If you tried to escape from downtown over the weekend—when the 6th St. onramp to Hwy. 94 was closed, along with the Hiawatha/55 exit and Riverside Ave. into St. Paul—you experienced a perfect metaphor for what Republicans claim is going on in this country: gobs of federal stimulus dollars gumming up the works in the name of jobs and progress.
If you live in St. Paul, chances are you spent the night in your car waiting for the traffic jam to clear. (That’s not quite fair. Rumor had it you could get to St. Paul if you took a Nice Ride bike down to the river, hopped on a log, paddled across the Mississippi, rappelled up the cliffs on the other side, hitched a ride along the river road, stole a helicopter from the U of M Medical Center, and set her down in Mears Park.)
Getting to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s talk at Ted Mann Concert Hall on Friday afternoon wasn't much easier. But if you managed to make it in time to hear him speak, at least Friedman offered a cogent explanation for why getting around in this country has gotten so difficult. Friedman’s message: America ain’t what it used to be.
Friedman, an honorary Minnesotan, was in town to discuss/sell his new book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented, and How We Can Come Back . A sobering title, yes, but slightly more hopeful than the book’s more logical title: America is Getting Flattened.
As in steamrolled—by what Friedman identifies as the four great challenges facing our country: Technology (Syrians with cellphones), Globalization (Syrians with cellphones), Entitlement Programs (senior citizens with cellphones), and the Energy/Climate debate (scientists vs. Republicans in a cellphone smackdown.) “Now, every enlistee into the U.S. Army gets an iPhone,” Friedman informed the audience. Not because soldiers need iPhones, but because, apparently, Apple Inc. has purchased the United States of America. Or could, if it wanted to.
That’s only half a joke. One of Friedman’s main points is that America no longer has a technological advantage over the rest of the world, because even people who live in remote African villages and kill their food with sticks have better cell-phone reception than AT&T customers. And when talk turns to the one, and only one, advantage America has over the rest of the world—our capacity for business “innovation”—the companies that invariably come up are Apple and Facebook. Which employ about 27,000 people between them (GE employs 315,000). And lots and lots and lots of people in China, Taiwan, and Japan.
“We are going from a connected world to a hyper-connected world,” said Friedman, who looked a bit small and lonely on the Ted Mann stage, a one-man canary in the great crumbling mineshaft of America. In a world where every kid in China scores a perfect 800 on the math portion of their SATs, it’s no longer good enough to be average in America. “Average is over,” Friedman insists. The problem, of course, is that these days America cultivates average-ness as if it were the country’s most valuable cash crop—which it’s not. That would be marijuana.
In his book, Friedman writes (and I’m not kidding about this): “America’s economic future will depend on how well we are able to get our whole country to resemble Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, ‘Where . . . all the children are above average.’”
Never mind that Keillor’s famous description of Anoka is funny because it’s so gently self-delusional, or that millions of young people in this country are so tragically below average they’re in jail. Friedman’ s point is that if you’re just an average Joe, doing average work, your job will inevitably be downsized, outsourced, or eliminated by the relentless march of technological/economic progress. The only thing machines can’t do better than humans is use their imagination, says Friedman, so creative people are the only people who will survive in the new economy.
“But it’s not good enough to be creative, either,” Friedman insists. In the hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world of the future, you have to be what Friedman calls a “creative creator” (presumably a hyper one)—a person who is constantly trying to re-invent their job or add that “extra something special” to what they do. To make this idea seem like it’s not out of reach for people who aren’t naturally creative, he offered the anecdote of a waitress at a restaurant, who, while Friedman and his co-author, Michael Mandelbaum, were having breakfast one day, gave Mandelbaum some “extra” fruit on his plate. “She didn’t control much,” Friedman joked, “but she made the most of what she did control.”
Never mind that if that waitress’s employer was aware that she was giving customers larger-than-specified portions of fruit she would probably be fired. The point is, we can all be special in our own little way. And we’d better be, because that’s the only edge we really have. That and the fact that we're Americans, which means we rise above adversity, not by being smarter or better than other people in the world, but, according to Friedman, by being "too dumb to quit."
Friedman’s prescription for turning the country around is familiar to anyone who has read his previous books or follows his column: invest in education, invest in infrastructure, invest in green energy, make it easier to start a business, raise the gas tax, etc. Coming 24 hours after president Obama proposed throwing $450 billion in these same general directions, Friedman was cautiously supportive of the president, but also reminded the crowd that in all likelihood, the only way to rescue our country from the icy grip of politicians and bankers and oil companies is to elect an independent third-party presidential candidate who occupies the so-called “radical center.”
It could happen, Friedman insists. “Ross Perot got more than 20 percent of the vote, and he was nuts!” Friedman told the Ted Mann crowd. (Attention Jesse Ventura, the country may finally be stupid enough to elect you.)
All was not Friedaman-esque gloom and doom in the Twin Cities, though. On Friday, at the central library, 150 or so people gathered to hear National Endowment of the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak discuss the $200,000 grant given to the Hennepin Theatre Trust, Walker Art Center, and Artspace to conduct a one-year planning/feasibility study on the prospect of turning Hennepin Ave. between the Walker and the Mississippi into an “arts/cultural corridor.” Theoretically, such a corridor would revitalize downtown by creating a vibrant boulevard of theaters, music clubs, galleries, and restaurants, sort of like the places that are already there, only hipper and cooler and cleaner. (Augie's, your days are numbered.)
It’ll be a few years before anything but ideas come from this effort, but one stepping-stone toward that grand vision already happened over the weekend: the long-awaited grand opening of the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, a project twelve years in the making. The celebration included galas on Friday and Saturday night, and the atmosphere at each was positively giddy. Standing inside the Cowles’ classy new atrium, sipping wine with the arterati on a perfect summer/autumn evening, it was easy to forget for a while that the news in America at the moment is so utterly sad and depressing.
Until you tried to leave the city, when miles of reflective orange served as a painful reminder just how much more rebuilding needs to be done.