A former student of mine shared an interesting article about Google’s efforts to build high-speed Internet infrastructure in Kansas City. The focus of the article is the difficulty Google is having getting traditionally disadvantaged parts of town to sign up for even deeply discounted Internet service. Kansas City, like I suspect Milwaukee, has a deep digital divide. According to the New York Times almost fifty percent of African-Americans in Kansas City do not use the Internet. Logic suggests a lack of easy access, and the cost of broadband, is a reason why.
This story got me thinking about Milwaukee Magazine’s recent article listing 21 ideas to change Milwaukee. Right there at number two is “Build a Wired City.” The article quotes a local CEO who says easy public access to the Internet should be “…part of the infrastructure of any world-class city.” I agree, and go even further and say that providing widespread (if not universal) Internet access is an appropriate responsibility for government.
In a way, government already does this. Through libraries and schools it is quite easy for just about anyone, with a little bit of effort, to have access to high-speed Internet. But should state and local governments in Wisconsin be doing more? After all, what is high-speed today may not be high-speed tomorrow. Chattanooga, TN, for example, made a massive investment (using substantial federal stimulus dollars) to build a government-run network with capacity far beyond the current needs of businesses and individuals. It is a gamble, but one that may make the city more attractive in the long run.
Probably more controversially, I think some sort of program that gives low-income residents free or subsidized access to high-speed Internet in their residence is in the public interest. The scope of activities that require the Internet has reached a point where lack of convenient access puts people at a significant disadvantage when it comes to employment, government services, and the building of social capital. More abstractly, as news and commentary migrates to the Internet those without access are likely to become increasingly disengaged with civic life.
Hopefully the efforts of LinkWISCONSIN will prove fruitful and encourage public investment in Wisconsin’s digital infrastructure even after federal funds dry up. Connectivity is an increasingly important quality-of-life issue; a little investment can go a long way towards attracting businesses and human talent to Wisconsin.
This is my last post on the WPRI blog for my summer position. It has been a wonderful experience. As a forward-looking exercise, I will write about some of the differences between the United States and the United Kingdom, where I spend the majority of my time, notwithstanding the summers (in the US, that is…one must be charitable to call anything in the UK “summer”). This entry will constitute something of a list of thoughts from a current American ex-pat. The following is a list of things that really jump out at me from an American perspective:
Food and Drink: Orwell said famously that the faults of Britain, “from a foreign visitor’s point of view, are the gloom of our Sundays and the difficulty of buying a drink.” After walking into an English restaurant—or having an English breakfast—one wonders whether the proverbial saying is true: “The best English cooking is, of course, simply French cooking.” In a famous essay titled “In Defense of English Cooking,” Orwell goes on ad nauseum about everything from the fantastic array of puddings to the variegated selection of marmalade, from the delicacy of English cheeses to potato cakes exclusive to the island. It reads more like a high-end shopping list at Dean & Deluca than it does any English food I have ever tasted. Fish and chips, pies, Cumberland sausages and potatoes (“bangers and mash,” as it is known), steak and kidneys, and beef stew invariably grace the pages of most English menus in my experience. English food is solid and reliable, if limited in its repertoire. Of course, the incredible diversity of England’s ethnic cuisine is one of its finest attributes, but in terms of purely English food, the name of the game is simplicity and reliability.
Weather: Rain, rain, and more rain. Summer is practically non-existent—except for a two-week stretch each May (thankfully around my birthday) that gets everybody hopeful that “this year will be different.” Invariably, it is not; summer fails to arrive and most weeks, my English friends spend their time hoping next week will bring consistent sunshine. Vitamin D supplements are imperative, as some parts of England receive insufficient sunlight each year for the human person.
Provincialism/Navel-gazing: Since I am affiliated with an academic institution in the UK, this is noticeable especially within academic departments. Many of my institution’s best departments have an abundance of scholars working on issues that are, quite frankly, not as impactful as others. While still perfectly legitimate fields of study in themselves, the History Department, for instance, has a multitude of scholars working on issues of early English agrarian policy, rural English development, and medieval religion in two specific rural towns, inter alia. What is a potential problem, however, is when these fields crowd out more impactful and international themes, such as the study of Soviet Russia, China, America, or even European studies. I am inclined to think that this strategic decision by many departments—and I offer here only one example of many—is linked inextricably to British nationalism. After the fall of the British Empire, nationalism lost its imperial and international edge and became relegated to the boundaries of a small island nation. I cannot help but think there is a nexus between the decline of the Empire and the increased provincialism of academic disciplines at some British institutions. When there is no longer a British Empire “out there,” study becomes increasingly about what is left remaining “right here.”
