Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Book Review. The New Geography of Jobs.

If you take the Amtrak train from Philadelphia to New York City and look left when crossing the Delaware River, you'll see the famous sign "Trenton Makes, The World Takes" plastered across the neighboring bridge, the Lower Trenton.  If ever there was a marker to indicate where you are on the Northeast Corridor, this is it.

Unfortunately the sign, originally installed in 1935, refers to an American world that no longer exists.  Things are no longer "Made in U.S.A." and shipped to a waiting and appreciative world, at least not in the quantity they used to be. American manufacturing has been on the decline for decades and with this decline has come a retreat in economic leadership and global political influence, leaving this country searching for a new macro-economic identity grounded in the new economic realities.  America wants to find its niche in this globalized world - what can it still do uniquely, something that can't be captured or successfully imitated by other competitor nations or interests?  

New paths are emerging for the American economy and they are promising.  They emphasize innovation, creativity and broad imagination. In other words, they focus on the human mind in all its capacities. This is an exciting turn of events.  At the same time, these new paths carry with them all the warning signs of an economy that is dividing this nation sharply.  Economic transformation almost always brings social transformation with it, and in this upcoming century the "haves" will be able to accumulate plenty but the "have nots" are likely to lose even more. The challenge for millions of Americans is how to be carried by the upside of the change, and not to be trapped under the downside of it.    

Furthermore, this division has great implications for urban America with some cities coming out as big winners, and others being left behind.  Main Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts tells this story very well. Bordering MIT and once the home of the heavy industries that supported Cambridge from the 19th century well into the 20th, Main Street collapsed into disuse, disrepair and abandonment  in the 1970s as the industrial base withered away.  In the last 20 years however it has been reborn into an amalgam of 21st century American urbanity.  Gleaming with glass and steel, the street's new structures are like a display case of urban American prosperity on steroids. Construction now booms all around the MIT campus and the proximity is no accident. 

Proximity is seen as key to the long-term success of any venture.  The investors backing these efforts want to be near the knowledge factory known as the Institute.  It is not random chance that with MIT in the mix the city's coffers are flush with cash.  MIT has sought to blur the line between its campus and the outside world, hoping to foster this world of innovation. They seem to be succeeding. 

What is true in Cambridge is also true in San Francisco and in Brooklyn but not true in Flint, Michigan or Bakersfield, California.  Why is this and what does it mean?  The cities of the Rust Belt have yet to write any chapters about rebirth.    More problematic, today's winners are likely to be tomorrow's too as the competition for the young, talented creative labor force intensifies.  Path dependency is what economists call it, and it means that where you come from is where you're headed, which is another way of saying that history matters. 

Making sense of this new world is of critical importance as job growth, economic vitality and income security consume the national debate. Elected officials at all levels, but particularly at the local level, have ample reason to pay attention, as do business and labor leaders along with young people heading off to college, and those who aren't.  Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti has taken on this challenge in his new book, The New Geography of Jobs, and the story he tells is profound.

Moretti has done a good deed by sitting down to write.  He's clear and concise.  He has tackled these vexing questions from many angles - the decline in American manufacturing; the phenomenon of path dependency that he calls The Great Divergence; the reason why people choose to live where they live.  He has writer's knack for pulling out the illustrative detail while never losing the broad sweep of events.  It is truly a skill to be equally at home in the abstract realm of statistics and the very emotion-laden world of human decision-making. Most economists forget that the conclusions they draw from their sample populations also contain the drama of people's actual lives within them.   Moretti remembers this while avoiding another trap of economists.   He doesn't leave his story in the realm of the theoretical, but constantly brings his tale back to real-world existence in a way that amplifies the argument by making it coincide with everyday experience.  Most importantly, he knows his subject well and he's talking about something that is shaping our future more than we realize.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

After watching Bob Hope in The Road to Hong Kong, I cannot but conclude that comedy is truly the highest form of art.

