Make it easier to get to Hollywood

Terminal lobby at T.F. Green Airport, which serves southeastern New England.

Terminal lobby at T.F. Green Airport, which serves southeastern New England.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

Greater Providence has long been hurt by the absence of direct flights to the West Coast from T.F. Green Airport (although there are a few direct flights to Europe). That is especially true for sectors connected with media and tech. Consider Pawtucket-based Hasbro, which has long since become an entertainment business rather than just a toy company. So its creative and executive people need to go back and forth a lot to Los Angeles. L.A. and New York are the media and entertainment capitals. No wonder that Hasbro is reportedly considering moving its headquarters to one of those two cities. Or it might settle for downtown Providence, especially because the Rhode Island School of Design is there.

The Providence area has many animators, filmmakers, illustrators, graphic designers and so on. Many have work that may take them often to and from the West Coast.

And many southern New England companies need to keep connected with the tech hubs of Silicon Valley, in the San Jose/San Francisco area, and Seattle.

Now that T.F. Green Airport’s main runway has been extended, non-stop service to the West Coast is feasible, offering a way to avoid the frustrating congestion you must go through to get to and from Boston’s Logan Airport.

Some see Sun Country Airlines’ announcement that it will start service this spring from Green to Nashville and Minneapolis-St. Paul as an interim step toward those direct flights. The airline has numerous flights from its Minnesota base to the West Coast. Let’s hope that Hasbro, etc., persuades the airline to start non-stop flights from Rhode Island to the West Coast as soon as possible.


“Creative types’’ want to be near creative types. Thus it’s not surprising that the growing Alex and Ani jewelry company is moving from Cranston to downtown Providence, not coincidentally next to the Rhode Island School of Design (which has produced many jewelry designers) and in a neighborhood crowded with Millennials. Sort of like Amazon setting up new headquarters in New York City and Arlington, Va., right across the Potomac from Washington, D.C.

Alex and Ani is opening new stores on the West Coast, which should encourage the company to join Hasbro, et al., in lobbying for nonstop flights from Green to the West Coast.

Llewellyn King: The real crises facing America -- stubborn belly fat, cellulite, crepey skin


A review of television advertising turns up keys to what is really bothering Americans -- making them grouchy, despairing and causing them to vote in strange ways.

It is nothing short of a pandemic. There has been no word yet from the Republican or Democratic leadership on this debilitating national crisis that is causing more than half of us to act strangely and to seek to alleviate or conceal our affliction.

It is, of course, stubborn belly fat (SBF). We carry around, collectively, millions of pounds of it.

If you are gasping, it is because you know what I mean. You know the misery of that roll below the navel that will not go away despite extreme measures like jogging or eating African berries as recommended by Dr. Oz, who is one of the few men of his age who does not have SBF. Of course, he looks as though he has been in a Turkish prison all his life and has never had enough square meals to get the dreaded SBF.

My own research shows that SBF is followed on the Misery Index by cellulite and, growing in severity but still far behind SBF, crepey skin. Ugh! Happily, cellulite does not have to be shown: Avoid beaches and pools and if you are unsure, undress in the dark. There are myriad creams that offer to banish crepey skin. They may be mildly effective but the surefire fix, never patented, is long sleeves. Hide it.

Sadly you cannot hide that roll around the belly, just below the belly button and above the recreation area. It wobbles in your bathing suit, bulges in pants and dresses when you sit. There are various rubberized garments which will pull it in for as long as you can stand the constriction, but those only flatten: maximum discomfort for minimum concealment.

SBF is pernicious: It is like a tattoo, there for all time.

Now there are those who say that diet and exercise will banish it. Diet and exercise, those two imposters that are prescribed for everything from a broken heart to bankruptcy. The medical profession has an answer: diet and exercise. Lies! Americans have been running since the 1970s, have joined health clubs in the millions and have eschewed everything that tastes good. You know what? SBF is spreading.

