James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
  • More From Pilots and Doctors on the Germanwings Crash

    Cost pressures, alcohol as the only "approved" anti-mental-illness drug, and other ramifications of this murder/suicide

    The aftermath of a Colgan commuter airplane crash near Buffalo six years ago (Gary Wiepert/Reuters)

    Following this initial item on what could and could not have been foreseen about the Germanwings murder/suicide, and this follow-up in which professional pilots talked about shortcuts in modern training systems, more response from aviators and others:

    1) "If you had a mental issue, there's only one drug the FAA would allow you to take. That drug is alcohol." From a professional pilot:

    Add me to the extensive list of pilots you’ve heard from, regarding the Germanwings tragedy. I agree with the people saying we only can blame ourselves, wanting cheap airfare and safe airlines, all while paying pilots nothing. I personally have avoided working for the airlines, having figured out that the charter and medical flying seems to have a better quality of life, better pay over the life of the career, and more job security. ...

    When it comes to prevention of accidents like this, I honestly don’t know what can be done. I don’t believe having two people in the cockpit at all times would have prevented this specific instance; the guy was willing to take a lot of lives with him, what would the flight attendant standing in the doorway have been able to do to prevent that?

    Many of your writers have mentioned the new ATP rules ... [JF: higher flight-time requirements before pilots can be considered for first-officer/ "co-pilot" jobs] but I don’t see a solution in arbitrary flight times and educational achievement. The European model, where pilots are hired and trained by the airline from the very beginning, does seem more sustainable in my opinion, compared to the U.S. model where pilots end up in excess of $100,000 in debt before they can even think of getting a job.

    The person who pointed out the adversarial process of the FAA medical hit the issue right in the nose. Until recently, depression alone was enough to keep you out of the cockpit, stabilized treatment regimes and doctors' letters be damned.

    To put it bluntly, if you had a mental issue that could be helped with medication, the FAA would allow you to take one drug that didn’t require reporting and documentation. That drug is alcohol.

    2) On the tensions built into the medical-examination system. Another reader:

    One pilot quoted in your piece wrote:

    “The system gives pilots an incentive to cheat themselves out of the best quality of care. Any arrangement that promotes an adversarial relationship between doctor and patient compromises medicine.”

    I fail to see how the relationship between doctors and pilots can be inherently anything other than adversarial. There is no upside for the pilot when a pilot currently holding a health certificate sees a doctor. The best result for the pilot is the continuation of the status quo. The worst result is the suspension or ending of his career.

    I hope most pilots would face this periodic career peril with a moral sense of duty to passengers and therefore will be honest and forthright in any medical exam and would promptly disclose to their employers any relevant medical condition. However, human nature shows us that a meaningful percentage of pilots will conceal medical conditions or at least be very strategic in how they are examined (choosing a physician known to be lenient, seeking private diagnosis and treatment, etc.)

    Thus it seems to me that the solution to this unique situation is not a more treatment-oriented system, which doesn’t address the conflict inherent in the situation. Rather, the solution is to recognize that pilots are unique in that they must be highly skilled and physically and mentally healthy, while being entrusted daily with hundreds of lives. Thus pilots should be required to give up their medical privacy to the degree necessary to ensure that all relevant medical facts are available to regulators and to their employers.

    3) On the alcohol issue. From a doctor:

    This event occurred many years ago,  and, hopefully, the culture of aviation safety has caught up. Here’s what happened.

    I finished my residency at UC San Francisco and, not wanting to be tied down by the responsibilities of a family practice, began to practice emergency medicine. The group that I worked for assigned me to Alameda Hospital. Recall that Alameda is right next to Oakland, and is the closest facility to Oakland Airport. Therefore, it wasn’t unusual for our ER to see patients who were sent by the Oakland Airport.  

    At the time, [a charter airline] was running flights out of Oakland to the Far East. One night a pilot for [that airline] was brought into our ER by the police, as he was so drunk that he couldn’t stand without assistance. On speaking with him, I learned that he was due to fly as a pilot the following morning. I told him that this was absolutely impossible, that he was in no condition to do so, etc. He was insistent that he would do so. Not knowing what to do (yes, there should have been a written policy in the ER, but there wasn’t), but knowing that I had to do something, I did the only thing that I could think of: I called the FAA and reported him.

    To summarize the situation from that point on is simple: I became the villain in the eyes of everyone. The FAA was furious at me for creating paperwork for them. The airline was furious at me because I had ratted them to the FAA when they (the airline) “had the internal capability” to handle this matter “in house.” Not one person thanked me for keeping this incredibly drunk man from potentially endangering the lives of a plane full of passengers. It seemed to me that everyone was more concerned about how the bureaucracy would impact them than with true safety.

    I never forgot that episode, and never regretted what I had done. I hope that the situation is different all these years later.

    For what it's worth, in my own general-aviation experience over the past 20 years, I have not ever seen pilots who appeared to be drunk or impaired getting into airplanes. You can compare that with the world of driving, in which everyone knows of such cases. My observation doesn't prove anything larger, but it is my anecdotal experience.

    4) On other pressures affecting the medical-examination system. A reader with an elite record as a military aviator writes:

    As the TV talking heads make comments about FAA medical screening requirements, the public is getting the wrong idea about the quality of these annual and semi-annual exams.

    My experience may be unique, but the FAA doctors I have seen at various locations around the country for FAA medical check-ups (Class I mostly) [JF note: Class I is the most demanding physical, which airline pilots must pass] have been "long in the tooth" and often eccentric and quirky. The physical exam was more about "checking the block" and paying the fee than a bonafide assessment.

    Based on my experience, if the public thinks FAA medical exams have any sort of rigor they are mistaken.

    I wrote back to this person saying that my anecdotal experience differed. Of the five or six different doctors from whom I've received Class III FAA physicals over the years, only one matched this description. The others seemed interested in giving a "real" exam—including one last year, who noticed something he thought my normal doctor should check out. (It was nothing, but worth checking.) The difference between this reader's experience and mine, then, would support his point that there can be a lot of variation within the system.

    5) On the underlying financial pressures. A message I quoted yesterday argued that the "blame" for some aviation accidents ultimately rested with a public that insisted on ever-cheaper fares. A reader spells this out:

    It is implicit in your argument about airline cost-cutting (although it wasn’t explicitly stated) that flight-crew pay must also be an indirect factor. The Colgan Air flight 3407 crash in Buffalo in 2009 [source of the photo at top of this item] is a case in point. The co-pilot had an annual salary of $16,200.

    Tim Cook got a pay package worth $378 million to run Apple; if your iPhone doesn’t work, you send it back. But in some cases with commuter airlines, your life is literally in the hands of an overworked and undertrained flight crew member who makes McDonald's wages.

    A great illustration, à la Milton Friedman, of how the free-market infallibly puts the right monetary value on services (snark).

    6) Similarly on a "market equilibrium" price.  Another reader:

    I never cease to be amazed by the ease at which the rhetoric about manpower shortages (pilot shortages, programmer shortages. etc.) finds acceptance. No, in free-market society, there are no shortages, only a shortage of people willing to pay the appropriate price.

    Every day almost I get some email from some recruiter telling me what a great fit I would be and how I would love the company. When I tell them my price, that fit suddenly becomes not so great :)

  • Pilots on the Germanwings Murder/Suicide

    "When people start looking for whom to blame, the answer is simple: Joe-six-pack who wanted a $99 flight from New York to L.A." A veteran pilot on cost pressures in flight-crew training.

    A memorial near the site of the Germanwings crash in the French Alps (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

    After the Germanwings crash I argued that no single safety device or security protocol could protect the flying public against a pilot determined to do harm. A number of veteran pilots write in to agree, but also to suggest that this episode illustrates some structural problems within the modern cost-cutting air-travel industry.

    1) "Low-cost pilots, low-cost lives." Adam Shaw, who has had a varied and interesting career as a writer and flyer and now leads an aerobatics team in Europe, writes as follows. I've added interstitial explanations in brackets [like this]:

    No one can disagree with your: “no new regulation … can offer perfect protection against calculated malice.”

    But eliminating P2F is the first step. [JF note: P2F, or "Pay to Fly," is a scheme in which pilots-in-training, while still paying tuition to a flight school, simultaneously serve as flight-crew members on real airlines carrying real passengers. That is, rather than earning pay for their work, they are the ones paying. Without getting into all the details, this is now widely considered a scam.]

    A good second step is the FAA’s reinstatement of the very old (your piece leads folks to believe it is new…) rule requiring 1,500 hrs of flight time before taking the ATP written. [JF: The change that the FAA ordered two years ago, as explained here, was requiring first-officer or "co-pilot" candidates to have an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, which among other things requires 1,500 hours of flying experience. Before that, people could apply for first-officer positions with only a Commercial certificate, with an experience minimum of only 250 hours.]

    Asian and European authorities should instantly copy this. Why? Because in the years it takes to get to 1,500 hrs (flight instructing, crop dusting, banner towing, flying jumpers, or whatever) budding pilots get real experience with airplanes that are often gritty, shitty, and temperamental.

    The years they put in to get those 1,500 hrs also—and this is just a critical— expose them to their peers, to repeated medical examinations … to repeated scrutiny. [JF: Working with ATP privileges requires a First Class FAA medical certificate, with a full medical exam every six months. Working with Commercial privileges requires a Second Class medical, with an exam once a year. Private pilots like me can fly with a Third Class medical, which lasts either two or five years, depending on your age.]

    These days, the 250-hr button twiddling geeks can go from pounding the sidewalk to the right seat of a passenger jet in less than two years. That's two medicals, and practically no peer review, not time for quirks, or worse, to become apparent. I know the trend is for low cost airlines (low-cost training) low-cost clothes, low-cost food, low-cost … lives.

    With most old-fashioned pilots retired or within minutes of retirement, we’re now faced with left-seaters who have come up the ab-initio or worse, the geek P2F, way.

    Unless things change, and change fast, we’re going to see a lot more AF# 447, Asiana #214, Transasia #235 events in the coming years.

    And when people start looking for whom to blame, the answer is simple: Joe-six-pack who wanted a $99 flight from New York to L.A, or Pierre Baguette who wanted a 65-euro Paris-Casablanca … and the cynical bean counters who make this possible

    You can see a video of Adam Shaw's formation-flying team here, and one of him flying through the mountains with his dog as first officer here.

    On the point he makes about the value of sheer experience: Within the next year I should reach 2,000 hours of total flying time. That would not be much for someone who does this as a professional but reflects my trying to stay at it steadily year by year.

    The difference from when I had 250 hours of experience, or 500, is not any particular new skill. Indeed, many obligatory pass-the-test skills have certainly atrophied (like, an NDB approach or "turns around a point").

