Obama, Garrahy, and the quest for an economy “built to last”
The death Tuesday of former governor J. Joseph Garrahy — the same day that President Obama sounded a call for a more robust manufacturing sector — is a blunt reminder of Rhode Island’s long-running struggle for economic relevance.
It was Garrahy who championed 1984’s Greenhouse Compact, an effort to use the then-lofty sum of $250 million to seed the high-wage jobs of the future. Garrahy was the trustworthy everyman who had shepherded the state through the Blizzard of ’78. He invested himself in backing the job-creation plan after announcing in 1983 he wouldn’t seek reelection. Yet Rhode Islanders, skeptical about their government’s stewardship ability, overwhelmingly voted the concept down.
More than 25 years later, the Ocean State remains plagued by high unemployment and serial rants about the state’s toxic business climate.
Give Garrahy credit at least for trying something bold and ambitious — the kind of thinking we don’t much see from public officials of late. (Last year’s pension overhaul has won plaudits far and wide, but it happened because the state’s back was firmly against the wall.)
Garrahy offered this reflection on the demise of the Greenhouse Compact, in a 1984 column by the Providence Journal’s M. Charles Bakst:
Garrahy now believes the plan, with its $250-million price tag and its intricate economic strategies, might have been too expensive and too bold for the electorate to grasp.
And, he said, politics – the wrangling over whether to raise taxes to pay for it, the furor over political appointments to the panel that would have run the program – ultimately helped shoot the plan down.
“Opponents seized on the political aspects,” he said.
Fast forward to President Obama’s latest State of the Union address, particularly its emphasis on economic populism and the goal of creating an economy “built to last.” The president took a number of shots at China, suggesting that American manufacturing can rebound if given the proper conditions.
Yet whenever Obama sounded that note, it was hard not to think about last Sunday’s eye-opening New York Times’ story on why iPhones get made in China. Costs are far cheaper there, yes. But there are other significant factors, including the ability of Chinese manufacturers to roll out thousands of semi-skilled workers on very short notice.
Ted Nesi offered this observation:
Rhode Island’s congressional delegation talks a lot about bringing manufacturing back to the U.S., and each of its members will find some evidence for their views. Senator Whitehouse says China pursues unfair trade practices; that’s part of it. Congressman Langevin says Rhode Islanders aren’t being educated and trained properly; that’s part of it. Congressman Cicilline says the federal government doesn’t support its manufacturing sector the same way China does; that’s part of it.
But reading The Times piece – which you should do – makes their proposals seem awfully inadequate to the scale of the challenge.
I spoke with House Speaker Gordon Fox last Friday about the latest glum news of an uptick in Rhode Island’s unemployment rate. He expressed frustration, of course, but also held out hope that steps “to change the long-term conditions of Rhode Island” will eventually bear fruit. Governor Lincoln Chafee has offered a similar view.
Still, as Rhode Island prepares to lay Governor Garrahy to rest, it’s worth wondering why the state still struggles with a fundamental problem that he attempted to ameliorate 28 years ago.