Eat only lettuce and you will die of malnutrition, emaciated – except for that ring around the tummy, belly fat. Believe me, it will go with you to the grave, jiggling. The hips may shrink, the thighs contract, the chest disappear inside the rib cage but look down and – Oh, horror! -- it is there wobbling, mocking, and taunting, keeping you from love, happiness at the beach or pool, a job promotion and defying the best tailors and dressmakers to wall it in.

It is even a sore political subject.

Former President Obama did not seem to have any, which depressed his approval ratings. It made it hard for some to trust him. Another former president, Bill Clinton, who is a shadow of his former self and a vegan, knows all about it. I bet that skinny as he is now, compared with his time of serial hamburger intake, below his belt line, there is a strip of protruding fat that harkens back to days of indulgence: the irremovable scar of eating a lot.

As for President Trump, with that front-facing bay window, you know there is a sack of SBF. I know how that feels. Mine wants a doughnut right now.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS. His email is He’s based in Washington, D.C., and Rhode Island.

In the 'Eastern Woodlands'

Pequot Museum    exhibit showing a version of a Mashantucket Pequot warrior at the Pequots’ vast Foxwoods casino.

Pequot Museum exhibit showing a version of a Mashantucket Pequot warrior at the Pequots’ vast Foxwoods casino.

I grew up in the unlikely place of Connecticut. The Eastern Woodlands. It was semi-rural where I grew up. I was fascinated by the Pequot and the Mohegan Indians of that area.

— John Fusco, screenwriter and producer. He was born in Prospect, Conn.

Somewhat bucolic Prospect, Conn., where the “Eastern Woodlands’’ have been turned into exurbia/suburbia.

Somewhat bucolic Prospect, Conn., where the “Eastern Woodlands’’ have been turned into exurbia/suburbia.

Keolis to resume MBTA weekend fare program

MBTA Commuter Rail locomotive at South Station.

MBTA Commuter Rail locomotive at South Station.

This is from The New England Council:

“Keolis North America, a New England Council member, has announced that beginning this month it will resume the $10 Commuter Rail weekend fare pilot program in partnership with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Keolis is contracted to operate the MBTA’s Commuter Rail system, which provides rail service throughout Greater Boston and into Rhode Island.

This program was first piloted during the summer of 2018, with the goal of increasing Commuter Rail ridership and revenue on the weekends. This initiative resulted in more than 180,000 tickets being sold, and very positive feedback from passengers. Like before, this special fare will cover the first train on Saturday to the last train on Sunday, and will apply across all zones and lines.

David Scorey, general manager and CEO of Keolis, said, “The MBTA’s reduced weekend fare initiative gives passengers a convenient and affordable option to visit a number of great destinations across the greater Boston area. We’re pleased to partner with the MBTA to continue this initiative that encourages new passengers to try Commuter Rail, helps to grow ridership, and promotes an environmentally friendly transit option.”

Chris Powell: Mourn literacy, not Shakespeare theater

The American Shakespeare Theater building, in Stratford, Conn., in 1955, in its heyday. The building burned to the ground last weekend.

The American Shakespeare Theater building, in Stratford, Conn., in 1955, in its heyday. The building burned to the ground last weekend.

Mark Twain famously said that a "classic" is a book that everybody praises but nobody reads. That may help explain the fiery demise of the American Shakespeare Theater building, in Stratford, Conn. , on Jan. 13.

Thousands of older Connecticut residents may remember getting a day off from junior high or high school in the 1950s, ‘60s and '70s to ride a bus to Stratford to sit through a matinee of a Shakespearian drama they couldn't quite follow or a comedy whose humor had dissipated a couple of centuries ago. The theater was a lovely idea, painstakingly fulfilled by civic and charitable work, modeled on Shakespeare's own Globe Theater in London in the early 1600s. But the theater was never profitable and operated for less than three decades before exhausting its benefactors.

In 1983 state government bought the theater and its adjoining 14 acres along the Housatonic River, declaring the area a state park. But the state couldn't figure out how to get the theater operating regularly. In 2005 Stratford took the property on the premise that it could do better with it but still nothing happened. Amid government's puzzlement and indifference the theater fell into disrepair. After decades of neglect, this week's fire was inevitable.