    The difference is simply that I've seen more things happen, so there's a diminishing realm of situations I will encounter for the first time. It's roughly similar to the difference between parents' first few nervous weeks with a baby and what they learn as the months (and children) roll on. In the amateur-flying world this includes: what it's like when the alternator fails; what it's like when you have an oil problem; what it's like when you have to tell a controller "unable"; which mountain passes you're better off avoiding; which level of crosswinds and gusty winds you can handle on landings; which clouds mean trouble and which don't; what cues let controllers think you know what you're doing and which signal the reverse; at what temperature range just above and below freezing you need to be most alert to icing; what errors or lapses you're most likely to make. This is known in the aviation world as "filling up the experience bucket before the luck bucket empties out," and I agree with Adam Shaw, from his much more experienced perspective, that it's an important part of developing qualified airline pilots.

    2) "An incentive to cheat." A pilot writes about the perverse incentives that encourage pilots not to seek treatment for illnesses, including mental illness:

    The current interpretation of the cockpit voice recordings from Germanwings 4U9525 provides clear evidence of a problem with the certification of pilots for flight duty.

    While the aviation industry has an enviable safety record, that safety record comes from a willingness to examine the information garnered from failure and to improve. We now have evidence of two major air disasters in the span of a decade and a half [JF: the other being the EgyptAir crash in 1999], caused by similar failures: mass murder by a pilot. I believe that should lead to a reconsideration of pilot medical certification. Certainly, I suggest that if any other type of component failed so disastrously in two separate flights in the span of a decade and a half, those failures would trigger an examination of the certification process.

    Your colleagues have already made the point that news accounts have stigmatized people with mental illnesses over this event. I observe that the process of medical certification for flight has virtually no treatment component at all: it is virtually entirely adversarial. Even where aviation medical authorities make no claim to having effectively evaluated a condition, their public statements on the topic frequently suggest they plan to find a way to keep people who have it out of the cockpit. The default attitude seems to be that only neuro-typical individuals belong in the cockpit, and if we don’t have an actual reason to keep others out, we should do more researchers.

    I have no doubt you know well how pilots react. A small minority simply lie on their medical forms. Many more of us manage our lives so as to avoid diagnoses or medications we would not want to report on an aeromedical exam. I believe that only a few fortunate pilots have not at some time in our lives asked how we could manage an issue: stress, grief, a physical accident without resorting to medications we would have to explain on a medical. If you have never sat in on a conversation on how to choose a medical examiner, I suspect you may belong to an unusual pilot community. [JF: I have heard such conversations.]

    The system gives pilots an incentive to cheat themselves out of the best quality of care. Any arrangement that promotes an adversarial relationship between doctor and patient compromises medicine.

    Doctors who support policies that make them into police should ask themselves what practicing medicine will be like when all their patients lawyer up. The system does not need to operate from an adversarial perspective.

    Other approaches are possible. The aeromedical system could start with the premise that their job is not to keep people out of the cockpit, but to put them in one safely, then structure their research around finding best treatment practices to allow pilots to fly safely with as many medical issues as possible. Under legal pressure, particularly from the AOPA [Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association], the FAA already follows this policy in practice. I believe this change would lead to safer skies, and possibly healthier pilots.

    3) Getting what we pay for. Another veteran professional pilot on the themes Adam Shaw raised in letter #1. I've added the emphasis to the other messages; in this one they're in the original.

    The reality is that this pilot would never have been hired by a major U.S. airline without more flight experience. In recent past, the U.S. law was changed so that any U.S. carrier would require 1,500 flight hours to apply for an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) rating, a required certification before getting hired. ...

    Foreign airlines recognize an MPL (Multi-engine Pilot License) with only 200 hours of flight instruction before climbing in the right seat of your commercial airplane. With 18 months as an employee of this airline, this particular co-pilot had only accumulated 630 hours. ...

    Foreign captains are often flying basically alone, with a very inexperienced new co-pilot. The doomed captain's thousands of hours of flight time did him little good, while foolishly locked out of the cockpit. As a check pilot in several fleets (B727, B757, B767, B777) for two decades before I retired, even a new co-pilot had thousands of hours in complex commercial aircraft before transitioning to a new fleet and was never alone in the cockpit.

    There is a national and international shortage of commercial pilots resulting in the lowering of standards in employment and certification, particularly among foreign carriers. It is also why there is increasing reliance on automation in aircraft design, particularly in the Airbus philosophy of restricting pilots from overriding the autopilot to enhance sales. Watch the video on the Airbus' own chief test pilot fly a new a-320 into the woods at the Paris Air Show a decade ago as a demonstration of the potential evils of automation.

    China, for example, doesn't yet have the highway systems that North America or Europe benefit from, making China more dependent on air travel as their economy grows. [JF: On this point, consider China Airborne!] Foreign-born pilots are the main source of new crew members there just as it is in most Gulf airlines where there is no population base or education system for replacement or expansion of services.

    Airline managements too often demote pilot managers' authority within corporate hierarchy and select inexperienced pilots from their ranks who have limited influence or incentive to effect change. Finance, sales and marketing, legal, and technology managers do however make sure your smartphone airline app works, the disclaimers on your ticket are unintelligible, cheaper labor is found, and administrative costs are minimized. That's where the industry is headed.

    Another reason to enjoy retirement after 36 years.

    4) "Not just meat in the seat." Finally, on the term "co-pilot":

    Thank you for finally addressing the "pilot"/"co-pilot" monicker that has nearly driven me insane over the last two decades of my career.

    Far too many people assume, incorrectly, that the co-pilot is merely along to read checklists and assist the "pilot" as he or she flies the aircraft. A perfect example of this comes to light when discussing the US Airways flight 1549 ditching in the Hudson River.

    Most everyone knows Captain "Sully" Sullenberger but very few recall the name of first officer Jeffrey Skiles. Even Wikipedia gets involved by stating "... and captain Sullenberger was soon regarded as a hero by some accounts." If I'm not mistaken First Officer Skiles was actually at the controls for a good portion of the event. Regardless of who was flying at the time of touch down, they would both have been working incredibly hard to get the aircraft safely on the ground, or water in this case.

    Perhaps someone should do a follow up to see what first officer Skiles is doing and how he is coping with having been "co-pilot" during "The Miracle on the Hudson."

    As a pilot with over 10,000 hours of flying time I would like to think that when I'm flying as first officer, aka co-pilot, I am considered more than just "meat in the seat."

  • Downtown Fresno Kicks Off Its Campaign

    Why "unapologetic" may be the most important word in a city's recovery plan

    A shot from the Downtown Fresno Partnership's video last night ( DowntownFresno.Org )

    An unexpected satisfaction of following cities in our American Futures travels has been watching plans and projects unfold in real time.

    For instance, last fall we were in Allentown, Pa., with our Marketplace colleagues, as the city was racing against the clock to get a big new downtown arena ready for a sold-out debut concert by The Eagles. Could they possibly get the construction finished and the roads repaved and the restaurants ready and the parking snarls worked out in time for an event on which the city had pinned such hopes?

    They were confident; we were dubious; but it turned out they were right. The event ran smoothly; the crowds were big and pleased; the downtown-rebirth plan so far seems to be on course (for instance, this announcement today). This fall we'll be back to see how things are going one year in.

    We've seen something similar underway in Fresno, California, which is at a much earlier point on the urban-revival timeline. (I sketched out that timeline in an earlier post.)

    A year ago, my wife Deb and I happened to meet Craig Scharton, a Fresno entrepreneur, publican, and civic evangelist, at a conference of California-city officials, held at Yosemite. He said that Fresno's recovery was about to happen. We were intrigued, visited Fresno for a few days on our way out of Yosemite, and then thought (but did not say), Are you kidding? But we've stayed in touch with Scharton and other locals, we've made two more reporting visits there, and as chronicled in a series of posts we have become impressed by the ways in which people in Fresno are trying to wrestle with the city's glaring economic, environmental, urban-planning, workforce, and social problems.

    Pacific Southwest building, also known locally
    as the Security Bank Building.
    (Joe Moore / Valley Public Radio)

    We have several installments to go, including on ways to get the area's economically left-out groups into modern tech jobs, and the edgy and aspiring arts scene in this capital of farmland California. But before that, here's a real-time update on event last night.

    This was the "State of Downtown 2015" event that featured several of the figures we've mentioned before or will introduce soon, including Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin; the president of Fresno State, Joseph Castro; and the CEO of the Downtown Fresno Partnership Aaron Blair. It was held in the downtown's historic, then run-down, now being-renovated Pacific Southwest building and drew a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd of many hundreds.

    The event, which the Fresno Bee reported on here (and which is now available on YouTube here) included several formal announcements of developments we'd been hearing about. Including the formation of a new Downtown Fresno Foundation to support civic projects; the inauguration of new downtown programs by Fresno State, in partnership with the Bitwise tech organization we've described before; prize competitions for refurbished stores and restaurants; and some more.

    ***

    Why should this matter to anyone outside Fresno? For one thing, the city is large enough, and beset enough, to be a useful case study for coping with most modern urban problems.

    Beyond that, the video below, produced for last night's event, very concisely conveys the themes we have found interesting and compelling in learning about the town, which have applications in other parts of the country.

    If you watch even 30 seconds into the clip, you will see "WE ARE UNAPOLOGETICALLY FRESNO" followed by "We are changing minds one visitor at the time." "Unapologetically" is of course the key word. It's not one you'd hear in Cambridge or Brooklyn or Santa Monica — but it's one that would be part of internal awareness, even if not actually said, in some other parts of the country and among some unfavored groups. Its use in the video is connected to a lot of what I respect in the rebuild-Fresno campaign.

    In everything the city does is a consciousness, like what we've seen and heard in Mississippi, West Virginia, and elsewhere, of laboring under a negative external image—and often a much more destructive negative self-image. The rebuild-Fresno movement has unapologetically recognized of that problem and determined to blast right through it.

    The next few installments will give details on the plans and programs some Fresnans (that's the term) have designed to move their city forward. For today, in response to the video and last night's announcements, here are a few samples of the views we heard on the self-image question.

    ***

    Ashely Swearengin, mayor:

    "As mayor I've run across this self-image question all the time. There are people who know every past failure of Fresno, and they can recite them routinely whenever we discussing something new.

    "But the generation now in their 20s and 30s in do not reflect a defeatist attitude, like some of their parents. And the grandparents also don't have a defeatist outlook. They remember the city when it was on the cutting edge [and the younger ones assume they can get there again]." To illustrate the generational split, the mayor mentioned that during a recent debate on Fresno redevelopment plans, a man in his 20s had Tweeted out a proposal for a new drinking game: Every time a middle-aged Fresnan responded to new proposals with a lamentation about crushed dreams in the past, the younger Fresnans would take a drink.

