Rhode Island economic summit comments November 2014

Inside the November 26 Providence Journal is a headline “Raimondo to hold “summit’ on the economy”. The article goes on to report on the Rhode Island jobs crisis and how convening the same people who got us into this mess will provide the solution. Sorry, but if you have seen one press release on an economic summit, you have seen them all.

The “leaders” Governor elect Raimondo will convene have been convened before and will offer up the same old tired solutions. The will tell us to reduce taxes, loosen regulations, and support meds, eds, real estate speculation, and entrepreneurship. We have heard this before, and it has not worked yet.

The reason it has not worked is not that we do not follow the prescription despite what the “leaders will tell us. Rather it is does not work because it is the wrong reading of the economy and where it will go on the trip to prosperity for Rhode Islanders. Making it easier to build in wetlands simply floods the towns downstream.

In order to bring prosperity to Rhode Island communities development must be focused on ecological healing and economic justice. You can not separate these concepts, but for clarity, lets start with economic justice. Economic development is not a top down process. It is a bottom up process that must be done in ways that communities are comfortable with. Communities have the right to say no to inappropriate projects, and we must remember how many boondoggles have been foisted upon Rhode Islanders when they are not consulted, and how often we have saved the state’s bacon when we have risen up and demanded to be consulted.

The second part of justice is that inequality in the economy is one of the things that weighs us down. It is only when the bottom 50% are doing well that the community thrives. The World Bank has found that in low income communities, the removal of community assets by the rich contributes to impoverishment. Gentrification does not help our communities, it is just another form of deportation.

As for ecological healing, climate change is changing everything. Clean energy is on everyone’s agenda, and it should be, but we need to focus even more attention on food security. Even the Pentagon knows that droughts in key agricultural areas are sending upheavals around the planet. The Arab Spring was sparked when grain shortages due to drought and fires in Russia sent prices through the roof. We may think police murdering youth gets people out in the streets, but when people can not feed their children, governments fall.

The California drought is going to mean food insecurity for many Rhode Islanders and real hunger for some. A way to combine ecological healing, climate mitigation, and economic justice is to help Rhode Island grow 20 times as much food as it does now. Build soil carbon, create jobs, feed the hungry, build our resilience.

Governor elect Raimondo ought to listen to someone other than the same old voices telling her things that do not work. Instead of the usual crowd, leave half of them home and fill the other half of the room with people focused on ecological healing, climate change, organic agriculture and food security. That discussion would be a lot more interesting and much more likely to find solutions.

Greg Gerritt

An open letter to Governor Lincoln Chafee November 2014

Dear Governor Chafee,

This is a letter that will be made public. You should know that as you read it.

I doubt that you have been really pleased with the performance of the Rhode Island economy during your term. I do not think anyone has been all that pleased.

You probably do not remember the meeting we had in the spring of 2010 when you were running for governor. I explained where I thought the economy was going and why. You looked absolutely frightened by what I told you and were in no mood to even consider that I might have been correct in my understanding of what Rhode Island faced. You were going to stick by the traditional grow the economy standbys despite the fact that they were designed for a vastly different economy than we face.

I know much more than I did 4 years ago, and have watched the Rhode Island economy continue to struggle. My regret is that if you had been willing to understand what RI faced you could have devised a much better strategy and RI would be a more prosperous place than it is now.

What I told you was that the RI economy was not going to grow much and that we needed to be smart about how to shrink it rather than thrash around for growth. You have given yourself over to the business climate fanatics with the growth plans that no longer work if they ever did. The data is rather clear. You should read the report from Kansas Inc, the Kansas version of the RI Commerce Corporation. http://www.kansasinc.org/pubs/working/Business%20Climate%20Indexes.pdf

Business climate is a meaningless concept created by the pr firms that told us tobacco does not cause cancer and that there is no climate change, or if there is climate change it is not man made. You know better about the climate, even if you have done much too little to help RI prepare for climate change rolling disasters such as the drought in California threatening the food supply. But you have swallowed hook, line, and sinker that if we did what the business climate maniacs want us to do, then growth would follow. You followed the party line. There are still fewer jobs than 6 years ago. The reason RI lags the national job growth averages are inherent in old post industrial places with few fossil fuel and hard metal resources in a world in which resources are limited, sinks are failing, and what growth there is needs to end up in the hands of the poorest, not the richest, if communities are to thrive. There is nothing in the prescriptions offered by the business climate quacks that address our situation. The increases in inequality that cutting taxes on the rich and speeding up destruction of ecosystems brings in an era of job shrinkage due to computers are part of the problem, not the solution.

I also want us to push back the drum beat on regulatory reform and how regulations are supposed to be holding us back. Beyond the simple minded attack on the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act that underlies all of the anti regulatory fervor in America we have to remember how often it is the citizens of RI uniting to stop BAD projects that were presented to us as economic nirvanas that have prevented ever greater disasters. You know quite well that if Rhode Island had had a full open discussion of 38 Studios we would not be out $100 million. You might also want to remember that if the public had been shut out and the Mega port at Quonset had been built, it would have opened just as the global economy tanked and cost us $1 billion.

The point you never made, and should have, is that if we are to make permitting easier, everyone wants simple easy to read and fill out forms, we need to make it easier for communities to defend themselves as well. Easy permitting can not be an attack on the environment or our health and safety if it is to actually help our communities achieve prosperity. We have to remember how to subtract as well as add when pondering the economy we want.

You are not the only elected official I have had this conversation with. Several years ago I sat with Speaker Fox and Leader (now Speaker) Mattiello and told them what I knew that day. I did not get the impression that Speaker Mattiello could remove his ideological blinders about the role of ecology and justice in prosperity any better than you. His public statements do not give me much hope.

I helped organize a meeting between Governor elect Raimondo and a number of the leading environmental thinkers in our state about a year ago. Several of us made the point on the importance of ecology and justice in prosperity in an age of shrinking economies in the old industrial west. The next Governor wanted to talk about storm water and solar power, but needs to continue to evolve on Full Cost Accounting, the need for the public to be fully engaged in decisions about economic development in the community, and how climate change changes everything. Food Security may just be the best lens for examining economic development policy under the circumstances.

I had a similar conversation with Mayor Elect Elorza when his campaign was beginning. I hope he remembers that Providence needs to grow 20 times as much food as it is now and that this is a key to our future economy. And using real estate speculation as a stand in for actual economic development in a city that already is too expensive to live in only serves the rich.

I expect you will do some very interesting things once you leave office. I think your best work may be ahead of you. And we all know there is much to do.

Greg Gerritt