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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

‘We’ve Hit Rock Bottom’

Governor Chafee On RI
In an Economist article entitled “Bankruptcy in Rhode Island“, Governor Lincoln Chafee is quoted as saying “We’ve hit rock bottom in this state”. And, frankly, I don’t know how to take it.

The article is about the municipal budget problems that are cropping up across the Rhode Island. Essentially, as we well know, Rhode Island is undergoing austerity, and in ways that of course fall mostly on those that can least afford it (as Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi has pointed out, austerity only applies to regular people). 

The recent showings in Greece and France, where anti-austerity forces triumphed and expanded (turning Europe back towards fascism and communism as it did in the post-WW1 era), provide continued support to my thesis that austerity overthrows its own enactors. 

And that’s to say nothing of Italy, where in local provincial elections, an anti-austerity political party set up by a comedian thrashed the parties in government.

The problem for Gov. Chafee is that he and the General Assembly are largely responsible for Rhode Island’s austerity crisis (indeed, the General Assembly can only blame themselves). But for the small caucus of progressives in both the House and Senate, even most Democratic legislators are pro-austerity.
Rhode Island is not even blessed with an anti-austerity third party (the Moderates are pro-austerity). Certainly, that party would be hamstrung by its lack of association with a viable national political party. 

Since anything coming out of the right would be DOA, any such party would have to partly modeled on the Vermont Progressive Party. And let’s face it, large swathes of political players in Rhode Island are completely tied to the current model of politics as it is now; changing that threatens much of the work that’s done to understand and operate in the system that many, many organizations have built up. 

The work towards change is largely focused on working within the Democratic dynamic, which leaves progressives particularly open to co-optation by the demands of various party factions when they come to power.

But even that sort of wishful thinking ignores what Gov. Chafee said. Rhode Island is at rock bottom, and if the Governor is wrong, it’s only because we have further to fall. We’re completely shot through, economically, we’re devastated. 

And yet, the policy makers, like a man stuck at the bottom of a very deep hole, can only find ways to chew off their own hands rather then reach for ways out. If you’re not convinced, read URI economics professor Len Ladardo’s blog, which has been positing that Rhode Island is struggling to prevent a double dip recession for a while now (Mr. Ladardo is now telling RIPR’s Ian Donnis that Rhode Island needs deep structural changes). 

Or you could read GoLocalProv’s recent no-duh inflammatory headline. Yet the reality is that no matter whether you’re a conservative or liberal, objectivist or socialist, no one has a clear way forward out of our economic disaster. I particularly find “let the free market sort this out” arguments entirely unconvincing, because the free market got us into this mess.

What is striking to me, and maybe this is due to editing on the Economist’s part, is that there’s no sugar-coating on the Governor’s words. There isn’t even a “but Rhode Islanders have the strength to pull through.” 

It’s a grim statement, because the reality is very, very grim. Luckily we have Hope in this state. And we’re going to need it.

Samuel G. Howard: A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.