Despite the importance of the European Union to modern affairs, designed to temper nationalism for the collective security and economic union of all of Europe, the same old European nationalism that the world has seen repeatedly is flaring up in recent fights over the Euro currency, security policy, and economic cooperation initiatives like bank bailouts and the issuance of common treasury bonds by the European Central Bank. In Britain’s case, since it is not party to the Euro Zone Agreement, nationalism manifests itself in a subtler way: a sort of Euro-skepticism that crosses political parties and demographics. It is commonplace to hear such phrases as “Britain and Europe,” or “us and the Europeans,” as if the insular nature of the island provided it with an airtight bubble of complete protection from the worst aspects of Europe. (The early involvement of Britain in WWI and WWII, as well as numerous other wars waged on the European continent, belies this notion completely.)
The Coffee Shop: Despite some of my complaints about the quality of customer service (on top of a less than eight-hour work day), British coffee shops are terrific. Tea, coffee, or hot chocolate—coffee shops are a place of both individual and social flourishing. Whereas in America, one sees more people reading alone or taking their coffee to go, coffee shops in Britain retain the sort of salon feel that doubtless marked their existence around the turn of the century. Simply put, the Brits manage somehow to maintain the intellectual milieu of the coffee shop without the somewhat empty, capitalist feeling of transaction and departure, say, from an American Starbucks. After the coffee shops close, intellectual conversations shift to the pubs and ale houses. Another great British amalgam is the coffee shop/bookstore combination (with a much different feel, of course, than your average Starbucks inside of a Barnes & Noble).
Bookstores and Publishers: Bookstores abound in England, and not just in my university town. Many of them are independent, picayune bookstores that deal in both new books and used, often timeless, tomes. The country’s largest bookstore chains are Blackwells and Waterstones, the former being very academic—far exceeding the quality of many university bookstores—and the latter more akin to the now-defunct Borders or Barnes & Noble. Even Waterstones, however, is more academic in the quality of its selected titles than a mainstream American bookstore; this undoubtedly says something about the British demand for the availability of quality academic reading. The ability of these chains to not just stay in business, but do remarkably well—even in the age of internet giants like Amazon, where in the UK, shipping is always free—is truly a testament to their quality. Another discernable difference is the quality of publishing in Britain. In America, there has been an incredible consolidation of non-university, non-academic presses. Penguin, Harcourt, Simon & Schuster, Random House, and several others dominate the publishing market in America; meanwhile, in Britain, a panoply of smaller presses exist, without the kind of consolidation that occurred in America. This is hugely important when it comes to translated works and other rare books (or versions) one would be hard-pressed to find on American shelves (usually, one would be left resorting to Amazon’s “virtual shelf”).
London and the Arts: Is there a more vibrant city in Europe than London? Perhaps Paris if you are a Francophone. For the Anglophone, however, London is the place to be. The availability and quality of the arts in London is really the elevating factor in its prominence. The number of cultural happenings in any given weekend is truly staggering.
Concomitant with the rise of new forms of mass media are new tools for expressing one’s opinion—on everything, but especially political matters. Twitter, Facebook, other social media sites, and the Internet in general, now make it easy to eviscerate traditional media’s role in opinion dissemination and political commentary: to wit, the guardians of quality, allowing for the distinction, as it were, between good art and bad artifice. To be sure, mass media affords the common American a hitherto unprecedented voice in American politics, not to mention an opportunity to stay informed at a high level, but it also thrusts her into the position of political commentator, whose opinions we value often at a level previously reserved for the public intellectual, the social commentator, or the essayist (a long lost art after the death of George Orwell). Doubtless, mass media has opened the space for the culture of political “pundits,” operatives, commentators, polling experts, psephologists, and strategists. Indeed, these individuals inhabit our airwaves, engaging in their pseudo-intellectual vocation, caviling and carping over trifling matters—the tie someone sported and the “message” it either consciously or subconsciously sent, the meaning of an official’s particular gesticulations as she delivered a speech, or the recent “beltway” canards and calumnies—with the constant benefit of infallible hindsight. While the American polity chugs along and confronts nearly intractable problems, one finds these ubiquitous individuals continually missing the forest for the trees.
