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RhodeMap RI: Dustbin of History or Way Station on the Long March?

Thursday, January 08, 2015


RhodeMap RI

With the Statewide Planning Council having put its RhodeMap RI plan on the books, and with the Speaker of the House having put this book on the shelf to gather dust, isn’t this little dust-up over?

Well, of course, proponents of the RhodeMap RI plan were right about something, the plan is not a law unto itself, but rather another chapter in the long march to a planned economy. Whether this is “socialism” in the strictest sense of government ownership of the means of production, government direction of the use of those means is little different.

A rose by any other name . . .

My friend Jim Riordan who sits as a public member on the Statewide Planning Council and considers himself to have some libertarian instinct was offended by those who appeared at the meeting calling the plan “socialism”. But planning is as planning does. A few folks who make more intemperate and less substantive remarks on a subject about which they are passionate will not lead me into rhetorical retreat.

Is this wise? Simply the mention of “socialism” seems a neo-McCarthyism to the polite set who might stop reading right here. Perhaps I shouldn’t have front loaded this term or simply allowed “planned economy” to serve as a surrogate. But I believe public discourse is served by not beating around the bush.

And socialism is what planners seek by instinct. They’re not planning who to buy oil from for state buildings or how to service more citizens at the DMV, they are planning what will happen to private property.  This isn’t necessarily corrupt in the sense that the they seek the value or use for themselves. Almost worse, they have the hubris to think that by their studious contemplation of our circumstance, they have a better answer for what to do with the private property in the state than its owners.

Such efforts are manifest socialism in cases such as Kelo v. New London, 38 Studios and Deepwater Wind where private resources are seized and dedicated to economic uses that government deems ‘better’. In all these cases it is equally obvious that the decision is wrong.

You would think these signature failures would make folks equally skeptical of planners’ exercise of more subtle powers of economic redirection, such as granting exemptions to the Gordian knot of zoning regulations they themselves have bound us with in the first place.

But, as with complicated tax laws, all the better to give favors. When taxes are too much, you don’t lower them, you give an exemption to a preferred class. Those classes can be found at any of society’s rungs from the bottom to the top depending whose bread politicians wish to be seen as buttering on any given day. Thus the system becomes even more complicated and fraught with additional unintended consequences.

Regulations are simply indirect taxation, some are necessary but not too much. When it becomes apparent that regulation stifles affordable housing, a free economy living under the rule of law doesn’t give exemptions to some projects, it changes the rules for everyone.

Planners will object that they are just doing what the legislature told them to do, so take your concerns there. Well that is one point in keeping the opposition to RhodeMap RI strong, but these planners are being disingenuous. Planners have the ear of the legislature, many of them are paid with our money to show up and tell the legislature what to do. Their fingerprints are on the very laws they protest they are simply administering. That is the fallacy of the separation of powers in Rhode Island. Those in the executive branch are to execute policy, not make it – but planners by their very nature wish to implement designs, that is, to make policy.

Whose common sense?

Some people just like planners and they figure if only they actually had the people’s interest at heart and used their arbitrary powers in more egalitarian fashion, they would get it right. Thus, my good friend Tom Sgouros called opposition to the RhodeMap RI, a “war on common sense."  Of course that begs the question of whether he means Paine’s Common Sense or Burke’s. 

Ironically, these famed rhetorical foes were similarly disposed to support the American Revolution if, at the time, Burke tended to see Government as a glass half full and Paine as one half empty. Burke is famously charged with reneging for his later opposition to the French Revolution. But it is Paine who actually did the about face. His Common Sense is the quintessential small government tract that begins:

“SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil”.

Would that the conceited cartographers who have drawn RhodeMap RI had hewed more to the earlier sentiments of their progressive forebear than following the prescriptions of his later pamphlets that urged representative government as the perfect platform for redistribution.

It isn’t that monarchical or feudal Europe didn’t beg for freeing peoples from cultural restraints on their economic success. But Paine’s conversion to believe that government rather than society could be the remedy for such ills has been the bane of modern Europe and, sadly, colors the American Experience since the New Deal.

