The first thing the Providence Journal discusses in the editorial is the low unemployment rate, just about the national average, tempered by discussion of Rhode Island as the first place into a recession and the last place out. The First In, Last Out bemoaning always lays the blame on Rhode Island’s supposedly lousy business climate. Obviously the editorial board never reads the letters to the editor in their own paper or they would know that the whole business climate game is a scam perpetrated by the institutions funded by the Koch brothers as part of their campaign to destroy liberal democracy and pave the way for right wing autocratic rule. (See: here and here.) I have repeatedly asked the Providence Journal to produce statistically valid evidence that a business climate correlates with economic growth rates. They have produced zero, zilch. And the reason that they have not, nor anyone else, is that no such correlation exists in any statistically meaningful way. (See: here and here.)
Think about it. If a correlation between a state’s business climate ranking and its economic growth rate existed it would be headline news and tax cutting by legislatures would be totally uncontroversial as well as work better than it has in Kansas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Arizona Every speech given by a politician would cite the study. But no study with this result is ever offered. And yet we are told to kowtow to this wisdom despite nothing to back it up except propaganda by the self interested. Consider the constant drum beat about the “weak” Rhode Island economy over the years being related to Rhode Island being business unfriendly, and then note the yearly staff reductions at DEM and the yearly effort to cut taxes for the rich and remove regulations. Rhode Island obeys corporate orders, slashes funding, cuts taxes, and yet very little changes so the corporados come back for more the next year, insatiably. Or take the case of North Dakota where the business climate rankings are always high but the entire state economy goes up and down with the fracking boom. It was #4 in the nation for business climate rankings the year its economy shrank by 9.6 percent.
For the last five years, year in year out, Rhode Island has averaged 70 percent of the US average growth rate, a growth rate pumped up by unsustainably exploiting all manner of resources, but in recent years primarily fracking. It is not the business climate that holds us back Maybe this is really what we are. Factors involved in calculating business climates are of very limited influence in determining growth rates. History, resource base, justice, environmental health, quality of life, and infrastructure are MUCH more important in determining a state’s growth rate, and provide a foundation not subject to rapid change. And no matter what we are told, history and natural resources are not really subject to the whims of the legislature, the business magazines, nor the criminal think tanks funded by the Koch family fortune except when the rich rape and pillage. Maybe we are evolving into a 21st Century Steady State economy and would make more progress if we did not keep following the regressive policies promoted by right wing billionaires. (See: here and here.)
No one is opening new mines in Rhode Island, we have no oil, limited coal (there once was a coal mine near Garden City), a dearth of agricultural land, and our fisheries are stressed enough. We do not have vast teeming migrations from agricultural regions ( the anti immigrant right wing misses the biggest possible source of economic growth with their racist hatred) and forests being industrialized causing our cities to swell, though we get plenty of refugees fleeing American financed wars and dictators. Other than wind and solar power, new natural resource industries are not coming here in any meaningful way. We are a small state, with a relatively small urban core, not a global megacity. Our agricultural hinterlands are already urbanized and suburbanized. We are never going to match the global average for growth led by places with very poor rural populations rapidly urbanizing, let alone the US average as long as it is inflated by fracking. But we are expected to for some reason even though we have none of the characteristics that truly are associated with rapid growth. We float up and down with the Wall St, global and national economies and only a true localization movement will break that spell. Maybe we are already doing okay given who we are and to push for more does more harm than good? But it seems to be too slow for the already rich who need more to steal.
Let us go back to the business climate.
