Arts & Culture

Want to know R.I.? Read the “fine print”

By
Contributing Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009

Criticized by the locals and pitied by its neighbors, Rhode Island is frequently written off as too small to combat the titanic issues it faces. But despite the state’s soaring unemployment and economic stagnation, one Ocean State native is getting the word out about what can be done to bolster a struggling state.

Tom Sgouros, editor of the Rhode Island Policy Reporter, a newsletter on governmental goings-on, recently published an incisive volume entitled “10 Things You Don’t Know About Rhode Island.” The book, whose tagline reads, “A skeptical look at government, economics and recent history in one lively little state,” tackles both the political quagmire and the attitudes impeding recovery, ending with advice for both policymakers and Rhode Island citizens about how to improve the state of the state.

Sgouros, who has done statistical research for various groups over the last 20 years, said he took an interest in subjects “nerdy and obscure, but central to all our lives,” after he realized that public policy was seldom reported clearly because of a general lack of technical expertise with numbers and their meanings. Frustrated with a chasm between legislative details and public awareness, Sgouros said he decided to use his statistical knowledge to relay commonly missed subtleties that affect individuals’ daily lives.

“So often, a line of some subparagraph B-96 turns out to be the fulcrum around which some of the most important issues revolve,” Sgouros said.

 From the first page of his book, he contends that Rhode Island’s problems are more complex than the common critic is willing to acknowledge.

Sgouros said too many people buy into what he calls the “conventional tale” of villainous labor unions and politicians as the sole cause of the state’s troubles.

 “The world craves a story that explains what’s going on,” said Sgouros. As a result, “the facts don’t really speak for themselves — they speak within a story.”

Sgouros said he finds that this “master narrative” leads to an incorrect interpretation of facts, and that he is seeking to correct a questionable diagnosis of Rhode Island’s afflictions. He points out that blaming labor unions, for example, may be convenient, but argues that this argument falls apart when one considers the fact that unions have lost on many important legislative issues.

Instead, he urges Rhode Island’s inhabitants to consider their own contributions to what hurts the state most.

“A lot of what I write is about how what’s bankrupting us are basically popular choices, things that have popular consent,” he said, pointing to costly enforcement of “draconian” drug policy as an example. “What’s sort of funny is that people want to deny (that their contribution) matters at all.”

Sgouros also challenges the notion that Rhode Island is worse off than nearly every other state in the nation. He takes a closer look at statistics that are frequently cited in this argument — and just as frequently misused.

He gives the example of public fire protection: Rhode Island spends twice as much money per capita on its fire departments as any other state. At first, this seems alarming and has given critics fodder for accusations of financial mismanagement. But upon closer inspection, Sgouros found that, unlike most states, Rhode Island classifies ambulance personnel as part of the fire department. So while Rhode Island ranks first in fire protection spending, it also ranks near the very bottom in ambulance spending. Though it is a detail few people care to notice, Sgouros said the example illustrates how looking into the fine print can make a big difference.

“What I continue to be surprised at is how every rock I encounter rewards being turned over,” Sgouros said.

Another lens through which Sgouros examines public policy is that of economic incentives. He said the recently controversial “student tax” on those enrolled in private universities is an effort, albeit a “dumb” one, for the city to capture the monetary advantage of having a university within its limits.

“The way that Brown contributes to the city is pumping up the income and sales tax, which are state taxes,” said Sgouros. “The state then turns around and stiffs the city. It has less to do with Brown than with the broken relationship between city and state.”