I surmise that one reason public intellectuals of the past—here I have in mind, to name just a few, Albert Einstein, Madame Curie, John Maynard Keynes, Norman Mailer, Reinhold Niebuhr, William F. Buckley, Jr., and the late Gore Vidal—maintained their prominence in political and social commentary was their ability to entertain big ideas and offer trenchant insight into American society, for which the American public at the time had an appetite, and nearly always in a way that was accessible to the average citizen. Their ideas were by no means pleasing and often critical; nevertheless, Americans read them, entertained them, and ruminated them.
“Ideas just aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world,” posits Neal Gabler in a fascinating piece in the New York Times Sunday Review. “If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it is not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just do not care as much about ideas as they did. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world—a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that cannot instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.”
Occasionally, late-night talk shows would invite intellectuals like Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. on their programs to discuss current events. Alas, those are bygone days in American history! “There is the eclipse of the public intellectual in the general media by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness, and the concomitant decline of the essay in general-interest magazines. And there is the rise of an increasingly visual culture, especially among the young—a form in which ideas are more difficult to express.” Now that the dust has settled after Gore Vidal’s death and his legacy written, it is hard to remain sanguine about the future of commentary and public intellectualism in America.
Garber contends that we live in an environment beyond Post-Enlightenment, where thinking no longer employs the techniques of rational thought—namely, that of the post-idea world. The post-idea world is one where most people do not think at all, regardless of the mode of inquiry. Indeed, it seems ironic, but in the age of information, where man has the ability to know nearly anything, with heretofore the greatest ease, humans are thinking about ideas less and less. (Perhaps, the greatest irony is how thought-provoking Garber’s article itself is.)
“In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful—into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas.” Here, Garber is spot-on, though perhaps he does not explicate fully the implications for the public intellectual. Great ideas explain the world to us, and public intellectuals entertain great ideas, packaging them neatly for American readers, and distilling them for most everybody. They were imperative to answering the writhing questions of our human existence.
Now, information competes with ideas, pushing ideas to the background. Americans would rather discuss information than big ideas, which are cumbersome, theoretical, and at times, impractical—not to mention less rewarding, both economically and socially. Although there exist websites dedicated to discussing big ideas, the websites that are most popular—Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and Flikr—house information, and hardly the type of information that engenders ideas. To make matters worse, Garber notes, among American youth, these mediums supplant print, wherein ideas generally reside. “While social networking may enlarge one’s circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same thing as enlarging one’s intellectual universe. Indeed, the gab of social networking tends to shrink one’s universe to oneself and one’s friends, while thoughts organized in words, whether online or on the page, enlarge one’s focus.” The availability of information—especially free information—has engendered a crisis for some magazines, literary reviews, and weeklies, even if they have shifted to online content. There is a legitimate fear that Americans no longer have the appetite to pay for such publications as The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, The London Review of Books, The Atlantic, etc., where discussions of literature, politics, and essays cohabitate on the same page. In our lifetimes, we may see the shuttering of the aforementioned publications—a great pity.
So, while there may be successors to the public intellectuals I mentioned at the outset, they are not likely to receive great traction in a culture that values information and facts more than ideas. Moreover, Americans with good ideas are likely to take their ideas to the marketplace—or at the very least feel pressure to do so. But there is a difference between entrepreneurialism and inventions (i.e., material) and intellectually stimulating thoughts (i.e., ideational). One may also view the cultural traction (or lack thereof) of contemporary big ideas, with specific reference to a book that sounded a powerful tocsin against anti-intellectualism in America—Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Today, one may suspect that Bloom’s magnum opus, which topped the New York Timesbest-seller list in its day, would barely make a ripple. Thus, with the recent passing of Gore Vidal, and William F. Buckley Jr. before him, we can use this occasion celebrate the proverbial “end of an era”—a venerable era in American history with elevated discussion of big ideas, ideas that, unlike frenetic information, mattered to the moral and intellectual core of the country.
The traditional conception of democratic citizenship roots itself in a specific polity, and will for the foreseeable future. Disparate political communities, each with their own form of governance and view of the human good, do not serve as a deterrent to virtuous citizenship, but in some cases serves as a boon for good citizenship. Most people believe in national identity and attachment to it as both inevitable and desirable. Few and far between are cosmopolitans—at least outside of the halls of liberal academia—who bemoan particularistic and provincial attachment to nation, state, or local space. “For the vast majority of human beings,” Leon Kass writes, “life…is lived parochially and locally, embedded in a web of human relations, institutions, culture, and mores that define us and—whether we know it or not—give shape, character, and meaning to our lives.” This idea of citizenship and its connection to community is alive and well.