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First of all every ranking uses different criteria, and almost all of them have biased formulas, but one of the things that many of them wish for is that we just have a level playing field, that we do not give sweet heart deals to businesses. So Providence Journal, you are not only ill informed, you are hypocrites, as you regularly call for tax breaks for the rich. And what about capitalism? What self respecting capitalist would even take a subsidy? Are they all rent seekers rather than entrepreneurs? If you believe in free enterprise the whole idea of tax breaks and subsidies is anathema. Or is that a convenient fiction until it is your turn for the goodies? If we are giving subsidies, lets give them to local small businesses instead of offering the whole candy store to a few big players,. You could fund 1000 businesses with the subsidy that goes to one big player. Think about it. Which is going to create more employment in communities that need it most? One big business getting massive subsidies hiring mostly people moving in from elsewhere, or 1000 small subsidies to local entrepreneurs in low income neighborhoods? (See: here and here.)
The idea of subsidizing the rich so they can create jobs is a big meme in America, and yet contradicts the philosophy of getting the government out of the economy. But what is worse is that there is no evidence that subsidizing the rich, especially for downtown real estate development, actually does any good except for the owners of downtown real estate. Everyone else loses. Even the World Bank and International Monetary Fund know funding the wealthy is no way to develop an economy. As economist Thomas Piketty noted, it creates greater inequality, and ultimately that is bad for the long term economy.
And while we are at it lets get real about the mixed economy. If we are to subsidize, to use our tax dollars to improve life in the community through business, which does more good, and which is a more appropriate use of the public’s money? Millions to rich people for downtown real estate, a proposition that increases inequality and drives up the cost of housing for the entire city, or millions shared among 1000 people building local businesses Why is one frowned upon by the elite and the other expected? The straight answer is that the mixed economy is okay as long as its rigged for the rich, but not okay if it helps low income communities. (See here, here and here.)
If one takes government spending out of the picture, if the government no longer built infrastructure or ran schools, did not buy emergency relief supplies, did not maintain a national, or a state, or a local park system, no longer spent vast sums on new and better ways to kill, the economy would be very different, and smaller. Can you imagine the Western United States without its huge, publicly financed and managed water management systems, subsidized grazing ranges, and land giveaways for mining? Los Angeles would be a small desert community with a better river. None of the clowns who claim to be for pure capitalism would ever let the military industrial complex go completely private and we do know how poorly private soldiers worked out in Iraq. We have a mixed economy, and truly honoring that would help our economic development much more than accepting the hypocritical line that abhors subsidies except for the wealthy.
Mike Stenhouse, of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity (ought to be named Rhode Island Center for the Protection of the Old boys Money and Power (RICPOMP) said on camera when debating me on State of the State in 2017 that facts and statistics do not matter, following the lead of the orange headed monster in the White House and his Koch family paymasters. Always amazing when a person who runs a prominent “think” tank, one totally bought and paid for by the super rich, is so bad at parroting the corporate line that he admits he regularly lies because only if he lies can the story he wants told dominate the news cycle. If the truth were told, folks would laugh at him, just like the folks at the United Nations did to President Toxic Dump. Anyway, Mike Stenhouse tells us we should have a truly capitalist system, no rules, few taxes, no welfare, no health care for the low income and elderly. Government should be nothing more than a police force and an army, as the poor need nothing, not safe housing, decent food, medical care, or good schools. Everything should be private. But killing the poor, blacks, and foreigners at home and abroad is just fine as long as it helps the oil companies because that is what pays his salary. In other words, subsidize the toys and games of the rich and allow them to kill, loot, pillage, and pollute at will if we want the rich to get rich faster while everyone else falls further behind. The only thing Mr Stenhouse and I agreed on was that subsidizing the PawSox stadium was a very poor idea.
The Big Three
The post Ben Mondor PawSox made mistake after mistake in their quest for a new stadium and eventually wore out their welcome and our desire to shovel millions of dollars to them. If they had not riled up the populace so much with their ridiculous effort to build a ball park on the Providence Waterfront they may have had more luck putting together a winning program in Pawtucket, but they used up a great deal of goodwill, and gave the community more time to fight back. The fact that most of the time cities do not gain all that much benefit from subsidizing ballparks also has to be in the equation. We are properly skeptical and we also know that the big boost that will supposedly come from real estate development around the stadium is slower than promised and can go belly up in the next crash, which is usually just as the ballpark opens. The who gets stuck with the bill?
