The curious case of Rhode Island

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 But many of those interviewed said that, instead, the smallness has trapped the state in parochialism, insecurity and outdated traditions that block change at every turn… State leaders cringed last fall when Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric, said on Fox News that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!”

2 Replies to “The curious case of Rhode Island”

  1. i’ve been impressed by what i’ve seen of rhode island, and my hunch – economists out there, correct me if i’m wrong – is that the state is getting punished for doing exactly what it thought it was supposed to do … building a glittering, glassy, commuters-to-boston and offices-at-home post-industrial, post-gritty waterfront economy based on paper and folks at desks and speculation… while conversely, our pain remains a little less (if you can call the extinction of syracuse china and the new process a little less) because we never had the ‘up’ of the economy we longed for, that latte economy … and it doesn’t hurt to lose what you don’t have. what hurts is the muscle, which could come next.


  2. I’ve given some thought to Rhode Island recently, as it’s where I live – Providence, to be exact. Oddly enough, it was my move here (from Boston) that rekindled my interest in Syracuse and its history, as my office overlooks the unearthed Providence River. Every other weekend in the summer, the city holds WaterFire, which is centered around this canal. Tens of thousands of people are drawn downtown on these Saturday evenings. Why hadn’t this ever been done with the Erie Canal, I wondered. When I discovered the online Syracuse Newspapers archives last summer, and read articles dating back to the 60s and 70s about people in Syracuse who HAD wanted to unearth the Erie Canal downtown, I started to wonder what other forward thinking ideas had once been discussed and since forgotten?

    That said, I’ve always been hesitant to do any comparisons on my own blog, because, as the article states, RI has a host of serious problems. As I spend most of my time in Providence — and the East Side at that — I experience very little of Rhode Island as a whole. Plus, I work and live in the college community, so most of my colleagues are non-natives as well. But as far as discussions of downtown revitalization go, I will say that Providence has a lot of ideas to offer Syracuse.

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