    Mayor Swearengin, a popular Republican in a city that has a majority-minority population and is represented by a Democratic Congressman, said that through her six years there had been broadening support for civic-improvement efforts. "Proposals went through on 4-3 votes [on the city council], and then 5-2, and now 6-1." Last month the council approved, by a 6-1 margin, an ambitious, expensive, and previously very controversial long-term water-supply plan. "So my experience makes me believe that we are breaking the logjam of that defeatist mindset."

    ***

    Logo of the Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Company in
    downtown Fresno near the baseball stadium. We'll
    hear more about them soon.

    Aaron Blair, CEO of the Downtown Fresno organization that sponsored last night's event. Blair is from Ohio and had done urban-development work in Florida and Georgia before being recruited to come to Fresno two years ago:

    "We we came to look at Fresno, it had this Midwest feel to it. Which we liked." [JF note: coastal California is culturally linked to the big cities of the East Coast. Interior California is the Midwest and South, transplanted westward. John Steinbeck was writing about something real.]

    "I also thought it had this little chip on its shoulder, which I actually like. Cleveland has some of that same feel to it, and so does some of the South. This is a situation I'm familiar with and like coming into. You want to see if we're good enough? Just watch! And I was excited by all the potential I saw."

    I talked with Blair this morning after the event last night. "I think we've changed the conversation," he said. "It's not any more, If we're going to develop. We already are. It's exactly how, and what people are doing to take part in it."

    ***

    Fulton Street mall in downtown Fresno

    Christopher Gabriel, talk show host: Gabriel is a long-time stage actor, turned radio broadcaster, who now has an afternoon show in Fresno that follows Rush Limbaugh's and Sean Hannity's. (Aaron Blair has recently been on his program, and so have I.) Gabriel grew up and spent his early working life in big-city America — Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, the Twin Cities — and came to Fresno, after a stint in the also-revitalizing town of Fargo, ND, because he liked Fresno's possibilities.

    I also spoke with him today about the event last night. "There was an energy and vibe in the room that was unmistakable," he said. "It wasn't just some feel good moment. I've been to enough cities, I've seen enough of them rise from the dust, to sense that this was real. It was, Let's do this. Let's create everybody's collective legacy for the Central Valley.

    "Sometimes people will hear me say that and react, 'Oh you've just got this youthful energy about Fresno.' I'm in my 50s! I didn't move here just to go up to a larger market, or get more money. I moved here because I saw a city on the move, that has remarkable diversity, culinary and cultural and artistic. People here have been jaded, but if you can get outside yourself you see an unpolished gem."

    ***

    Jake Soberal, previously introduced as a Fresno-area native who has returned to become a tech entrepreneur and (as we'll see later) increasingly an education reformer.  

    "What's the main thing making Fresno better? I believe that we have a generation of young people who do not want to adopt their parents’ view of this place. Or the world’s view. That is really, really significant. Increasingly we’re able to count among those young people some of our most talented. Whereas before Fresno was famous for losing those people."

    Soberal said that a number of local groups were interested in changing prevailing views of the city, from the mayor to the downtown alliance. He supported those efforts, he said. "But the group of people involved in changing perceptions is far smaller than the group of people who say, 'I don't care what you, Dad, might think about Fresno. There is real data that makes me excited about what I can do here.' That group is growing quite large, and the decisions they made are driven by data. They think, I can open a restaurant here, I can get a house here, I can build a company here. I don’t care that you think Fresno sucks.

    "When you give folks the freedom to be optimistic about their place and their life, they generally do good things. This shift in attitudes is very positive."

    ***

    The Tower Theater in Fresno's artsy/Bohemian district, about which we'll say more soon (David Prasad / Wikimedia)

    Fresno still has a million problems. There are people bitterly opposed to some of these downtown-redevelopment plans, and we'll hear their views. I'm sure some of the kinds of thoughts I am quoting today could seem inflated and unrealistic in a few years' time.

    But here's what I also realize. In towns that have pulled off a turnaround, or are well on the way to doing so (I listed such cities here), there's an absolutely predictable civic narrative. It goes this way: Fifteen years ago, our downtown was bombed out. Ten years ago, this hotel was a crack den, and in this neighborhood you feared for your life. This city block was either boarded up or payday-loan operations. We'd tried a lot of things, and nothing worked. No one thought it was possible. And ... look at it now!

    That this has happened other places doesn't prove it will work in Fresno. But through hearing enough such stories, in enough places, I have come to give the benefit of the doubt to people unapologetically trying to remake their town.

  • Could the Germanwings Crash Have Been Avoided?

    Probably not. Here's why.

    Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

    As I write I am listening to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's announcement that the Germanwings crash in France this week was apparently a deliberate act of suicide/murder. The ramifications:

    1) Has anything like this ever happened before? Yes it has. For instance, back in 1999, EgyptAir flight 990, shortly after taking off from Kennedy airport in New York en route to Cairo, disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Cod. In 2001, my friend and then-Atlantic-colleague William Langewiesche, who has spent all his life around aviation, wrote a celebrated story for our magazine about the evidence that the plane's pilot had deliberately flown the aircraft into the sea. You can read "The Crash of EgyptAir 990" online here. It is probably the most useful work of journalism to consider today.

    William Langewiesche's piece contains this observation, which so far reflects to the great credit of French and German officials:

    One of the world's really important divides lies between nations that react well to accidents and nations that do not. This is as true for a confined and technical event like the crash of a single flight as it is for political or military disasters. The first requirement is a matter of national will, and never a sure thing: it is the intention to get the story right, wherever the blame may lie. The second requirement follows immediately upon the first, and is probably easier to achieve: it is the need for people in the aftermath to maintain even tempers and open minds.

    2) Could this happen in just the same way on U.S. airlines? In exactly the same way, no. In a somewhat similar way, yes.

    It wouldn't happen in exactly the same way, with one member of the flight crew left alone in the cockpit, because on U.S. airlines a flight attendant or other member of the cabin crew is always supposed to temporarily take a pilot's place in the cockpit if a pilot leaves for the bathroom or for other reasons. Obviously the flight attendant is not expected to fly the airplane, but he or she could help if there were a medical emergency—letting the other pilot back in if one pilot passed out, etc.—and, by mere presence, presumably deter any weird solo activity by someone alone at the controls.

    But obviously this step is not foolproof. Most pilots are men; most flight attendants are women; and, regardless of any strength imbalance a pilot planning to attack or overwhelm a flight attendant would have the advantage of surprise.

    So, the two-person rule would prevent the exact Germanwings scenario. But there is no foolproof way to prevent a pilot intent on crashing from carrying out that plan.

    3) Does this mean that the fortified-cockpit rules put in place after 9/11 are fundamentally flawed? Based on what we know now, I don't think so. Here's why:

    After any disaster of this sort, it's natural to think: Oh, if only we had Different Rule X, or Different Piece of Equipment Y, then none of this would have happened. And after the 9/11 attacks, that impulse led to the quite important step of fortifying cockpit doors. This was intended to ensure that no attacks like 9/11's could ever happen again: Even if hijackers got weapons onto the plane, even if they surprised and overwhelmed the cabin crew, they wouldn't be able to get to the controls and turn the plane into a flying bomb.

    But there is an unavoidable dilemma with these cockpit doors. They have to be impregnable against normal threats. But there has to be some way to override them. Otherwise you could think of nightmare scenarios involving doors no one could unlock. For instance: a cabin fire or emergency decompression while one pilot and a flight attendant are inside the cockpit, behind a locked door. They pass out; meanwhile the other pilot, who had been in the bathroom, stands desperately outside the locked door, unable to get at the controls, put on an oxygen mask, and save the plane.

    The Airbus instructional video below is today's most popular YouTube clip, because it shows how an override system works. The details of these systems may vary: some with passwords, some with numerical codes, some with keys or secret access points.

    But I think spending too much time on details of the doors is pointless. In the end, any of these systems will finally rest on the judgment and trustworthiness of the people using them. Precisely because you have to allow override measures in case of emergency, you necessarily will leave a system vulnerable to abuse by someone in a position of trust. Something similar is true of the use of autopilots and automated flight-management systems. Because you have to give pilots the ability to override automated controls that go wrong, you necessarily leave the system vulnerable to someone intent on harm. This is an insoluble dilemma.

    4) By the way, isn't air travel becoming much more dangerous? This latest episode is horrific as an act of calculated mass murder. The Malaysia Airlines disappearance over the ocean last year was horrifying for its utter mystery. The Asiana crash at SFO two years ago appeared to reflect deficient basic-flying skills. The TransAsia crash in Taiwan this year also appeared to involve serious pilot error. Etc.

    Everything about airplane crashes makes them emotionally powerful and frightening. But to the extent statistics matter, they do not reflect an increasing menace in air travel. All around the world, something like 100,000 commercial flights take off and land safely every day. Last year, not a single person was killed in a commercial crash in the United States, and the fatality rate has been declining for a very long time. Statistically, being on a first-world commercial airline is the very safest way you can spend your time, and is safer now than it has ever been before, even though emotionally it might not seem that way.

    We have a number of horrific episodes, which on current evidence do not amount to a systematic air-safety problem.

    5) What about the "co-pilot"? Patrick Smith, of AskthePilot.com, frequently emphasizes overuse of this term. The two people on a flight crew are both certified pilots. They often split the flying duties, the one with the controls at a given moment known as Pilot Flying, or PF, and the other as Pilot Not Flying, PNF. Usually the senior of the two will sit in the left seat and be called the captain and have four bars on his epaulet. The junior will be in the right seat and be called first officer and have three bars. But each of them is independently trained and tested to control the airplane.

    Sometimes "senior" and "junior" can reflect standing within an airline rather than overall flying experience. In this case, Andreas Lubitz, the first officer who reportedly flew the Germanwings plane into the ground, was junior in all senses, He was 28 years old, a fairly recent pilot, with a total of 630 flight hours, which is not very much. (The captain had about 6,000 hours of flight experience.) On the other hand, the road to being a multi-thousand-hour pilot starts with being a multi-hundred hour pilot, and according to Lufthansa there was no reason to think the pilot lacked proficiency in this aircraft. The FAA now requires first-officer candidates to have 1,500 hours of flying experience and certification as an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP), which is the highest level of flight certificate. But until the ATP / 1,500-hour requirement was added two years ago, first-officer candidates could be considered with as little as 250 hours' experience. I'll say more about these changing requirements in another installment.

    6) Does it mean anything that the murderous pilot trained at an American flight school, "just like the terrorists"? No, it does not. This is normal rather than in any way suspicious.