But it's unlikely that anyone ever could have made the theater work, for it probably was doomed first by its location -- chosen in part because the town shared the name of Shakespeare's hometown -- and then by the decline of interest in Shakespeare and the decline of literacy itself. The site along the river is lovely and should be preserved for public use, but it is the wrong place for a theater, far from any lively downtown filled with restaurants, taverns and hotels and served by mass transit. Stratford's virtues are different.

With the help of Yale University, New Haven might have been able to sustain the theater, keeping its Shakespearian orientation while incorporating other theatrical, musical, and comedy events -- maybe even some wrestling. (People are entitled to like what they like.) After all, Yale somehow sustains its Center for British Art, which can be almost as musty as Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and these days in New Haven nearly any screamer with an electric guitar and a reputation for drug abuse can fill a hall on a Saturday night.

Connecticut may remain more intellectual and literate than most states, but the Bard just doesn't pack them in as he used to. If he did, the theater wouldn't have burned down. For 30 years Connecticut had no use for it and pretty much forgot about it. Mourning for it is just a polite pose. Mourn for literacy and literature instead.


Hartford HealthCare, which operates eight Connecticut hospitals as well as a dozen other medical facilities in the state, is thumping its chest about its decision to raise its minimum wage to the fabled level of $15 per hour, which will benefit about 12 percent its 20,000 employees.

This should not be mistaken as an easy maneuver for Connecticut's private sector. For the hospital business is consolidating as much as the medical-insurance business is, and together they are destroying competition even as the income for both increasingly comes from government, which seldom cares much about costs.

As a result medical costs are much more easily passed along to customers than costs in the rest of the private sector. So hold your applause for the raises at Hartford HealthCare until you see your next hospital or insurance bill.

Hartford HealthCare, which operates eight Connecticut hospitals as well as a dozen other medical facilities in the state, is thumping its chest about its decision to raise its minimum wage to the fabled level of $15 per hour, which will benefit about 12 percent its 20,000 employees.

This should not be mistaken as an easy maneuver for Connecticut's private sector. For the hospital business is consolidating as much as the medical insurance business is, and together they are destroying competition even as the income for both increasingly comes from government, which seldom cares much about costs.

As a result medical costs are much more easily passed along to customers than costs in the rest of the private sector. So hold your applause for the raises at Hartford HealthCare until you see your next hospital or medical insurance bill.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.

Jim Hightower: You'll have to give self-driving cars the right of way

Inside a Tesla self-driving car.

Inside a Tesla self-driving car.


With chaos in the White House, worsening climate disasters, more wars than we can count, and a wobbling economy here at home, the last thing we need is another big challenge. But — look out! — here comes a doozy!

It’s AI — artificial intelligence — the fast-evolving science of autonomous machines that can think, learn and even reproduce themselves.

Consider self-driving vehicles. Once the stuff of science fiction, the future is suddenly upon us, with Google, Daimler, and GM rolling out driverless taxis, commercial trucks, and even cars with no steering wheel or gas and brake pedals.

An army of corporate lobbyists is rushing to legislative halls, literally changing the rules of the road to allow full deployment of these vehicles.

What about the hundreds of thousands of professional drivers who’ll lose their jobs? Not our problem, say the financiers and AI barons who’d profit from a mass bot-mobile conversion. Besides, as AI champion David Autor coldly asserts, those drivers get sick, take vacations, etc. “People are messy,” he notes; “machines are straightforward.”

Indeed, so straightforward that these two-ton, non-sentient “drivers” will be driving straight at a world of defenseless pedestrians. Already, one of Uber’s experimental cars killed an Arizona pedestrian last year.

We can fix that, says Andrew Ng, a prominent AI investor: They just have to be reprogrammed.

By “they,” Ng doesn’t mean the self-driving machines — he means pedestrians! “Please be lawful,” he scolds, “and please be considerate” of the computer-driven vehicles. Give right-of-way to the new technology!

OtherWords columnist Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer and public speaker.

