Monday, January 28, 2008

It's the New Economy, Stupid

Sunday's New York Times Magazine had a great piece asking why the presidential candidates continue to spend time and rhetoric in old-economy settings, such as factories.
[27 January 2008 - New York Times - Sunday Magazine] Why do presidential candidates touting their concern for the economy pose with factory workers rather than with ballet troupes? After all, the U.S. now has more choreographers (16,340) than metal-casters (14,880), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More people make their livings shuffling and dealing cards in casinos (82,960) than running lathes (65,840), and there are almost three times as many security guards (1,004,130) as machinists (385,690). Whereas 30 percent of Americans worked in manufacturing in 1950, fewer than 15 percent do now. The economy as politicians present it is a folkloric thing. ... Today’s economic anxiety is not the same anxiety that simmered between 1980 and 2000. Back then, recessions and slowdowns were understood as the pangs of a new economy struggling to be born. But the recession we now seem to be entering is to the information age what the recession of, say, 1957-1958 was to the industrial age — a “normal” recession in the midst of an economy with stable bases, an economy that (to use a current cliché) “is what it is.” The “jobs of the future” that were promised 20 years ago are here. Choreographers, blackjack dealers and security guards have replaced factory workers as the economy’s backbone, if not yet its symbol. New economies have always required a kind of initiation fee of those who would participate fully in them. As the historian Richard Hofstadter showed in “The Age of Reform,” the aftermath of the Civil War was marked by paeans to the prosperity that would arise from technological change. The 19th-century farmer went to great lengths to join it. “His demand for expensive machinery,” Hofstadter wrote, “his expectation of higher standards of living and his tendency to go into debt to acquire extensive acreage created an urgent need for cash and tempted the farmer into capitalizing more and more on his greatest single asset: the unearned appreciation in the value of his land.” These problems will be familiar to many a 21st-century security guard or Wal-Mart cashier. They are the problems not of someone “left behind” in the old economy but of someone struggling in the new. More
This is not to say that the job changes and job losses in factory and mill communities are not important. Rather, that today's - and tomorrow's - economy is pretty far removed from what those jobs historically meant. Focusing on new kinds of support for today's workers, support that looks different than it did in a manufacturing and industrial era, should be emphasized by at least some of the candidates. Yet these ideas don't seem prevalent in any of the campaigns.

Where is the candidate who acknowledges that creativity - in all its many and varied forms - is at the heart of community and economic development?

My Eastern Connecticut community is a former thread mill town. Two fantastic mill buildings have been renovated. One has become ArtSpace housing, while the other is partially open for something new. Clearly, these buildings will never again house major manufacturing. The challenge that our community, along with many others, faces is how creativity becomes the new threads for weaving our community's future. These threads of creativity are not just about the arts, but about every aspect of community development:
  • Social threads ... including diversity, new ideas, new businesses, new music, openness, welcoming
  • Economic threads ... including local inventiveness, innovation, entrepreneurship, preservation
  • Education threads ... including children, universities, talents, knowledge, research, lifelong learning, collaborations
  • Political threads ... including openness, collaboration, independence and interdependence, common interests
  • Sustainable threads ... including green community, natural amenities, regional trails and parks, locally owned farms
  • Creative threads ... imagination, creative thinking, new ideas, arts, culture
This is the focus of a proposal submitted by our town to the Case Foundation's "Make It Your Own" Awards, which recognize citizen-centered approaches to civic engagement. The idea for "Weaving a New Willimantic" with the threads of creativity was selected as one of the Case Foundation's Top 100 Finalist ideas from nearly 5000 proposals, and is currently under consideration as a Top 20 idea.

Creativity is a core human drive. People seek opportunities to develop and express this part of themselves in the community, whether in business, arts, learning, politics, volunteerism or any number of other areas. The new economy requires policies that develop and support the skills of creative thinking and innovation, facilitate environments where such creativity can be expressed and channeled, and candidates and politicians who at least acknowledge that we are in a different economic epoch.

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