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Back before it became a clichĂ©, Michael Douglasâ stemwinding speech in the Oliver Stone movie âWall Streetâ was a memorable and oft-quoted piece of cinematic oratory, flowing from its iconoclastic catchphrase, âGreed is good.â (Actually, what Douglasâs amoral financier Gordon Gekko said was, âGreed, for lack of a better word, is good.â)
The very audacity of it! This guy is saying greed â one of the seven deadly sins, for Peteâs sake! â is good and worthwhile; valuable, even. Thatâs certainly a whole new way of looking at things, isnât it?
Central Falls Receiver Robert Flanders had something of a Gordon Gekko moment over the weekend at the RI Statewide Coalition (RISC) annual winter meeting rhapsodizing about not greed, but bankruptcy of all things.
Flanders sees bankruptcy not as an odious and shameful practice of turning your back on your obligations and violating your word of honor â no, no, no. He sees it as âjust too good a tool to push the reset button and start again. Itâs just too good an opportunity to let pass.â
Bankruptcy, he told the taxpayerâs group, âis not a horrible thing. It is a thing we ought to be doing.â Ought to be doing? Seriously?
Yup, thatâs how the judge looks at it.
âFar from being a bad thing, it is a good and necessary option.â In some cases, I MIGHT go along with necessary. But good? Good as in virtuous, right or commendable? (One of the Merriam-Webster definitions.) Good as in wholesome, worthy? Good as in true, honorable? (M-R again.)
No, I figure Flanders was thinking of good as in expedient, handy. Good for him, in other words.
Bankruptcy is to Flanders what spinach is to Popeye; it is what gives him his power and strength.
âIt was basically discovering virgin territory,â he said of Central Fallsâ foray into Chapter 9 bankruptcy, one of the few cities and towns in the country ever to go that route, âto try and figure out how this thing worked and what it meant. What few precedents existed suggested that on the day a city or town decided to file for this option, it can unilaterally implement all the changes and all the savings and all the restructurings that the receiver believes are necessaryâŠFrom Day 1 that can happen. No need to wait for the bankruptcy judgeâs approval, which is eventually needed. The important thing is that you can stop the bleeding the day the petition is filed.â
How cool is that? Itâs like having Harry Potterâs very own magic wand. Presto! You can stop the bleeding! The cityâs bleeding that is.
Flanders doesnât mention the collateral damage: The retirees who have their pensions cut by more than half. The longtime city employees who have their careers and livelihoods pulled out from under their feet. The poverty-ridden residents who see their car taxes and their property taxes (or rents) suddenly skyrocket. What do they do to stop their bleeding? Where is their magic wand? What is available to them on Day 1 to help them make everything alright again?
Unlike Gekko, Flanders didnât lack for a better word to use to describe his morally bankrupt defense of bankruptcy. âIf it wasnât called bankruptcy,â he said Saturday, âif it was called restructuring, if it was called debt adjustment, if it was called reorganization, weâd be doing more of it.â
Not only could and should we be doing more of it, Flanders believes, but we shouldnât let any sense of shame or moral opprobrium get in our way, either.
âGet over the stigma!â of going back on your word and reneging on deals supposedly made in good faith, he encouraged the RISC crowd and, presumably, the two mayors (including Woonsocketâs Leo Fontaine) and one city advisor on stage, âStigma, Schtigma!â
They say people get the government they deserve. But for the life of me, I canât think of what the people of Central Falls did to deserve this.
n Folks interested in Rhode Island and history and politics and the politics and history of Rhode Island should read a truly terrific book: Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John Barry.
Barry has done a work of prodigious scholarship, tracing Williams back to his start as a protĂ©gĂ© of British thinkers such as Edward Coke and Sir Francis Bacon, analyzing how what Williams saw during Britainâs near-constant back-and-forth battles over religion and its relationship to the governments shaped his later thinking on separation of church and state and how that culminated in the lively experiment we are still living in today. If you think that experiment isnât still ongoing, ask the workers who had to chisel the prayer banner off the wall of Cranston West High School last week.
This book isnât for the casual reader, or something to shove into your beach bag this summer. It is a heavyweight, thought provoking piece of non-fiction, not the simplistic, âWhat Cheer, Netop?â of the history textbooks.
Back in the 1630s the Puritans took their disputes over religion seriously. It was a dispute over whether the government of the colony should be able to enforce the first four of the Ten Commandments, the ones dealing with manâs relationship to God â that got Williams banished from Massachusetts and sent out into the wilderness in the middle of a harsh winter and left to the mercies of what were then called âthe Savages,â meaning the Narragansett Indians, to settle a colony whose first principle was âsoul liberty,â the right of each person to worship (or not) as he or she sees fit. That alone would have been enough to give him a place in the history books forever, but there is more.
One of the things that I found interesting about the book is that Williamsâ strongly held opinions about the separation of church and state were not the only way he was ahead of his time. He was also one of the few people in those days to recognize the consent of the governed as the moral authority for government.
In those days, the conventional wisdom was that the authority for governing descended from God to the king, or whatever potentate was in charge, who then ruled over the populace. Williams challenged what was called the divine right of kings, suggesting that people can form their own governments with the leaders answering to those who put them in power.
Not bad for one guy from Rhode Island.
Jim Baron covers politics and the statehouse in Rhode Island for the Rhode Island Media Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.