Yet, Jonathan Last writes in this week’s Weekly Standard that community and geography will sever, eventually, at least in one important respect, by the business practice known as “microtasking”—i.e., the use of Internet platforms that operate like job fairs, where willing participants sign up to perform tasks for business involving the Internet and paid upon completion of the task (provided the company is a legitimate, tax-paying and law-abiding one). In Last’s case, he utilized Amazon.com to land a gig entering search terms into Google, clicking on the first result generated by the search term, and copying the URL into a work page. He earned a paltry $0.16 for his labor, but worked less than two minutes. But beyond his meager salary as a “Mechanical Turk,” Last’s participation in microtasking seems innocuous enough, yet highlights a problem with what any future economy may look like—completely remote participation in the workplace.
To be sure, Amazon’s platform—and others like it—represents a novel contribution, matching worker’s skills with jobs, or rather tasks, businesses need fulfilled on a part-time or one-off basis. It does not make sense for companies to hire for such tasks, nor to allocate them to current employees, so the Internet affords them an outlet for such task completion. Last notes that free-market advocates ought to like these types of platforms, where work is unforced, the labor and tasks defined transparently, employment discrimination nearly impossible, and the human factors such as résumé review and interview performance reduced. The biggest and most profound shift engendered by these platforms, however, is the severing of community and geography—and without any pretense of replacing it in new ways.
The work-commute paradigm, where work centers around particular spaces of productivity such as offices, remains a particularly ossified concept, even in the digital era. At their best, offices are places of dynamism, productivity, idea-swapping, and friendship. Even if they are, in some senses, economically inefficient, we confirm them despite this inefficiency for the aforementioned reasons. Microtasking destroys this nexus, however. US business may contract with citizens of Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, or Mexico. All that matters is that the task goes fulfilled, not the communal atmosphere of the office, the common devotion to the company and its product(s), or the vested interest of the workers in the long-term future and ethical behavior of the business. Microtasking encourages fleeting relationships of utility centered on task completion for small monetary remuneration.
The implications, I believe, are straightforward. Microtasking decreases the likelihood that businesses will view their relationship with the community in which they locate—or eventually, even the nation in which they place their headquarters—as vital to their future. It decreases the likelihood that business will maintain a vested interest in that community—in its work force, its institutions, its sound government, its education system. Tout court, it decreases the likelihood of business participation in all that makes a community healthy and vibrant. The only way microtasking will not lead to the erosion of the nexus between community and geography is if any increased efficiency therein lands within the community or the American economy itself, which, for the nonce, is highly unlikely. The change that microtasking brings to the American business experience and its historical linkage to communities is something unprecedented and overall, deleterious to the nexus we hold dear.
Friday I had the opportunity to hear some excellent speakers at a Business Journal event on the future of downtown Milwaukee. Former Mayor John Norquist was as opinionated as ever, but I was most taken by Marc Marotta’s pitch for a new basketball arena downtown.
Marotta emphasized, as yours truly did in a commentary last week, the importance of a high quality of life in economic growth. He put the need for a new stadium in this context, arguing that having a professional sports team downtown brings great intangible benefits to Milwaukee’s economy.
It is an important point, because there is pretty substantial literature showing that stadiums and professional sports in general are a costly and inefficient way to boost the tangible indicators of economic growth. A 1997 report by economists Robert Baade and Allen Sanderson, for example, concluded:
“[C]ities should be wary of committing substantial portions of their capital budgets to building stadiums and otherwise subsidizing professional sports in the expectations of strong income and job growth.”
So what intangible benefits do professional sports bring to a place? The big benefit, nearly impossible to measure, is civic pride. John Gurda touched on this idea in his book, The Making of Milwaukee. He describes in detail the excitement in Milwaukee when the Braves came to town; residents saw their coming as proof that the city had finally made the big time. And civic pride is important, good luck getting outsiders to come to a place if longtime residents are down on it.
Another intangible benefit is even more basic than pride: unity. In our current political climate, it is invaluable to have reminders that there is more to Wisconsin and to being a Wisconsinite than recalls and partisan divides. Consider, for example, the Brewer’s run last year. The state was in political turmoil yet thousands of citizens of all political and demographic stripes found something common to care about.
At their core professional sports are trivial, but perhaps that is why they matter. Anything that can bring thousands of people who may disagree about all the serious stuff together even for a little while is worth supporting. That is why I hope Marotta and other stakeholders find a way to get their new arena and keep pro basketball in the state, not doing so would mean one less institution with the potential to unite Wisconsinites.