Joined on screen by Bing Crosby, (a young) Joan Collins, Dorothy Lamour, Peter Sellers, Robert Morley, and special guests Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

God bless the damned fools, every one of them.

On August 21, 1876, Captain Alfred Johnson landed his 16 foot sailboat in Liverpool, England,  becoming the first person to successfully complete the transatlantic voyage solo. He was 29 years old at the time.

He had named his little dory Centennial in honor of his nation's 100th birthday, and had departed the harbor in Gloucester, Massachusetts 66 days earlier. 

Shortly before his death in 1927, the Boston Sunday Post asked him "Just why did you make the trip across the Atlantic in a dory, Cap'n?" He answered, "Lots of people have asked me that, and I always try to tell 'em the truth.  I made the trip because I was a damned fool, just as they said I was."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

And another Thanksgiving tradition ...

"Football is the quintessential American sport.  Every play begins with a meeting and ends with an act of violence."

-- Michael Kinsley (I believe)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cui dono hunc libellum?

It's not Catullus, but it's close.

It's also the phrase that came to my mind while looking at the first book printed in North America, a psalter published by Stephen Day in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1639.  Called the Bay Psalm Book, it sits in the Houghton Library at Harvard and is as valued by book collectors as a Gutenberg Bible or a First Folio of Shakespeare.

What an odd little book, hunc libellum.  What a lovely little book, lepidum hunc libellum.

Imagine coastal Massachusetts of the 1630s, and how it must have seemed to the European mind. Its impenetrably dark woods emitting wild and strange sounds crowded these white semi-literate settlers at every turn, almost pushing them back into the sea.  In these dark woods, an unknown and "savage race" of native peoples speaking no language ever seen or heard in Europe eyed them with great suspicion and intentions unknown.  From 90F in late August to 8F and 5 feet of snow in early February, the extreme swings of temperature and climate were as disorienting as they were potentially deadly. Every plant new to sight and smell and taste was a savior or a murderer depending on its toxicity.  Unidentified beasts lurked deep in the dark land, growling, browsing, climbing, scratching, howling, as if man needed any further reminder that he was granted no God-given dominion here.

All of this, all of it, was what a few English settlers saw and felt in those first years on these shores.  And what did they decide to do?  They took their latest technology, their most advanced item, the printing press, and they published a bunch of songs that a Jewish tribe wrote down on papyrus in the arid Near Eastern desert sometime 2,500 years before.

What an odd little book, hunc libellum.  Its leather binding protected the pages which survived the cold winters, the floods, the snows, the diseases, the animals, the attacks, the fires. Like St. Peter upon his rock so these Protestants upon this book in this strange and hostile land founded their churches, their universities, their traditions, their laws.  From this book, steeped by the brew of time, sprang a kaleidoscope of culture, like the rainbow hair from the 1960s pop artist Peter Max.  America is the kaleidoscope.  America is the rainbow.

All you need is ... ?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Crowd sourcing democracy

In democracies, elections are the moments when the tectonic plates of political alignment shift.  The  pressure that moves these plates derives in part from subterranean drivers of the economy.  When these fundamental drivers change, politics needs to incorporate this new reality in a timely manner.  When the politics are not flexible enough to do that, and new and changing needs get no hearing, then the public discourse grows harsher and radical and sudden shifts become more likely. Think of the 19th century transformation from agrarian to industrial economies in North America and Europe as an example.  Technological change produced massive social change and a reordering of society.  Political theory and practice struggled mightily to make sense of this.  Whether through Marxism or  through capitalism, the ripples are still felt today.  But change continues. American politics struggles at this moment on how to change social support systems that were created at the height of our industrialization process -- dating from before the Second World War.  The American economy that existed when those were created has long since disappeared.  Our politics is working on how to have this tectonic shift reflected elsewhere in our lives.  And now, with the acceleration of the Information Age, we face new challenges. 

