The Troubling Nature of 38 Studios and RI Politics

One of things that’s troubled me in the release of the 38 Studios documents is that beyond Corso’s failure to register as a lobbyist, the deal doesn’t appear to have been done illegally. Speaker Fox, Rep. Constantino, and Governor Carcieri pushed for it, Stokes and the EDC made it happen, Schilling took the money and then it all fell apart.

Let me point out that none of Rhode Island’s decision makers seem motivated by greed, even Fox. There’s no point where they enrich themselves off of this deal; it would be easier to understand if there was some sort of corruption here. Instead, it seems like they were driven by a desire to lure a tech start-up with a high-profile executive. If 38 Studios had survived, if KoA had been a knock-out success that led to Copernicus’ runaway success, everyone would’ve come out smelling like roses. We can’t say that they intended to watch a company go bankrupt and their political careers forever marred by its collapse. Which makes it incomprehensible that they would take such a huge risk on an unproven company.

Many people are trying to figure out ways this could’ve been halted. I expect we’ll see quite a few theories, but I have a grim view of this. I think the reality is that it couldn’t have been stopped, except by people acting far more circumspect than they did. That is not something you can regulate, or legislate.

None of the people involved were mouth-breathing idiots. They were all fairly successful people in one way or another; Stokes, Schilling, Fox, Carcieri, Constantino, Corso – either they were politically successful or personally successful. Which makes their incompetence in this matter that much more dispiriting.

They all seem to have had a poor grasp of the most fundamentally important part of this endeavor: developing video games. Their ambition exceeded their reach.

They also clearly used their influence to push the deal through. Fox and Constantino appear to have deceived the House of Representatives in pushing for the legislation that enabled the deal. There’s nothing illegal about this. Speaker Mattiello is denying that he was a part of the deal, and claims that he had no knowledge of it, plus his relationship with Fox was poor. Fine, you can take him at his word and still realize that he’s complicit in its creation. What else is a Majority Leader for but to help ensure that the priorities of leadership are passed?

Right now, you can see people pushing false solutions. The Republican Party chairman is suggesting voters should take a look at Republicans as a solution to the mess of 38 Studios. But many journalists immediately pointed out that through their actions (supporting Mattiello as Speaker and then supporting his budget) Republicans have ceded the claim to the moral high ground they could’ve had as the opposition. Bob Watson, the sole Republican representative to vote against the legislation that made 38 Studios a reality routinely voted against pretty much everything, thus it’s hard to credit him with foresight on this as opposed to reflexive contrarianism, and his political career is over. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Worse is Ken Block’s complaint, which reveals Block’s ignorance of legislative politics, where horsetrading and wheeling and dealing is a necessity to pass legislation. It’s all likely a set-up for his favored solution, the line-item veto, which would not have made a lick of difference in the matter of 38 Studios.

Right now, the Speaker is selected by a straight-foward vote among the Representatives. Yes, it means that the most powerful office in the state is based on 75 votes, not a few hundred thousand. But this is still a democratic system, and the legislature is the most democratic of all the branches of government, and the House of Reps the more democratic of the two chambers. I fail to see how concentrating power in the hands of single person elected once every four years is going to make it more accountable than having it in spread among the hands of a few dozen people elected every two years.

Solutions to the preponderance of power in the leadership require radical, nigh-impossible changes in the Rhode Island’s political system. We must remember that our candidates are proxies of political parties, but rather candidates affiliated with political parties. If a candidate betrays the values of the Democratic or Republican Parties, this is nothing that can be done to them except perhaps ejecting them from the caucus and primarying them in the next election. This means that only the representatives can hold a Speaker accountable; the Democratic Party of Rhode Island cannot, without expending influence, and use of influence is exactly why we have 38 Studios.

Imagine if the Speakership were setup in the way party leadership was done recently in Britain’s Labour Party, where candidates for leadership required nomination by a proportion of the party’s Members of Parliament. The nominees then needed to win a majority of the votes of the party membership (this is not exactly what happened, but it’s close enough for our purposes). In Labour’s case a leader was elected who is popular with the rank-and-file members, but not popular with the party’s Members of Parliament. They have to either acquiesce to his leadership, or else abandon the party. Rebellion could mean they are not chosen by the Labour Party to stand for election.

There is no such disciplinary action capable of being taken in Rhode Island. Each Representative is an island unto themselves. They might be supported by the party in different manners (or not at all), but at the end of the day their actions are only beholden to their constituents. The parties in Rhode Island cannot enforce discipline. If say the party leadership were elected like Labour’s, and like Labour the elected leader was unpopular among the members of the majority party in the RI House of Representatives, if they decided not to put him in as Speaker, there is nothing to be done about it.

The solutions to 38 Studios require expansive choices, not a simple fix or by yelling “BE DIFFERENT THAN YOU ARE” at our government. If we believe party competition is necessary to hold leaders accountable, then we need to realize that our local elections are nationalized, and prevent candidates for state or local offices from affiliating with national political parties (a constitutionally risky proposition that would mean the end of the RI Democratic and Republican Parties). Or, we could change voting methods so that local parties could challenge the existing parties without being shutdown by tactical voting.

If you want to undo personal influence in politics, then you need massive transparency; you need legislators, government officials, etc., releasing to the public daily or weekly reports of everyone they meet with. Or you can take away appointments from elected officials, somehow ensuring that hiring for staff is done only by people who are not connected to those the staff will serve, an almost unenforceable proposition.

If you want to limit the power of lobbyists or the ability to rush through legislation, you must expand the number of staffing positions available to each legislator, so that each Senator and Rep has at least one staff member who can read and investigate potential legislation (ideally they should have more than one).

There are those who want to term-limit politicians, but this would have the effect of increasing lobbyists’ power, as legislators with expertise in particular fields are pushed out arbitrarily.

But all these changes must originate in one place, the legislature. And unless these most recent documents have suddenly ignited a fire for an anti-incumbent movement that will sweep aside everyone who has gotten used to the way the system operates, it is unlikely that we will get more than a few superficial changes.

There are those who worry that Rhode Islanders are turned off of investment as a result of 38 Studios. We have proof from ballots that Rhode Islanders will vote for investments; every bond question since the 38 Studios’ enabling legislation was passed has been approved. Rhode Islanders appear to take having the ability to vote on spending issues seriously; it is precisely that deals that have not been put to popular votes that have been the least popular; 38 Studios, 111 Westminster, and the PawSox stadium. And they were never going to be put to voters, because voters would not have passed them, and the legislature and its leadership knew this.

It seems the most sensible people in Rhode Island’s government are the people of Rhode Island.

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