Taking dying malls by eminent domain


From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

Swansea, Mass., Selectman Christopher Carreiro wants the town to establish a Redevelopment Authority that could take the likes of the dying Swansea Mall  (Macy’s  has just announced that it’s pulling out) by eminent domain and use it for other purposes. Housing? Recreational centers? Schools, private and public? And develop the vast parking lots for solar- and wind-energy installations? And green space? Or maybe tear down the mall buildings and use all the property for renewable energy? There may be some new property-tax revenue in this redevelopment.

We’ll be seeing more and more such actions across America as the Internet continues to eat away at big physical stores.

Chuck Collins: Trump's shutdown putting many more people underwater

“The Drowned ,’’  1867 painting by Vasily Perov.

“The Drowned,’’ 1867 painting by Vasily Perov.


As the government shutdown drags on, the image of federal workers lining up at food pantries has dramatized just how many workers live financially close to the edge.

By one estimate, almost 80 percent of U.S. workers live paycheck to paycheck. Miss one check and you’re taking a second look at what’s in the back of the pantry cupboard.

From federal prison guards in small towns to airline safety inspectors in major cities, the partial government shutdown has forced 800,000 federal workers — and many contractors, too — to survive without a paycheck.

The shutdown is a Trump-made disaster, with an estimated 420,000 “essential workers” required to show up for work without a paycheck. They have full-time responsibilities, which makes finding another part-time job nearly impossible.

Another 380,000 federal workers have been furloughed, including Coast Guard employees that are being encouraged to take on babysitting gigs and organize garage sales. They saw their last paycheck on Dec. 22 and are scrambling to pay rent, mortgages, alimony, and credit card bills, let alone the groceries.

The average federal employee isn’t wealthy, taking home a weekly paycheck of $500, according to American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing affected workers.

The vulnerability they feel isn’t unusual. A majority of the U.S. population is living with very little by way of a savings cushion.

One troubling indicator is the rising ranks of “underwater nation,” households with zero or negative wealth. These families have no savings reserves — they owe more than they own.

The percentage of U.S. households that are “underwater” increased from percent in 1983 to 21.2 percent today. This experience cuts across race, but is more frequent in black and Latino households — including over 32 percent of Latino families and 37 percent of black families.

The next 20 percent of all U.S. households have positive net worth, but not much. Four in ten families couldn’t come up with $400 cash if they needed it for an emergency, according to the Federal Reserve.

Black families are especially vulnerable to economic downturns or delayed paychecks.

Since 1983, the median wealth for a U.S. family has gone down 3 percent, adjusting for inflation. Over the same period, the median wealth for a black family declined a devastating 50 percent, according to “Dreams Deferred,’’ a new study I co-authored for the Institute for Policy Studies. (Meanwhile, the number of households with $10 million or more skyrocketed by 856 percent.)

Unemployment may be low, but it masks a precarious and insecure population. At the root of the problem is growing inequality.

Wages for half the population have been stagnant for over four decades, while expenses such as health care, housing, and other basic necessities have risen. Many families still haven’t fully recovered from the economic meltdown a decade ago.

After going up steadily since World War II, homeownership rates have been falling since 2004. And as with income, homeownership is also heavily skewed towards white families. While the national homeownership rate has virtually remained unchanged between 1983 and 2016, 72 percent of white families owned their home, compared to just 44 percent of black families.

Latino homeownership increased by nearly 40 percent over that time, but it still remains far below the rate for whites, at just 45 percent.

If the partial government shutdown continues for “months or years,” as President Trump threatens, there will be even more stress and hardship on our nation’s most vulnerable families. The bigger challenge is how to ensure our economy enables more people to save and build wealth.

Make no mistake: parts of our economy were on “shutdown” long before the government.

Chuck Collins directs the Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Boston restaurants of a certain age

You can still get your aphrodisiac fix at the Union Oyster House.