What our Founding Fathers left behind is still quite remarkable.  The democratic impulse combined with a broad franchise, while ancient in its origins, is consistently modern in so many surprising respects.   The wigged Revolutionaries who trotted to Philadelphia in 1787 to debate a new Constitution could not have been further from our modern techno-savvy entrepreneurs, but each understood a basic truth that has proven persistently true -- a crowd has a wisdom unto itself, and by putting something to the crowd in a vote, that wisdom can emerge.  We know it now as "crowd sourcing".  Let the people speak.  In politics, this crowd sourcing impluse allows the relevant ideas to rise to the top of the agenda which in the long run is the best way that people's concerns get heard. 

This is all preamble to a blog post about a book on jobs in the new economy, but that will have to wait for my next post.

Monday, November 12, 2012

All Lost in the Supermarket

Days after last week's election, I found myself wandering in Whole Foods feeling like some poor lost soul in Willy Wonka's version of the Garden of Eden, not unlike a bewildered gnome in the Land of Plenty. 

Food stuffs, aisle after aisle of them, were neatly arranged on shelves deep and broad.  The staff, a combination of art history majors and organic gardeners who run their own honey-producing beehives off their Somerville roofs and Ethiopian immigrants who marvel each day at this place called America, are responsive to any box of organic pasta that might be askew but are daunting in the professionalism which they bring to what they care for. 

They are the Guardians to the Platonic Idea we called Food.  Whole Foods after all is a supermarket with a governing philosophy.  

No doubt I was searching for something expensive, but the wide aisles and the sheer amount of stuff around me, and the expense of it, got me thinking -- who is this proverbial angry white male, the voter who chose Scott Brown over Elizabeth Warren, the voter who chose Mitt Romney over Barack Obama, and what the hell does he want?

For my answer, I turned to the cheese aisle.  What would he make of this, I wondered?

What would he make of a hundred different choices of cheese from around the world, all sitting on a refrigerated shelf, just waiting to be chosen?  And what would he make of the people stooping deliberately and dramatically over this array, considering their cheeses like Sherlock Holmes drawing on his pipe, waiting for the insight to arrive through the blue haze of smoke? 

This angry man, would he find this experience an enlightening expansion of his horizons?  Or would he find it ridiculous, frightening, or even threatening -- an example of a world that he neither recognizes nor welcomes?

We have split into two nations in some important ways.  Who walks into a Whole Foods? In Cambridge, we know the type.  We're in the cheese aisle. 

But who doesn't walk into a Whole Foods? Him we don't know, because he's not in the cheese aisle.  When confronted with such opulence, is he coaxed to vent a resentment at an America he's been told is filled with "takers", as Mitt Romney said.  The ultimate private capital billionaire reached out to this voter with a message that was narrow, angry, divisive, hyperbolic.  The GOP continues to maw its cud, as well they should. 

But we dismiss his anger at our own peril.  Like this little gnome trying to decide between a Gorgonzola and a St. Andre, we'd be fools not to see what's around us too.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The 2012 Election and the new (Silent) Majority

The election is over now.  Barack Obama is our president.

Meanwhile the Republicans are eating their young.  The unrepentant among them, and there are many, vie to show the ostrich how to do its work by digging their heads as deep as the sand will let them.  The intelligent among them, and they still exist, try to measure the length of their self-imposed tunnel before they even bother looking for the light.  And the final third of this triumvirate is the real rope around the Republican Party's neck -- the fringe element that controls the party by controlling the primary process for choosing candidates.  This element is frightening, and large, and accounts for the claims that climate change is a hoax and there is such a thing as legitimate rape, both uttered by GOP politicians. As a young woman said today on a radio call-in show: "No thinking person will vote for that, no matter what their governmental philosophy might be."  And that is exactly the point.  No thinking person will vote for that, ever.