On September 16th the Providence Journal lambasted Rhode Island politicians for being unable to cut a deal with the greed heads who now own the Woosox. This was followed up by an editorial 2 days later “Whooping it up in Worcester,” complaining about how incompetent Rhode Island politicians are, but also admitting the greed heads were hard to take, and the politicians were trying to get a better deal because Rhode Island does not have the resources of a state with 5 times the population and 6 times the area. Rhode Island has also been burned by baseball before, and having gone to a number of events when the Pawsox were trying to drum up support all over the state, I can say I am as disgusted with Larry Luchino as he appears to be with us. He earned his enmity.
That Worcester is stupid enough to pony up over $101 million dollars to the rich greed heads who own the Paw Sox says something is very wrong in Worcester. You might also notice Worcester and Massachusetts did not hold public hearings. Is that what is required for a good business climate, to shut the public out of decisions? Better to just funnel the money without giving the public a chance to weigh in when handing oodles of cash to the billionaires. There are plenty of folks in Worcester and Massachusetts who know the deal is a bad one for them, and who would have come out for a hearing. The people of Massachusetts are about to find that out how poor a deal they got. I sat and discussed the economy with Speaker Nicholas Mattiello a while back, and think he knows almost nothing about the real economy, but in this case he tried to cut the best deal possible for Rhode Island and would not let us be taken advantage of. It may be the only decent thing he has done during his reign. Let the billionaire cry babies go rather than have us subsidize them.
Then the Providence Journal Editorial Board moves on to the proposed Clear River Energy Center power plant in Burrillville and says real men would never let the public stop a really disastrous project like a new fracked gas power plant. How can the public be so crazy as to try to stop such a wonderful development? The editorial board of the Providence Journal sounds like they have never heard of climate change and how it is caused by the excessive burning of fossil fuels, and how the warmer ocean temperatures fueling the bigger storms are the direct result of the burning of carbon based fuels. Even If they take climate change seriously nothing they have ever written lends credence to the idea that they support the work it would take to remedy the situation in the near term. Everyone else is admonished for supporting ideas without a clear and practical strategy for implementation. Okay Providence Journal, you are on. I really want to see your plan for getting to zero carbon emissions by 2035, and your acknowledgement of the rapid need for transformation given all of the information coming out, and the stronger storms, we see each year,. What part of climate change is the Providence Journal in denial about? Is it just the work to repair the damage? How is that different in effect from denying the science of climate change itself?
Tell us what Providence needs to do to prepare for sea level rise? Should Rhode Island begin an orderly retreat from the ocean? How many hot violent summer nights does the Providence Journal want to see, given that every study shows that people commit more acts of violence when it gets too hot. How many heat deaths and storm deaths will it take to get the Editorial Board to understand how serious the problem is and how soon the state of Rhode Island needs to eliminate ALL carbon emissions if we are to have a livable planet? Climate deniers are committing crimes against humanity, millions are already dying from heat induced traumas including droughts, fires, and wars. Ask the people of Syria about the drought that sparked the violence there or the people of California how it is like to live through the inferno.
The Providence Journal always claims to be pro innovation. Then why is it foot dragging or rather knuckle dragging its way into the fossil fuel free world we need? The carbon based industries are the old economy, they hold us back as well as cause massively expensive damage to everything including the food supply. I want innovators to go forward, not backwards into the age of pollution. Newly built fossil fuel power plants and other fossil fuel facilities will become stranded assets a few years down the road when renewables cost less and all fossil fuels are banned following the next killer hurricane and flooded neighborhood. Building a new fossil fuel power plant now will end up bankrupting communities that get further entwined in the fossil fuel business. Hell, even the New England Pool operator said the power is not needed as clean renewables are taking over and efficiency is reducing the overall demand.