You can still get your aphrodisiac fix at the Union Oyster House.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

Durgin-Park, the Boston restaurant founded in 1827 (!) and famous for heavy “New England cuisine’’ and by turns rude (and often large) waitresses, is closing, to the gnashing of teeth of habitues, or, to be more accurate, mostly former habitues. It has always amused me that so many people who demand that a “beloved institution’’ stay open either have never been there or have long since stopped patronizing the joint.

And so another famous restaurant will join Locke-Ober and many other famous Boston eateries that haven’t been able to keep up with patrons’ changing tastes, demographics and daily schedules. Yankee pot roast and Indian pudding just don’t have the allure that they had 50 years ago. Boston is a big and rich city; there are more than enough prosperous people to keep the likes of Durgin-Park open – if restaurant romantics wanted to eat there. But it seems that many who did now just want to wax nostalgic or have shuffled off to the great dining room in the sky.

I’m hoping that an even older place, the Union Oyster House, started as a restaurant in 1826 but in a structure believed to have been built in 1704, will survive. I go there sometimes with a French friend. (Weird fact: Louis Philippe, the king of France in 1830-1848, lived in exile in that building in 1796, paying his expenses by teaching French to young women. But perhaps that’s not as weird as that the late Vietnamese dictator Ho Chi Minh had worked in the Parker House hotel.)

The Union Oyster House still has at least one big thing going for it: As the great oyster-eating scene in the movie Tom Jones demonstrates, oysters are a lot sexier than roast beef.


The Durgin-Park closing reminded me of another sign of the passing of generations and changing tastes. An old friend who teaches at a certain elite college invited her class to dinner and a showing of the classic movie Casablanca, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1943.

While you might think that the movie, with its suspense, witty lines, bittersweet romance and evocative music might be well-known across age groups, you’d be wrong. The kids had small reaction to the film and demonstrated little knowledge of its historical context of World War II. It seemed dead to most of them.

So they come and they go.

One bit of dialogue from the movie, with the French police Captain Renault (played by Claude Raines) and café owner Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, seems appropriate:

Renault: '’Why can't you go back to America? Why Casablanca?'’

Rick: “I came here for the waters?'’

'’The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.'’

‘'I was misinformed.'’

Chris Powell: Collusion not uncommon -- impeach for shutdown; forget Conn. school-funding formula


Unseemly as the associations between President Trump's 2016 campaign and Russian operatives are, there is no federal crime called "collusion" and no one can be indicted for it.

Besides, American politicians long have colluded with foreign powers to advance their political objectives.

During the Vietnam War President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, suspended bombing of North Vietnam and colluded with its Communist government to start peace negotiations to boost the campaign of his vice president, Hubert Humphrey. Meanwhile Humphrey's Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, colluded with the South Vietnamese government to stall negotiations, promising that a Republican administration would get South Vietnam better terms.

During his 2012 campaign for re-election President Obama, a Democrat, was caught on tape assuring Russia's prime minister that he would have "more flexibility" on weapons control if the Russians would just postpone the issue until after November. That was collusion too, but while it was promptly reported, few politicians or news organizations made anything of it.

The people aiming to impeach Trump are overlooking the compelling reason right in front of them: the shutdown of the federal government engineered by the president to bully Congress into appropriating billions to build a wall on the Mexican border.

Border security is important and a wall would help but it is not more important than the work of the rest of the federal government, and by incapacitating so much of the government to extort Congress on one issue, Trump is violating the Constitution.

For Article II, Section 3, prescribes that the president "shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed."

In two years the Russia stuff has gone nowhere and can go nowhere. But the incapacitation of the government is right now.

To see impact on some Coast Guard families in Connecticut, please hit this link.


High on the agenda for the new session of the Connecticut General Assembly is rewriting the formula for state financial aid to municipal school systems. It will be a big waste of time.

Connecticut has been rewriting its school aid formula almost every year since the state Supreme Court's decision in the school financing case of Horton v. Meskill in 1977, with little result except greater expense. State payments to school systems with poor populations and weak property-tax bases have been greatly increased but student performance has not improved.

So either the state still has not yet developed the right formula or student performance does not correlate much with school spending.

