Thursday, July 30, 2015

Don't Force Your Narratives onto Boston's Losing the Olympics

I was never a fan of my hometown of Boston hosting the Olympics. The Games have a nasty habit of bankrupting their host governments, a lot of the infrastructure outlays don't have long-term benefits, and a bid would have subjected the already-cramped city to a decade of construction. (Plus, the Olympics are kinda dumb.) Apparently many Bostonians felt the same way, as Boston 2024's low polling numbers eventually helped sink the city's bid for good this week. To anyone who lives in Boston and cares about the future of the region, it was just a question of what was good public policy—plain and simple.

How wrong we were, apparently. I had no idea that, instead of trying to spend public money responsibly, we were really fighting special interests on behalf of the common man! And I feel pretty silly now that I've been informed that my opposition to the Olympics was my small-mindedness shooting the city in the foot! That is, at least if you listen to the particularly egregious spin coming out of the anti- and pro-Olympics camps, respectively, post-bid-withdrawal.

I get that some degree of spin is necessary; winners gonna gloat, and haters gonna hate. But these two narratives have nothing to do with the actual matter of public policy before us: the Olympic Games. They've been grafted onto the real financial and infrastructural issues at hand about as gracefully as Mr. Burns was sewn onto Homer. As the Olympics became more and more contentious in Boston this year, both sides were guilty of turning the debate into a process-based one. Rather than the question of whether it was good policy for Boston to host the Olympics, it became a referendum on the bidders themselves. And now that a decision has been made to stop seeking the Games, both sides continue to embarrass themselves by missing the point.

Let's start with the victors: those who sought to kill the Boston Olympics have touted the decision as a victory for their grassroots organization. It is conclusive proof, they say, that an inspired citizenry can successfully stand up to the big-moneyed special interests; we should all rejoice, they insist, that we stopped corporate elites from lining their pockets with that sweet Olympics cash from their rich friends. (A real sentence from the Boston Magazine article linked above: "The people of Boston, armed only with shoestring budgets and broken public records laws, stood up to the IOC, an organization as contemptible and endlessly wealthy as FIFA." Das Kapital is less rabble-rousing.) Poppycock. Elites run Boston, and they always have. The Olympics failed mostly because two key elites—Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker—were not fully on board with the plan. And the cause for celebration isn't the fact alone that we defeated a "Goliath" of an enemy; it's that we avoided the headaches that places like London and Rio have suffered as they paid for and built their Olympic infrastructure.

The sore losers, meanwhile, have fallen back on an old chestnut: Boston is a provincial backwater that will never become the worldly city it deserves without the validation that the Olympic Games provide—and our snobbish, insular tendencies have now kept our city from real progress onto the world stage. It's a shameful logical fallacy that exploits one of Boston's deepest-held insecurities about itself: its inferiority complex. "Move in my direction, or else stay a small-time small town. WWNYD?" (What would New York do?) It's a false choice, and both halves are equally specious. First, of course, not all movement is progress. Boston 2024 proponents would have you believe the only path to improving the city—the only path to globalizing Boston—lies in hosting an extraordinarily expensive sporting event. But instead of investing in something frivolous like sports, we could design a master plan that spends sensibly on transportation, infrastructure, housing, education, and more. There are lots of ways we can reshape the city that aren't the Olympic way, and, in my opinion, it may well be smarter to do it differently. (This is why we need to have a conversation about the actual policy issues rather than get into this shouting match.) But instead the pro-Olympics crowd frames it so that they can yell "Provincialism!" if you don't go along with their plan.

Which takes me to the second specious half: accepting the premise that Boston is indeed an unworldly, small-time backwater. Boston of today may not be New York, but it has thrived as a center of the new knowledge-based economy, with world-class medical, educational, and technological institutions. We should always strive to improve our city, but at this rate, only a few course corrections are needed, not a massive reimagination of Boston's entire essence. The city should be proud of where it is. One particularly ignorant tweet complained about "NOlympics" in the same breath as Boston's supposed other stubborn refusals to modernize: "CasiNO" (Massachusetts will make millions of dollars in revenue after passing a 2011 law that will soon open three casinos and a slot parlor throughout the state), "Late night public transportatioNO" (responding to a longtime rider complaint, the MBTA began offering late-night bus and subway service over a year ago), and "Modern liquor/vice legislatioNO" (marijuana is decriminalized in Massachusetts, and there's a decent chance it gets fully legalized via a 2016 ballot measure). The region is not, by any definition of the word, "stagnant," as the New York Times suggested was a possibility.

So Boston 2024's argument ended up resting on the idea that Boston is a parochial hamlet, and pulling us away from that fate was the real issue, no matter the cost. And to No Boston Olympics, the real issue became stopping private interests from turning a profit on the backs of unwilling constituents. For each side, that was probably the easiest way to justify what they wanted. But it got to the point where these arguments were offered basically to the exclusion of the real real issues that made people support or oppose the Olympics in the first place: the best ways to build new infrastructure, the best ways to spend money, the best ways to market the city. As in so many other instances, the facts and informed debate took a backseat to building a neat little narrative that's less complicated for emotional minds to understand. In the end, Boston 2024 and No Boston Olympics were more alike than either would care to admit; they both tried to make this debate something it never should have been. Sadly, they succeeded.

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