    The United States is the dominant place for flight training for pilots from around the world. Costs are lower here; facilities are far more numerous; many of the schools are in Florida (where the 9/11 terrorists trained) or Arizona (where this pilot did) because of the good-weather advantages. Two weeks ago I was flying from Deer Valley Airport, north of Phoenix, where the traffic pattern and radio frequencies were full of Chinese airline pilots doing training there.  

    7) Would some improved screening system have found this person before he could do such harm? I don't know, but I am sure we'll hear more on this front. At AskThePilot, Patrick Smith has an update about psychological pressures on, and screening for, airline pilots.

    In short, this is a terrible episode, all the worse-seeming because it was intentional. But even as we absorb its horror and extend deep sympathies, it is worth resisting the temptation to think that some new regulation or device can offer perfect protection against calculated malice. Unfortunately, none can.

  • What Hypoxia Could Do to Pilots

    Explaining a hazard of aviation, in the aftermath of the Germanwings crash

    A U.S. physiological technician on-board a C-17 Globemaster III ensures that crew members do not succumb to hypoxia. (Reuters)

    No one knows the cause of the latest airline disaster, the Germanwings crash yesterday in Southern France. As is usually the case after crashes, most first-day speculation is wrong or implausible. Also as is usually the case, Patrick Smith of AskThePilot has debunked many of the most fanciful cable-news theories, for instance that the plane might somehow have been remotely controlled, like a drone, or victim of "hacking" of its flight software. Without getting into all the details, this is vanishingly unlikely to have been the cause, and is so far-fetched as to merit no on-air discussion time.

    The main fact that is now established is that the airplane flew steadily along its course, descending at a faster-than-normal but not-necessarily-emergency rate of 4,000 feet per minute, until it flew right into a mountainside. This is the scenario known in aviation as Controlled Flight Into Terrain, or CFIT, and it usually occurs at night or in the clouds when a flight crew does not realize what it is about to hit. It is different from what you would expect if the plane had broken apart or suffered some other major structural or control failure while aloft.

    The long, controlled flight path to disaster, combined with the reported absence of any radio transmission from the crew, would be consistent with the flight crew somehow being incapacitated and unable to control the plane. This scenario would involve:

        a) something very bad happening very suddenly, like an explosive decompression or an electric fire that filled the cockpit with smoke;

        b) the flight crew quickly dialing an expedited-descent rate into the autopilot (but not setting a minimum altitude at which to stop the descent); and then

        c) the flight crew, for whatever reason, being disabled very soon afterwards, before they could level off at a safe altitude, adjust the autopilot's flight path to turn away from the mountains, or even make a radio call. This would also be consistent with their not switching the transponder, which emits a four-digit code identifying each flight, to the 7700 code for "Emergency." The flying world's mantra for priorities during an emergency is: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate, in that order. So trying to get the plane down to a safer altitude would have come before bothering to make any radio calls.

    Whether any of this happened, and why, is what a Cockpit Voice Recorder should eventually clarify, since the members of the crew would have been talking with each other even if they were not making radio calls. Until that is known, here is a dramatic illustration of how powerful and strangely undetectable the effects of hypoxia—lack of oxygen—can be.  

    Here is another disturbing one, "Four of Spades," which again conveys how limited oxygen can destroy reasoning power without the victim's being aware of it.

    Back in the 1980s, I went through this pressure-chamber training before taking a flight (which I described in this magazine) in an Air Force F-15. The process was slightly different from what's shown in these videos: As the oxygen level went down, I was told to keep writing words and doing simple arithmetic problems on a little paper pad. When it was over, I looked at the pad and could barely understand any of the letters. I could, though, see that I had been unable to solve the math problem of 3 + 4.

    Sympathies to all affected, and I hope at least the mystery of what happened can be solved soon.

  • If You're in Northern Mississippi This Weekend, Check Out 'The Blue and the Gray'

    A historically oriented performance comes from New York to the Southern site that inspired it.

    Historical re-enactment by students at Mississippi School for Math and Science in Columbus, MS, site of this weekend's concert everts (James Fallows)

    Last May, Deb Fallows wrote an account of a historical coincidence that linked The Atlantic Monthly of 150 years ago with the American Futures project we're doing for The Atlantic these days.

    In the town of Columbus, Mississippi, part of the "Golden Triangle" of Mississippi we described in more than a dozen posts last year, a few Union soldiers killed at the battle of Shiloh were buried in the local cemetery along with the much larger number of Confederate soldiers. In 1866, four women from Columbus decorated the Confederates' graves and decided to honor those of the Union soldiers as well. They also sent notes condolence to the northern soldiers' families. Based on this act of commemoration and conciliation, Columbus, Mississippi considers itself (as do several other cities in America) as the originator of Memorial Day.

    In 1867, The Atlantic Monthly published a poem called "The Blue and the Gray," by Francis Miles Finch, that was certainly based on the Columbus observances. Finch, who then lived in Ithaca, New York, had read newspaper accounts of the women's gesture and was moved to write a poem of tribute to them. Everything about today's Mississippi is shaded by the state's past 50 years, and past 150, and past 300—as people there are the first to recognize. For some of the ways people discussed these concerns with us, consider "The Endless Civil War Goes On," "The Endless Civil War, Continued," and "The Civil War That Does Not End."

    This last post included videos of some of the historic re-enactments that students from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science perform in a Columbus cemetery, which brings me at last to today's announcement of an important commemorative performance that will happen there soon.

    * * *

    Five years ago, as part of the national preparations to observe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the composer John Purifoy, who lives in Tennessee, began work on a project that would eventually bring him to Columbus. As he wrote in an email this week to Deb:  

    In 2010 I was commissioned to compose a large choral and orchestral work commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War by the Knoxville Choral Society to honor their conductor Dr. Eric Thorson.  The world premiere took place in 2012 at the historic Tennessee Theater with around 1,100 in attendance.  One of the closing numbers of the 54-minute work is a musical setting of the Francis Miles Finch poem, "The Blue and the Gray."

    Later that year Distinguished Concerts International New York invited members of the KCS and other professional choral groups around the country to present a New York premiere of the work in Carnegie Hall, June 8, 2014.  One of the groups I invited to join us in New York were members of the Columbus Choral Society in MS where the poem was inspired.

    You can read about that New York performance here. And see a sample of the program notes below.

    Portion of the program from Carnegie Hall premiere (John Purifoy)

    Through circumstances you can read more about here and here, the performance is being brought back to the site of its origin, Columbus, this weekend. Members of the Starkville Symphony—Starkville, Columbus, and West Point are the three cities of Mississippi's Golden Triangle—will present the program, along with some 130 singers from the Columbus Choral Society and visiting groups.

    Blue and Gray performance last year at Carnegie Hall (John Purifoy)

    There are lots of other events in the area this weekend, including a special performance by students from the Mississippi School for Math and Science of their historic re-enactments, Tales from the Crypt, featuring the 2015 version of the Decoration Day Ladies; details in the Commercial Dispatch. Sorry we can't be there.

  • The Glamorous Life of a Journalist, Sponsored Content Edition

    "We are keen to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with you." Who could resist a possibility like this?

    "The Brain-Sucker: or, the Miseries of Authorship." How a similar offer might have looked in the 1780s. (Wikimedia commons)

    Over the past few weeks I've received emails like the one below almost every day.

    Hi there,

    I am just contacting you to see if you would be interested in hosting some third party content on your website, theatlantic.com?

    I am currently working with a sports betting website to find websites to submit unique articles to which link back to our client's website.

    We would make the article look natural by choosing a topic which is relevant to your website.

    The article would need to remain live for a minimum of 12 months, be free of any tags such as guest or sponsored as well as containing no nofollow links.

    If this is something that you would be interested in, please email me back so we can discuss the details further such as reimbursement.

    Kind regards

    The letters vary enough in length, phrasing, introductory greeting, and detailed proposals to suggest they're not all coming from the same boilerplate source. But they're similar enough in their overall pitch—we'll pay you to publish "sponsored content" as long as you conceal the fact that it's sponsored—to suggest, as with the endless flood of "I am the former Finance Minister of Gabon with $35 million for you" scam notes, that someone has figured out a potentially lucrative opportunity. Based on IP addresses, currency details, and so on, most of the senders seem to be based in Europe or Australia, but who knows where they're really from.

    * * *

    I finally wrote back to one of the senders a few weeks ago. Here's the exchange that followed, with all messages in their entirety:

    First incoming pitch:

    I am J...  from a media communications and creative writing company. I am just contacting you to ask if you would be interested in working together for my new campaign, for which I would like to provide your website,theatlantic.com, with a high quality, relevant article based on a current big news topic. With this new campaign there is a number of different opportunities and different content that we are looking at posting.

    We are keen to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with you. Could you please let me know if you would be interested? I would be glad to send you more detailed information about this, including the client details and the remuneration.

    I look forward to hearing back from you and thank you for taking the time to read this email.

    After deleting scores of messages like this I thought it would be interesting to find out a little more. So, in quasi-Catfish spirit, I wrote back as follows:

    Yes, I would be interested in hearing more about your campaigns.

    And he replied:

    I am looking at getting a article placed on your site by my team of creative writers regarding some of the latest industry news around [a big online gambling company], so the article would be igaming/gambling related,but not as a advertisement.

    The article it self would be a well researched and written piece looking some of the latest news around [the company], so the acquisition of some of its brands by [another company] and also how the industry is now focusing on women as a main target audience instead of male's  

    All we would require is the article be live for 12 months, not to be tagged as guest or sponsored and if its possible to have links set as dofollow, if this is not possible we can have nofollow and no links just the brand mention, the budget for this campaign is flexible depending on if we can have links within the article or not

    If you could get back to me about if this would be possible and how much it would be that would be great

    To spell one detail out: dofollow and nofollow are HTML tags that affect how search engines rank a target site's plausibility and thus its standing in search results. With a dofollow tag, like the one this guy requests, a link from a high-volume, high-ranked mainstream media site (like The Atlantic's) could give a big boost to the linked-to gambling site. With nofollow, the link wouldn't do much good.

    I didn't send anything back. A few days later he wrote to ask if I was still interested. I answered, quoting and highlighting part of his note:

    >>not to be tagged as guest or sponsored and if its possible to have links set as dofollow,<<

    We could not do that.  

    He replied with an exploration of another possibility:

    If there was no links in the article would it be possible to tag it under the authors name?

    I said that unfortunately this wasn't going to work:

    We could not publish sponsored / outside content without labeling it as such.   

    And that was all. I have no sweeping point to make here, and I'm not naming this writer or his company because they're just the ones I happened to engage with. But I thought this was an interesting glimpse into one more subterranean layer of the shifting landscape on which "online content" is built.