The state Education Department acknowledges it cannot show that school spending correlates with student performance. Indeed, defending the department in court against the most recent school financing lawsuit two years ago, the attorney general's office called an economics professor who had studied school spending in Connecticut and testified that there is no correlation.

Of course there must be a very limited correlation, since if there were no schools, it's unlikely that most children would learn on their own. But after four decades pouring money into struggling schools and accomplishing little, the legislature should either give up on formulizing or look elsewhere for correlations with student performance.

When most children in poor cities lack parents and perform poorly in school, while most children in suburbs have two parents and perform fairly well, there may be decisive correlations quite apart from school spending even if they can't be discussed in polite company.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.

Suffolk Construction to help employees pay off student loans

This is from The New England Council (

“Suffolk Construction, of Boston, introduced a new benefits program this month that allows eligible employees to receive monthly contributions toward outstanding student loans. This effort is aimed at not only reducing the financial stress felt by employees, but also at helping them focus on long-term career growth.

In 2017, college seniors in the U.S. owed on average $28,650 in student loans, with 65 percent of them having received loans. Under Suffolk Construction’s new program, employees who are paying federal or private loans from a U.S. lender, borrowed for the financing of higher-education at an accredited institution, will receive a $100 per month contribution toward their loan payments. Suffolk Construction will make this possible by working with a Boston-based student loan repayment company,

Suffolk President and CEO John Fish stated “I’m a big believer in education – it means everything to me. But the truth is, more and more people are finding education to be a financial burden rather than a ticket to a successful life. My hope is that people see this student loan repayment benefit as an opportunity to focus less on the cost of education and more on the exciting future that education, and our industry, can offer.”

The New England Council commends Suffolk Construction, a NEC member, for its innovative approach in addressing the student debt crisis and its commitment to enhancing employee welfare.’’

Roots in the brine

In the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area, in eastern Connecticut.

In the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area, in eastern Connecticut.

“The winds linger here
In the wooded coves
Before crossing the Atlantic

Sauntering for a time
Among the oaks
Whose roots soak in the brine.’’

From “Roots in the Sea,’’ by L.M. Browning. Written on Barn Island, Stonington, Conn.

School days in the Rhode Island State House

The Southernmost Schoolhouse, in Portsmouth, R.I., built in 1725 and the oldest surviving structure built for that purpose in the state. It’s now a museum owned by the New England Historical Society.

The Southernmost Schoolhouse, in Portsmouth, R.I., built in 1725 and the oldest surviving structure built for that purpose in the state. It’s now a museum owned by the New England Historical Society.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

‘Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s second inaugural speech, starting off her second term, continued her emphasis on improving public education, which is essential to promote the state’s economic and civic health. Equally hopeful is that House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio agreed last week that improving schools is central, with the latter calling for “a meaningful comparison of our education system with the system in Massachusetts,’’ considered by many people the nation’s best. Reversing the state’s mediocre record on public schools will take years but that prospect must not be allowed to dilute the sense of urgency about the task.

There are also some other things that the governor should she should take on, such as:

Addressing “affordable housing’’ and environmental challenges by leading an effort to reform zoning laws, including allowing more density in some places to encourage more housing construction (and thus curb housing-cost increases) and discourage sprawl. And while building light-rail lines in the more densely settled parts of the state could take up to a decade, state government should get the process started. That Greater Boston has lots of rail service is one big reason for its prosperity.

For that matter, the governor and the legislature should strive to make Rhode Island’s public policy, including taxes and regulation, as similar as possible to that of Massachusetts, the successful giant next door. Of course, Rhode Island is a much poorer state and so it will be tough….

The Ocean State’s political leaders should trim layers of government that citizens and companies must deal with so that it’s easier to get things done. This would mean in some cases reducing local control. Take Providence’s Route 195 relocation space, which is state land whose development has been slowed by municipal politics as well as by the city’s legal and regulatory red tape. Rhode Island is tiny and yet there are 39 cities and towns in it, all of course with their own rules. But the localities are legal children of the state, which has broad rights to change local powers.

