Downtown View:A Different Take

Things happen. A story gets told. It gets hardened by conventional wisdom. But you can look at it in a different way.

City boosters are ga-ga over GE. We’ve been told this company is relocating because of Boston’s robust, synergistic economic environment. But there might be another reason. An executive I once interviewed told me to look at corporate moves skeptically. He said when a company relocates it is often because the CEO wants to live in the new location.

Let’s imagine a conversation:

Andrea Immelt: Jeffrey, dear, I can’t take Fairfield a minute longer. It is sooooo boring.

Jeff: I’m sorry you are unhappy. Can’t you go into the city and stay in our flat on East 58th Street?

Andrea: I like it there better, but you’re never there. Besides it takes more than an hour to get between here and there if you take the train, and I don’t like the train.

Jeff: Call the driver. He’ll drive you.

Andrea: With the traffic, that takes even longer. When I’m here in this big house with all this acreage, I am isolated. I want to live somewhere where I’m in touch with life.

Jeff: What do you want me to do? Move the whole company?

Andrea: I was thinking that might be the ticket. A lot of other CEOs have moved to better locations. Besides, a lot of houses are for sale on West Road. Are our neighbors as bored as I am?

Jeff: Okay, honey. Where do you want to go?

Andrea: I was thinking Boston. It’s a lively city, but it’s small and manageable. It’s got interesting architecture. I’m sure I’d be welcome on all sorts of boards. We could live downtown, and when I went for my daily walk, I’d see people. We could get a nice house in that neighborhood called the Back Bay. Once in awhile you could even walk to work.

Jeff: I’ll start the ball rolling. I bet GE’s other executives would prefer to live there too. After all, Jack did. Boston has universities and for sure they’ll give us a good tax deal. It will probably be good for the company.

Andrea: Thank you, Jeffrey. You’re so good to me.

This probably didn’t happen. But my executive’s comment is the first thing I think of when I hear about a corporate move.

 

Let’s next consider the MBTA.

 

Some of its workers earn more than $100,000.

The public is legitimately concerned about the high rates of absenteeism that force some employees to work overtime. But there is an undercurrent of classism in the talk about the MBTA’s high salaries. It’s too much money, the talk implies.

I’m here to defend the hard-working employees. Why shouldn’t they make the same as a person in a profession with more status? Those guys are doing what politicians say someone should do—working hard, probably longer hours than a financial guru or a lawyer, in less comfort and probably in more danger. They are doing someone else’s job as well as their own. I don’t know what the right amount is, but if they’re working two jobs keeping the trains running for us, they should be well compensated.

What can we afford?

 

Boston, the media has been crowing, is the fifth richest city in America, according to Bloomberg Business. According to recent news reports, “Boston’s $128 billion tax base had $47.5 million in new growth and a 15.6 percent increase in total assessed value” in fiscal 2016.

That’s not all. In 2014, Forbes magazine ranked Massachusetts the best performing state in the “new economy,” which should transfer into wealth. Of course, not all Massachusetts communities enjoy the same wealth as Boston. Also, of course, not all Bostonians enjoy wealth equally.

Nevertheless, a large number of the state’s residents have deep resources.

Why then are we cutting city and state education funding? Why are we not building an excellent, far-reaching public transportation system instead of threatening cut-backs? Such cutbacks seem unfair and unfathomable amid such wealth. Aren’t our elected officials embarrassed by crying poor?

If they are, they’re not showing it. We know why we need stellar public services. Good education makes good workers who make prosperous companies. You could call it “trickle up.” A good public transportation system means that residents in all neighborhoods can get to work.

Letting wealthy Boston and Massachusetts residents off the hook in improving our common wealth, as Gov. Baker and House Speaker DeLeo are doing, is disingenuous. At some point, some brave soul is going to have to raise taxes. A first-rate public realm is the tide that lifts all boats.

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