Zoning – a Trojan horse for tyranny from start to finish

Zoning, the hobby horse that Rhode Island’s state planners are trying to seize from the local nursery, although of similar legal vintage, is not something that can be blamed on FDR. Rather, it is an ironic blemish on the reputation of one of the greatest of the ‘Four Horsemen’ of the Supreme Court who opposed the progressive tide, George Sutherland.

Even Sutherland’s brilliant, if sympathetic biographer Hadley Arkes, cringes when I bring up Euclid v. Amber -- in which Sutherland expands the relatively uncontroversial notion in nuisance law, that we don’t put abattoirs in the midst of dwellings, to support prohibitions on apartments as if mitigating a sort of social nuisance:

. . . the development of detached house sections is greatly retarded by the coming of apartment houses, which has sometimes resulted in destroying the entire section for private house purposes; that in such sections very often the apartment house is a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district.

But if I take such a dim view of the parochial efforts to separate classes by districts, should I not rejoice in the enlightened geography of the Rhode Map RI?

Certainly not, for these planners have not repudiated the worst that Euclid v Amber brought us, i.e., the planners themselves. Having gained their power over us by helping to disguise class distinctions as worthy goals furthered by the modern science of planning, they are shocked to see that this has reinforced the human instinct to live with folks like ourselves.

Nor do they have any desire to repudiate zoning itself.  If they really mean what they say, then RhodeMap RI would call upon the General Assembly to repeal the zoning enabling act. The history of the Planning Council interacting with state affordable housing mandates demonstrates they have no interest whatsoever in releasing their death grip on our lives; they want the regulations to stay in place but to create absolutions for their favored players.

So the planners have seized what had been society’s domain, “enforced by no other penalty than public disesteem” in Paine’s early vision, and made it a government dominion backed up by the police power. We are now treated as if by birth we had all bought into some planned community in which liberty took a back seat to the will of the planner, congruent, as occasionally as necessary for maintaining its ascendence, with the tyranny of the majority.

Planners responsible for sprawl now decry it

A century later these planners have recanted. Now they suggest that single-family homes are a scourge on the landscape and ought to be bulldozed in favor of some new urbanist’s vision for a dense society.

The lack of video of this actually happening, replete with blue helmeted troops at the controls, is all that our betters need to make light of RhodeMap RI opponents. We are caricatured as conspiracy theorists and bigots who falsely believe our state planners are the puppets of federal and UN bureaucrats.  No, this is not a federal takeover, this is that oxymoron of ‘cooperative federalism’ at its zenith.

Our statesmen are willing partners in a vision of elite technocrats that, although contrary to American values, they believe we must be taught to accept. They either do not know, or do not care, that their goals are not shared by those whose communities they wish to ‘improve’.

Ironically, as these frustrated technocrats accuse their opponents of refusing to see the racist implications of zoning, they themselves have an odd notion of inclusion. They completely refuse to acknowledge the glaring contrast that their purportedly inclusive process for charting RhodeMap RI attracted not a single disinterested citizen to speak in its favor at the public hearing I attended – all those speaking for it were part of the planning community or its non-profit sector cheerleaders.

And in the rust never sleeps department, the League of Cities and Towns has offered its upcoming Convention to planners to lobby for RhodeMap RI concepts. If municipalities are looking for ways to save money, instead of going to these loaded sessions on ‘inclusive zoning’, ‘renewable energy’, and ‘future cities’, they should withdraw wholesale from this corrupt organization whose executive director voted in favor of RhodeMap RI despite the growing number of Resolutions opposing it from the member communities that make up the League. In the department of ‘we know better than you’, there is nothing more stark than a staffer voting against the expressed will of those elected to actually chart the paths of cities and towns.