The efforts that the governor cited to promote the rather murky concept of “inclusion,’’ while well-meaning, will have far less impact on the state than the factors above. In any case, political leaders should avoid identity politics and focus their efforts on doing as much as they can to improve life for everyone.

David Warsh: The work revolution and the changing mix of cities

David Square, Somerville, which has become a boom town casting off its blue-collar history.

David Square, Somerville, which has become a boom town casting off its blue-collar history.


I hadn’t driven far beyond this city before I came across what seemed to me to be the future, in the form of a Waffle House beside the Interstate highway. These restaurants are ubiquitous across the South; in method, if not in menu, they are equal and opposite to McDonald’s.

At McDonald’s, nearly all the workers are in the back, tending the machines. At Waffle House, everybody is out front: 10 or 12 staffers standing around behind a counter, everybody from the manager to a pair of griddle cooks whose backs were turned to me. The little restaurant contained a dozen counter seats and perhaps a dozen booths.

I was thinking about the lecture that I had heard 36 hours before at the annual meeting of the Allied Social Science Associations, “Work of the Past, Work of the Future,’’ by David Autor, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Autor is best-known for his description, with David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, of the geography of the rapid decline of U.S. manufacturing work, especially after China entered the World Trade Organization in 2000 (“The China Shock”).

Ben Bernanke, former Federal Reserve Board chairman and incoming American Economic Association president, had invited him to speak. The Ely lecture is one occasion at the meetings, apart from the AEA presidential address, when nearly everything else comes to a halt.

Autor began by reminding listeners of the shrinking middle of the wage structure since 1980. Employment in high-skill categories has been steadily rising since then (management, professional, technician), and in low-skill jobs (health and personal services, cleaning and protection, operator/laborer); but more steadily declining in middle-skill employment (production, office administration, and sales). Middle-skill work had has been disappearing mainly in the cities, as workers have been replaced by software of one sort or another.

Next he described his surprise at the geography of the trend. Historically, rural areas were younger than the cities. He knew that the average population of rural areas had grown older. He had not known, until 72 hours before, that cities had become relatively younger than the countryside.

“I was so amazed by the figure that Juliette [Fournier, his co-author] and I did a complete clean room operation and reconstructed all the data from the get-go, just to be sure that there was not an error.”

There wasn’t. In the 1950s, rural counties were an average five years younger than cities. By the 1990s, city and country were about the same. But by 2010, cities were six years younger than rural areas. Rural counties had aged twelve years in the second half of the twentieth century, thanks to the emptying-out of the young; cities had aged an average of only two.

Why? Because the kids who used to move to cities for school, only to leave for the suburbs or for home, were now staying there – perhaps because cities are safer than they used to be, perhaps because wages are higher there, perhaps because opportunity is greater. That’s great, said Autor, but it is not clear there is a similar set of opportunities anywhere for less-educated workers of any age.

Autor asked whether new jobs coming into existence might fill in the middle, or contribute further to the bifurcation. It is not as easy to categorize new jobs as it sounds. Using a new measure based on periodic revisions to occupational classifications collected by the Census Bureau, Autor sorted emergent work into three broad categories: “frontier jobs”; “wealth work”; and “last-mile” jobs.

The terms were his; the method was developed a decade ago by economist Jeffrey Lin, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. The Census tracks 500 or so broad occupational groups, but underlying are some 36,000 job titles within them.

Frontier work, or Jetson jobs, after the early ‘60s sitcom of a family living in the distant future, are what you would expect: high-wage jobs requiring much education, usually predominantly performed by men. The frontier keeps moving: in the 1980s, the category included word-processing supervisors and drone pilots; today, molecular physicists, wind-turbine technician and echo cardiographers.

Wealth work involves catering to the comfort and well-being of the affluent, A large or larger set of jobs than frontier, requiring low to moderate education, a majority of them performed by women. New jobs in the 1980s included gift wrappers and hypnotherapists. By the 1990s, family marriage counselors, fingernail formers, and baristas had appeared. In the Oughts, oyster openers and sommeliers appeared in sufficient numbers to rate a mention.