    You can find previous entries in the Glamorous Life series here.

    UPDATE: Thanks to reader CG for letting me know that Popehat.com was on this beat long before me.

  • Lee Kuan Yew, the Leader Who Lasted

    Why the passing of a 91-year-old Singaporean is attracting such notice

    Young Harry Lee Kuan Yew after his People's Action Party won Singapore's elections in 1959. (Reuters)

    By the time of his death on Monday at age 91, Lee Kuan Yew had been out of the Western limelight long enough that some people may wonder why his passing deserves such notice.

    I'd offer these reasons:

    A post-colonial leader who lasted. Fifty-five years ago, when a slew of former European colonies were gaining independence and other nations were taking modern form, the landscape was full of charismatic leaders. Kwame Nkrumah was president of Ghana. Jomo Kenyatta was in detention but would become the president of Kenya. Ben Bella led Algeria. Patrice Lumumba became (briefly) prime minister of Congo. Julius Nyerere was about to become prime minister of Tanganyika, which was about to become Tanzania. Nasser was president of Egypt and (briefly) of the United Arab Republic. Tunku Abdul Rahman was head of Malaya, which had not yet become Malaysia and at the time included Singapore. And on down a long line—including of course Mao Zedong, then a decade-plus into his control of China.

    Within a few years most of them were gone, because of coups, corruption, assassination attempts or successes, or other challenges. But not Lee Kuan Yew. In 1960 he had already been elected prime minister of Singapore, which a few years later would separate from Malaya/Malaysia to become an independent state. He stayed in that role until 1990. The few early leaders who lasted as long as Lee Kuan Yew, notably Fidel Castro in Cuba and Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Cote d'Ivoire, increasingly shielded themselves from real democratic accountability. Lee Kuan Yew's version of democracy for Singapore was a "guided" one, as I'll mention below. But I can't think of another figure from that era whose power and reputation were as durable.

    A practitioner and a theorist. The Western world knows its statesmen, nation-builders, and political leaders. Churchill, de Gaulle, and Mitterand. FDR and—whichever Americans you'd choose after that. And not just the Western world: Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping, Ho Chi Minh.

    Then as a separate category we have the big thinkers. George Kennan or Hans Morgenthau for an earlier generation of Americans. Henry Kissinger, for better or worse, in this niche now.

    Lee Kuan Yew is the rare person to come close to being recognized in both realms. (Richard Nixon aspired to this status, but that's for another day.) While in office, he cultivated leaders from around the world who turned to him for his big-picture strategic guidance. At the moment I can't think of any particular piercing insight he provided, which I don't mean in a dismissive way. (Early and often he counseled Western leaders about the importance of coping with China, and also its possible menaces.) But time and again foreign leaders sought his judgment on big strategic questions, and outside scholars and journalists pored over his comments in interviews. Not many practicing politicians can present themselves simultaneously as geostrategists, and he managed to be taken that way.

    A man equipped and ready to debate the Western world on its own terms. Lee Kuan Yew's original first name was Harry, and English was his native language. His renown in Singapore included the fact of his having earned a "double first" in law studies at Cambridge University and then having gone into legal practice in England.

    Through Lee Kuan Yew's era as leader of Singapore and in the decades since then, a remarkable trait of this tiny country's political culture has been its willingness, even eagerness, to take on outside critics and prove, prove, prove why it is completely right to do things exactly the way it chooses to. Anyone in the international press who has worked in Southeast Asia, including me, is likely to have run afoul of official Singapore's sensitivities at some point. When I was living in Malaysia in the late 1980s, I observed the beginning of a long-standing feud over press freedoms between William Safire, a former Nixon aide who was then an influential New York Times columnist, and Lee Kuan Yew's government. (You can see a later ripple of the feud here.) I never was vouchsafed the opportunity to interview Lee Kuan Yew directly, but I saw him speak at many events in Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan, and I received starchy notes from Singaporean officialdom when I wrote anything they thought incorrect in any detail.

    At the time, the thin-skinnedness of Lee's government seemed noteworthy. (In their prime, they might well have served me with a libel action for the preceding sentence. Or at least submitted a 5,000-word letter to the editor with a demand that it be run with not a single word changed or cut.) But from a distance, the yet more remarkable fact is a non-Western state assuming that it could and should engage the world's opinion machine on its own terms, in its own language, and in its own forms of debate. This really is something we have not seen anywhere but Singapore.

    * * *

    Lee Kuan Yew's form of government had its clear strengths and limitations. When we would take trips to Singapore from our home further up the Malay peninsula in Kuala Lumpur, we would know that everything could be done more efficiently in Singapore, but that you would have to watch your step in various ways. It was and is the best possible version of an authoritarian guided democracy. Family ties have mattered a lot in Singapore: the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is Lee Kuan Yew's eldest son, and happened to become the youngest brigadier general in his country's history at age 31. But an America that is contemplating a possible Bush-Clinton run for the presidency can't act too shocked when meritocracy takes this form.

    Lee Kuan Yew certainly changed history, and from my perspective he changed it mainly for the better. Fuller assessments will follow from more-informed sources (and see Matt Schiavenza's assessment here), but on the occasion of his death that is the note I choose to strike.

  • Stages of a Downtown Comeback: Fresno Begins the Long Climb

    Urban revivals require a shared narrative, private-sector partners, and a public official championing a far-sighted plan.

    An at-its-best view of Fresno's current Fulton Street Mall. It's one of the oldest pedestrian malls in the U.S. ( City of Fresno )

    I've been warming up to do a big report on what is interesting, and uncertain, about the big push underway in Fresno to rebuild and revitalize what is now its very troubled downtown. Then I realized that instead of trying to swaddle the whole thing in narrative, it would make most sense just to deliver the main points. That's what you'll find below.

    But you'll find it after this little interruption about a different narrative: I don't know that we would have done so if we hadn't recently spent a lot of time in California's Central Valley, but last night, instead of working on this post, I went with my wife Deb to see the Kevin Costner movie McFarland, USA. It has not turned into a smash box office hit, as suggested here, so it may not be around forever. But it's a far-more-artful-than-usual presentation of a narrative that is familiar from Hoosiers or Breaking Away to Karate Kid or Rocky, combined with a quite unusual and valuable depiction of Central Valley farmland culture that will be news to many viewers. Plus RogerEbert.Com says it's a career-high for Kevin Costner, and the director is Niki Caro, of Whale Rider fame. Its central theme also involves the local patriotism and development of community that we've encountered again and again in our travels. (We'll have to stop in the real McFarland on the next swing up the Valley.) Give it a try.

    Coach Jim White with his McFarland Couger cross-country team. You'll understand why I'm spelling it that way if you see the movie. (Disney)

    Now, back to Fresno, an hour's drive north of McFarland on Highway 99.

    Downtown as bellwether. As we've traveled around the country, we've become stronger and stronger believers in the connection between the condition of a city's downtown district, and the overall state of the city's economy and culture.

    Yes, you can find exceptions. But most of the time, when you've got a downtown district with a self-sustaining combination of retail outlets (especially non-chain stores); restaurants and bars and brewpubs and music sites (to draw people downtown at night); public art or festivals or live events (to give people a civic sense-of-self); and, crucially, residential spaces (where people who don't have children or whose children have grown up live in second- and third-story apartments above stores and restaurants, providing street life through the evening and a general sense of bustle in downtown)—when find a place with those things, it's very likely that all the other economic, cultural, civic, and educational indicators of local well-being will be positive too.  

    Stages of downtown recovery. But a successful downtown is not all-or-nothing proposition. We've seen cities at almost every imaginable point along this curve. Full, functioning ripeness—as in Greenville, South Carolina; Burlington, Vermont; Columbus, Ohio; little Holland, Michigan; or Riverside, California. Nearly there—as with Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or Winters, California. Moving in the right direction—like Duluth, Minnesota, or Columbus, Mississippi, or Redlands, California, or tiny Eastport, Maine. Just kicking off a big new effort—as in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Or trying to figure out what to do next—as in San Bernardino, California.

    Along this arc Fresno occupies an interesting position. To outsiders, it looks as if the downtown is still in quite tough shape. To the people working on its recovery, the big, important decisions about moving forward have been taken, and the payoff is about to appear. As suggested by the ubiquitous stickers for the downtown "I Believe" campaign. By the way, the I Believe Fresno site has a useful interactive timeline to illustrate the rise, fall, and hoped-for rise-again of the downtown district.

    Background source of trouble. In a few cities, the main problem has been fundamental economic dislocation. In Ajo, Arizona, as we'll soon describe, a giant copper mine closed, suddenly eliminating most of the area's job. Similar pressures have affected Charleston, West Virginia, as the coal and chemical industries contracted, and Pittsburgh long ago (before its rebound) as the steel factories went down.

    But in many other cities, the problem is: sprawl, sprawl, sprawl. As I mentioned last week in kicking off the Fresno coverage, the city is kind of laboratory study of the destructive power of sprawl. All of the tract-home development and malls went to the north side of town, and the poor people and the blood banks and the payday check-cashing operations were concentrated in what was once the downtown commercial center. Here again is the useful map that we saw in Mayor Ashley Swearingen's office of where the city grew before World War II, in blue, and where it grew after that, in red.

    The blue area is full of once-grand, now mainly run-down commercial and civic buildings, plus the city's poorest residents. The red is familiar mall-and-tract-home territory and economically better off.

    The need for a public champion. Where there is a successful downtown, you will almost always find a strong mayor, or series of mayors, working in "strong-mayor" systems to use their leverage on behalf of downtown improvement.

    That's been the case in Burlington, Vermont, from the then-Socialist mayor Bernie Sanders through the current Democratic mayor Miro Weinberger. It's been true in Greenville, South Carolina, from the Democratic mayor Max Heller through the current Republican Knox White. (I compared-and-contrasted Burlington and Greenville in this magazine article.) It's been true in Duluth, Minnesota, from Gary Doty to current mayor Don Ness, both from the Democratic-Farm-Labor party. Or in Columbus, Ohio, especially under current Democratic mayor Michael Coleman. And in cities with weak-mayor systems, you will find some other strong figures in public-office positions: county commissioners, hired managers, etc.

    In Fresno, the public champion and exerciser of public leverage through the past six years has been Ashley Swearengin, a Republican who was elected six years ago, at age 36, and got 75 percent of the vote in her re-election run two years ago. (She is term-limited and has only two more years to go. Whatever their pluses or minuses elsewhere, term limits seem an obviously terrible idea for most city governments, since steering a city's development is best done over much longer time horizons. That is, voters should have the option to keep mayors in place if they want.)

