The Genius of Visions of the Distant Future

In 1853, the New York legislature acquired a 700-acre area in the middle of Manhattan. When they bought the land, it was swampy and rough. Now, it is Central Park.

Frederick Law Olmsted was the man behind the transformation. Along with architect Calvert Vaux, Olmstead designed what is now one of the most visited parks on earth. Books have been written about how and why their phenomenal idea came to fruition, none I have read fully captured the genius of the undertaking.

When the park was planned, much of Manhattan was sparsely populated. In 1880, when the Dakota was built on West 72nd, it was considered as far away from the urban portions of Manhattan as the territory from which it took its name. And it was a common saying that well-off New Yorkers only went to the West Side if they were going to Europe.

And yet, Olmstead and Vaux included in their design the so-called “transverses”, the hidden roadways that carry traffic between the East and West Sides. They anticipated the need for cross-traffic in a time when modern New York would have been unimaginable. Just as unimaginable is the city without those transverses.

Today, we need more people like Olmstead, who can prepare us for a future we have no idea is coming.

The whole country is riven by strongly held views about the future and how to deal with it. We are still losing more jobs yearly to automation in agriculture, industry, and services than we are creating. And jobs are increasingly concentrated in the wealthy urban coasts, leaving many communities without jobs or hope.

At the same time there is a growing number of positions/jobs that can NOT be filled for lack of qualified people.

This mismatch is exacerbated by geography. That is, in part, because people in rural areas either do not want to move or are unable to afford to, because the value of their homes is so low.

So the question for today for Olmsted’s visionary successors is where and how are the jobs going to come from to keep all Americans at work with economic and psychic satisfaction.

The answer, not surprisingly, may come from the internet.

Technology exists today that allows almost everyone to work remotely. The most obvious example is call centers, which are now dispersed all over the world. But a similar technology could allow someone in Nebraska to work at Met Life’s Manhattan office doing clerical work (particularly as such work becomes fully digitized). Too much of our thinking has been devoted to ways to bring jobs to people and not enough to virtually bringing people to jobs.

I think that Mr.  Olmsted would embrace that vision of the future of jobs.

Of course, we must make sure that everyone in America can get a suitable job BEFORE we begin go abroad for foreign nationals whose sole claim to those jobs is their willingness or ability to accept much lower pay than Americans need. There will be problems transitioning to such a future, but we must make our best effort.

Airplane wings are flexible so they do not break under stress. Economic policy needs to be flexible enough to enable the United States to create enough jobs for all our citizens who need and want a decent paying job.

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