fbpx
Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Let Them Eat Woke 

Some stay and enjoy. Others can go elsewhere.

Nantucket,,Massachusetts/usa,-,August,9,2019:,A,Row,Of,Eclectic
(Mystic Stock Photography/Shutterstock)

Conservatives like to say, “Go woke, go broke.” But if that’s true, why is woke Massachusetts so rich? Yes, the Bay State has given us Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and yet at the same time, it boasts the third-highest per capita income in the country. (Connecticut, less woke but still liberal, is second, and the federally fueled demi-state of the District of Columbia is, of course, first.) 

Now it is true that woke national brands are having a hard time across the country. We all know the travails of Bud Light, Disney, and Target. But in the meantime, Nantucket Island has none of that, and there’s no Target there, anyway. And as a measure of its wealth, a 3.5 acre compound on Nantucket—where in 2020, the Biden-Harris ticket won more than 70 percent of the vote—just sold for a $38.1 million. Over the past three decades, jet traffic at the Boston area’s largest private-aviation airport, Hanscom Field, has quadrupled. Looking ahead to still more growth, Hanscom hopes to build twenty-seven new hangars.

Advertisement

But what about the rap of “Taxachusetts”? According to the Tax Foundation, the Bay State has the nation’s 13th-heaviest tax burden. That’s not nothing, asset-management-wise, but it’s also the case that when some people get rich enough, they worry less about taxes, and more about, say, mindfulness. Indeed, the blue-sea lifestyle seems to set well with some who think red, politically; in July, Florida governor Ron DeSantis held a fundraiser on Cape Cod. It seems that high-net-worth individuals of all persuasions can enjoy a serene state of mind along the Atlantic coast, blissful in the knowledge that, thanks to their unrealized capital gains, they’re not paying much income tax.

Moreover, life is good for those who feel they are getting good services in return for their taxes. As we remember, the illegal aliens sent by Florida to Martha’s Vineyard in 2022 didn’t stay very long. Indeed, as the Boston Herald points out, refugees are assiduously not being assigned to the fancy parts of the state. Yes, of course, hate has no home in Massachusetts, and yet NIMBYs are doing a fine job of keeping excess housing out of coastal paradises and affluent enclaves. They are also good at blocking windmills; that’s a cause that has united the blue Kennedy and red Koch families. Yes, the state needs energy, but it should come from somewhere else: NIMV (Not In My Vista). 

Okay, so maybe woke Massachusetts isn’t broke because it’s old money that has figured out how to put a moat between itself and the masses. That is getting closer to the truth, but here’s the thing: It’s not just old money. It’s new money, too. The Harvard Crimson reported in 2021 that the school’s endowment had reached $53.2 billion, half again larger than just 15 years prior. Yes, of course, the endowment is woke—shunning fossil fuels, etc.—and yet it’s obviously doing swell. After all, there is plenty of money in tech, and it’s green (at least if you don’t look too closely at the provenance of those rare-earth components). 

Yes, tech is pretty cool, and it’s very lucrative. For instance, next door to Harvard is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A 2015 study found that MIT alumni-founded companies have created 4.6 million jobs, generating nearly $2 trillion in annual revenues. It’s in the nature of university-tech ecosystems that innovation and capital tend to stay near alma mater. For instance, the Boston Globe—which is, for sure, woke on social justice but at the same time admires the capitalist “innovation beat”—recently offered this headline: “Can light reset brainwaves to treat Alzheimer’s? This Boston startup has $73 million to find out.” We learn that MIT scientists have created Cognito Therapeutics, which hopes to use its proprietary gamma wave therapy to clear away amyloid plaques, the lumps of unwanted protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The company thinks the same technology could work on strokes, Parkinson’s, and M.S.

We will have to see about that, of course, but if Cognito does well, that will good news, not only for patients, but also for Cognito’s backer, FoundersX Fund Ventures, operating from nearby Cambridge. There are thousands of these startups and venture capital funds in the Boston cluster, which, according to one survey, ranks fourth in the U.S., and fifth in the world. Even the most dogmatic flat-taxer has to admit there’s something magical about the ability of minds to conjure up that kind of capital; for a state economy, it’s surely a better path to wealth than cutting Medicaid.

Advertisement

So, we are starting to see the sustaining economic power of blue Massachusetts. It’s based on brains; and, in fact, it has always been that way. Back in 1826, the first miles of railroad track in the U.S., were laid in Quincy. In that same 19th century, industrial revolutionaries built textile mills that powered the state—especially the mills’ owners—to heights of prosperity. Then the mills went south, leaving Massachusetts with just its universities and other white-collar industries. The brawn departed, but the brains stayed.