    When we visited Mayor Swearengin in her office, she spent all her time pointing from one map to the next, showing the sequence in which changes in traffic flow, public-transit lines, development hubs, and so on, could help the city recover. She told us that the blue/red map you see above, combined with another one showing the concentration of poverty downtown, "is what caused me to run in 2008." She pointed to another map for the city's 2035 General Plan (which you can see here), with more or less the view you see in the next image,  and said, "Here you see the downtown as the city's heart, and Blackstone [a main N-S drag] as the spine, residential areas as the lungs..." and on through the parks and trails and transit lines that "would give life to the city.

    An an aerial view, in her office, of the city's now sclerotic heart:

    The details of the downtown redevelopment plan are voluminous—and, to me, very interesting, but I'll skip past them today. I will say that you can find an overview on the city's site here, and if you'd like a nearly 400-page chapter-and-verse you can find it in a PDF here. The point for now is that successful cities all seem to have a public figure who invests a lot of capital in downtown improvement, and under Mayor Swearengin, Fresno has fit that pattern. Here's one more of her 2035-plan maps, of the planned bike, walking, and running paths:

    I've gotten this far in the post and this late in the day, and still have three list-points to make:

    The need for private-sector pioneers, in addition to public champions. That is, people willing to make a business bet on the future of the downtown region. Fresno has several  important people in this category.

    The need for a shared city narrative, which is especially important in a city conscious of its many problems, as Fresno is. And,

    The ability to leap ahead in time, at least when it comes to thinking.

    There's more to say on each of those points, but since I'm hard up against a 12-hour period offline I will save them for the next installment. For now I will give a teaser from the final point. This is based on my talk with Jake Soberal, co-founder of Bitwise, whom I mentioned this earlier dispatch and whose company is opening a big, new downtown facility.

    Where is Fresno on the arc of recovery? I asked him. "I drive down Van Ness [a main downtown street] to work each day. And if you're a person from outside you probably think, 'Well, you've got some historic buildings here. But it's a pretty crummy downtown, compared to what's happening in other places in America.'" I told him that is pretty much what I thought.

    "But when I drive down that street," he said, "I realize that Joe is doing a project there, and someone is doing a project there, and this building is under lease, and that building is about to be reopened. And I look at it and think, It's done!"

    "I mean this earnestly, and I'm not being flippant. Downtown revitalization in Fresno is done, in terms of making the decisions. Now we just have to let it happen."

    With allowances for the upbeat bias of any entrepreneur, I understood what he meant. More on what that means, and on the importance of private pioneers and a changed city narrative,  in the next update.

  • More on What the Netanyahu Victory 'Means'

    "We have no common grounds for a mutual discussion."

    How it can look when there are grounds for discussion: Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter, and Anwar Sadat in 1978. ( Photo by Bill FitzPatrick, from Carter Library, via Wikipedia. As it happens, I saw this in person. )

    Following this item last night and another a few hours ago, two more reader reactions for the mix. I'm adding them because each strikes a note different from those in the previous group.

    1) "Our survival comes first, not America's." Without elaboration, from a reader in Israel. Punctuation and emphasis in original:

    It is a pity that the ignorance and blatant naivety of Americans is beholden as the word of God. When are you going to realize there is a cruel, mean world beyond the Atlantic on one side and the Pacific on the other. Life, YOUR  life in particular means very little to most of the world beyond the island of America.

    We living here in the Middle East, first and foremost think of how are we going to survive, and not be wiped out by our wonderful, friendly and JEW HATING neighbor nation states. Now you want to shove down our throats another JEW HATING  nation  state? Please Mr. Fallows, you have to be kidding.......

    Didn't America make enough mistakes in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan already? And now you are doing your best to screw up with Iran.

    This is the real reason Bibi won the elections. Our survival comes first, not America's. Maybe Bugi would have been good for America, so go ahead and vote for him for POTUS. In the meantime, Netanyahu will be responsible for our survival. For better or worse, he is the best we have at the moment.

    Hopefully, we will have good or even better leaders in the future. I wish the same for you. Obama is the worst POTUS since Herbert Hoover. Ask any leader in the world today. Putin laughs, Assad thinks he is a joke, and the Saudis can't understand how a man so ignorant of world affairs gets reelected..... .

    Mr.  Fallows, please take care of your own political problems and fallacies. For better or worse, the Israeli public has spoken with more than 70% of the eligible voters casting their vote and exercising their democratic rights.

    When was the last time more than 70% of American eligible voters bothered to go to the polls?

    Give us the respect we deserve as a vibrant democracy, even if the outcome was not to your liking. By the way, I didn't vote for Bibi either......

    Actually, I will add one elaboration. I thought it would be obvious, but in case it's not: I have all respect for Israel democratically making choices for its future. I have never once suggested to people there or elsewhere how they "should" vote. It's their country, and the decisions are up to them.

    My concern is how the United States should assess and react to the results of Israel's democratically made choice.

    2) Another entry for the meager 'I agree' pile. A reader says there is a similarity in the two election scenarios I mentioned, but also an under-appreciated and ominous difference:

    I was surprised to see that few of the people who wrote in agreed with your analogy [between the US presidential election of 2004 and the Israeli Knesset election this week] , because it struck me as right on the nose.

    As you said, we'll have to wait to see what the coalition looks like, but Netanyahu has demonstrated since the 1990s that he has no interest whatsoever in two states, and whoever sits with him in the Knesset there's no reason to think that will change.  So while I admire your hopeful optimism about future Israeli policy, I can't share it.   

    The point I would add to your 2004US/2015Israel comparison is that Israel has a *much* narrower margin for error than America.  The 2004 election still haunts the United States (most prominently in the form of Justices Roberts and Alito), but as bad as those four years were (Katrina, continued wars, financial & economic meltdown), they didn't significantly alter America's balance of power or overall security.  By the time 2008 rolled around, we still had a UN Security Council veto, a huge and diverse economy, friendly relations with Mexico, Canada and our other traditional allies, etcetera.  

    Israel in 2015, however, is on a precipice where they might find themselves isolated and nearly friendless by the time voters get a chance to make a course correction.  Palestinian UN membership, referrals to the ICC, ever increasing comparisons to Apartheid, the BDS movement, all of these were already eroding Israeli security out from underneath it before the world saw Netanyahu and his odious policies vindicated.  Whether or not that perception is just or unjust given messy internal political realities isn't going to matter much on the floor of the UN, before a tribunal in the Hague, or in European parliaments that are already all but openly hostile.  

    Obviously I don't know who will be in government with him or how long that government will last, but Israel was already very close to international pariah status before Tuesday's election.  Now it is closer still, and no one, not even Netanyahu, knows how close to the edge of diplomatic and economic catastrophe they really are.  

    The gulf in world view suggested here and via other messages is one of several clarifying effects of this 2015 election. I wrote back to the reader in Israel, saying that I planned to quote his message and reminding him that I had always started from the premise that decisions about Israel's future were up to its own people to make.

    He responded:

    If the establishment of a Palestinian state, bent on the destruction of our country, no bigger than the State of New Jersey is in America's best and long term interests, than we have no common grounds for a mutual discussion.   

  • What Does the Netanyahu Victory 'Mean' for America?

    Was it a clear endorsement of Netanyahu's policies? Do we even know what those policies will turn out to be?

    The victor (Reuters)

    Last night I argued that there was a systematic difference in the way election results are seen inside and outside the country that was voting. From the inside, voters often realize how many mixed, random, or contradictory forces may have led to a certain outcome. From the outside, people tend to think: Well, the people of Britain have chosen X, or the people of America have chosen Z.

    As applied to the multi-party, coalition-dependent outcome of this week's Israeli election, that could mean that the increasingly hard-line Benjamin Netanyahu stayed in power, thanks to votes that could have been cast for a wide variety of non-hard-line reasons (starting with the economy). I used the comparison of the 2004 U.S. election results, which the outside world saw as clear ratification of the Bush-Cheney Iraq and anti-terrorism policy, while inside the U.S. it involved a host of other factors (the Ohio gay-rights initiative, etc).

    Almost no one agrees. A sample of reader reaction:

    1) "The comparison doesn't work." From a reader who disagreed with virtually everything I wrote about Iran and the Netanyahu speech to Congress, and who is very glad that the election turned out the way it did:

    The Iraq War was controversial in the US in 2004. If John Kerry had been elected, he would have followed a very different policy from that of George W. Bush.

    But in Israel, Buji and Bibi had the same policy on Iranian nukes—that they mustn't be allowed. There is no controversy inside Israel on the issue, which is why Iranian nukes weren't an issue in the election.

    So anybody who concludes that Israelis back Bibi's position on the negotiations with Iran is 100% correct.

    And regarding a Palestinian state, what Bibi actually promised was no more unilateral Israeli withdrawals, which is the only realistic method by which a second Palestinian quasi-state entity could be created.  Bibi's exact words were,

    "I think that anyone who establishes a Palestinian state today and evacuates land is giving territory to radical Islam from which it will attack the state of Israel. This is simply the reality that has been created in recent years. Anyone who ignores this is sticking his head in the sand. The left does this, sticking its head in the sand time and time again. We are realistic and understand."

    Bibi spoke to the Israeli experience, but Western reporters automatically twisted his words to fit their their fantasy reality, in which peace talks are eternal and Palestinians actually want to have a state next to Israel.

    By the way, I understand that nicknames—Buji, Bibi—are ubiquitous in Israeli politics, as they long have been in the Philippines. I don't use them because I don't know these people, and to me it would sound fake-cozy to refer to them that way. FWIW.

    2) "You are now on your own." From an American on the West Coast with a long background in politics:

    Didn’t other nations pretty much say to the US after Bush’s re-election, “Okay, but if you want to start or continue Bush’s wars, you are now on your own.”

    Is it not at least conceivable that other nations should now respond to Israel and say, “Okay, but if you truly are not going to agree to a two-state solution, and if your settlements are going to continue to be planned and located to make a two-state solution impossible, then you are now on your own"?

    I mean, can we not make continued support contingent on a policy that has at least some hope of leading to (1) peace in the Mideast, and (2) extrication of the US from a situation in which we are attacked and our citizens are killed because we are perceived to support Israel unconditionally?

    3) 2004 changed things, and 2015 has too. From another American on the West Coast.

    The reelection of Bush did, I fear, reflect an American acceptance, all messiness having been sorted through, of the bizarre idea that Bush was a better leader to safeguard American values and realize her aspirations.

    I have not felt the same about my country since, having played poker with George [in various places] often enough to know that he was, of all adult Americans then living, among those least suited for this role.

