The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RI

Welcome to another edition of my weekly column. Keep sending your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi (at) wpri (dot) com and I may include/take credit for them.

1. Does Rhode Island have two economies? That’s what I was thinking after a bit of whiplash on Friday. In the morning, we got the state’s latest dismal employment report, with the jobless rate up to 11.1% more than half a decade after the downturn began. But just a little later, Neil Steinberg and Allan Tear showed up at our studios to talk about The Rhode Island Foundation’s new innovation fellowships. Tear and his startup incubator Betaspring are symbols of Rhode Island’s burgeoning, much-discussed knowledge economy. But the unemployment rate is a symbol of Rhode Island’s broken blue-collar job market – the old industrial economy. And the decline of that economy isn’t just a Rhode Island problem, it’s a regional one. Drive over the border into Attleboro and Fall River or Eastern Connecticut, and you’ll see regions that are just as troubled as ours – we just don’t have a wealthy hub like Boston or Fairfield County that’s large enough to mask it.

2. Ernie Almonte is getting closer to deciding whether he’ll seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2014. “Within two months I’d probably be in a place to say I’d go public with what I’m doing,” he told me this week. For now the former auditor general is talking over his future with family, friends and clients – and unwinding from tax season with a fishing pole.

3. Greg Mankiw: “If people feel that their taxes exceed the value of their public services, they can go elsewhere. They can, as economists put it, vote with their feet.” Scott Shane: “State taxes do little to influence where entrepreneurs choose to operate. That’s because no state has the ‘best’ tax policy for all entrepreneurs. Rather, different states have tax policies that suit certain types of companies.” Jon Shure &c.: “It would not be credible to argue that no one ever moves to a new state because of the desire to live someplace where taxes are lower. But neither is it credible to say that taxes are a primary motivation, nor that migration has a large impact on the revenue impact of tax measures.” Noah Smith: “Does government competition generally lead to bigger government or smaller government?”

4. For your weekend contemplation, I recommend this new National Journal article: “In Nothing We Trust.” It’s about how Americans have lost our faith in many of the country’s bedrock institutions, from town halls and newspapers to companies and churches. Worth reading.

5. Speaking of reading, I highly recommend the combination of Instapaper and a basic black-and-white Amazon Kindle (not the fancy Fire). Instapaper lets you save all the great written content on the Web to read when you have time to relax and enjoy it. Then you can ship Instapaper’s saved articles over to the Kindle and take it with you to read anywhere – including outside in the sun, unlike with an iPad. On top of that, the Kindle doesn’t pester you with emails or encourage you to tweet – it’s just about reading. And that’s important, as Clay Shirky says: “The reading experience is so much more valuable now than it was 10 years ago because it’s rarer.”

6. The best argument for the idea that David Cicilline didn’t know what a mess Providence’s finances were during the 2010 campaign may be his botched communications strategy after the details emerged last March. If the congressman really understood how bad things were but was hiding it, wouldn’t he have used that advance knowledge to prepare some sort of response? And wouldn’t he have waited fewer than 13 months to pivot to an apology?

7. Reason editor-in-chief Matt Welch has published a useful corrective to the endless sky-is-falling media analysis, arguing that many commentators on the state of journalism are mistaking the health of legacy news conglomerates for the health of the press as an institution. The Providence Phoenix’s David Scharfenberg made a similar point in his profile of Rhode Island’s Future proprietor Bob Plain, calling him “part of an emerging, alternate daily press corps that also includes Rhode Island Public Radio, golocalprov, and WPRI blogger Ted Nesi — a youthful, digital-savvy crew that has taken on increased importance since the Providence Journal put most of its reporting behind a paywall in February.” (I would agree with that analysis, though, wouldn’t I?)

8. I’ve been enjoying all the interviews with Robert Caro (Esquire, NYT) ahead of his latest LBJ book’s release. This Smithsonian article contained a particularly valuable lesson for political reporters. We often cast our political leaders in black-and-white terms, as angels or devils – are they good or bad? But they can be both, and Caro’s impression of LBJ is a reminder of that – “Bright and dark threads in character,” he says. That’s also why I think it’s valuable to spend as much time studying policies as personalities – someone can make the right call even if he (or she) isn’t always a beacon of virtue.

9. Remember the controversy over President Bush’s National Guard service? It seems like a million years ago, but Texas Monthly revisis the story in an exhaustive new investigative piece – and Providence-based GTECH plays a key role.

10. Brian Daniels got the job of his wonky dreams this week by switching from Governor Chafee’s policy chief to head up his new performance-management push. But the governor’s connection with Daniels stretches way, way back from their current service together. In 1992, when Daniels was a student at Toll Gate High in Warwick, the city’s three high schools organized a mayoral debate between Mayor Charlie Donovan, Democrat Mike Brophy and Republican City Councilman Lincoln Chafee – moderated by Daniels. Chafee won the election and the new mayor went on to attend when Daniels delivered his valedictorian speech at Toll Gate’s graduation the next year – a story the governor still likes to tell.

11. Rhode Island PBS was kind enough to include me on the panel for this week’s episode of “A Lively Experiment,” along with Ian Donnis, David Scharfenberg and Jim Taricani. Topics include the 1st Congressional District race, the municipal finance crisis and the state of journalism. Watch tonight at 7 p.m. on WSBE Learn (Ch. 36.2), Sunday at noon on WSBE-TV (Ch. 36.1) or online at the RI PBS blog.

12. This week on “Newsmakers” – The Rhode Island Foundation’s Neil Steinberg and Rhode Island Innovation Fellow Allan Tear, followed by R.I. Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Keith Stokes and America’s Cup Rhode Island 2012 Executive Director Paul Harden. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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