By Karen Cord Taylor
Since this is election week, it seems appropriate to consider recent news about our city councilors. They have enjoyed overseas trips—Israel, Japan, Korea and Taiwan were mentioned.
Josh Zakim, Tito Jackson and Tim McCarthy met important local officials in Israel and also had a chance to “bathe in the relaxing and healthy sulfur springs at the Mineral Beach and float in the Dead Sea,” according to a Boston Globe news report. Matt O’Malley and Michelle Wu were also fingered as visiting foreign countries.
The report listed who paid for the trips. It wasn’t taxpayer money, heaven forbid. It was the Jewish Community Relations Council, the councilors’ campaign committees, the Taekwondo Foundation, Taipei’s Economic and Cultural Office in New York, the American Council of Young Political Leaders, the Japan Center for International Exchange and a US State Department grant. Pretty benign stuff.
So the question is: should city councilors take foreign trips?
Furthermore, I’d like to see more public officials going abroad. Overseas trips ought to be a requirement of heads of departments at all levels of government. They need to see what the rest of the world is doing. In a small city up in the corner of a big country, Bostonians can get parochial awfully quickly.
It’s not just Bostonians who think they know it all. Too many Americans are ignorant of the rest of the world. In this island nation that borders on only two countries and two wide oceans, most of us have little experience outside the continent. American “exceptionalism” appears to mean we don’t have anything to learn from anyone else. Such attitudes hold us back. We stagnate. We don’t have a clue because we never leave home.
In 2014, for example, only six percent of Americans took a trip overseas, according to the US Department of Commerce. If you count Canada and Mexico, the percentage rises to seven. The second most frequented location was the Caribbean, probably meaning a resort or a cruise. I doubt we can count those trips as foreign.
Even fewer Americans probably travel abroad than the percentages indicate because some trips are taken by the same person more than once during the year.
It’s too expensive for many Americans to travel abroad since 43 percent of us don’t make enough money to pay federal income taxes, says businessinsider.com. We’re a poor nation.
Our work lives are also a barrier since Americans typically get less vacation time than the rest of the world.
Never leaving the US means we never learn that Turkey has fabulous highways —Turkey?—or that London and Paris have nailed public transit, or that congested Rome has increased business prosperity by banning cars from many historic streets.
Isolated here, we don’t learn that other countries build more affordable housing or have better mobile phone service. Staying here, watching the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants, some Americans fear the English language is vanishing. Those worriers need to go to Indonesia to see signs in English posted next to those in the native language. Trips abroad would reassure them that English is alive and well throughout the world.
So here’s my plan. City councilors, keep taking those trips so you can learn how foreign cities solve their problems. And let’s extend those benefits to other public employees.
Let’s send Boston Public Works Commissioner Mike Dennehy to Berlin and Istanbul to learn how those cities keep clean.
Let’s get MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola and the new MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board over to London to see how a real public transportation system works.
Transport for London, for example, has tunneled 13 miles under that city to build the Crossrail line, connecting 40 rail and underground stations on a route that will ease congestion and enable riders to get to their destinations faster. Compare that effort to plodding Boston, which can’t manage to bore only one and a half miles of tunnel to connect North and South Stations.
While we’re at it, let’s get Mayor Walsh over to London. After his election, he took a well-deserved victory lap in the country of his ancestors. But when London’s mayor came to Boston, there were rumors Marty stiffed him. Who knows if it’s true. To get along in America, it helps to shed old country attitudes. Besides, Marty needs to see London’s traffic congestion pricing at work. And since one of his goals is to keep Bostonians happy, he should go on to Copenhagen, home of the world’s happiest people.
So if you are a public employee and you want to see how others do the job you’ve been handed, see me. I’ll go to bat for you if reporters get on your case.