today seem more like it thinks it’s collections of villages in the English countryside.

For example, when the state extends the T to Wickford Jct. and proposes to extend it all way the Westerly, that’s not investing like an urban region. When I hear people pounding the table for why agriculture is so key to the state’s future, that’s not thinking like an urban region. Clearly the tradition of New England towns isn’t going away and that limits what can be accomplished, but it’s important to ask what can be done to move the needle in the right direction.

So those are six questions to ask when assessing policy. In my final installment, I’ll give some specific suggestions for how to get started moving forward.

Full disclosure: I took a couple of these ideas from someone else who I’ll leave anonymous so he or she doesn’t end up guilty by association with me.

2 Comments
Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Urban Culture
Cities: Providence

2 Responses to “A Toolkit for Rhode Island Policy Analysis”

  1. Mike Arden says:

    Great Article. I agree with your premise, and your specific recommendations are spot on. You are doing a public service with articles like these. Hopefully some in the GA are listening, although it will take a long time for any impact.

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