Last week I attended commencement exercises at a prestigious university in the nation’s most diverse and creative city. The standard of living between rich and poor is nowhere greater than in New York, and the opportunities for graduates of Columbia University could place them among the most affluent people ever on the planet (if that’s the path they choose). I sat among the next generation of the elite, not only from the United States but all over the world.
In the commencement address he reserved for himself, President Lee Bollinger advocated for everything his university represents: inquiry, discovery, reason, collegiality, inclusion – not for their own sake but in order “to understand and engage our modern, inter-connected world.” Columbia, because of its history, location and mission, Bollinger said, “has embraced the responsibility to be an American university with an international scope . . . We are properly proud of our international students and faculty, and of our research and educational work all over the globe. The free movement of people is vital to this intellectual work.” The purpose, he emphasized, is to improve the common good and address pressing challenges. Among them he cited climate change, food insecurity, global migration, and the potential for medical innovation.
And yet, I thought, this august institution is the sort mistrusted by the 40 percent of voters who make up the base of our ruling political party. The Columbia community is winning the worldwide game. At the separate commencement for the School of Engineering, I spotted handfuls of “white kids”; the vast majority of graduates appeared to be from China, India and elsewhere. Columbia draws the brilliant from the world – and unless we get our immigration policy straightened out, many will continue to go home and help their countries rise rather than stay here to help ours. Either way, they will aid the progress of our one planet.
The ruling base doesn’t seem to care about that. As David Rothkopf, who among other occupations teaches at Columbia, recently wrote in Foreign Policy, “To many of [President Trump’s base], knowledge is not a useful tool but a cunning barrier elites have created to keep power from the average man and woman.”
Well, that base has a point. The creative geniuses who travel through Columbia, one may suppose in an us-and-them view, have done relatively little for Middle America. Maybe they’re more likely to journey down to Wall Street to play arbitrage with other people’s money, or make some other contribution that benefits those who live and work in the blue cities. And the blue cities, I observe, are doing quite well.
Over the four days of my visit that I wasn’t hanging with my graduating daughter, I was exploring the island that was my home in the early 1980s, a grim period in New York history. Back then I would not have dreamed of walking at 10 p.m. the two miles from Columbia to Harlem, where I was staying with a friend. Times Square reeked of insecurity if not danger, any time of day. The city was only a few years from near-bankruptcy, its avenues crumbling and subways covered in graffiti, and the emblematic news story was a white “subway vigilante,” Bernard Goetz, who wounded four black men with five bullets, yet was found guilty of a single unlicensed-weapon charge. I could relate.
But as a journalist covering the nexus of business and government, I reported then on the infrastructure plans that were afoot, as city leaders envisioned some of what has come to pass – cleaned-up subways, huge new developments on both sides of the Hudson, expanded parks, invisible waterworks. New York has historically low crime rates and a growing population thanks to net international migration. The ubiquitous hot dog carts have converted their fare to Middle Eastern lamb/chicken-on-pita. And everywhere: bike lanes. I’m delighted my daughter is staying in the city.
How to bridge the fortunes of our prosperous, service-oriented cities and hollowed-out manufacturing and rural areas is said to be tops on the nation’s economic agenda. Yet our leaders have no program for that. If Congress weren’t distracted by the president’s self-inflicted crises, it would be slashing Medicaid and cutting taxes while blaming the stagnating fortunes of the working class on foreigners. Meanwhile, my daughter faces a student loan debt to be repaid at 6.5 percent, a source of government profit set by Congress.
Until our reigning party quits demonizing that which is foreign – a regular boogeyman in times of fear and scarcity – and focuses on developing a worldwide integrated economy of capital and labor flows to match our potential, we will be stuck between yesterday and tomorrow. But my daughter, I expect, will do just fine.