    I have the same reaction to this week's developments in Israel.  Netanyahu certainly is not a stupid or stunted man, but he is a willingly and knowingly dangerous catalyst in a bad batch of cultural and ethnic chemistry. I hold Israeli voters responsible for his reelection, and so, my love for Jewish culture and history, and for my Jewish friends and relatives notwithstanding, I have crossed into hostility toward the Israeli nation-state as it now sees itself.

    I know that for every Netanyahu there are two or more Barenboims, but Israel has chosen to follow -- and be -- the former.

    4) Let's not rush to moralize. From writer Jim Sleeper, a lone "I agree with you" message:

    Bravo your post noting what Israel's election and the U.S.'s of 2004 have in common. The differences are vast, but you hit on something inherent in democracy: What may seem monolithically majoritarian abroad is often messier in reality.

    And how about Netanyahu's rhetorical reversal today on his election-eve pledge that "There will never be a Palestinian state"?  Maybe Kahlon and Kulanu demanded that reversal as the price for their entering the coalition; we'll see. Netanyahu may lose some right-wing party leaders over this reversal, and, like you, I can't pretend to follow his snake-like twists and turns.

    But you're right [about the need] to take a broader, longer view.  Israel is in trouble; Netanyahu's policies in practice have certainly been a big part of the reason it's in trouble; but they're certainly not the only reason, and it would be nice if the rest of the world acknowledged some of those other reasons in its rush to moralize the election stats.

    5) You've been duped. From an Israeli writer who obviously opposes Netanyahu and what he stands for. I've condensed a lot of the internal Israeli detail to focus on parts relevant to the "what this means for the outside world" theme:

    I'm afraid you've been misled by Netanyahu's policies of the last two terms.

    At base, Netanyahu is an extreme right-winger of the Israeli racist kind. His latest appeal against Israeli Palestinian voters is proof of that, but people who remember the 1996 campaign knew it a long time ago. ... He created a right-wing government, and had a hellish time of it, as far as the world was concerned. He did, however, managed to kill the peace process by endless delays.

    He learned from his mistakes. When he came back to power, he used leftist and centrist politicians as fig leaves - Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Tzippi Livni, Yair Lapid. This had, as far as he was concerned, two benefits. One, he deluded the world into thinking that since those center-left people supported him, he actually intended to make peace. He never did, however. His government sped on with the construction of the so-called outposts - which are in fact undeclared settlements. The point of the outposts, all of them are far away from the 1967 border, is to prevent any division of the land. (See this recent report by Yesh Din, a human rights organization.)

    The second benefit Netanyahu derived from having centrist partners is he undermined them by their very partnership; their voters, disaffected by their collusion with Netanyahu, drifted away. ...

    While Netanyahu may look for more fig leaves, there may be few left - and he may actually have to do in public what he did for six years secretly, i.e. undermine any chance of a two-states solution by endless land-grabs.

    6) America as again the promised land. From a reader in Florida:

    I appreciate the hopeful note on Israel. Hope you are right.

    I think the most consequential American political development of [the Netanyahu Congress speech, the Iran debate, and the Knesset elections] is the end of the assumption that only [expert commentators who are mainly Jewish Americans] get to make any kind of distinction between Jewry and Israel. If any of the rest of us attempt to think it through, it's our latent or cultural anti-Semitism talking. The fiction-crushing aspects of Netanyahu's win are pretty liberating to American liberals. Israel is no longer a truly bipartisan issue.

    Right now, there is no denying it, Israel is very illiberal place. It has chosen to be. Its leader needed it to be. It should be easy now for an American liberal to say, "Sorry, can't support the leadership of the global tea party."

    I consider American Jews, as a group, probably our single finest group of citizens. I can't imagine America without them. I want more of them. I hope liberal American Jews start encouraging liberal Israelis and European Jews to come to America.

    I can't think of a better way to smash the easy, pernicious conflation of support for Israel and support for Jews than to simply recruit more Jews to America. ... If nothing else, simply talking about it, telling the Israeli left come here because it's actually welcome, would be valuable...

    This is the type of unpredictable pressures that can affect countries after very clarifying elections. Even if the reasons are messy, I don't know that Israel has ever had a more clarifying election to the world at large, at least not in my lifetime.

    This last message may be the place to say: For as long as I've been writing in this magazine, I have argued that America's openness to worldwide talent, ambition, energy, and dreaming is our most important advantage over any other country, and the most important element that makes us, us. When traveling in China, I met students, entrepreneurs, or simple rural families who thought that they'd be better able to realize their dreams if they could do so in America. Similarly in India, and West Africa, and Latin America, and Iran, and Israel, and other places I have been.

    The United States obviously can't be home to everyone in the world. But recognizing our crucial role as human talent-magnet is important to our understanding of America's strengths. It also should equip us to face our weaknesses, which very significantly include mistreatment of nearly every component of our pluralistic whole. Including notably, in this context, the European Jews who were shouldered aside rather than embraced as Hitler was taking over Europe. I want ambitious people from around the world, including those uncomfortable with the political climate in Israel, to view this as a potential promised land.

  • Elections Have Unintended Consequences, Knesset Edition

    What does the Israeli election "mean"? We are about to find out.

    And the winner is ... ( Nir Elias/Reuters )

    In 2004, more than 62 million Americans voted to bring George W. Bush and Dick Cheney back for a second term. I'm sure that some of those millions did so to register explicit support for the Iraq war and everything that went along with it, from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib. But for a lot of them the reasons were messier. They didn't like John Kerry, or his windsurfing. They objected to the Democrats' position on taxes or gun control. They were worried about this or that aspect of the economy. In the decisive state of Ohio, the 100,000+ vote margin for the Republicans may have depended on opposition to the state's gay marriage initiative. Democracy is messy, like life.

    From outside the country, that messiness didn't matter. People read the results as an up or down verdict on the first four Bush years. And since from outside the country those years mainly amounted to the invasion of Iraq, America was seen as having voted thumbs-up on that decision. Thus front pages like the one at the right, from the Daily Mirror in England. (At the time of the headline, Bush's vote total was a few million short of its ultimate level.) It was too simple a reading, but inevitably it is how the world interpreted the results.

    In 2015, millions of Israeli voters decided on a result that will bring Benjamin Netanyahu back for another term. I am sure that some fraction of them did so to register explicit support for Likud policy and all that it has meant. But even without being an expert on Israeli politics I am sure that for a lot of them the reasons were messier. They felt this way about the economy, they felt that way about possible opposition leaders, they voted for Likud as an alternative not to a party further left but one further right. Democracy is especially messy and unpredictable when mediated through a fluid multi-party coalition system.

    From outside the country, that messiness doesn't quite register. People naturally read the results as a referendum on Netanyahu's very tough line on Iran negotiations and his recent, revised promise never to allow a Palestinian state. Thus they view the election as they did the U.S. results 11 years ago, as an explicit endorsement of a bellicose foreign policy. Including, in Israel's case, endorsement of stands (on Iran and the two-state prospect) at clear odds with U.S. policy and interests.

    In his second term, the re-elected President Bush actually pursued a different policy than he had in his first term. Dick Cheney was corralled; the U.S. undertook no new wars and began repairing some of the relations it had frayed or broken. Four years later, the same U.S. electorate made an entirely different choice.

    In Israel, this next stage of forming coalitions and setting policies will help the outside world understand what the latest election "means." If Netanyahu ends up forming a bloc that allows him to say: I ran tough, and I'll govern tougher, so shut up and get used to it, the rest of the world (including the U.S.) can react accordingly. But if somehow he works out an arrangement that allows him to say: That was then, this is now, I recognize that for the good of the nation I need to choose another course, the world can react to that. I'm not expecting the latter, but there's no payoff in giving up hope.

  • The Scandal of the Anti A-10 Campaign: Chickenhawk Chronicles Resume

    What a spending battle over military aircraft reveals about our moral priorities

    A-10 Warthogs doing low-altitude drills at the Barry Goldwater range south of Phoenix ( USAF Senior Airman Christina D. Ponte, via Aviation Spectator )

    A week ago, my wife Deb and I were driving down Highway 85 in Arizona, toward the southern town of Ajo (which we'll soon be writing about) through the military's very active Barry Goldwater Range. Right above our car, A-10 "Warthogs" swooped back and forth over the highway in training drills. I mentioned last month that to fly a non-military plane along this route, as I had once contemplated, you have to fly right over the highway, stay within 500 feet of the road's surface level, and maintain radio contact with a military controller called Snake Eye. I didn't try it last month and am glad I didn't now, because on their mock strafing runs the Warthogs came impressively/alarmingly low. The picture above, from the Air Force, is a clearer version of what we saw as we drove.

    But of course I'm glad to see the A-10s in action and their pilots maintaining proficiency, for reasons I laid out in my article "The Tragedy of the American Military." Let's consider the evolving fates of the A-10 and its ill-starred sibling, the F-35, for what they show about the modern military.

    * * *

    In my article I argued that the importance of the A-10/F-35 story had relatively little to do with the comparative virtues of either airplaneone relatively cheap but battle-proven and very effective, the other increasingly expensive and also fragile and increasingly difficult to keep out of the repair shop. Rather the real significance was what their stories showed about the cultural and even moral characteristics of the way we think and act on national defense.

    Moral?  Yes, moral. In public we generally talk about defense as if it were mainly a matter of bombs, machines, and the dollars that buy them. Of course those matter. But from Napoleon ("in warfare the moral is to the physical as three is to one") to Air Force strategist John Boyd (what counts in combat is "people, ideas, and hardware — in that order!"), students of conflict have emphasized the crucial role of character and integrity.

    Character and integrity are involved in this battle-of-the-warplanes in the following way (as sketched out in my story): The A-10, which is flown by the Air Force, has always had a strange stepchild status there. It is truly beloved by the Army, whose ground troops the A-10 has saved or protected in so many engagements. To the Air Force, in contrast, this mission of "close air support" has never been a budgetary or cultural priorityas opposed to bombing, aerial combat, "air superiority" in general, and even transport.

    In a rationally organized defense system, the A-10 would belong to the Army, which needs and loves it. The Army could include it in its budgets, keep as many flying as possible, make it the center of its close-air-support arsenal. But for bureaucratic reasons known in shorthand as the "Key West agreement," the Army directly controls armed helicopters but not many fixed-wing aircraft. Thus through the decades we've seen a long push-pull struggle between the Air Force, chronically eager to dump the A-10 and make way for other models, including now the troubled F-35, and the Army, which wants the A-10 but has no direct way to keep it in the budget.

    Several weeks ago I mentioned the truly alarming news that a three-star Air Force general had warned his officers against speaking up about the A-10's (very strong) combat record. As the Arizona Daily Independent reported, Air Force Maj. Gen. James Post told officers that if word of his views ever got out he would deny it, but he wanted them to know that passing information to Congress about the A-10's effectiveness constituted "treason." When that news leaked, the Air Force didn't even deny Post's comments; a spokesperson just called them "hyperbole."

