#100 The Myth of Main Street, Louis Hyman

Our guest is Louis Hyman, author of the provocative New York Times editorial, "The Myth of Main Street." Louis is a Cornell University History Professor and the Director of the Institute for Workplace Studies. 

Nostalgia for the economy's "good old days" has great appeal for many Americans. For the right, past decades bring back memories of Ronald Reagan, traditional cultural values and U.S. dominance in global affairs. For the left, post-war America was a time of stronger unions and less income inequality.

But "Make America Great Again" and other appeals to nostalgia come at a high price.  Going back to a past with trade barriers, price controls and lower productivity would damage the living standards of many households they're designed to protect.

Louis tells us: "Main Street is a touchstone for how we like to imagine the real America. There's always this anxiety about what America is, and Main Street is how we imagine ourselves."  The challenge is to balance a need for higher wages, autonomy and local pride with efficiency.

Small-town and rural America have been left behind in the digital economy, which is centered in a few big cities. But it doesn't have to stay this way.

Solutions:

  • By gaining access to sales and freelance platforms, people in rural communities can sell products and find jobs anywhere in the world. 
  • Upwork, Thumbtack and other sites are online marketplaces that match freelance workers and small businesses with demand for their services. 
  • Local governments can help by expanding the crucial work done by libraries to educate and connect workers to the changing online marketplace.
  • The Digital Countryside Initiative at Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in Ithaca is working with corporations and labor groups to connect rural New Yorkers with the digital economy. Greater access to high-speed internet connections is one step. But the online "gig economy" is unfamiliar to many skilled workers.