Seems like the Providence Journal is content to see Providence and the Rhode Island salt marshes and beaches drown to protect the short term interest of its Texas ownership, as well as watch our forests, wildlife, and peace of mind disappear. They must believe Oil rules the world, except maybe where the owners of downtown real estate run it. The Providence Journal seems to relish slamming the public for protecting their communities and the planet when it gets in the way of rich criminals making more money. And again democracy be damned, those pesky community activists are just too much, and they actually know their stuff better than the paid clowns from the company and its law firms.
I know it is anathema to those who are in the economic development business, but economies develop from the bottom up, not the top down. When the community is behind a project, it is much more likely to be successful, and when the community is opposed, even if the ruling class thinks it will be great, the ruling class needs to pay attention to the public. Our track record on these things is better than yours. Just imagine a container port opening in Quonset just as the 2007 recession hit and shipping crashed. It would make 38 Studios debt seem like a picnic. As a stakeholder on that project, I saw how almost every politician in the state was conned by the container port developers who had no real plan, no money, and no connections. What fills those container ships is massively contributing to deforestation, climate change, and genocide and will not help our economy no matter what the Providence Journal and the ruling class tell us. Just like the proposed Invenergy power plant.
We have these two forces that should be working together, the economy and democracy. When they row together, when the people get a large say in what happens, good things happen. We can rarely say that about projects crammed down our throats by the rich despite our objections. Especially projects that are so far behind the times as a fracked gas power plant. In a democracy the most clear cut indicator that democracy is strong is the people have a right to prevent the rich from destroying their community in their pursuit of profit. What about communities having a right to say what kind of development they want does the Providence Journal find so objectionable? If the people do not want a development, it behooves the developer to propose something better and more acceptable, If there is nothing profitable to build that the people think fits, forest and farms work well everywhere, and in the long term will bring greater prosperity than an economy rigged for Wall St.
Lets move on to the Fane Tower. Everything I said about the right of a community to resist the powerful, goes here as well, but we need a larger discussion about how the Fane Tower fits into the economic development strategy of the Rhode Island elite, and how that fails all of us.
Lets start with the basics. Every involved in urban planning and development and planning organizations KNOW that spot zoning is NOT a good idea. Period, end of story. When Providence tried to change the zoning code, the people demanded that the city undertake a comprehensive plan first, and Mayor Cicilline responded with a well managed public process in which hundreds of people all over the city got heard. We looked long and hard at the troubles we have and what we wanted to see where. We did the same thing years before in looking at the 195 parcels. Just because some rich developer wants to dangle money in front of a few powerful interests and crooked politicians does not mean that the project is good for us or that we should simply abandon the work the people of the city did. Having participated pretty extensively in the city comp plan and zoning process as well as the 195 discussions, I know the resulting documents and plans were informed by the general public, experts in the community, the business community, and the city planning staff. It was not a radical agenda run amok, and if the plans and zoning code were well received in the the halls of government it was because they had community input and backing even if there are legitimate reasons to think specific parts of the plans get it wrong. What part of the process or results would the Providence Journal have us to succumb to for 30 shekels of silver? Is the Providence Journal simply calling for spot zoning to satisfy some millionaire because it has dollar signs in its eyes? If someone wants to change what the city and community wrought, then let us go through a process of public discussion to change it comprehensively, not building by building.
Mr Fane made a serious mistake in trying to locate his iconic tower on the same site where the community had been riled up by the PawSox debacle. He should have anticipated that that parcel would receive a greater scrutiny. We are not to blame for him being unprepared. The Providence Journal and Mr Fane have never adequately addressed a basic principal that guided all of the 195 land development, that on the west side of the river, taller buildings could be built further inland, but nearer the river a 100 foot height limit was to ensure that the river, one of the major attractions of the city, is still visible. There are plenty of other places a taller building could go. Usually when a developer asks for a zoning variance it is a relatively minor transgression of the zoning code, an extra floor, a slightly larger footprint, fewer parking spots. This proposal was intended to blast far past any previous code, including the long standing tradition of building nothing taller than the state house. Maybe it is time to blast through the height limit, but not where we specifically said we wanted to see the water and open up access to the new park, and what is looking like it will be an amazing bridge. Build it up on the hill and I will personally testify that it is okay to be taller than the state house and to amend the zoning code.
