I was thinking about this since my last MBTA screed. Joan Vennochi beats me to the punch, using the poll showing Baker’s, uh, formidable popularity as a jumping-off point to show the underside of inequality:
Not for people stuck on the wrong side of the income gap, who are desperate for affordable housing and not in the market for a $4 million condo unit in a revitalized Downtown Crossing. Not for the homeless, whose numbers have nearly doubled over the past nine years, according to a recent study commissioned by the Boston Foundation. Not for kids stuck in schools hindered by an outdated school funding formula. And not for those rail commuters who just experienced three miserable days of delays attributed to defective new locomotives.
Massachusetts honks are justified. We are #1 in education; #1 in being health-insured; we have a strong economy and low unemployment. We also have a hellacious inequality gap, one which is gnawing at the quality of life for those not in a position to benefit from industries that require the extremely-well-trained. Personally I don’t wish to live in the East Coast version of a gilded, class-bifurcated Silicon Valley.
Neither the successes nor the challenges are really about Baker at all. These are the result of factors that pre-date Baker by decades, if not centuries. Actions taken or not taken by him and the legislature will also be felt in the generational terms.
Baker re-re-invented himself between 2010 (angry!) and 2014 (sober bean-counting manager). He was basically content to inherit a post-Deval Patrick political consensus: Play to our strengths in tech, health care and education; don’t do anything too crazy on taxes, up or down; manage the bureaucracies. This comports perfectly well with a House leadership that, if anything, is even more small-c conservative than he is.
But we have a political culture that has no interest in taking on the long-term, structural problems that put together, squeeze the comfort out of life for many. We are failing to adapt. There are no plans, no ambitions, no signature legislated efforts to address:
- The cost of housing. It is an increasingly crushing burden for the non-wealthy; but even if you’ve been a homeowner and seen your asset increase in value, how can your young adult kids afford their own places? This has been festering at least since the tech boom of the late 90s got laundered into real estate assets. We have needed a regional (Greater Boston) plan to create non-luxury housing in quantity, and have never gotten action, or even a clear vision from legislature nor governor.
- The decay of the MBTA. A related economic justice issue. A reliable T is cheaper (and cleaner) than a car, providing a little economic cushion for the non-rich. And when it’s not reliable, one’s hold on a job is precarious. The Baker administration’s efforts on the T are technical, not adaptive: Save a few bucks here and there, but then what are you left with?
- The cost of health care. I actually have to give some credit to Baker — and take away from the House — for proposing price growth caps to address the confiscatory pricing of Partners et al. “Health insurance” for nearly everyone doesn’t obviate rising costs, which cut into household budgets and employers’ ability to hire or raise wages. Speaker DeLeo ensured once again that we failed to act firmly.
- Cost of higher education. Public higher education has always seemed an afterthought in Massachusetts political culture. We see the same administrative featherbedding and high salaries in the UMass system as in the higher ed system at large. And now UMass Boston — which should be a gateway to the middle class — is $30 million in the hole, cancelling classes. Wrong direction.
These are big-picture problems that require Vision, or Progress — which is really just adaptation. Our Governor and legislature seem content to live off the achievements of those who designed and invested in our current comforts and (relative, contingent) successes. Our successes are not equally shared, and create their own set of problems. Assets are prone to decay, and in some cases (the T, our real estate market) they are already at a breaking point. The time frame of public investment and planning is generational, not the next election.
We are not asking for miracles. We are asking for long-term planning.