Have you thought about Rhode Island lately? Me neither. The New York Times tries to figure out why Rhode Island, of all places, has the second-highest unemployment rate in the U.S.
In several dozen recent interviews, Rhode Islanders agreed on this much: Their state’s smallness has contributed to its problems, but could be its best asset if properly exploited. Saul Kaplan, who until December was executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, called the state’s size a “secret sauce” that could help businesses develop products or services quickly. But many of those interviewed said that, instead, the smallness has trapped the state in parochialism, insecurity and outdated traditions that block change at every turn… State leaders cringed last fall when Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric, said on Fox News that Rhode Island’s tax structure made it “the 48th-most-acceptable state for business.” In fact, a study last fall by the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan group in Washington, ranked Rhode Island’s business climate the fifth-worst in the nation.
Hm, sounds familiar. Interestingly, Rhode Island is just about the size of Central New York (really, just the Syracuse metro area). This makes me wonder: if CNY was a state, would it be better or worse in that ranking than RI?
An intriguing fact about Rhode Island is that it used to control up to 90% of the American slave trade after the Revolution and up until the point when the forced importation of Africans was abolished. This dusty old historical fact somehow feels germane to the state’s current economic inflexibility and stagnation, though I’m not sure why. Perhaps it presaged a pattern of heavy overinvestment in unsustainable and doomed economic trends.
I can’t say we’ve been doing anything much smarter than Rhode Island in remaking the CNY economy, but I feel our long-term outlook is probably better. We have more alignment options and more potential communication with other countries and regional economies (i.e. Canada, the Midwest instead of just Wall Street). Maybe we can have a new twist on that old game of Upstate intra-city putdowns, and instead say “At least we’re not Rhode Island!”