Another weekend, another fight involving the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). The latest incident was a near-brawl that forced the early cancellation of a Rufus King – Riverside boys basketball game. Unfortunately, incidents like this reinforce the common outstate perception that Milwaukee is in a complete state of dysfunction.
I assure you, it is not.
Today, like every other day, thousands of Milwaukee residents are going about the daily minutiae of urban life without incident. While understandable that day-to-day life in Wisconsin’s biggest city does not generate headlines, it is an important point to remember when examining the very real problems facing Milwaukee.
School violence, persistently low-levels of K-12 achievement, black male unemployment, and co-sleeping deaths are all are symptoms of entrenched pockets of dysfunction that demand attention. These pockets of dysfunction, however, do not define Milwaukee or its citizenry.
The city’s cultural attractions, neighborhoods, universities, and corporate centers are as much a part of Milwaukee as its social problems; which is why the recent criticism of Tom Barrett’s support of the residency rule for City of Milwaukee employees is misguided. The general critique is that Barrett would rather trap people in the city than work to make Milwaukee a place where people want to live. I am not often defending Mayor Barrett, but this line of criticism ignores a basic truth: People actually do want to live in the city.
Last May, Alderman Willie Hines pointed out that the most recent recruitment for new Milwaukee firefighters and police officers generated 5,000 and 3,500 applicants respectively. All of the applicants knew about the residency rule and wanted the job anyways.
More philosophically, allowing organizations to set terms of employment is perfectly in line with free market principals. Employers have a right to set their terms and employees have a right to take, or not to take a job. As Barrett stated (I am paraphrasing), city employees not wanting to live in Milwaukee are free to leave the city, and their jobs.
No doubt Milwaukee needs work (A list of proposals in a 2004 WPRI report is a great place to start), but it is not on life-support. People of all stripes make their home in the cultural and economic center of the state not because they must, but because it is where they want to live.
I’m a week late on this, and I blame the recalls – Both Wisconsin and national politics have been perfectly orchestrated to maximize distractions. But there was some good news last week. In Forbes Magazine’s “The Small Best Places for Business and Careers for 2011″, seven Wisconsin communities made the list. Eau Claire, Appleton, La Crosse, Oshkosh, Racine, Sheboygan, and Fond du Lac were numbers 38, 39, 40, 71, 81, 100, and 107, respectively. The rankings are based on the costs of living and doing business, educational attainment, and observed and predicted economic growth. They don’t cite any specific policies so it’s difficult to point to anything in particular this or the previous administration passed. It’s still nice to be reminded that we live in an exceptional state.
I give you “Roadmap to my Heart,” in honor of Congressman Paul Ryan:
When Atlas shrugged I knew you’d carry the weight
That PX90 program has you in great shape
But more than than you’re stimulating my brain
Your Roadmap to the Future has lit this girl’s flame
Paul R-Y-A-N, he’s gonna cap that spending
Budget Hunter, Surplus savior’s got me dreaming
Paul R-Y-A-N, he’s got the camera’s waiting
Raise those polls and ratings
It’s more than a crush
It’s a wonky fascination
Driven by fiscal reformation
If you’re deficit or debt, he will tear you apart
Paul Ryan has the Roadmap to my young gun heart
You’ve got the way to make me fall
And the means to follow through
Entitlements are something made for me not you
Obamacare repeal is seduction for free
The Patient Choice Act is victory
Paul R-Y-A-N, he knows money
Like a bad romance, he makes a dime worth a damn
Paul R-Y-A-N, he’s talking savings baby
He’s a hawk, don’t get caught
Thinking that money is free
(Hold it right there, let me make this clear)
The cards are dealt, the facts are bad!
China up and owns our ass
Social welfare’s warped the brain
Raise the debt? Are you insane?!
Inflation? (Whoa!) Boy cut that junk.
Deflation? (Whoa!) Which way you goin’?
GNP ain’t just for tax mon-ey.
This dollar right here? (hey that ain’t yours)
This dollar right there? (that was mine before)
Better grab your man! (all wonk not wank)
Better understand! (yeah, one more time)
It’s…..their…money! (it’s their money honey)
I actually prefer the original Steppenwolf version, myself.
For the past six months, I’ve been embedded with the Ron Johnson for Senate campaign – and now, the story I’ve written about the race is online. It’s going to be a five-part series, and it’s being published by Wisconsin Interest magazine. It’s a good insider look at what actually happens behind the scenes of a U.S. Senate campaign.
Read part one of the story here and check back for updates.