In fact, on a relative basis, Massachusetts’s population has shrunk substantially. After the 1920 census, the state was apportioned 16 U.S. representatives, and yet after the 2020 census, it has just nine. So Massachusetts isn’t for everybody. But that’s the point. For those left behind in Nantucket and peer elsewheres, life is good.

But wait just a second. If you take all the Old Money, all the New Money, and all the Tech Money, you still don’t get a very high percentage of the state’s 7 million residents. That’s true, of course. Rich people, and the academic-post-industrial complex, can pay for a lot of service jobs, in both the private and public sectors. In the meantime, Massachusetts, influenced by all those professionals with advanced degrees in law and social science, is, for sure, woke. Maybe the blue-collar Irish aren’t woke, and maybe not Muslims, and maybe not Haitians or Central Americans. But amidst the ascendancy of the neoliberal academy, those groups have either lost their voice, or not yet found it.

Meanwhile, wokeness draws a bright line between Blue and Red. And in a way, that’s kind of fun. Nothing like a little us-against-them frisson to make one feel better about one’s own lifestyle choices. Indeed, if invidious comparisons to right-wing states take one’s mind off concerns about life in Massachusetts—crime, schools, inequality, all that—well, such deflection serves the Nantucket Quo. So let Trumpy America be the Other. And at the same time, Red can be the hewer of wood—and the driller of oil, and the excavator of minerals—for Enlightened America. And if not Alabama doing the scut work, then China, or Africa. To NPR-tote-bag carriers in the Berkshires, that seems like a fair arrangement. Maybe, one fine day, Mt. Holyoke can lead the effort to clean up those mordors, but for now, someone needs to provide the power for, and the topics for, Morning Edition.

Massachusetts has another card to play along these lines: the economic development that comes from the sorting of the national population according to lifestyle. The state’s governor, Maura Healey, is a proudly out lesbian. Some might say that makes her, ipso facto, woke, and yet she’s seen as pro-business on tax matters. (Of course, to the extent that wokeness has gone hand in hand with corporate America, pro-business-ness is naturally part of the package.)

In any case, Healey is a tireless champion of economic development, building on her state’s emerging cultural comparative advantage among certain demos. In June, she hoisted the gay pride flag over the state’s capitol and hosted a drag show on the statehouse steps. “There are people all across this country looking to us who need a safe haven, she said. “We are open for business in Massachusetts.” As Politico explained, “Healey is increasingly touting Massachusetts’ liberal record on social issues to attract people...she’s now adding abortion and LGBTQ rights to her pitch as red states impose more restrictions on both.” In Healey’s words, “I say: Welcome, Disney.”

At least on an anecdotal basis, that pitch is moving people, and their money. But is it moving people the other way? Are people leaving Massachusetts because it’s too woke? Probably. And who can say that they’re missed by those staying behind in Ole Mass? Yes, Massachusetts is a woke in progress. It’s also a laboratory of democracy, diversity, and prosperity. Blue got rich for a reason, and despite the conservative catcalls, it stays rich for a reason.

So what can Red do? What should Red do? One thing to realize, of course, is that some of what’s happening is the normal division of labor in a society or country. For lots of reasons, not every place is suited to be a tech cluster or an oil well. Writing in Federalist 12 back in 1787, Alexander Hamilton scoped out the differentiated destiny of the new republic, asserting, “The prosperity of commerce is now perceived and acknowledged by all enlightened statesmen to be the most useful as well as the most productive source of national wealth.” From the perspective of 236 years later, we can take those words to mean that Hamilton was reserving pride of place for tech-type added value. That’s why Amazon makes a lot more money, per employee, than Walmart. And yet, Hamilton continued, “increasing the quantity of money in a state” will have the effect of raising all asset values, including land. In other words, a rising tide can lift all boats. This is, after all, the United States, even if, as this author has argued, it is also an e pluribus duo.

Thus while Red should cheer the economic success of their fellow citizens in Blue, Red should also highly resolve to keep its way of life, which is not, obviously, the way of Blue. With such self-defense in mind, Red might realize that there are risks in slipping behind in tech; most notably and urgently, Artificial Intelligence. What to do about A.I., and how to boost the fortunes of Red in general, will be the topic of a second essay.