^ Boston at night seen from East Boston. Our City on the coast was — and is being — built by believers in a better future
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America exists because many generationms o men annd wome have opted to make the world new. Optimism drives the nation, makes it what it is ; a land of tomorrow.
There are plenty of human societies in which yesterday is the goal. Whose people fear the future, terribly afraid of what it may ring and what it means. America has never bee among them. It has been the place to which believers in the future have come. We call such people “immigrants.” they are us.
But today that which America has ever been is fast becoming what it now is : a land in which people fear the future and what it will bring. Every poll shows that a huge majority of Americans think the nation is on “the wrong track.” The same polls show overwhelmig disapproval of Congress. that isn’t surprising. People who fear the future fear especially the government charged with leading them ito the future.
Why do so many Americans fear the future ? It’s easy to say that declining earnings and buying power make people afraid. They do. But there is much more afoot than that. As Thomas Friedman recently opined in the New York Times, the entire world of work, of production, of education and information, is changing top to bottom; and few of us have figured out how to adapt to that revolution in human arrangements.
We who live in Boston see it up close. The economy of collaborative competition among small start ups and research outfits, bound together by networking and public relations, and fueled by educational experimentation in partnership with business and government, has grow up all around us without — util recently — our really noticing. Now we notice big time. Now that it has taken command of our institutions, our salaries, our living costs and our social arrangements, we see it, we feel it. It hurts even we who live among it. imagine how those who live far beyond the City and its economy must feel about things.
Pessimism ? Let me count the ways : Student debt that can’t be paid off; graduates who cannot find jos i their study field, or at all; an interview process that excludes almost everybody; background checks that eliminate entire categories of people; layoffs and more layoffs, followed by years of searching for a new job at half the pay — and ot getting one; rising costs or housing; expensive credit card fees and bank charges; the enormous costs that we shove onto the shoulders of the poor, including the risk of ies and penalties for those who drive without insurance because they can’t afford it or without a license because they can’t pay old traffic tickets — not to mention back child support.
internet access costs money. So does a new smartphone. The cell service bill, with unlimited data — which one needs — costs at least $ 100 per line per month. Utilities are not cheap, given our City’s heating season. Cable TV costs about 4 170 a month. Parking a car costs up to $ 20 a day downtown. Clothes needed for city life cost money, entertainments and a meal out cost even more. If you aren’t making $80,000 a year at least, you can’t hang out, can’t network, can’t stay with the momentum. And the $ 80,000 a year jobs are there, for the lucky few who have the education, the imagination, the connections and the look. Even the $ 150,000 jobs are there, and some at $ 250,000.
the people earning such salries have the optimism that livelies up a room. Go to Row 34, or Trade, or the Bostonia Pub or Cathedral Station, Stephanie’s, Bricco, the Navy Yard Bistro, and Bastille Kitchen : you’ll see them conversing and discussing all the way through $ 40 a person meals and $ 7 craft beers. No politics of pessimism here.
But for every 100 people yoiu will see at these smartphoned boites there’s 10,000 people who don’t have the money to pay last month’s cable TV bill, or two months ago’s electric bill, or their auto excise tax, much less afford a $ 40 meal out. 10,000 stay at homes who you do not see but who exist living “lives of quiet desperation,” as Henry David Thoreau once said of the average family. Among them, the politics of pessimism rule. It’s a wonder that — at least here in Massachusetts — more people living on the edge (or over it) have ot yet plunked for political pessimism.
Oe tright spot : the Downtown inovatots who ear $ 80,000 to 4 250,000 a year 9ad higher) buy a loty of stuff from businesses who employ a lot of service workers. The next twety years will see a huge urst of service jobs. We should assure that those thousands of new service workers (and those already working) enough money to buy the same stuff that they serve. That was the principle that made Henry Ford a rich man and grew America : “my workers should earn enough to buy the cars that they make,” he said. He paid them that, and buy they did.
The $ 15 ann hour wage that Boston’s service workers now seek is a good start. Frankly, i would not mind seeing full time service workers earn $ 22 an hour. They earn that in much of Europe, with benefits too. Why not here ? Many US cities are already ordering the $ 15 an hour wage. Businesses are flocking to such cities, because they know that there they’ll find an entire populace with money to spend.
The economic revolution well under way is going to breed more pessimism still. Every arrangement our society has taken for granted will be not at all the same ten years from now, 20 years, 50 years. Not work, not education, not business, not wages, not transportation, not the climate, not lifestyles. Yet we cannot go back to what was. Those ways have been rendered useless. we have only two feasible options : grumble through the changes, or take command, make ourselves masters of it all. Just as our boldest forbears did, again and again.
Three good places to start : raise the miimum wage to $ 15 an hour, or higher, and adjust other wages accordingly; make community college tuition free for all, including for undocumented immigrants; and free publicly funded education from the one size fits all, work rule inertia that keeps schools focused on 1930, not 2030.
Too difficult ? i think not. As Nelson Mandela, the greatest of political optimists, famously said : ‘it always looks impossible until it’s done.”
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere