Providence: The Incompetence of Small Numbers

Rhode Island has well under a million adults. Providence, the capital, is by far the largest city and the Greater Providence Area probably has about 400,000 people. But the state has almost 20 geopolitical jurisdictions, so it needs 20 chiefs of police, fire chiefs, head librarians, superintendents of schools, mayors/city managers, and so on.

Almost every week it seems as if a member of the state legislature or Providence city council is charged, indicted, and/or convicted of crimes, from not living in their voting district to stealing from their campaign funds, from not paying taxes to felonies. The former Speaker of the House is now behind bars, and we’ve seen supreme court justices, a governor, the mayor of Providence, and scores of others incarcerated.

When you don’t have a lot of people, you don’t have a lot of talent. We find that we elect people who are better at looking out for themselves than for their constituencies. Even the honest ones tend to look at large, abstract issues (let’s make Providence a sanctuary city) but ignore the tough and tactical (they cannot keep the streets clear after a moderate snow storm). It’s easy to dream, hard to act.

We’ve produced some excellent people (the elder Senators Pell and Chafee, for example). But they are few and far between.(And their progeny were largely hopeless, surviving on their names in public office.)

The lesson is that when private organizations seek to cut staff they are also cutting potential talent. “Lean” can also mean “green,” as in “untested.”

Rhode Island ought to be a city/state, like Singapore, where we can combine talent into a single jurisdiction and get the best of the best and forget about the rest. Of course, Singapore has always had a benevolent dictator, and I’ve always thought that’s a fine model in many ways. It’s how we run our universities and our businesses.

© Alan Weiss 2017

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