Moderate GOP leaders seem blind to the dark shadow this dispossessed angry voter casts over their chances to appeal to 21st century multicultural, inclusive, cooperative America.  Christie Todd Whitman, a former New Jersey GOP governor herself, pointed out that older white fundamentalist Christian males are simply not enough to build an electable party, never mind a governing coalition.  She certainly qualifies as one of the intelligent ones. 

Meanwhile for the rest of us, Election Day was good.  In Massachusetts, long lines of Cambridge voters met poll workers when doors opened at 7AM.  The lines didn't lessen, the voters did not let up, for hours and hours.  There was a massive effort to turn out the vote, to see Elizabeth Warren become the first female Senator from the state.

Her bid to defeat Scott Brown had a deep meaning to many here.  More than just the sting of having a Republican in the seat that had been Ted Kennedy's, there is a sense among liberals that a new majority is coming into being.  It is progressive and Left-leaning, and it votes Democratic.  It is the antithesis to the Nixon Silent Majority of the early 1970s, when disaffected Southern conservative Democrats joined forces with Northern urban working-class Catholics to abandon the Democratic party in droves, over Civil Rights, over Women's Rights, over the Vietnam War.  Ronald Reagan understood this ten years later and expanded it.  With his folksy control of the airwaves, he cloaked the country in the American flag and his brand of conservatism (which seems strikingly tolerant and cooperative compared to today's Republican rhetoric).  Liberals were on the run.  Democrat George McGovern won only Massachusetts in the 1972 presidential election.  Democrat Walter Mondale won only Minnesota in 1984.

But that has changed in large part because the country has changed.  While the South hasn't budged, remaining strongly Republican (at least they are true to that conservative value), the northern urban centers have experienced a true renaissance.  The cloak of their old industrial past has been shed.  They have become the new home of innovation, hipness, finance, information, and strongly Democratic-leaning politics. Even Detroit, a city on the perpetual downturn, is finding small places of upturn in this new century.  For activists, this election had to be an assertion of a new blue majority.  And it was.

At first glance of the electoral map, you might not come to that conclusion with so much red to see. 

In this county-by-county look at the dispersion of Democratic (blue) and Republican (red) votes in 2012, vast swaths of the middle part of the country are Republican, and solidly so.  But of course the population concentrations exist along the coasts.  From Maine down to Washington DC, Democratic.  Bordering the Great Lakes, also Democratic.  The West Coast almost in its full entirety, Democratic.  The exception is in the South, where the coastal counties along Gulf Coast remain Republican.

As it turns out, the blue districts correlate with the economic activity most strongly associated with 21st century America, the America that is still the innovation hub for the world: the Bostons, New Yorks, San Franciscos, Seattles.  These areas share a lot in common -- multicultural, tolerant, high levels of education, high incomes, long histories of immigrant arrivals living in close proximity and high density to the existing populations.

This map speaks of today's America, and it points to the challenge that the Republican Party faces.  The blue areas will not only continue to be blue for the foreseeable future, but they will continue to grow, in population, in economic strength, in wealth and in power.  They will both contribute and be influenced by the globalized work environment that is our new reality and soon to be our new norm.  They prize innovation, inclusion, and cooperation in their ethic.  And they see the Democratic Party not only as reflecting that, but as understanding it and implementing those values in its own work. In this world, in multicultural America, old divisions such as skin color and language of origin lessen in importance, to be replaced by new divisions -- education level, access to capital and information -- presenting a whole new set of thorny challenges. 

Can the Republicans understand this enough to have something relevant to say about it?  I think not in the near future.  Their endless focus on tax cuts seems to betray a lack of deeper comprehension of the complexity of the challenges, and the momentum within the party to travel down bad alleyways that are ultimately dead-ends is too strong to alter nimbly and responsively.  But it is safe to assume that even for Republicans eventually it will not be heresy or punishable by political death to utter the words: science is real and women are equals.  If not, it's the way of the Dodo bird for them.