RhodeMap RI is not a law, it is death by 1000 cuts

The planners’ principal response to the blistering criticism from independent citizens was to add a paragraph specifically indicating that RhodeMap RI is not a law – as if that were the delusion critics were under. If the plan was not intended to influence municipal and state lawmakers, it would not have been created. One must credit Speaker Mattiello with implying that the plan’s adoption over citizen and municipal objections will have the opposite effect with the legislature.

And the planners’ affection for density doesn’t promise the affordable housing they seek without more gerrymandering. Concentrated development might take off in a more deregulated environment, but economics dictate that anywhere it is successful won’t become more affordable, but less. Places like Wickford in RI or Somerville in Massachusetts do provide an alternative to traditional suburbs, but that success makes them wildly unaffordable to those looking to leave the tenements of Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket.

In any event, don’t imagine for a second that the real aim of a group of planners is deregulation. That is what the state needs and we’ll have none of that in this plan.  Just lip service about regulators being more customer friendly and ‘get out of jail free’ cards for big companies.

Those involved in the debate on such exceptions to local zoning for affordable housing, which are already law (RIGL 45-53-4), recognize that state statutes are full of fuzzy dependencies. Here they condition operation of those laws upon what the State Planning Council thinks are acceptable municipal plans for affordable housing goals. Thus efforts like Rhode Map RI, which have the State Planning Council embracing HUDs racialist outlook, quite likely do have legal ramifications and effect, even though they are not technically statute law or regulation requiring specific local exactions.

And of course, as Westchester County in New York found out, the acceptance of federal moneys through Community Development Block Grants in pursuit of state affordable housing mandates creates a contract between the municipality and the federal government that can be enforced in court, to their detriment. The federal government is the obvious exception to the rule that you can’t fight city hall!

Besides existing law, each time a new legislative effort is made in this arena, proponents will appear at hearings insisting the legislature ought to follow this RhodeMap RI that was adopted with ‘inclusive’ process and is the ‘objective’ product of ‘professionals’ with masters and PhDs in planning. If you can play a game of Monopoly, that entitles you to as much respect as we ought to give to any planners, however many bits of alphabet soup follow their names, who think they can tell individuals what ought to go on their property by way of housing. So it is salutary that legislative leaders appear aware of this phenomenon and have signaled that such arguments may invite skepticism rather than embrace.

What does any of this have to do with economic development?

More embarrassing than the shameless sycophant choir of non-profit advocates and municipal planners in the amen chorus supporting Rhode Map RI is that any claiming economist credentials would accept the label of ‘economic development’ strategy for a plan that proposes to gerrymander economic outcomes by government intervention and develop the state by creating a little piece of urban blight everywhere. 

Some, like Gary Sasse and Marcel Valois have pointed to the plan’s embrace of strong potential commerce sectors that we ought to encourage development in Rhode Island.  We tried that with the gaming sector and it worked out so well. . .

But, to the extent that there are any worthy proposals for the state to be a competitive location for targeted sectors, rather than a poor location that gives out subsidies to make up for it, these are lost in conflating them with the affordable housing controversy already brewing. It isn’t opponents who stirred up this hornets nest but the state planners by trying to sneak through controversial policy in a backhanded way. If their process had included opponents of their approach to affordable housing, this concern would have come to light far earlier. But the planners’ idea of inclusion appears to be getting people together who agree with them.

Affordable Housing vs. 38 Studios, a false dichotomy

Tom Sgouros implies that opponents of RhodeMap RI must favor crony capitalist economic development. There, my normally well grounded, if contrarian, friend is off the reservation of truth. Whether it be the Greenhouse Compact or 38 Studios or Deepwater Wind, it has been those opposed to planned economic adventures who have always sounded the loudest objections to corporatism. We simply object equally strongly to the same in-crowd that brought us those debacles delivering us another in the form of RhodeMap RI.

Some suggest that this lame duck maneuver had to be completed because the legislature mandated a ‘plan’ for the new governor – as if roads will go unbuilt if we don’t get it done or CVS will move to Boston . . . oops . . . if only that new affordable housing had been built in Barrington, surely they would have decided differently. And all the affordable housing in the world has made CVS’s subsidized home in Woonsocket heaven on earth – a regular inferno of a jobs incubator.

