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Politics as Usual: Rhode Island needs jobs suited to its workforce (OPINION)

August 7, 2012

A few weeks ago when I was writing a story about the cable business channel CNBC ranking Rhode Island 50th among the 50 states in so-called “business friendliness,” I talked to a lot of people who said, yeah, with our taxes and the horrendous condition of our roads and bridges, we pretty much deserve the dubious distinction.
But there was one Rhode Island businessman, John Hazen White Jr. (an occasional contributor to local editorial pages), who suggested there might be cause for optimism.
White — who owns Cranston’s Taco, Inc., and recently undertook an expansion there, and who recently established the John Hazen White Jr. Forum on Public policy at the Brookings Institution to study manufacturing — believes that sector of the economy, long thought gone to foreign lands forever, might be making a comeback.
He said the Brookings forum will be “absolutely focused on getting at the issues that have driven manufacturing out of here and maybe are preventing it from coming back.” White says restoring the economic engine of making products is “definitely achievable. I have thought for years that the pendulum was going to swing back the other way and, to some extent, we are starting to hear the rustling in the trees of that.”
That is precisely what we need.
For all the big economic development talk about “high-tech” and “bio-tech” and “meds and eds” (anytime you hear politicians using a catch phrase, especially one that rhymes, you know they are going to latch onto it and not let it go, like a dog with a bone), what we need in Rhode Island are good old-fashioned factory manufacturing jobs.
According to the state education department, in 2011 (the most recent figures available) 41.3 percent of high school graduates in the state went to a four-year college; 22.3 percent went to a two-year college.
That means more than one-third of the students, 36.4 percent, went out into the workforce after finishing school (or not, 12.5 percent dropped out without getting a diploma). They need jobs, too, and they are probably not going to be designing and developing cutting edge medical devices or creating video games when their baseball careers are over.
What made America the greatest nation on the face of the earth from World War II onward was our middle class. And that middle class was built by giving kids a good high school education that prepared them to go to work at a local factory and buy a home, raise a family and send their kids to college. Those were good, righteous jobs that provided not just a salary and benefits, but dignity as well.
That is all gone. Now you are either a big-shot biotech meds-and-eds-er or you are stuck in a nowhere job that is going to keep you mired among the working poor for the rest of your life. We need something in between those two extremes.
Yes, every kid should be able to have access to higher education if that is what he or she wants and he or she is suited for it. But not everyone is.
We need to be creating and attracting jobs suited to our workforce, rather than giving tax credits and other incentives to companies who are going to tell us that people in our state aren’t qualified to do the jobs they have to offer.

n You know how it is in Rhode Island, if you have connections with some higher-up, you can get away with just about anything you want; nobody can touch you and all of your misdeeds just get swept under the rug. We all know this – nudge, nudge, wink, wink.
So how is it that when the teenage son of the governor and the teenage son of a United States senator are allegedly involved in adolescent escapades with alcohol, not only do the police become involved – an arrest in one case, an extended investigation in another – but the whole state finds out about it and it becomes big headlines and grist for talk radio?
In a lot of – if not most – other states, the cops in those circumstances would have called the governor or the senator and everything would have been quickly and quietly tidied up with no paper trail and certainly no arrests. No one would ever have to hear about it. But that is not what happened here.
I’m just sayin’. We’re better than we give ourselves credit for sometimes.

n I got A LOT of blowback from the section of a recent column about the way President Barack Obama’s now-infamous “you didn’t build that” comment was distorted and taken out of context.
A quick recap: Trying to make the point that we are all in this together and no man is an island, Obama said, “If you are successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you did not build that–somebody else made that happen. The Internet did not get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off of the Internet. The point is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
I blasted Mitt Romney and the Republicans for twisting that into “Obama hates success” and, of course, “Obama is a socialist.” But I also got similar messages from readers.
Here is part of one that I will attempt to answer but I won’t use the writer’s name: “First off, in its entirety, The President’s speech CLEARLY (emphasis in original) conveys, to all who will listen, that he despises, personal effort, ingenuity, and the drive to succeed.”
Seriously? Barack Obama, born of modest means, raised by a single mother and grandparents, who grew up to go to Harvard Law School, was elected to the U.S. Senate and became the 44th President of the United States, that’s the guy who “despises” the “drive to succeed?” Really? He got where he is by despising personal effort and ingenuity? Are you reading your own words, sir?
The letter writer again: “Obama clearly said ‘If you’ve got a business, you did not build that.’ That is the problem: we have a President who is trying to run against capitalism. He plainly said this because he wants people to believe they did not earn their prosperity through hard work, and making good choices.”
I’ll repeat the president’s words: “The point is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
Despite the preposterous Fox News’ spin of running “against capitalism” (would anyone have a snowball’s chance of being re-elected president if he or she ran “against capitalism”?) Obama’s “point” was dead-on accurate.
The works of Ayn Rand notwithstanding, the motto of this great nation is not, nor has it ever been, “Every man for himself.” Along with our rugged individualist/pioneer/entrepreneurial side, there has always been a spirit of community in America, an ethic of “looking out for the other guy” and of helping out, and being helped by, our neighbors.
Nobody is trying to denigrate the success of someone who had a dream, invested all they had, worked hard for years and built a company and made money. That is what America is all about.
But, partisan snipers aside, I don’t believe that any person who actually started a business from scratch and built it into a success would deny the simple fact that “somebody along the line gave (him or her) some help.”
It would be disingenuous to do so.
Our political debate is getting far too extreme. It’s not that President Obama might have a policy stance that we disagree with, or that might be incorrect; no, he is a socialist who hates capitalism and despises personal effort and success. It is no longer sufficient for people we disagree with to be wrong; we must paint them as evil.
That letter writer above also suggested that, because I said the president had been taken out of context that I should move to Cuba “if (I) hate our system so much.”
We have to start walking back from extremes and try to meet each other somewhere close to the middle, where we can come to agreement on things instead of hurling epithets and invective at each other and not even trying to accomplish things together.
This is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. If we hate the government, we are hate ourselves and each other. We can be better than that.

Jim Baron covers the State House for the Rhode Island Media Group. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of The Standard Times or SRI Newspapers. He can be reached at

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