Last mile jobs take their name, not from the distance to someone’s front door, but rather from the length of time before artificial intelligence software takes over the task completely. These are the husks of jobs that for the most part already have been automated, said Autor; Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a Global Underclass, is the title of Microsoft anthropologist Mary Gray’s forthcoming book. From tamale-machine feeders in the 1980s to vending-machine attendants in the 1990s to Amazon packagers and underground cable locators today, these jobs are grueling, low paid and most probably won’t be around for long. Often they can be done almost anywhere in the world.

Wages? The new work doesn’t pay much differently than old work in the present day: $18.78 an hour for the average of all workers; $26.89 for workers in frontier jobs; $18.49 for wealth Work, and $15.28 for the last mile trades. In short, said Autor, it is a great time to be young and educated, but it isn’t clear where a land of opportunity is to be found for adults with no college.

Some of this will be familiar to readers of The New Geography of Jobs (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), by Enrico Moretti, of the University of California at Berkeley. That book had same galvanizing effect on impressions of the changing landscape of opportunity, as did Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (Anchor, 1991), by Joel Garreau. Moretti vaulted to the editorship of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Where Autor went an important step beyond, it seems to me, is in his assessment of rural opportunity. Work in nonmetropolitan areas is changing much more slowly than elsewhere, he said: Job structure, skill structure, wage structure, are all more stable. “People often say… I’ve said it myself, Why aren’t people moving out of Tennessee to some big city where they could get higher wages? Well, it’s much less obvious to me than before that the opportunity really exists….”

He concluded with a conjecture: “I suspect the fall in geographic mobility means something different from what I used to think – barriers of some sort, costs in the way. Increasingly I see it as a slowing of the moving out of places because they were thought to be unattractive, [because] increasingly, they are [attractive].

And that’s what I saw in the Georgia Waffle House, and the rural and semirural counties around it. Wealth is a relative phenomenon, and as long as you can afford cable television and $5 for a waffle, some sausage, and a cup of coffee, life in the countryside may be preferable in many respects to work in the office towers of downtown Atlanta. If you can afford to, you might as well stay home.

Returning to Somerville, Mass., a rapidly gentrifying city of 100,000 next to Cambridge and just across the Charles River from Boston, I heard one phrase in particular of Autor’s lecture ringing in my ears – to the effect that heightened pursuit of opportunity in cities had implications for politics and social structure there. He said:

"In a Democratic primary in Massachusetts’s Seventh Congressional District last September, Ayanna Pressley defeated Michael Capuano. Capuano was a 10-term progressive congressman well positioned in the Democratic Party’s’s leadership. Pressley was a Boston city councilor who had successfully led a campaign for more city liquor licenses. Here is what one veteran political analyst had to say about the race.

"Before Election Day, experts had pegged the probable turnout at between 50,000 and 80,000 – the kind of turnout that in this district is historically older and white, an advantage for Capuano. In fact, he won 42,000 votes, a total that in any other year would have meant a win. This time it meant an 18,000-vote drubbing

"Why? 106,000 people showed up to vote in this primary, in effect at least 25,000 new voters. And given where turnout surged, it’s clear the bulk of these voters came from Millennial and Gen X outposts, where voters were primed to vote for a candidate like Pressley – young, female and African American and, in their minds, the true progressive in the race.

"Somerville, Capuano’s hometown, is one such outpost. Formerly a blue-collar city known derisively as Slummerville, today it is home to soaring real estate prices, trendy restaurants and a largely white hipster and tech worker population. Eighteen thousand people voted in a city that generally sees 10,000 or 12,000 for a primary or municipal election. {Thus} Capuano, who played an instrumental role in transforming the city as mayor in the 90’s’’ was defeated in “in the thriving city he helped create.''

Trump’s misogyny and racism did the rest. The changing composition of superstar cities is a big story on every beat.

David Warsh, a veteran columnist and economic historian, is proprietor of Somerville-based, where this piece first ran.