    Since then, news continues to emerge of the institutional militarysome people in uniform, others in the contractor diasporatrying to make the A-10 look worse than it really is, and the F-35 look better. For what these episodes show about military-industrial-political culture, here is a reading list:

    "Lying to Win: Air Force Misrepresents Combat Records In Campaign to Retire A-10." This is a report last month from a retired Air Force officer named Tony Carr at his John Q. Public blog.

    "The Little 'Fighter' That Couldn’t: Moral Hazard and the F-35," a John Q. Public update by Carr yesterday on the mounting bad news about the F-35 and military efforts to contain it.

    "Not Ready for Prime Time," a report by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) on problems, failures, and deception involving the (favored) F-35.

    "Now the U.S. Air Force Wants You to Believe the A-10 Is Too Old to Fight," by Joseph Trevithick this week for the War Is Boring site on Medium. From the headlines alone you may be getting the drift of these news reports.

    "The F-35 Is Still FUBAR," by A.J. Vicens yesterday in Mother Jones.

    "Operation Destroy CAS Update," by the Arizona Daily Independent, which has been all over the A-10 story. CAS is, again, close air support, the mission at which the A-10 has been unexcelled, and the story details Air Force efforts to blunt the fact of the A-10's success.

    "U.S. Rep. McSally Urges Halt to 'Disproportionate' A-10 Cuts." Martha McSally, a first-term Republican Representative from Arizona who is herself a former A-10 pilot (and was the first woman in U.S. history to fly combat missions), writes to the new Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, to complain about the anti-Warthog effort.

    The Monthly Newsletter, by Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group.  My friend Richard Aboulafia is an always-quoted expert on aircraft issues both civilian and military. He devotes his latest newsletter to putting the A-10 debate in strategic perspective.

    As I say, it's a debate that matters in the short- and medium- term for the aircraft the military uses, and in the long term for the way the country thinks about its defense. More links after the jump

    More »

  • Why Paralyzed Politics Are Making America More Unequal

    The Senate has even more to answer for than we thought

    Boss Tweed, by Thomas Nast, as originally published in Harper's Weekly (Wikimedia Commons)

    One obvious problem for 21st-century America: the seeming zero-sum paralysis of our national-level governing system, illustrated most recently by the spectacle of the Congressional-Executive / Republican-Democratic tussling over the Iran negotiations.

    Another obvious problem: the seeming polarization of American society on almost every axis, from economic well-being to political and cultural beliefs.

    We tend to discuss these problems as if they are serious but only indirectly connected. That indirect link would be via the increasing Citizens United-era dominance of big money in politics. This, in turn, makes it harder even to consider, let alone enact, policies that would blunt the winner-take-all aspects of a globalizing economy or rebuild the public institutions that have historically buoyed a middle class and protected the poor.

    One specific virtue of an admirable-on-many-fronts review article by Jill Lepore in the latest New Yorker is that she makes clear the connection between these twin pathologies. This argument comes in a discussion in her piece "Richer and Poorer," which begins with a discussion of Robert Putnam's new book Our Kids and ends with material from a forthcoming book called Inequality: What Can Be Done?, by Anthony Atkinson.

    Lepore's whole essay is very much worth reading, but here is the gist of the connection she lays out. She begins with the ever-faddish "culture of poverty" sociological explanations for inequality, including those in Robert Putnam's new Our Kids book. Then she moves to Atkinson's and mentions a study he discusses:

    It might be that people have been studying inequality in all the wrong places. A few years ago, two scholars of comparative politics, Alfred Stepan, at Columbia, and the late Juan J. Linz—numbers men—tried to figure out why the United States has for so long had much greater income inequality than any other developed democracy...

    Stepan and Linz identified twenty-three long-standing democracies with advanced economies. Then they counted the number of veto players in each of those twenty-three governments. (A veto player is a person or body that can block a policy decision. Stepan and Linz explain, “For example, in the United States, the Senate and the House of Representatives are veto players because without their consent, no bill can become a law.”) [Most] countries Stepan and Linz studied have only one veto player [with one-house legislatures] A few countries have two veto players; Switzerland and Australia have three. Only the United States has four. Then they made a chart, comparing Gini indices with veto-player numbers: the more veto players in a government, the greater the nation’s economic inequality...

    Then they observed something more... Using the number of seats and the size of the population to calculate malapportionment [in 23 countries], they assigned a “Gini Index of Inequality of Representation” to those eight upper houses, and found that the United States had the highest score: it has the most malapportioned and the least representative upper house. These scores, too, correlated with the countries’ Gini scores for income inequality: the less representative the upper body of a national legislature, the greater the gap between the rich and the poor.

    The growth of inequality isn’t inevitable. But, insofar as Americans have been unable to adopt measures to reduce it, the numbers might seem to suggest that the problem doesn’t lie with how Americans treat one another’s kids, as lousy as that is. It lies with Congress.

    Worth reading; thanks to Michael Ham for the tip.

  • Who Would Jesus Bomb, and Other Imponderable Questions

    A chickenhawk moment so pure it deserves extra attention

    A bumper sticker I saw over the weekend in California

    Over the weekend I mentioned the full-throated endorsement, in a Washington Post op-ed by Joshua Muravchik, for going to war with Iran. In case you wonder whether I'm mischaracterizing it, the actual headline on the article was, "War With Iran Is Probably Our Best Option."

    Since then the news focus has drifted, partly because of the impending election results from Israel. But the prominent play for such bellicose views was a powerful distillation of what I'm calling the Chickenhawk Nation syndrome: a country in which people breezily recommend war but are uninterested in the tedious details of who will do the fighting or whether the proposed war could be won. Thus some samples of reader reaction:

    1) But it's just an op-ed!  A number of readers pointed out that this was not the official view of the Post's editorial board but rather that of an outside writer. Indeed, that of a writer known for such views: Back in 2006 he published a very similar op-ed in the LA Times which began, "WE MUST bomb Iran." Today in The Nation Ali Gharib went into more aspects of what he called "The Worst Case for War With Iran You'll Read in a Major Newspaper."

    A reader who recently left the military writes:

    Generally I detest the "chickenhawk" attackit seems to me Americans should be able to weigh in on military affairs even if they aren't veterans,and indeed nothing good would happen if you left this stuff to the military to think about. But this disgusted, demoralized former soldier is sick of how often "we can strike as often as necessary," [a line from the WaPo piece] means, "you can."  And when you're done, we'll toss you to the curb for being stupid enough to have been a soldier, thankyouverymuch,

    That said, though, I'm perplexed by the repeated attacks on the Post for publishing the letter ... The opinion Muravchik voices is very much out in the wildI for one hear it voiced a lotand the Post op-eds probably ought to be open to ideas not their own.  I'm happier than not that they're letting peoplelike yoube aware that this idea is out there. That's their job.

    Would many nuts (surely including Mr. Muravchik) freak out if some other country's paper wrote something similar?  Sure we would.  But that's not an argument for making our press monolithic, it's an argument for thinking harder about what it means when something shows up in some foreign news.

    I agree that it's useful for this argument to be exposed in explicit form, and that op-ed pages exist in part to show a range of opinion. But anyone who has followed WaPo over the past 15 years knows that along with the WSJ it's had consistently the most hawkish editorial line in foreign policy among the mainstream media. Of the mainstream organs that had pushed hard for the Iraq invasion back in 2002, it is unusual in not having conducted a public "were we wrong?" reassessment, as many others did on the tenth anniversary of the war. Three months ago, Jacob Heilbrunn and and James Carden argued in the National Interest  that the Post had become "the most reckless editorial page in America." That's why this article, in this setting, drew a different kind of notice than it would have elsewhere.

    2) The quest for virality. A reader writes in about the craft elements of this piece and the decision to publish it.

    I'm a journalist who was incensed by Muravchik's chickenhawk column, because it was so smug and so irresponsible. 

    The journalist part is important to this story. Here's the thing. This column is almost identical to one he wrote in 2006 for the Los Angeles Times. (The names have changed, but the structure and ideas are identical. Even some of the phrases are the same!)

    Now, as a person, okay he's been beating the same war drum for ages, big deal. As a journalist, and a freelancer who absolutely struggles sometimes to get stuff out there, I just cannot stand that not only has [various epithets amounting to "he"] not come up with any new ideas in the past nine years, but he is getting uncritical publication from editors in the name of virality, because you know that's what the Washington Post is trying to do.

    3) The enemy won't just sit there. Another Army veteran noticed the similarities to Muravchik's 2006 article and made the broader point about the problem with loose chickenhawk talk:

    I would like to draw your attention to the fact Mr. Muravchik wrote a nearly identical Op-Ed in 2006 for the LA Times entitled "Bomb Iran" in the middle of the Iraq War... Fanning the flames of war is what he does.

    I would also like to point out his confident assumption that war is something we do to other people, and they sit there and take it. Nobody strikes back in a time and manner of their own choosing; nobody has heard of asymmetric warfare. In reality, war is more like football where the opposition has its own strategy, and even takes the initiative once in a while.

    Enough said. It is depressing beyond belief that people like Muravchik are enjoying national prominence again.

    4) Intensify the contradictions: balanced budget versus more defense spending. Recent news stories, like this one in the NYT, have pointed out a growing tension within the GOP on budget issues. It pits those who are mainly interested in cutting the budget against those who are mainly interested in increasing defense spending — not to mention those who would like to do both. For another time: the way this tension worked out (or didn't) in the Ronald Reagan years. For the moment, this note from a reader:

    Thank you for noticing the Washington Post's warmongering, for that is what it is. I would point out that for the previous 4+ years, the Washington Post editorial board has been screaming loud and long about the US debt, which it cites as rationale for cutting seniors' earned, and already less than survival level Social Security benefits.

    If the US is so poor that it needs to steal from its grandparents, how can it afford a war with Iran, expansion of the war in Afghanistan, and probably a war with Russia, as well? Why does no one ask the WaPo editorial board these questions?

    Tomorrow, we'll see how the results from Israel affect the negotiations with Iranincluding the aspect almost never mentioned in US discourse, which is that five other countries besides the United States are currently party to the sanctions and possible deal. These include China and Russia, hardly patsies for U.S. positions, along with France, Germany, and the U.K. The idea that a letter from Tom Cotton and 46 other Senators would change the policy of the Russians or Chinese in a useful direction ... well, welcome to the big leagues, Senator Cotton.

    Starting tomorrow in this space we'll look again at the A-10 and F-35 debates, which have had important new developments, and more reader reactions pro and con on the implications of a chickenhawk outlook.

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