I find it rather interesting that every organized neighborhood association in the city has opposed the Fane Tower and that the Providence Journal sees fit to ignore their input. Neighborhood associations in Providence are not some wild eyed radicals. Yes some radicals are associated with them, I served on the Summit Neighborhood
So after we get done with the lousy process, which should eliminate the Fane Tower right up front, the real reason to oppose the Fane Tower is that it represents a failed strategy of real estate development as economic development. The strategy of giving the rich what they want, including oodles of the public’s money, under the pretext that it would lead to a more prosperous city just ends up with most of the people in the city falling further and further behind Even though The Rhode Island strategy has often been called Meds and Eds, an idea captured in the effort to rename the Jewelry District the Knowledge and Innovation District, it is still based on real estate games that only make us poorer.
Lets talk Meds and Eds since clearly Fane in picking his spot right across from the highly subsidized Wexler
It is more than a bit of a problem that we spend so much on High Tech health care to so little good. Public health measures seem to be much more effective at increasing longevity than the heroic cures and advances we see coming out of the healthcare research labs. A more balanced approach, focused on healthier communities, nutrition, eliminating pollution, transforming energy away from fossil fuels will all increase longevity for Americans more than the current model based on hi tech research and an ever more poisoned environment. A holistic approach to health will be more affordable and ultimately provide better health AND livelihoods for more people than the current approach. Where this intersects the Fane Tower is that the tower is being built specifically to house the people being recruited to Providence by an industry that is progressively making Americans poorer. You do have to house them if you continue to attract them, but it is also clear that what also happens in these cases is that it continues to put excessive pressure on neighborhoods through the gentrification process, slowly but inexorably pushing communities and neighborhoods apart and making it ever more difficult for lower income people to afford or find housing without making people healthier.
The real answer to the housing crisis is not luxury buildings on the slowly flooding waterfront, especially those built to house folks moving here to work in the medical industrial complex. What this city really needs is housing affordable for those who already live here. The building of housing has very large throughput and carbon footprints and probably needs to be completely reinvented in the age of disappearing forests, climate change, and ecological collapse. Every new building should be producing more energy than it uses from totally clean sources so they are cheaper to live in, and should be built from materials that are presently being squandered and thrown away instead new materials. Maybe we need to produce modular housing and housing based on 3d printing instead of current techniques. That would give us an opportunity to turn some of our old factories into manufactured housing module production units and create a new set of industries. Then it will be easier to use the recycled materials and integrate the energy production units into the skin of the building while extending the life of the Central Landfill. The real estate speculation with tax breaks and Meds and Eds model of development and housing is broken and the Providence Journal approach is not going to fix it.
The big problems with the Rhode Island economy are primarily the expectations of the rich, the expectations of a growing economy, the thinking that churning real estate builds sustainable prosperity, our growing inequality, the inability to create jobs based on the skill sets of the people who already live here, and the need to prop up financial institutions and the developers who are ripping us off. We should be seeking a steady state economy based on local production for local needs, clean energy, food security, and healthier communities A better understanding of how the world is actually changing, a much bigger dose of democracy, a commitment to reverse climate change, and the will to build the affordable housing stock we need for the people who already live here will provide the opportunities for innovation within a steady state economy that no longer is destroying ecosystems or stealing forests from those who live in them. Tax breaks for the medical industries and spot zoning and Tax Stabilization Agreements’s for luxury housing are not appropriate, and the public reaction tells us that very clearly. Time for the ruling class to catch up to the rest of the community and commit to real justice, ecological healing, economic equality, and stopping climate change as we develop our economy for the rest of the 21st century.