Government is not an economic developer, that is not its job. We don’t have to have EDC’s version or HUD’s version. Lawmakers and government planners should focus on the few things we all agree they should do: keep up the post roads, keep down the taxes and regulations. Development will take care of itself.  And that goes for South Providence as well as South Kingstown.

In the ‘meet the new boss; same as the old boss’ department, Governor Raimondo doesn’t appear to have the same doubts about Rhode Map RI that Speaker Matiello has expressed, so what is the point of opposing it? The Governor implements policy, the legislature makes it. The Governor’s policy ideas are irrelevant in the American system. The legislature should join the Speaker in making quite clear that this is not the plan they intended or endorse.

Society vs. Government, the real choice of every generation

Tom Sgouros does argue in substance that he likes the plan for its focus on “the economy of things," i.e. affordable housing, public health, education and strong communities. Silly me, I thought private property was a thing, in fact the thing, the acquisition of which inspires private citizens to pursue the aforementioned list on their own. But these days that list reads more like an ‘economy of government’ than a personal ‘to do’ list.

The state planning council and advocates like Tom appear to have been convinced that only government can insure those blessings are conferred.  What a crying shame and a comedown for a state, whose slaves paid Quakers to educate their children even in the face of one of history’s most ignominious institutions, that we should be reduced to begging the government for housing, health and education.

Just as society confronted slavery, we should confront the difficulties of communities whose members struggle to achieve adequate housing, health and education, but that includes confronting the very question of whether those ought to be delivered by government in the first place. Indeed this question fuels much of the discord over immigration policy as well. The sage advice of Milton Freidman to the protectionist instincts of native labor -- that are similar to parochial objections to a climate of mandated affordable housing --would certainly be: end the welfare state and open the borders. That goes for towns as well as for nations.

You won’t find any of that in Rhode Map RI and that is the problem.  Society has become an outmoded concept in favor of government. That is just what inspired Burke to reject the French Revolution, and that is just what inspires me to reject Rhode Map RI.


Brian Bishop is one of the state's longest standing property rights activists, legal researcher for the Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights and a founding board member of OSTPA.


Related Slideshow: The 15 Costliest Government Programs in RI

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#15 Non-Highway Transport

Category: Transportation

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $4.87

National Rank: 4

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#14 Community Development

Category: Environment and Housing

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $4.97

National Rank: 12

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#13 Sewage & Solid Waste

Category: Environment and Housing

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $5.09

National Rank: 36

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#12 Health & Hospitals

Category: Social Services

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $5.40

National Rank: 49

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#11 Other Ed. & Libraries

Category: Education

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $6.00

National Rank: 12

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#10 Fire

Category: Public Safety

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $6.50

National Rank: 2

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#9 Highways

Category: Transportation

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $7.66

National Rank: 48

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#8 Police

Category: Public Safety

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $7.87

National Rank: 13

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#7 Utilities

Category: Utilities and Liquor Stores

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $9.25

National Rank: 40

Note: Utilities are not considered to be "direct general expenditures." Instead utilities are categorized as "other direct expenditures." The category is a U.S. Census Bureau term. Unlike some states, Rhode Island does not have state-run liquor stores.

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#6 Gov't. Administration

Category: Administration and Debt Interest

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $11.05

National Rank: 16

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#5 Interest on Debt

Category: Administration and Debt Interest

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $12.13

National Rank: 3

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#4 Higher Education

Category: Education

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $13.59

National Rank: 45

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#3 Pensions and Other

Category: Insurance Trust

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $39.62

National Rank: 4

Note: Other than pensions this area of spending includes unemployment security, disability insurance, and workers compensation. Together, these expenses are categorized U.S. Census Bureau as "insurance trust."

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#2 Public Welfare

Category: Social Services

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $46.90

National Rank: 7

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#1 Elementary and Sec. Ed

Category: Education

Cost Per $1,000 of Income: $48.59

National Rank: 15


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