Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

My family used to play Charades for hours at a time. My all time favorite clue as a child was "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," the title to one of Clint Eastwood's early spaghetti westerns. Tugging on one's ear to indicate "sounds like" was considered, if not actually cheating, certainly not in the spirit of the game. It was clearly more fun--and expected by all--to act it all out, even if it was more more bad and ugly than good.

Of late I have caught myself reverting again and again to odd bodily ticks and facial expressions, including a head shake, an eye squint, and a pretend Colt .44 being quick-drawn and fired. I most often do this as I read the paper or watch the news and learn about new budget rescissions, massive layoffs, Wall Street Ponzi schemes, and Detroit bail-outs. It suddenly dawned on me. The bad and the ugly are getting to me.

I need more good.

I need the security of my childhood when we were still a great nation respected by all other nations. I need to be sure that the world my children inherit will be worth the effort it will take to save it. I need to be sure that the arts sector would survive the recession. I need to be sure the air we breathe and the water we drink will be untainted and potable forever and ever, amen. I need to be reassured that with all the bad that's happening, from shoes flying in Iraq to airports closing in Thailand, my kids' basketball games will take place in orderly six-minute quarters, that my other kids' recitals will be free from earthquake, war, or pestilence, and that college and health-care costs will somehow take care of themselves before my kids turn 18.

One thing that has struck me during the past couple of weeks is how almost everyone I speak to about the future is holding his/her breath until after January 20th. Even the Vermont Legislature is considering "staggering" its start so that it doesn't end up doing a lot of work during its first two weeks only to have to change everything around (presumably for the better) once Obama takes office.

Since when have Vermonters ever given over responsibility for solving their problems to a flatlander? That's sort of like our ski areas waiting for a new weatherman to take over at WCAX and find out from him what solutions might be available to counteract poor skiing conditions.

I suggest we stop focusing on all that is wrong with our lives and pay attention to what is right. A lot of things are working well. Some things are only okay, and with a small amount of attention could be made much better. This is true on the micro level of our own personal lives (think of all the things in your home that work well, and of all the things with just a little attention from you could work so much better), as well as on the macro level of our state.

They may not be perfect, but our public schools are pretty good. So is our health care system. Even though our roads and bridges (what most people immediately think of when they hear the phrase "infrastructure") are in great need of repair, how many of us have been seriously inconvenienced by bridge closings? A few thousand? Less than one percent of our population? And all because they have to drive an extra eight or ten miles?

Come on people. Get some perspective. Read about the attacks on Hamas in Lebanon, or truck bombs exploding on schoolchildren in Afghanistan and ask yourself: are things really so bad here?

The truth is, for some Vermonters, yes it really is that bad. Whether it's due to the economy, a lack of education, the insidious nature of alcohol or drug addiction, or any number of conditions that derail some people's lives, a growing number of Vermonters are falling through the fissures. The chances are, though, that if you are reading this post, you are NOT one of them!

It seems to me pretty simple. Everyone deserves a warm, dry place to sleep at night. Everyone deserves at least one hot, filling meal a day. Everyone deserves access to an education and to a job that is within his/her capabilities. Everyone deserves access to basic medical care by competent medical professionals.

Let's focus on these issues most of all. And with all that is left over after these problems are addressed, let's focus on rebuilding those things which will best help Vermonters help themselves.

Government cannot, except in a limited way, "create jobs." All it can do is provide incentives that encourage the private and non-profit sectors to create jobs. So lets focus on creating more incentives--or at least improving on the incentives that are already in place.

Here are a few thoughts, all of which are important to people deciding to locate to and create jobs in Vermont:

Improve our schools
-Create a whole new Art and Culture-based curriculum that breeds international understanding and curiosity even as it teaches the basics in history, science and math
-Hire teachers that teach math, science, and history in Spanish, French, Arabic, Japanese or Chinese during the elementary school years when kids' language receptors are at their strongest. Math is math; science is science and I can't be the only one who believes that learning those two disciplines in another language is just as effective as learning them in English.

Infuse our public infrastructure with Vermont-based design standards that are accessible
-See my last post for how this would work for bridges
-Apply the same logic to light rail/bus stations; over/underpasses, trail-heads, lean-tos, composting toilets, salt-sheds, garages, and land-fills. No structure, not even prisons, that lie in plain sight, should be excluded from these design standards
-Ensure that all buildings that welcome the public are equipped with state-of-the-art access tools and programs that set a new standard for welcoming people with disabilities to our great state. Remember, Las Vegas is the most accessible city in the country. Ever wonder why?

Expand the support for Vermont's core cultural institutions
-Whether large or small, cultural institutions collectively employ nearly 15,000 Vermonters, and generate at least three times the amount of economic activity in their communities than is invested in them. With a budget of $5 million, the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts generates a $20 million impact. In Brattleboro, the collective impact of the cultural institutions' activities is more than $12 million--on a combined budget of less than $4 million
-Tourists flock to Vermont to attend Mozart and Marlboro Festivals, Studio Tour Weekends, Warebrook Contemporary Music Festivals; Bread and Puppet Circuses; They stay longer to visit our historic sites, our General Stores, our Farmers Markets. They spend significantly more, per capita, than people who go just about anywhere else in the country
-In most cases, our significant cultural institutions provide significant educational and community "service learning" resources to a broad geographic swath. In the Flynn's case, the outreach is signifcant in at least six of Vermont's 14 counties (Chittenden, Grand Isle, Franklin, Lamoille, Washington, and Addison)
-They are a significant factor in attracting new businesses to the state--especially "clean, green businesses"

I could go on and on. But I'd like to hear from you. What are your ideas?

Until next time, I'll be holding my breath and practicing my squint and quick-draw...

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